30 November 2009

Pop Culture Roundup

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

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

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

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

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

Grace & peace,

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

27 November 2009

Big Red Bullets: Nebraska vs. Colorado 2009

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

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

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

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

Go Big Red!


25 November 2009

Thanksgiving 2009 Message

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

A reading from Matthew:

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

Word of God, word of life.

Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics.

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

Grey and Ugly

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

There were many contributing factors. In no particular order:

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

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

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

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

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

Grace & peace,

16 November 2009

Literary Gluttony - Calorie-Free Bliss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace & peace,

14 November 2009

Bullets from a Big Red Believer: NU-Kansas Review

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

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

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

13 November 2009

Good Book Groups Make Good Pastors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace and peace,

09 November 2009

Creativity and the Priesthood of All Believers

We're going to try something new at Sunday morning worship in a few weeks. We're going to have a potluck sermon.

Lutherans are famous for potluck dinners, where each participant brings something and the community eats, well, communally. It's the subject of many jokes, of course, most notably in The Lutheran Handbook, where the authors offer practical advice such as "What To Bring To A Church Potluck (By Region)," breaking it down into the three staples (salad, casserole, dessert) and insisting that in lieu of any of the above, any gelatin mixed with fruit, miniature marshmallows and/or shredded carrots is a perfectly acceptable substitute. But I digress.

The point of the potluck is, of course, that all may be fed without one person being responsible for the feast. Everyone has their favorites, and in long-established communities some people are depended upon for certain dishes. My mother's Butterfinger Dessert is always a hit, but I'm making a bit of a name for myself with my Potatoes and Peppers. My favorite thing about potlucks is the sheer variety you can get. A plate filled with little helpings of many different dishes is just heavenly, in my opinion, and I usually go back to hit the stuff for which I didn't have room on my plate the first time through.

That's kind of the point of the potluck sermon as well. Unfortunately, for all that the church encourages people to bring their own gifts to meals, we don't have a very good track record at encouraging people to bring their own gifts into worship, especially the younger members of our communities. It's not intentional - most every church I know wishes that more folks would be active participants in worship. And I'm not sure what the reason behind the problem may be, either. But the end result is this: our campus ministry worship could very easily become dominated by the same small group of folks, with myself at the center of it all, and that's just not healthy for any faith community.

So here's what we're going to do. The readings for the first Sunday in Advent will be posted online and at University Lutheran Center over the next few weeks, and people will be encouraged to use their gifts to preach on the first Sunday in Advent. It's going to be open media: paint, write a poem, sing a song, write a reflection, dance - the format can be whatever you want it to be. What matters is that people understand that we all have something to offer when it comes to interpreting God's word in the world in which we live. True, not everyone has the same gifts for proclamation - but heck, people who bring KFC to potlucks are still feeding their neighbors, aren't they? So if it's a U2 video you want to share, have at it - just bring it and offer it to the group, and see what God might have to say.

I have no idea how effective this is going to be. It could flop - it might be me and one other brave soul offering something to the community. But there's a need for all of us to understand that worship isn't solely the province of the professionals. We pastors are called to equip the saints for ministry, not to do it for them, just as a potluck dinner isn't a potluck dinner if just one person is doing the cooking. Here's hoping everyone gets a taste of the same delight I feel when I wolf down a plate of yummy potluck food - and that everyone gets fed well, too.

Grace & peace,

ps: I just found out that the Rev. Dr. Herbert Brokering died over the weekend. His hymn "Earth and All Stars" is a perfectly appropriate hymn for this kind of thing: the idea of classrooms, labs and loud-boiling test tubes singing a song to God is not the sort of thing we tend to expect, but it's true nonetheless. Here's singer/songwriter Jonathan Rundman leading a congregation in singing "Earth and All Stars"

pps: I forgot to add that this idea was generated by this post at A Church for Starving Artists. You really should read that blog if you're at all interested in ministry that encompasses both the 'traditional' Protestant folks and those who are interested in doing and trying new ways to embody the faith.

08 November 2009

Nebraska 10, Oklahoma 3

Some postgame thoughts after a HUGE Nebraska win.

