28 October 2007

Sermon for Reformation Sunday - "Self-Centered Saints and Christ-Centered Sinners"

Hearers of God’s Word, grace to you and peace through God our Chreator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and the God the Holy Spirit, present and active here among us this morning. Amen.

I had a wonderful conversation with one of you a few weeks ago. We were talking about what we put in the offering plate, and you said how wonderful it felt to give away 10% of what God has entrusted to you. You said how surprising it was that even though you were now giving away far more than you ever had before, you never lacked for anything you needed. You said “I wonder where we spent our money before?” But the best part of that conversation was how you started it. You said, “You know, Pastor, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but…” I know you weren’t tooting your own horn – but that sentence was so quintessentially Minnesotan I expect Garrison Keillor will be calling in a couple of days for your story. Now, I know you weren’t praising yourself: you were giving witness to the goodness with which God has blessed you, and I thank you, and I still hope you’ll stand up front some Sunday and tell your story. But if not, at least it’s been told anonymously now.

“I don’t want to toot my own horn…” Our friend the Pharisee probably didn’t think he was tooting his own horn, either – but he certainly wasn’t giving witness. His prayer from the gospel of Luke sounds like the worst kind of self-trumpeting. The Greek for verse 11 in our gospel text reads literally like this: “the Pharisee stood by himself and prayed about himself.” This is what Martin Luther called incurvatus in sei, the curving in of the self that occurs whenever sin gains the upper hand. Incurvatus in sei is the difference, I think, between two different types of people: self-centered saints, and Christ-centered sinners. One is faithful and justified, the other is religious and stands in danger of condemnation, and Jesus used this surprising story to remind his listeners, especially the saints in the audience, that justification and salvation are NOT a matter of our own righteousness and high standards.

We have this brutal tendency to measure ourselves in competition with others, even in our faith. “I don’t pray as much as Susie Saint.” I don’t know my Bible like Billy Believer.” “Our church doesn’t sing like those folks at First Heavenly Angels Lutheran Church.” Or maybe we fall on the high side in our estimation of our faith. “That Dorothy: she’s just not open-minded enough to be a real Christian.” “David never studied his Bible: that’s why he’s such a lousy Christian.” “We can’t have those people here: they just aren’t decent Christian folks like the rest of us.” When we measure our faith in comparison to others, whether favorably or unfavorably, we’ve gotten the wrong picture of what it means to be a Christian. Measuring ourselves by others leads to self-centered sainthood, much like the Pharisee in the parable Jesus told his listeners.

Imagine a grown man who sits in our pews on Sunday and is a faithful member of the community. He prays every day as soon as he wakes up and before he goes to bed. He follows the commandments as carefully as he can. He gives 10% of every dollar he earns instead of whatever is in his wallet on Sunday. He doesn’t smoke or drink, he doesn’t swear, he pays all his bills on time and doesn’t borrow a dime from anyone. Wouldn’t you like to have this person in our church? Then you would like to have a Pharisee here, because that’s who the Pharisees were in Jesus’ time. The Pharisees were the group within the church that dedicated itself as much as possible to the pursuit of piety and holiness. And this particular Pharisee’s prayer was not necessarily uncommon. The following prayer from the Talmud, a Jewish commentary on the Old Testament, was prayed by rabbis when they were leaving the house of study where they worked: I give thanks to Thee, O Lord my God, that Thou has set my portion with those who sit in the Beth ha-Midrash [the house of study] and Thou has not set my portion with those who sit in [street] corners for I rise early and they rise early, but I rise early for words of Torah and they rise early for frivolous talk; I labor and they labor, but I labor and receive a reward and they labor and do not receive a reward; I run and they run, but I run to the life of the future world and they run to the pit of destruction.” [1] If that prayer sounds a bit harsh, ask yourself: how many times have you explained away the sins of your neighbor by thanking God that your faith and your church have kept you on the straight and narrow? You and I need to realize that this parable is indeed about us, here, today, or we risk the same sort of self-condemnation as the Pharisee. Jesus addressed all of us self-centered saints directly in the parable we’re reading this morning from Luke’s gospel. We hear this parable through our own ears, which have grown accustomed to thinking that Pharisees were the evil, condescending opponents of all authentic faith in 1st century Jerusalem, and tax collectors were the long-suffering, misunderstood civil servants that Jesus chose because of their hidden righteousness. We are wrong when we hear the story like that. You and I have a lot more in common with Pharisees than we do tax collectors. We are drawn to the idea that we make our own grace through our prayers and our actions. We like the idea that we could be self-centered saints.

When Jesus told this parable, he used it as part of a larger body of teaching about the kingdom of God and how it would look. Jesus’ story addressed all self-righteousness based on competition or comparison with others. Using the Pharisee was a convenient way to show that God’s ways are not our ways, that the kingdom of God is not based on human standards of competition and classification. When we see ourselves in competition or in comparison with others regarding our faith, we trade the grace of God, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and the gift of the Holy Spirit for our pride, our ambition, and our good works. We get just enough religion to be virtuous, but not enough to be humble.

The other side of this bondage to sin and self is that it always comes at the expense of others. Our Pharisee, who is trying his hardest to please God and save himself, is interacting with the tax collector. But that interaction is based on one thing: the Pharisee’s contempt for the tax collector. This Pharisee cannot see a child of God when he looks at the Tax Collector – all he can see is a sinner to be avoided at all costs. If you want a parallel image, imagine a hospital where sick patients are herded into a room to suffer while the medical staff spends their time getting flu shots and keeping themselves clean. Hospitals do their work among the sick, not the healthy, and Jesus is calling his followers to do their work among sinners, not saints.

