20 December 2016

Doctor Strange and the Theology of the Cross

"We never lose our demons: we only learn to live above them." The Ancient One - Doctor Strange

31 October 2016

The Eighth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
What does this mean?
We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.

I don't know about you, but I am more ready for this election season to be over than any I've ever experienced.

Eighteen months of campaigning. Eighteen months sorting fact from fiction. Eighteen months of partisanship, obstruction, gaslighting, and paranoia. In recent weeks the veneer of substantive political discernment has been ripped away completely, revealing a sordid game of lurid sexual misbehavior and assault (fictional and actual), an almost complete disregard for facts or the rule of law, hacked emails, torched campaign facilities, graffitied mosques, and invective that buries itself so far beneath what we should expect from our elected leaders that we'll need to look up to even see what disappointing public discourse looks like.

Here's the thing, though: we've taught our politicians that this sort of campaigning works. We have elected leaders who have capitalized on polarization, fear-mongering, and scapegoating to get themselves elected, only to discover they cannot work with fellow elected leaders who used the same tactics but don't have the capacity to set them aside once the campaign is over and the work of governance begins.

Thankfully, Brother Martin gives us a way out of this festering swamp of half-truths and character assassinations - if we have the courage to choose the hard path of truth-telling and fair listening instead of the easy slide back into mudslinging and obstructionism. Famous for his invective, it seems as though Luther was the last one who should have written about bearing false witness, but in his definition of the 8th Commandment Luther lays out a vision of a community we would be fortunate to call home. To be sure, politics in Luther's time didn't resemble the modern nation-state. Luther wrote his Small Catechism for households to learn how to deal with each other - the concept of representative democracy wouldn't be put into play in the U.S. for another two centuries. Yet Luther's Germany was experiencing a political revolution in addition to a spiritual reformation. Without the support of princes willing to defy the emperor and the pope, Luther would have been executed long before any sort of transformation was able to take hold. Luther himself spoke bluntly to princes and commoners alike: he admonished the peasants when they rebelled against their feudal lords, but also criticized the lords when they violently put down the Peasants' Rebellion of 1524-1525. One of the most under-appreciated aspects of Luther's work was his willingness to debate, to question himself, to convince and be convinced by means of disputation, and to acknowledge his own shortcomings as well as the admirable qualities of his friends and opponents.

When I meet with couples for counseling prior to marriage, we always spend time in an exercise called "Active Listening and Assertive Speaking". In the exercise, each partner takes three opportunities to state a desire they have for the relationship, using "I" language and avoiding "you" language ("I feel frustrated when the kitchen is a mess" instead of "You never clean the kitchen"). When each partner has stated their desire, the other partner is asked to repeat the statement back in their own language, in such a way that it is clear they have understood what their partner is saying. I remind each couple that in many instances we listen defensively, looking for excuses and opportunities for denial. Active Listening involves listening to understand, not defend. It doesn't even involve listening to agree - the point of the exercise is to remind each partner that part of bearing true witness in their relationship is to see things from their partner's point of view and understand why they may feel the way they feel.

Imagine how our politics would change if we approached the election season with that same mindset! Disagreements are bound to happen, but what a better democracy we might have if our candidates could say, "My opponent X is right to note that this issue is a problem for us. My opponent has attempted to address this issue by doing _____, and while I don't think it worked, I am grateful for my opponent's work on it. Here's what I think we should do to address it: listen well and then you the voters should vote for what you think is the best solution for all Americans."

There are anecdotal tales of presidents, legislators, and staffers regularly crossing the aisle and meeting together to actually achieve the hard work of governing in such a way that the maximum benefit for the most people could be achieved. This sort of work is impossible in an environment dedicated to seeing the worst in those who disagree with you. I hope and pray we will learn from this election and turn toward a better way in the future, and to that end I am rededicating myself to discuss issues instead of people as much as I can. I hope you'll join me in that effort.

