Category Archives: pastoral ministry

St. Matthias, Patron Saint of Ordinary People

Actually, I made it up that Matthias is patron saint of ordinary people. But he should be.

Today is the feast day for Matthias, Apostle. If you’ve never heard of him or taken note of him, there’s no shame.  You’re probably not alone. He was the one chosen to replace Judas after Jesus’ ascension. Coincidentally, yesterday in church, we read the few verses from Acts that tell the story of his election. If you want to call it that. There were only two candidates, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, aka Justus. The one qualification was that they had been a part of the larger band of those who followed Jesus from the beginning. Luke reports they both filled the bill. But there doesn’t seem to have been any search committee, any careful study of their curriculum vitae, no checking the references. There was no vote. They simply flipped a coin, or the first century equivalent. That’s it.

And then we never hear of either one of them again. We can speculate that both of them went on to serve in some capacity in the early church. Matthias now carried the authority of an apostle. But there is never any report in the canonical scriptures of where he went or what he did.

Not even the tradition agrees about Matthias. The Greeks say that Matthias did missionary work in Cappadocia and on the coasts of the Caspian Sea. Nicephorus records that he first preached the Gospel in Judea, then in what is modern day Georgia and was there stoned to death. Still another tradition has him in Ethiopia. I know enough about geography to know that both of those traditions are probably not true. Take your pick. What seems more clear is that Matthias was an ordinary guy who became an apostle, and went about doing his work faithfully. Ordinarily. Not even 15 minutes of fame. More like 5 verses of fame (Acts 1:21-26).

For a long time now, I’ve gotten to work with ordinary people in the church. Like the couple who shows up early every Sunday to make sure everything is set for the service, even if it’s not their job. More often than I’d care to admit, we have no ushers assigned, so they step in. Because someone needs to do the job. I hear frequently that she has offers to give someone else a ride to Green Bay to the doctor or shopping or whatever. That’s a 3 hour round trip. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

One of my colleagues got up yesterday and gave eloquent testimony, sharing the stories of the people who are struggling in our community. She challenged the rest of us to see them and to be the hands of Christ for them. She is kind and generous, passionate about serving others. She knows everyone in Door County, it seems. I think she is extraordinary. Yet, she is probably not known outside of northern Door County. I’d be surprised if anyone at the denominational headquarters has ever heard of her. There have been no articles written about her service. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

I’ve heard over and over at funerals the sentimental notion that our loved ones will be remembered forever. While I get it that we want our lives to count for something and for those we love not to have lived in vain, the truth is that very few of us will be remembered beyond a few decades after our deaths, if that long.

Yet, the work of the church, the work of the kingdom, could not be done without the countless ordinary followers of Jesus, thousands of whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. I think about you today as we celebrate Matthias. I give thanks for what I’ve learned from you and for the profound gift that our lives have been graciously intertwined.

You ordinary followers of Jesus, I honor you and celebrate you. Lift a glass to yourself. We could not be church without you.

An Odd Day, an Odd Faith — a Sermon for Ash Wednesday When It Falls on Valentine’s Day

This is the text of the sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, February 14, at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin.

What an odd, odd day. Ash Wednesday is odd enough in itself, but when it falls on Valentine’s it’s even more odd. Many of my clergy friends have been making the most of this strange calendric convergence.  One posted on Facebook this imaginary conversation: “So, what are your Valentine’s Day plans?” “Oh, I have to work and remind everyone that they’re going to die.”  Another toyed with the idea of plastering the sign of the cross on her parishioner’s foreheads with melted chocolate. I, on the other hand, have been threatening to make an ashen heart on your foreheads.

While Valentine’s Day takes its name from two separate Christian martyrs who were both executed in the 3rd century A.D. by the Roman emperor Claudius II, the holiday has come to extol romantic love — it’s the day to send chocolates or roses to your true love, or to the one you hope will become your true love.

Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, seems to be the exact opposite. It’s not a party, but the definition of a non-party. The Old Testament lesson from Joel blows a trumpet to announce the darkness of sin and suffering. Joel urges the ancient people of God and us, all of us, from nursing infants to the most aged among us to come before God and pay attention to those things that are most important — our sin, our mortality, our need for divine forgiveness, and the accompanying assurance that God is merciful.

Ash Wednesday calls us to face the harsh and precious reality that each of us was molded by the hand of God out of the elements of creation and each of us will once again become those elements. Yet we don’t speak of this reality in a cold or clinical way like we might approach a cadaver in a morgue. We do so with a sense of wonder, and again, with a eye to the promises of God. The ashes we allow to be inscribed on our foreheads are understood as symbols of our frail mortality and certain death. The ashes point beyond themselves to a hidden life-giving power.

For a few years before moving to Door County, Sheryl and I volunteered at the Nachusa Grasslands Nature Conservancy Prairie Preserve. It’s a project in western Illinois that now encompasses nearly 4000 acres and is being returned to its original state as a biologically diverse grasslands. Key to that restoration is the annual controlled burning in the spring of the year. Regular burning is a necessary step in the health and vitality of the prairie. The heat germinates certain seeds and clears the way for others to sprout and grow.

Here is the paradoxical truth of Ash Wednesday. The loving presence of God is hidden in the dust and ashes that dominate this day. Far deeper than the romantic love of Valentine’s Day and chocolates and roses, God comes to us with a love that rescues us from our violent ways with each other, from the limits of our mortality, and promises life that endures beyond our death.

