Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Seven Pounds and grace

How about a movie about a man who makes great sacrifices to help those in need. I mean huge sacrifices. And he makes these sacrifices to atone for one mistake that he made--a mistake that had horrible consequences. This is the story in Seven Pounds, a new movie in theaters now, starring Will Smith.

This film may be worth seeing if only as a conversation starter to talk about things like redemption and sacrifice. I wish I could say more but, as one reviewer said, the less you know going in, the better with this movie. I will, however, point out one major flaw in the philosophy revealed in this story--at least from a Christian perspective.

Early in the movie, Ben (Will Smith's character) goes about evaluating a limited number of people that he is able to help in a significant way. He wishes to make his sacrifices for those who are deserving according to his standards. At one point he angrily refuses to assist a nursing home administrator after he finds out the terrible way that the administrator treats the residents.

Ben's approach seems pretty logical. Most of us, if we are going to make significant sacrifices for a few people, would want to help good people. The problem with this thinking from a Christian perspective is that Jesus died for that sleazy nursing home administrator too. According to 1 Tim 1:15 Christ's great sacrifice was for the worst of sinners. According to Romans 5:6 Jesus died for the ungodly.

The sacrifice that is the pattern for Christ-like living was made for those who were and are undeserving. This is what grace is all about.

But you see. even with this philosophical weakness Seven Pounds has now given me an opportunity to highlight the nature of Christian sacrifice, which, again, is why this movie may be worth seeing. There are a slew of conversations that Ben's sin and his sacrifices could spawn.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hopeful Thanks

It has long bothered me how quickly we turn the page on Thanksgiving to the Advent season. I know, in the retail business they are playing Christmas songs in the stores before Halloween, never mind Thanksgiving. But the shift from Thanksgiving to Advent is a quick one on the liturgical calendar too with the first Sunday of Advent usually (always?) falling on the Sunday after we have stuffed ourselves with turkey and dressing.

I like Thanksgiving and I would prefer that we pause just a little longer there. But, at the conclusion of our Thanksgiving Eve service on Wednesday, members of our Flower Ministry were getting out wreaths and other Advent supplies in preparation for the Hanging of Greens service to take place tomorrow. I'm not complaining about that--a lot needs to be done in order to get ready for that service. Hey, I was making my own Advent preparations well before Thanksgiving week. It just seems a bit of a shame that, to some degree, we look past Thanksgiving to Advent.

But this morning as I meditated for a few moments on the theme for tomorrow I decided that the quick shift is not all bad. On the first Sunday of Advent we light the candle of hope. Our culture's understanding of hope is often different from that of New Testament culture. When we say that we hope for something we are often referring to wishing for something that is unlikely to happen like winning the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes. New Testament hope is not like that.

The Greek word translated "hope" is about confident anticipation. It is about a wonderful future that is secure and a glorious, ongoing transformation that is already underway in believers. The hope we celebrate tomorrow is not about something that might be, but about something that is and that will be.

As I pondered all of this just after eating some leftover Thanksgiving ham, a question crossed my mind. Can hopeless people be thankful? Can thankful people be hopeless? In some ways they can when hopes and thanks are misguided. When, for example, we place our hopes in Black Friday specials and we are thankful for them we are only anchoring our hope and offering thanks to the god of consumerism.

But when our hopes and thanks are properly focused on God, then it seems to me that there is a link between thanksgiving and hope. So, on second thought, maybe its not so bad to have a day of offering thanks so close to a day of celebrating our hope.

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope ..." (1 Peter 1:3, TNIV)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Before Election Day ...

It was quite a few years back that I was in some church that used a video series featuring Herschel Hobbs in a study of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. Hobbs served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City for many years. In one of those video installments he said that it was his practice in worship on the Sunday following a presidential election to make the following announcement: "Our nation has elected a president and he is my president."

That might be a good word on the eve of Election Day. I have heard many dire predictions from both sides of the political aisle if this or that candidate is elected. So, to paraphrase Hobbs, tomorrow our nation will elect a president and, whoever that person is, he will be my president.

I know, offically the new president will not be selected until the Electoral College meets in December, but you get the idea. I think it is good that we all, no matter our political preferences, strive for unity after this historic election is over.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The bailout afoul with the free exercise clause?

A few days ago I saw an article by Ruth Moon at Christianitytoday.com that raises an interesting question about the recently enacted financial bailout legislation. Based on a Howard Friedman blog entry, Moon wonders about the government buying back failed church mortgages. Would the government then be entangled with religion? Both Friedman and Moon link an August article in The Deal reporting that "a surprising number of churches are behind in mortgage payments." So the possibility of the government owning church property as a result of the bailout appears to be more than theoretical at this point.

Moon approaches the possible problems created by this scenario from the standpoint of the Establishment Clause and several law professors agree that the legislation is "unlikely" to create problems in connection to that part of the First Amendment. But Moon does not mention the Free Exercise Clause which seems to be more problematic to this legal layperson.

The First Amendment says in part that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." Suppose a church that has defaulted on a loan is forced to move out of its building. If the government holds that mortgage then isn't this a law that prohibits the free exercise of religion for that congregation?

Sure, some may say that congregations that fail to pay their debts deserve to get booted from their building, but that's not the point. There is no qualifier on the applicable language of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law" that prohibits the "free exercise" of religion. It is one thing for a bank to foreclose on a church and evict the congregation from its place of worship but it is another thing for the government to do so thanks to the Bill of Rights.

At least that's the way it looks on the surface to me. What do you think?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Troubling attitudes on religious freedom

The First Amendment Center released its annual "State of the First Amendment Survey" on September 17, 2008 and some of the results related to religious liberty are troubling.

I was astounded to learn that 29% of those surveyed believe that the "freedom to worship as one chooses ... was never meant to apply to religious groups that the majority of the people consider extreme or on the fringe." To those 29% who answered this way I say, "Wrong!" It was thanks in no small measure to the persecution of a religious group that the majority of the people considered extreme that James Madison presented the First Amendment guarantee of complete religious liberty. His memory of the mistreatment of Baptists in his home state of Virginia (where there was an Anglican majority at that time) was a large part of the inspiration that led Madison to be one of the foremost advocates of religious freedom for all.

This number seems to be heading in the wrong direction in the survey. The First Amendment Center shows the results of this question for three other years: 1997 (24%), 2000 (19%), and 2007 (27%). Now it is up to 29%. What is happening to cause apparently more and more Americans to believe that the right to worship freely should not necessarily be extended to those in the minority?

On another note, 55% of those surveyed believe that "The U.S. Constitution establishes a Christian nation." This is simply not true. Indeed, the language of the First Amendment applies broadly to all religions, not just to the Christian religion. Yet a rather strong majority of those surveyed somehow got the notion that the Constitution establishes this as a Christian nation.

In a question related to the freedom of speech but that has a connection to religion, 42% disagree with this statement: "People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups." So does that mean that if I decide to preach or write in a blog that the so called "health wealth gospel" is a load of garbage that I should be arrested or what? Why do more than 4 in 10 in this survey believe that our freedom to speak freely should be limited when we are speaking about religious groups?

