Friday, April 13, 2018

When We Live in the Midst of History, What Are We Called to Do?


When we live in the midst of history, between the times, we question, doubt and are confused. We live between Easter and Ascension Day, this year April 1 and May 10. We know what happened on Pentecost and after, but the disciples did not. All they knew was that after his suffering, Jesus presented himself alive to his disciples, appearing to them during forty days, telling them not to leave Jerusalem and to wait (Acts 1).

This year we live between the 50th anniversaries of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, April 4, and June 6, 1968. Looking back, we realize that year was full of turmoil and uncertainty. On March 31 Lyndon B. Johnson, embroiled in the Viet Nam War, announced, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
On April 3, King delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech and made plans for a march to be held on April 5. But the evening of April 4 at age 39 he was shot.
During Holy Week 1968 the nation was swept up in grief and anger, named riots. Around 3,500 people were injured, 43 were killed and 27,000 arrested. Would this nation, as violently divided as it had been since the Civil War, survive? We did not know.
Just weeks earlier, the Kerner commission established to investigate the 1967 riots, provided explanations for the deadly upheavals. “Segregation and poverty have created a destructive environment.” “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” After a summer of turmoil, political uncertainty and violence, Richard Nixon was elected president in November.
I heard a young reporter ask last week, “Were the riots worth it?” That’s not the question.  Any more than “Is the fatigue of the daily news stories unfolding today worth it?” or “Was the disciples’ uncertainty during those 40 days called for?” When you are in the midst of history unfolding, you don’t know what to think or do or feel. Riots were not the plan to be deemed later “worth it” or not. They were the context.
The Fall of 1973 was another such time. I remember it well. October 20 became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Attorney General Richardson and Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus resigned in the same night after refusing Nixon’s order to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor appointed to lead the investigation into Nixon’s reelection campaign. News media that night worried on-air about our national Constitutional crisis.
After two years of bitter public debate over the Watergate scandals, President Nixon on August 8, 1974, bowed to pressures from the public and leaders of his party to become the first President in American history to resign. While the President acknowledged that some of his judgments "were wrong," he made no confession of the "high crimes and misdemeanors" with which the House Judiciary Committee charged him.

How do we live in the in-between time, when history is being made?

We live, meanwhile, with the complexities of our daily lives, personal, professional, familial, and ecclesial.

During the uncertainties of the national Constitutional crisis: “How will this turn out?” a Lutheran Church Body, the schism in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod unfolded. The New Orleans convention was in the summer of 1973. On Jan 21, 1974, the students of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis voted 274-92 to “walk out” (until the church body declared which of their professors were being considered false teachers). Then followed the faculty walk out and the beginning of the “Seminary in Exile.”

Lives were changed. Lives are changed. History is changed. How? How do we know? That schism may have contributed eventually to the formation of the ELCA, joining together of the LCA, ALC, and AELC (outcasts of LCMS) in 1988.

What if Johnson had decided to run again? What if King had not been assassinated at age 39? What if Robert Kennedy had been able to win the democratic nomination and Nixon had not won the election in 1968?

What if the disciples had not waited together in Jerusalem, but had scattered?

How do we live in the in-between time, when history is being made?

I, too, have a hard time watching/listening to the news each day. And, to which news stream do I turn? There were fewer channels in 1968; all showed the same pictures of over 100 cities burning.

The disciples were called to wait together in the city of Jerusalem.

Today IS a difficult time, a dangerous time. Investigations, special counsels, constitutional issues, questions: “What is truth?” Indictments, firings, resignations, primaries, mid-term elections, campaign financing. How will this all turn out?  Trade wars or not? Diplomacy or not? Nuclear escalation or not? Bravado. Fear. Can’t we just turn the page of history and find out?

But we are called to live in the midst of history. To wait, yes.  But also, to watch, and to be peace-making, community-building, equality-seeking, truth-telling, witness-bearing, radical Christ-is-alive living disciples. Pentecost is May 20.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Holy Week to be Freed from Our Foolish Gun-Killing Ways


