Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Where have all the Cowboys gone?

In 1997 Paula Cole recorded her only pop hit "Where have All the Cowboy's Gone?" A song that both pined for the past structure of relationships and yet also realized that this romantic image was in fact quite unrealistic.

The reason I mention the song is that it immediately stuck into my head (the danger of songs recorded in an era when you listened to radio 10 hours a day) when I was contemplating another thought.  This thought was brought on by a recent sermon I heard and a new book I have been reading.

The book, The Forgotten Ways is both a historical, analytical text as well as a call to action for the church.  It encourages us to reclaim our "Apostolic DNA" and move forward boldly into the world as the early church did.  To be in my own thinking "cowboys" against the establishment of institution and structure that binds us from being apostolic, that has limited both the lay responsibility to evangelism as well as limiting Pastor's to more or less lives of caretaking the established flock through word and sacrament.  Neglecting the necessary and God given gifts of Apostleship.

The recently memory is the result of a preacher recently I heard who extorted the congregation that gathered, a newly formed congregation installing its first pastor, to "convince people" of the relevance of the faith in their lives.  They needed, this preacher said, to have this sort of conviction to convince others that the mission of the church is both relevant and essential to their lives of faith.

So where are the Cowboys of the faith?  Where are the open rangers who are willing to go out into the undiscovered country.  To herd restless bands of sheep (and probably a lot of goats) towards more fertile fields as well as keep them from danger?  Where are the convincers?  Or in another "churchy" word, where are the apologists?

We need more apologists in our church.  Understanding the term apologists is not encouraging an "apology" in the modern sense (to say they are sorry) but in the ancient sense.  Apology is to make the argument for, to explain why the faith is true, the proclamation necessary and frankly, at the end of the day vital for the very life of the people who most need to hear it.

Cowboys were apologists in many ways.  Their values were practical and wise, based on a need to survive, not on ideology that divided.  With so few of them, and so much work to go around, they needed to trust one another and have accountability that they would do the tasks assigned.

Living lives on the open range, encountering those they encountered, did this lifestyle always go well?  Well like Cole's song, it was a mixed bag. Of course not everyone claimed and lived into these things in a positive manner.  Any maverick instinct results in unexpected responses.

But ultimately they overall did what needed to be done to get their flocks to safety and ultimately lived in a way that became legendary.  I know a few, but I believe we need some more Cowboy apologists for the faith, especially in Cowtown, but also throughout our world.  Those who aren't afraid to invite others to hear a word of grace, to break down walls of oppression, to try new things, to focus on a mission and to value people for their gifts and abilities, not for their standing in society or wealth (which never got you far if you have watched a few John Wayne movies).

A while ago a wise professor once stated that he thought I might be an apologist for the faith.  I was honored that he might think so, based on the witness of others in my life.  I am not sure I am yet living into that role, but given my current place, perhaps a little more Cowboy would be appropriate.  In fact, maybe the best role of all of us pastors is not so much to be the Cowboy, but living into it so as to train others to do so.  Then there isn't one "John Wayne", there would be a whole posse of folks, proclaiming the good news of the One who sent them.  That would be an exciting way.  Imagine, a congregation of Cowboy apologists?  Proclaiming Jesus Christ crucified and raised, calling all to new life.  Now that would be worth a "Yeeeeeeeeee-Haw!"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ashes on the Pitch

Ash Wednesday afternoon a Trinity member called me because the soccer team he helps coach at his High School was forced to reschedule a game against a big rival from the night before to Wednesday night.  As a result, a bunch of the guys on his team were lamenting that they wouldn't be able to attend services that night and receive Ashes (most of them concerned about what their mom's might say if they didn't of course).  So T gave me a call out of the blue and said, "Hey Pastor, could you come over and say a prayer or something with these guys?"

Of course I jumped at the opportunity, got in my car, drove across town and arrived just as the JV team was finishing up practice and the opposing team was arriving.  Although initially jazzed at this opportunity to be with these young people as I walked down to the Soccer pitch (which is situated on a bluff overlooking downtown Fort Worth, quite a stunning view) I became a little apprehensive at what I might find.  After all, this is a public school, this is before a big soccer game with playoff implications, what kind of reception might I receive from the other coaches or school officials.

As always, a smiling welcoming face calmed my apprehension.  T welcomed me over, introduced me to the head coach of his team and a couple of his guys, and then we went over and talked to the other coach.  Obviously and rightly focused on the task at hand, he kind of sideways mentioned to some of his players, "Hey, this Pastor is here to give anyone who wants it ashes, any of you guys missing church tonight?" Half the hands of his team shot up.

