Friday, December 31, 2010

One Year to the Next

As one year flows into the next, I wanted to review some of the memorable quotes I recorded for myself in 2010 and share a few with you (again, perhaps).

If we don’t see ideas as the voice of God in us, how can we hope to know more of God in this world – and in ourselves. Joan Chittister, Living Well

The truth will set you free. But not before it is finished with you. David Foster Wallace

We seem to be forgetting about the soul, about what it is for thought to open out of the soul and connect person to a world in a rich, subtle and complicated manner; about what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or an obstacle to one’s own plans; about what it is to talk as someone who has a soul to someone else whom one sees as similarly deep and complex. Martha Nussbaum, Not For Profit: why democracy needs the humanities

The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.
Francis Bacon

Thinking one knows it all, thinking one knows something one doesn’t, one miscalculates reality.
Michael Eigen, Madness and Murder

Recently a friend sent an article to me about Judson Phillips, a founder of the Tea Party Movement, who would like to see The United Methodist Church disappear, calling it socialist and Marxist. The change of year is a good time to clear the air, make confessions, free the soul. I confess that I am enamored with Marxian wisdom. I cannot deny the truth Marx spoke when he said:

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read. Groucho Marx

Bring the new year in joyfully.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, December 24, 2010

Bing and Bowie

November 30, 1977. I was 18 years old and in my first semester of college at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. That night Eric Servareid bid farewell as a regular correspondent on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. His parting words are worth watching and they can be found on youtube.
That night the Bing Crosby Christmas special aired. Bing had died October 14. One of the most memorable moments that night was the duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie. There is some kind banter and then a lovely version of “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth.” I posted this link earlier on my Facebook page. The song was taped September 11, 1977 – before September 11 was September 11. Anyway, I think I was watching that show that night, at least that is my memory. I was not a big David Bowie fan at the time, and Bing Crosby was nice, but kind of old school. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the song. It was and is a Christmas music favorite.
I have fond memories of Christmas music. My parents had a few of the Goodyear Greatest Songs of Christmas albums around the house. My wife, Julie, loves Christmas music, as do our daughters Beth and Sarah. I love the songs of the church for the season – especially It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, Little Town of Bethlehem, What Child is This, In the Bleak Midwinter, and Silent Night. I also love many “secular” Christmas songs. In recent years I have burned some of my own “greatest songs of Christmas” and its three CDs contains these songs:

Pachelbel, Canon in D
James Taylor, I’ll Be Home For Christmas
Vince Guaraldi, Christmas Time is Here (vocal)
John Coltrane, My Favorite Things
Johnny Mathis, Do You Hear What I Hear
Paul McCartney, Wonderful Christmas Time
Bing Crosby, White Christmas
Nat King Cole, Christmas Song
Bruce Springsteen, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
John Lennon, Happy Xmas
Tony Bennett, My Favorite Things
Bing Crosby/David Bowie, Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth
Vince Guaraldi, Christmas Time is Here (instrumental)
Louis Armstrong, Wonderful World
Mahalia Jackson, O Holy Night
Judy Garland, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Julie Andrews, In the Bleak Midwinter
Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Joy to the World
Vince Guaraldi, What Child is This
Sarah McLachlan, What Child is This
Chicago, Winter Wonderland
Diana Krall, I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Sarah McLachlan, Christmas Time is Here
Louis Armstrong, White Christmas
Chicago, Christmas Time is Here
Sarah McLachlan, I’ll Be Home for Christmas
Diana Krall, Christmas Time is Here
James Taylor, River
Diana Krall, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Sarah McLachlan, River
Louis Armstrong, Christmas Night in Harlem
Sarah McLachlan, Have Yourself Merry Little Christmas
James Taylor, Baby It’s Cold Outside
James Taylor, In the Bleak Midwinter
Sarah McLachlan, In the Bleak Midwinter
Sarah McLachlan, Silent Night
Diana Krall, Sleigh Ride
Dianne Reeves, Carol of the Bells
Rosemary Clooney, Silver Bells
Perry Como, There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays
Andy Williams, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Meredith D’Ambrosia, Christmas Waltz
Mel Torme, Christmas Song
Ella Fitzgerald, O Holy Night
Sheryl Crow, There Is a Star That Shines Tonight

Merry Christmas
With Faith And With Feathers,


Friday, December 10, 2010

What Does It Take

This week, an acquaintance of mine, Adam Hamilton, posted a question on his Facebook page and invited responses to it. What are the five most important qualities of pastoral leaders that create or lead vibrant, alive churches? To be honest, I am not sure any short list captures everything that needs to be said here, but it is a question about which I have thought deeply. In short order, I typed out my list and posted it:
• Character/integrity/genuineness/authenticity (o.k. a lot for one quality)
• Deep relationship with God in Jesus
• Vision for ministry
• Passion for ministry – including ministry to the community
• Joy and humor

While I like the list, I did not feel it was quite adequate. I did not think it captured all that I might want to say in response to the question about the important qualities of pastoral leaders leading vibrant and alive churches. I began to play with the idea of intelligences. What sort of intelligences are needed for effective pastoral ministry? I reframed my list in terms of six “intelligences.”
1. Spiritual intelligence (I really don’t like that word here, but, hey, I am trying to work with a theme): has a deep spiritual life, a living relationship with God in Jesus
2. First-rate intelligence. I have long appreciated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” (“The Crack-Up”). These days we need pastoral leaders who can be comfortable with ambiguity, who exercise imagination, who can help navigate adaptive challenges, who can think theologically.
3. Emotional-Social Intelligence. People skills matter and they were not well represented in my initial list.
4. Vocational Intelligence. We have to be able to do the work, including having some vision for ministry that is intellectually, emotionally and spiritually rooted and compelling.
5. Communication intelligence. Pastors need to be able to communicate orally and in writing, including the use of electronic media.
6. Pedagogical Intelligence. We need to be able to teach.

And if I have something approaching a first-rate intelligence, I know this list will continue to be reshaped.

With Faith And With Feathers,


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Francis Bacon Squared

Last week I watched the movie Amazing Grace, a film about the life of William Wilberforce. I thoroughly enjoyed its portrayal of the combination of deep faith and a passion for changing the world. I also appreciated the Francis Bacon quote.

It is a sad fate for a man to die too well-known to everybody else, and still unknown to himself.

I recalled it well-enough from the movie, but wanted to make sure I had it just right, so I typed “Francis Bacon” into a search engine and came up with a number of wonderful Francis Bacon quotes, including the following:

The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.

Then I discovered that there is more than one Francis Bacon. The Francis Bacon quoted in Amazing Grace was a British philosopher, person of letters, politician who lived from 1561-1626. The Francis Bacon who wrote about the artist was an Irish painter from the twentieth century. A sample of his work is found below.

While having my Francis Bacon squared this week, I also found my way to a William James essay from 1898, “Philosophical Concepts and Practical Results.” In it James wrote:

Philosophers are after all like poets. They are path-finders. What everyone else can feel, what everyone can know in the bone and marrow of him, they sometimes can find words for and express.

At our best, perhaps pastors are like that, too. We give words to what can be felt and experienced in the bone and marrow of human lives. We point a way forward into a richer life and a deeper experience of self, others, the world, God. We aid the journey of self-discovery, for we, too, consider it tragic that a person should die too well-known to others and unknown to herself. Yet though we put words to experience, serve as path-finders, encourage self-knowledge, we do that within the wondrous mystery that is life as a human being.

James also wrote in his essay, “Philosophers, let them be as queer as they will, still are men in the secret recesses of their hearts.” Queer often means something different than what James meant, and he did not use inclusive language. Taking these into account, I hope what he says here is also true of pastors – be as odd as we will, we are still human in the secret recesses of our hearts.

With Faith And With Feathers (and deep in the mystery),


Monday, November 29, 2010

Wild Gratitude

As the Thanksgiving weekend draws to an end, I share with you a fitting poem. It can be found on-line from the site of the Academy of American Poets ( I have included the link and if you follow it you can hear the poet read his poem.

Wild Gratitude Edward Hirsch

Tonight when I knelt down next to our cat, Zooey,
And put my fingers into her clean cat's mouth,
And rubbed her swollen belly that will never know kittens,
And watched her wriggle onto her side, pawing the air,
And listened to her solemn little squeals of delight,
I was thinking about the poet, Christopher Smart,
Who wanted to kneel down and pray without ceasing
In everyone of the splintered London streets,

And was locked away in the madhouse at St. Luke's
With his sad religious mania, and his wild gratitude,
And his grave prayers for the other lunatics,
And his great love for his speckled cat, Jeoffry.
All day today—August 13, 1983—I remembered how
Christopher Smart blessed this same day in August, 1759,
For its calm bravery and ordinary good conscience.

