30 May 2010

"Turn the Car Around and Get the Hell Out of Town"*

The U.B. ended today. Now the hard march of post-U.B. reality begins, with all the emotional and financial repercussions we knew it would entail. I'm still trying to make sense of what happened, and trying to deal with the anger, betrayal and frustration for which I still don't have a productive outlet, but at least no one's dumping more shit on top of the pile anymore.

Praise be to God, a few more boxes moved and the leaving will be done. Time to shake off the dust and mourn what has been lost: friendships, trust, the ability to forgive. This mourning will be a long, lonely road but, as I noted before, at least Beloved and I will travel together, as we've done since the U.B. first started spreading its poison.

To those who've walked this journey with us, loved on us, supported us, prayed for us: thank you. Your continued prayers will be appreciated. As soon as we get our hearts and heads straight, I'll be back to blogging a bit more regularly, but for now we need to tend to ourselves.

The peace of the Triune God be with you all.


*A line from "What Was Wrong" by Storyhill

25 May 2010

Pop Culture Roundup

What a week for television, huh? Yes, I was a Lost watcher and yes, the finale was incredible. Beyond that, much more intelligent people than I are breaking it down in much better ways, so let's just leave it at that, shall we? Just. Freaking. Incredible. 'Nuff said.

I've also been following V and Fringe. The thought occurred to me this morning, after finally catching the Fringe season finale, that they exist along an interesting continuum. Toward one extreme, there's Lost, where nothing is ever explained and much remains mystery, so much so that it alienated a lot of early fans. Toward the other, you have V, which I'm sorry to say will likely not be back in the rotation in the fall because every single crisis is telegraphed so completely my three-year-old could easily follow the show. (Not to mention the glaring problem of a super-evolved species that can track anything that moves on the planet below, embed cameras in their own uniforms to monitor the human population, and discover a secret meeting of rebels with some dart-throwing remote robot, but remains mystified by the common cell phone and a group of rebels on their own ships who have conversations with human resistance groups IN PUBLICLY TRAVELED HALLWAYS) Then, in the middle, you have Fringe, which is rapidly rising to X-Files level satisfaction (the Mulder years, that is). I am really interested to see where Fringe goes next, as the first season has been tremendously satisfying.

Beloved and I caught two movies last week: I Love You, Man and Sherlock Holmes. We enjoyed both quite a bit. I'm not sure why everyone got so bent out of shape by Sherlock Holmes: it seemed faithful to the Holmes I remember from the stories, and if Robert Downey, Jr. isn't Basil Rathbone, well, what of it? We enjoyed the film very much. I Love You, Man was a very, very big surprise. I expected just a few laughs, with a completely predictable ending, but got more than a few laughs and an ending that shakes up the pretenses just a bit. A good movie for a date night with the spouse if you don't mind more than a few obscene jokes about sex.

I'm listening to Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz right now, and liking what I'm hearing. To my recollection this is the first book by Koontz for me, but at the very least I'll be listening to the rest, as they are all on our library's free audiobook download program. Your library might have something similar - you should check it out.

That's pretty much the pop culture roundup here. I've been taking a break from blogging as we are approaching the end of the U.B., and my attention needs to be focused elsewhere. Thankfully that particular charlie foxtrot will soon be navigated and behind us, and we can turn our attention to better things. Your prayers for the next few days, however, would be appreciated.

Grace & peace,

16 May 2010

Going to Worship with Denis Leary

I went to church with Denis Leary this morning.

In a manner of speaking, of course - no, Denis Leary did not make his way to an ELCA congregation in rural Iowa. At least, if he did, no one noticed. But I went to worship with him all the same.

I was in a bad mood this morning. For some reason, the Unbloggableness (henceforth known as "U.B." because I'm tired of typing out the whole thing) popped into my head as I was leaving the house for a supply date at a local congregation. Ten minutes of seething behind the wheel is not a good way to prepare oneself to preach to a group of people who've recently lost an interim pastor to illness and haven't seen you in two years. I tried various musics and podcasts and just couldn't get my mind of the shitty turn things had taken vis-a-vis the U.B. No particular reason - I guess this morning was just my turn on the shit wheel. It happens, you know.

I pulled into a drive-thru coffee shop for some extra caffeine and scrolled through my iPod while I was waiting for the car in front of me to get their order when "No Cure for Cancer" popped up. Some of you may have forgotten this little gem, or maybe you're too young to remember that Denis Leary was a comedian long before "Rescue Me" or any of the other projects he's done as an actor. His act is not for the uptight or easily offended, especially when it comes to religion, Catholicism in particular. For some reason, his combination of anger and profanity was just what I needed to put me in the right state of mind. I laughed all the way to the church, enjoyed the service tremendously, including several conversations with members after worship, and then I laughed all the way home. In fact, I had a great day after a lousy start, thanks to Denis Leary and the myriad ways he can use the F-bomb in the course of a single rant.

Perhaps this is a sign of the life we've been living lately: the best pick-me-up I've had in months came from a guy screaming, "Your life didn't turn out the way you wanted it to? Hey, pal, I wanted to be the starting centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox. Life sucks: get a fucking helmet!" We have so much for which we are rightfully thankful, yet the U.B. has made us perpetually aware how quickly things can change and how dreadfully we can be hurt.

What I have always appreciated about Denis Leary is his absolute refusal to engage in bullshit. Having been a fan for years, I've caught him on talk shows and other places and have always enjoyed the fact that he simply doesn't care how you feel about what he says. We both work in words, Denis Leary and I, yet he has a freedom of which I can only dream, for the most part. The more outrageous his act, the more people will come to hear it, whereas my job is to disappear entirely and let Jesus be the outrageous one, and me simply the guy pointing directly at him.

I don't want to be a person who engages in bullshit. We've got far too little time on this earth to waste it saying things we don't mean and putting up with crap that isn't true. There are far too many of us in the church who value tranquility and "niceness" above all other characteristics, when what might be more healthy is a good dose of plain speaking or even anger at times. I don't mean the kind of vengeful, hateful anger that seeks the destruction of what is good, of course, but there is certainly a place for anger about mistreatment, unrepentant sin and the expectation that bullshit is better than honesty that might get uncomfortable.

There's no grandiose statement here at the end of this reflection. I won't promise to call "Bullshit!" whenever I see it (even though it's a wicked fun game and you should try it sometime). I just had a good ride to church with Denis today and thought you should hear about it. He's a good guy, that Denis - his language is a little rough, but he says the kind of things I often think in my head but don't have the guts to say out loud. I think he and I should ride to church together more often; if you want to come along, don't say I didn't warn you.

Grace & peace,


14 May 2010

Family Tree Friday Five

Playing the Friday Five this week from RevGalBlogPals.

1. Do you have any interest in geneaology?
I do and I don't. I like getting the stories and knowing more about where I come from, but I'm not at all interested in the hours of searching records to do it. Thankfully, on my Dad's side my uncle Warren has done that for us. No one has stepped up on Mom's side as of yet, but maybe, in spite of my reluctance, that'll be me someday?

2. Which countries did your ancestors come from?
Mom's side comes from Germany and Dad's side comes from Sweden. My great-grandfather Spangler emigrated to the U.S. in 1906, so part of my family has been here just over a century.

3. Who is the farthest back ancestor whose name you know?
Off the top of my head it's just my great-grandparents, but I remember from reading through the work my uncle has done that there were several people with the name Johannes in the mix in further generations back.

4. Any favorite saints or sinners in the group?
We don't have a lot of stories about our skeletons - midwestern Lutherans of all ethnic stripes tend to keep the darker secrets close to the vest. I know some of the struggles my grandparents faced getting through the Depression; my grandfather told my dad they were reduced to grinding and boiling their own field corn for food one fall. But I have many, many fond memories of the family I knew:
  • The last thing my Grandpa Janke said to me before he died was how proud he was of me for winning our local spelling bee in 6th grade.
  • My Grandpa Johnson loved candy orange slices, had a laugh that has passed to my uncle Warren and now to me at times, and he could sing like no one's business.
  • My Grandma Johnson loved nothing better than having the family together as often as possible. Sometimes I think she held on to her house as steadfastly as she did because she knew how hard it would be to do holidays together once she moved to the nursing home.
  • My Grandma Janke loves to tell stories about her family and her faith, and is ridiculously proud of her two pastor grandsons (well, almost pastor in the case of my cousin Ryan - he's in college and planning to go to an LCMS seminary after graduation).

5. What would you want your descendants to remember about you?
If I could be remembered like my grandparents I'd be very, very happy: kind, loyal, faithful, generous, firm in character, hard-working and humble. I know it's a parody of midwestern Scandinavian Lutherans to love this about my roots, but I won't apologize for the better aspects of what Garrison Keillor so richly satirizes.

Bonus: a song, prayer, or poem that speaks of family--blood or chosen--to you.
I know it's Rich, again, but I've thought of my family from the first time I heard "First Family." No, we didn't grow up in Indiana, and there were three of us kids, not five, but the feel of this song is EXACTLY what I remember from my youth, and I love it very much.

More Rich Mullins music on iLike

Grace & peace,

12 May 2010

Six Sixes For 36

Hi there - remember me?

In the time since we've last been together, I turned 36. Thirty-freaking-six. This is not a complaint - this is reality landing on my head. I am fully and completely, 100% an adult now. I actually have been for some time, but the combination of kids/age/working with actual college students/starting to go bald just hit me harder this year. Again - not complaining, just amazed. From here on out, I'm going to be living in an age I can remember my parents occupying.

So, then, to commemorate the occasion, here's a list of six sixes for 36. These are by no means comprehensive, they are rather the scattered thoughts of a frazzled husband, father and preacher who is having the time of his life (for the most part).

Six People (or groups of people) Who Mean The World To Me
1. Beloved - natch.
2. The Sisters - you get one spot because I don't want to put one of you in front of the other.
3. My Brothers, Brian & Kevin - see above.
4. My Parents, Alan & Eunice - see above above.
5. The Cape Cod Boys and everyone connected with the Cape Cod "Gang" (You know who you are)
6. Anyone who's ever spent a summer working at Carol Joy Holling Camp in Ashland, NE.

Six Things I Want To Do Before I Die
1. Take Beloved to Europe for a major anniversary trip, and while on that trip drink a pint of Guinness in Dublin and a pint of dunkelbier at the Kartoffelhaus in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, Germany.
2. RAGBRAI and BRAN. (Fun fact: My uncle rode BRAN a few years ago and rode through our hometown on his 50th birthday. I think that's just cool)
3. Go to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier National Parks with the kids.
4. Own a motorcycle.
5. Qualify for Boston (hey, I didn't say I WILL do it, just that I WANT to...)
6. Publish a novel (see above).

Six Books I Plan To Read Very Soon
1. Rabbit, Run by John Updike.
2. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.
3. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
4. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
5. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
6. Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

Six Things I Want To Do Around The House This Summer
1. Repair the drywall and replace the light fixture in the downstairs bedroom.
2. Tear down, move and rebuild the storage shed in the back yard.
3. Prepare a garden for next year.
4. Build a new gate for the west entrance to the backyard.
5. Paint the dining room table and chairs.
6. Install a "work sink" in the basement.

Six Bloggers Who've Inspired Me
1. Jules. Our family and hers are occupying a similar reality separated by approximately eight months (I think). She's been a good friend and internet shoulder throughout.
2. Tripp. Dude is the most Lutheran AngloBaptist I know. Also, he likes celtic music and plays in a band. Pretty cool.
3. Gordon Atkinson. I remember someone mentioning, "Hey, you should check out this guy who writes at reallivepreacher.com sometime - he's a Baptist, but he gets this ministry gig." And how. How can you not love a writer who dreams about Martin Luther, Canned Soup and Diet Coke?
4. Jan Edmiston. The most consistently valuable blogger - Jan is "here" every day, and always chewing on something worthwhile. The fact that she's a Lost fan is just a nice bonus.
5. CoffeePastor. Protestant pastor/philosopher who likes coffee, college football and reading good books. Need I say more?
6. Chris Duckworth. East Coast Lutheran who loves politics, baseball and talking about grace and faith. Kind of a nice, Lutheran, Democratic-leaning George Will? *

Six Great Places/Things/Whatever That You Might Not Know About
1. The Cafe, Ames, IA
This has rapidly become our favorite restaurant here in Ames. The Cafe offers incredibly good food, fast, friendly service and ridiculously reasonable prices. We are blessed with some good restaurants for a college town this size, but for our money the Cafe is head and shoulders above the rest.
2. "Once"
"Falling Slowly" won the Oscar for Best Song a few years back, but I'm still as impressed by this movie the longer out we are from it. This is a beautiful little indie film that feels about as real as it gets.
3. The Fargo Marathon
My first marathon was in Fargo in 2006. I have yet to have a race experience to rival it. The town turns itself out for this race, whether you're doing the half or the full, and you always end your run on the big screen inside the Fargodome. If you're a runner in the midwest, this is worth your time and training.
4. Every Day Should Be Saturday
Not for the faint of heart or small of mind, and most certainly not for children. But it's a rare day when something on this awesome college football blog doesn't reduce me to snorting coffee out my nose.
5. Almond Bark Espresso Peanut Butter Fudge
Well, according to our babysitter, that last ingredient isn't in there - it's just what her concoction most resembles when she's done. Basically, you melt Almond Bark, mix in peanut butter and ground espresso beans, pour into a cooling dish and enjoy sweet caffeinated goodness when it's set up. Nummers.
6. Timberpine Lodge Bed & Breakfast, Adel, IA
Beloved and I stayed there last summer to celebrate our 5th anniversary. Lovely secluded B&B with a friendly staff and good coffee. The jacuzzi tub is a definite bonus.

So, that's the story a week out from 36. See you next year for something completely different.

Grace & peace,

02 May 2010

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter - "I Want To Know What Love Is"

There’s a song from the ‘80s that’s been going through my head this week: “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner. The lyrics I remember go like this:

“In my life there’s been heartache and pain

I don’t know if I can face it again

Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far to change this lonely life

I want to know what love is

I want you to show me

I want to feel what love is

I know you can show me…”

This is the question I want answered when Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to understand exactly what it is Jesus wants us to do. So that’s the question for us this morning: what does it mean to love like Jesus wants us to love?

Jonathan Swift once said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” [1] I’m sorry to say it seems sometimes as though he’s hit the nail right on the head. We have done some awful things in the name of Jesus through the centuries. We brought the Crusades to Jerusalem and Palestine. We tried to forcibly convert non-Christians through torture and the threat of execution in the Inquisition. We contributed to much of the conflict that led to the Thirty Years War. We used scripture to justify both sides in the Civil War, and in modern days, Christians took part in the Holocaust and continue to demonize certain portions of the population through the work of people like Fred Phelps and other hate groups. Now, you might say, “But Pastor Scott, I wasn’t part of those things.” Unfortunately, you were, to the extent that all of us are, through baptism, members of the body of Christ, to say nothing of the common creation we believe we all share as God’s children. God has been used to justify hate of nearly every kind and type for as long as human memory exists. It is woven into the very fabric of our bondage to sin. As writer Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” (from Traveling Mercies)

Perhaps a bit of context would be helpful at this point. John 13 is the beginning of the end for Jesus. It’s the night before the crucifixion, and Jesus knows what is about to happen. As a matter of fact, just before Jesus said these things, he sent Judas out to do what he had to do. Judas went into the dark to betray Jesus, and Jesus didn’t hold him back. Once Judas was gone, Jesus launched into his last talk with the eleven disciples, and the first thing he said was, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Who knows how long it would have taken Judas to do his work? He might have had soldiers waiting right outside the door. When your time is running out, you make sure you say the most important things first, and for Jesus the most important message was this: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

So what is it Jesus is talking about when he commands us to love as he has loved? First off, we need to remember that this new commandment isn’t new! Jesus is quoting here, from what his faith and his church called the two Great Commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Those great commandments come from the Old Testament: Deuteronomy 6.4-5, known as the Shema, and Leviticus 19.18. This is a commandment every Jew would have known from the day they were old enough to talk. So, how is Jesus making this new? It isn’t the love that’s new, it’s the person who loves, and how he has loved and continues to love his people. In the Greek: it’s all one sentence: Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Now we can begin to look for how Jesus loves. The word is agape and its primary meaning isn’t “sentimental warm feelings toward one another.” Agape love is “self-giving love for one another.” Agape love is known as kenotic love – it empties itself our for the sake of another, like a water bottle pours its liquid down your throat to quench your thirst and give you life. Where does Jesus embody kenosis most clearly? On the cross. Gail O’Day says,

“To interpret Jesus' death as the ultimate act of love enables the believers to see that the love to which Jesus summons the community is not the giving up of one's life, but the giving away of one's life. The distinction between these prepositions is important, because the love that Jesus embodies is grace, not sacrifice. Jesus gave his life to his disciples as an expression of the fullness of his relationship with God and of God's love for the world. Jesus' death in love, therefore, was not an act of self-denial, but an act of fullness, of living out his life and identity fully, even when that living would ultimately lead to death.”[2]

The cross is where Jesus pours himself out for the sake of the world. It isn’t a sacrifice to satisfy a blood-thirsty God: it is a refusal to hold anything back, even unfair, horrific execution. John 13.2 says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, [Jesus] loved them to the end.” Later, on the cross, Jesus says “It is finished.” In other words, “THE END.” Jesus doesn’t call us to give up our lives: Jesus commands us to give away our lives, right up to the very end.

And this is, in the end, what it’s all about, isn’t it? David Lose says,

“What gives Jesus' statement power is not only its brevity but its focus. It's the one thing – perhaps, if push comes to shove, the one and only thing – Jesus wants his disciples to know and remember when he is gone: love one another. Not "Evangelize one another." Not "Keep each other accountable." Not "Give more money to the church." Not "Resist temptation." Not "Make me proud." Not any of the other hundred things we regularly hear lifted up as the pinnacle and priority of the Christian life, but rather this: "Love one another."[3]

Here our other readings today give us the picture we need, an incomplete foretaste of how it is that we are called to love. In the reading from Acts, the church is asked to consider a new vision: what does it look like when we live with one another as equals, the same, not as those divided by practice and prejudice? Peter’s embrace of Gentiles, people considered “unclean” by Old Testament standards, shows us that love sees no partiality. Jesus came to be a light to the NATIONS, not to A nation. Peter gets shaken out of himself into a new reality where circumcised and uncircumcised alike are beloved children of God. Put into terms we can understand today, the message is this: “We’ve always done it this way” is no way to love one another, especially when it constructs false boundaries between God’s children.

In the end, though, because of who we are and how we are bound to sin, the love we give to one another will be flawed and imperfect. Our best intentions cannot keep us from sin: sometimes they’re the very thing that leads to it. That’s where Revelation provides the ultimate picture of what is coming. Some have used Revelation as a means to frighten people into an intellectual faith based on fear and a “wager” that betting on God is the best insurance possible. Here’s what Revelation really is: a love letter to a group of people who are suffering, a reminder that they haven’t been abandoned by the God who loves them. Our reading from Revelation 21 presents a vision of heaven, but notice the first word from that reading: “Then.” Heaven is not a PLACE where people (the right people) go to dwell with God: heaven will be a TIME when God dwells fully with creation, with all of us and all of what has ever been. It’s not enough for salvation to be magnificent, in the eyes of the writer of Revelation. Notice what God is doing: God is wiping away tears from those who weep. Salvation is tender as well as incredible. Salvation means living in the love of a generous, passionate God willing to pour out everything for the sake of God’s children.

Do you want to know what love is? It is kindness, generosity, patience, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, joy, laughter, and even anger, sometimes and in the right spirit. It is all of this and more. 1 John 4 has another answer, more complete: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…if we love one another, God lives in us.” Love is all of us gathered here, and those we wish could be here with us. Do you want to know what love is? God is love, and we, we are God’s love to one another. May you live in love, now and always. Amen.

[1] Thoughts on Various Subjects; from Miscellanies -- 1711

[2] O’Day, Gail. The New Interpreter’s Bible: John. p. 734