Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Summer Reading

I arrived home on Sunday, after a week of vacation on the east coast. (We had a very nice time in Virginia and North Carolina).

On our trip we visited Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson (pictured above).

I love history, and during my week off I read Ron Chernow's biography of another Founding Father, called simply, "Alexander Hamilton" (2004).

Chernow describes many of Hamilton's positive qualities....a visionary genius who predicted many of the needs of the early United States, a patriotic artillery commander, a trusted aide to Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War, a member of the Constitutional Convention, a co-writer of the Federalist Papers and the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, among others.

The author also paints a very vivid picture of Hamilton's darker a man filled with vanity, one easily injured by rumors and slights as well as a womanizer.

Interesting, Hamilton had several significant encounters with pastors at the beginning and at the end of his life. In the next few posts I'll write more about what I've learned.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why Worship

If you gathered five Christians together and asked them, “Why do we worship?” it’s likely you’d get ten or more different responses. They might say,
  • “Because we are commanded to.”
  • “Because I’m thankful for all that God has provided."
  • “To receive what God has for me.”
  • Or, "To remember what Christ did for me.”
One of my favorite parts of C.S. Lewis’ book “Reflections on the Psalms” are his reflections on the worship and praise of God.

The words “Praise the Lord” can be found throughout the Psalms, and Lewis devotes an entire chapter on the topic in his book. (The chapter is called, “A Word About Praising”).

Lewis notes first his initial confusion when reading about the perpetual praise that the Lord asked for. “Gratitude to God, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy.”

Lewis explains that “God does not only demand praise as the supremely beautiful and all-satisfying Object...he commands it as lawgiver.”

So, in a nutshell, Lewis is saying that God wants us to praise Him.

Before getting into the heart of the question of “why should we praise God”, Lewis first refutes the idea that God needs our worship:

“The miserable idea that God should in any sense need, or crave for, our worship like a vain woman wanting compliments, or a vain author presenting his new books to people who never met or heard of him, is implicitly answered by the words, 'If I be hungry, I will not tell thee' (Psalm 50:12). Even if such an absurd Deity could be conceived, He would hardly come to us, the lowest of rational creatures, to gratify His appetite. I don’t want my dog to bark approval of my books.”
Lewis reminds us that God does not need our worship. Yet it is something that He requires/desires us to do.

Lewis also refutes the idea of bargaining with God, for example, people saying, “Do this and I will praise you”. He calls that notion infantile, but says, “I have often, on my knees in prayer, been shocked to find what sort of thoughts I have.”

As Lewis reflected on this topic of praise, an interesting insight came to him: that people praise all the time. Our praise may not be focused on our Creator, but praising, according to Lewis is something that all humans do. He writes this about his epiphany on the topic:

“I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…the world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars.”

So, praise is something that humans seem “wired” to do. He continues:

I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?”
After reading the “isn’t she lovely” line I’ll do my best to refrain from any Stevie Wonder jokes...but Lewis explains here that the things that we are drawn to praise are things that we want others to join in praising too. Lewis explained that the writers of the Psalms, “in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.”

Like the angels, Lewis notes, Christians will praise God for all eternity. To imagine this, he explains that,

“we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God – drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which…flows out of us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression”

I had to read that passage again:
  • drunk with delight (in the Lord)
  • drowned in delight (of the Lord)
  • dissolved by delight (in the Lord)
Lewis explains, “In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”

Enjoying God. In part, that is what praising God is about. When we praise and worship we offer ourselves to the Lord and at the same time get to know Him more too. As Lewis explained, “it is in the process of being worshipped that God communicates his presence to men.”

Friday, July 11, 2008

More on the Good News

As a follow-up to my last post, I recently learned that the folks from the Gospel Coalition have also made Don Carson's lecture from last year's conference available. His talk is called "What is the Gospel" and is a great theological explanation of the Good News.

Here is the link:

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Good News

The "Good News" or "the Gospel" is how Bible translators have translated the Greek word euangelion into English. This Gospel or Good News, as I've heard a teacher recently explain it is simply that God is both holy and loving. Because He is holy He must punish sin. But because He is loving he sent His Son Jesus Christ to live, then die on a cross and rise again. On the cross Christ satisfied the holiness of God (by taking the punishment for sin) and He also satisfied the love of God (by providing a way for people to be saved).

When we believe in Christ (trusting Him for the forgiveness for our sins) we will be saved and accepted by God. This faith, or belief, is a belief that Christ "lived the life we should have lived and died the death that we should have died."

Quite simply, the message of the Gospel "is that you are more wicked and sinful than you ever dared believe but you are more loved and accepted than you ever dared hope."

