30 December 2008

Taking A Bit Of A Break

I've been out of town at my parents' farm for the past few days, and tomorrow I'm leaving for the Lutheran Student Movement National Gathering in Chicago. So, I likely won't be blogging much for the next week - and that's okay, I'm feeling a need for a bit of a break at the moment. Many cares requiring my attention, taking away any hope of being reflective or creative for a short time.

Until I'm back, though, here are some of my favorite pics of a great family holiday in Nebraska.

Alanna & her cousin N discuss the finer points of Exer-Saucer care and maintenance, including improvements in the flavoring for plastic giraffes.

Daddy prepares to literally scare the snot out of Ainsley by sledding down a hill Grandpa Johnson made while clearing the home place of snow. Daddy had fun. Ainsley did not.

Daddy must have told Alanna one of his excellent jokes, right? :-)

This was a great moment for me: watching Ainsley help her Great-grandma Janke open a Christmas present. I remember doing something similar for my Great-grandma Spangler many years ago.

My girls, Christmas morning, in my parents' living room. It doesn't get much sweeter than this for me.
Happy New year to you all!

22 December 2008

Favorite Christmas Albums

There's a discussion going on over at RevGals about favorite Christmas music. I thought I'd post a few of my favorites here.

The first has appeared before on this blog, but it's worth another mention. The Bells of Dublin is fantastic from start to finish, with one noticeable exception (those of you who own the album already know exactly which track is the one in question). Highlights include Elvis Costello singing "St Stephen's Day Murders," "The Wren," "Don Oiche Ud I mBethil"and an absolutely beautiful version of "Once In Royal David's City."

Because we liked the first album so much, I picked up A Christmas in Rome two years ago. It has grown on my quite a bit. It's a wonderful album overall, with another exception that isn't as awful as the one on Bells of Dublin, just a curious "how the heck does this fit?" track. Highlights include the Overture and Lullabies.

Some would insist that you can't be a Lutheran musician in the U.S. without loving the St. Olaf Choir. I'm one of them, for many reasons: the tradition, the incredible "St. Olaf Sound," and a dedication to furthering the art of a capella choral singing. This CD, however, has very little a capella work, but it's still worthy of mention. It was recorded in Trondjeim, at Nidaros Cathedral, and if I remember right a video performance has been broadcast a few times over the past few years on PBS. Here the highlights include "O Come, All Ye Faithful" (the descant WILL be sung in our Lessons and Carols service next year!), "Light Everlasting" and "Hope for Resolution," the last of which is a jazz treatment of Divinum Mysterium (Of the Father's Love Begotten) mixed with an original composition. That's good stuff, there.

So, there you have it. Three albums guaranteed to treat you better than one more version of "The Christmas Song" or "Little Drummer Boy." You're welcome.

Books That Mess With Your Head

It's been pretty good reading here lately - if I continue plugging away over the next two weeks, I might actually get the 50 Book Challenge completed this year. But the book I just finished and the one I'm currently reading at home aren't light writing in any sense of the word - I might just need to find something in the style of John Grisham or Tom Clancy to finish out the year, as these last two have really been messing with my head.

came highly recommended by just about anyone who reads good books. It's the story of Cal Stephanides, who was once Calliope Stephanides, and how that happened. But it's also a story of immigration, assimilation, Detroit and other conflicts which revolve around identity. It was painful reading at times; what can you say about a person who calls his brother "Chapter Eleven?" But there is also great love; Chapter Eleven is the quickest to renew the relationship after Calliope became Cal. It's a funny, endearing, challenging book that I enjoyed quite a lot.

The Omnivore's Dilemma
is not a book I like, per se; it is a book that I'm experiencing more than I am reading. I'm only about halfway through, and I'm already finding myself rocked by a punch coming off of nearly every single page. Here's just a sampling of the thoughts I've had since beginning this book:
  • Oh, shit! I'm never eating THAT again!
  • You know, most municipalities allow a certain number of laying hens per household - I bet we could raise our own chickens and eat their eggs, right?
  • Dad should read this book.
  • Dad should NEVER read this book.
  • I'll never shop at Hy-Vee again (insert Piggly Wiggly, Publix, Albertson's, whatever mega-food-mart your locality might include).
  • When am I going to find the time to cook all our meals from scratch, since I don't want to eat all those frigging preservatives?
Like I said, this is a book that definitely raises a LOT of questions, especially for people with farming in their blood (hence the "Dad should/should NEVER read this book." thoughts). But that's what good literature can and should do: when we are challenged by what we read, we learn better what kind of people we are, and perhaps more importantly, what kind of people we yearn to be. We're not going to start raising chickens (I don't think for a second that Kris would go for that), but will The Omnivore's Dilemma change how I look at food? It already has - and maybe that was the point.

20 December 2008

You Did WHAT To Your Running Shoes?

Yeah, I put sheet metal screws in my running shoes this week. What's so weird about that?

The tip came from a Runner's World article and, from what I've heard, it's pretty common to do this if you run outdoors in a snowy clime. What I can tell you is that a) it's more complicated than it sounds, b) use sheet metal screws with a Phillips or Hex cut, not Flatheads (they're a pain in the ass to keep on the bit), and c) be sure you use 3/8" or even 1/4" screws. I used 3/8" screws and I can feel them ever so slightly on bare pavement.

Here's how it worked for me: I started with the screw pictured here:

Since my adidas Supernova Cushions have a pretty soft sole, it's really hard to just drive the screws into the sole. So, I broke out my cordless drill and drilled pilot holes for the screws wherever the sole was wearing down, since that's the part of the shoes that hits the pavement most regularly. Here are all the tools I used:

In the end, this is what it looks like:

I'm happy to say this works exceptionally well. I went for a five mile run this morning, two days after a severe storm that cancelled school in the Ames district on Friday, with no slippage problems whatsoever on the trails and sidewalks. The only time I did have trouble was the last mile, where I ran on the street and the slush was just too thick for my new shoes to get any traction. The best part? When I did hit bare pavement, I got a nice audio remembrance of my high school football days - it sounded like the metal-tipped cleats I wore when I was a nose tackle trying to gain weight instead of trying to run it off. You know, the sound from the Under Armor ads: "Click Clack - you hear me comin'?" Pretty cool.

All in all, anything that gets me out on the road at this time of year is a good thing, especially on a day like today when the snow is falling and the wind hasn't picked up yet. It was one of the prettiest runs I've enjoyed in a while.

Saturday Morning Cool Stuff

Even if you don't have a clue about music or percussion, this group, the Top Secret Drum Corps of Basel, Switzerland, is incredible.

Friday Five: Countdown to Christmas

Songbird had the Friday Five yesterday. One thing I've noticed is that as a parent, I get more done when it's NOT a snow day: we spent most of yesterday managing kids instead of relaxing and taking it easy. And the parental weirdness continues... By the by, I swear that every time I navigate away from this page the spacing between paragraphs gets larger. Sometimes Blogger does some crazy formatting stuff...

It's true.

There are only five full days before Christmas Day, and whether you use them for shopping, wrapping, preaching, worshiping, singing or traveling or even wishing the whole darn thing were over last Tuesday, there's a good chance they will be busy ones.

So let's make this easy, if we can: tell us five things you need to accomplish before Christmas Eve.

Let me start by confessing that we have sucked at Christmas the last couple of years. In 2007, we were preparing to move and chasing an 11 month-old around the house. So, no tree, and the holiday photocards we ordered from Snapfish sat around our old house and our new one until we threw them out sometime in March. This year, again, no tree, though I don't feel bad about it because I'd rather spend December doing pretty much anything BUT chase two girls away from the tree all day long. So, the goal this year? Don't suck so much. Thankfully, that sets the bar pretty low.

