Where Do I Stand?

It looks like standing up to the perpetrators of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic violence against certain populations in our own country and saying, “It doesn’t matter what our political ideologies are—this must end, and it must end now.”

Twenty Sixth Sunday after Pentecost C
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Fair warning: You are going to be offended this morning by the language used in some of what you’re going to hear. I urge you to remember that this is the language used in the original stories, and that it’s important for you to hear it. You need to hear it.

I am proud to call myself a graduate of Capital University, an ELCA university in Columbus OH that just recently announced its intent to reunite with my seminary, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, right across the street. The education I received there in music and religion was top notch. I am still in contact with some of my professors who continue to be mentors, who came to my seminary graduation, and who wished they could have come to our wedding. On any day I would enthusiastically recommend my university to someone wondering where they should go to school for higher education.

But then, there are days like this.

This past Wednesday evening, Austin Damman, an 18-year old first year nursing student, returned to his room in the Lohman Complex residence hall after his last class, the residence hall where Debbie lived as a resident assistant for three years. When he opened his door, he noticed a sheet of notebook paper had been slid under it while he was away. He opened it to find this message scrawled on it:

“F—kin’ faggot. Trump will get you!”

That same night, Brittany Daughenbaugh was dealing with her insomnia the way she normally does: walking around Capital’s campus playing Pokémon Go. This night, however, ended very differently. Two young men jumped her, beating her until half of her face swelled up and bruised. “Don’t you worry, honey,” they said, “President Trump says this is okay.”

That was on the same day at my own alma mater, an ELCA university.

That’s not to mention the swastika that was painted on a baseball dugout in Wellsville, NY with the words, “Make America White Again.”

Or a wall in North Carolina painted with the words, “Black Lives don’t matter and neither does your votes.”

Or the swastika and “Seig Heil” painted on a storefront in Philadelphia.

Or the woman at San Jose State University who was choked by her own hijab.

Or the note that said “Gay families = burn in hell” placed on a car in North Carolina.

Or the episcopal priest, known to colleagues of mine, who had a note placed on his car addressed to “Father Homo”, which said that “They’ll put marriage back where God wants it and take yours away. America gonna take care of your faggity ass.

Or the black students at Penn State who were all sent a group text message titled “nigger lynching” with images of black people hanging from trees and a “daily lynching” calendar.

All of those stories are just from Wednesday by the way. More are reported every day. And if you were offended and hurt by the language used in those stories, imagine how it must feel to have them directed at you.

If you are wondering why so many people are literally afraid for their lives right now, it’s not because of who was elected president. It’s not because of who controls the Senate or the House of Representatives.

It’s because the streets are suddenly and significantly more unsafe for them than they have been in decades.

Much of that may have been difficult to hear, but I won’t apologize. It’s important. It’s important as Christians to hear the cries of people in pain in all their ugliness, especially when they make us uncomfortable. Christians are a people who should live in that discomfort.

Last Sunday, on the celebration of All Saints Day, we heard these uncomfortable words from Jesus:

Blessed are you who are poor: woe to you who are rich.
Blessed are you who are hungry: woe to you who are full.
Blessed are you who weep: woe to you who are laughing.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you: woe to you when all speak well of you.

And this week, we hear this:

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.

I have to admit that while I was bullied all throughout school, I don’t think I can say that I’ve had people truly hate me, revile me, or defame me. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never been persecuted. I’ve never been thrown in prison, justly or unjustly. I’ve never been betrayed by my parents, my sister, my relatives or my friends. I cannot imagine what that feels like.

So when I read this sobering observation on reality by Jesus, I have to wonder, where is my place?

If I’ve never been the victim of the horrible things Jesus is talking about, where do I stand? Is it possible that I have stood in the place of the arrestor, the persecutor, the one who hands people over, who has betrayed family and friends, who has put to death, who has hated? I hope not. But as a Christian, part of the communion of saints, part of the imperfect institution known as the church on earth, I know that even if I haven’t personally been in that position, the church has. The church has had to deal with its past and present history of standing on the side of the oppressor, on the side of hate. It’s not a position I ever want to be in again.

