Monthly Archives: July 2015

Taking Stock of the Week: Grace in the midst of Violence, Hatred, Anger & “Disney Church”

It has been an intense week for me: on Tuesday I drove down to Ft. Jackson, SC to finish Navy Chaplain Basic Leadership Course.  Since Wednesday, it’s been 12 hour days of “zero-dark hundred PT,” learning about combat survival and first aid, and preparing for next week’s 4-day exercise of indoctrination of working in a combat field environment with 16 other chaplains.  It’ll be a week of sleeping on the ground, eating MREs, practicing how to keep Marines and Sailors alive should we find ourselves in that situation, and of course, trying not to get lost out in the woods (land navigation).

Add that to the week the tragic shooting in Chattanooga, TN and the death of 4 Marines and now 1 Navy Petty Officer.  Add to that the KKK/Black Power protests at the South Carolina Capitol Building Saturday afternoon – that I attended and observed.  And add to that the impact 35,000 people in my church are making in Detroit as they attend the ELCA National Youth Gathering has been likened to “Disney World” and “Skittles.” (Update: not all on the outside held this skewed vision. Some saw my church for what I love about it.) 

I just sit here right now, feeling a whole host of emotions, feeling conflicted, trying to make sense of it all.

I’ve made sense of some of it in a previous post, just longing and wanting more from the collective of individuals that make up “church.”  We need to do more than just pray and let such things pass along in the constantly flowing stream of narrative that makes up our world today.  Death, violence, hatred, suffering, injustice…..it can never be for the Christian just another story.  But as I said, I am still conflicted, maybe even still angry…..and it was this offering from a fellow Navy chaplain on Friday morning that I have been wrestling with:

“The things that make us the most angry; those are the things that God wants us to change.”

Now, the language of change is not part of my theological frame; it’s not how I think faith and God works.  I think rather I would say it is the things that make us most angry that perhaps God wants us to pay attention to.  If this holds true, then….

  • the violence and hatred I experienced this past couple days is something that God wants and needs us to wake up to, no matter what form it takes, or whether it’s “personal” to us or not.  Regardless of how it touches us – or how it doesn’t – Christians don’t have the luxury of simply nodding their heads and moving on.  We follow in the way of the cross, diving headfirst right into the discussion and issue of violence created out of fear and hatred.
  • I have to examine why the National Youth Gathering bothers me so much up and against the reality that it is a powerful and important event for the life of the church – the ELCA – that I am a part of.  I won’t lie – the National Youth Gathering seems so disconnected to what I understand what it means to be a church of the cross.  I admit, I’ve never attended the ELCA National Youth Gathering; are my feelings out of jealousy and resentment, or are they borne out of a feeling perhaps, that there is something significant lacking that bears reflection?
  • the negative and apathetic attitudes of progressive liberalism towards the military, the people who serve in it, and the reality of the profession needs to become an opportunity for conversation, not a source of resentment and bitterness. Militant views of Christianity have hijacked and glorified war as a “just” means of defeating evil.  Yet we have to find a way to acknowledge the reality of evil manifested in our world, and come up with a better ethical frame to reconcile military action that doesn’t leave us with “either/or” but rather “both/and.”
  • the question of what exactly is the integrity behind the church today that unites us all is one worth pushing and exploring.

The anger that I feel, God calls me to pay attention to it because God has something to say to me.  That anger I feel should move me towards understanding and connection with others.  It should move me towards a deeper reflection and self-awareness of how I view the world and what I believe.  When my anger moves me in such a way, it moves me straight into the arms of God’s Grace.

I suppose I am odd that way….that such wrestling, such conflict of conscience, and unsettling of my soul always seems to make me feel closer to God.  But it works that way for me.  “Disney World” and “Skittles” community doesn’t do that for me.  Limited interaction and response to the world doesn’t either.   Only entering into the mess and conflict that is the broken world we live in, and trying to live out love in relationship with others – even when their discomfort or disagreement move them to marginalize and attempt to silence me – brings me any closer to the place where Christ encounters me.

It is this grace that helps me move from my anger to a place of making sense of things.  It is this grace that moves me from my frustration to accept that faith is expressed in many different ways by individuals and the church – and all of it has its place under the sun in the Kingdom of God on earth.  It is this grace that expands how I understand Christ and the cross, and expands my understanding of what it means to love.  Love sometimes is an affection we feel for others, but it is also putting oneself in the place of vulnerability to push others – and allow them to pushback –  in the communal process of faith seeking understanding.

That grace has taken many different forms this week.  Friends expressing not just their resonance with what I have to say, but also saying while they don’t quite understand they are willing to engage the conversation.  It’s coming to the place where I can respect what matters to others about being church while hoping they respect the disconnect I feel. It’s even those suppressing the comments they’d probably like to throw at me – as a friend told me, “…not everyone wants a Honeybadger.”

It is this grace that finds me in the midst of violence, hatred, anger, and expressions of a church I feel no connection with this week that moves me from the margins and right into the center of the Christian community that is formed in Christ and the cross – to connection and engagement with the world and others, not alienation from it.

