27 October 2006

Ghoulish Friday Five

Here's today's "Ghoulish Friday Five"

1. Do you enjoy a good fright?
Yes and no. I enjoy roller coasters, fast cars, the kind of stuff that feels like it takes you to the edge without actually doing so. I think I'd like skydiving if I could convince myself to pony up the money for it. But do I enjoy that "OHSHITI'MGONNADIERIGHTNOW" moment when my heart stops and my whole body gets flooded with adrenaline? Not particularly. So, there you go.

2. Scariest movie you've ever seen
"Alien." Not even close to a contest. I still watch that movie in the dark by myself when I really don't want to sleep ever again.

3. Bobbing for apples: choose one and discuss:
a) Nothing scary about that! Good wholesome fun.
b) Are you *kidding* me?!? The germs, the germs!
I'd have to go with (a) for my answer. Yes, I suppose there's some unsanitary stuff, but every place I've bobbed for apples has felt clean to me. In a world where I could die because some wild pigs got into a spinach patch 2,000 miles away, I'm not really too concerned about sucking up some shared spit from the apple barrel.

4. Real-life phobia
Hmmm - this is a tough one. I don't like creepy crawlies at all, but I can deal with them - Beloved tends to go into hysterics sometimes when she's had too much. I went through a phase where I was REALLY scared of heights, but that seems to have passed. I do NOT like the woods at night without company - I've seen "Blair Witch" too many times to feel comfortable in that situation. So let's go with that, even though I know it's probably just a wabbit that's making all the noise.

5. Favorite "ghost story"
I'm one of Stephen King's "Constant Readers," so as you can imagine I've got lots of material from which to choose. But some others first:
6. That Hitchcock Record from when I was a kid. Our friend Cory had a record of Hitchcock stuff. He loved to shut us in his bedroom, turn off all the lights and play the record. One side was typical ghost story fluff: the mice in the haunted house who kept getting bigger while waiting for "Earl" or whoever, etc. But the other side was a longer story about a haunted mansion, complete with sound effects. I, of course, envisioned Cory's bedroom as the room in the mansion where the ghosts made themselves known, and even today I think of it every Halloween. Thanks a lot, Cory.
5. The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe. Actually, I could do a top ten list from Poe alone, but this one always haunted me more than many others.
4. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Creepy - 'nuff said.
3. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Again, a creepy tale of foreboding and haunted love. Beautiful and tragic all at once.
2. The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe. Here's a phobia for you: being buried alive. Yeah, let's go with that. Being drunk wouldn't help at all.
1. The Raven by Poe. Bleak and full of despair. Best when read separate from modern interpretations - just sit down, read it from start to finish, and see if you're not covered in goosebumps.

Okay, now for my favorite Ghost Story: Bag of Bones by Stephen King. This book holds some of King's best storytelling and most creepy inventions all at once. It has very little, if anything, to do with King's magnum opus, the Dark Tower, which might be one of its strengths. It's a masterfully told story that I devour every time I pick it up.

There you go - and a ghoul-free Samhain to you all!

26 October 2006

What We Are

This week I attended continuing education at Luther Seminary: The Spirit and Culture of Youth Ministry. Their website is www.exemplarym.com if you want cutting edge Youth Ministry stuff. While we were there, we saw this hilarious video from YouTube. Enjoy!

22 October 2006

Sermon for 22 October 2006 - "Following the Script?"

Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, you came to serve, not to be served, and to give away your very life. Help us as we follow you on the way of the cross, to serve and not be served, to give away our very lives for the sake of those around us. In your holy and everlasting name we pray. Amen.

Most of you know that Kristin and I love movies. One of my favorite movie moments is in the Mel Brooks film Robin Hood: Men In Tights. The scene is the mythical archery contest at which Robin is revealed and sentenced to hang. But in the Mel Brooks version, things go a little haywire, as they often do.

The craziness starts when Robin Hood, disguised as an old man, loses an archery contest. This is never, EVER supposed to happen. But one of the characters comes to his senses and shouts, “Wait: he gets another shot!” An argument follows, during which one of the other characters says, “Let’s check the script!” So the entire cast – villains, the Merry Men, and all the extras – pull out their scripts and find the scene presently playing out on the screen. They all find that yes, indeed, the old man gets another shot. So the old man wins the archery contest, is revealed as Robin Hood, and the movie carries on from that point forward.

This is a great movie moment for a post-modernist like myself. The idea that yes, you could step out of your life and consult the script? That’s a beautiful concept. I think every one of you has probably had a moment or two in your life when you thought, this is NOT how things are supposed to be going – who’s in charge of this mess?

James and John and the other ten disciples must have felt the same way. The 8th, 9th and 10th chapters of the Gospel of Mark include some of Jesus’ most concentrated, dedicated and clear teachings – and the disciples didn’t seem to understand a word of it. Jesus predicted his suffering, death and resurrection three times in these three chapters, and the disciples’ response to each prediction was completely inappropriate.

1. The first time Jesus predicted his suffering and death, Peter pulled Jesus off to the side and began to rebuke him.

2. The second time Jesus predicted his suffering and death, he listened for the rest of the day as the disciples argued with each other about who was greatest among themselves.

3. The third time Jesus predicted his suffering and death, James and John approached Jesus to request places beside him in his most glorious moment – as if they hadn’t heard anything he had just said to them.