This was the day that he blessed the Postmaster General
"And all conveyancers of letters" for their warm humanity,
And the gardeners for their private benevolence
And intricate knowledge of the language of flowers,
And the milkmen for their universal human kindness.
This morning I understood that he loved to hear—
As I have heard—the soft clink of milk bottles
On the rickety stairs in the early morning,

And how terrible it must have seemed
When even this small pleasure was denied him.
But it wasn't until tonight when I knelt down
And slipped my hand into Zooey's waggling mouth
That I remembered how he'd called Jeoffry "the servant
Of the Living God duly and daily serving Him,"
And for the first time understood what it meant.
Because it wasn't until I saw my own cat

Whine and roll over on her fluffy back
That I realized how gratefully he had watched
Jeoffry fetch and carry his wooden cork
Across the grass in the wet garden, patiently
Jumping over a high stick, calmly sharpening
His claws on the woodpile, rubbing his nose
Against the nose of another cat, stretching, or
Slowly stalking his traditional enemy, the mouse,
A rodent, "a creature of great personal valour,"
And then dallying so much that his enemy escaped.

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry—and every creature like him—
Who can teach us how to praise—purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

Edward Hirsch, "Wild Gratitude" on

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Irony - The Free Ride When You've Already Paid

Whatever happened to Alanis Morrissette? A couple of days ago she was trending on Yahoo, but that lists changes pretty quickly. With the internet, things move rapidly. Information is available at your fingertips. I was trying to remember the date of a Bruce Springsteen concert I attended in 1978, and I found out the dates of his concerts that year within minutes surfing the web. Remarkable. Is there a down side, a dark side? Maybe.
Zadie Smith is a novelist and essayist who is sixteen years younger than me. I share this because her cautionary words about social networking, offered in the most recent issue of The New York Review are not the reflections of a fifty-one year old who could be written off as hopelessly out of touch with a Web 2.0 world (the person writing this blog who also read Smith’s article in a print version of the periodical – yes, I have more subscriptions than apps).
Here are some of Smith’s reflections. Of social media like Facebook, she writes: Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationships that connection permits – none of this is important…. a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other…. When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.Smith is not a Luddite. She raises the issue of the impact of technologies and tools. Tools are wonderful for doing certain things – but do we use our tools or do our tools use us? It is never that simple. Our technologies inevitably shape our sense of self. The question is whether we will give ourselves completely to our Facebook sense of self where relationships are defined by “status,” where we can “like” something or not, where we seem to be our preferences. Malcolm Gladwell, in a recent New Yorker article (yet another subscription) argues that social media are ingenious for developing weak-tie connections which have their strengths. Yet they also have their limits. Other relationships need to be fostered in a rich and full human life. Zadie Smith quotes Jaron Lanier, virtual reality pioneer, “you have to be somebody before you can share yourself.” Developing a somebody may require time off-line, time for quiet reflection, time away from a constantly connected world.
About the time I was thinking about such things, an announcement was made that Facebook would be developing an e-mail system that could link Facebook, e-mail, text messaging in one place. When e-mail arrived, letter writing declined. E-mail is now considered too slow. Who wants to read all that text (who is still reading these words of reflection?). Text messaging is overtaking the human voice of the phone conversation. Pulling all this together in a single site available on smart phones of all kinds, phones that need never be turned off, phones that seem to beg for constant attention lest you miss an update – how might this be changing us, and do we want to be changed in these ways.
Irony. I am posting these thoughts on the web, on a blog linked to my Facebook site. I use the tools and hope they don’t define all that I am.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, November 14, 2010


Out of all the instinctual needs we humans have to put up with – sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water – the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings. character Bob Devonic in Laura Hendrie’s novel, Remember Me

I am in the midst of preaching a series of sermons using themes from Diana Butler Bass’ book Christianity For the Rest of Us. Some 60 to 80 people in the congregation I pastor are reading this book as a way of exploring what a vital Christian faith and a vital Christian congregation might look like in the twenty-first century. Today I preached on worship and beauty (and the sermon will be posted on my sermon blog in a few days).
Moving toward the conclusion of the sermon I said that beauty is better experienced than discussed, and then showed a power point slide show with John Coltrane’s “After The Rain” playing in the background. With Coltrane still playing, I ended by reading Denise Levertov’s poem, “Primary Wonder.”
I hoped people experienced something of the beauty I intended. When worship works, that is when it connects us with God, the world, and ourselves more deeply and honestly, it is because beauty is encountered. God’s way and work in the world could be described as the work of creating beauty, of weaving together disparate experiences in the direction of justice, peace, reconciliation, peace, healing, and love. We need beauty. We need it to open our minds and enlarge our hearts. Beauty magnifies us into human beings.
The irony of the morning was that our projector system at the church is in transition, and was not working today. I had to present my power point slide show using my lap top, a portable projector and a screen. The set up would not have been considered beautiful, the screen, in particular lacked almost any aesthetic value. It was even torn in the corner.
Yet even here there is something to be learned. We all have ugly areas in our lives, and certainly the world is marred by the ugliness of hatred, poverty, war, oppression. The work of creating beauty does not necessarily begin with beautiful materials. It begins with what we have at hand, sometimes a torn screen. Even then, though, God works toward beauty, and when worship works, some of that beauty shows through.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, November 5, 2010

Nietzsche II

We, openhanded and rich in spirit, standing by the road like open wells with no intention to fend off anyone who feels like drawing from us – we unfortunately do not know how to defend ourselves where we want to: we have no way of preventing people from darkening us: the time in which we live throws into us what is most time-bound… But we shall do what we have always done: whatever one casts into us, we take down into our depth – for we are deep, we do not forget – and become bright again. Frederich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 378

Why read Nietzsche, son of a pastor (though his father died when Nietzsche was quite young), and later deep critic of the church and of Christianity? Why pay any attention to him? I think we need to hear our critics, listen to those who don’t find faith credible. They can teach us. What often amazes me about Nietzsche is how much I learn from him about aspects of faith. “I would believe only in a god who could dance” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part I). I happen to think this is the Christian God, and Nietzsche doesn’t.

In the passage cited above, I hear a deep spirituality and hear something of the vocation of the church. We nurture deep places of the Spirit within. We take the darkness of the world around us, let it get to that deep place of God, Christ, Spirit, and give back brightness.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, October 29, 2010

Nietzsche I

But an attack on the roots of passion means an attack on the roots of life: the practice of the church is hostile to life.
Frederich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Is Nietzsche right, even partially so? Yes. Too many have experienced the church and Christian faith as something narrow, rigid, life-constricting. I have had some of those experiences myself but have found them antithetical to my deepest and most profound experiences of Christian faith. My faith, at its best, opens me up to the world and to life – to joy and suffering, hope and disappointment, mystery, complexity, questions, beauty, love – and even passion. Jesus is to have said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). It is when we know and can share such a faith that others might be attracted to it.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, October 22, 2010


Having internet connection problems at home. Blogging is not much fun when those issues arise. In the words of that great theologian Charlie Brown, "Aaaugh!"

Still With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Weaving New Life

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. II Corinthians 5:17

It has been awhile since my last post in part because of a busy schedule – travel to Nashville for six days for two United Methodist meetings, and in part because of internet problems at home. I arrived back home earlier this week to find that television service had been lost – missed the Vikings game on Monday (as did the Vikings themselves in the first half), and then once that was repaired to have sporadic outages in our internet even after replacing the modem and router. Anyway, on to other thoughts – thoughts conceived on a hotel treadmill and jotted down on paper in airports.
There is a type, probably no person fits it perfectly, but a type - - - the person who inside never graduates from high school. There is the athlete whose best time in life was sinking the winning basket, scoring the winning goal, throwing the winning pass. There is the homecoming queen who has never felt as adored since. There is the A student never again able to replicate her or his success.
High school for me was a mixed bag. I look back with a certain fondness, but also recall the pain, awkwardness, disappointment. Perhaps this is a type, too, one who too easily looks askance at those who hold too closely to high school.
In reality we all weave and weave again our past experiences into our present reality. A healthy weaving allows us to appreciate the past but live in the present, neither holding on to the past too tightly or rejecting it too severely. New life, even in Christ, is a new weaving, not simply a letting go, and the work of the Spirit is toward creativity and freedom as we do our weaving.
I thought of all of this on a treadmill in Nashville. While at meetings, I was on the treadmill every night and one night this fascinating sequence of songs shuffled through my ipod:

Dan Fogelberg, “Same Old Lang Syne” – song about running into an old class mate –
“felt that old familiar pain”
The Eagles, “I Can’t Tell You Why” – song about love fading away, popular when I was
in high school/college, great slow dance song if you could find a partner
Hall and Oates, “Sara Smile” – enormously popular song in high school, I could
almost feel myself driving wearing my letter jacket on a crisp fall day
Lou Reed, “Coney Island Baby” – the glory of love and playing football for the coach
Herb Alpert, “A Taste of Honey” – a song I remember from childhood. My dad had
this record with a rather unforgettable cover.

