Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Link to the Law Blawg

An article about "school choice" in the public school realm, and how it really doesn't exist in Illinois, but might be coming into fashion across the state line in Indiana.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Taking a new look at Scripture

My Bible translation of choice for many, many years has been the New International Version. I always felt it was a solid translation, using modern language to accurately reflect original meaning. For a time, it was the choice for most of evangelical Christendom.

But then came the controversy. In 1997,the NIV's publisher, Zondervan, attempted to revise the translation with a view towards political correctness. The publisher south to make the NIV gender-neutral by often getting rid of "man," "he," "brothers," and so on -- a seeming attempt to pander to the political left. The evangelical world reacted violently. As WORLD Magazine pointed out recently, the NIV was then the most trusted Bible in America, with slightly over a 50 percent of the market share. Many evangelicals felt betrayed when a small committee seemed to secretly made changes that appealed to feminists. WORLD Magazine, which broke this story, took to calling this "new and improved" translation the "Stealth Bible."

Zondervan reacted to these waves of negative publicity, and put the plans to edit the NIV on hold. Eventually, the publisher tried to have its cake and eat it too -- an advertising campaign began pledging to maintain the NIV as it was (as if some outside force had started the trouble), but then Zondervan published the new translation as a separate edition -- a gender-neutral TNIV (the T standing for "Today's"). The result was really a failure in both instances. The TNIV did not sell at all, and the NIV's market share is now probably less than half what it was in 1997. I guess it was sort of like the new "Coke." It doesn't pay to mess with success.

But now, in late 2010, WORLD Magazine reported that Zondervan has released online a new NIV, after spending a year preparing the way. This time Zondervan was open about its plans. This time its affiliated "Committee on Bible Translation" reached out to critics and solicited their input. This time the "Stealth Bible's" leading critic, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), praised "significant improvements." Partly because of those better processes and results, there's little fire this time.

Of course, there are criticisms of the new translation -- but I don't want to look at that. I want to look at a revision the 2010 edition of the NIV made that actually makes the meaning of one of the most beloved verses in the bible clearer -- at least to me.

The verse I speak of is Philippians 4:13. Back when I first became a committed Christian back in the 1970s, the Bible translation of choice among my peers was the New American Standard Version of the Bible. In that version, the verse read:

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

My Christian friends and I, in our youth and exuberance, all claimed this as a mantra of triumph and victory – we can do ALL things. Just believe. It will happen! Not some things, or most things – but ALL THINGS!

The former NIV translation was a little more subtle, but still very useful for those of us with “name it/claim it” inclinations.

“I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.”

The new, 2010 release of the NIV makes what appears to be a pretty radical change.

“I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

“All this?” What does it mean by “this?”

Even when put in the context of the passage, the original NAS translation can’t possibly mean victory and the ability to overcome in any circumstance. At least not in the way I have perceived "victory" and "overcoming." The context is Paul explaining the need to content in any circumstance. Verse 13 sums up the passage – we can indeed come to the point where we are content in all circumstances, even what appears to be dire, awful circumstances, through Christ who strengthens us.

Indeed, the original language also implies it. It literally means “all things” but implies a collective concept. When it says "all," it means "all," as in "some of all types," not just the thing upon which I am focusing in the here and now. In connection with the other verses around this one, it means "all things that are pleasing to God". What we can do (in the context of verse 13), the "all " that this verse encompasses, are the things that Christ empowers us to do. We can’t do it on our own – it’s not our strength. The Amplified Version says that “I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him who infuses inner strength to me, [that is, I am self sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency].”

So what Philippians 4:13 is really talking about is contentment in Christ, and needing strength from Christ in order to be content, not carte blanche to overcome difficulty. We used to use that verse to as a prayer to command the spirit world to give us what we perceived God wanted us to have – victory, health, success, prosperity etc. When what it really means is we are willing to be content in whatever God has for us.

Boy do I have a long way to go to come to grips with that. But it certainly makes more sense than me trying to quote the verse at the sky, demanding that God prosper my business, and then being angry at him when I don’t see results on my timetable. I need to grasp the concept that God wants me to be content with the little I currently have, and he’ll give me the strength, ability, and inner fortitude to be self sufficient in THAT, and that alone.

And that revelation, to me, is worth the concept of discovering it in the midst of this new translation.

Relating to Elijah: Dealing with Bad News, Feeling Like Giving Up, and the Steady Provision of God

Last Tuesday morning, the news in my world that I faced as I got out of bed was not particularly good.

I went to work out at the Community Center. While walking the treadmill, the TV monitor was on, and I got to soak in all the wonderful economic news our region is dealing with.

And by "wonderful," I am being extremely sarcastic.

