17 August 2010

God and Sabbath

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the
Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the
Lord has spoken.
Isaiah 58.13-14
The question was raised tonight at Bible Study: "How does God keep the Sabbath?" Christians and Jews tend to understand the commandment to "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy" as a commandment designed to elicit worship out of God's creatures - and since God is, well, God, worship of Godself seems nonsensical at the least, not to mention in some ways impossible.

We are not merely playing with semantics here: Genesis 1 describes the first Sabbath, and it is God doing the observing, not us. Obviously, Sabbath is important to God - but we know precious little about what God actually does with God's Sabbath.

Sabbath weighs heavily on the Old Testament and Gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary this week. Isaiah 58, quoted above, reminds the hearer that the Sabbath is a day in which one's own interests are put aside and one's affairs take the back seat. In Luke 13, Jesus heals a near-crippled woman on the Sabbath; this act of healing brings condemnation from the leader of the synagogue, who insists that the woman could have been healed on any other day of the week. It is the third of four Sabbath controversies in Luke's gospel, and in all of them Jesus calls the strictest Sabbath observances into question. The question that arises is, "What is Jesus saying about the Sabbath and its purpose? How does God do Sabbath, and how should this transform our observance as well?"

One wonders if the issue is not work or not-work, but rather delight or drudgery. In his commentary on the lectionary this week, Dan Clendenin wrote,
"When religious rituals like sabbath-keeping and fasting — or our Bible studies, sermons, church attendance, and retreats — are divorced from human health and wholeness, whenever a believer "turns away from your own flesh and blood" (Is. 58:7), then our religion has gone very bad indeed."
When the things we do as religious people become more important than our delight in the One who calls forth work and play and Sabbath, we have missed the point of Sabbath altogether. When God had finished a "hard week" of creation, God rested on the Sabbath; what do you suppose that rest looked like? Here's one possibility: imagine you have slaved all week on an outdoor patio or backyard retreat like the one pictured above. Once you've finished all that work, what will be the first thing you'll want to do? Take delight in that which you have wrought. Was this what God did on that first Sabbath? Moreover, is delight what God asks of us when we ourselves observe Sabbath?

I am coming to believe that delight is indeed the first and most important point of Sabbath: delight in the presence of God, delight in the company of our fellow sinner/saints, delight in the promise, made in baptism, through preaching and in the Lord's Supper, that Christ has lived, died and risen again for you. Sabbath is a time to put down the laptop, to stop looking at the clock, to deny the omnipresent modern desire to produce and consume and simply be in the good creation which God hath wrought. Walter Bruggeman insists that the modern pre-occupation with production and consumption is a metaphysical equivalent of Pharaoh's yoke. Let the reader note that when Jesus explains himself in Luke's gospel, he points back 1300 years to the time of slavery in Egypt and says, "Ought not this woman...have been released from her bondage on the Sabbath day?" Call it a date night, call it a backyard retreat, call it what you will - the call to Sabbath is not about satisfying God's need to be praised, but rather about the sheer joy of taking delight in God, of being shaped by God's grace, of hearing regularly "You are My beloved child, fearfully and wonderfully made."

That's my answer, at least: what's yours?

Grace & peace,

13 August 2010

Shining Lights

It was a day for shining lights in the Windy City. I know I'm going to miss one or two, but here's a brief list.
  • Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, spoke for 45 minutes this morning to a spellbound audience about a "theology of the bridge," his metaphor for ways interfaith cooperation can overcome those who use religion to dominate or separate people of different faiths.
  • A workshop with Hamsa and Emy of IFYC discussing concrete ways we as campus ministry staff can promote religious freedom and respect in our own environments. It was their first workshop, but they carried it off without a hitch and really opened our eyes.
  • I sit down to lunch, and one of our campus ministry students hands me a list of all the things she and the rest of the group have been planning for this academic year. Completely. Freaking. Unprompted. By. Me. This is what I was hoping we could do after returning from the conference, and now it's already done. Time to hang on for a wild ride this year, I think.
  • A remarkable conversation with B, a seminary classmate serving in a new call since we saw each other last. Her new call is a) a very important synodical staff position, b) one for which she is very well-equipped and, I imagine, at which she is succeeding wildly, and c) one which usually goes only to ordained clergy, regardless of whether the clergyperson in question is qualified. Here's a great example of the church not being bound to its past when looking to its present needs. Professional lay ministry is a growing part of the church and needs to be lifted up when we do it right!
  • A plenary session on social media that turned out to be more valuable than I suspected it would be. Lots of helpful information, but the caveat by which our use of that information can be judged: "Don't mistake effort for success."
  • Another workshop with Rosella and Mike on Alternative Spring Break programs. Rosella and Mike are two incredibly vivacious 20somethings who have been carrying out heavy ministry responsibilities over the past two years, if not longer. I was floored by their intelligence and commitment to the important ministry they are doing, and I wish I had known about them prior to this conference.
  • Finally, a gut-busting dinner with our friends from Christus House at the University of Iowa. We all went to Gino's East for true Chicago deep-dish, and I'm about ten minutes from succumbing to a major food coma.
It was a day to celebrate the many ways God is active in this church. In the midst of all our anxiety about mission support, social issues and the future of our denomination, we need to take time to look around and see the fearfully, wonderfully made people carrying out important ministry in our midst. God be praised: this church will have a future if we are wise enough to encourage and empower those with such remarkable gifts.

