Thursday, November 30, 2006

Clay Waiting

A potter in our church allowed me to interview her in her pottery studio this week to talk about clay. I asked her to tell me about how clay waits. When I got there she had fresh chai tea brewed for us in a beautiful new tea pot with a woven bamboo handle. Then she began to talk and read to me about the complext nature of clay and its elasticity due to the presence of something called kaolin. Her textbook spoke of the billions of years of earth formation, compression, and shifting and glacial spreading of crust soils. That in itself is some signficant waiting!
She donated the small pot on the table in the sanctuary as an incomplete pot, waiting to be done. Its been wedged (working out all the air) and formed. It's been sitting long enough now to be dried out. But there is a lot of waiting yet to do: a bisque firing and cooling, glazing and glaze firing and cooling. There is probably another 40 hours, a least, before this pot is ready.
When I asked Lori how she knew the pots were ready at each stage, her eyes lit up and she talked joyfully, even lovingly about how "she knew" it was time.
The Lord "works with those who wait for him." Isaiah 64:4

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I went to jail again to see my young friend. I had not been there for several weeks and had an open morning to drive over. The air was crisp and the sky deep blue. Everything went so smoothly, getting registered, the visitor's badge, the call to the unit he's on and the guards who were waiting for me. He came in dressed in a bright orange jump suit and a big smile on his face. He is so good-natured and happy to see me. I asked how his Thanksgiving in jail went. He told me his mom and girlfriend visited him. They do that every Sunday. She pregnant with their first baby. Then I asked him how he stayed so up-beat while in isolation (meaning locked in with another cell-mate all the time, segregated from the general jail population). He then rubbed his face with his hands and said; "That's where it's really tough. You try to get your mind off it by reading, exercising and staying active." He then went through his daily routine where the only change is a visitor like me or the every-other-day shower.
He's facing some long time for a crime he does not want to talk about and a baby he won't see till the baby is in elementary school. Then, as I was about to leave he said "Wait, did I tell you we're having a boy?" I told him that was great and asked him if they had nmaed him yet. They did and he told me his baby's name. Then he said quietly as I was getting ready to leave again "Today's my birthday. I'm 21." My heart collapsed like a baloon. A 21 year old father-to-be should not be here. But because of his crime he is. And now he waits for a sentence, a baby, a move to a prison and an uncertain future. And so he waits.
In the afternoon after staff meeting, I went to our retirement community where one of our members lives. She called me last night to talk about her husband's immanent death. He's a saint in our church and dying slowly. I asked her if we should meet somewhere else. "No" she said, "Let's meet in his room. He'll want to hear what I'm planning." And for the next half hour she told me about every text, hymn and solo she chose. They were his/their favorites. I guess after 50 years of marriage what is his and her favorite merges into "our" favorites. She talked about how much she loved him and admired him and did not want him stuck here in a body like, there is too much good waiting for him in heaven. And that's where she lit up, talking about hope and heaven and Jesus. And so she waits.
There is so much waiting around us; good waiting, impatient waiting, frightened waiting, resigned waiting, angry waiting, hopeful waiting, excited waiting, quiet waiting. Advent is our time for waiting.

Red Letter Christians?

In an interview with California's new Attorney General, Jerry Brown in Sunday's NYT's magazine section, he was asked to describe himself politically: "There's a great line from Friedrich Nietzsche: 'A thinking man can never be a party man.'" It's interesting how party affiliations and labels have soured genuine discussion on issues, turning them into lobbed hand grenades of sound-bite invective instead of dialogue towards resolution.
I mulled Brown's thoughts as I went off for lunch with some area youth pastors. One pastor told me how Tony Campolo began calling himself a "red letter" christian instead of evangelical, because the term "evangelical" has been hi-jacked by political groups. The very term "evangelical" is associated with that which is fundamentalistic, Republican, conservative, reactionary, militaristic, anti-intellectual, white and American, that it has lost some of its deepest value as "eu-aggelios" good news.
So Campollo says he is a "red-letter" christian in that he follows the red letters (versions of the Bible that highlight Jesus's words in red ink). Then, my friend said, but I could not verify, Bono and the Gap have created the HIV/AIDS campaign with RED clothing, an indirect allusion to red-letter christians.
I'm not sure what to think about it all; marketing, words of Jesus over actions, gospels over epistles, the Jesus only believers reacting against church structures. But, hey, it is interesting.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Empty Nest Re-filled

Life as an empty-nester has some real joys: food stays in the refrigerator longer, laundry does not pile up like a Minnesota snowstorm, stuff is where you last left it, the house is quiet around 10 pm, the sink is not continually filled with dishes, the kids are now adults pursuing their own dreams as adults.
This Thanksgiving, all three kids (now full-blown adults) showed up as a surprise (see blog below). Now this morning, with Martha flying off to see her mom and dad, and Luke on the road back to Eugene, and the other two sleeping in, the house has this wonderful afterglow or harmonic overtone of a well-spent holiday. After Thanksgiving meal, we gathered in the courtyard between the house and church and played a French ball-tossing game called "petanque". How fun to just hang around together, laughing, teasing, competing, telling stories. The truth washed over me as I took the photo how incredibly rich I was. If I got hit by a truck this afternoon and died, it's all in the profit column for me. To see kids in the early blooming of their career paths and enjoying each other's company as adults is a sweet experience I do not deserve, but deeply enjoy. That they exert huge effort and expense to travel across the country to their "new home" lessens the sense of loss I felt as we moved. Our friends here are becoming their friends. Their rooms are taking shape as their own spots when they come. Landmarks get more familiar, favorite restaurants are now requested.
In microcosm that's what worship is; the nest being refilled for a moment. We are flying on our own, doing our adult things as we should. But then there is the call, the longing, the ache to be with brothers and sisters around the Table, under the Word, singing, praying, confessing, encouraging. I'm glad to be a spiritual empt-nester. I don't want believers not being able to be out in the world on their own. I rejoice in the spiritual adult-hood of believers, leading, teaching, guiding others on their own without dependancy on me as their pastor. But oh how wonderful when we gather back together for a moment.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Parental Gift

