Greta Thunberg & my hopes for my future daughter

The United Nations Assembly is being held in New York City, and on Monday 16-year old Greta Thunberg delivered her passionate plea to the Assembly on addressing climate change.  While many have applauded her effort, she’s had her detractors as well.  I realize that people all over have their opinions about climate change.  I’ll keep my commentary on that to myself since it’s a futile effort any way.  Rather, let me address this question:

Why would anyone stifle or even ridicule a 16-year old for standing up for what she passionately believes in?

I don’t have a daughter yet, but I hope so, God-willing.  If she ends up taking a place in my life, my hope for her is that I raise her right.  By raising her right I mean, I hope I raise her to stand up for what she believes in.  I hope she commits to something in this life that matters so much to her that she’s willing to spend countless hours researching and becoming knowledgeable on the topic.  I hope she makes phone calls to adults in positions of power and privilege and isn’t intimidated by them.  I hope she “walks the talk,” kind of like taking a 2-week sailboat voyage across the Atlantic because it’s ecologically responsible.  I hope she sees that she has incredible agency and has the strength and courage to exercise it, even when no one is behind her – including me, perhaps.

I hope my daughter ends up like Greta Thunberg.

The more troublesome issue isn’t that a kid is standing up for a “made up” or “insignificant” cause.  The disturbing thing is that adults, many of whom rant about how younger generations have no integrity, don’t stand for anything, and don’t take the time to do the work to make changes happen, then turn around and ridicule a young woman who decides to do so.  Or we patronize them by vainly applauding their effort but not listening to their words or even thinking they don’t have anything to offer in the way of making the world better and being part of taking responsibility for it.

You may not believe in climate change.  You might think her efforts are futile themselves or that she’s simply delusional.  That’s your opinion.  But what you or I cannot question is her integrity, her sense of personal accountability, her conviction, and her strength of heart.  What you or I don’t have the right to do is discourage her to act on her convictions simply because of our opinion.

As I get older, I get more cynical and are wiling to take less risks.  That’s just the way of the world, as I’ve experienced it – tragic as that may be.

What I can do is support young people who are not yet where I’m at in life.  In fact, I think that’s my obligation: to foster and encourage a strength of character for the young women and men –  the Greta Thunbergs out there –  within my sphere of influence.

For my future daughter.

All of us adults have an obligation to do that same.

 

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Sermon 1/31/21 @ OFLC, Rockford, MN

Text: Mark 1: 21-28
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

“A new teaching – with authority!”

I find it interesting that the crowd’s takeaway from witnessing Jesus free this man of an unclean spirit is a that it was a show of authority. In fact, when I think of Jesus’ teachings: the hungry, care for the poor and suffering, stand for justice on behalf of those trampled upon by the world, and die on a cross, authority is not what comes to my mind. It is showing us a new way, perhaps, which begs the question: “what exactly is Jesus trying to tell us and show us?”

In the Navy, there is a document called, “The Charge of Command.” It’s required reading for every aspiring Commanding Officer as part of their qualification to hold command. In the Charge of Command, it tells these leaders there are two concepts that every Commanding Officer needs to understand: responsibility and authority. While they are related, they are not the same. Authority can change depending on a variety of factors. It be delegated or it can be wielded by the Commanding Officer alone. It can be given and increased by those above and empowered by those below the Commanding Officer. It can also be diminished due to the Commander’s poor leadership or character, or it can be taken away by external forces – someone senior to them or even their subordinates, if the Commanding Officer is acting illegally or is gravely immoral or unethical.

Responsibility, on the other hand, can never be delegated or passed off to another. If a mistake is made – say a loss of life or damage to their ship – the Commanding Officer bears the burden of that mistake, regardless if their actions directly caused it or not. Every aspect of the ship and every single person under their command is their responsibility. They are accountable for the safety and well-being of the same, no exceptions.

In short, authority comes and goes, but responsibility is constant, and never ending.

I wonder if the crowds got it wrong about Jesus and authority. If Jesus was asserting his authority, then his teaching and healing become about wielding the power of God in order to increase his following or even overthrow the established order at the time. It Jesus’ words and actions were about authority, then they all become about power and control…..Jesus died on the cross so that God could assert and wield authority……over all of us. But that doesn’t sound quite right, does it?

I think the crowds got it wrong. Jesus wasn’t asserting his authority, but rather taking responsibility – responsibility for all humankind. Jesus heals this demon possessed man, freeing him from his affliction because Jesus felt a fundamental responsibility for his life, and to liberate that life from what held it captive. And Jesus takes responsibility for so many others – the poor, the suffering, those in pain, those who mourn and weep, those who are powerless and trampled upon. Jesus takes responsibility for them without exception, even to the point of laying his life down for them….even to the point of death on a cross. The crowds got it wrong, and even today, we as the church and followers of Christ get it wrong as well.

