29 December 2010

Campus Ministry News - December 2010

Every semester we send out a newsletter reporting on the semester at Lutheran Campus Ministry.  This year has been particularly...tumultuous, and writing this fall's newsletter article has been difficult for me.  This morning I finally forced myself to sit down and put it on paper. 

22 December 2010

Familiar Voices

I subscribe to the Writer's Almanac - you should go sign up before reading the rest of this.  Go ahead - I'll wait.  

12 December 2010

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent: "What Do You Expect?"

“He emerged from the metro at the L’Enfant Plaza Station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.
Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?
On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.” [1] 

08 December 2010

Desktop Diaries

Jan Edmiston at A Church for Starving Artists posted an interesting thing last week - a picture of her desk, with no tidying or dressing up done.  Apparently NPR presented Oliver Sack's desk on Science Friday last week, and she was inspired.  I thought it sounded like a fun thing with which to play along, so here's my Desktop Diary for today.

Like Jan, I don't do a ton of writing in my office.  Work, yes, but the kind of thing during which I don't mind being interrupted.  Worship planning, professional reading, administrivia, phone calls and setting up schedules, that sort of thing.  Occasionally, because my library is in my office, I'll do my preparatory exegetical work in my office, but during afternoons when I know that my train of thought is unlikely to be derailed. 

There are a few things I love about my office.  First is the light - in the afternoon, like you see here, there's no need for the fluorescent lights and their "just-below-audible" buzz.  Even in the morning, with my four windows I only need the lights if it's cloudy or rainy.  Second, the comfy furniture.  I have two recliners, one overstuffed chair and my desk chair, all of which are good places to spend a lot of time.  I've never understood why you would want to furnish an office with chairs in which no one feels comfortable.  Third, the plants.  I'm developing a little bit of a green thumb at the church; that is, when I can keep my youngest from ripping the plants out of their pots.  The peace lilies you see will soon be going into the big pots and back into our sanctuary, and hopefully we can keep little fingers away from them until they're good and toughened up.

Anyway, that's where some of the magic happens.  Tomorrow or Friday I'll send a picture of my sermonating table at Cafe Milo - I know, I know, you'll be waiting with bated breath.  All three of you.  Until then -

Grace & peace,

07 December 2010

The Feel of Peace

Every night when we put the girls to bed, we lay down with each of them for a short while; five, ten minutes, tops.  This started with Ainsley, who would cry for close to an hour if we didn't stay with her for a little bit after we read a book, said our prayers and hugged and kissed good night.  Ten minutes of snuggling with your toddler is a far better use of our time than listening to one or both of them scream for thirty minutes.

29 November 2010

Called to the Task at Hand

 Okay, first things first - being a pastor ≠ being a Jedi.  The only similarity is that we both wear robes.  And the lightsaber, of course. 

28 November 2010

New Year, New Start

Photo by Amanda Woodward.  Used by permission.
Today is the first day of the new year.  Happy New Year!

Okay, yeah, it's the first day of the new liturgical year.  The first Sunday of Advent.  Year A, for those of you keeping score.  Gospel of Matthew. 

Liturgical geekery aside, I'm ready for a new start.  It was approximately a year ago that the Unbloggableness got started, and even now, several months after the last bit of official handling that mess required, the healing process is continuing in fits and starts - sometimes it's weeks without considering it, and sometimes something trips your memory and you're furious all over again.  It's well past time to be done with this, and well past time to be doing something instead of dealing with something.  So, a new year, a new start.

The U.B. isn't the only thing I'm anxious to put behind me.  I've gained another fifteen pounds this year through lousy diet and sloth.  I've spent far too much time messing around on message boards and not nearly enough time reading books, watching good TV and good movies.  I've put off house projects and dithered on things that could have been handled much more quickly if I'd put my mind to it.  In general, it feels like I've been sleep-walking for about a year now, and I'm ready to be awakened. 

Right now I'm sitting next to the fire at the Lutheran Center in Ames.  Six students are here with me, doing homework, the Sunday crossword, and just hanging out.  These incredible people have deserved so much better from me this year:  better sermons, better attention, better leadership.  This Advent I want to start over with all of them.  Thanks be to God, one can do just that.  Maybe I can't undo the sloth of the past 12 months, but I can sure as hell spend the next 12 making up for it.  So:  commence.

Grace & peace,

16 November 2010

Fifty Book Challenge 2010

Here it is: my reading list for 2010. Recommended titles are in bold, and formats are +(Kindle), *(audio/iPod).