But if I’ve not been the victim, and I don’t want to be the persecutor, where is there to stand? Where is my place in the midst of the hatred, threats, and violence that people in our country are facing this very day?

On Thursday, the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, released a video message that had this to say.

“So what do we do, dear church? Three things: Remember that all human beings are created in the image of God … Pray—for our country, for those elected, for understanding. And then we get back to work, doing the things the church has always done. Welcome the stranger. Feed the hungry. Clothe the naked. Visit the sick and those in prison. Work for justice and peace in all the earth, all in the name of the one who is our hope, our life, and our peace, Jesus, who has set us free to serve the neighbor.”

Where is the church’s place? Right alongside the suffering, the victims, the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the hated, the reviled, the attacked, the threatened; the people who need most to be reminded that they are created in the image of God and worthy of the dignity and respect that entails, the people who most need the outward expression of God’s love that the church should reflect, the people who most need to be helped by God’s work through our hands.

And what does that look like?

  • It looks like our Presiding Bishop standing in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
  • It looks like the ELCA Churchwide Assembly putting together a social statement on Women and Justice.
  • It looks like Lutheran and Immigration Services resettling refugees from war-torn countries in their new homes here in the United States.
  • It looks like the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin helping to organize Advocacy Day in 2017 and standing up to human trafficking.
  • It looks like the South Dakota Synod of the ELCA standing up to the stigma of addiction to provide hope and healing.
  • It looks like California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks creating a veterans coordinator position to help veterans cope with returning from often horrific situations.
  • It looks like continuing to collect food and supplies for the Three Lakes Christian Food pantry and the Caritas of Eagle River ministries.
  • It looks like saying “All Are Welcome”, and really meaning it: even people who are non-white, non-cisgender, non-heterosexual, non-Lutheran, non-Christian, non-American.

It looks like standing up to the perpetrators of racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic violence against certain populations in our own country and saying, “It doesn’t matter what our political ideologies are—this must end, and it must end now.” Because if we cannot even do that—if we cannot even condemn these acts and open our arms to those suffering from them—then that, too, shows where we stand.

It is absolutely a part of our Christian heritage to stand with the poor and the oppressed, as Jesus did, who told those very people that they were blessed by the presence of God in the midst of their suffering, that the Holy Spirit would give them strength through their cries, who would be witnesses to the world of where God stands.

It is absolutely a part of our Lutheran heritage to fight injustice, to defend the victimized, to show the grace of God and the grace we human beings are capable of. And when we do that, when we take a stand with the oppressed and suffering, we let the world know where we stand, that we will be counted with them, as one of them; and that the Holy Spirit speaks through us as witnesses to God’s preferential treatment of the poor, oppressed, and suffering.

We are the body of Christ. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we were baptized into his message and his work. We are united with Christians all across the world and through time, proclaiming in word and deed the saving power of God for those in need of rescue. We stand together in our shared calling, supporting each other, lifting each other up, easing suffering and helping to usher in the reign of God. This is who we are.

I had the privilege of attending the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans, Louisiana as an adult leader. In the convention center, I was pleasantly surprised to find a friend from seminary, Sarah, passing something out at a booth. It was a medallion from ReconcilingWorks that says, “Peacemaker.” (pictured with this post)

For the last few months, I’ve been wearing this medallion to remind me of where I want to stand. A peacemaker is someone who walks alongside victims of violence and works for the transformation of conflict into peace, who works for inclusion and harmony, to protect those most in need of it.

This is who the church is. This is who we are called to be. And it’s who I want to be, for as long as I live.

Brothers and Sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

I’m Not Ready

I couldn’t sleep the night after. I rarely cry, and I didn’t that night, but I felt like I wanted to. When I woke up the following morning, my fears had found form.

The election for the United States electoral college has come and gone. In a month and a week, the new President of the United States will be elected (if this sounds confusing, please watch this helpful explanation on how the electoral college works).

My preferred candidate didn’t win the electoral college election. My second-preferred candidate didn’t win, either.

Am I disappointed? Yes. I would have preferred someone else as the 45th President of the United States. I’m as disappointed as I was in 2000 and 2004. I’m as disappointed as many of my family were in 2008 and 2012. I worry about what the next four years might bring.