The tax collector, for whatever reason, had faith that this is exactly what God is up to: giving out mercy to those who need it desperately. We don’t know his circumstances; maybe he had cheated his neighbors for years and was now feeling the effect of that sin on his conscience. Maybe he became a Tax Collector because no other work was available, and he found himself sucked into bilking the unfortunate and the poor without ever realizing what he was doing. Whatever his circumstances, one thing is certain: he has faith that the mercy of God could be greater than his sins, whatever they may be. The Tax Collector gets what Jesus has been talking about: the characteristic of God’s kingdom that has power is GRACE, not works. There are no prerequisites in the kingdom of God. You don’t need a high school diploma, a masters’ degree, or a certification program. There’s not even a credit check. The GRACE of God gets you in and the GRACE of God is all that matters. The only righteousness that matters is God’s, and I think the tax collector went home with all the righteousness he could handle while the Pharisee returned to his competition hungry for more.

Today is Reformation Sunday. We celebrate the day when legend suggests that a young monk named Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 statements, or “theses” for public debate on the bulletin board of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Saxony. First among those statements was this: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite (Be penitent), willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”[2] To understand Reformation Sunday as a celebration of Luther telling the Roman church to buzz off would be a mistake. Rebellion was never part of the plan, nor was division. For Luther, Christ-centered faith was always the goal, a faith which rescues sinners from their sins and gives sure confidence in God’s love and mercy to those without hope for either. Luther posted his 95 Theses for the good of the church, that we might become a place for Christ-centered sinners to find genuine forgiveness and reconciliation with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Pastor Daniel Clendenin said that the tax collector’s prayer is, really, “the only prayer you’ll ever need.”[3] “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And so, once Christ becomes the center of mercy and grace in our hearts and minds, we become Christ-centered sinners who know that salvation is given through Christ alone.

Now that the gift of grace has been given, now that faith is the name of the game, the members of the kingdom of God are free to turn to their neighbors in service and love. Here is where Christian work finds its definition: Christian work is a means by which we may live in the kingdom God has created in Jesus Christ. You cannot work your way into a gift that has already been given! The life of Christian discipleship begins at baptism, not when you reach some arbitrary standard of living or level of righteousness. The mark of the cross given in Baptism is God’s seal of approval for all time: nothing you do can take it away or make it more valid than it already is. When the pastor marked your forehead with the cross of Christ and sealed you with the Holy Spirit forever, your center was established: you are now Christ-centered, one who knows that God is at work within you, in spite of your tendency to think that it’s all about you. There is, after all, a horn to be tooted, but it is God’s horn, not our own, and we raise the strain of glad thanksgiving that Jesus Christ, God with us, remains the center of all our righteousness, and we sinners have a home of mercy and peace with Him. God be praised! Alleluia! Amen.

[1] Brian Stoffregen, Crossmarks Exegetical notes at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke18x9.htm [b. Ber. 28b (Soncino 1: 172), quoted in Hear Then the Parables by Bernard Brandon Scott]

25 October 2007

Halloween Friday Five...err...Six

It's Friday and I'm near a computer - that must mean it's time for the Friday Five!
All Hallows Eve (Halloween) is near. As a child, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. We didn’t yet worry about razor blades in apples or popcorn balls or some of the other concerns people have with Halloween these days. Halloween was a chance to be mildly scared, and better yet, to dress up and pretend to be something we really weren’t. Let’s talk about that a bit, but then let’s add in some food ideas for this year. Where I live the leaves are falling, the temperature is chilly and pumpkins are for sale everywhere, along with many kids of apples. What's more, the "Holiday Season" will soon be upon us. ACK! I could use a new idea for dessert. So, here we go…

1. How did you celebrate this time of year when you were a child?
With lots and lots of candy, natch! I remember one year when one of my classmates parents' threw a Halloween party and we actually bobbed for apples and the like, then we ran around town throwing firecrackers and generally making a nuisance of ourselves for a couple of hours. Harmless fun, really, except for those people who liked to go to sleep before 10:00pm!

2. Do you and/or your family “celebrate” Halloween? Why or why not? And if you do, has it changed from what you used to do?
These days we find ourselves celebrating Halloween at our local lakeside pavilion Halloween fundraiser sometime close to 31st October (usually the Saturday before). It's a lot of fun; they fry up a big batch of walleye and hand out prizes for the best costumes (ours usually suck so we've never won). Then on Halloween night we make sure we have a bit of candy for trick-or-treaters who stop by. Beloved HATES horror flicks, so my favorite part of the holiday has gone by the wayside somewhat these last few years.

2. Candy apples: Do you prefer red cinnamon or caramel covered? Or something else?
If it ain't caramel covered, it ain't a candy apple

3. Pumpkins: Do you make Jack O’ Lanterns? Any ideas of what else to do with them?
I love making Jack O'Lanterns - we'll have a couple this year! Beloved likes roasting the seeds, but other than that we're clueless; I wouldn't have the first idea how to make an actual pumpkin pie.

4. Do you decorate your home for fall or Halloween? If so, what do you do? Bonus points for pictures. For Halloween, no, but we have been known to break out some Indian corn and a few odds and ends for an autumnal theme around the house. I'm usually getting ready to decorate for Christmas in October because stringing lights in November in Minnesota is a good way to get frostbite.

5. Do you like pretending to be something different? Does a costume bring our an alternate personality?
Oddly enough, even though I love doing theater I don't particularly enjoy costume parties. It's like I either have to go whole hog or not at all.

Bonus: Share your favorite recipe for an autumn food, particularly apple or pumpkin ones.
This is so terrible: I've got nothing! Usually we just make a lot of soup and grilled cheese this time of year because it's just good and easy. I need an autumn recipe!

Seven True Things

I've been tagged by LutherLiz to tell you Seven True Things about myself. Cool!

1. I love to both stay up late and get up early. (Thus two blog posts after 10:00 tonight) In college, I'd often be up until midnight or later, but would sleep late. After delivering papers for a couple of years, I grew to love the quiet of 6:00 am (or even earlier) and since then I've been a morning person of sorts. This is a bit of a problem, since I lose motivation to run when I wake up tired, and heaven knows with an infant we're waking up tired a lot this year.

