Friday, March 3, 2017

Doing Something New: A Faithful Use of Time

Drive a golf cart as my sole form of transportation... on the left side of the road; make new friends; rejoice in rain as it fills the cisterns under the house; plumb a reverse osmosis system; take a 20 minute ferry ride to get to 'town'; watch my daughter rush in junkanoo; pay $12.15 for good yogurt and feel fortunate; leave doors unlocked; sweat in February; paddle board; hear my dog bark at the curly tail lizards around the yard; worship from the pew; take an almost waterless shower; rest.

These are just some of the new and different experiences I have had these last couple months.  Uprooted from my home of nine years; from my native country; from my job; from my lifestyle, it has been an education to - from scratch - consider how I live.  All the habits that took decades to form are moot here.  And many things that seem to have mattered back home are far less important here.  Being forced to reconsider the small and big things of life has been a refreshing and faithful use of time.

When should I wake up, now that I can work out at any time of day?  Now that the kids can wake up almost an hour later than back home?  What should I eat, now that everything costs at least twice as much?  I do not have work that forces me to study Scripture, write prayers or craft clever turns of phrase that share the good news of Christ.  So, what place do faith practices have in my life?  And which practices would those be?  During this sabbatical, money gets spent differently.  Relationships are either newly budding or have become long distance.  And I am not 'Pastor Stanton'.  People in Hopetown don't know or particularly care what I do for a living.  That's different.

In Barbara Brown Taylor's book, "Altar in the World" she has a chapter called, "The Practice of Living with Purpose."  It's a section about vocation.  My favorite definition of that word comes from Frederick Buechner, "where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."  Some may have a harder time than others naming their gladness or understanding how their work meets the deep hunger of the world.  As a pastor, I believe visits to the ill or grieving, sermons that afflict the comfortable or comfort the afflicted, and teaching the basics of faith to seekers all qualify as vocational tasks.

But what if I wasn't a Pastor?  New and different experiences like facing the altar at worship has re-oriented me.  I am reminded that the vocational gifts I bring to the world are not necessarily all wrapped in a pastoral shaped package.  Taylor starts her chapter listing the many jobs she has had over the course of her life from babysitting and waitressing to writing for a newspaper and serving a church as pastor; only to leave the church and become an author/college prof.

At the local Methodist church here in Hopetown, there is an elder who marries, buries and preaches on most Sundays.  He also runs the oldest little grocery store in town.  It's world famous for the fresh breads he makes every day.  He is one who feeds: the familiar locals, the strange(r) tourists with both bread and the word.

By considering every little habit, and how I participate in God's call on my life in AND outside my 'job' I hope to expand my sense of vocation upon my return home.  I think this hit me hardest when Taylor explains her sense of vocation.

      "One night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with
      my life, God said, "anything that pleases you."
      "What?... kind of answer is that?"  I said.  
      "Do anything that pleases you... and belong to me."  
      At one level that answer was no help at all.  The ball was back in my court again where God had
      left me all kinds of room to lob it wherever I wanted.  I could be a priest or a circus worker.  God 
      really did not care.  At another level I was so relieved that I sledded down the stairs that night.
      Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered.  God 
      had suggested an overall purpose, but was not going to supply the particulars for me..."

In these last two months I have done many new and different activities where longstanding routines have been interrupted or even discontinued.  But not being a pastor is a whole different experience of life.  Taylor's reflections on vocation remind me that my ordination was and continues to be a choice and simply saying 'Yes' to my call is not an ending but a beginning.  It is not what I do, or what my title is.  What matters is how I listen, pray, lead and teach.  What matters is discovering and rediscovering my 'gladness' so that it may meet the world's need.
Doing/Being something new has been a faithful use of my time.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Spending Time with Friends: a Faithful Use of Time

friends take epic road trips
During my retreat - which I described in a previous post - I was able to name the top priority for my current stage of life: engage in practices that create space for me to experience the present and commune with God.  Maybe this sounds odd to you.  Some can't imagine how anyone could struggle to 'experience the present.'  But I do struggle with this.

