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“Elements”

“Time to fight the elements.”

This was one of many of Jeffrey Fuller’s quippy sayings.  Like many Minnesota Dairy farmers, sayings like these were what I call “understated exaggerations” – a bit dramatic, but always holding a good measure of truth.  Often, this statement was a reply to those asking him what he was up to, or how things were going.  Yet more ingrained in the memories of his kids, this saying was the announcement that it was time to go to work for the day, which would bring a mixtures of groaning and reluctant acceptance in response. Depending on the weather, work clothes would be donned, boots laced, and out to the barn and to the land that Jeff called his farm, his kids would follow.

As his son, it’s one of my most vivid memories.

Life on a small family dairy farm is hard work, and located in a place like rural Minnesota, “the elements” are in no short supply.  There’s the elements of fieldwork, prepping and fixing machinery, caring for and milking cows and more that leave the farmer physically exhausted. Then there are the elements of the extreme weather of Minnesota seasons.  People tend to look at Minnesota seasons romantically, but to the farmer their elements to be faced and overcome in the name of making a living. Summers are for boating and camping, but for the farmer it’s being on the back of a hayrack or putting up fences in the scorching heat.  Fall time is a time for admiring the colors of the trees, but for farmers it’s the frantic pace of harvesting all the crops before the temperatures drop below freezing and the first snow comes. Spring time’s unpredictable weather would often create worries that one would not be able to get their seeds planted in time, and where a couple weeks late planting can mean a smaller crop and thus not enough feed for cattle come harvest time.  

Then there’s Minnesota winters.  There is so much I could say about Minnesota winters, but I saw a picture online once with this caption that sums it up best: “The air hurts my face….why am I living where the air hurts my face?”  Imagine doing chores in that!

Fighting the elements is a way of life for farmers like Jeffrey Fuller. Growing up as his son, I remember thinking it was a never-ending battle: milking cows, throwing hay bales, getting tractors unstuck in muddy fields, trying to thaw freezing pipes so cattle don’t go thirsty.  In my youth, it drove me nuts but the battle to this day is ingrained in my mind.

“Time to fight the elements.”

At the time I was in the Navy.  I was living on the East Coast, just having started my new shore assignment at my new command after a grueling sea tour.  I had finished morning PT with my students when I checked my cellphone and I had seven missed calls from my older sister.  “That’s odd,” I thought, and I called her back. When she answered, that word came: “He didn’t make it.”  My dad had died from an aortic aneurysm.  Jeffrey Fuller, Minnesota Dairy Farmer, still farming strong at the age of 55, left this world unexpectedly and suddenly.

So much of that day and the days to follow are a blur to me.  Much of what’s left for me are simply the emotions that come when the most influential person in your life passes away so suddenly.  The shock. The raw grief. The numbness.  What I do remember is that when I finally reached the farm after a day of flying and driving from the East Coast, decisions had to be made, and quickly, because there was no one to tend to the farm.  Of course, we – being family, neighbors, and myself – tried, but it was my dad’s farm.  His whole being was invested in that farm – his sweat, his intelligence, his frustrations, his joy – and for us it was no use pretending: the herd needed to be sold.  A buyer was found.  Neighbors were called to help load dad’s cows into their trailers to transport to the sale barn. Gates were staged to help funnel cattle for easy loading.  All that was left was one last milking at midnight.  I didn’t bother to ask for help.  It was something I needed to do – a son’s duty, perhaps.  Or maybe a son’s guilt because he knew he couldn’t continue his dad’s trade – a reminder of my inadequacy, but more so a reminder of the grief I felt because my hero, my rock, was gone from this earth.

So as midnight approached, I put on my work clothes like I had done so many times before in my life.  Clothes that had the distinct smell of feed and cows, covered in cow hair.  I slung on my pair of work boots that hadn’t been worn in years, but had been left for me, kept by my dad….“just in case you come home and you might need them.”  Pain welled up, but no time for that now.  There’s chores to be done.

I took one step out into that cold, stinging air of the Minnesota winter, accompanied by the gentle falling of snow flurries. Within the first two or three crunchy steps in the snow, I stopped, looked up into the snowy night sky, and my dad’s voice crystal clear in my memory: 

Time to fight the elements.