But I’m also afraid. I couldn’t sleep the night after the election. I rarely cry, and I didn’t that night, but I felt like I wanted to. When I woke up the following morning, my fears had found form. The night after, the days after the election, there was a spike in homophobic, xenophobic, and racist threats and physical attacks. People I know, who are the targets of such aggression, poured out their hearts and expressed their terror at the thought of leaving their homes, wondering if they would be the next victims. Calls to suicide prevention hotlines have spiked dramatically.

In the midst of these voices another call was heard: Get over it. Your candidate lost. So what? Stop whining. Move on.

Let me be clear. There are people who are dramatically upset that Hillary Clinton, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and Evan McMullin lost the election for no other reason than they lost.

But the people I know who are truly frightened today aren’t afraid because they lost the election. They are afraid because in the wake of the election they are being threatened and physically attacked.

Let me repeat that: They aren’t afraid because they lost the election. They are afraid because in the wake of the election they are being threatened and physically attacked.

They aren’t afraid because they lost the election. They are afraid because in the wake of the election, they are being threatened and physically attacked.

Get over it. Your candidate lost. So what? Stop whining. Move on.

Maybe I’m not ready to simply move on.

Maybe I remember when even after the constitutionality of same-sex marriage was declared, elected officials still refused to grant people that hard-earned right, making my friends wonder if their marriages were in jeopardy, too.

Maybe I remember when I asked my transgender friend which pronouns she preferred, and she nearly cried; no one had ever asked her that before, and people had only used pronouns to mock or attack her.

Maybe I remember how many times I heard my own family refer to our current President as “that nigger”, and even when others chastised it, they accepted it. “That’s just they way they are,” they said.

Maybe I remember my classmate telling me how often he was stopped by cops while walking down the street of the city our seminary was in, because he was black.

Maybe I remember the first time one of my friends told me that they were victims of sexual assault, and when they tried to stand up for themselves, they were immediately shunned by their friends, who made every excuse possible for her attacker’s actions.

Maybe I remember a bishop in the ELCA (my church) being told by one of our congregation’s call committees that he had better send them “No blacks, no gays, no women,” and people thinking that was perfectly okay.

I want our country to come together once again, to work together, to work towards unity. But maybe, because people consistently refuse to acknowledge the horror and torture that people I love have been subjected to for years, maybe I’m not ready to simply forget it all and move on.

I’m not ready to move on. Not while the people telling me to move on won’t listen to the voices begging them to listen to their stories and what’s happening to them. Not while victims continue to go unheard or are dismissed with a flippant “get over it”. I’m not ready to move on.

I stand with them.

Featured Image: “Student Voices” by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

To those experiencing violence and intimidation from people who feel empowered to put their hate into action:

I stand with you. If you need someone to listen and support you, I’ll be there. If you need help finding safety, I’ll do what I can. If you feel alone, there are others willing to hear, listen, and talk. Email. Call. Get in touch with someone. You are not alone.

Courtesy of ReconcilingWorks.
Courtesy of ReconcilingWorks.

In the Midst of Tragedy

We live in a culture and society that does everything it can to hide grief. But it’s not okay. Everything’s not okay.

There hasn’t been a post here in over a month, and a sermon hasn’t been uploaded in over two months. At least in the case of sermons, this can be partially attributed to the way in which I deliver sermons now. I’ve switched from writing a full manuscript to using note cards. And since we don’t yet record my sermons in audio or visual form, this means I have to sit down and retype the sermon from memory as best I can (or at least its main ideas).

But I also haven’t written recently because my wife and I have been recovering from a personal tragedy. We’ve been sharing our story publicly because it has helped us heal and allowed others to share their own stories.

Debbie and I married two years ago on a beautiful, sunny, June afternoon and we always intended to start a family. Two years later, it still hadn’t happened. Until, of course, it did. In July of this year, Debbie found out she was pregnant. What a joy! I went with her to her doctor’s appointment and sat with her as she received an ultrasound. There was our little Gummy Bear (our name for our little one since, during the ultrasound, that’s exactly what it looked like we were seeing). Heartbeat, little movements, at eight weeks it was all there, like a little miracle.

