20 July 2010

A Preaching Quandary

I am in the middle of a theological, homiletical dilemma. Perhaps you can help me out.

I love my kids. (No, that's not the quandary) I spend a good portion of my time thinking about my kids, driving my kids from place to place, picking them up, playing with them, teaching them, cooking for them, etc. I smile when they wake up in the morning (or when they wake me up, if it's at a decent hour) and both Beloved and I breathe a sigh of relief when we get them to sleep, even though they look adorable all snuggled up in their beds.

Anything into which you pour this much energy is bound to affect your thinking, and over the last three years I've noticed that my teaching and preaching are greatly influenced by my experience as a parent. To a certain point this is all well and good, but here's the quandary: how do I keep it from becoming too much? When do those who listen to me reach the point of saturation and stop hearing the good news because of the way my voice puts it?

When I was nine years old, our church back home had an interim pastor who constantly talked about California. He'd been raised there, and obviously had a great love for his home state. After a while, though, it became a joke: whatever the gospel reading was for that week, it would have something to do with California by the time the sermon came around. From what I remember, he was a pretty decent interim but for this one thing. Our new pastor made a great first impression when someone asked him about California in his "welcome" potluck and he said, "I've heard California is the land of fruits and nuts."

I don't want to be that interim, but I'm afraid I'm heading in that direction. My students have already begun to claim the sermon isn't finished until I've made a poop reference. They say it in jest, but we all know that some good jokes are funny because they're also true.

That's just one aspect of the problem. Another is this: how does "God as parent" preaching sound to the ears of those who don't have kids? When I preach about the patience and love required to be a good parent, how do those who don't have kids hear it? How about those who can't have kids, or those who had abusive parents?

The gospel reading for this week seems a text which offers several opportunities to go off the rails into "Daddy Knows Best" territory. That was my first impulse upon reading the text yesterday, but I'm leery of developing things in that direction for fear of the problems listed above. If you'd like to join a good discussion on the texts themselves, RevGalBlogPals has a Tuesday Lectionary post that always offers fruitful discussion. But if you're willing to offer them, I would appreciate your thoughts on this in the comments section. Tell me what you've seen in my blog posts, in my sermons, in places where I've taught: am I going overboard? Can you offer helpful suggestions to keep from doing so?

There's nothing wrong with loving your kids. In my life, the order of priorities is:
  1. Child of God
  2. Husband
  3. Father
  4. Son/Brother/Family member
  5. Friend
  6. Pastor
I'd like my preaching to reflect this ranking of priorities as well. Thoughts?

Grace & peace,

16 July 2010

Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

Had a moment with Ainsley on the way to Pre-school the other morning.

It started when it was time to get ready to leave, but she wanted to keep watching the Sesame Street episode we'd called up from the DVR. (Put this one under the "Problems my parents didn't have" column) As sometimes happens with toddlers, hearing "No." brought tears. She cried all the way upstairs. Cried when I asked her to put her flip-flops away and get shoes (no flip-flops at Pre-school). Cried when I brushed her hair. Cried when I put the barrettes in her hair, even though I used the Princess ones. Cried when I opened the door (she wanted to open it, and I was rapidly losing my patience and just walked out of the house with Alanna, who promptly hit me in the eye). Cried for the first mile of the car ride to pre-school. And I didn't care one little bit.

I'll admit it - I was frustrated and emotional. Part of me knows how important some measure of control is for a growing child, and how much it hurts when you don't get something you think is really important. I remember that sense of childish frustration very, very well, and knowing that I'm standing where my parents once stood for me doesn't help matters much. But every little tantrum meant another couple of minutes late for pre-school, and we had lots to do at home and work this week.

Here's the thing, though: by the time we'd driven five minutes, the crying was done. I asked Ainsley what she wanted to listen to, and she said, "Storyhill, please - the ghost song." "The Ghost Song" is "Give Up The Ghost" from their self-titled release on Red House Records:

Some of you who've been reading for a while know that Ainsley has a pre-birth connection to Storyhill. I don't know if that's a contributing factor recently or not, but I do know this: for all that we love Storyhill ourselves, the connection with our kids is even more wonderful. It adds another dimension to the music we already love. So when the song started, I looked into the rear-view mirror, saw my little girls smiling, heard Ainsley starting to sing along, and nearly had to pull over for wanting to cry at how rude I'd been to my kids.

