Archive for December, 2006

Faithful Servant

Saturday, December 30th, 2006

“His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Matt 25:21

What do you think Gerald Ford, James Brown, and Saddam Hussein experienced after their passing?

It is certainly one of the mysteries of human existence.

But it is one that many people have thought and written about.

For those who read and believe the Bible, there is certainly some guidance. We Christians believe in a life after death where we have an opportunity learn more about our Creator.

Christians aren’t the only ones who believe that man is an eternal spirit. Most religions have some sense of existence past death. If nothing else it provides some purpose and direction to the life that we have here on earth.

One thought that I’ve been toying with, however, is that we experience exactly what we are expecting and that is where our next journey starts. So James Brown might find a God who looks a lot like Cynthia Robinson in her prime leading a tireless tight rhythm section that lives on the one and never misses a beat.

Gerald Ford on the other hand may find himself in front of someone who looks Coach Kipke mounting a huge comeback in the fourth quarter to beat OSU 42-38 in the 1934 game of his senior season. Or, based on his love of golf, it would be a perfect round similar to Caddyshack.

Saddam Hussein, however, is probably a darker picture. He was a Muslim, but clearly his actions didn’t align well with the tenets of his religion. His life was dominated by violence and ended in the same way. He might face the judgment of a fearful and demanding God. Or if his public displays were just for show, he might experience the despair of a seemingly uninhabited void. In his case it might take a while for him to figure out how to move beyond his thoughts of who he was and discover that God exists and loves him.

They all are on the next step of their journey of discovering more about themselves and their Creator. It is the common journey that unites all of us. For these three and everyone who has gone before us, bon voyage.

Stoned Again

Monday, December 25th, 2006

“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone”
John 8:7

If you haven’t had an opportunity to do so, I highly recommend an article by David Rose in the January issue of Vanity Fair called Neo Culpa.

The article recaps the reaction of a group of neo conservatives to the current state of affairs in Iraq. The particular group he interviews were those who built the intellectual foundation on which the whole invasion of Iraq rested. These were the people (Richard Pearle, Kenneth Adelman, James Woolsey, and others) who created the vision of regime change and democracy in Iraq as the first step toward radical change in the Middle East. They were the ones who predicted a quick win, Americans being welcomed as liberators, and a decisive victory in the war on terrorism.

Now they are virtually unanimous in blaming failure in Iraq on White House incompetence. Even though their view is in sync with the picture painted in Bob Woodward’s new book, I found another aspect of this article even more interesting.

I think it is amazing how sure all of these people are that they are still right. It’s also interesting that, when faced with what appears to be the complete failure of their strategy and analysis, they blame the implementers rather than themselves. In their minds, evidence of the guilt of the implementers is obvious – look at the results.

This sounds curiously like the Pharisees of Biblical Israel, so caught up in the letter of the law that they had completely lost sight of the spirit. They were convinced that their material success was ample evidence of their spiritual superiority. With this same logic they attributed illness, poverty, or any public failure with some sort of moral weakness which God was obviously punishing. This mind set was so powerful that even when Jesus tried to heal and teach them, they responded with violence.

So rather than rally to figure out where we go from here, we see those who led the way to Baghdad now leading the crowd starting to gather stones. The truth is in a democracy when stuff like this happens we have all failed. The only thing any of us should be casting is our future vote for public representatives who are willing to admit their mistakes.

Merry Christmas Mr. Ellison

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

In November, the good folks of Minnesota elected Keith Ellison to represent them in the House of Representatives. Keith was born in Detroit and educated at the University of Minnesota. He is a lawyer. He has a long history of activism and he converted to Islam while a college student. As a result, he is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.

He has chosen, as is his right in his private swearing-in ceremony, to take his oath of office on the Koran. The Koran is the book revered by the Islamic faith in much the same way that the Bible is revered by Jews and Christians.

Here’s the problem. Representative Virgil Goode from Virginia took exception to Mr. Ellison’s private swearing in ceremony and wrote a letter to voters in his district expressing his concern. In summary the letter said that Americans need to wake up and adopt stricter immigration laws or else we will be “swamped” by Muslims who will elect more of their own kind and erode our “traditional values and beliefs”.

The irony of this instance of bigotry is that Mr. Ellison can trace his ancestry in this country back to the mid 1700’s which is about the same time that the first Goode’s showed up in Virginia.