1. Write the Christmas letter and send the cards to our friends and family.

2. Get Kristin's present (going to do that this afternoon - I know what I'm getting her, I just need to buy it locally so as to save on shipping).

3. Start working on 2008 Taxes (because I WILL NOT file an extension for a third straight year)

4. Enjoy the start of the college football bowl season (please, God, let there be some decent games - January through August is the longest time of the year!)

5. Continue to enjoy a remarkably angst-free Advent. Thankfully, it appears that the Society for the Preservation of Advent finds its work much less demanding in the midst of an economic downturn.

Bonus "to-do" item: maintain a good sense of humor - it makes everything else so much more enjoyable. Thus, I give you the following cartoon:

18 December 2008

The Power of a Photograph

As far as sports pictures go, this is a good one. It was taken last Saturday night, when the Nebraska women's volleyball team was celebrating a remarkable comeback victory over the University of Washington in the NCAA Regional Final match. Nebraska had been down two sets to none before winning sets three and four to tie the match. Then, down 9-3 in the fifth set, the Huskers rolled off eight straight points to take an 11-9 lead. Finally, senior star Jordan Larson served an ace to win the set 15-13 and the match. NCAA volleyball is all rally scoring these days, making a comeback from 9-3 next to impossible. But there I sat, after midnight, glued to the internet broadcast of the match and celebrating with some bulletin board fans - after all, we Cornhuskers love our volleyball team almost as much as our football team, and unlike the football team, the volleyball team has not relinquished its status among the nation's elite over the past ten years.

This team in itself is a great story. But an even better one can be found by clicking on the photo. Cindy Lange-Kubick, who wrote for the Daily Nebraskan when we were both undergrads at UN-Lincoln, reminds us that there was a time when a photograph like this wouldn't be possible. It's worth your time.

Tonight, if you're not busy, you might want to take a gander at the four teams competing in the volleyball final four in Omaha this weekend. I, of course, will be rooting for my Huskers, but all four reached the pinnacle of the sport, and deserve recognition. Forget the BCS and all the hype surrounding it - here's a sport where champions are decided on the court, as it should be, and these student-athletes are very much worthy of the title.

Postgame Note: Oh, so very close. Four points away from an upset worthy of the '80 U.S. Hockey team. Penn State is an incredible team; they hadn't lost a set all year, hadn't lost a match since September 2007, but our Cornhuskers nearly took 'em. We ultimately lost, after coming back from two sets down. Without a doubt, that was the finest volleyball match I've ever seen, and I haven't been this proud to be a Cornhusker since the Fiesta Bowl after the 1995 football season. Way to go, ladies - you did us all proud.

12 December 2008

Eyeing a Friday Five - AND Why I Think We Do What We Do

I have a folder of blogs on my computer here at the office, and I try to do the "Open all in tabs" investigation of bloggers at least two or three times a week. I do this for many reasons: good friends have blogs, some bloggers have become friends, and so on. The great thing is when one of the group posts something that really gets my mind going.

Today I had a first: a comment on another blog reminded me why there is a church, even with all her scars and stumblings. Here's the post that originated this comment:
I just think it bears remembering that institutional church CAN be a force for good, and for many of us it has been.
It is disappointing that not all people have shared a spiritually fulfilling experience at 'regular church.' Certainly we can do a better job at that.
But interestingly, for me it was when I left the institution and went to a parachurch group that there was no accountability and no spiritual focus and my life started to fall apart. Christians turned loose on the world with no guidance can do incredible harm, just as Christians within an institution can. I feel, at least with the institution, we have a chance at keeping things together.
The italicized text might be the most succinct explanation of the need for community and accountability I've ever read. It's one of the main reasons we do what we do in the church: because on our own we can really screw things up. (By the way, don't image search for Fred Phelps if you don't have a strong stomach). For me, part of living the theology of the cross is recognizing the capacity within myself to harm others in the name of the faith that gives me life, but that recognition only comes because I'm a part of a larger body of believers who take our corporate responsibility to one another very seriously.

Well, there's your big theological topic for the day. Now, on to the Friday Five!
This Friday Five is inspired by my husband's Lasik surgery yesterday....He'd been contemplating it for a while and was pushed over the edge by the fact that we put too much money in our healthcare spending account this year and it would have been gone anyway. (There was only enough for one eye, but the kind people at the eye clinic figured out a way to divvy up the charges between surgery and followup in January=next year's spending account). So please say a little prayer for his safe recovery and share with us your thoughts on eyes and vision.
1. What color are your beautiful eyes? Did you inherit them from or pass them on to anyone in your family? My eyes are very light blue. I don't think either of my parents have blue eyes - I know my Dad's are brown, and if I remember right my Mom's are hazel/green. But then again, neither of them are redheads, and I'm the oldest of two redheaded, blue-eyed boys out of three. Maybe Mom wasn't really kidding about the milkman? ;-)

2. What color eyes would you choose if you could change them? I wouldn't change them, just as I won't take Rogaine now that I'm starting to go bald. Life is too short to spend so much time hiding who you really are!

3. Do you wear glasses or contacts? What kind? Like 'em or hate 'em? I wear soft contacts and glasses. The glasses are only for early mornings, late nights or travel; they're about five years old and not looking so great anymore. I'm not overly fond of either, but considering my extreme nearsightedness and astigmatism, what am I gonna do?

4. Ever had, or contemplated, laser surgery? Happy with the results? I've contemplated it, but frankly the money isn't available right now, and to be honest, the surgery makes me nervous, too. Some friends have had excellent results with their lasik experiences, but I'm just skittish about it for now.

5. Do you like to look people in the eye, or are you more eye-shy? A few years ago a trusted friend told me, "I know the moment you've checked out of a conversation - your eyes start to wander." Since then I've consciously tried to keep my eyes focused to stay in the conversation.

Bonus question: Share a poem, song, or prayer that relates to eyes and seeing.
From Rich Mullins, one of his last concerts. Starts out really rough but comes together quickly.

Storyhill: Parallel Lives

Big news: the Storyhill documentary has been released! I'm really excited to see it, but just in case someone might make it a Christmas gift I'm going to hold off ordering it for myself. Here's a clip for those of you who are interested:

11 December 2008

Christmas Meme

From LutherPunk

1. Wrapping paper or gift bags?
Ideally, I use my dad's trick and recycle the funny pages as giftwrap.
2. Real tree or Artificial? Real, please, and I'll cut it down myself, thanks.
3. When do you put up the tree? The day after the year's worst ice storm, of course, so we have to put a tarp down to catch all the melting water. (Okay, maybe that was just that one year.)
4. When do you take the tree down? After Epiphany.
5. Do you like eggnog? Absolutely not. No way, Jose. Gluhwein is my holiday drink of choice, thanks to my ex-wife.
6. Favorite gift received as a child? Honestly, the part I loved the best were the family gatherings and holiday meals. I have awesome aunts and uncles and cousins and we still enjoy spending time together when we can. If I have to pick a gift, it would probably be the Atari 2600 we got one year - at least, that's the gift we got the most hours on!
7. Hardest person to buy for? My youngest brother.
8. Easiest person to buy for? My wife - if you can light it, she'll love it.
9. Do you have a nativity scene? Yes - but with two girls under the age of three I'm not sure we're going to see it for a few years yet.
10. Mail or email Christmas cards? Last year, neither - they never got labeled and we eventually were too embarrassed to do it. I have high hopes for this year, though!
11. Worst Christmas gift you ever received? The stomach virus my brother-in-law gave us all in 2005.
12. Favorite Christmas Movie? White Christmas.
13. When do you start shopping for Christmas? Whenever the urge strikes, but usually sometime in December, whenever I get a coupon for a local bookstore.
15. Favorite thing to eat at Christmas? In no particular order: potato sausage, christmas cookies, goose, stuffing, krumkake, ost kaka, and pretty much anything else that isn't nailed down.
16. Lights on the tree? As if there's any other way?
17. Favorite Christmas song? "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming"
18. Travel at Christmas or stay home? Travel to my folks' or my in-laws', one of the blessings of campus ministry for sure.
19. Can you name all of Santa’s reindeer? Rudolph and the eight reindeer for whom the scenery never changes...
20. Angel on the tree top or a star? Angel. (Hey, fat man - where do you want me to shove the tree?)
21. Open the presents Christmas Eve or morning? One on Christmas Eve and everything else that morning. (Eerie - LP had the exact same answer.)
22. Most annoying thing about this time of year? The radio stations that start playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving (yes, it was before Thanksgiving this year) and keep playing it until the 25th.
23. Favorite ornament theme or color? Right now, anything that can't be ingested or otherwise cause harm to my children.
24. Favorite food for Christmas dinner? Well, my mom's making prime rib this year, so we'll go with that!
25. What do you want for Christmas this year? To watch my kids and my nephews playing together Christmas morning. Oh, and a new iPod - 4th Gen Nano 16mb, if you're wondering. Black, please!

