Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Picking the Blanket Back Up

The congregation I serve, Trinity Lutheran-Fort Worth, sits at the intersection of three major roads in western downtown. Around the circle of this intersection are world class art museums, performance spaces, a medical center, CVS drug store, a McDonald's, and our mid-century modern church building. Everyday tens of thousands of cars drive by, hundreds of cars sit in the drive thru lane at McDonalds, and there is rarely quiet and certainly little or no silence.

This location impacts our ministry and has impacted me as a minister. In fact, it has resulted in creating my favorite 15 minutes of the ministry year, the 15 minutes after the last parishioner has left from our final Christmas Eve service.

I make sure, on Christmas Eve, to be the last person (with perhaps the exception of one of our homeless neighbors seeking shelter in our courtyard) to leave the church campus. I do this because in that time, that 15 minutes, close to midnight, there is silence in our busy intersection. There are few to no cars, the museums and medical center are closed, even the CVS and McDonalds are closed. In that blessed quiet, for 15 minutes, the last word on this intersection is the word that Christ has been born, the savior has come, peace between God and humanity, the angels have proclaimed it, fear not.

These 15 minutes came to mind yesterday when I read Jason Soroski's succinct and thoughtful blog post "Just Drop the Blanket: The Moment You Never Noticed in A Charlie Brown Christmas." He hits a chord with people, including myself, by finding a moment in a well loved classic that can, even after 50 years, proclaim anew the good news to us. The jist of it is, when Linus speaks those famous words from the angels, "Fear not," he drops his blue security blanket for the first time. In like regard then, Soroski encourages us to see that "The birth of Jesus allows us to simply drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to trust and cling to Him instead."

The response to this post has been strong and largely positive in the 48 hours since he uploaded it and for good reason. We need to be encouraged, to be taught again, as we teach the TLCC children in chapel that when angels come they say "Don't be afraid!" God is coming, you don't have to fear. In fact, we are doing such a good job of that just this week our school director received this email from a parent. "Our daughter told my husband and me yesterday that angels watch over us and protect us.  Thank you for teaching the kids such wonderful things that positively impact their lives!"             

When we recognize God has come for us, that we need not be afraid, indeed we can, as Soroski encourages us, drop the blanket of temporal security and live in God's peace. This sense of peace is why I love that 15 minutes after the last Christmas Eve service. The liturgy (the work of the people praising God) has been done. Good news has been proclaimed. My family is home safely in their beds. There is quiet on our busy intersection. Do not be afraid. I drop my security blanket and can almost hear the angels over Fort Worth.

But here is the problem with building a theology around that image and that moment, it doesn't last.

Linus completes his speech, walks over to Charlie Brown, and says "That is the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown," and immediately picks up his blanket and sticks his thumb (like my 3 year old) back into his mouth. The inbreaking of that peaceful moment, the dropping of the blanket, is not permanent in Linus' life just as the peace of that 15 minutes on Christmas Eve isn't permanent for me.

We live in the now, we wait upon the "not yet." In this now we get experiences of the "not yet," inbreakings of God's kingdom. These can come on Christmas Eve, or when we receive the Holy Eucharist and hear once again "given and shed FOR you," or it can happen in a particularly grace filled conversation with a friend, etc...

These experiences of the "not yet" like Linus had on that cartoon stage 50 years ago help sustain us and encourage us through life. But Charles Shultz was too good a theologian, I believe, to have Linus cast his blanket aside in that moment for all time. That sort of conversion moment would be good TV but it wouldn't be real life.

If we as teachers and preachers encourage our communities to expect that peaceful moment, that experience of the "not yet," to transcend the realities of life we risk turning gospel into law. We risk being one more voice that tells folks that if they just get Christmas right this year all will be well. The pain and grief and loss, the illness and broken relationships, the addictions and mistrust, the self-doubt, etc... will just go away. That with enough faith we can just drop that blanket and trust Christ who will replace it all and in so doing we once again make ourselves the actors in receiving God's peace.

To be fair, I don't think Soroski is that simplistic in his theology. His blog post is about a third the length of this. He was going for, and achieved, impact. Yet, I think perhaps he misunderstands what Linus' blanket is for. Is it a burden? In his formulation it is. However, one could also see this blanket as a tool to survive this challenging world. To do ministry and walk with, as Linus so often does, the Charlie Browns in our lives.

When we as leaders talk to people about theology and life we must be careful. Nuance is important and making sure God, not us, is the actor is of primary importance. To be sure we don't separate those moments of inbreaking peace from "the real world" in which we cling to temporal security, and for good reason. Life in this world is hard, sometimes I need a security blanket, I need that temporal reminder of God's grace to get through ministry and carry on.