2. Like a lot of pastors, I'm an introvert in an extrovert's profession. I enjoy Sunday mornings, but they are absolutely exhausting for me: I generally come home, make a pot of coffee, grab the Sunday paper and disappear from society for the rest of the day.

3. I have a serious problem with fast food restaurants. Whenever I'm driving to or from cities where the golden arches and the like are convenient I have to force myself to not take the drive-thru for a burger, fries and a chocolate shake. This would explain how I once weighed 270 pounds; in college I ate nothing but burgers and fries and the like for nearly four years straight.

4. One of the reasons I like being a runner so much is the gear. I'm a total REI/Road Runner Sports junkie. Beloved sent me to REI for a new nalgene bottle today and I spent 30 minutes looking at waterproof running jackets and trying to figure out how I could save for one for next winter.

5. I was in the marching band at the University of Nebraska, and I had to sit out one game my third year due to injury. I pulled a groin muscle when one of my friends and I were horsing around before practice on game day, but it didn't stiffen up until I was in uniform and getting ready to march to the stadium. But it hurt so bad I couldn't even walk, so they carted me to and from the stadium - in uniform - and I spent most of the game sitting in the band section icing my groin. To make matters worse, my high school football coach saw me going out of the stadium on the cart and laughed his fool head off.

6. I have tried to read The Brothers Karamazov three times and have failed in each attempt.

7. I haven't smoked a cigarette in over three years. Woo hoo!

So, now I have to tag seven people. I tag LutheranHusker, Mark, RuthRE, HotCup, David, MoSup and Skdo. Have fun!


Ross provided this link for a quiz about which candidate best reflects my opinions. Now, I've been an Obama supporter for quite a while, mostly since listening to The Audacity of Hope and remembering how his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention seemed far more presidential (and no, I don't know how to define that any better than, well, presidential) than even Senator Kerry. Surprisingly, though, it seems I am most closely aligned with Dennis Kucinich. Huh? Really?

Ross asked the question about what it would be like if we, as a nation, voted our minds rather than the spin. Frankly, I don't think it's possible to do that at the moment, at least in the presidential election, because the candidates are selected by fund-raising ability rather than the quality of their ideas. There is precious little nuance in the American political system today, and unfortunately those of us who would prefer the chance to think more independently about it get hammered about throwing our votes away. In the 2006 election for Governor here in Minnesota, I voted for the person I felt was best qualified to hold the office: Peter Hutchinson, the Independence Party candidate. He seemed best able to think clearly about the challenges and opportunities facing us as a state in the future. No, I never once considered it as a "throwaway" vote: why would I even do such a thing? But, unfortunately, those of us who supported a candidate in whom we believed got blamed for "losing" the election for the Democratic candidate. I don't have any regrets. I wish we could get out of this polarizing and ultimately regressive state of things and try and find a way to govern ourselves without the brinksmanship that currently dominates American politics.

Anyway, take the quiz: I'd be interested to see if you think your result makes sense. All parties welcome - no political proselytizing from me, I promise!

24 October 2007

"Hoc Est Meum Corpum" means "Hoc Est Meum Corpum!"

Eucharistic theology
created with QuizFarm.com
You scored as Luther

You are Martin Luther. You'll stick with the words of Scripture, and defend this with earthy expressions. You believe this is a necessary consequence of an orthodox Christology. You believe that the bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ, but aren't too sure about where he goes after the meal, and so you don't accept reservation of the Blessed Sacrament or Eucharistic devotions.













23 October 2007

Dilbert on Health Care

I'm at a continuing education event at Luther Seminary this week, working through next year's lectionary in the Gospel of Matthew and other readings. This morning we're talking about Matthew 6 and the ethics of Matthew 6.25: "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" As we've talked about work and worry and how to be aware of the context in which our people work and live, I was reminded of this brilliant Dilbert from a few weeks ago:

22 October 2007

Husker Pain

One thing I neglected to mention in the weekend report was another disheartening loss for our beloved Cornhuskers. As painful as this season has been, I think it's even more painful to hear about the low-class assholes who booed and chanted at Defensive Coordinator Kevin Cosgrove's son in a high school football game in Lincoln. That kind of idiotic, juvenile behavior betrays everything I have ever loved about being a Husker fan, and I hope I never hear of something like that again.

Having said that, it's tough to watch the evasiveness and confusion coming out of the north stadium locker rooms: the constant non-answers and parsing of questions is just exhausting for fans accustomed to accountability and honesty. Sam McKewon of the Nebraska StatePaper has another great article about the mess that is Cornhusker football today: read it here.

Ah, for the days when we could chant, "Big Red in the Orange Bowl" and actually think it would happen. Maybe someday we'll get there again.

21 October 2007

Fat Man Running!

Yesterday was the Siouxland Half-Marathon in Sioux City, IA. I ran at the invitation of our friends Jessi and Jared, who live in nearby Elk Point, SD; they invited a bunch of their friends to run with them, and we thought it sounded like a good chance to get home for a couple of days with my folks as well. All in all, it was a GREAT weekend - we got to see some of my family and friends, I got to watch my high school football team extend their winning streak to 20 games (defending Nebraska Class C-2 State Champs!) and I hit both of my goals for the run, even with precious little training. So, here's the weekend report.

We begin our coverage with a cute baby picture:

I'm happy to report she is not falling down the stairs...often.

Anyway, on Friday, we ate lunch with my mom at the hospital where she works, then drove over to see my Grandma Janke at her senior living community. We had a very nice visit: even Ainsley enjoyed the chance to see her great-grandma.

Friday night was the big Wakefield - Laurel football game. Wakefield was undefeated and ranked #1 in the state in most polls, while Laurel was also undefeated and ranked #6 in at least one poll. The game was every bit as good as it was supposed to be. My dad and I watched most of it from the north end zone, with my youngest brother and his girlfriend for the second half, and we saw most of the scoring for the evening up close. Wakefield prevailed 14-6, preserving a win streak that dates back to the start of the 2006 football season. Go Trojans! I will say this: it's a tough year to be a Husker fan, but getting this close to a high school football game reminded me what competition, heart and guts looks like. Boy, was I impressed with the kids on both teams for the way they sold out time and time again in pursuit of victory. You wonder sometimes how the game can look so different at the next level, and also what the difference is like at field level - would I see the game the same way if I could be that close in Lincoln? Hard to say. Anyway, if you need a boost of excitement, get thee to a good high school football game - it'll cure what ails ya.