In my closet are four expensive pieces of clothing: sweatshirts from Michigan Technological University, University of St. Thomas, North Park University, and Hope College. These were the univesities and college my children attended. They all are great institutions and served my children well. But they were also expensive. Together with each child, we worked out how much we would pay and how much they would earn/save/borrow to get them through. Martha, my wife, devoted her income to funding their education.
But each institution made us pay for a sweatshirt! We are proud of our children's choice of different educational institutions and willingly participated in the cost (growing way beyond the consumer price index). And my thought now, to institutional people is: give each family their choice of 2 sweatshirts FREE. Give a mom and dad a coupon (like Barnes and Noble does) that they can redeem at the store or on-line for their sweatshirt. They've paid enough already, give away a token gift. Look at the math ($25,000 per/year for tuition/room/board vs 2 sweatshirts at $40 per/shirt???). It's a no-brainer.

Devious Children

Holidays far from children and family have been the toughest thing about living in California. This year only our oldest son, Isaac, was able to schedule a flight to be with us over Thanksgiving. We met him at the airport yesterday, had lunch, walked the beach and felt so, so good about having our son with us. We delight in the independence of our adult children. We don't want them on a leash, but we do miss seeing, hugging, and touching them.
After dinner last night, Isaac and I took a long, meandering walk through the deserted Westmont campus, talking about the random stuff a dad and son talk about. When we got home, he suggested we watch a movie he brought along. So we settled in for a full-length movie while Martha worked in the kitchen with Thanksgiving prepration.
About 9:30, with Martha now in bed, my phone rang. It was Luke in Euegen, calling to thank us for his birthday gift that just arrived. He asked if Isaac arrived yet and if he could talk with his brother. They talked for a while and then Isaac gave me back his phone, so he could go make a call (I think to a woman). When phone calls were done, we were about to go back to the movie when Isaac said "Dad, could we go outside and talk? There's something I need to tell you." That sounded ominous. Maybe an upcoming engagement, job change, lifestyle choice or mistake?!!? Who knows with a statement like that? We walked out into the patio and he said, I need to show you something out in the driveway. Driveway? What would be in the driveway?
I opened the gate, and there, standing together in the dark were Luke and Liz, our other son and daughter. Luke drove down from Oregon all day and picked up Liz at the airport. The three of them had conspired secretly to surprise us. But Martha still was in the dark, literally. So Isaac went into the bedroom where Martha was tucked in reading and began some small-talk. Motioning to the sliding patio door, Luke's and Liz's faces filled the door and Martha let out a squeal! What a reuinion of hugging, laughing and joy.
We all stayed up late, visiting, eating, and finishing the movie together (the guys). Now in the early morning, the kids are sleeping in and I'm feeling as full as a dad can feel with all of his "devious children" at home for the weekend.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Giving Up on George Barna?

In a conversation with a friend recently, he read that George Barna (my neighbor in Ventura) is "giving up on the organized church" and instead opting for house-churches. I understand that, if it's true. The local, organized, denominationally affiliated church is full of problems, slow to move and full of pretty strange people. It's cluttered with committees and its pastors are always flying off to some denominational or conference task force that has very little to do with people back home. Back home, parking lot discussions often get heated about new furnishings or why kitchen cutlery was rearranged without proper authorization. Parts of the sanctuary are too cold, too hot, and too dark to sing. It's hard to get folks to serve refreshments after church and the ones whose kids eat the most seldom step forward to help. Oh yeah, I get it. There are times I'd like to walk straight away as well from honking sound of angry ducks, nipping at my legs.
But then, who would visit a grandmother in the hospital facing surgery? Who would teach the squirmy 13 year old about Israel learning to trust God in the wilderness journey? Who would lead a Bible study for hungry adults? Who would participate in a World Vision program to send out 1,000 care kits to care givers of AIDS patients in Jesus' name? Who would have a cup of coffee with a college student pondering their future or an adult jjust coming to terms with their alcoholism?
I know house churches are intimate and informal, freed of larger bureacracy. But they can also be elitist, invitation only. They propbably don't span as wide a generational bridge as the local church does. And the cool thing about the frumpy local church is that when a person who has given up on the local church needs a hospital visit or care for a dying relative....We're here. We don't give up.
I do not mean to besmerch George Barna in any way. Maybe he has not given up on the local church. But I know those who have for all the reasons I've mentioned. Maybe part of my reaction is as a practioner in the trench to ivory tower speculators, who analyze numbers, spot trends and make predictions. We need them (you), but I wish you'd spend more times in pastors' shoes and catch the toughness of the call and the adventure in the ordinary.