We live in the reality of the now, waiting on the "not yet." As the wonderful hymn "Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service" reminds us...
                                          Still your children wander homeless;
                                          still the hungry cry for bread;
                                          still the captives long for freedom;
                                          still in grief we mourn our dead.

In those 15 minutes after Christmas Eve I sense the inbreaking of God's peace in my life. For a moment God takes that need for a temporal blanket of security away and gives me a sense of true security and peace. Yet I also know that within a couple hundred yards of me there is probably a homeless neighbor sleeping and I have a responsibility to know if he/she has a blanket, that the broken relationships my parishioners suffer won't just be healed in the morning, that even in the place of Jesus' birth, Bethlehem, there is little peace. The inbreaking comes, I experience peace, but then I pick back up my blanket and like Linus, to sooth myself, stick my proverbial thumb in my mouth so I can sleep in the midst of all these temporal realities.

We need moments like Linus had on stage. Moments when God breaks in and takes the blanket away. But as pastors and leaders we must always keep in mind the expectations we place on those hearing our words. We must not make gospel into law. We do not drop the blanket, God takes it from it. In the words "For You" God takes away our reliance on the things of this world and reminds us, in the now, of the coming "not yet." We rejoice in those moments, but we do so knowing the day after Christmas will come. The day of St. Stephen, the day of the first martyr, who served those in need, who was murdered before Saul. The next day comes and in this now, still in grief we mourn our dead.

Christmas is a wonderful gift given to us by God to remind us that God is always for us. Our blankets that we cling to in this life do not replace God but often give us the courage to serve God in this world of grief and sin. To sooth ourselves a bit so we can do that which God has called us to do in this life. To serve our neighbor and not lose heart. To know that moment is gospel and not law and that when we pick up the blanket again, we are not failing.

So may you have a blessed Christmas. May you experience that moment of "not yet," may God grant you that blessed peace, and then, pick up that blanket, and go and serve as Stephen did.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Leadership in Crisis: Nimitz on Pearl Harbor

My 3 year old just had a crisis. Her sleeper zipper was stuck. She responded with tears, anger, pulling, refused help initially, said "I CAN DO IT MYSELF," yet ultimately in despair she tore at the sleeper and cried out "Daddy, help me!" as she collapsed on the floor in tears.

How do we handle crisis? Much of leadership is defined by that ability. How does the leader respond when we encounter a crisis we have caused or one brought upon us by outside forces. Much ink has been spilled on this topic, particularly by the seminal author on crisis leadership, Irving Janis. This should be unsurprising given the inevitability of crisis in leadership, yet so many leaders, or aspiring leaders, appear to have paid little attention.

Today is December 7th. The 74th anniversary of the devasting attacks by the empire of Japan against the United States Pacific Navy stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In this devastating surprise attack the Japanese forces rendered the U.S. Pacific fleet basically non-operational and killed almost 4,000 sailers and personnel. It was a day, as President Rooselvelt frankly stated, that "will live in Infamy."

The navy was in crisis. A native Texan, Admiral Chester Nimitz, born in the late 1800's in the small hill country town of Fredricksburg, was the fleet admiral of the Pacific. Chester was raised without a father (he died while Chester was in utero). Instead, his paternal grandfather, who had served in the German Merchant Marine and was later a Texas Ranger, became a guiding influence. He famously told Chester, "the sea – like life itself – is a stern taskmaster. The best way to get along with either is to learn all you can, then do your best and don't worry – especially about things over which you have no control." This advice would be a good guide, especially for dealing with crises that came from outside the control of the Admiral.

Surveying the damage brought on by the surprise attack Nimitz was asked about his reaction to the devastation. It would have been understandable for him to react in anger. Why were they not more prepared? To find a scapegoat. Who was the blame? Who was manning the radar? Why didn't they discover the convey of Japanese ships and planes? He could have called immediately for major counter attacks, for which his forces were far too depleted. He could have made excuses and tried to cover up the devastating losses. Or he could have even fallen into despair and resign in failure.

Nimitz of course did none of these things. Instead, when asked what he thought he responded with a question, "The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?"

An adept leader in crisis Nimitz reframed the issue. He asked a question, implying he had an answer, but he pushed his followers to rethink their responses. He adapted the leadership situation. He acknoweldged the tremendous losses but did not dwell in fear and negativity. Instead he reframed the issues, pointed out the tremendous resources still at his disposal, and led his followers to see opportunity in the midst of loss and crisis (his famous 3 mistakes response is summarized below from his 12 page report "Reflections on Pearl Harbor" published in 1985 by the Admiral Nimitz Center).

