WHAT WOULD JESUS SAY TO US?

I often wonder what Jesus would say to his professing followers of the 21st Century. Would it be “Well done good and faithful servants?” Or would it be “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites?” Of course, there is no official position of scribe in Jesus’s Church, nor does any Christian faction call itself Pharisee. Yet some of his followers seem determined to resurrect these labels in spirit.

An astounding series of events recently occurred in my community, Morton Grove, Illinois.

Scene 1: A member of the Park District Board refused to stand and say the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of a meeting, stating his personal objection to declaring public allegiance and choosing to act on his conviction. Whether one agrees with that position, we live in a country where he possesses that freedom.

Scene 2: The local American Legion makes an annual donation to the Park District. The Legion decided to withhold that donation this year unless the Park Board required the man to give some form of respect to the flag by at least standing. The Board decided against censoring its member, but defended the freedom to act on his conviction. The Legion denied the donation, overlooking that its organization represents hundreds of thousands of men and women who have died to preserve this man’s freedom.

Scene 3: A Chicago blogger, Hemant Mehta, picked up the story and decided to intervene, asking his readers to donate to his web site to replace the forfeited Legion contribution. Over 160 people responded with more than $3,000. Mehta offered the money to the Park District Board.

Scene 4: The Board refused Mehta’s offer. Park District Executive Director, Tracey Anderson, said in an email to Mehta that the District board “has no intention of becoming embroiled in a First Amendment dispute.” Anderson continued in the email to state that the board did not want to appear to show favor to any political or religious viewpoint.

That was prompted by Mehta’s blogspot, which is titled “Friendly Atheist.” Mehta began his blog in 2006. He has also written several books, including I Sold My Soul on eBay, in which he recounts his experience when he auctioned an opportunity for the winning bidder to take him to church. A well-known evangelist, Jim Henderson (Evangelism Without Additives), won and found the encounter delightful. Mehta visited more churches and offers a winsome critique of churches and how they appear to the outsider in his book.

Scene 5: Mehta decided that since the money had been donated to benefit the Morton Grove residents, he would redirect the money to another entity: the Morton Grove Library. When the check arrived at the library, the library board’s Treasurer intercepted it and announced that the board would have to approve the donation first. The Library Board meeting became contentious when the Treasurer adamantly stated her opposition to accepting the check. She cited two reasons: 1) Because the money was given to the Park District, it would be unethical to accept it without the approval of the 168 donors and 2) Mehta’s site constitutes a “hate group” (her words).

With respect to the first argument, the library’s director made it clear that money donated to a web site becomes the property of the web site’s owner, who can disburse it as he or she sees fit. Mehta even states “When … I said I would be giving the money to the library instead, not a single donor complained about it because it would still have the effect of benefitting (sic) the community” (author’s italics).

The second argument became the emphasis of the Treasurer’s diatribe. She brought a copy of quotes she found on the site, quotes made not by Mehta, but by people who read the blog and commented. In one instance, she attributes to Mehta derogatory remarks about a religious painting of Christ on the cross, although Mehta was simply reporting a story in which Catholic parishioners had made the comments.

The woman clearly does not understand how blog sites work. Most bloggers allow people to disagree with their view in the Comments section. Even those who agree may not state the position with the same tact or grace that the blogger does. And when hundreds of comments pile up on a blog, the blogger will not likely sift through all of them.

Scene 6: The Library Board video records is meetings, so this meeting is in public domain. Mehta has posted the video (53:31 long) to allow everyone to observe the debate. The Board voted 5-2 not to accept the check. Most board members who voted against it stated they were uneasy accepting money originally intended for another organization.

Mehta gives a fair, reasoned, and conciliatory response to the accusations made by the Treasurer. His site highlights the shallowness of the woman’s “research” and the determined bias she displays in arguing her case. The video exposes something very disturbing. The Treasurer has declared herself a Christian, but her tone contradicts her faith. While trying to convince her peers of the hatefulness of Mehta, she appears angry and hostile. Who is the hater here?

My wife was especially distressed by the incident. In a letter she wrote to the Treasurer, which she never delivered, she presented a different Christian perspective.

What did Jesus do? The Son of God even accepted gifts and hospitality from those who had a reputation for not following the law. Matthew, the tax collector, cheated his own people. The food he set set before our Lord came at the expense of others. Mary Magdalene, a well-known harlot, anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. His critics could not believe he would allow such a woman to touch him.  Instead of rejecting their generosity, Jesus treated them with dignity. He was kind and gracious.

