Monday, December 22, 2014

Jeff's personal update

Recovering from hip replacement surgery is a lot of work.

Not physical work, you understand, since there's very little I've been able to do physically for the last three weeks plus. Mostly just a lot of being unable to do stuff, but breathing hard anyway.

Like climbing stairs. Our house is a four-level split that was designed by a malicious physical therapist, I think, so that every time I want to do anything of consequence I have to go up or down a half dozen steps. Then for most of the last three weeks I'd stop and breathe for half a minute before proceeding.

It's gotten better, and everyone tells me I'm moving wonderfully. And I feel better than I did pre-surgery, so that's a good thing.

It just takes a long time to heal.

I've started back to work more-or-less full-time now, which means that I am mostly focused on preparing and delivering sermons. Thankfully, a lot of the administrative detail that usually demands my attention is a) being taken care of by others or b) hiding in the nooks and crannies until after New Year's. I'm happy with either solution at this point.

So to hit the particulars, for those who have been paying attention:

My swelling, so pronounced after surgery ("Does this surgery make my butt look fat?") has gone way down, in fact is pretty much gone. This is a great blessing.

My incision is healing nicely. Nobody really wants to see it even when I offer. That's probably good.

The anemia that has been my biggest problem is slowly, slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y going away. Iron supplements and a high protein diet and even liver and onions are doing what they can to bring me back to a normal state of hemoglobinness. (Spell Check decidedly does NOT like the word hemoglobinness.)

I'm starting to be able to do normal tasks again occasionally, like buying groceries, carrying firewood and moving storage bins and cooking chili. All of these have been attempted with great success. Sitting in a glider rocker, however, seems beyond me as yet since I got bucked off one yesterday afternoon. Amazing the reaction from a roomful of people when the hip surgery victim falls off his chair. No damage done except to my dignity. I have been persuaded that other normal tasks should not be attempted as yet, like moving furniture and climbing on the roof.

I have seen my physical therapist, and unlike most of his tribe he doesn't seem to take great delight in causing physical pain. He is, in fact, a long-time friend of our family and has a pretty good idea of my pain tolerance. So he told me, "You are a lot like my dad. His colon basically exploded and he said it was a little uncomfortable. So if your pain goes from a one to a four ... no, wait, a three ... I want you to stop doing these exercises." So far I haven't had to stop, except to breathe.

I am surrounded by the most wonderful people, from the very core (Julie and my family) and working outward. If love alone could heal a man, I'd be dancing. Well, I never have been much of a dancer. It's an expression.

I'm suffering a terrible internal debate about my annual observance of The End Of Bowhunting Season, which is one of the most notable holidays on my personal calendar. It happens to coincide with New Year's Eve in this part of the world and I'm debating if I'll be well enough to go sit in the woods. Of course, sitting in the woods, done properly, involves climbing into a tree stand. And a tree stand, properly set up, needs to be a far bit above the ground. See above about "normal tasks." The debate goes on.

Thanks for all the prayers and expressions of concern and sympathetic jokes. As I said above, if love alone could heal a man ...

In the meantime, today is the shortest / darkest day of the year. And in many ways, not in my personal world but in so many other ways, the world seems like a pretty dark place. I am wrapped and consumed in the joy of proclaiming Jesus this season -- Jesus who didn't come to be a cute Christmas-card cover, but rather who came to be the physical, human expression and form of God's love in the midst of God's creation. Jesus, whose arrival caused a slaughter of innocent children in the area around Bethlehem. Jesus, whose family became refugees, crossing the border (probably illegally) into Egypt. Jesus, over whom an old prophet spoke that he would be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel.

There's a lot to ponder this season. Catch your breath and take some time this dark evening to think about the one who comes as light into this world.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The rest of the fairy tale

And so the servants took hold of the king by his coat sleeves and began to drag him from the throne room as the foolish peasant watched. He began to laugh and to call after them, "Throw him into the street ..." However, the whole time the king, being dragged across the room, merely looked into the eyes of the peasant. He never once looked away, and the peasant sitting on the throne found himself unnerved by the steady gaze of his king.

Suddenly he could imagine his future -- a future of roast chickens and barrels of wine, a future of self-indulgence and meaningless gifts, a future of petty arguments and arbitrary commands. He saw that left to himself, his life would be purely and only about himself and that in the end, his selfishness would leave his lonely wife weeping and his lame brother limping and all the others in this kingdom without help, without hope.

"Stop!" he cried before he even knew what he was saying. He flung the golden goblet from his hand, spilling wine down the steps, and threw himself from the throne to lie wretched on the floor. "He is the king, he is the king," he called out. As the depth of his own foolishness and the callouses of his own arrogance and the wretchedness of his self-focused heart lay open before him, he began to weep, and to weep, and to weep. Wracked with sobs he lay on the flagstones before the empty throne.

At his words, "He is the king," the eyes of the servants were opened. They hastened to help the king back toward his throne, but he was already ahead of them running toward the peasant. Falling to the floor the king embraced the weeping fool.

"My lord, my lord, can you forgive me? I am a fool, my lord, and I have no excuse!" the peasant cried out. The king embraced the man even tighter and whispered, "And so you are no longer a fool, having seen your foolishness. All is forgiven. I have need of you in my kingdom. Will you serve me?"

And so the peasant became an ambassador for the king, utterly loyal to his master. The king returned to his throne and began to right the foolish wrongs the peasant had committed. Over time, the kingdom grew again and prospered and the word of the king's grace and generosity spread throughout the land.

When the peasant, now a royal ambassador, grew in authority and influence, the king declared him Prime Minister of the kingdom. Because he knew the king's grace and mercy so well the Prime Minister wept and laughed at the same time. And occasionally at feasts and among his closest friends, the Prime Minister of this great kingdom commented that he was not Prime Minister, but Chief Fool and Jester for his king. Those who heard him who knew the king laughed and wept with him for the understood both the joke and the truth.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time there was a foolish peasant who lived in a kingdom ruled by a wise, generous king. The king was taken away from the kingdom on business for a few days, and the peasant happened to wander into the throne room. (This was not unusual because the king was loved by his subjects and they had free access to him and to his palace.) At that moment, no one else happened to be in the throne room, and the peasant thought to himself how wonderful it would be to sit on the throne, just for a moment. He climbed up onto the throne and sat there, feeling proud, feeling like he himself was the king of the world. 
At that moment one of the king’s servants happened to wander into the throne room. Now it was customary in those days for the king’s servants never to look directly at the king, but they lived only for the goal of hearing his voice, serving the king well and fulfilling his commands. 
The foolish peasant, caught up in his foolishness, pretended to be the king himself. What would I want if I was a king? he thought. At once he blurted out to the servant, “Bring me a dozen cooked chickens and a barrel full of wine!” Much to the peasant’s surprise, the servant bowed and went off to get these things. Soon the servant came back with a table filled with a dozen cooked chickens and a small wagon hauling a barrel of the kingdom’s finest wine. The peasant began to stuff himself with these things. Soon he began to grow more and more foolish. 
The peasant thought of his wife, who sat home day after day weeping for loneliness. He told the servants her name and her location and said, “Bring her a golden harp and a flask of the finest perfume!” And it was done. He thought of his brother, who was lame in one leg and had to walk with a crutch, and who had no one to tend his garden or his animals. “Bring that man a crutch made of carven wood, inlaid with gold!” And it was done. 
Day after day the peasant went on indulging his own fantasies and showering ridiculous gifts on people without caring for their real needs. The resources of the kingdom were spent on things that were not really helpful, and those who had real needs became more and more neglected. 
One day the king returned to his kingdom and, in a quiet moment, walked in to the throne room where he found the peasant sitting on the throne, drinking from a golden goblet. The king stopped in front of the throne and said quietly, “I see you have become king. Will you come down that I might rule over you once again?”
The peasant started in fear, for he thought the king would have him slain immediately for his foolishness. But the king’s words quieted him and made him think: Did he really want to come down from the throne? The servants were now used to his voice and his unusual commands. What should he do?