Out of the disaster of Pearl Harbor came several years of hard fought, sacrificial battle. All was not resolved by this one statement and report. But this moment of leadership in crisis was an essential piece towards moving the community towards healing and future success. Nimitz did not retreat, build walls, find someone to blame, or make himself the issue. Instead he pointed to a future and encouraged followers to find a hopeful future with him.

We live in a time when the focus of too many of our leaders is just the opposite. To point to what we don't have, who to blame, and make audacious claims that they could have and would do better. Like my 3 year old, they refuse to ask for help and then in anger throw a fit blaming everyone but themselves for the situation.

Many of these claims have none of the clarity and backing of Nimitz's short 3 mistake summation in response to crisis. Terror strikes Paris, we want to close our borders and shut out refugees. Another mass shooting, we should ban all guns. Rhetoric without substance pours onto our radios, tv screens, and social media outlets. Self serving echo chambers develop that create a narrative that asks nothing of those who promote it but instead blames others for any problems.

This world needs more leaders like Nimitz who are not seeking after cheap political points. Who see the challenges and take those challenges seriously and offer not sound bite solutions but substantitive conversation that encourages us, the followers, to lead alongside them. This is not easy leadership because frankly, most of us don't want to be led or to sacrifice anything. We want a saviour to come and fix it for us. Nimitz didn't offer that. Instead he pointed to the resources the community had and offered hope that together they could rebuild.

So the next time you hear someone telling you exactly what you want to hear or what you expect to hear, think critically. What are they offering me and why? Are they just fitting into the narrative I already believe to be true? Is this a 3 year old solution? Blaming everyone else but me? Or are they challenging me to see the crisis differently, to reframe the issues, and pointing all of the community to hope? That is leadership.

Nimitz's 3 Mistake Analysis

Mistake one : The attack was on Sunday morning.  Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were on shore leave.  If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk-- 38,000 men would have been lost instead of 3,800.
Mistake two : When the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed the dry docks opposite those ships.  If the dry docks had been destroyed, every salvagable ship would have to have been towed to the west coast to be repaired.  As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised.  One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired and at sea by the time we could have towed them to America.  And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.
Mistake number three : Every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill. One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Decade

August 28, 2005, the day Katrina hit New Orleans, I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I had been trained and educated in preparation for this call. But after 10 years there are many things I have learned and many things I now know I will need to continue to learn for the coming decades. Perhaps this might be useful for others, so I have chosen to blog it.

In 10 years I have learned...
-Crisis is Continual: This is no big surprise to anyone familiar with the work of Ian Mitroff and others in the crisis management/leadership field. But it was new to me. As a new pastor I yearned to be present in those "key" moments for my community. What I quickly learned is that those moments happen almost daily and that there are very few long periods of "peace" within a congregation. There is always the next issue to be dealt with, the next funeral to be planned, wedding to preside. And that doesn't even begin to include council meetings.

-Leadership Learning is Essential:  When I graduated from seminary I was not familiar with the names Heifetz, Burns, Bass, Greenleaf, Drucker, and so very many more. In fact, I was often discouraged from pursuing leadership study interests because I had been told they were "theologically suspect" and overly focused on American corporate interests. Despite this I was thankfully exposed to some like Friedman and his disciple Steinke. Through this introduction and bibliography I discovered many others that have have helped me immensely to move forward in my ministry. Leadership theory is just that, theory. Praxis is essential. But my leadership would be diminished without this guidance.

-The Myth of "Enough" is Terrifying and Dominate: From the beginning I heard from my subconscious, pastor friends, lay leaders, and everytime I looked at our income vs. expenses that "if we only had" 5 more families, $30,000 more in the budget, a bigger youth room, an additional staff person, that this would be "enough." But it never was or is. My first call grew from 170 to 260 in average weekly worship attendance in four years. We took 16 youth to the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering (up from 6 in 2006), but it wasn't "enough." My second call has increased its worship attendance and budget 25%, doubled its ELCA benevolence, and paid off all its debts. We took 14 youth to the 2015 Detroit gathering after haven't having any youth attending one in a decade. Yet I must confess that we, including me, still don't feel we have "enough." There will never be "enough," there is only God's abundance and the mission given. Give up on "enough." (Tim has some good thoughts on this in his book Just a Little Bit More).

As such, from this learning I have come to believe some things about Pastoral ministry...
-Pastors must be Entrepreneurs: We must be constantly encouraging, starting, empowering, providing space, for new things. These new things give space for new people, new ideas, and adaptive learning (thanks Heifetz) to grow and develop.

-Non-Anxious Presence isn't a Buzz-Word and it is HARD: In the face of the anxiety of a community, continual crises (Mitroff), and an obsession with the idea of "enough" Pastors must remain calm. Listen, so that one can reflect and redirect. Give the work back (again, thanks Heifetz) but not because you aren't willing to deal with the uncomfortable conversation but because you confront the conversation (Burns). This is preaching and living the Law. We are trained to provide Gospel, but the Law is essential for the Gospel to be relevant.

