23 December 2009

Culture Roundup: I See Blue People

Took the wife to see "Avatar" last night. Holy mother of Eywa, this is one incredible movie. I'm thinking "Best Picture" in a landslide, as the worst part of the movie is the story, and even the story is not terrible, just predictable.

First off, the effects are beyond belief, and that's in 2D. I'm not sure I want to try the 3D version, as I'm prone to a bit of vertigo and I can't imagine the scenes where characters navigate across mile-deep crevasses as the camera passes overhead will be good for my stomach. Then again, it might be worth it after all. Both Beloved and I commented that the CGI was as good as, if not better than, everything we've ever seen to this point. The landscapes and terrain are as realistic as anything in the Star Wars prequels, and however the motion capture was done with the characters, it blows the socks off anything Robert Zemeckis has done (think The Polar Express and Beowulf), and I don't think Zemeckis is half bad. As one reviewer put it, it's one thing to create 11 feet tall blue skinned humanoid characters with tails - it's another thing to make them so realistic they seem, well, sexy.

The acting is first-rate, especially Zoe Saldana in the role of Neytiri, the female Na'vi and Sam Worthington as Jake Sully, the human who makes contact with the Na'vi. Also, Stephen Lang is excellent as Colonel Quaritch, though whenever I see Lang in a movie I'm reminded he played the cowardly Ike Clanton in Tombstone and I have to giggle a few times.

As I said, one quibble is the fairly predictable storyline, but the movie is so good you hardly notice the unsurprising surprises. The politics are fairly predictable, also, but as we watched, I thought to myself, "I hate to admit it, but sometimes we actually are this stupid about people who don't look/act like us." Some of the names are unimaginative, especially the uber-valuable mineral that led the humans to Pandora in the first place: "unobtanium." Yep, you read that right. One wonders if Cameron spent so much time dreaming up the Na'vi and their language (which is exquisitely well done, by the way) that he left that minor detail to a summer intern or something.

These are extremely minor concerns, however, overwhelmed by the spectacle and creativity on display in abundance. I'll be seeing this one again in the theatre, just because it's that good. You should, too.

In other culture news, we finished Surprised by Hope in our Friday book club last week, and I'm glad to say that things picked up in the end after slogging a bit in the middle. A recurring frustration for our group was Wright's tendency to refer to his own books for further explanation of detailed points; for those of us just beginning to read his work, it was annoying to say the least. But his discussion of death, resurrection and "life after life after death" was worth the read, and our discussions were always thought-provoking and enjoyable. That's kinda the point of a good book group, so in that sense it was a great read.

I'm on to The Gargoyle right now, and finding it interesting, if a bit weird. It was a book I picked up from my in-laws when they were offering my father-in-law's extensive library after they'd culled what they wanted to keep for their new, much smaller house, and I'll be honest: it's not what I expected from their usual tastes, which makes me wonder if it was a "hey, that title looks good" find for one of them. Sorry, Troy and Annette, if you're reading this and I've just insulted your taste. :-) Anyway, it's engrossing, though now that I'm halfway in, I'm wondering where the major crisis in the plot will fall.

I'm catching up on almost an entire season of Sons of Anarchy now that most shows are on the holiday hiatus; I just haven't been able to keep up as this is one show Beloved has absolutely no interest in watching with me. I watched the first of several episodes this morning and found myself thinking, "I forgot how good this show is, even with the ugly subject matter." Hopefully I can get fully caught up before we cancel the dish in January. Yep, you read that right - we're going internet-only for a while once the football season is over. It's time to get serious about digging out from under our debt mountain, and considering most of our shows are available for free on teh internets, DirecTV is one of the few completely unnecessary things we can cut. But, like all cuts, it'll hurt for a while. :-(

Then again, I'll have more time to read, and that's never a bad thing, right?

14 December 2009

Setting Boundaries

The saga of sexuality continues within the ELCA. As it does, I'm more and more curious about how we all set certain boundaries, where we set them, and how blind we can be (all of us) to the sometimes arbitrary nature of how we order our lives.

In some places, the freedom to call and ordain gay and lesbian pastors in committed monogamous publicly accountable relationships is a cause for rejoicing. There are many such persons already serving congregations within the ELCA, some openly (and bearing the subsequent censure required by current ELCA policy) and some covertly. As I read and reflect upon the work of the Sexuality Task Force and the resolutions passed at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, I sense that the intent was always to allow the diversity of interpretations regarding same-gender human relationships to be reflected in the ministerium of the church. That is to say, we are a church that does not have a unified understanding of same-gender relationships - and our ordained ministers may reflect the diversity which exists within the church, freely and openly.

But for some, this is a step too far. Thus my pondering of boundaries and arbitrariness. I simply don't understand why it is THIS issue that must be the line in the sand. And I continue to be utterly flummoxed by how little I agree with certain segments of the church in which I serve. I mean this in a sense of amazement, not of anger: how is it that David Yeago, Michael Root and I can be educated in the same basic theological vein and yet be so wildly different in how we interpret our Lutheran faith?

I didn't live through the debates surrounding the ordination of women; most of the ELCA's predecessors made that change before I was born. But thirty five or so years after the fact, I see that the consequences of doing that new thing has given us a number of incredibly faithful pastors who, had our church set its boundaries in a different place, would have been denied the opportunity to follow their calling to ministry. And, I feel compelled to note, there are some lousy female pastors who got calls because of this as well - and there will be lousy gay pastors getting calls because the ELCA has opened the door for them. They'll fit in nicely with the lousy straight male pastors, never you fear.

