30 September 2009

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 10 Years Later

Tomorrow night, representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Methodist Church will gather in Chicago to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It was, and remains, a significant moment in the relationship between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, who were the first to be separated by the condemnations of the Reformation and subsequent disagreements.

Here's the thing, though: the JDDJ isn't worth much more than the paper on which it is printed.

Don't misunderstand: our relationship with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters is better now than it has been for centuries, and that is a good thing, worthy of celebration. But let's not pretend that unity exists where it does not, and the JDDJ has not removed the difference between us in how we view salvation:

The good Cardinal George shows us the difference that still exists between Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the doctrine of justification. Lutherans believe that works are not meritorious - that, in fact, works can be a dangerous distraction from the grace freely and fully given by Christ without our cooperation or worthiness. As Luther himself said, "The Law says, 'Do this,' and it is never done. Grace says, 'believe this,' and everything is already done."

This is not to say that Lutherans despise works, either - we merely note that their place is completely separated from salvation. Good works are the deeds of one who has already been saved by the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. Good works are an important part of the faith we share as Christians; indeed, Luther also described Christians as "most free lords of all, subject to none, and most dutiful servants of all, subject to all." As Paul writes in Galatians, "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but rhough love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" Works are important - they are the means by which we live out the grace God has bestowed upon us. But a theology that confesses that works are meritorious is not a salvation of justification by grace through faith apart from the works of the law, and we shouldn't pretend that it is.

Ten years ago, Lutherans and Roman Catholics gathered at a church in Augsburg to sign a document stating that we no longer condemn each other as we once had. That, in itself, is a noteworthy accomplishment in the history of our blessed church, the Body of Christ in which we are indeed one regardless of what our differences may be. Those differences remain, however, and should not be minimized or glossed over. Let us continue to converse with one another, to speak the truth to each other, and pray for the day when we can, at last, celebrate an agreement about salvation upon which we fully and completely agree.

Grace & peace,

The picture is the pulpit in the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, Germany. Luther's tomb is just under the pulpit.

28 September 2009

Bizarro Moment of the Night

On the recommendation of a student, I sat down & watched The Reaping tonight after everyone else had gone to bed. Not a terrible movie. Not great, but not terrible. Basic story (no spoilers) is this: Woman of Faith ordained in some faith resembling Catholicism (but obviously not, because, duh, she's WOMAN of Faith. But it has to be Roman Catholic because, really, whoever heard of a non-RC priest studying ancient prophecies at a monastery in the middle of the desert?) becomes Woman of Science after losing husband and child whilst serving God in Africa. Woman of Science proceeds to debunk as many miracles as she can, making a name for herself in the process and, apparently, leading her to a professorship at LSU (I didn't know they had a forensic mythology debunking department at LSU, but they showed the football stadium, so Q.E.D. she's a professor of miracle debunking at LSU). Small town in Louisiana sends Handsome Single Guy to LSU because, apparently, the Ten Plagues of Exodus are happening again, and they need her help to explain what's actually going on. And the local police are more incompetent than Handsome Single Guy. Add dramatic tension in the form of a possibly innocent young girl the same age as Woman of Science's daughter would be, move to the inevitable realization that something more than science is going on, and stir. Serve with popcorn in a dark room late at night.

After watching a movie on DVD, I usually check out the special features, in the hopes there might be something interesting. The special features for The Reaping included one piece entitled "The Science Behind the Ten Plagues." I figured, what the heck - let's see what they've got to say.

The minute the feature begins, I hear a familiar voice. Then I realize it's Dr. Terry Fretheim, Professor of Old Testament at my alma mater, Luther Seminary.

My Old Testament professor, who is a man of great faith, is on a special feature about the scientific explanation of the Ten Plagues of Exodus. Said special feature is attached to a movie about how the Ten Plagues happen again. Except that they aren't the Ten Plagues. And the woman working so hard to disprove them becomes a believer again, because of the plagues, even though the plagues that seem to be happening aren't really the plagues, or, at least, they aren't the Biblical plagues, which she's still not sure about. Meanwhile, the special feature featuring a faithful OT professor tries to show how they weren't plagues at all. Did you get all that?

Yeah. Me neither. But it sure is funny to think about as I head off to bed.

Grace & peace,

27 September 2009

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost - "Part of the Stumbling Rabble"

Who was the “rabble,” anyway? The writer of Numbers mentions “rabble among” the Israelites, but doesn’t give a definition. Who were they? What was their story? How did they get hooked up with the people of Israel? Moses is leading a family of some 600,000 who all descended from Jacob during their sojourn and captivity in Egypt; how did a “rabble” get thrown in with them?

What about Eldad and Medad? The Bible says they prophesied, but it doesn’t say what they said, nor does it ever mention them after this. Who were they? Why was it so important to mention them? What’s the difference if they prophesied in the camp or not?

What was James talking about, with all this healing jargon? I’ve never healed a single person in my life, though I’ve prayed fervently for their health. James says that Elijah was a human being just like us, but I’ve never felt the call to command a three-and-a-half-year drought, and challenging queens and kings just isn’t my thing. Does that mean I’m not righteous? I’d love to bring back sinners from wandering, but I can’t even get my wife to stack the dishes right – how am I supposed to do these greater things?

Who was this mysterious person casting out demons in Jesus’ name? He didn’t give a name to John, and John didn’t give one to Jesus. Who was he? Jesus was teaching his disciples, his 12 closest companions, but they completely missed everything Jesus said – how was some unknown healer able to do miracles in Jesus’ name? Why was John so worried?

It seems like everything in my life causes me to stumble. Even the good things make me stumble. How much to I need to remove to make sure I enter the kingdom of God? Where do I start? Where does it end?

