Monday, August 31, 2009

My kind of beach

The beach always ranks as a top destination spot for my family and me, but to what kind of beach shall we go? I have traveled to beaches in Southern California, Nicaragua, Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida and Rhode Island. I will always love the lower development cool, drizzly, and cloudy beaches in Washington. Sunny and warm is my least favorite weather pattern. If you're looking for sun 'n' fun, I would recommend going somewhere else.

My family made fun of Moclips, Washington, growing up. We drove there once for I don't know what reason--our destinations of choice involved places that had more services available, like Ocean Shores and Long Beach. As a kid I lived for the trip to the Ilwaco Bowl bowling alley. I prefer Moclips now. Even though we saw people walking along the beach and even saw a wedding party a few hundred yards to the south of our little spot, it felt like we had the place to ourselves. My dear wife and I escorted our children to their favorite kind of outing in the world. It doesn't matter if we hit the Puget Sound or the Pacific Ocean--they can spend hours at the beach running around, picking, digging and exploring. The boundaries are natural and wide. They run, and we kind of follow them.

However, this trip to Moclips was also about family gathering and celebrating milestones--this time, my parents 40th wedding anniversary. I once had this image that perfect family gatherings were possible, if not at least expected. I observed in my childhood that this was a fleeting desire. An attempt to hit a moving target. Family gatherings are not perfect. We all have our imperfections and brokenness, and we do our best to recognize the blessing of family and enjoy the presence of one another. We prepare meals, we play cribbage (my youngest brother trounced me), watch baseball, share stories, and of course--play at the beach. My parents got to watch the whole imperfect, but blessed conglomeration of relationships that is our family.

The reason I like going to Moclips and the Washington beaches is I get to be in my favorite weather and contemplate the gentle yet powerful process that is erosion at work, and I get to do it in a peaceful way. It's the best witness to God I've had in a long time--the evidence of God's action is all around us, yet so subtle, like the undercurrent as it peels the sand away from the bottom of my feet. I can't do a thing about that sand that moves from under my feet. With that movement of sand, I am reminded that my time of two years of part time ministry, full time parenthood and their gently rhythmic yet powerful day are coming to an end. I return to full-time employment tomorrow. I have written more than I have in years, and I've realized that writing is a foundational activity for my balance. I've learned that writing is not a good activity in and of itself--most message boards have made "the pen is mightier than the sword" concrete. Where my writing will go from here, I do not know. Though the erosion may take away the resources from one place, surely they will be deposited somewhere else.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Really behind the movies--Up

What I have come to appreciate about Pixar feature films is that every release does not lend itself to intense merchandising.

The merchandised Pixar films are actually quite good (Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, etc.). Yet Pixar invests in a wider mission beyond merely trying to move product, they are also at least mildly interested in telling a good story. Ratatouille is a good example of this story telling trajectory. "Up" is another one of the Pixar feature films that tells a solid story. Looking at the characters, I don't see a kid going to the first day of school with a crotchety old man silk screened on the front of a t-shirt.

The story hits some heavy topics that went over the head of my young children, yet hit me square in the chest, nearly taking my breath away. I can't think of a family film, let alone a film in general, that squarely addresses truly enduring love woven with broken dreams and unfulfilled hopes, yet redirected with redemption. The film also had enough kid silliness, color and adventure to keep my 2 and 6 year old engaged. This was a miracle in itself--because the 2 year old hasn't found the movies all that interesting (which I don't consider a character or development flaw) and doesn't behave in the movie theater. I like to have family activities--and a trip to the cinema can be enjoyable for all. In that way, we have turned a corner. My Dad and I had a great day at the movies with the girls.

Back to work--hopefully not back to the Tyranny of the Urgent

It's official: I return to full time work outside the home for the first time in almost exactly 2 years September 1. With lots of family in town, a trip to the beach planned, and a few freely flowing days remaining, I can look back on a time apart from the Tyranny of the Urgent and say it was a time that the lives of our daughters were stabilized. Though children are resilient, we learned to re-prioritized the simple things that gave all of our worlds centeredness: evening meals together, a consistency in teaching life skills, faith practices, and time for simple joys. In some ways, I believe that this time apart will give my family the ability to stay centered in even more challenging vocational times.

My dear wife, after a summer of getting acquainted with her new context and job description will become more involved and influential with her work. I will become acquainted with a new, yet old context in my experience. Daughter #1 will put her new budding academic skills to the test, and we will learn if these two years of reshaping her life and giving her the support she needs will bear fruit in peer relationships. Daughter #2 takes her first extended move into a self-aware and social world in preschool. I will look upon these days of work sabbatical and stay-at-home parenting with great fondness. Parenthood doesn't really end, but it evolves. In my drives to work next week, I will feel the twinge of melancholy intermixed with thankfulness.

