Sunday, December 30, 2007

As I write for the final time in 2007, I am thinking a bit about past and future. One significant thing about my past is that for years I have collected “quotes.” I guess I have for years been moved by words. A well-turned phrase can provoke my mind and enlarge my heart. My first notebook with collected quotes has, on its cover, “Dave Bard; Grade 12; Homeroom 103.” The first quote in the notebook is:

“The behavior of the fully human is always unpredictable because it is always free.”
John Powell.

I am now in my third notebook of collected quotes. The most recent is:

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”
Irenaeus, quoted in Gerald May, Dark Night of the Soul

Not long ago I read again these words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Where will the call of discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know it will be a path full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy. Discipleship

For the past few months, this short verse from the Buddhist Scripture, The Dhammapada has found its way to the center of my being. “Hatred never ceases by hatred; by love alone is it healed. This is the ancient and eternal law.”

And tonight I read a brief Christian Scripture that I have never seen quoted by itself on a poster or bumper sticker or plaque. Maybe it should be . “Let all that you do be done in love.” I Corinthians 16:14

As I look to the future, at least to the new year, I hope my life is filled with and emanates peace, joy and love. I hope that I might be more fully alive. May your life in the new year be filled with and emanate peace, joy and love, and may you be more fully alive. May our world be marked more by peace and joy and love.

Chapter Two
I don’t often see movies in the theater, but the holiday season often affords me the opportunity to do so. Last night my family and I want to see the movie Juno. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It is funny and sweet and feels true-to-life. While I enjoy movies with plots that move rapidly, that have mystery and/or action (I watched The Bourne Ultimatum on video recently), my favorite movies are those which create characters that I can care about, that move me – movies that open my heart a little wider. Juno was that kind of movie. Roger Ebert said it was one of the best movies of 2007. Because I’ve not seen all that many of the movies of 2007, I could not say that. I would say it is well worth seeing.

Juno is a bright, witty and articulate sixteen year-old girl who gets pregnant after her first experience of being “sexually active.” After a visit to an abortion clinic she decides to give birth to the baby and give it up for adoption. She finds an ad for a couple looking for a child, a nice suburban couple. Few movies would handle all of this without trying to send some kind of message about abortion, adoption, or sexual activity among teenagers. Few movies could have you laughing in the midst of all this without making the humor obvious or cheap. While the movie could be used in a discussion group to talk about “issues,” the film itself leaves abstract issues behind to tell the story of these people’s lives, and the humor is humane and generous and flows from the characters. See it. It is on my list to add to my video library when it is released on dvd.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, December 21, 2007

As you may know, this is a busy time of year for pastors, but also an exciting one. This week I am taking a short cut with my blog, printing the article from my church's most recent newsletter (slightly modified for this format). Have a Merry Christmas.

Without the Nativity, we become a sort of lecture series and coffee club, with not very good coffee and sort of aimless lectures.
Garrison Keillor, Duluth NewsTribune, December 6, 2007

Hum? I don’t think our coffee is all that bad, pretty good most of the time, in fact. Okay, sometimes my sermons can be a little aimless, but I hope not often.

Garrison Keillor is right, though, Christmas is special and central to the Christian faith. It is the story about God coming close to humanity and the world. It is a story about God attending to the smallest, paying attention to the least significant. Theologian Nicholas Lash, quoting, in part, the Jewish theologian and philosopher Martin Buber, writes, “Through God’s indwelling in the world… through God’s address and presence, the world becomes a sacrament.” (Easter in Ordinary, 294). The story of Christmas is about God indwelling the world, about the world becoming a sacrament - a place where we can encounter God in grace and love.

That is an amazing thought when you consider the story itself, when you look at the circumstances of this particular birth. “The illegitimate child of a poor mother becomes the centre of the world” (Dorothee Soelle and Luise Schottroff, Jesus of Nazareth, 15). The emperor of Rome, the ruling power of the day, had promised peace on earth, the Pax Romana. This is the story about a God who doesn’t choose to come close in the imperial palaces, but comes to us in an ordinary birth. If there is anything extraordinary it is the “extraordinary” hardship of the circumstances in which Mary gives birth. Of course, the story soon turns extraordinary – stars and angels and shepherds and wise people from afar, but these elements are only meant to highlight how God coming close happened in the ordinary circumstances of a birth.

If God can touch the world in that place, in those circumstances, where else might God touch the world? Maybe through you. Maybe through me.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas music – I guess I have promises to keep, and only minutes to go before I need to sleep (I am writing this late Monday night). I must admit, that in my family, I am the person least enthusiastic about Christmas music, but I have been coming around. Some history is in order.

When we moved to Alexandria, Minnesota in the summer of 1998, our older daughter, Beth, was not too pleased. She was entering the eighth grade and did not really want to move. As a way to lift her spirits a bit, my wise wife Julie decided that Christmas music would begin early that year. Julie has always loved Christmas music and the Christmas season. Her dad’s birthday was Christmas day and she has many fond memories of Christmases celebrated with extended family and of her dad’s birthday being celebrated, too. Early in the fall of ’98, Julie began telling Beth, and the rest of us, that Christmas music could not begin until after Halloween, but that on November 1, it was Christmas music season. It helped my daughter that year, and a family tradition was born. Our younger daughter Sarah is an enthusiast of the tradition. The tradition has even spread – Beth’s college roommate, now a teacher, told her class this fall that Christmas music season begins November 1.

Now I have nothing against Christmas music – I am no Scrooge when it comes to this, but somehow eating Halloween candy and listening to Jingle Bells seems a little strange to me. I have often resisted the early part of the Bard Christmas music season. I have fond memories of Christmas music from my home. I remember these albums of Christmas music that were put together by Goodyear or Firestone, some automobile related company, and they had some choral groups, and singers like Robert Goulet, Johnny Mathis, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Julie Andrews, Perry Como and the like, singing Christmas songs. They were always played at least a few times around my house during the Christmas season. Maybe it has been warmly recalling this music, or maybe it was just the sheer power of the women in my life, but I decided a couple years ago that I needed to be better prepared for Christmas music season. If we were going to listen to Christmas music, I wanted there to be some that I particularly liked. So I burned a Christmas music CD, and have bought a few here and there along the way.

I am sure you are just dying to find out what is on “my” Christmas music CD – little drummer boy drum roll, please!!!! Not quite so fast. Let me offer a few words of explanation. I really enjoy choral music, especially at this time of year, but in all honesty, I don’t listen to a lot of it on a regular basis. And while I love the hymns of the season, I am exposed to them a lot, and get lobbied for certain ones to make the Advent-Christmas liturgy at church, so I don’t listen to a lot of them, either. To be sure, I do listen to some choral singing of hymns during the season, but I prefer to sing them with my choir and congregation at church more than listen to them. One final introductory note – I can interpret “Christmas music” rather broadly, so some of my selections are not strictly “Christmas music,” though I think they capture the spirit of the season.

Here is my Christmas CD:
Pachelbel, Canon in D – I found it on a Baroque Christmas CD, and whether or not it has anything to do with the season, I really like this music.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, James Taylor. I burned this from his October Road CD, though he has since released a Christmas CD (more on that below). I like this song very much. It is a simple, heartfelt wish that I would send to all.
Christmas Time is Here, choral version. Vince Guaraldi put together a wonderful soundtrack to the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” That special, as low tech as it is in its animation, remains one of my favorites and I love jazz – what a combination.
My Favorite Things, John Coltrane, original studio version. I know, the song is not a Christmas song, but remember what I’ve already said. Appreciation for one’s favorite things, especially when they are simple (raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens) should be a key note theme of the season. And remember, I love jazz.
Do You Hear What I Hear, Johnny Mathis. This probably has some connection to my boyhood, but I like the song and Johnny Mathis does a great rendition of it. While it is not in the hymnal, it explicitly refers to the biblical story that is the root of the Christmas season.
Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time, Paul McCartney. The guy can write catchy tunes, always could. Growing up in the shadow of the Beatles music, John, Paul, George and Ringo will always be kind of special.
White Christmas, Bing Crosby. Growing up in Minnesota, I wondered why people would dream about such things. Christmas was almost always white here, though last year was a disappointing foggy brown. We have snow this year, though. The song is a classic.
The Christmas Song, Nat King Cole. I’ve never had chestnuts roasted over an open fire, but Jack Frost has nearly taken my nose off with his “nipping.” This is another sentimental favorite, and there is something special about Nat King Cole’s version.
Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I saw his perform this song live, and if you have ever seen him in concert, you know the kind of energy he can produce.
Happy Xmas (War is Over), John Lennon Plastic Ono Band. Here is the John of John, Paul, George and Ringo, playing a lovely song with a social conscience – nice synergy.
My Favorite Things, Tony Bennett. If I like a song, I can be pretty loyal to it. This is my favorite vocal version of this piece of music. It has a great up-tempo, jazz feel, without going into the jazz stratosphere where Coltrane takes the song.
Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy, Bing Crosby and David Bowie. An aging jazz singer and pop crooner meets Ziggy Stardust? I remember seeing this song on the television special when I was a boy. A song that stays with you that long is special, and it doesn’t get old when you’ve heard it again and again. “Peace on earth, can it be?” I hope so.
Christmas Time is Here, instrumental. Even when I am most harried by the season, a season which often carries with it just a little stress when you are a clergy person, hearing the first few notes of this song invites me to a deep peacefulness.
Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong. I know, I don’t find this on anyone else’s list of “Christmas songs.” So what. If one cannot celebrate the wonder of the world this time of year, when can we? I have vague memories of seeing Louis Armstrong on tv as a kid, and remember thinking he was a little odd. Who would really like a gravely voice like that? Overtime I have come to love unique voices (yes, I am a big Bob Dylan fan). Louis Armstrong is one of those people whose music you have to hear to really understand jazz or American music. I am glad his is on this CD. And when I think about his difficult life, growing up in poverty, in a boy’s home in New Orleans, experiencing discrimination as he traveled to play his music – that he can sing this song with such deep feeling is a testimony to the nobility and endurance of the human spirit, when it is at its best. Theologically, I think God, the God I know in Jesus, works to bring out our best.
O Holy Night, Mahalia Jackson. This song isn’t in the hymnals either, but it should be, and Mahalia Jackson is probably teaching the angels how to sing it.
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Judy Garland. The year I made this CD, I was taken with this song in particular, and Judy Garland was born in Minnesota so why not her lovely version?
In the Bleak Midwinter, Julie Andrews. At last, a hymn, but not one that is quite as popular as some. I like the rather haunting quality of the music, and Minnesota knows what a bleak midwinter can be like. This song not only celebrates the birth of Jesus, but encourages a deep, heart-felt response to that birth. That’s why the story was told in the first place.
Joy to the World, Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I could not skip choral music entirely, and it is fun to have the CD end with such a tremendous sound.