For the first time the First Amendment Center asked whether respondents agreed or disagree with this statement: "Religious leaders should be allowed to openly endorse political candidates from the pulpit without endangering the tax-exempt status of their organizations." Would you believe that 40% of those surveyed agreed with that statement? Setting aside my perception that, thankfully, most church goers do not want for their pastors to endorse political candidates, the
recently challenged regulation preventing religious leaders from endorsing candidates while their organizations maintain tax exempt status makes sense. Charitable organizations are tax exempt because they do charitable work, not political work. Churches are free to campaign for any political candidate they wish, but they should pay taxes if they take that step.

This year's annual State of the First Amendment Survey reveals ongoing troubling attitudes and beliefs concerning religious liberty. How do we reverse this trend?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Though the earth give way

"God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea ..." (Psalm 46:1-2, TNIV)

We read those words when times are good and we find them beautiful and encouraging. I wonder if we can believe them when times are not so good. "We will not fear though the earth give way ..." What about when markets, banks, insurance giants and retirement accounts give way? What about when business slows to a standstill and savings dwindles to nothing?

Someone who I know very well works for a company that has a very large Lehman Brothers bond. Bonds, of course, are supposed to be safer than stocks and Lehman Brothers was supposed to be one of the safest companies in the world, but they filed for bankruptcy earlier this week. My friend is not sure his company will survive the loss of those funds.

I was talking to a church member yesterday who owns a business in a sector deeply affected by the recession. I asked him how things are going. He said that he and his wife are very concerned: "We are

Daily people around here express to me how hard these times are.

I don't have any easy answers for the uncertainties of these days. But I wonder if we can proclaim a protest of hope when times are tough. I wonder if we can join with the psalmist in saying that we will not fear no matter how bad the times get. Can we say that God really is our refuge and strength? If we can then maybe we will be less fearful.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Chasing and eating bees


It was clear and 65 degrees here this morning so I decided to go outside and do a little reading before going to the office. Our three dogs, Earl, Maxie and Pickles, were enjoying the beautiful morning with me, although not with books in their paws. As the experience unfolded Maxie engaged in and interesting activity.

She is on the small side of medium size as dogs go and she is ugly. Oh, don't misunderstand, our family loves Maxie and she knows it but she is ugly. One of our church members once asked for a photo of Maxie. When we asked why he wanted it he explained that there was an "ugliest dog" contest going on at his workplace and he was certain that he could win first prize with a picture of her. Maxie is a mixture of unknown breeds with gray wiry hair and legs that seem a little long for her small body. One family member once said that she looks like "a Chinese sewer rat" whatever that is.

This morning Maxie attempted chasing and eating some bees. There is some sort of ugly grass in many yards in this area that seems to spring up overnight to about a foot high. The green stems are topped with mostly black seed heads. Flitting between blades of this annoying grass was a sizable collection of what appeared to be bumble bees. I am not an insect expert, but that's what they looked like.

I noticed that Maxie watched the bees with keen interest. One came within a few feet of her and she chased it and tried to bite it. She missed but then went on a mission catch a bee in her mouth. In short order she succeeded. However, upon accomplishing her goal, Maxie immediately appeared to regret it and she spit the bee out and it flew away apparently unharmed.

I figured that Maxie had learned her lesson but I was wrong. Moments later she began chasing another bee and again imprisoned the insect in her mouth. Again Maxie made a face of discomfort, shook her head and released the second bee which also flew away. Still not satisfied she chased and captured yet a third bee with the same result.

At this point Maxie took a position some distance away from the bees in the grass apparently abandoning the pursuit. But she continued to watch them with what appeared to be longing. It looked like she had decided that chasing and eating bees was not good for her, but she still had the desire to do it anyway.

Maxie's behavior seems foolish, but I wonder if we engage in any bee chasing in our own lives. Are there behaviors that we know to be bad for us that we continue to pursue? "Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise" (Ephesians 5:15, TNIV).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

An anniversary for the books and The Book

The first printing press

Today we mark a momentous anniversary. On August 24, 1456 the very first book to be printed on a movable metal printing press was completed. According to one account some historians call the movable printing press “the most important invention in history.” Before this invention every book had to be copied by hand which was obviously a very tedious and slow process.

After the invention of the printing press, books could be mass produced and they were more affordable which changed the world. According to an
article at the Library of Congress web page this invention resulted in the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern world. The accumulated knowledge of the human race, previously available to only a privileged few, become the common property of every person who knew how to read and the increasing availability of books wrought by the printing press led to more people learning to read. And so that article at the Library of Congress web page says that the invention that was used to complete the printing of a book 552 years ago today was “an immense forward step in the emancipation of the human mind.” Back in the year 2000 an international panel of scientists chose the inventor of the printing press as “most outstanding personality of the millennium.”

In the not too distant future bound books are likely to become less important to humankind. Already there are e-books available so that people can read books on their computers and there are portable e-book readers onto which one can download many books to one small handheld device. We are some years away from it, but we are moving into an age in which printed books will be less important.

But for more than 5 ½ centuries mass produced books have been perhaps the main learning tool of humanity and therefore they have been indispensible to the progress of humankind as it has unfolded. And it all started 552 years ago today.

However this is not only an anniversary for the books, it is also an anniversary for The Book. The man who invented that movable printing press was Johannes Gutenberg and the first book that Gutenberg finished printing on his new printing press on August 24, 1456 after one year of work was the famous Gutenberg Bible.

It is ironic that the book that made books cheap and available to the common person is now so rare and expensive that only the richest and most privileged could possibly own one. Gutenberg made only 180 copies of his famous Bible and only 48 of those are known to still exist today. In 1999 a single page from a Gutenberg Bible sold for $26,000. In 1995 a page from a Gutenberg Bible containing the Ten Commandments sold for $75,000. Estimates on the value of a complete Gutenberg Bible vary greatly between $25 and $100 million.

So if you happen to run across a Gutenberg Bible at a yard sale for $5 you might want to pick it up.

It is also ironic that we live in a culture in which the Bible is more accessible than ever and yet Bible literacy seems to be on the decline. Bound copies of the scriptures are readily available, dozens of complete English versions of the Bible are offered online, and audio Bibles abound. Never have we had more ways and means to read the scriptures but surveys indicate that, as a society, we read the Bible less.

On this day on which we mark the world changing event of the first book completed on the printing press—a Bible—perhaps it is a good day to rededicate our lives to reading the Bible.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Jesus and Chloe

We are holding Vacation Bible School (VBS) this week and last night there was a very special moment near the conclusion of the session. There was a skit that featured a song in which the most prominent line is the refrain "Come to Jesus." As the song began Jesus came walking down the center aisle of the sanctuary.

Okay, it wasn't really Jesus. It was a man named Rick portraying Jesus. He has long hair and he let his beard grow out for the skit so he looked much like popular portraits of Jesus. Rick also wore a costume like Jesus might have worn. He really looked the part.

The skit was included in our VBS material and it featured "Jesus" hugging and helping various people who were previously selected to come forward as recorded singers continued singing "Come to Jesus." That's the way it was supposed to happen, but things didn't quite work out as planned.

As "Jesus" came down the aisle many of the children could be heard whispering loudly. "It's Jesus!" When people began coming forward and getting hugs from "Jesus" several children who were not part of the script also went to receive hugs from him. Rick handled this very well, staying in character he hugged all comers.

When the program was over Rick was still in costume and he and I were talking at the back of the sanctuary away from the children. But a crowd of kids came and huddled around him asking many questions. They wanted to know if Rick was really Jesus. Again Rick handled the situation with Spirit-led ease. He explained the he was not Jesus but that Jesus was with them all the time. The children wanted to know if his long hair was real and Rick let them tug on it.

