Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christ in Christmas

In the past few years, it seems that there has been a rise in the concern about "keeping Christ in Christmas." There are two specific instances that people who share this concern lift up as their proof that this is a valid worry.

The first is the use of Xmas instead of Christmas. They think that the X is crossing out Christ, and thus taking him out of the holiday. If we come at it from a U.S. centric viewpoint it is easy to see why this might be the case. An X is often what we use to mark things off of a list, or to negate something. So, I can understand why it might be a concern for some people when they see the X instead of Christ. But what we need to do is broaden
our viewpoint a bit. We need to realize that USAmericans do not have the corner of the market on Christ and, in fact, people believed in Jesus and worshiped him for thousands of years before we were even a country.

The New Testament is what tells us what we know about the life, death, resurrection and teachings of Jesus Christ. It was originally written in Greek. The Greek word for Christ, which means Savior, is Χριστός or Christos. The first two letters the Χ and the ρ, or the Chi and the Rho are sometimes used to represent Christ. Like this picture, for instance:
Sometimes, it is just shortened to the X, or the Chi. That is why Christmas is sometimes abbreviated as Xmas. It's not an attempt to take Christ out of Christmas. It is using a Greek symbol to represent Christ, which is something that has been done for around 1,000 years. Use it if you want to. If you don't want to, then don't. But please don't assume that the people who do use it are pushing some sort of anti-Jesus agenda. I use it sometimes, and I'm one of the most pro-Jesus people you'll come across.

The second thing is the argument against "Happy Holidays." People seem to believe that we should always say "Merry Christmas" because that is what the holiday is this time of year. Now, I love Christmas and I love to celebrate. So, I love to celebrate Christmas. But I know people who are not Christian. They might be Jewish, or Muslim or even atheist. But, for whatever reason, not all of my friends celebrate Christmas in the same way that I do, or at all. To say, "Merry Christmas!" to my Jewish friend would not be the best thing to say to her since she celebrates Hanukkah and not Christmas. In the same way, in a store or walking down the street, just by looking at someone I cannot discern if they are Christian or Jewish or Muslim, or if they celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or maybe nothing at all. To assume that they are Christian or celebrate Christmas could be insulting or offensive. People might say that this is a Christian nation, but, truthfully, our country has no official religion. It was formed on the principle of freedom of religion, so that people could be free to worship how and when and what they choose. Just because I am a big fan of Jesus and I celebrate Christmas does not mean that everyone else is or does. So, to people who I know share the same beliefs as me, I wish them a Merry Christmas. If I know that they are of a different faith background, or am unsure, I will often choose to go with Happy Holidays in an attempt to respect where they are at, and to acknowledge that Christmas is not the only holiday celebrated at this time of year, not as an attempt to forget about Christmas.

We are a diverse country, and I think we will continue to diversify. We need to figure out how to live together in peaceful and healthy ways. Part of living together is respecting where people are at and what they believe. I think saying Happy Holidays is a good way to do that this time of year. Now, I know not everyone agrees with me. And, since this is a free country, you are indeed allowed to say Merry Christmas all you want. But, as I said, this is a free country and so we need to respect everyone else's freedom to live and celebrate how they choose.

So, this is how I feel about these two arguments. I don't think they are really anything to get worked up about. I think, if we are concerned about people trying to get rid of Christ, then we need to live our lives in such a way that positively reflects Christ, and in that way show everyone how our lives are enriched by knowing and believing in Jesus. Getting up in arms about the words people use, and arguing about it or trying to force people to see things or do things our way is not a constructive use of our time. Reaching out and helping others, caring for their needs, actually BEING the hands and feet of Christ in the world... now THAT is how we should be spending our time.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dedicating my life

When I think of my faith journey, and when I became a child of God, my mind is drawn to a summer many years ago. I must have been eleven or so years old and I was at Camp Rock, a camp of the American Missionary Fellowship, out in the western end of Nebraska (no, it wasn't a performing arts camp like the movies on the Disney Channel). I, the pastor's son, had gone on the invitation of my best friend who really didn't have any ties to a church, at least that I knew of.

It was in the later part of the week and the entire camp was gathered around a large bonfire. We were singing songs and having a good time when one of the counselors walked forward. She was carrying a bundle of branches in her arms. She stood before us and invited us to come forward, as we felt called, and to take one of these branches and to toss it in the fire as we declared in front of the rest of the camp that we were dedicating our lives to God.

Now, this was not something with which I was familiar. The community of German Lutherans, to which I belonged, did not do this on a Sunday morning. But, as camper after camper, kids I had gotten to know and befriend during the week, stepped forward, accepted a branch and then tossed it in as they dedicated their lives to God, I began to feel something stir.

Mustering my courage, I walked up to the counselor, took a branch and with a wavering voice said, "My name is Mark Lepper and I dedicate my life to God." As I tossed my branch into the fire, I felt great. When I got home from camp a day or two later, I could not wait to tell my Dad what I had done.

"Hey, Dad! Guess what I did at camp!"

He looked at me and asked, "What?" He was probably assuming I was going to tell him something like I had accidentally shot my counselor during archery or how I managed to not come in dead last in the foosball tournament.

I proudly declared, "I dedicated my life to God!"

"Oh," he replied. "That already happened at your baptism."

That is when it all started for me. It wasn't a choice I made on my own, fueled by the excitement and joy of a bonfire at camp, or because all of the kids who I thought were cool and popular were doing it. It wasn't my decision at all.

It was when the water and the word washed over me, removing all traces of my old, sinful self and filled me with the Holy Spirit. It is when the clouds parted and the Spirit descended and God broke into my life and said, "Mark Bradley Lepper, You are My son, my beloved, with you I am well pleased!"

That is when I became a child of God.
That is when God staked a claim on me and my life.
And I have never been the same since.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Giving of Thanks

A long time ago, in a faraway land known as Ohio, there lived a young maiden. This girl lived in a cottage with her older brother and her parents. This cottage had been built on that land by the young maiden's grandfather, and the family had lived there ever since.

Not far from this cottage, there lived a young man. He had lived with his parents and two younger brothers, but had recently left their home to pursue higher learning. On one of his journeys he came across the maiden from the cottage, and the two fell deeply in love.

As often happens in stories like this, the two were soon married. The man continued to pursue higher education, and eventually completed all of the requirements to become a pastor. The People in Charge decided that this young man and his wife, despite having lived their entire lives in the Kingdom of Ohio, should embark on a new journey in an uncharted territory. And so the young man and his wife packed up all of their earthly belongings and headed off to the wild kingdom of Nebraska.

There they lived for many years. They raised three sons and a handful of dogs and cats. They never forgot their family in Ohio and would sometimes make the journey back to see their loved ones there. Their three sons grew and flourished and soon they began their own journeys. The eldest enlisted in the Royal Guard, becoming an officer in the King's Navy. The second son became a guard of one of the King's dungeons. The youngest, well, no one is really ever sure what he's up to. But what we do know is that, this past week, he made the journey from his home in the frozen tundra in the north to the Kingdom of his Ancestors. He traveled to see his family and loved ones in the Kingdom of Ohio.

So, that's what I've been up to lately. I just got back from spending Thanksgiving with my extended family in Ohio. It was a great time, I got to see a lot of my favorite people, and to eat some wonderful food. I learned all sorts of things about Pokemon, watched the same episodes of children's tv shows over and over, reconnected with some family I haven't seen in too long, and had a great time.

The drive was long, about 13 hours. I left on a Friday and spent the night in a hotel in western Ohio. Then I started off again on Saturday morning and arrived at my cousin's house before lunch. I got to spend a lot of time with her family. She has three boys ages 9, 5 and 2 and so I always had something to do when I was with them. I also got to spend a lot of time with my 20 year old Godson who also happens to be the son of my other cousin (who is the brother of my previously mentioned cousin). I got to see quite a bit of my uncle who my first name is named after (on a side note, my middle name comes from my other uncle, the previously mentioned uncle's younger brother, who both happen to be the younger brothers of my dad). Then both of these uncles and their spouses, three cousins, one spouse and three kids and I had a great Thanksgiving dinner together. Then, we were joined later by another cousin, his spouse and their four kids. So, there was quite a houseful.