It is no secret that the Christianity and the Church seem to be waning in influence these days. Not only is church attendance down, but people are even shedding the title of Christian. I’m not so sure that’s because of a lack of faith or commitment to God and the Church. I think there are a lot of people these days that wish the Church and Christianity had the same authority in people’s lives as it did in “the good old days.” There are some factions of the Church and Christianity doing everything within their might to take authority back by any means, by force even. They are doing so in the name of Christ, and are doing great harm to others and the fabric of our society. Yet, the delusion of authority is a losing effort for the Church – and will spell its own demise and death.

However, the Church has always been at its best, its most faithful, when it takes responsibility for others. Healing the afflicted. Comforting those who mourn. Feeding the hungry. Liberating the captive. Working for justice and mercy on behalf of those who have been treated unjustly. When the Church accepts responsibility for the lives of those it is called to minister and witness to, even if it is to the detriment to their reputation and standing in the world, then the Church is following in the way of Christ, the one who bore the responsibility of all humankind.

When the church understands that this responsibility is theirs without exception and can never be passed off, then it is truly and fully being Christ’s Church.

And for you, for me, for all our Christian brothers and sisters, and for every congregation that assembles in the name of Jesus today.: that is our challenge. Jesus’ words still ring true, “Will you care for those and that which I entrust to you? Will stand for those who suffer at the hands of injustice and hatred? Will you bear the joyful burden of being my Church in the world?”

“Will you take responsibility for others just as I have borne responsibility for you?”

Thanks be to God for such a great and wonderful responsibility. Amen.







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Sermon 18 Oct 2020: Our Father’s Lutheran, Rockford

Texts: Psalm 102:17-22 & 1 Thessalonians 5:15-22

Good morning!  It is good to be with you on not only my first Sunday with you, but also my first day with you!  It’s been a whirlwind…I agreed to starting on Wednesday, and started planning worship on Friday.  Speaking of that, I spoke with Tammy about what we’re doing for worship, and she told me, “The theme is prayer.”  So when I thought about what I should say to you all, my first question was, “How does prayer work?  To explain that, let me tell you a little story.  

When I started my time as a Navy Chaplain, they send all newly sworn in chaplains to a school where they teach you the basics of what it means to be a chaplain.  One of the events was a 4 day field exercise where they taught us basic “expeditionary skills” – which amounted to learning a very intense version of basic camping skills.  One of the skills we learned was land navigation – taking a map, a compass, and being able to find various way points set out randomly in a forest.  It’s not the most graceful exercise – imagine a bunch of pastors and recently ordained seminarians trying this out.

I was decent at land navigation – which isn’t saying much – and they paired me with a chaplain who was struggling with it.  That meant we spent a lot of time getting lost.  Each time we’d get lost, we’d look at the map, try to retrace our steps in order to get our bearings, and he would stop us and say, “I think we should pray.”  And so, we prayed.  And about a second after the Amen, he’d look at me and say, “I think the Spirit wants us to go this way.” And he’d take off.  

Let’s just say…..our prayer didn’t work.  And it didn’t work the 5 other times he tried it.

Now I think most of us agree, prayer doesn’t work that way.  Yet, we pray for miracles, we pray for healing, we pray for better relationships, for good weather while we sit in the deer stand or bird blind.  We pray for a Vikings win this afternoon (no matter how unlikely that is).  The truth is, people have had this view of prayer since the beginning of time.  In the Psalm we just read, we pray, because “God heeds our requests.”  In our passage from 1 Thessalonians, we’re told to pray because it’ll make us feel better, allow uu to be “joyful always, and thankful in all circumstances.”  But what does it mean when our prayers go unanswered?  What does it mean that what we pray for, doesn’t turn out the way we had hoped  or planned it would?  

If prayer doesn’t work that way, then why do we pray?

This past couple weeks, my wife Kelly has been telling me about one of her friends and colleague, Brian.  She learned that recently Brian was struggling with the fact one of his close friends had contracted COVID.  Initially, those around Brian couldn’t understand why he was struggling with it so much….until they learned he had been seeing this person.  In fact, they were in love, deeply in love….Brian had proposed to him just before the doctors decided to initiate a coma.  This week, as doctors have been unsuccessful to initiate any type of recovery, Brian and everyone in his circle is praying for a miracle, under that shadow that it’s very likely the odds are not in his favor right now.

Now, I don’t think it’s wrong to pray for miracles, or even to make requests of God.  And I think it’s also ok to be skeptical of the power of prayer, as if God will answer our specific prayers – and prioritize them above all others.  When it comes to how we pray, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way, and I’m not arrogant enough to say “this is how prayer works or doesn’t work.”  Yet, it doesn’t answer the question: why do we pray? 

Our passage from 1 Thessalonians gives us a clue: “Do not scoff at the prophesies, but test everything that is said.  Hold on to what is good.”

Hold on to what is good. 

When I think about Brian and the love of his life, who’s life is hanging by a thread right now, we pray for that very reason: to hold on to what is good.  And what is good right now is acknowledging the deep love shared by two people in a moment like this.  So people are praying, wanting to hold on to that goodness, wanting to connect to it.  It’s a way of connecting.  And that is why we pray.  We pray as a way to connect to others and to the divine. It is a way to connect to God’s mercy, justice, and love.  It is a way to hold onto what is good in the mess of life.  The good thing is this: that God in Christ is all around us and among us.  Prayer is a way to connect – an act of trust.  Prayer is an act of faith.

So keep praying for those miracles.  And pray even if you doubt the very thing you’re praying for.  But pray – holding on to what is good. Holding on to a God who in Christ who has, is, and will always hold on to us.  Amen.

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Short message on 30 August 2020

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” ~ Matthew 16:21-28

As I sit here on a Sunday morning, drinking my iced coffee and reflecting on the Democratic and Republican National Conventions recently held, one thing is clear regardless what candidate you’re backing.

We love power. And we love leaders who can project power in a way keeps our greatest fears far from us.

I don’t know how to say it any other way, but it has always been that way throughout time. As Americans, we value strength. Not strength of character so much as strength in the ways power is wielded. From George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt “walking softly and carrying a big stick” to FDR, Reagan, Obama, and now Trump, Americans want their leaders to be powerful, and compromisingly so, even willing to overlook their moral and ethical deficiencies.

Christians are no different. It’s why people love Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the other countless religious leaders we follow. It’s their ability to keep our fears far away and influence the social and political battlefield with their rhetoric, with a few Scripture passages thrown in for good measure. The discomforting revelation is that we love these leaders because of their ability to wield and harness power – in this case, God.

That is what makes this whole power thing so dangerous, especially for Christians.

Now what I am not saying is Christians should disengage from the world and not care about who’s in the highest offices leading our nation. What I am saying is this: if that comes at the expense of our fundamental mission – to care and love those who suffer – then we will truly become lost. Reading what I just wrote, perhaps we already are lost, possibly beyond saving.

The call to suffer for another, particularly those who are already suffering, is what I take away from this passage from Matthew this morning. Jesus announces he must suffer. Peter vehemently objects, and why not? He loves his leader powerful; it’s no different from us today. Jesus’ very well known response is important, however. Jesus not only reminds his disciples of his primary purpose and mission, he also reminds them of theirs. “You must be willing to suffer – for my sake.” We must be willing to suffer on account of the One who suffers and bears the suffering of all humankind.

My advice to you all who might be reading this: go ahead and keep on posting on social media. Back your favorite horse in the elections, and do the American thing and vote. But if you call yourself Christian, and perhaps even if you don’t, please don’t let that be at the expense of what we are first and foremost called to do: suffer deeply for one another and especially for those whom God shows us are suffering the most (not the people and suffering WE judge worthy to acknowledge).

We do that, because as this scripture passage says, we are loved by a higher power who demonstrated that power by suffering – for us.

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Adversity & Hard Work: Race, a pandemic, justice & reconciliation

Adversity doesn’t build character.  It reveals it.

If ever there was a time this maxim was true, it is now.  For perhaps the first time since the events of 9/11/2001, the nation is facing collective adversity brought on by a pandemic and the violence motived by racism and partisan ideology.  That adversity is revealing things about people – good, bad, and somewhere in between.  We’ve all been pushed to a breaking point, and our deepest attitudes and beliefs are being laid bare.  We can no longer hide or remain silent.  That is a good thing.

You’re seeing complicity and hatred being revealed.  You’re seeing empathy and the beginning of commitment being revealed.  That’s the thing about adversity; no matter what your reaction is to it, it will push you one way or the other.  You either avoid it or face it.  You either resist it or embrace it.  Adversity reveals what lies within the deepest areas of our heart.  Jesus told parables about people being sheep or goats, wheat or chaff.  Adversity is hand of judgment.  It is the winnowing fork that reveals our character.

Adversity is a good thing.

Christians should not dispute that the church must stand on the side of justice, particularly for the lowest in society.  The appeal of Christianity is that Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection revealed the character of God.  God’s character when it comes to justice is one sided.  When worldly powers oppress and crush people, God’s justice “rolls like streams” to topple those powers so that people’s dignity and life are preserved as God intended.  God’s justice has desired people live free from hard-hearted Egyptian pharaohs, free from conquering Babylonian kings, and free from brutal Roman emperors.  In matters of justice, God stands firmly on one side. There is no room for interpretation. Power used to enslave, conquer, and oppress are always unjust, and when that is known, we are to speak and act.

