Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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. 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sermon 2 July 2017: Emmanuel Lutheran, Virginia Beach

Text: Genesis 22:1-14

This story bothers me.  Maybe it bothers you too.

This story, known as the “near sacrifice of Isaac” is troubling.  It raises so many questions: Why would God demand Abraham offer his only son Isaac to be sacrificed?  What kind of God tests people’s faith in that way?  Why would Abraham just go along with the plan blindly, without questioning God?  Or was Abraham simply delusional…was the voice not God’s but just in his head?  And why would God allow the test to go as far as it did?  How traumatic must that have been to Isaac, to be bound and tied, seeing the blade of a knife so close, and on the other end of it his father ready to plunge it into his flesh?

Considering all these questions, I’m not so sure reducing the story to a lesson of exemplary obedience to God or connecting it as some pre-story to Jesus as a sacrifice on the cross makes the story any less troubling.  But perhaps this morning, and like most days, we’d prefer a simple explanation…..we can avoid being uncomfortable, sing the closing hymn and go merrily on our way.

Pastor Aaron asked me to preach on mental and physical disabilities this morning, and to be honest, I’d love to give you a nice answer about how God wants us to embrace those who bear marks on the inside and outside that don’t resemble what most of us consider as bearing the image of God.  I’d love to simply tell you that faithfulness is simply embracing these people, enduring their imperfections, and that we’ll find immeasurable joy in doing so…..one big happy ending to the story of being church to those less fortunate than us.

Yet that sermon wouldn’t take away the nagging, troubling questions that I think persist with us when we see those who bear mental and physical scars – whether born with or caused by living in this world.  You know, the questions that live in the back of our minds, and cover up with statements like “they’re God’s little angels” or “God never gives us more than we can handle.”

Such a sermon wouldn’t help me make sense of my week:

A couple sailors returning from year-long deployments in combat zones this week, finding their way to my office because a wave of irrational anger swept over them to the point they were about to grow a chair at the nice lady giving the insurance benefits brief. They’re not sure why, but they then tell me stories of what happened on their deployments, and I know why. 

Walking into a store and watching a weary mom try to calm their mentally handicapped child, because they simply do not have the ability to comprehend why they can’t have a certain box of cereal that caught their eye.

A man, head bent, half-burnt swisher sweet in hand, slowly walking through the cross-walk where I was stopped, oblivious to the rapid countdown of the crosswalk timer and chaos of traffic impatiently waiting for the signal to turn green.

Mid-way through seminary, ELCA wannabe pastors have to go through something called Clinical Pastoral Experience, or CPE.  For most of us, this is done in a hospital setting, and the goal is to teach us practical things like bedside manner and to hone pastoral care skills.  The hospital I did my CPE at asked us at the beginning what units we wanted to be assigned to.  Me, not really knowing but being open to anything said, “I’d like to be challenged.”

So they placed me in the two inpatient mental health units for the summer.

I can tell you as hard as that summer was, it was also rewarding, but not for the reasons you’d probably expect.  In caring for those suffering from depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders and a whole host of other things, I found out this rather troubling truth: the line that defined why they were there and why I wasn’t was much thinner, and not as clear as I assumed.  A few life circumstances, a few poor decisions, the random chance associated with what qualities we’re given at birth…and I just as easily could have been locked up on the units.

Here’s the thing: as much as we might want to convince ourselves that we can distance ourselves from the troubling and disturbing things of this life, the truth is that our lives are bound much more closely to them…perhaps too close for comfort.  But in that discovery, that my story was somehow closely bound to their troubling story, I learned something about my own humanity as well as theirs.

In the Jewish tradition, this story from Genesis is known as the “binding of Isaac.”  To bind here means in the sense of binding up a sacrifice, an offering.  Yet I wonder if we can’t also think of binding in the way that no matter how we slice this story, the characters – Abraham and Isaac – can’t seem to escape the troubling events of it.  Escaping what is troubling, disturbing, what makes us uncomfortable is an unescapable part of life.  

Yet God is also one of the characters right alongside Abraham and Isaac.  God is just as bound up in the troubling and disturbing story as Abraham and Isaac are.

