29 November 2010

Called to the Task at Hand

 Okay, first things first - being a pastor ≠ being a Jedi.  The only similarity is that we both wear robes.  And the lightsaber, of course. 

28 November 2010

New Year, New Start

Photo by Amanda Woodward.  Used by permission.
Today is the first day of the new year.  Happy New Year!

Okay, yeah, it's the first day of the new liturgical year.  The first Sunday of Advent.  Year A, for those of you keeping score.  Gospel of Matthew. 

Liturgical geekery aside, I'm ready for a new start.  It was approximately a year ago that the Unbloggableness got started, and even now, several months after the last bit of official handling that mess required, the healing process is continuing in fits and starts - sometimes it's weeks without considering it, and sometimes something trips your memory and you're furious all over again.  It's well past time to be done with this, and well past time to be doing something instead of dealing with something.  So, a new year, a new start.

The U.B. isn't the only thing I'm anxious to put behind me.  I've gained another fifteen pounds this year through lousy diet and sloth.  I've spent far too much time messing around on message boards and not nearly enough time reading books, watching good TV and good movies.  I've put off house projects and dithered on things that could have been handled much more quickly if I'd put my mind to it.  In general, it feels like I've been sleep-walking for about a year now, and I'm ready to be awakened. 

Right now I'm sitting next to the fire at the Lutheran Center in Ames.  Six students are here with me, doing homework, the Sunday crossword, and just hanging out.  These incredible people have deserved so much better from me this year:  better sermons, better attention, better leadership.  This Advent I want to start over with all of them.  Thanks be to God, one can do just that.  Maybe I can't undo the sloth of the past 12 months, but I can sure as hell spend the next 12 making up for it.  So:  commence.

Grace & peace,

16 November 2010

Fifty Book Challenge 2010

Here it is: my reading list for 2010. Recommended titles are in bold, and formats are +(Kindle), *(audio/iPod).

1. The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson
2. Watchmen (Absolute Edition) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
3. V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
4. The Sandman: World's End by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King et al.
5. The Sandman: Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub et al.
6. Providence: The Madigan Trilogy Book 1 by Tawn Anderson
7. The Sandman: The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman et al.
8. The Sandman: The Wake by Neil Gaiman et al.
+9. Dracula: The Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker & Ian Holt.
10. Coraline by Neil Gaiman.
11. Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell
+12. The Great Hunt: Wheel of Time Book 2 by Robert Jordan
+13. Dragon Reborn: Wheel of Time Book 3 by Robert Jordan
+14. Shadow Rising: Wheel of Time Book 4 by Robert Jordan
*15. Dune by Frank Herbert
+16. Anxious Souls Will Ask...: The Christ-Centered Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by John W. Matthews
17. On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
*18. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougal
+19. The Case for God by Karen Armstrong
*20. The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike
*21. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
*22. Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz
23. Fires of Heaven: Wheel of Time Book 5 by Robert Jordan
*24. Forever Odd by Dean Koontz
*25. Genghis: Birth of an Empire by Conn Iggulden
+26. Lord of Chaos: Wheel of Time Book 6 by Robert Jordan
*27. Brother Odd by Dean Koontz
28. The Prodigal God by Tim Keller
*28. Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
+29. A Crown of Swords: Wheel of Time Book 7 by Robert Jordan
*30. Odd Hours by Dean Koontz
*31. The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team by Jim Dent
+32. Path of Daggers: Wheel of Time Book 8 by Robert Jordan
+33. Winter's Heart: Wheel of Time Book 9 by Robert Jordan
*34. Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
35.  Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
*36.  Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card
*37.  Duma Key by Stephen King
+38.  Crossroads of Twilight: Wheel of Time Book 10 by Robert Jordan
*39.  Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
40.  Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
*41.  Man In The Woods by Scott Spencer 
42.  Johnny Cash and the Great American Contradiction by Rodney Clapp
43.  Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell 
+44.  Knife of Dreams:  Wheel of Time Book 11 by Robert Jordan
+45.  The Promise of Despair:  The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church by Andrew Root


Yeah, I'm home sick today.  Woot!

