“This is America”: Why you should watch it, but won’t.

By now, Childish Gambino’s (Donald Glover) video “This is America” has millions of views….63.6 million and counting, to be exact.  I’ve watched it at least 10 times.  It’s complex, smart, thought-provoking, and powerful.

You can watch the full video here.

The commentaries on the video are just as numerous as the views.  I’m not going to offer that here, because I think if you watch it, you’ll probably one, watch it as many times as I have and two, come to your own conclusions and interpretations.  What I want to point out is, there’s a good number of you who simply won’t watch the video.

Glover pushes the race conversation further in a provocative way; some may say disturbing.  I wouldn’t use those descriptors, however.  The word I would use would be uncomfortable.  The bottom line is that the video will make you uncomfortable on some level, no matter what side of the race conversation you fancy yourself on.  Glover’s video makes an even more powerful statement given the fact the song is simply catchy.  If you watched and listened to him debut it on Saturday Night Live, you were probably even more alarmed when you watched the video, which was released shortly after his SNL performance.

It will make you uncomfortable.  That’s a good thing.

If you want to call anything disturbing in our society today, it’s how we deal with discomfort around realities such as race.  One side simply insists it doesn’t exist and does everything it can to explain it away.  The other side insists you not just acknowledge its existence, but you should be painfully shamed as well.  Then there’s the third group: those who simply don’t know what to do, and therefore, just avoid discomfort altogether.  I am probably disturbed most by the third way.  I’m disturbed by how easy we’re willing to avoid anything uncomfortable in this life.  What does that say about us?

Go watch the video.  Look it directly in the face, but don’t feel ashamed for whatever you feel.  I just ask you move past your initial reactions, those initial thoughts and feelings.  Watch the video.  Then watch it again.  And again. Let the words and images get stuck in your head.  Talk about it with others.  Just don’t stick your head in the sand and go about your life.

Go watch the video.  Our very humanity is at stake.

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Sermon 22 April 2018: Emmanuel Lutheran, Virginia Beach

Text: John 10:11-18 and 1 John 3:16-24

My current ministry travels had me in Germany recently.  We have a 3-day program that helps people transition from deployments to the Middle East.  We take people from an intense, high pace, and regimented environment they had on deployment and help them ease back into normal life.  We take them on trips out into town, give them time to rest, and do workshops…all to help them them “slow down” before they reintegrate to life back here in the States.  

Part of the program is getting people from place to place….let me just tell you, it is like herding cats.  Getting 90 people on buses, reminding them of where they need to be, finding out they’re on the wrong buses, and waiting for up to an hour because people lose track of time while they’re out in town…..what I have learned is that I am not very good at herding people what so ever.

In fact, while pastors are sometimes referred to as “shepherds,” I’ll admit my track record at herding is pretty horrible.  Whether as a pastor, chaplain, youth minister, or even wrestling coach, getting people to go in the directions they need to and convincing people of doing things that are good for them is frustrating and hard work!

But then I remember the words of my good friend, who preached at my ordination service on this very text: 

You are not the Shepherd.  You are not the savior.

Let me ask you this: does it ever bother you how little control we have to get people to say and do things that are really good and beneficial for them?  You know, things like trying to get a toddler to eat their vegetables, getting your partner or spouse to change that annoying little habit, or getting that friend to come to church?  Or, maybe it’s convincing others to change their politics, pushing a teenager to pad their resume so they can get into the right college, or pushing a friend to seek counseling for a problem they struggle with.

You and I try to herd people for all sorts of reasons, if we’re honest.  Maybe we’re aware of it or not, but we like to think that if we get good enough, we can shepherd the whole human race and even ourselves out of the chaos and madness going on in our world today.  If we and others could just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get it together, right?

Maybe you’re like me, and you wish you had that much control.  But then things  like Syria…..or another school shooting….or our kids bring home a lousy report card….or our friends won’t go to addiction counseling…..happen.  

We are not shepherds.  We are not saviors.

“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way….to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

I was reminded of this little hymn while I was preparing my sermon this week.  I grew up listening to it in my church back in rural Minnesota.  Spring time is also a time of year I think a bit more of my upbringing on our dairy farm.  Farming is a labor of love: spring time is filled with plowing, picking rock, planting seeds in the ground in time so that they’ll grow and produce a good harvest in the fall.  Fences are repaired in the spring so that cows can be pastured in order to have healthy calves who replenish the herd of milk cows.

