Monday, March 31, 2008

Numbers don't lie ... or do they?

According to Reuters News Service, the Vatican has reported that Islam has overtaken Roman Catholicism as the world’s single largest religious denomination. As reported by Monsignor Vittorio Formenti, who compiled the data, Islam stands at 19.2% of the world’s population while Catholicism remains relatively “stable” at 17.4%. Combining all Christian denominations, however, the numbers change significantly with Christianity claiming 33%, or 2 billion persons. My question is this: is the monsignor hitting a “panic button” in releasing these figures as, “Oh my goodness, the Muslims are taking over”, or is this nothing more than a statistical fact perhaps for which priests throughout the world will be called to account?

With worldwide terrorism predominately involving those who claim Islam as their faith and the west’s ongoing war on terror claiming daily headlines around the world, it might be construed in such a negative way but I don’t think this was the intent of releasing such figures in this context (ie, the world is being overrun by Muslims). There is another factor involved, however. The monsignor cites the higher birth rate among Muslims as a significant factor in contributing to the growth rate among Muslims, but is this a fair comparison that tells a story we might need to be concerned with? I don’t know that even these numbers are significant in any real way even as it pertains to the number of world-wide Christians for one simple reason: among some 2 billion Christians, how many can be accurately described as true “disciples” rather than merely affiliated such as by birth or social and family expectations? In other words, how many are willing to actively stand with Christ rather than simply go to church because they are somehow expected to?

I’m not even sure that I’m being fair in posing such a question because of a recent spiritual challenge that shook me to my core. Essentially it was in an earlier writing in which I asked my congregation – and myself – whether we embrace the reality of the Resurrection of Christ or merely acknowledge it as part of the Church’s calendar. I suppose it is now that everything I consider and write about revolves around this core question because faith is not a statistical consideration nor should church membership be although church membership can be assumed at a particular level, namely among adults. The same essential elements must also be taken into consideration regarding the growth rate among Muslims simply because terrorists don’t count. They may think themselves to be “faithful” Muslims and they can try to convince the world, albeit at gunpoint, but their acts alone betray the fundamental tenets of the religion. They are, purely and simply, criminals and murderers. Do the monsignor’s numbers reflect this reality?

Birth rate alone is, in my humble opinion, not a significant factor in determining how many Muslims or how many Christians make up the world’s population. In fact, I’m not sure that birth rate should be a deciding factor at all because we are not inherently committed to religious faith by virtue of having been born of Christian or Muslim parents. Simply growing up in such an environment cannot necessarily make one a Christian because a decision is still yet to be made by the individual. Too many times I have encountered young people who have been oriented in the Christian faith and have been told what they must believe in order to be “saved”, but they have yet to enjoy a divine encounter. In other words, they have not had faith imparted to them; they have been indoctrinated. Does this make them Christians? It certainly doesn’t hurt, and it most certainly helps. Education, however, is a means. The job is not yet complete.

The monsignor’s numbers, however, don’t really tell us much except that Christians use birth control and Muslims, perhaps, do not. I cannot help but to wonder, though, if the monsignor is somehow manipulating numbers in an adverse way, somehow portraying Islam as the enemy gaining some traction in the world while failing to make us aware that we are probably our own worst enemies especially when we attempt to make a lot of something out of a little bit of nothing.

Numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story, either.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Resurrection: the Essence of the Church

Acts 2:14a, 22-32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

“In a workshop with Paul Borden last year, someone asked him, “You are a natural leader in starting new churches. What is the main thing you look for in selecting new pastors?” Borden responded, “An Orthodox faith, a vivid belief in the Trinity, and of course, a sure faith in the resurrection.”

"Don’t you find that an amazing response? I thought Borden would say something managerial, “an entrepreneurial spirit,” something like that. Or, I thought he might cite some psychological configuration or organizational expertise in the pastor. No. Borden demands theology, faith in resurrection."

"It really makes a huge difference as we go about reaching a new generation of Christians, starting new churches, energizing established congregations, making disciples (our Conference priorities), if Jesus Christ has risen from the dead."

"If Easter is not true, then why bother? Since Jesus Christ is raised, let loose, invading a world, returning to the very people who betrayed him, then we work not alone. The risen Christ goes before us. We serve a God who lives to raise the dead--even us. Therefore, we work with hope--not hope in ourselves and our efforts, but with hope in Christ."

"A couple of years ago, a District Superintendent paid me one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received. He had told a pastor of our interest to move him to a different church. “I can’t do this,” responded the pastor. “That church is dead. It’s been dying for years and now I hear it’s really dead.” The DS replied, “I’ll tell the Bishop but let me warn you, this guy really believes that Easter is true. To tell him a pastor or a church is dead means nothing to him. He just sees death as an opportunity to see what Jesus can do.”

- UM Bishop Will Willimon (

“IF Easter is not true, then why bother?”

Without a doubt and with more than a little surprise, this is probably one of the most profound yet simple observations as it pertains to who we are as Christians. It should come as no surprise that a “sure faith” in the Resurrection - that is to say, Life after death - is the essence of the Christian faith, yet over time we’ve become so complicated in our formulaic charts of what it takes to be a Christian, what prayers are appropriate, what doctrines and practices are sure and true, that we’ve all but lost the essential core of our spiritual being.

