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Sunday, October 31, 2010


This has been a busy weekend. I was technically off on Friday; had an old college friend stop in for lunch -- we hadn't seen each other for about 15 years, so that was a kick. But the upcoming busy weekend also meant that besides enjoying lunch, I spent a lot of "free time" on Friday doing prep work. That's the reality of what I do, much of the time.

Friday evening we went down to Bethel University where my elder daughter lives in a Wizard-of-Oz-style whirlwind of activities, jobs, and occasionally classes. It was Family Weekend at Bethel, so we got to attend the Family Weekend Wind Symphony Concert, which was quite enjoyable. I do have to confess, however, that I'm not very good at shutting off my brain and so I drew up notes for Saturday morning's breakout presentation during the concert. Multitasking.

Saturday morning dawned bright and early. I was the chief grand poobah for Central's "Get Infused" seminar about the Bible, which means I was overseeing logistics, doing the large group sessions, making sure facility was ready, etc., and a few other odds and ends. The seminar was amazing, everything went better than I expected, and only in retrospect did I see half a dozen things I wish I'd done different. But all in all I was pleased with how it turned out. The seminar went 8-11 am, so I was at Central by 6:30 and left about 11:30 after all was said and done, ran home and grabbed a quick lunch thanks to Julie who had it all ready to go, ate quickly, and we jumped out the door to drive back down to Bethel to watch the Bethel Royals take on the Concordia (Moorhead) Cobbers on the football field. Great game, got to sit with Erica and some of her friends and their folks, beautiful day to watch a game, and by the middle of the fourth quarter it was a rout (Bethel was victorious) so we left to drop off a few items for Erica and head back north to Elk River where Julie dropped me off at the church again for Alpha. Met with the leaders, gave the large group talk, enjoyed catching up with a few of the team members during the small groups' time, visited with a few participants as it was all breaking up, cleaned things up and got home by about 10 pm.

Sunday morning I wrote my 1/3 of the sermon -- we were doing something innovative with Paul, Sonja, and me each preaching a portion of the sermon -- while I made breakfast and got ready and drove to Central. Got to church for the usual Sunday morning whirlwind of activity, faces, conversations, etc., which I always enjoy. Then at two p.m. back at Central for the Confirmation worship service, which lasted until 4 pm by the time I finally got a piece of Confirmation cake. So tonight I relaxed and watched the Patriots make my Vikings look bad -- it wasn't too tough -- and then Julie and I needed to have our November budget discussion, which we try pretty hard to get done before the first of the month, which is tomorrow.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because in the odd peaceful moment here and there, I wonder why we as a culture are so proud of our busy schedules. We compare how hectic our lives are. We feel somehow vindicated -- or at least important -- if someone wants to get together and we just can't. Too much going on.

Why do we want to be busy?

Oh, you say, I don't want to be busy, I would love to have a peaceful weekend, I don't want my life to be like this. Of course you do. I grouse about my busy schedule frequently, but do I change it? No. So either 1) I'm in bondage to some fearsome power that forces me to overschedule myself, or 2) I'm choosing this pattern for my life. Or maybe a little of both.

It would be easier if it was all #1 above. If there was a giant, or a demon, or a dictator who forced my busy-ness, I would be off the hook. But I daresay that at least most of my hectic pace is of my own choosing. And so is yours.


I wonder if, deep down, we believe we're worth more if we're working harder. My younger daughter is taking a bunch of difficult classes, playing piano for a couple extracurricular things, and has a vibrant social life. I see her trying to hold everything together and I wonder why she does that? (Of course, I should look in the mirror ...)

I listen to conversations in restaurants and hallways and I believe we think our worth is directly proportional to our stress. When I have a weekend like I've just had, I need to be very, very careful, because I can easily get addicted to the adrenaline rush of overscheduled life. Tonight I'm looking around and thinking, "How much more can I fit in over the next few days?" I think, "I'll get so much done!" But the things I end up doing are cheap plastic imitations most of the time. Too often I need authentic relationships, but I'm addicted to facebook.

What would it look like if we didn't just take a weekend, or a day, or a vacation once a year -- what would it look like if we adjusted our schedules so that we worked at about 80% of our capacity? What if there was time in my day to be interrupted? What if I regularly spent time pondering things, listening to the wind in the trees, watching the clouds move? What if I had energy for last minute things that might come up? Many days those last minute things would not come up at all, and I'd be tempted to think I was wasting time. But maybe I would learn something valuable in those "wasted" moments -- something the Bible consistently points me toward, but I usually hare off in another direction:

"In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength ..." God said this through the prophet Isaiah a few thousand years ago. (See Isaiah 30.) The saddest part of this verse is the last phrase. God lays out this beautiful promise, but then observes, "... but you would have none of it." If ever a verse was written to describe me and my culture, this is it!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Book Discussion reminder

Our book discussion of Total Church continues, November 4th (Thursday), 7 pm, at Dunn Brothers in Elk River. There are still a couple copies of the book in Central's bookstore. The other night we talked through page 50 -- lots to think about! November 4th we'll dive into section two, where "Gospel and Community" starts to get very practical. Join us!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The weather and God's sovereignty

How often do we pray about the weather? Farmers and golfers pray about the weather. People hosting picnics and parties, hunters ... we all pray about the weather. Sometimes our prayers are answered the way we want, other times not so much.

I was on the train to Seattle a few years ago and met a man from San Diego. He said, "I don't know how you people can live in this part of the world. In San Diego, if I plan a party for three years from next March, I know that the weather will be seventy degrees and sunny." I acknowledged that it might be nice to live in such a predictable environment, but then a question occurred to me. "What do people in San Diego talk about?"

The last couple days have been incredible here, and by here I mean all across the upper midwest. Meteorologists are just shaking their heads and pointing at crowded lines of isobars on the map. North Dakota has been under blizzard warnings. Indiana was at the center of a severe weather warning that impacted six states. Winds have been gusting to fifty and sixty miles an hour over the Dakotas and Minnesota.

