Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Golden Oldie

Continuing these reflections about "what is the church" today with a re-post of this old blog post. I wrote this a few years ago in the context of a Lutheran church, and Martin Luther and his theological brilliance still informs so much of my thinking about these issues. Take some time and read through this post, including lots of references to the Augsburg Confession, as you are pondering with me what it means to be part of a community that follows Jesus in our own context. I checked out the video link toward the end of the post, and it's still active -- and still well worth watching.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Framing the discussion

Sticking with the "picture" metaphor for just a moment ...

You put a frame around a picture to set it off, to emphasize the boundaries around it. In the same way, to "frame" an argument or a discussion means agreeing ahead of time on what the boundaries are.

I ran across this interesting blog post from several years ago where I laid out a few examples of the huge questions that go into this discussion of the church. If you read through this, written as I was finishing up an eight week sabbatical, you start to see the amazing diversity of this discussion. And as I reread that post now, I think I oversimplified things!

Let me give three examples of what plays into this discussion of the changes in the church:

First, the church itself. Anyone who is paying attention will tell you that churches face incredible change today. The majority of churches in America and throughout the west are in stasis or decline. Very few are growing, and those that are growing often find themselves under attack -- from other churches! Why are churches facing such challenges? You can find people blaming all kinds of factors, from youth sports to the internet to affluence to (probably most common) our society drifting away from its Judeo-Christian roots. Each of these factors no doubt plays some part in the decline of church attendance. Carey Nieuwhof and others have documented the fact that the level of loyalty among church attenders has decreased. To put it another way, a generation ago a loyal church attender was in worship three out of four Sundays. These days, loyal church attenders are in worship one or two Sundays out of four, and they see themselves as very dedicated if they're present that often. Churches themselves are changing, and this in itself is a complex matter with lots of factors involved. Now, add in many ways churches have chosen to deal with these changes, and the situation gets extremely complex indeed! (I'm just laying this out at this point -- I know these issues deserve more discussion, but for the moment I'm just putting them out there.)

Second, think about technology. Not just church technology -- hymnals have given way to digital LED projectors, and flannelgraphs have gone the way of the Tyrannosaurus. Think about the way technological change impacts every possible area of our lives. Smart phones alone are revolutionizing our lives in enormous ways. I tried to fix my toaster the other day and realized that the problem was in the motherboard. Who knew that a toaster had a motherboard?! The technological revolution we are currently experiencing has enormous impacts on not only churches, but on every area of life -- and it changes the way we think, the way we process, the way we research. Furthermore, it changes what we believe is true about truth. This gets slippery, I know. If you're interested in thinking about this, check out Amusing Ourselves To Death, an excellent book written in the 1980's about how television was doing exactly that -- changing the way we view reality -- and then think about what impact Siri and her minions are currently having on our views of truth, reality, and what life is supposed to be like! It's hard enough to think coherently about how the changes in technology are impacting our lives, but then to think about how our spirituality and our churches are being impacted ... this is a tough one, but we can't ignore it.

Third, think about America. This gets at history in a little bit different way than we usually think of it, but part of the grand experiment that became the United States of America is the idea of "disestablishmentarianism" -- of not having an official religion for this country. What that does is, it means churches are "voluntary societies." If you move to a new town, you have multiple choices of churches you could join -- or you might choose not to join any church. It's voluntary. From about 400 AD until the early 1800's, that hardly ever happened in Christian history. And in fact in America, there was a sort of "expected" participation in church that had more or less power until the last few decades of the 20th century. But today, very few people will look down on you if you don't go to church. Even dedicated Christians recognize that on any given Sunday, the majority of people in America are not attending worship. This character of voluntary participation in church has shaped the church in America in huge ways, and we have exported many of those attitudes about the church to the rest of the world. In the early 1800's a Frenchman named Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and made the observation that the way churches functioned in this fledgling country was truly amazing, and a key part of our strength.

So there are three examples of what it will take to frame our discussion. Now, I believe that each of these three examples provides just a tiny bit of the puzzle, like three tiny peaks showing above the waterline at the top of an enormous iceberg. The part that sinks the Titanic is hidden under the surface, and we need to do some scuba diving to try to figure things out in depth.

To recap: There are massive cultural shifts going on right now. Getting anything like a coherent glimpse of these shifts will require us to think long and hard and deep about what's going on in our world and why things are they way they are. That cultural analysis will not be enough, though. We need then to look at what the church is supposed to be according to its architect. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus said to Peter, "... I will build my church ..." Notice that it's his church, and he's the designer and builder. We'll take a hard look in coming blog posts at the question of whether churches may have missed Jesus' design as he lays it out in the Bible and in history. Then, once we've looked at our current context and at Jesus' intention for his church, we can begin to ask the question, what is the Spirit of God up to in churches today? What is a community of Jesus-followers supposed to look like today?

It's a huge topic, so thanks for hanging in as we launch in the coming days. And as I said last time, know that your comments are important to this discussion!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Does this look crooked to you?

Have you ever hung a picture by yourself? If it's just one nail and you can get it pretty close, that's not too bad. But if it's one of those get-two-hangers-in-the-wall-and-level-it pictures, it gets tricky. Here's why: Not because you can't hang it level -- but you can't decide just where to hang it and at the same time, step back and get some perspective on just where you want it to hang.

Not a perfect illustration, I know. But I'm convinced that for most of us in the western Christian church, it's hard to step back and get any kind of perspective on what's happening these days. The culture, the church, and so much else has changed so fast.

The study of the church -- a strange and fascinating brand of theology -- is called "ecclesiology." Back in the late 20th century, ecclesiology was a boring and much-neglected branch of theology. Seminaries rarely had classes on the church. It was something we assumed we understood.

Suddenly in the last 20 years, ecclesiology has become the cutting edge of theology. There are more books on the church and what it should look like than you can imagine. Bloggers (!), podcasters, websites galore -- all are trying to offer some perspective on the church.

I've been leading, participating in, watching, and puzzling over churches for a long time now, and I'm going to weigh in with a few reflections. Here's the plan: I'm going to lay out in a series of blog posts what I think is happening in churches today, what God is up to in that, and what biblical Christianity looks like here and now.

Presumptuous? Maybe.

For the next many weeks, I'm going to try to write this out and let you chew on it, comment on it, be sharpened by it, reject it ... do what you need to do. This is the topic that, in the wisdom of God, doesn't seem willing to let me go. My goal is to be 1) true to the big picture of what the Bible has to say about the church, 2) honest about what's going on in churches today, the strengths and the embarrassing weaknesses, and 3) relevant to people who love and care about the church and its direction. I'll try to post at least weekly, maybe more often. (I do have a day job, and it's fall in Minnesota so hunting and a few other pursuits need a little time.) I haven't written these reflections ahead, though I am working from an outline. So your comments along the way will very likely help shape the conversation. 

Let's see if we can step back and gain some perspective on this thing. And maybe, just maybe, we can help this picture hang just a little straighter.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Still in kindergarten?

Ask any churchgoing five-year-old, and they’ll tell you what sin is. It’s wrong things we do. Saying bad words, or being mean, or killing people. Stuff like that. 

So when you ask that same child why Jesus died, they’ll say, “To forgive our sins.” 

I used to show a video clip from time to time called, “Is Your Faith Still In Kindergarten?” It showed a 40-something man going through a day in kindergarten class. He looked ridiculous, as you might well imagine. 

Trouble is, most of us have never really explored what the Bible says about sin. So we have never really learned what the Bible says about our “sin problem” or why Jesus died. So we, good kindergarteners all, believe Jesus died to forgive our sin, and we assume that sin means bad things we do. Killing people and stuff. Cheating on your taxes. Spitting out your gum on the sidewalk. Sampling grapes in the produce department without paying for them. 

You know, bad stuff. 

