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 www.poemhunter.com

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,