Saturday, December 29, 2007

Joseph: a father's life

For the prominent part that Joseph must surely have played in the birth and young life of Jesus, there is not much written in scripture about him. Matthew says he is of the "house of David", but this point would seem irrelevant since Joseph is not the biological father. Yet like a responsible father, Joseph serves as provider and protector of his family.

When given an opportunity and before he is fully aware of what is happening to Mary, Joseph still chooses to treat her with respect and honor. When told of the Child's origin, he seems not to hesitate still to take responsibility for the care and the well-being of Mary and, ultimately, Jesus. For Joseph, then, the duties and responsibilities of service and honor mean something to him. He is a faithful servant of YHWH as a man, as a husband, and as a father. In spite of all this, the biblical writers chose not to give us very much information about such a man of honor and integrity, a "righteous man" whose service in his role could reveal to us a lot as to what it means to be not only a MAN of God, but also what it takes to be a REAL man.

It has been shown in certain polls that men in general are put off by the word "love" in church. The word itself has an almost feminine - or at least, less than masculine - quality to it because men don't typically think in such terms. Being referred to as a "child" or "servant" of God also seems to be another of those biblical phrases that don't seem to reverberate well with men. Being a “child” or a "servant" implies dependence and helplessness, not exactly the qualities we revere in men. I can't say that such phrases make me uncomfortable, but I also find myself almost hesitant about using them too freely especially when there are a lot of men present. Maybe it is because of my knowledge of such polls which come close to suggesting that men - in large numbers - typically stay away from church because church is not generally considered "a guy thing". I think, however, that Joseph would suggest otherwise.

Joseph was a carpenter. He worked with his hands long before power tools were even thought of! Consequently his would be the hands of a working man, calloused hands rough to the touch and with probably more splinters and cuts than we could imagine. Being a skilled tradesman, it would also be easy to imagine a muscled man who is accustomed to lifting, pushing, and pulling a lot of weight alone. This is NOT by any account a "girly" man!

This was also a man unencumbered by foolish pride, one of the so-called "seven deadly sins" that is, in my humble opinion, at the root of all sin. Think about the culture of the day; they are not married though they are betrothed (engaged), Mary is pregnant, and Joseph is not the father. Regardless of what Joseph thinks or believes about angels and dreams, he knows for a fact that this was not his child. How many men do you know would endure and persevere through such a stigma? A weaker man would have, could have, walked away choosing not to deal with what was surely a difficult and awkward situation with unforeseen obstacles and challenges, and society would have thought no less of him.

In the truest biblical sense, Joseph was the very personification of what constitutes love. Regardless of societal or cultural expectations and demands, Joseph put himself completely aside to care for Mary and, subsequently, the Child. Regardless of what he wanted for himself and his own life, Joseph put himself and his own personal needs or desires completely aside to care for Mary and her Child. In reading what little there is about Joseph, this was a man's man: a hard and hardy worker who did not seem too concerned with worldly expectations or preconceived notions of what "rights" a man in that culture could reasonably expect. An independent man capable of thinking for himself, Joseph chose not to involve a council of elders regarding Mary's then-questionable pregnancy. This, dear friends, is a man among men.

Aside from this, one must also consider the incredible faith that drove Joseph. In DREAMS he received his instructions! It would be one thing to be directly confronted while wide awake, as Mary was, by an angel who would make such pronouncements. It is another thing entirely to receive such information in one's sleep and be so compelled to act upon these dreams not for the sake of self or even for the sake of others, but for the sake of YHWH's own glory! Joseph is being asked to protect a Child who is not his own. Did he fully understand the implications? It would be impossible for us to speculate and draw any useful conclusions. Suffice it to say, he understood enough - and had faith enough - to do as he had been directed.

It must have also been a little overwhelming for a working man to be told, apparently in no uncertain terms, that the safety and care of the CHRIST Child and His mother would be entrusted to him. Imagine being asked to safeguard the Savior Of The World with no more experience than that of a carpenter. Yet without hesitation Joseph responded as a "righteous" man would. As a result, mother and Child are safe and well.

Joseph’s very brief but rather significant story has made me consider, or reconsider, many facets of my own life, and I should think that others would care enough to think more deeply and more intentionally about the role that Joseph played. We could speculate and make up “what if” stories about what might have been if Joseph had declined the role or if Joseph had not been a man of faith, but the truth is that the Lord would not have chosen someone like that and obviously didn’t. Joseph was chosen, and was chosen for a reason. To say merely that he was “of the house of David” would not be adequate consideration because he was surely not the only living descendent of David. To say that Joseph was chosen because he was a “righteous” man might also come up a little short because it is highly unlikely that he was the ONLY righteous descendent of David.

Could it be that the selection of Joseph was incidental to the selection of Mary only because they were betrothed? I suppose this is possible but while such a theory may speak volumes about Mary, it might not do enough justice to why the Lord chose Joseph. It would almost be like saying that I can only be considered a preacher as long as I serve one particular church. The church would still be a church with me or without me, but it would not remove from me my charge as a preacher. That is to say, if I am truly called to preach, then that calling is not incidental to anything; it is an intentional act of God.

We can come up with a long list of biblical characters whose lives come with a warning and disclaimer: DON’T DO THIS! Conversely there are tons of biblical characters whose lives not only served a divine purpose then but also stand now as shining examples of how true believers should conduct themselves. Yes, Joseph should serve man as a patron saint of “manly men” but regardless of gender, Joseph also stands as the patron saint of DO this, BE this, STRIVE for this.

I just don’t think Joseph was a man’s man who was afraid or squeamish about being considered a faithful “servant” or “child” of God the Holy Father. The sign he carried to make such things known was displayed by the life he freely chose to live, a live lived NOT in accordance with worldly or cultural expectations but according to the measure of his faith and willingness to serve.

I wonder if he ever knew that he served all of humanity by the quiet strength of his faith?

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Merry Christmas 2007

Christmas is a lot like Good Friday and Easter in that there is very little a preacher can say that will enhance what Scripture already teaches about these Holy Days. There are great mysteries involved with each that transcend our human capacity to comprehend and while we can and must offer up praise for the birth of Messiah, can we really appreciate it for what it is? For what it means to us? For what it means to the whole world?

I've shared before the conflicts I have with our American Christmas traditions so that there must surely be some who would refer to me as "Rev. Grinch" who tries to steal the joy of Christmas! In retrospect, I think I've been a little too hard on we Christians who spend too much time and money in stores worrying about and preparing for this coming Celebration, and I don't think I've been entirely fair - especially when I look at the wonderful thing the precious children of my little congregation have done in partnering with Heifer International and leading us with their enthusiasm and purity of heart.

I think we all agree that Christmas has become too commercialized, and I think we agree that many good people lose sight of what it all means because the true value of the Holy Day is lost somewhere in one of the many financial transactions which take place. I have opined that there are too many who claim the name "Christian" who just do not get the whole Christ-centered Holy Day, including Christians who write "hate mail" to newspapers virtually cursing and spewing condemnation toward those who would dare to use a holiday greeting other than "Merry Christmas".

In spite of my disdain for the commercialization of the Holy Day and its Advent season, however, it still must be important for me - and for others who think like I do - to get over the distaste, stop focusing on what's wrong, and choose to focus instead on what's right. It is the same argument I've made for so many other issues that haunt Christianity in the public realm - that we not be so focused on the negative that we fail to celebrate all that is right; by making our case and our cause for Christ to be that of LIFE and LIBERTY, REDEMPTION and HOPE.

Ours is the case and the cause that believes not only that there is a God but that He is also the God who cares enough to do this magnificent, mysterious, and marvelous thing to send into the world a Savior as a very personal and interactive God. This is the God who freely chose to walk among us, to teach us, to heal us, to comfort us and, yes, to confront and correct us.

This is the God who could just as easily have come to us in a way more reminiscent of the images of The Revelation, with blaring horns and sword-bearing angels charging and the whole Armageddon battle thing – but chose instead to come to us as a baby; quietly and with little fanfare, not to frighten us but to offer to us the Peace we so desperately need.

And perhaps in the still of the night the earth stood still and the world silent if but for a moment to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace by reveling in that moment of pure, unadulterated peace; peace unencumbered by the works of man.

Let this be for us a season when wrongs are made right, and negatives are pushed aside in favor of positives. Let this be for us the season when hard hearts such as my own will finally come to terms with the Spirit of the Christ Mass, having been led by the faith and purity of our children to the hope and the promise of the Christ Child.

Merry Christmas, dear friends.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Seeing Is Believing

Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

When John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching to be baptized, he proclaimed for all to hear: "Behold the Lamb of God!" (John 1:29), John seemed to have reason to believe he was being approached by Messiah and that he had no doubt about who Jesus is, especially when John questions why Jesus would be asking to be baptized "when it is I who should be baptized by You" (Matthew 3:14). Also recall that Jesus and John were contemporaries, growing up in the same area maybe even as playmates. Remember, too, Gabriel's words to Zacharias that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before birth (Luke 1:15). As-yet-unborn baby John also "leapt with joy" upon Mary's greeting to Elizabeth (Luke 1:44).

