31 July 2009

In Honor of G.I. Joe

Operation Sneaky Bastard is a GO.

Your Objective: 24 hours away from your children (code names "Curly Fries" and "Short Stuff"). Said 24 hours to include:
* One night in a local Bed and Breakfast equipped with a Jacuzzi tub
* A nice dinner with at least 30 minutes uninterrupted eating and/or conversation
* A possible side mission to engage in theatrical entertainment including popcorn and/or soda.
* Unlimited, uninterrupted sleep with the option of early coffee and reading for those who sleep faster.
* A morning excursion on a local bike trail
* Lunch with college friends
* Supply requisitions at Costco before returning to base.

To maximize the impact of Operation Sneaky Bastard, the element of surprise must be maintained. Therefore, this operation is classified "Top Secret" until it commences at 1600 hours CDT, or ...NOW.

As you were,
Sneaky Bastard

PLEASE Tell Me It Comes With The Badge

An ad that popped up on FB just a minute ago. Not kidding - I copied and pasted right here.

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27 July 2009

Pop Culture Roundup

Yesterday morning I finished Rodney Clapp's excellent book Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation. I quoted it a few weeks ago, but even though it's a fairly slim volume, I've delayed finishing it because it's not the sort of book you read just before falling to sleep. As a matter of fact, I'd say it's a book you read if you really want to wake up, especially Clapp's arguments against what he calls "democracy for infants." It reads a little differently after the 2008 Presidential election - some of the extreme partisanship and knee-jerk jingoism Clapp critiques is beginning to be stamped out. Some, but by no means all, unfortunately. *sigh*

Johnny Cash has become a source of fascination for me over the past few years. (As an aside, I've come to love both Rich Mullins and Johnny Cash just before their deaths; I hope in this case that things really don't come in threes...) When I was a kid, Cash was just another stack of records in the cabinet at home; I was too young and too arrogant to appreciate the beauty and simplicity of Cash's music (even though it was Johnny Cash who gave my Dad's beloved Statler Brothers their big break). And, as Clapp notes, the man himself was a giant of American music who embodied the many contradictions that lie at the center of American life. It is this life that leads all of these pictures to be true pictures of the man:

At the very least, I've learned more about being an American by paying more attention to Johnny Cash over the past few years.

Beloved and I sat down to watch The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian last night. I was surprised at how little I liked the movie. There was a pervasive sense of ethical and moral development in the first installment of the Chronicles, and I guess I was expecting more of the same here, but it played far more like a generic medieval battle epic. I think I'm going to need to read the book again to see if it's true to Lewis' prose, or if this is a case of moviemakers ruining a good book (see The Seeker and Eragon, unfortunately - two wonderful fantasy tales that incompetents turned into dreadful movies).

This morning I started a new book: So Brave, Young and Handsome by Minnesotan Leif Enger. Five pages in I was absolutely hooked - it was acutely painful to close the book and come to work. I loved his first novel, Peace Like A River, and I have the feeling this one is going to be even better.

And, of course, yesterday marked the end of my three week obsession with the Tour de France. (made even more obsessive by our DVR, which allows me to watch the entire daily stage broadcast. I think Kristin's tired of watching men pedal bicycles in tights) I was so proud of Lance Armstrong for his strong ride, and I can't wait to see what he does next season as the leader of his new Radio Shack team. I love the insider stuff about the Tour as well: knowing who's leading in the sprint points competition, the King of the Mountains, the national champions from the various countries, watching the unwritten rules of the peloton play out over the course of the three week grand tour. Alberto Contador was a worthy champion this year, but something tells me next year will be a great showdown between Contador, Armstrong, Bradley Wiggins and the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank.

Well, that's the roundup for today, and thanks to Coffeepastor for the idea. See you soon.

Grace & peace,

26 July 2009

Sermon for the Eight Sunday after Pentecost: "To Partake of the Bread of Life - The Boy's Tale"