I guess what I'm pondering lately is, why this issue is, for some, the line in the sand that must not be crossed. There are a lot of passages in scripture we have chosen, actively or passively, to violate: why, for some, is this issue the one upon which scripture and the tradition of the church must stand or fall? Why don't we get this worked up over people, like myself, who like blood sausage? Or polyester blend shirts? Or farmers like my Dad who combine every row of their crops? Or the millions of men who shave? All of those items are found in Leviticus 19, one chapter after the verses in Leviticus 18 which list same-gender sexual intercourse among the things forbidden to God's people. And I don't mean the question in a facetious, "I can quote more Bible verses than you" sense, either - I'm honestly trying to figure out, for myself, why my own understanding of the boundaries has changed, and what that means for the future of my own ministry in this church.

I don't claim to have a definitive answer for any of this. In fact, the longer I listen to us bicker, the more distrustful I am of the certain and the confident. How we live together seems more and more a matter to be approached with great humility and a willingness to listen. I am becoming convinced that Meldenius was right:
In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.
In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, freedom; in all things, charity.

Grace & peace,

13 December 2009

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent - "This Is Good News?"

When I was a kid, my brother Brian and I often watched Flash Gordon cartoons. In those cartoons, the bad guy, Ming the Merciless, had a flaming sword, and one of the great dangers of growing up on a farm is easy access to gasoline. So one summer afternoon we decided that playing Flash Gordon would be WAAAAAY cooler if we actually had flaming swords. Out came the gasoline, and of course, I burned my hand a little bit and dropped my flaming sword – right into the weeds growing underneath the fuel tanks.

Several minutes of kicking and stomping put out the fire, thankfully, but it still makes me shudder to think how easily we could have died that afternoon. But the best part of that story is what happened next. Our youngest brother, Kevin, had watched the whole thing, and he promptly told our mom what had happened, even though we threatened him with severe punishment, as only big brothers can. Well, there was definitely punishment, but it wasn’t Kevin who got punished. I’m still mad at the little sucker for ratting us out. ;-)

You’ve been here before – found out and up against the wall. We generally don’t think of getting caught as good news. We’d always prefer that our sins and our weaknesses would stay hidden, whether it’s an innocent mistake or an exploded cover-up. If I might turn a phrase, it seems far better to let your life be quiet and let people think you’re a sinner than to open your life up and prove it. Yet in our gospel reading today, we see John blowing up the coverage, so to speak. “You children of snakes! Who warned you that you were in trouble? Do you think being a member of the family of Israel is going to save you? God can make these rocks into children of Abraham!” And, best of all, Luke says “with many other exhortations, [John] proclaimed the good news to the people.” This is good news?

Absolutely. How many of you have ever been forced to hide the truth about yourself from someone? How many of you have had to pretend to be something you’re not because you thought that was the only way people would respect you? If you have, and I’m wagering most of you have done this time and time again, then the good news John proclaimed to the crowds in his own time is reaching across the centuries to be good news today, for you. No matter what your hidden life might look like, no matter what your mistakes might be, no matter what frightens you about yourself, the people around you, or the future you see in front of you, God already knows. The one who formed you in your mother’s womb, the God who has called you into being and given you this life in this time knows every hidden secret of your life – and loves you. You will not be rejected because of your mistakes. You will not be abandoned because of your fears. You will not be denied because of your secrets. When repentance is happening, when God is getting about the work of transforming your life, God starts at the bottom, down where all your masks and pretenses have been stripped away, and God takes everything that is you and begins to make it into what you were always meant to be. This is good news – because now that God is at work in the world, in you, the clock is running out for those things we try to hide. There is no escape for sin when God is on the hunt!

And so the people ask John the question: if this is true, then what comes next? How do we live if the secret’s out about our sinfulness? And that’s the question for us as well. If repentance is real, if God knows our secrets and loves us anyway, what comes next? What follows from John is spectacularly ordinary. This is not rocket science, people. It’s just living the way God has always wanted us to live. As one of my seminary professors wrote this week, “[Faith] does not have to be heroic” [1] If you’re blessed with an abundance, share with those who have little. Don’t take advantage of other people. Live within your means, and be satisfied with what God has entrusted to you. All of this falls under John’s proclamation: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” In other words, God has loved you at your worst: live your gratitude by giving God your best.

And it’s also not a matter of rejecting the life you’ve lived or radically reinventing yourself. That same preaching professor of mine wrote, “Most peculiar still, perhaps, is the ‘eschatological location’ of the good fruits. Tax collectors are not called to sever their relationship with Rome, nor are the soldiers exhorted to lives of pacifism. Even in light of impending eschatological judgment, they are called to serve where they are; to take their stand for neighbor amid, rather than apart from, the turbulence and trouble of the present age; and to do good because, rather than in spite, of their compromised positions. By sandwiching such ordinary instruction amid eschatological warning and messianic expectation, Luke's John hallows the mundane elements of daily life.” [2] The good news is, you are called to bear fruits in the life you’ve always lived: with the people you love, in the classes you take, in the work you do. Life is to be lived with gratitude and humble service, not because it makes God love us, but because God has already loved us, and loves us still.

I’ll admit that it’s been a really hard few weeks for me. Some of you know that a good friend of mine was basically fired from her church because the people there didn’t understand how she wants to be a pastor and disagreed with her vision for the future of their congregation. This week another good friend of mine had a very similar experience in a different congregation, and this time it was a church I knew well and people I had thought could be trusted. Even in the church, our mistakes and our hidden fears cause pain – sometimes worse than when it’s not in the church. We can get so comfortable in the church that we get blind to how we’re hurting others. But even with all the warts and mistakes and pain that go with being in the church together, we’re still God’s people here. There’s hidden fear and sin in this religious darkness, as much as there’s hidden fear and sin in our own personal darkness. We’re sinners here just like we’re sinners out there – and the good news is, again, that God knows this and will not let it stand here, either. And so our mistake-ridden, stumbling walk through the darkness goes on, led by the good news that God is with us in the darkness and will not let us fall.

