31 December 2007

New Year's Meme

Thanks to LutherPunk for submitting his own meme and planting the suggestion in my mind!

1. Will you be looking for a new job?

Nope - but I will be starting one soon.

2. Will you be looking for a new relationship?

Yes - with a running group in Ames, IA. Other than that, I'm all set for relationships. Oops! I forgot one important new relationship: the fourth member of our household, currently "under construction."

3. New house?

Nope - but we will be moving into one soon!

4. What will you do different in 08?

Umm, not being psychic, I can't say for sure, but I think I'll do a lot more weddings and a lot fewer funerals.

5. New Years resolution?

Run more, sleep faster, eat less, worry less, blog better.

6. What will you not be doing in 08?

Sleeping more - with a 2 year-old and an infant I don't really think sleeping more will be possible.

7. Any trips planned?

To my birthplace for my home congregation's 125th anniversary celebration.

8. Wedding plans?

Thanks, but I'm all set.

9. Major thing on your calendar?

The due date of our new baby.

10. What can’t you wait for?

The due date of our new baby. [Thanks, LP, couldn't have said it better myself

11. What would you like to see happen differently?

I would like to see an increase of substantial discourse in our political process. I'd like to see us paying far less attention to fundraising and commercials and far more to actual debate about policy matters that could actually change lives for the better in our country.

12. What about yourself will you be changing?

I want to live more purposefully. Not Rick-Warren-purpose, mind you, but the kind of life where I do what I love, love what I do, and let the rest go hang. I want to keep my journal better, blog in ways that actually make people think (all two of you), spend less time fruitlessly wandering around waiting for stuff to happen to me.

13. What happened in 07 that you didn’t think would ever happen?

I got my first three pieces of "hate" mail: one unsigned and left at our church, the other two via email from folks I knew. Not a lot of fun, but I suppose I should have known it was going to happen eventually.

14. Will you be nicer to the people you care about?

I really despise the word "nice;" I'll say instead that I will strive to love better in 2008.

15. Will you dress differently this year than you did in 07?

Not at all - I like where I'm at clothes-wise.

16. Will you start or quit drinking?

"I am pretty sure that if I quit drinking beer I get my Lutheran card taken away." LP

Yeah, that pretty well covers it.

17. Will you better your relationship with your family?

I hope so, but things are already very good. Let's just hope nothing goes south this year.

18. Will you do charity work?

YES! I hope to get involved with Habitat for Humanity this year once we're moved.

19. Will you go to bars?

Not often, unless we do resurrect the "Beer and Theology" group at the Lutheran Center. If so, then there might be a bar in my future.

20. Will you be nice to people you don’t know?

I always try to be polite and kindly toward strangers. And if it were up to me, we'd strike the word "nice" from our vocabulary.

21. Do you expect 08 to be a good year for you?

I try to have as few expectations as possible (they have this annoying tendency to turn false).

22. How much did you change from this time last year till now?

Well, I've certainly become a different person since I added "Daddy" to the list of titles I currently hold. Need I say more?

23. Do you plan on having a child?

No, but I'm hoping Beloved will deliver a healthy baby sometime in mid-July.

24. Will you still be friends with the same people you are friends with now?

You know, if I were to answer that question in the negative, do you think I'd be stupid enough to broadcast it here?

25. Major lifestyle changes?

Let's see: mortgage, one income, one additional child. We might have to give up something, I guess: maybe the weekly visit to John Edwards' hairstylist?

26. Will you be moving?

Yes, on January 10th.

27. What will you make sure doesn’t happen in 08 that happened in 07?

I can only wish I had that much power...

28. What are your New Years Eve plans?

So far today I've watched two bowl games come up at odds with my predictions, bought three cheap paperback classics at Barnes & Noble (Frankenstein, Bleak House and a book of essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson), eaten homemade tacos & drank some beer with my in-laws, played a really lousy rip-off of Trivial Pursuit and now I'm blogging while everyone else goes to sleep at 11:00. Huzzah!

29. Will you have someone to kiss at midnight?

Yes, but I'm sure she's going to grumble because she'll be asleep when I do it. I mean my Beloved, of course - who did you think I meant?

30. One wish for 08?

That the church I love might better live out the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that we could spend less time worrying about members and policies and budgets and spend more time finding ways to give ourselves away for the sake of the world.

A blessed New Year to you all - here's hoping we can do it all over again next year.



28 December 2007

A Memorable Friday Five

So, today's assignment is five memorable moments from 2007. Here's the additional instruction:
Bonus points for telling us of a "God sighting"-- a moment when the light came through the darkness, a word was spoken, a song sung, laughter rang out, a sermon spoke to you in a new way--whatever you choose, but a moment in 2007 when you sensed Emmanuel, God with us. Or more particularly, you.

Let's start with our "God sighting," shall we?
1. Saying hello to our little Ainsley: a moment beyond words to describe (not that I haven't tried).
2. Reading my letter of resignation to our congregation in Barrett. When you've laughed and cried with people you love deeply, saying "I'm leaving you" is horribly difficult, even when it's the right thing to do. Along with that moment, buying a house in Ames (our first) and beginning to think about the next step of our life together. Whooooo, scary!
3. Nebraska 39, Kansas 76. 'Nuff said. Paired with that, watching the press conference introducing Coach Bo Pelini was the exciting "next step" for us Husker fans.
4. Playing the role of E.K. Hornbeck (the fictionalized H.L. Mencken) in Prairie Wind Players' production of Inherit the Wind. Quite possibly the best moment I've had yet in theater.
5. Watching Ainsley walk across her grandparents' living room in Oregon to give her cousin Faith a hug. Yeah, won't forget that one in a while, either.