First, it was the top headline here in Chicago: In the wee hours of the morning, the lame-duck Illinois Legislature had approved what is ostensibly the biggest tax increase in our state's history. The Illinois income tax is going up 67 percent. Worse is the business/corporate taxes. The combined federal and state business taxes males Illinois one of the most expensive states in the US to do business in.

For those of us living, earning, and doing business here in the southern suburbs of Chicago, its as if the Legislature has thrown a drowning man an anvil instead of a life preserver. This is extremely frustrating. I understand the need to try and close the gap on the State's budget deficit. I understand that the State needs to pay its bills. But this really misses the mark. I don't want this discussion to get too political, but the major beneficiaries of this tactic are special interests like the state employee pension plan. There are promises of money for education, but the legislature refused to pass the increase in the cigarette tax, the one concept that guaranteed increased funding for education. And by not going the whole way to the proposed 75% increase, the entities that depend on state funding to survive (like nursing homes that provide care to Medicaid recipients) will not be getting the money promised to them. The practical reality for this region is this -- we are already hemorrhaging. Our unemployment rate is two to three points above national averages. Businesses are closing left and right. And right across the state line, in Indiana, is a much more palatable business environment. Businesses and jobs will be leaving the state in droves. Local commentator John Kass has wondered if the legislature has included the cost of the razor wire fence that will be needed to keep businesses in the state.

Then, as the news progressed, there was a round-table discussion about the economic forecast for the coming year. It was dire. Unemployment to reach new heights by the spring. Record numbers of businesses closing. Record numbers of bankruptcies. Real Estate continuing to decline. It was, to be blunt, a pretty dismal discussion.

Then I started my workday. Business has been pretty slow for me lately. Combined with increased frustration relating to office equipment and my own sense of foreboding as I tackle project after project dealing concepts I have never done before, or haven't done for over ten years, and anger and depression begins to set in. I feel like I need primal scream therapy as I try and sort out bad internet connections, trying to installing software on my new laptop when I'm not sure what I'm doing, having a "smartphone" that should be renamed the "not so smart phone." More frustrations than I can shake a stick at.

And then the depression sets in. Like a black cloud. All this effort. All this capital. Every fiber of my being invested in this concept of being an "entrepreneur." Trying to make a living. For what? There is hardly any business. What little business I have produces an income that is a mere fraction of what I used to make. I've been at this now for two years, and nothing seems to change. And then with this news, it seems pointless to continue.

Many of my friends try to encourage me by reminding me that God is good. Look at all the blessings he's provided for me. God has given me obvious successes. Things may seem tough now, but they'll turn around. I recognize that, but sometimes, this heaviness, the fallout from the day to day struggle is just so hard to resist. It is like a deep darkness that settles over me, and I feel like I'm disappearing. As I keep figuratively banging my head against the wall, I get tired. Very, very, very tired. I want to pull the covers over my head and disappear from existence. I just want to give up.

And then, as i cracked open my bible, and read about a man who was having a similar day to mine.

My devotional reading took me to 1 Kings 19. Its the middle of an extended narrative about the life of the Prophet Elijah.

Elijah was a prophet who was always on the run. He confronted one of the most vile, evil regimes to rule Israel in those times, King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Ahab's father Omri had sought to cement an alliance with the northern kingdom of Israel and the surrounding pagan powers by pairing his son with a foreign princess, the daughter of the King of Sidon who was also a priestess of Baal. When she came to keep house with Ahab, she brought with her a huge entourage of priests and prophets of Baal and Ashteroth, the most popular pagan deities of the time. The worship of Yahweh was forced underground. Elijah, by standing up for who God was, was truly counter cultural -- preaching the truth to a society that had rejected God. Indeed, Elijah's name means "Yahweh is my God."

Elijah appeared out of nowhere to confront the King and his sin. He boldly predicted the drought that would grip the nation. He was forced into hiding, but God miraculously provided for him -- he lived in the wilderness, fed by ravens. Through him, God had miraculously provided oil for the widow of Zarephath, and raised her son from the dead.

Then came what is ostensibly his greatest triumph -- the confrontation on Mt. Carmel. The story is well known. Two altars were built -- one for Baal, one for the Lord. Elijah's challenge was simple -- the followers of each God would pray for fire to fall from heaven and consume the sacrifice on that God's altar. When the fire fell, it would prove which God was real.

The priests of Baal danced, sang, prayed, and even cut and mutilated their own bodies for blood to flow on the sacrifice. All day, until the sun was setting, they continued. Of course, there was no response. After ordering the Lord's altar drenched in water, Elijah prayed, and the fire fell from the sky, consuming the sacrifice. Elijah seized the moment, declaring that the prophets of Baal should be killed on the spot, and prayed for an end to the drought, and the rain began to fall.

