Thursday, December 22, 2011


Many preachers are confronted with a kind of awe at the great texts of Christmas and Easter, saying to ourselves, "What more can I say about so profound a story?" For a number of years my response to this has been to attempt a Christmas sermon in verse. I offer this one as my blog Christmas card.

Now Advent winds are bringing in the cold of winter,
and scattered stars glow with a chill and distant light.
The road to Bethlehem is getting ever darker –
and darker still before we come to Christmas Night.

Imagine, then, young Mary and her steadfast Joseph;
with little donkey clopping out a lonesome song,
she nods to dream, the child stirs, and she remembers
the message of an angel, now it seems so long

ago –  to her, and to the people of the promise.                                              
Her people have been waiting for these thousand years,
and she – for these nine months in which all time is folded –
has held all love: The answer to all hopes and fears.

Joseph’s hope, for now, is just to find that small inn,
a welcome place he’s heard of on the edge of town.
She’s tired and she’s cold – and soon they’ll be a family!
He’ll tell them, “Please, a bed so Mary can lie down….”

We, too, would add our voices after Joseph’s pleading,
“This is God’s mother – surely you can find a bed!”
But, no, God’s family comes this night in rags and tatters;
they’re lucky, after all, to get this straw instead.

And down through all the ages are so many searching,
like this poor young couple, as they seek to find
shelter, food, and friendship – and a new beginning:
A light ahead, the sad and weary road behind.

And even in our day of marvels, comfort, plenty;
chance can find a man, like that one you saw
homeless in the darkness as the winter gathers.
He, too, would welcome happily a bed of straw.

In Africa a mother’s life is much like Mary’s:
Gathering wood and water to get through each day.
Her Joseph on the road seeking work or barter,
as satellites spin on their high and starry way.

Our brothers in Colombia still live with danger –
like Israel’s people living in the grip of Rome.
This world, though history’s pages tell of many changes,
is still the world where Jesus’ family made their home.

The people in the darkness long to see that great light
promised long ago. So where is God to be
found? How will he save the people from their sorrow?
Will He work a wonder? Or is it that he

himself will be the miracle: God born among us,
not in golden wealth, but in that family –
Remember? – We were following them? They found a stable --
Look, there in that manger, could it… could it be…

A baby! Look! Here come a band of curious shepherds;
this is what the angel told them they would see.
This is why the heavens opened wide with glory
The savior of the nations is… a poor baby!

Rejoicing all around from these rowdy shepherds!
They tell their news to Mary, her eyes glow with tears.
In her heart she ponders all these words, and wonders
what life will bring their precious child down the years.

And, pondering, remembers her own angel’s message –
So filled with joy, and yet there was a shadow, too.
A son of mine?  To be the savior of the people?
Too much! But let it be: he’ll do what God must do.

And Joseph of the true heart will adopt this baby;
for love of Mary he will dearly love their child.
“Emmanuel” “God With Us” – Names the angel gave him –
but papa now must guard him in a world so wild.

Now see! Those cold and distant stars begin to gather
into a band of light and they bow to one:
One star among them shines a beam of love’s own brightness
upon the little scene: The birth of God’s own son!

And you, who like the shepherds, now have heard the good news,
like them you’ve heard what Heaven’s angels had to say,
now join your voice to theirs: shepherds, stars, and angels,
And sing that Jesus Christ the Lord is born today!

References to Africa and Colombia are a recognition of our congregation's companion churches in those places.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


My friend Warren and I have a running Scrabble game going – on our iPhones. He’s in Texas, I’m in Minnesota. On a lazy Saturday we might finish a game in less than an hour; more often a game stretches out for a day-and-a-half or so, with intermittent play wound into our routines.  The chat feature allows us to stitch our moves together with conversation and wise cracks – keeping in touch (which is actually the richest part of the whole deal).

Although it’s fun to discover that it’s “my turn” while idling fifteen minutes in the dentist’s waiting room, the most enjoyable experience of the game is the afore-mentioned Saturday morning with a cup of coffee, or around 5:00 – happy hour – with a glass of wine, not playing on the fly but replying back and forth with moves – and chat – in real (if occasionally interrupted) time.

This happy hour experience has made me realize that – beyond the fun of playing a game and the novelty of doing it electronically – what we are actually engaging in is the rapidly developing philosopho-science of virtual reality. Even though our Scrabble exchange is a rather minor and low-key expression of VR, I have a sense that something, well, virtually real is happening, and it is one small part of a significant alteration in human interaction and relationship that is not only technological but ontological. And it may not be an alteration at all, but more like a movement along a continuum.

What is virtually real is not just the click and clack of the game tiles, but the fellowship – yes, the emotional feeling – of the experience. If the standard of reality in this case is sitting in front of the fire, my friend across the table with a game board between us, a glass of wine in front of each of us, and the hum of chit-chat and the occasional bon mot passing back and forth, this virtual game offers about, say, 70% of that. So of course I’m not equating iPhone Scrabble with being in the presence of my friend, but, hey!, 70%!

I’m quite serious about this. I’m a quintessential “people person;” in the beginning stages of my entry into the world of computing (and iThings) I would have laughed if anyone had suggested that any of these applications would have the slightest resemblance to essential human interaction. But I’m experiencing it. And –  (the continuum) – what will this be like in 2061 when my friend’s image will come from the internet in my eyeball, we’ll chuckle in real time at one another’s wise cracks, and raise a glass to toast the beginning of a game, smiling eye-implant to eye-implant.

The more profound continuum – and the inspiration for this little essay – is provided by the cosmological theory of the multiverse. Proponents of this theory postulate that there could be an infinite number of universes, and, if that is the case, advanced civilizations have long ago developed the art of constructing simulated universes, which means, according to one application of the theory, that it is most likely that we are living in one of these fake universes – a virtual world created on some kind of non-digital super-computer.1  This puts a new twist on wondering how “real” the entire experience of playing virtual Scrabble is.

Physicists – even those who propose it – acknowledge that it’s difficult to tell if the idea of the multiverse is physics or philosophy (since it is scientifically un-testable).2 My virtual Scrabble game with my friend certainly lacks the physical, but, philosophically, it works. In the context of all that our friendship has to offer, it’s not good enough. But it’s pretty good.

1. For a mind-boggling, but accessible, discussion of the implications of the multiverse, see, "Cosmic Jackpot," by physicist Paul Davies.

2. There's a good introduction to the multiverse and string theory on the recent PBS "Nova" series, "The Fabric of the Cosmos," with physicist Brian Greene.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


"After every sermon the preacher should fall on his knees and ask God to forgive him for what he's just done." ~Martin Luther

Although I believe in legitimate accountability (church council, etc.), I long ago quit looking nervously over my shoulder and came to the conclusion that if I feel OK about what I’m doing, I am not so concerned about what Mrs. McGillicuddy thinks.  Another way to put that is to say that I am my own best (or worst) critic (with, I repeat, the added seasoning of accountability).

As such – although I actually do feel pretty good about the work I do in this calling – I have a litany of shortcomings that would probably be longer than any list that my worst enemy could come up with.

Another time, perhaps, I’ll go after myself about missed hospital calls, repetitive stewardship sermons, or failed attempts to ignite a passion for the faith in a fourteen-year-old confirmation student. Today my confession is that, over the course of thirty-five years of ministry, I have not done enough reading.

I want you, friend, to understand that I am, in fact, a reader. But my reading is exhibit A of the proof of the old adage: “That which is urgent but not important drives out that which is important but not urgent.” And of course I use “urgent” somewhat loosely. For good or ill, reading and study take a second place to staff meetings, council meetings, writing newsletter articles, pastoral counseling, teaching confirmation, hospital calling, emergency visits, etc. All of which I readily accept as part of the job description of my call, some of which are urgent, all of which are important, but none of which are more important than regular reading and study.

I cast this as a “confession” because it’s my own fault. I’m not blaming my parish or its people. (Not even Mrs. McGillicuddy.) Years ago, through the example of an enlightened mentor, I was freed from any sense of guilt about letting people know that I was “wasting time” reading a book.  The object of my confession is a combination of a haphazard discipline of my time and the actual busy-ness of the calling.

Four categories of reading come to mind as being essential to what I do:
  • The general reading required of anyone who seeks to be a literate and informed citizen: newspapers, various magazines, book reviews, etc. (Who was it that said, “The preacher should prepare a sermon with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other?”)
  • The artful and literary writing of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry – both the recognized “classics” and the new stuff. One of my homiletical heroes, the Scottish preacher James S. Stewart, of the 1940s-60s, laced his engaging sermons with references to Shakespeare and to other poets and writers of both ancient and modern times.  (This raises another issue: The reading of the person in the pew. I know that I hark back, perhaps in vain, to a time when to be educated meant that one would be acquainted with the Bible and with Shakespeare.)
  • Regular engagement with theological writing (again, both ancient and modern) and professional journals in the fields of theology and practical ministry.
  • The Bible. I agree with a colleague of mine who once said, “I can’t preach on this text until I discover how it changes me.” This means – no matter how many times I’ve read it before – reading and re-reading this book that is the basis of much of our civilization and our understanding of the world. From a standpoint of faith, I belong to a community that considers it to be “the word of God,” not as some kind of magical tome, but as a record of God’s covenantal and reconciled relationship with us. Faith, the Apostle Paul says, is a gift of the the Holy Spirit; it is the Spirit and the Word(s) that bring the message of this book alive, again and again.
Our ivory tower seminary professors suggest twenty hours a week be devoted to reading and study for the weekly sermon. But my “ivory tower” chide isn’t fair – I agree with the professors. It is a goal that is in keeping with what I am called to do as a “minister of word and sacrament.”  OK, some weeks it may dip to fifteen… or ten, but I’m going to keep trying. Regular reading is what allows the preacher, when invited to preach, to use that old saw, “I’ve been preparing for this all my life.”

Saturday, October 8, 2011


I will be among those ordering a book of the poetry of the recently-announced winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Swedish poet Thomas Transtromer. In the meantime, the announcement brings to mind another small-country (and, in his case, back country) writer, R.S. Thomas, the Welsh priest and poet who died in 2000, and who was nominated four times for the Nobel Prize. 

Nobel or not, I agree with those who say that Thomas’ place in history will match that of John Donne or George Herbert. That is to say, he will be ranked among the greatest of religious poets. (Although for Thomas, “religious” has as much to do with doubt as with faith.)

Here are three by R.S. Thomas

The Empty Church

They laid this stone trap
for him, enticing him with candles,
as though he would come like some huge moth
out of the darkness to beat there.
Ah, he had burned himself
before in the human flame
and escaped, leaving the reason
torn. He will not come any more
to our lure. Why, then, do I kneel still
striking my prayers on a stone
heart? Is it in hope one
of them will ignite yet and throw
on its illumined walls the shadow
of someone greater than I can understand?

Near and Far

No one so busy
as you are. Where is that
seventh day when you rest
from your labour? I arise
from sleep to find that
you have been all night growing.
And by day you are abroad
endlessly exploring a circumference
by which you are not confined.
You have no words yet vibrate
in me with the resonance of an Amen.
You are strung with light
as with nerves across which
thought is drawn to deliver
intellectual music. Sometimes
you are an impulse upon my walls,
at others a modifying
of unseen organisms, slowly
and delicately as a mutation;
but always as far off
as you are near, terrifying
me as much by your proximity
as by your being light-years away.

A Marriage

We met
under a shower
of bird-notes.
Fifty years passed,
love's moment
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
`Come,' said death,
choosing her as his
partner for
the last dance, and she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird's grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather. 
More about R.S. Thomas here and here.

Friday, September 30, 2011


This town is so lonely it’ll make you old before your time;
Let me take you in my arms, hold your body close to mine…
                                                                                             ~Ian Tyson

Every year at this season it comes over me: the hermit thing. The urge to take a stack of books and notebooks and my laptop and head off to the cabin for a week alone—to study for a season’s worth of sermons or work on a piece of curriculum or write that baptism book for parents.

I have, in fact done this every year or two, and the drill is always the same: After a nine hour drive across the plains and badlands, the Black Hills rise and then disappear in the twilight. The road winds steadily up and into the Hills until, at over a mile high, I arrive at the cabin just after dark. If I’m lucky there’s a fresh snowfall to light my way to the porch steps. I unlock the door, drop my suitcase on the floor, get a fire going in the twenty degree cabin, then finish unloading the car (under stars that shimmer “like salt on black velvet”). I unpack my suitcase, set out my laptop, and continue to build up the fire. Thirty degrees. I busy myself cutting some bread and cheese, and uncork a bottle of wine. Forty degrees. It is quiet. There is no TV or radio or internet or CD player. The cabin is surrounded by the darkness and miles of the Black Hills National Forest, and the walls are made of logs twelve inches in diameter. Quiet. At about sixty degrees I sit in front of the fire with the bread and cheese and wine. I take a sip and it hits me: “This is kind of lonesome.”  I’ve enjoyed my hermitage for about forty-five minutes, and I have six days and nights ahead of me.

There are three troublesome things about my isolated scenario: One is that I am an extrovert. Not the wacky Krusty the Klown extrovert of my youth – I’m sliding closer to the midline every year – but I’m still defined by that Myers-Briggs truism that an extrovert is “energized by being with people.”  The second problem is that I’m madly in love with my wife, and I just left her behind for a week – in fact made deliberate plans for what I kept claiming was going to be a “great week – really productive!” And now I’m here at sixty degrees (with a forty-five degree bedroom waiting for me) while she’s at home watching Glee. And here’s the thing – she’s happily watching Glee. Oh, she loves and misses me, but she is – as an introvert – conveniently energized by being alone! (I need to keep insisting that she “misses” me, because when I come home she persists in telling me how nice her week was. She especially delights in reporting, “When I got out of bed, all I had to do was pull up the spread, and it was made!”)

The third problem is that the Sage Creek Grill, one of the best restaurants in the Black Hills, is (what I quickly come to think of as “only”) ten miles away, in Custer. It’s too late to go tonight, I suppose, but something to look forward to tomorrow – after I get a few pages of reading and writing done, of course. (One year I bought fifty dollars worth of groceries to take out to the cabin for my solitary meals. But the lure of the Sage was such that at the end of the week I dropped the groceries off at my sister’s in Rapid City on my way back east.)

But the morning dawns cerulean blue and snappingly cold. The cabin is now cozy warm, and those twelve inch logs will keep it that way with the occasional tending of the fire. (The same logs whose thickness made my bedroom so quiet that in the middle of the night I got up, rummaged around, and turned on a fan – for the noise.) I bundle up to sit on my favorite porch chair with a cup of coffee, devotions, and visible breath. Quick cup of coffee and quick devotions because it is cold.

Back inside, I open the laptop on my specially-built-out-of-lumber-scraps custom laptop desk. I lean back in the chair, do that  backwards entwined finger-stretching-knuckle-cracking thing, stare at the screen, then notice my watch, recalling that the Sage Creek opens for lunch at 11:00. Time for a shower, then twenty minutes to town, lunch with any of my area friends or relatives I can coax into joining me (if I'm lucky, this will be a laughter-filled "hour" that stretches into the afternoon), twenty minutes back, and, to work….

(Let me pause here to report that I actually have accomplished much sermon-planning, curriculum-writing, and, yes, finished that baptism book using this routine. The reader will be excused for wondering how.)

I started these fanciful forays into creative loneliness when Caryl was teaching, and we were usually unable to coordinate her schedule with my Study Leave calendar. (Yes – Study Leave! My Mom once said, “I don’t care what you call it, it’s still vacation.” My Mom!!!) But now Caryl is retired, and she’ll go with me this year.  I love it, but it’s actually a trade-off: On the plus side, no lonely nights with cheese and crackers; but then, whenever she sees me leaning back and eying my watch she gets to say, “How’s that sermon coming?”

The extrovert in me will be pleased with the company; the introvert in her will be fed by the quietness of the cabin. We'll go to the Sage Creek once or twice.

And it will only take a little bit longer to make the bed.

Monday, September 19, 2011


I’ve always thought of myself as clinically happy. Despite the glibness of that phrase, I mean it quite literally: Whatever the chemical wash is that douses the brain in depression or cheer, I got the happy stuff. When knocked down, I get up. When disappointed, I’m OK after five minutes. But recently I had a one-two punch that knocked me back for more than a few minutes – enough to give me a sense, however limited, of what people who suffer actual depression might experience.

I want to pause here and explain that I’m just fine; those who love me (thank you) need not wonder what veiled sorrow I’m hiding. In fact, the purpose of this post is not about my temporarily depressive burden, but about the fairly simple way it was lifted.

Although I’m more than willing to describe the various items that were weighing me down, I won’t do it here, not because I’m trying to hide them, but because they would cause anyone with real problems to respond, “Oh, boo hoo!”

Part of it was quantitative. To borrow a description that I once heard my friend Jeff use: “I don’t have a full plate – I have a Lazy Susan spinning in front of me!” It was a number of things coming together in what was a busy season to begin with – kind of like that “Stress Scale” that you’ve probably seen:  The Christmas season, 12 stress points; a new baby, 39 stress points; moving to a new home, 20 points, etc.

The only thing that I’ll mention specifically is the tax audit, because that’s what seemed to affect me out of all proportion. It was like throwing a large ham onto the spinning Lazy Susan – a sort of crash. (It was a routine and not a “targeted” audit.) But all of this is just set-up to what inspired this little essay: the "take-away."

My take-away from this episode (or episodes), which are now mainly behind me, is the therapeutic value of having someone to talk to. I’ve known of this concept all my life; I’ve preached about it; I’ve taught it; I’ve written about it in this blog, and it’s not that I’ve never applied it to myself before, but, at least professionally, I’m more often playing the role of the listener. But every once in a while I rediscover the healing benefits of talking to someone about what’s on my mind.

In the case of the spinning plate of cares, I benefited from talking to different people about different things – sometimes I did so purposefully; in one instance I connected somewhat accidentally with someone with whom I had a helpful conversation. The most surprising revelation was how much better I felt after I talked to the tax auditor. The content of our conversation was not all that positive (the audit, in fact, did not go well for me), but it seemed as though the combined psychological and physiological elements of talking with another person had a biochemical effect on my brain and my body. Endorphins? Ions? It’s like taking a shower after a grueling racquetball game – even in defeat. The shower washes away the defeat along with the grime, and, post-shower, all the world seems new. I felt a bit like the young man who once told me, after a counseling session, “I think ya done me some good!”

An obvious element of the dynamics of this is that – especially with something like an audit – the mind can work mischief, so the value of talking is not only psychological, but also factual: One’s imaginings may be worse than the real story – so better get the straight scoop.

A woman once approached me to unburden herself of something that had been bothering her for six weeks -- something she had said to me the last time we talked. I didn’t want to seem unconcerned, but I had to tell her honestly that I had forgotten it about ten seconds after she’d left my office. So I’m glad she carried that load for only six weeks and not six years. Talk it out.

Perhaps a word about the nature of my audit conversation is in order: I found the auditor’s office in a nondescript building on the outskirts of a nearby city. I’m glad that I had decided ahead of time not to try to be funny or smart, because when I walked in, sitting behind a gray steel desk was Agent No-Nonsense. She reminded me of Mrs. Narsgaard, the Sunday School superintendent who took over our sixth grade class when we literally ran our teacher out of the room. We straightened right up. And so did I, on the other side of the audit desk. I don’t mean this mockingly. I came to love Mrs. Narsgaard (she was actually my Mom’s best friend), and I liked the straightforwardness of the agent. I can only imagine the number of times that woebegone clients, sitting in the same chair I was in, succumbed to fear, trembling, and tears. Although she was, in one way, as steely as her desk, something in her manner convinced me that she would treat them fairly and gently.

I shed no tears, but she was kind, firm, and (unfortunately) thorough. I felt as though I’d been heard, and a load was lifted. Later, in a follow-up conversation, she actually said something very much like, “Now, I hope this has been a lesson for you.” But by then it sounded like a word from Mom.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Whenever I get one of those ice-breaker questions asking what occupation I would choose if I weren’t a preacher, my answers vacillate among “football player,” “auto parts man,” and “poet.”

I haven’t played football since a flag-football game with friends in Como park about thirty years ago. And I’m not that much of a fan. Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen one too many Fred MacMurray campus movies about the B-stringer saving the day as the seconds count down.

Auto parts? Don’t ask.

I do try my hand every once in a while at what I call poetry. I like sonnets. I like to read them (“a work of art you can carry in your pocket”) and I enjoy the combination of artistry and wordsmanship of writing them. Somehow, in my messy life, I’m attracted to that feature of the sonnet in which everything is in its place and there’s a place for everything. Like an auto parts store.

Here are two sonnets. In the first, I gave myself the assignment of teaching fifth graders the “rules” for how to write a sonnet in the sonnet. I was only partially successful. The second is a reflection of meeting a friend at a small diner.

How To Write A Sonnet Like Shakespeare

In fourteen lines you tell what’s on your mind.
The first two state the case you want to prove.
Your subject can be almost any kind
(Though Shakespeare almost always wrote of love!).
A sonnet’s like a puzzle or a game:
You always use this rhythm and this rhyme.
So, to the ear, each line will sound the same:
Ten syllables all marching on in time.
But poetry is more than rhyming rules,
And rhythm’s like the beating of a heart:
Your feelings and your words must be the tools
That turn the sonnet’s canvas into art.
Now, prove that you can do it, from the top.
(And with two lines – a couplet – make it stop.)

Breakfast at the World Café

This table, with my friend, is the whole world
squeezed, for a time, into this small café.
The universe itself, in fact, is swirled
in creamy coffee spirals; and a day
takes shape – created out of words and light.
And laughter – our own “music of the spheres,”
our morning song that sings away the night –
ascends beyond the gravity of years.
So waitress, please, let’s have another cup,
and let the clinking spoon out-tick the clock.
And maybe, if we keep from looking up,
we’ll stop the time – a cosmic mental block!
No… it ticks on; our world comes to an end,
and you and I must go to work, my friend.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

"WHAT THE F---?!"

Let your 'Yes' be 'Yes' and your 'No' be 'No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one. ~ Jesus, in Matthew 5:37
I heard my Dad swear (curse) just once. It was the classic hitting-his-thumb-with-a-hammer, “Dammit!” I was about ten years old. The fact that the oath came readily to him, and that he was a WWII vet, causes me, upon reflection, to realize that this was probably not the only incidence of swearing in his life. But it’s the only time I heard him. And I don’t mean that, instead, I heard him come close and veer off with a “Dam… er, darn it.” He just didn’t swear. That one isolated memory only solidifies this bedrock truth of my childhood.

Although I exhibited my share of youthful commandment-based piety, I am convinced that the main reason that I am not a swearing guy is the influence of my Dad. A second important influence, at the impressionable age of about 15, was my confirmation pastor, Howard Bomhoff (another vet, wounded in Italy), who taught us, “Swearing just shows what a poor vocabulary you have.” I think he said it once, and it stuck. I later entered professions (first a college English major, then teaching, then a call to ministry) in which words are of prime importance. Like my Dad with the hammer, I’d better use the salty ones sparingly, and for good effect, if at all.

I like to shock my confirmation students by telling them that although there are good reasons to avoid using “shit” and “fuck” (see “vocabulary,” above), the worst possible swear word, according to the Bible, is the one we hear used most frequently: “Oh, my God!” –  based on the fact that God enjoys having his name mocked about as much as you or I do. One day, when I was in college, a friend took me aside and said, “You know, Dick, you’re saying ‘Oh, my God’ a lot lately.” This seems like a surreal memory in the recalling of it, but I know it happened (although I can’t remember who my pious friend was). I have, essentially, never used the phrase since.

My glib use of it above notwithstanding, I have always been offended by the “F” word (this is not my piety kicking in; I’m actually offended by the word, and will use “F” for most of the remainder of this essay). At the risk of sounding a bit righteous, I’m offended on behalf of our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters. My understanding is that “F” is a word of sexual violence. The reason that “rape” is not a swear word is that we have “F.” It is not a clever reference to intercourse, but a verbal expression of forced sex.

In an ironic round-about, recent generations are using the F-word more frequently because it is depicted more frequently in popular culture which is supposedly reflecting the reality of kids these days. I think kids are using it more – it’s so easy to fall into that F-in’ rhythm (especially if it fills a vocabulary-deprived void) – but they don’t know what it means. They don’t intend to be insulting their mommas.

In the service of art and truth, the F-word does indeed have a place on the stage or on the page. But the irony is often missed by those who hear it as a primer for the hippest language. Television’s “The Pacific” was a gripping, harrowing series with F-peppered dialogue that apparently added to the veracity of its combat milieu. I don’t doubt the artistic truthfulness implied, but my Pacific-stationed uncle never used the word, and my Army Air Corps Dad could only muster one weak “dammit” in all the years I knew the guy.

Timothy Oliphant as Sheriff Seth Bullock in HBO's
"Deadwood." A comparatively straight-talker in an
atmosphere ubiquitous with the F word.
HBO’s “Deadwood,” I have to say, is Shakespeare with the “F” word. Caryl and I love the series. (Even though, as our daughters would say, "Mom would have to spell that word," Caryl is the one who commented on the Shakespearean feel of the dialogue.) The artful intent of the gritty speech works in a dramatically authentic way, but we are glad to leave the word behind in the muddy streets. It hasn’t rubbed off. (Caryl has not used the F-bomb against me even once; she hasn't even spelled it at me!)

My college English prof taught us that the Bard himself has Hamlet speak to Ophelia of “cunt-ry matters” (nudge, nudge; wink, wink) – word-based sexual taunting that didn’t work out well for dear Ophelia. I am not suggesting that the poet’s palette ought to be devoid of such ideas -- or words that offend.

But words can, indeed, wound or heal, tear down or build up. From the first books we read to our children to the vocabulary they hear us utter in all kinds of circumstances, we are introducing them to the power and magic of words. And it just may be an act of life-changing kindness if we approach a young friend and say, “You know, you’ve been saying ‘fuck’ a lot lately.”

Friday, July 15, 2011


They asked Jesus, "Teacher, it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, "Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?" They said, "The emperor’s." He said to them, "Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." ~Luke 20
One of the most cryptic mysteries in the scriptures is the question of what, exactly, Jesus meant by his answer to the tax question (see above). It is certainly open to a variety of interpretations, but I am persuaded by this one: “Jesus flips the coin back into the crowd, shrugs, and says, ‘If you use Caesar’s roads, then pay Caesar’s taxes.’” An interpretation, yes (as is all reading of scripture), but one that seems to follow logically from Jesus’ observation about whose face is on the coin.

Taxes, for a Christian in a representative democracy, are tied to the idea of stewardship in two ways: 1) They are an expression of the Christian-ethics idea of devoting one’s life beyond oneself – to the greater good, and 2) they are the social equivalent of tossing a coin into the poor-box at the back of the church. (If your response is, “I already do that in church,” I say, OK, but let me see the verification of your 10% tithe. If you are one of the average 1.8% givers, I won’t buy it; you’re barely keeping your own church lights on.)

And if we worship at the altar of Adam Smith (the “father of capitalism”), we are reminded (by Smith) that “it is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.” None of this (Christian stewardship or Adam Smith), makes any sense if the driving principle is simply selfishness. Both a capitalist economy and a representative government will decay at the roots with the drought of selfishness.

The conservative commentator George Will makes this observation: “The government we have did not come about overnight, or by accident, or by conspiracy. Middle-class Americans who are the articulate complainers about it are the principle benefiters from it. They have no intention of dismantling it, so they had better pipe down and pay up.”

Former South Carolina senator Ernest Hollings says much the same thing in this oft-quoted reflection:
A veteran returning from Korea went to college on the GI Bill; bought his house with an FHA loan; saw his kids born in a VA hospital; started a business with an SBA loan; got electricity from the TVA and, later, water from an EPA project. His parents retired to a farm on Social Security, got electricity from the REA and soil testing from USDA. When the father became ill, the family was saved from financial ruin by Medicare, and his father’s life was saved with a drug developed through the NIH. His kids participated in the school lunch program, learned physics from teachers trained in an NSF program, and went through college with guaranteed student loans. He drove to work on the Interstate and moored his boat in a channel dredged by the Army Corps of Engineers. When the floods hit, he took Amtrak to Washington, D.C., to apply for disaster relief, and, while there, spent some time visiting the Smithsonian museums. Then one day, he wrote his congressman an angry letter asking the government to get off his back and complaining about paying taxes for all those programs created for ungrateful people.
If I want to start dismantling the programs described in the paragraph above can I do so without regard to my own self-interest? And if I am wealthy enough that I don't need these programs, then Saint Adam Smith reminds me that It is up to me to provide them for others. (Jesus goes farther, of course: My entire wealth is to be given to the poor. Another post for another time.)

I acknowledge that well-meaning Christians can arrive at a variety of positions on many issues, including tax policy. It seems, however, that we should be able to agree on this as a starting point: that it is a matter of stewardship and not selfishness.


I will be honored and surprised if anyone notices that this is a revision of an earlier post, offered here as a part of our nation's current political discussion.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I just wanted to stand up close,
shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart
with this, my friend. ~Gerhard Frost

Caryl and I recently spent a week with my sisters and their husbands at the  remote mountain cabin we share – our annual work week and “partnership meeting.” Although it is more common for us to use the cabin separately, we get along well and enjoy these times together. At one point during our week my sister Barb made an observation to the effect that “everyone seems to be on some kind of screen.” And she was right: one of us was doing a crossword on an iPhone, another was on the deck trying to get a cell signal, another was reading a book on Kindle, two others playing Scrabble on an iPad. All of this in spite of the fact that, by mutual agreement and technological limitation, we don’t have internet or wi-fi (or TV or radio) at the cabin.

My first response (a bit defensive) was to point out that we were doing the same things we’ve always done when relaxing at the cabin: working crosswords, reading books, playing board games. But upon further reflection, I had to wonder if there wasn’t in fact a kind of qualitative difference. Is it possible that one is more “absorbed” and isolated from others when reading a book on Kindle than when – sitting in the exact same easy chair – reading a bound book? Or is it that the electronic device erects a more off-putting shield than does a tattered-corner paperback book of New York Times Crossword Puzzles? I don’t know; thus my suggestion of an “interim report.”

Electronic screen time may be one of those areas in which we think of ourselves as the exception. Even the most hard-bitten cell phone libertarian who doesn’t want anyone to pry the phone out of his steering wheel-clutching hands tenses up just a bit when he notices another driver approaching with a cell phone to her ear. I think the reason for this is that we all know that when we’re on the cell phone we’re sort of “out of it” – we’re in that phone-zone. But we excuse ourselves, thinking we can handle it, even though we keep a wary eye on anyone else using the phone in the car. Likewise, when Caryl clicks to yet another round of solitaire Scrabble on her iPad, I may mutter internally, “What, another game of Scrabble?!” while I turn back to the neat new Crostics app on my iPhone.

There are historical reports of post-Gutenberg parents complaining that their children were spending too much time with these new-fangled “books,” and fearing the effect it would have on their brains. (The development of book-reading has, in fact, had an evolutionary effect on brain wiring.) Similarly, I take pride in how adroit my three-and-a-half-year-old grandson is with “Angry Birds” (not just his game performance, but the smarts to figure out how the whole thing works),* then I wonder just how long it is “good for him” to play the game in one stretch.  Some sociologists and brain scientists are publishing opinions that decry the effect of computer games, others that herald the technology as brain-enhancing. Interim.

A few weeks ago I joined some friends at a pub where another friend was performing on the small stage. We were never more than a handful of patrons, and at one point there were just two of us in the room when, in a coincidence of timing, my friend was texting his kids – checking in with them for some good parental purpose – and I was glancing at a text that had just vibrated to my attention. Something made me observe this scene from the viewpoint of our friend, the singer: looking out at the bare room, in mid song, he sees two of his friends, both with heads cranked strangely down toward their knees – certainly not looking at him. Having a personal policy against the use of cell-phones in these kinds of situations, we were both making exceptions for ourselves.

