Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Good Earth

[Note: This is a copy of the editorial in Northwest Arkansas Times for Dec. 24, 2008]

Far too few people today know what it really feels like to be inspired by human ingenuity, to be awed by the sheer chance of existence and to actually see God's hand before one's eyes, all at the same moment. Forty years ago tonight, with the nation at war and old realities falling by the wayside, millions paused to reflect on the beauty of this world - if only fleetingly.

On Dec. 24, 1968, the three astronauts of NASA's Apollo 8 - Mission Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot James Lovell and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders - turned their cameras on the Earth as they circled around the moon. The images they sent back looked nothing at all as one with feet firmly stuck to the ground might have expected. The tumult of 1968 was lost in the great cloud-swept oceans and land masses and the massive, truly massive, curtain of blackness surrounding this little swirly marble in the heavens. The vast emptiness of space was a silent reminder of an obvious truth: that we only have one Earth, and probably ought to spend our time on it appreciating life.

Forty years ago today that was certainly not the game plan. As the Vietnam War raged, GIs were coming home in body bags with heartbreaking regularity. The assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy sent the youth of America reeling; one byproduct of their deaths sent voters everywhere searching for a safe, moderate message, thus fueling Richard Nixon's phoenix-like rise from the ash-heap of history all the way to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, fires and protests and outrage took hold of urban centers. The United States has seldom seemed so torn up, so confused, as it did in the closing days of 1968.

Forty years later, it's strange how little things have changed. Once again the country is at war. Once again the country is largely defined by its cultural divisions. Yes, Barack Obama's election to the White House is proof that progress is afoot. But with so much of humanity hurting as the end of 2008 approaches, there's little doubt that humanity's ancestors would be depressed to learn that the species has progressed no further than flat-screen televisions and iPods.
Happily, some still take comfort in the wisdom of old stories. That was certainly the case for the crew of Apollo 8 who, with a world watching the planet Earth spin on its axis, closed that night's broadcast from space by reading from the Book of Genesis. William Anders went first. He began, "For all the people on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message we would like to send you."

"In the beginning God created the heaven
and the earth. And the earth was without
form, and void; and darkness was upon the
face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved
upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God
saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness."

It was Jim Lovell's turn next ...
"And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

Finally, there was Frank Borman ...
"And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth."

Monday, October 27, 2008

When Did Presidents Start Smiling? - Part 2

Searching the archives of Presidential images in the continuing quest to find the first consistent portraiture of a "smiling" Commander-in-Chief . . .

Part 2
Woodrow Wilson

President Wilson is the bitterest looking President of the Twentieth Century. Maybe the bitterest looking president ever. If Charles Dickens had written a story about a grumpy president, he would look like Wilson. Notice the famous photo of Wilson at his desk in the Oval Office. He seems perturbed. We've interrupted him while he is busy signing the Treaty of Versailles. Or maybe he was busy calling up folks and asking them to join the League of Nations. That would make anyone bitter.

Personally, it reminds me of being called into the principal's office. I feel like a freckle-faced ruffian who's been caught shooting spitwads on the bus. I can imagine Principal Wilson saying, "What do you have to say for yourself you unrepentant scalawag? Tell me why I should not give you a thrashing young man!"

"Forgive me guv'nor," says I, "'twas just a 'armless spitwad! 'Twern't like I shot the Archduke Ferdinand or 'nuffin."

Yet, there is another side of Woody. He becomes a rather jaunty fellow out on the campaign trail. He's sporting a big grin. This urged me to search for more pictures of Wilson and I think I have found a common thread in quite a many Smilin' Wilson images: Wilson smiles when he's wearing a top hat.

All it takes is the top hat and he magically becomes the cheeriest president we've ever known. Maybe Frosty the Snowman's magic top came from Wilson? That magic hat changes Woodrow the Woodman into Woody the Ritzy Prez! The clue is in the song: "There must have been some magic in that old silk hat they found, for when they placed it on his head, he began to dance around."

He does look like he's about to dance, don't you think? He looks like the singing frog from the Warner Bros. cartoon. "Hello my baby! Hello my darlin'!"