Some years, that labor of love produced exactly what we hoped.  In others, crops were completely destroyed and we lost a good number of calves.  Most years, it was somewhere in between.  But one things farmers understand – maybe more so than any of us in our modern life today – is how little control one has over their environment.  The labor of love guarantees nothing, but it’s important to do it year after year.  Farmers understand that ultimately they must trust that their labors will produce whatever is needed to live….and for a lot of the farmers I grew up around, that trust was that God would provide in the best and worst of years.

That lesson has stuck with me over the years. Trust and obedience. Faith and love. 

Our passage from 1 John gets at this. Our attention is called to the fact that there is only One who lays their life down for the world – Jesus. All we can do in response to that is “believe in the name of Jesus Christ and love one another”.  In other words, “trust and obey” – faith and love.  We are obedient in the ways we love one another and ourselves, trusting that as we love, there is a good Good Shepherd who has and continues to draw us to him.  We love, trusting that the Good Shepherd has saved us.

And perhaps that changes how we live in the world.  Rather than control in an  attempt to save ourselves and others, we simply trust and love.  

Rather than get our loved ones to change for the better, we simply love them the way they are.

Rather than trap ourselves in ways of progress and improvement, we embrace life in such a way that we appreciate and savor what is in front of us presently.

Rather than push others to “get their stuff together” before we’ll welcome them in, we go and walk with them through their struggles and valleys, without judgment or hidden agendas.  

Rather than define ourselves and others by what’s unlovable, we trust in the Good Shepherd who gathers us to him always because we are so loved…..every part of us.  In that good news, we’re able find the courage to love ourselves and one another.  We trust and obey…in acts of love.

There is only One Good Shepherd.  There is only one savior.  Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

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Youthfulness & Clergy Shortages

“The numbers don’t lie, and they ain’t pretty.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Research and Evaluation conducted a study in 2016 looking at supply and demand of clergy serving in congregations.  You can get a summary and access to the full report on the Northeast Iowa Synod blog.  The bottom line is that supply will not meet demand anytime soon.  For most people, the answer is simple: recruit more people to be clergy.

I don’t disagree with that answer.  I’m a pragmatist most days, and so while I’m sure I could drum up some objection to recruitment on theological grounds, in the end we do need more pastors.  When I say “we,” I mean the world.  I don’t know about you, but we need more people these days who dedicate their lives to reminding all of us that we need to be more empathetic, humbler, and more selfless, among other things.

However, I’ve encountered an audience expressing in response to the study the sentiment that we need to increase our efforts at youth and young adult ministries as the solution.  The rationale is that if we get more young people involved in the church, identify which ones would be best suited to for leadership in congregations, and recruit them into pursuing being pastors and clergy, we will solve the clergy shortage.

Andy Root, Professor of Children, Youth, and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN (and one of my former teachers), discusses what he calls “the Church’s obsession with youthfulness.”  Discussing his most recent book, “Faith Formation in a Secular Age,” Root examines some of the trajectories that led to this obsession.  It’s a challenging, but important read. Recently in an interview, Root gave this response to the idea of attracting youth and young people to Christianity and the Church:

“I clearly want young people in the church. I am a professor of youth ministry, after all. My concern is that the youthful spirit becomes a certain form of idolatry – a way of saving ourselves without the need for God. Do they actually want to attract young people? Real young people will force them to have relational encounters that will change them and their church. Or do they like the idea of having young people as a measure of their church’s vibrancy, legitimacy, or longevity?”

You can read the rest of the interview here.

With respect to attracting youth and young adults for the purpose of recruitment to be clergy, such a movement not only raises them as some sort of “golden calf” that promises congregations a future, but it reduces their humanity to some sort of supply and demand commodity. Youth and young adults ought to be reached out to for no other reason than it is part of the church’s call to witness and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them understanding their absence, like the absence of any one person or group within the church, diminishes the life of the community of faith. A narrow focus on “young people” would mean many people who fall into other demographics would be either secondarily, or altogether dismissed as primary candidates to serve as clergy.  Such a move is a faithless one, and honestly lifts youth and young adults up at the expense of marginalizing others.

So what should we do? We should certainly be a church is constantly encouraging people to discern their baptismal calling in response to the Gospel.  Said another way, the church should include an emphasis on vocational discernment.  Communities of faith should help all people identify their God-given gifts, and affirm the vocations they choose in which they are faithfully putting those gifts to work, whether it be in service to the church or otherwise.  If that discernment leads people to explore callings to be clergy, “Amen!” If it leads them into other callings, let us say, “Amen!”