1. The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson
2. Watchmen (Absolute Edition) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
3. V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
4. The Sandman: World's End by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King et al.
5. The Sandman: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub et al.
6. Providence: The Madigan Trilogy Book 1 by Tawn Anderson
7. The Sandman: The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman et al.
8. The Sandman: The Wake by Neil Gaiman et al.
+9. Dracula: The Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker & Ian Holt.
10. Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
11. Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell
+12. The Great Hunt: Wheel of Time Book 2 by Robert Jordan
+13. Dragon Reborn: Wheel of Time Book 3 by Robert Jordan
+14. Shadow Rising: Wheel of Time Book 4 by Robert Jordan
*15. Dune by Frank Herbert
+16. Anxious Souls Will Ask...: The Christ-Centered Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by John W. Matthews
17. On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
*18. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougal
+19. The Case for God by Karen Armstrong
*20. The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike
*21. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
*22. Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
23. Fires of Heaven: Wheel of Time Book 5 by Robert Jordan
*24. Forever Odd by Dean Koontz
*25. Genghis: Birth of an Empire by Conn Iggulden
+26. Lord of Chaos: Wheel of Time Book 6 by Robert Jordan
*27. Brother Odd by Dean Koontz
28. The Prodigal God by Tim Keller
*28. Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
+29. A Crown of Swords: Wheel of Time Book 7 by Robert Jordan
*30. Odd Hours by Dean Koontz
*31. The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team by Jim Dent
+32. Path of Daggers: Wheel of Time Book 8 by Robert Jordan
+33. Winter's Heart: Wheel of Time Book 9 by Robert Jordan
*34. Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
35.  Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
*36.  Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card
*37.  Duma Key by Stephen King
+38.  Crossroads of Twilight: Wheel of Time Book 10 by Robert Jordan
*39.  Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
40.  Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
*41.  Man In The Woods by Scott Spencer 
42.  Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction by Rodney Clapp
43.  Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell 
+44.  Knife of Dreams:  Wheel of Time Book 11 by Robert Jordan
+45.  The Promise of Despair:  The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church by Andrew Root


Yeah, I'm home sick today.  Woot!

I could probably be working by now, but I'm a firm believer in staying home when you're not feeling well, so here we are.  Besides, with my MacBook and cell phone I'm still able to accomplish quite a bit on a "sick day," to the point that I'm not actually taking the whole day off today anyway. 

One of the things I've been doing is catching up on blogger friends and actually reading stuff rather than skimming it per usual.  Every once in a while you follow the rabbit down the hole into a world you never knew existed, and I got a look at one such hole today - unfortunately, this one wasn't a particularly good one to follow. 

I stumbled on a website which seems completely dedicated to taking down the ELCA, the denomination in which I currently serve as pastor.  Whoever is running this thing is a disgruntled former ELCA member who has spent far too much time going over ELCA documents and websites with a fine-toothed comb, intent on finding every questionable phrase or sentence that could be exploited for his/her disingenuous, unfair and ultimately toxic agenda.  No, I'm not linking to it, nor will I give any more hints as to how to find it.  The last thing I want to do is increase the traffic over there.  Let's just say that after a few minutes reading thosee suspicious, conspiracy-theory mis-interpretations, I felt like I needed a shower (though, I admit, it might have also been because I've spent most of the day in this recliner in the basement).  

No one is surprised to note that a year after the ELCA's decision to embrace the ministry of same-gender persons in monogamous relationships and allow churches to bless same-gender unions, the fallout is still, well, falling.  Churches are leaving the ELCA:  this is a cause for sorrow even when that departure might be the healthiest way forward.  No one wants to leave the denomination with which they have been connected for so long.  But as an internet friend said the other day, at some point you get to the point where you think, "How can I miss you if you won't go away?" 

There's a fine line between honest disagreement and spreading poison.  I walked it here while the UB was going on, and some accused me of crossing it.  That's part of the reason I haven't been blogging much lately: I'm worried about crossing that line.  When Susan Hogan was running Pretty Good Lutherans, I thought she provided a great space for people of diverging opinions to talk about what was happening in the ELCA.  I wish she were still doing it, because efforts like that stand as a counter to the site I visited today, where the primary hermeneutic lens is one of suspicion and the default setting is somewhere between soapbox and BOMBAST.  There's a need for genuine criticism and loyal dissension in every denomination, especially in these days when staff layoffs are camouflaged as new structures designed to increase flexibility.  I just wish this small portion folks who disagreed with the ELCA's decisions in 2009 had chosen healthier means of expressing that disagreement.  I think I'd have been that much closer to feeling better if they had.