I wasn’t supposed to be there that day. You need to understand that from the start. My family kept our flocks in the hills near the Sea of Galilee, and since I was the youngest I was expected to be the one to run errands to and from the house and the flocks. On the day the Teacher appeared, I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near him. My mother had sent me to the next hill over with two fish and five loaves of bread for my brother, my father and myself. It was a small lunch, but it was what we had that day.
I set out from the house with every intention of going straight to the flocks, but as I crossed over the hill I saw a great crowd come streaming toward the mountain, making a lot of noise as they did. I was twelve years old; I was curious; I veered away from my duty toward the show. How was I supposed to know I’d be right in the middle of a miracle before long?
I came up the side of the mountain and walked right into a man whose robes reeked of fish and pitch. He grabbed my shoulder to keep me from falling down, then noticed the bundle I carried in my arms. “There’s a boy here with...” he pawed through my bundle, “...five barley loaves and two fish. But what could they do for so many people?” Then I noticed the Teacher. He looked at me, smiled, winked, and said, “Make the people sit down.” As the fisherman turned around and started to yell for the crowd to sit down, the Teacher came over to me.
“What’s your name?”
“Yeshua. Yeshua, son of David.”
“Welcome, Yeshua, son of David. I am also Yeshua: Yeshi son of Joseph. But I am also a Son of David. If I make you a promise, will you do a favor for me?”
“I don’t know if I may, sir. I’m not supposed to be here.”
“That is no problem, Yeshua, son of David. Your father and brother will forgive your tardiness. The promise I make to you is that you will eat until you have your fill this day. The favor I ask is to borrow your lunch. May I have it?”
I didn’t want to give it to him. I’d heard stories like this before, but never from a grown man. Our village bullies made promises to get “just one bite” of our food, then laughed when we tried to get them to return it after one bite. I learned very quickly to run from anyone who wanted a piece of my bread. But he had spoken so kindly to me, and had asked so sincerely: I felt as though his request wasn’t really a request, that he was going to do as he wished, but he would prefer to have my permission. So I gave in.
“Yes, sir, only...please do not steal my food from me.”
“I promise, Yeshua, son of David; you will not be hungry this day.”
He took my lunch, spread out the cloth covering the fish and the bread, and then he prayed. “Abba, gracious Father, I thank you that we may feed this multitude this day. I give thanks that you provide bread for those who have none, and I give thanks that we may provide the bread that lasts unto eternal life for those who have none. Let this be a meal and a day given according to your word, which will never return to you empty. Amen.” Then the Teacher rose, and handed the loaves and fishes to the nearest people he could find, and asked them to share with their neighbors. Then he settled back to watch.
The crowd and the disciples looked confused at first. After all, the loaves were barely bigger than their fists, and the fish were about the same size. Finally, the fisherman who’d first kept me from falling shrugged, broke his loaf in two, and handed one piece to a woman sitting next to her children, right at the front of the crowd. That was when the miracle started happening. My breath caught in my throat as I saw it: the loaf wasn’t broken. The disciple broke it again and handed out another hunk of bread, but the loaf remained unbroken. The crowd saw it, too, and gasps and shouts rippled across the mountainside as people surged forward for food. The crowd could barely keep up with the demand: they broke the loaves and the fish and handed out the food as quickly as they could, shouting all the while for the rest of the people to wait, to be patient, that everyone would be fed. Even as they made these promises, you could hear the desperation in their voices: if they ran out of food, the crowd seemed hungry enough to rip each other to pieces.
While this uproar was going on, the Teacher, Yeshi, leaned back on his elbows, smiling. Since I still had no food, I couldn’t go to my father and brother, so I sat down next to him and asked, “How did you do that?”
He looked at me with those piercing eyes. “My father always called me Yeshi. May I call you the same?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Yeshi, do you see how they cry out for bread?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Tomorrow, they will hunt me down again and ask for more. If they could, they would make me their king. Anyone who can feed a crowd like this should be their king, they’ll say to themselves. What they don’t realize is that their hunger has nothing to do with bread.”
“It doesn’t?”
“No, Yeshi. They are hungry for chesed. Do you know that word?”
“I think so. The rabbi says it when he reads from the psalms.”
“Good - you listen when you go to synagogue. Do you know what it means?”
“I think it means love, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, but not just any kind of love. Chesed means steadfast love. Lovingkindness. Love that lasts and lasts, even beyond death.”
“And that is what they hunger for?”
“Yes, Yeshi - they hunger to know that God has not abandoned them, that they are still God’s chosen people. And do you know what I will tell them?”
My mind went completely blank as I thought of the many things this Teacher could say. Would he tell them God still loved them? That God was silent because they weren’t following the Law closely enough? That God would rescue them from the Romans? The rabbis in the synagogue had said all those things and more for as long as I could remember. Every year we ate the unleavened bread for Passover, promising ourselves, “Someday, we will eat this bread in Jerusalem.” We meant, of course, that someday we would no longer live under the thumb of Romans, or Assyrians, or Babylonians, or any other oppressor. But it never happened.
“Yeshi? Are you still there?”
His voice snapped me out of my thoughts. “Yes, sir - but I don’t know the answer.”
“That’s because it’s a new answer. The Father and I are doing a new thing.” His eyes twinkled as he looked deep into my own eyes, but what he said next hit me with the force of a hammer’s blow. “I will tell them that I am the bread they seek, the chesed for which they truly hunger. I will tell them that if they believe in me and in the words I speak, they will never be hungry for steadfast love again. I will tell them that I come to offer myself to the world, to be broken like a loaf of bread and poured out like a cup of wine, to fill the hearts and lives of all those who come to my words and my light. Do you believe that this is what I will tell them, Yeshi?”
I didn’t know what to say. I understood some of what he said, but most of it washed over me like the waves in the Sea when a storm is rising. I looked away from the intensity of his eyes, my gaze darting to find safety like a rabbit fleeing a dog’s pursuit. Then I saw something that brought my already lurching heart to a complete stop: my father was coming up the side of the mountain, on the same path I’d taken quite some time before, and he did not look pleased to see me sitting with a stranger, with no food in sight.
“Yeshi! Are you hurt? Where is our food?”
The teacher rose and bowed to my father. “I beg your pardon, sir. I and my disciples have delayed your son for need of your lunch. If you’ll wait just a few moments longer, you shall have your food, and more besides.”
My father’s puzzled look must have matched my own, for I had forgotten the meal completely while talking with the Teacher. As he turned to the crowd, so did we, and then we saw that the crowd had received all they could eat, and the Teacher’s disciples were gathering remnants from those who had asked for more than they could eat. Soon the disciples were laying baskets at our feet, and in a few moments, twelve baskets of broken loaves and cooked fish sat before us. My father looked up, astonished at the pile of food in front of us. “How does a man such as yourself feed a multitude like this?” The Teacher smiled, nodded in my direction, and answered, “From the food your wife prepared for you, sir - and the bounty of my Father’s generous love.”
The Teacher’s promise to me was fulfilled. I ate to bursting that afternoon. My father ate a hearty meal himself, then bundled up another for my brother, who was still watching our flocks. As we were preparing to leave, the Teacher offered a blessing for our flocks, and then looked into my eyes. “Remember, Yeshi son of David; it is not bread for which the people hunger: it is my Father’s steadfast love. Do you believe me?”
“Yes, sir.” And I did believe him, though my mind struggled to comprehend what my heart told me about this kind, trustworthy teacher.
“Truly, Yeshi, I tell you: if you believe me, and believe the words that I say, then you know the steadfast love of God, my Father, and you have been fed with the bread of life. I wish you well, Yeshi son of David. Peace go with you.”
“And with you, Teacher.”

