Monday, December 24, 2007

The Meaning of Christmas

I loved watching the holiday Christmas specials on TV when I was a child. Every year the networks would preempt their regular programing to show specials that connected with the Christmas season; a time before VHS tapes and long before DVDs and On Demand. If you were going to watch Christmas specials you would have to check the TV Guide and make sure you were in front of the TV at the right time.

They would show Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Frosty the Snow Man, and Santa Claus is Coming To Town. I loved them all. But my favorite was A Charlie Brown Christmas. I don't exactly know why it was my favorite at the time, but I can certainly tell you why it is my favorite Christmas show today. In fact I love A Charlie Brown Christmas more today than I ever did as a child. When I watch the other 3 "classics" with my kids today, I scratch my head wondering what I saw in those sloppy shows. But when I watch Charlie Brown today I sit in awe thinking: what a masterpiece!

You know how the story goes... Charlie Brown is depressed feeling as if all the hustle and bustle of Christmas has left him behind. "I just don't understand Christmas, I guess," he says. "I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I'm still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed." He gets some advice from his "psychologist" Lucy, and signs up to direct a Christmas pageant. But that only leaves Chuck more melancholy. When it is determined that the stage needs a Christmas tree he goes out for one with his friend Linus. The other children suggested Charlie get a plastic or a pink aluminum tree, but Chuck chooses the only live tree for sale: the classic Charlie Brown Christmas tree. Of course the tree is a disaster. He is laughed at and wonders what Christmas is all about.

Which brings us to the climax of the show. The resident theologian of the Peanuts gang, Linus, gives Charlie Brown the answer. He simply quotes Luke 2, telling the story of Jesus' birth. Linus does not interpret the words. He does not explain why Christmas is all about this reading from Scripture, he simply tells the story. Inspired by Linus' reading Charlie attempts to make his tree a winner, but is disappointed when he "kills" the tree after putting on one ornament. "Oh! Everything I touch gets ruined!" he says. The story does not end there, however, for it seems the rest of the Peanuts gang was also inspired by the reading from Luke. They help Charlie Brown decorate his tree.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is wonderful on so many levels. The music is fantastic. The themes are adult and its message is as appropriate today as it was in 1965 (the year the show premiered). The true meaning of Christmas is not found in pink aluminum Christmas trees, nor is it found in the presents and the stuff and the hoopla. The true meaning of Christmas is found in a child, in a manger, and in Bethlehem. The true message of Christmas is given by angels to shepherds in the fields: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" The true meaning of Christmas is not preached to the audience in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Instead, it is lived out by the characters through their change of attitude. They live Christ's peace by helping their fellow "Blockhead." Good news and joy is offered to everyone!

You just don't find that truth in the other Christmas specials of my youth. There is no mention at all of the true meaning of Christmas in Frosty or Rudolph. Most television executives were convinced A Charlie Brown Christmas would bomb. "No one wants to hear the King James Version of the Christmas story told to them," they said. Of course they were wrong.

May the true meaning of Christmas and its message of peace, hope, and salvation be in your heart. It brings joy to the melancholy and gives hope to the depressed. It is solid rock for a holiday that too often feels plastic and artificial. It is a Christmas message for kids, yes, but it actually improves with age.

May the gift of the Messiah bring you joy and move you to greater faith!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Get Out the Radio

My favorite football team is the Green Bay Packers. When you are born in Wisconsin you are born with cheese in your blood, brats on your mind, and a love for all things green and gold.

The Packers play their biggest regular season game in years tomorrow night at Dallas. The game will be televised on the NFL Network. I don't get the NFL Network in my home. Neither do millions of viewers across the country. Packer fans in many areas of Wisconsin and Cowboy fans in most of Texas will not be able to watch the game in their homes.

While I can't say I have heard the voices of too many disgruntled fans. I have read several articles about the war of words going on between the NFL Network and "Big Cable" (the cable companies). The NFL calls Big Cable greedy because put their channel on the cable package that reaches the most customers. Big Cable says they are being hijacked and will not pay the huge amounts of money the NFL demands. Bottom line: I don't get to watch the game.

It's funny... I don't feel all that upset about not being able to see the game. Actually, the whole thing reminds me that the NFL and the Packers are a game and a business. If they won't show me their product I'm not going to buy in. And besides, I have sat through too many miserable Packer games where they tear my heart out and blowing a game they should have easily won. That's the last thing I need to suffer through tomorrow night. (See how optimistic I am.)

Putting things in the proper perspective is a great help to me. It's a gift of my faith. Oh I still may pull out the radio and listen. And I will grumble if three or four interceptions cost them the game. But maybe, just maybe, I won't let all of that prevent me from embracing the blessings of the day.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

"Pray without Ceasing"

I took my daughter to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's on Monday night. I hung around for the couple hours while she played and ate with her friends. Sitting in a booth, reading my National Geographic, I noticed a man was praying in a corner booth, about 20 feet in front of me. He and his family had been at the restaurant about as long as I had. I assumed they were a Muslim family because the mother was wearing a Hijab, a traditional Muslim head covering. The mother and her two children where no longer at the table, but the man/husband/father was still there, alone, with his eyes closed, his hands in the air, palms facing him, and quietly chanting words in Arabic.

I had seen similar scenes in movies, usually involving terrorists about follow through on some plot. But this was no terrorist and his only plot was praying to Allah (God.) What a shame that my American bias must first think of terrorists when I see a Muslim man living out his faith.

My moment of self examination didn't end there. After confessing my prejudices I found myself needing to confess that I had turned from God. At no point that afternoon had I really thought about God, and certainly not at Chuck E. Cheese. I was more concerned with my "all-you-can-eat" salad with extra pickled beets on the side. I was more concerned with Death Valley and the meaning of memory: articles I had been reading in my magazine. My Muslim brother ahead of me had not forgotten God though. At the appropriate time, he prayed, even though he was surround my childish games, mediocre pizza, kids going crazy, and dozens of parents chasing after their crazy kids. He remembered God's presence in his life and I believe he benefited from that remembrance.

Muslims are called to pray to Allah five times-a-day: Fajr (pre-dawn), Dhuhr (noon), 'Asr (afternoon), Maghrib (after sunset), and 'Isha (evening). No matter where they are they should pray to God at those appointed times. If the sun has just gone down you pray to God, even if you are in the middle of a Chuck E. Cheese.

An important mantra in my journey of faith has been Paul's conclusion to 1 Thessalonians: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for that is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thess 5:16-18)" When we forget about the enduring presence of God in our lives we cut ourselves off from guidance and love that God wants to offer us through Christ. Praying without ceasing means remembering God in all places and in all circumstances. If set times for prayer help Muslims to remember God's presence it's a good thing. I thank God for the witness of that truth God set before me on Monday.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Even They Go to Heaven?