See, the season of Lent that we begin today is going somewhere. Where? We’re headed to Easter, that grand celebration of death that gets turned into life. There’s this part of the communion liturgy we call the Proper Preface. It comes right after the opening sentences. You’ll recognize it because it begins, “It is indeed our duty and delight that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, almighty and merciful God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And then it goes on in poetic language to tie this eucharistic celebration to the themes of the church year. I kind of miss the old one for lent; they changed it in this new hymnal; the old one proclaimed that where death began, life will be restored and that the Evil One who by a tree once overcame will likewise by a tree be overcome. That infamous apple tree of the Garden of Eden will be superseded by a cross-shaped tree on a gruesome hill outside Jerusalem; there the possibility of life with God was born. Indeed, dear church, because we are so truthful today about our mortality, the promise of resurrection is all the more sweet.

This is an odd day, this Ash Wednesday, made all the more odd by the juxtaposition with Valentine’s Day. But then ours is an odd faith, a faith that began in the dust and ashes of a borrowed tomb, a grave, a place of death. That womb of dust and ash and death was the resting place of Christ who loved the world all the way to death on a cross.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These are the words that will be spoken over you in a matter of minutes. Your life is fleeting. The clock is ticking. But the mark of the cross reminds you that there is so much more. Death gives way to the life that was promised at your baptism. Ashes are not forever. Endings always call up new beginnings. Now, even now, in the midst of dust and ashes on this day of love, it is a day of deep grace, the day of our salvation.

Neither Delusional nor Pretending

This past weekend, I had the honor of preaching at the Door County Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here is the written version of my sermon for that service.

As Nazareth is to Jerusalem, so Door County is to cities like Chicago or New York. Here we are in the relative boondocks holding a service to celebrate and pray for Christian unity. The irony is not lost on me that we do so at a time when in our national life we are so sharply divided that we are almost unable to talk to each other.

And while we’re at it, we might as well put it right out there that even within the Christian Church — perhaps even among the pastors and congregations represented here — our divisions are sharp and deep. We have sliced and diced our traditions, theologies, and practices every which way, Catholics, mainliners, evangelicals. And to you Moravians in the room, I have no idea where the you fit. Pro-life, pro-choice. Some ordain women, some don’t; some embrace gay marriage some don’t. Some of us think the current administration is saving the country, and some of us think he’s driving it off a cliff. Some of us embrace our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, some of us believe their only hope for salvation is conversion to Christianity.

I’ve long been curious about how good people, faithful people can read the same sacred texts and come to such different conclusions. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about that in his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt makes the case that we don’t make our moral decisions rationally. Rather, we make them in our gut, emotionally, intuitively; then we scan the landscape of religion and politics and culture to find substantiation for the decisions we’ve already made in our gut. It makes a whole lot of sense to me in explaining what I see and experience in the church, but it leaves me a bit troubled about the extent to which we as people of God are really listening to the voice of God in our sacred texts.

So, why would we even bother in this context to get together to talk about unity? Are we delusional? Or worse, just pretending? Here’s what I mean about the pretending part: maybe we have this sense, thus burden even, that we really should be unified — after all, Jesus prayed that his followers should be one — but we know deep down that we are not suspect we never will be. But we just go on pretending anyway.

Listen to this passage from Philippians 2. It’s the great hymn to Christ, a grand poem that you likely have heard many, many times. Pay particular attention how Paul introduces the hymn:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus’

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father.

One of the powerful lessons from this grand Christological hymn is that our unity is not a goal to be achieved; it is a gift that has been given. Our unity lies in the reality that we have been given divine life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Too often I admit, that reality is hidden; nevertheless we are one in Christ by divine gift. That divine gift frees us from having to pretend and allows us the joy of celebrating everywhere and always the unity we have in Christ.

The challenge is to live out that unity for the sake of witness to the world. Here’s where Paul’s grand hymn is so helpful. The hymn of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation not only reminds us that our life is in Christ’s death and resurrection, it gives us also the pattern for our own life as church. For Paul, living in Christ means living in surrender for the sake of others. That is only possible when Jesus is Lord and where people call on his name. Only out of the foundational event described in Philippians 2 can community be formed and divisions overcome. Our back-slapping appeals to solidarity, urging us to just be friends, to get along, to acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood are inadequate. The sibling rivalries — our various ideologies, and self-righteous certainties in our own versions of the truth — they’re just too strong.

But if we can live from the dying and rising of Jesus, then we can become something new in the world. Then the differences that normally destroy a community will become our treasures, our wealth. See, there really are differences between us, and not to acknowledge them again is to pretend. In theology, practice, tradition, culture, we are not the same and we don’t want to be. But from our differences, through the power of the Holy Spirit can arise a living community that bears witness to the God who so loved the world that God sent God’s son.

Over and over again, Paul describes our differences in terms of different gifts for ministry. In the Christian community of Door County and beyond, there are a variety of gifts. Some communities have the gift of serving as an entry point for seekers, some care for one another really well, some are places where those with doubts and questions will find a home, some are places where the faith is expressed with more emotion than reason, others with more reason than emotion. Some are seedbeds to meet the needs of the people in our community who struggle. To each is given gifts according to the Spirit.

We are the people of God. We are the the Body of Christ. Even in the midst of our differences, our differing gifts, what binds us together in agape love is something that is not possible on our own, but a gift of the Spirit, that same Spirit released through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The agape love that God has demonstrated for us, that we have for one another is also our posture towards the world. “Let each of you look not to you own needs but to the needs of others.”

