Monday, November 19, 2007

"Thank You, Howard Wohlgemuth, for Looking the Other Way."

(Warning: This post contains graphic and gross content. If you are squeamish, have a weak constiution, or adore Martha Stewart, then you would be ill-advised to continue reading).

I just suffered a miserable and embarrassing experience that was only spared more embarrassment by the industrious discipline of Howard Wohlgemuth. No pictures accompany this post...and for that, you should be glad.

I was at the church office today, on Main Street. I decided that I wanted to spend some time in prayer and that I would do it while enjoying this wonderful, beautiful, and unseasonably warm day that our Creator has provided. I'm also almost over a cold...but not quite yet, it seems.

Anyway, on the way back from a fairly long walk up to the north part of town, my nose starts to run like Carl Lewis. I had no tissues. I had no handkerchiefs (indeed, I never have those because the very thought of them is quite disgusting to me). There were no convenience stores nearby with a helpful men's room. In short, I was well over a mile from the office with plenty of neighborhoods filled with quaint, Hesston homes to traverse before reaching the safety of a Kleenex.

Of course, my nose cared about none of this. It continued its marathon run and the river had no place to go except in the obvious direction of the earth's gravitational pull. I used leaves. I made friends with several trees and used them to deposit what I could (don't ask how).

I have seen men (usually manly men that are playing professional football or doing construction in below-freezing temperatures) just lean over slightly, cover one nostril, and blow the other out onto the ground. But I had no such recourse. Every time I gathered myself to do such a deed, a sweet little mother on an afternoon run, pushing a stroller with a child cooing softly would be jogging by on the opposite side of the road.

The truly amazing thing is that I almost made it back to the office at a brisk pace without being seen in my most compromising state.


A most unfortunate gentleman on a bike happened to be coming by on his way to the bank. He rode by. Looked at me. I waved.

He didn't wave back.

That was embarrassing enough. But just as I was about to cross the perilous street to the safety of the beloved "Backside" (for those that don't know, that's what we call the youth room which is on the backside of the church office--almost in danger of being dubbed "Chris and Julie's Backside" in honor of the great youth sponsors, a name which was rejected for obvious reasons [the congregational vote was close, I am told]), Howard Wohlgemuth pulled up into a parking spot in his powerful, red truck.

That was when I thought I was doomed. For Bike Guy to see my face in its present condition was bad enough. For someone I knew to see me and to want to say "hi" would be quite disasterous. Such a meeting could have only led Howard to two possible conclusions. First, "our new youth pastor has no shame." Second, "our new youth pastor has a numb face and the poor shlub needs to see the doctor right away."

I slowly crept up to hide behind a blue truck parked on the street. And then Howard did the best thing he could have done at that moment. That wonderful man slid open the side-door to his van and walked inside his flower shop to pick up some botanical arrangements for delivery.

He did it for me.

I ran out from behind the truck. I ran into the church office. I ran into the bathroom and my nose, my face, and my self-image found healing from a roll of delightful toilet paper.

Thank you, Howard Wohlgemuth. Thank you for looking the other way.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A World War 2 "Kick"

Yep. It's happening. I'm officially on a World War 2 kick (hereafter to be referred to simply as "the kick"). I've been on such a "kick" before, but not this bad. I think what makes this current "kick" so potent is the time and resources I have to really study what happened in our world from 1933-1945--something I have not had during the last four years of seminary.

(I also think Ken Burns' series entitled "The War" on PBS also got me going...not to mention the new WW2 strategy game I've been playing lately).

Anyway, the latest chapter in my "kick" was the purchase of an illustrated book called The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Chris Bishop and David Jordan. It is a fairly in-depth account of every major event involving the Nazis from 1933-45. It is a large, fascinating book with many pictures and over 100 maps. I did a double-take when I looked at the price-tag in Borders yesterday...only eight bucks on sale! I had some left-over money on an old Borders gift card so I bought it...

And a latte.