07 November 2010

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints - "Winners and Losers"

Before reading this sermon, you should know I'm a Nebraska alum (though you probably already knew that) and the ELCA campus pastor at Iowa State, where this happened yesterday:

            When I was 9 years old, a football game made me cry.  I have a feeling there were some young Cyclone fans who felt the same way last night.  The 1984 Orange Bowl.  Nebraska was down 31-30, back in the days before overtime in college football.  They went for two and didn’t get it.  I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.

            That seemed to be the story for Nebraska fans in the 1980s and early 1990s.  It seemed like the Huskers were always one game away.  Oh, I don’t expect any sympathy from Iowa State students about struggling football teams – I’m telling this story to make a point, and the point is this:  we don’t commemorate losers, even the glorious ones.  As great as that game was yesterday, it won’t get celebrated nearly as much as last year’s slapstick in Lincoln, even though both teams played much, much better yesterday.  Why?  Because ISU won in Lincoln last year.  Winners get celebrated.  The 1983 Cornhuskers don’t get reunions, but the 1994 Cornhuskers do, because they won a national championship.  People will remember ISU beating Texas this year a lot longer than they’ll remember losing to Nebraska.  If you win, you get trophies, placques, and reunions.  Lose, even gloriously, you get a rueful shake of the head, but that’s about it.
            So, on the surface, it might appear that Jesus is just trying to even out the balance when he teaches in our reading from the gospel of Luke this morning.  We might think, “Oh, there goes Jesus:  he’s such a good one for making the losers feel good about themselves.”  Meanwhile, we’re either trying to find a way to avoid being lumped in with the poor, the hungry, the crybabies and the religious nutcases, or you’re trying to figure out if you’re poor, hungry, sad or crazy enough to be blessed without too much more inconvenience.  After all, when it comes to Jesus, up is down, left is right, rich is poor, poor is rich and humility is the best way to make a name for yourself in the kingdom of God, am I right?
            Back to football for a minute.  When I was growing up, people would complain about Nebraska never winning enough games.  You heard me right.  Tom Osborne once said, “My hardest job is to convince the people of Nebraska that 10-1 is not a losing season.”  When I would join the critics while I was growing up, my Mom would try to set me straight.  “You just wait,” she said, “someday we’ll know what it’s really like to have a terrible football team.”  I’m most proud of her for never once saying “I told you so” from 2002-2007.  But my point is this:  perspective has a tendency to get skewed no matter where we are in life.  When you’re up, you think you’re going to be up for the rest of your life.  When you’re down, you think that you’ll be down for the rest of your life.  Either way, you adjust your expectations accordingly and go on living the best that you know how to live.  At least, that’s what you do if you’re not a saint.
            Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  Traditionally, today is the day we remember those who have died in the past year, and we’ll do just that later in our service.  But right now, I want to talk a bit more about living saints, and what it means to live as God’s saints now, in this life, and why I think Jesus is talking about sainthood when he teaches his disciples like he does in this morning’s Gospel text. 
            Let’s make sure we understand what it is we’re talking about when Jesus says “Blessed are you” and “Woe unto you.”  It’s easy to think that, because Jesus says “yours is the kingdom of God,” that he’s talking about salvation and damnation.  Jesus is telling the people listening to him how to live in this life, not how to get into the next.  This is not advice given for the best way to score points with God:  this is God himself defining reality for people who don’t have the ability to see it.  Jesus is the living hope of God revealing the truth to those who haven’t seen it yet:  what we see on the surface is not the reality God knows down to the core.  Poverty is not always marked by misery.  Wealth does not always guarantee unlimited happiness.  Hunger and sadness have their seasons, as do satisfaction and joy.  Most of all, we who believe in what God is up to in the world are called to trust in God no matter how much ridicule the world might heap upon us.  This is what Jesus is calling ALL of his followers to understand, rich and poor, hungry and fed, weeping and rejoicing, losers and winners alike.  THESE ARE ALL SAINTS:  it’s just that these are saints in all their different places in life, but still called to worship and serve the same living, loving God who welcomes them all.
            Don’t believe me?  Look at the last few verses of our reading today.  “I say to you that listen…”  Not “I say to you poor.”  Not “I say to you joyful.”  Not “I say to you who’ve gone and made somebody mad for my sake.”  “I say to you that listen…”  Wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, in whatever circumstances you may find yourself, here is how you follow me:  “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  This is what it means to be one of God’s saints.  Jesus calls us to open our eyes, to see with perspective and understand that life is constantly changing.  If he’d been talking in political terms this past week, he might have said, “Blessed are you Democrats, for yours is the Senate Majority.  But woe to you Republicans, for you have received your reward.”  Six years ago he might have said the exact opposite.  Either way, Jesus would have said to BOTH parties:  “Love your enemies.  Reach across the aisle.  Don’t make that commercial and call your opponent names.  Do unto your opponent and you would have them do unto you.” 
            I’ve been haunted by a song this week.  