When passing through Samaria on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples were met with a cold shoulder. Two of those disciples went to Jesus and suggested that they “tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them.” After all, these Samaritans had disrespected the Son of God, King of heaven and earth. Many kings would assign the death penalty for much less. Jesus’s response? “But he turned and rebuked them.” (Luke 9:51-56)

The good news of the Christ’s message is the offer of forgiveness, acceptance, and love to the world. Jesus did not divide the world into those who deserve his love and forgiveness and those who do not. He did not show one ounce of hostility towards those who were outside his group of followers. On the cross he even prayed for his executioners. The only time he approaches a harsh tone is with those on the inside who act like those on the outside, the scribes and Pharisees.

The Jewish leaders claimed privileged knowledge of God and his law. With that knowledge they condemned those who did not measure up to their standards. They treated their enemies with hostility and contempt. Jesus called them hypocrites.

In a growing secular society, we face an increasing number of opponents to Jesus, enemies of the gospel. How we treat these adversaries will define the character of the kingdom where we serve.

We have acted poorly in our denunciation of homosexuals, abortion advocates, liberals, Hollywood, atheists and anyone else who does not conform to our moral standards or insider principles, calling down fire from heaven on these unworthy humans.

I wonder what Jesus would say to us.

Posted in Christians Engaging Culture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: LOSING THE BATTLE AND THE WAR

same-sex marriageThe U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, but it likely will not end the strife or wrangling that this issue has inflamed. Although public opinion has accelerated in favor of same-sex marriage (50% of Americans favor it, up from 39% in 2008, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), staunch opponents remain entrenched.

The subject has evoked a lot of attention in the media and many would argue that the coverage unfairly supports the homosexual agenda. Matt Slick is one of those making this claim. Founder of the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) in 1995, Slick was invited to an interview by The Daily Show, Comedy Central’s show that satirizes the media and politics. The show’s producer explained that the interview would cover homosexuality and the anti-Christian bias in the media. Skeptical of their intent, Slick repeatedly expressed his concern about “being promoted as a wacko who they could mock.” The producer assured him that this was not the show’s objective.

Samantha Bee interviewing Matt Slick on The Daily Show

Samantha Bee interviewing Matt Slick on The Daily Show

The sketch, aired June 17, would argue otherwise. Slick claims that the 3 hours of taping was shrewdly edited to misrepresent him and his views. He gives a lengthy explanation of the events that transpired and his interpretation of them on his website, http://carm.org/matt-slick-daily-show. The show’s host, Samantha Bee, injected several dissenting – and humorous – comments to Slick’s assertions, especially when he claimed that “homosexuals go out and find straights to beat up.” Slick claims that this statement was edited, that he clearly said that he did not know if homosexuals actually bully straights. Yet, he goes on to say in his rebuttal that he believes such cases must surely exist due to sinful human nature. Sorting through the facts of this dispute would require the acumen of a team from The Good Wife.

Unfortunately, The Daily Show does not release copies of original footage. Was the producer underhanded? Was Slick misrepresented? Does this prove Slick’s allegation that there exists an anti-Christian bias in the media?

For several decades now, Christians have complained about being the target of secular persecution. Some Christians warn of an increasing hostility towards followers of Jesus. The IRS scandal has fueled the paranoia. The IRS was guilty of targeting political groups when reviewing their applications for tax-exempt status, delaying approval as long as 18 months in some cases. Words like “Patriots,” “Israel,” “Tea Party” or “Occupy” in the application flagged the group for more tedious scrutiny. Although the IRS was reprimanded by the Treasury Inspector General and at Congressional hearings, Christians interpret this action to foreshadow an intense crackdown by the government on Christian institutions.

same-sex marriage 3Where does this presumed persecution occur? Primarily in the political arena. When the Church decided to organize as a political action group, it subjected itself to the same battle tactics from opponents as any political party would experience. When Christians act like a political party, we should expect to be treated like a political party. The Democratic party does not bemoan being targeted by the Republican party for persecution, even though they have been treated with all kinds of hostility in the political fracas for power.

Attacks on Christians have increased with the decision to enter the political dispute over same-sex marriage. In an effort to present a biblical standard of holiness, some Christians have said mean things. Some speak with a condemning tone.  Some appear self-righteous. In the secular ring, why are we surprised when opponents use harsh tactics in retaliation to our attacks? Is this persecution? Hardly. It is politics, pure and simple.

A bigger question emerges from this conflict: When Christians publicly denounce homosexuality and its practitioners, are we faithfully representing Jesus? Would Jesus be compelled to appear on FOX News or Bill O’Reilly’s show to oppose same-sex marriage?

An examination of the gospels does not reveal a political activist, but a proponent of justice (which includes mercy) and redemption. The only place we might sense a condemning screed from the Savior is his public denouncement of the religious leaders, not the political opponents of righteousness. He condemned these leaders for their hypocrisy, their greed, their self-indulgence, their neglect of justice, mercy and faithfulness (cf. Matthew 23:13-36).

A woman condemned for adultery is forgiven by Jesus.

A woman condemned for adultery is forgiven by Jesus.