Another thing that constantly does not get mentioned is that we need to think about considering and implementing new models of what clergy and rostered leadership looks within the context of the parish. In simpler terms, congregations and those who assist congregations in calling pastors should be asking, “What exactly do we need a pastor for?”  Two things can emerge out of this question. One, we might find other congregations near also have similar needs and directions, and communities of shared ministry and resources can emerge.  Two, those individuals who may not feel called to traditional models of parish ministry and leadership may have increased opportunities to serve congregations where their needs don’t align with those models as imaginations are sparked about new possibilities.

Active discernment in community works.  When we focus on that work instead of  recruitment initiatives, ministry becomes about sharing humanity with one another instead of attracting people to serve survival interests.  Not only do we see youth and young adults as Christ sees them, human being in need of and deserving of God’s love and grace, but we actually see ALL people that way, and live with them, just as God in Christ came to live among us.

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Sermon 28 Jan 2018 – Emmanuel Lutheran, Virginia Beach, VA

Texts: Mark 1:21-28 & 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

My wife likes to tell people this story from my first call: our organist got sick on a Saturday, and because the congregation was so small, we couldn’t find a replacement.  I grew up playing the organ in high school, so I decided I’d fill in for the Sunday.  Unknown to the congregation that Sunday, after leading the confession and forgiveness and announcing the opening hymn, I walked over to the organ and began to play.  A women in the pew behind my wife tapped her on the shoulder and said somewhat gushingly, “Is there anything he doesn’t know how to do?” My wife turned and said, “Well, he doesn’t know how to put the dishes in the dishwasher.”

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” This verse from the First Corinthians passage has been on my mind all week.  It’s sort of a no-brainer for Christians, right?  Love is greater than knowledge, and now matter how much we think we know or try to know, ultimately it is God’s infinite love that builds communities and people up.  It isn’t knowledge that elevates our status in the eyes of God, but rather it is love.

So let me ask you then, “How are you doing?”

It would seem, if we think about life beyond these walls, we collectively seem more interested in being puffed up for what we know rather than built up in love.  You don’t have to look very far, but you’ll find all sorts of people out there giving their answers, solutions, viewpoints, or beliefs.  And they themselves or others puff them up as having the right ones.  Now, maybe that’s you, or you can think of someone you know out there who’s like this, but the question on my mind this week is, “Why do we do it?”

Epiphany means simply “a moment of revelation.”  Liturgically, we’re in the season of epiphany, which for the church means we celebrate the moment of revelation about God revealed in Jesus’ presence in the world.  In the gospel of Mark, this is also about the revelation about what the Kingdom of God is like, as revealed by Jesus.  Which brings us to the epiphany in today’s gospel story: We have folks gathered on the Sabbath, like we are gathered here today, perhaps looking to hear something of value, gain some knowledge or insight from the sermon.  In comes Jesus, who teaches in a new and fresh way that amazes people, and instantly people buy in to what he’s saying.  Then this man comes walking in, a man who the story tells us is possessed by an unclean spirit that has him held captive.  Jesus calls out the spirit, and it departs from the man.  Such an act of healing, mercy, and compassion, one that liberated and freed this man from that which held him in bondage and caused him suffering…..it was an act of love.

Yet, what I find interesting is that those present seem to be fixated on this as some sort of teachable moment that further validates Jesus’ authority as a teacher.  And this is what elevates him to celebrity status.  Yet what seems to get missed is the power of Jesus’ act alone: this act of love that liberated this man from bondage, restoring him back to the community, and raising him from death to life.  And this story challenges us to think about the difference between how authority is defined in the world and in the kingdom of God. I think there’s a difference: For those looking on, authority resides in the correctness of the message, its truth, its meaning.  In the Kingdom of God, authority resides in the act of love itself and how it restores this man back to the community, how it liberates him from his bondage, raising him from death to life.  Such authoritative love has the power to do the same for us, liberating us from the bondage of our own individual sin and from systemic sin in the world that crushes and oppresses people.

So, what does such authoritative love look like for us today?  While Jesus may not be with us physically, what do such acts of love look like today?