10 December 2008

E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come

Tonight I asked our students to list the bad news they know about right now. Here are a few items they mentioned: the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe; the ongoing suffering in Mumbai; a double homicide here in Ames (one of the victims had recently finished and moved into her Habitat home, and some of the students worked on the house); the economy; the corruption arrest of the governor of Illinois; the ice coating every surface on campus; the projects, papers and tests looming between tonight and the end of finals next week...

It went on for a while. There's not been a lot of good news lately. It feels like we're waiting for something better. And I wonder if that's what this Advent season is about. Perhaps that's why I don't feel out of place this year: it's not the orgy of materialism and manufactured festivity that usually turns my stomach. Why rail against secular consumerism when no one can afford to buy gifts in the first place?

In his book Loving Jesus, Mark Allan Powell writes,
Somebody once asked me, "What does it feel like to be a Christian?" That seemed like an odd question, but I tried to answer. I said, "It feels like being in love with someone who has gone away." They said, "That can't be very pleasant." Well, no, I don't think it's supposed to be pleasant, but it is pretty powerful. I am in love with my wife, and when she is gone, I think about her constantly. I perk up at any news of her and I am energized by the slightest connection (a letter, a phone call). That's what being a Christian "feels like." Of course, it is a confident sadness..., but for now let's just admit this much: we love Jesus as a bride loves her groom, but our bridegroom has been taken away from us, and that makes us sad. The love can be real and powerful and overwhelming, but the absence is real too. And, sometimes, it's just hard.

As we gathered tonight, we remembered that in this season of Advent, we do more than remember the birth of our Messiah: we also gather in anticipation of the day when He will come again. As good as this life can be (and when there are twenty college students gathered for evening prayer on an icy Wednesday night, it's good indeed), the day we hope is coming will be better still. As Isaiah says, "The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Even now, as our hollow human strength is broken, Isaiah reminds me that we are not alone. Those who heard these words from the prophet were surrounded by the wasteland that had been Jerusalem, but they stood on holy ground: the place where God would begin making all things new. But we pray that the day of remaking may come, soon, that night will be no more. E'en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come. Amen.

09 December 2008

Prayer for the End of a Good Long Day

The lights are still burning
here in this study where we have palavered,
You and I.

Schedules, announcements, task lists, meetings, reminders;
these, I had thought, were not the makings of this calling,
but rather the minutiae, the thoughtless means
by which I could excuse myself of responsibility.

"No," You said, "here is where the Holy begins:
caring words of gratitude,
humble invitation,

"'Come and see' are the words through which
My Kingdom is come and
My Will is done.
The hand extended in welcome,
not the shoulder turned in contemplation,
so easily mistaken for rejection."

And here I kneel, in the presence of the Holy,
whispering thanks for these few moments of
abundant joy,
learning yet again
the wisdom so simply displayed
in my father's fields:
without plowing,
without sowing,
without weeding,
without watering,
without sunlight,
there is no harvest to be reaped,
and the world, and I,
shall go unfed.

06 December 2008

Today, We're All Bulls Fans

Turner Gill was one of the greatest quarterbacks of the Tom Osborne era at the University of Nebraska. Some of my earliest memories of Cornhusker football come from watching Turner Gill, Mike Rozier and Irving Fryar dazzle the country with their speed, power and athleticism. As I grew up, Turner Gill never really left the hearts and minds of Cornhusker fans, and when he returned to the staff at Nebraska, we all knew it was just a matter of time before Coach Gill became HEAD Coach Gill.

That didn't happen, and it might never happen. This post is not about those circumstances.

Last night, the University of Buffalo Bulls, led by head coach Turner Gill, defeated Ball State University in the Mid-America Conference Championship Game, 42-24. Ball State was undefeated before last night, ranked #13 in the country. Buffalo was 8-5, not ranked, just beginning to climb into the ranks of respectability. Matt chewed some numbers over at his place detailing the magnitude of what has been accomplished at Buffalo in the past two years.

All I will say is this: the victory won on Ford Field by the Buffalo Bulls could not have been won by a better coach, a more deserving man. Here's to you, Coach Gill, from the Husker Nation, who are proudly proclaiming an additional allegiance today: today, we're all Bulls fans, too. Congratulations, and well done, Coach Gill!

05 December 2008

Friday Five: Advent Simplicity, Light and Beauty

A wonderful FF from Sally over at the RevGals site:
"Imagine a complex, multi-cultural society that annually holds an elaborate winter festival, one that lasts not simply a few days, but several weeks. This great festival celebrates the birth of the Lord and Saviour of the world, the prince of peace, a man who is divine. People mark the festival with great abundance- feasting, drinking and gift giving....." (Richard Horsley- The Liberation of Christmas)
The passage goes on, recounting the decorations that are hung, and the songs and dances that accompany the festival, how the economy booms and philanthropic acts abound....
But this is not Christmas- this is a Roman festival in celebration of the Emperor....This is the world that Jesus was born into! The world where the early Christians would ask "Who is your Saviour the Emperor or Christ?"
And yet our shops and stores and often our lives are caught up in a world that looks very much like the one of ancient Rome, where we worship at the shrine of consumerism....
Advent on the other hand calls us into the darkness, a time of quiet preparation, a time of waiting, and re-discovering the wonder of the knowledge that God is with us. Advent's call is to simplicity and not abundance, a time when we wait for glorious light of God to come again...
Christ is with us at this time of advent, in the darkness, and Christ is coming with his light- not the light of the shopping centre, but the light of love and truth and beauty.
What do you long for this advent? What are your hopes and dreams for the future? What is your prayer today? In the vein of simplicity I ask you to list five advent longings....
1. Energy. I'm just worn out right now. I'm not unhappy, nor do I feel as though I'm shirking anything but my physical well-being, but I'm too tired to exercise this week and it is really weighing on my mind and my heart.

2. Silence. I am really longing for silence right now, the deep, long kind of silence in which you can calmly hear the snow falling outside and know that God is with you. Between two kids, a loving wife, and a campus ministry full of busy, energetic students who are a joy to behold, I'm not getting much silence these days, and I'm definitely feeling the need for it.

3. Restful Nights. Both Kristin and I have commented lately on the fact that by the time we get the girls down to sleep, we're too exhausted to do much of anything. I'm not sure if we're sleeping as well as we could be, to be honest, because I've never been this tired this early for this long before, and even though I know the girls have something to do with it, I'm not convinced they are the entire cause.