I could probably be working by now, but I'm a firm believer in staying home when you're not feeling well, so here we are.  Besides, with my MacBook and cell phone I'm still able to accomplish quite a bit on a "sick day," to the point that I'm not actually taking the whole day off today anyway. 

One of the things I've been doing is catching up on blogger friends and actually reading stuff rather than skimming it per usual.  Every once in a while you follow the rabbit down the hole into a world you never knew existed, and I got a look at one such hole today - unfortunately, this one wasn't a particularly good one to follow. 

I stumbled on a website which seems completely dedicated to taking down the ELCA, the denomination in which I currently serve as pastor.  Whoever is running this thing is a disgruntled former ELCA member who has spent far too much time going over ELCA documents and websites with a fine-toothed comb, intent on finding every questionable phrase or sentence that could be exploited for his/her disingenuous, unfair and ultimately toxic agenda.  No, I'm not linking to it, nor will I give any more hints as to how to find it.  The last thing I want to do is increase the traffic over there.  Let's just say that after a few minutes reading thosee suspicious, conspiracy-theory mis-interpretations, I felt like I needed a shower (though, I admit, it might have also been because I've spent most of the day in this recliner in the basement).  

No one is surprised to note that a year after the ELCA's decision to embrace the ministry of same-gender persons in monogamous relationships and allow churches to bless same-gender unions, the fallout is still, well, falling.  Churches are leaving the ELCA:  this is a cause for sorrow even when that departure might be the healthiest way forward.  No one wants to leave the denomination with which they have been connected for so long.  But as an internet friend said the other day, at some point you get to the point where you think, "How can I miss you if you won't go away?" 

There's a fine line between honest disagreement and spreading poison.  I walked it here while the UB was going on, and some accused me of crossing it.  That's part of the reason I haven't been blogging much lately: I'm worried about crossing that line.  When Susan Hogan was running Pretty Good Lutherans, I thought she provided a great space for people of diverging opinions to talk about what was happening in the ELCA.  I wish she were still doing it, because efforts like that stand as a counter to the site I visited today, where the primary hermeneutic lens is one of suspicion and the default setting is somewhere between soapbox and BOMBAST.  There's a need for genuine criticism and loyal dissension in every denomination, especially in these days when staff layoffs are camouflaged as new structures designed to increase flexibility.  I just wish this small portion folks who disagreed with the ELCA's decisions in 2009 had chosen healthier means of expressing that disagreement.  I think I'd have been that much closer to feeling better if they had.

07 November 2010

Sermon for the Feast of All Saints - "Winners and Losers"

Before reading this sermon, you should know I'm a Nebraska alum (though you probably already knew that) and the ELCA campus pastor at Iowa State, where this happened yesterday:

            When I was 9 years old, a football game made me cry.  I have a feeling there were some young Cyclone fans who felt the same way last night.  The 1984 Orange Bowl.  Nebraska was down 31-30, back in the days before overtime in college football.  They went for two and didn’t get it.  I went to bed and cried myself to sleep.