Not long ago I shared my thoughts on what I consider to be a theologically incompatible fear we Christians have of death. While we can allow that a certain fear of the unknown is perfectly understandable, it is nevertheless an unnatural response or emotion if there is any sense of fear within us as it pertains to death because if there is, then our faith is shaky and downright questionable. And if we have no faith, no sure faith, we have nothing.

In the reading from Acts, Peter quotes King David’s prayer in Psalm 16 perhaps in an effort to make the Resurrection story relevant to the Jews and appealing to them to come to understand the prophecy of King David who was clearly favored by the Lord God and is in the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth as “Son of David”. Notice the language in Acts 2:23 by the way Peter “accuses” them of complicity in the betrayal, crucifixion, and MURDER of Jesus: “… this Man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law”, of course referring to the Roman authorities to whom Jesus was handed over.

Peter is laying a foundation of that which we must rightly claim as the foundation of our faith, the very faith Bishop Willimon and Paul Borden both consider being at the heart of what we must believe if we claim the name “Christian”. The Crucifixion itself is mentioned by Peter in an accusatory fashion, telling the story but also reminding them of their part in the betrayal. By this I think Peter is at least partly removing the Crucifixion itself as part of the “glory story” maybe because of the close, personal friendship Peter seemed to enjoy with Jesus but also perhaps because the murder of Jesus itself was not an act of God. It was clearly by the hands and the hard hearts of man.

However, Acts 2:24 reveals the very heart of our faith: “But God raised Him up, having freed Him from death, because it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.”

This, without doubt and without reservation, is clearly and exclusively the power and the glory of God. It seems also to be part of the experience that King David shared with us in understanding not only his immense failures as a servant of God but was also an intense and “sure faith” that the Lord’s faithful will not know Death. King David was a sinner, and he never denied his own failures before the Lord. David also paid a heavy price for what he had done, but he never wavered in his understanding – and sure faith - of the Lord God’s commitment to Life itself. This, in a nutshell, is the Resurrection story. It is our faith. Without it, ours is nothing more than a self-serving, lifeless, pagan religion – something we do only to please and suit ourselves.

I will also be the first to tell you that I am probably among the many who have come to accept the Resurrection as “incidental” (for lack of a better word) to the Church calendar. It is by far, I think, the holiest Day on the calendar, but I am afraid that it has been relegated to such a status that we don’t take seriously what it actually means to us. We may not doubt it, but do we EMBRACE it? It is a sure and faithful commitment on the part of the Holy Father Himself that His beloved will never taste Death. If we then come to believe this for what it really is, why do we fear Death at all?

None of this is to suggest that our time in worship, our sharing of the Holy Eucharist, our Sunday School lessons, our charitable giving are all in vain, but the good bishop calls us to account for why we do these things in the first place. It is a challenge to look deeply within ourselves to determine what lies beneath the surface, within the heart of our essence.

We gather together to bear witness to the Resurrection! We sign hymns because Jesus is resurrected from the dead! We offer prayers and gifts to the Lord God because Christ had died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again! It is who we are, and it defines what we do and why. Anything less is but a hollow shell easily cracked and soon destroyed at the first sign of distress.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Government Mindset - and what it costs us all

Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe has recently issued a proclamation calling a special session of the Arkansas General Assembly (itself a major expense) for the sole purpose of raising the severance tax on natural gas. Gov. Beebe appears to have worked diligently behind the scenes not only with legislators whose support he needs but also with the various gas producers who are setting up shop in Arkansas exploring and drilling in the Fayetteville Shale. Gov. Beebe seems satisfied that he is able to offer to the legislature a package that the producers will be happy with and that will receive solid, supermajority support in the General Assembly necessary for quick passage.

Though gas and oil exploration are not exactly new to the state of Arkansas, it has been almost embarrassing to watch our “leaders” frothing at the mouth about this new-found wealth that, like gaming and a lottery purport to be, will solve all our problems. It’s all about how much money the state can collect because, after all, it’s all “ours”, right?

Wrong. While the state can reasonably expect to collect a reasonable severance tax, it is entirely unreasonable to attempt to be like Oklahoma or Texas when it comes to natural resources or even tax collections. Arkansas already has natural gas and some crude oil, but Arkansas has plenty of ore as well as renewable resources such as timber and food crops. We don’t give these the same consideration because the costs of these renewable resources is directly related to the cost of such resources required to extract them, raise them, cultivate them, harvest them, and/or move them. Gas and oil, because of the spiraling price increases in the past few years, have been demonized in the hearts, minds, and souls of the average consumer and government. Therefore it is reasonable that we all be expected to show up on the state house lawn with pitch forks and torches in hand demanding that these demons be punished (though not exorcised; after all, we’re not backwoods hicks … are we?).

Relative to these resources, however, the predominant mindset of our state government has been, and likely will continue to be: how much of it can we get for the state’s coffers? Seriously, who among our legislative or executive branches in this state has stepped forward and inquired: what can we do to help? Specifically, what can the state offer to these potential as well as existing EMPLOYERS that will increase the number of jobs they offer and enhance training for displaced workers? I am not necessarily referring to the onesies or twosies who consider setting up shop in Arkansas although they are certainly welcome, and the state should seriously consider what it will take to entice and encourage them to come to Arkansas. I am specifically referring to the industries which already exist in our fair state. What has our state’s government done to help them on any level, and more specifically, what has the state’s government done to encourage them to increase the number of available jobs in Arkansas relative to already-existing industry?