The next day I drove to visit the cousins on the other side of my family. We had dinner and played games. There was houseful there, too, with three cousins, spouses and then their collective seven kids.

The second day I was there I was going out to eat with my Godson. Being the great Godfather that I am, I said that I would pay the bill. So I gave the server my debit card and she went to run it through the machine and came back and said it was declined. She said they had been having difficulty with my particular bank all day, and since I knew that I had more than enough money in my account, I figured that's what it was. But that didn't solve the problem that we had a bill and now I had no way to pay for it. So, being the great Godfather that I am, I had to ask my Godson to pay for it. Luckily he has a job and money and a card that the restaurant's machine would accept. We went to a store afterward, where he found a CD that he wanted, so I said I would buy it for him. But when I went to pay for it, the same thing happened. However, the cashier said that they had been having problems with their computer system all day and it had been declining cards. So I paid cash, which I luckily had enough of for the CD.

But, thinking it was an odd coincidence that my card was refused twice, I decided I needed to call the bank to see what was going on. Turns out that when I had paid for the hotel room on my trip out, it raised a red flag at the bank, and so they turned off my credit card with no warning to me. Thankfully, it was easily corrected.

Also, while I was there, my 5 year old cousin came down with a cold. My two year old cousin got a double ear infection and pink-eye. When I went to visit the other side of my family, I was greeted at the door by my fifteen year old cousin who warned me not to get too close, as she had pink-eye. Thankfully, I did not get pink-eye or an ear infection, but the five year old was successful in sharing his cold with me.

So now I am back home in Minnesota. Today is my first day back in the office after a great week away with family. I am doped up on cold medicine, and am double fisting it with coffee and orange juice and trying to figure out where to begin on my list of things to do. So, of course I am writing on my far too neglected blog.

But in this holiday season, as we bask in the glow of Thanksgiving and look toward the coming light of Christmas, I am reminded of all of the blessings in my life. I have been blessed with an amazing family, who although I might not get to see as often as I like, the times I get to see them are wonderful and fun. I am thankful that, even though I might have a cold, I have been blessed with good health and the access to medicine should I need it. I am insanely blessed.

I hope all of you become more aware of the blessings you have already received, and that blessing upon blessing would continue to shower upon you.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

troubled times

The internet has been abuzz with news of the restructuring of the ELCA and the subsequent loss of jobs for the 60-65 ELCA and global mission personnel.

I don't know enough about it to comment much. I can't say "They should have done..." or "Why didn't they think about..." or "They had no good reason to..."

All I know is that some changes had to be made, and they resulted in some pretty wonderful people losing their jobs, and some programs that are important to me losing (more) funding. Neither of which are desirable, and neither of which probably would have happened in a better economy.

What I can say is that in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of pain and anguish, in the midst of questions and anger and frustration, there is God.

And I can say, with certainty, that with God and with each other, we will continue together on this journey, with all of its ups and downs and twists and turns.

And I can say, with certainty, that there is a Light at the end of this tunnel. It shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not, and will not, overcome it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A lesson on the Body of Christ

It's funny how one little thing can cause us to think about how we do just about everything else in our lives.

Wednesday of this past week started out just like most every Wednesday. I hit my snooze button several times. I begrudgingly got out of bed. I walked around my house in a sleepy fog. I took a shower, got dressed and went over to the office.

In the office, things went like usual, too. I checked my e-mail. I started to put together the power point presentation for Confirmation that evening.

But then I realized I needed to do something back at my house. And, since I live right across the street, it's not that big of a deal to run home. So, I did.

The thing I needed to do was in a room where I don't allow my cats to be unsupervised. They have a knack for causing mischief and I'd rather they not do it in this particular room. So I keep the door closed. But, to get the door to latch, it needs to be shut hard. If one does not shut it hard, the door does not latch and the cats can push the door open and run amok. Which they do nearly every time the door isn't shut tight.

So, to close this door, I usually shut it hard. Or, slam it, really. Which breaks most mothers' cardinal rule. But no mother lives at my house, so it's ok. I slam this door most every time I shut it.

Now, give me a second to explain. I don't slam the door by pulling on the door knob. Most of the time I just grab the edge of the door and give it a yank as I leave. It works most of the time.

Actually, it worked really well this time, only my finger was still in it.

*** At this point, we might use some descriptive language that could cause those of a weaker constitution to become a bit queasy. If this is you, you might want to go look at pictures of rainbows and kittens and unicorns for a while, instead. ***

It took me but a split second to realize my finger had been slammed in the door. I pulled my hand toward me, and I'm not sure if the yelling took place in my head or if I actually verbalized it. But then I looked at my finger and realized I didn't see my finger nail. I also realized I didn't see my finger tip. And then I thought it looked like I could see the bone. Turning my hand, I saw my fingernail and fingertip were still attached, they were just doing their best impression of a PEZ dispenser.

So, I closed my finger and then realized I needed to seek medical attention. I also realized I was in no shape to drive myself there. I needed to get back to the office and ask someone there for assistance. So, I determined that I was not going to pass out in my house, and I would not pass out in the street. If I was going to pass out, it would have to be in the office where someone would be present to aid me. This meant I needed to get over to the office quickly.

Clutching my injured hand, I quickly walked over to the office where the secretary and the custodian were talking. Bursting in the door, I said, "I need to go to the hospital!"

The custodian looked at me, the expression on his face not reflecting the urgency or concern that I, at that moment, deemed necessary. "To the hospital or to the doctor?" He asked.

"I don't know!" I said. "I slammed my finger in the door and will most likely need stitches!"

"Oh," he said. "The doctor, then. They can do that at the clinic."

"Ok," I said. Then, feeling a little woozy, I said, "I need to sit down."

So the secretary took me to the clinic, where I was x-rayed. It was determined that I did a pretty good job of demolishing my finger. The skin was torn and, to use the Doctor's medical terminology, was basically "turned to hamburger." I destroyed the nail bed, and chances are good that I will never grow a nail on that finger again. I also managed to possibly crack the tip of my finger, but the Dr determined there wasn't much that could be done about that. So he cleaned my wound, stitched my finger closed, put on a splint and wrapped it up. I was prescribed an antibiotic, to prevent infection, and a pain killer to use if necessary. I was then sent on my merry way.

*** If you haven't already, you can probably stop looking at fluffy, pretty things now and continue with the story. ***

Considering what I did, it hasn't been that bad. But it has made me mindful of things I take for granted - things you never really noticed your middle finger on your non-dominant hand played such a big part in. Like, tying your shoes. Zipping your pants. Bringing in your groceries. Typing on the keyboard. All sorts of other things. Things that were easy and I did without much thought now must be done differently or a lot more slowly and deliberately so to avoid or reduce the amount of pain that accompanies them.

Of course, being a church nerd, I can't help but think of the theological implications - we are the Body of Christ, and we are all important. Even those of us who we consider to be middle fingers on non-dominant hands are important and valuable. Sometimes it just takes a little pain or discomfort for us to realize it.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

some old guy

I was going through some old e-mails and such today, stuff that I'd saved for various reasons, and reliving past memories. It brought up all sorts of memories, like the time I got stuck in between a bed and the wall at a high school lock-in at a hotel during my years in seminary.

Then I got to some e-mails from around 2006, right before I moved out here to Minnesota to start my call. There were quite a few from when I volunteered at the ELCA Youth Gathering in San Antonio. It reminded me of how, even though there were thousands upon thousands of ELCA youth and adults there, I still managed to run into a lot of great people I knew.

I wrote about my experience volunteering on the Community Life team a few posts ago, but as I was looking at some of these e-mails it reminded me of a particular story that happened. I think I shared this on my old blog, but I don't believe I've shared it on this one. If you've read it, then feel free to stop reading. But if you haven't, or want to read it again, then read on, dear friends!