-Home must be Peaceful: In 1965 my father was given a sage piece of advice from his internship pastor in Baltimore, MD. Dave Manrodt, pastor of Jerusalem Lutheran Church, told him that you cannot pastor a church while fighting a war at home. He was right fifty years ago and he is right today. Being a perfect parent, spouse, and child is beyond the hopes of anyone, especially one called to Pastoral ministry. But being clear on who comes first is possible. Home comes first. Spouse and children (if present) come first. A decade in I have much to repent from and confess.  Yet I pray my partner knows and witnesses my commitment to her in my actions and my life. Also I am blessed to hear as I leave their room more nights than not that my daughters love me "to the moon and back, infinity times." Unfortunately (if you are unclear on the notion of corporate sin re-read the second article of the Augustana) the community a leader serves cannot be expected, and should not be expected, to provide this sort of community and support. Regardless of how effectively the pastor leads the Indigo Girls have it nailed. Communal sin is real. The "snake will always bite the hand that feeds it." ("I'll Change"-Indigo Girls).

-Intentional in Dialogue, not Monologue: Preaching is often a monologue task. Soliciting feedback from a group of more than 20 (especially if they are used to the preached Word experience) won't happen on Sunday morning. Preaching a bold sermon about an issue of the day, confronting a leadership problem in the congregation, or other issue is not to be discouraged. But the preacher must acknowledge they are, while preaching, not in dialogue with the community. This is especially challenging for new preachers. Often we are emboldened to preach and rewarded socially in seminary for our "boldness" in the public word. But are we challenged to life in community? Proclaiming and living the gospel comes throughout the week. In the lunch conversation 5 days later, the bedside manner, the nuance of situation. Preaching on Sunday is vital to the work of ministry but it is a monologue task. So often the most challenging task is living into the dialogue.

The list could go on but these are a few keys I have gained. The reality is these points are, hopefully, not restricted to just pastors. These might be relevant  for any who feel called to public leadership in the world. Ten years is but a blink of an eye in many ways. Subdivisions and sports teams come and go in a decade.

However, others count times in decades or even centuries. Regardless, if they hope to have a successful future the leadership must be aware and focused. When I was ordained in 2005 Facebook was a small internet program focused on Ivy League students. By 2015 Social Media is its own, significant, piece of ministry. What will the next decade bring we do not know. Regardless, it can be predicted with certainty that what it will be isn't what has been before. That is both Law and Gospel. And if we wish to proclaim both, we must be learning constantly.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Uncle Al

Family Remarks and Memories
Funeral Liturgy of Albert J. Drackert
Peace Lutheran-West Seattle
July 7, 2015
Rev. Erik Gronberg, Lead Pastor, Trinity Lutheran-Fort Worth

45 seconds: Intro remarks: Introduce self, greetings from Karl and Sharon, thanks to Pastor Kindem, gratitude re: welcome, inclusion, warm temps (Easter-like)

I won’t speak for you. But for me today is tough. We have lost a father, grandfather, uncle, friend, cousin, parishioner, educator, and most importantly a servant of the Gospel. Albert J. Drackert was baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection as a child and affirmed that gift of faith living out his baptismal vocation. In Al Drackert’s death St. Paul, Minnesota has lost a loyal son and the City of Seattle has lost a great citizen and public servant.

Some of my first memories are of summer visits to Seattle. Although Anna Marie died when I was but 4 years old I have a vivid memory of both of them at the house on Rose Street. This house was so very important for us Texas Gronberg kids and I asked my siblings for memories.

My younger sister Rhia, in her succinct style, summed it up well for us all…frankly we are all just “really bummed” that Al is gone. Indeed, we are.

Kristen, the oldest Gronberg child, who looked up to Amy and Sarah a great deal, remembered playing princess in the yard (Al never yelling at them for dragging clean sheets in the grass), learning new phrases like “three sheets to the wind” when sick, participating in the “cascade ice cream company,” basement piano concerts, games of “monster,” and picking apples and making applesauce…quite the novelty for us Texans.

My brother David remembers Al smiling and laughing at the wrestling, “little bear cubs” (that would be he and I) on that infamous green shag carpet.

The youngest Joel wrote to me about Al being a man who set him an example of how to live a life of “faith, family, and integrity.” He recalled a visit and dinner at Ivars, always a special spot, when Al “flowed with pride and love for his grandchildren Luke and Tirzah and for his children Amy and Dave, Sarah and Pat, and even us ‘Texans’.” 