By the time we got to pre-school, all was well. We had listened to "Give Up The Ghost," "Paradise Lost" and "Highlight," and the girls were all smiles. I dropped them off, with hugs and kisses from both before I left, and headed off to work. When I picked them up that afternoon, they were overjoyed to see me, and when we all went to the waterpark later that afternoon, we splashed and giggled and played and loved on each other a whole bunch.

The Gospel reading for this week is Jesus' encounter with Mary and Martha in Bethany, where Jesus reminds Martha, "Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." It's not that Martha chooses things that are evil or even unimportant; Martha knows, rightly, that there are tasks in every time and place which need doing. But Mary has grasped the main thing, and has her priorities in order. Martha needs re-ordering so that she might receive what Jesus has to give, which can never be taken away from her. Martha, like me, needs to be reminded to keep the main thing the main thing.

Sure, we'll be late to pre-school sometimes. Life does that. I could benefit from remembering that for a three-year old girl, opening doors and getting to pick out your own clothes are far more important, and sometimes it might do me well as a parent to let her go to pre-school in whatever hideous ensemble she's selected, because it really isn't that important right now. I need to be reminded, as I was that morning, that the love I bear for these little girls is far, far more important than running absolutely on time or matching every outfit perfectly. Clothes will come and go. Someday I'll want Ainsley and Alanna to open doors for me because I won't be able to do it for myself. But the love between us? That can't ever go away - and I'm glad to have been reminded to chose the better part.

Grace & peace,

12 July 2010

More Home Improvement (Not Thumb Improvement)

So, the latest steps in our home improvement process are almost complete. Here's a look at what we've done so far with paint, etc.

New kitchen look with "Merlot" on the east wall and "Oregon Coast" everywhere else (yes, we're considering renaming the house "Le Chateau de Paint Names We Liked.")

New dining room curtains and hardware. (The cat is Reggie. He's not new.)

New accent wall in the "dining room." We blatantly stole this look from the wall at our favorite Ames restaurant, the Cafe. We did not, however, steal the pre-chewed ottoman - Jack gave us that one for free.

As to the title of this post: on Friday afternoon I was going to finish up the painting in the kitchen while Beloved and the girls were at the gym. I got home around 4:00, started pulling the oven away from the wall so I could paint behind it, and promptly pulled the oven door off. While trying to put the door back on, one of the hinges popped out of its receptacle and closed on the end of my thumb with horrifying speed and power. The blood flow was immediate, and the amount would have been impressive if it wasn't, you know, MY OWN BLOOD. After about thirty seconds of rinsing it off in the bathroom sink, I realized this was a bit more than an owie, and I also realized the next fifteen minutes were not going to be fun because a) I was home alone with only my Volkswagen to drive to the hospital (my beloved manual transmission Volkswagen, and b) to get to the hospital, I would either have to brave the idiotic four way flashing red lights at 13th and Stange or take a chance on getting green on all the stoplights on Lincoln Way. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to deeply lacerate my non-shifting hand, so I wrapped it up in a washcloth and set off for the emergency room.

I actually got to the hospital with no problems except for cursing the stop and go traffic at 13th and Stange (apparently the alternating pattern of 4-way stops is too cognitively taxing for many Iowa drivers). Once I arrived, it was pretty obvious why I was there. The admitting nurse even looked at me and said, "Laceration?" But they made me wait while the girl in front of me got to see the doctor first. I almost wished I was bleeding more profusely just so I could get somebody to DO something about it. Finally, after triage (seriously? You couldn't ask me if I'm taking drugs while the doctor's looking at my mangled thumb?) and twenty minutes waiting in a room, I got to see the doctor.

In the end I got three stitches and a lot of laughs out of the deal. The actual medical staff were very nice and profusely apologetic about how long it took to actually get me sewed up and on my way home. Apparently 4:30 Friday afternoon is not the best time to slice your thumb in half, as they were very busy with many patients at the time. Once I figured out how to work the TV it wasn't so bad: ESPN Classic was replaying the 2007 Fiesta Bowl and I got to watch Boise State beat Oklahoma again - always a good time. I even felt good enough to drive down to Target and pick up my painkiller prescription before going home.

