29 April 2010

After Five Years

Five years ago today, Pastor Larry Meyer succumbed to the cancer that had been killing him for nearly three years. How in the world has it already been five years? I can still remember getting the call from my friend Matt that morning, standing in the kitchen and bursting into tears, hugging Beloved and wishing, more than anything, I had been able to come see him one last time. There is a wound in this that just won't heal; five years later we are still missing him very, very much.

Anyone who's been following this blog knows the impact Larry had on my life. I don't mean to canonize the man: for one thing, he would have hated the idea himself, and for another, our shared Lutheran theology would have insisted that God makes saints in baptism. Larry had his flaws, but for most people those flaws were overwhelmed by his kindness, passion and zest for life.

After five years, I have yet to find a colleague whose judgment and advice I trust as deeply as Larry's. I could have really used his advice in The Unbloggableness. But we soldier on, don't we?

Today I lift prayers for C, his wife, his incredible children Rebekka, Rachel, Mariah and Mikah, and everyone who knew Larry and continues to mourn his death. Someday, Larry, we'll see you again. May the time between then and now be filled with laughter and joy.

I thought that perhaps it might be fitting to post five things I loved about Larry, in honor of the day. If you knew him, you could play along on Facebook at his memorial group or on your own blog - drop a link here if you wish.

1. The blue VW van. No, this isn't it, but it's pretty close. So much of who Larry was found its way into that van for me: quirky, fun, comfortable, utilitarian, and most of all, unique. He did most of the work on it himself, and that puppy ran like a charm while I was a student at LCM Nebraska. I remember riding to Synod Theological Conference with him the year I worked with him, how cool it was to sit right over the wheels and feel like you were riding the road instead of driving on it. Someday I will own a VW van like this, and every time I slide behind the wheel, hit the clutch and pop it into first, I'll think of Larry.

2. "WHATWHATWHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?" Larry's exclamation when something threw him for a loop. Said all at once like that, at the top of his formidable lungs. Usually when you heard it you were guaranteed at least ten minutes of his undivided attention, because he wanted to know just what the hell you were talking about.

3. Fireplace Position. One of Larry's flaws was his hatred of cold weather. He was an absolute sissy about winter, probably because even at his heaviest his body fat percentage remained somewhere in the low teens (the man had the metabolism of a hummingbird). On particularly cold winter days, he'd get the fire going in the fireplace at the Student Center, throw on his Nebraska jacket or the maroon blazer he kept in his office, and stand right next to the fireplace with a cup of coffee, shivering, until the fire got blazing.

4. The Forehand Smash Triple Bounce Return. Larry was a ping-pong ninja (HT: Matt Schur). His best move came when you hung a return to his forehand side. After the renovation of the Student Center basement, Larry could blast that hanger down for a point, bounce it off the wall, your side, his side, and catch it in his hand. And if that smash happened to be the seventh straight point to start a game, his grin was almost maniacal, because that meant he'd skunked you - it was game to Larry, and ping pong was the only thing in which the man was absolutely merciless.

5. Chicken Gizzards, Peel-and-eat Shrimp, Braunschweiger, and Canadian Bacon-Sauerkraut Pizza. The man was a fool for weird foods. I picked up lunch at HyVee once, and on a whim I bought some gizzards for him. When I gave them to him, I honestly thought he was going to kiss me. Every Board meeting started with pizza from Fat Pat's, and one rite of passage for every Board member was to eat a slice of the Canadian Bacon-Sauerkraut Pizza. My brother and sister-in-law hated the stuff. Me? I'll be ordering some for supper tonight, and eating it with relish.

Larry, we miss you so damn much. Tonight, after I wolf down that great pizza, and the girls have been tucked into bed, I'm going to sit out on the patio, smoke a pipe and drink a beer, and think of you. I can't wait to laugh with you again.

