Personal Questions, the 2nd Part

Second question: How do you go about preparing for worship?

I’m not 100% sure what this question is driving at? Are people wanting to know about how I spiritually prepare to go into worship? Or is this more of a question about what kind of planning goes into preparing a worship service?

Let me tackle the second one first. Generally speaking, there isn’t a lot of preparation for worship except at the beginning of a season or for a feast/fast day. That’s because Lutherans have a liturgy. Well, pretty much all traditions have a liturgy, whether they choose to call it by that name or have even heard of that word at all. Non-denominational Christians usually follow an order that looks something like 20 minutes of praise music, the reading of scripture followed by a sermon, more praise music, communal prayer, and more music. That’s a liturgy. Sometimes there are other elements placed in there, too, such as communion or laying on of hands or some similar kind of intercession. Liturgy.

For Lutherans, we have the ancient liturgies that we received from Catholicism, often run through the lens of Martin Luther and his revised liturgy called the Deutsche Messe. But Luther intentionally made the liturgy broad and adaptable. Modern Lutheran liturgies contain the following elements with LOTS of variations on the parts in between: Gathering — Word — Meal — Sending. The basic idea is that we are gathered together to hear Scripture, reflect on the death and resurrection of Christ, share in the Eucharistic meal that he invited and invites us to, and then we are sent out in the power of the same Spirit who gathered us, to take the grace we have heard proclaimed and to pass it on. That’s our liturgy.

In the in-between parts, we usually sing. There’s a gathering song and a sending song. There’s a hymn of the day that is meant to proclaim the gospel in both words and music. There is a sung prayer for mercy (the Kyrie), a hymn of praise (the Gloria), a sung preparation for the Eucharist (the Sanctus or Holy, Holy, Holy), a song to the Lamb of God (agnus Dei).

There are prayers, mostly communal ones, but in the pauses before those prayers to which we respond with one voice, we have the opportunity to add our own, individual prayers. We pray the so-called Lord’s Prayer (probably more properly called the Disciples’ Prayer). There’s a prayer of offering, a prayer of thanksgiving. Prayers of intercession. Prayer all over the place.

There are greetings, responses, passings of peace. And on and on. Most of this stuff is prepared for us by skilled liturgists who have put these things together into “settings” that are printed in our hymnals and accessible via online subscriptions that make it easy to put them in bulletin form, for those congregations who don’t use the hymnal (for various reasons).

So the preparation for worship is largely done well before the pastor and other leadership even have to begin thinking about it. The major prep work comes several weeks before the church season changes, and the biggest of these changes have to do with the preparatory seasons of Lent and Advent, then the festal seasons of Christmas and Easter. And the time after Pentecost, the longest time of the year, also has its own preparation. This is called “Ordinary Time,” but should maybe be called “ordinal” rather than ordinary, because it doesn’t mean “plain” or “regular” as much as it has to do with counting from the day of Pentecost to the season of Advent.

Of course there are other feast and fast days in between all of these things: Christ the King Sunday, Trinity Sunday, Reformation Sunday, feasts of particular saints (usually not celebrated in Lutheran traditions, because we don’t generally venerate individual, “canonized” saints any more than we do the saints in our own lives), and so on.

All of this work is best done, in my opinion, by a team, of which the pastor is a part and maybe the lead. Which setting will we use for each season? What songs shall we use each Sunday? How do we want the worship space to reflect the mood of each season? That kind of question. It can be a lot of work. It can also be as simple as following recommendations that our publishing houses offer us. That depends entirely on the congregation. I’ve done it a number of ways, and I don’t find one necessarily better than the other. The real question is: does it affirm life and love in the congregation, or does it become a bone of contention? And then the group has to figure out how to navigate the response, depending on how you answered the question above. So, I don’t have a single way to answer the prep question, but leave it to the congregational context, while sometimes affording myself the luxury of pushing for one thing or another if I think the situation calls for it, maybe to help the congregation stretch what they think is possible.

I will take a brief aside here to talk a bit about some of the ways that the congregation I serve and I have stretched those boundaries. We have used the “new” hymnal, the “Cranberry” one called Evangelical Lutheran Worship, which has 10 settings in it for the Eucharist, plus settings for Baptisms, Funerals, non-Eucharistic gatherings (aka Service of the Word), morning prayer (Matins), evening prayer (Vespers), Weddings and so forth. We have also used the “old” hymnal, the green one (Lutheran Book of Worship). We’ve used the Detroit Folk Mass (which, to be fair, isn’t at all a folk setting because it’s not at all easy to sing, but it’s good when done well). We’ve used Marty Haugen’s “Holden Evening Prayer.” Those are all pretty standard in most Lutheran churches.