After much consternation, many conversations and considerations (that was alliteration back there), I discovered that I am a '3' on the Enneagram.  If you aren't familiar with the Enneagram, there are many resources that can describe and explain the details of how knowing your number assists you as you relate to the world, God and yourself, but one of the more helpful things I read about being a '3' from Using the Enneagram in Prayer by Suzanne Zuercher was that, "[3's] rarely take the time to stop and discover their own experiences."  My immediate response to this was, "I don't understand what that even means.  At all.  Why would I need to 'discover' my own experience?  Just experience it!"  But then came a line that made sense of it all... "for 3's, the present seems to have no reality; it is only a small crack that separates past from future."

Yep.  That's me.

I'm always either dwelling on the past or planning for the future.  The present is indeed a tiny crack in time when I typically put my head down and get stuff done.  Chauffeur the kids.  Lead this or that meeting.  Write this article, sermon, e-mail, or memo.  Create this lesson plan.  Buy that gift.  Attend that game.  And while driving, leading, writing or creating, my mind's eye is looking ahead to an hour from now (will I be late?) or a week from now (am I booked that evening already?) or even a year from now.  I don't particularly care how a moment feels; only whether things are getting done.  Part of how I cope with disappointment, boredom or fear is ignoring it by planning for the next opportunity.  An exceptionally happy moment gets immediately tempered in my mind by remembering that failure from the other day.  A difficult time gets smoothed over by hope in the future.  This makes other people see me as calm, patient, undramatic or even-keeled.  And this serves me well most of the time.  But it also means feelings accumulate in me that are left completely unattended.  Frustrations, anger, joy and relief have no space in my reality.  Because my reality is a "small crack that separates past from future."  After reflection on my retreat, it turns out I don't want to pretend my way through life, being emotionally blind.  This inattentiveness to the present doesn't just harm me or my relationships with those I love.  It makes my relationship with God much less vibrant.  It distances me from the God who blesses my life with pleasures, pain and everything in-between.  

How do I widen that crack between past and future?  I tried to remember those times of my life when I FELT most alive; closest to God; excited to become, and aware of the present moment... Some of those times required a frame of mind that I would like to reclaim.  Others are practices I simply need to do more often.  Retreating (alone), journaling, being in nature, and physically using my body (get away from my desk/couch/bed) are all important.  Taking long drives in my car and going to the movies are also ways that open my present up.  Doing new things and maintaining friendships are also great ways for me to experience the present, notice my emotions, and notice my place in God's world.

After my retreat, my next sabbatical experience then, immersed me in one of these practices: spending time with friends.  I grew up with an older sister and no brothers, but by the end of seminary my two best friends and I were each gifted with a framed photo that explained the brotherly bond we had formed.   In the picture we are singing karaoke in the seminary basement.  Below the photo is a small rope.  Below the rope are the words from Ecclesiastes 4: 12, "A threefold cord is not quickly broken."  Seminary is an intense experience which the three of us did in our 20s which is an intense time of life.  We lived in the same house, traveled across the country together to visit each other's hometowns and shared the successes and failures of seminary life.  Vulnerabilities were exposed and tolerated.  Support was offered and received.  But as much as anything, we had fun.  We had fun talking about God and the church.  We had fun getting to know each other's families.  And we had fun playing foosball, disc golf, basketball, and creating skits to lampoon our professors.  (This was all on the up and up, of course.  We had an annual "Feast of Fools".  We were the chief fools, I think.)

The brood
Upon graduation from seminary the three of us were dispersed to Helena, Montana, Cashton, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh.  Marriages started happening.  Babies were born.  The three of us are now the sixteen of us.  We are godparents for each other's kids.  We are the first people to hear each other's good and bad news of life.  We made a commitment long ago that we have kept.  We choose to maintain the friendships.  We used to do this through typed snail mail letters.  Now we do this through Facebook, Messenger, FaceTime, and as always an annual weeklong trip together.  As one of us said a few years ago, "this week feels more real than the other 51 weeks in the year."  It is a time when the crack between past and future opens up beautifully.

Between storms
These friendships help me experience my present, notice how I am truly feeling and generate a level of gratitude I rarely have otherwise.  And so after my retreat at St. Joseph's we three 'boyz' gathered without kids or wives in Salt Lake City for a skiing trip to celebrate a 40th birthday.  (Not mine...yet.  May 30th for those who feel the need to gift...)

