28 September 2007

Friday Five: "I Don't Know Why You Say 'Goodbye,' I Say 'Hello.'"

ReverendMother is dropping out of the Friday Five business as she readjusts some priorities (kudos to you, RM, for doing what seems best for you!). So today's Friday Five is: On Endings and Goodbyes:

1. Best ending of a movie/book/TV show
Hands down, it's the end of the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I can't imagine a more beautiful, poignant way to end such an epic tale. (I won't recount it here to save the spoiler from those of you who haven't had the pleasure as of yet.) In the 1990's I was in the University of Nebraska Wind Ensemble and we played Johan de Meij's Symphony 1: Lord of the Rings which ends, not triumphantly or with a flourish, but with the stately calm and grace embodied in Tolkien's lyric writing. Best of all, Peter Jackson ended the movies in the same way. Brilliant and moving.

M*A*S*H's TV finale would earn a strong second, with Quantum Leap coming in there somewhere as well. Oh, and the ending of Stephen King's The Dark Tower was better than I had expected, especially since the story took a really unfortunate turn in book 6 of the series.

2. Worst ending of a movie/book/TV show
I hated the Seinfeld finale, the Cheers finale and frankly I think someone oughta pull the plug on ER but no one knows how. Also, Robert Jordan recently died, leaving his multi-volume opus The Wheel of Time unfinished. That seems bad form to me - dying before one's work is completed! :-)

3. Tell about a memorable goodbye you've experienced.
1997: my last summer as a staff member at Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries. Bawled my frickin' eyes out during our last worship service. I spent five of the best summers of my life working there, and I couldn't believe it was time to go. It was the right time, and I moved on to where I was supposed to be, but there will always be a part of me that just longs to be playing my guitar singing "Dance With Me" or "Day Is Done" while a campfire burns under an open Nebraska sky.

4. Is it true that "all good things must come to an end"?
For us in the life we're given, yes. We move sequentially through time, and Einstein was right: time is relative. We begin and we end, and nothing has made that more clear to me than the birth of my daughter. I'm more than a little trepidatious at the thought of bringing someone into the world and knowing that I won't be there for her at some point, but I'm also awed at the blessing of raising a child in God's creation. Someday I will die - as will everything I love.

Now, having said all that, what kind of Christian would I be if I didn't remind my readers that God's love never ends?

5. "Everything I ever let go of has claw marks on it." --Anne Lamott
Yeah, there's some truth to this as well. Some of those claw marks are what made me realize I had to let go - and some of them I left when my clutching hands could no longer hold what needed to be free.

Bonus: "It isn't over until the fat lady sings." I've never loved this expression. So propose an alternative: "It isn't over until ____________________"
At the risk of giving the "it-sounds-like-a-squirrel-but-I-bet-it's-Jesus" answer, how about this:
"It isn't over until God wipes away every tear from our eyes, and death will be no more."

Tolkien had a good one, too:
"The grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise."

Yeah, that'll do.

26 September 2007

Baby Ainsley 365: Buggy

First, the pictures:

Daddy and Ainsley went out for a run together on Monday - because Daddy's getting fat! Seriously, a colleague looked at me at our annual Pastors' retreat last week and said, "You've gained some weight this year, haven't you?" Sad - just sad. But true.

And this is a picture of what we see every morning when our little princess wakes up each morning.

We've been standing by ourselves since Friday - next thing you know she'll be driving...

So Ainsley caught a bug somewhere last week and it got really bad yesterday and today. She's snotty and miserable and maybe teething and just a bit of a pain right now. AND now Daddy has the bug as well. Last night I cancelled a Bible study because I just felt terrible - achy and feverish and miserable, in bed by 9:00. This morning I had a great workout at the gym and the day's been downhill from there. Came back home for a service project with our confirmation kids, during which Baby A refused to let me put her down for more than thirty seconds - my arms, already sore from weights, were just aching by the time we got done. Then, while I was training our first year students for acolyte duty, she started coughing and gagging a little bit. I picked her up and patted her back, and she proceeded to throw up.





This wasn't cute little baby spit-up, either - my shoulder looked like I had a vomit epaulette. Lovely. Still, it didn't even come close to what AJ's cousin Q did to Beloved when we were in Oregon for Brother-in-law's wedding: that stuff was chunky.

Thankfully, the baby's day ended by falling asleep in my arms while I gave her a final bottle after her bath. No matter how awful my day is, there's nothing that beats that moment. Nothing.

Still, I hope I don't have to do it again at 3:00 tomorrow morning - there is such a thing as too much of a good thing...

24 September 2007

Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost: "Real and Messy"

I will admit that, like many preachers, I’ve struggled with the Gospel text this week. This parable, as well as the verses that surround it, is one of the most confusing passages in scripture for me. Now I know I’m not supposed to say that – I know I’m not supposed to comment on the Bible as if it were a novel under review. But it’s the truth: I honestly don’t know how to understand this parable. I’m not the only one, either. At our Synod Leaders’ retreat this week, we spent a lot of time going over this parable with our two guest speakers. Frankly, I’m not sure the discussion was always that helpful. I remember leaning over to one of the pastors from Fergus Falls and admitting that I was thinking about preaching on Amos this week and avoiding the mess entirely.

Deciphering what Jesus meant to say in this parable is a tough nut to crack. Was the manager merely shrewd, or was he corrupt? The manager said, “I’m too weak to dig, and I won’t stoop to begging.” Jesus insisted all along that beggars and laborers were as much children of God as anyone else – does this parable invalidate all of what Jesus said? Under the accusation of squandering the rich man’s property, the manager confirms the accusation by squandering even more in an attempt to cover his butt for the time he gets sacked. But at the end of the parable, Jesus tells his disciples to be faithful and honest in all things, whether it’s a little or a lot. How again is all of this supposed to work?

I’ve read several attempts to decipher the meaning of this parable, some old and some new. Some look closely at the Greek to find an escape hatch; others use socio-economic policies of the time to try and determine how the manager might have been working for his master's benefit. An Episcopal preacher for whom I have a lot of respect says that this is a story about how the shrewd manager actually freed the peasant farmers from their oppressive debt to an incredibly wealthy landowner. These are all valid attempts to make sense of a very difficult parable – but none of them rang true to me this week. This is one of those moments in the story of Jesus where I'm not really sure what's going on, but I don't want to try to escape the uncertainty by changing the rules of the story – that seems false to me.

Philipp Melanchthon, the Greek and Latin scholar who was Martin Luther's most trusted colleague during the Reformation, once said that "to know Christ is to know His benefits." So, if that's the case, let's take a look at this parable in terms of benefits, shall we? The landowner doesn't really gain any benefits, other than possibly in the goodwill of his debtors. Important, but not essential to the story. The manager gains the benefit of shelter and protection, but at the cost of his honesty; even though the landowner says he's been shrewd, the manager has in fact squandered his master's property. But the debtors – they are the ones who gain benefits clean, aren't they? The end result for the debtors is forgiveness; their debts have been significantly reduced. Even if it's unfair – even if it's a cheat – even if the manager did it to save his own skin, the debtors have in fact found their burden lessened and now may walk that much more free. It's messy, it's not fair, it's bad economics – but it's also a gift to the debtors which they couldn't have gotten for themselves.

A Presbyterian colleage of mine in Alexandria, VA wrote in her blog this week about some conversations she's had in the church over the years:

Sweet Church Lady to me at recent event: I sat beside ___ (another church lady) the other day and she wouldn't stop criticizing you at the women's luncheon.
Me: So what did you say?
SCL: Oh, I would never say anything. I wouldn't want to make waves.