In our unity, we become the place where the rich come to the aid of the poor, where the laughing console those who weep, the healthy minister to the sick, those who live in families become companions to the lonely. And we discover in the practice of that love that the converse is also true, something that is more than a mere social institution can muster: the poor teach the rich what it means to trust God; the sick teach the healthy by demonstrating joy in the midst of suffering; the weak have a sensitivity to the needs of the community that they share with the strong.

No, friends, we are not delusional; we are realists; and we are Christians. We understand that what binds us together is not our intentions nor our frail and weak-kneed actions, nor our mealy-mouthed pronouncements. What binds us together, what gives us unity, what makes us one is nothing less than Jesus’ death and resurrection, the life we have in him, the community that has been formed by his love.  Now we are called to live that love. And dear God, does the world need to see and feel and be shown that love, especially at a time when hatred and fear and sexism and racism and xenophobia are bearing such miserable fruit. Our unity is in Christ. Our calling is to love. It’s really that simple.    

With Gratitude for Those with Burning Hearts

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610
The Supper at Emmaus
Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm
Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839

I walked into the gallery and immediately was struck by the size. Seeing a painting in a brochure doesn’t prepare you for a confrontation with a near life-sized painting. The Michelangelo Caravaggio “Supper at Emmaus”  was on loan from The National Gallery in London to The Art Institute of Chicago.

There’s the calm, peaceful countenance of Jesus at the center, his eyes serenely closed, his right hand extended in blessing. And I love the different reactions of the three sitting at table with Jesus. For the guy standing behind him, everything is reduced to a profound sense of wonder. The guy seated across from Jesus leans forward trying to believe the unbelievable, ready to reach across the table to verify with his hand what his eyes are telling him. The guy seated at the side of the table is retelling the story with his wild, broad gesticulating as if in the retelling it will make more sense.

The one detail that consistently grabs me is the dish teetering on the edge of the table. At the Art Institute, the crowd studied the painting from a carefully demarcated viewing area, stanchions separating the humans from the painting. I had this urge to reach across the divide and push that dish away from the edge.

For me that dish is the locus of tension. Is the dish going to hold or fall of the edge? One little bump on the table — which I can assure you I would have done inadvertently had I been there — and it goes crashing to the floor. Maybe it’s a visible sign of the tension still in the hearts and minds of those disciples. Was the Jesus sitting across the table real? Was the story he told them really true? Those questions and that tension are palpable in their postures and gestures. I can only imagine how acute the tension must have been when shortly after the moment captured in the painting  Jesus vanished from their sight.

I know that tension. I experience moments of extraordinary clarity, when God’s presence and God’s goodness are so real I can reach out and touch God’s wounded hands. And I experience moments when I wonder whether any of it is true,  when I feel acutely God’s  absence.  In those moments, I wonder if it will all hold together. Or will it go crashing to the floor? Is the resurrection life that Jesus promises more than just wishful thinking? 

Luke tells us that after Jesus disappeared, their hearts were burning within them, as if he became more real in his absence than in his presence.

I have my own version of Cleopas and his companions. They accompany me on the road with the risen Christ, who, by the way, is there whether we recognize him or not. Sometimes the road is only 7 miles; sometimes it feels like a lot longer. I’m grateful not to have to walk the road alone. Companions hold me up with their excitement at seeing the risen Christ, telling me how their hearts burn within them, even when whatever it is that I possess feels more like a flicker than a flame.

I met this week with a couple of nonagenarians whose faith had the quality of a fine, aged wine. They have endured the trials and can see God’s goodness and presence with the sharp-eyed vision of an eagle. They are the very incarnation of what last Sunday’s second lesson (1 Peter 1:3-9) described as an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” faith that has been refined by trial and has come out the other side as pure and precious as gold. I also had coffee the other day with a guy who told me of his deep prayer life and how God was answering his prayers and about the opportunities for ministry that came out of those prayers. The burning quality of his faith was contagious.

I don’t very often experience my faith with that kind of sharp clarity. My experience is more like Paul’s metaphor of seeing through a glass dimly. More like a dish teetering on the edge of the table and about to fall off. Why is that, I sometimes wonder. A function of temperament? Personal defect? Not trying hard enough? I never come up with an answer.

Which makes me all the more grateful for those with burning hearts. My fellow pilgrims and their witness are often the proof of the presence of the risen Christ. I’m grateful that my faith is not just a me and Jesus thing. My fellow travelers have seen the risen Christ, and that is enough encouragement to keep walking.

Tuesday in Holy Week

When I was a young associate pastor in St. Petersburg, Florida, at a large Missouri Synod church out in the western part of the city by the beaches, I got to know an older ELCA pastor who was at the historic church downtown. His name was Priit Rebane; I had the greatest respect for Priit; he was soft-spoken, theologically astute, and seemed to be full of pastoral wisdom. At one of our meetings, he told about coming out of the seminary, ready for ordination. He had learned all the theories about the virgin birth, about the resurrection and whether it happened or not, the various criticisms of scripture. A young theological hot shot, he was headed out into the parish ready to unleash all his learning on some unsuspecting parish. His mother sat him down and told him, “Priit, just tell them about Jesus.” 

