Tag Archives | historical figures

A little quality time with the Apostle Paul and Teddy Roosevelt

sabbatical image 2 I’ve given myself a little time between the end of one ministry and the beginning of another, mainly so that I could do something that I seldom have enough time to do – namely, read and write. I didn’t waste any time getting started – with the reading.

N.T. Wright has been a favorite theologian, and over the years his books have helped to sharpen my mind.  His much-anticipated Paul and the Faithfulness of God has just been published.  It’s not Harry Potter, but it’s surprisingly gripping.  At 1700 pages (and more than $50) reading it is a daunting project, but I can’t seem to put it down.

Here’s his project as he describes it: “For me, as for many people, ‘theology’ used to have a rather dry, abstract sound – arranging ideas in clever patterns but without much linkage to real life. With Paul all that is different. Paul was a man of action, believing that it was his God-given vocation to found and maintain communities loyal to Jesus right across a world owing allegiance to Caesar. But these communities were bound together by no social ties and indeed cut across normal social divisions. How could they be united and holy? Paul’s answer was: through prayerful, scriptural meditation on who God actually is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for the world. That is a kind of working definition (though I come at it in the book from several angles). These were essentially Jewish questions, but ‘theology’ in the new way Paul was doing it was something the Jewish people hadn’t needed to do – and something the non-Jewish world (for whom ‘theology’ was simply a branch of ‘physics’, the world of ‘nature’) hadn’t needed to do either. This kind of theology is a never-ending exploration – each generation has to do it afresh in its own context, and Paul gives us the tools for that rather than a set of pat ‘answers’ which mean that people don’t thereafter have to think.”

But it’s not only theology that has my attention.  Doris Kearns Goodwin, best known for her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, has a new book about Teddy Roosevelt, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.  It too is really good.

Favorite sentence so far?  Nellie Taft’s comment to her husband (who could be a bit wordy): “Many a good thing is spoiled by there being too much of it.”

I imagine that observation could apply to much of life.

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The Dead Sea and Me

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Anyone who has ever made the pilgrimage knows pretty much how it goes. Not the last day, but towards the end, after Masada and Qumran and En Gedi, the bus stops somewhere along the Dead Sea. Tired pilgrims stumble out of the bus with swim suits and towels in hand, and they head for the changing rooms.

I would call it a “swim,” but no one swims in the Dead Sea, not really.

After wading out farther than you might think necessary – to about hip deep – the strategy is to sit down in the water and – well – float. The mineral-rich water of the Dead Sea does most of the work.

It’s best not to swallow the water – or get any of it in the eyes.

For all of that it’s fun. Floating, paddling, and of course finishing up with the mud treatment. Even though I just returned today from my fifth visit to what American Christians like to call the “holy land,” I went into the water again. I go in every chance I get. Why? Well, did I mention that it was fun? At the lowest point on the face of the earth, I get to do something that has no particular educational value and no intellectual payoff. My preaching has never been enriched by this experience, at least not in ways I’m conscious of. I’m not even sure why it shows up on just about every holy land itinerary.

But here’s the thing: I was struck by how much laughter there was that day at the beach – not just from our group, but from groups up and down the beach. There were hundreds of people, maybe more, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and all of them were laughing, shouting, teasing, posing for pictures (see above), and playing. There were no children in sight, just a lot of adults acting like children, doing everything children do at the seashore.

And I loved it. Something seemed just right about it. After several days of lectures and presentations, learning about layer after layer of tradition (and dirt) in this part of the world, the bus stopped, we changed clothes, and the goal was nothing other than to have a good time. Other people might not have found the sights and sounds remarkable, but I did.

I don’t play much. And I need to do more of it. Play, though, is usually something I have to work at. What once came naturally to me, what I once spent hours and hours doing effortlessly, now requires a great deal of effort. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I’ve lost something precious.

I have friends who seem to know how to play, and over the years I have tended to gravitate to them, people who seem to do naturally what I have to put my mind to do.

Don’t get me wrong. My hard work over the years has paid off in some wonderful ways, but it has also hurt me in some ways too. And so, I would like to play again, like I did last Sunday afternoon. I would like to be able to play without thinking much about it, without having to fly 6000 miles and then take a bus ride to what feels like the end of the earth.

