Sunday, December 30, 2012

Monday after Christmas

Here's a golden oldie, a post I wrote a few years ago on the Monday after Christmas.  It seems appropriate this evening, as I anticipate tomorrow morning:

The shepherds returned

Today is Monday. The Monday after Christmas. It's tough after I don't know how many days of family get-togethers, candlelight worship services, quiet times around the Christmas tree, and the endless parade of gift openings and cookie trays and all the rest, to face a Monday morning. In a few minutes I'll head back to work. The garbage needs to go out to the curb this morning. I have a snowblower that needs some work, I have a handful of bills that need to be paid today, and a lamp in one of my pickup taillights is burned out. It feels a little like a Monday.

The shepherds returned. They did not suddenly give up their important work of tending sheep. Yes, it was important. Though it made them into outcasts from the religious and social establishment in their culture, their work as shepherds was vital to both the religious and the economic life of their people. Without shepherds the sheep would be at risk. Without sheep the Jewish people in the time of Jesus would have been at risk. The shepherds returned.

However, Luke tells us more than that they simply went back to their sheep. They had met Jesus, and they had been changed. These outcast shepherds returned "glorifying and praising God." They had received the promise of God and it had begun its work of transforming them. Luke tells us (Luke 2:20) that the shepherds were praising God for all they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. They had heard God's promise from the angel, they had acted on that word, and they had experienced God's faithfulness.

What word from God have you heard? What promise have you received this Christmas? If there is no other word that has lodged in your heart these last days, I invite you to take this one from Romans 8:38-39:

38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What a powerful post-Christmas promise! These words take God seriously that Jesus is "Emmanuel" -- God with us. That desire of God's heart to live among his people comes back again and again in the Bible. It is at the heart of what Christmas means.

Don't let yourself go back to Monday mornings after Christmas as though nothing had changed. Let yourself, like the shepherds, act on this promise and be changed by it! God has made his home in the midst of his creation, first with the birth of Jesus, and then with the coming of his Spirit at Pentecost. He resides in his people. He is present, near; "immanent" is the fancy theological word. He is here.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

A reasonable epistemology

Last night my wife and I were privileged to attend a delightful wedding reception.  I must admit, I'm a little skeptical about wedding receptions being "delightful."  I'm a bit jaded to young love -- I've seen too many marriages which, a year or two later, are deadly to the participants and in the last throes of convulsing their way toward divorce court.  As the officiant at some of these marriages, I'm always a little wary.

Last night, however, bride and groom both seemed to be entering into marital bliss with open eyes, and more important, with some excellent role models and support structures.  So I wish them all the best, and hope and pray for it.

Before I step up onto my soapbox and wax eloquent about marriage and its importance, which many of you know I've done before in this blog, let me get onto the rabbit trail that started this whole post.

At the reception I got to talk with Dan, a relative of the bride who happens to teach history and philosophy at the high school level.  He's a strong, well-informed Christian as well.  We talked about a great many things including the philosophy of studying world religions, emotionalism vs. rationalism and the pitfalls of each, and much more.  Dan made a comment that stuck in my mind, simply for the elegance of his phrase.  He said something like, "I believe what we need in this country is a reasonable epistemology."

How often do you get to enjoy a conversation in which someone uses a term like "a reasonable epistemology"?  Usually if you ARE in a conversation involving the word "epistemology" your eyes have been glazed over for at least twenty minutes.

For myself (recently returned from and others who need a refresher, "epistemology" is the study of knowledge -- how we gain it and what makes it valid or not.  So for example, in Christian terms, epistemology might have to do with questions like whether the good news about Jesus is true, why we should believe it, and how it is communicated to us.

A reasonable epistemology.  Basically, Dan was saying that as a culture, we need to know

a) what we believe;
b) why we believe it, and
c) how we have received these beliefs.

I want to confidently assert that if we had a "reasonable epistemology" in this culture, we would all be far better off.  At present my suspicion is that we tend to believe in much the same way that overpopulated lemmings navigate in the Arctic -- we look where the crowd is going, and follow.  So currently as a culture we are angsting about gun control or not, about mental illness care or not, about fiscal cliffs or not.  We have not engaged in responsible thought about these things; instead, we listen to a lot of other opinions and base our opinions on what sounds reasonable to us.  Sadly, we fail to realize that there is very little "reason" to our reasonable opinions.

To take this train of thought farther down the tracks, we don't even think about the social, cultural, and historical factors that shape our opinions about what we believe.  We are the unwitting victims of the Enlightenment (so-called) and Rationalism (so-called) and Humanism.  But most of us are marginally aware of these movements as categories in a despised textbook, at best.  We could not articulate the truth-claims of these isms, primarily because that feels a lot like work.

So we continue to parrot the opinions of others who have articulated them largely based on emotion and worry rather than careful thought or plain reason, or to make things totally radical, an authoritative and time-tested document like the U.S. Constitution or (deeper yet) the Bible.

It makes me sad.

And, as someone pointed out to me the last time I ranted about this particular topic, I fully understand the irony of using a blog as a platform to criticize our culture's over-emphasis on opinion.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Preparing for Christmas

The last few days I have been preparing for Christmas.  It may seem odd, this preparation, but I can think of no better way to get ready.

Some of you will wink and nod at this because you know I was in northern Minnesota, on the farm where I grew up, and I was bowhunting for deer.  This is most certainly true.  But if you have ever participated in bowhunting in December, you know it's a slow, quiet, cold business.

Saturday afternoon, for example, I spent two hours sitting on a stand attached to a tall oak tree, fifteen feet above the ground, face exposed to a brisk breeze from the north-northwest.  The temperature hovered around zero, but the breeze made it feel much colder than that.  I sat quietly, trying not to flinch or shift or wiggle.  I closed my eyes from time to time to keep the water on my eyeballs from freezing.  Ice crystals formed in my mustache and my breath blew back against my face and frosted my beard and my eyebrows.  I looked out into the cold and watched for deer.  I waited.

As Tom Petty said years ago, "the waiting is the hardest part."  When was the last time you sat without electronics, without something to read, without conversation, for two hours?  Even without the cold, those two hours on stand are tough.  Add the windchill -- or maybe more accurately, subtract it -- and it gets brutal.  I sat still in the cold roughly twelve hours over a few days.

In every minute of that waiting, I was keenly aware of Christmas approaching.  Over and over during those long mornings and afternoons on stand, I wondered: What does it mean?

What difference does it make that Jesus came back then?  What difference does it make today?

The world can be a pretty cold place.  People complain that the news broadcasts are always negative, and especially this time of year you see the occasional "human interest" story -- a pet that saves its owner, a soup kitchen saved from bankruptcy by kind neighbors, a company adopting a needy family, etc.  These are good stories and I'm glad they include them in the broadcast from time to time.  In the face of the real cruelty, the real evil, that we see in our news, however, these stories don't carry much weight.

Fact is, the world is a pretty cold place.  Those who want to believe in the essential goodness of humankind look to me like people standing on the streetcorner, trying to keep a tiny candle lit on a dark and stormy night.  It's a hopeless task.

I am not a cynic, but I do not believe in the essential goodness of humankind.  I believe, along with the Bible, that humankind -- along with the rest of creation -- is broken.  We are in bondage to sin and unable to free ourselves.  We need a savior.

Isn't that what the angel told Mary when he announced to her that she would bear a child who would be the Son of God?  "You shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  We need a savior, because the icy power of sin is chilling our hearts, breaking our bones, grinding our relationships, stealing our hope, starving our love.  Left to ourselves, we are alone in the dark.

These cold December days are dark as well.  I hunted the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.  Just a few desperate hours stood between sunrise and sunset.  The late sunrise and the long, long evening made this hunt quite different from the warmth of early season bowhunts.  Most of the hours are spent in darkness, and the sun seems to have little power to warm.