I would be remiss if I didn't note that the only reason I got to watch said football game was because a certain someone who is short and has only two teeth was being a bit of a pill on Friday (no, Cletus, I don't mean Great-aunt Gladys). Our beautiful little one woke up five times Thursday night-Friday morning, wouldn't go down for her morning nap and basically scared us into cancelling a much-anticipated dinner date with LutheranHusker and his family. I'll admit that I was happy to be going to the football game as an alternative, but it would have been doubly nice to see friends instead. *sigh* Maybe over Thanksgiving, guys?

Saturday morning was the big race. I got up early, had some breakfast and left for Sioux City. The marathoners were divided into sub-4 and 4-hour+ groups. I pulled into the parking lot just as the 4-hour+ marathon group was toeing the starting line. This was one part of the race that I thought was just not well-planned. I realize that it's tough to run a marathon, but putting us slowbies at the starting line before the sun comes up? Come on, folks, give the runners the respect they deserve for trying to do this and start everyone at the same time.

Beloved and my dad headed for Sioux City later, and caught up with me at about mile five or so. Here's some pictures they took while waiting for us to get to them.

That's my girl, waiting for poppa!

Beloved, Ainsley and my dad at their post, waiting for us to get to them.

The half marathoners started at about mile 13 on the marathon course and ran to the same finish line. After a fairly flat first mile, we turned into Big Stone State Park for miles 2-4. By the time we got through the park I thought we had actually CLIMBED the "big stone:" those hills were KILLER and we were only getting started! I can't imagine what the marathoners did when they hit those half-mile, 6-10 degree hills at mile 17-19. Talk about hitting the wall. Anyway, Beloved and Dad had to wait for us on the other side of the park since they shut down the roads, so we got to them on our way downhill.

I was running with our friends Nora (l) and Jessi (r) when we got there. Beloved couldn't quite get the digital camera to shoot motion shots, so I got cut out of this one. But you can see in the picture below that we jogged right on by and kept movin' right along (I'm the widebody on the right).

Beloved did get a couple of nice shots as they zoomed past in our car on the way to the finish line. At this point we were still doing great and having fun with our 9:00/mile pace.

Somewhere around mile 9 we went into this bizarre grass alley that took us from an asphalt highway onto a concrete sidewalk, a loop around a park and back toward downtown Sioux City on a concrete road. Then we moved onto a concrete running path for a good portion of the last few miles. All that concrete really wears on your feet and joints, and I found myself really laboring to keep the pace going. But here's a first for me: I ran through two stitches by focusing and managing my breathing. Before yesterday, I never would have tried to keep up my pace, but I wanted to stay with my friends and I managed to do it. That was pretty awesome.

Of course, it was also pretty hard. To make matters worse, most of the last two miles traveled down a rather ugly stretch of 2nd Street that just seemed to last forever. It was the worst closing stretch of any race I've done so far - really miserable, as you can tell from the picture below, taken when Beloved shouted, "You're almost there!" about 400 yards from the finish:

We did finish strong, though, and wonder of wonders, the idiot boy calling out finishers actually got all three of our names right (who the bloody hell hires a high school kid to announce finishers for a marathon?). Here we are, coming down the chute and crossing the finish line.

AND even though I hadn't trained particularly well, I managed to break two hours:

Congrats from the Jessi the Ironlady, who could have run much faster but chose to stay with her friends (cause she's awesome):

Jessi's husband Jared finishing - Mr. Incredible crosses the finish line!

Daddy getting Ainsley all sweaty and not caring a bit!

Nora, Jessi, Daddy & Ainsley celebrating another fun run:

And, the whole gang: Ross, Dawn, Jessie, Jared, Jessi, yours truly, and Nora, all finishers. We rock!

And now, public pronouncement of the next goal: Grandma's Marathon, Duluth, MN, 21 June 2008, sub-4 hours or bust!

15 October 2007

Big News from Lincoln

Monday Meme

What Kind of Reader Are You?
Your Result: Dedicated Reader

You are always trying to find the time to get back to your book. You are convinced that the world would be a much better place if only everyone read more.

Obsessive-Compulsive Bookworm

Literate Good Citizen

Book Snob

Fad Reader


What Kind of Reader Are You?
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Well, DUH.

Monday Madness

First, a shout out to David Hayward at naked pastor for the excellent cartoon to your right!

It's been an incredibly busy week here in Barrett. I've been all over the place and done lots of stuff. Somehow I managed to get some good running in last week, but Friday morning was the last time I ran and today I'm going to have to work to get myself out the door for one more hard workout before the Siouxland Half-Marathon on Saturday.

I didn't preach yesterday. I invited Pastor John Lee from the Northwestern Minnesota Synod staff to preach, and boy, was it a good sermon. I really enjoyed the chance to receive good news instead of proclaim it - and I also enjoyed giving Beloved a chance to listen to a sermon instead of watching Ainsley.

Friday-Saturday was our Synod Council retreat, around which I managed to assist in the wedding of our massage therapist, who is also a friend. (yes, there were many jokes on that subject this weekend) Yesterday we had worship and then I ran off to Alexandria for our Fall Conference Gathering, after which I ran over to movie night with our youth at the home of one of our church families. We watched Evan Almighty, which is an even better movie than the first in the series. Like my friend LutheranHusker said, "I'm not convinced that Morgan Freeman is acting. Have you ever seen Morgan Freeman and God in the same place? I'm just saying..." Great movie and a great day, but tiring.