As I read this book, I am so fascinated by the people who lived during that time...for a variety of reasons. First of all, I am quite fascinated that an entire nation of people could ever follow a short, really loud guy whose native language ensures that every other word will result in large amounts of saliva being flung in a ninety degree arc in front of him. Maybe they liked the mustache.

Name: Adolf Hitler. Interests: I like small, furry animals; lazy days by the beech; Sunday afternoon drives in a Panther tank; taking trips to places I have conquered; and mustaches that look I like I forgot to wipe my upper lip after drinking some chocolate milk. If interested: Please contact Herr von Ribbentropp or Hess. If you survive the trial based on ridiculous, trumped up charges we like to use to convict people we dislike purely based on their ethnicity, maybe we can go out on a date. I haven't conquered India yet. That might be something fun we could do.

But then I am reminded of the social situation in post-World War 1 Germany. These people were ready to follow anyone who promised to restore their national pride, help them escape from the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles, and fix the economy so that a loaf of bread could cost less than $20. This doesn't excuse the incredible atrocities of Nazi Germany or the part that the citizenry had in empowering those atrocities. But it does make me pause and ask the question, "If I had been living in Germany in the 1930s, would I have been caught up in the pageantry, display of world-class power, and the gratifying, unifying feeling of extreme nationalism?" Quite honestly, the answer scares me. I don't think I want to know the answer. I guess I would hope that the Lord would help me run into someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in such times as those. I would need someone to help me drop my sword...someone to help me suffer for righteousness. That would be tough. I love my sword and I hate suffering.

Anyway, I have a lot more to say about WW2. Gotta go for now...

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Preparing the Heart for Biblical Interpretation

I have continued to be amazed by the great insight the Lord saw fit to give to the fourth century church father, Augustine of Hippo.

In many modern Sunday school, Bible college, and seminary classes that address rules for biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), students are told the importance of studying the historical and grammatical context of the passage under study. Thus students are encouraged to stock their personal libraries with lexicons, Bible encyclopedias, atlases, Bible histories, commentaries and the like in order to increase one's chances of arriving at the original, intended meaning of the biblical author.

All of this is quite important and should not be neglected. However, I find it interesting that when Augustine addresses the topic of biblical interpretation, he begins with the spiritual condition of the interpreter before addressing the proper methods and tools of interpretation. In his On Christian Doctrine, he establishes the importance of approaching the biblical text with two key spiritual ingredients: fear and piety (Book 2, Section VII).

Augustine understood that interpreters of the biblical text are coming face to face with the very words of God Himself, not just a collection of ancient myths to be read with cold, objective, academic dis-interest, much as we might read Homer or Beowulf. As a result, the responsibility upon the biblical interpreter is quite awesome. He or she must truly desire to interpret the text as Christianly as possible, in order to be a person who is accurately handling the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). This should cause a healthy sense of fear to arise in the heart of the interpreter. Undoubtedly, this thought was in the mind of the apostle James when he wrote, "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment" (Jas 3:1).

Secondly, Augustine wrote that the reader of Scripture is to interpret the Bible with piety. By this, he meant to say that the interpreter is to come with a heart of faith, a disposition to believe what the Scripture says instead of an attitude of placing oneself in judgment over the claims of Scripture. Augustine would write elsewhere that we come to Scripture with a heart that says "I must believe in order to understand, not understand so that I can believe." This mantra would be repeated throughout most of medieval Christianity, most notably in the writings of Anselm and Thomas Aquinas.

Scripture is in a place of judgment over the thoughts of human beings, not subject to our fallen reason. Believing this captures the piety mentioned by Augustine. When we fail to recognize this and approach Scripture with another attitude or set of beliefs, we set ourselves up for theological and spiritual failure. The effects of post-Enlightenment rationalism and extreme optimism in human science and reason in modern Europe is a testimony to how an entire culture can be swayed to turn from faith in Scripture and church authority to "empty, deceitful philosophies" that are "according to human traditions" (Col 2:8). Many of the incredibly beautiful cathedrals and basilicas of that continent have been reduced to mere museums, left-over shells giving testimony to a once living organism that traded its faith in God's Word for faith in humanity's "potential."

