Sunday, July 30, 2017

Mythologizing life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm glad I went to church this morning.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Keeping the garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet ...

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

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

It's important.

Thursday, July 6, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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