Thursday, December 8, 2011

Poor Children

Early Saturday morning, while on a high school retreat, I stumbled upon a sound bite that I found particularly upsetting.  As a resident of Iowa, I'm no stranger to political rhetoric descending upon our fair state every four years for the Presidential Caucuses.  Yet, there was something about this nugget (offered by current front-runner, Newt Gingrich) that I found offensive.
“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habit of working, and have nobody around them who works.  So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday.  They have no habit of staying all day.  They have no habit of ‘I do this, and you give me cash’ unless it’s illegal.”
I posted this quote on my Facebook page just to see what my friends (many of whom are pastors, teachers, and social workers) thought.  Within a couple of hours, over 30 responses - many of them lengthy - were posted.  Some expressing agreement with the statements, most expressing outrage and incredulity.

A brief exchange on the Tony Kornheiser radio program articulates my feelings on the matter.

Kevin Sheehan- Newt Gingrich is the front runner now in a lot of Iowa.  He said something last week that I know you, Tony, wanted to respond to.  He said the following [reads quote]: 
Tony Kornheiser- That’s a pretty broad brush that he uses to paint.  I have no doubt that is occasionally true in some households, but I think that it is also true in wealthy households too.  I just think it is more true that people go out and try and work and do the best that they can, and often, because of a lack of money, have to take public transportation long distances to work.  I think that’s an unfortunate statement.  I think you can defend it by finding some miniscule amount of people who do that, but I don’t know how that helps you get votes. 
Gary Braun- You don’t think there’s some people who hear that, and are like “YEAH!”? 
David Aldridge- Dog Whistle, Tony.  Dog Whistle.  It’s all about appealing to your base.  And Newt’s base of conservative voters wants to believe the story that poor people are poor because they chose to be poor, and all they want to do is... 
Kornheiser - ...lie around heaven all day...
Braun - ...suck off the government teet.... 
Aldridge - Yes, and that’s the narrative that they want to believe.  And so, he feeds them that narrative. 

Speaking in generalities is dangerous, especially when it's a wealthy adult describing the circumstances surrounding poor children.  Though I believe that our political system is broken beyond repair, I hope that there can be some civil discourse in the next year surrounding issues of poverty, hunger, and education.

For additional information about children in poverty, consider exploring these web sites:

Fight Poverty
National Center for Children in Poverty
ELCA - Hunger & Poverty

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Be John

an edited version of an article originally posted on my old blog - January 12, 2009

When you’ve grown up in the church and been a “professional” in youth ministry for nearly 8 years, you hear a lot of cliched sayings.  ”What Would Jesus Do?”…”Sinner and Saint”…”Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner”…”Personal Lord and Savior”…”God Has a Sense of Humor”…etc.

One of the sayings that has always made me squirm a little is when people say that youth ministers are called to “Be Jesus” to kids.  The point is for ministers to bring young people closer to Christ by emulating what Jesus embodied.  While I understand the intent, the idea that anyone can truly “Be Jesus” seems disingenuous to me.

All around the world this weekend, the thousands of churches who use the Revised Common Lectionary will hear the story of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for Jesus.  Many who listened to John believed him to be the Messiah.  However, he repeatedly said "I am not".

Neither am I.  Neither are you.

The task of being Jesus is too daunting for me.  Following Jesus is something I try to do daily; but something I fail at just as often.  Jesus was perfect; I am not.  I can’t be Jesus, but I can be John — “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”.  

Perhaps, in doing so, we can bring people closer to Christ than if we’re trying to “be Jesus”.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Jesus Drives a Backhoe

While reading Isaiah 40 this week my mind wandered onto the idea of topography.  Perhaps it's because I use RunKeeper when I run, so I'm hypersensitive to how changes in elevation affect speed and pace.  Or maybe I was exposed to an inordinate amount of road construction in my neighborhood these past few months.  Whatever.

‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,   make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up,   and every mountain and hill be made low;the uneven ground shall become level,   and the rough places a plain.' 
Jesus is coming to flatten everything.  

For me, the implications are clear: God, in the form of Jesus, is coming to level the playing field.  He's coming in with a sociological and theological backhoe to move some dirt around and gather us all to the same place.  

   ...a place where we stare into the face of both neighbor and stranger and call them "friend". 
   ...a place where we encounter the divine tragedy of humanity.  
   ...a place where Christ promises to be present.  
   ...a place where we are redeemed and made whole.

Jesus is driving a backhoe, and, by the grace of God, the world will never be the same.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Basketball Fever

I haven't blogged in a while, and I kinda miss it.  So instead of jumping back into things with a treatise on the demise of denominational structure in America, or why Millennials are more generous and charitable than GenXers or Boomers...allow me to share a completely arbitrary list.