Where God stands with respect to reconciliation, while linked to justice, is distinctly different.  Christians should also not dispute that the church must stand for reconciliation that includes all people.  It is much for the oppressor as the oppressed; for the powerful as the powerless.  In “Just Mercy,” Bryan Stevenson writes, “The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”  Scripture gives account that Jesus offered “unmerited grace” to corrupt tax collectors, Roman centurions, and criminals as well as the downtrodden and impoverished.  Injustice is a cancer, killing everyone’s soul.

This creates a moment of adversity for the church.  Can we maintain a one-sided stance in matters of justice, while participating in reconciliation that offers unmerited grace to all people?

I think the church will be called to do a hard thing in the days to come.  Right now it is being called to a collective, public voice and presence for justice, beyond a few impassioned clergy.  However, the church must also imagine what its role in reconciliation will be.  I think that will be harder, because historically and based on human nature, it’s easier to take sides in advancing reconciliation.  That is not in line with God’s reconciliatory nature.  So, what should it look like?

The church must work to re-establish trust.  Very pragmatically, the church’s role is to bring all parties to the table to open dialogue, facilitate healing, and seek mutual understanding.  I believe this is when the church is at its best, rather than trying to advance institutional solutions on its own.  The church has to find ways to get the lion and the ox to sit down to establish safety and trust among each other.  Of course, these ways must meet people where they’re at emotionally.  I’m also totally aware that now may not be the time for such a thing to occur.  This also does not mean the church should waver in its action or tone down its voice in standing against injustice and with those who suffer at the hands of it.  Yet, without trust, there can be no reconciliation, and there can be no justice.  If there is no trust, solutions – at least ones that lead to a lasting collective and systemic change – will be impossible to come by.  As emotions reach a steady state and people ready themselves to do that work, the new adversity facing society will be the inability to trust.  That adversity will reveal even more about people’s character.

Yet, adversity is a good thing.  Adversity is good for the church, and when the moment comes, it will be forced into the hard work of reconciliation.  In that time, the church’s reconciliatory character will be revealed, but not as an institution that pushes solutions.  Rather, it will be its character as a collective body that insists upon and does the hard work of establishing and building trust.  The question is, will we let that character shine through?

 

 

 

 

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What will you preach on Sunday? Race, violence, and our sight problem

The thoughts expressed here are the author’s alone and are not the official stance of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, US Marine Corps, or the Navy Chaplain Corps.

“For the LORD sees not as a [human] sees; [humans] look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” ~ 1 Samuel 16:7

George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Christian Cooper. There are so many others, but the result is the same: discrimination and violence – and fatal – towards yet another African-American simply because of the color of their skin. When it comes to race, we have a sight problem.

Yet, it’s not a justice problem. It’s a moral one.

Racial justice today has become about optics. While the wheels of justice turn, they’re turning too slowly for some and too quickly for others. Those in power, however, aren’t interested in change. They’re only interested in the optics of how their words and actions (or inaction) will be perceived by their base. Optics lead us to believe those in power are actually listening. All the while, the cycle repeats itself. Violence, death, outrage, debate…and nothing really changes. Public leaders make promises and appearances that appease their base, and no substantial change happens. And we continue to choose what we want to see.

The truth is, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery were murdered long before the day of their tragic deaths. Their murderers…..they sit in pews on Sunday. They show up to fellowship and ministry events. They are even likely baptized. Will we continue to say nothing to them? Don’t we have a moral obligation to say something to them?

An even more deadly problem is that we in the church stopped addressing individual and collective morality. What one believes is now a private thing, and when someone exhibits hatred in their words and actions we’re either polite, “agreeing to disagree,” or hope they’ll just leave our beloved church family, and we breathe a sigh of relief when they do. If we say anything these days we do it on social media, naming the injustice and racism. That again is just about optics, and it doesn’t change anything. Morality gets to the heart of that matter: our beliefs and values affect our sight.

Author and humanitarian Jacqueline Novogratz, wrote in her book, “Moral Imagination”, “By moral, I don’t mean adherence to established rules of authority regardless of consequence, I mean a set of principles set on elevating our individual and collective dignity.”

Morality sees the truth about racism: it starts in the heart. The strangulation, the bullet fired, the lie told over the phone….they started well before the actual act itself. Preachers, your task is not easy this Sunday. Yet if we don’t ask our people to take responsibility for each other, holding each other accountable for hatred, prejudice, and racism when we see it among us and in ourselves, people will continue to die. Without collective moral principles around race, we’ll never exhibit the moral courage needed to combat racism, and we’ll continue to be blind to the divine justice we so desperately need right now.

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