Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Our Hearts in the Clouds, Our Feet on the Ground

(A reflection based on Acts 1:1-14)

On the fortieth day after Easter, according to Luke, Jesus ascended from the earth to assume the place he occupies still today: his place at the right hand of the Father. During those forty days Jesus had appeared several times to his disciples. What experiences those must have been! He came and went, so they were accustomed to having him with him and then not having him with them. This time was different, though. This time he was going away and he would not appear to them again until he returned in power at the close of the age.

Who can blame them, then, for standing there, their mouths open and their hearts broken, staring up into heaven?
Who can blame them for being amazed and confused and dumbfounded and for being whatever else they were at that moment?

How long would they have stood and stared had not the two angels interrupted their reverie?

Perhaps in their awe and fear they had momentarily forgotten what Jesus had just said to them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). He was telling them what he had told them before, which was that when he was gone the Holy Spirit would come and they would be empowered to continue his work in the world. Then he ascended, and they stood and stared until the angels broke it up: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (v. 11). “Then they returned to Jerusalem” (v. 12).

It was time for them to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet back on the ground.
They had work to do.
They needed to do it.
They had to do it.

Herein lies a call and a challenge to us today.
There is much to be done.
There is much witness to be born.
We must do it.
It is what we are expected to do by our Lord.

The apostles could not stay on that mountain; they had to go back to Jerusalem because there was work to be done.

They had to be the body of Christ.
They had to be the church.
They had to be the work and witness of Jesus in the world.

We have that same job, and it is a very down-to-earth kind of thing.

I’ve been wondering why the angels addressed the apostles as “Men of Galilee.” There is the obvious truth that they were from the region of Israel known as Galilee. But the angels could have called them anything:
“Disciples of Jesus,”
“Friends of the Lord,”
“Scared and Amazed Ones,”
“Hardheaded and Forgiven Ones,”
and they would have all been accurate. Why did they use a term as mundane as “Men of Galilee”?

I wonder if it was because the group that stood there looking up into heaven as men of Galilee would come down off that mountain and go back to Jerusalem as people of the world. I wonder if the angels were implying that those disciples were going to have to break out of their limited selves in order to move out into the world. I know this: those men of Galilee ended up helping to take the gospel to the world.

In what ways are we “people of Galilee”?
In what ways are we defined by where we are from and by who we’ve always been culturally and socially?
In what ways do we need to break out of our box in order to do the work that we’ve been called to do?

Jesus said that the apostles would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.

Sometimes they were his witnesses in places they just happened to be.
Sometimes they were his witnesses in places they were forced to go by persecution.
Sometimes they were witnesses in places they chose and to which they planned to go.

But they couldn’t remain the men of Galilee and at the same time be the people who would turn the world upside down.

Let me ask you a question that I hope you will take seriously: where do you need to go to be faithful to the Lord’s calling in your life?

For you it may be a question of vocation. Have you examined your life lately to see if you are spending it the way the Lord really wants you to?
For you it may be a question of commitment. Have you examined your life lately to see if you really intend to life it in service to Christ?
For you it may be a question of ethics. Have you examined your life lately to see if there are places you are living in ways that run counter to your Christian faith and witness?
For you it may be a question of service. Have you examined your life lately to see if there are ways you need to be serving that you are not?

Sometimes I find myself thinking and saying that most of us need to do a much better job of doing the little things. But then I realize that they must really be big things if we have such a hard time getting them done. It is time for more of us to break out of our established ways of living and do some of those things, though. For example:

You may need to be inviting people to church.
You may need to be living a more Christ-like life in your workplace.
You may need to share your testimony with someone who needs to come to Christ.
You may need to work with children or preschoolers or youth.
You may need to sing in the choir.

I can’t be sure what your Galilee is, but I can be sure that many more of us need to get out of it and get on to somewhere else. There is work to be done, and we have to do it. We have to get our heads out of the clouds and our feet on the ground.

But let’s face it: if our hearts aren’t in the clouds, we don’t have a chance. Look at what the angels told the apostles after asking them why they were gazing into heaven: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v. 11). That’s the reality that they carried in their hearts with them back to Jerusalem.

The reality is that Jesus Christ has ascended to the right hand of God and from that place he reigns over all creation, over this world, and over our lives. The reality is that Jesus Christ will one day return in power to establish his reign completely and permanently; that is the blessed hope on which the apostles depended and on which we can count.

The apostles’ hearts were in the clouds and that’s where ours are, too: we love and depend on the only hope we have—the ascended and coming Lord.

The psalmist said, “I look unto the hills from which comes my help.” The apostles would have sung a variation on that theme: “I look to heaven from which comes my help.” For when the apostles went back to Jerusalem they went looking expectantly for the coming of the Holy Spirit. They went looking expectantly for the power of God to fall on them that would empower them for their work and for their mission. Their hearts were in the right place, for they were in an expectant place; they were expecting the power of God to come to them and enable them. So what did they do? They waited and they prayed (v. 14).

Sometimes we have to wait and pray. We must do what we must do, but we must do it only with the leadership and empowerment of God. We simply can never afford to forget from where our help comes, from where our power comes, from where our sustenance comes—it comes from heaven above where the Son is seated at the right hand of the Father and from where the Holy Spirit comes to us.

What finally transformed those disciples from men of Galilee into those people who turned the world upside down? It was their obedience to do the work, to be sure, but it was also their expectant waiting for the power that inevitably came. Their feet were on the ground but their hearts were in the clouds. May it ever be so for us.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Reprint at

The article "Strong to the 'Finich,'" which appeared here on January 25, has been published today at Click over and give it and the other articles there a look. It's a daily read for me.

Textile Mills Have Been Very, Very Good to Me

Debra and I were in Cabo San Lucas for a wedding a few years ago. We were out doing the tourist thing. My failure to take a cap on the trip combined with the very bright sun was wreaking havoc on my considerable forehead, the product of an ever receding hairline, which in turn is the product of rubbing my head too much when our children were teenagers. So, I ducked into a shop in search of a cap. I bought a nice golf cap that had “Cabo San Lucas” stitched on the front. As I was putting it on, I noticed the tag. I laughed. That cap and its tag have become for me a symbol of this brave new world in which we live. The cap was sold in Mexico. The tag bore a picture of an American flag. Underneath the flag were the words “Made in Vietnam.”

I thought about that cap yesterday when I read a story in my hometown newspaper, The Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette (I actually read it on their website,, about the old William Carter Company complex in Barnesville being bought by some developers. The article said that in its heyday that textile mill had employed some 1500 people. My mother was one of them. I don’t know what she did for most of her career there, but toward the end of her life she worked in the lab. Carter’s made clothes for babies and children and so flammability and other tests were very important. My father worked in the nearby town of Thomaston for Thomaston Mills. He was working there when he entered the Navy around the time that World War II started; he served his five or so years in the military and then went back to work at Thomaston Mills. He was there one nice May afternoon in 1979 when he suffered the heart attack that would cause him to die three days later.

I was very proud of my father; he had risen to the position of Manager of the Bleach Division which was, I suppose, as high as he could go with his high school education. When he had his heart attack and was in ICU at the Upson County Hospital, a couple of young men wearing nice suits came to see him. They were visibly upset. I had never seen them before so I asked someone who they were. He said, “Oh, those are the Georgia Tech graduates who don’t know how they’re going to run that place if your daddy doesn’t make it.” He didn’t make it. By 2001 Thomaston Mills had ceased operations in Thomaston. I like to think that it was because they couldn’t run it without Daddy. But 2001 was also the year that Carter’s mill in Barnesville went out of business, except for a distribution center that still employs a couple of hundred people. It would be an even bigger stretch to think that Daddy’s demise had anything to do with that. And as valuable an employee as I’m sure my mother was, she wasn’t in management, not even the blue collar type.

The causes of the closing of those mills are of course much more complicated than the deaths of a couple of good employees, even if they were my parents. I don’t know enough about economics to say too much about it, but obviously the textile industry has moved a lot of its manufacturing operations overseas. There just aren’t that many textile mills left here in the South and I imagine that it’s that way across the country. Another large outfit, Graniteville Mills, just across the river from my home in Augusta, Georgia, closed just a few months ago, causing the loss of 1900 manufacturing jobs. And so it goes.

It’s a funny thing, but I remember being inside either of the mills in which my parents worked exactly one time. When I was a child my parents took me with them to some kind of open house at Thomaston Mills; I suppose there must have been a recent remodeling. I never set foot inside Carter’s Mill. Not once. Perhaps those good parents of mine, neither of whom went to college but both of whom caused me to believe that I had no choice but to go, also went out of their way to make sure that I felt no real attachment to the mills that had been the source of their livelihood. Maybe they wanted to make sure that I went in a different direction. Maybe they knew what was coming.

Maybe. But today I want to say that I am grateful for Carter’s Mill in Barnesville, Georgia and for Thomaston Mills in Thomaston, Georgia. When I was in school and I had to fill out some form or another and I had to write my parents’ occupation, I would ask one of them what I should write and they would tell me, “Textile.” I didn’t really know what that meant. This much I do know, though: “textile” put a roof over our heads and food on our table and clothes on our backs; “textile” sent me to college.