Poor James and John – they must have felt completely disoriented when they realized that following Jesus was not going to lead to the reward they anticipated. When they asked to share in Jesus’ glory, they had no idea that the glory of Christ would be theirs in an entirely different manner than they ever could have imagined. To drink the cup of Christ is to drink the cup of suffering and death for the world; to share in Christ’s baptism is to share in a baptism of death and rebirth. Paul writes

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6.3-4)

The disciples obviously had some idea that there was a script to the coming of the Messiah, and that their good fortune in meeting Jesus would result in their being found among the powerful and the privileged. The idea that there is a script or master plan to our lives and to God’s creation is a tempting, attractive idea – which makes learning the opposite even harder. Jesus could only tell James and John about their cup of suffering and their baptism into the family of God; even Jesus couldn’t tell James and John who would receive places at his right and left hand. He couldn’t do that because he wasn’t following a script: Jesus was living a life, just like you and me.

What if there isn’t a script? How does that change things for Jesus? How does that change things for us? We talk about our lives as if they are planned, beginning to end, from the moment of our birth to the moment of our death. One recent television show involves a number of people discovering they are heroes – and two of the characters are using a comic book that shows them their steps as they go. They are following the script. But what if there isn’t a script? What if the future depends upon our actions now? What if God is depending on our actions now? How does that change things?

Isaiah 53, our Old Testament reading for today, tells about God’s suffering servant, one who gives his life away as a sacrifice for others. The imaginary scriptwriters in our heads tell us that because one suffered for us, the equation has been balanced and suffering is at an end. But what if we’re wrong? What if it was never about balancing equations and satisfying a bloodthirsty God of vengeance and sacrifice? What if the suffering servant was a teacher and not a sacrifice? If it was “the will of the Lord to crush Him with pain,” as Isaiah 53.10 says, what if that will was focused on giving an example to follow? What if the Creator crushed the suffering servant with pain to teach the people what God feels when they walk away from God? What if God’s will is bent on giving our lives meaning, sacred value and deep joy: the kind of things that can only come from living the cross as Jesus teaches?

Hebrews 5, our epistle reading for today, tells about Jesus our great high priest, who learned obedience through suffering. Did you catch that? Jesus LEARNED obedience – it wasn’t something with which he was created. Jesus says in Mark 10 that he can’t tell James and John who will sit on his right and his left in glory, because it isn’t Jesus’ place to make those decisions. Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Messiah of God, the Anointed One – Jesus is not making the decisions here. Jesus is not in control of the situation. Jesus is not writing the script. What were the limits of Jesus’ foreknowledge? Did Jesus know from the moment He was born that He would die on a Passover 33 years later? Did Jesus know that Judas would be His betrayer from the moment they met? Did Jesus know that James and John would be the gloryhounds and Peter would be the loudmouth with the quick temper?

Here there are questions beyond number – more than a life following a script could ever answer. If there were a script, one would imagine that the Author’s Son would have some idea of how things would turn out. But there is no script – and there never will be one. Jesus never had a script – and neither do you. God has not written a play starring Jesus of Nazareth as its hero: God the Creator is creating, working a world where choice and chance play a part, even in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only Son.

How can we say this? We can say this because we know that God wishes for us to live by faith, not by sight. If you believe that there is a script somewhere, that the hero will come to save the day, you will put your trust in the script, not the world around you and its Creator. Living by faith means hanging in there; living by faith means living in trust and obedience, even when every brain cell in your head is screaming that this is not right – this is not how my life was supposed to work out – this is not what the script says should happen. Living by faith means following Jesus on the way of the cross and trusting in the relationship we have with Him – a relationship that can be surprising, shocking, painful, even destructive at times.

Douglas John Hall, who might be America’s foremost authority on the theology of the cross, once said that America is “the officially optimistic society in which pastors serve as chaplains.” Have we taken more comfort from a God who rewards good behavior than from a God who would sacrifice His Son to save our lives? I think so. A God who rewards good behavior would probably write a script that’s easier to follow. But the Jesus we are coming to know is a loving friend who speaks truth into our lives, even when that truth is painful. We are not following a script: we are following a Savior, learning to have faith and to obey even as we follow Him along the way of the Cross. The writer of Hebrews talked about Jesus “in the days of His flesh,” how Jesus offered up prayers and supplications; today, in the days of Christ’s body, the church, we offer up prayers and supplications in His name, that we might be given the strength to serve and follow where Jesus leads, though the way be dark and the path treacherous. Jesus is the One we follow on this Way of the Cross – all the way to Golgotha, the tomb, and finally Easter Sunday. The disciples thought that their script ended on Friday – but then, we aren’t following a script, are we? Thanks be to God. Amen.

17 October 2006

The World's Smallest Storyhill Fan

Beloved and I took in a Storyhill show on Saturday night at Pioneer Place on Fifth in St. Cloud. We had a GREAT day, actually; we met our friend K for supper at Ciatti's in St. Cloud, then went over to the show a few blocks away. Pioneer Place on Fifth is a cool venue with a lot of shows year round - I think I'm going to add their website to my links sometime soon.

Chris and Johnny were, as always, magnificent, especially Saturday night. They've been on this release tour for a few months now, so you can imagine how good the music was after all the rehearsing. Their new CD is available only at their shows due to the prospect of a major label contract, so we of course ponied up and got one; are we ever glad. Some great new tunes, especially "Give Up The Ghost" and "Unbelievable Love."