So Jesus and John are probably not strangers to one another, but how or even when John came by the knowledge to make such a bold proclamation can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit. When Peter proclaims Jesus to be "the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Matthew 16:16-17), Jesus tells him that he could not have come by this knowledge except through the Lord. By these proclamations, then, it is apparent that there are no physical attributes by which one can identify Messiah. There has to be more.

John is now in prison (Matthew 11:2) after having offended Herod for the last time. From prison John instructs his own disciples to go to Jesus and confirm that Jesus is indeed "the One who is to come" or if they must continue to patiently wait. Knowing that John's time on this earth was about to come to an end and having my own confidence in John’s faith, I once believed that perhaps John sent his disciples to Jesus to confirm for themselves the reality of Jesus the Messiah so that they would not be left "stranded" after John's death. I once believed that John's whole purpose as a herald, as the "voice crying in the wilderness", would be finally and completely fulfilled by his disciples learning for themselves by encountering Christ for themselves and meeting Him face to face, leaving no doubts. Now I am not so sure that this was John's intent.

Up to this point John has apparently been free to wander and preach wherever he chose to. It seems clear that Herod gave John a lot of latitude out of fear even after being directly confronted by John because of his "unlawful" marriage, so it is reasonable that John could have felt so unencumbered with his preaching among the people. There is no evidence to suggest that John ever encountered any serious challenge or opposition, and he was popular among the people as a prophet. Suddenly John finds himself in prison though he may not have been entirely aware of the circumstances that led to his arrest. Surely he must have known, though, that sooner or later Herod would finally reach the end of his rope but because of the strength of his conviction, John knew he had to keep on preaching.

So because John had relative free reign in preaching whenever and wherever he would choose and because he could seemingly challenge Herod directly and walk away untouched, it might be more reasonable to wonder if it was John himself - and not his disciples - who needed some kind of confirmation that Jesus was indeed "the One who is to come" now that he's found himself in prison, possibly knowing he would never be released, maybe suspecting he may be facing execution. John's entire recorded ministry had been focused on this very thing, announcing the coming of the Kingdom, calling the faithful to be prepared, "to make straight the path". And because he had remained relatively untouched throughout his ministry up till now, it would be easier for us to understand that now, John needed to know.

I think maybe it is easier for us to appreciate such a scenario. We read Bible stories about such big players as John the Baptist, and he becomes larger than life to us as one who can do no wrong. Because of that perception, it is difficult to think that he was as human as the rest of us and could actually come face-to-face with fear and be overcome by certain worldly realities. THAT is something I think we can all relate to, especially when we surely must know that succumbing to such fear becomes its own prison in which we feel trapped and overwhelmed, unsure of what tomorrow may bring, not even being sure if we will ever again see the light of day.

When we find ourselves so enslaved, we are desperate for solutions, anxious for any ray of hope because we find ourselves virtually immobilized. It is very hard to think rationally when we are surrounded and overtaken by fear. Everything is blown out of proportion, and nothing seems to make any sense. To think for one moment that we might be in such a state for the unforeseeable future would be hard to endure, nearly impossible. Sometimes I wonder about prisoners who are sentenced to life behind bars. Though they may well deserve such a sentence, it might almost seem merciful to execute them, sort of letting them off the hook. And this even in our modern prisons with TV and other amenities to make them as comfortable as possible!

Beyond that, however, it may well be that John found himself in a position we all surely suffer from time to time, being enslaved within a prison of doubt, not being entirely sure that our lives have been well spent or that we were in some small way able to accomplish something meaningful. It must surely be at least this challenging for those in other countries who face the threat of torture and death almost constantly because they dare to call themselves Christians. Could the fear and anxiety possibly be worth all the misery? One might wonder, maybe even such a heavy hitter as John the Baptist.

So when John bothers to ask, he is not brushed off with a simple "yes, I am He" and he is not threatened with hell-fire and brimstone if his faith falters. Instead, he is advised to look around and see what is going on. There are stories of miracles being performed, sick people suddenly well, lame people suddenly made whole. It is a most remarkable time in human history, and it is unfolding right in front of anyone who wants to see, anyone who cares to look, everyone who bothers to ask!

Freedom from whatever prison enslaves us now is but an observation and prayer away. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.” Revelation 3:20-21

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christians and Self-Defense

In light of the recent attacks in Colorado in which innocent persons were viciously gunned down at a Christian gathering, discussions have begun about the morality or righteousness of armed Christians who carry loaded weapons for personal protection "just in case". Far be it from me to judge, but I am left wondering exactly how much suffering we are willing to endure for the cause of Christ. Though I don't carry a weapon, I am as guilty as many others who seek the comforts this world can offer and then reason to myself that the Holy Father has provided for my comfort and well-being. It is, of course, always good and right to give thanks to the Lord for every good thing that comes into our lives, but I sometimes wonder if we can tell the difference between what is good for our mortal bodies but not necessarily so good for our immortal souls.

I met a fellow pastor at our licensing school several years ago who commented that he had a concealed carry permit and was armed most of the time. Though I let it go, I was struck by a disciple's apparent need to trust only in himself and the state in which he was licensed to carry a loaded weapon for his well-being. The perspective changes, of course, when he mentions that he is primarily armed for his family's protection, but does the reality?

While most of us possess an intense desire to protect those we love from harm, I wonder if carrying a loaded weapon is the proper or practical course of action especially if confronted by a lone gunman, or two, bent on taking possessions from us (mugging). What would we have in our possession the value of which could be fairly compared to the inherent value of a human life, even a criminal’s? And lest we forget, we are in this particular scenario confronted by predators who are likely far more experienced in such confrontations than we would ever expect to be. Would pulling a weapon in hopes of being able to out-draw our opponent not put those whom we love, as well as other innocent bystanders, at far greater risk by invoking a gun fight? I'm not sure I know what the correct response might be, but I am relatively certain that those who confront with weapons do not necessarily mean to harm more than to overwhelm and frighten.

Years ago I had a knife put to my throat. I froze. The guy probably had no intentions of actually cutting or killing me, but he did get what he was likely after: fear. I cannot recall exactly what was going through my mind at the time, but I'm pretty sure I didn't want to die and I'm equally sure I agreed to whatever terms were presented to me at the time. I also cannot say that my response was measured or planned, but I am alive today because I did not take an already bad situation and attempt to make it worse. Of course I had regrets later. Of course I wished I had had the presence of mind to react a little more quickly but in any ensuing battle, who is to say that I still would not have been cut or killed? Or worse, who is to say that I would not have been the one to cut or kill had I gotten the upper hand? Would either outcome have been worth the struggle?

”Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Under such a situation, how would God have been glorified had I fought back? How would God have been glorified had I gotten the upper hand and actually ended that guy's life? Our society might suggest that I had every right – if not a manly obligation - to defend myself, but what will come first? In this particular case, my assailant had complete control - for that moment - over my mortal body. Not a happy memory, of course, but it is true enough. My immortal soul, on the other hand, was still owned by Another whose terms cannot be negotiated. Absent the assailant, what changes? My mortal body is indeed my own, but I have extremely limited control over the acts of another. I can take preventive measures to protect myself but if someone is determined to kill me AND is willing to go to jail or die in the process, there is nothing, and I mean NOTHING, I can do to stop it. The ownership of my soul, however, never changed hands.

Peter sought to protect his Friend, and his Friend rebuked him by declaring that we "who {choose} to live by the sword will be destroyed by the sword" (Matthew 26:52). Noah received a similar admonishment about the penalty for spilling the blood of another man and offers no conditions (Genesis 9:6). Our own system of justice rejects a "vigilante justice" mentality which would bring nothing but chaos and anarchy. Ours would be such a "dog-eat-dog" society in which terms of survival would be dictated by the “fittest”, leaving the weakest among us vulnerable to the terms of another. It is for the sake of order (1 Peter 2:13-14) that our society demands law enforcement by professionals who are trained extensively and in more areas than what currently presents itself.

Essentially it is that there is only so much we can do to combat evil ... by worldly means. There are, however, other measures we can take such as refusing to respond in kind, “for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head” (Romans 12:20). Repaying evil for evil? What makes our action of self-defense, which is an EQUAL though opposite reaction, righteous or morally correct? How is it that a man with evil intent is about to commit an evil act by ending my life or even the life of one I love, but my act of ending his life in self-defense is somehow not equally evil, even if I could argue that my intent was noble? I cannot control his actions, but I can control my own because I possess the capacity of will to determine my next course of action. By the same token, I will also be held accountable for my own chosen course of action if not in this life, most certainly in the life to come.

I wish it were as simple as I seem to present it. Having such faith in the presence of a direct threat, especially a grave threat against our loved ones, is a tall order for nearly everyone. Peter failed when he was directly challenged, and he physically walked with the Lord and was witness to much we seem to cast doubts upon by our own perverted sense of "progressive" theology. Reasonable minds might suggest that Peter should have suffered absolutely no lingering doubts, yet he obviously did. For some reason when he needed his faith most, he chose to flee. How could this have been, especially when it was he who was prepared to protect Jesus previously (John 18:10)?

”Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). So when we arm ourselves, we are making a statement to the effect that we are in fact willing (and ready!) to shed another's blood in order to "save [our] own life". What does this sort of mind set say about our profession of faith as disciples, or students, of Jesus? We would choose to "trust" Jesus for our eternal salvation, but we won't trust Him to help us across the street? Jesus chose to forego the protection He could have "called down" (Matthew 26:53) thus preserving His own mortal life, but He declined for something greater. Can it be said that such a choice was foreordained, or would it be closer to the truth to suggest that Jesus made a free will choice for the sake of something much greater, an ideal that is completely apart from the expectations of this world?

There are no easy answers for those who live under a cloud of doubt. In a world seemingly gone mad, it is easy for non-believers to wonder aloud where our God is in the midst of such chaos and suffering; it is even easier to live in fear as is evidenced by so many who choose to arm themselves. Christians must be constantly reminded, however, that this is not our Father’s world (Ephesians 2:2) and our battle is not against flesh and bone (2 Corinthians 10:3), “for the weapons of our warfare are not of this world but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.” (2 Corinthians 10:4-6)

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Religion's Place in Politics

As we draw closer to the nation's first political caucus in Iowa, the campaign rhetoric heats up, names are called, accusations are made, fingers are pointed, and one can almost hear an audible "gotcha" each time a campaign launches a successful "zinger" against an opponent. Poll numbers fluctuate with each accusation and corresponding answer which serves to do nothing more than to add fuel to an already intense fire. Oddly, however, while Americans express a particular disdain for such political campaign antics, a candidate's numbers can surge after an especially brutal attack, having somehow proved that they have the gumption to stand up and answer to such attacks. Poll numbers and expressions of disdain do not always seem to correspond especially when we say we hate such behavior while simultaneously rewarding it by continually electing and re-electing these same persons over and again.

More strange, perhaps, is that most of the candidates from both parties have openly spoken of their faith and proclaimed allegiance to religion, predominately Christianity, which demands a moral standard, the commonality of a standard which prohibits "bearing false witness". Now consider Mr. Romney's latest attack against former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in which Mr. Romney stated that Gov. Huckabee attempted to establish a "special" college scholarship fund for illegal aliens. Let it be noted that as an Arkansas citizen, I was keenly aware of Gov. Huckabee's proposal. Mr. Romney's characterization of this proposal is either seriously misinformed, ignorant, or a downright lie. Considering that Mr. Romney is probably of above average intelligence and will be called upon often to render decisions based on accurate information if elected, one might think that Mr. Romney would ask more questions about a specific proposal of a political opponent before lashing out in such a careless way especially when he asked the nation to entrust to him the “most powerful office” on earth.

I suspect that Mr. Romney is simply "playing the game" because Mr. Huckabee has directly disputed this accusation, and Mr. Romney has not, to my knowledge, retracted his "accusation". A little fact-checking would provide Mr. Romney with sufficient "egg in the face" but would also require that Mr. Romney take a moral stance and admit that he was dead wrong and out of line. According to his professed Mormon faith, this would be required of him.

In spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, Mr. Romney has decided that it is in his best interest to give a speech on Thursday (12/6/07) to enlighten the nation about his Mormon faith. Considering the exchange with and about Mr. Huckabee on only one particular issue, how will he religiously or faithfully or morally explain his attack especially when he should have reasonably known that his information about Mr. Huckabee was not correct? Will it be that we will discover that Mormonism requires that its adherents deliberately mislead others? I think not, but this dilemma goes a long way toward answering a question that asks honestly: what does a politician's religious faith have to do with anything especially when they clearly do not live according to a particularly religious standard? Or has religion in America become so bastardized to the point of being completely unrecognizable? If it is true, as Mr. Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette points out, that the central metaphor of all religious belief is “revealing light”, we are left to wonder exactly what sort of religion is being revealed in political races especially when a candidate’s particular religion becomes an issue.

For the record, I am the last man on the face of this planet who has any right to stand in judgment of anyone. What I find most distressing about the references to religion is that it appears that candidates from both parties seem to be pandering to a particular crowd while they continue to tear one another apart, make misleading accusations, and accuse one another of being less than sincere. If this is how their faith informs their politicking, I shudder at how their faith may inform their job performance especially when it comes to public policy.

As a Christian, I do not feel threatened by Mr. Romney’s Mormon religion and I’m in no position to question his spiritual faith, but I have to say that I question his sense of propriety in light of his gross mischaracterization of Mr. Huckabee’s policy proposals especially when, as of this writing, Mr. Huckabee has taken the #1 spot in national polls and had been steadily gaining in the past week. Is Mr. Romney panicking? Is this indicative of how he will react to an international crisis before he gets his facts straight?

Better pray on this one.

Why is it ...

Why is it that "the woods" are always "the woods" except during deer season when they suddenly become "the deer woods" even though they never seem to become "the squirrel woods" during squirrel hunting season? I also notice that "the fields" are always fields but never seem to become "the dove fields" during dove hunting season. Same with rabbit fields. And if a "catfish pond" has bass in it, is it still a "catfish pond"? And if the water is not clear, how does one know whether there are any fish in the pond at all? Seems like one would need to know this. After all, if one is given directions to a fish pond but there are no fish in the pond, does the location or nature of the pond change, causing the seeker to be in the wrong place by virtue of changing nature of the pond? Does this now mean that with the new Arkansas alligator hunting season, the rivers will soon be "the gator rivers" during the season but will remain "the rivers" throughout the year? And why do they never seem to become "the fish rivers" even though one can fish year-round?

Just curious.

Yes, Virginia ....

Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York's Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What is Right?

Does justice have a universal standard? Can justice even be defined universally, or does true justice actually depend on the context of accepted societal and cultural norms? In a society dominated by religion, can it be universally just to administer punishment according to religion values even if the guilty party is not a practitioner of that particular religion? Even if justice is truly universal, who gets to decide what is just - AND - who decides who gets to decide? And by what and whose standards would such decisions be made?

In Saudi Arabia a 19-year-old woman has been sentenced to six months in jail and 200 lashes because she violated a strict interpretation of Islamic law even though she had been raped. The rapists have been sentenced to prison as well, but the young woman is still being held at least partly responsible not for the rape itself but for her own actions in violating a law that is, incidentally, partly designed to protect women but must also surely be a reflection of Islamic cultural values. Western leaders have prevailed upon the royal family on the woman's behalf to intervene and revisit this case for the sake of justice, which is certainly a right if not a moral obligation of western nations, and the Saudi foreign minister has promised to give it another look.

Beyond this, however, does the western world have a reason, legal or otherwise, to expect the Saudi kingdom to do anything more? According to local customs and Sharia law, the woman has been sentenced and there seems to be no dispute that she was in fact out in public with a male who was not related to her. Her reasons for being with this male are irrelevant just as it is completely irrelevant that we westerners do not understand or even agree with such laws. What more can the west reasonably expect when Sharia law seems clear and understood by the population?

None of this is to suggest that the young woman was raped because she violated the law. Quite simply, she was raped by criminals just as thousands of other women around the world have been, and there is no way - according to any reasonable standard - that she deserved it or "asked for it" or "had it coming". Some western leaders have called her sentence "barbaric" and indeed it is ... according to western standards. According to local custom, however, it is the law of the land and probably comes as no surprise to citizens of the kingdom even if they might consider her sentence excessive. She was initially sentenced to only 90 lashes but was subsequently sentenced more harshly when she went public with her plight.

In the Sudan, an English woman faces possible jail time and 40 lashes for allowing her predominately Muslim elementary school students to select the name "Muhammad" for a teddy bear. Apparently it is considered to be a misuse of The Prophet's name or is somehow disrespectful to Islam itself; therefore, the western woman is to be punished according to Sharia law which goes back to one of my many original questions: how can a westerner be held responsible for violating a law that is specific to the region and the culture, especially when she maintains that she had no intent to disparage Islam, the prophet, or Muslims. "Muhammad" is a common name among Muslim males; what westerner might even suspect that attaching this name to a cute, cuddly teddy bear for the purpose of teaching children about animals could be considered disrespectful, let alone a violation of religious law?

Since 9/11, American politicians and wanna-be’s have pounded the pulpits and insisted that they will “stand up to the Saudis” especially since most of the attackers were Saudi citizens. Politicians try to convince us that they are tough enough to handle such “barbarians” but the truth is, they are as civilized as any other. It just is that they have an entirely different world perspective and sense of justice. We call something wrong such as 200 lashes or public beheadings, but they call abortion what it is and wonder where we get our own sense of values. They see homosexuality for what it is and wonder how we dare to compare our civilization and sense of right-and-wrong to theirs.

What is just? What is right? Honestly, it just depends on how and where one is raised. I think it must really be that simple. There can be external forces that may compel us to live under and abide by certain standards, but it does not necessarily mean that we would agree with it. It is clearly illegal to drive beyond the posted speed limits, but Americans don’t seem to have a problem with pushing the envelope on the interstate.

