Friday, May 31, 2013

Northland Life, Minnesota Recent Successes, and Running Inspiration

Well, it's been a wild time up in the Northland. I've been waiting for a background check for the last week to start working, so I'm basically reading/writing in between. I brought up seven "fun" books to read during the summer, and I finished the last one a few days ago. I've also sent in a few papers I needed to finish and am not up to the blue hymnal in my neverending quest to index Covenant hymnals (which is a lot like the Neverending Story without the big flying horse/dog puppet and me screaming, "ARTAX!!" and more mind-numbing work with an excel spreadsheet). The weather hasn't been super cooperative, but I did have a wonderful run along Lake Superior on Saturday. It really is the best lake in the world.

I also have been attending First Lutheran in Duluth, and this past week I found out that the pastor, April Ulring Larson, was the first woman bishop in any Lutheran denomination within the United States. Further, she is friends with Gordon Lathrop, who is one of the liturgical studies big-wigs. So, it was an interesting Sunday!

Last week I also decided to take a trip down to the Twin Cities on the spur of the moment. I stayed with Jess, Isaac, and Daphne for a few days and caught up with them, which was obviously wonderful. Here's a pic of some uncle/niece bonding.

I also got to have lunch with the incomparable Leah Gunderson, who judges if our outing was successful by if I blog about it; so, yes, it was great!

Whenever I get hiccups that last more than five minutes, I think back to that ER episode where a man goes into the ER with hiccups that have lasted for some incredibly long period of time. It turns out he had AIDS. I'm not even close to a hypochondriac, but that always comes to mind during extended hiccuping. It almost makes me want to stop reaching into the sharps container in hospital exam rooms.

Why can't a blanket and sheets ever end at an even point just below chin level? I swear I have a sheet that reaches to my hairline and a blanket that barely reaches up to my waist. Even after lengthy reformatting, it never seems to line up. It's a lot like life that way. That'll preach (joke).

Don't look know, but the Twins have won four in a row! Granted they were all against a team from Wisconsin, so I think that counts as 2 wins. In other good Minnesota news, Michele Bachmann has decided to retire. I'm glad she will no longer be the face of Minnesota politics - wishing Elvis happy birthday on the day he died, thinking John Wayne was from her birthplace of Waterloo when it was the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, lauding the shot heard round the world in Concord, New Hampshire instead of Concord, Mass. While few if any of her bills became law, she did get to sponsor one of the house's 6.02 x 10^23 attempts to repeal Obamacare. I think she represents the problems with the Tea Party/right-right-wing of the Republican party (which is unfortunately becoming mainstream Republican): high on rhetoric, low on facts/results. Anyway, stepping down from my soapbox atop a high horse...

I should go for a run right now, but I'm thinking a viewing of Harry Potter 7.1 is in order to help me gear up emotionally for the run. Then, the run will be less this:

and more this:

I mean, without the Snatchers getting me at the end or my friend sending a swelling curse at my face (I'm obviously putting myself in Harry's shoes). Okay, I spent way too much time looking for those clips. Happy Friday!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Books People in the Church Should Read

So, if you know me, you know I like top-10/100/1000 lists. If I accidentally turn on VH1 and they are showing "Top 100 Heavy Metal Songs" or "Top 100 Music Videos" I am instantly hooked. This can be a problem if you come in at #93 and still have 4 1/2 hours of programming left. Yet, I've endured it before, and I'll probably endure it again. You may have noticed that my blogs often take the form of lists of one type or another. Recently came across an article in Relevant magazine about the ten books everyone should read by 25-ish. I whole-heartedly agreed with Gilead and Let Your Life Speak, but more importantly the list got me thinking about what my top 10 list would be for Christian non-fiction (I think I'm going to do a fiction list later) in no particular order. So here are the books I think every Christian should read by 25 or 30 or whenever they get around to it.

10. The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom. For a greater part of my middle school and early high school years, I went through a phase of reading books that focused almost exclusively on the Holocaust (which my brother still points out as being weird). Without a doubt, the book that has impacted me the most during this period was The Hiding Place. In it, Dutch Christian Corrie Ten Boom tells of her family's role in hiding Jews from the Nazis during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. When they are discovered the Jews hiding in their house are miraculously able to escape, but Corrie and Betsy, her sister, are taken to a concentration camp. The story is one of courage, perseverance, and an incredible faith that believes in the power of love and reconciliation even in the most evil of places. One quote that has stuck with me throughout the years (I try to keep from quoting it every sermon; so it ends up being in about one of three) is what Betsy says to Corrie as she lay sick in the camp. She looked at both the other inmates and the guards within the camp, and exhorted Corrie, "Tell them there is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still." That, to me, is the pinnacle of good news and should be the message that Christians proclaim to the world.

9. Blue Like Jazz - Donald Miller. Yeah, I know this is so cliche to have on my list, but it's true. Donald Miller, like the Anne Lamott memoirs I would later read (Traveling Mercies, Plan B, etc.), was the first person I read that spoke honestly about many of their struggles and doubts about Christianity, specifically evangelical Christianity. The story is basically Miller's journey of losing faith and finding faith again, albeit a very different faith. In the process, he reflects on sin, grace, doubt, love, the culture wars, and many of the other things young evangelicals were struggling with but perhaps not getting the straight answers they were looking for in church. One of the highlights is definitely his story about the confessional booth he and his friends set up during a drug-addled festival at a very progressive liberal arts college. Instead of people coming in and confessing their sins (you know, like we think of a confessional booth), the role was reversed and the confessor confessed the sins of the Church and Christianity. While now the story has gotten plenty of airtime almost to the point of being cliche, at the time it was pretty amazing. This was definitely one of those books that first said what many in my generation had been thinking, which is why it was so hugely popular.

8. The Cloister Walk - Kathleen Norris. I mean, I think all of Kathleen Norris is pretty brilliant, but I believe this is the first one I read. The Cloister Walk is another spiritual memoir of sorts describing what Norris learned during her time at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN as a Benedictine oblate (lay monk/nun). Not only is her description of the liturgy of the hours and monastic life beautiful, it helps combat the Protestant stereotype (Norris herself is a Protestant) that characterizes Catholicism and the liturgy as lifeless or mere ritual. As someone who grew up with very little of the historic liturgical traditions of the church, this helped me reevaluate many of the assumptions I had about tradition and liturgy and discover the deep theological and spiritual insights that the liturgical tradition holds. I seem to especially remember her discussion of the difficult Psalms of lament and violence and her defense of the vow of chastity for monks and nuns. If you have never been exposed to the traditions of the Catholic church, this is a great place to start.

7. On Christian Doctrine - St. Augustine. So, everyone always raves about Augustine's Confessions: first spiritual autobiography, blah, blah, blah. I never could understand why he felt so bad about taking a few pears. For my money, On Christian Doctrine (OCD - perfect) is a better book. Basically, Augustine talks about how Christians should interpret scripture, but I love his discussion of love, especially in the first book. He talks about how all the streams of our loves - friends, spouses, neighbors - should be found in the greater river of our love for God. We should love others towards and through our love for God. One of my other favorite images St. Augustine uses is his description of God binding our wounds with "beautiful bandages;" even our wounds can be made beautiful through the work of God. Finally, I absolutely love this quote on the potential misinterpretation of scripture: "Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads." I mean, he's Augustine; you should read him...granted, not for his view on women and original sin.

6. Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church - Laurence Hull Stookey. How can you resist this beautiful cover? I don't know what graphic artist thought that listing the word calendar a thousand times would make for a good cover, but don't judge a book by its cover, right? Stookey's Calendar is a wonderful description of the liturgical year and why we as Christians should follow the liturgical calendar. How we keep time reveals much about our priorities in life. As Christians, Stookey argues, the liturgical calendar helps us keep time in a distinct way that speaks to our particular Christian story - past, present, and future. Stookey also gives a good introduction to each of the Christian seasons (Advent, Lent, Easter, Christmas, etc.), what we are celebrating, why we should celebrate them, and how best to celebrate them in the Church. Over the past five years, the celebration of the Church Year has been one of the most fruitful spiritual practices for me, and I think Stookey gives the best overview of why all Christians should keep the distinct time of the liturgical year. Spoiler alert: Easter's the most important!

5. Anything by Howard Thurman - In my last semester at North Park, I (along with several of my favorite people) took Feminist Practical Theology with the venerable Dr. Phillis Sheppard. The last day of class we (all in our last year, I believe) were discussing the future and what we needed to know as pastors. One of my classmates asked Phillis, "What books do you think all pastors should read?" After naming a couple books I no longer remember, she said, "Oh, and everyone should have Howard Thurman on their shelves." Having never heard of Howard Thurman, I was intrigued and decided to pick up a book the next time I was out. When I did, I quickly found out that he is the man. He was pastor of the first intentionally integrated, multiethnic churches in San Francisco in 1944; he was a prolific writer and educator; and (which I did not know until I got to BU) in 1958 he became the first African-American Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. What I most connect to in his writings are his often short meditations that seem to cut to the heart of faith and life. For instance, one of my favorite quotes (great for Advent): “[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 guide 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.”

4. Liberation/Black/Feminist/Womanist Theology - I list these groups together not to glibly equate all of these varied movements as one; they are not. Each has its unique voice that is often very different from the other. Rather, I list them together because all the books that I have read from these different areas have worked commonly against many of the preconceived notions I held as a white man in the majority culture and have allowed me a greater vision of the God who sides with the marginalized and calls Christians to do the same. Some of the most important for me have been: Justo Gonzalez's Manana, James Cone's God of the Oppressed, Phyllis Trible's Texts of Terror, Renita Weems' Battered Love, Monica Coleman's Making a Way Out of No Way, and Marjorie Procter Smith's In Her Own Rite.

3. The Prophetic Imagination - Walter Brueggemann. Okay, I just finished this book last week after being recommended it many times (most notably by Aaron Johnson and Dominique Gilliard), so after all of my school reading was completed this semester, Bruegge's book (we're on a nickname basis) was first on the list. Boy, was it worth it. Basically, Brueggemann's argument is that most in our world/church have given in to either the numbness or despair of a world that does not allow people to draw on their past or look forward to a hopeful future. What we need, he asserts, its prophets that will confront our numbness by criticizing the dominant culture or empire and allow people go truly grieve/lament. Further, for those who despair, prophets energize people by giving them a vision of hope that the world can be different and our futures are not in the hands of the empire. Thus, the church needs leaders who are not numb or despairing, but those who are energized by the Holy Spirit to name and criticize the powers that numb us and imagine the immense possibilities of the church and world.

2. Improvisation - Sam Wells. This is perhaps the most influential book I read during seminary. In it, Wells discusses how the Christian ethical life is not about following a bunch of rules but about improvising within the story of God. Riffing off of N.T. Wright's concept of God's story as a five act play, Wells argues that we live in Act 4 of God's five act play (Act 1- Creation, Act 2- Israel, Act 3-Jesus, Act 4- the Church, Act 5- the Eschaton). Our role as Christians is to live in continuity with the previous acts in light of the future act we have been promised, improvising in the in-between time we find ourselves in. While he uses more acting metaphors, I find the musical metaphor more helpful. If a jazz musician is going to be successful, he or she must know the chord structure backwards and forwards in order to improvise well (continuity). This is continuity. Yet, a jazz musician cannot simply play the same melody over and over again. Even if this is the safer option, it is not improvisation; it is living in fear of a potential mistake. Thus, we as the church must improvise our present ethical lives together in continuity with our past and in line with our promised eschatological future.

1. The Covenant Hymnal - I can almost hear the collective eye roll with this pick, but I'm not going to back down. Over the past five years, it has been the texts of the hymnal that have spoken to me most and helped shape my spiritual/vocational life. The hymnal is this wonderful repository of God's story in the lives of thousands of people across generations and cultures, singing of God's grace, faithfulness, and love. What better calms the spirit during times of anxiety than the assurance, "Be still my soul: the Lord is on thy side" (#455; take the world, but give me the "Assurance in Doubt" and Comfort in Loss" section in the mid-400s)? What better describes our future hope than being "no more a stranger, nor a guest, but like a child at home" (#91, st. 3)? What distills the problems of our consumer culture better than the claim that it is "rich in things and poor in soul" (#608, st. 3)? Further, it has the boldness to say things that would probably get many in trouble from the pulpit. For instance, I love the fact that Fred Kaan's "For the Healing of the Nations" can proclaim, "All that kills abundant living, let it from the earth be banned." That's a sermon in a sentence. I think congregations and individual Christians are bereft of a living tradition when they reject the hymns, spirituals, and songs of previous generations.

So, that's my list - at least today. Are there any you would add?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Thoughts on Duluth

Today I went to a church service I neither planned nor in which I had to participate in, and I have to say it was pretty great. I knew I was in the right place (It was First Lutheran (ELCA) in Duluth) when most of the congregation was decked out in red for Pentecost. Nothing gets me quite like liturgically-appropriate dress.

If you weren't a little teary-eyed during the finale of The Office, I question whether your body is in fact bearing a soul and not just an animate and empty shadow. Also, if you are one of those people raising hell about Benghazi (besides the fact that a recent poll showed that people who thought it was the biggest American political scandal couldn't identify what country it was in) who didn't seem to mind the fact that an entire war costing hundreds of thousands of lives was started under completely false pretenses, I question either your integrity or soundness of mine. Finally, if you think Oblivion looks like a good movie, you're wrong. Oblivion should refer only to the final destination of the film. The first five minutes were like a satire of bad movie dialogue.

Things I have thought since getting back to Duluth:

1. I really need to change my driving habits. Driving like a Bostonian or Chicagoan for a month and a half in Duluth could be a very expensive habit - like a daily-coke-and-Cristal-habit expensive.

2. I forgot how foggy it gets here. The other day I woke up and thought there was a fire nearby.

3. The look is one part flannel, one part middle-aged, and one part anything to keep warm. That's pretty much consistent across gender lines.