In the gospel lesson for Tuesday of Holy Week, some curious Greeks come looking for Jesus. Jesus is transparent about who he is and what is coming. The questions and answers of the dialogue don’t provide much new information. We’ve seen all this elsewhere; we know the story. This encounter is less about having the right answers from Jesus than about seeing Jesus as he makes his way gently, persistently toward the cross. All the dialogue  invites us to see Jesus.

In our bones, in our souls, to the depth of our being, we understand that what’s happening this week is at the center not only of the Christian faith, but of our own lives with God and of our life together as a community of faith. We want to see Jesus.

 But what what are we looking for? It’s not enough to say that he was a good man, a good teacher, a miracle worker, an example to follow or even the victim of politics and oppression.

We are invited in today’s gospel to see the glorification of Jesus, the culmination of his whole ministry, the work that he came to do. We are invited to see Jesus lifted up as king of the universe.

Most importantly, we are invited to see the enthronement of Jesus on the cross. We are invited to see that in his death life came to us, that his crucifixion removed the barrier of sin and brokenness that stood before a loving God and a fallen humanity.

We are invited this week to see Jesus in the humble foot-washing and eucharistic meal of Maundy Thursday, in the trial, death, and burial of Good Friday, and finally, in the triumphant resurrection of Holy Saturday.

Carry those images in your mind and in your heart. They are icons of God’s love.

In Praise of Praise

flyfareellAs the time draws near to take leave of my current call, the days are full and my mind is even more full. In the congregation, there is a never-ending list of details in order to tie up loose ends with the staff, congregational leadership, program, worship, and so many other things. We have our house on the market and when a request comes in to show the house, we have to drop what we’re doing and go home for last minute tidying and vacating our dogs. We are also in the early stages of purchasing a home in Door County, and all the thousands of things on the checklist of a home purchase. You get the picture. A lot going on.

Yet this is also a critical time for me and for the people of Faith to do a good job of saying goodbye. 

Last week, I went to my last church council meeting. We went up the the sanctuary — our version of holy ground — for a ritual of leave-taking. I sat on a chair in front of the altar and one by one, each council member stepped forward, placed a hand or two on my shoulder and recounted something they have appreciated about my ministry and then offered a blessing or good wish for my future. The time concluded with all of them laying hands on me for a prayer of thanksgiving and blessing.

The next evening our Director of Youth Ministry, organized a going away party so that our high school and middle school youth would have a chance to say goodbye in their own setting. Having been here for 15 years, I have baptized a good number of them, which means for them, I have been their pastor for their entire life. We played some silly games, ate together, laughed a lot, and some of the high school kids spoke very specifically about what my ministry has meant to them. The evening ended again with laying on of hands and prayer.

In the nearly month since I announced I was leaving my email inbox has been full of notes of gratitude and remembering. I’m getting them in the mail, too. And in the hallway. And at the door of the nave on Sunday mornings.

It probably sounds like I’m trying to tell you know what a great pastor I’ve been. But that’s not the point.

The morning after the council meeting, Deb Hornell, our congregation president, my friend, colleague, and sometimes coach and mentor, emailed me with this message: “I hope you are able to absorb all the love, gratitude and good wishes coming your way. It struck me last night after Council laid hands on you how emotionally intense this process must be, and also how wonderful for you to experience what you mean to everyone. Few people get the chance to hear how they’ve made a difference for others.”

It’s that last sentence that really grabbed me. I think Deb is right. What I am experiencing is pretty unique. Not many people get the chance to hear how specifically they have made a difference in the lives of other people. For a lot of folks, the nice things that others say about them don’t get said until their funeral. How sad that they never get to hear them in life. All of this has been so wonderful and so wonderfully affirming. I have tried to record much of it in my journaling just so I don’t forget the impact of the experience. Quite simply, it is beautiful and priceless for people to tell you that you have made a difference in their life.

What could happen if we all took a little time in the ordinariness of the day to day to affirm the people who have touched our lives and made our journey more beautiful and vivid and meaningful?

It’s akin to a spiritual practice, and it makes a difference. I have encouraged my staff to join me in sitting down on Monday morning after a busy Sunday and write a few notes to the people who have touched them in the past week or who have gone beyond what they were required or who they witnessed doing something nice for someone else. The last thing on the agenda of our staff meetings has been “Blessings.” We have made space to tell each other when someone has done something well or gone beyond what was required. A culture of gratitude and affirmation is a pretty nice place to live.

So, if you’re still with me, will you do this? Sit down and write an email or, even better, a hand-written note to someone who has touched your life for the good. Tell them specifically what they have done and what it has meant to you. And would you agree to make that a regular practice in your life? As one on the receiving end, I can tell you that it means more than you will ever know.

We Are Going to Need Each Other

mlkspeech-1On Monday evening, I had the honor of delivering the keynote speech for the DuPage County Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration. It was a great evening that included great music and a dramatic delivery of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here is the text from which I gave my remarks on Monday.

I don’t have the words fully to express to you how honored I am to have the chance to stand in this pulpit this evening. I am humbled I am to stand in the line of the fine speakers you have had addressing God’s people on the occasion when we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I sat right there in the front row last year and was deeply moved by the words of Dr. Tracy Malone. I am grateful to my colleague and friend, Pastor Kevin Williams, and the people at Second Baptist Church for extending the invitation and for all the work that has gone into organizing and publicizing this event.

Pastor Williams called me on Friday afternoon to check in and see how things were with me.  “Man, something has changed,” he said. “We are going to need this gathering and each other more than ever.”  Amen to that.

