30 March 2008

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter - "The Scars Still Remain"

Hearers of God's word, grace and peace be unto you from God, our Creator, Jesus Christ our Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit, active here in our midst this morning. Amen.

I'm going to embarrass my parents this morning. I'm going to point to some scars on my body (nothing indecent, don't worry!), and see if you can remember how I got them. Ready?

The first scar is on the back of my head, near my left earlobe, where I fell into the corner of the kiddie pool at Ponca State Park when I was three years old. The second scar is in the middle of my forehead, right on the hairline, where I tripped on our stairs and hit the corner of the windowsill when I was five. The final scar, which I doubt they know as well, is on my left shin, from when I got stepped on during a football game my junior year of high school. I suspect my parents are growing suspicious – it seems like every time they come to visit I seem to work them into the sermon.

We know our scars, don't we? Anyone have any scars you'd care to tell us about, and show us, if it's in a place you can show without offending anyone? How many of you have appendectomy scars? My wife has a scar on her bottom lip where she bit through that lip falling off the monkey bars during elementary school. I grew up in a farming community, as did many of you – some folks I knew growing up had scars, and some had more; one of my Sunday School teachers was missing fingers, and my school superintendent was missing his left arm from a farming accident.

So, those scars you know so well: how did you get them? Anyone here get a scar from sitting on the couch? Sleeping? Not running with scissors? I'll tell you this: you don't get scars from not doing things, from staying home, from playing it safe. One of my favorite lines from the movie The Replacements is "Pain heals, chicks dig scars…glory lasts forever." Sure, it's chauvinistic and a clichéd line from a clichéd movie, but it illustrates the point – you don't get scars without getting beat up, putting on some hard miles, getting abused. Scars are the reminder that sometimes we bleed in this life, that there are sharp edges and pointed corners in the world that surrounds us.

Just as there's a story behind every physical scar, there's also a story behind the invisible scars we bear, isn't there? Failed relationships, dashed hopes, disappointing outcomes, painful betrayals, lifelong regrets: these things tear us up inside like knives and football cleats and windowsills tear us up on the outside. But scars don't bleed, do they? Scars are a sign that what was once a wound is now healed, in the past, no longer open and causing pain. In this life we are injured, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and even after we are healed, the scars still remain.

When we are injured, we react to all pain and suffering this way – we begin to construct protection to block the injurious element from causing us further harm. I've got calluses on the ends of the fingers of my left hand from years of playing guitar. Some of you have calluses on your thumbs from hours of Wii, Xbox and Playstation, don't you? When you go to the gym and lift weights, your muscles tear just a little bit, and your body constructs more muscle fiber around the tears, making the muscles bigger and your body stronger in response to a little bit of injury. In an emotional sense, this also happens: we learn to guard ourselves in our relationships, trusting others slowly to minimize the risk of injury. This is part of the natural process of living, the way God has created us to be, but sometimes we go too far and overbuild our protection, hoping that the fortifications we build into our lives will protect us from everything that can hurt us.

It's interesting, then, that after Jesus was put to death, the disciples who followed him chose to hide behind locked doors for fear that they would soon be captured and killed by the same enemies. They barred the door and kept themselves safe from the threatening powers outside, like Morpheus shutting down the Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix. The gospel writer says they did it "for fear of the Jews," but I wonder if perhaps he could have just as easily written, "for fear of further injury." They had lost everything in the short space of one day – they went from being the disciples of a beloved, rebellious teacher to being the followers of a man crucified for heresy and treason. This wasn’t just physical fear, either – there was emotional fear wrapped up in it, too. Jesus was their teacher, their master, their friend, the man they had come to know as Messiah, anointed one of God – and they abandoned him in his hour of deepest need. When the powers of darkness and evil rose up to threaten Jesus, they, his friends, ran off rather than face the darkness with him. That’s the kind of act that leaves emotional scars, the kind of thing you never, ever forget.

Would we have been any different? I doubt it. For fear of what had happened to Jesus, I would have barricaded the door for as long as I could stand it. At this point the disciples had seen and testified that Jesus’ body was missing, that it was possible the resurrection Jesus foretold had taken place, but would that be good news to a group of his friends and followers who had abandoned him? How willing have you been to face a friend you’ve betrayed or hurt badly? Isn’t it easier to avoid them, to walk away, to seal yourself off from the pain you’ve caused? No one wants to pick at scars, emotional or otherwise – we all want to heal as quickly and as painlessly as possible. But with deep wounds come deep scars, and no amount of forgiveness will ever remove the scars we bear. That’s not how forgiveness works.

Into this fearful, huddled group of injured people comes the risen Christ, the crucified One, and he comes bringing peace and life. But his peace is not the peace of this world, achieved through more protection, more barriers, more watchfulness and more fortification. When Jesus breathed on his disciples and said to them, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.", he did so with a body that still bore the scars of the crucifixion, a body that will always bear the scars of the crucifixion. Even after the resurrection, the scars still remain. Why? This was a man who could heal the blind, who could lift the lame up to walk, who could call the dead out of their graves: couldn’t he erase the marks of his own death? Yes, he could – but love and forgiveness required that the scars would still remain.

Forgiving is NOT forgetting, brothers and sisters. If Jesus had erased the scars of the crucifixion, he would have erased the marks of the very hour in which his glory was revealed: the hour where he forgave the world at the height of the world’s power to harm and injure him. If Jesus had erased the scars of the crucifixion, he would have erased the marks of his never-ending love for a world determined to kill him. If Jesus had erased the scars of the crucifixion, he would have lessened the power of the resurrection, the absolute refusal of God to let darkness and evil have the final word. Were the scars ugly? Yes – but they were also the beautiful reminder that even death cannot prevail against the power of God’s love and forgiveness. The scars still remain – but the love of God also remains, and in that love those scars are healed and are not counted against the world which put them there.

This life we live today leaves scars, too – and, unfortunately, some them are hard to forgive. To be sent as a Christian is to know that the world will not be kind to those who insist upon the way of peace, forgiveness and service to one's neighbor. Never, ever think that your faith allows you the luxury of safety in this world - Jesus called his disciples to follow him to death. But within that call is great mercy, for the Father who knows the danger we face also raised Jesus to show us who has the final word. The final word does not belong to the powers of war, violence and death, but to the Creator, the Word through which it Created, and the Spirit which has now been given to you through the resurrection of Christ. The scars still remain, but they are healed and a thing of the past - so will be war, violence and death in the day of Christ that will one day come. Until that day, let your scars be scars, marks of the life you’ve lived, but the love and peace of Christ, which dwells in you through the power of the Holy Spirit, is stronger than your scars, and will uphold you your whole life long. You are sent into the world in the name of the One whose scars still remain – but whose love is stronger than the scars. Go in that love, and God bless you and your scars, now and forever. Amen.

28 March 2008

Friday "If I Had A Million Dollars" Five

I was going to embed a video of Barenaked Ladies singing their song of the same title, but Swandive beat me to the punch, and I can't find a video of Peter Mayer's hilarious song "Easy Street," so my selection of "If I Were Rich" songs is not tapped. So, all right, here we go:

Lingering effects of a cold have me watching more television than usual. There appears to be a resurgence of the old daytime staple--the quiz show. Except they are on during prime time, and a great many of them offer the chance of winning one million dollars.

I think it started with Regis Philbin and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" but now we have a half dozen or so.

My husband and I started musing (after watching "Deal or No Deal") about what we could do with a million dollars. I thought I'd just bring that discussion into the Friday Five this week. It's simple. What are five things you would want to do with a million dollar deposit in your bank account?