Bonus: Of course, coming home after a long Council meeting to a freshly poured beer, a positive pregnancy test and a note reading "Here we go again!" will be hard to forget. Like we've said so many times before, "Go big or go home."

24 December 2007

The Best Christmas News Of All

We had to wait to post this until Beloved's family and friends in Oregon heard the news from us. There will be a fourth in the family sometime around July 15th or so. All we know for sure right now is that it is in there, it is moving, and it may be the boy I'm hoping for. :-)

Yeah, we're smiling a lot about this (when Beloved isn't trying furiously not to vomit, that is). Go big or go home, right?

Oy, what a year awaits...

Sermon for Christmas Eve - "More Faithful Than Righteous"

Preaching Texts

Christmas hasn't come easy for me this year. To be completely honest, I don't feel like I deserve to be here before you this evening, telling you the good news about Jesus' birth, because I've done so little to deserve a position of such honor. In the past, I've spent the season of Advent in anticipation of the celebration to come. Like many Christians, I usually make devotion time a priority during Advent. Some years I've taken up a fast of some sort to mark the season. At the very least, Kristin and I have lit an advent wreath at suppertime and enjoyed its quiet light as we look out on the darkness that surrounds our house more and more each night. But not this year – and I'm feeling the difference. I'm not feeling particularly righteous or worthy when it comes to Christmas this year. It feels like Christmas is happening whether I’m ready, prepared, looking forward to it, or not.

It doesn't feel right for Christmas to happen like this. How can it be Christmas without the holiday spirit? How can it be Christmas without the sounding joy? How can it be Christmas I am more Scrooge than Cratchit, more grave than gravy? This isn't how it's supposed to happen!

As this feeling has enveloped me the past week or so, I have thought more and more about Joseph and his own struggle with what happened in his life. We know precious little about Joseph from the scriptures: we know he was a carpenter, a righteous man, engaged to Mary but struggling to make sense of what he was supposed to do once her pregnancy was revealed. As one pastor reminded me this week, "Here's the rule about what happens if you think the woman to whom you're engaged is bearing someone else's child: both the woman and the man whose child it is get death by stoning -- assuming you know the identity of the father, and that the woman is seized in an area in which someone could have heard her screams if she cried out. Joseph [wa]s a righteous man, but he refuse[d] to expose Mary to public disgrace to carry this out."[1] I can't help but think that Joseph also wondered how his life had gotten so complicated so quickly, and why it had to be that way. You all know the feeling you get when you're forced into a disastrous situation through no fault of your own: you can't sleep, you can't eat, your mind keeps returning to the disaster over and over again until you begin to wonder if you're ever going to be able to fix it and start to live again. Don't you imagine that's how Joseph felt? He was a righteous man, according to Matthew, a man who followed the commandments scrupulously and had every right to expect that his wife-to-be would do the same. Every life has its seasons, and for Joseph, the season in which he would be married and look forward to starting a family had come. He must have expected there would be some difficulty along the way, but surely nothing like this.

In the midst of Joseph's torment over how to handle this disastrous situation, God intervened. "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you will name him "Jesus," for He will save His people from their sins." The answer Joseph was given did not make anything easier: in fact, it complicated the matter even more. The righteous man who had a painful choice between accusation or quiet rejection was given a glimpse into the purposes of heaven and told that his choice was more important than he had ever imagined. If Joseph took the righteous path, he would save himself and his reputation but deny the voice of God telling him to have faith: if Joseph took the faithful path, the price would be even harsher: a new wife and child of dubious origin and the risk of losing his reputation and the goodwill of a society that valued righteousness above almost everything else. It couldn't have been an easy choice for Joseph. It certainly wouldn't have seemed "right" to be forced to make that choice in the first place. But Joseph was more faithful than he was righteous, and the child of God in Mary's womb came into the world protected by two loving parents, as God intended.

Christmas is the season that always seems to be promoted as the time when everything is "right." People show kindness to friends and strangers alike. Goodwill and harmony reign. The busy world ceases for one night of quiet worship of the beautiful child lying peacefully in a manger, lit by a heavenly glow and heralded by an army of angels singing praises to God. But at the time it wasn't righteous at all. It wasn't a moment of goodwill and harmony, nor did the busy world stop to notice, much less join the angel choir. It would have been no more right if it were to happen tonight, and there's a very good chance that you and I would have missed it as easily as most of the world missed it two thousand years ago.

God did not choose the righteous path when God chose to come into flesh and blood. We often miss the scandal of the Incarnation for the blessings that come to us through it. God redeemed the world through the birth, life and death of Jesus, but God chose to redeem the world from the bottom up, bringing light and salvation to all by the humblest means possible. Joseph and the world around him could have seen nothing but sin in the child Mary bore in her womb. But God used that seemingly unrighteous conception to claim all that is unrighteous for the kingdom of heaven. A child born out of wedlock and laid in a donkey's feed trough was named "God saves" and heralded as the Messiah, God's chosen One, Emmanuel: there is no irony or sarcasm strong enough to hold such a story if it weren't true. It seems right to us today because we've heard the story so often it bears its own authenticity and righteousness. But the wonder of the Incarnation isn't its righteousness: it is the faith of Joseph and Mary that this child was indeed the Messiah whom God had promised.

