Thursday, June 15, 2017

Put Our Money Where Our Mouth Is!

There is lots of talk in the ELCA about the existing clergy shortage, and how it will grow worse as more pastors retire. When I was in college back in the day (1992-1996) the recruiter for all the seminaries would come once a year to Muhlenberg and give us the pitch. At that time the pitch was, “Soon lots of pastors will retire and the Church will need new leaders like you.” In short, they were offering us job security. So this is not a new problem. However, it is upon us and worse then maybe even those recruiters thought back in the 1990’s. I have heard seminary presidents and bishops say, “The next seminarians are in your pews or confirmation classes.” This might be true but there is a deeper problem that never gets brought up.
            I did not get my call from my congregation. I got it from outdoor ministry and campus ministry. During the time in my life when I was trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life these two things became the Church for me. It was at college that I saw my college chaplain do things that I wanted to do. He was passionate about the world, cared about people, pushed the boundaries of the Church, and asked hard questions. I did not see those things in the congregation.
            In the congregation I saw people concerned about money and buildings. People concerned about institutional survival not mission and ministry. I did not see the freedom to ask difficult questions, or explore new possibilities. This is not the fault of my home congregation. I was a kid when I was there and didn’t even realize that is what I was looking for. I didn’t ask hard questions because I didn’t know I needed to. I found that out in college. Thank God there was a campus ministry to keep me engaged.
            It was at camp that I found authentic Christian community. I found how imperfect people tried to love each other unconditionally. It was at camp that I was given leadership roles in worship and Bible study. Again, I didn’t even know I could do that stuff until I went to camp. I came back to my congregation and organized a “youth service”. I preached for the first time. Camp gave me the courage to do that, and the confidence to know I could.
            My point is that every year that I go to a synod assembly these are the two things that get cut out of the budget. The place where young people hear the call is no longer the place the Church puts its resources. And then we wonder why we don’t have enough young pastors.
            What I see is that the people in power in our church (ELCA) are concerned about institutional survival and have lost the very reason why we do this work. As budgets become tighter we cut out the things that people really care about. I have a radical idea. In the next synod budget cut out a bishop’s assistant’s salary and use that money for campus ministry and/or outdoor ministry. Instead of having annual appeals for the synod have one for campus ministry and/or outdoor ministry. Have that campaign be about mission and ministry in the next century. We want young people to remain in the Church so let’s put our money where our mouth is. Stop begging me to get kids in confirmation to go to seminary, and do your part to have a Church eco-system that promotes church vocations when young people are making those critical decisions.
            I tell the people in the congregations I serve that if we live out our mission the money will take care of itself. In every case that has been true. People are not giving money to a failing institution in order to keep it alive for a couple more years. They will happily give to something that is living and breathing. They will happily give to mission and ministry. So we should stop doing what is not working and take drastic action to focus on what we know does. This is just my humble suggestion to all the seminary presidents and synod bishops telling us about the great shortage of pastors.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Talk to Young People (Even if you don't want to)!

Emma who is a sixteen year old from our congregation shared this story.
This is not my personal story, but one I witnessed. About 6 months ago, I was with my grandfather picking up garbage along a road. We stopped to take a break and went into the woods. We walked into the woods, and found a small box. It had a small notebook in it. I opened up the notebook to write our names and the date we found the box, when I saw someone had written a story.
It was dated from 2013. This person was going through problems, and had gone to the woods to pray in silence, and had found the box. This person wrote their life story in the log. Many things had gone wrong. They wrote about their time in Afghanistan, and how they were struggling with homelessness.
This person was desperate and prayed for help. He came to the woods to find peace and quiet. On the next date in the log, 2015, the person had come back. He wrote how God had answered his prayers and he had found a steady job and home. I found this man’s story inspiring, and it deepened my personal faith.

What I liked about Emma’s story is that it shows how our young people are searching for meaning.
They want to know that their lives matter, that they matter.
Some of you may have seen the article in the paper about the event I have been helping to organize around the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why.
The show is traumatic.
I don’t recommend it.
But it is also contains some truth, and has some things we can learn from.
There was this one scene that really hit home for me.
It was a scene when the two main characters in the show where at a party talking about how the adults in their lives didn’t see them.
One of the characters says, “My parents don’t see me. Even when they do look at me they don’t see me.”
The show for all of its faults gives I think an accurate depiction of how our young people are feeling.
Maybe this is how we all felt as young people.
Misunderstood, but worse than that we feel invisible.
They feel like they don’t matter.
Their feelings don’t matter.
How they think doesn’t matter.

