Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Connection with my idealistic tendencies

I admire people who read well. Their libraries are stocked with a variety of genres with ability to make poignant references in conversations without sounding like a book snob--it is merely a desire to access the literary gifts of others into public and private discourse for the pure edification of ideas and their development. I admire stewards of the written word.

I struggle to read well. Consistency is the issue. I wish I knew more about literary classics. I could stand to be better versed in theology. There are so many good ideas in the world, yet so little time to ponder their breadth.

I begin reading many books. I finish few of those books. Now that I have some income, stacks of magazines, books and articles do not mock me any longer--they either take their place in a handsome form of storage, or I ignore the mocking and simply quit collecting.

One article never mocked me, yet I could not throw it away. I wanted to throw it away because it was a cover article in Time Magazine.

"How to End Poverty."


Those who know me well know me as an idealist. My Meyers-Briggs Type preferences are INFP. Supposedly this means my hallmark in life is idealism. I don't go for blind idealism. The Time article sat on a short stack (meaning that I could actually read it) for 4 months or so before I finally looked at it. I was skeptical. For idealism to move to active passion, quality ideas need to make the foundation. The ideas were good enough for me to buy the book highlighted in the article by Jeffery Sachs. I read about 15 pages while my daughter splashed around in the bath tonight. I may have moved farther along, but the little girl said "all done." This is part of my problem. Distraction happens easily. How long will it be before I pick up the book again?

My idealistic tendencies have been stirred. I hope that I can be stirred to greater action.


Thursday, November 24, 2005

Creatively sticking it to George W. Bush--I'm going to be buying Citgo gasoline whenever I can

My grandfather often found it blasphemous that I found American politics boring, even more so when I studied Soviet/Russian, Scandanavian and African political systems in college. By no means am I an expert, but I learned enough to have a conversation. The topic interested me enough that after I graduated from Minnesota State U., I might go get a Master's in Political Science. Seminary won out obviously. Maybe Political Science will be the degree I work on after I retire.

Soviet/Russian politics were more of a novelty. Anything Russian or Soviet in my youth held great mystery. The Beatles and Sting wrote songs about what might be going on back there. What was really going on behind the Iron Curtain? I wanted to be on the front lines of that conversation. At least beyond my grandfather's beloved Time magazine.

African politics, though interesting because of their struggle to move beyond dicatatorship and to find harmony with modernity and tradition--did not offer much improvement over what I saw in the United States.

Scandanavian Politics, on the theoretical level, were quite compelling. Each country's systems offered stable government with multiple viable parties across a wide political spectrum. I was also drawn by their generosity--Scandanavian governments consistently give away the highest percentages of their budgets to humanitarian efforts.

If you are a regular reader of The Mad House Gazette, you know that I am no George W. Bush lover. In this country, that basically leaves me with the Democrats. What I dislike about the 2 party system is that it takes good ideas and morphs them into something that will supposedly please more people. I would guess that people on the left and right would have some innovative and useful ideas for the health of the United States. These ideas get morphed into what becomes the corporate, media driven political parties we see on television. These talking heads trade barbs and collect more money to feed their media machines of self-promotion. Democrats and Republicans are both part of this circus and I distance myself from them as much as I can.

I also believe in being a citizen. I vote. One thing I admire and miss about Minnesota is that they are able to put together some viable 3rd and 4th party candidates. Tim Penny ran with the Independence Party. The Green Party can even make a little noise. In South Dakota, 3rd party candidates tend to buck left and right and move toward wacko.

In today's Christian Science Monitor, I read a story about Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez teaming up with a politician from Massachusetts to provide subsidized heating oil for the poor in the Bay State. Certainly a populist move from Chavez--also a much more creative move than anything that Democrats can put together. Chavez is a bit wacky, but at least he is creative. I did not know that Citgo was related to Venezuelan oil, but I think they gained a customer.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Jesus is watching you...urinate

Even though I am a big time sinner, I still take comfort in how Jesus tells his disciples that he will be with them always.

I have faith in the presence of Jesus, but there are times that image is taken too far.

If a man needs to visit the lavatory in the congregation I serve, Jesus is looking out of the corner of His (this is the only time I have ever capitalized the masculine pronoun for Jesus, but hey, this depiction of Jesus is pretty important) eye at my execution of the #1.

I wish I had the minutes for the committee that Jesus should watch men pee.

I haven't found much in the Church that surprises me, but I wanted to know the thought processes that brought a wooden carving of Jesus into the bathroom.

Jesus is looking out after you--but I hope that Jesus isn't watching you pee like this image.

