Tuesday, May 31, 2011

St. John's Abbey Highlights with Some Randoms at the End

Well, I just got home from a wonderful week at St. John's Abbey where I went for a spiritual retreat. I could write and write and write about all the many things, but I will just give a top ten of the highlights:
1. The hospitality. I know the Benedictines have to be hospitable; it's part of their vows. Yet, everyone seemed to do it so naturally. Maybe that is part of living into your vows, forming these habits through intentional choices until they become part of your character. All I know is that everyone I asked a question to, chatted with, traded small talk with - all of these people treated me wonderfully even though they probably have to deal with spiritual retreatists like me every day.
2. Worship. Four worship services a day with monks. What more could a guy ask for? The most striking part of the worship service was the slow rhythm, the pace that allowed for silence and meditation, for the words to sink deep and take root. There is no hurry, no clockwatching, simply gathering as a community to recite the words that have been the foundation of the faithful (mainly the Psalms) for millions of people over thousands of years.
3. Woods...wonderful Minnesota woods. There is a mile and a half hike around the lake to the Stella Maris chapel and another mile and a half loop through the St. John's arboretum (where the carpenters use the maple for all their beautiful woodworking). So, I spent the day walking through one of them and then running through the other at night, and then switching it the next day.
4. The beauty of the university. Even their electrical building has a plaque listing it as a Minnesota historic sight! Seriously.
5. Self-sustaining beauty. At St. John's they're committed to both beauty and simplicity. Chapter 57 in the Benedictine Rule states, "If there are artisans in the community, let them practice their craft with all humility...". And this is exactly what they do. The woodworking is simple and stark with wood harvested from the arboretum. The pottery is made from clay dug just off the campus, refined with recycled water, and decorated with natural glazes made from soybean leaves (and other types of leaves).
6. The food. It was simple, amazing, and I think mostly organic.
7. Liturgical Press. One of the best publishers of liturgy in the world is at St. John's. It was hard to leave without spending a few bucks, which I did happily.
8. St. John's Bible. St. John's Abbey commissioned the Queen's calligrapher Donald Jackson to produce a hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible. It is partially on display at the library at St. John's and is absolutely breathtaking. I got teary-eyed just watching a video about the making and seeing someone write text with such beauty and skill. Here's a picture of it:

That picture doesn't do it justice. Visit this site.
9. The writings of Howard Thurman. As one of my classes was winding down this spring, a classmate asked a professor what books she would recommend for those in ministry, the "must haves" if you will. She listed off a couple and then recommended Thurman. By chance, our church happened to have one of his books on the shelf, so I grabbed it. I'm glad I did. He is a very wise and poetic man, this Howard Thurman. I think my favorite quote was, "[waiting] is to watch a gathering darkness until all light is swallowed up completely without the power to interfere or bring a halt. Then to continue one's journey in the darkness with one's footsteps guided by the illumination of remembered radiance is to know courage of a peculiar kind - the courage to demand that light continue to be light even in the surrounding darkness. To walk in the light while darkness invades, envelops, and surrounds is to wait on the Lord. This is to know the renewal of strength. This is to walk and faint not." I like that very much.
10. Mahtowa! After the retreat was over, I drove up to Mahtowa, MN to hang out with friends from seminary. It is a town about 30 miles south of Duluth, and we happened to be there for its annual "Wurst Days," which celebrates Mahtowa and bratwurst (it is sponsored by the local general store that specializes in encased meats). I ran the annual 4 mile "Brat Trot," but decided not to take part in the brat eating contest. The winner apparently ate 7 brats in 5 minutes (excuse me while I gag a bit thinking about it). I got to visit Covenant Park Bible Camp, Duluth (the Brewhouse, my grandma, Luke and Chelsey, Canal Park), and even some time in Jay Cooke Park. I love that place.

So, that is my highlight reel. I realize now that I still ended up writing a fair amount more than I planned. If you made it to the end, congratulations!

One more thought: After seeing facebook posts on Memorial Day, it made me hope that one day evangelical Christians will celebrate All Saints' Day with at least the same fervor that Memorial Day is often celebrated. Shouldn't we honor those who lived and died to pass on our faith, who faced prison, torture, and even martyrdom so that we could find our own freedom in the liberating message of Christ?

I wonder where Sarah Palin is going to stop next on her mysterious bus tour? And by "wonder" I mean "don't care" and by "?" I mean "!". That's all. Time to do some studying.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Rapture

Since today is May 21st, the supposed day of the rapture, I decided to devote one of my posts to the role the rapture has played in my life. Let's do this.

