Happy summer! The long days, warm breeze, and beautiful landscapes always make for an exciting time. Myself, I have taken time to relax by the lake, camp in Fort Ridgely State Park, camp in Rice Lake State Park, camp in Itasca State Park, hike in Grand Portage State Park, and hung out on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I don’t know if you can tell—Maggie and I love camping and hiking!
The summer is—for many—a time to get away from the day-to-day in which we’re trapped during the rest of the year. When we are caved in because of the winter blizzards and walls of ice, and when school and holidays are in full session, it’s a lot more difficult to get away, so we tend to cram all of our vacation time into the summers. This is a season of reflecting but also going-going-going. However your summer has unfolded, I hope you’ve been able to find the rest and growth for which you’ve been yearning.
As I reflect on my own vacation experience this year, and how it fits into a world completely preoccupied with Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, I wonder about the privilege I exercise in going on vacation. The battles against the virus and racism are exhausting, as many of you know, and these fights take sacrifices of not only emotional energy but also physical and spiritual energies. They’re all-consuming, and nothing sounds more attractive than putting these battles aside for a couple weeks of vacation.
I’m not here to say that alone time or time away is a bad thing—but these battles are too pervasive to truly leave behind. We can’t leave racism behind when we travel to our favorite spots—and we know that we can’t leave our masks in the car when we visit our favorite towns. Taking vacation is not about ignoring these issues or pretending they don’t exist. If anything, the fights against Covid and racism come into even starker contrast on vacation.
Maggie and I spent a couple of days in one of our favorite towns: Grand Marais, MN is about an hour and a half northeast of Duluth on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Growing up, my family would visit this tiny town at least once a year and complete our northern excursions with hiking and camping. Grand Marais has lots of awesome boutiques—I remember buying my first ever folding knife up three at the Trading Post—and amazing food. The donut shop is called The World’s Best Donuts, and the 6:30am fresh, plain cake donuts truly live up to the name. You may have seen yellow Sven and Olie’s Pizza stickers on many car bumpers, too. This town represents, for me at least, a peaceful retreat, a place of rest and rejuvenation, and an escape from the stresses of “real life.”
This year, when we visited, I was confronted by the fact that “real life” doesn’t disappear just because I want it to. Cook county, at the time we visited, had had only one confirmed case of Covid-19. Tourists threaten all the good work the locals have been doing in this fight against the virus—all businesses required masks and social distancing. Not only this, but there are weekly Black Lives Matter demonstrations: locals stand along the main drag from 5-6pm every Friday.
I was completely surprised, but pleasantly so, to be reminded that the fight against racism extends everywhere. As tourists motor in on Friday afternoons, they’re greeted by shouts of “Justice for George Floyd” and “Black Lives Matter” and “I CAN’T BREATHE!” It sounds cliche to say, but racism doesn’t take vacation.
If you find yourself on vacation this summer, please realize that you can’t leave your baptism back home—even on vacation, you are called to care for the people around you and called to fight against every system that keeps us from loving each other and God. We can’t shout “Justice for George Floyd” one week and in the next week say, “ Ugh, I just need a break from this.” Our siblings of color have been battling this reality for hundreds of years without an opportunity to take a break. There are no breaks for God’s people.
Justice is our purpose and liberation is our lot. Our vacations can still be exciting and offer opportunities for respite—we can still find rest and rejuvenation when we remove ourselves from the regular stresses of school and work. But, vacation is not an excuse to abuse the privileges we hold to ignore the plights of others. I know it’s an exhausting, never-ending fight against this world’s brokenness—but this is the fight we claimed as our own when the waters of baptism dried on our skin. This is the fight we have struggled against our whole lives and that will claim us until our body decays.
Please, enjoy the summer season—the wonder of God’s creation comes to light in amazing ways in this time. As you consider the wonder of God’s work and make use of the longer days, I pray you also consider your place in that composition. Where do you fit in with God’s creative output? What part do you want to play—what part have you been called to play? Vacation can provide an opportunity to clarify God’s and your answers to these questions. Just like I was reminded by the locals in Grand Marais, I hope you too encounter reminders daily of the justice we are called to realize.