I never forgot that day upon the mountain, and the Teacher who blessed the bread. Like everyone in Galilee, I heard of the Teacher’s death in Jerusalem, and the rumors that when the Romans opened the grave two days later, it was empty. Some years later, men from Jerusalem came to talk about the Teacher at the local synagogue, and I brought my sons to hear them, ignoring the frown of the local rabbi as they entered the synagogue.
I remember much about the Teacher, even today. I remember his sincerity, the kindness in his eyes, how I trusted him instinctively, even though I had no reason to do so. But what I remember most were his hands. They were rough, calloused hands; the hands of a laborer. But when the Teacher spoke of his Father’s love, of being broken and poured out, those hands trembled and shook, as if he knew what was coming. As I grew older and could think on these things with the mind of an adult, I realized the Teacher did know what was coming. He knew he would be rejected, abandoned, lifted high on the cross like the snake on Moses’ staff, and he would go regardless. And as I realized this, I realized another thing also: this was the chesed of which the Teacher had spoken, the steadfast love of God, made manifest in his own life. The Teacher poured out his life for us all, and I believe that what the men from Jerusalem said is true. The Teacher is the son of God, living at the right hand of his Father today, and I am his servant. Praise be to God, I met the Messiah in living flesh, and I live to tell his tale. Amen.

24 July 2009

Why I'll Be There On The Corner Tonight

The assholes from Westboro Baptist will be in town tonight. Yeah, that's right - the "God Hates Fags" church that pickets funerals and other such stuff.

Many folks in town have suggested that the best response to their message of hatred and bigotry is a silent refusal to even acknowledge their presence. While I certainly agree that this is the best way to deal with the WBC folks, I'm also concerned with providing a public counter-witness that the church is NOT a community that welcomes or endorses hatred. By most accounts, Fred Phelps, the pastor of WBC, is a sick man, who has unfortunately passed his disease on to all of his children save two. They are a cancer on the church. Even an overwhelming majority of people who endorse the historic understanding of homosexuality are appalled and disgusted by Phelps and his ilk. Unfortunately, the rantings of this diseased 'prophet' and his cabal provide a ton of ammunition to anti-church folks, justified or not. So, we who feel the same way will gather tonight in public witness against those who claim that hatred is a holy thing.

I don't like how I feel about this. Within my anger at the hurtful, hateful disease that is Westboro Baptist, there is a serious desire to just physically kick their asses out of town. Someone posted a video on YouTube from the inside of a Westboro van as they were run out of another town, with rocks pelting the vehicle and shattering glass, and I was both horrified and satisfied at the same time. "Zeal for your house will consume me," says the gospel when Jesus takes out the moneyvendors, and dare I admit that a portion of my soul aspires to exactly the same thing? Of course, that's playing into the hands of WBC, who would love nothing more than to be able to add "martyr" to the list of titles they've hoisted upon their ministry.

It's dangerous, wanting to do the right thing so badly you'd consider using evil means to accomplish it. So, I'll be there, tonight, perhaps in collar, perhaps carrying a sign, perhaps conflicted, but absolutely certain that hatred is not holy, especially when it threatens to consume my own soul.

Grace & peace,

Post - protest update:
It was pretty tame at the corner of University and Lincoln Way last night. I actually missed a good portion of the whole show: the WBC people shoed up at 4:30, not 5:00 as I thought. There were over 200 counter-protesters of various beliefs and non-beliefs; some of the signs I saw were:
  • There Is No God
  • Jesus Had Two Dads (think about it for a minute)
  • Jesus Was Super Gay (not particularly helpful IMHO)
  • Mean People Suck (one of my favorites)
  • Love One Another As I Have Loved You (the vast majority seemed to support this)
  • Honk If You Love Someone (lots of honking and cheering)
There were also hula-hoopers who crossed the street and did a routine next to the WBC folks. Never thought of "overcome evil with hula-hoops" before, but I suppose it's another form of love, or at least distraction.

All in all, WBC remains a sick cult that presents one of the faces of evil in the world, while some of the counter-protesters were almost as hostile to those of us in the legitimate church. Pretty much what I expected, unfortunately, but life (and faith) will go on.

Grace & peace,

23 July 2009

Universal Health Care: Let's Be Honest, Shall We?

Yesterday's mail edition of Newsweek featured this cover article by Sen. Edward Kennedy. If you're not a subscriber, it's worth a look anyway.

Our elected officials are engaged in a very acrimonious debate on health care, health insurance and the future of American medicine at the moment. President Obama wants something on the table prior to the August recess, while some are suggesting we shouldn't rush things.

For me, one troubling aspect of the entire debate is the way terms get thrown around with little care for how they are defined. The words "medical," "care," "health" and "insurance" seem to be interchangeable, while they actually describe very different things depending on how they are paired and how they are used. "Health Care" and "Health Insurance" are two very different things: the first describes an actual interaction with a medical professional, while the second describes a company or government program whereby the professional is guaranteed compensation for services provided, and the patient generally bears a portion of the cost in addition to a base premium surrendered monthly, quarterly or annually. You can see the problem when the two start getting tossed around as if they are the same thing.