            That seemed to be the story for Nebraska fans in the 1980s and early 1990s.  It seemed like the Huskers were always one game away.  Oh, I don’t expect any sympathy from Iowa State students about struggling football teams – I’m telling this story to make a point, and the point is this:  we don’t commemorate losers, even the glorious ones.  As great as that game was yesterday, it won’t get celebrated nearly as much as last year’s slapstick in Lincoln, even though both teams played much, much better yesterday.  Why?  Because ISU won in Lincoln last year.  Winners get celebrated.  The 1983 Cornhuskers don’t get reunions, but the 1994 Cornhuskers do, because they won a national championship.  People will remember ISU beating Texas this year a lot longer than they’ll remember losing to Nebraska.  If you win, you get trophies, placques, and reunions.  Lose, even gloriously, you get a rueful shake of the head, but that’s about it.
            So, on the surface, it might appear that Jesus is just trying to even out the balance when he teaches in our reading from the gospel of Luke this morning.  We might think, “Oh, there goes Jesus:  he’s such a good one for making the losers feel good about themselves.”  Meanwhile, we’re either trying to find a way to avoid being lumped in with the poor, the hungry, the crybabies and the religious nutcases, or you’re trying to figure out if you’re poor, hungry, sad or crazy enough to be blessed without too much more inconvenience.  After all, when it comes to Jesus, up is down, left is right, rich is poor, poor is rich and humility is the best way to make a name for yourself in the kingdom of God, am I right?
            Back to football for a minute.  When I was growing up, people would complain about Nebraska never winning enough games.  You heard me right.  Tom Osborne once said, “My hardest job is to convince the people of Nebraska that 10-1 is not a losing season.”  When I would join the critics while I was growing up, my Mom would try to set me straight.  “You just wait,” she said, “someday we’ll know what it’s really like to have a terrible football team.”  I’m most proud of her for never once saying “I told you so” from 2002-2007.  But my point is this:  perspective has a tendency to get skewed no matter where we are in life.  When you’re up, you think you’re going to be up for the rest of your life.  When you’re down, you think that you’ll be down for the rest of your life.  Either way, you adjust your expectations accordingly and go on living the best that you know how to live.  At least, that’s what you do if you’re not a saint.
            Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  Traditionally, today is the day we remember those who have died in the past year, and we’ll do just that later in our service.  But right now, I want to talk a bit more about living saints, and what it means to live as God’s saints now, in this life, and why I think Jesus is talking about sainthood when he teaches his disciples like he does in this morning’s Gospel text. 
            Let’s make sure we understand what it is we’re talking about when Jesus says “Blessed are you” and “Woe unto you.”  It’s easy to think that, because Jesus says “yours is the kingdom of God,” that he’s talking about salvation and damnation.  Jesus is telling the people listening to him how to live in this life, not how to get into the next.  This is not advice given for the best way to score points with God:  this is God himself defining reality for people who don’t have the ability to see it.  Jesus is the living hope of God revealing the truth to those who haven’t seen it yet:  what we see on the surface is not the reality God knows down to the core.  Poverty is not always marked by misery.  Wealth does not always guarantee unlimited happiness.  Hunger and sadness have their seasons, as do satisfaction and joy.  Most of all, we who believe in what God is up to in the world are called to trust in God no matter how much ridicule the world might heap upon us.  This is what Jesus is calling ALL of his followers to understand, rich and poor, hungry and fed, weeping and rejoicing, losers and winners alike.  THESE ARE ALL SAINTS:  it’s just that these are saints in all their different places in life, but still called to worship and serve the same living, loving God who welcomes them all.
            Don’t believe me?  Look at the last few verses of our reading today.  “I say to you that listen…”  Not “I say to you poor.”  Not “I say to you joyful.”  Not “I say to you who’ve gone and made somebody mad for my sake.”  “I say to you that listen…”  Wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, in whatever circumstances you may find yourself, here is how you follow me:  “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”  This is what it means to be one of God’s saints.  Jesus calls us to open our eyes, to see with perspective and understand that life is constantly changing.  If he’d been talking in political terms this past week, he might have said, “Blessed are you Democrats, for yours is the Senate Majority.  But woe to you Republicans, for you have received your reward.”  Six years ago he might have said the exact opposite.  Either way, Jesus would have said to BOTH parties:  “Love your enemies.  Reach across the aisle.  Don’t make that commercial and call your opponent names.  Do unto your opponent and you would have them do unto you.” 
            I’ve been haunted by a song this week.  

            If you look at the face of Johnny Cash in that video, you look at the face of a man who’s known both blessings and woes.  He was rich, and he was poor.  He laughed, and he wept.  Most importantly, Johnny Cash did some wonderful things for a lot of people, but he also did some terrible things to his family and friends over the years.  You see in this song a man who knows the core of his life, its depths and its heights.  I call Johnny Cash a saint, not because he’s dead, and not because he was a vision of perfection in life, but because you get the sense that he knew the whole story of human sinfulness and yet trusted in God to overcome the hurt he himself had caused to others and himself. 
            Paul says in our Ephesians text today, “I pray that…God may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation…so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which God has called you, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints.”  This is the life of a saint: eyes wide open, with perspective and wisdom enough to see life in its totality.  This is the life of a saint:  understanding that circumstances are constantly changing.  This is the life of a saint:  to know that in these constantly changing circumstances, one thing that is guaranteed is that we will make mistakes in the midst of everything.  This is the life of a saint:  to know that in the midst of everything, whether it’s poverty or riches, hunger or fullness, sorrow or joy, God is bigger than our hopes and our fears and we are called to trust in God come what may. 
            Open your eyes, you saints of God.  Understand that wins and losses are part of what it is to be human.  Believe that God knows the depth of who you are and how you’ve struggled, and loves you with all your faults and virtues intact.  This is a day to celebrate, but not because you’re rich or poor, hungry or full, weeping or rejoicing.  This isn’t even a day to celebrate a Husker win or mourn a Cyclone loss!  This is a day to celebrate because the God the Father is your Creator, Jesus Christ is your Savior, the Holy Spirit is moving within you, and this company of saints is here to journey with you.  The life of a saint awaits you:  now is the first step, and may God bless all the ones that follow.  Amen.