We've still got it
From the moment my plane landed, it felt - as always - like a homecoming.  Conversations about family, work, hopes and fears flowed immediately.  And so did the fun!  We were not together even a full three days (not everyone can be on sabbatical) but were able in that amount of time to eat the best Mexican food in town, watch a movie in Swedish (accidentally... but it pulled us in), get trapped at our ski resort for an afternoon while authorities attended to avalanche controls, taste test some craft beer(s), play indoor tennis for an afternoon and laugh a lot.

It's a quote that gets attributed to a couple different people, but years ago I heard the saying, "friends are the family you choose."  Friendships, like any relationship, require an investment of time, emotion and in many cases money.  These are all rare commodities in our lives.  Over the last 15 years we 'boyz' could easily have allowed the busyness of our lives to swallow our friendships whole.  It's hard to carve out a week together with all our schedules.  It's hard to attend each other's milestones.  It's hard to budget for the travel, remember all the birthdays/baptism anniversaries and stay up to date.  But knowing and being known by others is as worthwhile a spiritual practice as I can think of.  And so I keep choosing these friendships that can feel 'optional'.  Every time I do, I find it was a faithful use of time.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Retreating: A Faithful Use of Time

During my senior year at seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, my newlywed bride, Carla, went on a silent retreat to an Episcopal Center with a number of other 'novices'.  I don't recall the specifics of who or what drew her into that experience.  But I remember thinking it sounded fantastic.  You'd have to ask her for the details of how the days were shaped, but I think they included time for worship & prayer in a chapel and meals were taken together... in silence.  The days started early but in between the 'structured' moments, Carla was left alone with God.

Since then, for sixteen years, I've made myself too busy to seek out a big chunk of alone time with God.  The craving in my soul only became more pronounced as Carla fulfilled a requirement for her Spiritual Direction certification last Fall.  She spent six days at a retreat center in Iowa where she was left alone with God... remembering that she is in fact never actually alone.  One of my coping mechanisms as I coveted my own alone time with God was looking forward to sabbatical.

Pastors are strange souls.  Although the best ones know the wisdom of Sabbath - they teach the Commandments for crying out loud! - they can be very bad at resting.  It would be like a dentist who doesn't brush her teeth.  Or a mechanic who refuses to change the oil in his car.  Many of the colleagues I have spoken with in my preparations for sabbatical told me they had a difficult time 'disconnecting'.  This seems to be a problem that is not unique to pastors, of course.  I have known many small business owners, farmers and others who say it takes three or four days or even a full week on vacation before they can start to relax.  But a significant percentage of pastors, at least in my small sample size, were never able to experience true rest, even after three months away from their desk.  I have a number of theories for this which I won't detail here but these stories moved me to devise a 'disconnection plan' for myself.

The plan was this: January 1 would be my last Sunday at First.  January 2 would be my special college football feast (Go Badgers!).  January 3 - 7 would be my first spiritually directed retreat at a hermitage on St. Jospeh's Ridge.  Those five days would hopefully be a time to disengage from parish ministry and enter into an intentional time of personal re-connection with all those things I too easily neglect.  I would sleep whenever I was tired.  No alarm!  I would eat whenever I was hungry.  (I was on my own for meals.)  And I would read or walk through the hills, or stay up all night or... whatever the Spirit moved me to do.  The only constriction on all this freedom of time was a daily spiritual direction appointment at 3:00 in the villa.

How did the plan go?  January 1 included a great worship service at First where I was formally blessed on my way.  January 2 saw my Badgers win.  During commercials, I packed up four suppers' worth of food, lots of salad fixin's and fruit for the rest of the week and Tuesday made my way to St. Joe's.  It had rained over the weekend and then frozen hard soon thereafter.  Roads were slick.  This is significant because upon my arrival at the villa at St. Joseph, I was forced to keep my vehicle in the 'upper lot'.  The quarter mile road that ends at the hermitages - they have three - begins with a sharp downhill slope.  This meant my backpack full of books, suitcase full of clothes, grocery bags and all other supplies had to be carried.  Did I mention it was 9 degrees?  With a 20 mph wind?  That's as warm as it would get throughout my time, by the way.  The windchill Friday afternoon was more than 30... below.