We’ve also used liturgies from Worship Design Studio (particularly great for Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter); Prayer around the Cross from Holden Village’s contemplative prayer settings; Dinner church Eucharistic models from places such as St. Lydia’s Table in Brooklyn, NY. We’ve done blessings of the pets, blessings of backpacks and laptops, blessings of quilts and prayer shawls; laying on of hands; healing services; blessings of the grounds with walking prayer; stations of the cross. I can’t even think of everything we’ve done, but it is a credit to the congregations I have served that they are willing to engage more than just the standard fare when it comes to possibilities for different kinds of worship. There is a LOT of room for creativity at the local level.

The one thing I’ve left out of the regular service so far is preparation for preaching, because it deserves special attention. According to Martin Luther, the Word of God is first and foremost Jesus the Christ. This comes straight out of John’s Gospel, chapter 1. After that, the Word of God is the good news of God in Christ as preached in the sermon or homily. Finally, the word of God is the scriptures. This is not to downplay the importance of scripture, but rather to uplift the proclaimed word, the gospel (or Good News), and above all to lift up (and therefore to subjugate beneath him) the life, teaching, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. Good preaching focuses on Jesus, and like the Bible itself, witnesses to him.

With that understanding in mind, preaching is serious business. I always pray before putting pen to paper (or sometimes fingers to keyboard) that it’s not MY message that’s coming across, but rather the message that the Father whispers to the Spirit about Jesus, and that this comes through to the people via (and sometimes in spite of) the words I use to convey it.

That said, preparing to be a vessel for the message takes work. I’ve mentioned prayer in one sense. Reading the appointed (lectionary) scriptures for the week usually involves for me the practice of lectio divina (divine reading). Here’s the process:
* I read through the texts once, out loud when possible, just to get a sense of the passage.
* I sit in silence and stillness of mind for a few minutes.
* I read the passages again, this time listening for a word or a phrase or an idea that draws my attention. A lot of times, this turns out to be something that troubles me in some way.
* I meditate on why it stood out to me and start to get some preliminary ideas for where a sermon might go.
* Then I read it a third time with that meditation in mind and then let the ideas stew for several days.

During those days between the lectio reading and the actual writing of a first draft, I engage myself in conversation with various partners. Sometimes those are live human beings with whom I talk about my ponderings over coffee or a pint. Sometimes it’s with authors of books or articles. Sometimes I let the scripture fight with another scripture to help bring clarity to one or the other (or to both!) passages.

One of my steady conversation partners over the last several years has been the French Catholic sociologist Rene Girard, who sort of re-discovered what some of his students called the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism. It can be a bit of a heady thing to consider, but the theory, usually called Mimetic Theory or Mimetic Realism has to do with how we acquire our desires, and what we will do in order to achieve our desires. The classic example involves imagining three toddlers in a room full of toys. None of the toys has any intrinsic value, but one of them will receive value when the first toddler shows an interest in it. The choice of that object was probably random, but suddenly that toy is now imbued with value because little Billy wants it, therefore it must be good, therefore I want it, too. Rivalry ensues, and it sometimes leads to violence. Transpose that example to the story of Cain and Abel, then realize that Cain, the brother-killer, is the one who survived and went on to form cities and found cultures, and then you have the basic idea behind how desire can become murderous, how it underlies culture, and how this is the actual basis of “original sin,” not an inherent badness. It’s actually a twisting of desire. And this lies at our core as humans. It’s the water we swim in without noticing, and it’s essentially what led us as a species to the scapegoating of Jesus. But Jesus knew how we were before the incarnation, and so, stepping into our matrix, he became a willing scapegoat – an innocent victim – who brought to the fore the futility of killing a scapegoat and calling it good (“it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish”) and even to call it godly. He then came back on the third day, not as a vengeance-seeking spook, but as the Forgiving Victim, showing us the only viable way out of constantly regenerating the scapegoat mechanism. Obviously, there’s much more to it than this, but Girard’s work and the work of his many followers strongly colors my reading of the scriptures and what they mean for us today.

The other major influence on me – and this is much more recent and is still developing – draws on Western (and sometimes Eastern) Christian Wisdom traditions. That would take a lot more time and effort to unpack, but it has been truly transformational for my own spiritual life, and I think it helps me as a pastor for people who say that want a deeper sense of spirituality, a real transformation of heart and mind and emotion. I’ve barely begun to tap this well, and I’m excited to see how it continues to develop in the future.

I think that may be a good place to end the answer to question 2.

Some Personal Question

Not gonna put a long pre-amble on this, except to say that recent conversations have arisen, inviting me to think about a number of questions related to my vocation as an ordained minister and how/whether that intersects with who I am at heart, how I approach ministry, worship, preaching, teaching, etc.

First question: What’s your background that would help someone understand who you are as a pastor and a person?