Grace and peace,

12 August 2010

Confessing the Cost of Vocation

I'm in Chicago with four of our students for Follow Me: Sharing the Gospel in a 2.0 World. It's been an enriching experience thus far: time to re-connect with colleagues, strengthen ties across the church and hear from others about ways to be the hands and feet of Christ in a culture becoming more and more suspicious of or apathetic to the church. I met Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, who I've appreciated from a distance for a few years now but never had the opportunity to meet in real life. (Her church, House for All Sinners and Saints, sells the awesome shirt shown here) I heard a passionate sermon from Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, which in itself is remarkable because, even with all of his many gifts taken into account, "passionate" is not a word I would have formerly used to describe the man. Seeing that side of a leader I greatly respect was empowering. His message, which was to meet the question, "Can anything good come out of Christianity?" with Philip's response, "Come and see" was inspiring. My hotel room is swanky and my roommate is gracious, especially when it comes to putting up with my snoring.

All of this good stuff, however, comes with a cost. Normally the cost is simply time away from my girls, which in itself is never fun, but endurable in the short term. Campus ministry is a specialized ministry that puts a lot of us out "on the island" in our local context, so we need this time together, even though it takes us away from family and friends. This time, however, the cost is considerably more painful. A flood swept through Ames this week, and unfortunately my being at this conference has left Beloved on her own with our girls in Ames with no day care, no potable water from city lines and heat indexes above 100 degrees. They're safe: friends have provided drinking water, there's water for bathing and toilets, the electricity is running and we didn't have any water in the house. But this week will never make Beloved's list of top ten favorite weeks of all time. Not by a long, long shot.

All of us, not just pastors, have these moments where your vocation, whatever it may be, comes with a price. For the farmer, it's the continual anxiety about rain, sunshine, hail and the gazillion other things that can ruin a crop every single year. For the teacher, it's the long hours, low pay and continual managing of all the different hurdles between a student and their educational progress. For the manager, it's juggling schedules and emotions, maintaining the proper balance between caring for employees and remaining the boss. Every job comes with a price to pay. I think the difference between a profession and a vocation is the willingness to pay the price - and maybe vocation takes an unhealthy turn when one doesn't even notice how high the price has become.

I'm going to be uncomfortable most of my time here, not because Beloved has laid a guilt trip on me, but because I'm torn between my vocation as a husband/father and my vocation as a pastor. Jesus help me if I ever stop noticing how much the latter takes away from the former; if that happens, I'm not sufficiently equipped to be either.

Grace & peace,

06 August 2010

Friday Five: Nostalgia Edition

Today's Friday Five takes us on a trip down memory lane, from Sally:

This year Tim and I have planted and nurtured a vegetable garden, and I have just spent the morning preparing vegetables and soups for the freezer, our veggie garden is producing like crazy and it is hard to keep up with, that said it'll be worth it for a little taste of summer in the middle of winter :-). That got me thinking of the things I treasure, memories are often more valuable than possessions.
1. A treasured memory from childhood?
I remember the chair pictured here very fondly. We all loved that chair: it was the per
fect size for reading, snuggling with Mom or Dad, and all kinds of fun to turn over on its back and/or side. I know it got re-upholstered at least once in its lifetime. I have treasured comfy reading chairs ever since. A close second to this memory is Ed, the black lab we had when I was just a wee little thing. He was the gentlest, kindest dog I ever knew. I used to fall asleep in the yard using Ed as a pillow. Any wonder I wanted a lab when we started looking for a dog? I'm happy to say that Jack shows the same patience and love to the Sisters that Ed did to me and my brothers.