One of Jesus' closest friends and most loyal followers reflected on the question of Jesus' meaning, many years after Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.  That friend acknowledged that the world is a dark and dreary place, that darkness seems to have the upper hand.  But then he wrote, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

So today, we live in a dark, cold world.  I am not speaking about weather and astronomy but about the state of the human soul.  John's assessment is true, however: Jesus' light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  Jesus' light wins.  This is true not because we see it, not because CNN reports it or it makes the front page of the New York Times.  It is true because Jesus promises that he will make it true, that his power to thaw icy hearts and to enlighten darkened souls overcomes the stubbornness of the forces of darkness.

When life is chaotic, dark, dreary, cold, hopeless, we have confidence.  Not because right always wins, nor because the essential decency in people always comes out.  We have confidence because God has given his Word -- the word of hope he spoke in creation, his word of promise in the face of sin, the Word that took full form in Jesus of Nazareth.  God has given his word that evil will not win the day.  Dark will not overcome light.  Hope will not be extinguished.  Death will not sing the last refrain.  All of this rests on Jesus' arrival as a tiny baby in Bethlehem, born to obscure but faithful parents who simply did their best to raise a child destined to be the fulfillment of God's promises to his beloved creation.

It is only when we take time to see our need that we can begin to know our Savior.  My prayer for you in the next couple days is that somehow, somewhere along the journey you can find a few quiet moments to recognize just how much you need Jesus' presence in your life, to acknowledge his grace in coming for you while you were still far from him, and then to thank God that he cares enough to fulfill his Word, to shine the light of Jesus in our darkness.

Thanks be to God.  Merry Christmas.

P.S. If you're within reach of Central Lutheran, Elk River, MN tomorrow, I'll be at the afternoon services designed for families with young children (2:00, 3:30, 5:00) and at the 11:00 pm candlelight worship.  There will also be a candlelight worship at 7:30 pm and a celebration service on Christmas Day at 10 am.  It would be an honor to have you at Central to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus' birth!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The ends of the world

The world has been a crazy, chaotic place for the last few days.  We've had a shooting (last Friday) in Connecticut that has dominated the news and people's thoughts.  We're coming up on the apocalyptic end of the Mayan calendar (this coming Friday) so the world is supposed to end.

I had to chuckle this morning -- rereading some old journals and ran across this quote:

May 21, 2011
Today the world was supposed to end, according to some radio ministry guru who’s been putting up billboards and causing a bit of a flap.  We’re eight hours past his deadline now and things still seem to be ticking along.  

It's easy to get sucked into either or both of these apocalyptic scenarios.  In one, a lone gunman violates the innocence of an elementary school in an unthinkable act of violence.  This horror makes us cold right down to our bones, and we begin to surrender to fear for the sake of our children and grandchildren.  We mentally wring our hands (very few people actually physically wring their hands anymore) and wonder what kind of a world it's becoming.

In the other, ancient wisdom sees far ahead into the 21st century and predicts the end of all things.  (NOTE: For what it's worth, the whole end-of-the-world thing is based on faulty cultural understandings and lousy reasoning.  The world has no more chance of ending on Friday than it does any other day.  Besides, I have friends in southeast Asia who are about 12 hours ahead of us -- they have promised to let me know if the world ends and, if I hear about it, I will post on this blog ASAP.  So faithful readers will have a few hours' notice at least.)

The world has always been a violent, tragic place, as any student of history can tell you.  That's not an excuse to be jaded -- I have wept like many of you for the crushing weight of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary -- but it pays in times like these to study history.  Things were not better back when Herod killed every child under two years of age in the region of Bethlehem.  Things were not better when the Jewish patriots killed their wives and children before they killed themselves atop Masada.  Things were not better in the middle of the 20th century when Hitler sent Jewish children into the ovens with their parents or when Stalin sent Russian children to the gulag with their parents.  

And the world has always fallen prey to stories of the end of the world.  We love to listen to Chicken Little ("the sky is falling, the sky is falling!") if only for the adrenaline rush he gives us.  Time after time the faithful in one form or another have sold their possessions and gathered on a hill outside town to wait for The End.  There is some comfort, I think, in the feeling that while all things are about to be destroyed, we are at least part of a grand drama.

Our greatest fear, perhaps, is that T.S. Eliot was right, that the world ends "not with a bang but a whimper."  (His poem "The Hollow Men" is always worth a slow, ponderous read.)

So how could Paul, writing between Herod's slaughter of the innocents and the Jewish tragedy at Masada, write, "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us"?

The task of the Jesus-follower is not to be distracted by the tragedies of this world or by the predictions of its end.  We are to focus our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, and follow him, come what may.  With him we are brokenhearted in the face of grim tragedies.  With him we go open eyed into the apocalyptic possibilities of the future.  Our job is not to control things but to follow him, to trust him, in the midst of things we often do not understand.

There are certainly things to be said about gun control and about mental illness and about the end of the world.  But that's for another post.  Today, fix your eyes on Jesus:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in his wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.

That vision does not remove us from this world, but draws us back into the world, engaged with the needs and the brokenness with God-given courage and hope.  It's the only way we do this world any good, however long it lasts.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Launching pads

My daughter said to me the other day, just offhandedly, "Dad, you should be teaching in a college somewhere."  There's a powerful pull to that idea for me, as I love to teach.  One of the most satisfying things I know how to do is to take biblical truth, whether it's focused on a biblical passage, or church history, or "secular" history, or current events, and teach it in a way that it makes sense to people.  I love that.  So for just a second, the idea of a life devoted to teaching sounded pretty good.

Then I started to think about it.  Not that there's stuff wrong with teaching that would keep me away; any career is going to contain plenty of frustration, guaranteed.  (No matter what you go into, you'll be working with sinners AND you are one yourself, so the frustration is a given.)  In another life I could easily be a college professor.

The thing that keeps me away from that line of thinking is this: I believe that in the 21st century, the primary location of God's activity AND the primary location of people doing cutting-edge thinking about God's activity is in the local congregation.  This has not always been the case, but it is certainly the case today.  So for me, the best place to be working, thinking, and teaching, is in the local congregation.

Yesterday my wife and I were talking about this and she challenged me on it just a bit.  "What about all those leaders you'd be influencing by teaching at a seminary?  You'd be influencing hundreds of congregations, not just one."  Again, there's a lot of draw to that idea.  But a congregation ought to be a center of God's kingdom-building activity in the world.  Congregations ought to be places where the Spirit of God is working overtime in people's lives and into the world.

One evidence of that work will be that people within the congregation discover gifts and callings they would not otherwise have known.  They find themselves doing, leading, and serving in ways they would not have planned for themselves, because Jesus has a radical hold on their lives.  Hopefully this is true of each and every person who spends time in that congregation.

Also if a congregation is healthy, and is doing what it is called to do, one result (among many others) is that it should act as a launching pad.  That is to say, some of the brightest and best of its members should catch fire and rocket off into other places in the world as God's Spirit calls them to follow Jesus someplace else.  Some of the greatest life and vitality in a congregation comes as they see people who have been nurtured in its ministry heading out to other ministries and then staying in touch with the sending church.

So a church leader exercises great influence.  By creating an environment where people know Jesus, grow deep into his Word and into Christ-centered community, and hear the Spirit's call to go beyond themselves, a church leader has the opportunity to nurture a generation of upcoming leaders who will then look for their place in God's kingdom.  A few of these will end up in Christian colleges or seminaries, probably, but many will be following Jesus in new and radical ways, and a few will be launched like rockets into the world.

I can't think of anything more satisfying.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Used to think I was logical

Confession time:

I'm sitting home this evening listening to Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" and reading Psalm 106.

Could be worse, I suppose.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Huron Carol

I am more than a little shocked.  I just did a search of my own blog and found that I have never written about Jean de Brebeuf's amazing hymn sometimes called "Huron Carol" and sometimes known by its first line, "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime".  I apologize for not writing about this before!

