Saturday, April 16, 2011

What Was--and Is--Holy Week All About?

Palm Sunday is a good time for pondering. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, below the surface of it, is filled with implications that many did not see when it first occurred and many more do not fathom even yet.

For one thing, it represented the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah. For another, the humility with which Jesus entered the Holy City--not to mention week-long events following that led to his crucifixion on Good Friday--evidence clearly what kind of Messiah God intended him to be. Not until his divine mission was confirmed by his resurrection on Easter morn did who he truly was begin to break through. And even in all the centuries ever since believers in him have not fully grasped the magnitude of it all.

Rob Bell speaks in his new book on Love Wins (Harper One, 2011) about "the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith," calling it "a deep, wide, diverse stream that's been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences."

I share his hope to introduce Christians everywhere "to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multivoiced complexity." To let this week go by with no more than ideas already so fixed in our minds that there is no need to ponder further its life-changing implications for each of us would inevitably be to trivialize it and miss out on its promise.

Listen carefully, therefore, for what was really going on in all that then went on. And long for the day when Messiah as he is will use your pondering of his journey through this week to further transform your life.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Dream That Touched Reality

It happened overnight, in a dream no less. A new and fresh revelation, a least for me--exciting, and full of implication for the healing of the nations. "Do you realize," I heard a voice say, "that the Lord's Prayer--first offered by Jesus as a model for our praying--would be equally appropriate as a prayer model for a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew, and people of every other religious persuasion, tribe, and nation?"

No, I hadn't realized that. It had never entered my mind. Yet the more I thought about it the more excited I became. From the "Our Father"--meant to be inclusive of all people on this earth--through the assigning of ourselves to the coming of his kingdom and the doing of his will to the pleas for daily bread, forgiveness received and offered, and guidance away from temptation, the whole of life is covered for the whole of humanity. And the language used is as neutral to circumstance as it is universal in character.

What mattered to Jesus, it seems, and must matter to us all as children of one Father, is the honoring of his name and will. Prayer, to be meaningful, must enter humbly into mysteries that transcend all the categories into which we have separated ourselves as human beings. Its aim must always be to look to the One who created us and waits always in the wings to bring us back to himself and one another.

At the center of it all for me, of course, is the person and work of Jesus Christ. But all of us who share that faith must be careful not to bind him to categories of our own making or conclusions concerning him we have arrived at on our own. Ours is not to guide him into the dark abysses of our tomorrows. It is rather to follow after him and his Spirit, which can never be captured by us but is always ready to lead us along life's way.

I woke refreshed this morning from my dream, freed once again from the awful burden so many are taking on themselves these days of pretending to know more about God and his will than they do. My most fervent prayer, both for myself and for them, is rather to approach life and all its complications in the spirit of the hymn writer who affirmed what I know to be true, that "God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain" (The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 418).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

All These Paul!

"Dad, Grandpa, Rabbai, Paul" are the signatures he assigns at the end of his weekly reports from his current teaching post in Pingliang, China. With commas in between they are meant to personalize his reflections for each of those to whom he is sending them over time. But it occurs to me that all of them, strung together without commas, might be just as appropriate to us as individuals. Dad Grandpa Rabbai Paul Swanson captures who he is better than any of those first names might in itself.

Teacher Counselor Mentor Friend and Lover of Youth might also be added to get an even fuller picture of the man. See how this retired widower hugs a child from a local orphanage nearby the school where he has taught for some time and is even now teaching. A true professor, equally at home in exploring and explaining C. S Lewis and laying all that sophistication aside for the sake of an orphaned child. Needs are everywhere around us, both to be taught and to be loved. Soon the child will need the professor, but for now she needs a Dad or Grandpa, someone just to embrace and hold her, someone to throw her lonely arms around--someone, anyone who will take the time to pick her up, whose name she does not know and will not likely remember.

That is exactly the one who holds the little orphan girl above! His name? Dad Grandpa Rabbai Paul Teacher Counselor Mentor Friend and Lover of Youth Swanson--to which if truth be told should also be added Cook Baker of Delicious Breads and Host at Tables Spread with Swedish Pancakes. What a man, what a friend, what a servant, what a witness!