It has been a couple of years since I made this CD, all from music we own – no illegal downloading involved. It is probably time to burn another, and if I did here are some recent (or recently purchased) CDs I would like to include songs from:

A Charlie Brown Christmas – yes, I would want to have “Christmas Time is Here” on a new CD. This is a wonderful piece of work.

Christmas Songs, Diana Krall. Krall is one of the best jazz singers currently at work, and she provides a nice selection of more secular Christmas songs, including “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” – a song that I should have put on my first CD. She also has a nice version of “Christmas Time is Here.”

James Taylor at Christmas. James Taylor has made fine music for many years, and his voice is well-suited for Christmas songs. Here one finds both sacred and secular Christmas songs. One highlight is a version of Joni Mitchell’s song, “River.” While it isn’t exactly a Christmas song, it is set during the Christmas season and it evokes a feeling many of us experience from time to time, or have experienced in our lives: “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Christmas can be a difficult time for many, and this song poignantly captures that desire to go someplace else for awhile.

Wintersong, Sarah McLachlan. If you’ve never heard this voice, you should. It is beautiful and tender. The song selection here is also wonderful, many of my own favorites all well done – “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” “What Child is This,” “Silent Night,” as well as “River,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Christmas Time is Here.” I would have almost thought she’d seen my list of favorites.

The Best of Louis Armstrong and Friends: The Christmas Collection: This is my most recently purchased Christmas music CD. What can I say, I like Louis Armstrong.

If these heart-felt, idiosyncratic thoughts have you making a beeline for your CD player or MP3 player, or even your cassette deck or turntable, but you realize there are so few days left in which to play all this music, don’t fret. Next Christmas music season rolls around on November 1, 2008. In the meantime, Christmas time is here, so have yourself a merry little Christmas, now.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, December 10, 2007

Two journalists whose work I consistently admire and find thought-provoking are Bill Moyers and Krista Tippett. I watched a portion of Moyer’s public television program the other evening and was astounded by the discussion of some of the material out there in this political campaign season. In particular, I was saddened by the internet attacks on Hillary Clinton. One may not like Hillary Clinton, or one may disagree strongly with her politics, but apparently there are web sites out there that focus on “beating the bitch.” Senator John McCain was even asked by a female supporter in South Carolina, “How do we beat the bitch.” McCain, while he said he respected Senator Clinton, took the question in stride as a question about strategy in presidential politics. Might it have been appropriate for him to say, “Well, we won’t do it by stooping to the use of that kind of language”? While I am disappointed in John McCain on this count, I am less concerned with his particular response than with the vitriol to be found on the internet this election cycle - but back to journalists. The thing I appreciate about Moyers is his willingness to explore difficult topics in depth, as well as his ability to find fascinating topics and wonderful persons to interview.

Krista Tippett is the host of the public radio program Speaking of Faith. I’ve written about her program, and her book, before in this blog. She, too, is a wonderful interviewer and does a fantastic job of finding persons to interview. This fall, one of her interviews was with the Catholic nun Joan Chittister, a woman whose work I am developing a growing appreciation for. I find Chittister’s work wise, intellectually stimulating, spiritually authentic, and generously thoughtful. She is willing to follow a thought down new paths and is open to spiritual truth even when it arrives from religious traditions other than her own. Her most recent book is entitled Welcome to the Wisdom of the World, and in it she explores the wisdom to be found in the world’s religious traditions. On Tippett’s web-site one can listen to the entire interview with Joan Chittister, and also read two of Chittister articles. One of those articles caught my attention as I continue to think about leadership – “Leading the Way: To Go Where There is No Road and Leave a Path.”

In this article, an address to Catholic educators, Chittister sees spiritual leadership as the ability to assess where one is (current reality), see a more significant vision (a meaningful vision of a better future, and ask the right questions along the way. “We cannot – and should not – attempt to lead anyone anywhere unless we ourselves know where we are, where we’re going, and what dangerous questions it will be necessary to ask if we really want to get there.” “Leadership is the ability to see the vision beyond the reality and make a road where no road has been.” In another context I have recently written that leaders cannot drag people to where they do not want to go, but good leaders can help people see new possibilities and help them want to go to places they had never imagined before. In our day and time, Chittister asserts that spiritual leadership is taking people where there are no roads and leaving a path.

None of Chittister’s tasks is simple. There are many maps of our current reality, many ways to describe what is going on. We need always to ask if our current maps are helpful enough, rich enough, accurate enough. Which set of concepts describes reality most accurately? I am convinced that any good description of current reality must also include the possibility of hope. We need to find ways to describe what his going on so as not to remove any motivation for change. Some descriptions I hear of mainline Christianity are so grim and bleak that they leave little motivation for positive change. Are such maps helpful construals of current reality? They may contain truth, but enough of the truth?

Visions of a better future come in all shapes and sizes. Is the Christian vision of a better future apocalyptic, or is a world where the hungry are fed, where swords are made into plowshares, where war no longer finds its way into the curriculum, where justice rolls down like waters, and where flowers bloom in the desert one, that arrives here and there, a little at a time when people are moved by God’s Spirit? If so, how do we get there from here? Maybe it is taking the next step one step at a time, and leaving some markers along the way for others.

Maybe spiritual leadership in our time is as much about asking questions as offering answers, or knowing that every answer we provide needs to be questioned soon thereafter. Maybe leadership in our day is as much a matter of courageous imagination and audacious hope as anything else.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Next week I plan to take a bit of a break. I will write, but not about theology (at least explicitly) or leadership or the church. Next week – Christmas music!

Monday, December 3, 2007

I am a United Methodist clergy person. This next summer I will be a candidate for bishop within my denomination. Whether or not I am elected to this position, being a candidate gives me the opportunity to reflect on the church, its life and ministry, its future direction.

Recently I was asked: What Does The United Methodist Church Need Now as It Looks to a Future of Effective Ministry? Following are some thoughts about this question.

I think The United Methodist Church needs to ask itself what gift it brings to the world as a unique expression of the Christian faith. We need to ask this not in arrogance, but in an attempt to get to the heart of what it means to be a United Methodist Christian so we can truly offer our gift to the world. What do we have to offer the world in the name of Jesus Christ that may not be offered in just this way were we to disappear?

When I ask this question, it helps clarify a sense of direction for our denomination. Recently I read an article on Emergent Church and the Emerging Church movement in Creative Transformation, a journal of religious thought informed by process theology and philosophy. Process theology is theological reflection in dialogue with the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and others. I had the privilege of studying with a prominent process theologian while I was in graduate school working on my doctorate – Schubert Ogden. Anyway, as I read what some define as the central elements of this movement it struck me – John Wesley, the Anglican priest to whom Methodists trace their beginnings, did Emergent Church in the 18th century. The Emergent Church movement emphasizes the need to be engaged emotionally and not just intellectually in the Christian spiritual life. United Methodism at its best has been about expanding the mind and warming the heart. Emergent Church seeks to link faith with care for the earth, care for the poor, with compassionate action to make the world more just and peaceful. United Methodism at its best has always sought to link faith with good works on behalf of a hurting world. Emergent Church is about engaging more consistently in spiritual practices. Spiritual practices are the “method” in United Methodism. Emergent Church seeks to mine the depth of Christian tradition and creatively appropriate this rich past. John Wesley spent a great deal of time and energy mining the Christian past to bring these resources to bear on helping people live their faith more deeply. Emergent Church seeks to reach out with the good news of the gospel by developing relationships. At its best United Methodist connectionalism is all about relationships.