Jean de Brebeuf was a French missionary to the Huron in the early 1600's.  He came from France and lived among the Huron for years, traveling with them, learning their language and culture, and seeking to lead them to know Jesus Christ.  Some historians have called Brebeuf Canada's first ethnographer because of his strong interest in Huron culture and language.  He was eventually captured by the Iroquois, enemies of the Huron, and tortured to death.  In the 20th century he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and is today recognized as one of the patron saints of Canada.  (Interesting detail -- it is possible that Brebeuf coined the term "lacrosse" for the game played among the Huron, as he thought the sticks they used, with a loop of leather at the top fastened with a small cross-piece, resembled a bishop's crosier, or in French, "crosse.")

During the course of his time among the Huron, Brebeuf recognized that it was important to put the good news of Jesus into terms these people could understand.  Realizing that many elements of the Nativity (shepherds, stables, gold, frankincense, myrrh, etc.) would be strange to the Huron, he took the Christmas story and recast it in terms that would have been understandable to this fur-trading, hunter-gatherer people.   He then set the words to a popular French tune.  Here is a translation of his hymn recorded several years ago by Bruce Cockburn:

Have courage, you who are human beings: Jesus, he is born
The okie spirit who enslaved us has fled
Don't listen to him for he corrupts the spirits of our thoughts
Jesus, he is born

The okie spirits who live in the sky are coming with a message
They're coming to say, "Rejoice!
Mary has given birth. Rejoice!"
Jesus, he is born

Three men of great authority have left for the place of his birth
Tiscient, the star appearing over the horizon leads them there
That star will walk first on the bath to guide them
Jesus, he is born

The star stopped not far from where Jesus was born
Having found the place it said,
"Come this way"
Jesus, he is born

As they entered and saw Jesus they praised his name
They oiled his scalp many times, anointing his head
with the oil of the sunflower
Jesus, he is born

They say, "Let us place his name in a position of honour
Let us act reverently towards him for he comes to show us mercy
It is the will of the spirits that you love us, Jesus,
and we wish that we may be adopted into your family
Jesus, he is born 

The hymn was translated into English (and greatly altered) by Jesse Edgar Middleton in 1926.  Middleton muddled up the cultures and language a bit, adding "Gitche Manitou" as a name for God and romanticizing the "men of authority" into hunters who bring gifts of "fox and beaver pelt."  Still, the intent behind Middleton's translation is to show the story of Christmas transcending cultures, and that is worthy of applause.  This version has gained some currency among Native Americans, especially among the First Nations in Canada. Here is Middleton's version, and here is an excellent rendition of this version:

Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead
Before their light the stars grew dim
And wandering hunters heard the hymn,

Jesus your King is born
Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round
But as the hunter braves drew nigh
The angel song rang loud and high

The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there
The chiefs from far before him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt

O children of the forest free, O sons of Manitou
The Holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant boy
Who brings you beauty peace and joy

It is worth thinking about how we communicate about Jesus to those who don't know him.  Christians are notorious for speaking in the religious shorthand of their own faith, using the "Christianese" words like salvation, atonement, sin, redemption, and so on.  While among theologians these words have specific meanings and are often helpful, they are an abomination when it comes to communicating Jesus to non-theologically trained people.  What Brebeuf did, simply is this:

1. He lived among people he wanted to reach, cared for them, and learned their language and their culture.
2. He found ways to tell the stories of Jesus in terms they could understand.
3. He invested himself, even to the point of giving up his own life, so that they might know Jesus.

This has been the basic model for Jesus-followers to do evangelism throughout the centuries.  Sadly, it is a rare thing today, largely because we have lost sight of the need to get beyond ourselves and make the cross-cultural move to reach another's heart.  Perhaps we have lost sight of the fact that this is exactly what Jesus did for us!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Advent Conspiracy

This is a short video my daughter just posted on her Facebook account.  It is seriously worth both your time and your consideration.  Watch, then visit the website and take some kind of action.

Click here to watch the video.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Leonard Sweet, among others, has pointed out that to move into the future you have to get traction from the past.  It's like the swing sets we used to play on (and some of us still do).  You "pump" to gain altitude, making use of the backward momentum by tucking your feet underneath you, then as you move forward kicking your feet out straight in order to gain a little height on each swing.

In the same way, you don't move forward into the future by simply plotting it out.  You have to look back a bit, too.  You have to look backward to see who you are, where you've come from, how God has used you in the past, and the assets and relationships God has placed in your life.

Usually we are guilty of viewing the past through some kind of lens.  We look at it either through the eyes of idealism, remembering the good things and thinking about how rosy it was "back then," or we look at the past remembering the pain and bitterness of old difficulties.  Rarely do we have an accurate perspective on our own past.

So it's important to pull in other perspectives.  This morning I sat up in my Recliner of Meeting for an hour or so before my wife was awake, reflecting back on our time in western North Dakota.  I realized that while I remembered a lot of detail about my work, the two churches I served, and a few other odds and ends, I remembered relatively little about our family life during that time.  So when Julie got up, we reminisced together for a while.  She had a whole different set of details about our time there, and those details complemented my memories in significant ways.

I believe this is one of many reasons God created families.  It's always interesting at weddings or funerals (two places where I have a front row seat to watch how families interact) to see siblings remember their shared past.  Those shared memories, used properly, can become a platform from which we are able to move into the future in new ways.

The trick for many of us is to be intentional about this process.  We're good at being vexed -- even anxious -- about the future.  We need to cultivate the skill of talking with those who share bits of our past, who can help us assess what God was doing back then, so that we might begin to understand a bit of what God wants to do next.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A pre-Christmas gift

I received a gift several weeks ago.  It came wrapped in a telephone conversation, tied with a disclaimer.  "I'm not asking you this question," my friend said, "It's just that this is the question I'm dealing with."  Like most gifts from one guy to another, it wasn't frilly or fancy.  It looked plain and a little rough and I didn't want to deal with it much so I shoved it off to the side of my mind.

I let the gift sit for a long time, thinking it wasn't for me.  Even at the time, I realized it was a beautiful, precious thing in spite of its packaging, but I thought it belonged to my friend, and not to me.  So I let it sit.

The last few days, however, I keep tripping over it.  So last night I decided, finally, to unwrap it, and I realized that the tag had my name on it the whole time.  Funny how you can miss things like that.  Some gifts just won't leave you alone.  So I unwrapped it last night when I was home by myself for the evening, looked at it from a few different angles, poked and prodded and played with the switches and levers.  I haven't quite figured out how the gift works yet, but I'm having fun playing with it.

After a half hour or so last night I put it away again.  It's mine, of course, and I'll pull it out again.  But it is the kind of gift you can play with for a while and then put away and it always comes out fresh.  I suspect that the more I use it, the better I'll like it.

What's the gift?  I hesitate to tell you because you may not like it.  But for some of you, the gift will sit at the edges of your mind until one day, you'll unwrap it and start to play with it.  Get in touch and we can have some grand conversations!

As I said earlier, the gift is a question, a question my friend was dealing with, a question he dropped on my desk almost by accident, though I'm not much of a believer in accidents.  Here it is:

"What would the next ten years look like if you lived them intentionally?"

Friday, November 30, 2012

Back from the badlands

Spent three nights in the badlands of North Dakota this week, pursuing the ever elusive mule deer with my brothers.  We're bowhunters, so that means that our success rates are abysmally low, I am afraid, especially if you measure success in terms of venison in the freezer.  But we had a good time.  Darin saw some amazing deer, and actually got within shooting distance a couple times.  Sadly circumstances prevented him from getting off a decent shot.  Les and I saw nice bucks but from a distance, and for some reason we were never able to get closer.  That's the way it goes.

The biggest takeaway from the trip for me, however, was spending hours and hours sitting in the badlands contemplating the fact that I'm preaching about King David this Sunday.  Actually that's not true -- I'm preaching about David's life before he became king.