I was born into a pain-filled family. My father, John, was one of two children born to Paul and Ethil Martin. Paul died before I was born, tragically, while he was out fishing with my dad, who had to row his dead body to shore. So I never met him. Because Ethil was very, very secretive, I know next to nothing about my grandfather, except what I gleaned from relatives on her side during the days surrounding Grandma’s funeral. All they could tell me was that he came down here (to Arkansas) with the idea to unionize some of the shops Grandma’s family owned, and they ran him out of town. This is how he and Grandma ended up in the Detroit area, where my dad grew up to become a cop (who unionized the police department he worked for) and married his first wife. They had two kids, a boy then a girl. Dad was an abusive husband to her and they got divorced.

My mom was born one of two children, but she was the only one to survive the birth process. She was surrounded by family, most of whom were really just the average amount of crazy. But her first husband was an alcoholic and a schizophrenic, a mama’s boy, probably a malignant narcissist. Together they had two daughters. My mom was 19 when she got married to Dick, but after 12 years, his diseases got the better of him and he died by suicide.

So mom, a widow with two kids, married dad, a divorced man with two kids, and they had me. When I was three, my dad died by suicide, as well. Our family of mom and Dick’s kids, plus me, plus a kind-of-adopted-but-not-official sister of my mom’s, moved in with my mom’s Mother, Fern, and Fern’s mother-in-law (she remarried after her first husband died, long before I was born) into a 900 square foot house abutting a field behind the local high school that my multitude of sisters attended.

When I was 5, the youngest of my mother’s first daughters died at age 17 under mysterious circumstances, which still are not officially understood to this day. The following year, Mom and I moved out into an apartment in the next town over, where we would stay for the rest of my childhood (even though we moved at least 7 times within that town before I left home at age 17). That same year, Grandma died from ovarian cancer.

For the next several years, my mom dated a number of really nice men, some of whom moved in with us, but didn’t stick around more than a year or two. My surviving sister from mom’s first marriage, who had been abusing substances from the time of her father’s death, moved in and out. I can’t help but think her addiction issues and the effects that had on all of us contributed to the short-term-ness of mom’s relationships.

When I turned 10, mom got remarried to a divorced man with a daughter, who stayed with her mom, and a son, who moved in with us because his mom didn’t know how to handle his behavior (although it’s difficult to understand from my perspective, but it was a good arrangement). A year later, my bio dad’s sister died by suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning, accidentally also killing my cousin who was just a month older than I was.

During this time, my sister was still moving in and out of our apartments, sometimes alone, sometimes with a boyfriend. She had one boyfriend who owned a hair styling business, and the two of them moved in together in a nearby town, but they broke up after a year or two, and he then died by suicide from hanging.

The point of all of this: I grew up in chaos, with lots of death close at hand, lots of drug use in my very near vicinity (my first exposure to marijuana that I was aware of was when I was about 4), and lots of shady characters, who to me were basically just family.

Those childhood experiences coupled with my introversion made me an observer, and largely what I observed was people seeking ways to hide from their pain and brokenness. My own tactic was to distance myself by observing it in others. It took years to figure that much out. But I also developed a real empathy for people in pain and grief, which is probably why Lutheranism and its emphasis on a theology of the cross appeals to me, why people tend to seek me out for non-judging and non-advice-giving listening, and this is why I was drawn to the pastorate.

That’s the basic answer to the first question.

Wisdom Post #1

Some weeks back, I wrote about some “Wisdom” work I began doing over the summer. How I wound up in that spot is a long story, and maybe we’ll get into it some day, but the immediate context for this push was an online “Introduction to Wisdom” course through the Center for Action and Contemplation led by Episcopal priest and long-time mystic Cynthia Bourgeault.

First of all, it seems a little brazen to apply the word “wisdom” to one’s learning. That seems to sound a little like saying, “I have acquired a great deal of knowledge for myself, which I will now condescend to pass unto you, mere mortal.” It’s not that at all. As Cynthia points out, “Wisdom is not knowing more, but knowing with more of you – knowing deeper, carving and digging your being deeper and deeper so that it can receive more knowing.” It’s inner work, transformational work, the consequence of which is fuller, more conscious, more abundant living. Its goal is to raise one’s state of being in order to become more open and more present to realities that are already there, but that one can’t see when one’s attention/being is too scattered, divided.

The path I’m on is a decidedly Christian path, taking Jesus as my Wisdom teacher, my moshel moshelim. With that in mind, I’m using the so-called “Gospel” of Thomas as a way into seeing Jesus as the Master who calls his students to an inner transformation, because, frankly, without inner transformation, we keep repeating the endless patterns of destructiveness that have brought us to our current litany of predicaments. And since we can’t control others and their behavior without coercion – a decidedly non-Wisdom activity – it’s better to focus on the plank in our own eye first.