May God give wisdom to the still remaining modern churches and the emerging post-modern churches of evangelicalism so that we will not place our highest confidence in any other source than God's written Word, which gives testimony to the Incarnate Word.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Psychology of Idolatry

Recently on Wednesday nights, I have begun teaching on the subject of idolatry. The subject matter has seemed very appropriate to me--not just because it fits with the over-arching theme of Wednesday night youth group this year (which is how to be in the world, but not of it)--but because I find myself to be an idolater in far too many ways.

The subject of idolatry is a major theme in the Bible, which is obvious to anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of Scripture. In the Old Testament it is treated as the culmination of rebellion, the final destination of the nations of Israel and Judah on their path away from God. Rejecting YHWH and turning to the Baals and Asherah poles is the height of personal and national sin highlighted by the Hebrew prophets. In the prophets and 1-2 Kings idolatry is what "breaks the camel's back," so to speak, and signals that the nation's rebellion against YHWH has reached its full measure, resulting in God's wrath upon His people who are no longer His people.

In Hosea, idolatry is symbolized as an act of spiritual adultery. Israel has cheated on YHWH. In Isaiah, idolatry is portrayed as absurd and non-sensical. Why would people turn from a living God Who had performed such incredible acts of grace on behalf of His people to stones and pieces of wood, representing so-called deities that were really not gods at all?

But in Jeremiah 2:10-13, we get another picture of idolatry. Speaking for YHWH, Jeremiah calls out to the southern nation of Judah (Israel had already been judged and destroyed by this time) and says: "For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, in order to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water" (2:13). In this verse, idolatry is the result of misplaced desires. It is the result of looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places. It is the result of believing that true fulfillment, satisfaction, and the meeting of one's needs will be found somewhere else other than the God Who has proven Himself faithful time and time again.

I found that Jeremiah's metaphor for idolatry truly resonates with me, right now. I have an incredible ability to deceive myself into thinking that the best way to assuage my fatigue is to sit in front of a television, computer game, novel, or some other form of brain passivity instead of finding true rest in the One Who gives true rest. I'm not sure what happens in the interval between a satisfying time of prayer, meditation, Scripture study, or meaningful fellowship with another believer (either in person or through a written work) and the time when I am in need of such things again that causes me to dig another broken cistern instead of returning to the life-giving stream. I have no other word for it than laziness.

The "flesh" is probably a better word. More encompassing. More Pauline, anyway.

I have appreciated the analysis of the psychology of idolatry offered by C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine of the 4th and 5th centuries.

A painting of St. Augustine (354-430) by the Italian painter Vincenzo Foppa in 1465-70.

Concerning our continual journey for pleasure, Augustine wrote that it is not pleasure itself that is bad, but a delight in created things that does not point our enjoyment to the Creator Himself. A delight in the created as an end in itself is idolatry. When this delight results in a greater love, appreciation or awe of the Trinity, then we are properly using the created order for that which it was intended.

Augustine wrote:

"When that which is loved is near, it necessarily brings delight with it also. If you pass on through this delight and have referred it to that goal where you should remain (delight in God), you are using it and may only improperly be said to enjoy it. But if you cling to that delight and remain in it, making it the end of your rejoicing, then you may truly and properly be said to be enjoying it. And this kind of enjoyment should not be indulged except with reference to the Trinity, which is the highest good and is immutable."

--On Christian Doctrine, XXXIII.37

With a similar sentiment, C.S. Lewis said in his sermon entitled "The Weight of Glory":

" would seem that Our Lord find our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

Lately, my problem has been digging another broken cistern or playing in my mud-puddle and then getting angry when I find, once again, that my true needs are not met. My idolatry does not just affect me. My sin always affects others. Especially my sin of idolatry.