However, upon further research, I found that in a few instances other hats also make the Woodster smile a mile. Here he is at a baseball game. Maybe he's just smiling because he's enjoying America's favorite past time? Maybe he found a lick and stick tatoo in his box of Cracker Jack? But notice that he is wearing a hat that isn't top. I suppose it was considered bad form to wear a top hat to a baseball game.

His official portraiture is too grim and serious for him to be considered the first Smiling Prez. After all, he is the World War I leader of the U.S. That's not the sort of thing to smile about. But Wilson does seem to understand that when one is campaigning it is good to smile for the camera! We're getting closer.
The quest will continue . . .

When Did Presidents Start Smiling?

I have a ruler in my desk that features the portraits of all the Presidents of the USA. The Presidents of the late 20th century seem to be much happier than the grim-faced leaders of previous decades. Not really sure why since there seems to be as many worries now as then. This casual observation made me wonder "At what point in history did Presidents start smiling?"

I cannot fix a watershed moment when Presidential portraiture seems to lose it gravitas and devolve into a class yearbook. On my ruler, there's a noticeable change from LBJ with his hound dog visage to Nixon's toothy grin so large that he seems to be losing a set of false choppers. This is not the moment though as there are definite smilers predating LBJ.

I realize that other factors are at work such as the style of portraiture and the nature of early photographs that required long exposure. The state of dental care may have had something to with it. Who really wants to see Washington's (wooden?) teeth?

Of course, the picture used for each president can make a difference. My promotional ruler from Workmen's Insurance Group cannot be considered the official cannon of Presidential portraits. So, I have decided to search in the field like an archaeologist. I have been looking for the earliest appearance of a Presidential smile. Smiles should not be confused with their genetic cousins the "smirk" or "grimace." Likewise, one must be careful not to confuse a posed smile with a candid moment of laughter.

For instance, there is this photo of Teddy Roosevelt that has become the quintessential image of TR. It is the template for caricatures and clip art of Teddy. Yet, this photo is uncommon. It's an unguarded moment. Probably taken after someone told Ol' Ted a knee-slapping joke about how many Spaniards it takes to screw in a light bulb. (Wait, did they have light bulbs then?) This photo is not the "pose for the camera portraiture" similar to modern portraits of Presidents. TR is much more serious in his official state sanctioned White House photos.

I will rule out Teddy, but perhaps TR is a benchmark for the quest. There is very scant eveidence of a smiling Commander-in-Chief before TR. Certainly not in the official portraiture. (Although the case can be made that James Buchanan is smirking. He is the only bachelor president, but I don't know if that has any relevance.) Tracking the history from TR takes us into the 20th century and we can narrow the range to the early half of the 20th century since Nixon and Reagan are always smiling and all the others have followed suit. So, who among the 20th century Presidents is the first smiler?

William Howard Taft

What about Taft? He's fat so he ought to be jolly, right? That is the stereotype, yes? If he was jolly, he kept it off-camera. It's hard to tell if Taft is even smirking with his handlebar mustache in the way. He is the last President to sport facial hair by the way - unless you count eyebrows as facial hair.

I can understand why Taft may not have been so jolly. He probably did not feel too much like smiling after getting stuck in the bathtub of the White House. No, Taft doesn't really smile but he makes us smile. For example, before weighing in as President, Taft weighed in as Governor of the Philippines at a healthy fighting weight of 350 lbs. One day he sent a telegraph (that's a form of early email) to Secretary of State Elihu Root, "Rode forty miles on horseback today; feeling fine." Root wired back, "Glad you are feeling fine; how is the horse?" I love it that the Secretary of State has a sense of humor.

The search will continue . . . .

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Why I'm Not Worried

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

"And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them." (Jesus, Matt. 6)

How secure are your securities? So how is your money and commodities? Are you using them, or are they using you? Are you weary of being a consumer consumed with worry? Are you tired of anxiously running after all these things? Then take a walk . . .

Just go outside and walk around and you will see the world that God runs. Maybe there are some blooming of flowers nearby, or maybe you will see the master’s artistry in the fall colors – colors that inspire the great fashion houses. You will have to pay thousands of dollars for designer clothing. The trees pay nothing for God’s care.

Go outside and walk around and you will see birds building their houses and collecting food. You and I may ring up a hefty bill for lunch and get anxious if the meal isn’t ready in fifteen minutes. But the birds pay nothing for God’s care.