And the most important question in all of these goes unasked: Who am I? Let us pray.

Father, we come to You confused and uncertain. The dangers that surround us are not nearly so threatening as the dangers with us. We stumble and wander and lose sight of You, our Keeper and Protector. Make us whole. Heal our wounds. Feed us with Your love, and guide us through our darkness. In Your Son’s name we pray. Amen.

The quick and easy way to address these readings would be to give short, to the point answers to all the questions that get raised. For example, Bible scholars suggest that the “rabble” were slaves in Egypt from other lands: when the Israelites got the heck outta Dodge after the Passover, the “rabble” got outta Dodge with them.

Eldad and Medad? Never appear again in the Bible. We’re not sure what their prophesying contained. Their prophesy isn’t the point of the story, anyway, so you don’t need to worry about them.

James & Elijah? Special people for special times. Not in the same circumstances as we are today. The call of a prophet is for a certain time and place, and the time of the prophets ended with the last, John the Baptist, who pointed to Jesus as the new and only prophet of God His Father. Healing miracles are a function of the Bible’s record, nothing more – we would understand it much differently today, with our medicine and our electricity and nearly all the mystery of human existence crowded out by technology and science. Don’t worry about healing miracles and your righteousness: we live differently today.

This is the quick and easy way to address these readings. Every word I just said is true: I’ve said some of these words myself in certain situations where they seemed appropriate. But there’s nothing of God in these words. Explanation, yes. Interpretation, yes. Definition, yes. But are these words of salvation? No – and that’s the problem. One cannot explain, interpret or define one’s way into the kingdom of God; that takes a word of promise.

Moses can’t bring us a word of promise today: he’s too busy worrying about the discerning palate of the rabble. It seems that freedom in the wilderness, with a daily ration of manna, is not as tasty as slavery with a dash of onion & leek soup.

John can’t bring us a word of promise today: he’s too busy worry about the renegade exorcist who hasn’t filled out the requisite paperwork required of a proper disciple. It seems that following in the footsteps of the disciples is more important than casting out demons in the name of the one the disciples are following.

What’s going on here is the usual list of blunders, performed by a cast of thousands. It’s enough to make anyone with a smidge of hope for the human race weep uncontrollably. Moses can’t handle the rabble. James thinks that we just aren’t praying right. John and the disciples are still missing the point. Jesus can’t teach, so he resorts to threats. God pulls a page out of my mother’s playbook and says, “Fine – you want meat?!? I’ll GIVE you meat!” Where, oh where, shall I find my hope? What shall I, a simple campus pastor, do to find a gracious God this morning?

Then, suddenly, the promise is there, hidden underneath all the debris of our failings and God’s anger. Here is the promise: the rabble were allowed to stay. No one cast them away from the people of Israel. Not only were the rabble allowed to stay, but they were fed with the same miraculous manna. No crumbs from the table here – the rabble had a place of honor next to the children of Abraham, and even in anger God did not cast them away.

Here is the promise: we’re still here. God has not cast us away, though we deserved it many times over. When manna came from God’s hand, to sustain us in the wilderness, we rejected it: but God did not reject us. When others who were not of our fellowship did deeds of power in God’s name, we questioned their place instead of praising their faith, but God did not reject us. We stumble; we complain; we miss the point; we hitched a ride with God’s chosen people through a gift given to us in baptism, but we're still here. We are part of the stumbling rabble, lurching heavenward, and it is God who keeps us on the march, regardless of our mistakes. The promise comes out of heaven: we stumbling rabble belong to God, and even in anger God will not forsake any of us who stumble together here.

So here we are, stumbling toward heaven. Martin Bell wrote a story about us once: it’s called Rag-Tag Army:

If God were more sensible he would take his little army and shape them up. Why, whoever heard of a soldier stopping to romp in a field? It’s ridiculous. But even more absurd is a general who will stop the march of eternity to go and bring him back. But that’s God for you. His is no endless, empty marching. He’s going somewhere. His steps are deliberate and purposive. He may be old, and tired. But he knows where he’s going. And he means to take every last one of his tiny soldiers with him. Only there aren’t going to be any forced marches… And even though our foreheads have been signed with the sign of the cross, we are only human. And most of us are afraid and lonely and would like to hold hands or cry or run away. And we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t seem to trust God – especially when it’s dark out and we can’t see him! And he won’t go on without us. And that’s why it’s taking so long.[1]

Stumbling rabble or rag-tag army, we are part of a great cloud of witnesses to God’s patience, God’s determination, God’s creative and redeeming work in us, deserved or not. The question that was unasked before? Who am I? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem with the same title. He said:

Who I really am, you know me, I am yours, oh God![2]

And that’s all that really matters. Christ told His disciples to remove all the things that made them stumble, to cut away everything that caused sin, so that they would gain the kingdom of God. But the greatest thing that causes any of us to stumble is a lack of trust in God’s mercy. So Jesus cut himself off from God to give us the kingdom. He gave himself up as a willing sacrifice so that we might see the depth and reach of God’s forgiveness. Even killing the very Son of God was not enough to cause God to reject the stumbling rabble and cast them away.

The word of promise remains: God loves the stumbling rabble, in spite of our many mistakes and our costly blunders and our insistence on following the wrong people and believing the wrong things. You are loved by a God whose love is reckless and passionate – trust in that love, to pick you up when you stumble and to hold on to you when your sins make you fall away from the family. And may God’s peace, which passes all understanding, keep your mind and your heart and your life in Christ Jesus our Savior and Lord. Amen.