2. A teenage memory?
This time of year I'm always thinking about football. At the moment I'm listening to The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team on my iPod, and it brings back memories of two-a-days on "the hill" back home in Wakefield, NE. You never forget the feel of the pads on your shoulders, the helmet on your head, the smell of grass and sweat and maybe a little blood if you got popped in the nose or mouth. I remember my senior season most fondly: we weren't expected to amount to much, but we only lost two games that year, both very close games
against teams that went on to high post-season results. We worked our asses off for what we got that year, and so far as I can remember, it was the first time most of us had went out and gotten something people didn't think we could get. Man, those fun Friday nights were worth every torturous practice beforehand.

3. A young adult memory?
Ranch Camp, Week #7, 1994 at Carol Joy Holling Camp. I have a lot of wonderful memories from my five summers at camp, but this one week will always stand out for me. My co-counselor was Tanya, on whom I had a bit of an unrequited crush, but despite me making calf-eyes all week, we got along great and worked really well together. Our campers that week were just incredible. They bonded really well from the start, even Blake, who was our big rebel/too-cool-for-camp kid that week. We hiked, we cooked out, we had an overnight sleepout on the hill; you name it, we did it that week, and it was the kind of week that makes you think you could do that job for the rest of your life. The Bible Study was particularly good that summer: "Jesus, Who Are You?" was the theme, and each day we studied one of the "I am" sayings from the Gospel of John. Thursday was "I am the Resurrection and the Life," and as you can imagine, we talked about death. This particular Thursday was a very emotional session, but in the best possible way. Our village walked to the Closing Program in one big long line, arms around shoulders, me and Tanya right in there with them. We both cried when the campers were all gone that week. Experiences like that are so few and far between, yet they carry so much weight in ou
r lives; who would have imagined a bunch of teenagers, most of whom I can't even remember individually anymore, would remain in my heart all these years later?

4. A memory from this summer?
Just yesterday, as I was hurrying the girls into the car to go to the gym, Ainsley looked at me and said, "Daddy, you just have to be patient with me!" That's just one snapshot of this summer for us: growing girls who are blossoming into real people right in front of us. Holy. Crap. Ferris is right: "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." We've tried to take time to look around this summer, and I'm really thankful to be able to do it.

5. A memory you hope to have?
Lots in general: family vacations, happy weddings, great accomplishments for the Sisters, weddings, grandkids, etc. But one in particular we hope to start working on soon is a big anniversary trip back to Europe in 10-15 years. I'd dearly love to tour Ireland with Beloved; nights in the pub, days on the road, seeing the sights I saw in 1996 when I went with the Nebraska band, but with the appreciation I've gained over years of reading about Erin and her children. After some time in Ireland, a trip to Germany so Beloved can see "Luther Land" would be neat as well. We honeymooned in Bavaria, but Kristin hasn't seen Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, Eisenach, Leipzig or any of the wonderful sights I saw
during my J-term class in seminary. It would be great to spend a night or two in Haus Hainstein with my beloved, ja?

Bonus- a song that sums up one of those memories.
My folks had one of these gigantic counter-style stereo systems. They had (and still have) a chest full of LPs, but the ones that got the coveted spots inside the stereo itself were the Statler Brothers albums. My dad loved the Statler Brothers, and we all followed suit. I remember loading that record player up with three or four records and listening for what seemed like hours. I learned to harmonize from the Statler Brothers. (The fact that I'm likely doing the same thing to Ainsley and Alanna with Storyhill has certainly not escaped my notice.) Anyway, this is one of many songs I remember singing all those years ago:

Grace & peace,

02 August 2010

Anne Rice and the Failure of the Church

Big news last week: Anne Rice has left the church.

Everyone's got their take on it, of course, and I'm no different. Pretty Good Lutherans has a good comment thread going, numerous bloggers are weighing in, and in one of the most crassly opportunistic grabs I've ever seen, the UCC is actively campaigning for Rice to join their flock.

I find myself in the “understanding but not agreeing with Anne Rice” camp. I find the institutional church an exhausting, frustrating, maddening bunch of hypocrites and powermongers far more often than I would like. During the Unbloggableness, a person involved in the situation said, "There are lots of good people here." Unfortunately, there is a threshold over which it doesn't matter how many good people are present: one can only exist in a toxic environment for so long. It appears that for Ms. Rice, that threshold has been crossed, at least for the time being.

I’m forced to wonder how closely connected Ms. Rice was to her local parish/congregation. Did her fame and notoriety keep her from forming the kind of spiritual friendships which carry us through those times of spiritual struggle? Or, on the flip side, was she deeply involved, but spurned or turned away by a cadre of power elite in her local community? It seems, from her description, that this isn't over one issue, so I'm betting on my the former, but we won’t know the answers to these and other questions unless Ms. Rice tells us. Frankly, I hope she keeps it to herself; adding more church gossip to this situation would be gasoline on an already-merrily-burning fire.