As some of you may recall when I’ve preached here before, I coach wrestling at First Colonial High School.  It was the final round of a tournament, and one of my wrestlers was warming up before his final match that day.  I could see that he was focused.  Then, out of the corner of my eye,  caught a kid walking excitedly through the crowd, trying to get people to wrestle with him.  Two things were apparent: this kid loved wrestling and  he also had a mental disability.  As he tried to engage others, people did that thing most of us are familiar with, passing him off to someone else, ignoring him politely.  Finally, he found his way to my wrestler, and he attempted to engage him in the same way.

And this is what my kid did: he wrestled with him.  He started showing him some simple moves.  And he did this all the way up to the start of his own match.  Once it was his turn, he gave the kid a high-five, patted him on the back, and went out to wrestle his match.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

We give thanks for the gift of God’s love in sending Jesus into our lives, a fact we celebrate around the Table when we share bread and wine; Christ’s body and blood.  May such a love reign in our hearts with authority as we go on our way this week, building up our others, our communities, and a world that sorely needs such a love.  Amen.

 

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Aging & End of Life: A “Mental Health” Issue?

I came across the following article on Sunday morning in USA Today: “Aging: The One Part People Don’t Talk About – and 5 Ways to Cope.”  In my first two congregations, the majority of my time was spent ministering to elderly people who were facing physical and mental decline, feeling more isolated and helpless in their state.  I’ve found it deeply meaningful helping people deal with questions about their quality of life and feelings around their loss of independence.

So the article certainly peaked my interest.  It named the reality of grief, loss, anxiety, and dread that comes with aging and decline.  As the title suggests, it even offers 5 helpful ways for folks to cope.  However, I started to notice a trend: all of the experts interviewed were caregivers from the mental health field.  In fact, the author of the article represents a non-profit news company that covers health issues.  Strangely, this disturbed me, and caused me to ask:

“Is facing aging and the end of life a mental health issue?”

Now before you assume I’m going to sound like one more of those overly religious type who is going to offer a rant and lament about how the church or God is being pushed out by mental health professionals, let me offer that I have a lot of respect for these folks and in fact, I even work closely with them in my work as a pastor and chaplain.  They offer so much help and relief for so many who are in pain, and are a huge help to elderly folks who struggle to grasp what is to come as they near death.  Yet, I think relegating these issues and the elderly people who suffer from them as “mental health” issues falls well short of actually helping them come to terms with their reality.  I wonder, is the solution much simpler than that?

Aging and end of life struggles for me as fundamental questions about the value of human life and its sanctity.  What does it mean to preserve human worth when people lose their functionality and independence in a society that ties a person’s value to such things?  What might our obligation or responsibility be to participate in preserving people’s dignity and worth as they age?  Do we even have an obligation or responsibility at all?  In short, will we care for our aging when they need us most?

The experts in the article all suggest that the aging need us.  We shouldn’t let them face their struggles alone.  This sounds simple, and it is.  I think what bothers me is that we tend to place the whole burden of seeking help on those who are suffering.  We leave it up to people to seek mental health or medical professionals who will diagnose their pain and prescribe solutions, when all that is really needed is for others to take notice and care.  If we need experts and professionals to tell us to connect to and care for one another, then our society – then we – are in trouble.

To be human is to suffer, and to acknowledge another human is to acknowledge when they are suffering, and come along side them in their need.  This is a basic thing that for generations, has kept us from completely destroying each other and ourselves.  In fact, I would contend that caring and connecting are basic human functions – as important and natural to life as eating, drinking, and breathing.

When I think back on the folks in my congregations, I can’t help but recall how they wanted nothing more than to see children, grandchildren.  They wanted people like myself who would listen to their struggles and acknowledge their feelings of grief, loss, and fear. (Although I will admit I am guilty  of letting my inattentiveness and discomfort cause me to fail them at times)  For the most part, they didn’t ask myself or anyone to fix their situation.  In fact, most had some level of acceptance at a process that was inevitable.  What they needed was relief from their feelings associated with aging, which strangely, all that was needed was someone to take time to care and connect.

All sorts of data shows what we all know to be true in our hearts and minds: when we deny the basic need for connection in the face of hardship, we collectively decline faster physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  We make our struggles worse.  The question is, will we continue to relegate caring for those dealing with the all too common feelings of fear, anxiety, and frustration associated with aging to a small cadre of credentialed professionals?  Or, will we come to the realization people facing such things don’t always need professional help – they need us.

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“Just Keep Pushing.”

