29 February 2008

Look Before You Leap, It's The Friday Five!

Okay, so this Friday Five is certainly topical, and definitely a good one - but I had to have some fun with it, too. Enjoy.

Hello from your Fifth Friday Five team, will smama and Songbird~

It's Leap Day!! Whether you're one of the special few who have a birthday only once every four years, or simply confused by the extra day on the calendar, everyone is welcome to join in and play our Leap Year Friday Five.

Tell us about a time you:

1. Leapt before looked

In 1996 I took a position as re-developer of Beta Sigma Psi fraternity at the Lutheran Student Center, University of Nebraska. Beta Sig had basically partied themselves out of existence three years earlier, and the alumni board wanted to use the proceeds from the sale of their old house to build a new, service-oriented men's group from the ground up. Now, I have a lot of skills for ministry and evangelism, but cold-calling strangers is NOT ONE OF THEM. Needless to say, the group was a rather dismal success - there were five of us by the end of the first year, all friends from the Lutheran Center whom I'd recruited through our interactions at worship, etc. Never mind the fact that this is, I believe, a far more effective means of building small groups; what I was hired to do never happened, and it took several more years and far more qualified folks to get Beta Sigma Psi Delta Chapter up and running again.

2. Leapt to a conclusion

My home congregation had promised financial aid through seminary for me, but one year that aid check didn't arrive at the start of the semester as we'd expected. After a few phone calls went unanswered, I leapt to the conclusion that thanks to my involvement with a reform-oriented group within my denomination, I was getting blacklisted at home. So I sent off a blistering, accusation filled email to my church - that is, to the secretary of my church, which was the only email address I had at the time. Turns out they'd simply forgotten to send the check. Much face was lost, much crow eaten. And boy, do I wish that was the only time I'd done something like that.

3. Took a Leap of Faith

This is one I don't mind having made, though it certainly didn't end as I'd hoped. In May 2002, I moved from my internship in Titusville, FL to Monterey, CA, putting my seminary program on hold for one year to tend to my marriage (my wife and I had separated, then we were trying to rebuild our marriage while she studied at an Army language school in Monterey). It lasted about a month; things just fell apart once I got there, and by July we'd filed for divorce and I was back in Minnesota to finish my M.Div. program. Yeah, it wasn't fun, but at least we can say we'd done what we could to live out our marriage vows. I feel a lot better about it today than I would have done if we'd just called it quits the first moment things got rough.

4. Took a literal Leap

Seventh grade. Spring. Shoe company representative is in the gym selling track shoes. I buy a pair of running spikes, totally ignoring the look of surprise on the rep's face when I tell him the model and shoe size. By the first meet I'm firmly ensconced in the throwing events and my friend Anthony is wearing my spikes. The first of many "what-the-#%@$-were-you-thinking?" moments.

5. And finally, what might you be faced with leaping in the coming year?

Let's see: A: new call to campus ministry. B: purchased our first house. C: awaiting the birth of our second child. Is that enough for hurdles, or do I need to come up with something more?

You can find these posters at one of my favorite online stores, despair.com

Finally, one more to go on:

28 February 2008

Aggravated in Ames

It's snowing. Again.

Beloved got up awkwardly this morning and pulled a muscle in her abdomen. I mean, a serious tear - she's in a lot of pain and on orders to take it easy.

The combination of these two factors leads to this: I'm staying home today. I stayed home in the morning to make sure Beloved was okay; I actually took her to the doctor to make sure the baby was fine (it was). Then my secretary called Beloved while I was showering and said "No one's called. No one's come in. I'm done with the bulletin. It's snowing. I'm going home. Scott doesn't even have to come in if he doesn't want to." I don't: so I won't. Personal day, here we come! (one of the benefits of being in ministry and only working one day a week, I guess.)

This has been one of the hardest winters I've ever experienced. The combination of cold and snow in Minnesota with tons of ice and snow since we've moved to Ames has led to us feeling lethargic and more than a little cabin-feverish. Not to mention heavy - I've gained weight because, well, it's just hard to run outside when there's ice on the ground, our treadmill is broken, and we don't have money to join a gym just yet. So, we're frustrated and injured and fat and lazy. Not to mention aggravated (always acknowledge all alliteration, affirmative?).

I know there are lots of folks who have things a lot worse than we do - we're warm, we're dry, the utilities are paid up and our cars work, the babies are healthy and happy. But, nonetheless, this is where we are right now.

In happier news, I'd like to extend a warm welcome to the newest member of the LutheranHusker clan - Matt's Sweetie delivered a healthy baby this morning. I wonder if they'll let me call her Thumpy McNosetackle? Anyway, mazel tov!

27 February 2008

Wednesday Reflection: "On Belief and Brides"

Jeremiah 2.1-13: 1The word of the Lord came to me, saying: 2Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. 3Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest. All who ate of it were held guilty; disaster came upon them, says the Lord.

4 Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? 6They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?’

7I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. 8The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers* transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.

9Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. 10Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. 11Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. 12Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, 13for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Six hundred years before Jeremiah’s time, God rescued Israel from their slavery in Egypt, guided them through forty years of wandering in the deserts of the Sinai peninsula and the land east of the Jordan River, and finally showed them the way to the land of Canaan, where they were told to make their home and simply be faithful to the God who had done so much for them. But the whole time, while God was faithfully, lovingly caring for the people, the people were rebelling against God. They complained about the uncertainty of their new life under God’s protection; they bowed down to a golden calf while God and Moses held a parley on the mountaintop; they begged for a king like all the nations around them instead of trusting in God to provide. They took for granted the great beneficence of God and regarded their situation as one of their own making – and they paid the price for it when the Assyrians and the Babylonians destroyed their kingdom and sent the people of Israel into exile.

This is not just Israel’s story – it is OUR story, too. Our bondage to sin and self-gratification lead us to miss the mark when it comes to faith and God. Even within the Christianity best-sellers on Amazon.com you’ll find several titles that offer ways to get more, live better and find the answer to all of your dreams by following the advice of the author. We equate the stuff we get with the god we worship.

Did you notice the imagery in the first verse of the reading from Jeremiah? “I remember the devotion of your youth,” says God, “your love as a bride.” Even those of you who aren’t married know how the traditional vows go: “to honor and cherish, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, until death parts us.” Every wedding I’ve ever attended has used some form of that promise – and it’s no coincidence that Jeremiah uses the image of marriage here. The single most notable characteristic of the best marriages is not compatible personalities or physical attraction or sexual satisfaction or economic stability: what marks the best marriages is enduring trust in all circumstances. Even if you’re not married, think of your own friendships and your families: you know that the most rewarding relationships you have are the ones where trust endures to the point of being absolute and unshakeable, whether times are good or bad, rich or poor, whether you’re sick or healthy. It is this trust that God wants to create within us, too – a trust that endures through strikeouts and homeruns alike.