Such troubling stories, such disturbing things…..they are caught up in the life of God.  God doesn’t avoid them.  God is an active part in them.  We don’t face them alone.  God speaks, protects, and provides.

But to be caught up in the life of God isn’t just to have faith that God delivers and wipes such things from our lives, but to trust that God sees such things.  God doesn’t avoid them.  We don’t have to avoid such things, we don’t have to look away in discomfort or even shame because we know that God is right there with us looking at them because God binds God’s life to ours – even the most troubling parts of it.

Perhaps what we learn – as I learned during my summer of CPE – that binding ourselves closer to people who so publicly bear the disturbing things in life actually draws us into a deeper understanding of ourselves….and into a deeper relationship with God.

And perhaps this little, inescapable truth makes our prayers, our singing, our eating and drinking  around the Table this morning mean just a little bit more.

And it makes us a bit more hopeful in the inescapable things we see, the inescapable things we must face each and every day….because God has bound godself to our story, to our lives, to us.  Amen.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Signs of the Apocalypse: A “Dislike” Button on Facebook is a Bad Idea

So apparently the day us normal people have been dreading is around the corner.

Facebook is working on adding a “dislike” button.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explains that this is something people have been requesting for a long time, citing the example that people want an option when someone posts the death of a loved one.  That’s something people want to express their sadness and condolences, not “like it.”  Hence, a “dislike” button.

However, would it really work that way?  Writer and Filmmaker Jon Ronson suggests something to the contrary.  His TED Talk from June, “When online shaming spirals out of control” is well worth 17 minutes of your time to watch:

Jon Ronson TED Talk

Surveys and studies have been done over the past few years, chronicling the link between frequent social media use and higher rates of depression and suicide in teenagers and college students.

All this evidence is great, but here’s my greatest fear: in a time when our self-worth is already being eroded in way too many ways, can we afford yet another avenue for that to happen, and on the most widely used social media site in the world?  Of course, the “dislike” button itself is not the problem, rather it’s our all too sobering penchant to build up our own self-worth by degrading others.  We noble as Zuckerberg might think, and as good intentioned as we think we are, the truth is, when the chips are down, the majority of us would rather hit that dislike button so that people might know – we think they suck.

I wish I knew a way forward….having recently disabled my Facebook account, I can’t say that I’ve missed it all that much.  This news about a dislike button does in fact feel like a sign that the Apocalypse is coming; we just that much closer to destroying the humanity in each other and the humanity in ourselves.  Frankly, I don’t really have a whole lot to offer in the way of a solution or resolution.  I know we need to teach and advocate for more responsible and accountable use of social media from ourselves and each other…..but again, I just don’t think we’re all that good.  I know I’m not.

For now, I think it’s just enough to seriously take the time to think about the implications that when someone posts about a new job, a picture of a new haircut, numerous selfiies, “check-in” somewhere, and of course offer their social and political opinions….with the click of a button we can destroy those less resilient souls out there.  With the click of a button we can crush the life from those who are so starved for affirmation that they would be vulnerable enough to seek it in the toxic environment of social media.

A “dislike” button….it’s a bad idea.  Plain and simple.  And Lutheran HONEYBADGER’s Facebook exile will continue, for now.

1 Comment

Filed under Culture & Social Issues/Ethics, Uncategorized

Bi-Vocational Pastor: Reflections on the Virginia Synod Assembly & “Liturgical Movements”

This past weekend, I headed to Salem, VA to take part in our annual Assembly of the Virginia Synod.  It’s my second Synod Assembly in Virginia, but my first as a pastor (I missed last year for a valid reason, I promise!).  People show up starting Friday morning, and we conclude on Sunday at noon.  Each year, the culmination of the Assembly is Saturday evening worship at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Roanoke, VA.  It’s a pretty grand worship in a beautiful sanctuary – the procession of pastors across the Synod, full organ and brass ensemble, and over 300 voices singing hymns and speaking liturgy together as one voice.