Perhaps the highlight of the experience was an energetic little girl named Chloe who is three years old. When her father arrived to pick her up, Chloe just about dragged him into the sanctuary repeating over and over, "Daddy you've got to come and see!" The confused father went with her.

While her father stood near one side of the sanctuary, Chloe ran toward "Jesus" who was now front and center of the sanctuary chatting with some folks. "Jesus" looked at Chloe as she rushed toward him and she motioned toward her father and said, "This is my Daddy!"

Rick smiled and said, "What's your Daddy's name?"

"Daddy." Chloe responded and we all chuckled. Then, still looking at Jesus, Chloe said, "Give him a hug."

Rick said, "Sure." Then he walked toward the man with his arms spread and the two met in an embrace at the front of the sanctuary. Chloe looked very pleased and there were numerous damp eyes around.

Later Rick said that he is going to have to be extra careful about his behavior whenever he is out and about because some of those kids might be around looking at him like he is Jesus.

Tonight VBS workers were still abuzz about the skit and the response of the children, especially Chloe. I started thinking what it would be like if Jesus really did show up like that and I got a chance to hug him and be hugged by him. Joy and thankfulness began to well up inside me and I realized that I really do love Jesus. Sure I have loved Jesus for a long time and I have tried to encourage others to love him too. But Rick and Chloe and some other children who spontaneously rushed to "Jesus" helped me to grasp my own love for Jesus just a little more deeply and for that I am very grateful.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Video images in worship

We hold three Sunday morning worship services at Brunswick Islands Baptists Church, two traditional services in our sanctuary and a contemporary service in our fellowship hall. We added the contemporary service more than 2 1/2 years ago and from the beginning we utilized a big screen TV screen to display announcements, words to songs, and a presentation that goes along with the sermon. Last month we upgraded the screen in the fellowship hall to a large flat screen HDTV and we also added two such screens to our sanctuary.

Typically, as worshippers arrive, the screens are displaying a slide show that does four things: (1) welcomes them to the church, (2) welcomes guests in particular and informs them of the location of guest slips and guest packets, (3) announces upcoming events, and (4) displays some Bible verses supporting the worship theme for the day. These opening slides play in a continuous loop for 20-30 minutes until the service begins. During the service slides announce various worship elements, display scripture readings, show song or hymn words, and present slides supporting the sermon. The slides displayed during the service are changed manually either by a sound technician (or is it now a sound/video technician?) or by the worship leader.

The screens are an invaluable aid in our worship services for numerous reasons, not the least of which are retention and attention. Long years ago when I was studying to become a school teacher I was taught that repetition and the involvement of more senses helped learners to better retain information. With the screens worshippers now hear and see some information that they formerly only heard. I provide a "listener guide" with my sermons, a sheet listing key sermon statements with key words left blank. As the sermon progresses, these statements are flashed on the screen with the blanks filled in allowing worshippers to hear it, see it and write it down. All of this provides repetition of the material and involves more senses which should in turn improve retention. Furthermore the words on the screen are often accompanied by pictures which give the memory another peg on which to hang the material further enhancing retention.

The screens also improve the attention of worshippers. Members of the congregation can shift their focus between the worship leader and the accompanying information on the screen and thus hopefully avoid being "hypnotized" by looking only at the worship leader. Some years back I remember reading that postmoderns tend to need three simultaneous stimuli to keep their attention. At least during the sermon they have me speaking, the images on the screen and the listener guide that help to fill that need.

Besides weekly worship services we are using the screens in other ways. Our Vacation Bible School material included computer discs designed to put the song words and other information on the screens for the children. It was also set up such that we take particular digital photos of the children during a session and insert those photos into a ready-made slide template that is shown to the group at the end of the evening to reinforce the theme for the day. In addition to the Vacation Bible School application, the Music Minister here tells me that most cantata publishers now offer a disc with a slide presentation to accompany the music.

Worshippers in both the traditional and contemporary services love the screens. I was concerned that older members may have been reluctant to embrace the concept but surprisingly these members were among the most enthusiastic promoters of the idea before we got the screens and they have been the most complimentary of the screens since we added them. Seasoned members particularly voice approval for reading hymn words on the screen so that they no longer have to struggle to read them in the hymnal.

The screens do not detract from the aesthetics of our sanctuary, which was constructed in 1993. In at least one old and historic sanctuary in this area screens were installed behind doors that hide them from view when not in use. Others use projection systems with retractable screens that are easily hidden. We did go that route in part because it is more expensive, but even more important for us was the lighting factor. The images on HDTV screens can be viewed easily in the daytime with all the lights on, something that would not be possible in our sanctuary using a projection system.

For me the biggest downside to video in worship is that it adds to preparation time, whether it is the time of paid staffers or volunteers. In my opinion the dividends of adding the screens more than offset the time investment, but the time required to develop good slide shows is significant.

I'm waiting for someone to ask me why the screens have not made my sermons shorter. After all if a picture really is worth a thousand words then three quick slides should more than cover a sermon.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Reading in the water part two (REVISED)

Two years ago I wrote a blog entry entitled "Reading in the water." I would link to that entry, but it either no longer exists or the web page is having problems right now. Anyway I explained in the previous post that, when I go to relax at some body of water, I prefer to spend time actually in the water, weather permitting. I also enjoy reading and, several years ago I developed a process through which I read while floating in a lake. This week, while enjoying a few days at White Lake, NC, I enjoyed a new, improved method of reading in the water.

My old method involved carefully positioned foam "swim noodles" that allowed all of my body except my head and shoulders to be beneath the surface of the water as I read. It did not look very distinguished, I suppose, but it beat those floats that would perch my body above the water rather than in the water. Floating on "swim noodles" was also better than placing a beach chair in the water which takes away the weightlessness of floating.

Last year I discovered a webbing of sorts designed to convert those "swim noodles" into a floating chair (see bottom photo above). This works great. In the top photo above you can see me using the seat to read in the water. You may notice that I add one extra "swim noodle" to rest my arms and the book upon. My new floating seat allows me to read in the water without my previous complicated positioning of noodles.
The "swim noodles" were purchased years ago when my children were small, so I don't remember exactly what I paid for them, but they were inexpensive. The webbing that converts the noodles into a floating chair I picked up at a CVS Pharmacy near Myrtle Beach, SC, as I recall, $5.99. So the equipment needed for this method of reading in the water is pretty cheap.

As I explained previously, reading in the water is not recommended for expensive books that you prefer not to receive a few drops of water from nearby splashing kids. Furthermore there is the possibility that one could drop the book into the lake (something that I have not yet done in many hours of water reading). While at White Lake I read a novel recommended by my brother that I managed to find in a thrift store for a quarter. If I had dropped it, oh well. I noticed that the thrift store had a second copy.
I never have understood the attraction of sitting on the beach in hot weather when there is a refreshing body of water only a few feet away. If I wanted to sit in the sun I could do that at home. Sure, I wouldn't have the lake view at home. But as long as I am at the lake I can get a fine view of the lake from in the lake, so why bake in the sun when the water is right there? By the way, I am a stickler for coating myself with heavy doses of the strongest sunblock before going into the water and I re-apply regularly.

