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,