That Al included us was a part of his expansive sense of community and family. For me he is part of what Hebrews 12 calls “the great cloud of witnesses.” A family history of almost mythical proportions I have and continue to try to piece together.

Al was a remaining connection to a story of folks with last names like Drackert, Peterson, and Gustafson and first names like Hedvig, Joel, Paul, and Harriet. Stories of Anna Marie Gronberg going east from Port Orchard to St. Paul with Barb Eckstrom. While there, her Uncle Joel’s (Uncle Joel was a doctor by the way) son Orval, introduced her to his friend Al and they were married at Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in St. Paul. He was a part of connections to faithful disciples gathered in Lutheran congregations like Sunne in Wilton, ND, Elim in Port Orchard, Gethsemane in Seattle, And ultimately to Peace Lutheran here in West Seattle.

Al took seriously the Lutheran emphasis on the vocation of the baptized and lived his faith in service. My parents always made a big deal to us about how important Al’s work as a teacher was, his calling was just as important and holy as the calling to Word and Sacrament ministry. These were different, but equally important, ways of fulfilling our prayer that God’s kingdom might come among us.

Perhaps most importantly Al lived his vocation as a Dad. When Anna Marie died in 1981 Al’s role changed from husband, dad, and caregiver to both dad and mom. And he lived that faithfully. Kristen, my sister, remarked that visiting the Drackert’s was fascinating for her because there she watched as Al, the dad, provided vitamins and cooked the meals (something that in our house would have been cause for great fear and trembling, and finally, hopefully, slightly burned toast).

He also took on a new role of friend and companion to grandpa A.A. I can only imagine how many times he smiled that Al Drackert smile as A.A. decided to remind another server at Ivar’s that A.A. and Ivar were old friends. We can learn so very much from the grace and tenderness he showed in being a companion, like Ruth to Naomi, for our grandfather.

Al was faithful to the covenant God makes with us and we make to each other, all while being fully saint and sinner. He was not perfect and never claimed to be but showed us how to be a man of faith and love. To proclaim the good news in our daily lives. Through ups and downs to not “make a fuss” (except when the legislature threatens budget cuts to public schools). To live as one baptized and called. Our world is emptier today because his constant presence, our assumption, is gone.

So it is to us to steady on and to that end I commend you these words from the Apostle Paul to the Philippians. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me (and seen in Albert J. Drackert and all the saints in light), and the God of peace will be with you.” That is a promise. God keeps God’s promises. Amen.

Please remain seated as we sing together “I Love to Tell the Story”

Photo of Annika and I at the reception at Ivar's Salmon House on Lake Union after the funeral. This has been since the 1970s, and continues to be to this day, a family ritual and favorite place to eat, fellowship, and remember. The photo of Uncle Al and me was taken there in early May of 2015. The last time we were with him in this life.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Five years ago. TCU was in its first super regional. Hoping to go to Omaha for the College World Series. We were visiting Trinity for the first time. And I promised them in my sermon that even though I am a native Austinite I believed TCU would beat Texas.

That goal was accomplished. Now five years later they faced a different foe. And our investment was different. Now TCU baseball isn't a sort of esoteric ideal. It has meaning, connections, and people. Former players and alums in our pews, hopefuls all around, and a 1st grade teacher.

Annika began 1st grade at Westcliff Elementary this year. Westcliff is located about a mile south of TCU and as such gets many student teachers from the school of education. Our principal loves this because she can watch these teachers and decide which she thinks would be good fits as first year teachers. This year Annika had on of those 1st year teachers. A young woman who shared the same name as Annika's Tante, Kristen.

Some parents are nervous about 1st year teachers. But I love them just like I like First Call Pastors. They are up to date on the most recent teaching techniques, aren't full of "this is how we used to do it," have energy, and the best realize they still need to learn. They are willing to take parental concerns into account, to recognize they don't know it all, and take input.

Annika's teacher was those things. She cared for the kids, shared stories about her dogs Chance and Piper, encouraged them appropriately, and worked with us to find solutions to learning issues. She had been a student-athlete at TCU (soccer) and so provided them with a great example that girls can be smart and athletic. Annika and her classmates came to love their teacher and ultimately they came to know that their first grade teacher had a friend. He was still a student at TCU and his name was Preston. He would come sometimes and eat lunch with the class when they had earned the chance to eat in their room. Annika said he was nice but that was about it.

I met Preston first in the fall at the Westcliff Fall Festival. We were introduced by Kristen and he seemed like a very polite nice young man. I didn't really think too much about it and Annika was more interested in the fact that Chance the dog was there. This spring however, we came to a realization when Annika came home and told us that Kristen was going to Los Angeles to watch Preston play baseball. That was when a light came on. Her friend Preston was not just a nice young man, he was also an All-American pitcher, the 2014 Big 12 Pitcher of the Year and perhaps the best ever to play that position at TCU. He was going to LA to pitch at Dodger Stadium against Vanderbilt. One of the best teams in the country (and won that game as well).