This gets tough, because we’re not good at pulling this out and looking at it. What I want to do here is walk with you through a problem nearly all of us have. We believe sin is bad things we do, so we assume that if we just didn’t do bad things, God would be happier with us. So we set up a list, conscious or unconscious, of rules — principles by which a Good Person should live. And then we try to be Good People and live by our lists of rules. And we spend a lot of time evaluating how we’re doing — how much good we do and how much bad we do.

As soon as we make that move, we have abandoned biblical Christianity. 

I was struck this morning by what Oswald Chambers wrote in his excellent devotional, My Utmost For His Highest. I don’t always track with Chambers, but I read him nearly every morning. His thoughts about following Jesus always challenge me and very often encourage me. This morning his devotional included these words:

“The nature of sin is not immorality and wrongdoing, but the nature of self-realization which leads us to say, ‘I am my own god.’ This may exhibit itself in proper morality or improper immorality, but it always has the common basis of my claim to my right to myself. When our Lord faced either people with all the forces of evil in them, or people who were clean-living, moral and upright, He paid no attention to the moral degradation of the one, nor to the moral attainment of the other. He looked at something we cannot see, namely the nature of man (see john 2:25).”

Really? Jesus paid no attention to the moral uprightness of people? Jesus didn’t pay attention to whether people did good or bad things? Maybe. Or more like, good and bad looked different to Jesus than they usually look to us. To Jesus, being in a close relationship with God was good, and being far from God was bad. And that relationship with God was not necessarily affected the way we think by our “good” or “bad” behavior. In fact, very often Jesus pointed out how our “good” behavior got in the way of having a good relationship with God! (See for example Luke 18:9-14.)

Does this idea come up in the Bible? Oh, yes. It is actually woven all through the Bible, if you start looking. If you remember a story from your kindergarten Sunday School class, it’s probably about the Garden of Eden, where God placed the first people who then sinned, and now we’re all in trouble. But do you remember what was the name of the tree that bore the fruit they were not supposed to eat? It was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It was precisely that obsession with their own behavior, with their own goodness or lack of it, that Adam and Eve were not supposed to pursue. 

Really?

I’ve also been reading Isaiah as part of those same morning devotions. Yesterday I read Isaiah 28, where the prophet criticizes the religious establishment of his day — the priests and temple authorities — because they reduce God’s living word to “precept upon precept, line upon line” — in other words, they have made God’s Word into a list of rules they can keep. In the very next chapter, Isaiah 29, God speaks to these people and says, “this people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). Jesus quotes this verse to the religious establishment of his own day in both Matthew 15 and Mark 7. 

Understand, I believe it is better to be moral than immoral, to be good than bad. But when we reduce Jesus and what it means to follow him to a system of rules, we have sided with the scribes and Pharisees rather than with Jesus. That’s why they crucified him, because he was threatening their system of rules and precepts that kept them in some control. 

One more biblical example. The biblical word for this system of precepts, these principles of moral behavior, is “law.” In the last few verses of Galatians 3, Paul says that the law was given by God to be a “guardian.” This is a difficult word to translate from Greek into English. In Greek it’s paidegogeia and it wraps up our ideas of a nanny, a tutor, a guardian, a mentor. In wealthy Roman households, the paidegogeia was responsible to raise the heir as a child until he came of age and could take up his full authority in the household, acting as an adult. Paul says that the law is designed for us when we are spiritually immature, but when we come to Christ, we come into our inheritance, and we are no longer under the law but now we live by faith — by a relationship of trust in Jesus. 
So when we go back to the law, when we make lists of good and bad and focus on people’s behavior, we are, in biblical terms, going back to kindergarten — and not in a good way. 

What, then, is biblical Christianity? 


Simply put, it is a relationship. It is living in love with God by focusing on Jesus, knowing him and trying to follow him. Trusting that in some way you may or may not understand, what he did in his life, death, and resurrection opened up a new way for you to have a relationship with God. 

And if you think Jesus wants you and everybody else to "be good", you should re-read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) or read them for the first time — and then try living like Jesus lived. Love the unlovable people. Focus on building a relationship with God. Care for people your society says should be discarded. Invest in people and help them grow. Get less concerned about rules and more concerned about relationships. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

CS Lewis on love:

I heard this quote this morning in worship and thought it connected to my last post. By the way, apologies to regular readers as my intermittent wifi these days has me blogging sporadically. Hopefully that's going to be remedied soon!

Here's Lewis, from The Four Loves:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” ― C.S. LewisThe Four Loves

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sometimes love ...

It's been a while since I posted here. Lots of reasons for that -- busy-ness of new job and new home is by far the biggest one.

That said, I have certainly not stopped pondering. One of the recurring thoughts for me lately is the nature of love. I resurrected a song from many years ago by Chris Rice that includes the line, "Sometimes love has to drive a nail into its own hand" -- which is provocative on a number of levels. Along with that particular ponder, I've been continuing to chew on a read from last spring, N.T. Wright's excellent book, The Day The Revolution Began in which this amazing theologian tries to get a grip on what actually happened when Jesus died. Wright's conclusion (you should really read the book if you haven't) is that self-giving love is really about the only thing that has the power to change the world, and that's why Jesus' death does effect such a change.

So then I started thinking, why does he have to say "self-giving love"? Isn't love by its very nature self-giving?

Of course, we use the word love quite liberally and loosely, so it's hard to say that everyone would agree love is by nature "self-giving." If you say "I love blueberries," for example, you're hardly saying you will give yourself to blueberries, except by the most stretched definition. If you say, "I love the farm where I grew up," you might be making more of a commitment to give yourself, but it's not required by the statement of your love. You might just be saying you really enjoy the place.

If, however, you say, "I love you," all bets are off. Because in our cultural usages of the word "love," you might be saying, "I really enjoy you and feel a great sense of pleasure being in your company." That's a kind of self-indulgent, self-centered love. But very often what starts out like that, in pleasure, grows in depth and quality until you are really, actually willing to sacrifice -- to give up an amazing amount of time, money, energy, choice, and more, for the sake of your beloved. In its height and depth, this kind of love is a powerful engine for transformation, both in you and in the one you love. Because love changes things.

So what is the relationship between pleasurable desire and self-giving love? Many Christian traditions, teachers, and theologies would say these are completely different and separate. I'm not so sure, though. As I read the Bible, I think God's intention is that a pleasurable, desirous love should be at the heart of a staunch, committed love.

Is it too much to think that God is not only committed to acting for your best good -- a definition of love I used for many years -- but also that he has a real, pleasurable delight in you, a desire for you, a longing for more connection, more unity with you? We don't often picture God having that kind of desirous love. But it's biblical. Love throughout the Bible is one of those things that continually blurs lines. We think we have it all figured out, then we stumble on Song of Solomon. Then, when we integrate that lusty passion into our love-definition, we read Hosea. And now we're back to stalwart, staunch commitment again.

Yet the Bible unapologetically names "love" as the quality that most closely defines God. The closer we get to God's love, the more we are caught up in his passionate desire for us, his unyielding commitment to our good, the more we realize that all of our loves -- our love for peach ice cream to our love for our children -- is a broken, halfhearted, imitative kind of love that falls so far short of what it's modeled after.

And that's not something to beat ourselves up about, or to shame ourselves. Because we are broken people, and our love -- all our loves -- come out broken and partial, yet they still reflect the image of God like shards of a shattered mirror reflect the world.

Circling back a bit, is it possible for love not to be self-giving? How about this. Try an experiment, and maybe you've lived this experiment before. Give your heart completely to someone or something. Invest yourself. Then put yourself in circumstances where you are unable -- by distance or lack of contact or some other circumstance -- to give yourself to your beloved. I guarantee you this love, this "unrequited" love will become one of the most frustrating things you can imagine. If you have truly given your heart to the other, and you are suddenly unable to follow up your love with your self-sacrifice, you will find yourself frustrated and longing and heartsick at every turn. Guaranteed.