And God isn't exhausted after taking care of birds, trees, flowers. He know what you need. He knows better than Obama or McCain or Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae. He knows what you need because he knows you. Do you know him?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Breaking Out in Blessedness

Peace is a rare thing in our world. Russia and Georgia have been in the throes of armed conflict. Some wonder if this singals the return of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Conflict in the Middle East continues. The surge in Iraq may be working, but it remains a nation in need of being rebuilt. The United States has been at war with terror since 9/11. There are other breaches of peace not as high profile. In Uganda young children are conscripted into the Lord’s Resistance Army. Their name sounds holy – their practices are not. We pay a little more attention to Sudan now. In Sudan’s Darfur region over 50,000 people are displaced because of conflict - - even aid workers are in harm’s way. Making peace is so difficult in a world devoted to violence. The world is at war even in places away from the news camera and places that do not seem to be in the interest of the U.S. government. Precious souls are being lost forever because there is no peace.

We may not feel threatened by violence, but the power of poverty can be overwhelming. Even if you have a job you can feel powerless. Katrina Gill has a job. She is a nursing aide in a care center and she works long hours monitoring vitals, turning patients to avoid bedsores, and changing adult diapers. But she and her husband, a mechanic, have no health benefits. They pay $640 a month for a family policy. They have racked up $160,000 in debt – medical expenses – because their son Brandyn has cancer.

Katrina is just one example of what it means to be meek and powerless in our age. Many of us labor in a setting of maximum insecurity, where one missed bus, one stalled engine, one sick kid means the difference between keeping a job and getting fired. At any moment, a company pressured to pump profits can slash hours, or layoff workers, or even cut loose jobs. This isn’t a labor vs. management issue. It’s a human issue. Managers and owners are caught up in the faceless and non-personal economic and political forces that make us feel powerless.

Have you ever felt powerless? Have you at least sensed that something about our culture and society just isn’t right? It isn’t right for a credit card company to stick a person who can’t pay bills with a 30% interest rate. If a thug in an alley does that it’s called loan-sharking. If Chase or Citibank does it it’s called “a change in agreement.” Something isn’t right. Joe Francis is the millionaire producer of the Girls Gone Wild soft-porn video series. He claims it is just innocent entertainment. He claims it is protected by the First Amendment.

How can Francis be protected by our laws when violence against women is a serious problem in our society? Have you ever felt that something just isn’t right? Have you ever felt the pangs for righteousness in your gut? You know it if you feel parched waiting for the waters of justice to roll down like a mighty river against the stifling heat of injustice.

It is difficult to forgive the worst offenders of justice let alone forgiving the friend who hurts us. It is difficult to forgive. It is difficult to be merciful - especially when people take advantage of our mercy. That’s why we want to surround ourselves with people we can trust. People who strive to have a purity of heart. But even in the church we meet those who hurt us. Every time we hear a story about disciples that condemn the suffering rather than help them, we grieve. Every time we hear a story about disciples that exclude rather than invite, it makes us grieve.

And we have enough to be sad about already, don’t we? We have lost loved ones. We have suffered because of sin. We are suffering because of illness. There seems to be no end to the tears, pain, and sorrow.

I confess that I have nothing to say. I am at a loss for words. I cannot even write a sermon to speak to the problems and sorrows of the world as we know it. But I want to lead you to another preacher. I want to begin preaching someone else’s sermon. This preacher spoke to the word as we know it – the world I just described – but he proclaimed that something was going to change. He spoke of a new order of things in which those who experienced the kind of discomfort we just spoke about will instead be happy.

I would like you to follow me over to the hillside where this preacher has just sat down and he begins to speak . . .

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

What you have just heard is the opening of a sermon from our founder, our Lord, Jesus Christ. In our difficult times, I think it is fitting that we should hear from Him. In the midst of the trials and hopes we have shared as a church family I think it is fitting that we should hear from Him.

Sure, you’ve heard this before. But you’ve probably heard these phrases broken up and scattered. Like gems that have been popped loose from their settings; they still glisten, but you don’t get the full effect. These “beatitudes” are not little nuggets of moral advice. These are not the appetizers before the main course. And Jesus isn’t using “bless” or “blessed” the way Southern culture does. It’s been said that you can say anything mean and nasty about someone in the South as long as you say “Bless their heart.” ["He just isn’t very smart, bless his heart. She looks so old – and fat, bless her heart." Get it?]

Jesus is not condescending or patronizing when he says “Blessed are the poor.” Blessed means that “God’s favor is resting on you.” So he’s saying, “God’s kingdom is breaking into this world. It’s coming to you, and today you have the favor of God.” What a way to open a sermon!

Taken together, this set of “blessings” is an official notice. A notice – like those ominous looking signs that get posted by our city councils that say – “We’re building a shopping center here. If you don’t like it, you can come tell us.” Christ is putting the world as we know it on notice. He’s saying that things are going to change. And like an official notice, some people welcome it – and some do not.

If you are poor and know that something is wrong with economies that keep people poor, then you welcome the notice because God’s favor rests on you. If you are sad or have ever known sadness, then welcome the notice, God’s favor rests on you. If you have ever felt helpless and powerless against forces too great to describe, then welcome the notice because God’s favor rests on you. If you have felt the anxiety of losing worldly security, then welcome the notice because God’s favor rests on you. If you have ever wanted justice and righteousness so bad you can taste it, then welcome the notice, God’s favor rests on you.

If you have ever forgiven others even though it cost you, then welcome the notice. If you are weary trying to help others live at peace with each other, then welcome the notice. If you have long desired to overcome sin and draw close to God, then welcome the notice because God’s favor rests on you!

These beatitudes are an extended way of saying that the kingdom of God is near. He is saying that the kingdom of God is breaking into the world and setting up shop. The world as we know it is breaking out in blessedness.

But be on notice! There are forces in this world that do not welcome the Kingdom of God. There are those who are invested in keeping the poor just as they are. There are those who are invested in activities that cause some to be sad. There are those who are invested in keeping some people powerless and insecure. There are those who are invested in unrighteous enterprises and unjust practices. There are those who cannot show mercy because they stand to lose. There are even those who are invested in war and conflict.

And it is not because they have dark sinister hearts, rather it’s because they have built their house on the foundations of the world as we know it. Christ is putting these people and powers on notice as well. He’s warning them that it is time to re-invest! And Christ is saying that if you are one of these who need to re-invest or even if you are one of these who welcome that change it won’t necessarily be easy. The forces and powers that like things as they are will insult you, lie about you or persecute you. But even if that happens, God’s favor rests on you!

Jesus, the teacher, is going to show us the path to start living in the world of God’s blessed favor even now – before it comes in all of its glory. This is a notice – an invitation for all of us. Will we invest in the world as it is? Or shall we live for the world that’s breaking in all around us? Shall we strive to be merciful, pure of heart, and make peace? Will we commit to living out the virtues of the world that is coming?

Jesus notifies us that there is going to be an outbreak of blessedness. Who dares to live out the teaching of Jesus Christ?


What do you think it means to be blessed?

Look at each group that is mentioned (poor in spirit, those who mourn, etc.). Who do you identify with most? Is there any group of people that you would associate with any of these groups?

The kingdom of heaven is the blessing at the beginning and end of this series (v. 3 and 10). What does the coming of the kingdom of heaven mean for us?

Are the conditions described in the beatitudes (poor in spirit, etc) virtues that we should strive to develop or are they situations and circumstances in which we find ourselves?

This section is usually titled “the beatitudes.” You have the job of re-titling it with a phrase that is more common and ordinary. What will you call it?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dara Torres is 41!

Have you heard? Dara Torres is 41-years-old! I don't believe it! She's 41 and has a kid and she's winning medals and swimming in the Olympics at the age of 41.

But she isn't supposed to do that, becuase she's like 41! That's really, really old. I'm not even that old. I'm only 40. But Dara Torres is 41. She could be the mother of all those other women she's competing against. In fact she's old enough to be the mother of say 20 of them because she is 41 and she could be having a lot of babies in that time.

But there she is swimming and winning medals at the age of 41. That's just so bizarre. She is so old. I think she's like 41. It is just so great to see an Olympian and someone so fit even at the age of 41. She is keeping up with girls half her age, which would of course be 20 years and 6 months because Dara Torres is 41. Actually, she's not only keeping up with them but she is actually beating them. Beating them wouldn't be such a big deal except for the fact that Dara Torres is 41. 41!!!! Can you believe it!?! 41! Which Dara Torres is - she is 41. She's better than ever and she is 41.

Hey, did you know that Dara Torres is 41?

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Dracula by Abercrombie and Fitch

When did vampires and werewolves become sexy teenagers in love? I haven't read Stephanie Myers books. She's probably a great writer and I won't diminish her popularity, but please permit me to be clueless and just not get it.

Dracula and the Wolfman are monsters. They were the primo movie villains. Wolfman was a poor schmoe who ended up with a curse. Dracula on the other hand was King of the Vampires. He was calculating and grim. He might steal your girlfriend just because he wanted to show off - not because he was in love.

Maybe it started with Lost Boys. They were hip teen vampires. However, they didn't have the pouty lips and tired eyes of this current bunch of underwear and blue jean models. Twilight is Dracula as reimagined by Abercrombie and Fitch.

One monster is being left out of this trend. Long before these newcomers, he had pouty lips and the sunken, heavy-lidded eyes. Where's the young, sexy Frankenstein? I think this may be my opportunity. Now if I can only figure out how to write stories that teenage girls will buy -- hah, good luck!

Esmerelda (Esme) felt out of place at her new school. Making friends was not easy. Her world changed when she met Franz. He didn't say much, but she longed to hear him say, "Friend . . . good." Esme was so in love with Franz that she was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. She would not be happy until she had bolts installed in her neck and then she and Franz could live happily ever after and raise children with flat heads and thick shoes.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Sign of the Apocalypse

Fort Smith is in the news as the location of "Borat's" latest prank. We've been Punk'd. (I know, that's Ashton Kutcher, but it makes a point). If you want details, read the full report at The Smoking Gun. This has made the news worldwide.

The last time Fort Smith was in the news on this scale was two summers ago when a rainbow appeared in the sky with lightning. A different kind of rainbow and thunder was the focus of the recent prank. Attendees at a cage fight were enraged by two actors who engaged in PDHA - "public display of homosexual affection."

Here's what I find interesting about this imbroglio . . .

1. In America, Sasha Baron Cohen is known as Borat. Most Americans wouldn't recognize Cohen's real name. Congrats with that Borat.

2. Rumor has it that Sasha Baron Cohen filmed the prank eliciting the homophobic response as part of an effort to promote gay marriage. This is just a rumor, but assuming it has some element of truth, why would a parody of homosexual behavior make any sort of argument for gay marriage. Does "Borat" expect us to believe that his exaggeration is a representation of gay marriage? There are problems regardless of how one answers that question. If the goal was simply to expose redneck homophobia, how does that advance the legitimacy of homosexual marriage? This is a flawed causality.

3. Understandably, people are angry that Cohen has made them the butt of a joke. However, there's not a lot of redeemable content in an event that brags about "hot chicks, cold beer, hardcore fights." In other words, the event was deserving of contempt even before the actors stripped down to their underwear and started kissing.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Could This Be Postmodern?

The Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, appeared on "The Colbert Report" tonight. I am a fan of Wright and I appreciate his work. His interview with Stephen Colbert (who I remind myself is the voice of Prof. Impossible on the Venture Brothers) is on the subject of heaven and the resurrection.

Here's a popular scholar and high ranking clergyman in the Church of England chatting about the matter of extreme eschatalogical significance on a "mock" news show. And the interview came off pretty well; perhaps better than it would have on 20/20, Dateline, or some other network news magazine.

To top off the surrealism, the other guest on the show was Cookie Monster.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Iron Man and Pop Culture

The summer movies are off to a good start. I revived my work over at the Magic Lantern Show with an entry about Iron Man

Here's the link

This summer, as a part of our VBS, Shane Hughes and I will feature a class for adults on Gospel and Culture. It is very similar to the goal of the Magic Lantern Show.

Right now we are thinking about four discussions: 1) Rap and Hip-Hop (that's Shane); 2) Country Music (I am not a fan, but this is me); 3) Lost (definitely me); 4) reality shows (Shane's turn).

I am also way behind in writing a paper for the Christian Scholar's Conference in Nashville this June. My subject will be "As Seen On TV: Developing a Christian Hermeutic for Television."