Monday, August 30, 2010

Another book

If Total Church hasn't caught your attention -- or even if it has -- I have another recommendation for you. This one is The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, a well-known pastor, thinker, and writer. Keller takes a look at the parable of the Prodigal Son (so called) in Luke 15. He says -- and I believe he's right -- we get this parable way, way wrong. Here's an excerpt:

"The hearts of the two brothers were the same. Both sons resented their father's authority and sought ways of getting out from under it. They each wanted to get into a position in which they could tell the father what to do. Each one, in other words, rebelled -- but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father's heart; both were lost sons.
"Do you realize, then, what Jesus is teaching? Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. That means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently.
"It's a shocking message: Careful obedience to God's law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God." (pp. 36-37)

By the way, I was introduced to these two books from the same source. There's a group of house churches out in western Washington state that offers leadership training seminars for people who want to explore their model of Christ-centered community as a way God is working to build his church today. Before you come, they tell you, "Read these two books."

Good choices.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Okay, I'm officially getting excited. Next week we wind up the "Joshua Journey" at Central, then the week after we have an amazing guest preacher to kick us into the book of Acts, and we get to spend the NEXT NINE MONTHS working our way through this book.

Why am I excited?

Because -- to borrow a phrase from Willow Creek -- what if what happened then, happened now? What if what happened there, happened here?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

More from Total Church

Here's another quote I like:

"We have a ghetto mentality. We think of church as the faithful few, backs against the wall. But in fact during the week we are dispersed throughout the world. We are already infiltrating the kingdom of Satan. Day by day the people in our churches are rubbing shoulders with unbelievers in their workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and clubs. We are yeast in the dough (Matthew 13:33). ... The challenge for us is to make the gospel the center of our lives not just on Sunday mornings but on Monday mornings. This means ending distinctions between 'full-timers,' 'part-timers,' and people with secular employment in our team and leadership structures. We need non-full-time leaders who can model whole-life, gospel-centered, missional living. It means thinking of our workplaces, homes, and neighborhoods as the location of mission. We need to plan and pray for gospel relationships. This means creating church cultures in which we see normal, celebrating day-to-day gospel living in the secular world and discussions of how we can use our daily routines for the gospel." (pages 36-37)

Doesn't this begin to describe the church that could actually storm the gates of hell? Doesn't this begin to diagnose what is failing in our one-hour-on-Sunday churches, our drop-the-kids-off-for-Sunday-School-and-go-out-for-brunch spirituality? What might the world look like if Christians discussed -- earnestly -- how to use our daily routines for the gospel? What would the church look like if we were committed to "pray for gospel relationships"? These are not complicated tasks, but they are certainly important -- and all too often undone.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Small churches

I've spent a lot of time in "small" churches. The congregation where I grew up, Faaberg Lutheran in Rindal, MN, averaged about 60-70 people in worship each Sunday, so we were not large. But we were the largest of the three congregations in our parish at that time. Norman and Ness, both to the south, averaged about twenty people each week in worship. Even as a child, I remember hearing the constant hum of discussion about how we'll pay the pastor, whether any of our churches needed to close their doors, whether we should realign the parish and pull in Sundal or Gary or St. Petri or Little Norway or any of the other dozens of tiny congregations around the countryside.

When I first started preaching, I cut my teeth on these three churches. I remember one Sunday in the summer of 1987 when I was supply preaching to cover for Pastor White. (Actually the Rev. Dr. Gerald C. White, an Old Testament scholar, the pastor who both confirmed me and introduced me to New Testament Greek.) I showed up at Ness for the 8 am service. Six men and one woman were in attendance. "Olga, our organist, is sick," they said. "Can you lead hymns?" So the woman and I sang the hymns and one of the men mouthed the words. Every verse to every hymn. We got through it, but it was a relief to head for Norman for the 9:45 service, knowing that Mabel would be there to play. I arrived at Norman and found out that Mabel was on vacation, and "Olga from Ness was going to fill in but she's sick. Can you lead hymns?" So we sang, again a cappella, every verse of every hymn. When I arrived at Faaberg for the 11 am service the first thing I did was check to make sure that Dorothy was there to play the organ!

Life in small congregations is different. The members live in constant awareness of the debt they owe to their parents and grandparents who established the church, who donated land and raised money for the building, who faithfully met in freezing buildings during the winter months, who scraped and saved to donate toward the new furnace. These same members look ahead with some fear that they won't be able to continue as a church -- that they will be the generation who allow the church to close its doors.

I served two congregations in Williston, North Dakota, from 1998-2003. During that time, I asked each congregation the same question: "Where do you see this church -- what do you hope -- five years from now?" At the church in town, still a small church but one that was only about fifteen years old, the question sparked lively conversation. Plans and possibilities flew around the room. When I asked the same question at the church council meeting of the country church, an older congregation whose roots go back to 1903 or 1904, the question produced dead silence. Finally the council president asked, "Why would you ask a question like that?" One of the other council members responded, "I just hope our doors are open." This was a church that had about 40 faithful people show up each Sunday for worship, a vibrant Sunday School with a dozen kids attending, and had $20,000 in savings!

Small church life is challenging. Small churches usually can't afford a full-time pastor, and often have to make stop-gap arrangements with lay preachers or a rotating schedule of preachers from other congregations. Preachers are expected to lead worship, and members handle everyday tasks like visiting sick members and tending to the administrative needs of the church. Often members of small churches feel inferior to the big churches -- the ones whose pastors write best-sellers, post sermons on the internet, who lead thriving Bible studies and take mission trips to exotic destinations like Zambia or Kazakhstan or Argentina. Small churches don't usually have a "youth group." Sunday School means grouping kids together from three or four grades with one teacher. It's a constant struggle to pay benevolence to the denomination. When the local high school asks for a donation toward the prom fund, it's a major discussion at the next church council meeting.

For all that, I believe small churches are a key ingredient in the future of the church.

In fifty years, I believe there will be four kinds of churches in this culture.