Bless you All These Paul, and keep you in pursuit of God's claim on your life and his call to teach, share, and model his grace with people everywhere. Unassuming as you are, you may not recognize yourself in all the above, but take it from me: God does, and so do we!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Seed Dies, but Its Fruit Lives On

The Covenant Office building at 5101 N. Francisco in Chicago will soon be no more. The process of its demolition was announced on CovNews this morning, as illustrated above. Offices into the future are now consolidated at 8303 Higgins Road, out close to O'Hare Airport--a necessary move both for the sake of more room and for the gathering in of several departments that for years have had to be housed elsewhere.

Strange, I thought, that the big backhoe should be entering early on through the window that for many years housed the denomination's department of Church Growth and Evangelism. Thus continues the emergence of the Covenant Church on the American scene, one more step in the journey that years ago as I was grwoing up found its headquarters on Belmont Avenue. The move to 5101 came in the latter years of T.W. Anderson's presidency, where it has thrived through all the years since until now. I knew 5101 well, every part of it, spending 28 years there myself as part of its ministry of publications.

Let honor be given to all that was accomplished there, through later presidencies of Clarence Nelson, Milton Engebretson, Paul Larsen, Glenn Palmberg, and Gary Walter, now continuing in new quarters. And, lest we forget, honor to everyone that was part of those rich days in furthering our common mission. Buildings, however inadeqaute in some ways, leave behind them a sense of place far more important to the soul of a movement than mere brick and mortar.

The seed of all that is falling into the earth, and we must let it go--like every place we have ever inhabited together in our pilgrimage over time. No doubt 8303 West Higgins Road will also pass into memory some day, as will all those now leading us from there. Pray only that the soul of 5101 N. Francisco, as well as the earlier soul on which it fed after the move from Belmont Avenue, will continue to infuse and enrich the soul of the new leadership post now established on our journey together.

The divine/human saga continues in us which began when Father Abraham, believing and trusting in God, went out "to a land he knew not where." In every time since then, we remain no less than he and his seed a pilgrim people, still looking ahead to an ageless place and city whose builder and maker is God.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"We Believe," O God. "Help our Unbelief."

Our small group at Salem is journeying together these days with Paula D'arcy, a therapist, and Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and theologian, through an audio series of lectures on "A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life." In five chapters where each of them speaks for a half hour, we are seeing ourselves and our lives pictured before us.

Life of necessity, they hold, has two halves--each with its importance. The first has to do with all that occupies our minds and wills when young--the passion to acquire, to establish a name for ourselves, to claim our identity. It cannot be avoided and ought not be diminished in importance. The second half begins somewhere in our lives when first half things fail us, when for want of a better word, our pride in ourselves and the patterns we have established to satisfy ourselves are broken and we are reduced to wondering what's next for us. Loss of a job, failures in marriage, family tensions, threatening illnesses--all these and many more that shatter our self-confidence--trigger us into the second half of life. And in the second half of life questions of meaning, purpose, and even survival begin to shatter our faith in ourselves and even sometimes in God--who seems somehow distant, far from who we thought he was and want him to be.

Though it may seem, as our teachers affirm, that first half patterns are upbeat and second half fractures are downers, it is not really so. No truly spiritual life can be experienced apart from either, and in their power to confront us second half queries and struggles are richer with promise--if faced and dealt with--than patterns of life established by us in the first.

We were stopped short recently, part-way through the series, by a statement repeated several times in our hearing by both lecturers that "everything is gift." Could that be true, we wondered? Some of us were--and are-- struggling with major health issues. Others are facing crises in the workplace and tensions with children. Can such be seen as gifts in the same way as the joys we experienced of love, marriage, children, and our vocations in earlier days?

Though still struggling to believe that, we are being encouraged to think so. True spirituality is not something we can generate in ourselves. It's something only God's loved ones know--gifted to us by him on the other side of coming to the end of ourselves. No one wants to be broken, of course. Yet why is it that our yearnings for the Spirit, for God's presence in our lives, are if anything being heightened now by the trials through which we are passing?

The picture above, on my study wall, grasps for me the whole of it. Below are the intricate patterns we have created for ourselves, cemented together by habit over time--all in the first half of life. Just above them are swirling seas where we now find ourselves. Over both of them is God's eternal sky--there all the time, glowing with the warmth of his sun. And in between is a dove coming back to the storm tossed vessels of our lives with an olive branch suggesting a peace and solid ground somewhere in life's storms and the promise of God--no matter what--of his continuing presence and blessing.