The hermitages at St. Joseph's are simple, yet complete.  Each has one room with a bed, a bath
room, a reclining chair, a full kitchen, a writing desk and a view of the woods and valley beyond.  I was assigned the 'Sophia' hermitage.  For real.  (You may know my eldest daughter was also named for holy wisdom.)  A coincidence?
It took me almost an hour to carefully slide my belongings along the skating rink/road to 'Sophia'.  It took another hour to unpack and thaw out my fingers and toes.  Once the books had been placed neatly in the window sill, my clothes had been tucked away in drawers, my food organized in the mini-fridge and shaving kit hung from the inside of the bathroom door, I sat down in the reclining chair which received me like a very old friend.  

All my preparations had been made.  My family were already in the Bahamas beginning their adventure.  I had no 'work' to do at First for three months.  There was NOTHING left for me to plan, figure out or organize.  The quiet was deafening.  The absence of a to-do list was bewildering.  But almost immediately, I could feel my soul exhale.  And then I fell asleep.

Spiritual directors will tell you that it is not uncommon for those on retreat to sleep a lot.  Most of us don't sleep enough and so our bodies oftentimes take advantage of retreats like these to catch up.  This first nap of mine lasted almost two hours.  I then had supper, read for a bit and went to bed around 10:00.  I woke up the next day at noon.  Seriously.  There are only two other times in my life when I remember physically shutting down like that: 1) in high school after a National Youth Gathering in New Orleans when I think I averaged 3 hours of sleep per night for a week.  As our 6 person youth group made our way home in a Dad's RV, I fell asleep in Baton Rouge and didn't wake up until the next day as we rolled past Stevens Point.  2) after the greatest three months of my life studying abroad in England, traveling throughout Europe and meeting Carla (it was like a 100 day adrenaline rush) I came home to Medford instead of taking a J-term class at Augsburg and mostly slept for two weeks.  The first three days of my retreat at St. Joseph's felt a lot like that.  My body heard the quiet as my mind received the release from responsibilities and my soul opened to the presence of God through deep sleep.

In my waking hours, I was becoming reacquainted with feelings, dreams and disappointments from the whole of my life.  I was remembering people and events that had slipped away.  It was not easy to read, reflect, journal, pray, wonder and confront MYSELF.  I do these things for and with other people, a whole congregation of people, actually, every day.  But I had not flexed my spiritual muscles and focused these practices on me much for the last fifteen years.  It was about time.

My primary resources for this sabbath work were all the photographs I've uploaded to Shutterfly for 16 years plus two books: 1) Using the Enneagram in Prayer by Suzanne Zuercher and 2) Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor.  I could spend thousands of words recounting the many insights, discoveries and questions these two books brought out of me.  But I'd rather simply say this: by being on retreat I had the time and space to slowly digest my thoughts, pray through questions and hear God's response through the bits of wisdom I've been taught my whole life, through Scripture stories that seemed to address me personally and through the spiritual director to whom God gave helpful words.  My train of thought was never interrupted by a phone call, kids calling, "Dad, Dad, Dad..." or a screen of any kind.  And so I am now able to name my greatest desire.  I have thoughtfully concluded what I am most thankful for in this life.  I am more aware than ever of how my preferences and personality build obstacles between myself and God.  That awareness has led to a list of strategies and tactics that I know are able to overcome those obstacles.
But most of all, my time on retreat reminded me that prayer is not something to be 'done'.  In my experience prayer is being in the presence of the holy which may or may not happen when I want it to.  It may or may not happen on a Sunday morning, before a meal, before bed, or upon waking up.  During my retreat I remembered that prayer happens unexpectedly and to be prayerful, I simply need to put myself in an abundance of situations where I may hear God more often.  Or as Jesus says, "Stay alert!"  The noise of my life, and my unwillingness to push back against my busyness had all but crushed my prayer life.  On retreat, I remembered how to pray.

And so I commend retreating to you as it is a very faithful use of time.  'Leaving' your loved ones for 3-7 days may seem selfish or at least some level of crazy to our hyper-productive world which does not value quiet, being or prayerfulness.  But I believe these 5 cold days in January may become the cornerstone for an entirely new prayer life for me which will transform every other part of my journey.  It was not 'fun' or easy.  I was happy to return home.  But it was as faithful a use of time as I can imagine.  

