Sunday, November 03, 2013

Villanelle for All Saints' Day

Villanelle for All Saints' Day

we drink the wine and eat the bread
gathered like a tired cloud
and we remember all the dead

with broken hearts and stumbling tread
grief bleeds slow, or roars out loud
we drink the wine and eat the bread

martyrs white and green and red
broken, bending, wrapped in shroud
we remember all the dead

because the Lord has never fled-
the one who makes the wounded proud-
we drink the wine and eat the bread

the world remembers some instead
forgetting quiet, keeping loud.
we remember all the dead

they are not gone but sleep instead
God's troubling promise rings aloud
we drink the wine and eat the bread
we remember all the dead

Friday, July 12, 2013

Put a Wizard in Your Party

Put a Wizard in your Party

(This is my August article for the newsletter of the church where I serve, Zion Lutheran:
One of the really helpful articles Pastor Dave gave me when I arrived at Zion was a National Geographic article from a few years back on “Teenage Brains.” ( )

It’s a good read, and it sums up recent research into how the brains of adolescents function differently than the brains of older adults.  As I understand it, adolescent brains are better at learning, better at making new connections, and less risk-adverse than other (older) brains.  Which, of course, made me think of Dungeons & Dragons.  

As I’ve mentioned to some of you, I play Dungeons & Dragons whenever I can.  D&D (as we call it for short) is a great opportunity to goof off with friends, to do collaborative improv storytelling, and have wacky cooperative fun.  But for the sake of today’s column, you just need to know that most D&D parties (teams, groups) try to be balanced: you want a fighter, you want some other folks, and you want a wizard.  The fighter is hard to kill, so the goblins can beat on her for a bit while the rest of your team gets ready to respond.  The cleric heals your party and keeps them in the game.  The rogue sneaks around and disarms traps.  And the wizard?  The wizard does everything else.  

When it’s time for somebody to hit the troll with a stick, wizards are not where you look.  But when you come across something you’ve never seen before, some situation that seems impossible, some massive horde of enemies or some unsolvable riddle- then you want a wizard in your party.  Wizards bring unmatched versatility to the table: maybe they’ll throw a wall of fire up to protect your party, maybe they'll turn the evil dragon into a caterpillar, or maybe they’ll just grant everyone flight to escape a threat.  They can discern lies, find the right direction, summon angels, and conjure up a magical platform to carry your stuff for you.  In short, they are the Swiss Army knife of Dungeons and Dragons: don’t leave the tavern without one. 
But there’s a problem with wizards.  The game tries to have the various roles be balanced, so wizards are “squishy.”  If one gets too close to a horde of orcs, they’ll fall quicker than any of the other characters.  They can’t stand up to damage, and so they need the rest of the party to protect them- to keep them alive so that they can fall back and do their awesome, versatile, magical thing.

Maybe you see where I’m going with this.  Adolescents are just better than we are when it comes to thinking!  They see new solutions more quickly, they make more graceful connections between disparate parts of a question, and they will keep coming up with things to try until something works.  That’s why, throughout human history, adolescents have been the ones to push on boundaries, to try new things, to question established orders.  But the flip side of that is a decreased attention to risk, a mind that is less willing to account for possible negative outcomes- that’s neurologically one of the reasons adolescents engage in various risk behaviors.  So, I think it’s up to the rest of us: the clerics and the fighters and the rogues, the ones among us who can hold the line, the ones among us who can heal wounds, the ones among us who can get rid of traps before they hurt somebody- (the non-adolescents who love and support adolescents)- to step up.  

Which leads me to my invitation: given my premise that one should never leave the tavern without a wizard in one’s party, I also want to say that one shouldn’t try to do the work of the church without an adolescent in the room.  I am so excited to have teenagers helping on the Evangelism Team and on the team of older folks supporting confirmands this year.  But I think there are a lot of other opportunities to invite young people into ministry at Zion.  We have many awesome, wizardly young people at Zion, and I think we miss out by not learning more from them, by not inviting them to participate more actively in God’s work at Zion.  

So: the next time you’re sitting in a committee meeting, or at a service project, or even in worship, and you start to think about why things aren’t going quite right: things could be faster, things could be more innovative, things could be wackier or more fun, things could be riskier- consider whether the Spirit might be calling you to invite a young person into the collaboration.  

We are blessed with wizards among us.  May we remember to invite them into the work, may we help to keep them safe and thriving, may we learn to follow their lead.  It will be like magic.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Loving Minecraft

(this is my church newsletter article for May.)

Loving Minecraft

All the kids are playing it.  Which is not in itself is a reason to love something, I'll give you that.  But a lot of the adults are playing it too.  If you've never tried Minecraft, you should probably try it right now- there's a demo at  If you're not an internet person, here's the gist of it:
there's a large world, made entirely of blocks.  You get to run around in it, and build things out of blocks.  Four planks of wood make a crafting table.  Two sticks and some stone make a shovel. 

The thing about Minecraft is that everybody plays it differently.  Rachael's brother is in college, and he and his fellow engineering students build huge construction projects and elaborate pranks for one another.  I was talking with some of the young women at our First Communion class, and they are all building castles and palaces.  Some of our middle school students are learning basic programming and computer logic by building machines in Minecraft.  When I play, I mostly just hop around and build stuff.  There's no plot to speak of, no linear story winding through the game.  (It's arguably not even a game at all.)  But I love it, and I think it has some things to teach us about how to be church together. 

