30 April 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle Is The Best Book I've Read This Year

It's Hamlet, set in northern Wisconsin. Hamlet is Edgar, a boy who cannot speak vocally, the only characters even remotely named after Shakespeare's tragedy are Edgar's mother Trudy and uncle Claude. Ophelia is a dog named Almondine. Denmark is a farm where generations of "Sawtelle dogs" have been bred in a haphazard scheme intended to develop a new, superior breed of dog.

But all of that is fairly unimportant.

What's important is this: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is the best book I've read in quite some time.

Just get it from your library or local bookstore and read it. You won't be disappointed.

29 April 2009

Catching Up And Running Off

What a week it's been! My last substantial post was quite a while ago, but for good reason. Wednesday through Friday of last week were largely spent preparing for the Storyhill concert at University Lutheran Center, which I'm happy to report was by and large a success. We had a smaller crowd than we anticipated, but very enthusiastic and also new to our place, so our hopes of using the concert as a profile-raising event were somewhat fulfilled. The music was wonderful, as I expected, but the far greater gift was getting to know Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson and learning that as good as their music may be, their character and graciousness exceeds their musical gifts. I'll admit that I was terrified that at our first slip they'd get all pissy and artistically temperamental, but when we did have some unfortunate surprises they rolled with the punches and put on an absolutely amazing show. Best of all, when Kris and I gave them a few tokens of our appreciation, John returned the favor with copies of a yet-to-be-released compilation of psalms he's been working on. I damn near melted into a puddle of goo when that happened, but managed to hold it together until we got home Friday night, at which point I stayed up reading until very late that night because I couldn't get my heart to slow down or my spirits to recede enough that sleep would be possible. Nice to have a problem like that sometimes.

Saturday we rose early and flew to Eugene, Oregon with my sister-in-law and her family. My father-in-law retired Sunday after 21 years at his current church and 34 years in ministry altogether. We had a wonderful celebration all day Sunday. My in-laws are kooky, crazy and sometimes batty to the point of befrazzlement, but being a part of their lives is a great honor and privilege - never more than Sunday when we honored both my father- and mother-in-law for their years of faithful service to the church, their children and each other.

In the days since then, we've been working to pack up the parsonage and spending time with my wife's friends and family. After 21 years in a gigantic parsonage, my in-laws, who suffer from a bit of packrat-itis and compulsive collecting, have a LOT of stuff to move, so we've been busy. Corralling the grandkids, who range from six months to four years, is no easy task either. So, with all that's happened I haven't had much time to blog.

I LOVE visiting Eugene. I have the great good fortune of loving my in-laws and their group of friends and family, so it's always nice to be here. But an additional blessing is the city itself. Eugene is just a cool place to be, especially along the Willamette River, especially for runners like me. I've had two runs along the Willamette this week and plan to enjoy two more before we leave on Friday for the voyage home. This will hopefully help me build more endurance toward the Dam to Dam 20K I'm running in late May and the 10K I'm running with my brother and some college buddies in Lincoln the following week.

So, that's the news from Eugene for today. I may or may not post again before coming home. The computer at the in-laws' house is in a regularly traveled hallway, and I find more and more that I need privacy to write well. Tomorrow afternoon's visit to a coffee house will be to finish the sermon for Sunday, and I may not have any more time to spare since we've got lots of boxes yet unpacked in the parsonage and my beloved is patient but not to be put to the test. Blessings, friends, and if you're along the river in Eugene tomorrow morning, wave at the fat bald guy running along with a big smile on his face.

Grace & peace,

23 April 2009

19 April 2009

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter: "Confused - Come - Continue"

I’d like to start this morning by having you sit down. Generally we stand for the reading of the gospel, but I’m going to take some liberties and read to you the entire 20th chapter of the gospel of John. I think it’s important that we hear the whole thing to gain a new sense of perspective on this second Sunday after Easter. So, the gospel according to John. Glory to you, O Lord.

Now, you all heard about the campus preacher this week. Maybe you spent some time over at the Free Speech Zone listening to him talk. Maybe you even argued with him. I saw him on Thursday afternoon, talking to a large crowd and very, very confidently expounding on what he believes about the Bible, Jesus and the world in which we all live.

I sort of envy that campus preacher’s confidence. It’s one thing to stand here in front of you this morning and preach: it’s another thing entirely to stand up in front of a crowd of people and holler about Jesus until someone stops to listen for a bit. Someday I hope to be in the area before the campus preacher starts shouting, just to see what happens to the poor soul walking right by him at that particular moment.

It’s no secret that I get frustrated when these guys roll into town. For one thing, as much as I dislike the way they preach and the things they say, they’re still ‘one of us,’ and that means the negative perception of Christianity they generate flows over to us. But what genuinely concerns me about his brand of Christianity is this: there is absolutely no room for uncertainty, for questions, for confusion. Someone told me that at one time this campus preacher went through the crowd and actually identified which people in his crowd were going to heaven and which were going to hell, and the message for those who were hellbound was this: get your head and heart straight about Jesus, or else.