College President/CEO

On page A-16 of November 20 NYT's there is an intriguing headline: "Pay Packages for Presidents Are Rising at Public Colleges." The article has several themes: about the disparity between presidential pay and that of the faculty, about the difficulty recruiting college presidents and their diminishing tenure, and the changing character of what it means to be a college president.
Roger Bown, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors is quoted as saying "Presidents now are CEO's. You no longer have treasurers, you have chief financial officers; you no longer have deans, you have chief academic officers. Faculty play the role of labor, students play the role of customer." The article then continued to say that there is "....a shift in emphasis from educational achievement to financial management."
Is the same shift happening in the church? Are Senior Pastors now Lead Pastors with attendant CFO's? Are pastoral staff seen as labor and the members/attenders as customers? Is that an OK shift or is there something spiritually toxic about that paradigm?
What about at denominational levels, when there is such pressure to raise funds. What is the emerging role of an institutional president? Hmmm.

Expect to be Quoted

Do you know that you are repeated? I know I am, as are others. As a new pastor in a new community, I am the adjusting "newbie". I am the one who does not pronounce names correctly or know who legendary names are. I'm the one who does not know community traditions and customs. I'm the one who gets lost. I'm the one who does not know about long-held hurts and wounds. It's both painful and fun. It's fun being ignorant of all the rules and being able to plow ahead into new territory.
Because I learned long ago that I should expect to be quoted, and misquoted, I try to judge my speech judiciously and graciously. I expect to have what I say about others repeated. Isn't that a good thing? Should not our words be repeatable?
The other day I had to confess to a pastor-friend that I had been holding a grudge against him for a slight I felt. I told others about my hard feelings, but did not tell him. After a couple of months, I felt like such a hypocrite. I was teaching direct conversation from Matthew 18, but was not practicing it myself.
So, in a random phone conversation I said. "Do you have a few minutes to hear my confession?" He said "Sure." And I proceeded to tell him, to his face (or voice) what I had been holding and telling others, but not him. It felt right and good for me to tell him what, I'm guessing, he already heard from others I'd been saying about him. Now we are in a place of reconciliation and clarification.
Among pastors and denominational leaders, I think there is a long way to go here. We are civil and polite, but not always honest. We value loyalty and team-play, but not honest critique. I do not have a solution to this problem other than person-by-person, case-by-case. I need to demonstrate to my critics that their criticism of my and my gaffs will not render them to the out-cast party of disloyalists. Pastors need critics to be their friends and loyal adversaries.

Needed: Lectionary Emergency Assistance

I might as well admit it now. I lost track of time. As an admitted lover of the liturgical year, with its nuances and sounds, symbols and gestures, I felt at home within the confines of the cycle of lectionary readings. The overlapping texts of Old Testament story and Gospel narrative were bookended with the Psalms and Epistles. It was an adventure to dig into the four texts to find the flow and golden cord holding them together.
Then I left my homeland, Minnesota and the midwest to be sure, but also the lectionary and liturgical year. Instead we are going through the "heilsgeschicte" or holy-history of the Bible. We began last January with the "big" story from the Old Testament. The response was tremendous. The members loved having the Sunday sermons hold together in such a basic way (which is, I think, the intention behind the lectionary readings in the first place). So we began in September to tell the story of Jesus, Sunday after Sunday; incarnation, birth, baptism, temptation, exorcism, teachings, healings, money, anger, and parables. If you look at the church blog site (www.mcchurch.org), you can see how the altar-pieces were creatively designed to fit with the theme. Again, response from the congregation has been strong to the point of overwhelming.
But, we decided to honor two seasons of the church year in the middle of this series: Advent and Lent. So last Sunday, November 19th I preached on the Parables of Jesus in Luke 14: 15-24 about the great banquet, which fit well with Thanksgiving Coming and Christ the King, who invites us to the banquet. Then we were ready to launch Advent this week, preaching four Sundays of Advent with the 5th being Christmas Eve. All was working smoothly until my good friend from Illinois told me that THIS Sunday was Christ the King and Advent did not begin until December 3rd!! I did not quite believe him because he preaches more series than lectionary (like I used to) so I called the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches in the area and....I found out he was right and I was wrong.
Therefore, I think a Liturgical Hot-line is needed for those of us living off-the-grid of the lectionary year and readings. What will we do? Well, Christ was on the throne before last week, is on the throne this week, and remains on the throne next week. We will stay with the parables of Jesus and create a fresh service (with a little bit of egg on my face!)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Osage City, Kansas

