Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Longing for Balance

Often in the life we share as human beings one longs for a renewed sense of balance--socially and politically to be sure, yet perhaps even more in religious interchange. Threats to clear thinking, not to mention creative and lasting solutions, seem ever to be increasing--fed by misinformation from parties bent more on securing power and privilege than serving the common good.

Charges and counter-charges are made without concern for verification. Insinuation replaces truth in the stirring up of mistrust, some of it in the broadcast media and some through anonymous emails forwarded over the internet.

No doubt parties on all sides have legitimate concerns needing to be voiced and heard. The problem rises when, in voicing them, the old Machiavellian principle that "the end justifies the means" takes charge. Minds made up before the voicing, motivated both by pride and fear, see no need to listen. Hate for one's opponents trumps civility. Winning over others becomes the ultimate goal, and diminishing them the means.

"If the foundations are destroyed," the psalmist asks, "what can the righteous do? (11:3). Clearly very little if they themselves forsake righteousness. Have I done that? Have you? We religious types have a special obligation in the public arena, which is to seek truth on the way to understanding and lend balance to human interchange on every level.

Well might we remind ourselves and others that all interchange based simply on winning power and influence is short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating. Ours is an enormous responsibility to both evidence and witness to the fact that in all life's relationships a third party must be recognized and honored. Job's witness to his would be comforters can serve us well as a model: "As long as my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils, my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit.... For he [God] said to man, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding (27:3,4; 28:28).

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Vain Labor and Real

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? The Lord once asked his people that question through his prophet Isaiah (55:2). Why, indeed? Might he not be asking the same question of us today?

The question is probing and timeless. raised by a Sovereign God whose gracious invitation both precedes and follows the probing: Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price (55:1). ...Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David (55:3).

There is nothing wrong with labor. We are all called to it by the Lord. The harvest he so much desires to reap in his world is plentiful, his Son later said, but the laborers are few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest (Luke 10:2).

But real labor, Scripture reminds us, is never for its own sake. To have meaning and lasting purpose, all our labors must be tied to our reason for being as Christians, to glorify God no matter where we labor or at what. Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep (127:1,2).

How better to start every new day, then, than ascribe ourselves and all our labors to him, as my brother-in-law Dusty Larson did so habitually that on what was to be his last day in this world, on entering surgery, he said quite naturally, This is the day which the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Who Speaks for God?

It is Sunday afternoon, and I have been reading The Christian Century for September 7. Coming to the reading with some uneasyness over the triumphalism of so many in religious life today, over-confident in themselves and their spirituality, I was especially refreshed by an article on writing titled, "Taking Pen in Hand." Its author, Parker Palmer. the founder and senior partner of the Center for Courage and Renewal, is also a well-known and widely heralded author of many books, who reflects from a Christian point of view on a life-time of writing himself.

What I found especially engaging in this article was a refreshing sense of humility, one could almost say of passion not for success but for faithfulness in pursuing his craft. "When people of any religion insist that the treasure cannot be carried except in their earthen vessels," Palmer writes, "they get into serious trouble--with themselves, with others, with the world and, I suspect, with God."

There is a great paradox between the treasure we seek to illuminate in our writing and the earthen vessels we remain as supposed illuninators. Palmer writes: "If we become attached to the vessel in ways that obscure the treasure, we must discard the vessel and create one that reveals more than it conceals.

"If we fail or refuse to do that, we are failing to respect the treasure, which is not our possession to have and to hold; it is the love and the power that has and holds us" (italincs mine).

"Why believe in God," he concludes, "if the God we believe in is so small as to be contained and controlled within our finite words and forms? The aim of our writing about faith, and of our living in faith, is to let God be God: original, wild, and free, a creative impulse that drives our living and our writing but can never be contained within the limits of who we are or what we think and say and do."

A good lesson in humility for all of us who dare to write, as well as for anyone who dares to speak for God.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Then and Now

We sang then, in days long gone with Augustana’s College choir,
J. S. Bach’s What Can Life be but a Shadow upon Earth,
a motet arranged for a double choir, performing in Carnegie Hall
to an audience of aristocrats come simply for an evening concert.

We were in the bloom of life ourselves, and led by a saint
who reminded us before coming on stage
that this was to be more than a performance,
indeed, a witness to the things that remain.