About 5 minutes later, with the guys from T's team who wanted to participate and their opponents.  We gathered, twelve or fifteen of us, at one end of the pitch, in the shadow of the goal and took hands and prayed.  Then one by one I went around and made the sign of the cross in ashes on their forehead, asking each their name and then saying "Steve, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return" and so on I did this for Jose, Raju, Tom, Diego and so on (not their real names, but representative).  White, Black, Latino, Central Asian...from many religious backgrounds and socio-economic realities.  I made the sign of the cross on their forehead and one by one, as I completed that, they turned and ran back, to join their team for warm-up.

Two teams from different ends of Fort Worth, young men in the very prime of life, invincible in their minds, brought together by a ritual that reminds us that they are not invincible, that they are dust and shall return to that dust.  Brought together because of a relationship that was formed by a Pastor who came before me, that I have had the honor of developing and I am witnessing grow into a true discipleship relationship.  Brought together by a phone call.

I hear a lot of my Pastor friends and parishioners lament about the disestablishment of religion in our schools.  About not having school prayer etc...  I have to be honest, I never grew up in that world and frankly, I prefer this.  This is honest proclamation brought on by relationships of trust and accountability that have grown over years.  I was there not because the establishment hierarchy told me to, I was their because of a friend.  Those youth participated not because this was mandatory chapel, they did it because they knew it was something important to them and their families.  But I will say one thing for this way, it requires more work, relationships and ultimately, it requires the willingness to receive rejection.

In the stands afterwards, T heard and addressed a bunch of questions about what had gone on.  Questions asked by those who had NEVER seen anything like that, who had never heard of Ash Wednesday.  No doubt, those youth who participated were asked questions about what they had participated in.  I didn't stay to address that, they stayed, they were the witnesses that day.  The mark of their faith was boldly proclaimed on their forehead, mingling with the sweat of their exertion as they competed for victory.  The mark of faith reminding us all that the victory has already been won.

God has not been banished from our schools, so long as those disciples of God are willing to go and take the opportunities the Spirit presents for us to witness.  Thank you T, for that chance and for being willing to witness.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Preaching to Myself

Just got done writing my article for the monthly newsletter.  A fairly arcane mode of communication, but one we still hold on to at Trinity and in many congregations.

Interestingly, I wrote it without thinking a lot about it (that might come as a surprise, but sometimes you just get going on something and the words come without a lot of thought) and then I re-read it.  And in so doing I realized, I am preaching to myself.  I need to hear this as much as I need others to hear it.

Wonder how often this happens to pastors or other leaders in communicating.  Also wonder how healthy this is, am I reading the situation correctly?  Are these the questions they have?  Or am I just putting my anxiety onto the community?  Addressing questions they aren't asking?  Something to ponder...

Dear Partners in Mission,

We have discovered this Lent the reality that we spend a great deal of our lives in the wilderness and that wilderness wandering brings many questions…

Where will we go?  How will we pay the bills?  What will happen after I die? What direction should we turn?  What person should I be committed to?  How will my kids turn out?  Who can I trust?  Can I trust at all?

These questions and more challenge us and can lead us to fear and anxiety.  Anxiety that we don’t have the answers and ultimately, even answering those questions will bring only more questions and situations we cannot handle.  It may begin to seem that we are constantly under a sword of Damocles, hanging there ready to strike yet again.  And in that wilderness we wonder, where are you God?

This Lent, in our wilderness we have found that God is actually right there with us.  Although it can be challenging to believe this, the history of God’s people bears it out.

Often ignored, the Old Testament reading for Easter Sunday this year speaks to God’s presence in the wilderness.  “Thus says the LORD: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness…I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jeremiah 31:2-3) 

Challenging to believe, but there is grace in the wilderness.  The Israelite’s received manna from heaven and in the wilderness of fear and anxiety that first Easter day, a voice called out to a weeping woman.  She thought he was a gardener, but in calling her name, she knew that no wilderness, not even death was too great for the grace of God.

In Our Risen Christ,
Pastor Erik Gronberg

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Overplaying your Hand

Although I have watched, I have quite intentionally avoided opining on the festivities in Wisconsin occurring over the past few weeks.  Basically I have been operating under the following two principles...
1) I know folks who feel passionately about both sides of this issue, whose passions, lives, jobs, healthcare, pensions and political futures are wrapped up in this, and I care about all of them.
2) I am no longer a resident of the great state of Wisconsin, I have relinquished my right to vote there and be a part of the government there.  And as a firm believer in the rights of individual states to discern their destiny without undo outside influence (which would include the influence of money and people, I don't think I need to go into more on that, but neither side is very innocent here), it isn't my place to say what should or shouldn't be done in Wisconsin.

However, today I read an insightful column that I believe gives a bit of context in which I might opine on simply some of the concepts going on there and frankly, throughout our nation currently.  The concept is..."overplaying your hand."

I am by no means a poker player, I leave that to my brother and my brother-in-law, but I do know a couple things about poker and even moreso about leadership.  When you have a winning hand, when you have the opportunity to achieve your goals, you have a decision to make.  Do you go for the moon shot, the big deal, the huge payday...or do you take the win, achieve what you had hoped for and move forward to build on that success.

My contention is that Scott Walker has overplayed his hand.  In his desire to become the new darling of the Republican Party, the Tea Party, whatever, in his goal (which has become more apparent day after day) to get himself moved up from Wisconsin to the big time of Washington he has overplayed the moment.  He could have accepted the concessions of the union, taken the pay cuts, the pension cuts and moved on to unite a coalition of smaller government, fiscally conservative folks (of which he would find many in Wisconsin and throughout the nation). He could have shown magnanimosity in victory and done his most important job, serve the entire people of Wisconsin, even those who disagreed with him.

But instead he has decided to overplay his hand and become a union buster.  A noble profession for those of his political thinking, a role that will win him a great deal of friends.  But how many of those friends will be in Wisconsin?  In so doing he has pitted neighbors against neighbors and made a BIG mistake.  Because in the end, most of us like our kid's teacher.  We may think teacher unions are big bad machines, but we like our kid's teacher.  More to the point, most teacher's live down the street from us, their spouses work in the same towns, their kids go to the same sunday school.

There is a line in leadership.  How far can you go without overplaying your hand.  It is a temptation the comes regardless of political ideology (again, I have no partisan axe to grind here, just making commentary) and you can find examples on both sides of the aisle who have done so.

So how do you keep from overplaying?  I believe you have to either have a fabulous internal compass, a guiding principal and light, a meter that guides you.  Or you have to have fabulous subordinates.  Those who you can fully trust, who advise and coach you in your successes, but also call you back when you overstretch.  Walker apparently is missing those voices.  He has 4 years of governorship to accomplish his goals, why do it all at once?  Well, maybe his goals aren't to govern, but to move on up.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Nunc dimittus

Can you have a mentor that you only interacted with for a brief part of your life?  A person who was huge for about 3 years or so, who you had a personal connection with but then basically related to only via his/her writings, public interviews, etc...?

This morning I saw the news that the Rev. Professor Peter Gomes had joined the Church Triumphant (for those not in "the know", that is church speak for died) on Monday.  Only a week ago I learned from my dad (via David Gergen, long story) that Gomes had suffered a stroke...and then this morning, through Facebook, I saw the article that he was gone.

My sense of loss at his death is palpable.  Although I hadn't corresponded with him in years and the last time I was in his presence was at Luther Seminary, where he was visiting and preaching and I was honored to his assisting minister, the knowledge that he was there made the world a bit more stable for me.

In my mind I immediately thought of the scene from A Few Good Men where Kaffee confronts Jessep about his leadership, and Jessep replies that "You need me on that wall!"  I needed Peter Gomes on that wall.  I needed to know that he was thinking, writing, preaching and leading that community at Harvard.

I needed to know that someday another 18 year old freshman, scared, lonely and far from home.  Lost in his own self doubt and academic failure could hear the bells of Memorial Church ring on a Sunday morning and if he or she bothered to stroll the 100 yards from bed to pew, would be both comforted and challenged by the proclamation of a God who loved them and expected them to do something with their life.  That they were blessed to be a blessing and that if they could understand their place in the history of the school they might recognize that God is still the center of Harvard as God has been since 1636. Whether those within or without who could call us Godless, recognized it.

Almost two years ago I was asked to preside (presumably being one of the only clergymen of my class) at the memorial service for our 10th Class Reunion.  I wrote a little reflection for the day and thought about sending it to Gomes, but never did.  Probably out of self doubt again, wondering would he think it silly or trite?  

Perhaps, and he was not one to mince words or critique.  But I centered my reflection on a memorial that stands in his beloved Memorial Church to the Harvard students who died fighting for Germany in the first world war.  A memorial that has always meant a great deal to me (maybe because I am Lutheran) as it acknowledged that those who came to Harvard came from many places and with many allegiances.  We were drawn for many reasons and cut from different clothes but ultimately were united by our bond of being a part of our University.  So Peter, we remember you, and we give thanks for you as we give thanks for those that have gone before and we trust that another will come to lead in your absence.


Peter Gomes was cut from a different cloth, but today I give thanks that one more of the 10,000 claimed victory today.