I am thankful for a lot of things...but Jesus watching me pee is not in the top 100.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Pastor Smales

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The liturgical game: a pilgrimage passed on to the next generation

I recently returned from a family weekend trip to Lawrence, Kansas. We wanted to take our nephew to a college basketball game--someplace special--a pilgrimage of sorts. Pilgrimages have captured my imagination for years. My grandparents' and aunt's travels varied travels inspired my dreams with their stories and artifacts. Today I say thank you to a high school English teacher, Mr. K, for recognizing and cultivating my wanderlust in the scope of literary history. In Mr. K's class we studied Chaucer's Canterbury Tales--I loved the Prologue and its discussion of the long pilgrimage.

Difficult to say if Mr. K was prophetic when he signed my high school yearbook. He wrote "Don't goon on too many long pilgrimages." An internal debate of my life these days involves pilgrimage frequency. How often can I go on a pilgrimage? There are many opportunities. Can I bring others? Will my family come with me? When I go by myself, how much is too much time away? How will I share the pilgrimage? The early life longing to depart was only a longing, today pilragmages are planned and experienced, and I have moved into another season in my life where it is time to share the gift of the pilgrimage.

Our nephew grasped the concept I attempted to share--even my wife and his grandfather in their own way understood what I was trying to do--and they became joyful participants along with my wife's mother and our daughter (though they were only recipients of the post game stories). There are particularities to a college basketball game in Lawrence. In my life as a theologian I have come to notice liturgy in public events. Back in 1988, I had no idea that a gathering of 16,000 people in Allen Field House was a liturgical event. Coming to a game 17 years later, I see the liturgy in a basketball arena. It is one of the reasons I like college athletics. The attendee is drawn into a sacred participation with layers of meaning, formed into a story. Music, movement and narrative give recognition to a sacred event. I named this observation to our nephew in the post-game discussion. My wife and I named the liturgy of the event. Our 11 year old nephew asked "what is liturgy?" I am glad the pilgrimage provided a midrash for that question. God provided a holy space, indeed. Six people representing 3 generations "goon" on a long pilgrimage. That pilgrimage carries a dual responsibility--to be thankful in the moment, and to share the experience so that others may enter into a holy space.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

First snow of the season

Snow can still throw me into a state of youthful giddyness. The novelty of snow lives with many natives of the Pacific Northwest--I remember entire winters when we would receive nothing but a brief flurry. Even with a blanket of an inch or two, the white covering would be gone by lunch. Snow days were truly heaven sent. In the fourth grade, we received about 13 inches of snow in the Seattle Metro. That snow stuck around for nearly two weeks--we missed seven days of school. Urban legend held that we only had one snow plow in King County, so we were stranded at home, many folks in their rear-wheel drive cars couldn't get around. This meteorological event was a fourth graders dream! I've never sledded so much in my entire life. My brothers and I went through three pairs of jeans a day--snow pants would be a silly investment--but we had a dryer and a supply of Brittania jeans for all of us. I didn't even mind that I was still going to school in June because the blissful memory carried through the entire year.

The first snow has come to Southeastern South Dakota for the season. Every first snow and every big snowstorm brings back memories of snow-filled joy--the aforementioned story is only one. The other big snows of my life:

+Halloween storm in Mankato, MN, 1991. Four feet in less than 24 hours. Wow.
+SE Wisconsin in December 2000. It snowed everyday that month but 3--my family was there for Christmas and my brothers, wife, doggie and I relived that big snowstorm of our youth.
+SE Wisconsin in 1999. My wife and I were struggling with sermons. The snow came. We had to cancel worship services so as not to endanger the congregation trying to get to church.

What is it about the snow that enlightens souls? Is it the clean white blanket on the ground? Is it that the land is sleeping and our own longing for rest? Is it the white that brings a spot of hope in a dark day?

I'm not generally a person who has to look outside to feel balanced, but I can't help but look outside today. God does nice work...


Friday, November 11, 2005

Reflection on American Civil Religion

On the day my wife and I celebrated the rite of ordination, we certainly recognized a distinct transition in our lives--but the future also remained a mystery. I am not one to complain about how seminary did not prepare me to do certain task. I believed that the task of the seminary was to prepare us for theological study and reflection. Spiritual and theological disciplines comprised the majority of our learning, while the practical applications served as a supplement.

Days of observance such as Veteran's Day and Memorial Day represent a struggle for me as a resident theologian. In Sioux Falls resides many clergy who can serve as a chaplain of American Civil Religion--so I have not been asked to lead any services on these days of rememberance. Leading Services in American Civil Religion was not a class in seminary--but I was asked to participate as a pastor in services in smaller towns. I can see why the presence of clergy is important in attaching meaning the work of the State. The government calls upon women and men to sacrifice their lives for the good of the State, without the possibility of debating the integrity of their mission. I have noticed that people seek meaning and respect in such matters of life and death, and recognizing the presence of God is important.

