Monday, March 12, 2007

A poem for Monday, March 12, 2007

12 March 2007, common era

Surrounded by family, censed with love, pain, and tears,
the weary patriarch leaves life for eternity even as the
morning sun in ruby-red glory rises above yet fallow fields.
Styrofoam coffee cups in hand, the Cenex regulars
talk of spring calving and the price of winter wheat
while outside, on the streets of town, passing trucks
crush the leavings of winter’s snow and ice.
Walkers navigate a topography of silt-laden run-off,
in bitter reminder of Lent’s somber, ashen warning
that all, yes all creation, returns to earth.

Later, by a windswept grave off County Road 1
parents bury again the memory three years past of
black ice and a daughter, an almost bride, lost to life.
Pink roses and birdsong counterpoint their mourning
while beyond the evergreen sway, across snow-melt pastures,
children’s laughter and playground fancy signal another grief—
a school called this night to greet its own death justified
by declining numbers, increasing cost and board vote.
Meanwhile the price of diesel rises and reality rubs raw
against the advent of soil and seed turning.

Such is this March day on the Dakota prairie.
Weatherbeaten winter and hopeful spring dance,
unsteady partners in time’s gaited passage.
Sturdy stock, these good Norwegian folk
will brush away the mud, disregard the chill,
and go on resolute, backs to the wind, chins set
against the howl of life.

Days Like This!

"Mama said there'd be days like this,
there'd be days like this, my mama said..."

...but she didn't say anything about weeks like this, or even months like this. Egads!

North Dakota in March is a strange and unpredictable place. One minute you're freezing your eyeballs out and the next minute you're awash in a sea of mud and melting snow runoff without the benefit of adequate storm drainage systems. Life takes on this odd rhythm that I'm sure is somehow linked to the precocious patterns of the weather.

In "Little, Little Town," the mood is stormy. Tonight is the final vote on closing our school. In all reality we merged with the larger district in the south of the county last year, but somehow not all the folks in "Little, Little Town" realized the implications of the merger--especially that if our K-6 campus couldn't maintain a certain number of students the board "may" reassign those students to the main campus in "Little Big Town." The board has taken the word "may" to mean "shall," while the residents of "Little, Little Town" heard hope. The school is the largest employer in "Little, Little Town," so people will lose jobs, and another empty shell of a landmark will grace the northern plains horizon. Some folks are calling it (quite dramatically, I think) a crucifixion. Others are ignoring it and pretending it isn't happening. Still others are saying we have no options and it's simply a fact of life in a dwindling area.

The thing that disturbs me about the whole issue is the decided lack of vision and willingness to be innovative. There is here a sort of collective malaise, a resignation, and a sense of inferiority that is absolutely maddening to the "outsider." As pastor, citizen, parent, and newcomer, I walk this fine line of what I can and cannot say, what is appropriate and inappropriate, and what would be politicizing from the pulpit. I've alternated between taking tearful, angry calls from parishioners to keeping my mouth shut in front of another parishioner who is on the board that's decided to close the school. So now there will be grief issues to deal with that are as insidious as cancer within the parish body and the community.

Add to that the personal dilemma of having eldest daughter home from college for a week. She was bored to tears within 24 hours and settling back into the familiar pattern of sparring with youngest daughter (who's 13 with a vengeance and resenting the encroachment upon her queen bee status). Both of them complain with great gusto about Single Pastor Mom's vocational responsibilities.

And to top it all off, beloved patriarch of close-knit farm dynasty dies at 6:00 a.m. in hospital 23 miles away. The family has me called at 3:00 a.m., but do I hear the phone? No. Does said hospital also call my cell phone which was on my nightstand? Of course not. Fortunately they do call a colleague in "Bigger Little Town" who is pastor to one of the children, and she was able to be with them. I know I can't be all things to all people, but events like this are frustrating. Thankfully, on Sunday afternoon, I was able to take communion to the hospital, so that the family (who filled the room and hall) were able to share the meal with beloved patriarch. It was truly one of the most touching things I've experienced to watch beloved matriarch help her husband receive the wine and real presence of Christ. This will be a hard funeral in one sense, but it will be a celebration, as well. We'll be opening up one of the buildings from a congregation closed some years ago for the service--out on open prairie with a commanding view and a cemetary surrounded by the sheltering presence of tall evergreens.

