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“They Saved Us”

Florence, Italy is doing just fine, thank you. A thriving wine and olive oil industry is world-famous, and second only to tourism in feeding a fairly healthy economy.

Obviously, historic Florence has held much influence for centuries. A center of art, this city gave rise to Michelangelo, daVinci, and so many others in architecture, painting, and sculpture.

Yet Florence, in fairly recent times, was suffering. The wine industry was relatively unknown and tourism was nowhere near the boom it is now. Grapes and olives were only harvested in small amounts due to a lack of workers.

But then they received help from a surprising source. According to a winery tour guide I was listening to, immigrants from the Middle East and Africa increased in numbers, providing a work force that saved the wine industry. Florence regained lost status on a world stage.

Thanks to immigrants, apparently.

Some racism, xenophobia, and nationalism still exist from the Fascism days after WW1. Unfortunately, those narrow attitudes are still present among some of the young people of Florence and other parts of Italy.

My tour guide’s attitude seems hopeful yet objective. And somehow universal from the perspective of humanity. Immigrants? “They saved us.” It’s not that hard to believe.

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“I don’t recommend that for tourists.”

Wanting a fuller “Paris” experience, I ventured into an area about which I know nothing: food. Normally I can eat about anything (with a few exceptions, e.g., seafood), so I felt comfortable ordering a grade AAAAA sausage. Right? The French are known for their cuisine, so this ought to be great!

The server, however, upon hearing my order, frowned. “I don’t recommend that for tourists,” she said with significant emphasis. “Don’t worry,” I responded. “I’m feeling brave.” “No,” she said again. “This is not good for tourists. It is very strong.” “Good!” says the naive tourist, who, by the way, is on a sabbatical the theme of which is “Listening.”

She brought the unique French sausage, called “andouillette,” and I quickly admitted she was right about the strong odor. Well, more than strong. Actually closer to a 2-week old teenager’s gym socks, stuffed into a wet mattress and left in the stairwell of a bus station parking ramp. But I’m in France, so, what the heck. I took a bite–after all, it couldn’t taste worse than it smelled.

Now, to my credit, I did swallow a bite. And kept it down. So far.

And then I made the mistake of Googling it. There’s a reason for the pungent smell. It’s made of all kinds of meat from all kinds of animal parts. Including the colon. Yes, I believe I ate a cow rectum.

When in Paris, and the native Parisian server says, “I don’t recommend that for tourists,” it’s probably a good idea to listen. And then order a nice French burger and fries.

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What’s Your Steak?

Enjoying a glass of wine at a sidewalk cafe in downtown Paris, I’m awash in thought about Lois’s and my time in Belgium. We stayed with friends just outside of  Brussels, who were were wonderful and gracious hosts.  Theirs were the first non-American voices I’ve had the chance to hear, and there were a few surprises.

First, America is confusing and maddening to them of late. Although that wasn’t so surprising, the vehemence with which it was expressed was.

Next, I was with them as Belgium took 3rd place in the Soccer World Cup. The patriotic pride was tangible, with the black, yellow, and red flags waving everywhere. All were cheering and slapping each other on the back. A feeling of contributing something worthwhile in the world was dominant.

On a more personal level, these dear friends shared some insights they’ve gained in the last few years. “Take care of yourself,” they cautioned. “Everyone needs to be true to who they are.” It’s like going to a steak house, my friend told me. No one should expect fish (or at least good fish) there, because it’s a restaurant that specializes in steak. If a customer is upset that you won’t serve them fish, you just point to the menu and state that you serve steak and are good at that. If they want fish, they should go to a place that specializes in fish.

What’s your steak? they asked. Too many of us try to serve everyone whatever they want in our lives. This results in nothing being very good, and everyone, including you, are unhappy. Find your steak–that about which you are passionate–and don’t apologize for being that.

Good advice from Belgium. Medium-rare, please.