So here’s a word of praise for what the textile industry once was and for what it once did for so many of us. I never worked in them, but those mills were very, very good to me.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Nobody Said It Was Going to Be Easy

(A Reflection based on Psalm 71:1-6)

I don’t know where it started. Maybe it was one of those lazy summer days of my childhood when I was lying in the cool clover in the shade beside our house thinking of nothing. Maybe it was one of those Sunday mornings of my youth when I thought I heard the preacher say that if you were bad you’d get bad and that if you were good you’d get good. Maybe it was during those dark days of my sixteenth year when, in a period of two and a half weeks, my mother and her father both died and something in me concluded that such things really ought not to be and that such pain was almost too much to bear. I don’t know where it started. But somewhere along the way I think that I began to believe that easier was better. Maybe I started believing, at least partly, that good things ought to happen to good people.

I was wrong. Oh, don’t misunderstand. Leisure has its place and it’s a good place. Having a time that is worry-free and pain-free and doubt-free is wonderful and I’ll take it when I can get it. I’d still rather not grieve than grieve. My favorite sensation is still the one that could be called “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.”

But we live in the real world where real life has to be lived and where real problems emerge and where real doubts appear. The real world calls for real faith, and real faith struggles with what is happening; real faith does not stick its head in the sand and hope it will all go away. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. God certainly never promised that. What God has promised is that he will be faithful to his children and that he will never forsake them and that he will be there to help them.

If we will pay attention, experience will teach us that God is with us through all the trials of life. So the psalmist says, “Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb” (v. 6). Experience teaches us that God is dependable in all the circumstances of our lives. Hopefully we can trust in that truth and depend on it as we go along. We certainly can see it as we look back over our lives.

The prophet Jeremiah didn’t have it easy. He was called by God to be his prophet while only a youth. And he was told right up front how hard it would be:
But you, gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you. Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them. And I for my part have made you today a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall, against the whole land—against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you. (Jeremiah 1:17-19)
There we see two great truths of the life of faith: (1) “They will fight against you”; and (2) “But they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you.”

Jeremiah surely remembered. He surely remembered when his enemies were plotting against his life (18:18). He surely remembered when he was arrested, beaten, and placed in stocks (20:1-2). He surely remembered when he dictated a scroll only to have the king cut it up and burn it as it was read (36:20ff). He surely remembered when he was thrown into a muddy cistern (38:1-6). Jeremiah knew what it was to face the hard times; he knew that his hardest times were coming exactly because he was a person of faith. Did it all bother him? Of course it did. When God called Jeremiah he said to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you” (1:5). But listen to what Jeremiah says later in the midst of opposition and struggle: “Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, ‘A child is born to you, a son,’ making him very glad” (20:14-15). But this same struggling prophet said, “Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” (17:7-8).

So nobody said that it was going to be easy. And the testimony offered by the lives of the faithful ones in the Bible is that the most faithful ones might just have it the roughest. I have used Jeremiah as an example, but we could trace the reality all the way through the book, even and especially into the life of our Savior. So what do we do with the hard times and the difficult days and the harsh realities?

First, we can hope and pray and trust and, if possible, work that things might get better. The psalmists and Jeremiah did not hesitate to ask God to get them out of what they were going through and even to make it clear to the world that they were not in the wrong. Such a prayer is absolutely appropriate and absolutely proper. And if we’re in a fix that we can do something about ourselves then we should do it. One of God’s greatest and most underutilized gifts to humanity is common sense. It is an unbalanced person who wants to suffer or who wants to remain in a state of suffering. Asking God to take it away is all right; it is not weakness to ask. Even Jesus prayed, “Father, if it be thy will, take this cup from me.”

Second, we can experience the Lord’s strength in the midst of our weakness. As Paul said,
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)
The experience of God’s strength in our lives is for our benefit. He loves us and he wants to help and strengthen us. But the exercising of God’s strength in our lives is also for his glory. As God works in our lives and his strength is made obvious in our weakness we bear witness to the truth of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We die with him and he died for us. He rose from the dead and that resurrection power is present in our lives. He overcame and now he overcomes through us. You know, sometimes we wonder about how something looks to people. We’d be better served if we wonder how God can be seen in what’s happening to us and in how we’re dealing with it.

Third, we can know the redemption of our situation. Some cups will pass from us but not all of them. Then what do we do? Do we abandon faith? Or do we keep on trusting and looking for the ways in which God can work through what is happening in our lives? Alice Flaherty is a neurologist who published a book called The Midnight Disease in which she examines an obsessive behavior known as hypergraphia, which is an overwhelming desire to write. She knows of it from firsthand experience. Not long after she finished her residency she delivered twins prematurely and both of them died. As she dealt with her grief she had a strange thing happen. One night she woke up with a tremendous sense of clarity and an equally tremendous urge to write. She would write two or three word sentences on those small post-it notes and stick them on her wall. It was a real problem and a serious obsession. Eventually, with the help of the right medications, Flaherty harnessed her obsession and channeled it positively so that she got a good book out of it. She also later gave birth to a set of healthy twins. She says that people will ask, “What’s it like now that you’re cured?” Her reaction is, “I certainly am better controlled but what I’m hoping is that I’ll never actually be cured.” [This information came from Renee Montagne’s interview with Flaherty on NPR’s Morning Edition on January 29, 2004. The book is Alice Flaherty, The Midnight Disease: the Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004).]

Nobody said it was going to be easy. So what do we do? Just live with it? No, more than that. We live in it. We live through it. We live in God’s grace and with God’s help. We find God in it. Such is the life of faith.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Baseball Eschatology (Part Two)

(Note: On Sundays I am posting a Sabbath blog, my logic being that the Sabbath is a good day to post about things that I enjoy. Fun writing is recreational writing, I figure. So, here is Sabbath post #4.)

There is an eschatological dimension to the game of baseball.

Last Sunday, in part one of this essay, I said that in baseball there is a realized and an unrealized eschatology. Baseball’s realized eschatology is seen in at least three ways. First, Baseball fans have such intense experiences as we get caught up in the games that it is hard for us to imagine that things could ever get any better. Second, the lives of baseball fans are changed by the experience of baseball and that change is almost always for the better. Third, we are drawn into a community of the faithful in which we share in our common experience.

Baseball’s unrealized eschatology is seen in the fact that there is always a longing for something more. That something more may be one more hit, one more run, one more strikeout, or one more victory. Ultimately, that something more is a World Series championship, something that the fans of many teams have experienced but something for which the fans of many teams are fervently longing, either because their team has never won a World Championship or because it has been a very long time.

Today in part two I want to point out how the eschatology of baseball has some elements in common with the biblical concept of the Day of the Lord. As you may know, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible looked forward to the Day of the Lord. They envisioned a time when the Lord would make all things as they should be, when rights would be wronged, when God’s people would be vindicated and their enemies vanquished, and when there would be peace. Sometimes such a day was actually experienced in the history of Israel, but when it came, it came in a limited way. That is, while there had been some righting of wrongs and some vindication of the people and some vanquishing of enemies and some increased level of peace, none of those were complete and final. Sometime soon—maybe the next day, the next month, the next year, or the next decade—there would be a new crisis, a new challenge, or a revitalized or new enemy.

Really, then, the prophets thought in terms of more than one Day of the Lord. While they envisioned one future great and glorious Day of the Lord after which things would always be as they should be, in the meantime they worked with the concept of “little” days of the Lord in which glimpses of the final fulfillment were seen.

We can examine the baseball parallels to those experiences by moving from the greater to the lesser. Let’s say that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays win the 2007 World Series (hey, if we’re thinking in terms of the Day of the Lord, we can reasonably expect divine intervention!). It’s October 2007, the Rays have just won game seven over the Washington Nationals, the champagne has been sprayed all over the locker room and the Commissioner’s Trophy has been awarded. It’s the day of the Rays; their enemies have been swept aside, they have been anointed as the top nation in the baseball world, and they can rest in the joy and peace that is rightfully theirs.

For about twelve hours, that is. That’s about how long it will take management, players, fans, and media to start wondering about and asking about next year. Everybody will already be anticipating what teams will offer the greatest challenge in the Rays’ defense of their title and what other obstacles they will face in trying to win two championships in a row. As soon as the day of victory and vindication has passed, attention will turn to the next potential day of victory and vindication. Therefore, what we baseball fans think of as the “big” day of vindication is in fact only one of a series of “little” days of vindication.

We can see this reality in other ways as we move from the greater to the lesser. On their way to their World Series championship, the Devil Rays will have to win the American League pennant. The team will jump up and down on the pitcher’s mound, holler and scream, and, of course, spray champagne all over the place and pour it on everybody. But before the players, the management, and fans, and the reporters go to bed sometime the next day, they will already be thinking about what they will have to do to win the next World Series. It’s a big day, but there is another day to come.

