Friday, December 19, 2008

Merry Christmas

This is Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1898 painting “The Annunciation.” Tanner was the son of an African Methodist Episcopal minister.

I will be devoting my creative energies toward the celebration of Christmas at my church (and if you are reading this and looking for a place to worship, join us Christmas Eve at 4 p.m. or 10 p.m.), so will take a brief break from blogging. May you find joy and peace at Christmas.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, December 13, 2008

My wife Julie and my two daughters really enjoy Christmas music. Julie looks forward to November 1 each year, because that’s when she begins playing the music of the season – in her car driving to and from work, in our home when we have music on. Last year, I put together a CD of Christmas music that I especially enjoy (and wrote about it in this blog). One CD does not a season of Christmas music make, so this year I burned another. Last year I tried to have a diverse group of songs that I enjoy. This year I used only music from a few of my favorite Christmas CDs – CDs by Louis Armstrong, Chicago, Vince Guaraldi, Diana Krall, Sarah McLachlan, and James Taylor. I purposely burned multiple versions of some of the same songs because I like the song so well and it is often interesting to hear how different artists render the same song. It reminds me that music, like the Scriptures which contain the Christmas story, can be interpreted differently and we are enriched by hearing differing views. Emily Dickinson: Tell all the Truth but tell it slant (poem 1129).

So here is my “new” Christmas CD, with commentary.

What Child is This, Vince Guaraldi Trio: I love this tune (Greensleeves), and I love Vince Guaraldi’s work on the Charlie Brown Christmas CD. It is one of my favorite Christmas CDs, and the Charlie Brown Christmas Special is also a favorite.

What Child is This, Sarah McLachlan: This rendition of the song is marvelous. Sarah McLachlan’s voice is splendid.

Winter Wonderland, Chicago: The song is o.k., but the arrangement is what does it for me. Chicago has been a favorite band for a long time. Maybe listening to this band reminds me of younger days. Chicago was one of “the bands” when I was in high school.

Christmas Time Is Here, Vince Guaraldi Trio – instrumental: As you will see as we go on, this is one of my absolute favorite Christmas songs. There is a peacefulness, a quiet joy and a tinge of wistfulness. All of those are a part of Christmas for me. The song invites a reflectiveness – “but Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Yes, this is a secular song, but The Charlie Brown Christmas special has the gospel story at its heart. The message of Christmas is one that blurs “sacred” and “secular” anyway. God comes near, touches human life and history in the person Jesus. God will be found in the midst of life, incarnate in unlikely places.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, James Taylor: Here is another quiet song filled with simple joy and wistfulness. There are troubles aplenty, but we may wish each other the simple joys of this time of year. We may wish for others lighter hearts in a world that often makes our hearts heavy.

I’ll Be Home for Chirstmas, Diana Krall: Yet another song with a decidedly wistful feeling. It, too, celebrates simple Christmas joy, even when that may have to be experienced from a distance. I guess, for me, Christmas joy is quiet joy, and a delight in simple pleasures. There is a place for a more raucous celebration, to be sure. However, a sense of peacefulness is important for me. I also want a celebration of Christmas that acknowledges that the world has not yet grasped the peace and goodwill proclaimed in the story – we still yearn for a better world.

Christmas Time is Here, Sarah McLachlan: Beautiful voice, and wonderful song. If you don’t like this song, you would not like this CD. There are more versions to come.

White Christmas, Louis Armstrong: When I hear Louis Armstrong, I smile. His music brings joy. I have the faintest memories of seeing him on variety shows when I was a kid. I think I remember thinking this person with the gravelly voice was certainly unique. I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not. All doubt has been removed.

Christmas Time is Here, Chicago: Here it is again, and the Chicago treatment of it is very nice.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas, Sarah McLachlan: Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong may be my second favorite Christmas CD after the Guaraldi CD. Every song on it is worth listening to. She renders this one with beauty and feeling.

Christmas Time is Here, Diana Krall: Diana Krall is an exceptional jazz singer, and she offers another worthy version of this tune.

River, James Taylor: This Joni Mitchell tune is not technically a Christmas song, just set in the Christmas season. It found its way onto both James Taylor’s and Sarah McLachlan’s Christmas CDs (and on to this one). The song is about the desire to get away from things for awhile, something we might all feel now and again. To touch that sadness inside can lead us make changes in our lives and our world. At least that’s what it does at its best.

Christmas Time is Here, Vince Guaraldi – choir version: One final rendition, Guaraldi joined by a children’s choir.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Diana Krall: O.k. I have a high tolerance for listening more than once to songs I like.

River, Sarah McLachlan: Ditto. McLachlan sings this beautifully. I really feel the song.

Christmas Night in Harlem, Louis Armstrong: This CD has a lot of reflective songs filled with quiet joy and wistfulness. It is good to have one that swings and who better to swing with than Louis Armstrong.

Baby It’s Cold Outside, James Taylor and Natalie Cole: From sheer joy to a plea for romance. It’s cold outside, so why don’t you stay a little longer. A little light entertainment is a good thing.

In the Bleak Midwinter, James Taylor: This is another favorite “sacred” Christmas song. It acknowledges a difficult world and invites us to give our hearts to one who will inspire us make a difference.

In the Bleak Midwinter, Sarah McLachlan: One good version deserves another.

Silent Night, Sarah McLachlan: Christmas does break down the sacred/secular divide in many ways. In American society, however, where we are willing to risk losing the sacred dimension entirely in the hustle and bustle and buying frenzy, I find it good to listen to the explicitly sacred songs celebrating the birth of Jesus. Again, Sarah McLachlan offers a stirring version of a familiar song.

So that’s what I am listening to this Christmas season. I hope you are finding music to touch the heart and stir the soul.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Christmas Time is Here from The Charlie Brown Christmas Special

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Today is Emily Dickinson's birthday. I could not let it go by without a word of celebration.

Click on the link to the Writer's Almanac to hear a little bit about Emily Dickinson and about William Faulkner's Nobel Prize speech.

With Faith and With Feathers,


William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work - a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Friday, December 5, 2008

There are a number of female poets whose works are among my favorites. I mention Emily Dickinson in my profile. Her poem – “Much madness is divinest sense” was one of the first poems I memorized. I read it first not in a book, but on a paper bag given by a book store on the West Bank of the University of Minnesota – Savran’s Paperback Shop, if memory serves me. The name of this blog is inspired by her poem, “hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul.” Last blog I cited a poem by Lisel Mueller. Jane Kenyon is another favorite. I also love the poetry of Mary Oliver, and in this I am not alone. Mary Oliver may be the best-selling poet currently writing. Her most recent book is Red Bird, and I have been reading a poem a day from it (most days, anyway).

Here is a poem from the book that displays a wonderful combination of thoughtfulness and humor. Only because it is brief does quoting it in its entirety make sense. I encourage you to buy a copy of Red Bird and enjoy its full contents.

Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears Trying to Survive on the Melting Ice Floes

That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
But what if His plan was, that we would do better?

One might offer lengthy theological commentary. I will refrain from that. I will only say that I would prefer God not necessarily be a male pronoun and that whatever God’s original intent, it is clear to me that God is also a God of second chances (though we humans may exhaust those chances here on planet earth if we don’t take better care of it and of each other).

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

It is Thanksgiving Thursday, one of my favorite holidays of the year – a favorite because it gives me ample opportunity to spend time with my family and comes with fewer demands on my time as a pastor. This year, for the first time in many, all three of our children will be together at our house for dinner.

The following poem – filled with subtle humor and deep gratitude – is also one of my favorites. It moves me to deep thankfulness and I offer it hoping that it might do the same for you. Because I located it in its entirety on “poem hunter,” I offer it here (I want to be faithful to the creative work of authors and the copyright laws which try and protect that creativity. The book from which it comes was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1996.

Alive Together Lisel Mueller (b. 1924)

Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
when I might have been Abelard's woman
or the whore of a Renaissance pope
or a peasant wife with not enough food
and not enough love, with my children
dead of the plague. I might have slept
in an alcove next to the man
with the golden nose, who poked it
into the business of stars,
or sewn a starry flag
for a general with wooden teeth.
I might have been the exemplary Pocahontas
or a woman without a name
weeping in Master's bed
for my husband, exchanged for a mule,
my daughter, lost in a drunken bet.
I might have been stretched on a totem pole
to appease a vindictive god
or left, a useless girl-child,
to die on a cliff. I like to think
I might have been Mary Shelley
in love with a wrong-headed angel,
or Mary's friend. I might have been you.
This poem is endless, the odds against us are endless,
our chances of being alive together
statistically nonexistent;
still we have made it, alive in a time
when rationalists in square hats
and hatless Jehovah's Witnesses
agree it is almost over,
alive with our lively children
who--but for 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.