At the hotel where I was stationed, I was paired with one other person, a guy named Nick who was one year out of high school. It was obvious that the high school girls in our hotel fancied Nick. They would always giggle and say hi when we walked by. One time, Nick and I were walking through the lobby on our way somewhere, and a group of girls were lounging on the sofas and chairs. As we passed them, a chorus of "Hi Nick!" rang out. Finally, one girl said, "Oh. Hi, Mark!" I was not phased. Spending two weeks with Nick made this seem perfectly natural.

As a nightly ritual, Nick and I would walk through the hallways and make sure everyone was in their rooms with their doors closed. The first night we had split the floors, and each took half. The second night, we decided that even if it took longer, it would be more fun to team up to do it. So we began patrolling the halls together.

We were walking through one of the hallways that Nick had been in charge of the night before, when we saw a doorway propped open and some girls talking loudly inside. Nick and I looked at each other and Nick said, "Why don't you take that one." So I walked up to the door and knocked on it.

The door was opened by a smiling high school girl whose smile diminished when she looked at me. "Oh... hi." she said. "It's after curfew. Why is your door open?" I asked. "I guess we just forgot to shut it." she replied. "Well, could you go ahead and shut it? And would you mind keeping it down a little?" The girl agreed and shut the door.

And then I heard her say to her friends: "Oh my gosh! NO! It was some old guy!"

Nick then revealed to me that this same room had the door propped open the night before, and he had had to stop and ask them to close the door and quiet down. Apparently, they had enjoyed this interaction and so hoped to repeat it the following night. Unfortunately, it was not repeated and they didn't get to see Nick again. Instead, it was some old guy who asked them to be quiet.

I don't think their door was propped open the following night.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Real Ministry

A while ago, I applied at a place to do something I have wanted to do for many years. I don't want to say what the place was or what it was for, because I don't want to sound like I'm badmouthing some place or some people in particular. What I'm bad mouthing is an ideology.

The reply came back from this place that they appreciated that I was interested, and they were sure I would do/am doing great things in youth ministry, but that they didn't see me as a good fit for what they were looking to do.

Now, this thing I was applying for is ministry related, but it is not youth ministry focused. And, while I think I do a good job in youth ministry and have quite a bit of experience in that area, I don't think that disqualifies me from doing well in other areas.

It seems to me that there is this idea that youth ministry doesn't always qualify as "real" ministry. It's those backhanded compliments given to youth directors, asking them when they are going to become a pastor and do real ministry. Or questioning a person's call to ordination because they feel called to focus on youth ministry. Or thinking that someone wouldn't be good at doing something because they have a lot of experience in youth ministry.

Youth ministry IS real ministry. In youth ministry you deal with the same kinds of things that you deal with in every other kind of ministry. There is joy and celebration, there is frustration and disappointment, there is healthiness and new life, there is sickness and death. But, throw into that mix all sorts of other things like hormones, drama, teen age relationships, acne, junior high girls... and there's quite a bit more that comes with youth ministry.

I think we can discount the kind of ministry that happens with young people. We don't see it as real or important, just like we don't think that young people are an important part of our church today. At least that's the message we send when we tell them they are "the future of our church." They are here now, and they are looking to be engaged in ministry, and they need people to walk alongside them and work with them and advocate for them. And that IS real ministry.

So I wanted to write a letter to this place and tell them that they really missed out. That, by overlooking my other gifts and seeing only those that they saw as dealing with youth ministry, they were depriving themselves of the opportunity to get to know me and to see the ways we could have been mutually blessed.

That's what we do when we overlook our young people. We miss out on a great opportunity to get to know some amazing people. We miss out on the opportunity to have them plugged in and engaged in the life and ministry of our congregations. We miss out on the opportunity to lift them up and encourage them to use their gifts and to recognize and celebrate the ways they already are. We miss out on the opportunity to acknowledge them as children of God.

Children of God are important no matter what their age. Ministry is valid and real regardless of what age group it encompasses. We all lose out when we don't acknowledge this.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Something I never thought I'd say at work

Yesterday was Sunday, and I was in charge of preaching. Today our custodian, who had been at our 8:00am service, came up to me and asked what I did for the sermon at our 6:30pm service. You see, our 6:30 service is our "contemporary" service and usually attracts a much smaller, more casual crowd. And my answer is something I never thought I'd say at work:

"Well, it was pretty much the same sermon I gave in the morning, except without the fireworks, noisemakers and orangutans."

Meme: My Faith, My Tattoo

Adam Copeland over at A Wee Blether is conducting some informal research about people of faith and their tattoos. Seeing as how I have one, I decided to help him out and answer his questions. So, here goes:

1. Describe your tattoo(s):
I have one tattoo on my right shoulder blade. It's a red cross behind an icthus (sometimes called a Jesus fish). I have ideas for other tattoos (all faith-oriented) that I think about getting. We'll see if I ever do.

2. What made you want that tattoo?
I had been contemplating one for a while. I ended up deciding to go and get one my last summer as a camp counselor. There was a whole group of us who decided to go and get some ink one weekend. I didn't set out to get this specific tattoo, however. I told a co-worker, who I knew was artistic, that if she drew something I would get it tattooed. So she did, and I did.

3. How did your faith influence your tattoo, indirectly or directly?
I have always been a very faithful person. In fact, the summer I got this tattoo I was working at a church camp, and it was also the summer before I headed off to seminary. A tattoo is a unique and fun way to share your beliefs or what is important to you. So a cross and a fish, two symbols of Christianity, seemed like a good way to share what is important to me.

4. What's the relationship between your tattoo and your broader understanding of your body?
My senior pastor has told me on numerous occasions that I should never play poker. I have a hard time keeping a straight face in a lot of situations. People can tell, by looking at my face, what is going through my mind. In fact, there is some statistic (that I can't remember and so I won't quote) that says that a majority of communication is nonverbal. We use our faces and our bodies to communicate all the time. My tattoo is an extension of that.

5. Was it worth it... do you have regrets?
I see my tattoo everyday in the mirror. Everyday I look at it and I appreciate it. I appreciate what it stands for, I appreciate what those symbols mean to me, and I appreciate the memories that it brings back of the time in my life when I got it. Never once have I looked at it and wished it wasn't there or that I hadn't got it.

6. What funny story has happened because of your tattoo?
I have several stories about it that are kind of funny. I'll only share a couple. Since I was a camp counselor when I got it, I know that I didn't take care of it like I should during the first few weeks. There are guidelines about what you should and shouldn't do for a couple weeks, and going into a chlorinated pool is one of the things you shouldn't. But I worked at a camp with a pool, and had to go there everyday with my campers. Trying to explain to my boss that I'd rather sit on the side of the pool and not get in because I decided to get a tattoo during the summer would not have gone over well. The campers would not have been big fans of this, either. And I'm not one to sit on the sidelines and let other people have fun. I like to be in the mix. So I ignored some of these guidelines and played in the pool. Well, one day in the pool, I was giving a camper a piggy back ride. Now, when tattoos are healing they will scab over. You are not supposed to pick the scabs as that can affect the coloring. But I'm giving this camper a piggy back ride and he says to me, "Is your tattoo real?" and I said, "Yeah it's real." and he replies, "No it's not. Look, I can peel it off!" I told him not to do that, and thankfully he didn't because not only could it have made some spots on my tattoo that are less colorful than the rest, but it could have been pretty painful, too.
Another story is how I told my parents about the tattoo. I was unsure how they would respond, so I showed it to them while we were in the hospital and my dad was just about ready to go in for hernia surgery. I knew that if they didn't like it and weren't happy about it, that it wouldn't give them much time to be upset about it before my dad went under.
Being a pastor, my work does not call for me going shirtless a lot. Most of the time this happens at events or places where we can go swimming. Most of the time, these events are youth events. It is always funny to me to see the kids' reactions when they see that their pastor has a tattoo. Jaws drop, eyes widen, and they say, "Pastor Mark!!! YOU have a TATTOO?!?!" It never ceases to amuse me.
There's also a funny story surrounding the inception of the tattoo, and some events that happened afterward, but I think you might have to know me better to get that story.