Church Leader: Would you pray for my daughter? She's back in rehab again.
Me: Of course I will. Shall we add her name to the prayer list?
CL: Oh, please don't. I couldn't face my friends if they knew. I've never told them about D's problem.

Church Officer: I think ___ (another officer who is a recovering alcoholic) might be drinking again.
Me: Do you think we should go talk with him?
CO: Oh, no. I wouldn't want to embarrass him.

As a child of the 1960s, I remember dressing up in patent leather shoes and donning a bow in my pin-curled hair for Sunday School and worship where I would join dozens of other little girls dressed just the same. Little boys wore little jackets and ties. Moms and Dads also donned their Sunday Best. And everybody filed into their pews and smiled at their neighbors and worshipped the LORD and went home.

At home, there might have been marriage/addiction/financial/mental health/sexual problems. But - God forbid - we disclose such family secrets, especially in church. We wouldn't even tell the pastor unless we were desperate.

As late as the 1980s when I served as a summer intern in a NY church, I met a family who disappeared for the summer, only to return my last weekend. They asked to speak with me and shared that their only son had died of AIDS in another state.

Me: Oh my gosh. I am so sorry. I didn't even know he was sick. And no one said anything to me.
Grieving Mom: We didn't tell anyone he was sick. That's why no one told you.
Me: ? Well . . . would you like to have a memorial service here after the pastor's back from sabbatical?
Grieving Mom: Oh no! Please don't tell anyone. We can't tell people about it. It would be too embarrassing.
Me: (long pause) So . . . you aren't going to tell your friends that your son died . . . because it would be too embarrassing?

We have a choice when it comes to forgiveness – we can take it real and messy, or we can take it false and clean. The Pharisees, who had been grumbling about Jesus dining with sinners, wanted their forgiveness clean – so clean, in fact, that Jesus once described them as “white-washed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”[2] Jesus came to forgive sinners – and we were so offended at the thought that we crucified Him for it. In that sense, we are all Pharisees – all people who try so very hard to maintain that no, we’re not messy, we’re not sinful, and we don’t need forgiveness like that. If we just maintain the illusion that everything’s okay, no one will notice that we’re covered, head to toe, in our failings, our disappointments and our sins. Real and messy, or false and clean: how do you want it?

Perhaps the manager really was squandering his master’s property; we’ll never know if the accusation was just or unjust. What we do know is that the people to whom he offered forgiveness of their debts took that forgiveness without a second thought. When you’re under the load of an unpayable debt, you don’t question whether or not you’re too proud to accept the gracious gift that lifts the burden: you take it. What Jesus offers us is the same reckless, squandering gift. We owe God a debt for our sins that we could never repay. But Jesus offers to forgive the debt: no payment, no required sacrifice, just forgiveness and mercy. The question is: are we honest enough to accept the grace He offers?

I’d much rather be the pastor of a bunch of real, messy, forgiven sinners than the pastor of a bunch of false, clean, white-washed Pharisees. I don’t want to revel in our sin, but to admit that yes, I am messy and in need of forgiveness is a great relief and freedom for me. To be real and genuine, to say that I make mistakes and I cannot be what God has created me to be, that is a great relief and freedom for me. To be real and genuine, to admit that without the squandering grace of a Son who cannot resist giving his Father’s forgiveness away dirt cheap, that is a great relief and freedom for me. I cannot pay the debt I owe for my sins. Can you?

If Jesus offers you forgiveness, I suggest you take Him at His word and accept it. Take it as the free gift of a manager who is recklessly giving away His Master’s property. Stop pretending that you can stay clean when you’re up to your neck in your sins and burdens. Put away all your false pretenses to righteousness and purity on your own, and let the gracious Son offer you the new, clean garments He washed in His own blood, the garments of forgiveness and mercy. Let it be squander if it’s squander: you are free, regardless. Amen.

[1] Jan Edmiston. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Life” http://churchforstarvingartists.blogspot.com/2007/09/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about.html

[2] Matthew 23.27

23 September 2007

Baby Ainsley 365: My Daughter's Morning

My Daughter's Morning

My daughter's morning streams
over me like a gang of butterflies
as I, sour-mouthed and not ready
for the accidents I expect

of my day, greet her early:
her sparkle is as the edge of new
ice on leafed pools, while I
am soggy, tepid; old toast.

Yet I am the first version
of later princes; for all my blear
and bluish jowl I am welcomed
as though the plastic bottle

I hold were a torch and
my robe not balding terry.
For her I bring the day; warm
milk, new diaper, escapades;

she lowers all bridges and
sings to me most beautifully
in her own language while
I fumble with safety pins.

I am not made young
by my daughter's mornings;
I age relentlessly.

Yet I am made to marvel
at the durability of newness
and the beauty of my new one.

"My Daughter's Morning" by David Swanger from Wayne's College of Beauty. © BkMk Press, 2006.

21 September 2007

Friday Five: De-cluttering Edition

After taking the Child to a doctor's appointment this morning, I have a bit of time at a local coffee shop while Beloved gets her massage. So it's off to the Friday Five! Sally has the play today at RevGalBlogPals:
With Jo, Jon and Chris all moving to college and University accommodation there has been a big clear up going on in the Coleman household. We have been sorting and trying hard not just to junk stuff, but actually to get it to where it can be useful. On a brighter note we have used Freecycle ( check it out) to provide the twins with pots and pans etc that other folk were clearing out.

Making the most of our resources is important, I have been challenged this week by the amount of stuff we accumulate, I'd love to live a simpler lifestyle, it would be good for me, and for the environment I think...

With that in mind I bring you this Friday 5;
1. Are you a hoarder or a minimalist?
I am a bit of both, and in some ways it's almost as though I'm bipolar about it. I go through stages where I'm stockpiling groceries, household goods and other items (usually with coupons or through sales) and other stages where we kind of purge ourselves of what we've got. I know from history classes that until the last fifty years most families didn't keep more than three or four days of food in the house - what would it be like to live like that, we wonder?

2. Name one important object ( could be an heirloom) that you will never part with.
I hae two irreplaceable items: my great-grandfather's pocket watch (after breaking a spring again I'm hoping to get it working soon) and my wedding ring.

3. What is the oldest item in your closet? Does it still fit???
I lost a lot of weight about five years ago, so I don't have much left from the "fat old days" since none of it would fit anymore. I have a tweed jacket that I bought in 2000 that has been altered several times but still sort of fits (a bit big through the shoulders, but serviceable nonetheless).

4.Yard sales- love 'em or hate 'em ?
Hate 'em - next?

5. Name a recycling habit you really want to get into.
I'd like to buy a house with a water recycling system. We already recycle everything we can here - I'm known in our house as the Recycle Nazi (Hey, break that cereal box down! What is this cat food can doing in the trash! Don't throw out those coffee grounds - compost them!) But I don't see why we can't retrofit more American houses to filter our grey water (dishes, laundry, etc) and run it through our toilets (dual flush, of course) instead of using fresh water for waste disposal.

And for a bonus- well anything you want to add....
I dream of someday having the resources to build an eco-friendly house for our family. I'd love to live in a house that is completely off the power grid through quality eco-construction, solar panels, wind power and other renewable resources. And I'd love to take a church through an eco-retrofit also, but getting an entire congregation to catch onto that vision might be a bit difficult.

And now the Child has bumped her head on the floor for the third time - it's time to go.