God is sovereign, meaning he does what he wants, for the most part. A weather system like this is something he can spin off without really trying, since he has set up the earth in such a creative way with interesting dynamics like the Coriolis Effect. The weather becomes its own dynamic system, sort of like a top with its own momentum. God can set it spinning and worry about other things, though that implies that God's capacity is finite -- which it is not. So maybe God's involved in the details as well.

But my point in all this is God's sovereignty. Humans (myself included here) constantly try to manipulate our surroundings, change our circumstances, impact our lives for what we think is the better. In general, this means that I try to make my life easier, more pleasant, less challenging, less painful. But what if that's not the best thing for me? Could I even see? What if, in order to become the best person I can be, I need a difficult, even painful, challenge? I love sunny fall days, highs around sixty, lows just above freezing, not much wind, with a little shot of rain the night before to make the fallen leaves quiet enough that I can hunt effectively. What if God knows better, and what I really need is wind gusts to sixty, driving rain, and dense cloud cover?

In Acts 4 Jesus' followers go through a fascinating difficulty. Because two of them have healed a lame man in the previous chapter, they're hauled up on charges before the religious authorities, who bawl them out and tell them "Don't ever do that again!" When these disciples are finally released, they pray -- but not for protection or safety. Instead, they pray thanking God that everything is happening according to his plans, and then they pray for boldness to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus -- the very thing that got them in trouble in the first place. In their prayer they recognize God's sovereignty -- namely, that everything that happened to Jesus, and everything that is happening to them (including questioning, trial, and pretty soon, jail and beating), is happening according to God's good plans.

Do we have this confidence? Can we pray to a sovereign God, acknowledging that even if we don't like our circumstances, God is at work in them, enacting his good plans? Can we pray for boldness instead of safety? Can we pray for courage to be part of God's work rather than for pleasant weather?

I hope so. If we can't, we are likely missing out on what God is doing in the world.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scripture seminar Saturday

Just a reminder, for those of you within reach of Elk River -- this Saturday, 8 am to 11 am at Central we'll be hosting a scripture seminar focusing on why & how we read the Bible and how we can read it more effectively. Breakfast is served at 8 am, followed by a large-group talk including, among other things, a Lutheran perspective on the Bible.

Following the large group time participants will have the opportunity to hear from Central's program staff in six different small-group breakout sessions, topics are:

Online Bible resources
How are we shaped by the Bible?
Dealing with difficult Bible texts
The Bible as our prayer book
The Bible as the story of God
How the Bible came to be
The Bible and our children

If you'd like to attend, please contact Central's office (763-441-2363) by Thursday (tomorrow) so we can plan for breakfast. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christian Relationships

I'm always amazed how many people think the Bible is some pie-in-the-sky, out of touch with reality book about "spiritual things."

By "spiritual things" people generally mean things unconnected to the realities of daily life. Real things are mortgages, parenting, car repairs, traffic, and medical problems. Spiritual things have something to do with a vague sense that we are not alone in the universe, the uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach when your baby is getting baptized, a pasty-faced priest pronouncing the benediction at the graveside, or a talk that moved your heart at a youth rally you went to in seventh grade because there was this really cute girl ...

Those who think the Bible is a spiritual book, in that sense, have obviously not read it very deeply. Those who have read the Bible carefully and still find it offensive understand that it is a thoroughly practical book. The Bible is offensive precisely because of its practicality.

Take the whole arena of relationships. As a culture we like to have a little easy relationship advice. It gives us something to work on when we're feeling really ambitious, but more often the dribble of advice we catch on Dr. Phil or Oprah makes us feel better without our having to do much at all. We get the watered down relationship advice of the talk show set when what we really need is a strong dose of biblical reality. (By the way, look around you ... how do you think we're doing basing our relationships on talk show advice?)

The Bible is eminently practical about relationships. The first thing the Bible recognizes is that left to ourselves, we cannot relate well to others. If I am the authority over my own existence, my selfishness will be at the root of every move I make, every word I speak. By definition I cannot get outside myself.

From the beginning of the Bible to its end, it recognizes that humans need to know that we are created by God and owe him our ultimate allegiance. The New Testament makes it even more pointed when it comes to describing love -- "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and gave his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (See 1 John 4). Love -- and all relationships come down to love -- starts not with us but with God. We begin not with ourselves, but with God. Specifically we begin with what God has done for us in Jesus, in what theologians call his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. Jesus is where relationships start, because Jesus is where a relationship with God starts. All other relationships flow out of a connection with God, or they simply fold back into themselves and become self-oriented and self-referencing. The great disease, philosophically speaking, of our time is humanism -- the assumption that humans are the measure of all things. Taken a step further, this means that the self is the measure of all things. Descartes summed this up carefully in his Latin phrase, cogito, ergo sum -- I think, therefore I am.

But the Bible takes a different view and says that I am because God has willed me to be. In fact, my existence is a shadow, an imitation, an image of God's own existence. This is the God who introduced himself to Moses by saying his name was "I AM." If my existence is a fact because God wills it, then I should get to know this God, to seek his will, to understand his desire for my existence. Jesus is the key to this. In Jesus we understand the beauty of creation, the alienation of sin, the brokenness of depravity, and our need to be made whole, to be restored to relationship with God. We also glimpse, through this same lens of Jesus and a Christ-centered reading of the Bible, that what Jesus has done for us not only makes us right with God, but it makes possible real relationship with other people.

So marriage, parenting, friendship, employment, public service -- all are transformed by what Jesus has done for us. Much of the New Testament lays out the specifics of how these various roles are to be lived out now that Jesus has atoned for our sin and conquered death through his resurrection. The details are immensely practical.

