Thursday, November 26, 2015

Don't Worry. Be Thankful.

Don’t worry.  Be happy.

Does anyone remember that song?  27 years ago, Bobby McFerrin wrote a catchy little tune that became the first a cappella song to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list.  “Don’t worry, be happy” won 3 Grammy’s that year.  It was, briefly, the official song of the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign.  The song was used in advertisements for Alamo Rent-A-Car, Ocean Spray, and Huggies.  These four words spawned books, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and a nation of people do-do-doing that catchy tune.

Critical and commercial success for “Don’t worry, be happy” eventually gave way to backlash.  Some derided the song’s message as trite...idealistic...overly simplistic...and detached from the reality of a complex world. The "don't worry, be happy" mantra was, to some, escapism at its worst - worry is not something a person can or should simply ignore.

After all, everyone worries.  And most of us can’t flip a switch and just stop worrying.  Wouldn’t it be great if you could?  I mean, sure, worry and anxiety can at times provide motivation to act.  But I think it’s more common for worry to suffocate disable leave us curled up in our homes or drowning in an ocean of fear or self-loathing.  

My family and friends will tell you that I worry.  A lot.  They’d probably say I worry too much - and I say that they don’t worry nearly enough.  With so much turmoil and uncertainty and evil in the world, how can you not worry?  I worry about the health and safety of my children...I worry about what others think of me...I worry about the future of the protestant mainline church...I worry about the growing water spot in my dining room ceiling.  I worry.How about you?  What do you worry about?  

Jesus knows that we worry.  He knows that we can be overcome, even crippled by fear.  By anxiety.  The nagging voices that cause us to doubt if we’ll have enough...or that tell us that we aren’t enough.  And yet, several times in this excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “do not worry”.  He tells us how God provides for the simplest of things.  The birds.  The flowers.  The grass.  Jesus tells us that God provides for these things, even without their working for it.  The birds don’t reap or sow.  The flowers don’t toil or spin.  God provides.  

At some level, we know that God provides.  We’re here, aren’t we?  We have and water...a warm place to be.  And we’ve had these basic essentials long enough to make it to this point in our lives.  Some of us have more than others, some of us have been around longer than others.  But like the birds, the flowers, and the grass - God has provided for us.  

So why are we worried?  We know that worry doesn’t make us live longer.  It doesn’t make us any happier from day to day.  It might make us more productive, but it’s just as likely to make us less productive.  So why can’t we shake it?

Last year The Independent UK conducted a survey of the things people worry about most.  Here are the top 10:
  • #1 -- Getting Old
  • #2 -- Having enough money saved up
  • #3 -- Low energy levels
  • #4 -- Diet
  • #5 -- Financial Debt 
  • #6 -- Job Security
  • #7 -- Wrinkles
  • #8 -- Physique
  • #9 -- Paying rent/mortgage
  • #10 -- Being generally unhappy

Regarding that last one -- worry about being generally unhappy -- this survey also indicated that 42% of people are unhappy.  So not only are nearly half of us unhappy with our lives...we are worried about being unhappy.  Kind makes it hard to sing, “Don’t worry, be happy” with any integrity.

On Sunday the New York Times published an OpEd piece with the title - “Choose to Be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier.”  The author referenced a 2003 study in which a one group of participants were asked to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events.  Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the other groups.  This is one of many such studies referenced in this piece - all of which led to the same conclusion.  Being grateful makes you happier.

But how, exactly?  "One explanation is that acting happy, regardless of if you actually are happy, coaxes a person’s brain into processing positive emotions.  Research published in the Cerebral Cortex Journal indicates that gratitude stimulates both the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (the part that produces the sensation of pleasure)."

It’s science, the article concludes.  But for many of us it also may be common sense.  Making the choice to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things.  Duh!

Science tells us that taking time to be thankful will make us happier.  And I think that this kind of happiness just might crowd out the worry that invades our lives.  Choosing to say “thank you” - to God and to the people in our lives - for ordinary things just might make us worry less.  Deciding to fixate on the blessings more than the burdens will not just make us happier - it will make it possible for us to heed the words of Jesus:

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

Do not worry.  

Today, on the eve of our national day of Thanksgiving, it’s good for us to give God thanks for our many blessings.  And, as we give thanks, we will likely find ourselves a little happier...and a little less worried.  

Don’t worry, be happy?

Don’t worry.  Be thankful.  

When we are thankful, and a little less worried, and a little more happy -- we are then strengthened to do what Jesus tells us to do at the end of this gospel:  strive for the kingdom of God.  

Friends from other congregations may have sung the hymn, “Lead on, O King Eternal” this past Sunday - Christ the King Sunday.  The second verse of this hymn, written by Ernest Shurtleff, is one of my favorite texts...and it tells us exactly how we seek the kingdom: For not with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums But deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.  

Don’t worry.  Be thankful.  Seek the kingdom.  Through deeds of love and mercy.  

