Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to

Text: Acts 9:1-9
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
February 18, 2007

Have you ever noticed how often we use the word funny and how often it ends up meaning very different things?

For example, sometimes we use the word funny to mean humorous. A funny person is a person who enjoys laughing and making other people laugh. I love funny things and even attempt, on occasion, to be funny. Humor is important to me.

But we use the word funny in other ways.

If a person gets up in the morning and says, “My stomach feels funny,” they are not saying that their stomach is now starting a new career in stand up. It means that they are not feeling well.

If we say that we’d feel funny about doing something it means that we’d feel awkward about something which we are undertaking.

And if we say something funny happened on our way to someplace, well, it can either be that we had an entertaining event or something completely unexpected took place.

And then there was Saul. A funny thing happened on the way to Damascus and it wasn’t amusing.

Saul, the one we’ve come to know as St. Paul, was persecuting Christians. He was building up a case and was on his way to Damascus when a funny thing happened. Luke tells us that a light appeared and a voice came down from Heaven and asked Saul why he was persecuting me. And Saul wants to know who ‘me’ is. And Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. And Saul turns from being a persecutor of Christians to the person who is most important in the history of Christianity of anyone other than Jesus.

For many, this story is troubling and difficult. I say this for two reasons.

First there is the issue of Paul himself.

When we think of St. Paul we think of the great Christian. When the people Paul was first interacting with thought of him, they thought of him as this horrible person who was persecuting everyone in the early church. And they were correct. This is who he was.

And so there was the question. Why did God use this bad man for such a noble purpose? Or maybe better asked is wondering why God doesn’t use better people than Paul.

In many ways, this story is a definitive narrative about the grace of God.

Too often we have a way too narrow perspective on grace and salvation. Grace is often viewed as at ‘get out of hell free’ card. Salvation is often merely viewed as dying and going to Heaven. Grace and salvation are rightly intertwined, but often not seen as fully as we ought to view them.

Grace is usually defined as a free gift from God. This is true. But grace is often seen as a free gift from God, given to us, and for us. Grace is less about us and more about God. Grace is not some cheap thing, it is not a ‘get out of hell free card,’ because God is nice, but because God desires that we love Him and serve Him. God’s grace is shared so that God’s great love is shared.

Saul becomes Paul not because Saul is a great guy. St. Paul does not become a central figure in the history of Christianity because of that fact that he’s wonderful and smart. He does become wonderful and he’s truly brilliant, but what is special about Paul is God. God chose Paul and it was God’s choice of Paul that made Paul so special.

Grace and salvation come to us when we seek them and they come to us not just to die, but to live.

Grace and salvation are gifts from God that enable us to see, to hear, to love, and to be loved by God. Grace and salvation break us from the bondage of sin, of death, often of the lives we lead to free us to serve God more fully.

Saul becomes Paul and what made him great was his openness and willingness to listen to Jesus and embrace the grace God was giving him. The story becomes so significant because it shows us that God can use the most wretched sinner in the midst for good; and that ability to transform the most wretched among us into someone and something good comes via the gift of grace.

Secondly, there is the issue of conversion. This narrative is rightly called the conversion of Paul.

If you have a great understanding of conversion, you’re a far better person than I am. Conversion is, in Christianity, not all that simple.

Classic, very traditional Christian theology says that by Jesus’ death on the cross everyone is redeemed; but to achieve that redemption one must consent to it. Coming to that consent is by way of conversion.

However, what people believe about conversion is pretty varied.

Classically, there are two types of conversions. One is like the conversion of Paul, knocked down, see Jesus, and follow him.

On the other hand there are people who have been Christians their entire life and many will say that they don’t recall a particular conversion experience.

I was Baptized, I went to church growing up, was Confirmed, and went to seminary and don’t recall a time when I wasn’t a Christian. I can’t recall, in my own life, a conversion experience.

Within our United Church of Christ traditions, within the Puritan churches of the 17th century, there was a rule that you could not be a member of the church until you had a conversion experience. If you’re wondering about Puritan ecstatic experiences, considering we often wonder if they had pulses, their idea of conversion was more of an intellectual ‘change’ in one’s heart and mind. The problem arose, however, in the fact that people grew up in church, didn’t know a time when God wasn’t a part of their lives, and these conversion experiences stopped happening and the Puritans changed their rules.

Something I take from the conversion of St. Paul is this. He had a sudden conversion experience and I know that people do. I also know that there are people who never do not know Christ. We all sit side by side.

To me, however, in my life, conversion is something ongoing. It’s a lot like love.

Many people fall in love. Some people fall in love and are thunderstruck. “Love at first sight” is real. On the other hand, sometimes people are friends and the friendship grows and they realize that they’ve always loved each other.

But falling in love is not what sustains relationships. Lots of people break up with people with whom they have fallen in love. Falling in love does not sustain a relationship, but growing in love does. Spending each day, growing in some way, together, fosters love.

I think that the same thing is true of conversion. When we read about St. Paul we don’t stop reading about him with this story. His conversion, when he gets knocked down happens in an instant. But it doesn’t stop. The conversion continues.

If you read his letters in chronological order, not Biblical order as they are placed in the Bible by length, but in chronological order, by date, you’ll find that Paul changed and grew in his faith. His conversion to Christianity was sudden and instant, but his growth in faith took place over years.