4. A Sense of Liturgical Rootedness. I'm struggling to convince myself that it is indeed Advent right now, and I can't figure out why. It might be due to the fact that I haven't preached in three weeks; for the last eight years, if you count seminary (and I do), my life has revolved around the weekly texts, but with classes out for Thanksgiving and a personal holiday for my niece's baptism, I haven't been forced into the weekly texts as usual of late. Thus, all those cries of "Prepare ye the way" have been much less noticeable this year.

5. One Free Day. No obligations, no classes, no kids activities, no shopping, just a free day in which we four can do whatever we want. And, of course, no poopie diapers, spit-up or tantrums in that free day. And a unicorn. :-)

Life is good - we are happy and healthy (but I am a little concerned at how often I find myself feeling a need to repeat that statement lately!). But my Advent heart is indeed longing for a change to some present darkness; here's hoping some time away during the Christmas season provides some healthy changes for all of us!

03 December 2008

All-Around Wednesday Catharsis

I did not have a good morning. I also had a great morning, and I'm having a good afternoon. Let me explain.

The past month you might have noticed a certain sense of angst in my posts. Truth be told, it's not been the best time for me or our family. Now, before any of you start worrying, all is well: we have a roof over our heads, more food than we can eat and everyone is healthy. In fact, Alanna's 4 month check-up was today and she is apparently another Lake Wobegon baby: 75th percentile for height and 85th for weight.

The problem has been our time, or lack thereof, over the last four weeks or so. Between juggling two church careers, dealing with sick kids and a sick nanny, a retreat for Kristin, a three-day conference for me, and an extended holiday with family, we've basically been reacting to whatever might be the most recent crisis, and it's been that way since about the first of November. In the latest Newsweek Fareed Zakaria made an excellent point about the incoming Obama administration needing to hit the ground with an over-arching strategy, lest they be overcome by reacting to the many inevitable crises which will arise. Had he asked, I could have offered Mr. Zakaria the past month of our lives as exhibit A proving his point: I've had no strategy, and I've been reacting far too much lately.

Feeding the baby this morning, as I pondered yet another day of just managing to get done what MUST be done, without any thought for what lies ahead or managing the growing pile of debris in my office and in my house, I hit a breaking point. It might have had something to do with the fact that I was into my third shirt by 7:30 A.M., thanks to Alanna the Vomit Vixen; I'm assuming her contribution was a factor, at any rate. I ordered Kristin and the girls out of the house. I'm not an ogre, mind you: I sent them to the gym, where Kristin could get some time to herself while someone else watched the girls for her. But in essence, I asked the world to "leave me the hell alone" for 90 minutes this morning. Thankfully, the world obliged. I finished a book, started some laundry, and worked in the garage so we could actually use it as a garage for the minivan. Most importantly, I dealt with some things that I had identified as problems, not with stuff someone else needed me to handle for their sake. I was amazed at how badly I needed to get that garage squared away - and how good it felt to finally get it done.

To add blessing upon blessing, Ainsley was a good girl this morning and allowed me to make some changes to the decorations in the basement, also. Again, I hadn't realized how badly I wanted these things done until I actually took the time to do them. Moving pictures and figuring out a way to hang and display an old trombone are minor things, but somehow the sense of home
those changes allowed have made me a much calmer, content man this afternoon.

I think one of the things that drove me to this moment over the last month has been the constant element of distraction in my life. Whether it's kids, the telephone, email, television, or my own scattered nature asserting itself more boldly than usual, I have felt pulled from one moment to the next lately, as though I were living without purpose and without direction. Today I took some steps to alleviate that feeling. I've put myself on a two day Facebook hiatus. I turned off the email program while dealing with the annoying pile of stuff on my desk. I sat in my easy chair and finished reading this week's Newsweek before doing anything else this afternoon. And in all of that, I've felt more at peace and like I'm actually doing something worthy of focus and reflection.

AND as if this weren't enough, we had a wonderfully unexpected moment today in our monthly campus ministers' gathering. One of my colleagues is ministering to a family who recently lost a daughter in a car accident. Hearing him tell the story of the past 30 hours slapped some perspective into me right quick, but that wasn't the unexpected moment. That moment came when another colleague asked if our troubled colleague would lead us in prayer for the situation. My gracious friend who opened the door to prayer comes from a church that does not generally pray with others, yet this friend provided an opportunity for us to gather with one another for one another in Jesus' name. It was both a surprise and a blessing; on a day when I have much for which I'm thankful, this was another unexpected gift.

So, it was a cathartic day all-around, and I haven't even gotten to the fun bit yet. That's the time when I get to gather with our student community for worship and fellowship tonight. After a morning that started with my pulse rate climbing at the thought of yet another day chasing the wind, the actual day has turned into something positive, and for that, I'm thankful. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to get pizza. After all, campus ministry does have it's privileges. :-)


02 December 2008

People of the Book

I just finished this book today, and I have to say I found it utterly enchanting. I started listening to the audio version on my way to and from Chicago two weeks ago, but ran out of road before running out of book. Since my iPod is kaput at the moment, I wasn't able to finish the audio version, so on Monday I checked out the print copy from our local library to finish it.
The advantage of well-done audiobooks is that the characterizations can lend an even more authentic voice to the author's script. The woman performing the audio version of People of the Book did exactly that: she nailed nearly every accent, in my opinion. There are many: an Aussie conservator, a Bosnian librarian, a Scottish imam who works for the U.N. (yes, that's right), an Israeli conservator and many others. I found myself missing the voice as I finished the book.
The story itself is utterly enchanting. Hanna Heath is called to Sarajevo to examine a recently recovered Seder Haggadah, and in the course of her work the author fills in the back story of the Haggadah and the signs and clues to its history. Well written, exquisitely detailed, but not nearly so copious and elaborate as, say, Umberto Eco or Neal Stephenson (who are excellent writers in their own right, mind you). This is good reading for everyone, even if you've no interest in learning how vellum is made or the history of Carnivale in Seville before the Inquisition. To sum up, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Now, off to something new!

01 December 2008

Two Great Thanksgiving Week Reads

Hey, everyone - back again.

We were in the Twin Cities last week for Thanksgiving and our niece's baptism - and a lovely time it was. Wish we could have spent more time with my in-laws, but the time we had was lovely, and that's all one can ask for, right?

I'm trying again to get back to some good reading, and I connected on a couple of doozies this week. Here are some very brief reviews.

The Road is the best book I've read this year. Nothing even comes close - not by a long shot. In addition to this being my Ireland year (The Irish Century series by Morgan Llywelyn), it's apparently becoming my Cormac McCarthy year, with No Country For Old Men (in both literary and cinematic form) and, now, The Road. No Country For Old Men was a suspenseful, driving, macho course filled with gunshots, psychotic hit men and Texas pride. Thankfully, the Coen brothers more than did the book justice in their incredible movie - I've rarely seen a movie that better captured the feel and tone of the book on which it is based. The Road, on the other hand, is every bit as suspenseful, but far more claustrophobic and surprising along the way. It's a post-apocalyptic tale, but at the same time it reminded me of Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls in style and tone. You know you've picked a winner when the book you're reading makes you stop breathing; The Road contains several such moments. AND, to make matters even better, the movie version that will be released in early 2009 features Viggo Mortenson in the lead role. Outstanding! Highly recommended reading for anyone who can immerse themselves in a very grim future for the sake of an extremely well-spun story.

Just After Sunset marks Stephen King's return to short story, and this Constant Reader is pretty happy with the result. His recent fascination with Florida continues - several stories are set in Florida, and he admits that his new home in the state plays a part in this. But they're good stories, nonetheless, especially N., Stationary Bike and A Very Tight Place, the last of which features an extremely disgusting yet totally enjoyable encounter with a biffy tipped onto its door with a person trapped inside.