During the opening act, Kristin needed to use the restroom, but of course there was a LONG line and, being Kris, she needed to go NOW. Eventually they opened up the basement restroom for the women because the line kept getting longer. PP on Fifth obviously doesn't like to do this because the women's restroom shares a wall with the green room; Kris got to do her business while listening to Chris & Johnny talking and warming up before their show.

The COOLEST thing, for me, was the reaction of Little Miss to the music. Apparently we have conceived the world's smallest Storyhill fan. Kris says she started kicking and squirming the minute Chris & Johnny started playing and didn't let up until we were walking back to our car. I looked over at one point and Kris was so uncomfortable her face was green; she said the constant squirming was making her nauseous. Thus, a cool moment for me and Little Miss. Not so much for the Bearer of the Babe.

We drove home listening to our new CD, amazed at how much we like the new stuff, very happy about what might turn out to be our last date for a while. Sunday night I was home before Kris and trying to figure out the chords for some of the new Storyhill stuff. When Kris got home she came upstairs. I lit into "Spaces" and apparently Little Miss went nuts AGAIN. Maybe she gets her musical taste from me? We'll have to see.

And that's the news from Babyville. :-)

15 October 2006

Sermon for 15 October 2006 - "The One Thing"

“One thing,” the Teacher had said. “You lack one thing.” But the Teacher never told him what that one thing was. Perhaps he couldn’t: The Teacher had been ready to leave – it wasn’t a good time for such questions. But the fact of the matter was that the Teacher never told him what he needed to inherit eternal life.

Samuel bar-Ephraim, Samuel “son of” Ephraim, was a merchant, like his father and grandfather before him. He moved spices from Egypt to Rome, carried bolts of cloth and the finest woven rugs throughout Palestine, selling them at a fair profit wherever he went. He hauled olives and dates, figs and grapes, with no damage, right on time. His family pride rested on being dependable, on earning their fees honestly, and if customers had to pay a bit more for Samuel’s services, well, sales and goods were important, weren’t they? But he didn’t cheat his customers, and he guaranteed every delivery. About 4 years earlier, his father was hauling a load of grain up the coastal highway when his wagons were overrun by thieves. The thieves took all the grain and the coins Ephraim had taken in payment for shipping and selling the grain. Some merchants would have just claimed hard luck and refused to refund his customer, but not Samuel’s father Ephraim: he paid every penny back out of his own pocket.

They worked hard, Ephraim and Samuel, as hard at being fair, honest and trustworthy as they did at getting things delivered on time. Some merchants were only looking for the best deal; they saw their profession as part of their work for God. If they did their work well, they would connect those who have needs and those who have supplies. Women who weave tapestries could feed their children if Samuel and Ephraim sold their wares well. Basket weavers and potters could send their goods with Samuel and Ephraim and use their time to make more pots and baskets – Samuel & Ephraim could do the selling for them. Carpenters who couldn’t find enough business in their small towns could send tables and boxes to earn more money than they would get building houses. “This is what I do,” Samuel often thought, “and I’m proud of it. I give thanks to God for my life, and I honor God in all I do.”

Lately, though, things had been different. His life was changing drastically. For one, Samuel had taken a wife, and for another, she had given him a son. Naomi was the daughter of a fellow merchant, a girl who grew into a beautiful woman, and when Samuel asked his father and her father to begin discussing whether they could marry, everyone was overjoyed. Naomi and Samuel became good friends since they were married, and after a year of marriage their Eli was born; the brightest star in their lives. They loved our little one, and Samuel thought he would do anything to see Eli grow big and strong and follow in his father’s footsteps, a fourth generation of merchants. But since Eli was born, Samuel had begun to think about the rest of his own life differently. His father was slowing down quite a bit, and his grandfather died just before Samuel and Naomi were married. He knew it’s foolish, but for the longest time it felt like things would never change; that Samuel would be young and his father would be mature and his grandfather would be the wise patriarch of our family forever. Now Samuel’s father was growing into great wisdom, and Samuel’s infant son was young. Someday, Samuel’s father would be gone, Samuel would be wise and his son would be the mature worker. Someday after that, Samuel’s life, as will as his beloved Naomi’s life, would be over.

This is how Samuel’s mind had been going lately. Merchants spend a lot of time on the backs of camels, and when you’ve learned how to ride a camel without having to hold on for dear life at every moment, you can spend a lot of time thinking about things. Samuel would watch the sun rise and fall while he journeyed and he would think about the rise and fall of his own life. He knew he was a good son, a good husband, a kind and gentle father, and good friend and an honest and trustworthy professional; but was all of that enough? What about a life to come? What would happen after he died? Was there enough good in Samuel’s life to guarantee that God would preserve his family and his name forever? Who could know?

As Samuel was traveling with his goods, another man was also traveling though Palestine. Samuel kept hearing about a man named Jesus who came from Nazareth, the son of a carpenter who was developing quite a reputation for himself. The carpenter’s son was supposedly a great healer, a worker of miracles, some said, though Samuel couldn’t trust such stories. What Samuel could believe, however, was that the man was also a great Teacher and a devout follower of the Law. Just the week before, some Pharisees had tried to trap this Jesus by asking him loaded questions, but apparently Jesus had seen their trap for what it was and had instead trapped the Pharisees in their own hypocrisy and hard-heartedness. Samuel took no joy in people being wrong, but it seemed to him that the Pharisees, with their insistence on purity and right living at any cost, needed to get the wind sucked out of their sails every now and again.

