31 March 2009

Lenten Journal: Chewing On the Word

But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!
Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you in the womb and will help you:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,
like willows by flowing streams.
Isaiah 44.1-4

Tuesday afternoons are text study afternoons at the Lutheran Center. Clergy from area congregations (not all of them Lutheran, but the majority are) come for coffee, treats if anyone brings them, and conversation. The talk is usually about the texts and what they might or might not mean/suggest towards preaching - but it never starts at that point.

Like most pastor gatherings, we start by checking in with each other. Text study is the one place where a pastor can declaim, "Well, that's just horseshit!" and not worry about being called before the church council the next day (and if you think your pastor doesn't use such language, chances are you're dead wrong, my friend). Our time together isn't merely for expelling all the pent-up profanity, however; we take time to laugh together, to bear one another's burdens, to be colleagues in a profession where that sort of time is hard to come by and more precious than gold.

At some point, one of us breaks out her/his Bible in a somewhat pointed fashion, and we know that it's time we delved into the appointed texts for the week. Then the fun really starts. Today's gathering was especially delightful, challenging and fulfilling. We discussed the positive and negative aspects of Palm/Passion Sunday, of Holy Week observance, of what Jesus meant when he rode into Jerusalem on a jackass, what it means for us to be participants in the empire Jesus was likely protesting. We chewed on the Word today: we masticated what it means to be nearing Palm Sunday and savored each and every delicious flavor the Word had to offer before we reluctantly went our separate ways.

If your pastor isn't regularly meeting with other clergy to discuss his or her sermons, give them a nudge in that direction. Not all gatherings are as healthy as ours has come to be lately, but pulling sermons out of your own head without input from others leaves you parched and dry eventually. I know fellow pastors can sometimes be a pain in the ass, but I honestly don't know how I'd survive in this profession without colleagues on whom I can depend - they water my dry ground with the gifts they bring to interpreting the text and the world in which we live, and today I'm profoundly grateful.

Grace & peace,

30 March 2009

Lenten Journal: Lord, Let My Heart Be Good Soil

How can young people keep their way pure?
By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;

do not let me stray from your commandments.
I treasure your word in my heart,

so that I may not sin against you.
Psalm 199.9-11

Thanks be to God in heaven: I am at peace tonight. Yesterday's debacle is passing and I'm feeling far more capable of actually being the sort of pastor who does good work.

I'd like to say a little more about our friend K's sermon from worship yesterday. She told a story about her ridiculously expensive bicycle that has now journeyed all over the U.S. with her, mostly unridden and packed away with other items. She then proceeded to tell us that while we may carry our guilt with us like an unridden bicycle, God does not. Forgiven means forgotten in God's eyes - there are no unridden bicycles in God's closet.

I've been in this business long enough to know how impossible it is for us to forgive as Jeremiah suggests God forgives. Even the best-intentioned and most-determined of us can't simply forget the deep wounds caused by our mistakes and the mistakes of others. I certainly won't be forgetting yesterday's mistake any time soon, though I am beginning to forgive myself for it.

We can be changed, however, over time. The older I get, the more I see the need of Christians to practice the work of forgiveness with one another. When spring came last year, we started to see what years of neglect had done to the perennials and gardens around our house. I spent a lot of time weeding, thinning, pruning, splitting and moving plants last year. This year, the effort will be less intensive. I'll still be required to weed; you could say that our yard is captive to weeds and cannot free itself. But because we've practiced the art of tending to our property, the yard will require less work to regain its health this spring. Likewise forgiveness: a Christian who practices the work of forgiveness on a regular basis finds herself more easily forgiving as God would have us forgive - I believe that with all my heart.

Can peace come through practice? I think so - at least, the peace that comes with understanding ourselves and the God we worship more deeply. And I don't mean narcissistic self-idolatry, either; I'm talking about realizing who you are, warts and all, learning how to forgive yourself, and in so doing learning to live as a more forgiving person in every sense of the phrase.

Spring is coming - and so are the weeds. Lord, let our hearts be good soil.

Grace and peace,

29 March 2009

Lenten Journal: Open Mouth, Insert Leg Until It Chokes You To Death

Yeah, so it wasn't the best morning ever today.

During our announcements, I made a comment, in jest, that I would never, ever, in a million years, say in public - except for this morning, for reasons only known to God and my freaking mouth. It was one of those moments when you hear what you've said and you think, "Holy mother of God, did I really just say that?"

I felt absolutely horrible. What had been, up to that moment, a wonderful worship service, including an incredible sermon by our friend K, went into "WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING?!?!?" mode in about three nanoseconds. After letting one of our students make an announcement, I stammered an apology to everyone present and asked for forgiveness. Then I somehow staggered through the rest of the day.

Thankfully, I serve a very gracious community; at least, those who were present were gracious. There might actually be some consequences to this. I hope not, and I don't think it'll come to that, but the possibility exists. Regardless, it was a thoughtless, stupid and offensive remark with which I'm going to be suffering personally for quite a while.

A few weeks ago, our president did something similar on the Jay Leno show. I thought at the time that he did exactly the right thing: he apologized publicly, quickly, and completely. I've tried to do the same thing today, and from what I can tell, the apology has been heard and accepted.

The worst thing, though? I have to live with myself after having said something absolutely out of line. Again. I only wish this were the first time I've done something like this, and unfortunately, knowing my propensity for quick comments that sound funny in my head but are hurtful, stupid or outright offensive, this likely won't be the last time, either. "Like a dog that returns to its vomit," says Proverbs 26.11, "so is a fool who returns to his folly." *sigh* At this point, I wish I'd given up folly for Lent instead of meat. So goes another day in the life of a sinner. Thank heaven for K's sermon this morning, reminding us that God forgives and forgets. Now for the hard work of doing the same for myself.

Grace & peace,

The pic is from despair.com, which sells "Demotivational" stuff that is riotously funny. Finding it to go with this post did bring a smile to my face - hope it does the same for you.

27 March 2009

Lenten Journal: Telling the Truth

Wednesday night was the celebration of the Anunciation of our Lord. Nine months prior to our celebration of Jesus' birth, we remember the night the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced (anuncio in Latin) she was to bear the Son of God. This is prior to her marriage with Joseph - they were betrothed, not married, so this child would be a scandal to those who can count to nine and remember wedding dates. All of which makes the book I read last night most curious.

A friend gave us a sack full of children's books, and after I brought them home our Ainsley, of course, wanted to read through the lot. In that group of books was a children's version of the Nativity. I thought it looked sort of cute, until I opened it up and read the first page:
Joseph and his wife Mary lived in Nazareth. Joseph was a carpenter. They had a house, and a donkey, but they had no children of their own, even though they loved each other very much.
It's not an exact quotation, but it gets the important stuff right. I'll give you a second to go back and read it again in case you missed the problem the first time.