1. When did Bob Newhart become an NCAA referee? And could he be fired soon? Larry and Daryl and the other Daryl should go, too. That was some pretty incompetent officiating out there. Thankfully it seemed to be balanced incompetence that didn't favor either team.

2. Given the choice between watching Nebraska's offense and removing my own appendix with a spoon, I might just ask for a fifth of Jack Daniels and start digging.

3. Ndamukong Suh is a baaaaaaaaaaaad man.

4. One of the most promising developments from 2007 to today is this: Nebraska knows how to make open field tackles. Frankly, in 27 years of watching as much Cornhusker football as I can, I've never seen the Blackshirts tackle like they do today. It's a thing of beauty.

5. I think we can all agree that Matt O'Hanlon has now officially worked off that one blown coverage against Virginia Tech, can't we?

6. Philip Dillard isn't just out of Pelini's doghouse: he's burned it to the ground, kicked over its ashes, and urinated all over the thing. It's a good thing it's a metaphorical doghouse.

7. Considering how last Saturday night/Sunday morning went for the unfortunate cars that got in Mr. Suh's way, I'm thinking everyone parks in the driveway in Lincoln tonight. Or maybe on the lawn.

8. One nice thing about being forced to catch up to the game on DVR - blowing right through whatever crap the announcers are unloading during the fade-in after commercials. And avoiding halftime commentary entirely.

9. Nebraska won, Notre Dame lost. Doesn't get much better than that, does it?

10. Oh, wait, yes it does - God has finally abandoned the Hawkeyes, leaving them no avenue of escape from a loss they so richly deserve. Now, if God and I could just get on the same page about how nobody ever covers the spread anymore...

04 November 2009

On Seasons, Sleep and Trust

Sent this, more or less, to our students today:

"In peace, I will lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me rest secure." Psalm 4.8

It's the time of year when I tend to get a little anxious about things at our house. No, this isn't our house pictured here, no matter how much I might wish it were. Our little ranch here in Ames is nowhere near as stately, but at this time of year, every house and property needs a good bit of "putting away" at the end of autumn. There are leaves to be raked and mulched, windows to clean and caulk, and in my case, a long, long list of projects I'd hoped to do over the summer that time and other demands simply wouldn't allow me to complete. The shed I hoped to move into the corner? Still occupying a good portion of the yard. The garden I'd hoped to start? Still a dream. The gate I hoped to replace? Might get done if I can convince our daughters to stop getting sick long enough that I can actually take a day off to, well, have a day off and put the thing in the ground. True, I did rebuild our fence to keep the dog in the yard, and just this week I got the first coat of fresh paint on the front door. But there's a LOT that I never got to because life just gets in the way sometimes.

Like it or not, in a few short weeks any possibility to complete these projects will be gone, buried under frost, freezing temperatures and, hopefully, a nice blanket of snow. The hostas will snooze over the winter, the yard will lie dormant, and the only work I'll be doing outside will be lights in December and shoveling all winter long. The earth in this part of the country will sleep, as it does every winter, whether our grand plans have come to fruition or not.

Perhaps you're feeling that frantic, "but I didn't get it all done!" feeling, too. Or maybe, like my daughters, you're fighting the need for rest with everything you've got because there's just so much to see and do yet. My daughters come by this honestly - I'm a notorious night-owl and early riser all at once, and have remarked more than once to my wife, "Life would be just grand if we didn't have to sleep." But sleep, and die, we must - there is a time for all things to be awake and alive and a time for all things to rest, to end, to lie dormant and wait for the resurrecting hand of their Creator.

I love winter, too, but in a few months I'll be outside peering at the ground, waiting for those first blades of green to emerge from our flower beds and in our lawn. And I'll be amazed at the wonder of God's life-giving hand bringing our part of the world out of death into life all over again. Because, as Psalm 121 says, "the keeper of Israel does not slumber or sleep," and we can trust that the one who brings all things to rest will awaken them when the time to rise has come.

As you move toward these things, rest secure in this knowledge: the God who watches over you knows you need rest at times, and you may trust absolutely in the care and keeping of this One who has created you. This world turns at God's bidding, and the same God who draws the autumn to its close and brings springtime out of winter will watch over you as you work AND as you rest. While it is time, friends, do your work to the utmost of your ability; and when the time for rest has come, rest in the unfathomable peace of the living, never-slumbering God.