When dealing with sinners, Jesus was anything but condemning. When an accused adulteress was thrown into the dust at his feet, Jesus surprised her accusers by inviting the man without any sin to fulfill the law and cast the first stone. One by one, they all left. Jesus asked the woman if none remained to condemn her and she responded, “No one.” Jesus tells her, “Neither do I condemn you,” although as the sinless Son of God, he had every right to do so. In redemptive form he extends mercy and releases her, but tells her to sin no more. (cf. John 8:1-12)

Where do Christians acquire the notion that we are responsible to publicly denounce sin, such as same-sex sex, without offering forgiveness through the gospel to the guilty?

Political discourse truncates our message, leaving only the condemnation of sin and, by extension, the sinner. There is no place for the proclamation of the good news of God’s love of sinners and grace for their sin.

This reduction of our message should give Christians pause when we are tempted to fight for the preservation of righteousness in social law. That fight may alienate the very people we are fighting for: sinners who need the gospel. Instead of appearing as messengers of reconciliation, we are more likely to sound like political adversaries, attracting the ire of our opponents.

This has surely happened in the battle over same-sex marriage. Any public opposition immediately gets categorized as homophobic and self-righteous. We have forfeited a gospel pulpit for a political platform, losing the ear of those who need to hear about the saving love of Christ and God’s transforming power. Members of the LGBT community see Christians as their enemies rather than their friends. This sadly compromises the reputation of Jesus, who was known as a “friend of sinners.”

We have a lot of work to do to reverse this trend and recover an opportunity to love LGBTs the way Jesus would certainly would.

Posted in Homosexuality, Marriage, Politics and Christianity, The Gospel | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

WHAT IS TRUTH?

Sarah Palin - Suzi Parker

Sarah Palin – Suzi Parker

When Suzi Parker posted her blog in the Washington Post Tuesday, she had no idea that she had strayed into the land of Oz, where things are not what they appear to be. Parker posted her article, “Sarah Palin tries to stay relevant” on her blog site, She the People. She had done her homework as many bloggers do, researching her topic on internet sites. But this time she made the mistake of citing information as factual from a web site that is satirical.

The Daily Currant posted an article February 4, “Sarah Palin to Join Al-Jazeera as Host,” stating, “The former vice presidential nominee confirmed today that she has signed a multi-million dollar deal to host her own shows and to provide commentary on United States issues for Al Jazeera, which is best known for its news coverage of the Middle East.”

Palin 2The article presents the story with an air credibility, except for some tongue-in-cheek hacks at Palin, such as this quote attributed to the former FOX News commentator, “’As you all know, I’m not a big fan of newspapers, journalists, news anchors and the liberal media in general,’ Palin said. ‘But I met with the folks at Al-JaJizzraa (sic) and they told me they reach millions of devoutly religious people who don’t watch CBS or CNN. That tells me they don’t have a liberal bias.’”

Al-JaJizzraa? Even Palin, known for her quirky comments, would not likely mispronounce the name of her future employer. The entire quote sounds more like a Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) comment from “Parks and Recreation.” It provided a clue that perhaps this web site did not provide trustworthy information.

Parker might have saved herself a lot of grief if she had made just a few more clicks of the mouse. On the Currant‘s home page, under the About tab, we read, “The Daily Currant is an English language online satirical newspaper that covers global politics, business, technology, entertainment, science, health and media. … Our mission is to ridicule the timid ignorance which obstructs our progress, and promote intelligence – which presses forward.” Not the kind of site I would want to use for obtaining factual information.

Dylan Byers uncovered Parker’s faux pas in his article for Politic, “Washington Post erroneously reports Sarah Palin joining Al Jazeera” on the same day Parker’s article appeared. The Post immediately wrote a correction that admitted Parker’s error and removed the false statements from the article.

Palin 3Palin 4It seems fairly obvious that those who read the Washington Post expect information that is true, reliable, conforming to fact or reality or the actual state of things. Those who read The Daily Currant, should not expect such information. Truth has a clear demarcation. It is not fuzzy or ambiguous. Palin did not sign a contract with Al Jazeera, nor did she say the things quoted in the article. Not true. Not reality.

Thes story reminds me of the State Farm Insurance commercial where a young woman tells her friend that she did not think State Farm had special apps. Her friend asks her, “Where did you hear that?” “On the internet,” she replies. “And you believed it?” he aks. “Yeah,” she says, “They can’t put anything on the internet that isn’t true.” “Where did you hear that?” he asks again. Then in unison they both say, “The internet.”

A slovenly looking man approaches them and the woman explains that she has a date with him. She met him on the internet where he identified himself as a French model. Slouching, unkempt facial hair, slovenly, the man mangles a simple “Bonjour” to reveal to everyone but the woman, who believes in the credibility of the internet, that he is an impostor.