7. How did your tattoo change your faith (and if not, why not)?
I can't say that it changed my faith, really. I don't think that, because of my tattoo, I am now bolder in my faith or that I suddenly have less doubts. I think it is just an outward manifestation of my faith, and has given me opportunities to talk about it with other people. When I'm in the pool or the hot tub, or on the beach, or some other activity where I am not wearing a shirt, my tattoo is readily visible. I've had people ask me about it, when I got it and why I got it, and it opens it up for a conversation about what the symbols mean to me.

For background on how this meme started, see Adam Copeland’s blog at http://adamjcopeland.com

Friday, August 13, 2010

Volunteering at the Youth Gathering

It's sermon writing time. Which, naturally, means I'm doing other things. What I've been doing most recently is checking out the website of the Community Life team from the ELCA Youth Gathering which was held in New Orleans in 2009. It's an every three years event, so the next Gathering is coming up in 2012 and, since the planners of the event believe that there is still a lot that needs to be done there, and a lot of good that 35,000 ELCA youth can do there, it is being held in New Orleans again.

When the 2006 Gathering, which was held in San Antonio, was gearing up I was in my senior year of seminary. I knew that there was no way I would graduate seminary, get a call in a congregation and be able to go with a church to the Gathering, but I also knew that there was no way I wanted to miss it. I knew that I HAD to be there. So I started looking for ways to be involved, and thinking back to my trip in 2000 to the Gathering in St Louis. I remembered the people who were at the hotel we stayed at, who were part of what was called the Hotel Life team. They were there as hospitality, making sure that we knew what was going on and where we were supposed to be and that there were friendly, smiling faces waiting for us at the hotel. I thought that I could definitely do that, so I applied.

Well, they were now called Community Life and their responsibilities were quite a bit larger than what I had previously thought. Not only were they friendly, smiling faces offering hospitality, but they were putting on all sorts of fun events like dances and karaoke and inflatable games and mechanical bulls, as well as concerts and worship services... All sorts of awesome stuff!

So at the Gathering in San Antonio I was part of the Community Life team. I was assigned to one of the hotels on an outlying property where you had to take a shuttle bus to get to the main convention center. I was a little disappointed at first, but those were two very fun and exciting weeks. Because we were in an outlying hotel and there were no evening activities scheduled there, our team was pretty small. The first week (in San Antonio it was still split into two weeks, this past Gathering in New Orleans they went back to one, large week) there were just two of us. Nick, my teammate, and I had a blast. We did everything together. We saw all of the church groups off in the morning as they boarded the shuttle buses, and then we'd hop on the last one and ride to the convention center. While we were there we'd walk around the Interaction Center and see all of the fun activities and booths that were set up. We'd go downstairs to the Community Life central office and joke and goof around with the people there. We'd go see the speakers and musicians that were performing. And then we'd get back on a shuttle bus and go back to our hotel to be around in the evening for any people that showed up. The second week, Nick and I both stuck around, and we added a third member to our team.

As the 2009 Gathering grew nearer, and I was now serving in a congregation, I began to wonder how I would be involved. Would I be able to volunteer for Community Life again? Or would I be expected to take a group? As I talked to my senior pastor about it, I had hoped that I could volunteer and have other adults lead the group there. But in our conversation we agreed that, since I had never been in charge of a group at a Gathering, it would be a good experience for me to go in that capacity. And it was a great experience. I had a blast with the kids and the other adult from my congregation that went. It was an amazing experience for everyone involved. But I do have to admit that there was a little twinge of regret that I was not able to be a part of the Community Life team. I had really enjoyed my time in 2006 and would have greatly loved to be a part of it again in 2009.

But now, 2012 is not that far away. There is a little less than two years to go before it gets here. I will have the experience under my belt of leading a group there. Perhaps I'll be able to volunteer again and this time be a hotel pastor, maybe even leading worship services there and presiding at communion... Who knows?!!?

For more information about the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans go here and check it out!! If you are interested in volunteering, too, keep checking that site. I think applications start being accepted about a year beforehand, and there are all sorts of ways to be involved and volunteer. Who knows, maybe I'll see you there... maybe we'll even be on the same team!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

facing down the monster

I have to say, you are lucky to be reading this blog post. It almost didn't get written. That's because I had a brush with death this week. Furry, winged, full of rabies death.

Let me explain.

I arrived in the office on Wednesday morning. As I walked inside I could see our secretary sitting on the edge of her seat just waiting to tell me something. When I walked in the door she said that the custodian was looking for me because she needed someone tall to help her with something. I said I was going to put my stuff back in my office and then go find her, but the secretary offered to go get her. I didn't think that made much sense, but she was out the door before I could say anything.

Well, our senior pastor heard us talking so he came out of his office. We stood in the hallway chatting when the secretary and custodian came to the office. The secretary walked in the door first and she was followed by the custodian who was carrying a smelting net (a net used for catching fish). It was a big net on a long pole. I knew IMMEDIATELY what was going on.

"No," I said. "I know what's going on and I don't like it!"

Well, it turns out I was right. There was a bat in the corner of the ceiling in the entryway of our church. Which meant that I had walked right by it when I came inside. And now they were expecting me to help them catch it.

Now, let me explain something here. I have not always had this irrational fear of bats. In fact, I have stories about times I helped catch some. I have always not liked them, but I haven't always been deathly afraid. But then there were three instances in one school year that involved a bat hitting me in the head, and two showing up in my room in one week. All of these experiences helped foster my extreme dislike of bats.

So, there I was, standing in this small breezeway, staring at this bat. Curled up in the corner it looked small and harmless. But I knew much better. Our custodian began to prop open all of the doors to make for easier bat evacuation. Then she extended the net and tried to get it into the corner to trap the bat.

The only problem was, the net was too big around and didn't fit into the corner. It didn't even come close to the bat. The custodian tried turning the net around and using the handle to poke the bat, but that just aggravated it and made it chirp.

My bright idea, then, was for me to get a broom. I would use the bristles of the broom to nudge the bat carefully off the wall and into the net, which the custodian would be holding underneath it. It seemed like a great plan.

So the custodian positioned her net underneath the bat and stood as far away as the handle would allow. I grabbed the broom and bravely walked up to face the hairy beast.

I looked up at the bat and began to move the broom closer and closer. But it was then that the chaos ensued.

The bat looked at me and then with a menacing chirp it launched itself from the wall. Directly at my face.

As the bat came hurtling at my face I did the only thing I could.

I shrieked. Like a small child.

And not only that, but I fell down. Now I'm not saying that I gently eased myself to the ground. No, I fell to the ground, throwing the broom in the air, and landed on my butt and back.

The bat flew a few circles in the entryway before shooting off through the open door.

The senior pastor, custodian and secretary stood there laughing. I couldn't help but laugh at the situation, too, as I lay there on the ground. It was a pretty comical scene.

As we talked about it later, the custodian said that I should be proud that I faced my fear and helped get the bat out of the church.

My response was that I would be more proud if the story didn't involve me screaming and falling down.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

To dog or not to dog?

Last month, I was once again visited with the privilege to take my Confirmation students to camp. Now, if you know me or have read my blog for any length of time, then you probably know that I have a deep love for camp. It is where my call to ministry was first heard and fostered. It has been a place of rejuvenation and renewal for me. It is also the place where I spent four of the greatest summers of my life as a camp counselor. I have a deep love and a very high regard for camp.

So it was with much anticipation, a lot of excitement and deep gladness that I boarded the school bus along with my seventh graders. We were going to camp!!

I'd have to say that this was perhaps my most drama free week at camp as a pastor. Of course, after my first week at camp as a pastor, anything else would be a cake walk. There was a lot of unnecessary excitement that week, including three canoes full of boys from my church tipping over on purpose, and thus losing boating privileges for the rest of the week, and the fallout from that. It was an interesting week and I'm surprised that they let me bring kids the following summer.

But this week went well. My youth got along with each other famously, and made quick friends with the youth from the other churches. The counselors were great fun and did a wonderful job.