Regardless of the actual facts of this particular case, once again the church has failed one of its own. This one’s on us, at least partially, no matter what flavor of Christianity Rice called her home. Until the church acknowledges that we are part of the problem, and takes action to correct those contributions we are making to the dysfunction and dystopia of the life of faith, we will continue to hemorrhage members in increasing numbers. True, every believer must struggle to reconcile the sinner/saint nature of existence for herself, but this in no way excuses the church from its responsibility to deny sin within its power to do so.

The whole thing is saddening. I hold many of the same beliefs as Ms. Rice, according to her original posts, as do many of my friends in faith. The polarizing forces within the church are becoming so abhorrent that the rest of us suffer as a result. We're forced to wonder if we'll be defined by our fringe elements for the foreseeable future: how can we be louder about who we are without sounding the same strident tone as those who are often caricatured as "the Christians?"

We can't. That's just the thing. The way of Jesus doesn't allow us to attempt a hostile takeover of the church, from any political, socio-economic or moral perspective. When any of us attempts to do so, we become the Christians Anne Rice is leaving and Christopher Hitchens despises. We are called to co-exist with fellow sinners in the church - period. Yes, sometimes sin and evil need to be called out, but it seems to me we draw that particular circle far larger than Jesus does, and we don't always have the same things in the middle.

Gordon Atkinson wrote a wonderful reflection on the church a few years ago. If I were advising Ms. Rice, I'd suggest she read it, and take her time considering her next step. I hope her self-imposed exile doesn't last long, as I can't imagine being without a community of believers with whom I can pray, laugh, sing, shout and weep. As for the church, the call remains the same: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with our God. The rest is not up to us.

Grace & peace,


ps: One commentary from the Philadelphia Atheist Examiner claimed that Rice's Interview with the Vampire series is "decidedly atheistic." I'm thinking he didn't read The Tale of the Body Thief or Memnoch the Devil, both decidedly not atheistic. Details, people!

01 August 2010

Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost/Ordinary 18C - "Fear and Control, Faith and Freedom"

Leo Tolstoy wrote a wonderful short story entitled "How Much Land Does A Man Need?" in 1886, a story which author James Joyce called "the greatest short story ever written." In the story, a Russian peasant farmer named Pahom says to himself, "If I had plenty of land, I shouldn't fear the Devil himself!"

It should go without saying, of course, that in the course of the story, fear and greed drove Pahom to greater and greater lengths to find happiness and security in his land. Pahom certainly isn't the only literary figure to chase a treasure. Captain Ahab had his Moby Dick. Lord Voldemort had his Harry Potter.

Me? I've got my running shoes.

When it comes to shoes, many of us runners are shopaholics. We compare websites, we email one another, we spend lots of time looking for the perfect shoe, preferably at a low price. I bought this pair a few months ago, because I found them on sale at an online retailer. I ordered two pairs, one for now and one for six months from now when I need another pair.

In the grand scheme of the running life, this is the moment when I’m satisfied. This is the moment when I'm holding the box, inhaling the intoxicating scent of new shoes, and I think, "Now I'm okay. Now I'm set." This is the moment of real trouble for us – and Jesus hit that moment right on the head when he told this parable to the crowd around him. The fact that it has something to say to us today just proves that God’s Word is always doing something, doesn’t it?

First we need to understand this isn’t about bad people suffering the consequences of their sin. Grain that isn't stored properly is ruined, and it was common for rabbis to adjudicate inheritance disputes in Jesus‘ time. The characters in this story weren’t necessarily doing anything wrong. What’s wrong is not their actions, but the trust and faith driving their actions. Mistakes were made at the level of heart and soul, which is more often than not the very place our struggles begin.

The mistake of the rich man had nothing to do with grain. The mistake of the brother had nothing to do with inheritances. Their mistakes were made long before this stuff was ever part of the problem. Their mistakes were their misplaced treasures. The possessions they treasured held them captive, while the freedom in which God created them was buried under fear.

But what is it that drives this fear? What causes such great fear in us, that we should put all our trust in possessions or money or stuff? Is it a fear of inconvenience? I don't think so: inconvenience isn't pleasant, but it is definitely survivable. Is it a fear of discomfort? Again, no, for the same reason. Are we afraid of a loss of social standing? This might be nearer the mark, but again, a loss of social standing or reputation might be unpleasant, even painful, but we can survive such things. Even a fear of poverty, which can certainly be painful and even harmful to us and to our families, is not what drives our misplaced trust in things and possessions.