1. The regional center church that is big, has a multiple staff, and serves as a hub of ministry with lots of spokes extending out into the community, quite possibly with multiple worship sites and lots of cutting edge technology serving their ministry.

2. The church plant, which is a church that has a full-time leader but can't afford him / her. They are a mission funded by another church in order to reach people in a specific geographical area, and are growing from tiny toward self-supporting.

3. The small church which meets its own needs and is served primarily by gifts of its members. So this small church will not wait on an ordained pastor, but will meet for worship which is led by one of its members. Worship will be less formal and sermons will look more like a Bible study or conversation around the biblical text. Membership will be less than 50 and probably less than 30. Members will have a high commitment to their church, by which they will mean the people. Buildings will come and go, and most meetings will probably happen in the home of a member.

4. There will be a dwindling few hangers-on, still trying to make it as what they will call a "traditional" congregation, by which they mean that they own a building and employ an ordained pastor and have a membership of less than 200. Economically they will be headed the direction of the dinosaurs. A few will have enough endowment funds or wealthy members that they can live this way, but the basic problem with these churches is that they are primarily concerned with serving the needs of their members, so they will not gain life or vitality -- they cripple themselves by their insistence on outmoded models of church and put self interest ahead of their God-given mission. Most of the churches that continue in these old models of how to be the church will die out within the next 20-30 years, but some will hang on beyond that.

I have the utmost respect for so many small churches that continue to struggle, and sometimes thrive, in the context where God has planted them. I think a dependence on pastors is the biggest obstacle in the life of so many of these churches, and the future will require significant changes in leadership for these churches to continue.

Provocative reading!

I'm still reading Total Church. It's still a great (and sometimes challenging) book. If you have ever wished the church could look more like what the New Testament describes, this is an important book for you to be reading! I've asked our financial person, who also happens to be in charge of ordering books, to get several copies -- so with any luck we will soon have several in our bookstore.

Here's a taste from early in the book, page 35, where the authors quote from Chris Wright's The Mission of God, another book that challenges us to see things from God's perspective. This might mean:

  • We ask, "Where does God fit into the story of my life?," when the real question is "Where does my little life fit into this great story of God's mission?
  • We want to be driven by a purpose that has been tailored just right for our own individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life, including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.
  • We talk about "applying the Bible to our lives." What would it mean to apply our lives to the Bible instead, assuming the Bible to be the reality -- the real story -- to which we are called to conform ourselves?
  • We wrestle with "making the gospel relevant to the world." But in this story, God is about the business of transforming the world to fit the shape of the gospel.
  • We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission that God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God wants for the whole range of his mission.
  • I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should be asking what kind of me God wants for his mission.
If those statements and questions don't get you thinking, I don't know what will. This stuff flies directly in the face of our private, westernized version of Christianity and calls us back to honestly acting as if God is sovereign.

Good stuff.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Ranch lessons, part two -- water

Heard a story last week about a horse. We sat on the slope above a waterhole that was slowly drying up in the 105 degree heat. The rancher was talking about a horse that came to the ranch. Always before, this horse had been kept in a small pen with ample feed and water provided by her owners. On the ranch, the horses may range for miles looking for water and enough grass to sustain life. The herd of horses started the summer around one particular water hole, but as this oasis dried up, the herd wandered off in search of deeper canyons, more faithful springs. All except the new horse. Because this new horse had only ever found water in one place, she didn't go with the herd when they went looking for water. Because she'd never learned to go seeking water, she waited by the water hole, believing water would come as it always had. But no water came. The rancher had checked on her the first few days when she came to the ranch, and since she was with the herd he figured she'd be alright. Retelling the story, he looked down over the mud flats and the little seep of water in the middle. "She just thirsted to death," he said. "She didn't go with the herd to find water, and she died."

Somewhere between Montana and Minnesota on the long drive back, I thought of this story as a parable of the church. Christians have been pretty comfortable for many years doing church like we've always done it. We've found our water in an oasis of traditional hymns, liturgies, buildings set aside for worship, professional clergy, and the like. But things are heating up, and that waterhole is drying up. A few churches still make do in the mud flats around the edges, but there's not much water left there. Do we have what it takes to move? Can we look at the other horses -- I mean churches -- and see who looks like they have enough water? Where are they finding it? How are they connecting with Jesus and with his body? How are they seeking the water of life?

I've been reading a book the last few days called Total Church. If these questions get under your skin, if you feel thirsty and the temperature seems to be rising, I highly recommend it. It might challenge your ideas about what the church is and what it's called to do, but you might also find that God's Spirit is welling up through some new areas like a spring.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Ranch lessons part one -- Hobbles

These thoughts are condensed from a sermon I preached at Community Presbyterian Church in Jordan, Montana yesterday morning. It's an application of a lesson that was shared with my by three or four men who know horses very well, and though they never applied the lesson to humans in my hearing, I have no doubt they already understand well what I tried to convey. The text for the day was Luke 13:10-17.

When you want a horse to stay put, but you don't want to tie it out, you may use hobbles. You can fashion hobbles from a piece of rope, or you can use a set (like the ones I borrowed from a rancher for the sake of visual illustration) that resemble a leather belt, or perhaps more, an oversize set of leather handcuffs. The idea is that you fasten these around the horse's front legs to prevent them from wandering off too far. They have freedom to wander a little, to graze, to move, but not much.

It struck me somewhere along the way that the woman Jesus healed in Luke 13 was hobbled. Jesus even alludes to something similar at the end of the story when he talks about leading out an ox or a donkey that's been tied. She was not unable to function, but she was unable to function fully. She was slowed, stooped, bent, and could not straighten herself. Jesus removes her physical hobbles and sets her free.

That's when the story gets interesting -- because the ruler of the synagogue (a man of considerable influence and power) rebukes her, and by extension Jesus, for being healed on the Sabbath. Jesus replies by labeling the man a hypocrite -- literally, someone who wears a mask. The term originally came from the Greek theater, where actors would don a mask to portray their character, and sometimes several characters. Jesus is telling the man -- and apparently others who were indignant that Jesus broke the Sabbath laws -- that he himself is hobbled, masked. He is not free. He's like a donkey or an ox that is tied up and can't get to water.