The Top Ten Basketball Players of My Lifetime.


  1. I'm a huge basketball fan. Huge. Probably in an unhealthy way.  It's the greatest game ever invented.
  2. The NBA Lockout is making me grumpy.  
  3. I just got NBA TV a couple of weeks ago...and I'm loving it.
  4. Monday was the 20-year anniversary of Magic Johnson's announcement that he had contracted the HIV virus.  It's the most poignant basketball-related moment of my life.  I still remember where I was when I heard the press conference.
  5. My son just started his first basketball league this week.  I'm probably a little too excited to watch his games and coach him up in the driveway.

Here's the criteria / disclaimers for my top-ten list:

  • the years in consideration are 1979-present
  • stats are important, but not the only factor
  • championships don't matter (Robert Horry has 8, Charles Barkley has 0...but nobody is arguing that Horry is a better player than Barkley)
  • college career isn't a factor; only their professional years
  • I'm unapologetically biased toward a certain style of player (great passing, team-oriented, fundamentally sound, highly competitive)
  • I'll probably change my mind within 30 minutes of posting

Honorable Mention (in no particular order):

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - greatest scoring center ever and one of the best players of all time.  However, during my lifetime (1979-1988) he was slightly better than average, but not force to be reckoned with.

Shaquille O'Neal - physically intimidating, a guy you had to game plan for, but tremendously flawed.  He can't shoot.  When opposing teams intentionally put you on the free throw line late in the game, you can't be on the Top 10 list.

John Stockton / Karl Malone - I can't separate the two.  Neither player would be 1/2 as good without the other.  No duo ran the pick-and-roll better.  However, I always thought Stockton played dirty and Malone's carpetbagging with the Lakers made me respect him less.

David Robinson - hated leaving him off the list.  The Admiral was my favorite player growing up, and one of the greatest people ever.  That said, after he got owned in the 1995 playoffs, it was clear that he's not a top-tier player.

Scottie Pippen - most difficult player to rate.  I tend to think Jordan made him look 50% better than he really was.  Pippen had a chance to be The Man after Jordan's first retirement, but his numbers didn't increase and he became a petulant teammate.  Spent his last 6 seasons as a journeyman.  Can't put him on the list.

LeBron James - might be the best ever when it's all said and done, but at this point, he hasn't been able to put it all together.  He's an unbelievable physical specimen.  Shrinks when his team needs him the most.  Hasn't lived up to the hype...yet.

The Top Ten:

10.  Steve Nash - a quicker, smarter, better shooting version of John Stockton.  Nash made basketball fun to watch again, after the hand-checking, body-blocking era of the late-80s and early-90s (Pistons, Knicks, Heat, etc.)

9. Charles Barkley - the 2nd shortest guy on the list (nobody remembers he's only 6'4") but managed to lead the league in offensive rebounds for three consecutive years.  Tenacious competitor.  Few people played harder - and with greater success - than Sir Charles.

8. Dirk Nowitzki - no 7-footer should shoot the ball this well.  Seems to have improved his passing, footwork, and defense every year.  I love watching him play.

7. Kevin Garnett - nasty...angry...relentless.  Spent his best years suffering in Minnesota with a bunch of stiffs around him.  By the time he had a chance to play with great teammates, his knees were gone. 

6. Tim Duncan - best power forward of all time.  The Big Fundamental wasn't demonstrative.  He just dominated.  Stud on defense.  Great passer.  Probably my favorite player.

5. Kobe Bryant - killer instinct, especially with the game on the line.  Best pure scorer of my lifetime.  Would be higher, but he's a terrible teammate and sub-par passer.  I really dislike him, but I can't argue with his ability.

4. Hakeem Olajuwon - best center in my lifetime.  He routinely made excellent defensive players (Patrick Ewing, Robinson, Shaq, Abdul-Jabbar) look downright foolish.  Controlled the paint on both sides of the court.  Nobody passed out of a double-team better than Hakeem.

2b. Larry Bird - there was no shot or pass that was out of the realm of possibility for Larry.  Probably the 2nd most creative, cocky, and clutch player on the list.  I would have loved to see what would have happened if (a) his back didn't turn to jelly by the time he was 30 and (b) if Len Bias and Reggie Lewis had lived longer.  I wonder how his game would have evolved if he would have had 8-10 more seasons.

2a. Magic Johnson - 5 championships and 3 MVPs in 12 seasons. Played all 5 positions as a rookie in the 1980 Finals. Brought down the house at the 1992 All Star game. Tallest point guard and best passer ever.  (Oh, and he single-handedly changed the way the world views people with HIV/ biggie.)
1. Michael Jordan - anyone who didn't respect MJ did so at their own peril.  SportsCentury's greatest athlete of all time.