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Saying Good Bye: A Faithful Use of Time

This past Sunday, February 5th, I completed the first month of my sabbatical.  Thus far, my time away from work has been spent 1) tending to my relationship with God as I took 5 days for a silent retreat at a hermitage outside St. Joseph, 2) tending to my deepest friendships as I spent time in Salt Lake City with my best friends skiing - and other stuff, 3) tending to my relationship with family as I shared special meals with my parents, and many consecutive meals with my wife and kids...  "Dad doesn't have any evening meetings this week... or next week... or the week after that!"  4) and tending to my marriage as Carla and I spent her pre-birthday week in Mexico -  without the aforementioned kids.  Blissful.  And speaking of bliss... I have also been spending my time acclimating to our sabbatical home in Hopetown, Elbow Cay, Abaco - in the Bahamas.  (It's actually not that hard to get used to Abaco in January!)

Perhaps all this travel and transition explains why I have neglected to blog during the first month.  Or maybe I should just admit... I didn't really feel like blogging.  And yet I have much to share!  I hope this blog will be a way to celebrate the gifts God gives when we human do-ers take time to be.
Already, I have remembered things about myself, re-discovered things about God, and fallen in deeper love with those people and interests that have become too distant over the course of my overactive life.  Each week - or perhaps twice a week - I will share a couple pictures, and a few thoughts about the theme of my sabbatical: 'The Faithful Use of Time'. 

#1: Saying Goodbye is a Faithful Use of Time

My sabbatical may have officially started January 5, but my physical absence from work was not the only way to measure the beginning of the experience.  Preparations for our living situation began more than a year ago.  Shifting the kids out of their schools and completing the enrollment paperwork in Abaco brought a dose of reality this past Fall.  But more than anything, what made me feel like my sabbatical was truly beginning were the many goodbyes I received throughout the month of December.

At each 'last' meeting I had, members of teams offered words of encouragement, asked great questions about my own expectations and thanked me for another year of service at First.  At each of the four funerals that month family members and luncheon servers shared their genuine excitement for my time of rest.  Whether it was worship on a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening, the kids' Christmas program or Christmas Eve, there were so many hardy handshakes given followed by a smile and more words of love.  That's what I especially noticed about these goodbyes.  In the special notes and gifts I received; in the drop-in visits to my office; in the 'out-of-the-blue' e-mails and phone calls, I heard many forms of "we love you and your family."  That's what a goodbye is for, after all: a last chance to share love with someone you care about before a time of separation.

I hadn't felt the love of goodbyes like this since Christmas of 2007 when I left my first call in Cashton for First Lutheran in Onalaska.  That December - nine years ago - was the most painful month of my life because those goodbyes were not said with a return in mind.  They were said with finality.  A cherished part of my life was passing away.  A new chapter was being born.  And as in all deaths and births, there was grief and pain before the peace and joy.  Then, as now, goodbyes included stories and thoughts that are never otherwise said.  One could bemoan the fact that we typically don't say these words of thanks and love and encouragement other than before a time of separation.  But I am simply thankful that these moments happen at all.  I'm not too picky about when, exactly.

The best part, of course, about this time of 'goodbyes' is that there is no finality behind the well-wishing.  The mutual love-sharing that preceded my sabbatical was not a period at the end of a chapter.  Instead, it was a comma in the middle of a much longer story.  For however long I serve First Lutheran, the goodbyes of December 2016 will hold a special place in my soul.
Thank you to the many who went out of their way to say goodbye.  It was a faithful use of your time!  

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Proclaim Justice: A Day of Service