Thirty miles south of Topeka, Kansas in the north-eastern corner of Kansas sits the little town of Osage City. It was a town founded by the railraods criss-crossing the United States. The land is flat and hard, hot in the summer and biting-wind cold in the winter.
In the mid-1800's a little church was established there and they called a Covenant pastor, Rev. J. G. Princell from Princeton, Illinois to be their pastor. The church grew and prospered, and Rev. Princell wrote back to his friends in Illinois how great and cheap the land was. So a number of his former members and friends moved out to Osage City. But the land near the city was now cultivated, and available land was 7 miles out in a little town called Stotler. So his friends did move, settle, establish homes and a church, and called him, their old pastor, to come and serve them.
The city church never forgave the country church for "stealing" their pastor. For a hundred years the city church resented the country church for its youth, its size and its vibrancy. It was to this church that I was sent on my internship from North Park Theological Seminary in 1978. I was married for 3 years and we now a 1 year old son. My confindence began high and I got hammered. Nothing I tried worked. I would call my dad and tell him about a situation I was going through and he often said something like "That NEVER happened to me before" which actually made me feel better, that this was a unique situation.
Today I referenced Osage City in my sermon on Luke 14:14-24. It was where I first heard Garrison Keilor do his monologue on Lake Wobegon and Pastor Engkvist. It was so compelling, so real, I wept that November night doing dishes, knowing that I was not alone. Keilor told stories about churches and pastors only those of us on "the inside" know about. Somehow he has learned the password and the 'secret handshake" of this strange club of clergy-persons.
I did not think anyone from beautiful Santa Barbara would connect with Osage City. Wrong! After the sermon 2 people told me their stories of families who had roots in Osage City. They had no painful and bitter memories, but warm, agrarian memories of farms and cow, tractors and hay-bales. They had memories of hard-working immigrants who sacrificed for their children, who loved their country and were not impressed with 'fancy" stuff.
It's kind of easy to think that where I am is where everyone else envies and where others are is fodder for punch lines to jokes. Not so. Every place is precious to someone. California is not full of "fruits and nuts." Minnnesota is not overrun by mosquitos and snow-storms. The south is not the domain of red-necks and the east coast is not dominated by Ivy Leaguers. Every place is precious because every place has people in it for whom Christ died and rose again.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Beyond Emergent...Japanese hymnody

Last Thursday night, our little choir got together to rehearse our one anthem for this Sunday's worship. We were down in numbers, but maybe some folks will show up and surprise us on Sunday. I just hope they know the piece we are singing, otherwise and anthem can turn into a horse race, with some finishing earlier than others. But we have fun together: 2 basses, 2 tenors, 2 sopranos and 4 altos last week.
But after our one hour rehearsal, the choir director, who is a superb music theorist, has asked me to give her a list of hidden nuggets in the hymnal, meaning hymns this church has probably never ever sung. Now I have a list of hymns that we sang in Minneapolis or the choir would sing. But there is one hymn in the hymnal I never recall singing anywhere.
It's a Japanese hymn composed by Taihei Sato (pictured above...I hope). The title is "Why Has God Forsaken Me" (#237 in the Covenant hymnal) which is not exactly an opening, uplifting up-tempo hymn. It's a hymn that belongs in a very particular place; embracing grief. The lyrics, by Bill Wallace, begin with Jesus' familiar words on the cross, then to the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus death itself, then the fourth stanza: "Myst'ry shrouds our life and death but we need not be afraid, for the myst'ry's heart is love, God's great love which Christ displayed." The mystery's shroud is love!
The music is fantastic. Withou understanding music theory, it has that mysterious tonality associated with the East, minor withour being dour and droopy. We sang through it and said together, "tonight was worth it just to hear this hymn." I wish we had more truly multi-cultural music to access from the worship depth of other churches in other lands. How great would it be to have the hymnal on-line and addable, like wikipedia??

4 X 50 X 1,000 X 20 X 7 for Jesus

The four churches based in Montecito: Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Covenant got together with World Vision to conduct a joint project that did not serve ourselves. So today about 50 people from each church gathered together, watched a video about what these simple care kits do, and sipped on coffee and talked together as neighbors.

Then we formed up in lines and assembled in an assembly-line manner small plastic "briefcases" with the items. Each person was asked to assemble about 5 or 6 from 9:00 till noon. A large team of volunteers "fed" products to the tables so each person could pack their kit.

Then, the last and most important component was the hand-written prayer by the packer for the care-giver who would take these kits to about 7 persons with HIV/AIDS. The kits last about 3 months per/person. All morning long I saw whole families sit down and carefully write their prayer for the care giver. In a few months a Christian care-giver trained by World Vision will be walking with their kits and prayers into desparate villages in Rwanda. And the cost? about $17.50 for supplies and $2.50 for shipping!

Then, when all 1,000 kits were packed back into shipping boxes and set on pallets, we all gathered around and laid our hands from our four churches in the one name of Jesus and prayed them off. How much fun was that??
One of the area pastors approached me with wide eyes and said, "If we tried to organize an ecumenical thankgiving service, we might have 12 people show up. Look at this! Hear the buzz!" And she was right. We don't want to get together to talk about how great it is that we are in a room together. We want to do something for God's kingdom as one body with our very different parts. I believe the watching and skeptical world wants to know if we care about anyone other than ourselves? Today was a delightful way to say, it's not about us, it's about God's children in need.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Invited to a Feast

Who does not like a feast? I have blogged about eating my way through Santa Barbara in homes and restaurants, outside, on the beach, at weddings, graduations, and all sorts of reasons in between. My eating is now making my belt shrink. But I haven't stopped eating. I've had calimari spaghetti, lobster tacos, new Mexican foods and all sorts of grilled vegetables. It's fabulous.

When I've been invited to a wonderful feast, I have a hard time refusing great food, conversation and music. But in the text for Sunday from Luke 14, a great banquet is refused by its guests for the dumbest bunch of reasons. Over and over again the servants try to get guests to attend. Can you imagine your Thanksgiving invitation being refused by your invited guests because they had to go look at dirt or watch cows plow? Come on! Yet refuse they did. But the master would not let a great feast go to waste, and neither will God. God's going to have his party and the table will be filled!