1939803_837143949693706_1283073233291983852_n

I took the opportunity to not process with the rest of the pastors, primarily because I don’t get to simply worship much anymore.  I appreciated that time, but I also have to admit, there were times during worship that things seemed, well, mundane.  Tedious.  Grandiose.  Performative.  As beautiful as the worship experience was, I found myself not just drifting, but disconnecting.

My thing about worship like this past Saturday night is that for me, it just feels so disconnected with what typically happens in my day-to-day life.  It doesn’t seem to resemble anything I see or do.  And I suppose that’s the point; that’s what makes worship like this special.  Our presiding bishop of the ELCA has written, “At the heart of what we do is worship,” but I wonder, what does this mean?

And it doesn’t remove the feeling of disconnection that I feel.

I admit, my attitudes towards worship are different from most pastors.  Having grown up in Minnesota farm country, folks appreciated a nice, “efficient” service because they had been up since 4am milking cows.  Don’t preach too long, don’t sing all 6 verses of that hymn, and it’s ok to skip the full Eucharistic prayer and Sanctus in the communion liturgy.  However, through that experience growing up I came to understand that worship was something well beyond Sunday morning and the doors of our little church.  Our whole lives are worship and in that way, worship was at the heart of who we are and what we do.

Liturgy means generally, “The work of the people.”  What I’ve come to understand about my life is that it is an act of worship to God, and that my daily activity is a series of “liturgical movements” within that worship.  What I’ve come discover in the journey through seminary and since I’ve been a pastor is that I’m focused and aware of these liturgical movements occurring in daily life.  This past weekend at Synod Assembly was no different.

I heard laughter and excitement as people registered on Friday morning.

I watched people – long time friends and strangers – gather over meals and have meaningful, life-giving conversations with each other.

I caught up with folks from Bedford Lutheran and heard about their hopes and challenges in becoming an established congregation in the Synod.

I learned what other congregations are doing, ideas they’re trying as ways to be more missional in their communities.  And more important, I noticed their passion and desire, alongside their anxiety and uncertainty.

I got to watch my good friend “hover” around his 7th grade daughter as she participated in the Youth Assembly – the struggle of every parent who watches their kid shift to a time of independence.

I watched congregations wrestle with the questions raised about getting to know and understand their neighbors around their churches better and what that means for them.

I saw two old pastors engaged in a late night conversation as I headed to my room – clearly they were good friends who didn’t see much of each other.

I watched my Synodical Bishop read the list of saints departed, pastors who have died this past year – one among those names being his own father.

I listened to a man’s response, his frustration about race relations in this country and the helplessness and pain he feels.  I also listened to his concerns for the future about the farm he operates and if there will be anyone willing to take it over.

I witnessed the representatives from the two congregations I serve have meaningful discussion about the future of their churches, and their future together.

And I got to play racquetball with that good friend of mine too (although I kicked my ass and that bothers me!).

I could continue on, but do you see it – Worship?  Confession, thanksgiving, sharing of the peace, hymns and sounds of praise, prayers of intercession, and blessing.  People nourished and refreshed, not just in Word as preaching and Sacrament as Eucharist, but Word proclaiming that Christ, the incarnate God, is among us and Sacramental presence that unites saints and sinners around God’s Grace.  These liturgical movements are the work of the people happening in the routine, the ordinary, and the familiar.  It is in these liturgical movements that people come to know a God who is deeply with them and acting for them, and for the sake of the world.

I wonder if others feel that disconnect between what happens in the pew and from day-to-day, and struggle with what seems like competing priorities, too.  David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a former professor of mine at Luther Seminary was fond of saying, “Today, weekly worship needs to be thought of as the practice rather than the actual game.  The value in weekly worship is that it trains us to know what God’s presence and action look like, so that we might identify it more easily in our lives.”  What this suggests is that worship is indeed at the heart of what we do as Christians – but it’s a worship that encompasses all of life, both in the pew and in our daily routines and activity.

This past weekend affirmed and reminded me that this connected and integrated truth about Christian worship is true, and it is this truth that strengthens and sustains us both in faith and vocation as Christians living in the world today.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bi-Vocational Ministry, Uncategorized