On the way to winning their American League pennant and their World Series championship, the Devil Rays will have to win the American League Eastern Division championship. Again, jumping. Again, shouting. Again, spraying and pouring. They’ll even put on t-shirts and caps that proclaim “Tampa Bay Devil Rays 2007 American League Eastern Division Champions.” They will proudly don them hoping that in a few weeks they will be reduced to car washing implements because they will be so far superseded by World Series Championship t-shirts. One great day gives way to another, greater day.

In baseball, such experiences actually permeate the season. Time and space will not permit me to offer all the possible examples, so a couple will suffice. The single that keeps the inning going gives way to the walk-off home run that wins the game. The victory today is tempered by the loss tomorrow and that is more than offset by the four-game winning streak that follows. And always, always, there is hope, because there is the chance for a great victory tomorrow. Nevertheless, once that victory is accomplished, the team has to start working immediately toward the next possible victory.

As I said earlier, biblical theology does look forward to the great and final Day of the Lord after which everything will be forever as it is supposed to be. I do not know what parallel there may be in baseball to that experience, unless it is the experience that will be had by the team that wins the last World Series before the Lord returns.

Speaking of that—the Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series and the Chicago White Sox won the 2005 Series. Had the Chicago Cubs won the 2006 Series, I would have been fairly well convinced that the triumvirate of events that would most likely signal the impending Apocalypse had occurred.

But, it was the St. Louis Cardinals who took it.

Definitely another little day.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Buried Stuff

On June 15, 2007, a gold and white 1957 Plymouth Belvedere will be dug up from the lawn of the Tulsa County Courthouse. The car, which was brand new when it was buried in 1957 as a part of Oklahoma’s Golden Jubilee celebration, will be unearthed during the commemoration of the state’s centennial. The car is supposed to be awarded to the person who made the most accurate guess in 1957 of what Tulsa’s population would be in 2007. The guesses were recorded on microfilm that was sealed in a container inside the car. If the person who offered the most accurate estimate is deceased, the car is to be awarded to his or her heirs. Here’s hoping that the best guesser is still alive. That would be cool.

I buried a time capsule of sorts once myself, back when I was a boy of about eleven. I made a list of some great truths that were very important to me. They were so important that I wanted to preserve them in some dramatic fashion. So, I wrote them, in ink, on a piece of wide-ruled notebook paper. Then I carefully folded the paper and placed it inside a Mason jar, which I closed as tightly as I could. I dug a shallow hole out back of my father’ utility house, placed the jar in it, and covered it with dirt. I don’t remember if I had a specific date on which I intended to unearth it; perhaps I planned to dig it up to commemorate some special day such as my birthday or the last day of school or the end of the Little League baseball season.

What I do remember is that within a few days I had forgotten all about the jar and the deep secrets that were sealed within it. I don’t recall how long it was before I thought about the jar again. One day I did, though, many, many months later. I was messing around in the back yard when I walked over the spot where I had buried the jar. I remembered. I grabbed a shovel and excitedly dug in the spot where I had hidden the jar. Finding it, I tried to remove the lid, but I couldn’t. It was rusted shut. So, I broke the jar. Excited now, I slowly unfolded the paper, only sort of noticing that it was damp.

The ink had run. The writing was indecipherable. The secrets that were so important, that I had gone to so much trouble to hide away until I was ready for them again, were gone. After I thought about it, I wasn’t too bugged by the situation; I reasoned that if I couldn’t remember one thing that I had written on the paper, which I couldn’t, nothing there must have been too important to me.

To this day, though, I still wonder what I wrote on the piece of paper that I put in the jar that I buried in the back yard behind the utility house. I still wonder if what I had written would have helped me in any way when I dug it up, had I been able to read it. Or, might what I had written there have embarrassed or befuddled or shamed me?

People, I think, do the same sort of thing all the time. We all have stuff from back there somewhere that we did and that we didn’t do, that we said and that we didn’t say, and that we tried and that we didn’t try. It’s stuff that we buried. Some of it we buried on purpose and some of it just kind of got buried without our doing too much about it. But we do go back and dig it up. Or sometimes it just gets uncovered, like ancient burial ground that gets unearthed during a modern construction project. Whether we dig it up on purpose or whether it just turns up, we have to decide what to do with it, because the past is a funny thing. Sometimes we treat something from back there as if it was the worst thing that anybody ever did. Sometimes we treat something from back there as if it was so good that nothing else will ever compare with it.

When July 15 rolls around and the folks in Tulsa dig up that 1957 Plymouth Belvedere, they’re not quite sure what they’re going to find. If they’re able to find the person who should get possession of it or that person’s heirs, they don’t really know what the condition of the prize will be. It’s possible that the car will be in pristine condition, in which case it will be quite valuable. But, because it’s not known how much moisture got into the vault, it’s also possible that the car will be ruined by rust.

Here’s what I hope: I hope that the car is in pretty good shape but that it has some fairly significant rust damage. Then, it will be an appropriate symbol of the past. What we dig up from back there that we remember as perfect and shiny and wonderful probably isn’t. What we dig up from back there that we remember as a big pile of rust probably isn’t. The truth is that the past is like the present. It’s a mixture of good and bad, happy and sad, helpful and hurtful, and successful and unsuccessful. It’s in pretty good shape but it has some rust on it.

Sometimes the buried stuff should just be left alone. But when it can’t be, it can be seen as a significant part of who we are and where we’ve been. The worst thing we could do, though, is to let it take our attention from who and where we are right now. The buried stuff is all right if we keep our heads about us when we’re around it.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

CD Reviews by Josh Ruffin On-Line

Josh Ruffin has published reviews of two CDs on the Web site of the Metro Spirit, an independent weekly newspaper in Augusta, GA. If you are into new music and/or you enjoy good writing, head on over to, click on "Music" and then on "CD Reviews."

Full disclosure: Josh Ruffin, a recent graduate of LaGrange College with a degree in Literary Theory, is our son.

Strong to the “Finich” ‘Cause I Eats My Spinach

This month one of my childhood heroes marked his 78th anniversary in the entertainment business—Popeye the Sailor. Popeye made his debut on January 17, 1929 in a comic strip in the New York Evening Journal.

I got to know Popeye through his “moving pictures,” the cartoons that were shown on the Officer Don television show on WSB-TV in Atlanta during my childhood in the 1960s. Officer Don Kennedy was the host, accompanied by his dragon puppet buddy Orville. But the Popeye cartoons provided the highlight of the show.

My afternoons were enlivened by my encounters with Popeye, his sometimes friend and oftentimes rival Bluto, his hamburger-loving buddy (“I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”) Wimpy, the lovely Olive Oyl (who, I recently learned, had a brother named Castor), and baby Swee’ Pea. The cartoons typically revolved around some crisis that resulted in Popeye getting beaten up by Bluto or some other villain until finally, just when it seemed that all hope was lost, he would gobble down the contents of a can of spinach. The spinach would give him the strength to overcome his opponent and the opportunity to sing his theme song: “I’m strong to the finich ‘cause I eats my spinach, I’m Popeye the Sailorman.”

One thing always bothered me about Popeye, though (well, actually two things did, but the fact that he had pencil-thin upper arms and tree-trunk-like forearms is beside the point here): why did he wait until he was in such dire circumstances to eat his spinach? I mean, wouldn’t he have been better served if he had eaten a well-balanced diet that included regular helpings of spinach rather than having quickly to devour some just before it was too late? Besides, wouldn’t eating spinach regularly have put an end to his practice of carrying a huge can of it around in his shirt, which couldn’t have been very comfortable?

It seems to me that we Christians are too often like Popeye. We wait until a crisis arises before we get serious about our relationship with God. When the crisis comes, then we get around to praying or reading our Bibles or seriously seeking God. Aren’t we better off if we engage in the disciplines of the Christian life in a devoted and regular way? When we do we build up our strength over time so that when the crisis arises we have a storehouse from which to draw. That’s so much better than trying to find help in a big hurry just in that moment when we must have it or else. My observation is that folks who live that way, even when the help comes, quickly fall back into their old lackadaisical patterns.

Regular worship, regular Bible study, regular prayer, regular service, and regular Christian fellowship—they are God’s ways to help us be “strong to the finich.”

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Reading the Last Chapter First

(A Reflection on Genesis 28:10-19; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Do you remember when the novel Scarlet, the sequel to Gone With the Wind, was published? Someone I know acquired the book and immediately flipped over to the last chapter to see how it ended. “Why would you want to do such a thing?” I asked. “Because,” she said, “I don’t want to waste my time reading that book unless Scarlet and Rhett are going to get together.” She wanted to know how the book turned out so she read the last chapter first!

I don’t recommend that practice because it detracts from the thrill of the read. It can alleviate some anxiety, though, to know how the story is going to turn out. Consider the case of Jacob. He was on the run. He had cheated his brother Esau one time too many and so he had to leave home. His destination was Haran, the home of his mother Rebekah. He stopped along the way to spend the night. What was in his mind? As usual with an Old Testament story, we’re not told. We can imagine that he was anxious—anxious about leaving home, anxious about going to a strange place, anxious about the threats his brother had made against him, and maybe even anxious about coming to grips with how his own actions had gotten him into his predicament.