Think about the ways we hide, the masks we wear. There is the mask of "I'm fine" when really we're deep down wounded, afraid of being hurt again. There's the mask of mindlessness when we train ourselves not to think too deeply about things, not to dig in, just to remain on the self-indulgent surface of life. There's the mask of condemnation and judgmentalism -- we direct our gaze at those who fall short and point out their flaws. This is a mask we wear in order to prevent anyone from looking too closely at us. There are tons of masks, and each one is a hobble. They limit our movement, limit our freedom, keep us from enjoying all that God created us to enjoy.

If you look at the context, this chapter is about repentance. "Repent or you will likewise perish" is Jesus' cheery advice to those concerned about the misfortunes of others. Jesus tells a story about a tree on the verge of being cut down if it doesn't produce fruit, and the gardener begs one more year in hopes there's still time for the tree to change. There's an urgency to this story, a desperate need for repentance.

Notice that both Jesus and the woman show up. They show up for worship on the Sabbath day, even though they both had other things they could be doing. Jesus shows up to teach; the woman shows up to put herself in a place where God can work if he chooses. How often do we fail even to show up? The woman does, and today is the day Jesus is there to take her hobbles off.

Repentance means, at least in part, that we come to Jesus authentically, honest about who we are and the masks we wear. He already knows our core, but this is the opportunity for us to be honest with him about what's going on. It's a chance for him to bring life and healing into our deadly, burdened, hypocritical lives.

What hobbles you? What masks do you wear? What prevents you from being authentic with Jesus? Are you going to show up today, and ask Jesus to heal you?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Murky Future

Many people today are trying to forecast the future of the church. As contemporary culture becomes less and less "Christian" and more secular, fewer people outside the church will see value in Sunday Schools, Vacation Bible Schools, or even worship services. The world will continue to walk away from any church that cannot address its needs in relevant ways. These basic human needs include:

1) the need for authentic relationships;

2) a need to dedicate ourselves to something greater than ourselves so we may see our lives as significant and meaningful, and

3) a need to feel secure, to feel that we are not at the mercy of an uncaring universe.

Faith in Jesus Christ speaks clearly to all these needs. What the church needs is an effective way to communicate God's loving call to a world that doesn't value sermons or Bible studies. This call will come within relationships of integrity and love. Christians who live in the world, but belong to Christ, can build such relationships with those who belong to the world. Through these relationships the Holy Spirit can call the world to faith in Jesus Christ.

If the church is to be faithful to its mission today, one key starting point will be equipping its members to build authentic relationships. In this context they can live out the proclamation of the gospel to a world that needs love, faith, and hope.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Breaking a Pharisee

(I wrote this several years ago ... )

Bedtime prayers in our house follow a predictable pattern. Since I’m the Dad, I pray first. I thank God for the day, for the opportunities, pray for protection, pray for guidance. Erica, age 14, goes next. She prays a prayer that is pretty much a summary of my own prayer. She often adds a request for a good night’s sleep. Mathea, being the youngest at eleven years old and eager for any attention she can get, waits for someone to prompt her. Then she prays over the highlights of the day. Julie, my wife, winds us up with a recap prayer that hits the high points. True to our form, she usually adds something or someone I have forgotten. Then we all pray the Lord’s Prayer together.

It’s as predictable as the church Christmas program. Each of us parades into prayer wearing our wings and halo. We say our memorized line (or ad lib just a little), and exit.

I hate it.

I worry that I am teaching my children to be Pharisees. Have I taught them to repeat empty phrases in prayer? Do I model a lifeless, passionless faith that is safe and dead?

As Christians we worry about appearances. We concern ourselves with how we come across to the world, but too often that same concern keeps us from being real with our children. We hide behind safe walls we believe will protect us from dishonoring our Lord – but in reality, we are hiding from other Christians, from our families, and even from God.

How can parents model a real relationship with God rather than dead hypocrisy? How can we teach our children to be disciples of Jesus, rather than religious Pharisees?

My wife and I have covered the bases of raising our children in faith. Worship is a priority in our family. We read the Bible together almost every day. Evening prayers are not optional. Christ-centered music, books, art and conversation fill our home. Yet I am often nagged by fear that all we’re doing is going through the motions.

Recently, though, I see signs of hope for my children’s faith. I stepped back to look at what’s happening and found a few important – and uncomfortable – places where the Spirit is moving in our family. I’m convinced many Christian families long to get past same-old-same-old religion. These priorities that are working for us may work for you as well:

1. Tear down the walls in prayer. Deal honestly with your own difficult issues. If you were rude to someone at work today, bring it up in prayer with your family that evening. Confess the sin, ask forgiveness, and ask for wisdom in how to correct the situation. Then invite your children and / or spouse to hold you accountable for the correction.

2. Teach your children to listen to God – then listen to your children! When we are honest in prayer as a family, we sometimes take time to discuss the issues we’ve prayed about after prayer time. Our children often have profound insights that help us deal with difficult issues. One night after we had prayed about our finances and trying to get the bills paid, my older daughter piped up, “I think we need to quit nickel-and-diming ourselves to death with lots of little things – eating out, car trips we don’t really need to take, and stuff like that.” It was one of those “ouch!” moments when you know God is speaking directly. It was also the answer we needed to hear!

3. Follow Jesus into the uncomfortable new stuff. As we began praying together as a family, we asked for specific things we knew would stretch us. My wife prayed for opportunities to share her faith, and she was asked the next week to share her testimony at a women’s retreat. (She has a tough time talking in front of others!) Because I am a pastor, I have many opportunities to tell others about Jesus in large group settings – but I have always struggled with one-on-one evangelism. We prayed about my desire to grow in this area, and within a month I had three opportunities to introduce people to Jesus, one-on-one. These were scary, hard things – but they were also exactly what we prayed for!