The patterned tables of life's first half in our group are now being broken in ways we cannot fully understand--much less piece together. Yet in our admitted brokenness is beginning to emerge a deeper understanding of Scripture's promise that "a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench' (Isaiah 42:3). And though true faith in God still wavers in us at times, wanting life our own way, we are being sensitized by God to share with and pray for each other in ways that are surely helping our unbelief.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Amazing Art!

He begins, our son Eric, with one single black-on-white pen point in the center of some art paper on a mechanical drawing board. From there, entirely freehand, he lets whatever will eventually end up as the finished piece emerge--line by line, image by image. When finished, again entirely free-hand, he enhances it with colored markers, if indeed he does not decide to leave it as black on white.

What amazes us is both the dexterity of his free hand and the sensitivity to image that evolves in the process. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," an old saying goes, and artists will counsel you to make of their art whatever you will. One of my favorites, shown above, speaks to me of Christ's cross, central in our minds these days as we journey through Lent, following our Lord toward Jerusalem.. From that cross flows love and good will forever, cascading out from its centerpoint in Jesus to all who will simply receive it.

We had no idea as parents through his childhood years what artistic talents were given to Eric. What we do see now, and admire, is his passion for making those gifts a centerpoint in his life, not only for the sake of self-fulfillment but for the joy of sharing with and blessing others. Eric is regularly on facebook. Go for his art offerings there--including Greeting Cards--to "Hawk's Fine Line Art."

Go to it, Eric! You make your mom and me both proud of your gifts and thankful to God for your spirit. May he prosper the work of your hands, amd may you thank him--pen-srtoke by pen-stroke--for the talents that are making it possible.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Where Lies the Power We Long for and Need?

In the script from a recent lecture on "Pietism: A World We Have Lost," delivered a few days ago at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Baylor University Historian Roger Olson offers one particular insight among others that really caught my eye.

"Pietism aims at the inward transformation of the affections leading to change of the will resulting in acts of compassion. Too often churches try to manipulate congregants into giving and working because there is no inner impulse giving rise gratefully and voluntarily to these practices. A dose of spiritual experience brought about through repentance and faith in response to powerful preaching of the cross just might result in more kingdom building than all the appeals we make in our newsletters and from our pulpits.

Where lies the spiritual power we all long for and know we need? Not in efforts of our own to stir people up or appeal to their sense of guilt. It lies rather in ever fresh experiences of God among the people, as Olson puts it, "the inward transformation of the affections leading to change of the will resulting in acts of compassion."

Thank God that Pietist heritage is alive in so many. I see it daily at work, inspired not by programs designed to make it work as by God himself at work in the hearts of people still being transformed by his Word and Spirit.

Oh to be a better instrument of that Word and Spirit.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.... Then I will teach transgressors thy ways and sinners will be converted unto thee (Psalm 51:10,13).

Friday, March 18, 2011

Blessed Are the Faithful!

"There goes old faithful," our veteran pastor's wife said on seeing David Alberts walking toward the old funeral chapel on Chicago's south side as we approached by car. And she was right! David and Clara were dynamic saints--not in up front ways we usually associate with that word but simply and continually in their faithfulness. One could count on them to be present whenever and wherever Christ's body gathered--for worship, study, prayer, fellowship, funerals, weddings, baptisms, or whatever else. Faithfulness had become part of their nature.

Scanning a lifetime of ministry--not to mention earlier years as a child growing up in the church--my soul is blessed in remembering them and countless others like them. Hilma Larson in Middletown, Connecticut, John Swanson in Bethany, Chicago, Grandpa Magnuson in Paxton, Illinois, Carl Strom in Hilmar, California--all of them, though uniquely themselves, alike in their faithfulness. Each of these, though dead now, lives on in me--modeling the kind of spirit I long myself to be.

It is not, of course, as if any of them in themselves was worthy of worship. It is only that somehow in their lives they reflected the faithfulness of God, who alone deserves our worship and praise. Think of him now, and his faithfulness in your life. Are you reflecting his faithfulness in your own?

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
sun, moon, and stars in their courses above
join with all nature in manifold witness
to thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

Great is thy faithfulness, great is thy faithfulness,
morning by morning new mercies I see;
all I have needed thy hand hath provided--
great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

On Entering Lent

Carlo Carretto is a monk, one of the Little Brothers of Jesus. He has divided his time between the order's house in the Sahara and Spello (near Assisi) in the Umbrian Hills, where he has lived as a hermit.

