30 September 2006

Vacation Report

At long last I get to give you all a report on our trip to Oregon for my brother-in-law's wedding. Either the US Postal Service or Snapfish were seriously behind schedule, since this is now over a month since we've returned and we've just now received our pictures online. Oh, well.

My travel on the Empire Builder was interesting to say the least. If you travel Amtrak, do it in a sleeper car or with a friend. Nothing says "uncomfortable" like trying to avoid touching the bachelor farmer sleeping next to you. Unless it's trying to avoid the organic studies student who's been biking from Oregon, apparently without bathing, and just couldn't handle the Dakotas anymore. And leaving Fargo is not particularly beautiful or tranquil at 3:00 am. Other than that, it was a great little trip. I think I actually preferred the train to flying, even though it was much slower - I saw some parts of Montana & Washington that you can't see in a car, and it was BEAUTIFUL.

I arrived in Eugene just in time to go to church on Sunday and then leave Monday for Bend, OR, where Kristin's friends Fred & Melanie live. We spent an overnight with them and had a wonderful time. They have two wonderful young boys - both precious and we enjoyed getting to know them. We stopped for coffee & lunch in Sisters, a little tourist town, where we actually ran into some friends of Kristin's that we'd been planning to meet later in the week. Had a great lunchtime conversation, and then we left for Eugene. On the way back we drove through the Lava fields at the top of the McKenzie Pass on the old McKenzie Highway - too cool. And I think we stopped at Johnson Lake - can't imagine any other reason why I'd need another picture with trees and water. "oooooh, trees...water..."

After we got back from Bend it was mostly, but not all, wedding stuff. Kristin hadn't been home for nearly three years, so we made sure to see some friends and eat some old favorite foods. But with lots of acid indigestion due to Little Miss, the eating portion of the trip wasn't a big success. For Kris, at least - me, I always have room to eat. A little too much, actually, but some things never change, do they?

As one might imagine, our nephew Quinn was a big hit for the entire week. The best part might have been when he dismantled his father's boutineer as Troy was praying during the wedding. Suffice it to say that our focus was rather broad at that particular moment. The most horrible/funny moment of the trip was Kristin's rude introduction into parenthood, care of Quinn's supper that came whoopsing up all over her Thursday night as she was putting Quinn to bed. Can't seem to remember why I didn't get a picture of that... :-)

Perhaps the neatest part of the whole thing was working with my father-in-law, Troy.
With him in Oregon and myself in Minnesota, you can see how we don't get to collaborate a whole lot. I even preached in their congregation the day after the wedding - a neat experience to say the least.

The wedding went off without a hitch, after Troy and I did some last minute pastoral counseling with Sean. There was some laughter, a lot of tears, they said "I do," and started a new magical life together. And that, dear friends, was the gist of our trip to Oregon.

29 September 2006

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Two word review: KICKS ASS!

Slightly longer review: West Wing heads, um, west. All the things you loved in West Wing are here: witty dialogue, snappy plots, great continuous shots that weave through incredibly complex sets. Many of the things I didn't necessarily care for about West Wing are here, too - cloyingly utopian idealism being the most prominent. But damn, Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford make a fine duo. Add in Amanda Peet and Tim Daly as head-butting execs, a snappy production room headed by Timothy Busfield, and some really great characters on the cast and among the writers, and you've got a lot of things to keep you entertained. Great scene from last week: as they are trying to come up with an opening number for the first show, someone mentions how they should be the "model" of a great television show. This, of course, morphs into an opening number straight out of Pirates of Penzance, but the way the moment happens in Matthew Perry's office is just breathtakingly good. Love this show!

27 September 2006

Baby stuff, House Concert

Monday morning, bright and early, Kris & Little Miss and I loaded up the cars and headed down I94 to St. Cloud. The Passat was acting up again, so we dropped it off at the dealer and went to Panera for a little treat. After that it was off to Target for baby registry stuff.

We had a great time. Okay, it took us a while, but eventually we had a great time. Kristin has become to baby shopping what I am to all other styles of shopping - she uses a "baby bargains" book and WILL NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, REGISTER FOR SOMETHING WITHOUT CONSULTING THE BOOK. I wasn't quite expecting that, so it took us a bit to get our minds on the same wavelength. We did, eventually, and I think we got registered for a lot of stuff that we'll need.

It's somewhat overwhelming, the amount of stuff we're going to have once this baby arrives. How have we managed to survive these thousands of years without boppies? Without a zip-up travel changing mat? Without a Pack N Play, which coincidentally looks an awful lot like the changing table we could have registered for but didn't? Makes a gadget guy like me go a little overboard...

Okay, now here's my complaint. Can we please get little girl clothes in a color other than pink? Please? There's nothing wrong with pink itself, mind you - I have a good friend who loves pink and can wear it and look great. But personally we don't care for it. But we don't have many choices in the matter, as it seems like 75% of girls infant and toddler clothing is pink. Wow. Good thing our families can be counted on to get us University of Nebraska and University of Oregon clothing or we'd be buried in the stuff.