October Newsletter Article - "Requirement"

14 "'I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; 15so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you!'" Proverbs 7.14-15

Dear friends in Christ,

At first glance you might think that this passage from Proverbs refers to a righteous and wise person who has done the proper thing, offered sacrifices to God, and has thus been allowed to seek and find God. You'd be wrong. The speaker quoted here from the seventh chapter of Proverbs is a person on the prowl for an adulterous good time, whose spouse is away on a long journey. Wisdom, who is a character in the book of Proverbs, would have us avoid such a one, and so Wisdom describes the person who falls into the clutches of the would-be-goodtimer as one who follows "like an ox to the slaughter…like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing it will cost him his life…Her house is the way to Sheol (the land of the dead), going down to the chambers of death."

Note that the temptress thinks that offering sacrifices and paying vows clears the way for all kind of illicit behavior. She believes that religious observance is a chore to complete quickly so that the fun can begin. Wisdom would have us avoid false belief such as this; we were never meant to live in this way, nor can we live in this way for long. Wisdom is right: when religion becomes a chore, it leads us down the way of death. Faith cannot live in an environment of requirement. There is no room for faith when all we hear is "you must – you should – you ought – you have to – you need…" In fact, the demands of requirement tend to lead us away from faith into the type of foolish and dangerous life Wisdom warns against in Proverbs 7; it's as if we thumb our noses at what is required by going as far in the opposite direction as possible. There is no way to faith through the demands of requirement; that way lies danger, destruction and death.

Why bring this up? Two reasons. First, we're about to begin a stewardship program here at Peace. In a few weeks, Pastor John Lee from the Northwestern Minnesota Synod Staff will be joining us to preach and help kick off a two-month stewardship program. But this is not a stewardship "drive," in the sense of an NPR campaign or some sort of telethon. The theme of our stewardship program is "Stories to Tell, Gifts to Share," and the point is this: what we do here as a congregation is pretty incredible at times, and those incredible things come from our stewardship of what God has first given us. I want to invite you to consider telling the story of how God has touched you through the ministry of our church – you can tell the story through the newsletter, through an email to the whole congregation, through a Sunday morning Temple Talk or in whatever way you want. I want to invite you to share your gifts through the ministry of our church, too. God has given all of us unique talents and abilities; what are yours, and how can they augment our ministry and make us more and better than we are presently? "Stories to Tell, Gifts to Share" is a means that we can use to discover what it is that God is up to among us – and how we can play a greater part in God's work here.

Second, there's a thing that kills the work of the Spirit in any congregation, and that thing is an atmosphere of requirement. As a matter of fact, I believe that requirement kills the spirit in just about every venture we can undertake. In our school systems, the "have to" nature of standardized testing is killing intellectual curiosity and replacing it with a culture of "teaching to the test." People like me, who struggle with weight and appetite issues, have known for years that diets and their "have to" power can be broken in a heartbeat; instead of talking about diets, we remind ourselves about health and the positive results that come from making good choices. My generation chafes under the yoke of requirement like no other, for good reasons and bad. So why would we expect the church to be any different?

If we decide that the motivating power of our congregation is going to be requirement, I can guarantee you that we will soon find ourselves dying a slow and painful death. Any church that is founded on the power of words like should, ought, must, have to, and need will soon become a joyless, lifeless shell of a church, where all the observances are observed and no one has any idea why. Is that the kind of church we want to be?

A wise pastor from the Twin Cities told a group of conference pastors a few years ago that "negative people cannot set the agenda for thriving congregations." I don't want to be a negative person. I want to believe that God is up to something among us. I'd rather not be a pastor at all than be a pastor who bullied, guilt-tripped and hounded his people into his vision of what a church should be. I hope you feel the same way about your contribution to our congregation. There's nothing healthy about a church that offers nothing to its members but requirements and spiritual chores. What is healthy, and what I do hope to see in us, is an atmosphere where members are encouraged to share their gifts, where truth is spoken in love, where we can speak honestly to each other about the realities of what we're trying to do as a congregation. To be sure, there are some consequences that can't be avoided. Sunday School doesn't happen without teachers. Lights don't come on if we can't pay the electric bill. But acknowledging those consequences doesn't have to be accompanied by accusation, and sometimes the best way to address needs and desires is to simply say, "We'd like to do this" and see if someone might catch the vision and support it prayerfully and financially.

If you're feeling as though your presence is required at the church, as though you're paying your religious dues so that you can live guilt-free until the next time you walk through the door of the church, I'd advise you to stop and think about what it is you're doing to yourself. Is it really faith that is keeping you here? If not, what is? Do we really want to be that kind of community? Wouldn't we rather be a place of joy, whose members come together because we find life and faith here? Wouldn't we rather be a place so good that others would want to be here with us? Wouldn't we rather be a place so filled with grace and mercy that people found it hard to stay away? I invite you to think about what that might look like, to tell your story and share your gifts and be a part of something filled with God's Spirit, the eternal YES that binds all of creation together in goodness. Or, as Wisdom says in Proverbs 7: "keep my commandments, and LIVE." Amen.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Scott

20 September 2007

Baby Ainsley 365: Catching Up

Time for more Baby pics, and let's start with Bath Time!

Rubber ducky, you're the one
Who makes bathtime lots of fun
Rubber ducky I'm awfully fond of you...

We love the kitchen floor now because it's soooooo easy to scoot in here! Note the open doorway behind her - that doorway ain't open no more.

Mmmmmm - it's suppertime!

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful...

17 September 2007

Monday Stuff

We had planned to be on the road to Fair Hills Resort by now: today is the start of our annual Synod Rostered Leaders' Retreat. It kicks off with golf at 11:30. But with thunderstorms scattered across the area and our little one to manage, I just thought it might be nice to stay home and not fight the weather. Pity, though - we play Wildflower only once a year, and it's one of the better courses I get to play.

So, Beloved has had a nice long nap and Ainsley has, too. She's been cheery and active other times this morning. We spent the last 30 minutes catching up on blogs while Beloved finished her nap. Yesterday afternoon she pulled herself onto her feet while playing with me on the living room floor. She's already growing up too damned fast. :-)

I received this t-shirt in the mail this week from some mail-order company in Minnesota. Talk about things that make you go GRRRRRR:

Please understand that I pray for our soldiers and I do know how fortunate we are to live where and when we do. My grandfather was a WWII vet and my dad served during Vietnam. I would never denigrate the sacrifices our men and women in uniform have made. But the civil religion/military of God allusions I've heard far too often since 11 September 2001 just piss me off, frankly. It's idolatry of the worst kind, in my opinion. A soldier lays down his life for his comrades in arms, not his country - anyone who's read Band of Brothers or We Were Soldiers Once...And Young knows this is true. And I KNOW that Jesus would want to have nothing to do with the atrocities committed at My Lai and Abu Ghraib. The fact is, wrapping Jesus in the flag means that being American is more important than being a child of God, and frankly I'm tired of swallowing the bile that rises every time I see it. This kind of thing is killing the American church's grasp on reality, and it needs to be resisted if we are ever going to become responsible world citizens again.

[sound of me stepping down from the soapbox - rant concluded]

So, soon it's time for lunch and off into the day. Hope y'all have a pleasant week and God bless ya!

USC 49, NU 31 - Ouch

*sigh* It was that kind of night for my beloved Huskers. Painful doesn't even begin to describe this game - we got outcoached, outplayed, outmuscled and, frankly, blown out. Granted, a drastic momentum shift occurred after an injury on a kickoff, but great teams (like USC) make their own momentum. Wow, I just couldn't believe how poorly we played and how ugly this team looked. The image of Bo Ruud, #51 in the picture above (and great-grandson of Clarence Swanson, a son of Wakefield, Nebraska, my hometown) says it all.