There was one thing, however, that made this week different. One of the other pastors and I went out for a walk one morning. We walked along the road for a while before it started to rain and we needed to turn back. As we were walking back, I heard someone approaching us from behind. I turned around to be greeted by a black lab jumping up to greet me. I admit I responded with a not-so-manly yelp. I was not expecting a large black dog to be launching himself at me. My pastor friend responded with a scream herself, saying that she thought she was going to get stabbed.

This dog appeared to be a stray. He was fairly skinny, covered in ticks, and my friend said he had worms (I didn't try and verify her claims). But he was friendly and really just wanted our attention. He followed us back to camp, no matter how much we tried to discourage him. I tried to chase him away, but he was persistent.

As we turned down the camp road, he ran ahead. We knew we had to inform the director that a stray dog was now loose on the property, but when we arrived we saw that one of the counselors had already intercepted the dog and was holding onto him. We apologized profusely, claiming it was our fault that the dog was there as he had followed us. The counselor explained that this wasn't the first time he had been there. Apparently he made quite a habit of coming to camp. The staff had named him Linus and they said he belonged to the house down the street but that it seemed they didn't care for him too well. When he'd show up at camp they would return him, and tie him up in the yard so he could not follow them back. But, inevitably, he'd show up again sometime.

Part of me wanted to take this dog home with me. He was friendly, and it would just take a little bit of work and he'd turn into a great pet. Several people on the staff said that if they were in different situations that they would take the dog in. That when my heartstrings began to get tugged. I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could provide a good home for this nice dog.

I consulted all sorts of friends. The reactions were mixed, but most said that I should go for it. This dog needed a new home and they thought I'd be a great guy to provide that home for him. A few friends discouraged it, saying I already had two cats, and that dogs are much more high maintenance than cats. A few others reminded me of the dog I used to own (Frankie the three-legged pit bull) but ended up giving away to another home. I reminded them that Frankie was a special (high needs) case and this dog seemed much different.

So I decided that what I would do was that I would bring Linus home with me if I saw him again that week. If he came back to camp, then he would come home with me. My pastor friend and I were coming up with a plan to get him to the vet should he show up.

But by Friday morning he had not yet returned. We drove by his house a couple times and he was not there. As we ate lunch and then loaded up onto the bus, it was evident that I was going home without a dog. Linus did not make a return to camp that week.

I still think about that dog. I think he has a lot of love to give and would have done well in a house that was receptive that love and had love to return to him. The camp staff has informed me that it's not too late, I could definitely still rescue that poor dog and give him a nice, new home.

So, who knows. Maybe sometime I will plan a rescue mission and get myself a new dog...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

3 busy weeks

I have not posted in quite some time. I apologize to my regular readers for my lack of productivity on this blog. But, you see, I have been busy.

On June 14th, I left with a busload of 7th graders and we headed up to camp. So, for a week, I was immersed in camp songs, campfires, outdoor games, hiking, canoeing, and even a storm that threatened to send us to the basement. Although I brought my computer along, I didn't use it much. I figured camp is a place to experience God in the outdoors, to marvel at the miracle of creation and there was plenty of it out there. I saw a lot of turtles that week and it didn't help that the internet moved about as slow as them, which made getting online frustrating. Especially when I knew I had only ten minutes to change into tennis shoes to be ready for our next activity. So my blog suffered a bit while I was there.

Then, the following week we had Vacation Bible School which was led by some of the camp counselors from the camp I had been to the previous week. Five of them came down and led a week of Vacation Bible School for us. Now, my schedule was not quite as demanding as it had been the week prior, but it was plenty busy. One evening we had a campfire and kids stayed in my yard goofing around and playing games until 10pm. Another night we had our church's annual Ice Cream Social and I happened to get roped into being in charge of making lemonade so I ended up staying much longer than I had anticipated. Another night we had a program and pot luck to celebrate a great week of VBS.

Then, with only one day between the end of VBS and the beginning of my next adventure, I headed off with 36 other people to the Yakama Reservation in Washington state for our mission trip. So we drove across Minnesota, South Dakota, Montana, Montana, Idaho and Washington to get to Toppenish, Washington where we'd be staying (I'm aware I listed Montana twice. I felt it needed to be done that way to symbolize just how freaking long that state is). While there we played with kids, we scraped and painted houses, we heard about the history of the Yakama tribe, we participated in a worship/healing circle, we toured a farm and ate fresh cucumbers, and we had a cookout in the park. Then we drove the 27 or so hours back across Washington, Idaho, Montana, Montana, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota (Montana seemed even bigger on the way back) and arrived home sometime after 11pm on Saturday night. I had to watch some of the luggage while I waited for our rental vans to be returned, and then I ended up getting home around 12:30 only to get up at be at church the next day for church services.

Then I went to a party with some friends where I served as a jungle gym and a chair and a water gun target for a large group of kids.

That brings me to today where I have done almost nothing of consequence and it feels great. I haven't had to tell kids to stop climbing on poles, or to quit talking so as to not disrupt the other groups. I haven't had to watch a long line of kids as they crossed the street to play games. I haven't had to deal with upset adult chaperones or try to get kids to move sleeping rooms. I haven't had to sit with kids because they got in trouble or constantly remind kids to stay on task and get the job done. I haven't had to give a piggy back ride. I haven't had to tell kids to put their shoes on before they go into the gas station bathroom or to throw away their trash when they are done with it. I haven't had to make any decisions regarding buying food for 37 people and figuring out the quickest and easiest way to get them through the line and to pay for the food. I haven't had to ask girls to put on less revealing shirts or asked guys to pull up their pants to cover their underwear. I haven't had to run inside to escape three 6-9 year olds running after me with squirt guns full of water. I haven't had a large mob of children chasing me with water balloons. I haven't had a single child hang on my arm or jump on my back or grab onto my leg.

And it's been nice.

Although, now since I've finished that marathon run and finally had time to sit down and breathe, I've discovered I'm getting sick. Stellar.

But now that I have some time, perhaps I'll use some of it to sit down and write an interesting and thought provoking blog. Well... that might be pushing it a bit. But perhaps I'll use it to write something.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

a few kind words

I was on facebook the other day and one of the young people from my congregation posted a status update that said that if anyone "liked" their status that they would, in turn, write something they liked about that person on their wall. So, if I were to click the "like" button on her status she would respond by sharing something she likes about me on my facebook page. I thought it sounded like a good idea so Sunday night I updated my status to say "Okay, I'm going to give this a try. 'LIKE' this status and I will post something I like about you on your wall."

Then, not thinking much about it, I logged off of facebook and went to bed. Well, the next morning when I logged back on, I already had quite a few likes. By the time all was said and done, I had 84 of my facebook friends "like" my status. And the people who liked it ran the gamut from friends I see all the time to friends I haven't seen in a long time. They were camp friends, seminary friends, college friends, high school friends, pastor friends, church friends. I definitely had my work cut out for me!

There were times it didn't seem like the list was getting any shorter. I'd write to a couple of people, and then I'd look and see that three more had liked my status in the meantime. Eventually, around 11:00 last night, I finished up my last one and completed the list (unless of course someone else likes my status, although it's far enough down on my page now that people might not see it anymore, but I don't really have any statute of limitations on when you can like my status). It was quite the undertaking. I wanted each post to be genuine and not a generic "I like that you are nice and funny," although I felt that some were close to that. Some were easier than others because some were for friends that I see all the time. Some were a little more difficult because they were people I haven't seen since high school, or that I worked with for a summer of camp and then really haven't kept in contact with other than becoming friends on facebook. So it took a lot of time, and a lot of thought, but it was totally worth it.

Taking time to think about the things that I appreciate and admire about people and being intentional about telling them was good for me. I think it's good for all of us. Several months ago, my friend Ben Larson died in the earthquake in Haiti. When we heard about his death, it seemed everyone had something kind and gracious to say about him. And all of it was true. He was, indeed, an amazing young man, filled with joy and talent and kindness and compassion and love and a passion for justice. But part of me wondered if people had taken the time to let him know that he meant that much to them when he was around to hear it. And that goes for everyone, really. When our loved ones die, we are intentional about remembering how great they were and how they touched our lives. But why should we wait until after they are gone? Why can't we let them know how much they mean to us right here and right now?