What a lesson to learn at the Dead Sea.

Tomorrow: A slightly more serious, less playful (of course), reflection on why people go the holy land. Hint: the Dead Sea doesn’t have much to do with it.

(Photo: I don’t know the guy on my left, but the two people on my right are members of my Fort Lauderdale church. Now that I’m 60, I’m more comfortable publishing swimsuit shots.)

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The Historical Jesus

greek on papyrus

My younger daughter says, “What do you think of that new book about Jesus called ‘Zealot’ where Jesus turns out to be nothing more than a political revolutionary?”

Typical family conversation in our home.

I’ve heard of it of course.  I’ve even seen the author interviewed. His name is Reza Aslan, and the book’s title is Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. A FOX News interviewer gave him a hard time for being a Muslim and writing about Jesus, an interview that gave off more heat than light, but was probably great for sales.

“I haven’t read it,” I say.  “I don’t have much use for these searches for the historical Jesus.  They never amount to anything.”

“Really,” she says, genuinely surprised.  “Why don’t you blog about that?”  It had never occurred to me that anyone would be interested.  I thought everyone knew the history.

Peeling back layers of tradition and getting to the person who lived and taught and died in first century Palestine sounds like a noble and worthwhile thing to do – and plenty of scholars over the years have attempted it – but the consensus seems to be that the search doesn’t go anywhere.

But my daughter was right.  Most people don’t know that.  They hear or read about the publication of a book like “Zealot,” and they’re not quite sure what to think.  It’s easy to understand why someone would conclude that it’s nothing more than the work of a Muslim trying to smear Christianity.

I don’t know what Aslan’s intentions are, but his claims to have a Ph.D. in the history of religions and to teach the history of religion are false.  He’s an associate professor in the creative writing program at the University of California, Riverside.  Nowhere in the academic world is he known as a scholar in the history of religion.

That’s all troubling – and tends to undermine the authority of the claims he makes – but what’s really important to know is that all of these searches for the Jesus of history (as opposed to the Christ of faith) have one thing in common.  They make Jesus look a great deal like the person who set out on the search.

Albert Schweitzer famously wrote (in his own Quest for the Historical Jesus, published in 1906) that Jesus “comes to us as One unknown” and that the searches are “often pale reflections of the searchers” themselves.

John Dominic Crossan, who has given the search more than one try himself, finally concluded that most researchers will “do autobiography and call it biography.”

I won’t be reading “Zealot.”

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Pope Francis and Me

pope francis kissing feet

As my readers know (find the posts here and here), I’ve been praying for the new pope, Pope Francis I.

When he was first elected back in March, I mentioned in a sermon that I would like members of my congregation to pray for him too, something I could not imagine hearing from my own pastor when I was a child sitting in the pews.

At the time I thought it was an unusual thing to do – a Protestant clergyman asking people to pray for a Roman Catholic pope.  A local reporter even called to ask me why I was doing it.  But the more I think about it, the more I’m glad I did it.

My hope was that Pope Francis would do something to restore integrity to the Catholic Church.  I had no idea how he was going to do that, and I wondered if it was even within the grasp of one man, even one as talented and gifted as he seems to be.  But still, I thought, the task was clear.

As it turns out, Pope Francis is doing it – and in an unexpected way.  I’ve been reading news reports – maybe you’ve seen them too – of out-of-the-blue telephone calls, which have endeared him to the public, but occasionally unsettled his aides.

Just this week, apparently, the Pope called a 35 year-old Italian woman who was pregnant and whose boyfriend had left her.  Turns out, the boyfriend was already married and had a family of his own.  She told the Pope she felt “betrayed” and “humiliated.”  Beyond that, “who will baptize my baby?” she asked him.  “I’m divorced.”

The Pope spoke to her, she said, “like a dear, old friend.”  He was certain there would be a pastor who would baptize her baby, but “if not, you know there’s always me.”

In addition to this call, the Pope also called an Italian man who has struggled to forgive God after the murder of his brother, and an Italian engineering student who can’t find work even with his degree.  Aides say that the Pope is frequently on the phone – when he’s not busy fixing the Vatican bank, restoring trust in the Swiss Guard, or appointing a new Secretary of State for the Vatican.