Grace & peace,

27 April 2010

Transparently Overwhelmed

We are out of internet at the Lutheran Center this morning, so I've been working at home, doing the work that requires being connected so I can work unconnected this afternoon. Thus far I have
  • planned our final worship service of the semester, downloaded the worship plan and powerpoint slides, and begun assembling the show for Sunday morning;
  • replied to various emails that need replying, cleaned out my inbox and tried to catch up on Facebook as much as possible;
  • started working on my sermon for Sunday by perusing an article or two at Textweek and Working Preacher; and
  • last but definitely not least, read through the growing list of blogs I follow.
It is this last that has me overwhelmed today. Sometimes, when it's been a couple of days since I've caught up, I realized I haven't missed a lot. Today that was definitely not the case.
  • Susan at Pretty Good Lutherans had a number of excellent posts, including one about the recent brouhaha at Augsburg Fortress Publishers and their Board meeting this past weekend.
  • Tripp is pondering community and solitude.
  • Milton preached a sermon I wish I'd heard live, and linked to an incredible NPR story on the Hubble Telescope.
  • Coffeepastor is preparing for his sabbatical, which makes me envious, but he also posted a preview of an upcoming movie that seems as though it will be a must-see for anyone who calls themselves a Christian.
I haven't posted much lately, for many reasons. Primary among them has been an ongoing sense of being overwhelmed by many things. Ainsley's surgery certainly limited our ability to do anything but tread water the past few weeks, and the ongoing, important work of ministry needed to be handled as well. I am, after all, first and foremost a pastor to a campus ministry community (well, okay, first and foremost I'm a child of God, then a husband, then a father, then a pastor, but I digress...). So in the midst of being overwhelmed by life and work, I've been away from things here.

There's another reason I haven't posted lately, a reason with which I've been struggling for over a month now. I was asked to refrain from posting about The Unbloggableness. The words "veiled public comments" were used. Not the kind of thing one wants to hear, obviously, and so I've been mulling it over in my head these past few weeks, wondering if the accusation is justified.

In the end, I'm not sure that it is. It depends upon your point of view, I guess, and from mine I'd say the line hasn't been crossed. Others can certainly disagree. Heaven knows there have been more things I've wanted to say here, but haven't, because that would be crossing the line.

The last thing anyone of good conscience wants to do is contribute more dysfunction to an already unhealthy situation. I don't think I've done that thus far, but obviously some do. I'm not so concerned about their thoughts on the matter, but I am concerned about the integrity of what I say and do here, so it's been a matter of a lot of thought lately.

I started blogging because I thought that perhaps I had some things to say that were worth hearing. The subtitle of the blog says it all: I am a man seeking to follow Christ in the real world. This has never been about making myself look good to the world, or getting therapy on the cheap at others' expense: it has always been about sharing the struggle of following after Jesus as the imperfect man that I am. I'm convinced that many of our struggles in the church have to do with a marked lack of transparency about who we are as Jesus' followers. Like my brother Rich once sang, "Oh, Lord, it's hard to be like Jesus." I believe one of the reasons people are abandoning the church is because we pretend to be who we aren't, and seek to protect our power rather than live in repentance and forgiveness with one another. All of us, including myself, wholeheartedly jump into the "victim complex" at times, because it's such a comfortable place to be. If it has seemed as though I've done that here, I apologize and ask for your forgiveness - my intent has always been honesty and transparency, not manipulation and craven appeals for attention. It's part of the peril of blogging honestly, I guess - somehow it always looks as though you're exposing yourself, because the really true stuff always comes out raw and bleeding no matter how you finesse it.

In these overwhelming times, may you be transparent. You are a child of God and, though you are flawed and imperfect, you are beloved and cherished. Keep following after Jesus, don't pretend to be something you're not, and love one another to the best of your ability. And may the peace of God, which truly does surpass all human understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, friends.

Grace & peace,

18 April 2010

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter: "When Will We Dance Again?"

I'm not generally a fan of recycling sermons. But it seemed both necessary and proper this week, as I hope you'll see. Preaching texts are here.

It’s been a long week for us. Ainsley had her tonsils out on Monday, and complications with dehydration forced her back into the hospital on Thursday morning. The entire week has been pretty much a wash for me in terms of pastoring. But it’s Sunday, and that means a sermon is needed. So I sat down last night to write, and just to center myself in the text, I took a look at my sermon from three years ago, the last time I preached on these texts. I was astonished to see that what I had to say then remains true today, even though I’m in a new state, a new call, and dealing with a whole new batch of mourning.

Do you remember what happened three years ago this week? I didn’t, until last night. Three years ago this week, thirty-three Virginia Tech students were murdered by one of their own. An astronaut killed herself and her former lover at Kennedy Space Center in Houston. The genocide in the Sudan continued to horrify the world. Three years ago this week.

Today we mourn the death of Jon Lacina and TJ Good, two students claimed by death when they should have been claimed by the joy of springtime at Iowa State. In the midst of the big VEISHEA celebration, friends and family are weeping. And that’s not all that causes grief today – that’s only the grief we know about, the grief we can see right in front of us.

Three years ago, I found it hard to preach, hard to find within my heart a capacity to rejoice in this Easter season. So much in this week had gone tragically wrong. How could we rejoice when young people are cut down less than two weeks before finishing a college degree? How could we rejoice when a college professor who survived the Holocaust is murdered holding shut the door of his classroom, providing his students a chance to escape? How could we rejoice when thousands live in daily turmoil and danger, where a trip to the market can easily be a trip to the grave? How can we rejoice now?