4. I swear there's a new restaurant/microbrewery/art gallery downtown every time I come back. Keep it up!

5. Why can I only buy Top the Tater in Minnesota, and why is it so dang good? Along with Dylan, Garrison Keillor, hotdishes, and the Boundary Waters, it is one of Minnesota's gifts to humankind.

6. Yup, the accent is alive and well.

7. Northern Minnesota proms are the best. Besides the usual scene of teens looking uncomfortable in formalwear, one can see tuxes paired with a fleece pullover and choppers and prom dresses under Columbia jackets. It's that one part anything to keep warm I was talking about earlier.

8. There is still no way to drive 30 mph on Central Entrance. Ever.

9. Seeing Lake Superior from the hill has the power to change your entire mood for the day. So beautiful.

In other news, Yahoo! bought Tumblr? If Hotmail purchases Instagram and Juno buys Twitter, things could get interesting.

Okay, I need to run some errands. Later.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Homeward Bound

I am currently sitting in the basement of the Harju residence is Duluth, Minnesota exactly a week after I departed on my cross-country (at least half of it) trek from Boston. First, I headed to Rochester, NY where I reunited with my Mason City friends Paul and LeAnn Nelson and their kids/grandkids. It was great to be able to catch up after almost four years. I stayed Friday-Sunday, leaving Sunday after their church service. My next stop was Jamestown, NY where I caught up with my long-time friends and neighbors Sarah and TK Johnson, their son Sawyer, and their sweet new(ish) daughter, Hazel! In keeping with our customs, we headed to Southern Tier Brewing Company for some beer and pizza. It was great to catch up, even if it ended with a sick kid (more on that to come!). The actual tasting room is gorgeous:

At about 5:30, I left Jamestown and rolled into Chicago around 12:45 to crash on my brother's floor. I woke up at 10:15 and decided I just wanted to make it home, so I ate a quick solo breakfast at Tre Kronor (sorry everyone I didn't call!) and headed out. I got into Duluth at about 6ish, unpacked at the Harjus, and went down to the Brewhouse to celebrate my homecoming. Because my niece Paisley was getting over the flu, I didn't get to meet her until the following day. Anna recorded the meeting for posterity's sake:

She was way more into the Twins game then her deadbeat uncle. So, everything was going great, and then last night at about midnight I started to feel a little under the weather. I took my cure-all Alka-Seltzer and started to think I was feeling better. Au contraire, mon amie. At 2 I woke up, and the flu was on. I'll spare you the graphic details, but I think it's the worst I've ever felt from the flu. I thought about jotting down a last will and testament just to be on the safe side. From about 2-6  I was in pretty rough shape, and I've spent the rest of the day sipping ginger ale, napping, and watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. So, the homecoming has been somewhat dampened, but I think I'll be back on my feet by Sunday. 

I realize it's been quite a while since my last post, and more has happened that can be recorded in a blog post that anyone would have the endurance to read, so I'm going to hit on the highlights of the last few months:

1. This semester was perhaps my most academically challenging so far. Having three 30-page papers due at the end of it kept me on my toes, but all's well that ends well, and the semester did indeed end well. It's crazy to think that I only have one more year in Boston!

2. I got to spend a fun birthday in Chicago, even if I almost didn't make it out of the airport (snowstorm combined with a dead battery; I didn't know planes' batteries could die. I was waiting for AAA to come or a plane to pull up next to us with really long jumper cables). One of the most surprising birthday presents came from my sister, Jessica. She had meant to send me the following artwork:

It's a really great picture of Canal Park, which is where Duluthians spend a lot of their free time and where we all worked during high school/college. Instead, she accidentally sent me the following image:

Yep. Instead of sending me a picture of Duluth she not only sent me a picture of Wisconsin, but GREEN BAY! I was on the phone with her when I opened it up, and I think the conversation went something like:
Dave: (stunned silence)
Jess: What do you think?
Dave: Well, if it's what you wanted to send me, I'm not sure what to think.
Jess: What?
Dave: You sent me a picture entitled "Green Bay on a Sunday Afternoon!"

It almost ruined my birthday, but after hiding it in an appropriately dark and damp place, I was able to overcome the trauma.

3. I decided to spend my summer in Duluth and Chicago! I need a good dose of the Midwest, so I am spending May and June in Duluth substitute teaching and July in Chicago writing. So, I would like everyone to open their calendars and let me know when and where we are going to be hanging out. My favorite places in Duluth are the Brewhouse, Canal Park, and the North Shore. My favorite places in Chicago are rooftop restaurants, Ravinia, and karaoke bars. So, get busy. 

4. I'm also very excited to be taking an independent study on Covenant worship and hymnody from the one and only Phil Anderson, so hopefully I will get up to the cabin soon and begin that. I've already started indexing the Covenant hymnals, which I'm sure makes many of you swoon with desire or rage in jealousy.

Well, I can't look at the screen anymore. So, I'm out. Later.