As I write this, thirteen years to the day later, my life has certainly been blessed beyond measure.  I have a beautiful wife.  I am now a Lutheran pastor and returned to the Navy, this time as a Chaplain in the Reserves.  The life of service to others is something instilled by the very man I write about, the man who raised me on that Minnesota dairy farm so long ago.  Despite some rocky years after dad’s death, my family is close as it always has been.  The years have gone by, and they’ve been good.  Yet I’d be lying if I said that after thirteen years, his loss isn’t felt anymore. Jeffrey Fuller was a pillar in the community, a man of strong and humble character, a man who was less than perfect, but above all a man who was loved by those who understood his significance and the significance of his contributions in this world.  

As his son, his loss leaves me at times feeling lost, even today.  It feels like I’ve fighting the elements for the past thirteen years. I wonder what could have been, what would be now, and in the midst of it all just realizing I miss him so very much.  Yet it’s more than that. It’s a loss I feel every time I read an article or hear the news that family farms are an endangered species in our society now.  Farming as become industrialized.  The loss of such a man as my dad and his way of life signals a sadness in me as I watch a world lose some of the more important characteristics necessary to live well in it.  Humility.  Conviction. Commitment. Compassion. Servitude.  Endurance.

I suppose that is what this essay is about: the will to endure.  That’s what fighting the elements is about.  Expecting nothing other than the day in front of you. Understanding the fragility of life – whether the loss of a calf or a crop or the loss of another human – is both something fearful and precious, but not something that paralyzed you from living life. You just keep going.  You endure.  You fight the elements. I try to remember that as I live my own life today.  Keep fighting. Don’t give up and don’t give in.  The elements may be different than they were in my youth, but the will to endure the same.

Yet the most important thing to remember is that you don’t fight the elements alone.  My dad understood that in the ways he helped others, and allowed others to help him when his stubborn pride often would not allow him to ask for it.  There were neighbors.  There were his brother and sister.  There were his kids.  When a man is loved as Jeffrey Fuller was, one is never truly alone.  And if you are not alone, you can endure. 

On the winter night thirteen years ago, going out to a barn to milk my dad’s cows for the last time, I fully expected to be alone.  I didn’t tell anyone.  I didn’t ask for help.  Yet, a neighbor came over.  And then another.  My older sister brought out sandwiches and cans of Mountain Dew and together, we milked Jeffrey Fuller’s cows on last time to complete a life of work he never got the chance to complete.  We talked, shared a few chuckles, but mostly worked in silence amid the rhythmic noise of the milking machines.   In that moment, not so much completing a task, but carrying out a way of life.  It is a way of life that carries me in moments of doubt and struggle; in moments of cynicism and at times despair; and in those moments where the hole left by my dad’s death leaves me feeling lost.

I fight the elements, sometimes alone but usually with others coming along side me. In doing that, I not only honor the man who was so influential in my life,

I truly live.

 

 

 

 

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What We Teach Our Kids: Covington Catholic HS Kids & a DC Rally

I’ve been observing and thinking about the interaction between Nick Sandman, Covington Catholic High School Junior and Nathan Phillips, Native American and USMC veteran in DC. I’ve done the obligatory reading of articles and follow on articles, read Sandman’s statement, Fr. Martin’s Facebook post along with everyone’s social media controversy. So consider me sufficiently over saturated. *sarcasm* However, let me offer this, starting with a story:

I coach wrestling. About three years ago during practice, at the high school I was coaching at, I noticed someone had drawn a swastika, the symbol of Nazi Germany – a symbol that is widely associated with hate, violence, and the attempted extermination of an entire people – in the condensation on a window in the practice room.

I immediately called out, “Who did this?”

One kid stopped drilling and casually replied, “I did” and went back to drilling moves. In response, I said (and probably wasn’t nice or calm about it) “get over here! What the hell were you thinking?” His reply, “Um, I don’t know. Trying to be funny I guess. What’s the big deal?”

I probably can’t repeat what I said after that. (I let him have it)

This kid was one of my better wrestlers. A team captain, hard worker, took care of others, especially the “weak” – those who were picked on. He worked with our little kids’ wrestling program and was awesome. He was widely known as respectful to teachers and peers. You get the picture: he was a good kid.

The truth is, even good kids can make really stupid mistakes. Horrific one, in fact. The news will have stories where a kid does something – sexual assault, commit a crime, act of racism, etc – and we’ll hear, “But he was a good kid.”

