Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reflections on Black and White, Light and Darkness

Friday night was the visitation for Yore Jieng, a 14-year old boy from my church who was shot and killed while riding in a car near his home.  The cries and laments of his family were haunting.  People were screaming, crying, and fainting.  Many of his family left before the visitation began because they were too overwhelmed.  My heart hurt for the pain they were going through.  

Then the grieving public started to arrive.  Hundreds of them, from all across the community.  Urban and suburban…rich and poor…white, black, and brown…citizen and refugee.  Two white police officers who work downtown on both sides of the river were present.  Pastor asked them to be around, just in case.  This is what you do when a child is murdered and his killer is still at-large and hundreds of sad and angry people are gathered around the boy’s dead body.  

The police officers stood outside and quickly became defacto greeters for the mourners.  They knew many of the kids (all of them black) by name.  They gave hugs.  They expressed condolences to the kids who were sad…and the kids returned with condolences of their own, for the two police officers who were killed earlier in the week.  They talked together…laughed together…cried together…grieved together.  And the police officers weren’t the only ones with this kind of interaction.  Teachers, pastors, mentors, volunteers, and community organizers all had similar exchanges with the kids.  The beauty in these moments was almost more than I could bear.  

On Sunday morning in worship we lit candles for All Saints Sunday.  Yore’s parents, Lory and Andrew, lit candles for their slain son.  As Lory turned the corner and started walking back to her seat, she spotted a white woman a few people behind her who was sobbing.  Lory stopped, waited for other people to walk past, and embraced the crying woman.  These two mothers held each other as they walked back to their pew.  The other woman’s name is Kim.  Her daughter suffered multiple broken bones in a car crash earlier in the year.  Kim was lighting a candle for her daughter’s boyfriend who died in the crash.  

I was astonished to learn after the service that Kim and Lory had never met.  They didn’t know each other’s stories.  But Lory felt the anguish of another person and reached out in love and concern.  That Kim is white and Lory is black is significant…but their shared humanity is what makes this story transcendent.

If you woke up Wednesday morning and felt that there was suddenly more evil and darkness in the world…you may have been right.  (I've never seen more swastikas in my news feed than I have in the past 24 hours.)  But it doesn’t mean any of the goodness and light went away.  The people who you love and who love you are, likely, still here.  The church is still here.  The Lord Jesus is still here.  The people who came together in my faith community over the past two weeks are still here.  Their stories didn’t go away.  And there will be more of these stories that blossom in the weeks and months ahead.  

When I’m outside in the sun, I have to turn up the brightness on my phone.  When it’s dark, I turn the brightness down.  Light shines brighter in darkness.  The emergence of darkness allows a chance for light to shine all the brighter.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not—and will not—overcome it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

State of the Network

This was shared at the 2016 ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza in Anaheim, CA.  The Extravaganza is a continuing education event for people who work in children, youth, and family ministry.


This is the part of the Extravaganza when I get to talk about the Network.  

It’s both right and proper for me to report that throughout 2015 the Board of Directors has been diligent in prayerful conversation about the business of this Network.  It’s good for me to tell you things like:
  • We have nearly 1,000 dues-paying members from across the church.
  • We are faithfully stewarding your membership dues, as well as the other sources of income, through the programs, projects, and initiatives that are part of our Network
  • We have met three times in-person and two times through video-conferencing to (among other things) lay the groundwork for a new strategic plan which will guide us into the the year 2020.  
  • We have ardently and earnestly tried to keep cultural and ethnic diversity a priority of this Network by partnering with the MultiCultural Leaders Gathering which has occurred throughout this weekend here in Anaheim.
  • We continue to support the work of our Executive Director and all the Network staff, who put in way more hours than they are compensated for - and who serve all of us with full devotion.
  • We tend to our resources like Martin’s List, Third Tuesday Conversations, Practice Discipleship, the Salary Survey, the Connect Journal, the database of open CYF positions, the Network blog, and this event - the Extravaganza.  
  • We work to build relationships with our gold and silver partners - people and organizations who support your ministry.  A complete list of our partners can be found in your program…and many of them are here in Anaheim and you can visit with them in the exhibit area.
  • We work with regional facilitators who work to keep people connected among geographic groups.

