History and What Remains

Around Europe there are bronze markers in from of the addresses of those who died in concentration camps. These are a couple doors down from the hotel where we stayed in Berlin.

Berlin is a City That Remembers

Berlin is a city that “officially remembers.” There is a memorial to the Jews that died in the holocaust. There is a memorial to the homosexuals who were put to death in concentration camps. All around the city are obvious and subtle remembrances of the wall that once separated the East from the West. As there is in much of Europe, there are bronze markers inlaid in the sidewalk in front of the addresses of those who died in the holocaust.`  There is even a sign that marks the location of the bunker where Hitler lived out his last days (an appropriately undeveloped site which serves as a parking lot). In the latest remodel of the Reichstag the architect Norman Foster even preserved the graffiti the soviet soldiers wrote on the walls with burnt sticks at the conclusion of WWII. Yes, there is plenty that looks beyond these dark past events, but it would be hard to miss their presence.

When the wall coverings from a 1960 renovation of the Reichstag were removed architect Norman Foster chose to leave the graffiti left by the invading Soviet soldiers in place in the 1999 (current) renovation.

My son Ben was 6 years old when the wall separating East and West Germany came down, so anything other than a united Germany is something that he only knows through history. Kathy and I were 4 years old when it was constructed, so the division between East and West and particularly the Communist terror of the East was the truth we grew up with. My mother was 5 years old in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland beginning the European expression of World War II. It is fascinating how having experienced these different realities influences our understanding.

I am a Child of the Cold War

Being born in 1957 means that I grew up with the Cold War. The “Iron Curtain,” otherwise known as the Berlin wall, was the dividing line between ideologies, a separation of people that at the time seemed obvious. This might be a Western view, but it would be hard to miss that West thrived and the East withered. What sat underneath every thing was a great sense that “communism” was an oppressive enemy and that the Berlin Wall in particular, served primarily to keep the East German’s from escaping to the West. At least from a Western perspective, it functioned as a kind of  of local containment of the world’s Communist evil. Though this view of communism’s intrinsic evil was fading for me by the end of the war in Vietnam, and the general opening of the east, it was not completely gone. In 1978, one of our classmates was caught trying to smuggle three East Germans out of the country in the trunk of his car and he received a 2 1/2 year prison sentence.  We understood this part of the world to be a dangerous place. When the wall came down in 1989, it seemed like an impossible reality.

The East and the West

We visited two former SED sites. Hohenschönhausen prison and the Museum “der runden Ecke.” Both seemed like something out of a 1970’s spy movie and both had a peculiar smell which we were told was the smell of East German plastic. It was distinctive and almost 30 years later it is still there. The past has a way of remaining. The University of Potsdam, where my son Ben is finishing his post-doctoral studies, is not an old institution. It was established in the 90’s on the site of a former SED training facility. The original buildings on campus were used to train the Stasi, among the most hated, feared institutions of the East German Government. On the same campus, he works out the inner working of a chemistry that I will never understand. History should be easier, but this is even harder to understand.

One of the tallest “mountains” in Berlin is a debris pile burying a former Nazi training facility. It is now the site of an abandoned NSA listening post turned Urban Exploration destination.

I am told there is a controversy in Berlin these days specifically, and in Germany in general about how central all of this corporate remembrance should be?  Indeed, it would be easy to miss– the line of bricks inlayed into the sidewalk and crossing the street that marks the location of the wall. Berlin today is a thriving city. Indeed it would be easy to miss that the hill we climbing to an old and abandoned NSA (National Security Administration) listening post built to monitor East Germany, was placed on a massive debris pile that intentionally buried a Nazi training facility under the remnants of the bombed out remains of the city.

But Do the Victors Remember?

It has long been said that the victors write the history. I think it could also be true that the victors tend to not be bothered with remembering. I have been to the site of Wounded Knee. It is not a likely destination in South Dakota and I suspect most Americans do not even know what the “Trail of Tears” was. We conveniently forget that there were 10 detainment camps scattered across the west during World War II were US citizens of Japanese descent were held, and it is not surprising that there are those who are opposed to the establishment of the new memorial to those who where lynched in Alabama.

It seems that in this era, when the country I live in is considering the construction of a wall, and there seems to be a general sense of the dangers of those who are racially or socially unlike us, we too might consider the past…

Old White Men

Mass Gathering at the NRG stadium in Houston Texas.

For the last few years, I’ve been coming to terms with a couple related realities. First, I am a white male pastor in what is pretty much the whitest denomination in the country. Second, I am getting old enough that I am being keenly aware that I will soon be passing on the mantle of church leadership to another generation.

