Sunday, January 31, 2010

By popular demand...

I’ve been asked to share the book I mentioned in today’s sermon.

This morning, to describe what a congregation might look like living out agape love, I told a story from the novel Leaving North Haven, by Michael Lindvall. “The Organist” is about a pastor in rural Minnesota who preaches at a small congregation whose organist has only played three hymns for the past thirty years. Nevertheless, they include her in their life together, and welcome a young man who is HIV positive. This story is a fabulous example of radical hospitality.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jack Bauer is a Judge?

In the Old Testament book of Judges, the judges aren’t judicial law-deciders like Judge Judy or John Paul Stevens. Rather, they are more like charismatic grassroots leaders, bringers of justice, or tribal chieftains. Some commentators have referred to them as being like tricksters or social bandits—figures like Robin Hood or Anansi the Spider.

In her commentary of Judges, Susan Niditch draws heavily on studies in folklore and storytelling. She describes judges as social bandits: “They are often marginal figures in their own societies, sometimes victims of injustice, and are characteristically rebels. They kill in just vengeance or self-deception” (4).

It seems like this describes Jack Bauer from 24.

On the show, Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is an adventurous operative who gets information, but often uses violence and deception. He plays by his own rules. He reminds me of many of the Judges. For example, Ehud solved the problem of Moabite rule by assassinating King Eglon, but he did it in a tricky and creative way by using a sword with his left hand and hiding the body in the bathroom so the guards would think the odor were just regular nasty bathroom stench.

Judges is a pretty violent book, just like 24 is a pretty violent television show. In Judges, a king’s toes and fingers get cut off in the first chapter, just before a woman is given as a battle trophy. Six hundred Phillistines get slaughtered with an oxgoad. Somebody gets stabbed in the temple with a tent stake.

All this is in the Bible. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it gets middle school boys to read the Bible. It also reminds us of the world as it is and our way to keep messing things up. Violence in the Bible, like violence on television, also calls us to be more aware of the very real violence in our world. We remember our need for grace.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Marching and dreaming...

Yesterday, a contingent of Amazing Grace folks participated in San Antonio’s march in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As the pastor of a predominately white, middle class suburban congregation, I sometimes feel a bit out of my comfort zone addressing issues of race and injustice. It’s a challenge to make such a public sign of solidarity like marching, but it is the right thing to do. I’m reminded of Dr. Kings words, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Next Sunday our lectionary readings include imagery about the Body of Christ from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We are all connected. We all live together.

In this past week’s sermon, I shared that I don’t know what it’s like to be African American. I don’t know what it’s like to be Haitian. I’ve never lost my home. I don’t know what it’s like to be gay, give birth, or go through menopause.

Every person’s human experience is unique, special, and sacred. Comparing sorrows is a futile task. It’s not helpful to say “my hurt is worse than yours.” Pain is pain. Grief is grief. Joy is joy.

We share in life together with people we love, with people we might not like, with people different from us, and with people across the globe. As we sang on Sunday:

"In Christ there is no east or west, In him no south or north,
But one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide earth."

I remember a time I was working with first graders in an afterschool program. It was MLK Day, and we were showing the class a video about Dr. King. My co-leader started with some pre-questions, just to see what the class already knew. Some of the answers were predictable. “He was a preacher.” “He had a dream.” One response, however, was a bit different: “Martin Luther King was the first person to read both the black and the white Bible.”

My co-leader responded, “Um, Paul, you’re in seminary. Why don’t you answer this question?”

I said, “Well, there’s not a white Bible and a black Bible. There’s just one Bible that anyone can read.”

One rather erudite boy responded, “But at synagogue we read the Hebrew Bible.”

The truth is, we read lots of bibles even if we read from the same Bible. If there are ten of us in the room, we might have seventeen ways of interpreting Scripture. I know that Pat Robertson and I interpret scripture in very different ways, but we both profess to be Christians. I know that faithful people in the ELCA have come to very different conclusions on the same issue.

The biggest debates in the Church aren’t over sexuality or politics. When you get down to it, it’s how you look at Scripture. That’s why I really like the ELCA’s Book of Faith Initiative, especially the four ways of looking at scripture: through lenses of devotion, history, literature, and Lutheran theology.

When I have different layers of looking at a text, it makes my reading of it richer. I’m learning how to take the Bible seriously without always taking it literally. At church, we’re doing a home Bible study on Judges. We have the horribly gross story of Ehud assassinating King Eglon (Judges 3:12-30) and the equally violent story of Shamgar slaying 600 Philistines with an oxgoad (Judges 3:31). Taking that story seriously doesn’t mean I should go around stabbing people in the belly with a sword or killing people. It does mean, however, that I should reflect on the violence in my own world.

Let us follow the examples of Jesus and Martin (and countless others…) we keep on striving for peace.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Responding to disaster...

These days, we certainly keep in prayer all those impacted by the earthquake in Haiti.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications! (Psalm 130:1-2)

As we try to find ways to respond, I encourage you to look into the ELCA's response (

This ELCA video with beloved characters Davey and Goliath responds to disaster in a loving, grace-filled (non-shouting) way.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A wet life...