1. My entire family, debt free. Brothers, parents, in-laws, the whole bunch. 'Nuff said.
2. Assuming I have anything left at this point, travel. Germany for me, Ireland and Scotland for the missus and I both.
3. Oh, I just thought of this, but I'm going to put it here anyway: first, a tithe to the church. Not sure what form it would take, but 10% to God right off the bat sounds about right. Now, as to leaving it here - shows that I, like all of us, jumped right to me instead of God. I believe the phrase we Lutherans use for moments like this is incurvatus sei: the Self curved in on the Self, our bondage to sin. There you go: theology and a Friday Five all at once!
4. Okay, back to me. Here's the next bit:

For those of you who aren’t guitar nuts like me, that’s an Adamas Melissa Etheridge 12-string guitar, complete with a unidirectional carbon fiber top to provide extreme strength with very little mass for the truest enhancement of a string's vibration possible, a mid-depth cutaway body and 5-piece mahogany/maple/ebony neck with ebony fretboard and urethane oil finish to provide the ultimate in playability and projection, and an ebony bridge, gold tuners, and exotic wood epaulettes to make it visually stunning while Ovation's Original Patented Pickup and OP Pro electronics deliver stellar sound plugged in. (You can send that guitar with your answer to this week’s puzzler to: Car Talk, Harvard Square, Cambridge [Our Fair City!], MA…)

5. Finally, assuming again that I have anything left, I’d start a coffee house and just hang out. Invite the local theologians, ordained and lay, to some sort of brew and Bible group. I’d make sure it had a small stage for concerts by local artists and independent folks from the area (like my favorites the Wild Clover Band, Storyhill, Justin Roth and the like). And I’d have really, really good coffee, fairly traded, of course.

What a dream. Maybe someday, right?

27 March 2008

Thursday Thinking

First things first: this picture makes me feel very happy:

Yeah, that's right: Pelini is BACK, and this time, he's in charge of the whole damn thing. I'm REALLY excited for this fall!

I was supposed to drive north to Cedar Falls, IA to meet one of my Iowa Lutheran campus ministry colleagues today. But it has snowed a couple of inches and the roads are a mess, so I elected to stay home and stay safe. Bummer, though: I was really looking forward to lunch with my colleague, and also the alone time in the car, which I dearly love. But I'll have all the alone time I could want next week traveling to Nashville for the national campus ministry gathering, so I'm going to be okay.

Since I'm staying home, I'm going to try to write this week's sermon this afternoon - I'm sitting at the coffee house as we speak, getting ready to start writing. But I wanted to share this post from Dan Clendenin on this week's gospel and the fifth anniversary of the beginning of our war against Iraq. I'll admit I was in favor of the war when it started: I believed the Bush administration's claims regarding the risk of WMD, and I had always thought that not invading Baghdad in 1991 was a huge mistake. Today, I'm horrified by the lies and half-truths used by the Bush administration to justify this unjust war, and I'm sickened to think of the damage we have inflicted upon the people of Iraq, even though I do believe the driving intent behind this war was beneficial. But most of all, I'm convinced that we are never going to change as a nation until concerned people take upon themselves the burden of opposing those who would shoot first and ensure civilian, non-combatant safety later. As Clendenin asks,

"What might our world look like today if the United States, in a preemptive and unilateral decision, purely from motives of self-interest and international security, had invested $500 billion in the Muslim world for health care and hospitals, schools and electricity, micro-enterprise and cultural institutions? Or spent the money on our own citizens to help those with no health insurance, fund social security, develop new sources of renewable energy, invest in schools and education, or retrain workers displaced by a fiercely competitive global economy?"

I'm aware that some of you will disagree - that's your right and I wouldn't take it from you. I'm also aware that, now that we're there, we do have a responsibility to the people of Iraq to continue working toward building a secure, just replacement to the regime we so recklessly toppled. And in no way, shape or form do I want to denigrate the men and women whose lives are on the line, for their sacrifice is indeed noble and should never, ever be slighted. But we cannot allow the men and women who were so wrong about this misguided campaign to lead us down this path again: there must be a better way, and next time we must invest the time and energy to find it, peacefully, before the shooting starts.

Here's one paragraph of my sermon I've already completed:

When Jesus breathed on his disciples and said to them, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.", he did so with a body that still bore the scars of the crucifixion, a body that will always bear the scars of the crucifixion. Even after the resurrection, the scars still remain. To be sent as a Christian is to know that the world will not be kind to those who insist upon the way of peace, forgiveness and service to one's neighbor - and you are being sent in that way this morning. Never, ever think that your faith allows you the luxury of safety in this world - Jesus called his disciples to follow him to death, and he calls you to the same. But within that call is great mercy, for the Father who knows the danger we face also raised Jesus to show us who has the final word, and guess what? The final word does not belong to the powers of war, violence and death, but to the Creator, the Word through which it Created, and the Spirit which has now been given to you through the resurrection of Christ. The scars still remain, but they are healed and a thing of the past - so will be war, violence and death in the day of Christ that will one day come.

Peace be with you all.
From snowy Ames,

Bubble Wrap!

26 March 2008

The Wednesday Reflection: "Surprised by Evil"

Psalm 118

1Give thanks to the LORD, for the | LORD is good;

God's mercy en- | dures forever.

2Let Israel | now declare,

"God's mercy en- | dures forever."

3Let the house of Aar- | on declare,

"God's mercy en- | dures forever."

4Let those who fear the | LORD declare,

"God's mercy en- | dures forever."

5In distress I called | to the LORD,

who answered by set- | ting me free.

6The LORD is with me; I | shall not fear;

what can anyone | do to me?

7The LORD is with me | as my helper;

I will look in triumph on | those who hate me.

8It is better to take refuge | in the LORD

than to | trust in mortals.

9It is better to take refuge | in the LORD

than to | trust in rulers.[1]

I don’t have a lot of good feelings today, even though it is the third day of the season of Easter. On Monday morning police received an anonymous call directing them to a house in Iowa City, where they found a wife and four children bludgeoned to death. The man responsible was found later in the burning remains of the family minivan, which he’d driven into a concrete pillar just off Interstate 80. He was to stand trial for embezzling over $500,000 from the bank where he worked.

Maybe I’m just doing Holy Week in reverse this year, because what I am feeling today feels suspiciously like the anger and guilt and horror and disgust and fear I usually experience on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I’m angry that a husband and father would waste several hundred thousand dollars on illegal drugs. I’m disgusted that he took out his sickness, selfishness and pain on the innocent family God had given to him. I’m horrified to think of those children’s fear and how terrible their last moments of life must have been. I’m sick at hearing from the neighbors what a wonderful, quiet family they were. I’m not sure if I’m more angry at who we’re becoming, that every time someone snaps, they take several innocents with them, or at the ghastly solemnity of the media that will descend on this story like a swarm of locusts and chew on it until every detail has been stripped bare of the last shreds of decency and respect.

Most of all, I’m feeling scared, because I wonder how easily that story could have been my story.

Just to clarify, I’ve never for a second considered any kind of physical harm to Kristin, Ainsley or our daughter-to-be. But I also know that NONE of us ever STARTS with the idea of harming another person – the darkness of evil and sin, both within us and without, is deceptive, alluring and crafty, drawing us ever deeper until we’re so far gone we are lost and don’t have any idea where to turn.

I’d wager that’s exactly what it felt like for the father who killed his family before killing himself. I’d wager that’s what anyone who commits an act of desperate violence feels, like the trap is impossible to escape any other way, and the façade you’ve created can no longer hide the emptiness and darkness inside.

That’s the final thing that has affected me this week, with this tragedy following so close upon Easter: the people who say “I can’t believe this man would do such a thing.” As if any of us are immune to the deadly effects of sin and evil, and perception really is the truth.