That growth in faith is something we are all called to do. Walking in faith is not supposed to be easy. Walking in faith is not supposed to be a walk through the spring rain. Walking in faith is sometimes difficult and painful. Conversion is about walking in faith and that conversion is something that happens each morning when we open our eyes. We are given a new opportunity to grow in faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

A funny thing happened to Saul on the way to Damascus. He was on his way to persecute Christians, and he ended up walking with Jesus.

It is a story of grace, of redemption, of conversion, and ultimately of the kind of growth we are all invited to share.

The So Called Tomb of Jesus

For skeptics of Christianity the 'find' of the so called tomb of Jesus is the smoking gun that they have been looking for. Goody for them. James Cameron and some other guy were on the Today Show yesterday touting this great show that they had put on and this was the greatest find of all time. The fact that it had been found years ago and archeologists all stated it was nothing of note means nothing. James Cameron is a film maker famous for the insipid classic "Titanic" and the 'other guy' is an investigative journalist. Their combined archeological and theological credentials amount to nothing. Much of what they claim is writing has been classified as scratches by most real archeologists. I have no doubt that they will find some people to validate their findings....Enough money and people will validate almost anything.

Several things:

These were common names....very common names.

These may have been (or probably were) scratches.

There was an all out effort in that era to attempt to discredit Christianity and many fake things and false gospels have been found.

Here's the thing. Scientifically we can prove nothing about Jesus. We can't prove what Jesus did or did not do. We cannot prove, scientifically who or what Jesus was.

We move as a people of faith. Christians believe that Christianity has survived because it was and still is inspired by God and given power and strength by the Holy Spirit. Frankly, I do believe this because the Christian Church, on its own merits, would have long ago destroyed itself if it were not for, I believe, being God driven. (Just to clarify---not EVERYTHING done in God's name is really from God...A lot of people blame their bad behavior on God.)

So James and the other guy....I think that "Desperate Housewives" looks good on Sunday night.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Talk About Surreal...

Talk about surrreal....

I went home early yesterday not feeling well. I have a wonderful sinus infection. Ugh. I know,
it snot funny.

In any case...

I laid down and decided to watch the news so i turned to MSNBC and they were following the Anna Nicole body custody hearing. The hearing lasted all week and it's entire reach was supposed to be to determine who had the rights to Anna Nicole's remains and where she would be buried. I'm not an attorney, but from what I gathered, the debate was on determining if next of kin should be the ultimate deciding factor or Anna Nicole's wishes. She purchased plots in the Bahamas and buried her son there. Her estranged mother wanted her body brought back to Texas. Judge Larry Seidlin "heard" the case.

Judge Larry Seidlin turned out to be an interesting character. Most of the 'experts' said that this hearing should have lasted for 2 hours and instead in dragged on day after day with Judge Larry making comments, delivering sermons, offering advice, and telling about himself. He became a New York cabbie styled cross between Judge Judy and Dr. Phil, being both caustic and caring. When Smith's mother's attorney passed out Judge Larry announced, "He hasn't eaten, his a diabetic," and he turned out to have been correct. One witness he dismissed as being not worth much and told him to leave. A new witness was being sworn in and the judge launched, in the middle of the swearing in, into one of his little 'comforting' sermons to the lawyers.

Just then, to make this whole thing even better, they broke in with news that Brittany Spears had checked herself back into rehab.

What's ironic is that Judge Larry almost pulled it off. He gave custody of Anna Nicole's body to the baby in the form of her legal custodian and they negotiated the burial and walked out arm in arm just the way Judge Larry was trying to get them to act.

Then, of course, Virgie Arthur, Anna Nicole's estranged mother demonstrated why her daughter wanted nothing to do with her appealled their agreement.

The moral of the story is this:

Stay healthy so you don't leave work early and watch daytime TV.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Congress and the War

Approximately 75% of the American public is lining up in opposition to the war in Iraq and the vast, vast majority of people do not want to escalate the war by sending in more troops.
I would say that the vast, vast, vast majority of Americans totally support our troops and want what is best for them. Many feel that our troops are in harm’s way in a war that cannot be won. The soldiers have done a fabulous and heroic job but they are in the middle of a dreadful civil war and have become, through no fault of their own, the common enemy of both side.
President Bush wanted this war, got it, and it’s on his watch. At this point, he’s calling the shots. Congress has consistently failed to do its job.
The Constitution of the United States holds that the declaration of war is the responsibility of the Congress. The American Congress has not declared war since 1941 and has stood by and watched and allowed Presidents to take us into Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II, and various other skirmishes. There have been some debates but there has been no declaration of war since we ventured into World War II after Pearl Harbor. Frankly, they have failed the nation time and time again. Both parties are to blame----both parties have allowed Presidents of their own party to make war at will.
We ventured into our current war with faulty intelligence or good intelligence that was misread or good intelligence that was altered to make the war seem like the right thing to do. Congress voted to authorize the war, but did not declare war. They voted to authorize the war at the President’s discretion, not their own.
Time has passed and it has become increasingly evident that we had no occupation strategy after being welcome as liberators. We found ourselves and continue to find ourselves in the middle of a mess.
Congress has again let the people down.
The House voted to pass a non-binding resolution not supporting the President and the President’s plan to expand our troop count. Non-binding. Non-binding? This means that they huffed and puffed and made a big sound, but other than embarrassing President Bush it serves no purpose. If they were, in fact, opposed to the war and his efforts in running the war, non-binding is an insult to the American people. The Democrats may have won the House, but they failed to serve the troops and the nation.
The Senate was worse. They were also going the chicken-hearted route of the non-binding resolution and Senate Republicans blocked it. Same folks who failed to do their job before are failing to do their job now. Shame on the Senate Republicans for suppressing a debate and a vote and shame on Senate Democrats for going the non-binding route.
This war will go down in history as President Bush’s war. Unless things change dramatically it will go down in history as his great and tragic folly. It is not, however, entirely his fault. Congress ought to be held accountable for not doing their job.
We have, sadly, a broken government, and both parties are more interested in making each other look bad than they are in governing.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

It is Mind Boggling---More Random Thoughts

Today, my mind is boggled.