I’m of the opinion that when we start to think like this campus preacher, it’s a good time to revisit the stories about the Resurrection, particularly the ones having to do with the disciples. Why? Because the more time you spend looking at those first days after the Resurrection, the more you realize how confused all of Jesus’ friends were about what was happening and why.
This is the Second Sunday of Easter. In the entire course of the three-year lectionary our church generally follows, only the Second Sunday of Easter uses the same readings every single year. Why? Because the events described in John 20 take place about a week after the Resurrection. But the unfortunate side effect of this is that “doubting” Thomas gets rolled out every single year to be reprimanded once again by preachers eager to exhort their congregations to deeper faith.

But, if we look closely at the whole Resurrection story in John 20, we see that Thomas is merely another link in a chain of uncertain, frightened people who just can’t figure out what’s going on. Rolf Jacobson, an Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, said this week that John 20 is a “continuum of confusion;” that everyone gets it wrong at the start. The women at the tomb don’t understand. Mary doesn’t understand when Jesus appears to her. No one believes the women when they tell the story of what happened. Peter and the beloved disciple don’t understand. The disciples locked inside their upper room don’t understand. Thomas simply comes along last in this story – he’s just the next domino to fall when it comes to the confusion that surrounded the resurrection of Jesus.

Contrast all this confusion with our friend the campus preacher this week. It makes me wonder: to what would he attribute the disciples’ confusion? I’ll admit that I didn’t hear much of what he had to say this week, but if you’ve been around here long enough you know what this kind of Christian has to say about confusion. He’d probably say it’s a sign of weakness. He’d probably say it’s a lack of faith that can only be overcome by believing harder, by praying more fervently, by constructing a faith in Jesus that cannot be shaken by doubts or questions. And that, friends, is why I can’t support this kind of ministry – because it’s dishonest about who we are. If the earliest followers of Jesus, who lived and ate and slept and walked and listened and served and prayed with Jesus for three years, were assaulted by doubts and fears even after the resurrection, then we have to assume that we, too, will have doubts and fears as we follow Jesus. We are the brothers and sisters of Thomas, of Peter, of the beloved disciple, of Mary and the women at the tomb: uncertain, afraid, confused – and this is the state in which Jesus comes to us bearing God’s peace.

My colleague Heidi said this week, “You know, the Resurrection is just impossible to believe. I can’t do it on my own. I can’t get my head around how it happened. There’s no way I can believe this without God doing it for me.” Heidi is right: we simply do not have the capacity within us to believe our way out of confusion. We use the creeds to describe what it is we believe, but the creeds do not describe how we come to believe – and neither does our friend the campus preacher, with all his simple plans for salvation and his certainty about who’s in and who’s out. We construct a dangerous façade when we insist that certainty and confidence are the hallmarks of a genuine Christian faith, particularly when we insist that OUR version of the faith is the only legitimate faith. As Pastor Ken Carter wrote at the Christian Century website this week, “The gospel is not something that we can impose on others. People must discover it for themselves…”

I’ll say it again: no one was certain what was happening that first week after the Resurrection. Confusion reigned – and it was in the midst of confusion that Jesus came to his disciples. Confusion about Jesus and the Resurrection are not the marks of a lack of faith: confusion is the mark of a faith seeking deeper understanding. What is more genuine: to be so absolutely certain about Jesus’ resurrection that you never ponder its meaning, or to be so intrigued by Jesus’ resurrection that you continually question and search for understanding? To admit confusion is to admit to a desire for growth, a desire for revelation, a hunger for truth that will not be sated by platitudes and cheap grace. Thomas, Peter, the beloved disciple, Mary, the other women at the tomb: they knew they weren’t seeing the whole picture, but their confusion was the avenue by which Jesus increased their faith. Confusion can be the mark of great faith on the cusp of awareness, waiting for God to tip the chalice and pour out grace and understanding until our hearts are overflowing.

Jesus wasn’t offended by these confused friends. On the contrary, he welcomed them in the midst of their confusion, and thus so do we. Jesus appeared in the upper room, in the midst of his frightened, confused followers and said, “Welcome.” So the invitation has gone out through the centuries following: we confused followers of Jesus are welcomed to Jesus’ table again and again, to receive God’s peace through Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit and be sent into the world to proclaim the good news. Thomas was not rejected in his confusion. Jesus didn’t cast his followers out when they didn’t understand everything about his resurrection right away. So also to us, confused though we may be, Jesus says, “Come.”