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Violence & Hatred: When Prayer Isn’t Enough

 I am writing on my own behalf, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.

I’m angry.  I’m frustrated.

Last month, I was proud of those I call brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  When the news of the Emmanuel AME church shootings in Charleston broke the morning after they happened, within the day there were many speaking out against violence and hatred caused by racism on social media as the facts of the victims, shooter, and events became known.  Many individuals spoke out; we were shocked that this happened in the church, that among the victims were those who had relationships with the ELCA, and that the shooter himself was a member of an ELCA congregation.  Even our own presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, released a letter speaking out about how racism is a problem in our nation, and that we need to start having conversations about racism – to be honest and speak out.  “This happened to our own” we cried. I was proud to call myself an ELCA Lutheran.

But today I’m not so sure.

Yesterday, yet another shooting occurred in our nation, this time in Chattanooga, TN.  The shooting was directed at a Navy Operational Support Center where Reservists like myself perform their training and service to the nation.  As the facts of the victims, shooter, and events were released, I was shocked. Four Marines were killed….those I call brothers and sisters in our Navy and Marine Corps.  The shooter, who held a twisted, radical view of Islam that in his mind justified his hate as jihad – Holy War.  More violence happening as a product of extreme hate and fear.  Since I’m in training right now and my time to see what others are saying is limited, it wasn’t until last evening I finally got around to see what others were saying.

Virtual radio silence. I scrolled pretty far down, and rapidly on Twitter and Facebook. Nothing.

I was angry.  I was frustrated.  And so I lashed out on social media myself.

Of course, my anger solicited responses from those in my denomination. I will admit, people correctly questioned and called out I unfairly unleashed a harsh critique against my church, the National Youth Gathering it is holding currently, and its official words on social media.  I own that.  However, it was many of those individuals I call brothers and sisters that disappointed me.  And it was this sentiment that got me:

“It was mentioned.  It was prayed about a number of times.  What else do you want us to do?”

I am no longer angry.  I am no longer frustrated.  I am disappointed.

Just a month ago, my church spoke out against violence and hate.  Yesterday and today, my church continues to fail to do that same thing in the wake of Chattanooga.  But hey, they prayed about it.  They’ve done their part.  What else do you want us to do?

Now that I’m a bit removed from my emotions, I think I can answer that question.  What I hope for is that we recognize violence and hatred in this case and have the courage to speak out against it.  Radical religious belief is just as dangerous as racism in this country.  In fact, it might be more so because it has global ramifications.  ISIS, al Qaida….formally recognized terrorism that gains momentum from such attacks as the one yesterday, whether it originated from these groups or not.  I want us to talk, have conversations about religious fanaticism being just as dangerous as extreme racism.  I am disappointed that we as a church are unable to say anything to our nation about our Muslim brothers and sisters who are peaceful, and to call others not to perpetuate a new form of racism that could result in retaliatory attacks on Muslims and mosques.  I am disappointed because the death of military service members who volunteer to give their lives is a subtitle in our nation’s consciousness.  We do it because frankly, we’re too scared to call the shooter what he really is because he is muslim – and not white.  We feel sorry for the Marines and their families but we don’t want to feel too much, because that might mean we support what they do.  Our progressive values are in conflict with the reality of violence and hatred.  I am disappointed because their death seems to be only worthy of a 2-3 minute moment of silence.  We use prayer as a way of passing the buck on our responsibility as people of God to speak prophetically into what happened in Chattanooga even though we know exactly what happened there.

What I am not saying is that prayer isn’t appropriate.  We should and need to pray to God in times like these…just as we did with Charleston. But we have work to do.  Religious extremism and intolerance is a new “ism” that poses a threat to a just and peaceful world that God desires for us all.  It may not be as old as the ties of racism, but it nonetheless should demand our attention.

That is what I want from you, oh individuals in my church.

I realize the deaths of 4 Marines may not be as personal to you as the deaths of 9 African-Americans in a church.  Yet, we can no longer pick and choose when we decide to speak out when violence and hatred drop on our doorstep.  I don’t think Christ gives us that luxury.  We have to acknowledge it, speak prophetically against it, engage in conversation to learn and listen as we proclaim Christ’s resurrection and grace as a way forward – and that God calls us to work alongside God in that coming reality.  Prayer isn’t enough anymore – I believe Christ demands more from us as disciples of the cross.  We have to do that….or risk becoming a church that’s more inclined to be guided by the self-preservation of our progressive piety rather than by Christ crucified and raised.

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Short Time Devotion for 7 July 2015: “The Opposite of Fear Isn’t Love”

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has nothing to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” ~ 1 John 4:18

This is one of those times I’m going to disagree with the Bible, and here’s why: we humans have a distorted view of love.  Love is about personal preference and choice.  Love is about sentimentality and emotion.  Love is about sexual fantasy and romanticism. Love is soft and passive towards another. Love is never risking.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t cast out fear.  If anything, it perpetuates it.