United Methodism has within its culture and ethos an expression of Christian faith that is attractive to, and needed by, the world today, if we only claim who we are at our best, and seek to renew and revive our tradition for the twenty-first century. Add to these emphases our sense of connection across the world and Wesley’s deep sense of experimentation and adventure in service of Christian faith, and we indeed have something unique and special to offer. I believe we can recover who we are as we think more deeply, dream more imaginatively, work more creatively and pray more diligently.

Whether as a bishop or as a pastor in a congregation, I hope to be a part of renewing this tradition within Christian faith.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thanksgiving has become one of my favorite holidays. As a pastor, this is one holiday that allows me to make time for and focus almost all my attention on my family. I also enjoy eating, so that helps.

This Thanksgiving did provide some unnecessary drama. I have been telling people I now have a new definition of “hell.” It is having your refrigerator full of wonderful leftovers and your microwave has just blown out. Ours bit the dust on Saturday morning. My wife was cooking bacon in it and small flames shot out from the side. My first instinct was to assume that she had spilled something. It pays to question some of those “first instincts.” She had done nothing wrong, the microwave was just shot. I guess we have to go “cold turkey” without a microwave!!! (pun intended)

Anyway, Thanksgiving was very nice. Besides being a wonderful family time, technological glitches aside, the spirit of Thanksgiving is important to me. I have become convinced of the power and critical importance of “gratitude.” When we are grateful, we are not consumed by what we lack, by what we don’t have. Gratitude keeps us from getting captured by the excesses of consumerism, which derives its power from convincing us that we don’t have enough of something that makes life grand, that our lives lack something essential, that our being is insufficient in some way. Gratitude helps me slow down, and in gratitude I see the world more truthfully for I see how deeply my life is enriched by the people who are a part of it. Gratitude slows me down so I can appreciate what I have instead of worrying about what I don’t have.

This Thanksgiving I stole away for a few moments to do some reading. I am grateful for the ability to read and for all the things I have to read. I finished an essay on reading Proust from the periodical The Common Review. I have not read Proust’s work In Search of Lost Time, though I have a copy of it. Reading the essay enticed me to read a few pages from the first volume. What beautiful prose. What a thoughtful meditation on the sleeping and waking consciousness. Such writing is another thing to be grateful for. I look forward to the day I can immerse myself in this work.

In my few moments of solitude, I also sought out a poem that I love – a poem of profound gratitude. It is Lisel Mueller’s poem “Alive Together.” I think I’d like to begin a tradition of reading it every Thanksgiving. It begins: “Speaking of marvels, I am alive/together with you.” The poet goes on to write about the improbable odds of her being alive together with her husband, her beloved, and she rejoices that they are:

alive with our lively children
who – but for our endless ifs –
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.

I am grateful for my beloved and for our three children and our two dogs, for family and friends, for meaningful work, for books and music and movies, for walks, for the time to write this and for any who read it. Thanks be to God.

Hope you had a nice Thanksgiving.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, November 18, 2007

This past week, I attended a band concert in which my daughter was performing. One thing I noticed as I began attending such concerts for my children several years ago was that most of those attending seemed to dress very casually. Casual dress is o.k., but awhile back it started to bother me when the dress moved from casual to downright "careless." I would see people show up to school concerts looking like they just finished sweeping out the garage, or just climbed down from cleaning out the gutters. Men wore baseball hats that they never took off. Jeans and sweat shirts and tennis shoes were common. The kids had all worked hard for this concert, couldn't parents and relatives show them a little respect by dressing up, just a bit?

One initial reaction I had to my own attitude was that for some, jeans and tennis shoes may have been the best they could do, and I really needed to be careful about being too harsh in my judgments. My wife reminded me of that, and I am grateful for her wise words. Still, I know that many who come to such events in casual grunge are capable of better, and as I headed out for this concert - smartly dressed in docker-type pants and a sweater (I had taken off my coat and tie, not wanting to be obviously overdressed, though I would have been very comfortable in such attire) - I carried my wonderment about the dressing down of America with me.

The concert was nicely done. The pieces were played in honor of Veterans, and I could hear some people behind me express deep appreciation for the effort. And something happened to me that night. I kept thinking to myself about my attitude, and was finding that I did not appreciate it. There are too many instances in our world today where parents aren't or can't be present for their children's concerts or athletic events or school programs. There are too few occasions for families to celebrate their children. If it means showing up in jeans and sweat shirts, so be it. By the way, I saw a lot of jeans, but no one looked like the garage was freshly swept.

Why did it take me so long to give up my foolish notion? Who knows, but I have also come to understand once again that life itself is a learning curve.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. Today I preached on a very difficult and challenging passage from the New Testament, Romans 1. I posted a fair amount of my sermon on my other blog site - Bard's Brushstrokes. If you would be interested in seeing how I managed a really difficult part of the Bible, please check it out.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I just want to hear some rhythm. Bruce Springsteen

I’m just looking for some inspiration,
I’m looking for something to rock my soul.

Patti Scialfa

I love music. One of the things I enjoyed about being a district superintendent in a large geographic area was the time afforded me to listen – to Minnesota Public Radio and to music. Music helps me rejoice in the sheer goodness of being alive. It does two other things that seem contradictory: it lifts me beyond the pain, hurt, and drudgery of life and it helps me see more deeply into the beauty and brutality, the heroism and tragedy of life. Both are necessary.

Today has been a day full of music. It began with two worship services at my church and I am fortunate to have gifted musicians who play regularly for us. Today we were graced with guest musicians as well, some for the local campus of the University of Minnesota. This afternoon I attended the cello recital given by a member of my church. Her musicianship was superb as was that of her piano accompanists. Tonight found me at a benefit concert for a homeless shelter in Superior, Wisconsin. The performers were a pianist, a violinist, and a soprano. Again, an incredible listening experience.

I enjoy classical music and my appreciation for it has deepened over the years. However, when I pick up a CD to listen, it is usually pop, rock or jazz. I grew up on top forty radio and bemoan that music has become so fragmented for today’s youth. Whatever its shortcomings, and there were many, such radio provided something of a shared experience which cut across dividing lines.

The single best concert I’ve ever attended was a rock concert in October 1978 at the St. Paul Civic Center. It was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The show was full of energy and joy. Springsteen’s enthusiasm was infectious and the band was tight. Springsteen was then, and remains, one of my favorite artists.

Recently he released a new CD with the E Street Band, Magic. It is a very good CD filled with wonderful rock riffs and catchy pop tunes. It may not be in quite the same category as the classics like Born to Run or The Rising, but it is a great listen nonetheless. Some of the songs help me celebrate and get away for a bit. Springsteen, in an insightful interview in Rolling Stone, says that the opening track, Radio Nowhere, is both about an apocalyptic scene and about trying to connect. As I listen to it, I thought more about trying to pick up a radio signal driving through the dark of night. Its driving rhythm lifts me beyond what I may be struggling with and moves me to dance. Girls in Their Summer Clothes (o.k. the title is not exactly progressive) is a gentle pop tune celebrating innocence, another chance to drift away for a short time. Some of the songs bring me face-to-face with the harsh realities of our day. “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake” – Last to Die. You can’t get more contemporary and harsh than that.

A lesser known release coming about a month earlier has also held my attention lately. It is Patti Scialfa’s Play It As It Lays. Patti Scialfa is a part of both Bruce Springsteen’s band and family – they are wife and husband. Scialfa’s CD is also filled with great music – music that carries me away and rocks my soul – Looking for Elvis, Rainy Day Man, and music that opens me up to the world more completely – its beauty and its tragedy. “Every perfect picture/Hides a mess or 2/Sometimes it’s me/Sometimes it’s you.” “The years go by/You add them up/Some days are holy/Some days are rough.” These lines from the CDs title song ring true to life, and in the end she encourages us to “play it as it lays,” that is to meet reality as it is and try and make it a little better.

Life is like that, some days are holy and some days are rough. Life is filled with love and joy and beauty, and it is marred by war and hatred and injustice and the insensitivity of the powerful to the powerless. I need to hear this, and also occasionally take a break from the harsher realities to reengage them more adequately later on.

Some days are holy, some days are rough. I’m just looking for some inspiration. I’m looking for something to rock my soul. I just want to feel some rhythm. Great messages, especially when you can dance to them.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, November 5, 2007

Occasionally I am asked why, with a Ph.D., I am not teaching. Surely I must have wanted to do that with all the work I put in on an advanced degree? Well, “yes” and “maybe not.” When I had the opportunity to return to school (Southern Methodist University in Dallas) after my first pastorate, I did so with the feeling that while I might like to teach, I was also a pastor and could continue that work after completing my degree. That’s what happened, though I did have a couple of preliminary interviews for teaching positions.

One interview was with a Catholic college and one of the people conducting the interview asked me who the most influential ethicists were for my own work. I don’t remember who I mentioned, though probably Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, James Gustafson and Douglas Sturm (a less well-known ethicist who works from the perspective of process theology). The follow-up question was a little uncomfortable – “there are no Catholics on your list.” What could I say? The Catholic ethicist I had been reading the most, Charles Curran, had just lost his permission to teach Catholic theology and was at Southern Methodist University. I am not sure it would have helped to cite his name.