Yours in Christ,
Pastor Scott

31 March 2016

April Newsletter Article: The Liturgical Year from Advent through Lent

“Alleluia! Christ is risen!”
“Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
By the time most of you are reading this article, we will have moved from the meditative, reflective season of Lent into the celebratory season of Easter, in which we spend seven weeks proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus with joy and passion. (Yes, I said “PASSION” - consider it an invitation to grow spiritually this Easter season.) But how do we get there in the church calendar? Why is it so early this year and so late in other years? Today I’m going to take a moment to walk you through the “first half” of the liturgical calendar observed by a substantial majority of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

01 March 2016

March Newsletter Article

Beloved in Christ,
Stepping away from our series on worship to give you some snapshots of things going on at St. Petri that deserve some extra attention.

09 February 2016

Doctor Who and Peace that Must be Dared

Three weeks ago I attended a retreat at Carol Joy Holling Camp and Conference Center led by Andy Root, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Andy and I are both Gen Xers, and we share a particular affinity for the life and works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, so when I received a flyer about the retreat from my friends at Carol Joy Holling I signed up right away.

While we were at the retreat, I was also bingeing on Series 9 of the new Doctor Who. This happens a lot in recent years: the series usually debuts during college football season, and as a pastor who loves football, has two kids, and only gets a limited amount of time to enjoy things on any given Saturday, it is unfortunately the Doctor who gets relegated to the vagaries of the DVR (though, of course, the relativity of the time involved makes that relegation more than a little ironic and humorous). This year was no exception. I was finally working my way through the series when we arrived at Carol Joy Holling, and the first night of our retreat was also the night I enjoyed episode 8, "The Zygon Inversion." Having just come from an evening meal where Andy and I enjoyed a robust discussion of recent Bonhoeffer biographies, I already had Herr Dietrich on the brain when I watched the Doctor's epic anti-war speech unfold on my laptop. I'll post a quote here and then the following scene from YouTube, and then tell you what I'm on about.
THE DOCTOR (speaking to 'Bonnie' - who is actually the Zygon leader Zygella disguised as Clara Oswald, the Doctor's companion): These things have happened, Zygella, they are facts. You just want cruelty to beget cruelty. You're not superior to people who were cruel to you, you're just a whole bunch of new cruel people. A whole bunch of new cruel people being cruel to some other people, who'll end up being cruel to you. The only way anyone can live in peace is if they're prepared to forgive. Why don't you break the cycle? (Emphasis mine)
Read more at: http://transcripts.foreverdreaming.org/viewtopic.php?f=53&t=23619

In 1934, at an ecumenical conference in Fanø, Denmark, Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in which he said the following:
How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way to safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war. To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself.
I couldn't help but hear the words of Bonhoeffer echoed in the Doctor's impassioned plea for Zygella (and her human counterpart) to "break the cycle!" There has always been something of an anti-war bent to the Doctor, and at times the series has featured moments of great theological and ethical import buried underneath fantastically good television, but this is one of the moments where this watcher felt as if Stephen Moffat and the other writers of the show were channeling a particular theologian, whether consciously or unconsciously. The similarity to Bonhoeffer's argument, and the terrible experiences of the battle-weary Time Lord and the world-weary theologian and pacifist conspirator against the Third Reich, seem to come pouring out of the TV screen into our minds and hearts.

Forgiveness is always a risk. Peace is never certain. But as the Doctor points out, the war that seems to be such a certain guarantee is also uncertain, and in addition guaranteed to be painful, costly, and in the end resolved in only one of two ways: genocide, or diplomacy. Since no one wants to be a genocide, why not engage in the diplomacy before resorting to violence that's going to lead you back to diplomacy in the end anyway?