What I hope I have learned in the past 10 or so years is that I need not be held captive by the Tyranny of the Urgent (moving back and forth from emergency to emergency), or delusions of personal status at the expense of integrity, call, or my primary relationships.

The freedom of God, atmospheric activity and the ELCA

My thoughts are still in process regarding the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly adopting new ministry standards for lesbian and gay pastors. One topic of reflection I feel called to address because I have read it on numerous occasions: the notion that because of the Assembly vote, God sent tornadoes to Minneapolis. I may write more in the coming weeks about the decision and the fallout, or the connection between storm and judgment may amount to all I have to write.

Interesting how atmospheric activity is conveniently used by people to espouse their understanding of God. This kind of connection isn't confined to folks like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. I'm finding this kind of logic in many kinds of forums, from people in significant Lutheran leadership to local message boards (check out the comments in this article).

What does the logic of climatic activity being connected to God say about God? First, I think it's important to consider all of the tornadic activity in North America since 1900. Even this large sample involves a limited historical scope of atmospheric activity. Examine all of the people that were killed and all the property damaged in these storms. Can every storm be connected to God's judgment? How can anyone know in this limited sample of storms? If God's judgment were indeed reigning upon Minneapolis during the ELCA Churchwide Assembly for the decisions that it made for such an apparently egregious sin, wouldn't God have caused a lot more damage and death?

I do not know the answers to these questions. I believe that God has the freedom to act in any way God chooses--but I think it's dangerous logic to attach any storm to God's judgment based on an emotional response to a divisive issue.

Even though I am a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and I have heavily invested my vocational life to its ministry, I do feel some detachment from this kind of vitriol in the ELCA. The ELCA does not completely woven into my entire cultural life or all of my relationships. The ELCA may split--but I will always share kindred spirits in the Church who believe in "justification by grace through faith" what I believe is the crux of Lutheran theology. I do not find attachment to hierarchy, organization or ethnic culture that goes along with Lutheranism. I support Lutheran organization to a certain extent because it speaks to how we live together and work together, but I cannot work in the national church in this kind of relational climate. If this stance is a flaw on my part, so be it. My identity is in my baptism into Christ, not the church that did the baptizing.

The issue of contention to me does not appear to be about sexuality at all (though I think it has more to do with taboo than sex), but about how we read the Bible. When I first began examining Bible reading approaches I learned some things about biblical inerrancy. I found this discussion to be problematic in the congregations I served, and once the fervor died down, people lost interest. I think the inerrancy question was one of the things that was never solved when the ALC and LCA merged to form the ELCA, and that is coming home to roost at this time. In light of the present vitriol in public discourse and further proclamations of inerrancy and questions surrounding it, I had to dig a little deeper for writing and research on the topic. In my search I found some enlightening articles addressing philosophy, history and polity relating to inerrancy. What I found is that the inerrancy question is a relatively recent construct that does not trump "justification by grace through faith." I tried to bring out this idea in my last sermon, but I think people have reached a point of emotionality that has cut off the ability to work faithfully and well on this topic of human sexuality and church leadership.

I only hope that I have added a little bit of faithfulness and thoughtfulness to the discourse. Lord, have mercy.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Some places cannot be adequately described by words or photos

Crater Lake National Park epitomizes a great destination spot for me, and more often, my family.

1. It takes a certain kind of effort to get there. It took tenacity to take young children and my older (but also tenacious) in-laws to get there. We had to find an ideal place to rest our heads and accommodate the special needs of daughter #1.

2. The effort also needs to involve traversing a maze of highways that requires some map savvy and at least one, but preferably more "blue highways."

3. The more first-time traveled roads, the better.

4. A destination with beauty that takes my breath away.

5. A destination where stories of the region are available and shared through a combination of reading, imagining, or sharing a conversation.

6. A trip where relationships are strengthened through shared experience.

7. An event that displays some of the best of God's gifts and the human experience.

I'm not sure any destination can meet all seven of these points, but Crater Lake was close. Crater Lake is on the edge of nowhere--and we traveled copious blue highways to get there. We hit the wonderful Bend, Oregon, and its Whole Foods Market to stock up on minimally processed and zero artificial additive foodstuffs to feed our troops for the journey and relaxation.

Crater Lake can only be described well by the best of photographers and writers. I am almost embarrassed to post these photos. I am reminded through my photos what limited perspective I have on the nature of the universe, even when the best of it is staring me in the face. I want to return to this site with my dear wife, and explore some of the more remote places of the park. Hiking Wizard Island (an even more involved trip) is the big destination and points in the desert to the southeast. I am thankful I was able to see this site at least once in my lifetime.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

An interesting global warming link

If you do not follow my posts regularly, you may have missed my links to Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Washington, Cliff Mass. He makes atmospheric science not only accessible, but in a presentation that defies hype and hysteria, while also giving us lay readers something to think about.