And so we live, weaving and reweaving our past – joys and sorrows, desires, dreams, disappointments, accomplishments. Newness of life is a new weaving made possible by a Spirit of creativity and love.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, October 2, 2010


In the September 17 issue of the Duluth newspaper, the News Tribune, there was an article about a recent survey conducted of Americans (Associated Press National Constitution Center). “Glum and mistrusting, a majority of Americans today are very confident in – nobody.” When asked about their trust in people running major institutions, 43% said they are extremely or very confident in the military. That tops the list. 39% expressed confidence in small or local business leaders; the scientific community came in at 30%, and next, at 18% organized religion.
That religion is in the top four should bring a modicum of comfort to those of us whose lives are deeply intertwined with organized religion. That the figure is 18% is a bit disheartening. There are many reasons for this, I am sure. Scandals surrounding Roman Catholic priests and other prominent clergy have been reported regularly in recent years. The face of organized religion is sometimes the face of a pastor of a small church who suddenly becomes famous because he plans a Quran burning (and I am pleased he changed his mind). A few Christians can be seen carrying signs that read: “God hates fags” or “Jesus hates sin.” Most of these actions are not the kind that promote confidence in organized religion.
When I read these numbers again, however, I wonder if there is another factor also involved. I notice that the scientific community rates higher than organized religion in evoking confidence. There is little question that scientific discoveries have enhanced our lives. We need to think only of the dramatic advancements in medical technologies to be grateful for the work of scientists. Perhaps one factor that erodes confidence in organized religion is the way some forms of faith have publically battled science. They have tried to substitute poetic bible passages for scientific literature and in the process give the impression that people of faith cannot contend in an intellectually sophisticated manner with the work of scientists. The most blatant example is the insistence of some in the Christian faith community on reading the first chapters of Genesis as science rather than as theological poetry. To do that is both to misread the Scriptures and to create a false battle against scientific work that helps us understand the processes by which life emerges and changes. If we read Genesis as significant theological poetry that grapples with existential questions about the meaning of life in relationship to God, then there is no tension between it and most scientific work on evolution.
This is not to give science a free pass on all its work. Science cannot answer some of our most basic questions, and some scientists reach too far in some of their statements. To claim that evolution proves there is no God is to go beyond science just as to claim that Genesis is science is to misunderstand the nature of Scripture. Furthermore it is important to remember that a scientific description of hormonal changes, blood vessel changes, heart rate changes is not the same as the human experience of being in love. Science worth its salt is open to data of all kinds, including the data of human experience which does not seem adequately captured by the biology of the brain. And some of the data of human experience is poetic, literary, religious. And again we are aware of scientists so narrowly focused on a particular study that they miss the moral implications of their work.
Perhaps if we in organized religion were willing to have some of these kinds of conversations, the confidence level generated might rise. I kind of hope so.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Don't Call Them Twinkies | The Current Music Blog | The Current from Minnesota Public Radio

The lead singer of one of my favorite bands this summer, The Hold Steady, singing about Minnesota Twins baseball. Heaven is whenever... (play on Hold Steady album title!)

Don't Call Them Twinkies | The Current Music Blog | The Current from Minnesota Public Radio

Monday, September 20, 2010

Brief Thoughts on a Short Story

One joy of the short story is that even when life is busy, a story might be read that captures something of the wonder, beauty, mystery of life, crystalizing it into a small gem. Last night before going to sleep, I read William Maxwell’s story “What He Was Like.” In a few pages Maxwell evokes the wonder and mystery of the inner life. The plot is simple enough, a man keeping a diary, his death, his daughter’s reading of his diary and wondering why she did not know so much about her father, her dismay at his interior life.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the diary as noted in the story: “If I had my life to live over again – but one doesn’t. One goes forward instead, dragging a cart piled with lost opportunities.” “To be able to do in your mind what it is probably not a good idea to do in actuality is a convenience not always sufficiently appreciated.”

Our lives are what we do, but also what we think, dream, imagine, appreciate. Maxwell’s story reminded me of that again.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, September 10, 2010

Why I Continue to Read the Bible

Why I Continue To Read the Bible

Sometimes because I think I have to;
Sometimes because I think I should;
Mostly for those times when the words
are like a gentle rain for
the parched field of my soul,
the familiar voice of a friend
in a time of deep loneliness,
an axe
for the frozen sea inside (Kafka).
For times like the other day
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

(Psalm 131:2)

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, September 3, 2010

Autumn Nostalgia

Today felt like autumn here in Duluth. It was rainy and temperatures struggled to get into the low 60s. Autumn often brings with it nostalgic feelings. School begins in the fall, and I love learning. I spent twenty-seven of my fifty-one years preparing for school in one form or another in the fall of the year.
I have been thinking about my childhood as I read Josh Wilker’s memoir Cardboard Gods. Wilker tells his story with the aid of baseball cards from his childhood collection (I collected baseball cards and tonight before their game the Twins introduced the top fifty Twins from their fifty years ). I have also been thinking about my childhood this week as I have been preparing to officiate at the funeral of a young woman (forty-six) who grew up in the same neighborhood as I did. Meeting with her family has brought back a number of memories.
In his book, Wilker writes the following: You can’t be a child forever. You have to slice that part of yourself away and put on a uniform of some sort, whether it’s official or unofficial, and punch that clock. Is there a way to do this and still hang on to a wider sense of the world?
Wilker poses a great question. Can we hang on to a wider sense of the world? Can we retain some of the sense of wonder that we have as children? Can we keep something of what seems an almost innate sense of compassion in children?
Perhaps one way we carry with us some of the positive qualities of childhood is to nurture a healthy nostalgia. By a healthy nostalgia I mean revisiting the past not to hold it up as an ideal now unachievable, but to cultivate some of the important feelings, attitudes and moral sentiments that may have been present. Such healthy nostalgia can come with a wistfulness and sense of loss, but those should not overshadow the cultivation of moral sentiments.
I think there may be something here. Didn’t Jesus encourage the cultivation of certain aspects of childhood?
Not long ago, I encountered another literary exploration of the past, one set in autumn. The sense of loss is palpable. Nevertheless it permitted me to think about my past in a different way - another aid to a healthy nostalgia.
Now I peek into windows and open doors and do not find that air of permission. It has fled the world. Girls walk by me carrying their invisible bouquets from fields still steeped in grace, and I look up in the manner of one who follows with his eyes the passage of a hearse, and remembers what pierces him. John Updike, “In Football Season”

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, August 28, 2010

On the Transmigration of Souls

I don’t claim to be the poster child for the connected world (the web 2.0 world). I have a couple of blogs. I have multiple e-mail accounts. I have a Facebook page – though today I read another article on the “graying of Facebook.” Seniors are the fastest growing group using this social media. I am not yet a “senior” and I am not so much graying as balding. However, I guess the “graying of Facebook” sounds better than the “balding of Facebook.” Anyway, though I have posted on this blog for three and a half years now, I am still discovering features of this blog site.
I just discovered that if you go to your profile page you can click on the underlined items in your profile, such as “favorite music,” and you get a list of every other blogger who also has this listed as a favorite. 532,000 people list Bob Dylan as among their favorite music. That’s a lot of people, but it is nothing compared to The Beatles – 3,090,000. So I thought I would see if at least some of my choices were rarer. Lucinda Williams counts 20,300 blogspot bloggers who list her in favorite music, smaller, but still quite a few. One of my favorite bands of summer 2010, The Hold Steady, clocks in at 5,100. Then I decided to see if anyone else listed “On the Transmigration of Souls” in the favorite music category. I guessed it would be smaller than even The Hold Steady.
“On the Transmigration of Souls” is a classical piece composed by American composer John Adams. It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to honor the victims of the 9/11 attacks and to honor those who reached out with a heroic and caring hand that day. It is a haunting and beautiful piece of music. In the booklet that accompanies the CD there is this description: “It superimposes pre-recorded street sounds and the reading of victim’s names by friends and family members, also pre-recorded, on live performances by a children’s chorus, an adult chorus, and a large orchestra.” I remember first listening to it while driving. If I wasn’t on a schedule, I would have pulled over just to hear it all without thinking about driving. I listened to it again that same evening, and then a few more times. I found this music profoundly moving, and I continue to be moved whenever I hear it. Not everyone has the same reaction. I remember wanting to play it for a small group of clergy colleagues, and they did not hear it in the same way I did. I admit to being disappointed, but I am sure I have disappointed others in not sharing their enthusiasm for something or other.
I realize that there may be some bloggers who list John Adams in their favorite music list. I simply have this one piece by name. So I clicked on “On the Transmigration of Souls” in my blogger profile. The list of bloggers who identify this as a favorite piece of music is small. “David Bard.”

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Anne Rice

I am not a fan of Anne Rice novels. It is not that I have read them and don’t like them. It is that in the scheme of things, with more books to read than I have time to, I have chosen not to read vampire literature. I know it is on a long-term come back, but this is one wave I am not going to ride. I didn’t ride it years ago, either – anyone remember Dark Shadows?
I guess that I am not an Anne Rice fan is o.k., because she is probably not my fan either. Last week, Anne posted a statement saying that she was quitting Christianity, giving up on it because it is “quarrelsome, hostile and disputatious.” My sense of what I viewed of an interview with her was that what she was giving up was “organized Christianity.” As a clergy person, I certainly am a part of organized Christianity, and so assume that Anne Rice would not be a fan.
You might expect me to rush in to defend organized Christianity. I think it is defensible, at least in part, yet it is only so when we admit the truth of Anne Rice’s statements. The history of Christianity is littered with and marred by incidents of Christianity being quarrelsome and disputatious. The problem, in my mind, is not that Christians disagree. The Bible is a complex document. Disagreement about its meaning is to be expected. We are trying to grapple with deep mysteries of life and the reality of God. Our intellectual categories can come up short. Christians will disagree – with one another and with non-Christians. Healthy disagreement can energize and sharpen our thinking. Disagreement is not the problem, hostility is. The smallness of some of the issues we become exercised about is.
Despite our shortcomings, there remains something valuable and important about organized Christianity. The teachings of Jesus, his intriguing presence and the stories told about him are still part of organized Christianity, and they would not have made it this far without some organization that sought to carry them forward. That the teachings and spirit of Jesus have been distorted by the same people who carry them forward is tragic, but those same teachings and that same spirit provide a corrective.
Hopefully we who name the name of Jesus will learn to be less hostile and quarrelsome. Hopefully we can assert our viewpoints with gentleness, humility and love. That would be more in keeping with the teachings and spirit of our founder.