The danger with jumping too quickly to the resurrection Easter morning is forgetting what brought Jesus to the tomb in the first place: the evil and sin within all of us. The weeping in Gethsemane was real. The abandonment of the disciples was real. The betrayal of Judas was real. Peter’s denial was real. The abuse of the Roman soldiers was real. The cross was real. Jesus’ death was real. The resurrection doesn’t take away the sin which caused it: the resurrection is God’s ultimate refusal to let evil have the final word, and even though the war is lost, evil is still fighting to inflict real harm on you and on your neighbor.

One of my seminary professors once said, “The last thing a good Lutheran pastor should be is surprised.” But I’ve been surprised this week – surprised at the strength of my reaction to this tragic story. It reminds me that ultimately my trust has to be placed in God’s hands, because even the best relationships in my life can be corrupted by the same power that claimed the lives of those six unfortunate people. But I know I will also be surprised in time by God’s mercy, and in the end that mercy has already had the last word, so I cling to God and pray that in time healing might come out of this tragedy. Give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good: God’s mercy endures forever. Amen.

[1] From Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2008 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved.

Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #20449.

25 March 2008

A Great Night of Reading

Yeah, so, my back is aching now, isn't it? Stayed up until 2:00 in the morning reading 1921: The Great Novel of the Irish Civil War by Morgan Llywelyn. Title's a bit cheeky, but it was a fascinating read. I'm familiar with the story of the founding of the Republic, but this was a more-than-worthy successor to 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion, Llywelyn's first novel of the "Irish Century." I know it's a fictionalized history, and I also know that Morgan Llywelyn is an Irish sympathizer (actually, she's now an Irish citizen and lives in Dublin), but still, it's a tragic story that seems nearly impossible to the modern understanding.

Anyway, my back is aching because I usually read for 30 minutes or so lying on my stomach in bed before turning out the booklight, rolling over, and falling instantly into sleep. Didn't happen last night: waiting to hear how the book told the story of Mick Collins and the end of stage one of the war for the Republic was just gripping. I should've gotten up, gone downstairs and curled up in the easy chair to finish it. Regardless, it was a great night - stories like this are what keep me reading. If you're at all interested in modern Irish history, I'd suggest this book - it's quite the page-turner.


24 March 2008

Random Monday Musings

Just some random Monday musings for you today.

First off, will SOMEBODY please send a memo to anyone in showbiz explaining the difference between a Sigma and an Epsilon in the Greek alphabet?

For future reference, this is Sigma:

And this is Epsilon:
The first correlates to our English S, the second to our English E. Therefore, when you use the Sigma because it sort of looks like a fancy E, all Greek and stuff, what you’re really doing is a horrendous misspelling. Like, “My Big Fat GrSSk Wedding.” Or the new show on ABC Family, “GRSSK”

I wonder if there are any fraternity or sorority alumni/ae producing these shows? Or if they all killed that particular brain cell at a Thursday night kegger and never remembered that THOSE ARE ACTUAL LETTERS ABOVE THE DOOR OF YOUR HOUSE.

Morons – I’m surrounded by morons.

Second, I’m really enjoying The Pillars of the Earth on my iPod right now – for crying out loud, the thing is 40 hours long, so it’ll be more than enough book to get me through the month. Good thing audible.com doesn’t charge by the minute. But Mr. Follett’s constant return to sexual themes is getting a little old. The plot is already fascinating, and his descriptions of cathedral construction and the social and environmental setting are great, and every time some young wench bares her heaving bosoms to somebody, I wonder, “When did I download Clan of the Cave Bear?”

Third, The Pillars of the Earth, at 40 hours, is one monthly credit at audible.com, while The Amber Spyglass is two credits, though it is less than half the length. Not cool.

Item the Fourth: I’d like to register my chagrined aggravation with God rewarding my parents' steadfastness of 30+ years ago by giving me a child exactly like me. I was that kid in church who couldn’t sit still for a second and hated every blasted minute of it. (I was actually dragged out by my father once, screaming "Don't spank me, Daddy!" the whole way.) Guess who else must be moving constantly and will not, under any circumstances, be contained within a pew for any length of time? And worse, she doesn’t yet understand that church is a sit still activity, so I can’t try out my dad’s patented Vulcan knee grip just yet. But am I looking forward to that day? You bet your sweet bippy I am.

Finally, just because it’s freakin’ funny, another song interpretation from David Armand. Have a great Easter Monday.

23 March 2008

Sermon for Easter Sunday

Preaching Texts

I have some good news and I’m not going to tell anyone about it. I’m just going to keep it for myself. I’m not going to share it with you or anyone. It’s good news. If I share it, I’m afraid you might laugh at me. Or make light of it. You might try to talk me out of it. Or you might just ignore me. I’m afraid that if I share my good news, it might just, well, disappear, loose its power.

Yup, it’s good news alright. Life-changing stuff. But I’m afraid to tell anyone about it.

Really? You know, I could use some good news this morning. Ever since we got back from our Spring Break trip, it's been DEAD around here – especially since Friday. This has been the longest, coldest, greyest winter I can remember, and frankly, we're a little stir-crazy around our place. Ainsley's teething, Kristin's getting to the point in her pregnancy where she's really miserable, and let me tell you, we had NO IDEA buying a house in Ames was going to cost this much!
So, this good news – are you sure I can't convince you to share?

Nope. It’s just between me and Jesus.

You know, my brother just got some good news. Last week he had a job interview with the elementary school in our hometown. He's a teacher and he's always wanted to return to our school and work there. Well, when I called him on Sunday to ask him a completely unrelated question, he HAD to tell me his good news: he'd been offered the job for which he was interviewed; he and his family will be moving to our hometown in early August.
Now, this was great news, and we were thrilled to hear it. It's great news for us, too, because now we'll be able to see my brother and his family and my parents when we go back home. But what if he hadn't told me Sunday night? If he'd kept it to himself it wouldn't have been good news because we wouldn't be sharing in it together. And if you keep your good news between you and Jesus, don't you think the one who winds up losing out is you?

Nope. Not gonna’ do it. Not gonna’ share.

Huh. Okay. Well, here’s the thing: sometimes we NEED to hear good news, don’t we? Imagine what life would be like if no one ever shared good news – wouldn’t that be just awful?
Think about the world we live in right now. There are wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, where people we know are being killed. Some of our friends right here at home are suffering; they’re sick, they’re in a tough financial spot, they’re wondering if they’re going to be alone for the rest of their lives, and those are just the folks I know about. People hear there might be a man with a gun on campus and everyone thinks it’s going to be Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois all over again.
Here’s what it all comes down to: we’re afraid. And maybe that’s the real reason why you don’t want to share this good news, Sarah – you’re afraid. Maybe you’re afraid that it might not be so good to someone else. Maybe, like you said, you think I’ll laugh at you, or think you’re being silly, or the good news will lose its power. But maybe you’re afraid of something even more scary: maybe you’re afraid I’ll believe you. Maybe you’re afraid that your good news will change my life, too, and then your life will change because my life is changed, and who KNOWS where it will stop?
I wonder if the prophet Jeremiah ever felt like this? He thought that he couldn’t possibly be the one to share God’s good news. He said, “Oh, now, hold on, God – I’m just a kid, and I don’t know how to say this stuff you’re telling me!” But maybe Jeremiah was most afraid of people believing him when he shared his good news. Maybe Jeremiah was afraid he’d be responsible for all kinds of crazy stuff happening.
I don’t know what Jeremiah might have been afraid of, but I do know this: Jeremiah shared his good news. He told the people of Israel that even though everything they once loved had been destroyed, God wasn’t abandoning them forever. Jeremiah told the people of Israel that they were going to be like a prostitute who had magically gotten her virginity back: they’d be pure and holy and they’d be God’s people again. That’s a pretty wild claim that Jeremiah made – but he made it, even though he was afraid, and it was good news to a lot of people who needed to hear good news.