So I did that with 84 of my friends. I shared with them those qualities I admire, those things that I appreciate about them. And, as an outgrowth of that, I received quite a few kind words shared with me, as well. As I read the things that people appreciated and liked about me, I couldn't help but smile and my heart swelled. It is always nice to hear that you are appreciated and loved. And if I could make someone feel the way that I felt, just by sharing a few kind words, then it was worth all of the time and thought and effort it took to do so.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Things I took for granted

I was thinking today of things that I took for granted before I became a pastor. You know, those things that just seemed normal, until I became ordained, that now seem kind of special.

Here's what I've come up with so far:

Anonymity. Being a pastor in a small town, it seems like lots of people know who I am, and not just people from my church. I will go some place and be greeted by someone with, "Hi Pastor Mark!" and I will look and them and be pretty sure that I have never met them before in my life. Or I'll go somewhere, and not recognize anybody, but then later when I do see people I know they'll say, "Hey Pastor Mark I heard you were ________ [fill in the blank]!"

Bars. Sometimes it's fun to go have a drink and a good time and maybe sing some karaoke. But let me refer you to the previous entry.

Clothing. Ok, get your mind out of the gutter! Allow me to explain. Since becoming a pastor I have seen a lot of clothing, particularly t-shirts, and I'll look at them and read the funny little saying or look at the witty picture and think, "That shirt is hilariously irreverent!" and then I'll think, "When could I actually wear it?" and then I'll go look at the polo shirts, instead.

Daylight Saving Time. Specifically when it begins and we have to spring forward. On a Saturday night. When I already have to get up at an ungodly hour the next morning (see also, Weekends).

Evenings. In college and seminary, if I didn't have an evening class, most of the time my evenings were free to do with what I chose. A lot of the time that should have been studying, but it was my choice. If I wanted to go out to a movie with friends, or sit around and watch television, or play video games, or go somewhere else fun, I could. Because my evening was free to do with as I chose. In my current reality, that is not always the case. What's that, you want to get together on Wednesday evening? I'm sorry, I have Confirmation and choir rehearsal. Thursday? Well, shoot. That's committee and council meeting night. Monday night? We have a mission trip meeting that night. Sunday night? Sorry, we have a worship service then. Friday? Well, it's my day off, but I have a wedding rehearsal...

Friends. I have never really been at a shortage of friends. I've always had people nearby who I could hang out with and visit, who would ask me to go places or do something with them. Especially in seminary, when all I needed to do was open my door and step out into the hallway and chances were good I'd see or run into someone who I considered a friend. But now, since I've moved to a far away state to be a pastor in a small town, I've come to see how lucky I was to have so many friends so close by.

Greetings. One morning I walked into the office at church, in my own little world, thinking about what I needed to do when I got back to my office. Obliviously, I walked right by the room where some of the ladies were volunteering to fold the newsletter, and I didn't say hello. Well, I hadn't gone too far when I heard one of them say my name with a hint of disgust. Then a few others chimed in about how I had walked right by without saying hello! So, I quickly ran back, poked my head in and said hello. Greeting people is important. Especially the church ladies.

Holidays. In high school and college and seminary, holidays were times when school was on break and I was able to go and visit family and relax for a few days. Now, it's kind of the opposite. Christmas dinner? Sure, as soon as I'm done with the four extra church services...

Lunch. While health professionals might argue that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I would contest that it's lunch with the quilters/church ladies. One day, after they had finished quilting for the morning, they called down to the office to let us know that they were having their lunch and we were invited to come up. Well, I was in the middle of doing something and didn't want to stop, so I kept going. A little later on that day, I was running over to my house for some reason when one of the ladies was getting into her car. "You didn't come up and join us!" she said. "Yeah," I said. "I was in the middle of something and didn't want to stop." I then received a very stern glare punctuated by a "Hmmph!" That was it. But now I drop everything when it's time to eat lunch with the ladies.

Money. Or talking about it, really. Talking about money (specifically the giving of this money) is a touchy subject in church and I do NOT take for granted that my senior pastor deals with this more than I do.

Volunteers. In college and seminary, since I didn't have a youth group of my own, I would volunteer at other churches to help with their youth program. It was easy to assume that there were people like me who would step forward and express interest in being involved in various areas. Now, that way of thinking makes me chuckle. Sure, there might be a few volunteers like that, but the vast majority of volunteers I get are a result of me asking and calling and e-mailing and begging and bribing. I have also learned how important volunteers are, which is why I've learned I need to do a lot of those things previously listed.

Weekends. Yeah, I know, I know. When you take a job where the Big Day is Sunday morning, it kind of goes without saying that you will not have a "regular" weekend. But I didn't realize, back when I could, how much I enjoyed going places for the weekend. Or, on Sunday mornings, laying in bed and thinking, "I don't feel like going to church today." I can't really do that now. If I try, they show up at my door.

So this is just a short list of things I've come to view much differently, or appreciate much more, since I've become a pastor. Please know that there is much humor included and intended in these words. But there is also some truth, too. Sometimes all at the same time.

What about you? What are some of the things that you'd include on your list?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

operation: faster pastor

So, most of the year I am able to get around and I think that I am in fairly good shape. I walk most everywhere in town, I can go upstairs without getting winded, I'm pretty active and play lots of games with the kids at church. But there is one week out of the year that shows me how far I am from the kind of shape I'd really like to be in. That is Confirmation Camp.

They play this game every summer, one of my absolute favorites, that involves a lot of running. Well, most of their games involve running, but this one is almost constant running. It goes by many names. When I was a counselor at camp we called it "Biffer and Medic." But I've heard it called "Bonkers" and "Boof" and a few other things. The gist of the game is this: Campers are trying to be the first camper to visit various stations throughout the camp. At these stations they have to do certain tasks and then they receive a mark for having done them. Now, while they are trying to find these stations and do these tasks, there are people called Biffers. These people are running around with socks filled with flour and they are trying to "biff" the kids. If a camper gets biffed, they must stop in that location and call for help. The only person that can help them is called a Medic. A medic will follow the calls for help and then they let the person resume the game.

Two summers ago I ended up filling in part way through the game for a Biffer who was needed elsewhere. I ran all over the place, chasing the kids, having a great time. Until I thought I might die. Like my heart might beat out of my chest or my lungs might force their way up through my nose. At that point, I was a pretty worthless biffer and I mainly laid around and moaned and foamed a bit at the mouth. Ok, so it wasn't that bad. But it definitely showed me how out of shape I was.

Last year, I managed to play an entire game as a biffer. By the end I wasn't the fastest biffer, and I had to stop for short rests, but I played the entire game. I was proud. Of course, many of these junior high campers were in far better shape and they had no trouble eluding me. Toward the end of the game, a group of three or four junior high boys saw me and a couple started to run away, but one of them said, "Oh, he's not a big deal. We can outrun him."

Ouch. True, but ouch.

So I kind of had this idea that I would get in shape for next summer. I thought I'd come back to camp and maybe not be a huge threat to the kids, but I'd be a bigger one than I have been.

I'm sad to say it, but camp is about 4 weeks away and I have just started trying to do something about this. I'm not sure that in 4 weeks I will be able to get into the kind of shape I'd like to be in. Especially after months of sedentary living and greasy food eating. But I figure every little bit helps. If I stay active and do something resembling exercise every day between now and then, who knows? I might strike a little more fear into the hearts of these campers then, say, a rampaging three toed sloth.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Little things

Sometimes, I think we can let little things affect us too much. Let me give you an example from my real life.

This happened my senior year of high school. We had a foreign exchange student from the Netherlands come and live with us. He and I both used the same bathroom in our house. Alongside the mirror/medicine chest there were fluorescent lights that would come on along with the ceiling light when you turned on the light switch. But these fluorescent lights could be turned off with a separate switch on the side of the medicine chest, so that they would stay off when the ceiling light was turned on.