[1] Bell, Martin. The Way of the Wolf: The Gospel in New Images. © 1968-1970 by Martin Bell, published by allantine Publishing Group, 1983. p. 90-91

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Wer bin Ich? – Who Am I? from Voices in the Night: The Prison Poems of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Edwin Robertson, Editor & Translator. © 1999 by Zondervan Publishing House. p. 46

24 September 2009

Happy As...

Have I mentioned that I love my work? Here's my Wednesday as proof of why I resemble Porky here most days.
  • Wake up at 6:00ish and spend a little time in prayer and reading before getting the girls up.
  • 8:30 - Drop the kids off at pre-school/day care.
  • 9:00 - stop back at home for coffee and a few things I forgot.
  • 10:00 - hit the office with a travel mug of hot coffee. Spend an hour playing with new email format, which works like a charm on my first attempt.
  • 11:00 - read through my blogroll and spend some time pondering the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (post coming next week).
  • 12:00 - lunch, then I read the daily newspaper, my #1 sermon help.
  • 1:00 - Spend an hour or so working on Sunday worship and the sermon.
  • 2:00 - Spend an hour prepping for the Bible study on Ruth 3 for later that evening, and 30 minutes getting last details nailed down for Evening Prayer.
  • 3:00 - go to the music store for new guitar strings for Ruby and Susannah, then to pre-school to pick up Ainsley.
  • 3:45 - go to our church to pick up Jack, drop off my Bible and study materials for later that night. Pick up Alanna from day care and go home. Change Ruby's strings while the girls watch Sesame Street, then play with them for a while.
  • 5:30 - head to St. Andrew's for Church On Wednesday (C.O.W.), where the evening meal is, surprise, pizza! Yay!
  • 6:15 - play guitar for a short devotional/worship time.
  • 6:30 - lead the Ruth study for which I prepared earlier in the day.
  • 7:30 - take the girls home and wait for Steph the babysitter to arrive.
  • 8:15 - head to University Lutheran Center for a brief sing-through of the choir piece for Sunday, and put the sanctuary in order for Evening Prayer.
  • 9:00 - Evening Prayer, with session #2 of our worship series as the message.
  • 9:45 - Almost-Free Pizza (which I denied myself, since I'd already had pizza for supper) and a great conversation with students.
  • 10:30ish - home for the night. A beer, the evening paper, and the first few pages of Trinity by Leon Uris to finish off the night. Life is good.
It could all change in a second - I'm aware of that. But, for tonight, I am truly happy as a pig in...

Grace & peace,

21 September 2009

Rainy Monday Road Trip

It's a rainy, grey day here in Ames. As I drove the girls to their day care this morning, I thought more than once that it felt as though I were in Ireland again (luckily, I kept my American head enough to stay on the right side of the road).

The thing I love about Ireland - indeed, most of Europe that I've seen - is the way the density of the population leads to a near-bewildering web of roads. Beloved and I discovered this on our Germany honeymoon. Landing in Frankfurt, we set off for Bamberg, thinking it would be an easy two-hour drive on the Autobahn. Unfortunately, our directions were American-style: " take A3-A4-A7, etc." Works great in the American midwest, where you can travel for hours on one road and never vary more than a point or two off the compass direction along which you started. But an hour after leaving Frankfurt, we were lost. Hopelessly lost. Off the map, no idea where we are lost. Looking back, it's hilarious, but at the moment it was more than a little stressful. We learned that planning car trips in Europe means going to towns, not along routes, as in "Rothenburg to Oberdachstetten to Hainklingen to Ammerndorf to Oberasbach to Nurnberg." More or less. Of course, in some cases, the freeways are faster, and you can somewhat direct yourself via routes if you like. But we found that finding our way around Germany by map and town was far simpler AND far, far more scenic and rewarding. Winding your Peugot around those little roads, driving through towns where every house has windowboxes full of flowers in bloom - these are the off-the-track joys of travel in unfamiliar places.

So, consider this post a chance to check out some unfamiliar territory, courtesy of your friendly travel guide. Here are some links worthy of your attention.
I think that'll do for today. Hoping to have an original post worth contemplating tomorrow. For now, you've got your directions - enjoy the open road.

Grace & peace,

20 September 2009

Sermon for the 16th Sunday of Pentecost: "Children on the Way of the Cross"

When I started college at the University of Nebraska I majored in music education. I was going to the U to practice, work hard, and possibly earn a spot with a major symphony in their trombone section. But if my dream of the Chicago Symphony didn’t pan out, I figured I would enjoy being a band director. Heck, everyone thought I should do it – I was the music guy in my high school and in my conference. I was first chair in the All-State Band as a senior, and St. Olaf had accepted me into their music program, so why wouldn’t I succeed?

Three years later, things had changed. I discovered that though I loved music, I did NOT love music education. What I did love, however, was God. Most importantly, I loved the idea of serving God professionally, so I dropped the music major for work in religion and philosophy, and I began preparing for seminary. But I stayed active in the music programs at the University, because I did love making music with my friends.

In the fall of my fourth year in Lincoln, I was preparing to become the principal euphonium player for the Wind Ensemble, the premier performance group, with whom I had been playing for two years. The previous year I had been second chair euphonium, but Pete, the principal, had graduated and so I assumed that the chair was mine. To be honest, I was looking forward to taking over the principal chair; I thought my time had come.

As I entered the audition room, the director greeted me warmly, heard my audition, nodded, and asked a question I hadn’t expected: “Why didn’t you prepare a trombone audition?” I told him that I had assumed I would be playing euphonium again that year, that he and the other directors knew my skills as a trombonist, and that one audition, I thought, would suffice. He nodded again, listened to the remainder of my audition, thanked me for my time, and I left.