Regardless of a well-written statement, I put what happened in DC into the category of “good kid, stupid decision.”

For instance, you don’t wear a red MAGA hat to a rally in DC, because it communicates a message that has split the country in half. You’ll be labeled – unfairly perhaps – and it not be to your liking. Like it or not, that’s life.

Starting a Tomahawk Chop chant might be ok at an Atlanta Braves baseball game, but not at a rally in DC, especially when you aim that chat directly at a group of Native Americans.

You don’t live in a vacuum. Your actions and words always have consequences. And you don’t always get “do overs” for mistakes – the world doesn’t work that way.

Kids are often unaware, or too naive to think through the ramifications of their actions. That’s my experience in working with kids, at least. They need to be held accountable for what they say and do, or they don’t learn. But we also have an obligation to help them make sense of those ramifications as well.

I talked through the swastika incident with my wrestler.

Me:”Do you understand what this means to people?”

Wrestler: “Um, no.”

M: “Do you know what the Jewish Holocaust is?”

W: “Yes…..oh, man, what was I thinking?”

M: “You weren’t. And that’s a symbol of hate today too….Neo Nazis, White Supremacists.”

Wrestler 2 (who was listening in, and is African American): “Dude, those people hate my people. You did what?”

Let’s just say, he learned the lesson.

Back to the DC Rally….I’ve given up on adults these days. They’ve become too defensive and arrogant to understand the ignorance that plagues our society today. I’ve made the mistake of trying to have a conversation with adults in these things.

Nor am I overly concerned with how adults are working through their emotional baggage. Placing blame, naming the villain, calling people “libtard” or “capitalist monsters”. I’d say it would probably be better they get off social media, turn off the TV, and find a therapist. There’s enough trauma in life that we don’t need more, caused by emotionally charged rants. Go work on yourself, and then come back and rejoin the community of humans when you’re ready to be human yourself.

I focus on kids. Good kids, but kids who with their developing brains and limited experience do and say incredibly stupid things. When they do, you bet I’ll be there, giving them an accountability check and teaching them what it means to be part of the human race. They don’t live in a vacuum. The world doesn’t revolve around them. There are consequences to their actions. That’s my obligation and my commitment as one who exists on this clump of dirt we call earth: teach kids the right way.

I reckon that obligation and commitment to kids as an act of love.

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Christmas Eve for the rest of us.

It’s Christmas Eve. And it’s mid-afternoon for me here in Germany, about 6-7 hours ahead of all my people Stateside. I’ll go to church in a few hours at a LCMS congregation, because it’s English-speaking and the Lutheran in me wants to be among Lutherans to claim some sense of normalcy.

Believe it or not, this is my first Christmas deployed. In 17 years in the Navy, it took becoming a Chaplain and mobilizing to Germany to finally spend a Christmas “deployed.” But it feels anything but that. I’m not underway, submerged 400 feet below the sea. I’m not sucking sand in the desert. My wife and my in-laws are with me. And I spent the last few days viewing Christmas Markets across Germany.

I feel out of place this Christmas. However, it’s not really any different from any other Christmas for me. Convention: the merriment, the gifts, the large gatherings, the thin traditions that seem so disconnected from the Christian narrative I have come to dedicate my life to.

This is a picture of the Cathedral in Köln, Germany. I think it represents my cycncism about Christmas and what it’s become. Beautiful, breathtaking, but also a symbol of the church’s power (and abuse of) and influence, built off the backs of ordinary people.

Being deployed to Germany has made me a bit cynical. Realizing the very Protestant Reformation that created the church I now serve happened primarily because political leaders saw it as an opportunity to siege power has made me wonder: why celebrate? In fact, why even bother to have faith in Christ at all?

I don’t have answers, and right now, I don’t feel compelled to even try. But what I will do is go to a church led by an LCMS pastor (and pray I can take communion). I will have members of my staff (deployed like me) over for Christmas dinner tomorrow. I will appreciate my in laws and my wife (even when they drive me nuts). I will try to appreciate the fact that yes, this is my first Christmas deployed, and while it’s not “hard” I will take stock of the challenges and stressors and that it’s ok to take a break from it all.