That was all the week before he met the Teacher, this Jesus of Nazareth. Samuel had been hoping that someday their paths might cross, and finally they did. Samuel was delivering a load in a village in the Trans-Jordan, part of Palestine to the east of the Jordan River. He heard that Jesus was also in town. After delivering his goods and packing up for the journey home, Samuel went immediately to the guest house where Jesus was supposedly staying. He found Jesus just getting ready to walk out of town, and before he could help himself, all of Samuel’s worries rose up to the surface and spilled over in a desperate question. “Good Teacher,” Samuel shouted, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus stopped, turned around, found Samuel’s eyes, and stared into them. Samuel had never received such a look in his life; it was as if Jesus could see right through his eyes into his very soul. Quietly, the Teacher asked, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. Don’t you know the commandments? ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.’”

Samuel’s heart leapt into his throat. Maybe it was enough. Maybe his worries were groundless. “Teacher,” Samuel replied, “I have kept all those commandments since I was a boy.” He gave Jesus a hopeful smile, asking the question with his face as well as his words: is it enough? Is this what I must do to inherit eternal life?

Incredibly, the Teacher from Nazareth had smiled at him, a smile so proud and yet so solemn that it took Samuel’s breath away. The love in that smile had been palpable; it enveloped Samuel completely, but at the same time it worked its way into his soul and exposed every speck of dread and fear within him. “You lack only one thing: go, sell all you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, and follow me.”

Samuel had felt the blood drain out of his face as he realized what Jesus was asking. Give up everything? Walk away from this profession, this honorable work that he had done all his life? Walk away from the house he had built for Naomi and Eli and the children to come? Walk away from his father? He couldn’t. It was impossible. To do so would violate all of the commandments Jesus had just listed for him to keep. How could he honor his father and mother by leaving them with no son to carry on their names? How could he provide for his children following Jesus? He would have to steal bread to feed his family! No – it couldn’t be done. Samuel, his heart broken by the harsh demands of the Teacher from Nazareth, turned away, shuffled down the street, mounted his camel and began his journey home.

Samuel couldn’t believe how heavy his heart became in the next few months. Instead of dismissing the Teacher as someone who didn’t know what he was asking, Samuel felt the burden of Jesus’ questions growing heavier and heavier every day, even while his mind insisted that Samuel had made the right choice. How could you leave your family for him? What kind of life would Samuel provide for them, following the Teacher? But the loving gaze and heartbreaking smile of Jesus continued to haunt Samuel, day after day, and to make matters worse, news of Jesus kept arriving with every visitor to Samuel’s town. “He entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey’s colt – could he be the Messiah?” “He drove those Temple hucksters out with a whip and threw their tables out with them!” “He said the Temple was going to be destroyed – what kind of nut is this guy?” “He was in Bethany, and he allowed a prostitute to anoint his feet with oil!”

Samuel left to celebrate the Passover at the Temple with dread in his heart. What if he saw Jesus again – what would he say? What would Jesus say? Samuel didn’t know if he could bear to look into those eyes and see that smile again – but even worse was the thought of looking into those eyes and seeing nothing at all; no recognition, no love, no compassion at all. What if Jesus didn’t remember him at all?

The night of the Passover, Samuel heard that Jesus was going to be arrested. One of the Temple guards told his family that Jesus had been betrayed by one of his own followers; they were going to arrest him that night and put him on trial for blasphemy. The next morning, Samuel heard the commotion in the Temple square, and he knew that even if Jesus didn’t recognize him, he had to see Jesus. So Samuel set off for the Temple Mount, his stomach climbing up his throat as his feet climbed the hills to the highest point in Jerusalem.

But it was already done when Samuel arrived. The Sanhedrin had convened and judged Jesus guilty in the middle of the night, and they had prevailed on Pilate to put Jesus to death for treason and sedition against the empire. By the time Samuel got to the Temple, the crowds had moved to the edge of town where the crucifixions took place, and Samuel found himself following, even though his heart pounded as if it would break at any moment.

The scene at the hill was terrible. There were three to be crucified that day, but the focus was obviously on Jesus. The crowd had been whipped up into a frenzy of hatred; they hurled insults like stones at Jesus. Blood ran from the gashes on Jesus’ back and the crown of thorns some Roman soldier had jammed onto Jesus’ head. But he hung there, arms nailed to the cross, head down and chest heaving, offering no resistance to the crowd’s abuse.

After an hour or so, the crowd seemed to run out of energy. At that point, Jesus looked into the crowd and found Samuel’s eyes, as if he had known Samuel was there all along. Samuel’s breath was again driven out of him, as Jesus smiled at him, the same loving, solemn smile he had seen weeks ago across the Jordan. Jesus remembered him – and Samuel realized that he had, indeed, left everything and had followed Jesus, willingly or not. Jesus smiled at Samuel for just a moment, his blood-stained brow wrinkled in pain. Then his head dropped again, the sun disappeared, and it was night on the hill for three hours. Three hours of darkness and silence; the crowd had fled when the light fell out of the sky. Finally, just as Samuel was beginning to think it would never end, Jesus screamed aloud and breathed his last. Thunder roared out of the midnight sky, and the ground heaved under Samuel’s feet. He heard screams from the Temple and watched as the crowd that had already fled into the city now streamed out of the Temple as well. Then the sun returned, the day warmed, and Samuel saw that Jesus was dead.