German pastors J.C. and C.F. Blumhardt once wrote, “Our prayers are hammer-strokes against the bulwarks of the princes of darkness; they must be oft repeated. Many years can pass by, even a number of generations die away, before a breakthrough occurs. However, not a single hit is wasted; and if they are continued, then even the most secure wall must finally fall. Then the glory of God will have a clear path upon which to stride forth with healing and blessing for the wasted fields of [humankind].” [3] Wherever you’ve been caught, whatever the light of God is revealing within you, know this: getting caught is the beginning of the good news of God. This IS good news, because where the light of God lifts our prayers into the darkness, the darkness cannot stand. Rejoice, brothers and sisters, because you’ve been caught, not only as a sinner, but as a saint in whom God is doing a great work of transformation. Let your fruits be worthy of that transformation, let your prayers be hammer-strokes against the darkness, and let us all praise the name of the One who has caught us up in love and will not let us go. In the name of the Father, +Son and Holy Spirit, amen.

[1] http://workingpreacher.org for 13 December 2009

[2] Ibid.

[3] Quoted by Rodney Clapp in The Christian Century, Vol. 126, No. 25, p. 53.

11 December 2009

Simul iustus et peccator. Painfully so.

Today was yet another one of those days where you get dragged from "wow, this work is such a great privilege" to "who the hell ARE these people, anyway?" The day in bullets:
  • Spent two hours working on Teh Sermon at a local coffee shop this morning
  • Picked up a quick lunch and reviewed this week's chapter for Theology for Lunch
  • Theology for Lunch from noon to one, which was yet another invigorating discussion of a chapter in N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope.
  • Spent about an hour talking with a student that was unbloggable, but I can say it was the 'high' moment of the day in terms of doing pastoral ministry.
  • Received a call from one of the Synod staff, who is doing an Advent call-around to check in with all the professional staff in our synod. I was touched and thankful for our brief conversation.
  • Did some work around the office and had a phone conversation with a colleague who is going to help our local ministry board move into a time of visioning for our future as a ministry.
  • Took a phone call and had a long conversation with a good friend and colleague who got blindsided by some folks this afternoon. I want so badly to say what it is about, but it's unbloggable. Dammit. Suffice it to say it's yet another example of how churches can sometimes do things so very wrong-headedly. This is a congregation I've thought exemplified a lot of good things and a remarkable amount of spiritual well-being and maturity. Until now. Triangulation, accountability issues, gossip, fear, lack of trust and second-guessing - you know, the church putting its best face forward, same as always.
In our Theology for Lunch discussion, the subject of our Lutheran understanding of sin was raised and discussed. Simul iustus et peccator, we say: every Christian is, at the same time, saint and sinner. It's one thing to know this intellectually, to understand the concept. It's another thing to see it happening in person. One of the wisest professors I had in seminary once said, "no Lutheran pastor worth his or her salt should ever be surprised." In theory, I agree, but in practice I find that, time and again, I am surprised by the petty nature of so much that happens in the church. Surprised, angered and, in the end, disheartened.

I remain, on the whole, an ardent supporter of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church I serve, with all her beauty and all her warts included. If you'll look at the bullets above, the negative is numerically overwhelmed by many positives. Yet sometimes the negative is so banal and ugly that it becomes impossible to ignore.

Good church things will happen, likely very soon. And perhaps, in answer to my ardent prayers, the situation troubling my friend and me will be resolved in a healthy manner. But these things will happen again, because we are who we are: sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, God's children, one and all.

To insist the church is always beneficent is fantasy. To refuse to admit the presence of evil in the church is an inability to see reality. John the Baptist warns us that being the church, claiming those ties to God, means nothing if we live lives unworthy of repentance and abuse those around us. Tonight, I'm more aware of that than I'd like; here's hoping tomorrow the pain will pass, but the awareness will remain.

Grace & peace,

Just Putting This Here

So I can post on EDSBS. Still, good memories.

08 December 2009

Snow and Shane

Rumor has it that Ames is going to be buried under eighteen feet of snow and ice today and tomorrow. I've been trapping rabbits in the backyard since yesterday afternoon, since it's either that or eat one of the cats when things get really bad.

Just kidding, of course. We DID get our first snow of the year yesterday, and it was lovely. More last night, and our neighbor with the snowthrower cleared our driveway for us - also lovely. And it does look like a pretty good storm is heading our way. Might be a good night for grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.

I'll have another post later today, but I wanted to share this letter from Shane Claiborne that was printed in Esquire. It's been making the rounds on Facebook and other spots, and it's worth the read.

Stay warm, friends!

06 December 2009

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent 2009 - "Reinterpreting History"

What do you remember about December 2006? Here were some of the “big” stories, according to Wikipedia. The H5N1 flu was scaring a lot of people; proving, I guess, that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Florida Congressman Mark Foley was in big trouble for sending suggestive text messages to his interns. There was a coup d’etat in Fiji.

Here’s what I can tell you about December 2006: Kristin was pregnant. Wonderfully, painfully pregnant. 3cm dilated on December 23rd, just a few days before we took a week-long trip to Nebraska for Christmas and New Year’s with family. My brother and his wife lived in Plattsmouth, NE, and we spent New Year’s Day at their house, the guests of honor at a baby shower my sister-in-law planned and carried off wonderfully.

What do you remember about December 2007? Again, according to Wikipedia: Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his involvement in dogfighting. A gunman shot and killed two people at a church in Colorado Springs. Russian president Vladimir Putin agreed to become prime minister when his term ended, and endorsed Dmitry Medvedev as their party’s candidate for president. Putin was also named Time’s Person of the Year for 2007. Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, was assassinated at an election rally, after which the killer detonated a bomb on his body and killed another 22 people.