The roster was posted the following day. You can imagine my shock when I discovered that I was not the principal euphonium player. I had been replaced by two freshmen, both of whom were under my leadership as a baritone section leader in the marching band. I was going to play bass trombone.

I was mortified. I had told those freshmen how much I was looking forward to playing with them in the Wind Ensemble… someday. I was trying to be the magnanimous upperclassman, but instead I looked like a pompous blowhard. Bass trombone? Why not just make me go play piccolo or something.

In truth, they were better than I was. For the good of the ensemble, my role changed. To make better music, I took on a different role and followed the direction of my leader. But the embarrassment of discovering how poorly I had judged the situation has remained with me to this day. It was a question of ways: the way of my glory, or the way of the director’s will. I had to choose which way to follow.

Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, You take us along the Way of the Cross as the way of discipleship. You lead us down roads of sacrifice and service, where our desires and our needs are replaced with Your will and Your mercy. But all along the Way, we misunderstand You. We seek greatness where You desire humility. We seek power where You desire mercy. We seek individual glory where You desire the glory of Your body, the church. Forgive our arrogance and our ambition. Help us welcome each other as fellow children in Your family, and forgive us as we struggle to follow You. In Your name we pray: Amen.

It’s never an easy thing, getting your ego deflated. It’s an even harder experience to endure when your desires for individual glory are in service to a greater good. Or so you think.

It’s easy to demonize the disciples in today’s reading from Mark. Who would be stupid enough to argue about being numero uno when Jesus was around? But take yourself out of our modern church for a minute and think about life from the disciples’ perspective. Tiberius has been emperor of Rome for a few years. Your people have been captives to Rome for almost 100 years, prisoners in your own homeland. The Messiah, you believe, will deliver you from your bondage, and now that Jesus is here, now that you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, you think it’s about time for the deliverance to get going. When Jesus delivers Israel, he’s going to need helpers to make sure all the work gets done properly. According to Dr. Don Juel, “as [Jesus’] followers, they will undoubtedly be assigned places in His cabinet.”[1] If you’re going to be in the cabinet, who wouldn’t want to be prime minister? Secretary of Agriculture? The disciples were a diverse group; is it possible that they were thinking of their own individual gifts and talents and how Jesus might best use them in his ‘inside’ group?

The disciples would have had no problems reading our text from Jeremiah today, with all its talk of retribution and destruction of enemies and evil deeds. They were, after all, faithfully serving God by following Jesus of Nazareth, God’s anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. The coming of the kingdom was at hand! God was finally going to put things right, and the faithful would be sorted in the order of their deeds and their faithfulness to God’s commandments. Finally, Israel would receive her reward and receive her proper place as the people of God on earth. The way to Capernaum was the first step in the way to Jerusalem and the new kingdom of God!

After listening to this all afternoon, Jesus asked them at the evening meal: “What were you arguing about on the way?” Can you see the sheepish looks on the disciples’ faces when they realized Jesus had heard them planning His kingdom for Him? Jesus took that opportunity to teach them what it means to follow Him. The disciples believed that they were on the way to Capernaum. They believed that this was just another day along the path to the deliverance of Israel from her bondage. They were right; Israel was to be delivered, but the way was not through Capernaum: the way Israel would be delivered would be the Way of the Cross.

The Gospel tells us that before any of this happened, Jesus tried again to explain to His followers that He was going to be betrayed, handed over to be tortured, killed by His own people, and rise again. This was the second time in a week that Jesus told His followers about His death and resurrection, and also the second time they didn’t understand it. Worse, they were afraid and didn’t ask Jesus to explain further. Peter tried to tell Jesus that his ideas about death and resurrection were nonsense, and got a good rebuking for his trouble; why would any of them question Him again? So we see that the disciples weren’t just missing the point; they were trying to avoid the point altogether. The cross was the 800 pound gorilla in their lives, and they were very busy arguing about their greatness so they wouldn’t have to talk about it.

So, at the supper table, in Capernaum, with their ignorance and arrogance exposed, Jesus began to teach. He taught that the Way of the Cross reverses the order of things: the first become last, the greatest are servants, and the least are served. Then Jesus further deflated their hopes and dreams by showing them the most honored guest in the kingdom of God: a child. In Jesus’ time, a child was without worth or stature. Until a child reached adulthood, they were cherished for their potential but not nearly the people of power they are in the 21st century. A child in Jesus’ time would have lived out the old adage, “Children are to be seen and not heard,” but Jesus welcomed the child as a monarch or a head of state. Jesus tied the whole of his power and prestige and glory as Messiah to a nameless child, and so, Jesus said, should those who would follow Him. This is the Way of the Cross.

Not an easy way to follow, the Way of the Cross. On the surface one might imagine that one could follow the Way of the Cross by always going to the back of the line and always being nice to children. But it’s more than simple exterior actions. To follow the Way of the Cross, one is called to completely “abandon one’s authority and status, spending them on those with the least ability to repay.”[2] The Way of the Cross involves a complete devaluation of the self – “I” cease to exist without having “you” to serve. “I” the adult am nothing without the child of God to welcome in the name of Christ. “I” look for ways to lift up Christ through lifting up those around me. Jesus does not ask his followers to target the lowest in society and ignore the greatest: Jesus asks his followers to consider all people, be they lowly or of high stature, as blessed children of God and worthy of honor and respect. This is the Way of the Cross, as Jesus describes it. This is the Way to follow Him.

As we follow Jesus on the Way of the Cross, we remember that Jesus asks us only to receive what He has to give. On the Cross, where Jesus gave His life for you, the greatest became the least and the Living One died for we who were already dead in our sins. When Jesus asks us to follow Him on the Way of the Cross, He asks us to throw out the world’s order of greatest and least and simply serve all people as fellow children of God. When Jesus asks us to welcome one another as children in His name, He asks us to welcome each other as we were welcomed into His family – without thought or consideration of worth, simply as the greatest gift a loving God could give.

