Archive for December, 2010

There Is Nothing New Under the Sun

December 18, 2010

But that doesn’t mean that looks don’t change.

Click here to watch a great little telling of the Nativity – Internet style.
The only thing I disagree with is the very last statement.  But hey, nothing’s perfect, right?

Attitude of Gratitude

December 17, 2010

I think this is a great story.  A guy who received unemployment benefits 40 years ago has written a check to repay the state – with interest.  He indicates that he used his benefits at the time to retrain for a new career in computer programming, a career that went very well.  

How many of us would tend to think of any benefits we might get from the State as our just due?  After all, we pay our taxes for eventualities like this.  I wonder how things would be different if we adopted the mindset of this gentleman and were willing to pay back help that we had received – particularly if that help enabled us to be successful financially to a point where we could afford to say thank you?  How would we need to revamp our State-sponsored aid programs to facilitate more of this sort of mindset?  
I have no idea, but perhaps it’s worth giving some thought.

New Barna Summary

December 16, 2010

Well, the Barna Group has released a summary of current trends in American Christianity.  Some of these are bound to cause some tongue wagging, but frankly, very few of them should really surprise anyone.

Based on eleven months of collected survey data, Barna makes the following observations:
1.  The Christian Church is Becoming Less Theologically Literate.  Given the rise of mega-churches emphasizing entertainment and self-help style teaching, this isn’t really a surprise.  However I’m curious what this actually means.  Their data is based on interviews with random people – more than 5,000 of them in the last eleven months.  How many of those folks were Christian?  The example Barna cites is that while “most” adults know that Easter is a religious holiday, only a “minority of adults” know that it has to do with Jesus’ resurrection.
This wouldn’t be surprising if the people interviewed were a mix of Christians and non-Christians.  Their wording in this summary paragraph is very vague and leaves me wondering if this is more an effort to grab headline attention.  Again, I don’t doubt that this is a very real trend, but I’m wondering how their data supports the observation when their synopsis of the data seems to be very vague and potentially misleading.
2.  Christians are becoming more ingrown and less outreach oriented.  I’m not going to necessarily argue this, but I’d be interested how this comparative statement is derived.  I’d also observe that it probably isn’t just Christians who are less inclined to invite others into a part of their lives widely understood to be a ‘private matter’.  Although there are small and highly vocal groups who are unabashed in the proclamation of their message (atheists, and supporters of LGBT issues), overall we are culturally being conditioned not to risk this sort of personal connection with others.  We’re far more comfortable poking each other on Facebook and liking status updates than we are to invite someone to participate in something that we are personally very invested in.  
Of course, the fact that there are some vocal groups directly attacking the foundations of Christian life and faith means that this is really a poor time for Christians to be pulling inwards.
3.  Growing numbers of people are less interested in spiritual principles and more desirous of of learning pragmatic solutions for life.   Given number one above, this is no surprise at all.  If people don’t understand the core of their faith, they can’t know how that faith ought to shape and form their lives.  So they’ll go looking for this information elsewhere, assuming that their faith doesn’t have anything to offer because their pastors aren’t teaching them these things.  
4.  Among Christians, interest in participating in community action is increasing.  This is good, but I wonder how this is distinguished from number two above.  I wonder if some people have made this issue and number two above synonymous.
5. The postmodern insistence on tolerance is winning over the Christian Church.   See all of the above trends.  Duh.  
6.  The influence of Christianity on culture and individual lives is largely invisible.   Duh.  And unless pastors and theological educators are prepared to engage their parishioners and students in some hard thinking to show them how to counter the claims of humanists who advocate that goodness or ethics is not dependent on God, this is going to continue.  If we continue to treat faith as a compartmentalized aspect of our lives primarily engaged on Sunday mornings, this should not surprise us at all.
As I’ve maintained for some time, and as the name of this blog seeks to convey, if we do not live out our faith in our daily lives, we have no one to blame for our culture’s rejection of our faith and our own lukewarmness about it but ourselves.  
Again, none of these should surprise anyone in touch with current events and pop culture.  The question becomes how are we going to respond to these trends as pastors, parishioners, and congregations?  I’ll give you a hint – simply lobbying against gay-marriage or protesting for the display of nativities at Christmas isn’t going to cut it.  We need to get better at #2 above, which will require a reversal of #1 above.  This should lead to a reversal of #3 above.  All of this will result in affirming and Biblically grounding #4 above, while pushing back against #5 involving a reversal of #6.  
I think that about does it.  Now off to cure the common cold.  G’night.  
  