Grace and peace,

03 November 2009

Mourning, Reading, Watching, Listening

Renowned composer and organist Paul Manz died last week of cancer. He was a wonderful gift to the church and a man of great dignity and grace. In 1999, I had the distinct pleasure of singing his best known work, "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come" under Manz' own baton for a service of lessons and carols for Advent with the choir of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, where his son, John, was on the pastoral staff. What I remember of the experience was the absolute clarity, focus and musicianship he brought to the ensemble. And, of course, he blessed us by sitting down to the organ for a hymn or two. His death is a great loss to music as a whole, and Lutheran music in particular. Here's the best version of "E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come" I could find via YouTube. I think I may have posted this before, but it's worth another listen if you've got the time:

Let's see - other stuff.

Having finished Trinity by Leon Uris, I'm now well into the sequel, Redemption. Calling it a sequel is a bit much to this point: in a rather bizarre fashion, Uris used Redemption to flesh out some of the story from Trinity, telling stories we've already heard from other characters' perspectives and so on. It's still good writing, but the constant "haven't I read this before?" gets a bit dreary. Thankfully, we're drawing near to the end of the retelling, and there's a lot of book to go, so I'm expecting the remainder to pick up quite a bit.

I'm really excited for tonight's premiere of the new "V" on ABC. Even cooler, SciFi (no, I will NOT use their new version - it's not spelled "Scyence Fyction," you morons) has been rebroadcasting the original miniseries and episodes. Since Alanna is home with a fever today, we spent a few hours watching the original miniseries this morning. Ah, childhood memories. And the show itself is surprisingly good. Decent effects for TV at that time, and not nearly as clunky as I expected it to be. And what other miniseries had Freddy Kruger as a bumbling alien?

After using his song "Holy Now" for my sermon on Sunday, I've been listening to a lot of Peter Mayer this week. This would be the Peter Mayer who does NOT play lead guitar with Jimmy Buffett, although that Peter Mayer is cool, too (and Lutheran! The Jimmy Buffett one, that is.). So, here's another Peter Mayer tune, "Molly O'Malley's" Enjoy.

Grace & peace,

01 November 2009

It Could Have Been Much, Much Worse

It could have been like this:

On Thursday, we took the girls to a local middle school to be vaccinated against H1N1.


It was not a pleasant way to spend my day off. For one thing, it was raining. All day. Two kids plus one dog trapped inside all day = two cranky kids, one wound up dog, and two exhausted parents. By 10:00 A.M. I was so fed up I took Jack for a walk in the rain just to get him out of the house and out from underfoot. Everyone was happier for at least a little while after that.

Eventually we journeyed off to the flu clinic. And I mean everyone but the cats. "Oh, let's get Jack out of the house - it won't be THAT long, will it?" Not the last thing I was wrong about Thursday, either.

We were in line for almost two hours. At one point I heard the line wrapped around the entire interior of the building and out the door. It was pretty close to that when we arrived; I don't know how early folks started showing up to get in front. As it was, the girls were really wonderful: some fussiness, but not nearly what we had feared. We did have one absolute heart-stopper when Ainsley got away from us and we lost her for the longest five minutes of my life, but a county sheriff found her and then found us (cue huge sigh of relief and ten minutes of blushing, since we'd just lost our child in front of every parent in Story County, Iowa).

Another "it could have been worse" moment was the poor dad a few families in front of us. He had two boys with him - I'd put them at approximately 8 and 4 years old. The 4 year old was Matthew. I know this because of the Litany: "Matthew, stay here with me. Matthew, please don't lick the glass. Matthew, don't go into the girls' bathroom. Matthew, let me tie your shoe." Ad nauseum. The poor, poor man.

Finally, we got into Hell. I mean, the room where they do the vaccinations. I said Hell at first because if I ever go there, I expect the first thing I'll hear is a lot of screaming children, if whoever runs Hell knows what they're doing - the reaction was unpleasant in the extreme. Thanking heaven that we could both our day off together, we filled out the paperwork as fast as possible, leapfrogging Matthew's poor dad in the process. Matthew, at this point, had been reduced to a puddle of crying boy, punctuated by moments where he tried to get away like a feral cat cornered by a vicious dog. The poor, poor man.