His recent posts on global warming have received a bevy of responses, to which he responds with further data. This post shows that the most recent weather events don't reveal a trend, but the general trend is still warmer, and that CO2 output has mattered. He strikes me as a responsible scientist.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Getting ready for the half-marathon

I am running in my first half-marathon in 2 1/2 weeks. I haven't written much about my preparation, because my preparation has been far worse than my St. Patrick's Day 5-mile race. I attribute this to the move and trying to balance my dear wife's new schedule and my domestic responsibilities, among other factors. I don't feel great about my training, but I can learn from this path.

Fitting in an adequate long run to prepare for a half-marathon takes a lot of dedication and schedule arranging. I've been able to keep up with the short runs, but the long run provides the growing edge, and carving out about 2 hours on most weeks is challenging. As a stay at home dad, I have a lot of time available, but 2 hour blocks? I also do better with this kind of running in the winter when it's dark and my family has little or no desire to venture outside. I should remember this in future half-marathon and marathon (?) training. A fall marathon will not be the way to go for me--a spring marathon sounds more plausible. The heat of the summer, even in the Pacific Northwest, has also gotten me down--I end up sleeping very poorly on the warm evenings, then getting out of bed for a run before the household awakens was a significant struggle in this training regimen. I also watched a little too much damned television.

However, I did get in about 11 miles or so today, so I know I can do this half-marathon. I may not perform up to my previous expectations--but I know I can do it. This morning was a big test, and I passed adequately. I only hope for a cool day on Labor Day for this new venture.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Expanded mass transit in Seattle--a long time coming

Pacific Northwesterners are an interesting lot. Many are passionate about the environment and social justice, yet they have this independent, pioneering and entrepreneurial streak that holds enough suspicion about taxes to keep things in check.

Seattle is probably one of the last major cities to implement some sort of rail component to their mass transit system. My Granddad was against it, as were many Seattle area residents. I think some of them were scared off by the Seattle Center Monorail--a space age transport idea back in the 1960's that became a bit of a money pit and had low ridership.

After living in Washington D.C. and Copenhagen, and taking other rail systems as a tourist (London, Oslo, Munich, Stockholm, Edmonton, Chicago) I came to love mass transit. I appreciate minimizing parking and traffic headaches, and giving me an opportunity to read and think before I arrived to work. Is there a little less freedom on the rail? Sure, but for me the pros outweigh the cons. After many crazy drives into downtown Seattle in my lifetime, I was giddy with excitement about getting on the Central Link, dropping off the car and taking my girls and visitors on the rail ride into Seattle. My girls loved the trip and what they saw--they weren't the only ones excited--a slew of children shouted with glee over every little pass: "Wow! The Beacon Hill tunnel!" I didn't think that part was so exciting, but I was happy for them.

We got off the train, walked calmly into a restaurant, and enjoyed a nice lunch with minimal stress to begin our day in Seattle. Is Central Link a perfect set up? No--I think there should be more parking available near stops--I also miss some of the vendors near the stops as in other systems. In the end, I was pleased, and I'm looking forward to my next ride on the rail--Seattle opportunities feel that much closer and reasonable.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Price point (Worn-out language, August 19, 2009 edition)

With my recent addiction to the HGTV and TLC networks, I found a gradual ascent of lingo usage while people shop for big ticket items in a tight budget economy--price point.

"The price point of this house is above our budget."

"I don't like the price point of this item. I won't buy it."

"You set your price point too high to make a profit."

The usage of point after price is an added word without meaning. Each of the above statements is clear without the word point.

Price point is a term used in economics, but as far as I can tell, the colloquial use of this term is not related to its technical use. I'm sure this happens all the time, but in its technical usage, the word point actually adds meaning.

This little annoyance issues a reminder to tighten my own writing.

Reliving the field trip through tourism

In some places I have lived, some points of the city were only viewed when visitors came from out of town:

Twin Cities, MN: Mall of America
Copenhagen, Denmark: The Little Mermaid

The Milwaukee, Wisconsin, metro had good things to do, but not in the classical tourist sight-seeing fashion. In Wisconsin, cultural tourism is the way to go. Some of the best times my dear wife and I enjoyed during our 2.5 years there involved basic activities that locals enjoy as well: eating brats/sausage, cheese and the abundance of beer; fish fries (amazing cultural activity--I once read Wisconsin is the highest fish consumption state in the country), enjoying the beautiful autumns, walking near the lake shore, attending sporting events in Madison, Milwaukee Brewers baseball, and Lambeau field. All of these places involve good interaction with locals, something that cannot be promised at a particular tourist destination. I'm not anti-tourist (though I can only handle being a tourist in small doses), I like to find places to visit where I can talk to locals about life in that place.

Seattle has more sights similar to Copenhagen and the Twin Cities. With some visitors coming to town recently, we were off to the kid-friendly stops, the Seattle Aquarium, Pike Place Market and the Space Needle. The Seattle Aquarium is an interesting conglomeration of school/summer camp field trippers, tourists, and local families. I attended at least 2 field trips to the Seattle Aquarium as a child, and visited there on other occasions. I know field trips still occur in these days of slashed education budgets and increased standardized testing, but my anecdotal observation says field trips are dying as an educational experience. That makes me feel melancholy about education. Ultimately, my children will know much more than me in their lifetimes, but I believe in the field trip education experiences I had as a child. The girls and I thoroughly enjoyed the aquarium that day--the best part being that they could touch sea cucumbers, sea anemones, sea urchins and starfish. If the place wasn't crawling with street urchins, I could have hung out there poking and gazing at the sea life for hours--ah, to explore without a schedule--but we let the girls spend the most time there. If I could have been any kind of scientist, it would have involved oceanography.

Of the non-touching exhibits, we liked the jellyfish and the seals the most. We see a lot of jellies on the Puget Sound, but at the aquarium, we were able to examine their intricacies in clearer water behind Plexiglas. Watching seals in captivity is a love-hate experience. They interact with the humans like no other sea life I have seen; they were hamming it up and made us all laugh several times. I wonder about mammals in captivity. I'm sure plenty of people are appalled by the whole enterprise, but I also value the appreciation and awareness about God's creatures that comes from a visit that my girls take to the Seattle Aquarium.

The Space Needle is a place for great views of Seattle and the Puget Sound, but it's not the only viewpoint available in the region. If you want to dodge people taking pictures of one another, purchase expensive provisions and kitsch, the Space Needle is for you. It deserves one or maybe two visits in a lifetime--it might have been enjoyable if the girls weren't so hungry and cranky. I think I got whiplash from keeping my head on a swivel all day--keeping track of two busy girls in a big city takes significant effort, which is probably why my parents didn't take my brothers and I to downtown Seattle on a regular basis.

Now that I have just about squarely hit midlife, I'm the one providing direction and guidance more often in more settings--this little tourist trip represented a shift of roles for me as a Pacific Northwesterner. Our visitors provided me with an opportunity to refine my cultural attache routine for whomever makes the trek to the Seattle metro. Come on over!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Preaching for August 23, 2009

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Once again, I am skipping over the bread imagery in John 6. Since a significant majority of Lutheran pastors I know preach on the Gospel lesson somewhere near 90 percent of the time or more, I'm guessing that any congregation where I preach to give a pastor a break will have already heard about Jesus and bread imagery ad nauseum.

I'm not enamored with the image of the "whole armor of God" in Ephesians, either. I understand the good connections with this imagery, like preparation and struggle for a community in the Christian life. However, I think this passage was almost ruined for me as it has been used in connection with a reason for military build up. I once associated this quote with Ronald Reagan, but I could not find a quote where he directly used this passage. It says something about how fleeting memory can be and that propeganda is subversive. Though the text has its merits, this text represents damaged goods, and I don't think I can preach it faithfully.

As a Lutheran Christian, I have a mixed relationship with this text from Joshua. The text is used as a biblical foundation for a book on marriage by Walt Wangerin. My dear wife and I read this in preparation for our marriage. Though we don't explicitly reference the Wangerin book as part of strengthening our marriage today, the book has some foundational qualities about how the depths of human existence and our relationship with God through that relationship. Our lives are formed by Christian vocation. Almost every decision we make has a relationship to Christian vocation. Therefore, I make a connection between this text and the gift of marriage. Though Joshua is not specifically speaking about marriage in this text, the practical application between God and relationships doesn't appear to be an unfaithful one. The uneasiness with the text comes from weighting the interpretation more toward the choice of Joshua than the action of God. Anyone familiar with Lutheran theology and life knows that generally speaking are uneasy with any proclamation glorifying any choice by humanity--corporate or individual, because human beings are flawed creatures, therefore human choices are fraught with peril. This doesn't mean I feel the need to beat myself down or my fellow human beings, nor do I have to live a jaded life. I am skeptical, however, about trumpeting human choice. The classic text referenced in this idea is from Jesus in John 15: "You did not choose me, but I chose you."