What do you think?  Where did I get it wrong?  Who are some of your favorite basketball players?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Living Faith

I'm fascinated by the Lutheran understanding of vocation.  One of the best examples of vocational living is my friend, Peg Armstrong-Gustafson.  She recently received the Great Samaritan Award from our local Thrivent Chapter.  Here are the comments that were shared by Ruth Hiddleson at the awards presentation.

Peg Armstrong-Gustafson grew up in northeast Iowa near Decorah.  She was active in Future Farmers of America (FFA), elected state FFA reporter in 1975; later becoming the first woman state president and in 1977 became National FFA vice president and  subsequently the National FFA president.  Another reason for liking FFA, she met her husband Gregg through FFA. He was a district officer from Northwest Iowa.  The couple has a daughter Alex, a student at ISU. 
She attended Iowa State University where she earned a degree in animal science.Peg went on to graduate with an MBA from Drake University and has also studied international finance at City University in London. 
Although she has strong ties to Iowa, she is anything but tied down, having traveled to locations all over the world including Greece, Italy, England, Thailand, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey and North and South Viet Nam. 
“I find every place I go beautiful because the people are just fascinating,” said Peg. “When I travel, I think, 'How can I experience this culture?'” 
With her enthusiasm for overseas travel and interest in cultures worldwide, it’s not surprising to learn that Peg’s business has a global purpose.  She is the founder of Amson Technology, LC, which provides consulting services in climate change, sustainability and carbon offsets.  Peg’s vision – and the vision of Amson Technology – is to alleviate world hunger through the sharing and application of technology to create a new sustainable agricultural footprint. 
Peg is the primary author of a methodology in which bacteria replaces nitrogen fertilizer to create a more sustainable agricultural production system in developing countries.  She explains, “The production of nitrogen fertilizer is very energy intensive and releases considerable carbon dioxide emissions.  If we can eliminate the application of nitrogen fertilizer on crops such as soybeans and cowpeas, we can permanently reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer produced – and avoid the carbon dioxide it creates.” 
Two summers ago, the UN gave approval for the broad application of this methodology – the first agricultural climate change methodology in the world. 
As part of the Kyoto Protocol, which industrialized countries have signed as a commitment to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, it is a historic accomplishment in the area of climate change.  “Plants are the one thing that take carbon out of the air,” said Peg.  “The UN’s decision highlights how agriculture can provide solutions to climate change issues  while  feeding a growing world population.  While this initiative helps with climate change, the greatest value is that I am able to take agricultural technology to parts of the world that are starving and hopefully help them grow more food to feed themselves.  That is my goal. 
We work with the Lutheran World Relief workers on the ground in Africa.  They have the network of farmers that we need.  The UN mandated that the carbon reduction systems go to third world countries.  This is very important as the people in these countries get access to technology that they would never be able to pay for.  The key is we are taking these methods to parts of Africa where the people can be helped.  It’s a mutually beneficial project. The methodology teaches farmers better use of their water and land, which leads to increased crop yields, which leads to a higher caloric intake for the people in these communities.  Extra food that is not consumed can then be sold into the market place which helps improve their economic position.  It is an environmentally and economically sensible model.  The long term goal of the project is to see the new technology expand beyond the borders of the project and be adopted by all farmers to create a more sustainable and productive farming operation!" 
Who says one person doesn’t make a difference?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Actions Speak Louder than Words

I had the opportunity to write the ELCA Faith Lens for this week.  Here's what I came up with, while on a late-night writing binge with my friend Jake.

Warm-up Question

Have you been surprised by the words or actions of a stranger?

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

New York City Transit bus drivers are scared and upset.  In the first eight months of the year, 58 drivers were assaulted while driving their routes.  Maria Hogan is one driver who is unsure if she will be going back to work any time soon.
“I have bruises on my arms and legs,” she said.  Hogan believes the rider was angry because she skipped a stop in the Fordham section of the Bronx which was closed because of construction.  When she reached the next stop, she says he punched her and left.
Many of the assaults have occurred on the Bx9 route, which runs through the Bronx.  Although MTA officials would not yet say which routes are most dangerous, the bus drivers’ union said the Bx9 is one of the worst and management is not doing enough.
“That particular location is a hot spot,” said Tony Aiken of the Transport Workers Union. “If you don’t have the partitions there, work with police department, work with your security department. Work with anybody who is going to go out there and make us feel safe.”
An MTA spokesperson offered a brief statement, “This past weekend’s assault is an outrageous insult to the thousands of transit workers who serve the public every day.  We are working closely with TWU to develop barriers to protect the drivers.”
Union officials said that is not good enough.
“Actions speak louder than words, not words without action,” said Aiken.