There's a basic responsibility being shirked here, for reasons that I don't even pretend to understand. Somehow this little nugget of untruth got past the editors, printers and whoever else was in charge of the production of this book for the company who made it. Are we to believe that no one noticed what is, in the best scenario possible, a monumental oversight?

It's both tragic and funny at the same time. Virgin birth or not, even the most dedicated "historical Jesus" scholars agree that Mary and Joseph were not married at the time Mary became pregnant. It's not a matter of propriety: it's a matter of overwhelming historic record, regardless of whether God was involved in the conception or not.

We owe our children the truth. No, perhaps not the whole truth: somehow I think explaining the vagaries of ancient Palestinian marriage covenants might not be the best course of action with our two year-old. It's not easy telling telling the truth - every child old enough to talk knows that. But it's our job to teach them to tell the truth, even when the truth is inconvenient, unflattering or downright painful. Let's be honest: we cutesy-up stories because they make us uncomfortable, not our kids. And part of me wonders if God didn't choose such a scandalous natal situation on purpose, to deliberately provoke our discomfort and expose it for the hypocrisy that it is. God, at least, has always told the truth - at the very least, we who claim to be God's people ought to be about the business of doing the same.

Grace & peace,

The painting is "The Anunciation" by Henry Tanner. I think it captures the hard reality of what was about to happen to Mary, as well as her youth and innocence. Stunning, isn't it?

26 March 2009

Lenten Journal: Pilgrimage

This reflection was prepared by G, a recent graduate in our campus ministry, for last week's Wednesday services.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.

Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!

Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.

For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favour and honour.
No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.

Psalm 84

The psalm spoke loud to me as I prepared my reflection. I have recently been in the search for a place to live, as I was evicted from my apartment February 24th. I spent the last week of February and the 1st week of March working on securing living arrangements. As I was reading, reflecting, and preparing I came to be like the birds in the psalm; both having found and made a nesting place, as I have. I, like the pilgrims in the psalm, was journeying and looking for Zion; which has come to mean, aside from a specific place near Jerusalem where God was believed to live, a safe home for a wondering people. The safe home that the psalmist is looking for is his true home, God's house.
The beauty and awesomeness of the Lord's house, which mentioned in verse 1, is the reason people make pilgrimages. On the pilgrimage one would travel through the Valley of Baca. The valley is not a location but a symbol for the hard road through the desert to Jerusalem; a journey filled with many hardships and toil, and only driven by conviction to meet God. Where the psalmist and his peers would actually travel, we are called to make this journey through reflection and a season called lent. The travel through this “valley” changes/transforms people and making them blessings upon everywhere they go.
My journey of lent has been filled with questions like “where am I going to live?” “how will this make me stronger?” and “how is God speaking to me?” The 1st of the three being taken care of I have been able to address the other two more actively. And these two questions we all should be asking ourselves. One program at LCM I participate in is Reaching In/Reaching Out. Through RI/RO we learn of our gifts and how we can use them to better the church and society as a whole. RI/RO has allowed me the opportunity to grow in faith, but I think my experiences have made me even stronger in faith. I knew the situation would work out and I think that was also how God was speaking to me. Assuring me that I have not been forgotten and it WILL work out.
As we all journey through lent we are looking towards Easter and renewed life in Jesus, we long (like the psalmist) to share in the presence of God. The psalmist know God as we have come to know him (as the Lord of all and able to be controlled by none, but also as the very personal God that we all hope for). With his expressions in verses 1, 8, and 12 the psalmist refers to God as LORD of Hosts, which roughly translated means all powerful, but he then refers to my God/King in verse 3 and addresses Him directly in prayer in 11. The Psalm assures us that the person trusting in God is the most blessed, as God will with hold no favor or honor from those that trust and travel; with power like that on our side, how can we not be blessed?

24 March 2009

Lenten Journal: Faith Seeking Understanding

"For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength."
First Corinthians 1.25

Discipleship and Bible Study were the name of the game tonight at University Lutheran Center.  First, our Reaching In/Reaching Out group met and discussed "Called to Life," a chapter in the book The Centered Life by Jack Fortin.  Fortin writes that as Christians, "we are not called to a different life; we are called to live life differently."  Vocation is a calling from God within the lives we lead, not away from the lives we lead.  And in our discussions tonight, I realized how very fortunate we are to live in this particular church.  

Each week one of our students gives a "Faith Story" as part of our RI/RO group, and the student who spoke tonight mentioned that one of the things which led him to be an agnostic for a while was the insistence in all the churches he intended that all faith questions have simple, inviolable, untouchable answers that must not ever, ever be questioned.  The Bible is completely inerrant, infallible, and descended like manna from heaven, for example.  And heaven forbid you ever get out of line or question authority in such a church, right?  

We have the great fortune of living in a church, the ELCA, which genuinely believes, endorses and lives the work of "Faith Seeking Understanding."  That's not to say that others don't as well, but as a pastor I'm encouraged to help the students I serve learn to feel confident enough to ask questions, tough questions, heretical questions, rather than live in ignorance and fear.  From the days when our church was building great cathedrals on the backs of the superstitious who bought indulgences (notice I use the word "our church" - that was all of us back then) we have come to a day when we are encouraged to struggle, to engage, to wrestle like Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok with those questions that will not let us rest.  

Do I believe that there are core doctrines which are true beyond all our questioning?  Of course I do.  Like the confessing princes and theologians at Augsburg, I feel called to retain the essentials of the faith - but they remain a foundation upon which the faithful stand, not a shield with which an aggressor bludgeons heathens into theological submission.  

The pictures accompanying this post show the opposing sides at the start of the Reformation.  The first is Johann Tetzel selling indulgences, the second is Luther refusing to recant at the Diet of Worms.  Sadly, there are still churches in the present where tradition and the office of ministry are sacrosanct, beyond questioning, and the emotion under which the entire church moves is fear.  How glad I am, right now, to be a member of a church where the driving emotion is faith seeking understanding; it's a great gift to be here.


23 March 2009

Lenten Journal: One Body, Many Gifts

I think I realized what was going on with me over the last week.  In proceeding with the daily devotions as I had been doing, I was essentially trying to create a short sermon out of whole cloth.  




It's like running a marathon every day.  No one can do it.  Well, no one except Dean Kazarnes, and he's just effing crazy.  

I can't do that.  So I won't.  I'll still be reading the daily lectionary - that's been a helpful practice I've let slide over the past few months.  But from here on out I'll only reflect on the scriptures if I have something worth sharing without busting my hump for two hours every night getting it right.  With two girls under the age of three in the house, I can't be spending that much time on the lappy; I need sleep.

But I will keep a Lenten journal, along the lines of what Milton is doing over at Don't Eat Alone.  What I see that's worth sharing, I'll share, even if it has nothing in particular to do with the appointed scripture for the day.