At that moment one of the royal servants walked through the throne room. For just a moment the peasant hesitated. Then he called out boldly, “Servant! This man is mocking the king! Throw him out of the palace at once!”

Friday, November 14, 2014

Natural rhythms

It's mid-November as I write this, and I find myself thinking about the fact that rifle season for white-tailed deer is coming to an end in Minnesota. The rifle season is scheduled to coincide with the whitetail rut, which is really what I spend my time thinking about. Today I had to drive up to Rogers and passing little patches of woods along the way, I pondered the fact that in those woods, a massive stir is taking place. The bodies of does are coming into estrus, and bucks are wound up tighter than springs to find and breed them.

It's a natural cycle that goes on every fall like clockwork. You can wander the woods and field edges during the last week of October and see the evidence that the bucks are getting ready for the rut. They create scrapes, using antlers and hooves, along their most traveled trails. Urine and other scents mark these scrapes and they become a sort of bulletin board for the whitetail community. During the rut a buck will travel along those scrape lines and check out the scents of other bucks and of does who may be leaving scent messages.

Frequently a buck will find a doe that is not quite ready to breed and he'll begin chasing her through the woods. I've often seen these chases -- a buck scrambling along with his tongue literally hanging out of his mouth chasing a doe who looks more than a little frightened of him. Often such a chase careens right past a hunter. This is one reason why hunting seasons are scheduled as they are -- because wary bucks become a lot less wary during the breeding season.

Here's why I was thinking about this: It bothers me that there are these natural cycles going on around me all the time, and more often than not I'm unaware of them. The rut is totally dominating the whitetail deer population right now -- but even as I drive past the woods and fields where this is going on, I'm more concerned with whether I'll be on time to my next appointment, or whether the traffic on I-94 will be backed up. I live almost entirely disconnected from the natural world.

I often ask myself this question to gauge my connectedness: Without looking at a calendar, do you know if the moon is waxing or waning? At this moment, I don't. I haven't been outdoors to see the moon at night, or I haven't paid attention what phase it's in. Yet the moon and its phases is one of the most basic of all natural rhythms, and one of the most accessible. My schedule lately has been dominated by an artificial rhythm of meetings and banquets and appointments and social gatherings. All good things, but things that keep me from connecting with the natural world.

So I grieve for that disconnect. And this is a rhythm, too - because when I find myself grieving in this particular way, I know it's time for me to schedule some outdoor time, to go into the woods someplace and walk the deer trails, to reconnect, to see the crescent moon hanging in the sky just after sunset and watch the stars come out at night in different places than they were in August.

It's not a bad thing to live in the city -- but it separates me from a critical piece of my life. I need to get back to some natural rhythms.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Well, we've transitioned to winter since I last wrote on this blog. This year it was a little like flipping a switch -- we just went from fall to snow NOW!

So here's my thought lately. I'm not sure I'm ready to go very far out on this limb but maybe putting it out for you all to ponder with me will help.

I've been studying Matthew 6:19-34 for quite a while now. Actually, Matthew 6:25-34 is one of the first passages I remember ever studying in depth in a class at the Lutheran Bible Institute back in the fall of 1983. Inductive Bible Study with Josee Jordan. Good stuff. We picked out key words, questions, wrote in the margins, analyzed, pondered, circled back and reread until we had that passage totally pegged. Or so we thought. Little did I then realize that the Bible has greater depths than I can understand.

This weekend I'll be preaching -- the second installment in our three-part stewardship series -- on this passage. The title of the sermon is "Live in Trust."

So here's my potential heresy:

I believe Jesus calls us to simplicity. Maybe we're not all called to the radical simplicity of the Amish, though I think there's something gorgeous about that level of world-rejection. No, I think it's quite possible to be a Jesus-follower and use and iPhone. BUT here's my thesis: The more complex my life is, the more likely that I have fallen prey to idolatry somewhere along the way.

Of course I know it's possible to idolize simplicity, and that legalism and Pharisaism are quite possible in the quest for simplicity. Yet, I think Jesus calls us to a kind of hold-on-loosely simplicity that sees worldly goods as tools to be used, not toys to be accumulated.

So one simple question is, do you use your stuff, or do you accumulate it?  If you had to throw away anything you haven't used in two years, how much of your stuff would go in the trash?

I'm afraid I have some bins of tools in the garage that would be bound for the garbage.  That voltmeter that seemed like such a good investment would certainly be trash.

Or maybe I'd recycle it. Let's not be poor stewards.

What is the challenge of simplicity for the modern suburban life? And where do you draw the line to avoid simplicity becoming legalism?

Perhaps most important, does simplicity really help one to be a more single-minded Jesus follower?

These are a few of my favorite ponderings lately. I don't know the answers. I think that not having broadcast TV of any kind (cable, satellite, bunny-ears, etc.) in my house has simplified my life a bit. Of course, I can be on the internet anytime. Our attempt to go without wi-fi when we first moved in didn't last very long. I think I have more expendable time since I'm not following any NFL teams very closely this year. I haven't had a clue for a year or two about any new TV series starting up. (Julie and I had a brief dalliance with "Revolution" but NBC cancelled it last year, so I'm back to no TV.  Feels good.)

Probably an important question in all this is, What does one do with the extra time Simplicity provides? That opens a whole can of worms, doesn't it?

Curious what you think about all this. Is it possible to live a complex life (think: hectic schedules, multiple vehicles. multiple devices cross-linked to one another, multiple sources of information, etc.) and remain a single-minded follower of Jesus?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Apologies, once again

I have been most remiss in keeping up this blog lately. It seems like "real" life -- work and family mostly -- have taken over my spare hours. Lots of good things going on across all those fronts, but that leaves little time for creative writing.

I've been thinking some this week, in anticipation of Reformation Sunday coming up on the 26th, about the most commonly used gospel text for Reformation Sunday in the churches where I've served. It's from John 8, where Jesus tells the Jews who have believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." The Jews have an explosive negative reaction to that. "We are children of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone!"

Methinks they doth protest too much.