            If you look at the face of Johnny Cash in that video, you look at the face of a man who’s known both blessings and woes.  He was rich, and he was poor.  He laughed, and he wept.  Most importantly, Johnny Cash did some wonderful things for a lot of people, but he also did some terrible things to his family and friends over the years.  You see in this song a man who knows the core of his life, its depths and its heights.  I call Johnny Cash a saint, not because he’s dead, and not because he was a vision of perfection in life, but because you get the sense that he knew the whole story of human sinfulness and yet trusted in God to overcome the hurt he himself had caused to others and himself. 
            Paul says in our Ephesians text today, “I pray that…God may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation…so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which God has called you, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints.”  This is the life of a saint: eyes wide open, with perspective and wisdom enough to see life in its totality.  This is the life of a saint:  understanding that circumstances are constantly changing.  This is the life of a saint:  to know that in these constantly changing circumstances, one thing that is guaranteed is that we will make mistakes in the midst of everything.  This is the life of a saint:  to know that in the midst of everything, whether it’s poverty or riches, hunger or fullness, sorrow or joy, God is bigger than our hopes and our fears and we are called to trust in God come what may. 
            Open your eyes, you saints of God.  Understand that wins and losses are part of what it is to be human.  Believe that God knows the depth of who you are and how you’ve struggled, and loves you with all your faults and virtues intact.  This is a day to celebrate, but not because you’re rich or poor, hungry or full, weeping or rejoicing.  This isn’t even a day to celebrate a Husker win or mourn a Cyclone loss!  This is a day to celebrate because the God the Father is your Creator, Jesus Christ is your Savior, the Holy Spirit is moving within you, and this company of saints is here to journey with you.  The life of a saint awaits you:  now is the first step, and may God bless all the ones that follow.  Amen.

03 November 2010

Wednesday Evening Prayer: God's Beloved, "Pride and Joy"

Hebrew script for Song of Solomon 6.3:   "My Beloved is mine, and I am his."

I’ve complained long and loud about the lousy sort of praise music that we call “Jesus is my Boyfriend” music.  In fact, my colleague Nadia Bolz-Weber tweeted the lyrics to one of those songs the other day:  “"I'm Special", "I'm special because God has loved me, for He gave the best thing that He had to save me: His own Son Jesus , crucified to take the blame, for all the bad things I have done. Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord for loving me so much; I know I don't deserve anything, help me feel Your love right now, to know deep in my heart that I'm your special friend" #barf

At the same time, I’ve been intrigued by the fact that we cheat God’s passion when we throw the baby out with the bathwater here.  I do think God can’t stand those sappy love songs – but I also think God is a passionate, jealous lover who hates it when people mistreat God’s beloved.  Unfortunately, we tend to lump all that love over onto Jesus most of the time, which isn’t fair, and frankly isn’t even right, because if the Old Testament is any indication, God the Creator loves every bit as passionately as Jesus.  Listen to this, for instance:

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
   and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
   and her salvation like a burning torch. 
2 The nations shall see your vindication,
   and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
   that the mouth of the Lord will give. 
3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
   and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 
4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken,*
   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;*
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,*
   and your land Married;*
for the Lord delights in you,
   and your land shall be married. 
5 For as a young man marries a young woman,
   so shall your builder* marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
   so shall your God rejoice over you. 
            Isaiah 62.1-5

God is obviously worked up about God’s beloved people – and we often miss it entirely.  My Old Testament professor Terry Fretheim wrote,
“Attributes such as love, compassion and mercy, accompanied by acts of healing, forgiving, and redeeming, tend to become narrowly associated with Jesus, while the less palatable attributes and actions of holiness, wrath, power and justice are ascribed only to God.  What tends to fill the mind is God as Giver of the Law and Judge of all the earth.  If God is not the cause of all the ills in the world, God is still seen as the one who is to blame for not really doing anything about them.  It is the goodness of God that is ignored, not the goodness of Jesus.  One can almost hear someone say: ‘If only Jesus were here, he would do something about all our troubles!’  People often seem to have a view which suggests that Jesus is friend and God is enemy.  An understanding of the atonement gets twisted so that Jesus is seen as the one who came to save us from God." The Suffering of God (c) 1984, Fortress Press.  p. 2
Leaving the sappy music aside, God the Creator loves you.  God the Father gets worked up when you get mistreated.  God the Giver of all good things is deeply concerned for your welfare.  God the Maker has knit you together fearfully and wonderfully.  Dare I say it, you are God’s pride and joy.