The interesting thing – and it really shouldn’t be surprising– is that the church is seeing signs of life and hope because of the pastoral heart of its new Pope.

When I first became pastor of a larger church, the first pastor I worked with, and someone who has been my mentor over the years, called to say, “Don’t forget to make regular hospital visits.”  I wasn’t surprised by the advice, because I had worked with him long enough to know his own pastoral heart, but it was nevertheless important, even critical, advice.

Don’t forget to be a pastor, he was saying.  Don’t forget that those relationships become the foundation for everything else you do.

I hope I’ve learned that lesson.  And I’m glad for the example of His Holiness, who’s also the pastor to a rather large flock.

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Mariano Rivera and Me

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The Most Valuable Player in last night’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game was Mariano Rivera, a 43 year old pitcher for the New York Yankees.  He pitched one inning – the eighth – and got his three outs without giving up a hit or a walk.  For him it was just another day at the office.

But there was more going on last night than an older player getting his outs.

When Rivera went out to the mound before the inning started – for his warm-up throws – his team-mates did something they never otherwise do.  They stayed in the dugout – and cheered along with the 43,000 or so fans who were there.  They wanted him (and him alone) to receive the ovation they believed he deserved.

Rivera is retiring at the end of the season, and he’s using the season as a kind of farewell tour.  He was drafted at 19 years old and has been pitching pretty much since then, missing only the last half of the 1992 season to elbow surgery.  And with more than 20 saves in the first half of the season, Rivera remarkably is pitching as well as he ever has.

Here’s the really interesting thing about him: he’s universally loved within the league – players, coaches, managers, even front office staff and other ballpark employees.

I should point out that I personally don’t like the Yankees and never have.  I’m a lifelong Tigers’ fan and will always despise the Yankees (and their insufferable fans).  But it’s hard not to like Rivera (except when he’s pitching against the Tigers).

New York magazine published a profile of Rivera last month, and the profile disclosed something about Rivera that many fans do not know.  He’s a Christian.  And not just an occasional church attender, but someone who treats his faith as the most important part of his life.  “Everything I have and everything I became is because of the strength of the Lord,” he said to the reporter.

Christian athletes of course are nothing new.  Every sport has them – Tim Tebow in professional football (barely), Jeremy Lin in professional basketball, and so on.  But these days Christian athletes are often tolerated more than loved.  Tebow, for example, was such a polarizing presence on the New York Jets last year that for a while no team wanted him for the coming season.

So, what sets Rivera apart?  Part of it is that he’s earned the respect he’s getting by being around so long, so dedicated to his sport, and – well – so good.  At this point people are willing to listen to anything he says.

But I think there’s more, and this is something other athletes – and Christians in general – could pay attention to: He’s humble.  For someone who has achieved so much, this trait is especially striking, but I suspect he was humble when he was a nobody.  His humility makes his faith seem sincere and genuine and believable.

Even that New York magazine reporter was in awe – not because she was interviewing a sports celebrity, but because that sports celebrity was not all that impressed with himself.  As Rivera put it, “God put [my baseball talent] in me, for me to use it.  To bring glory, not to Mariano Rivera, but to the Lord.”

There’s one Yankee I admire.

(Photo credit: As with many of the photos I use on the blog, I found this one in a search of Google images.  However, an alert reader has pointed out that Rivera is a right-hander, and the photo clearly shows him throwing left.  He’s a great pitcher, but he probably doesn’t throw from both sides.  So, I’ll assume this photo was flipped.  Back in my college newspaper days, we used to flip photos so that, for example, a person wouldn’t be looking off the page.  I’ll assume something like that happened here. Good eye, Jim!)

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Pablo Casals and Me

if it ain't broke

So, there was a lot of email response to my recent “Blog News” post.

Mostly the responses urged me not to change anything – not to listen to busy bodies who gave me advice about my blog. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was the concerned response from several people.

Thanks, everyone. I get it. But two points. One, I asked for the advice. It wasn’t as though people came to me and told me how my blog could be better. I went to them – and I’m still going to them.

Which leads to my second point. Trying to be better isn’t the same thing as fixing what ain’t broke.