Woman meets her online date who claims to be a French model.

Woman meets her online date who claims to be a French model.

In this case, the definition of truth might be challenged. The woman sincerely believed in the identity of her online date as a French model. Some would say, it was “true for her.” If her date sincerely believed in his constructed online identity, some would argue it was “true for him” as well. Nevertheless, his identity does not conform to reality. Either he is French or he is not. He earns a living by modeling or he does not. Once again, truth has a clear demarcation.

Some people are challenging that line of demarcation. Our love affair with multiculturalism has opened the door for variations on veracity. Is fact or reality a universal criteria for truth or is it merely a Western construction?

Someone recently told me that Western culture defines truth by facts, but some cultures measure truth by sincerity. Some view the Western approach as cold, impersonal and hostile to the intuitive self. It emphasizes the head, minimizing the heart  The head can process facts while keeping the heart at arm’s length (or a shorter distance). Therefore, some argue that truth should be defined by its relationship tot he heart rather than the head.

palin 6This definition risks enormous danger if taken too far. Truth confined to the heart only can run into severe conflict with reality. Suzi Parker believed with her heart that she was reporting the truth, but her sincere truth did not coincide with Sarah Palin’s reality. Truth for the woman in the State Farm commercial has gripped her heart so that she risks her life in a connection with a man who may in reality be a scam artist or serial killer. What is “true for her” may not be true at all, but only what she wants to be true.

No one believed more sincerely in their construction of truth than did first-century Pharisees. They opposed Jesus with adamant conviction that he threatened that truth, that he originated from the devil (Matt. 12:24).

Jesus confronted them, denouncing their truth as lies. He claimed that they shared the spiritual nature of the devil, who “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). The line of demarcation appears vividly in this interchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. They are both claiming that truth conforms to a single reality, but they disagree sincerely over that reality.

Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, sent directly by the Father to provide a path of redemption for a fallen world and a sinful human race. That identity was the reality he called truth. The Pharisees claimed he was a heretic, an impostor, an evil man who opposes  the Law, Judaism and the truth. That identity was their reality they called truth. The heart had no bearing in deciding the truth or determining reality. It boiled down to the facts of the case, the true identity of Jesus.

We must be very careful in our cultural sensitivity that we do not forfeit a definition of truth that enables to conform our lives with the real world that exists, the world where God has sent his Son to reconcile us to himself, the world where truth is defined by that Son, Jesus.

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PI AND REALITY (Part 2)

Pi 1We pick up where we left off two weeks ago in a discussion of Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s novel adapted into a movie nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Be warned that the discussion necessarily reveals parts of the novel and movie.

Martel describes in vivid detail Pi Patel’s 227-day survival at sea in a lifeboat, also occupied by Richard Parker, a full-grown Bengal tiger. Pi manages to “tame” the tiger to permit a mutually dependent coexistence. When their lifeboat washes up on a Mexican beach, Richard Parker saunters into the foliage, unnoticed by the rescuers who transport Pi to a hospital, leaving Pi’s account as the only evidence of his existence.

Two Japanese investigators visit Pi in the hospital, attempting to learn the cause of the sinking of the Japanese cargo ship, the Tsimtsum.  After Pi’s detailed description of his experiences with the tiger as his companion, Mr. Okamoto declares, “We just don’t believe there was a tiger living in your lifeboat.” Facing unyielding resistance to his story, Pi finally relates a different story, using people instead of animals, which satisfies the investigator.

Florence Stratton offers a brilliant discussion of Martel’s book in her essay, “‘Hollow At the Core’: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi” in the literary journal, Studies in Canadian Literature (found at http://journals.hil.unb.ca/index.php/scl/article/view/12746/13689). She writes,

“Life of Pi is organized around a philosophical debate about the modern world’s privileging of reason over imagination, science over religion, materialism over idealism, fact over fiction or story. The extreme poles of this debate are represented in the latter part of the novel by the two officials from the Japanese government.”

Pi 2For Mr. Okamoto, the only basis for reality is the factual evidence that leads to scientific discovery of truth. Of course, no evidence exists to support either of Pi’s stories, but the one with humans is more believable because it complies with human experience. When Okamoto confesses that he “prefers” the story with the animals, he exposes the human predisposition toward transcendence, toward a pursuit of something beyond human experience, enabling man to escape the material world that only ends in death.

Pi’s responds to Okamoto, “And so it goes with God,” reveals Martel’s postmodernist approach to God. Early in the book Pi criticizes agnostics because they “lack imagination and miss the better story.” For Pi, God’s existence does not depend upon fact or faith, but only upon the better story, the one that appeals to man’s preference.