Sure, this song is about a woman on the surface.  But is there really so much difference between “You mess with her, you’ll see a man get mean” and “I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn?”

There is ample evidence within Holy Scripture that God loves you.  God passionately, recklessly, agonizingly loves you.  Forget the cheesy Jesus music that makes it sound like you have to be on Team Jesus instead of Team Edward or Team Jacob.  Forget it, not just because it’s awful music, but because it cheats God’s love for you – you’re more than a romantic interest as far as God is concerned.  You are God’s delight, God’s pride and joy, and no one can take it away from you.  Amen.

31 October 2010

Sermon for Reformation Day - "When Do We Get To See Jesus?

Last summer, a woman called her pastor on a Sunday morning, sobbing.  When she finally calmed down enough to speak coherently, she said, “I’m at my parents’ church - they’re doing communion - and they won’t let me take it.”  Let us pray:

We come to you, Almighty God, in all of the wrong ways.  We demand, we bargain, we insist, we judge - and all the while you give, you pay, you ask and you love.  Change our hearts - change our lives - make of us people who serve you gladly and willingly.  In the strong, saving name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.

29 October 2010

Friday Sermonating

The sermon station at Cafe Milo, Ames, IA.
Spent the afternoon preparing for Sunday.  Good coffee, good reflections from commentaries, websites and *gasp* yours truly.  GREAT conversation prior to teh sermonating in our Theology for Lunch book group:  we're reading Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction by Rodney Clapp, and I love it even more the second time around.  Here's a song that was mentioned today:

It's stuff like this that makes my job truly enjoyable.  In some ways this has been a really crappy week:  continued financial fallout from the ELCA budgetary issues, trying to figure out how we can manage our own money better, marriages we thought were good falling apart, and, of course, the never-ending shitstorm that is the upcoming midterm elections.  But the chance to ponder all that God may be up to in the midst of this muck always brings a spring to my step and hope to my heart.  May your weekend be blessed, whatever it entails.

Grace & peace,

27 October 2010

Wednesday Night Prayer: Psalm 121 and "Faith My Eyes"

Psalm 121
1I lift up my eyes | to the hills;
     from where is my | help to come?

2My help comes | from the LORD,
     the maker of heav- | en and earth.

3The LORD will not let your | foot be moved
     nor will the one who watches over you | fall asleep.

4Behold, the keep- | er of Israel
     will neither slum- | ber nor sleep;

5the LORD watches | over you;
     the LORD is your shade at | your right hand;

6the sun will not strike | you by day,
     nor the | moon by night.

7The LORD will preserve you | from all evil
     and will | keep your life.

8The LORD will watch over your going out and your | coming in,
     from this time forth for- | evermore.

This week's lectionary gospel reading is the story of Zaccheus.  Short guy.  Wanted to see Jesus.  Got what he wanted.

I've been thinking about Zaccheus this week - I'm going to preach this text for Reformation Day on Sunday.  (Frankly, I'm a little disappointed there's only one text for Reformation Sunday, given the reformers' love of scripture in all its variety and glory.)  Maybe you know the song I used to sing in Sunday School:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man
A wee little man was he
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
for the Lord he wanted to see.
And as the Savior passed that way,
He looked up in that tree,
And the Lord said, "Zacchaeus!
You come down!  For I'm going to your house today!
For I'm going to your house to stay!"
The song, of course, misses the point.  Zacchaeus isn't remarkable because he's short: he's remarkable because he's a tax collector whom Jesus forgives and with whom Jesus eats and drinks.  Jesus chooses the disreputable tax collector to prove to the upstanding Pharisees that tax collectors need saving, too.

But what happened after Jesus left?  I'll bet that after Jesus wasn't around anymore, plenty of folks found ways to bring Zacchaeus back to earth.  That's what we do, after all.  How many of you have heard or seen someone experience a moment in the spotlight, only to get dragged back down by the jealousy of everyone around them?  And even when the people involved in the story aren't petty and envious, life in general has a way of humbling us sooner or later.

Here's the thing about mountaintop experiences like the one Zacchaeus experienced:  they are the exception in our lives.  Life can be grand and beautiful, or dark and tragic, but most of it is somewhere in between.  Zacchaeus appears in one brief story here in Luke:  what do you imagine the rest of his life was like?  Bills, groceries, the wife, kids, taxes and death - just like you and me.