In a professional sense, I'm fairly un-qualified to weigh in on this issue. I'm certainly not a businessman, nor am I a health care professional. What little mental health care I'm qualified to provide falls under the umbrella of spiritual care: the nano-second I sense that we might be drifting into illness, I refer to a qualified professional, as I am NOT a mental health counselor. In an ethical sense, however, we are all qualified to weigh in, as we, the American people, are the ones who are and will be affected by the ongoing discussion of medicine in America. And I dare say that those of us who serve in the pastoral office are called to be advocates when we feel ethically driven toward a certain point of view.

So, it seems to me that as a country we have one basic choice in front of us. The time has come for a decision about medicine in America: is it primarily a for-profit business or a social service? We are rapidly approaching the point when we will no longer be allowed to waffle between the two extremes, and for me, at least, the decision is obvious: medical care is a social service that must be guaranteed to all Americans. Period.

I'm not saying this is going to be easy. But when an estimated 47 million people can't get medical care for real illness and medical problems, easy has long since left the barn. To my mind, we have an ethical imperative to guarantee reasonable access to affordable medical services, and I, for one, am willing to do my part to see that it happens.

Taxes will need to be raised. That's a given. Medical profits will be cut. Also a given. Insurance companies may find themselves competing against the government. Some insurance companies might go bankrupt. We'll need to transition out of employer-based insurance, which was a bad idea from the start and has only become worse with time. All of these are real repercussions of shifting the model from profit-bearing to service-providing, and it might be bad before it gets better.

But the alternative is worse, in my opinion. Some estimate that 55 million Americans will be without health insurance in the very near future if we do nothing. That, to me, is an unconscionably high percentage of the American population with no hope of cure when illness strikes. That's 55 million Americans who can't get their infant daughters to the doctor when they have an ear infection, like our Alanna had last month. That's 55 million Americans who can't find respite from back pain, as I have this summer. That's 55 million Americans who can't escape the clutches of depression, as I have over the past three years. Can we really think this is the better solution?

The total cost of the medical care required for the births of our daughters, Ainsley and Alanna, was in the neighborhood of $32,000. That's approximately 90% of my yearly cash salary. Health insurance covered most of the cost for us - what are the options for mothers who don't have insurance?

The time has come for a renovation of American medicine. No renovation comes without sacrifice, struggle, and moments when the damage done seems to outweigh the possible end result. But the present situation is a house of cards teetering on the verge of collapse. We have an ethical and moral imperative to do better for our society - let's speak the truth and get it done.

Grace & peace,

In Which I Reflect On The Deepening of Love and The Rapid Advance of Time (Here There Be Sappyness)

Take a look: that's our newborn, Alanna, who was a whole year old on Tuesday. Crikey, the time moves fast!

Could it really be a year ago we first met this squalling little surprise? Can it really be two and 1/2 years since her big sister saved me from Annual Meeting by finally making her own introduction?

There are three ladies in my house these days. The oldest gets more beautiful the more I get to know her. I'm happy to say that we laugh at each other more and more every day. The first of our progeny is a curly-haired adventurer who just refuses to slow down, except when there's really good Sesame Street on the tv or a particularly engrossing book to read. The last of our brood is a relentless escape artist who likes standing still even less than her sister. She's a happy, smiley child also, except when she doesn't get what she wants RIGHT THIS FRIGGING INSTANT. Heaven help you if you take something out of her hands (or mouth) without something better ready for replacement.

I knew this family gig would change my life forever. I also knew I wanted it, even though I was more than a little worried about those changes. What I didn't know was how I would never, ever want to go back to the days when it was just me and Beloved, even though they were wonderful days.

Thank you, ladies, for enriching my life so much. Now, if you don't mind, could Daddy just get a quiet night of reading every once in a while?


Grace & peace,

19 July 2009

For the Record...

One of the fun things they never tell you in seminary is how much it hurts when you hear of bad news from a former call. A mother of two committed suicide this week - the daughter was one of my first confirmands, the son played on my final Junior High football team.

There just aren't words for sorrow like these folks must be feeling. Please keep them in your prayers.

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: "Shepherds and Kings"

There is a curious dichotomy in the Old Testament understanding of shepherds. On the one hand, when prophets and poets spoke of “shepherds,” they were often using the term as a metaphor for kings and kingly behavior. On the other hand, there was a prevailing opinion within Old Testament society that shepherds were dusty and smelly, and their work was beneath the sensibilities of those who could do better. Thankless job, shepherding - and one could certainly argue that ruling a nation isn’t much better at times. As American poet John Godfrey Saxe once quipped, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made” 1
However, let’s not focus this morning on the odious nature of governing, though it could be a humorous adventure. I want to draw your attention to the difference between this week’s gospel reading and last week’s reading. These two readings paint two very different pictures of what it means to shepherd one’s people; one falls under the condemnation of Jeremiah from our first reading, while the other shows the care and tenderness described by the poet of Psalm 23. Some time, then, to reflect on shepherding and who, indeed, is the Good Shepherd. Let us pray:

Compassionate God, You have compassion enough for all.
Lord in your mercy, Have compassion for us.

Jesus, out of your compassion for us, you invite us to come away with you to a place of rest and quiet.
Help us to say yes and then to be able to come away with you.
Lord in your mercy, Have compassion for us.