Yesterday we got invited to our first house concert by some local friends. The headliner is Justin Roth, who has played with Storyhill in the past and who I've always wanted to hear live. We're really looking forward to the show. It'll be on Thompson Lake just outside of Barrett on October 10th - click on this link for more info and to request seating space. How cool is this?

And that's the news from Barrett - Tschuss!

24 September 2006

Sermon for 24 September 2006 - "Which Way?"

Preaching Text: Mark 9.30-37

When I started college at the University of Nebraska I majored in music education. I was going to the U to practice, work hard, and possibly earn a spot with a major symphony in their trombone section. But if my dream of the Chicago Symphony didn’t pan out, I figured I would enjoy being a band director. Heck, everyone thought I should do it – I was the music guy in my high school and in my conference. I was first chair in the All-State Band as a senior, and St. Olaf had accepted me into their music program, so why wouldn’t I succeed?

Three years later, things had changed. I discovered that though I loved music, I did NOT love music education. What I did love, however, was God. Most importantly, I loved the idea of serving God professionally, so I dropped the music major for work in religion and philosophy, and I began preparing for seminary. But I stayed active in the music programs at the University, because I did love making music with my friends.

In the fall of my fourth year in Lincoln, I was preparing to become the principal euphonium player for the Wind Ensemble, the premier performance group, with whom I had been playing for two years. The previous year I had been second chair euphonium, but Pete, the principal, had graduated and so I assumed that the chair was mine. To be honest, I was looking forward to taking over the principal chair; I thought my time had come.

As I entered the audition room, the director greeted me warmly, heard my audition, nodded, and asked a question I hadn’t expected: “Why didn’t you prepare a trombone audition?” I told him that I had assumed I would be playing euphonium again that year, that he and the other directors knew my skills as a trombonist, and that one audition, I thought, would suffice. He nodded again, listened to the remainder of my audition, thanked me for my time, and I left.

The roster was posted the following day. You can imagine my shock when I discovered that I was not the principal euphonium player. I had been replaced by two freshmen, both of whom were under my leadership as a baritone section leader in the marching band. I was going to play bass trombone.

I was mortified. I had told those freshmen how much I was looking forward to playing with them in the Wind Ensemble… someday. I was trying to be the magnanimous upperclassman, but instead I looked like a pompous blowhard. Bass trombone? Why not just make me go play piccolo or something?

In truth, they were better than I was. For the good of the ensemble, my role changed. To make better music, I took on a different role and followed the direction of my leader. But the embarrassment of discovering how poorly I had judged the situation has remained with me to this day. It was a question of ways: the way of my glory, or the way of the director’s will. I had to choose which way to follow.

Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, You take us along the Way of the Cross as the way of discipleship. You lead us down roads of sacrifice and service, where our desires and our needs are replaced with Your will and Your mercy. But all along the Way, we misunderstand You. We seek greatness where You desire humility. We seek power where You desire mercy. We seek individual glory where You desire the glory of Your body, the church. Forgive our arrogance and our ambition. Help us welcome each other as fellow children in Your family, and forgive us as we struggle to follow You. In Your name we pray: Amen.

It’s never an easy thing, getting your ego deflated. It’s an even harder experience to endure when your desires for individual glory are in service to a greater good. Or so you think.

It’s easy to demonize the disciples in today’s reading from Mark. Who would be stupid enough to argue about being numero uno when Jesus was around? But take yourself out of our modern church for a minute and think about life from the disciples’ perspective. Tiberius has been emperor of Rome for a few years. Your people have been captives to Rome for almost 100 years, prisoners in your own homeland. The Messiah, you believe, will deliver you from your bondage, and now that Jesus is here, now that you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, you think it’s about time for the deliverance to get going. When Jesus delivers Israel, he’s going to need helpers to make sure all the work gets done properly. According to Dr. Don Juel, “as [Jesus’] followers, they will undoubtedly be assigned places in His cabinet.”[1] If you’re going to be in the cabinet, who wouldn’t want to be prime minister? Secretary of Agriculture? The disciples were a diverse group; is it possible that they were thinking of their own individual gifts and talents and how Jesus might best use them in his ‘inside’ group?

The disciples would have had no problems reading our text from Jeremiah today, with all its talk of retribution and destruction of enemies and evil deeds. They were, after all, faithfully serving God by following Jesus of Nazareth, God’s anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. The coming of the kingdom was at hand! God was finally going to put things right, and the faithful would be sorted in the order of their deeds and their faithfulness to God’s commandments. Finally, Israel would receive her reward and receive her proper place as the people of God on earth. The way to Capernaum was the first step in the way to Jerusalem and the new kingdom of God!

After listening to this all afternoon, Jesus asked them at the evening meal: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Can you see the sheepish looks on the disciples’ faces when they realized Jesus had heard them planning His kingdom for Him? Jesus took that opportunity to teach them what it means to follow Him. The disciples believed that they were on the way to Capernaum. They believed that this was just another day along the path to the deliverance of Israel from her bondage. They were right; Israel was to be delivered, but the way was not through Capernaum: the way Israel would be delivered would be the Way of the Cross.