On June 10, I celebrated five years of ordained ministry—pretty cool, huh? I can’t believe that I’ve been administering the Sacraments for five whole years already! When I think about how many hands have glanced against mine when I distribute Christ’s body, or the foreheads I’ve bathed in baptismal waters, I get shivers. I can remember, more clearly than any other aspect of my ministry, the moments when children articulate ultimately and clearly that “God loves everybody!” I laugh when I think about the honesty and curiosity middle school students bring to the table in Confirmation, and I become overwhelmed when I think about the selflessness and compassion that high school students bring to ministry. My heart warms when I think about the hospitality that adult members extend to new pastors, like me.
But, for all of these pleasant memories of my first five years of ordained ministry, there are equally challenging and heart-wrenching memories to balance them. In grief and death, I have walked with God’s children in the most difficult parts of their lives. People have welcomed me into the most delicate and vulnerable places of their lived-experiences—I hold these invitations in my heart and call them holy. It is a difficult privilege to walk with God’s children in this way.
In our current reality, even in the face of the Covid pandemic, the most visible pain for me is the racial injustices that persist, seemingly unimpeded. Exactly one week after my ordination service in 2015—wherein I promised to diligently study God’s scriptures, administer the Sacraments without prejudice, be generous with God’s grace, and work for justice and peace—a fellow ELCA member walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and killed nine children of God. Exactly one week into my ordained ministry, I was horrifically reminded of the mountains of racism that close us off from God’s vision for our world.
This is a failure I share with my colleagues and peers, but also I share this with my fellow Christian worshippers in ELCA and outside the ELCA. What has changed in these five years of my ordained ministry? Sometimes, I’m not sure my ministry has made any difference at all.
Of course, I know in my brain [and at least sometimes in my heart] that God refuses to leave us alone, that I have been privy to some momentous events of the Holy Spirit. Of course, God has accompanied us in serving others and comforting other. Of course God smiles with me when I place the Holy Meal in the hands of children. Of course, ministry has indeed happened.
But, at the same time, people of Trinity, people of the Lutheran Church of Mahomet (my previous call), people of the SWMN Synod of the ELCA, people of the ELCA, Christians everywhere: we have failed in our call to be God’s hands and feet. Racial injustice and violence separates us from God and God’s children. We must be better. We cannot claim to be Christ’s presence on earth if we do not weep at the sin of racism and rage against the machines that keep it going. Do not let it be lost on you that I was surrounded by white clergy only at my ordination.
It is my hope and prayer that, in five years when I celebrate 10 years of ordination, I can look back at my time in ministry with joy and celebration, that I have served a church that is working to dismantle racism. I know that 10 years is a pittance when compared to the centuries of violence against communities of color, and I weep when I consider how petty my feelings of failure are compared to the grief and fear that my failure inflicts on siblings of color.
I speak especially to the predominantly white ranks of the ELCA: if you, too, look back on your ministry (lay or ordained), if you too look back on your professional and personal lives and see the stagnant persistence of racism, then I ask you to commit yourself to this difficult work with me. Together with God’s call to justice and peace, we can pivot the world away from racism and towards wholeness.
What i'm doing to be better
I know that a lot of well-intending white folks, like me, do just as much harm or more by going with the flow and responding in ways that might feel uncomfortable but are altogether safe and protected in our privilege. If you're at a loss for how to confront your own biases, blindspots, and privilege, there are LOTS of wonderful resources out there. I myself have only become aware of and have only recently made use of some of these.
The last path I'll mention--though it by no means completes the list--is that of advocacy. When was the last time you voted in full awareness of your white privilege? When was the last time you learned about how current legislations perpetuate racist systems? When was the last time you called your representative to talk about race and justice? These are all things you can do from the comfort of your own home (which is somewhere we find ourselves stuck in more often than not nowadays). "Countable" is a great app if you're new to this arena. Another great resource is the ELCA--that's right, your very own denomination! We have advocacy offices all across the United States that keep an eye on everything legislative from immigration reform to racial justice, from voter rights to caring for creation. You can find more information about subscribing to these emails by clicking here. ISAIAH is an inter-faith, inter-political group in Minnesota that does amazing work here, too. Click on their logo for more information.
In the midst of the COVID crisis, I feel disconnected from the worshipping community I’m called to serve—we can’t chat over donuts in the Fellowship Hall; we can’t share quickly in the entry space before worship; I can’t look into your eyes and ask you questions during the sermon; I can’t field questions in Confirmation classes; I can’t enjoy the curiosity of our children; I can’t access the adult forum for our shared learning and discussion; I can’t stay late after committee meetings to hear about your pain and hurts.