Finally, we are reminded that the Resurrection changes everything, but not all at once. People like our friend the campus preacher would have you believe that the power of the Resurrection rests in one single moment of confession and transformation. Now, in fairness, our friend the campus preacher is right about God’s desire to transform our lives – but our friend is thinking far too small. The good news of the Resurrection extends far beyond on single ‘born-again’ moment. John 20:30-31 says as much.
“These things are written so that you may come to believe and continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
It’s called a multivalent translation: the word πιστευετε means both “come to believe” and “continue to believe.” In the midst of our confusion, we are invited by Jesus to come in faith and continue to believe, and through believing Jesus promises life in his name.
In closing, one final noteworthy point. Jesus waited a week to appear to Thomas: why? Was Jesus wrapped up in other business? Sleeping off the aftereffects of the resurrection? Was Thomas hiding where Jesus couldn’t find him? Pay attention to the place and the circumstances under which Jesus revealed himself to Thomas. If Jesus was concerned only for Thomas’ understanding as an individual, Jesus could have appeared to Thomas the moment he realized Thomas wasn’t in the upper room with his disciples the first time. But Jesus chose to wait until the disciples had gathered again. This is no accident. By waiting one week, Jesus lifted up the importance of the community of faith in our transformation from confusion to confession. This is the final problem with our campus preacher friend – he comes, preaches, hopes for a conversion or two, but then he leaves. What is a believer to do after that? Simply put, faith is not just about you – it is about WE. WE are called together in faith to believe with, and sometimes for, one another, and through believing life in the name of Jesus begins to happen.

So here, today, we join Thomas, the frightened disciples, Mary in her wonderment, Peter and the beloved disciple, and the women at the tomb in a long line of people swept into the good news of Jesus Christ, before we know what it’s all about. To we confused believers, the invitation and exhortation remains: “Come. Continue.” These things are written so that we may come to believe, and continue to believe, and that through believing have life in Jesus’ name. Peace be with you. Resurrection life be with you. Amen.

The beautiful artwork is "The Doubt of Thomas" by He Qi

Editorial Note: It's been brought to my attention since preaching this sermon that the campus preacher in question was far more welcoming and respectful than this sermon suggests. I did admit that I didn't hear much of what he had to say, and so I'll take this opportunity to offer an apology for what is largely a caricature of campus preachers I've heard in the past, joined to the coincidence of a campus preacher at Iowa State while I was considering this line of thought in the sermon. But I continue to believe that in the present time this style of ministry is questionable at best, harmful to the church at worst. Acts of charity and personal interaction are, in my opinion, far more faithful and effective forms of evangelism.

17 April 2009

"Storyhill: Parallel Lives" Clip (Rough Cut)

One week from tonight - Storyhill in concert at University Lutheran Center. $20 / $10 Students. Y'all come!

Friday Five: Maytag Edition

I'm back!

Purposely took the week off from blogging to rest and catch up on other things. Will resume semi-serious blogging soon, with thoughts on church hospice as a vocation, among other things. In the meantime, here's the Friday Five.

Sally over at RevGals is waiting for a new dishwasher, and pondering appliances today. Thus, the Maytag Friday Five.

1. What is the one appliance you simply couldn't be without?
When we bought the house, I insisted that we get a dishwasher ASAP. I'd been washing dishes by hand for ten years, with one break when I lived in CA for a month in 2002, and I HATE washing dishes by hand. So, while my conscience reminds me that having any appliances at all makes me richer than the vast majority of the world's population, the lazy bum side of me insists we couldn't do without the dishwasher.
Interestingly enough, in a few weeks we're going to be hosting a pastor from our congregation's sister community in Tanzania, and I can't wait to discuss the cultural differences with him. I'm sure it will be fascinating, and I'm interested to see if he notices the differences between our simple little house and some of the much nicer places where he'll be staying in his three weeks in the U.S.

2. What if anything would you happily give up?
Sally mentioned giving up her drier; that seems about right to me. I'm going to be installing a clothesline in the backyard this spring, and an indoor line this fall, and the thought of saving all that energy and money is definitely a plus for me. I do face some resistance from my Beloved, who prefers her clothes done quickly to waiting on the line, but if I do the work she's usually willing to put up with the inconvenience. Until, you know, it actually inconveniences her. :-)

3. What is the strangest household appliance you own?
Probably our George Foreman grill. These were huge in the U.S. a few years ago, and my folks got me one for Christmas. It has its advantages, but honestly we haven't used it more than once or twice in the past three or four years, and I'm thinking about giving it to the rummage sale at a local Presbyterian church the next time donation period rolls around. Frankly, it's just taking up space. Running a close second would be the turbo stick blender that also never gets used.

4. What is the most luxurious household appliance you own?
Probably the coffeemaker. I do insist on good coffee, and picked this one up on eBay for significantly less than its list price. It's one of those fancy vacuum seal carafe models, all stainless steel and stuff. Not as nice as the Lamborghini coffeemaker pictured at the top of this post, but pretty nice all the same.
My favorite? Definitely the coffee bean grinder. It was a present that FW and I got for our wedding in 1999, and it's still going strong. Next time I need more coffee appliances I'm definitely going with Braun.