Because love by nature is self-giving. It reaches out to cross every boundary, to bridge every gulf. If he taught us nothing else, Jesus taught us that.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Pondering the possible

Twice in the last decade I have been moved to tears because someone compared me to a literary character.

The first was an occasion I've written about previously in this blog, when my daughter Erica and I were talking about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and she wondered who I resembled in those great stories. We debated this character and that, until finally she settled on Gandalf. Now, if you know LOTR, Gandalf is perhaps the greatest, most noble character in the whole story. He is one who influences without power, who wields great power without demanding control, who carries immense wisdom but speaks with humility. I was moved to tears that my daughter, of all people, would make such a comparison.

The second time was more recent, when a friend with whom I'd been talking recently about Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books casually commented that I was like Ged, one of the main characters, and then said, "Thanks for holding off the earthquake." It's a reference to a key moment in the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, when Ged does indeed (temporarily) hold off an earthquake to allow himself and Tenar, a young woman, to escape from an underground labyrinth. Again, I was moved to tears by my friend's obvious respect in saying something like that.

Comparisons are powerful things. What literary character is most like you? It's a challenging question, and the way people around you see you might be a surprise, like it was for me.

You can do the same thing with biblical characters, and I've been worrying that question like a sore tooth for the last several months. What biblical character describes me in this season of my life? The two most likely options I've settled on are either Job or David. I have a friend who would opt for David -- he called me a few months ago saying he was going to be Nathan to my David, alluding to a scene in 2 Samuel in the Bible where the prophet Nathan confronts David with his egregious sin and moves David to abject repentance.

So David's an option.

The more intriguing possibility is Job, who lives a life of obedience to God, and precisely because of that, ends up being targeted by Satan for special suffering. First he just loses his material possessions, but then he loses his physical health and the esteem of his wife and others around him.

Now, I'm not claiming to be righteous. In this season more than most, I am keenly aware of my sin. Thing is, I've been living largely "on my face" before God for months, returning again and again to repent for the sins of which I'm aware, asking God to correct me and teach me, asking God to use my sins and my repentance to do his good work. So I don't think there's unresolved pride or unconfessed sin going on in my life, at least not that I can see, and I've begged God to reveal it if it's there.

I'm struck today, however, by an excellent sermon written by Eugene Peterson, well known for his translation of the Bible entitled The Message. If you're not familiar with it, get a copy. I was recently given a copy of a collection of Peterson's sermons. Normally I think reading other people's sermons is like watching cheap paint dry, but these are something else again. The book is entitled As Kingfishers Catch Fire which is an allusion to a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, and it's absolutely exquisite. Excellent. I highly recommend it.

In the sermon I've read today, Peterson retells the story of Job, and he points out that Job's three friends -- Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz -- are all mistaken about God and the nature of Job's problem. (God himself verifies this at the end of the book of Job.) Eliphaz, Peterson points out, is like a fundamentalist preacher who insists that if Job will just repent, things will get better. Zophar is like a housewife who has a picture in mind of how clean the house should be, and Job is a dirty spot that refuses to come clean. Bildad is that moralist who insists that Job just needs to get back in line with Bildad's carefully constructed moral system, and all will be right with the world.

And in my travels these last few months, I've met all three. I've been asked if I'm repentant. I've been told that my actions are "deeply disappointing." And I've been offered the services of those who would like to rehabilitate me, to reintroduce me to moralistic integrity.

What intrigues me about these three friends of Job is that they are utterly convinced that they have God figured out. Throughout, Job insists that he has not been punished for some sin, but that he is innocent of anything that might merit this kind of misfortune. God is acting unfairly toward him. (Note: That is not what I'm claiming about myself!) And at the end of the book of Job, God scolds Job's friends saying, "You have not spoken accurately of me, as my servant Job has." Wow!

So maybe I'm David these days. Maybe the major upheavals in my life are pretty simple, like David's were, and I should just call Nathan and ask him to walk me through a simple Romans Road of repentance. Problem solved, thank goodness.

Or maybe it's more complicated. Maybe, as Oswald Chambers wrote in his meditation for yesterday, "God called Jesus Christ to what seemed absolute disaster. And Jesus Christ called his disciples to see him put to death, leading every one of them to the place where their hearts were broken. His life was an absolute failure from every standpoint except God's. But what seemed to be a failure from man's standpoint was a triumph from God's standpoint, because God's purpose is never the same as man's purpose. This bewildering call of God comes into our lives as well. The call of God can never be understood absolutely or explained externally; it is a call that can only be perceived and understood internally by our true inner nature" (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest). One of the things that makes us dumbfounded about the story of Jesus is that if you asked any observer of his ministry, his trial, and his crucifixion whether Jesus was guilty of deep and grievous sins, they would have said, "Of course." Jesus was guilty of violating the sabbath. He was guilty of rudeness and disrespect to the religious leaders. He was guilty of blasphemy. He was guilty of pretensions to kingship. And much, much more. Jesus was the chief of sinners.

Until God vindicated him on Sunday morning when he rose from the dead.

It's a cautionary tale, to be sure, especially to those of us who are pretty sure we know what God is up to. Every time I think I have God figured out, he does something to blow my mind in a new way. And so, maybe he's working in my current challenging circumstances, or in yours, to blow our minds. To teach us that he won't be shackled and chained by our expectations. That he has greater plans than we do, and he will stop at nothing to get his purposes accomplished. And oh, by the way, he's not telling up front what those purposes are. At least not in detail.

So do the comparisons. Pull out your favorite literary or biblical character, and imagine whether you fit the comparison. But don't write your story down in permanent ink -- leave room for God to surprise you. Let him have the final word about what he says is true about you and how he might use you to accomplish his purposes, in spite of what you thought was possible.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Mythologizing life?

I was optimistic when I arrived at worship this morning. A quick look at the scripture texts for the day revealed that the epistle text was from Romans 8, starting with the passage about how the Spirit prays for us in our weakness and how God works for good in all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. The gospel text was a series of parables from Matthew 13, where Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is like yeast in dough, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a costly pearl. These parables have become especially meaningful to me lately, and the Romans text likewise carries a lot of weight the last few months in my life. So I was eager to hear the pastor expound God's word this morning.

In the meantime, the hymns and liturgy are a sort of safety net -- carrying the theological weight of the gospel, providing a basic framework that gives the worshipper a sense of what life is all about -- entering in a spirit of praise, confessing our sins and hearing God's gracious word of forgiveness, crying out "Lord, have mercy," hearing the word of God read publicly as it has been for centuries upon centuries, confessing the content of faith through a historic creed and praying together collectively. All of these things provide structure and meaning and take some of the ponderous weight of preaching off the pastor.

But I was still looking forward to the sermon, given those scripture texts.

Unfortunately, the sermon this morning didn't connect for me in any way. For me, at least. We heard about the dining habits of horseflies, how Kierkegaard was the founder of Christian existentialism, and how Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato were good examples of pre-Christian moralists. I was disappointed.

Bonhoeffer made a brief appearance, as he frequently does with this preacher, and so I got to thinking about some of Bonhoeffer's advice about the worshipping community. Interestingly enough, he was a staunch advocate for being a staunch advocate of the community you're involved in -- in other words, don't nitpick your church, but be thankful for it. Good, solid advice. Yet Bonhoeffer was also an outspoken critic of the German church in his own time, and a staunch advocate for change and internal criticism. And I wondered how he would have experienced this worship service. No doubt, he would have pointed out all that was good -- as noted above, solid hymnody, solid liturgy, excellent scripture readings. And he might have shaken his head in a good-natured way about the sermon. He preached enough to understand the ups and downs of that daunting task, and the need for both grace and high standards as the worshippers within the congregation listen to their preacher.

Then I got to thinking about something Joseph Campbell said many years ago that rolls around in my head whenever I think about the task of preaching. He was talking about artists, but I think there are huge parallels: Campbell said that the artist's task is to "mythologize life." In other words, to show what the meaning is behind life. I think preaching does much the same thing.