So throughout the spring Annika's class heard more about Preston, got to talk to him when he came to lunch, and they made good luck cards for the team as TCU had a great season and won the Big 12 regular season title outright. Everything was looking GREAT for TCU baseball. And then the wheels came off. They went 0-2 in the Big 12 tournament and had to battle back through the losers bracket to win their own regional to get to play Texas A&M in a "Super Regional" (a best of three series) to go back to the College World Series in Omaha.

Saturday afternoon TCU's bats were on fire and won the first game of the series in a romp. This set up Sunday afternoon as the chance for them to close out the series and go on to Omaha. Record crowds of more than 7,000 (Lupton Stadium's official capacity is about 5,500) would be on hand. Preston would be pitching. I told the congregation at worship Sunday morning that it was a lock. TCU was heading back to Omaha.

Preston pitched a great game against a strong hitting A&M team. Annika watched the game on television with Kendra and was so excited to see Preston on the mound. She would hide her eyes every time he went into the wind-up and listen to hear the crowd to know if something good or bad had happened. Lots of good happened. He gave up one run, pitched 9.1 innings (for you scoring at home that means he pitched the first part of the 10th inning as well) but the Frogs bats were quiet and they lost 2-1 in 10.

As a former athlete I know how devastating those kinds of losses are. To play well and yet lose is frustrating and can gnaw at you for weeks, even years. Yet the next day, the last day of school, I came to Annika's classroom to get a picture of her and her teacher and guess who was there, Preston. He was helping Kristen clean out her classroom. Throwing away papers, getting pictures and signs off the wall, and ultimately sitting in little chairs and having pizza with 7 year olds at their end of year party. His team had another game to play that night but because he had pitched the day before there was nothing physically he could do to support them. So he ate pizza with a classroom of kids who had come to know him and didn't care if he won, they just liked Preston being around.

Later that night (well technically early Tuesday morning) the Frogs did clinch their trip to Omaha after 16 innings. Preston of course didn't pitch. But he was there on the bench. Rooting on his team, wearing the rally cap to end all rally caps. When I showed Annika a picture of him with 15+ "rally caps" on his head the next day she just giggled and said in a silly voice "Preston!"

When we moved to Fort Worth I wanted to get a home close to the University. I grew up close to the University of Texas so I know the fun, energy, and opportunities that being in proximity to a college can bring. Sure there are downsides but overall it is these connections I value. To have my daughter witness first hand examples of young people who are successful in athletics and academics. To know them not just as posters on a wall or images on a TV but as people.

So thanks Westcliff Elementary for a great first grade year. And thanks Kristen and Preston for giving my daughter and my family one more reason to say "Go Frogs!"

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


From the commentary and blogs I have read about the most recent Pew Research study on the American religious landscape I have come to three conclusions.

1) Reading statistics and graphs is not a skill set that many have.

2) The Pew Folks lump together groups that may or may not have much in common.

3) Labels are not indicative of much today in life in general and that makes folks nervous.

To my point on number one. If you asked someone who looked at that study what the numbers on the graph meant I have a good feeling you would get this answer. "It shows that the number of folks who are affiliated with X group have changed over the past 8 years and that the number of non-Christians has increased dramatically."

That in fact is not what the graph shows. What it showed was the percentage share of the population that a certain group claimed of the entire adult population of the United States. A subtle difference, but important. And to my point #3, it does not show that the number of non-Christians has grown dramatically. It shows the number of people who chose not to be labeled has grown significantly as a percentage of the population and that, frankly, is what makes folks nervous.

We like to label people. We want to know who they are and what box they fit in. And when they challenge our boxes we collectively get nervous. One can just look at Bruce Jenner's transformation to get a sense of that issue and its hold on our minds.

Yet we increasingly have a growing generation of people in this country who eschew labels. Gender identity is just one of those labels being challenged. The children of the baby boomers are now fully adults (apparently the largest segment of the workforce now, sorry Xers, you got about 5 years in the spotlight there). These are the children of the generation that rejected the labels of their parents. Rather than remaining in their mom and dad's denominational and cultural boxes they became non-denominational. If their parents were the establishment then they were anti-establishment.

The generation that came of age in the crucible of the late 1960's and early 1970's was and has been defined not by what they were for but by what they stood against. This continued even as they aged. In the 1980's Ronald Reagan came to Washington to work against big government dominance and to fight godless communism. In the 1990's the first baby boomer President (who defeated Bush I of the generation of his parents) faced his own generations rejection through the Republican Revolution in 1994. This generation, regardless of whether they were on the political left or right, defined themselves largely by being against. But they still liked to have a label.