What is right? It seems to be whatever one can get away with, and that standard alone is indeed universal.

Someone Please Explain to Me ...

What is it that constitutes blasphemy? Heresy is a challenge to a more orthodox point of religious view and seems directed to the doctrinal opinions of man. Defining heresy can be problematic because man is so diverse in his understanding of spirituality and biblical principles. Heresy is an affront, then, to something established by man. Blasphemy, on the other hand, is an affront to something divinely established. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, for instance, is the "unforgivable" sin (Mark 3:29). Blasphemy is essentially the charge that thrust Jesus to His Crucifixion and ultimate death, but was Jesus actually guilty of blasphemy? According to Christianity, the answer would be "no" because of what we now believe to be true. According to the prevailing beliefs of the time, however, would Jesus' presumed guilt come closer to what would constitute heresy rather than blasphemy?

Christianity by its very nature is considered blasphemous by Islam because of the nature of the Christ. It is difficult to explain to Muslims (and probably some Christians!) about how it can be that Jesus the Christ is not His own separate person - even though He is "fully God and fully man" (according to Christian traditions and teachings - but is, rather, God personified. It is to the Muslim a blasphemous thing to equate Jesus of Nazareth with God the Father because there can be only one true God. To be "seated at the Right Hand of the Father" (Hebrews 1:3) implies two separate, though not necessarily equal, beings.

In each of these instances, then, it can be said that blasphemy in and of itself must necessarily involve a level of disrespect toward the Divine. So why is naming a teddy bear "Muhammad" considered blasphemous? Islam itself gives high regard to the Prophet and honors him as having a special place within Islam as the one who brought the Word of the Lord to the people not in attempting to found a new religion but instead to confirm previous scriptures (N.J. Dawood, Revised Translation of Koran, pg 2). "Muhammad" is a pretty common name among Muslims who are not necessarily considered to be prophets themselves, I don't suppose, and yet a non-Muslim woman is going to be subjected to 40 lashes on the charge of blasphemy because a class teddy bear got stuck with the name "Muhammad"?

How is it not blasphemous itself to give such stature to Muhammad, a prophet according to Islamic tradition but most certainly as human as Jesus, and come near to equating him with divinity by suggesting that misuse of his name is akin to violation of the Mosaic commandment which prohibits the misuse of the Divine name of the Lord? How is it that the Prophet Muhammad has, by man-made traditions and Sharia decree, become nearly as Christ-like to Islam as Jesus is to Christianity and it not be considered blasphemous? If there is a legitimate answer, I would love to hear it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Abyss of the Death Penalty

For years death penalty advocates have insisted that execution has a certain deterrent effect in that those who would be tempted to commit a capital crime might stop and give their intentions a second thought for fear of the consequences. And for years death penalty opponents have questioned the manner by which such conclusions can be reached since we're talking about crimes yet to be committed. Well, now there are apparently economic reports that have been floating around (yes, I said "economic" reports) for the better part of a decade in which it is "proved" that the death penalty, per inmate, prevents anywhere from 3 to 18 future murders. The New York Times article that offered the information was a little short on particulars as to how these findings were determined but did also include others who question such "economic" numbers especially considering that the death penalty itself is not an economic question.

I'm sure there will be others who will jump into the fray and find fault with such reports, including those who work in criminal justice fields and compile data according to their own specific criteria. Whether they can predict probabilities would remain to be seen, but I also wonder if deterrence in and of itself should be the focus of a death penalty-related discourse. I ask because it seems to me that there is a danger in losing ourselves and what constitutes true justice especially when we are talking about terminating a human life. A focus strictly on deterrence as a statistical probability as a means by which to justify the death penalty, I think, is a dangerous and slippery slope from which such a fall may be impossible to recover.

Conservative, evangelical Christians seem to have no problem with the death penalty as it is, and those who have suffered at the hands of such condemned persons understandably demand it. The problem as it is between these two groups is that the demand for the death penalty falls under different standards of measure though I would hope that justice served would be our ultimate goal. Evangelicals can easily point to the Bible in which the death penalty and its conditions are spelled out clearly as a matter of justice and social order; if one takes a life, one's life is required. This in its truest sense is just, as it is written. Victims can easily embrace such a notion based on a strict sense of justice, but there is more emotion involved than there is rational, unencumbered logic. And for these, there is another consideration: once a person is arrested and charged - still yet
lacking a fair and impartial trial - that person is guilty in the minds of such victims as well as the community and nothing less than death will be good or "just" enough.

The question that we must necessarily ask, however, is this: does man have the capacity to administer true justice, free from passion and free from a desire for the condemned to "suffer"; and if we do not, does it matter? Is it enough that the death penalty is spelled out in Scripture, giving us permission to excuse ourselves because "it's in the Bible" and we are therefore obeying the Lord? In trying to determine what is just, we must always bear in mind that once the execution takes place, "oops" will be too little too late. Mistakes cannot be made. Our seemingly endless appeals process may seem overbearing at times; especially for those crying for "closure", but this is an issue that requires our full attention especially when we finally render that ultimate decision.

What is bothersome about the New York Times article is the seeming attempt - by economic data - to use the death penalty not as a measure and matter of justice itself but rather as a means by which to prevent future crimes via mathematical deductions of probability. Do we really want to go there? I freely admit that I'm torn on this issue primarily because I cannot remove my emotions from my thoughts. Whenever I read of an innocent child who has been abused, molested, tortured, and then killed, it is virtually impossible for me to find any level of compassion for the accused. What's worse is that I fall into the same trap as most others: once a photograph of the accused is published, that person becomes instantly associated with the crime and just looks as guilty as the verdict we desire. My compassion for the victim - I am a parent myself - overwhelms all my senses, and I am hardly capable of passion-free, rational thought. I also cannot honestly say that any desire for "justice" even exists, let alone crosses my mind. For what that poor child suffered, I want someone to pay dearly.

For the sake of law and order, however, deterrence must necessarily be considered in terms of appropriate punishment that fits the crime. It is a by-product of the criminal justice system in that others can see that "this is what happens" if one breaks this law or that one. We could only begin to imagine what our society might look like if there were no consequences for violating the law. It would be a free-for-all on the streets, and vigilante justice would run rampant because there are enough law-abiding citizens who insist upon order. By this same reasoning, it could well be said that harsh sentences would help to maintain that order by suggesting that others would not want to "do the time" and would thus refrain from breaking the law. To suggest, however, that there is a number that can be assigned by which the deterrent effect may be measured is risky.

Criminologists will likely take exception to economic data that attempts to predict probability. Christians should likewise take exception to such data-collection efforts that may serve to do no more than to appease an otherwise guilty conscience. It is not unlike the torture question by which illegal means to extract information is employed in an effort to avoid possible future attacks. Both are likely, but there is no certain thing we can do to stop a man’s evil heart. It is what it is and we are stuck to deal with it the best way we know how, but I don’t think we should rush to execution on the mathematical probability of what may happen sometime in the future. Once we do, there can be no turning back. Into the abyss we will slide, condemned as we so easily condemn.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Not Conservative Enough

Almost since the first campaign word was spoken, the Republican presidential contenders have been competing for the title, "Most Conservative", and have been trying to present themselves in the truest tradition of the late former president Ronald Reagan who was a movement unto himself. Because President Reagan was so unique and so popular, it seems almost irreverent, and yet understandable, for present-day candidates to try and fit themselves into a mold that was, in my humble Reaganite opinion, broken long ago. This does not mean, however, that such a tradition is not worth protecting.

Candidate Mitt Romney has most recently leveled accusations against fellow Republican candidates Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani in challenging their conservative credentials relative to measures enacted or advocated in Arkansas and New York City while these men were at their respective helms as governor and mayor. Of course, Mr. Romney's accusations brought swift rebuttal from Huckabee's camp regarding the so-called "sanctuary" cities which apparently came into being under then-Governor Romney's watch in Massachusetts. Sad to say, none of these candidates for federal office has acknowledged the fact that immigration is a federal issue and that cities and states can only deal with the hand that is dealt them at any given time. Such administrators and mayors may be able to work through their state's US senators and representatives, but that is about as far as it can go. If anyone could be held politically responsible, it should be them and not the governors or mayors.

Let us not lose our focus, however. The issue itself is not immigration, illegal or otherwise, but the idea of what adequately and accurately constitutes a "true" conservative, that coveted title which seems to be the focal point of each Republican post-debate analysis. Now that these discussions, charges, and counter-charges have come to serve as a postlude to any debate topic, I have seriously begun to question exactly what being a "true" conservative really means, what being a "true" liberal really means, and whether it can be said that "moderates" really cannot seem to make up their minds. In the end, however, the question will be which one is best suited to serve as the nation's chief executive, not whether one is "more" Republican or "more" conservative than another.

18th-century statesman and philosopher Sir Edmund Burke once said, “We owe an implicit reverence to all the institutions of our ancestors.” The underlying principle associated with such thought is that we as a people, as a nation, cannot completely disconnect from our past. There is a sense of respect for successes of the past, as well as failures, which must be acknowledged and embraced rather than completely forgotten. It is entirely a philosophical consideration which maintains a certain sense of order and continuity with established standards by which to measure societal norms. These norms, lacking consistency or any link to the past, cease to exist as norms and become, instead, arbitrary standards absent any recognizable foundation.

