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.