Well, Maybe I’ll share some of it…later…

What if Peter had said, “Later” when he was at Cornelius’ house and seeing the Spirit at work in Gentiles who had no business being God’s people? What if Peter hadn’t listened when Jesus said, “preach to the people and to testify that [I am] the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead?”

Yeah, but what if I get laughed at…what if you make fun of me.

Well, think about the women who went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. They thought he was dead, and when the angel told them he was raised from the dead, and that they should go tell Jesus’ disciples he was raised, they “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” Even the first people who knew Jesus was raised from the dead were afraid of what it meant for their own lives. But knowing what you fear is a lot easier than being afraid of something that might never happen, isn’t it? The women were afraid of the repercussions of the resurrection, sure, but they were also filled with great joy because resurrection had happened!

Oh, alright. It is good news. I’m not afraid anymore… Oh, alright. It is good news. I’ll risk it. I’ll take a deep breath and trust those stories you told me, Scott. I’ll try not to be afraid. (Deep breath). Actually, the good new is…I’m not afraid anymore. I used to be afraid of all kinds of things. Like suffering, like death. Like taking risks in loving people.

But I heard the story that the women told, about Jesus. How they were afraid he was dead forever. How the disciples were so afraid they ran and locked themselves in a room.

But again and again in the stories we are told, “do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid. Because even the great fear, that of dying…is not a biggie. Because? Because Jesus died, and didn’t stay dead. God won’t let death be the last word. God won’t let death be the end.

And those people who ran away? Jesus came to them and says “Do not be afraid. I still love you.” And those people who taunted him? Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. I still love you.” And Peter who denied Jesus three times, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid. I still love you.”

And then, that’s not all, Jesus sends them out to share the good news! To tell others who are afraid of death, of being found guilty, of taking risks…we are sent out to tell others “Do not be afraid, God still loves you.”

We are to go out, right Scott? And share this amazing story…that the tomb is empty. That all the violence and hate the world can dish out isn’t enough to make God go away and leave us alone.

How am I doing?

I can do this. I can share the good news that God has taken away my fears. I am “fearless!” with love. And now I can tell others…about my own story of overcoming fear with the help of God. And how the good news that God is bigger than death has made me able to risk living without fear!

Hey, Scott, Thanks for not laughing at my news!

You bet, Sarah – it’s not the kind of news for laughing, but for celebrating.

And Pastor Scott,
I have something to tell you! Do not be afraid.
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

22 March 2008


I get The Writer's Almanac in email from American Public Media every day (you should, too - it's got great stuff on a regular basis). Today is poet Billy Collins birthday, and Garrison Keillor celebrated the day with this quote from Mr. Collins:

"Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong."

While this is very true of poetry, the thought occurred to me that it's also very, very true of our work as evangelists and hosts within the church. I don't think those of us who've been raised in the church and are familiar with life in the church know how unbelievably bewildering it can be to those who are coming to a faith community for the first time. Climbing into a canoe is a learned skill: once you've mastered it, it's no problem, but until you've been doing it for a while, it can be terribly difficult to feel comfortable climbing in.

Here's a thought for us: why not take away some of the anxiety by teaching what we do and why we do it in much more open ways? More explanation than is necessary is hardly ever a bad thing - who knows, maybe we'll remember how to keep this ship that is the body of Christ a little more steady as well.

Just thinkin - have a good one.


21 March 2008

Good Friday Musings

I seem to be a bit premature today - I've brought my laptop 'back from the dead' this afternoon. :-) I'm at a local chain coffeeshop/bakery this afternoon, working on my dialogue sermon with the pastor of our 'other' church at the Lutheran Center in Ames, and while I await her next bit of writing I'm going to blog for a bit. Hope you don't mind.

I've dropped the BBC Top 100 Books list for right now in favor of a historic fiction series by Morgan Llywelyn about the Irish War for Independence. Last week I read 1916: A Novel of the Irish Rebellion and currently I'm reading 1921: The War for Independence. Though Llywelyn is obviously sympathetic to the Irish, and the necessary introduction of Nationalist philosophy through invented conversations gets a bit stilted at times, I still find the series fascinating and I imagine I'll continue to enjoy her writing. Reading about the Easter Monday Rising on St. Patrick's Day was certainly interesting - it almost made up for not being able to toast the day with a pint of stout (due to my Lenten discipline of no alcohol). I continue to be fascinated with Irish history - if anyone out there can recommend a good volume that covers ancient Ireland's history, please do so!

In my Friday Five post earlier today, I mentioned a few hymns that bring this holy day to reality for me. On a whim I tried something that had been recommended to me: I got Bach's St. Matthew's Passion on iTunes. I've been listening to it as I work this afternoon - it's quite incredible. I need to brush up on my Deutsche, naturlich, but it is wonderful music nonetheless.

The week continues to be a bit bizarre for me, with Spring Break and Holy Week coinciding. My crack about bringing back the laptop was in jest, of course, but the concern that was its genesis was not. Without a community with which to celebrate this Holy Week, I've been feeling unrooted and notably 'in limbo.' Our not-so-great worship experience at a Twin Cities church this past weekend didn't help. We went to a Lutheran church which has gone to display screens and praise music, which would have been agonizing on a normal Sunday but was even more so on Palm Sunday. Between the mostly-unsingable praise music (how do you rhyme and metrically match "I just wanna be yours, Jesus?"), the woeful drama/children's sermon that tried to pass itself off as proclamation of the gospel and my daughter's restlessness, it was a worship experience utterly lacking in worship and meaningful experience. Man, it's hard to believe how spoiled I've become by our worship practice in the short time I've been at the Lutheran Center.

Anyway, without a Palm Sunday worship, it's been hard to get myself in the Holy Week frame of mind. Last night we tried to attend a Maundy Thursday service as a family, only to be foiled yet again by the shortest member of our crew. Ainsley has been fussy at the nursery in our new church, and last night we no more than walked down the hall to the nursery and she started screaming and crying. So, we tried to make it through worship as a family. Yeah - ever tried to attend a service of silence and prayer with a 14 month-old? Strike two for the Holy Week experience.

Finally, I went to our church's Good Friday service by myself early this afternoon, and I "got it." It was a devotional service centered on the cross and the church's continuing charge to remember both Christ's suffering and the world's suffering. I was so thankful as I drove away from the church after the service: I finally felt like a Christian again. It's more than just feeling penitential, of course - I was STARVING for the good bread and meat of the Cross, and the poor substitutes I'd gotten until today just weren't doing the work of the gospel, bringing death and life as the full impact of the good news is wont to do. It's no wonder I'd struggled to write my sermon until this afternoon: I'd been on a spiritual bread-and-water diet all week, and being in that kind of situation, you can only survive - you can't proclaim the gospel on an empty spiritual stomach.

Anyhoo, that's the week in a nutshell. Not sure if I'll post the sermon on Sunday or not, since it won't be entirely my work, but you'll be seeing me a bit more often in days to come (I know, all three of you are jumping for joy now!). Until then, I bid you a blessed Good Friday.

Healed by his wounds,

Good Friday Five

It’s been a while since I posted, partially due to being out of town with no internet access and partially because it’s just an odd time for me – Spring Break and Holy Week combined are just weird. There’s a blog post in there somewhere but I’m going to let it go for now. Anyway, at the least we have an interesting Friday Five today from RevGals:

As a child the designation "good" for today confused me. How could we call such a somber day, good? Holy, yes. Blessed, yes. But, good?