Of course, it was too early to tell people, so we waited a few weeks. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at all, so when my family came up to visit early in August we shared the good news. It took a few seconds for my mother to figure out she was looking at an ultrasound photo before it finally clicked, but my grandmother figured it out right away and woke up half the neighborhood with her ecstatic screaming. We told Debbie’s family through a Skype video call since they were gathered together with her extended family for their annual family picnic.

On Tuesday, August 16, Debbie had another routine doctor’s appointment and I had a Congregation Council meeting. I wanted to be with Debbie since she was going to be getting another ultrasound and we might find out the sex of our baby. However, we were discussing the budget for next year at the Council meeting, and I felt I needed to be there for that discussion. When I got home that night, Debbie was sitting on the couch and I could tell immediately that something was wrong. She stood up, shook her head–and as my heart fell, so did the tears. We spent most of the night and the next few days crying.

Somewhere around the nine-week mark, not long after that first ultrasound, our baby died. We don’t know why, though there were no indications that anything was wrong or that we had done something to cause our miscarriage–Debbie didn’t even feel anything or feel any different, which is why we shared our happy news. We, and the doctor, thought everything was fine. The doctor’s best guess is that the baby had a chromosomal abnormality, which accounts for the majority of spontaneous miscarriages. In other words, we were unlucky.

Because we had just shared our happy news, we knew we had to share our tragic news, too. Both Debbie and I posted to Facebook to let our friends and family know and to ask for their love and support. We can’t thank everyone enough for that love and support. After we publicly shared our tragedy, messages and cards came from across the country. It’s all meant the world to us as we’ve tried to put our lives back together.

But something else accompanied many of those cards and messages we didn’t expect. We knew that some of our family and friends had also had miscarriages, but we had no idea just how many. It turns out, we know a lot of people who’ve had miscarriages and never told anyone. They never got to share their stories.

Miscarriages, we’ve learned, are surprisingly common. About 30-40% of all pregnancies end in miscarriages, and that number includes pregnancies that miscarry so early that the mother doesn’t even know she’s pregnant yet. In pregnancies that are far enough along that the mother knows she’s pregnant, the number is about 10-20%. That’s up to 1 in 5 pregnancies that families know about and are expecting.

Miscarriages, we’ve also learned, are a taboo subject. Nobody talks about them. Debbie and I both knew that there were people in our families who had miscarried, but we were shocked at the number of friends–even friends our own age, with whom we went to high school, college, and seminary–who have also had miscarriages. These are people we talk with semi-regularly and keep up with on Facebook. And we never knew, because nobody ever talks about it.

We live in a culture and society that does everything it can to hide grief. We’re told to muscle through, to put on a good face, to pretend like everything’s okay and to grieve quietly and privately at home. Debbie and I each took time off of work, though not enough. We knew we had to get back to work if we wanted to keep our jobs. But it’s not okay. Everything’s not okay. And it’s okay to say that.

I don’t know if Debbie and I would have shared our miscarriage if we hadn’t told everyone yet about our pregnancy. Our hand had been forced. It was either share publicly, or share with every person when they congratulated us for our good news and embarrass them privately. We chose to share publicly so there would be no mistake and no misunderstanding. But in the process, we came to better handle our grief. We learned we weren’t alone, as we had friends and family across the country praying for us and checking in on us. Two of our best friends even drove 12 hours in one day to spend a weekend with us before driving 12 hours back. We learned that others had experienced the same hurt but didn’t have the same support because no one else knew; and that by sharing our story, we allowed them to share theirs, to know that they weren’t alone either, and that someone was thinking of them.

It will be a long time before Debbie and I can get our lives back together. We’ll never forget our little Gummy Bear. One of our friends told us how she remembers her child that was never born, and so there are now stars going up in each room of our house to remind us. But we’ll also never forget the messages of love and support we’ve received, that let us know we aren’t alone. And we’ll never forget the stories we’ve heard in the midst of tragedy from others who’ve experienced the same thing, who’ve finally been able to give a voice to their grief and pain.

Featured Image: “Double Rainbow” by Susanne Nilsson is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.