5. Tell us about your dream kitchen- the sky is the limit here....
Not much to tell - I'd want some pretty normal stuff. Nice gas range & ovens, good size fridge with water & ice dispensers, etc. Lots of natural light, and some shelves where I could grow herbs for immediate trimming & cooking. Open to the rest of the house so I could cook and watch the girls play (I do most of the cooking around here). Bamboo floors, good cabinets with slide-out shelves. And, like as not, I'll never, ever have it. :-)

12 April 2009

Easter Evening: In Pacis Requietum

5:30 A.M.
Wake up, make coffee, start roast in crockpot with one bag french onion soup and a bottle of Guinness, finish notes for today's sermon.

6:30 A.M.
Alanna is awake. Make a bottle and enjoy a quiet moment with her. Much too short as she begins fussing, crawling about and, of course, falling down and bumping her head.

7:00 A.M.
Beloved takes a shower while I entertain both girls for a while with Sesame Street. Drink my third cup of coffee. Wonder how the day will go, now that I'm somewhat conscious.

7:30 A.M.
I shower while Beloved has playtime with the girls. Beloved leaves just before 8:00, so I shave and dress while watching the girls, then set out the rolls to thaw and rise. Unwrap the ham, place in the baking pan and set the timer on the oven.

8:15 A.M.
Start getting the girls ready for church.

9:00 A.M.
Arrive at church in something less than a happy mood. (Note the time difference between the last two time checks for possible cause) Breakfast puts me right: biscuits & gravy, egg casserole, potatoes and an omelet make for a happy pastor (especially the bacon & sausage after the Lenten fast!)

9:45 A.M.
Leave girls with Beloved and sundry church child care folks and head off to my part of Sunday morning. Purchase donut holes and OJ for students, Starbucks for me and head to University Lutheran Center.

10:20 A.M.
Prepping for worship, including setting up communion, double checking Power Point show and making sure I have full liturgy script and sermon notes, plus a hymnal. I've done good advance work this week, so I'm free to shake hands and greet folks from about 10:35 until worship starts.

11:00 A.M.
Easter Celebration Worship. Songs in the liturgy replaced with Easter hymns in a "Jesus is risen" extravaganza. Consider contacting KTel or Time/LIFE to tell them about our "greatest hits" Easter service. :-) Easter sermon seems to preach well - "Raised for Hope" is the title. After listening to it again tonight, I think I managed to stay out of God's way this morning. Assisting minister carries his load perfectly, brass group hastily assembled Thursday adds a nice touch to the service, all goes well. I think I like this part of my job.

12:15 P.M.
Quickly shed my alb and meet with a woman looking for a handout from the church. Invite her to contact local service agencies for food and agree to buy her a tank of gas at a local filling station. Gas dispensed, I hurry home to finish Easter dinner for the students who've accepted our invitation.

12:30 P.M.
Ham & roast have turned out well. Cheesy potatoes are still baking, baked potatoes (for the lactose intolerant) are a bit behind. In the hurry to finish baked potatoes and everything else, we forget the vegetables until just before serving - too late to do anything about it. In the midst of conversation about the rest of the meal, realize that we've used Cream of Chicken in the cheesy potatoes, much to the chagrin of the vegetarian raving about how good they are as she dishes up seconds. Profuse apologies ensue. Student-baked apple pie and coffee top of a wonderful time together.

3:00 P.M.
Students have left, girls are in their rooms for naps and I'm downstairs, exhausted. But on my DVR, Lefty has made four birdies in the first six holes of his round at the Masters. I settle in for a long afternoon of excitement, capped by disappointment at the end when Phil ties for 5th.

7:00 P.M.
Beloved is giving Ainsley a bath and I'm dealing with fussy Alanna. Teething is no fun for anybody.

8:00 P.M.
After phone calls from my brother and my mom, we put the girls to bed and finally repair downstairs for television and private time. "Amazing Race" is a good one tonight.

9:00 P.M.
I finally get around to reading Foy Davis stories from Gordon at Real Live Preacher. Good stuff.

10:45 P.M.
Full day - and I'm tired, but happy. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Grace & peace,

10 April 2009

Lenten Journal: Good Friday Five

Adoramus te, Christe,
et benedicimus tibi,

quia per sanctam crucem
redemisti mundum.
Qui passus es pro nobis,
Domine, miserere nobis.

We adore you, O Christ,
and we bless you,
because by your holy cross
you have redeemed the world.
O Lord, who suffered for us,
have mercy on us.

1. How will you pray and worship today?
In silence and prayer. Tonight we observe a service revolving around Jesus' Seven Last Words, with the hymn "Jesus, In Thy Dying Woes" as a centerpiece.

2. Share a powerful memory or memories of Good Friday past.
They're all powerful. Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are the two most meaningful services of the year for me. As such, I'm honestly having a hard time picking one memory to mention. In college, we always gathered for Good Friday Worship at 7:30 AM, with a breakfast to follow with egg casserole, freshly baked cinnamon rolls and other goodies.