Tonight I spent a few hours meeting with the Lutheran Campus Ministry Board.  This is the group of students and community members charged with oversight and vision for Lutheran Campus Ministry.  We have been trying to move more and more purposefully from a "reporting" board to a "ministry board" that actually carries out tasks rather than just rubber-stamping whatever I happen to send down the chute.  Tonight I think I saw the first steps toward that re-definition taking place, when no one had anything to report for any of our ministry teams.  

Kind of a curious way to see progress, but it makes sense if you think about it.  In many congregations and campus ministries, the pastor is the convener, director and definer of every group and ministry that falls under the congregation's purview.  "The Decider," if you will.  I've been trying to do that for over a year now, with very little success involving anyone beyond the people I've asked directly.  In the process of trying to make things happen myself, I've shortchanged other things:  sermons, reading, continuing education, time for reflection, prayer, and a number of other responsibilities and ministries that belong to me alone.  Everything has suffered because I've been trying to do everything.  And that needs to change.

What I saw tonight tells me it can change.  I watched our very capable Board President move the meeting along briskly, refocusing the group when we moved off topic and keeping us on task.  And as I watched her do this, I realized that others have these gifts, too; and they should be encouraged to put them to good use.  Without delegation of ministry items, we are going to fall apart, and quickly, too.

I've known this intellectually for a long time, of course, but I think that knowledge embedded itself in me tonight.  I am NOT a trustworthy scheduler or a reliable convener and director of ministries.  I can't get bogged down in the nuts-and-bolts of everything that happens under the umbrella of campus ministry, because it will drive me to distraction and the ministry I provide will be like the Platte River in my beloved Nebraska - a mile wide and an inch deep.  

I'm an aesthete at heart; a poet; an artist; a creative worship leader who wants to observe, reflect and creatively report on what God is up to in the world.  But to minister well in these areas, I need to help others do ministry, even if it means things falling through the cracks because I didn't do it myself.  The only way artists can work is when there are electricians to keep the lights on and accountants to handle the money - and as you've probably heard, artists are notoriously prone to bad management.  I don't want that to happen here.  So it's time to find ways to spread the ministry among others before I spread myself too thin.

The good news?  There are incredibly gifted people here, talented, driven folks who blow me away with what they can do.  I've seen it in our speakers for worship this Lent, and I'm looking forward to setting more of our student community "under the yoke" and stepping back to watch them do incredible things.  An aesthete is one who seeks beauty - I need to seek the beauty of capable people for a while, so that our entire ministry can grow as a result.  

22 March 2009

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent: "Into the Light"

My daughter Ainsley has recently taken up an interesting form of behavior. Whenever it’s time for something she doesn’t really want, whether it’s putting on her shoes or her coat, changing her diaper, whatever, she turns around, runs to the farthest wall she can find, covers her head with her arms and pretends we’re not there. It’s like some bizarre game of hide-and-seek that only Ainsley is playing.

What’s going on, of course, is this: she doesn’t want what’s coming, and in the mind of a two year-old, the best way to stop what’s coming is to run away from it, cover your head and sit in the darkness you’ve created. Sometimes Ainsley loves darkness rather than light. Think Jesus knew anyone like that? 

In the Exodus reading for this morning, the people of God find themselves in a hard place. They had been slaves in Egypt for over 400 years, but in that time they had usually been housed and fed by the Egyptians. You can’t build pyramids with starving workers. So while the people of God had been set free from slavery and abuse, they had also been set free from their homes and their food, and once life in the wilderness really set in, the people became afraid. They were now trusting their security to a God they’d barely known and a leader who’d spent most of his life hiding as a shepherd because of his own checkered past. When the food started to run low, the people started to act out of their fear and anxiety. As my Old Testament professor Terry Fretheim put it, “Bondage with security and resources seems preferable to freedom and living from one oasis to another.”

We, too, are in bondage. We confess, in the words of our hymnal, that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. But part of our task of repentance in this season of Lent is to acknowledge not only our captivity, but our preference for captivity. Jesus said it in John’s gospel: “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” So let’s not stop at captivity this morning, insisting only that we are helpless in the face of sin and death. We already know that. Let’s talk instead about sin, honesty, repentance and the overwhelming love of God for this world.

How many of you watch the show Grey’s Anatomy? Most of you know, then, that Izzy was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer metastasizing in her brain, yet she refused to tell anyone for fear of what might happen if she admitted she was sick. You’ve seen this before, haven’t you? How many of you know about a situation where sin has run rampant, or where random evil struck without warning, yet the situation is never, under any circumstances, admitted out loud in the presence of others? A child who died, yet either that child is never named out loud, or the bedroom remains as if the child will return at any moment? A failed marriage that is never mentioned? An addiction that everyone agrees to ignore? Past abuse that isn’t acknowledged, but isn’t forgiven, either? We are a broken people, folks. We are a crowd of terrified children hiding our faces against the wall, insisting that if we cannot see the evil in our lives, no one else can, either.

Jesus says that this will simply not do. Honesty about who we are is essential to authentic Christian life. Anyone who cannot admit to who they are, what has happened in their life and what they’ve done in response is not yet a full follower of Jesus Christ. Following Jesus is not the Hokey Pokey - we are called to put our whole selves into the story, not just a foot in, out and then shakin’ all about.

This isn’t just about particular sins, either, as if confessing every misdeed will somehow put us right with God. Jesus came to save the world, not forgive sins - our gospel reading today makes that very clear. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “cheap grace:”
Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church...Cheap grace means grace as a
doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed
as a genera truth, the love of God taught as the Christian “conception” of
God...Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of
the sinner...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross,
grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate...When he spoke of grace,
Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life
which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of
Christ. Only so could he speak of grace...We have gathered like ravens
around the carcass of cheap grace, and there we have drunk of the poison which
has killed the life of following Christ.

Cheap grace is easy and quick - it is the false good news of sin management rather than the true good news and costly grace of Christ. Christ offers more to the world than simple forgiveness of sins - and yet, the world resists the great gift Christ bears in himself.

There’s a verse from this passage in John that most of you could have said by heart, right? John 3.16 - the most translated verse of scripture, according to most experts. Yet that very verse is full of good news and truth that we often miss. First, the word “so.” We hear it this way: “For God loved the world SO MUCH...” Of course, it’s true that God’s love for the world is greater than anything we could imagine, but that’s not all the verse says. It also says, “For God loved the world IN THIS WAY...” Giving Jesus to the world is HOW God loves the world, not just how much.

Speaking of the world, the word this gospel uses for “world” is kosmos. “Kosmos” in John is the universe that is hostile to and alienated from God. Kosmos is Ainsley running to hide against the wall rather than taking what I have to offer. So, “God loved the hostile, alienated world in this way: God gave Jesus...”