Here’s what I can tell you about December 2007: Kristin was pregnant. Not so monstrously or painfully pregnant – Alanna didn’t come until July 2008. But Kristin was pregnant again. We came to Ames to go house-shopping three nights after the worst ice storm the city had ever seen, and when we pulled up the driveway of what would eventually be our house, our realtor’s Cadillac was on so much ice it slid backwards after she parked it.

What we think is important and what matters on a global scale are sometimes very different things, and we need look no further than the gospel of Luke to see this is true for God as well. What seemed important on the scene all those thousands of years ago were rulers and countries. Tiberias, Herod, Lysanias, Caiaphas. These were the people who mattered, the movers and shakers of their day. But what is important to God in that time was John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, the voice in the wilderness proclaiming the advent of God. The gospel of Luke sets the stage, then reinterprets history by showing what God was up to while we were watching the mighty and powerful.

Let us pray: Heavenly Father, pull our wandering eyes to you. You sent your servant, John, to call us to repentance, to prepare the way of your Son. May your Spirit open our eyes to see his coming now, in this time, and to be prepared. Amen.

In January 2003 I took a cross-cultural trip to Germany with four fellow students from Luther Seminary and eight from Wartburg Seminary. Our trip began in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther spent the majority of his life as a pastor and professor. The first night we were in Wittenberg, my roommate Jared and I were supposed to ride bicycles three kilometers from our host family’s home into the old city, where we would be joining our classmates for introductions to the staff at the Wittenberg Center and an orientation session.

We had been in Germany for less than six hours when we left for the meeting. We had good directions, and it was a pretty straight shot into the city. But we were nervous, so we rode hard and didn’t take a lot of time for sight-seeing. This probably explains why Jared and I, dedicated Luther scholars though we were, rode right past the door of the Castle Church where Luther posted the 95 Theses without a second glance. It was only the day after, on our first walking tour of the old city, that we realized what we had missed.

I guess Jared and I needed a prophet. The popular understanding of “prophet” suggests that prophets are fortune tellers. But the prophets weren’t focused on telling the future; prophets are called by God to turn the eyes of God’s people to God, to refocus life and reinterpret history through the lens of what God is doing in the world. Any note of future prediction from John the Baptist only served to draw the eyes of God’s people to the coming of the Messiah, the promised Savior of God. John didn’t ask the people to stop observing the world around us – John insisted that the people should see the world through the lens of repentance, forgiveness and salvation. God, John prophesied, is breaking into the world – the kingdom is coming. And whenever God’s kingdom comes, what we once thought was of paramount importance will pale in comparison.

This doesn’t come about just because John was a nobody and God wanted to knock the “important” folks down a notch. God works through kings, too. Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian Empire around 540 B.C., and after conquering the Babylonians, Cyrus issued an “Edict of Resoration” allowing the people of Israel, who’d been taking into Babylon in exile, to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding their city. Here’s what Isaiah 44-45 has to say about Cyrus:

24Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
who formed you in the womb:
I am the Lord, who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who by myself spread out the earth;
25who frustrates the omens of liars,
and makes fools of diviners;
who turns back the wise,
and makes their knowledge foolish;
26who confirms the word of his servant,
and fulfils the prediction of his messengers;
who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be inhabited’,
and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be rebuilt,
and I will raise up their ruins’;
27who says to the deep, ‘Be dry—
I will dry up your rivers’;
28who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
and he shall carry out all my purpose’;
and who says of Jerusalem, ‘It shall be rebuilt’,
and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’Cyrus, God’s Instrument

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2I will go before you
and level the mountains,*
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
5I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,

6so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the
Lord, and there is no other.
7I form light and create darkness,
I make weal and create woe;
I the
Lord do all these things.[1]

Thus says the Lord to Cyrus, his anointed – his “Messiah,” in Hebrew. God anointed the most powerful Gentile king of his day to end the exile of the people of Israel and return them to the promised land. God’s reign was established and affirmed by a Persian king who might have simply been concerned with the well-being of his subjects. History might suggest this was the magnanimous act of a great king: we people of faith are called by God to reinterpret history and assert that God was working through Cyrus to bring about the kingdom of God and the care for the well-being of God’s people.

And God gets bolder through John the Baptist. John was not only a prophet to the people of Israel: in John’s own words, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” John’s father, Zechariah, said it even more boldly when John was born:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”[2]

John was called to be the voice of God to the entire world, to point to the coming day when all people will see the greatness of God and live in the glorious light of God’s kingdom. And John wasn’t just talking about life after death – John didn’t say a word about death or hell here. John was talking about forgiveness, repentance, transformed lives in THIS world, in THIS time. John wasn’t preparing the people to be taken away from this world – John was preparing this world for the in-breaking of God, right here, right now, among us. And when Jesus came, all of history began to be re-interpreted in the light of Jesus’ love, grace and mercy.

This is the first year of the presidency of Barack Obama. Chet Culver is the governor of Iowa, and Anne Thompson the Mayor of Ames. Gregory Geoffroy is President of our beloved Iowa State University. The Reverend Mark Hanson is the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, and The Reverend Michael Burk is the bishop of the Southeastern Iowa Synod. But we might not remember such things in years to come. What we will remember is this: Jesus is here with us, now, and the reign of God is breaking into the world. The dawn from on high continues to break upon us, and we who sit in darkness follow the light of God into the way of peace. Let history say what it will: let us be God’s people, reinterpreting history in the light of God, and let us live in that light, now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 44.24-45.7, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Luke 1.76-79

30 November 2009

Pop Culture Roundup

With the release of The Gathering Storm a few weeks ago, I decided it might be time to journey into The Wheel of Time yet again. For those who haven't heard of it, The Wheel of Time is a multi-volume fantasy epic conceived and largely written by Robert Jordan. Jordan died recently, and the final three volumes are being ghost-written by folks within his inner circle: Jordan dictated the overall plotline and they are writing out the story itself, from what I've heard. The Eye of the World is what Stephen King's The Dark Tower could have been before he wrote himself into it, but that's another story. Anyway, when all is said and done in 2011, the epic will span 15 volumes and over 3 million words. And it just might take me that long to finish it again. But it is good reading for those of us who like swords, magic, chivalry, ancient codes of honor and legends rising out of the earth.