Martin Luther once wrote “By the wedding ring of faith [Jesus] shares in the sins, death and pains of hell which are His bride’s. As a matter of fact, he makes them His own and acts as if they were His own and as if He himself had sinned; he suffered, died and descended into hell that he might overcome them all…Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom.”[1] But like all of our relationships, we can only know the strength of Christ’s promise by living it out in the real world. When troubles come and sorrows multiply, I know that in Christ I have a God who bears the load with me, step by step, and will never leave me or forsake me – even though I’ve left and forsaken Him time and again. If this truly is a marriage, then I’m the one with the loving spouse, and He is the one with the cheater – and it seems to me that God takes the vows much more seriously than any other god I know.

I can’t tell you that life will get better because we trust in God, that you’ll have more things or be more beautiful or drive a nicer car. I can’t tell you that because that’s not how this works. Relationships are complicated things, even the best of them, and no relationship works like a vending machine. If you’re looking for a God who can give you stuff then you’ve come to the wrong place tonight, because that’s not the God we believe in here. I can only tell you that in the God of Israel, the God of love and self-sacrifice, the God I know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I have found a God worthy of all the trust and worship I can muster, and in Christ alone do I know peace and joy, because this God has taken me in, with all my sin and death and evil, and given me nothing but life in return. As Luther wrote, “Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his.’ As the bride in the Song of Solomon says, ‘My beloved is mine, and I am his.’”[2] Now that’s a promise that hold water – may you come to trust in the One who gives you that promise, and may you love living in that promise, now and always. Amen.

[1] Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, Second Edition. Dr. Timothy Lull, Editor. Copyright 2005, Augsburg Fortress. p. 397

[2] Ibid., p. 397-398.

26 February 2008

My "Laugh Out Loud" Moment Of The Day

Thanks to Tripp for posting this:

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent - "Quenching the Deepest Thirst"

What is your deepest thirst? Where is your deepest need? What immediate needs might God be fulfilling to draw you closer, to bring you to a place where your deepest thirst can also be quenched? And no, I’m not talking about the goopy, sentimental, “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” thirst – I’m talking about what’s killing you, slowly but surely, and the thirst you have for what will bring you life, because that thirst is the deep thirst that only the living water of Jesus’ promise can quench. Let us pray: Heavenly Father, you promise living water and so we come, ordinary sinners in need of the life-giving water you offer. Fill us to overflowing with your living water, that through our baptism and your holy supper we will become conduits bearing your living water into the world that thirsts for you like parched grass on a hot summer’s day. Amen.

We have a God who loves surprises, who loves to invade the ordinary moments of our life and fill them with living water, with life and salvation. A nation of slaves, freed through a fortnight of miracles and still kicking the sand from the bottom of the Red Sea, bursts out bickering and whining because they’ve run out of water, and God pours water from the rock instead of just sending a thunderstorm. A bunch of fishermen put out to sea one night, and in the morning, after catching nothing but seaweed and old sandals all night, they throw their nets out one more time because some wandering rabbi said to do it, and God fills the nets so full they can’t hold all the fish. Surprises like this are what lead us to believe Jesus when he tells us, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Once God starts invading our lives to quench our thirst, we find that it’s like trying to get a drink from a fire hose.

The Israelites in the wilderness received water because water was their immediate need. But God didn’t stop with water. God used the wilderness experience to show all of God’s people what it means to quench the deepest thirst: a thirst for a God we can trust. Likewise, the Samaritan woman received the truth because Jesus perceived that her immediate need was the truth, both about herself and about Jesus himself. But Jesus didn’t stop with the short, easy, parlor tricks of personal revelation. Jesus used the woman at the well to quench the deepest thirst of all: through the Samaritan woman, Jesus created truth, faith and community where there had been none before.

But, if the Samaritan woman is any indication, we usually don’t even know what we’re thirsty for. She came to the well looking for water and met a Jew. She thought she’d met a normal Jew and he turned out to be a prophet. She thought she’d met a prophet, so she asked him about worship practices, and he talked about the living God. She said she believed in God, that a Messiah was coming, and he said she was now, in that moment, face to face with God himself. Every question revealed a thirst within her that she had buried deep, and every response from Jesus met that thirst and quenched it in spirit and in truth. She came to the well for water on an ordinary day, but she left a disciple and witness of the Messiah, one who had come face to face with the living God and been filled with the Spirit until its living water poured forth from her into the town where she lived. This story tells me that there are no “ordinary” moments: in the blink of an eye, the eternal, transforming, living water of the Spirit of God can come flooding into our lives and change us forever, quenching thirsts we didn’t know we had and moving us from a Tuesday’s drudgery to an awareness that the Spirit lives within us and within everything we say and do. When women came to the well described in this story, they left bearing water in their vessels for their families to drink: is it any different when we come to the well of baptism, and leave bearing the living water of the Spirit of God?

But it wasn’t just the Samaritan woman being filled here: God was quenching God’s own deep thirst, too. Jesus has a thirst for those who have been made to feel as though they were outsiders, unclean, unwelcome, less than human. God has a thirst to touch and hold all human life with care, dignity and truth: even when the life in question has been, shall we say, less than exemplary, or at the least less than perfect.

We often assume the Samaritan woman led an immoral life. Nothing in the text from John suggests this is the case: the woman merely says, “I have no husband,” to which Jesus responds, “That’s right – you’ve had five husbands, and you’re not married to the man with whom you’re now living.” It could be exactly what we think it is: a woman married and divorced five times, now living in sin with another man. It could be something else, though: in a culture where life expectancy was nowhere near what it is today, it would not be out of the question for this woman to be a five-time widow, now living with another man and terrified to marry again. But whatever her story might have been, we can say with a fair amount of certainty that her life hadn’t been a life for which anyone would hope.

I remember hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak at a Lutheran Student Movement National Gathering, and he mentioned “the essential dignity and worth of every human life.” This was a man who’d grown up in a society which marginalized him and actively persecuted him for his entire life, but God used Tutu as a leader in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where sins were confessed by those on both sides of the apartheid conflict. In the case of the Samaritan woman, Jesus didn’t excuse the life she lived, but neither did he malign her worth because of it.

In fact, Jesus spent more time talking with the Samaritan woman than he did with Nicodemus, who we remember from last week’s reading. A woman married five times and now living in sin received more of Jesus’ attention than Nicodemus, a righteous Pharisee who was also seeking the truth. Nicodemus came at night, skulking around the expectations of his society, unsure about Jesus but still hoping to find out some solid information: to that one Jesus spoke bluntly, in riddles and with more than a little condescension. The Samaritan woman came to Jesus by accident, in broad daylight, with no agenda and no expectations: to her, Jesus spoke bluntly, too, but with truth and compassion. This suggests to me that when we come to God with our own expectations, with an agenda to be answered in terms of our own making, God might not have a lot of good things to say to us. Martin Luther might have described this as reaching for things that are above us, seeking God where God does not want to be found, trying to put ourselves in the place of God’s creative majesty, power and glory. When God meets us in our ordinary lives, though, invading what appears to be nothing more than daily work, God comes with truth and compassion for how we live and what we do in this life, in this world – God comes in Jesus, incarnate, enfleshed in creation and willing to meet our immediate needs and to quench our deepest thirst. This is where God wants to be found: in Christ Himself, the humble one born to Mary and Joseph, who lived a human life, who knows what it means to be tired, to hunger, to thirst.