What was the hallmark story, the defining story of the Israelites?  The Exodus, of course.  Why did the Exodus story take place? Because the Israelites were SLAVES in the land of Egypt.  Once God set them free they had their own country for a while, then in 722 b.c. the Assyrians came and carted off the northern tribes. In 587 b.c. Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon did the same to the people of Judah. These Judahites (later to become known as "Jews") were slaves in the land of Babylon for 70 years. Then they were allowed to come back and reestablish Judah as a vassal (read "slave") state under Babylonian rule.  In the time of Alexander the Great, the Greeks took over and the Jews were enslaved under Greek rule. A little later the Romans took over and at the time Jesus walked this earth and at the time the gospels were written, the Jews chafed under Roman rule, enslaved to the Romans.

We are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.

Yeah, right.

Why is it so hard for us to see ourselves accurately?  Why do we have so little ability to recognize our own failings and foibles, our own arrogance or our own false humility?

Did you know you've never seen your own face? Think about it. You've seen reflections, images, photographs, but never your own face. You can't. You just can't.

It's similar with our own souls. We can't see ourselves accurately. So we need a word that comes from outside ourselves to properly diagnose us, to accurately portray us.

This is why so often we resist what God's Word says about us. We don't want to see ourselves that clearly. We don't want that accurate a picture. We don't want to face reality. We don't want to acknowledge our slavery.


If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed, Jesus says. The truth will set you free. The truth of who you are in Jesus, in his pronouncement about you. The truth of what he has done for you in bleeding and dying for you, because you desperately needed him to do so. Whether you believe it or not.

The truth is harsh and hard to accept.

The only thing worse is living a lie.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


I finally got through to the doctor's office today. It's been a frustrating, week-long game of phone tag -- for them and for me. I was in a couple weeks ago, had the x-rays, talked to the doc who used words like "congenital dysplasia" and said he'd be glad to give me a cortisone shot that would make my hip feel better for a couple weeks, but that's a temporary solution.

I've been limping on and off for a few years. Sunday mornings at church with all those hours of standing on concrete floors have been killers for me. (I'm definitely in the wrong line of work, right?) During those years of intermittent hip pain I've raced mountain bikes, jogged for miles, bowhunted from tree stands in the northern Minnesota swamps and while hiking up and down buttes in the North Dakota badlands. Not bad.

This summer my hip has been getting worse. So I finally started trying stuff. Some of you have heard rumors that I even attempted yoga. It's true. I submitted to the attentions of a chiropractor and a massage therapist, all in attempts to try to figure out what's going on. Along the way, my excellent chiropractor happened to mention that "if you have bone spurs or any kind of hip issue, all the massage and chiropractic in the world won't do you any good. So let me give you the name of an amazing orthopedic surgeon who specializes in hip issues. He can check you out."

When I saw this great doctor -- and I really believe he is, in part because he takes vacations in Tanzania and does scads of hip replacement surgeries there, giving life back to a whole lot of people who would otherwise remain crippled -- his first words were encouraging. "Your knees look great." But then he went on to describe my congenitally dysplasiatic hips and say, "You'll eventually need hip surgery."

So, I asked, who decides when it's time for surgery?

"You do," he said. "When the pain gets so bad you want the surgery, we can do it. Basically it will probably happen when you can't sleep at night."


So guess who hasn't been sleeping well lately? The last several nights it's taken hours of tossing and turning to finally get to a point where I can drift off deep enough that hip twinges don't wake me up again. Then the alarm goes off way too early.

So part of the adventure has been watching an online video of a hip replacement surgery. Not exactly what I'm going to have done, but pretty close. Fascinating. It reminds me of butchering the hindquarter of a deer, something I'm quite familiar with.

I called in to reserve my particular date on the operating table. Seems a little weird.

It also makes me incredibly thankful, when I dig into various kinds of hip surgery and realize just how far this technology has come in the last few years. Pretty amazing.

In the meantime, though, I spent a few days last week limping carefully through the woods up north, carrying my new Black Widow recurve and looking for whitetails. I climbed in and out of a few tree stands, and came within a few seconds of arrowing a nice eight-point buck. It was a good trip in the fall woods.

Recovery time will keep me from doing much hunting later in the season. I might miss my annual New Year's Eve celebration on my deer stand. So I'll have to try to make good use of October, before my surgery is scheduled.

I don't have much for deep ponderings about all this, except to say that I'm spending time lately thinking about how it affects people (me in particular) to live with pain, and how God uses that pain to shape us in ways we probably don't want to be shaped. Holiness, not happiness, right?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

September days

I have to confess that I absolutely love these sunny late September / early October days. There is nothing quite like this time of year. The leaves are just starting to turn and the early morning air has a tangy feel / smell that is hard to define, but exquisite to experience. U2 recently came out with a song that includes the line, "Stolen days are just enough." Feels a little like that these days -- these gorgeous days are stolen from the advancing tide of frost lines and snowdrifts, transitory and precious beyond measuring.

In some ways we would do well to pay attention to these sensations. It is our own lives that are precious, our own moments that are stolen from an advancing tide of decay and death, and (to quote Tennyson) "all experience is an arch wherethro' gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades for ever and forever when I move."

So these September days remind us of the glorious, precious nature of our lives. Julie and I sat yesterday morning with a dear friend who is in the last days of his earthly life, and we all delighted in each others' company and said some of the things that need to be said in love and appreciation and gratitude. Life is a gift. 

Perhaps there is a touch of grief in this transitional time. We see the leaves change and we are sorrowful, just a little, for the change of seasons. Gerard Manley Hopkins drove right to the heart of these emotions in his poem "Spring and Fall: To a young child". Mercilessly truthful, he points out the reality that it is not the leaves that make us weep, but it is ourselves we mourn for:

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for. 
So enjoy these halcyon days, the last of summer, the first of fall. Revel in the treasure that is your life. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Therapeutic massage

Caution: this post runs the risk of crossing the line into TMI.

I have never been a fan of massages. Receiving them, that is. It's just not the way I like to relax. So when the chiropractor told me that I really needed an hour of therapeutic massage on my psoas (pronounced SO-AZ) muscle, I was less excited than resigned. But I have been fighting a nasty case of hip pain lately, and I'm about desperate for anything that will allow me to walk normally instead of gimping around like my left foot has exploded.

Let me tell you a little about the psoas muscle. I had never heard of it until recently. Apparently you have two of them, one on either side. In the small of your back, the psoas attaches to your spine. It then runs down through the inside of your pelvis, right along the inside of your hip joint, and attaches to the upper inside of your femur (the big leg bone), right along the inside of your thigh. It's also attached to a bunch of other muscles that run down the inside of your leg to the knee.

This is all important information because a therapeutic massage to your psoas muscle involves the therapist reaching down inside your pelvic bones somewhere behind your kidney to access the muscle. Then the massage starts, which involves pushing down even farther and displacing even more of your internal organs. If your psoas is at all tender, the discomfort grows even greater. (NOTE FOR THE UNWARY: In medical parlance, "discomfort" means you should have remembered the breathing techniques they taught your wife when she was anticipating labor without meds.)