Warning: Do NOT finish the list

Some men gathered after Bible study today just talking and the topic got around to lists. I ventured into dangerous territory when I asked some questions. #1 Who writes the lists? #2 Do they ever write lists for their wives? #3 What happens when the list is completed? Is there a reward?
To a man, we found that we wrote some of our own lists, but to a man we were also given lists that our spouses compiled. They werre not onerous or harsh. Often they consisted of things we were happy to accomplish and did not know needed attending. We all had a delight in knocking items off the list, getting them done. Sometimes, we bragged, we could eliminate two things in one action (high fives to that one!).
But, when I asked if they ever wrote lists for their wives...there was a long silence and we all looked at each other's shoes. "That's not how it works" one guy said. It just did not seem to us a thing a husband did to (or for) his wife unless he was adding to a shopping list. Task list? Forget it. We are given lists.
Then, the tougher question about what happens when a list is done. There were no celebrations or parties. No one said "OK, now it's time to grab a favorite beverage and go watch a game for the rest of the day/evening." Instead, to a one, we said that the reward for finishing a list...was a new list.
Now tell me, where's the incentive to finish the list. I suggest delaying the completion of the list as long as possible with good excuses like: "I need to head down to Home Depot for another ________." or something creative. This is not mysogyny I hope. It's just one of those gender differences that is, pretty funny to me. But still, be careful and don't finish the list.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

It's the Compression

Outside of an In & Out Burger he sat, crumpled up in clothes he'd worn too many days, panhandling for change and food. During out dinner, I saw a number of folks drop him some change, give him a cigarette, or in one case a bag full of food. Behind me today, at the coffee shop where I was meeting someone, a new Ferarri pulled in as another wanderer drove by on his bicylce loaded with all his gear. Six figures for a car and penniless side by side. Both of them mysteries. Both of them with full stories to tell. But it does make my brain ache, trying to graps hold of that kind of range.
My prayer is for inner balance and quiet to not take unwarranted shots either direction. To treat the commmunity as precious, but also to speak of God's call for justice and righteousness. I know my wealthy and poor friend are both sinners in need of grace and forgiveness. I get distracted by both ends of the continuum, but also feel called to be pastorally present there. Stretched or compressed?
I recall a wise church financial secretary named Harold Gustafson told me something on his death bed. He said "It's never who you think it is." By that me warned me to never judge or think I knew who was practicing sacrificial stewardship. He also said "I know what's happening in their walk with Jesus before you do. It's reflected in their giving first. If there is unfaithfulness, giving drops off first. If there is revival, giving picks up." Harold was right in that I'll never know anyone's whole steardship story, nor should I. I am not assigned to be the judge-evaluator, but pastor grace-bringer to a hard world. But it's still the compression!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Why I Can't Vacuum

It came to me this afternoon. I wanted to be a supportive husband. Saturday is Martha's designated day for house-cleaning. Beds are stripped, laundry is washed, bathrooms are scrubbed (not that they get that dirty with just two of us, but that's another matter). Furniture is dusted, windows get washed and the entire house gets vacuumed. Today I offered to do all the vacuuming. Martha agreed with the stipulation that I do it thoroughly. "Of course" I answered. And I went and got the vacuum cleaner (a 2 year old blue Miele model that cost a lot of money!!).
I set it up in the back bedroom plugged it in and took off. Each room I approached with a goal of speed and efficiency. Under the furniture or move it? change the head before the rugs, or just go straight on over them? Which way through a room is the most effficient use of the cord before re-locating it to another outlet?
I was amazing!! I flew from one room to another, out the hall, into the family room, nailing bathrooms along the way. I hit the dining room and living room using only two plugs (plug changing is to vacuuming what pits stops are to stock-cars).
Bang! I was done with the whole house in about 5 minutes. The problem was that Martha was not all that impressed with how fast I could drive the Miele. When I talked about my theory of cleaning to her, she had the audacity to say that cleaning had nothing to do with efficiency and speed??

A picture of Worry

We were sipping coffee outside at D'Angelo's this morning, trying to figure out how to make an altar-piece that told the story of Jesus' call for us to "not worry" in Matthew 6:25. I gave Martha and Jeanne the image in my head of all the tangles of worries that can distract and clutter our lives and the high contrast between the many worries and the focussed seeking of the Kingdom of God.
Well that was all it took as they brainstormed colors and textures, objects and images. I had to get back to church for a meeting and when I got out after noon, the two women were in the parking lot and asked me to go take a look and tell them if it was OK. OK? It was great! When I took this picture the light was reflecting in from the stained glass windows, making the branches all the more distracting and bright. Worries are that way, bright, attention-getting and even allluring. But there, nestled in the chaos is a tight nest holding eggs securely. They pictured the Kingdom of God in the midst of the mess.
Now, if I can just preach it as well as they picture it!

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Gauntlet of the Lillies

My mother-in-law is bravely battling lung cancer and Republicans in far-away Richmond Virginia. A good friend of mine, a highly placed CEO with a strong track record was suddenly removed from his post for reasons unkown and is now wondering where he will go to work. Another friend's almost adult child is going through enormous inner turmoil and wants her family to stay out of it. Another friend battles mental and physical illness and has just recently been living out of her car before being admitted to a group home. This week God opened my eyes to a number of friends going through tough, tough times.
And the text before me is Matthew 6:25 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry...." What? Two types of cancer in both lungs and don't worry? A wandering child alone...don't worry? How dare I get into the pulpit and throw out the phrase "don't worry" to folks who are not fretting about trivial things (that's an easy one to hammer) but about really big gnarly things. Will the cancer come back? Do I have a life ahead of me or should I get the funeral ready? Will my child ever come home again? Have I failed as a professional and husband? Whew! These are big and legitimate worries.
One friend in this pile met me this week and said, I'm coming to church hungry and I know your text. Don't give me throw-away lines, I'm drowning here!
So, look to the lillies, the birds and the gift of life itself. Where does prudent care, even legitimate agony end and needless worry begin? I think I'm heading to Jesus command to "seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness" as the only way to live with worry and hope, fear and courage, anxiety and trust, held together by that audacious word of Jesus.