As an adult I understand the meaning of good for this day. It is a solemn day of remembrance but it is also a time for us to stop and recall the great gift of love that we received this day. And that is most certainly good.

Our worship today will differ from place to place. Some services will focus on the great litany of prayers. Others will use the seven last words of Jesus. Some of us will walk the stations of the cross. Others will participate in a Tennebrae service of shadows and light.

I hope that this Friday Five will be a meaningful part of your Good Friday. God's blessings to you on your journey.

1. Our prayer concerns are as varied as we are this day. For whom would you like us to pray?

First, for the people of Iraq. Five years and little peace in sight – regardless of support or protest of the war, no one wants the people of this country to suffer any more.

For the church, that we might reclaim a prophetic voice for the healing of the whole world, not merely the parts which concern American citizens.

For those who do see government service as a means to provide every person with the possibility of meaningful life.

2. Are there things you have done or will do today to help the young ones understand this important day in our lives?

Today, no. Our little one is at that perfect age of distraction with regard to worship: old enough to walk and make noise, not old enough to sit quietly and take in the somber experience today. So I think Beloved and I are going to tag team worship today, so that we each can worship without distraction. Unfortunately, it means we do it separately, but we need to do it, nevertheless.

3. Music plays an important part in sharing the story of this day. Is there a hymn or piece of music that you have found particularly meaningful to your celebrations of Good Friday?

“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” has always brought me into mindfulness of this day. Another is “Jesus, In Thy Dying Woes,” which my campus pastor used as the structure for a Seven Last Words service for years. I’d be doing it myself here if we weren’t on Spring Break at present, and I’ll definitely do it next year.

4. As you hear the passion narrative, is there a character that you particularly resonate with?

Peter – always Peter. I, too, am impetuous, overbearing, passionate and prone to large, glaring mistakes. But I love my Savior and would serve him in whatever way possible. Thus I find a spiritual kinship with Peter more than any other passion character.

5. Where have you seen the gracious God of love at work lately?

Hmmm – most powerfully in my own family, and for that I’m deeply thankful. In our new home, with a mortgage and considerably less income than before, things are really tight, yet we’re doing well as a family and finding new ways to enjoy each other’s company. It’s a special time for us, and I’m profoundly aware of the blessings I enjoy through no deserving of my own.

14 March 2008

Friday Five: Time for Palms

Can you believe Daylight Savings Time is here already? It's hard to get used to the new, earlier onset. My family has been getting up and out a little late and a little sleepy in the mornings.

And can you believe that in two days it will be Palm Sunday for Western Christians? Our Lent is almost over, while our Orthodox sisters and brothers, whose liturgical year follows the older Julian calendar, are just starting theirs. Nicholas did a recent book report on George Washington, and we were surprised to find out that our first President's birthday was originally Feb. 11, since he was born just before the change to the Gregorian calendar. Apparently the change almost caused rioting, as some indignant people were sure that they were being cheated out of eleven days of their lives!

To help you adjust--and enjoy the process--here's a Friday Five about time and transitions....

1. If you could travel to any historical time period, which would it be, and why?

I’ve often thought how incredible it would be to travel back to the days before the Europeans began their westward expansion in my native American Great Plains (think Nebraska, the Dakotas and Kansas). To see those rolling hills and sweeping prairies without a highway or telephone pole in sight would have been utterly magnificent, not to mention meeting the native dwellers before my American ancestors cheated them out of their lands and dignity.

I’d also love to go back to Wittenberg, Saxony, circa 1517 or so. See “der richtig Mensch” teach and preach and post the 95 Theses on the community bulletin board. Drink Katie’s beer. You know, Luther stuff.

2. What futuristic/science fiction development would you most like to see?

Flying cars. DEFINITELY flying cars. Which run on hydrogen batteries and drive themselves on longer trips, of course.

3. Which do you enjoy more: remembering the past, or dreaming for the future?

Honestly, I’m a past dweller, but I also like to try to make memories worth remembering, if that makes any sense whatsoever. I mean, what’s so fun about remembering the boring stuff?

4. What do you find most memorable about this year's Lent?

Celebrating with a new group of folks, but doing some of the same stuff: Holden Evening Prayer on Wednesday nights, talking about the disciplines we’ve taken on, etc. It’s been interesting.

5. How will you spend your time during this upcoming Holy Week? What part do you look forward to most?

Since it’s spring break on the Iowa State campus, I’m not preaching this Sunday; I’ll actually be on a trip with a few of our students. I think I’m looking forward most to celebrating Holy Week with my family for the first time in several years – and I don’t know when that’ll happen again, so I plan to take advantage of it as much as I can.

12 March 2008

Two Posts Worth Reading

Two of my fellow bloggers have written pieces worth considering.

First, Chris at Lutheran Zephyr contemplates the millenial generation and tradition in the church.

Second, The Questing Parson deals with, well, people. File this one under "Crap I'm Tired Of"

As you were.

Wednesday Reflection: Your Un-Hypothetical God

The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection;* and they asked him a question, saying, 24‘Teacher, Moses said, “If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.” 25Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. 26The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. 27Last of all, the woman herself died. 28In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.’

29 Jesus answered them, ‘You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. 30For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels* in heaven. 31And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 32“I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.’ 33And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching. – Matthew 22.23-33

I did my seminary internship in Titusville, Florida during the 2001-2002 academic year. While I was in Titusville, I started doing my first pastoral visits, and I started to notice a trend that I didn’t much care for. Folks would call their children or spouses by their title: The Wife, The Daughter, etc, with not an ounce of good-natured teasing in their voice. One retired couple had only one daughter, and in a year’s worth of monthly visits I never learned her name – she was always The Daughter, and she was never home to visit. That’s when I started to realize that there were some issues going on, that the reason I felt so uncomfortable was because these folks were avoiding the problems in that relationship. Apparently it’s easier to handle separation and rejection if you choose not to remember that The Daughter has a name.

Here’s the thing: we’re really good at talking about God and not so good and listening for a word from God. So were the church people in Jesus’ time, too. One of the primary dangers of being a person of faith who seeks understanding is trading the first for too much of the second. In our pursuit of knowledge and understanding we can lose our way and trade a relationship with the living God for knowledge and theories about a God who is only a problem to be solved, nothing more. God doesn’t care how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. God doesn’t care about our beloved rituals and our favorite theological questions. I’d even go so far to say that God doesn’t really care whether the cross is divine child-abuse, substitutionary atonement or just plain bad luck. What God does care about is you. God cares about your faith and how it makes a difference in your daily life. God cares about your sin and how your bondage to sin will keep you separated from God and from your neighbor. God wants to forgive your sins, give you salvation by grace, through faith, and set you free in the world to serve your neighbor in thanks for what God has done for you. That’s it – nothing more. Anything past faith, forgiveness and eternal life is our contribution to the conversation, not God’s, and it’s usually an intrusion into things we didn’t need to worry about in the first place, like why praise bands play such crappy music or whether Christopher Hitchens is really angry or just a little bit nutty.

I started this little reflection like I often do: I typed the title in the header. The first title I grabbed was “The Un-Hypothetical God.” Concise, to the point, almost exactly what I wanted to say. But one word wasn’t right: “The.” I didn’t want to talk “about” God – my old seminary professor would have called that “Secondary Discourse,” words about God instead of the Word of God. So I retyped the title: Our Un-Hypothetical God.” But again, it wasn’t quite right. What does that say to the person who’s not sure they belong in a church or not? So, third time’s the charm here: Your Un-Hypothetical God” it is. No beating around the bush here: you have a God, and your God is most decidedly Un-Hypothetical. You are not “The Child” to God: you are “my beloved child, adopted through baptism and claimed for eternal life.” Nothing at all hypothetical about that, is there?