While waiting to get to the next book in the WoT series, I'm going to indulge a bit in a fascinating new book/movie mix. Cathleen Falsani wrote The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, which is a funny title since the Coen brothers were raised in a Jewish family and Ethan Coen wrote that belief in God is "the height of stupidity" in his master's thesis. Irony, thou art the most delicious of all spices. Anyway, my plan is to watch each of the Coen Brothers 14 movies before reading the chapter Falsani has dedicated to it. Should be a lot of fun, starting with Blood Simple, which should arrive from Netflix in time for a viewing Thursday night after the girls are in bed.

I'm listening to a lot of Wynton Marsalis on Pandora recently. I'm not yet in the mood for holiday music - usually I start getting ready for Christmas music about the time Christmas actually arrives (imagine that!). So it's jazz with a little Bach thrown in on the side. And, of course, there's always the Chieftains channel on Pandora and Johnny Cash from Folsom Prison if I'm wanting to get a little funky.

I don't know if I mentioned this earlier on the blog, but Beloved and I went to see "2012" at the theater last week. It's one of those movies you have to see on the big screen to really enjoy; had we waited until the DVD comes out, it would have been much more disappointing. So much nicer to watch people getting crushed by buildings in 70mm widescreen goodness, dontcha know? Nothing too surprising here: basic plotline is "we're gonna die - ooh, we almost died!" a few times over and then the happy ending for everyone for whom the happy ending could be happy (and unfortunate accidents for everyone whose continued presence could muck up said happy ending). That's not really a spoiler unless you were surprised at any point by any of the following movies: Transformers, Independence Day, and The Day After Tomorrow. Just sayin'.

That's what I'm reading, hearing and seeing lately. Later!

Grace & peace,

Edited later to add: I'm a frigging moron. I've finally gotten the most recent draft of my sister-in-law's book, and promised her I'd read it. So scratch The Dude Abides for the time being. I can't say much more than that about the book, but I'm glad to finally get my chance to read it!

27 November 2009

Big Red Bullets: Nebraska vs. Colorado 2009

Well, again, the only stat that matters is the final score, right? Like Sam McKewon said, this game was a microcosm of the whole season: sweet, sour, sweet, sour, and ohjustgetitoverwith.

At the same time, if the scoreboard reads the same after next week's Big XII Championship Game, I'll be dancing in the streets. So, you've got that to look forward to if you live on Toronto Street in Ames...

Anyway, on with this week's Big Red Bullets.

  • What more can anyone say about Ndamukong Suh? Another day dominating whoever lines up across from him, often taking on two or three blockers, and still creating havoc for the other team. For those of you who haven't played the game, that thing Suh does where he locks out one arm and just shoves the opposing lineman out of his way? Not everyone can do that, but most of the guys who can are earning lots of cabbage on Sunday afternoons.
  • As much as I hate to say this about anyone, I'll be glad to see the last of Larry Asante. The guy's a very talented player who has improved immensely under the tutelage of this coaching staff. But I have had it with late hits, cheap shots and taunting from Mr. Asante. It's just not the way anyone should want to play the game, especially at a school that values sportsmanship and class as much as Nebraska does.
  • Zac Lee had another good performance, IMO. No major mistakes and, more importantly, the offense seems more geared toward his skills this week. The only option call was the only mistake I saw; whatever was called, the line and backs went one way and Zac went another.
  • The offensive line also played well, though it was a bit worrisome to see so many corner blitzes getting through in the first half. Kudos to the big boys up front for blasting a long 4th quarter drive to seal the deal, especially given the defensive meltdown on the last drive.
  • Niles Paul had a great game, and for the first time all season I wasn't cringing every time he carried the ball. The punt return for a touchdown was outstanding and another difference maker we desperately needed.
  • Tyler Legate has quickly become my unsung Husker hero this year. Another week with no carries, no catches, just blasting defensive ends and linebackers to spring Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead.
  • From what I saw of Baker Steinkuhler and Cameron Meredith, we aren't going to lose as much as one might think on the defensive line next year. Should be a strength of this team again.
  • I'm really worried about the 2010 linebackers. If we don't get faster and tackle better real fast, that D line is not going to be able to drop off in production at all.
  • I'm really glad Nebraska has Alex Henery to punt and placekick, and I'm also really glad Colorado had, um, whatever his name was.
  • If this game was Nebraska's season in a microcosm, it could also have been Colorado's. Putting up 400 yards against this defense is a major accomplishment: blowing off your foot in the process just hurts that much more.
  • This week's sign of hope for the future: after giving up an essentially meaningless touchdown, Bo was very. obviously. not. happy. Apparently, nothing, not even a last gasp scramble for a score, is meaningless - and that can only mean continued pursuit of excellence at NU. I'm very interested to see just how far that pursuit takes us in the next 12 months, starting with Saturday's game against Texas. A victory, however improbable, would be sweet. No, not just sweet: SCHWEEEEEEEEEET.
[click] Lookit that - outta bullets. See you next week.

Go Big Red!


25 November 2009

Thanksgiving 2009 Message

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples about the providence of God so that they would regard life with thanksgiving and trust rather than anxiety.