My friend and former seminary professor Mary Hinkle Shore says that this is only the first of many instances of faith in Matthew's gospel. "Alongside the gift of a baby who bears the very presence of God to humanity is another gift, a gift that the one who is God with us will keep offering throughout his ministry: freedom from fear. The people who will whisper behind your back cannot hurt you, Joseph. Do not be afraid. The storm tossing your boat, O disciples, will be stilled by the One who walks toward you. Do not be afraid. To those sent out in Jesus' name: the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is greater than your visions of being tongue-tied when you attempt to give an account of the hope that is within you. It is greater, too, than the experience of being ridiculed when you manage to offer such an account. Do not be afraid."[2] The faith of Joseph and Mary, the faith of the shepherds and the Magi, the faith of the angels who sing His praise, the faith of Peter, James, John and all the apostles, the faith of Paul and Stephen and all the martyrs, the faith of the whole church marching in line from that night in Bethlehem comes not from the righteousness of the birth of the Messiah but from its unrighteousness. The redemption of all creation rises from the birth of One who was born in such seemingly irredeemable circumstances: what, then, in your life, can not be redeemed by Him? The righteous man who wanted to quietly dismiss his seemingly wayward fiancée adopted her child as his own: how could such a child ever refuse to adopt you, no matter what your sins might be? The world wasn't ready or right for the Incarnation of the Lamb of God, yet He came: He will come for you, too, even though you may not be ready or right for His coming.

Maybe you're not ready for Christmas this year, either. Maybe you, like me, have found yourself struggling to feel righteous enough to be worthy of the Christ-child. Maybe death has touched you with its cold fingers, or sin has surrounded you with its constant temptings, or you are afflicted with the despair of simply knowing that whatever the right way to feel about life may be, you're not there and it's just not going to happen this year. If so, then the angels have a message for you tonight, too: do not be afraid. Your righteousness is not the issue. Neither is death, sin, or despair. The Christ-child came once into a world that was not prepared for Him, and He comes again this night to you, prepared or not, willing or not, righteous or not. God doesn't ask us to be righteous when the Christ comes: God asks us to be faithful, to believe that He is what and who He claims to be: Jesus, the one named "God saves," the Messiah, Emmanuel, "God with us." Do not be afraid, friends, for unto us, unrighteous, unprepared, a child was born, Christ, the Lord, and let all you who are faithful join in the song to welcome Him. Amen.

WALKIN' In A Winter Wonderland!

23 December 2007

And Yes, He's Got Coffee

In just over an hour, CBS will air a two-hour special called "In God's Name." It's supposed to be a conversation with several religious leaders from around the world, including ELCA Presiding Bishop and Lutheran World Relief President Mark Hanson.

Newsweek ran a picture of some of these leaders this week. There were shots of the Orthodox Archbishop in all his liturgical finery, a wonderful shot of the Dalai Lama, and then there was a shot of Hanson. In a suit. Walking down the street. Stainless steel coffee mug in hand.

I think someone at Newsweek is having some fun on us...

Maybe This Is Why I Feel So Out Of Sorts Today

From The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1975 that Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act and started the "go metric" campaign with school activities, bumper stickers, public service announcements, and wall charts. But in 1982, Ronald Reagan disbanded the Metric Board and canceled its funding. The metric system was developed 200 years ago, during of the Age of Reason, and is based on numeric intervals of 10, while the U.S.'s measurement system is based on seeds and body parts. Today, the United States, Liberia, and Myanmar are the only nonmetric countries in the world.

See, I'm metric in a nonmetric country! I knew something was off!

Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent - "Who Are You, Jesus?"

This morning our congregation worshiped using an order of service with lessons and carols based on the "O Antiphons." Most will be familiar with these antiphons from John Mason Neale's hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," from the Latin "Veni, veni Emmanuel." Thus we did not use the appointed texts for the 4th Sunday of Advent, but rather several from throughout Holy Scripture. The passages are: Isaiah 40.3-5, Exodus 6.2-7a, Isaiah 11.1-10, Isaiah 42.5-9, Luke 1.68-79, Isaiah 35.4-7a, Isaiah 7.14.

Fifteen years ago, the summer Bible study for Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries was titled, “Who Are You, Jesus?” Each of the five sessions of the Bible study used one of the “I am” sayings from the gospel of John as its theme: “I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life.” Even then, as a college sophomore just beginning my adult journey of faith, I remember thinking that this would probably be a question Jesus and I would be answering for the rest of my life. In the years since that summer, I’ve discovered that I was right. I still struggle to know who Jesus is, for my life and for the life of you who have called me “Pastor.” In some ways, the question “Who Are You, Jesus” is the central question of everything we do as a church – and if it is not the central question, then one could easily make the case that we’ve been distracted by other, less important questions.

Two thousand years ago, a people in darkness had different questions. Instead of asking “Who Are You, Jesus?”, they were begging, “How long, O Lord?” They were wondering, “When will Messiah come?” They were pleading, “Lord, deliver us!” “Lord, be our wisdom!” “Come, O King of mercy!” “Rise up, O Root of Jesse!” “Shine out, O light of heaven!” God had promised a Savior, an anointed One, a child born to redeem God’s people and to be a light to all nations. But the years had been long since God had spoken. The people who had grown from Abraham and Sarah’s miracle had grown accustomed to the long defeat of life lived under the strength of other nations, who worshiped other gods and laughed at Israel’s dreams. Even the prophets had fallen silent. Here was a people who did not have the luxury of asking, “Who Are You, Jesus?” They asked, “Where are you, Lord? Do You even hear our cries?”