Today is my personal day. In some ways I suppose it should by a Sabbath for us, but lately it's been our get-everything-done-that-we-couldn't-do-during-the-week day. So, I'm into the second load of laundry, I'll be sorting the recycling in a few minutes, and later I've got to rotate the tires on my Jetta and check to see if Beloved's car needs an oil change (I think it does). The house needs cleaning, the Friday and Sunday papers need reading, the baby's got an appointment to get her cold checked out later this afternoon, and I've got ironing to do while Heroes is on tonight. BUT we do get a bit of a Sabbath this week: we're going to Nebraska Thursday-Saturday to see my folks and run in the aforementioned Siouxland Half-Marathon. Hopefully I'll get to spend some time in a tractor cab on Friday helping my dad with corn harvest - that would be FUN.

It's also Environmental Blog Action Day. I went to climatecrisis.net, the website for the movie An Inconvenient Truth, and I took a carbon footprint test. I discovered that we are average at best and possibly a bit higher than average in our energy consumption, even when you figure in that we've purchased some of our electricity through wind farms, we drive fairly efficient cars and we're trying to limit our travel. But folks, when your house requires as much oil to heat as ours does, and you regularly drive 30 miles for work and groceries and other stuff, those carbon emissions add up quickly. So I'm hoping to find some ways to do better over the winter. Yes, Mr. Carter, I'll put on a sweater (Beloved will probably be wearing two, and gloves in the house to boot)! But I do take climate and environmental issues seriously, and I hope my readers do, too (yes, I meant BOTH of you...).

In other news, my beloved Cornhusker volleyball team is still ranked #1 and hasn't lost even a set since the Stanford game back in September. They are devouring opponents and I can't wait to watch them defend their national title this year. What was that? The football team? Do we have a football team? ;-)

I'm tired, and Ainsley is keeping us busy today, but life is good. This is our Monday Madness. As you were...

12 October 2007

This Doesn't Happen Much Anymore

The Child is sound asleep in her crib.

The wife is in town for a 5th Quarter that will last until late.

I'm not preaching Sunday - someone from the Synod Staff is preaching to kick off our stewardship program.

I have the second disc of Battlestar Galactica, Season 1 from Netflix. And beer.

hee hee hee hee hee!

Friday Five: The B-I-B-L-E

Does everyone remember the old Sunday School song?

The B-I-B-L-E,
Oh, that's the book for me.
I take my stand on the Word of God,
The B-I-B-L-E

I have been working on an expansive language version of the Psalms and the Liturgy of the Hours/Divine Office/Breviary. (For you non-liturgical gals and pals, that's a set of prayers for morning, noon, evening, etc., mostly consisting of Psalms and other biblical texts).

So I have been thinking a lot about the Bible recently, and how we encounter it as God's Word--or don't--in our lives, prayer, and ministry. (Great minds think somewhat alike this week, as yesterday's Ask The Matriarch post dealt with ways to help as many people in a community as possible engage with a scriptural text in preparation for Sunday worship).

So, in that spirit, I offer my first Friday Five. I'm looking forward to hearing everyone's experience and reflection on these B-I-B-L-E questions:

1. What is your earliest memory of encountering a biblical text?
This is going to sound really funny, but I my earliest memory is the Zacchaeus story and, of course, the song that accompanied it in Mrs. Eaton's Preschool Sunday School class. The reason I remember it, though, is that my middle brother was always small for his age and I always thought of MidBro when I thought of Zacchaeus (because they were both wee little people in my young mind).

2. What is your favorite biblical translation, and why? (You might have a few for different purposes).
I'm a dedicated user of the New Revised Standard Version. I think it balances scholarship, vernacular and poetry as best as one could hope. Sometimes it gets a little clunky, but proper reading and attention to context (not to mention a good dose of Biblical education on the part of we pastors for our congregations) should alleviate any serious problems.

3. What is your favorite book of the Bible? Your favorite verse/passage?
Romans 8 has been my "life passage" ever since Pastor Roger, the executive director at Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries, spent an entire summer preaching on it, especially verses 31-39. Today, I'm also challenged by and enamored of Ecclesiastes, that wonderful Eeyore of an Old Testament text.

4. Which book of the Bible do you consider, in Luther's famous words about James, to be "an epistle of straw?" Which verse(s) make you want to scream?
I don't have as much problem with the Bible as I do with the way we interpret the Bible. I think Luther overreacted to James, to be perfectly honest. If one book DID make me want to scream, it would be Revelation - so many people think it's a puzzle or mystery to solve, rather than a word to comfort, challenge and sustain us as we look to the creation's fulfillment in God's good time. The millions upon millions that have been wasted on the Left Behind series and other such nonsense makes me scream, for sure!

5. Inclusive language in biblical translation and liturgical proclamation: for, against, or neutral?
I'd say neutral on the whole. I have no problem with the NRSV (which OT Professor Makr Throntveit of Luther Seminary has been known to joking refer to as the "Neuter Revised Standard Version") replacing "brothers" with "brothers and sisters" and the like - I think that's a responsible rhetorical move. But I'm not so wild about removing every gendered pronoun in reference to God - sometimes the result is clumsy and actually draws more attention than the original. I do agree with one of my homiletics professors that God the Holy Spirit seems beyond gender, and God the Creator might be a more accessible title than God the Father, but Jesus as Son of God doesn't leave a lot of room for debate. :-)
I will say this about liturgical proclamation: I do scream when people in my denomination think that there's some sort of conspiracy on the part of our liturgical writers to lead people into heresy by seeking non-gendered language. One gentleman accused our new hymnal of being "intentionally inaccurate" by using a Psalm translation that tries very hard to be non-gendered. The intention, of course, is to be accessible to the widest possible audience. Do we miss the mark sometimes? Possibly - but wouldn't the forgiving response be more fruitful? If I remember right, Paul had something to say about the fruits of the Spirit, and gossip-mongering was not on that list!