A reading from Matthew:

25Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Word of God, word of life.

Thanks be to God.

My mood was a mirror image of the weather yesterday – sullen, rainy and ugly for a good portion of the day. Some might argue I had good reason for a bad attitude:

· A fellow pastor I’ve come to know through blogging circles was essentially fired by her congregation last week.

· Some administrative matters within campus ministry weren’t handled the way we were promised they would be handled, and will likely have a negative impact on how we work together.

· Matters concerning the decisions at the Churchwide Assembly continue to be discussed, debated and a cause for division, for reasons I’ll admit I really don’t understand.

· A leader for whom I have a fairly high amount of respect dropped the ball in a recent open letter to his constituency, choosing fluffy, patronizations instead of just telling the honest truth.

· And let’s not even start talking about politics…

This has become something of an annual ritual for me. I’m going to start calling it the Advent Funk, even though technically we aren’t even in Advent yet. But this year our usual list of grievances about society observing Christmas while we church folks aren’t even through Advent seems magnified due to economic woes and worries about the church in general and the ELCA in particular. Maybe you’re feeling it, too: how many of you have felt disheartened at some point in the last week or so?

Troubled. That’s the best word I can use to describe my outlook in these times. Maybe it’s your best, too. We’re troubled by the economy, troubled by health care, troubled by concerns about the honesty and integrity of our elected officials. We’re troubled by dissension in our church, troubled by differences that are not easily put aside, troubled by our brothers and sisters who choose to punish the church for controversial decisions. We’re troubled by mistakes we have made and by the consequences those mistakes bring. We’re troubled by the unintended painful consequences of doing the right thing. We’re troubled because it can be so hard to discern right from wrong, faith from fear.

There’s a word making its way through the internet right now: “blamestorming.” Blamestorming is what happens when everyone gets called into a meeting to figure out why something didn’t work. And, frankly, at times these past few months my Facebook page has looked like one gigantic blamestorming session. The church is failing because of X. Health care reform won’t work because Senator Y is an obstructionist. Bishop Z doesn’t have a clue about the ‘people in the pews.’ Trouble gets explained away and laid at the feet of others so we can feel unjustly persecuted. It’s amazing how much easier it is to deal with trouble when the fault lies with someone else.

Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about avoiding trouble. In fact, in the gospels Jesus often says flat out that trouble will come:

· John 16.33: I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.

· And in our last verse from tonight’s reading: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Trouble happens, Jesus says. Sometimes trouble happens because we make mistakes. Sometimes trouble happens because of the mistakes of others. But trouble will be a constant. The question is, how shall we live with trouble?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.”[1] This is what I wonder in the midst of great troubles: are we aware that the sheer fact of life itself is not a given, that even our troubles come to us only because God has created, and continues to create? Or, as one of my seminary professors put it, there is something, when there could be nothing? When we consider the universe, as the psalmist says, the sheer magnificence of all that God has created, should we not be in awe of the fact that our small lives are each a matter of great importance to the One who flung the Milky Way into the sky?

In other words, brothers and sisters, do you realize that you are deeply loved and cherished by the one who shaped you in your mother’s womb and continues to be at work in you through the Holy Spirit? In the midst of our troubles and our contentment, in our sorrow and our joy, God is ever-present and continuing to hold us in love. There is no trouble which can take us out of God’s care, and no sorrow so deep that God will not heal in time. For this, even in these times of trouble, we give thanks.

I am reminded every year around this time of the story of Martin Rinkart. Rinkart was a pastor in the German city of Eilenberg during the Thirty Years’ War. In 1637, a great illness swept through the city. At the start of the year there were four pastors in town. One left and could not be convinced to return. Rinkart buried the other two, and was eventually burying 40 to 50 people every day. In May of that year, Rinkart buried his own wife. No one would have questioned Rinkart’s right to bitterly mourn his troubles. Yet he wrote the following poem as a prayer for his children:

Nun danket alle Gott mit Herzen, Mund und Händen.
Der große Dinge tut an uns und allen Enden,
Der uns von Mutterleib und Kindesbeinen an
Unzählig viel zu gut bis hierher hat getan.

Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices.

Who from our mother’s arms has blest us on our way

With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

We give thanks, not for a life without troubles, but for a God who accompanies us in the midst of every trouble and every joy. So, friends, troubled or not, take today for the gift that it is, and tomorrow as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics.

The painting is "Troubled" by Jason Reynolds of Portland, OR.

Grey and Ugly

This is yesterday, figuratively and actually. Grey, rainy, and ugly, at least for a good portion of the day. I don't like days like this.

There were many contributing factors. In no particular order:

- a good friend was ousted from her church in a craptastic display of wrong thinking about the nature of ministry and the role of the pastor (CEO? Absolutely not!). She might not use the word "ousted," but I certainly will.

- the NE Iowa Synod Council approved two resolutions attempting to retain the ministry standards currently in effect in the ELCA, effectively barring non-celibate gays and lesbians from any congregation in the synod. Normally it wouldn't bother me so much, but each of the Iowa synods contributes roughly 33% of our campus ministry financial support, and it honestly feels like it would be tainted money if these resolutions were approved at their Synod Assembly.

- In the midst of these harsh times, a number of folks at the ELCA Churchwide office were let go/fired/downsized/whatever. This happens - it's not particularly newsworthy. What IS newsworthy is the video and letter released by Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson. Calling it pablum would be offensive to pablum. I like our Presiding Bishop. He generally seems to understand how to navigate the currents (and there are many) of our church. But in this case, whoever is responsible for writing these pastoral letters and putting together these videos completely missed the boat. Burying one extremely vague sentence about budget cuts in a mishmash of local success stories and fluffy grace talk is not pastoral, Bishop; your church deserves the honest truth and dignified leadership it received at the Churchwide Assembly. Frankly, I expected better.