In my therapist's words, "it's a crazy muscle." She also said somewhere along the way, "I basically get paid to beat people up."

So for an hour, the massage therapist worked inside and outside my skeleton to get at this pesky muscle that seems to be causing me so much trouble. Just for fun, she also worked on a few knots in some of the associated muscles. None of this was in any way enjoyable.

During the inquisition, I started thinking about the word "therapeutic." It comes from the Greek word "therapeuo" which means "to heal." Being healed is not necessarily a fun, relaxing process. Being healed often involves a great deal of pain as old wounds get dealt with.

So often when we ask God to heal us, we think we're asking him to take the pain away. In reality, we may be asking that he would intensify the pain, cut us off from our own comfort, drive us into agony so that he can bring us to a state of wholeness that was not possible while we lived in our original wounded state.

This may be one reason why suffering is so important in the New Testament.

It's also why Jesus asks what I think is one of the most important questions in the New Testament, in the beginning of John 5. Speaking to a man who has been paralyzed for years, Jesus asks, "Do you want to be made well?"

Seems like a stupid question, but notice -- the man never answers it. He simply offers Jesus excuses why he can't get into the pool where healing was supposed to happen. Jesus heals him, and it quickly becomes apparent that this guy is a bit of a weasel. He rats Jesus out to the Jewish leaders. He tattles. It's easy to think maybe he didn't really want to be made well in the first place.

How bad do you want to be whole? Are you willing to dive into some pain to find wholeness? Are you willing to let Jesus take you through suffering if that's how he wants to bring you healing?

While you think about that, I'm going to drink some more water and admire the bruises that are starting to develop all through the surfaces that allow "easy" access to my psoas muscles. Ouch.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Twenty years after the end of the world

Twenty years ago today Mom died. She was 57, and in excellent health -- all except the tiny aneurysm in her coronary artery that let go that early September afternoon. She began having chest pains and went to see the nurse at the school where she worked. She died on the ambulance ride to the hospital. Dad called me that evening -- I knew something was terribly wrong when it was Dad's voice on the phone -- and his first words were, "The world ended today."

I think about some of the things that have happened in the last twenty years and I often wonder what Mom would have thought. 

I know she would have loved seeing her grandkids grow up. She was well on her way to being a fabulous grandmother already when she died. I grieve that my kids never got to know her well. She loved nothing better than sitting with a child reading a book and introducing that little one to the world of words and stories and imagination.

Had she lived, she would doubtless have continued to be the glue that held her family — immediate and extended — together. She wrote scads of letters to each of her kids, making sure we knew what the others were doing. She kept us well informed about the doings around home — weather, crops, neighbors, church, school. 

All the bits and pieces of church leadership I’ve done in the last twenty years would have fascinated her. She had such a heart for the church to be strong and healthy and Jesus-focused. She gave her time to teach, to lead, to serve. She had strong opinions about and strong love for her church, both the local congregation and the wider church.

She would have loved the relationship I built with my dad in the last few years of his life. She would have been so excited for the conversations we had in the last couple years before he died -- conversations when I asked question after question about his younger days, about my own memories and struggles from my childhood, about stories he remembered from his ancestors. She would have just glowed to hear some of those conversations.

But then I think, so much of what has happened was only made possible by Mom’s death.

My younger daughter, for example, was named partly to honor my mom. Who would she be today if her name was different, and if she didn’t have that story about the reason for her name? Hard to say.

Because Mom was not present to be the glue that held us all together, my brothers and I started hunting together each fall. We haven’t always been able to make that work, but those annual hunting trips were an intentional way to stay close in spite of Mom’s absence. Similarly, with all my siblings we’ve tried to be intentional about staying in touch on our own. Without Mom to provide communication, we’ve learned — however poorly — to stay connected.

As far as church leadership, Mom’s death was one of the factors that moved me to attend seminary. In part, it was that sudden, jarring loss that moved me to yearn to be back in the midwest instead of living near Seattle, and seminary seemed like a natural next step. What would my career path have looked like if Mom was still living? Hard to say. What’s more, it was Mom’s sudden death and the powerful experience of community that supported us through it (many thanks to the saints at Elim Lutheran Church in Port Orchard, WA from those days!) that profoundly shaped my own understandings of Christian community that have become such a vital part of my ministry today.

If Mom had still been living, neither Dad nor I would have gone out of our way to have those hard conversations. We were both good at letting Mom be the relationship-builder, the story-teller. Mom’s absence forced us to figure out how to talk about things beyond the weather and the crops and the neighbors.

A verse from the Psalms I’ve returned to again and again over the last few years says, “Precious in the Lord’s sight is the death of his holy ones” (Psalm 116:15). I don’t think God plays dice with us, but rather I believe that if tragedy strikes, God’s promise is that he is using that tragedy for great good. He knows the pain of grief, the pain of loss, the pain of separation. He does not put us through pain needlessly. 

So today, twenty years later, I choose to be thankful for my mom — for her faith, her love, her joy, her hard work and her sense of humor and her faults, all wrapped up in an amazing woman. I choose to focus on the goodness of God who has used long years of grief to fulfill his promises. I choose to be amazed by the good things — the powerful good things — that have come about in part, at least, because of Mom’s death. She would expect nothing less.  Thanks, Mom.

In memoriam, Pearl Krogstad, 1937-1994.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Danger: God At Work

I have been so impressed today with stories about how God is at work, and more important, with experiences of God at work.

This morning a man was in my office who recently returned from Uganda, where he met a pastor who is leading people to Jesus left and right. This pastor is extremely poor and works among extremely poor people, but in the power of God's Spirit he is creating a community of health and vitality centered in Jesus Christ. I nearly came to tears when this man said the Ugandan pastor reminded him of me.

Later in the day I met with a church planter who recently came to Minnesota because he feels called by God to start a church in the Twin Cities. He has a gentle, patient spirit and genuinely cares about people. God has opened doors for him to start building relationships in a local YMCA where he is about to launch an Alpha course. We sat for an hour this afternoon, swapping stories of the goodness of God in opening doors, aligning people's gifts, creating relationships, and more.

Those are just two of the most obvious examples. There's the musician who happens to have a ton of expertise to be able to advise me in the search process for a new modern worship leader.  The tech guy who is able to create exactly the tool we need on our web site. The administrator who knows exactly how to assemble the list of prayer warriors for a particular challenge. The church leader who came alongside me for a difficult meeting, arriving early to pray over me before the meeting began.

I feel a little bit like I'm at the middle of a web of relationships, of circumstances, of divine interventions, and I get to see event after event, conversation after conversation, tiny miracle after tiny miracle. God is definitely at work. It's a privileged position.

The thing is, it's not an easy position. Don't we often believe that if we're at the center of God's will, things should be easy? For me, today, they are not. This has been one of the more challenging days in the last few months. But it's also been soooo good!