But.  That one encounter.  How that changed everything.  We can't forget it, can we? 

No matter what may come, we are Jesus' own now, gathered and sent in grace to serve.  Sometimes, like Derek Webb sings, we are called to leave familiar places and beloved people behind, to strike out on the road.  Zacchaeus had an incredible encounter with the Savior of all - and, after he exited the stage on which Luke presents his story, he kept on going.  He lived.  We don't know how long, or with what struggles, but we know at least for a while he lived, without the immediate presence of Jesus.  Such a life requires much grace, and much faith.

The Spirit in you calls you, like the psalmist, to look to the hills and be reminded:  you are not forgotten.  The road you travel is not without a guardian.  You may not be on the mountain, or deep in the darkest valley, but wherever you are, your feet do not walk this path alone.  Zacchaeus saw his Lord, and knew grace and faith - you and I know it, too.  As Derek Webb sings, "[We] walk with grace [our] feet, and faith [our] eyes."  May it always be so.  Amen.

20 October 2010

Wednesday Night Prayers - Psalm 90 and "Ants Marching"

Psalm 90

1Lord, you have | been our refuge
            from one generation | to another.
2Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the | earth were born,
            from age to age | you are God.
3You turn us back to the | dust and say,
            "Turn back, O child- | ren of earth."
4For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when | it is past
            and like a watch | in the night;
5you sweep them away | like a dream,
            they fade away suddenly | like the grass:
6in the morning it is | green and flourishes;
            in the evening it is dried | up and withered.
7For we are consumed | by your anger;
            we are afraid because | of your wrath.
8Our iniquities you have | set before you,
            and our secret sins in the light | of your countenance.
9When you are angry, all our | days are gone;
            we bring our years to an end | like a sigh.
10The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength | even eighty;
            yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and | we are gone.
11Who regards the power | of your wrath?
            Who rightly fears your | indignation?
12So teach us to num- | ber our days
            that we may apply our | hearts to wisdom.
13Return, O LORD; how long | will you tarry?
            Be gracious | to your servants.
14Satisfy us by your steadfast love | in the morning;
            so shall we rejoice and be glad | all our days.
15Make us glad as many days as you af- | flicted us
            and as many years as we suf- | fered adversity.
16Show your ser- | vants your works,
            and your splendor | to their children.
17May the graciousness of the Lord our God | be upon us;
            prosper the work of our hands; pros- | per our handiwork.

From Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2010 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #20449.

Driving home from the gym tonight, my oldest daughter asked, "Daddy, where are all these cars going?"  I said, "Well, honey, some are coming home from work, and some are going to work.  Some are going to the gym, and some are going to church.  I don't know where all of them are going, kiddo - they're going lots of places."  

It made me think of the song "Ants Marching" by Dave Matthews Band.  "He wakes up in the morning - does his teeth, bite to eat and he's rolling - never changes a thing - the week ends the week begins..."  I've always understood the song as a call to awareness, a call to recognize that every day is a precious gift from God, even the ones in which it feels like nothing extraordinary happens.  

The psalmist writes:  "The span of our life is seventy years, maybe eighty, but they are marked with hard toil, they fly by and then we're gone...teach us to number our days so we might apply our hearts to wisdom."  How have you marked today?  Take a minute and name one thing that made today different, even if it seems like an insignificant little difference.  It can be pleasant, or painful - what God wants for us is the thing for which the psalmist asks:  awareness, perspective, the sense that, even on the most ordinary of days, things of consequence are taking place.  

In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis describes heaven as a place in which reality is so overwhelming that it is painful.  Those who are unaware of where they are and what power has brought them hide in their grey lives, unwilling or unable to experience the reality around them in all its depth and power.  They are so insubstantial the grass feels as hard as diamonds and they can't even disturb the delicate morning dew.  Could the ants marching in Dave Matthews' song be so different?

You're going lots of places.  Some of you are just getting started, some of you are looking at graduation as soon as this December.  The prayer of the psalmist is not for power, or strength, or vindication:  the psalmist's prayer is for wisdom, understanding, and the chance to spend the day working on God's behalf.  In the end, that's a pretty substantial reality in which to live.  

30 September 2010

Exercise Evangelism

I have been having an evangelism experience at the gym lately.