Today I preached while standing in a kid’s swimming pool for Baptism of our Lord. I had originally planned to take off my shoes and Huck Finn-up my trouser legs to stand in ankle-deep water (complete with alb and chasuble), but cold weather and close proximity to live electrical outlets prevailed. Nevertheless, the pool was a good visual aid in getting us to think about living wet.

When I was a kid playing in the yard with a hose, or in a pool not unlike this one, my mom had a rule—“Mom does not get wet.” Now that my sister has kids of her own, she has the same rule, “Mom does not get wet.”

When Jesus gets baptized, he gets wet. He’s human enough to have Jordan River mud between his toes and droplets of water on his forehead.

Our bodies contain much water; some estimates suggest upwards of 80 percent. We need water to stay hydrated and healthy. We need to be wet.

The earth contains a finite amount of water molecules. No new ones are created; they just get recycled in the water cycle—evaporation, condensation, precipitation, etc. It’s fun to imagine the adventures that our water could have had.

However, as Christian people, our waters are storied waters (to borrow a phrase from Daniel Erlander). God enters our human story (incarnation; word made flesh; Christmas) and our human story becomes part of God’s story. We remember water stories: The ruach of God over the waters at creation. The cleansing waters of the flood. God leads the people to freedom from oppression as the waters of the Exodus part. Hagar drinks from the well. Naaman washes leprosy. On the cross, Jesus says “I thirst.”

Martin Luther suggested that when you wash, you remember your baptism. As we remember our baptism, we remember what God has done in our life. “Child of God, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Our story changes; we are named and claimed as God’s beloved child. We are connected with a much greater story. We live a wet life.

Baptism is more than a one-time-deal. “Let’s take the kid to the pastor and get it done.” Baptism is a process. It’s a public recognition of what God has already been doing. God has loved you since before you were conceived and will keep loving you until long after you die. Baptism is a sign of God’s love.

Living a wet life is more than keeping your kidneys hydrated. It’s more than standing in a kiddie pool or taking a shower. It’s living a life shaped by God’s love. It’s being God’s child. It’s remembering your baptism. Stay wet.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My 2010 Reading List

I’m borrowing an idea from Clint Schnekloth at Lutheran Confessions, and sharing my reading list for 2010. It’s mostly books that I’ve had on my shelf for awhile, but haven’t yet read. Some were gifts (yet to be assets); others were cited in other stuff I’ve read—especially the theologically relevant fiction. It’s a diverse mix, indeed. This doesn’t include the commentaries on Judges and resources on Christian/Muslim relations I’m reading in preparation for classes I’m leading at church. What on this list should be a top priority? What else should I add?

  1. And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey (Studs Terkel)
  2. The Chosen (Chaim Potok)
  3. Complete Stories (Flannery O'Connor)
  4. Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul (David Goetz)
  5. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
  6. Getting Ready for the New Life: Facing Illness or Death with the Word and Prayers (Richard Bansemer)
  7. The Hammer of God (Bo Giertz)
  8. Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (Barbara Homes)
  9. The Last Lecture (Randy Pausch)
  10. On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio (Char Miller, ed.)
  11. The People's Work: A Social History of the Liturgy (Frank Senn)
  12. Shaking the Gates of Hell: Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization (Sharon Delgado)

Happy reading!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Back from Nicaragua

I spent some time right after Christmas visiting family in Nicaragua. It was a wonderful time in the Land of Lakes and Volcanoes. I admit that I often get bored looking at other people’s vacation pictures, so I feel a bit guilty sharing my own. But we can make this fun.

In confirmation class, I’m gearing up to start a long unit on the Ten Commandments. I love discussing the Ten Commandments because we discover a framework for living lives shaped by God’s law. We also, however, remember that we are sinners, living in that Lutheran paradox of captive/free, saint/sinner, both/and. Sometimes, living according to God’s law, we need to break other parts of God’s law. Loving your neighbor gets tricky. To use fancy philosophical language, we have to decide if we will use consequentialist or deontological reasoning.

Anyway, let’s play “What Commandment(s) are Relevant Here?” with my Nicaragua travel photos.

This is outside the Cathedral in León. They’re selling many things including religious artwork: Angels, Mary, the Jonas Brothers…
Idolatry? Lord’s name in vain?

All around Nicaragua, there are lots of opportunities to purchase bootleg DVDs.

Thou shall not steal?

This photo was snapped from a Nicaraguan newspaper. Roughly translated into English: "Reign of God on earth with Santa's SAM-7."The caption: "Victor, a 12 year old Nicaraguan boy, tries out an earth-to-air SAM missle that's being exhibited during "Happy Park."

In these days after Christmas, I think about the reign of God. I think of Mary singing about the hungry being filled with good things. I remember the good news of great joy that the angels declared. I don't think of children trying out missles before Christmas. I remember that our world does need a savior.