I was asked not too long ago what I get out of going to church. I read scripture and devotional writings every day. I have Christ-centered fellowship with other believers here and there throughout the week. I praise and pray, confess and read God's word on a daily basis. Why go to church?

This morning, sitting near the end of the worship service I thought of Campbell's words. Mythologizing life. Is that why we go to a corporate worship service that may be great or maybe not, but always connects us to a larger story? In hymns, scriptures, liturgy, and yes, maybe sermon, I am connected to the old, old story of Jesus and his love, connected to the story that God is continuing to write in my life and in the lives of all his people throughout this world. I get a sense of the "mythos" -- the meaning -- behind my life.

Or maybe it's like the wag who said, "You know why mountain climbers rope themselves together? It's to keep the sane ones from going home."

There's a tremendous temptation these days to get "sane" -- to buy into the agnostic secularism that says, this is all there is. Make the best of it and get ahead while you can. It doesn't mean anything anyway, so why worry about it? That temptation toward sanity gnaws at the underside of my life these days, and I consciously reject it every day. I know that my life is not my own, I have been bought with a price. I read the meaning of my life every day in scripture. But every once in a while it's good to gather with others and realize that there is meaning that we share. The story of Jesus and his love binds us and unites us and commissions us. We are about the work of building signposts in this life that point toward the kingdom of God.

I'm glad I went to church this morning.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Keeping the garden

I've been thinking a lot this spring and summer, being back among fields and farmers, about the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1-2. There are some important words there about what God wants his people to do and to be in this world.

In the first section of the creation story, God creates human beings and says to them that they are to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." Then he goes on and says that he has given seed-bearing plants for food, not just to people but to the rest of the animals as well.

A bit later in the second part of the story, God creates the man and places him (and later, with him, the woman) in a garden "to work it and keep it." This business of being stewards of the earth, of managing its yield, is right at the core of our calling as human beings.

So it's been amazing these past few months to be a part of delivering seed, hauling fertilizer, replenishing sprayers that are working against the "thorns and thistles" that enter the story a little later as a result of sin. In a year like this, when there is abundant rain and warm weather, the hills and prairies where I've been working do look a little like a Garden of Eden. Crops and pastures are green and full.

Still, there are many questions of stewardship. Most of the crops I see growing around me, most of the seeds I delivered early in the spring, are GMO -- genetically modified organisms. I know there are serious questions about stewardship in the face of this technology, both questions about the propriety of GMO technology and also questions about how, without some of these technological advances, we'd be able to feed the world's burgeoning population. I don't have the answers, but I've pondered the questions at some length this summer.

I have written here about my brother and sister-in-law and their cattle and the way they care so well for their herd. I'm continually impressed by the careful, labor-intensive way they provide for these animals, and the way the animals respond. Then I drive around the county and see neglected feedlots, calves kept in little isolation chambers as they're raised, turkey barns or hog barns clogged beyond breathing with too many animals, and I wonder about stewardship.

Some of the same ethical questions follow me in these reflections. How would we feed our population if the herds were spread out like my brother's animals? How could we meet demand if our land was so gently used? Important questions that don't lend themselves to easy answers.

I think part of what the story of the Garden of Eden does is it pushes us back not just on our vocational calling -- our calling to be stewards of this beautiful earth -- but also it pushes us back on our identity. We are not our own, we belong to God. It is in him that we live and move and have our being. In our work, in our stewardship, we are driven back to him because we don't have all the answers. We don't quite know how best to meet every challenge.

Whether you're a farmer or a physicist or a phy-ed teacher, your work will sooner or later drive you up against questions you can't answer. It's part of the plague of human life. I believe those unanswerable questions are designed by God to drive us back to him, back into his care and protection, to find our identity -- and eventually, to find some kind of partial answers that allow us to move forward -- in him. At the end of his life, one of the wisest people ever to live, Moses, said these words: "The hidden things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever." When you are up against hidden things, questions that defy answers, let them drive you back to God. Seek to know him, not just to know the answers to your difficult questions.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Community

It was Sunday, and I was thinking about the verse in Hebrews that says "Don't stop getting together." That's a loose translation, but gets at the idea of the verse that says basically, "Don't go it alone. Keep gathering with other Jesus-followers." It's important.

During this season of my life, loneliness has been one of my worst enemies. Recognizing that, I try to be intentional about scheduling time with others. Human beings are designed to need community, and I'm certainly no exception.

So I started the day in community with God. Read my devotions, from a couple good sources I tap into each day. Then a little time in Ephesians, which is my current biblical book of choice. In chapter 3 right now. Eventually I toddled off to worship at the little Lutheran church on top of the hill.

Going to formal worship services is difficult for me these days.  I'm not part of the community yet and that's painful and I recognize that it takes time and intentionality to become so. I sympathize with people who've told me over the years how hard it is to attend worship alone. So I come in two minutes late, during the opening hymn, and leave during the second verse of the last hymn, just before the pastor reaches the back of the sanctuary to shake hands. That's about as much as I can handle. And it's good to be there. Yesterday was a communion service, and it was good to kneel at the rail with strangers in Christ and receive a sliver of bread and a thimble full of Chardonnay (really??) and swallow the lump in my throat and take a deep breath to clear the tears from my eyes on the way back to my seat, still chewing on the words -- "The body of Christ, given for you" -- "The blood of Christ, shed for you."

After worship I drove about 90 minutes to see a good friend. We had things to talk about, and I knew I needed to unburden about a few things, so I took some time after connecting with the family to allow this good friend to hear me out and care for my still-broken heart. He did a masterful job of listening to my thoughts without passing judgment. What a gift, to be able to lay out all of one's paragraphs and see the words sifted generously! He knew better than to offer answers, but he did share some perspective that was most helpful. Then it was time for me to get on the road again.

Two hours' drive this time, to another friend who is checking in at the Mayo clinic to get some insights into his cancer treatment. I met him and his wife at a restaurant and we chatted, then attended evening devotions at the Mennonite guest house where they're staying. A young women's ensemble sang beautiful four part harmonies of traditional hymns, starting with "God Will Take Care of You" and a half dozen others. One of the leaders shared thoughts about Elijah and God's care for him after his duel with the prophets of Baal. Then we went out to Perkins for pie and good conversation, and talked (among other things) how we are daily reminded to pray for each other -- him in his brokenness, me in mine.

And I drove home northward, and the entire drive the north and west skies were full of lightning and thunderheads -- one of the most spectacular displays of God's power I've seen in many years. It was as if God showed up to say, "Is anything too difficult for me?" So the drive became a counterpoint to the beginning of my day, a time of prayer and worship and lament and holiness and grief.

What a day, right? What an incredible day of Jesus-focused fellowship! What a fantastic day of connection to other believers, to a loving community, to the great and powerful promises of God.

And yet ...

The entire philosophical system of existentialism is built around the idea that at our core, we are basically alienated. Alienated from God, nature, other humans, ourselves. And last night I felt it. After that incredible day I felt the weight of isolation.

Yet I see the wisdom in the book of Hebrews. Don't forsake the practice of gathering together. This life is hard enough to bear without cutting yourself off from love, from community. Don't do it. Keep the connections, because when life is really hard, you will need them more than ever. When you're most tempted to curl up in a ball all alone, reach out. Schedule a conversation, or walk into a worship service, or phone a friend. Talk to God. Do the community things that remind you you're not really alone, even if it feels like you are.

It's important.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Endings

I didn't hit the doe. But I was there at her death, and complicit in it. 

I have hit deer many times before. Too many: a half dozen that I can specifically remember, brakes and adrenaline and dread and sickening thud and danger and blood and death and lasting damage. It is a sad fact of life that deer and vehicles do not coexist well. 

But I didn't hit this doe. That happened earlier, and I got drawn in to the ending of her trauma. 