4. Start to see your children as ministry partners, not students. You don’t have to be the teacher, and your child doesn’t have to be the student. Ministry is a partnership, and we each have different roles. My younger daughter became a role model for me as she naturally shared her faith with friends in the neighborhood. She invited them to church and asked them why their families didn’t attend. I’m watching her and learning to be bold! My older daughter loves to play piano, and she (at 14 years old) is sharing her gifts by playing piano in our church’s worship band. Who am I to say she’s too young? She is not my student – especially not musically speaking. She is a partner in ministry!

5. Never get comfortable. Remember that God’s Spirit is working on you, and it is more about the process than any goal you’ll see this side of heaven. Keep seeking Jesus, keep asking him to work on you and on your family. When you find your family sliding back into a routine, find ways to challenge yourselves to grow together.

The hardest lesson to learn in all of this came from the mirror. Not the one in my bathroom, but the one the Holy Spirit kept holding up to my heart during bedtime prayers. I began to see that my children did not need to be broken – I did. It was my heart that was hidden away, invulnerable. I am the Pharisee living behind walls of religious habit. I need to be broken.

Each day I have to choose whether I will be real, open, humble, and transparent in my relationship with Jesus and with my family. Or I can choose to be religious. Either way, my children will follow my lead.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A cloud of witnesses

In the fall of 1993, Port Orchard’s football team made it to the state championship. Ed Fisher, the coach, was a good friend and member of our congregation. I was the youth director for several kids on the team. We perched high in the upper deck of the Tacoma Dome to watch the climactic game, cheering for our home-town team.

Hebrews 12 starts out with these words: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses …” The older I get, the less I like crowds. Going to the State Fair is an exercise in endurance for me these days. I keep thinking about making the effort to get to a Vikings game, but I haven’t been there yet – not because of the expense so much, but because of the crowd. This sense of a “crowd” is not at all what Hebrews 12 is talking about.

In the last chapter – Hebrews 11 – the author runs through a catalog of heroes from the Bible. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Deborah, and a bunch more – this long list of heroes who lived by faith, waiting for God to fulfill his promises, is the “cloud of witnesses.”

Who’s in your cloud? Who are the witnesses who have inspired your faith? Some may be Bible characters. I’ve always been partial to Barnabas in the New Testament. But many of those witnesses who surround you like a cloud are the people who have passed on faith to you. I think of my Grandma Krogstad listening to Tennessee Ernie Ford sing the Hymns of the Faith on her old record player. Or my Grandma Pederson singing “My Jesus, I Love Thee” in the back row at Faaberg Lutheran Church when I was about nine. Mom and Dad are there in that cloud, both faithful followers of Jesus who rest with him now. My sister-in-law Arlene, who used to tell me “I thought pastors and priests were these holy people, until you became one” – Arlene had a fun-loving relationship with Jesus that carried her from this life into heaven last winter.

There is a great cloud of people surrounding you and me like the masses in the stadium at a football game. We are still on the playing field – but the cheers of the cloud (not crowd) spur us on.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


I'm taking a few days off. However, I know that some of you actually check back and read stuff that gets posted here and for some of you, this blog has even become a part of your relationship with God, giving you things to chew on and pray about. (Believe me, that is humbling for me.) So during my few days off, I'll be auto-posting some old writings that may offer a few tidbits for thought. Feel free to post responses or to email me and I'll respond as I'm able!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scriptural questions

For the last several months at Central Lutheran in Elk River, we've been walking through the book of Joshua. Not many preachers get a chance to preach through this amazing Old Testament book. There are so many powerful lessons in this book for the life of the church today! From the first chapter and God's admonition to Joshua to "be strong and courageous," to the observation that the Israelites need to follow closely after the Ark of the Covenant because "you have not been this way before" to Joshua's dying challenge to the Israelites to "choose this day whom you will serve" -- the church has a lot to learn from Joshua.

So I've been impressed all summer with these lessons; but now we are anticipating a change of focus. September 12 we will kick off into new territory -- we'll be spending the next program year (September through May) preaching through the book of Acts. With the groundwork of the book of Joshua, I think Acts is going to come alive!

Currently I'm anticipating the next time I personally will be preaching at Central. It will be the very last Sunday of our Joshua journey, and the text will be from Judges 2. There we see the consequences of Joshua's failure to effectively pass on the faith. We read that Israel faithfully served God during the life of Joshua and during the lives of the elders who had served with Joshua. But then, tragically, a generation grew up who did not know the Lord.

How appropriate is this for us, when so many of our churches are populated by elders and we struggle to connect with younger people? How appropriate for us when, in the last generation or two, the church has drifted from the center of people's focus and consciousness out into the margins of society, where we compete on any given Sunday morning with sports leagues and golf courses and Nascar? A generation has indeed grown up which, by and large, does not know the Lord. This speaks volumes about how our witness has fallen short.

What are the solutions? Or to ask the question differently, where is God leading in this time? I don't believe any of this takes God by surprise. So what's he up to?

More thoughts on this in the coming weeks, I guarantee it ...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gardening thought

So I'm in the garden this morning, and our garden is producing like nobody's business. We've got about four weeks worth of "daily bread" provided on the vine via cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, and I'm not even counting summer squash and zucchini.

We have a family gathering tonight at my sister's place, and I blithely said two days ago, "We'll bring a salad" -- thinking that we could just whip something up out of the garden. I went to the garden this morning and picked a little of this, a little of that, brought it in the house and found a recipe using most of it. Whipped it up, and ... bleah. It's not bad, it's just not zippy. Snapping. Amazing. Delectable. It's sort of like the fried-potatoes-and-leftover-hamburger-patties of summer salads. I wish I could totally start over.

Isn't this how we are? God has provided amazing bounty and beauty. A few hours ago I was totally blown away by the way God has served up our incredible garden. But now I'm wanting to pitch the whole thing because my taste buds aren't being titillated the way I had hoped.

