30 March 2010
Okay, thankfully I'm long past this kind of sick day. Still, a guy does need a day off every now and then.
I'm home today. Frankly, I am well enough that I could have gone in to the office and done some work, but I was diagnosed with bronchitis yesterday, and the coughing, fever and sore throat last night were pretty harsh. It seemed the more prudent course of action to stay home, stay in the recliner and take it easy, given that starting tomorrow I've got the five busiest church days of the year staring me in the face. Thankfully, most everything is lined up and ready to go - musicians in place, worship services in order, and just about everything else needs minor tweaking at the most.* So staying at home today is not such a big deal.
It has been rather nice, actually. I got to watch two more episodes of Rome, season 2, caught up on some emails, read The Lutheran from cover to cover and generally bored Jack the dog to tears. Poor guy gets one of us home all day, and it's no different than the days he's here alone. Worse, actually - I didn't give him a bone to chew.
It seems as if we've had every possible bug imaginable these last six months. Ainsley is due to have her tonsils and adenoids removed on April 12th, which will hopefully clear up her sinuses and help her breathe, eat, sleep and grow better. Alanna, of course, is catching every bug at day care, and then Kristin and I catch whatever makes its way up the ladder. Thank goodness we can get out of the house a bit more often now - the fresh air will definitely do us some good.
Now it's off to the shower and off to Pre-School to pick up the girls. The deep breath before the storm tomorrow. Blessed be the One who comes in the name of the Lord.
Grace & peace,
*says the guy who was nicknamed "DONI" over Spring Break: "Detail Orientation Needs Improvement." You might want to start praying for our community right about...NOW.
25 March 2010
Martin Luther tended to define the world through dialectics: two opposing arguments that are both true. Some examples you should know are: we are simultaneously sinners and saints, or “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none, and a Christian is a perfectly bound servant of all, subject to all.” Well, in fine Lutheran tradition, I’d like to start today by offering a dialectical proposition
1. Nothing special has happened here this week.
2. Everything that has happened here this week has been special.
The discourse follows.
I was talking with Kristi and Karen earlier this week about anxiety. We see it in the churches we serve and the communities in which we live. We are a people running scared. Jobs are scarce. The illusion of control is gone. So me and five of our Campus Ministry students decided that the best way to escape that anxious world was to ride 31 hours on a train, 30 minutes on a bus, two hours on a boat, and 45 minutes on the loudest bus in America to join you all and do chores. Really. I can wash dishes at home. I can bake bread at home. I can hang sheetrock at home. As a matter of fact, my wife WANTS me to hand sheetrock at home. A mouse crawled into the wall of our basement bedroom, had a litter of baby mice, and they all died there. They were spread through four gaps in the framing, so I had to cut four chunks of drywall out of the wall to clean up the mess. It’s been there for over six months – and here I am, leaving my wife and two daughters to go hang sheetrock in Lodge 3. So that’s what I mean when I say “nothing special has happened here this week.”
And at the same time, everything that has happened here this week has been special. Maybe you all don’t see it because you’re here longer than we are, but it’s true. The atmosphere here is filled with the holiness of everyday life. What we’ve seen here are people who understand what the psalmist means in Psalm 90: “…teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart…Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands – O prosper the work of our hands!” Kate and I were talking on our way down the hill from the hydro plant yesterday about the true sense of vocation we see here. Everyone here, from the most over-educated manual laborers to the most under-qualified utilities worker, has a part in God’s mission for Holden Village. So, everything that has happened here has been and continues to be special, because it all matters to God and to this community.
I’ve been wrestling with these things in my own faith life for some time now. I’ve been wondering what it really means to live as a follower of Jesus Christ in the world. I’m trying to be a realist about faith and life and how they transform each other, because I think it’s the most important work in front of the church in this present age. I think the world is tired. I think the world is tired of the shrill, anxious nature of life in this present age, and the last thing a tired world needs is another Christian handing out promises God will never keep. So I try to be a realist about who we are and what we can expect as followers of Jesus. No matter how wonderful the Sunday morning worship service is, someone always has to clean up the communion chalices and wash out the coffee pot. No matter how good the Bible study is, someone always has to print the copies, set up the chairs and clean it all up in the end. As the psalmist says, the path of life always goes through the valley of the shadow of death.