Father Abraham Had Many Sons

December 15, 2010

I try to scan a variety of news sources every day to cull possible topics or issues for blogging.  Scanning means looking at the headline/title.  A small percentage (less than 10%, probably) I actually load the article and scan the first few paragraphs.  If those look promising (not very many do) then I read the rest of the article.  If it gives me pause or seems to address something I think is important, I’ll either bookmark it for possible blog-fodder at a later date, or write on it immediately.  Each day, I scan probably 300+ headlines.  

I attempt not to blog on things that other Christian bloggers are writing on – at least those Christian bloggers that I scan each day.  One such blog that I encourage any of you to check into is Cranach: The Blog of Veith.  Check out his About page for more information on the author.  I have a great deal of respect for his insight and intellectual prowess.  And I hate him (jokingly!) at times for discovering things that, had he not already written about them, I would certainly have written about.  But since he probably has a gazillion readers, it’s ultimately a better thing that he write about stuff than that I do.  
Case in point .
Another study which devastatingly points out the importance of fathers in the future roles of their children’s life of faith.  Or lack thereof.  The full article that Veith refers to is here, and is worth the read if you have the time to do so – though it offers a lot more commentary than some people may like to wade through.  The net result of the study however is that fathers are the primary influence on whether their children will attend church or not as they become adults.  
Sobering food for thought, particularly for those of you out there with children still under your wing.  While the study doesn’t delve into this corollary topic, I wonder whether or not fathers who begin attending church after their children are grown have any positive effect on their children’s church attendance or not.  
This study can be read as both Law and Gospel – bad news and guilt as well as good news and joy.  For men who did not (or do not) regularly attend church with their family, this article may invoke a great deal of guilt.  Particularly if some/all of your children are not church attenders in their adult life.  Life is full of those moments of hindsight where we clearly see our failures and shortcomings.  We all have them.  But I suspect that the guilt of thinking that you were a contributing factor to your child not having an active life of faith in a church must be one of the most painful forms of guilt.  You feel the weight of the law, and how you have not measured up.
For those who have and do attend church regularly, this study may sound like very good news.  It affirms a man’s decision to maturely exercise their faith through regular public worship.  And if your children are still attending church as adults, it must be a huge blessing to know that you played a role in that – perhaps a very large role.  Praise God that He has used you in this vital way!
But we need to temper our reverence for studies.  I have no doubt that these findings are accurate.  But we also remember that each person is ultimately called to account for themselves before God.  We can point the finger at any number of other people in our lives to try and shift responsibility, but Biblical Christianity ultimately states that we are each responsible to God for our relationship to God.  Fathers and mothers may have a massive influence on their children’s lives of faith, but we must be careful not to assume more responsibility than is proper.  This individual responsibility also explains why even when mom and dad remain married and go to church every Sunday, one or more of their children may still decide that they have no interest in incorporating church into their adult lives.  Parents can do all the right things and children will still make their decisions.  
If you’re a father who hasn’t set the example that you feel you should have in regards to your family and church life, you can confess that sin.  I do it every week if not every day as I fail my family in some regard or another, whether perceived of actual.  Be honest with yourself and with God and be willing to repent – which means going beyond just feeling bad.  Being repentant means that you are willing to accept forgiveness, and if you confess this as part of worship or with your pastor, they should declare that forgiveness to you and assure you of it by virtue of your trust and faith in Jesus Christ as your resurrected savior.  
And once you have repented and confessed and received forgiveness, trust in the forgiveness and focus on that rather than on your shortcomings.  Make the necessary changes in your life that reflect your repentance.  Start going to church.  Be willing to talk with your family about your change of heart and your hopes for them.  Pray unceasingly that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in their lives, and provide opportunities as necessary for you to share and encourage and perhaps even admonish your children to reconsider their choices and the implications of those choices.  
And remember that all things are possible through God, and not through us.  What a relief and joy!
  