3. How have you grown and experienced God's love during this past Lent?
In partnership doing this Lenten Journal/Devotion business. I've been challenged, challengING and comforted throughout the season, including those times when I was forced to stop writing for a bit. It's not been as disciplined as I'd hoped, but I feel as though I've grown nonetheless.

4. In whom do you see the face of the suffering Christ most clearly?
Right now I see it in the people affected by the horrible earthquake in Italy. Innocent suffering always reminds me of Christ, and this was certainly an act of nature which struck down the just and unjust alike. But I also see Christ in the response to the spiritual, psychological and basic, physical need of the situation. The church prays; the people gather round and tend; the world sobs in grief. This is just one of the many ways we love one another as Christ loved us.

5. Where do you find hope for resurrection?
In my children. They give me such hope and joy these days, especially in this last week as our lives have been disrupted time and time again. Funerals, emergencies and other needs have intruded on us, to the point that it's all we can do to get to the next thing (including worship this week - I wrote my Maundy Thursday sermon at 4:00 yesterday afternoon). It's not been the Holy Week we hoped to encounter, but God is certainly wrapped up in all the mystery and frustration we're experiencing right now, and our girls are the point of light in all of it. Smiles, laughter, trust, peace, love; they give us all that and more, just by being who they are.

Bonus: Share a song, poem, or prayer that makes the paschal mystery come alive for you.
I've shared this before, but it still has been on my mind and heart this week. Thus, I give you Durufle's Ubi Caritas.

09 April 2009

Sermon for Maundy Thursday: "Unsurrendering Love"

“The decisive factor is said to be that in Christianity the hope of resurrection is proclaimed, and that means the emergence of a genuine religion of redemption, the main emphasis now being on the far side of the boundary drawn by death. But it seems to me that this is just where the mistake and the danger lie. Redemption now means redemption from cares, distress, fears, longings, from sin and death, in a better world beyond the grave. But is this really the essential character of the proclamation of Christ in the gospels and by Paul? I should say it is not. The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the [Christian hope] sends people back to their life on earth in a wholly new way which is even more sharply defined than it is in the Old Testament. Christians, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, have no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself, they must drink the earthly cup to the [end], and only in their doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with them, and they crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be prematurely written off; in this the Old and New Testaments are at one. Redemption myths arise from human boundary experiences, but Christ takes hold of us at the center of our life.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel Prison, 27 June 1944.
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged for treason at Flossenburg Concentration Camp 64 years ago today. As we began preparations for this Maundy Thursday service, I couldn’t help but notice the coincidence and comment upon it. I am one who has been continually challenged and comforted by Bonhoeffer’s writings and the stories of his life, most notably his choice, in 1939, to return to Germany and continue his work in the Confessing Church, resisting both the Nazi Party and the majority of German Christians who had fallen in line with the government. He had the choice to remain in the United States, but Bonhoeffer insisted “I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” Within months Bonhoeffer was a co-consiprator against Hitler and, eventually, arrested, imprisoned and executed.

In his letter which I quoted earlier, Bonhoeffer wrote something I want to tie to the gospel reading for this service. “Like Christ himself,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “[Christians] must drink the earthly cup to the [end].” In the Gospel of John it is written, “Having loved his own who were in the world, [Jesus] loved them to the end.” This commitment to see things through “to the end” is, I believe, the essence of what gathers us here tonight.

It is Maundy Thursday. “Maundy” comes from the Latin mandatum, “commandment.” We call it “Commandment Thursday” because of what Jesus said to and did for his disciples on this last night together with them. He humbly knelt and washed their feet, a chore generally regarded as beneath even the lowliest servants. He broke bread with his friends, even though one of them would leave the meal to betray Jesus to the authorities who wished him dead. He commanded them: “love one another as I have loved you.” Then Jesus continued to love his disciples to the very end of his life; abandoned, rejected, scorned, humiliated, flogged, crucified and executed. These are the deeds of the One who loves his followers to the very end, to the bottom of the bitter cup.

This is not an easy thing for us to gather and remember. It is a far cry from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem that we celebrated on Sunday. Even the crucifixion is easier to handle if it’s properly interpreted. I remember a “Lord’s Gym” shirt I used to wear that had a picture of Jesus doing a push-up with the cross on his back. The idea, of course, was that Jesus took on the cross the way the Cyclones take on the Hawkeyes: the ultimate rivalry, the grudge match, the game in which the good guys must emerge triumphant. Come Sunday, some of this might be justified, but not tonight.

No one comes out a winner on Maundy Thursday. Judas left to betray Jesus to the authorities; Peter and the rest of the disciples fell asleep while Jesus prayed and ran when Jesus was arrested. And Jesus? He surrendered. Utterly. No resistance, no protest of innocence. Jesus laid himself into the hands of authorities who would rather see him dead than hear any more about the relentless, unconditional love and mercy he had been preaching.