Because these standards would tend to shift according to whoever is doing the most talking or whoever is willing to make the most noise, the danger of "pure" democracy by which the simple majority could potentially trample the rights of any minority would come to life. Witness the recent prayer meeting on the steps of the Georgia state capital during which the governor and others gathered to offer a common prayer for relief from the drought. No one was rounded up and forced to attend the prayer meeting on public property, property which belongs to the whole people and not merely a small segment of that people, yet there were also protesters nearby who took exception to such a meeting taking place on "state" property. Would such a scenario present a challenge to the perceived "separation of church and state" even if the governor or the preacher had not been present, or could it not be considered a reality that praying people still exist in this country and do not always feel compelled to hide behind a church door to offer a common prayer for a common problem?

Few conservatives want government directly involved in the business of American churches or synagogues or mosques or temples, and these most certainly do not want government involved in mandating a particular type of worship practice or advocating for or against a particular religion. Yet because of the Jeffersonian concept of the separation of church and state, which many mistakenly believe to be constitutionally mandated, these Georgia protesters - in exercising their constitutional right to protest - would deny the praying people their constitutional right to gather in peaceful assembly or in prayer or even in protest merely because they happen to be calling on a deity's name under the leadership of ordained clergy on the steps of the state capital.

Conservative leadership recognizes and even embraces this reality as it must also respect the reality that not all citizens are willing to embrace such reality. In fact it is incumbent upon conservative leadership to make sure that while citizens may certainly exercise their rights, those very rights cease to exist when such rights interfere with the rights of others. If the praying people in Georgia had somehow interfered with state business or interfered with non-believers in any way, they would have been in violation of the principles of what should constitute a “right”.

If conservative Republicans hope to gain in next year’s elections, they are going to have to go far beyond pointing out the flaws of extreme liberalism; they are going to have to sell conservatism in responsible government. In fact, they are going to have to convince a conservative like me that they have something to sell. I’m willing to listen, but I already think I know what’s wrong. Now I want to know how any of these gentlemen intend to make things right.

Life is too short ....

I don't know that George Carlin actually wrote this piece, but it came to my e-mail just as it is. I've always suspected that Mr. Carlin is of above average intelligence, but this piece provides wisdom and insight that many of us lack. It is worth reading and keeping near to heart.

The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider Freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom.

We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.

We've learned how to make a living, but not a life. We've added years to life not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We've done larger things, but not better things.

We've cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We've conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We've learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.

These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and
nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just hit delete...

Remember; spend some time with your loved ones, because they are not going to be around forever.

Remember, say a kind word to someone who looks up to you in awe, because that little person soon will grow up and leave your side.

Remember, to give a warm hug to the one next to you, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn't cost a cent.

Remember, to say, "I love you" to your partner and your loved ones, but most of all mean it. A kiss and an embrace will mend hurt when it comes from deep inside of you.

Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person will not be there again.

Give time to love, give time to speak! And give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.


Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.

The End is Near(er)

Isaiah 65:17-25
Revelation 2:8-11
Luke 21:5-19

I am not a fan of “end times” theology or doomsday prophecy, and the reason I have such disdain for these is because there is surely more to it than any one human person could possibly comprehend, let alone properly interpret, in order to make it useful for Christians. I never read any of the popular “Left Behind” series of books, and I saw only the first of several of the movies. Still, I enjoyed the movie because I thought it was well played, but I also watched the movie with a cynic’s heart not because I don’t believe but because I questioned the writers’ sense of theology. It was purely entertainment and I don’t know that the “Left Behind” people make any sort of authoritative claims, but I also believe that such prophecies – express or implied - must be handled very carefully, if at all.

I read a couple of news items recently that I also found very disturbing, both of which are related to the “Left Behind” series. One story is about a “Left Behind” video game in which critics maintain that the game encourages violence against non-Christians. In the game, apparently these Christian “warriors” take prayer breaks and “praise the Lord”. In today’s post-9/11 world and considering certain militant groups involved in “jihad” against infidels (non-believers), that just strikes a little too close to the heart and is, in my opinion, in extremely bad taste. The LB people say that the critics are making too much of it, but is perception not reality whether it is actually true or not, at least to those who perceive?

Another news story recently was about a church group play-acting the LB concepts by locking young children into dark rooms with end-of-the-world sound effects. I can only imagine the noise, but some children were traumatized by the event. In another similar event by the same group, some of the children were quietly ushered from the dark room to simulate the so-called Rapture in which true believers would be spirited away while non-believers would be “left behind”.

I’m certainly in no position to determine whether any of this is right or wrong, but of this much I am certain: such concepts of End Times in the realm of the Lord are not meant to terrorize or traumatize children, and those who are involved in such nonsense ought to be ashamed of themselves. As for the video game, if it is connected to Christianity in any way, shape, or form, it ought not to involve or suggest violent behavior on the part of Christians … PERIOD. This is not Christ and if the Gospels are any indication, this I am absolutely right about.

In Luke 21, the disciples are admiring the Temple and its fine adornments as a permanent testimony to the glory and the presence of God, and Jesus points out to them that even the Temple itself is as temporary as any other man-made thing and will one day fall. Jesus is then questioned as to what this period will actually look like, but notice the tone of the question. Because the Temple itself represents the Lord God and His Presence, the destruction of this Temple must surely signify The End as best as man can conceive of it. After all, if the very representation of the Lord God can be brought down, The End must surely be in its wake.

So Jesus begins to paint a portrait to give His followers an idea of what The End may come to look like. In verse 21:8 Jesus answers: “Beware that you are not led astray, for many will come in My name and say, ‘I am He!’ and ‘The Time is Near’. Do not go after them.”

When we read such statements, what comes to mind almost immediately are those persons who have made such messianic claims as Jim Jones, Sun Myung-Moon, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate. These are men who managed to convince others, including themselves perhaps, that they were “the” messiah and were leading others to salvation. I’m sure there are many others out there who have not yet made headlines, but this does not mean they are not at least as dangerous especially to those who have such a void in their lives that they are willing to believe almost any charismatic person who makes such promises that convince these poor, lost souls that they have what is so sorely needed. And for some, it obviously does not take much to lead others astray.

But is Jesus speaking of such literal claims of messianic authority, or is there more to what He is saying? By the English translations, He seems to be quite literal in that we should probably be able to make a distinction between those who claim to be speaking in Jesus’ behalf and those who claim to be THE messiah. To the degree in which we would serve as faithful witnesses to the One, True, Living God who made One, True, Living Covenant with mankind through Christ, I suppose we all possess a certain level of authority to be faithful to what Christ has taught us. As the common calling goes, we can indeed “be the hands and feet” of Christ and we can act and love and work in Christ’s name, but we cannot be Christ Himself. There can only be One Christ (messiah), or there is no ONE true God.

Jesus still lines out for them the signs of what The End will look like, but He also admonishes them not to be concerned with what they see. To me, it sounds as if Jesus is acknowledging the limitations of our human capacity to fully understand these signs, at least to the point of usefulness. I might also add that I think Jesus is also suggesting to His followers that we should not so focused on the End Time that we lose sight of the Present Time. That is to say, we cannot control what happens THEN but we do have some control over what happens NOW. When the End comes, it will be by the Hand of the Lord God Himself. It will be the time of His choosing, so it will be entirely up to Him, and I doubt He will have a need to consult any one of us.

Jesus’ lesson does not end with natural disasters and wars, however. There is much more to what is going to have to take place, but notice the spiritual hand-holding. Even if the END is upon us, there is still the NOW with which we will have to contend and we will still have a certain level of control over what happens. We will also still, because it will be Present Time for us, have choices to make. And when we are questioned, our choice must be to “let go, and let God”, as they say, even as we are given “…an opportunity to testify” (Luke 21:13).

What does Jesus offer next? Relief. We will not be expected to do much of anything at this point except to “let go”. Why? Because the “opportunity” Jesus speaks of will not be ours. It will not be our testimony that will need to be heard. Why? Because at this point we would be equipped to do nothing more than to offer our OPINION, the same OPINION that could likely do more harm than good because our human, limited capacity to comprehend will likely still not be able to take in and interpret all that is happening around us. Those who would choose to persecute and prosecute us based on our faith will be answering to our faith-provider.

THE option afforded to us at this point will be submission, total dependence on the One who will see us through to the End. “Make up your mind NOT to prepare…” for this moment when it will certainly be a time when our faith will be challenged, but the Word that will be spoken must necessarily come from the Lord Himself, the Word “that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” Since the End Time is surely and exclusively in the hands of the Lord God, so must Final Words also come from Him. It is His moment to make Himself known beyond any human doubt.

It does not matter when this moment will be. I still don’t see that Jesus is suggesting to His followers that we must necessarily be focused on THAT time more than we must pay attention to THIS time, but this is also the time in which we must learn to listen to His voice by studying Scripture and learning the sound of His voice because there will always be those who will try to mislead us. We must always remember that the Christ is Life, and His voice is distinct.