As we were leaving the 2018 ELCA youth gathering in Houston and settling in for what would be an 18-hour non-stop drive to get back to Iowa, we passed a statue of an old Sam Houston along I-45. We didn’t stop. The almost 70 foot tall, whitewashed likeness of the person who the city was named was literally a concrete reminder of what I had been thinking about the past week at the gathering, and for the last couple years: what should the role of an old white man be in this church, and particularly in this denomination?

On Saturday night, the opening speaker was Stephen Bouman.  He is a man of good reputation, a former bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod. He was in his office in the city when the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center.  He was present at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath. It was a fine talk, but as he acknowledged—most of the youth present had not even been born yet…

Rebekah Brusehoff, an 11-year-old transgender girl with purple hair, followed Bouman.  The fact that an 11 year old could stand in front of a crowd of 30,000 is amazing, but that she could articulately talk about what it was like to be born a boy, but be a girl was astounding.  The theme for the event was “This Changes Everything,” I found myself thinking that while the planes crashing into the World Trade Center changed the world, hearing from an 11 year old transgender girl was changing everything. Close, but not the same. I found myself thinking that us “old white men” need to start listening more and talking less.

On Sunday morning, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached a good sermon on the difficult text of Jarius’ daughter and the women with a flow of blood. It was a good sermon following the reading of the text from the Gospel of Mark. It was a good message in the usual place and how we usually do things in church.

Then all of a sudden, Savanna Sullivan was on stage. It was a place in the service where someone normally does not deliver a message.  She introduced herself as a former Young Adult in Global Mission.  She talked about the time 3 years ago when in the summer after being assigned to a year in Rwanda, she was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder.  Her doctors suggested that she stay home.  She described a conversation with her father, where he asked if she was willing to die in Rwanda.  It was a question she could not answer. Savanna said that while she wished she could have answered yes, it was not the answer that came to her. She said she cried ugly tears that night and the answer came to her: going to Rwanda was not something she was willing to die for, it was something she was willing to live for.

In this juxtaposition, I found myself realizing that not all the “old white man” are actually men. There is an establishment of power that gives privilege to some, myself included. It is not always a power that is abused and I certainly did not think that listening to Elizabeth and Stephen. Yet,  if the Gathering showed me anything, it was that we ought not presume to speak for others; instead, we need to empower them to speak.

One of the many people I ran into at the Gathering was my dear friend AJ. I remember the conversation when she was discerning that God might not be calling to use her finance degree to sit in an office and just make money. I remember her YAGM experience. I remember marrying her and her wife Carley a couple years ago. I remember being careful not to ask the bishop’s permission. I remember not being the most forthright about her sexual orientation when she came to preach at the congregation I am currently serving. It was not really my truth to tell, it is theirs!

“This Changes Everything,” was the theme of the Gathering this year

But here is the important thing I know about AJ–I know that she will change things, and she already is! She is in the middle of a growing place in the church. I, on the other hand, am an old white man, who has been contemplating retirement.  I look too much in the past… If I am to be of value, I will have to empower what comes after.  I remember my father-in-law after he retired from ministry saying how glad he was he was not in the middle of all of the church changes that were happening at the time. I remember being a bit offended, because I was in the middle of my ministry and so in the middle of the issues. Now that I am near the end (I will not work until I am 80 like he did!), but also because I do suffer from the white, male power and privilege reality, I am in need of figuring out how to empower and how not to pronounce.  The problem is that proclamation is not all that far from pronouncement, and one can easily become the other.  This is a learning place for me…

Where the World Begins and Ends

I was having a conversation with my mother who is visiting from Montana about how worship attendance is declining pretty much across the church and how I have been thinking about what that might mean for the church. We talked about my current call and how I was seeing the same thing happening here. I talked about how I have been thinking about what it might mean to a Christian where attending worship is not as important as it once was. In this conversation I suggested that worship attendance is probably not “where the world begins and ends.” That is where her 82 years and perhaps the reality of having buried 2 husbands spoke in a clear voice. Actually, she said it sort of is “where the world begins and ends.”

It is true enough. This past Sunday, we baptized our youngest member and not long ago we buried a long time member Yes, for those of us who connect ourselves to places like this, it is where the world begins and ends… but what about the space in between?

The family I grew up in attended worship every Sunday, as did the family Kathy and I raised. While I would like to say that on account of that habit we all still attend worship regularly, it would not be true. While I would eventually go on to become a pastor, for my sister, church attendance would be driven more by the influence of her children than it would be by the imprint of her early childhood experience of regular attendance. Our own children look to be following the same path. None of them attend worship regularly. I think they all would say that Christianity is important to them but it is just that worship is not the central feature in their lives that it once was.