Saturday was our long-awaited day of service; our Proclaim Justice Day.  The logistics of transporting 30,000 Lutherans over three days to thousands of sites throughout the city is a task whose demands go beyond my imagination.  As with any large scale invasion, our good works assault did not go without any snaffus.  Day one's launches were slow to get out.  Some groups were told to arrive at Hart Plaza at 10:45 only to be sent away by mid-afternoon because of transport issues, or miscommunication.  But this was the vast exception.  On day two, the first launch at 8:45 got inundated with rain.  And I do mean HEAVY rain.  Some sites were a washout as outdoor activities were planned.  I hoped that by day three - with favorable wether - we may enjoy the fruits of a little practrice on the part of those responsible for these experiences.  My hopes were not only fulfilled, but we had as good an experience as anyone on the entire trip.  
We were among those launched early on bus 53 (there were hundreds).  By 9:30 we were on our bus and by 9:45 we had arrived at our site.  No one told me or any other member of our party what we were to do until Megan, our servant companion told us en route.  We were to reclaim a sidewalk next to a neglected private lot.  This lot took up an entire block.  Upon arrival, there was nothing that made it look like there was anything but a grass path to work with. Upon some archaeological-like digging, hoeing, scraping and pulling, a cement sidewalk was discovered, though.  The thatch, roots garbage and filth were so deep that in the first two hours two buses full of people made little progress.  
It was 94 degrees, by the way.  The heat index was 104.  A girl from a congregation in Alexandria, MN went down with heat exhaustion.  I drank seven bottles of water throughout the day and never had to use the porta-potty once.  After our lunch on the bus (which was food tht could only be consumed when truly hungry) we hit our stride in the afternoon.  Talking and picture taking took a back seat to the grimy work of hauling the blanket of filth away uncovering a walkway.  But as 2:30 approached it became clear that we wouldn't finish the entire block.  Some were asking whether we could stay longer to make sure it gets done.  Remember... it was miserably hot.  
That's when the bobcat showed up.  A landscaper down the street saw all the orange shirts working so hard and decided to drive down to our site.  In 20 minutes, he finished what would have taken us hours.  It was left for us to simply sweep up.  
Now, one could have looked at this development cynically.  "Well, what took us hours, this guy does in a few minutes."  But this guy wouldn't have come had we not been there.  He had driven past this overgrown lot dozens of times and done nothing.  But today, he put his bobcat to work.  The guy across the street who ran a car detailig shop hadn't attended to his vegetation all year.  Some was ten feet tall.  While we cleaned up the ugliest eyesore in the neighborhood, he came out to weed-whack his own property.  Oh, and he went to the store and bougt 8 cases of water for us, too.  We drank it all.  Nearby, two women hung out a window watching us.  They went over to the fire station across the street and asked the fireme to open a hydrant for us.  They were happy to oblige.  
Our presence in that neigborhood did not, in the end, do that much to the physical appearance of anything.  We did make the daily walk for students on their way to school a little safer as we got rid of a lot of glass.  And people on their way to the bus have a nicer walk, too.  But next year at this time, that thatch and garbage may have all returned.  But the spirit of cooperation, the concern we showed and the outpouring of community interaction that happened will never go away.  Community happened through our humble efforts. Christ was there.  
We were tired.  So we went back to our hotel and slept.  And showered.  And then we ate LOTS of pizza. It was a good day.  
At the last night's main event at Ford Field we heard from a number of people around the theme of Breaking Chains.  This was a night mean tto name the ways indivudality can be looked down upon.  All the ways that  te world says we aren't enough are untrue.  God doesn't make mistakes.  No one needs to dwell in uncertinty about whether hey are loved.  But the kids were most taken with the main musical act: Skilet.  
Skillet is a heavy metal Christian band whose lead singer scream into the microphone with every phrase.  How his voice hangs in there is a mystery to me; perhaps it's the Holy Spirit at work as his message does get through to a segment of our kids who otherwise may thing the rest of the music is terrible.  Anyway, I think I can still hear out of my left ear.
As we went to sleep last night we named the fact that this is our last night in Detroit.  Before we know it, we'll be back home.  We started to think about how to make the transition.  And we prayed for the person to the left os us after getting in a circle.  We gave thanks to God for the humor, the peristence, the open-heartedness of the person next to us.  It was beautiful.  It was a good-ol-day for these kids and for the adults that got to come along.  