From Alive Together: New and Selected Poems (1996)
Also found on

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. I will be posting my weekly sermons on my other blog, Bard's Brushstrokes. I hope you check it out.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Last Sunday, during out adult faith formation time at my church, we had a session called, “Stump the Pastor.” It is something we do occasionally. Stump the pastor is simply a time when anyone can come and ask any question of me they wish to ask. I enjoy the opportunity to hear the questions asked and to respond as best I can.

I was a little surprised by the very first question asked. A person shared that they had learned something from Buddhism about meditation, about quieting the mind, but wondered if all Buddhists would go to hell. That thought seemed to bother her. It bothers me.

There is no denying that there is a long and strong history within the Christian faith tradition that would affirm that all those who do not confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, agnostics, atheists, et. al. are destined for hell, for eternal punishment. I recently had occasion to visit the national web site of the Vineyard Churches and found there a statement of beliefs. Among those are that human beings need to turn to “Christ alone for salvation” and that “after Christ returns to reign, he will bring about… the final judgment and the eternal blessing of the righteous and eternal conscious punishment of the wicked.” This tradition is alive and well, but is it the best interpretation of the good news of Christianity?

I am reminded of words penned by the Christian theologian Origen in On First Principles where he talks about members of the church who “while believing indeed that there is none greater than the Creator, in which they are right, yet believe such things about him as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men.”

Think about some of the most ruthless leaders in human history – Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Don’t we consider them savage and ruthless for their encouragement of torture and mass killing? Yet there is a strand of Christian theology that would assign to God the role of consigning all those who do not believe in Jesus Christ to eternal conscious punishment – not just a punishment that lasts forever, but one that is felt forever. While we might consider some of those just named as deserving of something like eternal conscious punishment, would we really think that anyone who does not hold certain beliefs deserves conscious punishment that never ends? Where is a sense of proportionality? Can the God who is love also be a judge who sentences persons to torture forever?

I take seriously the biblical passages that speak of judgment, and there is certainly an eternal element to judgment. If we fail to love, to speak a word of healing, to help someone in need when we might have done so, we miss that particular opportunity and we cannot change that. Our past actions live forever, even when they are forgiven, even when we are able to reconcile ourselves with our failings. Judgment passages highlight the vital importance of our decisions, but I don’t think “eternal conscious punishment” is a necessary Christian doctrine. In fact, there is much to be said for the idea that it is less than Christian.

As a Christian, I think my primary task is to live my faith, grow in my faith, share my faith with others and listen to others as they share their faith. I need to speak and listen respectfully to those who do not share my faith in Jesus Christ. When others from other religious traditions or no religious tradition at all act in ways that further God’s kingdom, I will work with them. When they do that better than many Christians, I will hear God’ s word of judgment come through them, telling me that the church can do better, that I can do better. I am willing to do all this and trust that God will deal graciously with all humanity.

A couple of years ago, I read Marjorie Suchocki’s book Divinity and Diversity: a Christian affirmation of religious pluralism. It is just what it says, an affirmation of religious pluralism from explicitly Christian theological premises. For anyone struggling with this issue, the book is well worth reading. I close with these words from Suchocki’s book: God is calling religious peoples in particular to model new ways of friendship in today’s world. We can no longer afford our wars – if ever we could! – and we only increase the horror and shame when we name our religions as reasons for war. I believe God calls us to a “peaceable kingdom” of God’s reign in this world. That reign will be a reflection of God’s image through the emerging creation of the world as a community of many communities, where we each learn to respect one another and work with one another in friendship.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, November 9, 2008

People Get Ready

This post is going to be a little long. I had considered saying a few words about the election, but wonder what more might be said. In my Sunday sermon, I wove together the Scripture lesson and the post-election situation and so thought I would post the text of that sermon. Thanks for wading through it.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:1-1

This has been quite a week, hasn’t it. The United States of America has elected its first president whose ancestry does not trace back solely to a European country, but rather to Africa. Though his political party lost the election, President Bush noted on Wednesday, “No matter how they cast their ballots, all Americans can be proud of the history that was made yesterday.” In his gracious and magnanimous concession speech, Senator John McCain spoke eloquently about the history that was being made. This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight… [Senator Obama and I] both recognize, that, though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound. A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and frightful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States.

And now just a few days after this historic election, we stand face to face with the problems that beset our nation and our world. In the two days following the election, the stock market lost 10% of its value, its worst two days since 1987. Unemployment figures give deep cause for concern. Retail sales for October were the worst in 39 years. Given the challenges we face, you have to wonder a little why people work so long and so hard to be elected President.

In his fine speech on Tuesday night, President-elect Obama acknowledged the challenges and difficulties we face. Even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know that there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctors’ bills, or save enough for college…. The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep.

So into this week of a historic election, into this time of great challenge for our nation and our world falls this story about a wedding and bridesmaids and oil lamps. What do we do with it? Is this story helpful to us at all as Christians and citizens of the United States? What relevance does it have? Well, like Tuesday night, there is a celebration in this story, but I don’t think that will help us see its relevance. We know that the bridesmaids going to buy oil for their lamps might not have to pay as much because the price of oil has gone down, but I don’t think that’s very enlightening either. Can this story speak to us?

Yes, I think it can. While the story has some puzzling aspects: no one knows if it reflects wedding customs of the time or whose wedding customs it might reflect, why are bridesmaids waiting around so long for the bridegroom, certainly the failure to share isn’t “like the kingdom of heaven,” and how can the bridegroom say he does not know the bridesmaids? So puzzling are some elements of this story that one commentator I read said she was sure glad this wasn’t the only parable about the kingdom in the New Testament. And while we could spend a lot of time dicussing the puzzling elements of the story, parables are told most often to make a single point, and sometimes the strange elements are there as much to get attention as anything else.

Here we run into another problem however. If the parable is being told to make a point, the gospel writer, who probably appended a separate saying of Jesus’ to the end of the story, is not very helpful. The saying of Jesus he sticks in here is, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The problem with this is that the difference between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids is not that one group slept and the other didn’t – they all became drowsy and slept. The distinguishing factor between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids is that the wise ones came with enough oil, and the foolish one’s did not, even though there was no shortage of oil around. A better tag line for this story might be “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep.” If you wanted a musical score, we ought to cue up Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, “People Get Ready” This is a song Curtis Mayfield wrote after the Martin Luther King, Jr. March on Washington in 1963, after the Birmingham church bombings, after the assasination of President Kennedy. He wrote it with that and “the preachings of [his] grandmothers and… ministers” in his mind (NPR story).

That’s what this story Jesus tells is about, about the long haul and how we need to be ready to keep on doing good (oil can symbolize good works in the Jewish tradition, among other things). It is a story about having enough oil in our lamps to shine a little more light in a dark world, even when the darkness seems deepest, even when the challenges seem greatest.

I want to play with this a little bit more. I want to begin with some very practical thoughts. If we want to have enough oil, we also want to have the right kind of oil in our lamps. Motor oil and olive oil are both useful, but hardly interchangable. One of the things that says to me as a citizen is that my attitudes matter, and here are a couple of suggestions about helpful attitudes for the citizens of the United States as we move into the future to tackle the challenges that stand before us.

A couple of weeks ago, reflecting on the Scripture where Jesus tells some teachers to give to the emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s, I said that I thought we needed a different attitude toward taxes. I said, “I think we also owe government financial support for the work it needs to do for the common good. We owe taxes.” We need an oil in our attitude lamps which tells us that not all taxes are bad, though not all are good either. What we want to achieve are taxes that are fair, that raise sufficient revenue for what we want and need to do together for the common good, but that are not so stiffling as to discourage necessary creativity. It is a tall order, but achieving that kind of tax policy is not helped by an attitude that says all taxes are bad.

A similar thing is true about government itself. For a long time we have had the most ironic election rhetoric in our country. People who seem to think government is all bad running for government offices. I think our attitude should be that some government programs are beneficial, are helpful and needed, though not every government program fits this description. One of the lessons of our financial crisis is that lack of government regulation can be as hurtful to our national life as excessive government regulation. This is the kind of oil we need in our attitude lamps.