So often God provides far more than I need, and actually far more than I ask, but the packaging is wrong, or worse yet the way I fix up what God has provided doesn't turn out like I hoped. So I get down about it and want to pitch the whole works and start over. Talk about ungrateful.

So I'm going to try one more thing -- a little dill -- and if that doesn't work I'll bring it to the gathering tonight and say, "All this stuff came out of our garden -- it's pretty amazing. But next time I think I'll try a different dressing." And everyone will eat it, and someone will probably have a suggestion that would fix the whole thing. And next time it will be better. Or not. But God has still provided far more than I could have asked or imagined, and I am determined to remember to be grateful.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Not quite The Cave (with apologies to Plato)

My family just returned from ten days in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. This is something we do nearly every year -- go far away from the crowds and the noise into the wilderness. It's sanity time, family time, time to challenge ourselves, time to think and talk and play and reflect and maybe fish.

There's time to think when you don't have to worry about emails and deadlines and phone calls and traffic jams. So here's one small part of what I was thinking about as I was carrying a canoe over a portage.

Everybody's Portaging a Canoe

When you're portaging a canoe, your world gets very small. It's about four feet high, six feet wide and maybe twenty or thirty feet long. It's limited by what you can see under the canoe, to either side, and a few yards down the trail in front of you. You don't see the trees, unless low branches get in your way. You don't see the sunshine, for the canoe blocks it out. You are so focused on not stumbling, on where you should put your foot next, that you probably don't even notice berries growing next to the trail.

Everybody's portaging a canoe in this life. We carry our burdens and they close our world down until it is very small. Narrow. Dim. We get so focused on the next step or two that we fail to see the grandeur around us.

The trail is narrow, and when we meet another person who is going the other direction, it's difficult. We need to pause and step to the side until they pass. We may get resentful. Why can't they let me alone to bear this burden and get on with it?

Every now and then, someone comes along who talks of things we can hardly imagine. They aren't carrying a canoe, apparently, and they talk of treetops and sunshine, of wide vistas and beautiful panoramas. They speak about strange things we can't imagine, things like horizons and sky and clouds. Weird. These are prophets and visionaries and crazy people. (The line between these three categories is shady at best.)

We plod on, one step in front of the other, over the tree roots, careful of the rocks, watch your step on the gravel. We dream of a day when we will come to the end of the portage, when we will set down this canoe and lay our burdens inside it, and this thing that we have carried will carry us. We will be there under the open sky, out on the water, with beautiful panoramic views of lakes and hills and horizons stretching on as far as the eye can see.

Oh, every now and then we come to a hilltop and our world opens up. Instead of seeing twenty feet ahead maybe I can see fifty, or a hundred. Moments like these we call perspective, or retreat, or epiphany, or vision. But when we turn our steps down the hill, the bow of the canoe overhead descends and the world closes in again.

We plod along under our canoes, and the sky and the treetops seem like so much cotton candy. They're not real. How could they be? All that's real is this narrow world of mine -- four feet by six by twenty. Plod. Plod. Oh, my aching shoulders!

What if the prophets are right? What if there was a way to lay our burdens down, to gain some perspective, to see things as they really are rather than how we imagine them? What if the limits on my sight are the illusion, and there really is a beautiful reality surrounding me every moment that I have just failed to see?

Jesus said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Into the Wilderness -- Part 3 of 2

Things have changed.

An example: Two generations ago, a Pastor was an important person. He was considered a pillar of the community. Small towns with small churches took great pride in having (and keeping) a Pastor. He was a learned man (sorry, ladies). In a very literal sense, he spoke for God.

Then, in the course of just a couple generations, we learned that God was dead. We learned that the Bible wasn’t a trustworthy book. It was unscientific and belonged in the category of “myth”. We learned that Jesus was simply a wandering sage, a healer among many healers in his time. Worse, we heard he was a womanizer or a latent homosexual. We learned that the Beatles were more popular than he was.

Then we learned that the Pastor who spoke for Jesus had been abusing children and having affairs with parishioners. We saw tearful confessions on television of giants – men who had built empires on broadcasting the gospel – about unfaithfulness, about pornography, about lust, about unethical financial dealings. These things had been going on for years. That was part of the shock – we learned that we had bought an illusion. We had followed a lie.

The culture learned that the Pastor was just another guy, and a hypocrite to boot. Instead of getting free meals in local restaurants, the Pastor began to get suspicious looks. Denominations scrambled to write “Sexual Misconduct Policies”. Christians either hung their heads or buried them in the sand.

Today, if you watch television and movies, the Pastor is either a wimpy guy who Really Loves Everybody, a thug who beats up the bad guys in order to defeat Satan, or a wild-eyed zealot whose belief is just doubt in extremist clothing.

Things have changed.

Like the Israelite slaves in Egypt, at times we look around wondering “What happened?” Why don’t young people come to church anymore? Why don’t the younger women attend Ladies Aid? Why do people bring store-bought fried chicken to a potluck?”

In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, many of our churches are still trying to make a go of it in Egypt. We are trying to recapture that status we used to have, trying to do things the way we used to. If someone challenges our practices, we are quick to get defensive. There’s an old joke about my denomination:

Question: How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Change? What do you mean, “Change”? You know, the last guy who thought we needed to change things around here, he goes to church across town. You might want to think about that before you start talking about “Change,” mister.

Humor is usually the truth that is too painful for us to take seriously.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Into the Wilderness -- Part 2 of 2

The church today has wandered into a wilderness we did not choose. Too many churches are burdened with too much baggage, too many trivial concerns. We miss the call of Jesus when he says, “Follow me!” At times we are not even sure how to be the church today.

Many people have chronicled the passage of Christendom, that age of the church’s power and influence over western culture. Today the church is in transition. Her power and influence are not gone, but they are faded. This is not just a transition from one stage of human life to another – a graduation, a firstborn child. Rather, this is a transition that will take generations. No human knows at this point what the end of this wilderness will be – if indeed it will have an end; perhaps we have moved into an age when constant change demands constant transition. Perhaps the church will learn to function in ways unlike anything we have known up to this point. We are faced with our own fear of the unfamiliar.

