Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Newsletter: Salt on the Street

Michael Palin, the Monty Python alum, has been traveling the world lately. Since 1998, he has been making documentaries of his wanderings. The travelogues are very human, highlighting the many characters that Michael meets on his trips. Recently, someone told me about a time when the host was in Japan.

Mr. Watanabe is the proprietor of a restaurant in Tokyo. Every morning, the man places three piles of salt in the street in front of his restaurant. Apparently, the practice dates back over a hundred years. When farmers would bring their cows to town, the cows would stop to lick the salt. The farmer, having extra time on his hands, would notice the restaurant. Thus, sales were increased. One hundred years ago, it was a clever marketing tool.

Today, in hyper-urban Tokyo, it is merely habit or a tradition. Call me crazy, but I think such traditions are a good thing. Traditions help us maintain connections to people and places long gone. They suggest that life is more than our moment in time. Most Americans don’t think much about tradition. We are wired to focus on the “new and improved.” Still, for one time a year, our minds turn to habits and patterns long established. During Christmas and Thanksgiving, we don’t mind sharing our lives with the past.

One tradition prevalent at this time of the year is attending worship. We hear ancient stories and sing old songs. For once, we are proud that our worship services look the same as the ones we attended when we were children. I would never trade the tradition of the holidays, but I wonder if we are missing something. Is it possible that we have fallen in love with the things of God, rather than God himself? In the poetry of Luke’s gospel, in the familiarity of Silent Night, and in the pageantry of the candlelight service, we sometimes forget the real purpose. God entered history, and nothing, not even death, could stop him. Our worship does not venerate the dead who remain safely dead. In fact, we worship a living God who claims our very lives. Discipleship is more than putting salt on the streets.

Newsletter: God's Vision

“Where there is no vision, the people perish…” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV)
Over the years, I have listened to politicians, business leaders, and church people talk about the “vision-thing.” I hear the gurus speak about concepts like “vision casting” and “vision alignment.” I must admit that the jargon and babble often wears me down. After a while, I find myself adrift in my own thoughts.

That’s a shame since the “vision-folk” are essentially correct. People are people. We want to know who we are. We want to belong. We want to know what we can contribute. We want to know what is possible. Communities that can articulate a shared vision often reach their goals simply because they know what those goals are.

Vision is important, yet something remains. What should that shared vision be? The difference between a demagogue and a statesman often rests on that very question. Sadly, Christian leaders will quote the partial verse above to justify whatever direction they wish to go. I have even caught myself doing this. Nonetheless, having a vision is not enough. We must have the right one.

Proverbs 29:18 is not about programs and possibilities. Instead it is about following God. The entire verse states, “Where there is no vision, the people perish but he that keepeth the law, happy is he” (KJV). The context suggests that those who do not keep the law will pay consequences. In fact, many translations use “prophecy” or “revelation” instead of “vision.” In other words, we are to follow God’s vision, not our own.

The work of ministry is important. We make decisions that we hope will further God’s kingdom. We organize and plan. Still, all our efforts must remain within the context of God’s greater vision for us. We are part of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. We are God’s children. We are to love both God and neighbor. Through the grace found in Christ we can be transformed. It is a glorious vision. Everything else is a poor substitute.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Nominees For Next Year

Despite all the complaining, Al Gore is having a pretty good decade. He won the popular vote in the presidential election of 2000. More recently, he has won an Oscar, an Emmy, and now the Nobel Prize.

I do not wish to rain on Mr. Gore's parade, but I was moved by an editorial today on the OpinionJournal website. It makes suggestions for next year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Please read the article. These are truly profiles in courage.