In the book illustrated here he wrote some years ago, "When I think about the state of the world, of the Church which is its conscience, and of myself who am a very small antenna of both world and Church, I feel that we are entering the eye of a cyclone."

What troubles him most, however, is not the cyclone but the fear that has Christians in its grip. What we are experiencing in our time is "the history of Israel all over again," he contends, "the adventure of being exiles and pilgrims on earth....

"We Christians ought henceforth, I think, to consider ourselves as being in a foreign land, as deportees in a modern Babylon, reduced to tiny minorities but witnessing to the Invisible, no longer as bosses but as guests among the nations, offering a message which has the power to save, offering a hope which is in fact the only hope.

"It may be that the Church will have hard times, as Israel had in the time of the Babylonian Captivity." But, he writes, "this doesn't worry me much, since Christ himself has set us free from fear; hence I am no longer in Israel's position, to be terrorized by the Assyrian sword....

"I am full of hope," he concludes. "And it is genuine hope, not hope founded on human optimism.... It is not based on my own strength, nor on the organized resources of the Church, but on the living God alone, on his love for the human race, on his actions throughout history, on his saving will."

Summing up his feelings, Carretto writes, "I could put it very briefly: I have discovered how to be much poorer than I thought I was before. {And] The more you find your poverty, the more it stimulates you to pray." He then lifts up to us all what the Little Brothers of Jesus call the Prayer of Abandonment:

I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you;
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures;
I wish no more than this.

Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands
without reserve
and with boundless confidence,

for you are my Father.

The sign of Corretto's hope lies both in the signature that follows and the place, season, and calendar year when writing:

Spello, Easter, 1975

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

'Let Hope and Sorrow Now Unite'

I am grieving this morning, as I often do with others who have lost loved ones and dear friends, over the passing of Lars Hellberg in San Diego, CA and Gordon Ahlquist here in the Twin Cities. I only learned of their deaths yesterday and the sense of loss is therefore intense.

Lars Hellberg was a true and loyal friend of mine since childhood. The bond between us was really fixed in high school days at then North Park Academy, even though we had known each other earlier at Peterson Grade School. A long and gangley guy, 6'7" in maturity, he had a hard time coordinating physically in his youth. But brilliant mentally and warm-hearted personally, he was the kind of friend a person needs--never fair-weather but true, always beside you even when absent, caring and loyal. Vocationally he became a professor of chemistry at San Diego State College in 1956, after earning his PhD at UCLA. Concurrently while serving there for over 40 years, coaching many students on to their own graduate degrees, he also spent 25 of those years over the border in Mexico, teaching part-time at Centro de Graduados, Instituto Technologico in Tijuana. A life-long Lutheran, he devoted his time and effort as well to Christian initiatives and causes all over the world. It is too soon for me to lose him.

It was also a shock to hear of Gordy Ahlquist's passing--a true Covenant Pietist whose real vocation in life--alongside his work as a gifted securities analyst-- was as an equally gifted musician, serving God and the Covenant as organist at First Covenant Church in Minneapolis for over 50 years. What a repository of our story and spirit as a Christian movement he was! I had been pursuing him for some time to do a video interview, but that was delayed due to the illness of his wife. Now, only a few weeks later, he himself was summoned from us by his Master.

I really grieve today the loss of these two colleagues and friends, even if not as others do who are outside Christ and without hope. A hymn in our hymnal eases the grief with its reminder that "... hope and sorrow now unite to consecrate life's ending ... though grief and loss are rending." And I know as a believer that especially on days like these, no matter one's pain, it is important to "Give thanks for all each person gives," because "as faith comes true and Jesus lives, there'll be an end to grieving."
(The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 756)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Blessed Imagination!

Look at the delight on this child's face in a picture sent me today by a friend. What a blessed imagination little children have--no matter when or where, involving no matter what or whom!

Even inanimate things come to life in their presence, given that imagination. They make things live that are not living, and thus open our eyes to wonders we only pass by. They actually engage things we gaze on regularly, but end up merely storing on film. One wonders how the little girl might have engaged the famous angry infant captured in marble while in a fit of rage by the famous Norwegian sculptor Vigeland in Oslo?