He dreamed. He saw a ladder or stairway reaching to heaven with angels going up and down the ladder. He was at a place in his life where he could experience the presence of God and he did experience it. Among other things the LORD told him, “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, … and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” He furthermore said, “Know that I am with you and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

As Jacob prepared to enter his uncertain future, the Lord told him how it would all turn out. He told him that he would bring Jacob back to the land and that he would give that land to him and to his many descendants. Can you imagine how Jacob clung to that promise? Over the next twenty years he would deal with many problems and deceptions. The Lord would bless him over those twenty years but they would still be very difficult. Whatever problems he encountered, whatever setbacks he suffered, whatever fears he had, he could always remind himself, “One day it’s going to be all right. One day I’ll be going home. God has promised. I know that it’s so.”

Sometimes we wonder though, don’t we? Sometimes circumstances are such that we really wonder if everything is ever going to be all right. We feel like we’re surrounded by evil and we feel that way because we are. But Jesus has told us how the story is going to turn out. At the end of the age, he said, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” That’s the last chapter in the book. It is God’s plan and God’s promise that the wrong will fail and the right prevail; it is God’s plan and God’s promise that evil will be destroyed and righteousness will be exalted. It is God’s plan and God’s promise that the children of the evil one will be punished and that the children of the kingdom will be glorified. We can believe it. It is true. God is working his purposes out and he has already told us what the last chapter says.

Knowing what the last chapter says helps us get through what we deal with in these days. We who are the wheat have to live with a whole lot of weeds. We also have to be careful lest we get a little “weedy” ourselves. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds reminds us that God’s grace and patience are still operative. In his grace and with great patience God lets the wheat and the weeds grow up together. The day will come when both wheat and weeds will be shown to be what they are. In the meantime, though, and I know this cannot occur naturally, but it can occur supernaturally, some weeds can become wheat.

The parable also teaches us something about our role in these days. The parable does not explicitly say that we who are wheat are to be witnesses to those who are weeds, but we know it from other places in the Bible. The parable does teach us that it is not our job to judge those who are not Christians or to go about trying to tear out all the evil that we can. If we try that we do as much or more harm to ourselves than we do to any of the evil that we are trying to combat. Our calling it to be what we are and to recognize that as long as this world exists good and evil, saved and lost, God’s people and the devil’s people, will live side-by-side. We do our best work when we bear positive witness with our lives to who our Lord is.

Everything really is going to be all right one day because God really is working his purposes out. We know that because we have read the last chapter first.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

I Prefer to Refer

The January 23, 2007 issue of Christian Century has an interesting article about the seminary I attended, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. I spent seven years, 1979-1986, as a student in those hallowed halls of learning.

It was a natural decision for me to attend Southern. Several of my professors in the Christianity Department at Mercer University had at least one degree from there. My mentor, Dr. Howard Giddens, had earned two degrees there, including a Th.D. in Biblical Theology. I don’t remember any of my teachers telling me that I should go to Southern, but I think that they steered me there by example. They were smart. I wanted to be smart. Then as now, the Southern Baptist Convention sponsored six seminaries. Southern was the original one; it was founded in Greenville, South Carolina in 1859 and moved to Louisville following the War Between the States. The other ones that had some age on them were Southwestern and New Orleans. A saying was going around among the preacher boys at Mercer that went something like this: “If you love to preach, go to New Orleans; if you love the Lord, go to Southwestern; if you love to learn, go to Southern.” Well, I loved to preach and I certainly loved the Lord, but I wanted to attend the Southern Baptist seminary with the greatest academic reputation. So I went to Southern.

I learned a lot there. I do confess, though, that some things seem odd to me when I look in the rearview mirror. While I know that in a three year Master of Divinity program one can only take so many classes, it still seems strange to me that I was required to take only one course in preaching, only one in church administration, only one in evangelism, only one in missions, and only one in pastoral care. Now, that suited me fine at the time, because I was mainly interested in biblical studies and church history and I was able to spend a lot of time and energy on those areas. Still, as a pastor, I wish that I had done more work in those “practical” areas. I’ve learned a lot since through reading and through experience, but more guidance early in my career would have been helpful.

The article in the Century, written by David Winfrey, is entitled “Biblical Therapy: Southern Baptists Reject ‘Pastoral Counseling.’” The article discusses the 2005 decision of Southern to replace its longstanding “pastoral counseling” model with a “biblical counseling” model. Winfrey writes that Southern officials said that the biblical counseling approach is “built upon the view that scripture is sufficient to answer comprehensively the deepest needs of the human heart” (p. 24). He also notes that Southern has ceased participation in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). That’s another gap in my education; I wish that I had done at least one unit of CPE. I may yet get around to it.

The pastoral care program at Southern was dominated for years by Wayne Oates and by his legacy. Professor Oates taught at Southern from 1948 to 1974; after that he taught at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. I thus missed Dr. Oates by five years. Dr. Oates, who was a giant in his field, died in 1999. He is considered to be the father of the pastoral counseling movement. His significant contribution was the attempt to combine the best of biblical and theological understanding with the best of modern psychological science in the treatment of people with mental and emotional disorders; that is the hallmark of pastoral counseling.

The perspective of the practitioners of the biblical counseling movement, as I understand it from Winfrey’s article, can be summarized as follows. First, the Bible contains the answers to every human problem. Second, modern psychology cannot be utilized because there are too many competing views that exist under that umbrella. Third, modern psychology is humanistic in its viewpoint, failing to take into account the reality of human sin and adopting the stance that human beings have the answers to their personal dilemmas within themselves.

I think that honesty should compel us to admit that the Bible, while it is God’s Holy Word, while it is inspired and tells us everything we need to know to be saved, and while it certainly contains the principles that we need to know to live life in God’s way, does not provide a magic bullet that will cure every emotional or mental ill. Think of it this way: I certainly believe in the healing power of Almighty God. I know that the Bible will steer me in the directions that are most healthy for me. I even believe that God can and does spontaneously work miracles of healing in people’s lives. But I’ll tell you this right now: if my wife or one of my children is diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, while I’m going to read my Bible and pray to my God and ask for his healing, I’m also going to go straight to the best oncologist there is in Augusta, Georgia and anywhere else that I have to go. In that situation, I want the best biblical and spiritual help we can get but I also want the best medical help that modern science can supply. In the best case scenario, I’d love for us to have an oncologist who is a strong Christian and who will thus combine prayer with sound medical practice. But if the best oncologist available is an atheist, I’ll still be glad to take advantage of the best that science has taught him.

It seems to me that what’s happening at Southern and at other places may be part of the ongoing battle between “faith” and a “biblical worldview” on the one hand and “science” and a “scientific worldview” on the other. While I acknowledge that there are real and legitimate areas of conflict between those worldviews, I nonetheless stand by what I said above. I feel the same way about mental or emotional issues. If I or someone I love develops such struggles, I want help from both arenas. And if we can get that from one person, a person who, because of her training in pastoral counseling, can deal with us on from a solid foundation in biblical spirituality and behavioral science, that’s great. With pastoral counselors, it seems to me, that’s what you get.

I say this as someone whose own counseling model is probably closer to biblical counseling. The Bible is what I know. As I said, I never had CPE and I took only one pastoral care course in seminary (it was a good one, though: “Pastoral Care in Human Crises” with Dr. Andy Lester, whose book It Hurts So Bad, Lord, is still the best book on grief I’ve ever read; it’s unfortunately out of print). When people come to me with deep psychological or emotional difficulties, I listen, I try to lead them into the presence of the Lord, I pray with them, and I share some biblical teachings with them. Then I spend a few moments kicking myself for not knowing more about how to help. And then I find someone better trained than I am to deal with the psychological issues.

I get out of my depth very quickly. That’s why I prefer to refer.

Monday, January 22, 2007


I’d usually rather spend my money on books than on DVD sets. One of these days, though, I am going to get around to purchasing The Star Wars trilogy, made up of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi. I’m not one of those true fans who can tell you every detail of every film but I am one of those who really enjoys them.

Debra and I saw the first film when we were dating and the next two while I was in seminary in Louisville. We were living in Nashville when we took Joshua and Sara to see them when they were re-released to theatres in 1997.

I remember watching Star Wars and being absolutely amazed. Somehow I knew, even as the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” were scrolling up the screen, that something special was about to happen.

To me, it was like watching a western that had been set in outer space. There were good guys and bad guys (wearing white and black helmets, no less), a damsel in distress (although this one provided a lot of her own help in getting out of distress), two heroes in friendly conflict over the girl (it took all three movies to work that one out), and an eccentric cast of supporting characters (only these were creatures with names like Chewbacca and androids with names like R2-D2).

Debra and I saw Star Wars in Griffin, Georgia on a Saturday night. On Sunday morning we attended my home church. I was singing the praises of the movie to some friends when one of them said, “I thought it was dumb.” I was appalled at her lack of imagination.