The girls took their medicine well. Alanna got a shot, since she's already gotten her regular flu shot. Ainsley got the nasal spray. Two minutes of tears, then out into the rain for the drive home. Jack the dog, bless his heart, hadn't chewed on a thing in the van, and was so pathetically glad to see us I think I might have forgiven him if I had. By the time we got home, everyone was happy and singing.

Being a huge Stephen King fan, the opening chapters of The Stand popped into my head several times during the afternoon. For those who don't know the plot, here's the basics: the government develops a shifting-antigen flu, which basically means that every time our bodies fight off the flu, it morphs into a different strain until our immune systems can't keep up. Of course the flu escapes its sterile environment, and eventually the pandemic wipes out some 90% of the population of the world. I realized as we were standing in line that when King wrote those chapters about the flu, he pretty much hit it right on the head. First people hear rumors of a pandemic virus, then the first few cases show up, and pretty soon it's ravaging the local population.

Of course, the first few times I read the book (somewhere around 13 or 14 years old, I think), I told myself, "I would go out into the mountains with a shotgun and a month of food before I'd fall victim to a virus like that." Thankfully, H1N1 isn't nearly as deadly for most of us, but it's really easy to find yourself amazed at what sheep we are sometimes. If I remember right, King describes a flu clinic EXACTLY like what we went through last week, with a false vaccine, just to keep the population from rioting. And here we were, obediently standing in line to be vaccinated, just like in the book. So much for the mountains and a shotgun, huh?

I am, however, grateful for the public health folks who are working so hard to help keep the virus under control. My paranoid mind-wanderings aside, we were treated with kindness and efficiency; they got a LOT of people through the line in a very quick hurry, and those of us with small kids were grateful for the extra protection against what sounds like a pretty nasty bug. It makes me realize, again, how fortunate we are to live here in this time - and how important it is to continue working on behalf of those who do not yet have access to the healthcare we so often take for granted.

Grace & peace,

The picture is a quarantine clinic during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918.

Sermon for All Saints Day - "On Sainthood"

What is a saint?

Would you consider Lazarus a saint? He’s listed among the commemorations our church observes, according to the list in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. On July 29th, we remember Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, all three of whom figure large in the gospel of John. So the ‘official’ word from the church is that, yes, Lazarus is a saint, as are Mary and Martha. But what do we know of Lazarus that would suggest he is a saint? The Roman Catholic church believes Lazarus, Mary and Martha wound up in Provence, France, and that Lazarus was the first Bishop of Marseille. The Eastern Orthodox church believes Lazarus lived in Cyprus and became the first Bishop of a city called Larnaka. But folks, there are a LOT of bishops in the church, and a great many of them accomplished deeds worthy of commemorations, but the ‘official’ commemorations don’t list very many of them. So if Lazarus is a saint, it isn’t because of the quality of his ministry, whether it was in Cyprus, France or anywhere else.

Now, of course, the traditional answer would be that Lazarus is a saint because he has gone in to the rest of death and waits, like all the beloved dead, for the day when God will fulfill God’s promises about heaven and earth. But here’s the thing: even though Lazarus occupies a special place in the history of the church, that place has not been given to him because of his great works of faith. There are plenty of people who also rest in the sleep of death whose accomplishments have far outstripped Lazarus – wouldn’t we want to consider them saints as well?

No, it seems that Lazarus is not a saint because of who he was or what he did. And he’s not a saint for being dead. So, then, why would we consider Lazarus a saint? The only answer that remains is this: Lazarus was raised from the dead and set free by Jesus. No work of his own to celebrate, no death in which to hide any longer: Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, unremarkable resident of Bethany, is a saint for this one reason: Jesus called him out of death and set him free into life. And if that’s the definition of sainthood, then it isn’t just Lazarus who’s dealing with a new world: you and I will find things changed as well.