Nikki Giovanni, a poet and professor at Virginia Tech, spoke to a convocation assembled to address the horror and grief brought about by the senseless killing of innocent victims. This is part of what she said:

We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning. ... We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.[1]

Yet tragedy comes to us all in time. We are no more guaranteed a life without tragedy than we are guaranteed a life without death. Sorrow and grief are, unfortunately, companions on the journey of this life we travel.

The psalm this morning is poetry to which Ms. Giovanni’s words bear a striking resemblance. “We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while,” says Giovanni. The psalmist says, “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to death? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?” “We not moving on, we are embracing our morning,” says Giovanni. The psalmist says, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” When we live in the night of morning, the darkness can seem endless, but we hold on, because we know that someday there will be daybreak again; someday the light will burst into the darkness and we will feel joy again.

Peter knew tragedy. Being a man of his time, Peter probably knew tragedy better than any of us here today. Peter lived in a time when life was not guaranteed. Children could be swept away by illness in the blink of an eye. A cut that seemed insignificant could develop an infection and lead to death. Peter was a fisherman by trade; the sea could claim his life and no one would ever know where to find his body. But the greatest tragedy in Peter’s life was one Peter brought on himself through fear. On the night Jesus was betrayed, as Jesus was being questioned by the powerful Sanhedrin, the high council of the church, Peter denied even knowing Jesus three times. Hours earlier Peter had sworn that he would never abandon Jesus, that he would go to the grave with Jesus if he must, but Jesus had said, “No, Peter, I tell you, before a rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny knowing me three times.” Here is a tragedy for you. Peter was a friend and confidant, a student who lovingly and enthusiastically served his teacher for three years; but Peter was afraid, and in his fear Peter did the very thing he swore he would never do: he abandoned Jesus to save his own life.

Yes, Peter knew tragedy; but Jesus knew tragedy even better. Jesus knew the tragedy of the children of God, who chose darkness to hide their sin rather than risk living in the light of God and having that sin exposed. Jesus knew the tragedy of how we live in fear, how we live denying pain, denying sorrow. Jesus knew that if Peter was ever going to feel joy again, Peter needed to stop denying what had been done, and start living his life with his sins behind him. So Jesus called Peter to a breakfast fire, and over a feast of grilled fish and bread, Jesus confronted Peter with the tragedy of his denial. “Do you love me, Peter?” asked Jesus. Not once, and not twice: three times Peter denied Jesus, and three times Jesus asked his own question. “Do you love me, Peter?” Here Peter could not deny his tragedy. Here Peter could not pretend ignorance. Here Peter was confronted by the Messiah he denied, the Anointed One of God who should have been dead but was risen and asking him, three times, “Do you love me, Peter?”

Here is tragedy addressed by reality. Jesus didn’t spend any time looking into Peter’s soul for the cause of Peter’s denial. There is no false forgiveness here; no “don’t worry about it” offering grace that never forgets the sin it supposedly forgives. There is no refusal to address the sin itself, as if pretending Peter never denied his friend would somehow heal the wounds that denial inflicted upon Jesus and upon Peter himself. No, here there is confrontation with tragedy. Here the evil that was done is faced head on, and tragedy is exposed and embraced by Peter and Jesus both. Here Peter and Jesus are sad, and will be sad for quite a while; but here also Peter and Jesus love one another, and the love is all the more deep and true and real because the wound has been exposed, the infection of sin brought to the surface like poison from a snakebite, and now love can begin to heal what tragedy had once sought to destroy.

Here is the incredible work God does: God takes us, with all our sins and in the midst of all our tragedies, and begins to heal us. The power of God is nowhere more apparent than in the deep joy that comes to a person who has embraced tragedy, walked with God through a time of deep mourning and grief, and come out of the valley of the shadow of tragedy into the light of a new day. Such a person knows that even though tragedy and sorrow will come, and darkness will overshadow each of us in our life, they do not have the final word, and we need not feel that tragedy, sorrow and darkness will forever hold us in their grip. More than that, we learn that we can extend the light of God to those walking in darkness, providing them hope in the midst of suffering and grief. The grace of God is far more miraculous and powerful when it works through fellow sinners who follow Jesus into the darkness, tending to one another in the love with which Christ once tended to us. It is this power that makes the story of Paul’s conversion so incredible. The miracle of Acts 9 is not God’s call or Paul’s blindness and healing: the miracle of Acts 9 is the willingness of Ananias to put aside his fear and anger and heal the wounds of the man who had been hunting, persecuting and killing those who followed Jesus. Ananias was a man who had learned to dance again, and was willing to risk tragedy in order to follow God’s lead.