16 September 2007

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost: "Lost?"

Let us pray: Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I was twelve or so when I was granted a window to see how the lost affect those who are searching for them. I am my mother’s son in many ways. Today that’s a blessing, but when I was fourteen, not so much. There’s nothing to make a mother regret having children than an oldest son who is stubborn, full of himself, quick-tempered and sarcastic – just like Mom. Those weren’t the easiest years for either of us, or for the rest of our family.

One summer afternoon Mom and I had one of our loudest go-arounds to date. I no longer remember hat the subject was, but I’m sure that Mom was wrong, I was right and nothing on earth or in heaven could have moved me to say otherwise. It ended with me running out of the house in tears of righteous anger: this is SO unfair!, I thought, how much longer do I have to live under this roof?

I was a champion tree-climber back then, and as I ran out of the house without my mother’s permission to leave, I decided that an hour or two calming down in the branches of my favorite tree would do just the trick. So I ran into our shelterbelt and made a beeline for the tree I had in mind. I’d climbed it many times that summer, so it was an easy matter of a jump up to the lowest branch, a swing higher and then I was climbing along the highest branch that would hold my weight.

I didn’t know that my Mom had drafted reinforcements until I saw my Dad storming out of the house toward me. My Dad is not a particularly imposing man, but at that moment he looked absolutely terrifying – I had never seen him so angry. He stomped right toward me, then stopped right underneath the branch holding me and hollered my name. He waited, looked around, hollered again, even louder. In the branches above him, I held my breath: he really didn’t know where I was, and if I could just stay still there was a chance I’d avoid the anger I saw in his face.

Dad hollered my name one more time, as loud as I’ve ever heard him yell, and then the most peculiar thing happened. After he hollered my name the third time, he held his breath, listening for me. When nothing happened, I heard him give a deep, painful sigh. His shoulders slumped, his back stooped, and his head bowed. I watched my Dad, who to this point had been the absolute power in my life, turn around, defeated, and begin to trudge back to the house. I heard his boots scrape up the back steps, heard the creak of the springs on the old screen door and his slow steps across the back porch into the house. I had won.

I don’t remember what caused the argument that day. I don’t remember what happened later: I obviously came down out of the tree, and I’m sure there were consequences, but they have faded over the years. What I remember was that moment, watching my Dad search for me, first in anger, then in pain. I remember being very confused at that moment, in the grip of powerful emotions that I’d never known before. I had escaped the wrath of both of my parents. But no victory in my life has ever felt so hollow, so meaningless. In that moment, I was lost to them, and even though their anger was great, even though their anger was justified, the moment my Dad realized I was beyond his care he change from an angry father into a worried Daddy. I could see the worry and pain in his body as he trudged back to the house. I was the cause of that pain, I realized, and that was somehow far worse than whatever argument I’d just had with my mother.

It’s way too easy to look at Jesus’ parables and think they are about doing the right thing. It’s way too easy to look at the parables in today’s reading from Luke and decide that the answer, of course, is “Don’t get lost.” It’s way too easy to think that these parables are about “them,” “The Lost,” who don’t have the sense to be part of our community here – and so we have to go out and hunt them down like the pheasants some of you will be chasing pretty soon. But what if it isn’t that easy? What if these parables don’t provide easy answers about daily living? What if the parables aren’t about us at all? What if the parables are, in fact, about God? What does that mean for us? Who do we become in the story? Who is lost, and who is losing out?

Watching my Dad that fateful day over twenty years ago, I remember being very frightened. I wasn’t frightened by his anger: that I’d seen before. What frightened me was the vulnerability I saw in him that afternoon. I’d never realized that my actions could hurt my parents so badly. To that point, my parents had been two unchangeable, immovable pillars around which my life was ordered; now, watching Dad’s shoulders slump in defeat, I realized they weren’t nearly as impervious as I’d thought. Then another thought occurred to me: I had wounded them deeply, and even though Dad had been looking for me in anger, he walked away in fear and pain.

Is this how God reacts when God is searching for one who is lost? Can it be that God, the Creator, the One whose Name is I Am Who I Am, can be hurt, deeply wounded by the actions of the children God loves? I think so. I think the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin isn’t about sheep and coins at all: the parables are about the One who searches, the Shepherd who combs the valleys, the Woman who turns the house upside down. I think these parables are about God’s nature, and I think Jesus wanted us to see that if God searches, if God cares enough to pursue us so relentlessly, then God cares enough to be deeply wounded while we are lost, vulnerable to hurt and anger and all kinds of emotional turmoil until those who are lost are found again.

The reading from Exodus shows us this vulnerable, passionate side of God. While Moses was on the mountain with God, the people grew impatient and created an idol they could worship. The absurdity of the situation is easily missed: Israel created a god they could worship rather than worshiping the God who created Israel. The golden calf wasn’t a threat to God’s power. The Egyptians weren’t a threat to God’s power. In the whole story of the rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, there was never a moment where God’s power was actually threatened or God’s position as redeemer of Israel was in doubt. God was in control the whole time. But God, the invulnerable, eternal, all-powerful Creator, grew angry when the chosen people went looking for a better deal. This God, whose power and might are limitless, was hurt when 400,000 Israelites melted down their gold and made a meaningless statue for themselves. At the end of the commandments, God tells Moses, “I am a jealous God.” No kidding? Our everlasting God is a passionate, vulnerable God, who can be hurt as deeply as any one of us and whose temper can flare as quickly as the most fiery tempers we possess.

When Israel chose the golden calf over the Living God, God was hurt, and hurt deeply; God even threatens to destroy them and use Moses to create a new nation, an argument which I’m sure occurred to my parents on those days when I was really trying their patience. But here’s the other aspect of God’s vulnerability revealed in Exodus today: God listens. God can be reminded of God’s previous promises. God’s mind can be changed. This encounter with Moses has nothing to do with the people bowing down in front of the calf in the valley below the mountain: they messed up, and big time. This encounter with Moses is about God: it shows us that God is deeply concerned for us, passionate about our well-being, even angry when we go astray.

If Jesus, then, is also revealing God’s nature to the Pharisees and scribes, then the question of who is lost becomes rather unimportant. The sheep for whom the shepherd searches has no name: it is simply a member of the flock entrusted to the shepherd’s care. The coin for which the woman searches is of no particular importance: it is simply one of the many entrusted to the woman’s care. The point of the parable is not figuring out who is lost and who is found: the point of the parable is the One who searches, and what it means to have a One like that searching for us.

Notice, if you will, the way the parables are crafted. The Pharisees are grumbling because Jesus eats with those considered unclean, impure, unworthy of joining the holy and righteous. The assumption would be that these sinners and tax collectors are the “lost” of whom Jesus speaks. Yet Jesus never says this at all. Jesus never identifies the sinners in his parables here: he simply says that God is one who seeks out sinners to restore them to the company of the saints. If the point was saving those sinful tax collectors and sinners, why was Jesus so pointedly vague about who was lost and who was found? Are the “lost” so easily identified? Are we so arrogant that we automatically assume that we’ve never been lost, and that the point of the parable is teaching we righteous ninety-nine how to graciously receive the “lost?” I don’t think Jesus lets us off so easily. I don’t think we can be so confident in our assumptions. I certainly don’t think that I’m done being lost in this world, and I’m even more convinced that God will continue to search for me when I go astray.

