23 December 2009

Culture Roundup: I See Blue People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 December 2009

Setting Boundaries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace & peace,

13 December 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid.

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

11 December 2009

Simul iustus et peccator. Painfully so.

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

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

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

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

Grace & peace,

Just Putting This Here

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

08 December 2009

Snow and Shane

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

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

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

Stay warm, friends!

06 December 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Luke 1.76-79