It was into this world that the Savior was born. Hope was given to a people who had no hope. Light was given to a people who sat in deep darkness. Life was given to those surrounded by the death of all they held dear. But when God answered the question, “Where are you, Lord?” the answer was not what the people had thought they wanted to hear. The people who wanted a king were given a carpenter’s son. The people who wanted majesty and glory were given a child born out of wedlock in a stable. The people who wanted general who would restore Israel’s position through power and might were given a teacher who insisted that God’s people were called to serve the world in humility and self-sacrifice. God’s answer to the question “Where are you, Lord?” led to new questions, new fears, new hopes and new dreams, all falling under the one main question: “Who Are You, Jesus?” That question has remained with us in all the years between the coming of Jesus and our time here, today.

“Who Are You, Jesus?” We gather today to hear God’s word answer this question in many different ways. Jesus is the King of the Nations, the Dayspring of God’s light, the Key of David, Root of Jesse, Wisdom of all Wisdom, Lord Adonai and ruler of the house of Israel. But these words cannot answer the question completely. We know that our Lord Jesus will break out of whatever boxes we may construct out of words to hold our Lord and Savior. Our words today point us toward something greater, something more wondrous than we can imagine: Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, eternity enfleshed in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit, and no words can do Him justice, no matter how beautiful they may be. We aren’t here to answer questions this morning: we are here to praise the One who inspires such wonder and tenderly invites us to question the very power that gives us life.

“Who Are You, Jesus?” We are not alone in our quest to answer this question. Twenty centuries of faith, doubt, attack, defense, fear and hope haven’t answered the question for us. The church has grown from a small band of men and women to billions upon billions of followers through two thousand years. Yet even with all the faithful who have gone before us cheering us on, the question cannot be answered for us. I cannot answer the question for you, and you cannot answer the question for me: the best any of us can do is bear witness to the ways in which Jesus is answering the question in our own lives. I cannot tell you who Jesus will be to you: I can only tell you who He is to me, what He has done for me, how He continues to live and act and move in me, how I hope you will experience the same deep, true love which Jesus has given to me. I can only tell you that however I may answer the question today, I know this for certain: whoever Jesus is, He is first of all mine, my Lord, my God, and my Savior. He came to give me love and I can never praise Him enough for it, though I should sing His praises to the end of all time. He lives in me through my baptism and I pray, with all of creation, that one day I may live with Him in righteousness and blessedness forever. Today we praise His name and we ask the question: “Who Are You, Jesus?” We pray, also, that as we offer our songs of praise, God with us will fill our hearts with the grace and mercy that, in the end, give us all the answer we need. Who Are You, Jesus? You are God With Us, Emmanuel, and we ask you to be with us again here, today. Amen.

18 December 2007

Friends To The Rescue

The following two minutes of pure silliness are brought to you by a true friend who, obviously, has the brain today:

Why You Should Never Check Your Church Email Late At Night - Take 2

On the advice of a wise friend and the cooling of my own temper, I've removed a post that was here earlier today. Suffice it to say it was a nasty piece of email from a congregation member regarding our recent purchase of new hymnals. Said email included several mis-interpretations of a number of things that have been said and done over the past year and a couple of lovely little insults about the way I've gone about being the pastor here. I originally posted it with my own response last night. I used to make sure I slept on stuff like this before posting, but I was good and mad this time and didn't really give a rip, especially considering I'll be dealing with this person for another week or so at the most.

Suffice it to say that if you've got a problem with your pastor, the second-least helpful way of dealing with it is an email that
1) attacks said pastor from the start;
2) interprets several public statements and decisions in the worst possible way (a direct violation of Luther's explanation of the 8th Commandment, for all you Lutherans keeping score at home);
3) wanders from the topic at hand into other problems that have not surfaced in your conversation with said pastor in recent memory; and
4) closes with a statement that basically invites said pastor not to let the door hit him/her in the ass on the way out.
(The least helpful way, of course, is refusing to talk to the pastor directly and complaining to several third parties instead.)

Bleccch. I've spent far too much time on this already today. I only have so much capacity for pastoral forbearance, and thankfully it got recharged with some wonderful visits to a few members in our local assisted living complex. Besides, I get to go pick up the most beautiful 11 month old in the world in a little over half an hour: that's bound to improve my day.

But the new rule stands: Never, EVER check your church email late at night!

16 December 2007

Hard to Get - take a listen

Some of you might not have heard Rich Mullins' song "Hard To Get," the one I used as an intro to the sermon this morning in worship. Here's a YouTube posting of the song. Yeah, I know it's just a blank screen, but it's the best I can do right now.

A side note, which occurred to me this morning: when "The Jesus Record" was actually recorded in studio, the musicians put a lot of work into making the demos Rich had recorded into a finished product. I don't want to insult their hard work, but it needs to be said: "Hard to Get" is better, by a million times, as recorded by Rich on his guitar in an abandoned church somewhere in Kansas. The song just isn't supposed to be anything but rough -that's part of the beauty.


Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent - "Hard to Get"

“Hard To Get”

Music & Lryics by Rich Mullins

From the CD “The Jesus Demos”

You who live in heaven, hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love and who get hardened by the hurt
Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape

To find the faith to ask for daily bread?
Did You forget about us after You had flown away?
Well I memorized every word You said
Still I'm so scared, I'm holding my breath

While You're up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance, hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was - still we do love now and then
Did You ever know loneliness - did You ever know need?
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on and Your friends fall asleep
And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat?
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted?
While You're up there just playing hard to get?