The psalmist says this morning, “You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my funeral outfit and clothed me with joy.” In this week of tragedy, I know that many have wondered, “When will we dance again?” For those of us on the periphery of tragedy, the healing will be swift and mostly unremarkable, but someday we will face tragedy again, and we will know the anguish felt by the communities who suffer today. Will we, like Dr. Giovanni, be given the grace and courage to face that tragedy head-on, to embrace our mourning? Will we, like Peter, be confronted with the tragedy of our sins, left with no hiding place where we can deny or pretend that our tragedies never happened? Will we, like Paul, be brought to a moment where we are blinded by God so that we must learn to rely on those around us for comfort and support? I hope so – I hope for that with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, for this is the only way we will ever be able to dance again. The power of the resurrection is weakened when we pretend that death will never touch our lives. The depth of our joy is lessened when we pretend that sorrow and grief can be ignored and rejected. The miracle of grace is cheapened when we pretend that our sin was never so serious as to cause God any kind of injury or harm. Only when we admit and embrace the honest reality of our lives of sin and death can we experience the blessed daybreak of forgiveness and repentance, the coming of the morning of joy. Tragedy cannot cripple us permanently if we admit that it exists, for God will have the last word, and when God has that last word, then tragedy will be no more, and joy and resurrection will come; then we will learn that yes, the morning has come, and it is time to dance again. Amen.

12 April 2010

Post-Op and Pensive

Good news: Ainsley came through the surgery with flying colors. She's had a pretty decent recovery thus far, all things considered. We've been able to get some fluids down since she home from the hospital, and though she's been in obvious pain, she's also been a great trooper and even close to happy at times. Last night was a bit traumatic: some vomiting and a fever that worried us, but sleep, water and finally keeping her painkillers down seems to have her on the mend a bit. We'll see how tonight goes.

Many thanks to the friends who've brought or sent balloons, gift cards to Dairy Queen, games and other thoughts and prayers our way. We appreciate it very, very much.

Monday was a pretty rough day. It is so hard to watch your child wheeled off into surgery, as some of you know only too well. Then, after they take your child away, you've got nothing but time. Lots of time to think about lots of things.

The first thing I realized is how blessed I am to not have to do this alone. Beloved and I worked really hard to support one another all day. Lots of compliments, lots of "you're doing great," lots of hugs and kisses (nothing inappropriate - we weren't at Seattle Grace, after all). I don't know how anyone could do this parenting thing by themselves. If you know a single parent, hug him/her and ask how you can help, because, damn, this stuff is hard enough when you've got a partner in the yoke with you.

And, of course, because there's not a lot to occupy the mind in the hospital, there was a lot of thinking about the Unbloggableness. Trying to understand what has happened, and how, is exhausting - there's no way around it. Factor in dealing with the emotional part of it, the anger and the grief and all the attendant internal conflict that goes with both, and the weariness can seem overwhelming. I remember a conversation with a friend when she was going through a really rough time - she compared it to trying to walk out in the ocean when the tide is coming in. We called it "riding the waves." You think you've got your head above water, and all of a sudden the sand drops out from under your feet or a wave knocks you down and drags you farther out to sea. You're treading water and you're never sure when it's going to end. I understand her better now - boy, do I ever.

I read John Matthew's Anxious Souls Will Ask...: The Christ-Centered Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer while we were in the hospital. (Yes, I'm a fast reader, but it's a short book) I'm finding more and more truth in what Bonhoeffer was contemplating and writing, even to his last days. Ten years of resisting Nazi prejudice and oppression left Bonhoeffer and all members of the Confessing Church with few friends, but those they had were bound together so strongly they literally embodied Christ for one another, even in the darkest days. I can't begin to imagine the mental and emotional exhaustion they carried for all those years.

What I'm getting at is this: it can be lonely out there. It seems obvious, I know - but for those of us who follow Jesus, it is nigh on impossible to do it by ourselves. We need each other, and we need each other 100%. Knowing that Beloved and I are 100% committed to getting through this week and helping our Ainsley get healthy again makes the load bearable. Bonhoeffer took much solace in knowing that Bethge, his fiance Maria and many co-conspirators were shouldering the load with him. We need that from one another. Bonhoeffer identified it as the communion of saints, "Christ-as-community." This is the task of the church in relation to itself: the bearer of burdens, the Christ who stands under the yoke with us.

And yet, there are times this pastor gig is unbearably lonely. You carry so many different stories in your head and heart, and all of them are important. But some of your stories have to stay your own. The pastor-congregation relationship is not a two-way street. Of course, the congregation can and should care for and about the pastor. They can and should offer some soul care. But you can't flip the roles. It just isn't healthy.