The moral, if there is one, I suppose, is that we should not desire that things would be easy for us. We should desire to be at the center of the web of God's work, and to have the courage to embrace what God is doing. Maybe especially in difficult circumstances.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

R.C. Sproul on Martin Luther's Insanity

This is an excellent video by R.C. Sproul dealing with Martin Luther's personality and the comment that some have made that Luther was mentally unbalanced. Good stuff, and well worth a half hour (or a little more) of your day!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Religion vs. Jesus

These are not fully formed thoughts. I might well be in danger of falling into a rant. The last several days I've been collecting religion. Radio shows of people spinning their complex religious systems. Churches full of legalistic claptrap. Well meaning religious people who live their lives according to intricate rules dictated by their strange interpretation of biblical texts.

And all of it seems to zoom right by Jesus. I picture him standing on the side of the freeway watching the cars of religion scream past. In my mental image I don't even see him shaking his head at them. He just watches for a gap so he can cross the road without getting run down by the madmen of religion. He's got work to do, and they're all missing out on it. And him.

This is probably the consequence of reading Romans for the last few weeks. I have no patience for the flesh or the things of the law, and religion is all that.

For the record I'm impatient with myself as well, but I so clearly see my self diagnosed by the words of Romans -- I am dead in sin, but raised to new life in Jesus. I am living by the law of the Spirit of life, crying out "Abba, Father!" At the same time I do not understand the things I do, for the very thing I want to do I cannot do and the things I don't want to do are what I find myself doing.

Religion is most of what pulls me away from the life God wants for me. It's the particular bane of my existence and my profession. Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Scripture in community

One of the thoughts that has been percolating around in my head for a few years is this: I believe that in the next few generations, the church will discover (is already discovering in some circles) that the key to following Jesus faithfully in our day is interpreting and applying the Bible in community.

Simple, right? 

But it's hard work when you actually get down to it. Building and maintaining community is a life-grinding process. When done well, it is incredibly life-giving as well. So in order to interpret and apply the Bible in community, one first has to be willing to do the hard work to live in community. 

For this to work, it also has to be a Christ-centered community. You can't just say that the local trap shooter's association is going to interpret and apply the Bible unless there's some common understanding that the Bible has some measure of authority over the group.

Second, it's critical that both "interpret" and "apply" are brought to bear. We've had groups interpreting the Bible for many generations. To the extent that those groups have failed to apply the Bible as well, they have been less than useless. Both study and action under the Bible's authority are critical.

Third, this is an ongoing pursuit, not a transitory one. Relationship -- with God and with humans -- takes time.

In light of all of these reflections, I was thrilled a couple weeks ago to be preparing for a Boundary Waters trip and to rediscover an amazing gift I was given this spring. The gift came from a group of guys with whom I was privileged to share an adventurous trip to Montana a few years ago. These guys bought me a Duluth pack -- a big canvas bag with shoulder straps, the traditional way to carry your gear in the Boundary Waters -- and inscribed the interior of the pack with their names and significant scripture verses. The Bible in community.

For your edification, here are the verses they shared with me:

Psalm 42:1
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
    so pants my soul for you, O God.

Luke 15:3-7
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."

1 John 4:21
And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Matthew 21:22
And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.

Romans 5:8
God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014


Julie and I had some great conversations this last week with good friends on the topic of control. It's a hard thing to talk about, and most of us have some issues -- more or less -- with control.

Mostly, we want to be in control. We want to determine how things turn out. We'd like to have the power to determine outcomes, to decide that someone we love should be healed when they're hurting, to persuade -- not to say force -- people we love to make good decisions.

I totally get the desire to be in control.

But here's another question that's been romping around the edges of my thought all week: Does God want to be in control?

Now, hear me out. I know we think God is in control, but let that go for a second. Does God want to be in control? When you face a hard decision, does God want to be in control of your decision making?  When you are thinking about straying from the path of moral integrity, does God want to be in control?

I would submit that no, he does not. In fact, I think one of the reasons we get so frustrated with our existence is that God doesn't take control when we think he should. We think God ought to step up and make certain things happen. God should make the cancer cells die off, God should prevent the teenage daughter from getting pregnant, God should undo the weather systems that cause super typhoons. God should be in control.

I suspect -- and here I'm getting out into the blank edges of the map, where cartographers have written "Here there be Tygers" -- that God steps back from being in control precisely in order to allow us some measure of freedom, in order to allow us to grow and develop and realize our dependence and mature and get better at taking ownership of our own decisions.

It's just a hunch, you understand, but if this is true it explains a lot in our lives.

I don't think God is interested in having control.  What do you do with that?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The biggest change

One of the hazards that confronts fans of Martin Luther is translating his thought from the 1500's to the 21st century. Obviously Luther knew nothing of electric lights, computers, automobiles, airplanes, toasters, bicycles, steam engines, or iPhones. But technological advances are not the biggest problem.

Luther knew about the discovery of the Americas, just barely. But geography isn't the biggest challenge.

No, the biggest hurdle when we start to read Luther in 2014 is that he lived in the midst of "Christendom" -- that system in which the teachings and structures of the Christian church have huge power and influence over all areas of society. Luther assumes so many things because the Church in his day simply had power over the daily lives of people. So much of his thought is structured around Christendom, especially when it comes to solving practical problems.

So we always have to be cautious when we start taking his words and importing them wholesale into our own context, where the church's influence has waned, where we live within a multiplicity of world views, where the Bible is an important book, but not automatically considered authoritative.

Yet some of the time, Martin recognized that the power structures in his culture were not in fact living  under the authority of the Church or acting out the teachings of the Bible. At those times he began to speak to our current situation a little more clearly. It is certainly possible to translate Luther's thought for a post-Christendom world, and I think it's hugely valuable to do so.

The other way of coming at Luther's teachings in this way is to find people who have been followers of Luther's version of Christianity who have themselves lived in post-Christendom contexts. That is one of the strongest arguments, in my mind, for paying close attention to a man like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who followed Jesus in a Lutheran kind of way in the context of Nazi Germany, which maintained the facade of Christendom while denying its authority.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pointing to a fourth

So Martin Luther straddled two worlds and helped shape a third (see my previous posts on this).  The third world he helped shape was produced at the intersection of the existing powers and structures within northern Europe, especially Germany, and the gospel Luther discovered in the Bible. As Luther teased out the implications of "salvation by grace alone through faith alone," he reevaluated the churches, government structures, and societal structures around him. He commented freely -- very freely -- about how things needed to change in order to be true to the biblical word. But he also recognized the need for order in society and he was not revolutionary enough to throw everything around him into chaos. Unlike so many revolutionaries, Luther realized that change takes time.

So, for example, when the Roman Catholic bishops would no longer ordain evangelical (meaning "gospel centered") pastors, Luther figured out a compromise: for the moment, while we figure out how to move forward in a better way, the princes in each area can serve as bishops, exercising a ministry of oversight and order on behalf of the churches.