In the early days, he was a shepherd in country much like the badlands.  I've never been to Israel (it's on my list) but those who have been to both places tell me that there are distinct similarities between the badlands and the hills of what would have been, in David's time, southern Judah.  Shepherd boys today lead flocks of sheep and goats around the ravines and hillsides, seeking what David in Psalm 37 called "faithful pasture" -- at least that's one rendering of what the NIV translates "enjoy safe pasture" and the ESV translates  "befriend faithfulness."  Hebrew can be tricky.  I can imagine the vagaries of trying to find faithful pasture for livestock in the badlands.  On these trips we are always accompanied by a few angus cows tearing at the tufts of grass that grow here and there in the coulees.  I wonder how much trouble the mountain lions give those cows.  I know they're rough on the deer -- I've found kills with shards of torn meat still clinging to the bones.  It's enough to make you glance around at the hundred or so hiding places where even now, a cat could be watching you ...

Must have been a little like that for David.  Too much time to sit and think, too much time to talk to the sheep, too much time to ponder his own powerlessness.  He was just a boy, like those Palestinian boys today.  But in those days, instead of random rocket fire, he had to worry about lions and bears and Amalekite raiders.

It's easy to think, perched under a juniper tree on a rock ledge over a hundred foot dropoff, staring at a huge sky and picking cactus spines out of your knuckles, of your own powerlessness.  The universe might just snuff out your life like squishing a bug, and the planets wouldn't grind to a halt.  The cosmos would just roll right along.  The clouds would keep on scudding eastward.  What's one more human life out of six billion, give or take?

There is so much in our humanistic world today designed to make us feel powerful.  Just for a minute, try defining power not as the ability to influence nations, but rather as the ability to change your environment.  Make it even more specific -- maybe power is the ability to make yourself comfortable.

See?  All you have to do is turn up the thermostat.  You are powerful.  Put on another sweater that 2/3 of the world can't afford.  Flip the switch for the heated seats on your car.  Warm up with a $3 cup of coffee.  Close the window on your $200,000 "moderate" house.  Suddenly power is accessible.

David didn't have much of that kind of power as a boy.  He probably had an extra blanket, and the means to make a fire if need be.  Living like that, he gained a sense that he didn't deserve a lot -- not in a negative, "poor me" kind of way, but he didn't expect the world to make way for him.  Read the stories of his early life and you find that over and over again, when people gave him opportunities to grab power for himself, he refused.  "Who am I to do something like that?" he asked over and over again.  Today we'd probably say he's hopeless, that he suffers from a lack of self-esteem.  He needs to stand up for himself.

The other thing that happened under these circumstances for David is that he learned to step up when needs arose, because no one else was around to step up.  Lion attacking the sheep?  David steps up.  Bear attacking the sheep?  David steps up.  So when a 9-foot tall man hurls insults at the God of the Israelites and all the warriors are obviously cowed, David does what David does: he steps up.  He does this not because he's so competent and all that, but because it's just what needs to be done, and he's learned to take responsibility.  He's learned not to stand up for himself, but to step up when there's a need, even if it means he puts himself at risk.

Three years ago on a helicopter flight from Princeton to North Memorial Hospital, I learned something. When you let go of the "my life matters" attitude that is, at heart, about selfishness, you're willing to risk things, to take some serious chances, if it seems they might really matter.  When you learn to trust that God means what he says -- your life is precious -- and though he doesn't give guarantees, he promises that he will not spend your life foolishly, then it's possible to dare great things.  There's a great deal of freedom in that.

I think David knew that freedom, and I think he learned it mostly by spending a lot of time out in the hills, in the quiet, watching over a few sheep and picking cactus spines out of his knuckles and pondering things.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday after Thanksgiving reflections

After two months of trying to post at least a couple times each week on this blog, the last week or so has felt really delinquent.  I haven't posted and have barely thought about this blog.  Spent some time yesterday and today trying to figure out why.

Biggest reason I can come up with is that my daughters both came home on Tuesday evening and I have been reveling in having them both around.  It always takes me a little by surprise how all-consuming fathering can become, even now that my girls are 17 and 20 and living away from home.  I want to be available for the conversations, hear the news and perspectives and sense the tiny seismic shifts that are going on in their development as fledgling adults.  So that's been taking a lot of my energy and focus.  Both are also working on projects at college that involve analysis of various theological subjects.  One is doing an exegesis of 1 Peter 3:1-7 (very interesting passage!) and the other is working on a project looking at her own faith upbringing (mostly at Central Lutheran Church in Elk River) compared and contrasted with Roman Catholicism.

So this morning, just for fun and comparison, she and I went to St. Andrew's Catholic Church in Elk River, an excellent Roman Catholic congregation that I've attended for special events a few times but never on a Sunday morning.

We went to the early service at St. Andrews and it was very traditional -- in many ways, it reminded me of the liturgical worship in which I was raised.  There were, of course, a few specifically Catholic things in the service -- acknowledgement of "the Virgin Mary and all the saints who perpetually make intercession for us," along with several mentions of prayers for those who have passed away, prayers offered in the sincere hope that those deceased persons will at some point be allowed into God's heavenly kingdom.  Not things you'd hear in a Protestant church.  We expected to feel a little out of place what with people genuflecting and standing and sitting without warning, hymns out of hymnals we didn't know how to navigate (Teya told me later there was in fact a digital readout on the wall behind us that specified the hymn numbers, which were not announced), and numerous different books, slips of paper, preprinted cardstock worship orders and such that veterans seemed to not need in the first place.

But the biggest difference, and Teya and I talked about this quite a bit, was that the ritual-heavy, traditional worship at that service at St. Andrew's (and I have no idea if all their services are the same, though I suspect they're similar in this regard) did not seem to cater to the attender at all; rather, the worship seemed to be a necessary exercise.  I listened as hard as I could and I didn't hear any attempt to relate the gospel to the culture, or to persuade listeners that it was relevant to their lives, though the short homily seemed to assume some relevance even though it was never spelled out.  The whole thing sort of felt like a financial transaction -- somebody might smile at you and welcome you but that's not the point, the point is to transfer the money from one account to another.

Then we went to Central's contemporary service, and it was almost over the top the other direction.  (Teya made the observation the other day that though Central's theology is without doubt Lutheran, the worship style tends toward a more generic protestant evangelical style.)  Worship songs, testimonies, lyrics projected on screens so we never had to think about what we were going to say or sing next, a sermon laser focused on helping us to relate the story of Samuel and Saul to our own lives, our own decision-making.  We were invited, encouraged, even cajoled a couple times to get involved in kingdom activities that could make a difference in the world.  We were invited to come forward and pray, either for ourselves or for several people whose grief or need was specifically mentioned in the worship time.  There was a deep sense of compassion, of personal involvement.

I'm not sure what to do with this but I think I want to chew on it for a few days.

I will not be posting for the next week or so on this blog, but I encourage you to consider using the "Twelve Meditations for Christmas" in the column of articles to the right of this blog.  These meditations may help you to start focusing on the fact that Advent begins a week from today, and that it is the birth of Jesus that we anticipate.  If you read a couple of those each week for the next several weeks, they'd take you right up to New Year's.  That's a little intimidating, huh?

Monday, November 19, 2012


A week ago on Monday evening I was privileged to meet with about fifty of Central's leaders and then with a smaller group of our pastorate leaders.  I came away from that evening once again rejoicing in what I get to be a part of here at Central!

God is doing a very cool thing here.  I'm going to talk mostly about pastorates in this post, though the work God's Spirit is doing also includes D4D groups and many other elements.  But pastorates is the one that's closest to my heart.

Many of you who read this blog are familiar with pastorates -- they are mid-sized, home-based groups of believers who meet together for worship, prayer, fellowship, and Bible teaching / study.  They are led by people trained through Central Lutheran as shepherds and teachers for these groups.  Those individual leaders then spread the leadership roles out within their group so multiple individuals are involved in worship leadership, caring for and teaching children, providing refreshments, leading prayer, serving communion, and teaching the Bible.  As these groups meet together, individuals grow in their own spiritual maturity and sense of call, and the group grows together in significant relationships.