Enough venting for one Monday morning. At least I'm now fully awake and ready to start on funeral homily notes, sermon prep for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, homily prep for Wednesday evening prayer, and confirmation prep. Will Easter ever really get here?

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Road of Danger: A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, Year C

Grace and peace to you fellow travelers on this Lenten pilgrimage, grace and peace from the One who was, who is, and who is to come.

Two roads diverge in front of us this morning. One is unmarked. It looks appealing, oft-traveled, and well-maintained. Four lanes of velvety-black, ribbon-smooth highway. Look! There’s even a sign noting the presence of a travel oasis a few miles ahead. The other road shows signs of disuse and wear—frost heaves, ruts, and a sharp turn ahead that blocks your view of what might lie ahead. You’re concerned because there’s no oasis sign proclaiming hospitality ahead; the only marker is a faded yellow, rusty metal sign, pock-marked by a few bullet holes, containing a solitary word: DANGER. Further unnerving you is the presence of several of those little roadside crosses on both sides, names and dates that have no meaning to you, but that raise the hair on the back of your neck as their sun-cast shadows play across the road ahead.

What will be your choice for this leg of the journey? Will you choose the highway, or will you risk the road of danger?

Maybe you’re inclined to say something along the lines of “Well, that’s a no-brainer. I’ll head for the travel oasis and be assured of a Starbucks and a McDonalds and plenty of fuel.” Maybe you consider that to be the prudent, the wise, the safe option. Certainly it’s the preferred choice of most rational folks in search of good travel. AAA would concur. Mapquest would agree. Google would go along. The other road might not even make it onto the pages of your Rand-McNally Atlas.

As disciples, we know which road our directions tell us to take. Yep. That’s right. The Road of Danger. The Way of the Cross. The “road less traveled.” Our gospel text this morning makes that choice abundantly clear through the example of Jesus, as he faced two divergent paths.

Jesus is warned by his peers and fellow religious scholars to take the wide road out of town as fast as he can go because Herod wants to do him in. But Jesus won’t be sidetracked; he won’t change direction.

The word “must” is important. Jesus says, “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.” There is a sense of urgency, of importance, of a necessary course of action. Jesus’ motivation is clear. He is on track to do the will of God, and Jerusalem is in the way. God’s chosen people, personified by Jerusalem are at odds with this mission. Jesus’ mission is risky business. Prophets in Jerusalem often end up dying because of their proclamation. We know Jesus died there. We know that he was raised in the shadow of the city, too, but let’s save that story for Easter and focus on the dangerous road he’s on now, the same dangerous road we’re called to tread in his footsteps.

Business guru and author Stephen Covey said, “The greatest risk is the risk of riskless living.” No one could accuse Jesus of Nazareth of riskless living! And as his followers, we should not be accused of riskless living either.

I’m pretty sure that the farmers among us know a thing or two about Covey’s statement. Farmers take risk by the very nature of their vocation—every planting, every major equipment purchase, every decision to get back out there and do it again is shadowed by risk. In our North American culture, I’d be willing to stake a claim that being a farmer is truly more risky than being a Christian. What I mean is this:

A farmer is a farmer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, especially if he or she has livestock.

True, theoretically, a Christian is a Christian 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. But what’s the reality? What percentage of folks who claim the name invest the corresponding amount of time or lifestyle or resources? A farmer who spent as much time farming as the average Christian spends at church, in prayer and study, and in activities pertaining to the Christian life, would be the talk over the coffee pot in the Farmers Union AND bankrupt in short order. A farmer who only farmed twice a year? What would happen?