It was a lovely spring day and I had parked my truck along a paved two-lane road in southeastern Minnesota, waiting to refill the spraying rig my partner operates. He called and said, "There's a doe over west on the property line -- I called the sheriff's deputy and he will be here soon." I walked up the road to wait, to give directions, to be complicit in her death, and to assess. Was this really necessary?

In emergency rooms it's called triage, the idea that you have to evaluate the damage in order to give appropriate aid. Often there is a sign on the wall to remind those of us with minor ailments that "the worst go first." 

When I first saw her, she was standing fifty yards from the roadway, head down in the young corn, looking for all the world like she was grazing. Maybe it's not so bad, I thought. I've known deer to be hit and bounce back relatively quickly. One December night my daughter and I collided with a nice buck whose skull and antlers shattered my windshield, leaving a silhouette of his profile right in front of the steering wheel in the spiderwebbed glass, inches from my wide eyes. I was doing over fifty miles per hour when we collided, and he took the whole impact to his head. There's no way he could survive, we thought. So after getting safely off to the side of the road and taking a look at the spectacular damage, we went tracking. We expected to find him dead within a few yards of the road. We saw where he had spun around, fallen, crawled, and fallen again. His tracks described a crazy weave in the clean snow. Then slowly, the weave became a stagger, and the stagger became a walk, and after a quarter mile his tracks merged with a trail. We gave up, shaking our heads at the resilience of this buck. 

So I wondered about this doe. Maybe she was just recovering. I worked my way around and noticed, first, that her head never came up. She never looked around, though I was less than fifty yards away in plain sight. She was not alert -- a sure sign of trouble for a whitetail. I could see one of her back legs was obviously broken, but that doesn't define things for a deer. There was more wrong. The flies were plaguing her, but her tail never flicked to chase them away. She stood hunched over, head down, staring at but not seeing a spot five feet in front of her. She had bedded down several places here and there, and my eyes teared to think of her agony in lying down and getting up again. 

The deputy arrived and we talked briefly about the doe. I hate this part of the job, he said. He took a rifle from his truck, loaded it, and walked to within twenty yards of her agony. Her head came up then, slowly, making eye contact with the officer. One quick, precise shot to the head and she fell, twitched twice and was still. 

Mercy. 

"Thanks for all you do," I said, and he just shook his head. I walked back to my truck. 

Ending things can be a hard decision. Ecclesiastes says that "there is a time to die." How to decide when it's time for the death of a deer, a pet, a person, an idea, a relationship, a church? How to do the triage, to weigh treatment options, to opt for compassionate care or a merciful death? Ask any doctor and they will tell you that though there are important guidelines and principles, it's not an easy science. 

And beyond the science, emotion rises up and threatens to break the levees of our lives, swamping us with fears of guilt and shame. If they unplug life support, does that mean they don't love him any more? If I file for divorce, does that mean I am a failure? If we vote to close the church, are we dishonoring the generations that built it?

Endings are hard, and discerning how to handle them is harder. Triage is necessary. Discernment is crucial. And we don't always get it right. We don't have the luxury of flying into the future and looking back with 20/20 hindsight that allows us to say, "That was exactly the right decision! Why did I put it off so long?!" No, we live and love and die and grieve in the present, and -- this is important -- God knows this. 

While the people around you may well second-guess your decisions, God never does. He wraps your imperfect discernment, your fears and your hopes -- even your failures and mistakes -- into his glorious future. He takes the toughest of our endings and brings about the most beautiful resurrections. 

In a biblical view, after all, there is no hope without death. Be comforted. Grieve. Pray, and make the hard decisions. 

Mercy.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The messiest life

I often wonder why we like Jesus so much.

Most people in Jesus' own day didn't like him. At least the people that mattered didn't like him. He was trouble. They said he drank too much and ate too much and did both with the wrong people. He came from the wrong side of the kingdom, from Galilee, where young men had a reputation for being trouble. Spend any time at all with Jesus, and you could tell he was going to come to a bad end.

Yet when we tell our flannelgraph stories about him ... I suppose it's a sign of the times that spell-check doesn't recognize the word "flannelgraph" ... we make him out to be "gentle Jesus, meek and mild" and if there was ever a boy you wanted your children to hang out with, it's this blue-eyed blonde guy from Nazareth.

Not a biblical picture, however much we like it.

Jesus' life was messy. MESSY. I mean, think about it. Imagine this is the guy who is hanging out with your thirteen year old son, or worse yet your thirteen year old daughter.

He goes to a party and somehow manufactures 150 GALLONS of wine. The good stuff.

Okay, that might just be fun. And if we keep him away from the minors, he's a great guy to have around, right?

Not so much. Don't take him to church. He'll throw the furniture around and offend people.

He breaks the law. That's so much of what this comes down to -- we have people in positions of power to tell us what is RIGHT and what is WRONG and somehow Jesus always gets on the wrong side of things.

If you know anything at all about the world in which Jesus lived, or even if you just read the stories and pay attention to who is getting offended by Jesus at any given moment (usually the Really Good People) you realize that this Jesus is not necessarily going to get voted Most Likely To Succeed.

Instead, Jesus is a rabble rouser. He offends EVERYBODY. He offends the militants who want to kill Romans. He offends the Sadducees who want to placate the Romans. He offends those like the Essenes who want to withdraw into the wilderness and ignore the Romans. He offends the Pharisees who think the reason we have issues with the Romans is because we need to obey the law better. He offends Herod, whose kingly position was granted him by the Romans. He seems to offend everyone except the crowds, who love him until after Palm Sunday when somehow in a few short days they're crying for him to be crucified.

He offends his brothers and his mother, for crying out loud. So much for blood being thicker than water.

In the end, Jesus even offends his own disciples, who run away into the dark trying to save their own skins because Jesus won't take care of them or himself properly.

Jesus' only defender in the end is Pontius Pilate who declares him innocent. But rather than thanking Pilate, Jesus offends him, too, and gets himself crucified as a pretender to the kingship of Israel. "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" the sentence over his head reads for all to see. His strange kingship offends everyone from the patriots to the collaborators, the peasants to the wealthy.

A generation later, writers and followers were still trying to figure him out. The author of the New Testament book of Hebrews, right near the end of the letter written to a group of Jews who were being excluded from their religious communities, pondering the Old Testament sacrifices that had to be disposed of outside the Israelites' camp, wrote, "Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured." Despised and rejected, said the prophet Isaiah six hundred years before Jesus fulfilled the words.

So why is Christianity today such an insider religion?

Why is it that we try hard to figure out how to get more people to belong to our clubhouse churches, because if we have more people, we're more successful, we're more "In"? If you get really good at drawing people In you can write a book, host a seminar, develop a podcast. And people will flock to be In like you are.

But where is Jesus in all this?

He is still despised and rejected more often than not. He is still outside the camp. He is still doing ministry among, as a dear friend told me not long ago, the tax collectors and sinners. The holy people, the good people, the moral ones and the righteous ones are generally still offended when Jesus shows up and invites all the wrong people to the party.

For messed-up people, Jesus is nothing but mercy and hope. For the moral, the upstanding, the righteous, the in-crowd, however, his is still an abhorrently messy life.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World?

So we've been building a hayshed. It's an incredible amount of physical work, and many times we've looked at each other and said, "This is why people pay other people to do this."

But there's also something satisfying in building it yourself. And as my brother observes, it's a lot harder to carp about how it's not done right if it's you that did the work.

So all those graves -- we set tall poles in each one. And the posts stood all crooked and askew, pointing at the sky at weird angles. I thought of a very old movie where a dying man told some people about a treasure buried under "the big W" -- and they spent the rest of the movie looking for it. So as I looked at the poles, all cattywompus and crazy, I thought of moving a few of them to make them look like a big W. And that seemed, especially in that sweaty, catch your breath moment, like a lot of work. Unnecessary work. But here's a picture so you can get the idea:

All those posts stood crooked in their too-big holes like the world gone crazy. I stood there looking at them, imagining the ancient builders of Stonehenge getting their big rocks crooked and wondering what to do about it. The world's gone mad, they might have thought.