Finally, notice if you will the end result of the parables. The Seeker calls everyone to celebrate, but only when the lost and found have been made one again. It isn’t enough for the lost just to be found: the found must join in the celebration before all is said and done. Next week we’ll read a parable where the lost return but the celebration is incomplete because one of the ‘found’ refuses to join in. This passionate, loving God who searches for us is hurt when we run away, yes: but God is also grieved when we refuse to celebrate the return of one who has gone astray. Forgiveness, reconciliation, rejoicing: these are the steps our seeking, searching God would have us take – and if we are sometimes the ones who are lost, wouldn’t we prefer to receive such a welcome when we ourselves return?

Wherever one of God’s children is lost, the company of saints is incomplete. Whether it’s a child who has run away from his parents in fear and anger, or an adult who has run away from the church in fear and anger, there is a searching afoot in God’s creation that will never cease until time itself ceases to be. God is searching for us, calling our names and hurting until we are reunited with the company of saints to which we belong. Shall we listen for that call? Shall we climb down out of our hiding places and join the celebration of those who have been found? Thanks be to God for his relentless searching – and may you be found today. Amen.

14 September 2007

Friday Five: Meetings, Meetings

Reverend Mother has the RevGalBlogPals Friday Five this week:

In honor of a couple of marathon meetings I attended this week: 1. What's your view of meetings? Choose one or more, or make up your own: a) When they're good, they're good. I love the feeling of people working well together on a common goal. b) I don't seek them out, but I recognize them as a necessary part of life. c) The only good meeting is a canceled meeting.
Generally, it's option a for me. I do think God intends for us to be collaborative in nature - I certainly don't enjoy being a lone ranger on anything. But I DESPISE meetings where no one will contribute, where one person is only out to defend their 'territory,' or where it's just a chance to bitch about the problems that necessitate the meeting in the first place. I'm really not interested in hand-wringing or navel-gazing. If we're going to meet, then let's get to it, and realize that the old saying really is true: if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem.

2. Do you like some amount of community building or conversation, or are you all business?
In ordained ministry, a fairly sizable percentage of my work is what Martin Luther called "the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints." So community and conversation are an important part of what we do. Were I in a different profession, I suppose I'd still like to have a certain amount of community building, but I would be leery of it devolving into some kind of bizarre "Office Space" corporate clusterf$#k. I do tend to be a fairly businesslike person, even when it comes to the pastoral care I provide (not always a good thing, but it's who I am).

3. How do you feel about leading meetings? Share any particular strengths or weaknesses you have in this area.
I don't mind leading meetings. For me, "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." We have a tendency to get sidetracked so easily - riding herd on a bunch of folks is something that I think comes naturally to me.

4. Have you ever participated in a virtual meeting? (conference call, IM, chat, etc.) What do you think of this format?
My friend Nate started an online small group project after we graduated from seminary and at one point, a group of us had a conference call to see where we wanted to go with the project. I thought it was interesting, but not particularly fruitful - I'd much rather meet face to face. (That's not a critique of Nate, but a preference of my own.)

5. Share a story of a memorable meeting you attended.
I spent one year working on the Lutheran Student Center ministry staff at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before I moved away for seminary. I remember the first ACReW meeting that I attended (the Association of Campus Religious Workers); it was the first time I was involved in a group of people so dedicated to working well together and promoting their own ministries at the same time. There was lots of mutual respect and laughter, even though we came from all over the denominational map: Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Charismatics, etc. I remember thinking, "Hey, this is that Body of Christ Larry has talked about before!" It was a great introduction to professional ministry for me.

May I also second Reverend Mother's affinity for Demotivators - there's nothing better than a chance to deflate our own sense of self-importance with a particularly well-aimed joke.

11 September 2007

Monday Meme +1: 4 Things

Yesterday was GREAT. We had a day at home with no commitments, the first such day in nearly a month. Oh, the list of stuff that got done! I know that Mondays are supposed to be my Sabbath rest, but sometimes a fella's just gotta get stuff done. I went for my run, washed the laundry, cleaned the litter boxes, cleaned the basement, bagged the recycling and trash for pickup, tidied up the shop, then cut and sanded the legs of the adirondack chair I'm building, a project which might actually get done sometime this millenium. I found a Makita belt sander in our neighbor's garage (yes, I have their permission to snoop) and that will cut prep time immensely - I've offered to take the sander off their hands if they don't use it much.

But boy, am I tired tonight. I slept in this morning until 7:00 thanks to Beloved, who only woke me to take the Child so B could head off to teach water aerobics. She even made coffee for me before she left. The Child and I played until about 8:30, then we got ready for the day and headed off to the office. Ainsley was awesome at the office today - just crawled around and explored most of the time we were there, and I got caught up on a lot of desk work that needed catching up. We were at the church until 12:30, then returned home for lunch. After I got the Child down for her nap, I read the latest Newsweek until Beloved got home, then went back to the office for the afternoon to do Bible study prep and some other stuff. Had a long phone conversation with a friend who needed a sympathetic ear - it was good to feel like I could help a bit. Got home again around 4:30, went for a completely unremarkable 3 mile run (Yay!), showered, ate supper, then headed back to the office for Genesis to Revelation. No one came for G2R, so I spent about 90 minutes planning worship for October, then came back home. Now I'm going to blog a bit and head off to some well-deserved rest.

The run was really nice today. It was cool and windy in Barrett today, but even with the wind I set a nice easy 10:00/mile pace and didn't really have to push to maintain it. Feet and knees are feeling better and I swear I could have turned around and done it again when I was done, which the folks at Runner's World say is the best indicator of a good "easy" day. Tomorrow Beloved and I will work out at the gym, then Thursday morning will be a hard day: 4 miles at 8:30 with a mile warm up and mile cooldown. Hopefully we can keep the tendinitis/back problems to a minimum from now until the Siouxland Half on 20 October.

Anyway, that was the day. Now, here's a fun little meme, courtesy of LutherPunk.

4 Crushes:
1. Kelly E: told my whole family when I was 5 that we’d get married and have six kids.
2. Heidi P: my first ‘girlfriend.’ We walked to confirmation together a couple of times in 7th grade, and couple-skated together at the Halloween & Valentine’s Day skating parties. That’s as far as anything went.
3. Lizz C: trumpet player from the next town over who was at all the honor bands with me. We were at music camp together and I could have sworn I was actually in love with her – head over heels. She wasn’t, and tried to let me down easy; quite possibly the nicest rejection I’ve ever had. What a girl.
4. Karen H: worked at church camp with me for a couple of summers. Total sweetheart with the most incredible eyes. I think I actually made her a friendo as an attempted flirt. Yeesh – what a dork!

4 Pieces of Clothing I wish I still owned (and/or that still fit):
1. any of my marching band t-shirts (the only one left is the “Big Johnsen Baritones” from 1994)
2. The electric blue parachute pants my mom bought me in sixth grade – just for comic value
3. More of the clothes I wore in high school, since they’d probably fit again now that I’ve lost so much weight.
4. My old Carol Joy Holling sweatshirt, because it had reached that so-wonderful stage where the cuffs are frayed and it is so comfortable it feels like a down comforter you wear.