With Faith and With Feathers,

Monday, August 16, 2010

Returning from vacation, to the hustle and bustle and noise and busyness of life, I would like to remember these words:

Until we go into silence, we have nothing to say except what we hear around us, nothing to think except what has already been thought by somebody else. Until we go into silence, we may know really very little about ourselves.

Joan Chittister, Living Well

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, August 6, 2010

Taking some time away from writing while I have been attending the School of Congregational Development and on vacation.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Jesus in New York and Berkeley

With so many words over so long a time, perhaps passersby can still hear tones inaudible to the more passionate participants. Somebody seems to have hoped so, once.
 Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

Jesus fascinates. That this is so in a culture where “Jesus” has been used for everything
from selling hats and t-shirts to justifying white supremacy is a miracle of no small proportion. Jesus fascinates because of his on-going influence, because of the good that has also been done in his name despite the harmful and the tacky, and because of the literature in which the story of Jesus is told. Beyond that, the literature on the literature is something of a cottage industry. “The appetite for historical study of the New Testament remains a publishing constant and a popular craze” (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, May 24, 2010).
Two authors, Gopnik and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, have both penned thoughtful and engaging articles about Jesus and the Jesus literature this summer. The articles appeared not in arcane theological publications, but in journals of culture. Gopnik’s piece, a review of a wide range of material on Jesus and the gospels appeared in The New Yorker. Phillips work, a review of Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief in which the writer also engages in deeper religious analysis, was published in the summer edition of The Threepenny Review (published in Berkeley). I am fascinated by their fascination with Jesus, and engaged by their engaging thoughtfulness. While neither author tips their own religious hand explicitly, the impression given by both is that these are articles written by “outsiders,” passersby if you will.
Gopnik is an able judge of current scholarly literature on the historical Jesus. “The current scholarly tone is… realist but pessimistic,” that is to say, the scholars think there are historical materials in the gospels, but getting to the bottom of them is complex. Gopnik thinks this affects faith, or perhaps argues that it should have an impact on faith. “The intractable complexities of fact produce the inevitable ambiguities of faith.” Among the things that reasonably could be said about Jesus, Gopnik includes the following: He’s verbally spry and even a little bit shifty. He likes defiant, enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close, perhaps by design…. Jesus’ morality has a brash, sidewise indifference to conventional ideas of goodness. His pet style blends the epigrammatic with the enigmatic…. There is a wild gaiety about Jesus’ moral teachings that still leaps off the page. Gopnik writes about Jesus’ “social radicalism” – the relaxed egalitarianism of the open road and the open table. Yet he also acknowledges another dimension to Jesus. In Mark, Jesus is both a fierce apocalyptic prophet… and a wise philosophical teacher who professes love for his neighbor and supplies advice for living. There is a “twoness” about Jesus, including a twoness between what Gopnik calls “Paul’s divine Christ” and “Jesus the wise rabbi.”
Here Gopnik offers additional reflections of his own, distinguishing between “storytelling truths” and “statement making truths.” The twoness in the Christian story is a part of its dynamism, Gopnik thinks. From the very beginning there is ambiguity and symbolism. The sublime symbolic turn – or the retreat to metaphor… begins with the first words of the faith…. The argument is the reality, and the absence of certainty the certainty. Jesus fascinates Gopnik because he continues to offer the possibility for this kind of deep conversation. Somehow in asking about Jesus, we dig more deeply into life.
Adam Phillips offers more than a book review, as already noted. He characterizes Elaine Pagels’ work as “trying to find, within the multiple faiths called Christianity, a version of Christianity that she can morally afford to believe in.” Like Gopnik, Phillips sees within Christianity a certain multiplicity. Phillips argues that Pagels is trying to find a Christian faith that does not demonize the enemy “even if the enemy is what you still need to call them.” Pagels search for such a Christianity has centered in gaining deeper understanding of and insight into the earlier years of the Christian faith. She has studied the writings of the Gnostics, and Beyond Belief focuses on the non-canonical “Gospel of Thomas.” She offers a sympathetic view of the rise of orthodoxy and canonicity. This act of choice… leads us back to the problem that orthodoxy was invented to solve: how can we tell truth from lies. What is genuine and thus connects us with one another and with reality, and what is shallow, self-serving, or evil? Anyone who has seen foolishness, sentimentality, delusion, and murderous rage disguised as God’s truth knows there is no easy answer to the problem that the ancients called discernment of spirits. Phillips then offers his reflections on this passage from Pagels. For Pagels, it is to our (defining) credit that there is no easy answer to the problem of discernment of spirits, and she suggests that our hardest and best task is to keep the problem alive. Orthodoxy robs us of our doubts, and it is only self-doubt that keeps us from demonizing our enemies. He believes that Pagels finds in The Gospel of Thomas a Jesus “who is on the side of the seekers rather than the finders… who prefers being sympathetic to being right.” Phillips wraps up his reflections on Pagels, Christian faith and Jesus with these words: For Christians like Pagels… Jesus invites us to reinvent Christianity, not establish it. He is the visionary who calls for revision. Like a contemporary pragmatist, he doesn’t want to be followed, he wants to be redescribed…. There are as many Jesuses as there are gospels – as there are Christians. All Pagel’s Christians have in common is a quest in which they must try and find what they are looking for.
Agreeing completely with either Gopnik or Phillips is not the point. I am fascinated by their fascination with Jesus, and fascinated by the Jesus they find fascinating. This Jesus, with his fondness for enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close, with his invitation to a belief that also includes doubts and questions, casts a certain spell (the root of the word “fascination” is in a Latin word that means casting a spell). I am charmed. Parker Palmer writes, “truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.” Perhaps at the heart of Christianity is an eternal conversation about the meaning of Jesus conducted with passion and discipline. If so, Gopnik and Phillips sound tones, sometimes inaudible to some who have been engaged in the conversation a long time, that nevertheless need to be heard. Fascinating.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Prayer Rediscovered

I had not thought about this prayer for awhile, but today in an e-mail box someone responded to it. This prayer is something I posted on a liturgy web site almost three years ago. I had forgotten it since, but was pleased to be reminded of it. It is a prayer inspired by the well-known “Serenity Prayer” composed by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

God - whose love envelopes each of us, whose passion for justice and kindness challenges us, whose care for all life inspires us - give us grace. May your Spirit dance delightfully through our lives. In grace, give us peace in the face of things that cannot be changed - our genetic make-up, our genealogy, past hurts and mistakes. In grace, give us courage to change what should be changed - our unloving attitudes, our narrow perspectives, our cynical hearts, injustice, our too easy resort to violence. In grace, give us wisdom so that we can distinguish between those things that cannot be changed and those that can and should be so that we don't spend needless energy in the wrong direction. In Christ, who changes lives. Amen.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, June 29, 2010


I turned 51 last week (Thursday). The day itself might be among my least memorable birthdays. I was in the Chicago area for a meeting of the United Methodist Church’s University Senate, for which I serve on the Commission on Theological Education. We met in the morning, and that was just fine. I enjoy the people I have come to know in this work. We even got done a little early, so I was at O’Hare early for my flight. When I arrived, the check in screen told me that my flight was overbooked and to see the agent if I might be willing to change my plans. Well, there were three other flights to Minneapolis scheduled to leave O’Hare before mine, so I thought I would graciously volunteer to get on an earlier flight. No such luck. The airport was crowded and busy as the day before weather led to flight delays and cancellations. I would have to wait until my scheduled flight left – so on my birthday I spent six hours in a crowded airport. I enjoyed the reading time, but otherwise not a terribly memorable birthday.
The next day, however, I was greeted on Facebook by a number of good wishes for my birthday. I am deeply appreciative of each one, and find myself pledging to do better at checking for others’ birthdays on the site. Each greeting was a gift.
I got to thinking a bit about gifts, and about all the gifts in my life. It seems to me that the essence of a gift is that it is something received for which the language of “deserve” does not apply, or doesn’t apply easily or well. I am the grateful recipient of many gifts in life:
Love – God’s love. The essence of God’s gracious love is that it is not about “deserving.”
A good marriage. Yes, there is work to be done in creating a good marriage, and I hope I have done some of that work, but there is also a quality of gift about being in such a relationship.
Children who are doing well. Again, one hopes they contributes to the well-being of their children. Again, I hope I have given something positive to my children which has helped make them who they are. And again, there is a quality of gift when your children are healthy and relatively happy and you have a good relationship with them.
Small joys: a good book, a baseball game, music (and this summer seems particularly rich with some good new music – The New Pornographers, The Court Yard Hounds, The Hold Steady – all previously mentioned; and more recently Teenage Fanclub’s new cd and Bruce Springsteen’s concert dvd), a walk.
With all these good gifts of life, who can complain about a day at the airport.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Summer Music

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to burn a CD with some new music for this summer, most of it on recordings released this year. I am enjoying the music and wanted to share my summer CD with you.

Skyline, The Court Yard Hounds. The Court Yard Hounds are two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks – sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire. This is the first song on their CD and it is a song about finding peace and home. “I just look at the skyline/A million lights/are lookin’ back at me/And when they shine/I see a place I know I’ll find/some peace.”

Then Again, The Court Yard Hounds. Favorite line: “But then again, I never did understand me.” A song about the mysteries of the self and searching for deeper self-understanding.

Mass Romantic, The New Pornographers. The name of this group has disputed origins. One band member claims he named the group after watching a Japanese film. Some think the name comes from statements made by Jimmy Swaggart or John Ashcroft (or both) that rock and roll is “the new pornography.” In any event, this group makes good music and they released a new CD this summer. The song mentioned here is not from that CD, but from their first CD. “In the streetlight dawn, this beat turns on.” And it does.

Crash Years, The New Pornographers. This song and the next are from the group’s 2010 release, “Together.” “Light a candle’s end/You are a light turned low/And like the rest of us/You got those old eternity blues.”

Up in the Dark, The New Pornographers. “What’s love?/What turns up in the dark?” Good questions, catchy tune.

My favorite CD this summer thus far has been “Heaven is Whenever” by The Hold Steady. My summer CD finishes with six songs off this CD.

The Sweet Part of the City, The Hold Steady. “Back when we were living up on Hennepin…. We were living in. The sweet part of the city.” Turns out one of the band’s founders is from Minneapolis, where Hennepin Avenue is located.

Soft in the Center, The Hold Steady. “You can’t tell people what they want to hear if you also want to tell the truth…. You can’t get every girl. You’ll get the one’s you love the best. You won’t get every girl. You’ll love the ones you get the best.”

The Weekender, The Hold Steady. “But it’s not gonna be like in romantic comedies. In the end I bet no one learns a lesson.”

We Can Get Together, The Hold Steady. “They sang Love is the Answer. I think they’re probably right. Let it shine down on us all.” “Heaven is whenever we can get together. Sit down on your floor. And listen to your records.”

Hurricane J, The Hold Steady. Great song, catchy. “I don’t want this to stop. I want you to know. I don’t want you to settle. I want you to grow.”

Our Whole Lives, The Hold Steady. “We’re good guys but we can’t be good every night. We’re good guys, but we can’t be good our whole lives.” They may be wrong, but it still sounds great.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, June 5, 2010

Annual Conference

I was not looking forward to attending the meeting of The Minnesota Annual Conference this year (from which I returned yesterday). Let me be clear, however. I was also not not looking forward to it. The time just arrived and I had not given attending annual conference a lot of psychic energy. Anticipating something you are looking forward to can be a part of the joy of an event. It can also sometimes lead to disappointment when what you are anticipating does not meet your expectations. For whatever reason, and primarily it was because of the busyness of May, I had not invested energy in anticipating annual conference (which, for those of you who may not know, is the annual gathering of clergy and a lay people from United Methodist churches across the state of Minnesota).
Given that I had not spent time in anticipation, I can’t say that annual conference met my expectations. I can say that it was filled with joy. The trip down with Dale, our church’s lay member, was nice. Dale is not only a church member, he is a friend whose insights and opinions I value. After arriving I began seeing friends, clergy and lay, from across the state, some of whom I see only once a year. While I had not spent time this year anticipating conference, I began to see why I usually look forward to it. It is the people – the hugs, the smiles, the “how are you?s” It is also the opportunity to gather with a unique church community to worship and learn. There were countless moments of grace and joy in the three days we gathered – conversations, meals, worship, helping with ordination, working with the bishop as her parliamentarian.
While I was gone, however, I missed my daughter’s last three days of high school. Her commencement is this coming week and of course I will be there for that. It is difficult to believe that our youngest child has now finished high school and will be off to college in the fall. This morning she let me look at her year book. I asked if she minded my reading what people wrote about her, and she said “no.” What a delight to read such nice things about your daughter. As I was reading, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if there were some adult ritual that took place every few years where your friends could write nice things about you and wish you well in life?”
Then it struck me. One of the things I really appreciate at annual conference is that we gather to see and hug friends who are glad to see us, who ask us how we are, and who wish us well in the coming year - - - kind of like signing a year book. I am already looking forward to next year’s conference.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, May 28, 2010

Religions 1910-2010

The May/June issue of New World Outlook, the mission magazine of The United Methodist Church, had a fascinating brief article comparing religious affiliation around the world in 1910 and 2010. In that one hundred year period, the percentage of the world’s population that proclaims they are Christian has remained about the same 34.8% in 1910 compared to 33.2% in 2010. I know from other sources that there has been a shift in where Christians are to be found, but the relative number of Christians has remained about the same. Islam, on the other hand, has grown tremendously as a percentage of the world’s population in the past one hundred years, from 12.6% in 1910 to 22.4% in 2010. I know some people who seem to equate numerical growth with what God is “blessing” in the world. By that thinking, Islam would seem to be the religion God is blessing most. To my mind, such thinking represents neither good theology nor good sociology. As a pastor, I pay attention to numbers. They matter, but I also know that the factors that influence one’s religious journey are complex. We need a more complex theology, sociology and psychology to dig more deeply into why people become religious adherents and stay or leave their respective religion. What seems even more ironic, for those who might claim in some simple way that numbers represent what God is blessing, by sheer exponential mathematics, the group that has grown the most is agnostics. Just .2% of the population in 1910, they are now 9.3% of the population – 46.5 times as many agnostics in 2010 as in 1910!
But those numbers are not what grabbed my attention most. Notice from the above figures that between Christianity (33.2%) and Islam (22.4%), over half of human kind considers itself either Christian or Muslim. So why is our world such a mess? Why so much war, such deep injustice? Why so many hungry and homeless? Some Christians may say that we are only a third of the population, and if only we grew the world would be better. Some Muslims might say something similar about Islam. Rather than compete with each other, though, might we do better to find those parts of our respective traditions which encourage mutual respect (even while offering witness to our own faith), which enjoin us to build a better world with whomever might join us on this journey? If we fail to do this, we may find the number of agnostics growing even more in the next one hundred years.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, May 22, 2010


Railroad tracks split the campus in half
and at night you’d lie on your narrow cot
and listen to the lonely whistle
of a train crossing the prairie in the dark.

“The Beginning of Poetry” Edward Hirsch, The Living Fire

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

From “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower” William Carlos Williams

In the first two weeks of May I attended two poetry readings – one given by Robert Bly and the other a joint reading offered by Minnesota poets Connie Wanek and Joyce Sutphen. That I was free both these evenings was something of a miracle. That I could attend these readings was a gift of grace.
I first fell in love with poetry in high school. Words seem to have a certain power, a certain magic and when put together rhythmically and beautifully they plunged deep into my soul. My love affair with poetry waxed and waned over the years, but became intense again as I worked on my doctorate. The PBS series, Voices and Visions came out during that time, and watching it, hearing poems read – Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, others - rekindled a deeper passion that has stayed lit since. Reading poetry has feed my soul, sparked my imagination, ignited my mind, set my heart to dancing. Reading poetry has helped me enormously in my reading of the Bible which is filled with so much poetic language. The brevity of parables has a poetic quality.
And so I read. And so I listen.

To live without rotting from within,
to ignore imperfections of the skin,
to be heavy, and still be chosen,
to please a strict vegetarian,
to end the day full of light.

From “Pumpkin” Connie Wanek, On Speaking Terms

What you wanted was no less than the truth,
something you could hold lightly in your hand.

What you found was this uncertainty,
memory mixed with desire. How we live.

From “How We Live” Joyce Sutphen, First Words

And so I read. And so I listen. And I am changed.

Rene Char
you are a poet who believes
in the power of beauty
to right all wrongs,
I believe it also.
With invention and courage
we shall surpass
the pitiful dumb beasts,
let all men believe it
as you have taught me also
to believe it.

From “To a Dog Injured In the Street” William Carlos Williams, Pictures from Brueghel

Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Poetry helps me be there.

And the Word became flesh… full of grace and truth. And the grace and truth that became flesh can become word again, often in the words of poets.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Gathering Up the Years

At that moment, you gather
up the years like a shawl
and wrap yourself in them,
one corner touching another.

Joyce Sutphen, “How You Learn”

This past Thursday night I attended a poetry reading, the second in as many weeks – a gift of grace. The poets were Connie Wanek and Joyce Sutphen. I was working out some thoughts for a brief essay on poetry for this blog, but then something else occurred which touched me even more deeply. I will return to the essay on poetry soon.
On Friday afternoon, I attended a graduation ceremony for our son, David. David has completed his Master’s degree in Advocacy and Political Leadership from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. When the program was created it was the first of its kind in the nation.
Listening to the program director, the University Chancellor, two UMD honorary degree recipients – a prominent Democrat and a prominent Republican, helped me realize what a special program David has been involved with. Listening as the students talked about each other, helped me realize what a unique community he has been involved with. Listening to one of his fellow students describe him filled me with pride and joy. A son who emerged into the world six weeks before he was supposed to, spent his first three weeks in the hospital, has grown into a wonderful human person. The years were gathered like a shawl, and we wrapped ourselves in them, one corner touching another.
As a parent, one hopes that you give your children a solid foundation on which to build a life. When they accomplish something special, you hope you contributed something to that, and you know that they have also done a lot on their own. Julie and I are proud of each of our children. Friday was a wonderful day to celebrate David. Congratulations, son.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, May 7, 2010

Robinson and Bly (sounds like a law firm!)

So we had traces of snow in March – very unusual for Duluth, and no snow in April, also unusual. Today, May 7, it snowed over four inches. Earlier in the week I had thought I might get the lawn mower ready to roll tomorrow. Guess not!
Well if snow was an unwelcome event in my life, I have had two very pleasant and welcomed events this past week. Two authors whose works I’ve read and enjoyed were in town, and my schedule actually allowed me to hear them both. Last Saturday night Marilynne Robinson, novelist and essayist lectured at the College of St. Scholastica. Tuesday evening, the poet Robert Bly read at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. I have had the joy of hearing him before, at Southern Methodist University while I was working on my Ph.D.
Robinson’s lecture was rich, densely rich. I would have been glad to have a manuscript to follow along, but the basic theme was arguing against what she views as reductionistic and “scientistic” views of humanity which don’t really account for the wonder and mystery that is human existence. She is out with a new book, based on the Terry Lectures at Yale, and entitled Absence of Mind. Her lecture seems an extension of that book, as best I can tell, not having read it all yet. Here are a couple of excerpts from that work.
Recently I read to a class of young writers a passage from Emerson’s “The American Scholar” in which he says, “In silence, in steadiness, in severe abstraction, let him hold by himself; add observation to observation, patient of neglect, patient of reproach, and bide his own time, - happy enough if he can satisfy himself alone that this day he has seen something truly…. For the instinct is sure, that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks. He then learns that in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds.” These words caused a certain perturbation. The self is no longer assumed to be a thing to be approached with optimism, or to be trusted to see anything truly. Emerson is describing the great paradox and privilege of human selfhood, a privilege foreclosed when the mind is trivialized or thought to be discredited. (xvii-xviii)
Might not the human brain, that most complex object known to exist in the universe, have undergone a qualitative change as well? If my metaphor only suggests the possibility that our species is more than an optimized ape, that something terrible and glorious befell us, a change gradualism could not predict – if this is merely another fable, it might at least encourage an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are. (135)
Robinson wants to make greater room in our current intellectual and cultural space for the mystery that we humans are. Poetry helps explore that mystery, too, deepening it. A favorite Robert Bly poem of mine, one that has not found its way into most of his selected works, comes from his early book Silence in the Snowy Fields (and how appropriate for this day in Duluth!).

Afternoon Sleep

I was descending from the mountains of sleep.
Asleep I had gazed east over a sunny field,
And sat on the running board of an old Model A.
I awoke happy, for I had dreamt of my wife,
And the loneliness hiding in grass and weeds
That lies near a man over thirty, and suddenly enters.

When Joe Sjolie grew tired, he sold his farm,
Even his bachelor rocker, and did not come back.
He left his dog behind in the cob shed.
The dog refused to take food from strangers.

I drove out to that farm when I awoke;
Alone on a hill, sheltered by trees.
The matted grass lay around the house.
When I climbed the porch, the door was open.
Inside were old abandoned books,
And instructions to Norwegian immigrants.

Sleep, dreams, sex, loneliness, age, death, books – the human mystery indeed.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Traveling and Reading

I spent much of this past week on Portland attending a meeting of the United Methodist Commission on General Conference. I serve on the Commission and on the Rules Committee. I enjoy the people and appreciate the work.
The trip to Portland is a rather long one, and a benefit of long trips like this is the time they afford for reading – the time in the airport waiting, the time on the plane, and a little time in the evenings. My reading for the week was eclectic, as I like it.
Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood was first on the list. A reading group I convene is reading this novel. While I have owned a copy for awhile (it must be “for awhile” – the price on the cover is $2.95!), I had never read it. O’Connor, in an introductory note written ten years after the novel was first published in 1952 calls it a “comic novel,” and so it is, but darkly comic. The chief protagonist, Hazel Motes is a person haunted by Jesus and Christian faith. O’Connor writes in her introductory note: “That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death had been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.” That illuminating introduction ends with these words: “Free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery, and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.” Having read the novel, I was a little haunted myself, by the mystery of O’Connor’s work. So I read a couple of her short stories, packaged with the novel – “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” I look forward to discussing O’Connor’s work with others, to see if they too were haunted a bit.
I finished Wise Blood on the trip to Portland and brought only one other book along, a slim volume entitled Psychoanalysis and Moral Values by Heinz Hartmann. Hartmann’s essay seeks to describe “the complexities of moral reality which every application of moral principles has to consider” (19). The book is insightful, but after a strong dose of O’Connor, I was looking for something a little lighter, at least for a time.
Thankfully, the hotel I was staying at was near a bookstore, and this being spring, a good baseball book seemed like a wonderful idea. So I bought and read George Vecsey’s Baseball: a history of America’s favorite game. It was a delightful read, but not removed from the mysteries of freedom and morality. Baseball, being “America’s game” has mirrored some of the beauty and ugliness of our land. There is beauty in this game – wonder that humans create games at all, beauty in the combination of team and individual effort that is baseball, beauty in the history of the game and some of its legendary characters. But baseball has suffered under anti-Semitism, and more especially, racism. Vecsey hides none of this, and his chapter on Jackie Robinson reminded me of the enormous courage of that graceful and determined man.
I am also working my way through the Bible again, and found myself in both Luke and Ezra – an eclectic combination in itself - - - the power of Jesus presence, the hope as exiles return.
Life cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery which eclectic reading deepens, and for that I am grateful.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, April 24, 2010


Recent discussions have led me once again to think deeply about what it may mean to speak of the Bible as “inspired.” It was made clear to me in some recent conversations that how one understands the Bible to be inspired profoundly influences the way in which one reads this book and the way in which one expects God’s Spirit to speak through this text.
Christians agree that the Bible is inspired by God and revelatory of God. “Inspiration, however it is explained and understood, or even denied, refers to the divine influence in virtue of which the biblical text is, in fact, experienced by some people/communities as revelatory” (Sandra M. Schneiders, “Inspiration” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible). The basic biblical text cited for this is II Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
What this means, however, is contested. For some in the Christian community, inspiration seems to mean that God so overwhelmed the authors of the Biblical writings that their character as human writings is negligible. This position is sometimes called “verbal inspiration” and it claims that these texts are inerrant and infallible. Those who hold that Scripture is verbally inerrant attribute this trait to the infallibility of the divine author who, despite the limitations of the human authors and human language through which God communicates in Scripture, guarantees that there is not and cannot be error of any kind in the biblical text. (Schneiders) Others see the matter differently, but why might one even search for an alternative?
Sandra Schneiders argues that the position of verbal inspiration “bristles with difficulties.” All human language changes in meaning and reference over time…. The problem of how divine inerrancy could characterize essentially limited, perspectival, and linguistically constrained human discourse seems rationally insurmountable. I think Schneiders makes a convincing case, but it will not be very convincing to those whose primary mode of discourse focuses on Biblical texts themselves. They might respond that the Bible claims it is inspired and faith in the God of Jesus Christ entails faith in that claim, as well.
But there are some interesting statements in the Bible itself which undercut the idea of verbal inspiration. II Peter 3:15-16 reads, in part: So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. Paul writes according to the wisdom given him – PAUL WRITES! This letter writer is asserting human authorship, though also characterizing Paul’s writings as “scripture.” Jesus, in Mark 10 speaks of divorce, and in the give and take asks what Moses wrote – WHAT MOSES WROTE. People respond, and Jesus comes back with this: Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote this commandment for you. The commandment has to do with presenting a certificate of divorce and can be found in Deuteronomy 24.
The Bible itself seems comfortable with claiming both human authorship of its writings and divine inspiration. Jesus is willing to say that writings of Moses, which are a part of Scripture, were written in a particular context, for a particular people, and may be limited by that context. Even II Timothy seems to have little concern for claiming that inspiration entails inerrancy and infallibility. The author of that work seems to think that inspiration has to do with the way Scripture shapes those who listen to it, read it. Scripture is inspired, and useful. It is useful in forming a life.
Maybe the writings of the Bible are human documents, written by men and, perhaps women, who were genuinely engaged with God’s Spirit, inspired by that Spirit to write, but writing as human beings still trying to grapple with all that God is and all that God requires. Some of what they wrote may even be context-bound. It is certainly written in language which by its very nature is limited, perspectival, and linguistically constrained. Nevertheless, it is as we read these writings in our own thoughtful, prayerful way, open to God’s Spirit today - read them in on-going conversation with other persons of faith, that our lives are shaped, transformed, and we become equipped for every good work. We are trained in righteousness. Such an understanding of inspiration is a bit messy. Those who claim it need to take time to understand history, culture, the nature of language, the nature of reading, in order to better understand the text. Yet reading the Bible in this way is an adventure as wild as the Spirit who inspires the writings in the first place.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Gift

In the midst of a very busy week and weekend, this poem found its way to me, a bit of rain in a parched place, a gift of grace in my hurried world – even if I am not sixty yet.

“Halleluiah” Mary Oliver from Evidence

Everyone should be born into this world happy
and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Halleluiah, anyway I’m not where I started!

And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years.

Halleluiah, I’m sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, April 9, 2010

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

More than any other sport, [baseball] summons the past…. Baseball is, I suspect, our most mythological of sports; it has the longest history, it is by its own proclamation our national pastime, and it harbors, I think, our greatest mythological figures…. It is a sport with its own rhythms and graces.
David Halberstam, in Everything They Had

Baseball memories are seductive, tempting us always toward sweetness and undercomplexity.
Roger Angell, in Game Time

For all its changes, baseball has not strayed far from its origins, and in fact has changed far less than other American institutions of equivalent antiquity. What sustains baseball in the hearts of Americans, finally, is not its responsiveness to changes in society nor its propensity for novelty, but its myths, its lore, its records, and its essential stability…. Spring comes in America not on the vernal equinox but on opening day; summer sets in with a Memorial Day doubleheader and does not truly end until the last out of the regular season. Winter begins the day after the World Series…. We grow up with baseball; we mark – and, for a moment, stop – the passage of time with it. It is our game, for all our days.
John Thorn, in Baseball: Our Game

The 2010 baseball season opened this week. The Minnesota Twins will play in a new stadium in this, their fiftieth year in Minnesota (it is my fifty-first year of life – I have grown up with baseball here in Minnesota!).

I enjoy baseball for its rich history. Some of the first historical photographs I remember seeing were old black and white pictures of famous baseball players from the past. I appreciate the leisurely pace of the game. It can get long, can be tedious sometimes, maybe a little boring even – but in our hectic world, a little boredom can be a good thing - - - time to think, time to reflect. I like the combination of team and individual effort that is a part of the game.

Baseball memories are seductive. I am sure I love the game for its deep associations from my childhood. I can still smell the hard bubble gum that came with a pack of baseball cards. I remember the white sugary powder that dusted the pink gum and can still recall its taste when you began to chew. The flavor never lasted long. I remember the games I invented to play with my card collection. I had my cards organized by teams, and the cards alphabetized within teams. One summer I took paper and made rosters for each of my teams, put together starting line-ups, and began playing a season – a season that I never finished. I still have the small vending machine baseball that I used to simulate plays. It is now hard and yellowed. I can almost hear the voices that broadcast ball games from out of a small transistor radio with the single ear piece – Herb Carneal and Halsey Hall. These memories do tend toward sweetness and undercomplexity. Growing up was not always easy. Yet baseball is deeply associated in me with a simpler time, with a certain innocence. I had yet to see some of the complexity and difficulty of the world.

Becoming a mature person, a person growing in faith, hope and love involves, I think, staying in touch with hopeful innocence and peacefulness while looking with eyes wide open at the world in all its ugliness and beauty. We cannot live in sweetness and undercomplexity, but perhaps visiting there once in awhile to refresh our spirits and recharge our batteries is not such a bad thing. Baseball does that for me.

Take me out to the ballgame.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, March 29, 2010

What Can I Say

I’ve been one poor correspondent, I’ve been too, too hard to find, but it doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind.

What can I say? It’s holy week and I have a lot of other writing to do. Blessed Easter.

And in case that quote sounds familiar: America, "Sister Golden Hair"

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Heard It in a Love Song

When I was a youth pastor one of my favorite lessons was one I taught on media. I shared with the youth that they needed to pay attention to what they were watching and listening to. I said I thought that media (movies, tv, songs) could be divided into three categories as they related to Christian faith: explicitly Christian, reflecting values counter to Christian values, or supportive of Christian values without being explicitly Christian. I used music to illustrate the point because it tended to be the most portable and I really like music.
The Raspberries, “Go All the Way” was used to illustrate a song that contained values counter to Christian values.
I used a song from a band called, Second Chapter of Acts to illustrate a song that is explicitly Christian. I don’t think this band is around any more but I have two of their albums on vinyl.
I used the U2 song, ‘Pride: In the Name of Love” to illustrate a song that was not done by a group that billed itself as Christian (though Bono is Christian and talks about his faith) but had values that were in keeping with Christian faith.
The basic message was pay attention to what you take in. You don’t need to just listen to Christian music, but if all you’re watching and listening to counters Christian values, that has an effect on your heart, mind, soul. My own listening tastes tend toward music that is often consistent with Christian values (though not always – I like The Raspberries song), but is not “Christian music.”
I thought about this last night while on a treadmill in a hotel in Nashville where this week I am at meetings for the United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order and General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. The evening devotion was a read from Psalm 121, an expression of trust in and celebration of God’s care. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in. As I was on the treadmill listening to my iPod Shuffle, among the songs I heard were:

The Rascals, “Groovin’”
Leo Sayer, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”

Both these songs are celebrations of the goodness of life. Neither mentions God, but I can add God’s presence.
Heard it in a love song, can’t be wrong (The Marshall Tucker Band).

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Three Days In a Life

Friday was a strange day. Woke up feeling blue and out of sorts. Any number of little things went wrong, small disappointments and frustrations confirming that this was a lousy day. I fought with negativity most of the day – not my favorite internal conversation, but it was there and I have had this conversation before. Thankfully I was alone much of the day. I was not good company. By day’s end, the clouds were clearing. Julie, Sarah and I traveled to the Twin Cities to spend time with our daughter Beth.
Saturday was an entirely different day. In the morning we went shopping with Sarah looking for a prom dress. It will be her last high school prom and while dress shopping has never really been on my favorite list of activities, being there with and for Sarah was special. In the afternoon I participated in a clergy panel at a conference at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The conference was sponsored by Med Students for Choice, and my daughter Beth had asked if I would be willing to be part of that panel. I was pleased to participate, and even more pleased that Beth asked. It was wonderful to be with her as she was with some of her med school classmates. After returning to Duluth that evening, Julie and I went to a local venue to listen to our son David play back-up mandolin for his friend Ryan, who is a singer and guitarist. I could not have had a better day, for I got to spend parts of it with my wife and with my children. I am blessed with a wonderful family.
Sunday – church was great. It was Girl Scout Sunday, and someone else preached and did a very nice job. We shared communion and that is often moving and meaningful for me. Following worship I participated in a class which this week was led by a guest. We had asked a local university instructor who is from Haiti to share his family’s experience with the recent earthquake. All who heard were moved by his story and the story of the people of Haiti.
Whatever ghosts were haunting me on Friday, and I know they will return from time to time, had been chased away. Negativity will rear its ugly head again, but I will struggle with it and against it. I have much to be thankful for, and there is healing work to do in the world.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, February 26, 2010


I am a member of the Jazz Heritage Society. No need to send congratulatory cards. It is a music club to which anyone can belong. I am guessing that such clubs are dying out with on-line purchasing and iTunes and all, but I am holding on. By the way, the club offers on-line ordering. Every so often, I order music through the club (usually by sending the card back through the mail – someone needs to help keep the US Postal Service afloat) and about three weeks later my order arrives in the mail. It makes that day’s mail more enjoyable.
My history with jazz goes back to college. I listened to jazz occasionally then. I remember hearing John Coltrane’s “Central Park West” in a class on Art in America, and I was swept up in its beauty. Every so often, I would listen to some jazz here and there until about eight years ago I sort of “rediscovered” jazz with a passion.
Those who know me or have read this blog for any length of time know of my love for music. That love bursts the bounds of style and genre. Sometimes the wordless beauty of jazz (though I also appreciate jazz vocals) touches me deeply in a wonderfully unique way. The richness of a John Coltrane ballad like “Naima” or “After the Rain” moves my soul, as does the sheer joy of a Louis Armstrong trumpet solo.
My most recent jazz listening, care of the Jazz Heritage Society, has been “Duke Ellington: The Great Paris Concert.” Ellington’s large jazz ensembles could swing with such joy. From the first piano chords which led into “Rockin’ in Rhythm” I was smiling. My heart was smiling. My soul was smiling. The music testified again to the truth of the words of jazz drummer Art Blakey: Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life.
And if you’ve not listened to jazz in awhile, click this link to Coltrane’s “After the Rain”

John Coltrane, After the Rain

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, February 19, 2010

Whipped Cream and Other Delights

Last year as I placed ashes on foreheads or hands on Ash Wednesday, reminding worshippers of our bodily life and our mortality, my own father was dying. He passed away last March. I couldn’t help but think about this on Wednesday night during worship.
My relationship with my dad was not the closest. He was not my confidant, nor my role model. The grief experienced during this past year has often been the grief for a relationship that never was. Yet my dad was funny, charming and a hospitable host. I appreciated those qualities. He enjoyed entertaining and parties, and he enjoyed music. Maybe that rubbed off a little, too.
At the house I grew up in, my parents purchased a console stereo and had speakers wired from the stereo upstairs into the basement rec room. It was there, with our walk-out basement, that my parents liked to entertain. The stereo allowed for ten records at a time to be put on the spindle, so one would drop after the previous record had finished playing. I later heard that this was not so good for records, but it worked well for these parties. Among the music my dad enjoyed was the Kingston Trio and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and I appreciate the music of both.
All of this came back to me the other day as I grabbed my Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass CD on my way to the treadmill. Why I picked that particular CD up, I can’t say, but as I listened I thought back to that house and those days, and a certain fondness warmed my heart.
O.K, I enjoy Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The music may not be the most sophisticated, as the song titles may indicate – “Whipped Cream,” “A Taste of Honey,” “Lollipops and Roses.” Still there is something here that lightens the heart, even if the mind may not be deeply challenged. That’s o.k. In the economy of grace, I think there is room for whipped cream and other delights.
More importantly, in the economy of grace, even difficult relationships bequeath gifts.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, February 12, 2010

Sometimes I am asked what I am reading or listening to. I appreciate that some are interested in this, so here is my current reading and listening list.

During the winter, when walking outside can be problematic here in Duluth, I use our treadmill a lot. On the treadmill, I often watch videos, and the most recent video I watched while walking/running was “The Beatles: the first U.S. visit.” I enjoyed watching the excitement this group of musicians brought to a country just months after President Kennedy was assassinated. For three weeks in a row, the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show. Given the fragmentation of media, we are not likely ever to have the kind of attention given to any single entertainer that was given to the Beatles. That they were wonderful musicians certainly helped.

The three CDs played most recently in my car while driving:
Charlie Parker, The Complete Savoy and Dial Master Takes
The Beatles, Rubber Soul
The Beatles, Revolver


Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: the religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults. I have had the opportunity to read this with faculty from private colleges throughout the country and thankful to the College of St. Scholastica for helping this happen. I am just getting into the book, but thus far it is fascinating.

Huston Smith, The World’s Religions. I am reading this with a men’s group at our church. Smith writes exceptionally well and invites us into the wisdom of the world’s religious traditions. This is a nice follow to reading Smith’s autobiography Tales of Wonder last summer.

Ann Patchett, The Patron Saint of Liars. We are reading this novel in an interfaith book group. Again, I am in the early pages, but am thoroughly enjoying the read.

Mel White, Stranger at the Gate: to be gay and Christian in America. Mel White is going to be the keynote speaker at a Duluth-area conference this April, and people in our area churches are encouraged to read this, his autobiography.

I just got back from the Board of Ordained Ministry interview retreat, and there we discussed the importance of clergy reading theology, at least from time to time. None of the books above is a theological work, strictly speaking, though they have theological dimensions to them. One of the theological works I have read more recently is Peter C. Hodgson, Liberal Theology: a radical vision. Hodgson’s brief book seeks to assess the current state of “liberal” Christian theology and construct a vision for its future. I will be adding some more theology to my reading list as space opens.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I admit it. I am a sucker for intriguing titles. I got into the entire Julia Spencer-Fleming mystery series simply because her first book was entitled In the Bleak Midwinter and I spotted it on the store shelf. It was worth the read and I commend her work to any who are mystery aficionados.

So imagine my delight in coming across the story collection by Amy Bloom, Where the God of Love Hangs Out. Talk about a captivating title! So I read the title story with great anticipation. Would it be rich in theological references? Would there be symbolism to engage the curious mind? None of these.

The chief protagonist of the story is a man named Ray who lives in a small town, probably in Connecticut, called Farnham. Ray is a semi-retired attorney who has very mixed feelings about his marriage to a sometimes pretentious and difficult woman named Eleanor. Ellie reminds Ray every now and again that they promised to be married “for better or for worse.” She is not an entirely unsympathetic character, having undergone a hysterectomy at age 33.

The other primary character in the story is Ray’s daughter-in-law, Macy. She is a young woman whose life has been a struggle. Her mother has drug problems and borrows money. Macy was fortunate to receive a college scholarship, but lived in a boarding house and worked hard just to make ends meet. Macy has also lied to Ray and her husband, Ray and Ellie’s son Neil, about her parents and her background. She has told them that her parents are dead.

Another particularly memorable character is Randeane, owner and waitress at The Cup coffee shop. She describes her father as Jewish left-wing and her mother as white trash Pentecostal. Ray believes he is in love with Randeane. Randeane offers wisdom in the story. Visiting Randeane, Ray is offered his choice of a chair or a hammock. He chooses the chair, telling Randeane that the hammock is too unpredictable. “Oh, life’s a hammock,” Randeane said.

What the author provides in about twenty pages are small incidents which tell us something about these people and their relationships, especially about Ray and Macy. We move through moments of disappointment, sadness, embarrassment, small pleasures, and a few deep joys. No grand theology. No mysterious symbolism, save the hammock.

Maybe that’s just the point of the story. Where does the God of love hang out? Maybe God hangs out in the midst of ordinary lives that are sad and disappointing and embarrassing; lives with scars from hurts large and small; lives with small pleasures and a few deep joys. Where else would the God of love hang out? Where else is God more needed?

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, January 24, 2010

We are into a new year, but I have some unfinished business from last year. In 2009, I turned 50. Sometime during the year, I began to put together a small list of works (books and music) that were published, produced, released in 1959, the year of my birth, and found their way into my life. Here is my list in no particular order:

Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um
Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Gary Snyder, Rip Rap and Other Poems
Robert Lowell, Life Studies
Jack Kerouac, Mexico City Blues
Dave Brubeck, Time Out
John Coltrane, Giant Steps
Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come
John Updike, The Poorhouse Fair

Grateful for birth, grateful for the works born the year I was that have enriched my life.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, January 15, 2010

Theology That's Too Pat

Bad theology can be irritating. Really bad theology hurts and does damage. This week Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, was devastated by an earthquake. Much of the news has been soul-shaking and heart-rending Not long after I heard the news, I was on Facebook and read that my friend Ken Carter’s wife, Pam, was in Haiti, but had survived safely. While I’ve never met Pam, I was very glad for this news. A couple of days later, I heard heartbreaking news that hit close to home. Two friends of mine, April and Judd Larson, both pastors, had lost their son, Ben, in the earthquake. Ben was a seminarian and was in Haiti teaching in a Lutheran Church.
In between came the comments of the Rev. Dr. Pat Robertson. I have listened to them a few times to make sure the quotes are accurate. While in the midst of raising funds to help the earthquake victims in Haiti, Pat opined theologically about the tragedy on The 700 Club. Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal… The Haitians revolted and got themselves free. Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It is cut down the middle; on the one side is Haiti on the other is the Dominican Republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island. They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God and out of this tragedy I'm optimistic something good may come. But right now we are helping the suffering people and the suffering is unimaginable.
I do not want to disparage Rev. Robertson’s character or his Christian faith. I do want to take his theology to task. It is a nice, neat theology, very “pat” (couldn’t resist the pun). God is in control of all that happens, and this God takes issue with those who don’t pay him the proper respect. The Haitians made a pact with the devil and that is why they are poor and suffering. We can now throw an earthquake in there for good measure. This God seems rather insecure – needing constant reaffirmation of his “Godness.” This God is peevish, and vengeful. And what about those who were in Haiti doing good and bringing the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ and were killed in the earthquake? Well, they might be considered collateral damage in God’s plan. Pat Robertson is a deeply committed Christian, and he will offer a lot of help to the people of Haiti. I don’t think his theology is very consistent with the Christian faith as I know it.
That” pat theology” is not difficult to take issue with, but what if we push the envelope a little. Other Christians will say that while we cannot know why, God must have had some purpose in “allowing” this to happen. This theological position does not make God as directly responsible for the earthquake, but it does retain a sense of God’s ultimate control and purposefulness in whatever happens. I struggle with this position, too. What purpose does this earthquake serve? What purpose could there be in 50,000 plus deaths, including the death of a young seminarian? If an earthquake needed to happen someplace to prove some point, why Haiti – a country where daily life contained more than its share of suffering? Even the theology of God “allowing” is too pat for me.
I remember a story about Jesus in John’s gospel (chapter 9). There is a blind man, a man blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples ask the “why” question. “Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” How did Jesus respond? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Now there is some ambiguity here. Is Jesus trying to say that God caused the man to be born blind, or allowed the man to be born blind so that Jesus could come and heal him later? Some might read it that way. I like Eugene Peterson’s take (The Message). Jesus says, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here.” In other words, maybe Jesus is saying that the cause of tragedy is shrouded in some mystery, that trying to be too pat in our thinking leads us astray. Might it be that the earth needs to be the way it is for it to exist at all, the planet that includes faults and fissures that sometimes shift causing enormous disaster, suffering and heartache? In any event, the place to look for God is not as a causal factor in all that happens, but in the response to suffering. God is present when healing happens. God is present when the grieving are comforted. God is present when the hungry are fed and water delivered to the thirsty. God is present when people are inspired to reach out across the globe to people they may never meet to help them put their lives back together. This God is not insecure and peevish and vengeful. This God is not concerned about ancient slights, but cares about the well-being of all. This God is that quiet voice deep inside that whispers to us – “there is your brother, there is your sister, these are your children and your grandparents, help.” That’s the God I see in Jesus. It means my theology is sometimes messy and filled with ambiguity and “what ifs”. Whispers are sometimes difficult to detect and hard to discern. Somehow a messy theology seems to fit better with our complex world than a theology that is too “pat.”

With Faith and With Feathers,