Thursday, December 31, 2009

Keep Working for God

The illustration was created years ago by Covenanter Birger Sponberg for Covenant Pressmen, then the support organization for Covenant Publications. It has our Lord in Joseph's carpenter shop, where he was early schooled in that trade.

Even though his calling later took him from that shop, he never ceased working, applying the disciplines he learned from Joseph to the greater mission the heavenly Father had in mind for him. "My Father is working still" he said, and I am working" (John 5:17).

I have been rejoicing this morning in the work God keeps giving me to do, in retirement no less that in what for want of a better term many call their "working years." Ought Christians ever be done working, called and empowered by God to bring praise to his name?
Relief from what often were oppressive schedules demanding more than their share of our time and attention are now welcome, to be sure. Yet to drop creative labor entirely after spending one's whole working life pursuing it is surely not what our Father intends for us. So now, whether in part-time visitation ministry at Salem, disciplined labor on this website wherever I happen to be, continuing contacts and correspondence with colleagues and friends both new and old, as well as spending quality time with extended family, I am blessed to be a working servant of God.

"My yoke is easy," Jesus said, "and my burden is light." Because that is true taking it upon me day after day is not oppressive. It is in fact richly rewarding, for nothing done in God's name ever returns void. It does in fact, as he promised it would, accomplish what it is sent out to do--not always by timetables we set for ourselves but in his own good time and way nonetheless. It is that confidence in him which fuels my labors, even while releasing my spirit from the awful burden of assuming that I am responsible for more than I am.

Is that not every Christian's calling, to keep working for God with both discipline and a continuing sense of urgency, trusting him to honor that work and the yearning it represents to live and remain in him? The day will surely come when time for our working will be no more, but until then keep working with joy for God, and after all your work is finally done trust the results to him as well.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Dreams, Greetings, and Heaven Come Down

I woke early this morning having dreamed a dream of Paul Holmer, a Salem boy who became one of the intellectual giants of a generation now past. His mind and heart were in touch with all the great minds and hearts in human history, even while grounded in the simplicity of faith in Christ--a model himself of range in life and thought that humbled me in remembering.

I woke as well to a wonderful email from Paul Swanson, long-time colleague and friend in ministry now teaching in China, ever the "Rabbi" as many of us have come to name him. Though far away he felt near as he told of his students acting out the Christmas story there. Humbled also by the range of his devotion, I was blessed by the news that coming home for a season during the Chinese New Year he will return for yet another term to teach those he feels called by God to serve.

Later this morning we will return to worship at North Park Covenant, my boyhood church, and before that visit another colleague, Dick Swanson, now a hospice patient in the historic home of the Modines and Sonesons, now owned by his daughter Jane Swanson-Nystrom, another valued colleague and friend.

It is all of one fabric for me, a blessed fabric of life still being woven by the Master Weaver, God with us not only at Christmas but forever, surrounding us with his people, continually renewing our spirits, and deigning even to bless and use the fragments of our lives to feed the multitudes.

The day of Christmas is past but its message remains, soon to unfurl again into Epiphany, the season of light. I know God is with us, for once more this morning heaven came down and glory filled my soul. Bless the Lord for the likes of a Paul Holmer and a Paul Swanson and a Dick Swanson, each of whom in their own time and way have brightened and still are brightening the fabric of human life. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rejoicing This Morning!

We woke this morning at 3:00 a.m. to a phone call from our son Paul announcing that Kristin had just given birth to their fourth child, Carson Gustaf Hawkinson, 7# 9 oz.

How thankful we are to God that everything went well. We now have sixteen grandchildren (and six great-grandchildren with a seventh on the way). And we have crossed a new frontier in that all our present great-grandchildren are older than our latest grandchild.

To put it all in conext, today is the Fourth in Adent, and I will be reading in Salem's second worship service Mary's Magnificat from Luke 1:46-55. Just as God was with her in the birthing of his Son so has he been with us in the birthing of all our children and grandchildren, most recently this morning with Paul and Kristin in their birthing process. Through his Holy Spirit, we have confidence that all Jesus came into this world to accomplish through his birth, life, teachings, death, resuurection, and ascension, is now available to Carson Gustaf from birth.

May we as family, and may the church as Christ's body, take seriously together the nurturing role we have been given to bring all our children and grandchildren to see and accept for themselves "the wonders of his love." God is near, indeed--with us in the flesh--and we are grateful!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Be Still, My Soul

This photo from one of my grandsons in ministry (see December Home Page) keeps speaking to me in Advent, not least when life's darker side seems so predominate. I've never calculated it by percentage, but in morning newspapers--not to mention TV newscasts--bad news headlines surely far outweigh the good. People are hurting, even suffering. A dear friend and fellow member over time at Salem died yesterday, as did a fairly young relative of another colleague and fellow-member out east--the one expected and the other sudden.

To keep score on all that is disjointed in our world--the wars, human trafficing, rising unemployment, tribal and racial tensions, woes in national and international economies to mention but a few--often weighs heavy on one's spirit.

Has there ever been a time when Advent's message is more needed among us? To the psalmist's witness millennia ago that "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him alone comes my salvation" (62:1), we now may add with confidence, "Christ is coming soon!" Why? Simply because, as Scripture declares, he has already come among us in human form to establish his kingdom and is coming soon again to bring it to completion!

We may still, like the psalmist wonder "How long?" But we need not wonder any more whether it is to be, for like him we know that "On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is God" (62:7).

The picture witnesses to my own experience as a believer. For daily and weekly through the gloom of all that is dark in life, light breaks through from the Lord, both fueling hope and deepening my faith. "He is near," as my colleague Mark Pattie reminded us in his sermon last Sunday, and we as Christians are to live our lives in that awareness, looking in every dark cloud for the signs of his appearing.

So sing with the hymn writer, as I am singing early this morning: "Be still, my soul: your God will undertake to guide the future as he has the past; your hope, your confidence let nothing shake--all now mysterious shall be bright at last. Be still, my soul, the waves and winds still know his voice who ruled them while he dwelt below (Hymnal, No. 455).

Friday, December 11, 2009


It is an early Friday morning, before dawn. But preparations have long been in the making. A Swedish pancake breakfast table has been set for ministerial colleagues in a small group to which we belong. The broader setting is in early Advent on the way to yet another Christmas season.

But there is more than meets the eye. The table and buffet are long-time treasures in our home and hearts--handcrafted in cherry wood by a nephew of Hannah Lund, from whom we bought them when newly married. Hannah was breaking up home on Bernard Street in Chicago after her husband Nils died. The Lunds were our neighbors when I was yet a boy, he the dean of our seminary, his family by his first wife woven into the fabric of ours through shared faith and shared disciplines

Things old and new also grace the setting. An antique hanging lamp above is a treasure we found in a shop near Paxton, Illinois, our first full-time pastorate. The silverware is also second-hand, though the plates are new. The clock on the buffet was purchased on my way to a Central Comference Annual Meeting in the UP years ago. The painting is an original by Lydia Pohl, an old Covenant friend who was at retirement the art supervisor for the Chicago public schools. The brass lamp was converted from kerosene use years ago, and other decorations--including Christmas ornaments hanging in the bay windows, have been gathered over time. Alyce is, of course, the one in our home who brings it all together, ever the gracious hostess ready to serve our guests with genuine warmth, careful preparations, and wonderful food.

The Lunds will be there--Vern and Elaine (no relation to Nils W). So will Craig Nelson and Marjorie Bradley, glad companions these days following the passing of their spouses. Bill and Judy Solie will also be coming to join us. Paul Swanson, known since Minnehaha days as Rabbi, though absent in person will surely also be present in spirit, all the way from China where he is now teaching for a season.

Thus in Advent, awaiting Christmas, will we delight in memory, the joys of fellowship and conversation, care for one another, and glad anticipation of all that is yet to come from all that has already been.

May God himself, the Triune One, in whom everything past continues to merge with everything present and propel us toward everything yet to come be blessed and praised. And may the table inhabited this morning with our colleagues and friends renew our hope in the One who has come among us and is coming yet again to renew the earth.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Gift That Keeps Giving

Four years ago come Christmas, while serving as interim pastor at Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, then little Erin Shannon came up after worship one Sunday morning in late Advent with a Christmas gift for me.