One day some Sadducees came to Jesus and asked him a question. “Rabbi,” they said, “suppose there’s this woman who married seven brothers. If there really is going to be a resurrection from the dead, whose wife will The Woman be?” Jesus responded, “You’re wrong to even ask the question. The dead have names: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Don’t come to me with hypotheticals – God is the God of the living, all of us who have names and faces and are made in God’s image. When you pursue these hypothetical questions, you deny your relationship with the living God and choose death instead of life. But I have come to forgive those sins, to call you back to life from your death and to be God’s Word to the world. When you know The Woman’s name, then you’ll be on the right track: then you can come o me, truly hear my voice, and follow me.” Listen close, folks: your un-hypothetical God is calling you. Amen.

Yes, Sir, That's My Baby

So, here's the good news: Kristin has found a part-time job working in youth ministry at Collegiate Presbyterian Church in Ames. The staff is great, she likes the office and her co-workers, things are good. So, great, right?

Well, yes. They're good folks, and we realized this when Kristin went in on Friday to sign some papers and get things rolling on the payroll stuff. Ainsley, of course, came along for the ride. She walked into the office with Mommy and was, of course, an instant hit; our little girl is pretty much our best public relations ploy at the moment. That is, until you put her down and let her walk around and see what's what.

There was this statue of Jesus somewhere in the office, and naturally Ainsley wanted to investigate. So, under Mommy's watchful eye, she walked over and patted it on the head. It promptly fell over. And broke.

That's right: my kid broke Jesus.

When I was five years old or so, my aunt & uncle bought their first house and we helped them move in. It was a split level with fairly modern construction, including an open staircase and railings. To a five year old farm boy, of course, such things are meant to double as a jungle gym. Within ten minutes of arriving in the house I had pulled their railing out of the drywall. Fifteen years later, the same aunt and uncle moved into a new house in the same city, and we again helped them move. This time, I was just walking downstairs when I stepped wrong, grabbed the railing for support and again pulled their railing out of the wall. (When we moved into our new house in Ames, we invited the aunt & uncle to return the favor when they came for a short visit - and they politely declined.) I've got a reputation for breaking something the minute I get going in a new house/job/etc. It's nice to know that my kid is now known for making the same destructive first impression.

But that's not the worst of it. At the time, the office administrator just watched the statue topple and said, "That's really funny." Sort of bemused about it, you know - kids just break stuff sometimes. But when Kristin returned to attend her first staff meeting yesterday, she discovered that Ainsley had not just broken a statue - it was a sculpture done by Christian Peterson, a local artist of some repute whose works are all over the campus. I'm assuming it's a reproduction, because the staff was still laughing about it yesterday, but seriously, I'm beginning to feel like the Topper - "That's nothing. My kid broke Jesus!"

10 March 2008

Failing the Test

I've been trying to get into Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. Yeah - not happening. Last night around 10:30 I gave up. I usually give any book 100 pages if I'm struggling at the start, but I got to 85 and just couldn't do it anymore. It's too bad, really, because Rushdie is one of those authors I'd always wanted to try. Of course, he's most famous for his controversial book The Satanic Verses, and I suppose I'll try that someday. But for now, it's off to something more my speed: Fragile Things, a collection of short stories by Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors. And, of course, I'll continue listening to The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett - I'm loving this story while I run/take the bus/etc. I've actually fallen behind on my podcasts because every spare iPod moment is dominated by this book, which happens to be 40 hours long. That should keep me for a while.

It's an interesting thing when a book just doesn't work for me. I tried to get through Ulysses a few years back and couldn't do it, even though it's always near the top of the "Best Books of the 20th Century" lists. I'm not disagreeing, mind you: it seems to me that if enough people found it worthy, so be it. But for me, the remarkable style Joyce wrought in that book just didn't work for me. Maybe it will someday, or maybe it won't. The same thing happened with The Brothers Karamazov; by all accounts it's a wonderful novel, but I can't even get to the Grand Inquisitor before losing interest. It's not that I don't like to read, or that I'm not willing to challenge myself; it's just that for whatever reason, these and some other books just don't fit with me.

We watched the movie Reign Over Me the other night, and I was struck by the same type of thinking, watching Charlie Fineman (played by Adam Sandler) work with the therapist played by Liv Tyler. As Fineman struggled to open up and do the hard work of healing, I thought to myself, "She may not be the one. She might not be the mental health person who can help him. I wonder how that makes her feel?" From my own history in therapy, I know there is a certain amount of compatibility that needs to be present for a therapeutic relationship to work. I've been fortunate to work with two very compatible counselors at stressful times in my life, but I know of others who've left those therapists because they just couldn't make things work right.

I have to wonder, do psychiatrists and psychologists fall victim to the same misplaced Messiah complex as pastors? Do other people in the "healing/helping arts" have to learn how to separate their personal identity from their professional work? I wonder about this because in my vocation, there will be people I can help, but there are also people I can't, and I've had to learn how to make my peace with this (actually, I'm still learning). Of course, there are varying degrees of competence and excellence in psychotherapy and ordained ministry, but I also know some very competent pastors who've been forced to leave calls because they just weren't able to be the person that call needed them to be (or wanted them to be, which is an entirely different problem). There's no fault involved - it's just a growing realization that, for whatever reason, this just isn't working, and at some point you reach the tipping point and have to leave the not-so-fitting parts behind.

I'm sure there are people who love Salman Rushdie's work. I know Joyce and Dostoevsky have their legions of admirers. But they didn't work for me, so I'm off to somewhere different. I can't really compare literature to therapy or ministry, of course; they aren't even remotely similar. And yet, I wonder: in this thing we call vocation, where's the difference between our work not 'clicking' with certain folks and our work not 'clicking' at all? It's one thing if something I read fails the test for my reading preferences - when we "fail the test" in our professional fields, is it the same, or something different? At what point do we need to begin to ask ourselves, "is it them, or is it me?"

Well, anyway, that's the Monday afternoon thoughts on literature, ministry and vocation. Carry on.


07 March 2008

Womb With A View, or, Where The Boys Aren't, or, Somewhere My Mother Is Cackling With Glee

It's a girl! We just got back from the ultrasound and it is undeniably a female alien crawling around Kristin's uterus. Very active, very healthy, very much where she should be in terms of size, etc. Moving a LOT during the ultrasound, too - we think we saw her sucking her thumb once or twice. Guess this one's Daddy's girl in a whole different way.

I'm happy - very, very happy to know we're having another girl. But I'm also screwed. Undeniably, irrevocably, absolutely screwed. With a boy, there might have been a chance of holding my own at home. But three on one, with Daddy horribly, ecstatically, over-the-moon in love with all three? Please.

If you need me for the next 30 years or so, I'll be the confused looking guy sitting in the corner, hiding in a book or working in the shop, wondering exactly who these wondrous creatures are that share his home and life. It will be mystifying and adventurous, being the only man in the house; sort of like Jane Goodall among the apes, albeit with less hair and a far better smell. And hopefully less slinging of feces. Best of all, God is again laughing at us, well, me in particular, because after raising up three boys without a daughter in sight, my mother is finally getting her revenge.


Friday Five: Signs of Hope

Sally gives us the Friday Five this week:
I believe that if we look carefully we can see signs of hope all around us.... as for signs of spring... well you tell me....

Bluebells in my garden, before the snow!