While serving in a large country congregation a few years ago, I was asked to lead services on Veteran's Day and Memorial Day. Theological perspective or tradition does not seem to matter in the context of American Civil Religion, only the presence of clergy and a "short prayer" or "a Bible reading." It does not matter that I am a Lutheran, nor am I asked to share a sermon that interprets a particular text for the life and faith of a particular community. American Civil Religion is its own entity with its own set of rules. At one time or another, many clergy have been given a lesson from a veteran about etiquette with the U.S. Flag--in my first congregation, a veteran gave me a booklet on flag etiquette. To my knowledge, this etiquette has not been a subject of theological debate, only a set of rules to be accepted and followed. I feel uneasy about this kind of participation in American Civil Religion. As a pastoral theologian, the gifts I bring to interpretation are valued. This does not necessarily mean the congregation is called to agree with what I share in my sermon, only that as a community of faith we are called to enter into the questions that the word of God presents.

Earlier this week a member of the congregation I serve, a practitioner of American Civil Religion came to my office to question something that I said in my sermon. Actually, it wasn't really a question, it was a statement that my use of the word "hell" in my sermon was "inappropriate." This was not a matter of discussion. Supposedly "a lot" of people had been talking about this. My use of hell was to convey the fury experienced in what appeared to be an unfair action by God. I believe that the tradition of lament in the biblical witness deems the use of hell as a faithful representation. In American Civil Religion, the word "hell" has no place. Hell is not vulgar--it does not inappropriately depict sex or defecation. Hell represents fury and torment. To say the use of hell is inappropriate is a statement of American Civil Religion. To the practitioner of American Civil Religion who came to my office, I would not apologize, nor would I acknowledge "a lot" of people who didn't like my use of hell. I asked him what he thought. He said hell was inappropriate in church. At least we clarified that thought.

Hopefully at some point the community of faith can talk about the why.

P.S. Pat Robertson has taken another leap into the public attempting to dictate the direction of American Civil Religion. I do not mind participating in American Civil Religion that seeks meaning. I reject American Civil Religion that is abusive. To say Pat Robertson is abusive is not a revolutionary statement, but when he makes an idiot of himself, it is good for a laugh.

Pastor Elihu

Monday, November 07, 2005

A tip for the best in roots music

Today I received a tip from John, someone who has expanded my musical horizons for years.

The list connected to me by John in my collection is varied: U. Utah Phillips, Evolution Control Committee, Alison Krauss, Nirvana, The Posies, Devil in a Woodpile, Ween--only to name a few. John knows his stuff--he works at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

John has a radio show from 8-9 Eastern on Monday nights.

Here's his intro to that new radio show:

Hi There,

Just wanted to let you know that I'm rejoining the ranks at WEBR with my new radio show, "Free Dirt." It's a one-hour show each Monday night from 8-9pm Eastern time, featuring roots music in all it's forms. What does that mean? Well, Americana, classic country, alt.country, folk, bluegrass, blues, gospel, and cajun for starters. It also will include roots traditions from around the world, i.e. music from foreign lands that has inspired and been inspired by american roots musics.

If you're in Fairfax County, VA, you can listen to it On Cox digital cable channel 37, and basic cable channel 7. On Comcast Cable in Reston, we are on channel 27. You can also hear it over the web at http://www.fcac.org/webr.



Our lives should be filled with good music. Accept no junkfood.



Saturday, November 05, 2005

My daugther, the carnivore

For at least since 1991, I have skewed my eating habits toward the vegetarian side of the fence. I can only describe the looks received when making the reluctant proclamation about my dietary relationship with veggies and other non-animal death products in this way: my grandmother thought I was in some sort of cult. My grandmother is from the Pacific Northwest as well. I've had it easy being a vegetarian back in the Northwest. At least only some folks from the homeland merely thought suspiciously of me. But I also knew that there were many others who had made a similar dietary choice as me.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota has been rated by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals--aka in SD--"People Eating Tasty Animals") as the least vegetarian friendly city in the United States. My observations are anecdotal, but to not eat meat does not merely create suspicious looks...but it becomes an offensive statement to residents of this region. So I only try to stay away from meat. I am reminded of this hostility when I drive west on Interstate 90. A billboard by the side of the road reads "In South Dakota, we REJECT animal activists." On that drive I might see a bumper sticker that reads: "Eat Beef--The West Wasn't Won On Salad."

I wouldn't consider myself an animal rights activist--I've just found that it is the best health choice for me, and I believe it to be good stewardship.

I found it interesting that my daughter put away about a half pound of taco flavored beef tonight. She ate it like she was a vulture. Her eyes were fixed as if she was stocking up her body for hibernation or waiting for the next kill. I wasn't offended. I was in awe. This growing girl needs food. She may become Miss Beef America--I'd be okay with that. Regardless of how our diets my diverge, I was still in awe of the consumption I saw.

