Monday, November 23, 2015

The Irena Sendler Project: Kansans at Their Best

In 2004 author Thomas Frank penned a book using a query as a title: What’s the Matter with Kansas? (Note: You can purchase a used copy of this book for one copper penny on Amazon.) As a resident of Missouri, I could gladly give Mr. Frank a boatload of snarky ammo in answer to his question, but having just returned from a long weekend in a little-known corner of Kansas, I will refrain from doing so.
Let me explain.
The story begins in 1999 in the high school at Uniontown, KS, population 272. Four teenage girls while working on a history project discover a yellowed newspaper clipping in a teacher’s file. The clipping mentions one Irena Sendler, a woman from Warsaw, Poland who, during the Nazi occupation, smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto. She saves the lives of 2,500 kids, yet the only evidence of this is a newspaper clipping and a mention in a holocaust memorial in New York City.
Thus the quest began for the story of Irena Sendler. And these fourteen-year-old girls from little Uniontown found her, their efforts catapulting Irena into international recognition. Let’s let a few of the main players tell this perhaps miraculous story in their own words:

Diane and I took our little trip to the part of Kansas where the teenagers’ journey began and visited the Lowell Milliken Center, which is situated in the cobblestoned downtown of the county seat, Ft. Scott, KS. We were honored to meet Megan Felt and speak with her firsthand about how that little scrap of newspaper changed her life and the life of so many others. Two words – inspiring and humble – come to mind, but I am sure many more would suffice.
Four teenage girls from little Uniontown, KS took a forgotten little Polish woman and transformed her story from obscurity to a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. This is the heartwarming story, as Megan would say, of four Protestant girls from rural Kansas honoring a Catholic woman from Poland who saved 2,500 Jewish children. I think God would be pleased with that. So to Thomas Frank, who asks, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” let me tell you: Not very much.
For more on the Irena Sendler “Life in a Jar” Project and the Lowell Milliken Center for Unsung Heroes, visit:
Facebook: Life in a Jar: Irena Sendler

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Grace is not where you think

Grace is not where you think it is. Take out a concordance and look. This word at the center of Christian doctrine is surprisingly sparse in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Here are the only places where the word grace appears in the King James Version of the Gospels:

Luke 2:40, where we are told that Jesus as a child waxed strong in the spirit and that the grace of God was upon him. 
John 1:14 - 17 where John emphasizes that Jesus was filled with and came to give grace and truth. 
(Note: Some translations use the word "grace" in Luke 2:52 in place of the the King James rendering of "favour".)
One might say that grace is conspicuous in its absence from places where we might think it should be, for we never find the word grace in the red letters of your Bible. Put differently, the word never passes through Jesus' lips, and I would offer that this curious fact is by design. Jesus did not have to use this word that is so important to understanding God's nature because he didn't have to. He didn't have to because he modeled what grace is through the way he lived his life. He lived it so perfectly that we can learn what grace is by looking to his example. 

We're going to take a brief look at how Jesus lived grace by by taking a brief tour of John's Gospel. In the preamble to that Gospel (John 1:1-18) John lays out what the main themes of the book. In verses 14 - 17 he says: 

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. 
John tells us that, among the many things that John is going to address, two of his major themes will be "grace" and "truth". In virtually every chapter of John's Gospel Jesus is either addressing some important point of doctrine ("truth") or is showing some manner of grace, or he is doing both. In this piece we are going to focus on grace question and how Jesus lived it. If we are able to understand grace as Jesus lived it, we can better understand what it is and how it looks.

In John 1 Philip decides to follow Jesus, believing he might have found the Messiah. In his excitement he finds his friend Nathaniel, who promptly utters a slur about Jesus' hometown. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Jesus overhears it, but rather than reacting in corrective mode, he jokes, "Behold an Israelite indeed in whom is no guile!" (John 1: 43-51) That is showing grace.

