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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Embracing The Suck

Yeshua says, “If you are searching, you must not stop until you find. When you find, however, you will become troubled. Your confusion will give way to wonder. In wonder you will reign over all things. [*Your sovereignty will be your rest.]” (Gospel of Thomas, Logion 2, translated by Lynn Bauman.)

Jesus said, “Let him who seeks not cease seeking until he finds. And when he finds, he will be troubled. And when he has been troubled, he will marvel and he will reign over the All.” (TG, Logion 2, 1959 “raw” translation from the Coptic.)

*The bracketed portion does not properly belong to the Nag Hammadi scrolls found at the end of WWII, but does belong to scrolls known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri found earlier elsewhere in Egypt. Bauman’s translation is a bit of a mash-up or a “composite text” that may help the reader see more broadly.

Oxyrhynchus fragment

These two Jesus sayings from the “Gospel” of Thomas sound a lot like similar sayings found in Matthew 7 and Luke 11, where the gist is “Seek and you shall find.” “Knock and it shall be opened to you.”

Thomas offers it to us a little differently, with a little more conditionality. “IF you seek ….” It both requires the effort to go seeking, and an urgency to do so with persistence. “You must not cease” if you go seeking. And then it also throws this disconcerting thing in here about becoming troubled. I mean, yes, there is also the promise that, if you go through this seeking and finding and becoming troubled bit, you will wind up in wonder or amazement at what you find. And not only that, that this wonder will be the source of your “sovereignty.”

I’m not here to unpack all of that. That’s your task … IF you seek to do it. 🙂 But what I am saying here bears on what we’re going through right now in the midst of our pandemic.

Before I jump right to that, though, allow me a bit of a sideline.

Back around 1969, Thomas S. Kuhn wrote a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The book itself was a revolution because it called into question the “incremental” model of scientific discovery that held: scientific discovery happens with a small breakthrough, and then little by little, that theory is built upon until a newer, bigger theory is fleshed out. Kuhn argues that this isn’t what really happens.

He says that there are scientific paradigms – ways in which people believe for a certain amount of time … until scientists have to start making more and more “exceptions.” “This theory works this way, period. Well, except for X and in Situation Y, and then maybe not at all in Case Z.” The more exceptions that need to be made, the greater the realization that the paradigm which had been the reigning idea for quite a while, doesn’t exactly hold water. And so somebody has to come up with a NEW paradigm that seems to work better.

Inevitably, adherents to the old way are going to dig in their heels and insist that the old paradigm was correct and that those following the new one are a bunch of idiots or heretics or something. But in any case, there comes about a “malaise” as the old falls apart but the new isn’t yet emerged. Liminal space. That’s what my earlier post talked about.

Making that leap from the realm of science to the realm of lived experience, we find ourselves frequently in this odd position of realizing that the old way of things, for whatever reason, just doesn’t work anymore. It’s broken and there’s no going back. Deep down we know there’s no going back, so we’re left with the choice of denying the brokenness, or finding ourselves in free fall as we seek the emergence of the new paradigm.

What’s interesting here is that the crumbled old paradigm of “church attendance” is something that just fell apart overnight. Nobody chose this. Some tried to cling to the old pattern, saying “God will put a hedge of protection around his faithful.” And lots of them died. Because what they had wasn’t “faith:” it was misplaced certainty in a deus ex machina – a god that pops out of the box at the end of the play and moves everything toward a happy, Hollywood ending. That idea of God died on the cross outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago, sprang back up, and died in the death camps in Poland and Germany during the Second World War, springs up again from time to time in various places and dies over and over and over again. That paradigm is broken. The paradigm that BEGINS to emerge time and again is the one that Paul knew about (I decided to know among you nothing but Christ and him crucified) and Luther taught about in the 16th century in his “Theology of the Cross.” This is a co-suffering, self-emptying, all-loving God who reaches out to us time and again. But we keep forgetting.

In any case, knowing that God is the way Luther and Paul and the Gospel writers described him, not like Zeus or any of those other boxed up gods, we have a ground upon which to build a new paradigm in preparation for the new arising of what God’s Church is going to look like.

We’ve been saying for years that the gathered church isn’t the ONLY form of the church. We are church when we’re gathered, yes; but we’re still church when we’re gathered in different ways (online, for example) or even when we’re scattered through physical distancing. THAT isn’t the problem.

