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. Yore's parents were Nuer refugees from South Sudan. At the visitation members of his family and the larger Nuer community were visibly and audibly distraught and physically overcome with grief. Many of his family left before the visitation began because they were too overwhelmed. My heart hurt for the pain they were going through.  

After an hour-long viewing for the family, the grieving public started to arrive. Hundreds of them, from all across the city. Urban and suburban; rich and poor; white, black, and brown; citizen and refugee. Two white police officers who work downtown were present because our Pastor asked them to be around. 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 to mourn.

The police officers stood outside and quickly became greeters for the mourners. They knew many of the Nuer kids by name. They gave hugs. They expressed condolences to the kids who were sad, and the kids returned with condolences of their own. The police and young people talked together, laughed together, cried together, and 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 at the front of the sanctuary for their slain son. As Lory turned the corner and started walking back to her pew, she spotted another woman, Kim, a few people behind her. Kim was sobbing. Lory stopped, waited for other people to walk past, and embraced Kim after she lit the candle. These two mothers held each other as they walked slowly back to their pew. Kim's daughter had 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 prior to that moment. 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 noteworthy, but their shared humanity is what makes this story transcendent.

If you wake up some mornings and feel that there's more evil and darkness in the world, you may have been right. But it doesn’t necessarily 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 days ahead.  

* * *

I am constantly adjusting the brightness setting on my phone. When I’m outside in the sun, I have to turn up the brightness. When it’s dark, I can turn the brightness down to save the battery. 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 organization known as the ELCA Youth Ministry Network.  

It’s 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 which are part of our Network
  • We have met three times in-person and two times through video-conferencing to 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 Multi-Cultural Leaders Gathering which has occurred throughout this weekend here in Anaheim.
  • We continue to support the efforts of our Executive Director and all the Network staff who work 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, the 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 so 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.

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.”

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, “why are our confirmation classes so much smaller than they were 20 years ago?”  — or “our youth used to love going on trips to Six Flags, so 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 meets me 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 what I think 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 juxtaposing them against the perceived failures of today.  

Nostalgia is poisoning the church.

But I think that we have the antidote.

I think that this 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, who is a dues-paying member). We are camp directors, campus ministers, college and seminary students and professors, youth ministers, children’s ministers, young adult ministers, and on and on. This Network is comprised of people from every part of the church’s eco-system.  

This year about 65% of our members are here for this conference; an 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 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." We are 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. Nevertheless, 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 best ideas up on Martin’s List. 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 and less interested in tapping into God's creative imagination. 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 today, 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 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).

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 three 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 inspired books, bumper stickers, t-shirts, and a nation of people humming 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, people argued, 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, motivate us to get stuff accomplished, but more often I think that worry can suffocate, disable, and 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. With so much turmoil and uncertainty and evil in the world, how can I 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, or fear, or the nagging voices which cause us to doubt if we’ll have enough or 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 like birds, flowers, and 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. Nevertheless, God provides.  

At some level, we know that God provides. Most of us have clothing, shelter, food, and water. We’ve had these basic essentials long enough to make it this far in life. Some of us have more than others; some of us have been around longer than others. Just 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. 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.

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 more happy 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.  

Last Sunday we sang the hymn, “Lead on, O King Eternal.” The second verse of this hymn, written by Ernest Shurtleff, is one of my favorite texts, because 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 the work of encouraging one another, to remind each other of the ways God provides for us, to focus on the good things in life, and to motivate us to deeds of love nad mercy.
Don't worry. Be thankful.

(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?