4 Names I’ve been called at one time or another:
1. Putzy (high school)
2. Long-haired Hippie Phreak (college – marching band, mostly)
3. Scotty J (first by Larry Meyer, then camp friends)
4. Bubba (Beloved’s pet name for me – she tried to say “Baby on the phone one night and it came out “Bubba” and stuck)

4 Professions I secretly Want to Try:
1. English Professor
2. Folk Musician
3. Charter Bus Driver
4. Coffee Shop Owner

4 Musicians I’d most want to go on a date with:
1. Sheryl Crow
2. Jewel
3. KT Tunstall
4. Harry Connick, Jr. and his wife (‘cause hey, I’d be double dating with a cool guy and a Victoria’s Secret model!)

4 Foods I’d rather Throw than Eat
1. Squash
2. Lutefisk (can you throw it? I suppose so)
3. Tofu
4. Soft Corn Tortillas (cause they fly like ninja stars…)

4 Things I Like to Sniff
1. Whatever I’m cooking
2. My baby’s head
3. Freshly ground coffee
4. New shoes

Feel free to play - leave a comment if you do.

09 September 2007

Sermon for Lectionary 23 - "Hate" Is A Word You Can't Ignore

Let us pray: May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Let’s begin today with a fun little exercise, shall we? Take a minute, turn to your neighbor and tell them something you hate.

Now, let’s share a few of the things which we hate, shall we? What are some of the things you heard? Running, War, Skunks, the Packers, homework, rap music, spoilers…

If you Google the words “I hate,” you’ll receive about 28,300,000 hits. That’s twenty-eight million, three hundred thousand uses of the words “I hate” over the internet. Just to see if there was something which I, myself, hate, I Googled “I hate” and “Nachfolge,” the title of my weblog. According to my weblog, I hate knowing the end of a Harry Potter novel before I read it for myself, and speaking ill of a restaurant I used to frequent when I was in college.

Apparently I don’t hate enough to be one of Jesus’ disciples. Or maybe I don’t hate the correct things. It would be one thing if all I had to hate was the smell of bleach, celebrity gossip and the Texas Longhorns football team. But Jesus said “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” When you use the word hate with people that God says you’re supposed to love, it starts to hit you pretty hard – does this mean I’m less of a disciple than the guy who used eight fairly lengthy and profanity-laced posts to describe his hatred of his ex-girlfriend Cheyenne? No matter which way you say it, hate is a word you can’t ignore.

We have choices about how we will hear God’s word, and today is no exception. We can take Jesus at His word, believing that hatred of family and friends and even lie itself is a requirement for discipleship, or we can assume that Jesus was just overstating His case to make a point. We might think it’s a matter of semantics, quibbling over the words of one long dead and gone – and yet here we are, 2,000 years after the fact, still debating the meaning and impact of those words. The sheer weight of history behind what Jesus said and the life Jesus lived tells me that understanding the meaning of these words is very, very important, so we return to the question. Jesus says we must hate family and even life itself in order to be His disciples. “Hate” is a word you can’t ignore, so: what does this mean?

The easiest way out of this mess might be to find something somewhere in the definition of the word Jesus used to wriggle out of the “hate” box. I’m going to assume that there aren’t many of you here who have studied first century Greek or Hebrew and take that mantle upon myself. The Greek word set down in our text is misei, which is related to our words miserable and misanthrope. It is, unfortunately, exactly as bad as it sounds: one must detest one’s family and life itself to be Jesus’ disciple. There’s very little wiggle room in the definition of the word “hate” recorded for us in Luke’s Gospel. The word “hate” is, unfortunately, still a word you can’t ignore.

So it seems that relying on overstatement and hyperbole won’t let us out of the box. Apparently we are supposed to take Jesus at his word – even when that word is offensive to our ears and attacks the very core of who we are. If we must hate, then the next logical question must be, “How, then, shall we hate? In what manner must I hate my father and mother? In what way must I hate my brothers and sisters, my spouse and my child? How must I hate my life in order to be your disciple, Jesus?” It’s painful to hear these words, isn’t it? It’s hard for me to say them, standing here and looking at my wife and my daughter. I don’t like the thought of hating these people I love. I would give my life for them: how am I supposed to hate them? And here we come to the point I believe Jesus is making, the reason he uses the word “hate,” so hard to ignore.

When we had our discussion earlier about the things we hate, what were your answers? Let’s go over them again: Running, War, Skunks, the Packers, homework, gossip, rap music, spoilers… Here we have a list of things we hate. They are things which inconvenience us. They are things which can harm us. They are those things in others that anger us, frustrate us, cause us to sever ties with people. I hate spoilers because I so enjoy getting to the end of a book or movie and being caught up in the story. I hate miles upon miles of traffic cones because it’s wasteful and inconvenient for me. I hate the Texas Longhorns because when it comes to football I’m an unforgiving jerk. The guy who hates his ex-girlfriend Cheyenne has plenty of reasons, which I won’t go into here. What are all of these things? They are the worst things about us. They are the things we’d give up in an instant if we could. We hate our burdens, our shortcomings, our annoyances, our fears and our disappointments. If Jesus told us that being His disciples meant hating these things, we’d sign up in a heartbeat. And that’s the problem: we spend our time trying to get saved from the things we hate, when we really need to get saved from the things we love. The things we idolize. The things we cherish. Dare I say it, the things we worship.

In Jesus’ time, your family was everything. Jesus talked a lot about caring for widows and orphans because widows and orphans literally had nothing: no one to care for them, no one to feed them give them homes, see to their needs. If you didn’t have a family, you didn’t have anything; and Jesus told His disciples that if they wanted to follow Him, they needed to hate their families. As much as that is a shock to us today, it was even more shocking in Jesus’ time. You just don’t tell people these things unless you really mean it: “hate” is a word you can’t ignore.

But Jesus said it. He said that you can’t follow Him and be captive to a family’s love also. The Gospel of Luke tells us that a great crowd was following Jesus; how many of them might have just been along for the ride? How many of them might have just wanted to see a good show? How many of them might have been thinking about signing on with Jesus, if His teachings weren’t too crazy and He provided a miracle or two along the way? How many of them, in other words, came looking for an interesting experience, entertainment, one more in a series of teachers? In other words, how many of them came looking for the Son of God Almighty?

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis shows us the difference between curiosity and discipleship. Lewis wrote, “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely [human] and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, te Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”[1]

Jesus said “whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” I have a feeling that this word wasn’t intended for all his followers. It would be an easy thing to hate a father who drinks too much. It would be an easy thing to hate a mother who beats her children. It would be an easy thing to hate a spouse who despises us, children who neglect us, brothers and sisters who insult and injure us. Jesus isn’t speaking to those situations – there is no need. As Savior, Jesus came to rescue the lost and forsaken, those who struggle with abusive parents, neglectful children, dysfunctional families. But Jesus was Savior to all of us, come to save us from all the things which hold us captive, both good and bad. It is much harder to be saved from a good marriage, a faithful spouse, respectful children: but Jesus came to save us from these things as well. Sometimes Jesus had to use strong words to shock us out of our comfort zones and stop us ignoring Him, and “hate” is a word you can’t ignore.

Our reading from Deuteronomy today comes from the time just before the Israelites crossed over the Jordan River into the promised land, after 40 years of nomadic wandering in the Sinai peninsula and the transJordan desert. Moses, their great leader all of those years, would soon die, and the people would be led by Joshua into a new life. God had prepared the people of Israel for this new life by giving them the Law, which would fill their lives with blessings if they followed it. We remember the Law most commonly in what? The Ten Commandments. Let’s go through them backwards, shall we? 10 & 9: You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. 8: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 7: You shall not steal. 6: You shall not commit adultery. 5: You shall not kill. 4: Honor your father and mother. That concludes the second table – the commandments dealing with neighbors. Now, the first table. 3: Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. 2: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. 1: I am the Lord your God – you will have no other gods before me. In all of these laws, God promises life: not as a reward for good behavior, but life as a natural consequence of trusting God and obeying God’s commandments. “I set before you life and death, blessings and curses.” God says; “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Beginning with the first commandment, God shows us what it means to live – and with whom that life must begin.