There are times of wilderness in our lives – times when it seems like God is either ignoring us or refusing to acknowledge how deep our thirst may go. My friends Nate and Audrey had a period of time where it seemed as though God was denying them the good things many of us take for granted. In the space of a few short weeks, they lost Audrey’s father to a sudden illness, and a pregnancy for which they had hoped and prayed for several years. Who doesn’t want children in a healthy marriage? What loving child wouldn’t want her father to live to see grandchildren? In those few short weeks their lives were rocked by losses I can hardly imagine – and to add injury to their insult, Nate was a groomsman in our wedding less than three weeks after Audrey’s father died.

But life continues, even in the wilderness. Nate and Audrey did what all of us do every day: they bought groceries, cleaned the house, carried out their work as best as they could, and placed their trust in God to lead them out of the wilderness someday, to quench their thirst for joy and love. A few short years later, they started the adoption process, and eventually they were blessed with two boys, brothers from Ethiopia, and now they are trying to adopt again. They have a love for the people of Ethiopia they didn’t know before, and Audrey often expresses her amazement at how much your life can change because of how God quenches thirst we didn’t even know we had.

What was it like, I wonder, for the Samaritan woman to go to the well that day? She just needed water – like everyone else who’s ever known life in God’s creation. Perhaps her heart was still bruised from the loss of those five husbands. Regardless of whether she was widowed or divorced, you don’t lose five life partners without being wounded. She asked for help meeting her basic needs – notice that she asked, “Where can I get this water, so I don’t have to keep coming to this well?” But God doesn’t bless us like that. Nothing God gives to us takes us away from the basics of this life: the living water of the Spirit and truth changes how we look at this life. Like water from the rock, God works into situations that seem hopeless and brings life out of them, working redemption and salvation where before there was only forsakenness and despair. And once God has done this in us, we begin to see how God continues to bless in ways we never saw before, through ordinary means and ordinary people like you and me.

You think God can’t be involved in your ordinary life? Think again. You might just be taking out the garbage, changing a diaper, driving a friend to the airport: God might be invading your life or the lives of others to quench a thirst of which you or I are completely unaware. Some people say that there’s a divide between the sacred and the secular. If we believe in a God who created all things, then there is no such thing as a secular world: God is deeply committed and completely sunk into all of it. In Christ there is no such thing as an ordinary trip to HyVee, or just running down to the corner store for a pack of smokes, or going for a walk with a friend or a spouse – God uses such moments to invade our lives and begin working in us, surprising us and helping us see with the eyes of Christ how the Spirit is alive and flowing through this world. You came here this morning for good news, and here it is: there is living water flowing through you, and your ordinary life is a conduit through which the grace of God flows into the world. Like the Samaritan woman, even your questions about the things you don’t understand can be a witness to your faith in Jesus Christ, your belief that God is alive and active, the Spirit flowing into others through you. This is no ordinary day: it is the day the Lord has made, a day for quenching thirst and pouring out living water. May you be filled, today and always. Amen.

Bath Time for Buddha

So, apparently we're contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic. Sorry about that. :-)

She doesn't appear too worried, though, does she?

25 February 2008

Monday Morning Starting-Work-On-The-Taxes iTunes shuffle

1. "Falling Slowly" by Glenn Hansard & Marketa Irglova (okay, this one I picked because I listened to it on the Oscars show last night.)
2. "When the Man Comes Around" by Johnny Cash
3. "Hey Hey" by Eric Clapton
4. "Beautiful Day" by U2
5. "Largo" from "Symphony #9: From the New World" by Antonin Dvorak
6. "This Cat's On A Hot Tin Roof" by the Brian Setzer Orchestra.
7. "Air Mail Special" by Benny Goodman
8. "The King of the Golden Hall" from "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"
9. "Sing, Sing, Sing" by Benny Goodman
10. "The Ladies In Town All Know My Name" by Strong Bad (I am...fairly great...)
11. "Blood Count" by the Canadian Brass
12. "Helm's Deep" from "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"
13. "Peter and the Wolf: The Wolf Stalks the Bird and the Cat" by Sergei Prokofiev
14. "Dark Eyes" by Stan Kenton
15. "Sweet Surrender" by Sarah McLachlan
16. "As Long As I'm Singin'" by the Brian Setzer Orchestra
17. "Lacrimosa" by Igor Stravinsky
18. "I Know The Lord Has Laid His Hands On Me" by the Salem Quartet (yay, Grandpa!)
19. "One Moment More" by Mindy Smith
20. "Spancil Hill" by The Dubliners
21. "Chi Mi Na Morbheanna" by MacTalla Mor

The Oscars - 2008 Original Song of the Year - "Falling Slowly"

I'll admit I'm a huge fan of the Oscars. Not because I like to dish about what people are wearing, or who George Clooney brings (although I did like Jon Stewart's joke about how, during commercials, the people in the auditorium make catty comments to each other about what you and I are wearing). I love the Oscars because it tries to showcase movie-making at its best. Sometimes the Academy misses the boat, but not often, in my opinion.

Last night was a really wonderful ceremony. Four foreign winners of the acting categories, huge wins for the Coen brothers' "No Country For Old Men" (I am SO hoping the movie is as good as the book), and a really warm ceremony; how many times did Jon Stewart say "Amazing?"

But the best moment of the night for me was the announcement of "Falling Slowly" for song of the year. The warm reception provided to the stars of the movie echoed our own reaction to this great little film. I was SO happy "Falling Slowly" won (if for no other reason than it beat out the THREE Disney nominations - nuts to the Evil Empire), and even happier that Jon Stewart asked Marketa Irglova to come back out and finish her acceptance speech. Classy, that.

Anyway, consider this one last plug for "Once:" it's a great movie and well worth your time. Here's the song again, just in case you need a bit more convincing:

22 February 2008

Friday Five: Heavenly

What is your idea of a heavenly (i.e. wonderful and perfect):

1. Family get-together
This one is actually a memory more than a hope: I remember a Johnson family reunion when I was young, probably six or seven years old. We met in the park in my hometown of Wakefield, Nebraska, and in my memory there's like a hundred people there. We lived a mile away from the farm where my Grandpa Johnson was raised, and his brother and sister both stayed close when they got married themselves. So we knew our cousins really well when we were growing up. Anyway, this family reunion was wonderful: everyone was there, we had tons of food to eat (including a big pile of fried chicken) and we ran and played games all afternoon. Everyone laughed and enjoyed each others' company - I'm hoping someday we can do it again.