The Gospel tells us that before any of this happened, Jesus tried again to explain to His followers that He was going to be betrayed, handed over to be tortured, killed by His own people, and rise again. This was the second time in a week that Jesus told His followers about His death and resurrection, and also the second time they didn’t understand it. Worse, they were afraid and didn’t ask Jesus to explain further. Peter tried to tell Jesus that his ideas about death and resurrection were nonsense, and got a good rebuking for his trouble; why would any of them question Him again? So we see that the disciples weren’t just missing the point; they were trying to avoid the point altogether. The Way of the Cross was the 800 pound gorilla in their lives, and they were very busy arguing about their greatness so they wouldn’t have to talk about it.

So, at the supper table, in Capernaum, with their ignorance and arrogance exposed, Jesus began to teach. He taught that the Way of the Cross reverses the order of things: the first become last, the greatest are servants, and the least are served. Then Jesus further deflated their hopes and dreams by showing them the most honored guest in the kingdom of God: a child. In Jesus’ time, a child was without worth or stature. Until a child reached adulthood, they were a burden to their parents, nothing more, and Jesus welcomed the child as a monarch or a head of state. Jesus tied the whole of his power and prestige and glory as Messiah to a nameless child, and so, Jesus said, should those who would follow Him. This is the Way of the Cross.

Not an easy way to follow, the Way of the Cross. On the surface one might imagine that one could follow the Way of the Cross by always going to the back of the line and always being nice to children. But it’s more than simple exterior actions. To follow the Way of the Cross, one is called to completely “abandon one’s authority and status, spending them on those with the least ability to repay.”[2] The Way of the Cross involves a complete devaluation of the self – “I” cease to exist without having “you” to serve. “I” the adult am nothing without the child of God to welcome in the name of Christ. “I” look for ways to lift up Christ through lifting up those around me. This is the Way of the Cross, as Jesus describes it. This is the Way to follow Him.

As we follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross, we remember that Jesus asks us only to receive what He has to give. On the Cross, where Jesus gave His life for you, the greatest became the least and the Living One died for we who were already dead in our sins. When Jesus asks us to follow Him on the Way of the Cross, He asks us to throw out the world’s order of greatest and least and simply serve all people as fellow children of God. When Jesus asks us to welcome one another as children in His name, He asks us to welcome each other as we were welcomed into His family – without thought or consideration of worth, simply as the greatest gift a loving God could give.

The way to follow Jesus is not a line: it is a circle, gathered with Christ at its center, where all serve the Servant of All. Who is the greatest? Jesus is the greatest – and we are His children, welcome here in His name. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Juel, Donald. Word & World, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer 1994. © Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. p. 354

[2] ibid, p. 355.

22 September 2006

Happy Birthday, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins!

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that today is the widely accepted birthday of both Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Hobbits of great renown. It's rather cold and rainy here in Minnesota today, so I won't be going barefoot in honor of the Bagginses, but I will lift a pint or two tonight in honor of such great and honourable fellows. For more information, go to this Wikipedia site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobbit_Day

Tom Shatel: Proud to be a Hick

Tom Shatel is a sportswriter for the Omaha World-Herald. He wrote an excellent piece about T.J. Simers' hack job on Nebraska last week. Take a read - he's right about the passion of Nebraska folks for our football. Maybe there isn't much to do, although I think Tom needs to get out and about in Omaha or Lincoln if he thinks there's NOTHING to do. But passion, kept in its place, can be a great thing. Some of us (all right, ME) got a little over-passionate about the loss to USC last weekend. But hey, would you rather we didn't give a damn about our teams, and the young people who play for them?

17 September 2006

Wailin' Jennys

So I was looking for a CD to play on the radio while I worked in my shop this afternoon. We've got a CD case that holds several hundred of the things, some of which I honestly haven't listened to in a while. This is how I justify having so much music on hand; I listen to stuff once a year, remember it, and hold on to it.

Anyway, I found "40 Days" by The Wailin' Jennys. I had forgotten how much I liked this group - folk harmonists from Canada who sing brilliantly together. You'll find a link to their website on my links to your right. Check them out - they're worth a listen, especially live.

Sermon for 17 September 2006 - "Truly Prosperous"

When George Adams lost his job at an Ohio tile factory last October, the most practical thing he did, he thinks, was to go to a new church, even though he had to move his wife and four preteen boys to Conroe, a suburb of Houston, to do it. Conroe, you see, is not far from Lakewood, the home church of mega-pastor and best-selling author Joel Osteen. Osteen’s relentlessly upbeat television sermons had helped Adams, 49, get through the hard times, and now Adams was expecting the smiling, Texas-twanged 43-year-old to help boost him back toward success. And Osteen did. Inspired by the preacher’s insistence that one of God’s top priorities is to shower blessings on Christians in this lifetime – and by the corollary assumption that one of the worst things a person can do is to expect anything less – Adams marched into Gullo Ford in Conroe looking for work. He didn’t have entry-level aspirations: “God has showed me that he doesn’t want me to be a run-of-the-mill person,” he explains. He demanded to know what the dealership’s top salesmen made – and got the job. Banishing all doubt – “You can’t sell a $40,000-to-$50,000 car with menial thoughts” – Adams took four days to retail his first vehicle, a Ford F-150 Lariat with leather interior. He knew that many fellow salesmen don’t notch their first score until their second week. “Right now, I’m above average!” he exclaims. “It’s a new day God has given me! I’m on my way to a six-figure income!” The sales commission will help with this month’s rent, but Adams hates renting. Once that six-figure income has been rolling in for a while, he will buy his dream house: “Twenty-five acres,” he says. “And three bedrooms. We’re going to have a schoolhouse (his children are home-schooled). We want horses and ponies for the boys, so a horse barn. And a pond. And maybe some cattle.”