What have you seen/ heard this week that was a :

1. Sign of hope?
This is a tough one for me to answer right now. I'm essentially a hopeful person, but I've been smacked with reality several times this week. Said some things I wish I hadn't. Saw that the level of work to be done in my new call is pretty intimidating. Realized that I've entered the time in my life when I have to make my peace with the child I love (soon to be children) taking precedence over the professional opportunities that feed my soul in different ways. So, let's go with this: it was warm for a few hours on Sunday, and I spent time with an aunt and cousin I hadn't seen in years. Maybe it isn't hopeful, but it certainly did feed my soul a bit.

2. An unexpected word of light in a dark place?
From our administrator via a conversation with the regional director of campus ministry. Apparently, Admin said "I'm so glad Scott's here - things are really starting to buzz here at the Center." That was certainly a nice thing to hear.

3. A sign of spring?
Well, we haven't had much in central Iowa: we've received almost twice as much snow as a normal winter, and there's usually several inches of ice underneath it. We did have temps in the 50s F Sunday afternoon for a few glorious hours before the next storm front landed with rain, sleet and snow. But Saturday night is the beginning of Daylight Saving Time (it's SINGULAR, people), and that usually gets me in a springtime state of mind (like a New York state of mind without the Hudson River line).

4. Challenging/ surprising?
The sheer amount of renovation work that needs to happen in my new church building. While a lot has been accomplished, there are a lot of things that need fixing, and it's hard to know where to start. Well, besides asking for the money, that is.

5. Share a hope for the coming week/month/year....
Today we will go to our 20 week ultrasound and, hopefully, find out if we're having a girl or a boy. I'll be happy with either, though of course I've still got a small hope for a boy so we can have one of each. But seeing our little one and looking forward to cuddling with a newborn son or daughter in another 20 weeks or so is a real moment of hope for us - especially after watching Matt's family welcome their little girl this week.

Bonus play... a piece of music/ poem guaranteed to cheer you?
Here are a few I especially love:
"Ants Marching" by Dave Matthews Band (depressing lyrics, but this is the single most grooviest song I know, and I literally cannot hear this song without drumming along)
And a few YouTube videos of independent "hopeful" songs:

"Give Up The Ghost" by Storyhill

"Dead Horse Trampoline" by Justin Roth

"Molly O'Malley's" by Peter Mayer

So, there you go - independent music makes me smile. Here a few others you should check out:

The Wild Clover Band
Sligo Rags
The Celtic & Irish Music Podcast - see link button on my menu to the right.

And, of course, this always makes me feel better:

06 March 2008

Bleak House

Yeah, I know - two posts in one day. But the Child has calmed down and it seemed a good time to do it.

So, I've been reading Bleak House for, I dunno, EVER. Damn, that is one LONG piece of classic literature. I got interested in reading it because of Stephen King and Peter Straub's Black House - the two 'heroes' of the tale are Jack Saywer, now grown from the pre-adolescent we met last in The Talisman, retired from police work and now spending much of his free time with his friend Henry, to whom he begins reading Bleak House aloud in the evenings over a glass of good wine. I've read some Dickens in the past, always have loved A Christmas Carol and thought I should probably venture into the classics again - it's been a while.

Uff da. Now I know what Virginia Woolf meant when she reportedly said, "Dickens makes his books blaze up not by tightening the plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful of people upon the fire." There's a hell of a lot of people to keep straight in the thing, not to mention the barrier of dialect and, frankly, the distracted state of my reading these days (I don't have time to actually study the stuff I'm reading). But in the end I'm glad to have made the attempt nonetheless. It's a work of staggering length, but a worthy one at that, especially regarding the relationships between Esther Summerson, Mr. Jarndyce, and Ada and Richard Carstone. Will I read it again? Probably - but not for some time.

Now it's on to a new project - I'm going to try some of the books from the BBC Big Read list of a few years ago. First on the list is Midnight's Children, the first novel by Salman Rushdie. I note that it's much lighter than Bleak House; let's hope I finish it sooner as well.

Scouting The Mountains (And Starting To Climb)

I promised earlier today on Facebook that I would blog. Not "post a sermon" or "link a video" but "blog." As both of my regular readers have noticed, it's been a while (ReverendMother said last week that her blog had grown "stale." If that can happen, then this thing oughta be ready for croutons by now.)

It's been an interesting beginning to our life in Ames. I think we're finally coming to grips with the fact that we own a house (paying the first mortgage payment can do that to you - let's say it was somewhere between "ouch" and "boing.") and we're making a home here. Kristin and Ainsley have found all sorts of fun things we can do together - play groups at the local rec center, KinderMusik, story time at the public library, etc. But the weather has been conspiring against us, it seems - school has been delayed or canceled at least once each of the eight weeks we've been here, and I think I can count the the number of days of seasonal weather without removing my shoes. We expect snow in the midwest, but the frigid temps and ice? Not so much. I have the opportunity to get to work daily, but Kristin and Ainsley are getting a bit of cabin fever, I think. Thankfully, spring is coming soon and we'll be able to get outside and see exactly what kind of backyard we have (right now, all we know is "big").

At the Center, it's really starting to feel like "my" call, and I mean that in a healthy way. The danger coming into a situation where you follow quickly on a well-liked previous pastor (in my case, less than 8 months) is the constant refrain of "Reverend _____ never did it like this." That hasn't happened much here, for two reasons - first, I haven't changed a whole lot, and second, Reverend _____ has graciously stayed away, even though he's still living in town while he does a long-term interim in Minneapolis-St. Paul. I like my predecessor very much, and I hope when his interim is completed he'll feel comfortable stopping by occasionally, but I very much appreciate his discretion and respect; it's made things much easier for me.

In terms of program and spiritual life, our numbers are slowly increasing, but we're making quality growth steps in ways that I think will pay large dividends for the future. We've restarted a spiritual discernment program called "Reaching In / Reaching Out" and the eight members of our group will, I think, form a strong core for next year's student community. We're averaging about 25-30 for Sunday morning worship and 15-19 for Holden Evening Prayer on Wednesday, and again, there's quality growth here: these are regular attendees, with very few one-timers. If they come, by and large they come back, so we're obviously feeding something even as the community and I get to know each other better.

With all that happening, and my continuing exploration of the community (I'm blogging from The Stomping Grounds this afternoon), I'm beginning to get a sense of the mountain range that I'll be travelling professionally for the foreseeable future. Though the University Lutheran Center facility is impressive, there is a TON of renovation and repair to be done, and it's more than a little intimidating to contemplate. My colleague from Lord of Life Lutheran and I toured the building again this morning and found more that we can repair (and this is in addition to the thousands left to raise to pay off the repair of our sanctuary roof and installation of new windows and a different floor). My office administrator just smiled when we told her what we'd been doing; she said "Sometimes it's better not to think about everything that needs to be done." There's a need for spiritual life and community building, of course. The old nursery rhyme is certainly true: the church is the people. But since this particular people have been blessed with a building site, part of my responsibility to them is to inspire a sense of stewardship when it comes to that building. Somehow that got neglected for quite some time, and though my predecessor got a lot of things moving, there is much yet to be done.

It's enough that this afternoon I'm feeling more than a little overwhelmed. Consequently, my two-week string of Thursday afternoon sermons has come screeching to a halt. With luck and a bit more determination, I'll be able to recapture the magic tomorrow and still enjoy a weekend free of nerves. I do have a title/them in mind, and even an opening illustration, but it's going to take some dedicated work to pull it off tomorrow. Not to mention I'll be anxious to post the results of the 20 week ultrasound. Yikes - hard to believe we're close to the third trimester already.