Finally, “gave” isn’t the best translation, either. The word is also used when Jesus is handed over to the authorities to be crucified. So, “For God loved the hostile, alienated world in this way: he handed over Jesus so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”

This isn’t some remote, doctrinal formula to which you are expected to give your intellectual assent. God is actually giving you Jesus, right here and now. Jesus said to Nicodemus in that time, and he says it to you, now: “I will not hide from you, and I will no longer allow you to run from me. I am God in the flesh, here in the world, come to forgive sinners and bring them into the light of God. No matter what your past may hold, no matter what sins you may have committed, all that matters is this: in my light all is revealed and all is made whole and alive again. Come into the light, and be saved here and now.”

The darkness in which we hide insists that stepping into the light of Christ means destruction. The darkness is right. Following Jesus means leaving behind all our pretensions of self-reliance and autonomy. It means leaving the captivity of sin behind, but it also means opening ourselves up and revealing, publicly, that we are broken, flawed, afraid, untrusting and unwilling believers. But leaving the darkness behind means leaving behind all the old lies, all the burdens of pretending we’re okay when we’re not, all the weight of carrying around your own reasons for existence and worth. When we come into the light, we step into the embrace of Christ, warmly welcomed by a God whose love is far more encompassing and fulfilling than we could ever imagine.

Yesterday afternoon, Ainsley ran away from me and hid against the wall when I brought her shoes to put on. I didn’t let her go. I followed her, picked her up, put her on the counter, put her shoes on her feet, and then I led her outside into the backyard, where we played together for over an hour. Come into the freedom of the light, friends, for God beckons you to leave behind your hiding and pretending and to step into a world for the sheer joy of being alive and being loved by your Creator. And thus shall we all be saved. Amen.

[1] A Testament to Freedom, (c) 1990, 1995 by Nelson & Kelly, eds. Published by Harper Collins. p. 307-309 (excerpts)

20 March 2009

Friday Five: Signs of Hope

I'm at my usual sermon-writing coffee house, but not quite ready to continue just yet.  I'm still "on break" from devotions, but I liked this week's FF and thought maybe I should play.  

Sez Songbird over at RevGals: 
In the late, late winter, as the snow begins to recede here in Maine, we begin to look almost desperately for signs of spring, signs of hope that the weather has turned and a new day is on the horizon.  For those of us in the northern hemisphere, Easter and spring twine inextricably, the crocuses and daffodils peeking through the Earth as we await the risen Christ.  

Share with us five signs of hope that you can see today or have experienced in the past.
1.  The Color Green.  The weather has been fine enough this week to allow us to go out and play with the girls, and when we first ventured out on Tuesday night, we saw that some of the perennials are already breaking through the mulch we spread last fall from the dead leaves in the backyard.  Soon I'll be back outside splitting hostas, planting annuals, adding flower boxes and playing in the dirt, which is always a source of joy for me.  There's something spiritual about this as well, about which Rich Mullins sang particularly well.

2.  Intermittent Internet  We recently switched media providers, and the new one uses DSL instead of cable, so we ran a line from our DSL modem to the wireless router we used in Minnesota.  For some reason, our desktop is having a snit about the change - it can see the network, says the signal strength is excellent, but for the past two weeks has been running incredibly slow.  Today, of all days, we had normal access for a short time, then slow, then normal again.  I'm not sure what's happening, but it's good because I can't finish up our taxes without internet access for both our money software and our bank's website.  So, apparently we're having electronic rebirth around here also.

3.  Helpful Handyman Husbandry.  I've spent a good amount of time this week working in and around the house (Iowa State is on Spring Break and our service trip fell apart last minute).  On Monday I finally figured out why our soffit vent was 'weeping;' the numbnuts who lived here before us vented the bathroom exhuast fan into the attic, and all that moisture had been condensing up there all winter.  So I spent the day crawling around in our insulation and finally got the rotted soffit replaced, with a new vent and, most importantly, a properly vented bathroom exhaust fan.  Yesterday I put a new shelf in the computer area and reorganized our "bills" system - maybe I'll actually get a few of them paid on time now.  Today I continued work in our garage, putting up shelves and turning it into a somewhat functional workshop in addition to car storage.  Tomorrow I hope to continue working on a stepstool for Ainsley.  There's nothing like playing with wood and power tools to make me feel better, and using my new jigsaw as much as I have this week has brought peace to my heart, as well as a somewhat-justified feeling to my wallet.  

4.  Fantastic Fresh Flowing Air.  There's nothing like the first day you can open up the storm windows and let fresh spring air flow into the house.  We got that earlier this week and it's like we live in a new place.

5.  Carnivores Chewing Charred, umm, Cheeseburgers.  Okay, so I can't partake of this one just yet, since I gave up all meat save fish for Lent.  But tonight I'm firing up the grill for the first time this year, making salmon for Beloved and a few friends.  LOVE grilling season.

Happy Spring, everyone!

19 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: Radiance

"Look to God, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed."
Psalm 34.2

I am going to take a couple of days off.  For some reason, the words just aren't coming lately.  Life is good, emotions are steady, work is fulfilling:  I just don't have words to share right now.  So I'm going to stop writing here until after the Sunday sermon is ready, then see what Monday holds.  

God bless you all.

17 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: This Dangerous Church

"And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill [Jesus]; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching."  
Mark 11.18

A Lutheran congregation in the western suburbs of Des Moines, IA has become one of the largest Lutheran churches in the country very quickly.  Some of the folks around here are none too happy about their growth, especially the satellite sites they've been planting in towns where other Lutheran churches of our flavor exist.  At our Synod Assembly last year, several of the smaller churches in the Des Moines metro area brought a resolution that, if adopted, would require all congregations seeking to plant satellite ministries to do so only after consulting with the Synod council.  The resolution didn't name any names, of course, but even I, a newbie to the Synod with as much innate ability to sense political undercurrents as your average glazed doughnut, knew exactly which congregation this was meant to curtail.  

Those of us who aspire to ministry in and to the body of Christ live in a peculiar, dangerous world.  On the one hand, we're all overjoyed to see growth in churches, especially among segments of the population that haven't previously been a strong part of our ministries.  On the other hand, we are human and prone to jealousy, control issues and all sorts of grumbling about 'personality cults' and the like when our colleagues really get a good thing going.  And, should we ever be so fortunate as to enjoy a stretch of successes that become noteworthy, there's always the danger of beginning to believe our own press, to where we start to engage in messianic thinking (always a danger for pastors to think about any messiah except THE Messiah, you know).  

