Sunday, December 13, 2015

Lost And Found

Lost And Found just completed their final concert.  There one of my favorite groups.  They were presented with the Tom Hunstad Award at the 2015 ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza.  Here's what I had to say before announcing the award.  Thanks, Michael Bridges and George Baum, for your 30 years of music ministry.  #SteinAuf!

At an Extravaganza about STORY, I’m compelled to tell a brief story about this year’s Tom Hunstad Award recipient.  

As a young confirmation student I was, perhaps, a tad over-zealous to claim the promises of baptism.  In other words – I was stereotypical church nerd…which made rather me unpopular with my fellow classmates.   In fact, they held me with such disdain, that they did some pretty awful things to me…some ugly, abusive, bullying things.  Suddenly, I wasn’t so eager to claim my baptismal identity – I wasn’t even sure I wanted anything to do with God…and I certainly didn’t want to go to church.

Unbeknowst to them, this year’s Tommy recipient was one of the few glimmers of hope in my life in those days…one of few true proclaimers of the gospel of love and grace and welcome that I so desperately needed…one of the few people who spoke to my heart and let me know that even though I felt like giving up on God, God wasn’t ever giving up on me.

The 2015 Tom Hunstad Award recipient has spent over 30 years blessing youth and youth ministers.  Their unique style has made them accessible to people of all ages and all stages on their faith journey.  They’ve traveled the world, making small gatherings seem like a big important deal – and making large events seem intimate and familiar.  Their bizarre blend of humor and skill has been an inspiration to a generation of teens who, needed to hear emphatically and unequivocally, that they are blessed children of God – and that “you can’t take away what the Lord has given.”

The recipients’ ministry of music is a juxtaposition of old and new…of acoustic and thrash…of silly and tender…but they are always honest.  Their music is a genuine extension of who they are.  Their words, their melodies, and their friendship have blessed the church…and as they prepare say farewell in this, their final year of touring, it is time for the youth ministry network to say “thank you” for entertaining and inspiring us for three decades.

On behalf of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network’s board of director, it is my thrill to present the 2015 Tom Hunstad Award to George Baum & Michael Bridges – Lost And Found.

Friday, December 11, 2015


It’s been a while since I’ve written something this self-indulgent.  Consider yourself warned.

I just saw CREED.  Not the band.  I haven't seen them since 2002.  CREED is first installment of the Rocky movie franchise reboot.  Here’s the trailer.

I loved the Rocky movies growing up - and I still do.  And by “Rocky movies” I mean the first four.  Rocky V was an abomination.  I didn’t see Rocky Balboa (VI) out of fear that I’d be disappointed again.  My two sons love the Rocky movies.  They watch them for the same reasons I watched them at their age…to get pumped up for no real reason.  They may not be great movies, but they are great fun to watch.

CREED is good...almost great.  It’s probably the best film in the franchise since Rocky I.  Not as fun or as testosteroney as some of the others.  But quite good.  I give it 7.5 out of 10.  

For comparison:
Rocky I — 9 (it won the Oscar in 1976)
Rocky II — 5 (the last 30 minutes are a 12)
Rocky III — 7 (Mr. T and Hulk Hogan)
Rocky IV — 6 (the one I’ve seen the most, by far)

Here’s the CREED scorecard:

Fight Scenes — 10.  Incredible.  Some really great cinematography and choreography.  I can’t say enough good things about the fight scenes.

Training Sequences — 7.  Very cool Not quite as epic as Rocky II (after Adrian wakes up from the coma) or Rocky IV (in Russia)…but they’re pretty impressive.  Michael B. Jordan is legit.

Love Interest — 5.  There’s some decent complexity in the relationship between Adonis and Bianca.  I also checked my phone a few times when I imagine the director wanted me to be interested in the love story.

Pacing — 6.  Like the first hour of Rocky I and II, CREED’s first hour was kinda boring.  It’s a 2:15 movie that could easily be 1:45.  

Rocky’s Family — 9.  They’re all dead or gone.  That’s a good thing.  I was ready to move on from all of the old characters.

Villan — 4.  Nothing menacing about the bad guy (Conlan) other than his temper.  He’s kinda doughy - not physically imposing in any way.  But he is from England and his trainer has some pretty great facial hair.

Music — 7.  Several nice callbacks to themes from I and II.  Mixed in some hiphop and rap, which I liked.  I was really hoping for a great new them song for this reboot (like “Eye of the Tiger” in III or “Hearts on Fire” in IV).  I guess we’ll have to wait for the sequel.

Stallone — 9.  He’s perfect - funny in the ways Rocky is supposed to be funny.  I like that he scaled back the “Rocky has brain damage” affect.  Both the actor and the character have aged well.

Bottom line: If you like Rocky movies, you should see CREED.

Thanks for indulging me.  Happy Advent to you and yours.

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.