The other interview I had included a similar question. Who was the ethicist whose work mattered most right then, at least to me? Before I even thought much about it I found myself saying, “Reinhold Niebuhr.” I knew from the reaction that I would not get a follow-up interview. De-briefing that interview later with some friends in the doctoral program, I realized I should have probably said Stanley Hauerwas, from Duke or James Gustafson, from the University of Chicago. Hauerwas has more recently been called by Time the most influential theologian working today. Hauerwas is distinctly Christo-centric in his ethic and concerned for the church as a moral community. For Hauerwas, the church itself is a social ethic. While I disagree with a number of things that he writes, I find him consistently interesting and someone I need to struggle with and argue with regularly. I am grateful for his work. Gustafson comes at Christian ethics from a whole other angle, focusing on God rather than specifically on Christ, “ethics from a theocentric perspective.” I probably am closer to Gustafson on a number of issues (though distinctly Christian), and his work is more systematic and comprehensive than Reinhold Niebuhr’s ever was.

So I blew it, and while I have had the privilege of teaching courses here and there, currently “Religious Perspectives in Health Care Ethics” at a local college, I have never been offered a tenure track teaching position. Maybe all because of Reinhold Niebuhr!

I first became acquainted with Niebuhr’s work in seminary. One required first year course was “Theological Interpretation of Contemporary Society” and Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man was the central text. The next year I was a teaching assistant for this course, and though the texts had changed, Niebuhr was still an important part of the course work – this time his Moral Man and Immoral Society. Yes, Niebuhr wrote before the emphasis on inclusive language (he died in 1971). One of the chapters of my doctoral dissertation, the one I was writing when I was interviewing, was on Reinhold Niebuhr. Can I help it if Niebuhr runs deep in my theological blood?

Anyway, I felt a little vindicated the other day when my issue of The Atlantic arrived. Within the pages of the November issue, the 150th anniversary issue, is an article on, you guessed it, Reinhold Niebuhr. In it, Paul Elle writes, “In think tanks, on op-ed pages, and on divinity-school quadrangles, Niebuhr’s ideas are more prominent that at any time since his death in 1971.” Elle’s article is about how Niebuhr’s thought is alive and well, and yet he is appealed to by a diverse group of thinkers – from neocons to liberal hawks to anti-war leftists. Elle argues that in looking at all these appeals one comes up with a more rounded portrait of Niebuhr and his thinking, and that when we arrive at that, we find that Niebuhr “really does have something essential to tell us about the world and our place in it.”

One may ask if someone’s thought is so amenable to such divergent groups, can it really be valuable and helpful? Is Niebuhr so unclear that those on the anti-war left and the neoconservative war hawk can both make some appeal to him? Is his thought that muddled and muddy, or is it that rich and nuanced. I tend to think it is the latter and people who want to appeal to Niebuhr simplistically do so at the cost of cutting off his richness and nuance. As I read Niebuhr in the midst of our contemporary, post-911 world, here are some of the things I take from him: within history there are important values to be struggled for and secured; sometimes the use of force is necessary to secure such values; we should have no illusions about persons or groups that seek to do harm and create destruction – threats posed by a militant mis-use of Islam can be real and dangerous and we do ourselves no favors by ignoring this (or any other source of harm and destruction); but when we struggle for certain values, we must take great care.

It is on this last point that I would hope Niebuhr’s voice would be most clearly heard. In the last book he wrote before suffering a partly debilitating stroke in 1951, The Irony of American History, Niebuhr wrote, “We… are never safe against the temptation of claiming God too simply as the sanctifier of whatever we most fervently desire” (173). One of the most consistent themes in Niebuhr’s thought was that the ideals of human persons and communities are never so pure as they imagine. They get mixed in with narrower interests and we need to be careful in taking our moral rhetoric too much at face value. Wars fought to bring democracy to other parts of the world tread on dangerous ground. We can lose our soul if our methods for securing our values undermine those very values. This is a voice we need to hear again and again.

Niebuhr continues to speak to me in countless ways. He may not be the preeminent Christian theologian or ethicist for our time, but his voice should be heard in our time. Here are a few other places where I value Niebuhr’s voice.

The first two quotes are from an essay written in 1967, but not published until years later. It was entitled “A View From the Sidelines” and in it Niebuhr reflects on life after his stroke and the change that required in him.

I found it embarrassing that my moral teachings, which emphasized the mixture of self-regard and creativity in all human motives, had not been rigorously applied to my own motives.
I appreciate Niebuhr’s candid assessment that he sometimes taught more adequately than he lived. He frequently rushed from place to place making speeches for cause after cause, not bothering to think that maybe this had as much to do with his own ego as with the causes he also cared about. Once again, I appreciate, too, Niebuhr’s insistence that we look more carefully at our lives to see where narrow self-regard finds its way into even some of our most creative endeavors.

Unpolemical attitudes are not in contrast to moral commitments. After his stroke, Niebuhr was not able to be the same kind of advocate for his faith or his causes as he was before it. In that less polemic context, he found a gift. One could listen more deeply to others without being any less committed to one’s own position. How much we need such an attitude in our congregations, in our communities, in the church at-large, in our world, in the conversation between religious faiths.

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness. The Irony of American History, 63. I would state some of this differently, but I would not change its essential meaning. The work of beauty, truth and goodness is a long work. Some part of it can be accomplished in our lifetime – here I disagree with Niebuhr – but much will remain to be done by others. We can only do our part, and sometimes our part will be mixed in with actions that are not as virtuous as we might imagine. The well-lived life does its best, empowered by Spirit, and does so with faith, hope and love. We work for truth, goodness and beauty, knowing that where we fail, there is forgiveness.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Yes, this is Reinhold Niebuhr. It is a prayer he composed in 1943 for a church service near his vacation home. It was picked up by others, distributed through the Federal Council of Churches, and, in a slightly revised form, became “The Serenity Prayer” for AA. It is a wonderful prayer for recovering persons, but its meaning and depth go well beyond that context. I pray this prayer often. It is a prayer, above all for grace – grace that will lead to serenity, courage, and wisdom – and I need all three. There are things I cannot change, especially the past. The church I pastor has a wonderful building that has some real drawbacks. We moved up the hill in Duluth in 1966, and took almost none of the old downtown building with us. I wish that were different, but it cannot be changed. God grant me the grace of serenity. Change is difficult. For many in the church it is our only six-letter four-letter word. Our world is not where I would like it to be – too much violence, addiction, war, hunger, poverty, too many directionless people, too many lonely people. God grant me the grace of courage to work for change, in my life and in my world. What can be changed? When is enough change enough for now? How fast can change happen? Should I turn up the heat on change, or slow its pace? God grant me the grace of wisdom to begin to answer these questions.

Not bad stuff from a man who has been dead for over 35 years. One other note, Niebuhr was a distinctly “public theologian,” that is, he lectured widely to diverse audiences and wrote for many publications that were not “religious.” He was also a prolific author of books. I can imagine that Niebuhr might have even blogged were he around now. I’ve got to love him for that, too.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, October 29, 2007

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts.
Paul to the Corinthian Jesus Community

I don’t know how I noticed it but I did. My wedding ring has a lot of tiny nicks and scratches in it. When it caught my attention recently, I was a little embarrassed. Then I thought about having this ring for twenty-five years and figured that a few scratches are a given when you wear a ring for that long. More than that, these scratches and nicks have probably been earned – doing work around the house, taking care of dogs (we now have two for the first time as a family), playing catch with children or teaching them how to ride a bike or hunting for bugs or leaves for their science projects. Rather than bemoan these marks, perhaps they should be celebrated.

Leaving marks – life leaves marks. About the same time I noticed the wear and tear on my ring, I was paging through Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a Son. Wolterstorff is a theologian and philosopher who, in this book, writes about losing his twenty-five-year-old son to a mountain climbing accident. In a moving passage weaving images from the story of Jesus, Woterstorff writes about the impact of his son’s death. To believe in Christ’s rising and death’s dying is also to live with the power and the challenge to rise up now from all our dark graves of suffering love. If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up, if insight is not deepened, if commitment to what is important is not strengthened, if aching for a new day is not intensified, if hope is weakened and faith diminished, if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. Then death be proud. So I shall struggle to live with the reality of Christ’s rising and death’s dying. In my living, my son’s dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds of his death. My rising does not remove them. They mark me.

Life leaves marks, its deep sorrows, its immeasurable joys – like the scratches on my wedding ring, like the marks on the hands of Jesus.

Life leaves marks, but is this inevitable? Do we have any control over the marks left? The Bible often uses the image of a soft heart in a positive way, as does Paul in the text above, and when someone is resistant to the Spirit of God, that same Bible will sometimes refer to this as a hardening of the heart. Maybe it is inevitable that life will leave some marks on us, but there may always be the danger that we harden our hearts, that we close ourselves off, that we make ourselves nearly unmarkable.

A few years ago, I encountered another piece of writing that I return to with some frequency. Elizabeth Lesser, in her book The New American Spirituality writes: The opposite of happiness is a closed heart. Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold al of the emotions in a cradle of openness. A happy heart is one that is larger at all times than any one emotion. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a bigger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy. From my own experience and from observing many others, I have come to believe that the opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness.