In watching the news this morning I developed a bunch of random thoughts.

First, Anna Nicole Smith's life was a mess. Very sad and very tragic. Predictions are that her 'case' will be in court for up to five years concerning paternity, inheritance, and maybe even where she is to be buried. There is a baby involved in this who may be in Kindergarten before this is sorted out. It ought to be a lesson to people that our choices in life don't only impact us, but they impact the lives of other people, most especially our children.

Which, of course, brings me to Brittany Spears who has two young children. Today the news was that she shaved her head and got a new tattoo. If Brittany wants to shave her head or change hair colors that's not my business. Her tattoos are not my business or anyone else's. Actually, there is virtually nothing about her life that is my business, but I'll write about it any way. Brittany Spears is young, very pretty, and very talented. She had the start of a great career. She got married and had children. Made some questionable decisions. Is in the process of getting a divorce. Went partying with Paris Hilton and without underwear and was photographed by the universe in the process. Brittany----look at what is happening to those who Anna Nicole Smith left behind because of HER choices. Please make better choices.

Finally, Congress is debating the war. The House voted a non-bonding resolution stating that the support the troops but not the President. Non-binding? That took courage. The Senate probably won't even have the debate. Soldiers are dying in Iraq and our political leaders are playing games. Sigh.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Sadly I will now have to approve comments pretty much from people I don't know. Anonymous thought he/she/it was being entertaining by posting a crude comment about another blogger. That is intolerable.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Divsions and Demoninations

I was fascinated by a tangent discussion on denominations which I saw on another blog. I see this as part of a larger issue on divisions within Christianity.

Many people do not realize it, but the Christian Church came into being and almost immediately was thrust into a division. The group from which we evolved was in conflict with the Gnostic movement. The book and movie "The DaVinci Code" made reference to other gospels (not in the Bible) which come from the Gnostic tradition.

In 1054 following a long debate on the word "filioque" the Easter Church split from the Western Church. This was the formation of the Orthodox Churches. Christianity, ritually and such, evolved differently in the east and the west and the traditions and rituals of both were quite different. The Nicene Creed, which came from the 4th Century Council of Nicea contained the phrase that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father. In the 6th century, however, this was changed with the addition of the word "filioque," which, in Latin, means, "and from the Son." The Eastern Church did not agree with this change (or with the politics of the situation) and this led to the subsequent split.

In the 15th century, before Martin Luther, a reformer named John Hus debated with the organized church and was subsquently burned at the stake. His ideas and movement, however, did not perish with him and the Moravian Church was established before the wider Protestant Reformation.

Of course, in 1517 Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation and the divisions increased. Ulrich Zwingli, another reformer, disagreed with Luther on some issues around the Lord's Supper and the Reformed branch of Protestantism was born.

The Reformed movement spread through Europe and had different variations. The German Reformed Church was different from the Dutch Reformed, which was more Calvinist. John Knox brought the Reformed movement to Scotland and the Presbyterian tradition was born. The theology of Calvin influenced a group of people within the Church of England and the Puritans (later Congregationalists) evolved. Lots of holiness movements and revival movements came into being and the complex face of Protestantism grew into many parts.

Through the latter part of the 19th century and through the 20th century, new groups began to evolve and would often fall under what many people call Evangelicalism. Within Evangelicalism we have people who are very much fundamentalists, we have people who are Pentecostal, or who see themselves as more conservative branches of already existing groups. When people use blanket statements about the "Evangelicals" they fail to realize that this is not a unified group but a group of many parts.

Some groups also exist which emphasize a more "Jewish" form of Christianity, essentially practicing the Jewish tradition as Christians.

Even within Roman Catholicism those divisions grew. The Jesuits, the Dominicans, the Benedictines, and several different types of Franciscans all came into being.

One thing is absolutely true. Jesus' prayer in the Gospel of John, "That they may all be one," is not a prayer which has been answered.

Why is this true?

Lots of reasons.

First is human failure. People do not work at being one. Increasingly, we see division come about because people with unlike opinions choose to attack one another instead of having respectful and honest dialogue. Sadly, we see people, often anonymously, attack others and other people's opinions, with no thought of meaningful dialogue. There is an assumption that if I think I am right, I must be right, and if you disagree with me and I'm right, you are wrong.

Secondly, there are cultural issues. Within Christianity if you looked at a person's ethnic heritage you could almost tell what they were. Most people of Scottish heritage with Presbyterian. German were either Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed. Dutch? Roman Catholic or Reformed. English---Anglican (in the USA, Episopalian) or Congregationalist or Methodist. Italian, Irish, Polish, French, etc., Roman Catholic. Greek. Greek Orthodox. Russian. Russian Orthodox. Finnish. Lutheran.