The way to follow Jesus is not a line: it is a circle, gathered with Christ at its center, where all serve the Servant of All. Who is the greatest? Jesus is the greatest – and we are His children, children on the Way of the Cross. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Juel, Donald. Word & World, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer 1994. © Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. p. 354
[2] ibid, p. 355.

15 September 2009

What I Do On Mornings Like This

6:00 AM: The alarm on my watch goes off, beeping on my dresser. I get up, get dressed, grind the coffee beans and start the first pot of the day, let the dog out, put in my contacts.

I pour the first cup of steaming bitter blessedness and settle down into the recliner in the basement with my latest book, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carre. I'm about 100 pages from the end. I hear Alanna cooing to herself upstairs, and think that I might get twenty pages, maybe thirty, before she insists on getting up and starting her day.

But, wonder of wonders, she goes back to sleep. After about 90 minutes, I have finished the book, including its wonderfully tense final chapters. I check Facebook, make up a few snarky titles for the rumored "Indiana Jones 5," catch up on my Huskers, and read email, which includes the funny poem below, from The Writer's Almanac this morning. Now it's 8:20, I can hear my ladies stirring, and we've missed breakfast at day care - so I'll go upstairs and make scrambled eggs and toast, and we will smile at the luxury of sleeping in and reading good books.

Thus far it's been a nearly perfect morning. Please let's not ruin it, shall we?

Grace & peace,

A Wife Explains Why She Likes Country

by Barbara Ras

Because those cows in the bottomland are black and white, colors
anyone can understand, even against the green
of the grass, where they glide like yes and no, nothing in between,
because in country, heartache has nowhere to hide,
it's the Church of Abundant Life, the Alamo,
the hubbub of the hoi polloi, the parallel lines of rail fences,
because I like rodeos more than golf,
because there's something about the sound of mealworms and
leeches and the dream of a double-wide
that reminds me this is America, because of the simple pleasure
of a last chance, because sometimes whiskey
tastes better than wine, because hauling hogs on the road
is as good as it gets when the big bodies are layered like pigs in a cake,
not one layer but two,
because only country has a gun with a full choke and a slide guitar
that melts playing it cool into sweaty surrender in one note,
because in country you can smoke forever and it'll never kill you,
because roadbeds, flatbeds, your bed or mine,
because the package store is right across from the chicken plant
and it sells boiled peanuts, because I'm fixin' to wear boots to the dance
and make my hair bigger, because no smarty-pants, just easy rhymes,
perfect love, because I'm lost deep within myself and the sad songs call me out,
because even you with your superior aesthetic cried
when Tammy Wynette died,
because my people
come from dirt.

"A Wife Explains Why She Likes Country" by Barbara Ras, from One Hidden Stuff. © Penguin Poets, 2006.

11 September 2009

The, er, Kindness of Friends

My beloved black 4th gen Nano bit the dust a few weeks ago. 16G of tiny little sonic wonder deemed unrepairable and, worse, not replaceable by the folks at Apple. Combine that with our new dedication to save money rather than use credit for purchases we don't "need," and I'm woefully behind on audiobooks and podcasts.

But here comes a good friend to the rescue. She calls Wednesday morning and says she's coming with a suprise for me. It's an old iPod Mini. Completely functional, not being used because her child got a new one last year, only 4G but with proper tending I should get a lot of use out of it before it bites the dust. There's only one problem:

Stop that snickering. I mean it.

Grace & peace,

09 September 2009

Raising the Wrong Sort of Flags

I received a letter from a local congregation promoting this year's "See You At The Pole" event. SYATP started in 1990 and has since grown to be a nation-wide event, purportedly encouraging students to pray at their schools.

For the record, I'm not opposed to students praying. I'm not opposed to students having prayer groups in schools. What concerns me is the language we use when we promote this stuff. For example:

How about you? Do you desire to see a mighty move of God on your campus? Are you pursuing God passionately? Are you serious about radical obedience? Are you determined to get rid of anything and everything that dishonors God and ready to challenge your friends to do the same?
We are indeed called to a public faith, but not in this way. Programs like SYATP can all too easily descend into the kind of Christianity satirized in the movie Saved:

"This is not a weapon." Sort of sounds like this: "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?" (Jesus, speaking in Matthew 26.52)

To my mind, faith and prayer are meant to transform from within, one by one, not by being imposed from without. This is exactly the sort of thing James rails against when he says "Faith without works is dead." Sure, we can pray outside our schools: the real challenge is this, to live prayerfully and faithfully within our schools, without becoming the sort of Christian who sees every disagreement as heresy and every question as damnation incarnate.

Language like that which was used in the SYATP flier makes me nervous because it sets up the Christian faith as an arena of domination and colonization. The flier invites adult sponsors to provide "prayer cover" at schools, as though this were an operation being undertaken by a boatload of Navy SEALS. It's no coincidence that the people who put it together for this year used the state religion of Josiah's reign as their operative paradigm. But shouldn't there be a way we can emulate Josiah's faith without tying the baggage of warfare and empire to it all?

Perhaps Paul has a better way for us:

16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2nd Corinthians 5.16-21

Reconciliation, not domination. I can get behind that.

Grace & peace,

06 September 2009


In the summer of 1984, one week changed everything about me, changes that are still playing out today, 24 years later. All because I went to church camp.