2. Song or musical piece
Hmmmm - what to choose. Here's a few:
a. Symphony #1: Lord of the Rings by Johan de Meij
b. Heaven Is Waiting by Rich Mullins & Mitch McVicker
c. Hold Me, Jesus by Rich Mullins
d. Day By Day - a hymn by Lena Sandell
e. Jesus of Suburbia by Green Day
f. Symphony #5: From the New World by Antonin Dvorak
g. Symphony #4 by David Maslanka
h. Tom Sawyer by Rush
i. Peace of Mind by Boston
j. One Voice by the Wailin' Jennys
k. Steady On by Storyhill
These are all songs/musical works that have just made my heart jump upon hearing them, even to the hundredth time. I know the array of choices is wide, especially when you throw in Green Day and Rush, but hey, it's my heavenly music, right?

3. Gift
A new set of Callaway golf clubs would be heavenly, for sure - the FT-i neutral driver, Fusion Woods and, oh, why not the X-18 irons & wedges. Because, you know, it's all about the clubs, not the guy holding them. :-)

4. You choose whatever you like-food, pair of shoes, vacation, house, or something else. Just tell us what it is and what a heavenly version of it would be.
Let's do a heavenly Grandma's Marathon, shall we? First, I'll sleep well in my friend J's parents' house, something I never do in a strange bed. Then we'll rise early and I'll have a nice cuppa joe or two, a bagel with organic peanut butter and orange marmalade, and a banana that's at the perfect ripeness. Top it off with one more cup of coffee on our way out to Two Harbors, MN for the start of the race. The mist is breaking off of Lake Superior and the temperature is in the low 50s, where it will stay for the majority of the day because of the light northern breeze at our backs. We cross the starting line after most of the elite runners are gone, and wonder of wonders, everyone has managed to line up in their pace groups so we aren't a) dodging walkers in the first two miles and b) getting run down by the fat guy with all the tech gear who started at the back so he could pass everyone & feel awesome at others' expense. We hit all our pace goals with good effort, and even though my calves are really starting to scream by mile 20, the wall is nowhere in sight as we roll into Duluth. Then it's down to the harbor and across the finish line in 3:50:00 or better, breaking my goal of 4 hours and setting me on a course to try for Boston in a year or two. We top off the day with great food, great beer and a lot of fun with all our friends who have traveled with us to Duluth, then we spend a couple of days hiking on the North Shore before heading back home. Yeah, that'll do.

5. And for a serious moment, or what would you like your entrance into the next life to be like? What, from your vantage point now, would make Heaven "heavenly?"
Realizing that the promise of Christ was true - heaven has been waiting all along, and the journey home was about serving others, not earning the place that was given at Baptism. Seeing my Grandma & Grandpa Johnson and my Grandpa Janke, along with other family and friends who've gone before. Beyond that, it's too wonderful for words - I'll just trust that the Creator knows what He's doing and I'll love it when I get there.

21 February 2008

Friday - Twiddling my thumbs?

I'm done with Sunday's sermon.

On Thursday.

This has never happened before.

I know, I know - it's a good thing. And I'm glad, really, because it does mean one thing for certain: we're having WAFFLES for breakfast on Sunday since Daddy will have all the time in the world to cook. :-) But, seriously, I'm generally a "not feeling particularly inspired until Saturday night" preacher - I've tried to write on Thursday afternoons before, and just never got the engine stoked enough to do it. I'm going to know what a full weekend feels like. I'm not going to be worried sick on Saturday that I won't have anything in the hopper come Sunday morning. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. But, I wonder, what the hell am I going to do with myself until Sunday?

20 February 2008

The Wednesday Reflection: "Angry Love"

Ezekiel 36.22-30 -- 22Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. 23I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes. 24I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land.

25I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. 28Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. 29I will save you from all your uncleannesses, and I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30I will make the fruit of the tree and the produce of the field abundant, so that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.

I don’t like this reading from the prophet Ezekiel at all. Not one bit. Passages like this one draw out the rebellious, grumpy adolescent in me, the one who sulked and complained and was never, ever satisfied. Like Jeremy Duncan in the comic strip “Zits:” all big feet and mood swings and utterly convinced that he’s got the lamest, un-coolest parents in the world. Yeah, that’s how I feel about God when I read these verses from Ezekiel. If my best friends from back then were hearing the words with me, they’d be rolling their eyes right along with me. “You’ ve GOT to be kidding me.” “Are you for real?” “You don’t love me – you just care about yourself!” “I hate you!” *SLAM!* (bedroom door).

Here’s the thing: if you’ve been reading Zits lately, you know that a few weeks ago, Jeremy really messed up. He snuck out in the middle of the night in his dad’s car and drove through his new girlfriend’s cul-de-sac. Several times. The police pulled him over after they’d seen him do it seventeen times. He later confessed to his father that it was actually sixty-three times (and then told Dad, “you’re almost out of gas.”). At which point both his parents basically went ballistic.

I know a little bit about what it feels like to be in Jeremy’s position. When I was fourteen, my cousin Mark left the keys in his car one day when he drove out to our farm to work for my dad. When I had a half hour home alone that afternoon while my mom was coming to get me for baseball practice, I got into Mark’s car and started driving it around our farmplace. Lots of fun – until my Mom’s car popped over the hill a mile away and I panicked. I threw Mark’s car into reverse, tried frantically to get it back to where it had been, and wound up backing over the cap to our well and nearly puncturing the gas tank.

It should go without saying that my parents were horrified at what I had done – so much so that I’m sure they apologized personally in addition to making me apologize to Mark for what amounted to stealing his car. I remember the look on my parents’ faces when they realized what I’d done. They were about as angry with me as they had ever been, because my actions reflected on their parenting. In a small town like mine, news traveled fast, and this was definitely news. The good name my parents had built over years of hard work was being damaged because of their reckless, insubordinate, willful child’s misbehavior – and so, they were furious with me for what I was doing to their reputation.

In the same way, God gets furious with us when we misrepresent God’s name to the world around us. When we are baptized, we are baptized into the family of God; we become bearers of the name of Christ, just as I bear the name of Johnson and carry the reputation of my family with me. Living in a family can be messy sometimes: people say and do things that cause friction, and sometimes a mistake one of us makes reflects poorly on all of us. In the case of the people in Ezekiel’s time, a history of mistakes and rebellion against ‘family values’ made God angry – so angry, in fact, that Ezekiel records a vision of the glory of God leaving the temple, like a parent who storms away from a disobedient child rather than lose his temper (not that I’d know what that looks like, of course. ). In the end, we have God’s word in our reading for tonight. God was righteously angry, yet still loved the family God had called God’s own – so God promised good to the rebellious children, even when they didn’t deserve it. In the next chapter of Ezekiel, in fact, Ezekiel sees a valley of dry bones coming to life, and God says, “This is how you’ll know that I am God – when I bring your dead bones back to life again.”