And here we had the modern rural version. Let's call it "hayhenge." Or not.

So we used a level and a string and a shovel and lots of dirt and we straightened those posts. Brought them into right relationship with the earth and with each other and with the compass points, all there in their individual graves. In biblical terms it's called "justification" -- bringing something into right relationship with the important things surrounding it.



 And the beat goes on. Not only were those posts justified, one to each other and to the earth and to the farmer's preferences, they began to serve a greater purpose. They became pillars, not just posts, that held the trusses that one day soon will hold a roof. So what seemed chaotic and crazy -- mad, in fact -- was justified.

It's what the Bible talks about when Paul in the book of Romans describes our lives being justified. We are a bit mad, all on our own, like the character in Alice in Wonderland says: "I'm mad, you're mad, we're all mad here."

And we all need to be justified, to be brought into right relationship with what's around us, with the important things, with God and his purposes for his good creation. If we let him justify us, and if we can begin to grasp what he's up to in that work (his work, not our work) we begin to serve a larger purpose. We begin to become useful to his ends and his directions, bearing a weight and serving a purpose and holding an identity we didn't have before.

So it's a mad world. And in the midst of it is a God who is at work with some crazy idea that he can rearrange it, make it good for his purposes.

It's a hopeful thought, at any rate.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dust to Dust


I've had this phrase running through my head a lot lately. Dust to dust. Mostly we think of this in association with funerals -- "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" -- meaning that we, like Adam, are from the earth and in the end, no matter how hard we fight it, we return there. I'm not sure why this phrase, more than the idea of mortality, keeps scurrying around in my mind.

Maybe it's because I'm driving truck these days, and the only days we can be in the fields are the days it's dry enough to raise dust in clouds on the rural gravel roads or the gravel parking lot where I work. Great, unwieldy clouds of dust that cover my parked car and the grass and my nose and mouth and the windshield of my truck. And every other possible surface. Dust.

Whether it's associated or not, for at least a week I've had the Civil Wars' song, "Dust to Dust" stuck in my head. Powerful song. Not really related much to funerals, but there it is.

And for the last couple days, I've been helping my brother build a shed to hold his hay. Like most construction projects, this one begins -- well, it really begins last winter with sitting at the table talking about plans and prints and production costs. But the construction phase begins with measuring and staking out the ground, and digging deep graves for the posts that will provide a skeleton for the structure.




One of our deep graves, with a mallet (not a sledge, thank goodness) for scale. And my foot.



So we have been measuring, and staking, and digging, and digging, and digging. I remember hearing about a story Leo Tolstoy wrote that asked the question, "How much earth does one man need?" It told of a law in pre-revolution Russia by which a man could claim all the land he could walk around in a day. So one particularly ambitious man began at sunrise to run, and ran a long course all throughout the day, rounding the corners in the heat and driving himself to take possession of as much land as he could. As the sun dropped toward the horizon, he stumbled toward his final stake, but just as the sun dropped, so did he -- dead, six feet short of that last marker. How much land does one man need? Six feet.

We work and dig and sweat in the field, and every so often I look into these deep holes and think about graves I have known. I've dug a few, and I've presided at many funerals and many graveside services. As a farm kid, there's something particularly holy about putting a person's last remains into the earth.

While we took a break not long ago in the cool shade under the cottonwoods, I looked up at the fluff from the cottonwood trees blowing on the breeze. At first glance it looked like dust, but it was seeds, the seeds of the cottonwood tree, drifting, trusting on the wind like tiny sailors navigating by the breath of God's Spirit.

I looked around and saw a young milkweed plant not far from my foot:

Growing like a weed, waiting for the Monarch butterflies to return from Mexico and lay their eggs underneath the tender leaves with their sticky white sap. In the fall these same milkweeds will open up boat-shaped seed pods and their fluffy seeds will also drift on the breeze toward parts unknown. I took a picture last winter of a milkweed plant that had not shed its seeds before freeze-up:














I sat this morning and watched the cottonwood seeds drifting on the wind like a dust storm. I thought about all the graves I have known, all the times I've grieved, or helped others grieve, next to a hole in the ground or a hole in their hearts. Grief is hard, and I don't think anyone gets out of this life without at least some of it on board.

It's Pentecost Sunday as I write this. I think about the story in Ezekiel's vision about how God took a bunch of old skeletons and knit flesh on them, and breathed spirit into them, and brought them to life.

From a natural point of view, we are dust and to dust we will return. We hear it on Ash Wednesday like the tolling of a somber bell over our lives. Dust you are. To dust you shall return. Be aware that your life is short, and terminal. Dust to dust.

And yet ...

Jesus said unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. There's something to grief, something to this business of facing the death of things, even of ourselves, that has the potential to bring us to life. If the Spirit of God is in the mix, it is just possible that facing death opens a door to new life. It takes a lot of trust to let your life go. It takes a lot of trust to let go and drift on the Spirit like cottonwood fluff, like the pixie dust of milkweed seeds on the breeze. But God is faithful. If God is anything, he is faithful. And he knows where each bit of fluff comes to earth, and where each one springs to life in his Spirit.








Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Cattle and the kingdom of God?

Preface: Initially I figured I'd write some reflections on the difference between "following Jesus" and "being a Christian." That's a topic that runs constantly under the surface of my life like the hum of an electrical current, and I'm constantly reminded of it in various contexts. So I was thinking about it again today, and planned to write about it ...

I got home from a moderately short (ten hour) workday, anticipating a 6 am start tomorrow, since the wind is supposed to go down and we should be able to spray all day, unlike the last couple days.

I'm going to take a shower quick before supper, I said when I got home. So I did.

Let's eat, they said. Supper was delicious.

I thought about retiring to my room, writing a blog post, and going to bed early, delightedly clean and good-smelling.

We're going to work the cattle, they said.

Oh. I said. Need help?

Yes, they said.

Plans change.

Now, let me hasten to say that my brother and his wife have a remarkable herd of Hereford cows and calves. They run a little less than 20 cows, and I don't think I've ever experienced a herd as well-tended or as carefully cared for as these cattle. My brother and his wife intentionally walk the pastures each evening, scratching and talking to as many of the animals as possible. They know each animal's individual personality. They intentionally handle the calves, interacting with them so they get used to humans in a positive way.

All this means that rather than your stereotypical images of a cowboy roping a calf either by the head or by the heels and dragging it over to a fire so it can be branded, "working" these cattle means being right down in the pen with them, in very close contact. We would select two or three or four of them, carefully move them into a smaller holding pen, and most often down into a chute too narrow for the cows, and challenging for the calves, to turn around. Then (I am not making this up) my job was to take a rag soaked in an oil-based insecticide and rubbed it first up the length of their spines, then down each leg (ever been kicked by a cow? I have -- multiple times. I remembered those times vividly tonight. But none of these cows even tried to kick me) and then across their face and around their eyes. Though not every one of the animals really enjoyed this process, and some protested significantly, this was not so challenging on the cows, who have mostly been through this process a few times over the years. But it was significantly more challenging with the calves, who sometimes get nervous and might just jump over your head or try. Fortunately none of them made serious attempts at that tonight, though it was close a couple times. My favorite moment of the whole evening was me, hip-checking a calf who is very nervous and wanting to turn around, holding one hand over the top of his head to keep him from getting the idea he can climb over me, starting to rub down his spine with my rag, when he decided to shift position significantly, and my glasses came off. I caught my glasses in the same hand that was keeping his head down and held them there while laying down across his back to reach his front hooves, then his back hooves, holding him immobile the whole time in the chute. Then I put my glasses back on, wiped my rag once across his face, and let him go.