I was ten years old, bookish, fairly unathletic, hopelessly self-conscious, an easy target for teasers. I had friends, good friends, and I'm pretty sure I was well liked by most of my classmates in our small town elementary school. But I had a very small sense of self-worth, and what I remember about those days was a fairly constant low-grade fear that whoever or whatever I was, it wasn't good enough, that sooner or later whatever goodness I'd found would be taken away from me. Melodramatic? Of course: but that's who I was back then, and in some sense that's who I remain today. I'm still plagued by fears of inadequacy, doubts about my worth as a person, as a father, husband, pastor. But over the course of six days in 1984, four more years of camp after those six days, and eventually five summers as a staff member, my experiences at Camp Carol Joy Holling in Ashland, Nebraska planted seeds of faith, hope and love in me that have never died. Sometimes I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that church camp saved my life.

This past weekend, staff members from years past gathered at Carol Joy Holling to celebrate 35 years of ministry in that wonderful place. They sang songs around the campfire; they hiked the trails I know like the back of my hand; someone did the "Shishi" skit before the all ate s'mores; the ookaleylas made an appearance (does anyone actually know how to spell "ookaleyla?"); maybe someone took a trip to the doctor's office and left with more than they bargained for. Most of all, I'm sure they laughed their heads off, heard gracious words of faith from the many skilled pastors who've risen out of that staff, and, maybe, even cried a little as they thought of friends who've left us since those summer days we treasure in our memories.

We couldn't go. Finances, the academic year and illness combined to make the trip out of the question for us. I know we made the right decision not to go. But, still...

When I was a kid, I never cried at church camp, never got homesick. I did my crying on the way home, and for a couple of days afterwards. I got campsick. Every. Single. Summer. And even when I came back as a staff member, I cried every August when I drove away from camp back into the "real world." In 1997, my last year on staff, I cried at least once a day for the last week, especially after the kids left and we were packing up "my camp" for the last time.

Tonight I feel like crying a little bit, as I think of all the friends I didn't get to see this weekend. Now that we're closer, we'll be back more often, especially as the girls grow up and they get ready for their own camp experiences. But it would have been really special to be there this weekend, and melodramatic me, well, I'm thinking of all those evening campfires, playing guitar and singing "Messiah" or "Come to the Water" or "Micah 6:8" and I'm really wishing we'd have been able to go.

So, camp friends, do me a favor. If you read this, drop me a line and let me know how your life is. Where are you, what are you doing, do you enjoy it or does it suck, what stirs your heart these days? Because I'm sure that's what we'd have been talking about if I'd have been able to be with you, and tonight, being campsick, it's what I really want to hear. Most of all, take care of yourselves, friends, and remember the most important thing you ever learned at camp: you are a child of God, and we are all family.

Grace and peace,

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost - "Even God Needs a Mother"

Every Christian experiences, sooner or later, a disconnect between the God in whom we think we believe and the God who actually is. This is true of all our relationships, of course, but it is especially troubling when our own expectations and hopes about God don’t match up with the Being who exists far, far beyond those expectations and hopes. It might be even more troubling, however, when that Being falls, in our estimation, fall short of those expectations and hopes.

What do you do with a Savior who isn’t interested in saving people? With a Healer who doesn’t want to heal? That’s the question that leaps out at us from the gospel of Mark today. Jesus – our kind, gracious, warm, loving Jesus – actually dismisses someone. Worse, the someone he dismisses is a mother who wants her daughter to be free from demonic possession. What happened to the Jesus who said, “Let the children come to me, for the kingdom of God belongs to them?”

Pastor Rob Bell has some thoughts about images of God that might not be what we “always think about” when we think about God. Take a look and listen well to what he has to say.

This is a short clip from the Nooma video "She." It can be ordered at flannel.com.

Keeping in mind what Rob Bell says about aspects of God that we don’t often consider, we are forced to wonder about the interaction between Jesus and the Syrophonoecian woman from today’s gospel reading. It’s one of those scenes where we wish we could have been there to hear the way Jesus said what he said. Was Jesus being ironic, using the moment to teach his disciples? Or was Jesus genuinely convinced that this woman was not one he came to save? Either way, in this instance, the boundary-breaking that is so common in Mark’s gospel does not come through Jesus, but through this desperate mother. She was a Gentile, not a member of Jesus’ faith community. She was a Swede at the Sons of Norway meeting, a Baptist at the Lutheran church, a Nebraskan at an Iowa State game. She was a woman, and thus she was not supposed to speak to a man in public. But her devotion to her child led her to break social and religious boundaries in the hopes that Jesus might have the power and the willingness to heal.

In this woman, we see an aspect of the relationship between God the Creator and Jesus the Christ. Here we are witness to a holy conversation: the Christ, the anointed Son of God, hears the voice of the Creator through the longing, hopeful plea of a woman who will go to any length for the sake of her child. Was it actually the voice of the Creator? No, but can we not imagine that in her plea Jesus hears and remembers the voice of the one he calls “Abba – Daddy?”

It seems that even God needs a mother – at least, God in the form of Jesus needs this mother. Jesus needs this mother to show the sort of boundary-breaking, devoted love God has for creation. Jesus needs this mother to illustrate why he has come for the world, not just for a certain group of people within it. Jesus needs this mother because it is her faith, not his refusal, that carries the day. She pleads, she thinks on her feet, but most importantly, she believes; and so the world is changed by Jesus once again.

I spoke earlier of the disconnect we sometimes experience when we experience something of God we never believed we would see. It is not the most comfortable way of maintaining the relationship between God and ourselves, but God is not interested in comfort for the sake of easy living. When Jesus refused to save this woman’s daughter, that disconnect occurs for us: when Jesus gave his life on the cross, that disconnect occurs for every ounce of our humanity that ever believed that God was primarily interested in power and dominion. Yet Jesus, the one who refused a desperate mother, did not refuse to save a broken world, and so all the boundaries between ourselves and the God who loves us started to come crashing down. Our sin, our fear, our shattered dreams and hopes: all gone in the cross, replaced by the love of Jesus that says, over and over again, “I will not refuse you. You are mine and I will never let you go.” Now where do you suppose he might have learned to say something like that? It appears that Jesus, like the most fortunate of us, learned wisdom from a mother’s love. It just goes to show you that, perhaps, even God needs mothers. Amen.