One of the last Zits strips to deal with Jeremy’s big night behind the wheel shows his mother describing his punishment. “Grounded for a month. Cell phone confiscated, and driving privileges severely curtailed until after the court appearance,” says Mom. “Okay,” says Jeremy. “Okay?” says Mom? “I messed up, I’m scared, and I need you, Mom,” says Jeremy. Then he hugs her, and in the last frame we find her melting into a puddle of sighing, parental love. Sentimental, yes, but also not too far from our relationship with God, I think. God’s wrath is strongest when we won’t admit our need for grace and love – and God’s love is strongest when we drop our resistance and admit that we are in bondage to our sin and cannot free ourselves. The God who grows angry is also the God who loves – who promises to forgive our sins, open the future to us and, like a good parent, care for our needs and protect us from harm. Thanks be to God, from whom all good parenting flows. Amen.

Anyone who wants to see the series of comics I'm describing can find them here.

18 February 2008

Being Useful, Missing Larry

It's amazing what a Monday afternoon like this can do - and it's amazing how rewarding it can be to a pastor, to feel like you're contributing something of value to the church through your work.

I got in at 1:30 this afternoon. Since then I've met with one student for 90 minutes to discuss a matter of deep importance - and felt like I helped clarify some issues without either a) caving on Lutheran theology or b) speaking ill of those who think differently of the matter in question. It was a wonderfully invigorating conversation - the kind of thing that led me to think about doing campus ministry in the first place, because I remember enjoying many of the same conversations with my own campus pastor, Larry Meyer.

I met with another student at 4:00, the one who spoke so honestly last week and with whom I've been patching things up. No, the situation we're working isn't resolved to our satisfaction yet, but from our end it is (a third party isn't helping as we hoped), and I think that's the far more important matter. Again, feeling good about that conversation because I didn't have to dance around the questions as I once had done.

Another student is due in a few minutes, for a personal conversation about some troubling stuff. I have an idea of what some of the issues may be, but not the specifics - again, it's rewarding to feel as though I've built a reputation as one with whom a student might speak openly and honestly (and it's back-breaking to write about this without even tipping the gender identifiers for confidentiality's sake!).

I feel as though I'm already having more of an impact here than I was in my previous call - for the simple reason that this is just a better fit for my gifts in ministry. I feel as though I'm making a difference more often and with greater depth, and that is fulfilling in a way I had somewhat forgotten. In 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote an essay to his co-conspirators Hans von Dohnanyi and Col. Hans Oster and his immediate family, entitled "After Ten Years." In it he wrote:
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not genuises, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward people. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?

Now, I am in no way comparing myself to the conspirators against the Nazis. But I find myself intrigued by the question, "Are we still of any use?" I wonder if some of the angst and ennui with which many of us struggle comes from this question - and with the way we must struggle against the tide of materialism, affluenza and external rewards to find the deeper reward of fulfilling vocations and lives lived with meaning and purpose.

Today, I have been "of use." I have, by the grace of God, been allowed to contribute to those I am called to serve, and I find myself thinking of Larry again and again as I get comfortable in this new call and in these new surroundings. I remember the deep sense of joy that Larry exuded when he was my pastor, and I feel it beginning to fill me as well, joy I couldn't find previously because I wasn't as useful as I'd hoped I would be. Maybe that's the true meaning of vocation, to contribute, to benefit others through your work, to be "of use;" whatever it is, I'm feeling it tonight, and Larry's absence as well. Miss ya, Herr Meyer - can't wait to sit back in the kingdom, enjoy a beer with you and tell you all about it.

17 February 2008

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent: "Faith Enough To Follow"

Preaching Texts

Let’s pray: Lord Jesus Christ, You come to us in our darkness and ask us to trust that you will lead us into Your light. But it’s scary out there. Our weaknesses will be exposed. Our prejudices will be challenged. Our cynical nature rebels because we prefer to stay hidden in the dark with our small hopes and dreams. Turn us inside out. Show us that there’s a better way to live as Your followers, a justified way that is true to the gospel with which You have called us. Lead us down that way through the power of your Holy Spirit. All this we ask, knowing that we cannot understand or control how it will happen, that we must simply have faith in You. Help us, above all, to put our faith in You. Amen.

Four volunteers who will be blindfolded and led around the sanctuary. Each leader has a different path that encompasses the icon, the baptismal font, the door to the sanctuary and ends at the cross.


· How did it feel being led in this way?

· Were you worried about where you were being led? The person who was leading you?

· Were you completely ready to go from the moment I asked for volunteers?

· How about where you ended and the blindfold was removed – did that mean anything to you?

Here’s the question for us today: do we trust enough to follow where we are called? I believe that the biggest obstacle facing the church today isn’t a lack of spirituality. It isn’t Biblical illiteracy or shaky morals. It isn’t homosexuals and it isn’t heterosexuals and it isn’t Republicans or Democrats, either. I think the biggest obstacle facing us today is a lack of faith.. Specifically, I think we lack faith in God to lead us where we need to go, and faith in each other to travel on that way together without trying to control each other. Faith, pure and simple.

Our scripture readings today show us a lot about faith and trust and following where you’re called. Let’s start with Abram, shall we? What can you tell me about Abram? Ancestor in the faith. Name means “Father of many nations.” Married to Sarah. Did you know that Abram was born and raised a pagan, worshipping many idols before he started hearing one voice above all the others? Abram was not a man raised to believe that one day, the God would come calling in a voice he could hear: Abram was a man raised to believe that gods were distant, plentiful and rarely concerned with the actions of the mortals who worshiped them. This pagan sheepherder, several hundred years removed from Noah, the last to hear the voice of God, was called to pick up and leave everything he knew, all that was familiar and controllable, and move to an unknown land several months’ journey to the west, where he would be a sojourner, a resident alien. And the voice of God didn’t stop there: he also promised that Abram and Sarai, well past child-bearing age, would become the parents of a multitude upon the earth.

We would do well to consider the pattern of Abram’s faith and the following he did. According to the book of Genesis, Abram did follow as he was called, but there were problems along the way. Abram didn’t understand exactly what he was being asked to do – all he knew was that God was up to something in his life. Abram didn’t know exactly where he was going – all he knew was that God would show him the way. Abram wasn’t sure he was the right person for the position – after all, how could a couple with no children become the parents of a multitude? Abram didn’t always follow with complete trust and confidence in God – sometimes Abram took things into his own hands, like the two occasions he tried to pass Sarai off as his sister to protect them both. Abram and Sarai went so far as to try to accomplish what God had promised on their own by having a child through a surrogate, Sarai’s servant Hagar, because Sarai was past the age of childbirth. But even with all this, with all the times Abram and Sarai stumbled, lost their way and rejected God’s promises as false, in the end God delivered what God had promised: a multitude of nations now cling to the memory of Abraham and Sarah as our ancestors in the faith. Was their faith perfect? Hardly – Abram and Sarai had only enough faith to begin the journey and see what would happen. But that’s all the faith that was needed: faith enough to follow.