It was an interesting experience - I haven't been hurt bad enough for an immediate trip to the ER since I seriously sprained my ankle over ten years ago playing church league volleyball. Calling Beloved from the hospital wasn't a lot of fun, but thankfully she took it in stride, found someone to cover her shift, and came to see if I needed her to get me home or whatever. The girls understood that Daddy hurt his thumb, but the doctor was taking care of me, so there weren't any tears or anything. When I got home they didn't understand why I didn't just have a band-aid on it, but the only comment since then has been Ainsley not wanting me to touch her with my owie (frankly, I wouldn't want to be touched with it, either, as you'll see). I even managed to run the 10K I was entered in on Saturday night, and still broke 60 minutes which, considering the last two days, I thought was a victory. Today it doesn't even hurt much - I have only taken two doses of the Vicodin, and good old vitamin I has done the trick since yesterday morning.

It was the crazy start of a good weekend - more on that later. Now, if you don't really care to look at stitches, this would be a good time to head over to Facebook or something.

Okay, we good? Here's some pictures from this morning:

I like how in this last one you can really see how I split the nail pretty good. I said earlier this wouldn't be "Thumb Improvement," but I might be wrong - after all, Keanu Reeves once said "chicks dig scars." I'll have to ask Beloved about that in a few weeks.

Grace & peace,

11 July 2010

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost - Ordinary 15C - "Certainty Comes At The End"

There’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes like this: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know. It's what we know for certain that just ain't so.” It’s one of those sayings that is so like Mark Twain that if he didn’t say it, he should have.

What does it mean to be certain of a thing? In our readings for today, God shows the prophet Amos the plumb line by which God’s people will be judged, but in the Gospel parable, Jesus uses the same plumb line to insist that what we know for certain is going to get us into trouble. Pay attention, brothers and sisters, and let’s talk about what we know for certain. Let us pray: O Creator of all that has been, all that is and all that will be, have mercy on us. You set a plumb line by which all things are judged, and we always come up out of line. Forgive us when we know for certain things that just aren’t so. Humble us and renew our hearts with your love, the only thing that is certain in all that exists. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Some of you may have worked with plumb lines before, but I’ve got a similar tool here that most of you, if not all of you, will know for certain that does the same thing. This is a level. Last summer I rebuilt the fence in our backyard and used this level to make sure the fence rails were straight up and down. This particular level comes from my Grandpa Johnson’s workshop, so I know that it has a long history of setting things straight in our family. You use this level in the same way a bricklayer uses a plumbline: it’s a tool to make sure that everything is lining up right, so that a wall is constructed to be as strong and sturdy as it needs to be. God is going to judge the state of the people of Judah, Amos will provide the level, and we see immediately how out of true the state of things really can be.

When Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, heard what Amos was telling the people of Israel, this was his response: “...never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Anyone who knows a little bit of Hebrew sees the irony in this sentence right away. The name “Bethel” means “house of the Lord” in Hebrew. Amaziah insists that “God’s house” is the king’s sanctuary, and God’s call for Israel to return to God is no longer welcome there. Out of plumb, for certain: things are not the way they should be for Israel, so God will begin the hard work of tearing down and rebuilding so that things might be what they are meant to be in the future.

Let’s move forward a few hundred years to Jesus and his conversation with the lawyer in today’s Gospel reading. There are many places in the gospels where people are trying to trap Jesus with their questions, especially the closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem in the gospel of Luke, but this isn’t necessarily one of those times. This lawyer seems to be genuinely seeking wisdom and eternal life, and Jesus seems to be genuinely interested in giving him the truth. But while the lawyer’s first question and answer session goes exactly how he might have expected, the parable would have seemed completely out of plumb to someone listening in Jesus’ time.

Who were the Samaritans? What do you know about them? Remnants of the Northern Kingdom, the people no one wanted, religious half-breeds who said they worshiped God but didn’t follow the same religious patterns Jewish people followed. Worshiped at Mt Gezirim, not the Temple. People would cross the Jordan when traveling between Galilee and Judea to avoid going through Samaritan territory. When Jesus identifies the merciful Samaritan as the one who is doing and being right to his neighbor, he blows up the certainty every listener would have had about Samaritans.

How would we put this in modern terms? Well, imagine the group of people you would avoid at all costs, and put them in the role of the Samaritan. You get “The Parable of the Good Democrat.” “The Parable of the Good Republican.” “The Parable of the Good Hawkeye Fan.” “The Parable of the Good Baptist.” “The Parable of the Good Muslim.” All of us have those groups of people with whom we would never, ever want to associate: that’s the group Jesus uses to show the lawyer how out of plumb his certainty really is.