There’s only one thing Jesus did not surrender on his last night with his disciples: his love. Remember, John tells us, “Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.” He surrendered his position as he knelt and washed his disciples’ feet. He surrendered his trust as Judas betrayed him with a kiss. He surrendered his dignity as the priests and authorities questioned and tortured him. He surrendered his honor as he was paraded through the streets and crucified, an execution meant for the lowest criminals and deadliest enemies of the state. But Jesus would not surrender his love for his disciples, then or now.

This is what it means to “love to the end.” This is what makes Jesus’ commandment a “new” commandment. There was nothing new about the commandment to “love one another:” that had been one of the two great commandments since the time of Exodus. What makes Jesus’ commandment “new” is Jesus’ living example of the lengths to which that love will go. God will surrender everything else in God’s unsurrendering love for sinners – and in telling the story and remembering that love, we are caught by its power and unsurrendering resolve.

The first letter of John says, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” Take this time tonight and consider what it means to be the object of God’s unsurrendering love. Leave behind our superstitious belief that the cross was the sacrifice demanded by the Father for our sins, and consider that the cross is actually the final proof of the relentless, unsurrendering love of God for us, God’s children. The gospel says “Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end.” You are his own, brought into the body of Christ through your baptism in his name. You are his own in the world, tonight, remembering the night long ago when Jesus gave us this meal by which we remember his love for us. Now, friends, know this – to the bitter end of all that is, you are the object of God’s unsurrendering love. Live in that love – serve in that love – believe in that love, and be God’s beloved children, now and forever. Amen.

Lenten Journal: This Is Maundy Thursday

Tonight we'll gather for worship. We'll pray together, hear scripture together. I'll say a few things about the gospel, Jesus' "New" Commandment (it's hardly new, as Rolf Jacobson pointed out in this week's Sermon Brainwave), and the fact that this year we celebrate Maundy Thursday on the commemoration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's death. When I'm done talking, we'll sit in silence while this song plays - and I hope people will be reminded again what it was Jesus was doing when he bathed the feet of his disciples. "Impoverished power," sings Michael Card - and may we all be called to the very same thing. A blessed Maundy Thursday to you all, friends.

Grace & peace,

08 April 2009

Lenten Journal: Hello, Old Friends - Goodbye, Old Friend

So, color me "fail" as a blogger this week. Not "Epic Fail," necessarily, but certainly "Medium Fail."

Due to an oncoming winter storm, we left Chicago at 9:00 PM Saturday night, arriving in Ames at 3:30 AM and me totally ready for bed. I slept until 9:00 AM, then promptly fell asleep during morning prayers downstairs in the recliner. On a funny note, I did manage to continue holding my cup of coffee after I fell asleep - and didn't spill a drop when one of our students woke me up when she called to ask if we were still having worship in spite of the six inches of snow that was falling rapidly. Anyway, other than somehow getting through worship Sunday was pretty much a wash for me - I spent most of the day trying to regain consciousness and failing miserably.

Monday - what did we do Monday? I forget, but I know I spent some time in the office catching up post-retreat, and I spent a lot of time with the girls. Tuesday we left for Minnesota and today's funeral, the reason for our trip. I, of course, managed to forget the charger for my MacBook, and so was unable to take advantage of time in the van to put together power points for Triduum services. Also, I couldn't blog, as Mac was at about 1% power when we left and I didn't want to chance running the battery completely dry.

So, here I am tonight, with a new power cord (a planned purchase that I just moved up a week) and blogging, finally. It's good to be back.

We rolled into Alexandria just in time for me to vest and join about twenty of my old colleagues for Eric's funeral procession. I must admit it was absolutely wonderful to see all those faces light up when we walked into the room; apparently the love I felt for these old friends is definitely reciprocated. We had a number of short conversations with some of these folks, lots of hugs, and even some tears since, unfortunately, we had come together to say goodbye to Pastor Eric Erickson, our friend and colleague.

About Eric: if I am remembered half as fondly by family friends and professional colleagues as Eric was, I will have lived a truly wonderful life. This funeral was sorrowful, of course, but it was also a joyous celebration of Eric's love for his family, his faith, his marvelous intelligence and his zealous pursuit of abundant living. Not abundance, mind you - abundant living, wherein one lives every day to the fullest extent possible. I'm going to post a few quotes later in the week to give you a sense of who this man was and what made his passing such a loss for the church and his family. He was a good friend and an extraordinary colleague; I'll miss him more than I realized.

Even with our sorrow at Eric's passing, and our joy at being with old friends, there were some regrets for us as well. We didn't go back to Barrett on this trip, for two reasons. First, it's Holy Week, and I need to get back to Ames right away tomorrow to prepare and carry out our Triduum celebrations. Second, it's still too soon, as much as we miss our good friends there. We heard a rumor that a new pastor has been called this week, and that's wonderful news. The best way for us to ruin that great new step for our old church would be to come traipsing back into town before a new pastor has even gotten her/his feet wet in the church. It sucks, because we miss our friends, but that's the life to which we're called as a clergy family. Someday, we'll go back, and it will be wonderful to see the town, to say hello to friends and remember the good years we had there; but that day isn't here just yet.