I spent a large portion of the early part of this week sitting in White Lake and reading. It was wonderful.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Two unsung American heroes

Pictured above: James Madison (1751-1836) on the left and John Leland (1754-1842) on the right.

My guess is that 90+ percent of those who regularly attend evangelical churches in general and Baptist churches in particular have heard of the old movie entitled “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart. Most can probably relay the basic storyline and many can probably recite numerous lines after watching the film over and over annually for years.

That’s all fine. What bothers me is that there is a true story about one of the most important events in the history of this country that involves evangelicals, Baptists in particular, that most evangelicals, including most Baptists, don’t know. It is the story of the difficult birth of the most prized and most basic freedoms that we enjoy as citizens of the United States of America. Baptists played a pivotal role in the birth of our foundational freedoms but sadly most Americans and, even worse, most Baptists don’t even know the story.

Evangelicals, Baptists in particular, should know this story backwards and forward. If it takes hearing it every year around the Fourth of July like many revisit the story of “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Christmas time every year so be it. Let us begin right here and now in Independence Day season 2008.

This is the story of two unsung American heroes who I hope you will help me to make famous and give them the credit they are due. The first of these heroes is one that you may be surprised to hear me label as “unsung” and that is James Madison. Besides being the fourth president of the United States he is known as the “Father of the Constitution.”

As the “Father of the Constitution” Madison was the main proponent of the Bill of Rights which should make him a huge American hero. The freedoms that more than anything else define this nation as a free country are fixed in our Constitution because of the efforts of James Madison. That fact alone should earn him a monument in Washington as big as Thomas Jefferson’s and Abraham Lincoln’s, but there is more to the story that I did not know until recently.

We almost did not get the Bill of Rights.

In the last few months I read two books that have given me a new respect for James Madison. One of those books is James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights by Richard Labunski. I had no idea before reading this book how very difficult Madison’s work was in this regard. At nearly every turn the whole effort came close to unraveling. Seriously, the whole thing hung by a frayed thread so many times. Madison’s crusade to pass the Bill of Rights was somewhere between masterful and miraculous.

Ironically, as important as he is to our nation’s heritage, Madison would never be elected to federal office today. He was a small man, physically at five feet, six inches tall. Some of his friends said that he was never bigger than half a bar of soap. He was sickly, constantly struggling with various health issues. He was very soft-spoken. His fellow lawmakers often complained that they could not hear him when he made his speeches. We just do not normally elect puny, sickly, soft-spoken, nerdy type men to congress or to the presidency anymore. But, were it not for Madison’s amazing work on the Bill of Rights in the early days of this country, one wonders where we would be.

Labunski wrote of James Madison, “It is fair to say that no other person in this nation’s history did so much for which he is appreciated so little.” Specifically in the area of religious freedom, Steven Waldman points out in his fine new book entitled Founding Faith that the founders of this nation “tried a radical new approach—and it worked.” While Waldman acknowledges that many played a role in that process “it is James Madison who deserves the greatest thanks.”

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to a puny, sickly, nerdy man named James Madison for the nation defining freedoms that he labored hard and with tremendous sacrifice to secure, but I and many others do not think he gets the credit that he deserves. For our purposes now I am going to focus on one crucial influence on Madison that is connected to the spiritual ancestors of many Baptists in this nation.

About 17 years before Madison introduced the Bill of Rights in Congress, he returned home to Orange County, Virginia from college to witness something that appalled him. The horror of what Madison saw would, in the words of Steven Waldman, “shape the course of the struggle for religious freedom.” Madison, in a letter to a friend written in early 1774 called what he witnessed “diabolical” and “hell conceived.” What Madison saw that so moved him was Baptists in Virginia being fiercely persecuted by the government sponsored church in Virginia at that time which was the Anglican Church.

I am reading right now a book by Keith Durso entitled No Armor for the Back, Baptist Prison Writings, 1600’s-1700’s. It is a great book. I’ll tell you just one story that Durso relays that may give you a flavor of the period that impacted Madison. In 1769, a Baptist preacher in Virginia named James Ireland was slated to preach in a church in Culpeper County, Virginia which was only about 20 miles from Madison’s home. On the day before the engagement Ireland received word that, if he preached, the authorities would throw him in jail. He preached anyway and he was thrown in jail.

The jailor, who also owned a tavern, told those arrested for drunkenness that they could stay in jail for free if they promised to beat up Ireland while there, to which the prisoners readily agreed. Ireland preached through the bars in his cell window to multi-racial crowds outside. But persecutors would ride their horses through the crowd, trampling members of the congregation. They would threaten them or actually hit them with clubs. On at least one occasion someone set up some sort of stand and got high enough to urinate in Ireland’s face while he preached through the jail window.

That was in this land. We commonly fail to acknowledge that, for about 150 years on the soil that would become the United States, in many cases, those who left England to escape religious persecution became persecutors themselves.

That story about James Ireland is just one story of many of the persecution of Baptists in Virginia in the 1700’s. According to Waldman, in the period between 1760 to 1778, there were at least 153 serious instances of persecution involving 78 Baptists, including 56 jailings of 45 different Baptist preachers. At least 14 instances occurred in Orange County where Madison lived, another 25 in Culpeper County about 20 miles away and seven in Spotsylvania County about 30 miles away. Most of the worst persecution of Baptists was clustered near Madison’s home place. Madison was not a Baptist, but the way Baptists were treated had a profound effect on him.

Waldman reports that there is some evidence that, as a young man, Madison represented Baptists in court. Ending their ill-treatment at the hands of the Anglican aristocracy was a long-term passion of his. He wrote in that 1774 letter, “I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed so long about [Baptist persecution], to so little purpose.” When he began his career as a Virginia legislator one of the first issues that he focused on was religious liberty. Also in that letter of 1774 Madison wrote, “I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience to all.”

Waldman says that while much has been written about what enlightenment philosophers influenced Madison, his dedication to religious liberty was most likely influenced the most by the persecution of Baptists in Virginia. This leads us to the other unsung American hero: John Leland.

In a spot pretty much in the middle of nowhere in Orange County, Virginia, between Nasons and Grassland on State Route 20 there is a seldom visited historical marker. It marks the spot and
tells the story of an important conversation in the history of this country—a conversation between two unsung heroes, one a Baptist minister and the other a politician. One was named John Leland and the other James Madison. But we will come back to that conversation.

According to H. Leon McBeth in his outstanding Baptist history text, during his 15 years in Virginia, John Leland preached 3,009 sermons and he baptized 1,278 converts. He had no formal education but he possessed a very keen mind. As you can imagine, with all the persecution they suffered at the hands of government established religion, Baptists in Virginia were aggressive proponents of religious liberty and the strict separation of church and state. Leland became the leader of that movement among Baptists in Virginia.

When the federal Constitution first appeared in 1787, prior to the state-by-state adoption process, Baptists in Virginia came out very quickly against it because it contained no guarante
e of religious liberty. So strong was Virginia Baptist opposition to the Constitution as originally proposed, that they decided to mount an organized campaign against its ratification in Virginia.

John Leland had written a list of ten objections to the Constitution all centering on the absence of a bill of rights and specifically the absence of a guarantee of religious liberty. According to some accounts there was even talk of running John Leland as a candidate for the Virginia Ratification Convention from the area that included Orange County. Well, guess who the other candidate for the Ratification Convention representing Orange County was? James Madison.