Yet the church is called to follow Christ into this wilderness. Like the deserts in the Bible, wilderness is a place both of testing and preparation. In addition, the wilderness can be a place of intense beauty and powerful revelation. I believe that the Holy Spirit is making use of all these aspects of wilderness to shape the church into the image of Christ. The God who calls us beyond Christendom is faithful. Rather than sit in the ruined sanctuaries of an age gone by, he calls us to follow his promises, listen to his voice, seek his face.

My favorite part of going into the wilderness is that it forces me to see things clearly. No TV, no CD’s, no radio, no Personal Digital Assistants, no laptops, no cell phones. I love to be in the company of trees and rocks. It’s easier for me to hear the voice of Jesus in those places where the sky and the water and the land come together. My heart is healed, my mind uncluttered as I learn again to cling only to him.

As the church looks for a way in this wilderness, I believe we need to let go of many things. The quest for power is a big one. The trappings of prestige. Worldly authority. The Way It’s Always Been Done. We must drop these distractions and cling to Christ. Perhaps that is the most important lesson he wants us to learn in this wilderness.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Into the Wilderness -- Part 1 of 2

It was the gorgeous summer of 1990. Julie and I were celebrating our first anniversary with a backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. Although it was July, we expected to see patches of snow “up there.” We had prepared carefully, planned food and gear and each day’s mileage down to the last possible detail. We would be leaving civilization behind, trekking into the wilderness. It was serious business.

Neither of us were strangers to the outdoors. Julie had led backpacking trips as part of her ministry at a Bible camp during college. I had been hunting and camping most of my life. A year earlier on our honeymoon we went whitewater rafting. We were not intimidated by the mountains, but we respected them.

Not far into the first day’s hike we realized we had been too optimistic. Julie’s pack didn’t fit quite right, and the straps were digging into her neck. Climbing uphill was even tougher than we had anticipated. And to top it all off, just a few miles up the trail we were confronted by a tangled mess of trees across the trail. It was an avalanche path from the previous winter, and no maintenance crews had been out to clear the trail yet. Rather than tackle a two hundred yard swath of tree trunks thrown around like matchsticks, we decided to take it easy and camp for the night. The next day we could conquer the avalanche path, when our legs were not so shaky and sweat wasn’t dripping in our eyes.

Crossing that pathway the next morning was worse than we anticipated. It took a good hour to get over, under, and through the impossible mess. The worst part was passing the packs through narrow openings where we could not carry them on our backs. We climbed on, through alpine meadows and stands of scruffy trees. Another three miles in – and up – we encountered our first snow field. The trail had not been traveled yet this season. A field of clean, white snow lay before us, straddling the trail and disappearing down the treacherous slope to our left. We loosened our packs (in case we fell) and tightened our shoelaces (to avoid falling). Step by careful step we plodded across the snowfield. On the far side we congratulated ourselves at being alive. We walked a quarter mile more to the second snowfield. Now we were old hands at this. We paused to check our gear before negotiating this difficult obstacle.

Then he appeared. One second I was tightening my shoelaces, and the next he was smiling, “Excuse me!” and bounding past me on the trail. His appearance burned into my mind: Sunglasses. Running shorts. Fanny pack. Low-top, high-tech, ultra-light-weight hiking boots. His shirt was looped through the belt of his fanny pack and his bronze skin gleamed in the sun with a light misting of sweat. A water bottle hung on his hip. He bounded across the snowfield, never missing a stride, and ran on up the trail.

I’m quite sure our jaws were hanging open. Who did he think he was, treating the mountains like that? How irresponsible. No common sense. But … Wow! He had left the parking area, several miles below, and ran – up the trails, over the tangle of avalanche felled trees, through the meadows and over the snow and past us – all in the space of a few hours. And he obviously planned to run over the pass ahead, around the lake, and down the spur that led through the river bottom to the west, back to the parking area. At least ten miles.

As we plodded on, we talked about the amazing figure of the running man. I think we had to talk about him, just to make sure we had not imagined him. Finally we reached the pass – a narrow place affectionately known as “the Catwalk”. There we found mountain goat tracks on a windy defile where the slope fell away five hundred feet to the left and eight hundred feet to the right. And the runner had been there before us.

After leaving the Catwalk, we passed from a slope that faced more or less south to one that faced north. It was completely covered with snow, deeper than our heads in places. On our own, we would have been at a loss where to go next. The trail markers were covered with snow. But the runner had been there before us. His footprints never faltered, never wandered. He knew the trail well. Print after print, those footsteps were like silent words that whispered directions to us. Across the slope, over the ice bridge across the gorge where we could hear water running below our feet, through the trees poking partway up through the snow – we followed him across at least a half mile of unmarked snow before the trail became visible again.

In the years since that time, I have often thought of that runner. He has become a sort of picture of Jesus for me. So often I feel at a loss, without direction, not knowing where to go or how to get there. As a husband, a father, a son, a pastor … there are days it seems like I’m just making it up as I go along. Yet in those hopeless fields, there are tracks to follow. There is a Savior who promises to show me the way. Though I am weak and timid, he is faithful.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A prayer

When my daughters were small, they liked to play a game called “Tick Tock.” I would hold one of them upside-down, by the ankles, and swing her back and forth like a pendulum. (First we moved all the living room furniture out of the way.) As she swung higher and higher, farther and farther, in the midst of her giggles she would say, “Tick … tock … tick … tock…” until finally she was swinging high enough, and I would throw her up in the air at one end of her swing, take a quick step to the side, and catch her in my arms.

I pray to have a relationship of trust like that with my Heavenly Father – when I can enter into the game and be delighted in the absolute confidence that my loving Father will always catch me.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Going Home

Here's a piece I wrote about a year ago. Just to warn you, it's pretty long.