I’m Awake. Honest.

December 14, 2010

Hard as it may be to believe, I’ve scanned the entire Internet for the past three days and found nothing worth blogging about.  

Truly.
So I’m reading.  After a couple of books reviewed for our polity’s young adult web site, I’m back to reading something a little more interesting (to me, at least).  It’s the latest publication from the LC-MS  Commission on Theology and Church Relations.  The title is Together With All Creatures and the topic is the proper Biblical understanding of mankind’s role in relation to the rest of creation.  With the heavy emphasis on ecology and environmentalism and the green movement in the last 40 years, somebody decided maybe we ought to formulate a good statement on what we believe in this arena.  
I’ve only just started it, and I appreciate thus far that the first 30 pages or so are historical background on the issue, examining the statements of various influential people – Christian and otherwise – on the relationship of mankind and humanity.  It also takes time to examine some of the particularly American voices on this topic, which helps trace the evolution of thought in our country in regards to nature and the wilderness.  
The only thing I’ve found curious thus far is in the section that begins to delve specifically into theology.  The working premise of the theological section of this book is (on page 30) that, 
“We bring together the confession of our common creatureliness and distinctive creatureliness in the thesis: 
God has called us to serve His creation as creatures among fellow creatures in anticipation of creation’s renewal. This renewal has begun in Christ, is continued by the work of the Spirit in the church, and will be completed upon Christ’s return.”
To me, this doesn’t really seem to emphasize our distinctive creatureliness, but I’ll hold off on getting all rabid about this until I finish the book.  The other interesting thing I saw – less than a page later – was this statement, describing the other creatures in nature around us:
They are our fellow creatures, and in a sense our neighbors, because like us they have been created by God and formed from the soil of the earth.
I don’t disagree with the spirit (Spirit?) of the statement, but I couldn’t remember the creation account in Genesis indicating that God had formed the animals out of the ground.  Certainly, it doesn’t describe God forming them by hand as it describes Him doing with Adam.  But sure enough – Genesis 2:19 states that:
Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky.  (ESV)
I’ve read Genesis a zillion times, give or a take a few, and never noticed that line.  I guess with all the attention focused on God creating Adam out of the ground, I overlooked this.  That’s why we should always be reading Scripture, and why we should always be willing to go back to check Scripture against what someone says or claims or assumes Scripture says!  
I look forward to learning more through this document!

Holding Hands

December 11, 2010

Her roommate is trying to find something to watch on television and glances at me idly as I pass by.  She’s lying down when I find her room. Her eyes are closed but flutter open when I call her name.  She manages a thin smile.  I reach down and take her hand and she clasps it warmly.