Now however their children are the largest segment of the workforce and a significant portion of the adult population and these children apparently are choosing less and less to be labeled. As such, the rise of the "unaffiliated." This should come as no surprise to anyone watching American demographics over the past couple decades. Patricia Killen wrote so many years ago about the "nones" in the Pacific Northwest and how that trend would spread. And it has.

So labels are going out of fashion. Should this worry us? Well yes it should if we plan to continue to do business as usual and define ourselves by our political, religious, or cultural boxes. That is what Pew must do to produce statistics and graphs. They put the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Southern Baptist Convention, Church of Christ, and your local non-denominational Bible Church in the same group (Evangelical Protestant). Perhaps that makes sense because these people largely vote Republican but they certainly do not share a theology.

But if we look around and realize that the labels are becoming less and less telling then we might be more comfortable and also might start realizing our labels aren't all that helpful. The largest ethnic group in the Sunday School at Trinity is "mixed." Fewer and fewer of our new members come with a letter of transfer from any sort of denomination much less a Lutheran church. However, that does not mean they aren't Christian. They just haven't chosen to take on the label of a particular denomination.

I was having a conversation with a Gen X member of our congregation recently. Raised in a mainline tradition different from his spouse they came to Trinity through our daycare. They told me, "We love Trinity and like the worship, preaching, and teaching for our kids. But we don't consider ourselves Lutheran and don't think we probably ever will." And this is not unique. I have had versions of this conversation with our new members time and again. Sure about 50% of our folks have a Lutheran background. But most do not. They are unaffiliated and probably would answer a survey as such. But they aren't non-Christian.

The funny thing is that in their theology most of these folks are Lutheran. That is why they like the preaching, teaching, and worship at Trinity. We talk regularly in our sermons about Lutheran distinctives in theology However, what they are rejecting is the label. They don't want to be labeled Lutheran. The question is, can we be ok with that? And then how will the Pew folks and others who want to quantify things modify their questions to get a more accurate view of the religious landscape.

Christianity isn't dying in this country. But labels are.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ritual outside the walls

For the third year Trinity has offered "Drive-thru" ashes on Ash Wednesday. From 11-11:45am (prior to our noon service) and from 5-6pm (during pick-up time at our pre-school) we have offered the opportunity for those desiring to come and receive prayer and imposition of ashes from the convenience of their car. Two years ago we received some media attention for these efforts. Front page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

But now it has become more common and even in bitterly cold places pastors and priests are making this option available. We are not so hardy here in Fort Worth (if it were under 40 we would be huddled inside) but this year we were afforded beautiful weather for our annual Ash Wednesday Drive-Thru Ashes.

I see this as a simple attempt to raise awareness of a day in the life of the church that has historically had spotty observance outside of Roman Catholic and Orthodox circles (I will never forget being asked the question in Bible study during my first call in Wisconsin when the "Synod" made us start using Ashes on Ash Wednesday. It seemed still, SO Catholic.)

This might seem benign, However, I have heard other voices that critique this movement. Saying it is cheapening the ritual. It has become hipster. Or worse, and in probable violation of the 8th commandment, that those who do this just do it as a publicity stunt. That we are catering to a culture that is vacuous and craves easy spirituality. 

These are relatively good points. Worth consideration. By making things easier on people we do in fact lower the bar. They don't even have to go into a church to experience and ritual and tradition. Their experience of God doesn't require coming into an often strange building and a willingness to sit through a service we lead. Perhaps it is indeed too easy. Yet if pastors and others are doing this for a media notice, for a front page article in the local paper. Well, they are years too late. That has been done and believe me, after the first year, the media isn't coming back.

Yet I will continue doing drive-thru ashes next year because of...
-the teachers and staff from the local elementary school who have come each year during their break because their church only offers ashes at lengthy worship services they can't attend due to work and family obligations.

-the grandmother who is caring for her granddaughter who in her 60+ years of life had never received ashes because she was taught by Lutherans that it was "too catholic." Yet she came because we taught the pre-school children about the Ash Wednesday ritual and included them in the burning of the palms. After this her grand-daughter asked her why if she had received ashes why hadn't her grandma.

-the mother of two who came by with a sick infant and toddler. Who wanted to be a part of this day in the life of the church but works during lunches serving meals. Feeding them dinner and waiting for a 7pm church wasn't going to happen this year. She needed to get her babies home so they could rest. But because we offered this option she could receive ashes, pray with her pastor, and even posted a selfie to prove it.

-the graduate of our pre-school whose home church doesn't do this. But her mom remembered we did this and stopped by. The smile on that little girl's face at seeing "Pastor G" again and "getting her ashes" made standing outside for any length of time worthwhile.