Lord, out of your compassion you care for those who are harassed, helpless, and lost. Sometimes we feel that way ourselves
Lord in your mercy, have compassion for us.

Lord in your compassion teach us to follow you, to trust you, to love you and to love as you love.
Lord in your compassion feed us who are hungry; physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Lord in your compassion heal us in the places we need healed.
Lord in your mercy, have compassion for us.

And Lord in your having compassion for us teach us to have compassion for others as you do.
Help us to show compassion in action the way you did, and remind us when it is time to come away with you for quiet and rest.
Lord in your mercy, have compassion for us. 2

What do you remember about Herod Antipas? Conflicted, greedy, adulterer, incest, killed John the Baptist. All of that is true, of course. But the Herods were more than simple corrupt kings. The Herods used anything they could to gain an advantage on their enemies, their friends, even their families. When Antipas’ father Herod the Great died, his will stipulated that Antipas would be one of three sons among whom their land would be divided. Antipas traveled to Rome to argue, unsuccessfully, that he should be the ruler of all the land his father once occupied. The Herods were Jewish, but often the extent of their faith matched the corresponding benefit: when it fitted the Herods to flatter their masters, the Romans, they did so with an ease that shocked the people they ruled.
So, last week we examined Herod Antipas, a king haunted by the execution of John the Baptist. One wonders if Antipas would have been troubled by the words of the prophet Jeremiah we heard this morning. As Professor Rolf Jacobson said in a podcast this week, “[Jeremiah] is only [bad news] if you’re the king! If you’re the people, who have a king who sucks, this is total gospel!” Kings are entrusted with the care of their people, as shepherds are entrusted with the care of their sheep. Herod made a bad job of it, but not so our King, Jesus of Nazareth.
See him here in Mark, gazing out on the crowds who’ve gathered and are following him. Jesus wanted some time apart for himself and his disciples, but the people’s needs are so great that Mark says “they hurried [to where Jesus was going] on foot from all the towns, and arrived [at their destination] ahead of [Jesus and his disciples].” It brings to mind images you see of travelers in the poorer sections of India, where children scurry to the nearest tourist, begging for a handout. Jesus saw that the needs of the people were so desperate he couldn’t take time away just at that moment: his heart was filled with compassion for this flock of shepherd-less sheep, and so Jesus began to teach them on the spot.
It seems that God’s view of the world is a reversal of our own. It is said that when Herod the Great died, he was worried that people wouldn’t mourn his passing. So he arranged for several of his soldiers to be killed at the same moment, so that there would be mourners close to his body. Thankfully no one carried out those orders, but can we deny that when our own kings die, we are any less misled? We’ve spent the past three weeks detailing and reliving every second of the admittedly tragic life of Michael Jackson; how many homeless men, women and children have also died, unnoticed, in that same period of time, and who has spent millions to mourn their passing? God knows - God sees - God judges our lack of vision and calls us to remember what it is God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
In that remembrance, God also promises the good care of a good shepherd. Jesus taught; Jesus healed; Jesus cared for the world in which he lived, and the Holy Spirit of God continues that work in our time, in our world, through our hands. We are not governed by a King who exploits every situation for his own advantage: we are ruled by a gracious King who is peace and life and grace in himself. As the writer of Ephesians wrote,
“Jesus is our peace: in his flesh he has made both [circumcised and uncircumcised] into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. Jesus has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace...So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
So we are gathered into the fold under the watchful gaze of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. But let’s not forget that shepherds also call their flocks out into the world - and so we, too, are called into the world by our Good Shepherd. In his book Why Christian?, Douglas John Hall writes:
Christianity does have a mission to the world, and that mission is the most basic reason for the existence of the church. There are religions ... that do not have a missionary impulse in them; but Christianity has been pushed out into the world from the beginning, like a little fledgling bird nudged out of its cozy nest by its parents. That is in fact a good simile, because what drives Christianity (as distinct from Christendom) towards the world is not personal eagerness for exposure to the public sphere, nor a desire to become big and powerful, nor a sense of its superiority over every other faith. No, it is "sent out" (that is what the word apostolic means), usually against its will, by the God who has called it into being, because of love for ... the world … the mission of the church is of central importance to Christian faith, so much so that it constitutes the most basic reason why the church must exist. Of course the church needs to have periods of retreat from the world, to recover its own identity through study and prayer, to renew its courage, and so on. But precisely in these times of renewal, the church learns once more that it does not exist for its own sake. A church that hived off to itself and was content to be a comfortable "fellowship" would contradict in the most flagrant way the whole message of the New Testament.3
So we are both gathered in and sent out under the eye of the King who rules us. It is bad news when we think we control the world, or our little corner of it, kings of our own little domains. It is good news to realize, as the disciples and all who follow Jesus eventually realize, that Jesus is indeed in the business of kingdom-building, and the work is glorious indeed. The kingdom of God isn’t a place we go, but a reality in which we live, just as a sheep knows its shepherd’s voice whether it is in the paddock, grazing out on the hills or lost in the valley of the shadow of death. Listen for the voice of your shepherd, your king, and follow it where it leads, trusting that our king, unlike Herod, is a good, wise, benevolent king, who will not lead you astray. Amen.

16 July 2009

Thursday Roundup

Two of the three women who meddled with Beloved & me until we started dating are here with us this week. It's been fun to be with them again. We had a babysitter last night and went out for delicious Italian at a restaurant we hadn't tried yet, and tonight we'll take in a LCM barbecue and a Muni Band concert. Fun times!