Then followed Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Dwelling Place,
a double choir setting of Psalm 90 by Ralph Vaughn Williams,
calling forth the glorious majesty of the Lord our God,
and invoking him to prosper his handiwork among us.

We were ourselves reminded that night how fleeting life is,
and witnessed nonetheless to how freeing it can be
to own up to our mortality, confess our faith,
and glory in the power and promises of our God.

That was then but now, soon sixty years later, is now,
and we, no longer the choir, have become the audience.
We sense the shadows lengthening over our own lives,
yet breathe from deep within the same prayer of faith.

God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform,
he plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.
You fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace,
behind a frowning providence is veiled a smiling face…
Blind unbelief is sure to err and scan his work in vain,
God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.

(The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 418, stanzas 1,2,3,5)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Faith and Imagination

Carlo Caretto, in I, Francis (Orbis Books, 1982), his imaginative attempt to let St. Francis of Assisi come alive again in him, has that saint speaking powerfully to the anomalies of our time--the painful dislocations that mark life for so many today, feeding the chaos around us rather than healing it. I quote him, speaking for St Francis:

Just think what would happen one day if you became non-violent, and took the huge sums of money you spend to defend yourselves against fear and used it to help the people you fear.

When your young people, wasting away today in dejection, unemployment, and drugs, find their joy and their calling in the task of running hither and thither in the countries of the Third World, not only will you have solved the problems of others, you will have solved your own.

You will know peace then.

Is it too much to hope?

Perhaps someone is listening to me!

I, Francis, tell him or her: Courage!

Remember nine years ago when Senator Bob Dole offered an alternate solution to bombing and invading Iraq? "I think," he said, "that we would do better to shower food and other resources for living from our bombers to witness our good will and concern for the people there."

Thankful and sensitive as we must remain to the terrific sacrifices our soldiers and others have made and are continuing to make in the Middle East--not to mention the justified need to confront tyrannic realities in this world--have we as Christians the will to imagine and give ourselves to alternative incentives more in keeping with new life in Christ?

Scripture itself declares that the foolishness of faith is wiser than the wisdom of this world. Do I believe that? Do you? And are we encouraging each other as much as we ought to be imaginative in manifesting that faith, no matter the cost?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Pure Joy!

How's this as a picture to start your day--or end it? Grandson Carson Gustaf greets you with his wonderful smile and laughing eyes under that crown of unruly hair--glad at nine months just to be alive, surrounded by love as he is in this new world of sight and sound.

What a lad and what a picture! Both renew my sense of joy. May looking on him renew yours as well!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Enough of Contempt!

In what is called "A Song of Ascents" (Psalm 123), the psalmist pleads for God's mercy "upon us" (note the plural), "for we have had more than enough of contempt." The plea, no doubt, is deeply personal, perhaps with reference to those who were seeking to do him and his people ill. Yet there seems almost to be a double entendre here as well. Is the psalmist equally weary of "the scorn of those who are at ease" and "the contempt of the proud" among his people?

I awoke this morning to a wonderful Covenant Newswire article referencing the Christian/Muslim impasse occupying so many on every side these days. Andrew Larsen, one of our Covenant ministers "who helps congregations foster interfaith dialogue, says that vitriol aimed at Muslims betrays the love of Christ." Take note, everyone who participates in such, either in person or by forwarding emails that breathe such vitriol.

"Why is it so important to mimic Jesus as we relate to Muslims today?" Larson asks. "My simple answer: the alternatives have not worked.... We betray the Jesus we claim to know and follow over and over again by our action or inaction, by not engaging Muslims in friendship or by acting as if they were the scourge of the earth."

Larsen is practicing reconciliation, both in constant contact with Muslims locally and by offering eight-week seminars on "Extending Hospitality to Muslim Neighbors" in surrounding churches. His local Imam "constantly denounces terrorism and wants me to be sure I know it has nothing to do with legitimate Islamic teaching." Taking texts from the Koran out of context," Larsen says, renders one as unbalanced in judgment as one would be in pointing to the imprecatory psalms "as evidence that Jews and Christians must be violent."

Especially refreshing to me is his insistence with many others now reaching out to Muslims that conciliatory efforts need not--and do not in fact--preclude sharing the gospel.

Enough of contempt! Better to begin all the days of our lives and all the challenges therein as the Psalm itself begins: To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens! As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he has mercy on us.

Lord, teach us your way!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Which Way Ahead?