The centurion watching the crucifixion staggered up next to Samuel and said, “This man truly was God’s son!” “What did you say?” Samuel demanded. “God’s Son – this man was God’s Son!” the centurion stammered. “One of the charges against him was that he claimed to be God’s own Son! I’ve been on this hill for more crucifixions than I care to remember, and no one has ever died like that. Didn’t you feel the ground shake? Didn’t you stand here in the darkness? This man must have been God’s own Son – heaven and earth wouldn’t have moved for anyone else!”

And like a thunderbolt out of a blue sky, Samuel finally understood what the Teacher had said. “You lack one thing to inherit eternal life,” Jesus had said. But Samuel knew well enough that inheritance could only be given – and only children could inherit what their fathers had to give. If Jesus was indeed God’s Son, then eternal life was the inheritance that Jesus could claim – and perhaps this inheritance, this Son, was the one thing Samuel had needed to receive eternal life. Jesus himself was the one thing Samuel had lacked – and Samuel had now lost him forever.

Three days later, a rumor swept through Jerusalem about the carpenter from Nazareth who had risen from the dead. Supposedly some women had found his tomb empty and had fled in terror because they thought that grave robbers had stolen the body. But more rumors spread that Jesus had been seen walking and teaching in Jerusalem, appearing to those who had been his closest friends; his family, if you will. A last rumor grew that Jesus had walked out of the city to the Mount of Olives and had ascended into heaven, giving charge to his disciples to continue to walk in His ways all the days of their life. Rumor had it that there were several followers who had joined the disciples in the days after the crucifixion, including one whom Jesus loved affectionately; a merchant named Samuel, son of Ephraim.

14 October 2006


Thanks to LutherPunk for exposing this expose - I haven't laughed this hard in months.

13 October 2006

Comfort Meme

Comfort Beverage: a good, strong, thick cup of coffee, full-bodied, no cream or sugar. Especially on a cold fall/winter morning such as this, although sipping a cup of coffee outside on a peaceful morning by the lake is also good.

Comfort Chair:
does it count if I gave it up? I had the world's best 'ugly chair' until a few months ago when we gave it to the youth room at the church. Now my comfort chair would have to be its replacement, my grandpa's old recliner that sits upstairs by the baby's room. We have a brand new recliner in the living room, but it hasn't been through the wars long enough to be considered a comfort chair.

Comfort Read:
This is bizarre, I know, but Stephen King is a great comfort read for me. Also Tolkien, C.S. Lewis (fiction only for comfort), Orson Scott Card and Walt Wangerin, Jr.

Comfort TV:
hmmm - don't really have 'comfort' TV, per se. I suppose College Football Gameday would be the closest to 'comfort' TV. I love "Lost," "Grey's Anatomy," "Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip," and "Friday Night Lights," but none of those are comfort TV. OHH, WAIT - "Ed" would be my Comfort TV. Still can't believe they canceled it. "Ed" was our favorite show when we first started dating. Actually, if memory serves, "Ed" was the subject of our very first conversation, with the divine miss Kathryn and Pierce also present. Wow - now it's DEFINITELY comfort TV.

Comfort Companions:
Beloved would be top o' the list, without a doubt. Little Bros, the parentals, the Cape Cod boys and assorted hangers-on - you name it, my friends and family are my comfort companions. Two I'm missing the most in the past year are my grandma Ruth Johnson and Pastor Larry Meyer; life is not so wonderful without their presence.

Comfort Music:
Rich Mullins, Peter Mayer, Storyhill and the Wailin' Jennys. Heavy on the Rich. Beloved knows I'm having a rough day if our radio becomes the "all Rich, all the time" station when I get home.

Comfort Food:
My momma's Butterfinger Dessert and Mud Pie. Also Chunky Monkey or Phish Food from Ben & Jerry's. Coldstone Creamery would top the list if we could get there in less than 90 minutes.

Comfort Clothes:
my adidas track pants and a long sleeve tshirt - what I'm wearing right now. Aren't you glad I'm comfortable? :-)

11 October 2006

Justin Roth is OBSCENE

Obscenely talented, that is. We had a fabulous time last night at the Justin Roth House Concert here in Barrett, the first in Todd & Dani Nelson's "Storytellers Live" house concert series at their log home on Thompson Lake. Wow, was that ever COOL.

For starters, house concerts are an incredibly intimate experience. Before the concert, we shared hors 'd' ouvres (sp?) and wine with many good friends also there for the concert, as well as Justin himself and Chris "Chipper" Ray, the opening act. Not often that you get to sip wine and chat up the headliner before the show.

Then we got started. After some neat songs by Mr. Ray, Justin took the stage and got jaws dropping immediately with his instrumental, "Fatima's Waltz." Justin plays a tap-and-fingerstyle guitar that is just sick - sick and wrong. NO ONE should sound that good on an unaccompanied instrumental piece.

Following this was a night of great songs, funny stories, a TON of audience interaction and a lot of fun. After a song about how parents discuss sex with kids before they're 'ready,' one that includes a lot of tongue-in-cheek references to rather risque behavior, someone told him there was a pastor in the audience. As usual, watching someone else blush was rather enjoyable, since I'm usually the one blushing.