Thursday, November 09, 2006


Ours is a small choir. Tonight it was large; about 12 people. We are rehearsing for Thanksgiving and Christmas services. Most of the singers are chorally hungry, persons who love singing complex parts and rhythms. While our church is predominantly contemporary in sound, there is a wonderful freedom for diferent groups to explore their own sounds, their own "voices." So it's been really fun for me to start singing in a choir again after a 21 year absence. I tap my foot to the cadence, trying to keep up and not get lost.
But tonight, our director asked me and Diana (our associate pastor) for some hymnal "nuggets" that we could all sight read for 30 minutes at the end of the practice. Since I'm preaching on "Doubt and Trust" from Matthew 6:25, I went to the hymnal and, along with Diana, sent our director several hymns I have not sung for years. One hymn we sang together was hymn #445 "We Search for Language to Explain" by Jeannette Lindholm. We sang it through once, getting the feel for it, then again. The lyrics are powerful witnesses to a faith that speaks truth:
"We search for language to explain the sorrow of our years, the pressing, neverending strain of crushing loss and fears. God's seeming deafness to our cries can lead us to despair, and yet a suff'ring Spirit sighs though we are unaware.
"God's silence sretches like the sea, consoling every shore, safeguarding tears of memory, of happiness, remorse. God's still, calm presence still sustains when words come to an end, Our God has promised to remain a loving, list'ning friend."
When we were done, none of us could speak. Eyes were red and we paused for that holy moment together. When text and tune come that close together, a spiritual harmonic was set loose and we savored a holy nugget.

Titles for Leaders

My devotions today bothered me. I am reading the works of Ignatius of Antioch, bishop around 69AD. His words as he is being transported across Turkey to a martyr's death in Rome just nailed me.
"For the work we have to do is no affair of persuasive speaking; Christianity lies in achieving greatness in the face of a world's hatred."
"He who died for us is all I seek; He who rose again for us is my whole desire."
"Do not have Jesus Christ on your lips, and the world in your heart."
Wow! He really meant those things and died those things. That level of faith I find compelling and humbling.
Then I opened a bulletin sent to me by a friend. What bothered me in the bulleting was the splashy display and repetition of titles, honorary titles of "Dr._______" and "Dr. ________" It almost looked like a competition of who had the best title among the gathered clergy. All sorts of "Doctors" but no PhD's. The problem for me is that in the congregations I have served (Lafayette, IN, Muskegon, MI and New Brighton, MN) we had large numbers of professors, physicians, dentists, and psychologists. None of whom insisted on being titled at church. You could not find a title in the directories. They wanted to be known by their names, not their degrees or positions. So what's with us pastors?
I bless my brothers and sisters who do advanced degree work with DMin and PhD degrees and those who are honored with honorary Doctors of Letters for careers or leadership. But I'm not sure it helps the cause as much as letters like Ignatius.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Outrage Fatigue?

There are some traditions I cherish: Thanksgiving turkey, Superbowl Sunday, 4th of July fireworks, and election-eve tv coverage. Yesterday our church was the poling site for the precinct. It was really fun to watch all day long as a steady stream of neighbors came through to do their civic duty. Out on the street and beyond were cars with taped signs advocating one cause or another. Baloons lined the street with hand-lettered sings with arrows saying "VOTE." All day long, from about 7 am till 8pm they came because it's the time for the individual voter to speak.
Then later last night as I watched complicated tv graphics turning dots from red to blue and graphs shifting in % points, with projected outcomes, results, implications, it was fun. It was fun listening to James Carville and William Bennet spin the same statistics different ways. It's amazing the power euphemisms bring. Losses become course re-directions and strategic moments for re-focussing. Narrow wins become mandates.
But what I heard this morning on a grocery store drive to restock breakfast cereal was the caution that we, as a nation, are suffering from "outrage fatigue." We have been scandalled to death: Iraq, Abu Grahb (sp?), Mark Folley, Ted Haggard, Enron, etc. We all know how "bad" it is. We are disgusted with people wasting time, money and lives. But, the commentator stressed, now is the time NOT to ramp up guilt-finding commissions, but instead focus on solution-making. Now is the time to get some positive momentum going with the economy, education, environment, international relations, North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Darfur, health-care, etc.
It's so much easier to rehearse why things are bad and whose fault it is (never mine but always my predecessor or current opponents). It's much tougher to cast a positive vision for the future. It's time.

Outrage Fatigue?