Another key dynamic to these pastorates is that together, the pastorate members seek to reach out and draw new people into the life of the pastorate.  This keeps a new energy and new vitality present within the group.  Also, the pastorate seeks to live beyond itself, to reach out into the world with the love of Jesus in some kind of mission.  Some pastorates are sponsoring Tanzanian orphans.  Others are sponsoring needy families at Christmas.  Still others are working to provide a solution to the issue of homelessness in the Elk River community.

There are many benefits to these pastorate groups at Central.  Currently we have about 200 people involved in one way or another in these pastorates, and that kind of fellowship centered in God's word and pushing out into the world in mission is GOING to have an impact!  We see these groups providing a quality and quantity of pastoral care that is far more than can be offered by professional pastors.  It's amazing to hear stories of what goes on in these groups!

But by far the biggest reason to push in this direction, to work toward the goal of pastorates as an integral part of Central's ministry, is because the New Testament assumes -- over and over and over again -- that people will be gathering in each other's homes, sharing each other's lives, having communion not as an antiseptic "meal" in front of an auditorium-style sanctuary but as a meal shared with other believers, working together to share the love of Jesus in the world, caring for each other, building each other up, and delving into God's word together.  This idea is so fundamental to the entire New Testament.

How did we ever get to a place where we thought being the church meant meeting for 60 minutes a week in a building dedicated to religion, watching while the professionals (whom we pay) lead us through a worship service that tends to bore us (be honest) and giving a few dollars each week so someone else can take the gospel to those who haven't heard?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Passing on faith to a new generation

Here is the link to a sermon I gave this week at "The Gathering," our Sunday evening worship.  Several people mentioned they were hoping it was recorded, and it was, so thanks to Jason the Tech Guy being back in the office, it's now available!  It's fairly lengthy (okay, no comment) but the basic idea is that it takes "STEW" to pass on faith to another generation:


Have fun! (Oh, by the way once you hit the link above you'll want to click on the link to the pop-up player in order to get the audio track started.)


An old confirmation student of mine from many years ago, posted this today on Facebook.  I thought it well worth sharing here.  Thanks, Andrew!

Spurgeon's Morning devotional for today. 

"The Lord's portion is His people."—Deuteronomy 32:9.

HOW are they His? By His own sovereign choice. He chose them, and set His love upon them. This He did altogether apart from any goodness in them at the time, or any goodness which He foresaw in them. He had mercy on whom He would have mercy, and ordained a chosen company unto eternal life; thus, therefore, are they His by His unconstrained election. They are not only His by choice, but by purchase. He has bought and paid for them to the utmost farthing, hence about His title there can be no dispute. Not with corruptible things, as with silver and gold, but with the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord's portion has been fully redeemed. There is no mortgage on His estate; no suits can be raised by opposing claimants, the price was paid in open court, and the Church is the Lord's freehold for ever. See the blood-mark upon all the chosen, i

nvisible to human eye, but known to Christ, for "the Lord knoweth them that are His"; He forgetteth none of those whom He has redeemed from among men; He counts the sheep for whom He laid down His life, and remembers well the Church for which He gave Himself. They are also His by conquest. What a battle He had in us before we would be won! How long He laid siege to our hearts! How often He sent us terms of capitulation! but we barred our gates, and fenced our walls against Him. Do we not remember that glorious hour when He carried our hearts by storm? When He placed His cross against the wall, and scaled our ramparts, planting on our strongholds the blood-red flag of His omnipotent mercy? Yes, we are, indeed, the conquered captives of His omnipotent love. Thus chosen, purchased, and subdued, the rights of our divine possessor are inalienable: we rejoice that we never can be our own; and we desire, day by day, to do His will, and to show forth His glory.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Immigration Reform?

So here's a wild thought.  There's a lot of conversation in our country these days about immigration, immigration reform, deportation, welfare, and all the rest.  Ready for a challenge?

Read the biblical book of Ruth.  Then answer these questions:

1. What does this book, in the context of the Old Testament's violent antipathy toward foreigners (see for example Numbers 25 and Ezra 10) say about welcoming people of other countries?

2. What does this book say about work and welfare?  (Notice how Ruth makes a living for her and Naomi.)

3. What does this book say about businesses' and employers' responsibility to provide some of the "gleanings" for those in need in their communities?  (See also Deuteronomy 24:17-22)

4. What does this book say about the way God may use the "least of these" -- in this case, an undocumented alien -- to accomplish his purposes?

I'm curious to hear any thoughts you might have after completing this challenge.  Thanks!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Curt's post-election perspective

This is a post-election perspective from my good friend Curt that is well worth your time to read.

Why did God make families?

Why did God create families?

No matter how you define "family" -- whether mom, dad, and a handful of biological kids, or any other smallish group of people sharing life together in a myriad of ways that they belong to each other, I'm not concerned at the moment.  Family is a concept so trans-cultural, so pervasive to human existence, you have to think that this most consistent of human relationships must be intended by God for a purpose.

I posted recently on this blog about how marriage is intended by God to provide a preview or a shadow of his desired relationship with his people (see Ephesians 5:21-33).  Tease this out of scripture and you find a deep, powerful metaphor.  Husbands and wives enjoy a relationship uniquely created by God to provide an experiential, relational picture of the relationship between Jesus and the Church, to use Paul's language.  So all the dynamics of marriage -- communication, affection, mutual growth and understanding, common purpose, procreation -- point toward the way Jesus relates to his people and what happens when we're in this intimate relationship.  More than any other human relationship, marriage is designed to demonstrate the most pervasive dominant aspect of God's character, namely "love."  This is not our self-defined, emotionally driven love, but rather the love described in Ephesians 5:21-33, a love that desires the highest good of the beloved and will stop at nothing to achieve it -- not in any codependent sense, but in a pure and healthy and other-centered sense that includes good boundaries and a healthy sense of self.  This "love" takes us so far beyond our cultural conceptions of love that the two can't really be compared.  Yet at its best, every so often, you encounter a couple whose marriage seems to point in the direction of this transcendent divine love.

In the same way, I believe God created families with a greater purpose than just sharing space.

Families are under assault from multiple directions today, and that makes God's purposes all that much harder to see.  We have grown accustomed to families where kids live with two different parents in two different places because of divorce.  We don't bat an eye anymore at families without a father present.  Many couples raise children together in a variety of tenuous arrangements without the bond of marriage at the core of their parenting.  In many households kids, flexible by nature, have learned to refer to him as "mom's boyfriend" or to her as "dad's girlfriend."  These are the obvious assaults.

There are many other more insidious attacks.  "Screen time" is one of the worst -- in our affluent lives we have television screens, computer screens, ipod and ipad and video game screens that isolate us from each other.  Family schedules are overpacked with work, sports, daycare, social activities that pull adults away from children rather than pulling them all together as a family, and many other activities that drain the family rather than enhancing its life.  Material wealth causes many similar problems, which maybe surprises us.  We have worked so hard to provide materially for our families that it's hard for us to even imagine that maybe our wealth is a detriment to those we love most.  But if you watch carefully, you see that the accoutrements of wealth -- the technology, the toys, the obsession with managing what we have and working long hours to accumulate more -- also isolate us from each other and prevent healthy relationships.  Even some of the toys that people say are for the sake of family time -- the cabin up north, or the boat, and so on -- tend to require more maintenance and management than whatever relational connection they provide.

Instead of being life-giving relational communities, more and more families are loose collections of individuals who share space but are only marginally invested in one another's lives.  In our day the family at best becomes a nurturing place for a loose cadre of individuals.

What are we missing?  What is it God intended when he created families?  I believe God intended many things for families, this most basic unit of human community.  It is no accident that every social engineering project in history has tried in some way to dismantle or destroy the family.  Here are a few observations of things that I believe God wanted you to learn in your family growing up, and that he still desires people to learn in their families today:

1. You belong to something bigger than yourself.  Your existence as an individual is important, but your family defines you and gives you an identity that goes beyond your name.  You are held in your place in the universe by a web of relationships, especially family relationships.  These relationships define you and provide opportunity for your growth.

2. Others' needs are important.  It is a great tragedy when parents don't have the wisdom to say "no" to a child.  One of the most important lessons we need to learn is that we can't -- and shouldn't -- have everything we want.

