Saturday, December 10, 2011

Surf's Up

And so this is Christmas, or at least the Christmas season. I should be listening to Christmas music, and I have a little. But The Beach Boys recently released Smile, an almost mythical album in rock history, and I have been listening to it. BTW there are two releases, a two-CD edition and a multiple-CD edition with countless outtakes and rare moments. I am writing about the two-CD version, particularly about the Smile album.
In the first edition of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll (1976), Jim Miller writes: Designed as Brian’s crowning achievement, Smile would supposedly place the Beach Boys right next to the Beatles in the pantheon of arty rock. Intended as a follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smile was never released. There were rumors that Brain Wilson had destroyed many of the tapes, which were obviously false. His notes to the new CD are wonderful.
Some of the Smile songs were released, some in slightly different versions, on subsequent Beach Boys albums. In 2004, Brian Wilson performed Smile live and released a CD of the songs performed by his band. This was an updated version of the original, with some new words and arrangements. And now the original Smile sessions are out.
So as I am listening, I am particularly struck by the song Surf’s Up. I am attaching a link to Brian Wilson’s 2004 performance of the song, and will post the youTube video on my Facebook page. It is a delightful and enchanting song – complex and beautiful. It is an invitation to wonder and to love. Brian Wilson has said “Music is God’s voice,” and listening to this song there is, for me, that quality about it.
Here’s what’s particularly fascinating. I am hearing this song as if for the first time, but I know it can’t be. In college I listened a lot to the Beach Boys, mostly Endless Summer. But that album did not have one really great Beach Boys song, Good Vibrations. So I bought a later compilation that did. I dug it out of the box in the closet where my vinyl records are stored. There it is, side two, “Surf’s Up” – one of the Smile songs released later. I must have heard it then, but it didn’t register. In 2004, I bought Brian Wilson’s Smile. Surf’s Up is there, but again, it did not grab hold of me.
Why now? It’s a bit of a mystery to me why this song has found its way into my heart and soul. I am glad it is there. If music is God’s voice, maybe this experience says something about that voice of God. Maybe we will miss it the first time we hear the story or song, maybe even the second and third and fourth times, but keep listening.
I heard the word – wonderful thing! A children’s song. A children’s song – have you listened as they play? Their song is love and the children know the way.
Might be a Christmas song after all. Surf’s Up!

With Faith and With Feathers,


Brian Wilson: Surf's Up

Friday, November 25, 2011


Being who I am, one of the apps I have on my i pod is the Poetry magazine app. Yesterday I thought it might be enjoyable to take a spin on that app looking for a poem for the day. The Poetry app allows you to spin for poems in certain categories – and you can choose different combinations of categories. So I looked at “gratitude” which could be paired with “youth,” “aging,” “family” etc. I paired it with “life.” To my delight I found this wonderful poem:

Although the wind
blows terribly here
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

Izumi Shikibu, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani

Under new Facebook policy, this blog will no longer be posted there, so I will also send this poem to my Facebook site with the appropriate copyright information listed there.

I like this poem a great deal. The joy and gratitude are mingled with eyes open to see the harsh winds and the open spaces in the roof of the house. Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to give thanks for the good gifts of life: family, friends, home, music, books, movies, eyes to see and ears to hear. For those of us who are theists, we thank the God whose goodness sustains all life’s goodness and who is at work in the world inviting greater goodness. While giving thanks, I cannot forget those who are hurting, suffering, in need. I cannot forget the sorrows I feel sometimes. Still, through the cracks in the world, moonlight shines, and I am grateful for that.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, November 13, 2011


This afternoon I participated in a panel discussion for book groups organized through the Oreck-Alpern Interreligious Forum at the College of St. Scholastica. I have been the convener of a fiction book group since this effort began in 2006. Here is what I shared.

I would like to offer some reflections on the fiction book group that has been meeting since October 2006. My intention is that these brief remarks will respond to the questions we were invited to consider, but as may be appropriate for a fiction group, the response is rather literary, weaving in the words of others.

In his remarks upon accepting the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism in 1984, John Updike said the following: Whatever art offered the men and women of previous eras, what it offers our own, it seems to me, is space – a certain breathing room for the spirit. (Updike, Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism, 423)

Reading fiction and discussing it together creates space in a too busy world, space for the spirit. It is important space. It is difficult to say which books we have read over the past five years have created the most meaningful discussions. Even the book most found their least favorite, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, the only Nobel Prize winning author we have read, by the way, even Snow invited good discussion and I, for one, still carry images from that book within. The impact of this group seems cumulative – five years of reading and conversation flowing through us like water shaping stone.

It’s good when your conscience receives big wounds, because that makes it more sensitive to every twinge…. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollak, January 27, 1904 (The Basic Kafka, 290)

In a world that often numbs us with reality television which is more surreal than real, or by the sheer pace of modern life, it is good to read books that break our hearts, break them with sadness over the condition of others in the world, break them open to care and to see beauty and tenderness.

Martha Nussbaum, who will be coming to St. Scholastica in February, writes these words that we have used in advertising our fiction group: Through the imagination we are able to develop our ability to see the full humanness of people. (Not For Profit, 107)

Our reading has helped keep our eyes, and imaginations, open in a world that often blinds with the constant flashing lights of the momentary. Our imaginations have been opened to the variety of ways of being human religiously.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Joan Didion, The White Album

To be human is to live by stories and our lives are richer, more open, more insightful, for having these stories and these conversations woven into our stories. With all the issues facing the human community, a gathering of people reading fiction seems an escape, a luxury. In some ways it is a luxury. Yet, if the human community is to work toward solving its most pressing issues thoughtful, open, insightful people willing to learn even more about themselves, others and the world will be required. We tell ourselves stories in order to live. This is part of the story of our group.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sadly Beautiful

I have long known the joy of discovering something that touches deeply, that excites, that brings a smile. As a boy there was the joy of discovering a favorite player in a package of baseball cards. Along the way there have been the joys of discovering a long-sought book in a used book store, an idea that helped articulate something I was feeling or thinking but had not found adequate words for, an idea that opens the world up in new ways, a poem that penetrated to the depth of my soul, a song which moved me.
I am not sure what led me to want to find out more about The Replacements, a 1980s band founded in Minneapolis. It think it was a thread of reading which led me to read about this band and think to myself, “I would like to give them a listen.” In the ‘80s the Replacements blend of punk guitar and pop melodies garnered them critical acclaim but little commercial success (The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll). I am experiencing some joy of discovery.
One song that has captured my attention is “Sadly Beautiful.” The song has little punk to it. The title describes the song – sadly beautiful. The idea in the title and song describes so much in life, and life itself - - - life will end in death for us all and yet it contains so much that is beautiful.
To live a more fully human life, we need to see life’s sadness and beauty. To miss one or the other regularly is to have a distorted view of life. There is much that leaves one sad – hungry children, war-torn countries, dysfunctional relationships that harm, small disappointments and hurts. I take these seriously. They cry for compassionate response. Yet when I spend too much time and give too much attention to those things that leave me sad, I am in danger of missing the wonder and beauty in life – a blazing sunset, a full moon rising over a lake, the tenderness in so many relationships, small kindnesses and acts of generosity, work large and small for a better world.
And the joyfully discovered idea, poem, song is often helpful in keeping perspective.
Sadly beautiful.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Once Only

Steve Jobs died October 5. Since then we have heard a great deal about his life and the impact it has had on our world. I have i tunes on my computer, have both and i pod classic and an i pod touch. Technological change in my life time has been astounding. Two of my favorite activities have been transformed – listening to music and reading. I have over 6,000 songs on my i pod classic – and I remember carrying record albums to college parties. I can carry hundreds of books on my Nook – though I don’t have that many on there. It was great to put songs from cds on an i pod, but no one yet has figured out how to get the books you already own on an e-reader.
I enjoy my e-reader, but there are still some things about reading a book that one cannot replicate with an e-reader. While you can browse with some ease on a Nook or Kindle, you cannot really flip pages the same way. One gift of such page flipping is the discovery of hidden or forgotten treasures.
Last week I used a poem from Denise Levertov’s book of The Great Unknowing in a devotion for our Board of Ordained Ministry. At other times during our meeting, on breaks, in my room, I allowed myself the joy of flipping through the book, and discovered this little gem.