"I want to give my pastor a Christmas gift," she told her mother, "and I want it to be a really good one." Well, what she gave me was a timeless gift, here pictured, a gift that I have been opening regularly ever since, one that never fails to feed my spirit and bring me back to ground zero in life, which is my relationship to God.

"The wise lover," a Kempis imagines Christ speaking, "regards not so much the gift of Him who loves as the love of Him who gives.... The noble lover does not rest in the gift but in Me Who am above every gift."

My thanks, Erin, for giving me such a wonderful gift that Sunday--a classic gift that does not wear out with use but keeps drawing me and my spirit toward the Gift beyond all gifts. Through Thomas a Kempis you have time and again renewed my communion with God himself, ever willing and ready to feed my hungry soul and supply its deepest need.

Each time I read from The Imitation of Christ I think of you and the wonderful personal note you enclosed with your gift, now inserted in its front cover. And I pray in hope that you yourself and all the generations surrounding you now will find your place in the company of God's people who are longing for and seeking daily, like me, the salvation--that wholeness in life--that only he can supply.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Wait for God to Come to You

In one of his "Letters of Spiritual Counsel" Martin Luther (1483-1546) offers some suggestions on how to pray to, of all people, his barber. It is included in a section of letters he wrote over time to "The Perplexed and Doubting."

Stressing the importance of being persistent in prayer, he counsels his friend not to put it off when there are too many things to do. On the other hand, he writes, "it is true that some tasks may confront you that are as good or better than prayer, especially if they are required by necessity. A saying is ascribed to Saint Jerome to the effect that every good work of the faithful is prayer, and a proverb declares, 'He prays double who works faithfully.'"

Confessing times when he himself became "cold and disenlined to pray on account of my preoccupation with other thoughts and matters (for the flesh and the devil always prevent and hinder prayer) I take my little Psalter, flee to my room, or if it is during the day and there is occasion to do so, join the people in church."

The secret then is to wait on God, not talk so much as listen--using models like the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer to focus one's mind and calm one's spirit. Further, he suggests, it is well to go through such models slowly, a phrase at a time, pausing whenever and whenever something seems to emerge and engage one's attention. "When such rich and good thoughts come," he suggests, "one should let the other prayers go, make room for such thoughts, listen quietly, and by no means present an impediment, for the Holy Ghost himself is preaching here, and one word of his preaching is better than a thousand words of our praying."

I am alone as I write this, in my quiet study, away from the noise of media and the hustle and bustle of my daily round. And the silence surrounding is wonderful. It illumines my sense of sin and unworthiness but it never ends there. It also butrusses my trust in God's promised forgiveness and once again heals my self-inflicted wounds.

I do not thus wait enough on God. Do you? If in Advent we are to be guided to where God has already come in flesh and is yet to come in great power and glory, ought we not be still before him more than we are?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

'So to Speak' the Word of God

Years ago now, at a gathering of Partners in Covenant Communications, Herbert Palmquist opened a wonderful window for us all on the craft and art of preaching. It all began with the humorous story of an elderly janitor in the old Lafayette, Indiana, Covenant Church, who in taking him on a tour through the facility chorused all his descriptions of settings within it with the phrase, "so to speak." Pointing to the platform area, for example, he said, "There is where the choir sings, so to speak, and there [referencing the pulpit] is where the pastor preaches, so to speak." No matter where Palmquist was led the same chorus applied--the kitchen where the ladies cooked, the bathrooms where people "relieved themselves," curtained off places where Sunday School teachers taught, a janitor's room where his tools were--every place was tied to someone who did their thing there, "so to speak."

We were all in stitches, until Palmquist artfully transitioned to what he as a preacher had come to share. With an inviting wisdom born of disciplined labor over years and an evident awareness of the mysteries that remain beyond all our efforts to proclaim God's word, he invited us to explore with him what it means "'So to Speak' the Word of God. "

David Buttrick in his classic book on Homiletic (Fortress, 1987) believes that "a sermon built on "three points and a poem" is dead: rationalistic, linear, ineffective as it was. Even today's 'biblical preaching' gives us a past-tense God of past-tense events whose past-tense truth ('original meaning') may be applied to the world, while God remains hidden within a gilt-edged book." Such preaching, Buttrick says, failed to name God in the present world. Preaching "must dare to name God in conjunction with the world of lived experience." When we "name God with the world, then biblical stories become meaningful....

"So what are we thrown back on?" asks Buttrick. "We are flung back on a confidence in the gospel, trust in the grace of God, and prayer for the Holy Spirit with us... [Preachers] have been chosen to speak God's own word. No wonder year in, year out, preaching is terror and gladness.... We speak as we live, in the mysteries of grace."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

'In the Wilderness ... Prepare the Way of the Lord'

I have heard it since childhood, and sung it in youth, and preached it over two generations. Yet at no time in my life has the call to prepare the way of the Lord seemed more urgent.

Think of some stark statistics that recently came to my attention. The average pastor currently stays in ministry 11 years, two or three pastorates at most--before abandoning the office. The same is true of marriages, which on average last no longer in America. What is happening in the soul of America? And given the exponential rate of change these days--not to mention the explosive nature of political and even religious life--what is likely to stem the flow?

I confess sometimes to feeling like Jeremiah who spoke of shedding rivers of tears over the people and conditions of his time. Why with a loving God, almighty and everywhere present, are we as God's people settling for so little, if indeed paying attention to him at all?

Why, indeed? Hear again the good news of Jesus Christ, who in coming among us to teach, suffer, die, and be raised from the dead has already established the kingdom of God among us. And to what end? Not simply to fit us for heaven someday and deliver us from this sinful earth, but to put us to work here and now as an earnest of the same kingdom yet to come in its fullness when Christ returns a second time.

N.T. Wright in his new book, Surprised by Hope, has renewed my own energies toward that end. He is clearing my cluttered mind of the problems by opening up in fresh, new perspectives the solution to them all, already given and at work. And in the process he is renewing my sense of hope.

If in Advent this year your own faith needs reviving, pick up Wright's book and let it take you as it has me on a wonderful journey through Scripture. It will supply a whole new perspective on yourself and your role in God's kingdom work. Unreal as it may seem on the surface of things, God's right hand and his holy arm have already gotten him the victory.

Surely it's time, therefore, to stop bemoaning all that is wrong with his world and engage it rather in the power of God's Spirit and Word. Our calling is not to leave this world but to love it as he did and await with great eagerness the day when his kingdom now manifest in us will become fully known in the whole world.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Get It Right!

Early yesterday in preparing for story time in Children's Church, I was writing a little bookmark I had in mind for each of the children. The idea had been brewing in my mind through the day on Saturday and on waking I knew exactly what next steps were. First, compose and save it. Second, duplicate as many as would fit on one page, which turned out to be six. Third, print as many time six as I felt were needed. Fourth, trim them all in my paper cutter. Fifth, make sure they were as uniform as possible, stick them in my shirt pocket, and get to church in time.

Simple enough, if only I get it right. I thought I had, having printed and trimmed the first set of 30. But a quick look sent be back to the beginning, for the text was not right poetically. "The kids will never know," I reasoned. But I knew, and though time was running out I decided to redo the whol;e thing. Get it right, for your own sake and the kids!

Three printing and trimmings later, it was domne, and just in time. The message was right, the printing clear, and the trim fairly uniform, Was all that important? You bet. Everything one does for the Lord and his people should be done right. It will never be perfect. Accept that. But thank God for conscience to do it right. The results follow, the essentials of the story I told the children, with the final question to them, Are You Open to God?" Just something to give their folks on going home, about which they might ask any questions on words they did not understand.

Be Open

God has done
for us all.

He made us
redeems us
sustains us.

He's coming
again to
transform us

All we need
to do is
believe that

And be open
to his work
in our hearts


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Jim Sundholm: A Prophet and Priest Among Us

As Thanksgiving approaches and we both count our blessings and reach out through Covenant World Relief to those less fortunate or in crisis, it seemed appropriate to honor the spirit and work of one among us whose whole life has been a witness to concern for and ministry among the marginalized in our world.