And I know you bore our sorrows and I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less, even if it could be explained
And I know that I am only lashing out at the One who loves me most
And after I have figured this, somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity hear the prayers of those of us who live in time?
We can't see what's ahead and we can not get free of what we've left behind
I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret
I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
To where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

There’s a button that appears on my facebook page sometimes. It says, “Let Jesus ruin your life.” The button links you to a social justice website run by Sojourners and Call to Renewal, both of which I support, but that’s not the point here. We don’t usually think about Jesus ruining our lives – we like to think about Jesus saving our lives, especially after death. When death reaches out and swallows someone you love, like it has for some of us recently, we are absolutely right to think on Jesus and the salvation that comes in His name. He has promised us that there is life beyond death for those who believe in Him, and we cling to that belief in the face of death.

But what do we do with Jesus when death is not the immediate enemy? How do we live with Jesus? What does Jesus have to say about the way we live today? Is the button right? Is it possible that Jesus might just be interested in ruining your life? Jesus was notorious for being “hard to get.” Even when Jesus lived among us in flesh and blood, a walking, breathing, talking human being, people had a hard time understanding His teachings. If they struggled then, how much will we struggle today, two thousand years later? Is it possible that Jesus really could ruin our lives? Why is He so hard to get? Please pray with me.

Lord Jesus, You know we often struggle to make sense of what You do and who You are. Just when we think we’ve got it figured out, You go and surprise us again. You shake up our lives and leave us wondering if we’ll ever figure it out. Today, in this Advent season, as we prepare for Your return to make all things new, we invite you: come into our lives. Ruin our lives if You must, but above all, help us understand and trust in You above all else. You are truly hard to get, Lord – help us “get” you aright today. Amen

Every year around this time I start to feel a giant gap between myself and the rest of the world. Sometimes it comes early in December, sometimes later. This year, it came yesterday morning. Kristin and I had stopped at the Target store in Ames to pick up a couple of Christmas presents for our nephew, and I just got overwhelmed. Aisle upon aisle of children’s toys pressed in on me, all brand-named and shiny and ready to be taken home to children who are growing up in the lap of a luxury the world has never known before. I actually felt my throat closing up and my breath coming harder while I tried to figure out what a special on Bob the Builder toys has to do with the birth of God’s child. Two aisles over a young girl started crying because she wanted “that one, Mommy, I want that one!” I just felt disgusted with myself for being there and with all of us for thinking that Mattel or Hasbro could ever help us celebrate the wondrous birth of the Son of the Creator of all that was and is and is to come.

When this happens (and it happens every year), I always try to get away from the noise and bustle and ponder what Jesus thinks about what’s going on. Is He, like me, disgusted at the commercialism that gets unfairly hung upon His name? Is He, unlike me, delighted that parents take the time to try to love their children deeply this time of year? Is Jesus, like me, overjoyed when people take time to give of themselves to those who are less fortunate? When we spend far more time celebrating the birth of a child than we do living as that child taught us to live, what does that child, now ascended to His place of honor beside his father, think of us and the way we live?

Do you ever feel the same way? Do the words and teachings of Jesus sometimes collide with the way you live and the way you think and the way you believe? Do you find yourself and your assumptions about what it means to be a Christian challenged by Jesus Himself? If you do, then take heart – you’re not alone. Jesus has been bothering God’s children from the start, and it seems that after two thousand years He’s still at it.

Our gospel reading for today gives me great hope for those days when Jesus seems most interested in ruining my life. Word of what Jesus was teaching and doing had reached John in prison, and John was bothered by it. John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, herald of the Messiah, the voice crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”, was bothered by what he heard about Jesus. He didn’t get it. He didn’t understand what Jesus was doing. Jesus came teaching and preaching about the kingdom of heaven, and it bothered John so much that he sent a message to Jesus: “Umm, did I get this wrong? Are you the guy, or is there someone else I should be heralding?”

Do you, like me, breathe a huge sigh of relief when you hear John ask that question? If John couldn’t understand what Jesus was up to, is there any reason to think that you and I will always get it? I don’t think so. In fact, I think Jesus purposely finds ways to surprise, shock and confound us, to keep us guessing, to keep us firmly grounded in faith and not in expectation, assumption or, dare I say it, condescension. Jesus plays hard to get so that you and I will have to trust that God really is in charge of the insanity that we call life. Jesus plays hard to get so that you and I will never forget that all our plans and all our hopes and all our fears and all our dreams mean nothing if they are not centered on and grounded in a living faith in the One who made us to plan and hope and fear and dream. Jesus plays hard to get so that you and I will stop trying to tell Him what is good and righteous and pure – so that you and I will start looking to Him to discover what is good and righteous and pure.

“Are you the One who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” There is so much of our existence in that question:

  • “Jesus, I was told to expect a Savior, but I didn’t expect Him to look and talk and act like You. Are You really Him?”
  • “Jesus, I was thinking that the Messiah would be more interested in helping me out. Now You’re telling me to be interested in helping others out. Are You really Him?
  • “Jesus, I wanted to find a church that would never change, where I’d always be the same person and everyone knew how to act. Now You’re telling me that a true church changes people, that no one can ever be the same, and we won’t always know how to act. Are You really Him?”
  • “Jesus, all I want is to be told I’m a good person so I can go back to living the way I want to live. Now You’re telling me that I’m a sinner, that I can never go back to living the way I wanted to live if I want to follow You. Are you really Him?”

