Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Seeking the peace of the farm town: The never-ending sermon

From Toledo, IA
Uptown Toledo during our annual Stoplight Festival; July 3, 2013
I recently preached at the three local United Methodist congregations, including the one in our neighborhood where we worship. The sermon was titled "Seeking the peace of the farm town" and it was from Jeremiah 29, verses 1, 4-7, & 11-14, which reads:
These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. […]

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare (shalom/peace) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. […]

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
Here's the sermon:

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Down in the muck: Wendell Berry on the "inescapable cruelty" of life

From Toledo, IA
"Down in the Muck"
(photo by Andrew Stawarz/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)
Until yesterday while watching the fantastic Bill Moyers interview with Wendell Berry, I had never read or heard his poem, "For the Hog Killing." I'm grateful that my first exposure to this poem was hearing Berry read it aloud, with his soft northern Kentucky drawl.

Around minute 30 of the interview, Berry talks about the gross mistreatment of and cruelty to animals that our industrial food system requires. He then pauses and acknowledges an "inescapable cruelty" to all human life, even for vegetarians. "We have to live at the expense of other creatures." The rule then, he says, is to use fellow creatures (plants and animals) - and the land upon which we all dwell - with the minimum of violence.

Moyers then asks Berry to read the poem, "For the Hog Killing":
Let them stand still for the bullet, and stare the shooter in the eye,
let them die while the sound of the shot is in the air, let them die as they fall,
let the jugular blood spring hot to the knife, let freshet be full,
let this day begin again the change of hogs into people, not the other way around,
for today we celebrate again our lives' wedding with the world,
for by our hunger, by this provisioning, we renew the bond.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Still and Still Moving: Radical Democracy and Christianity

From Keezletown, VA
This post is part of an ongoing series on the book Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary, by Stanley Hauerwas & Rom Coles. This series is being authored by Jonathan McRay, Jonathan Swartz, & Brian Gumm. This post reflects on chapter 6.

Democracy is indeterminate. Its ends are open to a risky acknowledgement that we don’t know where everything is going. Real democracy is on the run from the suffocating tentacles of institutionalization, aware that the “emergent irregularities” along the road suggest that what we get may not even be called democracy. In this telling, democracy is always followed by a question mark addressed to itself and a curiosity addressed to others and the future. So says Sheldon Wolin. Rom Coles leads a dizzying chase after Wolin’s fugitive democracy, following it from its inception through its development. This chapter is the longest in the book and probably the most complex and convoluted.

According to Coles, Wolin offers a vision of “radical democratic theory, judgment, virtues, power, and practices that is at once synoptic, nuanced, and ordinary in the most profound senses” (114). Wolin corrects a regrettable reluctance on the part of radical democrats to theorize about their practices, an effort needed to overcome the anti-democratic trends of most political theory, obsessed with patriarchal heroism (115). Wolin believes that the New Left failed to articulate a radical theory beyond liberalism and socialism because it lacked a deep and diverse language; they even lacked vision and theory regarding their own practices (119).

Monday, October 7, 2013

Healing for the healer

From Toledo, IA
Stained beauty; in the former Otterbein United Methodist Church, Toledo, IA
Last night our monthly prayer group met at an unused and slowly deteriorating church sanctuary here in town, as is our custom - but after our initial worship and opening prayer we went outside into the gray afternoon and walked a few blocks to the home of a husband and wife who usually meet with us. They were home because the wife had recently undergone open heart surgery and was still recovering, so we went to them to pray for her continued healing.

But last night I was not in the healing mood. I was in a real funk and struggled through the praise songs (I usually struggle through any praise song, even on my best days) and through the prayer. They did soften me up a bit but I was still carrying a lot of angst as we walked from the church to the house, and my friend Travis - who leads our prayer group - could see it on my face.

When we arrived at our friends' house they welcomed us in with smiles and embraces. Their hospitable welcome started softening me up more. As we sat listening to the wife's recounting of her successful surgery and good initial recovery, I paid special attention to the look on the husband's face as he watched his wife tell us her story. He had a smile of profound joy and love for his partner and her wellbeing. It softened my heart yet further.

When we gathered around her to lay hands on her and pray, we prayed for specific areas of healing for her ongoing recovery. As we each spoke our prayers for her, I gave thanks to God for the picture of Christian love I was witnessing in their marriage. When the husband prayed, he gave thanks for the spiritual heart of his wife which had only grown stronger through this and other health trials of recent years, and how it's impacted their wider family. He also acknowledged that our life is not our own and whatever the outcome for any of us - more days or fewer, sickness or health - life itself is a gift we receive and ultimately relinquish for the hope of resurrection on the last day and life abundant beyond that. For the meantime he had this prayer: "It's not how long we have, it's what we do with what we've been given. It's not what we know, it's what we do with what we know."

As we left their house, I reflected with Travis that through our service of healing prayer for our friend and sister in Christ, I had experienced healing myself.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Small town vitality: No community without economy

From Toledo, IA
Uptown Toledo, Iowa - "Remembering our past, looking toward the future..."
Evangelical blogger, Jake Meador, had a piece put up on Christianity Today just over a month ago that I had been meaning to read:

Why We Need Small Towns

Having just moved to a small town last fall, the title caught my eye, and being somewhat familiar with Meador's postings, I wasn't surprised to see him talk positively about Wendell Berry, who has been an inspiration to us both. Indeed, Berry's work has helped inspire me to persevere through what has been a hard transition back into small town life, after leaving my own small hometown 15 years ago.

It was all college towns and suburbs in those intervening years, and it's been this difficult transition back that prompts me to wonder about the title. Need? We need small towns? What, precisely, is here that's needed elsewhere? - In what follows (and it's a lot) I don't so much respond to Meador directly, as much as I reflect on my own small town context and current struggles with it, in light of his little piece on small towns...