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Blog Archive for 6/5/04 - 7/5/04

Series Posts Not Included in the Archive:

"European Reflections"

"The Soul of Worship"


Freedom . . . For What?
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, July 4, 2004

The following is an excerpt from the sermon I preached this morning. If you'd like to read the whole sermon, click here. I'll be returning to the series "The Soul of Worship" tomorrow.

The picture to the right is of the original Declaration of Independence. The document is now quite faded. Hopefully, we won't need to say the same thing for our freedom as a nation.

I hope you had a blessed Independence Day!

Summer vacation has begun!

I can remember vividly the last day of school when I was a kid. What joy and exaltation! “No more pencils. No more books. No more teacher’s dirty looks.” No more schoolwork. No more homework. No more projects. Just two and a half months of freedom, sweet, utter freedom. What could be better?

But before too long it would happen. Inevitably. Ironically. Pathetically. My feeling of summer freedom would slowly morph into something else, something sad and unwanted. Boredom!

Parents, you know what I’m talking about. For a few days in early summer your kids are thrilled. But before too long you hear that classic complaint: “Mom, I’m bored. There’s nothing to do.” So you say, “Well, why don’t you call up your friends and figure out something?” And your child answers, “Oh, I don’t know. I’m just bored.”

Freedom from the demands of school. It sounds great at first. But is it enough?

In a much more serious vein, we’re seeing a similar drama playing out on the world’s stage. The people of Iraq have been set free from the brutal oppression of Saddam Hussein. They are beginning to experience unprecedented freedom from harsh despotism. But the jury is still out about whether this will turn out for the best or not for the Iraqi people. They are free from Saddam’s tyranny, but will they actually live as free people, or will they simply fall prey to the next version of bondage?

Freedom from Saddam’s cruel dictatorship. It sounds great at first. But is it enough?

In our day we mostly think of freedom as freedom from something that constrains or subjugates us. On the last day of school we celebrate freedom from the daily demands of education. On the Fourth of July we celebrate America’s freedom from British domination. Surely freedom includes freedom from. But this isn’t the whole picture.

There is another side to freedom, a side we sometimes neglect. . . . (to continue, click here).


Celebrating the Fourth of July
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 3, 2004

Today my neighbors and I enjoyed our annual Fourth of July celebration. (Yes, we did it on the third of July so we wouldn’t lose all the churchgoing folk. Think of that!)

This is one of my favorite yearly celebrations, partly because it isn’t slick or professional or glitzy. It’s just a bunch of neighbors getting together for a homespun parade, games, food, and some great bluegrass music. The highlight of the morning is the parade, in which children dress up and march or ride around the park in patriotic costumes.

I thought I’d share a few choice pictures from this event, to help you celebrate Independence Day.

From kids on tricycles to grandparents cheering them on, everybody was celebrating. "We Love America," the sign proclaims.

This girl even brought her stuffed animals in her wagon so they could participate in the parade too.

Speaking of animals, here's an especially patriotic pooch!
What? You want some of my sno-cone? Are you crazy, mister? I don't even know you! Get lost! Oh, and happy Fourth of July!

Okay, okay. So we don't do fireworks at our midday neighborhood Fourth of July party. And we don't have the Washington Monument in Irvine, California, either. But you've got to love this picture! That's why I included it.

May you have a happy Fourth of July!


Outsourcing Prayer Requests to India!?!?
Posted at 8:00 a.m. on Friday, June 18, 2004

No, this is not a joke. And, no, this doesn’t appear to be some fake news story that somehow made it into print. Though this story seems at first glance to be as outrageous as the “Bill Gates Wants to Buy the Catholic Church” story that goes round the ‘Net periodically, from all I can tell, there is truth here. After all, when the New York Times and the Washington Times agree on something, it must be true. (Thanks to Jim Foster for this story.)