I think the biggest challenge I hear in people’s lives, both as a pastor and as a wrestling coach, is the concept of fear.  We’re dominated by it as individuals and as a society.  Fear has reached a state of paranoia in people’s lives, and it’s literally killing people.  Fear of failure, fear you’re not good enough, fear of race, fear of GLBTQ folks, fear of the government, fear of institutions…you name it, you can probably find someone who will tell you to be afraid of it.

Love, at least love in the way we think about it, won’t cast out fear.  I think the word we’re looking for is courage.  It’s courage that casts out fear.  Yet it’s not the type of courage that compels us to take control and micromanage our lives.  That’s just fear manifesting itself in a new way.

Rather, courage is the ability to keep pushing in the face of fear.  Keep pushing, keep moving, keep trying, keep living.  I like to tell the wrestlers I coach, when it feels like you’re losing control and the fear of losing begins to set in, just focus on staying in position and how you’re going to score the next points…..just keep wrestling.

Fear causes us to quit.  We quit and we point fingers of blame.  We quit and withdraw.  We quit and become self-fulfilling prophesies of failure.  Courage is the ability to just keep living, one day at a time, and even one moment at a time if things are that hard.  Courage is the ability to trust there are folks counting on you and folks that care about you…..you’re not alone.

Now maybe courage is the prefect love that John was writing about in the Bible.  But in a time where the idea of love has become so distorted, I prefer the idea of courage.  It just makes more sense.

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Sermon 5 July 2015: “Rethinking praising God”

Text: Psalm 146:1-10

“Praise the Lord; praise the Lord, O my Soul!”  This opening verse from Psalm 146 got me thinking this week: “What does it mean to praise the Lord?” and “What are we praising the Lord for?”  We see professional athletes taking a knee and praying after touchdowns and pointing to the sky when crossing homeplate after a homerun.  And so often, we feel compelled to praise God when we’ve received God’s blessings or after we’ve sensed or experienced God present in our lives.

And I think those, for the most part, are all good reasons to praise God.  But I wonder, is there more to when and what we praise God for?

I mean, what about the harder times, when there seems to be no concept of blessing in our lives or the world we live in?  I wonder what it looks like to praise the Lord in light of black churches being burned.  How do black female pastors receiving death threats praise the Lord? And this past week, my former Executive Officer’s daughter – both he and his daughter are African-American – while shopping in a store was told by some random stranger to “Go back where she came from.”  What does it mean for them to praise God? I wonder what it means to praise the Lord when we think about all the stress in our lives, all the bills that continue to pile up, and those who are getting older just seem to be getting sicker and more frail with each passing year?  What does praising the Lord look like, what does it mean to praise the Lord in light of all that happens to us in the present?

We have this saying about raising corn in Minnesota: “Knee high by the 4th of July.”  What that meant is that farmers, having gotten the corn in by the end of May, and having cultivated between the rows and controlled the weeds through June, the corn should have grown to about knee high, by the 4th of July. Yet there was one little thing the farmers couldn’t control: the weather, specifically, the rain.  The soil being sandier where I grew up, and there not being good sources for irrigation, farmers were at the mercy of the weather.  I remember my dad, listening to the weather reports on the radio where the weatherman would report that rain was in the forecast…..but of course, you never could really predict when it would rain, or how much would fall, and if it would be enough when it did.  And there were years when the corn wasn’t knee high, it was more like ankle high…and there were years it was knee high, but it showed signs of withering in the summer heat as it didn’t have enough rain. All my dad could do is continue to listen to the forecast and occasionally look up to the sky and wait…and hope…..and trust that the rain would fall, and that it would be enough for the corn to grow and thrive.

The psalmist sings praises to God, for a vision of life that brings justice for the oppressed, food to the hungry, freeing the captive, giving sight to the blind, raising up the lowly, and even watching over the strangers, orphans and widows of the world.  The psalmist’s praise is a song really…..of trust.

And that got me thinking: what if praise isn’t so much about our longing for what’s good about the past, but rather trusting in God’s promised future for us in the midst of an uncertain present?  The psalmist today praises God….but that praise isn’t for what God has done in the past so much, but rather it’s praise for the vision of life that God has promised in the future – a good and life-giving future for all people.

Praise looks like trust.  The psalmist turns to God in trust in light of the knowledge that human efforts have their limits. The psalmist trusts that God promises this future…..it will come…..and God alone will make it happen.  And the psalmist praises God, looking forward to this promised future.

The thing about God’s promised future is that while we know it is trustworthy and good and life-giving, we also know that it may not come when we expect it or it may not happen in the way we expect it to.  Trusting like that, praise like that, is certainly hard to do. It’s easier to keep the status quo.  It’s more comfortable to wish and long for the success of the past – the good old days.  Our expectations are much more realistic than God’s….mainly because we know and can control the outcome.

But to trust God, to look to God’s future…..trusting that what God has in store for us is so much greater and beyond what we could possibly imagine.  We trust a God who knows what we need – maybe better than we know ourselves.  We trust, we allow ourselves to be open and even obedient to God’s plans, remembering that words of the prophet Jeremiah, that God’s plans are “for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

And perhaps such a God, who cares so much about us in our present that God would promise us this future full of hope…..such a God is worthy of our faith; worthy of our praise.  Amen.

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