Our need for stored treasure has to do with one great, overwhelming fear: the fear of losing control. We are afraid that we are not in control of our world. We are afraid of the random, the uncertain. We are afraid of what we cannot control – and we fool ourselves into thinking that the things we can control are the things that matter, that they are, in fact, the things that will save and preserve us.

Our fear can lead us into all sorts of sins and trouble. Think of some of the commandments we break in our lust for treasures we think we can control. Our fear of commitment, vulnerability and authenticity us into superficial relationships a mile wide and an inch deep. Our fear of not being compared favorably to our neighbors leads us to covet our neigbor's possessions – "keeping up with the Joneses" is an expensive sin, but it is also one of the most common among us. Our fear of speaking the truth leads us to gossip and false witness, and not only that: fear leads us to think that the only way we can improve our own reputation is to bring down our neighbor's reputation. Our fear of risking peace, which makes us vulnerable but also makes us more completely God's children, leads us into thinking that harming our neighbor physically, even killing him, is justified if the circumstances can be defended adequately. And our fear of poverty, chaos and loss of control, as we've already seen, leads us into satisfying our greed and hoarding treasures, stealing those treasures if necessary.

Now, of course, we all fall into different places when it comes to fear and what it can do to us. But no matter how close or far away we may be from that which causes us to fear, we are all afraid, and deep down it comes back to our fear of losing control, of what may happen to us.

Friends, we need only look around us to see how little control we have of the world around us. Do you remember when the I35 bridge collapsed in 2007? My brother-in-law crossed that bridge less than two hours before it collapsed: it could have very easily been our family on the news, grieving a loss we couldn’t control. For nearly nine years we’ve been living under a cloud of fear that formed when the World Trade Center was destroyed on a normal, ordinary Tuesday morning. Floods sweep away dams; economies crash; accidents happen. Where we can, we try to stay in control, because so much of life is beyond our control.

Here’s the thing: control is not the primary value in the life of a Christian. Jesus told the parable of the rich fool to teach us that control is not our problem – fear is our problem. The primary value in the life of a Christian is faith. The opposite of faith? Fear. Fear leads to greed, to envy, to lust, to violence; fear leads us astray in many, many ways. Jesus brings the treasures which destroy the power of fear: faith, and out of faith, love.

It would be easy to think that managing our possessions better is the teaching point of this parable, but it’s not. The Teacher was absolutely right in our reading from Ecclesiastes today: possessions are meaningless; they are, after all, just stuff. What Jesus wants his disciples to understand is the fear that drives us to treasure such meaningless things. Learning to manage things better doesn’t solve the problem of our fear – only faith and love can do that, and faith and love are what Christ comes to give.

Here are the treasures of faith and love: to believe that God is always present, that even in the worst of circumstances God is there: that is a treasure worth treasuring! To believe that our lives consist of the presence of a creating, redeeming and sanctifying God: that is a treasure worth treasuring! To believe that our souls are far more important than our possessions, that each of us bears the breath of a loving Creator within us: that is a treasure worth treasuring! To know that out of love God did not withhold himself from us, but came in the person of Jesus Christ and lived among us, living in love even when it cost him his own life: that is a treasure worth treasuring! It is faith, and love, and far more, that Jesus puts in place of the treasures we have stored up for ourselves in our possessions. Our lives are created for the treasures of faith and love, and without them “all is vanity, a chasing after the wind.”

I have one more prop to show you: this marshmallow roaster. My Grandma Johnson died in January 2005, and over the next few months, we cousins watched our parents divide their inheritance amongst themselves, and they invited us to request anything we’d like to have from Grandma & Grandpa’s house in town and also the farm. Among the list of things I requested were these marshmallow roasters (we have four of them). They’re pretty ingenious, if you ask me: the handle extends. They can be short when you load them up and long when you want to roast stuff in the fire. Looking at these roasters the other night, while we were sitting by our own fire, I realized that as inconsequential as they may be, these roasters have now outlived my grandparents. Properly maintained, they will outlive me. But they’re roasters! They are not a treasure – they are things. Our family’s treasure is wrapped up in the faith my grandparents handed down to their children and then to us grandchildren. Faith, and love, cast out fear; the treasure worth treasuring frees us from our misplaced trust in shoes, grain bins and marshmallow roasters.

Brothers and sisters, what you have is not nearly as important as what you believe and in whom you trust. Martin Luther once wrote “to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart.”

Your life is meant for faith, and love, the treasures worth treasuring, and with joy Christ offers them to you freely. Put your trust in God, not your things. Treasure what you’ve been given in the love, grace and peace of Jesus Christ, and behold: all things are yours in Christ, now and forever more. Amen.