There comes a time for all of us when we have to ask John’s question for ourselves if we are going to continue in the way of following Christ. When faith becomes more than just words on Sunday morning, but the sort of thing that keeps popping up where you least expect it, take heart: Jesus is playing hard to get. When grace and mercy keep invading your anger and all the grudges you’ve held for so long, take heart: Jesus is playing hard to get. When you begin to question every assumption you’ve ever held and every prejudice you’ve ever carefully maintained, take heart: Jesus is playing hard to get. When your church becomes a place that feels scary and frightening because it’s not the same old boring songs and readings every week, take heart: Jesus is playing hard to get. When you feel like screaming because you know that God is up to something in your life, but you can’t figure out what it is and it’s driving you nuts, take heart: Jesus is playing hard to get. He does it because it’s the only way we come to faith – being led down the path to the point where all of our attempts to get to God perish and we allow God to come to us in mercy and forgiveness and love. As Rich sang in the song we just heard, “I can’t see how You’re leading me, unless you’ve led me here / to where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.”

Jesus knows He’s playing hard to get: He’s doing it for us, not against us. The kingdom of heaven is filled with those who’ve found Jesus hard to get and have had to simply learn to trust that God is indeed involved, in charge and in control of the world that seems so wildly out of control, rebellious and distant from God’s presence. Here we are today, sinners who find Jesus hard to get, and yet we must have gotten Him sometime, because we keep coming back for more, even when we don’t get it. Through the words of Isaiah, God has promised that the days will come when we’ll all “get it:”

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Isaiah 35.5-10

Take heart, friends, for the One who is playing hard to get IS the One who is to come: we have no need to wait for another. Take no offense at Him, for where we are blind He shall restore our sight; where we are lame, we shall walk; where we are impure, we shall be cleansed; where we are deaf, we shall hear; when we are dead, we shall be raised, and when we struggle under sorrow and fear, we shall receive good news. Here is the place where you can be led by Jesus into the world around you, and have no fear: in Jesus, God is with you, the one who breaks the darkness and will lead you and all God’s children into the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

09 December 2007

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent - "Eyes and Ears"

Preaching Texts

What do your eyes see around you these days? What do your ears hear?

My eyes see a world that is easily distracted from reality. A friend of mine calls it “ooooh, shiny!” syndrome. The work of living can be hard sometimes, and so it’s no wonder we sometimes look for what makes things momentarily better, easier, happier. Last night at the play we heard Solveig tell the cast that she was going to rewrite Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and make it happier because “people like to be happy during the holidays.”

As you’ve looked and listened to the world around you recently, there has been much to make you happy. These are good things, and I hope there are many things to see and hear which make you happy in the life God has given you. But I hope you also remember that your eyes and your ears won’t tell you the whole story. Sometimes our eyes and ears deceive us and make us think that the world all around us are the reality, when in fact much of what we see is illusion and disguise. Happiness is a mask many of us wear to hide the brokenness within, and this time of year we grow especially susceptible to falling for the illusion of happiness and holiday cheer that covers much that is not right.

John the Baptist knew the masks that the people around him wore. He knew that many of his listeners needed to be called out from behind their masks into the light. Matthew’s gospel tells us that John preached a bold word to all his listeners: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Even the Pharisees and Sadducees, the most pious members of the church in John’s time, wore their masks to hide their sin. But John called them out from behind the mask: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.’” Nothing, not even the lineage of Abraham, can hide our sin from God, who knows all and sees all and hears all and is in all things. We can be deceived by what our eyes see and our ears hear: God can not be so easily deceived.

What have we seen here this morning? We’ve seen children singing songs to Jesus – a wondrous, good thing. It’s the same thing we’ve done every year, at least in my time with you, and I know there have been Christmas programs here for years and years and years. But even this good thing can become a mask. Even these good things we cherish and celebrate can become masks to hide behind. These are some of the things John might have to say to us if he were here today:

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We brought our kids to the Christmas program…’

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We made meatballs for the church supper…’

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘Our grandparents built this church in 1908…’

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘I always teach Sunday School…’

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘I come to worship every Sunday…’

It’s not that these things are bad: far from it. It’s a good thing to bring your kids to the Christmas program. It’s a good thing to make meatballs, to teach Sunday School, to remember your family’s connection to a congregation, to hear God’s word regularly. But these are not masks behind which you can hide. You can’t fool God by bringing your kids to Sunday School, or making costumes for the play, or stuffing bags of candy and serving cake after worship. You’re still the sinner behind those masks, and God knows it better than you do.

What’s the answer, then? When we can’t trust our own eyes and ears, where do we turn? We turn to the one who made those eyes and ears, the one who was knitting us together in our mothers’ womb. The God who made you is the God who sees behind all your masks and loves you still. The God who made you is the God who calls you to repentance; not out of anger or spite but out of a desire to let repentance reveal the true person who lives under all the masks behind which we hide. When the kingdom of heaven draws near, all of us will be revealed and none of us will be able to hide: God calls us to repentance so that God can shape us and mold us into what we were always meant to be: saints who live in God’s love and mercy and light. In this life we struggle in darkness and in our bondage to sin, but as the kingdom of heaven breaks in, our sin is overcome by God’s righteousness and our masks are shattered in the light of God’s mercy.