Jim Sundholm, most recently retired from his very effective ministry as director of Covenant World Relief and the Paul Carlson Foundation, has become over years an institution all by himself. As both a prophet and priest, whose passion has always been for urban ministry, his spirit and voice, strident when needed but never filled with himself, has earned our respect and required our response.

Listen now to the story of his life as he himself shares it in this RootedWings Interview. And as he shares, giving thanks for all those who have shaped and ministered to him, give thanks with me for his obedience to God's call and his demonstrated love for all God's people.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

'Praise with Me the God of Grace'

The moon was streaming in like a bright light through the bay window by our dining room table as I rose this morning. Many times, inspired by sunrises and sunsets, I have tried with my camera to capture them. But this morning, who knows why, it just didn't work, flash or no flash.

I was reminded of something my brother once said to me after trying in a slide show to capture the glory of the Grand Canyon. The show was pitiful but my brother was gracious and his comment memorable. "Jim," he said, smiling, "there are some things you just have to hold in your heart."

Nice as records are of the things that inspire us in life--even photographic records--they are never more than approximations of the things they are meant to capture. Why is it, then, that moved so often by God's glory we spend more time trying to capture it than just waiting before it, allowing the glory to capture us?

As in nature, so in music, that glory comes often to invade my being. Life is full of sacred reminders, meant to be absorbed, like the symmetry of text and music in an marvelous anthem by Richard Farrant, performed last Sunday afternoon by The National Lutheran Choir in a nearby Lutheran Church. with the moon shining through huge walled windows on either side of the sanctuary.

Lord, for thy tender mercy's sake, lay not our sin to our charge, but forgive that is past, and give us grace to amend our sinful lives. To decline from sin, and incline to virtue, that we may walk with a perfect heart before thee now and ever more. Amen.

I can no more capture for you with words the glory that streamed in on me in those moments than I could the Grand Canyon for my brother with that pitiful slide show. But it remains a living thing in my heart, and like the moon streaming through my window this morning that so refreshed my soul it continues to express my longing.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and .forget not all his benefits (Psalm 103:1).

Sunday, November 1, 2009

When All Is Not Well

When seasons and times
weigh heavy on mind;
When all is not well
and things are not fine;
to whom shall we go,
and where to recline?

A river there is,
the psalmist has said,
that flowing through time
can gladden the heart
by sweeping one up
and sett’ling the mind.

Recline in that now
all you in distress,
healed in those waters
one still can be blest.
Shadows are fright’ning
But light manifest.

Be calm, then, my soul,
when all else seems lean,
be carried for now
and stay in the stream,
let him guide you on
who wills to redeem.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

What Am I Waiting For?

My son, Paul, sent me a very moving video yesterday of a sermon by a Covenant brother I have not met and do not know. His name is Harvey Fitzgerald Carey and he pastors the Citadel of Faith Covenant Church in Detroit, Michigan.

Participating in a Leadership Conference recently, sponsored I believe by Willow Creek Church north of Chicago, this African American brother deserves 20 minutes of your time as he describes God's call on his life to live out the Gospel, ministering in what he describes as the poorest zip code in the poorest city in America today.

This is a rousing call to respond in faith to God's claim on our lives--not first by measuring our resources but by believing again in the enormous power of his Spirit, by risking urselves, moving out from the comfort zones that seal us off from others into the maelstrom of convoluted life all around us.

Brother Carey's challenge came to me while reading and pondering N.T. Wright's amazing new book, Surprised by Hope, in which the British New Testament scholar seeks to reawaken in us the spirit and faith that stirred those first named Christian, who either experienced or had passed on to them the good news of Jesus's resurrection from the dead.

Listen to the video you can access from the link below (give it time to load), and while you are listening ask yourself, "What am I waiting for? Where can I go and what can I do this very day to share what the the Lord has done for me in the power of his Spirit?" And after you have listened, open The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook to No. 685 and hear again the Lord calling you.

Our need, after all, is not finally for more programs and resources. It is really, as it has always been among God's people, for more faith in his will, and hope in his power, and love for the whole world of people he came among us to save.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reformation Perspective

Two realities grabbed my attention yesterday.
One long-term, much too long and lingering,
came at the bedside of an a Hospice patient
In a Catholic Elder Care Center nearby,
Beside a woman now in the process of dying.
The other, on leaving, was of outside windows
At the same Center, from which before he died
The lonesome husband of the Hospice patient
Used to wave at me on leaving from a visit.

The outside windows seem somehow permanent
While on the inside of the Care Center,
Whether offering Hospice now to the woman
Or Elder Care earlier for her grieving husband,
The focus seems more on meeting temporary needs.
What a parable on life! Brick, mortar, and glass
And the commerce and industry they support
Impress us with their strength and permanence,
While in our humanity we are all only temporary.

I was stunned momentarily by the contrast,
Until realizing in Reformation perspective
That what often seems permanent is not
And what seems only fleeting will endure.
After all, how can fifty or a hundred years,
Even of massive brick, mortar, and glass,
Compare with the gift of eternal life
Both offered by God and already received by
A man now gone and a woman in Hospice?

Oh for wisdom and grace, as in this case,
To use the brick and mortar and glass
To offer faith’s vision to the lonely and dying.
And oh for perspective on driving off
to retain in soul and spirit that same vision.
What we too often see as permanent
is in reality only passing with its use,
while what seems more passing and fragile
carries within it the seeds of eternal life.

Reformation Sunday

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Put Loss in Context: Symbolize It

It was Sunday morning, early October, in Libertyville Covenant Church north of Chicago. We were there with our children and grandchildren for Sunday School and Morning Worship. Brian Madvig of the Winnetka Covenant Church nearby was leading the second session of a Adult Class on loss. In the first session, we were told, he had asked the group to share a loss in their lives, i.e. witness to it, name it. On this morning he began by asking how it felt to name such in public? "I was left feeling a lot of pain over things yet unresolved," he offered. The group agreed. Before leaving that first session he risked asking the namers to create during the week some "symbol" of the loss to which they had witnessed. Could they? Would they?

Indeed. A brother pastor thanked him warmly for the pain of naming a grief he was living with and offered a torn copy of the membership directory of a church he had lately served that was now in disarray. A gentle man and good, his heart was broken for a people he had loved and served but now--at a distance--he could no longer shepherd and comfort. His dear wife, also a long-time friend, catalogued her grief over painful family memories going back to childhood.

One middle-aged father help us a series of tile-like photos mounted on a panel depicting his family's grief over the recent loss of a disadvantaged son, and a young woman offered a similar symbol of the pain she was experiencing over the loss of a friend with whom she used, among other things, to play cards.

Then an elegant elderly friend of many years named Dolores stood erect to detail for us in a prose/poem her feelings both of grief and resolution, grief over the loss of her husband and the comfort God has supplied, helping her to see her life now in larger perspective. Moved both by her pain as a human being and her strength as a woman of faith, I asked for a copy of her poem to ponder further myself and eventually share with others. Titled "Loss," it follows:

A young man saw a girl
and the girl saw him.
There was lake, woods and moonlight,
lovely halcyon days.
War clouds were parting.
Separation endured, prayers said.
Peace, homecoming, future plans.
Marriage, home and children.
Love and laughter, and some tears.
Years pass, growing old,
Gray hairs and illness.
Knowing God loves, come what may.
Then that too cold moment.
He's gone before me!
Oh, the loneliness and emptiness.
But the wonderful memories,
The caring friends, family,
The gratitude I must feel
For the loving Father and his Son
Who bear me up
When I want to surrender
And go into the dark
To wallow in grief.
God holds me in the warmth of his everlasting arms.

Bless you, brothers and sisters all. You ministered to me witnessing to how God is even now ministering to you. And thank you, Brian, for thus facilitating that witness. The symbols, I heard, were to be posted in the narthex for others to see and consider. I am now at a distance from that place, but it does not matter. For both the symbols and the witness to them so freely offered that morning are graven on my mind as gifts from fellow pilgrims clearly in touch with God.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

An Unlikely Saint

Next month, still nearly all in Pentecost, begins with All Saints Sunday, one of my favorites--a time not only to remember those who have passed from us over the last twelve months but the larger host of all who now, including them, have inspired our faith in God over time.