Jesus says in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Did you notice that last verse? For every follower of Jesus, there is still a yoke. There are still burdens to bear. There are still chores to be done – dishes to be washed, sheetrock to hang, lumber to move, diapers to change. The question is, can we see those ordinary things as the special work to which God has called us today?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who wrestled with these questions, too. In July 1944 he wrote the following sentences in a letter to a friend:
“I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith…By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane…that is how one becomes [human] and a Christian. How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind? May God in mercy lead us through these times, but above all, may [God] lead us to [God]self.
There’s nothing special happening here. But it’s all special. You are special. The work you do is special, and I hope you realize it today. Wash those dishes, move that lumber, hang that sheetrock and bake your bread in the name of the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of life, and with thanksgiving in your heart, for in your work you are throwing yourselves into the loving arms of God. Amen.
21 March 2010
11 March 2010
Give us today our daily bread.
What does this mean?In fact, God gives daily bread without our prayer, even to all evil people, but we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.What, then, does 'daily bread' mean?Everything included in the necessities and nourishments for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright servants and members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors and the like.Martin Luther's Small Catechism, trans. by Timothy Wengert
- We have cupboards filled with enough food and drink to last a good long while, even if the money dried up tomorrow.
- I have several coats and enough clothes that picking out what to wear each day is sometimes time-consuming.
- I have not one but two pairs of Dr. Marten's boots which have long since repaid the value of the high price I paid for them. I have running shoes. I even have biking shoes now.
- There is a roof over our heads, and the reasonable assumption that, if need be, friends and family would provide a roof if we lose this one.
- Not only is there a roof, but I have a yard in which I love to work when the weather is nice, and even when the weather is not-so-nice. I am the caretaker of things that grow here, and I take that job very seriously and derive a tremendous amount of joy from it.
- I have no fields or cattle, but I remember when I did, and what a good life it can be. And, let's be frank, I like eating cattle. After butchering and cooking, of course, but still...
- I am paid well for doing what I love to do. Not exceptionally well, mind you, but enough that we live comfortably.
- We have what we need, and a little extra.
- My Beloved is a wonderful woman. She is a loving wife, a devoted mother, a gifted youth minister and a caring friend. I need to remind her of these things more often.
- I have two wonderful daughters who fill my life with joy. I can't imagine my life without them, and yet I still have to stop and pinch myself that, yes, they really are my daughters. I have kids. This never ceases to amaze me.
- Servants? Not so much. But I do have a good office manager at work who is not only a good co-worker, but also a friend. Tonight, more than ever, I'm thankful for that trusting work relationship.
- There are some good people working on our behalf in local, state and federal government. I wish there were more of the good ones, and less of the not so good ones, but there are good folks trying their best, and for that I'm thankful.
- The snow is melting. Not too fast as of yet. Spring is finally coming.
- I have never seen a violent crime in person. I have no reason to expect being the victim or a witness to such a crime. This town where we live is largely a safe community. The fact that I don't think about this more often probably says a lot about how insulated we are as a society, and how we take far too much for granted.
- I'm not as fat as I once was, even if I'm not as "in shape" as I'd like to be. I exercise, and most nights I sleep well. Mild depression and being 20 lbs overweight is not anything about which I should complain.
- People keep me accountable in my family, my work, and other areas of my life. Most of them do it appropriately. Most of the people with whom I associate value kindness, respect, integrity and honesty, and again, now more than ever, I am grateful.
- I do my best to take everyone at their word, without judgment, and I think most of the folks I see regularly do the same.
- I could list my good friends here and it would take up several paragraphs. I am richly blessed in the friends department.
- H lets me borrow her snowblower when the weather's bad. A always says hello when she's out walking her dog. P's kids brought gifts when Alanna was born. B clears off our sidewalks if it snows while we're out of town. D pets the dog over the fence and always waves when she comes home. Maybe we're not as close to our neighbors as we'd like to be, but we know who they are all the same.