A soft heart, a heart on which letters may be written, a heart open to the grief and pain and sadness of the world, a markable heart – that seems something worth practicing, worth struggling for. But such a heart is not at its best merely a passive recipient of the marking of the world. Unlike a ring worn on a finger which is just there when the hand carelessly grabs at something or smashes itself hard against something, the soft heart may be a bit more like a canvas – open to be marked upon, but with possibilities for a creative shaping of those markings. Life leaves its marks, but to some extent, we are invited to be the artists of those lines – to give them a certain shape and contour. To be sure, sometimes our freedom to do this is limited. Sometimes the best we can do is keep our heart open to the painful markings inflicted on it. Even then, though, we have some ability to shape just how deep these markings may be and what other markings we will put along side of them.

“Look how he abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Harbor such thoughts and you live in hate. “Look how he abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Release such thoughts and live in love. Buddha, The Dhammapada. Maybe we never have complete control over what will mark our soft hearts, but we have some artistic ability to shape those markings.

If keeping and open and soft heart and being an artist of its markings has something to do with happiness, with the spiritual life, with the Christian spiritual life, then, so too, does paying attention to how we leave marks in the lives of others. I think I would like to give others a lot of good markings to work with as they create the art in their own soft hearts.

Having a soft heart, being an artist of the markings life leaves on such a heart, giving others good material for their own heart-art project – as we approach All Saint’s Day, might this have something to do with being a saint?

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Consider the belief that we are essentially selfish individuals seeking our separate advantages, and that our tireless attempts to manipulate one another constitute the prime engine for social advancement. So begins one of the best pieces I have read about leadership – “Leadership-Speak in Contemporary Society.” Its author is Douglas Ottati, a theologian, and it is the opening chapter of his book Hopeful Realism. I had never heard of Ottati before stumbling across the book, and if the title intrigued me, the subtitle convinced me this was someone I wanted to read – “reclaiming the poetry of theology.” Imagine my surprise when the first chapter was about leadership, a subject I continue to find important and fascinating.

Ottati calls it “leadership speak” when “talk about leadership relies on this rather uninspiring spirit.” Though uninspiring, Ottati successfully argues that this spirit is an animating spirit of our time - we find it in our sports, in our politics, in our economics. As you think about next year’s election, think about the sheer number of sports metaphors that get used about candidates and their campaigns. How often do we hear not about the substance of a candidate’s position, but how taking that position may affect the candidate’s standing in the poll – how they are doing in the horse race. Leadership-speak is pernicious because it is reductive. It artificially narrows the complexity, the confusion, and the dynamism of life by insisting on a single pattern for everything. For Ottati, “leadership-speak is bound up with a manager model, a bad mysticism, and a bad mythology.”

The manager model rests on a narrow sensibility. “Persons and things – including oneself – are regarded as resources or means to management objectives.” It is also narrow in that “it remains almost entirely technical and procedural… by itself it says little or nothing about the point of leadership and the world in which leaders lead.” For Ottati, this suggests both bad mysticism and bad mythology, and he desires to expand the conversation. Unlike reductive leadership-speak, truly interesting conversations about leadership will enlist a broader sensibility and a better mythology than those associated with the competitive leader-manager.

A better mysticism for conversations about leadership would arise from “some sense of the fullness of life and the world.” This deeper sense of the fullness of life includes a sense of human interconnectedness and imaginative attentiveness to the other. Persons are never simply resources in a larger strategic plan. A deeper sense of the fullness of life also “entails a perception… of the tearing of life’s precious fabric.” Focusing on goals and objectives ought never blind us to the pain and tragedy of life. A better mysticism, a more penetrating awareness, supports a felt sense of interconnectedness, a perception of the [tearing of life’s precious fabric], and an inkling of the good…. A better mysticism entails a kind of sacramental resonance with the intricate and delicate web of life, a touching on the mysteries of care and pain, of beauty, and of belonging to a wider universe. Ottati seems to be arguing that we run the risk of missing out on life’s beauty and tragedy if we become too captured by a narrow view of leadership as purely technical and strategic.

In addition to being informed by a better mysticism, interesting conversations about leadership also will be informed by a better mythology, a richer picture of human beings in the world, their possibilities and limits. Three related ideas make up this more adequate mythology. Human beings wield significant, but also limited powers in the world. We cannot make anything we want to have happen happen. “Persons, communities, and institutions are caught up in fragmentation and conflict.” Not everything is possible and sometimes among the best things we can do is minimize harm. Yet, in a world of fragmentation, misorientation, conflict, and destruction,… possibilities for good abound.

Informed by a better mysticism and a more proper attentiveness… we may suggest that truly humane leadership will picture the chief end of life more along the lines of a nourishing and common meal… than of a meticulously planned, executed, and evaluated management system. Moreover, informed by a better mythology, we may reject the notion that life is competition in favor of the more complicated view that life is limited freedom situated in the midst of interactive interdependencies, plagued by tendencies toward fragmentation and conflict, and yet blessed with possibilities for truer sensibility and community. We may therefore insist that, even as genuine leaders appreciate the importance of action and effort, they also remember that all things are not always possible, that persons and communities sometimes are caught in straits and circumstances beyond their own doing and undoing. We may note that genuine leadership often draws on an appropriate pessimism, a realistic sense that is not surprised by defeats and tragedies and terrors…. Nevertheless, we may also suggest that leadership is hopeful…. A good leader is often an optimist who ventures a creative act, who risks in order to make things better.

Last week I wrote about paradox, about the need to keep multiple ideas inside while still being able to function. I appreciate Ottati’s deep reflections on leadership, his more theologically informed conversation on it, because it opens me to the beauty and complexity of the world in which I try to lead. There is helpful paradox here. Setting goals is important. Reaching goals matters – but it is not all that matters. Paying attention along the way to those with whom we share life’s joys and sorrows also matters – taking time for a hug, a kind word, standing in awe while beauty emerges from some unfamiliar quarter, crying with a friend. Some things may not be possible, but we seem to discover that only as we try and reach toward seeming impossibility. Leading may have something to do with sketching a rich picture of the world, inviting others to add their colors – knowing that sometimes things will be a little ugly, yet keeping on in hope nonetheless.

For me, an important indicator of the quality of something I read is the depth of reflection it invites. Ottati’s article convinces me that there is a richer and more complicated world out there than some of the leadership literature can suggest. That I am pulled more deeply into the world’s complex beauty by what he writes, that I find myself asking about a more adequate mysticism and mythology for leadership and for life, is a gift given by his words.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, October 14, 2007

The task of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”

It isn’t necessarily easy to get the knack of simultaneously trying to change a situation and opening compassionate awareness to it exactly as it is.
Kim Boykin, Zen for Christians

One of the great gifts of the spiritual life – the transformation of contradiction into paradox.
Parker Palmer, The Promise of Paradox

For those not necessarily into “churchy” stuff, the first couple of paragraphs may be a little slow, but I hope you’ll read anyway.

I often think about change and leadership these days. I am a pastor in a mainline/old-line denominational church and that denomination has been losing members for some time now. I was a judicatory person in my denomination for seven years prior to returning to pastoral ministry. We cannot continue to do what we’ve always been doing and expect different results. One area in which change seems needed is in the way pastors function. We need to figure out how to be transformational leaders, at least that’s what I often hear, and I believe it. There is wonderful literature on leadership available, along with a fair amount of drek. I particularly appreciate the work of Edwin Friedman, Ron Heifetz, Anthony Robinson, James MacGregor Burns (who I first encountered while doing Ph.D. work in Christian ethics and democratic political theory), Daniel Goleman (emotional and social intelligence), and work on appreciative inquiry. Next week I want to write about one of my favorite essays on leadership, written by a theologian!

But I am often struck by the decibel level of anxiety in many of the conversations I hear about leadership and change - - - ironic, especially when there is much to be said for leadership theories which extol a model of a leader as a non-anxious presence. Consultant Edgar Schein is convinced that change does not happen in organizations unless there is some measure of anxiety - - - enough anxiety to overcome the natural inertia of organizational life. But Schein goes on to say that the best strategy for transformative change is to lower learning anxiety rather than increasing anxiety about what may happen in the absence of change. Ron Heifetz argues that there is a productive range of distress in organizations and life - - - too much and people become immobilized or frantic, too little and the energy for change is gone.

Which brings me back to where I began. I recently finished Kim Boykin’s book Zen for Christians. I would recommend it if for no other reason than its telling of Boykin’s own compelling spiritual journey. One line from the book that grabbed my attention was the one about simultaneously working for change while being fully open in compassionate awareness. Both are needed in organizations and individuals. Being compassionately open to one’s life, or being compassionately open to the church as it is, matters. Ron Heifetz talks about the need for leaders to “get on the balcony,” to see what is going on. Appreciative Inquiry theory argues that in every organization something works. In my life I need a deep sense of radical acceptance, along with energy to make needed changes.