Once Only

All of which, because it was
flame and song and granted us
joy, we thought we’d do, be, revisit,
turns out to have been what it was
that once, only; every initiation
did not begin
a series, a build-up: the marvelous
did happen in our lives, our stories
are not drab with its absence: but don’t
expect now to return for more. Whatever more
there will be will be
unique as those were unique. Try
to acknowledge the next
song in its body-halo of flames as utterly
present, as now or never.

Wise words well composed – and I will have the joy of discovering this poem by flipping through her book once only. But that is enough.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Soul Work

Allow me to tell you a bit about my week last week. I will begin with Saturday morning October 1. That morning I attended a workshop about the new vital congregations initiative in The United Methodist Church. Beginning January 1, we will be submitting certain statistics every week for our congregation: average worship attendance for the week, number of professions of faith for the week (that is, people joining the church who are not currently members of another church), number of small groups that met that week for support and growth in faith, number of people engaged in ministry in the community, and dollars given to mission.
Bookending this workshop were two other ministry events. Earlier in the week I visited with a woman who had recently moved into a memory care facility. Her family felt it best for her own well-being that she no longer live in her home alone. They are genuinely concerned for her, and concerned about how her memory has been deteriorating in recent months. Anyway, I visited her and she was a little confused about all that was going on. She was mourning loss in her life. She was also mourning the death of a good friend and church member who had passed away a week before at age 90. During my visit, emotions welled-up in this woman, and her eyes filled with tears. I reached out and held her hand as we continued to talk and as I prayed with and for her. Two days later, I officiated at the funeral for her friend, and a much-beloved member of the church I pastor. The woman whose life we celebrated was remarkable in many ways. Her kindness was exemplary. Her faith was strong and matched with an inquisitive mind. She had survived the loss of three sons on one tragic night, three boys swept into Lake Superior. She not only survived this, but continued her journey of faith, continued to grow in kindness.
I pay attention to numbers. Every week, I check what the worship attendance has been and I continue to keep this before the leadership of our congregation. We give generously to missions here and pay our apportionments (monies given to our denomination for mission and ministry) faithfully. There is not a year gone by here when we have not welcomed some new persons by profession of faith. We have a number of small groups and this number has been growing due to intentional work by the congregation. Our people are very active in the community and we have begun some new church-based initiatives which reach out to the community. I understand numbers matter. I also know that one of the assumptions of this new initiative is that “our denomination has an adverse reaction and fear of metrics as a means of accountability.” I cannot be the only person who sees some irony here. To raise even constructive criticism of this vital congregations initiative is to be seen as part of the problem, to be seen as one who has only an adverse reaction to and fear of metrics as a means of accountability.
I am going to risk this. I will be submitting my numbers weekly and helping my congregation pay attention to them. I will also be asking us what other numbers might be helpful to us and meaningful for us as we assess our ministry together. Still, I also have to acknowledge that some of what we do in the church is simply difficult to count. There will be no place on any form to quantify holding the hand of a grieving woman. Now if a lay person does this, I can count that – and we have a wonderful lay visitation program at my church. My visit does not “count” though. I cannot count the 200 plus people who gathered to remember and celebrate the life of a remarkable disciple, but remembering and celebrating such a life is immeasurably important to us. It is one way we let people know that the journey of faith is one we take with others. It is one way we care for others. It is one way we communicate that a life matters to God. In soul work, not everything that counts can be counted.
At our best, we United Methodists understand this, even in our renewed fascination with numbers. After all we still follow one who once said something about gaining the whole world and losing our soul.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Water and Books

The paper from which books are made is itself composed of wood products and water. Once the paper is in a book, however, adding additional water is never a good idea.
A few weeks back a dehumidifier we were running in the basement started running overtime and it iced up – then the ice melted. Water soaked a small section of carpeting on which were some shelves with books. A few books suffered some water damage. By the way, placing wet books in the freezer seems to help stem the tide of the damage and prevents mold. Our freezer has a few books in it for a time. Taking the books out of the freezer still requires that they dry.
Two books which came through this journey were themselves about spiritual journeys and have been a part of my own journey – Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey and Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island. I first read both of these books in college. Eiseley’s was assigned reading for a humanities course I took on the 1960s. Merton’s book was part of my coming more deeply into Christian faith after a time of wandering and doubt. I needed resources for a deeper, richer Christian faith than I had experienced before, intellectual and spiritual resources that could converse with the philosophers and psychologists I had been also reading. Merton was and has continued to be a help along the way.
Drying these books, I came across two passages that seem nicely complimentary. Eiseley begins his book with two quotes, this one from William Temple: Unless all existence is a medium of revelation, no particular revelation is possible. In his book, Merton writes the following: It gives great glory to God for a person to live in this world using and appreciating the good things of life without care, without anxiety, and without inordinate passion (85).
As summer recede and autumn ascends - with its cooler weather, its brilliant colors, its crisp apples it seems a good time to joyously appreciate the good things of life and see where God might be revealing Godself more deeply.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, September 17, 2011

September 11, 2011

Last Sunday I was privileged to speak at the Duluth-area event commemorating September 11, 2001. These are the words I offered:

I begin with words of thanks. Thank you to all those who have worked to help make this event happen today. Thanks to all you who are attending as we both remember the past and consider what kind of future we want to create and the inner resources we have for creating that future. I also want to add words of thanks to all those who work for the safety and protection of our communities. September 11, 2001 reminded us of the countless people who work day in and day out to keep us safe. It reminded us of the human capacity to give of oneself for others. I am grateful for the courage and compassion of those who responded to the horrific events of September 11, 2001 and who continue to respond when disaster strikes.
Today we remember events indelibly etched on our memories. I also want to encourage us today to remember our common obligation as human beings to work for healing, and to care for each other.
I am here this afternoon as a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ and his way. I cannot claim to speak for all Christians, but I intend to speak from the Christian tradition and to Christians especially, even as my words are spoken to us all, whatever our framework for orienting ourselves in the world.
As a Christian I acknowledge that my faith tradition and the central texts of that tradition have not always been used in the service of healing, compassion, care, reconciliation and justice. Just weeks ago (July 22) in Norway a man making some kind of claim to be Christian went on a killing spree. My Christian faith tradition has been used to hurt, harm, damage.
Yet I believe, and I strongly assert today on this anniversary of September 11, the heart of my Christian faith is a heart that beats for justice, for peace, for reconciliation, for compassion, for caring. Today is a day for we Christians to say that this part of our tradition is what we stand on, this part of our tradition is what we will live out in our lives in a diverse world – a world with Muslims, Jews, Native Traditions, Buddhists, Hindus, others and those who claim no religious tradition.
There are a number of churches in our community that have committed themselves this fall to rediscovering the art of neighboring. An important part of neighboring is seeking to live peaceably with all, regardless of religious differences. The central story Jesus told about loving one’s neighbor is also a story about cross-cultural caring and compassion – the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Let us commit ourselves to being good neighbors. It is part of the heart of the Christian tradition.
“Honor everyone” (I Peter 2:17). These words from the Christian Scriptures remind us that respect is an important part of relating to others. Let us commit ourselves to being respectful. It is part of the heart of the Christian tradition.
When we seek to live out our faith, we seek to live with “all humility and gentleness” (Ephesians 4:2). Christians, like those of other traditions, believe we have insight into God and the world. We have truth to share and a way of life to commend. Yet our way of life is a way of humility and gentleness, which means deeply listening to others, respect for others, an openness to learning from others. Let us commit ourselves to humility and gentleness. It is part of the heart of the Christian tradition.
At the heart of the Christian tradition we find an obligation to heal and to care, to work with all others in those tasks, and to build bridges of peace and understanding. In the words of Christian theologian Stanley Hauwerwas written in the aftermath of September 11, 2001: God invites us to respond to September 11 with “small acts of beauty and tenderness,” which… if done with humility and confidence, “will bring unity to the world and break the chain of violence.” Ten years later, the words still ring true and they echo the heart of the Christian tradition.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


This week many of us are remembering just where we were ten years ago, September 11, 2001 when planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon building. “Remembering” almost seems redundant. The memory of that day is indelibly etched in most of our minds.
I was a district superintendent in The United Methodist Church then, and part of the leadership for a retreat for the clergy of my district. We were at a camp in northern Minnesota (Northern Pines). That morning, one of the clergy, who was leading sessions on the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, approached me to say that he had heard about some disturbing events taking place in New York. There was one television set in the lodge, and the reception was rather poor, but we gathered around the set and watched, shaken, saddened and stunned. The retreat ended after we watched for a time, each person returning to their community to be a presence for prayer and healing.
I also remember the time around September 11, 2002. I was driving across the southern Minnesota prairie listening to National Public Radio. Writer and poet Kelly Cherry was being interviewed about a piece she had written to be included in an anthology of writings about September 11. She read her piece, entitled “A Writer’s Pledge of Allegiance.” It was profoundly beautiful and moving, one of the best pieces I have heard or read following September 11, 2001. I cite portions below. The entire poem can be found in September 11, 2001 American Writers Respond, ed. William Heyen.

I believe one must speak and speak truly. I believe in the power of language to show, to move, to solve, to heal, to build…. What is unsaid can be said. What is said can be heard. What is heard can be sung. I believe that the music of humanity must and surely shall encompass everything…. For I believe nothing is beyond knowing. I believe nothing is beyond saying.

I believe this and am without words.

We need words. I, too, believe in the power of words, of language, to show, to move, to solve, to heal, to build. Yet there are moments in life – September 11, 2001 among them, when words cannot capture all that we are feeling, all that we are trying to understand and know. Language arises out of silence and should, at times, give way to silence. “Be still,” the Psalmist enjoins.
On this tenth anniversary of September 11, let there be some silence amidst all our words, and may the words we speak be words of healing, building and solving.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, September 3, 2011

Thoughts Along the Way

Since my last blog I have been a part of honoring and saying good-bye to three members of my congregation by officiating at their funerals. I have also been working to get ready for the fall church programming season and have met with our Minnesota delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conference. Writing time has been at a premium.
Along the way a few droplets of wisdom have fallen on me, gifts of grace like a fresh spring shower. They are gifts to be shared.

Christian faith is no sentimental thing. It is a faith that takes all the dimensions of life into consideration.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Justice and Mercy, 34

We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime.
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone, 22

Living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.
Mario Vargas Llosa, In Praise of Reading and Fiction, 5

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, August 13, 2011

August Derleth

While on vacation the last week of July we traveled to southern Wisconsin. We toured part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate, Taliesen. We visited the House on the Rock, a monument to one man’s interests and obsessions. In the area we stayed in the town of Sauk City.
Sauk City is a pretty, small town which flows right into another such town, Sac du Praire, both communities nestled on the banks of the Wisconsin River. As we walked through the town, we could not help encountering the name of a favorite son, an author named August Derleth (1909-1971). The breakfast room of the hotel where we stayed had Derleth memorabilia in a glass case, and a few of his books for sale. The local restaurant where we ate dinner one night also had Derleth clippings gracing the walls of a space called “Auggie’s reading room.” I confess that I had never before heard of August Derleth, but he was a prolific author with over 150 books to his credit – children’s books, poetry, biographies, fiction and criticism. He had edited Madison’s Captial Times. In his home town he established Arkham House, a publishing company which has been credited with saving the works of H. P. Lovecraft.
Discovering a new author is a bit like making a new friend, a friend whose conversation enlivens and enriches. Before we checked out of our motel, I bought one of Derleth’s books from behind the glass case in the breakfast room. The book , Walden West, is a fictionalized chronicle of growing up in Sauk City, interspersed with poetic reflections.
Part of the wonder, beauty and mystery of words is the way they both help us articulate our experiences in ways that deepen our awareness and sharpen our perception of them, and also open us up to new experiences. My new friend August Derleth offers words that have some of that power. Here is a sample:
There was always in childhood that hour when the streetlights came on – on the edge of evening, at the beginning of night, when darkness had not yet taken all the village and the afterglow still burned saffron or cerise, copper or old rose, magenta or emerald or mother-of-pearl along the western rim…. I never saw them come on at this hour without a lifting pleasure, and I never looked down that street at the afterglow and the prairie beyond without a sense of adventurous expectancy, as if that moment and that hour must signal the approach of an adventure profound and stirring, not of the flesh, but of the spirit…. This was a mysterious and beckoning borderland; none could say what might emerge in it, what voice might rise, what adventure might come…. I suppose that it is possible to adduce any number of reasons for this attraction, beauty being in the eye of the beholder alone and predicated upon countless determining factors unknown even to the beholder; and I have no doubt there was and is a relationship between this sense of adventurous expectancy and the spiritual isolation which is the common heritage of every individual; but reason and explanation cannot alter the exhilaration and wonder so integral a part of that hour between day and night, that hour when the creatures of darkness briefly know their brethren of daylight, that hour when the soul and the body become fleetingly aware, one of the other. (Walden West, 12-13)

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, August 5, 2011

Wedding Bell Blues

As a clergy person, most of the weddings I am at these days are ones at which I am officiating. July 30, however, I attended a wedding as a guest, a friend of both those getting married. The couple was older, not young people in their 20s. Their maturity showed in many ways. They had put a great deal of thought into their wedding, and it was very much a worshipful experience. Their deep faith was evident. In their vows, they pledged to help each other in their spiritual journey and support each other in their spiritual practices.
I was glad to be there for my friends Gary and Gary. Yes, both men.
Here are two ironies. This deeply faith-filled and spiritual wedding is one I could not, under the rules of my denomination, officiate at. This uniting of these two people is also one that is not recognized by the laws of the State of Minnesota, and in fact, in November 2012, the citizens of Minnesota will be asked to make this prohibition a part of our state constitution.
Ironies catch our attention. They cause us to think more deeply. They may inspire us to action. In this case I understand more deeply why I would like to see the policy of the United Methodist Church change when it comes to clergy officiating at such ceremonies. I am also energized in new ways to work against the 2012 Minnesota marriage amendment.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sports and Life

In the 50s every red-blooded American boy either wanted to play baseball or be Elvis Presley.
Bob Dylan, “Theme Time Radio Hour: Baseball”

I was not a red-blooded American boy in the 50s, living only six months of my life in that decade. Yet Dylan’s words ring pretty true, with some modification for red-blooded American boys in the 1960s, too. When I was a boy, I dreamed of playing baseball for a living. I was a little older before the rock star dream hit. I have deep and fond memories of heading to the drug store with a dollar in hand to buy baseball cards – ten cents a pack. I can almost smell the gum and vividly recall how hard it was in those packages. It sweetness lasted such a short time.
I still enjoy sports, though my own accomplishments have always been pretty limited. I was a Little League sub. I have been a decent slow-pitch softball player. I enjoyed neighborhood pick-up games as a boy. I swam in high school and contributed something to the team. My golf game has a few moments of brilliance surrounded by a lot of hacking around.
When I was a boy, I developed a love for reading and much of that reading was sports books. These were frequently brief, sanitized biographies of star professional athletes. I still enjoy reading about sports, especially baseball. It is a nice change of pace, and I recently finished Phil Pepe’s 1961, the story of Mantle and Maris’ pursuit of Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. Reading it I recalled another of Phil Pepe’s books I read, this one as a boy (and I still have somewhere in a box in the garage,) Winners Never Quit. While the title came from an aphorism: “Quitters never win, winners never quit,” the book was more nuanced and deeper than the usual fair of boyhood sports books. The stories were about athletes who kept going, despite hardships – Jackie Robinson, Ken Venturi, Johnny Unitas. Most succeeded in their sport. However, one story from the book that I recall was about Herb Score, a talented pitcher whose career was cut short when a batted ball struck his face while he pitched a game. He never recovered his best stuff. He had to be a “winner” in some other way.
There are life lessons that sports can teach, lessons about determination, courage and a love for something bigger (“the game”). This summer, however, I have grown increasingly concerned about the “sportification” of our national life, especially our politics. As we are mired in partisan gridlock, so much of the analysis I hear uses sports metaphors to ask about who is ahead, who has the advantage – as if every policy discussion were simply an election strategy, and elections are just about winners and losers. Quitters never win gets bastardized into “no compromise.”
Sports can teach us things about life, but sometimes the metaphors are too narrow, or perhaps we have only borrowed too narrowly from sports. Another way to think about what is happening is to postulate that what we have forgotten is that sense of something bigger (“the game”). Maybe in our politics we call that the common good. If we “win,” but our winning damages the game, no one wins. The story of Roger Maris is still interesting because all those who have since broken Maris’ record have had their careers tainted by baseball’s steroid scandal. Their victories are more hollow for it.
I usually read sports books as a nice diversion from other things, yet sometimes the lessons spill over. Without “sportsmanship” sports lose their meaning. Without a broader context of cooperation, competition ends up in a Hobbesian war of all against all.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Deep Self Help

Ever since reading Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death in 2008 I have found myself exploring some of the literature of contemporary psychoanalysis. Majoring in psychology, I was acquainted with Freud. I read some Jung in college as well. At that time my psychological “mentor,” so to speak, was Abraham Maslow whose ideas I found fascinating and whose intellectual generosity I found admirable. In seminary, I appreciated how some theologians and ethicists took psychology seriously – Paul Tillich, Donald Evans, and others. Over the years I would find time to do some reading in psychology and pick up the occasional “self-help” book. Some of that literature is helpful at some level, though it often lacks a certain depth.
Becker’s book is not self-help literature. It is a probing, intellectually rich, psychologically deep exploration of the human condition, of the human confronting the fact that she or he dies and knows it. Becker drew deeply from the literature of psychoanalysis, and I began coming across other references to psychoanalysis since Freud and Jung. So I have read some D. W. Winnicott, Adam Phillips, Michael Eigen, Stephen Mitchell, Roy Schaefer, Harry Guntrip, Robert Stolorow. Much of the writing is stimulating, sometimes a little dense, often insightful. Most of it would not fit into the category of self-help literature, as we usually define it.
Yet one psychoanalyst I have discovered published a “self-help” book, or at least a book that would probably be shelved with self-help literature. Charles Spezzano has published work on the place of affect in psychoanalysis. He has edited a volume on spirituality, religion and psychoanalysis. He also published a “self-help” book – What To Do Between Birth and Death: the art of growing up. While it may be something on the order of a self-help book, its insights penetrate more deeply. Here are a few:

All significant life choices mean you get something and you give something up.

The one thing we all must do to find peace with a place, or a man or a woman, is be willing to surrender opportunities and pleasures we once rated highly and accept some constraints and limitations we once thought intolerable.

Much self-help literature never acknowledges such choices and limits. Here are a few more insights offered:

Talk is not useful just because it is deep…. The evidence that deep talk has been useful is not that you feel relieved but that your subsequent interactions with the other person are better, smoother, more productive, better coordinated.

Habits form and stick even when they are maladaptive and life-robbing.

Adulthood is… essentially the business… of the unavoidable.

As a theologian and person of faith I am sometimes confronted by those who argue that the language of psychology is not a good fit with the language of faith. I disagree. There may be times when the language conflicts, but at its best, psychology, spirituality, theology and ethics offer mutually illuminating insights into human life. I agree with Spezzano, when he writes in another book that “discourses about the soul and the discourses of the couch, could inform, and not simply argue with or ignore one another” (Soul on the Couch).
I am grateful for this on-going conversation in my life between theology, ethics and psychoanalysis. It continues to enrich my mind and shape my soul. I am grateful for this inner dialogue, even when it comes from a “self-help” book.

With Faith and With Feathers,


P.S. Economy 3:Today’s (July 3) Duluth News Tribune published an Associated Press article about the economic recovery. Here are some of the facts cited. Worker’s wages and benefits make up 57.5% of the economy, an all-time low (the stable figure into the mid-2000s was 64%). “A big chunk of the economy’s gains has gone to investors in the form of higher corporate profits.” Corporate profits are up; CEO salaries are up significantly; while the average worker’s wages after accounting for inflation were 1.6% lower in May this year than last year. Gains in the stock market “go disproportionately to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans who own more than 80 percent of outstanding stock.” From a moral point of view, a strong economy is one which creates wealth and creates opportunity for ordinary persons who work hard to earn a decent living – enough to afford basic necessities, an education for children, health care. I have no problem with wealth being concentrated as long as the economy is working for ordinary persons. I simply wonder how well is it doing this?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Economics Again

Humanity is not on earth to serve economics; rather the function of economics is to serve humanity, in accordance with God’s loving purposes.
J. Philip Wogaman, Economics and Ethics, 38

Maybe it is that my son is looking for a job right now, or maybe it is the brief moment I stopped on Fox News today to listen as some folks argued that unions are nothing but job killers, but news about the economy keeps capturing my attention. Actually, this is a long-standing interest. When I was working on my Ph.D. in Christian Ethics I had, for a time, considered writing a dissertation on economic ethics. Instead I decided on another side of Christian social ethics, Christian ethics and political democracy.
Anyway, there were a couple of interesting items about the economy in the most recent issue of The Atlantic (July/August 2011). Between 2002 and 2007, 65 percent of all income growth in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent of the population…. Today, half the national income goes to the richest 10 percent…. In 2007, the top 1 percent controlled 34.6 percent of the wealth – significantly more that the bottom 90 percent who controlled just 26.9 percent. These figures represent a significant shift from the recent past. During the Second World War, and in the four decades that followed, the top 10 percent too home just a third of the national income…. The last time the gap between the people on the top and everyone else was as large as it is today was during the Roaring ‘20s.
As the gap between the rich and others widens, what about the middle class? Since 2002, median household income has declined in real terms, as many middle class jobs have been either destroyed by technological innovation or lost to competition from overseas.
These economic realities raise moral questions. Granted that in a vibrant economy, there will be some persons who benefit more than others, is there some point beyond which inequitable distribution becomes counter-productive for the economy and damaging to persons? What are the larger effects of job insecurity and stagnant wages for middle class persons? If people feel the current economic policies and systems provide little security and insufficient opportunity, what may be the result?
These are tough times. They require tough thinking matched with compassionate hearts.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Life Saved By Rock and Roll

What it comes down to for me – as a Velvets fan, a lover of rock and roll, a New Yorker, an aesthete, a punk, a sinner, a sometime seeker of enlightenment (and love) (and sex) – is this: I believe that we are all, openly or secretly, struggling against one or another kind of nihilism. I believe that body and spirit are not really separate, though it often seems that way. I believe that redemption is never impossible and always equivocal.
Ellen Willis in Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island

The very first issue of Rolling Stone I ever bought had Peter Frampton on the cover. It was February 1977 and the year before his album “Frampton Comes Alive” was a huge success. Songs from the record played frequently on the radio – “Show Me the Way” and “Baby I Love Your Way.” Every two weeks for awhile thereafter, until I started to subscribe, I bought a copy of the magazine to see what was happening in the music world.
The pattern developed early for me, I think. My enjoyment of most anything is enhanced by reading about it. When I fell in love with baseball, I started to read about some of its history and best players. With my eighth grade experience of God’s love in Jesus, I began another journey of reading – mostly evangelical and charismatic writings. When some of that reading brought me to more questions, other journeys began – philosophy, psychology, and rock and roll.
In April of 1977, Rolling Stone, in an issue with Hall and Oates on the cover (remember them?), published a long article by Ellen Willis about her spiritual journey – which was also a journey with rock and roll. I don’t recall how much of it I actually remember, but I found it on-line and was moved in re-reading by its deep honesty. What I remember vividly, the first time I read the article was this quote from a song called “Rock n Roll” by a group I had never heard of, The Velvet Underground. The quoted line in the article read: “her life was saved by rock and roll.”
Life saved by rock and roll. What could that mean? Jesus saved, but I was doubting what that meant. In my first encounter with Jesus it meant that those who believed in him, believed that his death was a necessary requirement for God’s forgiveness of our sins, were saved from the eternal punishment of hell. If you did not so believe, well…. I had come to a difficult place with all that, though. How could I write off people of other religious traditions when I knew virtually nothing about them? Cartoonish condemnations of existentialism and pragmatism left me wondering what these philosophies might teach. I wondered if the full impact of Christian faith in Jesus was really meant to be focused on another life? I did not want to give up on Jesus, but I wanted a Christian faith that could help me think more deeply and that could take into account so much that I was learning and encountering.
Part of what I was encountering was rock and roll and writing about music that matched the music’s artistry. A writer like Ellen Willis could pen words that discussed music and spirituality. Her words were truthful. I too, think we struggle against nihilism of one kind or another. I too believe that body and spirit are not really separable. I believe that redemption is never impossible, and always equivocal – by that I mean our embodiment of God’s love and grace is real but momentary, and in the next moment we can lose our way a bit. I learned this from Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Ellen Willis.
In the end, I believe that Jesus saves – that is, through Jesus I experience the grace and love of God which lead to a greater degree of wholeness in my life, and lead me to work for the healing of the world. I also believe that the grace I know in Jesus comes to me in different, and sometimes surprising, ways – including rock and roll and the words written about it. This life was saved by rock and roll, at least, in part.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Economy and Justice

We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity
Preamble, United States Constitution

But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
The prophet Amos (5:24)

There must be some way out of here
said the joker to the thief.
There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine.
Plowmen dig my earth.
None of them along the line,
know what any of it is worth.

Bob Dylan, “All Along the Watchtower”

This spring I read two books that indicate we may be in a time of economic confusion, a time to ask about what things are worth, about the meaning of justice and welfare.
Tyler Cowan, The Great Stagnation is an e-book that David Brooks has said may be “the most debated nonfiction book so far this year. “America is in disarray and our economy is failing us,” Cowan begins his book. He argues that we are in the midst of a multi-decade economic stagnation that began in the 1970s. Median wages have risen only slightly since then. Recent economic recoveries have been relatively jobless. Our economic success earlier this century, he contends, was based on picking “low-hanging fruit”: abundant land, rapid technological development, and a pool of bright, but uneducated children and youth. His words about technology are particularly interesting given many of the new developments we have experienced. Today… apart from the seemingly magical internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different from what it was in 1953. We still drive cars, use refrigerators, and turn on the light switch (9). To make his argument, Cowan notes the rate of growth of median family income. It slows significantly in 1973. From 1947-1973, median family income doubled; from 1973-2007, it grew less than 22%. Cowan believes that until we find the next new low-hanging fruit, we might expect much the same – the great stagnation.
The other book, which I also read on an e-reader this spring, published in 2006 prior to the recent economic meltdown, is Jacob Hacker’s The Great Risk Shift. It comes at our recent economic history from another angle. For decades, Americans and their government were committed to a powerful set of ideals – never wholly achieved, never without internal tension – that combined a commitment to economic security with a faith in economic opportunity. Animating this vision was a conviction that a strong economy and society hinged on basic financial security, on the guarantee that those who worked hard and did right by their families had a true safety net when disaster struck…. Today, however, the social fabric that bound us together in good times and bad is unraveling. Over the last generation, we have witnessed a massive transfer of economic risk from broad structures of insurance, including those sponsored by the corporate sector as well as by government, onto the fragile balance sheets of American families. (8-9, 15) Hacker acknowledges growing economic inequality in our economy. From 1979-2003 the average income of the richest Americans doubled, factoring for inflation, while the middle class saw their average income rise 15%. The incomes of middle-class families aren’t much higher today than they were in the 1970s – and they are much more at risk. (24) Hacker is less concerned about inequality than the great risk shift.
Weaving the arguments from these two works together we can say that at a time when economic opportunity seems more limited and difficult, average families are being asked to assume more economic risk. What might the meaning of justice be in such circumstances? How do we care for the general welfare? How do we balance sufficient government revenue for an adequate safety net with the encouragement of economic opportunity? These questions do not lend themselves to easy answers. My greatest frustration is that too few are even asking them.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, May 27, 2011

Bob at 70 - Together Through Life

Interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual
I Corinthians 2:13

Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn.
Bob Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm”

My first memory of a Bob Dylan song came from a Young Life group meeting I attended in high school. There was this song book that included “secular” songs along with explicitly Christian songs. I remember singing, “I Shall Be Released.” I also recall a locally produced Christian newspaper, put out by the Jesus people group I was part of at the time. One article making a case for Christian faith cited Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” – No reason to get excited, the thief he kindly spoke. There are many here among us, who feel that life is but a joke. But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate. So let us not talk softly now. The hour is getting late.
When I began to ask questions about the Christian faith as I knew it then, one place I looked to expand my mind was to the music of Bob Dylan. Those song lyrics that I had heard or sung spoke to me. What more might I learn? I remember buying my first Dylan albums - Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits, Volume 2. There they were: All Along the Watchtower, I Shall Be Released - - - and a whole lot more: the biting lyrics of “Positively Fourth Street,” the tender lyrics of “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” the ache of “Just Like a Woman” and “I Want You,” and the phenomenal “Like a Rolling Stone.” How does it feel? It felt pretty amazing. Remarkably, this guy was born in Duluth (like I was) and grew up in Hibbing, the north country. I wanted to know more, and hear more. My school library had a copy of Writings and Drawings of Bob Dylan and Anthony Scaduto’s biography. As I could, I bought albums (vinyl then!). Street Legal was the first new Dylan album I bought when it came out and I have bought each new album in turn, even the Christmas album (I am glad proceeds went to charity).
Dylan’s music, with roots deep in a variety of American popular musical idioms, and his sometimes brilliant lyrics, were sparks igniting intellectual flames in my young mind. This was one cornerstone in the growth of the horizon of my self-understanding and my understanding of the world. There were others along the way – the psychology of Abraham Maslow, the thought of Alan Watts introducing me to non-Christian religious tradition, Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s Howl. I’ve not been quite the same since.
My journey brought me back to Christian faith, but it was a faith that could be more open to the world - that could listen to rock, jazz and Dylan, that could think with and about other religious traditions, that could be in dialogue with psychology and philosophy. Dylan’s music has been a part my journey for many years now. I am currently reading Robert Stolorow World, Affectivity and Trauma, subtitled “Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis”. I came to the chapter titled, “Our Kinship-In-Finitude” in which Stolorow argues the importance of persons connecting with each other in our common experience of finitude. We seek out “brothers and sisters in the dark night” and such connection (“deep emotional attunement’) is especially important if we are to be able to integrate our traumatic experiences into our lives. The essay begins with an epigraph from…. Bob Dylan. I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.
This week Bob Dylan turned 70. This summer I turn 52. I am grateful that our days have overlapped and grateful for this music which is part of the soundtrack of my life, these words which are part of the poetry of my life.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, May 20, 2011

Kierkegaard parable

It has been more challenging in recent weeks to find time to blog. Since Easter I have traveled out of state twice, officiated at two (with tomorrow – three) funerals, and been busy with all kinds of May activities.
Bradlee Dean’s prayer before the Minnesota legislature today could give me something to write about, but I want more time to consider how one might best respond. I appreciated the Republican Speaker of the House’s response. Mother Jones on-line has a piece about the connection between Dean and Representative Michele Bachmann, but I don’t have time to develop all this right now.
I hope, in the near future to develop some thoughts about the hatred of taxes “theology” that is prominent right now in many places (phrase from Michael Tomasky in The New York Review of Books), in light of a book recently completed and one in which I am significantly immersed – Cowen, The Great Stagnation (available only as an e-book) and Hacker, The Great Risk Shift. Again, I need more time for this.
Next week, Bob Dylan turns 70. There has to be something there.
This past week, Harmon Killebrew died.
A lot of tiny threads, but little whole cloth.

So here for your reflection is a parable written by Soren Kierkegaard (from Concluding Unscientific Postscript and found in Parables of Kierkegaard)

When in a written examination the youth are allotted four hours to develop a theme, then it is neither here nor there if an individual student happens to finish before the time is up, or uses the entire time. Here, therefore, the task is one thing, the time another. But when the time itself is the task, it becomes a fault to finish before the time has transpired. Suppose a man were assigned the task of entertaining himself for an entire day, and he finishes this task of self-entertainment as early as noon: then his celerity would not be meritorious. So also when life constitutes the task. To be finished with life before life has finished with one, is precisely not to have finished the task.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, May 3, 2011


In college I majored in philosophy and psychology, and thirty years later the question – “what are you going to do with that?” still echoes.
To be a philosophy major is to have encountered, now and again, some piece of writing that is a challenge to decipher, but nevertheless leaves you feeling that there is more there to be grappled with. Perhaps what I have done with my philosophy major is to search out, now and again, difficult and challenging writings that nevertheless speaks to me and stretches me, even if through a fog, a cloud, a mist.
Julia Kristeva and I share a birthday, eighteen years apart. Kristeva is a Bulgarian-born, French philosopher, novelist, psychoanalyst whose writings transcend various academic disciplines. To think the unthinkable: from the outset this has been Julia Kristeva’s project. Scanning with exceptional intensity the whole horizon of Western culture, her writing investigates the terrains of philosophy, theology, linguistics, literature, art, politics and, not least, psychoanalysis, which remains the crucial intellectual influence on her work…. Speaking across the conventional disciplinary boundaries of the academic world, Kristeva raises the fundamental issues of human existence: language, truth, ethics love. (Toril Moi, The Kristeva Reader, vi)
This is my kind of stuff, so when I came across her book This Incredible Need to Believe, I wanted to read it – and a recent airline trip made that possible. The book consists of essays and interviews on religious themes which have engaged Kristeva for a long time. Her perspective is unique: a woman who is not a believer – a psychoanalyst, teacher, writer – convinced nonetheless that the “genius of Christianity” has introduced and continues to diffuse radical innovations as concerns the religious experience of speaking beings (88). Her appreciation for Christian faith runs deep. Christianity opened the vast field of the sacred to figuration and literature: to the inner experience that goes from the quest for convulsive communion to the necessity I feel of questioning everything – from the abysses of childhood up to the unknown (viii). The history of Christianity is a preparation for humanism (83). She sees possibilities for helpful “complicities” between “Christianity and the vision of human complexity to which I am attached” (78)
I don’t claim to have grasped everything that Kristeva wants to say, but I appreciated the scattered insights gained as I struggled with this challenging work. I share a few with you.
The psychic life of the speaking beings that we are is the result of a long “working out of the negative”: birth, separation, frustration, various kinds of lack – so many kinds of suffering (79). Each and every one of us is the result of a long “work on the negative”: birth, weaning, separation, frustration (94).
The only alternative to these different forms of barbarism founded on the denial of malaise is to work through distress again and again: as we try to do, as you try to do…. Still, when new barbarians, having lost even the capacity to suffer, strew pain and death around and in us: when poverty grows by leaps and bounds in the global world, face to face with extravagant accumulations of wealthy, which doesn’t care, aren’t compassion and sublimation not much help? Of course. What I do know, however, is that no political action could step in for them if the humanism – itself a kind of suffering – didn’t give itself the means to interpret and reinvent this “loving intelligence” that comes and is inseparable from the Man of pain and suffering’s compassion that might be confused with the divine itself. (97-98)
Freedom means having the courage to start over (44).
My conversation with Julia Kristeva is not over.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hell - No?

Moreover some… of those who remain within the faith of the Church, while believing that there is none greater the Creator God, in which they are right, yet believe such things about him as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of men.
Origen, On First Principles

Rob Bell is the pastor of a large congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an author who writes intelligently and creatively about the Christian faith. I read one of his early books on Christian faith entitled Velvet Elvis. Recently Rob Bell published a book that is creating quite a stir. I have not yet had the chance to read Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived so I cannot comment knowledgably about its contents and arguments. All I can do is comment on the commentary, and look forward to reading the book when I can find a copy of it. My local bookstore is sold out.
Here’s what I have heard about the book. Bell began pondering what a Christian doctrine of hell might be about if it was a place that included someone like Mahatma Gandhi. He struggled with the idea that Gandhi could be in hell for eternity and so began to reconsider the meaning heaven, hell and eternal destiny. Bell has been considered an evangelical Christian, and these questions have created quite a stir in the evangelical community in particular. The Christian Century characterized Bell’s argument this way: Bell challenges the notion that hell is a place of eternal torment for people who aren’t Christians and argues that an emphasis on hell is misplaced, although he denies he is a universalist. Dr. Riley Case of the United Methodist Confessing Movement, an evangelical renewal movement within The United Methodist Church characterizes Bell’s book as follows: The book asks some important questions about eternal destiny, but in the end posits something close to universalism, the belief that in the end all persons are saved and there is no eternal hell.
It is Dr. Case’s further argument that I want to consider here. Case argues that there has been a distinct lack of conversation within United Methodism about this book and asserts that “a good discussion on hell… would be insightful and helpful.” From there he offers some observations on hell, including this: It is difficult to make a case for Christianity without assuming that hell exists and the fires are quite hot. He concludes his essay, published on-line through the Confessing Movement’s “Happenings Around the Church” April 6, 2011 with a criticism of progressive Christianity, citing H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic 1937 statement about liberal Protestantism in America about “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
“It is difficult to make a case for Christianity without assuming that hell exists and the fires are quite hot.” When Dr. Case makes his case for hell, I am assuming by the context that he considers hell a place of eternal punishment, to use a phrase from the Vineyard Church statement of faith – “eternal conscious punishment.” I want to ponder this, though in what follows I am not necessarily claiming that Dr. Case would hold some of the positions I am criticizing. I am going to use his statement as a springboard for theological discussion and reflection.
As a Christian, I take very seriously human sin and the need for forgiveness. I don’t have to look any further than my own heart and life to understand the ease with which people slip into hurtful behavior and how insidious and entrapping such behavior can be. I say something hurtful that I really wish I had not said. I am ashamed of this, but rather than admit it, I seek ways to deny my action, and the problem becomes worse. A similar dynamic is repeated widely in human experience. Of course, sometimes the stakes are much higher and the consequences much more destructive. The death of Jesus is a tragic example of the wages of sin – uncomfortable truth needing to be silenced, disquieting love needing to be extinguished.
As a Christian I also take seriously God as truthful, just and loving. In God’s presence the truth about our lives is made manifest. We cannot hide from God, and God’s truthful presence is also a truthful judgment about our lives. My Christian faith is not a faith about a God who simply ignores human sin, nor is it about sinless humans, nor does it lack a profound sense of God’s judgment, and in it Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are central.
Nevertheless, I think it is crucial to question an understanding of hell as eternal conscious punishment for those who do not believe certain Christian doctrines. I think we can ask if it really is difficult to make a case for Christianity without assuming that hell exists and the fires are quite hot, or we can ask what kind of case for Christianity is made when a cornerstone of that case is the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious punishment.
What do we say about God if we believe in hell as an eternal punishment for non-believers? We might rightly ask about God’s justice. Justice requires a punishment that fits the crime, so to speak. In at least some cases for Christianity based on the hot fires of hell, there is one punishment given to all, no matter the degree of their offense. A Gandhi who was Hindu is in hell for his unbelief, just as is a Hitler. One could say that it is the same punishment for the same infraction – refusal of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Is eternal conscious punishment a just response to unbelief? What about those whose contact with “believers” is quite mixed, or even cruel. Gandhi knew some of the cruelties of British rule in India. People experience abuse at the hands of clergy. Their ability to believe may be quite limited by such experiences. Do they deserve eternal conscious punishment in the hot fires of hell? How seriously can we take Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength if the invitation to love is footnoted with a “by the way, failure to love is punishable by an eternity in a fiery hell”? I don’t want to claim that theologians cannot make a case for Christianity that includes God’s love, God’s judgment, and an eternal hell. I do want to claim that there are some prima facie problems here that need addressing and that alternative cases for Christian faith can and should be made. I want to claim that at least some of the cases made for Christianity with hell as a cornerstone enjoin belief in a God as savage and unjust as some of the worst of our human rulers.
If Origen was right all those many years ago, that some in the Church, while believing in God, yet believe such things about God as would not be believed of the most savage and unjust of persons, and if one belief that poses such a problem is belief in a fiery hell as place of eternal conscious punishment for those who don’t believe, then not only should a case for Christianity not depend upon such a belief, but we need to positively make another kind of case. I don’t believe Christianity depends on hell as a place of eternal conscious punishment, though the topic is worthy of serious discussion. I think another case can be made. I think other understandings of the death of Jesus, beyond the notion that God required a blood sacrifice in order to forgive so that people would not be sent to hell, are possible, and are present in the tradition, even in the New Testament.
As early as the third century CE, Origen offered a different understanding of the ideas of hell from those wherein it was seen as a place of eternal fiery punishment. “But when the soul thus torn and rent asunder, has been tried by the application of fire, it is undoubtedly wrought into a condition of stronger inward connexion and renewal” (On First Principles). “There is a resurrection of the dead, and there is punishment, but not everlasting” (On First Principles). H. Richard Niebuhr, in the same book in which he criticizes liberal Protestant Christianity in America, also wrote this: Liberalism represented again a dynamic element in religious life; it was a revolt against the fatalism into which the faith in divine sovereignty had been congealed, against the Biblicism which made the Scriptures a book of laws for science and for moral, against the revivalism which reduced regeneration to a method for drumming up church members, and against the otherworldliness which had made heaven and hell a reward and a punishment. (The Kingdom of God in America, 185.)
I look forward to reading more from Dr. Case. I look forward to reading Rob Bell’s book. I will do both with some other words of H. Richard Niebuhr echoing in my mind. I call myself a Christian, though there are some who challenge my right to that name… because I also am a follower of Jesus Christ… because my way of thinking about life, myself, my human companions and our destiny has been so modified by his presence in our history that I cannot get away from it… because my relation to God, has been… deeply conditioned by this presence of Jesus Christ in my history and in our history…. I call myself a Christian… because I identify myself with what I understand to be the cause of Jesus Christ. (The Responsible Self,43)

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Walt Whitman in an 1889 conversation about baseball: It’s our game: that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere – belongs as much to our institutions, fits them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.

Thomas Wolfe in a 1938 letter thanking his host after attending the Baseball Writers Association of America: One reason I have always loved baseball so much is that it has been not merely “the great national game” but really a part of the whole weather of our lives, of the thing that is our own, of the whole fabric, the million memories of America. For example, in the memory of almost every one of us, is there anything that can evoke spring – the first fine days of April – better than the sound of the ball smacking into the pocket of the big mitt, the sound of the bat as it hits the horsehide: for me, at any rate, and I am being literal and not rhetorical – almost everything I know about spring is in it – the first leaf, the jonquil, the maple tree, the smell of grass upon your hands and knees, the coming into flower of April. And is there anything that can tell more about an American summer than, say, that smell of the wooden bleachers in a small-town baseball park, the resinous, sultry, and exciting smell of old dry wood.

The 2011 baseball season began this week. Spring is here, or near, and almost every day in the coming months we will have scores to watch and games to mark our days as those days lengthen into mid-summer then slowly shorten as darkness encroaches with autumn.
For a few years when I was a boy almost everything I knew about spring was associated with baseball. Bubble gum cards hit the stores, and we wondered what the new year’s cards would look like. In sixth grade some of us received permission from the teacher to bring our transistor radios to school on opening day, so we could catch the Twins game, during recess or other breaks. These were the days of the radios with the single ear phone. Opening day 1970 was very special. Brant Alyea, a newly-acquired outfielder, had four hits, including two home runs, and drove in seven runs as the Twins defeated the Chicago White Sox on April 7. Truth be told, I had to do a little research to insure the correct numbers here, but I remember Alyea and I remember he had a phenomenal day. Later that same season (September 7), Alyea had another seven RBI game. The Twins won their division for the last time, until 1987.
There were years when my appreciation for baseball waned. I would follow the Twins some, and catch the World Series when I could, but some of the magic was gone. Perhaps that is the way with all childhood passions. Adult thoughts and responsibilities take up residence in the mind and heart, as they should. Recent years have seen a return to me of a love for the game. I am not sure why, except that in a world that is often complex, violent, disappointing, a world where progress towards peace and well-being is often glacial, there is a place for a game that reminds me of boyhood hope and enthusiasm, that comes with the lengthening days of spring, that is not on a clock, and that keeps score by bringing runners home. It is good to have this game as a part of the weather of my life.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Along with a return of interest in baseball has come a return to reading about the game. For me if it is interesting it is worth reading about. Logging in time at airports this past month I read two recently published baseball books, both worth checking out. Jimmy Breslin’s Branch Rickey, is a delightfully written book about Rickey and his determination to bring an African-American into major league baseball. I am kind of proud to say he was a Methodist. John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, tells the story of baseball’s earliest years in the United States. It is filled with fascinating detail and wonderfully rich characters. If you want to know what Helena Blavatsky has to do with early baseball, or the story behind the Spalding name on the baseball equipment you use, check this book out.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Music Again

When I began listening to a lot of music – in junior high , high school and especially college, vinyl records were the primary medium for listening. I remember looking forward to the semi-annual album sales at Target – when most all their records would go on sale for $5. I remember searching record bins at stores and the delight in finding some relatively rare album. Part of the joy of a record album was the interesting artwork on the album cover. Much of that was lost with CDs and is gone forever (almost) with the advent of electronic purchase of music through itunes and the like.

I still prefer CDs when I purchase music. I like the tangible feel of holding it in your hand. Yet, I have itunes on my computer and have enjoyed purchasing some music that way, too. What has been especially fun about itunes is the ability to purchase a song that comes to mind almost like a free association. I have not done this a whole lot, but I recently burned a CD of songs I have downloaded over the past couple of years. That they fit on a CD says that I really don’t buy a lot of music this way, though these are not the only songs I have downloaded. They are the more random songs that did not fit in some other CDs already burned.

Here’s the list with some memories attached. Maybe it will evoke some memories for you, especially, if you are old enough to remember vinyl records.

George Harrison, Crackerbox Palace. I bought a George Harrison best-of CD a year or so ago, and in a review I read about the songs it did not include, like Crackerbox Palace. Listening to the song I remember high school, and the song brings a smile.

Don Williams, Good Ole Boys Like Me. This song also came out when I was in high school. At that time, few self-respecting young people listened to country music, unlike today. Yet this song got airplay on Top 40 radio, and I couldn’t resist a song that refers to late night radio, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams and Hank Williams.

Charlie Rich, Behind Closed Doors and The Most Beautiful Girl in the World. These songs came out when I was in junior high. Charlie Rich was a country crossover. I liked the songs, and wasn’t even aware of all the kinds of things that might happen behind closed doors.

Cyndi Lauper, Time After Time. Cyndi Lauper was weird looking, but she could sing. This song came out in the early years of MTV, before I had cable. I was a youth pastor, and heard some of the youth in my group listening to it. One of the great things about being a youth pastor is the opportunity it affords to hear some new music. It’s not the primary thing about youth ministry, but it is a nice perk.

The Ronettes, Be My Baby. When I was in junior high, a guy named Scott Ross, a former New York disc jockey, had a fascinating radio show. He had become a Christian and he would play rock n roll records and weave in Christian faith themes. I read his autobiography and found he was married to one of the Ronettes. Anyway, this is a wonderful song, referred to later in an Eddie Money tune.

Albert Hammond, It Never Rains in California. Greenberg, a film with Ben Stiller, had this song in its soundtrack. I wondered if I had it anywhere on some CD compilation. I didn’t. I think it was another junior high song. I remember listening to the year-end top 100 songs on New Year’s day during these years. Casey Kasem. I am sure this was one song played on one of those shows.

The Brothers Johnson, Strawberry Letter 23. I think this was a college song. Probably danced to it sometime, and it’s still worth dancing to.

Anita O’ Day, My Ship (two versions): Miles Davis plays a beautiful version of this song on Miles Ahead, a great jazz album. Anita O’Day is one of my favorite jazz singers and when I read somewhere that she had recorded this song, I needed to hear it. I was not disappointed.

Andy Williams, Moon River. I am not sure what made me think of this song when I downloaded it. It reminds me of all the variety shows that were on television when I was growing up. I kind of miss Ed Sullivan.

Gerry Rafferty, Baker Street. Gerry Rafferty died recently, and this was a memorable song from my college years.

Rick Nelson, Garden Party. Another junior high hit, but with a wry take on the rock n roll scene of the day from a veteran of early rock n roll. It is a song about growing up and growing into being ok with who you are.

Smash Mouth, All Star. I think I heard this as my own children were beginning to discover music for themselves. It is a catchy song with an upbeat message. “Hey now, you’re an all-star, get your game on… Only shooting stars break the mold.”

Chris Isaac, Wicked Game. Another memorable song, though I am not sure just when I heard it or what made me think of it.

Lindsey Buckingham, Trouble. Fleetwood Mac was the band when I was in high school, enormously popular. Lindsay Buckingham was an important part of their popularity and then he had some solo success with this song. Catchy as can be.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Moment of Grace

Are we healed, have we received healing forces, here and there from the power of the picture of Jesus as the Savior? Are we grasped by this power? Is it strong enough to overcome our neurotic trends, the rebellion of unconscious strivings, the split in our conscious being, the diseases which disintegrate our minds and destroy our bodies at the same time? Have we overcome in moments of grace the torturing anxiety in the depth of our hearts, the restlessness which never ceases moving and whipping us, the unordered desires and hidden repressions which return as poisonous hate, the hostility against ourselves and others, against life itself, the hidden will to death? Have we experienced now and then in moments of grace that we are made whole, that destructive spirits have left us, that psychic compulsions are dissolved, that tyrannical mechanisms in our soul are replaced by freedom: that despair, this most dangerous of all splits, this real sickness unto death, is healed and we are saved from self-destruction? Has this happened to us under the power of the picture of Jesus as the Savior? Paul Tillich, “On Healing” in The New Being, 44-45

A couple of weeks ago now, I was meeting with our Board of Ordained Ministry as we interviewed persons for ordination. We meet at a Catholic monastery and retreat center, and our evening worship is shared in their chapel.

This particular night, the following passage was read from Colossians: As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do , in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

As I listened to these words, I was looking up at a crucifix at the front of the chapel. The figure of Jesus grabbed my attention in a way that a crucifix never had before. There was Jesus, lightly clothed, yet clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience and love. And there was this overwhelming feeling that I wanted to embrace this Jesus, to offer compassion. I could almost feel myself doing this, that I was helping carry Jesus. There was an oddly wonderful physical sense to all this, and theologically it made sense – in life I want to clothe myself with this Jesus and carry him into the world. It is not a solo act, but I have a role, a part.

Have we experienced now and then in moments of grace that we are made whole? Yes.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Economy - Stupid?

I took college courses in both micro- and macro- economics. Since then I have read a number of books on economic policy. I pay attention to the debates on economic policy. If I understand one dominant position in current policy debate, the primary obstacle to economic growth and progress is government taxation and regulation. If only we will free up more money for businesses and corporations, they will expand and hire, putting people back to work.

Forgive me for being puzzled, then, when I read this story last week in The Minneapolis Star and Tribune. Medtronic, a Minnesota-based company, earned $924 million for the quarter ending January 28. This represents earnings of 86 cents per share, and compares to earnings of $831 million or 75 cents per share for the same period last year. According to the story, analysts were expecting the company to earn 84 cents per share, so this seems good news. What puzzles me is the other part of the story. Medtronic announced that it will reduce its workforce by 4 to 5 percent or 1,500 to 2,000 positions.

Higher profits and layoffs. That isn’t supposed to be how it works. I know that things are more complicated than the simple models in economic courses or in public policy debates. The story indicated that Medtronic’s earnings were based on lower taxes and that sales had declined in this quarter. Companies need to look to the future and not just to the past. But if the matter is more complicated, then why are we feed the story that all we need to do is free up more money for corporations and they will hire? Why are taxes singled out as the primary reason companies don’t hire? Am I just economically ignorant?

I am not singling out Medtronic for bad behavior. From what I know of the company, it has been a pretty good corporate citizen. What I question is the way our system seems skewed toward increasing profits at the cost of employment. Granted companies need to show profits to exist, is increasing profit the single bottom line to be considered? Last month an article in The Atlantic noted that the top twenty-five hedge fund managers earned, on average, one billion dollars in 2009. This while unemployment remains uncomfortably high.

I yearn for a richer debate on the place of profits in our economic system. I yearn for a richer debate on social policies that will combine to help companies be profitable while providing for the kind of public services and infrastructure that prepare our citizens for productive participation in our economy and a safety net for those on the margins. Simply slashing taxes, without considering more complex issues about profits and public and private good, doesn’t seem to be the prudent way forward, or maybe when it comes to the economy I am just stupid.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, February 20, 2011


Last week on Minnesota Public Radio, Kerri Miller hosted a show in which the question was desert island books and music. What one book and what one cd would you take with you to a desert island? I have a difficult time with that question. There are so many books I appreciate. There is so much music that I love. I was listening while driving to the hospital to make a pastoral visit, so I did not have that much time to play with this. In the time I had, I chose Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass and Ken Burn’s Jazz (a bit of stretch of the rules as this is a 5 cd set). I am not sure I would stay with these choices, but I think I could live on a desert island with them.

Today at my church, a church member and friend, Anita Zager, shared with our adult Faith Forum her experiences with books, growing up with them and as the owner of an independent book store which she has just closed. Duluth will miss Northern Lights Books, and Anita’s generous spirit as a book store owner who is also a book lover. Anita reflected on her reasons for getting into the book business and on some of the factors which make independent book stores a challenge at this moment. The emergence of e-books and e-readers is dramatically changing the book business.

As important and meaningful as these reflections were, I particularly enjoyed her sharing her life in reading with us. She offered a more extensive list than a desert island pick, and she gave me permission to share her list here. I offer it to you with gratitude for Anita’s work and love of literature. I offer it to you to spark your own reflections on your life in books.

Anita Zager’s Reading Life
Nancy Drew
Boxcar Children
Charles Dickens
Chaim Potok
Classics – Shakespeare, Greek Mythology – High School

Confirmation – Biblical Literacy
College – Old & New Testament Classes
Barclay Bible Study Series taught by Bev Ramstad
Dakota Kathleen Norris
When Bad Things Happen to Good People Harold S. Kushner
Man’s Search for Meaning Victor Frankl
Let Your Life Speak Parker Palmer
Siddartha Herman Hesse
Christianity For the Rest of Us Diana Butler Bass

Sigurd Olson – Singing Wilderness, Listening Point, etc.
Eric Sevareid, Canoeing With the Cree
Grace Lee Nute – Voyageur’s Highway, etc.

The Long Walk – Slavomir Rawicz
Three Cups of Tea – Greg Mortenson

To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress Sijie Dai
Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials Trilogy”
Harry Potter

Tony Hillerman
British Classics
Scandinavian Noir
Colin Cotterill (Coroner’s Lunch)
William Kent Krueger

Historical Fiction
Patrick O’Brien
Dorothy Dunnett “Lymond Chronicles”

So what’s on your list?

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, February 4, 2011

Silent as Stone Or?

What to write about? Sometimes ideas pour out so fast it is all you can do to catch up and put them down. Sometimes the muses are as silent as stone. Things have been kind of quiet inside, so I thought I would share a few things I have encountered along the reading way.

Doing the right thing, even out of duty, changes souls.
Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey (56)

Be comforted that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.
Paul Harding, Tinkers (72)

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.
Albert Camus, The Essential Writings (13)

A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do. Flannery O’ Connor

At first I thought of these as random and desperate, but some pattern emerges for me reading them together like this. Maybe an adult faith is one that understands and feels the complexity of the world, its heartaches and confusions, and yet persists in doing the right thing, in seeking to shape the soul, in searching for those images that open the heart to the beauty of the world.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, January 22, 2011


Moments that help you feel you are where you should be:

Sunday after the worship service in which you gave bows to each of the children to let them know that they are a gift, a little girl, wearing her bow, comes up to give you a hug, her mother telling you that she really wanted to say “hello” to the pastor.

Sunday afternoon you give the welcome at the community ecumenical worship service held at St. Mark AME Church to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. You welcome “all God’s children" using King’s words from his “I Have a Dream Speech.” The next day you are quoted in the newspaper.

Monday morning, you get to welcome people to the MLK Breakfast being held in the social hall of your church.

Thursday night, while helping with the monthly food distribution ministry at your church, you look out the window to see a brilliant and bright full moon shine over an icy Lake Superior. It is beautiful, as is the food ministry.

Friday morning you are listening to The Hold Steady as you drive to a local elementary school to mentor a student.

When you get to his classroom, you can tell your student is glad to see you. He has been waiting to play Yahtzee.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Not Alone

This is my first blog of the new year. Kind of slow, I know, but it has been busy. The first full week of 2011, I officiated at two funerals, one for a ninety-seven year old woman and one for an eighty-seven year old woman. There was a lot of life there to celebrate.
On to the topic at hand.
I don’t know when I first encountered the Statement of Faith of The United Church of Canada. In seminary I think. When I did, I appreciated it deeply, and still do. The phrases are succinct and powerful and they really present a statement of faith. The ending lines come to me from time to time. A well of faith bubbling up. The whispering wind of the Spirit. They have been coming back to me in recent days.

In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.

Like many of you, I was horrified by the violence in Tucson over the weekend. The shooting of a congress woman, the death of a nine year old, a gun in the hands of someone whose thought processes were deranged. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
Over the weekend outside the small town of Cromwell (about 40 miles from Duluth), population about 200, two people were murdered. No suspects are currently in custody. Just the day before our church music director had purchased meat for our staff holiday party from the woman who was killed. The woman worked as a meat cutter at a local meat market. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
I have had a number of challenging pastoral conversations since the new year began – conversations where there has been hurt, anger, sadness, anxiety, concern about change, concern about relationships, concern about surgery. This in addition to the two families grieving. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.
God is with us. We are not alone. Perhaps this God with us is whispering encouragement for us to be a kinder, gentler people. Perhaps this God with us is whispering encouragement for us to work together with God to create a kinder, gentler world.

With Faith and With Feathers,