I want to know more of finding a "holiday" in God. I don't think it means just a perpetual state of emotional bliss. I think it is akin to what Paul means in Philippians 3:10 when he writes, "...that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death..." This passage reveals that knowing Christ in such a way was the pinnacle of Paul's desires. Paul knew and understood from his theology (and his experience, I believe) that there is such a thing as deep joy and fulfillment to be found in knowing God through Christ that puts our sufferings in a new light. This is the delight I seek.

Lord, help me cast down my idols.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Back in Tornado Alley Again

Every Monday morning at 10:00 in Hesston we hear one of the most dreaded sounds known to man...the eerie cry of tornado sirens. Hesston is a small town, which means that the sirens are placed fairly close together, creating quite a loud noise. While some people might be bothered by this, I'm not. If a giant vacuum from the sky is approaching my town at 2:00 in the morning, I want something loud enough to wake me up.

Moving to Kansas at the end of June this year, reminded me once again of my years growing up in the Big WA (Warr Acres, Oklahoma). Every Spring, at the end of March going to the middle of June, and then again briefly in October, the central plains of the United States earn their nickname as "Tornado Alley." Of course, technically, I have always lived in Tornado Alley, even after leaving the Big WA for college in Omaha, NE. Tornado Alley is supposed to encompass the Northern Plains and even part of the Mississippi Valley.

And even though all of these states have tornadoes every year, the fact remains that no area of the country grows storms like Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. I have lived in all three of these states and I can say that we grow our tornadoes real proud. They're not just the little white ropes that come out of the sky and create a pretty back-drop for a field of golden wheat...although we have plenty of those too. In KS, OK, and TX those kinds of tornadoes are "garden variety"...normal...almost boring for the people who live there.

I'm talking about the tornadoes that make the national, and even international, news. In these three states we grow huge, black and green thunderstorms with tornadoes so evil looking you might think that half of the stuff mentioned in the book of Revelation is coming true right in front of you.

An F-5 tornado that came through my town of Hesston on March 13 of 1990. The house Ellen and I live in got a new roof as a result of this one. Fortunately no one in Hesston was killed, although this tornado did kill two people in other towns.

This F-5 tornado entered Moore, Okla. on May 3rd, 1999. It killed 44 people and destroyed over 6,000 homes. It has the record for recorded wind speeds in a tornado at over 320 mph.

This is a nighttime shot of the EF-5 (F-4, on the old scale) tornado that entered Greensburg, KS on May 4th of 2007. It killed 10 people and destroyed the entire town. The width of this tornado was near 2 miles. Ellen and I bought our house in KS the weekend this tornado occurred, making us ask, "What in the heck are we doing?"

These storms and others (including the huge hail storms we can get) are a reminder of how little control we have. This has been an unexpected difficulty for me, to be honest, in moving to Kansas. I think part of it has to do with living in the little town of Hesston (about 3000 people). I just feel so exposed, all of a sudden, to the power of the weather. Living in a large city gives you a sense of security, although I think it is a false one. But when I can walk three blocks to the west or five blocks to the south and be outside of town in a field, I am confronted with the fact that there is not very much between me and the elements.

Although I grew up around tornadoes my whole life, for some reason I had forgotten how scary just the thought of them can be. I have learned that my only solace comes from knowing that God is in control of these storms and my future. These storms remind me of God's awesome power. But God's awesome love towards me also means that He will use any blessing and any disaster to further His good purpose for my life.

This helps me sleep at night.

Until the sirens go off. Then I scream like a little girl, hide in my basement, and pray even more fervently.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Do I Qualify as a Star Wars Nerd?

Okay. So I admit it. In the last month I have seen all six episodes of the Star Wars epic and read one Star Wars novel. Does that make me a Star Wars Nerd?

Notice that there is a need to capitalize "Star Wars Nerd" because such a title actually does refer to a certain class of people. I've known some of them. They usually have posters of Darth Vader on their wall, life-size replicas of lightsabers somewhere in their room, and even figurines of prominent Star Wars characters on their shelves.

Darth Vader's confrontation techniques at work.