3. Resources are finite.  One reason I can't have everything I want is that there's only so much to go around.  I might want the last cookie on the plate, but maybe I already had two and my sister hasn't had any.

4. Don't be selfish.  So the opportunity arises for me to be selfish, or to be generous.  Inevitably in a family we sometimes choose the good, and we sometimes choose to live only for ourselves.  When we choose either way, we see the consequences lived out in the lives of those we love.

5. You learn as you go.  While a school term may give me the illusion of mastery, the family provides an ongoing laboratory that won't allow me to think I've arrived.  It is here we first learn the hard lesson that we will face all our lives -- I'm not perfect.  If we are fortunate, we will learn in this context that we need a perfect Savior.

6. Pay attention to good role models.  Parents are not an accident.  Hopefully they were / are good role models, because what we see them doing we will do.  What we resent them for doing we will do.  What we vow we will never do just because they did it we will do.  We will fight all our lives to be free of their influence and to live up to their example.  It's best to be intentional about this process.

7. Tend to relationships.  Nothing else carries so much value.  Nothing else has so much power to bless or destroy us.  Tend these incredibly important relationships, and learn in this context to tend all your relationships.

8. Care for those younger / smaller / weaker than you.  Older siblings babysit younger ones.  Kids take care of younger cousins while the adults visit.  Take your little sister out in the yard and play for a while.  As you grow, you will find a whole world full of people smaller and weaker than you.  Don't abuse them -- tend and nourish and care for them.

9. Deal with suffering.  Older siblings are masters at teaching this lesson, whether it is helping you deal with the fear of trying something new (jumping out of the second story of the granary) or dealing with the consequences ("Just rub a little dirt on it") you need to learn to bear up under suffering without being a whiner.

10. Your small community exists for the sake of something greater.  This is a lot like #1, but goes a step farther.  This family has a purpose beyond itself.  In much of human history that purpose was the family farm.  I can't begin to share how many summer mornings I wanted the freedom to sleep in, to go explore the creek, to read a book, to climb a tree -- but there was hay to be baled, crops to be harvested, fences to be repaired, and so much more.  I belonged to something beyond my own self-indulgent whims.  Today parents have to be a little more intentional about making sure that families have a sense of purpose, a sense of being involved in something greater.  For Jesus-followers, this is easy:  Your family exists for Christ and his kingdom.  How to communicate that, experientially, to their children is a bit of a challenge.  One of the greatest purposes of families throughout human history is to teach us to look for a greater purpose.

So just to prime the pump, let me ask:

*What was your experience of family growing up?  How many of these ten purposes did you learn in that context?

*How well does your family today do at communicating these ten purposes to all its members?

*Do you have a Jesus-following family of some kind -- church, home fellowship, study group, whatever -- that communicates these purposes within intentional Christ-centered community?

*Do you agree that living "for Christ and his kingdom" is a good summary of the Jesus-follower's life purpose, both individually and communally?  Why / why not?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Sacrifice, anyone?

I'm still chewing on this one.

We are coming to the tail end of two wars.  Troops have been largely brought home from Iraq, and we've got plans to bring troops home from Afghanistan.

We're slowly clawing our way out of the "Great Recession," the worst economic downturn since the depression of the 1930's.  Recovery is slow, slow, slow.

We've had a president for the last four years who prides himself on his abilities as a rhetorician.

Currently we're coming down to the last hours of a presidential campaign in which both candidates have touted themselves as the clear choice, emphasizing over and over again that the country faces a critical choice between two divergent courses for the United States of America.

Here's the thing that troubles me in the middle of all this:

Nobody that I've heard -- and I listen pretty closely -- has appealed to the citizens of the USA for any form of self-sacrifice.  I'm trying to remember, and I barely recall any appeal to US citizens even in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001.

Compare the appeals that went out to the citizens of the USA during World War Two.  In the five years that war lasted, the nation sacrificed very intentionally.  Men volunteered in droves to enter the military.  Others were drafted and stepped up when their government called.  Women rose up by the thousands to cover manufacturing and war industry jobs.  Average citizens rationed rubber, sugar, and much, much more in order to give more to the war effort.  Anyone who could afford to do so set aside money to buy war bonds that financed America's war effort.  In other words, the American people carried the debt load of their country to pay for the war.

During the World War Two years, the government unashamedly asked every citizen to pitch in and do what they could to enable the tremendous drain of resources, personnel, supplies, and machinery that poured into Europe and the Pacific.  The government, and willing citizens, created a culture in which self-sacrifice -- in the form of military service, long days at the factory, rationing booklets and stickers, lack of basic supplies, collections of peach and apricot pits, doing without new tires or nylons, and setting aside money for war bonds -- was expected of every citizen.

During two wars and a deep economic recession, no one has asked me to sacrifice anything.

Meanwhile, our country has become deeply indebted to China, who now holds the lion's share of our government debt.

Government bean-counters scramble and argue over what supplies soldiers in the Middle East need to properly do their jobs while pollsters measure the health of the economy back home by how much I'm willing to go into debt to buy Christmas presents.

What's wrong with this picture?

Have we forgotten so completely the idealistic lines immortalized by John Kennedy when he encouraged us to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask rather what you can do for your country"?

The more I think about this the more flabbergasted I am that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has tried during this presidential campaign to recruit the American people to give beyond themselves.  Instead, we wring our hands over the decline of Medicare and Social Security, bicker about defense spending, and promise over and over and over again to make life better for the middle class.

Our culture has become more and more consumed with a desire to have it all, all for me.  Maybe I'm an idealist myself, but I think that an appeal to the American people would sell, if it was directed toward the right goals.  If a candidate stood up and said, "I ask the American people to buy government bonds. They have a guaranteed rate of return.  It's only 1%, but that's about what you can get on a savings account these days.  Invest for a minimum of ten years so that we can buy our debt back from the Chinese" -- if a candidate stood up and said that, I think the American people would step up in droves.  I believe we're hardwired to desire a greater cause, a reason to sacrifice.

But no one's asking us to give anything.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Election 2012 -- the Mormons win!

During the Republican National Convention several weeks ago, I turned to my wife and said, "No matter who gets elected, the Mormons will win this election."  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) have made incredible strides into the mainstream of American society in the last twenty years, and the last five have been just incredible.  But the Mormon church's emergence into public respectability during the RNC was amazing to watch.

I saw this coming about twenty years ago.  You may remember the Mormons' TV commercials in the 1980's -- beautiful family settings, caring relationships, and a 1-800-number that, if you called, promised to send you a free copy of the Book of Mormon.  About twenty years ago, suddenly these commercials changed and, instead of the Book of Mormon, they promised to send callers a free copy of the King James Version of the Bible.  At that moment, I could see the strategy unfolding: the Mormon church realized that belief -- the content of faith -- was going underground, and appearances and emotional associations were what counted.  They planned to step into the mainstream of American religion.  What could be more mainstream than the King James Bible?

We've seen this play out in the last two decades.  Four years ago Mitt Romney was marginalized from the Republican ticket mostly because of his religion.  Since then we've seen a spate of "I'm a Mormon" commercials on TV, radio, and internet.  They're classy, well-done commercials that clearly put Mormons in the mainstream.

During the Republican National Convention, one entire evening was devoted to a sort of Mormon religious festival complete with testimonies and touching tales of the care and devotion Pastor Mitt showered on those under his care.  No one shrank back from declaring their adherence to the Mormon religion.  No one toned down their personal faith.

So what?

Whether we're talking theology or sexuality, the mainstream of America has adopted a "whatever works for you" approach to truth.  It's considered rude to examine someone else's truth claims and weigh them carefully.  It's considered arrogant to have a standard of truth by which you evaluate events and teachings.  In the public square these days, if you make the claim that you are (for example) a "biblical Christian" and immediately you're labeled a fundamentalist, a homophobe, a hater.  "Tolerance" -- meaning you don't evaluate the truth-claims of others -- is the rule of the day.