Now that the natural gas business is heating up, the state wants more of a piece of the production pie not necessarily because it will be good for the state but because there is a new opportunity for revenue and a new opportunity to spend it. Yes, Arkansas highways will apparently reap 95% of the benefit from this severance tax increase according to Gov. Beebe’s proposal and decent paying, though seasonal, construction jobs will come as a result, but this seems only incidental to the state government’s thought process

The jobs that come with the enhanced gas exploration and drilling seem only incidental to the grand scheme, but I see very little expressed thought from our legislators or the governor about how these new opportunities could themselves be enhanced FOR THE SAKE OF EMPLOYMENT deliberately rather than incidentally and that government benefit incidentally rather than deliberately. Regardless of the supposed noble intent of a tax increase, if the government does not give deliberate thought to partnering with industry for the sake of creating jobs rather than being inherently antagonistic by demanding a bigger piece of the corporate pie, then “the people” are reaping very little benefit.

Former governor Huckabee helped to oversee some pretty substantial tax increases during his tenure (is this why the Republican governor got along so well with the Democratic-controlled legislature?) which resulted in substantially increased spending in some social programs as well as a pretty hefty budget surplus which says two things: 1) the taxpayers were substantially overtaxed, and 2) the sole purpose of the tax increases was to enhance the government’s role in people’s lives. Would the state and its industries have been further ahead of the game if the state had chosen to partner with industry and work to help create more job opportunities and training for those who are recipients of the increased social spending rather than work to enhance the give-away programs for those who are unemployed or underemployed? It seems to be that we have it backwards.

None of this is to say that the state should simply turn its back on those who genuinely need help, but it also seems that we could do more for those who are unemployable by putting back to work those who are entirely employable. Government offering incentives to existing industry designed specifically to increase the number of paycheck earners is precisely what government should be about in the life of corporate Arkansas and corporate America. Helping people to help themselves is neither charity nor welfare; it is simply in the best interests of everyone, government and industry and wage earners alike.

The mindset that government exists only for its own sake is costing a lot of people a lot of jobs and training opportunities and is costing taxpayers a bundle. Rather than work to extend, for instance, unemployment benefits as Senator Barack Obama has proposed in his economic stimulus package, how about working with industries to get these unemployed citizens back to work? Should this not be what government does? Not according to the existing mindset and especially not in an election year.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It's None of Your Business

Chelsea Clinton has somehow been declared off limits to the US press, and there was discussion this morning on one of the early talk shows regarding the nation’s press and its relationship with the Clintons and their insistence that Chelsea not be asked questions by the US media even though she is an adult and is actively campaigning for her mother. I am no fan of the Clintons, but I will say that Chelsea’s refusal to answer a particular question by responding with a rather sharp rebuke was right on target.

Chelsea was at Butler University in IL and was asked by a student if father Bill’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky during his tenure as president had somehow hurt mother Hillary’s credibility. Chelsea seemed genuinely surprised at the question and finally told the student that “it is none of your business”.

The talking heads on this morning’s TV discussion of the Clinton’s imposed restrictions regarding access to Chelsea seemed to entirely miss the point. I will concede that the Clintons can ask of the media to lay off Chelsea, but I will also say that Chelsea is fair game while on the campaign trail. She is a grown-up, seems poised and mature, and is quite capable of standing up for herself. If she does not want to answer a question, she doesn’t have to but it is unreasonable and downright arrogant for the Clintons to issue some sort of proclamation that the very public activities of their daughter can somehow be exempt from media scrutiny.

That issue notwithstanding, however, Chelsea’s sharp but polite response was on target for the question which was, in my humble opinion, out of line and extremely out of date. The Lewinsky deal was some 10 years ago. The questioner was probably close to 10 years old when it took place. The Lewinsky deal was also exclusively a public issue for which then-President Clinton was required to account since Monica was “the help”. I know many will take exception to this particular thought, but the marriage betrayal thing was not the public issue. The CEO of the nation carrying on behind closed doors with an intern was very much the public’s business. The president was, again my own opinion, rightly called to account by the US Congress because it was far more than a “private matter between two consenting adults”.

That particular issue must surely have been, for Hillary and Chelsea, an extraordinarily trying time. How it actually affected Hillary one way or the other politically or otherwise truly was, and is, no one’s business outside the Clinton family. Daddy Bill publicly humiliated himself and his family; he was impeached as a result. What happened between Bill and his family as a result, however, was not for public scrutiny.