Discussion Questions

  • Would you return to your job if you had been attacked in the workplace?
  • What do you think should be done to protect the bus drivers?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, September 25, 2011)

Gospel Reflection

Jesus has a lot to say in these verses.  As he often does, Jesus saves his most challenging words for the religious leaders.  The chief priests and elders want to know who authorized the healing and teaching Jesus has been doing.  He realizes that they are trying to trick him into answering a question that has no satisfactory answer.  So, instead, he dodges their questions about authority and tells a story.
The story is about words and actions.  A man tells his sons to go to work for him.  The first one declines, but later changes his mind and does what his father asked him to do.  The second one agrees, but decides to skip out.  Jesus indicates that the first son – the one who said “no” at first – did the will of his father.  From there, he compares the religious leaders to the second son.  They say words that sound impressive to the people, but Jesus thinks their actions aren’t consistent with their words.  He even takes it a step further, indicating that the lowest-of-the-low (tax collectors and prostitutes) will get into heaven before these religious leaders.
“Actions speak louder than words” is an idea that is familiar to many people, but it can be difficult for grace-believing Lutherans to buy into.  We are wary of the notion that our salvation is dependent on our good deeds.  However, it’s important to note that the people whom Jesus is scolding are not beyond the reach of God’s love.  He doesn’t tell the religious leaders that they will be excluded from heaven, but they may have to wait a while.  Their great failing was complacency, believing that saying the right things was a substitute for daily obedience to God.
Perhaps Jesus isn’t talking about salvation; maybe he’s reminding God’s people to treat each other with kindness and love.  Our actions matter to God because God’s people matter to God.  As followers of Jesus, the tax collectors and prostitutes had committed themselves to a new way of life.  They were, by no means, a perfect group, but they were honest about their need for a Savior.  Conversely, the chief priests and elders said a lot of impressive things, but their actions did not match their confession.  They were deeply connected with the corrupt government that made the rich richer and the poor poorer.
Jesus is calling us to a life where both our words and actions matter.  The things we say and do reflect the One who has calls us by name, gathers us into a community of faith, and sends us out to do God’s work in the world.

Discussion Questions

  •  Why do you think Jesus is so frustrated with the religious leaders?
  • What is Jesus saying about words and actions in the father/sons parable?
  • Which is easier for you – good words or good deeds

Activity Suggestion

Think of something your congregation talks about doing as part of its mission and ministry but rarely has time for.  Create an action plan and start implementing it in future weeks.

Closing Prayer

God, help us to honor you with our lips and our lives.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Jon Acuff over at Stuff Christians Like asks a good question -- "Why are Christians so weird about counseling?"

Perhaps Christians are just reflecting some of the cultural stigma that exist about weakness.  It's difficult to get ahead or be seen as a leader if you have to admit your brokenness.

An interesting conversation is unfolding in the comments section of the SCL blog.  Check it out!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Communication, Collaboration & Networks

The report of the LIFT Task Force includes a section called "Communication, Collaboration and Networks." I was given the opportunity to write this section. Though it's been edited to fit the structure of the final LIFT report, I thought I'd post the original version.

“The way we connect with one another and with the institutions in our lives is evolving. There is an erosion of trust in authority, a decentralizing of power and at the same time, perhaps, a greater faith in one another.
Because of airplanes and telephones and now social media, human beings touch the lives of vastly more people than did our ancestors, who might have encountered only 150 people in their lifetime. Now the possibility of connection is accelerating at an extraordinary pace. As the great biologist E.O. Wilson says, ‘we're in uncharted territory.’” [1]

The rapid rate of change in society impacts our ministries in significant ways.  The Internet is altering human behavior like nothing since the printing press.  The fastest growing faith group is those who are "spiritual but not religious."  Where is the church in all of this?  What is our witness to the world?  What is God calling us to be and do in the future?  What changes are needed in order to make God's call a reality?
Changes in technology and communication have moved organizations from institutional structures to network structures.  [2]  One of the challenges for the church is that the larger cultural shift from institutional models to network models isn't fully realized yet.  Not everyone is convinced that networks are a good thing.  In some cases, these people will fight to preserve the structure they were raised with or were instrumental in creating.

The reality is that people make choices. The more we can engage in learning and doing – whether in worship, in serving or in prayer, the more vibrant will be our work and our faith.  
Imagine the possibilities if the the ELCA...
  • Invited its members with a strategic communications background to create a high-touch, high-tech plan that incorporates methods and tools to connect with every aspect of the eco-system.
  • Invited members to use their evangelical, missional imagination to embrace evolving and emerging forms of communication in their local context.
  • Established a nimble denominational structure that gleaned from open-source, wiki, and Web 2.0 pedagogies to be the church in a rapidly changing world.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dedication. Perseverance. Honesty.