The list goes on but you get my point. Lots of cultural issues.

Is there a way out?

I think so, but I'm an optismist.

A wonderful book to read that, in my mind, is one of the great gifts to Christianity is Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy, which speaks of so many divergent traditions and what everyone has to learn from everyone else. It isn't until people learn to learn from one another that we have a chance of one day 'becoming one.'

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Rush to Racism

Several years ago Rush Limbaugh lost his position at ESPN when he stated that Donovan McNabb was popular and highly regarded mainly because he was an African American and the 'liberal' media wanted him to be good. He was rightly removed by ESPN and his comments were properly labeled as racist. (Interesting side note is that on those occasions when McNabb did not win the 'big one' defenders of Rush jumped in and said that this proves that Rush was correct. I've not heard it said, before Peyton Manning won the Super Bowl that it was his race getting in the way or even his Southern twang. Or Dan Marino having Italian blood...)

We all have our moments, I suspect, of weakness where we may seem to have a twinge of prejudice here and there. True racists, however, manage to interject the issue of race even when it isn't an issue. No matter what race a person happens to be, when a person randomly interjects race just to interject it, you're in the presence of a true racist.

Rush has revealed his true colors again commenting on football. He said recently:

"And before we go to the break here, folks, I've got to get something off my chest. You know, the game was the game. And the game was what it was. But I - I can't handle any more press criticism of Rex Grossman. They're writing his name W-R-E-C-K-S. They're just ... worst quarterback ever to play in the Super Bowl. And it's been like this since the Green Bay game -- actually since the Arizona game, a little crescendo of it in the Green Bay game, the last game of the season for the Bears. And it's just unrelenting! It's just -- they're focusing on this guy like they don't focus on anybody!

"And I tell you, I know what it is. The media, the sports media, has got social concerns that they are first and foremost interested in, and they're dumping on this guy -- Rex Grossman -- for one reason, folks, and that's because he is a white quarterback.''

I myself have had a lot of fun making fun of Grossman's game and race hasn't entered into it. Why are people dumping on Grossman?

Second and 1 and moving into scoring position. He takes the snap, runs back and falls down. Next play he fumbles the snap, can't find the ball, and finally does and loses a ton of yardage. And it wasn't the first snap he fumbled either. Last I checked, receiving the snap was a basic foundational issue of being a quarterback in the NFL. Not unlike a chef who botches boiling water.

The game is still on the line. The weather is awful. It is obvious that it is impossible to throw long. The ball is too wet. Grossman, without properly looking and not reading the coverage at all, throws long to the sideline, into the teeth of coverage to a defender. Later, again, he throws long, a lollipop kind of pass, again into the teeth of coverage, down the center of the field.

Grossman played a bad game. Miserable game in fact. He has been criticized because when it was time for him to come up big, he came up little.

Rush Limbaugh finds this to have been racial. Here's the simple fact of life. Race had NOTHING to do with this. To interject race is, frankly, racist.

Interesting sidenote. A great deal of press was given to this game because Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy are both African American coaches and this was the first time that not only one, but two African American coaches were the head coach and it's the first time an African American coach has been the coach of a team that has won the Super Bowl.

Tony Dungy has been a head coach in the NFL for many years and has come close, but this was his first championship. Dungy has paid his dues being a head coach to finally win the big one. He was an incredible successful coach of both Tampa Bay and Indianapolis. He was treated dreadfully by Tampa Bay and has demonstrated his coaching skill in Indy in a big way. Since he's been there, the Colts have always been good and anyone who follows football knows that only the really good coaches win every place they go. Dungy is a proven winner.

I think that the jury is still out of Lovie Smith. His loyalty to Grossman was admirable, albeit misguided. His team had a great season in a very weak division. The Super Bowl was a game totally dominated by the Colts more than the score would indicate. Smith, that day, in my mind, was badly outcoached. He may end up being a great coach, but I haven't seen it as of yet. (Of course, this could be sour grapes, the Giants took Tom Coughlin over Lovie Smith....Ugh!)

The thing that concerned me about the coaching situation during the Super Bowl was that the Dungy/Smith matchup WAS big news. And it was big news that two African American coaches were coaching against each other. I long for a day when we don't even notice. I long for a day when race doesn't matter in the least and that people are just taken for who they are and judged only on their abilities.

Sadly, racism is still alive in our nation and we are the poorer for it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Pushing the Ends of the Earth

Pushing the Ends of the Earth
Text: Acts 8:26-40
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
February 11, 2007

Have you ever accomplished something really great and expected to be greatly rewarded and appreciated for what you did, only to be greatly disappointed.

This happened to Philip. Philip had taken the ‘ends of the earth’ imperative in the beginning of Acts of the Apostles very seriously and had gone into Samaria and preached with great success. Even Billy Graham on his best day ever would have never matched Philip’s great success in converting the people of Samaria. Philip expected that he was going to be able to stretch the ends of the earth out a bit further, maybe go to Athens or even Rome. After all, he was the new superstar preacher.

Thus it was that an angel of the Lord appear to Philip and said to him:

Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza."

And Luke, who has a habit of writing these little asides, adds, “This is a wilderness road.”

Whatever ego Philip felt, whatever pride he was feeling about converting the people of Samaria had been deflated. He obediently complied with his command and began his journey down the wilderness road expecting to find no one. He was not happy.