When I accepted this invitation back in September, most of us thought we would be on the cusp of swearing in the first woman president of the United States. It didn’t work out that way. Instead, we are about to inaugurate a new president who campaigned on division, bigotry, and xenophobia. He won the presidency by way of the electoral college, though he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 millions votes. Some people have said that we have taken a step back in progress we had made in addressing the challenges of a racialized society. I wonder if that’s true. I have a hunch that the curtain has been pulled back revealing who we have been all along; but the ugliness is no longer hidden. It’s out there in the open for all of us to see; and it seems to legitimize action that comes of the darkest corners of our collective psyche.

I remember 8 years ago at inauguration time. There was almost this giddy sense of excitement and optimism. I invited our church staff over to our home to watch the inauguration. We ate snacks and toasted with champagne. The theme was hope, and in every place where a crowd gathered you could hear the chants, “Yes, we can.”  What a contrast to “Lock her up.”

Something has shifted. I don’t know many who are feeling that sense of unbridled optimism, even among those who voted for the president elect. Instead it’s like a pall of fear has descended on our whole country. Fear seems to be consistent among those who voted for him and those who didn’t. I’ve spent some time talking with those who voted for our president-elect. I’ve wanted to understand. Among many things I’ve discovered is that even those who are happy with the results of the election are not feeling a great sense of optimism and hope; they don’t feel like we have taken some giant step forward. It’s hard to know for sure what’s going on.

Fear is nothing new. In an age of iphones, social media, and the constant, 24/7 barrage of headlines and sound bites it’s a wonder we ever come out of our homes. The evening news is often little more than an update on what we should be afraid of today. What we eat, what we drive, what’s going on halfway around the world, what’s going on in our own city — the list of things we should be afraid of is never ending.

But the present fear goes beyond that. The campaign language of bigotry has unleashed a storm of bigoted actions. The disregard for truth has left us with an even greater suspicion of the institutions that are so vital to our democracy. We’ve even coined language for it, as if it’s perfectly acceptable and normal — they say we now live in a post-truth culture.

But it’s not normal. And it’s not the kind of country that I want to live in. I do not want to live in a country where truth doesn’t matter. I do not want to live in a country where fear and suspicion and hatred and stridency are the dominant forces that drive our public life.  Do we want communities where we are suspicious of each other? Where we choose to highlight our differences? Where there is no room for the stranger or for the person trying to make a new start, for the family trying to make a life for themselves, to escape the violence of their neighborhood or their home country? Do we want communities where we slice and dice and categorize based on color of skin or which street you live on or which symbols are in your house of worship or where your parents were born?

Dr. King had a vision for something greater and grander. On Christmas Eve, 1967, just a few months before he was assassinated he preached these words at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where he was co-pastor:  This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. . .Let me suggest first that if we are to have peace on earth our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means that we must develop a world perspective. No individual can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. . .As nations and individuals, we are interdependent. . .All life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.

That’s what we want. An interrelated community that reflects how the creator has made us. When God created that first man, God said it is not good for the man to be alone. So, God created the woman; in that moment began the interrelatedness of the human species. We are created to be in community. Not just created in community, but created to care for and love and support one another.

In my religious tradition, Jesus is kind of a big deal. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lifted up the necessity of caring for one another. When he was preaching for a crowd of thousands and saw that they had no lunch, he fed them. When he encountered a blind man, he restored his sight, the deaf man could hear again, the lame man could walk again, the lepers he cleansed. He authorized his followers to do the same thing. He told a story about how some folks had given food to the hungry and a drink of water to the thirsty and clothing to the naked. And when they did that, Jesus told them that they had done it for him. When we serve our neighbor, we are serving God. We see God in the face of our neighbor. Caring for one another in community and relationship is holy work. That’s the beloved community of our dreams.

The challenge always is to turn our dreams into reality. This week, all our attention is on Washington, there being an inauguration and all. Some folks think there’s this big thing called government that’s going to take care of stuff. We elect the right people and the right things will happen. And when we don’t elect the right people, well, bad things happen and that’s government. It’s too big and the forces are too strong and we can’t do anything about it. After all, you can’t fight city hall.

But I refuse to believe in that kind of determinism, that we are subject to inevitable and unassailable forces. We are not victims of the vagaries of history. If there’s anything the legacy of Dr. King has show us it’s that common, ordinary people have the agency to be a force for the good in the communities where they live.

Too many people subscribe to a narrative of the civil rights movement that is simplistic and simply not true. In his book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne summarizes that popular narrative like this:

Traditionally, relationships between the races in the South were oppressive. Many Southerners were very prejudiced against Blacks. In 1954, the Supreme Court decided this was wrong. Inspired by the court, courageous Americans, Black and white, took protest to the street, in the form of sit-ins, bus boycotts, and Freedom Rides. The nonviolent protest movement, led by the brilliant and eloquent Reverend Martin Luther King, aided by a sympathetic federal government, most notably the Kennedy brothers and a born-again Lyndon Johnson, was able to make America understand racial discrimination as a moral issue. Once Americans understood that discrimination was wrong, they quickly moved to remove racial prejudice and discrimination from American life, as evidenced by the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. Dr. King was tragically slain in 1968. Fortunately, by that time the country had been changed, changed for the better in some fundamental ways. The movement was a remarkable victory for all Americans. By the 1970s, Southern states where Blacks could not have voted ten years earlier were sending African Americans to Congress.

