Monday, April 20, 2009

I will only dream about the blue highways

Some trips are made for the blue highways. For all you road trip buffs out there, pick up a copy of William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways This is a great non-fiction book. Probably on my never-published list of best non-fiction. I'll put that list together at a later date. My homiletic inspiration during Holy Week came from blue highways in South Dakota and a little bit of North Dakota. I'm not a highway snob--I'll take any highway I can get.

The interstates are their own cultural distinction. First of all, the change of terrain is compelling on its own. The trip with my family, for all its frustrations and lack of peace coming from the back seat is an opportunity to stay connected with my dear wife and ponder the road before us--both literally and figuratively.

We are moving from South Dakota and headed west. This was a long-imagined dream, now a reality. Not the kind of dream that on which I hang hope, but something to paint in my mind; a family gathered and nurtured with a grand background of outdoor beauty. For those who communicate with me regularly, the details need not be discussed here. Nor does the word "journey" need to be used. I loathe that word and all of its self-fulfillment connections in pop theology and "Christian" music. I am only thankful I can more easily gather with extended family, show my family value in some of the places I enjoyed growing up, while discovering more with them. This is only possible because My Dear Wife has a calling to follow and people willing to use her gifts. There would have been no other way to head west.

The interstate will be a good road to travel. I don't lament missing the blue highways--we need to reach our destination efficiently. I will only dream about the blue highways and travel them when I am invited to travel them.

You may not read any updates for longer than I have in several months--I worry about losing my momentum and getting caught in the seemingly urgent transition moments. I have high hopes to return to writing soon.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Garage Sale

Nothings reveals personal failures or bad investment of resources quite like a garage sale. A trip to the Goodwill is different--more anonymity, also the scant feeling of giving to the public good. As if the public is better off with the redistribution of my crap.

"Come see my failed fitness program! Come see what I haven't read, or couldn't fit on my body in my more optimistic days! Come see my half-hearted attempt at a hobby! Come see my fizzled-out work toward a collection! And get it at a low, low, humilitingly low price..."

The only reason I'm doing it is that the cash will be helpful, and my mind can rest a little easier with less clutter. That purging of junk is almost better than the cash. Almost.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spicy (Entry #2 in the madhousegazette South Dakota Lexicon)

I previously wrote on this topic over three years ago, but I continue to build my anecdotal evidence to support a SPICY entry into my new and developing lexicon. Please forgive me for my repetition to the throngs of loyal readers.

SPICY is a relative culinary term no matter where one travels. Spicy is often associated with a type of hot pepper; a jalapeno, chipotle or a habanero for the daring awakens the mouth for a party in some, drives others toward a state of panic. I consider myself one who enjoys a risky level of hot, though I didn't realize that this particular gastric joy would be repressed in South Dakota. Urban legend in Sioux Falls has it that some nascent ethnic restaurants have failed or changed their preparation because word gets out that the food is too spicy. I don't know this for a fact, but Thai food can't seem to gain any traction around here, and Indian food is rare.

So how does one assess the palate tolerance of the average South Dakotan? While serving a congregation in a small South Dakota town, I ate at one of two places available in town--the local Senior Center. After eating at this spot for several months, a few of the locals asked me about my favorite meals at the Center. I tried to avoid the local favorites of liver and onions, and scalloped ham and potatoes. The Center doubled attendance for those meals. I declared my love for the lasagna--it was well above average. It was a good meal to which I looked with positive anticipation. One woman responded to my proclamation, "ooooh. exotic!" Another tersely stated, "lasagna is too spicy for me." Several nodded in agreement. I never knew oregano could be such a tongue scorcher. Though not a South Dakotan, my mother-in-law has some similar feelings about spicy food, though she is much more willing to try new things than most South Dakotans. However, when she describes a food, I have developed a two-tiered system of spice: "Is it spicy? Or is it Norwegian spicy?" Some Norwegian-Americans are insulted by this distinction. However, almost all of them seem to get it. I referenced my Norwegian Spicy distinction out in South Dakota Ranch Country, and that inspired the most laughter I had ever received from that crew.