Reminds me of the old Pablo Casals story. Someone noticed that the great cellist, then in his 90s, was practicing on his cello with great concentration. “Why do you bother?” someone asked. And Casals – this may be an apocryphal story, but I like it – said, “Because I’m noticing improvement.”

Of course. What Casals and I (and probably a few others down through history) believe is that it’s important to keep trying to be better.

Isn’t anyone impressed that I signed up with “Bloggers Helping Bloggers”? Doesn’t it sound like a grand humanitarian organization – like “Doctors Without Borders”? Okay, maybe not, but it sounds promising, and maybe I’ll get some really cool ideas.

Again, thanks so much for the feedback. And thanks for liking the blog as it is. I should have known that most of my readers who are church members would be opposed to change … on principle.

(Photo credit: Any first-year Latin student should be able to translate that one.)

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Florence Nightingale and Me

florence nightingale

(For the other entries in this series, see George Washington and Me here or Picasso and Me here.  Stay tuned for more comparisons between historical figures and me.)

A few weeks ago a member of my church who teaches nursing at a nearby university called and wondered if my church would host a special “nurses week” worship service for her students.

I immediately said yes – and then immediately regretted having said yes.

Holding a worship service at my church, especially one that brings in a bunch of young adults, is ordinarily a good idea.  Church members would probably see it as important outreach to our community.  But what I wasn’t remembering at the moment I said yes was that I would probably be expected to lead the service and preach the sermon.  And what I knew about nursing at that moment could have been expressed in a sentence or two.

How do I get myself into these situations?

But I needn’t have worried. The nursing teacher dropped off at the church a book about Florence Nightingale, written in 2010 commemorating the 100th anniversary of her death.  I had no idea what a fascinating person she was.  I read the book in a single sitting.

Florence Nightingale grew up in Downton Abbey.  Well, sort of.  She grew up in a home much like that.  Expectations of her, and for all young women at the time, were that she would become a wife and mother.  Her father, however, made a serious miscalculation.  In a 19th century version of home schooling, he gave her everything well-born young men received – and more.  He awakened in her an intellectual curiosity that would not have been satisfied if she had taken the more traditional route with her life.

In her 20s she went off to be a nurse for British soldiers wounded in the Crimean War.  On arrival she found a military hospital that was killing more soldiers than it was saving, and so she set about to change it – and in the process changed modern medical care.  I had no idea.  I think it’s astonishing.

There’s more to the story of course – like her decision not to marry, in spite of several interested men – but what got my attention and what I plan to mention in my sermon tomorrow night was that Florence Nightingale felt a call from God to do this work.  The author of the book calls her a “mystic,” but by the author’s definition I’m a mystic too – and so are a lot of people I know.

Florence Nightingale and I both believe we’ve been called to do particular work – and not just called, but pushed in a specific direction.

I plan to tell the nursing students that they’re mystics too, responding to God’s call in their lives to do particular work, important work.  People tend to think of religious vocations as somehow better than – or more important than – other vocations.

I don’t.  I never have.  I love my vocation (most days), but I can see that God has called others too.  God has called some (like me) to be preachers and teachers and bloggers, but God has just as clearly called others to be information technologists, accountants, lawyers, barbers, police officers, hotel desk clerks, investment bankers, and a host of other things.

Maybe it’s because I read that Florence Nightingale book but I think the call to be a nurse ranks right up there with the most important calls there are.

Every nurse who has ever drawn blood from me, taken my blood pressure, administered a flu shot, or removed my stitches, has done it not because I was such a fascinating patient (although I’m sure I was) but because that nurse was responding to a higher purpose.  I like that.

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George Washington and me

george washington image

For most of my life I’ve admired him from a distance.

George Washington was someone I knew from history classes in school and from biographies I’ve read as an adult.  He deserves to be remembered with gratitude for his role in the founding of our country.

But then, yesterday, the former President and I suddenly had something in common.

I went to see my primary care physician early yesterday morning with a sore throat.  I was certain it was a strep infection.  I couldn’t swallow without pain.  But then I can be dangerous when attempting to make diagnoses while surfing the Internet.  I’ve convinced myself that I’ve had all sorts of serious illnesses, just by reading WebMD.