Perhaps my family is a projection of what is happening across the church and across Christian culture. Worship attendance is decreasing in priority. If we are honest, it has been for a long time. I find myself wondering what that might mean for faith. It seems that Christianity at least in the way increasing numbers of folks, participate in it, is becoming unsupported. For increasing numbers of folks things like worship attendance, Bible study, and acts of service have been replaced by a vague sense of “being a Christian.” What used to be a matter of community is increasingly becoming a matter of personal religious conviction. Our culture has facilitated this reality.

I grew up in the era of televangelists, where a televised preacher could allow us to experience worship from the comfort and safety of the sofa in our own living rooms. While this experience was roundly criticized by the established church, it flourished. With the advent of electronic media, you can now find an almost infinite collection of sermons on YouTube that are better than anything I might preach. Music that fits your preference and is better than anything we can produce here is just a search on Spotify away and any theological question you might have can be answered quickly with a simple Google search. But all of it is personal, delivered to your mobile phone or personal computer whenever and wherever you would like.

What seems to have become optional though is what I thought was key to Christianity. Faith is meant to be lived out in community. I am not sure what that means in a world that is increasingly busy. I understand. People are busier than ever. Even if there isn’t a direct conflict on Sunday mornings, for many it is one of few times when they might be able to find a little quiet family time to spend together.

I am asking this as an open question to which I do not yet have a satisfactory answer: What is it that binds us together as a people of faith? It once was worship. I think that is still true for some. But increasingly I find myself wondering what it is that binds us together.

The church is about baptisms and funerals, true enough, as my mother reminded me- “where the world begins and ends.” Throw in confirmations and weddings. Still, what should the space in between look like? I used to have a good idea about that. Lately I am finding myself revisiting even the most basic of these assumptions.

Words That I Need To Say

What I am about to suggest is something that might be considered heresy. At least it is not the sort of thing that a pastor might want to admit, given that we see our sermons as the Word of God, and consider the active party in much of what happens in terms of faith to be a matter of the Holy Spirit. But you see, it affects me when you are not here. This is a small enough place that I can literally see and feel your absence.

This past Sunday morning, I looked out on the congregation as I was about to read the Gospel and did the silent assessment that I have been undertaking on Sunday mornings lately. Were there enough children present for a children’s message? Given the way I approach preaching, and seeing that there were not, it is not really all that traumatic of a reality for me. I simply incorporate the children’s portion of the message back into the part intended for the adults.

Still, that you are not here is troublesome for me. I came to this parish because I was increasingly sensing a call to minister to families. I suppose that is a little odd that an almost 60 year old would see that as a ministry niche that he might be called to but it was and still is. I have sensed for some time now that we live in a time when families are increasingly becoming spiritually adrift. So much competes for your time and attention. I came here because I sensed this was a place that was not so far post-Christian, that there was still hope for some of the old structures and that there would be the time and interest in developing some new ones. I have found myself wondering about that lately.

Worship has always been the highest profile expression of a parish pastor’s ministry. It is the place where each week, the Gospel is proclaimed in the context of people who have gathered. Don’t get me wrong. People still gather. It is just that you are not usually there and it has me wondering.

My approach to worship is to make it assessable and family friendly. My sermons are short enough that even the most drowsy ought not fall asleep. I deliberately choose not to preach from the pulpit so that my sermons might be more like conversations then dissertations. I sometimes wear a robe and a stole, but often I do not. I never wear clergy shirts. All of this is done to lower the formality of the affair. I am not sure if any of this really works, but it is my wish that worship be approachable, assessable, and informal enough that it is not something that is stressful to attend.

It is true enough that worship is more or less predictable and maybe not as exciting as it could be. Sometimes my sermons miss the mark. The hymns are sometimes not well known and too slow. The contemporary service isn’t all that contemporary and it’s at 8:30 in the morning.

I come from a different reality than many of you. For the family I grew up in, and the family that Kathy and I raised, worship was the central touchstone of our Christian faith. I understand that there are plenty who question the centrality of worship in the digital era in which we live. I see busy families with all sorts of competing commitments of which worship is simply one among many.

That is a paradigm shift for me, but paradigms can and do shift. What I am not willing to do is to sit back and gently head toward retirement watching the church die for lack of asking what we can do to make it relevant in your lives. How and what should that look like? That is something that we will have to discern together.







I Didn’t Think I Would Be One Of Those Fathers…

I did not think I would be one of those fathers who would cry it his daughter’s wedding. I am not sure if this is because Kaia is the first of our children to get married, if it is because I was completely outside of my considerable wedding experience, or if it is just what happens when your child marries. I do not know. I always tell couples to be ready for the range of emotions that a wedding brings—happiness and sadness, joy and mourning. I just thought I would have been somehow immune from this reality, having officiated at more than 100 weddings in the past. I was wrong.