This life we live is full of greetings and goodbyes. We might never again see some of the folks we so hurriedly embraced today. But in Christ we are assured that all goodbyes will be overcome by one great final greeting - and we celebrate another step toward that final greeting this Sunday. I, for one, can hardly wait.

Grace & peace,

04 April 2009

Lenten Journal: Big Fun at the Big House

I'm in Chicago with 16 Lutheran college students from Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, gathering for the Lutheran Student Movement Central Midwest Retreat. Let me say, just one more time for those of you who haven't been paying attention: I LOVE MY JOB.

Yesterday we drove to the Windy City, parked our van behind University Lutheran Church (pictured left) at Northwestern University, and sat down for a delicious chili supper prepared by members of a local church. We met with a local homeless advocate from Connections for the Homeless, met in small groups to discuss how that conversation changed our understanding of homelessness, especially in a massive urban area like Chicago. This morning, we split into two groups. One group went to the Greater Chicago Food Depository, one of the largest food banks in the world, to pack over 1,300 emergency food boxes. The second group, whom I joined, went to Good News Partners and spent the morning sanding bannisters in a building being renovated for low-income housing. This afternoon we heard from the Night Ministry, another homeless advocacy and partnership organization. Quite the whirlwind for this twenty-four hours.

I'm amazed all over again at these college students. Anyone who says young people don't care about the church needs to come join us at one of these retreats. More than that, we need to LISTEN to these young leaders of the church. There is a passion for service, for leadership, for partnership in these folks. Watching events like this take place is what keeps me going as a campus pastor. These students are passionate about ministry and shaping the future of our church, to the point that, as I'm typing, they're arguing about the reshaping of our national group and the necessity of plenary sessions for governance and advocacy. That's right, folks: college students want to meet in assembly, as boring and frustrating as it can be.

That's the good news from Chicago tonight - I'm soon to leave for home and my girls, whom I miss terribly. But I wanted to add a happy post since I've been on such a downer lately. No bad dreams, no sympathetic cons - just good ministry today. Thanks be to God.

02 April 2009

Lenten Journal: Death and Goodbyes

This is not going to be one of my happier posts - consider yourself warned.

Early this morning I had a terrible dream. I was riding a roller coaster with Ainsley in my lap (no, I don't know why - it was a dream). Suddenly, we rocketed skyward, until about a mile or so above ground we flipped upside down, at which point Ainsley slipped out of my grasp and I watched her falling, screaming, toward the earth below. Yeah, that one woke me up right away, gasping and heart racing until I calmed down enough to get out of bed and go make the coffee. You try to sleep after that one - I knew I was up for the day at that point.

The day just got happier from that point on. First there was the whole Guy episode. Then, as I was writing that post this afternoon, Beloved called me and told me that Pastor Erik Erickson, our friend and colleague from Minnesota, died of brain cancer this morning. We knew things hadn't been good, but didn't know it would be so soon.

It got me thinking about the first time I met Erik. It was our annual Runestone Conference Christmas Party, held in the Depot in Alexandria. I had only been in Barrett a few months, so I hadn't met many of my colleagues just yet. I sat down at the table and introduced myself to the balding, spectacled guy to my left, and before I knew it, we were deep into a discussion of the finer points of Tolkien and how much we loved the Peter Jackson movies. I knew I had a good friend from that moment on, and four years of collegiality proved me absolutely right on that account. I remember watching him strap up his arm braces so he could play a round of golf without aggravating his tendinitis, how much he loved his Toyota Prism and the 60 MPG he was so proud to be getting, his droll sense of humor that led to some of the best one-liners and worst puns I've ever heard.

Tonight a lot of folks said goodbye to the show ER. I caught a few minutes of the 'Retrospective' show between reading books to Ainsley and folding laundry, and I was struck by how much Mark Edwards resembles my friend Erik. Same balding head, glasses, obvious intelligence, goofy charm. As I sat and thought of Erik, I remembered the episode in which Dr. Green died. It was the spring of 2002, a rough time for me: first marriage falling apart, living by myself in Florida while finishing an internship, supervising pastor assigned to Patrick AFB and unable to do much more than help keep me sane in our weekly meetings. I was an ER regular back then, mostly because I loved Dr. Green, and the night his final episode was finished, I bawled like I'd lost my best friend.

I know, I know - it's a TV show. But Dr. Green left behind a wife he loved and a daughter he was just getting reconnected with, and now, as a father of two daughters, I think I know why I reacted so strongly: then, and now, I couldn't bear the thought of being separated from people I love.

Loss sucks. Loss effing bites. There aren't words strong enough to encompass the pain of losing someone you love. All night there's been a 'retrospective' of conversations with Erik running in my head, paired with vague memories of that awful dream from last night. I even waited to blog about this until all my girls were in bed, so I could spend time with them rather than waste it staring at this computer screen.