For all these reasons, and more, I feel disconnected from the people of Trinity Lutheran Church in Saint Peter. As things keep happening in our country and in our world, people have been wondering about what their spiritual leaders have to say in response. When President Trump mandated (without the power to do so) the opening of worshipping communities, people have wondered why we remain virtual in our gatherings. When George Floyd was murdered by the police officers in Minneapolis (yes, I’m including those standing watch), we wondered how to respond to this injustice and call for an end to violence against black and brown bodies. I think Trinity needs a place where they can find their pastors’ perspectives easily and most importantly quickly after events like these unfold.
I'm hardly ever on Facebook or Instagram. But, I have recognized my privilege in being able to turn off my social media, or the news, or the notifications which pull me into the pain of George Floyd's murder and evidence of racial injustice all around us. My privilege has permitted me to remain distant from social media, and I've used "I'm not normally there" as an excuse to refrain from posting. I've discovered the sin in that silence. I am a white, male, young, heterosexual, cisgender, highly educated, middle-class citizen of the United States of America. These are my sources of privilege. This the perspective from which I write and the perspective that lulls me into complacency and inaction.
I don’t think that saying “Floyd” once or twice in a prayer or sermon is enough of a response from Trinity Lutheran Church, or from any who claim to represent the body of Christ in this world. This means, too, that God is calling us to more than a few posts on Facebook and a few mentions in our personal prayers, too. So, here’s a blog spot, where I can release statements and thoughts in a timely manner. (Let me be clear about this, too: blog posts will not be enough of a response either!)
Words on social media are not enough from white people--but that cannot be my excuse for staying silent on social media; prayers are meaningless without a committed body to embody those prayers--but that cannot be my excuse for keeping my words from God; marching can deteriorate into nothing more than a photo op--but that cannot be my excuse for staying home; navigating political realities can be messy and confusing--but this cannot be my excuse for ignoring my vote's power.
This should be self-evident and shouldn't need further commentary than the video footage of George Floyd's murder, but I nonetheless feel a need to express clearly:
Yesterday, I walked with a hundreds of clergy from across the state to lament George Floyd’s murder and to cry out for justice. Our march was a silent one, led by clergy of color to symbolize the white clergy’s commitment to value and uphold black and brown bodies as sacred in God’s sight. Though we walked in the quiet, with just the crunch of our shoes to fill the street, our protest was deafening in its prayers. As each religious leader marched, representing a diverse range of spiritual traditions and understandings, we focused our minds and hearts on our prayers. We spilt our voices to our various understandings of God with our complete selves: with our minds, with our senses, with our hearts, with our traditions, with our communal and individual spaces, with the worshipping communities we have at home.
Because we weren’t limited to one faith tradition, each of us prayed in different ways and in different words. When my feet started moving, a prayer came to my mind, which I would like to share with you. But first, let’s read this passage from Mark:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” The word “drove” could actually be translated “exorcised,” as it’s the same Greek word used in the exorcism stories later on. Does that change your perspective on Jesus’ baptism? How about your own baptism? “And the Spirit immediately [exorcised] him out into the wilderness.”
Jesus’ baptism—and, I’d argue everyone’s baptism—does not only wrap him in God's comforting arms; it also thrusts Jesus out of comfort. His baptism pushes Jesus—against his wishes?—into a lonely place of vulnerability, sacrifice, and struggle against evil. He has no choice in this; vulnerability, sacrifice, and struggling against evil are the basic missions bestowed on God's baptized.
So, as I walked the streets of Minneapolis yesterday, surrounded by colleagues from many traditions and alone in my thoughts, my prayer was born of this passage. I am grateful for this word “exorcised” and for Jesus’ baptism, which has become my own. Here is my prayer from yesterday’s march—feel free to use it if you find it helpful (there is an audio recording of my prayer below):
Introduction to the book of revelation
The 9th Grade Confirmation students and I would like to share some info with you about the Book of Revelation, which is maybe a culturally prominent book of the Bible which we rarely address directly in church. But, for this Easter season (2019), we will be hearing a lot from this last book of the Bible on Sunday mornings. Each worship service will include a reading from this book, which gives us a perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about it.