I am home.

Not the home where I live, that I share with Julie, Erica, Teya, the dogs, the ducks, and the neighbors.

I am home, in the house where I grew up. It is silent here, except for the teapot suffering its last gasps as it cools down (I’ve been making coffee -- apparently my brother’s automatic drip machine bit the dust). And the severe wind rumbles out of the northwest, throwing tree branches and sparrows around.

I just arrived, and I haven’t turned any lights on yet. I wonder about that. I’ve been wandering around the old house, remembering. This is -- and will always be -- Mom’s kitchen. It is still very much the way she decorated it in the late 70’s. Her clock and her old colored glass bottles sit high atop the cupboards. The radio -- it was always tuned to 1260 KROX, Crookston in the mornings -- still rests on top of the stove. Mom died nearly fifteen years ago, and since that time the kitchen has been occupied by men who do not redecorate. No, that’s not true. My brother has done some cool things with other parts of the house, but the kitchen still belongs to Mom.

I spent a few minutes rereading the titles of books on the shelf in the living room. Dad’s books, mostly, except for my sister’s copy of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Many of the titles have either the word “wilderness” or “Old West” in the titles. Evenings Dad would settle into his recliner and pore through a book, or sometimes a newspaper. He loved to read. The date on his tombstone reads “2000” -- nine years ago. I stopped there on the way here. Drove the track off the road, out behind Faaberg Lutheran Church, and crouched for a few minutes at their graves. Their bodies rest at the southeast corner of the cemetery. I set my face into the wind, crouching there, and looked left across my uncle’s sandy field, across the creek, up the hill a mile away to the home place. I love the fact that you can see there from here and here from there. Those two invested so much of their lives in this house, on this soil, and it just seems right that their final earthly resting place should have a view of home.

I remember when we buried Dad. I walked out in the cemetery -- cold, it was Thanksgiving week -- to check out the grave site. We buried Mom there six years before. They had broken through the first inch or so of frost to dig in the sandy soil, down six feet, but they had not yet put Dad’s concrete vault in the hole. So I could look down into the sand and see where the soil had sloughed away, see the side of Mom’s vault down there in the earth. Just a few square inches of concrete showing through, you understand, nothing morbid. But it gave me great comfort that cold day to think that they would lie just a few inches apart -- not quite touching, as I had seen them not quite touching most of my life, but close. Close like I had seen them all my years at home, within reach but never needing the reassurance of actually reaching out. Knowing where the other stood.

As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on ghosts. Who knows what goes on for troubled spirits after death? I’d figure the matter was pretty well settled except for the strange story in the Old Testament of Saul and the witch of Endor calling up Samuel’s ghost. So I’m not sure. I figure the Bible teachers who claim they have all of that figured out need to go back and read their Bibles more carefully -- read for the silent places, the places where the Bible is frustratingly mute. I think the silences are inspired by God, too.

I don’t know what to think about ghosts. But for me, this landscape is packed with them. Maybe that’s just memory run amok. But I wander the cemetery and read their names on the stones, and they leap out of the ground and I listen to them speak at church meetings, or I overhear them laughing at the table during the Memorial Day dinner. People I barely knew, or knew only by face, climb out of the ground to populate the memories of my childhood. I remember the apocryphal stories about people and farms. I remember their clothes, their expressions, their children and grandchildren.

I have forgotten so much. It is because I don’t live here any more, and visit so rarely. My life is in another place now, far to the south. The boxelder and aspen trees in my yard have tiny leaves opening to the wind today, but the trees here are still trapped in buds.

Five hours in the car. I left the radio off nearly the whole trip. Lots of time to think. Lots of time to remember. Lots of time to let my mind and my heart open for the all-too-brief visit I have here.

There are so many things I want to do. I’d like to stop over at my oldest friend Kevin’s place, catch him in the middle of switching the milking machine from one cow to the next. We were like brothers from different families, and I haven’t talked to him in months. His parents are getting older -- the second set of parents I neglected, after my own -- and I would like to say hello.

I want to do something stupid -- I want to haul this laptop up a tree into a deer stand. I want to sit up in the tree for a while and write what I think while I’m on stand. It’s too windy for the deer to be moving; wind to a whitetail is like sandpaper on their already-abraded nerves.

I want to wander. Just walk like I used to do day after day. Down to the creek, to see if the spring flooding has changed the crossing places. Only now I would be looking for changes that come from -- what -- ten years of floods? When was the last time I walked that creek? I used to know every foot of the banks, every pool and puddle. I’d like to see if there’s still a deep pool north of the fallen log down in the pasture, the pool I walked through in the dark one night, mistaking the crossing -- and ended up neck-deep. I’d like to walk through the north pasture, through the woods. I was there last fall, hunting, but only for a couple hours and only on one tree stand.

There are other possibilities that scare me. I toy with the idea of going into town and getting supper someplace tonight -- today is my brother’s birthday -- but the idea of seeing people I should know bothers me. I feel guilty. Then there are middle aged guys who come up to me -- they have crow’s feet around their eyes and their skin is going patchy and rough. They call me by my elementary school nicknames. “Clenchy! What are you doing here? Haven’t seen you for years! What are you doing these days?” How to answer that? I can launch into the story -- “I’m happily married to a woman you’ve never met, and she’s so patient and she has stuck with me through twenty years of marriage now. My daughters are 17 and 14, they’re really smart. Erica plays a mean piano and Teya keeps ducks and I love them both like crazy. They’re more talented and more well adjusted than I ever dreamed of being. I’ve got a great job as a pastor in a big church. Yeah, really big -- over a thousand in worship services each Sunday. No, I’m not the senior pastor, and I don’t want to be. I mostly teach classes, and I love it. I still bowhunt, though I’m not very good at it, and I love mountain biking, and I’ve got a book coming out this summer. My first. I’m pretty proud, but it didn’t turn out quite like I wanted. So I’m thinking about what to write next.”