I've struggled with back pain off and on for the past two years, and I'm finally mostly pain-free after well over a year of physical therapy, chiropractic care and essentially taking better care of my body.  About two months ago, I was sharing my struggle with Michelle, our kick-ass spin instructor who has fought cancer and won over the past year (you have no idea what a simpering little weenus you are until you watch a bald woman lead your spin class with a chemo port in her arm).  As we were talking about juggling parenthood, vocations, exercise and all the other important stuff in our lives, she said, "Hey, we've got this new class starting called Centergy - you should give it a shot!  It sounds like it could be just what you need."

My friend Rachel doing yoga at her family's former vacation home in Florida.
Rachel has been pushing me to do yoga for months and will hopefully be happy I'm finally taking her advice (somewhat).
So, last Friday I gave it a whirl.  Centergy is a combination of yoga, pilates and other stuff set to music.  You come in, lay out your mat, and proceed to spend the next hour stretching, working, and sweating.  At least, that's what I did.  It was the weirdest thing:  I never moved more than four feet in any one direction, but by the end of the hour my shirt was drenched and I was in heaven.  Was Michelle ever right - the class worked all the muscles my PT and chiropractor identified as trouble spots for me, and since it was a class where everyone was trying to do the poses, I didn't get that dreaded feeling of "oh, shit, I look like a total fool flopping around on this mat in the weight room."

Tuesday night, Beloved and I both had time free to exercise together, so I suggested we go to another Centergy class.  I had an even better experience than the first, and Beloved liked it as well.  I've pretty much decided that the Tuesday night and Friday afternoon sessions at our gym are going to be added to my regular exercise rotation.

Now, here's where the evangelism part comes in.  Some of my blogger friends have been visiting the topic lately, and I think they've presented some valuable insight.  I think they've covered why we (the ELCA) aren't particularly good at evangelism, but here I'd like to offer some thoughts on how we could be better.

  1. Evangelism addresses the need of the evangelized, not the need of the church.  My friend Michelle wasn't teaching that particular Centergy class, nor was she going to receive a commission if I attended.  She had no thought of her own reward for getting me to sign up:  what she saw was my need for something new and a way our gym could provide it.  Our most effective (and, dare I say, most holy) evangelism comes when our concern is for our neighbor, not our church.  Evangelism driven by the need of the congregation cheapens the gift of the gospel by offering the holy community for the sake of its own benefit, which seems far too much like prostitution for my comfort.  
  2. Effective evangelists listen and hear before speaking.  Michelle didn't break into our conversation with some sort of ham-handed script extolling the benefits of Centergy.  We were talking, as friends, and she heard and understood what I was saying before mentioning the class.  It felt natural and good because it was natural and good.  If the church is to be trustworthy in a post-Christendom environment, it starts by listening to others for the sake of their own story, not that of the church.  Yes, the church has a good story to share, a wonderful story, but the evangelizing moment is not the moment to unload it all on the evangelized.  A simple acknowledgment that "hey, I've heard what you're saying" creates a bond of trust from the very start of the evangelized's relationship with the church - and that trust is essential to the life of the church itself.  
  3. Effective evangelists believe they are offering a real, concrete benefit to the lives of the evangelized.  Again, Michelle didn't suggest the class because it's what she was "supposed" to do:  she offered the class because she thought it could help.  Our gym has a lot of other classes and programs, including a very spendy personal trainer program:  if Michelle's concern was helping the gym's bottom line, she could have done so a hundred times over in the year we've been going to spin class.  But Michelle saw that this class could directly address the very problem I was facing.  Is it so much to ask the same of the church?  Effective evangelists, having heard, offer a benefit that can contribute to the life of the evangelized.  In other words, they don't evangelize because the church needs people:  they evangelize because they believe something in the church can help people in their real, actual, present circumstances.  This is why "Bullhorn Guy" pisses me off:  he doesn't give a fart in a stiff wind about what your problems are now, since if you're hellbound anyway your abusive boyfriend or unemployment or addiction or concern for your kids doesn't matter (and chances are if those things don't matter before you join his church, they won't matter afterwards, either).
There are a few corollaries to these points as well.  First, we who are the church need to understand our role as givers, not receivers.  As Bonhoeffer wrote and others have affirmed, "the church is only the church when it exists for others."[1]  When we use the term "effective" as an after-the-fact descriptor, we emphasize very clearly these are not techniques to develop so much as they are gifts embodied in the act itself.

Second, it is incumbent upon the church to actually offer real, concrete benefit in the here and now.  Life is no longer "nasty, brutish and short;" in fact, for most Americans, life is at the least pleasant, civilized and long.  Any remaining social pressure to join the church in order to be a member of "polite society" is dying a swift death.  These two forces have driven much of what passes for evangelism in the church for the past few centuries.  Now we live in a different world, where God, it seems, is humbling the church in order that it may serve the world in which it is planted.  All of us who read the Sermon on the Mount with a sense of delicious irony may now be realizing, to our horror, that Jesus wasn't being ironic at all.