All of these are good things - GREAT things, in fact.  It is both an obligation and a joy to say that the Network’s board, staff, and leadership teams are doing excellent work in serving God by serving the people of the Network.  It is good to talk about these things.

But I really just want to talk about Mad Men.

And nostalgia.

Fans of the show will know about Season 1, Episode 13 “The Wheel” — the 5th best Mad Men episode*, which contains the single best ad pitch of the entire show**.  

“Nostalgia” our protagonist / antagonist Don Draper begins “is delicate, but potent. In Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.  It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”  Then everyone cries, smokes a cigarette, drinks too much, and cheats on their spouse.  Spoiler alert.

Nostalgia.  It’s delicate, but potent.  And I think it’s poisoning the church.  A lot of us know this.  We live it every time someone says, “remember when our confirmation classes were bigger?  why aren’t they like that anymore?”  — or “our youth used to love going on trips to Six Flags?  Why are you taking them to the Indian Reservation instead?”  — or “I don’t understand why kids are wearing shorts in worship.” 

Let me be clear - I’m talking about NOSTALGIA and not TRADITION.  I’m a pretty traditional guy.  Hymns, organ, lectionary, stained glass, meditation — all that stuff is where I’m at.  And those things aren’t doing us harm.  In fact, our traditions just might point to a way forward for the church.  But nostalgia is poisoning the church.  It keeps us looking back instead of forward.  It keeps us looking inward instead of outward.  It keeps us focused on the perceived successes of yesteryear and yesterdeacde and juxtaposing them against the perceived failures of today.  

Nostalgia is poisoning the church.

But I think that we have the antidote.

I’m not sure what it is — but I think that this network…the Network of children, youth, and family ministry is leading this church forward.  We’re doing it as individuals, as small groups, and as a network of nearly 1,000 members.  We’re not just a small gathering of punk youth workers on the margins.  We are a force to be reckoned with.  We are lay people…pastors…synod staff…churchwide staff, including our presiding bishop…we are camp directors, campus ministers, college and seminary students and professors…youth ministers, children’s ministers, young adult ministers, and on and on.  We come from every part of the church’s eco-system.  

This year about 2/3 of our members are here for the Extravaganza…and event Pastor Gary Hedding calls “one of the best continuing education events I have ever attended, and I’ve been to a lot of them.”  Pastor Gary has been a pastor for nearly 40 years, serving in congregations and on a synod staff.  He gets it.  And so do you.  Because you’re a part of a network - the Network.  We are a group of people who are doing God’s excellent work - people who are coming together to share their success and failures with one another - people who are more interested in collaboration than in competition - people who are more inclined to put their energy into cultivating new life than to dwell on "the pain from an old wound."

People who are teaching the church how to be the church.

So let’s keep it up.  Most especially those of you who’s voices we haven’t heard yet.  There is a place for you here.  Don’t wait for your voice to be perfected - because that won’t happen.  But make your voice heard.  We need you to be part of the leadership teams of the Network.  Lead a workshop next year.  Write a guest blog post.  Get your stuff up on Martin’s List.  Now.  Be an active member of this Network.  Because, God forbid, we ever become a Network that is more interested in doing things the way we’ve always done it.  God forbid that we become a Network that focuses on trying to replicate past successes more than trying a daring new thing that just might be the best thing we’ve ever done.  God forbid we become a Network that drinks from the poisonous waters of nostalgia.  

The church knows what that tastes like -  and it’s making us sick.  And, as Anna Madsen told us earlier, people will drink the tainted water if there’s nothing else around.  So let’s be a source of new water.  

Nostalgia is delicate, but potent.  And you know what - SO ARE WE.  God is with us.  And our God will give us the confidence…the love…the hope…and the persistence to keep on teaching the church how to be the church.  Thanks for the critical role you play in making that happen.  And thanks be to God for the gift of The Network.


* The others, obviously, are "The Suitcase" (S4E7), "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" (S3E13), "Person to Person" (S7E14), and "The Strategy" (S7E6).

** A close second is Peggy's Burger Chef pitch in "Waterloo" (S7E7).