In chapter 2 Jesus is attending a wedding celebration. They run out of wine. That could have been quite an embarrassment for the host of the wedding and the families of the bride and groom. Jesus could have done nothing, but instead he has some jars filled to the full with water and turns them into wine. The party continues, the guests continue to rejoice, and families are saved from public embarrassment. Grace.

In chapter 4 Jesus approaches a Samaritan, a woman from a despised ethnic group who also happened to have a questionable lifestyle. Instead of condemning her he shares the word of life to her and offers her a way to satisfy the unquenchable thirst in her heart. Grace.

In chapter 5 Jesus singles out an ailing man who could not obtain healing from any source and heals him even though the man does not ask Jesus to heal him and does not even know who Jesus is. Grace.

In chapter 6 Jesus multiplies the fish and loaves in order to feed thousands who would otherwise go hungry. Grace.

In chapter 8 Jesus saves the life of a woman caught in adultery, but also tells her not to do it again. Grace.

In chapter 9 he sees a blind man who has been in that condition from birth. Jesus reaches out and heals him. Grace.

I could go on about how Jesus comforts Mary and Martha at the death of their brother, and of his servant's attitude that he shows when he washes his disciples feet, even the feet of Judas. I could explain how Jesus treats Pilate with respect and dignity. And I can tell you about how he maintains his own dignity in the face of unspeakable indignities, but I think I have made my point. Grace is more than just the dictionary definition of "unmerited pardon". It is that indeed, but it is so much more than just that. 

That little English word "grace", if Jesus' example is any guide, should maybe be replaced by a more encompassing word. Maybe it would be better to use the word "gracious". If we use that, we'll see it for what it is and maybe be motivated to live grace the way Jesus did. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Why did Paul call the Corinthians fools? They only asked a question.

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” I Corinthians 15:35)
Answer a fool according to his folly. ... Answer not a fool according to his folly. (Proverbs 26: 4, 5) 
The Corinthians had a question for Paul: what kind of a body will we have in the resurrection?  Many have asked questions like this. Will we recognize each other? Will we have a resemblance to how we look now? (Ugh!) Or will we look like we did in our late 20s? (Better!) Will we be able to get up a game of baseball and not supernaturally crash home runs on every pitch? Odd questions, some of them, but ones we want to ask.

Paul, however, answers the question with a sharp rebuke: "Fools!" (I Corinthians 15:36)

With all due respect to Paul, those questions aren't foolish at all. We want answers. Why does he call the Corinthians fools for asking a question that any of us might ask?

Understanding Paul's response to the Corinthians' question can act as an excellent example of a cardinal rule of Bible study: get the context.

The Corinthian church was a troubled church. They were blessed with many gifts (I Corinthians 12 & 14), but along with their many gifts they carried baggage from their background. Their Classical Greek culture led them to ask a lot of questions, many of which we see Paul referring to throughout this letter (7:1, 25; 8:1; 9:1, etc.) Along with this admirable quality, they were also infused with Dualism, a carryover from Greek philosophy, which manifested itself in Christianity in the form of Gnosticism. Gnosticism in all its various forms made a sharp distinction between the physical and spiritual. Paul's epistles, the General Epistles, and many of the next generation of church leaders confronted this heresy, and it's evident from Paul's frequent references to "knowledge" (Greek: gnosis) in I Corinthians that it was an issue in this congregation.

At its core Gnosticism teaches that the physical world including our physical bodies are ultimately worthless. In some iterations of Gnosticism the physical is completely evil and the creation of an evil demiurge who was the Yahweh of the Old Testament. Therefore at death our souls would be would be released from this demon-inspired physical world and freed into the spirit realm, which is of the true God.

If that is the case, why is there any need for a resurrection of the body? Why was there a need for Jesus' physical body to disappear from the tomb? Wouldn't it make sense that being liberated from the evil physical world would eliminate any need for a "resurrection"? A resurrection to what? Wouldn't his soul already in a glorified, spiritual place?