There are some traditions I cherish: Thanksgiving turkey, Superbowl Sunday, 4th of July fireworks, and election-eve tv coverage. Yesterday our church was the poling site for the precinct. It was really fun to watch all day long as a steady stream of neighbors came through to do their civic duty. Out on the street and beyond were cars with taped signs advocating one cause or another. Baloons lined the street with hand-lettered sings with arrows saying "VOTE." All day long, from about 7 am till 8pm they came because it's the time for the individual voter to speak.
Then later last night as I watched complicated tv graphics turning dots from red to blue and graphs shifting in % points, with projected outcomes, results, implications, it was fun. It was fun listening to James Carville and William Bennet spin the same statistics different ways. It's amazing the power euphemisms bring. Losses become course re-directions and strategic moments for re-focussing. Narrow wins become mandates.
But what I heard this morning on a grocery store drive to restock breakfast cereal was the caution that we, as a nation, are suffering from "outrage fatigue." We have been scandalled to death: Iraq, Abu Grahb (sp?), Mark Folley, Ted Haggard, Enron, etc. We all know how "bad" it is. We are disgusted with people wasting time, money and lives. But, the commentator stressed, now is the time NOT to ramp up guilt-finding commissions, but instead focus on solution-making. Now is the time to get some positive momentum going with the economy, education, environment, international relations, North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Darfur, health-care, etc.
It's so much easier to rehearse why things are bad and whose fault it is (never mine but always my predecessor or current opponents). It's much tougher to cast a positive vision for the future. It's time.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Classic or classy?

Martha had a conversation with an older woman the other day who was complimenting her on what she has been doing for the front of the sanctuary. Each week Martha and a friend arrange the altar in the apse of the chancel with arrangements that reflect, compliment and illustrate the text for the day. They are wonderfully creative. You can see some photos of them at the church web site in its blog category www.mcchurch.org.
When the woman talking to Martha got to her point, she said: "it's just that it makes the sanctuary so beautiful, so meaningful, so, so classy..." and then she put her hand over her mouth and said; "Ooops, I really shouldn't use a term like that. It sounds snobbish."
Martha and I had a long talk about our aversion to the word "classy" because it sounds so anti-egalitarian, elevating one person's tastes over the tastes of another and, we all know, tastes are subjective and neutral. Or are they? Is there a difference between "classic" and "classy" and "snobbish"? I think so.
I think we have llumped "classic" with "classy" and "snobbish" to our loss. The column in the photo is classic. It is a style of architecture that is defined and lasting. It has survived many style changes and people keep returning to it. So is a while shirt or pearls on black. There are classical styles of music and classical authors like Shakespeare and Plato. You just can't ignore the classical. They are the foundations upon which modern and contemporary is built and based. It does not mean they must dominate, but they have survived and endured.
Classy and snobbish are different in that they are self referential and usd to self-elevate. When those in power or affluence want to demonstrate their status, they flaunt some thing or another: clothing, jewelry, housing, boats, cars or numbers of books published. Those do not necessarily endure. The classic lasts.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Preaching on Sex

Yesterday I preached on Matthew 5:27-30. It was not a knee-jerk reaction to the tragedy of Ted Haggard, but part of a series on the life of Jesus. We have been going through the Gospels looking at the big themes of Jesus's life: birth, baptism, temptation, call of disciples, Jesus on money, the Beatitudes, Jesus on anger, and last week Jesus on sex.
What hit me so hard as I translated the passage was the word for "lust" the Greek word "epithumia". It is also translated "desire", "hunger for" "really want". It can be a good or bad term, depending on context. Then, to my surprise, I discovered that "epithumia" is also the Greek word in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) for the word "COVET." To covet is to lust and to lust is to covet.
The process is critical for us as believers to be aware of. God tells me what is mine to steward and what is NOT mine. All is OK if I respect those boundaries and borders. The problems comes in when I get overly curious about what is not mine, and begin to examine, explore and fantacize about it. That's both lust and coveting. And the more I focus on what is not mine, wanting it and obsessing about it, the more disatisfied I become with what is mine. And the nouns and object do not really matter.
For guys primarily, the problem is pornography. I did some awfule exploration about the scope and extent of the industry. Just go visit www.protectkids.com and you will be overwhelmed by this monster. But it all goes back to looking at, dwelling on that which is not mine to have: sex with another woman (or man) who is not married to me.
But this is not just a man's problem. In talking with a number of women prior to the sermon, I heard from them about the deep issue of beauty. Women want to be called and felt beautiful. I don't dare try to explain this, but the logic kind of works. Our whole culture really nails women with messages about how NOT beautiful they are as they are now. They are too fat, too wrinkled, to frumpy, too unsuccessful. But (the advertiser) has just the product they need to restore a sense of beauty, worth, value and meaning to their lives. I threw out the notion that if a person (female or male) was living with a chronic sense of dissatisfaction with what God has given them, and they are restlessly hungry for more: that's coveting and that's lust.
But it all comes back to borders and boundaries; of what's real and what's not real; what's mine and what's not mine. I live in a community with some exotic cars on the loose. I see Bentleys and Ferraris all the time. But guess what? They are not mine to want. Cool, pretty, sleek and fast...but not mine. I have a really nice Jetta. That's mine.

In Tribute of Great Artists

Life around here has taken on a melancholy tone since we heard that my wife's mother has been diagnosed with cancer in both lungs. In her early 80's, this is tough news. Both my wife and mother-in-law are artists, Martha a printmaker and her mom, Ruth, a painter and printmaker. Both knew they would be artists at age 3 or 4. Both have a singular vision for creativity. They are both best friends and competitors. I can't help but draw parallels to my dad and me (and my brother). We are all pastors in the same denomination and speak to each other at a depth level that others cannot appreciate. The thought of losing a parent/peer/colleague is a searing thought, though the reality of this world

So, what hit me this weekend, in those late Sunday evening reflective hours when my brain is spent from preaching, teaching and conversing, was how unsung great artists are. This was made especially poignant by the NYT's magazine spread on Kiki Smith, New York artist and printmaker. When I asked Martha about her, she brought out a book of Kiki's work and talked about their similar themes and paths. But what makes one artist "found" "known" and others working with relative anonymity? I'm not sure. I don't begrudge great artists, but there are so many more out there. Not unlike pastors, teachers, musicians and others. The few hit the spotlights (for good or ill) and the many labor along.
The older I get, the more I am aware that I am living with and married to a really great artist. So, here's to great artists, wherever you are!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Anonymous4...must get!