Now I am starting to understand what my parents saw when they watched their refrigerator empty in front of their eyes at the hands and mouths of my brothers and me.


Friday, November 04, 2005

Weaning myself off of ESPN Radio

As a native of the Pacific Northwest and a sports fan--I am glad that in this day and age for the internet and sports radio. I can follow the Seattle Mariners, Seahawks, Sonics and the University of Washington in reading the Seattle Times and P-I online. I can also listen to the games on either satellite radio or through a web feed. I also listen to ESPN Radio to get other tidbits about what is going on with these teams.

Recently I had an epiphany that the ESPN radio thing became a sick attachment. I'm not sure what pointed me toward this reflection, but I tuned in to how much the broadcasters shout and imply that their topics are matters of life and death. I can't tell you the degree of elation I would experience if the Mariners won the World Series or the Washington Huskies won another national championship in football (not likely soon) or in basketball (a growing possibility). But I can't say that any of these topics warrant 24 hours worth of radio shouting. It is pure entertainment, nothing more. Since I don't aspire to be a hedonist, I realized that ESPN Radio wasn't making me any smarter--so I'm just checking in from time to time. ESPN.com will serve me adequately. I have merely moderated my ESPN radio time.

With all that empty airtime I have been listening to the BBC World Service. The Brits don't seem to do much shouting. This is good radio journalism. I still prefer the CBC, but I can't pick that up anywhere but through a web feed. Between the Monitor and the BBC--I have enjoyed the coverage--and I have learned many things as well. There is even some entertainment value. I love to hear a Brit say Addis Ababa.


Wednesday, November 02, 2005

I did go back to the Monitor: a sweet reunion

After a four year hiatus, I am once again a subscriber to the Christian Science Monitor. As I have shared in earlier posts, newspapers are an important part of my family's heritage. The newspaper was a family activity--not like a game the whole family could play, but as a valued contribution to the well being of the household. This was especially true in my Gram and Granddad's house. The clergy proverb about the importance of "a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other" resonated with me in my growth as a homiletical practitioner.

I would love to have a conversation about the declining influence of newspapers in the information age with my Granddad if he were still alive. I would also let him know that the Monitor was better than his beloved Time magazine. As a student of the Journalism School at the University of Washington, he proudly stated that Time magazine was one of his textbooks. I think since Time has become a corporate whore over the years, he found the publication more difficult to defend--I remember Granddad questioned my interest in the Monitor--it was somehow sacrilege to him, much like my study of Russian at the University of Kansas. I told him I was going to be a foreign correspondent for Time, for Pete's sake! Was that not enough? Secretly I wanted to work for the New York Times as I got older, but I hate those people now for making me pay to read Maureen Dowd online. I'm still torked about that.

I also find it interesting discussing the Treeless Edition of the Monitor with other Monitor subscribers. A colleague of mine says that holding the paper is important to her. Holding the newspaper does not necessarily get me to read it. What caused me to end my subscription in the past was the stack of Monitors that sat waiting to be read. It also comes a day late by mail about as soon as your mailing address crosses over from the Eastern Time Zone. The articles have always been keepers. I was truly appreciative when I found a gem for a sermon or a conversation in the Monitor. I waited for 2-3 years to use an article I found that discussed global warming and the opening up of the Northwest Passage--a change that could direct the US to be Canada's dancing monkeys in the future (I'll have to do some digging to find this link. I will try to get that one posted). The Treeless Edition does not mock me as much. Another benefit--isn't a laptop for bathroom reading a classy accessory?

The real return with my renewed investment? I have been glad to read articles about Iceland, foster children, a good book review about the myth of meritocracy in the Ivy League and alternative perspectives on the common news of the day in the past two days.



Tuesday, November 01, 2005

An ode to the other pastor in my house, my wife

It is coming upon 4 a.m.

I am awake because my life is a bit out of whack because:

a. I have had my gums scraped as treatment for gum disease (I don't recommend gum disease as a hobby).
b. I have been ill for over a week--equilibrium toussled by massive amount of stuff in my sinus cavities, taking naps to recover, turning back my clocks, and generally not knowing what time it is.

My wife will attempt to get up in about an hour with hopes of continuing to work on a project for her Doctor of Ministry degree at Luther Seminary (our Alma Mater and the place where we met--but you won't find that on the LS website). She may not be the most organized person--but she goes about her work with grace, passion and a desire to connect all of these with her family life--life with me and life with her daughter. She facilitates good morale in any place she goes--a laugh or a smile is not far away in my wife's presence.

I hope that God provides her stamina to see this feeding of her gifts continues--I know she feels stress and the pull of many parts of her life. I know that many are clouded by the burdens of their minds--but if you have a prayer for my wife and her work, please offer that prayer. She is passionate about the action of caring for people--I love to watch that gift development grow.

Time to go back to bed.

Pastor Smales