Rarely do I encourage people to "stop what you're doing and read this article."  It's possible you won't like what I recommend...or that you're doing something even more important (like brain surgery or grief counseling or canning tomatoes).  

However, I encourage you to stop what you're doing and read Sally Jenkins' article about Pat Summitt - the greatest coach in women's college basketball history who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.  

Oh, and grab a few tissues as well.

Last Thursday, Summitt, Barnett, and her 20-year-old son Tyler, who is a junior at the University of Tennessee, met with Chancellor Jimmy Cheek and Athletic Director Joan Cronan to inform them of her condition. Barnett warned Summitt that contractually school administrators had the right to remove her as head coach immediately. Instead, Cheek and Cronan listened to Summitt’s disclosure with tears streaming down their faces.
“You are now and will always be our coach,” Cheek told her. With the blessing of her university, she will continue to work for as long as she is able.

What's most amazing to me is her ability to be honest with the world about her disease.  It's easy to stigmatize people with an illness like dementia...especially people with high-profile jobs.  Kudos to her for telling her story, and for the university for standing by her.

Also, she has an amazing 20-year old son by her side:

“I followed her everywhere growing up,” Tyler says. “I followed her on bus rides, airplanes, in gyms and in locker rooms all over the country, and I thought she taught me everything she had. But she saved this lesson, to always come out and be open, to not be scared, to have the courage to face the truth like she’s doing.”

Monday, August 22, 2011

Jesus and Taxes

A conversation about money and politics played out on my Facebook news feed last week, as my friends shared their thoughts (and re-shared the thoughts of others) about how to solve our current "debt crisis."  

Three things caught my attention:

1.  Warren Buffett's op ed piece in the New York Times
His premise is simple - the "super rich" should pay more taxes to help reduce the national deficit.  It was fascinating to read of one of the wealthiest men in the world make a case for why people like him should shoulder more of the economic burden.

2.  Jon Stewart's Daily Show rant 
The Daily Show host offered some crass, sarcastic, enlightened additions to Buffett's piece a few days later...and took several shots at Fox News pundits (which is, pretty much, his m.o.)

3.  This nugget re-posted by several friends
"In the 1950s & 1960s, when the top tax rate was 70-92%, we laid the interstate system, built the Internet, put a man on the moon, defeated Communism, our education system was the envy of the world, our middle class thriving, our economy unparalleled.  You want that back?  Raise taxes on the rich."

* * * * * 

I'm not sure if raising taxes on the wealthy is the right thing to do.  I doubt it's the answer to our economic problems.  Additionally, I find it helpful to not demonize any group of people - rich or poor.  

I do know, however, that Jesus was pretty hard on rich people in his day.  He aligned himself with the poor and made it known how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven.  

It makes me wonder how followers of Jesus are to consider such matters, based on his teachings.  

Give to Caesar what is Caesar's?  
You will always have the poor with you?  
Sell all you own and give to those in need?  
Blessed are you who are poor...but woe to you who are rich?  

I imagine a biblical / theological argument could be made on both sides.  

What do you think?  Where is Jesus in the midst of this conversation?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Genetics and the Future of the Church

Two of the key items on the agenda at the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly were (1) the report and recommendations made by the LIFT (Living Into the Future Together) Task Force and (2) the proposed Social Statement on Genetics.

Both received more than 90% approval from the voting members, which is wonderful.  (Full disclosure - I was on the LIFT task force and my dad was on the Genetics task force.  I am proud of the work done by these two groups and believe that the Spirit was at work in the midst of their deliberations.)

If you are one of the millions of Lutherans that haven’t read either/both of these documents, here’s one man’s summary:


  • communal contextual discernment is key to mission interpretation
  • flatter more nimble church structure by moving toward networks
  • synods working with congregations to establish mission covenants
  • temporary moratorium on social statements
  • congregations lifted up as centers of ministry and mission
  • elimination of program committees


  • defines koinonia as the entire community of life, not just humans
  • precautionary principle is key to seeking wisdom
  • pursue sufficiency, sustainability, solidarity, participation, and precaution
  • “The human vocation, in an age of unprecedented power, is to respect and promote the community of life with justice and wisdom.” ~ from the introduction during Plenary 2

Part Two coming tomorrow, with my thoughts on "what does this mean?" in the days ahead.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

We're From Iowa

We're entering into the worst six months to be an Iowan.

The unofficial launch of the 2012 Presidential Campaign happens February 6 at the Iowa Caucus.  For the next 180 days, aspiring presidents, national news media, and far too many advertisements will descend upon our fair state.  The caucus is good for the economy and gives lots of free publicity to our businesses, schools, and people.