One of the problems is how Jesus and the lawyer are asking and answering the question in different ways. When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”, he is asking Jesus to identify who’s in and who’s out. The lawyer thinks, “Certainly, Jesus can’t suggest that my neighbor is anyone who’s actually near me at any given time. There are good guys and bad guys, and I’m only expected to love the good guys, right?” The lawyer isn’t only asking, “For whom must I show care?” He’s also asking, “Who can I ignore?” Jesus answer is plain and shocking: “You can’t ignore ANYONE.”

Professor Marilyn Salmon of United Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN says, “Jesus shifts the question from the one the lawyer asks – who is my neighbor?—to ask what a righteous neighbor does.”1 What was once a question of doing becomes, on the lips of Jesus, a question of being. Asking Jesus to identify which group of people are our neighbors is like asking a carpenter which fence rail needs the level - if things are going to be the way they’re supposed to be, the level has to be used on every single fence rail. It’s not a question of which fence rail you can ignore - it’s a question of how the carpenter does all of her work.

My oldest daughter is beginning to understand manners and the like. We’ve worked very hard to impress the need to say “Please” and “Thank you.” The inevitable developmental shift, of course, is this: now that she knows how to ask nicely, she’s come to believe that every time she asks nicely we’ll give her what she wants. “But I asked nicely!” is something we’re hearing a lot these days. She sees manners and politeness like I see the quarters I plug into the vending machine when I want a Diet Coke. In the same way, the lawyer sees care for the neighbor as the coin he must pay to earn eternal life - and if you can find a vending machine that gives you a soda for 50 cents instead of 65, wouldn’t that be all the better?

Parables are not fables. Parables do not have “morals of the story.” Parable are intended to shake up our world, to get in our heads and mess with what we know for certain that just ain’t so. Parables are intended to explode our smugness and certainty and replace them with faith - because, in the end, faith is all we have and faith is all we need. Notice that in some ways, Jesus never gives the lawyer a “certain” answer to his question. There’s no point at which the lawyer can say, “I’ve done enough good deeds for my neighbor - I’ve earned eternal life.” Morals and good deeds are only the after-effects of the gospel: until our certainty is based on Jesus and Jesus alone, we will have traded the good news of God’s love for the conditional requirements of vending-machine spirituality, which cannot save and leaves us empty in the end.

Darrell Guder writes, “The ‘gospel which meets my needs’ must be replaced with the good news that reveals needs I did not know I had while providing healing I never dreamed was possible.”2 This is what Jesus is after for the lawyer and for you. Certainty isn’t part of what we do in this world, at least when it comes to knowing who’s in and who’s out. Mercy is for everyone, love is for the world, and the church of Jesus Christ is called to lives of faith and love, not certainty and division. We should feel unsettled by what Jesus does - because that unsettled feeling is what happens when God rips down those parts of ourselves that are out of plumb and starts building them anew and righteous.

Erica Jong wrote a poem entitled “You Are There” which I think describes the feeling of being trued by God’s righteousness:

You are there.

You have always been


Even when you thought

you were climbing 

you had already arrived.

Even when you were

breathing hard,

you were at rest.

Even then it was clear

you were there.

Not in our nature

to know what

is journey and what


Even if we knew

we would not admit.

Even if we lived

we would think

we were just


To live is to be


Certainty comes

at the end.

Certainty comes at the end. Until then, we walk by faith, trusting God to show us our neighbors in need, or to show our neighbors our own need. In the ditch, on the road, listening to Jesus - may we all be made uncertain, faithful followers of Jesus who love, and are loved by, all our neighbors. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

09 July 2010

Damn - I Know I Came In Here For Something...

You Lutherans in the audience likely remember this little book. Augsburg Fortress has been making this appointment book for years. I've never used it myself (too small for my taste), but Larry, my campus pastor, carried one with a golf pencil rubber-banded onto it for as long as I knew him. Today's Friday Five is all about why we need such things...

a) What's the last thing you forgot?
Well, I bought tickets for a group trip to a DCI show in Des Moines next weekend, and I bought one for Beloved so she could come along, but forgot that she has a church commitment that night. Unfortunately, if I can't find someone to take the ticket, this one will cost us a little bit of money. Oops.