Following Jesus means following only Jesus. We cannot follow Jesus and all the good things in our lives: there can be no split allegiances. The call to hatred, if you will, is a call to understand that Christ alone can save, and to turn away from anything that would take His place – even if those things are family or life itself. The only true disciple is the one for whom there is no other refuge, the one to whom all things have died and only Christ alone remains. Jesus used the word “hate” because it was the only word that would get the attention of those of us who live comfortably and think of Jesus as a good teacher, a friend to be ignored when He gets in the way of those things we love. Jesus will not be ignored, and so He used the word “hate,” because “hate” is a word you can’t ignore.

Is there good news in all of this? Without a doubt, but it comes from only one source: Jesus Himself. As God’s Son, Jesus hated many things, but He hated death most of all. So Jesus overcame death with resurrection – and thus redeemed life for all of us. Jesus will not rest so long as things stand between Himself and you, the people He loves. Follow Him and He will put to death all your false idols and all your cherished dreams, all the things Jesus calls you to hate. That is the cost of discipleship. But resurrection is the gain of discipleship, the gift which comes swift on the heels of the cost. In dying in Christ, we are raised to new life as well, to look upon that which we love through the eyes of Christ, to see family, friends and even life itself as God intended. The call to discipleship is a call to hate that which stands before Christ and a call to love all that comes after resurrection in His name.

Jesus was right: we cannot be His disciples on our own – we need His saving grace. We cannot love as we ought – neither can we hate as we ought. Realizing this, because Jesus uses words like “hate” which we cannot ignore, we say to Him, “Lord, I cannot. I cannot hate those I love. I cannot put you first. I cannot be your disciple on my own. But I believe, Lord. I believe that following you is life. I cannot follow, yet I believe: help my unbelief, and help me follow.” And Jesus answers, “I have redeemed you through baptism, and I will redeem you from those things you love and those things you hate - I will give you life abundant and everlasting, now and in the kingdom to come.” Amen, Lord: let it be so. Amen.

[1] Lewis, Clive Staples. Mere Christianity © 1952, C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. HarperCollins, pub. p. 52.

07 September 2007

Friday Five: On Survival

Authorities are looking for adventurer Steve Fossett in the Nevada/California wilderness. A woman was found alive after nearly two weeks in the mountainous wilderness of eastern Oregon. Amazing stories of survival are all around us, if we just take the time to look. Sally has the Friday Five this week, much more serious than usual - but also, I think, important.

I am preparing this Friday 5 just before I take Chris into hospital for a cardioversion, right now we are all a little apprehensive. But this whole thing has got me thinking, so many of us are overcomers in one way or anoither, so many have amazing stories to tell of God's faithfulness in adversity. And so I bring you this Friday 5;

1.Have you experienced God's faithfulness at a difficult time? Tell as much or as little as you like...
In the months after my first wife and I separated, I was more than a little angry with God. I spent many, many hours out in the carport of my house in Florida, smoking cigarettes and praying angry prayers. God was faithful just by listening until I couldn't rage anymore. What came after that was incredible peace, and a faith far deeper than I could have imagined possible. The wondrous thing is that God's faithfulness has reshaped my own as well. I've learned what forgiveness really means: I have to let the past fade away, to let go of any anger and resentment I may have as well. Blame? Gone. Desire for revenge? Got to go. I need to forgive myself as well: what's done is now done and no amount of wishing will change the consequences of the mistakes I've made. What is left is the desire to reconnect and rebuild what were once significant relationships in my life - I hope to be able to do that at some point in the near future.

2. Have you experienced a dark night of the soul? If so what brought you through?
My dark night was the year or so following the above separation and, eventually, divorce. Friends and family got me through: I can't say enough about the incredible people by whom I have been surrounded. Some of them were good friends to my ex-wife at the same time, which might possibly be the most uncomfortable and difficult position possible. These are the kind of people for whom there just aren't words adequate to the praise you'd like to give them.

3. Share a Bible verse, song, poem that has brought you comfort.
Psalm 139, Romans 8, Isaiah 55, Revelation 21.1-4 are all passages of great comfort to me. Rich Mullin's song "Hold Me, Jesus" has comforted me often, especially when Beloved suffered a miscarriage of our first child last March.

4. Is "why suffering" a valid question?
Yes and no. To live is to know pain and sorrow; we are created in God's image, vulnerable to betrayal and denial as God is vulnerable to our betrayal and denial. God suffers because God loves: we suffer because we were created with the capacity to love as well. Escape from suffering means escape from the possibility of love also. But there are, of course, those moments of suffering which come from random chance: the family torn apart by floods/hurricanes/a stranger's act of violence. "Why?" is definitely a valid question in these circumstances, but I'd suggest that a better question is "How?": "How shall we care for them?"

5. And on a lighter note- you have reached the end of a dark and difficult time- how are you going to celebrate?
With friends and family, at a table filled with good food and drink, and music should be part of it as well. There should be laughter, but there also may be tears, and these are both good.

Bonus- anything you wish to add....
I've talked about the end of my first marriage a lot lately; it does come up now and again. The reason I try to honestly speak of it is due to the monumental changes that experience brought about within me, changes for which I'm incredibly grateful today. I'm not angry at my ex-wife, and haven't been for quite some time, because she had the courage to force the crisis she had been avoiding rather than continue living in something less than the truth. As a result, I was forced to see some things in myself I'd been denying, to admit faults I was sure I didn't have and be honest about who I was. It wasn't a pretty time for either of us, and I made a lot of mistakes that multiplied the pain and anger, mistakes for which I'm rather ashamed today. We were young, human, mistake-prone and in way over our heads, and our friends & family paid a steep price in those days. We're better now, and perhaps that's the grace in all of this, that the pain created by the breaking of that marriage bond has given way to a greater joy. It's not perfect, and maybe not what God wanted when we were married in 1999, but God took the mess we made of things and brought joy out of it. For that, if for nothing else, I'm grateful.

05 September 2007

Wednesday Night Geek-O-Rama

After a long day of work and tending to the child, I have commandeered the television and the remote to watch the DCI World Championships on ESPN2.

I am Band Geek.
Hear me roar.

Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost - "There IS An 'I' In 'Humility'"

Finally getting around to posting Sunday's sermon. I felt pretty good about this one - it rings true to me four days after the fact. The scriptures on which this sermon is based can be found here.

Most of you know the name Peyton Manning. He’s the starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, a Super Bowl champion and son of legendary Mississippi quarterback Archie Manning. Peyton Manning is one of the most important names in American sports, which makes him one of the most highly respected people in our country today. But would you expect to see this from arguably the best player in the National Football League?

What makes it funny? You guessed it: you don’t expect to see guys who get paid millions of dollars to play football chanting “Cut That Meat! Cut That Meat!” But here he is: Peyton Manning, turning the tables and putting himself in the position we occupy on Sunday afternoons.