Sadly, there is some residual damage as well.  Every day, attention-seeking wackos come out of their compounds with big signs and loud megaphones, single-handedly casting Iowans as buffoons with no sense of social decorum.  The caucus also means Iowans spend 15 months wading in the murky, toxic waters of the American political system...which gives a lot of time for families, friends, neighbors, and church-goers to focus on our ideological differences.

Backlash has been mounting for years from people who think Iowa (a state with fewer than 3,000,000 people and only 7 electoral votes) is given too much power by being the first state to begin narrowing the field of presidential candidates.

Even religious folks, like Tony Jones, are hopping on the anti-Iowa bandwagon.  He recently decreed that he's "sick and tired of Iowa" and that "Iowa needs to get over itself."

How come?

"Iowa is really white" and "Iowa's Republicans are primarily conservative."

Oh...of course.


NPR debunks some Iowa myths in the Five Things You Got Wrong piece.  Certainly worth the read.

The growing Des Moines metro area has a lot going for it as well.  (Did you know Des Moines, IA is the #1 city in the nation for Young Professionals and #2 for Business and Careers according to Forbes?)

Iowa is a great place to live, work, receive an education, and raise a family.  There are a lot of intelligent people who are prepared to make thoughtful decisions at the caucus next February.  I hope we'll prove the haters wrong in the next 180 days.

then again...when I see stuff like this, I wonder if the haters might be right about us.

Monday, July 18, 2011

US Economy - My College Years

John Petty over at Progressive Involvement posted this little chart that caught my eye:

The only years in my lifetime that the U.S. Federal Government experienced a surplus were the four years I was in college (1997-2001).  Too bad I was living a sheltered existence on the campus of a private liberal arts college.  This was before widespread Internet use, so my world view was not much bigger than Bremer County, IA.

It's no wonder all my education and music professors were filling our minds (and egos) with promises of signing bonuses, loan forgiveness, and a fast-track to administrative positions after graduating.  Over half of the teachers in the early 2000s were within 5 years of retirement.  This meant public schools would be bending over backwards for new talent to come into their communities.  And, with the World Wide Web gaining momentum as an educational resource, schools would depend on the knowledge and expertise of digital natives.

Fast forward a few years, and retirement wasn't a viable option for as many teachers.  Subsequently, lots of college grads were just hoping for a long-term substitute job to get their foot in the door, so that, one day, they might get a full-time (low-paying) job with benefits.  So much for writing our ticket or holding out for incentives.

It's been ten years since I graduated from college.  The Class of 2011 is entering into a vastly different situation - the largest gap between revenues and outlays in the last 30 years.  I wonder how they'll view this moment in history ten years from now.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dead Theologians Society

I have a weekly meeting with my friend Jake.  We usually gather for coffee on Tuesday mornings.  Conversations range from literature, music, cultural trends, presentation planning, married life, church-planting, why this might be THE year for the Cubs, and the deliciousness of Mello Yello Zero.

A few weeks ago we kicked around the possibility of having a summer reading book club with youth from our two churches.  We called it "Dead Theologians Society" - a blatant rip-off from this Oscar-winning film.  The purpose would be to introduce young people to scholarly works written 50+ years ago.

We were excited about this new thing, so we got to work on some promotional materials.  After some rudimentary attempts at creating a logo, we both looked up at each other and uttered the same word:


Paul Soupiset is the brilliant artist at Toolbox Studios who designed the fantastic re:form confirmation videos as well as Jake's tattoo.  We thought his particular style would provide the perfect logo for this project.  Graciously, he agreed.  He created and sent it to us within a day.  What a cool cat!

With our logo in tow, we were ready to invite people to participate.  We put the word out via Facebook, newsletters, special emails, and a barrage of text messages.  Obviously, not every person (regardless of age) is super excited to read Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, etc., but there were several young people who responded enthusiastically.  It seems that teenagers take theology seriously and are interested in gathering in public places for these conversations.  Who knew!?

We're off to a good start, reading Life Together.  Summer schedules are sometimes hit-or-miss, so we're offering two sessions a week.  Even if a person can't make it a week or two, they can keep up with the reading schedule and check in with the group periodically.  We're also hoping to generate some conversation on our Facebook feel free to weigh in.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Rubbing Elbows

As many of my Facebook Friends already know, my parents attended the most recent State Dinner at the White House.  The dinner, hosted by President and Mrs. Obama, was held in honor of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  It was a magical evening for my parents, who were thrilled to be invited to such a grandiose event.

