Monday, December 29, 2008

Disagreeing with Sermons

Several times Susan has suggested that I return to parish ministry just so that she can hear meaningful, stimulating sermons again. I am flattered, but having the privilege of preaching to my spouse strikes me as insufficient cause to reverse my entire life direction. But she also has a compelling secondary argument: she misses the theological conversations that inevitably sprang from my sermon preparations. I do miss the weekly discipline that was so much a part of regular preaching: the reading, the pondering; the new ideas that grew from reading and pondering and moved the sermon in unexpected directions. Regular preaching was a lens through which I experienced and appropriated all the events of my week.

Sadly, there is less quality preaching out there than there should be, and I have been shaped by the Reformed tradition to hunger for sermons that are articulate, focused, thoughtful and faithful. I heard two sermons in the last week, and there was a remarkable contrast between them.

The first was delivered on Christmas Eve at St. Paul’s UCC in St. Paul (that sounds redundant, but is not). St. Paul’s was once a “cathedral church” first for the German Reformed Church and later for the United Church of Christ in St. Paul. It is located on Summit Avenue in the midst of other cathedrals and stately homes. The congregation has declined radically in numbers, but we found the members absolutely delightful: warm, welcoming and hospitable. We were given a mini-tour by a fascinating and very sweet man about our age who sported dramatic facial tattoos and the most impressive earlobe ornamentation I have ever seen (maintaining eye contact was a bit of a challenge).

The sermon was delivered by their interim pastor, a very nice woman whose heart is clearly in the right place. There was nothing in her sermon I disagreed with, but perhaps that is because I never came close to sorting out what it was she was attempting to say. She used the word “home” a great deal, perhaps in the hope that if she said the word over and over it would somehow connect all the unrelated anecdotes she rambled through. If I were to attempt summarizing her overall message it would be “Baby Jesus was born so that justice-minded bankers would write ethical mortgages that connect people to one another; home, home, home.” We heard a few lessons and carols (four lessons: the condensed version) and at the conclusion of the service we got to light little candles and sing “silent night” in German and English, which was all very nice, but it would have been nice to have a sermon to chew on after we left.

This past Sunday we attended a small, conservative church where our friend Jonathan Menn was preaching. Jonathan is a fascinating guy. His parents were members of First Congregational, and shortly after I began my ministry there he stopped by to ask me (we both love to tell this story) whether his parents were going to hell because of me or in spite of me. We were adversaries in the dramatic “abortion wars” that got so ugly locally in the 1980’s. A few years ago, Jonathan gave up his law practice to attend seminary, and now trains African pastors through EPI (Equipping Pastors International); we have become dear friends, testifying to God’s peculiar sense of humor.

It was the kind of morning I always dreaded as a pastor: freezing rain had given way to snow in the night and it was the Sunday after Christmas – perfect excuses to stay home on Sunday morning. Only about 25 hearty, faithful souls made it to the church. Again folks were welcoming, although their ears all appeared to be normal. The service was a bit on the loose side, even by the usual standards of a small Evangelical church: moderately praisy praise music, and bizarre power-point slides that had no relationship to anything else going on (while Jonathan preached, various tropical beaches appeared behind him). But Jonathan preached for a good 40 minutes on the Second Coming, a wonderful topic for the Sunday after Christmas, and it was easily the best sermon I have heard since, well, since I last preached: Biblically anchored, theologically articulate, and profoundly thoughtful. I disagreed with at least 70% of what he said, of course, but how wonderful to hear a sermon worth disagreeing with! I found myself giving the sermon my full attention while also mentally writing several sermons of my own that wanted to spring from ideas in his, particularly on the theme of “final judgment.” Jonathan believes that at the end of being (our own or the world’s, whichever comes first) we will be judged by Jesus (which he rightly argued is a much better deal than being judged by Peter). But Jesus himself said that by his incarnate presence he has already brought judgment into the world, which I have always taken to mean that we bring judgment on ourselves by the manner in which we do or do not receive and follow him. So does the risen, enthroned Christ even need to “judge” us on the final day? That was one of about seven themes (beginning with the place of Revelation in the Christian canon) I found myself wanting to debate passionately.

One of the most disappointing responses people would give to my sermons on the way out the door was “Great sermon! I agreed with every word you said!” That meant I had failed: failed to challenge, failed to stimulate new ways of thinking about what it means to live faithfully. How wonderful to still be thinking about a sermon on Monday, at least in part because I did not agree with every word the preacher said.

After we got home from our Christmas visit, I briefly fantasized about applying for the permanent position at St. Paul’s in St. Paul. Could a once-great urban church that is still doing many things well experience renewal and revitalization if preaching were restored to its central role in worship? Could these good-hearted, progressive folks open themselves to something as truly radical as the Gospel of Jesus presented fully, faithfully and well? I wrote to our son Colin about my little fantasy. He told me to go for it: I would look good with gigantic earlobes.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Merry Christmas, Shannon!

As is always true in the final days before Christmas, I had myself convinced that there could be no earthly reason for me to enter a retail store of any kind until at least December 27 and, as always, I wound up at Fleet Farm anyway. The situation was not as extreme as the Christmas Eve where I made an emergency run to Fleet Farm just before the first church service to purchase a wax O-ring so that I could dissemble a clogged toilet on Christmas day (amazingly, I have dissembled a toilet on Christmas day more than once). Today is only the 19th, but with a big snowstorm behind us and another one looming, the place was packed with last-minute shoppers.

Why was I there? I was out of niger seed. My religious identity was in some ways shaped and formed by the worst of two very different traditions: in my Catholic childhood I was schooled in the ways of Guilt, and in my Calvinist adulthood I have been schooled in the ways of Duty. So I was feeling guilty that the goldfinches had nothing to eat (we have very fussy goldfinches who will eat only niger seed, which is pricey stuff) and duty compelled me to purchase more. Which is how I found myself in a long check-out line dominated by shopping carts groaning under the weight of torque wrenches and My Little Ponies, clutching a single five-pound bag of niger seed.

On the plus side, I was in a rather festive spirit, and enjoyed chatting with the other folks in line (“Yes, I always give my wife niger seed for Christmas.”). When it was my turn to check out, I greeted the young woman with a cheery: “Hi Shannon! Merry Christmas to you!”

An aside: there are complex matters of both etiquette and theology involved in the question of whether one greets the check-out person by his or her name, given that they are required to display their name to us while we (the customers) generally do not wear name tags for their benefit. Some believe that greeting them by name pushes boundaries of overfamiliarity, given that there is an inherent inequality between the “named” and the “nameless.” Me, I figure as long as they are forced to display their name in public, we might as well have the courtesy to use it in addressing them. Theologically, I see it as honoring their worth as a fellow human being. As a friend said many years ago, “Every time you forget which waiter is yours, you have broken the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ because you have treated him as if he were a thing, not a person.” An extreme position? Perhaps, but there is truth to it.

So back to Fleet Farm, and “Hi Shannon! Merry Christmas!” Shannon looked up, startled, and gazed directly at me. Her face lit up. “Hi!,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in such a long time! How have you been?”

I had no idea in the world who Shannon was. Did she actually know me, or was my tone so friendly and personal that she assumed she was supposed to know me and was therefore faking recognition (and doing a good job of it)? We were in pretty deep now, so I faked recognition in return. “I’m great! How are you holding up with all the craziness here today?” We carried on like that for the next minute or so and wished one another a wonderful Christmas before I slogged out to the snowy parking lot.

I wonder whether when Shannon gets home from work tonight and her loved ones ask her how her day was, she will respond “It was really busy; I am so tired! But this older guy came through my line who knew me and I’m pretty sure I know him, but I can’t remember where from…” Me, I am pretty sure that we never laid eyes on one another before, but I like the fact that we both faked it: there is something fundamentally human and good about seeking a sense of connection between one another, even when we don’t know how that connection exists, or even if it exists. So Shannon, wherever and whoever you are, have yourself a merry little Christmas!

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Tastycakes of the Magi

Cousin Eileen’s Christmas gift arrived this week. It was the same gift I have received for as many years as I can remember: a carton of Tastycake snack cakes. For those who do not hail from Philadelphia or its environs, Tastycakes are akin to products made by Hostess and Little Debbie, although of somewhat higher quality, and are one of the five food items that folks from Philly greatly miss when they move elsewhere. The others are:

1. Scrapple. Scrapple is to die for! The parts of a slaughtered animal that might get made into sausage elsewhere – the parts one would just as soon not have specifically named – are mixed with cornmeal and spices then pressed into gooey bricks. Slices are cut from the brick and fried. Served with a bit of ketchup, scrapple is the perfect accompaniment to eggs and toast.
2. Cheese steak sandwiches. Menus all over the country advertise “Philly cheese steak” but it is never a Philly cheese steak. The bread is all wrong. The meat is all wrong. The cheese is all wrong. Philly cheese steaks simply do not exist more than 20 miles from Philadelphia. Years ago I read a science fiction story in which the earth was successfully invaded by aliens who were obnoxiously self-important. They declared the Philly cheese steak the best food item on the planet, drawing howls of protest from the world’s food critics. The aliens were right, the food critics were wrong.
3. Hoagies. In some cities they would be called “grinders” or “subs,” and there are conflicting theories as to how the hoagie got its name. A genuine Italian hoagie is a mix of flavors and textures that transcends the sandwich genre. The key ingredients are capicola ham (prosciutto if you are going up-market), provolone, and that amazing bread that cannot be made or purchased elsewhere. Those who have only eaten the “Italian subs” from sandwich chains cannot begin to imagine how good the real thing is. If I were condemned to death and asked to choose my last meal, it would be a cheese steak and a hoagie. But only if I were being executed in Philadelphia.
4. Pretzels. Soft pretzels sold in Philadelphia streets bear no relationship to bland “shopping mall pretzels.” And bagged pretzels in Pennsylvania come in dozens and dozens of varieties; so many that they often have their own aisle in supermarkets. Only a few brands of Pennsylvania pretzels are shipped to other states, and they tend to be the least interesting ones. Look for pretzels made by Unique, Sturgis, or Wege.

Which brings me back to Tastycakes. Frankly, they are the Philly food item I miss the least. Yes, they are better than their competitors’ products, but I do not normally eat “snack cakes” of any kind. So we save a few packages, force some on our children, and the rest Susan takes to the university, where people will eat anything. I dare not tell Eileen that we really do not want Tastycakes anymore: it would be poor etiquette and a denial of my geographic roots.

Instead I pay her back in kind. Each year I make a pilgrimage to the Kaukauna Club Cheese plant for their annual warehouse sale, and put together a box of genuine Wisconsin cheese. Or rather, genuine Wisconsin processed cheese products, heavy on the cheese balls coated in crushed almonds. Eileen, I suspect, believes that we Wisconsin folks eat this stuff all the time. I always buy one cheese ball for ourselves and somewhere around April throw it away, untouched: another important tradition.

It may well be that Eileen’s family has no more interest in the cheese box than we do in the Tastycake box. But the Tastycakes say “you are remembered fondly in Philadelphia” and the cheese says “and we are thinking of you in Wisconsin.” Call it an odd variant on the Gift of the Magi. If anyone is nostalgic for a butterscotch krimpet or chocolate candy cake, feel free to contact me. But do it soon: we are trying to get these rascals out of our house.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Escape from Da U.P.

I have not posted in ages. Last weekend was taken up with a visit from Colin during which, among other things, we recorded Jane Gilday's song "The Year of Mr. O" and posted it to youtube. Those who have somehow remained unaware of this singular cultural opportunity may find it here.

Yesterday we drove to the cabin, stopping on the way in the crossroads village of Traunik to do some shopping at Lily's (pictures), a wonderful little organic food and gift shop we are trying to support. When we got to the cabin, neighbor Steve Wills had opened up a path and had our wood-stove going, which was greatly appreciated. We were there primarily to clear three feet of snow from the roof - we really got hammered in November, with snow accumulation within a few inches of the all-time record. With the job done we joined Steve and Rhoda for cocktails, had a nice dinner, read by the fire and took a sauna. We were about to crawl into bed when we checked the local television station and learned that a full-scale blizzard would hit in the morning and last well into Sunday (this had not been in the forecast).

It was 10:30 (central time), we were dead-tired, and had a decision to make. If we did not leave that night we likely would not get out until late Sunday. We had no food and (worse) no whiskey. So we dressed, packed, and I launched into the complex process of draining pipes, taking apart the roaring fire in the stove, etc. I hope I did everything right despite the sense of haste. We were on the road about an hour later, and already in the teeth of a winter storm. The snow was not heavy yet, but the winds were strong, blowing the snow around in a way that made it nearly impossible to know what lane I was in much of the time. It was a very long and challenging drive, and it got worse the closer we got to home. By Green Bay there seemed to be more cars in ditches than on the road (bar closing may have had something to do with that). Thankfully we had four hours of our old "friend" Vin Scelsa from New York days on Sirius radio, playing live performances and interviews with the recently-deceased Odetta, for company. A pleasant distraction can make all the difference in the world...

So we are grateful to be safely home. We defied a blizzard warning once, many years ago, and will never make that mistake again. Da U.P. in winter: not for the timid or unprepared!