Dance on, little one! Things we adults might deem foolish are full of possibilities for little ones like you with eyes to see. Encourage us by your spontaneity to risk ourselves the foolishness of engaging life in all its forms. Who knows how many around us might then be freed up in their own imaginations?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Glowing Ardor

The stunning picture is of the south sanctuary windows in my son Peter's church in Winnetka, Illinois (credits to Scott Edwards). What moves me in this Epiphany season of light is the ardor of it, strong rays reflecting rich tones of varied colors on the places where believers gather weekly to worship.

Something in the blending of the colors, every hue contributing to the whole but none dominating, defines the way Christ's body is. Widely diverse in personality, background, and experience, believers gather, as the earliest Christians did, "all together in one place" (Acts 2:1).

The picture also speaks of the prevenience of God, the Lord of life and light, ever present in his sanctuary--even when noone else is. Invoking him as we always do does not mean inviting him to come there--for he is already present. It is he that invokes our presence. Ours is simply to acknowledge him and receive the blessings he alone can supply.

One thing more I see and sense here. A real peril, one might name it. What if all we seek in God's house is the glory of being thus illumined and blessed ourselves? Is that all there is to worship? Can we be said to have been illumined by God in his house if on leaving the sanctuary we fail to share the light we received there with loved ones, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and yes, even our enemies?

God, whose purpose is to kindle, now ignite us with your fire.
While the world awaits your burning, with your passion us inspire.
Overcome our sinful calmness, move us with redemptive shame.
Baptize with your fiery Spirit, crown our lives with tongues of flame.

God, who still a sword delivers rather than a placid peace,
with your sharpened word disturb us, from complacency release!
Save us now from satisfaction, when we privately are free,
yet are undisturbed in spirit by our neighbor's misery.

God, who in your holy Gospel wills that all should truly live,
make us sense our share of failure, our tranquility forgive.
Teach us courage as we struggle in all liberating strife.
Lift the smallness of our vision by your own abundant life.

Elton Trueblood (1900-1993, alt)
The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 284

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Don't Just Do Something! Stand There!

The massive peaceful rebellion in Egypt has me wondering if the familiar aphorism, "Don't just stand there, do something!" has spooked us into activity-driven lives bereft of character. The Egyptian people, of course, did something. Yet the key to their action, powerful as it was, emerged from their character as a people--their weariness with despotism and their hunger for freedom.

Ought that be a lesson to us, frenetic as we have become in American social, political, and religious life? Questions of character, one often feels, are being trumped by half-truths spewed out to succeed, to gain advantage and power--often under the guise of defending character!

Were I to be stripped of all my activities for a day--or you, for that matter--what would others see in us just standing there? Is there more to us than our personal accomplishments or the programs and activities that consume our time and social life?

Sometimes it takes crises in our lives to wake us up to who we are created and called to be. Might what is now happening in Egypt represent a call to the renewal of our own character as Christians?

If so, as I believe it does, we would each do well to ponder what it means for us as believers, individually and communally, to be more intently--as John Weborg has put it in his thoughtful book--both, "Alive in Christ" and "Alert to Life" (Covenant Publications, 1985).

Kyrie eleison! Christe eleison!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Quietness and Renewal

It was Sunday evening, and I was sitting by the fireplace in our son's home, quietly listening to old hymn tunes beautifully arranged and recorded on piano recently by a long-time friend and colleague, Roland Tabell. I was not at all surprised by his artistry--a truly gifted musician who was for many years the worship minister at our Pasadena, California Covenant Church. What especially moved me, however, was how his artistry was serving a certain simplicity, drawing one who knows the hymns from memory to be blessed and renewed by the message of their texts.

The medium in Roland's case is not the message. It exists rather to serve the message, to lift up texts God has inspired to encourage and sustain his people. The very nature of his artistry invites quieting down before it--setting aside whatever one is doing and giving time and attention to messages the music is meant to convey.

Quietness is hard to come by in our culture. Noise abounds everywhere, seeking both to entertain and entice us. But somehow its strident sounds never seem to reach the depths of mind and heart within that are so in need of God. It was no waste of time, therefore, to be still on Sunday night--to just sit and listen by my son's fireside. For in the surrounding warmth of burning wood and music arranged to serve texts rich in content and memory my faith was renewed and my hope restored.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Our Choices Matter, Our Motives Even More!

Though it is abundantly clear that life itself--taken as a whole--is not under our control, we each have been endowed by our Creator with the sovereign right to respond to it as we see fit. No one can take that sovereign right from us. Nor can we take it from others.