And that's the literary story from Ames for today. Up next is Rob Bell's new book, Jesus Wants To Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile, as well as the final book in the Star Wars: Legacy of the Force series. I might get over the 50 book bar this year, or I might not, but it's been a pretty good reading year nonetheless. Hope you enjoy some of the stuff I've posted here, and look for more book postings in the future.

24 November 2008

Where The Hell Is Scott?

Hi there - remember me?

Things have continued in 'crazy' mode for us lately. Campus ministry keeps me hoppin, the girls keep me boppin, and there just ain't no stoppin this crazy train called LIFE. But it's all good.

Let me explain.
No, there is too much: let me sum up.

The last time I blogged was Tuesday. Tuesday night we had our campus ministry Bible Study - Job, and surprisingly it's a LOT of fun. Good discussion of one of the more challenging books of the Bible.

Wednesday, I left for a four-day marathon of policies and procedures known as "ELCA Campus Ministry Orientation." I was looking forward to it, until I actually looked at the itinerary and realized they left out the word "Retreat" on purpose. Four days of wall-to-wall work getting to know my fellow campus ministry newbies (I'm actually one of the more experienced of this year's crop, having been in campus ministry since January) and re-learning more of the stuff I've read about in our manual. Even though it was an exhausting week, it was quality time: made some great new friends, re-acquaintanced myself with a few old friends, and, most importantly, we ate really well, including a night at Costa's in Greektown (any place where they soak cheese in alcohol and then light it on fire is automatically on my "great restaurants" list).

Like many folks, I celebrated Larry Meyer's birthday on Friday night; I had the blessed fortune of doing so with some of his own colleagues, at a campus ministry gathering in Chicago. I'll blog about that some more tomorrow - I need to spend a little time in reflection before I can really say what the orientation was like in that regard.

Being away from home, I didn't sleep particularly well, but neither did anyone I left behind, unfortunately. Ainsley came down with an ear infection, Alanna caught Ainsley's cold, and Beloved soldiered on as I knew she would. I can't say enough about the awesomeness of my wife: she handled a very stressful week incredibly well, including the moment on Saturday when Ainsley saw a jogger while riding in the car, screamed "Daddy! Daddy!" and burst into tears.

Yeah, makes my heart go all melty inside, too.

So, now I'm back and getting back to work. Until we leave for Thanksgiving on Wednesday, that is. It's a hard knock life here in campus ministry, you know.

So, that's where the hell I've been. Now, check out this awesome video we saw during staff orientation, called "Where the Hell is Matt!" If you can, watch it in hi-def on YouTube. Enjoy, and I promise I'll see you tomorrow.

18 November 2008

YouTube Sucks - But My Kids Are Awesome

Okay, I've been trying to get this video embedded for ten minutes now. Had it just five minutes ago, but lost it somehow when I added text. Grrrrr. Anyway, here's the link to a cute video of our little Alanna & Mommy having a fun moment.

Babies giggling. I don't care who you are - that oughta make your hour, at least!

Beam Me Up, J.J.

Yeah, I know - lousy blogger Scott has returned. And today he's likely not going anywhere, either. But I did have to post this, and thanks to Liz for posting it over at her place.


14 November 2008

In Which I Admit Mhat My Children Are, Indeed, My Overlords

Yeah, it's kind of like this picture, only without the smiles.

It's been a week of getting less done that I'd hoped. First, our nanny was ill on Tuesday, so Kris and I tag-teamed the day. Scratch one half-day of vacation for me.

On Wednesday, the nanny didn't show up. Several panicky phone calls ensued in which we implored her to call us and let us know she was all right and not, you know, choking on her own phlegm or something even more nauseating. Another day of tag-teaming followed - that's two half-days down the drain.

The nanny called Wednesday night to remind us that she was in Wisconsin for a conference, and hadn't planned on working Wednesday or Thursday since it's kinda hard to babysit kids over a distance of three hundred miles. For once, I was not the forgetting party - Kristin knew this, but hadn't written it in her planner. Schadenfreude is a lovely thing when no one gets hurt. :-)

So, yesterday was another half day burned, and it was a total wash for our local ministry as I had an advisory committee meeting in Des Moines that consumed the afternoon. Kristin had a Youth Ministry Retreat that started last night at 7, so it was a night home with the girls for me, which is fun but not particularly productive, especially when you're wiped out from being on the go 24-7 with work and family.

This morning, the nanny called. At least, I think it was the nanny - either it was her or someone with a pack-a-day cigarette habit calling on her behalf to tell me she was still sick. That hissing sound you hear is the rest of the air left in my week leaking away. It's another missed day of work.

Never has so little been produced by so few who are so tired. How is it two girls who aren't even three feet tall can be so completely exhausting?

I'd love to include some pithy theological/vocational reflection, but I'm just too damn tired. Besides, I need to get to the gym and dump these little angels on someone else for a couple of hours.

This, of course, is not news to those of you who are full-time caregivers for your children. In fact, you should probably stop the snickering about now. God, at least, has been generous in giving us two girls who are usually pretty agreeable; right now, Alanna is asleep in the swing and Ainsley's watching Baby Crack ... er, Baby Einstein. That having been said, I'm sure I'll be feeling a tug on the ring through my nose any minute now - there's bound to be a diaper that requires changing before I can fini--

What's that awful smell? :-)

10 November 2008

Forget the Nap: Give Me a Preacher's Yardwork Afternoon and I'll Be Just Peachy!

“…it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him.” Ecclesiastes 3.13-14

I spent yesterday doing a lot of stuff. Of course, the morning was taken with worship and being with you all, which is always a great gift to me. Before that, though, I made a big breakfast of pancakes, eggs and bacon and we four enjoyed a nice Sunday morning meal together before going to our separate churches for work. The afternoon was one of those times I’ve come to treasure, also. First, the girls slept while I read the Sunday editions of the Ames Tribune and Des Moines Register. Then I headed to the backyard for a few hours of raking, vacuuming up and mulching leaves. The air was crisp and clear, and our neighbor had fired up his woodstove, so the tang of woodsmoke spiced the air with a delicious, familiar and beloved autumn scent. After the girls woke up from their naps (they take my preacher’s nap for me), we went off to the market to buy the week’s groceries, then returned home and had rice and stir-fry for supper. After finally getting the girls washed and down for bed, Kristin and I took in a few of our TV shows on the DVR before turning in ourselves.

The afore-mentioned yard, just prior to mulching the leaves.

I remember thinking how nice it is to have a small yard while I was raking yesterday. Our house in Minnesota had a HUGE yard, at least an acre, with several cottonwood trees to shed leaves, branches and fluff all year long. As you can imagine, fall clean-up was a pain. Even when we borrowed our neighbor’s riding mower and pull-behind leaf vacuum, it took a long time to get that yard prepped for winter. Here in Ames, though, I can do it in a weekend, and do a better job of it than I did in Minnesota. I don’t mind the yard work; I actually enjoy it quite a lot. It’s a real treat to have a hobby where you can see the results of your work as soon as you’re done. But if we had a bigger yard, it would require a lot more work, and I’m not sure I’d want that right now; I’ve got enough to care for already.

The writer of Ecclesiastes talks about labor and work and reward and pleasure throughout the entire book, and not always with the sunniest outlook. But whoever the writer was,

he/she came to the conclusion that labor is good, that we should tend to the simple things in our lives and take pleasure in them. After a week of voting, celebrating/mourning the results, and looking ahead to the massive crises that lie before us, it’s good for us to be reminded that we need to care for our immediate environment, also. Mother Teresa once said, “We cannot do great things; only small things with great love.” Whatever your task may be this week, do it well, friends, and take pleasure in it, and remember that the eternal is held in God’s hands, not yours – we are stewards of this creation, not its masters, and we would do well to remember that God has entrusted the ministry of everyday life to us, and it is good.