These are just a few of the things that had me down in the mouth yesterday. At our weekly text study meeting one of my colleagues asked me if I had PMS (God bless colleagues with a wicked sense of humor!). But then we discussed the texts, and I said something to the effect of "Jesus is reminding us that we aren't responsible for the redemption of the world - that's God's business. We are called to faithfully wait with hope for what God promises." That same colleague looked at me and said, "Did you hear what you just said? Preacher, heal thyself!" And last night, we gathered to break bread with five students who were still in town (many have already headed home to family for Thanksgiving holidays). We had a wonderful meal and even better conversation.

It's amazing how good conversation among friends can lift your spirits. Be they the wise, gracious colleagues in my text study or the joyful, energetic students it is my privilege to serve, they are a blessing to me, and I can only hope I return the blessing in some small way. Yesterday was grey and ugly, and today has started the same. The problems remain as well, but God is with us, stumble though we may, and in God there is a promise that grey and ugly will not remain forever.

Grace & peace,

16 November 2009

Literary Gluttony - Calorie-Free Bliss

Some people pig out on turkey and all the trimmings come Thanksgiving.

Others pig out on their favorite authors. I'm one of the latter.

Okay, well, I'm one of the former, too. But this post is about books. Specifically, Stephen King's latest novel, Under the Dome. All 1066 pages of it.

On Tuesday night, Beloved and I went out to eat by ourselves to celebrate her mphmptehmphth birthday. Tuesday night in Ames, Iowa is apparently not a big night for restaurants: we were seated, fed and settled up in 45 minutes, and we actually talked to each other during our meal. We had a babysitter, and loath to just willingly sacrifice the remainder of our free time for the evening, we decided to saunter on over to Borders and 'look around.' By "we," I mean "me," of course; while Beloved is not opposed to reading, she's also not a huge fan, either. But she humored me (and really, isn't that how we got here in the first place?) and off to my little corner of literary heaven we went.

Strange as it may seem, I'd forgotten that the book was being released on Tuesday. Chalk it up to parenting two toddlers and holding down a call I dearly love, I guess. Most of these days I think Gandalf's description of Barliman Butterbur sums it up pretty well: "His mind is like a lumberyard - thing wanted always buried." Anyway, my general practice when a new King is being released is to pick it up the day it is released and drop everything else I'm reading until I've finished the new King. So, off I went over the past five days, devouring this book like a free pizza in danger of going cold.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book, but the only way Under the Dome resembles It or The Stand is in length. A few characters, most notably the main male protagonists, seem believable, but I think, unfortunately, that years of being the most famous writer on the planet have left Stephen King out of touch with the common folks about whom he's trying so hard to write well. The main villain is, frankly, annoying - a small-town tin-pot dictator, to be sure, but for some reason King throws on this annoying half-desire to be righteous that you're never sure is for real or not. The most egregious example of this is how the man displays an infantile use of homonyms to stand in for profanity. Let's just say that hearing about "Brenda, that lousy rhymes-with-witch" gets really old really fast. The only thing that makes it tolerable is that the man gets a few moments of really evil behavior, including one of the best 'last words' I've ever read. It's too bad some annoying, unexplainable personal tics distract the reader from a truly evil villain.

The conclusion, however, is one of King's best. If you can resist the urge to read the last page first (and I suggest most strongly you should, cheaters), you'll find yourself gobbling up story with heartbreak and breathless anticipation by the end. Thankfully, after 900 pages I felt that the last 100 were definitely worth the trip.

Well, that's the report. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to go kill some brain cells watching the idiot box while I fold the laundry.

Grace & peace,

14 November 2009

Bullets from a Big Red Believer: NU-Kansas Review

A great win for the Cornhuskers tonight in Lawrence, Kansas, against a team that is one hell of a lot better than its record suggests. This game should have been for the Big 12 North - how it wasn't will be one of the ongoing mysteries of the season for me. A fun game to watch, except for the final 5 minutes or so if you're a Jayhawk fan.