This is exactly what Paul felt a need to address in I Corinthians 15. "Now if is preached that he rose from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?" (Verse 12). So when they ask the questions, "How are the dead raised up?" and "with what body do the come?" they likely weren't asking the question because they wanted an answer. Some of them had their minds made up and were trying to trap Paul. They wanted nothing more than to be contentious.

When you and I ask that question, I would hope we ask it because we really want an answer. Paul would have given us the answer without first calling us fools. Even then, he answered the question anyway because, as the proverb says, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Churches must do their job

It has been said, accurately in its substance, that after the attacks of September 11, 2001 church attendance skyrocketed, only to fall back to pre-9/11 levels a year later.

The conventional wisdom why this was so may be correct, that the emotional effects of the attacks wore off, and people began to revert to their previous patterns of behavior.

Maybe that's true, but here is an alternative thought. Let's posit for a moment that people sincerely felt a need for God in that time of great stress. Let's just suppose that maybe people really did begin to ask the big questions in life, that they realized that there is more to life than the daily pursuit of stuff and status.

Let's suppose they were attending church services because they were sincerely trying to find God. In that case what reason could there be that people would drift away from church? Doesn't it seem odd that churches couldn't satisfy the hunger of an eager, seeking audience?

Could it be that the failure to thrive was not the seekers' fault at all, but the failure of the churches to nurture? Could it be that this desire to know God is still there, lying latent in their hearts, awaiting only the correct fanning flame to ignite?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Lion in the Street

There is a lion outside! I shall be slain in the streets! (Proverbs 22:13)
Let me tell you a little story. My first employer in Kansas City was in the habit of giving out year-end bonuses, and they encouraged us to use that money to fund an Individual Retirement Account. I, of course, knew better than to invest in an IRA. This was 1978, and everyone "knew" that the world was careening into the end time. This was "the gun lap", and it seemed to me that the money would be better spent on myself there and then. Why would any rational person invest for long term growth when the economy was clearly falling apart?

A few years after that my next employer established a 401k plan with a generous company match.  I wanted that match and contributed just enough to get it, but this was the 1980s after all and all the pundits I listened to were telling me that it all was a false prosperity. Only fools and suckers would trust their money to the market. And besides the end was nigh and I would be better off sending it to some ministry or other so the gospel could be preached.

I was one of the fortunate ones because I figured out sooner than most what Jesus meant in the Olivet Prophecy -- that the Son of Man is going to come at a time when we don't expect, and that a faithful and wise servant will be blessed if he finds us "so doing". I know people who were so frozen into end time lions in the street that they cashed out their retirement plans and spent it all, or mortgaged their houses and sent the money off to the prophet du jour, or spent every dime they could earn or borrow (eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die), and today they are struggling on a a barely adequate Social Security check if they are lucky.

Now I'm no pollyanna by any means, but I have been around the world of economics and finance long enough to have seen every type of forecast. Some have been accurate, I admit. But I can tell you that pundits and prophets have called eleven out of the last two recessions. I am not overly exaggerating about that. Every time the stock market takes a hit, someone is claiming that this is The Big One. One day someone will be right, but I am sure you have heard about that broken clock being right twice a day.

That cheshire lion in the street freezes people into doing nothing. People perceive too much danger to take risks for the future. Consequently they hunker down in their bungalows and hide with blankets over their heads.  I know this happens because if I had taken advantage of my first Kansas City employer's admonition to fund an IRA with my bonus and my second employer's 401k to invest at the very beginning of the longest bull market in American history, I would be sitting on the beach right now with a cold drink in my hand instead of preparing to go to the office in the morning. But those were youthful mistakes made by an inexperienced hand.