There are very few small questions when it comes to faith and God, but some questions are bigger than others. I received a e-mail today asking me whether people who are not baptized can go to heaven? How about those who were raised as Mormons, Muslims, or Hindus, can they go to heaven? This was my response:

There are two stories (one from the Bible, one that a friend of mine once told me) that come to mind when I think about how people who are not baptized can get into heaven, or how can those who are Muslims or Mormons can.

First I think about the Book of Jonah. In the story of Jonah God calls him to give a message to the city of Nineveh: "repent from your ways or God will destroy Nineveh." Jonah does not want to do this, but after the whole whale incident he is convinced to do what God called him to do. The people of Nineveh are not Jewish and are great sinners. They deserve the fate God has promised to give them. Jonah sure thinks so. But after they receive Jonah's message from God all the people of Nineveh do indeed repent, from the king on down, and God changed his mind about destroying them and did not do it. This a nice message about God's forgiveness.

But the Book of Jonah does not end there. Jonah is furious that God chose to not destroy Nineveh and so he goes and pouts. The bottom line message from God then is "Who do you think you are to pout about me changing my mind about Nineveh?" God can condemn or save anyone he chooses to save, regardless of what we think. You, a mortal creature, are not capable of seeing or understanding all the reasons God may choose to save or condemn another creature. Leave the saving and condemning to God the Father.

So when I think about the saving power of baptism, I don't think about it in terms of who is going to be condemned because they are not baptized, I think about it in terms of who is going to be saved because of the baptism. God can condemn and save anyone God chooses to condemn or save, all I know is that through the water and Word in baptism I, and everyone who is baptized in Christ, is promised by God eternal life with Christ. What God does with those who are not baptized is God's choice, though I believe the mercy he shows to Nineveh can be the same mercy and love God has shown, and will show, to those not baptized.

Which brings me to my other story... A man I once knew grew up in Washington State and loved going to see Mt. Rainer. Mt. Rainer is a grand, majestic mountain that looks different depending on where you are standing when you look at it. What all the views have in common is that they are of a mountain, but you really cannot be sure that they are of the same mountain unless you walked around Mt. Rainer yourself. Though they look different, the Mt. Rainer viewed from the north is indeed the same Mt. Rainer viewed from the south.

Well God is of course greater than Mt. Rainer, but lets compare God to Mt. Rainer anyhow. There is no way for one person to stand in one spot and be able to see all of Mt. Rainer. Well, likewise there is no way for our human minds to contain everything there is to know about God. What we do know about God has be revealed to us through Christ. We are standing from one vantage point looking at God... and let me tell you what we see in ABSOLUTELY TRUE. What we know about God through Christ and his Word is true. I believe it, as should you. But I also understand that my Jewish brothers and sisters might be looking at God from a different perspective. What they are looking at might be true also, I'm not going to say its not, but I will without any hesitation stay my view is of God is correct. I believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. I believe we are promised forgiveness and made righteous through our baptism into Christ's death. I believe we are promised the same resurrection life our Lord lived on Easter.

Again, I am open to the possibility that our Muslim, Hindu, and Mormon brothers and sisters may also be looking at the same God as we are. Therefore I will befriend them. I will work with them to help others and to strive for peace. But that does not mean I agree with them or will worship like them. It does not mean I will pick and choose what things I like and don't like about other religions with the hope that I can simultaneously stand at 10 different spots around Mt. Rainer. The breakfast buffet religion does not work for mortals created by God. And I do believe that some religious groups may not be looking at God at all, and are instead looking at Mt. St. Helens.

I am a Lutheran Christian and subscribe to our confessions and point of view regarding Jesus and God 100%. Faith and baptism then, for me, is solely a question of what God is working through the power of the sacrament, instead of what God is not doing to those who do not believe exactly as me.

Seek no delight in the possiblity that those who don't believe as you do might be condemned. Do not limit God with your faith. Believe what you believe 100%, but understand that God cannot be boxed in your brain.

"But God said to Jonah, 'Is it right for you to be angry about the gourd?'
'It is,' he said. 'And I'm so angry I wish I were dead.'
But the LORD said, 'You have been concerned about this gourd, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?'" (Jonah 4:9-11)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Pay Attention to Me; Quit Looking at Me

I recently was reading a book by Robert Frank called Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class. In the book Frank claims that things people buy (or want to buy) depends on context. A middle class family feeling great about their 1200 square foot home in 1963 feels left behind in 2007 because their friends all live in 2400 square foot homes.

Frank begins his book with an interesting insight that I agree with: "it is a basic human need for other people to engage with you, to pay attention to you, to take you seriously." It was that way for Egyptian people, Roman people, Colonial Americans, our grandparents, and for us. Today you will be noticed by the home you own, the car you drive, and the clothes you wear. It's why its so expensive to get the real good homes, cars, and clothes of today. They are in great demand. Frank believes we live in a time when the middle class is falling farther and farther behind the upper class. Today's middle class must live in older homes, buy economical cars, and shop at Wal-Mart for clothes. "The failure to meet this need [to have others pay attention to you] will prove the most serious and enduring mental health problem of the future."

Also recently, I happened upon my friendly neighborhood Google Maps which allows me to scroll all over accurate maps of the USA with my computer mouse. For years you have had the option of displaying a birds-eye-view of these maps, looking at actual satellite photographs of the world. You can get a great view of the huge Black Locust tree that covers the top of my house if you typed in my address.

Well now Google gives you the option of also viewing places from the ground, and not just from space. It's called "Street View." The street I live on is not available, but you can move a little man to the street next to my church and get a nice view of my office window. It seems the Chicago area is one of the first areas Google has thoroughly covered with "Street View." And people are not happy about it. Apparently some "Street View" pictures have included people in positions they would rather not be seen in. Many see this as another way big bad Google is invading our privacy. I think it's kinda neat personally.

So sometimes in life we want to flaunt it: "Look at me!" Sometimes we want privacy: "Mind your own business." In a world where we have to spend more on electricity, gasoline, and food, there is so little left for "bling." In a world where modern communication allows us to never be face-to-face with those we communicate with there is no one to say "look at me" to. So sure you can try on Facebook or Myspace, but then you loose your privacy and people will be looking at you who really shouldn't.

One of the best ways to avoid the "mental health problems" Frank predicts will happen is to opt out the age old "keeping up the Joneses" race. Living simply and living faithfully allows you to look at your "stuff" with gratitude and not envy. Living simply and faithfully frees you from envy and fear. Let the Google monster spread its reach from space to your street and even in your office. "The Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7)" Faithful living allows you to say "look at me!" when others would say "Go away." Faithful living also allows you to say "look at me!" even when your clothes are from K-Mart and your car is 11 years old. Look at me, I'm a child of God.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Backing into Success

The Chicago Cubs have lost three games in a row to one of the worst teams in the National League and are still closer to postseason play than they were on Sunday because the only team standing between them in the playoffs also keeps losing. Yesterday the Milwaukee Brewers committed five error, giving up four unearned runs in their loss to the Padres.