This approach enabled Pi to embrace three religions simultaneously, despite the protests of the religious leaders who claimed that they conflicted with one another. Pi preferred the better stories of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity without careful analysis of the doctrines that arise from those stories. Where the stories may be construed to supplement one’s love of God, the doctrines expose the incongruity of the stories.

Pi 3Only one of Pi’s stories conforms with Pi’s experience at sea. They did not both occur, even though one might represent the other. Either Pi survived with a tiger in his lifeboat or he did not. We do not have to suspend the laws of logic to discover God. The better story may also be the real story, the one that occurred in real time and real space. If it was not, then it cannot be qualified as true simply on the basis of its appeal to transcendence.

In the absence of Okamoto’s ability to personally experience the stories, they do require imagination. If the imagination is restricted by previous experiences or personal knowledge, the listener might miss the true story.

Clearly the truthfulness of the story depends upon the reliability of the narrator. If he claims to have experienced that which transcends “normal” or “usual” human experience, then he might be classified as traumatized, delusional or some other category that suggests a loss of one’s mental ability to determine reality. Or he might be accused of using deception for some perceived advantage to himself. Either way, the narrator must be discredited in order to reasonably dismiss his story.

Jesus raised this young girl from death.

Jesus raised this young girl from death.

Religions are built on stories. Some religions concede that their stories are only myths, ways of explaining spiritual reality without the stories corresponding to truth or reality. Islam, Judaism and Christianity claim historicity for their stories. The stories of Abraham, Jacob, David and Ruth occurred in historical time and space according to those who recorded their stories. The plagues in Egypt, the miraculous deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea and the miraculous provisions of the Israelites in the desert happened in time and space, according to the biblical texts.

Either they are true stores or they are not. Either they adhere to reality or they are only fictions. Our belief may be contingent upon our imagination, but our religion’s historicity is not. In fact, many people discount these stories because of their supernatural nature, because they escape the bounds of normal and usual human experience.

Jesus feeding a crowd in excess of 15,000 people with only a few fish and loaves of bread, healing a man born blind, walking on water, turning water to wine, raising a young girl from the dead, are all stories that demand our response. They do not claim to be fictions. The narrators claim historicity.

Thomas puts his finger in the wound of the resurrected Jesus.

Thomas puts his finger in the wound of the resurrected Jesus.

The climax to the Christ story explodes with the empty tomb. The witnesses to this event attest to the reality of the event. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands.” (1 John 1:1) Indeed, Thomas lacked the imagination to believe that Jesus rose from the grave and suspended belief until he could see him with his eyes and touch him with his hands. When Jesus appeared to this agnostic, his imagination was inspired and he believed. (John 20:24-29)

C.S. Lewis called the Christian story “the true myth.” It is not only the better story when compared with the other religious stories that try to explain the purpose and meaning of human existence in this broken world, it is also the most reasonable and satisfying story. It demands faith not because it is better, but because it is true.

Martel’s postmodernism offers an eclectic approach to spirituality, but it seems to compromise the structures of religion, which make specific requirements for adherence. Faith finds its object in the stories and the doctrines derived from them. Subjective redefinition of the religion qualifies as a new religion, a derivative different from the original. Adherents must believe the religion’s premises without picking and choosing.

It seems incumbent on any spiritual seeker to find the story that most corresponds with reality. I believe you will find the real story to be the better story.

Posted in Faith and Reason, Movies, Postmodernism, Science and Faith, Truth/Reality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

BASEBALL’S PERFECT KNIGHT

Stan the Man Musial

Stan the Man Musial

(If you were expecting the second part to Pi and Reality, I apologize. The passing of this great baseball player compelled me to write this week’s article on his life and legacy. I will return to Pi next week.)

“Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior. Here stands baseball’s perfect knight.” The commissioner of baseball, Ford Frick, spoke those words of one of the legends of the game. The words now appear at the base of his statue, placed outside his hometown ballpark, where he played every game of his 22-year career. Last Saturday, January 19, that legend departed from this world, 92 years old, leaving one of the most impeccable reputations in the history of the game, or any sport, for that matter.

Stanislaw Franciszek Musial entered the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 20 on September 17, 1941, playing in the second game of a doubleheader. He had two hits in a 3-2 Cardinals win. Twenty-two years later he played his final major league game on September 29, 1963 and again had two hits in a 3-2 Cardinals win. In between, he collected another 3,626 hits, fourth on the list of most career hits, amassing 6,134 total bases, second on the all-time list.

(AP)

(AP)

His achievements astound the most sophisticated statisticians: 7 batting titles, 3 MVP’s, 20 All-Star selections, missed the Triple Crown by only one home run in 1948, second player to receive $100,000 salary (1958), voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot (93.2% in 1969), 17 consecutive years batting over .300 and 11 over .333, .331 life-time batting average, sixth on all-time list of games played (3,026), and third in doubles (725). But the staggering stat is that during his 10,972 plate appearances, he struck out only 696 times, an average of only 33 times during his 21 full seasons (or once every 59 at-bats), with the highest being 46 in 1962, when he was 41 years old.