This is surprising to me in many ways.
Mainly because from what you hear our kids are being overly protected.
On Facebook every few days someone posts a meme that says something like, “When I was a kid we didn’t need bike helmets, or seat belts, my parents smoked, they spanked us, we would fall out of trees…etc.”
The message is that it parents are too protective of our children now a days, and we are raising a bunch of wimps.
If that is true I don’t think our children feel that we are paying close enough attention to what is going on inside.
In the show the adults are under responsive to what is happening around them.
They are too caught up in their own lives to realize that the kids are in pain.

The other thing that stood out about the show (and I can say this to all of us because it matters to us) is that not one of the young people on that show went to church.
I think that matters, because here is a place that listens to the voices of our young people.
At least I hope we do.
I hope we take them seriously.
I hope we look at them for who they truly are.
I hope we surround them with a community that cares about who they are.
A community that tells them in subtle and not so subtle ways that they matter, that they are important.
They are important to us, and to God.

I know that if you are an adult here this morning you have your own problems.
I know that it is not easy getting to be more mature.
But I want to ask you all a favor.
No, I want to beg you to do something.
Care about our young people.
Show them you care.
Talk to them every Sunday.
Ask them how they are doing.
Ask them about school, sports, the arts.
Ask them what they think about Church, about the world, about life.
Ask them what kind of music they like, what kind of movies they see, what television they like.
Let me warn you in advance they might not seem to care.
They will roll their eyes at you, or maybe blow you off.
(I can say this because I have a pre-teen of my own, and she often does that to me.)
Do it anyway.

A year or so ago at the dinner table I was asking my kids about their day.
They said, “It was fine”.
I said, “That is not good enough. Tell me more. What did you do? Who did you talk to? What happened?”
My daughter Phoebe then said, “How often are you going to ask us these questions.”
For the rest of your life!
Every day I want to know more about your life, because I care about you.

If you are an adult here this morning I am asking you to care about the young people in our church.
Because, you have (I presume) grown into your salvation.
You in your life have tasted that the Lord is good!
You have a gift to share with a young person.
You have wisdom to offer, a story to share, a witness to give.
The person in Emma’s story learned about God’s grace, and wrote it down to share with someone.
It deepened her faith.
He didn’t know that his story would have an effect on a person.
We can do the same thing with all of our young people.
We can share the gift of our faith with them.
We can let them know that their lives matter, that they matter, and that we care.

By telling them this we pass on the good news of Jesus Christ that we received.
We help them grow into that very powerful truth.
We let them know that God has a purpose for their lives.
That God loves them, and is always there for them.
That God has written a letter and left it in a box to be discovered, a letter of God’s grace that can give them peace and quiet all the days of their lives.

May all of us proclaim to our young people the mighty acts of God so that we all may live in God’s marvelous light.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

All Things In Common?

 “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”
This part of Acts presents us with a wonderful vision of the Church.
This is what happens after Peter gives his Pentecost sermon.
Different people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds come together to do God’s work.
If only this is the way it could always be.
If only we could always have “all things in common”.
But the truth is that we don’t.
We don’t all agree about everything.
In this congregation we don’t all agree.
I want to name that this morning.
In fact, I have wanted to name this truth for some time.
I have been waiting for the right text and time.
And this morning our Acts text gives us a way to talk about the utopian vision versus the reality we face.

I think it is important to start by saying that in our world we are polarized.
We are polarized by race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and by our politics.
While I am at Planet Fitness there are many television screens in front of you as you use the gerbil machines.
And on those screens are local news, CNN, and Fox News.
Here is what I noticed.
We are not having the same conversation.
Gone are the days of the big three networks when we would huddle around the television at 6pm to watch Walter Cronkite read the news to us.
Instead we have multiple ways to watch and receive news.
I notice that what CNN is talking about on any given day is very often not what Fox News is talking about.
I am not saying that they are both talking about the same thing from different vantage points.
I am saying they are not even reporting the same events!
We are not even talking about the same world.
I could imagine how ideas about the world are shaped by watching these two very different versions of the world.
You can see watching those two versions of the world why we are so polarized.
And so this polarization bleeds into our church life.
It would be a nice idea to believe that we all leave that at the door.
But I know it is not true.
When we walk through those doors we still believe the things that we believe.

Ever since this election I have been reading lots of articles from other pastors about their anxiety over divisions.
The concern comes from the idea that we as pastors don’t desire to cause division in our preaching.
We always want to challenge people.
We want to comfort people with the good news of the Gospel.
But we don’t intentionally set out to make people angry, to make our congregations divisive.
On top of that we also want to preach with integrity.
We would not be doing our job if every week all you heard was what you wanted to hear.
If you came to worship every week and only heard the opinions you hear on CNN or Fox news.
So our preaching will be definition be divisive at times.
I hope you can see how that is producing in us anxiety.

I know that one thing we all share no matter what part of the spectrum we fall on is that we are worried that we don’t have anything in common any more.
I have been struggling to name exactly what this is, but my sense is that their used to be things that united us.
For example, we used to be able to say being a Lutheran means…..
Maybe it was that we all loved to sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”.
Or that we all loved Jesus.
There was an unspoken sense of unity.
And that is no longer there.
Everything is a controversy.
What songs are sung is a controversy.
What is preached is a controversy.
Who is helped and in what way is a controversy.
We don’t know where the center is anymore, because we are living always on the periphery.
We are making these secondary things of primary importance.
It seems impossible to me that we will ever get to the point of Acts, “All who believed were together and had all things in common.”

What should we do?
I don’t know if this is a bad thing.
I know a lot of non Lutherans who are saying that these days they love Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
For those who don’t know he was a Lutheran pastor who opposed Hitler.
He started an opposition Church called the “Confessing Church”.
But the problem is that people are saying the love him without understanding what it means to be a Lutheran.
Bonhoeffer once wrote, “God hates a dreamer”.
His point was that the greatest threat to true human community is that we insist that everyone agrees with our vision of how things should be.
He saw human community as it truly was, flawed and imperfect.
He saw Hitler’s biggest problem was that he was trying to make society perfect.
Hitler was saying that Germans were the best, and that led to killing of Jews, blacks, gypsies, homosexuals, and communists.
So the first thing we should all do is get rid of any ideas of perfection.
I am not perfect.
You are not perfect.
I don’t know everything.
You don’t know everything.
We can learn from each other if we hold a different view.
And as long as there are people trying to live in a community there will be differences.
That is ok.
That is the way it should be.

The other thing we can do is listen for the authentic voice of Jesus.
It is hard to listen through the differing voices on television, in the newspaper, on the World Wide Web.
But part of being a disciple of Jesus is to see through what the world tells us to what Jesus tells us.
We are told that the poor don’t really matter.
But Jesus would never have said that.
Jesus was harsh and critical of anyone in power, or anyone who had wealth.
He was they were religious or politicians.
Jesus saw through them to what they really desired, and if we are Jesus followers than we can be too.
We can see that people who want our money or our vote don’t really have our best interest at heart.
And that is why I don’t think that we are divided as we think.

My hope continues to be that we live as God’s people.
That means we live knowing that we are not perfect, the Church is not perfect, our world is not perfect.
That we confess this openly and honestly with each other.
That today we stand here and we say, “We don’t have all things in common”.
That is the uncomfortable truth.
I think there is beauty and wonder in naming the imperfect.
In naming it we confess together that what we hold dear is not our worldly views, but our faith in God’s grace.
The fact that we are still here in a world that wants us to be divided is proof enough of God’s wonderful, magnificent, mysterious grace.
That is the ethic that we live with.
It is not an ethic of perfection, or utopia.
We live under the ethic of confession that leads us to God’s grace.

So let us hear the call of our shepherd to live in the pen together.
Let us hear his call to live in a community of people that don’t have all things in common.
Let us learn from each other.
Forgive each other.
And lean on the grace of God together.