Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Never impute to malice . . ."

"... what can be explained by incompetence."

As widely reported, President Barack Obama repated a rare moment of US history yesterday by taking the oath of office a second time. The oath he took of the 20th was bungled by Chief Justice John Roberts in administering it, causing the inauguree to botch the order of the words. So 31 hours later, Justice Roberts re-administered the oath to Obama at Obama's request, made "[o]ut of an abundance of caution," according to White House Counsel Greg Craig (news link).

So what's the problem? None with the oath or any possible question that the new president is properly sworn in. It's a done deal. But today some news media are in vapors that media access to the second oath was sharply restricted. No broadcast media were even notified of the event, no photographers were allowed except for the White House photog, who took the only photo extant of the second oath-taking, and only a couple or so print reporters were brought in. One of them turned on his digital recorder and captured the only audio of the occasion.

Now personally, I don't care. As far as I'm concerned, the verbatim second taking of the oath was duly witnessed by outside-the-White-House figures who can attest to its verity, not least of whom is Justice Roberts himself, and that's all that citizen-I think needed to be done.

But some media are fanning themselves because this president had explicitly promised "transparency" in his administration and his own actions. Being excluded from the second oath, they claim that already the promise of transparency has gone a-glimmering. And so President Obama is not living up to his promises, blah blah blah.

Having many years of direct experience in media relations at the national level, I can assure you that while Satan's realm "hath no fury like a woman scorned," a woman scorned is Mother Theresa compared to reporters excluded. So their claws come out and their fangs are revealed. The snit is on!

Personally, pooling coverage was fine, but I think that omitting TV and radio from the event was a bad idea. This was not an intentional snub of the media, it was a White House PR team that is still so new it hasn't learned to operate smoothly or well. It will get better. The media should chill. Their ommission wasn't from malice, it was was from incompetence. If the WH-PR team stays incompetent, then in another two or three months it will deserve the media shredding it will get. But not yet, not for this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Revealing a song within

What would you hear if you found a stethoscope like this?

It really cuts to the heart of the matter.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

An Israel-Hamas Primer

Robert O. Freedman, Ph.D., is professor of political science at Baltimore Hebrew University, and Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He was the editor of 14 books on Israel and the Middle East, including Israel in the Begin Era (1982), Israel Under Rabin (1995), The Middle East and the Peace Process(1998), Israel’s First Fifty Years (2000) and The Middle East Enters the 21st Century (2002).

A past president of the Association for Israel Studies, Dr. Freedman has served as a commentator on National Public Radio, the BBC and the Voice of America, and is a consultant to the US State Department and the CIA.

At the site of Middle East Strategy at Harvard, Dr. Freedman has published, "Israel’s strike on Gaza: a primer." Very readable, concise and well worth the time.

Making New Years Resolutions

I spoke on Sunday about how self control is enhanced by devoted religious faith, keying off the New York Times' science reporter John Tierney's recent column on that topic.

On Jan. 11, we will celebrate a Covenant Renewal Service at both the 8.30 and 11.00 worship services. We had a special handout on Jan. 4 which can be downloaded in PDF form by clicking here.

Before the service, everyone will be given an envelope into which to place their resolution paper, then seal the envelope and address it to themselves. of course, you may use another, or different, sheet of paper if you wish.

During the service, everyone will have the opportunity to bring the envelope to place on the altar. In the days that follow, Pastor Don and a prayer team will pray for each person by name and consecrate the resolutions to God’s grace and help. Then we will mail the envelopes back to you so that you may refer to your resolutions throughout the year, knowing your church has asked God to be strong in your life this year.

No one will ever read your resolutions.

What kind of resolutions should I make?

Of course, this is up to you. I recommend that your resolutions for the Covenant Renewal service focus on spiritual growth, active discipleship and service to the Gospel, the community around us and our church.