This power we all have to choose for ourselves is awesome. It can also be scary, as when we see in others how easily what is chosen is self-serving, little more than the building of fences around themselves to declare their independence and defend their space.

Surely when God endowed each of us with this gift he had more in mind. What matters to him is the whole of life, not just ours but everyone's--indeed, the life of creation itself. Though he honors anyone's choice not to pay attention to him, for example, and seek our neighbor's good, ample warnings abound in Scripture of the deadening affect of such choices, not least on those who make them.

In today's economic, political, and religious climate, the greatest challenge for us as Christians may well be to keep assessing not only what we choose but what lies behind the choices we are making. We cannot command what others choose to think and do. But what we ourselves think and do does matter. And in the long run our motives for choosing may well matter even more to God--not to mention those we are seeking to influence.

Monday, January 24, 2011

'I Will Awake the Dawn' (Psalm 57:8)

It was just before 4:00 a.m. this morning and for the first time in several weeks I awoke feeling whole. Not just well, I mean--on the brink of recovery from a few physical maladies of late--but whole in spirit and soul as well.

Aware that the sun would soon be rising and I would need to be on my way to an early morning hospital call, a favorite verse in Scripture came to mind: Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! (Psalm 57:8).

Was I foolish enough to think I could do that, at a time and hour that most consider ungodly in the first place? And why, for goodness sake? Why not sleep a bit longer? The answer follows in the psalm: I will give thanks to thee, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to thee among the nations. For thy steadfast love is great to the heavens, thy faithfulness in the clouds. Be exalted. O God, above the heavens. Let thy glory be over all the earth (vss. 9,10).

To "awake the dawn"--or "prevent" it, as another version translates--is not to command it, the power to do which belongs only to God. It is simply to "go before it," get up in advance of it, like our Lord so often did when he was on earth. Why? Simply to pray--to praise God, to honor his majesty, thank him for his goodness, seek his blessing, and pray for his guidance, that his will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.

For the first time in a long series of mornings I feel physically well. Ought that not be enough to get up and praise him before the day even dawns? Yes, of course! But even more, I feel whole--blessed in mind and soul, forgiven and received, loved and cared for by God, and called to be about his work in the world.

We sang his praise in concert as a congregation on bringing forward our morning offerings yesterday in church. I sing it again this morning in advance of a whole new day full of grace and the joy of belonging to him.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow; / praise him all creatures here below; / praise him above, all heav'nly hosts; / praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Epiphany on the Way to Lent and Easter

Shattered shards of clay pots, that’s all we really are. Knowing it deep within and being reminded often—whether in dreams by night or everyday events--there is no hiding from our own brokenness as human beings. Is that why the pervasive anxieties all around are so hard to truly face, much less absorb? The Old Testament Nathan’s prophecy to King David was hardly spent on him. It continues through the ages, coming down on us as well: “You are the man!”

One can, of course, like so many keep doing, run and hide from it all, proudly pretending innocence. We see it all the time in others and know it in ourselves, deep within. Ought we not rather thank God that he persists in calling the likes of Nathan to break through our hidden nature and confront us with our sin?

What’s so amazing about grace is that the God who thus probes our depths does so not to destroy our lives but to recreate them from within. Stay up on your own high hill and you will be brought low. But receive him in the valleys of your life and you will be exalted.

Read the hymn by Joseph Hart (1712-1766) below—even sing it to the Beach Spring tune if you can. Allow it to illumine the darkness within you. And let it awaken the joyous reminder that God sent his Son to make us whole.

Come, you sinners, poor and needy, bruised and broken by the fall;
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pard’ning grace for all.
He is able, he is able, he is willing, doubt no more;
he is able, he is able, he wis willing, doubt no more.

Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream;
all that he requires of sinners is to turn and trust in him.
He will save you, he will save you, ‘tis the Gospel’s constant theme.
He will save you, he will save you, ‘tis the Gospel’s constant theme.

Lo! th’incarnate God, ascended, pleads the merit of his blood;
venture on him, venture wholly, let no other trust intrude:
none but Jesus, none but Jesus can do helpless sinners good.
None but Jesus, none but Jesus can do helpless sinners good.

The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 324

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Laugh a Little--at Yourself!

I've always felt that one measure of good people is their ability to laugh at themselves! We all know folks, of course, who love to poke fun at others. But play a joke on them, or tell one at their expense, and they are easily offended. Why is that, if not that they are too insecure to face up to their own foibles?

