Heroes

I always think of my father, uncles, and grandfather on this day. But I don’t have the luxury of forgetting once this day is over.

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Photo Credit: Bill Friedrich.

This post originally appeared on Facebook.


This is a photo of my Dad, taken in 2010. He’s retired now after serving over three decades with the Chicago Fire Department. Both of his brothers, and their father before them, served with the CFD. It was their job, every day, to save lives. Even if it put their own in danger.

I always think of them on this day. On this day, 17 years ago, 412 emergency response personnel died responding to the September 11 attacks. 343 of them were fighters (including one chaplain and two paramedics). While everyone else ran out of the buildings and away from the scenes, these men and women ran in. They helped an estimated 13,000-15,000 people evacuate, saving the lives of the evacuees at the cost of their own.

My father remembers that day. He remembers the heightened state of security in downtown Chicago, because at the time nobody knew if there were other planes in the air with other targets. He remembers every one of his fellow firefighters waiting for the call that would summon them all to make the same sacrifice the NYFD made–a call that, thankfully, never came.

I always think of my father, uncles, and grandfather on this day. But I don’t have the luxury of forgetting once this day is over. My cousins and I as kids always knew, instinctively, that our fathers one day might not come home. But we never asked them not to go. If they stayed home, people died. It’s literally that simple.

No one asks my father to walk out onto the field at sporting events.

No one puts his face on the Jumbotron and asks a crowd to pay their proper respect with wild cheering.

No one offers him a discount at stores.

No one stops him on the street or in restaurants to thank him for his service.

And still he served, for three decades, saving lives.

I am the son, the nephew, and the grandson of firefighters–people who did not hesitate to look Death in the face, who stole people right out of Death’s hands, who understood the full and terrible meaning of the word sacrifice, who had more courage than I have ever known. Not a single day goes by that I’m not struck by just how incredible they were–and still are, even though they’re all retired and are nowhere near perfect (sorry guys). I don’t know how many people’s lives they directly saved–I’ve never asked, and I wonder if they themselves know, if they even kept count.

The next time you see a firefighter out on the street, or in a store, or eating at a restaurant, or at a community event: thank them. Thank them for the legacy of the 343 firefighters who died on this day 17 years ago. Thank them for their selflessness. Thank them for saving lives. They don’t work for the thanks, but they’ll appreciate it. And so will we: their children, their nieces and nephews, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren.


God of earth and air, water and fire, height and depth, we pray for those who work in danger, who rush in to bring hope and help and comfort when others flee to safety, whose mission is to seek and save, serve and protect, and whose presence embodies the protection of the Good Shepherd. Give them caution and concern for one another, so that in safety they may do what must be done, under your watchful eye. Support them in their courage and dedication that they may continue to save lives, ease pain, and mend the torn fabric of lives and social order; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Prayer for Emergency Workers, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 85.


Featured Image: “CFDoor” by Eric Allix Rogers is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

This is a photo of the door of the firehouse in the neighborhood I grew up in. The red and green lights flanking the door come from the maritime tradition and appear on most Chicago firehouses and apparatus.

A Pastor with Depression

The stigma around mental illness in the church, even in progressive churches, is crushing.

TRIGGER WARNING: DEPRESSION, SUICIDE


I promised myself months ago that I wouldn’t write another post until I had written this one; and I wouldn’t write this one until I’d done something about it. Now I have. Since I haven’t posted since April, it’s taken me a long time.


The news came out a few days ago that the lead pastor of Inland Hills Church in Chino, California, completed suicide after battling depression and anxiety for years. It sparked a new round of conversation among Facebook friends about the challenges pastors face and the rising percentages of professional church leaders who report suffering from and being diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I know what they’re talking about.

I know, because I am one. I am a pastor diagnosed with depression. I see a counselor and I take medicine to help manage it. For a long time I was afraid to seek help, even though I knew I needed it. The stigma around mental illness in the church, even in progressive churches, is crushing.

As short as it is, it’s taken a long time to write this post as part of a process of overcoming the stigma associated with depression. I’ve mentioned my depression a few times in the last few months, but haven’t talked much about it openly. It’s time to.

What’s it like to be a pastor who suffers from depression?