I wondered if the spice anecdote was confined to one town. Probably not. In another town over a meal I talked with a couple about dining favorites. After I shared my preferences, the wife stated that her husbands preferences were simple; he would only eat food that was white or brown. Maybe I should publish a cookbook called "White and Brown Favorites." Maybe it would only be a leaflet.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Gumbo (Entry #1 in the madhousegazette South Dakota Lexicon)

I should have started this series a long time ago, which would have been especially good for days like these when I know I need to force through days of sparse motivation. The day after Easter for some pastors feels like a Grade A hangover.

GUMBO is a mixture of gravel, farm debris (which can include various species of poop, hay, corn kernels, feed, etc.) mud, and whatever the constant wind brings in from the corners of the Continental United States that gets on your shoes, clothing and hair. However, Gumbo's most cacophonous appearance comes after driving through a gumbo patch on a dirt road. After parking your vehicle, the raw gumbo bakes on the vehicular underbelly. Upon departure, the roasted gumbo releases from its baking area and is redeposited over the next several hundred yards toward the driver's new destination. Gumbo is a close cousin of sand from the beach (for all of you Pacific Northwest readers); traces of gumbo can be found for sometimes months at a time after initial exposure.

Sometime gumbo looks like beef stir fry if it is served over a nice plate of spring snow.

I almost always found traces of gumbo on my clergy robe after a Sunday in South Dakota Ranch Country.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A New Dimension To The Northern Great Plains Vehicular Hand Greeting

Today was my last day serving out in South Dakota Ranch Country:
4 days.
6 services.
1 session of Confirmation. This Easter Sunday was a conclusion to a pleasant, thoughtful and prayerful 3.5 months of ministry in SD Ranch Country. I was thankful for the time, people and ministry. This was certainly not a big Holy Week schedule for some pastors, but it was plenty for me. I'm about ready to pass out.

I took in as much Ranch Country as I could during the spare time I had, hitting some of the small towns and topography in the region. It turned into sermon preparation; I drove around with an altered perspective compared to my usual tooling around my house, herding my children. I never would have thought SD Ranch Country as beautiful country growing up, but I appreciate it now like I enjoy a good Scotch or a well-aged cheddar. Not something I would take in every day, but certainly a lift to the senses, helpful for perspective and a celebration of God's varied creation.

That changed perspective alerted me to a new Vehicular Hand Greeting (VHG). While in Harding County, I came upon a mustachioed man waving at a string of cars as we all slowly approached a four-way stop (could have been the only one in Harding County). There was something different about his motion. accessory. A cigarette. Raymond Carver taught me to notice accessories when crafting a scene and enhancing dialogue. The cigarette was a great accessory for Carver, creating a more tangible reading of non-verbal communication. The greeter man in the blue Chevy S-10 held the cigarette between his two-fingers; he waved upwards in a nonchalant, yet friendly manner. He led with the back of his hand, yet the motion was intentional enough that his hand angle never varied much from 45 degrees, as to not lose control of the cigarette ash. Unfortunately, I missed whether he added the nod combo--I was fixated on the use of an accessory in the greeting. I was so glad about this discovery, I wonder if I smiled accidentally and violated the rules of VHG's. I have yet to receive a VHG with a smile. I'm not sure I have the VHG experience to add a component to the repertoire or make a ruling. Who is the governing authority of the VHG?

The kick off to Easter was better than I could have imagined. I might even go so far as to say it was one of my more fulfilling Lenten seasons. My Holy Week produced an unexpected book reading (I will review it at a later date), a good run, thankfulness, some rich prayer time, photography, exploration and a time away from my television. Unfortunately pillow talk with My Dear Wife took place on the phone and I didn't get to put my girls to bed. But those late days of the week were good soil time for both my sermon preparation and me. I hope to integrate that growth into my time at home.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Good Friday for any of us who aren't Jesus...

One of my favorite lines from a country song, by Randy Travis:

"The road to hell was paved with good intentions."

I may have intended for Holy Week to be more peaceful than usual--but in my crazy preparation this morning for my last day of substitute teaching and my 200 mile trek--I screamed at a ringing phone and a blue-haired lady driving 25 in a 40.

My eldest daughter said, "Dad, you don't have to be so grumpy..."