Learn to listen now so that there will be no doubts later. AMEN.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Balance of Justice

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

I’m currently reading a book by Elaine Pagels entitled Reading Judas in which the author discusses the Gospel of Judas which is obviously not a part of the orthodox canon but can still be traced back to the 3rd century. Its author is unknown, but scholars at least know for sure that Judas himself is not the author.

Judas is controversial enough due to its premise: Judas was not the “enemy” he is portrayed to be in the canonical Gospel accounts but is, rather, the most favored of Jesus’ disciples. Of course this is hard to swallow because tradition alone prohibits such notions due to the “authoritative” texts we’ve had for centuries. Still, I sometimes wonder what the Christian church might look like today if certain writings had made the Final Cut.

Beyond this, however, there was a particular portion of the text I was reading the other night in which Ms. Pagels points out that Judas is, according to this “gospel”, the first recorded martyr in Christianity because it maintains he did not kill himself; he was stoned to death by the other apostles. Essentially it is that this “gospel” claims that Jesus and Judas had a lot of “secret” conversations in which Jesus revealed ALL the secrets and mysteries of the Kingdom to Judas alone because Judas was the “most trusted”. It is suggested that Judas’ status with Jesus caused more than a little consternation and conflict between him and the others so that Judas’ fulfilling his calling by turning Jesus over to the authorities was reason enough to stone him to death.

Needless to say, my mind was already reeling from this perspective until I came across this portion: “Although the “Gospel of Judas” does not encourage martyrdom, ironically it portrays Judas as the first martyr. This gospel reveals that when Judas hands Jesus over, he seals his own fate. But he knows, too, that when the other disciples stone him, they kill only his mortal self. His spirit-filled soul has already found its home in the light world above. Although Christians may suffer and die when they oppose the powers of evil, the hope Christ brings will sustain them. These revelations offer courage and comfort to anyone who anticipates suffering and death – and so to everyone.”

My question is this: do we all “anticipate” our death? In the backs of our rational minds, we know that we will not live on this earth forever. I don’t think, however, that we really give it much thought otherwise except maybe when we attend the funeral of a contemporary or a friend who was our own age, or when we purchase life insurance. Other than perhaps these two instances, I think it is safe to say that we don’t put a lot of thought into our own demise. Yet it seems to me that if we are to have genuine hope in our resurrection and the PATIENCE required to await that time, we would need to be cognizant of our end more often and more intentionally than we are now.

Pretty depressing thoughts. It would not seem to be useful to encourage everyone to be constantly mindful of the fact that we will all one day pass from life on this earth, yet it is a reality we should not ignore. And I would suggest to you that the Beatitudes as recorded in Luke 6 run along this very thought unless we believe in the Buddhist “Karma” which, oversimplified, states that ‘what goes around comes around’. If we do good, good will come to us but if we do evil, evil will visit us. And if my understanding of Karma is correct, this balance of justice can come to us just as easily in this life – or there is that reincarnation thing that suggests we keep getting sent back to life until we get it right, to “balance our Karma”.

The Beatitudes begin well enough as a message of hope: if we are poor, we will one day be rich. If we are hungry, we will one day be fed. If we are persecuted, we are blessed beyond measure. In verse 24, however, the “hope” that was once evident takes an ominous turn. Now it suddenly seems in a very general sense that if we are content with the life we now have – if we have enough to eat and if we are happy and if we are well-regarded in the community – then another “balance of justice” is in order. Jesus seems to be saying that if all is well with us now, something is out of balance and bad things are just over the horizon for us.

“Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” Luke 6:24-26

Looking around us, we can easily see that there is a huge disparity between the so-called “have’s” and the so-called “have not’s”. However, it is not so easy to determine how much “have” is too much to have. If this sounds like a lot of double-talk, I suppose it is because of the constant messages we get from politicians who suggest that there are too many who have too much and that it is the role of government to take the excess and spread it out among those who don’t have so much. The question always goes back to the definition, though: how much is considered “excess”? How much is “enough”?

For those of us who live within the so-called “middle class”, it is easy to feel caught in the middle even though the politicians would tell us that they are trying to “protect” us and our way of life. We are told that we are safely within an acceptable range of income. In fact, it may well be that they would like to see everyone safely within the “middle class” and are prepared to accomplish this with a little social engineering.

Jesus, however, does not seem to be so lenient because “rich” is not defined, at least not in terms of dollars or assets. In fact, it might be suggested that if we have ever been in a position to throw out food at the end of a meal, then we obviously have too much. And if we regularly throw out food such as leftovers that got overlooked for WEEKS to the point of uselessness, that is “excess”.

We got our eyes opened yesterday at Heifer International’s Global Village. We saw the types of housing and conditions some people in various parts of the world, including the United States, are forced to endure. In that context, many of us walked away feeling like some of the wealthiest people in the world. We have running water and can drink and bathe virtually anytime we desire. In many parts of the world, children cannot even get a drink of clean water, let alone have enough food to eat or a clean, safe, comfortable place to lay their head at the end of the day. Then we packed up the excess food we had, jumped in our vans and SUV’s, and drove safely home on paved roads.

Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is tricky because beginning in verse 27 it appears as though the balance of justice and hope has shifted when we are advised to “bless” and “pray for” those who mistreat us. We are reminded that in spite of everything, there is always hope even in the face of injustice, that somehow and at some time of the Lord’s choosing, everything wrong will be made right. And Jesus may well have been referring to the Gates and the Buffets and the Waltons of the world, but don’t think for one minute that He does not see us shoveling food down the garbage disposal or tossing it in the dog dish or hording our money around this time of year so that we can buy a lot of crap we don’t really need so that our children can have a “proper” Christmas.

It seems to me, though, that Jesus is talking to the true poor and the genuinely oppressed – those forced into circumstances beyond their control - when He admonishes them to pray for those who mistreat them. “Do good to those who hate you” could well be a statement of their mercy directed at those of us who have more than we need but only share a minor portion of our excess – AFTER we have made sure we are taken care of first.

It’s a tough balance for all of us because we have grown accustomed to a certain standard of living; giving it all up does not seem quite fair or even practical, and having it taken from us for the purpose of redistribution also does not seem to hit the mark of what Jesus is talking about.

If there is to be a balance of justice, then we must be prepared to seriously consider justice not only as it pertains to us – JUST US - but to everyone. If we are content but our neighbor is struggling due to circumstances beyond his control, does justice exist? It cannot because justice is not one-dimensional. Justice either IS or it ISN’T. It cannot exist for one but not for another. And Justice, as least according to Jesus, extends far beyond simple “law and order”.

Justice is a big word with big implications. The Lord believes in it; in fact, He requires it. Shall we, as His disciples, offer to the world anything less than HIS best?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Holier Than Thou

Joel 2:23-32
1 Corinthians 13
Luke 18:9-14

The people of Westboro Baptist Church from Topeka KS are back in the news. For some reason they’ve taken up the practice of picketing at the funerals of service members killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, maybe because this is where they believe they can get the most attention for whatever king of message they think they have for America. As a result of their actions, many state legislatures and the US Congress have initiated laws to help protect grieving families from such displays by mandating an acceptable distance so that these families can be somewhat shielded from these people. A group called “Freedom Riders” also takes part in these funerals, with the family’s permission, by offering a motorcycle escort and barricade so that these Westboro people cannot be heard or seen by the grieving families.

Why do these people travel from Kansas to all parts of the country where families are laying their loved ones to rest? Why do they go to such lengths, such trouble, and such expense knowing as they must that they are bringing undue grief on an already grieving family? They proclaim that those killed in action are the result of the Lord’s judgment against America. In this particular instance, they were also picketing the fact that the young Marine had been raised in the Roman Catholic “monstrosity” (Westboro’s word choice). They are now being sued by this Marine’s family for causing emotional distress and for violating the family’s desire for, and right to, privacy. There may well be a constitutional issue pertaining to whether the right of free speech supersedes the implied right to privacy, but I’m not so sure that this is the issue at hand for the Lord’s faithful.

The judge had instructed the jury to determine whether the “speech” displayed by Westboro can be considered so “offensive” and “shocking” as to fall outside the acceptable parameters of 1st Amendment protection. For Christians, there are greater issues at stake than constitutionally protected “free speech”. It must be determined how such displays as those advocated by Westboro and other groups like them can in any way be construed as having come from the Lord as something that needs to be heard and particularly at the funerals of young service members whose families are grieving and who may not even be in full support of this war OR the rights of homosexuals which, incidentally, seems to be the entire focus of Westboro’s “ministry”, if “ministry” is even the appropriate word in this case.