  • It’s waking up every morning and wishing you could stay in bed rather than go to your office to work on a sermon.
  • It’s feeling your heart jump in your chest when the church door opens because in your depression you assume that the person coming in is only there to tear you down.
  • It’s being paralyzed when you try to schedule a social home visit because the idea of spending an hour or more pretending to be okay in front of someone whose attention is completely on you is an unbearable thought.
  • It’s getting to the end of worship and not being able to remember any of it.
  • It’s having holes in your memory of pastoral care conversations.
  • It’s staring at a blank screen that should be your sermon in the early morning hours on Sunday because sermon writing used to be your passion, and now, it’s sometimes impossible.
  • It’s lying through your teeth every time someone asks how you are and you say “Fine”, because you’re a pastor, and you’re not allowed to be anything else.
  • It’s having to fight through every bad day without support because to openly admit you’re struggling with depression is to invite people to question your effectiveness as a pastor.
  • It’s crying whenever you say/sing Morning or Evening Prayer and not knowing why.
  • It’s trying to provide pastoral care to others suffering from depression and leaving feeling like you need the same thing, and it’s not available.
  • It’s getting angry at the advice to “just love the people” when you can’t even love yourself. (Same thing with “love your neighbor as yourself”)
  • It’s feeling your relationships with the community, the lifeblood of your ministry, slowly fizzling out, because maintaining those relationships takes more energy than you have.
  • It’s not being able to talk to God because you feel like a failure, and you don’t want to hear God confirm it.

I feel most of these every day. Learning to get through them is an ongoing process. Some days, I take steps forward. Some days, I take steps back. Counseling and medication help. They really do. It’s a long road ahead, but every step counts; every step matters.


If you think you might be suffering from depression, please seek help. Check if your employer participates in an Employee Assistance Program that can help you find a counselor. Ask your doctor about different options, including counseling and/or medication. There is help.


Featured Image: “winter.depression” by Gerald Gabernig is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Where Are You?

Where are you in the story of Christ’s Passion?

Good Friday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI

Isaiah 52:13–53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25
John 18:1–19-42

I’m a sucker when it comes to certain books, movies and TV shows. We know that show-runners and writers include certain scenes and present them in ways meant to have an emotional impact, and I admit, most of the time, I get swept right up.

Often, it has to do with the music. The musical cues that play when both Yoda and Darth Vader die in Star Wars Episode VI: The Return of the Jedi get me every time. The moment in Disney’s Inside Out when the character of Sadness finally gets to take control, allowing Riley to express her grief at having moved across the country, makes me tear up too. When President Laura Roslin utters the words “So much life…” in the last episode of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, I lose it. And yes, I will always cry when Mufasa dies in The Lion King, the greatest Disney movie ever made (and I will fight you on that!) It was even on TV this afternoon, and of course, I watched most of it.

It’s not just the sad scenes though. How can I not cheer when the eagles swoop down to help the armies of Gondor and Rohan in the Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King? Or when the horn of Helm Hammerhand blows through the fortress of the Hornburg?

Then there’s the same feeling of excitement during a scene in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, in the second book, The Subtle Knife, when Dr. Mary Malone manages to communicate with sentient dark matter through a simple computer chat program. Or the feeling of dread and terror reading, well, all of George Orwell’s 1984. Or the feeling of apprehension as the story of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno unfolds, the entire time thinking, “Something here isn’t right…”

Stories, when written well, draw us in to the point where we can imagine ourselves as actors and characters in the story. That’s what I love about my favorite books and movies and TV shows—they draw me in.

I must confess though that for the longest time, I did not feel that way about the Passion story. I’m not really sure why. Like many of you, I grew up hearing the story every year during Holy Week. There are other stories I love hearing over and over and over again and never get sick of, but the Passion story just didn’t click with me. I didn’t feel apprehensive when Jesus was arrested. I didn’t feel angry during his trial. I didn’t cry when he died. I just… I’m not sure why, but the story never really moved me like I know it moves other people.

Somewhere along the line that changed. I don’t exactly know when. All I know is that as the years went on, and I kept reading the story, I started to react to it. And my emotional reaction didn’t come when Jesus was beaten, or killed, or mocked. In fact, my emotional reaction came at a place that really surprised me: Peter.

Now, you’ve heard me talk about Peter. Not my favorite guy. Most of the time I’m thinking to myself, “You dunce, what’d you go and do that for?” Peter is not the model of discipleship, folks. When I read about Peter, I usually have a really tough time mustering up any sort of sympathy or empathy for him. He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t pay attention, he flaps his mouth before he thinks, every time he gets the smack-down from Jesus he deserves it–there’s just not a lot of sympathy in my heart for Peter.