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My Mom: Starting with Voices from the Past

I’m spending a few days visiting my sisters (and families) who all live in the Salt Lake City metro area. We’ve always been pretty close, but have bonded even more as our mother continued her difficult Alzheimer’s journey. Since my mom’s death a year and a half ago we’ve committed to staying close, so my first sabbatical traveling is, of course, to SLC.

Each time I come to Utah, I make sure I visit my mother’s grave site. Nothing macabre, no weeping or one-sided conversations; I just spend a minute in reflection and perhaps sweep a bit of stray grass clippings from the gravestone. I did so again this morning. In answer to my sister’s question, yes, she’s still there.

In reflection, I can still hear my mom’s voice, Boston accent intact. “Only three cookies per day.” “Do your jobs before you ride your bike.” “Who got into the Jim Beam?” But mostly I hear what she said every day of her life as a mother. Not really ever with words, but with every action and intention. “You are worth everything. I would sacrifice anything for you. That’s what love looks like.” Again, those were never her words, and I didn’t always understand it as a kid, but standing at her grave this morning, it was as clear as any words she could have spoken. Her life, once her children were born, was spent making whatever sacrifice was necessary to benefit her children. That’s what love looks like. It’s never about one’s self (at least that’s not the primary concern), but always about what benefits the other.

That’s my first voice–one that is deeply embedded in my past. Ellie Kilbourn told me with her life what love looks like. You do whatever you have to do for the sake of the other.

May I continue to hear that voice and grow in my own capacity to love like that. Thanks, Mom.IMG_20180707_100213

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Sabbatical Theme: “The Listening Tour”

Thanks for visiting this blog! It serves as my “missional church” site, and although I’ve not posted for a while, it has been active for several years. I invite you to look through it and see what’s interesting.

I am starting a 14-week sabbatical July 1st and will post on this blog periodically during that time.

The sabbatical is called “The Listening Tour,” because that’s what I plan to do. I will go to places I’ve not been to before and listen to voices and perspectives I’ve not heard before. For me, as well as for the congregation I serve (Lutheran Church of the Master, Lakewood, CO, USA), listening has become a vital endeavor. As we seek to go deeper into a relationship with our congregational neighborhood, we have to actively seek ways to listen: not only to God and to fellow church partners, but also to our neighbors outside the church. As we do that, not only is trust built but we can actually begin to discern what’s important, what’s concerning, what’s frightening, and what’s comforting within the scope of our immediate context. What’s more, through listening we can also discern what God is currently up to in our neighborhood. With that info, we can plan a strategy to jump into the Holy Spirit’s work of compassion (or need for it), mercy (or need for it), inclusivity (or need for it), and grace (or need for it).

My hope is that this sabbatical can give me “new ears” with which to hear what God is doing and how God is present in our world.

Go ahead and click the “sign me up” button under the “Email Subscription” heading on the right hand side of this page. That way you will automatically be notified when I post something interesting I’ve been hearing.

Join me on this “Listening Tour.” Perhaps with your input we can enter into God’s work in new and deliberate ways! I look forward to listening to your perspectives on this site!

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The Church and Love: Not Mutually Exclusive

​The other night my wife posted a quick note in a closed Facebook group to which she belongs. It had to do with an anonymous letter I received at our home in opposition to a public stand I took regarding some of the hate and division this recent election has revealed. Bear in mind the note I received wasn’t nasty or even mean-spirited. But it was anonymous. So, in keeping with long-standing practice regarding anything sent to me anonymously, I tossed it in the recycle bin. 

That’s not very interesting, and is actually commonplace for people in my profession. But what made this noteworthy is the response my wife received from her Facebook post. She had briefly stated that I had received an anonymous note, and that it was in response to my stance of inclusivity for all, love for all, and welcome to all in a sermon the previous Sunday (the sermon). She said how sad she felt that a message of love for all was met with fear, and that this response is far from in isolated incident. Many who espouse that all are worthy of love are ridiculed, harassed, and isolated. While I only received a brief note, others have received far worse. 

The response she received was surprising to both of us. Within about 10 minutes (and mind you, she posted this about 10:00 at night) there were about 50 return comments of support and care. We are Lutheran (I’m an ELCA pastor) yet encouragement came from across age and theological perspectives. Within a half hour of her post, more than 100 comments were made (not counting the “likes”), all of them positive and supportive. 

Several Jews asked her to keep up the necessary work of love. A former Pentecostal (now atheist) wrote that if she’d heard messages of love for all people in her church growing up, she may not have left the faith. Others longed for more people to stand in and for acceptance. Still others recognized how hard it is to publicly proclaim that all are to be loved. One or two bemoaned their own church’s failure to take this kind of a stance and wished there was a “loving church” nearer to them. Several asked my wife to pray for them, their church, and their clergy. On and on she read these comments, astounded at the depth of the encouragement and heartbroken by the longing for acceptance.

It seemed clear that my wife had struck a cord in her Facebook group. The simplicity of loving all people apparently is not broadly heard outside of certain circles. The longing for someone to say “you are loved right now, just as you are” was palpable. We went to bed moved, misty, and determined.

If the message of Jesus is to “love God, love your neighbor,” we don’t seem to be doing it very well. At least there are lots of people who don’t think so. Or who haven’t been experiencing that from church people. If one small Facebook post is any indication, we aren’t doing our job. 

What’s hard is that most congregations and congregational adherents believe they are showing love. We really think we’re doing a good job because we aren’t hateful, are fairly polite, are upset by violence and racism, and bothered by all kinds of phobias, including those singling out Islam and LGBTQ. People are yearning to be loved and cared about. Even though there are churches in their neighborhoods, they don’t believe the people inside would really love them. 

So here’s the message: what we’re doing is not enough. Love, care, compassion, grace, generosity aren’t quiet by nature, and certainly not private. Rather than patting ourselves on the back because xenophobia is irritating, perhaps we need to be seen publicly standing up for immigrants. Instead of feeling justified because we find those who take advantage of the poor distasteful, perhaps each of us should be broadly recognized as standing up for those who are economically challenged. If we are annoyed by homophobia or persecution of Muslims or sexism, maybe it’s time our love-in-action on their behalf was identifiable in our neighborhoods. 

If we aren’t known for being loving, perhaps it’s because we only do it quietly and safely. If people longing to be accepted aren’t turning to the church, I’m guessing it’s because they don’t believe they will find acceptance among us. 

If love isn’t shown, it isn’t really love. Love is active, risky, and relational. If those in our congregations’ neighborhoods don’t know we love them, it’s time we showed them. What can you do to get outside the doors of your church building and love your neighbor? What will that look like? Who are they and what’s going on in their lives? How can they know they are loved, by us, right now, just as they are? People are asking for acceptance, wanting to know they are considered worthwhile, longing to be loved. Doesn’t that sound like something we are called, equipped, and sent to do? 

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Good question to ask: Why Church?Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline

“People just aren’t committed like they used to be” This week, I came across this satirical article from the site BabylonBee “After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daugh…

Source: Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline

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Create Neighborhood Trust

I wrote the following article for the April, 2015 edition of “The Lutheran” magazine, a publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. With their permission, I’m reprinting it here.

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Jennifer and her 7th grade daughter, Maria, attended a congregation’s confirmation ministry for the first time. The family has no church home, but Jennifer wanted her daughter to be part of a community that would show her love, care, and support.

Jim, a guidance counselor at a large suburban high school, is working with a congregation to provide much needed career mentors for students who may fall through the cracks after graduating.

Rosa, an elementary school principal, not only encourages members of a church to come to the school library to help students with homework, but asked other local principals to do the same. Not interested in church herself, she nonetheless has invited members of this same church to offer a Bible study for parents and families in the school building.

These examples of trusting partnerships are happening, but are coming about in a way that may be counter-intuitive to many of us. Authentic relationships involve mutual trust and dying to our own agendas.

Christian congregations, which for decades have been the trusted center of our communities, have in many cases become disconnected from their neighbors. Some congregations are now seen as self-serving, judgmental, and unsafe places. There is good reason for this skepticism. Instead of unconditionally loving their neighbors, they have looked at them primarily as a way to bolster the church’s membership.

In a time of numerical decline in congregations across denominations and the country, it’s tempting to think of the neighborhood around the church as merely a resource to be tapped. So we advertise programs, exude hospitality, jazz up our worship and more, all in an attempt to get the neighbors into our building.

We all want to dodge the “congregation-in-decline” label and can become frantic in our efforts to avoid it. With good intentions, we pour increasing amounts of energy into improving our worship attendance numbers but often don’t see the intended results.

As long as filling pews on a Sunday morning is our motivation, our neighborhood will rightly perceive the church as self-serving and will be less likely to trust us. Whether we mean to or not, the message our neighbors hear is: “We don’t really care about you, we just want you to fill our building (as well as our offering plate).”

Jesus speaks to this and reminds us: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

Our internal focus is partially understandable, as we love our congregations and authentically want to share the joy and meaning we’ve found there with others. But in our efforts to stop the decline in our numbers, we can forget why we are there in the first place. Consider the possibility that the more energy we put into improving our numbers, the less energy we may be putting into developing trusting relationships with our neighbors.

What’s more, not only are trusting, self-giving relationships between neighborhoods and congregations a good strategy for the work of the church, they are also in the image of God.

The Trinity can authentically be described as God-in-relationship. The identity of one person of the Trinity can best be understood through one’s relationship with the other two. Throughout biblical history, God has worked by establishing relationships with individuals or groups, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses. A relationship with God was opened to all directly through the Son, Jesus.

Relationships are God’s way of revealing God’s self and mission of love, grace and forgiveness to us. Relationships are the way we trust God’s invitation to be part of that mission. And relationships are how we do God’s work in the world—the work to which we have been called through baptism as the body of Christ.

In putting aside our agenda of playing the numbers game, we can begin to develop trust within our neighborhoods. As we do so, we reveal the very nature of God. By being part of our neighborhood for the sake of the neighborhood, we are better able to be about the purpose of the church.

Without considering whether it will bring in any new members, try some things that allow you to listen to the neighborhood around you.

  • Sit down with principals and teachers, listening as they tell you what would be helpful for their schools.
  • Host a town-hall meeting in your community about a particularly hot issue that may be arising. Do so without an agenda other than to listen, allowing all sides to be heard.
  • Talk to the local police department, perhaps riding along in squad cars to get their perspective on your neighborhood.

Activities such as these over time will allow our congregations to develop trust within our neighborhoods. Through trusting relationships God is revealed and the reign of God is present. Perhaps then we can all see—and together join—God at work in our neighborhoods.

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#YesAllWomen (and men) don’t want to live in fear

As a white, middle-aged, heterosexual male, this blog from Pastor Brigette Weier is a hard one to hear. May our loving Mother continue to move among us and make us one.

A Lutheran Says What?

I have been reading the tweets and blog posts all week from the #yesallwomen on Twitter and Facebook. Honestly, I did not jump in with any tweets or blogs of own until today. Why? It’s not because I am ambivalent or because I don’t think that I have faced discrimination. I am not ambivalent and I, too, was raised in the culture of both subtle and overt gender inequality and misogyny (as have all women, hence the hashtag). It struck me today that it was partially out of fear that I haven’t added my voice to this conversation. Fear. I was afraid of being labeled “one of those feminists.” I was afraid that to name some of the ways this affects me is to give it more power. I was afraid that my place of privilege as a white, heterosexual woman would be hurtful to my sisters who were LBGT…

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Faith is Simple

When your self-confidence is lost, optimism shattered, friends are unreliable, hope is pointless, strength is weakened, and everything else you’ve relied on is gone, whatever is left is called faith.

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