Imagination is necessary to a life of faith. My trusty Webster’s dictionary defines imagination this way: “the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.”

When we say that the Old Testament prophets were inspired, one of the things we are saying is that God moved in their lives in such a way that they were able to imagine the way things really were or really were going to be, even if all appearances were to the contrary. When the biblical writers say, “I saw,” they are saying that with the help of God’s Spirit they were able to imagine the reality that God needed his people to hear about.

Hebrews 11 offers what is often called “the roll call of faith.” Listen to the translation of Hebrews 11:13-16 in The Message:

Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it? They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that—heaven country. You can see why God is so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them.

Or, as a popular song of a few years ago put it, “You’re packing your suitcase for a place none of us has been; a place that has to be believed to be seen.” Or as yet another popular song said, “I can only imagine what it will be like, when I walk by your side.”

We can only imagine. But if we can imagine, we can believe. And if we can't imagine....

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Baseball Eschatology (Part 1)

(Note: On Sundays I am posting a Sabbath blog, my logic being that the Sabbath is a good day to post about things that I enjoy. Fun writing is recreational writing, I figure. So, here is Sabbath post #3.)

There is an eschatological dimension to the game of baseball.

Let me define my somewhat complicated terms.

“Baseball” is a game played by two teams of nine players each in which the goal is to score the most “runs,” which are attained by moving a base runner around a diamond-shaped configuration consisting of three bases (designated first, second, and third) and “home plate,” which the runner, who has gotten on base either by (1) hitting a pitched ball in such a way that no one on the other team could catch it in the air or throw it to first base before the runner arrived there or perhaps to another base, in which case the base runner must be tagged out unlike the situation at first base, in which a fielder bearing the ball must simply touch the base before the runner gets there, (2) a walk which is defined as not swinging, before three strikes are achieved or an out is made or base is reached in some other way, at four pitches that are deemed not to be strikes by the umpire, (3) being hit by a pitch, which is painful, (4) having a fielder make an “error,” which is defined as missing a ball or throwing a ball away, (5) a fielder’s choice, in which case the fielder catching the ball chooses to try to make a play on a base runner other than the one who hit the ball, (6) catcher’s interference, which means that the catcher got his mitt too close to the plate so that the batter struck it when he swung or (7) a passed ball or a wild pitch on a third strike, a passed ball meaning the catcher should have caught the ball but didn’t and a wild pitch meaning that the batter swung at such a bad pitch that, while he couldn’t have hit the ball with a ten-foot long pole the catcher couldn’t have caught it with a ten-foot wide mitt, circumnavigates successfully.

“Eschatology” is the study of last things.

I remind you now that the point of this essay is that there is an eschatological dimension to baseball.

First of all, in baseball, there is a realized eschatology and an unrealized eschatology. Let me illustrate by way of a New Testament (NT) example. The NT teaches in places that the kingdom of God is a future reality, yet to be fulfilled. But it teaches in other places that the kingdom of God is “within” us or “among” us, depending on what decisions you make about a Greek participle.

The same situation exists in baseball. Watching a baseball game is an experience so uplifting that it can at times approach an out-of-body or other-worldly experience; in that way, it has aspects of realized eschatology, a sense of “it is so good that I can’t imagine that it can be any better than this.”

Moreover, baseball’s realized eschatology is seen in the ways in which the experience of baseball changes someone’s life, almost always for the better. Witness the fellowship that exists among the congregants who are gathered in the stadium for the game. But witness also the way in which community is built among those who watched it on TV or listened to it on the radio or read about it in the paper or on the internet; they gather around the water cooler at work or around the table at the coffee shop or around the blog at the computer to share in the joy of their common experience. In a sense, the kingdom of baseball is among us and within us; it draws us together in the community of the faithful.

And yet we live with a clear sense that there is something more. That something more is, of course, the World Series Championship. It is a dream held dear by all fans of all teams. For some it seems unattainable. I remember how, when Queen’s hit We Are the Champions would come on the radio in 1977, I would imagine my beloved Atlanta Braves running onto the field celebrating a World Series championship and tears would come to my eyes. The Braves’ record in 1977 was 61-101. They finished 37 games behind the Dodgers. Unrealized eschatology. Way unrealized eschatology. When the Braves did win a World Series in 1995, I felt vindicated, fulfilled, and relieved. Hope realized! Perseverance rewarded! Suffering justified!

Some fans still live with unfulfilled hopes. Those amazingly loyal Cubs fans have been waiting ever since their team won back-to-back championships in 1907-1908. Literally speaking, of course, none of the fans who actually witnessed those championships are waiting, but you know what I mean. Fans of the Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Washington Nationals, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Texas Rangers, and San Diego Padres are still waiting for their first championship.

You see, then, that baseball fans experience both a realized eschatology and an unrealized eschatology. We know all about “already and not yet.” We all know the “foretaste of glory divine” that comes with every great play, with each win and with each close call. Some of us know the deep satisfaction of coming out victorious in the end. Some of us know the deep pain and quiet longing of waiting for vindication.

(Next Sunday in Part Two of “Baseball Eschatology”: “The Day of the Lord.”)

Friday, January 19, 2007

96 Tears 96 Times

My wife Debra and I once spent a long night in Rocky Face, Georgia. Now Rocky Face is a nice enough place. The problem was with the motel. We were traveling from Louisville, Kentucky, where I was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, where I was to preside over the marriage ceremony of my first cousin Rhonda (she and her big sister Denise were the closest thing to siblings that I ever had) and her groom, my old Little League baseball battery mate Freddy (I was the pitcher, he was the catcher). We left Louisville late in the day on Friday and stopped to spend the night in Rocky Face. We checked into our room. All seemed well. Then we began to hear “music” from the lounge downstairs. We knew the old rock and roll song that we were hearing.

Too many teardrops for one heart to be cryin’
Too many teardrops for one heart to carry on
You're gonna cry ninety-six tears
You're gonna cry ninety-six tears
You're gonna cry, cry cry cry now
You're gonna cry, cry, cry, cry
Ninety-six tears
C'mon and lemme hear you cry, now
Ninety-six tears, I wanna hear you cry
Night and day, yeah, all night long
Uh-ninety-six tears, cry cry cry
C'mon baby, let me hear you cry now, all night long
Uh ninety-six tears, yeah c'mon now
Uh-ninety-six tears

Great poetry it’s not, but it was a pretty good song. The song wasn’t the problem. Nor was the fact that we could hear the band well enough in our room that I could actually discern the lyrics. What was really bad was that 96 Tears was apparently the only song that the band knew well enough to play with any confidence. There would be an occasional lull when we could just barely hear the music; I guess at those times they were playing songs on which they were unsure of themselves so they held back. But then, in just a few minutes, they would belt out another stirring rendition of 96 Tears. “Cry cry cry now.” We wanted to. If they played 96 Tears once they played it 96 times.

It reminded me of the time that Mrs. Branch, my 5th grade teacher, wanted to host a dance for our class. Mrs. Branch was a young teacher who left us half way through the school year to move back home when her husband was killed in Vietnam. Before that happened, though, she rented the Rec, which is what young folks called the Barnesville Recreation Center, and held the dance. One day at school she was musing about how she would like to have a live band. A guy in our class—we were 5th graders, remember—said, “Mrs. Branch, I’m in a band.” “Really!” she exclaimed. “How would your band like to play at our dance?” “That’d be great!” he said.

That was one of the many times in my life when I should have intervened and didn’t. That “band” held their “rehearsals” in the back yard of one of the “band” members in my neighborhood. They belonged in the same category as a “band” in the same way that a broken rubber band belongs in the same category as a high performance racing tire or that the participants in a three-legged race belong in an Olympic relay event. But she didn’t know; she hadn’t had to listen to them while trying to peacefully shoot some baskets in the back yard like I had. She hired them. And they came to the dance and they tried. They played the Steppenwolf song Born to Be Wild and, to be fair, it wasn’t bad. But everything else they tried to play was bad. In fact, they couldn’t even finish most of the other songs that they started. So, they’d go back to playing Born to Be Wild. 96 times. Mrs. Branch came over to some of us (translation: the nerds like me who weren’t dancing) and said, “I’m sorry about the band.” “It’s ok,” I said. “They play a mean Born to Be Wild.” I’ll bet that if they had tried they could have handled 96 Tears. 96 times.

I thought about our long night in the motel in Rocky Face listening to 96 Tears 96 times when I heard the news that ?’s house in the Flint, Michigan area had burned down. ? (pronounced “Question Mark”) was the leader of the band ? and the Mysterians who were, of course, the artists who gave us the original recording of 96 Tears. ? lost forty years of tapes and memorabilia in the fire. According to news reports, though, he was most troubled by the loss of four Yorkies and a cockatoo, which is understandable, but I still think it’s sad that he lost all the mementos of his career. It is heartening, though, to hear reports that people in ?’s community are making efforts to help him. There is talk of a concert featuring ? and the Mysterians and perhaps a benefit with other musicians with ties to Flint like Mark Farner, the guitarist and lead singer for my personal favorite late-60s band, Grand Funk Railroad. That is the way it should be. Neighbors should help neighbors, friends should help friends, and people in the same line of work should help one another.