So we wiped down each of these animals, including the herd bull. While I was doing that, my brother inserted an ear tag that helps keep flies off the animal. So all of this is helping these cattle live more comfortably and healthy through the summer.

It was a workout. Here are a few pictures:


Above you get a little idea just how closely we're working with these animals. One of the things I love about Herefords is that in general terms, they're more docile than a lot of other breeds. At this distance, that is important. 


Here you see my brother Darin in the chute, keeping a calf in place with one hip. In the next few seconds after this picture was taken, I eased in next to Darin (personal space, anyone?) and rubbed the oily insecticide on key parts of this calf that are especially vulnerable to flies and other insects. This includes laying down across the calf's back and reaching in turn down each leg all the way to the hoof, since flies love to bite cattle legs. Remember that shower I took? Yeah. Didn't last long.


Can you find Stacey in this picture? She's working in among the cows and calves trying to move those that haven't yet been treated down past where I'm standing, toward the holding pen and chute. 

After the last of the cattle were treated and tagged, including the smallest calf that was born just a month ago who was napping on the hillside and we (again, I am not making this up) walked up to the napping calf, sat down next to it and gently rubbed it with an oily rag with some bug preventative incorporated into the oil while it languorously woke from its nap. And this little calf just loved it, a little like a favorite dog that loves a good rubdown. 

Then we turned the cattle out into a new pasture where the grass is belly deep down along the creek bottom. They were incredibly excited (oh, yes, cows get excited) to get into that pasture. They wandered up and down, sampling the grass and exploring their new digs. We had to spend some time walking fencelines and making sure everything would hold them in place. Here are a couple shots of Calli (a favorite dog who loves a good rubdown) and her idea of farm work:





So after making sure the fence would keep the cattle contained, I came back to the house and washed up again. It's a long time since I worked cattle on anything like a regular basis, and it seems that every time I get to work with them, whether it's feeding them in -20 degree weather last winter for another brother while he was out of town, or what we did tonight, I love it. I love the connection with my roots, of course, but there's more to it than that. 

In some ways, it ties back into what I've been thinking about following Jesus. I just recently finished reading N.T. Wright's excellent book, The Day The Revolution Began. Wright makes the argument in this book and elsewhere that Christians have mistaken Jesus' main message. We've made Jesus all about "how can I get to heaven when I die" -- we think that in fact is what Christianity is all about, that and an agenda that each of us should be morally good and respectable -- and that doesn't seem to have even been on Jesus' radar, if you read the gospels. What Jesus talked about in great detail was the kingdom of God. That seems to be the theme he was really excited about, and he almost never talked about how you can go to heaven when you die. 

Are we missing something? 

What Jesus seems to have meant by the "kingdom of God" is that in every area of our lives, and of our world, God is King. So to understand what it looks like that God would be King, we can look at a few different images from the Bible. The garden of Eden is a good place to start. Adam and Eve are given a significant amount of authority to manage the garden as servants of God, to "till the garden and keep it." Of course, they botch it up, but wait. Have you noticed how the Bible again and again talks about a new creation? New heavens and a new earth. Peter uses a phrase I just love to describe this new creation, saying it will be "a land in which righteousness is at home." There are significant signs that Jesus was trying to communicate exactly this sense of humanity's role on this earth -- that we are entrusted by God to manage his creation, to be his "image-bearers" so that every area of our lives -- relationships, work, play, worship, and more -- reflects his identity, his love, his goodness. That theme is all over through the Bible!

So maybe, just maybe working the cattle tonight gives me a vivid image of what following Jesus looks like. What would it look like for someone who bears the image of God to keep cattle? Would they tend and care for them with diligence and affection? Would they make sure that these cattle are well loved in appropriate ways as part of a good, God-reflecting creation? I think so. And if you are a Jesus follower who is called to keep cows, I suggest that this is the kind of thing you have to think about. 

So as we finished mending fences, and I turned to walk through the lush creek bottom pasture, I looked back westward over my shoulder and saw this view -- the moon coming out over the fields and the cottonwoods. If you look close, Darin is in the picture, taking a moment off from fixing fence to talk on the phone to another cattleman who called up to tap his wisdom about how best to manage his herd. 

There's a little bit of the garden of Eden in this sweaty, stinky, oily evening, in spite of the fact that every stitch of clothing I wore as I shot this picture went immediately into the hamper when I got home. Life is messy. Even reflecting the image of God, working for his kingdom, is messy. Jesus' life may have been the messiest of all. But that's fodder for another post. 





Thursday, May 25, 2017

Treasure in a field

It's so easy to miss the good stuff.

In this transition time, I find myself at loose ends, especially when it's been raining a lot and I can't drive truck in the beautiful fields of southeastern Minnesota. So, since I am curious about the world and wonder what's out there beyond truck driving and pastoring, I've spent a lot of time the last few rainy days on job boards.

Yesterday the walls were closing in and I needed to get out of the house, so I went to downtown Red Wing to find a coffee shop. Lo and behold, what I found! The largest Caribou store in the chain (the manager explained to me) and a gorgeous old building that used to be a railroad depot, then was a restaurant, and now is an amazing, spacious, two-level beautiful coffee shop with a fireplace and a conference room and dark wood and brick and oh, my goodness.

You never know when you're going to run across a treasure. I rearranged a bit of my day today to come back here and enjoy the ambience. Delightful.

Thing is, I've driven by this Caribou dozens of times. It's a coffee shop. They're all the same, right? Wrong. So wrong. This picture doesn't really do it justice. I mean, you get the whole standard thing with their best coffees -- the Obsidian and the Mahogany and the Starlight all lined up right next to each other on the shelves, and the custom coffee mugs, the apple fritters and espresso beans and chalkboard and leather chairs and all of that. But there's something about the space, the luxurious space, that is just joyous. Welcoming.

It's a treasure. I don't know how to put it better than that.

So what do you do when you find a treasure?

You can walk by, or drive by, and smile and nod. Most of the time we do. Or you can rearrange your schedule, your circumstances, your life, and let yourself be shaped by the encounter.

One of the refrains that regularly haunts my life comes from a poster in a student lounge when I was in college. It said: "The secret of life is this: To be ready at any moment to give up all that you are for the sake of all you may become." That thought is both inspiring and terrifying.

The other day a friend said he was struggling with a question. "When was the last time I did something for the first time?" he wondered. Too often we wear ruts in the soil of our lives and miss so much.

Are you keeping your eyes open for the treasures God puts in your way? Jesus told that story, you might remember -- that the kingdom of God was like a man who found a treasure in a field, and in his joy, he went and sold all that he had in order to buy that field. It's easy just to blip over that story and not take it very seriously. But if you think much about it, it's a very challenging story.

Here's one shot of the Caribou in downtown Red Wing. It doesn't do the experience justice, but you get a little idea. It's worth the trip!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Pondering Sunday's sermon

Went to church on Sunday.

With a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines job, that was a rare pleasure out of the last few weeks. Seems like contrary to Minnesota's regular habit, Saturdays and Sundays this spring have been bright, sunny, and good for being in the field. So I haven't been in worship much lately. I've been in scripture and devotional readings and prayer and even some pretty meaty theology, often while sitting behind the wheel of an enormous truck (but not when it's moving).

But Sunday was rainy and wet and I went to church. Traditional Lutheran service. I wasn't at Faaberg Lutheran (the church where I was raised) but it was very much the same kind of thing. Fifty people in worship (including me and the pastor). Traditional hymns. Traditional liturgy. Traditional prayers and benediction. It was good.

I choked on the sermon, though. Not just because, in a sermon that used children repeatedly as illustrations, the pastor when he intended to talk about a popular restaurant slipped up and said, "Kentucky Fried Children." I can forgive that. Lord knows I've slipped up enough while preaching!

The thing that choked me was how this preacher took Jesus' words in John 14 -- "If you love me, you will obey my commandments" -- and made them into a non-specific sermon that could be summed up as follows:

Be good, or Jesus will be sad. (That is actually a direct quote from multiple points in the sermon.)