There are those among us who will not argue for homosexuality. I will be first to say that there is a biblical prohibition against homosexuality that cannot be ignored by the faithful. I will also be the first to say that bringing such a message of judgment or warning of judgment comes with enormous responsibility that also cannot be ignored, and that responsibility is this: be very careful with handling the Word of the Lord because Jesus Himself proclaimed, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” John 3:17 NKJV

This is huge for the faithful. If there were any during the time of Jesus’ ministry on earth who might have been in line for condemnation, it would have been the Pharisees and the scribes and the chief priests and the Sadducees. These were religionists who were constantly at odds with Jesus, and the Gospel accounts are chock full of these confrontations in which Jesus uses the words of the Hebrew Scripture against them. I suppose if there could be anyone who could be trusted with the Word, it would have been Him since He IS the Word.

Speaking the truth, however, and refusing to soft-pedal that which is clearly written is also part of the responsibility in handling the Word of the Lord but if we get caught up in a “holier than thou” war of words, we may find ourselves in the predicament of the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. By his own words, the Pharisee may well have brought condemnation upon himself by his own proclamation of self-righteousness. It must also be noted in the language that the Pharisee has clearly taken it upon himself – in his PRAYER, no less – to condemn the tax collector or, at the very least, elevate himself to a spiritual position superior to that of the tax collector. It should be equally clear that the Pharisee GOT *** IT *** WRONG.

By the Word as written, the Pharisee clearly lives according to the standards of the Mosaic Law; by his actions alone, he stands as a righteous man. Where we faithful typically fail, however, is in our lack of understanding that when it comes to righteous behavior and judgment, the Lord is speaking to our personal behavior and not to us as appointed judges of others. We have problems enough of our own just trying to live up to such a holy standard as that established by Jesus. It is not reasonable or practical that we would choose to take the burdens of others upon ourselves to judge as well. We have enough to do by just trying to be the faithful witnesses we are called to be.

Even speaking of the truth as it is written, Paul also raises a pretty high standard in his First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13. St. Paul summarizes the whole thing for us in simply this: lacking genuine love in our speech or in our assessment of others, and we are only making noise; incomprehensible noise that no one can understand or even care to listen to. In our words we may be telling the truth as we see it and we may be honest in our assessment but if we lack a genuine concern for those to whom our “truth” is directed, we’re only judging others to our own condemnation.

For the faithful, it is never enough to simply be “right”. There has to be more in a richer and fuller understanding of what the Word of the Lord is all about. Yes, there are laws and yes, there are standards of conduct and behavior. There is also Paul’s admonition to Timothy as to the purpose of Scripture: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
2 Timothy 3:16-17

It’s not what the people of Westboro are saying that is so disturbing. Rather, it is the way in which they present the message. Going to a grieving family who has lost a loved one in a war the family may not even support and suggesting to them that the death of their 20-year-old son was of the Lord’s doing and then displaying signs and placards which state such reprehensible messages such as, “Thank God for IED’s” is hitting below the belt and stands to serve more as a message of alienation than a message of hope. Such messages of condemnation remove all hope, and the Gospel of the Lord is nothing if not hopeful, for all “who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Who are any of us to dare try to remove these words that come from the Word of the Lord Himself?

It is not easy to live according to the standards which have been established for us. We don’t typically want to judge others because if we use our ability to reason, we can surely understand that there is probably more that we DON’T know than that we do know. Each of us can easily think back to a time when someone jumped to conclusions about us based only on what they were only able to see with their eyes – or worse – based on what they’ve been told, and it turns out we never had a chance to begin with. It is not fair that we should have to stand up to such unfair assessments, but we do because we are left with few choices once someone gets done with us.

It is the same thing that happens when people like these Westboro folks go off on a tangent such as they do. They may well have philosophical, ideological, or religious objections to certain public policies, but none of these differences give them a legitimate calling to take this hateful message to someone who is already in pain and not necessarily responsible for such public policy. Kicking someone while they are already down is almost always counter-productive and must never be considered an act of Christian love.

I question how much of the Bible people like these actually read. In the case of Westboro people, I’m still waiting for them to get to the part where Jesus tells His disciples that if the message they bring is rejected – and these people have been rejected from coast to coast - they are to then “shake the dust from their sandals” and move along. Then again, there is a lot more that I DON’T know about these Westboro people than what I DO know. I hate what they are doing, but I must not allow my disdain for their actions overrun my emotions to the point of coming to hate them. Remember, Christ was raised for the sake of their hope as well as for ours.

This knowledge must be the key to everything we do, and this knowledge must overcome every thought we ever have when confronted with angry, hateful, blind, and ignorant people. They do more harm than good and almost always leave a swath of destruction in their wake. It is up to Christians of good faith to come along and help pick up the pieces and raise up those who have been kicked down.

We were once down but have since been raised up with nothing but a Word of Hope. Dare we offer the rest of the world anything less?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


The Arkansas legislature does not seem to show much interested in ethics reform but come to think of it, why would we attempt to “reform” ethics? Does a decent standard of behavior not come with its own expectations and demands that educated grown-ups can agree upon? Apparently not if a recent turn of events is any indication.

Lobbyists have long been a thorn in the side of the general public. The perception is that members of Congress are too busy trying to please “big” (name your industry) with little regard for “little” America (although “big” is demonized during reelection campaigns and “little” America is schmoozed). To this end there have been attempts at both the state and federal levels to require certain reporting standards by members of legislatures to make public how much they receive from “big” such as lunches, gifts, trips, etc. And each time such reporting issues come forward, there is always a reason why such reporting requirements cannot be agreed up although the one thing most public officials can agree on is that it is ok to accept freebies from groups who otherwise would not have given them the time of day were they not somewhat influential.

The truth is, lobbyists serve a need and like it or not, they do in fact represent “little” as surely as they represent “big”. After all, what is a lobbyist but a specialist in a particular field or someone who has access to such specialists and who approach members of Congress or a state’s legislature to present their case? The lobbyist speaks for a group or an industry made up of numbers sometimes too great for legislators to ignore. It is not only “big” oil, et al, who is doing the talking. There are other social groups such as “Right to Life” and PETA, et al, who also have the numbers and capability to gang up on members of Congress or legislatures in order to be heard. On a rational level, I think Americans can accept this concept. What they have a hard time digesting is that legislators seem to believe it is ok to use the office which actually belongs to the public for his or her own personal gain. After all, if a member of Congress accepts a free trip to the Bahamas from a lobbying group, how does this possibly benefit his or her constituents? Is hearing and reasoning somehow more acute in such an environment than in, say, Washington DC or Little Rock AR?

I think it is not lobbyists who are the problem. These are sales persons who will do whatever they must do to get a legislator’s attention. It is up to the legislator to draw the line because it is he or she who is – like it or not – accountable to the public, and not the lobbyist. The legislator has been enabled by a complacent public to get away with seemingly endless perks and privileges because voters do not pay attention to anything but sound bites and TV personas – and legislators know this because they have hired professional political consultants who actually do pay attention to “little” America. They see how our eyes light up at the offer of “shiny beads” political promises, and they know how to feed that appetite.

This will not end until voters end it. Two things have to happen: 1) there must be at least a 50% turnover in the Congress and the state legislature, and 2) the replacements must be sent it with an agenda. It is possible, but it will require a committed and informed voting public. But as long as Congress and the state legislature enjoys a better than 90% incumbency rate, we may as well resign ourselves to higher and higher taxes and more and more government control over our lives. This is the reality of our future on the present course.

The Ottoman Empire and American Politics

The US Congress, with its usual efficiency, sound reasoning and lightening speed, and under its glorious 24% (or less, depending on which poll) approval rating, is moving to condemn an early 20th century Turkish government for the genocide of Armenians in its early days after the fall of the Ottoman Empire some 90-plus years after the fact (perhaps it took that long to move the legislation out of committee?). Those who are pushing this legislation are somehow gratified, reasoning that it's about time we "did" something while following the lead of other nations. Meanwhile, the present-day Turkish government is set on edge and is making veiled threats that could compromise the existing relationship with the US. There are few reasonable persons who might try to deny that there is genocide currently
taking place in another part of the world which could be more forcefully addressed by this US Congress with a similar resolution, but we certainly would not want to offend an oil-producing nation such as the Sudan. After all, we have an economic reality with which we must contend. And given that it only took us 90-plus years to condemn an empire which no longer exists and long after time in which more appropriate action could be undertaken, we should be able to get around to condemning Sudan in perhaps lesser time. That'll show 'em, and all those who suffered such a cruel fate will be vindicated.

There is nothing funny about genocide nor is there anything funny about the move afoot in the Congress to address this tragedy. What responsible persons in the US government must know - or should know - is that such a move now has already upset a valuable ally in a volatile region in which US military personnel are currently engaged in combat operations and will get worse if the full House actually passes this resolution. For the life of me, I cannot determine exactly the Democrats hope to accomplish.

History is never kind to those who have something to be ashamed of because truth, although stranger than fiction, is also the single most potent force at mankind's disposal. There are simply matters of history that cannot be denied though revision is another matter altogether. Because it happened and because it is recorded by too many witnesses, only the most foolhardy would undertake such an action as to proclaim aloud that it never really happened. Just look at the president of Iran and his persistent denial of the Holocaust. Does anyone really take this man seriously at all when he makes such ridiculous statements? Does he present himself as a statesman on any level or with the credibility to make such a statement? He certainly tries, but he must surely be the only one who believes what he says though
that must be arguable.