The primary care physician took a look at my throat and suggested I head over to the ER.  Which I did.  After the usual wait, the ER doctor took one look at my throat and said, “Oh, yeah.”  I like quick diagnoses.  I never want to be anyone’s interesting case.  The ER doctor sent me up to the seventh floor to see the “ear, nose, and throat guy,” who wouldn’t be back from lunch until 1:30.

“How are you today?” he asked cheerily, as he entered the examination room.  By that time I couldn’t answer without pain.

So, he took a look at my throat and said, “George Washington died from that.”

Now, just think, George and I have something in common, with the big exception that I have access to antibiotics.  After a quick, but nasty little procedure involving a lot of blood and pus (one reason many people do not go into health care professions), I was on my way with a bunch of pills, including some Vicodin.  I even stopped in the hospital cafeteria for a little ice cream to celebrate.

On the way home in the car I remembered hearing a similar comment during the birth of our first child.  My wife had been in labor for hours and hours.  (She doesn’t want me to give the actual time, but it was a long time.)  Finally, our OB came into the delivery room and said, “Oh, a hundred years ago, you would have labored and labored and then died.  I think we should do a c-section.”  Of course we quickly agreed.

I’m thankful for antibiotics and other drugs. I’m thankful for the breakthroughs of modern medicine.  I suspect people will look back a hundred years from now and marvel over the painful and barbaric treatments we use today, but right now I’m more grateful than I can say to be alive (and to be the father of a very healthy 29 year old, who came into the world through a c-section).

George Washington ultimately died by suffocating.  For hours, like me, he couldn’t swallow.  And then, at the end, he couldn’t breathe.  It was a painful way to go.

I am more thankful today than I can say.  There’s nothing like a little visit to the doctor’s office to put the rest of life into perspective.

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Ernest Hemingway and Me

“…me sitting, the butt of my rifle on my foot, the barrel in the crook of my left arm, a flask of whiskey between my knees, pouring the whiskey into a tin cup … drinking this, the first one of the day, the finest one there is, and looking at the thick bush we passed in the dark, feeling the cool wind of the night and smelling the good smell of Africa, I was altogether happy.”

That’s Ernest Hemingway (who else?) in Green Hills of Africa, a novel I’ve read several times just to appreciate (and then be jealous of) the richness of Hemingway’s prose.  But I think it was also the descriptions of Africa that kept me coming back to it.

Some people get ready for travel by reading travel books, the kind issued by Frommer’s, Fodor’s, Lonely Planet, and so on.  Other people I’ve known spend time learning the language of the place they plan to visit, which I’ve tried over the years without much success, though I think it’s a worthy thing to do.

For better or worse, I like to read fiction set in the place I hope one day to travel to.  The descriptions give me a better feel for the place than the most detailed travel books ever could.  (Does a Frommer’s travel book ever tell you to look forward to the smell of a place?) 

Some of the best novels I’ve read over the years have been set in Africa, where after all these years I’m headed at the end of the week.  I’m not sure why a continent like Africa should prompt writers to do their best work, but that’s often the way it seems.

Some of the best novels set in Africa aren’t great literature, but they’re still fun to read.  Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is one of those.  It’s actually the first in a series of novels about Botswana’s first lady detective.  I’m not going to Botswana on this trip, but I feel as though I’ve been there. I can see it – and smell it – if I concentrate long enough.

The Nobel-prize winning novelist J.M. Coetzee has, interestingly enough, left his home in South Africa and moved to Australia, but his best work grew out of his experience in his native land.  His Life and Times of Michael K won the Booker prize, as did his novel Disgrace, both astonishingly well-written books.

I’m pretty sure the first novel I read that was set in Africa was Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and first published in the U.S. in 1948.  I remember lively discussions in high school English class about apartheid, and I remember dreaming even then about eventually going and seeing South Africa for myself.  At long last, it’s going to happen.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is about a missionary family who in 1958 moves from the U.S. to the village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo. Even she writes about the smell of the place:

“Once every few years, even now, I catch the scent of Africa. It makes me want to ken, sing, clap up thunder, lie down at the foot of a tree and let the worms take whatever of me they can still use. I find it impossible to bear.” 

It’s a beautifully written book.

Some of the best moments of travel are these last few days before I leave, reading about and imagining the places I am about to visit. 

I can’t wait.

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