It's quite a range of mountains in front of me. But each climb begins with one step, and it's getting near the time that scouting stops and climbing starts. Wish me luck.


03 March 2008

Prepping for St. Patrick's Day

Much dancing. Life is good. Slainte!

02 March 2008

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Lent - "Seeing and Believing"

Imagine yourself on the operating table for major surgery. Since we’re imagining, I can ask you to imagine that you’re conscious but feeling no pain, and you can see what the doctors are doing to you. They’ve sterilized every instrument, the lights are all arranged just right, and there is an air of competence in the room. They begin. They open you up, peeling back skin and fat, muscle and tendons, suctioning away blood and fluids, until they find the source of the problem and confirm their diagnosis. Then they turn around, nod to the nurses, take off their masks and gloves and walk away.

Let us pray: Father in heaven, we are all blind in one way or another. Help us see that only You have the words of eternal life, that You alone are the source of salvation and all that is holy, that You alone can see all things as they truly are. Yet we also dare to ask that the same light with which You see might be given to us, that we might see with your compassion and grace rather than our own arrogance and close-mindedness. We are blind, Lord – open our eyes and our hearts to all that is merciful, just and good. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.

So, would you like this operating table experience? Would you want a doctor who only diagnoses problems and does nothing to heal them? That’s the nature of what the disciples were doing with Jesus at the beginning of our gospel reading for this morning. They see a man born blind, and their reaction is to present him as a case study for theological discussion with their Rabbi – “Oooh, Professor, I think I know the answer!” It’s one thing to have a theological discussion about suffering and evil in a seminary classroom, where we can engage in the process of theodicy, the intellectual struggle between belief in an omniscient, all-powerful God and the presence of suffering and evil in the world. In fact, I had an entire course on “God, Evil and Suffering” at Luther Seminary, and it was one of the most intellectually stimulating and challenging courses I took in seminary. But the operating table is not the place for stopping at diagnosis, and the street corner where the blind man sits begging is not the place to stop at diagnosis of the nature of suffering, either. When the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” they are missing the point. In that moment, theology as an intellectual pursuit is meaningless Only the proclamation of God’s good news can help here, and thus Jesus moves to heal the blind – all of them.

“Surely we are not blind, are we?” One could easily move the question to the beginning of the reading. Who is blind in this tale, and who can see? The gospel devotes seven verses to the healing of physical blindness and thirty-four to what Paul Harvey calls “the rest of the story.” This is not a coincidence. We are talking about blindness, darkness and light – throughout the entire story.

If you’ve got a pencil or a pen handy, get it out and mark in your Bibles or your bulletin these words. First, in verse 11, “the man called Jesus.” Next, in verse 17, “He is a prophet.” Next, in verse 33, “from God.” Verse 35, “Son of Man. And finally, in verse 38, “’Lord, I believe.’” And he worshiped him.” Here is a healing of blindness that takes 41 verses, several hours and excommunication from the synagogue into its expanse. The man born blind is healed of his physical blindness almost immediately, but until he sees Jesus and believes he is the Son of God, the Messiah, he is still blind. Only when he sees, believes and worships does his blindness disappear.

By way of comparison, look at the movements of those Pharisees who insisted, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They began by pressing the blind man for the source of his healing. The Pharisees had been insulted by Jesus earlier on that Sabbath day, and they indulged their wounded pride by insisting that Jesus couldn’t be from God because healing on the Sabbath broke Sabbath rules. (In fact, the mud that Jesus used to heal the man’s blindness may have been a deliberate attempt to provoke the Pharisees, because ‘kneading’ was also not allowed on the Sabbath, and of course the use of dirt and spit doesn’t exactly sound kosher, either.) After they grew frustrated with the blind man and his simple tale of being healed by Jesus, the Pharisees interrogated his parents. Terrified by the prospect of excommunication, the parents denied knowing what happened to their son and left it on his shoulders (and we can certainly agree that sticking your head in the sand is a form of blindness!). Finally the Pharisees called the blind man back to insist that Jesus had been terribly sinful in healing the blind man. The whole time these conversations were happening, the Pharisees insisted that they knew what God wanted in the situation. But here’s the problem: if Jesus truly did heal the blind man, then the Pharisees didn’t know anything at all, did they? Only God can heal; even the Pharisees acknowledged this, and so when Jesus healed the blind man, he revealed himself as Christ, the anointed one of God. The blind man’s persistent explanation of what happened to him revealed the ignorance and blindness of the Pharisees. “All I can tell you is that I was blind, and now I can see – what more proof do you need?” said the man – and the Pharisees had no way to deny what was happening, so they cast the man out of their faith community rather than deal with the possibility that things were changing in ways they couldn’t control.

We shouldn’t be surprised at this, should we? Change is hard, sometimes, and when people get busy doing helpful things that we don’t recognize, that are out of our control, it can be difficult to believe that good is actually happening. When Jesus came to earth, he came to reframe how we look at life, sin, death and salvation, but in our blindness we couldn’t understand what he was doing. The disciples, the Pharisees, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman; all of them, and all of us by extension, could only see partial glimpses of what was happening, and for some of us, what Jesus was doing was so threatening that we took steps to prevent the things happening that we couldn’t recognize. We saw miracles and insisted that we must be diagnosing problems.

Sometimes our discussions about “the stuff” can be a way that we avoid actually dealing with “the stuff.” I remember a seminary class where a student asked the question, “What about a woman born and raised in the wilderness in Africa? If she never hears the gospel of Christ, what will happen after she dies?” The professor’s response was both threatening and inspiring: “Well, who do you have in mind, and what are you waiting for?” Jesus did not do the work of God in a vacuum. Jesus came to heal, to bind up wounds, to forgive sins, to raise the dead – and for those of us who focus on blame and process, it can be dangerous to lose sight of the end result. The Pharisees and the disciples discussed and diagnosed the problems in this story, but they didn’t actually deal with the blind man himself when he was blind. Only Jesus spoke to him, only Jesus healed him, only Jesus brought his blindness to an end.

We must be careful not to lose the miracle of faith in the pursuit of diagnosis. We’ve seen it happen several times over the last few weeks as we’ve read from the gospel of John: people come to Jesus seeking understanding when he is far more concerned with creating faith where there was none before. But the good news is that the Pharisees among us (and I count myself as a good Pharisee now and then) can be healed of their blindness as well. Two weeks ago we sat here and heard the story of Nicodemus, a Pharisee of great respect and admiration, one who wanted to live a good and godly life, following the commandments and dedicated to serving God. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the middle of the night and left in the same darkness, not understanding what Jesus was doing – but he didn’t stay there. In John 19, after Jesus had been crucified, we read that Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in caring for Jesus’ body and placing it in the tomb. We, too, can and will be healed of our blindness throughout this life of following Jesus, for the Holy Spirit works in us to keep us in the Christian faith, even when we need others to lead the way because we cannot see it for ourselves.

The issues of seeing and believing in this reading are vast and complex, but it really comes down to this: we see Jesus rightly when we believe and worship, as the man born blind worshiped at the end of this story. Without faith and worship, we do not see Jesus as he intended to be seen, and we will continue to be blind as long as we try to see Him in any other way. One of my favorite thoughts on seeing Jesus rightly comes from C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be either a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

We see Jesus rightly when we believe and worship Him. We see rightly when we see problems as opportunities for witness, when we focus more on prognosis, the way forward, than we do on diagnosis, the past Jesus wants us to leave behind. Let’s pray that all of us may find our blindness healed by the living faith of Jesus Christ, that we, too, may join the man born blind in confessing, “I believe, Lord, and I worship.” See you there. Amen.