The media can enjoy whatever relationship it may have with Hillary and/or Bill during this campaign and if they want to respect the Clinton’s wishes that Chelsea be “off limits”, then so be it. The media, however, can make its own choices regarding that restriction, but they need not berate Chelsea for keeping private what was, and is, clearly a family matter they have long since put behind them. There are plenty of other issues for Hillary to contend with on the campaign trail and Chelsea may have to do a little more growing up if she is going to continue to roam the nation on behalf of a very public campaign, but let’s stay on target. This, America, is not an issue.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter 2008: Where to go from here

Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 114
1 Corinthians 5:6b-8
Luke 24:13-49

Another Easter is here coming to us from within another springtime, and folks are enjoying the awakening of nature from yet another long winter’s nap. The children are hunting for colored eggs on many church’s newly green lawns, many dressed in their new Easter clothing and carrying brightly colored baskets. And their greatest hope in such a hunt is to find the “golden” egg that will hold the biggest prize. Once it is found, the others might be inclined to give up altogether, having “lost out” on the ultimate prize without realizing that it is the search itself that has its own reward.

Not meaning to disparage the egg-hunting tradition, but I never cared much for it even as a child mainly because I cared very little for hard-boiled eggs. As a parent I spent a lot of time – against my will, I admit - hiding eggs out in the yard for my kids to go find and, once found, returned to me for yet another round of what I considered to be a pointless game. It was a perpetual and never-ending cycle of hide-and-seek that took me from the comfort of my chair and the Sunday paper. I never did recover for myself a full appreciation for what it all meant though I’m sure I used several very weak theological excuses for why we would be better served in not wasting our time hunting eggs, a distinctly secular practice, on Christianity’s most Holy Day. It only occurred to me later on that it was I who did not get it.

I know what you’re thinking: this guy must be a real JOY to be with on Easter! But it’s not about being out and about enjoying the nice weather that we may or may not be blessed with, it’s not about being off from work, and it’s not about hunting Easter eggs or enjoying a bite or two from the chocolate bunny we hope the kids won’t notice. It is another day on the church’s calendar in which we are reminded that something colossal had taken place, and its profound impact on humanity may never be fully realized or even appreciated while we are on this earth, certainly not while comfortably seated in the easy chair.

It occurs to me that it may well be the Easter egg hunt itself that has the greatest potential for teaching our children about what Easter really means than anything we could ever do, the least being a lengthy sermon on Easter morning. Now that I think about it, it may do us all a world of good to go out and hunt some eggs for ourselves because the search for the “prize” is precisely what the Christian journey of faith is all about, but it is far from over once we have discovered for ourselves the ultimate of prizes: the Risen Christ come to reveal Himself to His faithful so that we may know that the search was not in vain.

I also think that it sounds much easier than it really is, but it has never been believed that anything worth our while was ever easy to acquire. Much like setting aside a little money out of every paycheck as a discipline to acquire those big-ticket items we will come to need one day, such as a home or a car or a major appliance, the acquisition will require not only the discipline to practice self-denial each and every day without fail but also the faith that the sacrifice will have been worth the trouble.

I don’t mean to compare the Lord with a side-by-side refrigerator, but acquiring the faith necessary to sustain us in the hard times requires so much from us that I don’t think we can seriously appreciate. It is a big deal to arrive at this wondrous day and be able to see and appreciate what it really means.

Notice the disciples on the road to Emmaus. They not only endured the confusion and chaos that must have surely been evident on Good Friday, but now they have to add to that mix the possibility that the women of their group have not lost complete control of their senses in claiming to have seen the Savior alive and well! All hope seemed gone on that fateful day when Jesus was nailed to a cross, bled to death, and then was taken down and placed into a tomb. Evil seemed to have triumphed! They knew Jesus had been falsely accused and framed, they KNEW that what had happened was not right, but they also knew that the movement against Jesus had become so big that nothing short of divine intervention could have stopped it. So it would seem that they came to consider that a continued “search” would prove to be fruitless if pointless. To them, it was all over.

Yet while they were walking down the road and pondering these things, the very thing they needed most, the very One whom they should have been able to believe, joined them in their walk and they failed to recognize Him. Why? Could it have been that rather than search for something they genuinely needed, they were too consumed with self-pity … or self-absorbed altogether? As I related on Good Friday, they had every reason to believe that it would only be a matter of time before the authorities who turned Jesus over would soon come after them.

It’s a tough balance between what the Lord wants of us and what we think we need. And celebrating Easter every year may even seem to be somewhat redundant. Jesus was crucified, Jesus died, and Jesus rose. The search, however, must reach far beyond a relatively brief moment in human history if we are to glean from it everything we need to know. It moves into a call from a mystery of faith; “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”.

It should be simple enough, this thing we call “faith”, but it’s not. It’s not that such a thing is so complicated that it is reserved only for an intellectual few, but it is free to those who would choose to endeavor the journey in search of it, remembering that Jesus promised to those who would seek that they would indeed find what they were looking for, to ask and expect to receive, to dare knock on the door and expect it to be opened.

It’s not necessarily something we are left to figure out for ourselves; rather, it is the reality that we must persevere in the journey that is faith. And this, dear friends, is the hardest part of all because the journey itself requires faith, faith enough to continue even when it seems pointless, faith enough to continue even when we are not sure of the direction, faith enough to continue to ask when we are unsure of ourselves. This is the hard part: the journey, the search.

But this is part of the excitement of the Easter egg hunt, isn’t it? The anticipation of what we may discover? The joy of finding tiny prizes along the way to remind us of an even greater prize at the end of the journey? And even beyond this, more tiny prizes to keep us sustained and hopeful? Yes, the search for Easter eggs is perhaps the greatest lesson of all … that is, if we are open enough to get out of the easy chair.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday 2008: What are we to do with our hands?