I’ve known this woman for only a few months.  She’s over twice my age.  I’ve visited her once in her home, and she’s a faithful attender of worship, so she sees and hears me there.  It’s not very much of a thread that connects us, it sometimes seems.  Not very much of a thread that allows me to show up unannounced in her hospital room and to sit down on the bed beside where she lies somewhat caddy corner and take her hand.  
Maybe not so thin as I think.  Thin by the world’s standards maybe.  But in the circles she and I run in, the thread is stronger.  It binds and supports and weaves together people from different lives and of different generations.  near strangers made into something much more intimate by the collar around my neck or the robes I wear on Sunday morning to lead worship.  I have certain rights – one of which is to visit this woman and hold her hand as she talks about the fall she had the night before.  About the clamps holding the back part of her skull together where she fractured it.  About the slight bleeding into the brain that worried doctors at first but now appears to be negligible.  About her son who will be taking her back home in just a few minutes to recuperate.
It’s a right she wants me to exercise.  This is the most amazing thing to me still.  That in the midst of suffering and pain and fear and uncertainty, she wants me to be there.  Practically a stranger.  She wants me to take her hand.  To talk with her and convey love and concern and care and prayer.  Ah, but it’s not me.  Not really.  Even without the clerical collar or the robes, even when I just look like me, it’s not me that she sees.  It’s not me that’s really holding her hand.  
She sees someone else.  Someone infinitely older than her.  Someone who has held her in His hands since before her birth, since before the first week of creation was complete.  In my hand she feels His.  In my voice she hears His love, His providence, His protection.  As she struggles to keep her eyes open despite what must be a rather brutal headache, she’s not straining to look at me, but Him.  
This doesn’t bother me or offend me.  It’s a relief, frankly.  The weight of expectation and trust and need would be too much to bear if it were resting on me.  But it’s not.  It rests on Him.  I could never bear that load.  I don’t know anyone other than Him who could.  He’s used to bearing that kind of weight.  And she and I are both grateful for that fact as we hold hands and wait for the wheelchair to arrive.  
We know we’re in good hands.

I Wonder?

December 11, 2010
At what point do you determine – either for yourself or your children – that you need to see a doctor?  At what point do you become convinced that something is seriously enough wrong that you need to try and get an appointment, or wait for hours on end in an urgent care clinic or the emergency room?  If you’ve had a nagging cough for a couple of weeks, is that the time to go?  What if you’re eating a little less?  What if your child is cranky and congested?  How long do you wait?  How serious do things have to look?
What if you thought you might be convicted of manslaughter if you don’t take your child to the doctor and they happen to die?  
A Philadelphia couple has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter and faces a decade or more in prison because they didn’t take their 2-year old son to the doctor when he exhibited symptoms of “coughing, congestion, crankiness and loss of appetite”.  I’m sorry, but that hardly seems like a list of symptoms that would send me running to the doctor immediately.  And seeing as how the couple has six other children who apparently don’t have any issues worth noting in the article, it would seem that this couple has some experience in raising children.  I’m trying to get more details on this case to see if there’s something just out of the ballpark obvious that would require at least an involuntary manslaughter ruling.  The only details provided in this particular article are tantalizingly vague.
This article indicates that they prayed for the child for two weeks before he died.  This article paints a much more compassionate picture, indicating that the prosecution in the case was not arguing that the Schaible’s weren’t loving parents, and affirming that their other children showed no signs of neglect.  Several of these articles indicate that the particular congregation the couple is affiliated had trouble almost 20 years ago.  The assertion by the prosecution is that this was not a trial of or about religion, but simply about preventative care.
The Schaible’s argued that the symptoms were no different than a cold or flu.  And I haven’t seen anything to indicate that this isn’t true.  The prosecution argued that the particular bug that their son caught could have been cured with antibiotics.  I have no reason to believe that this isn’t true either, despite a defense argument that indicates the bug could have been an anti-biotic resistant strain that might have killed the child anyway.  
To me, the issue seems to be intent and reasonableness.  The parents were intent on caring for their son, just as they clearly intended and succeeded in caring for their other six children.  Their approach to caring for their son did not involve taking him to the doctor for what appeared to be rather minor symptoms.  I can’t fault their logic at all.  I have absolutely no doubt that they believed that he was dealing with an extended cold or flu that he would eventually recover from.  He just didn’t.  How many experienced parents would look at that list of symptoms and say we’ll wait it out rather than we’ll rush to the pediatrician?
Every day there are mistakes and oversights made in hospitals around the country – around the world for that matter.  Every day, these mistakes and oversights cost lives.  Lives that arguably could have been saved if the  mistakes hadn’t been made or the oversights had been caught.  Most of the time, this is just treated as a regrettable situation.  Sometimes, the error or oversight is egregious enough to warrant a malpractice suit.  Doctors are heavily insured for this eventuality.  Yet the assumption in this ruling is that the medical community would have absolutely prevented his death, and to fail to take him to this sure source of healing is tantamount to manslaughter.
People make mistakes all the time.  Sometimes these mistakes result in death.  We can second guess in hindsight about what might have happened if this child had been taken to the doctor.  But there was nothing that appeared serious enough to warrant it.  How long would it have taken them to even get an appointment?  What would they have told the attendants in the emergency room or the clinic?  He’s been kind of cranky.  His appetite is a little down.  He has a cough.  Would the nurses have run a check on him to determine what he had?  They would have dashed off a prescription for antibiotics (or told them to go back home and keep feeding him and giving him fluids and making sure he was getting rest – depends on who you see).  Would that have saved him?  Quite possibly.  But possibly not.  Would we hold the medical attendants responsible for not diagnosing him properly, or for sending the family back home with assurances that it was probably just a tough bug and to keep caring for him the way they had been?
I’m skeptical that the parents would be on trial and now convicted if there wasn’t a religious aspect to the case.  If two parents were just distraught that their child had suddenly died, but there weren’t any huge symptoms that they were negligent of, and if they had raised enough other children to clearly have some idea of how to handle the run of the mill illnesses particular to children, but never said anything about prayer or about the devil, would they still be on trial?
I happen to believe that doctors and medicine can be a great boon.  Nothing in my religion or in my reading of the Bible demonstrates to me that I have to avoid them.  I disagree theologically with the stance of the congregation these parents belong to, and with any theology that demands prayer as a sign of faith in opposition to medical treatment.  I disagree with a theology that insists that every illness is a manifestation of spiritual warfare.  
But that doesn’t mean that this couple are bad parents.  It certainly doesn’t mean they’re criminal, or incompetent.  I’m sure they’re heartbroken over the death of their son.  Frankly there’s not much more that the state can do to them to make them any sorrier about it.  I’ll be interested to see what their sentencing turns out to be, because the only thing more tragic than the unexpected death of their son, would be the additional destruction of their family by putting these people in prison.  
And if we’re going to put them in prison, then I don’t see how we can avoid the logic of saying we have to prosecute every nurse or doctor that makes an honest mistake as well – let alone a careless or negligent oversight or misdiagnosis.  Heck, they’re professionals!  They should know better!  There seems to be a double standard at work here that is particularly troubling.
Your child is coughing in the other room.  What’s your call going to be?  