This is an extremely long way of saying I haven't done as well for myself as I should have done in the area of my personal pastoral care. I realized this last week, when thoughts of the Unbloggableness left me unable to think about much else for the better part of a couple of days. I've taken some short term steps to help, and I'm looking into long term solutions as well, because I haven't been the pastor I want to be for the past six months or so. There are so few places where I'm simply a trusted, valued member of the whole, no different than anyone else - I need to find more of those places for myself, so that where I am the pastor, I can do it with integrity and passion. As Bonhoeffer wrote in "After Ten Years,"
Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straghtforward [people]. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remoreseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
Simplicity and straightforwardness. Yeah. Haven't had that in a while. Time to be about it again.

Grace & peace,

11 April 2010

Something I'd Rather Not Be Doing

Tomorrow morning, Ainsley will have her tonsils and adenoids removed. I'm going to willingly place this adorable child in the hands of another person for slicing and dicing. Yep - not liking the thought of it at all, even though it should help her breathing, sleeping and appetite.

We've been prepping her the last couple of days, but for the life of me I don't think either one of us had the balls to tell her, "You're going to hurt after you wake up." Does that make us bad parents?

Either way, I'm going to hand over my child into the care of others tomorrow. Please pray for all four of us.

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter: "Hard To Get"

You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened in the hurt

Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said
Still I'm so scared, I'm holding my breath
While You're up there just playing hard to get

You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that's not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then

Did You ever know loneliness
Did You ever know need
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don't see the blood that's running in Your sweat
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You're up there just playing hard to get?

And I know You bore our sorrows
And I know You feel our pain
And I know that it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained

And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I have figured this, somehow
What I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can't see what's ahead
And we can not get free from what we've left behind
I'm reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All these words of shame and doubt, blame and regret

I can't see how You're leading me unless You've led me here
To where I'm lost enough to let myself be led
And so You've been here all along I guess
It's just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

“Hard to Get” by Rich Mullins,

recorded on The Jesus Record

© 1998 - Liturgy Legacy Music / Word Music / ASCAP

Thomas the Apostle would have understood what Rich was singing about. The Second Sunday of Easter always tells this story, mainly because the gospel tells us it happened a week after the Resurrection. Thomas was a complex character, to say the least. In John 14, when Jesus was preparing his disciples for the crucifixion, Thomas was the one who asked, "Jesus, where are you going?" Thomas is the one who wouldn’t say he understood when he didn’t understand. In John 11, when Jesus was going back to Bethany to bring his friend Lazarus out of the grave, the disciples knew that Jesus was putting Himself into harm's way. But Thomas was the only disciple who said: "Let us go to die with him." Thomas was the disciple who went 100% when he DID understand. In poker terms, Thomas was an "all-in" kind of disciple.

"I'll believe it when I see it!" This is the catchphrase of the skeptic. "Too good to be true" is another. And my all-time favorite, which appears on the internet as TANSTAAFL "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." Skeptics are the reasonable ones among us who won't buy in until they've been completely convinced of the truth of a proposition. Thomas was not the only skeptic among the disciples. John 20 says the door was locked when Jesus first came to the disciples. Why was it locked? Because they were afraid. Why were they afraid? Because Jesus was dead. Every last one of them was a skeptic, and so are we. Jesus is in the business of turning us into recovering skeptics.[1]

"I see it when I believe it" is the cry of the recovering skeptic. It is revelation: The disciples, all of them, have finally seen Jesus in the way He intends to be seen; not as just some teacher, one of many prophets, a spiritual guru, but "MY LORD AND MY GOD!" They have seen. They believe. Life is changed forever.

In John's Gospel, the difference between light and darkness is not the difference between faith and doubt, as some have suggested. The difference between light and darkness is the difference between faith and fear. Doubting Thomas is not the problem in John 20: the fearful disciples huddled behind locked doors in the upper room are the problem.

The prophet Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”[2] Think, in your own life: what darkness holds you captive? What fear imprisons you behind locked doors? I’m certain the disciples felt abandoned by God – and I know you’ve felt this way before. The sad news is that you’ll feel that way again. Sin, whether it belongs to you or someone else, will find you. All of us will find ourselves wanting nothing more than a locked room and the company of close friends – to shut the world out so we can’t be hurt or deceived any more. It is into these locked rooms Jesus comes, bearing his scars and bestowing his peace.

"Peace be with you," Jesus says. When Jesus talks about peace, he means a different kind of peace. "Peace I leave with you," Jesus says, "I do not give to you as the world gives…If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. Because I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you…I have said these things to you so that IN ME you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage, I have conquered the world." When we see the world through Jesus' eyes, we see that we are sent to give ourselves to the world as Jesus gave himself, fully and completely, with no reservation or fear. In John 14, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: love one another. We remember that commandment on Maundy Thursday, translated from the Latin mandatum: commandment. "By this everyone will know you are my disciples," Jesus says, "if you have love for one another."

"Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe," Jesus says. This is not a condemnation of Thomas for his skepticism – this is a word for those who come after Thomas to see and hear, that we may remember that we are as blessed as Thomas the recovering skeptic. True, we have not seen Jesus with our physical eyes. But the apostle who wrote this gospel wrote it for us, that we may be blessed as Jesus said. Not only "come to believe," but "continue to believe." Anyone who has sincerely tried to be a follower of Jesus knows that it's not an easy thing to do. Instead of a gradual climb of holiness, where every step leads to a higher degree of sanctification, we find that following Jesus leads us down a narrow path that has bends and curves and hills and valleys. Like the old song goes, "Sometime the load is heavy, and sometimes the road is long, and sometimes, Lord, this heart of mine is not so very strong." But all along the road of faith, in all our moments of darkness and light, fear and faith, we have a good and loving Savior who submits Himself time and again to our need for reassurance and faith. Even in our darkest and most fear-filled anxieties, the One whom we confess is our Lord and our God is willing to come into the locked rooms of our hearts and give us His peace. Thus we see His wounds. Thus we hear His voice. Thus we come to believe.

We will not always trust in Jesus. Our sin and our death and most of all our fear are fighting a losing battle, but they are fighting tooth and nail to hold on to all their lies and manipulations. But Jesus has words for us to see and hear in those hard times. Jesus says, "So you have pain now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you. On that day, you will ask nothing of Me." (John 16.22)

When Thomas saw Jesus again, his skeptical heart rejoiced and he confessed the words we all long to say in our hearts: "My Lord and my God!" In this Resurrection season, remember that seeing and hearing Jesus is as close as the people around you, who have all been given life in Jesus' name and live to be the words and hands of Jesus in the world.

· You are no longer captive to your sins – you have been set free to love one another

· You are no longer captive to your fears – the peace of Christ is given to you for protection from all that threatens you · You are no longer captive to your skepticism – do not doubt, but believe.

We have all we need when we see and hear Him through the eyes and ears of faith, and through seeing and hearing Him, we believe in Him and have life in his name. "My Lord and my God!" – give us faith to see and to hear You. Amen.

[1] I disovered this term from Pastor Ed Markquart, who retired from Grace Lutheran Church in Seattle in 2007. I can’t find the original reference, but you can see his work at http://sermonsfromseattle.com

[2] Isaiah 9.2

09 April 2010

Thoughts on Bonhoeffer: The Church and the Reign of God

We watched the documentary "Bonhoeffer" tonight for our Campus Ministry Movie Night for April. As we discussed the life of this remarkable saint, I remembered a paper I'd written for a seminary class on the Holy Spirit, which drew deeply from Bonhoeffer. Thought it'd be an appropriate thing to share. If you like seminary papers, that is. If not, this may be a good day to go elsewhere, and fear no ill will on my part - seminary papers are not for everyone.


"[The Spirit] will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The Gospel According to John, 16th Chapter, verses 14 & 15

This, according to David K. Rensberger, is "The Work of the Spirit."[1] The Spirit takes that which belongs to Christ and declares it to those who hear the voice of Christ. One can easily argue that this implies that the Spirit is declaring Jesus Christ himself for the good of the world – the picture of Christ's ministry is one of self-sacrifice and redemption in the name of God's own Son ransoming the world. But limiting the work of the Spirit to a declaration of Christ for the world ignores a significant question unanswered: when will the need for declaration cease, and what is the world's status while it lives between incarnation and parousia? If the world waits with longing, even groaning in anticipation for the world to come[2], why would the Creator of this world hesitate or delay the coming of Christ and the end of this world?

The answer is found in the work of the Holy Spirit, which is the avenue through which the reciprocity of Christ and the world is revealed. Not only is Christ given for the world, but the world is given for Christ: within Christ, the world finds its existence, and within the world, Christ lives wherever the Spirit causes God to be glorified in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen savior of the world. Here the Spirit of Christ, that which reveals Christ to the world, works God's eternal life into temporal reality, not as a far-off goal or a delayed hope, but in an already/not yet reality that creates faith in the full reality of God's future promise.

In John 17.3, Jesus describes eternal life in this way: "…this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Traditionally, eternal life has been pictured as an unrealized future promise; life in temporality has always been seen as the 'first life,' the one which must end before eternal life may begin. Note here that there is no requirement for delay in this word from the gospel of John: Jesus simply states that eternal life begins with the knowledge of the Creator and Jesus Christ. If the work of the Spirit includes the revelation of Christ for the world, then eternal life, through the work of that same Holy Spirit, has already begun!