“I’m dreaming big – because all of heaven is dreaming big,” Adams continues. “Jesus died for our sins. That was the best gift God could give us. But we have something else. Because I want to follow Jesus and do what he ordained, God wants to support us. It’s Joel Osteen’s ministry that told me. Why would an awesome and mighty God want anything less for his children?”[1]

Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, our mouths can speak blessings and curses, truth and lies, and we don’t always know which is which. Our lives on this Way of the Cross are filled with uncertainties and dangers. Be our stronghold in the midst of confusing times. Be our strength when we are weak. Be our truth when we believe lies. Be our blessing when all we see are curses. Save us from ourselves and set us, once again, on the Way of the Cross. Amen.

I just read the introduction to TIME magazine’s cover story last week. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a better example of the church asking the wrong questions of itself. Here are a few more quotes for your amusement:

Who would want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor, broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until you get to heaven? I believe God wants to give us nice things.

Joyce Meyer

I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think God wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think God wants us to be a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say God wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?

Joel Osteen
Note: the following sentence in the article read: “The room’s warm lamplight reflects softly off his crocodile shoes.”

But what does God want for us? What does Jesus want from us? There are real questions from genuine people of faith in all of this, and I don’t want to let my cynical view of the church and her sins cloud the issue. In today’s gospel reading, it’s obvious that Peter and the disciples were wrong about Jesus – if they were wrong, how are we going to know any better? If our fellow Christians think that following Jesus is about getting our desires fulfilled, who are we to insist on a different way? What IS God up to in all of this?

First, I think, Jesus shows us very powerfully that we are, indeed, approaching Him and His Father with the wrong ends in mind. Don Juel, a former professor at Luther seminary, says that this section of Mark’s gospel should be known as “The Way of the Cross,” because Jesus shows that the way of the Messiah is the way of the cross. For the first half of Mark’s gospel, people have been asking who this Jesus of Nazareth really is: now Jesus will show them. But people don’t quite understand. Like Peter, they see that there’s something of God in Jesus, enough that they think he is the Messiah, but they, and we, don’t understand what that means.

In the verses just prior to our reading today, Jesus heals a blind man twice. The first time Jesus heals him, his vision is restored, but he doesn’t know what he’s seeing. He says, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” So Jesus clarifies his vision so that the blind man can see correctly. Brian Stoffregen says that “Peter's idea of a Messiah who suffers and dies is about the same as seeing trees walking -- it just doesn't any sense to him… One may see Jesus' miracles and hear his teaching and still come to the wrong conclusion about who he is and the source of his power. [2]

In the blind man’s partial sight, we see our own partial faith exposed. Why do we teach Sunday School and confirmation to our young people? Why do I ask for adults to come to Bible Study on Sunday mornings and Tuesday nights? Why do I go to retreats and conferences and listen to speakers when I can? Because none of us have the single, perfect, 100% clear picture of who Jesus is and what Jesus is about in our lives, that’s why. We need reflection, education and consideration about Jesus because we don't always understand Jesus on our own. And also we do it because all of us come to Jesus with our own agendas and purposes. Most of us are here this morning because we believe that God’s got something to give to us, which is certainly true, but all too often what we want from God is aimed at our own lives, at our own needs, at our own wants, and the minute Jesus starts talking about denial, sacrifice and crosses, we grow very uncomfortable and very, very worried about what Jesus might ask of us.

So the prosperity gospel sells. “Name It and Claim It” theology sucks in the people because it paints a picture of God that is exactly what we want: a heavenly vending machine. Plug in my faith and my offerings, and God will spit out the job I want, the dream home, the ponies and horse barns and nice Lexus and crocodile shoes. Or maybe here in Minnesota we’d just get the new snowmobile or the ATV or a new icehouse or mukluks. We’ve seen that God is good and that Jesus gives life, but we don’t see that the life Jesus offers isn’t drawn from the script of our dreams.

Marva Dawn once wrote about going to the World Council of Churches’ booth at a world’s fair, where the gospel was presented with flashing neon lights and a dazzling ‘show.’ She was horrified:

“If people are saved by a spectacular Christ,” she wrote, “will they find him in the fumbling of their own devotional life or in the humble services of local parishes where pastors and organists make mistakes? Will a glitzy portrayal of Christ nurture in new believers his character of willing suffering and sacrificial obedience? Will it create an awareness of the idolatries of our age and lead to repentance? And does a flashy, hard-rock sound track bring people to a Christ who calls us away from the world's superficiality to deeper reflection and meditation?[3]

It’s a hard thing, getting this partial view of God and mistaking our own preconceptions for the genuine thing. Peter made that mistake by claiming that the Messiah, God’s anointed one, could never suffer and die. All of the disciples made that mistake when they began to argue about who was the greatest among them. We make that mistake when we think that God’s business in this world is making sure that my desires are met, my politicians get elected, my bank account is stable, or my church gets enough in the offering plate to keep the lights on for one more month.