One such for me was George Fischer of Bethany Covenant Church on the south side of Chicago, an Archie Bunker kind of guy who worked for the Swift Company in their meat packing division. I always liked George and was drawn to him, in spite of the fact that so far as I knew he never said much about his faith or relationship to God. We most often shared lighter banter, mixed inevitably with jokes, nothing all that serious.

One Sunday evening, however, in Bethany's lovely Fireside Room at the rear of the sanctuary, we had gathered by a glowing fire to worship as we did in those days. A senior in Seminary, I was serving Bethany as a kind of student-interim. Way across town, the three-times-weekly trek Alyce and I made to serve in that roll, even while carrying a full load of study, were both inspiring and tiring. Sundays were especially challenging, in that we were gone from home on the north side twelve hours or more.

Alyce was pregnant with our first child, and after morning activities and dinner at some one's home--usually chicken, not her favorite at that point--we would return to the church for an afternoon nap on the sanctuary pews. It was a long time until evening.

When it came time to preach that night I really did not feel like preaching, so not to appear unprepared I simply held up my notes before the people--thus to justify myself--before telling them so. "I'm tired tonight," I said, "so if it's alright with you I"m just going to sit down and wait with you in silence until someone has something to say." Two, three, four, and five minutes passed. No word from anyone, nor any sound save for the crackling of the fire in its place.

I was about to get up and say "O.K., I'll preach!" when George Fischer stood erect like a ramrod in the back row and startled us all by crying out in a very loud voice, "O God, what a sinner I am!" I'll never forget that moment or the outpouring of fervent and honest witness that followed from others. Thus did the saints preach, inspired by brother George, and pray together afterward in as moving a way as made clear that God's Spirit was present.

The lesson, for me, remains indelible. Saints are not manifest in Plaster of Paris. Nor are they revealed in memorized spiritual jargon that just as often as not hides hardened and judgmental hearts. Saints are sinners who are in touch both with their sinful nature and the God who alone opens their hearts to confess, if only to offer them his forgiveness.

I'll miss Saint George this year, and pray while remembering a host of others like him whose lives and spirits have blessed mine, to be more like them in the sharing of my own need for God and his grace.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Stunned by Grace--Kajsa's Grace and God's

I was stunned yesterday by this brand new picture of our granddaughter, Kajsa Grace, sent me by her mother. I knew a Nikon camera had a lot to do with it, capturing so sensitively the nuances in a child's face. But without Kristin's sensitivity as a mother to the particular moment in which the shutter clicked, the Nikon could hardly have recorded what it did. And without the subject herself, neither photographer nor camera could have delivered the image thus beautifully captured.

Only a child soon to be seven, Kajsa has been and remains a living reminder to all who have followed her life journey until now an incarnation of her middle name--Grace. No less a child than any other, and perhaps even more feisty than most having in her case to survive with half a heart, four major surgeries, frequent hospitalizations, and endless medications, she has developed the character of a survivor. And in her survival we have seen another grace--the grace of God--at work.

Are you ever stunned by God's grace to you in another-- by some sudden awareness that startles you awake and recovers your sense of wonder in life? If not, pray God that he will "new life in you awaken" as a hymn writer puts it, stir you life from slumber and the normal; run of things by the grace in a loved one's face or a neighbor's need, or just the forgiveness of your own sin.

Come thou fount of ev'ry blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it, mount of thy redeeming love.

O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wand'ring heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
here's my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

(The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshuipbook, No. 68, sts 1,3.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

"I Don't Have a Single Friend in this World," He Said!

The statement came like a lightning bolt out of the blue, entirely unexpected. Standing off a moment from cutting my hair, my barber said, rather abruptly, "I'm not sure you'll believe this, but I'm a very insecure person. I don't have a single friend in this world!"

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. An apparently gregarious person with an inviting smile, and a good conversationalist as most barbers are, we had shared stories over time--and, of course, jokes--typical barbershop banter. But this time there was more. It was significant I soon realized that two other barbers in his small shop were not there that day. Nor were any clients waiting to be served.

"All these years in your barbershop and you don't have a single friend?" I responded. "I can't believe it." Returning to task, he filled in on details. "As I said, I'm a very insecure person, and long for a friend, but every time I come on someone I think could be a friend--someone that seems higher and wiser than me--I come over time to see flaws that eventually cause me to reject them out of hand."

"Are there other problems with you, more personal? I wondered. "Yes," he responded, "alcohol among them. Could we talk sometime?"

How moving the conversation was for me, a client of his now over 14 years, myself on that very day in the midst of preparations for leading an Adult Sunday School Class on "Friendship Evangelism" less than two weeks later.

As it turned out, the class I led was yesterday, the basic thrust of which, using a beautiful one-hour hourglass as an object lesson, was that we as Christians in this world are simply the overflow of God's friendship toward us and that unless we are living daily in that flow our witness to others gets wooden and stale.

Today, not over lunch as he wished--my barber friend is taking his mother to the doctor this morning--but over coffee in Stillwater at 1:30 he and I are going to have that talk. I'm going to become the friend he is missing, God helping me. He'll soon enough discover my foibles and faults as well, educated and perceptive as he is. But I'm praying early this morning that in, with, and under all that--even perhaps in the midst of my own vulnerabilities--he will sense and come over time to receive not only the friendship of God, who is the healer of all our ills, but the warm and healing communion of his people as well.

Pray that I will not get in the way of the Friend who has thus set the stage for our coming together as human beings. Surely he is even now standing by our place of meeting to draw us together to himself.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Soul Food Fest

This was a good day in God's house among his people, ending with a Nowthwest Conference Meeting in the evening at historic First Covenant in Minneapolis, one of many planned by Conference leaders this year in celebration of its 125 years of ministry and outreach.

It was a soul food fest, drawing my spirit as I participated back to childhood days when churches would gather all over the north side of Chicago to worship and celebrate God's goodness. Only now the souls gathered and fed were more diverse, as is the Covenant everywhere these days.

What touched me most deeply was the intergenerational nature of the food served up--soul food in the best sense: children's and congregational singing, various ethnic groups represented in the reading of Scripture and the preaching, a witness from our camps in the conference, and a marvelous story told by Dr. Philip Anderson of our Seminary in Chicago of a pioneer pastor and huistorian among us who even while dying wanted to share with his peers in ministry and anyone else who would listen the importance of staying focused on the good news of God's grace.

Topping the evening off was a passionate message by Efram Smith of Sanctuary Covenant, reminding us all from 1 John 4 of what we already knew but are often in danger of forgetting, i.e. that our future is tied to our past and may be, as David Nyvall once said, the nearest path to our future. "We are as a people the overflowing of God's grace in this world," Efram said, "Mission Friends who care about the communities and world in which live. We are called to love one another, and warned that such love must be evidenced by our faithfulness to core values in our history such as not only sharing Christ with the lost but promoting justice and mercy in his name on behalf of the least."

Something came together in the spirit of the whole evening that fed my soul. From all I could gather it fed the souls of others as well. Is God leading us into a new springtime of joy in believing and belonging, even richer now for spanning the diversities that are making fellowship and communion with one other in Christ's body daily more rich?

If Efrem is right, as I believe he is, there is more than enough reason to be hopeful going forward if we remain true to who we are in Christ. In this assembly of believers every one has a place to serve and be honored and noone can claim to love God who refuses to love and care for their brothers and sisters and holds back from witnessing to their neighbors.

Thank you, God, for a great day among your people. I am content now to go to bed for the rest I need. I also anticipate awakening in the morning more fully alive to both the challenges and opportunities that await me as a Christian and a Covenanter called to serve you and your people and your world.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Poor Proofing: Should We Laugh or Cry?

John Lund, an attorney friend in Wisconsin, sent me a list of some crazy newspaper headlines that some editor forgot to proof before they were published. They're really fuuny, even when they misrepresent tragedy. Hope you enjoy them as I have. Hope, too, you cringe a little, as every good editor should for allowing them to go through:

Man Kills Self before Shooting Wife and Daughter.

Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Experts Say.

Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers.

Miners Refuse to Work after Death.

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant.

War Dims Hope for Peace.

If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile.

Enfield (London) Couple Slain: Police Suspect Homicide.

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges.

Man Struck By Lightning: Faces Battery Charge.

New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group.

Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft.

Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half.

Hospitals Are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

And the winner is:

Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery: Hundreds Dead

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Discord and Harmony

I have been wondering a lot lately about the relationship between discord and harmony in life. In part, my preoccupation has been triggered by political forums that seem to be getting more and more ballistic in nature and less civil in tone. Even in Christian circles where we know our unity to be in Christ, believers on all sides of any particular issue tend to hunker down behind walls protecting their own preferences--in music and worship, for example--than to center on seeking in common Christ's will and way.

I am thankful for every reminder that the tensions separating us from each other are not new. It is also important, I realize, not to see discord as separate entirely from harmony. After all, honest differences of opinion can help to correct false harmonies that themselves are discordant with truth. They can also, as in music, add richness to the score, notes that waken us from the sameness in our hearing, jarring us to attention.

Surely there is a higher road we need to negotiate in dealing with each other in the body of Christ. And, in my own mind, taking that higher road requires a renewed commitment to focus on Christ and listen carefully for the signs of his presence in the thought and life of others, no matter how different from us.

Sparring with one another will get us nowhere, for what we communicate in that sparring-- even though we may deny it--is a kind of body-language disdain that is less than helpful and only furthers our divides. Nor is it helpful to ask surrogates to speak for us, thus avoiding the civil and personal conversations that honor every one's place in Christ's body.

May the Lord help each of us to understand, as David Nyvall once wrote, that "even the best interests may become discordant and inharmonious. But they may also be in concord and tuned to a harmonious hymn [of] praise [to] the Lord."

We cannot live behind walls of our own making. We must move out to one another in love, not afraid to express our feelings, but open as well to what Christ may be saying to us through others. In the long run, praying for and seeking together the will of our Lord will be far more rewarding than simply seeking life on our own terms. "He who seeks his own life," Jesus said, "will surely lose it. But he who loses his life for my sake and the gospel's shall find it."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Breaking the Tyrannies of Time

Time as a sequence of events has us all in its grasp it seems. Ask people how they are--even in retirement--and their common response is often "busy." Time is too often marked sequentially by events and meaning tied to the number of them in which one is involved.

"Unfilled, time is a threat," Bruce Chilton writes in Redeeming Time: the Wisdom of Ancient Jewish and Christian Festal Calendars (Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), "and under that threat people commonly speak of being depressed." Time thus becomes something to be filled, scheduled, marked by daily calendered events that measure our worth as persons.

Chilton argues that in biblical narrative and the histories of Judaism and Christianity this dominance of time as interval over time as rhythm has been broken. Dark sequential events that often dominate the landscape of our lives are not equal in power to the rhythmic patterns of light that shine through biblical revelation and subsequent Jewish and Christian faith and worship.

In times of terror like 9/11 and the seeming impasses in Iraq and Afghanistan, people of faith are given a rhythm of action that allows them to respond in ways that are not normally seen or even imagined. "The enduring Torah, the timeless Christ--along with their myriad reflections in philosophy and art and belief, and their counterparts in other global religions--have on many occasions shattered the illusions of this world and [its] pretense to dominion over time."

He or she is wise who looks to and for such rhythms in life. For in, with, and under the struggles that mark our lives--the chronological events in which we all too often seek meaning and purpose--are deeper, long-range patterns of divine/human engagement that are far more important and fulfilling.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Change Me, God, and Then the World

A slender, bold, black-on-white sign is attached to the outside wall approaching the Prayer Room in our church. Though there over time and a bit bedraggled, I had not really noticed it-- much less paid attention to what it said--until yesterday, in a solitary moment, passing by on my way to greet the preschoolers on the other end of the building.

"Bold persistent prayer works," it proclaimed. "First it changes us. Then it changes the world." I stopped momentarily in a room further down the hall to write it down in my datebook and discovered that fleeting as my memory is I needed to go back to get it right. The rest of the day and through last night it has haunted me--almost like a word from God, hanging in the air all around until it accomplishes what he sent it out to do in me.

Have you noticed how easy it is to be defensive spiritually, hunkered down in your little self, wanting somehow to avoid life's threats and challenges, either by pretending they are not real or by shoving them off as someone else's responsibility? In your own impatience and sometimes even disgust over the opinionations of others, have you faced recently your own facile opinionations concerning them and the world at large?

Thoughtless prayer, aimed as much at others as to God, is hardly useful. It might actually be more hurtful than helpful, no matter how many hours one might spend exercising it. But "bold persistent prayer works," because it changes us first into vessels of the caring grace God is out dispensing in his passion to change the world.

Change me, God, praying as I write. Break down every middle wall of partition that separates me from you and every other human being and circumstance. "Purge me with hyssop and I will be clean.... Fill me with joy and gladness.... Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.... Then I will teach transgressors your ways and sinners will return to you" (Psalm 51:7,8,10,13).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

God Bless the Doorkeepers!

Rally day is always a festival day for me. The joys of believing are specially entwined with the joys of belonging as one finds one's way to the House of God. What a privilege we are given to gather with God's people week after week.

On arriving today I was reminded also once again of the care given that House in preparation for our coming--hardly noticed by many, perhaps, consistent as it is. We have more or less come to expect it. Hidden disciplines extended, day by day and week after week, tending to floors, walls, and carpets--not to mention all the special setups required of doorkeepers who thus minister to us by facilitating our worship, study, and fellowship.

A day in thy courts is better than a thousand, the psalmist says (84:10a). Indeed! That's exactly how I felt from arriving until leaving God's House today. And I realized the whole time while there how in no small measure the pleasure of it was due to staff colleagues who in devotion no less than mine--perhaps even greater--silently make their witness to what the psalmist then goes on to say, I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness (84:10b).

May God help us as ministers to be as faithful in our preparations for serving God's people as those doorkeepers are who prepare the way for us who come in and go out from God's House week after week. And may he give us the grace not only to recognize their combined efforts but offer each of them personally out thanks as well!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Why Write?

On this Labor Day I am making my way through Ralph Wood's recent book on Flannery O'Connor, arguably in his view the greatest Christian writer in 20th century America. The book catalogues her fascination with what he calls "the Christ-Haunted South," which is the nexus out of which she wrote. A devout Catholic, O'Connor was both fascinated by and admiring of the a fundamentalist Baptist tradition that she saw--in its spirit if not always its theology--as an antidote to the pervasive nihilism in both the secular and religious life of her time.

O'Connor's writing is not an easy read. Her short stories, the main body of her work, are filled with weird characters and strange evocative narrative that seem on the surface almost scandalous and therefore irrelevant, less than acceptable to average people. Yet time spent in them creates in one a passion for reading more of her and her characters--largely I think because they point to a passion for the life of faith that unmasks the trivialities that so dominated the secular and religious life of her time.

Afflicted with lupus and dying already in her thirties, the tenor of her spirit remains a haunting reminder to all of us that death itself, as she once wrote, is "the most significant position life offers the Christian," just as, Wood reminds us, the psalmists say in 39:4 ("Lord, make me to know mine end and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am") and 90:4 and 12 ("So teach us to number our days ... that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom").

With a deft sense of style as well as humor, and a dogged determination not to think of herself as anything special, this literary giant put her whole vocation as a writer in wonderful perspective. Reflecting on Jesus parable of the talents she wrote a friend, "The human comes before art. You do not write the best that you can for the sake of the art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit."

No wonder being dead she yet speaks so powerfully and redemptively. The God she loved and believed in so passionately is seeing to that.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Christ's Body, the Church

In his annual report to our denomination this year, Covenant President Gary Walter used an image that we all do well to heed. It had specifically to do with how we see ourselves as individuals in relation to our local church, and how we see ourselves as churches in relation to the denomination. Taking us back to root understandings when the Covenant was founded, he laid out before us as individuals and churches a powerful--and I believe biblical--reminder:

"Did you ever stop to think that we chose for ourselves the name The Evangelical Covenant Church, not The Churches of the Evangelical Covenant? We purposefully chose the single, more organic name Church.