I preferred having these lights on. Our foreign exchange student liked them off. I would get annoyed when I would turn the light on and the fluorescent lights would not come on, as well. I expressed my dismay by putting a note on the wall by the light switch asking that the lights be left on, or at least turned back on when he was done (passive aggressive much?). That didn't work. In fact, I found the note crumpled in the trash can in the bathroom and the lights were turned off. So I resorted to my next course of action which was to put an ungodly amount of scotch tape on the switch so that it was immobilized in the "on" position. That worked nicely until the next time I came into the bathroom and the tape had been removed and thrown away, and the lights were off.

I was sure that he was doing this just to make me angry. And maybe he was. Or maybe he was sure that I was doing what I was doing just to make him angry. Either way, we both thought that the way that we wanted the lights to be was the way they should be. And neither of us was willing to budge.

When I think back to it now, I think that's extremely silly. How hard was it to turn the little knob to get the lights to be the way that I wanted them to be? So what if they were off when I came into the bathroom? It was not that much effort to turn them on. Unfortunately, because we both let this little thing mean so much to us, it only made things worse. We ended up arguing about just about everything. We were seldom in the same room of the house at the same time. I remember one afternoon my parents had had enough. They sat us both down at the dining room table and we were going to talk about what was going on and figure out how to solve it. They had good intentions, but both of us maintained that it was the other who was unwilling to make the effort. Ultimately, my parents decided that what was best for both of us was for him to go and live with the family of one of his friends from school. They didn't think it was fair for either of us to live in that situation, and so for both of our sakes he went to live elsewhere.

I have deleted and rewritten parts of this post several times. I've debated whether to post it at all. I think it portrays me in a fairly negative light, as the kind of person that I don't want people to think that I am. The me in this story seems intolerant, unforgiving, obstinate, self-centered, and fairly obnoxious. And to top it all off, this side of me was brought out by a light switch! There's a part of me that doesn't want the story portraying me in that way to be posted for anyone to read.

It's definitely not something I'm proud of, but I've decided to post it because I think it might describe more people than just me. We get so caught up in the way that we think things should be and the way that we want people to do them, that we often forget that those are people are just that - people.

I started this blog post and I was thinking about things like toothpaste and toilet seats. A friend of mine on facebook posted a status about how she was having to have the toothpaste tube conversation with her partner, meaning one of them was squeezing the tube in the middle while the other preferred it to be squeezed out from the bottom. Now, I don't believe at all that my friend was posting this as a life or death, take it or leave it situation. But it got me thinking of the people I have seen get upset about stuff like that. Or by someone leaving the toilet seat up, rather than putting it back down. Now, I might be seeing this from a different viewpoint because I am a male and, therefore, often the culprit for leaving toilet seats up. But, really, in all honesty, how hard is it to take a tube of toothpaste that has been squeezed in the middle and squeeze the toothpaste up from the bottom? Or how hard is it to look at the toilet and see the seat is up and then put it down (for either side of the issue, really). But these things get blown out of proportion and we see that our way is, obviously, the right way.

But the more I thought about it, and as I started writing this post, I began to see that this not only affects little things in our lives, but it also affects big things, too. Like who's allowed to be in our country, or who's allowed to be legally married or to be a pastor. Or who's allowed to have access to healthcare.

We get so caught up with what we want, and how we like things, and we decide that those are the right and correct ways to do them. We can begin to vilify or demonize those who do them differently. We think that because they are not like us and they don't do things the way we do them that they are evil or bad or ignorant or whatever comes next on our list of bad things. We fail to look at that person who squeezed the toothpaste from the middle of the tube and think that we really have more in common than we have differences. So what if I want the toilet seat down and they left it up. That doesn't mean that they are a bad person or that they have nothing good to offer.

I think I missed out on a great opportunity. I had a person in my house who was from another country, who spoke a different language, who had grown up with different customs and traditions, who saw things differently and heard things differently and understood things differently than I did. It was someone who I could have learned from and shared things with. He could have helped me see things from a different perspective. But because I got so caught up and angry about that stupid light switch, I stopped seeing him for who he was and what he could offer, and I only saw him for what he did that I didn't like.

And that is not what we are called to do. That is definitely not seeing Christ in our neighbor, or loving our enemy, or any of those things that Jesus said were so important.

What would I have said if it were Jesus who was turning off the lights in the bathroom? Who am I to say it wasn't?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

the bus ride

I wrote this about five years ago now, when I was serving on my internship. When I wrote it, I imagined it looking like a bus on the way to church camp. Sometimes when I'm riding the bus with my youth to camp I remember this story and wonder if this is what it will actually be like.

The bus bumped along the dry, dirt road kicking up a billowy cloud behind it. The bus driver was an older woman with strong hands and kind eyes. She didn't say much as she drove that big yellow bus, but she had a quick and kind smile that made the passengers feel comfortable and at ease.

They sat nervously in their seats, silently eyeing the rest of the passengers who they did not know; trying to get some idea about the people they would be sharing this experience with. Some stared out the window, watching the scenery as it silently tumbled by. Others timidly started conversations with their neighbors, asking where they were from, and if they were nervous, too.

All of them had been expecting this trip. Some had known it was coming for quite some time. Others were surprised that it crept up on them as quickly as it did. None of them had ever been there before, so none of them knew quite what to expect. And this made them nervous.

The anxiety in the bus rose to a new level the minute the bus veered off of the main road and onto a smaller trail, passing through a wooden gateway that arched overhead. What little conversation there had been was now silenced as each passenger was straining to see out the window, to get some idea of what this place looked like; what kind of things they'd be able to do while they were here.

Light shone through the leaves of the trees, giving the air an ethereal golden-green glow. The bus trudged along this tree lined path for what seemed quite a while. The passengers were getting more nervous, sitting on the edge of the seats; craning their necks to get a view out of the windshield, to see if they could catch a glimpse of buildings or something that would let them know they were getting close.

And then suddenly the tree line opened up. The light, no longer blocked by trees and leaves, seemed so fresh and golden. There arose an excited murmuring on the bus. The passengers were excited to get off, to stretch their legs, and to see what it would be like outside. The bus driver slowly pulled the bus to a stop. She rose to her feet and turned to look at the group of nervous passengers. With a kind smile she opened the doors to the bus and said, "We're here!"

There was a mad rush for the door. The passengers quickly rushed down the aisle, down the steps and out into the warm sun. As they spilled out of the bus, the passengers were greeted by a group of welcomers that seemed even more excited and happy than they were. The greeters were smiling and waving, overflowing with enthusiasm and offers to help.

At first, the passengers were a little overwhelmed by this welcoming committee, this group of unfamiliar people who were so excited that they were finally there. The passengers hung back close to the bus. But the more they looked at this group of welcomers, the more comfortable they were becoming. Then, suddenly and without warning, one of the passengers shrieked, "GRANDPA!" she broke from the group of passengers and into the waiting arms of one of the greeters. Then another passenger yelled, "MOM!" and rushed forward into her loving embrace. And then the air was full of laughter and crying and yelling. People were rushing into the arms of their loved ones who they had not seen for some time. At first they had not recognized them in this place, there was something different about them. Something better.

Those who had been sick were now glowing with health. Those who had been broken were now completely whole. Those who had been distant were now wonderfully close. In the warmth of the sun, all past hurts were forgotten and there was only excitement and forgiveness and love.

And watching it all was the bus driver with the strong hands and the kind eyes. She stood on the ground outside of the bus, watching this wonderful homecoming, with a wise and gentle grin playing across her lips.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Were You There, or My Junior Choir Trauma

I'm not sure if I have shared this story on this blog before. And rather than search through the archived posts, I will just go ahead and share it again. That's my way, really. My friends tell me I'm a story repeater. Oh, well.

It was a number of years ago, about this time of year. I'm reminded of this story because I planning an upcoming service and one of the songs we are singing is "Were You There." It's an old familiar hymn. Most regular church goers have probably heard it more than a few times. Anyway, I was in grade school and I belonged to the junior choir. I loved to sing, although I was not the most confident in my abilities. I joined the junior choir because most of the kids in my grade that went to our church were in it, and it gave me the opportunity to sing.