If you're looking for relationship advice, leave the television off. Do the work of digging into your Bible. Read for the practical details, the practical how-to-love the Bible lays out so well. Nearly every book of the New Testament is chock full of this stuff. If you're wondering about marriage, check out 1 Peter 3 or Ephesians 5. If you want to know how to live with non-believers, 1 Peter is your book. Romans 12 is one of the best all-around relationship guides there is -- but notice in verse 1 the "therefore" -- Paul is referring you back to the first 11 chapters of his letter in which he lays out what it means to have a relationship with Jesus first. Then he says, "Therefore ..." and starts in on the practical implications for human relationships. Keep reading through chapters 13 (how to relate to government) and 14 (how believers can handle disagreements about touchy matters).

I'd keep listing specific passages but you get the idea. Warning, though -- you may find that you have a lot in common with Mark Twain, who said, "It's not the parts of the Bible I don't understand that bother me -- it is the parts I do!"

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Shack (but not the one you're thinking of)

I've posted a couple pieces under the theme of "Going Home." This is another entry in that series. On the surface at least it has little to do with church, theology, etc. It is, however, a place I go to be renewed.

I have tried this before and it’s never gone well, but because it’s so important I will try again. I am at the shack. Long before it was the title of a popular novel, my family went to the shack. Growing up, we almost never took a traditional “vacation.” Instead, we took two or three days a couple times a year and went to the shack.

Back in the 1950’s my dad and some of his buddies started hunting in the Lost River country far north of Bemidji. (Unknown to most of humanity, there is a great deal of Minnesota north of Bemidji and yet south of Canada.) Dad’s brother Cliff had been part of a logging crew in 1943, logging the woods around Waskish, MN. He came back with wild stories of wild country, and my dad couldn’t resist. Eventually the gang (that’s what Dad called them) arranged a lease with the DNR and built an old cabin back in the woods, a half mile east of the Lost River itself. Today that site is twelve miles from the nearest paved road, eight miles from the nearest full-time neighbors, and a half mile from the nearest -- and only -- other such cabin in these woods. If you walked out of the shack and headed north, assuming it was winter so you could walk through the tamarack bog without sinking, you’d walk forty miles before you came to a paved road. In first thirty-five of that forty miles you’d cross three dirt roads, one every ten miles or so.

It will be easiest to tell about the shack if I tell you about arriving today. Jason and I had grand plans to spend two days here hunting grouse. Earlier this fall we spent a week hunting black bears, and the grouse numbers looked great. It’s been a busy fall, so we plotted and pried and finally decided we needed to block out these two days. Our wives had a women’s retreat, our kids planned to spend the weekend with relatives, and we were so excited. I picked him up at 5 am sharp. With a small arsenal and two dogs in the back of the pickup, we drove north -- as far as Grand Rapids, where we got a call that one of his daughters was throwing up. The relatives who planned to care for his children were not equipped to care for sick children -- and so we turned around. We did stop along the way to explore a piece of public land just southeast of Hill City. The dogs had great fun romping around in the brush scaring up grouse just far enough away from us that we couldn’t bring them down.

We finally got back to Jason’s place and I decided to turn north again. This place is deep in my bones and it hurts to be away from it, so the idea of abandoning my plans to visit the shack was unbearable. The dogs liked the second drive north much better, as they got to ride in the cab. We started the long drive on the gravel road from pavement (MN Highway 72) to shack (12 miles east, past the Balsiger Road, the Little Tamarack River, the Anderson Road, and the Lost River) about a half hour before sunset, and pulled up at the shack just about the time the sun dropped below the horizon. I noticed on the drive in that it’s been windy. Dozens of trees have fallen across the road, but grouse hunters -- and possibly a few industrious DNR workers -- have cut up the trees and pulled them clear of the road.

So we pulled up at the shack before dark. It’s a one-room affair, eight paces by five. This is not the original shack my dad and his gang built. I stayed in that one when I was a child. I remember coming up here one time and finding a hole in the side of that shack where a bear had chewed its way through the wall. That shack used to stand just down the trail from this one -- there was a tiny housing development of two one-room shacks back here in the wilderness. The guy who had the lease on this one always used to keep it locked -- we left ours open. Ours burned down one winter when I was about eight. The other lease-holder’s son and a couple friends came snowmobiling and stayed overnight, but they’d forgotten the key to their shack, so they stayed in ours. During the night the oil stove got out of hand, and the son died in the fire. His father couldn’t bear to come up here anymore, and gave the lease and his shack to my dad.

So now this is the shack. One room. A cantankerous oil stove, one not at all prone to get out of hand and barely prone to throw out any heat, sits in the middle of the floor. I don’t understand how inside the stove is a merry oil fire, quite hot if you open the door and stick your hand anywhere close -- but the outside of the stove is cool to the touch. I’d think all the heat is going out the stovepipe, but that’s cool as well. It mystifies and, on cold nights, frustrates me. An old iron pump occupies the southwest corner, and next to it is the kitchen -- a couple metal cabinets (metal so they’re impervious to mice) and some countertop. At the east end are two sets of bunk beds -- the old squeaky metal kind. Between the bunks and the stove, an old metal dining room table and four chairs complete the ensemble.

As I was saying, we got here just before dark and I unloaded my gear, climbed the suicide ladder and took the old coffee can off the top of the stove pipe, and added a gallon of diesel fuel to the barrel out back. Started a fire in the fire ring, started some water heating on the Coleman stove I brought along, and got my Coleman lantern set up. Most of these tasks were unnecessary, but I did each one partly for convenience and partly for the joy of the skill it takes to light a fire, prime the old cast iron pump, or light a lantern. Both the stove and the lantern have been fixtures in my family since Julie and I were first married, and both are exactly the type we used to bring to the shack when I was a child.

I got the dogs fed and watered and cut a stick to use for roasting bratwurst over the fire. Sat for a long time cooking and eating supper, watching the full moon climb over the trees at the east end of the clearing. The shack used to sit in deep timber and the moonlight never reached the ground here. In those days the temperature inside the shack was consistently five degrees colder, it seemed, than outside. A couple years ago, though, the DNR logged our little backyard. I was furious then, but I’ve come to appreciate the openness. It’s good to see the stars, and on days like today when it’s not quite warm enough, a little sunshine coming through warms the shack right up.