A saint is someone who has been raised and set free into new life in Jesus Christ. Period. Don’t believe me? The New Testament is filled to overflowing with words about the ordinary saints God has called into being:

· Second Peter 2.9-10: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,* in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. 10Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

· Acts 9.32-35: 32Now as Peter went here and there among all the believers, he came down also to the saints living in Lydda. 33There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years, for he was paralyzed. 34Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!” And immediately he got up. 35And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.

· Ephesians 2.19: 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

· Paul’s letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians all begin with some variation of this phrase: Paul, an apostle, to those called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

What if sainthood isn’t something you earn, and it isn’t what you become after death? What is being a saint is a matter of right here, right now? Peter and Paul and the other writers of the New Testament are unified in this belief: we are saints now, in this life, because in his own resurrection Jesus has broken heaven into our world and started, already, the remaking of all creation into the glorious reign of God. And if this is true, then everything changes for us, doesn’t it? The whole world is different as a result. Everything matters a whole lot more.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Great Divorce, in which he described a picture of life after death. Everyone lives in a grey city, where everything seems washed out and used up, lifeless and drab. But for some reason, there’s a bus that takes people to a place filled with vibrant, terrible life, with huge beasts that cavort and romp around them, where everything is so solid and real that the grass cuts the feet of those who are newly arrived. Some of the folks are terrified in this new place and clamber back onto the bus, going back to the drab world because they can’t stand the reality of the new world. But others come to see that it is themselves who must be changed, and as that happens the new world becomes a place of wonder and delight. I’ve loved this story for years, but I wonder: why would Lewis write it as though it were only after death that it happens? I think that sainthood, in this world, is much the same: terrifying at the start for the vibrancy and depth with which we begin to see the world, but in time, wondrous and beautiful, deeper and wider and more achingly real than we could ever imagine.

I started writing this sermon Friday morning at Café Diem, where I was also waiting to see my daughters come trick-or-treating with their day care groups. It was the first trick-or-treat for Alanna, and the first time Ainsley picked out her own costume, and I wanted to see it happen. There in the coffee house, writing my sermon and waiting for what was to come, it occurred to me that this is really what the life of sainthood is all about. We live in this world, where there is much work to do, work that matters a great deal. Yet we also live with an eye toward the future, knowing that at some point, God will reveal the full creation as it is meant to be, and we will rejoice with gladness as a result. Understanding sainthood doesn’t make this world less important: as God’s saints, we are given new eyes with which to see the world, eyes that recognize the wonder and beauty in the simplest, most ordinary things.

We celebrate the saints today, living and dead. In a few minutes we’ll remember those who have gone before us into death, not necessarily because of their great deeds, but because of the great love with which they lived in our lives. Conversation over a cup of coffee; hugs and kisses at bedtime; shared meals and laughter and tears and prayers: these are the signs of sainthood as much as any miracle, if not more so. And having lived among the saints, we begin to realize that every moment is holy, that life itself is God’s first great gift to the saints. Here in this place, as we remember the baptism that brought us into the community of the saints, as we share the meal where Christ is present for all the saints, the curtain between heaven and earth is pulled back and we see that to be a saint is to know, in this moment, that heaven is breaking into this world. Hear now, in this moment, that you are God’s saints, raised out of death and set free in the holy creation of God, now and forever. Amen.

Holy Now

When I was a boy, each week
On Sunday, we would go to church
And pay attention to the priest
He would read the holy word
And consecrate the holy bread
And everyone would kneel and bow
Today the only difference is
Everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
‘Cause everything’s a miracle
Everything, Everything
Everything’s a miracle

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one

When holy water was rare at best
It barely wet my fingertips
But now I have to hold my breath
Like I’m swimming in a sea of it
It used to be a world half there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now
Everything, everything
Everything is holy now

Read a questioning child’s face
And say it’s not a testament
That’d be very hard to say
See another new morning come
And say it’s not a sacrament
I tell you that it can’t be done

This morning, outside I stood
And saw a little red-winged bird
Shining like a burning bush
Singing like a scripture verse
It made me want to bow my head
I remember when church let out
How things have changed since then
Everything is holy now
It used to be a world half-there
Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down
But I walk it with a reverent air
‘Cause everything is holy now