I don't know what all of this means. I do know that the people I love who've gone before me into death are in a continual retrospective loop in my memories: my grandfathers, my grandma Johnson, Pastor Larry, Dr. Forde, Dr. Kittleson, Erik and all the others to whom I've been forced to say goodbye are never completely gone. But they're not here, either, and there's no way to fill the empty space they've left behind. Whatever it means, one thing's for certain: I'm going to check on those baby girls before I go to bed. I'm going to kiss their foreheads and say goodnight while they sleep. And I'm going to pray with all my heart that we won't have to say goodbye for a long, long time.

Grace & peace,

Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel) would be a good song to listen to right now. I'm going to be off to Chicago for a campus ministry retreat this weekend, and I hope to have some happier blogging to do when I return.

Lenten Journal: Innocence Lost?

I've blogged before about how ministry sometimes means giving people a hand without expecting anything in return. I still believe this is true. But today a recurring phone call and two coincidental conversations reminded me that sometimes people can get really good at playing on people like me who believe we're called to help.

Guy called again today. This time he needed $200 to keep from being evicted. The emergency shelter was full, he had nowhere else to go, and the sheriff and the landlord would be there to evict him at 10:00 A.M. - even though Guy was expecting a disability check tomorrow and could certainly cover the back rent at that point.

Like most ministry sites, we don't keep cash on site and as pastor, I'm the last one who can write a check, so my hands were tied, and I felt awful. All I could do was tell Guy that if he needed to keep a roof over his family's head, he was welcome to crash with us for a couple of days. Then we said goodbye, I hung up the phone and spent the better part of the next hour feeling terrible, as though I were letting Jesus down by not dropping everything, running to the apartment and personally handing the landlord the money he was unsympathetically demanding.

At 11:00 I had a meeting with a seminary student who has asked me to be her mentor. I shared the story of the phone call with her, and she immediately said, "That's what 'Good Neighbor' is for: are you telling me Guy didn't call them?" When I told her he'd claimed they couldn't help him, she said, "Guy's taking advantage of you. I don't see how they could be unable to help, even with the economy as bad as it is."

Well, that made me feel just a bit better. Then, this afternoon, I delivered something for Beloved to her office, and happened to catch Beloved in a meeting with the pastor of our church. When I told Beloved about Guy's phone call, the pastor said, "Guy Smith." He said it without even a hint of a question in his voice. He then proceeded to tell me how Guy was known around town as a "frequent flier." Turns out he calls churches every few weeks with stories about eviction, his disabled wife, his diabetic daughter, and no one knows for sure what's true and what's fabricated.

Those of you who've been in ministry longer than I have are probably smiling and saying, "No shit, Sherlock?" Here's the thing, though: this guy is really, really good. I've seen his apartment - it's a shithole, and that's putting it kindly. There's got to be some truth to what he claims, because when I filled his tank two months ago, he had a woman and child in the back seat. So there are certainly issues there - but dammit, I should have known this was a play because it's always an emergency with Guy and it's always cash he's after. Chalk it up to Questing Parson's determination to help the genuinely needy, I guess - I'm a romantic and sometimes people can use that to their advantage.

It's certainly nothing new for a church to get played by an experienced player. But this isn't a con. Like our pastor said, "this is what survivors do." Whatever the story is, there are genuine issues in Guy's life, but now I've got to take care and make sure I'm helping properly, not enabling further abuse of my sympathy and the sympathy of those who come after me.

Jim Nestingen, my professor of church history and Lutheran theology, once said, "The last thing a good pastor should be is surprised." Well, hell, the thing that sucks about that being true is that the romantic, innocent pastor who left seminary wanting to genuinely help people is growing more and more suspicious, and it's hard to keep that from becoming outright cynicism. Sometimes learning more about the world in which we live makes me want to spend more time as far away from it as possible.

Grace and peace,

01 April 2009

Lenten Journal: Holy Time

For God alone my soul waits in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
Psalm 62.5

It was there for the briefest time tonight: holiness - the presence of God in the community. I felt it, and I'm sure others did, too.

We gather on Wednesday nights for Evening Prayer. We usually use Holden Evening Prayer, a service written by Marty Haugen that has become very popular among Lutheran churches. But before we begin the singing, we gather, greet one another, share some timely announcements, and then partake of some minutes of silence.

Tonight was special for some reason. Normally there are the sounds of campus life all around us. Occasionally there's a bit more campus life than we'd like: I remember the night the fraternity next door started their party at the same time as our Evening Prayer service. But tonight, the whole campus seemed hushed with us. We gathered in silence.

True, it didn't last. I turned the words around on the first line of the call and response, and immediately the laughter cascaded through our small group of worshipers. But there's holiness in laughter, too; even the uncontrollable guffawing that seized some of our folks later had the holiness of safety and comfort woven through it.

Tonight was holy time, from the moment we walked in the door. The church exists to provide time such as this, the kairos in which the world's demands are made to wait while the needs of our souls receive our attention. I'm glad to be part of it, and I hope that you, wherever you are, are part of it as well.

Grace and peace,