So, "though we are wicked, we are absolutely loved and completely accepted through Jesus Christ."

These words that I've quoted on the Gospel were explained by Tim Keller, Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

I heard some additional comments on the Gospel by Rev. Keller this week in a video called "What is Gospel-Centered Ministry?" In his lecture he explains what ministry shaped by the Gospel looks like.

Here is the link:

I really enjoyed his comments, I hope you will too.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Business of Temptation

I just finished reading C.S. Lewis' novel called, "The Screwtape Letters" for my class at Reformed Theological Seminary. The book is a wonderful study on the subject of temptation written from the perspective of a senior demon (named Screwtape) to his nephew named Wormwood.

The letters in the book are funny...with hilarious names for the demons (including Screwtape, Wormwood, Glubose, Slubgob, Triptweeze, Toadpipe and Slumtrimpet) as well as an account of Screwtape getting so angry that he turns into a centipede.

The letters are also written from the perspective of the demons, thus God is called "the Enemy" and Satan is referred to as "Our Father Below".

Among the interesting things in the novel is Lewis' use of the word "business" to explain the work of the demons. Screwtape tells his nephew:
  • "So do not allow temporary excitement to distract you from the real business of undermining faith and preventing the formation of virtues" (Letter 5)

  • "(God) wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them." (Letter 6)

  • "Our business is to get them away from the Eternal and Present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a live in the Past...or (to) live in the Future." (Letter 16)

The "business" then of demons, according to Screwtape, is to undermine the faith of Christians, prevent the formation of virtues and to keep people thinking things that are not of God.

Lewis' "Screwtape Letters" serve as a helpful reminder that we, as Christians, will face temptation. The professor of the seminary course, in fact, recommends that all Christians read the novel annually, as he does, to acknowledge the reality of temptation. For me, Lewis' novel is a humbling reminder of our weakness as humans and our utter dependence upon God to deliver us from evil.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Man Bites Dog

Findlay, Ohio - I’m visiting my parents this week at their house in Findlay (a city in northwest Ohio). Coincidentally, on Monday, my sister sent me a link to an article about Findlay in the Washington Post (I've included the link below). To me it displays another example of the mainstream media’s disconnect with Americans who hold traditional values. Articles like this seem to follow a common pattern:

  1. Make a story out of a non-story.
    The article is about rumors of presidential candidate Barak Obama’s religion in the conservative city of Findlay, Ohio. In the article the reporter notes that one out of every ten Americans believes that Sen. Obama (falsely) is a Muslim. If I do my math correctly, that means that 90% of Americans believe (correctly) that Sen. Obama claims to be a Christian. So I ask, where is the story? What purpose does it serve to analyze the confused views of ten percent of Americans?
  2. Make the candidate (or cause) that you support appear to be a victim.
    While focusing exclusively on rumors about Sen. Obama, the article makes no reference to rumors about Sen. McCain (in Findlay or any other location). I have no doubt that the reporter could have asked interviewees what rumors they have heard about him and received a response.
  3. Make an idea that you oppose be the cause of a problem.
    It is interesting that after reporting on the rumors, the reporter then identifies the cause of the rumors, which in essence he says is: conservatism. There could have been numerous causes or theories that could have been offered as to why rumors start and continue to be communicated (including the retirees having more time on their hands to talk, or from a Christian perspective, human sinfulness), but instead the reporter chose tradition. "They always want things the way they were," is how he quoted the city’s mayor. (To me, the mayor's quote seems to be used completely out of context.) To attribute tradition, or a desire not to see things change, as the cause for rumors being spread seems unfounded. So, if I follow the reporter's logic, I would not hear rumors about candidates in less conservative or traditional places?
  4. Include unflattering characteristics of those you are writing about (including things that have little or nothing to do with the story).
    Many times contemporary reporters will do this by writing about a person’s appearance or their speech. In this article, in addition to using the term "Rust Belt town" to describe the city, the reporter added the extraneous details of the price of the individual’s home and their celebration of Memorial Day. Although I chuckled when I read the description of the "gigantic plastic unicorn perched on the front porch draped in an American flag", I found it difficult to see how those details contributed to a story about gossip and rumors about a candidate’s faith in a Presidential election.
  5. Make sweeping generalizations.
    The reporter noted ominously, "On College Street, nobody wanted anything to change" and "Only one man on College Street remains open-minded". Humorously, Findlay’s local paper noted that at one end of College Street (as the name suggests) is in fact the local college. The houses on College Street near the University of Findlay contain dozens of college students. Were these young people included in the reporter’s description of those who don’t want "anything to change" or those who failed to be "open-minded" about rumors surrounding Sen. Obama’s religion? Did he interview all of these residents on College Street in order to come to his conclusion? Did he interview some of them? Any of them? I doubt it.
  6. Provide no perspective on the issue.
    Reading this piece one could easily come to the conclusion that Findlay’s residents are unique in sharing rumors about political candidates and likely even racist in their view of Sen. Obama. The unfortunate fact is that rumors and slander have been consistent throughout America’s Presidential elections (from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush).
  7. Quote no moral authorities on the issue.
    The Washington Post article is about a rumor regarding a candidate’s religion. If one is writing an article about religious perspectives in a city, wouldn’t it be helpful to hear from those who are religious leaders? What does a Findlay pastor think about gossip and rumors? How do they guide their flock to listen to the truth?
  8. Pretend to be objective.
    Notice the last several lines of the article: "He will listen to their story, weighing facts against fiction. For a few minutes, he might even believe them. Then he’ll close the door and go inside, back to his life. Back to his grocery story, back to his son’s auto shop, back to the gossip on College Street. Back to the rumors again."