What is a Christian or one considering the Christian life to make of choice? Choice is a buzz word and concept in our day to day life. Think of all the topics upon which choice is debated. Abortion (pro-choice), health care (choice of coverage), war (we have a volunteer armed forces in the United States) reveal that the concept of choice is the fulcrum of many topics of public discourse. The United States economy thrives on the availability of choice. For those who want to expand choices or restrict choices--someone always ends up choosing. Where will the line be drawn for choice? Libertarians seem to thrive in this discussions. Conservatives tend to want to restrict moral choices for the sake of societal morality, liberals tend to want to restrict economic choices for the sake of societal justice. Any restrictions on choice from either end of the continuum, according to Libertarians lead to societal problems as well.

Humans really don't know what to do with choice. I remember reflecting on the philosophy of Neil Peart and his 1980 song, "Freewill". I loved the line "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." I didn't ponder this song so much theologically as a teenager--though I recognized it had theological ramifications, my epiphany was that my choices had consequences, and that not choosing was a choice in itself. I still ponder that idea today, and that pondering is made more cool by one of my favorite bass solos by Geddy Lee (or of any bass player) of all time.

After returning from living in Denmark for a year, I remember the shock over returning to an American retail establishment and being overwhelmed by the amount of choice. I missed having some choices while living there, but I also saw that choice can be crippling. Is choice the source of goodness in the world? I wasn't so sure.

With one more year of seminary and a new congregational ministry call, I was able to place some deeper theological context on my reflections on choice. In my first congregation in Wisconsin I realized my shallowness of knowledge in Lutheran theology by grappling with the notion of choice to the point of foolishly saying that humans really had no choice at all--an idea I quickly retracted when I realized the ramifications of that line of thinking. But I recognized that choice is tenuous--in terms of human relationship with God, Luther called this "the bondage of the will." Some people in my congregation recognized my theological grappling, and took up with me the discussion about free will and whether it exists on any level. I had one intelligent person write me a paper on his argument against Luther's "Bondage of the Will." I deeply admired the fact he respected me enough to gather his thoughts, share them with me in a coherent fashion, and valued his faith enough that this was a good investment of his time and energy.

At best I can say that choice is tenuous, and that Joshua is really stating that we need to look at the work of God in the biblical witness and our own lives and compare that work with the other paths and gods. Choice may be tenuous--but God is faithful.

Is this Gospel? If so, will it preach? Usually I know this by this point of the sermon preparation, but at this point, I am under some pressure, I have the ubiquitous sermon title to create. Even if I choose not to choose a sermon title, I still have made a choice.

A fine wedding anniversary celebration

Anniversary celebrations for my dear wife and I took a revitalized path thanks to our new living configuration. Thanks to a little generosity from a congregation, my Mom and Dad, a little saving and creative searching, we had a fabulous celebration.

Dinner at Anthony's on Pier 66 in Seattle was a gift from a congregation (that did some great research) I served in South Dakota. My family has a good history of family gatherings over simple, creative, and scenic seafood meals--and my dear wife and I have made Anthony's part of our own family and relational dating tradition. We enjoy checking out the local scenery of each restaurant. I think we've enjoyed 5 locations and hope to enjoy more in the future.

We enjoyed a pleasant get away from kid clutter and household projects by staying at a nice suite and enjoying a drive across the I-90 bridge--something commuters and locals (including me at one point) easily took for granted. I admire this drive for its beauty, architecture, and the intersection of form and function. Our time of exploration and sharing were enhanced by the backdrop of beauty and utility--a celebration of gifts. For me, this is marriage at its best. Sometimes this beauty is lost in the stresses day to day living. None of this can happen without the day to day living--working together and appreciating one another doing the little things.

Chateau Ste. Michelle offers free tours. Another beautiful example of form and function convergence in a way that wanted us coming back for more. We walked hand-in-hand on the grounds, learned a little bit more about wine, and enjoyed our time together even more as we watched a couple tour with their two children (although they were AMAZINGLY behaved), appreciating our own children but thankful we had some time to ourselves. Soon after we began earning real incomes as pastors, we drove to the Wollersheim Winery in Wisconsin, enjoyed the tour and bought wine for gifts and personal enjoyment. I think we learned wine wasn't going to be a serious hobby, but when thinking of our trip to Chateau Ste. Michelle, we easily remembered what an enjoyable experience of taste, beauty and appreciation for the work and creativity of a craft can be.

There was much more that could have been enjoyed that day, but we were called back to the service of our household when we learned our geriatric canine was suffering and needed our attention. Thankfully the dog's struggles didn't happen in the early stages of our time away, but we gently moved in to care for the dog--it was the right thing to do. Caring for the dog served as a reminder of the love that brought us together and the work together that bonds with that love to uphold a household, while providing each of us the opportunity to serve in our Christian vocation while serving one another, while also being served by others. This is also a relational event for my dear wife and I that would have been much more difficult in South Dakota--a challenge for our child care situation, different work schedule challenges, and not as many dining choices. All in all, we witnessed A blessed interdependence.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The eye of a budding photographer

Daughter #1 has the eye of an artist, which I believe is related to her struggle to normally communicate with society--something like someone who is deprived of one sense has special ability to use another. The gift is raw and unrefined, but she takes a liking to artistic expression while being especially persistent.

Or, she has an itchy shutter trigger finger (or maybe some combination of with the first reason).

Our oldest daughter recently returned from a trip to Montana and Canada with her grandparents, and the first time she had control of a digital camera we gave her for Christmas almost 2 years ago. The real problem with the camera was that I struggled to integrate it with our digital production system.

Mission accomplished.

She took over 380 pictures in 3 days (thank goodness for digital photography) and revealed what is important to a child's eye (flowers, specifically) and that she enjoys framing a scene. It's hard to know what direction to point her in with artistic development, but my dear wife and I look forward to the possibilities, and I hope our daughter enjoys her growth.

Friday, August 07, 2009

First vote in Washington State in nearly 20 years

Today I completed not only my first election ballot in Washington in nearly 20 years, this was my first vote by mail. I am pleased with this process for many reasons.

1. King County, Washington provides non-partisan voter pamphlet for all registered candidates for each elected position. In the guides I can find contact information, links to more information about candidates, and candidate statements. I was able to easily find more information about candidates and local issues than I ever have as a voter.

2. The voting by mail process along with the voters' pamphlets gave me ample opportunity to research candidates and issues and that gave me adequate information to make an informed vote.

3. Web presence matters--I noticed if candidates did not use one of the least expensive ways to connect with a diverse group of voters. I voted for candidates I may not have in the past because I was able to read about their approach to issues facing King County.

Not being a native of South Dakota, I found it difficult to attain information regarding local issues and candidates and easily compare and contrast them during local elections. I participated in almost every election while I lived there, but I was not as informed as I could have been. I hope South Dakota moves toward ballots by mail and providing some sort of clearing house of links. Any voter can prepare to fill out their ballots using traditional methods if they are motivated to do so, but I think that the democratic process was served better using mail ballots and providing easier access to candidate information. I'm going to research mail ballots in South Dakota anecdotally, I'm curious about individual responses to the concept of ballots by mail.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Sparse posting in August

August is shaping up to be a fun month, and without a fabulous smartphone in my possession, vacation will keep me from posting at my new normal pace.

On the docket for August:

+ An anniversary celebration with my dear wife--although that anniversary is in September, with employment on the horizon, we thought this was a better time to do it while I'm not working. Congregational service has killed our getaways before, most namely, tickets to see RENT in Milwaukee. We are going to enjoy a seafood meal, with a nice suite and a trip to Washington wine country.

+ A trip to Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. I've wanted to go here for years, but our trips back to the Pacific Northwest have never afforded us the time to go outside of visiting family and friends. Now that we live here, it's time to check it out. We rented a vacation home in Sunriver, Oregon. I'm thrilled with the possibilities.

+ A family gathering to celebrate my parents' 40th anniversary and their birthdays on the Pacific Ocean for a few days. We haven't had a family gathering like this outside of a birth for years. We're looking forward to watching the kids frolic in the ocean and go back to some days of taking our beach vacation on the cool, windy and overcast beach. My kind of beach--though it could be sunny and warm, the odds are low that it will be blazing hot. Pacific Northwest beach fun is my kind of beach fun. It's usually around 15-20 degrees cooler on the coast in the summer than the Seattle metro.

I will bring some photos and reflections back with me, and report it the old-fashioned way--not in real time. I hope you have some peaceful days in August as well.

Advice for The Onion if it was trying to attract a regional audience...

If the Onion wanted to market this article in the Northern Great Plains, they would replace "casserole" in the headline with "hotdish."

On Sam Harris' book, "Letter to a Christian Nation"

I read Sam Harris' short book "Letter to a Christian Nation" because I wanted to get a feel for neo-atheist writing without having to completely delve into the entire body of work.

I initially learned the name Sam Harris through a bit of a media blitz where either Harris or Christopher Hitchens appeared in book reviews, numerous television discussions on C-Span or public television or the like, and in a feature story in one of my regular print reads, The Christian Century.

I believe that this short book is mostly driven by accessibility, because the people he most hopes will read this tome might be driven away by his work and other writers of his persuasion. Harris doesn't seem to have as much a chip on his shoulder as Hitchens in comparing my exposure to each on television and what little I have read of or about their writing. I can understand why, for them, the stakes for their lifetime is high. The body of evidence points them to know that this life is absolutely it for them, therefore the fundamentalists of the world are on a fast track to destroy the world in a self-fulfilling prophecy. In that sense, Harris is like Bill Maher, religion doesn't make the world better, and if the anti-religionists of the world don't speak out and speak to reason, the world will continue to suffer more than it has based on religion, only exponentially in the future. Maher is much more explicit than Harris in this respect.

The stakes are indeed high for the world and religion in the world. However, I am not a sweet bye and bye person of faith and look to Revelation as a means for interpreting the direction of the world. I believe as a Christian that I am called to do the best I can in this life that God has given me. I let God be concerned with what is going to happen after death. I can only deal with what has been revealed to me. Maybe it is that approach that doesn't produce Harris or Maher levels of anxiety about the current state of the world. I can only do the best I can. My thoughts on religion are what Harris might call a "religious moderate" position. Harris thinks moderates can be more destructive to this world filled with religion than fundamentalists, because moderates help create space for fundamentalists to exist, lead and make decisions on national and world stages that are corrosive to life today. Moderates use mystery as a crutch, and religion comes down to a crux of whether religion is true, and therefore the only real argument is between those that think religion is an illusion and the fundamentalists.

As I haven't read much atheist or neo-atheist writing, I must admit that at times I felt a little defensive reading Harris, because Harris has implicitly labeled me a fool at worst, misguided at best. It's difficult to face critique regarding my understanding, seeking, work and vocation of the last 30 years of my life. My investment level is high. I also find it important to read this kind of work, because in my work, if I can't form coherent thoughts about religion and faith, I will have lost my integrity. Though I don't find myself to be a Christian apologist, my struggle with Harris has forced me to sharpen my thought.

Reading the aforementioned critique in the Christian Century has also helped me recognize some of the holes in Harris' writing. The author is a professor from Georgetown who points out that Harris and Hitchens would not even make a reading list of atheist authors for a class he teaches because these authors merely make lists regarding the evils of religion and write little, if anything, about the consequences of a world without religion. Writing about the evils of religion is shallow, because the body of evidence is wide, and easily taken up by anyone with minimal thought. The classical writers of religionist critique go far deeper in their consideration of a world without religion. I'm guessing I need to read a little Nietzsche in order to ponder the depth of religionist critique rather than merely go wading with Harris.

Heat wave consequence

Last night's low in the Puget Sound region dropped to the low 50's. Fans ceased whirring in the house, and most windows stayed closed. Daytime temps stayed out of the 80's or above for the first time in two weeks. I had felt fatigued for about two weeks before I encountered blissful slumber last night. Room temperature during sleep makes a huge difference. I laid in bed comfortably and didn't awaken from sweat pouring down my neck. I slept 8 comfortable hours for the first time in about a month. Sleep continues to be the factor that most affects my health--I need to remember this wisdom every day. And when this occurs next year, I will have saved up enough money to have one room in our dwelling air-conditioned.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Dog provides insight to end of life care

Lorne Greene provided my first insight to canine aging with his ALPO commercials. That makes our lovable, geriatric, anxious, co-dependent chocolate lab somewhere around 86 years old. He has a little trouble moving around, he doesn't hear or see as well as in younger days, his appetite is fading and he's covered in benign tumors. He's still glad to see us and likes to go for short walks. He still seems happy enough for living, though he would mask any sadness because he would never want to disappoint anyone in our household.

The big problem is his skin. We're adding about every possible supplement and using high quality food to improve the massive flakes that come off his skin daily. We have to bathe him several times per week (4-5)--which doesn't sound like much, but when it takes longer to bathe the dog than to get ourselves ready, the time adds up. But I look at him, and I don't want him to be miserable, so my dear wife and I take turns with bathing and sometimes tag team to get it done, so that he can suffer a little less. We look how happy he is in general and think it can't be his last days just because of a SKIN condition. He's been such a low maintenance dog for years and doesn't do annoying things much beyond crotch sniffing and shedding. I've been humbled a bit and try to give him as much love as possible. He doesn't demand much, just a little attention every day (unlike our children). This slow dying process has made me wonder what the end of my life will entail. I ponder how much of a burden I will be and how much frustration I may cause my loved ones. I look at my dog's eyes and wonder what's going through his mind (I know what goes on in his dreams, it usually involves running).

I think he knows I have been frustrated with his care giving--but he's forced me to think about what compassion is supposed to look like. The circumstances are different as a pastor when I have to be compassionate for my work. Some days I feel genuine compassion in pastoral care, but sometimes compassion can be a function of the job description, and I figure it's important to proclaim God's compassion in what I do, even if I don't feel it. God is infinitely more compassionate than me--so I don't carry that burden.