Stepping Up

December 9, 2010

I’m pro-life.  

One of the major criticisms of pro-lifers is that we make a big deal about the abortion decision, but are largely silent and absent on the issues relating to choosing life for a child rather than aborting a baby.  I’m not sure how accurate this criticism is on a broad scale, but I have to admit it’s one that I’m guilty of.  I will happily preach and teach in any number of formats and forums on the moral and sacred sanctity of life.  But I don’t regularly contribute to organizations or causes or individuals struggling to raise their child.  
I don’t intend to be negligent.  I’m not aware of specific instances where someone is in need.  If I knew, then I could respond.  Some would say (rightly so) that part of my job is to find out, or to donate and support organizations rather than individuals.  To figure out what the organizations and services are where this sort of need is known.  This is true, and it’s a reminder to me to be proactive and not reactive.
I think another issue that stops many people from responding is fear.  I can’t donate very much.  It won’t possibly make a difference.  Why even bother?  There are so many people in need, we can’t possibly help everyone.  Why even bother?  It can be a very all-or-nothing mindset that keeps our hands and wallets in our pockets.  We assume we are responsible for the whole burden, the whole need, the whole success or failure.  
But we’re not.  I’m not.  As a Biblical Christian I’m called to do my part.  To allow the Holy Spirit to use me the way He wants to in any given situation.  That may mean giving $5 or $5000.  What I give isn’t dependent on what I gave to the last person or what someone else gives in the same situation.  I’m called to be faithful to what I’m asked to do and be, and to trust the Lord for the rest.  I can barely brush my teeth some mornings – the idea that I should personally try to shoulder the burden of another person and see myself as wholly and solely responsible for making everything right is ludicrous.  But it’s all too often effective at keeping me inert rather than responsive to the Holy Spirit.
A colleague of mine posted a link on Facebook to this story today.  A five-month old child with a devastating condition which will kill him by age two, but for which a procedure exists that shows promise (58 successes out of 60 procedures performed).  But it’s expensive, and due to budget cuts, state Medicaid won’t cover the procedure.  
I donated.  I encourage you to read the articles and if you feel so led, donate as well.  Maybe it won’t be very much.  That’s ok.  If you’re a Christian, listen to what the Spirit is leading you to do and follow through.  Leave the rest in God’s hands – where it always resides in the first place.  Share the story with others you think might be interested.  Talk with your friends, your family, your congregation and pastor.  These are other ways that we can give and help and the impact is multiplied greatly over what we ourselves can personally do.  
And if tomorrow you’re hit with another opportunity to donate, another need identified, don’t simply assume that because you gave today you’re off the hook.  Pray.  Listen.  Respond.  Trust.  This is part of the Christian life first and foremost, as well as part of being pro-life.  