06 March 2010
There’s an old joke about two campers out in the woods who startle a bear and wind up on the run with the bear in hot pursuit. One camper screams to the other one, “Do you think you really think you can run faster than a bear?” The other camper screams back, “No! – I just have to run faster than you!”
There is an element of this mentality in the questions Jesus was asked in Luke 13. “Jesus, wouldn’t you say that the awful way those Galileans died was proof of their great sinfulness?” You can almost hear the scales balancing in the heads of the people asking the questions: “They must have been awful sinners; we just need to be holier than that to get in!” The thing is, you can’t out-holify your neighbor any more than you can outrun a bear. A bear’s stomach will get full eventually, but our appetite for self-righteousness can be all-consuming.
Let us pray: Merciful God, your patience is enduring and your love is steadfast. But we know that you desire repentance. We know that we have not met your intention for our lives, and we know we cannot meet that intention without your Spirit within us. We endlessly compare ourselves with our neighbors rather than filling our lives with your word and your promises. Raise in us the desire to turn away from that which kills us in our sins, and turn us toward your life-giving mercy and your promises of redemption and peace. All this we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
In this life we are surrounded by danger. Earthquakes kill thousands in the briefest moments. Stock markets crash. Politicians posture and protect their chances of re-election, while the homeless freeze and starve on our streets and thousands of American children live without adequate medical insurance. But in the midst of all of this, we can take heart: at least we’re not as bad as Tiger Woods, right? We aren’t as ignorant as President Bush or as corrupt as the Clintons, and thank heavens we’re not socialists like our non-citizen President Obama. So long as we’re staying ahead of the game, we’ll be all right. Don’t drink, don’t smoke and always wear your seatbelt: you’ll be fine.
Are we afraid? Yes, sometimes we are very much afraid, and when we are afraid, we surround ourselves with the right kind of people: folks who have it all together, who know that if you do right, you’ll be right. And so we protect ourselves by ostracizing the wrong sorts of people and the unlucky and the sinners until we’ve created our own little kingdom where goodness thrives because we eliminate anyone or anything that shows the slightest bit of bad luck, trouble or sin. And we make our peace with this by telling ourselves that it was our neighbors’ sins that put them out of the group. We confess that our neighbors are captive to sin and cannot free themselves – but that’s not our problem.
When Jesus encountered this mentality in the gospel of Luke, he didn’t hesitate to blow it right out of the water, because it was poisoning the minds and hearts of his followers. When confronted with the dangerous confessions of a neighbor’s sin, Jesus reminded his listeners that they would indeed “get what’s coming to them,” but the only thing that was coming was death. Jesus told his listeners that there was no safety in hiding behind the terrible misfortunes of others; confessing a neighbor’s sin to mask your own sin was, and is, a terribly dangerous thing to do. Jesus wanted nothing to do with it.
One of the oldest questions we theologians have to face is the question of the “benevolent savage.” Keep in mind that in saying “we theologians,” I mean everyone in this room and everyone reading this online: if you learn and speak of God, you are indeed a theologian. So, theologians, imagine a native tribal family somewhere in the depths of darkest Africa. They’ve lived in a small village all their lives and they care for each other in the best way they are able to do. Father and mother honor and cherish their children, and the children dutifully care for their parents and grandparents when they are no longer able to care for themselves. In all their deeds they follow the law: they do not steal, they do not slander their neighbors, they remain true to their spouses, they do not kill, and so on. But they have never heard of Jesus. No one has ever come to them with the good news of Christ. And so the question is: what happens to these wonderful people when they die? No one ever gave them the gospel: is that their fault?
This is just another version of the dangerous confession of a neighbor’s sin, and it’s one of the oldest. When it came up in my Lutheran confessions class with Gerhard Forde and Jim Nestingen, they shot back with this confrontational answer: “Who are you thinking of, and what are you waiting for?” Genuine faith is not an abstract, intellectual exercise. Genuine faith is a deeply personal experience that rises out of a mingling of human interaction and divine intervention. The benevolent savage of our story doesn’t exist: what does exist is a neighbor who needs the gospel – period.