Psalm 22
Isaiah 53:1-12
John 18:1-19:42

This is the first Good Friday I can recall when I didn’t have to go to work even though I have always felt as though Christians might do well to refrain from working on this day if possible. And while I know that this day is specific to Christianity and is not always appreciated as it should be even by many Christians, it still must be that we take a moment to relive or even recreate what took place on this day some 2000 years ago if only in our minds and prayers. Unfortunately, for too many it is nothing more than a much-needed day off from work appreciated not for its historical or theological significance but merely for what it can mean to us for the moment: to sleep an extra hour, to catch up on chores, or just to go and do whatever strikes our fancy.

Now that I find myself with time on my hands this day, I don’t know what to do with my hands – or the time. I have tried to imagine what it must have been like for the disciples so long ago while they were there and watching everything that was taking place. Imagine the utter confusion, the grief, the turmoil that must have overwhelmed them. More than once they had either confessed Jesus to be Messiah themselves or had witnessed those who made such a proclamation after having been touched by Jesus in an awesome and even inspiring way. For our way of thinking, it should have been easier for them to believe since they had seen all this with their own eyes and heard all this with their own ears. After all, seeing is believing.

To the disciples of the day, it must surely have been a frightening time. They had aligned themselves with Jesus who very publicly challenged the religious authorities and the unreasonable demands they made on the people. Jesus was ultimately accused of, and executed for, blasphemy – and the disciples had been a part of this new movement. For them, then, it must surely have only been a matter of time before the authorities came looking for them. It is little wonder that many of them fled or, when confronted, denied ever having known Jesus. But in the midst of the confusion that must have been on that fateful day, even the disciples must have been facing the same challenge many of us may feel today: what to do with our hands since we are in a state of utter helplessness.

Another thought also occurred to me as I wondered exactly what it is that we should have been doing this day: I am not grief stricken – and I would venture to guess that many Christians, perhaps too many – are also not grief stricken. Because we are so far removed by time from what happened so long ago, it is virtually impossible to internalize what took place; we cannot seem to make that period of mourning and grief our own. And I think that until we are able to do this, to feel as though we are a very real part of the life of the Christ, to finally begin to understand exactly what we can and should do with our hands, we will be unable to embrace and appreciate the Easter message for what it really means to us as disciples of Christ, as true friends of Jesus.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What I would say to Elliot Spitzer

Dear Mr. Spitzer,

There are probably no words that can adequately express the anguish you must be experiencing right about now. If you are a man with any level of conscience, as I suspect you to be, you are going through a period that one would not wish on one’s worst enemy. The only thing worse than the emotions you must surely be grappling with right now are the emotions and public humiliation your wife and children must also be dealing with.

Your downfall was certainly a crushing blow not only to your professional career but also to those who believed in you and worked with you as well as those who love you. There is hope, however, and this evidence is in your resignation announcement. You offered no excuses, you blamed no “conspiracy” other than your own, and rather than let this thing drag on you chose to do the right thing: spare the people of New York and step down. Yes sir, it was the right thing to do and you evidently know this.

Even in the midst of what has now certainly become a family crisis, there is still much to do and, frankly, it has little to do with the legal challenges you face. You stated yourself that you must take responsibility for your own actions, and indeed you must. It is written in the book of Matthew 5:25-26: “Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”

I am the last one to be dispensing legal advice especially since you and your wife are both law-schooled enough for any situation. However, if you are truly willing to accept the consequences for your actions, rather than “lawyer up” you will choose instead to “man up”. Cooperate with the authorities. Do not waste resources trying to protect yourself and others because, you see, Mr. Spitzer, there is more at stake than you may realize. There is already damage done to your worldly relationships that will take time to mend, but perhaps more importantly than even these is the state of your eternal soul.

Rest assured, Mr. Spitzer, that those who piously claim that they would “never” do such a thing have problems of their own. You, on the other hand, have been granted a Divine Gift the likes of which many may never see because it is also written in the book of Hebrews 12:5-8: “You have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives’. If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?”

To think that your life could have easily ended while in the bed of a woman other than your wife! Yet you have been called to account; you are therefore among the many blessed with such hope. My prayer is that you will be able to hear the Voice that is now calling to you to mend your ways, account for yourself, and cooperate with the proper authorities. Give them what they need just as you would have demanded as a prosecutor.

You will surely recall the story of King David and Bathsheba. King David might have skipped merrily along were it not for the Lord caring enough to send the prophet Samuel to him. Rather than work to make things easier for himself, David accepted what he had done and, like you, made no excuses. When he learned that the child born of this illicit union would die, King David fasted and prayed constantly. In the end, however, he accepted that the grief he would be forced to endure was his own to bear. Even after all this – and remember that King David was also responsible for the death of Bathsheba’s husband! – the Lord God still bestowed His favor on King David, but there was a price that had to be paid for his sins.

For the sake of teaching your own children about crime and consequences, personal responsibility and even theology, refusing to hire someone to testify in your behalf in an effort to preserve whatever may be left will also show them by an example not often seen in this nation, you will teach them that you are truly remorseful and willing to accept the consequences and teach them about what genuine justice really looks like. Surely as a prosecutor you must know that the system works better for those who hide nothing. Settling with your “adversary” before you are handed over to the judge will end this sooner so that restoration of those things much more important than your law license can begin in earnest because these things – your family and your soul – are surely worth more.