2018 Ash Wednesday to Palm Sunday Procession into Jerusalem coincides with a Valentine’s Day Mass Shooting to yesterday’s March into Washington, D.C.  This year’s Lenten journey of repentance led surprisingly, but surely not unexpectedly, to a “March for Our Lives.”
         This afternoon is the funeral service for my beloved colleague and friend of almost four decades, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Quere, Professor Emeritus of Church History and Theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary. Among his many gifts, Ralph devoted special attention to ministries with youth and to the work of evangelism for the contemporary world.
          This weekend Burton and I are caring for two youth of our own, 11 and 13-year old Jackson and Jennaya Everist, with whom, in our Mason City blizzard, we watched the marches on TV (more than 800 around the world). Jackson and Jennaya processed with Palms in church this morning. The connection was not lost on them. Jennaya prayed at lunch for the marchers and that the voices raised by youth against gun violence might be heard by legislators.
         Ralph Quere, as an historian and teacher of Lutheran Confessions, was never surprised by the human condition of cruelty and violence. And he was always a man of deep faith and great hope. His passion for youth blends with my absolute joy in hearing the voices of youth yesterday. The newscasters who covered the story all day Saturday, for the most part, dropped adult commentary, and let the youth talk. It was good news indeed. Amid excruciating suffering, with clarity and perseverance, the youth spoke. The youth organizers engaged social media—yes—and involved intersectionality. Youth of all colors and economic backgrounds are killed in schools, and on the streets outside of school, and at home. The Lutheran Confessions remind us there are not bad guys with guns and good guys who should buy guns to shoot the bad guys with guns. There are not bad neighborhoods and good neighborhoods. We need to be liberated from a killing culture.
        On this Palm Sunday, with a Lent which began with an Ash Wednesday on a deathly Valentine’s Day, we are bid to ponder deeply, and be ready to be awakened from our foolish ways on April 1st. Easter! Resurrection. Christ is alive.  Ralph Quere lives eternally. We are called to live and to serve and to act and to march for our lives—everyone’s life.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

March for Our Lives

NOW! I'm a member of the Silent Generation proud to stand with the students of this generation and the "March for Our Lives" to end gun violence happening right now in Washington D.C., 800 places around the U.S. and the world. It's so important to unite the movement to change the gun culture in order to make schools safe AND the streets, and homes and all communities. We're in this for real change. Now.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

"We Know you are a Great Country and that You Can Change"


Last week I had the privilege of speaking (via Zoom) with a class on leadership at the Presbyterian College, University of McGill School of Religious Studies in Montreal, Quebec.  At the end of our engaging conversation on the book, Transforming Leadership (Everist and Nessan) which the students in Montreal had been using as a textbook, I mentioned the Parkland school shooting and how much we could learn from Canada in terms of gun violence. In poignant words they responded with care but also with concern. “We know you are a great country and that you can change.”

Likewise, the Australian delegation, including the prime minister, visiting the United States this week, also noted their care and concern for the United States. They noted how after the horrendous Port Arthur massacre in 1996 that country adopted sweeping reforms to that country’s gun laws.

After a massacre at Dunblane Primary School, Scotland, in 1996, there have been no school shootings in the UK. Gun restrictions now are much, more strict. Children feel safe in school.
Today Dick’s Sporting Goods, one of America’s largest sporting goods retailers, is immediately ending its sales of assault-style weapons and high capacity magazines. They will also require customers buying firearms to be at least 21 years old.  Many businesses are ending their relationships with the NRA. People can make change happen.
This is a great nation, but not one without flaws. To admit that amidst our prominence we have things to learn from other countries may be our most hopeful promise. Those who may admire us also see our glaring, deadly, problems. We can change! They see this. I was humbled by those words from the class in Montreal.
And we hear that from the students in Parkland, Florida. Do you notice they do not refer to their school as just “Douglas High?” That made me wonder just who was this woman after whom the school was named
 Marjory Stoneman Douglas (April 7, 1890 – May 14, 1998) was an American journalist, author, women's suffrage and civil rights advocate, and conservationist known for her staunch defense of the Everglades against efforts to drain it and reclaim land for development. She became a freelance writer, publishing over a hundred short stories. Her most influential work was the book The Everglades: River of Grass(1947), which redefined the Everglades as a treasured river instead of a worthless swamp. Its impact has been compared to that of Rachel Carson's influential book Silent Spring (1962).
Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived to 108 and received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Perhaps the students returning today to the high school named in her honor have received some of her eloquence, persistence, and outspoken political advocacy for the public good.  We can learn. We can change.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Did You See the Woman with Ashes Mourning the 17 Dead?


Did you see her? The woman in Parkland, FL, her forehead marked in ashes with the sign of the cross, in tears holding another woman in agony over the deathly shooting of 17? It was Ash Wednesday. We had wondered about Ash Wednesday falling on Valentines’ Day. Now hearts were broken. We questioned why a nation could endure 18 school shootings already in 2018 and not repent, turn from its gun violent ways.

The day after, one can discern clearly the congressional/presidential messages from people that call for prayers but omit any call for regulation on guns being the same people who have received millions from the NRA. “Now is not the time” will no longer suffice. We have entered Lent. For real.
Have you been watching the Olympics? I have. All those nations participating in the opening ceremonies. Together. The United States had the largest delegation, but even the smallest nation mattered. Their athletes were honored. Peaceful coexistence envisioned, as both Koreas carried their one banner and the torch together. Of course, the world questioned if this was for real. Could it become the norm?

In the United States we are now asking if all the school shootings since Columbine have become the norm. We know how to do the liturgies of lament: the flowers and teddy bears, the candlelight vigils. We cry together and support one another. We pledge we will turn from our violent ways. Good, determined people put forth legislation, organize, but progress is blocked, and we grow hopeless of winning against powerful forces.  People resign themselves to saying that “Some young people are just evil.” There will be more school shootings. Nothing can be done.

Have you been hearing? A phrase by U.S. Olympic news reporters this year? “Redemption.” Oh, not Lent to Easter Sunday Redemption of Jesus Christ, marked on the woman’s forehead with the ashen cross.  It has seemed to do with slipping away from viewing all athletes coming into the stadium to focusing only on U.S. athletes who win or should win gold. Yes, there are some heart-warming stories of those who lost or couldn’t compete four years ago who won this year. “Olympic Redemption!” It’s an old American story: those who, by their own boot straps, worked their way to the top of the podium.

And then there is the image of the woman with the ashen cross on her forehead in anguish over the 17 dead, 14 wounded in the 3000 student-body school in mourning. Why, literally on earth, are we the nation, who has thought of ourselves as the “Redeemer” to the world, the only country with so many guns and so many school shootings? Valentine’s Day is past. Lent has really begun. May we wear that cross of ashes in public all these forty days, while holding each other in anguish and while daring to summon Olympian courage together to change this nation for real.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Challenge of Living in an Adversarial Culture

People want to know how to live in this argumentative, adversarial time when the goal seems to be only to win rather than to jointly seek the truth. 

For the past two weeks I led Wednesday Night Alive sessions at Trinity Lutheran Church here in Mason City (IA) based on my book, Church Conflict:from Contention to Collaboration (Abingdon). The conversation among these adults was amazing! Engaging, deep, astute, attuned not only to conflict in the church, but in the culture. 

We dealt with (book chapters)
THE NATURE OF CONFLICT
1. Images of Conflict

2. Types 
3. Patterns of conflict
4. Personal History of Conflict
5. Roles in Conflict
RESPONSES TO CONFLICT (There is a negative and positive side to each)
6. Avoidance
7. Confrontation
8. Competition
9. Control
10. Accommodation
11. Compromise
12. Collaboration

The challenges change over time, but call forth our most skilled leadership now more than ever.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Even the Smallest Children Lead the Liturgy


Silently the children entered the sanctuary. First came the pre-school children, then grade by grade through 8th, over 200, all sizes and tones of colors, came for Friday morning mass at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church.  A sixth-grade boy announced the service was beginning. His class would lead today. The entire parish school takes turns leading week by week, including the kindergarten. This was the people’s mass and all were totally engaged. It was a full hour-long service with children leading every part, except for the presiding/preaching priest.

The reverent silence quickly turned to the beautiful sound of children’s voices filling the sanctuary: opening hymn, confession, Kyrie, Gloria, lessons, sung Psalm verses.  The music of the liturgy was central. There was singing and signing, all by heart, coming from the heart.

Numerous sixth grade children had carefully prepared their leadership roles of reading lessons, composing prayers, providing the choir for the day, (I understand when younger children lead, reading may be a bit slower, but lead they do!) In communal worship, all take their part. No one is mere audience.

The Liturgy is the work of the people. This reverence was not duty but the rhythm of joy. When it came time for the Eucharist, all knelt, the eyes of the youngest barely peering over the top of the pew in front of them. And then they came forward, many crossing their arms for a blessing, older children to receive the bread, and older still for bread and wine.  But all were part of this most holy communion.  And this most holy community.  

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Issue is More Than Obscenities

Today is the 8th anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. Today the world is enraged that the president of the United States yesterday asked why we should accept more immigrants from s----hole countries of El Salvador, Haiti and Africa rather than from places like Norway. Monday is Martin Luther King Day. What will you be doing that day?

We have known of Trump’s racist outlook from his many previous words and actions. But it is not enough to say someone is racist. This lens of viewing some of God’s created, beloved people as inferior and of no worth has consequences. It creates policy in the United States and globally for years to come.

Words matter. Relationships matter. Consider how many Africans arrived in the U.S. during the Atlantic slave trade. (Does Trump not know Nigerians don’t live in huts?) Consider the hundreds of thousands who died in the Haiti earthquake, and the spirit of the people of Haiti, (See the book, A Witness: The Haiti Earthquake, a Song, Death, and Resurrection by Renee Splichal Larson, whose young husband, Ben, was killed in the earthquake) And did you know that Haiti helped us in the U.S. Revolutionary War?

The Jan 15th issue of “The New Yorker” magazine cover artwork features Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “taking a knee” in prayer, arms linked with NFL football players. What will you be doing and saying MLK day? Where will you be?


To be focused only on the obscenities of Donald Trump is not enough. We are called to be vigilant of the policies (those in the news and not) being put in place. We are called to deeply understand the issues and their intersection. We are called to be astute to global implications. We are called to care. Yes, about people’s fears, so they can be freed from their deep prejudices.  We are called to care for those who have suffered and suffer still. And we are called to have the courage to speak, lest disdain and dismissal of nations and peoples become the norm in speech and policy. Do we have the kindness and courage and wisdom for that? What will you say today?  What will you be doing on Martin Luther King Day?

Friday, January 5, 2018

Different Times for film "Unrest"

My previous blog told about the film "Unrest" to be broadcast" Monday January 8.  I just discovered that in some places it is being broadcast at a variety of times during the week of January 8-14, so please CHECK YOUR LOCAL PBS LISTING including the PBS WORLD channel. 

In Iowa it will be broadcast Wed, Jan 10 at 7:30 on World

Thursday, January 4, 2018

When is Resting Never Enough?

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SoSome of you know that I live with a disability, the mysterious, debilitating chronic disease, ME/CFS, myalgic encephalomyelitis.  I have lived with this disease for 35 years. I have a disease; I am not my disease.  Its cause is still unknown. No cure is available. And it is terribly misunderstood. 
I urge you to watch a film called "Unrest" which premieres on Independent Lens  on PBS Monday night, January 8, 10 p.m. EST, 9 p.m. CST (check your local listings.) Here is the description:
(San Francisco, CA) — Filmmaker Jennifer Brea was a Harvard PhD student soon to be engaged when she was struck down by a mysterious fever that left her bedridden. As her illness progressed she lost even the ability to sit in a wheelchair, yet her doctors insisted it was "all in her head." Unable to convey the seriousness and depth of her symptoms to her doctor, Jennifer began a video diary on her phone that eventually became the powerful and intimate documentary, Unrest. Written, directed, and produced by Brea, Unrest premieres on Independent Lens Monday, January 8, 2018, 9:00 to 10:30 CST on PBS.
Once Jennifer was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), she and her new husband, Omar, were left to grapple with how to shape a future together in the face of a lifelong illness. Refusing to accept the limitations of life in bed, Jennifer embarks on an online voyage around the world where she finds a hidden community of millions who have disappeared from their own lives, confined to their homes and bedrooms by ME. Using the internet, Skype, and Facebook, these disparate people connect with each other, finding a much-needed sanctuary of support and understanding.

At its core, Unrest is a love story. Though Jennifer and Omar may never live the life they originally dreamed about, together they find resilience, strength, and meaning in each other and their new-found community. Says Brea: “It’s my hope that in sharing this world and these people I have come to profoundly love, that we can build a movement to transform the lives of patients with ME, accelerate the search for a cure, and bring a greater level of compassion, awareness, and empathy to millions upon millions of patients and their loved ones wrestling with chronic illness or invisible disabilities.”

“As experts struggle to figure out what causes chronic fatigue syndrome, Jennifer’s film opens a window into what it’s like to live with this devastating illness,” said Lois Vossen, Executive Producer of Independent Lens. “This brave and fearless film introduces us to this community of millions of ‘missing’ people who have lost all normal functions to ME, and is a powerful demand that more be done to understand and cure a terrible disease.”

Unrest made its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and has been independently distributed with the support of Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Fellowship. Visit the Unrest page on Independent Lens for more information about the film, which will be available for online viewing on the site beginning January 9.

About the Filmmaker
Jennifer Brea (Director/Writer/Producer) is an independent documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She has an AB from Princeton University and was a PhD student at Harvard until a sudden illness left her bedridden. In the aftermath, she rediscovered her first love, film. Her feature documentary, Unrest, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won a Special Jury Prize. She is also co-creator of Unrest VR, winner of the Sheffield Doc/Fest Alternate Realities Award. An activist for invisible disabilities and chronic illness, she co-founded a global advocacy network, #MEAction, and is a TED Talker.
About Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME)

 A condition characterized by post-exertional malaise (a severe worsening of symptoms after even minimal exertion), ME causes dysregulation of both the immune system and the nervous system. The effects are devastating enough to leave 25% of patients homebound or bedbound. An estimated 15-30 million people around the world suffer from ME, approximately 75-85% of them women, and 80-90% of them undiagnosed.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Are Gifts of Poor People and Congregations Important to the Church?

As a child, my mother moved my sister and me to Mason City from Des Moines after our father died suddenly of a heart attack. We were suddenly poor. A local Lutheran Church reached out to us, inviting us to worship services, Sunday School, and catechism classes. Members gave us rides to church and often invited us to Sunday dinner. At fall stewardship time, members were asked to bring food to share with the needy in the community. Mother gave my sister and me each a can of soup to take to the church’s offering. At Thanksgiving, I was surprised when our family also received a food basket from the church. I learned at that young age that in the Christian community it is not that some are the givers and others the receivers, but that all have something to offer, and, together, we all are receivers of God’s generosity. Together we are called to reach out to the community to those in need.
          In recent years, my husband and I helped support an inner-city congregation. Courageously and generously that small congregations for years had been serving its neighborhood.  Most of its members were young, in fact, youth!  (Many congregations would give anything to have that percentage of young people!) The youth had been taught to give and all gave almost ten percent of what they had. They were sharing God’s healing love. With the love and nurture of the congregation, many of the young people, were successful in school and beyond. But still, it was clear that this small, lower socio-economic mission congregation would never become totally self-sustaining.  It was closed last year.
          The story of the church is one of community. We are called to share God’s healing love in Christ’s reconciliation through personal and communal servanthood. We are called to mission through the generations. All are in need.  And the neediest have gifts. Not one of us as individuals or as congregations is totally self-sustaining. By the Spirit in the name of the Resurrected Christ we have been called to have all things in common and to use everyone’s gifts. How can we courageously and generously be the body of Christ as servants in the world?
          The essence of the early church, upon which all generations of the church since have been built by the Spirit, was hearing the Word taught and preached, baptism, the breaking of bread, prayers, and generous hearts for caring for each other. And the church grew. The history of the Church is not of individuals but of community. Together God gives us generous hearts to build up the body of Christ.

        “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Vocation: Why Deliver Mail When All the Homes Have Burned to Ashes?

        Images of tragedy quickly pass through the news cycle, but one image of houses totally incinerated in Santa Rosa, California, remains in my head. We viewed on television the city before and after: homes were totally burned to ashes. All was still. Nothing left. But in one screen image I saw something moving. A U.S. postal truck was driving alone slowly up the street. Why was it going up those streets? It seemed to be making its daily rounds. But there no homes to which to deliver mail. Incredible.  And then more incredible still, I saw the truck stop at a metal mailbox that remained. The carrier put some mail in that box. That was the driver’s job.  Or, in Martin Luther’s terms, that was the carrier’s station, role: to deliver mail.
        How ironic! How horribly ironic. What might that mail carrier have been feeling? How could one even tell which plot of ashes was which? What was the mail carrier’s vocation that day? What was the call to ministry?  Sometimes it is very difficult to discern, particularly in the midst of tragic circumstance.  Some people were incinerated in that ash. But others would be coming back and might need their mail: a pay check, a letter from an insurance company. The U.S. mail service would make other provisions, of course. Many addresses and mailboxes no longer existed. What about the mail carrier’s own house?
        After the tragedies of hurricanes, floods, and fires, Christ lives. As Luther wrote: God’s call lifts us out of our everyday duties but does not take us away from them. Rather, more deeply into them. Through the cross and resurrection, our work becomes calling. In the most tragic, even ironic situations, we need each other to discern our vocations. Christ lives in and through us together. Moving through the ashes, we are never alone.