Of course, it’s a commercial. Mr. Manning was compensated handsomely for his antics in these commercials. But he looks like a natural, doesn’t he? If he can do it, so can we, right? In our gospel reading today, it sounds like Jesus is suggesting that when it comes to how we interact with others, we should seek out opportunities to turn the tables and humble ourselves, so that our humility may be the thing for which we are praised. A friend of mine thought that she might title her sermon for today “Jesus’ Not-So-Common Sense Guide to Entertaining.” Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, help us to see wisdom in what You said and how You lived. We have so many questions, but You want to give us more than answers: You want to give us life everlasting. In our baptism You have made us Your own brothers and sisters: help us to claim the great gift of wholeness which You offer us in this place. Make us Yours, to live with You in righteousness and purity forever. Amen.

When I read the scriptures, there are times when I wish with all my heart that I could have been present to hear the way Jesus said some of the things He said. Our reading from Luke today is one of those stories. I’m almost certain that if you and I had been there to hear him say what is recorded in Luke 14.8-11, we would have heard a distinct note of heavy sarcasm in those words.

Look again at how Luke sets up the moment. Jesus goes to the house of a Pharisee for dinner. The word “Pharisee” means “separated:” the Pharisees were a group within the church that did everything they could to keep themselves holy and pure – ‘separated’ from the riffraff of society and any sinners. But the Pharisees also knew that Jesus was a teacher and healer of great power in their time, and so they invited Jesus to dinner. Why? To trap Him in arguments? To expose Him as a fraud? To use Jesus’ popularity as a way to boost their own reputations? It’s hard to say what the reason for that dinner might have been. What Luke does tell us is that from the moment Jesus entered the house, He was watched very closely. One gets the sense that Jesus’ hosts were waiting for Him to slip, to make a mistake. It’s an age-old story, of course: the rich and powerful grow accustomed to their high position, and when they feel threatened by the newcomer with a less-than-stellar background, they conspire to bring Him down. But this was not a fairy tale, and Jesus wasn’t Cinderella: Jesus knew exactly what was happening. More importantly, Jesus knew exactly who He was and why this moment would be important.

Luke tells us that Jesus watched the guests at the banquet choosing the places of honor. Again, there is a note of sarcasm and distaste buried within these words, as if the guests were hyenas snapping at a particularly juicy bit of carrion. In Jesus’ time, inviting dinner guests was a means of proclaiming the dignity and social status of the host: only the best families could expect to host dinners for those of great honor and regard in the community. So the guests had to look around and determine where they should be seated, according to their social status, which you can imagine would involve a lot of judging one’s position and, perhaps, even arguing about it.

Here is where I’m sure Jesus deflated the pomposity of the dinner guests with a particularly well-timed and sharply-pointed bit of sarcasm. Jesus suggests that the dinner guests should be fighting for the lowest place, so that they might be exalted for their humility. It is an absurd argument, even for Jesus. Can you imagine what it would look like, the entire dinner crowd trying to outdo each other in humility and deference to one another? Maybe you can imagine it after all: I see that, once again, the front pews are open this morning, while the back is overflowing with the humble! However, if a crowd of people arguing over the lowest place seems absurd, doesn’t it also seem to be absurd for a crowd of people to argue over the highest place? Here is where Jesus’ sarcasm bites the hardest – in suggesting a hypothetical absurdity, Jesus also exposes a real absurdity; a crowd of people clamoring for position and exalting themselves over their neighbors.

Jesus exposed two sinful problems in our gospel reading for today. First, he exposed the sin of pride, of self-exaltation, which is dangerous indeed. We all need to be deflated now and again. Secondly, however, Jesus exposed the sin of false humility, which may be even more dangerous because it leads us down the passive-aggressive path toward pretension, resentment and self-martyrdom. Trying to outdo our neighbor in humility is a dangerous sin, because it clothes itself in righteousness while it clamors to be recognized. “Look at me – I’m humble!” we shout, and all the while our vanity grows until it explodes in a storm of repressed anger toward those who have not recognized and praised our humility.

I’ll admit that I take far too much pleasure in pointing out the absurdities in myself and in the world around me, but today I’m going to indulge myself just a bit more in the hope that it serves the proclamation of the gospel. Yesterday was the first day of the college football season, when coaches across the country try to find ways to motivate their teams and push them to achieve great things. One of the most delicious absurdities I’ve ever heard is the tired old saying, “There Is No ‘I’ In Team.” The intent behind this chestnut is, of course, emphasizing team goals over individual glory, but you cannot build a team without individuals. The best coaches know how to build a team without removing everything that makes individual players unique. The best players balance a healthy respect for their own abilities with a firmly established sense of how those abilities serve the greater goals of the team. On a football team, players are not interchangeable. You can’t take Steve Hutchinson off the Vikings offensive line and replace him with Adrian Peterson; their abilities are great, but unique and special to themselves, and neither one has any reason to think that they are less important than the other.

It may be true that “there is no ‘I’ in team,” but I’d like to argue that there IS an I in humility. One of the words Merriam-Webster uses to define “humility” is “unpretentious;” I’d like to suggest that pretense is exactly what Jesus is suggesting we avoid. Let there be no pretense between us: we are who we are, no more, but also no less, and let us leave behind our games and our competitions about who is better or worse, who is stronger or weaker, who is more or less deserving of honor and reputation.

Why would I argue for this? Because I’m convinced that what truly matters about us is what Jesus sees within us, individually. Every one of us, whatever position we may hold in the world in which we live, is a child of God created in love by a Creator who can’t help falling head-over-heels in love with us. You are, by yourself, a person for whom Jesus of Nazareth suffered death on the cross – and if you’d been the only one, He still would have gone to Golgotha, willingly, on your behalf. At the same time, your neighbor, by herself, is a person for whom Jesus of Nazareth suffered death on the cross – and if she had been the only one, He still would have gone to Golgotha, willingly, on her behalf. What human honor could possible compare with this? What praise could I offer to the life you live that would be better than this?

There is an ‘I’ in humility: it comes when we take into ourselves the knowledge that no human honor or curse could ever be stronger than this one statement: “I am a child of God.” Let there be no pretense among us – this is the thing which makes all of us wondrous beyond words. Take a moment, turn to your neighbor, and repeat that sentence with me: “I am a child of God.” Now, turn to your other neighbor and give them the greatest blessing and praise you could ever give them, “You are a child of God.” Repeat it with me: “You are a child of God.”

Now, remember this! This is the great humility which Christ imparts to us, the thing against which nothing in our lives can prevail: “I am a child of God” This is the “I” in humility, to remember that in my moments of great achievement and my moments of darkest sin, “I am a child of God.” I can give no greater regard to my neighbor than to remember that he is a child of God. I cannot praise my neighbor with any greater words than “she is a child of God.” To argue that anything else is more important is absurd. I, in my strengths and weaknesses, am a child of God. You, in your fear and in your faith, are a child of God.

So, Peyton chants, “Cut That Meat!” and we laugh. Sure, why not? After all, he is a child of God. A gifted quarterback, to be sure, but more importantly, a child of God. Where are you gifted? What makes you a special individual on this team? Let’s leave behind the false pretense of what we cannot do, why we are not special. Let’s also leave behind the false pretense that we are irreplaceable, that our gifts make us somehow more important to the good of this world than those around us. We are children of God, with unique gifts and talents to be shared for the sake of the world without regard or comparison to others, for they are children of God also. The writer of today’s passage from Hebrews said, “Through [Jesus], then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess His name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

There’s a quote by Marianne Williamson that hangs on my office wall, I’d like to close with it this morning: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

Don’t pretend to be something you’re not, Jesus says: be the child of God that you are. Humbly offer yourself to the world, and shine in goodness and mercy, and the children of God around you will be encouraged to do the same. God’s light shine in you this week. Amen.