I have nothing against a Mormon president.  The Mormons, after all, have developed one of the most successful religious systems for promoting strong families, successful businesses, and a solid work ethic.  These are all a good beginning toward being an effective leader.  By all means, vote for Mitt if you like.  I'm more concerned about competency in the Oval Office than I am about orthodoxy.

What strikes me in all this is as follows:  American religion and American life more and more are defined not by the question, "What is true?" but rather by the question, "What has meaning for me?"  Note that this question is purely individual.  We do not ask, "What has meaning for us?" because we don't know how to have corporate faith, which includes some measure of accountability.  We only know how to have individual belief, which can be as wacky as each of us are individually.

What the Mormons at the RNC had to do was not defend their wacky theology -- few Mormons even know what their church teaches, theologically and historically speaking -- but rather to speak of the meaning and satisfaction they've found in their religion.  Historians who expose Joseph Smith as a spiritual con-man equipped with angelic spectacles and ephemeral golden tablets that disappeared after he translated them sound like vengeful, intolerant meanies.  Though this does beg the question: as a leader in the Mormon church for any number of years, Mitt Romney undoubtedly knows and subscribes to the theological teachings of his church.  So he probably believes that God the Father was once a human being, and that he himself can become a god by following the tenets of his faith, and that Ann's greatest satisfaction will be to bear children for him throughout eternity.  He apparently believes in the magic spectacles and the golden tablets.  He likely accepts the idea that the ten lost tribes of Israel migrated across Asia to the Bering Strait, spread across the Americas, and became the American Indians (including Nephi and his crew that populate the pages of the Book of Mormon.)  It's a little troubling to me that a man in line for the Oval Office might subscribe to some of these ideas.

At the RNC we saw good, articulate people speaking passionately and reasonably about things like compassion and community.  They gave a face to Mormonism that sways the average post-modern thinker:  They seem like nice people and they have good values.  They should be accepted.

So no matter whether Romney wins or loses the election, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has been catapulted into a new legitimacy in the minds of most Americans.  After 2012, when those Mormons knock on your door, you may be much more inclined to invite them in and listen to them with an open mind.  Don't worry much about what's really true in their theology or their history, what stands up to the bright light of scrutiny -- they're very nice people.  Enjoy the conversation.  Invite them back.  Hear them out, and eventually you'll consider joining them for church.

I predict that the already rapid growth rates of the Mormon church will increase even more in the next ten or twelve years.  In terms of religion, the Mormons have already won the 2012 election.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Valuable men

Today I am pondering what it means to live intentionally.  In a conversation about a week ago, a mentor of mine said he was dealing with the question, "What would the next ten years look like if I lived intentionally?"  I think it is a great question.  It makes me think of something I heard many years ago -- that the Hopi of the American southwest have certain men in their tribes who they call "valuable men."  I think it's a great term.

Fueling this particular ponder is the fact that I am grieving the loss of two valuable men.  Both are men in their 80's who have influenced me deeply, who are now at the end of their lives.

The first of these men, Tom, passed away last night as his body gave in to the ravages of cancer.  His wife and children have told me over and over again what a good man he is, how he has cared for them and led them, and how he has modeled excellence in every area of life. I have seen these things in Tom's life with my own eyes.  I have only known him for a couple years but I have been so impressed with his intentionality, his desire to stand for unchanging values, his positive spirit, and his unflinching love for Jesus.

The second of these men, Morris, is probably in the last hours of his life as I write this.  He came into my life because he is the father of my earliest friend (Kevin), whom I met the day I started kindergarten.  I was in and out of his house throughout my childhood.  I ate countless meals in his kitchen and attended church, concerts and other events with his family.  I sat in their living room during family devotions and heard Morris pray for his family and for the world.  I helped with milking and played in the hayloft of his barn.  I observed from very close range the deep relationship between Kevin and his dad.  I have known him nearly all my life, and I have been so impressed with his intentionality, his desire to stand for unchanging values, his positive spirit, and his unflinching love for Jesus.

Every young man needs older men to teach him, to call him to account, to tease him, to set him an example to follow.  So if you're going to go looking for an old man to adopt, what do you look for?  (And of course you can also read this in reverse -- if you're an old man reading this, what qualities in your life can bless younger men who might adopt you?)

First, find a man who loves Jesus.  There are plenty of old men out there who are just living older versions of lost lives.  A man who knows Jesus has a solidity, a stability that self-reliant men don't have.  There's also a humility in this kind of a man, because he knows he needs help beyond himself.  A lot of old men who know Jesus won't talk about that relationship much, sadly.  However, you can watch him for a while and see what's going on under the surface.

Second, find a man who is positive but not deluded -- someone who isn't afraid to say when something is good.  There are plenty of negative old curmudgeons out there, and they will not often bless you.  A man who can give thanks for the blessings in his life is an amazing gift.

Third, find a man who hasn't had all his rough edges worn off.  If you find a man who looks too perfect, it's probably better to stay away.  You're going to get sucked in and fooled by a shiny exterior.  No, as a role model you want a man who is still dealing with some issues.  Maybe he's a bit of a controller.  Maybe he rails against some of the things that are wrong with the world, or with you, or with himself.  Maybe he cusses or chews or picks his nose.  He might well tell stories that make you look around to see if your mother is listening.  None of these are deal breakers; in fact, if he doesn't have some rough edges he probably won't be of use to you.  The best role models are the ones who have come to grips with the fact that they're not perfect and are comfortable living in their own skin, even if that makes you a little uncomfortable.

Fourth, find a man who stands for solid values.  You don't have to agree with all his values, but you can learn a lot from listening to him talk about what's important to him.

It's worth mentioning that you will probably benefit most from a man who has done something with his hands.  Not to say that he can't be a teacher or a lawyer or a minister -- I've adopted men from all three of these categories.  However, even if his career has been behind a desk, he should probably be able to shoot a muzzleloader, or sail a boat, or rebuild an engine, or build a bunkbed, or something useful.  These kinds of hands-on activities anchor a man in the real world.

If possible, find a man who has a decent relationship with his own kids.  This means that his kids are independent and strong, but they choose to stay connected to him, and he's figured out that most difficult of manly tasks, how to give his kids freedom without totally cutting them off.  Certainly there can be some brokenness in these relationships -- there always is -- but you're looking for someone who can be a bit of a surrogate father to you, at least in some sense.  If his dysfunctions have driven his own kids too far away, you might want to reconsider.

Some of you reading this are fortunate enough to have one of these men for a father, or a father-in-law, or maybe a grandfather or an uncle.  That is a precious gift.  Don't make the mistake of neglecting these valuable men just because they're in your family.  Dig deep into those relationships and mine all the gold you can.

If you have an old man who meets most of these criteria, he's probably worth your time.  Figure out where he connects -- whether in the duck blind, the garage, an auction sale, or at a hole-in-the wall restaurant he frequents because they have good pie.  One of the best old men in my life has been a North Dakota farmer who used to stick his head into my office at church once a month or so and say, "You got time for pie?"  We'd go out and discuss the world at length and I would ask stories about how things used to be and how he sees things now.  Those were invaluable times!

While it's okay to study the heroes our culture lifts up, it's far better to find a valuable man and get close to him.  Listen to what's on his mind.  See things through his eyes.  You will learn more than you expected.  One of the most important lessons these valuable men will teach you is the one that Tom and Morris are leading me through today.  How do you walk open-eyed toward your own death?  How do you live life intentionally?  These men have figured out how to face the hard stuff, to work through the trials and difficulties.

One of the specific goals in my life is that I want to be an old man.  Not to say I'm so eager to live into my 80's -- this is not about length of life, but rather about quality.  When the time comes -- and I don't get to decide this, it is rather determined by younger men who see something in my life they desire -- I hope to be an old man, to be able to bless someone's life the way I've been blessed.  I want to live the kind of life someone else might find valuable.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

It's been scientifically proven ...