That's right, I don't.

Good Friday, the day where good intentions go to die.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Podcasts and Sermon Preparation

Today is crunch time for my Holy Week sermon preparation:

1. I drive 200 miles tomorrow afternoon to South Dakota Ranch Country to begin a series of 6 worship services and one session of confirmation.

2. That 200 miles means several things logistically: I do not have reliable access to a computer, web, or a theological library of any consequence.

3. My family is in the midst of a big change (more on that on another post), not to mention the flurry of activity associated with Holy Week in a two-pastor household.

Granted, I could have been preparing for these sermons for weeks: I know a pastor who plans out their sermons for 6 months, locking himself in a hotel room for a week. I don't think I could sanely work like this.

I don't think the value of the podcast for preachers can be understated. Sitting down for extended hours and studying is not really an option for me these days. Between audio Bible passages and Sermon Brainwave on I have accessed good thought provocation while I do the less mind occupying tasks of the day. Though I am not a huge proponent of multi-tasking, as long as I don't gorge myself on this practice, I find it quite reasonable. I think the consequences of homiletical multi-tasking preparation depend on how the rest of the preachers time is filled. If I continue to pray, read the Bible, attend to my primary relationships, write and read generally, I am still living the student and preacher life faithfully. If I watch too much television, play too many video games, watch too much sports (these are my vices--if you are a video game programmer or work for ESPN, then please, take these pursuits on to feed your family) then I am starving my sermon preparation.

I actually have some angles to work with for this weekend--and I am caring for my family.

May the remainder of your Holy Week be a blessed connection with God and with your communities.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A New Holy Week Experience

This year, Lent has not been a seemingly endless series of extra tasks and groanings about the work load. My former spiritual director tried to assure me that that was not how Lent was supposed to be. Rather than set out a plan that neatly fit into the 40 days of the season, I now look back and see what God has given me. I have used this time to write more, read more, and pray more--a serendipitous gift--something I could not create for myself through planning. This has not been a classic 40 days of Lenten discipline; I know that Lent doesn't mean drudgery, it's supposed to mean growth. Maybe growing through writing, reading and prayer--though I didn't read Augustine or Paul and did not pray the Daily Office or from the Book of Common Prayer, I believe that God and I met.

The discipline actually began in December last year; I have read more, written more, prayed more, attended to my primary relationships (finding profound joy in my wife and children) more and exercised more than I have in years. Though I haven't deeply planted my activity in congregational life in the past 2 years, I have still been able to attend to the word of God and preach and still speak something of value to congregations. I honestly don't know how pastors grow in their faith while they attend to the work of congregational life. Maybe it is because I have a preference for introversion and congregational life is more often an extroverted life style. My wife and I moved to South Dakota eight years ago not holding a solid idea of how God was going to use me. It took me about 3 years to get an idea and 5 more to live that idea out vocationally, all while raising two children we didn't have when we arrived. Because that vocation in both my family and in ministry now feels like my own skin, the next few years will be a deeper discernment of how the next season of my life will form.

Maybe this new discipline and reflection will come out in my Holy Week sermons. For the first time in many years, I am responsible for all the sermons of the week (maybe the first time--I don't fully remember). I have always approached Good Friday with the most trepidation. I don't care to make excuses for the challenges of the texts (a pet peeve of mine), yet I never thought that my words can somehow do justice to the ethos of the day. Maybe I have residual pastoral authority issues from the early days of making sense of my calling. Maybe it is this Holy Week that the theological soil I have turned and tilled will bear fruit. For the first time in over 10 years of ministry I have come to this Holy Week not completely spent from Lenten activities. I know better than to expect a great epiphany from my time of reflection--but I have great hope that God will use me to provide a word that reaches people in a place of peace.

Hyperbolic video game violence

Hot New Video Game Consists Solely Of Shooting People Point-Blank In The Face

This Onion clip doesn't rank in the pantheon of Onion greats, but I put forth a hearty guffaw after I watched this. The more I thought about the topic, it's funny on multiple levels:

1. This piece highlights the progression of video game violence over the past two decades and takes it to its absurd conclusion--I've noticed this as I play our family Wii and add on old games from the NES basic system from the late 1980's. Does the humor highlight desensitization to violence, or does it merely lampoon moral outrage?