And a Christian should be a neighbor to anybody anytime and to everybody all the time. In a world full of hurt, the very least that we can do is to try to help heal those hurts. In a world full of loss, the very least that we can do is to try to help people in their grief. In a world full of sin, the very least that we can do is to try to point people toward the Savior.

I’m sorry for ?’s loss. I’m glad that there are people willing to help. I hope that we’re looking for ways to help those around us who need it. I hope that we understand that the real test of our Christianity is in the way that we practice it in relation to other people. I hope that we know that, when you get right down to it, the only way we can show that we love God is to love people and the only way that we can serve God is to serve other people.

And I hope that I don’t have to say it 96 times to convince you.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Doomsday Clock

The Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has just moved the hands of their symbolic Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. It now stands at 11:55. Midnight on the clock represents the occurrence of a world-wide catastrophe. Over the years since the clock was established in 1947 it was typically assumed that the catastrophe would be nuclear. Lately, though, the Bulletin has broadened its focus to include other threats. The closest to midnight that the clock has ever been set was two minutes to midnight in 1953, just after the United States and the Soviet Union conducted hydrogen bomb tests. The farthest from midnight it was ever set was at seventeen minutes to midnight just after the dismantling of the U.S.S.R. in 1991.

The Board of the Bulletin offered two main reasons for moving the clock ahead. The first is the decades-old threat of nuclear weapons. Personally, I have not given much thought to nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War. We sure used to give a lot of thought to them. They did re-enter my consciousness in recent days. Last summer I read Neville Shute’s On the Beach (1957), a chillingly leisurely depiction of the last few months of one of the last groups of survivors following a nuclear cataclysm. A few days ago I visited a local video store that, because it was going out of business, was selling all its VHS movies for $1.00. One of my purchases was The Day After, a 1983 television movie about the aftermath of a nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and United States. The film focused on Lawrence, Kansas, which somehow made it worse. I mean, I’m accustomed to seeing Tokyo destroyed by giant fire-breathing dinosaurs (Godzilla) or Washington and Los Angeles being wiped out by aliens (Independence Day) but to see nuclear devastation in Kansas—now, that was scary.

The atomic scientists are concerned about developments in the nuclear arena about which we should all be concerned. Following is part of their statement.

We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices. North Korea’s recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a renewed U.S. emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.

One scientist pointed out that just fifty of the nuclear weapons that exist today could kill 200 million people. The “failure to adequately secure nuclear materials” is what concerns me the most; it raises the very real possibility of a rogue nation or a terrorist group gaining access to a nuclear weapon.

The scientists had another reason besides recent troubling developments in the nuclear sphere for moving the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. Let me quote the Board’s statement again.

We have concluded that the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons. The effects may be less dramatic in the short term than the destruction that could be wrought by nuclear explosions, but over the next three to four decades climate change could cause drastic harm to the habitats upon which human societies depend for survival.

I’m no scientist, but to my layman’s mind the evidence that the huge amount of carbon dioxide being pumped into the earth’s atmosphere by the over-use of fossil fuels is the main cause of global warming that is leading to dangerous climate change is convincing. If leading scientists are concerned, then I’m concerned.

The question is, what should we who are Christians do about all of this? Here are a few suggestions, all of which need much fleshing out.

1. Prayer is always a good thing.

2. Living eco-friendly lives, such as driving high-mileage cars, will help, especially if enough of us try.

3. Encouraging corporations by our spending habits and encouraging legislators by our communication and votes to do more to promote the development of alternative fuel sources would be positive.

4. Working for peace is necessary. We can start with our neighbors and with those in our own communities. We can commit ourselves to having and showing respect for those who speak a different language, who come from a different culture, and who practice a different religion.

5. We can influence our congressional representatives and our executive branch to engage whole-heartedly in the mutual reduction of nuclear arsenals by the various nations who have them.

6. We can encourage those same leaders to offer every possible incentive to developing nations to try to prevent them from acquiring a nuclear arsenal.

The bottom line is that we should do whatever we can. The principle of the second greatest commandment (“Love your neighbor as yourself”) and the principle of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (everybody is your neighbor) seem to me to demand it.

Oh, I know that the end will come some day. But that seems to me better left in the hands of a loving and gracious God. I see no good that can come from our trying to help it along.

(For the full text of the statement of the Board, visit

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

American Idle

There have been times when I planned too much of my life around what was on television. My grandmother, at whose house I spent a lot of time, bought a copy of TV Guide every week. When I was a child, I would excitedly study the fall issue that announced the new Saturday morning cartoon lineup. (Yes, my young readers, there really was a time when Saturday morning was about the only time that cartoons were on television.) After weighing my priorities and plotting my approach, I would get up early on Saturday and watch hours and hours of cartoons. Just for the record, nothing ever beat Looney Tunes, although I also enjoyed Magilla Gorilla, Space Ghost, Yogi Bear, and Atom Ant.

When I was a young teenager, before I could drive and when I was still afraid of girls, I lived for the Friday and Saturday night shows. ABC was the place to be on Friday nights. I lived vicariously through the Brady Bunch (Marcia!), The Partridge Family (Laurie!), and Room 222 (the cute girl with bangs whose name I don’t remember!). I then imagined what adult life might be like while I watched The Odd Couple and Love American Style. Adult life has not turned out to be quite what I imagined it to be while I watched those shows, especially the latter one, thank goodness. On Saturday CBS was my network of choice; I’d spend three happy hours watching All in the Family (shocking!), Bridget Loves Bernie (romance!), The Mary Tyler Moore Show (brilliant!), The Bob Newhart Show (deadpan!), and Mission Impossible (thrilling!).

Even during my seminary years Debra and I had a regular television viewing schedule. We didn’t miss M*A*S*H, St. Elsewhere, and Hill Street Blues. Debra would sometimes force me to watch Magnum P.I. with her; she had to watch Little House on the Prairie by herself.

Things are different now. Oh, I still watch television. I watch at least some of every Atlanta Braves game I can and I do plan my life around televised Georgia Bulldog football games. Because I like old movies, Turner Classic Movies is, in my humble opinion, the most valuable and only indispensable network on television. It’s not that I don’t want to watch other things; it’s just that I’m a grown man, that I have a lot of responsibilities, and that I have a lot of things that I want to do before I die and I can’t do most of them while I’m watching television.

What got me to thinking about this was seeing the list of nominees in the television category at Monday night’s Golden Globe awards.

Here’s the list of nominees for best television series (musical or comedy) and a note on my experience with each show.
Desperate Housewives---never watched it
Entourage---never watched it
The Office---never watched it
Ugly Betty---never watched it
Weeds---never watched it

Here’s the list of nominees for best television series (drama) and a note on my experience with each show.
24---never watched it
Big Love---never watched it
Grey’s Anatomy---watched half of one episode once because my daughter Sara was watching it.
Heroes---never watched it
Lost---never watched it

Also, and I hope that some of you are sitting down when you read this, I have never watched American Idol!

Don’t misunderstand; Debra and I do watch some TV series together: CSI (because it’s interesting), Cold Case (because it’s on Sunday night and that is a time when I want to be distracted), and Law & Order (because you can watch some version of that virtually any time that you want to take an hour and watch some television). So, I have no problem with the watching of television per se.

I do get concerned, though, when I think about the fact that this nation is full of people who have watched every single episode of every show that is listed above. Where does such American idleness get us? How can mature adult people spend that much time at ease and being entertained? Usually I am more concerned about the people I know, and they are legion, who stay so busy all the time that they are terribly stressed. Such folks need to learn how to stop and take it easy. How much of a problem is it, on the other hand, that so many people who have so many skills and so many gifts and who could be doing so much good for so many people and who could be making so many positive contributions to so many difficult situations spend so much time “vegging out” in front of their televisions?

The good Lord in his grace and love gave us the possibility of Sabbath observance. We can take time to stop, to reflect, to relax, to recreate, and to worship if we only will. Many of us need more leisure time than we’re taking. But too many of us are going to the opposite extreme. It’s one thing to “veg out” occasionally; it’s another thing entirely to live, by choice, in a chronic vegetative state.

Oh, I also never watched Seinfeld.

I hope I won’t be asked to renounce my citizenship!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Back to School

Neither of my parents went to college. I don’t think that my mother wanted to do so; I never heard her say. My father, on the other hand, always kicked himself for not taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to go to school after he was discharged from the Navy in 1946. They both thought that it was important and even necessary that I go, though. In fact, sometimes I think that they must have started whispering “You’re going to college” in my ear from the moment I was born; I never remember having even the slightest question about whether I would attend. The only question was where, which turned out to be Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. I started classes there in the fall of 1975.