Can you wear grooves in a cd? Martha and I picked up Anonymous 4's latest album "Gloryland" and can hardly stop playing it. These four women and two men instrumentalists have a whole album of gospel and folks hymns from early American heritage music. While I'm not a musicologist, I do read that this is classically shape-note singing both acapella and instrumented.
It hit me even harded tonight as I listened to "A Prarie Home Companion" as it ended, and they all begani singing old songs and hymns. I'm hungry for hymnic memory. This week we learned that my wife's mom is now fighting cancer again, and it makes life so much more fragile and tender. A gospel hymn that is so strong on the album for me is: "Where We'll Never Grow Old". "I have heard of a land on the far away strand. Tis a beautiful home of the soul; Built by Jesus on high, there we enver shall die, Tis a land where we never grow old." Then the refrain sounds; "Never grow old, never grow old. In a land where we'll never grow old; Never grow old, never grow old, In a land where we'll never grow old."
Won't that be nice...really? When the time comes when age and illness will not ravage...and where we'll never grow old.

Jesus on Sex

The lectionary has been a part of my life for 20 years. I love the flow and rhythm of the texts and the church year, the big story overlapping my story and the story going on in the life of the churches I have served. I love the interconnection of texts and songs, colors and symbols.
So to leave the assigned lectionary last year felt like I was abandoning ship. But the reason I(we) left the lectionary was a growing awareness that the avearge church member did not "get" the big story, did not get the heilsgeschicte of Old and New Testament. The 4 texts assigned out of various traditions were too subtle and sometimes, if a pastor alternated between Psalm, Epistle, Gospel and Old Testament, the person in the pew did not see the connection one Sunday to the next. So, we went overt: telling the story of the Old Testament from January to May. It was huge, overwhelming, foolish! Trying to spend one Sunday on creation and the next on sin was wild. But the response has been so strong. In addition to the cohesive topics, my wife Martha and her good friend JeanneHeckman installed altar-pieces to visually focus each worship service on the text. These I have photographed and blogged on at the mcchurch.org blog site.
The congregational attendance has grown and the comments have come back to me how much they appreciate getting the story in sequence. So, this past Fall we began to go through the life of Jesus the same way, only taking all year to do it: birth, baptism, temptation, call, etc.
For the past three weeks we have been examining Jesus' teaching style and topics: Beatitudes (blessed brokenness) Anger, and tomorrow "Lust." It's been an awful week, wrestling with a heart issue that is so destructive and alluring at the same time. Then the new of Ted Haggard hit the fan.
So the gift of the altar-piece this Sunday was particularly meaningful with its simple and elegant beauty in a tangled world of yuck. The essence of the text is gratitude. Gratitude is the polar opposite of both Lust and Covetting. When I lust and covet, I want what is not mine, nor should be mine. Yet the more I want "it" the more dissatisfied I become with all that God has already given me. If the problems you and I have can be solved by a check, they really are not problems. Lord teach me to be grateful for all you have supplied.

Friday, November 03, 2006

"Be careful out there"

I loved watching "Hill Street Blues" years ago, the first gritty tv drama by Steven Bochko (sp?). I particularly liked how the show began, with station roll call and wise old Sgt. Phil basically outlining the show and what the force would face that day, concluding with his fatherly warning to the police-men and women, "Hey!" he'd yell "Be careful, it's dangerous out there!" or some variation on that phrase.
Ted Haggart's fall into the media assault makes me sad. Did he do what is claimed? I don't know, nor should I. From the little I heard from him, he was a moderate voice in a formerly strident organization. He was a sr. pastor of a 14,000 member church and he is younger than I am. Pressure? Stress? Temptations? Lonely? Isolated? Misunderstood? I'm sure all of the above and more. But the ripple effect is so devastating to so many who were part of his family, staff, and church community.
I'm preaching on Matthew 5:27-30 this Sunday and have been living with the greek word "epithumeo" : "desire", "lust", "covet", "want what is not yours to have" and I ache. It's dangerous out there, for everyone. There are so many different voices telling us what we deserve, are entitled to, really need, ought to have, should have, must have, blah, blah, blah. It's a dinning chorus that sounds uniquely in each of our ears. Our affluent culture allows us to pursue things our parents and grandparents never could have been tempted by. Our media assaults our senses with delightful images of food, clothing, and all sorts of "things of the flesh." And the sad thing I discovered in my reading and praying is the dynamic that the more I want what is not mine to have, the less I appreciate what God gives me to enjoy. The more I covet/lust, the more I am telling God that what he has provided me is really insufficient: formica counters just won't due...must be marble. The Jetta really needs to be replaced by an Audi. Shopping is so much better in Nordstroms than Target. A new tie would be much more dignified than my old one. And a little botx injected right here would take away those unsightly age-lines. Because who I am is just not good enough.
Careful out there!

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