The problem is: now that we’re searching, now that we’re finding the brokenness of the old paradigm, we’re becoming troubled. I said last time that this is an opportunity. And, even though it has taken me a zillion words to get here, I have some practical things that we can all do as we seek to Embrace the Suck of the broken paradigm and the absence of the new one.

As one of my spiritual mentors suggests: “Build a stomach for free fall.” Get used to it. Come to see it as the opportunity it is instead of viewing it only as something to be mourned. Yes, it will feel as though we’re throwing away something that has taken us lifetimes to build and cement into place. But we’re reminded not to build up storehouses for this world because things of this world simply don’t last. Instead build up storehouses for “higher” treasures. “Wonder” is a higher treasure. In Awe is where you will reign. Here your CAPACITY will be deepened, your ability to find what’s truly important, not just for you but for the whole world. Stand in amazement at where God has brought you.

Rob, you said this will be practical. Were you yanking our chain?
No. I wasn’t. But my answer may be a little “troubling.” You can take it or leave it, but what I’m going to suggest here is the adoption of a rhythm for life with some spiritual practices. At some point, we can unpack this stuff if we decide to take these things on communally, but for now, here’s what we’re looking at:

* A daily practice of sitting meditation (Centering Prayer). This is where it starts.
* Lectio divina (“Divine reading“) – a prayerful, meditative reading of Scripture.
* Chanting Psalms – not just saying them, but the intentional breathing and intonation of words
* Balancing each day with prayer and work (not over-balancing one or the other)
* Balancing solitude and togetherness
* Practicing “kenosis – pouring out, letting go, making space for something else to happen, such as the movement of the Holy Spirit – not asserting your entitlement

These things won’t “solve” our problem, but – even if you just choose one and stick with it – they will expand your perception, transform you so that you can deal with the problem in a way that won’t cause you anguish and suffering.

I’ll bust these things open over the next weeks, one or two at a time. Of course, nobody is obligated to do any of this. I wouldn’t do that to you even if I had the authority or power to do so. I’ll just remind you that, “if you seek, you must not cease seeking until you find.” While you may “become troubled, your trouble will give way to wonder,” and what a glorious place to be!

Please feel free to share feedback.

Liminal Space

Although I did study Material Culture, which included a little bit of architecture — just enough to be dangerous — architecture isn’t my “thing.” Nevertheless, there is a term from that discipline that comes in handy these days: “Liminal.”

The word is rooted in Latin and it simply means “threshold.” It’s a space that isn’t quite This and yet not quite That. Think of transitions in rooms. Where does my dining room begin and where does my living room end? If I had walls, there would be a clear definition of spaces, but our house has an “open floor plan,” so there are various “threshold” or “liminal” spaces.

The idea extends beyond architecture into our lived experience of time. Right now, for example, we are living in a liminal space because of COVID-19. The former way of doing things no longer works, but at the same time, the new way of doing things is yet to emerge.

Liminal spaces are difficult spaces, especially for people like us who are addicted to certainty. Certainty means predictability and predictability means safety, security. Without those things, we may go into a kind of psychological and/or spiritual free fall, and that’s really uncomfortable.

The good news is that free fall is also an opportunity for incredible personal growth.

Here’s a quick example from my own life. If you know me, you’ve heard the story. I began working in museums on October 10, 1989, shortly after I had gotten out of the Army. I went into the Army in the first place because I had no post-high school plans. It was clear to me that I didn’t want to go to college, and my grades in high school sort of stood there as a back-up plan to make sure I didn’t even try to make that choice. But after my time and experience with the military, it was even clearer that I didn’t belong in THAT lifestyle AT ALL. Not even a little. When I discovered on day 3 of bootcamp that the thought of killing people wasn’t in line with my morality, I went into free fall. For 2 long years.

I didn’t come out of free fall until I emerged from the Army. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but at least I had clarity about what options weren’t on the table. I got back into school, and that was great. It turned out that I loved learning … when it was MY choice what to learn. Huh. Pig-headedness might be a good way to phrase that.

Anyway, school is not a career, but I needed to earn money. My fiancee and I, back before those Army free fall days, used to love to go to the Henry Ford Museum. We held an annual pass there, and would often go to the outdoor part (Greenfield Village) just to smell the smells, enjoy the weather, catch a bit of history. In the August after my release from active duty, I received a postcard sent to all Annual Pass holders that there would be a job fair on a certain date. Donning my tie, I went to the job fair and was hired to become an “Interpreter.” (That’s just the old museum-y term that kind of means “guide,” but there’s more to it than just memorizing and reciting scripts. Another post for another day, perhaps.)