Pondering Boykin’s idea made me think of the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote. I came across it many years ago and wrote it down in my notebook of quotes - - - I started this before I even heard of Bartlett’s. Perhaps it’s not simply a first-rate intelligence that needs to be able to hold two ideas in the mind simultaneously while still being able to function. Maybe it is also a deep spirituality that allows that, a spirituality needed for leadership and for life.

Then I remembered the title of a book on my shelf, an early work by an author I have grown to appreciate profoundly – Parker Palmer - - - The Promise of Paradox. Maybe the ability to contain paradox is another way to talk about what Boykin and Fitzgerald point to. Maybe this gift of the spiritual life is required for transformative spiritual leadership. Maybe this gift is a necessary part of a mature Christian spirituality for our day and time.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, October 6, 2007

The power of film is indisputable…. There is something about movies… which succeeds in connecting to the human psyche in a deep way. Movies carry some sort of psychic charge that no other art form… can quite match.
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies

The nexus of relationships that forms our existence… is given. We do not create these relationships; we experience them, being given with existence. And from this matrix come resources of grace that can carry us beyond the meanings of our own making, and alert us to goodness that is not of our own willing or defining.
Bernard Meland, “Culture as a Source for Theology”

This week I want to write about a movie, and I will get there soon. Think of this as a prologue to a film – and in our age of videos, dvds, t-vo, and i pods, you are, of course, capable of fast forwarding through this to get to the movie part. I hope you won’t - but you have the remote!

In her essay “Reflections on Cinema, Spirituality and Process” (in Handbook of Process Theology), Donna Bowman defines spirituality along two dimensions. The first is “discernment – a way of thinking deeply through matters of value and of finding meaning in the truth. The aim is to change one’s own practice, one’s own life, by the creative experience of applying deep spiritual knowledge.” The second dimension that comprises spirituality is “sacramental awareness.” “Here the spiritual consciousness seeks to attend to what presents itself in the moment, on its own terms and for its own sake, trusting that something valuable or sacred is therein revealed.” Bowman then goes on to argue that film has a “unique power” to aid spirituality so defined. Films invite us to think deeply about values, and sometimes cause us to reexamine some of our own, perhaps changing them. I know my views about the importance of overcoming racial injustice were formed in part by watching the made for television movie, Brian’s Song – about the Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. I was probably in junior high school, but I still remember the emotional impact of that movie, even as I remember that Billy D. Williams played Gale Sayers, James Caan played Brian Piccolo and Jack Warden played George Halas. Films also invite us to a sacramental awareness, watching a film “we practice attention to the present moment and revel in its concreteness.”

Roll film! Last week I began something new at my church, a “theology and movie night.” I did not begin by reading quotes from Meland or Bowman or McGinn (I saved these for you, my friendly reader!). I simply shared a little about the movie and then showed it, leaving time for discussion afterwards. The movie I showed was The Station Agent (and, by the way, we purchased a license to show movies in the church and we don’t charge). It is a wonderful film, one I highly recommend.

The basic story of the film is that of a man, Fin, who inherits a train depot in a small town in New Jersey. Fin is a “little person” and he carries within him a lot of anger. He prefers a quiet life, one as regular as a train schedule. But his life will not be a quiet one, for into it come Joe and Olivia, each, in their own way dealing with the pain of life – Olivia trying to cope with the death of a son, Joe dealing with his father’s illness. The film is about the intersection of these three lives and it is filled with humor, love, tenderness, anger, prejudice and odd facts about trains. The movie carries a psychic charge - find it and watch it.

As I have been thinking about this film, I believe it is a film that deepens my spirituality. It is the kind of movie that invites paying close attention to detail, to the life before one’s eyes. It also invites deeper reflection on values and meaning. I was left pondering the delightful quirkiness of individual human beings, the inevitability of grief and anger in life, the importance of finding friends to help us get through.

Beyond that, however, I saw in this film grace. People come together in ways they don’t plan or expect, but they touch each other’s lives in ways that help create meaning and goodness that none would necessarily have created on their own.

And I wonder, can watching a film be itself grace? Watching The Station Agent brought resources of grace that continue to carry me beyond meanings of my own making. Watching it alerted me to goodness beyond my own willing and defining.

Maybe watching such a film in church is just the place for it. There was something sacramental about it, especially as we shared this film together.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, October 2, 2007

It can be truly said that the pastoral task is so to minister to people who have lost the power of a right use of Christian language that this language can be restored to them with reality and with power.
Daniel Day Williams, The Minister and the Care of Souls, p. 49

I was supposed to teach a course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer this fall for my seminary alma mater, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, which is hoping to establish a satellite program of sorts in Duluth. This program has had some success, but not this time. My class was cancelled due to insufficient registration. One nice thing about this situation, I had an opportunity, in preparing for the class, to do some reading of and about Bonhoeffer.

I first encountered Dietrich Bonhoeffer early in my Christian life, at a time when my understanding of the Christian faith was different from what it is now, a time when I might have been theologically (though probably not politically) comfortable in some evangelical or Pentecostal congregations. I remember him from a book called Jesus Christ University (used copies are available through Amazon, and from what I can tell, the publisher, Logos has merged with another publisher or at least changed its name – I do some research for these musings!). That book quoted from Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship which I bought and read, a number of years ago now. In his book, Bonhoeffer contrasts cheap grace and costly grace – the latter requiring a change of life, a following of Jesus. I will never forget the simple quote from Bonhoeffer in Jesus Christ University – “discipleship means joy.” For Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, discipleship means joy, but it also means taking seriously the Sermon on the Mount and looking to it for direction for Christian discipleship. It is interesting that Bonhoeffer finds his way into the more conservative corners of Christianity. When a friend of mine, the manager of the local Christian radio station found out I was teaching the Bonhoeffer class he sent me some information about a Bonhoeffer radio program that was produced by Focus on the Family. The Bonhoeffer of The Cost of Discipleship may fit more comfortably within a more theologically conservative Christianity than the Bonhoeffer who would later write “the world that has come of age is more godless, and perhaps for that very reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age” (Letters and Papers From Prison).

But there are not two Bonhoeffers, only one, and what fascinated me in my most recent reading of Bonhoeffer and about his life (Renate Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel) are the circumstances under which he wrote The Cost of Discipleship. At this time, Bonhoeffer was already in opposed to the Hitler government and to the acquiescence of the German Lutheran Church to that government. By the time of the book’s publication, Bonhoeffer’s permission to teach in German universities had been revoked and the Preacher’s Seminary he had founded as a part of an “opposition church” had been closed down. Yet Bonhoeffer, to the best of my recollection, writes nothing about Germany, Hitler, the Gestapo, in The Cost of Discipleship. Instead he writes about grace, costly grace, and he writes an extended treatment of the Sermon on the Mount. True, Bonhoeffer later wondered about some of this book and saw limitations in it. In a letter from prison in July 1944, he would write about this book, “Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.”

Yes, Bonhoeffer would later write about the need for the Christian cause to be a “silent and hidden affair,” “that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith,” and wonder about the need for a “religionless Christianity.” Yes, he would be executed for being a part of a conspiracy against Hitler. But Bonhoeffer got to this place through a deep examination of the language of faith. He sought to restore to it its reality and power, even if he found that he could not resuscitate some of it.

The task is the same for our day and time. At least the task is there for me – diving deep into the Christian faith, digging deeply into its language and symbols and texts to see how they might be real and powerful for the twenty-first century – for a world at war, for a world filled with hunger and poverty and oppression, with clashing cultures and religious violence, with populations exploding and genuine concern for what the human is doing to the planet itself. It is my job as a pastor, but it is also my vocation as a human being who calls himself a Christian. So I am reading through the New Testament this year and writing about it for others and for myself. I am discovering resources there that I had not thought and felt before. But another amazing thing about Bonhoeffer’s deep plunge into the language of Christian faith is that it was not parochial. At the same time that he was writing The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer had hoped to travel to India to meet with Gandhi to learn about nonviolent resistance. One sometimes finds new depths in one’s own faith by engaging with others and with other faiths. My reading in Buddhism over the past year or so has been doing that for me too.

Maybe some of the traditional language of Christian will have to be set aside, or radically reinterpreted, if it is to have reality and power. But we should not give up so quickly, and only after we have grappled deeply with the language while engaging deeply with our world.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, September 24, 2007

War, Huh, good God y’all, what is it good for? Absolutely noting, say it again.
Edwin Starr (Bruce Springsteen, too)

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God.

I found myself at a peace rally on Friday. O.K. I didn’t just stumble into it, I went intentionally, but also ambivalently. I went, in part, because I am concerned about the direction of the war in Iraq and our continuation of current policy. I opposed the war at its beginning, not because I am a Christian pacifist, but because I did not think it met the classic criteria Christian ethicists have developed that justifies going to war. These “just war” criteria include having a justifiable cause, war being a last resort, having legitimate and public aims for going to war, war as a proportional response to the threat posed, having a reasonable chance of success, and having an appropriate intention when going to war (for a good resource on Christian perspectives on war, see Joseph L Allen, War: a Primer for Christians. Dr. Allen was my doctoral dissertation advisor). Of course, Christians debate these criteria, and some argue that they are no longer valid or relevant. Does it make sense anymore to discuss war as a “proportional response” to any threat? I hold that these criteria remain relevant and consider myself a just-war Christian ethicist, but one haunted by pacifism. I am haunted by pacifism because I take seriously the words of Jesus which seem directed much more toward peacemaking than to thinking about what justifies war. I take seriously the strong anti-imperial implications of his message about God’s kingdom, and war is so often little more than an imperial tool. I am deeply disappointed by the ease with which people use the just war criteria to justify war quickly. It should not be so, and I remain haunted by pacifism.