Here is the thing that distresses me about today's doomsday prognosticators. I used to say that if you want to get an American's attention, kick him in the pocketbook. I hate to say this about my countrymen, but when we in many American churches think about the end times, we think in terms of a stock market crash. Once I visited a church and someone from the pulpit announced that he knew when the stock market was going to crash. He actually gave a date. I knew where the date came from because it coincided with one prognosticator's calendar calculations about the end time melded with normal business cycles.  Imagine the Apostles basing revelation on business cycles! I can assure you that Christians in much of the rest of the world have radically different concerns.

My point is this. If we think of the end times in terms of a dollar crisis, what is our god? Does it not imply that we are looking to mammon for our security? Think of Christians in persecuting lands whose very freedom and maybe even their heads are at stake. I think they would view the end times in terms other than pocketbook issues. 

So here is my advice. Fear not the lion in the streets. Don't let anyone steal your joy and sink you into despair. Enter the streets and do your work. Let your Master find you so doing when he returns, because he will return at a time you think not, and that time might be more in the future than what you first thought. 

Most of all, look not to mammon for your deliverance and safety, for Someone else has that job.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Centurions

No, the centurions were not a 1950's Rock and Roll band, at least not as far as I know. Centurions were Roman military officers who were commanders over military units of about 100 men each. They were ubiquitous in the Holy Land during Jesus' day because, after all, Judea and its environs were occupied territory.

Yet there is something curious about each and every centurion mentioned in the New Testament. Let's take a quick survey of these men and the accounts about them.

Luke 7:1-10 and Matthew 8: 5-13 -- A centurion sends word to Jesus, begging him to come and heal a servant who is paralyzed and near death. Jesus agrees and offers to go to the servant's bedside. As Jesus is on his way the centurion sends word to Jesus, stating his own unworthiness to have the Lord "trouble" himself to "enter under his roof", and instead just say the word, knowing that his servant would be healed. Jesus marvels at his faith and heals the servant from a distance.

Mark 15:39 -- After seeing signs (a darkened sun, an earthquake, and the temple veil being torn), a centurion recognizes that "truly this man was the Son of God."

Acts 10: 1-48 -- The centurion Cornelius, "a devout man and one who feared God with all his household", and "who gave alms generously to the people", and "who prayed to God always" receives a special revelation from God to send for Peter for instruction in the way of God. God chooses this centurion and his household to be the first of the Gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit.

Acts 22: 25-26 -- Paul is delivered to the soldiers to be scourged even though there is no basis for it other than unfounded accusations by a small politically-driven religious class. Paul addresses a centurion who was standing by and reveals his Roman citizenship, which meant it was illegal for him to be scourged. The centurion prevents the scourging and appeals Paul's case to the commander, who rescinds his previous order.

Acts 24:23 --  A centurion at the command of the governor Felix allows Paul liberty.

Acts 27 -- A centurion named Julius is charged with the transporting of Paul as a prisoner to Rome. He treats Paul in a "kindly" way by allowing Paul to go ashore to receive medical care. Later (verse 43) he saves Paul's life as the ship was about to break up.

I take a lesson from this, though I am sure there are many more than just one. First Century Rome was an extremely corrupt place. Its empire was corrupt, its morals were corrupt, its people were corrupt, its officials were corrupt. In spite of all this there were still men of honor who were a part of the Roman system. It is the same today. It is tempting sometime to paint everyone in the government employ with the same wet brush. But that just isn't fair, as the stories of the centurions show.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Required Reading for Supreme Court Justices: The US Constitution

I am no fan of the death penalty for the simple reason that I don’t trust the criminal justice system. On the other hand, one cannot rationally claim that capital punishment is unconstitutional when the Constitution addresses it in the way that it does. The fact that a Supreme Court Justice prefers not to understand the English language is at the heart of the problem with SCOTUS. If it is time to abandon the death penalty, then let’s have an adult discussion about it. Is it that we are beyond the ability to have adult discussions? Are we no longer able to rule ourselves and therefore need the robed few to rule over us?

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: 

 “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer:

"Rather than try to patch up the death penalty's legal wounds one at a time, I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution."