It’s about time

14 months ago today, on July 14, 2016, my dad died.

As far as I can remember, this is the first time I’ve written that anywhere.

Why did it take me this long to write that? What is different today that I want to write it? I don’t know. I haven’t really wanted to write about much of anything for a while. Well, I want to but haven’t…or maybe I just want to want to write. Why haven’t I? Is it tied to dealing with his death? I don’t know that either. I guess I suspect so.

I do know that I’m on sabbatical spiritual renewal leave, (There is a difference, at least officially in United Methodist polity. More on that another day.) maybe that has finally given me the space and time to be ready to write that.

When my leave started I set a goal to write regularly. My initial plan was one post the first week, two the second, three posts the third week… But as my once-again-ironically-named blog shows, that didn’t happen. All the usual doubts and self recriminations set in: you put it off yesterday, you can skip today too. You’ve got nothing worthwhile to add to what has already been said by the world on Twitter. No cares what you have to say, anyway… Like that.

But screw it. I’m done with that crap. Today I face that truth that has affected me for months:

My dad is dead. I miss him.

Maybe for today at least, just sitting with that is enough.

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‘God speed the year of Jubilee’

It’s Independence Day here in the USA. A day we celebrate our freedom…usually by eating and drinking a lot then blowing things up. Or at least watching things being blown up. 

On some level I suppose that’s pretty much perfect, given who we are. 

This morning I got a notice that the Washington Post linked to a speech by Thomas Jefferson to commemorate the day. 

Thanks to reading Fred Clark (aka Slactivist) over the years, I’m convinced there is no better tribute to read today than this one from Fredrick Douglas (who is being recognized more and more). Here’s a taste, but it really is worth reading the whole thing — especially if you, like me, are a person of privilege in this country. 

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced. 

Today, let’s commit to making the USA a country we can all celebrate, no matter what demographics define us. For when we’ve achieved that, we will truly fulfill the vision that started the nation. 

Having some fun on Trinity Sunday

This past Sunday, June 11th, was Trinity Sunday. While many complex and profound words have been written about the idea of God as Trinity, it seems to me that, at its core, it is a fairly simple — though still profound — idea: God, as God is in God’s self, is relational, communal. Because humanity is made in God’s image, we are ultimately relational too.

Bruce Sanguin put it like this in his book, If Darwin Prayed:

The Trinitarian intuition is that Ultimate Reality constitutes a community and not an individual being… A healthy self comes into being in and through relationships… Quantum science shows everything exists in relation to everything else…the universe is radically relational. Greeks used a playful word for the communitarian nature of Trinity: perichoresis, meaning “to dance around.” Each member of the Trinity is encircling the others in ecstatic dance. Celebrating Trinity is celebrating that the entire universe, including humans, emerges out of a relational matrix.

Or, as I put it on Sunday, we are created for community because we are created by community. 

I also tried to have a little fun with images of Trinity in popular culture, such as these:

 

Sometimes good sermon material gets left on the proverbial cutting room floor. This week was no exception, but I did tell those present about this video and encouraged them to find it. Too often in Christianity’s history, we’ve used doctrine of Trinity as club with which to beat each other up. Or as a fence to mark our territory and declare one another anathema. I think this video does a good job of poking fun at that tendency while also managing to teach a thing or two. At the very least, it made me laugh. I hope you enjoy it too.

Happy New Year

[Note: I originally wrote this as my year-end letter to my congregation. But I thought it might be worth sharing a little wider.]

I intended to help us ring in the new year with a couple suggestions of ways we can challenge ourselves to learn and grow in our faith — which is to say, in our lives.

But then I ran into two quotes via social media that stopped me short, made me think, and are way more inspirational that what I had in mind. So let’s start there…

In the last few days, I’ve heard a lot of advice about making resolutions: “Only try to change one thing.” “Don’t repeat a previous resolution that you didn’t meet; it’s too easy to tell yourself it’s ok not make it again.” “Progress and perfection are not synonyms. You’ll improve if you consistently do things better — even if only slightly better.”

Those all strike me as good and valuable advice, especially regarding New Year’s resolutions. However, only if done in this context:

There is no resolution that, if kept, will make me more worthy to be loved. — Nadia Bolz-Weber.

Remember friends, God loves you exactly as you are.

The second, from my friend, Hugh Hollowell, reflecting on just what it is that they provide at Love Wins Ministries:

We can’t “do anything” for you. We can provide a warm place to be, a place to stay dry in the storm, a place to get a cup of coffee and a smile. We provide a place to belong, a place to invest in, a place to contribute and to find meaning and purpose….

We have community. We have a no judgement zone. We have safe space and hot coffee and fresh fruit and hugs if you want them. If you come here, we won’t be able to pay your rent or keep your lights on, but you will have a place to come after they kick you out, and a place to sit that isn’t dark.

This is a place you can still exercise choice and agency, a place where no one will laugh at you because you have dreams or can’t quiet the voices in your head. It’s a place where we will listen to your stories, and you can hear ours, and maybe, if we listen to each other, the world will be a little less scary for both of us.

Yes, we can tell you where the various programs are and how they work – Not because we want to fix you, but because we believe that all of us deserve to have as many options as possible, so we can make informed decisions about what is best for us.

Yes, we have warm clothes – Not because we want to pat ourselves on the back about our good deeds, but because we get offered things like that, and if you have something people you know need, it’s sinful to not offer to share it with them.

Yes, we provide food- Not because we have a “feeding program”, but because we believe that eating together is sacramental, that it creates a place we can each come and recognize the sacredness of each other.

But no, we can’t do anything “for” you. But if you give us a chance, we really look forward to doing all of that with you.

Isn’t that beautiful? If we were to write a similar statement about Woodridge United Methodist Church, how would it read? Or, for other contexts, how would you describe what it is you do, who it is you are or strive to be?

Maybe my original idea can help us write such a statement — or, even better, “write” such a statement with our lives.

Reflecting this past Sunday on the gospel story of Mary and Joseph losing Jesus in the Temple for three days (Luke 2:41-52), I suggested that this story is at once the most earthy and relatable gospel tale — most every child care provider as, at least once, felt the panic and terror of discovering their charge is no where to be found —  while simultaneously reminding us Jesus remains undomesticated, wild, beyond our full grasp.

Thus, it seems to me that a good way to attempt to live this gospel story is by challenging ourselves to find, see, hear Jesus in a new way in 2016.

Our congregation is blessed to include a fair amount of racial, age, and cultural diversity. Perhaps one challenge is to seek out someone in the congregation who is different from you in one of those ways and ask them if they will share some of their faith story with you. How might we be changed if younger and older, Black and White (or Filipino and White or Hispanic and Black, etc.), or long-time member and new-attendee intentionally sought out one another in order to listen to and learn from one another?

Perhaps another challenge is too seek out those of another religion in order to listen to and learn about their faith from them. Nearly every Thursday night, the Irshad Learning Group meets in the Fellowship Hall. That’s a great opportunity to both provide a welcoming presence and be a student.

Or, as I said Sunday, challenge yourself to hear Jesus in a new way in the cries of justice at the heart of the #BlackLivesMatter movement or other current cultural expressions addressing injustice in the U.S.

Those are just a few ideas I have. What else comes to mind? How will you challenge yourself and your faith in 2016?

Happy New Year!

 

Live-blogging #SleepOutSaturday

7:58pm

Yeah, I know SOS is long-since done, but it occurred to me that I completely failed to say something extremely important:

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to our wonderful adult volunteers, Troy, Karen, Larry, Nikole, Christine, Deonne, and Kathy! This event is only possible because of you. 

6:39

Wakey, wakey!

   
   

5:58

Our first two young people are up. “Anyone else awake?”

“Nope, you’re the first.”

“Well, I can’t go back to sleep. Can I sit by the fire with you?”

Of course!
5:15

I’m very pleasantly surprised that all the youth have stayed out all night. Not even the usual steady stream of bathroom breaks. Been a quiet couple hours. 
1:05

Our faithful leaders, keeping the fire burning and watching over the flock. 

  

12:32

Larry is officially our safety officer. He will also not be cold. 

  

12:08am, Sunday

After one last empathy-building activity wherein we read stories from families helped by Bridge along with facts about poverty and homelessness in DuPage, it’s time to enter our shelters and try to sleep. 

   
    
    
 Also, it is now officially Cassie’s birthday!

10:28

Box shelter creation time!

   
    
    
 

10:00

We watched a video from the Rally as well as a Naperville TV 17 video report on SOS. I’ll try to add those in later. 
9:30

The cookies were shared by all! Well, ok, so the cookie winners allotted each person one cookie. 

9:20

No surprise, the group with the most resources won the competition. No groups shared materials, but no groups asked for help either. The winners’ prize?

  
A huge plate of homemade cookies. To which a member of one of the other groups replied, “That’s bogus!”
9:00

Next activity: build a structure with materials provided. Prize for the one that is tallest, most structurally sound, and colorful. 

What the group discovered is that not all groups are resourced equally. 

Will any group share? Will any group ask for help?

Constructing:

   
   

Final products:

   
   

8:30

Back at church — thanks, Bus Driver Cheryl! We’re in small groups sharing what from the Rally surprised and inspired us. 

   
 
7:45

School of Rock sends us out with a little “Cherry Bomb.”

Would have liked a little more content from the Rally. For instance more about services Bridge provides. 
7:40

This may qualify me for “get off my lawn” status, but I truly don’t understand all the people here at the Rally paying absolutely zero attention to the speakers. Sure, the mic is a little hard to hear, but come on!
7:38

The other family from the video now on stage. Mom and 5 yo son became homeless when she left her abusive husband. 
7:33

We get to meet in person one of the families from the video. Mom, 7yo daughter and daughter who is a freshman in college. A reality made possible by Bridge’s work.  

7:28

Video  sharing the stories of some of the families helped by Bridge. They house 100 families every year. 

7:2o

The obligatory — though certainly crowd-pleasing — shout out to all the communities represented here tonight. Hsu’s daughter very cutely pronounced ours Woodwidge. 

7:15

Tonight’s MC, Judy Hsu from local ABC Channel 7 begins the heart of the Rally…by telling us the weather forecast for the morning. Ugh. To paraphrase everyone’s favorite scoundrel, “never tell me the temperature.”

Hsu skipped the local Emmys to be at the Rally. That’s pretty cool. Remember, every $35 donation to Bridge Communities provides a night of shelter for a family. 

6:35pm

Gracious, holy, and loving God, give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts open to the movement of your Spirit through all we encounter tonight, amen. 

We enter the Rally to School of Rock Glen Ellyn absolutely (ahem) killing it with a Rage Against the Machine cover. They followed that with another terrific ’90’s tune, No Doubt’s “Just a Girl.”

And, of course, we got our tshirts. Everybody loves free tshirts. 

  

There’s still no Other

This week at Wednesday Night Live (my church’s weekly gathering for youth) we watched a video. Of course, in and of itself, that’s hardly newsworthy. We often use some kind of media to get a conversation going. But I don’t know that we’ve ever been able to use an award-winning short film before. Once I became aware of the film (thanks, Fred Clark!) I knew we had to show it to our students.

This piece of art is so good it was named “Best Short Film About/For Youth” at a film festival. It is so good it warrants reaching a larger audience. So I hope you’ll take five minutes – yes, it’s just five minutes long – and see what it provokes in you. However, an important TRIGGER WARNING: the film is a disturbing portrayal of bullying. It’s heartbreaking. But then that’s the point.

It seems to me that this film reminds us that there are many forces in our culture trying to separate us; trying to pit us against each other; trying to create an “Other” who can be shunned, beaten, sacrificed. To me this film is a reminder of both the power and the danger present in our desire to name some people as “Them” whom “We” rally against.

This bleak short film reminds me of Dr. King’s brilliant words on solidarity from his Letter from Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” I am convinced that in order for the church to be the church we must stand with those whom society would push out, marginalize, demean, demonize, scapegoat.

But the tragic, ugly truth is that far too often the church leads the charge to label some as Other and thus outside of God’s grace. As if it is up to us to decide. As if it is even possible to be outside of God’s grace. Yet often we can’t seem to keep ourselves from making such proclamations – and using scripture to justify those proclamations. Which is another reason my colleague, Deacon Beth Galbreath’s current series of posts is so important. She does an excellent job of breaking down the oft-called clobber verses used to Other the GLBTQ community. Be sure to read her posts too.

Jesus said (according to the gospel accounts) the life of faith is loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. The parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates just how crazy radical Jesus is: everybody is our neighbor. Even those we think of as enemy. And even those who think we are the enemy. We’re all neighbors. What affects one, affects all. There is no Them; there is only Us.

My hope and prayer is that we who long to follow God in the Way of Jesus will continue to strive to live this way, breaking down all the walls used to “Other” people. If we can, then perhaps someday films like this one will no longer need to be made. Wouldn’t that be glorious?

You’ve read my reaction to the film. What do you think?

Go Orange!

GoOrange_v2150

Sorry to disappoint, but this post has no connection to Syracuse University, college football, or the Bears.

Instead we’re talking hunger.  And $40 Billion.

I spoke about going orange in my sermon on Sunday. It’s easy enough to change a Twitter or Facebook profile to support the cause. It’s easy enough to read about ways to join the campaign:

It’s easy enough (though infuriating) to read about the devastating effects of the $40 billion cuts to SNAP currently proposed in the U.S. House. (Thanks, Bread for the World!)

Finally it’s even fairly easy to make your voice known. Here are some ways to do it from Doug Schenkelberg, who does advocacy and outreach for Greater Chicago Food Depository:

sample alert:

This week, the House of Representatives will vote on a Farm Bill proposal that will cut $40 billion from SNAP. The cut would translate into about 1.5 billion lost meals for hungry families every year for the next 10 years. This is on top of the looming benefit reductions that will impact all SNAP participants starting in November 2013.

The combined cuts would increase hunger in America and is not the way to balance our nation’s budget.

We must send a strong message to Congress. Join the National Call in Day on Tuesday, September 17 and help us flood the phone lines by urging your Representative to oppose the bill and mobilizing your local supporters to do the same!

Calling Congress is easy. Here’s how:

Call the advocacy hotline at 800-826-3688 (toll free number provided by Bread for the World)

Once you are connected to your Representative, state that you are a constituent and give your name and the town you are calling from. Be sure to give the name of the food bank or local agency you are affiliated with.

Let them know you are calling about the Farm Bill and deliver this important message:

As your constituent I am asking you to vote against the House Farm Bill proposal to cut $40 billion from SNAP. This bill will be devastating to struggling Americans, and charity cannot fill the gap. I understand the need to reduce the deficit, but increasing hunger is not the way to do it. Please oppose this bill.

Sample tweets

· Oppose $40 billion in cuts to SNAP. Call your US Representative today. 800-826-3688

· Tell your Congress not to cut 4-6 million people from SNAP. Tell them to vote No. 800-826-3688

The truth is making calls to Congress always makes me a little nervous. I have to force myself to do it. But I’m always glad after I do. Join me, won’t you?

What will you do to help hungry people this week?

Remembering Mike

Mike Szczepaniak was a big guy, tall and strong. A football player and a carpenter. A husband and a father. As big and strong as he was physically, his kind and gentle heart was even bigger.

I know that sounds like the worst cliché ever. I don’t care. Every cliché has roots in truth and If ever there was a guy about whom it could be said that his heart was bigger and stronger than his frame, it was Mike.