And things get interesting. Instead of finding no one he encounters one of the more interesting characters in the Bible. It is an Ethiopian eunuch. Luke tells us that this Ethiopian eunuch was part of the royal court of the queen of Ethiopia and he was in charge of the entire treasury. And he was sitting in the chariot, reading a scroll from the prophet Isaiah 53, a reference to the suffering servant narratives, “Like a sheep he was led to slaughter.”

The scene was, if anything bizarre. The goal of Philip is to lower his head and walk on by. He did not want to engage any Ethiopian eunuchs. The command by Jesus was to go preach to the ends of the earth and Philip had already been burned by Samaria. The ends of the earth could not, in any way, shape, or form, include a random Ethiopian eunuch on the Wilderness Road.

And the Spirit prods him. “Speak to the man.”

Philip should have seen it.

The Kingdom of God is like a man who has two sons.

The Kingdom of God is like a widow with two copper coins.

The Kingdom of God is like a shepherd who searches for a missing sheep.

The Kingdom of God is like a random Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah on the Wilderness Road.

And Philip is rude. He goes up to the man and asks, sarcastically, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian says, “How can I unless someone guides me?” So Philip ends up sitting down and having to explain it. He truly wanted to get on his way.

The Ethiopian eunuch is enthralled by the story of Jesus and wants to convert right there and then and asks Philip to Baptize him. And, lo and behold, there is water and so Philip is compelled to baptize the man.

This story is an interesting story on several levels.

For one, it is truly about pushing the ends of the earth. Often, when we read in Acts of the Apostles about preaching from Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth, we like to limit that. I can’t even begin to tell you how much out of the loop this Ethiopian eunuch would be.

He worked for a royal family. He was not Jewish. He was not the same race. He was a seeker, coming to Jerusalem to Worship, but had no clue as to what or who he was going to Worship.

And he had been gelded to serve the Queen of Ethiopia. The Jews, who had strict purity laws would have flipped out on this one.

If this story had taken place in Jerusalem and Philip had to ask the wider church’s permission to baptize this man, it would not have been granted.

If Philip had a cell phone and called in for clearance to Baptize the Ethiopian eunuch he would have been told no.

But Philip was on the Wilderness Road, being compelled by the Holy Spirit, and he had little choice.

We find out God is the God of those who no one else wants, who no one else includes. God is the God of the lost sheep, the lost son, and the Ethiopian eunuch. God is the God of society’s strays. God is the God of society’s wounded. And God is the God of effective preachers who are alone on the Wilderness Road. And somewhere, on that Wilderness Road, two men from very different worlds found that they were both people of the same God.

There’s something else in here as well.

A few weeks ago I talked about the two characters in Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Tigger. If you have ever read those stories, you’ll note that Eeyore is the somewhat lovable but somewhat whiney character who can always find reasons not to do things where as Tigger is always upbeat and raring to go. This story is a classic Eeyore/Tigger moment.

Philip so desperately wants to be Eeyore. He does not want to engage this man, he does not want to baptize this man, he really wants to be anyplace in the world other than the Wilderness Road. But God wants him there.

The church of the time, again, if this had been in Jerusalem they would have found 1001 reasons to not engage this eunuch from Ethiopia. There were many more reasons to say ‘no’ than there were to say ‘yes.’ Classic Eeyore moments again.

But when the Holy Spirit gets lose, things happen. People are sent to places they are not anticipating or wanting to go. People are encountered one would ordinarily not want to encounter. Decisions are made that would not usually be made. When the Holy Spirit gets lose lost sons come back home and are forgiven. Lost sheep are found. Lost coins are celebrated.

And preachers wandering in the middle of nowhere find a voice and strangers seeking to learn about God discover the presence of God when they were least expecting it.

Stuff happens.

I remember once watching a tape of a man who said that he read the Bible and got all excited about God and went to church and sat there week after week and wondered, “When does the stuff happen?” To me, when we make the stuff happen, we discover the Tigger within ourselves.

Philip, when he converted Samaria expected great rewards. He was rewarded with a journey onto a deserted road.

A traveler from Ethiopia was sitting, reading Isaiah, not making heads or tails out of it, not expecting to find out that his questions would be answered and he would discover Christ.

Sometimes things don’t go as planned. But when the Holy Spirit is involved, it isn’t the planning that’s important, it’s the response.

A Rant

There is only one person whose comments I do not like to read. They are the comments made by that mysterious person named anonymous.

I don't like anonymous letters or phone calls. If I can't know who you are I'm not interested in what you have to say. We can vote secretly and that's great, but I don't believe it's right and good to comment behind a cloak of anonymity. It allows people to make statements about anything they want to say and bear no responsibility for what they are saying. In a day and age when civility is marginal at best, anonymous comments are often hurtful and most usually destructive.

So here's my rant. Say anything you want, but sign your name!!!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Horror Beyond Horrors

Kevin Carter was a photojournalist from South Africa who committed suicide at the age of 33 in 1994. He was suffering from severe depression following a time in Sudan watching the famine and the vast suffering of the people there. He took a photo which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. It is of a little girl crawling her way to the UN camp in order to be fed. The 'onlooker' is a well fed vulture waiting for her to die. She was retrieved and taken to the camp but her fate remains unknown. Kevin Carter found a tree and smoked and cried for a long time. The experience shook him for the rest of his life----a life he would take.

As for the horror in Sudan, it continues...