This would seem to be Elijah's moment of greatest success, yet, it doesn't turn out that way. Here's what happened next:

"Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God." (1 Kings 19: 1-8)

Its an amazing story, yet, one I easily identify with. Elijah had indeed just experienced a great triumph. His blessings were many. The success God had brought to him were clear. But, this was also the first time he had been confronted directly by the evil Queen Jezebel. She promised to kill him, with a solemn oath. He had been living "life on the run," and had been getting by with very little. Considering the track record of how often the King's administration, or even the people generally, had embraced or even bothered to pay attention to what he was saying, well, discouragement was probably his usual reaction. So even in the wake of a heady victory, when trouble reared up, the difficulties overshadowed the triumph.

Indeed, the contrast is striking. As soon as this threat appeared, as soon as trouble showed up, Elijah lost sight of the victory and the blessing, and was consumed with discouragement and depression. I am sure the death threat was just he topper to a series of discouragements that became a weight to him, so that even in that glorious triumph on Mt. Carmel, the constant drip of rejection and disappointment was too much for Elijah to bear.

Its as if he was thinking, "See? Even when good things happen, the pattern of my life continues." I so identify with this. I have experienced so much of God's blessings during the last two years, yet, getting smacked in the face over and over again with discouragement and uncertainty causes me to lose heart. Our psyches and souls can be so very, very fragile. I can't tell you how often I have felt like Elijah -- sitting under that tree after another disappointment, wishing I could die.

But the greatest encouragement in all of this is the way that God deals with Elijah after he falls asleep beneath the broom tree. God doesn't rebuke him. Elijah is not rejected. God does not consider Elijah unusable. Indeed, God doesn't say anything at all. God understands where Elijah is at -- He understands how spiritually bone-weary Elijah is. So he kindly and gently provides the thing that Elijah needs the most at that point. A meal. And he allows him to rest. Then, he makes sure Elijah gets a second helping.

Because we know what is going to happen next, we see what God is doing here. God knows there's a lot of work to be done. God knows the enemies are powerful and numerous. God knows the journey will be long and hard. So He sends his angel to Elijah to make sure he has not one, but two helpings of a nourishing, home cooked meal, so he can be ready for the journey ahead. God met Elijah right were he was -- discouraged, hopeless, too tired to continue -- and provided just what he needed to be revitalized.

I can't tell you how many times I have in a place like Elijah's broom tree in the wilderness, and God has brought me angelic provision. It sometimes has been miraculous, like an anonymous gift to meet a financial need. Sometimes its been the support and encouragement of our friends. Sometimes its that phone call from a new client, just when I thought there wasn't going to be enough business to make it. Sometimes its just the Lord, shining his light of truth into my brain like he did here. Even in the midst of abject discouragement and bone weary tiredness, God is there to take my hand.

Philippians 4:19 says "my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus." I often perceive that my needs need to be met according to my own design. But when my body, mind, and spirit are tired and sagging, God graciously provides the nourishment I need. My own resources are limited. Dare I say, bankrupt? Yet God, in His grace, supplies me with bountiful resources that are more than sufficient.

Like Elijah, I am on a journey. I suppose I will continue to have "broom tree" episodes. I will face bad news, discouragement, and threats again and again. I will again feel like giving up. But God will be there, providing all I need -- according to the riches of his glory.

It doesn't make the bad news any better. But it does give me strength. And hope. Hope that I can also continue to have Mt. Horeb episodes (see 1 Kings 19: 9-15), where I meet the Lord face to face, and hear what he has for me.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Meditation on American History and the Power of a Paralyzing Past

She was 65 years of age. Yet, it still haunted her. It was like a poison that made life bitter.

She had been married at the age of 22. Now, four decades later, her very existence seemed overshadowed by something that had occurred right after the wedding.

Looking back, she said, “I felt all the honest pride of my soul was laid low forever.”

She had written it all down on paper, reflecting back on her long life; in an essay she called “Adventures of a Nobody.” In it she wrote this bitter sentence: “It is 43 years since I became a wife and yet the rankling sore is not healed which then broke upon my heart of hearts, it was the blight of every future prospect and has hung like an incubus upon my spirit.”

An incubus is a form of demon, by the way – a legendary devil that preys on people while they sleep, causing horrific nightmares. Louisa let this demon, this nightmare, this ”blight, this “rankling sore” fester in her life for 43 years.

I suppose this is not an uncommon situation. Think about our own lives. How about you? Is there some “rankling sore” somewhere in your own past that continues to trouble you, even paralyze your life, today?