Consider also, then, the story of Nicodemus and Jesus from the gospel of John. Nicodemus was described as a Pharisee of high standing, one who paid attention to the ancient covenant between God and the people of Israel. But Nicodemus came to Jesus because he believed that something was happening through Jesus. He was, if you will, in the dark about Jesus – and Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus at night was no accident. In John’s gospel, light and darkness have deep meaning, far deeper than simply night and day. Darkness stands for evil, ignorance, a desire to keep ourselves hidden from God, while light stands for righteousness, revelation and the presence of God and God’s people. So when the gospel tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark, it tells us that Nicodemus had only enough faith to come and see what was going on – but again, this is all the faith that is required: faith enough to follow.

Today, we know little more than Nicodemus did that night he came to Jesus. We’re not even sure if John 3.16-21 is actually be the words of Jesus – some manuscripts do not include these verses as a quotation. We’re confused about whether or not the most well-known and over-used verse in all scripture was actually spoken by Jesus. Taking this fact into consideration, then, how exactly can we expect to understand everything the Spirit blows into us, or everything the Spirit blows us into? But we do believe that the Spirit is active, do we not? Jesus tells us: the wind / Spirit / pneuma blows where it chooses, and we hear the sound of it, but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with all of us who are born of the wind / Spirit / pneuma.

Being parents, of course, Kris and I know a little something about being born. First, the body is whispering, to mother and child, then it nudges, then it shouts and pushes the infant toward a new world. Is it comfortable? Hardly. But, is it necessary? Absolutely – because there is a limited time the infant can remain in the womb. So it is with us – when we are reborn through the work of the Spirit, first there is a whispering, then a nudge, then finally the strong, clear voice of God bringing us into a new life, a life we don’t always understand but into which we are called as God’s children, washed in the waters of baptism and given faith enough to follow once we have been called.

One of my seminary professors says that “We tend to talk about "our faith" or "having faith," assuming that it is a done deal, that believing is as simple as acquiring faith. But the Gospel of John never refers to faith as a noun. Faith is not a possession, not something that one gets, not something that one has—it is something that one does. Believing for the characters in the Fourth Gospel is a verb. And as a verb, believing is subject to all of the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the indecisiveness of being human. We need to ask more often than we are willing to admit, "how can these things be?" We need to take seriously what faith looks like when it is active, living, permeable, and dynamic. We need to consider earnestly that having an incarnated God may require an incarnational faith – that believing is just as complicated as it is to be human.”[1]

I wish I could tell you exactly how this works, where the Spirit will call you, into what you’ll be reborn today, but I can’t. I don’t know how this works any better than you – I’m not the one whispering, nudging, pulling you into a new life. What I can tell you is that as your brother in Christ, I will celebrate the journey with you, believe in you and put my faith in you as you seek to discern the Spirit’s voice in your life, help you find the way to follow Jesus as you help me find my own. But most of all, I can promise you this: you have all you need to follow Jesus already, because the Spirit has called you here and reminded you that your sins are forgiven, the life you have lived is behind you, and the future of faith enough to follow is here for you, today, in this place. May God bless the journey into which you are called today, and praise be to God for giving us faith enough to follow in all the days to come. Amen.

[1] Caroline Lewis, Assistant Professor of Homiletics, Luther Seminary. http://workingpreacher.org

16 February 2008

Birthday Cake Mash-Up

All right, fine - she really IS my daughter:

Many thanks to Matt for videotaping the moment - I was having too much fun being part of it to actually think about pictures/videos/any kind of recording device.

A few still shots to enjoy, too:

15 February 2008

Friday Five: The Water and the Word

In this Sunday's gospel Nicodemus asks Jesus, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Poor old Nicodemus! He was so confused about the whole "water and Spirit" business of baptism.

For today's five, tell us about your baptismal experiences.

When and where were you baptized? Do you remember it? Know any interesting tidbits?
9 June 1974. Don't remember it, as I was only a month old at the time, and from what I've heard, there aren't any interesting tidbits surrounding my baptism. You know, except for the whole "adoption into the body of Christ" thing - that never gets old.

What's the most unexpected thing you've ever witnessed at a baptism?

Well, there was our daughter's first poop through her diaper experience - during her baptismal service - that was certainly unexpected.

Does your congregation have any special traditions surrounding baptisms?
My former congregation had a banner where they would post the child's name the day of her/his baptism, and we subscribed each family to a monthly mailing called "Splash!" from our publishing house - kind of a combination practical-parenting / baptismal-instruction foldout each month, plus a CD once a year for baby and parents to enjoy. Here in campus ministry, we don't do a lot of baptisms, so I'm sure we'll be free to have fun with something when it does happen.

Are you a godparent or baptismal sponsor? Have a story to tell?
We are sponsors of my nephew on my wife's side, and pleased as punch about it. We haven't done a whole lot as of yet, but once he gets into Sunday School and especially toward confirmation we'll be stepping up a bit more.

Do you have a favorite baptismal song or hymn?
There's a baptismal hymn in our new hymnal that has made its mark on me - "Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters." For one thing it's set to the Sacred Harp tune Beach Spring, one of my favorites. The words are beautiful, too:

1. Wash, O God, our sons and daughters, where your cleansing waters flow.
Number them among your people; bless as Christ blessed long ago.
Weave them garments, bright and sparkling; compass them with love and light.
Fill, anoint them; send your Spirit, holy dove and heart's delight.

2. We who bring them long for nurture; by your milk may we be fed.
Let us join your feast, partaking cup of blessing, living bread.
God, renew us, guide our footsetps; free from sin and all its snares,
one with Christ in living, dying, by your Spirit, children, heirs.

3. Oh, how deep your holy wisdom! Unimagined, all your ways!
To your name be glory, honor! With our lives we worship, praise!
We your people stand before you, water-washed and Spirit-born.
By your grace, our lives we offer. Recreate us; God, transform!

14 February 2008

Healthy, Holy Critique

"You don't listen."

Not the kind of thing a pastor likes to hear less than two months into a new call - but it's what I heard this afternoon.

This is not another working-in-the-church-means-sometimes-putting-up-with-assholes post; I don't do those anymore (at least, not where people can figure out the name of the asshole in question). This one hurt because it was a genuine problem caused by a lot of different stuff, some of which was wholly and entirely my fault. When someone comes to you with one problem, and you probe a bit into another that you've kinda felt building, and suddenly, the someone is in tears? That's when a pastor knows there's a major problem that needs fixing - NOW.

Thanks be to God, we did talk and forgiveness was offered and received well on both sides. That's the "Healthy, Holy" part of this post's title. It's one thing to go to a forum on spirituality in the morning and talk about how it's hard for the church to trust each other anymore. It's another thing to do the kind of work that creates space for rebuilding broken trust. That's why I feel exhausted this afternoon - because I've been working, and the conversation and its repercussions are going to last a while. That's the tough part of this ministry gig.

The good part? Hearing these words at the end of the conversation: "I didn't expect this to go so well." Surprising someone by simply being willing to admit your mistakes kinda feels good, like you're not only rebuilding trust in yourself, but in everyone who's going to mess up after you. Maybe that's the lasting effect of genuine repentance - creating the hope that others will be able to do the same in the future.