Mike was my friend. Of course that makes me about as unique as a Starbucks. Mike had lots of friends. I certainly wasn’t his oldest or closest friend. My wife, Joann, has known Mike and his wife Sherri longer than I. So in some ways I feel a little out-of-place writing about him. Others could tell his story better than I. Still, this is what I know:

Mike was my friend.

And one year ago, pancreatic cancer killed my friend.

One year ago, I had the honor and privilege of leading a prayer service at his wake.
Today, I’m playing golf. Today, lots of Mike’s friends are playing golf.

As a follower of God in the way of Jesus, I can’t claim to know exactly what happens after death. But I believe that in Jesus, God shows us that death is not the end. I trust that, however it works, we continue to live in God’s love. So, without diminishing the realities of grief and loss, I try to find hope even in the midst of death. A moment, a glimpse, or even a story. Demonstrations of healing, of giving, of kindness, of joy, of peace, of gentleness, of love…moments of life.

That’s why Joann and I were thrilled when TribLocal recently published an article about our friends Sherri & Mike and about today’s golf event. We’re raising funds for the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, “which helps abused, neglected and underprivileged children.”

Mike was a huge Bears fan. But the connection to the Payton Foundation is even more personal:

While in the hospital, Payton’s daughter, Brittney, came to visit Mike Szczepaniak and gave him a Walter Payton jersey.

“They connected right away,” Sherri Szczepaniak said. “She (Brittney) was very interested in his story. He loved the jersey so much.” []

So of course Joann and I are playing in the event. I expect we will share many laughs (and perhaps a few drinks) with many who loved Mike. It will be a festive occasion, full of life.

But still, I miss my friend.

Learning in the Boundary Waters

How would you sum up your experience…in 1 sentence?

…Asked Courtney Perry, the professional photographer who was cataloging our Doctor of Ministry cohort through pictures, video & audio. (She is also the spouse of our lead teacher, Tony Jones.)

Such a question! Just one sentence to encapsulate:

10 days talking about Christian spirituality through the lens of the doctrine of creation…
In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness & the northern woods of Minnesota…
With teachers Tony Jones & Brian McLaren?!

Factor in my 9 incredibly smart and dedicated fellow students, from whom and with whom I learned so much, and you can see why it was no easy task to answer Courtney’s question. Here’s what I came up with:

Being in the Boundary Waters again has taught me that if our spirituality is ever going to be healthy, whole, and Christian, it must include time in nature.

Granted, there is plenty that is wrong with that statement. What about people with physical disabilities? How will they go to the Boundary Waters? What about those who already live in nature-rich settings? Or, as a parishioner asked this week after I shared my encapsulation in my sermon, if being in nature is so important, why does our church’s most important weekly gathering always happen in a building?

I can’t fully explain it, but there was just something about learning about and conversing about the doctrine of creation in the midst of canoeing, portaging, camping, and sitting around a fire that was…different. Special. Powerful. Spiritual.

I can’t imagine having the same depth of experience in a classroom sitting around tables.

While prose is failing me, the audio, video and pictures that Courtney captured is much more evocative. Here’s a tremendous video she edited. The chant we’re singing in the background is a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer that Brian wrote. We sang it a couple of times throughout our 10 days, including as our benediction.

“Those to whom much is given, much is expected”

Maybe it’s because 6+ years into this parenting thing, every laugh, every joke, every hand held, every kiss given, every “Daddy, watch me do this!” still melts my heart.

Or maybe it’s because of 16+ years (and counting) spent as a pastor working with, talking with, listening to, dreaming with, consoling, encouraging, praying with, praying for, playing with, and learning with children, teens and young adults (along with, you know, regular adult adults).

Or maybe I’m just a heartless bastard.

Whatever the reasons, I find that I’m with DCFS child abuse investigator, Quad City Pat and sports radio host, Dan Bernstein: Joe Paterno’s death won’t elicit tears from me.