When I was a child, I was fascinated by the rapture...in the same way a person is fascinated by a tornado right before it comes and demolishes their house. In this metaphor, the tornado represents the concept of the rapture and the house represents my fragile childhood psyche. After hearing numerous times about the rapture at church (see previous posts about "The Countdown/Blast Off Song") I became convinced, being the evil child that I was (more importantly, being the child prone to anxiety and perseverating on ideas), that I was bound to be left behind.

This played out in a good 6-12 months of pit-of-the-stomach anxiety only briefly alleviated by having a known Christian in sight. A piece of clothing left on the ground at my house could send me into a tizzy as I scanned the horizons for known Christians to ensure I wasn't left behind (side note: this also led me to an early judgmental attitudes towards other's faith. I had those who were definitely Christians, those who were probably Christians, and those who I thought may just be left behind with me). For obvious reasons I avoided the laundry room.

All of this was compounded by films such as the Thief in the Night trilogy and the Left Behind series. I even once heard a sermon by a guest preacher that not only discussed the reasons for the pre-tribulation rapture but also attempted to convince the congregation that hell was literally in the center of the earth and heaven was invisible about 15 stories up. The thought of hell being the core of the earth did little to alleviate any of my fears about anything and probably kept me from descending too deeply into any canyons or caves lest I fall into some sulfur-belching crevice and find myself in hell.

These early experiences convinced me of a few things:
1. Fear is never a good motivator, especially for children. Do not use hell, judgment, damnation, or rapture as methods to bring children to God. Appeasing an angry god is what the prophets of Baal did, not what Christians do. It will only set up a false image of God that they will either fear their whole lives or reject. Most of the time when they reject this false image, they may reject the notion of God altogether.
2. Don't build whole systems of theology on a few verses. As I've gotten older, I realize I don't believe in the rapture because it has little biblical support. The two verses that are most often cited (two men walking up a hill, one disappearing; being caught up in the clouds) are taken out of their historical context. For an in-depth look at these verses and at the idea of rapture as a whole, I recommend N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope.
3. For any theological idea, it's important to explore what the historic Church believed over the last 2000 years. The rapture is one of the ideas that gained support in the 19th century with John Nelson Darby's dispensationalism. Now just because it is more recent doesn't necessarily mean it's false, but it should send up some warning flags.

I believe that the God who created the earth and called it good will come to restore creation and set up God's kingdom on earth, making "all things new" not "all new things" (as one commentator noted). Finally, as websites that provide services to take care of your pets after the rapture prove, the idea of rapture is entirely human-centered. God cares about all of creation (including animals!) and will restore all of creation - human and otherwise - in the coming kingdom.

Well, my post is almost done (a little more preachy than intended - sorry!), and I am still here. No planes have fallen from the sky, and sirens aren't blaring. We'll see how the rest of today pans out.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Minnesota, Dylan, and Stephen

Well, I've been convalescing from graduation spending large amounts of time reading on my couch interspersed with runs, work at church, and dinner/hanging out with friends in the evening. I'm in the midst of reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, which I didn't realize spent large amounts of plot time in Northern Minnesota. So, that has me listening to Dylan (currently "I Want You" in the midst of my trip through Blonde on Blonde. Dylan excursus to follow.) and other Minnesota mixes and looking forward to going up there next Monday!

Speaking of Dylan, he is turning an amazing 70 on May 24th. My first real exposure to Dylan was when my dear friend Sarah Beth Buckland Miller made me a set of three CDs of Bob's best with great quotes on the homemade inserts like: "We always did feel the same,/we just saw it from a different point of view," (from "Tangled Up in Blues), which, me being a conservative evangelical Christian and she a left-leaning intellectual from Jewish roots proved to be more true later in life than I thought at this point. Anyway, she was a Dylan freak and "turned me on," so to speak (We later attended Dylan Days in Hibbing and experienced one of my all time favorite concert moments when Peter Ostroushko got up with his mandolin and sang "Girl from the North Country; it was darn near transcendent).

Now Dylan has always been known for his lyrics and his strained voice that eventually scooped into the right note (maybe), which has only deteriorated with age. And no doubt his lyrics are superb. For instance, I remember my mind being blown with such kernels as, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows" and "People disagreeing everywhere you look/makes you wanna stop and read a book" and "I was so much older then,/I'm younger than that now." Then there were, of course, lyrics that began to bother my preconceived notions of war, politics, race, etc.: "How many times must the cannonballs fly/before they're forever banned?...how many years can some people exist/before they're allowed to be free?...how many deaths will it take till he know/that too many people have died?" and all of the words of "The Times They Are A'Changin'." Granted, it took a while for my political leanings to catch up!

However, I think Dylan doesn't get credit for the absolutely wonderful melodies he has written. "Forever Young," "Boots of Spanish Leather," "Shelter from the Storm," "Lay Lady Lay," "To Make You Feel My Love," and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" are all gorgeous melodies and beautifully crafted songs. I think my favorite Dylan song and maybe my favorite song in general is "Girl from the North Country" which combines great lyrics, an absolutely unmatched melody (though he obviously takes it from the traditional "Scarborough Fair" melody), and mixes it with my nostalgia for the north country of Minnesota to produce an unbeatable song. Here's a great video of it, even with the Italian subtitles:

Now I'm getting really nostalgic. I can see paper birches swaying in the wind near a lake as the sun holds on to twilight for longer than you thought possible. Now I'm waxing poetic and poorly at that, so I will save it.

Congratulations to my brother who received the Presidential Scholarship and will be coming to North Park Theological Seminary in the fall! I never thought I'd see the day where my brother and I would both be in the Covenant Church. The times are indeed a'changin'. It will be weird to live in the same city as someone in my family...good, mind you, but weird.

Okay, I'm going to read some more. Later.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Graduation and Family

Well, it's official: I graduated from North Park Theological Seminary on Saturday! While I write this as if I understand its implications, I do not. I am one of those people who has to reflect on events for a long time before I'm able to understand their importance or significance on my life. Does it feel different? No. Ask me in a year, and I may be able to verbalize how it feels.

So, my family got in on Thursday and Friday, and everyone was staying with me. It was wonderful and crazy and beautiful and reminded me of the good old days when all of us lived together with only one bathroom. It also reminded me of my introverted personality. Occasionally I had to tell the family, "I'll be in my room for the next hour. If there's a fire, knock twice, and I'll assess the situation for myself and exit through the window. Just don't come in." I'm hyperbolizing but not by much. Thankfully, they understand me pretty well and don't take it personally.

The only touristy thing we did was go down to Millennium Park on probably the grossest spring day possible in Chicago. It was cold, windy, and rainy, but we had to take the obligatory Bean picture. Here we are under The Bean with everyone else avoiding the pervasive, misty rain that seemed to fall directly into your clothing.

We all look pretty gross and cold (and my brother looks like the unabomber); I think this is right before we decided that being downtown wasn't a good enough reason to be miserable.

Our other activities included eating the obligatory Chicago pizza at Lou Malnati's, shopping at Lincolnwood Mall for shoes, hanging out in my living room watching Children of Men, eating pastries from Dinkel's Bakery for breakfast (I think this is the favorite part of Chicago for my parents; I am a secondary perk of the trip), and generally just talking and laughing with one another, which is probably the Bjorlin family's most-treasured pastime.

And yes, they even attended my graduation!

Since they left on Sunday/Monday, I've been sitting alone in a dark room rocking back and forth in the fetal position attempting to return to my introverted/extroverted stasis. Now I'm looking forward to a trip to God's country - Minnesota! Later.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Marathon Relayers, Terrifying Sunday School Songs, and Books

I just remembered one other thing that really irked me during the marathon. So, there was a half-marathon, the full marathon, and then a relay marathon. In the relay you teamed up as a group of four and each ran a fourth of the race. First, it was annoying to come to these relay points and watch people stop running. Yet, it was far more annoying to have all these fresh runners join you each 6.5 miles or so as you were slowly dying. The primal urge to coldcock one of these relay runners as they blazed by me in their second mile and my 21st was almost overwhelming.

So, I randomly had this song in my head from Sunday Schools past. Tell me that it's not slightly terrifying:
Somewhere in outer space God has prepared a place
for those who trust him and obey.
Jesus will come again and though we don't know when,
the countdown's getting lower every day.

ten and nine, eight and seven, six and five and four,
Call upon the Savior while you may,
three and two, coming through the clouds of bright array,
the countdown's getting lower everyday.

I don't remember singing this verse, but it is one of the verses of the song. I may have repressed it:
Soon will the trumpet sound, and we'll rise off the ground,
with Christ forever we will be.
Children where will you be throughout eternity? (YIKES!)
The countdown's getting lower everyday.

Then you sing the chorus again, and at the end of the song you do a countdown in earnest: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1....blast off (and then you look around to see if you did, in fact, get raptured)!

It is called the "Blast Off/Countdown Song." After that, you recite this verse in an almost trance-like state: "And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am there ye may be also. John 14:3" Where to start? Theology? Age-appropriateness? Fearful lyrics? I'll let you start and end where you like.

I have a growing pile of books that are just waiting for free time post-graduation. It makes me smile just thinking about it.

I recently read this quote about books by John Updike:
"Shelved rows of books warm and brighten the starkest room...By bedside and easy chair, books promise a cozy, swift, and silent release from this world into another...Smaller than a breadbox, bigger than a TV remote, the average book fits into the human hand with a seductive nestling, a kiss of texture...How many divorces have been forestalled by love of the same jointly acquired library? Books hold our beams down; they act as counterweight to our fickle and flighty natures."

I like that. Although I'm not sure just how many divorces were staved off by shared libraries, but maybe Updike's talking about his contemporaries/author friends. Well, time to head to World Relief. Later!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bad Jobs, Running, and Another Installment of Misheard Lyrics

One job I would not like to have: parking enforcement. Not only do you have to walk outside in all types of weather, and no one is happy to see you. No one is running out of the store or restaurant to thank you for holding them accountable to the laws of the land. No, they are coming out to at best sweetly try to get out of a ticket and at worst berate you for attempting to do your job. It's hard to get yelled at for someone else's irresponsibility. I think that actually might be one of my nightmare jobs.

I think the worst job I ever did (and only for one day) was cleaning out the dried cement on the inside of a cement truck drum with a jackhammer. Not only did I spend the day alone inside a cement truck drum, but the sound of the jackhammer reverberating inside that metal drum will drive you crazy (especially when you are alone all day). Also, no matter what type of protective mask you wear, you end up inhaling a lot of debris that sets your mind on the lethality of carcinogens. Here's a view from the inside:

Doesn't it look like some type of torture device out of one of the Saw movies or something? It's really not that bad, but this picture makes it look ominous.

This afternoon I'm going to attempt my first run post-marathon. That should be an interesting experience; not only am I still a bit sore, but I hit my shin about as hard as I ever have on my coffee table yesterday. To me there is nothing more frustrating that hitting yourself on an inanimate object. Not only is there no apology, but you can't even yell at it or retaliate in anyway. It just sits there dumbly as you rage. Furthermore, if you do physically retaliate, you will either break the object or hurt yourself further (not that I would physically retaliate against an animate object mind you). It's really a no-win.

Oh, I thought of another past misheard lyrics. The original lyrics to the Cat Stevens' song:

Cause out on the edge of darkness,
there rides the peace train.
O peace train take this country,
come take me home again.

When I was little, I thought it was:

Cause out on the edge of darkness,
there rides the g-string.
O g-string take this country,
come take me home again.

So, wherever that song sings, "peace train," I heard "g-string." The funny thing is I didn't know what a g-string was and thought Cat Stevens was talking about the g-string on his guitar. So, I thought his guitar was going to take back this country, and it was the g-string that was "sounding louder" in the chorus.

In other news, I'm about to download the new Fleet Foxes album, "Helplessness Blues," with an iTunes gift card that my parents gave me for Easter. I'm looking forward to hearing it. Catch you on the flip side.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden, the Two-Party System, and Hand Washing

So, I've been a bit disturbed/confused by the reaction to Bin Laden's death. I realize that this is probably the logical outcome of a violent life - "live by the sword, die by the sword" - but that sword is double-edged and cuts both ways (if I can mix metaphors or use two metaphors). Also, it reminds me of that scene in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf and Frodo are sitting in the cave and talking about Smeagol, and they have the following exchange:

Frodo: It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him when he had the chance.
Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live served death; some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.

Now, I'm not saying that Bin Laden is like Smeagol (obviously Bin Laden is much more culpable), but I do think we shouldn't be "too eager to deal out death and judgment." I think some of the celebrations border on a bizarre type of bloodlust that certainly doesn't have a place in Christ's call to "love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you." I liked this article by a Jesuit priest James Martin entitled, "The Christian Response to Bin Laden's Death." I just think justice can never be served for 3,000 people senselessly dying, and it certainly won't happen by killing any one person. Revenge is a better word for it.

And then I was looking for a prayer for peace in the Book of Common Prayer and came upon this prayer for our enemies (already posted on facebook):

"O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

On a side note, I never understand the punctuation in the Book of Common Prayer.