13 February 2008

Wednesday Reflection: "Little Ones"

Matthew 18.10-14: “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

My friend Caroline got a kitten while we were in seminary. She named it “Mikra,” which is the Greek word used for “little ones” in these verses from the Gospel of Matthew. I thought Mikra was cute for a kitten but wouldn’t work for a cat who could, for all I know, weigh 20 pounds and resemble a furry rock more than a kitten these days.

I don’t know much about naming cats – Ike and Reggie just seemed like, well, Ike and Reggie when they entered my life. But I remember feeling the same way about them as Caroline did about Mikra: even if you’re not a cat person, it’s hard to resist a kitten. I remember the day my girlfriend brought Ike home; he was a yowling ball of fur, hiding in the back window of her car and scared out of his wits, but once he got used to my little one-bedroom apartment, he became my best friend. To this day, Ike is still “my” cat, even though his kitten days are long gone and the girlfriend who brought him home is now my ex-wife.

As much as I like thinking about the cute, fuzzy days of kittenhood, that’s not what Jesus was talking about here – it’s not even close. The love of God is not the warm, oogly mush of fuzzy kitten sentimentality: it is the raging, protective, all-encompassing love of a benevolent parent for a child. If Ike or Reggie had wandered through an open door or window and been lost, I would have been truly sad, of course, but not for long. Growing up on a Nebraska farm, I’ve gotten familiar with losing pets over the years, and old age has seldom been the cause of death. The love I had for Chee-Chee, Lady, George, Rocky, Patches, Ed, Cheddar, and all the other cats and dogs, all our “little ones” over the years was strong, of course, but nowhere near as strong as the care a shepherd shows for his sheep or, speaking from personal experience, a parent for his child.

Last Saturday we had a house full of family in town for my installation and to celebrate Ainsley’s first birthday. I’d been working on a few odds and ends around the house, and my tools were kind of all over the place, so as Kristin and my Mom headed off to check into the hotel where my parents were staying, I was running up and down the stairs putting wrenches back in the tool box and other stuff. My Dad was watching my nephew Zach and our Ainsley, but kids are quick and distracted parents make mistakes. I made a big one. I was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher when I heard a loud thump on our basement stairs, followed by another, then another, then nothing. My heart dropped right into the pit of my stomach as I realized that I’d left the door open and Ainsley had just fallen down the stairs. I raced downstairs to find her wedged against the gate at the bottom, startled and trying to breathe. I scooped her up and checked her from head to foot for any serious injuries while she caught her breath and proceeded to scream at the top of her lungs for a couple of minutes. We’re talking serious crying here: she was scared, hurt and not afraid at all to let the whole world know about it. And me? I felt like the worst parent in the world for letting something like that happen to my little girl. I would have gladly taken the fall on myself if I could have, and in the days since that fall I’ve been hyper-vigilant about where my little girl is and whether the doors are shut or not.

This is the kind of care the Father has for us – His “little ones.” You see it over and over throughout the Bible: God the Father is in anguish when we are hurt and scared because we’ve fallen and cannot stand on our own. The prophet Hosea was given a glimpse of this love when he wrote,

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

2The more I called them, the more they went from me;

they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.

3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms;

but they did not know that I healed them.

4I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.

I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.

9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;

for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst,

and I will not come in wrath.[1]

This is the love Jesus described when He told his disciples, “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” You are God’s little ones, the ones for whom God’s heart is yearning. This is the love of Christ, so powerful and passionate that even the prospect of crucifixion was not enough to cause Him to renounce His “little ones.”

Lent is about the journey of Jesus to the cross, but we know that we cannot walk the road with Him; we stumble and fall and find ourselves gasping, out of breath, terrified by our own mistakes and the misfortune of suffering for someone else’s sin. But the love of God for us, His “little ones,” is the love that stoops down, picks us up, caresses and soothes until the terror is gone, peace reigns in our hearts, and we are able to walk once again. Little ones, be assured that this loving God is yours, tonight and forever. Amen.

[1] Hosea 11.1-4, 8-11, New Revised Standard Version

12 February 2008

Temptation, Recuperation, Addiction, Exasperation - Not Necessarily In That Order

I've not been a very happy camper these past few days. Matter of fact, I've been pretty much a pissant since all our family left Sunday afternoon. Grrrrr.

It all started on Thursday night when I noticed a tickle in my throat. By morning it had grown into a full-fledged sore throat: I'm sick with the Crud. Nothing major, mind you, and certainly not strep or walking pneumonia like Matt had a few weeks ago. But not fun. By Saturday afternoon, I was struggling to speak clearly and swallow without pain - right as our friends and family started arriving. Sunday afternoon was my installation service. It was wonderful and humbling at the same time - all these people celebrating the ministry they think we can do, with me as pastor and leader. *gulp* But I digress - I'll cover the installation more tonight from home.

I couldn't sing on Sunday. Literally couldn't hold a pitch at all - I sounded like the pimply kid on the Simpsons: "Mister, I can't stand the sound of your voice!" I said "Martin Luther" in the course of my sermon and it sounded like I had gone back to age 13. Not pretty.

Speaking of my sermon, it wasn't great. You'd think that the confrontation between Jesus and Satan, with its themes of temptation, fasting and the ministry of the angels would provide lots of fruitful space for preaching, but this week, it didn't. It wasn't even good, in my opinion: scattered words about Jesus and nothing really worth saying in the end. It can be SO frustrating when that happens: you think you've got something good and you just can't make it work right. Sometimes you preach the Word, and sometimes you preach words, unfortunately - I just wish it had been better for my family, who traveled quite a distance to see the Center and be with us on Sunday. Maybe next time.

Yesterday morning, I decided to take a 1/2 day of sick leave. I normally work about four hours on Monday afternoons: clean out the last of the stuff from Sunday, take a first look at the next Sunday's readings, email & phone calls, etc., so I can hit Tuesdays hard and get a lot done for the week. But I just felt punky yesterday - worn out and like I needed a break (after two weeks of being at the church at least once every day, you think I might have needed to stop?). So even though I was far from incapacitated, I did stay home yesterday. But we didn't get as much rest as we'd hoped, for our little Princess has decided she's too good to hold her own sippy cup anymore: she just walks up to you and throws the damned thing in your lap, then throws a fit if you don't pick her up and shove it into her face. The other fun bit is Ainsley's complete 180 regarding the Leapfrog Farm Magnet Matt & Sweetie and Kiddo gave her for her 1st birthday. On Sunday, she couldn't get enough of it. Now, she pokes the button, freaks out when the song starts, but continues to freak out if you turn the sound off. What. The. F#$@. Is. This?