John Wesley said that the fullness of Christian faith and practice is found in four main areas:

Acts of worship
Acts of devotion
Acts of justice
Acts of charity

Worship is the public, communal praise of God and renewal by the Holy Spirit to be in discipleship throughout the week. Devotion is prayer, Scripture study, meditation or journaling that opens the heart to the indwelling of the Spirit and asks God’s intercession for those in need. Acts of justice are those done in Christian concern, in cooperation with other people, that help affairs of the world or the church come more closely to the ideals of God as explained in the Scriptures. Acts of charity are personal acts of love or care that are individual rather than communal.

No one is required to make resolutions according to these areas; your resolutions are private. They are recommended as a way to think about personal spiritual growth and religious life. Please prayerfully consider ways that God is leading you to grow in Christian love, devotion and service, then bring your resolutions to worship on Jan. 11.

Here are three lessons from the New Testament to keep in mind.

First, I would recommend not making scattershot resolutions but only a few that are tightly focused and well defined. The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27,
24 Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25 Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27 but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified
Self improvement is like athletic training, it takes self control, discipline and planning. Sprinters or long-distance runners don’t run aimlessly. They plan their training sessions. Professional boxers don’t train by shadow boxing - throwing punches at thin air. They use a bag or a sparring partner as a target.

We rarely fail to become better Christians or better people because we plan to fail, but almost always because we fail to plan. Really, if we are honest, we have to admit that what mostly holds us back are ourselves. Lou Holtz said last week that during his decades of coaching college football, sports writers often said he was the only coach who could hold Notre Dame to less than thirty points per game. 

"The only problem," Holtz said, "was that I was Notre Dame’s coach." Limitations, said Holtz, are usually self imposed.

In Galatians 5:22-24, Paul wrote,
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Paul would have unsurprised by the results of the psychological research. He knew, as the research confirmed, that mere commitment to Christian principles and ideals if of little long-term use in self improvement, to say nothing of missing the boat when it comes to eternal destiny. It is commitment to Christ, not Christianity per se, that is key. Commitment to Christ brings the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and it is that which makes us display the fruit of the Spirit, which are the main Christian virtues. Among them is self control.

But here is the hard teaching: belonging to Jesus means we have to put away the passions and desires of the flesh. "The flesh" in Paul’s writings does not simply mean the body, but the way of the world at large and in general. The passions and desires of the way of the world make us strive for success for to serve ourselves rather than the Gospel. They make us accumulate things rather than grow in love and service. They make us conform to pop culture rather than introduce Christ to culture.

Of all the things to ponder when forming our New Years resolutions, being honest about motivations is perhaps most important. Why do we want to do what we resolve, and for whose sake? I have asked everyone to pray about their resolutions, and as we pray, I think we should each ask ourselves this question: "Am I willing to pray a prayer for which I am the answer?"

"5 For this very reason," wrote Paul in 2 Peter 1:5-7, " you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, 7 and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love."

Note that love is the end point of Christian perfection. There is a process of Christian self improvement. It starts with faith, faith in God, belief in the resurrection of Jesus and accepting his Lordship of our lives. That is what makes us good persons, a close relationship to God. We then have greater knowledge of God’s will for our lives, and knowing God’s will supports our self control. So finally, we can and do become lovers of God and of the people and things that God loves.
Jesus taught is Matthew 12.43-45,
43 "When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. 44 Then it says, 'I will return to my house from which I came.' When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45a Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first."
Human beings are creatures of habits, which is a good thing because habits prevent us from having to invent each day’s routines anew. Most of our habits are morally neutral. Some are virtuous; virtue, said Aristotle, is excellence made habitual. But some habits are destructive of self or others. 

Self improvement starts with casting out the bad habits of our lives. Yet, as Jesus taught, we have to fill a bad habit’s place with a good one. Otherwise, we leave an empty room in our lives, neat and tidy, and back in come the bad habits. That’s why we gain back the weight we lose or go back into consumer debt next Christmas - we have not replaced old habits with new, better ones. And eventually, it is not excellence that becomes habitual, but vice. The adjective form of "vice" is "vicious," and the cycle of shedding habits of vice only for them to return is literally a vicious circle.

The point of the Wesleyan Covenant Renewal Service, to which I have added dedication of resolutions, is to help us get out of vicious circles and start virtuous ones!