Louisa’s story is true, found hidden in the pages of American History.

Louisa was born in London to a wealthy American businessman who had married an English wife. She was raised in France, and there, when she was only four years old, she met for the first time her future husband, an American boy named John, who was traveling with his father. At the time, John was only 12.

Louisa’s family returned to England, and when she was 22 she married John; and it was no ordinary marriage. Louisa’s wealthy father was the American consul in London – the equivalent today to the Ambassador, and John’s father was the President of the United States. The wedding was held on July 26th, 1797.

It appeared to be a fairy tale match. The daughter of a prominent family married the man who was ostensibly the most eligible bachelor in the country. He was handsome, smart, and extremely gifted, having already achieved great things for the country in the Foreign Service as a consul or ambassador to Russia, France, the Netherlands, and England. He was a rising star on the American political and social scene, and, even more importantly, was the son of the second President.

You would think with all this going for her, and the reality of how most of her life actually turned out, the expectation was nothing but “happily ever after.” But the carriage suddenly turned to a pumpkin. Her father’s business failed. The family was bankrupt. Louisa suddenly had no dowry. Scandalous rumors sprang up all over the country. Tongues were wagging. Perhaps she had lured John Quincy Adams into a rushed marriage under false pretenses.

Later, at the age of 50, at a time when her husband had been elected President (making her the only foreign born First Lady in the history of the United States), Louisa still agonized over it. Listen to what she wrote in this memoir to her children: “Conceive my dear sons the shock I underwent, every appearance was against me; actions proceeding from the most innocent causes looked the deliberate plans to deceive…”

Interestingly enough, this event in Louisa’s life is only mentioned in passing in David McCullough’s best selling biography of Louisa’s father in law, John Adams, and only to mention that Adams, as President, had given Louisa’s father a governmental appointment to assist the family. But Cokie Roberts shared Louisa’s version of the story in her book “Ladies of Liberty,” and she came to this conclusion about Louisa Adams: “This was a woman who clearly saw every ounce of pride slip down the drain with her father’s fortunes.”

How sad. Louisa Adams let an incident she was not responsible for poison her life – an event that even the rest of her family, including her famous father in law, really didn’t hold against her or her family. But even if the event that had haunted her and purportedly ruined her reputation had not been her fault, she didn’t need to let her past control her like that.

Now what about the rest of us? Are there “rankling sores” from our past that continue to haunt us today? I know this has happened to me – embarrassing moments from my childhood, misunderstandings that made me want to bury myself in a hole, stupid things I’ve done – these have all stayed with me way past their “expiration date” and often hinder my ability to advance. Indeed, my recent struggles with losing my job and trying to start my own business feel like one disappointment after another, as I struggle with my own sense of worth and purpose.

The Apostle Paul struggled with similar issues. Or at least he could have. He persecuted and even killed Christians before becoming one himself. At several points in his writings in the New Testament, Paul makes note of his past and the reputation it left him. It could have become a chain around his neck and caused him suffering that could have stunted his Christian ministry all his life and in his case it was his own doing.

But this is what Paul had to say about the attitude he took about the things in his past. He wrote in Philippians 3, “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

It’s a pretty radical concept for ordinary folks like me, but he said, “…one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind…”

It’s hard to say what Louisa Adams would have done with that advice. She had a lot of other things she suffered through – miscarriages; children who died; long, lonely stints living overseas in foreign countries while her young children stayed stateside in order to be educated. She was a brave woman who endured a lot to support her husband. But could she have overcome this darkness, this “demon?” Could that have helped her better cope with these other trials? Would forgiving her father, and forgiving HERSELF set her free? Would she have had a better relationship with her husband, had a better family life? Would she have been more of a service to her country (and to her husband) as the First Lady? We will never know. But from her own pen, we know that she suffered immeasurably all her life because of one incident in her past.

What about me? What about all of us? Have things in our past laid us low and kept us there? De we believe this is our destiny, our calling in this life?

Not on your life. If you are truly born again, truly a Christian, then you are a child of God, and the future is bright.

Second Corinthians 5:17 says: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”

If you have sinned, come to Jesus for forgiveness. If others have sinned against you, then with Jesus’ help, forgive them.

Then follow the advice of Philippians chapter three: forget what is in the past, and press on toward what God has for you in the future.

Let Him who began a good work in you carry it on to completion.

The Christian pop singer Chris Tomlin has recorded an updated version of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” which contains a new chorus: “My chains are gone. I’ve been set free. My God, my Savior has ransomed me.”

Don’t let the past paralyze you, the way it did for Louisa Adams.

I pray that as we begin this new year, I want to forget the past and press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus!