28 June 2010

Book Review: The Case for God

Lutheran Campus Ministry at Iowa State University hosts a "Theology for Lunch" group every Friday at noon during the school year. Last fall we tackled N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope. This spring, because Wright wasn't deep enough, we took on The Case for God by Karen Armstrong. [check your sarcasm sensor - fully operational? Good] It was a very enriching semester for all of us.

This is my first experience with Karen Armstrong's work. Many have recommended her other works to me through the years, most especially A History of God and The Spiral Staircase. After our experience with The Case for God, I'll definitely add these titles to my list for future reading.

Contrary to what the title may lead the reader to expect, The Case for God is not an apologetic; at least, it is not an apologetic akin to anything I've previously read. As we drew near to the end of the book, I found myself mystified with the title altogether - it seems to draw the reader's attention away from the marvelous work Armstrong is doing toward an argument or proof that is never offered. Armstrong herself states that "quarreling about religion is counterproductive and not conducive to enlightenment." But she does offer, in the introduction, her rationale for this work:
The modern God is only one of the many theologies that developed during the three thousand year history of monotheism. Because "God" is infinite, nobody can have the last word. I am concerned that many people are confused about the nature of religious truth, a perplexity exacerbated by the contentious nature of so much religious discussion at the moment. My aim in this book is simply to bring something fresh to the table.
What she brings is an encompassing history of theology, religion and faith. Armstrong literally attempts to cover the waterfront: she begins in 30,000 BCE and ends with the "death of God" movement of the 1960s, the recent rise of neo-atheists and a touch of how the modern church might wish to respond. It's an ambitious project which Armstrong mostly carries off extremely well, focusing on what I believe are two main hypotheses:
  1. The concept of faith as cognitive assent to a list of dogmatic assertions is a very modern development, post-Enlightenment at the very least if not later; and
  2. The development of this concept has had an extremely detrimental effect upon the three monotheistic faiths (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) and their adherents.
In pursuit of these two hypotheses, Armstrong collects and presents an impressive collection of theologians, philosophers and intellectuals of every stripe and genre. In such an attempt, there are bound to be omissions, no matter how carefully one does one's research. I'll gladly admit that the omissions I noted were mainly of the Lutheran stripe - I would have preferred a deeper look at the Reformation, and an analysis of how the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer were co-opted by many in the "Death of God" movement. Others might have preferred a more detailed examination of their own faith tradition, especially as the Christian church has splintered into denominations over the past 1,000 years.

These are, however, minor quibbles. Nearly every page offers a great deal of thought-provoking analysis of religious faith, and Armstrong is remarkably even-handed in her praise and criticism. As those of us who love our churches venture deeper into the post-Christendom age, The Case for God is a valuable contribution to the church's conversation with itself and with the world in which we live. I highly recommend it, but only if you're ready to think deeply about God, theology and what it means to be people of faith.

Grace & peace,

25 June 2010

Summery Friday Five

Songbird gave us the Friday Five this week, and it's all about summer. Here are three things I love, two things I don't come the longest time of theyear.

Three Summery Things I Love:
1. Swimmin' holes. Specifically, the new Furman Aquatic Center here in our lovely town of Ames (Kids' Pool pictured to the right by Ronnie Miller of the Ames Tribune). This water park has been ridiculously wonderful for us this summer - we bought a season pass (with some help from a good friend) and have already gotten return value for the big expense. The Sisters love nothing more than going to the Water Park on an afternoon, and at this point all they can do is walk around in the water and go down the kiddie slides. I can't wait to see how much they love it when they're big enough to go down the big water slides you can just see in the background.

I've loved going to the pool in the summer my whole life, and it's been fun going back with our girls and discovering, among other things, why running on a wet pool deck is never a good idea. Okay, maybe that last wasn't so much fun, but the rest certainly has been!

2. Cooking food with fire. Hot dog roasts, burgers and brats on the grill, hobo packs, corn on the cob wrapped in its own husks - you name it, if it can be cooked outdoors I'll give it a shot this time of year. I'd like to try pizza and a dutch oven roast sometime before this summer's out, and maybe if I get a little adventurous I'll attempt to smoke some ribs, too.

3. Baseball. I grew up in the Baseball Capital of Nebraska, and spent most of my summers pursuing America's pastime until I was 16 and, frankly, got burned out. Even though I haven't played in all the years since, I still love going to the ballpark to catch a game, and joining a summer church league for softball wouldn't be all bad, either. Our campus ministry makes at least one trip to Des Moines for an Iowa Cubs game each year, and it's always a highlight of the summer for me. Hopefully at some point in the near future I'll have the chance to catch a Twins game at Target Field in Minneapolis as well.

Two Summery Things I Don't Love So Much
1. Sun, Heat and Humidity. You can blame this one on my Swedo-Germanic ancestors, I guess. When it comes to the weather, I'm all for sunny days, but I love them best when accompanied by spring or fall temps. Well-insulated chaps like me don't react well to being constantly sweaty, itchy from heat rash and fried to a crisp. An additional frustration for me is the way my body selectively tans: my arms will get comfortably red, my legs will stay pasty white no matter how often I wear shorts, and my face and neck will burn no matter how much sunscreen I use. I bought a nice hat last fall, and hopefully the full-coverage brim will help keep the forehead blisters to a minimum this year.

2. Mosquitoes, the state bird of Minnesota. Nothing ruins a picnic or night at the beach/lake/ballpark/campfire faster than these flying vampires. Yet another reason I prefer autumn and spring: no bugs.

Bonus Target of Loathing: Junebugs

Please, feel free to fly around our porchlight all night, smack into our screens and generally scare the hell out of me or my family by flying into our faces, buzzing like the world's first vuvuzela. Yuk, yuk, yuk.

23 June 2010

Ten Years of Running

Chris D at The Lutheran Zephyr wrote a great blog post yesterday about getting back to running. Because of that post, I've been thinking about my own running journey, and this afternoon, during my run, I realized I've been doing this for over ten years. Ten years, and God only knows how many miles, shoes and sweat later, I'm still at it.

I was an athlete in high school, though not the running kind. I was a pretty good offensive tackle and threw the shot in track. Lifted lots of weights and even benched 300 lbs during football my senior year. But since I stopped growing at 5'11" or so, doing any kind of athletics at the University of Nebraska was out of the question - I was a few inches too short to play on the line, and far too slow to play anywhere else. Unfortunately, I kept eating like I was an athlete, and a few years later I had ballooned from 225 lbs to somewhere in the vicinity of 270 lbs. I ate, I smoked, I drank and I didn't exercise outside of the occasional church league volleyball and softball games. So, by the time I got to seminary, I was a pretty hefty boy.

Even so, I never really thought about my health all that much, and frankly, I started running because of FW. During our first year of marriage she enlisted in the Army Reserve, and we both started running; sometimes together, sometimes on our own. For me, it was pretty ugly at the start: jog a few minutes, walk a few minutes. Heart pounding, sweat coursing down my face, but at the same time, feeling really good. I didn't lose a lot of weight at first, but I started feeling better very quickly. Luther Seminary is located right next to St. Anthony Park, one of the more picturesque neighborhoods of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, and I took advantage of it, developing routes that would take me past some of the most beautiful houses in the area. It was especially nice in the autumn months - running through drifts of blazing orange, red and even violet with that crisp air in my lungs made me glad to be running. Between pounding out the miles around my parents' farm that first summer while doing CPE in nearby Sioux City, IA and foraging farther and farther afield when I got back to Luther, I eventually did start losing a little weight and feeling as though I was actually someone you'd call a "runner." It was a great feeling.

When FW and I separated during my internship in Titusville, FL, running was one of the primary ways I tried to cope with the emotional turbulence of the time. I ran almost every day, cut out a lot of the awful foods I'd been eating, and the pounds just melted away. I eventually dropped to under 200 lbs for the first time since my sophomore year of high school, and people got nervous. But at the time I was probably running between 30 and 40 miles a week, which burns a LOT of calories. I was putting in some good times, too, for a former nose tackle - in those days, I RAN when I ran. When I went to California to try and make things work with FW, I ran. When things didn't work and I went back to seminary, I ran. When Beloved and I started dating and I started spending time with her and her family, I ran. When I was called to be a pastor in Barrett, MN, I ran around the lake, around town, out into the country, wherever it felt like I ought to be running. It was genuinely a part of who I was.

A few weeks after my Grandma Johnson's death in 2006, I was diagnosed with mild depression, and as a means of doing something crazy to break out of the funk, I entered the Fargo Marathon. I downloaded a training program from Runner's World and followed it pretty closely, including my 20 mile long run that I completed in four five-mile loops on an awful, rainy Saturday in early April. I ran the marathon and had a blast, finishing in 4:35. I remember thinking, "this is fun - I could totally do this in under four hours, though."

Heh - what did I know? You see this picture of me and Beloved after that first marathon? I'm smiling because I'm feeling awesome. (Okay, actually, at this point I couldn't feel my face, and I had to go get an IV about 5 minutes later because I started slurring my words and almost fell down, but I still felt AWESOME for finishing a marathon) She's smiling because she's pregnant with Ainsley, and she's going to tell me two days later, after confirming it with her doctor. Hello, new priorities: goodbye, carefree 4-milers whenever I can lace up my shoes.

As far as running goes, the last four years have been Heartbreak Hill: miserable, soul-crushing, uphill and a daunting challenge that never seems to end. It's not all due to the addition of the Sisters: my body is catching up with me, and it's been harder and harder to keep myself in running shape. Back problems, foot problems, sleep deprivation and, most of all, parental responsibilities have combined to make any kind of consistent exercise difficult to accomplish. I've swelled back up to 230 lbs, and for every run that feels great, I often have to fight through two that feel like running through quik-dry concrete. I am absolutely not complaining about being a parent here: it's just that making the right choice has had consequences about which I'm not particularly thrilled.

However, things seem to be changing of late. As Ainsley and Alanna grow older, I don't feel quite so guilty asking Beloved for time to go running. In the last month especially, as Alanna begins to learn to talk and, therefore, becomes far less exhausting to parent, we're both finding time to get out and be physical, to walk and run and mow the lawn (with a reel mower, not a motored mower) and work on the yard and do some of the things you can't do with an infant underfoot. Best of all, the girls are getting into the act. If they see me in shorts and my trusty adidas Supernovas they ask, "Are you going on a run, Daddy?" And they seem excited by the prospect. Kristin says when they see me out running on their way back from preschool or the gym, they scream with delight from their car seats. So I ask myself, "if they think I'm a runner, who am I to act otherwise?"

In 2008 I ran Grandma's Marathon in Duluth with very little training. I basically gutted out a 4:39 I had no business achieving. This year, I'm going to run the Des Moines Marathon in October, and for the first time since before Alanna was born, I'm excited to be working toward a running goal. True, things are different now than they were ten years ago, but I'm still eating miles, and whether I slog through a terrible tempo run like I did today or fly through a great easy 3-miler like I did on Monday, I'm still a runner - and I hope that ten years from now I'll be able to say the same thing again.

Grace & peace,

22 June 2010

Pop Culture Roundup

It's been a while since I've done a PCR, but here are a few things worth mentioning that have been going down the pike lately.

Pandorum - had a free night not so long ago and watched this sci-fi/horror flick on teh interwebs. I'm happy to say it wasn't a waste of time. Good movie: scary in parts, not completely predictable, and a really good twist at the end make this movie pretty good, really. If you liked Alien, Event Horizon or Pitch Black you'll probably get a kick out of this one.

The Wheel of Time - I'm up to book six now, and continuing to move as quickly as I can. This series has become my late-night reading, and I usually get through at least 30 minutes before I drop my Kindle on my chest and fall asleep (sign of a good book - you can remember where you were when you fell asleep). I think this will be the last time through the ENTIRE series for a while, though - reading through all of this for each of the last three soon-to-be-released titles would take years of reading other stuff away from me.

Odd Thomas - I've wanted to check this series out for a while, and recently listened to the audio versions via our local public library's free download service. It's pretty cool - you can get lots of different books for iPod for free; I'd be willing to bet that most regional library systems have something similar. Audible's great and all, but free is better than cheap six days a week and twice on Sunday. Anyway, Odd Thomas is an interesting series. The first novel, Odd Thomas, is by far the best. Odd Thomas is a short order cook who can see and interact with the lingering spirits of the dead. He has to solve a massive killing spree he knows is coming to his beloved hometown. The second novel, Forever Odd, was hard to follow in audio format. It mainly takes place in an abandoned casino hotel, and without the ability to skip back a page or two to check something you might have missed, it gets confusing. Other reviewers said the book wasn't all that great, either. The third novel, Brother Odd, comes close to capturing the feel of the first, though unfortunately it's a bit too self-referential for my taste at times. Mysteries all, Odd is a likable character I hope to continue reading in the future.

Blood, Sweat and Tears - I caught the tail end of "Lucretia McEvil" on the radio last week and realized I hadn't added these guys to the new iPod yet. If you like early Chicago, get on this now. If you think "You're the Inspiration" was the pinnacle of Chicago's run, get out. Seriously. Get out now.


21 June 2010

On Worship and "Issues"

I really try not to engage in church schadenfreude, as it's not particularly polite. Brother Martin might even argue it's a violation of the 8th Commandment. Whatever - today I'm engaging in it just a little bit because of this. Suffice it to say that if you're dumb enough to publicly state "God's will" endorsing your own interpretation of what to do and where to go, some of us will find a lot of humor watching it blow up in your face.

The comments led me to pondering how to be healthier in dealing with issues that can be divisive. One commenter at the Pretty Good Lutherans story mentioned that at her church, an officer of the congregation was allowed to state his/her "side" on an issue during worship, which to me seemed a gross violation of the way to go about being the church together, regardless of the issue/interpretation at hand.

It comes down to this: whatever our differences may be, they all pale, dramatically, in comparison to the duty and joy of worshiping God together. One of the primary responsibilities I have as pastor to a community of faith is to ensure that whatever the issues, whatever our differences may be, we are first and foremost a band of sinners called and gathered by the Holy Spirit to praise, thank, serve and obey God - together. If we can't worship together, can we really expect to do anything else together?

I recently had the opportunity to worship with one of the primary movers and shakers in The Unbloggableness. Seeing that person walk into the room and sit down made me instantly furious all over again. Not the most conducive mindset for worship, right? But in the course of the hour, hearing God's word together and receiving the body and blood of Christ together reminded me that whatever our differences, we are both sinners in need of forgiveness. In fact, Jesus insisted that reconciliation is more important than worship, something with which I have struggled over the past few months. I'm not reconciled to this person, and at this point, I'm no longer trying to be. Try as we might, sometimes we simply cannot reconcile ourselves to one another, and perhaps it is at this point that a severing is the best way forward. I'm sorry that it came to this, and I'll admit that I'm to blame, not completely, but I'm definitely part of the problem here. Rather than continuing to be part of the problem, we went our separate ways, and maybe that's partially what Jesus was saying. I think he knew that not every disagreement can be reconciled, for an infinite number of reasons. Better to worship with a new community, perhaps, than to continue pretending all is well in the old when it is not.

Using worship as a venue to promote a specific agenda, however, is wrong in every instance. Worship is about God, not us. Worship is about proclaiming the gospel, not airing the dirty laundry. Worship is about being God's baptized and forgiven children, not squabbling over the petty daily problems that arise whenever two or more sinners have to rub elbows regularly. Of course, the old sinner within us will try to violate the sanctity of worship from time to time. I've done it, and regretted it almost from the instant I did it. I've seen it happen in other places, and the end result is never pretty. Pastors walk a particularly fine line at all times, since we have, by far, the greatest number of chances to hijack the gospel to serve our own ends.

There is a genuine need to discern the will of a congregation when division is present and anxiety is high. Upholding the sanctity of worship does not permit any of us to willfully ignore problems, nor does it give pastors and worship leaders the right to duck the challenge of the gospel when it needs to be spoken boldly. We all need to be reminded, however, that no matter how our discernment may differ, we have a responsibility to one another to refrain from threatening or impugning the devotion of our brothers and sisters with whom we worship. Paying lip service alone won't cut it - if we are to be authentic, cohesive communities of faith, we must use our worship time for adoration and our discussion time for conversation, and in all things we must assume that each and every one of us is being as faithful as we can be. Perhaps that's what was missing in the case of Schadenfreude Lutheran Church above - the assumption that, regardless of the difference, they were all faithful people attempting to find the faithful way forward. I pray for healing, and for humility on the part of all of us as we continue to seek for ways to live together, faithfully.

Grace & peace,

09 June 2010

Evening Prayer Sermon: "Gran Torino" and The Prodigal Son

[If you've not seen the movie Gran Torino, beware: SPOILER ALERT.]

I recently started an adult education class on the parable of the Prodigal Son at a local ELCA congregation, using Tim Keller's "The Prodigal God." In it, Keller insists, as do many, that the problem with both the elder son and the younger son is this: they want their father's things, but not a relationship with their father. I wasn't particularly convinced by Keller's argument until Beloved and I watched the movie Gran Torino this weekend.

There is really only one surprise in Gran Torino, and since it doesn't have to do with the point I'm making here, I won't ruin it for you. Clint Eastwood is a gruff, reclusive retired auto plant worker in Detroit, angry about all the "gooks" (his word, not mine - the movie makes it clear they are Hmong) taking over his neighborhood. One of his neighbors tries to steal his car as a gang initiation act, but when the gang members threaten the boy's family with violence on his own property, Clint chases them all away: "Get off my lawn!" His neighbors honor his courage by inviting him into their family, more or less, and Clint begins to see that these people aren't so different than himself once you get past the cultural distinctions. Meanwhile, his relationship with his own children suffers as they focus on "dealing" with him and his cantankerous nature. Two scenes in particular stand out: in the first, his granddaughter bluntly asks Clint if she can have his beautiful 1972 Ford Gran Torino when he dies; in the second, Clint's son and daughter-in-law use his birthday as a chance to try to wheedle him into a retirement home, only to be rudely thrown out of the house and told to mind their own damn business.

All of this is as obvious as the nose on your face - you can see things coming a mile away, mostly, I think, because the people who put this movie together know what it's like to be real, flawed, broken people. There's nothing particularly noble about what gets Clint involved, but once he knows his neighbors as actual people, he begins to care for them. Likewise, the wall between Clint and his kids is obviously the product of years of missed opportunities and disappointments, built one painful brick at a time, and it doesn't come down easily (or completely, even in the end). Clint Eastwood's character is a man who's done everything right for his family: earned a living, fought in Korea, provided for his children so they can have more than he had. In thanks he has two sons who drive Asian import vehicles on their rare visits to his house (paid for by wages earned at the Ford factory), grandkids who refuse to even come at all, and neighbors who bear a suspicious resemblance to the soldiers he killed in Korea. Life is most definitely not perfect, even for the virtuous.

Our virtues can be every last bit as sinful as our vices, and they are infinitely more dangerous because of their moral excellence. In the Wheel of Time series, author Robert Jordan wrote a character named Galad, who does what is right "no matter who he hurts." It would be so much easier if life were as neatly wrapped up as a fable from Aesop, but often there is no "moral of the story." We live one hour, one day, one week at a time, and the little chinks in the armor that lead to genuine love can just as easily be chinks that lead to a lot of pain and sorrow.

Jesus calls us to love, not to being morally excellent. It's an easy thing to forget, because the two quite often resemble each other. I know I've forgotten it in my own life: in the pursuit of being right, I've injured people I love, sometimes deeply. I know you have, too. We cannot go back and undo our past mistakes, but we can seek forgiveness and, more importantly, love our families and neighbors for who they are, right now.

Rich Mullins wrote a song called "Brother's Keeper." It might have done the two brothers of the parable some good to listen to it, especially the chorus:

I will be my brother's keeper, not the one who judges him -
I won't despise him for his weakness, I won't regard him for his strength -
I won't take away his freedom - I will help him learn to stand,
and I will be my brother's keeper.

May we be keepers of each other, now and forever. Amen.

01 June 2010

Money Pit or Ministry Center?

When most people who serve professionally in the church (pastors, deacons & deaconesses, diaconal ministers, associates in ministry, etc) envision their careers, do they imagine being required to rebuild something like the sanctuary to my right? I doubt it. Of course, accidents happen, tornadoes and hurricanes and floods strike, and some of us get thrust into building programs we can't avoid because we can't walk away when disaster strikes. That kind of work is honorable and worthy of praise - but it's not what I'm talking about here.

Our campus ministry center is big, old, and in need of a lot of work. A whole lotta work. Like, a crap-ton of work. A good chunk of work got done under my predecessor, and what was done got done well. But that was just the necessary stuff, things to keep the building for falling in on itself. There's a lot to do - and I'm wondering: why, exactly, do we have to do it?

Our Synod Assembly was recently held at Lutheran Church of Hope, one of the largest churches in the ELCA. The place feels like an airport or a new middle school, complete with cafeteria space, a gymnasium, a coffee shop and two worship spaces that hold lots and lots and lots and lots of people. It's an incredible facility, well-built, well-managed, and obviously well-loved, given the number of people that worship there on any given weekend. Even though it's not really the place I'd call home spiritually, I'm glad they're there, and I think the ministry they do is, in many ways, very well done and an important witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Now, I'm sure they've got lots of qualified people on their staff to handle maintenance there, to make sure stuff gets done the way it needs to get done, but as the pastor in a church with three paid staff, and me being the only one above 20 hours a week, I looked around that church in Des Moines and thought, "Man, I'm glad I'm not in charge here!"

When I first thought about ministry, buildings were the furthest thing from my mind. Bible study? Yeah. Preaching? Of course. Reading and thinking and teaching about God? Absolutely. Caring for the sick and building trusting relationships with the people I serve? No question. But caring for a building? Not even on my radar. Talk about ignorant.

There will be a lot of us in my position in the next 20-40 years: ministry leaders in places where the buildings are far larger than required for the worshiping community and in far more disrepair than is healthy. No, ministry is not all about the building, but we need to be asking ourselves some tough questions in the future:
  • "Can we take care of this building, or are there others who could use it more effectively?"
  • "Why do we pay so much for a building that is only properly used once a week?"
  • "Do we make our building available for public, non-church events, or do we abdicate our building in favor of a more flexible, less labor-intensive way of gathering as a community?"
I'm not planning on going anywhere just yet, but the thought of being the pastor of a church with no facility to manage has some attraction to me. A coffee-shop office and worship in some public space once a week might be the way some of us will have to go - and it might even be more faithful to do so. Not everyone needs a place like Lutheran Church of Hope. Some do, and the "established" church building, with sanctuaries and Sunday School rooms and the like will probably never go away completely. But I think a lot of us are going to need to be creative about our facilities and our communities in the coming years, so that we don't make the mistake of chaining ourselves to money pits we can't manage properly. Every church, from Joel Osteen's big digs in San Antonio to the tiny little church I attended during seminary, is a ministry center - here's hoping we all find ourselves centered where we can actually do ministry.

Grace & peace,