No definition of what, exactly, Jesus meant by "my commandments." No discussion of why the heart of God is impacted by sin. No parsing of what an adult is supposed to do with morality designed for five year olds ("Don't write on your little brother's face with permanent marker." Another direct quote. That and "Don't stick a knife in an electrical outlet.") No thought to the developmental stages of human beings and how, in our teen years, we undergo a major shift in how we understand "being good." No acknowledgement that more often than not, "being good" is held over people's heads as a tool to impart guilt, and thereby to maintain control.

Where I really wanted him to go was Galatians, where Paul says that the Law is our "paidegogeia," our tutor or nanny, designed to tend us until we mature and are ready for the loving freedom of the gospel. But that is dangerous and uncomfortable territory for those of us who have been raised on guilt.

The pastor did actually, to my great joy, talk a little about how we need both Law and Gospel, we need both the rules of God's Law and the freedom Jesus won for us at the cross. But that was sort of an aside, along with a nod to Bonhoeffer's idea of "cheap grace."

So what we all left with was a basic lesson in morality:

Be good, or Jesus will be sad. Like your mom was sad when you misbehaved. And it's okay for her to let you feel the weight of her sadness. It's okay for her to say, See? When you did that Mommy felt sad. Strap on your codependent guilt and get back out there, kids.

I left worship thinking about how so much preaching in the church today comes down at about that level. It lands at the level of "You need to be good" -- be good or God will be sad, be good or you'll get in trouble, be good or you're going to hell, be good or you'll miss heaven.

Isn't there more than this?

Why did Jesus go on and on about the kingdom of God? Why did he focus on that SO MUCH MORE than focusing on people going to heaven? (By the way, "kingdom of heaven" which is used primarily in Matthew's gospel is just his way of saying "kingdom of God" and doesn't necessarily have anything to do with some paradise you go to after you die.) Does "be good" really help us grow into the love of God?

Sit through an average church service and you'll hear, be good. Because Jesus wants you to.

It makes me sad. It's not the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. It's not the gospel. It's probably not even Christianity.

It was good to be in church on Sunday. There were powerful words spoken, powerful messages in the liturgy, in the hymns, in the baptism, the Lord's Prayer, the benediction. It was good to be reminded of those saints at Faaberg and of so many other gatherings of God's people. So good to be wrapped into a fellowship of believers, even if I arrived during the welcome and left during the closing hymn. It was good to hear scripture read in public, and to hear the words of Jesus lifted up in some form.

And I am pondering, pondering how we might preach, teach, live more true to Jesus' own words, to his own proclamation.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Eclipsed by glory

I had coffee with my friend Matt today. He is a vibrant young man who has been a great supporter and friend of mine for many years. I have also had the privilege of being a close friend of his family for more than a decade now.

A few years ago, Matt faced some excruciating health crises. One morning a few days before he was to go into surgery, I was praying like mad for Matt and sent him a text that included these words, quoting a popular worship song:

He is jealous for me
Loves like a hurricane, I am a tree
bending beneath 
the weight of his wind and mercy

When all of a sudden I am unaware
of these afflictions eclipsed by glory
And I realize just how beautiful you are
And how great your affections are for me

I have thought often about these words, especially the line about how "I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory". What are "these afflictions" in my life (or yours), and how do they get "eclipsed by glory"? And how could this glory of God "eclipse" them to the extent that I am "unaware" of them?

I don't know about you, but when I am in affliction I tend to get absorbed by, consumed by, totally overwhelmed by, my own suffering, whatever form it takes.

I had a long conversation with my niece the other day about loneliness. Being an introvert from a family of introverts, you wouldn't think loneliness would be an issue for her, or for me. I spent almost a week one year ago in the Boundary Waters on a solo trip, and I didn't see another human from mid-day Monday through mid-day Friday. I reveled in the solitude. I loved it, lapped it up. Never missed human company and never regretted my choice to go out into the backcountry alone. In fact, I was sad on Friday to come to the landing on Round Lake and have to talk to people. One of the ideas I've toyed with during my current time of transition is, why not take a month and head into the BWCA solo? Spend a couple thousand dollars on a good canoe and provisions, and just head out? Some small part of me yearns for that kind of solitude. At the moment, though, my guess is it wouldn't be a wise choice.

But I digress.

My niece and I talked at length about loneliness. She's got a new baby, and her husband works long hours. She's often alone with the little one in their apartment, and the lack of human companionship can be crushing. Absolutely crushing. I have a ready cadre of friends and family that I try to stay in contact with, but at times the loneliness of my days (especially rainy days when I'm not driving truck and boredom rears its ugly head) is still crushing. For many people, the worst kind of isolation, the worst loneliness, is what they experience in a crowd.

Affliction.

How is this affliction eclipsed by glory? Maybe the more important line in the song is "I am unaware" -- in other words, it's not that the affliction goes away, but that the glory of Jesus eclipses the affliction. Ever seen an eclipse? I've watched a few, both lunar and solar, and they're pretty amazing. Either the moon moves between the earth and the sun (solar eclipse) or the earth moves between the moon and the sun (lunar eclipse). The image in the song means that the glory moves between your view and the affliction. So the glory of Jesus somehow moves between you and your affliction.

So what does it look like for the glory of Jesus to move between me and my loneliness, for example? What does it look like for his presence, his glory, to eclipse my affliction?

First option is that somehow, in my devotional time, in my prayer, or in some other encounter, Jesus becomes so present to me, I experience his glory in such a tangible way, that it cuts me off from a preoccupation with my own struggles. You can read about such experiences in the writings of John of the Cross, or Teresa of Avila, or others who have focused deeply on the life of prayer. They had these kinds of experiences, and such a present, tangible sense of Jesus' presence is certainly available to believers today at times. The story goes that when Thomas Aquinas, who wrote thousands of pages of teaching that still guide the Roman Catholic Church today, who basically reinterpreted Christian theology so it could take account of the newly rediscovered writings of Aristotle -- when Thomas was near the end of his life, he slipped into a vision and upon coming back, is reported to have said, "I have seen things that make all my writings seem like straw."

But most Christians never experience that kind of direct revelation of the glory of God, at least not in an enduring way, though we may be stricken by God's glory for a moment watching a sunset or experiencing worship in a powerful way or watching a baby being born or something like that. But it's fleeting at best. And in my experience, those moments are difficult to hang onto. It is interesting that as soon as the Transfiguration was over, Jesus called Peter, James and John to come down the mountain with him, back among people. It's like he didn't want them to focus on remaining on that mountaintop.

The second option, and a much more common one, is that the glory of Jesus comes to you and me hidden, embodied, incarnate in the life of another person who bears the image of God to us. In other words, God sends you a human being to be his image, the representation of his glory, to stand between you and your afflictions, to eclipse them. This is why the fellowship of other believers is so critically important. If you have eyes to see, it can be an incredible thing to see the presence of God in someone who loves you well, who stands even for a moment between you and your hurt, your lack, your pain. In my sense of isolation today, I had no less than eight people step between me and that loneliness, eclipsing it for a few minutes or for a few hours, letting a deep, Jesus-centered connection with them make me unaware for a time of my afflictions. Most were people with whom I interacted in the flesh; a precious few were loved ones whose faces and memories I could bring to mind in the moment, cherishing their presence in a life-giving way. And if we are paying attention, these loving, lovely people who embody God's glory to us not only give us a few minutes' respite. If we are attentive they can help us to reinterpret our afflictions, to see them in a new way.

At the end of the day, I can still be overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and isolation. But -- and this is what I choose right now -- I can also focus on the glory, on the embodied glory of God in each of those individuals who carried God's image into my life and eclipsed my afflictions for a time. It can be a beautiful thing to be unaware of our afflictions, to have them eclipsed by the glory -- present and tangible -- of Jesus.