The Gospel’s power doesn’t come from meeting my needs or my dreams: the Gospel’s power comes from God reaching down into the world as it is and loving it through the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ. The Gospel’s power comes from the Holy Spirit filling people of faith where we are, not where we’d like to be. The Gospel’s power comes when God clarifies our vision, so that we see all of creation through the lens of the cross of Christ. The Gospel’s power comes when we reach that point where we realize that nothing, nothing, NOTHING in all of creation, can compare with the love of God in Jesus Christ. The Gospel’s power comes when our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our very lives are swallowed up in the cross, and we become like Jesus, pouring out our lives for the sake of the world. Rich or poor, young or old, Baptist or Lutheran, Democrat or Republican, American or Iraqi, none of that matters when the power of the Gospel takes hold: we are simply Jesus’ followers, whatever the future may bring. Now we see clearly that God wants only one thing for us: to believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and to follow Him wherever He leads.

Professor Juel wrote,

“Taking up your cross should be seen less as a project than as the character of discipleship. We follow because we trust that God will complete what [God] has begun at our baptism…and if our vocation is to care for the neighbor, Luther insisted, we will not need to seek out suffering. It will come routinely, as any parent will attest…Following Jesus will not involve a cross of our choosing – and it promises deliverance that is likewise not the result of any grand project.”[4]

Is this a prosperity theology? Yes and no. No, it is not a prosperity theology for ourselves. We don’t take up a cross to receive a reward at some point in the future. But the cross we bear will be a cross that will cause our faith to prosper and grow, and that’s been the point all along. Yes, God wants us to be rich: rich in generosity, rich in service, rich in love, rich in compassion, rich in joy, rich in prayer, rich in faith. These are the riches that God promises to the faithful, and this is the prosperous life of those who follow Jesus. May God bless you with all of this and more for your own bearing of the cross. Amen.

[1] “Does God Want You To Be Rich?” Van Biema, David and Chu, Jeff. TIME magazine, September 18, 2006, Vol. 168, No. 12. © 2006, Time, Inc. pp. 48-56

[3] Dawn, Marva. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, © 19??, Dunno Press. p. 50

[4] Juel, Donald. Word & World, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer 1994. © Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. p. 354

15 September 2006

Amen, Amen, Amen!

A seminarian from Asbury Theological Seminary wrote an astonishingly good piece on the 'war on terror' or 'global war against terrorism' or whatever you want to call it.

...you can't fight and win a "war on terror." Terrorism is a method, not a country or ideology. I once heard it said that fighting a war on terror is like having the flu and declaring a war on sneezing: you're only attacking the symptoms. As long as there have been people, there has been terrorism.

Read the rest here.

13 September 2006

No. 1 Reason to drop the LA Times subscription

Yep, T.J. Simers is at it again. The L.A. Times' resident asshole has written another column about Nebraska as we head west for the NU-USC game. This is the same witty fellow who couldn't say enough about the horde of red-clad hicks stampeding into his beloved LA for the Rose Bowl in January 2002. Yeah, we love this guy.

Seriously, though, it really blows that this kind of stuff passes for journalism. What is this supposed to be, a meaner, rougher Dave Barry? Whatever the psychological trauma that leads to this kind of writing, it's not worth the paper on which it's printed, and I hope L.A. Times readers have enough sense to disregard someone whose primary vocation appears to be publicly humiliating himself by pulling everyone else down to his bottom-feeding level.

For the record, just so no one thinks this jerk is right about anything, I left Nebraska because I had to, and I haven't returned because the circumstances aren't right just yet. I love my Cornhuskers, but I loved lots of other stuff in Nebraska, too: the arts and culture available in Lincoln and Omaha, beautiful sunsets in wide-open prairies, the smell of freshly turned earth in springtime and harvest in the fall, my small hometown of Wakefield, where just about everybody still remembers me when I come home, the camp where I spent summers wandering the wilderness and enjoying God's creation, and much, much more. I love living in Minnesota, too, for similar reasons, and I'm sure I'll love living wherever I go next, even in L.A. if I should wind up there, because life is what you make of it. I'm looking forward to Nebraska playing USC this weekend, and I hope we win, but not because I need to humiliate those Trojans to feel better about myself. So go ahead - call us hicks and make fun of us. Laugh at the fact that Larry the Cable Guy has a skybox in Memorial Stadium. Cow-tipping jokes? Heard 'em. Fly-over country comments? Yeah, heard those too. If you're so shallow that you can't be troubled to look farther than the interstate, wherever you go, then maybe the problem isn't Nebraska, Mr. Simers. Maybe the problem is you.

10 September 2006

Little Miss Johnson, Half Marathon

We have a baby! It's a girl! At least, that's what the ultrasound tech thought as he was working with Kris on Wednesday. Since "Lumpy" isn't really a good name for a girl, we've decided on Little Miss Johnson until birthing day. That is, assuming the ultrasound guy is right. If he's not, that "Little Miss" might never live it down. Here's the photos as promised:

Here, Little Miss Johnson's head and face is on the right, abdomen on the left.