I am thankful, for all my mixed feelings about Christmas, about the Church I serve in, and this world, I can put that aside for one moment and simply take a breather….regardless of what I want or think, God is in control. Faith and innocence like a child is what’s required.

And for the rest of us, those like you and me, maybe that’s enough for at least one holy night.

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Traveling, Christ the King, & The Advent Season to come

I got a bit of a break in our mission schedule the past two weeks, so I took the opportunity to visit Budapest with my wife the last couple days. Folks in my social media network had lots of suggestions and opinions about the city, most of them reflecting how great the city and its sites are and what I should go see and do.

It’s an interesting place, but I’ve never been a fan of cities. They just don’t inspire me. Maybe that’s because of my upbringing on the farm or the introvert in me who hates the city’s crowdedness. I guess I’m just drawn to the more remote places of the world, places that are not inhabited and not touched by millions of people.

Upon deeper reflection, I think it’s more than that. I find meaning in cities, but it’s usually in their histories around the darker events, the sobering history of the place. Budapest is a place marked by achievement and greatness, but also of great suffering and tragedy. The Holocaust. Rulers of empires who built a city on the backs of the poor; those rulers immortalized by large statutes, tributes to their egos. Empty churches, like the one I worshipped Sunday in with a whopping 5 other people.

Which brings me to Christ the King Sunday, Which was celebrated yesterday. Judging by the usual posts of sermons and thoughts from my colleagues, no doubt people discussed how Jesus is a different kind of King, one who unlike worldly rulers is worthy of our fealty, devotion, and love.

I guess my question is: is faith really about a choice of what or who we swear or allegiance to? Is that what God/Christ demands of us? And what exactly am I swearing my undying loyalty to: Liberal Christianity? Conservative Christianity? Orthodoxy? Progressivism? Lutheranism? The ELCA?

In our quaint worship service, the pastor, a Hungarian pastor filling in for the ELCA pastors who usually lead the service – more nervous about her English than anything – didn’t use the appointed Revised Common Lectionary texts for Christ the King Sunday. Rather, she chose more apocalyptic texts we associate with Advent. Her message was we often think God’s promises won’t happen in our time. But whether it was the Babylonian-exiled Israel, or the NT communities of Jesus’ and the apostles’ day, the proclamation was that they were meant for the present time. God’s promises of life out of death, hope out of indifference, love rather than fear, peace rather than power are for us, NOW. Faith in those promises is an act of resistance in a world that says there is nothing but indifference, fear, power, and death when it comes to this life. It is faith practiced because we believe God is with us NOW.

In other words, faith as resistance means something else entirely than fealty to God/Christ….or our fabricated notions of the same.

This is why I can’t wait for Advent to come. Advent (much like Lent) calls us to God’s promises. Advent calls us to not worry so much about who goes to church or who’s keeping the Christ in Christmas. Rather Advent, in our celebration of the season and observance of its rituals, calls us to sense God in the here and now in those places we typically don’t look for God. Yet I think Advent is even more than that.

Advent is calling us to account for fear, indifference, love of power, and death in our lives and resist these things.

God doesn’t demand our allegiance or fealty as some ideally benevolent King. Rather, God calls us to faith as resistance against the madness of the world. In that resistance, we can truly be free. And always, God is with us.

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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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Why There Must be a Difference: Social Justice, Activism, & the Church

I’ve struggled with this question ever since I became a pastor:

“What makes the church different from social justice activism?”

Social justice is important to me.  I’ve been drawn to it ever since I entered seminary in 2009 and began to think more deeply about the deeper meaning behind the Christian concern and care for those who are pushed to the margins, ignored, exploited, and discriminated against.  Yet, there has always been a deep hesitation that has accompanied me along this journey into social justice work and conversation.

I recently came across the following article, “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice.”  I resonate with much that the author, a social justice activist herself, has to say.  A couple great excerpts:

On moral purity:

“There’s so much wrongdoing in the world that we work to expose. And yet, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by in these circles…..I’m exhausted, and I’m not even doing the real work I am committed to do. It is a terrible thing to be afraid of my own community members, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me.”

On dangers of colonization:

“The experiences of oppression do not grant supremacy, in the same way that being a powerful colonizer does not. Justice will never look like supremacy. I wish for a new societal order that does not revolve around relations of power and domination.”