First: In Minecraft, building is joyful.  The game has its own physics- you can't just build anywhere, but you can build a lot of things.  And the mechanics really encourage you to try things, to build things, to pile blocks on top of other blocks not just to avoid the monsters that come at night, but because it's really fun.  We are a community of builders here at Zion.  And when we are doing the hard work of planning and preparing, of organizing potlucks and getting people to sign up for the mission trip, it can be easy to forget about what we're building.  What looks like one more committee meeting, one more Sunday school lesson, is actually building, just as clearly as if we were stacking iron in Minecraft.  We are building something awesome here at Zion- a place where people feel welcome, a place where God's call is lived out, a place where we get to be family for one another.  It should be really fun. 

Second: We don't all have to play the same way. I alluded to this above, but one of the things I love about Minecraft is that there's a lot of different ways to play.  Maybe you really like seeing how deep you can dig.  Maybe you just want a little house and a barnful of chickens.  Maybe you're really good at figuring out how to make your automatic crossbow trap shoot flaming arrows.  Maybe you just want to wander and explore the ocean, the tundra, the mountains.  Maybe you want to play by yourself, maybe you want to get all your friends on the same server, maybe you want to play with crazy designers or battle-ready warriors or artists from around the world.  We do well to remember this kind of ethic when we're at church.  We share a common story, a common life in the Spirit.  But that looks very different for different people.  We don't all sing in the choir, we don't all bake bread, we don't all chair a committee.  But we all have our piece of the building.  If it were Minecraft, we would all know that four planks makes a crafting table.  But it's church, so we all know that the bread is the Body of Christ.  Everything else builds from there. 

Finally, Minecraft is a game that encourages trying things until something works.  Maybe I didn't make my castle walls thick enough the first time.  Maybe it takes me ten or twelve tries to figure out how to build a shovel or the right kind of clock.  But because building is joyful, because there's no one right way to play, there's a freedom in it.  Even if the zombies eat you, you just get to start again, and starting again is fun.  This is another thing we would do well to take to heart at church.  Not every class is going to be well attended.  Not every mission project is going to be successful.  Not every youth group lesson will be super-interesting and engaging.  Some of them will, and that's great.  But the work of the church is not about success.  I think too often, in the church, we don't try things because we might fail.  That doesn't work in Minecraft, and it doesn't work in God's call to us.  May we try eight things and fail at seven of them.  May we build big and know when to run away before it crashes down on us.  May we laugh amidst the rubble of failure for a moment before we start building again.  May we take up our pick-axes and blocks, our songs and our gifts and our talents and our sheep- and join in the joyful building. 

May it be so.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Thrift Shop as the Theological Project

Last night I had my first meeting of the High School Youth Group at my new gig at Zion Lutheran Church in Tinley Park.  I invited everyone to bring a song that they were into these days, or that they wanted to share with the group.  One of the youth said that they didn’t have a song, and I offered to look one up on youtube.  “No,” he said, “I don’t have any that would be good for, you know, church.”  I assured him that I didn’t mind swearing, and I checked with the rest of the youth to see if they minded either.  We went ahead and played the “Thrift Shop” youtube video.  Link to the profanity-laden (and problematic gender politics-laden) music video:

Here’s the thing: I can’t stop listening to this song.  And I can’t stop watching this video.  Because I think this is our project, as a youth group.  And I think this is our project as a youth group, as spiritual companions, as pastors.  Because the Christian tradition is like a thrift shop.  Not everything in that shop is worth keeping.  But a lot of stuff that other folks have considered trash is actually, for us, treasure/ come up.  Our task is to dig through all of that, and see what makes us glorious.  What belonged to our grandparents that we need to bring back out of the back racks and proudly display, proudly proclaim?  (“No for real, ask your grandpa, can I have his hand-me-downs?”) 

This is our tradition, and we all own it together.  Nobody should be trying to sell us the “fifty dollar tshirt” of Christianity.  Plenty of people will argue for one or another construction of Christianity which demands that we collapse our differences, and most of those people are trying to make money off of us.  Macklemore does the “simple addition” of this equation- and he and I agree that we shouldn’t let anybody sell us stuff we don’t need, that don’t even serve us, that don’t even bring us to fuller justice and liberation in the world.  Whether it’s clothes or theology, friends.  

And this is a particular gift for the mainline church these days.  The mega-churches have a lot of edges on us, but they don’t have a big back catalog.  They don’t have a thrift-store-load of grandparents’ theology and experience.  They don’t have a thousand year hymn tradition for the most part.  But we do.  That is not to say that we should use it all.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t use new things.  It is to say that we should delightedly and relentlessly tear through the piles of stuff in our churches: what stories and songs and rituals are languishing on the shelf of our liturgical Goodwills?  What will we find that someone else has thrown away?  What will we find and throw away ourselves?  What will we find in two separate piles or categories and glue together to make something way better?

Bold authenticity, encouraged by a ruthlessly joyful ransacking of history and tradition.  

I’m gonna pop some tags.