We sat by the fire, me and the dogs. They hear and smell things I don’t, so I wasn’t surprised when they both turned to look down the trail and began to bark and growl deep in their throats. Very likely they smelled a bear or a moose; less likely it was a wolf, but the number of grouse hunters coming through lately keeps the wolves away from the road. Bears and moose just get nocturnal when there are lots of people around. I told the dogs to ignore whatever it was, and they curled up at my feet, next to the fire, the three of us looking like some combination of a Pleistocene diorama and a Norman Rockwell painting. Then the breeze switched to the northwest. I had to sit at the very end of my log to keep my face out of the smoke. The dogs smelled something off that way. Again, it could have been something big, but it might just as easily have been a skunk -- it’s hard to say. We did have a skunk in camp while we were here bear hunting earlier this fall, and for a while it took up residence underneath the shack. We were very, very careful if we had to use the bathroom (forty paces from the front door, around the back of the shack) during the night.

After supper and the show the stars and the moon put on, I came in and used the water I’d heated earlier to take a sponge bath. I wouldn’t normally worry about bathing for a one-night stay here, but Jason found a deer tick on his pants when we were hunting earlier in the day, and I don’t care to experiment with Lyme’s Disease. So I was fastidious about getting clean. Now the oil stove is throwing out just enough heat to keep it good for sleeping in here tonight. (Outside there will be a layer of frost on everything by morning. It’s one of those perfectly clear, crisp nights.) The lantern lights up the room very nicely, thank you. It hangs over my head giving off a great deal of light and a comfortable hissing sound. I sit at the table with my laptop, writing. It seems like violence to have this bright bit of technology here. I do feel vaguely guilty, but there is precedent. I remember being completely horrified the first time we were hunting here and my brother’s cell phone rang -- and he answered it! Now I’ve come to expect cell service here, though it’s spotty enough that I have to turn the phone off when I’m not using it or it will expend all its battery searching for a signal. It’s a good idea to limit one’s dependence on technology, and I enjoy turning off the cell phone for most of the time I’m at the shack. In the same way, the laptop comes out so I can write. Thank God there is no wireless network here, and I refuse to consider a cell phone uplink.

That’s the shack, though I haven’t talked about mice or traps, the sheet metal on the roof, the solid 2x6 construction of the single front step, or the bear claw marks on the southeast corner. Each of those items and dozens more have stories attached. I come here and I am reunited with my father as a young man, hunting here with his gang back in the 50’s. I remember shivering in the early stages of hypothermia when I was eleven. My mother tried to get me to drink coffee to warm me up, and I couldn’t imagine how anyone could choke that awful stuff down. I think of the many times my brothers and I have come here to hunt bears. At least that’s the excuse. In reality we get to spend a week with each other, and hunting is the best way to do that. I remember bringing Erica here when she was five, and the first words out of her mouth when she saw the shack were, “Daddy, is that building going to fall down sometime soon?” Or Teya, on the same trip, at two years old discovering on the sandy road that runs past the shack that deer leave tracks -- and she was so proud to show me each and every print along fifty yards of a deer’s trail.

It is a lowly place, left unlocked because there is nothing of value here, nothing worth a thief’s trouble to steal. Yet each year when the lease comes due, and we hem and haw about paying that much for a ramshackle old building and wouldn’t we just be better off saving up for a trailer of some kind so we could camp anywhere? We pay the money and keep the memories and come back again next fall. We are richer for it.

The skunk is back. He must have wandered in late and denned up under the shack again. His odor comes with him, faint but unmistakeable, not the gut-wringing smell of a full dose of spray but rather the tenuous reminder of early mornings on a deer stand when skunk scent served as a cover. Until a moment ago, the dogs were asleep on a scrap of carpet I laid out for them next to the other bunk, the one I’m not using, but the skunk smell woke them out of a sound sleep. We’ll have to be cautious if we need to go outside tonight!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A parable

Once upon a time there was a tiny village by the seashore. The people of this village were afraid of the sea. “It’s dangerous,” they said. “Don’t get too close.” They thought the ocean was pretty, and they liked the beach, but the water secretly frightened them. They saw storms come in with winds and waves that battered the rocks at the beach. They never built their houses close to the water, because they knew that the ocean would destroy their homes. They went to the beach on sunny days and had picnics. Sometimes the children would splash about in the shallows, but their parents kept them from going too deep into the water. “Playing in the shallows is fine,” they said, “But don’t go out too far. Keep your mind on the beach.”

One day a man came to the village. No one knew where he had come from – he just showed up. A group of teenagers asked him, “Who are you?” They had never seen a stranger before. “Come and see,” he said.

He led them down to the beach. There, pulled up on the sand at low tide, was something they had never seen before. It looked almost like a small house with a rounded bottom sitting on the sand. Out of the top of it came a large pole, as tall as a tree, and a huge piece of cloth was rolled up against the piece of wood.

“What is it?!” they asked in wonder.

“It’s called a boat,” the man said. “I use it to sail over the sea.”

The teenagers were speechless at this. They couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to sail out on the water. But a few of them were curious.

“How do you make it go?” they wondered.

“The wind blows, and it pushes the boat. I use that piece of cloth to catch the wind and it sends me across the water.”

“You go wherever the wind blows?”

“I work with the wind. I have a rudder that helps me steer the boat, but I go where the wind drives me.”

When the teenagers went home, they told their parents about the strange man and his strange boat. The parents said, “Don’t go down to the beach anymore. That man is dangerous. You know the sea is not safe.”

But those teenagers kept going to the beach to talk with the sailor. And he came into town. He told stories of sailing on the waves, of being out in the middle of storms, of wonderful places across the water. A few people listened to his stories and wanted to learn more, but most of the townspeople muttered about this dangerous stranger and how he was filling people’s heads full of dangerous foolishness.