Bonus: Back to the Psalms--which one best speaks the prayer of your heart?
Oh, so many to choose! Do I go with Psalm 121, my grandmother's funeral psalm? How about Psalm 46, on which Brother Marty's great hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, was based? Maybe Psalm 8 with its wonder that God should even notice humankind? For today, though, I'll go with Psalm 139, Beloved's favorite and mine as well. I've always thought that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was the best of Lewis' Narnia Chronicles because of the way it alludes to the image of "sailing past the edge of the sea;" for a landlubber like me, it seems a most exotic voyage, and one I wouldn't want to take without my God to watch over me.

The image is the frontispiece of the Gospel of John from the Saint John's Bible.

11 October 2007

It's Way Too Early To Be Thinking This Much...

But it's 7:00 and this is the only time I'll have to check email and blogwander today, so I did. And I'm glad I did, because Ross had some excellent thoughts on the relevance of grace to Joe and Jane Average today.

I'm reminded of what my seminary professors told me: "They won't care how much you know until they know how much you care." While this is definitely true, if it is ONLY true for the pastor of a congregation, you've got a recipe for disaster. NO ONE can be the emotional linchpin for a congregation, especially not the pastor; it's just impossible for one person to carry that emotional burden. But if everyone in a congregation sees the well-being of the world around them as their duty and their joy, then we can begin to make grace relevant in ways the world might have never imagined.

As I said, it's way too early to be thinking this much. I need to stretch and get going for my run. But here I am...

10 October 2007

Grey Day Runnin'

So, even though yesterday was so very, very grey, I did manage to get out for a five mile run. With 20 mph winds I revised my normal five mile route so that I wouldn't hit the wind head-on more than a quarter mile or so. But even a side wind of that magnitude affects your pace. Even so, I finished in a decent 49:00 - not flying, certainly, but not shuffling, either. And surprisingly, very little huffing and puffing; I probably could have stepped it up more had the weather been more cooperative.

So, next Saturday's half-marathon may not be a complete disaster. I haven't trained nearly as well as I'd hoped; only one run of more than seven miles, and now it's far too late to throw one in. But if I can break two hours I'll feel okay about things. Frankly, it's becoming more of a pleasure race than anything else; I was invited in by our good friend Jessi and a few of their friends are in the race, too. Maybe we'll just pack up and smile and jog 13 miles together? Should be fun however it works out.

Today we went to the gym in Alexandria for our normal Wednesday morning workout, and I felt really good - stepped up some weight sets and got a mile in on the treadmill before and after the weight session. Kinda fun working out with Beloved again - we haven't done that since we were dating back at Luther Seminary. Tomorrow I'll run again, then maybe a bike ride Friday morning before a seven-miler Saturday, if I can fit it in before or after our Synod council meeting.

And that's the running update from Barrett.

09 October 2007

Grey Day, Good Article, Cool Song, Cute Baby

It's a grey day here in Barrett. And yes, I do mean grey. I find the American spelling of the word just doesn't convey the feeling of grey; rhymes with "fey," and maybe some time in a dictionary would help us on that one, too. There's poetry in this grey day somewhere, but I don't think I'm going to get to it today: it'll be a day for desk work and reading for me.

Jon Meacham had a brilliant op-ed piece in the New York Times on Sunday - check it out. Boy, do I wish I could make the point as well as Meacham does; he's a good writer whose strong faith does not require switching off his brain or denying the power of a fully engaged intellect.

Anyone wanting to hear one of the coolest Celtic songs I've heard in a while should go here for a free mp3 download from the Sligo Rags. "The Whiskey Never Lies" is a GREAT song.

Yesterday was a decent day. It was cold, rainy and windy, so we didn't go outside much. Did the laundry, caught up on some TV shows, read the newspaper, cooked a good supper (pork roast in the crock pot with potatoes, carrots and pineapple - Caribbean jerk seasoning to give it that extra little bit of punch) and went to bed after Heroes. A good day off, in other words.

Oh, and we played with the baby. Duh. :-)

Blogger has a new video post thingy - figured I'd give it a shot.

08 October 2007

Monday Stuff: Thankful

It's been one of those periods of craziness that just doesn't seem to stop. We were out of town Friday and Saturday, busy with baby showers, hospital visits and the like in the Twin Cities, so I didn't have time to do the Friday Five last week. Now I've got a little time and a little energy, so here goes:

This one is going to be veeeery simple: List at least five things (people, places, graces, miracles...) for which you are thankful. You may elaborate as you wish, or keep it simple.

1. Beloved and Ainsley. I'm blessed with a stupendously awesome wife. Early Sunday morning was a little surly at our house, for several reasons, but she just lets me be surly because she trusts that I'll come to my senses and apologize before too long, which always happens. I'm not thankful only for that, but for many other things; it just seemed the most contemporary thing for which to offer thanks. As for our Child, I am continually amazed at how much I love being a daddy. Last night we hung out while Beloved went to work with her high school youth. I fed Ainsley pureed vegetables and oatmeal, played guitar while she 'sang' and put her to bed, and felt like it was the best day EVER. Totally weird.

2. My iPod. During our driving this weekend, I was able to switch effortlessly back and forth between "Storyhill" to keep the Child from melting down to "Black House" by Peter Straub and Stephen King when the family was asleep. I have podcasts for my running and most of my CD collection at the touch of a wheel. No, I don't use it to tune out the world around me, but it is just freakin' cool to know I'm carrying several thousand songs/podcasts/books in my pocket.

3. Heroes. I LOVE this TV show. The characters are noble, the plotline is fascinating and I just love the overall look and feel of this show. Best of all, I think we've just scratched the surface. Lost is becoming too enigmatic, 24 is a torture-fest and I'm just annoyed at Grey's Anatomy; I think I have a new favorite show!

4. Quiet, Rainy Mondays. It's icky outside today, so I think the only thing for which we'll be venturing out will be our mail and my run, whenever that happens. I'm hoping everyone gets a chance to catch up on our sleep today - Ainsley is already down and I'm going to head in that direction momentarily.

