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.

01 November 2008

The Big Game

It's that time again:

When I was a kid, this game was the biggest game of the year. Every year. Nothing was better than beating Oklahoma.

Nothing was worse than losing to Oklahoma. Again. In the fourth quarter. When we'd had them beat all day long.

I don't remember the game where Johnny Rodgers "tore 'em loose from their shoes;" I wasn't even a glimmer in my folks' eyes then. But it is an enduring moment from this titanic struggle between these two programs.

Oklahoma-Nebraska has always been, for me, the epitome of college football. I grew up in the 1980s, when it seemed like every OU-NU matchup had national title implications. Osborne - Switzer - Taylor - Bosworth - Rozier - Dupree - Mumford - Holieway - Gill: these are the legends that made this game the greatest rivalry in college football. Many of these rivalries are marked by intense dislike: not so Nebraska and Oklahoma. It's always been a respectful, honorable rivalry. We were both too good for too long for it to descend into hatred, and the dignity of the folks involved made it even more respectful.

Today? Not so much. Thanks to the powers-that-be in college football, who've brought us wondrous gifts like the Bowl Championship Series, where everyone makes money talking about who should be playing for the national title instead of devising a system where two teams actually settle the question on the field, Nebraska and Oklahoma now play a two-on, two-off schedule. But today, we play Oklahoma, and as I've watched several NU-OU matchups this week (God bless ESPN Classic and our new DVR), I've gotten that old feeling again. It's great to be back here, among the giants of my youth.

Keep the faith.

Go Big Red!

Postgame note

Dear Oklahoma,

The 73-21 and 63-7 wins in 1996 and 1997? We're sorry. Can you please stop hammering us for them now?