Same picture here, but you can also see the umbilical cord on the left between her feet/knees.

The ultrasound tech was trying to get another facial view to see if Little Miss had a cleft lip/palate or not. She played hard to get (way to go, sweetie!) but eventually gave him a thumbs-up, as you can see just to the right of center.

My friend Jeremy's comment was, "Oh, how you're going to be wrapped around her little finger." Is he ever right. When I popped the CD into our computer to download the ultrasound pics, it automatically brought up a slide show. My response was, "wow - there's my little girl. WOW." I'm definitely in trouble - between Little Miss & her momma, I'm going to be a fool for family very, very quickly. But this is how God intended it, I think. At any rate, I'm wrapped around that little thumb very tightly, and I'm loving every second of it.

In other news, I ran the Dick Beardsley Half-Marathon in Detroit Lakes, MN yesterday. It was a beautiful day for a race: cool, sunny, a bit of wind but nothing too terrible. We started down by the lake and headed uptown for the first mile, then cut back through downtown again and split up: Halfers headed right around the lake, 5K folks headed back toward the starting line. It was the fastest start - I think I was in a group of 5K folks at the beginning.

The best part of the day was hooking up with David, his wife Becky and our friend Brad, three fellow Luther Seminary alums who were also running the half. David and I ran together until mile 10, when I just couldn't keep his pace anymore and had to take a short walk break. But David did what I hoped he would do: he pulled me through the first 9 miles in 81 minutes (9 minute miles) and I had 40 minutes to cover the final four and make my goal of a sub-2 hour half-marathon. I did it! I finished in 1:57 and felt GREAT. Considering how poorly I trained for this race and how hilly the course was, it was a fantastic time. Best of all, my loving wife immediately shepherded me to the Gatorade cart and the fruit stands, and I managed to hold off the electrolyte crash that came after the Fargo Marathon. So now I have another medal, an even cooler shirt, and a goal met again. New goal: Lincoln Marathon, May 2007, under 4 hours. We'll see if I can "git R done," won't we?

07 September 2006

100 Books - 70-66

70: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This was, as I said in my old blog last year, one of the most interesting reading experiences I've had in quite a while. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was a really damned hard book to read. The first 80 pages or so were s l o w and seemed to be going nowhere fast. I was just about to give up on the thing when it began to interest me. For the next few weeks, I'd read just enough to keep my interest piqued, and finally in the last week I devoured the final 300 pages and really enjoyed the experience.
What's to like? Well, it's about British magicians in the early 19th century, fighing Napoleon while trying to reestablish "English magic," which apparently rose out of the north in the Dark Ages at the coming of John Uskglass, the Raven King. Gilbert Norrell is almost more of a magical archivist than magician - his two residences hold a library of over 5,000 books of magic, which he guards zealously. Jonathan Strange, his young protege, is of course impetuous and frustrated with Norrell's reluctance to step outside of his library to do magic in the real world.
There were several things I really enjoyed in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. First, Clarke's writing is polished and very, very descriptive. One can feel the chill of English rain and winter in her writing, and there's a decidedly Poe-ish feel to much of the novel, which I very much appreciated. Secondly, the characters are varied and human - they are neither flawless nor irredeemable. Third, Clarke mixes fiction with history in such a way as to make me wish I knew more about the actual history with which the plot is interacting. Finally, the ending is unresolved: this is no fairy tale, though much of it does deal with fairies. I recommended it before, and I suppose I still recommend it today.

69: Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine. I really enjoyed this book. I'd heard about it last Christmas season and had been waiting to get it from our local library for some months. Matter of fact, when they called to let me know it was in I couldn't remember even ordering it! Be that as it may, it was a great, thought-provoking read. Premise: the author and her husband decide to spend one calendar year buying only essentials, and by that they mean ESSENTIALS, even down to questioning whether community theater is a luxury or community item. They question their own preconceptions of consumerism and materialism, but they also question the industry that's grown around reducing the impact of industry (yes, you read that correctly). It's not a knee-jerk liberal screed against the mean and nasty materialist Republicans, nor is it an exercise in apologetics for the granola crowd - just a good book about a social experiment that goes farther than the author figured it would go. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

68: Reallivepreacher.com by Gordon Atkinson. My friend Matt let me borrow his copy of Gordon's excellent book. I was surprised to note how many of the stories I'd already read as a regular visitor to Gordon's blog - but I was also surprised by the deep impact of those stories I hadn't read. Gordon's got a real gift for writing, and I'm proud to call him a brother in Christ and a fellow preacher - not bad for a Lutheran from Minnesota and a Baptist from Texas. You'll find a link to Real Live Preacher on the right - go visit!

67: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
66: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
Of course, these old favorites were on my list thanks to the movie version of TLWW that Walden Media released last December (which I thoroughly enjoyed, btw). But it was nice to visit old friends. Dawn Treader has been my favorite in the series for years, probably because it's unlikely that I'll ever sail beyond sight of land, Nebraska boy that I am. The idea of sailing to the end of the world is, for me, much like Lewis describes it - the voyage which we can make only the once, and I'm not ready to make that voyage just yet. But that doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to the trip. TLWW is, as always, a classic, but as a friend noted, the movie was better in some ways because you get the idea of the terrible power of the White Witch, the despair of Mr. Tumnus at realizing his betrayal and his endangerment, and the determination of the Beavers and all the other allies of the Pevensie children. Of course, now that we are expecting our own little one, I'm dearly anticipating reading these beloved tales at bedtime in a few years. Can't wait!

04 September 2006

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

No, I don't mean chesnuts roasting on an open fire or anything silly like that. I mean it's the start of the college football season and that just ROCKS.

I was an absolute glutton on Saturday. Up at 6 to get my run in before GameDay started. Made eggs & biscuits because I can't get to a Burger King for my normal game day meal (don't ask). GameDay started at 9am. Then it was Michigan-Vandy and the rest of the day in front of the tube watching young men beat the crap out of each other all day, right up until the end of the Oklahoma-UAB game. Woulda stayed up for the end of Georgia Tech-Notre Dame, but since yesterday was my one day to work this week, I figured I'd better be well rested. :-)

Of course, the highlight of the day was watching my beloved Huskers play Louisiana Tech and win 49-10. A good game, especially considering it's week 1 and year 3 of the Mid-West Coast revolution in Lincoln. Zac Taylor is an absolute stud - great arm, great poise, he even scrambled for positive yardage at one point. RB by committee might be a definite advantage against USC in two weeks, provided we have the same kind of offensive balance that we did Saturday. Defense needs some work; pass rush wasn't great, and we're down to duct tape & baling wire in the secondary. "My kingdom for a shut-down cornerback!"

We also got our Quack on for the Ducks - nice to see Oregon open their Pac-10 schedule with a win. Hopefully we'll be able to catch the Oregon-OU game in two weeks also. We won't be watching much FB this weekend, as I'm limping through the Dick Beardsley Half Marathon in Detroit Lakes. More on that later.

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE college football - the next four months are like Christmas every weekend for me. Woo-hoo!

03 September 2006

Sermon for 3 September 2006: "Changing Diapers, Changing Hearts"

There’s a Jewish fable that goes something like this: “A young man once came to a great rabbi and asked him to make him a rabbi. It was winter time then. The rabbi stood at the window looking out upon the yard while the rabbinical candidate was droning into his ears a glowing account of his piety and learning.

The young man said, "You see, Rabbi, I always go dressed in spotless white like the sages of old. I never drink any alcoholic beverages; only water ever passes my lips. Also, I live a plain and simple life. I have sharp-edged nails inside my shoes to mortify me. Even in the coldest weather, I lie naked in the snow to torment my flesh. Also daily, I receive forty lashes on my bare back to complete my perpetual penance."

And as the young man spoke, a white horse was led into the yard and to the water trough. It drank, and then it rolled in the snow, as horses sometimes do. "Just look!" cried the rabbi. "That animal, too, is dressed in white. It also drinks nothing but water, has nails in its shoes and rolls naked in the snow. Also, rest assured, it gets its daily ration of forty lashes on the rump from its master. Now, I ask you, is it a saint, or is it a horse?!"[1]

What we appear to be is not always what we are – and what appears to help or harm us often does neither. Let us pray: Father, you created this world, and what we do with your creation is sometimes wonderful, sometimes shameful. Help us to see clearly the dangers within ourselves before condemning or blessing the environment in which we live. Create in us clean hearts, merciful Father, and renew right spirits within us. In Jesus’ name we pray: Amen.

Most of you know that I took the Amtrak Empire Builder train from Fargo to Eugene for our trip to Eugene for my brother-in-law’s wedding. Traveling Amtrak by yourself is quite an experience, especially if you do it in the coach sections. I’ve never been much of a people watcher, but the characters I met on the Empire Builder almost demanded to be watched at times. I was fascinated, repulsed, annoyed, curious, shocked, and in the end, I looked around and wondered who are these people and how is it they share the same genes I do?

If you travel Amtrak and you’re not necessarily a people person, you want to make sure you’ve got a traveling partner, otherwise you’ll be sitting next to a complete stranger and wondering what world they live in. From Eugene to Seattle on my way home, I sat next to an anarchist business developer who launched into an anti-Bush spiel at the first opportunity, complete with questions about whether the Pentagon actually was hit and why we were still in Iraq. When he discovered I was a Lutheran pastor he told me how Christians are ruining America and how his kids had never set foot in a house of worship. When I agreed that some of the extreme right and left wing Christians were indeed doing more harm than good, he assured me that I obviously wasn’t as bad as most Christians. He delivered all of this with spectacularly bad breath.

From Spokane, WA to Whitefish, Montana I shared a seat with a retired bachelor farmer from a small town near Rugby, North Dakota. We had a delightful conversation, but it’s hard to feel comfortable sleeping that close to a complete stranger. Bachelor Farmer guy took the seats across the aisle when they opened up after Whitefish, but that afternoon we both got seatmates. Mine was an organic environmental student from Oregon who was spending his summer biking across the northern US. After fighting easterly headwinds across Montana for three days he was, shall we say, organic in every sense of the word, including his aroma.