Highlights included "She Dances," which made Kris and me think of our all-too-short dance class last spring, "Bagshot Row," an instrumental picture of Hobbiton whereupon Justin and I got to enjoy a little bit of Lord of the Rings geekdom together, and "Dead Horse Trampoline," which is even worse than it sounds ("giddee up boing boing, giddee up boing boing, gidde up boing" - I'm NOT kidding).

Good wine, good food, incredible music - what's not to like? We had a great night. I've added Justin's website to my music links on the right, but you can also find him here. I'm more and more convinced that the best music being made today is by independents like Justin, Peter Mayer, Storyhill and others at the small labels - who needs cosmetic surgery, airbrushing and a million-dollar video when you can sing & write?

08 October 2006

Sermon for 8 October 2006 - "Naked and Unashamed"

When I told Kristin the title of this sermon, the first thing she asked was, “You’re not going to have any visual aids, are you?” I reassured her by reminding her that one of the laws I learned about preaching from Gracia Grindal at Luther Seminary was this: never give anyone in your congregation any kind of sermon illustration that describes the pastor in bed or in the shower. You just don’t need to go there.

But physical nakedness is only one part of what we’re about this morning. In a society saturated with sexuality, it’s easy to read these texts and assume that they, also, are talking about sexual behavior. But they aren’t. We read these texts with our prejudices if all we hear in today’s readings is talk of sexuality. God is, as usual, up to something bigger here, something of which sexuality is only one part, and a small one at that. Let us pray:

Father in heaven, we come to You clothed in our success and our failures, in our rights and our wrongs, in our love and our sin. Strip away our imaginary righteousness, with all its morality and condescension and pride. Clothe us in Your righteousness, that we may learn what it means to love openly, faithfully and well. All this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Douglas John Hall once noticed something peculiar about Genesis 2: there was a problem in paradise. There they were, in the Garden of Eden, before “The Fall of Humanity,” and what does the Bible tell us? “The Lord GOD said, ‘It is NOT good that the man should be alone.’” The hallmark of Genesis 1 is that everything God created was good – but here we have something that is not good: loneliness. Humanity was alone. There was no companion suitable for Adam, the first being.

So there are questions to be asked here. First Question: how does God know that loneliness is not good? Second Question: how does God know loneliness at all?

First, God knows that loneliness is not good because God does not want to be alone. The work of creation is not something God does on a whim: it is at the very core of God’s being. We look at this from our perspective, where our very existence is defined in some way by the presence or absence of other human beings. To be human is to know that other humans exist. But this is not so for God. God can exist without humanity – God can and did exist before creation began. The presence of creation was something God desired: one could argue that God created because God wanted to be in the presence of something other than God.

Second, God knows loneliness because there is nothing like God. No one else has the power to create from nothing. When I want light, I flip a switch that opens a circuit through which electricity flows and light comes through the heat generated by filaments strung between two wires: when God wants light, God says, “let there be light,” and light is created. Imagine being the only thing that is – no light, no sun, no football, no music, no speech, nothing at all – and then imagine having the power to change nothingness by creating. Does God know loneliness? I think God knows more about loneliness than we could ever guess – and we, God’s creation, are the means by which God wishes to end loneliness and create joy in companionship. The cost of that creation to God is immeasurable, but God created and continues to create; we should be thankful that God knows loneliness and knows it is not good.

So out of this God in goodness created again. And again and again and again, if Genesis 2 has it right. All the animals of the earth and birds of the air? Unsuitable for companionship. So much for the bumper sticker that reads, “The more I know about people, the more I love my dog.” Humans aren’t supposed to be alone: and God created other humans as a remedy to loneliness. Nothing else will do.

And what a relationship there was! Adam & Eve, the man and woman – created from the same earth and given the same names in Hebrew: Ish and Ishah. This is the joining of all humanity – and they joined together with nothing to hide, naked and unashamed.

But perhaps they weren’t just physically naked. Perhaps they were naked to one another in every sense of the word. No fear of rejection or mockery. No worries about being likable and no fears of inadequacy. No worries about risking yourself and taking the chance that you’d wind up being hurt. Sin had not entered the picture – every moment was a discovery and every word an adventure. Perhaps “naked and unashamed” meant that Adam & Eve were exploring each other with nothing to hide whatsoever – vulnerable to each other in ways we cannot imagine. And perhaps this is the greatest loss of the Fall: we can no longer be naked and unashamed with one another as Adam & Eve were in those few moments before sin claimed us as its own.

There is no way for us to know here and now what it must have been like for the first beings in the time before Sin. But we can certainly see what the ages since the fall have worked in our relationships and our ability to be suitable companions to one another. We see it in all our failed relationships. We cannot be what God created us to be, at least not in the way God intended, because our companionship in all our relationships is broken by our bondage to sin. We can justify our actions in our relationships all we want, but everything boils down to this: we are incapable of being naked and unashamed with one another as God had intended. We need look no further than our Gospel reading to know how this is so.

Before we move to that Gospel text, I want to make one point that rises out of the following story in Genesis. Genesis 3 tells the story of Adam & Eve eating the fruit that was forbidden. But our confirmation class noticed something peculiar about this story when we studied it a few weeks ago. The fruit was not the biggest problem in this story: it was Adam & Eve hiding their nakedness. The first question God asks Adam after they eat the fruit is, “Why were you hiding?” When Adam says he hid because he was naked, God asks, “Who told you that you were naked?” Hiding from God and one another is the problem: being ashamed of one’s vulnerability before God and one’s companions.