2. I find it interesting that The Onion has taken on topics the last few days that get buried in this endless news cycle of apoplectic economics: video game violence and that Pope Benedict decides to accept abortion. Not that I wish for more discussion about abortion or video game violence, but these recent stories satirize media tunnel vision about economic issues.

On another Onion note: quite a coup for the Onion News Network to sign on former CNN veteran Bobbie Batista. Nice work ONN--you are a media PLAYA.

Monday, April 06, 2009

My relationship with the CFL's of the world

Today I share with you some thoughts not about my third favorite pigskin sporting organzation (the CFL known as the Canadian Football League--LOVE those Edmonton Eskimos), but the CFL known as Compact Fluorescent Lights. I am not one to agree with George Will on much. He's an intelligent man who shares my love for baseball and writing--but I often want to scream at him when I read his columns.

Will confirms some of my own observations and feelings regarding CFL bulbs and the misplaced frenzy to incorporate them in our lives. Though Will disagrees with the notion of earthly environmental distress, he still works to dismantle actions taken to address that distress--in this case the foolishness of the incorporation of CFL bulbs by law. I think the basic industriousness of people and a desire to act in the face of an anxious situation has produced foolish actions in a love fest with CFL bulbs. For some households and businesses, these lights may make sense. However, my household is occupied by 2 Tasmanian Devil-like children and a dim bulb of a dog who often has no real understanding of his surroundings. Not to mention I have been known to attempt to swing a golf club in my own house. The likelihood of a broken bulb in my household is high. This is not good for a product containing mercury. I have enough worries about my children and their exposure to neuro-toxins; CFL's only add to my madness. It seems like the tradeoff isn't all that good in the first place, and here we are, mandating these kinds of products in to law. The disposability of the CFL's don't seem to enter in to the conversation about environmental impact. I'm not sure why.

I have much higher hopes for some LED style bulbs, but it seems like CFL's are the flavor of the month. I hope the mercury issue will enter into the discussion more often, and I'm thankful that Will continued to direct this toward the mainstream, even if I believe his enviromental discourse is off.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Snowed out

For the fourth time in over 10 years of preaching, I got snowed out from a worship service. Spring snow storms are a shifty bunch. We were told last weekend 6-12 inches of wet, heavy snow was on the way. Nothing for us, but 30 miles to the west received 14 inches. I prepared for my weekly trek with a survival kit (snow shovel, kitty litter, salt, snacks, blankets), only to be told by the good people of South Dakota Ranch Country to stay home. No forecaster even bothered to tell us how many inches. Only a blizzard warning. I-90 was closed around 4:30 pm. They knew better out on the ranches. This is my first relaxed weekend in over 3 months.

I like preaching, but the adrenaline rush and tension are noticeably absent this evening in a good way. I'll probably wake up at 4am wondering if I missed church. Sabbath is a good thing--I think my bodily hard drive needs defragmentation. I'll feel it at about 10 am tomorrow when I finally get around to dressing myself for the day.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

"Alas, poor Theology"

An extended period of reading time (the thankful portion of air travel) finally led to my second encounter with Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. After reading the introductory commentary to this edition by David Galef of the University of Mississippi, I perceived another struggle with this book, another failed academic exercise. Surpising to me, I worked through about 100 pages, though it wasn't much work. There's a reason this book ranks so highly--the prose flows well, with just enough notes and commentary to not be encumbered by the anachronisms. The settings are sometimes hyper-descriptive, but not painfully so. The dialogue is about as close to perfect as possible. The social commentary doesn't approach preaching, for which I am thankful.

My review will not be posted today, I still have a long way to go before completing the book--but I found a quote about which I cannot stop pondering:

"Alas, poor Theology [from the narrator]" Tess of the d'Urbervilles. This describes a scene where Tess meets a young man who paints Bible verses on steps with red paint. I won't dissect the scene quite yet, but I love the way this quote can be interpreted in so many ways. I've considered renaming my blog by this quote, but, alas, I shall use it to describe my writings. I don't think I'll finish the book by the time I return home, but I am well on my way.