The 9th Graders and I are excited to share with you what we have found in this book and to share in these readings on Sunday mornings this year during Easter. We learned together that the Book of Revelation belongs to a genre of scripture called "Apocalyptic Literature." This genre uses symbols and metaphors to communicate truth. Prophecy is often misunderstood as prediction or foretelling; but in the Bible, prophecy simply refers to speaking truth. So, apocalyptic literature is a sort of prophecy in the biblical sense: that is to say, the author uses imagery, symbols, and metaphors to talk about things affecting Christ-followers at the time of the writing. As we move through this Easter season, see if you can listen for some of the symbols present in the Revelation. In this blog post, we'll give you a head start and point out the symbols that stood out to us.
SUNDAY APRIL 28 (2019)
The symbols which stand out to us in this text are the "seven churches," the "clouds," and the "throne." The number 7 is a symbolic number throughout the Old and New Testaments. The most obvious reference to the number seven might be in Genesis 1 where God created the world in seven days. And, elsewhere in the early parts of Revelation, the author names these provinces and places where the churches operate. At one time, the author is joining the symbolic nature of apocalyptic literature with real-time worshipping communities, bridging the gap between abstract symbolism and actual Christ-followers.
The words "clouds" and "throne" really set the stage for the whole book. Through the author's imagery, we get to see things and people in the clouds, we get to see a lamb on the throne. The whole book is about seeing God at work. When prompted to reflect on this text, a couple 9th graders shared how they see God at work in their lives:
SUNDAY MAY 5 (2019)
The "throne" stands out again in this text, but we've also the Four Creatures and the Lamb. Here, we get a glimpse of the Book of Revelation's main message: God's power looks very different than how we understand power on earth. If we asked you to think of a powerful king or queen, you might imagine a leader clad in armor, sword in hand, quietly confident after a recent conquest. This is not what God's power looks like. Instead, sitting on this throne is a cute, cuddly lamb, affectionately dubbed "Lamby." This is the most vulnerable, cuddly, non-threatening creature you can imagine. Our students write, "God's power focuses
Just as the Israelite people had gone through an ordeal, so too does out contemporary world suffer. Our students listed "war, poverty, mental illness, cancer, and shootings" among some of the most prominent sufferings in our time. The Book of Revelation gives us a glimpse of the joy which comes with liberation from these ordeals, and we had to wonder ourselves what such a world would feel like. Here's what some of our students had to say: "Our world would be peaceful and better because there is no hate or sickness. The world would be a safer and happier place."
SUNDAY MAY 19 (2019)
We're skipping now to the latter part of the Revelation. Lamby and its throne have been victorious and we're getting a whole new set of symbols to play with: "a bride beautifully dressed for her husband" and "the old order of things has passed away." Everything is made new, here. The bride represents both Jerusalem the city and its people. Jerusalem and the Israelite people have both been beaten down, and both have deviated from God's path; but now, both have been reclaimed and reoriented. As our students say, this text "helps reassure us that God is always there for us and that he will protect us from the evil in the world." No matter how bad the world gets, or how justice might seem far away, God has envisioned a new world for us.
SUNDAY MAY 26 (2019)
Our symbols and metaphors are getting more exciting and more intricate. The ones that stand out to our students include "he carried me away in the spirit to a mountain" and "his name will be on their foreheads." The first one they take to mean that "God will lead you in the right path." God is indeed carrying us, pulling us into this new future. The mountain has long been a symbol for closeness with God. It was on the mountain that Moses spoke with God. God is carrying us forward into a Godly future.
The second metaphor about names and foreheads was taken to mean "God being with you, as literal, as his name being written on your forehead." In Baptism, we have been joined to God not only in name but also in life and death. As members of God's family, we are invited to know God as God already knows us.
SUNDAY JUNE 2 (2019)
Our final installment in the Book of Revelation paints a beautiful picture of God's new kingdom. In this text, we hear about God's power as the beginning and end, as Alpha and Omega; hear feel clean and proper with talk of robes; we look forward to eternal life as we gaze upon the Tree of Life. There are so many symbols and metaphors present in this passage, but they all illustrate the inclusiveness and wholeness of God's ordered world. Our world is full of demarkations, which tell us that some people are better than others, that some people are welcome when others are not--but, in this Book of Revelation, we know that ALL ARE WELCOME. And, this is our challenge today, to make Trinity welcoming to all of God's creation.
We already do great things in our attempt to be hospitable. These were highlighted by our 9th graders:
We also acknowledged that we've ways we could grow in welcoming people:
The Book of Revelation illustrates for us the beauty inherent in diversity and the joy that comes with radical inclusion. We are called to build this kingdom together and to be as welcoming and exciting a community as in this text.