So here’s the scoop. Some Roman Catholic priests in American (also in Canada and Europe) have been “outsourcing” prayer requests to India. In technical terms, they have been sending “Mass intentions” to priests in India, so that special prayers can be offered during Masses held in that country. Some of these intentions have been routed through the Vatican, though others have been sent directly to India via e-mail. The person making the special request pays a small amount of money to the priest who says the Mass (in the area of $5.00). This additional income has been helpful to some Indian priests, many of whom are quite poor.

Not everyone thinks this is a great idea. Some have criticized the Indian church as overly materialistic. Others have lamented the loss of a West-centered Christianity. A leader of English labor union decried the outsourcing of prayers to India, saying that this "shows that no aspect of life in the West is sacred.'' He went on to say, "The very fabric of the nation is changing. . . . We need to have a long, hard think about what the future is going to look like."

A church in Cochin, India, in the state of Kerala, where many of the "outsourced" prayers have been prayed.

I must admit I find all of this rather fascinating. It certainly is a sign of our times! (And I wonder what John Kerry, the Roman Catholic presidential candidate who has been so upset about outsourcing, thinks of it.)

Of course one could lament the problems of the Roman Catholic church in America and elsewhere: the shortage of priests to offer prayers, the need to send requests to another country, etc. But, to tell you the truth, I rather like some of what is implied in this story. A person makes a prayer request in the United States and shortly thereafter someone in India is offering up this request. This is an exquisite example of the church as the universal body of Christ. Things like this happen regularly in my church as we pray for our mission partners throughout the world and they pray for us. E-mail has allowed these requests to be very up-to-date.

Moreover, since there is some small exchange of money in the Roman Catholic “outsourcing” program, it allows the wealthy church in the West to support the impoverished church in India. An extra $5.00 may not seem like much to us, but it’s a lot to an Indian priest whose monthly salary is $45.00.

The critical leader of the English labor union may have been more prophetic than he realized. He is concerned about the lack of sacredness of life “in the West.” And he thinks we need to have “a long, hard think about what the future is going to look like.” Indeed, the future of Christendom is going to look more and more like what we see in this story. I’m not suggesting that all denominations will be outsourcing their prayer requests to Asia. But I am saying that the Christianity of the future will be something much less Western than anything we have seen in the past century. As Philip Jenkins demonstrates in his eye-opening book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, in the 21st century the Southern Hemisphere will surpass the North in numbers of Christians. The future of Christianity on this earth will look much less European and much more Latino/African/Asian – yes, even Indian.

One final note. As a Protestant, I don’t quite understand the “charging for prayer requests” idea. But I suppose I could learn! If you’d like me to lift up your need in my next worship service, just send me $5.00 and consider it done. Well, then again, I might be tempted to send your request overseas, so you’d better forget it. I'll stick with praying for free.


A Brief Review of the Movie Saved!
Posted at 11:15 p.m. on Monday, June 13, 2004

I saw the movie Saved! tonight. It's a film about students in a Christian high school and their struggles with faith and life. I knew enough about the movie to believe that it had great promise. Also, I was aware that Ebert and Roeper gave film two thumbs up. So, although Jerry Falwell hated the movie because of its negative portrayal of Christians, I hoped that it would be worth seeing.

I was very disappointed because Saved! did not realize its promise. The biggest problem with the film was that the purportedly Christian characters we're exaggerated almost to the point of being cartoon figures, while the non-Christian or rebellious Christian characters were more nuanced and believable. Thus any legitimate or helpful critique of Christian hypocrisy was lost in the confusion of a religious comic book with a serious coming of age movie. Plus, the moral punch line about love and going with your feelings was far too obvious and anti-climactic.

I could say more about this film, but don't have to because Todd Hertz's review at Christianity Today hits the nail on the head. Also, Christianity Today includes a fascinating interview of the writer/director of Saved!, Brian Dannelly.