My chocolate lab is sitting in the tub, with medicated soap clinging to his skin and offering him a few extra hours of relief. I know I'm not the first one to have these insights of death, life and wonder. However, I also know we each face the reality of what the end of life will be like whether it's from our pets, our parents, with a friend, or serving the dying in some other way. It can last an instant, or over several days and years. Time to attend to my dog, though he may worry about disappointing me, I don't want to disappoint him today.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The heat wave has finally abated

Back in college, a good friend used to chide me for paying attention to weather forecasts: "Why do you worry about something you can't control?"

I may not be able to control the weather, but I can adjust. Since returning to the Northwest, I have enjoyed reading University of Washington Atmospheric Science Professor Cliff Mass' blog. I thought about his post regarding humidity and realized I did not recognize the humidity with the heat. Indeed, we had a high dew point for the region, but I remember those days in South Dakota and Kansas where I walked outside and sweat with minimal exertion. I loathe that feeling. I love to sweat when working out and dressed to do so, but merely sweating is not my favorite bodily function. It is one reason I would think long and hard before ever taking an opportunity to live in the South. I would be constantly cranky. Even in my more svelte days, I couldn't take the humidity.

I guess I lived long enough in the Midwest that I didn't notice the humidity during the last heat wave. I am shocked.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Preaching August 9, 2009

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25 - 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Four factors have pushed me toward the 1 Kings text for preaching this Sunday.

1. Is it God's action that a bread theme/image appears in the Revised Common Lectionary five weeks in a row? I'm not sure about this idea, but I find it irritating at best. Bread is a great image, but five weeks in a row? Enough complaining, for many dorky pastors (of which I am one) have waxed poetic about either the goodness or painfulness about this configuration. It doesn't deserve any more thought. I don't like a sermon theme dictated by such rigid boundaries. At least artificially rigid boundaries.

2. "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." I am intrigued by the idea of familial determinism and the theological ramifications implied in this statement of despair by Elijah. I occasionally hear the fatalistic proverb, "we are doomed to become our parents." Some days I hear my words and actions mirror what I heard and saw as a child. Some days it bothers me. Even though people respect, admire and honor some of the things their parents do (I am in this camp), don't we want to be our own person to some degree (I'm also in this camp)? Some days I don't mind that my personality is tattooed by my mother and father. In this parent-child-ancestor relationship reflection I couldn't help but think of a postcard I purchased in London a few years ago that made me laugh to no end (unfortunately, I can't use this in a sermon. Sometimes our Puritan background is so annoying--but sometimes it pays the bills). I thought of how this biting, comedic statement might fit more with women than if the statement flipped sexes. Would women feel aghast if they turned into a replica of their mothers, regardless of the scope of that love or admiration for who their mothers are? I wonder if this observation is merely anecdotal or contains a wider truth, or is culturally confined to at least North America and the UK.

3. God appears to be telling Elijah that our lives need not employ fatalistic familial determinism, but is this not the same God that reveals in Exodus 20:5 "for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me..." I'm not quite sure if familial determinism is implied in this teaching of the law, or speaks more to the wisdom that sin carries consequence. I thank my OT teacher, Terry Fretheim, for highlighting that sin does not necessarily provoke God's punishment in the teaching of the law, but God's revealed relationship order highlights consequences of sin that are not an infliction of punishment by God. Some might think this notion is somewhat deistic, but I don't think so. I think some of the hope of this text is regarding the ongoing work of God. The consequence of sin may make its way through the generations, and we may not be able to overcome all of the idiosyncratic annoyances of our parents and ancestors. My initial thought process regarding this text is that we can learn from both the wisdom, triumphs and sins of our parents. I think that is what all parents want for their children. There will also be days when the weight of our ancestors will be too much to bear. This text reminds us that the actions of God are ultimately leading to our redemption. But despair can certainly tear apart the fabric of our being, and through an invitation to eat the bread of life, Elijah is given the strength to live and live out his calling at least one more day.

4. The specter of determinism can also haunt congregations. Congregations have their own personalities (stereotypes? brands?): the small, rural church hanging on by a thread; the rich, suburban church that took on an oversized mortgage; the church that seems to enjoy arguing and fighting; the church ruled by the "old guard,"; the church that always seems to be in financial dire straits; the contemporary worship church; the liturgical church; the conservative church; the liberal church; the church with young families; the blue-haired church, the ethnic congregation (Norwegian, Swede, Danish or German in my tradition). There can also be a combination of these aforementioned images (and many others I have not mentioned)--each of these images can be a badge of honor or a crushing burden to congregations as they discern their role in the world and how they will share the Gospel. I see this type of burden just as difficult, if not more challenging to overcome than for individuals. I've worked with many leaders in congregations that become discouraged by the congregational stereotype and brand. Sometimes I appeal to their business acumen and talk about re-branding, but it is God who is the ultimate redeemer of our brokenness and burden of despair, both individual and corporate.