Is this possible? Most certainly; one may know God the Creator and Jesus Christ the Redeemer within the world. Jesus was, after all, a real human being, and when Christ is known, the Creator is known: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also." (John 14.6-7a). But Christ was not and is not known solely in his particular, incarnate human body; through the continuing work of the Spirit, Christ is known in the present as well.

Why would this be done now? Because the world, as the continuing creation of God, is glorious and exists for God's present revelation, not only for a future promise. This present revelation is, of course, the inbreaking of the future promise, but as the world groans with anticipation for God's future, as the Spirit works in the world to make the Creator and the Christ known, the glory of it all is such that the angels watch as they are able:

It was revealed to [the prophets of grace before Jesus' time] that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven - things into which angels long to look! (I Peter 1.12, emphasis mine)

If the angels long to look at the Holy Spirit bringing good news in the present the world, one would think this means that there's something in the world worth watching! The work of the Word, whether the Word/Christ or the Word/Holy Spirit, is still creating all things. The world still belongs to God, and what belongs to God is declared by God the Holy Spirit. But what causes the angels to stop and stare is this: where that declaration is heard, where God is glorified and Jesus Christ is revealed as Immanuel, God-with-us, the crucified and risen Son of God, new creation happens – the Spirit creating faith in believers in this world.

One by one, as this faith is created in believers, the new creation is gathered and formed into the church, created by the Holy Spirit for the further revelation of God's new creation in the world. In this church the Holy Spirit continues the work of new creation through preaching and the Sacraments. Baptism gives the believer a moment in time whereby the beginning of this new creation might be remembered; Preaching and Proclamation point out the new creation in its contextual richness and create it through a reaffirmation of God's promises to the world; the Lord's Supper maintains the new creation by giving it a tangible promise from God to which it may return and upon which it may depend. But the church is not a community closed in upon itself, withdrawing from the world; rather, as Christ was given for the world, and the world given for Christ's revelation, the church is given to the world as the primary work of the Spirit within it, and the world given to the church so that through its witness the Holy Spirit might continue the work of new creation:

It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic, pietistic, ethical theology, but in the Biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[3]

The church, as the new creation of the Holy Spirit, is given not just for its own good, but also to participate in the reign of God, both now and in the future hope of the eschaton. The world does not want this new creation, because the world refuses to acknowledge its createdness in the first place: "…the world came into being through Him, yet the world did not know him."[4] So the Spirit calls the church into being to be one with Christ, to unite with Christ in the glory of the Creator so that the world may know God in Christ and the love of Christ in the Sprit's work of new creation.

Thus the church exists as the body of Christ in the world for the good of the world. Jesus prays for the good of the world through the church:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17.20-21)

The church is created by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the reign of God through the glory of Christ. But what does this glory entail? When the hour of Christ comes, when Christ glorifies the Creator and the Creator glorifies Christ, what happens? Betrayal happens (John 18.4-5). Denial happens (John 18.17, 25-27). Abuse happens (John 19.1-3). Death happens (John 19.30). BUT resurrection also happens (John 20.18), and it is in this resurrection that the glory of being united by the Spirit with the Creator and Jesus Christ completes the work of new creation in the church. The world resists this aspect of the church, because of the world's rejection of its creaturely nature, and so, as Christ must die for the sake of the world, so must the church die to itself, to its ambitions to be anything other than the body of Christ, so that the Spirit might make it into a new creation, raised to new life to become one with Christ for the sake of the world.

The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends people back to their life on earth in a wholly new way…Christians, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, have no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself, … they must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in their doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with them, and they crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be prematurely written off.[5]

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. (John 17.14-15 (emphasis mine))

The church, in the reign of God, is called to participate deeply in the world God has created, not to escape it to live comfortably nestled away, safe from the world that threatens. For God is at work in the world that threatens, and where God has chosen to be at work, there the church is created by the Spirit of the Creator to participate in that work. The world belongs to God. The church belongs to God. The church, then, does not belong to the world, though in time the church exists in the world, and not by accident. This deep calling into this world is a purposeful calling at the command of Christ himself. As the church declares the glory of Christ by the Holy Spirit's creative work, the salvation of the world is taking place. It is for this reason that the world must not be prematurely written off: Jesus Christ came to save the world, and the Holy Spirit continues that saving work through the church in the present time. The church would do well to remember that its proclamation creates new creation now as it promises the fulfillment of all of God's future plans for new creation – the Word is always doing what it says.

Finally, the Spirit is breaking eternity into time in its work in the reign of God, the 'hour' of the glorification of God writ large. The Spirit works the past into the present by the performative proclamation of Jesus Christ, who was born, walked, taught, was crucified, and rose again in temporal actuality. Jesus Christ was an actual human being, and though all of history is created through him, in particularity he lived in a very brief period of time. But where the Spirit causes two or more to gather in the name of Christ, Christ is there with them – this is the Spirit working past performative promise into present perception, to the glory of itself along with Christ and God the Creator. In the present, the Spirit is at work in the world, creating the church and bringing it through continual death and resurrection, working a new creation, and through this new creation forming the body of Christ for the good of the world. The future hour of God's final glory is also under the auspices of the Spirit, and the Spirit is creating that hour in the body of Christ through the preaching of God's promised future, the drowning of the old and new creation of justification in Baptism, and the nourishment of the testament of Christ through the Lord's Supper. These means of grace belong to the church for the good of the world: through them, the Spirit is bringing the eschaton to the present and creating faith in the promise that Christ will come again and the reign of God will be complete.

Until the reign of God comes in fullness, however, the Spirit continues to create the church, the body of Christ for the good of the world. But unlike so many other spirits at work in the world, this Spirit makes no promises save one: to be a Christian is to become one with God the creator through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ:

It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one's own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event…There is nothing of the religious method here. The "religious act" is always something partial; "faith" is something whole, involving the whole of one's life. Jesus calls people, not to a new religion, but to life.[6]

God has given the world for the good of the Spirit, that life might come through the calling of Christ through the Spirit's proclamation. We as the body of Christ have the privilege of participating in that calling, in that gathering, in that living to which God is calling the world. That participation is also the completion that the Spirit works in us: when we are gathered into the body of Christ and sent into the world, the reign of God is established in us as well. Where the Spirit is calling us into the way of Christ, a new creation is brought to life – that life is the reign of God, and it lives where we live, in Christ, for the sake of the world.

[1] Scriptural subheading from Harper-Collins Study Bible, NRSV. Copyright 1989, Wayne A. Meeks, ed. p. 2044.

[2] Romans 8.22

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter to Eberhard Bethge, 5 May 1944. Excerpted from A Testament To Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Geffrey B. Kelly & F. Burton Nelson, ed. Copyright 1995, HarperSanFransisco, pub. p. 504.

[4] John 1.10 (NRSV)

[5] Bonhoeffer, to Bethge, 27 June 1944. ATTF, pp. 507-508. (emphasis mine)

[6] Bonhoeffer, to Bethge, 18 July 1944. ATTF, p. 509.

The image is "Creation" from the Saint John's Bible Project.

Friday Five: On the Road

These pictures of the Sisters were taken on our way to Nebraska last summer.

1. When was your last, or will be your next, out of town travel?

My last trip out of town was our wonderful Campus Ministry trip to Holden Village in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. It was an incredible trip marred only by the fact that Beloved and the Sisters couldn’t be with us.

As to the next trip, well, it can’t come soon enough. As of right now it will be my cousin’s wedding in early June, but we’re trying to find some time to get out of town before that trip. Beloved and I both need to get away for a while and just be with good friends and family.

2. Long car trips: love or loathe?

Depends on the company. By myself, I could drive all day and never feel the worse for it. Being one of those “introverts in an extrovert job” types, an empty automobile and a good audiobook is one picture of heaven for me. But I do enjoy road trips with friends as well. (yes, M, K, and C, that trip to Webstah back in 2000 was enjoyable for me, even though I was an ass on the way home. I hadn’t figured out how much I need “alone time” at that point. Again, sorry for those last two days.)

Travelling with the Sisters? Well, that’s different. Sometimes it’s wonderful, sometimes it’s excruciating. Kinda like everything about parenting toddlers, only compressed into a small metal box moving 80 miles an hour across the Midwest.

3. Do you prefer to be driver or passenger?

Driver, driver, driver. I am a TERRIBLE passenger. The only form of transportation I’ve ever found enjoyable as a passenger is Amtrak, frankly – air travel is too hectic and cramped, cars make me motion-sick if I’m not behind the wheel, and tour buses are the same as airplanes, only slower. If I had to take Amtrak to hell, at least I’d enjoy the ride.

4. If passenger, would you rather pass the time with handwork, conversing, reading, listening to music, or ???

Reading, mostly, when I’m not motion sick. I bring my iPod when I travel, but often it winds up being background noise these days.

5. Are you going, or have you ever gone, on a RevGals BE? Happiest memories of the former, and/or most anticipated pleasures of the latter?

I haven’t been to a BE, and probably never will, given that it’s for Gals far more than Pals, but I did meet several RGBPs at the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis two years ago, and that was just frickin’ awesome. You all are some pretty cool chicks. And pals of chicks, of course.

6. Bonus: a favorite piece of road trip music.

I'm in a Rich Mullins mood today, so here are three of my favorites: