Wednesday, December 31, 2008

'The Desert Shall Rejoice and Blossom'

The reading of Isaiah 35 seemed appropriate. Alyce and I were visiting two of the many memorable saints in our church--and their daughter, home for the holidays to help out her parents, her mother just home from the hospital.

"The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God" (vv. 1,2).

I thought of the passage because Blossom is the mother's name--entirely appropriate to her spirit and character, and it seemed a right time to give her and her husband as well as their daughter Isaiah's message of hope on the brink of a New Year.

"Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, 'Be strong! Do not fear! Here is your God. ... He will come and save you'" (vv. 5,6).

It was a kind of shekina moment for all of us as the reading went on, lifting that family's spirit as well as ours--lending perspective as only Scripture can to the living our our days, past, present, and future, no matter our circumstance.

"A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.... And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (vv. 8-10)..

Don and Blossom and their family have known the wilderness in recent years. But neither the darkness there nor the dryness of those experiences have overcome the Spirit within and beside them. Their smiles whenever present and their undying sense of hope in God, so evident in our conversations and prayers together over time, have both won out and are winning still.

Isaiah's words of hope were a stunning reminder to us all as we finished reading and went to prayer. Our hearts were renewed and our spirits made alive to what God though him had promised, for in those very moments sorrow and sighing had fled away.

Blossom is getting well. And the wilderness and dry land through which she and her family have come is being transformed by the Lord's presence through his people and word. Praise God from whom all blessings flow!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

'Home by Another Way'

The shepherds so much on our minds at Christmas were surely attentive people. Tending their flocks by night was only part of it. They were attentive also to the visitation of angels who announced their Savior's birth. So attentive in fact that they left their sheep and went to see what had come to pass. And when they had been there, we read, "they returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them."

The wise men were also attentive people, traveling even farther to the place where the Star of Bethlehem stalled in the sky, high above the place where Jesus lay. Offering gifts there, appropriate to their means and worthy of the one before them, they then also, more attentive to a dream from God than the command of Herod, "went home by another way."

Cynics may aver it only a story, a figment of ours and the story-teller's imagination. But those, ever since, who have themselves attended to God's calling of them know the story to be true. No one, of course, has ever plumbed the depths of its truth, but to have experienced it is enough to send us also "home by another way."

May we, on our way home from Christmas this year--to whatever we return and wherever--follow obediently by that "other way." And may all those surrounding sense in the spirit with which we return that the good news now possessing us is also good news for them.

O Israel, O America, O China, O Russia, O Iraq, O Iran, O Korea, trust in this God, great above us, come among us, and still to come with healing in his wings!

One there is above all others, well deserves the name of Friend; his is love beyond another's, costly, free, and knows no end; they who once his kindness prove find it everlasting love.

Oh, for grace our hearts to soften! Teach us, Lord, at length to love! We, alas, forget too often what a Friend we have above: but when home our souls are brought we will love you as we ought (The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 100, Stanzas 1,4).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Thank God for Basilicas!

It was good to be in a Basilica again--this time St. Mary's, co-cathedral of Minneapolis and St Paul, the oldest Basilica in the United States. "Rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ," says its Mission Statement, and its lead verse is Jeremiah 29:7--Seek the well being of the city to which I have sent you. Pray for it to the Lord. For in asking its well being you shall find your own."

We were there for the Christmas Concert of Southwest High School. Two of our grandchildren were among the hundreds who offered to a full sanctuary an impressive feast of orchestral and choral music.

Those gathered were a composite of the city and surrounding areas in which the Basilica is set, a refreshing array of faiths, nationalities, and cultures. The program included them all, more or less, and it did so under the watchful eyes of Apostles surrounding the High Altar and angels supporting the dome on which Mary stood attending. The symbols of our Christian faith were everywhere, inviting attenders attention without demanding it.

It was a cold night, but the warmth of God's presence trumped the frigid weather. So did it seem to lessen the weariness and loneliness in the all-too-secular hearts of us all. There was no sermon but there was plenty of good news as hearts were softened by the disciplined sounds of "Hodie" and "Glory to God in the Highest," all offered chorally and symphonically to adoring parents and grandparents by their children and grandchildren. Echoes of cascading sound lingered in the ramparts of that great sanctuary of God at the end of every musical offering, as if to seal something greater on our hearts than even the music itself.

The Basilica, its staff writes, is more than just a beautiful building. It is a gathering place for people of all faiths and races, a center for the arts and a refuge for the poor. It's a community very much committed to the growth and social well being of Minneapolis. In many ways we felt that last night, even before we searched out the Basilica's self-understanding this morning.

Oh that every church were as massive in both symbolism and heart! Oh that I were too as a temple of God myself. The chill air going home was warmed by more than a heated truck in which we had come with our own children. The Spirit of God had stirred our hearts again and made us more ready than before for the coming of our Lord and more yearning than ever for the gathering of all his people.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

'God Deep in the Flesh'

The title belongs to blessed John Weborg, professor emeritus of theology at North Park Theological Seminary, whose Covenant Companion colums on Advent over years have been reappearing each Friday during Advent this year on the Covenant Newswire site (see link to yesterday's entry at Each column has been a reminder that we are surrounded as believers by those who have been drawn, like us, to love his appearing.

Ours is no disembodied faith. It thrives in life's flesh, which God created in the first place, then provided for its redemption in Jesus Christ, and even now sustains through his Holy Spirit. All life comes from our God, who has not only invested himself in our flesh as human beings but surrounded us in Christ with so many who, in their flesh, share with us in the whole body (read "flesh") that belongs to him.

An earlier post this week on the Covenant Newswire announced the retirement of Everett Wilson, no less a blessing in our common life than John Weborg--a gifted, thoughtful, and persistent brother intent on lauding God's glory in his flesh through fervent writing, preaching, pastoring, and participating passionately and joyfully--not to mention sacrificially--in our common life as believers.

All we like sheep have gone astray in the flesh, tempted to nibble ourselves lost along life's way. But Weborg and Wilson, with God deep in their flesh through the grace of Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit are just two of all those living reminders who have kept drawing us back to the only true Shepherd of our lives.

Thanks be to God and Christ and the Holy Spirit for all the likes of them. Belonging to Christ, they also belong to us! Dwelling with them in hope this Advent we are closer to the Day of Christ's appearing than when we first believed. Bless his holy name--and theirs!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Waiting in Advent

The advent of a new church year finds us in the Chicago area, where we have needed to be as family support for our hospitalized granddaughter, Kajsa Grace, and her family.The saga of her life over six brief years--which so many have followed regularly in manifold prayer and practical support--is indeed remarkable. Born with half a normal heart, having endured four major surgeries to enable survival and maintain it, she now is receiving further intensive care for chest infections in most of the resulting sutures.

Time and again her father and mother, Paul and Krisitn, have acknowleged how meaninful at every critical juncture the prayers and support of God's people have proved in the healing process, both for Kajsa and for their family.

Yesterday at their church in Libertyville, Illinois, Pastor Dwight Nelson wove beautifully together from Psalm 80 and Isaiah 64 the twin biblical themes of lament and restoration so central to observing Advent as a season of hope. He reminded us all that "while [we] are not lacking any spiritual gift as [we] wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:1-9), the healing offered by God over time requires the constant facing of our desperate need for him as well as sincere repentance for our sins. Christian hope is not an easy fix to troubling circumstances in life as we experience it, the snapping of a finger to make things well. It is a life-long precess of learning both to repent of our waywardness and trust in the forgiveness and restoration he alone can supply.

Passing by many homes already respendent with Christmas lights and decorations on our way to and from Children's Memorial Hospital 40 miles away, and listening to so much chatter over the air waves that is mindless of Christ's coming and all he offers, I have found myself wondering if we in America lament enough over what is happening within us as we seek to deal with all that is going on around us worldwide. Good seed is not likely to survive in untended and unprepared soil.

Don't pass Advent by on the way to Christmas. Waiting and watching for God--with all that entails--is always the key to being blessed by him, restored at his coming, and made whole.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

'It May Be at Morn'

The texts for the last few weeks leading up to Christ the King (formerly Judgment) Sunday November 23 have all centered around Christ's Second Coming. It has been good to both hear my colleagues preaching and preach myself on that topic--too little emphasized these days.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, the epistle text for last week, we are reminded that it will come "like a thief in the night," unexpected and sudden, the time unknown to all but the Father himself, as Jesus taught. The warning is clear: Jesus is coming soon for each of us--whether in our own death, the time of which is also unknown, or at the end of time when Scripture tells us "he will come in great power and glory."

We know for sure that he is coming, and Scripture says it is soon. But we don't know when. '"It may be at morn," a hymnist writes, but it could be in the dark of night as well. What matters is not to know when, but to be ready whenever. My late brother Zenos put it as succinctly as I have ever heard it put, in a question requiring simply a yes or no from us: "Are your bags packed?"

Earlier this week my wife and I stood in awe as the sun came up outside our back porch (photo above). Was it a forestaste of Christ's coming at the end of time--a reminder of our own need to be ready, our bags packed? As Christians we need not fear that coming, the Apostle writes, for we are "children of light ... children of the day." Whoever has accepted Christ and is living by grace through faith in him will be saved on that day.

"Amen!" belongs there, loud and clear--or as the Germans say with outstetched arm, "Ja!" Let all believers be comforted that Christ is coming for them. And let those not yet living in grace through faith in him make this day their day of submitting to reality, coming to Christ and thus be ready, even expectant.

Those interested in how all this was woven together last Sunday may find the sermon I preached in the Pentecost heading under the Home Page link to Sermons (Audio).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Moment of Truth

Minutes come and go, and with them days, years, and even decades. But moments are different. They are like the Word of God, which our Jewish heritage has taught us is substantive and lasting. A moment, when it arrives--like the Word once it is spoken--hangs in the air all around you until it accomplishes what it was sent out to do.

Time stands still in a moment. Kronos becomes Kairos. Though your watch keeps ticking, your soul is drawn into a kind of eternal silence and your mind suddenly focused on who you are and why you are.

I had such a moment this week, sitting in the back pew of a beautiful large sanctuary, looking ahead on all the people who had gathered for the Memorial Service of a colleague's younger brother. Right in front of me was a tall strong football-like man--there for who knows why, yet not really there it seemed to me, noting his lack of singing and praying along. What was he thinking about life and death or the church and its ministry. if anything? Behind me were two older gentlemen, sitting on what must normally have been the usher's bench, constantly chattering with each other throughout the service. A bad sound system made it hard to hear and beside me sat an elder saint whose sagging head made it clear that even a better one wouldn't have interrupted his nap time for long.

Gazing from behind on a virtual sea of humanity ahead of me, I hungered all of a sudden to enter into each of their lives as human beings. What was really going on in them in all that was going on around them? And suddenly, in those fleeting, wondering minutes, a moment came to me requiring its own response. Who are you? I found myself being asked, and why are you here?

The moment had universal implications--as all such moments do--way beyond the minutes that go on around them. I was being addressed as a minister, a pastor, which is my life calling. Who I was in that moment--and why I was there--became crystal clear and compelling. It was as if a voice within me said, "Purity of heart is to will one thing, and one only--to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and worship him forever. And impurity of heart is to lose that passion in efforts defined only by minutes that add up to very little if anything at all. You are a servant of God, called in a world of sound-bite minutes to gather people like these around you into the very moment you are now experiencing. Do that and you will have lived well."

As the Memorial Service ended and people of every tribe and nation were ushered out in silence, the sea of faces I gazed on fueled a whole new passion in me to be, like Jesus, "about my Father's business." The moment, like all such moments in my experience, faded soon into minutes again--standing in a long line for lunch, engaging in conversation with a stranger who knew me though I did not know him, visiting a charming nearby museum of Swedish memorabilia, and then driving home. Yet, thank God, the moment remains, no less fresh for its passing, and no less compelling as a reminder of who I am and, even more, why I am as both a child and servant of God.

Friday, November 14, 2008

'Choice, Not Change'

A few weeks ago a thought appeared somewhere in my reading that ever since has been noted on my desktop awaiting comment. Jean Nidetch, a middle-aged woman battling with excessive body weight, was quoted as saying that "It's choice, not change, that determines your destiny."

The ongoing struggle that many have with excessive weight may not entirely be be due to bad choice, of course. Some evidently are more medically prone to overweight than others. But Charlie Shedd's book a generation or so ago witnesses to Nidetch's point, that more often than not "the fat is in your head."

In the larger framework of life, where exponential change is often blamed for almost every personal and societal ill, it is good to be reminded that the free will we have been given by our Creator renders us as responsible for our circumstance as any surrounding changes to which we may credit or blame it.

In no arena is that more true than in maintaining our relationships with one another as human beings--whether in family, at school, in church, in athletics, or on the job. One can choose not to be adversarial, even though change tempts one to be so. In fact, choosing thoughtfully for engagement in the midst of change may well be the best way to diminish its threatening power.

One mother learned that from her child some years ago when schools in Chicago were forced to integrate. Weeks, even months of trying to prepare her grade school child for the trama she saw coming proved unnecessary when, on questioning her little girl about how it had gone on the first day of integration she replied, entirely childlike, "Well, it was scary at first. The teacher set me across the aisle from a black girl. But it turned out great. We were both so scared that we held hands all day!"

The framing of our past with the present on the way to God's future will require us all to hold hands in the midst of exponential change, lest fear and pride rob us of our free will to choose what is right and best.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Today and the Rest of Your Life

In The Covenant Home Altar this morning, Randolph Thompson, pastor of Community Covenant Church in Calumet Park, Illinois, had a sentence that is worth both repeating and pondering. Reflecting on Deuteronomy 34 and the story of Moses’ last days, when the Lord let him see from the heights the whole of the Promised Land before taking him home, my pastor brother wrote: “When you look at your day, try to see it as one day that comes together with the rest of your life to help you reach your destination.”

Why is it, I thought on reading both the Scripture and the meditation, that we spend so much of our time and energy every day as if what really mattered were tomorrow and the next day and the next? Surely we need always to be thinking ahead, yet failing to use this day, today, as part of all that—a foretaste of what is yet to be--is probably to miss not only its own meaning but its blessing as well.

To draw a parallel: I have not met my brother Randolph, but today and through this week, given his Home Altar meditations, I now know him nonetheless as a joint heir of all the things we have yet to inherit as members of the Covenant and the larger body of Christ. And because he has reopened my eyes to the importance of today in the scheme of my life, I have written him an email to say thanks and thus hopefully, on the same day, bless and lend perspective to him.

“When you are converted,” Scripture says, “strengthen your brothers and sisters.”And do it “more and more as you see the Day approaching.” On this day, then, without neglecting whatever larger vision the Lord may be supplying you, seize the opportunity to see the hours given you as an integral part of “the rest of your life to help you reach your destination.”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Table Grace

Everyday things have a way of speaking, not least in one’s home. They make no noise, for they have no speech. Nor do they insist on your attention. They are just there, whenever and wherever “there” is—whether permanently, semi-so, or even temporarily.

Just now, as Fall has come and harvest time, we are greeted at table by this fall scene. Halloween, children might naturally conclude, excited as they are by pumpkins and all their anticipation of “Trick or Treats.” Fall Mums potted in a etched vessel complement their splendor, with fallen leaves lending further reminders of the dazzling colors nature has been displaying outside.

But for me, Lady Graceful, as she is named, takes center stage, even if off somewhat to the side. Standing calm and statuesque, a bouquet of her own in hand, she remains as seasons come and go, placing before me what is not only appropriate to each season but appropriate to each meal as days come and go and seasons change.

Our Lord, the Creator of all things animate and inanimate, loved to be at table. And being there fully whenever he was there, he had eyes to see all around and ears to hear what was really going on in all that was going on. I pray this day that he will make me as attentive to life in all its forms, neither careless in passing by life’s table settings nor thoughtless in receiving the human gifts of food and friendship shared daily around them.

Do you offer a prayer of thanksgiving every time you sit down at table? We do, often in Swedish, as we were taught when young: Goda Gud, väl signa maten. I Jesu namn. Amen! ("Dear God, bless this food. In Jesus' name. Amen.")You do it in your own words. What matters is not the language but the offering of it and the spirit in which it is offered.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Biography in Broader Sweep

Patricia Hampl, in I Could Tell You Stories (Norton, 1999), offers a wonderful and thought-provoking insight into biography as seen and structured by a number of well-known authors. In a chapter on “Czeslaw Milosz and Memory,” Hampl notes how in framing his own story as a Polish “memoirist” (a writer of memoir), Milosz “is after something different from a story in the usual narrative sense.”

“The solution of the contemporary American imagination in regard to identity is to ‘seek the self,’ uncovering its hidden psychology to ‘get in touch with the unconscious….’" Milocz charts a different course. "Instead of thrusting the individual into the foreground one can focus attention [rather] on the background,” he writes, i.e. on evaluating one’s personal experience as preserved in memory “in the perspective of the changes one’s milieu has undergone.” He is, after all, Polish, and must be understood in that context.

For Milocz and other Europeans like him personal story is hinged to the history of the nation—i.e. to the larger geo-political context in which one’s life has been lived. “He has located the best grace of a memoir,” Hampl writes, “a method which allows the self to function not as a source or a subject, but as an instrument for rendering the world. In Native Realm [his biography] Milocz does not seek a self; he seeks to use a self.”

Surely we all have need to tell our life story in one way or another. Hampl’s point in lifting up Milocz is simply that it is “the fusion of two narratives—the one personal and the other public—that creates a powerful call and reply which achieves poetic form.” After all, what matters in the long run are the insights drawn from relating “the bruised word of our own relentlessly psychological culture” and the more “impersonal” landscape of history.

So what is the point? Tell your story, but do not rob it of the broader contexts in which it has been lived. Let place and time and your ethnic/national/religious rootage contextualize your story--offering both as the rivulet life has made you to be in the broader stream of human history.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Moral or Moralistic?

William J. Bennett, a well-known Washington lawyer, TV commentator, and editor some years ago of The Book of Virtues (Simon and Shuster, 1993), is now hosting a new TV show with invited guests that exchange views on contemporary life. In a recent session focusing among other things on the current political scene, one of his guests, a professor whose name I have forgotten, made an interesting distinction between our being “moral” as Americans and “moralistic.”

America, he contended, has always thought of itself as a moral nation, not without its faults to be sure yet a model nonetheless in its devotion to and concern for morality. “I worry about that claim,” the professor said, “because I wonder if that’s still true. I think in recent years we have become more of a moralistic society that a truly moral one.”

A moral person or society, he held, is one that has a due sense of its own sins and shortcomings. The tone and tenor of our individual and societal conversations—political, economic, social, and religious—seems rather to be increasingly moralistic, less thoughtful, less civil, less willing to be engaged with others. Moralistic individuals and movements of every sort come increasingly to common life with their minds made up, often by others who have convinced them that “We’re right and you’re wrong!”

Consequently the interplay between people and groups focuses more on winning than on coming together for the common good. Images trump substance and the goal becomes to tear down opponents rather than engage them and seek a higher wisdom—which is morality.

The professor’s concern is worth pondering. Am I and are we still people of deep enough moral persuasion that we can resist—in ourselves and others—the rampant tendency to hide behind self-serving moralistic attitudes and ways? Can we hope for our leaders to be such if we ourselves are not? There is no shame in having convictions. But there is great shame in being too proud of them and self-assured.

God’s will for each of us and our nation is clear: If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Life Is a Pilgrimage

In the final analysis, the call of God to whatever he wills for any of us is a call that leads one out into uncharted territory. It is a call to move and keep moving at God’s command, going out like Abraham to a land we know not where, honing our gifts by faith and using our resources to follow after and trust the One who alone knows and is the way.

A lovely story from my own faith tradition well illustrates the point. Dr. Karl Olsson--gifted among us as a college and seminary professor, denominational historian, one-time president of North Park College and Theological Seminary, who later also served as a leader in Faith at Work--was in his younger days in somewhat of a quandary about what he should do with his life.
In a long, six-page handwritten letter to David Nyvall, the founder and first president of North Park, whose spirit and work were and remain central to our self-understanding in the Evangelical Covenant Church, he sought his professor’s wisdom. “Some say I should become a lawyer,” he wrote, “others a preacher or teacher or scholar, and still others a public servant.” On and on he went, listing any number of things at which. given his talent. he could have excelled.

In response, his elder and esteemed professor, replied with a penny post card, personally addressed to K. Olsson on the one side, with a single suggestion on the other: “Proceed!” It was not that the wise old professor was without strong opinions. It was rather that he trusted God, the Covenant community of faith, and life process to reveal God’s will.

“Abraham traveled on by stages,” we read in Genesis 12. So did Karl Olsson, and so have I, and so must you, dear reader. None of us is ever alone, given God’s call. But each of us is on a life-long pilgrimage that leads to the only city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God himself.

Move, then, into both today and tomorrow confident—not cocky, as if knowing more than you do know, but sure nonetheless that the one who has created and called you has a purpose for your life that will become clear to you, if only by stages.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Habit of the Heart

Tomorrow is the twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost. Rising early this morning, I prayed again the prayer I offered earlier on the psalm for the day (145:1-8, see Prayers):

“'I will extol you, my God and King,' the psalmist begins. And he is obviously saying that, as one commentator puts it, 'as part of the cult community [that] responds with its unbroken hymnic tradition to that perpetual presence of the divine salvation, into which the poet wants to incorporate his song.'
"We, with the psalmist, must learn ever to sing in community, Lord—the community of your people, gathered not only in our place and time but in all ages before us and yet to come. We are not strong enough to sing your praise by ourselves. The fount of our song is in you and in all the people who belong to you—past, present, and future.
"Unless we fill our spirits with 'your mighty acts … the glorious splendor of your majesty … your wondrous works … your awesome deeds … the fame of your abundant goodness … [and] your righteousness,' what shall fuel our singing?
"Inhabit my spirit, Lord, with your Spirit, and join my voice to the voices of your saints in every age that together we may laud your name and proclaim your grace to the nations."

Worship, to be true, must be a habit of the heart. That means personal and warm. It also means communal, with other believers, both past and present. Above all, it means consistent and devotional, with focus on the One we worship, who has proven himself Sovereign over all other gods and thus worthy of worship and praise. As he alone is our hope for eternity, so he alone must be our Lord in time.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Home Again!

"Borta bra men hemma bäst" the Swedes say. It means “Travel is good, but home is best.” To that I say, once again, Amen!

After five weeks away, alone and with family, time has led us back, and we are ready to be home, where our roots now are and our neighbors and our church and our calling. The point of time away for us has never been to uproot ourselves, for in a sense we have been at home with each other wherever life has taken us. Perhaps better put we can say that our time away this year has re-rooted us, both reaffirming what and where we are called to be and energizing our return to all that.

As years pass, one’s perspective changes. We learn our limits even though the sense of need all around in people and their circumstance is heightened. What can be done to meet the challenge? Thankfully, years have taught us that God is already at work in ways far exceeding our understanding, so that our role is simply to enter in once again to all he is already doing around us. He knows our limits better than we. Yet by his Spirit and in his power, he deigns still to use us, if we are willing, to accomplish far more that we might ask or even think. So just as “Time Away” slowed us down a bit to bring us closer to him, our family, and each other, so coming home opens new doors of opportunity to enter, with him, into life as it is where we live.

Peace and joy now fill our hearts, even in the midst of life’s trials and troubles. The Lord is good. And so are his people, to whom we belong and who we return to serve in our small way. God’s future awaits us, and we are anxious to enter into that future, wherever it now leads.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Shimmering Beauty

You have to stand behind tree trunks, your lens protected from the incoming sun, to see it--the shimmering beauty of created things in motion, swept by the wind, reflecting God's light. It is an awesome sight, breath-taking really, and soul warming. Flowers, little leaves of all kinds and colors, plus pine and evergreen needles, all shimmering with life, even if different in kind and character.

Thanks be to God for [such] bounty and beauty, life that sustains us in body and mind:/plenty for all, if we learn how to share it, riches undreamed of to fathom and find.

(The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No 712, verse 2)

A week now into Time Away, rest provides such windows constantly, whenever the chronos sweep of minutes and hours fades into kairos moments that never fail to trip one's gratitude and feed one's faith. All I did was to go out on the deck after supper to be quiet and alone. God and his creation did the rest, as the sound of the wind and the glorious movement of shimmering leaves and green needles caught hold of my soul.

Thus am I drawn to believe and trust this night, not out of duty but out of necessity.

This is my Father's world; God shines in all that's fair;
in rustling grass I hear him pass--he speak to me ev'rywhere.
This is my Father's world: why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King, let heaven ring! God reigns; let earth be glad!

(The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No 57, verse 3)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Time Away

The wood piece on our cabin wall spoke to me tonight, begging both to be seen through the eye of my camera and inscribed on my mind and heart. There is indeed a season for everything, and now for my wife and me it is time away. Not away from life, for where can one go away from that anymore than one can go away from God (Psalm 139)? Time away ought rather to be seen as time to renew one’s life, i.e. to step forward into reflection and rest even while stepping back awhile from routines and schedules. The latter, if never left, can bind—even harden—one’s spirit and choke not only one’s creative energy but his or her vitality as well.

The art piece is instructive. Get outside yourself, your study and home and let the rays of the sun permeate your being. Look at the birds of the air that neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. And consider the lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. And do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (Matthew 6:25-34). Take time away!

I live too much in chronos, clock time, chronologically So do you. Take time away to seek kairos, purposeful time--the perspective we all need to live closer to God and his will. One needn’t leave home to take time away, but it helps. Thoreau found time in the solitude of his home by Walden Pond. What matters is allowing some space and time to see yourself in larger perspective—to get beyond what you have achieved and experienced and thus begin to grasp life’s fuller dimensions. An anthem we once sang in the North Park (Chicago) Church choir when I was a teenager addresses the challenge, which always begins with inner yearning:

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
while the swift seasons roll.
Leave thy low-vaulted past.
Let each new temple nobler than the last
get thee to heav’n with a dome more vast
till thou at length art free,
leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea.

Day two away for us has been a good day. May its blessings increase until it is time again to return, as we must--yet different, deeper and richer, as we long to be.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ever Thought of Writing a Letter to God?

It might seem a strange idea, given the fact that even before a word is on your tongue God knows it completely (Psalm 139:4). Yet don’t you suppose that it might delight him to get a letter from you even so? On this Sunday evening I am delighted to share with you one such letter, written by my father years ago while looking out over the lake below with the sun setting on another day of rest for him at our summer cabin in Wisconsin. I have a whole file of such letters, written in his own hand, and I hope in the future to publish more of them, perhaps under a separate link on this website, as an encouragement to consider writing God yourself. It’s what the psalmist did, out of all the moods of his life. Why not you?

Dear God,

Why did you rest on the seventh day? Were you tired? That question makes me laugh. I have seen you at work too long to believe that. I have seen too many dawns break and too many sunsets, and too many winters and springs come and go, too many tides rise and fall, without any signs of weariness to believe that you needed to rest.

Had you finished your work? Is that why you rested? Your Son, when he was here, said you were still working as he was. That has always comforted me because we are in desperate need of your perfect strength. I suspect that you rested because you wanted us to rest. You sat down in your strength so that we might sit down in our weakness, so that you might restore our strength again.

Help us, dear God, to sit down beside you, or by the side of your son where he sits, weary by Jacob's well, a further expression of your accommodation to our weariness that you tasted … yourself in order still better to understand us. Help us, however, not merely to sit, but to enjoy you and thus replenish our lives. Forgive us that we miss our rest as if we did not trust you to keep on working and finally bring us into your kingdom.

Eric G. Hawkinson (1896-1984) Letter to God (unpublished)
Former Dean, North Park Theological Seminary

Saturday, July 12, 2008

What Defines You?

Klyne Snodgrass's massive new volume, just released, called Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2008), represents not only a lifetime of scholarly work as Professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary and beyond, but a wonderful and practical witness to his focus in scholarship on pastoral training and ministry.

In preparing, for example, to preach on the Parable of the Sower from Matthew 13 tomorrow, digging over days now into all the commentary he supplies on its background and various interpretations of it over time has been both thought provoking and useful. At their heart, Snodgrass claims, the parables are indeed Stories with Intent, i.e. stories intended to address life as we know it and seek our obedience in living it out according to God's will.

One sentence in particular sent me deeper into my own reflections on how to address this parable while addressing others tomorrow. "To be a disciple of the kingdom," he has written, "means hearing and remaining focused on the message of the kingdom in such a way that one is defined by it" (p 175). In other words, the seed of the word of God is not something we are to define in the soil of life belonging to us. Our role is no more than simply to receive and keep receiving it until it begins to define us. Seed and soil alike are God's, and only those who both prepare for and tend them by the power and energy of his Spirit can really call themselves his disciples. "The key to spiritual formation," Snodgrass further says, "is the willingness to listen, the practice of the discipline of listening, and responding appropriately to the received word."

Such living out of God's word is clearly a life-long process, and progress in that process demands openness on our part, depth of mind and heart, a focused discipline that tends daily to tender shoots that grow both down and up in us from the divine seed and its impulses within. But it is crucial that we do not think of what results from that process as our doing. We do not end up defining the seed. The seed, in the process of our receiving and caring for it shapes and defines us.

The sobering truth of this parable is that mathematically the chances are three to one against our truly hearing and receiving God's word. But the good news is that all who do receive and obey it soon find themselves bringing forth the fruit it promises--some a hundred fold, some sixty, and some thirty.

Perhaps if we spent less time and energy trying so hard to understand and define the word and more time just making room for and allowing it to define us we would find our daily walk more satisfying and fruitful. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. And she who has eyes to see, let her see.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

'From Age to Age the Same'

There is always more to life than meets the eye. God sees to that, as he always has, generation after generation since the days of Father Abraham. "One generation shall laud thy works to another," the psalmist says (145:4, KJV), and it is true!

I have just returned from the 123rd Covenant Annual Meeting in Green Lake, Wisconsin, where I had the joy of laying my hands on my grandson Lars Eric Stromberg on the occasion of his Ordination to Ministry. His certificate is signed by Glenn R. Palmberg, president, and David W. Kersten, executive minister of the ordered ministry.

Out calling this morning on others, I have been caught up in the mystery of God's providence in the life and care of his people.

My own maternal grandfather, Ole H. Myhren, pastor of a pioneer Mission Church in Brookville, Wisconsin, himself born in Norway, was ordained in Hastings, Minnesota on July 9 (my birthday), in 1887, two years after the founding of our denomination. His certificate, which I have in my study, was signed by the first president, C.A. Bjork, and the first secretary, E.G. Hjerpe.

My father, Eric G. Hawkinson, an immigrant from Sweden and pastor in the Austin Covenant Church, Chicago who was later to be dean of North Park Seminary, was ordained in Chicago, Illinois on October 21, 1928. His certificate, also in my possession, was signed by C. V. Bowman, then president, and Joel S. Johnson, secretary. At my ordination in the North Park Covenant Church of Chicago, June 24, 1956, my father laid his hands on my head as the Ordination Prayer was offered for all of us being set apart for the high and holy office of ministry. My certificate is signed by Theodore W. Anderson, then president, and Joseph C. Danielson, then secretary.

Two of my nephews, David and Timothy Hawkinson, the sons of the late Zenos and Barbara. are also ordained Covenant ministers. I am waiting on information from David, but Timothy was ordained in 1988, and his certificate was signed by Paul Larsen, president, Timothy Ek, scetretary, and Donald Njaa, executive secretary of the ministry. My sense is that Grandpa Eric laid hands on both of them as well.

My wife Alyce is the sixth child of the late Leonard J. Larson of Worthington, Minnesota, who after service as an army chaplain in WWI and training at North Park Seminary was ordained in 1920 when E. G. Hjerpe was president. Consecrated with his wife Alice for missionary service in China through most of that decade, he later served 24 years as pastor of First Covenant Church in Kansas City. His youngest son and child, Quentin, who died untimely young in 1996, was also ordained by the Covenant in 1963, Dad Larson laying hands on him when Clarence A. Nelson was president and Milton B. Engebretson secretary. Well-known especially for his love of and service to rural America, Dusty is honored to this day by a scholarship fund at the Seminary in his honor.

In 1996, I had the privilege of laying my hands on my own son Peter's head, as he was ordained, also in Chicago. His certificate was signed by President Paul E. Larsen, Secretary John Hunt, and the then executive secretary of the ministry, Donald Njaa. And now, 12 years later, it was Lars Eric, a gifted and dedicated grandson, with the honored name among us of Stromberg.

Nor is that all to think about. Another grandson, Timothy Hawkinson, who is now completing his seminary at North Park while serving on staff in Turlock, California Covenant Church, will no doubt be seeking ordination a few years hence. And where is Turlock? Just a few miles north of the Hilmar Covenant Church where my grandfather Ole was its first pastor, where my parents grew up, where Dusty served his internship, and where over six decades after its founding in 1902 Alyce and I served as a pastoral family from 1963-66.

Sitting in the Ordination Service last Thursday evening, I was deeply moved by the number of other families celebrating continuity in ministry with us. And I was overwhelmed also by the incredible richness that God is now supplying to Covenanters worldwide in the magnified warmth, commitment, ability, and inspiration so evident in people of many other nations and ethnic backgrounds who have joined and are enriching this family of faith.

May those of us rooted in Covenant tradition always make room for those rooted in other traditions, so that we may truly be in the future what we set out to be at the organizational meeting of our denomination in 1885, "a companion of all those who fear God" (Psalm 119:63), and are looking for his appearing.

The base theme of this whole website is, after all, true and worthy of remembering:

Roots exist for the wings that propel them into life as we know it,
and wings exist to magnify the creative power of roots within them.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Pastoral Visitation Report

The following is my annual report to Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, MN as pastor of visitation. It has occurred to me that the themes it explores bear wider thought and exploration. Any comments or suggestions you might have in reading and pondering its content will be welcome. You may enter such under "Comments" at the conclusion of the report.

‘Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…’

In a wonderful little 1973 monograph on A Plan for Letting the Church Become the Family of God, Wesley W. Nelson wrote the following:

“In flesh and blood families, children grow up and are scattered. Husbands and wives die, leaving lonely widows and widowers. Many people are denied marriage and family love. Some families break up through misunderstanding or unfaithfulness. At best, flesh and blood families remain intact for only a few years. With passing years ties are broken by death, and we must adjust to being left alone. In deep contrast with all this is the church, as God intends it to be. No matter what our background, personality, maturity in Christ, or the cause of our alienation, this church will become closer to us even than flesh and blood families, for we know it will never desert us or be removed from us by death….

“We have generally thought of the church this way in theory. In practice, however, it has not reached this ideal…. [We must] seek to develop a means of nurturing this love and family spirit until it becomes the strongest force in the church” (Quoted in Glad Hearts, Covenant Publications. 2003, pp. 356, 357).

Pastoral visitation, like all the other ministries here reported, is essentially about us as a people of God—i.e. our relationships to him and one another. Whether meeting in the narthex after worship, in home- or office-based conversation, or in the extremities of illness, loneliness, and grief, the challenge is always to bolster in each other the awareness that in Christ no one is ever alone. We are all part of a family of faith that can count on the promises of God’s Word, the presence of Christ, and the healing power of his Spirit.

It is my privilege to be a bearer of such good news to both members and friends of this congregation in time of need. Since March of 2007 the catalogue of calls, though focused on urgent care, has included contacts and conversations with people of every age in varying circumstance. To rehearse them in my own mind, as I often do, is to realize how much more I have received in the process than I have been able to give.

Though in a church as large as Salem there is clearly much yet to be done to help everyone see themselves as part of our family of faith, I have been especially blessed by the numbers of really caring lay people who have dedicated themselves to aiding in that process. Everywhere I go I either see or hear about their influence in individual lives and circumstances. Please be thanked if you are among them. And please be invited to join them if you are not.

At this juncture I am also heartened by the manifest joy and expertise that Nancy Olin is already bringing to her newly entered calling as our parish nurse, with the assistance of Kris Beilby. Their knowledge and experience in all things medical, as well as their deep devotion to Christ and the church, are clearly advancing the ground-breaking work that Jan Schmidt did among us before she retired.

My prayer for Salem, already well-grounded in its faith and history as a family, is that working together in the name of our Triune God we may both deepen our bonds with one another and broaden our vision to be more inclusive of others. To seek no more than our own good eventually leaves us barren and fruitless. Joy and the deep sense of fulfillment we all long for await us in Christ at each other’s door, as well as our neighbor’s.

Pray for us in this ministry that we may be wise in the use of our time, helpful to the rest of our staff as we serve with them in whatever circumstance, and fruitful above all for the kingdom.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Jesus People USA

A Covenant website news item this morning cites the upcoming Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois June 30 to July 5 that will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.

Sponsored by Jesus People USA, a Covenant church on the north side of Chicago, this festival--which gathers as many as 20,000 people each year--has become known world-wide as the 'Jesus Woodstock.'

To read more about the flavor of the event--highly charged with Christian Rock Bands playing constantly to tentground fans--might seem a bit outrageous to many. The music is certainly not my cup of tea. But look to whom Jesus People minister--both down and out types and those either largely disengaged from the church and maybe even themselves.

Look, too, at who is their major speaker this year--Yale Professor Miroslav Volf, one of the world's leading theologians who also addressed our Covenant Midwinter Conference in February. Others in former years have included Ron Sider, John Perkins, Jean Vanier, and Brian McLaren. Continuous seminars "are even more important than the music," Festival Director John Herrin declares. And one look at the Jesus People website ( will likely amaze many at how seriously literate and thoughtful this movement and their dedicated leaders are.

Kudos to my long-time friend Neil Taylor and Musician Glenn Kaiser and all the others whose service to Christ in the inner city of Chicago is a model of Christian witness and compassion. Strange as is the world they live and work in to most of us, we ought be grateful not only for their devotion to Christ but their passion as well for the lost and their devotion to the lone and the needy. Keep them and Cornerstone this year in your prayers. They will all bne in mine.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Thanks for Your Prayers and Support!

So many of you over five and a half years now have offered your prayers and support for Paul and Kristin's daughter Kajsa Grace that it seems appropriate to share with you the result.

Born with half a heart, she has had quite a pilgrimage in this life, four major operations and the kind of occasional crises that have occurred in between. Yet here she is, in all her glory, ecstatic under the crown of flowers that attended her recent debut as a dancer.

Nils Frykman's ode to Christmas and the birth of Christ, "Joy Bells Are Ringing" (The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 166) expresses the familial joy we feel as well, for surely it is in Christ and through him that our common hopes and prayers for Kajsa Grace have been heard. And so we sing with Frykman, of Christ and of her, Oh, what a treasure God in his pleasure lovingly gives today! Grace to the lowly, peace pure and holy, angels to all convey.

We are so grateful to all of you who have shared in Kajsa's life saga to date. Look on her as we do with joy, and praise God for his goodness in not only preserving her life but prospering it as well!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

'We Are Now a Family'

Meet Elizabeth ("Izzy") Jacobson, the daughter I adopted at her request during our church's recent Covenant Pines Family Retreat.

Like Shawn Erickson, already noted, Izzy approached me early on, thinking of her father who had obligations that kept him home while we were away. "I miss my dad," she said, with that wonderful smile of hers. "Will you be my father this weekend?"

Would I ever! What a honor! Who could resist? Far more was involved than even Izzy knew. Christians are a family beyond our families, offering each other comfort, home away from home, the sense of security we all need from life's beginning to its end. Bryan J. H. Leech, a retired Covenant pastor out west, celebrates that reality in his wonderful hymn, "Come, Share the Lord" (The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No 568). "No one is a stranger here, everyone belongs.... We are now a family of which the Lord is head; though unseen he meets us here in the breaking of the bread....

Izzy took me in as her father, and I took her in as my daughter, all because of Christ. And the weekend secured us both in our human longings--she for her dad and me for my children. Thank you, Izzy, for being who you are and allowing me to be someone special for you! God used you to minister to me, ministering to you.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Depth, Height, and Perspective

To discover, in many ways, is first to rediscover. Visioning the future requires being fully aware of the past. Redemptive change, so much needed in this world, must be rooted in the things that remain--that have stood the tests of time and human history. Christians are not spiritual orphans, devoid of memory. They are children of an eternal Father whose mighty acts in history are the sum and substance of their being. Every incentive we may propose to move us forward must be rooted in perspectives beyond our own.

Samuel H. Miller puts it well: "To lose the Bible is to lose more than a book; it is to lose the order of magnitude in which our lives grow to greatness. To lose a tradition is to lose more than a tradition; it is to lose depth, in which we may be strongly held against the storms of the present. To lose the myths and symbols which seem so inexplicable in contemporary terms is to lose more that stories and things; it is to lose a wisdom we are incapable of articulating without the assistance of ancient strugglers with realities greater than words and mightier than reason.

"It were well," Miller concludes, "if we spent one-tenth the time and attention we give to the flotsam and jetsam of the daily paper on the profoundly rich wisdom of the past.... The present, after all, can scarcely be understood in terms of itself" (The Great Realities, Harper, 1955, pp. 18-19).

Surely we cannot live in the past. Nor need we. But to cut ourselves off from it in the present, especially in moving toward the future, is unimaginably short-sighted, not to mention prideful. The Pentecost first promised in Joel, chapter 2, when "your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams" was fulfilled when the Spirit of the risen Christ descended on the earliest Christians (Acts 2). And we should not forget that it happened when they "they devoted themselves to the apsotles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42).

To move toward the heights we all long to see and achieve, we must learn again to live in the depths with God and his word, where eternal perspectives abound.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

'A Little Child Shall Lead Them'

Meet Shawn Erickson, by his designation at Salem's recent Family Retreat "My Friend." But he is more than that. He is also, as are all of Salem's children, a living reminder that we who are older have much to learn from receiving and engaging our young.

Shawn is a Pietist, even though he doesn't know it. His love for God and people is incredible. All of a sudden, in the first hour or so of our retreat, he came up, hugged my leg, and said with all the transparent love that flows through his being, "I miss you!"

I just couldn't resist his genuine, unaffected smile. And warmth flowed from his spirit. "I want to be your friend!" he kept saying. "Could I also be your Opa?" I asked at one point (the Dutch/German term for Grandpa). "No, I don't want you to be my Opa," he retorted, with a sudden seriousness. "I just want you to be my friend!"

Two days seldom allow time to really bond with someone else, but they were more than enough in this case. It was friendship at first sight between us, the kind God supplies--uncomplicated by questions we often raise before opening up to others. And Shawn was God's witness, showering me with endless grace. We sat together at meals and in chapel while I was preparing to speak on "God beyond Us," and "God within Us," and "God between Us," and "God beside Us." At one point, gazing out the chapel window he said in wonderment, pointing with his index finger, "Look at that Pine tree!" While ministering to others, Shawn was thus ministering to me, just by being himself.

I felt led in our final session, following Communion, to call him to the front. No hesitancy there, to be with his friend. He was totally unaware of what I had in mind, which was to let him pronounce the Benediction--thus to bless others as he had been blessing me. I swept him up, turned toward the people, asked him to raise his arm high, and repeat after me. Normally quiet, even shy in voice, I was amazed at how he belted it out, not as if basking in the attention, but simply in obedience to the promptings of his friend: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you his peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Very few left that session unmoved. And Shawn, nearly an hour later, while sitting beside me at our final brunch, was still wondering--like Pietists wonder when they have sensed the mystery in sacred things--"Why did you lift me up?" My answer was simple and direct. "Just so that you could bless the people, as God has used you to bless me!" "Oh," he said, seeming satisfied. "O.K." Oh, to be that childlike!

Stroking my face before we said goodbye at table, Shawn gently told me one thing more. Looking very serious, though clearly not wanting to hurt my feelings, he said, "You're old!" When I protested a bit to that, "No, I'm not! I'm still a little boy, just like you," he seemed relieved, and ran off to embrace someone else.

This is a friendship worth pursuing. I have a feeling that God has something special in mind for this boy, wherever life takes him and whatever he ends up doing.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Repentance in Pentecost?

We are still in the season of Pentecost, absorbing and seeking to live out the awesome implications of being filled with the Holy Spirit, which first descended like tongues of fire on believers gathered "with one accord in one place" in New Testament times. One often wonders whether in our case the fire is in danger of going out. Surely God offers it no less, for his Spirit is eternal. What then can one say about Pentecost seeming so distant, so improbable in today's religious world?

Samuel Miller, in his penetrating book on The Dilemna of Modern Belief (Harper & Row, 1963) sees the fault in us. "We domesticated God, stripped Him of awe and majesty, trapped Him in nets of ideas, meticulously knotted in a thousand logical criscrosses; cornered Him ecclesiastically, taught Him our rules, dressed Him in our vanity, and trained Him to acknowledge our tricks and bow to our ceremonial expectations.

"After some time," Miller continues, "it was difficult to see any difference between God and what we believed, what we did, what we said, or what we were. God and our church, God and our morals, God and our belief, God and our class, God and our feelings, God and our scruples, God and our vanities--all were one."

Miller is so bold as to claim that even "atheism usually appears in the world as the void left by inadequate representations of God."

May it be time this far removed from the first Pentecost to repent from our penchant for thus delaying another? Has Miller catalogued anything in his stinging analysis that may be true of you and me? Are we without guilt, in no need of repentance?

Self-satisfaction is nowhere more dangerous than when equated with spirituality. To pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit among us is fruitless apart from our willingness to repent of any sinful attitude that stands in God's way.

How grateful we can all be be that our Triune God is as patient and loving as he is. Ever creating new life and providing for its redemption in Jesus Christ, he also still sends his Spirit to speak to each of us in our own language.

May he open among us every window we tend to want closed and break down all the walls behind which we so often hide, that we may once again experience together the joy of our salvation and the fresh, renewing winds of his Spirit!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Can America Face Its Faults? Can You? Can I?

In the mailstrom of American political life these days, one senses both a profound weariness and deep frustration. Political rhetoric is part of that, the planting and corrupting of images to serve private ambition and gain public support. So also is 24/7 media coverage, ostensibly aimed at uncovering every bit of minutia along the way to serve the public interest, yet often bound itself, one feels, by an almost consuming need to gain personal advantage over competing media in search of ratings.

While there is justifyable reason to be weary of it all, it would be presumptive to lay the blame entirely on politicians and the media. There is enough to blame in the body politic as well, which includes all of us. How often do you and I, in hurling epithets at others, do so to gain personal advantage and score points for our own benefit and point of view? And why are the politicians and the media acting as they are if not to find a way to serve our self-interest and thus promote their own?

One wonders, in fact, if the greatest issue before us as Americans is one of political persuasion or who wins and who loses. In the deepening American fascination over image-making we are, all of us, whether we recognize it or not, prostituting our character as a nation.

Can America face its own faults? Only if you do, and I do, privately and publically. Scripture makes no promise that a nation in many ways favored by God will continue in his favor if it squanders its inheritance in selfish living. We need to repent, all of us, of every stubborn prejudice that feeds our present political malaise. Christians, especially, must lead in this, lest we be untrue to the character God has shown us in Jesus Christ.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Power of One Little Transitional Word

"You now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you" (italics mine). Time stood still for me on hearing that one little word repeated twice--aber in German, but or however in English--sung by a soaring soprano introducing the fifth section of "A German Requiem" by Johannes Brahms.

The performance earlier this evening by an enlarged Salem Choir accompanied by two pianos, harp, and timpani, was stunning! An extended introduction to the piece by our director, Beverly Scripter, was very helpful in setting the stage, especially in explaining why it was important to sing it in German, with the English translation alongside, line by line. Her musical insights and notations also whetted our appetite for what was to follow.

Among the many things that struck me, too many to note here, was the dramatic repitition of that aber, so central in my mind to the dynamic character of the Christian faith. We will all die, Brahms affirms with Scripture, and our journey through life will evidence pain and reasons for sorrow and grief. Here, far from having an abiding city, we can only seek one that is to come. But (there's that strong word aber once more!) repeated forcefully and dramatically transforms all life by announcing Christ's resurrection promise, "I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice."

Little could I know, moved as I was in that moment, how healing and energizing that one little transitional word would be for me through the rest of the day and into the night. Surely none of us, short of playing games with reality, can deny that we continue to know pain and sorrow and grief. But (Aber again!) the staying power of all that has been broken for us by God and his Word. He has issued an eternal promise that he will never leave us or forsake us, and that "he who has begun a good work among [us] will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). Hallelujah! So be it! Amen!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Discord and Harmony

Early this evening, after supper, the wonderful harmonies of stereophonic music are bringing peace and joy to my soul. What a relief from all the discords of cable TV, so totally absorbed these days with endless shufflings and reshufflings of our discordant political landscape.

Weary of watching, Alyce and I decided to fill the air with music this evening, while she engages upstairs in making new curtains for our living and dining room and I am down in my study writing. Speakers in both places surround us with sound that somehow clears our minds for labors we each love. Togetherness does not require our being in the same room. To be home and spiritually engaged--in sewing as in writing--unites our spirits and creates a harmony between us not unlike that in the music that accompanies our labors.

The place of music in our lives is enormous, far too massive to catalogue here. Everything from the songs we grew up with--sacred and secular--to singing in choirs, attending concerts, listening to a wide variety of records and CDs, to performing together as soloist and pianist, has added to the richness of our pilgrimage through life.

Thank God that not withstanding the discords we all are required to face, there are harmonies everywhere that can renew our perspective and give us hope. One needs occasionally to shut out the noise of life to be enveloped again with its harmonies. And as one is thus enveloped it is important to reflect the harmonies in the midst of the discord.

In Colossians 3 the Apostle Paul puts it well: Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth... 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 (vv. 2, 16b-17).

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


"What will heaven be like?" I happened in on a study group of women at Salem Covenant in New Brighton who were wondering. The question caught me a bit off guard, and I have been pondering it ever since.

There are a whole lot of things to be said, I suppose, drawing on Jesus' frequent words, "The kingdom of heaven is like...." Mustard seed came particularly to mind--a thing of hardly any consequence given its diminutive size, yet amazingly powerful when properly sown, as intended, on earth.

The more I thought about it, the temptaion to think of heaven simply as a place--which it is, awaiting us after we die--trying to figure out what it will be like "over there," is probably to miss the essence of it, here and now, present among us. "If it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons," Jesus said, "then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20).

Really? Come to us? Here and now? Indeed! Not in its final form to be sure, yet actually--for all with eyes to see and ears to hear. God appearing to Moses on the mountain and Isaiah in the temple; Christ taking on our human flesh, and the Spirit descending to earth at Pentecost--all seeds of what both is and is to come, what theologians have called for a long time "realized eschatology."

"Don't wait and wonder," I said in essence, both to the women and to myself. "Experience it now, for in Christ it is all around you and, indeed, within."

The key, I have come to see in a fresh new way, is to view the kingdom not first as a place but as the power of relationship to God and others given us by his grace. Whether here today or there beyond tomorrow, the wonder of the kingdom of heaven lies in accepting God's coming to us so that we may come alive in him.

The Apostle Paul said it well: "We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living" (Romans 14:7-9).

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Roots and Wings

I walk before the Lord of the living (Psalm 116:9)

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers
(Acts 2:42)

Father Abraham, Scripture says, "journeyed on my stages" (Genesis 12:9). Don't we all? Faith is a pilgrimage from start to finish, rooted inevitably for each of us in where we have come from and who we are as persons winging our way to "a land we know not where."

Every stage along the way is marked by our humanity-the good in us God's image and the bad in us our sin. Soren Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about Stages on Life's Way, in a new edition of which (Princeton University Press, 1988), Howard and Edna Hong write:

No writer can totally expunge his experience from his writing, but, as Paul Sponheim observes, it would be an error to regard Stages 'as an exercise in biography' or autobiography. Just as a creative writer transmits whatever leaden elements of experience enter into his imaginative work, the assiduous hunter after autobiographical data tends to reverse the process from gold to lead. A better approach is given by Emanuel Hirsch, who points out that Stages is the work of one who. out of his suffering and thought. seeks to guide a reader to a personal understanding of penitence and faith (p. xv, underline mine).

Through all the stages of my life, from infancy on through childhood, the teenage years, college and seminary training, marriage and family, pastoral work, and journalistic engagement, it is clear to me looking both backward and forward that what has mattered most and still does is not the detail of my life but its essence at every stage along the way. What personal experiences of penitence and faith have marked that pilgrimage? Where has God been in my life through the years, and where is he now urging me on?

Gathered by history--my own as well as the whole story of God's people--I want also to be gathering others like you, that together, out of our roots and life experience, we may move forward thoughtfully and purposefully, in penitence and faith, under the wings of God's Spirit.