I suspect that Mr. Goode (an irony in itself) was well aware of Mr. Ellison’s background before he sent the letter. What confirms this is his refusal to issue any form of apology or move away from his xenophobic stance. In much the same way as Strom Thurmond established himself as a defender of “traditional values” in the 50’s and 60’s, Mr. Goode sees an opportunity to create a secure political position for himself in 2007. In this regard, I don’t blame Mr. Goode for being a political opportunist. I do blame those who have voted for him if they continue to support this position.

The good news in all of this is that Mr. Ellison has taken the high road and refused to engage in the same demagoguery as Mr. Goode. Not only is Mr. Ellison the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, he is joined by two Buddhists who also are the first of their faith to be elected.

As Mr. Ellison has said, there is strength in diversity. That strength is our ability as a nation to include everyone in the decision making process. What better way to defuse the fear and hatred of our enemies than to demonstrate that our democratic process allows everyone an opportunity to participate regardless of how they think of God. It’s this idea of embracing diversity that I believe sets our political system apart and offers the promise of changing the world.

What is particularly interesting about all of this is that almost two thousand forty years ago, another new idea of God was seeking shelter and didn’t find the world very welcoming. Even in obscurity, the wisest men of the time found a way to pay their respects. The political system tried to kill the idea before it grew. They were eventually successful in killing the man, but the idea changed the world forever.

Caesar’s rendering

Monday, December 18th, 2006

“And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And they marvelled at him.” Matt 12:17

Don’t you wonder sometimes what people are thinking when they attribute a particular event to God?

There was a letter to the editor in the Toledo Blade that I hope was intended to be sarcastic. It dealt with the hospitalization of Democratic Senator Tim Johnson. If the Senator were unable to continue representing South Dakota, the governor would have to appoint a replacement. That appointment would likely come from the governor’s Republican Party. The senate would evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. That would effectively return control of the Senate to the Republicans with the Vice President breaking any tie votes. As a result, the letter writer attributed the illness and the potential turn of events to divine intervention.

I disagree.

Jesus categorized politics as a human rather than spiritual activity when he acknowledged a human obligation to Caesar and a spiritual obligation to God.

That’s not to say that we should give up on government. We still should strive to create a set of laws that pattern the divine. But to assume that you see God’s intention in any human event (political or otherwise) seems at best presumptuous. God’s will is that all of His children live in peace and grow closer to Him. That’s the pathway that is set before us, and not any particular political agenda.

When asked about what we should do to gain eternal life, Jesus said love God and love your neighbor as yourself. What is left for us is to choose every day whether or not to follow that plan. We have that choice because God loves us and is patiently waiting for all of us to find our way to Him. So why would a God who loves us that much, manipulate the human experience in such a way that it affects the very choices we are trying to make?

That’s not to say that all choices are neutral. The choices that bring us closer to God bless us. Those that take us further away hurt us. It’s a simple but effective system. God loves us unequivocally and we decide whether or not we are willing to accept that love.

That’s why God doesn’t particularly care about politics, sports, or beer. What he does care about is our individual progress in learning more about Him. That is after all how we discover the difference between the human and divine.

Image and likeness

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Gen. 1:27

The Bible says that we are all created in God’s image and likeness. What this says to me is that we are all equal in God’s eyes and more than that, if we aspire to grow closer to Him, we must strive to see this image of God reflected in everyone.

From a political point of view, seeing God reflected in everyone obligates us to make sure that we provide everyone equal access to the resources and opportunities that our society has to offer. Our Declaration of Independence echoes this concept in the phrase “all men are created equal”. It is the foundation of much of our legal system as well.

Last month, a majority of the people in Michigan voted to make it illegal to offer any preferential treatment based on race or gender. Unless that was motivated purely by self-interest, it must signal that a majority of the voters in Michigan believe that we have finally become a race and gender-neutral society and no longer need these protections.

I certainly hope so because that will put us well ahead of the rest of the country.

One indication that the rest of the country hasn’t yet reached race and gender neutrality is the nature of the discussions surrounding two potential democratic presidential candidates. The two I’m thinking of are Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama.

Hillary Clinton already has a history in the Whitehouse that makes her a controversial figure in the minds of some voters. Those who have followed her record in the Senate, however, describe her as a hard working centrist. That description is very much at odds with the leftist radical image she had during her husband’s Presidency. None of that, however, is the first topic of discussion when her potential candidacy comes up. The primary question is whether or not the country is ready for female president.

Barak Obama has burst upon the scene as a breathe of fresh air. He is also a centrist. Contrary to recent political theory, his message speaks of union rather than division. He looks to lead from our common interests rather than our differences. He embraces difference as our strength rather than our weakness. He is young and doesn’t have much experience in public office. Some say that is an advantage. Some say that it is a disadvantage. But that’s not what people are talking about. The primary question is whether or not the country will vote for African-American presidential candidate.

I remember when the question was whether or not the country was ready for a Roman-Catholic president. Clearly John Kennedy put that issue to rest. Perhaps the issues of gender and race in the oval office won’t be resolved until a woman and/or an African American is actually elected. But I submit that until that happens, we have not finally defeated the bias which affirmative action was created to offset.

One Mind

Wednesday, December 13th, 2006

“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:” Phil 2:1-5

If I could encourage our President to read a passage in the Bible, this particular chapter in Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the one I’d recommend.

To my thought, Paul is telling us that the Christ is God’s idea of how we can grow closer to Him. In order to be obedient to that calling, we have to quiet our own thoughts of what is best for us. Instead we have to listen and consider what might be best for all.

It’s what some may call conscience or spiritual sense. It is God speaking to us. This happens to almost all of us everyday whether we recognize it as such or not. It is that still small voice within which suggests a selfless act even when no one is looking. It happens when we let someone go ahead of us in the checkout line or take the parking space we were waiting for. It is when we honestly report our income to the government. That’s God and His Christ.

Mr. Bush appears to be engaged in a “Jacob wrestle” of his own regarding the path forward in Iraq. He has to separate his own pride from what is best for all those involved because his plan isn’t producing the results he said it would. In fact, it may well be making things worse rather than better.

In humility and “lowliness of mind”, God is speaking to our President in the same way that he is speaking to each of us. God is also speaking in the same way to the leaders in Iran, Syria, and Iraq. My prayer for this Christmas season is that everyone involved in the conflict in Iraq spend less time talking, less time scheming on how to defeat the other, and more time listening and praying for God’s guidance.

There is a God

Saturday, December 9th, 2006

I have proof that there is a God and she has a sense of humor.

You have to go no further than that recent news that Mary Cheney is expecting a child. Mary Cheney is the daughter of VP Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne. The VP’s spokeswoman said that Dick and Lynne are excited about the pending arrival of their sixth grandchild. Mary appears to have a good relationship with her parents and worked for her father during his 2004 re-election campaign. Banning gay marriage was one of the important components of that election for the Republican party. Many analysts have attributed Bush’s narrow victory over Kerry to the conservative voter turnout supporting state constitutional amendments to “protect” marriage in swing states like Ohio.

What proves there is a fun-loving God is that Mary Cheney is a lesbian. She and her partner for 15 year, Heather Roe, live in Virginia where Mary works for AOL. Because of the success of her father and his party, Virginia prohibits same sex marriages and civil unions. It is also one of those states where the legal status of adoption by gay couples is unclear. So if something terrible were to happen to Mary during childbirth, Heather Roe would have a much more difficult time asserting her legal rights to raise the child than either the Chaney’s or even the anonymous sperm donor.

From all that I have seen, Dick and Lynne have a close loving relationship with their daughter. To his credit, Dick has been careful not to take a high profile stand in the “sanctity of marriage” debate. For all we know, Dick’s personal opinion on this issue may be very different from the public stance of his party, but his consistent anti-gay voting record in Congress suggests close alignment of public and private views. The same is not true of Mary, who expressed her views in her book, Now It’s My Turn. She said that she felt supporting the party that could best protect the country from terrorism was more important than her opposition to this same party’s social agenda.

What is wonderful about living a God-directed life is that we are given choices every day which lead to greater understanding of ourselves and our Creator. God loves us so much that even when we fail and make a foolish or self serving choice, inevitably we get the chance again to make that same choice until we get it right. Throw in the pain and suffering we cause ourselves when we don’t listen, and sooner or later most will recognize the folly of thinking that we know it all. I can’t claim to know the private lives of the Chaney’s, but it certainly appears from the outside that God is giving Dick another chance to get it right.

“Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same.” Job 4:8

“It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” Luke 15:32

Servant leader

Thursday, December 7th, 2006

Anybody catch Jimmy Carter in his recent book tour?

Whether or not you agree with his political views, you have to be impressed with the man.

He was vilified as one of the least effective presidents in recent history, yet in his life after the presidency, he has not wavered in his commitment to peace, to the poor, and seeking justice for the oppressed.

His support for Habitat for Humanity as turned a simple idea of neighbors helping neighbors into a world wide movement.

He is recognized around the world as a man of principle. He was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2002 (only the third US president to win that award). He has been an effective negotiator and international election monitor, though he holds no formal post in any government.

He criticized Clinton for pardoning a political contributor. He was an early and vocal critic of Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the detention policies that followed. In Our Endangered Values: America‘s Moral Crisis, he details his concerns over the political influence of the religious right. In Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, he holds Israel accountable for their treatment of the Palestinians and lays out his recommendations for a path to peace in the area.

He obviously is politically fearless, and yet even as he is holding the world’s leaders to a higher standard, he seems to treat all with Christian kindness, humility, patience, and love. During an interview I saw recently, he even had kind words to say about Nixon while at the same time acknowledging Nixon’s glaring weaknesses.

I don’t know if we will ever see another man like Carter attempt to lead the country as President, but the world is clearly a better place for his efforts to lead a life guided by his deep faith in God.

“And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” Matt 23:12

My brother’s keeper

Monday, December 4th, 2006

Last month Michigan passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting affirmative action in any form in public institutions.

As a Christian, I wonder what people where thinking in the voting booth.

I don’t think that many would argue that education is the path to economic advancement. The latest census data from 2002 says those with advanced degrees earned, $72,824; bachelor’s degrees earned, $51,194; high school graduates earned, $27,280; and nongraduates, $18,826.

The same census documented that median African American family income was 63% LESS than median white family income. But the median income of African Americans with a college degree was 95% of the median income of a similarly educated white person.

Education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty and dependence, but only 17% of African Americans are college graduates. Though that represents significant gains from where it has been, it is still by far the lowest of any racial category.

So how can we encourage more African Americans to go college?

In order to get into college, you have to get good grades in high school. The worst high schools in the country are those with the highest enrollments of African Americans. Nationally we graduated 76% of the white public school students. We only graduated 55% of African American public school students.

If we can’t fix the problem of bad schools, doesn’t it seem to serve both the greater good and a higher Christian ideal to offer those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds preferential treatment in at least college admissions? If more get into college, hopefully more will graduate.

That’s not to say that more privileged kids shouldn’t get to go to college too. They are the ones that the whole system is setup to benefit today anyway. There is plenty of space out there for everyone. This is all about making the pie bigger, not taking anything away from anyone.

The benefits to society are obvious. Those that graduate from college not only can support themselves, pay taxes, and enter the work force on more or less on an equal footing with their more privileged counterparts – they also break down the barriers of institutional racism that limit opportunity in the workplace by becoming the next generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Instead Michigan voters reacted like Cain and questioned why they bear the responsibility of looking after their brother. I fear that our state, like Cain, will reap what we sow in continued poverty, dependence, and wasted potential.

When words and works don’t match

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the Democrats narrowed the “God gap” to 12 points in the most recent election. The “God gap” is the percentage of frequent church goers who preferred Republicans to Democrats. Twelve percent might seem like an overwhelming majority, but it was 19 points in 2004 and 20 points in 2002.

So what is happening?

From what I have read and heard, thought leaders in the evangelical Christian community are starting to question their focus of only opposing abortion and gay rights. They are starting to realize that their past support for a narrow cultural agenda didn’t translate into a larger set of policies that they recognized as Christian. The same party that advocated making abortion illegal and gay marriage unconstitutional also covered up corruption and perversion, ignored the poor and suffering, and continues to advocate a failing foreign policy.

Perhaps manipulation is too strong a word, but thoughtful Christians are beginning to reject the politics of division and instead embrace a new centrist view. That view says that we have to learn how to work together if we want to fulfill our God-given mission to help and heal those in need.

Rick Warren, author of the best selling book “The Purpose Driven Life” and pastor of Saddleback Church, a mega church in California, is one. He has grown tired of the Evangelical movement only being known for what it is against and not for that it is for.

He has made AIDS the focus of his congregation. As a result, he has even found common ground with liberal pro-choice politicians like Borak Obama. When questioned about his willingness to work with those who don’t share his cultural agenda, Warren said he does not really care what different paticipants’ motives are or “why people do good as long as they do good.”

Jesus, like Rick, had a big tent too. He preferred associating with sinners, prostitutes, and lowlifes. He challenged the hypocrisy of His religious leaders by healing on the Sabbath and refusing to stone an adulterer. He also frequently reminded his followers that their job was to “go and do likewise”.

“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? An the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Matt. 25:37-40

It is the works and not the words that make us Christians.