This week's thoughts, presented in no particular order:
  • Tackling continues to be mostly excellent, better than I've ever seen Nebraska tackle before. The few misses I saw tonight were mostly due to top-level athleticism on the part of Kansas, in my opinion.
  • This week's unsung hero: Tyler Legate. Hell, let's give him last week's Unsung Hero award, too, since I didn't do it then. I saw at least three plays where he made the key block to bust Roy Helu, Jr. for a big run, including that 3rd down sideline squeaker on the second-to-last drive. Now, can someone explain to me how we're not giving this guy the ball at least once or twice per game? The kid deserves a carry or two just for being the stellar blocker he is, and I fail to see how completely eliminating an option from the playbook is a good thing.
  • As I saw it, this was the best-called offensive gameplan since Virginia Tech. There were only one or two "WTF?" moments that I could remember. One that stood out was the option on 3rd and 12 early in the 4th quarter, but that could have been an audible.
  • Not to play the "getting back to Nebraska football" card, but the drives where Nebraska looked best were also the drives where Nebraska most closely resembled the NU offense of the 1990s. In particular, I enjoyed seeing the play-action option pass that went big to Niles Paul. Reminded me of Brook Berringer running it against Colorado in '94 and hitting Eric Alford for that big touchdown catch.
  • How about a thumbs-up for Zac Lee? I was never convinced he was the problem with the offense, and I was really glad to see him playing the entire game and playing well.
  • The most likely explanation for Lee playing well was the stellar effort of the NU offensive line. I remember only two penalties on the interior five, and there were a lot of seams getting opened up for Helu in this game. Pass blocking was also excellent - I think we only gave up one sack. Kudos to Barney Cotton and the line for their best game since Virginia Tech.
  • Our campus ministry runs a concession stand at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, so I spent most of the afternoon at the ISU-Colorado game. I caught about three or four minutes of the game while scarfing down a hot dog on my break. Seeing a game live and then coming home to watch a game on DVR, I was struck by how little of the action I could see on television. It would be nice if TV games kept the angles wider so we could watch plays develop a bit more - you don't always have to follow the ball, do you?
  • Speaking of Colorado...well, no - let's just not.
  • Marcel Jones' afro is a thing of beauty. Just sayin'.
  • What a tough way for Todd Reesing to go out. This kid played his guts out every single game, and I'm sorry to see him go. I was especially sorry to see Larry Asante cheap shot him on a slide in the first half - it was one of the few ugly moments of the game
  • Speaking of ugly and not-so-much, how good, hard-hitting, and clean was the competition in this game? Back to back games against quality, sportsmanlike opponents are a good thing, and I wish we'd see more of it in this conference. I'm looking at you, Missouri, Colorado and Kansas State.
  • I love the effort Niles Paul gives on every play. I just wish he'd tuck the damn ball away, because the dog doesn't like it when I'm grabbing at the air to remind Paul to take care of the rock.
  • Could someone explain to me how Kerry Meier does it? I get the feeling that he's STILL open on a crossing route.
  • How wicked were the NU crackbacks on that wide handoff play? Niles Paul and Brandon Kinnie did some serious ear-holin' this afternoon.
  • Would it be a stretch to say you'll develop a pretty thick skin playing for this guy?
  • Nice to see Mike McNeill get back into the offense tonight. I think we're going to see quite a lot of that zone read bootleg in coming weeks.
  • In the end, I think what makes me most satisfied is knowing this was a total gut-check game, one we had to take away from Kansas, and we were able to do it. This team is growing up as the season goes on, something Callahan's teams never did, and it's going to continue to pay dividends down the line. Big 12 North on the line against the Mildcats next week - can't wait!
Keep the faith - Go Big Red!

This is just a cool damn picture of the NU drumline. "This reminds me of a..."

13 November 2009

Good Book Groups Make Good Pastors

"God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This doctrine, like that of resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator, on the one side, and the belief in his goodness, on the other. And that setting right must necesarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God's good and lovely creation and in particular of all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures. Not to put to fine a point on it, there will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God. And those whose whole being has become dependent upon barbed wire will have no place there, either."
Bishop N.T. Wright
Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven,
the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church

There are days when being a pastor doesn't involve much. On those days, you find yourself tending to the details of administrivia, as a few of my blogger friends have put it; picking hymns, moving around the building and putting things where they belong, thinking about the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day operation and administration of a community of faith. You buy communion wine, make sure someone's baking the bread, pick up some napkins from the store, figure out what kind of donut holes you should have for Bible Study on Sunday morning. And, for God's sake, don't forget the coffee. :-) Like most jobs, these kind of days make up a lot of what I do - they are unremarkable, but generally enjoyable as well.

Then you have days like today. Days like today are what make what I do a vocation, not just a job. We have a group of folks meeting at University Lutheran Center every Friday to read and discuss books. I call it Theology for Lunch, though in truth there's only a few of us who eat and the group predates my time here, so it's more a title to go on the calendar than anything else. Currently we're reading the book quoted above, and after almost three months of slogging through introductory stuff, today we finally hit the meat of the matter. My heavens, was it ever a good conversation today.

There are a lot of reasons to love a group like this. For one thing, we can disagree without demonizing, a rare commodity. Granted, we're a fairly cohesive group politically and theologically, but we do have varying opinions on matters, and, more importantly, a few members who are unwilling to let generalizations and poorly-explained arguments slide. You better bring your "A" game to this group, and it better be good. At the same time, we've been together long enough that we can confess to ignorance, stereotyping and frustration with certain aspects of our lives. The combination of willingness to argue and agreement to respect makes for a lot of good discussion.

In the chapter we read for today, "Purgatory, Paradise and Hell," Wright really made some spectacularly cogent arguments toward what I think is a more fruitful understanding of, as he calls it, "life after life after death." I especially connected with the idea that even though God is indeed determined to right the wrongs of this world, God is NOT interested in maintaining the divisions we so painstakingly construct between ourselves. When we were discussing the paragraph quoted above, there were a number of different images people admitted came to their minds: the U.S. Mexican border and our problems dealing with immigration, gated communities, and, most importantly, I believe, Christians who seem to base their entire existence on proving they know exactly who is in and who is out when it comes to salvation. Any time the idea of heaven and hell get weaponized, Wright argues, we're missing the whole point, and I agree wholeheartedly.

One of the reasons I remain an ELCA Lutheran is because in our theology I find precious little evidence of walls and barbed wire constructed for their own sake. The Augsburg Confession, our "constitution of faith," if you will, states that preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments are all that is required for the unity of the church. Everything else is adiaphora, matters about which we are free to decide what seems best in our local ministries. This can lead to an ungodly mess at times - witness the current brouhahas brewing over sex and money in our denomination. But these things are not the pillars upon which the church stands or falls, contrary to what some will say. So long as we have only the gospel and the sacraments, the preaching and the presence of Christ in His church, we have all that is necessary.

One of the things that got Jesus most in trouble with the authorities in his day was the way he kept tearing down walls they had built to increase their power. It seems to me God's been doing that for quite some time: we find ways to box God in so we can be in control, God gets busy busting loose and tearing down the spiritual barbed wire we've so painstakingly used to imprison ourselves. Frost was right: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," and today it seems to me that God, also, doesn't love a wall. "...no barbed wire in the kingdom of God." Sounds good to me.

Grace and peace,