(AP) Stan's famous corkscrew stance.

(AP) Stan’s famous corkscrew stance.

One of the great accolades to him was spoken by Dodgers’ pitcher Karl Erskine, who said he found a winning tactic for pitching to Musial. “I’ve had pretty good success with Stan by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third.” Dodgers pitcher Preacher Roe said the best way to defend against him was to “Throw him four wide ones [walk him] and then pick him off first base.”

His eminent statistics do not tell the full story. It was Stan the Man’s character that attracted tributes like the one on his statue from every person who knew him. He was a consummate good sport, rarely arguing with umpires and never ejected from a game. On one occasion he hit what appeared to be a double down the right field line, which the umpire ruled a foul ball. While his teammates vocalized their displeasure with the call, Musial trotted back to the plate, looked at the umpire and asked, “It didn’t count?” The umpire conceded he may have made the wrong call, but Musial said, “Well there’s nothing you can do about it.” On the next pitch he hit a ball in almost the exact same spot, this time ruled fair.

(AP) The only known picture of an active player with the umpire crew.

(AP) The only known picture of an active player with the umpire crew.

St. Louis is known as one of the most respected and respectable group of fans in baseball. Occasionally they have their moments. In August of 1956 Musial had two errors in a game and had gone hitless for two games. When he came to the plate in the eighth inning, some fans began booing him (the only time in his career), but were quickly drowned out by a counter hail of cheers. The next morning a group of fans purchased ad space in the local newspapers and apologized to the The Man.

Last year the National Sportsmanship Awards were renamed The Musial Awards.

Stan at his retirement ceremony in 1963 (his number 6 was retired with him).

(AP) Stan at his retirement ceremony in 1963 (his number 6 was retired with him).

Conferred each year by the St. Louis Sportsmanship Commission, the awards acknowledge outstanding acts of sportsmanship around the country. “The event recognizes those who exemplify class, character, selflessness, civility and integrity in sports – traits synonymous with Stan the Man.” (The St. Louis Review)

In 1947 promoters enticed big-name players to leave the the MBL and join a newly formed Mexican league. They were offering very large salaries and offered Musial $125,000 over 5 years. He had made $18,500 the previous season. He refused the offer. “Back in my day, we didn’t think about money as much. We enjoyed playing the game. We loved baseball. I didn’t think about anybody else but the Cardinals.”

In 1947 Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier, signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Many southern players vehemently opposed integration in the MBL. Rumors suggested that the Cardinals, loaded with southern-born players, were planning a strike to protest Robinson’s entrance into the league. Musial refused to support it, although in later years he would argue that no such strike was planned. Robinson remembers that “Musial always treated me with courtesy.”

I could go on with the stories and accolades, but books have already been written to do that. I have dedicated this article to give tribute to one of the greatest men to have worn a baseball uniform, not just because he was a great player, but because he was a great person.

(AP) Stan speaking at the dedication of his statue outside Busch Stadium Aug. 5, 1968

(AP) Stan speaking at the dedication of his statue outside Busch Stadium Aug. 5, 1968

Perhaps Musial’s character was significantly shaped by his faith. He faithfully worshiped in the Catholic Church his entire life, even taking his wheel-chair bound wife to mass on Sundays until she died (he was 91). “This was a man of great faith who loved the Mass and was thrilled any time he could take Holy Communion,” said Msgr. John Leykam. Musial once explained, “Every day that I can I go to Mass and Communion. There I make my Morning Offering and that way you can even turn an error into a prayer.”

I am grieving the loss of this great Cardinal, not simply because I am an avid Cardinals fan, but because he was my namesake. So impressed with the character of this ballplayer, my dad chose the name Stan for his firstborn son. I have always carried it with pride.

A name can provide the lodestar for one’s life, giving direction and perspective to one’s life. This is why the name of Jesus plays such a vital role to the followers of Christ.

“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ …” (1 Cor. 6:11).

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col. 3:17).

“To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him …” (2 Thess. 1:11-12).

My namesake may have died, but the character of his name lives on. I can only hope that I can do as much for the name as The Man did for it.

More than that, Jesus died for our sins, but he was raised from the dead for our justification.   His name has that eternal power for us and it should spur us on to live faithfully for him every day. I only hope that I can bring glory to his name through the way I live my life today.

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PI AND REALITY

PiAlthough it received 11 Oscar nominations, including best picture, Life of Pi has attracted much attention outside the Screen Actors Guild, given its philosophical and religious underpinnings. Adapted for the screen from Yann Martel’s novel, the movie does not drown out these themes with its remarkable cinematography and special effects.