Finished two books this week and began reading an unpublished work for a friend, something I'd promised to do for a while and finally I think I've got time to do it. The girls are sleeping until seven or even eight most mornings now, which means I can brew my coffee and sit outside in the early morning quiet and read. It's really lovely.

That's the quick update. We're hoping to get to the new Harry Potter movie tomorrow afternoon. The in-laws are coming Saturday night, another visit to which I'm looking forward. Hope you all have a great week.

Grace & peace,

13 July 2009

Good Love - You Know, The Heart-Breakingly Strong Kind

Since the new Harry Potter movie will be released tomorrow night, and Beloved hasn't read the books, we bought "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" on DVD yesterday and sat down to watch it last night after the girls went to sleep.

After some initial reluctance to buy into the Harry Potter fad when the first books were released, I became a fan just before Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was published. I'm with Stephen King: I think JK Rowling is a ripping good writer who mixes imaginative plotlines with a deep understanding of human emotions and the seductive, covert nature of evil. There is a moment in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" where Dumbledore says, "Dark and difficult times lie ahead, Harry. Soon we must all face the choice, between what is right and what is easy." That sums up an awful lot about life, if you ask me.

That having been said, in the months since my last contact with anything Potter I had forgotten what an emotional wallop this story packs, especially when delivered by the wonderful movies developed from the books. This might be children's literature, but it is not childish, not at all. People betray one another. Friendships careen along on a knife's edge because people misunderstand one another. Major characters die, and everyone suffers at some point. But for me, the lasting emotional impact of these books comes from the bond between Harry, Ron and Hermione. There's simply nothing stronger than the love they share for each other, perhaps most poignantly expressed at the end of the second movie, when Hermione, healed from a petrificus curse, sprints the full length of the dining hall at Hogwarts into the waiting arms of her friends. To love and be loved like that makes every other worldly gift or possession worthless.

After watching the movie last night, including a heartbreaking death at the end, I shouldn't have been surprised by the abandonment dream that came in the middle of the night. There's something about the shared heartbreak of Harry, Ron and Hermione that mirrors something of my own, I suppose, and JK Rowling obviously knows the pain of loneliness and abandonment as well. It's a fear we all share, I'm sure, but we are presented with a choice in regard to that fear. We can shield ourselves from the fear of rejection and abandonment, but in so doing we also shield ourselves from the full depth and strength of real love. Or we can open ourselves, become vulnerable to heartbreak and pain, but in so doing our love becomes genuine, self-giving, self-revealing, the kind of love that breaks our hearts open, but only so they can be filled more fully.

There is nothing safe, fast or easy about love - it takes risk, time and effort to love as God has intended. Even though JK Rowling doesn't do spirituality in the Harry Potter books, she has said she is a Christian, and I believe that the self-emptying love of Christ is one aspect of Christian faith she understands most fully. Today I'm grateful, though my sleepy haze from a restless night, for the way she wrestled with love, pain and suffering; it makes all of us consider it more deeply, and when people consider love, nothing evil can come from it.

Grace & peace,

10 July 2009

A Healthy Friday Five

Sophia had the Friday Five at RevGals today:

I just got back from an 8 mile bike ride down the beach boardwalk near our home, and was struck with the number of people out enjoying physical activity. Runners, other cyclists, surfers, swimmers, dogwalkers, little kids on scooters....
It's easy to lose track of my physical self-care in the midst of flurried preparation for a final on-campus interview Monday for a college teaching position in the Midwest (prayers welcome!) and the family move that would accompany it. But each day that I do make time to walk or ride my bike it is such a stress reliever that it is well worth the time invested! So how about you and your beautiful temple of the Holy Spirit?

1. What was your favorite sport or outdoor activity as a child?
Football - could not get enough of it. So much that our parents bought us real shoulder pads for Christmas one year. Like many boys in Nebraska, I dreamed of growing up to play for Tom Osborne. Never quite made it, but I still love football, especially Nebraska football.

2. P.E. class--heaven or the other place?
A little of both. I was a mix of the klutz who fell over a lot and got teased and the strong kid, so some days were great and some were awful. I think it's terrible that schools are cutting P.E. - we need our kids to exercise and be active, now more than ever.

3. What is your favorite form of exercise now?
Running, running and running some more. I've run two marathons and several half-marathons/20Ks, and plan to do more. In fact, just yesterday I hung up a running rack in our basement - four pegs for my running medals and various other running paraphanelia, like my first running cap in all its sweat-stained glory. (see the picture above.)

4. Do you like to work out solo or with a partner?
Yes. Beloved and I are trying to find ways for the two of us to work out together more often. We're doing a spin class on Thursdays and I think I've finally convinced her to try running with me once in a while, once we get her some proper running shoes. And I love running with our students or friends from out of town when they visit. I like my solo runs a lot, but it's also very enjoyable to share that time with others occasionally.

5. Inside or outside?
Outside when available. Frankly, the only thing I don't like about our gym is the way they manage the moisture - it's pretty humid all over the place, and the men's showers just reek, though they are fairly new. But we don't have access to weights or machines anywhere else, so inside it has to be for that.

Bonus: Post a poem, scripture passage, quotation, song, etc. regarding the body or exercise.
"The miracle isn't that I finished - the miracle is that I had the courage to start."
John "The Penguin" Bingham

08 July 2009

Give Us This Day...

die Van ist kaput.