Nevertheless, I also remain committed to using the just war criteria in my thinking about war (I still sing Edwin Starr’s song, and find it often true, but it does not exhaust my thinking about war), and in doing so, I do not believe the current war in Iraq met these criteria. Our cause was never very clear, and, in fact, we were deceived about it. There were people in our own State Department who warned about our slim chances for success in establishing a stable and more democratic Iraq after an invasion – our chances for success were not what some promised they would be. I don’t think we reached the “last resort” phase when we decided to launch “shock and awe.”

Beyond thinking that the war was morally unjustifiable from the beginning, I am troubled by our current policy which essentially stays the course, promising some small draw down of troops but without any change in mission or direction. Are our chances of establishing a more stable and democratic Iraq under a unified government really any better than they were six months ago? Is it time to think about other long-term strategies, such as a confederate Iraq with semi-autonomous regions that might quell the sectarian violence? No doubt there are other ideas that need to be pondered and I am disappointed that such options are not under active consideration by the current administration.

These are all pretty good reasons for attending a peace rally. So why was I ambivalent? Well, I had been asked to speak at a press conference promoting the rally, and had to say “no.” I had already committed myself to a meeting of some community groups looking at ways to help provide some transportation funding for Head Start families who might not otherwise be able to afford to get their children to the Head Start sites. Transportation funding for Head Start was eliminated in our community this year. Beyond the scheduling conflict, though, I was concerned about where this particular group was coming from. There are anti-war positions and then there are anti-war positions. Earlier in the summer I had been contacted by one group looking for my support and the support of my church. As I asked some questions it turned out that a major goal of the group was to organize a rally at the office of the Republican senator from Minnesota. As a citizen, I may feel free to participate in such an event, but as a pastor, I feel it important to limit “partisan” political activity. I will speak as a pastor about the moral issues involved in politics, but decline to publicly act in a partisan manner. It is a choice I have made. It is not always an easy choice to implement, and I am becoming concerned that every issue is now taking on a partisan tone, leaving little room for trying to say something about the deep moral issues involved without seeing to support one side or the other. I am constantly reexamining this part of my life an ministry. Anyway, I was concerned about the potential partisan nature of this event.

I was also concerned about the position that might be advocated by the primary speakers at the rally. I don’t believe this was a just war. I question our current conduct of the war. But I struggle with the idea that we should simply pull out our troops without some longer-term plan to work with Iraq and others in the region in hopes of securing a more stable and just peace. Will leaving tomorrow (were that even possible) really make things better, or will we watch a conflagration, a blood bath develop? I wonder if simply leaving is a little like a man telling a woman, “I’m sorry, we shouldn’t have had sex, but I recognize I was wrong so I’m leaving now even though you’re pregnant.” It seems to me we have entered into the life of this nation in a profound way, and while I question staying the course, I also question leaving without any other plan being in place.

Finally, the more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by the fact that this group had been planning this rally for a long time without asking for the involvement of my church or any other church for that matter, but now two weeks before the rally, they wanted me to “bless it.”

My ambivalence did not keep me from the peace rally, and I appreciated much of what I heard. An Iraqi-American who I know from the community spoke eloquently about the devastation and destruction wrought on his country by the war. It was obvious to me that his family had done fairly well under the prior regime, and he said little about the dark underside of Iraq under Sadaam. He wants the war to end immediately. His voice needs to be heard. The speaker from Veterans for Peace also spoke movingly about how she is not against all war, but this one was not a war defending our country, that preemptive war was not what she signed up for when she joined the military. Another eloquent perspective. I left before the end of the rally, and that was probably a good thing. In the next day’s newspaper, I read that ten people were arrested for blocking the door to the Federal Building in town. Civil disobedience has its place in a democracy, but I believe its place is rather narrow, and that such disobedience is best directed toward laws that are themselves unjust. Breaking the law by sitting down at a segregated lunch counter with people of varying races makes some sense to me. Violating trespass laws does not. One great irony is that one of the rally speakers spoke about our need to defend civil liberties. Isn’t one of the precious rights and liberties guaranteed by our constitution the right to petition the courts for redress of our grievances? By blocking the way to the Federal Building which house the U.S. District courts, these protestors were denying people access to those courts. It is our right and responsibility to speak out as citizens in our democracy when we disagree with policies being propagated in our name. But we should do so in such a way that we appreciate the genuine achievements of our democracy. We may not think it is working very well sometimes, but when you consider the history of humankind, democratic governments are a rather rare and all too fragile achievement. Our protesting should be wise and prudent, and our rhetoric measured.

Somehow, my complicated thinking and concern for humility, gentleness, prudence, and measured rhetoric was not represented very thoroughly by any of the speakers I heard at the rally. Maybe this kind of thinking doesn’t make for great rally speeches. Such speeches have their place, but I will probably always listen with a concern for what shade may be left out, what angle of view might be missed, what nuance might be disregarded. And still, I may just go again sometime.


With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, September 15, 2007

You know sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens sometimes we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over and I have advice for all of us. I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this tune and it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem and its called Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.
Cannonball Adderley

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy is a wonderful song, a rare song that started as a jazz tune then got picked up by a pop/rock band and made into a hit. Yes, The Buckinghams had a hit with Mercy, Mercy, Mercy in the 1960s – but it began as a jazz tune written by Joe Zawinul. Joe Zawinul died this past week. Within the last month two venerable jazz artists have died, the other was drummer Max Roach. Zawinul was a pioneer in bringing electronic keyboards to jazz – with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderly, and Weather Report. Max Roach played drums with some of the greats of the be-bop era – Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and worked with the great trumpeter Clifford Brown before Brown’s untimely death in an auto accident.

I remember when I first had my breathe taken away by jazz. It was in a college class, Arts in America. The professor was talking about America’s most unique art form, jazz, and he dropped a needle (this was the days of vinyl records) on John Coltrane’s Central Park West. It was absolutely beautiful. I bought a couple of Coltrane records (including the phenomenal A Love Supreme), a Billie Holiday record, and a Charlie Parker record (I got his name through my interest in Kerouac). I liked what I heard, but I was listening to a lot of rock music at the time, and, well, the jazz kind of got shelved with other things taken out only occasionally. I enjoyed the occasions, but they were sporadic.

In 2003, though, I hit a bit of a wall. A chronic health condition I had had for over twenty years, and that had been stable due to medication, flared up. The medication was no longer working and I was not feeling well. That summer, I spent extra time lying down, and one of the things that kept me company was the Ken Burns series Jazz. I know it isn’t perfect, but it reignited a love in me. Jazz became my listening of choice. Bix Beiderbecke’s Singin’ the Blues haunted me. I have a vivid memory of driving that autumn and listening to the Miles Davis Quintet’s Fall. The list could go on (and on and on). Jazz remains a frequent listening choice for me – not the only one, but often and irreplaceably so. And by the way, some new medication finally worked to bring my health condition under control.

So what? (The Miles Davis question!!!! – see his album Kind of Blue). You’ve been very patient if you have read this far, but is there going to be anything more here than three cheers for jazz? For me, jazz has not only been a joy, it has deepened my spiritual life, and that is not coincidental. Writer Albert Murray said about jazz, “it’s the creative process incarnate.” To hear jazz is to witness creativity, and creativity has something to do with the divine within us. Philosopher-theologian Nicholas Berdyaev wrote, “a creative act is therefore a continuation of world-creation and mean participation in the work of God.”

I also affirm with a New Testament writer that “every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the God (Father-Mother) of Light” (James, chapter 1). Jazz is a good gift of light and life. That’s not to say everything that has every happened under the umbrella of jazz is straight from God, but the music and creativity are genuinely beneficial gifts. Jazz drummer, Art Blakey, liked to say, “jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.” Sometimes we need that dust washed away gently, in music that meets us quietly. So I listen to Coltrane’s Naima, Central Park West and After the Rain, or Miles Davis’ Blue in Green, or Billie Holiday’s Autumn in New York, or Bix Beiderbecke’s I’m Comin’ Virginia. Sometimes the dust needs to be blown off in celebratory breezes, so I listen to Louis Armstrong’s West End Blues, Potato Head Blues, or Dippermouth Blues; or Beiderbecke’s Singin’ the Blues; or Charlie Parker’s Ko Ko (on which Max Roach played drums); or Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s Groovin’ High; or Duke Ellington’s Take the ‘A’ Train; or Thelonius Monk’s Straight, No Chaser; or Dave Brubeck’s Take Five; or Coltrane's My Favorite Things. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy really does help when adversity strikes. Again, enough name dropping!

The Righteous Brothers, not a jazz group, once sang, “If there’s a rock ‘n’ roll heaven, you know they have a helluva band.” Well, if there are bands in heaven, think of the jazz band possibilities!!!