How to Fire Artillery Salutes
Posted at 9:15 a.m. on Monday, June 14, 2004

The memorial services for Ronald Reagan featured artillery salutes. If you'd like to know more about them by somebody who really knows, check out this fascinating piece by Donald Sensing. (He's now a Methodist ministery, but was one an artillery officer in the Army.)


On the Tyranny of Feelings:
The Los Angeles Cross Controversy, Part 2

Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 13, 2004

In a recent post I began to address the controversy over the cross on the seal of Los Angeles County. I argued that sometimes a religious symbol can be used non-religiously, and therefore to include such a symbol on a public seal would not be promoting one particular religion. The cross on the county seal is obviously meant signify historical events in Los Angeles, not to promote religious faith. In this case, I would argue, the cross is not a religious symbol so much as an historical symbol.

Of course the ACLU is not be inclined to make such careful logical distinctions. "The question is: will somebody who looks at the seal believe that there's an improper association between the government and one religion?" said Ben Wizner, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. "It's about preventing the appearance of religious sponsorship."

So, Wizner argues, the intent of those who designed and adopted the seal doesn’t matter. The way the vast majority of people understand the seal doesn’t matter. What matters is if somebody believes “there’s an improper association between the government and one religion.”

Somebody? One person? Or do we need several somebody’s? And what if that somebody is simply confused about the meaning? Should we cater to the ignorance of that person? Or should we rather help that person to understand the purpose and meaning of the cross on the seal?

Returning to my analogy from the previous post, suppose a non-Christian student in a public school used the textbook that included pictures of the cross on the graves in the Normandy American Cemetery. And suppose this student was offended and complained to school officials: “This textbook is promoting Christianity. I’m offended. The picture should be removed.” Should the school officials bow to this student's feelings? Or should they rather explain the truth to the student: “Actually, the point of the picture is not to promote Christianity, but to help you understand something about history. You should not be offended. The picture will not be removed.” I vote for option #2.

Let’s play out the ACLU’s “somebody thinks there’s an improper association between the government and one religion” argument a bit more. What if somebody believes that the prominent placement of the pagan goddess Pomona on the seal is “an improper association between the government and one religion”? What if somebody thinks that Pomona’s presence endorses paganism? Should the county be compelled to remove Pomona as well? Should we give somebody that much power?

The ACLU showed its true colors after the Board of Supervisors voted for the second time to remove the cross. “The board has shown leadership in the truest sense," said ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner. "The board is not ignoring or erasing the county's history. [Huh?!] It's honoring that history without making some residents feel unwelcome." Here’s the bottom line for the ACLU: not wanting some residents of LA County to feel unwelcome.

But let’s examine this argument a bit further. First of all, I wonder how many residents of LA County have actually been made to feel unwelcome by the presence of a cross on the county seal. One? Ten? A hundred?

Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the answer is 1,000 (which I imagine to be greatly inflated). Does this mean the county should remove the cross because 1,000 people feel unwelcome? If so, what if 1,000 Christians now feel unwelcome in Los Angeles County because the cross was removed while the pagan goddess was preserved? Or what if religious pagans now feel unwelcome in LA because the County apparently doesn’t take their religion seriously enough to remove the goddess from the seal? Whose feelings count the most? Whose feelings should rule the day?

I find it hard to believe that many real people were offended by the cross on the county seal. “Ah, but you’re a Christian,” you might respond, “You don’t understand.” Well, let me propose an analogy. Suppose I emigrated to Pakistan and made my permanent residence there. The Pakistani flag features a prominent star and crescent, a symbol of Islam. Would I be offended by this? Hardly. I’d realize that I had moved to a country with a strong Muslim population and history. That’s part of what it would mean to live in Pakistan. Thus I’d be a fool to
feel unwelcomed by the star and crescent symbol, even if it were actually meant to promote Islam. (I don’t know what the Pakistani government intends by the use of the Muslim symbol. I just know I’d be foolish to be offended by it.)