e) How do you keep track of appointments?
I used a Palm device from 2001 until just a few months ago when we got new phones. The new Palm devices are just too expensive, so we got Samsung Reclaim phones and I switched to Google Calendar, which is working pretty well so far. In other words, I haven't trusted my own memory for these things for nearly ten years, longer if you count the number of paper appointment books I kept before 2001.

i) Do you keep a running grocery list?
About half the time. We're in a bit of a grocery rut right now - toddler tastes don't vary much, so most of the time we're buying the same stuff every week. But we're getting food from a local CSA now, so hopefully we'll expand our palates a bit over the weeks to come.

o) When forced to improvise by circumstances, do you enjoy it or panic?
I'm not sure - I have the feeling what I think might not match what people see when circumstances happen. Generally, one of the things I love about being a minister is the flexibility. There are very few hard and fast administrative "rules" for us - basically, if you've got the sermon on Sunday and you're present in emergencies, the rest of your time is your own to manage as you see fit. I remember Larry Meyer telling me once, "When it comes to worship, you plan as much as you can in advance, make sure everyone's on the same page, and then you let what happens happen. Don't ignore surprises, but don't act like they ruin everything, either." I've adopted that wisdom for a fairly large portion of my life, and it seems to suit me just fine. Beloved would definitely disagree on this one, though - she does NOT enjoy being easy-going when it comes to deadlines, packing, etc. It's one of the few things to have actually caused fights in our marriage.

u) What's a memory you hope you will never forget?
Three in particular: our wedding day and the days Ainsley and Alanna were born. If I can hold on to those three, I'll be pretty good if everything else goes.

Now, has anyone seen my sunglasses?

Grace & peace,

06 July 2010

In Which Old Things Become New-ish OR If There's Wallpaper Borders In Heaven I'm Not Sure I Want To Go.

Lots of you blowed up stuff real good over the weekend - good for you. We spent our lovely holiday weekend working around the house, literally. Lots of things to do for which we've finally scraped together some dough (including a generous guilt love offering related to the UB, which we gladly spent). We didn't get it all done this weekend, not by half, but we're off to a good start.

I need to say this first: when my wife gets the bit in her mouth, it's best just to let her go until she runs out of steam. HOLY. PAINTING. BATMAN. She's awesome, but exhausting to watch. We played the heathen this Sunday and stayed home, choosing to sleep in. Once everyone was awake, however, it was ON, baby. I corralled the kids downstairs while Beloved started scoring, soaking and scraping the awful wallpaper border off our dining room walls. No, it wasn't nearly as bad as some houses (my brother and his wife had six layers on one bedroom in their house, I think), but it's just freaking annoying to stand there and scrape above your head just so's you can slap on some new paint. At any rate, once she had the scraping done and sanded down the holes I'd spackled the night before, she jumped right into the painting.

At that point I could no longer control the Sisters downstairs, so upstairs we came to watch the progress. That meant "helping" Mommy, of course:

Meanwhile, we also made a trip to Lowe's and bought lots of fun new things for the house: new doors to replace the ones we ruined when the carpet was installed, drywall patches for the basement bedroom (yes, I finally got it patched, and will sand and texture tomorrow!), new curtain hardware for the dining room, stain for the doors and cabinets (and, eventually, the trim as well), and most importantly, new vinyl flooring for the kitchen. I wanted to do porcelain tile, but that was WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY out of our price range, so I'll have to wait to tackle that project. My brother's coming in a few weeks, and we'll send Beloved and the Sisters off to visit her sister while we boys install the vinyl (and likely take in a ballgame or something fun on our own).

I'm of two minds about this kind of home work. On the one hand, the clutter and mess drives me nuts. I HATE having things scattered hell to breakfast around our house, especially since Alanna has reached the "I can take everything out of this?" phase and regularly demolishes our movies and bookshelves. On the other hand, it's a lot of fun to see the end result of all that work, right? We're finishing up the dining room/kitchen painting tonight, so it'll be nice to see how all our work makes the house look that much nicer (and more in line with our taste as opposed to the former owners).

Best of all, we get to enjoy it for ourselves. We watch a lot of "house porn" these days (DIY and HGTV are two of the channels we didn't lose when we went to low-tier cable), and it seems like everything is geared toward increasing value for resale. While we're certainly not opposed to making money on the house, we're not going to be selling for a while, hopefully, so we made these changes for US to enjoy. That, combined with the satisfaction of doing the work ourselves, makes for some enjoyable living these last few days. Now if only I could keep the garage clean for one day...

Grace & peace,