Before I went to college, though, I went to church. I had attended Midway Baptist Church, a rural church some four miles outside of my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, with my parents for my entire life. I was saved and baptized in that church. I surrendered to the call to preach in that church. I was heavily influenced by the deep Christian faith of many people in that church. I was also introduced to the kind of conflict that can tear a congregation apart in that church. It was Midway Baptist Church that sent me off to get my “preacher boy” education at Mercer. I learned to appreciate the church for what it was when it was at its best, to appreciate it despite what it was when it was at its worst, and to appreciate it for what it was when it was what it was most of the time—kind of ordinary, kind of faithful, kind of interesting, and kind of dull. I loved that church and I loved church in general.

At Mercer, though, I found another, albeit related, love: university education offered with a Christian worldview. I fell in love with the atmosphere of learning, with the camaraderie of scholars, with the feel and smell and contents of books, and with the thrill of discovery. My professors, particularly the ones in the Department of Christianity who modeled a combination of deep piety and committed scholarship for me, had a greater impact on me than they could possibly have realized. I went to Mercer bearing a call to preach. I left Mercer still bearing a call to preach but wondering if I might also have a call to teach. During the seven years that I studied at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, whenever I was asked what I wanted to do when I finished, I replied, “Either pastor a Baptist church or teach in a Baptist college.” I did both while I was at Southern. I had a student pastorate at Beech Grove Baptist Church in Owen County, Kentucky. I taught at Simmons Bible College in Louisville.

And I’ve been blessed to do both since I graduated from Southern in 1986. Over the past twenty years I’ve had some wonderful experiences in both areas of ministry. I served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia, a fine congregation in the deep south-central part of the state. While I was there I taught as an adjunct for Brewton-Parker College and for Mercer at a center they operated in Perry, Georgia. I think that I enjoyed a third teaching experience the most, though. One Saturday I saw an ad in the Valdosta Daily Times seeking teachers for a degree program that was being started at Moody Air Force Base outside Valdosta by St. Leo College in Lakeland, Florida. I figured that there was a very, very small chance that a Roman Catholic school offering classes on a U.S. Air Force base might hire a Baptist preacher with a Ph.D. from a Baptist seminary to teach religion courses. But they did! I spent a year teaching Introduction to Religion and Old Testament Survey to a group of Air Force non-commissioned officers. They were good students and it was great fun.

Then I reversed my priorities for a while. I became a professor in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. During those seven years I taught full-time and pastored part-time. After a few years of doing interim and supply work I became the part-time pastor of the Fosterville (TN) Baptist Church and greatly enjoyed those good people. Then I went back to the full-time pastorate. I have been blessed to serve for the last four years as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church, a wonderful fellowship of believers in Augusta, Georgia. It has been several years since I’ve done any college teaching.

That changes today. I’m going back to school. On Tuesday nights this semester I’ll be teaching an “Introduction to the Bible” course at Anderson University, an institution in Anderson, South Carolina that is affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention. I’m grateful that the good folks at The Hill are allowing me to do so. I’m looking forward to it. As I’ve been getting ready I’ve been remembering what I like about working with college students. They have much fresher eyes than I have so they see things I’ve not seen before. They have much different experiences than I’ve had so they bring an interesting perspective to our discussions. They tend not to accept cut and dried answers so they push me to think very carefully about what I believe and about how I express those beliefs. And I still get to preach, to visit the sick, to plan for the future of the church, and to develop those close relationships that make church so wonderful.

So I’m going back to school. But I’m still in the church. God is good.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I don’t remember the first time that I heard the name Martin Luther King, Jr. I think, but I’m not certain, that he led a march in my hometown sometime during the mid-sixties. My first clear recollection related to him is from the night he was assassinated. I was a fourth grader and was parked, as was the case most nights, in front of the television set, so I heard the news as soon as the networks got it. Even though I had only a vague notion of the importance of Dr. King, I remember being troubled by the news.

The Lamar County, Georgia school system was consolidated and desegregated in the fall of 1969, at the beginning of my 7th grade year. I had attended school with a handful of African-American students who, in retrospect, showed great courage in attending our previously all-white school. I had never, however, had an African-American teacher until that 7th grade year. My high school history teacher was Mr. C. E. Julian, a most dignified (and tough) man who was a proud graduate of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. I mention Mr. Julian in this context because in class one day he played an LP (that’s the abbreviation for a long-playing vinyl record album, for all you young readers) of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That was the first time I had ever heard it. I find it amazing now that so many years had passed between the time he delivered it and the time that I heard it. I vividly recall being mesmerized by Dr. King’s vocal style but being even more mesmerized by his words. It was and remains a truly remarkable speech.

During my freshman year at Mercer University, I took Introduction to Political Science with Professor Gary Johnson. That was in 1976. It was not until twenty years later, when I read Will Campbell’s book The Stem of Jesse, which was about happenings at Mercer during the Civil Rights era, that I found out that Professor Johnson had been among the first black students to attend Mercer. One beautiful spring day he took our class across the street from the campus to Tattnall Square Park. We were sitting in a circle, discussing some political theory or another, when a preschool class came walking by, laughing and dancing and just generally having fun. In the group were black and white students, some of whom were holding hands. Our college class, which was not nearly so integrated as that preschool group, smiled and laughed. Professor Johnson said, “Dr. King would have really gotten off on that.” Dr. King’s words from that most famous of his speeches came back to me.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today!
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."

It was quite a dream. It is quite a dream. Today is a good day to hear it again and to dream it again, not only because Dr. King, whom I admire, declared it, but because the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, whom I serve, demands it.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ah, Football!

(Note: On Sundays I am posting a Sabbath blog, my logic being that the Sabbath is a good day to post about things that I enjoy. Fun writing is recreational writing, I figure. So, here is Sabbath post #2.)


I never played football.

Well, practically never.

I did try to play Pee-Wee football when I was eleven years old. I should have been good at it; I certainly fit the “pee-wee” bill. I wasn’t unusually short, but I was amazingly skinny. At the tryouts, just before we showed off (!) our passing arms, we had to shout out our weight. With as deep a voice as I could muster, I bellowed/whined, “Ninety-three pounds.” All the while I was thinking, Charlie Brown-like, “I’m doomed.” I was chosen to play for the Falcons, the second-best team in the four-team league; the Vikings were by far the class outfit. Unfortunately, I didn’t last the season. I wish I could say that I suffered a season-ending injury or something like that, but the truth is that I just got tired of it and quit. It’s not one of my proudest moments.

Still, some of my childhood memories of football are pleasant ones. Here’s one of them.

I grew up in Barnesville, Georgia, the home until around 1970 of Gordon Military High School and Gordon Military College. Both schools fielded football teams. Both teams were called the Bulldogs. The high school played in a regular region; the school was both the city’s public high school and a boarding school. I remember several rousing games against Manchester High School; I still shiver a little when I heard the phrase “Blue Devils.” The college, which was a two-year school, played other two-year schools (Georgia Military was naturally a big rival) and the junior varsities of four-year schools (this was before freshmen were eligible to play varsity sports in college). Many a weekend I was at Summers Field on Friday night to watch the high school Bulldogs play and again on Saturday night to watch the college Bulldogs play.

Other military schools were natural rivals for the Gordon Military College Bulldogs. When Georgia Military or the Citadel came to town their cadets would fill up a section on the visitors’ side of the stadium. Gordon’s cadets would fill up a section on the home side. There they would sit, like the Philistines and Israelites on opposite sides of the valley, hurling taunts at one another. They had to hurl them at one another; neither side had a Goliath to do it for them! I seldom sat in the stands; my place was on top of the embankment on the home side at about the twenty-five yard line. As at all such events, their side hung banners and our side hung banners. I don’t remember who the visiting team was on the night that the event I’m about to describe happened, but it was one of those military schools.

Just as the teams trotted off the field at the end of the first half, a brave or frisky or silly or crazy (take your pick; I was only about ten years old and couldn’t tell) Gordon cadet ripped down one of the visiting team’s banners. The enemy cadets, seeking justice or at least retribution, came pouring out of their stands and charged across the football field toward the Gordon cadets who were innocently sitting in their seats eating hot dogs, drinking Cokes, and nuzzling coeds. I sat still as a statue, petrified by fear at the sight of the charging army. Standing near me on the top of the embankment was a solitary policeman whose name was Opie Pitts. He was, as I recall, a man of small build who nonetheless wore the uniform of the Barnesville Police Department with dignity. He just stood there, waiting. Then, just as the horde reached the sideline on the home edge of the field, he raised his right hand. The charging cadets screeched to a halt. Then, he made a circling motion with his finger. The entire cohort turned around and slunk back across to their side of the field.

I have come to think of it as The Charge of the Slight Brigade!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Something Hopeful In Baptist Life

On April 10, 2006, the leaders of several Baptist conventions that together have some 20 million members gathered at the Carter Center in Atlanta at the invitation of former President Jimmy Carter, himself a life-long Baptist. Out of that meeting came a statement called A North American Baptist Covenant. Following is a portion of that statement.