03 November 2010

Wednesday Evening Prayer: God's Beloved, "Pride and Joy"

Hebrew script for Song of Solomon 6.3:   "My Beloved is mine, and I am his."

I’ve complained long and loud about the lousy sort of praise music that we call “Jesus is my Boyfriend” music.  In fact, my colleague Nadia Bolz-Weber tweeted the lyrics to one of those songs the other day:  “"I'm Special", "I'm special because God has loved me, for He gave the best thing that He had to save me: His own Son Jesus , crucified to take the blame, for all the bad things I have done. Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord for loving me so much; I know I don't deserve anything, help me feel Your love right now, to know deep in my heart that I'm your special friend" #barf

At the same time, I’ve been intrigued by the fact that we cheat God’s passion when we throw the baby out with the bathwater here.  I do think God can’t stand those sappy love songs – but I also think God is a passionate, jealous lover who hates it when people mistreat God’s beloved.  Unfortunately, we tend to lump all that love over onto Jesus most of the time, which isn’t fair, and frankly isn’t even right, because if the Old Testament is any indication, God the Creator loves every bit as passionately as Jesus.  Listen to this, for instance:

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
   and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
   and her salvation like a burning torch. 
2 The nations shall see your vindication,
   and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
   that the mouth of the Lord will give. 
3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
   and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 
4 You shall no more be termed Forsaken,*
   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;*
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,*
   and your land Married;*
for the Lord delights in you,
   and your land shall be married. 
5 For as a young man marries a young woman,
   so shall your builder* marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
   so shall your God rejoice over you. 
            Isaiah 62.1-5

God is obviously worked up about God’s beloved people – and we often miss it entirely.  My Old Testament professor Terry Fretheim wrote,
“Attributes such as love, compassion and mercy, accompanied by acts of healing, forgiving, and redeeming, tend to become narrowly associated with Jesus, while the less palatable attributes and actions of holiness, wrath, power and justice are ascribed only to God.  What tends to fill the mind is God as Giver of the Law and Judge of all the earth.  If God is not the cause of all the ills in the world, God is still seen as the one who is to blame for not really doing anything about them.  It is the goodness of God that is ignored, not the goodness of Jesus.  One can almost hear someone say: ‘If only Jesus were here, he would do something about all our troubles!’  People often seem to have a view which suggests that Jesus is friend and God is enemy.  An understanding of the atonement gets twisted so that Jesus is seen as the one who came to save us from God." The Suffering of God (c) 1984, Fortress Press.  p. 2
Leaving the sappy music aside, God the Creator loves you.  God the Father gets worked up when you get mistreated.  God the Giver of all good things is deeply concerned for your welfare.  God the Maker has knit you together fearfully and wonderfully.  Dare I say it, you are God’s pride and joy.


Sure, this song is about a woman on the surface.  But is there really so much difference between “You mess with her, you’ll see a man get mean” and “I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn?”

There is ample evidence within Holy Scripture that God loves you.  God passionately, recklessly, agonizingly loves you.  Forget the cheesy Jesus music that makes it sound like you have to be on Team Jesus instead of Team Edward or Team Jacob.  Forget it, not just because it’s awful music, but because it cheats God’s love for you – you’re more than a romantic interest as far as God is concerned.  You are God’s delight, God’s pride and joy, and no one can take it away from you.  Amen.