More to the point, however, is that the Iranian president's denial changes nothing. The Holocaust is no more or less true simply because of a raving lunatic regardless of his status as president of anything. In the same way, Turkey can deny complicity with what happened nearly 100 years ago because the truth is, there is likely no one left alive who actually had a part in it. Does this mean, however, that such things can be swept under a rug since those who were actually responsible can no longer be held responsible?

The question that this congress must answer for itself is this: what purpose will this resolution serve? What overwhelming issue of national significance is so important that this particular resolution will directly affect, and is this issue so significant that it is worth the risk of alienating a not-so-insignificant ally? The Democrat-controlled Congress and especially those Democrats running for president are insistent that the Bush administration has so enraged and alienated the entire world that they will work to "restore" our national credibility. Is this resolution a step in that restorative direction? It hardly seems so especially in light of the fact that the Turkish ambassador to the US has already been recalled by
his government, and it could get worse.

Further, this matter risks not only offending a major US ally but also puts US military operations at great risk since Turkey is one of our major supply routes into Iraq. Risking this resupply route puts our soldiers on the ground in Iraq in a very tenuous position. Is this worth the risk if we support the troops like we say we do?

Finally, how can we take such an impotent resolution seriously as a proclamation that we "must never forget" while we are witnesses to a current event happening right under our noses? How much time must elapse before we issue a similar proclamation against another nation while absolving ourselves of responsibility when we had the knowledge and the wherewithal to do something while it is happening? The Armenian situation will not go away, true enough, but its time is past. Darfur is here and now, and we are apparently powerless or without the will to anything about it.

If history has taught us anything with respect to acts of genocide, the lesson is this: we've learned absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.

Them's My Young-un's!

I'm 'bout happy's a pig in slop. Our young-un's kin git hitched - long's they gits purmishun from they maw and paw. An' soons I git a tar on mah truck and hitch up mah overalls, I'ma gonna go yonder to the state house and thank them thar state house fokes fer givin' me purmishun to raise mah own young-un's the way I sees fit.

I ain't never saw no sucha mess as the one fixin' to happen down yonder to Lil' Rock. Dun awready bin a mess over yonder at Binton County whar th' judge dun tol' a gurl's maw thet her young-un cud git hitched if'n she wonted to 'cause the fokes in Lil' Rock dun messed in they own cer'al. See, whut's funny 'bout all this is they's 'posed to be a buncha edge-ee-kaited ol' boys down to th' state house but near's ah'cn figger, they kain't spell 'not'. Or mebee it is thet they kin spell 'not' jes' fine but just ain't shur whut t' do withit onest they dun spelt it.

Whut ain't so funny is that they's this buncha fokes called a "cumit-ee" thet's 'pos'd t' fix what sum dun said is a mis-take in the language. But this heer judge dun said, 'naw, it ain't thet easy'. Says if they's a wurd stuck in thar, then its 'pos'd to be thar. If'n you wus ta take that wurd out, then it don't mean the same thang no more. Them politishuns, the judge dun said, shulda took care a that 'fore they dun signed they names to it 'cuz thet thar cumit-ee ain't bin voted fir. This cumit-ee has they job t' do, and the politishuns gots they own job t' do. Sump'n 'bout the state cons'tooshun.

Makes plenty since t' me 'cuz if'n I say 'ain't' and you-uns ain't heer'd me say 'ain't', then you-un's might thank I dun said, 'ok'. If'n I say 'ain't', I means it 'cuz I ain't gonna say nuthin' I ain't meant t' say. Reckon them politishuns shulda dun know'd thet? Most of 'em dun been t' law skool. Ain't thet why they's so miny foks dun voted fir 'em t' bugin with, 'cause they's so et up w' the learnin'? I'da thunk so.

Now thu guv'nir says he ain't agonna brang the state 'sembly in so's they kin fix it. I ain't shur whut ain't fix't, but I'm purty shur whut ain't needin' t' be dun. We-un's don't need them edge-ee-kaited geen-us's atellin' us how t' raise young-un's or whut they kin or kain't do. I figger this nu law dun give us what we-un's needed t' bugin with: permishun t' duh-cide whut we-un's thank is best for are young-un's. We's the ones gotta live withit, ain't we?

Shoot. Who sez we's back-ards?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Selective Hearing

Lamentations 1:1-6
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Luke 17:5-10

"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts or evidence."

John Adams

President Adams made an undeniable observation, but such statements also open the door to discussions about exactly what constitutes the difference between "fact" and "truth". A pastor friend of mine was reminded of what so many people of faith are tempted to say: God is; whether or not we choose to believe it does not alter this "fact". For people of faith this is true enough; His presence cannot be denied. What happens to this “fact” during those times when His presence cannot be felt? Does this make Him any less real?

In such a dramatic instance as the Holocaust it is impossible to speculate as to whether the Lord God was present or absent though it would be equally impossible to say that He is omnipresent and simultaneously absent during any particular period in human history. However, during such moments of trial and tribulation it is easy to blame the Lord for "allowing" such things to occur and not accept some of the blame ourselves.

We would rather not be held accountable because it is much easier to blame some invisible cosmic force without acknowledging that we could perhaps avoid certain disasters and heartaches if we were more intentional about and confident with our faith. Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel have made similar observations – understandably, with a certain amount of bitterness - not only about the Lord's perceived silence but also about the world's silence during this horrific period in human history.

At the time I found it unsettling, to say the least, that some evangelists and preachers claimed that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were the result of the Lord's judgment against America and for a brief period following these attacks, churches across the nation were "standing room only". More reasonable voices countered that the Lord would not use evil men with evil intent to accomplish His worthy goals because such thoughts can lend credence to and legitimize such cowardly and dastardly acts, yet evil acts perpetuated against the Jewish people are recorded in the Hebrew scriptures and are directly attributed to the Lord as judgment, according to the prophets, against His people for turning their backs on Him and turning their attention to "foreign gods". Such records can only be denied by people who live in denial.

Humans are a funny breed, and people of faith are no exception. We hear what we want to hear, and we apply what we care to apply according to what is pleasing to us and suits us. We have what is before us some of the most "negative" readings I can recall assigned by the lection for a particular Sunday. Readings from Lamentations pine for the days when Glory was present which makes its absence that much more profoundly felt; blessings that were once abundantly present are now notably absent. The writer of Habakkuk laments not about the "absence" of the Lord but rather, the "deaf ear" that does not seem to hear the cries of the people. And Jesus seems to be encouraging us to be reminded that we are essentially no good as independent human thinkers but that we are of some use as "slaves" and must remember "our place" as such.

Such readings come across as somewhat dehumanizing on the surface, maybe even more so for western Christians because we live in societies that are not so heavily controlled or regulated according to how a government thinks we should act or worship. We are free to do as we please and if someone somehow interferes with that freedom, we have been "violated" and our rights endangered.

We should be mindful, however, that these readings serve a useful purpose on so many levels. These kinds of readings may not be the uplifting, "everything-will-be-ok", messages we prefer, but they are still soul-saving reminders that we do, in fact, belong to Someone and that being a member of such a family comes with it certain expectations. We are owned lock, stock, and barrel.

I get the impression that ancient Israelite society was a lot like ours though certainly not to the American degree. It seems obvious as it is written that Israelites were free to choose their own courses of action, and it is equally clear that they often chose poorly. As a result of those poor choices, the chickens came home to roost. Come to think of it, this could help to explain the restrictive notions of the Pharisees and their legalistic interpretations of the Law.

Notice what happened, though. As the Israelites, through their "freedom", sought to assimilate themselves into such cultures and societies foreign (in every sense of the word) from their own, this is precisely what they got though the assimilation was less than voluntary and was certainly not what they had in mind. The lamentations come from a society that wants to "have its cake and eat it, too". Sort of reminds us to be careful what we wish for, doesn't it?

As a result, what has happened? The city, the Holy City, the Beacon that was supposed to be a shining example to the world, has disappeared. In the vision of Lamentations, the city that was once full of life and full of people sits empty and void. It is not as if it never existed because the writer is painfully aware of what is absent and why it all disappeared. Habakkuk is painfully aware of the strange silence within a city that once heeded the Voice that called a people forth from bondage and slavery, but the Voice that called them forth from bondage was the Voice they were willing – in fact, eager – to hear. The Voice that established standards and set limits, however, either did not seem so clear or was not so willingly received.

I do not suggest that the Holocaust was a judgment against the Jews nor do I suggest that 9/11 was a judgment against America. This is not my call and it is utterly unfair for any human to make such a proclamation. However, we must also be aware that the Lord is willing and able to speak to us through calamity. It is through disaster and heartache, however, when we are most able AND WILLING to listen.

The Message itself is the same, and the Voice is still the same Voice. We are a people set free and called forth for His Glory and not our own, to serve His purpose and not our own, to serve and not be served. And when we are true to this Message of hope and redemption, we are a City filled with Life and with Purpose and with Meaning. We are a City with a Mission, and we are His. Let us hear always the Voice that calls us forth in good times as well as in bad.