Above and below: The "good things" over which I am called to care - about the best thing God could have given me. :-)

09 November 2008

Sermon for the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost - "More Useless Cramming"

In December 1992, I was a freshman music education major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. My friend Mike and I were in the same section of Music Theory 101, and our final exam was Friday morning at 8:00 a.m. All semester, we had laughed at the choir people who were getting their first real work in music theory: being instrumentalists, we’d been dealing with notation and chord structures since we first started playing. But by the time the final rolled around, we’d moved into stuff that was advanced enough to require studying, which we didn’t do, of course. So, on Thursday night we decided we needed to do a bit of studying. We started by heading over to my dorm room for coffee, and spent an hour or so listening to the marching band CD I’d just bought the day before. From there we were drawn into a discussion of the finer points of Monty Python, complete with a listen to the Monty Python tape I’d just purchased at a local record story. Around 3:00 A.M. we finally actually started studying, and at 6:30 we decided we’d had enough and breakfast was in order. So, off to Denny’s we went, and at 8:00 we walked into the music building, arm in arm, singing Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song” at the top of our lungs to celebrate the end of the semester.

The question I want to ask you this morning is, “How much of the information on that exam do you think is still with me today?” You know how this works: the classes you attend diligently, in which you read the assigned work and complete the assigned homework, are the classes that give you knowledge that remains with you. The classes you skip, the reading you don’t do, the homework you don’t complete, until you cram for the final so you can pass the test? Those are the classes that don’t stay with you. That’s the information you have to learn again. My brother Brian is an elementary school teacher, and one of his primary complaints about the “No Child Left Behind” education standards is this: he spends more time “teaching to the test” than he does educating young minds and teaching children how to think, study and grow. Nothing you’ve ever learned in a cramming session will change your life – you’ll pass the test, maybe, and move on, nothing more, and that, friends, is the tragedy of the Parable of the Bridesmaids this morning.

The word our New Revised Standard Edition translates “Keep awake” is gregoreo. Eugene Boring is a Matthew scholar who says that the translation isn’t quite right.

Matthew opposes the frantic quest for [information about the end of time], and
he pictures faithful disciples as those who do their duty at appropriate times
and are thus prepared for the [coming of Jesus] whenever it comes. Such
disciples can lay down to sleep in confidence, rather than being kept awake by
panicky last-minute anxiety. Thus the Matthean meaning for gregoreo is "be
prepared," not "keep awake"/"watch," and it might be so translated in this

How many of you guys were Boy Scouts at one time or another? I was. Remember the Boy Scout motto? “Be Prepared.” I was a lousy Boy Scout, mostly because I was never prepared for anything. Why prepare when there’s always someone who’ll help you get things done when the time comes? But what does it mean to “Be Prepared?” As I recall, there was a Boy Scout handbook that came in pretty handy when it came to being prepared. Likewise a compass, pocketknife and other basic equipment when we went camping, not to mention sleeping bags and tents, since you’d be wet and cold at night without them. The Boy Scouts weren’t just talking about a mindset when they said, “Be Prepared:” you are actually supposed to see to it that you’ve got the things you might need with you. You pack the equipment you’ll need for the journey, and you know the skills that will come in handy should you need to improvise. You certainly want to make sure your lamp has enough kerosene to last the night if you go out in the dark, right?

Boy Scout mottos and three-fingered salutes are useless when you’re in the middle of the woods: what you need is a compass and orienteering skills. Last-minute cramming fueled by Denny’s coffee and a healthy dose of Monty Python is useless when you’re a college student who’s supposed to be learning professional skills that will last a lifetime: what you need is knowledge embedded in your mind through practice, repetition and application. In the same way, we cannot find our way into the reign of God with empty lamps and the appearance of good behavior. The foolish bridesmaids are doing more useless cramming, and because they were not ready, they suffer the consequences of their lack of preparation.

So, what are we to do? How are we to “keep awake” or “be prepared?” There are three parts to what Jesus asks of us in this parable. The first part is simple: show up. Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” He’s right. You won’t truly learn anything here at Iowa State if you don’t show up for your classes. Likewise, you won’t be transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ if you don’t have a regular encounter with it. Read your Bible, with others when you can. Pray, again, with others when you can. Make time to contemplate what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.

The next part is more complex: give up. Understand this and things are going to change for you, instantly. You live in an environment where your worth is determined by what you produce, by the tests you pass, by the honors and awards you earn through hard work. For the arena of college education, that’s fine – it’s as it should be. But that is not how life in the reign of God is structured. The kingdom of God is not marked by our accomplishments or our glory – it is marked by the cross of Jesus Christ alone, and all of creation, everything in this world, falls under its shadow. There is no test for you to pass: you were brought into the reign of God when you were brought to the baptismal font, washed clean in the name of Jesus and sealed by the Holy Spirit through water and word. The life of following Jesus isn’t even pass/fail: you’ve been marked for God forever and no accomplishment of your own can ever make you more worthy of God’s love or more beloved by Christ Jesus. Give up, folks: there’s no extra credit in heaven, and the only being in heaven that gets a summa cum laude is the one with the scars in his hands, feet and side. He earned those scars in love, and that same love is his gift to you – receive it gladly and offer it to others with joy.

Finally, wake up! Did you notice the funny thing about Jesus’ parable? All ten of the bridesmaids fell asleep! You are not being called to a life of endless all-nighters and constant worry about missing the moment. Let’s go back to the academic arena for a moment: why are you pursuing a degree from this university? Once you get that degree, once all the classes are done, what are you going to do? You’ll be contributing something to the world, whether it’s science or accounting or music or teaching or whatever. Your education here teaches you how to interpret the world in which you live and how to help others live in that world – is it so hard to believe that Jesus asks the same of all of us who come to him in faith? The church does not exist simply to help people pass some sort of exam: we’re here to be transformed by the Holy Spirit for life in the world God has made. This life has times of great celebration and times of great sorrow. This life has times of struggle and strife and times of peace and contemplation. This life has times of intense hard work, and times of sweet, blessed rest. When you give up your idolatrous quest for self-justification and show up to be transformed by the reign of God, you will know when the time has come to wake up. When the bridegroom came in the parable, there was a loud cry of welcome, and the bridesmaids all woke up and prepared their lamps. It’s a matter of trust, to know that, yes, the end of time is coming, that God will one day make all things new. But that time is not yet here, and while we wait for it to come, we do not wait in anxiety or apathy. We wait with joy, knowing that because Christ has invited us to be prepared, we are to be part of what is to come, and the feast with which this new creation will be inaugurated will be great indeed.

Be prepared, beloved of Christ! Don't wait for the end and think that more useless cramming is the answer: the reign of God is near! Show up and be transformed, give up and be made holy, wake up and welcome your Savior. Christ be with you all. Amen.

[1] Boring, M. Eugene. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. © 1994, Abingdon Press, Nashville. P. 451 [my interpretations in brackets]

07 November 2008

Funny Papers Friday Five

Let me begin by saying that I LOVE the comics. I do read the whole paper, but I usually save the comics for the end so I can end on a good note. I've been known to laugh out loud if a particularly good strip has been posted, and one of the few downsides to our new home in Ames is that neither of the local papers has a comics section worth much of anything. Thank you, Presbyterian Gal, for one of the best Friday Fives we've had in a long time. Laugh out loud funny!

After an exhausting election here in the states it's time for some spirit
lifting! Join me with a nice cup of tea or coffee or cocoa and let's sit back
and read the Funny Papers!
1. What was your favorite comic strip as a child?
Garfield. Those of us who grew up in the 80s in the U.S. might remember the book orders you could make in elementary school - I bought Garfield books whenever those sales were going on. For some reason I just loved that cat, and to this day I can't eat lasagna without thinking of that poor, undertall cat who suffers life with Jon and Odie.