Keep your head up, Mr. Spitzer. Your dark past is exactly that: past. Assuming that the news reports are all true, you must surely have nothing much left to hide; everything has been illuminated. Your family needs you right now more than you may realize, and you cannot give them all that they need if you are consumed with saving your own skin. It is my humble opinion that if you follow biblical wisdom and be faithful in your prayers, this whole thing will turn out to be more of a blessing to you and to your family than you or they could possibly have fathomed. It will not be easy – nothing worthwhile ever really is – but it will be right and just and true.

All the best to you and yours,

Lent 2008 - Palm Sunday: "Great Expectations - and the Alternative"

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

As with every year from Palm Sunday to Good Friday I am compelled to ask: why? Why must the basis of our faith be predicated on the Blood of an Innocent Man? Why must One who preached peace, forgiveness, and obedience to the One, True, and Living God have been beaten to near death before being nailed to a Cross only to bleed to death? Why is it that a crowd filled with many who had likely witnessed at least some of the miracles performed by the hands of Jesus have turned so suddenly and so violently against the Man who asked nothing of them but to believe that the Kingdom of Heaven had come so near to them? That Salvation was at hand? That the call to repentance was a plea to turn away from personal and spiritual destruction?

Jesus rode into town on a donkey, and the crowd seemed to go nuts as if they actually had a clue who this Man really was. Imagine it yourself: how would you respond, having been witness to at least ONE of the many miracles performed, if you knew Jesus was coming to town? What would be your greatest challenge to overcome? How would you choose to greet Him? What would be your expectation?

I’m pretty sure I would have expectations, though it is hard to put them into words. Our faith teaches us that Jesus is coming back, and we typically have this image of Him – quite literally – descending from clouds. At least, this is how it is written. And it may be – quite literally – how it’s going to be. Yet the people of Jerusalem probably had an image in their minds as well and when the Image did not meet their expectations, they rebelled. Rebelled? They demanded His Blood! They went along with the crowd that cried for this Man to be killed and that a criminal, a revolutionary perhaps bent on driving the Romans out of Israel, be released instead. This man, Barabbas, may well have come closer to fitting the image of their expectations – or, rather, demands - than Jesus did although with what were surely other choices, one might ask why Pilate would have chosen Barabbas as the alternative.

To also consider the alternative in the context of the time and the not-unreasonable expectations the people might have had of Jesus, and given that Jesus enters into town and is greeted as royalty, it might be understandable that the people may have grown impatient if they were expecting that this “deliverer”, this “Son of David”, would likely ride in and drive the Romans straight out. And when this possible expectation did not become apparent, the natives, as they say, grew restless and thus were easily swayed to remember not the miracles they had heard about or had actually seen for themselves. They remembered, instead, that this was the Lord’s land that was still under occupation by the Romans and that Jesus seemed to make no move to change anything.

Some commentaries have suggested that the event of Jesus riding into Jerusalem is overstated in Matthew. The text makes it appear as though the entire city stopped in its tracks to see this “royalty” riding into town while folks are throwing their clothing on the road as well as cutting branches from trees to cover the path for the donkey and Jesus. And for me, none of this answers the question: why? In fact, given that many of these same people will soon turn on Jesus, the story of the “triumphal entry” seems to matter very little.

It is easy to say that the prophecies had to be fulfilled and Matthew’s account was written well after the fact, but as it is written it is almost as if the fulfillment of the prophecy had been staged in order to make it so although it is written in John 12:16 that “His disciples did not understand these things at first but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written about Him and that they had done these things to Him.”

There’s a lot of that “so that the prophecies might be fulfilled” in the Gospels, particularly in Matthew, which was written primarily for the benefit of Jews; hence the many Hebrew text references. But what does a prophecy foretell, and what purpose is it supposed to serve? It surely could not be as cheap a trick as being finally able to say, “See, I told you!” Could it?

The alternative to all this would be unimaginable and unnecessary because it did happen. Maybe it didn’t look exactly like what we may envision, but the fact remains that Jesus had to go to Jerusalem. That the crowd may have expected a conquering warrior is relevant only in that they, and we, sometimes have expectations we build up only in our mind’s eye and what we hope to gather from this.

Lent is an important time in the Christian calendar and Easter is no incidental afterthought, but we have to get through the arrival in Jerusalem and Good Friday. Why? We cannot appreciate the glory of Easter without recognizing humanity’s role in His Crucifixion. I know it’s a heavy burden and it seems unfair since we didn’t even exist when it actually happened.

“It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the Good Word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned.” Hebrews 6:4-8

Recognizing our weak flesh and carnal desires and then recognizing and more fully appreciating our need for Divine Help and Guidance is what this season is all about. Coming to terms with the fallibility of our humanity is a step in the right direction and brings us one step closer to the Glory that is Easter. Amen.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

It is one thing to make an error out of genuine ignorance. Ignorance is nothing more than an absence of knowledge; it makes a certain distinction between those who lack the capacity to acquire knowledge and/or experience and those who simply do not know because they’ve never heard of it. So to make an error because one did not know better should be, to the rational person, forgivable. To deliberately poke someone in the eye, however, is to incite that person to a less than favorable response because our own experience should inform us that getting a finger in the eye is physically painful and has the potential to cause further damage.