This is, honestly, one of the things I love about Doctor Who. Leave aside the comical costumes and the iffy (if improving) special effects. The epic storytelling and the dedication to playing out the ethical consequences of one's decisions are an invigorating contrast to the rampant jingoism and chest-thumping machismo of what passes for governance in much of contemporary American life. Hearing what appears to be the Doctor channeling a beloved theologian of mine was music to my ears, and worth noting and sharing with anyone else who cares to hear about it.

31 January 2016

February Newsletter Article

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

In a few short days, the season of Epiphany will come to a close and the liturgical season of Lent will begin. I am one of those people who finds the season of Lent to be an annual challenge and blessing – it is a time in the church for heightened awareness about our sin, God’s mercy, and the life of Jesus in which that mercy overcame that sin.

28 January 2016

2016 Books: The Prophet by Michael Koryta

One of the most enjoyable reading experiences is taking a chance on an unknown author and being very happy you did. In some ways The Prophet was about what I expected: a murder mystery with some interesting plot twists. What I didn't expect was Michael Koryta's excellent investigation into high stakes Ohio high school football and how that sidebar added a bit of punch to the story. Granted, being a former player myself and a student of the game for most of my life, I'm a bit pre-disposed to think well of good football writing, but I believe the casual reader will also enjoy learning a bit about the game in the course of enjoying a well-conceived murder mystery.

The main point of the novel is the relationship between brothers Adam and Kent Austin, both of whom live in their hometown and carry the burden of their sister's murder in very different ways. Their relationship overshadows everything in the novel, even the murder which brings about the action that makes up most of the plot, but it's so well written that the reader will enjoy the curious experience of being distracted by the action instead of the interior monologue as is common in the genre.

No heavy lifting required here - just a good book for a trip, something to read in one long pull and savor all the way down.

26 January 2016

2016 Books in Review: Gatefather by Orson Scott Card

The Mither Mages trilogy started off wonderfully with The Lost Gate and continued well with The Gate Thief. These first two volumes were the usual Orson Scott Card mix of philosophy, theology, fantasy, science fiction, and excellent characterization of the main actors in the plot. This series in particular leans more toward the theology and fantasy side of his spectrum, a curious mix of American Gods and original themes that make for interesting reading. Or listening, which is what I did for the first two volumes (is it me, or do some of you read all of OSC's work in Stefan Rudnicki's voice?).

08 January 2016

2016 Books in Review - Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett

The third book in Ken Follet's massive Century trilogy is, well, long. It has to be - it covers events from the beginning of the Cold War to the election of Barack Obama, ranging from the American Deep South to the coldest reaches of Siberia. It's everything you expect from a Follett historical novel at this point, which is at the same time enjoyable and a touch predictable, if surprisingly so.

05 January 2016

Exposing Dan Skogen

Last week I was made aware of a minor social media kerfuffle between my colleague Clint Schnekloth and Dan Skogen, the man behind the "Exposing the ELCA" blog and Twitter feed. Like Clint, I've known about Dan for quite some time, particularly because he lives in the part of Iowa we call home and has been trolling synodical staff and pastors in our neck of the woods as long as I've been here. Clint's blog does an excellent job of laying out the various options of dealing with Internet trolls, so I'll invite you to take a look if you want to see the entire backstory.
Lutheran Confessions: Exposing "Exposing the ELCA": Meet Dan Skogen. He's the voice and face behind a blog titled "Exposing the ELCA." Well, he does more than blog. He tweets, tr...
Like Clint, I'd been doing my best to mostly ignore Dan for at least six years. Usually that's the best response to trolls and others working out their pathologies through the means of social media. In fact, just this week I recommended that fellow Iowans ignore the ridiculous "halftime show" the Stanford Band performed at the Rose Bowl. It was so obnoxious and insulting that anyone with an ounce of decency wouldn't believe anything about it for a second. In the same vein, the posts at ExposingtheELCA.com are so thinly connected to reality that anyone with the ability to critically engage what he says about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America can see his agenda for what it is - and adjust their expectations for truth and decency accordingly.