05 September 2009

Wisdom On Her Corner

Early Saturday morning. Will be heading out for a run in a few minutes, the first exercise I've gotten since Monday. Pancakes and eggs to be made after that, then college football. Ah, the glory of September.

But I'm up before any of my girls, and since I didn't have time to run through my blogroll yesterday, I opened up a bunch of them just now. Some days it's a quick run through stuff that's not new, but between today and yesterday most of my blogger friends have new posts to peruse. Here's what I've read today:
  • Jan's church is starting to understand that ministry is an "all of us" thing, not a "Pastor" thing.
  • Cheesehead preached an amazing memorial sermon at a funeral for a 23 year old man, he and his family being largely unchurched (though if it had been me, hearing that sermon, I wouldn't be unchurched for long).
  • Diane connected the dots between the anxiety in health care reform and our refusal to look death square in the face.
  • Meta tells the story of how she and her husband set up their financial stewardship plan (hint: they give more to the church than they do to their cable provider. Probably a good sense of perspective, IMO).
  • CoffeePastor is perusing the start of football season with a healthy sense of trepidation, being a Michigan fan. All is not well in Ann Arbor at the moment (but I hope it becomes so very soon, because college football is better when Michigan is a strong program).
Some folks think blogs are a pretentious waste of time. Sometimes they are - even here, where the author is one of the most un-pretentious people I know. ;-) But if you pay attention, blogs and facebook and even Twitter can offer some incredible wisdom in addition to a greater sense of connectedness.

My denomination is undergoing a time of great change at the moment. It's uncomfortable even for those who wanted the change, and sometimes excruciating for those opposed to it. But of all the things we've said and done in this conversation over the past eight years, what gives me the most pride in our denomination is how we've tried to make sure our collective wisdom is not ignored. Many, many voices have spoken and continue to speak about this time of change in our church, and they have rarely agreed. But unlike those who surround themselves with people who agree, we've tried to make this conversation as wide and wise as it can be. It might be more comfortable to silence dissenting voices, but no one grows wiser by hearing only what you already know.

Last night, Beloved and I watched Caprica, a prequel to SciFi's excellent series Battlestar Galactica. This movie was even more philosophical and metaphysical than the already-heady BSG; it addressed the nature of the mind, the soul, technology and what might happen when we develop the ability to mix the three more than we already do. But the sentence that struck me was this: "A difference that isn't noticeably different isn't really a difference, is it?" (As close as I can remember it, that is) So true. Likewise, a wisdom informed only by itself isn't really wise.

Well, that's some Saturday morning thinking for you. Now I'm off to kill brain cells by watching as much college football as possible between now and tomorrow night. There's wisdom, and then there's, well, whatever this weekend is going to be.

Grace & peace,

04 September 2009

Speaking of Things That Get Me Charged Up

It's football season. Need I say more? Well, probably one more thing.




Friday Five: CHARGE!!!!!

Haven't done a Friday Five for a while, and I've got a few extra minutes this morning. Thanks to Sally for the post at RevGals:

A few weeks ago my lap-top battery died, suddenly I found myself looking at a blank screen and was rather relieved to find that it was only the battery and not the whole computer that had failed. This morning a new battery arrived in the post, and suddenly I am mobile again!

After a week with what feels like wall to wall meetings, and Synod looming on the horizon for tomorrow I find myself pondering my own need to recharge my batteries. This afternoon Tim and I are setting off to explore the countryside around our new home, I always find that walking in the fresh air away from phones and e-mails recharges me. But that is not the only thing that restores my soul, so do some people, books, pieces of music etc....

So I wonder what/ who gives you energy?

1. Is there a person who encourages and uplifts you, whose company you seek when you are feeling low?
Beloved, of course. We try really hard to be supportive of each other in our work and in our parenting. When we went through PREPARE/ENRICH prior to our wedding, we took the practice of daily compliments to heart, and we try to find ways to give each other a positive nudge at least once a day. Sometimes it's as simple as "You're a really good parent/spouse," but even that, if it's sincere, can do a lot.

2. How about a piece of music that either invigorates or relaxes you?
I struggled answering this question. I don't think in terms of invigoration/relaxation when it comes to music, at least, not very often. I do have favorites, including U2, Green Day, Dave Matthews Band, Storyhill, Peter Mayer (both of them), PFR, and lots of Irish music, but I tend to pick stuff based on what I'd like to hear, not on the mood I'm seeking.

One piece that always does touch me emotionally is Symphony No. 4 by David Maslanka. Maslanka is a wind ensemble composer who wrote Symphony No 4 with the landscape of Montana, the hymn tune Old 100th, and the death of Abraham Lincoln in mind. It's a 30 minute piece filled with a kaleidoscope of tones and styles, with an immense instrumentation. Oddly enough, while searching for files of this piece on YouTube, I discovered a clip from the University of Nebraska Wind Ensemble, which is the group in which I first discovered Maslanka 15 years earlier. It's long, but you might hear enough to pique your interest.

3. Which book of the Bible do you most readily turn to for refreshment and encouragement? Is there a particular story that brings you hope?
Romans 8 is my "go-to" scripture. "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separated us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Yep - refreshed and recharged. Thanks, Paul.