One guy I used to work with was actually proud enough of his addiction to Star Wars that he had several figurines on his desk at work. As the supportive co-workers that we were, we used to get to work early and put all of the figurines in crazy positions before he got there. We had Obi-Wan Kenobi doing a Michael Jackson moon-walk, Princess Leia doing some serious kissing with a stormtrooper, and Han Solo doing certain kinds of aerobic exercises that would challenge most Pilates experts. In his desk drawer, this guy also had several Star Wars magazines, complete with full-length articles going into incredible detail on people, places and events that will never exist, yet treating these items as though they were part of the daily news of which all human beings should be aware. The common consensus in our office was that my friend was a hopeless Star Wars Nerd. Indeed, he was a Nerd Supreme.

But what about me? This has become a very important question for me, as of late. Those people who know of my recent viewing of the movies have begun to wonder. People are talking. Phone calls have been made. Investigations have been launched.

All of this has caused me to ask the question, "Why does the part of me that likes Star Wars, like Star Wars?" I frame the question this way because there are several parts of me that do not like Star Wars.

For one thing, I think the acting is deplorable--especially in the first three episodes. Any movie where the dialogue in the most dramatic, romantic scene includes the statement, "Oh Anakin. Hold me. Like you did on Naboo!" cannot expect to win any Oscars. Any director or producers who think that a useless creation like Jar Jar Binx should have been permitted to even be spoken allowed in a writers' meeting, don't deserve any filming awards. And, in general, it is hard to take a movie seriously that has no problem resting the entire weight of a saga on the dialogue and actions of several puppets. It can leave you waiting for Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy to show up for a lightsaber duel.

On second thought, that would be kind of fun to watch. My money is on Miss Piggy. All the way.

However, I have decided that I like Star Wars for the central themes involved. Sure, I like the great graphics and exceptional coreographed fight scenes (especially in the first three episodes). But ultimately, I like the story-line itself. Don't be fooled. The story is not about Luke Skywalker. It's not about Obi-Wan Kenobi. And it's not even about liberal democracy's fight against tyranny.

It is about Anakin Skywalker. It is about redemption.

It is about the rise of a man who had great promise (kind of like like the creation of humanity). It is about the corruption and fall of that Jedi (kind of like the eating of forbidden fruit and the love of the creation that surpassed the love of the Creator, committed by our parents). It is about the consequences of that Jedi's fall for himself and the rest of the galaxy (kind of like the groaning of the creation around us in the form of disasters and the food-chain). And it is about how that man is eventually redeemed from his fall by an unlikely agent--a person descended from his own line (kind of like Christ's descension from Adam).

That's why I like Star Wars.

And I like the lightsaber fights.

Friday, October 5, 2007

What's "Dropping Swords?"

At first, I really struggled with the title of my blog. In fact, it was the difficulty of trying to come up with a title that began to delay the creation of the blog in the first place...a situation that I started to consider pretty stupid. After thinking for too long on the subject, I decided that my blog wasn't going to be primarily a bunch of news about various events taking place in my life. That did away with such titles as "Buerger Cast" and "The Buerger Times."

I also came to the realization that I didn't want my blog to just be a collection of my theological ramblings, even though theology is a topic that I care more about than anything else. Out with titles like "The Confessions of St. Buerger," "The Purpose-Driven Buerger," "Buergerology," "Velvet Buerger," and "Desiring Buerger" (although I wouldn't mind if that was the title of my wife's blog).

I decided that I didn't want my blog to be about me. But that sounds stupid. How can a blog have nothing to do with its writer? Obviously, it can't. But it can be about what that writer sees as a primary theme in the story God is telling through his life. A theme about transformation. A theme about being less of a fighter and more of healer--less of a talker and more of a listener. A theme about being more concerned with defending grace than being known as someone who is always right. A theme about being someone who doesn't look for opportunities to confront, but only does so when it is necessary; and even then, does it in truth AND love. A theme about being less a person of battle and more a person of peace. In short, I wanted my blog to be about how God is helping me drop my many swords.

And there'll be other stuff too...