[Before you read any farther, this article necessarily contains spoilers, so you may want to postpone reading it if you plan to see the movie.]

Martel positions his story at the outset in the “Author’s Note,” as an elderly man reports to a Martel-like author, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” The man encourages the author character to find an Indian living in Canada to get the details of the remarkable story.

Piscine Molitor Patel, who renamed himself Pi, possesses a special affinity for religion, which his native Hinduism does not fully satisfy. At 14 he is introduced to Christianity and Islam and discovers assistance from all three religions in his sincere desire “to love God.” He gets no support at home where his father denounces religion in favor of the secular progress of the New India, and his mother has abandoned Hinduism.

Pi 8Pi’s father, a zookeeper, decides that he must move his family to Canada, along with the animals he cannot sell before his departure. On a Japanese freighter they encounter a severe storm that sinks their ship. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra (who broke his leg jumping into the boat), an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger who bears the name Richard Parker. The hyena quickly takes advantage of the disabled zebra and eventually kills the orangutan, but Richard Parker suddenly bursts out from under the canopy draped over half of the boat and dispenses with the hyena’s cruelty.

For 227 days Pi manages to coexist with Richard Parker, keeping both of them alive. He finds ways to net fish and collect rain water. He constructs a raft out of oars. life jackets and other materials to keep a safe distance from the tiger while the tiger is sidelined by seasickness. Through some innovative techniques, Pi conditions Richard Parker to accept him as a companion in their desperate pursuit of survival.

Pi 6With strength and life nearly drained from both of them, Pi sees land and somehow drags the boat onto a beach in Mexico. In a dazed stupor he watches Richard Parker jump over him onto the beach and walk into the nearby foliage, never to be seen again. Some men find Pi unconscious on the beach and take him to the hospital.

While recovering in the hospital, two Japanese men visit him, government investigators trying to determine the cause of the ship’s sinking. Pi relates his incredible story to the two men, who respond in utter disbelief. Mr. Okamoto appeals to science and reason in dismissing Pi’s story, but Pi effectively counters each argument. Pi asks them if they liked his story and they admit that they liked it, but that did not mean they believed it. Mr. Okamoto again asks Pi to tell him what really happened, “the straight facts,” “words that do no contradict reality.”

Pi finally acquiesces to his request. “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality. You want a story without animals.”

Pi 5So Pi offers a different account of his amazing experience. He retells the events with a sailor, who broke his leg in a fall, the ship’s cook and his mother in the lifeboat. The story becomes gruesome as the cook kills the sailor to use his flesh for fish bait. Pi’s mother soon discovers the cook was also secretly consuming more than his share of the emergency rations on the boat. In a fit of righteous indignation she slapped the cook. Two days later she confronted the cook when she discovers him eating the sailor’s flesh. Eventually the cook killed his mother and days later, Pi killed the cook.

At the conclusion, Pi asks the investigators, “Is that better? Are there any parts you find hard to believe? Anything you’d like me to change?” Mr. Okamoto asked if the cook had any explanation for the sinking of the ship. When Pi could offer no additional information to explain why the ship sank, the men conceded that he would be of no help in the purpose of their investigation.

Pi 7Before they leave, Pi asks them, “… since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story?” Both men agree that they think the story with animals is the better story. Pi replies, “And so it goes with God.”

Florence Stratton wrote a careful analysis of Martel’s novel, “Hollow at the core”: Deconstructing Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. She argues, “He is not out to prove the existence of God, but rather to justify a belief in God’s existence. Martel’s position is a post-modernist one, from the perspective of which God’s existence has the same status in relation to truth and reality as Pi’s experience of shipwreck. Agnostics, Pi tells us, ‘lack imagination and miss the better story’ (70). God’s existence, in other words, is a matter neither of fact nor of faith, but rather is a better story than the one told by those who doubt or deny God’s existence.”

In an interview with Ray Suarez in the Online NewsHour, Martel says, “… my novel is about the line between fiction and fact. It is about how we interpret reality, right? Reality isn’t just out there; it’s how we interpret it. And to me, that’s what religion is about, isn’t it? It’s an interpretation of reality.”

Clearly there is more to this story than a mere fantasy adventure. We will explore the religious/philosophical theme of Life of Pi in my next blog.

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A SUBLIME GRACE

Mis 1Some years are better than other years. Some years look like the 1962 season of the New York Mets when they lost 120 games out of 162, or the 1976 season of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who went 0-14. I have had one of those latter years. In the spring, a family crisis put an extraordinary strain on all of us. This October I painfully ended my tenure at my church as senior pastor. In November, my brother-in-law died of a heart attack. He was one year my junior. In the past year, there have been few days when the tentacles of stress were not wrapped around my heart.