Chicago Tribune sportswriters are having a grand ol' time bring up the over used cursed stories about the Cubs. It must be difficult to bring a fresh perspective to sports stories because these guys rarely do. The fact of the matter is that the Cubs don't need to win another game the rest of the week because the Brewers (who have been worse than most teams since June 1) will not take two of the next three from San Diego. The Cubs will be playing in October.

It works that way in life sometimes. You can succeed despite your failings. In 2000 the New York Yankees won the World Series even though they lost their last seven games and 13 of their last 15. Last year's Cardinals barely won more games than they lost, but still became the World Champions.

It works that way in our relationship with God who forgives our failings and our short comings. Everyday we back into a clean slate. We are cleansed children of God. But how we respond to that grace is our choice. The Cubs may get into the playoffs backwards, but they will not win it all unless they turn it around in October. We are given God's grace as a free gift. But it will not makes a difference in the lives we live today if we don't live our our faith our God in in his grace.

Thankfully, though we fail, we are still loved. The same can be said about the "Lovable Losers." They may fail in 2007 or they may become World Series Champs, but either way they still are loved. But it will be much more fun be for the Cubs if they actually win... and for Christians if they actually live faithfully.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

24/7 Choices

I'm looking at Amos 8 this week. Amos sure was a frustrated prophet. I would be too, if the people you were trying to warn didn't listen to you. People like Amos and Jeremiah always mixed their faith with frustration.

Amos 8 reveals a frustration with people who aren't as much interested in praying, celebrating the Lord, or worshiping God, as they are in getting that stuff over with ASP so they can get back to work on what really matters: making money, doing business, ripping people off. He writes, "Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land, saying, 'When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?...' The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds." (Amos 8:4-5a, 7)

We live in a 24/7 world. There are no laws that require business to stop on Sunday. In fact many businesses are even open on Christmas and Easter in 21st century America. Christians today don't need to long for the sabbath to be over so their kids can play soccer, or for Easter can pass so they can sell their cheap Chinese goods at the Dollar Store. It's a free country. They can go ahead and play soccer and sell trinkets any time they want.

Some say the government should make laws that require business to stop on holy days. I'm not one of them however. There were plenty of laws in Amos' day, which is the reason the scoundrels moaned and longed for Sabbaths to end and festivals to pass. Their hearts were not with God and no law could put their hearts with God. "Surely [God] will never forget any of their deeds."

In a 24/7 culture we are presented with a challenge as Christians. Do we place our faith in God as priority number one in our lives or do we give in to the pressures of our society that tell you to enroll your kids in activities that take them away from worship on Sunday? Do you worship God with all your heart or do you look ahead to the lunch a child of God will serve you on Sunday and the stuff another child of God will sell you?

Freedom is a tremendous blessing. You can go where you want. You can shop any time you want. You can conduct business any time you want. But at the end of the day, ask yourself in prayer: "have I made my faith in Christ my first priority today?"

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Black Hole

What is it about summer that causes me to go two months without posting on my blog? A year ago I didn't post anything the entire month of June. This year is was July and most of August.

Summer has a way of becoming a black hole, of sorts, in life. It arrives with all sorts of promise and fanfare about nice weather, vacations, baseball games, picnics, hikes, camping, playgrounds, and tan lines. In preparation for summer people schedule time when they can get off of work. They make arrangements to travel to see friends and family all over the country. It also becomes the time, when you have kids, for events connected with church, scouts, sports, or any organization they are a part of. Before you know it it is July 4 and you are still waiting to find that stress relief as you notice that your calendar for July has more things written on it than any of the previous six months. It was kinda like that for me this year.

Now it is August 22. My children start kindergarten tomorrow. How excited Valerie and I are for them. How excited Valerie is for some peace at home. Yes, I did have occasions for rest and relaxation. My week at Bible camp was a wonderful recharge as was my fishing trip. I took Grant to a couple baseball games and all the kids on bike rides. I did some walking, but no where near as much as I would have liked. And today we took the kids to McDonald's playland for lunch: As peaceful an hour as I have had with my family all summer.

And now I finally got to blog, having escaped the clutches of summer's black hole. Now I'm looking forward to all the promises of peace that kids in school all day promises to bring. But I am a little wiser in light of my experience of summer. Peace does not come through kids away at school or vacation time... peace is found in Jesus. And no matter what time of year it is if there is time for prayer, Bible, and worship, then there is time to find peace.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Creation and Community

I'm taking a group of youth to Lutherdale Bible Camp tomorrow. For several years I have been taking groups from various congregations I have served to camps in several states. It's going to be a great time for all of us.

In many ways my experience of camp has followed my growth in faith. Ten years ago I took a group to camp for the first time while I was an intern in Sioux City, Iowa. Located in the lakes region of western Iowa, Lutheran Lakeside Camp was a great place to come together as a community, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday and immerse ourselves in God's creation. But I have to admit I was a little afraid of being cut from modern life. I drove into town each morning to buy a copy of the USA Today in order to keep up with what was happening in baseball.

My favorite memory of that week, one I didn't expect, was the good people I met at camp. There were several pastors there who were easy to talk to and gave me many encouraging words since I was still in the seminary/candidacy process. About a month after I returned from camp one of those pastors, Ray Miltner, who himself was about to retire from ministry, sent me a gift of a prayer book that I have used in my devotions ever since.

So for me camp is certainly about the escape, the outdoors stuff, the bugs, the water, the trees, and the hikes... but most importantly it is about the people you meet and share community with for a spirit-filled week. Those connections have helped me in my faith journey. I know that has also been the experience of many of the youth who go to camp. They bring back home with tme memories those many connections they made with new friends and mentors. The seeds of the gospel have been sown in there heart.

As you live your faith, be intentional about getting out of your comfort zones and find new communities and new people that will help you grow.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Gone Fishin

Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I'm leaving for a fishing trip. It will be the first time I've gone fishing for nearly twenty years, and boy am I overdue. But I'm not going for myself. My dad is the reason I'm heading out for the fishin hole.

My dad turns 60 this month and my brother and I wanted to do something special for him. We have never been a much of a family for surprise parties or big celebrations for every significant milestone, but Aaron and I thought that should change this year. We decided to do something for dad that he would want to do. We wanted to do something that the Dusso men (who live thousands of miles apart) can do together, can be rest for all of us, and be done in honor of him. A fishing trip seemed like the perfect fit.

Now I know what you are expecting... Now I should say a few words about the "fishin" I have done for my other Father the past twenty years. I should make the connection between honoring my dad with honoring my Lord. Yeah I suppose that would work, but that's way too obvious. That's just too predictable.

Instead the next few days is for Dick Dusso. He is my dad and I love him. And let me tell you, without the love and support he has given to me the past 34 years I wouldn't be fishing for anything today. For bass... for men... or for diapers. What a blessing from God my dad has been for me. So this week's for my dad. This trip is our way of saying "thanks."

Fair warning: Don't come looking for me. I've gone fishing with my dad. I'll be back in a few days.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sacrifice and Service

Memorial Day was last Monday. My thoughts this week have been on the images from that day, the words, and ideas of sacrifice and service. At the Cubs game Monday afternoon a soldier who lost three of his four limbs in Iraq threw out the first pitch. He got the loudest and longest applause of anyone that day.

Unfortunately too many soldiers have not been able to come home alive. It's staggering to think of the number of people who have died over the centuries in various conflicts. Men and women, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, losing their God given gift of life at far too young an age. Some of them were drafted into service, some volunteered to fight, but I would imagine at some point all of them must have fearfully wondered, why me?

Why them? There's no good answer for that question. It's a cliche to say that they died so we might live free. But you know, it's the truth. God has blessed me with freewill and has placed me in a society that allows me to choose to do just about anything. It's not that way for everyone. Not everyone can live a life of discipleship in freedom, but I can. And while a Christian may sit in prison in China or loose his life in Indonesia, I can proclaim the gospel as freely as the Holy Spirit leads me.

I don't know why those soldiers had to die or why it had to be them? But I do know this... their service to the United States and their sacrifice is a gift of love to me, my family, and my community. I thank God for them.

There is a poem written during World War I that is often connected with Memorial Day. I want to lift it up here on this last day of May:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

—By John McCrae

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Moving On, Moving Up

Grant and Bailey graduated from Preschool on Tuesday.

For years I have heard social commentators describe the foibles of extravagance and too much praise for children in our modern world. They have described overdone preschool graduation ceremonies and overly dramatic rituals for children moving from second to third grade. Cynics are quick to suggest elaborate ceremonies for your toddler when she moves from a sippy cup to a regular plastic glass or multiple gift possibilities for your eight year old when you put away the car booster seat. I must admit that its easy for me to fall for the smug criticisms the cynics express.

But not this time. Oh yes, like every critic of the soccer mom culture I can honestly say the first graduation ceremony I ever took part in was when I finished high school and I turned out just fine. (The old, "If I didn't do it, why do they need to?') But after Tuesday I understand that that doesn't matter. It was a great night. And not so much because my five-year-olds deserve all kinds of gifts and accolades, but because the graduation was a formal chance for them (and more importantly for us parents) to come together and acknowledge that time and life is moving on.

A period of my twins' lives has come to a conclusion and a graduation ceremony in miniature is a better way to live this change out than to simply yell out "good bye" to their teachers as you drive them way on the last day of school.

I have vivid memories of three significant last days in my childhood. In 1984 my family moved from Milwaukee to Michigan. I remember to this day the smells and sights of the Madison Elementary School hallways when I knew it was my last day to be there. I was in sixth grade then, and only four months later I was saying good bye once again to my new school, Kennedy, because next year I would be in middle school. There was no graduation, but there was me and some of my new friends sitting near a jungle gym for the last time. I was very much aware that most of those friends would be going to a different school for seventh grade than I was, which lent itself to the melancholy feeling of that day. It's a feeling I have not forgotten.

I had those same feelings two years later when I completed eighth grade. Once again most of my friends would be going to a different high school and experience told me that I would never see most of them again. On the last day of school they played "I Believe the Children are our Future (Greatest Love of All)" by Whitney Houston throughout the school as we walked to our buses for the last time. That was our graduation.

Milestones are important. We should honor those occasions with caring and love. Maybe the best way to do that is with a graduation. It sure seemed to work on Tuesday. Ceremony and ritual are excellent ways to mark the passing of time within community. The cynics and grouches are wrong this time. It is better to honor than to ignore. It is better to share than to stand alone.

Even adults can benefit from connecting ritual and ceremony with important milestones. How have others been able to honor significant events and changes in your life?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Exposing Lies, Proclaiming Hope

Over the last month I have watched movies called Little Children, Celebration, and Happiness. Sound like some sweet movies, don't they? Well... Not so fast. You can't judge a movie by its title. All three of these movies were actually quite painful to watch at times because all three of them dealt with family problems, sexual dysfunction, crimes of a sexual nature, and suicide in one form or another.

On the surface these films have nothing in common. Little Children came out in 2006 and was nominated for Oscars. Celebration is a Danish film from 1998. Happiness, also from 1998, is an American film with an ensemble cast. But all three movies have similar things to say about sexuality, perfection, and life. Sexuality is expressed as shameful, dishonest, and sometimes even criminal. Perfection and the pursuit of the ideal is simply a facade for hidden sin. Life, according to these movies with dishonest titles, is a lie.

These are difficult movies to watch. In each case my initial reaction at the end was "how awful." But I can't simply forget about these films. Because of the coincidence that I would by chance watch these three unrelated films within a month of each other... these films that indeed have so much in common... has left me with questions that I continue to ponder.

What does my faith in Christ say in response to these movies? Are their messages about life true? I want to make clear that I am not put off by these films because of their intense subjects. Sexual crimes, misconduct, and indiscretions are unfortunately present in the world we live in. Christians must not ignore the existence such sins. Unfortunately they even raise their ugly head even within the church. So I am not disturbed by these movies because of some righteous piety. Instead what haunts me about these films is that they express little hope. They all say the same thing: "people are hypocrites and that's not going to change." According to these films people shouldn't look for happiness in the ideal, or celebrate phony baloney milestones, or hold up the innocence of little children. Sure Little Children does seem to show some redemption at the end of the story, but it certainly is not joyful or hopeful for that matter.

These films are accurate in an over-dramatic and extreme way. What they depict can be found within this sinful world. I feel they act as warning about the directions the human mind can go without knowledge of the gospel. Without Christ people will look for the ideal, for meaning, and for pleasure in those things that can only destroy. All of the flawed characters in these movies fall for the same trap... the same lie that sin has sold too many of us. It is a pit they are not able to come out of once they fall in. Oh they all try get out in some way and a few even are able to escape, but without hope, joy, or the gospel, these characters just take the pit of sin with them.

The gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that the Lord jumps into the pit sin and death with us. While we all do not fall into the trap of sexual crimes and suicide that these films depict, we do all sin. You don't have to be a criminal sex offender to be messed up. (Which is one of the messages of these films: The clean cut neighbor living behind you is as dangerous as the rapist in prison.) So what hope is there for us messed up sinners? According to these movies, nothing, that's life. Learn to live with it. But according to the gospel there is hope for us who sin. Our hope comes through Jesus who shines his light on sin, the pit, and all those hollow promises of meaning and exposes them for the lie they are. Through the forgiveness granted through Christ we are taken out of the pit of sin and washed clean of sin's power.

Jesus calls us, his disciples, to stand against the allure of sin by blanketing the light of the gospel upon the shadows of sin. Ultimately I like these movies because they expose the lie of sin with all its ugliness. Now it is our job as Christians to pick up where these movies leave off. Happiness is found through love, service and faith in Christ. Life is a celebration because of the hope the Lord has given us through his cross. Through our baptism into Christ we sinners have been made righteous, transformed into God's little children.

Monday, May 07, 2007

TV: The Babysitter

While my wife Valerie was pregnant with our twins we often discussed how much television we would allow our children to watch. Our desire was to not have them watch any TV until they were two. Desire did not, however, resemble reality. Well before they were two my kids began watching the likes of Dora, Blue's Clues, and Sesame Street. Now that they are five we have drawn new battlelines by trying to keep them away from Sponge Bob and Fairly OddParents.

Recently an American Academy of Pediatrics survey came out that indicated that 75% of children ages 6 months to 6 years watch television on a typical day. In fact 18% of babies under two years old even have a TV in their nursery, watching on average 75 minutes of television a day.

Being a parent of three kids five and under, I can understand how helpful television can be. It's a blessing to be able to put on Dragontales or Clifford at a particularly hairy time of the day to calm the kids down. And it's neat to see them actually learn a thing or two from some shows that are well done. But none of my kids have a TV in their room, and we have no plans to change that anytime soon. Yes I have a TV in my office I never use, but there is no way I'm going to be putting it in one of my kid's rooms.

As I wrote a month ago, there are times I would like to just put on a ballgame and send the kids to their room with their TV babysitter, but I just don't think that's right. As a parent I feel it is my responsibility to see what my kids are watching... and when we accidentally let Nick and Disney stay on a little too long as those channels switch from preschool mode to "Teen" mode, I know about it and can change the channel or turn it off.

There are so many voices in this world competing for our children. Companies are spending millions of dollars trying to get their products in front of our kids, even our 2 and 3 year-olds. Having a TV in your preschooler's bedroom only makes it easier for them to get their gospel of want and spend into their young minds. It's tough to raise your kids right. So give yourself a parenting advantage by keeping the TV in the family room and keeping the bedrooms for creative play and sleep.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

This Place is a Zoo

I took the kids to the Lincoln Park Zoo on Sunday. It was a beautiful day for walking around, taking in the sights and seeing the animals. The highlight for the kids was watching the King of the Jungle standing and sitting high on top of a rock in the lion exhibit. It drew quite a crowd. Kinda like a scene from the movie Madagascar.

For me the most impressive animal at the zoo that Sunday was the human animal. In the couple of hours we were there we encountered families of many different races and nationalities speaking a wide variety of languages. To go with English I heard Spanish, German, Polish, Arabic and Chinese (or at least I think it was Chinese.) At times my kids were playing in the Children's Zoo area with kids who spoke English, but understood completely when their mother said "let's get going" in Spanish (or at least I think she said "let's get going.") It was the same way later on with a family which spoke Arabic.

The variety of people and cultures that can be found around the globe are too numerous to number completely. And you know what... they were all created by God. We live in a time of great tension and too many wars. Our natural instinct is to not trust one another. But on this day, in a zoo, we all spoke the same languages of family, togetherness, and a love for the nature God has blessed us with.

Sunday gave me hope. In God's good world, among God's children, there is hope for peace.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Leave it to God

In late March I planted grass seed in some of the bare spots of my backyard. I never planted grass seed before so I was willing to try anything that wasn't too expensive. I bought a couple bags of grass seed mixed with fertilizer, a couple of giant carpet things that you supposedly just roll out to grow grass, some top soil, and some peat moss. After I got all that stuff down I realized I didn't have enough to cover all the bare areas (yes, my backyard is that bad) so I went back to the store and bought just a plain old bag of "sun/shade mix" grass seed.

Well wouldn't you know by the next day the temperatures were falling below freezing again, which prevented me from watering the way I was supposed to. (The instructions of every type of seed thing I bought all emphasized the importance of watering several times daily.) Then a week later my family went away on vacation for seven days so it wouldn't get watered at all. I figured the whole thing was ruined... a waste of about $70.

Now, after a month I'm proud to report that I have grass. I take no credit for this good news. Despite my bumbling and ignorance I have grass. However, I do feel a little wiser when it comes to whole planting grass game. That seed-fertilizer mix stuff is not great. Where I used that stuff the grass is growing thinly... like a 35 year-old a few years away from complete baldness. The green carpet stuff is worthless. Enough said. But the places where I planted just straight seed are looking plush and oh so green.

Jesus' parable about the farmer sowing seed on different types of soil is one of my favorites in the Gospels. I cannot even look at a bag of salted sunflower seeds without thinking of that parable. Imagine what I was thinking when I actually was sowing grass seed. What I take from Jesus' story I also take from the whole grass seed growing experience. Just throw the seeds and let God do the rest. Carpet gimmicks or an over abundance of fertilizer just cloud the issue. Seed, soil, water, and sun are the essentials. And even if I go a week without watering, God can still make life happen.

As a disciple for Christ I share God's Word with others. No need for gimmicks or tricks. Just God's Word and little care are all that is necessary. God will do the rest. My bumbling and ignorance cannot prevent God from doing his stuff. So I'll do the best I can.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Ahhhh... Opening Day

It's so great that Opening Day of the baseball season falls on my day off. I managed to watch most of the Indians/Sox game this afternoon with Grant and Preston. Preston seemed more interested than Grant. Grant doesn't like fireworks at ballgames so he wasn't too thrilled to hear that the White Sox invented fireworks at ballgames. I also got to watch portions of the Twins/Orioles and now the Rangers/Angels game. What a great day. I barely noticed it was nice outside.

Former Tigers announcer, Hall-of-famer, Ernie Harwell used to begin the first radio broadcast of the Tigers season with a famous reading for any baseball fan in Michigan.

For the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth;

The time of the song of the birds has come,

And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

The quote is Song of Solomon 2:11-12 and was Ernie's way of expressing the movement of time and constancy of God's presence. Every year the winter passes and for us in the Midwest. The melting snow and the first 60 degree days remind us that life moves on and there is always hope as we look ahead. For Harwell, and for me, baseball is as much a reminder of that hope as the flowers, the birds, and that wonderful "voice of the turtle." Just look at today for example: There is hope for the Royals and Brewers who are now 1-0. There is hope for the Indians who blasted the Sox. There is even hope for the Cubs, after all they are only one game out of first.

There is hope! No matter where we have been there is hope. Family, friends, the coming of spring, and the clean slate of the baseball standings all remind us of that hope. It's fitting that baseball should begin as we prepare for the coming Easter feast.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Hope and Joy for Today

Hope and Joy for Today

I watched the movie Children of Men last night. It takes place in Britain, twenty years in the future. The twist in this work of science fiction is that no baby has been born anywhere in the whole world for over eighteen years.

What happens in a world with no children? What happens when you believe that you and the people around you will be the last humans to ever exist? As you can imagine the world of 2027 is a horrible place in this movie. Graffiti in the background at one point in the movie expressed this: "The last one to die please turn off the light."

There was a particularly touching scene for me when two of the characters hide out for a moment in a rundown, abandoned building. It doesn't take long to notice that the building had once been a school for children. But now in 2027 it is only some deer and other creatures of the wild walk those halls.

What role do children play in our world and in our lives? Being a parent has been a big challenge for me. Jesus teaches us that true joy in life comes from selfless service toward others... well, nothing forces you to become a selfless servant faster than becoming a dad or mom. Here's an example: On Monday the baseball season begins when the Indians play the White Sox at 1:00. In a previous life I would have popped some corn, got my scorecard ready, and enjoyed three hours in peace focusing completely on that game. Being a dad will not allow me to have such a selfish indulgence. Sure I'll watch the game, at least some of it, but there is no way I'll be able to keep score. I'm a dad and my kids will need me. I understand that, sometimes resent it, but thankfully in times of deep awareness I do realize that its so cool.

It is a blessing that we live in a world with children. I had a moment this morning when I got to watch my son Grant playing outside my office window for a few seconds as his class was coming in from recess. Unlike the school in Children of Men the walls of this preschool contain life that is more than just a stray family of deer. This afternoon I sat with my daughter Bailey as she took a hearing test. She must have raised her hand four or five dozen times after hearing that faint "beep" in her headphones. As I was looking in her eyes I felt great love for her. And that's not all, I had another occasion for joy when I came home for lunch only to find my youngest son, Preston, wearing a cute Spiderman costume. He was so proud of himself.

What a horrible future it would be without children. Children have made my present a time of great joy and great hope. They are our future and praise be to God, children are our present as well.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Fish Out of Water

Have you ever felt like Chevy Chase? Me neither. Well... that was until Sunday. Valerie and I took the kids for a drive Sunday afternoon around Chicago. (I think I can live here for 40 years and never tire of seeing the impressive Chicago skyline as you approach the city. Since last summer we have often taken the kids to the city for a drive.) On this drive we found ourselves cruising around the North Side, ending up in an area called Wicker Park. I wanted to check out a pizza place I had read about in the Tribune. Amazingly, we found a close parking space on North Ave so we could park the SUV and drag the kids out for a bite to eat.

Of course there was hustle and bustle all over the city since it was Sunday, a beautiful spring day, and a good chance for residents to enjoy life. In the pizza place there were tables with college students and singles just taking it easy. Outside young couples were walking by on the sidewalk. Two or three women were walking their dogs. And they all looked modern, young, and stylish. Even the people who were scruffy seemed to look that way as a fashion choice. On-the-other-hand, the Dusso family looked like transplants from suburbia. It was not our choice to look scruffy. Picture this: the SUV, the noisy kids, my toddler running circles around pizza joint, and the young, urban, artistic professionals either looking at us funny or at least attempting to ignore us. See what I mean by Chevy Chase.

You know what though... it was fun. And the people working at the place where nice. After all this is Chicago and not New York. Yeah my family may fit in better at a suburban mall than walking around a hip and trendy urban neighborhood, but I'm always up for an adventure.

Christians should have experiences like this when it comes to faith, feeling like the Apostle Paul instead of Chevy Chase. Get out of the fishbowl and into the world. Bring the love of Christ into all the places you go through your outstretched arm, listening ear, and caring heart. It might feel odd at first, but when you look back you will be glad you went.

Saturday, March 17, 2007



It only took three days. Already the bracket I filled out for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is a mess. I had Norte Dame and Maryland in the Sweet 16, but instead Winthrop beats the Irish and its another school from Indiana moving on... Butler. Where in the world is Winthrop and what do they teach?

There are 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament. 63 of those teams will end their season with a loss, and let me tell you just about no one out there who can predict precisely when and where those losses will happen. Even the winners of huge tournament office pools always miss at least a couple games.

If it is nearly impossible to predict a perfect NCAA bracket before the tournament, just think how much more impossible it is to predict where you are going in life. A movie from the 1990's, Run Lola Run, tackled that very subject. It showed how two minutes here and one chance encounter there can change the course of your life forever.

So if life is one big roll of the dice its comforting for me to know that God has a hand in it. Not so much because God has filled out a perfect bracket of my life before I was born. I do believe we have free will. But instead it is comforting to know that when we do get bumped out by a Winthrop in the first round, our Lord is ready to pick us up and send us back in the right direction again.

Often it is prayer, God's Word, praise and meditation that get me back on the court. At other times its a good kick in the butt. Sometimes a loving touch from my wife or my children can do the trick. Whatever it is... God is there. Wherever we end up... God is there.

Monday, March 12, 2007

God's Fertilizer

Nothing nourishes our spiritual growth like God's Word found in the Scriptures. In the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9) Jesus compares people to fig trees. A fig tree exists to produce figs. We exist to produce love, joy, and hope. If we do not produce fruit for Christ then we are not living as God expects us to live. In the parable a gardener defends the barren fig tree saying that he will tend to it and give it manure... maybe then it will produce fruit. Jesus, our gardener, is tending to us. He digs around us by giving us Christian community and he feeds us nourishing "manure" through his sacraments and God's Word.

When we fail to read the Bible we are starving ourselves of God's spiritual fertilizer. Living a rewarding life of faith becomes nearly impossible without God's Word. Sure we may produce some fruit, but it won't be as much or as delicious as it could have been.

So we all are called to read the Bible. But what Bible should we read? There are so many translations of the Bible to choose from. It can be quite confusing because every year there are new translations produced, updates to previous translations, and older translations re-packaged in new clothes.

To cut through the clutter I have added a list of five excellent English translations in the left column of my blog. Any of them would be helpful in personal devotions. In fact there are times you may want to even use two or three of them. Today's New International Version (TNIV) is my favorite. It is a literal translation of the Hebrew and Greek (the original languages of the Old and New Testaments) that is also readable. The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) is also an excellent translation, but at times it is more difficult to read. The New Living Translation (NLT) is a good, readable translation. It very well might be the best English bible for casual Bible readers. The Contemporary English Version (CEV) is great for reading and easy to understand. The last version is recommend is The Message Remix 2.0. This translation brings the ancient Biblical texts to the 21st century using images and language understandable for today. (Example: the fig tree in the parable I mentioned becomes an apple tree in The Message.) It's fun to read and will open your eyes to truths within Bible stories that can easily be missed in a literal translation.

Regardless of what translation you use, I urge you to use one. If digging out your yellowed, moldy, disintegrating, 30-year-old confirmation Bible does not get you excited about Bible reading then PLEASE BUY A NEW BIBLE! I know I wouldn't read a King James Bible from 1956 found in some church's basement closet. You shouldn't either. The Word of God should be treated with the same respect and read in the same condition as you would read an Oprah Book Club Bestseller.

Buy a Bible you can and will read.
Own a Bible that you can understand and read that Bible everyday!
Don't starve yourself of God's spiritual fertilizer.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

I've often wondered why so many of the non-Jesus related Christmas songs get packed away with the rest of the lights, decorations, and tinsel on December 26. Winter has only just begun. "Winter Wonderland," "The Sleigh Ride," and "Let It Snow" should stick around until at least the first spring training baseball games in Arizona. This is especially true for the song "Let It Snow."

Today is Valentine's Day. It is also the second day in a row that schools have been closed because of a blizzard. It's time we start bringing together the idea of snow and Valentines. At first the two would seem like an unhappy couple. Snow is cold and icy while Valentines are hot and spicy. But songs like "Let it Snow" remind us just how snow and Valentines can work so well together. Take a look at these lyrics:

Oh the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we've no place to go,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

It doesn't show signs of stopping,
And I've bought some corn for popping,
The lights are turned way down low,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

When we finally kiss goodnight,
How I'll hate going out in the storm!
But if you'll really hold me tight,
All the way home I'll be warm.

The fire is slowly dying,
And, my dear, we're still good-bying.
But as long as you love me so,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow

Now if that doesn't describe the way a Valentine's Day ought to be, I don't know what does. So I will now declare "Let It Snow" the unofficial first Valentine's Day Carol. A little bit of "Let It Snow" mixed in with the chocolate, roses, and Hallmarks of Valentine's Day fits perfectly. You can't beat popcorn and an excuse to stay in with your Love. Snow days provide the perfect opportunity to put the hustle of the world behind you and focus, at least for one night, on the partner God has blessed you with.

Genesis 2 reminds us that God created humans to have a partner. Like Sam sang in Casablanca: "Woman needs man and a man must have his mate. That no one can deny." Come to think of it, let's make "As Time Goes By" the second unofficial Valentine's Day Carol.

My wife is the greatest blessing of my life. Let's put the kids to bed and let it snow. Thank you, Lord.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Looking For Control; Finding Peace

Looking for Control; Finding Peace

It's been said, "Never say never,"but I believe it's safe for me to say that I will never get a tattoo. I have no interest at all in marking my body in such a way. And yet there are thousands, if not millions, of Americans my age and younger who have gotten tattooed or will have their body tattooed.

A show on cable about a tattoo shop called "Miami Ink" has cashed in on the popularity of both tattoos and "reality TV." At first glance I didn't like the show. After all, I'm never going to get a tattoo. But after a few viewings, I've changed by tune about "Miami Ink." A typical show will follow the turbulent lives of the artists who work at the store. Injected into the continuous storyline about the artists are always two or three stories about the patrons of the studio. Some of these teen and twenty-somethings come to Miami Ink as a right of passage... making a choice to mark their bodies as an expression of who they are and what they want to be known as. But most come to the studio with a heavy heart. For example a young woman may ask for a tattoo in honor of her grandmother who died a month ago or a man may come in looking to have the name of his daughter tattooed on him to replace the name of his ex who dumped him a year ago.

Often the tattoo artists serve as priests for their customers. In the process of creating the design and then doing the actual tattoo work they listen to the concerns and sorrows of those they serve. At times it can be quite moving. And the patrons always leave the shop with a sense of peace... relieved... as if they had been touched by grace.

"Miami Ink" reminds me that there are so many people in our communities who are hurting and hungering for spiritual relief. For many the tattoo studio has become a source of relief; a place where they can for a moment take control of their lives by controlling a word or drawing on their body. I wonder how long the grace found in a tattoo lasts.

I believe that lasting grace can best be found in Jesus. I also believe Christian churches in the United States do not do a good of a job reaching out to the "Miami Ink" crowd, children of God searching for joy and peace.

What lessons can we learn from the pastoral care tattoo artists give to their customers?

Friday, February 02, 2007

Faithful Expectations

I moved to the Chicago area in August just in time for football season. With no Chicago baseball teams in the playoffs the eyes of the Chicago sports world quickly focused on the the Windy City's beloved Chicago Bears. What a season they had. They went 13-3 in the regular season, clinching home-field advantage with nearly a month yet to play. Now they are in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1986.

But as I read my Chicago Tribune, week after week the last five months, I often came away thinking that this Bears teams was lousy and Coach Lovie Smith was one of the reasons. For example, from the beginning of the season most of the sports reporters felt that Rex Grossman should not be the quarterback of the Bears. When the Bears beat Arizona in October despite Grossman's blunders the press wanted Lovie to replace him permanently with backup Brian Griese. Lovie said he would not make a change at quarterback. He also stayed positive by pointing to the Bears' undefeated record. But the press mocked Lovie and expected the Bears to fail.

When defensive lineman Tank Johnson was arrested for the third time since 2004 outside a Chicago nightclub in November and his best friend was shot and killed a few days later, the media insisted that Lovie drop Johnson from the team. He was too much a distraction and will hurt team chemistry. Lovie said he would not and pointed to the relationship of trust he had with his players. Once again the press mocked Lovie and expected the Bears to fail.

When the Bears closed the season on New Year's Eve against the arch rival Green Bay Packers sports reporters reminded Lovie of his promise to make beating the Packers his number one priority when he became the Bears' coach in 2004. They asked if that promise still mattered? Naturally, the Bears played a flat game, looked awful, and were soundly beaten 26-7 by Brett Favre and company. The media was furious blaming everyone in blue and orange, and especially Lovie. But the coach did not waver from his confidence and high expectations for his team. Lovie reminded the press that the Bears were the best team in the NFC and assured them that they would be ready for the playoffs. Again, the media mocked Lovie and expected the Bears to fail.

But here we stand today with the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. Guess who was right? Whose expectations were fulfilled?

When Jesus calls the fisherman Simon (Peter) to "be catching people" in Luke 5:1-11 there is an interesting twist that is unique to Luke. Before his conversation with Peter, Jesus uses Peter's boat to move a few yards away from the lakeshore in order to speak to a crowd of people. Afterwards Jesus instructs Peter to put his nets out for a catch. Now Peter and his partners had had an awful night fishing. They were not able to catch anything. Many years of experience told Peter that throwing out the nets again would be a waste of both their time and energy.

So Peter's first response to Jesus' request to go out into the deep water to catch some fish was one of doubt. "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing." But it doesn't take long for Peter to find some faith. "Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." Guess what... They caught so much fish their nets began to break.

What expectations have you placed upon yourself when it comes to living your faith? How are you doing with your prayers? How often are you reading Scripture? Have you talked to someone about the Bible or Jesus? Are your expectations about being a Christian so small that in your mind all you need to do is go "to church" on Christmas and Easter and that's fine?