So in 2006 there were cartoons published in Dutch newspapers in which the prophet Muhammad was depicted wearing a bomb-shaped turban which created quite an uproar in the world-wide Islamic community. The crazies took to the streets and set fire to anything that would burn and actually threatened the life of the artist. The more moderate Muslims expressed their displeasure in less destructive ways, but they still voiced their anger and offense at the utter disrespect shown in these cartoons. In Islam, it is prohibited to draw pictures of the Prophet, favorable or not, lest this portrait become the object of worship (i.e., idolatry). It is the common objective that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all share that our object of worship is the Lord God alone.

Again in 2008 these same cartoons were published yet again. It is unclear as of this writing exactly what was expected to be accomplished by this deliberate “finger in the eye” of Islam, but it is equally clear that one cannot claim ignorance this time around. It was an informed decision to republish. It is reasonable to say that non-Muslims did not know of the Islamic prohibition against images of the Prophet, and that argument (or defense) was valid in 2006. In 2008 that same claim cannot be made. It was clearly a deliberate attempt to … what?

Pundits and columnists opined after the first round that they were protected by free speech and free press rights and that American newspaper publishers should “grow a pair” and publish these same cartoons in American papers “just to show them” that we will not be cowed nor bullied. For these, it was and is a matter of “rights”. For Islam, it is a matter of respect. And if the continued publication of these caricatures serves no genuine social purpose and if we know that others are offended by these cartoons, rational or not, and if we KNOW that publication will be inciteful and result in physical harm and destruction, it is then irresponsible to continue not out of any sense of fear but, rather, out of a sense of social responsibility which must necessarily accompany freedom. And I am not referring to the irrational “crazies” who seem only to be looking for a reason to destroy anything if it will get them press time.

It is the same reasoning in why the Confederate Battle Flag should be seriously considered before it is posted or flown. Of course there are some who only seek to manipulate public opinion and will use any excuse they need to invoke “offense”. There are others, however, who are as much a part of society as another and are genuinely offended by such displays that seem to serve no other purpose than that of the “finger in the eye”. Christian principles prohibit such lack of regard for the well-being of others and if we are the “Christian nation founded on Christian principles” that so many claim, then our principles must not be reduced to matters of public opinion or constitutional proclamation.

I will readily agree that no one should be reduced to walking on egg shells for fear of insulting or offending others because it is virtually impossible to know of the feelings or sensitivities of those with whom we live and work and I will agree that we need not be so sensitive, but the truth is that I am offended by what I consider to be disrespectful caricatures of Christ or the Virgin Mary or Moses or any other major biblical player whom I hold in high esteem especially when I am quite sure that the caricature was intended to express the disdain of the artist. I am just not willing to take to the streets and set property on fire or burn flags to express my displeasure. I truly am left with few options other than to get over it and move along.

The Confederate Battle Flag, like it or not, is very much a part of US history and southern culture. It cannot be ignored nor completely destroyed, but it must never be taken completely out of its useful context and purpose in American history. The caricatures of Muhammad, on the other hand, serve no useful purpose that I can see or appreciate. It can be said, and I think this is reasonable and likely, that the cartoons are directed at those who hide behind Islam and use very loose koranic interpretations as an excuse to be destructive. It cannot be said, however, that these drawings can ever be confused with anything useful. This is a sleeping dog that needs to be left to lie.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

5th Sunday of Lent - The Mind and Heart of the Cynic

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

One of my great flaws (among many!) is my seemingly natural cynicism; I see the bad all too readily and I don’t trust easily. And because of this, it seems to be my natural tendency to focus in such a way that I emphasize the bad while overlooking the obvious good which does exist. Being so focused serves no useful purpose. It is quite one thing to be cautious, to be “wise like serpents” (Matthew 10:16b); it is another thing altogether to always expect the serpent. In my defense, however, one need only take a look at the daily headlines.

There continues to be an economic down-turn and credit crisis, and thousands are either losing their jobs or the threat of job loss exists. Venezuela, a major oil producer, was positioning military personnel and equipment to their common border with Colombia which consequently caused a spike in the price of oil, although this particular situation has been defused for now. Two young university students, one at UNC and the other at Auburn, were murdered. In southern Florida a woman at a car wash was recorded on video surveillance spraying a 6-year-old child with the high-pressure hose while shouting at the child for “disrespecting” her. A man puts two young children in a clothes dryer claiming to show them that fun is possible without spending money; one of the kids was treated for 2nd degree burns and was also found to have been treated for other fractures. The bright spot in this particular item is that the medical personnel who treated the child notified authorities of a possible abusive situation. And last but not least, a butcher in Syria beheaded his 15-MONTH-OLD nephew – his own sister’s child! - right in front of the child’s mother because of a dispute he was having with her and her husband! And a gunman attacked students at a Jewish seminary in Israel.