When we pulled into our parking spot at Ponca State Park last Thursday, we were all excited for a three day cabin stay with my entire family. When I backed the van up to move it closer to our particular cabin, the large puddle of transmission fluid that was revealed indicated we would soon be enjoying something of a change in plans as far as driving goes.

We limped back to Ames on a replacement quart of fluid and dropped off the van at the shop yesterday morning. The verdict? Leaky torque converter. The expense? $1400. At least, that's the estimate. Wow. As Bing said in White Christmas: "It's somewhere between 'Ouch' and 'Boing.'" Wow.

These things happen, of course. But the peculiar thing is how and when they happen. Beloved and I have been discussing what to do with our extra money this month. See, I am paid every other Friday, which means that two months out of the calendar year contain an 'extra' paycheck. July '09 is one of those months. In addition, I'm scheduled for several supply dates this summer, so I'll be pulling in some extra $$ there as well. We were trying to figure out how much to put toward debt retirement vs. some stuff we'd like to do in the house. Well, now we know where the extra money is going, don't we?

In the midst of these troubled times, I'm struck by the story of Israel in the wilderness. God provided enough manna for one day. Anyone who tried to gather more found it mealy and wormy by morning. We think in terms of scarcity: there's no way of knowing what tomorrow will bring, so we grab all we can for today. God thinks about things differently: what is meant to last will last, and what is meant to end will end, no matter what we might do about it.

It occurs to me that God might really care very little for the continuation of the institutions we think are so important. Churches who worship less than twenty people with endowments to maintain the building and cemetery? Seminaries who pour all their gifts into endowments while they pile the burden of today's education on the backs of their students? Companies who lay off workers while executive salaries continue to climb and widen the gap between labor and management? I'm not so certain a God who promises to provide daily bread, not monthly bread, thinks a lot of this type of stewardship.

It's one thing to be responsible in planning for the future. Beloved and I have far too much debt. If that weren't the case, this car repair wouldn't be the problem that it is. We're working on being free of what we owe to others, but it's going to take some time. Afterwards, though, we're going to have to work just as hard to remain free of our excess, assuming we ever get there. We all know about the farmer in the gospel of Luke who builds new granaries for all his excess - he dies that night and all that excess does him no good.

This week's lectionary texts deal with some of these institutional issues, also. Amos tells the people of the northern kingdom that they will not stand forever just because of who they are, that God is about to set them plumb (an image for justification), and that it will not be all lollipops and sunbeams when it happens. Herod hears about Jesus' ministry and is haunted by the thought that Jesus could be John the Baptizer resurrected - and we get the picture of a man haunted by the knowledge that all his wealth and power will amount to nothing in the end.

I remain convinced that God doesn't give a fart in a stiff wind for propping up institutions for their own sake. Our call to stewardship is both a call to recklessly trust that God will provide and a call to understand that debt and wealth can each be a burden and a barrier between ourselves and faith. So we'll go to the dealership tomorrow afternoon and unburden ourselves a bit, and hopefully our faith will be all the richer for it, even if our wallets will not.

Grace & peace,

The painting is "Daily Bread, Version 1" by Jim Gola

06 July 2009

A Belated Friday Five About Clothes Because It Looked Like Fun

1. Are you a hoarder, or are you good at sorting and clearing?
I'm pretty good and clearing out stuff, but being a guy I don't have nearly as much to sort and clear as Beloved. When you consider that I've been wearing a brown pair and black pair of the Docs pictured left as my basic 'dress' shoes for almost ten years, it's easy to see I keep things pretty uncomplicated and try to find stuff that will last.

2. What is the oddest garment you possess and why?
Probably my cow tie. When I was in pep band at Nebraska in the 1990s, our basketball coach, Danny Nee, was known for his unusual ties (I think he even developed his own line at some point). So every now and then the band would have a tie night and we'd all find the goofiest ties we could find. I found a red-white vertically striped tie with cows and thought it was perfect. Don't think I've worn it in fifteen years, but I can't bring myself to throw it out just yet.

3. Do you have a favourite look/ colour?
I like simple and classic stuff that will last - see the Doc Martens above. At the same time, I like funny t-shirts; at the moment I'm wearing one with the chemical formula for caffeine printed on the front. Summer is t-shirt, shorts and sandals; fall will bring more polos, blue jeans and khakis, while winter is sweaters. The one thing on which I almost always insist is wearing a proper suit for formal occasions such as funerals.

4. Thrift/ Charity shops, love them or hate them?
For kids clothes, they're wonderful. At my age, I tend to wear out my clothes, but for those of an age to outgrow clothing, brand new stuff can be an obscene waste of money. We have several lovely consignment shops in town and we frequent them all for the girls. Man, they're gonna hate us when school comes around. :-)

5. Money is no object, what one item would you buy?
The recently announced 1962 throwback jerseys for the University of Nebraska football team's upcoming celebration of its 300th consecutive sellout. I don't know if they're going to sell replica jerseys or not, but the actual uniforms used that night will be auctioned for charity. Bidding starts at $500 - I wonder if you have to pay more to get them laundered, or unlaundered?

A Rose By Any Other Name Would Be "OW, #%^&!"

The ongoing saga of my back continues...

A few weeks ago I actually went to our doctor to seek treatment to relieve and correct the ongoing pain in my lower back. After an exam and X-rays, it appears my L5 vertebrae is not aligned properly and is thus causing a lot of what's been going on over the past year. Chiropractic has alleviated some of the pain over that time, but the issue itself hasn't been properly addressed to this point. Consider the issue addressed now.