That solution is a great example of how Luther's third world was shaped by the Bible but was also bound by the realities of his present situation. And, to complicate things, Luther's compromises often led to unintended consequences. That example for instance led more or less directly to the state churches of Europe, where each nation had an official church that was in league with -- and usually subordinate to -- the power of the state. Luther didn't really foresee this and would certainly have objected to it in some ways, but at the time he was making the decision, it seemed like the best possible compromise to give the power of bishops into the hands of the princes.

So the Reformation produced a sort of compromise situation where the truth of the gospel struggled with the new structures that had to be put in place to keep good order in the churches.  People often talk about the great reforms Martin Luther initiated, but they rarely recognize that so many of the changes that swept across Europe in the 1500's were compromises between Luther's idealism, borne of a close reading of the Bible's message, and his practicality, borne of his clear understanding of the needs of the turbulent society in which he lived.

A solid reading of Luther, then, should also look at this idealism. We should be careful to see not just what changes Luther initiated, but the goals behind the changes. What values did he embrace and then compromise? If we begin to understand this fourth world, the world of Luther's biblical idealism, we may also begin to see how we need reform in our own time, and what compromises we may have to allow in order to reform our own churches and our own society.

Let's take a look at one example: church life. The primary expression of the church's life is worship, of course, and Luther had plenty to say about it. He talked about the Latin Mass, and about the German Mass, and explained why we needed both of those. (One could argue that the Latin Mass might correspond loosely to a liturgical order of worship, and the German Mass could correspond roughly to contemporary forms of worship. I realize there are huge holes in those correlations, but let it go for now.) But then Luther also pointed ahead to a different form of worship. He was daydreaming about it, and he knew it, but he still pointed the way ahead.  Here's what Luther wrote next:

“The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian work.  According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matthew 18.  Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 9.  Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing.  Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer, and love.  Here one would need a good short catechism on the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father.  In short, if one had the kind of people and persons who wanted to be Christians in earnest, the rules and regulations would soon be ready.  But as yet, I neither can, nor desire to begin such a congregation...for I have not yet the people for it, nor do I see many who want it. But if I should be requested to do it and could not refuse with a good conscience, I should gladly do my part and help as best I can.  In the meanwhile the two above-mentioned orders of service must suffice … until Christians who earnestly love the Word find each other and join together.” 

Luther clearly understands here that he's looking ahead beyond society's current needs to a time when greater change will be possible.  This quote and others like it help us to begin to piece together Luther's desire for a "fourth world" -- a world that reflects the gospel more clearly, more purely, than the reforms he was instituting.

Perhaps our greatest task as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther's Reformation should be to examine the biblical principles that drove him, to think along with him about what life might look like if the gospel shaped the church. Then, like Martin himself did, we must deal with the realities of our own time and begin to figure out where God might be calling us boldly forward and where he might be calling us to a temporary compromise.

A few more thoughts about that in my next post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A third world

As I said in my last post, Luther straddled two worlds all his life -- first, the world of the lower-class Germans who worked hard and lived in a mix of superstition and Roman Catholic religion that, at the time, was little better, dominated by saints and sacraments and little biblical spirituality. Second, Luther was clawing his way into the world of the university, the world of the educated middle class, the world of the thinkers and the shapers. All his life Luther lived in these two worlds.

But uniquely, Martin Luther shaped a third world. It started like this: Luther was sent to teach Bible at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, what is now eastern Germany. Teaching Bible in those days was not a prestigious post. Philosophy and many other disciplines were much more desirable, professionally speaking. Luther's mentor, Johann von Staupitz, ordered Luther to take up the post because Luther struggled mightily with his conscience, and Staupitz wanted him to know the love of God, the grace of God, in Jesus.

It worked. Shortly after Luther came to Wittenberg, around 1515 or so, he was preparing to lecture through the New Testament book of Romans. As he prepared for these lectures, Martin struggled and struggled with the phrase, "the righteousness of God." He read this phrase throughout the book of Romans and he could not make sense of why Paul seemed so thrilled about God's righteousness. To Martin, the righteousness of God meant that God was holy and righteous, and therefore had every right to smite sinners. Luther knew he was a sinner and so he lived in fear of the righteousness of God rather than love or gratitude.

Then one day as Luther was working through Romans chapter 1, he read verses 16 & 17, where Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and then for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, 'The righteous shall live by faith.'" Luther pondered these words.

Later he said it was like the windows opened up and the sun came out and a fresh breeze blew into the room of the tower where he sat studying. In a flash he realized that it was not simply God's own righteousness that was being described here, but that the good news of the gospel is that God gives righteousness to those who believe, those who have faith, those who trust in him. It is this free gift of righteousness, given to the believer because of what Jesus did at the cross, that makes up the very heart of the gospel.

This moment is the heart of the Protestant Reformation. I know we generally mark the anniversary of the Reformation on October 31, 1517, when Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the University Church. However, Luther would never have written these 95 Theses -- could never have imagined them -- without this critical realization of what the gospel itself means. It is fascinating to read Luther's commentary on Romans, written while he prepared these lectures. In it you can see the implications of this realization beginning to work their way through his mind. In 1515 Luther's thinking was still very much in sync with the Roman Catholic Church, and he is only just beginning to start to think through how radical this new thought might be.

As he moves forward from this realization about the "righteousness of God," Luther becomes more and more radicalized. He moves more and more away from the self-reinforcing bureaucracy that had come to dominate the church of Rome at that time and begins to reimagine what a church based on the gospel might look like. To start with, you see him just starting to question some of the practices around him, especially in the Church to begin with. That was not unusual in those days; many people were calling for reform in various areas.

The reason Luther stands out from the crowd is that he became utterly committed to the truth that God saves us, not through a bureaucracy, but through his own work declaring us righteous. The church is not the agent of salvation but rather the result of it. So the church itself needs to be subject to scripture.

When Luther posted the 95 Theses on the church door, he was simply calling for a discussion about reform. But when the bureaucrats started to push back, Luther wouldn't back down like most people did. As his thinking and his writings grew, he called more and more clearly for a truly gospel-centered church, a church that lived out the plain words of the Bible in a simple, Jesus-centered way.

This is the third world that Luther helped create -- a word where the common person could read and interpret the Bible and hold the Church and her hierarchy accountable.   In the next post I'll show you a glimpse of yet a fourth world that Luther did not try to create, but certainly pointed toward.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The heart of the matter

What happened to Martin Luther, more than anything, was that he met Jesus.

To unpack that in our culture is more than a little difficult. We live under layer after layer of what we think it means to meet Jesus, and that changes how we hear such a statement. We live with the leftovers of Billy Graham crusades and evangelists walking us down the Romans Road or reciting the Four Spiritual Laws. We live under the unbelievable assumption that Christianity, at its heart, is about whether a person gets to heaven or not. We live with the belief that Jesus is primarily a religious figure and that religion is different from everyday life.

Luther predates all of those assumptions. He had his own assumptions, of course, but they were not the same as ours.

Luther was raised in a lower-becoming-middle-class household. The lower German classes lived in all kinds of spiritual fear in those days. Life was hard, and they externalized some of that difficulty through what may seem to us an odd mix of superstition and religion.  Kobolds and saints, demons and daily mass created a framework for the average German. Over all this mixture was The Church that made pronouncements and set expectations about what a person had to do to be right with God.