Finally they chased him out of town. They carried him down to the beach, threw him into his boat at high tide, and pushed him out into the water.

Then something amazing happened. A few people – just a handful – cried out, “Wait! We want to go with you!” They splashed through the shallow water and, to the horror of the other villagers, climbed aboard the boat. The sailor pulled them aboard and began teaching them the art of sailing. The villagers watched in shocked silence as the boat sailed farther and farther out on the water and finally disappeared over the horizon.

Finally one old woman said, “Serves them right. They’ll go out on the ocean with him, and they’ll all drown in a storm. Serves them right.” The people turned and walked back to their safe village.

A few of the villagers who had listened to the sailor’s stories meet on the beach once a week. They tell stories about the sailor and his boat. They even splash around in the shallow water. But they are afraid of the sea, and so they never go beyond the shallows.

Legend has it that the sailor is still out there on the ocean with his crew, sailing on the wind and the waves, going wherever the wind blows. Once in a while two or three people from the village will get a strange idea, and they will build a boat. They’ll set sail out into the deep water even though everyone tries to talk them out of their crazy dream. They talk about the sailor as though he was right there with them. They invite others to come along, but almost everyone is afraid to try it. As they launch, someone on the beach will usually say, “Serves them right. They’re going to drown in a storm, you mark my words. Keep your mind on the beach, that’s my advice.”

One of the amazing claims that Jesus’ early followers made was that the Spirit of God lived in them and guided them. This is exactly what Jesus had promised – that the Spirit would come to believers, live in them, and move them around in ways that made no sense to those watching from the world. “The wind blows where it wills,” Jesus said, “And you hear the sound and see its effects, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Those who follow Jesus often make decisions that don’t make any sense from outside. The Spirit blows them in strange directions, sometimes.

Are you willing to leave safety (and maybe even sense) behind in order to sail on the wind of the Holy Spirit? Or do you have too much need to be in control? God is going to get his work done, get his kingdom built, one way or another. The question is, will you be a part of it?

Thursday, October 21, 2010


God is faithful, and he wants to be involved in every heartbeat of your life. He loves you more than you can possibly fathom. His heart for you is pure love. He desires nothing but the best for you, which by the way is something you can't say about yourself. God is so excited, so eager, to see you grow into all his gifts, to experience all his blessings. He's not sitting back to see what you will achieve and then judging you; rather, he's with you on the playing field, cheering you on. He wants to take care of the heavy lifting, to take care of the burdensome things in this life, so that you might know freedom and joy. He is trustworthy and good.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight." (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Monday, October 18, 2010


This is a little random ...

I've been thinking a lot lately about aging. I'm forty-four years old, give or take, at that age when people always used to tell me, "Oh, wait till you turn forty ... it will really hurt then!" And I find that to be generally true. I have lots more aches and pains than I did a decade ago. Bits of arthritis have started invading. My eyesight is not nearly what it used to be. (I've become one of those people who take their glasses off to read things.) Physically, it's harder to get in shape and that shape, once I do get there, is a lot rounder than it used to be.

I spent a good chunk of the weekend helping a friend re-roof his barn. Not one of the old traditional barns with the hip roof, so we weren't roped up and dangling. No, it was a sheet metal building with a nice easy pitch to the roof. All in all it was great fun, and even beneficial in a work sense for me, because I was teaching Saturday evening at Alpha on prayer, and after spending the day on the roof I had lots of practical experience. Not so much praying for myself, but mostly praying for Bill, who has twenty years' more experience at life than I do, who was dangling one-handed from rafters and standing on 2x4's over a twelve foot drop onto concrete. I thought some while I was up on the roof, moving very cautiously, how I don't trust my body as much as I once did. I know that my mind can make that beautiful leap across the open space in the roof, but I suspect that as I launch, my arthritic hip will decide to give just a little bit, and bad things will happen. So I get a little careful.

I guess that's not a bad thing. I've come to the age now where, in primal cultures, or among my ancestors a thousand years ago, I would be one of the old men of the clan. It's probably okay to be a little more circumspect in the way I carry myself, in the stupid human tricks I try to perform. And there are several of those. I still do stuff just to make sure my body doesn't get too complacent. Single-track mountain biking at Hillside Park in Elk River, for example, which is a good way to 1) get some exercise, 2) clean out your adrenal glands, and 3) come face-to-face with your own mortality. Or earlier this fall, when I spent a week bowhunting for black bears in northern Minnesota. This involves, among other things, climbing trees and sitting high over a bait, hoping that a large bear will come and dine fifteen yards from my tree; then later, you listen to the bear quietly coming in for dinner, but he doesn't come all the way to the bait -- he patiently sits back in the brush thirty or forty yards away, just beyond sight. Then after dark, when he is still out there, you have to climb down out of the tree and walk a half mile back to the four wheeler that, if all goes right, will start and take you back to the place you're planning to sleep for the night. One night while I was coming off my stand, a bull moose and I had a discussion about that half mile walk out. From forty yards away, when you're standing on the ground, a bull moose is a very large animal.

So I still do interesting things. I'm not giving in to the first tendrils of old age that are slowly creeping into my body. But the aches and pains, the diminishing capacity, the more frequent pauses to stop, breathe, and look around, all make me think.

Why did God set it up this way? Why is this low-grade suffering we call old age pretty much guaranteed if you don't do something stupid that ends your life in the first few decades? I've had similar thoughts watching people wrestle with cancer, depression, grief, or other excruciating diseases. Why?

Understand, I am not of the opinion that God causes most of the suffering we experience. That makes God just a little too much like the kid pulling wings off flies to watch them wander around on the windowsill. No, I think God set up a good world that got infected with our sin, and now we are suffering the consequences, both in the specific results of our individual sin and in the generalized malaise of living in a sin-tainted world. But I also think God works in the middle of those consequences to make good things happen.