For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, many others are crying as they go on and on about what a stand up guy Paterno was. I guess we expect that by now from former PSU football players. And there’s no doubt his family loved him and will miss him. We must allow them to grieve. But why are so many others jumping up to defend Paterno?

Twice this week in the Chicago Tribune – David Haugh on Monday, Teddy Greenstein today –  sports writers seem to understand why Pat, Dan and I react as we do. And yet, they equivocate about Paterno’s legacy. (Interestingly, the headline in the print edition of Greenstein’s piece was definitive: Update (I shouldn’t have tried to quote from memory):Body of work overcomes one mistake” “Don’t judge Paterno’s life on one colossal mistake: Unfair to define coach solely by Sandusky scandal”; while the online version hesitates: “Can all good he did ever overcome one colossal mistake?”)

Then there’s the curious case of Shaun King. I like Shaun. I don’t know him, but from what I’ve read, I like him. He has a compelling story and has accomplished much good in the world. But he’s only half right about Paterno.

I’ll say this: King, Haugh and Greenstein are all correct about Paterno’s complexity. That’s simply the human condition. As Robert B. Parker was fond of writing, “No person is just one thing. Even Hitler liked dogs.”

King rightly points out that abuse, including child sexual abuse, happens all the time in almost all places and most of us are not doing anything about it. I agree, we are all complicit for evil in the world. Each of us must take responsibility for ourselves and our organizations, ensuring that abuse does not happen on our watch, under our roof. That’s why so many others and I are striving to abolish modern-day slavery, poverty, hunger, bullying, lack of clean, safe water… That is why so many of us are seeking justice for the oppressed.

But then, it seems to me, King missteps. He writes that only Paterno’s football victories separate him from you or me. Greenstein tries to provide cover for Paterno by saying the school administrators bear more of the blame.

That’s just not true. Joe Paterno was not Everyman.

He was a multi-millionaire, the head of a football empire, worshiped like a king by PSU people, and, almost certainly, the most powerful man in the entire state of Pennsylvania. Paterno may have reported to the administrators in some hypothetical university hierarchy, but he held all the power. In 2004, the PSU president asked him to retire. Paterno responded with, essentially, a paraphrase of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp in Tombstone: “I don’t think I’ll let you fire me today.”

Paterno held all the power. As Stan Lee has so helpfully taught us, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” That’s really just a paraphrase of Jesus, whose similar words from Luke 12:48 are the title of this post.

At the very least, Paterno knew about Sandusky’s pederasty since 2002. He could have barred Sandusky from PSU facilities. He did no such thing. He passed the buck and looked away.

If Paterno had been, say, a literature professor rather than a football demagogue, would we even be having this debate? Or would he have been dismissed right away and his subsequent death gone unremarked upon? We are not all Joe Paterno. Yes, we all must protect children, but we don’t all have the power and influence that he had.

As for Haugh, he claims, “There is no wrong reaction to an icon’s death.” That’s ridiculous. Of course there is. Like, say, this. Lionizing a flawed human being helps no one.

Refusing to admit the ugly truth that child rape and molestation happened with Paterno’s tacit acceptance not only helps no one, but spits in the faces of the already horrifically victimized.

Obviously I feel strongly about this. Perhaps you do too and vehemently disagree with me. Fine. I welcome your comments. But before you do, please read the grand jury presentment regarding Sandusky. You really cannot speak intelligently about this until you have read it.

Finally, please consider this. Like Bernstein, I cried when I first heard this and again when I read it on his post:

Penn State trustee Stephanie Nolan Deviney described to the New York Times her thoughts as she left home for the meeting at State College to determine Paterno’s future.

She went to the bedroom of her seven-year old son to kiss him goodbye.

“I thought of all the mothers of all those boys in the presentment,” she said. “And I thought about what they must feel when they kiss their sons good night.”

I’m angry and I’m sad. I suspect I’ll cry again tonight when I kiss our children good night.

Then, tomorrow, I’ll get up and do all I can to fight for justice. I hope you will too.