Steve & Ruth Ullestad (my parents)

Here's my dad's description of the evening:

We had kept our invitation to the White House State Dinner for German Chancellor Angela Merkelvery low key.  The first obstacle was believing that the invitation was for real.  Then we wanted to make sure that we would actually be able to attend in light of the uncertainty of air travel out of Iowa (demonstrated by the cancelled flight home that added an extra day to the trip).

It was an honor to represent the Northeastern Iowa Synod at the State Dinner for Germany.  The simple words, “Welcome to the White House” are pretty powerful.  The morning ceremony was an impressive display by the military honor guard and the President’s Marine Band.  There were excellent speeches by the President and Chancellor that demonstrated their personal friendship and the friendship between our two countries which is the linchpin for European economic health and global security.

The evening included a reception in the East Room, a chance to greet the President, Chancellor and spouses, the presentation of the Medal of Freedom ceremony to Chancellor Merkel, the meal and a program that included selections by members of the National Symphony Orchestra and pianist George Li.  Li’s performance of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 was stunning and brought the crowd to its feet immediately.  James Taylor completed the evening with a set that included “Going to Carolina”, “Fire and Rain”, “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You”, “Shower the People You Love With Love” and “You’ve Got a Friend”.

For the program, I traded places with the husband of Senator Shaheen in order to be able to sit next to Ruth.  I’ll always remember her head on my shoulder, in the Rose Garden, listening to James Taylor. 

There were a few conversations of note.  During the reception, I visited with Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack (former Governor of Iowa).  During that conversation, we were able to guess how the invitation had come our way.  President Obama is seeking to keep strong connections with faith-based outreach ministries.  It appears that our work in Postville and with Barnabas Uplift (our inter-faith social ministry network providing job training, access to health care and substance abuse education) probably got us on the radar screen.  I’m also on the Board of Regents for Wartburg College, named for the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach.  Chancellor Merkel is from that part of Germany.  Perhaps those three threads crossed and brought us the invitation.

I mentioned to the President that I was the bishop of the territory that included Postville.  President Obama immediately recognized the name of Postville. I did not complete my sentence before he promised that immigration reform is still very much on his mind, there is a lot of work to do, but “we’ll get the job done”.  I shared with Chancellor Merkel that I was a Lutheran bishop.  Her eyes seemed to light up when she heard that as her father is a Lutheran pastor.  But there was no question that we connected when I shared that I am a Wartburg Regent.  Michelle Obama was the commencement speaker at the University of Northern Iowa (also in our synod).  She responded very energetically when I thank her for her speech and how it demonstrated that she understood and appreciated who we are in northeastern Iowa.

There was a longer conversation with Secretary of State Clinton.  She immediately asked about the flooding in Iowa which led to remembering the triple disasters in our synod in 2008; the ICE Raid of Postville, the floods and tornado.  I was seated two chairs away from Austan Goolsbee, outgoing chair of the Council of Economic Advisors.  It was good to be able to talk rural economics with someone who has such an influence on economic policy.

Excuse me, now, while I go get a broom to sweep up all these names that I’ve been dropping.  Thanks for allowing me to share our joy with you.

You can see them being introduced at the White House around the 0:40 mark of this C-SPAN video:

Here is the list of attendees at the dinner.

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier had a nice write-up as well.

Ruth at the table 

James Taylor arriving at the Rose Garden 

View of the post-dinner concert 

Apple Strudel for dessert

The First Lady's place setting

Steve & Ruth at the end of the night

Friday, June 3, 2011

Christian Music Conundrum

I have a bit of a band-crush on Mumford and Sons.  My favorite song of theirs is called Roll Away Your Stone, the 4th track on the 2010 album Sigh No More.

A great recording of a live version of the song...

...and the profound, poignant lyrics:

Roll away your stone, I'll roll away mine.
Together we can see what we will find.
Don't leave me alone at this time,
For I'm afraid of what I will discover inside. 
'Cause you told me that I would find a hole
Within the fragile substance of my soul.
And I have filled this void with things unreal,
And all the while my character it steals. 
Darkness is a harsh term, don't you think?
And yet it dominates the things I see. 
It seems that all my bridges have been burned,
But you say that's exactly how this grace thing works.
It's not the long walk home that will change this heart,
But the welcome I receive with the restart. 
Darkness is a harsh term, don't you think?
And yet it dominates the things I see. 
Stars hide your fires, these here are my desires.
And I won't give them up to you this time around.
And so, I'll be found with my stake stuck in the ground,
Marking the territory of this newly impassioned soul. 
But you, you've gone too far this time,
You have neither reason nor rhyme
With which to take this soul that is so rightfully mine.

Some fans have tried to affix the dubious label "Christian band" to Mumford & Sons...others believe that any band that uses the f-word in their songs (Little Lion Man) can't possibly be followers of Jesus.  Both declarations are are besides the point, as far as I'm concerned.