The leaders of these organizations affirmed their desire to speak and work together to create an authentic and genuine prophetic Baptist voice in these complex times. They reaffirmed their commitment to traditional Baptist values, including sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and its implications for public and private morality. They specifically committed themselves to their obligations as Christians to promote peace with justice, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick and the marginalized, welcome the strangers among us, and promote religious liberty and respect for religious diversity.

They also agreed to plan for a convocation of Baptist people to celebrate these historic Baptist commitments and to explore other opportunities to work together as Christian partners.

The plans for that convocation were announced at another meeting that was held at the Carter Center this week. The leaders of the conventions that make up the North American Baptist Fellowship (NABF), one of six regional bodies of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) met in Atlanta with other Baptist leaders and with President Carter and former President Bill Clinton, who is also a Baptist and who described himself as a “cheerleader” for the movement. Member bodies of the NABF include the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., American Baptist Churches USA, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Canadian Baptist Ministries, Seventh Day Baptist General Conference, Baptist General Convention of Texas, General Association of General Baptists, and others. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), because of its withdrawal from the BWA a few years ago, is not a member of the NABF. Its leaders say they were not invited to participate in this week’s meeting but organizers of the upcoming convocation say that Southern Baptists will be invited to participate.

The convocation will take place at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta January 30-February 1, 2008. According to John Pierce of Baptists Today, “Organizers say the…gathering will be ‘prophetic, but not partisan,’ and focus on Jesus’ reading of the prophet Isaiah as recorded in Luke 4:18-19, calling for preaching the gospel to the poor, healing the brokenhearted and giving liberty to captives.” Tentative themes for the plenary sessions include “Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant,” “Unity in Bringing Good News to the Poor,” “Unity in Respecting Religious Diversity,” “Unity in Seeking Peace with Justice,” and “Unity in Welcoming the Stranger and Healing the Broken-Hearted.” Confirmed speakers include President Carter and Bill Moyers.

One positive outcome of the disruption in the SBC at the end of the last century and the ongoing tendency of SBC leadership to pull back from involvement in the larger Baptist world has been the increased appreciation of many former and some current participants in the SBC for Baptists in other parts of the world and for Baptists in other Baptist conventions. The SBC has over the years become quite narrow in its focus on itself and on limiting fellowship to those of “like mind” with an ever-narrowing definition of “like-mindedness.” For too many years too many of us took the approach that by being involved in the SBC we were by proxy involved in the BWA and the NABF and with the groups that related to those bodies. Now, we understand that it is better to be involved directly through our own participation and support. It is a very good thing, I think, that diverse Baptists from many different conventions are getting together to focus on Christian ministry and on Baptist principles. The NABF is apparently moving toward becoming a more proactive and intentional body, and that’s good. The NABF is made up of some 24 conventions representing some 18 million members. The BWA is made up of some 214 conventions and unions with some 34 million members. Clearly, all those Baptist groups can do more together than they can separately.

I hope that important partnerships, positive Christian ministry, and a clear Christian witness will emerge from this convocation and subsequent efforts. I hope that greater Baptist cooperation will lead to an even broader ecumenism. I hope that the leaders of and the participants in this new effort will make every effort not to unnecessarily narrow the parameters defining what kinds of Baptists can and should participate. I hope the day will come when “fundamentalist” or “conservative” and “moderate” or “progressive” Baptists will stop sniping at each other and just get on with the work of the kingdom. And I hope that I’ll get to know lots of new Baptist friends when I go to the meeting in Atlanta next year.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Not His Father's Blog

My son Joshua is a recent graduate of LaGrange (GA) College with a degree in Literary Theory; he took a lot of English and Philosophy courses. He offers interesting insights on his newly-established blog, which I encourage you to visit. It's called Estimated Prophet and you can find it at I must say, even if he is my son, that he is a very good writer. You will be entertained and challenged by his thoughts.

Being Judged by What You Leave Behind

The Essenes were a strict Jewish sect that produced the documents that proved to be the most famous and perhaps most important archaeological find of modern times, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). The DSS were discovered in the late 1940s in caves near the Dead Sea at a place called Qumran. Among the DSS were at least partial copies of every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther, an omission that is usually explained by the fact that the Essenes apparently did not observe the Festival of Purim, the origin of which is described by that fascinating book.

A more recent archaeological find has perhaps solved one of the scholarly debates surrounding the Essenes. Most scholars believe that the Essenes lived as a monastic community at Qumran and thus produced and left the scrolls there. Other scholars believe that the residents of Qumran were farmers or soldiers or potters and that the scrolls were written in Jerusalem and deposited at Qumran by Jewish refugees who were forced to flee the Roman destruction of the city in 70 CE.

Interestingly, the discovery of an ancient latrine may help to settle the debate. According to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, the Essenes’ strict rules of purity included the requirement that they distance themselves from the community to use the bathroom, that they use a trench that was a foot deep, and that they bury the waste. Two scholars named Joe Zias and James Tabor reasoned that if they could find a latrine used by the Qumran community, they might have proof that one view of the community or the other was accurate. The latrine they found contained ancient human waste that had been buried; it was also a nine-minute walk from the community. Therefore, the likelihood that Qumran was in fact inhabited by the Essenes has been increased.

This study, which is being published in Revue de Qumran and which has been reported on by the Associated Press (where I read about it), set me to wondering how the archaeologists and anthropologists of 2000 years from now will evaluate our culture. What will they be digging up about us that will cause them to decide what kind of people lived in America in the early 21st century? If they can find evidence of how we treated each other, especially of how we treated those who were different than we were or those whom we did not understand, how will they judge us? If they can find evidence of how we treated the earth that the Lord entrusted to us to exercise sovereignty over and stewardship of, how will they judge us? If they can find evidence of whether we used religion as an instrument of conflict or of peace, how will they judge us? If they can find evidence of whether we used technology for productive or destructive ends, how will they judge us? If they can find evidence of whether we used our words, including the words we used in forums like this one, to do good or to do harm, how will they judge us?

It may seem strange or funny to learn that scholars are using a 2000 year old latrine to draw conclusions about an ancient culture. I can’t help but wonder, though, what future generations will conclude about us from the waste we are leaving behind.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

A Reprint of a Previous Post

My post from Friday, January 5, 2007, entitled "The Quran Comes to Congress," has been reprinted at Take a look and, if you are not now, consider becoming a daily reader of that excellent website.


A Giant Step for Humankind?

I am no ethicist nor the son of an ethicist. Nonetheless, I believe that it is important that I and all other Christians try to apply the spirit, the example, and the teachings of Christ to our thinking about and to our acting upon the ethical issues of our time. One of those issues is the use of embryonic stem cells in research into possible cures for debilitating and life-threatening diseases. As I understand it, embryonic stem cells are valuable in such research because they can potentially be developed into any of the types of cells that make up the human body. The problem is that in order to harvest the stem cells the embryo must be destroyed. If, therefore, one believes that the embryo is or should be thought of as a human life, such an action is highly problematic. Should the life of a person afflicted with Parkinson’s disease or Lou Gehrig’s disease be valued over the at least potential life embodied in the embryo? On the other hand, should the potential life contained in the embryo be valued over that of people dealing with such terrible diseases?

The issue is a very volatile one politically. The Bush administration has limited research to existing stem cell lines. The conventional wisdom is that the President will veto any legislation that significantly increases federal support for stem cell research. Public support for an increase in such research seems to be on the rise. In a poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation for the Civil Society Institute think tank and reported on in Medical News Today, 68% of Americans would like to see the new Congress take action to increase stem cell research. That is up from 60% in June 2004 and 63% in February 2005. Interestingly, the poll reveals that 69% of Roman Catholics and 52% of evangelical Christians support greater federal support of stem cell research. Of course, the majority can be wrong, but it is still interesting to find that, at least according to this poll, the majority of Christians hold that position.

It’s a tough call for me. It seems logical to me to at least use embryos that are created in the process of infertile couples trying to become pregnant but that that are not going to be used for that purpose. There seems no point to preserving such embryos in perpetuity; why not, then, use them for some positive purpose? Still, even as I wrote that last sentence, I found myself feeling uncomfortable at the suggestion of “using” them. I really don’t want to devalue life or potential life.

Then yesterday came some potentially very good news. Researchers at Wake Forest and Harvard Universities announced that they had been able to draw stem cells from amniotic fluid without doing any harm to the mother or the fetus and that they had successfully developed those stem cells into the cell types of several different tissues. While we are years away from knowing just how well the stem cells taken from amniotic fluid will work as developmental cells and while scientists are cautioning that they may not work as well as those taken from embryos, there still seems to me to be cause for cautious celebration. I say that for two reasons. First, any development that could lead us away from the troubling possibility of creating human embryos for the sole purpose of harvesting the stem cells seems to me a good thing. Second, any development that could lead to the curing of some of our most terrible diseases while at the same time resolving some of our most difficult ethical dilemmas is a good thing, too.

As a Christian, I want to love and respect all human life. It is hard to decide sometimes how the principle of Christian love is to be applied when, no matter what decision you make, one life has to be chosen over another. If this new development helps us to save some lives without ending another potential life, it may be a giant step for humankind.