Garrison Keillor makes jokes about Lutheran humility; a source of Lutheran pride, but not too much.  We think he's just poking fun, but I think he's actually insulting the way we try to 'out-humble' each other.  Heaven forbid that excellence and success would be two virtues to which a church might aspire, or that a pastor might be someone with gifts for evangelism and outreach rather than pastoral care!  We all know churches where newcomers and the "wrong sort" of people are passively (sometimes actively) rejected for fear of how the congregation might change as a result.  Like the priests and scribes in the Mark reading for today, there lives within us all a desire to control our communities, to restrict change, to set inflexible, impermeable boundaries so as to minimize discomfort and maximize our own personal gain.

Prophecy and popularity can be a deadly mix:  an extreme case would be the tragedy at Jonestown in 1978.   We walk a fine line as we do ministry; we are called to work as hard and faithfully as we can to be both prophetic and popular, but also to avoid taking so much credit for any success that might happen that we lose sight of the fact that this is the church's ministry, not our own.  It is next to impossible to get the balance right.  In fact, so far as I know the only one who never, ever stepped out of line in this regard is Jesus.  Still, in the end the popularity died away, as it often does, and the prophetic teachings of Jesus became so scandalous that we killed him rather than endure the scathing truth any longer.  

Maybe that's why we call him the Savior and no one else.  Only Jesus was willing to forsake all popularity in order that prophecy might win out, the prophetic call from Jesus to turn to His Father and live.  As those who minister, we are not called to do the same.  We are called to point to the One who lived prophetically, whether he was surrounded by thousands of followers or forsaken on the cross, and remind our listeners and ourselves that ministry is not a popularity contest:  it is a prophetic call to follow Christ, in all times and places, in success and in failure, despised and rejected or popular and welcomed.  Following Jesus is the only safe way to navigate the dangerous waters that are His church; I wish you smooth sailing.

16 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: A Lovely Dwelling Place

How lovely is your dwelling place, 
O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy 
to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, 
ever singing your praise.
Psalm 84.1-4

I meant to write this early this afternoon, after Kristin arrived home and the girls went down for their naps.  But a nagging fear intervened.  We have noticed some ugly condensation below one of our soffit vents this winter, and I was getting worried about what might be causing it.  So, off came the vent and up I went into the attic, where I found something very similar to what you see in the picture above:  our bathroom exhaust fan venting directly into the attic, not to an exterior vent.  

I'm a fairly handy guy.  We knew there would be some issues with our home when we bought it.  But this particular project turned into far more than I thought it would.  I stopped work around 9:00, with some final exterior work and a bit of cleanup yet to be done.  But the important work is done:  we're no longer venting moist air into the attic.  The house will be healthier for it.

I've thought more than once that we might do well to ditch the visions of heaven that include clouds, harps and lounging about all day.  Frankly, it sounds boring to me.  We've moved into this home and begun remaking things to improve the place, taking a shell and making it into a home, which takes a lot of work.  But when you sit back at the end of the day and look at what's been accomplished, you get just a little sense of the deep satisfaction that lies behind these words:  "And God saw that it was good."  

What would it be like, I wonder, to arrive in heaven to find a bunch of lumber, a tool belt, and every power tool imaginable, with a note:  "Here is the room you were promised:  you may prepare a place in My house."?  Maybe that isn't the vision you have, but I'll bet there's a creative endeavor out there that would give you joy if it were part of your heavenly work, isn't there?  Perhaps you're a baker, a painter, a writer, a photographer, a weaver - whatever it is, I'd be willing to bet it will be part of your work making heaven a lovely dwelling place.

Genesis tells us we are created in the image of God.  Our drive to create, to improve, to renovate is part of that imago Dei, no matter how it manifests itself.  Today, it's a soffit vent; tomorrow, it'll be a sermon.  Just another day in this lovely dwelling place we call home.  Thanks be to God.

15 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: Commodified Faith

The Passover...was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip out of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!"
John 2.13-16

In this week that will soon celebrate all things Irish, I have a confession to make:  I've kissed the Blarney Stone.  In 1996, the Cornhusker Marching Band traveled to Ireland to march in the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Dublin.  The trip is one of my fondest college memories, but in the years since I've learned that kissing the stone is one of the most touristy, manufactured traditions in the world.  Local legend suggests that the good people of Cork drive up to Blarney Castle and piss on the rock every now and again to take a swipe at those of us gullible enough to believe that kissing a rock might make us just a little bit Irish.  

These things are hardly original to County Cork, however.  In the early 1500s an Augustinian monk named Luther walked from Saxony to Rome on an errand for his order.  In his time as a monk Luther had eagerly anticipated a journey to Rome, but he found it less than spectacular.  One could purchase all manner of religious services in Rome, where a coin and a recitation of the Lord's Prayer on each step of a staircase purported to be the steps Jesus climbed in Jerusalem on the way to the cross would release the soul of someone you loved from purgatory.  This trip fed Luther's growing disillusion with the church and its suggested practice of the faith.

There is a real danger in these things, a danger Jesus saw in the temple that day in Jerusalem.  When houses of prayer engage in the business of providing services for a fee, faith is commodified and God becomes just another good which may be bought and sold.  Climbing the castle steps in Blarney and kissing a rock cannot make you Irish.  Purchasing an indulgence cannot make you Christian.  Buying a sheep at the temple to be sacrificed on your behalf cannot make you a child of Israel.  That's not how it works, and anyone who suggests otherwise is likely making a profit and commodifying the life God has intended us to live and the faith God has intended us to practice.  

There are things in this world which may, and perhaps even should, be commodified.  It is no sin for a person to earn a living providing goods and services which assist us in the business of daily life.  But access to God is not one of those services to be bartered.  The body of Christ is called into the business of giving itself away, free of charge, to a broken world in need of healing and mercy; selling that mercy, even at a bargain, is blasphemy.  (Yes, I mean to use the word - this is serious business).  

Commodified faith is no faith at all: faith is the gift of God to a world in need, the pearl of great price for which people would give everything but for which we charge nothing.  Nothing but our lives, that is.  God's interest is in the absolute bottom line:  the realization that we are merely stewards of all that God has created.  We are not "middle men," who take a cut as we distribute religious goods.  No, we are distributors in the truest sense of the word, lavishing what God has given us on the world in which we live.  

In his book The Way of the Wolf, Martin Bell wrote a story entitled "Barrington Bunny."  Barrington was a rabbit who lived all alone in the forest, until he realized that every animal was a member of his family.  So he spent one wintry night distributing gifts, each accompanied by a note:  "A free gift, from a member of your family."  So should our practice be.  There are no commodities in the house of God:  only gifts, and people who receive them in thanksgiving.

14 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: Preparation

When Moses had told the words of the people to the LORD, the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow.  Have them wash their clothes and prepare for the third day, because on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.  
Exodus 19.9b-11

There's something with which I struggle as a campus pastor.  The nature of our community is fairly informal, which for the most part is not a problem at all.  But there are drawbacks to this informality, and occasionally I worry that our informality is actually becoming a distraction from the core of who we should be.  