Random Thoughts

Talk about a 'Prince of a guy.' Prince Frederic von Anhalt, a man who pretty much purchased the title "Prince" and is the husband of Zza Gabor has claimed that he had a long term affair with Anna Nicole Smith and is probably the father. Although he went on to say that anyone of 10, or 20, of a 100 men could be the father. Real gentleman. Of course, this is the man who sued the makers of Viagra because he said it rendered him impotent....

The House at Arms Bill Livingood has made arrangements and told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that her travels will have to be on a military plane. Since 9/11 the House Speaker no longer rides on commercial airlines for security reasons. Former Speaker Dennis Hastert lived in Illinois but as Speaker Pelosi lives in California she will need a larger plane with a greater range. The Washington Times announced that SHE is trying to take advantage of her office. Sean Hannity on Faux News jumped in as well. Of course, she didn't make the request and even the White House defended her. Funny thing, I wonder how many people realize that The Washington Times is owned by the Unification Church, aka, the Moonies. And Sean Hannity finds that good, ahem, journalism, is cutting in and talking over everyone else. But for the House Republicans who ran with this and attacked Pelosi. Folks----there are big issues to deal with. The Speaker of the House, no matter what party she or he is in, needs to be secure. Surely there are other issues to grapple with.

Funny thing about people and Peyton Manning. Good guy has done really good things and represents the game well and plays as well as any quarterback in history. Was criticized because he couldn't win 'the big one.' Now he's won the big one and he's too nice. Cut the guy a break.

I have become a fan of Mexican food and my favorite Mexican food in our area is Puerto Vallarta on Charlestown Road.

People from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, led by their pastor Fred Phelps decided to picket the funeral of 10 people killed in the dreadful fire in Bardstown, Kentucky. These kinds of tragedies are pointed out by them because our nation has become a sodomite nation and God is punishing people. They are not a congregation noted for 'sharing the love' with others. I'll stop there, lest I get carried away.

I think that The Onion has the best Chinese food around.

The movie "Hannibal Rising" was released today. I'm not sure why I would want to see a movie about the roots of a homicidal maniac who eats people's liver with fava beans and a good chianti. Ugh.

Meredith Grey on Grey's Anatomy fell into the water in last week's episode. They are attempting to save people who were badly hurt in a dreadful ferryboat accident. It ended with Meredith missing after falling into the water. Since the show is named after her character I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that she survives.

Laugh at me if you will, but I think Frische's has the best chili in the area.

I'm not sure about the Mets pitching this year. Unless some of these young kids come up big----which they may, the Mets may be doomed to come up short again.

Next year some NFL teams to watch.

The Titans. We saw some really amazing stuff from them towards the end of last year. They will be tough next year.

The Colts gave people a blueprint on how to beat the Bears. The Bears will make the playoffs, however, because they are pretty much unopposed in their division.

I don't have a clue about the Giants next year.

The Raiders will continue to give off strong aroma from the Bay area.

The Buffalo Bills are going to be tough.

The Colts will be very good again as long as Peyton stays healthy. They will lose Dominic Rhodes, however, and it will be a loss for them as he was their best power back.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Anna Nicole Smith's Death

I was taken aback today when I read about the death of Anna Nicole Smith. Lest you are looking for a joke about this, there isn't one. This is, to me, a sad tale.

Smith, sadly, was on a bad trail for most of her life. She was an exotic dancer, turned Playboy model, turned wife of a very old, very rich man. Upon his death the man's son challenged Smith for the estate and the man's son died in the battle. Anna Nicole recently gave birth to a little girl and then almost immediately lost her son to a drug overdose. Questions still remain as to who the father of the baby is. Anna Nicole was 39 years old and yet, in so many ways, still a child.

It's so sad. This is a story of a woman who pulled herself up but she pulled herself up into more and more trouble. She was wild. She was immature. I suspect that there was drug use. There was an endless stream of men in her life and no stability.

When I read that she died I was surprised----then wondered how I ever thought this dreadful story would end.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Super Bowl Observations

Peyton Manning had a really good game against the Bears and he deservedly will go down in history as one of the all time great quarterbacks. I think that it was unfair to say that he wasn't because he hadn't been in, and won, a Super Bowl, but he has that monkey off of his back. He had a really good game, but I think that Dominic Rhodes was their real MVP.

The annual Disney World commercial following the Super Bowl included Dominic Rhodes and Tony Dungy instead of Peyton Manning. Peyton declined the offer. I guess he doesn't believe in doing commercials...

People said that Rex Grossman's facial expression was like a 'deer in the headlights.' Sadly, that's insulting to the deer.

Lovey Smith is a noble person putting his faith in Grossman and standing by him when everyone else wouldn't. Smith is, I'm sure, a really wonderful man and is a good coach, but his faith in Grossman was misplaced. Smith went with the guy who 'brought them to the dance' but Grossman really didn't. They got their despite him. They got there because of a solid running game, strong special teams play, and a defense which had the ability to score or put the offense into good field position. For better for worse, a coach has to commit himself to his team in the NFL and not to a player. Smith, to his credit, is fairly new at this and hopefully had this lesson drilled into him.

I was at a Super Bowl party to watch the game and we were all cheering for Grossman. We figured that he'd keep the Colts in the game. Having said that, maybe Grossman was the Colts' real MVP.

Speaking of Grossman, his low-light reel was funnier than most sitcoms.