Sitting down to write this blog post is representative of my whole 2017: I can’t seem to get started. All year-long, the struggle was real:

  • I could never start any of my homework for my Continuing Education Program.
  • I found myself having to force myself to head to coach wrestling.
  • It was like pulling teeth to carve out quality time with my wife.
  • It was hard to sustain effort, because the task seemed never-ending…and at times I felt unnecessary and questioned if I was actually bringing folks anything of value.
  • I just about everything I tried to write….it didn’t get written.

The ideas were there.  The pull to go do those things was strong.  Yet I couldn’t just get myself in gear.  Things in my head and heart never seemed to get turned into action.

This is a familiar feeling for me.

It takes me back to my competition days.  There were those moments when I just didn’t have it.  My body unresponsive from a drastic weight cut or overtraining. Seeing moves and openings, but a split second slower than my opponent. I was mentally distracted.  My fear and nerves got the better of me.  Some days, it was simply, “That guy is better than me today.”  He was putting points on the board, I was just hoping he’d cut me and give me the free escape point.

Here’s the thing in wrestling though: you don’t have the option of quitting.  Even after the guy lets you up, you have to keep wrestling.  You have to keep pushing, even if you know it’s not gonna be easy and success is unlikely.

You have to keep pushing.

I think 2017 was so difficult on so many levels for so many people.  I don’t think I need to expend too much energy writing those things here; you can name them.  People I speak to, they’re frustrated results aren’t what they expect, or they’re afraid to commit for fear the result won’t be what they want.  (That’s how I feel about this post right now.  I’d like to delete it because honestly, I’m about 99% sure you’ll think it’s rambling drivel.)

Yet, just like on the mat, I’ve learned that results aren’t the point, and you can’t be afraid of failure and the opinions of others.

You just keep pushing. I tell the athletes I coach this.  I tell the people I care for as chaplain/pastor the same thing.

So shouldn’t I follow my own advice?

Maybe it won’t be great, but maybe it’ll be enough.  In fact,

  • Since they don’t give grades, maybe it’s enough I just learn something.
  • No matter how I feel, I just need to show up for practice.  Being on the mat is always good for me (time has taught me that).
  • No matter how busy my day, I leave a little in the emotional/mental tank for the wife for quality time.
  • Helping just one person is enough; in fact, caring and helping people IS enough.  The ideas and projects can wait.
  • Maybe I just need to write once a week, whether it’s profound or not.

This year, I’ll worry less about the result, the outcome.  For those things that are important to me, no matter how I feel, I’ll just keep pushing.

 

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Reflections on the Sailor’s Creed

I wrote this for my Command’s Plan of the Month and Individual Augmentee Newsletter.  I offered this as a reflection on events in Charlottesville and as a reminder of what our Force is about from the “Chaplain’s perspective.”

“I am committed to excellence and the fair treatment of all.”

Most of you likely recognize the words above; it’s the final line of the Sailor’s Creed. Interestingly, the Sailor’s Creed is a relatively new tradition in the long and rich tradition of the U.S. Navy. The Creed we know today was the product of a series of Blue Ribbon Recruit Training panels in 1993, led by the Chief of Naval Operations at the time. A few other minor changes were made to make it as inclusive of the whole Naval Force, and its final revision coming in 1997.

I’ve always found the last line of the Sailor’s Creed a bit odd. While the other stanzas are very Navy-centric, tied to our Oaths of Office and Core Values, the last line almost reads more like something you’d hear from civilian life. It seems like redundant language, and really, not very relevant to the Navy context. Aren’t excellence and the fair treatment of all sort of a “no-brainer?”

Some of you might be aware of recent events surrounding rallies and protests in our nation. I know this is a potentially polarizing topic that many of us would rather avoid. Yet, I don’t think that we can. When attitudes of hatred, bias, and prejudice rise up in our society, we need a reminder that such things have no place in the same, and certainly not in our Navy and Marine Corps team. It is the belief that every person has the fundamental right to be treated with respect and fairness, regardless of race, creed, upbringing, or lifestyle. The person to our left and right are our brother and sister, volunteering to take an Oath to defend what we hold most dear.

This is why, I believe, the drafters of the Sailor’s Creed added this final line. It serves as a reminder of this fundamental right, and of our fundamental responsibility to preserve this right for all people. Let us support one another as we each make sense of these events individually. More than this, let us be committed to the fundamental respect and care that makes our Navy and Marine Corps team the greatest in the world.

Let us daily affirm our commitment to excellence and the fair treatment of all.

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