Yes, their music is filled with religious and spiritual themes (there's a difference between the two).

Yes, the musicians are members of an Anglican congregation in London.

No, their record company isn't one of the big "Christian labels" like Sparrow Records or Inpop.

No, I don't need a band to construct a credo that I deem sufficiently orthodox for me to extract meaning from their music.

What are some of your favorite songs/artists that have inspired your faith journey; regardless of whether or not they are overtly "Christian"?

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Judgment Day Sermon

I had the opportunity to preach at Windsor Heights Lutheran Church this weekend.  The sermon is based on John 14:1-14 and addresses topics including the rapture, salvation, grace, and works.

You can listen to the sermon by downloading the audio file.

Here are the images of the homes that are referenced in the opening few minutes.

Also, I mentioned Brant Clements' Saint and Cynic blog during the sermon.  It's worth checking out.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

LIFTing at Synod Assembly

Today I had the opportunity to talk about the LIFT Task Force with the Southeastern Iowa Synod Assembly during a general plenary session.  A few people asked for a copy of what I said, so I thought I'd post it here on koinonia.

Slide presentation (PowerPoint)

* * *

I am grateful for the opportunity to share with this Assembly the work of a Churchwide Task Force known as -- Living Into the Future Together: Renewing the Ecology of the ELCA...or “LIFT” for short.  

What Is LIFT?
This group of twelve people represents a diverse cross-section of leaders within our denomination.  We were called together in November 2009 to study the evolving internal and external factors surrounding our church.  After 18 months of engaging a broad conversation across this church and its many partners, the LIFT Task Force concluded our work with a “report & recommendations” document.

What is meant by the word “Ecology”?
Craig Dykstra, Senior Vice President in Religion for the Lilly Foundation, referred to the ELCA as an “ecology of interdependent eco-systems.”  The unique structure of the ELCA (now in its 23rd year) means that all aspects of our church (in a broad sense) are interrelated and lean on each other for support and accountability.

LIFT Process Update
The 100-page report and recommendations document was submitted to the ELCA Church Council in April.  From there, the LIFT planning team will develop implementing resolutions to be voted on at the 2011 Churchwide Assembly in August.  

As Reverend Malpica-Padilla mentioned in his report yesterday, the LIFT Task Force was guided by two main questions.

What is God calling us to be and do in the future?
In other words, how is the identity we have in Christ calling us to act in the days ahead?

The second question is - “What changes are in order to help us respond most faithfully?”

This question sometimes makes people nervous because assumes that things will need to be different.  But as people who are attentive to the living Spirit of God, if anything is certain, it is that things will be different tomorrow than they were today.

From the many pages of the LIFT report and recommendations, some key outcomes can be extracted.

  • We are called to be in regular, ongoing discernment about God’s will for the church.
  • We are empowered to claim our identity in a time of rapid societal change.
  • We urge all aspects of the eco-system to produce leaders for mission - not just rostered leaders, but for all people to live out their vocational calls as followers of Jesus Christ.
  • We identified synods as essential catalysts and agents of mission.  The task force spent a great deal of time looking at the role of middle judicatories in such a broad eco-system.
  • We lift up congregations as centers of ministry AND mission.  This church needs congregations to be healthy in order for the church to be healthy.  Congregations are the common denominator for almost every aspect of our eco-system...and it is our hope that the eco-system will continue tending to nurturing, supporting, and challenging congregations to be about vibrancy and vitality.
  • And we will continue studying about what it means for a denomination to function as a network.  
One of our suggestions is for congregations, in conjunction with existing support networks, develop a mission plan.  This plan will affirm the specific contextual assets that are germane to a congregation...and will make connections with other aspects of the eco-system to live out that plan.  More resources will be developed to aid congregations (and their partners) to consider this Mission Plan.

One of the helpful tools that the task force utilized in our work is something I’ve had the chance to replicate with a variety of groups in the last few months.  It begins with Bible Study from the 2nd chapter of Acts, and moves into three critical questions.

  • What items are essential for church to exist?
  • What items are helpful, but not essential?
  • What items are neither helpful nor essential.
From there, we consider what a congregation would look like if it focused on just the essentials and were sent into the world - a nimble, faithful, community of faith - passionate about sharing the gospel with a world in need.

Over the next few weeks and months we will be sharing suggested ways to help congregations that wish to engage in their own LIFT process - a conversation that brings renewal to a congregational eco-system by focusing on communal, contextual discernment.

You can find these resources through a web site, Facebook, and Twitter.

This is a fascinating time to be the church.  I am grateful that our church body has engaged in a process like LIFT, and I am hopeful that we will continue to rely on God’s guidance to help us live into the future together and renew the ecology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.