We trust Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit and in our communities of faith, to help us with this.  To encourage one another.  To remind each other, in love, of the ways that God provides for us.  To focus on the good things and not the bad things.  To motivate us to deeds of love and mercy, for the sake of the kingdom here on earth.  

(Sermon preached on Thanksgiving Eve 2015 at Capitol Hill Lutheran Church.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

And a 1...and a 2...

Fifteen years ago I was a few weeks into my student teaching experience in Charles City, Iowa.  I spent my mornings directing high school vocal music and the afternoons in an elementary school general music classroom.  I went into that experience fairly certain that music would never be my primary vocation.  I had a sense that congregational youth ministry or seminary would be my next stop.  Music education (specifically choral conducting) was, at that time, the back up plan.

Though my primary vocational identity for the past 14+ has been in youth ministry, I've continue to make music part of my life.  I occasionally worked as a vocal music substitute at a local high school.  I played guitar for children's ministry events.  I led a "praise band" for a few years.  There's always music being played or sung in our home.  But I haven't really done the thing I was trained to do in college -- be a choir director.

That's going to change tomorrow.  One of my duties at my new church is to direct the choir.  Thinking about choir rehearsal makes me feel like I'm 21 years old again, getting ready to embark on another day of student teaching.  Excitement.  Terror.  Curiosity.  Humility.  Back in college, I'd squelch these feelings with frozen pizza, cheap beer, and Super Mario World with my roommate.  Tonight, I'll settle for West Wing reruns on the couch with my dog.

It's a bizzare thing to be in front of a group of musicians...a strange mix of intimacy, vulnerability, and passion.  And it's a profound honor.  Which is something I hope I never cease to recognize.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Potty-Mouthed Pastors

Paul Hill blogged about his recent experience at the Christianity21 conference.  It's a good post.  Go check it out... I'll be here when you get back.

As you can tell, Paul was taken aback by the pervasive use of profanity from many of the speakers.  He wonders if his negative reaction to the use of the F-word means he's becoming The Church Lady.*

At EC21 the speakers intentionally and frequently used [the f-bomb], commented on using it, and nearly celebrated using it.  I don't see how this communicates relevancy so much as it is pandering to the audience.  

It's hard for me to separate when someone is using salty language for emphasis and when they're just showing off.  I certainly am no stranger to profanity, and I'm not personally offended when someone f-bombs...but, I'll admit to being annoyed at times.  It's as if some of these folks are saying, "Look at me...I said a naughty word!"

Then again, I'm probably not the intended audience for the speakers at events like Christianity21.  (White, middle class, suburban, midwestern, life-long Lutheran, pastor's kid, etc.)  I really love what Emergence Christianity has done to draw the church out of it's fuddy-duddyness.  Furthermore, most of the emerging leaders are doing the kind of ministry I don't have the courage to event attempt.  If cursing and tattoos and piercings are part of the Relevance Package for these ministers, who am I to say they should stop?

Jake and I wrestled with the topic of profanity when assembling Cancer & Theology.  Several of the authors used words that would make my grandmother blush.  For a variety of reasons we kept their original language in the book.  We did this recognizing there are some people who will miss out on an excellent message because the writers employed a handful of curse words.

When it comes to the use of curse words, it's probably a living-in-the-tension situation, which, I'll admit, feels like a cop-out.  For me, it's about knowing your audience (whether it's a large assembly or a small group) and understanding when an f-bomb will convey passion and emphasis...and when it will distract and offend.

What do you think?  Is it okay for a pastor or church leader to use a "bad word" when writing or speaking in public?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cancer & Theology


Of all the words in the English language, I can think of none more offensive, violent, or profane than this word.


I don't know a single person who hasn't been touched by cancer in some way.  A family member.  A close friend.  A co-worker.  A classmate.  A parishioner.  Everyone knows someone (probably many someones) who has encountered cancer.

Two and a half years ago, a young mother in my congregation was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer.  The diagnosis came with a near certain death sentence.  Chemotherapy and radiation followed a rather invasive surgery to remove part of the tumor.  As she was in the process of making a miraculous recovery, my good friend Jake was diagnosed with lymphoma.  It was in the midst of his treatment (and eventual recovery) that he reached out to a handful of Christian scholars, pastors, and leaders.  His request was simple—write essays which help people think theologically about illness and death.

There is great wisdom and candor found in each of these sixteen essays, several of which originally appeared on Jake's blog.  Last week the essays were gathered into an e-book called Cancer & Theology which is now available for purchase on  A paperback version will be ready on February 1.  A portion of all proceeds will support the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

These essays have helped me wrestle with how I understand God's activity in the midst my friends' journeys with cancer.  If you have been touched by cancer, I believe Cancer & Theology will speak to you as well.  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Young Leaders

I'm spending the weekend at an ELCA youth leadership retreat.  Teenagers from across the country have gathered around three questions:

  1. How am I experiencing or seeing God's presence?
  2. What is God calling me to?
  3. How will I respond?
The group was visited this evening by Bishop Brian Maas of the Nebraska Synod.  He spoke about innovative leadership and invited the young people to wrestle with another question: "what does leadership look like in the church?"  He referenced Everett Rogers' technology adoption lifecycle and Geoffrey Moore's adaptation, which produced this chart:

Bishop Maas made a strong case for why church leaders aren't called to be innovators or even early adopters, rather leaders are called into the chasm.  He certainly piqued my interest in the topic.  One of the questions I will continue to wrestle with is who are these leaders?  Are they pastors?  Lay staff?  Volunteers?  Church councils?  Consultants?  Elders?  Youth?  Furthermore, do our congregations want pastors who will bridge the gap between the 15% and the 85%?  