-the Jehovah's Witness who walked by and told me he doesn't do this ritual. But he applauded us for being out and present in the community. To remind people of God and their need for God in their life.

-the dad who a day later asked me to help him explain to his daughter what we should call a woman priest. Roman Catholic, they attend our school and the daughter calls me Father G. But what should she call the woman in the collar, one of our seminary students, who was with me on the curb? Is she Father? Or Mother? Who is she? And a conversation about gender, faith, and tradition ensues.

Perhaps we are just catering to a self-indulgent generation who expect everything curbside. Or perhaps we are being on the edge of the "missional" movement and pushing boundaries. Or perhaps it is simpler than all that.

I don't have the fancy words for that conversation. I am a praxis guy, a leadership guy. Yet I do, and will continue to do, drive-thru ashes because I believe it is deeply pastoral. I am not walking around asking for attention. Going uninvited into other people's space. I am simply being vulnerable enough to stand on a curb across from the drive-thru at McDonald's. To offer ashes and prayer while folks get the happy meals my daughters would later eat as they waited for 7pm worship.

Drive-thru ashes is to be present on the street. To pray with and be present. Being allowed, invited, to make the sign of the cross in ash on the foreheads of any person is a deeply profound and symbolic moment. To do it on the street corner does not cheapen the ritual but I would argue deepens the ritual. It is easy to stand in the chancel and await the faithful. It is safe.

To wave at a passerby, to be ignored by another, to be gawked at, to be mocked...yet in the same moment asked to pray with and mark a stranger with ash, that is mission. Christ is present on the street. I pray this isn't a hipster movement. In fact I believe, because I am a Gen Xer, cynical to my core and not a hipster, that this is more than that. That this is what Christ calls us to do. Get out, get on the street. Pray and preach and proclaim. In ashes if you must.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Leave Taking

On December 23, 1783 General George Washington appeared before Congress. There were many who thought, some hopefully, that he would claim dictatorship or kingship over the nation. Instead he simply handed a letter to the president of the Congress and resigned his commission. He laid down his sword and picked up the plow.

As a result of this gracious leave taking Washington came to be known as the American Cincinnatus. This image drew on the memory (mythological?) of the great Roman general of the 5th century B.C. Pressed into service to save Rome Cincinnatus came off his farm to lead the legions to victory then quietly returned to civilian life. Washington's exit was not what was expected. It led even his former enemy King George III to remark that Washington was “the greatest character of his age.”

Jon Stewart is certainly no George Washington. But he has been an important figure in our national conversation during the 17 years of his time at The Daily Show. His work created an entire genre of satirical/serious news coverage that has multiplied into many different shows. As the court jester he could poke and prod. Asking questions and holding up the light of truth in ways that other mainstream news agencies couldn't, or wouldn't, for fear of losing their privilege.

Stewart no doubt could have stayed on for a long time and no one would question him. But last night he figuratively laid down his sword. He is taking leave of his job at The Daily Show to do other things. While he enjoyed the people and the position he recognized it was time to move on. "It is time" he said "for someone else to have this opportunity."

Interestingly the response I have seen from Facebook and Twitter to this decision has been largely one of grief and fear. "Who will take his place?" "Where will I get my 'news'?" "Without Jon Stewart how will I keep sane?" This is understandable and betrays a regular reaction of followers to a leader's decision to step away. The fear of the loss of what the follower knows. The fear if the unknown. This leads us to uphold the status quo and so often to keep the same people in place time and again.

Leaders, generals or satirists, have a right and in fact a duty to step aside. If for no other reason than for them to have their own lives. Stewart jokingly noted that this decision would enable him to have "dinner, on a school night, with his family...Who, sources tell him, are lovely people." In that way he did resonate with Washington's pledge to Martha that, for the first time in a decade, he would be home in time to "pour the Christmas cordial in her glass."

Stewart deserves our praise for deciding that after 17 years it was time to take leave. He joked that this was, by 16 years, the longest he has ever held a single job and his audience didn't deserve a "restless host." As a fellow member of Gen X (Stewart was born in 1962), I can understand that sentiment. We have been raised in a world of uncertainty and continual change. This is our reality but it isn't necessarily a bad thing. And as we look to the future it is also imperative that those who have held positions be willing to allow others to come along and have their opportunity to lead.

No one can replace Stewart. However, that is not the goal of leadership. Leadership should be about multiplication not replication. Good leaders do not create clones of themselves but encourage others to follow their lead and use their talents to take them in new directions. Good leaders give others the opportunity to step forward. This is why we have term limits on Presidents. It forces the country to look for new leadership and gives new opportunity to those who follow. Washington knew this instinctively. I hope other leaders will also begin to see this need as well.