Now in Mark we see that humanity is still hiding from God, still ashamed of our nakedness and vulnerability. The Pharisees hid behind what was right in order to trap Jesus in something wrong.

The question was about the lawfulness or ‘rightness’ of divorce, which strikes most of us who’ve been divorced as somewhat silly. Seeking divorce is as right as amputating a seriously infected limb: they both cause serious, life-changing damage, damage that can never be made whole again, but sometimes the alternative is far worse. But even our modern understanding of divorce is far different from what the Pharisees were asking Jesus. The Pharisees were asking Jesus if they could divorce themselves of women that had become distasteful or displeasing and remain right in God’s eyes. The Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus, to get Him to say that a relationship was less important than the Law. The Pharisees were hiding their nakedness and their shame behind the Law, behind morals and right actions and an attempt to catch Jesus being opposed to both.

But Jesus knew that marriage law was not about marriage: it was about suitable companionship. Jesus knew that God wanted the people to trust in their relationships as they once had done. Even after the fall, we know that loneliness is not good for us, because God created us in God’s image, and so we seek out companionship and ask God to bless our relationships. What does it mean to say, “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder?” It means that God says “Yes” when we ask God to make us one in marriage as Adam & Eve once were one. God says that anything we do to be naked and unashamed with each other is good, because it removes the barriers and disguises we use to hide ourselves from God and each other. When we hide behind anything, we choose loneliness over companionship – and we choose to remove ourselves from the relationships that God has intended for us.

Jesus also knew that all human relationships exist to build the community’s trust in each other – that all relationships should aspire to be more open and vulnerable, more naked and unashamed. The Pharisees were concerned with individual righteousness and morality: Jesus was concerned with the well-being of the entire human race. There are communal effects to broken relationships, and we need only look around to realize this is true. When a divorce happens, every marriage is questioned: “Is our marriage strong enough?” Every instance of broken trust causes a chain reaction of distrust that cascades throughout our communities. Watch what happened this week in Washington D.C. as trust was broken and relationships shut down for fear of further damage. Instead of a cascade of openness and vulnerability, we further hide the truth of who we are from ourselves and our neighbors, in the vain hope that maybe, just maybe, we can cover up enough that no one will realize how deeply we need one another.

As an antidote to all of this, Jesus lifted up the lowliest of the lowly: the children being brought to Him for healing. Since Jesus was known as a healer, we can safely assume that these children wouldn’t have been angelic, rosy-cheeked, smiling babes; these would have been the children who needed healing. Maybe there was one with a lazy eye, one with a club foot. There were probably several with cleft palates who couldn’t swallow because their mouths were deformed. They were probably dirty, hungry, and crabby. “These”, Jesus said, “are the ones to whom the kingdom of God belongs.” These tired, scabby, smelly children. These children who only want to feel better, to be human. These children who come to Jesus naked and unashamed.

Make no mistake, Jesus says, adultery is adultery. Divorce is divorce. Sin is sin. Two wrongs do not make a right. Don’t hide behind your lesser sins because you’re ashamed of your greater sins. You cannot clothe yourselves in morality and be a suitable companion. You cannot shame yourself or your neighbor into a relationship that is what God intended it to be. You are broken, flawed, hard-hearted, unable to return to what you were before Sin claimed you as its own. But Jesus also gives what we cannot give: blessings to those who need them. Jesus came to his own, naked and unashamed of who He was and what He was doing. Jesus came to his own, naked and unashamed, and refused to be caught in easy answers and shallow spirituality. Jesus came to his own, naked and unashamed, and established a living relationship between God and God’s people again. Jesus comes to his own, naked and unashamed, and asks us to stop hiding. Those rags of self-righteousness and high morality you wear, Jesus says, are nothing compared to being clothed in true righteousness, true forgiveness and true mercy. These are the garments of those who have received the kingdom of God, Jesus says; let me strip way your sins and clothe you in my righteousness, and do not be ashamed. Amen.

01 October 2006

Sermon for 1 October 2006 - "Part of the Stumbling Rabble"

Who was the “rabble,” anyway? The writer of Numbers mentions “rabble among” the Israelites, but doesn’t give a definition. Who were they? What was their story? How did they get hooked up with the people of Israel? Moses is leading a family of some 600,000 who all descended from Jacob during their sojourn and captivity in Egypt; how did a “rabble” get thrown in with them?

What about Eldad and Medad? The Bible says they prophesied, but it doesn’t say what they said, nor does it ever mention them after this. Who were they? Why was it so important to mention them? What’s the difference if they prophesied in the camp or not?

What was James talking about, with all this healing jargon? I’ve never healed a single person in my life, though I’ve prayed fervently for their health. James says that Elijah was a human being just like us, but I’ve never felt the call to command a three-and-a-half-year drought, and challenging queens and kings just isn’t my thing. Does that mean I’m not righteous? I’d love to bring back sinners from wandering, but I can’t even get my wife to stack the dishes right – how am I supposed to do these greater things?

Who was this mysterious person casting out demons in Jesus’ name? He didn’t give a name to John, and John didn’t give one to Jesus. Who was he? Jesus was teaching his disciples, his 12 closest companions, but they completely missed everything Jesus said – how was some unknown healer able to do miracles in Jesus’ name? Why was John so worried?