It is a wistful summer evening at home, the kind one loves to spend reflecting--especially on this historic day. All seems peaceful here--even if not entirely quiet. A slight breeze moves the white bear weathervane on our back deck westward.

The sounds of traffic on a nearby Interstate are heard in the distance, as are those of occasional airplanes moving in and out from the Twin Cities where we live. Pieces of blue sky are laced with white clouds passing by as the sun begins to set.

Often what appears to be, of course, as the old song has it, "when you are come to the end of a perfect day," is by many measures far from perfect. For in this viewer's mind linger memories of how two stately twin towers in New York crumbled to the ground nine years ago today and a seemingly impregnable symbol of American power in Washington DC was also compromised by terrorists. To the west even of these tragedies was another in the making, aimed at the White House itself, thankfully averted by a few brave souls who conquered its terrorists only to lose their own lives near Pittsburgh in the process.

Even on this very day in 2010 a thoughtless pastor almost brought off a terrorist attack of his own, threatening in reprisal to burn copies of the Koran in Florida. Thankfully the whole nation rose to that occasion and stopped him in his tracks, though the effect of his plan lingered to further anger Muslims all over the world.

What shall we make of it all? Which are the roads forward on this earth that common folk of every tribe and nation long to find--the roads that lead to reconciliation and peace? How shall the angers so close to the surface in all of us be calmed under the common skies of the earth we share?

Most Christian know in their heart of hearts. So do most Jews and Muslims, whether in North or South, East or West. Only a few are out to stir those masses. May God show the latter how to calm the former, each lending perspectives beyond themselves and their faith traditions that the God they confess is waiting to supply.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Food for the Body and Food for the Soul

Few things delight our son Peter more than time on the dock fishing, More is involved than the casting, time after time. More, too, than the catching, all of which is more for celebrating than eating. Though I cannot speak for him, it seems like the essence of it lies in gathering food for his soul in the process.

Watching him fish and being alongside this summer when he cooked on the grill was food for my soul and body as well. Just as our Lord once told his disciples in Samaria that he had food they knew not of, so has it often been with me. Much as we all need regularly to eat from nature's store, our souls require even richer fare, in ready supplies God offers to those with ears to hear and eyes to see.

Peter is now on a well-deserved sabbatical until Advent. Next week he will be with us in White Bear Lake, eating at table with us and extended family. He will also be fishing through many of the personal effects of his grandfather and grandmother Hawkinson--gathering food for his soul from memories of his forebears, just as Jesus drew it from Jacob's well as he sat down, weary, in Samaria. Later next month and early into November he and I will travel together to Egypt, Jordan, and Israel--a first-time experience for both of us. No doubt there will be plenty of food for our bodies. Yet what we anticipate most is experiencing together first hand the food for our souls that surely awaits us there to satisfy our deepest needs and renew our ministries.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Wandering and Wonder

Last night was special. We were treated, with many others, to a trial run presentation of “Mr. Wonder Boy” by Bob Stromberg, our son-in-law. Written and performed by him, and re-crafted over time, this unique one-man theater show is essentially a personal narrative, centered on the keen sense of wonder over life that has captivated him since childhood.

All too many of us as human beings are wandering aimlessly these days--void of that sense, lonely and without meaning or purpose. We are "amusing ourselves to death," as Neil Postman once said in his book by that title. as if life had little meaning apart from entertaining ourselves and being entertained by others. Bob uses his skills as an entertainer to ride that crest, inviting us now into a sensitive, thoughtful world of wonder he has always known life to be. And, in his own two-hour narrative, one is captivated and challenged to open mind and heart to the wonder of both ordinary and extraordinary experiences in one’s own pilgrimage.

Soon to be premiered in an East Coast setting over several weeks, it will be interesting to see how “Mr. Wonder Boy” is received. Surely it will provide ample reasons for belly laughs, even as it did last night. Call it comic relief, which we are all in need of these days. But to be true to itself and its deepest appeal, critics and audiences alike will need to hear and heed the serious call within it to re-discover and nurture their own sense of wonder.

Isn’t that what good theater is really all about? Performance is for more than entertaining. Absent the meaning it is meant to convey, it will soon be forgotten. Bob is giving us here a gift of perception, brimful of good reasons to experience wonder in our own lives. Hopefully, we will not miss opening the gift again and again, in whatever future we are allotted.