Now, this morning. First, I forgot to get more coffee at the market yesterday, so I was down to dragging the last beans out of the coffee jar this morning and grinding the hell out of them to get the brew strong enough (finer grind = more surface contact = stronger coffee. You get that for free). But the filter folded over for some reason, grounds plugged the driphole on our coffeemaker, and with Ainsley throwing a sippy-cup fit in the basement, I came upstairs for my first cup to find coffee everywhere, EXCEPT in the pot, of course. grrrrr

I'm still a bit sick: feeling achy and clearing that nasty, rust-flavored phlegm out of my lungs when I cough. Voice is getting there, thankfully, but it's going to be a bit yet. At least today I sound marginally human. Grrrrr

And it snowed. Again. Several inches. Had to shovel instead of getting out for my morning run. GRRRRRRRR

After all of this, I was, as stated previously, pissy. GRRRRRRRRROWL Snapped at the wife. Snapped at the kid. Grumbled my way through my shower and a cup of hot chocolate (please, God, SOMETHING with caffeine to take the edge off). I stumbled into the market to buy coffee beans and decided I should splurge and get a Starbucks before I bit someone's head off.

Thus far it's keeping me sane. And I'm the only one here. Perhaps a sign on my office door (caution: caffeine addict in detox) might be in order. But hey, I just called Beloved and she's forgiven me - because I'm a lucky bastard, and sometimes, that's enough.

So, that's the present state of things: Temptation, Recuperation, Addiction, Exasperation. I'll add Contrition and Exoneration, considering Beloved and I are doing okay now. The last, then, for today will be this: Completion.

08 February 2008

Friday Five: First Friday of Lent

1. Did you celebrate Mardi Gras and/or Ash Wednesday this week? How?
We did a pseudo-Fat Tuesday this week: ate good, thick crust, Chicago-style pizza with lotsa meat & a few veggies, and watched a movie. Not that we're giving up movies for Lent - it just seemed like something fun to do.

2. What was your most memorable Mardi Gras/Ash Wednesday/Lent?
I remember one Lent where a girl with whom I was head over heels in love ended the relationship. Turns out I was a "not so sure about the guy I want to marry, so I'm going to explore a bit" guy - and I do say that with kindness intended. Years later, of course: at the time I was devastated. Anyhoo, Lent was definitely a walk in the wilderness that year: as one of my friends put it, I was a "mucking fess."

3. Did you/your church/your family celebrate Lent as a child? If not, when and how did you discover it?
We went to midweek services, and the ones I remember most were when Pastor Marek was our pastor, because we did a Service of the Word from our hymnal, and we sang canticles, which we'd never done before. I can still sing them in my head: "We believe / that Jesus Christ / has died for us, and has risen from the dead. / He is our saving Lord / He is joy for all nations."

4. Are you more in the give-up camp, or the take-on camp, or somewhere in between?
I'm in the Both-And camp this year. Giving up red meat and other kinds of meat when possible (can't go WITHOUT meat if I want to share meals with my pregnant spouse), no alcohol or ice cream, and more exercise. Mostly, I'm trying to follow the advice of Michael Pollan: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

5. How do you plan to keep Lent this year?
With joy. I'm reading Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and he and others insist that disciplines are to be undertaken with joy, not sorrow, for in learning to hold the world lightly we learn to cling all the more to Christ, "like water to a pitcher," as Martin Luther once said. I'll be glad when I can lift a beer again, but I'm also excited to think about the health benefits and, most importantly, the way my own walk with God may change this year.

06 February 2008

Sermon for Ash Wednesday: "Ordinary Dust, Extraordinary Discipleship"

Preaching Texts

Every year about this time, my campus pastor would start hectoring us about our Lenten disciplines. “What are you going to give up?” he’d demand, and every year it seemed like Larry would badger us into really sacrificing for Lent. One year, my roommate and I decided to join Larry in giving up smoking at the Center for Lent. It was that year when we discovered that disciplines are only disciplines if you can keep yourself from skirting the rules. We went so far as figuring out how far away from the Center we had to stand before we could have our cigarettes in good conscience. After that year, I gave up giving things up for Lent – because it just wasn’t working.

Maybe you’ve decided to take up a discipline for Lent this year. You’ve picked up a devotion book somewhere and you’re going to spend some time reflecting on God’s word every day. You’ve chosen to abstain from meat or beer or chips or soap operas or anchovies or something you really love. Good for you, and if I can help you in any way, let me know. But Jesus had something to say about these things: Beware. It is his warning we must also heed as we move from the revelation of Epiphany to our prayers of supplication in Lent.

Have mercy on us, Lord Jesus. You call us to humility and service – help us to be humble and serve. Tear down our love of attention and build in us a desire to help the poor, to pray honestly, to hold the things of this world lightly. Amen.

“The call to be extraordinary is the great, inevitable danger of discipleship…The extraordinary is not supposed to happen in order to be seen…[it] should not be done for the sake of its being extraordinary.”[1] So wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Nachfolge. He agreed with Martin Luther that spiritual disciplines, no matter how extraordinary, have no value in and of themselves, and can become dangerous to us because they can lead us into sins like pride, self-righteousness and exclusivity.

But Bonhoeffer also said this: “A life which remains without any ascetic discipline, which indulges in all the desires of the flesh as long as they are ‘permitted’ by the civil order [justitia civilis], will find it difficult to enter the service of Christ. Satiated flesh is unwilling to pray and is unfit for self-sacrificing service.”[2] So, which is it? Which fire are we playing with as Lent begins: the slow smolder of our souls choking on our excess, or the searing heat of pride from our extraordinary spiritual disciplines?

The answer, of course, is neither. Tonight we gather to remember that the fire is already out when it comes to our Sin, and Sin won the battle over us. Tonight we are marked in ashes as a reminder of who we are: broken, sinful, mortal women and men who have no hope of overcoming our sin in this life. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. But there is another here tonight who has the power to raise up mortals out of the dust, to breathe Spirit into lifeless clay and make it live, and that one, Jesus Christ, has promised us that He has won the victory over our sin, that every day we live is a day when He washes away the ashes of our sin, cleansing us through His cross, raising us out of the tomb with Him into resurrection life, both here and in the kingdom to come.

Tonight we are marked with our death as a reminder that we have no power over it. Bonhoeffer wrote, “The first Christ-suffering that everyone has to experience is the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ. Those who enter into discipleship enter into Jesus’ death. They turn their living into dying; such has been the case from the very beginning. The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.”[3] But I tell you tonight, this death is a death we need, for God puts us to death in our sin so that Christ may raise us up to new life, through the covenant made through Baptism, lovingly maintained through the forgiving power of His body and blood.

The first Lenten discipline is the one which renders all other disciplines moot: the ashes which mark us as those who will die. But we who will die must also live and follow and serve the best that we can. May your journey this Lent be one which strengthens your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. May you learn what it means to follow in ordinary ways, on ordinary days, even when others around you think it extraordinary. May you discover joy and meaning as the ashes of your sin are washed away by the extraordinary grace of Jesus Christ, your Savior. Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4: Discipleship. © 2001 Augsburg Fortress. p. 148-149.

[2] Ibid., p. 158

[3] Ibid., p. 87.