One such good thing is that those consequences, that suffering, can often turn people's hearts toward God. That is an amazing good that often comes out of pain. At another level, even for those who already know and love him, God works at a deeper level. Often he allows our suffering to turn our hearts from the things of this world and the love of it, so that we begin to turn toward him and love him more. It's like suffering helps us to untie our heartstrings from what we used to love here and tie them instead to Jesus.

Why are we so surprised by suffering? If we take the Bible seriously, we should expect it, and expect God to work in it. Yet so often Christians who experience the least little bit of physical or emotional suffering launch into a spiritual tailspin. Don't we believe that the Bible has something to say to this? Nearly every book in the New Testament in some way or other addresses the issue of suffering, and their consistent message is, "Rejoice! Don't lose hope! God is at work!"

This is true also with aging. My aches are beginning to teach me perspective, patience, and (I hate this part) planning ahead. As I experience moments of adrenaline, or beauty, or satisfaction, I value them more because I begin to see a day coming (hopefully far off on the horizon yet) when I will be unable to do these things.

As physical ability diminishes, my options narrow. When I was twenty I believed I would accomplish many, many great things. Now I get a little more focused about where I spend my energy, what I take on. Frequently I gloss over things I used to think were important. I've come to recognize that I will not have time in this life to do everything I wanted.

These thoughts, in my mind at least, are not at all morbid or depressing. Instead, I'm reflecting on the process, figuring out this aging thing so that I can see the next step or two where Jesus is leading. I have lots of great role models -- older guys who are a decade or two or three ahead of me in this. I watch them like hawks, trying to figure out what they know by experience, while still living in the moment, using this day and doing what I can. It's good.

Book discussion reminder

For those of you in the Elk River area, a reminder that we're getting together to talk about Total Church on Thursday evening, 7 pm, at Dunn Brothers. I'm guessing we won't get through the entire book, so we'll talk Thursday evening about possible follow-up discussion times. My first impulse is to say let's get together every two weeks. Email me if you have questions about this event!

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Middle Way

I've been listening, along with the rest of Central's program staff, to some of the cutting edge church leaders from the Right Now conference. These are some pretty impressive presentations, and I think we'll use some of them to train our Delta group leaders. Some of it is flat out inspiring, and some of it cuts you right to the heart. For example, Matt Chandler was talking last week on the video about the implications of the resurrection. Too often, he said, we focus on the cross -- on our need to be saved from sin, on our being rescued from the kingdom of darkness, etc. -- but we fail to focus on the resurrection, on what Jesus saves us for, on the new life that Jesus calls us to live. So we get preoccupied with not sinning, with avoiding doing bad things, but we don't think about living in the kingdom of God, the "life of the Spirit" that Jesus wants us to know. If we understood the resurrection, if we heard Jesus' call to new life, would that not be worth any risk? And Matt Chandler says we like to imagine ourselves as great risk-takers. We think we're like William Wallace in the movie, "Braveheart," riding in front of the army and screaming, "Freeeeedoooom!"

But, says Chandler, you're not like William Wallace. You're Robert the Bruce's sellout father. You don't risk because if you did, what kind of a car would you have to drive?

Francis Chan was the speaker the previous week, and he described a conversation with a member of his church, in which this member said, "You're always trying to get us to be radical for Jesus, like it's always got to be one way or the other. But I think it doesn't have to be one way or the other. There's a middle way. I think I can live a comfortable life and serve Jesus."

These guys are brutal in confronting this "comfortable" attitude -- but I think they need to be. Speaking for myself, it's so easy for me to back off from a radical commitment to Jesus. It's easy to tell myself to take a middle way, even though Jesus never said there was a middle way to follow him. As I recall he said there is a narrow way and a wide way, and the wide way is the easy one, and it leads to destruction. So when I'm tempted to take an easy "middle" way, I wonder which path I'm really on?

What does a radical commitment to Jesus look like here and now?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Quote for the day

From Charles Spurgeon:

"Many people will turn their faces to hell and hope to get to heaven. Hopes of heaven are solemn things and should be tried by the word of God. A man might as well hope, as our Lord says, to gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles as look for a happy hereafter at the end of a bad life. There is only one rock to build good hopes on, and that is in the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Denomination news

Lately I've been reading way too much news about church denominations. In some cases I'm reading about denominations that are dying, decaying, going broke, downsizing, drifting. In other cases I'm reading about church denominations that are growing, vibrant, multiplying, exciting.

Both kinds of news leave me cold. Certainly it's more fun to be part of a group that is growing, no question. But reading these news releases (which is sort of an occupational hazard for me as a pastor) reminds me of a toothpaste commercial from twenty years ago when I used to watch TV. The announcer comes on and talks about his particular brand of toothpaste, and the housewife on screen interrupts and says, "Toothpaste doesn't excite me." The announcer then gets to where the rubber hits the road and says how users of his particular brand of toothpaste have fewer cavities and better dental health than non-users. The housewife says, "Great checkups? That excites me!"

Denominations -- growing or dying -- don't excite me. What does excite me is the place where the rubber meets the road, the place where Jesus connects with the lives of people and their lives are transformed in a relationship with him. Local churches excite me because that's where Jesus seems to do his best work, where people who have come to know him live in community, where people get their hands dirty serving the world in Jesus' name, where communities of people gather together in his name. The only way denominations trip my trigger is when they are effective in supporting local churches in this work.

As a rule of thumb, the bigger the denomination's bureaucracy, the less effective it is in supporting local congregations. Fill a denomination's hierarchy with mid-level bureaucrats (yes, these exist in the church) and soon they will see their existence, their status, their compensation as the biggest priority of their denomination. Of course they don't say this out loud, but they spend their workdays building and maintaining programs that justify their positions.

Individual churches are prone to this sort of disease as well. In large congregations, it looks like people who build programs and then maintain those same programs because this is the way we've always done things. In small churches it looks like a pastor or a small staff that populates the church with people who are personally loyal to them. Both options (large and small) miss the point of the church, which is loyalty to Jesus Christ. Our programs and our personalities are too often idols for our churches.