"It intentionally invokes Paul’s teaching on the living Body of Christ…made up of many parts, yes, but never standing apart from one another. “Churches” for me has an organizational implication of retaining separateness; “Church” as a living organism has the implication of essential oneness and unity."

What a difference that understanding has made in my life. From childhood it supplied to and in me a security that being essentially on my own could never have supplied. It not only planted my spirit in the rich loam of being "In It Together," as President Walter has now termed it, but set me free from the awful spectre of continually wondering, like so many are these days, "How am I doing?"

The greatest challenge of our time in my view, religiously and politically, is to rediscover our identity--where "home" is for us, the place from which we venture out to work in the Lord's vineyard every day and return at night to renew and rest our spirits.

I once asked an earnest and energetic young man part-way into a local church job interview, "Where is home for you,?" Not lacking in ideas as to his ministry and his gifts, that query somehow struck him to the quick. "That's a great question," he replied, "I'm not sure I know!" What was supposed to be a half-hour interview turned into a two-hour dialogue that moved us both. And on rising after prayer, before leaving, he asked simply, "Could I have a hug?"

The Covenant Church we have inherited as Church--one body of churches conjoined in Christ--is a treasure. What becomes of it now moving forward depends on whether we heed our President's wise reminder that we are "In It Together."

Are you praying for, present with, and supportive of the whole body we are as a Covenant Church, not to mention Christ's larger body of which it is only a part? Is the Covenant just a cardboard house for you to do your own thing, or a home your inhabit and care about with all the others who bear its name with you in the larger body of Christ?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Meet Alice and Art

I first met them three or four years ago, while serving as Interim Pastor at Salem Covenant Church. I had heard that Alice had taken sick and was soon to be hospitalized. So I phoned their home to inquire if I might visit them, and was greeted by Art's voice. "Today would not be a good day," he said. "I'll be gone all afternoon." I asked him to take my number and call me back when it would be convenient and was startled to hear him say, "I can't. I'm blind."

Here was a woman whose long pilgrimage through illness has led now to chemo treatments for cancer. And a loving husband whose own condition, I later discovered, not only included blindness but a serious heart condition as well. Every visit I have made to the Blaisdell home since then, not to mention Unity Hospital, has left me praising God for these two.

Blaisdell seems an appropriate name for them, almost parabolic in the sound of it. Blazing their way together through life's dell, helpless in one way healthwise, but for the most part stable in spirit--even cheerful. People of faith, hope, and love. Uncomplaining in adversity. Wanting our prayers, of course, and glad for our presence alongside. Yet not clutching straws, realistic and in their own way vibrant.

We laughed last night about that first phone call, and in the glow of evening talked openly about all that lies ahead--for her and for him. Turning to Scripture I read from the Psalms, Matthew, and Romans, clearly food for their souls. You could see it in their eyes. I prayed--asking God to sustain their spirits and give them hope. Then Alice took over, wanting to tell me about of her recent trip with her daughters--over 3,000 miles by car no less--to extended family in far away Idaho and all that meant to her. In her condition family wanted her to fly but she insisted she wanted an auto trip. When it was time to go, I asked them to rise, gathered them close, and with my hands on their heads pronounced the benediction.

As I drove off, Art was standing at the door, buoyed in spirit, I believe, as if longing for more. And I was in tears of gratitude for the privilege God has given me just to visit such saints in light, whose lives and spirits in spite of their condition are such a powerful witness to the things in life that remain and matter for Christians.

Surely God himself has blest and kept Alice and Art. Clearly he is still making his face to shine upon them and be gracious to them. Yet not only so. Time and again, through them, he is also lifting up the light of his countenance on me.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

An Early Benediction

You never know when God is going to move in on you. Sometimes his benediction comes earlier than one might expect, programmed as we are to hear it proclaimed at the end of worship.

I know that of course, and should have thought of it as we near the end of a marvelous two-month leave of absence from our home and ministry in Minnesota. To wait to the end of anything for God is to forget that he always waits first on us.

It is Saturday morning as I write, and in two brief days we head home. But God's benediction on our stay here at our cabin in Wisconsin came already two evenings ago in a stellar sunset that so evidenced his handiwork as to leave us speechless.

The picture I took from our deck on the hill does not do it justice, given the fact that it was taken through the trees immediately in front of me. But even that became a parable on his grace. The trees in the foreground represents all the days we have been here and the few that remain. And the cascading glow in the sky beyond is a perpetual reminder of his presence in all that is yet to be.

It will be no struggle to go home. For his benediction on our time away, just as the pronouncing of it in a service of worship, is never meant to signal an end to faith and ministry. It is meant rather to so stir our hearts by the sense of his glory that we yearn all the more, leaving rest or worship, to share his benediction with others.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Lord, Teach Me How to Pray!

Centuries ago, John Montgomery (1771-1854) gifted the church with a hymn on prayer (The Covenant Hymnal, 1973, No. 345), whose images came back to me on awakening this morning.

Prayer is the soul's sincere desire, unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire that trembles in the breast.

Sincere desire and hidden fire ... that trembles in the breast. How true of prayer in my life, not so much the assembling of words as the giving of wings to my hung'ring spirit. Often, in fact, I have no words to offer, which Montgomery goes on to describe. Sometimes prayer is only the burden of a sigh, the falling of a tear, the upward glancing of an eye when none but God is near.

More images abound. Prayer is the simplest form of speech ... the contrite sinner's voice, returning from his ways ... the Christian's vital breath and native air, his watchword at the gates of death, he enters heav'n with prayer.

I could well in my own life parody the words of one in Scripture who once cried out to Jesus, "I believe, Lord; help my unbelief," by saying here and now, "I pray, Lord; help my lack of prayer." And so, with James Montgomery, I begin this day as he ended his hymn: O thou by whom we come to God, the life, the truth, the way; the path of prayer thyself hast trod, Lord, teach [me] how to pray.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Light a Candle!

“I’ll light a candle,” my brother often said
whenever life seemed to tumble in on someone.
It was his way of standing by, expressing sympathy.
It may also have involved his distaste for disruption,
especially threatening and unwelcome change.

Early morning this day I’ve lit a candle too,
perhaps and even likely for the same reasons.
It burns in sympathy for life at a distance,
so many imponderables people are facing,
as well as my own distaste for disruption.

Could it be that the lighting itself of a single wick
posts a faith supplied by a steadier Light
that remains beyond my life and that of others,
Sovereign over all human change and disruption?
I believe that, and God invades my unbelief!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Noise and the Rest God Offers

Years ago, in Seminary, Dr. Fredrick Pamp gave us in a class on pastoral orientation a word from Isaiah for use in hospital visitation. For thus says the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength (30:15).

How true that has been in my life, not only as a minister but as a human being. All the noise around me competes daily for my attention--not to mention devotion. And it is often enticing. But what it promises is short-lived and I am left no better than I was when it first engaged me.

Life is full of noise these days and it is easy to lose the kind of reliable perspective that only God supplies. One never turns to or rests in him without being saved. Nor does quietness and confidence in him ever fail ever to render strength and consolation.

In Psalm 73, one of my favorites, the point is driven home. Tempted away from purity of heart by envy over the prosperity of the wicked--not to mention the high regard in which they are regarded by others, he confesses that his own feet had almost stumbled and his steps had almost slipped. Even his attempts to understand all this seemed to him a wearisome thing. It led him in fact to wonder if trying to keep his heart clean and his hands washed in innocence was really in vain.

All this anger and confusion "until I went into the sanctuary of God," he confesses. "Then I perceived their end." The wicked have set themselves in slippery places and God makes them sooner or later to fall to ruin. They are in fact "like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms."