Thus, if there actually were someone who was offended by the cross on the LA county seal, the county’s first response should be to help that person understand the correct meaning of the cross. It’s not promoting Christianity, but reminding us of part of our history. If the person continued to be offended, then it would be best to tell that person kindly to get over it. “Christianity is a central part of LA county history,” the Supervisors should say, “and, whether you like it or not, this is not something we intend to erase. Living here in Southern California involves acknowledging our history and its symbols.”

Many critics of the ACLU have alleged that the organization has a strong anti-Christian bias. This may well be true, and may well help to explain the ACLU’s unreasonable behavior. But the comments by Ben Wizner also demonstrate that the ACLU has its own religion, the religion of feelings. If one person is offended by something, even if that person doesn’t have good reasons for being offended, then that person’s feelings trump reason. The problem with the tyranny of feelings, apart from its denigration of logic, is that people’s feelings will be all over the map. Leave the cross on the seal, and, theoretically at least, somebody might feel unwelcome. Take the cross off the seal but leave the pagan goddess, and others will feel unwelcome. Who’s to say, in the end, which feelings should count the most?

And what if somebody is offended by the very name of the county of Los Angeles, which means in Spanish, “The Angels.” Doesn’t this name have strong religious connotations? Moreover, the historic name of the city (and county) comes from the title “El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles,” which enthrones the Virgin Mary as the Queen of the Angels. I’m sure I could stir up a bunch of conservative Christians who would be offended by the patently Roman Catholic connotations of “Los Angeles,” not to mention others who don’t believe in angels. I could stir up a bunch of people to be offended, but I wouldn’t, because it would be foolish, and life’s too short to invest in folly.


Being Like Ronald Reagan, Even If You’re Not the President
Posted at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 12, 2004

Yesterday we witnessed one of the great historical events of our lifetime: the final day of tribute to Ronald Reagan. What began in the National Cathedral in Washington D. C. ended as the sun set at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. As one speaker mentioned, the last day of Reagan’s life extended “from sea to shining sea.”

I feel compelled to share a few thoughts in response to yesterday’s activities. So, yes, I’m going to interrupt a series (on the LA County seal) that interrupts a series (European Reflections). I promise I’ll get back on track soon.

I’ll leave it to others to comment on the historical and political significance of Ronald Reagan. I want to add a personal note, something that struck me as I listened to all of the accolades.

I’ll never be the President of the United States. And odds are pretty good that you won’t be either. You and I will never have the power, influence, and prestige of Ronald Reagan. We’ll never be able to impact the world as did the 40th president of the United States.

BUT, in many ways that truly matter, we can be like Ronald Reagan. As I listened to the eulogies by heads of state and Reagan’s own children, I found myself yearning to grow in several areas. Here they are:

Kindness: Just about everybody testified to Reagan’s personal kindness. He treated people kindly whether they were somebodies or nobodies. He wasn’t harsh or spiteful, which is saying a lot for a politician. Even Reagan’s political foes bore witness to his kindness.

I want to be kinder. I want to see the people around me more clearly and care for them more intentionally, whether they are my wife and children, my colleagues, or the folks who work in my favorite coffee shop. Sometimes I am kind, at least I think I am. But I could do better, especially when I’m feeling harried or hassled.

Humor: By all accounts, Ronald Reagan had a fantastic sense of humor. Some of this in inborn, of course, a matter of genes. And some is developed over time. But seeing genuine humor is also a matter of perspective. It’s standing back from life – and especially from ourselves – so that we can see the irony in our own existence. Much of Reagan’s humor was self-effacing. Though he took his mission in the world very seriously, he didn’t take himself too seriously. This is what I’d like to be: someone who can stand back from life and get perspective, someone who can laugh at himself and his foibles. I need more humor in my life, and I need to help others find more humor in theirs.