Churches that are focused on Jesus, following Jesus, will not be concerned about personal loyalty or about job security. They're too busy 1) discerning where Jesus is going at any given moment, 2) scrambling to stay close to him as leaders, and 3) helping their people catch a vision to follow him. Jesus-following churches are always a little messy, so our desire for stability and control is our own worst enemy, because so often we want to back off, regroup, and get our feet under ourselves. It's really just a desire for control in sheep's clothing.

Jesus moves. It's what he does. He gets out into the world, into the mess. He's constantly coming alongside the broken, getting close to the untouchables, raising the dead, and offending the self-consumed. Reread the gospels -- imagine how rarely Peter, James, and John felt like they had their feet under them. It was a constant struggle just to keep up.

That's why denominations -- or congregations focused on stability -- don't work. The church didn't build much of a hierarchy until it got domesticated after Constantine. Prior to that point it was a Jesus-following mess, and it took the Roman empire by storm, like bedbugs are currently taking New York -- from the underside, from the crevices and the cracks.

How's that for a vision of the church?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Total Church Book Discussion CORRECTION

The Total Church book discussion will be at Dunn Brothers in Elk River on OCTOBER 21st (Thursday), 7 pm -- note change of date! I doubt we'll be able to finish digesting the book in one session, so we'll probably schedule a few follow-up meetings. Get a copy of the book, read as much as you can get through, and be at Dunn Brothers on the 21st!

Delta gathering

I've been leading Alpha for about ten years. Each time an Alpha course starts to wind down, someone asks the same question: "What happens after Alpha?" We have tried over the years to answer that question in many different ways. We've done "beta" courses -- various ways to follow up with more studies, more teaching, more small groups. And those have been good experiences.

Somewhere along the way I learned about Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) -- the church in London where Alpha started -- and their Alpha follow-up. They use a model they call "pastorates" -- groups that meet in homes, roughly 25-30 people, gathered every couple weeks around a specific schedule. They eat together, then spend some time in worship, hear a brief teaching from one of the group leaders, and pray together. Pretty simple. They meet seven times in three months, then take a month off, then start again on the same pattern. At HTB these "pastorates" have become a crucial part of the church's life. Pastorates are the primary means for evangelism, as people invite their friends to a group that has become very important in their life. Pastorates also help the church develop leaders, as individuals try using new gifts in their pastorate and eventually grow to the point where they step up to serve in the larger church. The groups provide most of the pastoral care for the church's members, and do most of the mission work of the church out in the community as groups take on projects or see needs and serve their neighbors. As groups grow, they intentionally give birth to new pastorates. To facilitate these new groups, leaders are expected to have an apprentice who learns to lead with the specific idea that they will birth a new pastorate at some point.

I've thought for years about starting something on this model. Alpha seems well suited to launching this kind of medium sized group. (A traditional "small group" is usually 10-15 people, so these groups are roughly twice that size.) In conversation with some other Alpha leaders a few years ago, we played with the idea of calling our groups "Delta" groups. Partly this is a play on Alpha being the first letter of the Greek alphabet -- delta is the fourth. Partly it is a play on the image of a river; if Alpha is the source of the river, the delta is where it empties into the ocean, where the channels spread apart and rich soil is built up. The delta is a rich area of abundant life where plants grow and birds and fish come to raise their young. If you wanted to push it, you could also make a play on the military's "Delta Force" -- an elite group that knows how to get difficult tasks accomplished.

Last night we launched our first Delta. A group of people who have been around Alpha for a while gathered together for a simple meal, some great conversation, a short time of worship, Bible teaching based on yesterday morning's text at Central's worship services, and a time where we broke up into smaller groups for prayer. It was great fun. Many people who couldn't be there last night were excited about the idea, but schedules being what they are some were unable to make it. However, I think that this group might lead to a couple or even three or more groups launching after Christmas. My role at that point will be to transition out of direct leadership and work instead to equip those who lead and support them in their roles.

I'm excited about this. As I read the book of Acts and other portions of the New Testament, this sounds a great deal like what the church was designed to be. I don't see in the Bible that God ever intended church to mean hundreds of people sitting on benches watching two or three people lead worship. It's supposed to be participatory, and that requires smaller groups.

If we learn to function in this way, what does that mean? I don't know. I'm guessing, though that it will mean the church grows stronger; people get better care as they are rooted in a group of friends who meet together regularly; more leaders are equipped to shepherd the church; more people get invited in, as it's easier to invite someone to your home than it is to drag them into a church building. Over time I'm guessing that these groups will get less dependent on a massive church building with a massive mortgage, so more dollars might start being funneled to outreach projects in our own communities and across the world. Certainly it will get messy, personalities will come into conflict, and some unforeseen problems will raise their ugly heads. But that happens in any form of church.

So we'll see where it goes. Like I said, I'm excited!

Friday, October 8, 2010

God's main attribute

If someone asked you, what is God's personality like, what would you say? What is God's main character quality? What really defines God?

When we do this with people, sometimes we say, "He's really funny," or "She's so caring," or "That person really has integrity." What would you say for God? The Bible lists off a lot of possibilities. God is holy. God is righteous, whatever that means. God is just. God is light. But far and away the most important character quality God has is love. God is love.

I'm part of a religious movement -- Lutheranism -- that was born in a university and strongly influenced by the Enlightenment. We like to reason, and we love our theology. So sometimes I get focused on the fact that God is truth. But I need to remember, if I'm not going to go way off track, that God is love. His love encompasses his justice (it's been said that justice is what love looks like in public) and his truth and all the rest. Even God's anger is part of his love. It's not an abusive anger or a self-centered anger like so much human anger -- rather, it's anger when we live outside what he knows is best for us, anger when he sees us willfully hurting ourselves rather than living in love with him.

And this is not some intellectualized "I have a deep affection for you, honestly," love. God is crazy passionate about you. He delights in you. He yearns to be intimately connected at a heart level with you. His greatest joy is when you turn to him.