5. The Oregon Ducks. I never, ever thought I'd say this, but at this point I'm glad we're a multi-team household. My beloved Huskers have been replaced by a bunch of zombies, and not the crazy-violent 28 Days Later zombies, either; the slow, shuffling Night of the Living Dead zombies who are more pathetic than they are scary or dangerous. Thus the major cause of Sunday morning surliness - a 41-6 drubbing at the hands of the Missouri Tigers that frankly wasn't as close as the score indicates. I'd sure hate to think how mediocre we'd be without Stevie P the AD on the watch. Thank goodness we can watch the Ducks and hope that they keep their top 10 season alive.

By the way, Sam McKewon of the Nebraska StatePaper has an excellent article giving his suggestions for how to handle the present crisis if you're not a fan of the current regime. Take a look.

07 October 2007

Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost: "Two Weeks of Blake"

Let us pray: God of all hopefulness, come to the aid of Your people. We cry: “Increase our faith!” We do not know how You will answer our prayers. But we do believe You will answer them. Give us faith, strength, hope and love enough to do Your will and walk in Your ways, to the glory of Your holy name. Amen.

I met Blake my second summer as a counselor at Carol Joy Holling Camp in Ashland, Nebraska. Blake was an Omaha kid, with a chip on his shoulder as big as Chimney Rock. Every week the staff paid attention to see which of our kids were going to be the ones with what we called the “too cool for camp blues;” Blake had those blues and then some. He came to camp wearing black boots, black shorts and a black t-shirt from a major heavy metal band’s latest tour. He had long hair that flopped into his eyes, which never, ever met yours directly unless he was challenging your authority. I didn’t do a lot with Blake when he first arrived at camp because he wasn’t assigned to my bunkhouse. But later that first afternoon, he was assigned to my village, and so I spent the better part of that first day of camp herding Blake into the activities and games we used to help our villages get to know each other better. It was a sign of things to come for the week.

Blake was a challenge, maybe the greatest challenge I ever had as a camp counselor. If I said something was blue, he said it was red. During our Bible study hour, it was next to impossible to get Blake to pay attention and participate with the rest of the group; he was often goofing around with whatever he could find or busily tormenting whoever sat next to him while I was working with other campers. But during a nature hike or canoeing or arts & crafts, where Blake’s natural curiosity could have been indulged, he often sulked, sitting with his arms crossed and his head down in a sullen glare.

However, what made Blake a truly exasperating camper was his intelligence and his unusually mature perception of the church and the people around him. When Blake could be corralled into Bible study, he asked questions and suggested interpretations of the stories we were studying that went far beyond the average 13 year-old’s understanding. He took Bible stories and interpreted his home congregation in light of them, especially when he could use the faith of Jesus or Old Testament figures like David or Abraham to show the emptiness and pettiness that ran rampant in his home congregation. He wouldn’t sing in worship, but he told counselors that he wished his home church had half as much passion and energy in its own worship services. One day, he bluntly asked me what I would do if I discovered that everything I had been convinced was true about the faith turned out to be false. He was provocative, cheeky, sullen, rebellious and infuriating, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my week with Blake was over on Friday afternoon. I felt like I’d been doing more sparring than counseling during my week with Blake, and even though I thought that maybe I’d done some good work with him, I was anxious to return to working with campers who would be a bit less demanding and a bit more receptive to our ministry.

The next summer I spent another week with Blake, who by now had another year’s worth of ammunition stored up and ready for when he came back to camp. It was more of the same, and the only difference was that Blake was taller, smarter and even more confident. His questions were more probing, more antagonistic to the faith, and even more disrespectful of his church, his fellow campers and his counselors. I and the other counselors at our campsite spent a week alternating between holding our tempers in check and being amazed at the insight Blake had into the faith he was so brilliantly rejecting. By Friday afternoon, I felt again as though I’d been sparring far longer than I should, and though I had grown to like Blake in spite of his behavior, I was happy to call it a week, too.

As I sat in our staff meeting after all the campers had gone home, I thought that at the very least someone ought to give me a pat on the back for what was now two weeks of Blake in the past two summers. After all, I was the one who had kept him from completely disrupting the program over those two weeks. I was the one who had danced with his questions, allowing his curiosity to be encouraged while refusing to be baited into speaking ill of the church, his pastor or his family. I had been strong enough to let Blake question my faith without being insulted, and I thought that on the whole I had been a good role model to Blake, a Christian who admitted the faults of the church yet upheld the goodness of God. I felt, honestly, like it was time for some recognition. But none came. Our program director never mentioned the great work I’d done. No counselor ever came up to me and said, “Hey, man, nice job.” And Blake himself? I never heard a word of thanks from him. He didn’t say goodbye either of the summers I was his counselor, and a year later, when I was a site manager and Blake came back to a different site, he only said “Hey,” when I ran into him while talking with his counselor. It was as if the work I’d done just fell off the face of the earth.

This is, I believe, the darker side of the life of a Christian. Our history as a church is filled with the heroic tales of those who’ve done great deeds of faith throughout the years. The apostles gave their lives for the sake of the faith, and we read about their great faith in our Holy Scriptures. The early church had great theologians like Justin Martyr, XX and XXX. St. Augustine’s writings inspire us several thousand years after he is dead and gone. In our church, Martin Luther resides just beneath Christ himself, sometimes a little too close, to be perfectly honest. But how many Christians over the years have done great deeds of faith that have gone completely unrecognized? The vast majority of the great deeds of faith never once get recognized – and the lives of great saints never receive the honor they might receive, because no one really knows what God can and has accomplished through them.

In our reading today, Jesus instructed his followers to forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive, with no thought of reward or consequence. He told his followers to never, ever give another Christian an opportunity to fall away from the faith, that indulging our desire for revenge and pettiness carry with them a heavy consequence if another Christian falls into sin because of our actions. Finally, when Jesus’ followers couldn’t see how they could be those kind of people, they cried out to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” And Jesus told them that they had little faith to begin with if they had to ask for it in that way.