But now I want to begin to transition to wider concerns, and to applying this story more directly to the church. Government action and policy are necessary if we are to achieve more justice in our world, if our common life is to be fairer, if we are to raise more people out of poverty, if we are to be better caretakers of our natural resources and environment, if we are to continue to overcome historic barriers between people. Government actions and policies are necessary, but they are not sufficient.

Thursday night I attended the CHUM fall assembly, along with a few other members of FUMC, and heard a summary of the Minnesota Legislative Commission to End Poverty draft recommendations. Yes, there were a number of government initiatives suggested, but the commission was clear that ending poverty is not something government can do alone. Families need to be strengthened. Teen pregnancy needs to be reduced. Young people need to be given significant internal assets. While poverty is often looked upon as the absence of financial assets, beneath the building of income or wealth are a set of behaviors that either encourage or discourage success. The Commission is convinced that by instilling and nurturing certain attributes in youth, we can set the stage for their positive growth.

The oil that our lamps need to shine into the darkness of poverty cannot be government oil alone, but is oil that must be provided by citizens, businesses, churches, synagogues, mosques, other non-profit organizations. We all have a role to play in shining some light into the darkness of our world, and shining such light is a task for the long haul.

So this story Jesus tells about the long haul and how we need to be ready to keep on doing good and how we need to have enough oil in our lamps to shine a little more light in a dark world, even when the darkness seems deepest, even when the challenges seem greatest – this story is very relevant to our world. As I wrap up, I also want to say that the story is especially intended to say something to the church. When I read this story, I hear a call in it for the church to be the church, for the church to let its unique light shine and to make sure it has enough oil to do that.

The church is the church when it takes its Scriptures seriously, when we are captivated and motivated by those texts in which we see something of God’s dream for the world – a dream of justice and peace, a dream of reconciliation and forgiveness, a dream of beauty and hope and love. Moved by such a dream, we advocate for justice and fairness in our world. We advocate for and seek to have the hungry fed, the homeless housed, to see all persons lifted out of poverty. We advocate for and seek to have all persons live with dignity in our world, and to have our planet respected. Moved by God’s dream, we engage in acts of compassion that directly feed and house persons. We pledge ourselves to treat others with dignity and to struggle against those forces which rage inside of us that might demean others. If oil symbolizes good works, it is also a symbol for abundance and healing. The church is the church when it remembers the power of God’s love to heal and free. The church is the church when it lets flow its abundant resources of love to help families that struggle, to repair marriages that may be faltering, to give a measure of esteem to all people struggling with a sense of being unloved and maybe even unlovable.

The church is the church when it remembers to keep its flask of oil handy at all times, when it is always ready to apply its healing balm in the world – our oil of God’s love and justice, God’s grace and peace and joy. For the church to be the church, we must always remember that the dream we dream is bigger than the American dream, and our best public theologians have always known that. Abraham Lincoln ended his second inaugural address with these stirring words. With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and for his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations. That is an American dream, but the bigger dream of God’s dream for the world is also there – the absence of malice, the encouragement of charity.

And Martin Luther King, Jr., a great American dreamer, knew that God’s dream might include an American dream, but the dream was bigger than that. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. It was a dream deeply rooted in the American dream, but even more deeply rooted in God’s dream for the world.

For the church to be the church, our light must be lighted from oil lamps filled with the oil of God’s dream for the world and the abundant love of God for the world.

In this day and time, when the roads between hope and despair seem separated by so little, in this day and time when our future could be community or chaos, in this day and time, let us be the church. Let’s be ever ready to light up the world with the oil of God’s abundant healing love and share the oil of God’s dream for the world. Let us be the church – let us keep our lamps well-filled.

In a world which needs the church to be the church, to stand up for justice and create the conditions for peace, let’s be the church. Let’s keep our lamps filled with oil. People get ready.

In a world which needs the church to be the church, to be compassionate and caring, let’s be the church. Let’s keep our lamps filled with oil. People get ready.

In a world which needs the church to be the church, to help humanity care for the planet on which we live, let’s be the church. Let’s keep our lamps filled with oil. People get ready.
In a world which needs the church to be the church, to care for families, all families, straight familes and gay families and single-parent families and multi-generational families, let’s be the church. Let’s keep our lamps filled with oil. People get ready.

In a world which needs the church to be the church, to help people nourish a sense of dignity, to let people know that they are loved by God, to help people engage successfully their inner struggles and overcome their addictions, let’s be the church. Let’s keep our lamps filled with oil. People get ready.

You see, we in the church have good news. We know that there is enough oil to light the lamps of love and justice, of compassion and peace, of beauty and goodness. The powerful healing oil of God’s love in inexhaustible. The difference between the wise and foolish is not the sufficiency of the supply of oil, but whether or not you keep the oil ready for use. People, get ready!!! Amen.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, "People Get Ready"

Monday, November 3, 2008

On Politics and Pedometers

Last summer I received a pedometer. It was one effort to help the United Methodist clergy in Minnesota think more about their health and to pay more attention to getting some exercise. In talking with some of my clergy friends, this effort has had varying degrees of success. Some have dropped their pedometers in unhelpful places (think about where something clipped to the waist of your pants may fall). Some have lost their pedometers and some have found that they just don’t seem to work. That’s o.k. It is only a tool to help one think more about the body and its well-being, there are other tools.

I have found this tool useful, however. I like the fact that I plug my pedometer into my computer once or twice a week and it keeps track of my steps. It is rather cool to see how much one has walked. I have found that I pay more attention to getting a walk in every day, whether outside or on a treadmill. As a part of the recording of data, you can also compare yourself to other clergy in your district, and that little bit of competition can be slightly motivating – though not for all and not all the time. There is one part to the pedometer program that I have found rather absurd, however. In order to encourage more walking, the company that set up the software for the pedometers, and maintains the web site that collects the date has decided that clergy would be motivated by taking “biblical journeys.” Our mileage is compared to some of the distances traversed by Old Testament characters. When we reach certain significant “biblical milestones” we are sent congratulatory postcards. I want to be careful here and respect the fact that some may find this helpful and motivating. For me, it does little to encourage me along and I cannot say I am a raving fan of electronic postcards from the desert.

In all the time I have had my pedometer, this past Saturday was a record for number of steps in a day. While I was walking for exercise, the purpose of my walking about was also political in the broadest sense – having to do with the community and the common good – not related to a specific political party. This past Saturday, I was one of a number of volunteers working with Duluth Votes, a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote effort. Duluth Votes is targeting the ten precincts in Duluth which traditionally have the lowest voter turnout. Saturday and Sunday, information about polling places and registration procedures was distributed to every residence in these precincts. Tuesday, Election Day, further contact will be made with voters in these precincts, encouraging them to vote if they have not, and offering to get them to the polls if they need transportation. I am volunteering another three hours on Tuesday.

I am glad to have all the steps from my Saturday walking. Staying healthy is important. I am also really glad I could log some steps doing something important for my community, connecting people to the political process in a new way. No matter who is elected, we all have work to do together to tackle the problems faced by our city, our state, our nation and our world. It is good to connect with people so that we can work together in the days ahead. I am really glad to have mixed politics and pedometers, and I could care less about the postcard I am going to get in my e-mail.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Scared Before Halloween

First United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota, where I am the pastor, is located on a beautiful site. We sit nearly atop the hill overlooking Lake Superior (my office has a spectacular view). We also sit at a busy intersection. Bordering our property is a sidewalk – a public sidewalk. Being public space, people are free to use it for any lawful means, including campaigning for their favorite candidate. This can lead to misunderstanding, as it may appear that the congregation is endorsing one candidate or the other. First United Methodist Church does not endorse any political candidate, though we encourage our people to use their faith-based values as they vote, and in their lives as citizens. As pastor of the church, I will not endorse a political candidate, even in my private life, though I will be voting.

As already noted, though we do not endorse political candidates as a congregation, our location can make it appear that we do. This led to a recent phone message, most of which I have transcribed.

I just drove past your church and I’m very disheartened by an Obama sign on your property. Two young ladies holding up a hand-made blanket that said “Women for Obama.” How in the world can women be for Obama when he believes that partial-birth abortion is o.k? That is murder. That is the most heinous crime there is – tearing an unborn child from the woman’s womb. That’s awful. I can’t believe your church would endorse such a thing.