I'm tired this morning of chasing phantoms, as well as all the noise of those who entice me to do so. And I thank God that in returning and rest I have been time and again saved from their grip. If now in quietness and confidence I keep finding God's strength, and honor his sanctuary, then with Isaiah and the psalmist I will leave behind me a witness as helpful to others as theirs has been and is to me.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Young Man on a Mission

Matthew Robert Manning (19 in October) graduated from the Twin City's Southwest High School in May, after which he volunteered more that six weeks this summer as an athletic director at an orphanage in the bush country of Ghana. We are very proud as his extended family not only of him but of his parents, Mary and Bob, and his sisters Jessica (16) and Charlotte (14) as well.

This 22-minute exclusive RootedWings interview explores in brief Matthew's childhood roots in Sweden, his grade and high school education in South Minneapolis, his reflections on the Ghana experience, and his life goals soon to be pursued as he moves on to college this fall at De Paul University in Chicago.

Very mature for his age, as are both his sisters, Matthew has a servant heart--which he attributes to his strong faith in God's love and providence. As he pursues what he terms "my call," pray with us as a family for God's continued guidance and blessing. And as you pray, be encouraged by the witness of this young man on a mission, not focused on himself first but on serving those he knows from experience now to be "far less fortunate" all over the world .

Sunday, August 9, 2009

'Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise'

Life is a process of living, full both of wonder and mystery. Last night two of our grandchildren, Matthew and Charlotte Manning arrived with Matthew's friend Sam (Samantha). This morning I woke to an email invitation from another grandson's wife, Jill in California, to be a friend on Facebook. Later this morning our son Paul arrives with his wife Kristin and their children, Annika, Colin, and Kajsa, plus Gunther, their hundred-pound Lab. And tomorrow morning our Son Peter arrives briefly with his Bonnie's brother Kurt Peterson and their families for lunch, after which they take Charlotte with them to Winnetka Covenant Church's Family Camp at Covenant Point in Iron River, Michigan, a bit over an hour away.

"They come and they go," as Alyce's mother used to say of her seven children and their families. We're seven in all with our five children, though through them we have fifteen grandchildren, with another on the way, plus six great-grandchildren!

What blesses Alyce and me is our whole family's commitment to being together whenever there is opportunity. And though that is a challenge for us at our age, it is nonetheless an untold blessing. Who can explain the wonder and mystery of it all?

Better to heed the biblical injunction concerning God's superintending grace: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths (Proverbs 3:5,6).

You can sing it, too, you know. There are two musical settings in The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, both crafted in one way or another by brother Covenanters. One (No 406) is a canon that invites you to sing and others to respond. It is by Californian Roland Tabell. The other (No. 423) is by Rick Carlson, newly arrived as a pastor of one of our churches in Florida.

To try analytically to figure everything out in life--much less seek to control it--is surely a dead end. Much better to live into the wonder and mystery of it and acknowledge day by day the Sovereign One who alone both understands and superintends it all.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

'In Liberating Strife'

America has been much on my mind these summer days. Barraged by media events--all the way from "America's Got Talent" through the release yesterday of of two American hostages from North Korea to what seems more and more like an unending war in the Middle East--there seems nowhere to hide from competition and human strife.

Perhaps our greatest temptation in the events that thus engage us as a nation--personally and socially--is simply to wish they were not so, to hide ourselves as it were from the competition and strife they represent, thinking somehow they have little to do with us. But in reality there is no hiding. "No man is an island, entire of itself," as the poet once put it. We are all as human beings both involved in and part of the human struggle all over this world for freedom and meaning and hope.

Somehow or other, I don't know why, I woke early this morning with "America the Beautiful" on my mind. Just phrases at first, like "liberating strife," sent me to seek out the whole of it (The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 737). And in the seeking I found comfort in the perspectives it offers--not only of "spacious skies and amber waves of grain," and "purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain," but also in "heroes proved in liberating strife," and "patriot dream that sees beyond the years."

Only the God who created us all can renew in us that ability to see beyond our years the meaning of it all. And surely, once seeing, we must come time and again to understand, as Abraham Lincoln so beautifully put it, that "we cannot escape history." Our role, rather, especially as those who believe and live in him, must be to learn that the life we so much seek requires our full participation in the struggles of our time and place. Only then will we experience for ourselves and leave behind for others the sense of liberation our forebears endowed to us.

Monday, August 3, 2009

A Thought-Provoking Encounter


Hornets are not
exactly kind
when one invades
their domicile.

They can and will
sting, as one did
when I threatened
to kill its kind.

Come from outside
its family
had invaded
my domicile.

A two-fold plan
was concocted
to meet their threat
and guard my turf.

Hornet spray first,
then screening off
the outside vent
to end their reign.

myself low to reach
the neutral vent
I launched part one.

Quick as a wink
a hornet dove
and sting my ear
to guard its turf.

The sting is slight
but thought remains
that hornets too
need domicile.

And the God who
created them
has not spared me
the reminder.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Every Sunday morning, while house-bound in old age, my parents would sing a Sabbath song from memory--in Swedish--a song well known and loved by our Covenant forebears:

Sabbath Day of rest and cheer,
Day divine to me so dear,
Come, O come to old and young,
Gath'ring all for prayer and song.

How pleased they both would have been to hear what Alyce and I first heard this week, a very moving sermon just preached by young Catherine Buckley at Rice Creek Covenant Church in Lino Lakes, MN. Grown up in that congregation and now a middler at North Park Theological Seminary. it nearly took our breath away to hear with such freshness and passion God's call to rest in him.

Take time now or make time later to listen to God's Word through Catherine. You don't have time not to. And as you listen look on the Catherine we have come to know and love, gifted and giving in so many ways. Pray for her, seeking her own Sabbath, and give thanks to God for his gracious invitation to rest in him again yourself with all his saints.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Someday Soon

Last September, before preaching on the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Kay Sorvik read the Gospel lesson from Matthew 25 after which she asked me to sing a verse of the pulpit hymn she had chosen and lead the congregation in singing stanzas 2 and 3. The text and tune for "Someday Soon" (The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 748) were largely written by my son-in-law Bob Stromberg. Rick Carlson did the musical arrangement.

Arriving at our cabin in the late 1980s Bob asked if I would help him complete the text. Full of the imagery we enjoy each year at the cabin--"whispering pines," "your eagle soaring o'er us," "the spring after winter's snow," and "the seedling's hint of harvest"--all of which heighten our love for God and our longing to be home with him--the song fits well with the theme on which Kay then movingly preached.

Here follows a brief video of our singing together in hopes that it might encourage many to learn the hymn and sing it often as one more way of preparing for Christ's coming. Believers have no need to dread that Day. They have every reason rather to anticipate and even glory in it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ministry: Whoever Said It Would Be Easy?

There's a lot of talk these days about how hard it is to be a minister. I would not make light of that, but I do think it is probably no more true today than it has ever been. Times change, of course, and the scenery of life. But who that follows Christ's call to ministry has any right to assume that pursuing that call will ever be easy?

If truth be told, we are all, after Christ, sacrifical lambs, and in that role we have to learn to suffer for God's sake and others. His claim on us is sovereign over every circumstance we may encounter along the way. And his call to serve in his name by his Spirit allows no protest on our part and offers no room for complaint.

Many of my colleagues have understood this and modeled it in ways I have not had to endure. Don Krause, a seminary classmate, later to become a much-loved and very effective chaplain in hospitals and retirement homes, and now a fellow member at Salem is only one such. Look at what "the Call" required of him and his family, returning in 1952 from extended internships in Randall and Alexandria, MN to finish his seminary training.

One child. No financiial resources, even to rent a truck or trailer. More furniture than would fit in their old car. Headed for very limited housing space. Hard days ahead, not to mention just the logistical maneuvering now required to get this moving monstrosity to Chicago!

In Don's own words, the extended internship--given among other things only out-house bathroom facilities for 15 months of it-- had been "a test of my dedication to 'the Call.'" No wonder! Yet he trusted the One who had called him, and bears witness now to the fact that "God's grace and many subsequent years of ministry have proven the validity of that Call."

The Krauses, like their Father Abraham, are still traveling on by stages--now through Don's recent surgery following retirement and various other family health issues. From a merely human point of view one might expect more complaint. But that is not in Don's nature. His focus is not on the hardships he and Betty and their family have endured. "Thinking of God's faithful promises," he wrote me recently, "the little Gospel chorus comes to mind: 'He knows the way through the wilderness. All you have to do is follow.'"