You know, no one ever told me it would be hard to be a Christian. That was a notion of which I had to be disabused, and very rudely, through my experiences in the church and in the world. No one ever told me that sometimes no one would thank me for my work – because it’s what is expected of me if I’m a follower of Jesus. No one ever told me that forgiveness was going to be hard. No one ever told me that when I feel more like staying angry with someone, I was still expected to forgive if I was going to call myself a Christian. No one ever told me that the results of my good works would be so hard to discern. No one ever told me that recognition for being a follower of Jesus would often be nonexistent. Do you ever feel the same way? Do you ever feel like all the work of honestly following Jesus isn’t worth the reward you get from your neighbors? Of course you do – because it’s what happens. Following Jesus is a hard, narrow road. As Paul said in our reading from 1st Timothy last week, faith is a good fight – it doesn’t come easy.

When you read the letters of Paul, you learn to look for the rhetorical devices Paul uses to make his point – they’re often the opposite of what Paul is saying. So when Paul tells Timothy “I am grateful to God – whom I worship with a clear conscience…” Paul is accusing Timothy of ungratefulness and a clouded conscience in his worship. For what reason? We don’t know just yet, but Paul is getting to it. Paul says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice[1] and now, I am sure, lives in you.” We should read that as, “Timothy, you’ve been raised for better faith than you’re displaying now – where is the faith that should live in your love and actions?” Paul: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” We read: “Timothy, you’re afraid, weak, unloving and self-pitying: get a grip!”

Sometimes, as Paul said, we suffer for the gospel. This isn’t suffering that comes from looking for people to antagonize; genuine suffering for the gospel comes from living the truth Jesus has taught us. Suffering for the gospel comes from forgiving sins when we don’t feel like forgiving sins. Suffering for the gospel comes from being a patient teacher and role model to kids (and adults!) who just don’t seem to care, much less understand what you’re teaching. Suffering sometimes means surviving in thankless situations – caring enough to do what God has commanded simply because, as Bonhoeffer put it, “only the obedient believe, and only those who believe obey.”

So, what is it that Jesus is saying in today’s gospel reading. Is Jesus saying that recognition doesn’t matter? Is Jesus saying that living for recognition will leave us hollow in the end? Is Jesus saying that the life of discipleship is not a life for the faint-hearted or the weak? Yes, I think Jesus is saying all of those things; but Jesus also says that there IS a goal, that there IS a point to the life of discipleship. Recognition is not the goal – FAITH is the goal, the means by which everything else, good and bad, can be endured. Faith is its own reward – we live right when we live in faith, regardless of recognition or not. We are God’s slaves, and as we take on the duties of a slave, God creates in us the desire to do what is commanded simply because it is commanded, not out of our desire to be recognized for what we do. When Jesus commands us to forgive, He does so because forgiveness is the way of life for the followers of Christ, the way in which faith can become genuine and real, both for the one who forgives and for the one who is forgiven. “Increase our faith!,” the disciples cry, and Jesus responds: “Forgive, even when it is a thankless task, and you will find your faith strengthened beyond what you thought was possible.”

There is one who does watch, who does see our struggle and our hardship and knows what it means to suffer for the faith. God knows. God watches. God sees us struggle. God bears the burden with us. Two weeks of Blake taught me, years later, that when God and I know the truth of what has happened, the world’s recognition matters little. Do I hope that Blake feels the same way I do about our time together? Of course I do. Do I hope even more that I gave Blake an opportunity to grow in faith and love and become a follower of Jesus in his own way? Of course I do. But is that up to me? No – it’s up to God and Blake. My concern now is what it means to God and me to live in this moment, in this place, with a whole new day’s worth of sins to forgive and life to cherish. Will anyone say, “Thank you,” for what you do in service to the world in God’s name? Maybe not. But will God see what you do? Definitely.

Mustard bushes are notorious for taking root in places no one thought they could. Their seeds are small and they are more a weed than anything else – they work into cracks and dry ground and take root tenaciously before they grow. Is this the faith to which Jesus is inviting us – a thankless, tenacious, dry-ground faith that goes unrecognized? Possibly. But God sees. God knows. Hold on to that dry ground in which you’re planted, even if it’s a thankless task, and rest assured that your work is not in vain. Let us pray:

Help us to slow down, O God, so that the seeds of our faith may take in the nourishment you offer and grow into the fullness of the grace you provide. Bless us on this special day and hover in our midst as we join hands with all your children in this place and around the world - to remember you, to break the bread, to share the cup, to give thanks.

May your Spirit be with us, this day and every day. Amen[2].

[1] My brothers and I, having a mother named Eunice, hear this verse loud and clear – because our mom is a woman of deep, abiding faith, and we’re very grateful for the faith she and our dad have instilled in us. Love you, Mom!

01 October 2007

Growing Up

I stopped growing up
quite some time ago.
Somehow my body knew when to say,
"That's enough."
and then I no longer had to jump
for the potato chips
on top of the fridge -
I could reach them all by myself.

I watch my little one
growing up
and I feel as though I have suddenly
started growing up again.
I am not the unremarkable guy
looking into the eyes of my peers;
I am a colossus who stoops and swoops
a little girl
skyward with squeals of delight.
Together we are a giant -
she, perched on my shoulders and giggling;
me, dancing and praying,
"Don't ever grow up."

The books are climbing the bookcases because
the baby is climbing toward the books.
The inexorable march of
swaddling blankets to
bassinet to
crib to
playset and now
the walker
is pulling me back to my unremarkable self;
until comes the day when I am
but a man, fallible and balding, paunchy and somewhat embarrassing.

But I will remember these sweet, small days:
the colossus who wrestles with the child until we are both
breathless and giggled out;
the giant who comes in the night
bearing bottles and a fresh diaper;
the king of the house who bends his knee
to serve these ladies whom he adores.

All this begun by one tiny breath,
one blessed wail,
a hand to clutch my fingers
and eyes to melt my heart.
We are growing up together,
my little one and I;
and we shall never,

Thanks to Milton for the post that inspired this poem.