I once heard my father refer to a hymn often sung by the earliest Covenanters that included a phrase something like "tell me my faults." Pietists recognize the wisdom in that, even while resisting the spirit of some who take it too far. What matters in the long run is one's ability both to tell a joke and receive one at his or her own expense. A good rule of thumb in that regard is probably learning the high art of telling jokes occasionally on oneself.

J.J. Daniels (1862-1957), a Covenant pioneer pastor, put it well, balancing his gifts as a story teller with the willingness to be a story receiver as well. His advice, written down by Herbert Palmquist, is full of communal wisdom and well worth pondering: "There is so much bad in the best of us, and so much more in the worst of us, that it behooves all of us to keep our eye on the rest of us."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Wandering and Wondering

It was late October, last year. My son Peter and I were wandering with a tour group among the ancient pyramids in Egypt. Full of wonder at their magnificence I was already entering into my biblical inheritance as the spiritual son of a wandering Aramean.

How much deeper than my nationalistic roots, so rich in themselves, do my roots in the faith extend? Am I not, like my biblical fathers, still going forth as Abraham did "to a land he knew not where"? Shall I identify myself only as a Swedish American and not an Egyptian? Caucasian only, and not Middle Eastern as well?

Some thought it silly to purchase a Bedouin head covering, but it seemed natural doing it, feeling somehow as at home in their native habitat as in my own. Where is my home after all, I wondered in those moments? Who are truly my father and mother, and who truly my sisters and brothers?

To be thus drawn beyond oneself into the broader stream of life, even if only momentarily, was to be reminded that life in God is so much broader, so much deeper than we tend often to realize. It is also far more satisfying, as was immediately manifest in the shielding from the sun and its heat my new acquisition was providing.

What followed over two weeks on tour were further illustrations of the same awareness, in yet more climes and circumstances. My Lord came out of Egypt--"that Scripture might be fulfilled," the Bible says. He also came out of Bethlehem of Judea, and Nazareth and Capernaum in Galilee. And in the city of God that is Jerusalem he so identified even with those who crucified him that he made clear the concern and love of God for everyone.

On one of our last days in Jerusalem before returning home, I bought for my son and me--from a Muslim merchant, no less--two lovely handmade liturgical stoles, each embedded with a series of Jerusalem crosses. "I have Jesus in my heart," that Muslim said with deep emotion, "and you have Jesus in your hearts. Someday when all the foolishness of this life is over, we will meet together with him in eternity."

Surely wearing a Bedouin head dress doesn't make me a Bedouin. Nor does buying a liturgical stole from a Muslim make me a Muslim. But both of them bought will linger in my possession as sacred reminders of my own calling from God to see and regard all humanity in the greater light of his love.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

'The People, Yes!'

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote in his letters and papers from prison (Prisoner for God, Macmillan, 1959): In the last month or two I have learned for the first time in my life how much comfort and help I get from others.... We often want to do everything ourselves, but that is a mark of false pride. Even what we owe to others belongs to ourselves, and is a part of our own lives. And when we want to calculate just how much we have learnt ourselves and how much we owe to others, it is not only un-Christian but useless. What we are in ourselves and what we owe to others makes us a complete whole (p. 78).

Other greats in human history have witnessed to the same. Carl Sandburg's epic poem ("The People, Yes!") pays similar tribute. And Harry Truman, when asked in leaving the presidency of our nation whether he felt diminished by becoming just another commoner once more, flashed back by declaring that he was "highly honored to be returning to the people."

Covenanter L. Arden Almquist, after a lifetime of service as a missionary doctor and later as head of our world missions program, said in his marvelous book, Debtor Unashamed (Covenant Press, 1993), that he learned more from the African people than he taught them.

In my own life as a human being--not to mention my vocation as a minister--I can witness in my own small way to the same. It is people that matter to God, and all who learn to love and serve them as he does, even in their foibles and imperfections, finds not only the high honor of being named among them but the reward of losing one's life for his sake and the gospel's in service to them.

Ariana Paz has written of Carl Sandberg: "His words are still relevant today and his belief in the power of people to go forward no matter the odds is simply yesteryear's 'Yes We Can.' These are tough times for our country and for all of us individually but his words to me say, 'yes we will prevail.'"

All leaders, religious and secular, would do well to pray daily and earnestly with hymn-writer Fred Kaan:

Teach us, O Lord, your lessons, as in our daily life
we struggle to be human and search for hope and faith.
Teach us to care for people, for all, not just for some,
to love them as we find them, or as they may become.

The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 589)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

'A Capable Wife Who Can Find?'

"Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her happy,
her husband too, and he praises her.
'Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.'
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Give her a share in the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the city gates."
Proverbs 31:25-31

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Redemptive Light Sometimes Hurts!

One sign of a great leader is his or her capacity to accept criticism and learn from it. In our own history as a Covenant Church, C.V. Bowman (1868-1937) was that kind of man. Though one day to become president of our denomination, his autobiography, Son of the People (Covenant Publications, 1988), was not about that but about his childhood years in Sweden and what it was like to emigrate to America as a young lad of 11 in 1879.

A favorite story concerning him is one he himself told on being assigned as a student to preach a sermon in a homiletics class at North Park Seminary. Listen:

I was assigned to make a sermon outline on the text about Jesus feeding the five thousand in a desert place. I had done my work honestly and now was to give my outline in class. As my title I announced, "A Feeding in the Desert."

Responding quickly as usual, [President David] Nyvall said, "Yes, yes, just so, that's good," and with his lovely and unexpected acknowledgement ringing in my ears I continued to give the disposition of the contents: main points, subordinate points, and conclusion. When I had finished, the professor sat quietly looking at his Greek New Testament. Then he said, "Well, that was like being invited to dinner without getting any food." What a crushing moment! But the professor was right. As realized later, I had issued an invitation to dinner but had not put anything substantial on the table."

Redemptive light shed on our work often hurts. We all know how crushed one can feel. What is remarkable in C. V. Bowman's case is the humility with which he received his wise professor's criticism. In truth it was but one of many occasions that made clear to others the character of the man and the qualities of spirit that ennobled him in their sight and caused them later to elect him Covenant President.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Darkness Transformed by Light

Artur Weiser, in his seminal Old Testament Library Commentary on the Psalms (SCM Press, 1962), writes that spiritual assurance is "the indestructible energy of a life fed by the invisible resources of communion with God." In Psalm 73, for example, which begins with the psalmist's confession of weariness and frustration over the prosperity of the wicked, it is not until he enters the sanctuary of God that he truly perceives their sin and his own.

As long as he was enamored by all the things the wicked seem to have that he didn't have he was filled with nothing but cynicism and anger. He had not yet realized that the life of those people was as filled with as much sorrow as his own. Short of turning to God their way of living was "like a dream" that when one awakens from it "you despise their phantoms."

And not only so. On beholding God's glory he himself was transformed. As if for the first time, he sensed that God had been standing beside him in the company of the faithful, holding his right hand even while his eyes were dimmed and his heart was hardened. Though he himself had forsaken God--acting "like a brute beast" toward him, "stupid" and "ignorant"--God had been standing beside him the whole time, holding his right hand.

The vital energies now transforming him are different from what material pleasures he so long envied in others could ever have provided. His whole life now rests on a new foundation, and "its wealth consists in the inner possession of opportunities of life provided by God."

The life of faith, we learn, is not bound to circumstance. It is an inner thing, lit from within us by the Holy Spirit, sovereign over every darkness known to human beings, "the indestructible energy of a life fed by the invisible resources of communion with God."

A Blessed New Year Reminder

Prone as we all are this time of year to focus renewed energy on resolutions of our own, I was both braced and blessed by a poetic reminder from Fred Moeckel, an old seminary colleague of mine now home with the Lord, on what really matters looking forward.

From one collection of his poems we published in 1969, now out of print but perhaps still available through sources like Amazon, I came on the following poem he called "Objection." Read it, and re-read it carefully as I am doing, and respond yourself to the Lord's clear intention for all of us--not to project our will onto the future but to accept his, surrendering our souls to the power of his Spirit.

If Jesus had only argued,
we could have answered Him.
If Jesus had only said,
"Don't you think ... ?" instead
of "You must believe ..."
we could have answered Him.
But since He came
with all the authority of eternity
behind His every word,
and since He was Himself the Word,
we have no way to argue,
no way to connive, debate;
no right to speak.
If Jesus had sought an argument,
we might have given one.
But He seeks our souls.

Braced by my brother, and the Lord speaking through him, my resolutions seem vacant and pale indeed. What God wants of me is not my energies first, or my determination to do better in the new year. He wants my soul, that in and through it he may work his will in his world for his people. Have you given him yours?