So if I and others like me tend to focus on the negative, we at least come by it honestly. We don’t necessarily go out in search of such bad news, but we cannot seem to escape it. These bits of dastardly news (which only scratch the surface!) seem to be indications of a world going mad, but I think we are only more aware of such things because of the Internet and other world-wide communications media that have enabled us to know about such things almost as soon as they happen. The world is crying out, but I am almost certain that there is no new phenomenon that has created such ugliness and despair. Though we may believe that such things have only begun to take place in the last generation or two, the truth of the consistency of human nature may be an indication that such despicable things have been happening for a long time.

If the Bible is any indication, it may seem as though we actually need to see some of the bad, maybe a lot of it, before we can appreciate the goodness. To be sure, watching someone else’s misery often seems to help us to appreciate what we have more than if we never had serious challenges. And while I recognize that many choose to ignore the bad that seems to surround us by simply tuning it out, I think that such tragedy can help us to better understand what I think is an inherent need to believe in something greater than self because much of what we see and read that is so negative is far beyond our control. We can pray for those who suffer so and we can give what we can to charities that help to address such needs and we can even offer a helping hand locally, but we cannot control the minds or the actions of others and we certainly cannot contain pure evil. Intent on destruction, evil will always find a way.

Our need to believe, however, is an equally powerful force because if our need is great enough, we will stop at nothing until that need is fulfilled. We will pull out all the stops, and we will go to great lengths to find whatever it is that we think we need. And as long as we recognize that our true need is beyond our own capacity to provide, we are moving in the right direction because I think that when we are genuinely searching, we will receive the Assistance we so desperately need.

I think this inherent need is addressed in both Ezekiel and John. Despair seems to be the order of the day. Death and destruction are all around, yet the Lord makes it known of His willingness, perhaps His EAGERNESS, to restore life. And this makes plenty of sense because the Lord God, and every covenant He has offered to mankind, is Life itself. Death is simply not His way nor His will. The choice is ours, however, as Paul reminds the Romans, because to “… set the mind …” (Romans 8:6) is within our own realm. This choice is NOT beyond our control and the Life that is offered by the Spirit is for the taking, but the choice is clearly ours.

There is no useful need to dwell on the negative especially because unbelievers can see all the bad just as easily. In fact, non-believers can and do use the evil that is so evident all around us in their efforts to justify their lack of faith. After all, what is the need of such faith if there is such a thing as a “good” God who seems to allow such needless suffering? Why does this God not see to such suffering and simply make it go away?

Even believers often struggle with such questions, and it is easy to be tripped up by these challenges to our faith. However, in the life of Jesus and especially at the tomb of Lazarus, where is the faith of the believer? Jesus clearly points out that this moment belongs to the glory of God so that everyone will be enabled to believe that Jesus was sent to restore Life, so those who needed proof would be the ones standing at the tomb and watching to see what might happen. Would they be waiting to see if Lazarus will actually come forth when beckoned, or would their eyes be on Jesus waiting to see Him fulfill the role of the fool if Lazarus fails to come out?

Where are your eyes? Are you watching the tomb’s door with eager anticipation, or are you watching Jesus with the eye of the cynic? The truth will be revealed soon enough.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Picture is worth a Thousand Words

For all the hype that the Democrats have attempted to use against President Bush and his “politics of fear”, it seems they have discovered a use for that same weapon in posting photos of Obama wearing the traditional garb of his late father’s homeland. In other media, there have been attempts to emphasize Sen. Obama’s middle name (Hussein) to keep that fear alive. I guess what’s good for the goose …

Even still, the smear attempts against Obama are not fair and are not in keeping with the finest traditions of American culture which celebrate our diversified culture. That Obama’s father was not born in this country is not a problem … is it? That Obama’s entire name is in keeping with his lineage is not a problem, is it? That Obama visits his father’s homeland and is presented with traditional garb by an elder is not a problem, is it?

The Democrats’ best and most effective weapon has always been to figure out what the ignorant masses are most afraid of and then exploiting that fear. It is even more ironic that Democrats insist that President Bush has adversely affected the US’s standing in the world community, and now we have an entire country angry at us because of the photos and how they are being used by the Democrats. I’m sure the world is much more pleased with us now.

I think I have made it clear in previous writings that this batch of Democrats will get no serious consideration from me (and I’m sure they’ll lose sleep over this!), but this is just one more example of how little the Democrats actually think of Joe America. They are counting on our lack of knowledge so that our emotions can be manipulated. Obama keeps living in the past as in “woulda, shoulda, coulda”, and Hillary continues to claim experience she actually lacks. Their conduct on the campaign trail should be a good example of what we can expect if one or the other is actually elected: nothing of substance. Besides, they are both making promises that cannot be fulfilled by a president alone, anyway. As legislators, they know this – but they are counting on our ignorance in being relatively certain that we don’t know this.

The photo of Obama in Somali garb is not, in and of itself, a problem nor do I believe that his lineage makes him an inherent national security risk. I do believe, however, that the use of that photo and his name in order to create an inaccurate illusion of concern speaks volumes about where we are as a culture. We decry racial profiling, yet some coward (whoever or whomever is responsible for passing around this dreaded photo and has not stepped forward to claim responsibility or credit) has actually utilized racial profiling and gone national with it in an attempt to make us afraid.

A picture is worth a thousand words, indeed, but the words spoken are more a reflection of our society and electoral politics than of Obama’s heritage.