2. Which comic strip today most consistently tickles your funny bone?
Get Fuzzy. By far the funniest strip going right now. For a couple of years now, Kristin has gotten me the Get Fuzzy desk calendar and it's one of the best gifts she could have given. Here are two of the best:

3. Which Peanuts character is closest to being you?
I think I've always identified with Linus most of all, though as far as personality goes I'd probably say I'm as bossy and overbearing as Lucy. That's the beauty of Peanuts: Charles Schulz created characters that touched on the humanity of all of us.

4. Some say that comic strips have replaced philosophy as a paying job, so to speak. Does this ring true with you?
See above. Though there is, of course, still a need for philosophers (and you could argue that those of us in preaching ministries take up some of that burden, too), philosophy is useless if it can't be understood by a wide reach of people. The great comics and their writers are really commenting on life, not just making us laugh.

5. What do you think the appeal is for the really long running comic strips like Blondie, Family Circus, Dennis the Menace as some examples?
Well, the three you mentioned are saccharin sweet, and though Blondie is okay I'm not really a fan of the other two. That having been said, there's something that obviously connects with people there. For Better or Worse is the same, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who'll note that it's one of the few comics that told a story, which unfortunately has come to an end this year.

Bonus question: Which discontinued comic strip would you like to see back in print?
Two: Calvin & Hobbes, and The Far Side. Both were brilliant beyond comparison, and losing them both in the space of a few years was devastating to a connisseur like myself.

I'd also add the folks who do cartoons for The Wittenburg Door - they've been doing funny Christian comics for years upon years.

06 November 2008

Can We Please Get To Work Now?

The election is over - now, can we please start to focus on things that matter?

I'm proud to live in a country where Barack Obama can be elected President. I'd be prouder if we lived in a country where his race didn't matter, good or bad. I didn't vote Obama because he's black: I voted Obama because he was, to my mind, the most-qualified person for the job. By far.

I've been in Obama's bag since 2004, really, though I was surprised that he was able to pull off this victory. I didn't think the political process would suffer his style of optimism. I didn't think he'd be allowed to campaign as his own man, that he's take the road of "whatever it takes to win" as John McCain did (and I hope Senator McCain has enough time left to rehabilitate his reputation, because I think he's a better man than the campaign his advisors waged would suggest).

Now: will President-elect Obama's colleagues in Washington drop their gnawing at their own particular bones to work with him and right the ship that is this country? Hard to say. I'm hopeful that it could happen, but not convinced it will.

This much needs to be said, however: it's about damned time we elected a president because of his or her positive attributes, and not because he or she is the lesser of two evils. For that, at least, I'm happy today.

02 November 2008

7 for 700

This is my 700th post on Blogger! I kept a blog at LiveJournal for a while, but I've since lost track of the number and dates of those posts, so I'm starting from post #1 here at Blogger. By way of celebration, I invited readers to ask me seven questions to be answered here. Here are the questions and my answers.

1. From Lorna: Where do the names of your daughters come from?
Ainsley's name comes from this television moment:

We fell in love with the name "Ainsley" when we both realized we remembered this character from the West Wing, a show both Kristin and I loved long before we even knew each other. When she was born, we had two names: Ainsley and Madeline, and we thought we'd just see which one suited her best. It wasn't even close: she was Ainsley from the start.

Alanna's name comes from my sojourn through The Irish Century series by Morgan Llywelyn, which I read voraciously in the space of about a month earlier this year. The series is historical fiction, following a family from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 through the peace accords of 1999. As I was reading, someone called their child "Alanna," and then explained that it means "dear one" in Gaelic, and I was hooked. Kristin loved it, too, and this time we really never had a "second" name - she was Alanna even before she was born. The funny thing is that "Alanna" is the feminine form of "Alan," my dad's name, though we didn't know this until after she was born. Alanna's full name is Alanna Sophia Faye, and Faye is my mother's middle name, so she is named for both her paternal grandparents, completely by accident.

2. From p.s. (a.k.a. purple): I am a Big 12 Alumna and enjoy the sports, but here is my question: please explain Huskermania?
The state religion of Nebraska? It's hard to explain. Do you mention the fact that there are no other Division I colleges in Nebraska? No top-level professional teams, either? A small population base, in a state often referred to in derogatory tones, unified behind one of the few characteristics almost everyone agrees is a superior element of said state? A history of excellence few football programs can rival, which supports other excellent teams (like the Nebraska volleyball team, which might be the only program in the country with an even more unlikely rate of success)?
Do I also mention the Cornhuskers were the only team to defeat the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame in the 1920s, and we did it twice? That we've sold out 295 straight home games, a streak extending to 1962?
Oops, you said explain Huskermania, not display it. Sorry. :-)

3. From Shalom: What three books have been most important in your life?
1. The Bible (natch)
2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
3. Ooooh, now it gets tough. I think I'm going to say Cujo by Stephen King. Not because it's his best work - it isn't, not by a long shot, though it is very good. I'll choose it because I was in 4th grade when I picked it out of a bin at a garage sale, completely on a whim. It was the first "grownup" book I ever read, and I never went back to children's literature, though I have enjoyed some of the better stuff, like the Harry Potter series, Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence, and His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

4. From my lovely wife: What makes your heart smile these days?
Hearing both my girls laugh. Wow, that's pretty incredible. Also, the night I kissed Ainsley good night after coming home from Evening Prayer and she smiled in her sleep. That was a good moment. Finally, date night with my lovely wife. Which reminds me: are we still on for Saturday? :-)

5. From "a faithful reader from Minnesota": If you weren't a pastor, what could you imagine your occupation/calling might otherwise be?

On my "I could be a guy in another profession that requires advanced education" days, I think I'd be interested in teaching English at the university level.
On my "this job sucks like an Electrolux" days, I'd do just about anything to work for a landscaping or lawn care company. Ride a mower all day, outdoors, or plant the occasional flower/bush? You betcha.
Thankfully, I don't have many of the Electrolux days.

6: From Erik, one of my college roommates: On a more serious note, something I was going to ask you about is, how did you decide to go into campus ministry? You have mentioned several times that you are enjoying this assignment. I always had you pegged as one who would want to work with high school youth, so this is a bit older of a crowd than I thought you would enjoy. Thanks to Him, I think you are exactly where you ought to be.

I've felt a calling to campus ministry for quite a long time, but I should note that when Erik and I were sharing a dorm room, I was coming off two summers of church camp and really starting to think that maybe the ministry, not music education, would be my calling. At that time, I wasn't particularly involved in campus ministry; that came later, though Erik and I of course stayed close for quite a long time after we lived together.

I'm not opposed to the thought of doing youth ministry, but it seems as though it wouldn't be the best fit for me these days. I'm married to a youth & family ministry professional, and she has forgotten more good youth ministry stuff than I'll ever know or put to good use; it's a calling that requires some incredible gifts and a LOT of patience. I don't have a lot of the latter, so perhaps it's for the best that I'm in a slightly different place now.

6a: Another couple of questions: Did you ever think you would find true happiness in Iowa, of all places?


6b. After all of the bad things we said about those Iowa football and basketball teams, do you find your allegiance strained a bit?

No. :-)

7. And from my brother, Brian: How do you approach your role as developing future leaders of the church (and I'm not talking about the ones with M-Div's)?

I'm still figuring it out, truth be told. It's one thing to tell our college students they'll be "out there" in churches someday; it's another thing to sit down and help them find those churches and take up leadership there. I think a first step is to delegate, delegate, delegate: get people on board with projects and let them loose to make it work. A micro-managing pastor is a terrible blow to any ministry, but I think in campus ministry it can be a death knell. We do a piss-poor job of involving youth in our denomination: if campus ministry continues the trend, it dies - pure and simple. Beyond that, I think, it's a matter of opening eyes and expanding awareness. That's why I like our national campus ministry mission statement: "Expanding Minds, Deepening Faith, Inspiring Service." Three elements of growth in a ministry where growth is the primary currency? Brilliant - and we need to emphasize it even more than we've already done.