I'm always a little amused when issues of morality and ethics come up in public conversation and someone wants to trot science out to settle the argument.  In Minnesota's current "marriage amendment" conversation, both sides are quoting various scientific sources to claim the rational high ground.  

While I'm intrigued by the recent studies out of Texas that have indicated significant advantages for children being raised by a mother and a father, as opposed to two parents of the same gender, I don't base my support for that amendment on such studies.  Simply put, I try as much as possible to live my life in line with what the Bible recommends because I'm convinced that knowing Jesus and living obedient to him is the very best life possible.  In the same way, I want what is the very best for the society in which I live, so when I have opportunities, I try to sway that society toward a more biblical way of life.  (And no, to the critics, I am not talking about women wearing head coverings or stoning disrespectful children.  There are legitimate readings of the Bible as a whole that address those texts and place them in a wider context.  Email me and we can have that conversation if you like.)

Back to science.  We have been taught to believe that science is rational.  Science brings perspective.  Scientifically based decision making is better.  There is just enough truth in this attitude to keep us coming back for more.  

However, I think we are in grave danger if we simply believe that because "science" says something is so, it is so.  First, this is true because "science" rarely speaks with one voice on any controversial issue. Fact is, scientists are as diverse a group as humans in general and tend to disagree amongst themselves.  The fact that they disagree in scientific journals in articles using four-syllable words is what makes most of us think they're so smart and that they really have it all together.  Not so.

Second, the very scientific method, if we really understood it, militates against certainty.  Why?  Because using the scientific method you are constantly making observations, developing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses according to new observations, and going back around to revise your initial assumptions.  This very process we call the "scientific method" -- a process that is at the heart of all scientific knowledge -- is by nature based on skepticism, revision, and doubting one's earlier conclusions until they are absolutely proven -- which never happens in the scientific endeavor.  I'm not criticizing science at this point; if science is going to do its job, it HAS to operate this way.  But if you go looking to science for certainty, you might get into trouble.  

I love what M. Cartmill said on this score: "As an adolescent I aspired to lasting fame, I craved factual certainty, and I thirsted for a meaningful vision of human life - so I became a scientist. This is like becoming an archbishop so you can meet girls."

Well said, and the comparison is apt: If you use your office as archbishop to meet girls, you have violated the very nature of the office.  If you use your office as a scientist to claim you have the facts, you violate the very nature of the office.

The other thing about science is that it is mostly practiced by scientists, and scientists tend to be human beings.  Human beings have a long track record of being wrong.  Here are a few examples:

Example #1 -- The Kaibab Plateau, c. 1906:
The best scientific minds in the area of wildlife management and environmental engineering wanted to create a lush paradise on earth for the estimated 4,000 mule deer on the Kaibab Plateau in northern Arizona in the early 1900's.  Using the best scientific techniques, they banned hunting and killed off hundreds of predators.  The deer flourished, until 1923 and 1924.  In those two years, it is estimated that about 60,000 deer starved to death on the Kaibab -- the direct result of the finest scientific minds of the time having their way.  (You can read more about this set of events here -- I have no idea why the critter at the top of the page is an African antelope.  Go figure.)

Example #2 -- Crisco.
In the middle of the 20th century, including my own childhood, Crisco was considered a necessity in most American kitchens.  Whether you were deep fat frying, baking, or just greasing a frying pan, Crisco was your best option.  I vividly remember when butter flavored Crisco first hit the grocery store shelves.  What excitement!  Crisco was the product of a candlemaker who was looking for something less expensive than beef tallow to use in his candle-making.  Working with a chemist -- a scientist -- he found a way to add a hydrogen atom to a liquid oil -- in this case, cottonseed oil.  This process of "hydrogenating" the liquid oil caused it to solidify and become much like butter or lard.  Promoters first advertised Crisco with the claim that it was "a healthier alternative to cooking with animal fats. . . and more economical than butter."  Later on, the promoters of Crisco would seize on an inconclusive government report that questioned the health implications of eating animal fats.  Dr. Fred Mattson grabbed hold of this report and used it to "prove" to the public that animal fats cause heart disease.  In the last thirty years, we are learning that hydrogenated fats are incredibly unhealthy for human bodies.  What's more, many people are exploring diet plans that are mostly based on animal proteins and fats, and they are enjoying great health benefits! So the earlier "scientific" claims about Crisco have been reversed, and these days nobody wants to cook with the stuff.  You can read more about the rise and fall of Crisco here.  

The Crisco Corollary:  Remember when margarine was considered better, healthier, more wonderful than butter?  Butter was animal fat, and animal fat was the root of a great deal of evil.  Margarine was MUCH healthier.  Today scientists have invented a term for the fats in margarine and Crisco -- fats created artificially by humans from non-food sources.  We call them "trans-fats" and now they are the root of a great deal of evil.

Example #3 -- low-fat diets.
Remember rice cakes?  In the 1980's and 1990's, rice cakes were supposed to be the dietary salvation of us all.  They tasted like styrofoam and had basically no food value, but scientists could use chemicals and make them taste like caramel or cinnamon without adding any calories.  The idea was that they would fill your stomach without introducing too many calories into your body and thus help you be healthier.  It was all part of the belief we all shared, noted in example #2, that animal fat -- and fat in general -- is bad.  So we all tried to eat low fat.  Pasta became all the rage.  Fat free cheeses (ewww ....) appeared on grocery store shelves.  Sales of beef plummeted.  Sales of chicken skyrocketed, because lean chicken with the skin pulled off it was one of the few acceptable meat choices.  People figured out ways to make bacon and hamburger substitutes out of turkey.  Breads, potatoes, pastas, and the like became the staple of our diet.  And we gained weight like crazy.  Obesity and Type 2 diabetes levels skyrocketed.  Today we have begun to realize that all these foods are high in carbohydrates, and it is carbohydrates that trigger the production of insulin in the body, and it is insulin that opens the way for the body to store fat in its cells.  Once again, the clear scientific wisdom ended up being wrong.

We could go on and on.  Doctors used to prescribe cigarettes as a calming agent.  Cocaine was used to treat tooth pain.  Just because science currently teaches something is "true" doesn't mean the data -- and the beliefs about truth -- won't be reinterpreted next week.  The real danger is when public relations campaigns grab hold of a few scientific facts and use them to promote a political agenda.  We are taught to view something as good and healthy and normal because "science" says it is.  This is happening around you right now.

I'm not against science.  Are you kidding?  I am alive thanks to a crew of scientifically informed medical people who treated me quickly and correctly in 2009 when I suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage.  The helicopter that flew me to North Memorial that day was built from technology designed by scientists.  On my belt I wear an insulin pump to provide carefully controlled amounts of insulin to my diabetic body.  (Note: I was diabetic long before the low fat diet craze, and mine is "Type 1" -- but that's a long story.)  

I'm not against science.  But in our public decision making, in our public debates, in our rhetoric and our discourse, we need to learn to be cautious about using science to "prove" a point.  The scientific establishment has many times changed its collective mind when new data became available.  Things we thought were totally safe -- playing with lumps of uranium, for example, and I am NOT making this up -- have turned out to be deadly.  Things we thought were impossible -- propelling a spacecraft through the vacuum of space using a rocket engine, for example -- have turned out to be manageable and sometimes even routine.

This is one reason I return again and again to the Bible as a powerful tool for discernment and decision making.  Not only do I have the Bible's text itself to instruct me; I also have a two thousand year tradition of companions on this journey who have left their reflections and their understandings.  Some of them were clearly kooks and I want nothing to do with their understandings.  Others were brilliant and I savor their writings, learning from their God-given wisdom.  

I love G.K. Chesterton's line in his book, Orthodoxy, about tradition: "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

By all means consult scientific wisdom when you have a decision to make.  But don't let the changing whims of our public perceptions of science -- far less reliable than scientific research itself -- persuade you that something is right or wrong.  Science can build you a weapon, but cannot advise about the morality of using it.  Science can describe a set of genes and chromosomes that will impact the life of a living thing, but science cannot assign a value to that life.  For those matters we need a source that will take us deeper.