In this Advent season, as the world around you gets noisier and busier and jollier to hide its brokenness and despair, don’t let your eyes and ears be deceived. Enjoy the good things around you, but remember their source and our ultimate destination: the God who created all good things. Come to Him, worship and adore only Him, and you will know what it means to be truly merry, truly joyful, truly at peace. Repent, friends, and drop your masks: the kingdom of heaven draws near.

07 December 2007

Friday Five: Procrastination Edition

I mean, PREPARATION Edition! *sigh* Didn't fool anyone, did I?

From Sally at RGBP:
This has been a difficult week for me, the death of a little six year old has overshadowed our advent preparations, and made many of us here in Downham Market look differently at Christmas. With that in mind I ask whether you are the kind of person that likes everything prepared well in advance, are you a last minute crammer, or a bit of a mixture.....

Here then is this week's Friday 5:
1. You have a busy week, pushing out all time for preparing worship/ Sunday School lessons/ being ready for an important meeting ( or whatever equivalent your profession demands)- how do you cope? Ummm, that's different from my normal week how? Actually, as a pastor this happens quite often. Sometimes it means a late night at the office. In these days of laptops and the internet, it often means a night on the computer at home finishing up the stuff that needed finishing. I've also learned to prepare WAY in advance for the stuff that can be done WAY in advance. I do worship planning at least two months out, and I'm trying to get myself in the habit of always working at least two months ahead on the calendar for stuff that can be done early.

2. You have unexpected visitors, and need to provide them with a meal- what do you do? Hope they like frozen pizza? At this point in our lives we don't have many unexpected visitors: with the baby folks generally understand we need advance notice for just about everything.

Three discussion topics:

3. Thinking along the lines of this weeks advent theme; repentance is an important but often neglected aspect of advent preparations..... Oh heavens, yes. I've wondered sometimes if the massive shopocalypse is our way of avoiding the harder work of repentance. I know I've tried to shop my way into feeling better in the past - and I can also tell you it doesn't work.

4. Some of the best experiences in life occur when you simply go with the flow..... You mean like my sermons? :-) True at times, but not always. Generally true when you're dealing with children and less so with adults - going with the flow with an attractive young lady would definitely NOT be one of the best experiences of this married father's life.

5. Details are everything, attention to the small things enables a plan to roll forward smoothly... Again, true at times. Making sure the bulletin notes what "WOV" and "LBW" and "ELW" mean are details that do allow a worship service to roll forward smoothly. Having a category 5 snit over the location of the flag or the font style in the bulletin or who says what in the Christmas program are details that have crossed from "helpful" to "problematic."

Bonus if you dare- how well prepared are you for Christmas this year? Ummm, as much as any year, which is to say, worship is set, I know where the candles for the candlelight service are, my soup is ready for next week's Advent supper, and I haven't bought one present for Beloved, Ainsley or my name from the family hat yet. Typical.

Let me also say that this will be one of those busy weeks, due to the death of a beloved member of our community. While it means more work, this is work that is the great privilege of every pastor to carry out. I told the family this morning that I was honored to still be here to preside over C's funeral, and I meant it. Even in this Advent season, as we anticipate the coming of Christ, we know that we ourselves are dying - and in Christ alone do we hope.

The picture is the Schlosskirche or "Castle Church" in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, Germany. I took this picture in January 2003 when I was in Wittenberg, the city in which Martin Luther lived and preached for most of his life. One of the great regrets of my life is that I'll never get to spend Advent or Christmas in Germany, due to the job requirements I have here in the U.S. in that season. It would be grand to tour the Christmas markets and drink gluhwein every night.

06 December 2007

Quiet, Mindful Advent Morning

My coffee is hot, and I'm listening to my new winter album, Snow Angel by Over the Rhine (thanks to the several of you who mentioned it - it's a keeper.) I think it's snowing again - at the very least the sun isn't visible this morning and it's that quiet, grey winter dawn that just makes you want to sit and think for a while.

I've tried to practice being more mindful this Advent - it's sort of working. Obviously, two original blog posts in one week is a reflection of that. As we begin the true countdown to the move (my final Sunday is a month from today), I'm trying so very hard to be observant and not miss anything these last few weeks. In other transitions in my life, I was sometimes so ready to move to the next thing that I shortchanged the experience of ending well. Not this time.

I wonder sometimes if one of the reasons so many of us struggle with Advent is a lack of mornings like this. Yes, I want to go charging off into my day, and I'll get to that soon enough. But right now it's grey outside, cold and wintry. There may be some fresh-fallen snow from last night to further smooth and deaden the already silent environment. There is a hush here that you can't experience on a beach or even without snow and cold. Shoot, I struggle to be mindful and practice Advent waiting when I'm surrounded by this - how miserably would I fail if we lived in Florida full-time, or Australia, where now they're in the midst of summer?

Anyway - mindful. I walked around the house this morning after Kristin and Ainsley left (early morning water aerobics for my wife and day care for my baby) and noticed how much electricity we were using. Several lamps were still on, though we had only turned them on to be able to see while we stumbled around getting each other and the baby up for the day. The TV was playing CNN even though we hadn't watched any of it - it was just noise. So I turned out all the lights and appliances (except the coffee - gotta keep the java hot). and just sat in the easy chair for a little bit. Quiet house, complete with purring cat in lap and snow outside. A good moment.