Friday, July 17, 2015

Building Bridges; Day 3 of the National Youth Gathering

We started out tired today.  Last night's conversations got late in all the rooms, it sounds like.  That, of course is a good thing, because one of the primary purposes of the trip is to grow friendships, explore Christian conversations and share ourselves with each other.  That is definitely happening!  Each adult leader joins a room full (4) kids at 11:00 for a smaller group devotion/conversation.  My deep and sincere thanks to Sandi Thompson-Melby, Teesha Willinger and Tina Nelson for being so willing and able to guide our kids physically through the crowds and also spiritually as we talk through WIGIAT (Where Is God In All This).
We enjoyed another late wake-up call today (8:00).  I say late because most other groups are waking up at 6:30 or 7:00 in preparation for a bus ride into town from their distant hotels.  We made our way to the Cobo Center where the grandest and greatest ministry fair you've ever seen took up acres and acres of indoor convention center floors.  Mini-golf, bumper cars powered by bicycle wheels, volleyball, basketball, tetherball, and every organization within the Lutheran church you can think of was represented.  Peace without walls, walk for water, the malaria campaign... people were donating blood, hair and money.  People made bracelets, peace puppets, art for hope and received buttons, tattoos and lots of pens.  Thousands of participants spent the entire day walking from booth to booth, experience to event, court to conversations.
By 3:30, we were physically spent.  Not even the sour patch slurpee from 7-11 could jolt our kids out of their fatigue.  Many took naps.  Most at least took a couple hours to rest in their room (seriously... we're walking 20,000+ steps a day here!)  By 6:30 we made our way to Greek town for authentic Greek cuisine.  It was our one out-of-our-comfort-zone eating experience for the trip.  A few had burgers or pasta, but some went for it.  My whole table tried the octopus tentacle I ordered as an appetizer, Jacob ate grape leaves, Emily loved her dish and Pastor Karyn joined us!
After running out of noodles - which made us late - we ran to Ford Field for the main event.  We got there a few minutes late which put us in the nosebleed section.  Little did we know that later, that would be a good thing.  We heard from a Youn Adult in Global Mission again tonight who offered a great story about a God-moment when peace was experienced between herself and the two blind arabic speaking muslim students she was tasked to teach.  The moment came through yoga.  Breaathing in peace and using bodies she said communicated something true and deep.
We then heard from a Jerusalem born Pastor who works with BRIDGES (Building Respect in Diverse Groups to Enhance Sensitivity).  It was a good talk about recognizing the similarities we hare while honoring differences.
We then heard from  Pastor who lived through Hurricane Sandy.  She shared that her apartment building remained unscathed while the one across the street lost power, got flooded and had no heat.  After 11 days like this, still no one had gotten around to helping her neighbors.  It was a public housing facility and most were black or brown.  It truly bothered her that there was such desparity between her building and the one that was only across the street.  It made her ask, Whose lives matter?  Why aren't we all around one table?  She has since explored some of these questions and begun a "Dinner Church" which ceters around eating together (genius!... like Jesus did)  "All of this inequality and broken systems will break your heart if you really take the time to see it and notice it.  It may even break your faith.  Maybe that's not such a bad thing."  What she was saying is, maybe our faith needs to be bothered out of our comfortable narcissism and into other people's difficult lives.  And maybe that can happen easiest over the dinner table,  My favorite part was that she admitted her ministry has not built the bridge between the buildings, but we now have people standing in-between and that's a start.  "I haven't figured anything out.  I just refuse to look away."
Then came Motown!  As a surprise, a member of the capitals, the miracles and two temptations came on stage in bright red suits and sang 3 small sets of songs EVERYbody knows.  Motown was a bridge building (see the theme yet?) force during the Civil Rights struggle as they called for dancing in the streets as well as sharing th best of 'Soul' music from African Americans.  That the music came from Motor Town USA - Motown - made it especially appropriate for us to hear tonight.  It was great!
Our final speaker was a Pastor from Milwauke whose congregation endured the racist shooting of Darius, an 11 year old boy, four years ago.  His white neighbor killed him while the boy took out the trash.  In the aftermath, Darius' mother chose not to hold on to hatred, and his Pastor has chosen to make 'loving your neighbor' his ministry.  At the center of his message is the power of Jesus.  It can only sound simple and perhpas even obvious as you read this blog - especially if you are already a Christian.  But this Pastor talked about the power of Jesus for about 10 minutes in a VERY energetic way.  His words and style broke into our kids' imaginations better than any other speaker this week.
Tomorrow is our service day.  Their have been hiccups the last two days for other groups as they seek to be loaded onto buses and launched into the city.  I pray we have the opportunity to offer our hands in the name of Christ!