Jesus didn’t come to offer hypothetical faith. God did not become incarnate in order to confirm our prejudices about our neighbors’ problems. The Holy Spirit will not reveal the reasons behind our neighbor’s misfortune. So it’s time to stop the dangerous practice of confessing our neighbor’s sin. Jesus couldn’t have been more clear: what happens to others happens to others, but your sins will find you out. Our reading from Isaiah this morning describes the consequences of confessing our neighbor’s sin:
“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
The dangerous confession of the sins of others is the spiritual equivalent of cotton candy laced with asbestos: sweet to the taste, but completely unfulfilling, and poisonous to boot. There is no way to climb to heaven on the shoulders of the sinners around you – Jesus won’t have it that way.
You almost have to pity those people who listened to Jesus teach that day on the road to Jerusalem. They wanted Jesus to say, “Nah, you guys are doing just fine – nothing like that is going to happen to you.” They came to Jesus afraid of the world around them, and they hoped proving that sinners get their just desserts would also prove that they would be protected by their own high virtue. But that’s not the way it works. Barbara Brown Taylor, a religion professor from Piedmont College and an Episcopal priest, put it this way:
“While Jesus does not honor their illusion that they can protect themselves in this way, he does seem to honor the vulnerability that their fright has opened up in them. It is not a bad thing for them to feel the full fragility of their lives. It is not a bad thing for them to count their breaths in the dark -- not if it makes them turn toward the light.”
You will not find life avoiding the dangers around you or hiding behind your neighbor's sins. Jesus says it himself: “repent, or perish.” There is no allegory in this gospel text to save us from the changes and chances of life. Accidents will happen. Planes will crash. Earthquakes will destroy buildings. Floodwaters will rage. Worst of all, people will do things to you that will cause unimaginable pain, and they won’t care how bad you hurt. Not at all. BUT. THEY. WILL. NOT. WIN.
This parable is not about your neighbor. This parable is not about avoiding accidents or how to have good luck. This parable is about you. You are the tree being prepared to bear fruit. I cannot live a life of repentance for you. You cannot live a life of repentance hiding behind the sins of others. You, and only you, can bear the burden of genuine repentance, which means real self-examination and the excruciating pain of knowing exactly who you are and what kinds of sins God will forgive.
Did you catch that last word? Forgive. That’s the hope in all this misfortune. That’s the victory that comes after this crushing defeat. You are a forgiven child of God, and no accident, no earthquake, no sin of your own or of someone else can ever take that away from you. The signs of Christian life are repentance and forgiveness, like the sides of a coin. Sometimes you will be fortunate, and sometimes you will not. Sometimes you’ll get along well with your neighbor, and sometimes you will not. But in all times, we repent, and God forgives, and life is bestowed upon us. Jesus doesn’t offer safety to his followers: he offers life, with all its uncertainties, but life filled with the joy of knowing that no matter what may happen, we can never be separated from the love of God.
When the earthquakes hit Haiti on January 12th, ELCA seminarians Ben and Renee Larson and their cousin Jon were working in a new Lutheran school, which collapsed. Renee and Jon escaped, but Ben did not. Renee and Jon
“went back to the place where they had crawled out and called again for Ben. Renee said she heard Ben's voice. He was singing, not unusual for Ben who loved music. "I told him I loved him, and that Jon and I were okay, and to keep singing," Renee said. But the singing stopped after he sang the words "God's peace to us we pray," she said. "If he was alive, he would have been calling for help desperately," Renee said. "Ben spent his last breath singing."
Do we weep for Renee Larson and her pain? Yes, in the love of God we weep for her and wish these things were not as they are. But the earthquakes were just that: earthquakes. They were not a sign. They were not a punishment. They simply came, and killed the righteous and unrighteous alike.
Earthquakes will come.
God’s peace to us we pray.
Dreams will be shattered.
God’s peace to us we pray.
We will not have all the answers.
God’s peace to us we pray.
But we have this answer: here, today, we are the ones who are forgiven, called to bear fruit in this time, in this place.
God’s peace to us we pray.
Love the Lord your God with all your soul, heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
God’s peace to us we pray. Amen.
01 March 2010
"Terrible things happen, and you are not always to blame. But don’t let that stop you from doing what you are doing. That torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there and it may hurt you to see, but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind that leads to life."
Barbara Brown Taylor