Milton has been writing about virtues and practices the past couple of days, much more eloquently than I can manage right now, but in the same vein. I want to live like this, more mindful of the real world around me, the quiet on-going life of the world into which Christ deigned to be born. I don't want to be fooled into believing that life is the glamours it throws up to hide itself - I want to see what's really going on. But getting there takes practice and a lifelong commitment to mindfulness. Or, as Milt quotes from Samuel Wells:
Habit develops instinct, a pattern of unconscious behavior that recalls a deep element of character...The early church believed that its own fragile and vulnerable state was deceptive . . . They demonstrated this faith by maintaining nonviolence, the practice of confronting evil using only the weapons that Christ himself used. The early Christians also believed that they were a distinct people with a special vocation. Their form of life was dictated by no criterion other than faithfulness to Christ. Their identity was expressed in baptism. They believed their common life and servant practice were the heart of the gospel. They believed their calling was to show what kind of life was possible when communities lived in the light of God’s providence and they embodied this faith in their celebration of the Eucharist.
What is my character? How are my habits developing the ability to live more mindfully? What is Jesus redeeming in my life, and what chaff is He casting into the fire?

Just a few thoughts over a now-lukewarm cup of coffee on a cold Minnesota morning in December. Blessings to you all.


04 December 2007

Late Night "What the $%#@?" Moment

Took this quiz on a whim. To be honest, I was going to take it and then make some witty remark about how we're conditioned to take these things by all the tests we've already taken. Then this result pops up:

You Are Likely A Forth Born

At your darkest moments, you feel angry.
At work and school, you do best when your analyzing.
When you love someone, you tend to be very giving.

In friendship, you don't take the initiative in reaching out.
Your ideal jobs are: factory jobs, comedy, and dentistry.
You will leave your mark on the world with your own personal philosophy.

First off, what the hell is a "forth" born? If it's supposed to be "fourth" born, the creator of the quiz misspelled it in several places within the code, not just once (though I'm not suggesting that the people who write these quizzes are evil genii or anything. After all, you'll notice they also used an incorrect possessive "your" where the contraction "you're" was the correct word.). Secondly, factory jobs, comedy, and dentistry?

I have a license for causing pain...

As I said, "What the $%#@?"

03 December 2007

Brainy Stuff

Every once in a while you read (or, in this case, listen to) a book that stimulates your mind in a new and exciting way. This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession did that for me over the past few weeks. I've been listening to it on my iPod while driving/running on the treadmill, and it's been fascinating. One thought in particular continues to amaze me: according to author Daniel Levitin, as well as many other researchers, infants have no frame of reference by which to sort their sensory experience, so things tend to cross over into other sensory areas. Thus, a G major chord might taste like chocolate, or the opening of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik might smell like a freshly-baked apple pie. No wonder I've always loved music - it reminds me of food!

In seriousness, the book was fascinating on many levels. Levitin has a broad, but detailed, grasp of music both modern and classical, and the book, though abridged, stimulated my own mind as I listened to him explain what the most recent brain research tells us about the impact of music on the human mind. If you're a music lover, or especially a music teacher (that's you, Bode!), you might want to check this book out.

I'm walking a fine line with brain stimulation these days. With the move and everything that goes with it weighing on us at the present, there are times when "one more thing to think about" is "one more thing to think about" too many. But I've noticed that the periods when I try to unplug from everything are the periods when my mental and physical health are at their lowest. There's a relationship there somewhere, I'm sure. I need to be stimulated, physically, mentally, spiritually and socially, and this time of year is, unfortunately, a time of year when it becomes much easier to say no to all of it.

Then, of course, there are those around me who remain adamantly opposed to thinking at all. You've heard the furor surrounding the movie version of The Golden Compass, which is in theaters now. Supposedly, author Philip Pullman is trying to kill God and people shouldn't go see the movie. The problems with this email campaign come from so many different sources. First, as with The DaVinci Code, you must remember where one finds the book in question in the first place: the FICTION section of your local bookstore or library. Second, in The Golden Compass the fictional "church" really is corrupt and could do with a bit of opposition - much like the real church has been at many instances throughout its history. Third, an email campaign in opposition to a movie for the sake of our children will only guarantee one thing: our kids will want to see what's causing all the fuss. Finally, when we take the role of absolute moral authority in such matters upon ourselves, it rings presumptuous at best and hypocritical at worst to a world that is tired of the church passing judgment on everything except itself. How, exactly, is condemning a movie sight unseen supposed to reveal the presence of God in our midst? I'll be honest: I'm far more offended by the self-righteous, hysterical and unreasonable fear within the church than I am by the questions posed by an author who admits to agnosticism honestly. Histrionics accomplish nothing for the sake of the gospel - but an open, loving conversation with one who doubts might just prove beneficial for both parties. Can we not agree that the ability to think critically about our faith and the world around us, to be challenged and meet that challenge without fear or violence, says far better things about God and our faith communities than email campaigns and picket signs against movies and books?

Just to be safe, I did spend the last few weeks reading The Golden Compass again in order to answer any questions folks might have. I enjoyed it immensely, as I did the first time. This is just good writing, period, and there's nothing for the honest, THINKING Christian to fear from Pullman's writing or the movie in question. If your kids ask questions, well, one could always do the risky thing and actually answer them - or consult your local clergyperson if the issue gets too deep. We are, after all, available Monday-Saturday in addition to Sunday. :-)

Well, that might be enough thinking for this morning. It's snowing again and I have meetings to get to today - my final Runestone Conference Pastors' meeting is this morning. Plus I need to get a new battery for Kristin's car. Blessings, all!