Pastors & Christmas

December 8, 2010

One of many things I didn’t expect when entering the ministry was the generosity of people towards their pastors.  Chalk it up to ignorance, but I never expected to be so blessed by so many – particularly at Christmastime.  Given to impromptu bouts of guilt at the drop of a hat, I immediately seized upon this as another opportunity to feel bad.  I hate the idea of people giving gifts out of some sort of sense of obligation or guilt.  

And of course that’s the only motivations possible for a pastoral gift, right?
Two different perspectives here on gift-giving to your pastors.  Perhaps one or both of them will prove to be helpful.  Personally, I don’t expect gifts.  I have been blessed with congregations who more than adequately provide for my and my family’s needs.  For me, this brief guide is the most helpful.  I can truly think of nothing that would please, excite, challenge, and otherwise make me apoplectic with joy than a congregation full of committed, excited, present, growing Christians.
Other congregations are barely able to pay their pastors a living wage, however.  Some aren’t able to even do that.  Their pastors serve faithfully, and accepted their Call knowing that they would not be paid enough to live on.  Their wives work.  They work other jobs on the side to help make up the financial shortfall.  They labor to be faithful.  For these men (or any church worker in a similar situation), the holidays may be a time when some of that hardship is eased through gift-giving.   In which case this guide might be helpful.  
This second guide is frank and candid.  Some people may find it tacky that a pastor (or anyone) would have the audacity to talk about the sorts of things they don’t want as well as what they do want.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t written (and I certainly didn’t link to it!) to be offensive, but rather helpful for folks who may want to give a gift but are stumped as to what would be most appreciated.  And of course you have to know your pastor/church worker somewhat to know what would be most helpful and appreciated.  The gifts listed here are nice perks and extras.  If your pastor is struggling to make ends meet (and a congregation should know whether or not they are paying their pastor an appropriate salary or not.  Whether the pastor is able or willing to live appropriately on that salary is an entirely different issue!), then gift cards to the grocery store or general stores like Target or Walmart may be more greatly appreciated than a weekend escape.  

Hang Up, Mom

December 8, 2010

I try to be cautious when posting news items about the latest health studies.  It seems that these days health studies come out regularly and are often contradictory (depending on who is funding the study).  But I also believe that we have been rather naive in our appropriation of technology, and that there are undoubtedly negative health consequences that aren’t going to be fully understood or their impact appreciated for years to come.

So pass this on to the pregnant women in your lives.  The results are hardly conclusive, but perhaps the article can be thought-provoking in reminding people that we ought to constantly be examining our practices and assumptions to make sure that we are not doing things unconsciously, or without the recognition about how much we don’t know about what we’re doing.