Patrick Scriven, blogging for the Pacific Northwest Methodist Conference, doesn't think the church needs more innovative pastors.  I'm curious to know what you think.  

In the meantime, I'm excited to have the rest of the weekend to keep learning from the young people at this leadership retreat.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Counting the Costs

A group of college students came over to my house for dinner on Sunday night.  This was one of the last church events for students who are soon heading off to institutions of higher learning.  For many of these young people, the decision to attend college is a foregone conclusion...merely the obvious next step in their journey toward becoming productive members of society.  Most of them will receive financial support for their education, but almost all of them will graduate with much larger debt than their parents.  

It's no secret that the cost of education is more expensive for this generation than for previous generations.  We know that the rate of inflation is much more gradual than the rate of increases for colleges.  For example, the minimum wage in 1983 was $3.35/hour and the average college tuition was just under $1,800.  Today, the minimum wage is $7.25 and the average cost for tuition is just over $12,000.

For a student to "work their way through college" in 1983, they would need to crank out about 530 hours flipping burgers or stocking shelves each year.  A 40 hour work week in the summer months would nearly cover the total cost of tuition without any need for scholarships, financial aid, work study, or parental assistance.  Students today face a different reality.  A young person needs to work 2,480 minimum wage hours to pay for tuition; 4.5 times as many hours as their counterparts in the early 1980's.  

This extends to the church world as well.  In order for someone to be a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that person needs to receive a Masters of Divinity through a seminary, which is typically a four-year process.  Yesterday, Bishop Michael Rinehart posted these numbers on the ELCA Facebook page:
Factoid: Full-time tuition for a masters degree student this academic year at Luther [Seminary] was $15,000. Single students pay nearly $32,870 annually when tuition, room, board, books, insurance and other educational expenses are added together. 69% of seminary graduates have educational loans, averaging over $42,279.

The minimum base salary for a pastor in the Southeastern Iowa Synod is $33,625 (each synod has a slightly different number)...and the average seminary graduate carries $42,279 in educational loans.  Something is out of balance in this scenario.

I wonder if this entire education/seminary/ordination system is reaching the breaking point, if for no other reason than the financial burden it places on its pastors.  If we (the church) don't feel the need to change things, how much greater does this disparity need to be until the whole thing implodes?   I see and hear a lot of hand-wringing among seminary faculty, synod staff, clergy, and lay leaders about the cost of ordination, but all of us are short on realistic solutions to this growing problem.

Maybe there's a koinonia reader out there who is inspired to offer their suggestions.  Feel free to weigh in on the comments section or through Facebook/Twitter, if you prefer.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Things I Love About My Church #2

I've been on the staff at Windsor Heights Lutheran Church for over nine years.  There's a lot of cool stuff about this church, and though I can't possibly share all that's great about WHLC, I'd like to blog about a few of my favorite things.  For example...

Helping Hands

It's a bizarre experience to arrive on the scene of a disaster.  All routines, patterns, and assumptions are discarded and replaced by a new reality.  Anyone who has watched helplessly as a house burns to the ground or as a building is demolished by high winds knows how this feels.

I had a similar circumstance, though on a smaller scale, this past Saturday when I walked into the lower level at church.  "Is that water in the hallway?" my daughter asked.  It was indeed.  A lot of water.  Several thousand gallons of water had poured out of a broken water line on the third story and was spreading throughout the church.  All three levels experienced water damage, including carpeting, ceiling tiles, and walls.  Affected rooms included the narthex, fellowship hall, classrooms, and Sanctuary.  It was a mess.

After turning off the water, I made a few phone calls to the pastor and property committee members.  Mitigation professionals came to remove the water and discard soiled carpet...but there was still a lot of work that needed to be done in order to "prepare the way" for Palm Sunday.  Items needed to be sorted and either disposed of or moved to a dry location.  Equipment and furniture had to be relocated.  Temporary flooring needed to be put in place.

A few more phone calls yielded additional people.  Kiersten (age 5) said it best, when she told her older brother, "We need to go help.  If our house had flooded our church friends would be here to help us!"

People of all ages worked throughout the afternoon and late into the night and made it possible for worship to happen the following day.  It was a day that was both heartbreaking and redeeming.  As people responded with patience and generosity throughout the weekend, I was reminded of the myriad ways God's Spirit works through people to make the best of a bad situation.