So often we make God into an intellectual proposition, a cosmic referee or a spectacled grandfather who frowns behind his glasses. No, biblically speaking God loves to get down in the mud with his people, playing and working and loving with them. God is love.

That does not mean, as so many in our culture think today, that love is God. What this spin does is say that I get to define love, and then whatever I think love is, I project onto God. This is exceedingly dangerous, because my definition of love is faulty. And not everything that looks like love on the surface is really love. No, we must start with God. Get to know him. The best way to do this is to get to know Jesus, as the Bible says that Jesus is "the visible expression of the invisible God" as my friend Curt likes to remind me. (It's not original with him, it's Colossians 1:15). Get to know Jesus -- read the stories about him in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. See what was important to him, how he treated people, what he did with his time, what kind of advice he gave. Then realize that this is how God wants to be known -- not as a remote universe controller, but as a flesh-and-blood person as close as your elbow who can sit with you, talk with you, cry with you, die for you. Then, because he loves you, he'll stand up and say, "Come with me." And you start to follow and you realize you're leaving behind a bunch of things -- goals, dreams, priorities -- but you're also leaving behind a lot of garbage that Jesus has just set you free from. You realize that his calling you to follow is part of his love, because he knows that you are not designed to take charge of your own life, you're created to live in love with him and to follow him.

Then he takes one more remarkable step as you follow. He takes his essence, his heart, his spirit, and he puts it inside of you. So he's closer than your elbow; he's gotten inside your ribcage and into your heart, into your soul, not like some parasite but like a life-giving source of strength and comfort. When he puts his Spirit inside you, it's because he's crazy in love with you and wants to live united with you forever. I mean it -- forever. That's part of his promise. Someday, when your body wears out, you will live face to face with him and all this long-distance love affair you've been carrying on with him through this life will be consummated in seeing him face to face. And what's more, one day he will shut down this sin-stained earth and recreate creation the way it's supposed to be -- and his love will fill every atom of it. That will be a party that goes on and on through eternity, where people from every group on the earth are joined together by his love as it flows through them and in them and around them and above them and under them, from God to his people and back again.

He's love.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What a week!

I'm still pondering lots of things from the LCMC gathering earlier this week. What a great gathering! It was so fun to reconnect with lots of people, to be swept up in solid biblical teaching and keynote speakers focused on Jesus and his commission to the church. I just had a conversation with someone who had heard about the gathering, and what they had heard "wasn't very Lutheran." I always get a kick out of the ways we use that word. What does it mean to be Lutheran? Is it about a stodgy style of liturgical worship? Is it about what we serve at potlucks? Is it about names like Johnson and Anderson and Nelson? One of the speakers at the LCMC gathering was Enrique Estrada, a Lutheran pastor from Mexico. He joked that in Minnesota, he felt like he should change his name to Estradason.

What is Lutheran? It's not about a style of worship or a style of food. It's about an understanding of who Jesus is, what he has done for us and what it means to follow him. Today the "average" Lutheran in the world today is from East Africa, eats ugali and speaks Swahili as a second language after their tribal dialect. What do I have in common with these Lutherans? We worship the same Jesus; we understand that he has saved us by his grace, not because of what we have done. We understand that we receive this salvation by faith alone. We recognize the Bible as the only foundation for this faith and for our life both individually and as a church. This is the substance of what it means to be Lutheran.

This morning I had the privilege of sitting in with a group of women from Central who are starting a study on the book of Revelation. (Thanks for the coffee!) They are a group who are hungry and growing in God's Word, and I'm quite confident they'll enjoy this study. Great stuff.

One of the biggest pieces of this week, though, has been anticipating the initial meeting this Sunday of our first "Delta group." A group of people who have been associated with Central's Alpha ministry are gathering as a medium sized group. It's not a traditional small group of a dozen people who meet weekly for study and accountability; it's a group of 20-30 people who meet every couple weeks around a Bible passage, some time for worship and prayer, to eat together and enjoy each other's company. The idea comes from Holy Trinity Brompton in London, where they call these groups "pastorates." The purpose is to grow deeper together, to care for each other, to develop new leaders and their gifts, and to draw new people in and eventually to give birth to another group. I'm eager to see where God takes this! The idea of doing a Delta group -- Delta because on a river, the delta is the place of life, the place where growth happens, where the river meets the ocean -- has been on my mind for several years, and this fall it seems like God's Spirit has finally cleared the decks and set things in motion so this can happen.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

LCMC Convention

The first few days of this week I am attending the annual convention of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. Normally attending a church convention is about as much fun as a root canal, but this gathering is a real joy. Part of that joy for me is just the contrast. Without being too critical, the last decade or more of ELCA gatherings I've been to were political events focused on social policy and controversial church decisions in which various factions warred over slim majority decisions. Back in the late 90's I took some delegates from Williston, ND to the ELCA synod gathering, and four hours into it they leaned over to me and said, "What are we doing here? This isn't us. This isn't anything like our church. We've been here for hours and they haven't even mentioned Jesus!"

The LCMC convention is a very different gathering. Jesus is named and honored as Lord; the Bible is quoted, taught, and celebrated. Rather than bickering over decisions, the body of delegates and visitors share a common sense of calling and purpose. Conversations in the hallways are positive encouragement between colleagues or even prayer for each other in corners here and there.

One of the breakout sessions yesterday (the one I attended) was a powerful seminar on how to have ongoing intimacy with God. It was like water on my dry soul, I have to admit, and I came to my quiet time this morning with a renewed hunger to spend time with God.

It was also good to get reacquainted with many people at this convention. I ran into a couple profs from my college and seminary days, and several people who were students at LBI or at Luther. Many of us had harrowing stories of what we've gone through in the last year or two, but invariably God is doing good things for these dear colleagues and working through them in powerful ways.

Thank you, Jesus, for renewing and reforming your church. May we never lose our sole focus on you!