So, this is just a little teaser for later blog posts. I’ll do a little here and a bit there, just for those who are interested in the journey. We’re living in a time where it’s so easy to be scattered and divided, but it’s also a time that demands a singleness of heart. This is important work for our world. I hope you’ll join me or at least enjoy the ride with me. Would love to hear your feedback along the way.

First “Vision” Meeting

Hi, everyone. Last night I had the good fortune and great pleasure of sitting down with the Task Force that we assembled to begin really thinking about next steps for First Lutheran post-Covid. The team, as of this minute, consists of Bob Moody (incoming Treasurer), Nicole Rowlette, Beth Lyons, and Mary Jane Halley. We had a hunch that we also ought to invite Ava Fisher from Prince of Peace, who was gracious enough to join us and add so much to our conversation.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but it was a fantastic first meeting. One of the themes that kept coming up was a desire for our two congregations to work towards some kind of joining up. Official merger would be one option. Another might be the formation of a new congregation with a unique mission. There may be other ways of going about this, as well, but the general consensus was a movement toward a greater representation of what Tulsa’s demographic actually looks like. Rather than a predominantly white congregation and a predominantly Black congregation, there seems to be an opportunity for us to have a single, racially integrated (although I realize that word carries a lot of baggage and we’ll have to find a different term moving forward) congregation focused on:
* gathering
* with good music
* good teaching, preaching
* liturgy
* anti-racism work
* combatting loneliness
* service to the community
* excitement to be church
* invitational AND outward-looking (knowing that we’re already here: it’s those who aren’t yet here that we want to focus on)
* intergenerational leadership

We talked about the history of both congregations, the financial assets and burdens of each, the potential location of a new congregation. I’m being vague about this part right now until we expand the circle a bit more. And that will be our next step, in fact. We have a couple of names in mind to invite to our next meeting, but we’re also interested in hearing everyone’s thoughts. No moves will happen until we’ve had good, deep conversation about this, as well as earnest prayer and attentive listening to the Holy Spirit. The next meeting will take place on Wednesday, October 7 at 5 p.m. at First Lutheran. (Tentatively. It might be a good idea to meet at Prince of Peace, but we’ll make that determination a little bit closer to the date. Keep your eyes peeled and let us know if you’d like to come.)

This is an exciting time to be church in Tulsa!

Me and White Supremacy

Some time ago, a challenge popped up on Instagram, calling on white people to engage with a book by author Layla F. Saad. This book is titled “Me and White Supremacy.” I don’t go on Instagram very often, and when I do, it’s usually just to share pics I’ve taken and to look at pics friends have posted there, so I wasn’t even aware of the challenge until just the other day. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of Layla Saad or her book. However, I learned that several members of a “Building Bridges” group I sometimes attend in my Synod (a geographically gathered group of ELCA congregations) are doing The Work of reading this book and doing the deep, personal, emotional engagement with its subject: How has the concept of White Supremacy affected me; how have I benefitted from it (whether I wanted to or not, whether I realized it or not); how can I help dismantle it?

Here’s a 16-minute piece that NPR ran on Saad’s book. I’ll let you do your own research on this, but this hard work of looking in the mirror, recognizing our own complicity as white people in perpetuating the idea that “white” is “superior” or simply “the norm.” N.B. This holds true whether our families ever “owned slaves” or not. That’s immaterial. The outlawing of slavery was NOT the end of racism in this country, but rather, we moved on to different types of enslavement of Black human beings, including Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, systemic and systematic disenfranchisement from critical political and economic arenas, popular de-humanization of African-descent people, and the list goes on. The very fact that we’re still arguing whether this is true points to just how true it is.

This week I attended a press conference at All Souls Unitarian Church here in Tulsa, where several white pastors and I unveiled a plan for our congregations to have a “Black Lives Matter” message painted on our parking lots (though ours is going on the retaining wall facing 13th street, both for higher visibility and for durability of the message). I suspect there will be backlash, because white people STILL seem to be rejecting and resisting the acknowledgment that, in addition to OUR lives mattering, BLACK LIVES also MATTER! Why is this hard to comprehend? Racism. That’s why. Fear, perhaps. Because to SAY that Black Lives Matter as well as white lives and … dare I say it? … ALL lives … seems to trigger the thought that whiteness will no longer be centered, and that white people will somehow lose as a consequence. Lose what? Lose preferred status? Well, good! We don’t deserve to be singled out for good treatment. And that’s all Black people are asking for: not preferred status, but equal status.

But the spectre of white supremacy continues to stand in the way and needs to be eradicated.

This is a major task for the church right now, especially for mainline protestant churches like my beloved ELCA. We are THE whitest denomination in the country. It pays to ask why? As Lutherans on the world stage go, whiteness is a minority. The global South is bursting at the seems with Lutherans of color. But not here in the US. Isn’t that odd?

It may not be too hard to understand why, given that Lutheranism in North America was founded by immigrants to the US from the countries in Europe with Lutheran state churches. But why does it REMAIN that way? Is there something about us that fails to speak to BIPoC in our context? Is there something about the way we do things that fails to draw more than a handful of Black, Indigenous, and other PoC to form congregations that fit THEIR contexts? It’s worth exploring, and if you’re interested, I would point you to Pr. Lenny Duncan’s excellent first book, “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in America.” It’s an important read.

So, this post is really to let you know that this anti-racism work is white people’s work. There is something that lies within each of us that needs to be examined and exorcised. I am doing the work that Saad is leading me through. I’m re-reading and re-reading Pastor Duncan’s book, and we just finished reading it as part of an online study group through the church. I invite you to join me on the journey. It’s going to be arduous, but it’s what the gospel of Jesus Christ is compelling us white church folks to do right now. Listen and watch for the movement of the Spirit, and you’ll see it’s true.

If you’re a regular at First Lutheran, Tulsa, and you need assistance purchasing any of these books, please let me know. There’s a little money in the library fund that we can use to help you out. I see us as a learning community and a transforming community, so this would be money well spent.

Task Force, Assemble!

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking to folks on the phone, in Zoom meetings, via sermons, etc. about what First Lutheran might be called to in this current age of Covid and beyond. Being on “lockdown” has been “convenient” in the sense that it took away what we had come to view as normal and everyday, and it has forced us into some introspection and maybe even a little bit of free fall. It absolutely sucks not to be able to see one another face-to-face each Sunday, and it’s only that much worse when we need to grieve together communally. But the silver lining bit is that it seems like a good time to be re-thinking everything.

We know that when we come back, it won’t look the same. We’ll have physical distancing to contend with. Fellowship time around the tables with a hot cup of bad coffee simply isn’t safe … and won’t be in the near future. Communion will look entirely different from Sundays in the past. No passing of the peace. No hugs. Ugh!

That’s just the way stuff is going. We need to find a new (or revive an old) way of being church in and for the world.

To that end, The Core Council and I have begun to assemble a Long-Range Planning Task Force. We could have called it an ad hoc committee, because that’s what it is, but that sounds super boring. So “Task Force” it is!

We have four people serving on it at the moment: Mary Jane, Beth, Nicole, and Bob. I’m a member of the TF by virtue of my position, and I’ll be helping to steer some of the conversation, but really this is the congregation’s task force, so it’s important for the people of First to be in the driver’s seat. We’re looking for two or three more members. Even if you aren’t ON the TF, though, you will be part of it, as consultants and stake holders.

What are they going to be doing? Praying, for one thing. Thinking biblically/theologically about what a church actually IS. They’ll be looking at what traditions and values that are currently in place ought to remain in place, and advising the Core Council (and the congregation) about what we may need to strongly reconsider. They will be dreaming and envisioning how we can best muster our resources (which includes primarily the people and their giftedness, but also financial resources and liabilities) for ministry between and beyond the sanctuary walls.

I will work to keep you updated on things as the discussion rolls out. The TF will hold their first meeting this week or next. As always, it’s an exciting time to be the church! Stay tuned!

Well, That was Unexpected

Monday afternoon I retreated from the sound of my kids playing loudly in the living room to my bedroom to watch some YouTube videos. I was in the middle of one about car drivers doing crazy and dangerous things around motorcyclists when I started feeling a pressure/pain in my chest. I had been having neck pains for a few days already.

At first I thought nothing of it. I’m getting old and random pains seem to come with the territory. But then the pain started getting more intense. Standing up to see whether that might help (it didn’t), I began feeling dizzy.
So I went out to the living room to tell Christy that I might have to go to the ER. She suggested I call my GP, which I did. Her office told me to go to the ER.

I was going to blow it off, thinking, “surely I’m overreacting.” But then my left arm started feeling kind of numb. And then I was seeing two lamps where there was only one. That clinched it.

Christy drove me to the ER and dropped me off. Kids were at home, and they didn’t need any added anxiety. The folks at St. Francis got me back to the triage room pretty quickly for an EKG and a blood test. They were also pretty quick about getting me an Xray. They weren’t even too bad about getting me back into triage for a second EKG (standard procedure). But after that, there was a lot of waiting. I mean, a LOT of waiting. In all, it was something like 6.5 hours before I got called back to the ER exam room, where I got hooked up to all the machines.

Once they put me in that exam room, it was more waiting. All things considered, I handled it fairly well. Didn’t get mad. Didn’t get anxious. I just sat back and breathed. But my phone battery was rapidly dying. That was my biggest concern, because I was afraid it would be hard to reach Christy to come pick me up.

I need not have worried, because, as it turns out, they were admitting me overnight so that they could run me through a stress test in the morning. The arm pain and the double vision were really troubling to the hospitalist, especially because my blood pressure was really high. There was some concern about a stroke.

That was all fine and good. The only problem was that the hospital had no beds, so I was “stuck” in the ER exam room all night until about 10 the next morning when they came and got me for my stress test.

Stress test was grand. Apparently, my heart is very strong. I did have to wait until around 4 pm (thus making this whole adventure a 26-hour ordeal) to find out, but I’m glad for the lack of a need for concern. It’s freaky that there appears to be no physiological reason for my symptoms. Maybe it was stress. Things have been pretty insane lately.

In any case, I thought I’d write up a little something just to let you know where I’ve been the last little while. Many people from Facebook World sent prayers, positive vibes, and good JuJu, all of which is very much appreciated. It’s behind me now, and I don’t care to talk much about it, but I thought you all should know.

Michigan Trip

Even before my mom got sick, I was missing my home state of Michigan. Oklahoma is great. And Tulsa is an especially fantastic part of Oklahoma. But home is home, ya know? Us Michiganders (I reject the term “Michiganian”) have a built-in need to see Big Water from time to time, just for our mental well-being. Yeah, we have a few nice lakes around in Green Country, but back home, you can go to plenty of beaches where you can look across the expanse of water and not see the other shore. I’m talking seriously Big Water. Even the Detroit River makes it hard to look at the Arkansas and not shrug our shoulders. Even when it’s full.

While I was back at home, there was no time to get to the Great Lakes, but I did make it down to a childhood haunt and occasional stomping grounds of my teenage years in a little river town called Wyandotte. Bishop Park was, for me, a place we went to for the annual 4th of July fireworks, a place to go climb on the playground equipment and play Pirates, a place to catch the boat to Boblo Island (a now defunct amusement park on the Canadian side of the river). It’s the place where I got engaged the first time. (Long story. Maybe we’ll chat about it over red wine some day.) I dare say it’s nicer today than it was when I was a kid. There’s a more obvious Victorian feel to it, and the fishing pier is really quite nice. Wanna see some pics?

Well, you get the idea.

I also had the opportunity, while back home, to sit on the front porch of my childhood home (from the age of about 11 onward), which is something I never really did as a child. The neighborhood has gotten quieter somehow, since I was a kid, and the homes all seem much more quaint than they used to. The tree that the city planted as a sapling in our front yard following the death by high winds of our former tree during The Storm Where The Sky Turned Green (July 1980) is now about 40 feet tall. It’s doing a very commendable job providing shade and shelter. Some of the inhabitants now include a couple of black squirrels, which is something we didn’t have when I was a kid. My mom has “tamed” a couple of them to the point that they will only somewhat warily come onto the porch, scant inches away from my feet, on their way to the “nut tray.”


Of course, Buddy the Boxer (my mother’s 90+ lb. dog) loves watching them play.

It was hard going home. You really can’t go back there. But you also need to go back there. I will admit that I haven’t felt comfortable in that house since September 2, 1987, which is the day I flew out of DTW to South Carolina, where I caught a bus to boot camp. From that day forward, it was “the house where I grew up,” but it was never “home” again. And I will also admit that, upon returning to my own house here in Tulsa, that it took me a few days to reorient, because THAT didn’t feel like home, either. It had the trappings of home: people whom I love, our animals, all of my stuff. But it was really depressing to be there, and I felt very empty. Things are getting back to normal a bit, now that I’ve been there for several days, now that I’ve gotten some of the yard work done that went undone in my absence, now that I’m coming to terms with a new reality: I’m a grown-up now, with parents whose health is rapidly declining. When I left, my friend and congregational council President, Lisa, was still alive, though the end was very clearly not far off. It’s quite simply a different world I’ve come back to, and I’m disoriented as hell. New normal is starting to feel normal, but I’m just not quite there yet. Ya know?

Anyway, perspective is happening. I’m already trying to plan the next trip back to MI. I still feel a strong pull toward that Big Water. And I want to put my feet in the cold rivers, where I don’t have to wonder, “Are there any rattlesnakes in there?” I want to show my family how stunning the fall colors are in my home state. We lived in Iowa when Chris came to us, and he had seen an eastern Iowa fall, but the trees along that part of the Mississippi tend to me monochromatic. They’re a brilliant yellow, and that’s beautiful in its own way. But you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the diversity of Michigan’s version of boreal flora on full display in the fall, as you sip on a hot chocolate (or a coffee, in my case) while munching an apple cider donut, decked out in your hoodie, because there’s a definite nip in the air. And if you HAVE seen that, no beauty will ever touch it. That, to me, is home. That and the Big Water.

Playing Catch-up

Hello, friends. Sorry it has taken so long for me to jump back on here. My plan is still to talk about the Wisdom stuff I’m learning, but I’ve found myself in a place where all of that is being tested here lately. First, our congregation lost a dear saint, Miss June, who “adopted” me as her “birthday present” from the moment I came to interview at this congregation. That was a hard loss because it was so sudden and unexpected, even though June was 83. And just as we were recovering from that, we learned about Lisa, another saint of the congregation, who was much, much younger and very vibrant, though living with an apparent resurgence of a cancer we had thought she had beaten. Even though we knew for a while the cancer had come back, we still fully expected her to make a great recovery and return to all the many, many things she did among our congregation. So when she suddenly went into hospice and then died a few short days later, more wind got knocked out of my sails. And, as if all that weren’t enough, in the midst of Lisa’s slipping away from us, my mom back in Michigan had to make an emergency trip to the hospital and we thought we were losing her. So I had to go home for about a week and a half, and my thoughts weren’t much on catching up with the blog.

Anyway, two of those three things have “resolved,” even though they didn’t resolve in the way I would have wished for. I didn’t want June to leave us. I didn’t want to lose Lisa. Both of them have been real treasures to me, personally. I can barely fathom them, and remain kind of in denial. That’s what this Covid thing has robbed us all of – the “closure” of public, communal mourning. We did have a funeral for June, in a bit of a surprise move on her family’s part. I wasn’t involved in the planning, other than the liturgical aspect of it. Not casting any blame here; just saying that we didn’t expect more than five people to show up, so when closer to 30 people came, many of whom we didn’t know, that was its own brand of shock. And when it came to Lisa, she donated her tissues to others who needed them (so like Lisa to give literally OF HERSELF), so between that reality and the problematic nature of public gathering to mourn, the whole thing still feels a little un-real.

So where am I now, on a personal level? Well, my mom’s situation is “stable.” She has landed, for the time being, at a physical rehab facility, which is as welcome to her as an extra hole in the head. All she really wants is to be at home with my step-dad and her beloved dog, Buddy. But her medical situation is such that she simply can’t make it without around-the-clock care for the next two weeks or so. Her electrolytes and her blood pressure have been knocked entirely out of whack, and that has made her physically too week to stand or even to sit up for extended periods of time. Physical therapy for her involves sitting for an hour without getting dizzy and without her back muscles getting too tired. From there they should move on to standing up and maybe a bit of walking. It may be some time before she’s strong enough to go home. Being 83, her body doesn’t rebound from sickness as well as it once did.

All of this is hard. It’s hard for June’s family and friends. It’s hard for Lisa’s family and friends. It’s hard for my mom’s family and friends, and for my mom herself. This stuff is intense, and I’m trying really hard to take things in stride. I would like to thank my family for caring for mom when I can’t be there. I want to thank Pastor Bonnie of House Church for tending to Lisa and her family in the final hours and in the immediate aftermath of her death. I want to thank Pr. Liz from the Synod office for preaching in my absence. Catherine, Cathy, and Bob from the church made sure that Sundays went as smoothly as possible, and Cathy also managed to hold down the fort here until I could get back. The Core Council leadership, the Mutual Ministry team, just everybody has been great and gracious, and I give thanks for all of you. Every last one.

Since my mom isn’t entirely out of the woods yet, things remain in flux for me. I may be called home at any time. We’re going to move forward as if I’m back to stay for now, knowing that I may have to call on you to be flexible once again, at a moment’s notice. I’m sorry for that, but it can’t be helped right now.

I’d also like those of you who are members or regular participants in one form or another of our congregation to continue thinking about what happens next at church. In the not-too-distant future, we will have to begin some form of meeting in person again for those who are willing and able to come. Probably we’ll do some outdoor stuff, just to make things a little safer.

A little bit further out from that, we will have to decide what to do about our building. Giving is down significantly right now. That’s not to guilt trip or shame anyone. Times are difficult. But maintaining this 60+ year old building was difficult even before Covid hit. We’re at the point where we need to make some very big decisions about the building and, therefore, about the future of First Lutheran. Do we have to disband? No. We don’t. Unless we decide that it’s for the best to do so. But what will First Lutheran look like without this building? Who do you want to walk with you during the decision-making and afterwards? I’ve been with you for almost 8 years now. I came to you as a Mission Redeveloper, and with your great effort, lots of unexpected blessings from God and former saints of this parish, we have beaten the odds this long. Most people outside our congregation and staunches supporters didn’t think we’d make it three years (and were pretty vocal about it, too), and with good cause. 90% of redevelopments don’t survive. We did. We can be proud of that, but we also have to think about what’s next, and who you will want to shepherd you (really, it’s more of a walk alongside, because this is Jesus’s church and you are the stewards of the congregation; a pastor is there to help and support in any way she or he can, but probably shouldn’t “lead” the effort in the traditional sense. As I’ve always said, pastors come and go, but the people are the ones to determine what to carry forward and what to leave behind.).

I have spoken with several people about this already, and there are a couple of courageous, faithful folks who are willing to serve on a team of long-range planners. I need to chat with them again before revealing their names more publicly. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. In the meantime, pray about next steps. Dream about what church is meant to be and what forms it might take if it doesn’t involve this building. What would INSPIRE you? What would CHALLENGE you? What would UPLIFT you?

We’ll talk more as we go on. And I’ll be interspersing all of that with this Wisdom learning and other learning I’m engaged in. Call me. Tell me your hopes, your dreams, your fears. Wherever you are is where you are. Remember that post from a while ago about seeking and finding? “If you are seeking, you must not cease until you find. When you find, you will be troubled. But your trouble will give way to wonder, and in wonder you will reign over all.”

Wonder with me. Won’tcha?

Pr. Rob

Let that shit go

Sorry for the poor and inconsistent writing in this post. I took it from my Facebook page, where I wrote it for speed, not for prettiness.

I have an acquaintance who lives on the street, on and off. I won’t call her a friend, because I’ve found that she’s not like a lot of the people I meet, with whom I can have good (if disagreeing) conversations about this or that. It’s not that I dislike her, but she’s not really a friend.

Anyway, she had disappeared for a while. About 2 months ago, she called me from Kansas, wanting me to drive up there and bail her out of jail. (Uh, no.) Then I stopped hearing from her again. Until yesterday. She was at the church, where I was swinging in to pick something up, then head out to go visit my friend in hospice care. I saw her under the steps, sleeping or reclining, but being felt up by some dude that I had caught the week before pissing on the church building. They both got up when I arrived, and they left pretty quickly.

Today, 15 minutes before online church started, just after our musician came into the building, I see this acquaintance, who had slipped in through the door when the musician didn’t fully close it behind her. So I had just finished talking to my niece about my mom’s health issues, was trying to get with the musician to get our sound levels sorted, and then we had just begun, when C showed up in the front pew. We made eye contact, then she darted out of the building.

I heard the door open and shut, and in comes C again. Musician is doing first and second reading, so I dash out to say, “Hey! I’m sorry, but I can’t help with anything today. I’ve got a parishioner friend on hospice care, then I have to deal with my family who believes my mom might be dying.” She goes, “Well, do you at least have a book?” “What? A particular book?” “No, just any book.” “Uh, well, here’s a Bible, but you have to go. I’m in the middle of stuff.” “Can’t I stay for worship?” “Well, no. The building is closed because of Covid.” On and on this goes until I have to go back in to read the Gospel.

We go through the rest of the service, but I keep noticing that C is walking back and forth, in and out of the door. Turns out, she let in two friends. AFTER I had told her we were closed. “Well, I have to use the restroom and there’s nothing you can do about it. Deal with it.” Now I’m pissed. “Pee, then go. We are done.”

I go to talk to the friends, who seem fine. C has told me her male friend, who was there in a wheelchair, was actively dying. According to him, though, he had walked through some broken glass and needed to go to the hospital. I said, “Well, I have to go, but can’t these two lady friends of yours wheel you over to Hillcrest?” “No, I can’t go there. I need to go to the hospital in Bixby and I have no way to get there.” “Call an ambulance, maybe?” “I don’t have a phone.” “We’ll call FOR you, but you have to go outside.” (There is Zero evidence this guy has walked through broken glass. As I said, he’s sitting in a wheelchair with no footrests, so now he’s using in their stead an extra-wide skateboard on a string. Don’t ask me. This is all dream material. Bizarre.)

C comes out, tells me again about how this guy is dying, and in the meantime, C’s friends have gotten the message, so they’re packing their stuff up. But C keeps telling me how she’s tired of all this shit from God, and really starting to get into her delusional mindframe, for which I have less than no time right now.

Musician and friend Carie (who also slipped in through a door that was supposed to be shut, but she was there as support and not as an antagonist, plus she was wearing a mask) back me up, telling them that they;ve been asked to go. We finally shuffle them out the door where they’re supposed to wait for the ambulance we’ve called. Instead the cops showed up (after I left), and C decided to chug a bottle of M/D 2020 (fitting) right in front of them.

The scripture reading for today was the story of Jesus walking on water, literally treading upon chaos. And he (via Matthew) was teaching us also to trust – not to grasp onto faith like a piece of flotsam, but to let go in trust. Guess I was preaching as much to myself as to anyone else this morning. But it’s easier said than done. Like anyone else, I default to assumptions based on the rational mind, even when it’s clear that rationality isn’t the tool I need for this task at hand, but rather a non-grasping trust that a hand will reach out and grab me when I sink.

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