Rise Up! National Youth Gathering 2015 Day 2

After a full day of travel yesterday, today's 8:00 wake-up call was welcome.  I didn't even hear any kids in the hallway until 8:15, so it was clear all the groups enjoyed some sleep.  The Gathering is separated into three days: Proclaim Story Day, a Proclaim Community Day and a Proclaim Justice Day.  We 30,000 participants are divided into equal parts who rotate through the days.  At First, Onalaska, today was our Proclaim Story Day.
After a morning of sightseeing, walking and lots of selfies... let me repeat - LOTS of selfies - our entire group converged on Detroit's enormous Cobo (pronounced with long o's) Convention Center.  There we met with every participant from our entire La Crosse Area Synod; something like 300 in all.  For four hours the kids were led through a 'curriculum' that centered on their "Lifeline".  They were each given a "My Story Journal" and were tasked with writing down the highs and lows of their life thus far.  After mapping out their lives, we then looked at the claim God made on their lives at baptism.  Whenever an activity (typically 5 or fewer minutes) ended, they were brought back into the larger group by someone yelling, "Jesus Is..." and the rest of the group shouting, "Good News".  Our own Parker Mannel was the designated "Jesus Is..." guy a number of times.  A homegrown praise band from Good Shepherd, Viroqua provided the msuic, with our own Mickaela Larkin on the drums.  She did great!  We then considered the story of Jesus healing the paralytic.  It's a story about Jesus being good news; a story about how the faith of friends is what heals the suffering one; a story about God at work through others.  That's when we started considering how God works in our own lives.  We named the people who faith for us like thoe friends of the paralytic did.  And we heard stories from leaders who have experienced God.  Ellie Havenstrite shared the story of her Father's death and what it has been like in the aftermath... Most kids and all the adults in the room were hit hard.  What I especially loved about Ellie's story is how  she was honest that she's not always down with the whole God thing, despite the ways she admits God has been present with her family through so many friends and family.  This persepctive grounded the whole conversation in reality instead of some shallow story where everything turns out OK and unicorns fly over rainbows in the end because "everything happens for a reason".  Through the story of Ellie and others, we got to admit that our "Lifelines" are littered with real lows while also including fantastic highs.
What's your story? was the question asked of all the participants.  Amd by the nd of our time together, the last thing we did was draw a circle around the whole thing and label it "God's story."  In other words, our story is a part of God's story.  His claim on us claims the good and bad stuff that has happened.  Because Jesus Is!... Good News!
From there we needed to eat.  But so did 29,981 other people.  The Gathering is a never-ending sea of humanity that overtakes every popular street in town.  Monroe Street which goes through "Greektown" just a couple blocks from our hotel has a couple dozen restaurants.  Walking down the sidewalk meant carefully weaving through seated people waiting to get into each establishment, while high-fiving almost every single person who walks past you.  LOTS of high fives.  We could only get reservations for Friday night from one of the Greektown restaurants, so we split up and scavenged for food in two smaller groups.  Some of us went to the Renaissance Center, which is the base of the GM Towers (amazing) where there is a food court.  Five of us ate with 5,000 of our closest friends there, while the rest of th egroup ate at  the hotel's restaurant.  They made a wise choice.
From Supper we went the few blocks from our hotel to Ford Field for the nightly main event.  The theme from our speakers centered around privilege, diversity and equality.  We heard from one young woman who recently completed a young adult in global mission year in Madagascar first.  She named how eye-opening her expereince was.  The people around her had so little and were yet so wealthy in community and in faith.  More than ever, she recognized her privilege in material and culturl status.  We then heard from Eric Barreto who was born and raised in Puerto Rico but who then moved to the mainland later in childhood.  He shared stories of how he has at different times been told to put away his Puerto Rican identity in favor of only speaking English and only acting like an American.  He spoke to the beauty of how God makes us all a little different, even though our differences can feel exposing and embarrassing.  Finally we heard from Alexia Salvatierra who has worked with poverty and immigration for more than 20 years.  She offered a powerful witness to the injustices of our broken immigration system that is not simply unhelpful to our country, but inhumane to those in need of refuge from dangerous places.
These days are so full of such meaty topics and experiences.  The kids are bombarded with sights, sounds, ideas and music and told to care about so many things.  They are kidn of tired and kind of revved up in a way they've never known.  There was a noticeable change in our group from Wednesday to Thursday as their comfort level with the whole thing grew in leaps and bounds.  Their willingness to engage with people from Alaska over here, Virginia over there and that group from Minnesota across the street is competely different from the first day.  These next two days promise to include even more energy, more ideas and deeper faith.  I definitely see God stretching our kids.  After all, Jesus is... Good news!