    First of all, a reporter writing a vivid account about a future event seems ludicrous. When I read those words I wondered:

    -What if they don’t come to his door?
    -What if he’s not home?
    -What if he learns more information between now and then?

    Journalists are trained to write about what happened (in the past) and if necessary, include quotes from others about predictions of future events. (I would think that would be covered in Journalism 101). Fiction should not be included in a newspaper article.

    Secondly, the words smack of fatalism...the despair that things will never change. Interestingly, it was because of this very thing...the nihilism and supposed "detached reflection" in the Press that Christian writer Soren Kierkegaard wrote warnings about their work many years ago. Kierkegaard (who lived from 1813-1855) humorously suggested that the motto of the Press should be: "Here men are demoralized in the shortest possible time on the largest possible scale, at the cheapest possible price." He believed that only "the religious sphere of existence" could combat the nihilism that was found in the Press (and brought about by the Enlightenment).

Since the publication of the Washington Post article about the rumors in Findlay (which was also released on MSNBC’s website and distributed to 669 news organizations in 56 countries), the Courier, Findlay’s local paper, has been filled with letters to the editor from people around the country, some saying how Findlay residents should be "ashamed" of themselves, while others denounce the reporting.

On Tuesday the Courier ran a long article with their own interviews of three of the individuals who were quoted at length in the Washington Post piece. All three said that they were misquoted.

Link to the Washington Post story:

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Surpised by....

On Monday night my younger boys and I went to see the Cincinnati Reds play the Pittsburgh Pirates; two teams that are tied for last place in the National League Central division. The Reds trailed for most of the game and at the bottom of the ninth inning the Reds trailed by one run, causing some in the crowd of 20,000 to leave the stadium. The first batter up for the Reds in the ninth inning was the catcher, David Ross, who hit a double. Next up for the Reds was Ken Griffey, Jr. or simply "Junior" as he's referred to by Cincinnati fans.

I've enjoyed following Griffey Jr.'s career over the years. Growing up in Ohio, I was a fan first of his father who played for the "Big Red Machine". The first time I saw "Junior" play was in 1990, his second year in the Major Leagues, when I had gone to Seattle to visit my grandparents. That game was terrific, as the Mariners faced Nolan Ryan, a veteran pitcher with the Texas Rangers. When the Rangers were batting, Ken Griffey Sr. played left field for the Mariners, with his son in center.

For Monday night's game, as an older Ken Griffey, Jr. came to the plate, the crowd rose to their feet and began cheering and clapping. Soon the pitcher was in his wind-up, and then seconds after the pitch was released, Griffey Jr. hit the ball deep over the center field wall to win the game for the Reds. It was his 603rd home run.

The crowd, the boys, and I were ecstatic. It was so fun to watch.

On the drive home, the boys talked all about the "walk-off home run" while I thought about C.S. Lewis and his many references to joy. It was a concept that Lewis had first encountered in his youth, then in later life, saw the Christian implications.

Lewis used the German word "Sehnsucht" to describe the intense feeling of joy that people can experience. In "The Screwtape Letters", he has a senior demon named Screwtape explain this about joy to his nephew (who was assigned to tempt a Christian):

"Fun is closely related to Joy--a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us (demons). It can sometimes be used, of course, to divert humans from something else which (God) would like them to be feeling or doing; but in itself it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils."
As Lewis noted in other writing, finding joy can sometimes be I found at the bottom of the ninth inning of a baseball game.