Anyway, I've also been thinking about the whole two party system and why it seems to be failing in providing the US with real solutions to such complex problems. Jon Stewart had a great interview with Vermont independent senator Bernie Sanders that talked about this. Everyone seems to be in the pocket of someone, and any real solution seems to be thwarted by special/corporate/military interests of some type. It made me think about the possibility of voting third party in the next election, but I think my pragmatism outweighs my idealism. It reminds me of this Simpsons clip:

"Go ahead, throw your vote away!"

I look forward to the day in this country of ours when there will no longer be a need for "Employees Must Wash Hands" signs in restrooms because everyone will wash their hands no matter if they are working or not - employees, employers, patrons, everyone - and the clouds will part, and the Lord will descend, and God's kingdom will be here.

Well, one more group presentation tomorrow in the history and theology of the Covenant on human sexuality, and I will have officially finished all my seminary assignments! Let's do it. Later.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Thesis, Marathon, and White House Correspondents' Dinner

Well, first things first. I passed my thesis defense. The professors (Michelle, Phil, and Dr. Noren) set the tone nicely by processing into the conference room in full academic regalia (well, Phil wasn't wearing the shirt and bow tie), making me the first at NPTS to defend my thesis to an academically-robed faculty. Also, Dr. Noren began the proceedings with a prayer in Latin (I'm not joking!). Yet, even in the midst of these intimidation tactics (not really; it more lightened up the mood a bit), I was able to give coherent enough answers to pass (and sometimes during my answers I was wondering if anything I was saying was coherent or if it was just monosyllabic word salad with words like "theology," "liturgy," and "ethics" tossed somewhere in the mix.)!

Later that night, I drove down to Champaign-Urbana for the Illinois Marathon. Cooper Gillan and Greg Johnston were already down (they had picked up my bib and packet), and I met them at a slightly-seedy motel about 20 miles outside of Champaign. By the time we got to looking for a hotel, we realized we may be some of the last people to have begun this search at such a late date. So, while it wasn't the nicest place, it got the job done. I think I pulled in at around 9:30 after getting slightly lost, and we had the lights out by 10:30 because 5:15 comes early. So, the next morning we got ready, drove into town, found our parking spots, had half a bagel and coffee, and took our spots at the start line. Soon enough the race was on.

So, the first 13-14 miles, I was feeling great. It was a beautiful day, beautiful course, and I was thinking I just might win this thing (exaggeration, but I was thinking I could get a decent time). This equation: nice day + nice course + feeling good + adrenaline + competitive edge = starting much too fast on the first half. I told myself I wouldn't do it, but I did anyway. My 13.1 split was 1:51:41. Since my finish time ended up being 4:06:28, that would make my last half around 2 hours and 15 minutes. Yeah, at about mile 16 I felt myself hitting the wall, and I kept dying the rest of the race. If there are any pictures, the first 15 miles will look like I could conquer the world and the last 11 will look like I'm Atlas carrying the world on my shoulders and trying to simultaneously run. However, some of the highlights included:
-a run through a prairie grass park.
-lots of residential and neighborhood roads.
-4 gu stations handing out those packets of energy.
-the guy around mile 19 handing out cups of Miller Lite.
-the unnecessary but fun stadium finish.
-the last .5 miles ran into 40 mph headwind. Seriously, it was like Man (in my case) vs. Nature at the end.
-obviously the best part was being done and enjoying lunch with Greg and Cooper at a local bar and grill.
-I would post a picture, but we never took one. Why didn't we take any pictures?

So, then we headed back to the hotel that Greg and Cooper were staying at with the idea to shower and nap. I showered, but right when I lied down to take a nap, I got terrible heartburn (apparently I'm an 80 year-old man). Since I was without antacids, I decided to begin my voyage home without the nap (with a pit stop at the gas station for 7-up and Tums). I did end up pulling over a little over half-way there and getting some shut eye in the parking lot of a Howard Johnson. Then, Prairie Home Companion got me home (as it so often does!).

Today (Sunday) brought regular church responsibilities, but I felt pretty decent besides being slightly tight in the legs. At about 11:30, I did feel myself begin to fade, but I got through lunch before collapsing into a luxurious couch nap.

In other news, I enjoyed watching the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Seth Meyers' routine was great, and I thought Obama had great comic timing as well. Here's my favorite Obama delivery of the night where he sticks it to FoxNews:

I also enjoyed watching Donald Trump getting lampooned and being a big baby about it. I think one indicator of a person's character is if they can laugh at themselves and their foibles. He apparently cannot:

Okay, I'm going to watch some tv/netflix. Later!