I had taken that job as a place filler while I figured out what to do with my life. I kept working there through college … or at least volunteering on special events, because I loved the work so much.

Things happened. I moved to Germany for a girl. Well, for a girl and to get my Master’s degree. But there was no solid plan behind it. I just knew I wanted to live in Germany, and I wanted to be with this woman. After 6 months in Berlin with no job and with none of the classes I had signed up for (their system is quite different than ours), I came home to the States, defeated. Free fall. Did some odd jobs in the German Department at the University. That was OK, but not fulfilling.

Eventually there was an opportunity to go back to the museum. I did. After a short time, a better job opened up there, so I applied for that and was selected. In the meantime, I had been dumped by a still different woman after a long-term relationship. Free fall again.

But this time, I free fell into a decision: I LOVE museum work. I’m kind of good at it. People in that field recognize my dedication. I’ll get my MA in this field. I did that MA program (while dating Christy, who crazily married me shortly after graduation). Went to work for another museum with a fantastic reputation. Loved it. A lot. In a little over a year’s time, I went from Intern to Program Supervisor in a new section of the museum to Manager of a whole different section of the museum. It was great. Until it wasn’t.

The details aren’t important here (and I’ve recounted them elsewhere), but suddenly what HAD been the perfect job became a prison and a nightmare. I needed out, but by this time, I had been working on an off in museums for almost 20 years and my identity had become sewn up in it. MAJOR free fall.

But that was also the time I started going back to church. Not just going to church, but also attending a lay ministry school. A friend from church and I drove once a month for two years from Indianapolis up to Appleton, Wisconsin on a Friday in order to attend classes on Prayer, Old and New Testament, Liturgy, and a host of other topics, only to turn around and drive back to Indy on Saturday afternoon. In that time I heard the call to ordained ministry, and here I am today.

I’m skipping over a lot of important details, but the story is already way too long. The point: Major liminal times in my life – serious periods of complete free fall – all wound up leading to incredible personal growth. Was it painful to watch the old paradigms fall apart well before new ones began to emerge? God, yes! Painful and terrifying! But something within me knew to persevere and to have trust. I didn’t always know what or who I was trusting in, only that I needed to trust.

Since then, there have been about a bajillion other times of free fall, other liminal times of one degree or another. Sometimes several were happening at the same time. That’s what I’m experiencing right now, alongside the process we are going through as a congregation while we wait for the new paradigm to be born.

I guess what I’m saying in all of this is: 1) Yes, I know it’s hard. Can we say, “This royally sucks?” I think that’s fair. But 2) this is also a time of opportunity to – as we used to say in boot camp – “embrace The Suck,” because we know that there’s something potentially awesome on the other side of it.

In my next post, I’m going to offer some practical wisdom for “embracing The Suck.” Stay tuned.

STILL More on Opening Church

Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting in on a Zoom meeting (my gawd, I’m almost tired of this technology!) with our Bishop and the Assistant to the Bishop along with some colleagues, and we were kind of bantering back and forth about where everyone’s hearts and heads are right now. We were also passing around ideas about staging various re-openings, knowing that we’re likely to have a ebbs and flows – now relaxing our restrictions, now tightening them again. Someone had the idea to use a color-coded system to make it easier for folks to know which restrictions are currently in place and which have been scaled back for the moment. I like this idea and will bring it to our planning group, currently known as “The Clean Team.” Maybe we can put the thing together in order to simplify what I spelled out in my earlier letter.

Another thing that came up: Pr. Liz shared a resource that seems like it might be worthy of our consideration. It’s called RSVPify, and it’s a seating chart maker that we could use to pre-arrange seating in the sanctuary. Click on the link and see what you think. Be sure to let us know in the comments or by calling the church office.

As you can see, we’re not goofing around all day, but instead are trying to find the level of risk that WE are willing to accept. What YOU decide to accept beyond that is another question, but we’re trying to take all of this into account.

Thanks again for your patience. The grumbling has been minimal, which is not something that I’m hearing from all of my colleagues across the denominations and various parts of the country. I will say, as an aside, that one of my colleagues mentioned a church leader in Uganda that he spoke to recently being aghast that anyone is even considering opening churches to in-person worship yet. I found that interesting.

More on “When Can We Come Back to Church?”

Probably a day doesn’t pass without at least one person asking, “When are we going to have church again?” I get it. In this time of sheltering in place, people are anxious – and I use that word advisedly, since it means something more like “in a state of anxiety” and less like “in a state of anticipation and readiness.” In our case, I think it’s likely both: we are anxious because of uncertainty, and we are wanting to return to something closer to what we know as “normal.”

I can’t give you a date yet for when we will open the building. If we were a regular business, I might be tempted to blow smoke and give you an answer you want to hear, but because we are a church of Jesus Christ sitting at the foot of his cross, I must tell you plainly: We are in for a long haul. The re-opening of the church building is going to move in stages or phases. I’ll say more about that in a minute, but rest assured that there is a team of people keeping the CORE Council advised on ongoing discussion about making this work.

Let me give you the extreme answer first, and then I’ll scale things back into more manageable pieces.
So, we will not meet in the “normal” way until there is a vaccine that is widely available and/or there are medical interventions/therapies for people suffering from COVID-19 that are significantly effective. So that’s the longest-term answer I can give, and based on current projections, it may be as late as 2021 before those things are in place. A harsh truth, but we are about truth, not about pleasing answers.

But don’t lose heart! Between now and then, we will work in phases. Phase 1 is where we currently stand: strict physical distancing. For us that looks like entry to the church building only by appointment with appropriate masking and social distancing kept. It also looks like online-only worship.

Phase 2 is going to be a staged re-opening. This will still include limited access to the building for most people. It will probably be a long stage, since we will be anticipating during this time:
* A “flattening of the curve” (declining numbers of new cases for 2 weeks in a row)
* Increased accessibility to testing and diagnoses at the least for people who are experiencing symptoms, plus those people’s close contacts
* More availability of PPE for first responders and healthcare workers
* Better contact tracing for all new cases

During this phase, we are all going to need to show a lot of grace and love and patience toward one another, because we will likely have to do a lot of back-and-forth, now-we’re-open-now-we’re-not maneuvering. And during this phase, access to the building will be limited to people 65 and under and without underlying health conditions that could make them vulnerable. Even so, people with access will be required to sign a waiver of liability stating that the congregation (a legal entity) will not be held responsible yadda yadda. You’ll get a copy of this at some point.

When we do open the building during phase 2, when waivers are signed, numbers of people allowed in will still be limited; masks will be required at all times; there will be no physical contact including passing of the peace; communal objects including the baptismal font, the offering plate for passing, the elements of Holy Communion will not be available; we will have no fellowship time, no in-person meetings or Bible studies, no in-person choir rehearsals; no choir performances (and very limited musical performances); no communal coffee available, and restroom access will be limited to emergency use only.

An advanced/adaptive version of Phase 2 might include outdoor worship gatherings with masking and proper distances kept, and this might allow us to have some singing. Oklahoma weather will need to cooperate with us for a change in order for this to be feasible, though. In terms of Communion, we will recommend that you BYOE (Bring Your Own Elements). This is similar to what we’re doing online right now. It’s not sacramentally and theologically ideal, since the symbolism of a single bread and a single cup are very important, and yet we must adapt for the sake of health and safety. (Incidentally, intinction, which is less sanitary even than drinking from a common cup, will probably go away permanently, even as we enter Phase 3 and beyond.)

In order to move into Phase 3 (or “new normal” phase)  we will need to increase sanitation and hygiene measures in the building. We will continue to offer online worship and other online meetings for members and friends who are unable for any reason to be physically present with us. In phase 3 itself, we will be able to relax requirements on physical distancing and use of masks in most or all places.

So, there is the plan. We do have one, and we will work the plan. The timeline, as I said, isn’t ours to set. The virus is sort of “in charge” here, as is the behavior of the public insofar as it affects the way the virus spreads or doesn’t. Please know that our entire approach is based first on our love for all of you and our desire to keep you as safe as possible while we seek to return to the precious gathering of the saints in something like the way to which we have grown accustomed. It is a privilege and a joy to meet face-to-face, and if there is a silver lining in all of this (I believe there are several), it is that we are gaining clarity on how important public worship and Christian fellowship truly are in our lives.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for caring and continuing to care about what happens to this community. You really are a special People, First Lutheran. Your patience and care for one another are an example for the world of Christ’s love for one another, even as he has loved us. Keep fighting the good fight and running the race. Feed your spirits with THE Spirit through prayer, devotion, work for the sake of your neighbor. Please continue to support the work of the congregation with your offerings. It has been inspirational how faithful you all have been in that regard during this time. Be filled with blessing.

May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you, wherever he may send you.
May he guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm.
May he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you.
May he bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors.
(And may he do it sooner rather than later!)


Yours in Christ,

Pastor Rob Martin