There is a new reality afoot for the church, especially the mainline American Protestant tradition.  Our comfortable position as the de facto guardians of middle class morality and decency has been pulled from underneath us by a God who "takes by its corners this whole world and shakes us forward and shakes us free." (Rich Mullins)  This new reality may be uncomfortable for a while.  It may even feel like we're dying.  Some of our churches may indeed really die.  But death hasn't been a barrier to stop God in the past - why should the present, and God's future, be any different?

Grace & peace,

[1]Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Letters and Papers from Prison

26 September 2010

Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost - "A Chasm of Compassion"

A pop quiz.  According to researchers from Princeton University, which of the following is the income level beyond which more money does NOT guarantee more happiness:
a.     $50,000
b.     $75,000
c.     $100,000
d.     $125,000
If you guessed $75,000, you’d be right.  Researchers from Princeton
“found that not having enough money definitely causes emotional pain and unhappiness. But, after reaching an income of about $75,000 per year, money can't buy happiness. More money can, however, help people view their lives as successful or better. [1]
I did some further research on my own, and according to the 2007 census, well over 40% of the U.S. is going to clear that $75,000 threshhold.  So, it seems that most of you can count on making enough money in your lifetime to be financially assured of maximum happiness.  In other words, you’re going to be rich.  Congratulations.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Hunger begins only when people desire to keep their own bread for themselves.”[2]  In the movie “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko said, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”[3]  The task for you, as American Christians in the 21st Century, will be learning how to overcome the chasm between these two polarities. 
            There is a chasm in Jesus’ parable.  But it is not a chasm of riches or poverty.  It is not a chasm of greed.  It is not a chasm of luck or good fortune.  The chasm exists from the start of the parable right through to the very end.  The chasm in Jesus’ parable is a chasm of compassion.  It has very little to do with wealth and everything to do with blindness.  Jesus did not tell this parable to make the rich give up our riches.  Jesus told this parable so that the blind might see.
            In Bible Study Tuesday night, as we were discussing this parable, one of our folks said, “Okay, so when do we know we’ve given away enough so we won’t wind up in the rich man’s spot?  Who do we need to save?”  The quick, snarky answer to that question is, “Who are you thinking about, and what are you waiting for?”  But that’s missing the point of the parable.  Jesus isn’t talking about an actual person burning in hell – he IS, however, warning actual people that their actual blindness to the needs around them could actually place them in actual danger of actually getting in big, big trouble.
            The deep, true answer to the question from Tuesday night is this:  it isn’t how much you save, it’s how well you see.  You are not the savior of the world; that’s Jesus, just in case you’ve gotten confused lately.  But if you claim to follow the Savior, then within that following you are called to open your eyes to more than just your own needs.  The rich man wasn’t condemned for being rich:  he was condemned because someone was suffering right on his doorstep, and he either couldn’t see it, or refused to see it.
            One of my seminary professors used to remind us that “the parables are told for us, not against us.”  This parable, with all its talk of Hades and burning and poverty, is good news for us.  Forget the abstract suffering of the poor man Lazarus, the abstract sorrow of the rich man who ignored him.  They are imaginary, fiction told with a purpose.  Remember that for you, this parable comes in time.  For you, this parable is good news:  you can bind up the wounds you encounter in this world.  You have Moses and the prophets.  You have the witness of Jesus, risen from the dead as proof that God’s love will never be conqured.  You can see the chasm of compassion that separates us in this world, and you can trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to venture into that chasm for the sake of your neighbor, rich or poor.
            Jurgen Möltmann, a German theologian, once said that “the opposite of poverty is not property:  the opposite of both is community.” [4]  The chasm Jesus shows you cannot be filled with money – it can only be bridged by the love of Christ for rich and poor alike.  Yes, we are rich – but our riches will not heal the wounds of this world.  Only the love of Christ poured out through us can bridge the chasm of compassion.  As a baptized and beloved child of God, you are part of that bridge – take the love of Christ with you this week, and let those riches loose for the sake of the world.  Amen.           

[1] http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/la-heb-money-20100906,0,7805444.story
[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  DBW Volume 5:  Life Together – Prayerbook of the Bible.  © 2003 by Fortress Press.  p. 65
[4] http://adammlowe.com/2010/05/23/holy-spirit-in-the-world-today-conference-london-htb/