And for the adults in the room:

Bonus question from Shalom: I'm tempted to ask my favorite James Lipton question: What's your favorite swear word?
The F word. By far. Nothing compares to dropping an F-bomb when you just gotta let loose. But boy, you gotta be careful; it's like playing with gasoline in the wrong company.

Sermon for All Saints' Sunday - The Privilege of Grief

Preaching Texts

"Blessed are those who mourn," Jesus says, and so we must take Him at His word. But grief is not an easy thing to take, and mourning is not a habit we hold dear to our hearts. We remember life as it once was, life as we think it should be, and we grieve as much for the changes in our lives as we do the death of the people we love. Let us pray: Lord Jesus, loving Savior, we who walk by faith sometimes travel hard roads and follow Your light into dark places. You have told us to trust in You, even in the valley of the shadow of death. Help us to fix our eyes on You, and to hope for all the things You have promised us. Amen.
"The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
I remember sitting with my confirmation class in Minnesota, talking about loss and grief and listening to the song "Tears In Heaven" by Eric Clapton. Clapton wrote this song after his son died from injuries sustained in a fall out of a hotel room window. There's a raw, powerful quality to the grief in the song: the questions of a father losing his child at such a tender age, with such shocking suddenness:
Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?

Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong and carry on, 'cause I know I don't belong here in heaven.

Would you hold my hand if I saw you in heaven?

Would you help me stand if I saw you in heaven?

I'll find my way through night and day, 'cause I know I just can't stay here in heaven.

Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees.

Time can break your heart, have you begging, "please."

Beyond the door, there's peace I'm sure, and I know there'll be no more tears in heaven.

When I hear this song, I'm reminded instantly of our reading today from Revelation 7, and also of Isaiah 25; two chapters in scripture where God promises to wipe away every tear from those who weep. I hope in this more than anything else in my life. I hope that grief will not have the final word, that God will speak divine words that bear the power to comfort, that bring a word of blessing and a word of safety. We all hope that one day we will find ourselves surrounded by all those whom we love and have loved and will love, and we will leave sorrow and grief far behind.

But we do not live where we hope just yet. As much as we may pray to be spared grief, death is the reality that lingers over us, and every time we think we've beaten it back, it will come sneaking into our lives like the fog that covers the earth these cold autumn mornings. Sometimes death comes at the end of a long, hard battle with illness and age; sometimes it comes in the blink of an eye, with no chance to say goodbye because it has come years before we think it is due. Death is the certainty we all must face time and time again, and grief is the way we respond to death: both the death of those we love, and the growing realization that one day, death will come for each and every one of us.

Because of this, it's natural to think that grief is an enemy to be defeated, something against which we must struggle and fight. Edna St. Vincent Millay said as much in her poem "Dirge Without Music:"

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave

Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Others see grief as simply something to be experienced – a process through which we move and from which we cannot escape. If you ever go to a funeral in New Orleans you'll see people who grieve with passion and power; a much different reaponse than the traditionally stoic grief of the Midwest. Some, like Clapton, deal with grief through self-expression; others become even less of themselves by shutting down their emotions and withdrawing from life until their broken hearts are healed and they are able to stand alone once more.
And it's not only death that works in us in this way. Loss can come in many forms and can cause grief in many ways: being fired or 'downsized,' divorce and separation, moving far away from home, working hard to achieve a goal without success, missing a great opportunity through simple circumstance or, worse, the mistakes of others. All of these things are losses that can and do cause us to grieve for what once was, or what we think should be. Grief comes for reasons we can explain and reasons we cannot. Loss comes when we expect it and when we do not. Death comes to young and old alike, indiscriminate in its selection and relentlessly claiming the lives of our friends, our family, and we ourselves.

"Blessed are those who mourn, says Jesus, and so we must take Him at His word. But what does it mean to be blessed? Are we blessed because we mourn? Should we seek out opportunities to mourn, taking the Beatitudes as a direct commandment and seeking to please God by being the best grievers we can be? No – we cannot earn blessings by grieving any more than we can earn salvation by doing good deeds. But grief is indeed a blessing, and to grieve is indeed a right and honorable experience of Christian life.

Grief is a blessing, a privilege, because as we grieve, we are given a window into the heart and mind of God. "See what love the Father has given us," says John, "that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are…Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this; when He is revealed, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is." To grieve is to see that God suffers, that God mourns, that God thirsts and hungers for righteousness. Genesis tells us that we are created in the image of God, and one image of God that is found time and again in scripture is the image of God's great grief and sorrow at the sins and brokenness of creation. God is grieved by sin, death and everything that separates God from God's children. When we grieve, when we mourn, we know what it means to be children of God, for God's love causes God's grief, and in our own love and grief we see God as God truly is.

Why does God suffer? Why does God grieve? Why has God allowed us to have this privilege of grieving? Because the privilege of grief reminds us that things are not as they should be, that life is indeed precious – more precious than we imagine. Without the privilege of grief, we would never know the hope of the world to come. Eugene Boring says "Matthew here taps into the deep Biblical tradition that one of the characteristics of the true people of God is that they lament the present condition of God's people and God's program in the world…This is the community that does not resign itself to the present condition of the world as final, but laments the fact that God's kingdom has not yet come and that God's will is not yet done."[1]

The privilege of grief is not the only thing left to us from God our Father. The image of the suffering God is only one image of God, and just as we cannot know each other through one glimpse, so we cannot know God only through God's suffering. Without the privilege of grief, we have only an incomplete knowledge of God: we see only the power and majesty of God, the alien, almighty God who cannot be approached and in divine magnificence cannot have any connection with the frail, fragile lives we live. The privilege of grief reminds us where God wants to be found: in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is Christ who comes to us in His body and blood, broken and shed for you, that reminds us there will come a day when the privilege of grief will be finally overwhelmed by the glory of the full and total reign of God, and God's love washing over God's people.

So the privilege of grief opens our hearts to love more completely – to invest more deeply in the lives of our neighbors – to be wounded in our grief and made whole and strong in God's suffering love. The privilege of grief is one part of what it means to be Christ's followers and see that though death may threaten, though the kingdom has not yet fully come and God's will is not yet fully done, God will indeed have the final word, and grief will one day be a privilege we can forsake for something better. What will that day resemble? Something far beyond our imagination, I'm sure. But poet Anne Porter has an idea, I think, and it is her vision I'll offer as a closing prayer this morning:

At six o'clock this morning

I saw the rising sun

Resting on the ground like a boulder

In the thicket back of the school,

A single great ember
About the height of a man.

Night has gone like a sickness,
The sky is pure and whole.
Our Lady of Poland spire
Is rosy with first light,
Starlings above it shatter their dark flock.
Notes of the Angelus
Leave their great iron cup
And slowly, three by three
Visit the Polish gardens round about,
Dahlias shaggy with frost
Sheds with their leaning tools
Rosebushes wrapped in burlap
Skiffs upside down on trestles
Like dishes after supper.

These are the poems I'd show you
But you're no longer alive.
The cables creaked and shook
Lowering the heavy box.
The rented artificial grass
Still left exposed
That gritty gash of earth
Yellow and mixed with stones
Taking your body
That never in this world
Will we see again, or touch.

We know little
We can tell less
But one thing I know
One thing I can tell
I will see you again in Jerusalem
Which is of such beauty
No matter what country you come from
You will be more at home there
Than ever with father or mother
Than even with lover or friend
And once we're within her borders
Death will hunt us in vain.


[1] Boring, Eugene. The New Interpreter's Bible: Matthew. Abingdon Press.