When the LORD came among the people at Sinai, it wasn't just a matter of "Hey, how's it going?"  Neither should our worship be just a matter of showing up.  We are a people who profess to believe that God is actually present when we gather, that in word and sacrament God actually comes among God's people - and if Exodus is any barometer, that means something is required of us to be ready.

I'm not talking about "wear your Sunday best," necessarily.  It's about what happens once we cross the threshold between gathering and actual worship.  It strikes me that there should be a sense of holiness when we gather for worship, and as such we've started including more silence in our worship, especially at the beginning of the service after the hubbub of coming together has settled down.  

I imagine this looks different in every congregation.  In many churches a "prelude" time is even included in the order of service.  But I don't want what we do to be thought of as prelude - to me this implies something unnecessary, additional to the real worship of God, whereas we need less distraction as we prepare for worship.  

Figuring this out is one of the challenges for the 21st century church.  We've done a piss-poor job of educating ourselves about the purpose and intent behind worship, and in many places we've turned worship into a performance to be witnessed rather than a corporate entity into which we enter as full participants.  

Like the song says, 
This is holy time - we gather together to worship You, and love one another;
and as we pray - and as we sing - and as we dance - and as we dream
Oh, Lord, I beg of You just this one thing
Won't You dance with me?
Throughout the heavens and below the seas, and up on the mountaintop
Roll with the breeze - come carry me.
Lord, won't You dance with me?
Nobody goes to a dance to watch:  you go to a dance to DANCE.  May we find ourselves better prepared to dance in future days.


13 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: Sweeter than Honey

The law of the LORD is perfect, 
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure, 
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold;
more than much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Psalm 19.7-10

We had to lay down a little bit of the law tonight.  Ainsley, our two year-old, has developed a problem going to sleep.  She knows it's bedtime or naptime; what's at issue is doing it by herself.  She will spend several minutes before, during and after getting ready asking, "Mommy sleep?  Mommy sleep?  Daddy sleep?  Daddy sleep?"  As we're brushing teeth.  As we're changing diapers.  As we're putting on pajamas.  As we're finding the pacifier and blankie.  As we're reading a book.  As we're praying.  And most definitely when Mommy or Daddy turn out the light and leave the room.  

We tried some different tricks to put off what had to happen tonight.  The first and most obvious solution was one of us lying in bed with her until she fell asleep.  But that only works for a while, especially if she keeps checking every thirty seconds or so to see if you're still there.  The next solution was the one Kristin tried:  she started next to the bed, then scooted over by the dresser, then just inside the door, then slipped through the door when it sounded like Ainsley was asleep.  But that takes fifteen minutes or more, and it doesn't work, either - the minute she rolls over and we're not there, the tears resume and the cry, "Mommy sleep?  Daddy sleep?" starts up all over again.  So, in comes Daddy with a deal:  I'll sit here and read a magazine with my book light until you go to sleep, Ainsley.  Bet you can guess how that one ended up.  

The issue isn't helping her get to sleep.  That's never been a problem.  We're pretty sure it's a control thing, and also a security thing, neither of which we will be solving by giving in to her demands.  So, tonight we had to lay down the law:  no, Mommy & Daddy will be sleeping in our bed, and Ainsley will sleep in hers by herself.  

You can imagine the crying that followed the announcement.  Anyone who's had children (and probably the overwhelming majority of you who haven't) knows the heart-wrenching feeling you get, knowing that you're doing the right thing but causing your child pain at the same time.  It's not as if we want Ainsley to cry, or that we're just too busy to be bothered with properly helping her sleep.  It's a health issue:  if she can't sleep by herself now, it will just get worse as the days and weeks go by.  Better to be strong and set boundaries for her now before things get out of hand.  

Sweeter than honey, this law?  Hardly seems like it to Ainsley tonight.  She is asleep now, but it took some trying on our part.  It's not easy explaining to a toddler why you won't snuggle up and hold her until she falls asleep.  But it is definitely for her health and welfare.  She will need us to hold to this law to help her become a stronger, more capable person - we would be undercutting her growth if we gave in to her demands in the interest of short-term convenience.  

This is how the law functions properly in its civil form:  it is a restraint intended to foster wholeness among God's people.  It is indeed sweet for us to think that because we laid down the law, our little girl will grow up more self-confident, more capable, just as it is sweet to think that because we keep our speed under 35 in the city, we'll be less likely to cause accidents and possibly harm someone or even kill them.  

It is also important, though, to remember who it is that holds the law, and to what end.  Our love for Ainsley is not based on how well she honors her bedtime, and the next time she's sick, we'll be right there with her, holding buckets or tissues or whatever she needs to heal her illness.  In the same way, God puts aside the law when it is salvation at stake - and for that we should be as happy as a sick child who knows her parents will do anything, even risk getting the same illness, for her sake.  

So, it's bedtime here in the Johnson house.  Our children are sweetly slumbering, and we, the givers of the law, will soon check on them before retiring ourselves.  Here, then, is one final difference.  The One who watches over our whole household, and yours, too, makes a final promise, a decree, if you will, to neither slumber nor sleep.  That decree is indeed true and righteous, sweeter than honey and more precious than gold, and we are blessed to live underneath such promises.  


12 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: On Jesus, Healing and Freedom

During this Lenten season, our campus ministry has been asked to worship with a local congregation and to have our students provide reflections on the daily lectionary for midweek prayer services.  Last week I neglected to get a digital copy of the excellent reflection one of our students gave; I remembered to do so this week, and so I offer this to you today - thoughts on Jeremiah 30.12-22 and John 12.36-43.

The young woman who wrote them is a strong member of our campus ministry community.  If you want to feel good about the body of Christ, especially regarding the younger members of our church, read on:

In this reading from Jeremiah God is punishing the people.  We hear over and over again about the absence of hope.  "Your wound is incurable, your injury is beyond healing."  When it seems like there is nothing left, God comes back with a completely different message, saying that God will restore us to health and heal our wounds.  When I first read this passage I was very confused as to what God's intention was.  Why would God punish his people so harshly and create such despair in them only to turn around a few verses later to give them hope and a promise of healing?  God's actions seem so confusing, and maybe even cruel.

This despair and hopelessness in the first few verses is a description of what our lives are like without God or Jesus to heal us and save us from the sadness and sin of this world.  Our deepest wounds aren't able to be healed by anything we or anyone else in this world can do.  These are the wounds created by our sins against others and ourselves.  These wounds can be made by hurtful words and actions of others or the wounds we inflict on ourselves when we tear ourselves down and forget how much our heavenly Father loves us.  Only God is able to heal us from these wounds and only God can give us the compassion to forgive others.  God's love and God's grace are what set us free from our own sins; there is nothing we can do to heal ourselves.  