Madison heard that his old allies, the Baptists, opposed the proposed Constitution and they were planning to oppose him as a candidate to the ratification convention. So he requested a copy of Leland’s objections to the Constitution and soon requested a meeting with John Leland.

In March of 1788, the Baptist minister and the politician met under an oak tree on Leland’s farm near that marker that I mentioned earlier. They talked for several hours. Leland must have been persuasive with Madison. You see, Madison was originally against a bill of rights. That might surprise you. One of the reasons, not the only one, but one of the reasons he did not support a bill of rights was that he was afraid of what they would get when it came to religious liberty.

Waldman reports that, in correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, Madison expressed the concern that, if he tried to work for a bill of rights, including complete liberty of conscience, the country might easily end up with just the opposite. He pointed out that some in New England were opposing the Constitution because it did not require religious tests before Jews, Muslims and atheists could participate in government. Madison thought they were better off not saying anything about religion in the Constitution than to end up with religious restrictions instead of religious freedom. This was one of the reasons that he was reluctant to at first to propose a bill of rights including a guarantee of religious liberty.

John Leland must have been persuasive in that long meeting with Madison, because he walked away with a deal that represented a stark change in position for Madison. Besides Madison could probably not have won the election without Baptist support anyway. So Madison promised that, if Leland would withdraw his objections to the Constitution and throw his support to him, Madison would introduce amendments guaranteeing religious liberty after the ratification of the Constitution. Leland agreed to the deal.

Only four days after the inauguration of President George Washington in 1789, Madison who was then a member of the House of Representatives announced his intent to introduce amendments citing “constituents who are dissatisfied with [the Constitution].” Historians generally agree that Baptists were among those constituents of whom Madison spoke. He did that year propose the Bill of Rights which, in its final form, included these words in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”

McBeth points out that Joseph Dawson, while outlining the emergence of religious freedom in this nation, wrote, “If the researchers of the world were to be asked who was most responsible for the American guarantee for religious liberty, their prompt reply would be ‘James Madison.’” But Dawson went on to say, “If James Madison might answer, he would as quickly reply, ‘John Leland and the Baptists.’”

Frankly I think that statement goes a bit overboard. After reading the details of all Madison did to get the Bill of Rights passed with its guarantee of religious liberty, he deserves the lion’s share of the credit. But John Leland and a group of Baptists played a huge role in that process that is commonly ignored. The persecution of Baptists in Virginia more than any other single factor convinced Madison to advocate “liberty of conscience to all.” John Leland had a lot to do with Madison changing his mind on the need for a bill of rights. Madison probably would not have been elected first to the Ratification Convention in Virginia and then to congress without the support of Baptists. And when Madison attempted the daunting task of getting the Bill of Rights passed, my guess is that he had a bunch of Baptists back in Virginia actively praying for him.

I would not go so far as to say that Baptists were most responsible for the Bill of Rights with its guarantee of religious liberty, but I would go so far as to say that it is highly doubtful that we would have had our current Bill of Rights were it not for John Leland and his fellow Baptists in Virginia.

Baptists at least should know this story of these unsung American heroes backwards and forward. It is not only part of the American story, it is part of the story of our spiritual ancestry. Our Baptist forebears in this country fought and suffered for religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state because they considered it a biblical, God-given right. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Paul wrote in Gal. 5:1. They got involved in their society to defend and spread a biblical notion of freedom. We must treasure this story and follow that example of involvement. Furthermore we do well to specifically honor their legacy of defending religious liberty expressed through the separation of church and state.

Friday, June 20, 2008

What the world really admires

Peggy Noonan wrote these lines in a column on a lesson from the coverage of Tim Russert's recent death:

In a way, the world is a great liar. It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day it doesn't. It says it adores fame and celebrity, but it doesn't, not really. The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue. At the end it gives its greatest tributes to generosity, honesty, courage, mercy, talents well used, talents that, brought into the world, make it better. That's what it really admires. That's what we talk about in eulogies, because that's what's important. We don't say, "The thing about Joe was he was rich." We say, if we can, "The thing about Joe was he took care of people."

Those lines reminded me of a sermon I preached Wednesday before last on a couple of 2008 high school graduates and goodness. Don't worry, I won't reproduce the whole sermon in this blog.

One graduate made such a scene at his commencement that he was arrested. He yelled curses and made obscene gestures from the stage. According to one report he took a swing at the principal instead of shaking hands with him. So this new diploma recipient had a mug shot made in his graduation gown to go along with his senior portrait. He was not a very good boy.

The other graduate is Adam DiPippo, the valedictorian of a small class of 20 students in Derry, New Hampshire. An article on his commencement speech says that DiPippo encouraged his classmates "to seek not self gratification but service to others.” Ultimately he urged them to "do good" explaining this call with these words: "I know that isn't grammatically correct, but I did it on purpose. I don't want you to do well. I want you all to do good."

One graduate was a very bad boy at his graduation and another exhorted his classmates to "do good." Less than a week later Tim Russert died way too early and he is roundly admired for his goodness. All of this reminded me of Ephesians 2:10: "For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (TNIV).

We were created to do good works and, in the end, it is our goodness that will be admired more than anything else. Salvation is by grace through faith, of course (Eph. 2:8). We are not saved by good works, but we are saved to good works.

So let us do good.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Who are my family members?

Father's Day inspired me to think of Jesus' definition of family. But I'll get back to that.

My father lives about five hours away, so I called him and we had a pretty long and very pleasant conversation. My mother answered the phone so I also talked to her for a few minutes before I chatted with Dad. My parents are great persons, outstanding parents, not to mention exemplary followers of Christ. I love them both dearly.

My youngest daughter, Amanda, who just graduated from high school last Saturday, had a card for me and she also gave me one of my favorite desserts for Father's Day. My stepson, Daniel, sent me a message wishing me a "happy Dad's Day." My other stepson, Patrick, is in Iraq right now so communication is a bit tougher in his case. Terri gave me a book that I wanted and prepared a special Father's Day meal for me on Saturday evening. My oldest daughter, Erica, lives 40 miles away and she sent me a sweet Father's Day message.

The gift I received from my 20-year old daughter, Alison, underscored a transition in our relationship. She got married to Heath Dosher on April 20 of this year. They invited me over for supper yesterday evening.

Terri and Amanda along with other members of our youth group left for a youth camp held at Wingate University right after church services yesterday and they will be gone all week. So Alison called as the youth were leaving and asked me to join she and Heath for an evening meal and I accepted.

These newlyweds live only six miles away. They grilled London broil, corn on the cob and potatoes. They also fried some chicken wings using a special batter recipe they had discovered. The food was great, but the fellowship was even better.

This was the first time Alison and Heath have invited me over for a meal in their home. It was most enjoyable but also a little strange. Oh, they made me feel right at home but Alison being married and preparing supper for me with her husband is new and different.

When I arrived Heath was at the grill and I went inside to find Alison busy in the kitchen. After greeting me she pointed out a gift bag saying that it was for me. Inside was a very sweet card and a wonderful gift.

A Styrofoam package in the bag contained a mug with eight photos of various family members made into its surface. The pictures were all taken at the wedding. Around the bottom of the mug was this message: "You're the Best Dad! I love you!"

I was touched.

A loving family is a glorious blessing and I hope I never take it lightly. But I never pass a Mother's Day or Father's day without remembering Jesus' definition of family that is far different than our typical understanding of the term.