Speaking of Grossman again, he actually completed those kinds of passes against the Giants which makes me realize more and more how bad my Giants really were and are.

Tony Dungy is a class act.

The Bears were the worst team that the Colts played this post-season. If the weather had been better the Colts would have killed them even more.

The game was not as close as the score would indicate. The Bears made 3 plays, Hester's return, one long run, and recovering the short kick off aided by an Indy penalty. Take away those 3 plays, you take away their 17 points, and if the Colts convert TD's instead of field goals, it's truly a blow out.

And, it was the third most watched TV event in history. Sorry about that Rex.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Not So Wal Mart Gospel

The Not So Wal Mart Gospel
Text: Acts 8:4-25
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo

If you recall the story of Stephen becoming helper or a deacon in the church, one of the others was a man named Philip. If you recall the story, the early deacons were called to help provide food for the widows. Stephen never seemed to get around to that. Instead he ended up preaching and getting killed for it.

Philip did likewise, though he was not killed. Philip, however, has two stories in Acts of the Apostles that are pretty amazing. This is the first.

Luke tells us that Philip went to Samaria to preach. If you read the beginning of Acts you’ll note that they had been commanded by Jesus to preach to the ends of the earth, with the ends of the other being Judea and Samaria. Samaria being the real end of the earth no one wanted to go.

Upon the death of Solomon, who was a wretchedly corrupt king noted for his excessive debauchery (I kid you not!), the Jewish Kingdom split into a northen Kingdom known as Israel and a Southern Kingdom known as Judea. The capital of Judea was Jerusalem, and the capital of Israel was Samaria. The southern Kingdom kept all the rituals and rules of Judaism whereas in the northern Kingdom the people intermarried and Judaism eventually just sort of evaporated into the landscape.

The people of the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom despised each other. The people of Israel saw the people of Judea as self-righteous fools, and the people of Judea saw the people of Israel pretty much as filthy dogs.

Jesus had ventured into Samaria and made a Samaritan a hero in a story, but most others wanted nothing to do with venturing into Samaria. But Philip decided to venture there.

And Philip was a big hit. His preaching inspired people, he did signs and wonders and was turning the region to Christ. All was well.

There was a man named Simon who was a magician who dazzled the crowds. He too saw Philip, he too was impressed, and he too was Baptized.

Peter and John, upon finding out what a big hit Philip was in Samaria decided to go there as well. They began to lay their hands upon people and empowered them with the Holy Spirit to do great signs and wonders. Like Philip.

Simon, upon seeing the great power of Peter and John decided that it looked good to him. So he decided to try and purchase it from them. After all, having the power to pass on power would make him a fortune.

And, of course, he is roundly rebuked. He obviously missed the point.

People sometimes miss the point.

A young man, a blacksmith in the town, wasn’t very good at his job and finally, one day, was asked how he had become the blacksmith, especially a such a young age.

He said, “Well, I came here to learn the craft of being a blacksmith. On my first day of work he told me to hold a large hammer. He put on a large glove and he then held a large piece of metal in the fire for 5 minutes. He said that when he took the metal out, he would nod his head and I was to hit it as hard as I could with the hammer. So, I did just that and I’ve been the blacksmith ever since.”

He obviously missed the point.

Ever go to the store and everyone is working, doing something and everyone is too busy to wait on you? They missed the point.

I recently went into a restaurant. Employees were hustling around doing all sorts of stuff, washing tables, talking to each other, etc. I was waiting for a table. They washed more tables, swept the floor, etc. I was waiting for a table. They did some other stuff and I left. They missed the point of being in business.

Simon did as well. He missed the point that the Gospel was not about power, was not about profit, was not about being an ancient day Wal Mart with wares to sell, but the living, breathing Word of God.

Secondly, Simon did not understand the difference between illusion and the Gospel.

There are magicians but there is no such thing as magic. Magic is an illusion, a slight of hand. It is getting us to look to the right while they do something to the left. It is getting us to miss what is really happening.

Really good magicians are highly skilled and highly entertaining. But there is no such thing as magic. Even though the magician seemed to turn the baseball into a rabbit, the baseball is still around there, someplace. Magic is not real, it’s an illusion.

But sometimes people put their faith in illusions.

Most people crave love, attention, feeling good, or whatever. So often we end up putting our faith in illusion.

Some people long to feel good so they become addicted to alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or food thinking that if they keep doing it they will feel good. And they don’t.

Some people long for security so they put their faith in ideologies of or world views that match their perspectives and long for security in that and it doesn’t come.

I’ve known of many people who were disillusioned by so-called faith-healers only to find out they were dealing with illusionists.

People put their hope in money and believe that if they have enough money they will be happy. Sadly, the majority of people who win big in the lotteries end up losing their marriages and losing so many things in life that they live with regret that they had ever played the lottery to begin with. I often wonder how many people who put their money on the table down the road and win, find greater happiness.

The list of illusions is endless.

Peter and John condemn the magician for his goals. Peter says to the man:

Pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness."

The gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness sounds bad to me.

But the story ends with hope. Simon does seem to acknowledge his sin and his failure when he says: "Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me."

We never hear of Simon the Magician again so we don’t know what became of him. But there’s something to the way this story ends that is both hopeful and yet it’s a cautious kind of hope.

Simon says to Peter and John to pray for him that dreadful condemnation does not come his way. It’s a ‘pray for me so that I do not get punished for my wickedness.’

Which is good. But there’s an element that may be missing here. We don’t know if Simon is asking for prayer in the hopes that their prayer will be enough or with the intent on turning his life around.

In the second chapter of the Letter of James, James speaks of faith and deeds, faith and works. His claim is that faith all by itself doesn’t cut it. Works, the deeds we do, the life we lead is a reflection of faith.

As a result if we want to change our lives around we can pray all we want, but if we take no action the prayer is hollow. We can have great faith, but if we don’t live that faith out, our faith is hollow. Luke does not tell us the future of Simon the Magician because we do not know.

He seems to get it. He seems to understand. He seems to want to go on the right path. But we don’t know for sure because he still has to live his life.

The story begins with Philip going where no one else wanted to go. The story begins with Philip preaching to people no one wanted to preach to. Philip is effective and good; but his preaching brings about a downside. He preaches and converts an illusionist by trade and the gospel is, at its heart, challenged by illusion. We ultimately don’t know how the story will turn out. We are left dangling.

And maybe that uncertainty at the end, perhaps the place where no one else would go, is a story which reminds us that the gospel is there in the world, but there are also illusions, and it is up to us to determine the difference.

The Super Bowl and God

The first thing Colts' owner Jim Irsay did upon the Colts winning the AFC Championship was to praise God. Suddenly, however, it seems the the NFL is having problems with God's involvement in the Super Bowl.

The past week the Fall Creek Baptist Church
in Indianapolis got an overnight Fed Ex letter telling them that they were not allowed to show the Super Bowl and have a Super Bowl celebration at their church. The phrase "Super Bowl" is copyrighted and no one outside the NFL is allowed to use it. So, I hope that if you are having a Super Bowl party you aren't calling it a Super Bowl party and if you have a TV screen 55 inches or over, you aren't having folks over.

The NFL seems to have this issue with God of late. Some churches are ignoring the ruling. St. Savior Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York is going to go ahead with their group. I suspect it's not as big an event as Fall Creek Baptist was planning and they only have a 48" TV, so the pastor of the church thinks that they are okay. Maybe the NFL police will show up, however, and take them on. It might be interesting.

I think that the NFL has bigger issues than the Super Bowl being shown in churches.

Tank Johnson of the Bears has been arrested three times in the last year and a half. Now he's up on very serious gun possession charges. And he's being allowed to travel to Florida and play. Why? He shouldn't be there. The NFL can't figure out why players keep getting in trouble and part of the problem is that they don't police themselves. The Bengals, this past year, were a disaster. They not only led the league on botched kicks but they also led the league in arrests. Thankfully, the NFL let all the players continue playing.

This is the league that brought us Janet Jackson's breast. All those who think that it really was an accident, please line up on that wall. The wall with the sign "Naive Fools." Anyone who actually watched it knew better. There is an event tonight with a gathering of ladies who have posed in Penthouse in support of the Super Bowl.

The NFL said that they are concerned about products linking themselves to the NFL and thus their enforcement in churches. Of course, Jim Irsay will probably be fined for praising God enabling them to win the AFC Championship. Let us hope that if the Colts win, Tony Dungy is careful with his God-talk. Tank Johnson may be able to show up and not have a problem, but Dungy may end up being suspended next year if he is overly grateful to God.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Top Chef Musings

One of the consistent judges on Top Chef is Gail Simmons. She works mostly for "Food and Wine" and was an interesting judge with a very refined sense of taste.

I was reading her blog and it was interesting on how many people were angry with the final episodes. The issue was that most people felt that the finale should have been between Ilan and Sam and not between Ilan and Marcel.

It was an interesting final episode. Marcel used some of his scientific techniques and they were clever----Ilan cooked food a bit better.

But there was more to it.

They had an opportunity to choose teams and it was in their choices that the real game was played out. Marcel chose Sam who was one of the best, if not the best, chefs on the show. He knew how to cook and manage a kitchen. He also chose Mike who is a line cook. According to Anthony Bourdain, line cooks are good precision people, but are not people who one is looking to have be ambitious or have imagination. It is their job to reproduce what the chef has created. I suspect that Mike does this kind of work just fine. The problem Marcel ran into was that Marcel doesn't know how to be a manager and he failed to manage the details (and Mike) and it did him in. It's amazing because Mia was the first to volunteer to work with him----and he ignored her. His choice of Mike over Mia may have been fatal.

Ilan chose Elia who might have been the best straight out cook of the group. Her cooking of fish may have helped win him the competition. She served as a great sous chef and made him look good. Oddly, he chose Betty over Frank. Frank was, in my mind, a better chef than Betty and his biggest downfall was cooking rubbery eggs over an outdoor fire or he might have gone deeper in the competition. Betty was noted for a lot of dumb mistakes. I thought choosing her might have been deadly to him, but Ilan managed his kitchen well and both Elia and Betty did well.

Ilan obviously won. His food was good and his kitchen management was a lot better than Marcel's and it carried the day. I suspect, down the road, however, that Marcel may become the best chef of all. Marcel is creative and bold and just lacked some technical skills and maturity needed to make him a great chef. Some experience and some growing up will help.

And he needs to improve on this Eddie Munster look. Ugh.

Neat show, however. It reminds me, as a person who likes to cook, that the level of expertise these chefs have in the kitchen and what we do at home, is light years apart. I have to say, I look forward to season III.