Being right with God was not primarily about getting to heaven, though of course it impacted that as well. Rather, being right with God meant being right with the Church, and if you were right with the Church then you could receive God's grace in day to day life. Culturally today we believe in sort of a deistic God who is distant from the everyday workings of things. We believe we can get out of bed, make breakfast, get to work, and take a break for lunch pretty much on our own strength. People in Luther's day believed that if you didn't have some kind of spiritual favor, none of that was going to happen. There were terrible demonic and natural forces set up to make your life difficult, dangerous, and deadly.

The way the Church preached it, though, God was vaguely displeased and distant. So you needed advocates. You needed a whole array of saints. You needed a collection of sacraments to funnel God's favor (grace) down to you so that you could survive daily life. In the context of outbreaks of plague, frequent wars and uprisings, famines, and a workload that killed manual laborers young, it was easy to believe you needed these resources, easy to believe that God was frowning from heaven.

On top of that layer of everyday superstition, Luther's family was clawing its way into the middle class. His father was a taciturn man given to angry outbursts and harsh discipline. Luther was sent to school because his father hoped he'd become a lawyer to advance the family's business interests, which involved a mining company. The schoolmasters were incredibly harsh by today's standards. Students who made mistakes were routinely mocked, beaten, and (occasionally) made to sit in the corner with an "assinus" -- a dunce cap made from a donkey's head -- over their own heads. Luther excelled in the schools and eventually worked his way up to the university.

Luther straddled the world of lower class superstition and the world of the university all his life. Many Germans in the 16th century were moving from lower to middle class, and Martin was among the brightest of a great crop of young men who were taking full advantage of their educational opportunities.

I'm going to interrupt this train of thought there for the moment; my next post will examine how Luther straddled those two worlds all his life, but then shaped a third world -- a world that quickly took Europe by storm and reshaped our present day realities more than we understand!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Getting ready for a party?

In 2017, the world will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Like all anniversaries, this one is a little artificial. To date the Reformation from October 31, 1517, the date Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the University Church in Wittenberg, Germany, is sort of like saying that my wife and I have been married 25 years next Tuesday. It's true, on the face of it, but the marriage starts long before the wedding day and you don't really figure out what it means to live in a covenant relationship until long after you say "I do." In similar fashion, the Reformation was building long before 1517 and didn't really take shape until long after Luther put his hammer away.

But anniversaries are important anyway as a way to mark the passage of time and influence.

Speaking of influence, in the year 2000 Life magazine featured the 100 most influential people of the last thousand years. A little presumptuous, maybe, but a good way to gain some perspective. First was Thomas Edison, and if you think for a few minutes you'll see why from our perspective that has to be the case. Second was Martin Luther.

Most people think of Luther as influential in the world of religion, and that's certainly true. However, Luther's thought, writing, and celebrity (yes, they had celebrities in the 16th century, and a cantankerous university professor was a likely candidate in those days) reached far into economics, family life, education, politics, vocation, and much more. I think Life got this one right, putting Luther just behind artificial light and recorded sound and just ahead of Chris Columbus in his impact on the world of the year 2000.

So what will the world do to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation? Like most things, I suspect it will take us a little bit by surprise. We'll wake up one day and it will be October of 2017 and we'll say, Huh. We should have some kind of a party.

That's tragic.

Lutheran churches at the very least (as well as many others) ought to be thinking ahead about this one, talking about it, anticipating it. We ought to be asking the question, What does Luther mean for us today? How do we translate his thought into post-modern, post-Christendom reality?  (By the way, this is the biggest danger for Lutherans and other hidebound traditionalists. We are so tempted just to import Luther into the present day without translating his thought and his context into our own time. Caution!)

Let me offer some suggestions as to how we might proceed.

First, it's worth getting to know Martin. If you haven't already, spend some time reading a good biography of Martin Luther. Roland Bainton's Here I Stand is one good place to start, though it's a little idealistic and a little scanty on details about the difficult later portion of Luther's life. Also, as long as you're at it, read some of Luther's own writing. The Large Catechism or the Smalcald Articles are good places to start. Also, find some of Luther's sermons. Read his sermons on the gospel of John. To spice things up, get a copy of Table Talk, which is a debatable collection of Luther's offhand comments around the table as his students were listening in after meals.

Second, churches (especially those that consider themselves to be part of Martin's tradition) ought to spend some time digging into his stuff. Do a series on the history of Luther and his impact on the present. Dig into the Small Catechism. At Calvary, we're considering preaching through Paul's letter to the Romans during 2015-2016 -- exactly 500 years after Luther lectured his way through it. By the way, it was in preparation for these lectures that Luther experienced what you probably have to call a "conversion" in his understanding of the grace of God. Everything he did later proceeded out of this conversion, this new understanding, and so you might say this is one of the deepest roots of the Reformation.

Third, Lutherans and other Protestants need to start now to think about what impact Luther's thought has on Christianity today. It's not enough to fire up the pipe organ and sing another chorus of "A Mighty Fortress." God created an amazing movement in the church and the world through the Reformation, and we need to be able to do the hard historical and philosophical work to think it through in the present. We will have a window -- probably a narrow, fleeting one -- to say something to the world in 2017. If we haven't thought through this stuff ahead of time, we'll miss our chance.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pardon me, I was reminiscing

I have not taken much time lately for reminiscing.

That's a problem. I'm in the midst of massive transitions, relationally speaking. I've taken lots of time to look forward -- to plan, to pray, to vision. But I have not taken much time for looking back, giving thanks, remembering.

This morning I find myself in that odd place where I would gladly linger over coffee now that I've had some time in scripture and prayer, and remember. I think it's important sometimes to allow your heart to go soft, to think back.

Transitions. My older daughter gets married in a couple weeks. Yikes. That's a big one. But there are others as well, not so obvious. My younger daughter is living at home this summer, and I am thoroughly enjoying her delightful presence. Both of these have become such amazing young ladies that I am a bit in awe of them. It's fun to look back, fun to measure all the angst of bygone years and see now just how -- in spite of all my mistakes -- they are doing just fine. Much to be thankful for.

And all of that means that their parents are also in transition. This quasi-empty nest phase opens new possibilities, as well as new challenges. It's easy to get so focused on the new challenges and not look back much at the road that led us here.

So maybe a quiet, cloudy July morning is a good time to reflect. To give thanks. To remember. To have one more cup of coffee and live in the past for a few moments, in order to hopefully expand my ability to embrace the present.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


As any long-term reader of this blog knows, I am a devotee of N.T. Wright. For Father's Day I received a copy of his book Surprised by Scripture. I am only a chapter and a page into it -- it's a collection of essays on the value and methodology of using Scripture in debates current to the modern (or post-modern) world.

All that said, long-term readers of this blog also know that I am fascinated by our context -- by the way in which the debates of (NOTE: All dates are stupidly approximate) the Protestant Reformation (16th Century), the Renaissance (17th Century) the Enlightenment (18th Century) and  Industrialism (19th Century) inform the attitudes of Modernism (20th Century) and our petulant reaction against Modernism, Post-Modernism, which I won't dignify with a date because I don't think it's a real movement yet.