Those were just my seatmates. I could spend hours telling you about the family whose women all had a Madonna complex, complete with fingerless gloves, or the guy who somehow managed to get drunk on $5 Heinekens, or the young mother with four kids who kept marching up and down the train with one kid in her arms, one holding her hand, and the oldest two leashed to her belt and complaining the whole way.

Somewhere in Eastern Montana I decided to take a look at this morning’s Scripture readings and get some reflection done. You can imagine my humbling experience when I realized what I’d been doing the entire time I’d been on the train. I had been offended by the commonness of these people, by their drunkenness, by their flaws and their indecency. I should have been worrying about myself. I should have been worried about my hypocrisy, my prejudice, my interior corruption and utter lack of respect for these children of God, flawed though they might be.

This is our struggle: to somehow come to grips with the fact that our surroundings and our dedication to keeping ourselves pure and spotless is not what makes us right in God’s eyes. In our Gospel reading today, Jesus goes right to the heart to explain the problem with humanity. “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”[2]

What Jesus is saying is that we can’t save ourselves by avoiding what is unclean and outcast. In fact, trying to do so heaps even more sin upon our heads, because slander, pride, deceit and folly, which Jesus includes in his list of sins, all come from trying to pretend that certain things and certain people are evil and are to be avoided at all costs.

An example of how this works. We were in Eugene with Kristin’s family, including her 13 month-old nephew Quinn. As a favor to Quinn’s parents, Kristin took Quinn upstairs one night to put him to bed while the rest of us enjoyed a beer or two outside on the deck. After about 5 minutes we heard cries for “Help!” coming out of the baby’s bedroom. We dashed upstairs to find Kristin covered, head to toe, in most of Quinn’s supper, which he had just thrown up all over. After we got Kristin into the shower and her clothes into the washing machine, Quinn’s mother explained that Quinn’s esophageal sphincter isn’t quite developed yet, so he has no gag reflex to keep his food down if they feed him too much. So being covered in partially digested strawberries and carrots isn’t an unusual experience in their family.

Now, if remaining clean were the prime directive, how would this child ever learn to eat or drink? Quinn is who he is, and part of Kim & Jerry’s God-given vocation as parents is to be right in the middle of the mess. You cannot be a parent without being intimately familiar with all kinds of bodily secretions. But it’s not just a matter of surviving; God intends for the greatest love to be expressed, at times, in the most polluted environments. Martin Luther once said that changing a diaper was as much his vocation as preaching a sermon, and every bit as holy a calling. Here’s a wondrous thing: honoring God with our lips means nothing if we don’t honor each other with our hands and feet in service to each other. Jesus proved this when he knelt and washed the dirty feet of his disciples.

Compare this with our behavior when unpleasant or controversial things must be done. Last week Radio Shack fired 1,000 of their corporate employees by email. I don’t know what their motivations might have been, but don’t you think God would prefer us to have the compassion to downsize these people face to face at the very least? In the movie Office Space, two ‘efficiency experts’ claim that firing people on Friday is preferable because it give the fired person a weekend to calm down and reduces the likelihood of ugly ‘day-after’ episodes. The fact that we’ve discovered this and use it to deal with uncomfortable situations shows us how hard we work to avoid that which is unpleasant to us.

But here’s the primary dilemma: how do we deal with ourselves in these situations? According to Jesus, what is evil is what comes out of me, not what goes in me or what surrounds me. But I can only control what goes in me and what is around me – I cannot control what happens inside me. What, then, am I to do? When I cannot control my environment, and I cannot obtain my righteousness from what I eat and where I go, how am I supposed to become a righteous person? I can’t scoop out my guts and my heart and replace them with something different, can I?

No, I can’t – but the Father can. Here’s the unspoken promise in today’s Gospel reading: what is within us is beyond our control, but not beyond the control of God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son. So I should, therefore, pray to God, but not for protection from what is around me: I must pray for a change of what is within me. I must pray for a heart that is pure and clean before God – and for a spirit that is righteous because it is God’s spirit in me, regardless of where I go and what I must do. I must pray for a heart that sees others as God’s children, flawed as I am flawed but all the same God’s creation and my brothers and sisters in Christ – people I have the privilege to serve as Christ had the privilege to serve me in His life, death and resurrection.

Now we see that what is common and fleshy and secular doesn’t make us unholy any more than what is sacred makes us holy: it is God who makes things holy and God who allows us to be holy through the Holy Spirit. God’s law doesn’t set us above others – the law is given to keep us healthy in the midst of the world. The law is give to show the world how great God’s love is, that God should show us how to be healthy in a world that often is broken by its desire for unhealthy things. The law is given so that as we follow it, others may wonder who and what could inspire such loving service in a world that often forgets what it means to serve. Whether we are saints or whether we are horses, in all things we are God’s creation, made right through God’s gift of Jesus Christ and kept holy by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whether we’re changing diapers or changing the world, God’s concern is changing our hearts, and for that we say, “Thanks be to God.” Amen.

[1] A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People. Edited by Nathan Ausubel. © 1948, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York. p. 109. My thanks to Brian Stoffregen for including this story in his exegetical notes. http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/brian.htm.

[2] Mark 7.20-23