31 January 2016

February Newsletter Article

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

In a few short days, the season of Epiphany will come to a close and the liturgical season of Lent will begin. I am one of those people who finds the season of Lent to be an annual challenge and blessing – it is a time in the church for heightened awareness about our sin, God’s mercy, and the life of Jesus in which that mercy overcame that sin.

28 January 2016

2016 Books: The Prophet by Michael Koryta

One of the most enjoyable reading experiences is taking a chance on an unknown author and being very happy you did. In some ways The Prophet was about what I expected: a murder mystery with some interesting plot twists. What I didn't expect was Michael Koryta's excellent investigation into high stakes Ohio high school football and how that sidebar added a bit of punch to the story. Granted, being a former player myself and a student of the game for most of my life, I'm a bit pre-disposed to think well of good football writing, but I believe the casual reader will also enjoy learning a bit about the game in the course of enjoying a well-conceived murder mystery.

The main point of the novel is the relationship between brothers Adam and Kent Austin, both of whom live in their hometown and carry the burden of their sister's murder in very different ways. Their relationship overshadows everything in the novel, even the murder which brings about the action that makes up most of the plot, but it's so well written that the reader will enjoy the curious experience of being distracted by the action instead of the interior monologue as is common in the genre.

No heavy lifting required here - just a good book for a trip, something to read in one long pull and savor all the way down.

26 January 2016

2016 Books in Review: Gatefather by Orson Scott Card

The Mither Mages trilogy started off wonderfully with The Lost Gate and continued well with The Gate Thief. These first two volumes were the usual Orson Scott Card mix of philosophy, theology, fantasy, science fiction, and excellent characterization of the main actors in the plot. This series in particular leans more toward the theology and fantasy side of his spectrum, a curious mix of American Gods and original themes that make for interesting reading. Or listening, which is what I did for the first two volumes (is it me, or do some of you read all of OSC's work in Stefan Rudnicki's voice?).

08 January 2016

2016 Books in Review - Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett

The third book in Ken Follet's massive Century trilogy is, well, long. It has to be - it covers events from the beginning of the Cold War to the election of Barack Obama, ranging from the American Deep South to the coldest reaches of Siberia. It's everything you expect from a Follett historical novel at this point, which is at the same time enjoyable and a touch predictable, if surprisingly so.

05 January 2016

Exposing Dan Skogen

Last week I was made aware of a minor social media kerfuffle between my colleague Clint Schnekloth and Dan Skogen, the man behind the "Exposing the ELCA" blog and Twitter feed. Like Clint, I've known about Dan for quite some time, particularly because he lives in the part of Iowa we call home and has been trolling synodical staff and pastors in our neck of the woods as long as I've been here. Clint's blog does an excellent job of laying out the various options of dealing with Internet trolls, so I'll invite you to take a look if you want to see the entire backstory.
Lutheran Confessions: Exposing "Exposing the ELCA": Meet Dan Skogen. He's the voice and face behind a blog titled "Exposing the ELCA." Well, he does more than blog. He tweets, tr...
Like Clint, I'd been doing my best to mostly ignore Dan for at least six years. Usually that's the best response to trolls and others working out their pathologies through the means of social media. In fact, just this week I recommended that fellow Iowans ignore the ridiculous "halftime show" the Stanford Band performed at the Rose Bowl. It was so obnoxious and insulting that anyone with an ounce of decency wouldn't believe anything about it for a second. In the same vein, the posts at ExposingtheELCA.com are so thinly connected to reality that anyone with the ability to critically engage what he says about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America can see his agenda for what it is - and adjust their expectations for truth and decency accordingly.

23 December 2015

January Newsletter Article: Worship 101

One of the things I have most enjoyed about my work as a pastor over the years has been the office of teaching - an office that I don't nearly utilize enough. I was thinking about this a few weeks ago while doing some office work and decided this year I would use this newsletter space to do some teaching; specifically, to teach about Lutheran worship and what we're about when we gather together, be it Sunday mornings or any other occasion.

To begin, the word "worship" itself points to a particular activity within time and space, so far as Lutherans understand it. "Worship" is a derivation of the Old English weorthan, from which we also take the word "worthy". We "worship" when we reserve time and space for contemplation, explication, and adoration of "the thing that is worthy" - as Dr. Luther put it in The Large Catechism, "the thing upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god." So, for a person like myself, fall weekends become a time to be careful about where I invest my heart and my time. It would be incredibly easy for the time between Cornhusker kickoff and the final snap to be the most important time of my week - and so to take for myself a god who carries a football and wears scarlet and cream. I know, I know - some of you could argue this has already happened, and will happen again. You're probably right, so let's just move on with the acknowledgment that we're all going to fall short when it comes to worshiping our true God, shall we?

In the earliest years of the church, the followers of Jesus worshiped as faithful Jews in the synagogue, but gathered regularly for a meal that commemorated the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his friends on the night before his betrayal and crucifixion. Over time, Christians and Jews diverged, and Christians merged reading and teaching from the Hebrew Bible, letters from apostles and other Christian evangelists, and the love meal into one event. After Constantine I made Christianity a legal religion within the Roman Empire in 313 AD, the pattern of worship that had developed organically over the previous centuries was generally solidified into something that would be recognizable today in "traditional" liturgical churches like ours.

"Liturgy" is another term with a more diverse meaning than one might have suspected. It comes from the Greek leitourgia meaning "work of the people" or "public work" - and this work can take place in many different ways! It's a misnomer to say that there are "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" churches; it might be more accurate to say that some churches prefer a more structured liturgy while others tend toward a free, extemporaneous liturgy. There are also gradations within the trends, as many of you know well. Liturgy tends to be an anthropological phenomenon in every congregation around the world, with strains and influences from sources most people would struggle to even remember. One example would be the klokker or "song leader" common in many Norwegian congregations in America from the 1800s through the 1950s - other churches would not have known what this position was or how it worked in worship, but it would have been second nature to most Norwegian churches in this part of the country at one time. Another is the development of monthly communion, mostly due to the scarcity of ordained ministers for frontier churches: what was once a concession to geography and travel requirements became standard practice and, for some, a preference to be defended, even though the early church celebrated communion weekly and would have been mystified by the idea that you could make the meal "less special" by celebrating it more often. Ethnic and ecclesiastical history, regional trends, cultural changes - these and many other influences have shaped Lutheran worship in the United States since the first Lutheran churches were established in the colonies almost 300 years ago.

Today, when Lutherans talk about worship, we generally value a great deal of flexibility around what we consider essential: preaching and the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. The 7th article of the Augsburg Confession states, "it is enough to agree on the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments...it is not necessary that human traditions, rites, and ceremonies be everywhere alike." We have central principles about worship which we hold in common, but how those principles are lived out tend to be determined by local congregations as seems best in each context. There are Lutheran churches whose worship is barely distinguishable from the highest, most richly ceremonial Episcopalian and Roman Catholic churches, making use of incense, fully chanted liturgies, ceremonial dress for pastors and lay ministers, and much more. There are Lutheran churches whose worship is barely distinguishable from the most charismatic Baptist and non-denominational churches, with raised hands, loud music, shouts of joy and affirmation in preaching and singing, and not a note of chant to be heard above the organ, drums, and choir. What makes the worship in these churches "Lutheran" is NOT a traditional liturgy, but the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the celebration of our sacraments. For Lutherans, everything must serve the Holy Spirit's work to justify God's people by faith alone apart from works of the law: that's "Lutheran" worship at it's core.

I'm looking forward to the rest of this series this year, and I hope you'll help me by offering questions you'd like me to answer about different aspects of our worship life together. Most importantly, I hope this series enriches your experience in worship at St. Petri and at other houses of worship this year, and that through that enrichment you may find it easier to discern the Spirit's work in your life. I hope to see you in worship soon!

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Scott

01 December 2015

The Author A-Z Tag

Something fun for today. Got the idea from my "little sister" Brittany at her blog.


The Author A-Z Tag was created by Jen Campbell on BookTube. The premise is simple: go through your shelves, choosing an author's surname for each letter of the alphabet and highlight one book. If you don't have an author for a letter, choose one from your to be read pile.

13 October 2015

Fall Theological Retreat

This week I'm in Dubuque, IA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod's Fall Theological Retreat (#NEIAFTC). This annual event is a highlight of the year for me: I get to spend time with my colleagues in worship, prayer, and reflection; the speakers are usually very good; there's time for recreation; and I generally go home energized for parish ministry (which is good, because 72 hours away from the office generally leaves me with plenty to do when I do return). This year, everything on my list has happened just as one would hope.

22 September 2015

Sermonation Tuesday

Thoughts on the text as the sermon begins to take shape this week. First, the text:
22The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.24Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.25When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

25 June 2015

On the Holy Practice of Listening

This past Sunday I took advantage of an early return from our vacation to Wisconsin to attend worship at St. Petri as just "a guy in the pews." Some of you probably knew this already, but it can be very difficult for a ministry professional to find a time and place where they can be in worship without being "on the job" and therefore able to just participate without feeling the need to tend to every last detail. It was a wonderful experience, particularly given that our preacher delivered an excellent sermon (well done, Anita!). I walked away feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, which is my hope every time I enter a house of worship, whether I'm preaching, leading, or sitting in the pews as simply one of the gathered faithful.

One reason the sermon was excellent is that Anita paid attention to the world and incorporated it into what she felt the text was saying to us. The massacre of 9 brothers and sisters in Christ in Charleston, South Carolina, was not something any responsible preacher of the gospel could ignore or downplay this week. For those of you who couldn't be there, Anita joined the proclamation of the psalmist, "The LORD is my rock and my salvation; whom shall I fear?" with Jesus' promises to always be with us to remind us that trust is developed over time and, particularly, in adverse circumstances where that trust is put to the test. Now is such a time for American Christians. Do we trust that God will help us see a way forward, together, to re-commit ourselves to overcoming the racism inherent in so many of our communities, or do we believe that if we are simply nice to each other we can go back to ignoring this problem that simply will not go away?

In a sense, I'm thankful we were on vacation in Wisconsin when the news of Charleston broke, because I was already actively trying to stay off technology and enjoy some recreational time with our family. It is, after all, impossible to check Facebook when you're shooting down a waterslide with your brother-in-law and nephew, or careening around a go-cart track with your niece screaming in delight and terror next to you. Even gathered around the campfire at night, we spent more time talking and less time clicking our news feeds.

However, I was online enough to know that there were many voices raised with many opinions about what Charleston means, and what we ought to do or not do about it. Some voices raised compelling arguments. Some voices were annoying. Some were so ready to confess sins of which they were obviously not guilty that I couldn't believe they didn't see that stridency often morphs into disingenuousness with very little effort. We pastors were told what to preach by people who didn't know us or the pulpits we occupy, and what we were told to preach was Law so strict and convicting most pew sitters would have shut their ears only seconds into the sermons we were ordered to give. All this made me incredibly grateful that I knew Anita would prepare an excellent sermon focused on our community here at St. Petri, which would address what we needed to hear without being captive to the many voices clamoring for words that would be foreign to our particular community.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am in no way saying that preachers shouldn't have addressed racism in their sermons on Sunday. What I am saying is this: before we speak, before we proclaim, before we prescribe, the first and holiest practice we must observe is listening. We are called to listen to the voices of anguish from Charleston, to be sure, but also listen to the bewildered voices of people who know something isn't right but also aren't sure exactly how to address the problem.

Something incredibly and painfully ironic happened as I "listened" online these last few days. I grew angry at the voices who insisted that I was a racist because my skin is white. I grew angry at the voices who insisted my church is racist, both here in our local congregation and as a denomination. I grew angry because I felt like I was on trial for crimes I hadn't committed just because my skin was the same as the young man who pulled the trigger, and it was in that anger that I saw the painful irony of my experience: that in being judged by my skin I was finally hearing the voices which have cried for freedom and justice for centuries because they have also been judged by the color of their skin.

No person of any skin color should be made to stand in for anyone other than themselves, for each of us has a particular story which no one else may claim as their own. Racism is a sin which will not be overcome by voices pronouncing guilt and judgment, though we will continue to need voices which can and should call out for justice and peace. First, we are called to the holy practice of listening to one another, and a specific kind of listening: listening to understand, to experience, and to affirm, without defensiveness or stridency or judgment. We are called to listen, brothers and sisters, to each individual as they tell their story, to listen for the voice of God present in all of us, and only in doing this do we have any hope of being healed of our own sins so that we might help others heal as well.

Can we listen? Will we listen? That remains to be seen. It is easy to prescribe what must be done, particularly from a distance. The hard work of listening locally, of thinking critically about our place, our work, our people, is a far more difficult and far more necessary thing. How can I listen here and now to the real people I meet every day, and how can we, together, work to judge everyone as Dr. King dreamed - not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character? This is the work to which we are called, and this is the way we can actively fight racism right here, right now.