While teaching in a very crowded house Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were outside. The Lord responded, "'Who are my mother and my brothers? ... Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother.'" (Mark 3:33-34, TNIV).

I really appreciate the family expressions of love that were directed my way in connection with Father's Day. But the day left me wondering, as it always does, what our world would look like if we applied Jesus-style family values.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Source of inspiration

I am a graduate of Virginia Tech, a school that prides itself on its college football program. Some of you football fans may know that Lane Stadium, the Virginia Tech Hokie’s home field, was voted the number one home field advantage in college football in Rivals.com and the second scariest place to play for opponents at espn.com.

One of the most impressive features of a home game at Lane Stadium is the
entrance onto the field of the Hokie team. Just before the team enters, they play the introduction to the song “Enter Sandman” by a group called Metallica. When the Hokie fans hear that song begin, they go crazy. Sixty-some thousand of them jump up and down and scream to the top of their lungs. And when the song reaches a particular fever pitch the team runs onto the field with huge flags spelling out “Hokies.” The whole thing is a trademark, deafening display of football frenzy that gets everybody’s adrenaline pumping, fans and players alike.

After all of that you might think that I am going to tell you a story about the Virginia Tech football team, but I’m not. I am going to tell you a story about the Virginia Tech lady’s softball team instead. Actually, it is THE Virginia Tech softball team, because there is no men’s softball team. About three weeks ago my brother sent me
an article about an interesting occurrence at one of their games.

The Hokie’s softball team was playing in the regional finals of the NCAA Softball Tournament against the Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee was the number one seed in the Hokie’s bracket. They have played in the Softball World Series for the last three years. The Hokies have never been in the World Series.

But the ladies from Virginia Tech managed to win the first game of the best of three regional series. The next night there was a double-header that would decide the regional winner of the tournament. In the first game Tennessee crushed the Hokies 7-1 and the Hokies were losing in the second game in the fourth inning when there was a rain delay of about an hour.

At the end of the rain delay as play was just about to resume, the announcer played a song. You need to know that this game was being played in Tennessee, not Virginia. Guess what song the Tennessee announcer played over the loud speaker just as play was about to resume? “Enter Sandman,” the Metallica song that is famous to all Virginia Tech fans as the one that is played when the football team enters the field. Well, the softball players for Virginia Tech went nuts. They jumped up and down and screamed just like the fans and players do when that song is played at a football game. Many of the fans in Tennessee along with that announcer who played the song must have wondered what in the world was going on with them.

The Hokies were at bat and they scored four runs in that half of the inning after that song was played. Those were the only runs they scored in the entire game. Before the rain delay the Hokies had one runner on base. Misty Hall came up to bat, the first batter after the rain delay, and she smacked a 2-run homer that put the Hokies up 2-1. She said, “When we heard 'Enter ... Sandman,' we all pretty much got our adrenaline going. My adrenaline was at the peak when I was up to bat …”

The Hokies went on to win the game 4-2 to advance to the Super-Regionals for the first time in the history of the program, and the team said it was because the announcer played “Enter Sandman.” Angela Tincher, the picher, said that song “Got us pumped up—it was awesome.”

By the way, the Hokies wound up making it to the World Series for the first time ever too.

What is your source of inspiration in the game of life? What gets you pumped up to accomplish what God has called you to do. The apostle Paul seemed to be inspired by the source of his strength: "We proclaim [Christ], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me" (Col. 1:28-29, TNIV).

Do you think Christ provides energy to us all for accomplishing his mission? I think so and that seems like a pretty good reason to get pumped up.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

No more beach to mountains exchange?

I am sitting on a deck at a place about seven miles north of Boone, North Carolina and I am looking at a gorgeous view of the mountains. Terri and I are on vacation this week and, for at least the first part of the week, we are enjoying the mountains thanks to some friends who very kindly allowed us to use their mountain getaway. Included in this entry are several photos from a short journey along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Grandfather Mountain, Linville Caverns and Linville Falls.

Strange how beach folks like us go to the mountains to take a break and mountain folks often go to the beach to take a break. Living on the coast I regularly meet people from here who vacation there and I know quite a few people who live at the coast who enjoy trips to the mountains. I suppose the mixture of relaxation with the adventure of a change of scenery inspires mountaineers to periodically trade places with beach bums and vise versa.

I wonder if gas prices will put a significant damper on this unofficial exchange program. If so, that's a shame. Not too many years ago it would have taken several days of difficult travel for people to take a journey that took Terri and me only six hours. One of the advantages of being such a mobile society is that we can experience a part of God's creation with which we are unaccustomed with relative ease. But with gas at about $4 a gallon such trips will be tougher for everyone and impossible for many. Were it not for free lodging Terri and I would not have made the trip this time.

So it has taken me longer than it should have to write this short entry because I have been glancing at the view of the mountains frequently. It may be a good while before I see such a view again.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Government sponsored spiritual decline

I used to watch The West Wing, a TV show about presidential politics starring Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlett. In one episode I vaguely remember a conversation Bartlett was having with a young assistant about a report indicating that Americans were saving a little more and spending a little less. Bartlett was concerned about the report and the young staffer was confused thinking that savings was a good thing. Bartlett explained that he needed for the people to wait for the next administration to start saving because a healthy economy depends on Americans spending more.

I thought about that episode when I heard the news and commentary about the funds from a government stimulus package beginning to arrive this week. The plan is supposed to stimulate the economy by putting some money in the pockets of Americans--$300 to $1,200 or more depending on family size and circumstances. Many reports of recent days say, like
one I read, "Proponents of the stimulus package hope people will use the money for purchases that will give the American economy a boost "

In the days leading up to the release of the stimulus funds I heard numerous government officials and economic experts express the concern that many Americans, worried about the economic outlook, might save that money or use it only for groceries or gas. If we do that rather than blowing that government money on HDTV's or iPods or video games or eating out or other non-essential purchases then the stimulus package will not do much to stimulate the economy.

I have a degree in economics and I know that it is true that our economy depends on our spending. But here my economic knowledge and my theology collide. I heard Brian McLaren say that, spiritually speaking, "consumerism is more dangerous than terrorism," and he is right. Jesus said, "You cannot serve both God and Money" (Mat. 6:24, TNIV). For years I have preached against the obvious spiritual perils of consumerism even as I have struggled to escape those perils myself.

Now, with this stimulus package, we have blatant government sponsored consumerism, complete with worries that Americans will save rather than spend. What does this say about the whole structure of our society? Who do we really serve? Our currency pardoxically proclaims "in God we trust," but I'm not so sure.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Too risky for dogs but not for humans

I was surprised by something that Justice Stevens wrote in his opinion in the Supreme Court's recent decision to uphold the lethal injection execution procedure of the state of Kentucky. By way of background, you need to know that the ruling relates, again, to the state of Kentucky and that pancuronium bromide is one of the drugs used in executions there. Stevens wrote:
"Because it masks any outward sign of distress, pancuronium bromide creates a risk that the inmate will suffer excruciating pain before death
occurs. There is a general understanding among veterinarians that the risk of pain is sufficiently serious that the use of the drug should be proscribed when
an animal’s life is being terminated. As a result of this understanding among knowledgeable professionals, several States—including Kentucky—have enacted legislation prohibiting use of the drug in animal euthanasia. It is unseemly—to say the least—that Kentucky may well kill petitioners using a drug that it would not permit to be used on their pets."
A friend of mine asked a great question: "What happens if a pit bull gets put on death row?"

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Substantial risk of severe pain" not cruel?

I'm on vacation, so I am reading a long Supreme Court decision. Doesn't that sound relaxing?

Last week the Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's method of lethal injection used to execute death row inmates. I am reading the 97-page decision in Baze v. Rees. Of course I am reading it as a pastor and a citizen--not as a legal scholar. I did not start reading at the beginning of the decision and I may not read the whole thing. But my guess is there may be more than one blog entry in my musings over the high court's judgment.

For the time being I confess to experiencing some shock over the conclusions of Justice Clarence Thomas with Antonin Scalia concurring. Thomas agreed with the final judgment but disagreed with a particular legal standard that it set. Follow his logic with me.

Thomas is concerned that the "governing standard" of the decision holds that a method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment "if it poses a substantial risk of severe pain that could be significantly reduced by adopting readily available alternative procedures." Justice Thomas rejects this standard as finding "no support in the original understanding of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause." He is convinced that "a method of execution violates the Eighth Amendment only if it is deliberately designed to inflict pain" (emphasis mine).

Did you follow that? If we think a method of execution "poses a substantial risk of severe pain" and we are aware of an alternative that is readily available that could greatly reduce that risk of pain and yet we choose not to adopt that alternative we are not being cruel. Indeed, for Thomas and Scalia, an execution mode is cruel only "if it is deliberately designed to inflict pain."

Again, I am no legal scholar. Yet the formulation of Thomas and Scalia seems to completely dismiss the cruelty of neglect by defining a punishment as "cruel" only if it "is deliberately designed to inflict pain." It seems to me that the neglect of any procedure that could significantly reduce "the risk of severe pain" is inherently cruel.

Thomas recites his version of the historical context of the adoption of the Eighth Amendment along with applicable case law to show that the clause related to cruel and unusual punishment should be applied only to "purposely tortuous punishments." He is concerned that getting into the business of comparing one mode of execution to another threatens to "transform courts into boards of inquiry charged with determining ‘best practices’ for executions.'" Thomas and Scalia think that going down this road will "require courts to resolve medical and scientific controversies that are largely beyond judicial ken."

It seems to me that a connection between medicine, science and law is unavoidable when taking up a discussion on whether or not injections into human bodies of certain chemicals are cruel behavior. The same would apply if we are discussing the effects of other modes of execution including inhaling poisonous gas or high voltage electricity pulsing through the body. How can the possibility of cruelty in such actions be pondered apart from some consideration of science and medicine?

Beyond this, Thomas' analysis of history and case law notwithstanding, it is difficult to view the failure to adopt a readily available procedure that could reduce the risk of severe pain as anything but cruel. I do not claim to know the law but this logic seems cruel by any reasonable standard.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Death Sentence

I saw a preview of Death Sentence, starring Kevin Bacon, months ago and I was intrigued. Not only did I end up missing this movie in the theater, but it has been out on DVD long enough for me to find a copy at a discount price on the "previously viewed" rack in a local movie rental store. I'm on vacation, so I decided to watch the DVD this evening.

Death Sentence got lousy reviews and maybe it deserved them. Based on the preview I watched the movie expecting a sort of reverse commentary on one of the teachings of the apostle Paul. I was not disappointed.

This is definitely not a film for the kids. It is violent and foul language flows freely. But, for all the ugliness, Death Sentence does illustrate the possible consequences of failing to heed the teaching of Romans 12:17-21.

Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon) is a good father and an executive for Starfish Capital. Tragically he and his oldest son were in the wrong gas station at the wrong time and Nick watched helplessly as the apple of his eye was slain in a gang initiation rite. When the courts failed to mete out justice to his liking, the grieving and angry father took matters into his own hands. What follows is an escalating cycle of revenge.

At the beginning of the movie a gang member/murderer was twice called an animal, once by a detective and once by Nick's wife. By the end of the movie Nick looked like an animal himself. At one point well into the cycle of revenge the gang leader told Nick: "You look like one of us. Look what I made you."

I won't spoil the story any more than that. However, I will tell you that the preview and the movie itself made me think of these words of the apostle Paul: "Do not repay anyone evil for evil ... Do not take revenge ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17; 19; 21, TNIV). Death Sentence exposes the wisdom of this biblical teaching by showing the repulsiveness of ignoring it.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A dark, worthy parable

I was on vacation in May of last year and I picked Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel entitled The Road. It is a wonderful story written by a man who is, according to one reviewer, “our greatest living author.”

The Road is a dark story. I recommended it to my brother and he said, “That is the most depressing book I ever read. I can’t believe you liked it.” In a sense it is a depressing book, but it makes a wonderful point that our society desperately needs to hear.

At the center of the story are a father and son trying to survive in the dark world that exists after an apparent nuclear holocaust. The father is fixated on keeping his son alive in a very dangerous and ugly world. From time to time they have opportunities to aid others along the road and the boy always wants for his father to extend a helping hand. The father never wants to. He avoids human contact fearing that others might be dangerous and they often are. The father sometimes allows limited contact with those in an obvious weaker position who do not represent a threat. The son always wants the father to help the weaker ones, but the father resists. Sometimes he does help a little, but not much. Often the father does not help others at all.

For much of the book I identified with the father and I understood his reluctance to help others. The others might be dangerous to himself and to his son. The can of food they share might be all that stands between themselves and starvation in a few days.

But as they continued down the road I realized that the strict path of self-preservation followed by the father reduces his life and that of his son to, literally, an animal existence. Those little chances that they have to help others, risky as they are, offer their only chances to experience a little light in a dark world.

Finally the son has an opportunity to take a tiny step of faith and he does. In that tiny step of faith, dangerous though it was, he has a chance to experience a different way than that revealed to him by his father. He got a chance to speak with someone who would talk to him about God instead of talking to him only about how to get by in the world.

The Road is a dark story, and it is supposed to be. In the tradition of the dark biblical book of Ecclesiastes, Cormac McCarthy reveals the way the world looks when goodness, faith and the spiritual are stripped away. The disturbing thing is that the life of the father and son in The Road is the life of many in our society. Indeed, too often the goals of that father are very much like our goals in life.

By stripping away all the extras McCarthy hopes to show us the ugliness and emptiness of the road that many walk. Because of all the stuff we have, because of all the distractions we enjoy, we cannot easily see that our lives often follow the same repulsive road that the father in the story tried to teach to his son.

One person who read the story told me that I was too hard on the father. After all, he was only trying to protect his son. My response was that the father went too far to try to protect his son. Look how far Jesus’ Father went to protect his Son. While he possessed the power to stop it, Jesus’ Father let him die a horrible, unfair death. But revealing a path of goodness and love and forgiveness and grace was more important than saving the life of his Son.

The parable that is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road helped me to see the ugliness of the ways we often cling to desperately and reminded me afresh of the superior path offered by Jesus: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:32-33, TNIV).

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Experiencing peace

Last week it was reported that a minister in Duesseldorf, Germany had what he thought was a great idea to bring church folks more peace of mind. Thorsten Nolting invited parishioners, one at a time, to lie in open graves which he then covered up with boards. This was meant to be an exercise in meditation. Nolting said, “I wanted people to think about what weighs on them down in the darkness and gather the energy to resist it.”

It did not work very well at all. Nolting said the exercise went “horribly wrong” because reporters did not allow silence. Journalists kept bothering the participants with questions ruining the whole meditative atmosphere. Nolting implored the reporters to be quiet or go away, but they would not.

Whether it was the noisy reporters or the disconcerting feeling generated by lying in a grave, Nolting’s attempt to improve peace of mind appeared to have the reverse effect in at least one case. One man was still trembling 20-minutes after spending a mere seven minutes laid to rest in the grave.

While it is admirable that this German minister sought a deeper experience of peace among church folks in Duesseldorf, I just don’t think that’s the way Jesus intended for us to experience his peace in this world. In the gospel reading for the second Sunday of Easter, the risen Jesus twice pronounced peace upon his followers and then he said, "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21, TNIV).

Certainly meditation has an often overlooked place in the practice of our faith. But we should not miss the fact that Jesus, on the evening of the first Easter, connected the experience of peace to his mission of love and grace. Jesus never said that his peace would be with us in our own selfish pursuit of the pervasive consumerism of our culture. The wholeness we long for is linked to the Lord's way of sacrificial service.

"Jesus said, 'Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you'" (John 20:21, TNIV).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Easter in the desert

Next year I propose that we all take a trip at Easter time. A long trip. Let’s go further south. A lot further south. Let’s go way down south of the equator to the Southern Hemisphere. Why go down there at Easter? Because it’s not springtime.

I confess that I borrowed this idea from similar one offered by Martin Marty in a sermon that I remember reading. Marty thinks that our perspective on Easter may be affected in an unfortunate way by springtime. Have you heard the sermons about Easter being about reawakening and rebirth? Chirping birds and awakening plants tell us life returns where there had been apparent death. Many preachers in this part of the world say that it is the same with the resurrection of Jesus.

But Marty says that we should forget that sort of perspective. He thinks believers in the Southern Hemisphere have it better. They have to ponder the resurrection in the midst of scenes of grass turning brown and trees turning gray. With dead leaves and dead flowers on the ground they must celebrate the living, resurrected Jesus.

So I have a place picked out for an Easter pilgrimage next year. How about we go to the Atacama Desert that runs from the southern border of Peru into northern Chile in South America? That’s in the Southern Hemisphere, and the Atacama Desert will definitely give us a very different setting to celebrate the resurrection.

At its center, climatologists describe the Atacama as absolute desert. It is known as the driest place on earth. There has been no rainfall in portions of the Atacama Desert as long as humans have kept records of it. Now that’s a long dry spell.

We will see no plants at all in the deepest part of the Atacama—not even a stump of a cactus. We will see no animals, not even a lizard, not even a gnat or any other sort of bug. There is essentially no life in the deepest part of the Atacama. The landscape is moon-like. I read that it was chosen as a testing ground for a lunar rover.

While we will find no evidence of life in the Atacama Desert, we may find evidence of death. Because there is no moisture in the Atacama, nothing rots. One visitor to the region reported seeing seemingly petrified human remains on the dessert floor—even those of children.

What would it be like to go to such a desolate place of no life and ample evidence of death to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus? No birds singing. No trees budding. No flowers blooming. No birds, trees, or flowers, period. Only a ghostly wind amid the remains of the dead.

Sounds great, huh? Are y’all ready to go?

While the Atacama Desert is not the sort of Easter setting that we are used to, let me tell you something: The power of the resurrection is no less real there than it is here. Whether your life is full of sunny joy like springtime, or whether it is full of dark and lonely despair like the Atacama Desert, Jesus is alive. He died in a cruel and unjust way on Good Friday, but he was raised to life again on Easter Sunday.

The Easter story does not offer us an easy formula for joy. Indeed, were we to try to establish a formula out of this story, many in our society might not like it a whole lot.

Jesus prayed earnestly and repeatedly for the heavenly Father to stop his impending suffering, but the answer was no. Jesus’ perfect obedience to the heavenly Father did not cause him to escape sorrow and heartache and physical suffering. As Dorothy Sayers wrote, “God did not abolish the fact of evil: He transformed it . . . He did not stop the crucifixion: He rose from the dead.”

The Easter story is not a quick fix, simple formula of joy. If you think it is, then you have it all wrong. But when we choose begin and nurture a relationship with the one named Jesus who was crucified and then was raised to life, then we have the chance to give in to what Philip Yancey described as “a long, slow undertow of joy.”

The brightness of Easter in springtime is beautiful. But the undertow of joy offered by the resurrection of Jesus is just as real in the dead of winter. Maybe celebrating Easter in a barren desert would give us a new sense of resurrection joy.

I wonder if my local travel agent has a last minute Easter package to the Atacama Desert available?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Not worth comparing

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18, TNIV).

That phrase "not worth comparing" always gets me. The difficulties we endure now are "not worth comparing" to the glory that awaits the followers of Christ. If this is true, what does it mean for us today?

Years ago I read an article on Richard Baxter who has been called "the most prominent English churchman of the 1600s." Baxter suffered from a physical ailment that caused him nearly constant pain from the time he was a teenager until he died. Because of his efforts to reform the Church of England he was persecuted fiercely. He was imprisoned at one point and his property was confiscated. On one occasion the bed on which he was lying sick was taken from him by the state church authorities.

Even with all his suffering Baxter accomplished a great deal. He sought to find common ground among squabbling Christian factions of his time. Baxter is probably best known for his prolific writing. He wrote hundreds of books some of which are still widely read today, over 300 years later.

How was Baxter able to accomplish so much in service to the Lord while suffering constant physical pain and enduring intense persecution? For one thing Baxter said that it was his practice to meditate upon heaven for at least a half-hour every day.

How could a guy who produced over 200 written works, many of which are very long, find time to meditate on heaven for a half-hour every day? Could it be that such meditation is more productive than we may tend to believe today? Could it be that Baxter's discipline of thinking of heaven helped him to remember that his trails, though they were fierce, were "not worth comparing" to the glory to come?

C. S. Lewis once wrote to his friend Malcolm, "The hills and valleys of Heaven will be to those you now experience not as a copy is to an original, nor as a substitute to the genuine article, but as the flower to the root, or the diamond to the coal."

I have heard the saying that one can be so heavenly minded that he or she is no earthly good. It could be that the reverse is more accurate. Maybe the more heavenly minded we are the more earthly good we accomplish.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"Essence of union of church and state"

There is a quote concerning the separation of church and state that I am going to relay in a moment. But first, I noticed that the Faith-Based Initiative is back in the news in recent weeks. On January 29 President Bush celebrated the seventh anniversary of this program which channels federal funds to religious organizations that provide certain services. Last Thursday Christianitytoday.com featured a Q&A with John Dilulio, the first director of the Faith-Based Initiative, on the future of the program after Bush leaves office. On January 29 Dilulio along with David Kuo, former deputy director of the Faith-Based Initiative, wrote a New York Times Op-Ed in which they were critical of Bush's efforts in this area but they voiced support for the concept. Then, on February 3, Jay Hein, current director of the Faith-Based Initiative, responded to Kuo and Dilulio's Op-Ed with a defense of this Bush legacy at this point.

All three editions of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963 and 2000) thankfully contain this simple but profound sentence: "Church and state should be separate." This brings me to that quote I mentioned above. Baptist hero E. Y. Mullins in his book entitled The Axioms of Religion said, "Direct gifts of money to religious bodies by the general government is of the essence of union of church and state."