Keeping up?

All that said, I was so tickled with Wright's ability (page 26) to hit the contextual nail exactly on the head with the following quote. As usual, he takes very few words to exactly diagnose a serious problem in the church and suggest a serious solution:

"We must stop giving nineteenth-century answers to sixteenth century questions and try to give twenty-first-century answers to first-century questions."

Love it.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Go Big!

One of the things I've done during this time of visioning and long range planning is to read the book Go Big by Bill Easum and Bil Cornelius. If you are a pastor or otherwise involved in church leadership, I highly recommend this book. It's an easy read, almost stupid easy, but I believe it's exactly what is needed for so many churches today.

I vividly remember hearing Pat Kiefert in the early 1990's talking about church leadership. He made a couple very memorable points that I have carried with me ever since:

  1. It's not complicated to create a growing church. It's not rocket science. We know exactly how to do it.
  2. The tricky part of creating a growing church is finding a leader who will have the moral courage to make the hard decisions required.
Like I said, I've never forgotten that little talk Pat gave. (In fact I still remember a great deal more of it, but that's for another time.) This book by Bill and Bil takes those two points and expounds on them at great length and with great practicality.  Wondering about church government? Here it is. Wondering about finances? All there in black and white. Wondering about how to deal with difficult people? There as well.  Wondering about the role of church staff, or how to manage a church staff, or what the relationships between staff and lead pastor and staff and congregation should look like? Bingo.

But by far the biggest points in this book are a clear and unflinching look at the critical role played by the lead pastor. You just can't get away from that one.

And the most important thing the lead pastor has to have is a clear, massive, God-sized vision for the church to be doing what the church is absolutely supposed to do: reach people who are far from God with the good news of Jesus, and help them become followers of Jesus. If the lead pastor doesn't have that kind of vision tailored specifically for the local church, what's the point?

So I recommend this book.  BTW, many thanks to Pastor Paul Johansson, who has been a great role model for me for the last decade plus. He turned me on to this book at exactly the right time.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Vision quest

As of this coming Monday, I'll have been at Calvary for three months. I feel like I'm getting to know the congregation, and they're getting to know me. We're starting to see a little movement toward discerning the Spirit's leading toward a specific vision for Calvary.  
So it seemed timely to take some time to go pray, read scripture, discern, and plan. I am currently out of the office doing exactly that. It's been good time thus far, with lots of good prayer and Bible time, lots of reviewing my notes from the last three months, and lots of getting specific details planned for upcoming things. Through the miracle of modern technology I've also had numerous phone and email conversations with coworkers and other Calvary leaders.
One of my goals for this time was to begin to come to clarity for myself as Senior Pastor at Calvary.  I want to have a clear answer for those who ask me what my own personal vision is for this congregation.  In prayer this week, I finalized this statement, then went back and listed some of the biblical basis for each portion of it: 
My prayer is that (Romans 8:26-27, Acts 1:14)
Calvary will become a (Ephesians 4:15-16, 1 Corinthians 14:12)
Jesus-pursuing (John 20:21, Philippians 2:5-11)
scripture-breathing (John 15:7-8, Colossians 3:16)
outward-focused (Luke 9:23-24, 2 Corinthians 5:14-20)
kingdom-seeking (Mark 1:14-15, Matthew 6:33)
community (Acts 2:42-47, Romans 12:1-13)
driven (Mark 1:12, Acts 20:22)
by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8, Galatians 5:25)
to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20, Ephesians 4:12)
who make disciples (2 Timothy 2:2, Matthew 4:19)
and so storm the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 6:12-13)

in the Name of Jesus. (John 17:11, Luke 10:17-20)

This vision time is designed to be a good balance of "big picture" things like this statement, along with specific details like assigning scripture texts for the September / October sermon series, for example. So far it's been good in both ways. 

I want to thank so many people who are praying for and with me during this time! One of the most awesome pieces to this time away is just the massive number of people who have committed to praying for the Spirit to be working in this time of discernment.  Thank you!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Language issues

I took the plunge yesterday and preached my first sermon in Spanish. Understand, I am anything but fluent. I often tell people that I speak Spanish about as well as a three or four year old child. But I can read and pronounce words and generally understand them.

The priority for me to do this comes from the fact that Calvary has a Spanish language worship service and it's important to me that the people who participate in that service sense that they're part of Calvary, not an add-on, not a group renting space, not a separate congregation. So that means the senior pastor should be involved, right?

Therefore, on Pentecost Sunday (yesterday) Pastor Tacho Dominguez preached in our English-speaking services and I preached the Spanish service. We preached on Revelation 5, which makes a marvelous Pentecost text.

But I've been thinking lately about the benefits to the church of Jesus Christ if his people made it a priority to learn another language. What if Christians picked a people group that they care about -- or that they're willing to learn to care about -- and started learning the language? I've been amazed many times to hear people who take the trouble to travel to another country for a church service project, but who refuse to put effort into learning the language. Do these people understand what a slap in the face that is to the people they're trying to serve? I hear them say things like, "We can communicate just fine" or "They understand my heart." No.

Part of the benefit if Christians would start learning another language -- there are many benefits -- is we would begin to learn that interpersonal relationships are always a cross-cultural move. We would start to see that in order to understand anyone or be understood by them, you have to pay attention to language issues.

We would also learn humility, and I believe that American Evangelical churches especially could use a heavy dose of humility.

Without a doubt, we would start to have a greater appreciation for Philippians 2.

So pick a group of people.  In most parts of the U.S., Spanish makes the most sense. However, there are pockets of Russian speakers or Somalis or Hmong or ... well, in the Minneapolis area alone, more than 120 languages are spoken. The nice thing about Spanish is that it's accessible and fairly simple to learn, at least at a basic level. Download the Coffee Break Spanish podcasts or buy a Rosetta Stone program. Pick up a children's book in Spanish and get started picking it apart.

The reason most people don't learn a new language is that it's hard, and it puts them in a place where they don't feel like they know much. Fight through that. Once you know twenty or thirty words, it's a great idea to find a Spanish speaker who will help you learn a little more. Then you discover another of the great benefits of learning a language -- it's all about relationships.

Read Philippians 2, and figure out what people group the Spirit of Jesus is putting on your heart.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


Mindful yesterday of freedoms too often undervalued and the tremendous cost it has taken to provide that freedom, we celebrated Memorial Day in high fashion that I think my uncle Earl (who served with the 743rd Tank Battalion and lost his life at Omaha Beach June 6, 1944) would have greatly appreciated: We cooked not one, but two venison shoulders on the grill, and ate the first one for lunch out on the patio.  Then the young 'uns and I took up bows and visited the Elm Creek Park archery range and had great fun shooting our way around the course.  Came home and ate the other venison shoulder for supper. Earl was all about family, the outdoors, and home -- think he would have appreciated a great day.