Courage: Ronald Reagan was a man of courage. He was willing to stand up for what he believed no matter what others said of him. (And, you may recall, many said very nasty things about President Reagan.) He was willing to put his life on the line for his convictions.

I’m not a timid person. But I could use more courage. Sometimes I’m afraid of looking foolish. Sometimes I put getting people’s approval above doing what I know to be right. I want to be a person of courage – which, in Christian perspective, means being a person of faith. Courage comes from trusting in God and his strength.

Active love for my wife: Ronald Reagan loved his wife Nancy, even as I love my wife Linda. I’d be surprised if he felt more love for Nancy than I do for Linda. But I’m quite sure he expressed his love for his wife more consistently than I do for mine. I can chalk up my lack of expression to busyness, distraction, and just plain inertia. I can defend myself by saying (truly) that I’m more expressive of love than some other husbands I know. But the example of Ronald Reagan inspires me to do better than I have done, to step back and feel gratitude for Linda, and to let her know it.

In his life, Ronald Reagan helped the world be a much safer, freer, and more prosperous place. In his death, he will inspire many to be more involved citizens and stronger leaders. I hope to be both of these. But I also want to be a person who is growing in kindness, humor, courage, and love for my wife. Thank you, Ronald Reagan, for helping me to be a better human being.

A bit of Christmas fun for the Reagans.


In Case You Missed It:
Michael Reagan's Comments About His Father

Posted at 9:15 a.m. on Saturday, June 12, 2004

With all the recent tributes to Ronald Reagan, you might have missed the comments of Reagan's children at the private memorial service in Simi Valley. These are not to be missed. You can find them all here.

But I found some of what Michael Reagan said to be especially moving and important. I'll reprint that part of his eulogy here so you don't miss it.

We had wonderful blessings of that nature. Wonderful, wonderful blessings that my father gave to me each and every day of my life. I was so proud to have the Reagan name and to be Ronald Reagan's son. What a great honor. He gave me a lot of gifts as a child. Gave me a horse. Gave me a car. Gave me a lot of things. But there's a gift he gave me that I think is wonderful for every father to give every son. Last Saturday, when my father opened his eyes for the last time, and visualized Nancy and gave her such a wonderful, wonderful gift.

When he closed his eyes, that's when I realized the gift that he gave to me, the gift that he was going to be with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He had, back in 1988 on a flight from Washington, D.C. to Point Mugu, told me about his love of God, his love of Christ as his Savior. I didn't know then what it all meant. But I certainly, certainly know now. I can't think of a better gift for a father to give a son. And I hope to honor my father by giving my son Cameron and my daughter Ashley that very same gift he gave to me. Knowing where he is this very moment, this very day, that he is in Heaven, and I can only promise my father this. Dad, when I go, I will go to Heaven, too. And you and I and my sister Maureen that went before us, we will dance with the heavenly host of angels before the presence of God. We will do it melanoma and Alzheimer's free.

When I die, I hope and pray that my children, more than anything else in the world, will be able to say, "My Dad helped me to know Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior." Nothing matters more to me as a father.


On the Meaning of a Symbol:
The Los Angeles Cross Controversy, Part 1

Posted at 9:00 p.m. on Friday, June 11, 2004

I want to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the cross on the county seal of Los Angeles. For those of you who are not familiar with this issue, I’ll summarize briefly. For the last fifty years or so, the County of Los Angeles has had an official seal. It incorporates elements of the history and culture of Los Angeles, including a fish to signify the fishing industry, two stars to represent the entertainment industry, a Spanish galleon to commemorate the explorers who came to California, and a tiny cross to memorialize the early Christian impact on Los Angeles through the Spanish missions. You can see from the seal pictured to the right that the cross is tiny, almost insignificant, and much less prominent than the picture of Pomona, the Roman goddess of the harvest.
The county seal, featuring the goddess Pomona, with a tiny cross on the right side.