And we’ve all witnessed the disturbing scene of an otherwise caring parent bent intently over her device as her two- and three-year-olds scramble over her shoulders, vainly seeking mom’s attention.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer cautions us against that habit of listening “with half an ear,” while we’re actually preparing what we want to say.** (Listening with a switched-on device in our hand cuts that down to about a quarter of an ear – and pretty much wipes out eye contact.)

So I guess I’m musing over two issues here. One is the so-far ill-defined effect that this new technology has on our brains and our society, the other is the old-fashioned question of etiquette. Can we any longer have face-time conversations with our loved ones without our eyes drifting toward the enticing glow emanating from our cupped hand?

Who knows how this will all work out. In the interim, let’s keep talking, eye to eye and heart to heart.

It occurs to me that the game “Angry Birds” -- launching cartoon birds at goofy monkeys -- just may be an effective and harmless (?) way for a three-year-old to work out all of that “shooting” that he seems to want to do.

** Bonhoeffer makes this observation in "Life Together," his engaging small treatise on Christian community.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Dick & Caryl (Nasby) Jorgensen, Barb (Jorgensen) and Phil Lewison, Betty
(Jorgensen) and Jeff Rohr,  having just watered the "Vi & Jorgie Tree"

Our parents, Violet and Leon (Jorgie) Jorgensen, left to their children the legacy of a family cabin. Oh, they left us no property or building; what they bequeathed to us was the kind of family they built: Kids who grew up knowing we were loved unconditionally (and completely equally, regardless of the fact that we try to tell little Bobby that he was the favorite); kids who had chores to do (although Dicky would often disappear at dishwashing time); kids who grew into the kind of adults who continue to share that same love, who communicate openly, who forgive easily.

It may sound like I’m trying to boast about the kind of people we are, but I really am intending to say a word about the kind of family Vi and Jorgie made. I’m tempted to fall back on one of those old sentimental recipes: “Pour in a heap o’ love, stir in a generous dollop of hard work (but just a soupçon of money), season with a sprinkling of careful discipline, and marinate in the word o’ God….” As the product of this recipe, I have nothing to brag about; I’m just grateful.

Although our parents had a copy of Dr. Spock on their bookshelf (and I have nothing against child-rearing books), I do not, on reflection, have the impression that they were experimenting on us kids with the latest child development theories. They seemed to know in their bones – or from the traditions of the no-nonsense second and third-generation Scandinavian immigrant families in which they’d grown up – that this is how you raise kids. The chief ingredient – love – was no theory; it was a given – inherited, no doubt, from their parents.

I didn’t mean for this to turn into an essay on parenting skills. (That’s a-brewing.) I started to say that the kids of Vi and Jorgie now love and accept each other and that this, more than our mingled meager finances, is what has allowed us to happily share a family place in the Black Hills for over twenty-five years. (Our brother, Bob, of Jorgensen Log Homes, who built the cabin, was invited into the partnership, but said, “Why should I buy in; I can sneak out there any time I want.”)

Every once in a while, when hearing of our shared endeavor, someone will say that they’re not sure if they could pull this off in their family. We tell them that there are strategies we’ve developed to make it work: A partnership agreement, regular meetings, and an acknowledgement that we don’t make assumptions. (Like “I’m sure my sisters will love the framed picture of brother Dick over the mantle.”) We take a consensus vote almost every time we want to buy a new case of toilet paper. At our meetings we talk, we laugh, we’ve even cried. But the main strategy is that we are the children of Vi and Jorgie…

… and that we are the children of our spouses’ parents: Albert and Ardea Lewison, Olive and Bob Nasby, Wardean and Elmer Jeffries Rohr.  (We are the legacy, that is, of parents with some pretty funny names.) As with the sentimental recipe, above, I am also tempted to say that there may have been, in fact, something about their generation: emerging from a depression and a world war to build a country – and a family.

We’re planting memorial trees to our parents in the valley in which our cabin sits. These thoughts were inspired by the picture, above, of the six of us gathered around the Vi and Jorgie tree.

One of my mantras in ministry is that there are no perfect families – and all of ours are far from it. But these four families, at least, seemed to have this in common: The love described by Paul in First Corinthians, a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” We now-graying kids of Vi and Jorgie and Olive and Bob and Albert and Ardea and Wardean and Big Jeff are the beneficiaries of this love. We hope to pass it – and a cabin – on to our kids.

More reflections on building the cabin.

We, the children of Vi & Jorgie, etc. are also no dummies. We augment those "meager finances" by renting the cabin and 74 acres out to close personal friends. Happy to talk to you about it.