After the first three words, they’d tune out. They’d be happy for me, and they’d spread the word around town that they’d seen me, and that encounter would become part of the “Have you been in touch with anyone else from our class?” that gets exchanged like nickels and dimes when we brush up against each other’s lives.

It scares me a little bit, because I don’t live here anymore. I don’t know these people. I have become an outsider in my own home. If I think about that too long, I start to have trouble breathing.

I spent years leaving this place. The first time I really left I was seventeen. Got on a Greyhound in Grand Forks and got off in Seattle. The homesickness that fall nearly killed me. I remember leaving this farm once when I was twenty-four. I was living in Washington then, married and making payments on a house ten miles west of Seattle. Julie and I had been here for a brief visit. I knew, driving away, that I wouldn’t be back for a long time. A year at least, maybe a couple years. As we drove out the driveway, I watched it roll past me, roll behind me, roll into my past. And driving along the alfalfa field next to the oaks, great wrenching sobs tore out of my throat and I tried but failed to explain to Julie that it wasn’t missing the people, though I love them, it was the place. You can pick up a phone and reconnect with a person. You can read their handwriting (we still exchanged paper letters in those days.) But you can’t telephone the smell of the alfalfa on a July morning as the dew is coming off, or the texture of the bark on the oaks in Gene’s woods, or the clammy feel of earth as you’re digging around the roots of a poplar. Just the shape of the hills. The swell of earth under the crops. I come back here now and I see trees, old trees, fallen and decaying. I remember them on that drive out of the driveway, sobs catching in my throat, and those trees were no taller than I was. Now they are old and dead and going back to the soil.

I suppose in a sense it’s the Gerard Manley Hopkins thing -- “It is Margaret you mourn for.” I sob for myself, for my own death and decay. That’s today. But in another sense it’s really not about death, it’s about relationship. Is it possible to have a relationship with a landscape? Oh, yes. It would be interesting to know how many hours I spent between zero and seventeen playing in this landscape. The summer I was twelve, when I spent twenty or thirty hours over a couple weeks observing a pair of blue-winged teal in the swamp just south of the mailbox. Just sitting in the tall grass, watching. Or the next spring I spent up to my knees in water, catching fairy shrimp in the meltwater over in MacMahan’s woods. The moonlit nights on cross-country skis crossing the pastures, sitting on the hilltops and just taking it all in. How many hours?

One rainy day when I was a child my older brothers and I spent four or five hours wandering our old house -- the present structure was built in two stages, part in 1907 and part in 1914 -- looking for what we called “irregularities.” A wall that bowed out a bit, a piece of trim that was crooked, plaster that dried without the proper texture. These were not imperfections, but rather the beautiful unique things that represented the hours of work of the real people who made this house. I realize now that I spent most of my childhood doing exactly that with the landscape around here. Getting to know the enormous rock that for years worked its way farther into the world from the depths of the earth in the field south of the driveway. It was like watching a very slow resurrection as that rock came out of the soil a quarter inch at a time. Learning about the hidden grassy glades in the south woods, the places the deer like to bed on warm days. Memorizing the twists and turns of tree trunks, or absorbing the way the setting sun gleamed through the holes in the west wall of the old wooden barn, long since fallen.

The summer I was eighteen after my first year away at college I lived with my parents. It was terrible for them and for me. I chafed under their legitimate desire to know where I would be and what I’d be up to. They never tried to limit my comings and goings, they just wanted to know when I’d be around the house. They had missed me, too, and hoped I’d spend some time at home. In spite of my desperate homesickness I hated home and resented them. So to bleed off tension that summer I developed the habit of wandering at night -- going out in the middle of the night and wandering the landscape. Walking through the pastures and the woods. One moonless night I navigated the north pasture totally by feel. I knew every tree, every trail. Those nights I would return to my bed about two or three in the morning and sleep contented. I was reconnected with my roots, and life flowed from the hard bones of the land into my body, into my soul. Many times I have longed to repeat that summer -- to dig deep into this place again. To have enough time here that I can reconnect with some of the people I have missed. To visit in more than teaspoonfuls.

In his poetry, Gerard Manley Hopkins -- who was thoroughly manic depressive -- used a technique that a critic somewhere along the way labeled “inscape.” He described the state of his heart by describing an outer landscape. This “inscape” became a way for Hopkins to tell some of the things that were either too beautiful or too painful to describe directly. His “inscapes” draw me in and help me see.

I think part of what I’m trying to do by going home is to get a look at my own inner landscape. I want to understand my heart better. I find myself mystified by the drives and fears that shape my days. Seems like I should know myself by my 40’s but that’s just not the case. I know more than I did in my 20’s -- thank goodness -- but I’m still shocked by my behavior sometimes.

So I drive these roads, communing with the ghosts. I sit in this house and hear their voices, remember the silent mealtimes, the long adult conversations while we children listened at the vent in the floor upstairs. I remember cool rain on the hot roof of the attic. Summer days I remember climbing so high in the pine on the lower driveway that the branches barely held my weight, or swinging on the rope in the woods below the shop. I lie back in the warm waters of my father’s love-hate relationship with this farm. I hear again the fragments of stories, stories of people I loved but never met. Uncle Earl, home on a brief leave before his unit shipped out for Normandy, where he would die in the water. Grandpa Richard, who died before I was born, holding the plat measurements of the “town” of Rindal in his head, pacing them off and reciting them to Palmer, who told me the story the morning after a storm took down most of the trees between his house and ours. Gulbrand, my great grandfather, bitter and mean in his dotage trying to pinch my mother and her sister, little girls who played too close to his long fingers. They lie in the cemetery now, and the rising sun casts the long shadow of the steeple over their graves, so when the saints march in to worship at Faaberg Evangelical Norwegian Lutheran Church on a Sunday morning they are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, row on row like corn, hearing from their place in the ground the echoes of the organ, the pipes vibrant with the strain, “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation, and bring me home, what joy shall fill my heart; then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, ‘My God, how great Thou art!’”