Recently the ACLU threatened the County of Los Angeles with a lawsuit, alleging that the presence of the cross on the county seal violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The ACLU claims that the cross on the seal is an unconstitutional “endorsement of Christianity.” "The question is: will somebody who looks at the seal believe that there's an improper association between the government and one religion?" said Ben Wizner, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. "It's about preventing the appearance of religious sponsorship."

Fearing an expensive lawsuit, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to remove the cross from the seal, and to replace it with some less religious symbol (like a Spanish mission without a cross, which somebody described as a “Taco Bell”). What the Supervisors didn’t expect was the loud outcry from many citizens of Los Angeles, including Jews, Buddhists, and atheists, calling upon the Supervisors to rescind their vote. The protestors argued that the symbol on the seal is not meant to promote Christianity, but simply to commemorate the true history of Los Angeles, in which Christianity played a prominent, even a leading role. (To hear Dennis Prager's stirring speech urging Supervisors not to remove the cross, click here.)

But the Supervisors voted once again to remove the cross and to bow before the imperious threats of the ACLU. This is where the matter stands as of today.

Let me begin my response by saying that, as a Christian, I do not expect the government to promote Christianity. I don’t want the government to promote Christianity. In fact, I think there is great danger for the Christian gospel when the government gets in bed with the church or vice versa. (See, for example, my last post: Who Won? Rome or Christ?)

As a citizen of the United States, however, and as one who lived in LA County for 25 years, I’m very concerned about what the Supervisors have done. I believe that an accurate, truthful, and widely-acknowledged understanding of our history as a people is essential to our health and future. Erasing the cross, even such a tiny one, is an attempt to rewrite history in the image of ideology, not reality.

But I’m also very concerned about the logic behind the ACLU’s action and the County’s reaction. I’m not a legal scholar, so I’m not going to examine this case from a constitutional perspective, but from a logical, moral, and dare I say, common sense perspective.

The ACLU argues that the tiny cross on the county seal appears to sponsor Christianity. They argue, furthermore, that the cross is such an obvious religious symbol that it cannot be seen as otherwise. But I’m not so sure. Certainly in most contexts the cross is a religious symbol. But can’t it be displayed with other primary meanings? The cross was included on the county seal, not to promote any religion, but simply to commemorate the history of Christian influence in Los Angeles. Nobody has argued that the Supervisors who first voted for the county seal had the slightest intention of promoting Christianity (or the worship of the pagan goddess Pomona, for that matter). The fact is that they were using the cross, not as a religious symbol per se, but as an historical symbol. It wasn’t included on the county seal to encourage people to remember the meaning of the death of Jesus or to propagate faith in Jesus, but rather to recall the crucial influence of the Christian missions in the history of Los Angeles county. So, I would argue that the cross in this instance is not a religious symbol so much as an historical symbol. This cross points to the history of Los Angeles, not to the death of Christ and its meaning.

Let me use an analogy to help make my point. Suppose a history textbook used in the public schools sought to tell the story of D-Day. And suppose, further, that this textbook included a photograph of the Normandy American Cemetery, with its over 9,000 crosses on the graves of the soldiers who perished in the invasion. In this case a public school would be displaying an image of a cross (many crosses, actually). Now if the cross is necessarily a religious symbol, then this would be a violation of the Constitution. The ACLU would argue
that the textbook is promoting Christianity. But I think it’s clear that the textbook includes a picture of crosses, not with religious intent or meaning, but with historical intent and meaning. Yet if we buy the ACLU’s argument, then such a picture should be removed from a public school textbook. (I hesitate to use this analogy because I fear that I might give the ACLU a whole new realm in which to intimate and attempt to rewrite history!)

“But,” an ACLUer might respond, “what if someone takes the cross on the county seal of Los Angeles as a religious symbol, even if it was intended to have a purely historical meaning? What if  that someone is offended by the presence of the cross on the county seal? In this case, the cross should be removed.”

This is an important argument, and I will address it in my next post.

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