But my year does not compare to the the years depicted in the lives of Victor Hugo’s characters in Les Miserables, touted as “one of the half-dozen greatest novels of the world” by author Upton Sinclair. The book was adapted into a Broadway musical in 1980 and has inspired numerous film versions, the most recent one released in theaters in December 2012.

Jean Valjean serving duty in prison

Jean Valjean serving duty in prison

Hugo set his story in the social and political chaos that followed the French Revolution. The principle character, Jean Valjean, was condemned to 5 years in prison in 1796 for theft – he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving daughter. Repeated attempts to escape compounded his sentence to 19 years.

The scene opens with Valjean’s parole and futile attempts to find work or assistance. Turned away from every inn in town, he locates a secluded spot on a street and settles down for the night. An elderly woman discovers him and directs him to the bishop’s house. Bishop Myriel was endowed with a heart full of grace and mercy and readily welcomed the ex-convict, feeding him a hearty meal and providing a warm bed.

Having lost all hope for a future and encumbered by the desperation of his habit of life, Valjean steals the good bishop’s silver utensils and flees in the early morning. He is quickly apprehended by the police, but he claims the bishop gave him the silver. The police return him to the bishop, who corroborates Valjean’s story and indicates that he had forgotten the most valuable pieces, two candlesticks.

The bishop extends grace to Valjean

The bishop extends grace to Valjean

Valjean had experienced only the harsh and dispassionate force of the law, but he was now the victim of a sublime grace at the hands of a merciful and compassionate bishop. The bishop urged him to use the money from the silver to make himself an honest man. Then the bishop anoints him with these words,

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

This single act introduced Valjean to spiritual transformation. Six years later, he resurfaces in the story as a wealthy factory owner and mayor of a small French town. Having adopted the name Madeleine, he abandoned his identity and former life and destroyed his official papers. Known for his generosity and compassion, he uses his position for the benefit of others, providing employment for the economically afflicted.

One of his employees, Fantine, had fallen victim to a summer romance and was left with a child and no means of support. She gave the child, Cosette, to an unscrupulous couple for care and nurture, sending as much as money as she can, at great personal sacrifice, for Cosette’s support. Unjustly dismissed by the factory foreman, Fantine sells her hair, two teeth, and eventually the only the thing left to sustain her existence, her moral dignity.

Mis 4Valjean encounters Fantine in the street after an altercation with a man. The police inspector, Javert, was arresting her when Valjean intervenes and orders her release. Fantine tells him her story, bringing upon Valjean the guilt of his neglect for the attentive care for his employees. Noticing the desperate health of Fantine, Valjean takes her to a hospital and promises to bring her daughter to see her.

Breaking parole makes Valjean the object of Javert’s attention, the rigid and relentless servant of the law. Suspecting that Monsieur Madeleine may be the fugitive Valjean, he inquires about him, but learns that a man in another town was currently standing trial and had been identified as Jean Valjean. The inspector confesses his mistake to Valjean.

Javert explains his mistaken suspicion to the mayor (Valjean)

Javert explains his mistaken suspicion to the mayor (Valjean)

When Valjean learns of the false identification, he is faced with a moral dilemma. To remain silent would send an innocent man to a severe prison sentence. To speak up would mean his own arrest, the loss of his factory and the financial distress for his employees. He realizes that the injustice would haunt him the rest of his life and reveals his identity to the court on the neighboring town.

Javert hears about Valjean’s revelation and tracks him down at the hospital. Void of any mercy, Javert arrests Valjean, denying him the benevolent deed of bringing Cosette to see her dying mother. Overcome by despair, Fantine dies.

Fantine weeps in despair of her dissolute life.

Fantine weeps in despair of her dissolute life.

The story continues like this with Valjean escaping, finding Cosette and raising her, eluding Javert repeatedly, sparing Javert’s life when he was captured by student revolutionaries, saving the life of one of those revolutionaries with whom Cosette fell in love, and Javert’s perilous decision in the end. By the end of the movie (or stage play or book), you will be in tears over the unending anguish of all the characters.

But standing out like Mt. Everest in the Sahara Desert is the story of redemption. Valjean is irreversibly changed by the bishop’s powerful act of love and grace and he doggedly extends the same love and grace throughout the remainder of his life. The darkness of persistent misery is drowned out by the beautiful light of invincible grace.

Hugo’s story mirrors the Bible’s story of the redemption that rescues miserable sinners from the cesspool of sin. The supreme act of grace came at the cross, where Jesus purchased our souls from perdition and gave them to God. And those who experience that redemption repeat that act of grace hundreds of times to touch other lives for the kingdom of God.

No matter how hard it gets, no matter how dark it becomes, no matter how desperate your condition, the power of God’s redeeming grace can lift you out of the darkness and into his healing and  rejuvenating light.

I would highly recommend seeing the movie or stage play this year. It may completely change the way you respond to the adversity that awaits you in 2013.

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