God speaks in tongues, and one of those is jazz.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, September 9, 2007

People would be surprised if they knew what their souls said to God sometimes.
Brother Lawrence

Mother Teresa is in the news again, this time not for Noble Peace Prizes or canonization conversations, but because another side to her life has come to the fore. In a new book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light we gain unprecedented access into some of the inner spiritual life of this remarkable woman. We get to hear some of what her soul said to God, and some of it, much of it, is painful. I have not read this entire book, and so my picture is incomplete. I have only read the excerpts printed in Time magazine and a few pages from the book.

From what I have read, however, I would say that my respect for Mother Teresa has grown and deepened. She can no longer be considered in any sense a plastic saint, a one-dimensional person, whose “holiness” is so far removed from the normal lives of mortals that she can only be admired, but certainly not emulated. She sought to follow Jesus and in that following struggled with internal doubt, with dark nights of the soul - - - yet she continued to follow. She continued to trust that her actions on behalf of the poor were meaningful, and meaningful to the God she once experienced as so close, but whose distance became her internal reality. If the essence of faith is trust, then Mother Teresa remained a person of deep faith in the midst of her experiences of doubt.

In reading about Mother Teresa’s life, I was reminded of words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who lost his life to the Hitler government. There is probably no Christian to whom God has not given the uplifting and blissful experience of genuine Christian community at least once in his or her life. But in this world such experiences remain nothing but a gracious extra beyond the daily bread of Christian community life. We have no claim to such experiences, and we do not live with other Christians for the sake of gaining such experiences. (Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, 329)

The Christian life is as much about practices as about experience – practices of prayer, of worship, of compassion, of justice. Christian faith is about openness to the world and responsiveness to its beauty and pain. When we engage consistently in these practices, when we are open to the world and responsive to it I believe we find Jesus (that’s what I preached this morning – in part, reflecting on Mother Teresa), but maybe we find Jesus in a very different form than what we may hope for or expect. Mother Teresa did not experience the Jesus she hoped to, but I’m not sure that Jesus was absent. One follower of Mother Teresa could say of her, “She always led us to Jesus, especially in very difficult moments” (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, 336). Jesus seemed to be there somewhere, even if Mother Teresa had a difficult time finding that presence.

Yet she kept on, she maintained the practices that were so important to her faith – prayer and compassion for the poor. Our experiences, those of us who are Christians, will continue to be experiences of doubt, of God’s presence and of God’s seeming absence. Will we have the faith to keep the faith even in the dark and dry times? I hope I will.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. For other insightful comments about the recent stories about Mother Teresa, please follow the links to the blogs of Michelle Hargrave and Jeff Ozanne.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.
Henry James, The Ambassadors

But there are degrees of feeling – the muffled, the faint, the just sufficient, the barely intelligible, as we may say; and the acute, the intense, the complete, in a word – the power to be finely aware and richly responsible.
Henry James, Preface to The Princess Cassamassima

Each week as I come to write here, there are usually a number of tales to tell, stories to weave, thoughts to share. It is always a matter of choosing some one thing, and saving some for another day. Someone asked me this week if I were going to write about Mother Teresa. I think I will, but not today.

It is Labor Day weekend, the traditional ending of summer. School begins this week for my wife and our two daughters. I begin teaching a course in Medical Ethics at a local college this week. 2008 will be here before I know it. Before leaving summer, I want to reflect on some reading I did, especially on vacation.

I took three books with me on our vacation: Henry James, The Ambassadors; Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway; and Maura O’Halloran, Pure Heart, Enlightened Mind. I did not finish James’ book until after our vacation, but there was an interesting confluence of ideas as I read all three.

I read The Ambassadors because it was a book I had been wanting to read for sometime. My interest in Henry James was sparked by the work of philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Her book, Love’s Knowledge was one of the first books on ethics I read after completing my Ph.D. in the subject of religious ethics. It is a book of essays on literature and philosophy, especially ethics. She writes with deep appreciation for Henry James and the kind of ethic she finds in his novels. In reflecting on James’ book The Golden Bowl, which remains on my reading list, she discusses the moral development of a character as James writes about it, her development of a new way of being in the world, a new ethic. We might describe the new ideal this way: See clearly and with high intelligence. Respond with the vibrant sympathy of a vividly active imagination (p. 134). Nussbaum believes many of James’ works seek to portray persons who have an ethic in life that is “finely aware and richly responsible” (to use James’ own words). The Ambassadors is one such work. The main character, Lewis Lambert Strether is a person who sees “fifty things” and appreciates them in his “quiet inwardness.” While he is not perfect in his ability to be finely aware, he strives for this, and seeks to act with rich responsibility. In reading James, I needed to slow down to catch all that he was trying to say in his long sentences filled with emotion and imagery. It was almost as if his style were trying to get readers to be more finely aware. I enjoyed letting James’ prose wash over me in waves.

While I was reading Henry James I was also reading the other two books mentioned. Each of these books is about a spiritual journey in Zen Buddhism. Maura O’Halloran’s book is comprised of journals and letters of this young Irish woman who went to Japan to study Zen in a monastery. In 1982, at age 27, after three years of studying Zen, she was killed in a motor accident, and the monks at Kannonji Temple in Japan dedicated a statue to her on that site, giving her the posthumous name of “Great Enlightened Lady, of the same heart and mind as the Great Teacher Buddha." Reading her journals and letters one gets inside, a little, the experience of Zen meditation and life in a Zen monastery. Slowing down, being aware, that is one point of Zen meditation – zazen. Natalie Goldberg’s book is both about her life as a writer and her own experience with Zen meditation, much of it in Minnesota at the Minneapolis Zen Center. Again, I was struck by the cultivation of awareness that is at the heart of this practice.

While it may seem a stretch, I saw some overlap in James’ encouragement of being finely aware and richly responsible, and the experience of two women with Zen meditation. I also recall many of the teachings of Jesus where he encourages people to watch, to pay attention. He chides those who think they see, but really don’t. Does Jesus, too, want me to be finely aware and richly responsible? Maybe so.

And then I consider how so much of modern Western life mitigates against just such a thing. We move at the speed of light and sound. Our schedules are crowded with events and "to do" lists – I know mine is. Where do we cultivate the habits and practices that help us slow down enough to be finely aware? There are practices in the Christian faith tradition that encourage cultivation of awareness, but they are often ignored. And such awareness is not an end in itself. As we see the world deeply, we need to respond to its joy and beauty, its pain and hurt and injustice. For Christians that would seem a no-brainer – “do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). But Buddhists, too, are encouraged to respond to the world’s suffering. That, after all, was at the heart of the Buddha’s teaching - ending suffering.

So here I am, rushing headlong into fall. Will I be able to take the lessons of my summer reading with me? I hope so.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A couple of weeks ago, I shared some thoughts about the concept of "empire" and the Christian faith. It generated quite a bit of discussion. Recently, a United Methodist lay woman from Texas, Barbara Wendland has been sharing some reflections on the same subject in her monthly newsletter Connections. It can be found at I have also provided a link from my blog. I find Barbara a consistently interesting person to read.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, August 26, 2007

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way… into Christ.
Ephesians 4:15

I try to be careful when preaching about contemporary social issues. I have a deep commitment to connecting faith and social justice and believe the love which is at the heart of Christian faith entails doing justice. At the same time, how one speaks about the requirements of love and justice matters – speaking the truth in love is an imperative. One of the members of my doctoral dissertation committee in a book he wrote said the following: “Transformational leadership slips into paternalism unless it teaches rather than commands or manipulates.” (William F. May, Beleaguered Rulers, 232). Teaching is important to me. Trained as an ethicist as well as a pastor, I am also deeply aware of the complexities of the issues which surround us, and I have a commitment to honoring those complexities.

With all these cautions and caveats, I nevertheless traverse this ground, as I did today in my sermon. I used a healing story in Luke 13 (vs. 10-17) to say that there comes a time when we need to think deeply about what it means to be a Christian living in the twenty-first century in the United States, and I shared some of my reflections about health care, the environment and our consumption-based economy, and war (focusing on war more generally rather than on our current war). I shared thoughts and raised questions and said that each of these complex topics lends itself to policy proposals, but that I thought such policy discussion occurred best in small groups, not in pontificating from the pulpit.

The sermon seemed well-received, and I greatly appreciated the positive remarks, but one of the remarks I most deeply appreciated came from a retired United Methodist pastor who was visiting from out of town. He told me he really appreciated “how” I said what I said. He told me that he disagreed with some of the things I said, but he nevertheless appreciated how I said it.

That means a lot to me. How we talk about justice matters. Speaking the truth in love matters. My desire to teach, my commitment to honoring complexity as well as honor the connections between faith and justice, my strong belief that Christian social thought and action should be profoundly rooted in Christian faith, can leave others feeling I am too cautious, and perhaps sometimes I am. But when all is said and done, I want to hear that even when people disagree with me, they appreciate how I have said what I have said. That leaves the door open to more conversation, conversation from which both can learn. I am grateful that for today, anyway, I was able to speak in such a way.

With Faith and With Feathers,


From another quarter: Never speak harsh words for they will redound upon you. Angry talk really is painful. The result might crash down on you. The Dhammapada, 133