On preachiness:

“Discipline and punishment has been used for all of history to control and destroy people. Why is it being used in movements meant to liberate all of us? We all have made serious mistakes and hurt other people, intentionally or not. We get a chance to learn from them when those around us respond with kindness and patience. Where is our humility when examining the mistakes of others? Why do we position ourselves as morally superior to the un-woke? Who of us came into the world fully awake?”

The last paragraph of the article is so good, I’m going to let you read the rest of the article for yourself.

I’ve often been asked why, despite my hesitation, my reservations, and my suspicions, I care so much about issues of justice, diversity, and inclusion and why I think the Church should care and participate in such things.  The easy answer is just to point you to Micah 6:8 and call it a day, but the answer for me is deeper than that. 

So what makes the Church different? Church can never exclude or leave people behind in the effort of a more just, inclusive, and diverse world. Church continues to be prophetic, courageous, and bold in its longing for a more just world, and it’s desire to work along side God in making that a reality in the present.  Yet, Church never has the luxury of casting aside those who might differ, who resist, who avoid, or those who are indifferent. Even if it means the movement is slower or doesn’t happen in the manner we’d like. It’s sometimes really inefficient and messy, and relationships are complex, but the invitation is always open. 

The distinguishing line, of course, is that there is a difference between those mentioned above and those who intentionally disqualify themselves or become subversive because of their opposition. Whether they leave or try to sabotage efforts, neither can lead to the Church  suspending its participation in justice work. Like Jesus, as the rich young man went away unable to bear the personal cost of discipleship, as Judas made the choice to betray him, we let them go freely and without a word of condemnation or shame. Although it is with great sadness that we allow them to go. 

Just as Christ does in the gospels, we as Christ’s Church can be both prophetic and gracious. We can be insistent about justice and empathetic to those who resist. We may not always move together but we can still be Church together. We can push and challenge each other and still maintain respect and preserve their dignity. As hard as it may seem, we must still embrace each other’s humanity, just as God in Christ has embraced our humanity.  Like Christ, we can still love. For the sake of Christ’s Church, we must still love

That is the real difference, and one that crucial in our striving towards God’s justice today. 

 

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I am Tired.

I am tired.

I’m tired of being thrust into the race and diversity conversation simply because I’m a person of color.

I’m tired of being excluded from the race and diversity conversation because people don’t think I’m a person of color.

I’m tired of being excluded because I don’t push hard enough, but at the same time others think I push too hard.

I’m tired of whites – religious and non-religious; liberal or conservative; young and old; male and female – explaining to me what is proper, correct, and important in the race and diversity conversation.

It is well-known that Asian-Americans are pushed into what is known as the “model minority myth“.  The idea that Asians don’t struggle with discrimination and assimilation to an “American” way of life as other “problematic” minorities is a lie.  Here’s the thing though: sadly – and this is primarily something that’s been perpetuated within the church more than any other place – “model minority” status has allowed those in places of power and privilege to define what my role is any conversation about diversity and racial justice.  Add to this that I am a transracial Asian adoptee whose parents were of Scandinavian decent, it compounds the myth….and the control over me.

Those who know me well know that I typically don’t do well with those trying to control my role and place in the world.  I typically rage against such action the moment I feel I’m being manipulated or exploited.  On one hand, I hate being thrust in front of folks as part of the celebration of racial diversity within the church.  On the other, I hate being told I have nothing to offer (and this actually happened) because I am not an actual person of color.  

I’m exhausted by it.  I am tired.

A big part of my wants to completely withdraw and let the talking heads (read: liberal and conservative white people) fight their little war of ideology as they always have.  I’m not African-American, and their history isn’t mine either, so why should I care? But then I find that I do care, because I’m tired.

I’m tired of people dying.

I”m tired of hearing and seeing the Philandos, the Trayvons, the Michael Browns, and countless others who have died.  I’m tired of people turning them into a simple hashtag to perpetuate their argument, all the while keeping themselves at a distance from the reality of tragic and senseless death.  I’m tired of people not caring enough about people that pulling a law enforcement officer off the line who is a risk to others and himself isn’t an option for an institution that prides itself on “taking care of its own.”

I’m tired of people dying….

….needlessly,

….due to the carelessness of others,

….and because people don’t really seem to care people are indeed dying, suffering. 

And I’m tired of wondering when I’m next. 

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