Believing in and trusting in Jesus' ability to heal is what the crowds in John 12 don't want to do, or aren't able to do.  Some of them even believed Jesus and the messages he preached, but for fear that other people would reject them for their true beliefs, they turned their backs.  They traded being freed from their sins and their guilt for human glory.  Jesus offered them salvation from their sins and they traded it, for what?  We've already seen in Jeremiah that people aren't able to heal their own wounds or the wounds of others.

When we are truly freed by the love Jesus gives us, not only are we free from our sins but we are also freed from needing approval from other people.  Jesus has given us his approval, his love, his life.  If the creator of the Universe deemed us worthy of these things, what else is there to prove?  When we follow Jesus we're free to love others and to accept love from others, knowing that we are worthy of giving and receiving that love.  

During Lent we remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us and the sins which would plague our lives if they were not swallowed up in his love.  This can be a time of darkness while we wait for the day we remember the cross and how it sets us free.  But just as we have been waiting for spring this past week, especially with all of the gloom and cold and rain we're receiving right now, we're also waiting for Jesus:  waiting for his love, the fresh air of his grace and the freedom his forgiveness brings to us.  Amen.

11 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: A '65 Mustang and the Book of Kells

"Thus says the LORD:
I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob,
and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound, 
and the citadel sit on its rightful site.
Out of them shall come thanksgiving, 
and the sound of merrymakers.
I will make them many, and they shall not be few;
I will make them honored, and they shall not be disdained.
Their children shall be as of old,
their congregation shall be established before me;
and I will punish all who oppress them.
And you shall be my people, 
and I will be your God."
Jeremiah 30.18-20, 22

For years my Uncle Warren kept a 1965 Ford Mustang in one of the sheds at my grandparents' farm in Wakefield, Nebraska, just a mile from where I grew up.  My brothers and I spent hours playing inside that car, even though we knew it was "off limits."  But it was such a cool car, even sitting in that shed as it did for all those years.  Let's face it:  even on four flats and not a chance of getting the engine to turn over, that was a good looking machine.  
My dreams of restoring that car were squashed when Uncle Warren came and collected it one day, just before I turned 14 and could begin seriously thinking about owning a car.  But even today, I harbor dreams of someday owning a 1965 Ford Mustang of my own, possibly one I've restored by myself to some approximation of its original beauty.  If I can't get a '65 Mustang, an original 
Beetle or VW Bus will do.  

Restoration is hard work.  Recovering a glory that has faded due to time, weather, ill use, abuse and other such damaging factors is a painstaking process.  Is this what God is promising in the reading from Jeremiah?  I wonder.

In Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, the Book of Kells can be found on display.  It is an illuminated manuscript dating to sometime around 800 C.E.  Its date of composition is uncertain due to sketchy historical records of the time, but legend has it that it was found buried underground after the sacking of Kells Abbey, sometime between 1007 C.E. (earliest known reference to its existence) and the 12th century (charters inscribed in its pages place it back in Kells in that time period).  Unfortunately, time and wear have not been kind to this manuscript, considered by some to be the greatest treasure of Ireland herself.  It has required several rebindings, and a few have been more harmful than helpful.  Pages have been lost over the centuries, and the beauty of the inscriptions has faded.  Nevertheless, one look will convince even the most unartistic person that in its first days, this manuscript would have been a wonder to behold.  
Imagine how it might be to behold the Book of Kells in the same way as the Saint John's Bible can be seen today.  If a person could do that, or if a person could take that old '65 Mustang and bring it back to the condition it was in when it rolled off the assembly line in Detroit, then you could honestly say you'd done a complete restoration, couldn't you?  All the glory of the original brought back, the years and the wear and tear wiped away so that what was originally intended could shine for all to see.  

It is this kind of glory that God intends to restore.  "Behold:  I am making all things new!"  Jesus says that what is now sullied and obscured by the grime and rust of sin and neglect shall be wiped clean, that though we have buried our glory in the stinking peat of our bondage to sin, we shall be made new again.  And not only us, but the creation as well - all will be restored to its former glory in the fulness of God's time.  

What to do until that day?  Well, there's nothing that says we can't get a jump start on the work ahead of us.  Ultimately, of course, the task is beyond us, but in some small way we are each others' restorers.  God continues the work of restoration through us when we "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God." (Micah 6.8)  

Did you know you're in the restoration business?  You do now.  There's gotta be a '65 Mustang out there with your name on it, or a manuscript buried in a peat bog that needs rescuing.  Give thanks for restoration, friends - and let's get to work.

10 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: The Ugly Side of Faith

"By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac.  He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, 'It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.'  He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead - and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back."  Hebrews 11.17-19

True confession time:  I despise the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac.  Every time I read it, especially when it comes up in the lectionary, my gut gets tense and I spend a good amount of my time grinding my teeth in anger and frustration.  It is terribly difficult for me to find the same consolation as the writer of Hebrews:  all I can see is a weak old man who doesn't have the spine to tell God to piss off when God demands Abraham and Sarah's promised son as a sacrifice.  

I've always struggled with this story, but exponentially more now that I am a father of two children.  To my way of thinking, any God who would demand such a sacrifice would not be a god worth worshiping, and I'm fairly certain that even the writers of Genesis missed the mark on this one.  

Can I be completely honest?  Equating Abraham's actions with faith is the same as equating the murderers in Northern Ireland this week with patriotism.  It may look like faith/patriotism if one takes the absolute simplest interpretation of it, but anything more than a cursory glance reveals a dangerous lack of consideration and honesty in such interpretations.  Patriots don't fire guns into crowds of innocent people.  Neither, then, do men of great faith and integrity march off to kill their children without so much as a moment's hesitation.  

Here's what I think:  there is witness to our misunderstanding God's will time and time again in Scripture and throughout history.  I think this was indeed a test of Abraham's faith - but rather than Isaac being the test, Abraham himself was the test, and he failed miserably.  This is the ugly side of faith - the place where fanatics are created.  I cannot, I will not believe in a God who toys with creation in such a way, who created humankind with minds and emotions but would have us discount both in favor of blind obedience.  I don't believe Abraham is to be lauded here - and I don't believe God ever wanted us to think Abraham did well in this case.  God allowed Moses to change God's mind; God allowed Abraham himself to bargain the salvation of Sodom & Gomorrah from 100 righteous to 10; now we're expected to believe that the same God wants the blood of Isaac spilled to prove Abraham's faith?  

It makes a person wonder:  what if Abraham had refused outright?  What if Abraham had the chutzpah to say "No" to God's demand?  Would God have honored Abraham's trust in their relationship?  I think so.  That would sound more like the God I've come to know - the God who desires us to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God.  Humility and servility are not the same, and until I see otherwise, I'm going to go on hating this story and hoping that somehow, the writers of Genesis got it all wrong.  God help me if they didn't - because if that's the case, then the ugly side of faith just got a whole lot uglier.  

09 March 2009

Lenten Devotions: Judging "Judgment"

"Remember the wonderful works God has done, 
God's miracles, and the judgments God uttered."
Psalm 105.5

It took me a long time to find an image to accompany this post.

It wasn't for lack of trying.  But searching for images having to do with "God," "judgment," and "wonderful" brought up nothing I cared to disseminate and MUCH I'd have wiped off the internet if I could.  Let's just say that there are a lot of idiots out there who are both a) far too convinced that disasters are judgments on people who don't live like said idiots and b) said idiots are also gleefully happy about said 'judgments.'  Kinda makes the coffee I just slurped down burn a little more than I might like.  

I don't think this is what the Psalmist had in mind.  But it is curious that the psalmist would pair miracles and judgments in the "praiseworthy" category.  Miracles I can understand.  Judgments, also - but not for the "praiseworthy" category.  That's a stretch most of us wouldn't care to attempt.  Universal salvation - pre-destination - the bondage of the will - total depravity - all of these concepts and many more are various ways humankind has tried to wrap our heads around God's capacity for both judgment and mercy, and unfortunately all of us are susceptible to determinedly grasping the one that makes the most sense and shutting out all the others.  

The psalmist seems to be leaving a lot of room for praise - in some respects there's a lot of space between miracle and judgment.  I, too, want to leave room for praise, as it seems to me that both are necessary, praise-worthy acts of a God who is still actively involved in the world.  It seems to me that a God who will not judge is a God who will not act decisively, and I believe that God is anything but indecisive.  As Dr. Forde used to say, "Forget this business of deciding about Jesus:  God has already made a decision about you!"  

So, here we are at the end left with praise.  Praise for our God who accomplishes miracles - praise for our God who utters judgments - and that, I think, is what I'll end with today.  If Leviathan and Behemoth praise God in being who they are, should we not also do the same?  So, witnesses of miracles and hearers of judgments, we are called to praise; Hallelujah, in Hebrew - "Praise the Lord."  Amen.

Sunday Song: Paradise Lost

08 March 2009

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent: Good As Dead

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old person which is the result of our encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death - we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship

Let us pray: You call us, Lord Jesus, to take up the cross and follow you. You call us from death into life. Raise us up, this day, in faith and love to follow you to the end. Amen.

A Baptist preacher friend of mine, in San Antonio, Texas, tells the story of a family with a terrible burden. One of their sons was deathly ill, with a condition that required much care and medical treatment. But that’s not the tragedy. The tragedy is this: they chose to forego medical treatment in favor of prayer.

I don’t remember how the story ended, whether the son lived or died. I do remember that at some point the family left my friend’s church for another church that believed far more strongly in healing prayer, and I do remember that there was great suffering in this family as they dealt with this illness. And the question that comes to mind for me is, “Why?”

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. As Pogo said in a famous cartoon, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I don’t mean to suggest that this family was altogether wrong to consider the power of prayer. Neither do I mean to suggest that in our Gospel reading today, Peter was altogether wrong to think that Jesus’ suffering and death would be a terrible thing. No one wants Jesus to suffer. God calls us to pray for all that we desire, including healing for those we love. But what happens when our own will conflicts with the will of God? What happens when we cling to false hope because it is our own, rather than risking faith in the way of God?

Did you know that today you would be called to die when you came to worship? There is a dying involved in genuine, hope-filled, authentic faith in the promises of God Almighty, a dying that begins with baptism and continues to our dying day. Luther said that in baptism “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” When we confess our sins together, like we did this morning, we confess that in and of ourselves we are as good as dead - that only God can raise us up out of the bondage of sin into new life in Jesus. The problem, of course, is the dying. It’s unpleasant. It is inconvenient. And it often comes wrapped in what looks right and good on the outside, hiding the poison and death within.

Take Peter in today’s gospel, for example. In Mark’s gospel, Peter had just identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Christos of God, the Anointed One whom Scripture said would bring freedom and joy to the people of God. Now you and I know what it feels like to get something like this right. But in our reading today, in the midst of the same conversation, Peter gets things wrong, terribly, horribly wrong, and there’s one reason: what needs dying in us often clings to life with everything it’s got, and that dying process is HARD.

Mark Twain once said, “Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.” I think he was talking about moments like what Peter experienced when he rebuked Jesus. Of course no one wants the Messiah to suffer. Of course no one wants a beloved teacher to die. There’s not even a hint of confusion about this - except it’s not how things are going to be. To add another Twain quote, “What gets us into trouble is not what we know; it’s what we know for certain that just ain’t so.”

This is the hard work that lies ahead for Jesus: opening our eyes to see that until our false hopes are as good as dead God cannot give us real hope, real faith, real life. Abraham and Sarah serve as a perfect example. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would be the parents of great nations, but they reached old age with no children of their own and only one child at all: Ishmael, a child of Abraham and Sarah’s servant Hagar, born on Sarah’s knees to signify her adoption of Ishmael as her child. Ishmael did indeed become the father of a great nation - legend identifies Ishmael as the father of many Arab nations, and the spiritual ancestor of the Islamic faith. But God promised that Sarah would bear a child, even though in their bodies Sarah and Abraham were as good as dead, as Paul says.

This is how it has to work, however. Our false hopes are tenacious, seductive dreams that draw us away from the cross Jesus calls us to bear. God waits until we are as good as dead, so that when resurrection does occur, only God could have brought it about - there can be no doubt that God is the actor when resurrection happens, because we can’t bring life out of death by ourselves.

Dabo Swinney, the head coach of the Clemson University football team, did a curious thing this fall as the season progressed. The Clemson team was faltering - their coach got fired halfway through the season, and they had lost some pretty big games. But the coach insisted that they could be good if they would go “all in.” Before every game, he distributed a poker chip to each player, and had them toss the chip into a basket to signify that the team was “all in” with each other.

In reading the gospel for this morning, it seems to me that there are no “half-in” disciples. Jesus asks us to go all in, even though it means denying ourselves, our false hopes, our doubts and fears, and dying with Jesus. God kills the good in us in order to resurrect the wondrous, the astonishing, the divine - and we who are good as dead give thanks for it.

Abraham and Sarah did have a child in time. His name? Isaac. The name means “She Laughs.” When Sarah was told again that she would bear a child, she laughed at the idea. But God knew better. God knew that what seems good as dead is the best place to begin working in us, who are so tenacious about keeping alive what is killing us. When God brings life from what seems as good as dead, joy is the result - not happiness, that fleeting sentimental emotion so easily destroyed, but joy, the deep, uncontainable changing of the heart that gives real hope and real life. So may you, good as dead here today, be raised anew to live in joy, bearing your cross and following Jesus through all that is to come. Amen.