It seems like everything in my life causes me to stumble. Even the good things make me stumble. How much to I need to remove to make sure I enter the kingdom of God? Where do I start? Where does it end?

And the most important question in all of these goes unasked: Who am I? Let us pray.

Father, we come to You confused and uncertain. The dangers that surround us are not nearly so threatening as the dangers with us. We stumble and wander and lose sight of You, our Keeper and Protector. Make us whole. Heal our wounds. Feed us with Your love, and guide us through our darkness. In Your Son’s name we pray. Amen.

The quick and easy way to address these readings would be to give short, to the point answers to all the questions that get raised. For example, Bible scholars suggest that the “rabble” were slaves in Egypt from other lands: when the Israelites got the heck outta Dodge after the Passover, the “rabble” got outta Dodge with them.

Eldad and Medad? Never appear again in the Bible. We’re not sure what their prophesying contained. Their prophesy isn’t the point of the story, anyway, so you don’t need to worry about them.

James & Elijah? Special people for special times. Not in the same circumstances as we are today. The call of a prophet is for a certain time and place, and the time of the prophets ended with the last, John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus as the new and only prophet of God His Father. Healing miracles are a function of the Bible’s record, nothing more – we would understand it much differently today, with our medicine and our electricity and nearly all the mystery of human existence crowded out by technology and science. Don’t worry about healing miracles and your righteousness: we live differently today.

This is the quick and easy way to address these readings. Every word I just said is true: I’ve said some of these words myself in certain situations where they seemed appropriate. But there’s nothing of God in these words. Explanation, yes. Interpretation, yes. Definition, yes. But are these words of salvation? No – and that’s the problem. One cannot explain, interpret or define one’s way into the kingdom of God; that takes a word of promise.

Moses can’t bring us a word of promise today: he’s too busy worrying about the discerning palate of the rabble. It seems that freedom in the wilderness, with a daily ration of manna, is not as tasty as slavery with a dash of onion & leek soup.

John can’t bring us a word of promise today: he’s too busy worry about the renegade exorcist who hasn’t filled out the requisite paperwork required of a proper disciple. It seems that following in the footsteps of the disciples is more important than casting out demons in the name of the one the disciples are following.

What’s going on here is the usual list of blunders, performed by a cast of thousands. It’s enough to make anyone with a smidge of hope for the human race weep uncontrollably. Moses can’t handle the rabble. James thinks that we just aren’t praying right. John and the disciples are still missing the point. Jesus can’t teach, so he resorts to threats. God pulls a page out of my mother’s playbook and says, “Fine – you want meat?!? I’ll GIVE you meat!” Where, oh where, shall I find my hope? What shall I, a simple country pastor, do to find a gracious God this morning?

Then, suddenly, the promise is there, hidden underneath all the debris of our failings and God’s anger. Here is the promise: the rabble were allowed to stay. No one cast them away from the people of Israel. Not only were the rabble allowed to stay, but they were fed with the same miraculous manna. No crumbs from the table here – the rabble had a place of honor next to the children of Abraham, and even in anger God did not cast them away.

Here is the promise: I’m still here. God has not cast me away, though I deserved it many times over. When manna came from God’s hand, to sustain me in the wilderness, I rejected it: but God did not reject me. When others who were not of my fellowship did deeds of power in God’s name, I questioned their place instead of praising their faith, but God did not reject me. I stumble; I complain; I miss the point; I hitched a ride with God’s chosen people through a gift given to me in my baptism, but I’m still here. I am part of the stumbling rabble, lurching heavenward, and it is God who keeps me on the march, regardless of my mistakes. The promise comes out of heaven: this stumbling rabble belongs to God, and even in anger God will not forsake any of us who stumble together here.

So here we are, stumbling toward heaven. Martin Bell wrote a story about us once: it’s called Rag-Tag Army:

If God were more sensible he would take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to go and bring him back. But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He’s going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him. Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches… And even though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God – especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him! And he won’t go on without us. And that’s why it’s taking so long.[1]

Stumbling rabble or rag-tag army, we are part of a great cloud of witnesses to God’s patience, God’s determination, God’s creative and redeeming work in us, deserved or not. The question that was unasked before? Who am I? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem with the same title. He said:

Who I really am, you know me, I am yours, oh God![2]

And that’s all that really matters. Christ told His disciples to remove all the things that made them stumble, to cut away everything that caused sin, so that they would gain the kingdom of God. But the greatest thing that causes any of us to stumble is a lack of trust in God’s mercy. So Jesus cut himself off from God to give us the kingdom. He gave himself up as a willing sacrifice so that we might see the depth and reach of God’s forgiveness. Even killing the very Son of God was not enough to cause God to reject the stumbling rabble and cast them away.

The word of promise remains: God loves the stumbling rabble, in spite of our many mistakes and our costly blunders and our insistence on following the wrong people and believing the wrong things. You are loved by a God whose love is reckless and passionate – trust in that love, to pick you up when you stumble and to hold on to you when your sins make you fall away from the family. And may God’s peace, which passes all understanding, keep your mind and your heart and your life in Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord. Amen.

[1] Bell, Martin. The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images. © 1968-1970 by Martin Bell, published by allantine Publishing Group, 1983. p. 90-91

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Wer bin Ich? – Who Am I? from Voices in the Night: The Prison Poems of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Edwin Robertson, Editor & Translator. © 1999 by Zondervan Publishing House. p. 46