Simplistic. And wrong. The movement was much more than that. That’s not how it happened. The civil rights movement didn’t start in Washington with the courts or with federal government. It started in the towns and villages of Mississippi and Alabama where people whose names we don’t remember went door to door and did the long, slow, hard work of relating with people and organizing them, folks like Amzi Moore and Mrs. Haner and Mrs. McGhee and Annie Devine. Dozens of college students and a handful of high school students spread across Mississippi and went door to door getting to know people and finding out who would show up for actions and what people were worried about. When big actions were planned, actions like bus boycotts and the March from Selma to Montgomery, leaders and ordinary folk gathered to plan and to train. They role played about what would be said or done in certain situations. They trained people in how to take a beating. A younger version of U. S. Representative John Lewis was present for that training, and maybe that’s what allowed him to take the beating at the hands of the Alabama State Police that left him bleeding on the Edmund Pettis Bridge with a fractured skull. By the way, you can say many things about U. S. Representative John Lewis. But you cannot call him a man of all talk an no action. He is one of the living heroes of our democracy.

The leaders of the civil rights movement understood that when citizens want to get serious about becoming agents for the common good in their own communities it takes a lot of long, slow, persistent, consistent, and mostly unglamorous work. It requires sitting down one on one, talking to people. It requires painstaking research to discover what actions can be taken that will move us towards justice, righteousness, and that peaceable kingdom. It involves knowing the power structures in a community and institutions. It demands planning actions that will elicit a reaction. When the civil rights movement leaders planned marches and put school children in the front of those marches so that they would be the first ones to encounter Bull Connor’s police dogs, that was not an accident. It was planned to elicit a certain reaction. Those young people who went door to door building relationships and training leaders began to coalesce their power. They were organizers. It was long, slow work, but it was respectful work, work that was intentional and the kind of work that was absolutely essential to their success.

Weeks ago, when I was thinking about these remarks, and making some notes, I wrote this note to myself:  “I don’t want to make this speech into a commercial for community organizing.” A few weeks later, I came back to that note and I wrote in the margin, “But maybe I do.” 

What I have experienced in organizing is that we can turn our care for our communities and our neighborhoods and our neighbors into action that is more than symbolic. Symbolic action has its place. This gathering this evening is mostly symbolic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important. It’s just to recognize the limitations of a symbolic gathering. Hopefully, it will be inspirational, and we will leave here with a sense of hope and a determination to go to work. At its best, this gathering will prod us to action. But this gathering makes no plan for action.

If we were to make a commitment to join together for the sake of working together, that would be something different. If we made a commitment to plan together and to work together and we began organizing ourselves to actually do that, we could expect that we would begin to enact the vision that we have for what our community should be. If we were to make specific determination about the challenges of our community and pull together the power of the people, we would discover that we can do things, we can make a difference. It doesn’t have to be all talk.

What I have experienced in community organizing is the best chance we have to enact God’s vision for what the world should be. I am a leader with DuPage United, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national parent organization for organizing work that is being done across the country. We are doing real work. Here in our community, we have taken action to stand in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters in the face of ramped up Islamophobia. We have pushed the DuPage County sheriff’s Department to provide Crisis Intervention Training for all of the sheriff’s deputies out on the beat. We are in the process of setting up community mental health crisis centers so we keep people who are having a mental health crisis out of the emergency room and out of jail, and most importantly, insure that they get the help they need. We can’t rely on the state to get this work done. The state of Illinois is broken. We’ve got to take things into our own hands, and we can do it. Yes, we can. 

In the next four years we are going to need each other. We are going to need to be in relationship. We are going to need to be organized. We simply must do the hard, slow, painstaking work of meeting with one another, developing a web of relationship in our community, so that I stand with you when you need me, and you stand with me when I need you. It remains to be seen whether the hateful and divisive rhetoric of the campaign will turn into policy and action. In a sense, it doesn’t matter; we’re going to need each other. You need to know that when your health insurance stops covering pre-existing conditions, your neighbors will stand next to you and fight for what’s right. When you are required to register because you are a Muslim, you need to know that there will be Christians who will stand in that line and get registered right along with you. When the school to prison pipeline keeps growing and flourishing, you need to know that you will have neighbors who will take action with you to demand that fairness and equality and justice are blind to skin color. We will need each other more than ever. I believe that’s the work that Dr. King was involved in. I think that’s the work that preserves and continues his legacy. It doesn’t matter who is president of the United States or what the Congress does or doesn’t do. We will join hands and we will work and plans and organize and fight and demand together, until justice flows down like water.

Indulge me with just a few more minutes to speak to those of you here tonight who are members of the white Christian church. If this speech was a letter, this would be the P. S. The white church has a miserable record of silence, complacency, and complicity when it comes to matters of race in this country. Too often, the white church has worked to maintain the structures of racism that have oppressed our fellow citizens of African descent, systems that have denied them the same opportunities that we white people have taken for granted.

I confess that I am late to this work. I confess my own complicity. I confess that it took the shootings at Mother Emmanuel Church to wake me up. The shooter was a member of a church in my denomination. He grew up in a white Lutheran church and attended confirmation class, probably not all that different from the confirmation classes I teach. Yet somehow his connection to church, to my church, could not erase a deep hate based only on race.