4. A bracing walk or a cosy fireside?
Fireside, with a good book and a hot cup of coffee. The walk can come in the morning so long as it doesn't interrupt good reading time.

5. Are you feeling refreshed and restored at the moment or in need of recharging, write a prayer or a prayer request to finish this weeks Friday Five....
I'm getting refreshed as we speak. Our family has been sick with HFM disease this week, everyone but me, but we're apparently all on the mend today, so I'm at the office catching up with students, preaching and other fun ministry items. So a prayer of thanks for health and recovery is in order for us today. Thanks be to God!

Grace & peace,

Life with HFM: Day 6?

We seem to be on the downslope (knocking furiously on wood)!

Ainsley slept the night through, as did Beloved and Alanna, and everyone woke up smiling but me (I never wake up smiling - it's the coffee that brings the smile). When I went into Ainsley's room to get her dressed, she took a big drink out of her cup of water and said, "Owie all gone!" That was good news indeed.

Now the girls are at preschool/day care, Beloved is at her office with Jack the dog and I'm here, wondering how long it'll take me to get to the top of my desk and, more importantly, where the hell my sermon has gone. So, of course, I'm going to do the Friday Five in a few minutes. Priorities, right? :-)

Thanks again for all the prayers and well-wishes: it sounds like we got off pretty easy in the end, even including the trip to the ER. Our day care provider says that most cases are like Ainsley's or worse, and HFM can rip through families and day care groups like wildfire. We're not totally out of the woods yet, but today has certainly given us reason to hope.

Grace & peace,

03 September 2009

Life with HFM, Day 5ish

Yesterday was a nightmare. Today, not so much.

Actually, yesterday started off pretty well. The girls woke up early, and we were exhausted, but after coffee and some breakfast for all, it seemed as though things weren't so bad. Ainsley ate two whole pieces of banana bread, with some wincing, and Alanna showed no ill effects of anything at all. Beloved went off to her office for a few hours and I, after grabbing a quick shower and shave, took the girls to campus for a walk. We parked at the Center, walked through the Union Bookstore to take some pictures of toddler-sized ISU cheerleader outfits for a friend, then headed over to the Free Speech Zone where the campus Atheists & Agnostics had a booth. After meeting the AA president and agreeing to do some interfaith dialogue (I know, it sounds weird, but it's going to be cool - keep watching), we walked back to the van and headed home for lunch. Beloved came home at about the same time, and after feeding I headed off to a Religious Leaders' Association meeting while Beloved put the girls down for their naps.

I got home at about 3:00 and we decided that after naps we'd go grocery shopping and run some ministry errands together. However, by the time we were done with the grocery shopping, it was pretty apparent that Ainsley was in a bad way. Constant crying and whimpering, with no consolation whatsoever. We put our heads together and figured out that Ainsley hadn't drank anything since lunch, hadn't had a potty or wet diaper all day, and realized she was probably pretty dehydrated. By the time we got home, she was still crying but without tears, and First Nurse advised us to take her to the ER for an IV. Beloved headed off while I fed Alanna and let the dog out for some exercise.

I took some supper over to the ER for Beloved about 30 minutes after they left, and thankfully I was there to help them insert the IV needle. That's an experience I'll not repeat any time soon if it's up to me. The nurse was wonderful, but the first stick hit a valve in her hand, so we had to go for the vein in her elbow. Try explaining that to a toddler who's already miserable because she has sores all over her mouth, a fever, and a dehydration headache to boot. To make matters worse, the elbow vein was a GOOD one - so much so that I wound up with a fairly good spurt of blood on my knee and leg before we could get everything set up. It's one thing to let them stick your own arm - I have no trouble with that. But holding your wailing child and watching her blood land on your leg was a bit much for me. I can't imagine what it must be like for parents whose children bleed due to violence; I'd be in shock, for sure.

Thankfully, the IV was exactly what Ainsley needed. She came home with good color, and it seems she slept pretty well all night. I had campus ministry stuff from 8:30 - 11:00 or so, and when I got home Beloved was in bed with Ainsley helping her sleep. She slept all alone until about 3:00, and when she started crying again I spent the rest of the night in bed with her. When she woke up at 6:30ish, I brought her back into our room so I could get some sleep in my own bed. What happened next is a sign of how much I married above my class. Ainsley and Alanna were both up and running around 8:00, I think, but Beloved took them and stayed with them so I could sleep until almost 11:00. Holy crap, what a woman I married, huh? Now everyone is napping, apparently deeply asleep. The house is beginning to feel a bit smaller than usual, but hopefully we are working our way toward getting everyone up and healthy in the very near future. Thanks again for prayers and well-wishes.

Grace & peace,

01 September 2009

Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease - Day ??

The girls have been on edge since late Sunday morning. I mean ON EDGE: the slightest inconvenience turns into major waterworks and such. "My teeth hurt." "My feet hurt." "ooooooowwwwwwwiiiiiiieeeeeeeee." That's just from Ainsley: Alanna just screams and screams and screams. It's been a rough couple of days. This morning we discovered why.

We have Hand, Foot & Mouth Disease. ALL THREE GIRLS have HFM. I'd never heard of the thing before - the first thing I thought was, "Isn't that something cattle get?" No, it's not, which is good, because we're still holding on to the dream of running a feedlot in the backyard. HFM is a viral infection - we think Ainsley picked it up from daycare, and passed it on to Alanna and Beloved. Most adults can throw it off with little to no problem, but Kristin's not one of those adults, unfortunately.

So, we're in for rough sailing over the next couple of days. Since it's a viral infection, it's contagious and that means no day care. Which means lots of time at home blowing personal leave on sick children. Part of the job description, unfortunately. Pray for us.

Grace & peace,