March/April Issue


The Difference This Time is Ryan, not Religion

From Jeff Munroe

With the recent announcement of Rep. Paul Ryan as the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, the major party slates are set and the choice before us has been defined as sharply as any in recent electoral memory.  Some Christian voters – especially evangelicals – might well be wondering whatever happened to “their kind” of candidate.   As an evangelical, I welcome the choice we have.

This election has a different religious backdrop. The major party nominees are two Roman Catholics, a Mormon and whatever Barack Obama is. (No, not Muslim – I think he’s probably best described as “progressive Protestant.”)  Over the past few years we’ve heard a lot about “values voters,” who have, among other things, focused much attention on how we define marriage.  Consider this: we have two candidates for President with polygamy in their recent family histories.   “Religion” in this election is going to mean something much wider than in the recent past.  I doubt there is a candidate amongst them who would feel comfortable giving his “personal testimony” or who is fluent in the Four Spiritual Laws.

I am encouraged instead of discouraged by this.  I’ve long been suspicious of politicians making overtly religious statements that have felt like pandering to the born-again vote. 


One Eutychus Was Enough

A colleague tells me the story of a hot August Sunday in a steamy Hudson valley sanctuary.  A faithful and hearty few had turned out for worship, for fellowship, for the sake of duty, and for reasons known only to them.  The service plodded on as the substitute organist fumbled his way erratically along the keyboard (only) of the organ.  The Scripture reading wasn't terribly long.  The sermon began.  And continued.  And continued.  And continued, until the minister took a good look at the weary flock, and monitored his own attentiveness, and, mid-sentence, broke off from the text and asked "Are any of you getting any more out of this than I am?"  And that, as the saying goes, was that.  Amen.  Offering.  Prayer.  First verse of final hymn. Benediction, and home 20 minutes early.

Another Sunday story:  every item in the service went just as planned.  Hymns were sung, prayers prayed, sermon preached, offering collected.  Then came the long prayer, as the preacher intoned one pious phrase after another, building up to that "it's almost done" moment for which every child waits, and the transition progressed thusly:   "...... and now we offer our hearts to you in the words which our Lord Jesus taught us to pray together, saying, 'Now I lay me down to sleep . . . .'"

Third story, as a preacher walked his way through his 38th Easter Sunday service.  To cut to the chase, as he read Mark's version of the empty tomb, he got it just slightly wrong:  "Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is here; he has not risen!"  Yes.  They caught it.  And remembered it, every Easter thereafter.  As did he.

All true stories, which I offer to you with the simple encouragement on what may be one of the deader Sundays of the year.  Whether you are worshiper or worship leader, wake up.  Pay attention.  Whatever your "all" is this morning, give it.   Take a nap after you get home.

Rev. Paul G. Janssen is the Pastor and Teacher of Pascack Reformed Church in Park Ridge, New Jersey, which he has served since 1991.


The Morality of Meth and a Foot Massage

From Jason Lief

Imagine you if you had a violent drug dealer chained to a pole in your basement - the result of circumstances that got out of control.  You have two choices: let the guy go after he promises not to take revenge for having him chained in your basement, or kill him.  This is the dilemma faced by Walt, a high school chemistry teacher who begins cooking meth when he finds out he has late stage lung cancer.  Walt and Jesse (his former student and drug dealing partner) flip a coin - the loser has to deal with the "problem" in the basement.  Walt loses and the camera shows him sitting at a table with a notebook.  On it he has written two columns - the first one has all the reasons why he should let the guy in the basement go.  The second has all of the reasons he should kill him.  It's a powerful scene in part because of the way the two columns appear.  In the "let him live" column we see a long list of the basic moral maxims we would expect -  "Killing is wrong," "Killing goes against the Judeo-Christian ethic", etc. - a full list of reasons we might even give right here on this blog to argue against various forms of violence.  But, then, it's easy to talk about such things abstractly - with no "skin in the game." In Breaking Bad Walt has much to lose.  The scene is powerful because it shows him wrestling - angst ridden over the choice he has to make.  He'd never killed anyone before, how could he justify doing it now - even if he was involved in something illegal like drug dealing? The camera goes on to show the other column - the "I should kill him" column.  There we find only one entry:"He will kill my family."


Numbering Days

From James Bratt

August is the sweltering month. At least that’s how I used to remember it. Maybe because my family, when I was a boy, would take its week’s vacation in August, and since the purpose of vacation was to escape the heat by hiving off somewhere out of town, August must have been the month to escape.

Actually, since I’ve been spending a lot of the summer at the lake the last few years (that’s The Lake. The Big Lake. Lake Michigan, for those of you who dwell in states of ignorance, like New York and Ohio.), I know that August in its Michigan iteration is not the swelter king. Every year, around the 8th or 10th of the month, you step outside and catch a slight tang in the air, the scent fresh and cool that spells the very first harbinger of autumn. There may be lots of hot summer days yet, but those days are numbered.

Numbering days was a recurrent practice at our house. Every New Year’s Eve, my mom told us, her father would read Psalm 90 at supper—this prior to going off to the New Year’s Eve service that would be followed just twelve hours later by a New Year’s Day service. No “oncer’s” these: twice to church every Sunday, and twice for the big turn of the calendar.

The proper disposal of time was a theme of the proverbs my parents favored as well—at least the ones I remember. Waste not, want not (although that one also applied to money). If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well—meaning, don’t rush the job. There’s an easy way and a right way. (Think about it.) And most to the point: business before pleasure. Maybe that’s why we vacationed in August, swelter or not. You had to get all the summer jobs done before you were allowed to take a break. Number your days aright, and sneak in the off-week before school starts up again.


Thou Shalt Not Create Enemy Images: Christian Life and Presidential Politics

From Theresa Latini

As a young child, I, like so many others throughout church history, was taught the Ten Commandments as part of my catechetical instruction. Some commandments appeared rather inapplicable to me at the time. There seemed little chance that I would commit murder or adultery. Other commandments, like “thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” which was explained to me to mean, “Do not tell lies to or about other people,” were both easier to understand and harder to follow. The longer I live the more this becomes apparent to me.

In his large catechism, Martin Luther described three applications of this commandment, the last of which I want to reflect on briefly. He wrote, “[T]his commandment forbids all sins of the tongue whereby we may injure … our neighbor.” These sins of the tongue include speaking behind a person’s back, slander, the tendency to prefer hearing evil rather than hearing good of others, judging others’ sin (in contrast to knowing others’ sin), and publicly speaking ill of another person regardless of the veracity of our claims.

To Luther’s list, I would add “enemy images.”  Enemy images are static assessments of persons or groups whereby we classify them as wrong, bad, immoral, fundamentally flawed—e.g., “He’s power hungry;” “She’s completely incompetent;” “He’s narcissistic;” or, “They’re a bunch of conservatives/liberals.” Such sweeping evaluations allow us to dismiss others rather than encounter them as fellow creatures made in the image of God. We can explain away their opinions and concerns rather than seeing and hearing them fully.