I've been going to physical therapy three times a week for the past week with largely positive results. Positive result number 1 was meeting my therapist and discovering that both he and a coworker are native Nebraskans and would like to add us to their list of folks for football game parties this fall. Score! :-) Positive result #2 has been the work he's helped me do. While I'm feeling a bit more regularly uncomfortable since beginning treatment, I can also feel the muscles and joints in my back working more as they're supposed to work, and that's worth the occasional discomfort. My therapist is now including my hips, knees and ankles in our work, finding ways to better stabilize my body for both day-to-day activity and, sound the hallelujahs, better running. Turns out that even though I have a neutral stride and normal to high arches, stability shoes may help me run with greater comfort than my trusted neutrals. To that end I've purchased my first pair of inserts and will soon be buying a good pair of stability shoes, as soon as I find some we can afford.

My mother has also been dealing with some back and leg pain, much different than my own, and she mentioned while our family was camping together this past weekend that her father, my Grandpa Janke, also had back problems, leading to a surgery in the last few years of his life. It's funny how the generations have changed in such a short time. I experience discomfort that keeps me from pursuing my favorite exercise (golf and running) and I get myself a specialist right away, while I'm sure my Grandpa would have said that doing such a thing was a waste of both time and money, given that I could still work and be a father to my kids without too much trouble.

One of the unfortunate side effects to America's continual success in the 20th and 21st century was the development, I believe, of a false belief in the right to a life without suffering. My generation, as a whole, hasn't known what it means to suffer for the life we have been given, certainly not to the extent of my grandparents and great-grandparents. There are miracle fixes everywhere for every problem under the sun, especially if you watch cable television between midnight and morning sunrise, all playing off the idea that work is for those who aren't smart enough to game the system. I'm sure, if I look long enough, there's a pill or apparatus pitched by a third-tier celebrity that guarantees an end to my back problems in less than 30 days (or my money back!).

Here's the thing: the only way I'm going to beat this thing is to work hard and work smart. I need to lose weight so I'm not carrying so much load on my joints (221 on the scale this morning). I need to sleep more to give my body time to recharge itself after a good workout every day. I need to diligently do the exercises my PT gives me. If I do all this, there is a good chance I'll soon be swinging my clubs pain-free, and hopefully training for my third marathon by next spring. But this only works if I accept my present limitations AND make the decision to work to change those limitations. Shortcuts won't do it, but neither will pretending it doesn't exist or just giving up the fight.

This isn't a faith thing, either: I'm God's child whether I qualify for Boston or never run another stride. But it is a peace of mind thing: to be healthy, to live a life that sees the abundant goodness of God, I'm going to have to suffer a bit. In this case, some pain does equal some gain, and I'm willing to give the one in hopes of receiving the other.

Grace & peace,

02 July 2009

2009 Reading List - January through June

Here's a list of the books I've read in 2009 thus far. It's not as large as I'd like it to be, but when you get all your kids to bed sometimes it's all you can do to catch up on a TV show befor turning in. I like to read books that require me to think, and that's not easy when you're exhausted at 9PM, right?

Anyway, iPod and other audio books are noted with an asterisk (*), and books I'd recommend are listed in bold type. Happy reading!

1. Peace Like A River by Leif Enger
2. Atonement by Ian McEwan
*3. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
4. Jesus Wants To Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile by Rob Bell and Don Golden
5. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
*6. Sabriel by Garth Nix
7. Home by Marilynne Robinson
*8. Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell
9. One Magical Sunday (But Winning Isn't Everything) by Phil Mickelson with Donald T. Phillips
10. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
*11. Imperium by Robert Harris
*12. The Mighty Johns And Other Stories by David Baldacci, Anne Perry, Dennis LeHane et al.
*13. Lirael: Daugher of the Clayr by Garth Nix
*14. The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education by Craig Mullaney

Some Light Summer Reading?

Every once in a while you get the chance to read a book that surprises you by how much it kicks your ass. I started one this week: Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction: Christianity and the Battle for the Soul of a Nation by Rodney Clapp. (Click on the picture of the book for a link to Amazon.) Here's just one example of the can of whupp-ass Clapp brings to the subject:
"Technologically enamored, plutocratic proponents of nationhood like to envision America as an invulnerable, innocent behemoth, able to overcome any and all limitations. Ronald Reagan represented this bizarrely inflated, wildly optimistic Americanism with his 1987 comment that, 'The calendar can't measure America because we are meant to be an endless experiment in freedom, with no limit to our reaches, no boundaries to what we can do, no end point to our hopes.' This blatantly theological statement denies creatureliness and casts America in godlike terms. It makes the nation an entity without limits, infinite in power and reach, eternal in its endurance. Such attitudes have real-world consequences. They lie behind American attempts
to control political affairs in societies across the globe, as well as a willful
eagerness to dismiss the ecological damages and costs of our extravagantly
consumeristic way of life. They imagine there will always be another
technological fix, that the powerful and wealthy, at least, will be able to take
care of themselves, and that human progress will continue indefinitely, if not
forever. All these are strange, incongrous attitudes for what fashions
itself as 'conservatism.' They are also rather infantile attitudes - the
expectation of the infant that all else exists to serve its needs, that any
limits set before it are only to be overcome by protest and ingenuity, that
frustration is never to be endured but always removed by eliminating its
sources. Such attitudes form citizens fit to live in a democracy for moral
infants and adolescents, rather than a democracy for grown-ups."

Sometimes you read the book - and sometimes the book reads you. Nice to get the chance to do a little 'light reading' while vacationing in Nebraska. As you were.

Grace & peace,