I don’t know how any Christian could ever vote for Obama. Do you know he has taken the American flag off of his campaign plane and replaced it with a rising sun? Check and type in Barack Obama’s plane.

This man is scary. Christianity – if he gets it, which I don’t think he will, God’s not going to allow that, it would disappear fast. Please rethink this
. [The caller then left her phone number] Unbelievable, in front of your church.

I am glad the caller left her phone number. I called her back and left her a message clarifying that the sidewalk around our property is public space which we don’t control, so her call was misdirected. I did take her up on her offer to check out the story on Barack Obama’s plane, and it is true, to a degree. He did remove the logo for North American Airlines, which was a version of the United States flag. He replaced it with another version of the flag, this one inside an “O” with a sun rising over it. It is an Obama campaign logo symbolizing something like “morning in America” I suppose (where have we heard that before?).

This action does not lead me to label Barack Obama “scary.” What I find scary is the passionate dislike for Obama displayed in this phone call. This person is clearly going to vote her faith-based values, just like I hope people in my congregation do. But I also believe that people of deep and thoughtful faith can disagree about issues and candidates, and that one point-of-view is not, thereby, God’s point-of-view and the other something hideous and evil. And last time I checked, Barack Obama was a Christian, sometimes criticized for the remarks of the pastor of his Christian congregation. How would his election make Christianity disappear fast? If Nero, Caligula and Domitian couldn’t rid the world of Christianity when it was a much smaller movement, how would a democratically-elected president of The United States accomplish this?

The election is just days away, and whoever is elected will have his hands full from day one – an economy in crisis, two wars in progress. It will take the best efforts of our elected leaders and our citizens working together to move the country forward in a positive way. Christians and others concerned for justice and the common good will need to find ways to work together. If we begin with the premise that God did not want the newly elected president to be elected, such working together is going to be a challenge. That’s scary.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Men and Church and Violence

I was going to write about men and church, based on a recent discussion at a new men’s group forming at my church and some things I’ve read in the recent past. I will get back to this shortly. This past Thursday, however, I attended an event that made a deep impact on me and I want to say a word about that.

Thursday the Minnesota Clothesline Project came to Duluth. The Clothesline Project is an art project which memorializes the victims and survivors of domestic abuse. This particular clothesline had a garment for each of the 643 victims of domestic abuse in Minnesota since 1988. I had received an e-mail about the event and about the need for volunteers to help hold the clothesline, and though it was a busy day, I felt I needed to be there. I wanted to make sure the church was represented. Biblical language has been used to justify physical domination within families, and though I believe such use to be a misuse, I felt I needed to be there. It was not until I arrived that I remember Theresa, a woman I had not thought about for quite some time. Theresa was 19. I knew her grandmother – she was a member of Pengilly United Methodist Church where I was pastor. I only got to know Theresa after her death in 1997 when I was asked to officiate at her funeral. She had been shot and killed by a jealous ex-boyfriend. As I looked at the shirts before we took them outside on the Lake Superior Lakewalk, the memory of Theresa and that horrible event came rushing back. During the ceremony before the outside display, the names of victims of domestic violence from the wider Duluth area were shared, and I heard her name again. I wonder how her family is doing after all these years. I wonder how all those affected by the violence we remembered together last Thursday are doing. I pray for their peace and well-being. I pray for an end to such violence.

The overwhelming number of perpetrators of domestic violence are men. Here we are, back to men. Here is what I hear about men and church. According to the Barna group, more than 90 percent of American men believe in God, and five out of six call themselves Christians, but only two of six attend church on a given Sunday. A number of researchers note that churches tend to attract many more women than men. At the same time, research finds that religious participation leads men to become more engaged husbands and fathers (Hartford Seminary research). One would hope that it might help men be less violent in those relationships, though there are exceptions to that – the faithful church goer who is also an abuser in the home.

Church seems good for men, but men are not adequately engaged in the church as a group. That truism can be found any number of places. So there are those who look for solutions. One such person is David Murrow whose recent book is entitled Why Men Hate Going to Church. I’ve not read the book, but read a review of it in The Christian Century (April 3, 2007) and was directed to some of Murrow’s material on-line at and Murrow argues that the reason men avoid church is because it has been “feminized.” The local church is perfectly designed to reach women and older folks… but this church system offers little to stir the masculine heart…. The more masculine the man, the more likely he is to dislike church…. Men and young adults are drawn to risk, challenge and adventure. But these things are discouraged in the local church. Murrow believes churches need to create a healthy masculine spirit in church. They need to present Jesus’ masculine side. Part of the problem is that while many pastors are men, “few truly understand men.” Apparently the brains of male pastors aren’t wired in a very manly way, for Murrow argues that the differences between men and women are rooted in brain differences. “Brain differences play out in the entertainment men and women choose. Women buy romance novels; men buy pornographic magazines. She’s stimulated by words; he’s stimulated by images.”

I am deeply ambivalent about Murrow’s work, and others who argue that the main reason men are not in church is that the church lacks “masculinity.” I don’t feel myself described very well in many of these descriptions of masculinity – though I suppose all these years in the church have drained my testosterone. I enjoy reading – a perfect day for me would include a couple hours of reading (I don’t have many perfect days). I don’t hunt or fish, though I do golf – badly. I enjoy some sports, baseball especially, and football. NASCAR does absolutely nothing for me. I have two dogs, pom-a-poos, not pit bulls – and ain’t I a man?! On the other hand, Murrow has something to teach. We have not often enough emphasized the deep adventure and challenge of the spiritual life – our need to battle powers of darkness in our lives and in the world - - - hatred, injustice, uncontrolled anger. Still, the end of our struggles seems the development of a gentler spirit, of kindness, of compassion, of love. Developing such a spirit is deeply challenging, an adventure worthy of all our courage, a risky endeavor – for the road to developing such a spirit is rarely straight.

I come back to last Thursday, standing on the shores of Lake Superior with men and women holding up the names of people, mostly women and children, who have died, mostly at the hands of men. Some of the language of masculinity used by those who don’t find the church masculine enough has violent undertones. A song used at GodMen rallies goes like this: We’ve been beaten down/Feminized by the culture crowd/No more nice guy, timid and ashamed/We’ve had enough, cowboy up/In the power of Jesus’ name/Welcome to the battle/A million men have got your back/Jump up in the saddle/Grab a sword, don’t be scared/Be a man, grow a pair! I don’t blame domestic violence on such language, but to ignore the potential connection is unwise. To ignore the list Paul offers for what life looks like when God’s Spirit is at work (Galatians 5, fruits of the Spirit): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, seems foolhardy. Risk, challenge, adventure and courage are central to Christian faith – but risk for what, challenge to do what, adventure in what direction, courage for what purpose? Could it be that part of the adventure is to become a man who is more concerned with the well-being of the world than with growing a pair? Could it be that one of the contemporary risks for the Christian man is the risk of asserting that real men can be kind and gentle? Might Christian men, acknowledging the damage done by some of our culture’s definitions of masculinity, need courage to be different, courage to control their raging hormones, courage to follow one who refused to strike back against those who were taking him to his death believing that the violence needed to stop somewhere.

Maybe I am risking turning some men off to my church with such thinking, but if it leads some men toward kindness and gentleness, especially when they know the power of their own anger, and toward more self-control when they know that being out of control may include striking out against a loved one - - - well, I am man enough to take that risk.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, October 5, 2008


Amidst the flurry of recent news about the crisis in our financial system, the $700 billion dollar rescue package and the Vice-President debate came the news about the death of Paul Newman. Newman died at age 83 on September 26. Yes, the financial crisis and the current election are more important events and have the potential to affect our lives dramatically. We also need to acknowledge the power of the stories we tell about our lives and how those stories are shaped by the stories in our culture. In our society and culture many of the stories that shape how we tell the stories of our lives are found in the movies. These deeply held stories about our lives are often more powerful in shaping our lives, in the longrun, than some of the news items which scream at us on a daily basis.

The power of film is indisputable…. Movies carry some sort of psychic charge that no other art form can quite match…. The mind seems to step into another sphere of engagement as the images of the screen flood into our receptive consciousness. Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies.

[Movies] remain in the twenty-first century our primary story-telling medium, interpreting reality for us and acting as a type of cultural glue…. Movies help us to “see.” They focus life for the viewer, giving us a richer variety of experience than would otherwise be possible. Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality

Movies are powerful, and one powerful image that has graced the screen in the past fifty years has been the image of Paul Newman. My three favorite Newman films are Cool Hand Luke (1967), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Verdict (1982) – the first Newman film I watched in a theater as best I can remember. Cool Hand Luke provides an image of someone creating a life story that is bigger than his life, and of someone whose sense of adventure rarely left him. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,with Robert Redford, is a film about male friendship, about the value of cunning, about the importance of humor. The Verdict is a film about redemption, where a lawyer down on his luck, becomes convinced of the rightness of a cause and risks everything to do the right thing. These pedantic descriptions don’t do justice to the richness of these films or their effect on our lives.

Part of Newman’s appeal to me went beyond his movies. He was a person who sought to use his fame to make a positive difference in the world. Newman’s Own salad dressings and spaghetti sauces have generated thousands of dollars for charity. Newman’s Sockarooni sauce is a personal favorite. Newman was politically active. Newman’s integrity carried over into his long marriage to JoAnn Woodward. We need not nominate Paul Newman for sainthood to recognize that he tried to do a lot of good. His off-screen life enhanced the images viewed on screen.

Paul Newman campaigning for Eugene McCarthy in Wisconsin in 1968

Films are powerful and their images help define reality for us. I am grateful for the work Paul Newman has left. And if it seems too unrelated to what has been going on in our world recently, here’s a thought.

One scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid involves a knife fight. Butch (Newman) is being challenged for leadership of his gang and the challenge comes in the form of a knife fight. Butch begins to tell Harvey, his challenger, that before the fight begins they need to lay down the rules. Harvey: “Rules? In a knife fight?” Butch: “Well, if there aren’t going to be any rules…” and he hauls off and gives Harvey a quick kick in the groin. Someone counts to three and Butch beats back the challenge, punching out an already double-overed Harvey.

When there aren’t any rules, sometimes someone gets kicked in the groin and is left bent over struggling for breath. Our banking and finance system have been operating with too few rules, and now we find our economic system bent over struggling for breath. Thank you, Paul, for helping me figure out what is going on in the world!

With Faith and With Feathers,

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

With my children getting older, I don’t watch as many Disney movies as once I did. And I am not certain how many lessons for the church there may be in Disney-produced video products – though I recently attended a workshop for United Methodist Boards of Ordained Ministry that made a fair amount of use of video clips from animated movies, including Disney movies. Truth be told, there are life lessons to be found in Disney movies, life lessons appropriate to the Christian witness of faith. We should judge the heart and not the appearance as Beauty and the Beast told us, for true beauty is beauty in the heart. Running away from one’s leadership responsibilities is likely to leave things in worse shape than trying to assume leadership amidst one’s own doubts – that’s the pertinent lesson of The Lion King. Toy Story teaches the value of friendship and community, even when our friends differ from us considerably.

Well, Disney has done it again. Last weekend I attended a stage version of the Disney movie High School Musical. I had seen the movie – having a daughter at home who still tunes into the Disney channel from time to time – and if you tune in you are likely to see the latest movie for they run with amazing frequency. I attended the stage version of High School Musical primarily because the male lead was played by a young man whose family attends my church. I wasn’t really pumped up to see the story again, but lo and behold, there I was and there was Disney again offering another lesson for the church.

The basic story line of High School Musical is of a young man, a star basketball player, who wants to use his gift for singing, and of a young woman, known as an exceptional math student who also can sing. They want to play the leads in the school musical, but their friends are reluctant, at first, to see them in these new roles. One song is entitled “Stick to the Status Quo,” and it could be a theme song for countless churches. Many faith communities go well beyond the admirable attempt to pass on the ancient wisdom of their faith tradition and make every conceivable change a matter of compromising the faith. “We’ve never done it that way before” is heard all too often in churches, and not to their benefit. The play also includes a song entitled “We’re All In This Together” a celebration of community that also appreciates the different gifts people have and rejoices that people might have gifts that surprise us. While it may be a bit of a stretch, I couldn’t help but think of some of Paul’s words in the New Testament where he compares a church to a body, where we need the differing gifts of each part and need each other. Churches would do well to be in tune with the song, “We’re All In This Together” and let go of singing “Stick to the Status Quo.” Unfortunately, unlike a Disney movie, such transformation usually doesn’t happen in ninty minutes.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. Almost lost in all of the news of the meltdown of our financial system, the price of oil, and the election campaign was the September 12 suicide/death of author David Foster Wallace at age 46. I have not read his most famous novel Infinite Jest, which weighs in at over 1000 pages, but have read some of his short stories and essays and thoroughly enjoyed them. Wallace was considered a genius by some, even receiving a MacArthur “genius grant.” I appreciated his intelligence, his wit and his humanity. He could make me laugh and make me think. I sometimes wonder about the connection between a certain self-destructiveness and creativity. Some of my favorite artists lived brief lives – Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. But many others lived and worked creatively into later life – Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan is still going as he nears 70, Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver whose new book of poems I am reading and enjoying, and the list goes on. Human beings are too complex for any stereotype of self-destructive creativity to be accurate in more than a limited way. One need not generalize about this death to feel the tragedy of a lost voice – an voice that rang with intelligence and humor, compassion and appreciation for the depth and breadth of the human condition. The more campaign ads I hear, the more I long for such voices.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

I have decided to form a new book club, the Methuselah Book Club. Thus all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty-nine years (Genesis 6:27). I figure it will take that kind of life span to read all the books I would like to read! Any other charter members out there?

One author whose books grace my shelf, mostly unread, is Ernest Becker. Becker was a social theorist who wrote about fundamental questions regarding the human condition. I have dipped into Becker’s work from time to time, but have not had the opportunity to delve more deeply into his writings and I look forward to the day when I will do that. Becker’s most well known work is The Denial of Death. It was awareded the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1974, the year Becker died. The companion book, Escape from Evil was published posthumously. Cheery titles, I know.

Recently, I read an essay from Becker’s book Angel in Armor: a post-Freudian perspective on the nature of man. In “Everyman as Pervert, an essay on the pathology of normalcy” (again, intersting title – thankfully that wasn’t the book title!) Becker argues for a view of human maturity as accepting self-transcendence. That is, human beings are more mature, more fully human, when they can be open to an encounter with the fullness of the world, its mystery and complexity. “This is the way we give life its abundance of meaning: we revel in the multiplicity of natural mystery” (32). Becker argues “it takes strength to allow oneself to feel transcended” (33), that is, to acknowledge the depth of the other. We become human “by developing powers commensurate with responsible social living, by learning to endure failure, by respecting the integrity of other humans, by sagaciously testing the limits of his claims, by being suspicious of force, and seeking to check its use and dominion among men” (34). Becker’s vision of a healthy human community would be of “stong, independent, self-reliant people, who will be happy and patient to live with threatening complexity and overwhelming mystery” (34). “Man becomes supremely man by cultivating a sense of tragedy, responsibility, and awe” (34)

I would quibble with some of Becker’s terminology and certainly find his use of masculine pronouns troubling – but he was writing in a time before we became more cognizant of the limits of such langauge. However, I deeply appreciate Becker’s main argument – we are more fully human when we are open to the mystery and complexity of the world around us, when we can grant that others to whom we are related are truly other, that is, they have an integrity all their own which we need to appreciate.

In a very different genre, the poet Mary Oliver invites us to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the world in which we live. Oliver is a favorite poet of mine, and her most recent book of poems is Red Bird. I am savoring it a poem a day. One poem in this volume is “Another Everyday Poem” and in it she writes of considering lillies and ravens – each a miracle. Yet she also notices that “for the lillies/in their bright dresses/cannot last/but wrinkle fast/and fall,” The raven, too, in scavaging for food, reminds her of the brevity of life and beauty, but in the end even this brevity “makes the world/so full/so good.”

Openness to the world in all its beauty and mystery and tragedy – awe in encountering the mystery of another - - - Becker and Oliver, each in their own way invite me to this life stance. But I have heard the invitation before and keep trying to answer it, helped by writers like Becker and poets like Oliver. Jesus asked his disciples, among whom I count myself, to consider the lillies of the field, and he invites disciples to fullness of life. The prophet Isaiah invites us to consider the withering of the grass and the fading of the flower, in contrast to the enduring reality of God. Knowing that we, too, wither and fade, we nevertheless can find in the midst of our lives renewed strength, wings to take flight, as we are open to the God who is made known in the very mystery and complexity of life.

In his final months, Ernest Becker was interviewed by Sam Keen for Psychology Today. In that interview, Becker tells Keen, On my hard days, I am a Stoic and I know that the courageous thing to do is look straight at the wintery smile on the face of truth. But on those soft days when I am permeable to everything around me, anything seems possible and I know that the courageous way is the one with greater trust and greater openness to what is strange.

To live life with the courage to be open and trusting, even while acknowledging the wintery face of truth, is what I mean when I write about living with faith and with feathers.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

It has been too long between posts. End of summer projects (installing some new blinds, removing paint from a small deck so that it might be stained) and gearing up for Fall church programming have consumed my time – as have the Olympic games and the political conventions.

I have been interested in politics since junior high school, and don’t ask me why. My parents were not particularly politically active and I don’t remember political discussions around the dinner table. Somewhere along the way I became interested in elections, political processes, history and I have remained interested since. My doctoral dissertation focused on Christian political ethics and theories of democracy. My children will remember political discussions around our dinner table.

So I watched the political conventions and I must say that I am delighted that this year in our presidential politics we will be making history. Barack Obama accepted the democratic nomination for president on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. If elected, he will be our first president with African ancestry – this in a country that at one time considered persons with even a drop of “African blood” less human, less than equal. King’s dream of a country where the content of character rather than the color of skin matters is coming a little closer. It is not here – that people still ask whether the country is “ready to elect and African-American president” tells us as much. We are also closer to a dream of a country where women have equal rights with men. If elected, Sarah Palin will be the first woman to be elected to the office of Vice-President. We are not there, yet, either. Questions about the appropriateness of a mother of five running for the office of Vice-President smack of sexism. Do we ask such questions of fathers of five? With both Obama and Palin, we should ask searching questions about their political records, their policy plans and their hopes and dreams for our country. That some questions will reflect our nation’s continuing struggle with racism and sexism tells us that we have on-going work to do – but we knew that already.

Speaking of on-going work, one of the most moving moments of either convention was the appearance of Senator Ted Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention. Whether you agree with him politically or not, the Kennedys have given years of public service to our nation, and it was good to see Senator Kennedy, dying of brain cancer at this convention, and to hear him address the delegates and the nation. This will probably be his last convention.

Politics is about more than elections and elected officials. Politics, at its best, is about how we decide to live together as a nation, how we will organize our common life and care for one another. Such decisions must not simply be given over to elected officials but must remain our shared concern. After the election we need to keep working to make a dream of a better county more real. Just as Dr. King said 45 years ago – “now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.” And as Ted Kennedy reminded us in 1980, “the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”

On Wednesday, August 27, I joined others in my community to do a little something to make the dream of a better world more real. Our prayer-walk through the Central Hillside in Duluth made the news. If you want to see that clip, here is the link:

Norhtland News Center story

With Faith and With Feathers,


I have also posted some thoughts about the concept of “vision” on my other blog, Bard’s Brushstrokes if you would like to check that out.

Bard's Brushstrokes

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Summer Olympics are over for another four years. We will remember the stories of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Walsh and May-Treanor, and Dara Torres (who at age 41 was a marvel to everyone – I guess at age 49 the Olympics are now officially out of reach for me – another dream shattered!!). There are countless other stories, of course. There is the story of the U.S. men’s volleyball team winning the gold medal after the coach’s father-in-law was killed in a random act of violence in Beijing. Turns out that the father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was a good friend of someone in my church – small world sometimes.

One story that did not make quite as much noise, but nevertheless made The New Yorker (one of many magazines to which I subscribe) was the story of U.S. marathoner Ryan Hall (August 11 and 18 issue). Hall was a bright hope for a marathon medal this year, and may be in the future (he finished tenth in Beijing). The New Yorker story was fascinating in sharing some of the history of distance running in The United States. I also found one small section of the story intriguing. It seems that Ryan Hall is a devout Christian, and that this created some initial discomfort among his Stanford University running mates. One of those teammates was quoted in the article. Most of us weren’t religious. I’m not religious at all, and I felt threatened. What’s this guy going to do? Is he going to try and convert me? Is he judging me? It was partly my problem, of course. He’s one of the few Christians I know who aren’t judgmental.

Judgmental – it is a word that one hears often, too often, when religion is discussed. It is a word one hears often when Christians are mentioned. According to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner, “judgmental” can relate to making a judgment, but most often is used of “judging when uncalled for.”

O.k., but who determines when making a judgment is uncalled for? Sometimes the problem is not with the Christian, but, as admitted by the student above, the problem is with the person calling someone else “judgmental. While these are valid points, they can become an easy escape from a vitally important matter – the association in the minds of many between Christian faith and being judgmental. Another helpful term in this discussion, for me, is the term “moralistic.” When I teach my course on religious perspectives on health care ethics, I introduce the term “moralistic” to my students. I define “moralism” as: (1) the extension of the label “moral” to areas that don’t seem to apply, and (2) the rigid or inflexible application of moral rules. I tell my students that the danger in being “moralistic” is that the term “moral” loses its ability to call forth meaningful reflection. Being moralistic is to use the term moral when or in ways that it is uncalled for. Christians are frequently criticized for being judgmental and moralistic. While these assessments are not always valid, while the problem is sometimes with the person making the assessment, there is enough truth here to merit concern among Christians who don’t live their faith judgmentally or moralistically. I once heard a preacher in a United Methodist Church say that while he did not want to be a “narrow person” he would be as narrow as the Bible led him to be. Narrow, judgmental, moralistic – is that really central to Christian faith? I would like to think not.

Where does this judgmental, moralistic version of Christian faith come from? Delwin Brown in his recent book What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? argues that conservative Christianity in the United States has taken two primary tracks – one emphasizing right action and one emphasizing right belief. The “right action” conservative Christians, prior to the Civil War, focused on both personal and social holiness, and led opposition to slavery, promoted the rights of women, and struggled against poverty. He goes on to write: In the immense social strife after that war… their concerns turned sharply inward and private. By the 1870s evangelicalism was no longer preaching “social holiness.” Now the focus was on personal piety, which increasingly became trivialized as abstinence from card-playing, smoking, drinking, dancing and other “sins of the flesh.” (8)

Judging such actions, in and of themselves, to be significant, to see these as tremendously important moral issues, is a classic case of becoming judgmental or moralistic. Issues of human sexuality became a prominent concern along with dancing and card-playing, so that sexuality was often viewed as a suspect human phenomenon. Anything that smacked of sexuality was to be avoided. Again, this led to significant instances of judmentalism and moralism. It is a rather sad commentary to me that one very helpful piece of writing on the moral issues in human sexuality comes from a Buddhist (that’s not the sad part) and was not something I ever encountered in my own Christian journey through that kind of conservative Christian faith (that's the sad part). Sharon Salzberg, in Lovingkindness, writes: All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career, or friendship to satisfy sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure, and a great deal of suffering ensues when we are willing to cause pain to satisfy our desires…. Sexuality is a very powerful force. A mature spirituality demands that we, without self-righteousness, commit to not harming ourselves or others through our sexual energy. (175-176) Here, sexuality is not condemned. It is acknowledged as powerful and because it is powerful we need to be careful in how we use our sexual energy. This is more helpful than much of what I remember learning in my early sojourn with Christian faith, where sex was suspect and you just didn’t go there – don’t ask questions. That kind of judmentalism and moralism are what people have experienced too often. That’s why people think that most Christians are judgmental.

Being judgmental is not the pure province of this kind of conservative Christianity. I have also seen it on the more liberal side of Christian faith. Here the problem is less making certain kinds of trivial behavior (card-playing, e.g.) a grave moral issue, it is more the inflexibility and rigidity that some “liberal” Christians use when discussing the moral commitments of Christians. Delwin Brown in his aforementioned book writes, You can be a Republican and a Christian – indeed, you can be a very conservative Republican and a Christian! (3) I know some Christians who would shudder at such a statement. They identify the social morality of Christian faith so completely with certain political positions that any who disagree are insufficiently Christian or prophetic. Some of the most heated, pitched battles among Christians are among the narrower, more judgmental, more moralistic people on both sides of an issue.

Somehow I think Christian faith at its best lives with the paradox of holding passionate and thoughtful intellectual and moral commitments, and doing so with humility and graciousness. Patrick Henry in The Ironic Christian’s Companion describes this kind of Christian faith beautifully. Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow. Many people who identify themselves as Christian seem to have leap-frogged over life, short-circuited the adventure. When “Christian” appears in the headline, the story will probably be about lines drawn, not about boundaries expanded…. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity; a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (8-9)

Can we get there in Christian faith? When we get there, how might we change the perception that most Christians are intellectually narrow, arrogantly judgmental, and priggishly moralistic? Oh for the day when people are concerned about Christians not because they are too judgmental, moralistic, or narrow, but because they are too adventuresome, courageous, and creative in their intellectual and moral commitments.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Traces of Grace

So, I get home from Jurisdictional Conference early morning on July 20 and am in worship later that same morning. Thankfully, some kind and gifted persons from my congregation had agreed to lead worship on that day. I shared my experience with the congregation - the beginning of the next chapter of our life together.

The week following was busy and blessed. I prepared for the following Sunday – July 27. I officiated or helped officiate at two weddings on the 26th – and that was a joy and privilege. Then we went on “vacation” - - - which involved moving our son’s belongings from Fargo, North Dakota to Duluth, where he will be entering a Master’s degree program in “Political Advocacy and Leadership” at the University of Minnesota here, and our older daughter’s belongings from Duluth to Minneapolis where she is entering medical school at the University of Minnesota. Our younger daughter was touring with Strikepoint, the world class handbell choir from First UMC where I am the pastor. When I think about my children, I am often overwhelmed by feelings of grace. They are delightful human beings.

All of this – and sorry if this seems the blog version of home made vacation slides (do some of you even know what those are??) – is a prelude to the mission trip we left for on Sunday August 3. Jurisdictional Conference, a busy week, an even busier vacation - - - and then off to South Dakota, Tree of Life Ministry on the Rosebud Reservation (a place we had been two years before). I was none too excited about doing this given all that had come before. I was tired. I was still trying to integrate all that had happened at Jurisdictional Conference.

As we were leaving, traces of grace wove their way into the journey. I heard that friends from the United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Minnesota, the community in which we had lived before moving to Duluth, and the church which my family attended as I was traveling as a district superintendent, were also going to be at Tree of Life. Their pastor, Jeff Hanson, is a close friend, and Jeff Reed from their church is a person I continue to get to know better and appreciate deeply (see the link to Jeff’s blog under “Links”). As we turned south from the freeway toward Rosebud and Tree of Life, a deep sense of peacefulness filled my heart. Was it returning to a familiar place? Was it knowing that in addition to being with good friends from my church (Ron, Carolyn, Laura, Dale, and my wife Julie) we were going to be at Tree of Life with old friends from Alexandria? Was it knowing that I was really going to be in a very different place doing different kind of work for a few days? I don’t know, except to say that this peacefulness was a trace of grace.

Arriving that night, the people from Alexandria were going to share in communion, and we were invited. Though I had yet to eat dinner that evening, I felt I needed to wait to do that. Some deeper hunger needed to be fed. As we shared the bread and the cup, I knew that though I had traveled reluctantly, this was where I needed to be. Traces of grace.

One day a few of us worked to begin repairing and restoring a home that had been badly burned in an electrical fire. As I walked through the house, there in what had been a bedroom was a box of VHS tapes – American Graffiti, Forest Gump among others, reminding me of a common humanity shared across racial-ethnic and socio-cultural and geographic lines. There, in that same room, was an overturned plastic crate on which a bird had built a nest. I walked over to look more closely and inside that nest were four eggs – new life emerging in a burned out building. Traces of grace. Where was God tracing new patterns in my life in places where I might be feeling a little burned out?

The traces of grace continued after leaving Rosebud. As mentioned, my older daughter is entering medical school and on Friday of that same week, we attended her “white coat” ceremony. The ceremony marks the entry of new students into medical school, but more importantly is meant to remind them that theirs is a humanistic profession – humanistic not in opposition to “theistic” but humanistic in contrast to a narrow scientism which forgets that medicine, while deeply rooted in science, is ultimately about the healing of persons and families. Listening to speakers talk about the meaning of the medical profession I was reminded that in many ways my own career as a pastor is a humanistic profession, too. It is a theistic humanism, rooted in a deep conviction that human life is ultimately healed as it is healed in relationship to God – but humanistic nonetheless. Pastors should be theologically astute, but the best theologian who does not care for the people God has entrusted to their leadership and care is not a terribly good pastor. Traces of grace can be reminders of why we do what we do.

Pictures can convey traces of grace, too – and here are some from our mission trip – including a picture of that remarkable scene of new life. May this be a trace of grace for you.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal
How does it feel

Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”

At some blessed point, we may begin to see traces of grace right in the brokenness itself.
Kent Ira Groff, What Would I Believe If I Didn’t Believe Anything

Life either dwarfs us or grows us.
Joan Chittister, Called To Question

It has been awhile since I have written. Thanks for hanging in there and coming back.

On Saturday July 19 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the North Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church consecrated a new bishop. I was one of the candidates for this position, but I was not the person chosen.

It was, however, quite a process – exciting, exhausting, affirming, trying. My wife, Julie, and our daughters Beth and Sarah were there to share this time with me, and I was delighted by their willingness to be there with their love and support. My daughter Beth did a marvelous job introducing me to delegations, and I will be ever grateful to her for her kind words. Elected or not, this will always be special to me. I also shared the journey with good friends from Minnesota who were the backbone of my support. I will always be grateful to them, as well, for their energy and for believing in me. Throughout, I found this to be a deeply spiritual experience. I sensed God’s presence at many points, and found resources of faith, hope and love within that are the work of God’s Spirit.

The election process began modestly enough for me. Minnesota has fourteen voting delegates, and on the first ballot I received eighteen votes – seventh out of eleven candidates who received more than ten votes on that ballot. I was obviously not receiving much support from other delegations. I thought I might be exiting rather quickly and quietly, though I had told my delegation that I intended to hang around for awhile. When I jumped thirteen votes on the second ballot, I sensed something might be happening. By ballot seven, I was the top vote getter, a place that was unexpected. My family and I wondered, “Could this really happen?” By ballot ten, I was the top vote getter by almost fifty votes. My totals were about 41% of those voting and it takes 60% for election. I was honored and excited, but I did not become too expectant, as I had seen other episcopal elections where the early leader stalls and others come to the fore. Though I continued to be the top vote getter for eleven ballots, my support stalled. By ballot eighteen, I was in second place – holding my own, but not gaining much either. During the process other candidates were withdrawing from consideration. After ballot eighteen, there were three of us remaining, and I continued to maintain second place. When the person receiving the third most votes withdrew after ballot twenty-two and the person who was receiving the most votes came close to being elected on the next ballot, I withdrew my name and invited delegates to support him. The handwriting was on the wall. The Rev. Dr. Julius Trimble was elected bishop on ballot twenty-four on Friday July 18, and he was consecrated July 19. Bishop Trimble will be serving the Iowa Area of The United Methodist Church and I wish him every blessing in his new work.

For a text of my withdrawal speech, reconstructed from notes and memory, please see my other blog: Bard's Brushstrokes

One of the great gifts of the spiritual life – the transformation of contradiction into paradox. - - - Parker Palmer

When I said “yes” to becoming a candidate for bishop, with the encouragement of others and following my own inner sense of God’s direction, I felt a great sense of paradox. Now was not the best time to leave a congregation I have been working with for only three years. Becoming a bishop would have meant some challenges for our family at this time. Still, I needed to do this.

Now I find myself working with another paradox. When I sat down to vote after offering my withdrawal speech, I felt a deep sense of peace. Coming back to Duluth would work nicely for my family and for my church. When I returned to my church I was overwhelmed and delighted by how many people had been following the election on-line. Their care and support upon my return was a genuine joy. I am also feeling disappointment. To have been privileged to receive so much support and yet to fall short was disappointing. To have worked so hard, and to have had others work so hard on my behalf, and not to get elected is disappointing. There have been moments when I have thought to myself, “This may be the best you will ever do in this process” and that doesn’t feel particularly good. Then again, such “what if” thinking is really counterproductive in countless situations. So I live with this sense of peace and sense of disappointment, and at their best, they are forming themselves into an interesting paradox in my life. Here’s another paradox – I still believe I have the kind of gifts needed in a bishop for The United Methodist Church in this new century, yet I also believe God has formed gifts in me for pastoral ministry and community leadership.

So that’s how it feels. In the midst of this new paradox, I am looking to learn and grow again, looking to find out more about who I am and where God is inviting me to be. I am looking for traces of grace even in the brokenness – though “brokenness” may be too strong a word here. Yet it fits, too. My experience of brokenness is that it is often a breaking open of heart and mind, often uncomfortable, but opening up new possibilities. To a mind that I hope is already agile and adroit, even more flexibility and new ways of thinking might be added. To a heart that I hope is already capacious, even more space may be under construction in this time of paradox -disappointment and peace, brokenness and healing. I am disappointed, but not discouraged. I am at peace, yet a certain restlessness remains. I know the adventure of life with faith and with feathers goes on. With Joan Chittister, I am committed to letting life and the God of life, grow me. I prefer not to be dwarfed.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. If you have read this for any length of time, you know of my love for music. Here is a song that reminds me not to let life dwarf me. If you listen to it, please do so with a sly, self-deprecating smile. That’s how I like to listen to it.

John Mayer, "Bigger Than My Body

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

I am on vacation this week, but am sticking close to home for much of that time. I visited my mom who lives about 100 miles away in Ely and went canoeing with my wife and golfing with my mom and her husband. Later in the week we will go to the Twin Cities where our youngest daughter is participating with two of my wife’s cousins in a triathlon. She is subbing for our older daughter who is recovering from leg surgery.

At their best, vacations are for relaxation and for taking time to remember what is important. We need to do both more often, but vacations remind us of that as well.

In the spirit of relaxation and reminding myself of what’s important, I offer a few quotes that serve as powerful reminders to me of what I hope my life is all about. If you have read this blog before, some of this will not be new. What can I say, I am on vacation!

If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his nest again
I shall not live in Vain. Emily Dickinson

Whatever happens,
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
to the lasting world
and will not leave,
whatever happens. Wendell Berry

Let all that you do be done in love. I Corinthians 16:14

And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make. The Beatles

Do good. Heal. Do justice. Love. I believe I have the strength to do this when I am in relationship to God, who I understand to be the creative energy for love and justice in the world. Entering God into the equation means I have to quibble with The Beatles. With God, I believe the love we create can be multiplied in the world. How do I come up with this stuff about God? For me, as a Christian, I understand God best, and see what life can be like in relationship to God most clearly, in Jesus.

All of this is easy enough to remember. It is always an adventure and a challenge to live.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. I won’t be writing in this blog next week. Next week I will be in Grand Rapids, Michigan for the meeting of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church. I am a voting delegate and I am one of the nominees for bishop, and it is the primary task of this gathering to elect one new bishop for our jurisdiction. If you want to know more about the conference check out (click below). If you want to know more about my candidacy, check out the link on the right or go to (again, you can click below). Whatever happens – do good, heal, do justice, love, stay in relationship to God. Whatever happens – the adventure continues.

North Central Jurisdiction


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Would I If I Could?

In today’s edition of the Duluth NewsTribune, two dueling editorials were printed addressing the same issue – “Do religious leaders have a free speech right to endorse political candidates from the pulpit?” For the affirmative – Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice. Arguing against – Rev. Barry Lynn , executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Sekulow: The IRS is stifling the free-speech rights of religious leaders in a world where most Americans understand that the intersection of faith and politics is a well-recognized part of this nation’s culture and heritage. The problem: a 54-year-old federal tax law that prevents religious leaders from truly exercising their constitutionally protected free-speech rights when they act in their official capacity as a pastor of head of a religious, tax-exempt organization. He goes on to argue that other non-profit groups are not so constrained, unions, for example. He cites precedent in our history, prior to the passing of this regulation. He argues that the distinction between speech addressing the pressing moral issues of the day, including public policy issues, which is legal, and speech endorsing candidates is neither clear nor helpful.

Lynn: Houses of worship exist to fill spiritual needs and bring people closer to God. But many offer much more: Their soup kitchens provide meals to impoverished families, they give counseling to young couples and they sponsor youth groups, among other endeavors. But one thing churches should never do is act as political brokers. Put simply, handing down a list of candidate endorsements is not the role of our faith communities. Clergy have no business acting like party bosses…. The American people have not asked for, and do not want, their clergy to issue orders on how to behave in the voting booth. Lynn argues that the distinction between addressing issues and endorsing candidates is clear and reasonable, and he believes the current law is serving our country well.

The question that intrigues me most is – would I if I could? It was fascinating for me to discover that this prohibition against clergy and congregations endorsing candidates is only fifty-some years old. I am bothered by some of the ways I have heard about the IRS interpreting this law – congregations which have not named candidates but who have been brought under scrutiny for their public policy discussions and stances. I remember reading about a California congregation under investigation for its strong anti-war stance. I firmly believe that churches need to discuss moral issues and that many public policy questions have a significant moral dimension to them. I am concerned by an overly broad interpretation of the current law. Furthermore, I find Lynn’s language about clergy as party bosses issuing orders untenable. I don’t know what church Lynn attends, but if I were to share with my congregation who I was voting for and why, at best members might receive this as a helpful suggestion – certainly not an order from a political boss. Nevertheless, I am not arguing for a repeal of the current law. I would want to give that much more thought. The question that intrigues me, as I’ve said, is “Would I if I could?”

It’s September and congress has repealed the law prohibiting clergy from endorsing candidates in their official capacity (I could endorse a candidate as a private citizen even now). I am an active voter (more about that in a moment), and have decided who I want to support and among my reasons for supporting this candidate are faith-based moral positions. Should I share my view, my endorsement with my congregation?

I assume many congregations are like mine, with a mix of persons holding a variety of political perspectives. More of the vocal people in my church tend to be politically liberal. However, there are some strong moderates in the mix, and a fewer number of conservative voters. Frankly, there are a whole lot of people I have no idea about when it comes to how they might vote. By endorsing one candidate, I am essentially saying that as an intelligent person, and a person of deep and thoughtful Christian faith, here’s who I think people should vote for. I will respect those who disagree, but the subtle message will be that I don’t think they have considered the relation of their faith to their politics as thoroughly as I have. I risk alienating these people. People who might otherwise be willing to engage in conversation about issues, though we disagree, may find my endorsement of a candidate the final straw. The conversation could end, a conversation that enriches both of us.

I risk alienating these people, and for what? For a particular candidate in a particular election. Politics matters. My doctoral dissertation was on democratic political theory and Christian ethics. Differences in candidates matter. But issues are deeply complex, and no single candidate is going to usher in the reign of God, even if both houses of congress are also of the same political party! The building of a better world takes more than politics and government (though not less). It takes working with all kinds of people, including people with whom we disagree. There are times when we need to take the risk, as clergy, of saying things that will alienate people. Sometimes issues are of such moral importance that we should not remain silent. Awhile back I shared a story about a person who quit attending my church because he was in the military and I questioned what the use of techniques like waterboarding were doing to the soul of our country. I wish he would have stayed around. I know I could have learned from him, but I would not take back what I said - These days I sometimes wonder if we are not making an idol of national security, sacrificing at its altar values that we have long held important for our life as a county, values that are important to Christian faith. What are we willing to sacrifice for security? I am not denigrating concern for national security, only questioning the effects an exclusive concern for it may be having on us. The United States has kept people in prison for years, now, without charges and without trials. We have people debating whether or not simulated drowning is an appropriate interrogation technique. Are we becoming ruthless and heartless? But this is a very different thing from risking alienating people for a candidate in one election (when the next one is just a couple of years away!).

I’ve already mentioned that I am politically interested and politically active (at least to the extent that I am an informed voter and occasionally write about political issues, including letters to representatives). The first presidential candidate I voted for was neither a Democrat nor a Republican. It was 1980 and I was in college. Ronald Reagan was the Republican candidate that year, and Jimmy Carter the Democratic candidate. There was a strong third candidate that year, Illinois congressman John Anderson – but I didn’t vote for him either. I cast my first presidential vote for Barry Commoner of the Citizen’s Party, a short-lived party that is probably most closely aligned with today’s Green Party. Supposing I was ten years older and in my first appointment as a pastor, and I could endorse a candidate from the pulpit. So I share my passion for Barry Commoner in a place that where those who vote would overwhelmingly vote Democratic or Republican. Would I have alienated many? Would my ability to speak about issues seem suspect – everything filtered through electoral politics? Would my credibility have been damaged? I don’t know, but I don’t think it would have been a risk worth taking.

Would I if I could endorse a presidential candidate? Probably not – but you can count on me making it to the polls in November and in between discussing important issues and working to make the world a little more just and a little more peaceful and a little healthier.

With Faith and With Feathers,