Perhaps some of that is explained in this wedding experience being something completely different. I never have been a part of a wedding that began with a procession lead by a couple of dancing lions and ended with a fire-breathing Sichuan face changing opera performer. Or a wedding that involved my daughter riding in a Chinese wedding sedan, jumping over fire, a 3 fold bowing ritual, a tea ceremony, a hair cutting ceremony, and a place where we threw peanuts and dates on the bride and grooms’ heads.

The traditional Chinese wedding has considerable drama.
The traditional Chinese wedding has considerable drama.

This wedding was a mixture of the playful and the serious. And while most of it I did not really understand, there were some surprising elements. Kaia and Siheng knelt and bowed, first to the god of heaven and the god of earth, then they bowed to their parents, and then they bowed to each other. That seemed oddly familiar. I do not think I have done a wedding where I did not talk about the contribution God makes, the significance of family and friends make, and the commitment made to each other in my sermon.

There has never been a Facebook post I have made that has had this many likes than the one I posted after the wedding, but here is the thing: there actually have been a relatively small number of my clergy Facebook friends who have hit the “like” button. I understand this. This is a wedding that is way outside of our religious norms—being more-or-less secular, celebrated in a communist country on the other side of the world. This is a wedding that is way outside of my cultural and religious experience as well, but for me it was given with my being Kaia’s father. I think parents always find this out that about their children. They have their own values, make their own decisions, and they follow their own paths. Cross cultural experiences get so complicated so fast that they pretty much defy your ability to make any kind of sense of them. I think that is true for the most part, but even more so if you constrain yourself to the forms and procedures with which you are familiar.

As a pastor I meet with couples and we talk about what might and might not be in their service. While I am the one who sort of “maintains” the tradition, I am pretty open to the possibilities, there are limits: I have a problem with over head wedding veils. I make sure that the bride knows that while her father might walk her down the aisle, she is not her father’s to “give away.” I pretty much refuse to present the couple as Mr. and Mrs. (insert groom’s last name), because she is not a subset of him.   Still in the end, weddings are about a shared commitment, and at least in this world, I am reminded once again that I am not the gate keeper.

The World Has Gotten A Lot Smaller

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forebear to shine,
But God, who called me here below
Will be forever mine.

The plane was descending into San Francisco. It was one of those days when the clouds were thin and patchy. This was not a destination; it was a stop along the way. The uncertainty of everything was flashing through my mind as the verse above was playing through my headphones. While I am not really a fan of Christian music, that revised last verse from the Chris Tomlin version of Amazing Grace was powerful as we entered that final descent, an experience that always makes me a little anxious. It was the end of the second flight of a three-flight day, and I already had plenty of time to reflect. It has been a challenging time for me lately–maybe it was that I was not exactly looking forward to the 23 hours of travel time, maybe it was that my youngest daughter is getting married, maybe it is the pretty obvious anxiety I have been carrying this late winter and spring.

If I am honest, China has never been on the list of places I would like to visit, and as we were chasing the sun to that place on the complete opposite side of the world, all of the propaganda about air pollution and all of my own stereotypes of what it would be like to visit the most highly populated country in the world were flooding my mind. But, when your daughter majors in Mandarin, falls in love with a Chinese guy, and moves to the People’s Republic of China, a trip like this is bound to happen. And to be honest, the sun has yet to shine at least so far and I have never been in a place with so many people in my entire life.

Still, in my mind’s eye, this is not what I expected. Growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, I was expecting something more austere and perhaps more collective, but what I see here right now looks more consumer driven even than the country in which I live, and in the end I find myself seeing more in common than I see different in this place, for better and for worse

I am finding an odd sense of connection that I was not anticipating, in a place where I am not only out of my element, but I am also unable to verbally communicate. We spent the evening with Kaia’s husband’s parents. The food, which was obviously “comfort” food to them was exotic to us (but if you know me, I like exotic when it comes to food!). We have a couple of English/Chinese speakers in our midst but direct communication has been impossible, still I have always known communication has to do with much more than what you say to one another. So I feel connected in ways that I was not really expecting.

On the other hand, my phone rings every once and a while, and though I let it go to voicemail, it always is someone back in the Midwest who has no idea that I am on the other side of the world. I electronically followed to Tripoli Jr. High track meet from Chonqing, China (I am thinking I am the only one to have done that). Dealt with a couple of work related things. And posted pictures for a wide group of friends back in the USA to see of what we did today!

In the end, the world has gotten a lot smaller and more connected, both in general and for me specifically in the last few days. Of course there is something lost in all of this, it is getting difficult on to impossible to truly get away from it all. On the other hand, connections have become global, right now and for me literally. It is not really a matter of whether this is god or bad, it just is.