Shortly after that shooting,  I went to a colleague who pastors a church with a significant African American membership and asked if we could get members of our congregations together; I said I needed them to help us understand the problems and challenges of racism.  He schooled me; he told me “That’s not our job.” He told me, “You white people need to do your work, begin to understand racism and white privilege and how racialized our society has become.” I was taken aback. I had never heard that before. So, I got on the Facebook page for the clergy of my denomination. And I asked the question there. And I got schooled again, this time not so gently. “You white people need to do your own work. When you have done your work, come back and then we can talk.” So, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. In my congregation, all of our staff have been through anti-racism training. We have sponsored anti-racism training for our members. We are reading; we are having conversations; we are learning. We are waking up.

In the past year, Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Drew G. I. Hart have both written compelling books on racism and the church. While they disagree on certain points, they both believe that we will not make substantial progress in dismantling racism in our country until the white church shows up and starts making it a priority. That is not to say that white liberals are going to bring racial equality to the people of color. That’s a colonial attitude that has been part of the problem. I mean to say that we have our own work to do in recognizing white privilege and doing our work to begin dismantling the structures of racism.

This is my challenge to you, white church. Show up. Do your work. Have the conversations. Read TaNehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Nell Ervin Painter, The History of Whiteness, Debby Irving, Waking up White.

We are going to need each other. And if we in the white church are going to be our best selves and really be neighbors, then we simply must do our own work.

No matter the darkness, there is always light. No matter the fear, there is always hope. Together we can do this work.

This is a song that I learned as a child and I will never out grow it. Dr. King said that darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Together we will shine the light into the dark places.

(And we sang:)This little light of mine.I’m going to let it shine. . .

Ev’ry where I go, I’m going to let it shine. . .

“Together with the Levites and the aliens. . .”

This evening at our Thanksgiving Eve service, we will read these words from Deuteronomy:

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house. (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

I think of my grandfather, the grandson of immigrants from Germany who came to America because they were starving in Pomerania and hoped for a better life in the New World. They settled in Kansas and farmed the land. It was a hard life, but they had enough to eat.

Grandpa was the son who went off to college and seminary to become a pastor. Ironically, his first call was to northern Saskatchewan to serve nearly 20 preaching stations of German/Russian immigrants who had fled Europe for the same reason his own grandfather had left. After a dozen or so years in the wilderness, he went home to Kansas to pastor congregations there. Yup. The son of German immigrants could call Kansas home.

I think today of the fact that contrary to the myths that I learned in elementary school about Thanksgiving, it was the indigenous folks already here who made survival possible for those first European immigrants to the North American continent. Thanks. 

Our faith reminds us that we are all pilgrims. We all are on a journey. We are all strangers and aliens. And we are invited to celebrate together the goodness of God. We are invited to remember that none of us does this alone, and none of us does this without provision from the One who has created us. We are creatures, all of us.  The Israelites, the Levites, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Mexicans, the Muslims, the members of the LGBTQ community, the descendants of slaves in the Americas, the descendants of starving Pomeranians. Creatures and fellow celebrants. 

I grew up in a small town in western Nebraska, and all I knew was people who looked just like me. The only diversity I knew was that besides Lutherans, there were Catholics, Baptists, and people who didn’t go to church. How my life has been enriched to know people who are different than that narrow slice of white, European heritage. Of all the things I am grateful for this Thanksgiving, I am most mindful in these tumultuous times of the gift and blessing of friendship and relationship with people who have taught me that life is large and who have shown me the rich mosaic of the human community. Whatever happens in the months to come, I stand with you. You are gift.

Happy Thanksgiving.

When Being Weird Is Good

WeirdChurchA review essay of “Weird Church: Welcome to the 21st Century, by Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon, (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2016).

A good bit of my reflecting time and my conversation time these days is taken up with trying to figure out a way into the very uncertain and ambiguous future of congregational ministry. So many cultural shifts have taken place over the past 25 years that the context in which the local congregation does its ministry is hardly recognizable compared to the context in which I entered parish ministry 29 years ago. There’s no time to waste in engaging the challenge of adapting the form, structures, and practices of parish ministry. I’m so grateful for colleagues, congregational leaders, and indeed, a whole congregation willing to enter into this uncharged territory with me.

As we embrace the conversation and try to figure things out, we are always looking for dialogue partners who can help inform our own hunches about what lies in the future. Yes, I believe they are really little more than hunches; no one has firm, well-shaped answers for what’s next.

I most recently found a worthy dialogue partner in the book Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century, by Beth Ann Estock, and Paul Nixon. I know that I’ve uncovered something useful when a book pushes my thoughts in multiple directions, and when I can’t wait to talk about what I’ve read with colleagues and other lay leaders.

Estock and Nixon begin their book with a brief explication of Spiral Dynamics, a theory of human bio/psycho/social evolution. The theory suggests that throughout human history the species has followed a particular pattern of change and growth in human and cultural development. In these opening decades of the 21st century we are witnessing a transition from the rigid rules of character and morality, through the secular organization of society for the sake of the individual, and into a values system that goes beyond the needs of the individual and begins to focus on the needs of the larger community. In part, they suggest, the convulsions the church is currently experiencing is because our model for ministry is still focused on the spiritual needs of the individual, and we have not until recently paid more than lip service to the communal work of caring for all people, issues of equality, consensus, reconciliation, and care for the planet. I’m not enough acquainted with Spiral Dynamics to make any evaluation of its pertinence to congregational ministry; however, I’m also not sure that one has to buy into the theory to find value in their analysis and provocations for thinking about ways to move forward in fruitful congregational ministry.