So then I read the Passion story, and get to Peter’s part. Not the part about him pulling his sword and cutting off Malchus’s ear—idiot. Typical Peter. No, I mean the later part.

The part where Peter, one of only two disciples who followed behind Jesus after he was arrested, gets to the gate of the high priest’s house and waits. And there, while he waits, he’s identified as one of Jesus’s followers not once, not twice, but three times, the last time by a witness who places him right there in the garden. Each time, he denies the accusation, most likely in an effort to avoid getting arrested himself as a co-conspirator with Jesus.

The last time he does so, he hears the rooster crowing. Just as Jesus predicted, Peter denies even knowing Jesus three times before the rooster crows in the morning. In other versions of this story not from the Gospel according to John, Peter realizes what he’s done and flees the scene, weeping. He doesn’t do that here, but, after this point, Peter disappears from the story, only to reappear after Mary Magdalene finds Jesus’s tomb empty. While Jesus is put on trial, beaten, tortured, mocked, killed, and buried, Peter is nowhere to be found.

And every time I get to this part of the story, I choke up. Maybe it’s the way it’s written, the threefold point and counterpoint, the rising tension, the upping of the ante. Maybe I just feel sorry for Peter, who once again screws everything up because of his pride.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that my reaction to this part of the story has nothing to do with Peter and everything to do with me. I think this part of the story chokes me up for the same reason that other stories affect me emotionally—because it draws me in, puts me into the story. I find my place in the story. And here, tonight, I find my place in the Passion story: it’s in the place of Peter.

In Peter, I see my own pride and my own belief that I’m such a good follower of Jesus that nothing could ever change that.

In Peter, I see my own willingness to jump to the nuclear option (like cutting off a servant’s ear) instead of a more reasonable one.

In Peter, I see my own selfish desire to follow Jesus from a distance, just in case I get too close and have to pay the price for being a follower of Jesus.

In Peter, I see my own all-too-willingness to deny Christ when it’s more convenient to do so, or at the very least, not make a big deal out of it.

In Peter, I see the ever-present possibility that I’ll turn around and run away, abandoning Jesus, even if only for a time.

We all have a place in the story. It pulls us in because we can see ourselves in it. We can place ourselves right in the middle of it because we identify with it. Where do you see yourself in the story?

Are you Annas, the deposed high priest who can’t let go and still influences events from behind the scenes?

Are you Caiaphas, the current puppet high priest, who is so worried and obsessed with keeping order and not upsetting the balance that he thinks executing an innocent man is an acceptable price to pay?

Are you Malchus, just a soldier doing his job?

Are you one of the slaves, oblivious to events, just trying to keep warm in the cold?

Are you the relative of Malchus, angry at the man who cut off your relative’s ear and are calling him out on it?

Are you the police who brought Jesus to Pilate, but wouldn’t set foot in the palace, because you didn’t want blood on your hands before you went to celebrate the Passover with your family?

Are you the priests who, when asked what Jesus has done to deserve being arrested, evade the question by saying, “Well, obviously he’s a criminal, or we wouldn’t have brought him here, duh!”

Are you Pilate, the ruthless governor for whom order and submission is everything, and deviating from that order earns one a ticket to execution?

Are you the priests who, in order to get what they want—Jesus dead—are willing to give up everything they believe in, everything they are, and submit themselves fully to a tyrannical government?

Are you the crowd who, instead of saving a man dedicated to love and peace, demands the release of a terrorist who glorifies violence and armed uprising as the only solution?

Are you the soldiers dividing up Jesus’s clothes between them, before he’s even dead?

Are you the faithful women, Mary, her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, or the unnamed disciple, who are the only ones at the foot of the cross, staying with Jesus while he dies?

Are you Joseph of Arimathea, the respectable leader who has to follow Jesus in secret, because he’s afraid if people knew, his career would be over?

Are you Nicodemus, who goes from confused by Jesus’s words to a follower, and one of the few who is there to take care of his body after his death?

We all have a place in the story. For though it happened 2000 years ago, it happened for that time and for our own. The hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus” puts it this way:

“Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my teason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.”

We all have our places in the story. One of the remarkable things about the story is that not only is it because of all of us, but it is for all of us. Good Friday is for Nicodemus. And Joseph. And Malchus. And Mary, Mary, and Mary. And Pilate. And the crowd. And the high priests. And the soldiers. And Annas. And Caiaphas.

And Peter. And Me. And You.

Where are you in the story of Christ’s Passion?