That's it, my brothers and sisters in ministry. As D.T. Niles once put it in shaping up a young minister who kept moaning about his people, "Don't complain so much about your church. That's why you're there!" Indeed! After all, it is Christ who called us, and Christ knows what he is doing. All we need to do is follow.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

'The Lord Is Your Keeper' (Psalm 121:5)

This "Song of Ascents" is also often called "The Traveler's Psalm," which meshes well both with life itself as a pilgrimage from beginning to end and with every stage along life's way. The promise is that "The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore."

Part of that keeping for me--especially as I get older--lies in realizing that God's promise is communal as well as personal. It extends to family--not only one's individual family but also to God's larger family of people all over the world.

God has kept my own going out and coming in all these years, and now he is keeping the lives of my children and grandchildren--like grandson Matthew Manning in his going out to serve orphans in Ghana this summer and his coming home tomorrow to pursue his education and calling.

Matthew is a wonderful young man, just graduated from high school last spring and soon to be on his way to De Paul University, Chicago, in the fall. He has often spoken of his interest in architecture, which for those who know and love him seems very fitting, given the architecture of his own life. Handsome, talented, and energetic, he could well have become self-centered in the living out of his days until now, as so many teenagers are these days. But the Lord has kept him from all that, nurturing him along the way in the greatest art of all. God has already made him an architect, gathering around him a coterie of family and friends and forming with them a building not made with hands, extending beyond itself to include Ghanian orphans and who knows how many more.

Thank you, Lord, for being Matthew's keeper as well as ours. Thank you, too, for the generous heart you have given him for others. You are teaching us your way through him now even as we have sought to teach him your way through us since childhood. And faithful as you are, we know you will keep all our goings out and comings in from this time on and forvermore. Hallelujah!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Blessed Nap!

Returing home late last night from a hurried trip to Northbrook, IL for the funeral of Bernice Brandel--a lovely trip by car both ways!--we were happy to wake up at Hembygden, our cabin in Wisconsin, this morning.

Through the early hours of the day we were putsing, which we love to do--Alyce in the kitchen preparing for Judy and Bob coming in tomorrow and me fixing the railing on the walkway down to the lake. Then we went grocery shopping in town.

After lunch it was nap time for me, a delicious two-hour siesta on the living room sofa--a blessed waste of time, as a historic Christian saint once spoke of prayer itself. We are forever short of time, it seems, in the living of our lives. And part of the reason may well be that our spirits are slaves to calendars and clocks. So, consequently, are our bodies.

When given time to be free of all that for awhile there is no reason not to nap. With nothing ahead demanding (or inviting?) my attention, why not? It was indeed delicious--and rewarding. I'm already looking forward to another one tomorrow.

Take the hint, friend, whoever and wherever you are. Wasteful or even impossible as you might think it to be, give your brain and body a rest. The world around you not only can wait. It will, too, and you'll feel better when you face it refreshed.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tribute to Whom Tribute Is Due

Today I am recalling God's faithfulness in the life--and yes, ministry--of a wonderful woman named Bernice Brandel, whose Memorial Service is coming next Monday at Covenant Village in Northbrook, Illinois. Several years ago, in planning her own service, she requested her chaplain to call and ask if I would sing "He the Pearly Gates Will Open"--in Swedish! Ever since Alyce and I have carried the music with us wherever we traveled--to make sure, she being well along in her nineties, that we would be ready whenever the call came. So on Sunday we head to Lake Geneva overnight and on to the Memorial Service Monday afternoon.

Most Covenanters are probably unaware of how much they owe to the spirit and life of this good woman--as well as her late husband Paul--both of them consumate stewards over many years and benefactors especially of all things Covenant. Paul was the driving economic force behind the development of all Covenant Benevolent Institutions, especially the significant network of Covenant Village Retirement Centers all over the United States.

Bernice, originally his secretary and later his wife after both their spouses had died, shared fully Paul's stewardship philosophy, which also embraced our hospitals in Chicago and Turlock, CA and North Park University and Theological Seminay.

They had means, of course. But what most do not realize is that from the beginning Paul, a lawyer and real estate developer, pledged monies he did not have at the time he pledged, having then to leverage his assests at not a little risk to generate the income to pay those pledges in full. Stories abound on how he challenged others of means to do the same.

In later years, Bernice has pursued such generously on her own, with both passion and wisdom. All of us as ministers are indebted to her for the books she gave us each year at Midwinter Conferences, both to encourage our learning and to prosper our spirits and ministries.

The bottom line in their case was not financial, as some might think. It was spiritual. They gave generously of all they had out of faith in and gratitude to God for what he had done for them. And knowing them personally, I feel certain that on meeting him they spent no time parading what they have done in support of his kingdom work here on earth.

Thank God for the rich legacy the Brandels and others like them have left all of us as generous givers not counting the cost, with open hands and hearts ready to bless countless individuals in need and institutions without which the Covenant as we know it today would not have developed as it has.

Peace to their memory! And thanks to God for their spirit and work!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Little Bit of Americana

It was a little bit of Americana in Minocqua, Wisconsin on July 4--at the annual Indepemdence Day parade down main street. Groups of dancers, muaicians, and mechants--both local and state-wide-- entertained us as they strode or rode by for nearly and hour and a half, with young attendants throwing out candy all over the street for children nearby. Alyce and I thoroughly enjoyed it with our son Paul, daughter-in-law Kristin, and their children Annika, Colin, and Kajsa.

Thought you might like to see how a small town in mid-America celebrates Independence Day, with people from all over the surrounding area joined in the festivities. Children were everywhere, and who knows what lasting impressions the flag waving and cheering might have in their lives?

Several impressions remain in my mind: one, that it was good to see so many together having a good time, a change from the relative isolation of home owners and vacationers in their own normal and limited circles; then too it was renewing to feel a grateful and peaceful patriotism abounding, in a crowd well ordered and uncynical; and finally it was refreshing to get away from the pressure so many are under in daily life to perform for their living--just to enjoy each other as persons, whether old or young, rich or poor, sophisticated or not. It was as if we all were freed up by what was going on to meet, greet, and engage whoever happened to be standing or sitting by.

America is beautiful. And it can be even more so when small towns and their surrounding communities as well as mega-cities gather to celebrate their common ancestry as "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Blessed to Be a Blessing

Independence. Liberty. Freedom. For the most part we Americans take them for granted. Save in times of crisis when someone threatens to take them away, we pay little attention not only to the realities themselves but to all the struggles and sacrifices so many have made to secure them for us.

"Isn’t it alright to be patriotic?” my son Peter once asked me on coming away from Mt. Rushmore on a wistful summer evening. He was but a boy then, but something in the wonder of that sight awakened in him a sense of both awe and thanksgiving. And for him the awe remains to this day as he pursues the reading of U.S. history from Revolutionary and Civil war days to the present. To go with him on a tour to Gettysburg is to be awakened yourself to the dramatic battles there that turned the tides of war to the side of those who gave "their last full measure of devotion” to preserve the Union.

Lest we forget those times and battles, not to mention World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and our current engagements in the Middle East, we need days and celebrations like the Fourth of July and Veterans Day. And we need also to sensitize ourselves to lesser heralded but equally important sacrifices of people like teachers, lawyers, doctors, farmers, ministers, and yes, politicians, each of whom built America up from the ruins of war to a culture both distinct and admired around the world.

In our time and place, however, we need also to use days like these to return ourselves in mind and heart to the true Source of our good fortune. If in a world of tremendous squalor and need we trivialize our own stewardship of God's blessing by careless and self-centered living, what then shall we leave our children and theirs? (See the prophetic statement by my brother Zenos on the May, 2009 RootedWings Home Page now archived at the bottom of this month's Home Page.)

God has clearly blessed America and each of us as Americans. But he has just as clearly done so, as he did the ancient Israelites, to be a blessing in the larger world he created and loves. God help us to further that blessing going forward. And God help us if we don’t.