The first half of the book offers a brief explanation of seven shifts that the authors believe are essential if Christian congregation ministry is going to be viable and sustainable in the coming decades.

  1. Let go of our fears of decline as measured in the things the church under Christendom has measured — attendance, members, budgets. Move into the freedom of a hopeful future guided by the Spirit. Clearly this is an attitudinal shift more than a behavior shift.
  2. Shift the focus from seeing the congregation and the current members as the primary constituency for ministry and  move towards seeing the neighborhoods and other people gatherings that our members are a part of as the primary constituency and location for ministry.
  3. Give up the illusion that the society in which we live is a Christian society; the society in which we live is governed by economics and politics that are in contradiction to a Christian understanding of the world and human community. Instead, adopt the mindset of the early church of going into that world as subversives for the sake of God’s rule.
  4. Give up the mindset that views people as either in the church or out of the church. Rather begin to view all people as God’s people; the witness of the church is to accompany people in trying to make vibrant and living the relationship with God that they are already seeking and yearning for.
  5. Give up the notion that the ministry of the church is to give people the right knowledge about Christianity. Rather, our ministry is to draw people into a lively relationship with God which is more a matter of the heart than the head.
  6. Shift from trying to control how things work and develop through an institutional structure (the local church) and just start stuff and let it go, giving our work the permission and the freedom to grow organically in ways that we can’t predict.
  7. Shift our understanding of leadership from skillful managing of an institution to incarnational leaders who enter into relationship with others and mentor them to do the same.

Even as I write these down for this review, it strikes me that no one of them is unrelated to what I’ve come across before. Still, I found it helpful to have them stated clearly and succinctly. (I’d encourage taking a look at the book to get the full treatment of each of the shifts.) I’m interested in having the leaders of my congregation take a look at these chapters and engage in conversation of the implications for this little corner of God’s kingdom.

The second half of the book is a collection of 18 short examples of how congregations and ministries around the US have experimented with these various shifts. I’m grateful that the authors explicitly offered these examples not as blueprints for what any other congregation should do, rather as examples of the creativity of faith communities seeking to do God’s work in the world and respond to the cultural changes going on around us. I can’t wait to lift these up with my leaders and see what creativity it might spark among us.

Here again is a hopeful treatment of the church today, a book that isn’t forecasting the complete demise of Christian congregations in the US. I also do not think that’s where we’re headed. With the authors of Weird Church, I, too, am tremendously hopeful for what will emerge and tremendously excited to be part of both conversation and action as we seek to do God’s work in the world in our very specific corner of the kingdom.

When Silence Is not Golden

troubled mindsA review essay of “Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission,” by Amy Simpson

You might think that I would be that pastor who is out in front, leading the charge to make the church a safe place to talk about mental illness, that guy who makes sure that my congregation carries out effective ministry to those with mental illness and their families. After all, I have been closely connected to mental illness my entire life.

I think both of my parents spent much of their adult life suffering from depression. My father’s depression was never diagnosed, at least as far as I know, and consequently, he never received any treatment. My mother’s depression was diagnosed, and some medication of the early generations of anti-depressants were prescribed — I remember her talking about Prozac —  though I have no idea how faithful she was in taking her medication. When I was a pre-teen, my mother attempted suicide twice. An uncle went through decades of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). An aunt had what my parents referred to as “a nervous breakdown.” Just what that was, we never really talked about. In the brief year between college and seminary, I spent a short time working at a university research hospital on the pysch floor as a pshychiatric technician; one of my responsibilities was to assist with ECT. Throughout my pastoral ministry, I have walked with and ministered to many families facing significant mental health issues. When approached, I have tried my best to be helpful.

Yet, despite all this, I have been complicit in the church’s silence about mental illness.

That’s the conclusion I have come to after reading Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, by Amy Simpson.

Ms. Simpson begins by telling her own story of growing up as a preacher’s kid and of her mother’s descent into psychosis and the decades long impact that disease has had, not only on her mother, but the entire family. In fact, the entire book is peppered with firsthand accounts of mental illness in her own family and in the families of people she interviewed in writing this book.

After beginning with her own family story, she goes on to make the argument that mental illness is mainstream; nearly every family has to deal with it in some fashion. Yet as common as it is, there is a cultural code of silence, and still, there is a sense of shame about its invasive presence into our lives. I have found the same thing to be true in my own experience. As I start down the list of active families in the congregation I serve, it is remarkable how many of them are touched by diagnosed mental illness (not to mention the many more whose illness goes undiagnosed.) Yet somehow, still we operate in the church under the cultural code of silence.

The rest of the book is a systematic deepening of our understanding of mental illness and the variety of ways in which the church might be a beacon of hope for individuals and families dealing with mental illness. In no place does Simpson go into a lot of detail, but at every turn, I found helpful information that has broadened my understanding. From thumbnail sketches of the varieties of mental illness, to first hand accounts of what its like to suffer from mental illness, to the ways both individuals and families forge mechanisms for coping, to the extraordinarily difficult task of navigating the healthcare system to get proper treatment, the book provides the basics for individuals and congregations to be inspired and empowered to take action. I came away from this book with a renewed commitment that I am no longer going to be that pastor whose silence contributes to the stigma that mental illness carries. By my own commitment to speak, I am resolved to make the congregation I serve a safe place for those who suffer from mental illness and their families. By coming out of our silence, I’m hopeful that we will also begin to take action.