Or how about this: a farmer who only invested 2.2% of gross income back into the farm—well, you tell me—what would the result be? Yet that 2.2% of gross income figure represents the average percentage of household giving to a religious institution (church or synagogue) in the year 2003, according to a study by the George Barna Group.

Being a farmer is far more dangerous, far riskier, than being a Christian in North America. Look at the number of farm-related injuries and fatalities in a given year. According to a 1999 report of the National Safety Council, the fatal injury rate for agriculture (22.5 per 100,000) was second only to mining and quarrying, with less than one percent difference (The Iowa Experience 1990-1999, Iowa Department of Public Health). I couldn’t locate any figures readily available on injuries and fatalities related specifically to being Christian, but I suspect it would be a considerably smaller percentage, if it’s even measurable.

Wonder where I’m going with all this? I want to place before you a couple of things to consider about choosing the dangerous road of discipleship.

First, I don’t believe that the wide, welcoming road is any less dangerous. In fact, I’d suggest that it’s more dangerous in the end, that it’s deadly. Any life is going to be filled with its share of pain and suffering, but without the knowledge of the love of God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ, how much worse, how pointless, how desperate can it get? The going may be really smooth for awhile, but the wide road may lead you right off a cliff, or it may lead you in dizzying circles, or deposit you at a dead end.

The road we call dangerous—that of discipleship—may indeed be fraught with pain and suffering, but on this road we will never be alone. On the dangerous road of discipleship we have the promise of the resurrection, and the guarantee of eternal life. In short, we have hope.

What’s required of us on the road of danger is that we give up the misguided but highly human notion that we are in control. We are asked to step out in faith—to leap with both feet away from every rational thing our world holds dear into the loving arms of Jesus, who longs to shelter us under wings of love, and who would have us soar on the wings of eagles in his divine care.

In some parts of the world, proclaiming faith in Jesus Christ is indeed life-threatening. People have died for the faith, and people will continue to die for the faith. Our risk factor here in this place is pretty low. In all of North Dakota I’d say it’s pretty low. In the United States it’s still pretty low—thanks to democracy and freedom of religion. What if you lived somewhere in the world where it is illegal to assemble to worship as a Christian? What if the call to justice put you in harm’s way to save others?

Do you remember from science class how much of our brain we use? If you don’t remember, the answer is 7-10%. What percentage of our faith do we really use? You see, dear Christian friends, this is where it gets dangerous.

The more of our faith we’re need to use, the firmer we’re asked to stand on what we believe, and the more sacrifices we’re called to make on account of our faith in Jesus Christ, the more dangerous our discipleship walk becomes. The more we step out in faith, the more our eyes are opened to the needs and the pain of this world and our sisters and brothers and the more risk we must take.

Look at Abram. He left home, family, and security to follow God. He’s waited a long time for God’s promise. He’s faced danger, he’s lied to save his skin and that of his family, he’s done battle, and he’s getting old. He must have been discouraged. He must have wondered what in heaven God was up to. But he’s told in a vision not to fear, that God is his shield, and that his reward will be great. I think Abraham had to use more than 7-10% of his faith.

So what about us today? Are you willing to continue walking by faith? Are you willing to let God lead you down a dangerous road, trusting in the divine promises, in your baptismal covenant? If you are, then you will find yourself led way out of your comfort zone, you will meet challenges that seem insurmountable, and you WILL work in the fields of the Lord more than two days a year—that’s for sure—because God requires nothing more of you than all you are. And lastly, you WILL lose your life at some point.

But do not be afraid. You have the promise. Your reward will be very great. Your citizenship is in heaven. God is always faithful, and Jesus’ arms are strong enough to bear you and shelter you no matter how “chicken” you are or where this road leads. You are in good company, and that is good news.

Blessings on the journey!