For one church service, our director decided we were going to sing "Were You There," and she wanted soloists to sing a few of the verses. I'm not sure if she asked for volunteers and I raised my hand or if she asked me explicitly, but somehow I ended up with the third verse.

When we performed the song during the service, each soloist was to leave their place in the group and stand out front for their solo. When it came time for me, that meant I had to walk out from behind the entire group (I always have been one of the tallest...). So I made my way through the group and stood in front and began to sing.

"Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Oooh-ooooh-ooooh-oooh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified m-"

And that's when I realized I was ending the third verse with a line from the first verse. I had messed up, made a huge mistake, in front of everyone! I should have calmly finished the verse, walked back to my spot and pretended like nothing had happened. But that is not what I did. Instead, I stopped singing. Then, I burst into tears and pushed my way to the back of the group.

Everyone was exceedingly gracious. They complimented my singing, and many people shared stories of how they had messed up while performing in front of a crowd. It made me feel much better about my mistake.

But to this day I cannot hear this song without flashing back to that day. I can see the church, the choir director standing in front of me, the peoples' faces in the pews. I remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I realized I had made the mistake, and the wave of embarrassment. All of these things add up to mean that this song is not my favorite. I don't think it's bad, but it's just not for me.

I also thank God that we are saved by grace and not on account of our ability to sing songs correctly.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Getting on my soapbox

You know what really bugs me? Well, I mean besides when the pizza guy takes too long to get to my house?

It's those stupid forwards that I get in my e-mail that share some religious story, often kind of sappy or sentimental, and then say something like "If you really believe in God/love Jesus/are a true Christian then you will forward this e-mail to all of your friends."

I don't like them at all. For a couple of reasons.

First, I don't like them because they are based on shame. They are shaming people into forwarding them. What they are telling people is if they don't send them on, then they must not really believe in God or love Jesus or be a Christian. As if their identity as a child of God is somehow dependent on clicking the "forward" link and sending that silly message on to others.

I think we have enough stuff in our lives telling us that we are not good enough, that we are somehow not living up to what we should be. We don't need some silly little chain letter putting its voice in the mix to heap more shame and guilt and "not good enoughs" on us.

And they're lying. Absolutely lying. Because our identity as children of God is in no way determined by our ability or willingness to send an e-mail. In fact, our identity as children of God is in no way determined by anything that we could do, have done, will do, might do or could ever do. It has already been determined by God through Jesus Christ. We are children of God because God loves us. Not because of our abilities or choices or circumstances.

Second, I don't like them because they have got it all wrong. They say that if you love Jesus/believe in God/are a true Christian then you should show it by forwarding that e-mail. I'm sorry, but there are TONS, no MILLIONS of better ways to do that. How about moving away from the computer and actually reaching out and helping someone. Share a smile. Do a good deed. Help a friend. Help a stranger. Serve in a soup kitchen. Volunteer at a food pantry. Shovel your neighbor's sidewalk. Mow their lawn. Donate your money to a worthy cause. I could keep going. The thing is, if we were to create a list of ways to prove that you believe in God/love Jesus/are a true Christian if forwarding an e-mail was even on it, it would most likely be near the bottom. Jesus told us that if we love him that we are to feed his sheep and that whatever we do to the least of these we do to him. Those who are hungry and poor and lonely and sick and broken-hearted and homeless and abused and addicted could probably care less if we sent a sappy little story to all of our friends. They would probably appreciate a friendly smile, a kind word and a helping hand a lot more.

And besides, if you DO forward that e-mail and then go on to share in some gossip, or ignore the needs of your neighbor, it gives people a much clearer idea of what is important to you, anyway.

Monday, February 22, 2010

back when i was a parent

I haven't blogged in a while. Not because I haven't had anything worth blogging about it's just that things happen, my life gets busy, I guess the blog sometimes gets pushed to the background. But the thing is, I usually like blogging when I actually sit down and do it. So that's why I keep coming back. Hopefully you do, too.

Today I opened a package from a ministry organization that has a child sponsorship program. They included a packet of cards with the pictures of the children and information about them. I don't currently sponsor a child through a program like that because I've heard stories such as not much of the money you send actually goes to the child, and that multiple people have pictures of the same child (although I guess that part doesn't matter, as long as money is going to the child I have a picture of, do I really care if it's mine or someone else's?).

But in college two of my best friends and I sponsored a child through a similar program. His name was Albeiro and he was from somewhere in South America. I want to say Colombia. Anyway, we took his picture with us everywhere. We'd seat belt him into the car with us and we'd goof around and talk to him like he was a real child.

One evening we decided to go on an outing to Perkins, a local 24 hour restaurant. Of course Albeiro came along with us AND he got his own seat in the booth (but we didn't ask for a booster). We got to eating and talking and having a good time and then we got up to leave. When we got back to our dorm, we realized Albeiro was not with us. We had left him at the restaurant!

My friend Peter called the restaurant and started to explain that we had left our child there, failing to mention to the woman that he was a 5x7 piece of paper. When the woman on the other end of the phone started to freak out, Peter realized what was happening and told her that Albeiro wasn't an actual child (at least the Albeiro in the restaurant). The woman, much relieved, said that they did, indeed, find Albeiro and would hold him until we got back to get him.

I'm not quite sure what happened to little Albeiro. As they do, our friendships changed and we no longer spent as much time together as we did. We graduated and moved on to other places and things. I know that I did not end up with custody of Albeiro, and I'm not sure which one my friends did. Who knows, maybe they still are sponsoring him and taking him for nice drives and out to eat...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Bound together and tightly woven

Today proved for me, once again, how our faith makes us a family.

My senior pastor has been very gracious with me these past few days, allowing me opportunity to grieve and to process my feelings. Today, before worship, he approached me and said that he was going to talk about the earthquake in Haiti, but he would not say anything publicly about Ben and Renee and Jon, that he would leave that for me to share with others as I saw fit.

As he finished talking about Haiti, he then asked if there were any more announcements. That was when I knew I needed to say something. I said I had something to share and then I told my congregation about my friends. I shared what I know and asked for prayers and then I sat down.

Afterward, many people shared their condolences with me. They said they had seen the story of Ben on the news and had been worrying and praying for him and his family. A few said that they remembered him from my ordination service when he, Jon, Renee and our friend Elly sang (I wish I knew how to get video off of the DVD and into a format that I can share online, it's a wonderful song made even more beautiful by my friends singing it). Almost everyone who spoke to me about this said that they were praying for me, as well, and if I needed anything to let them know.

This is what the Church is supposed to be, I thought. A family. People who care for one another, who bear one another's burdens, who reach out in times of grief and tragedy, who celebrate together in times of joy. A family of people, bound together and tightly woven with the love of God that is revealed to us in Christ Jesus, the love that we are called to share with others. The love that calls us, compels us, to help our brothers and sisters in Haiti and around the world who are suffering.

It also proved to me, again, how small and tightly woven this ELCA world is, too. A member of my congregation told me that her brother is a pastor and that he went to college with Judd, Ben's father. Another woman said that her daughter was college roomates with Liz, Jon Larson's sister. There is another family whose brother-in-law is a pastor near LaCrosse, Wisconsin and knows the Larsons that way. This shows how small and interconnected we truly are as Christians and as Lutherans.

And those are both things that I need right now. I need to know that I belong to a Family who cares, who is willing and able to reach out and care for those who are in our midst but who are also compelled to care for those in other places and countries who are in need of help. And I need to belong to a community that reaches beyond time and geography to be together. A community who, in the face of a world that can seem big and harsh, reminds me of how close and personal we really are as Children of God.

And Ben, you have reminded me of both of these things.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Godspeed, good friend.

A friend and fellow seminarian, Ben Larson, is presumed to have died in the Haiti earthquake. He was over there with his wife, Renee, and cousin, Jon. They are all good friends of mine and sang at my ordination service. I'm still struggling to accept this whole thing. It doesn't seem real.

The article from CNN is here.

It's hard to find the words in situations like this. So I turned to some that have already been written.