The media did not expect much of Lovie Smith or the Bears this year. And for a Packer fan like myself, it was kinda fun to see. Whenever someone in my congregation was excited about the Bears I would say "yeah, but what are you guy's going to do about Grossman?" Or I would ask, "What about that Tank Johnson thing?" Now that the Bears are in the Super Bowl there are no seeds of doubt for me or the media to plant in the minds of the faithful fans of the Monsters of the Midway. They are all Lovie disciples now.

After hearing Jesus' message along that lake, Peter was faithful enough to throw his nets in the water, though he was doubtful. But after Peter witnesses that miraculous catch he and his partners James and John "left everything and followed him" without hesitation. They even left that record catch of fish.

Do you need a Super Bowl appearance or a net full of fish in order for you to raise your expectations about Jesus and faith? There are so many things you are capable of through the Spirit. You will miss so much if you allow those negative voices that insist that you're not good enough to affect you. Lovie didn't change his tune all year. Nor has Jesus ever changed his expectations. Keep your expectations high and open your life to the spiritual blessings that are available to you. Not only will grow in faith, but soon you will even be catching people. Catch the spirit and bring others to joy in Christ with you.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Respect and Modivation

For only the third time all year the Chicago Bears, who play in Sunday's Super Bowl, are an underdog. The Indianapolis Colts are seven point favorites to beat the Bears and boy are Bears fans furious. Bear fans, players, and coaches feel like the media has not respected their team all season long. Coach Smith is playing up the underdog card thinking it will give his players some more motivation. I guess winning a championship is not enough motivation for the Bears to perform at their best. People are sending letters to newspapers decrying the nation's lack of respect for the powerful NFC Champions.

I'm not a Bears fan, but as an alum and fan of the University of Michigan Wolverines I know a thing or two about lack of respect. When Michigan was not invited to the National Championship Game a couple months ago I was furious, convinced that Michigan and the Big Ten were not receiving the respect they deserved. Surly Ohio State and the team who's only loss was to Ohio State were the best teams in the nation. But after the Wolverines and Buckeyes got blown out in their final games this month there was no longer any room for crying.

It does not matter what people say about or think about your football team. 20 point favorites or 20 point underdogs is actually all quite pointless. Life is not about what people think it is about how you act. Bear fans and Michigan fans can cry all day. But in the end it is performance that matters.

We have no control over what people think of us, but we do have control over what choices we make. There are alot of Christians out there who are well respected by others. Maybe you are respected. But such respect should never be your motivation for living faith. Jesus says in Matthew 6:6a "When you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private." Live your faith because you believe in God. Live your faith because your thankful for what Christ has done for you. Pray to the Lord because you need to pray. With Christ as your only motivation you will be free to be the best disciple for Christ you can be. Save your whine and tears for something much more important.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Always Reforming

This week I attended two meetings with leaders and pastors from congregations in the area I live. I think it's important to make connections with other Christians in order to talk about the joys and struggles of serving Christ. Unfortunately more struggles came to the surface of these meetings than joys. It seems that wherever I look traditional Christian churches are struggling with how to best serve the Lord in 2007 and still hold on to those traditions that they hold so dear.

For example, today I received an e-mail newsletter from Wartburg Seminary listing several education opportunities they are offering. One is called "Redeeming Congregational Conflict: Discovering Shalom in the Midst of Conflict." Another lecture is titled: "Reclaiming the 'C' Word: Daring to be Church Again." A lecture in March will ponder this topic: "Living Together in the 21st Century: The State of the Bible in North America."

No question about it, people are rethinking who and what church is and even what role the Bible plays in society. Has it always been this way? After all, the collection of letters we have from Paul in the New Testament are products of early Jesus followers being in conflict and trying to determine what "church" is? Did not the Reformation in the 1500's ask the same questions?

It saddens me to see Christian brothers and sisters struggling with faith and discouraged about the future. But for me, I always find hope in the gospel found in Scripture. The Word is the rock our faith and our hope is built upon. Through God's Word and his grace freely given in the Sacraments we are propelled to mission. The "church" is the body of Christ, a collection of diverse people living, working, and loving together as one body. If what we call church today is not that, then it will die. So no wonder so many hunger to get back on track. No wonder so many are worried. Actually that's the description of one those lectures at Wartburg. Maybe I should sign up.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Death, Funerals, and a New Year

Occasionally unrelated events from different parts of the globe come together to teach a larger lesson. I think this happened in the end of 2006 when singer James Brown, President Gerald Ford, and Saddam Hussein all died within days of one another.

James Brown was a popular singer for decades and a voice for many African Americans who have felt alienated by society. His was a life of many ups and downs, but the impact his life had on others was reflected in the thousands who mourned his passing. His funeral became a time to honor his life. But with several "costume" changes, a gold casket, and huge musical productions his funeral might have gone a little over-the-top. Like the Egyptian pharaohs ready to rule in the afterlife, he was buried with his riches.

President Ford was never elected president or vice-president, but his nearly 900 days as President of the United States have been remembered in a positive light. Chances are that a hundred years from now history will not remember a whole lot about President Ford. He was neither a bad nor a great president. But we admire the way he handled himself and led this nation during a difficult time. His funeral was treated with all the pomp and regalia that would be expected of the greatest of history's leaders. I believe the events of Ford's funerals are more a reflection of us than of him. For some reason we need to lift presidents as greater than life. Chances are that from now on all presidential funerals we see in our lifetime will be much like what we saw last week. Before President Reagan's funeral in 2005 presidential funerals were much less grandiose. But all of that has changed. Even Chris Matthews on MSNBC wanted to see more horse drawn caissons, and less "ordinary" hearses for such events. Again, this is a refection our need to make these presidents bigger than life.

Saddam Hussein tried to lift himself up as greater than life. He had more palaces than Herod the Great, and more statues of himself around Iraq than Lenin had in Moscow. But in the end, because he placed himself in such high esteem at expense of the people he ruled, he invited his own downfall. His final moments were spent with a noose around his neck and political opponents taunting him in a ugly execution scene.

Humans are not gods. James Brown's riches will not matter in the Kingdom of Heaven. Pomp, bands, salutes, horses, lying-in-state, and funeral after funeral does not make President Ford our greatest president. Yes we admire and respect the job he did, but he is not god. Saddam Hussein's years as a tyrannical dictator ended much like Adolf Hitler's... with his country in ruins and his life coming to a violent end.

Praise be to God who gives us the promise of new life through Jesus. Also, praise God for the great cloud of witnesses who have served faithfully and inspire us through the way they served. But as we remember great, and not-so-great, people who have died, let's not forget Christ who gives us all the victory through his sacrifice on the cross. People are people, but Jesus is Lord.