Hello on a chilly and somewhat sobering (and not of the alcohol persuasion) Friday evening,
I am wishing I was in front of a roaring fireplace and sort of tucked in for the evening. It was a long week and it seemed as if there were no easy or slack minutes, or even moments in the day. It seems the weeks of the semester are beyond the cliché of flying by, I am not sure what metaphor I might use. Suffice it to say being at this point of the semester is beyond overwhelming with the work left, and yet necessary to complete it successfully. I also realize for many, it is merely stating the obvious as their lives are no different. Yesterday I took my Bible as Literature class to the United Lutheran Seminary – Gettysburg Campus to do research for their papers. It was really an outstanding day, albeit incredible long when my alarm went off at 4:15 a.m. to be ready to be on the road an hour later. Their day was filled with research and study, many went to an optional chapel service, which had its own sort of redux moment for me and more of a “did-that-really-happen” moment for my students. More about that to come, but it was quite amazing for me to watch, listen, and ponder to their thoughts and reactions. This is the fourth time I have taken students to ULS as it is now titled, for a research day, and it might have been the most productive and successful visit yet. The students all sat in one particular study room, at it certainly appeared that they found that space, camaraderie, and mutual focus helpful. As with every trip, they have eaten in the seminary refectory and that too went well when I got the entire refectory audience to sing happy birthday to one of the students. Finally, a visit to the Seminary Ridge Museum (Seminary Ridge )seemed to captivate the students’ minds before we returned to Bloomsburg by supper time.
I am not sure if it is because of my love of history, or perhaps my penchant for remembering things (sometimes important and more often seemingly mundane), that causes me to remember dates, times, places, or events with a kind of clarity that can almost haunt me, but the title of this post demonstrates some of that. This time the years all end with the number eight. I think in light of the trip to the seminary, I will begin as a sort of in media res. This past week I remember rather vividly that it was thirty years ago the 23rd that I was ordained as a pastor. That was a celebratory day for my little congregation in Riverside because another of their sons or daughters had become a pastor. It was one of the few times I ever saw my father cry, and I think somehow even my mother was proud of me that day. I was married to Susan at the time and I think she was happy and proud too, though being the spouse of a pastor and moving halfway across the country would prove to be much more difficult than either of us would realize. I think being a pastor’s spouse probably did as much to doom our marriage as some of my own mistakes. I remember the service pretty clearly. When I consider the participants in my ordination, it is a bit startling to reflect on what has happened in the interim period from October 23rd, 1988 to now. My ordaining and presiding pastor, the Reverend Doctor Greg Witte, left the clergy roster not that many years later. My quasi-brother-in-law, Rev. Randy Kasch, has just retired from parish ministry. The preaching pastor, and person who most influenced my belief that I might be called to parish ministry, the Rev. Frederich Peters, is still living out his elderly years in Oregon. I can still hear him call me Mikey. One of the three people (all from that family) who can refer to me as such, and I actually appreciate it. The Reverend Karsten Nelson is still in parish ministry on the suburbs of the Twin Cities and the Reverend Linda Johnson-Prestholt is a pastor in NE Iowa. The people who were there to sing, including my best friend in life, Peter, has passed away, but I wrote of that in my blog at other times. For me the day was beyond overwhelming, disconcerting, and incredibly frightening. I remembered the stories of Martin Luther, himself, and how at his first mass he felt paralyzed with fear at the awe of the calling to be a priest. I felt much the same. The vows I had taken only hours before pushed me toward feeling under-prepared, incapable, and even unworthy. I remember as everyone felt excited and supportive, I went to bed early because I was literally sick. While I believe the Holy Spirit helped me accomplish some amazing things as a parish and campus pastor, and there are some profound things I miss by no longer being on the clergy roster, the Holy Spirit continues to bless and direct my life more completely than I am often cognizant of. Again, perhaps some of my most significant ministry has occurred since I resigned from the roster. I certainly made mistakes as a pastor and my humanity and childhood baggage affected me more than I would anticipate.
That brings me to the 20 years ago. That is when I would resign. By that time I was in a different place, a different state, a different marriage, and even a different sort of call. I would realize more profoundly than I ever had, the power that some are given, some believe they have, and perhaps most acutely, the power they will use. I have written about this before. However, while I struggled mightily at that time, and sometimes still do, I have realized that the church is nothing more that a human institution that too often falls short of its own calling. My dissertation on Bonhoeffer reminds me of this fact on a regular basis. The church once had a more profound role in American culture, and I believe the church could, and perhaps should, still have such a role. Where I struggle with the church is in how it maintains what it deems scriptural integrity, but too often support societal positions that discriminate, support the powerful at the expense of the poor, and claim the moral high ground when the actions of its membership demonstrate anything but . . .
It is barely 24 or maybe 36 hours since I wrote on my blog and we have managed to arrest a person described as a everyday guy who went to church and lifted weights. In less than a day later, a hate-filled, bigoted, anti-Semite walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and opened fire on worshiping men and women, killing a couple in their 80s, brothers in their 50s and a 97 year old woman, and he has been posting anti-Semitic rants for some time. And my struggle is profound! While I support our Constitutional rights and freedom of speech, where are the boundaries? While I know some will find this difficult, what is the influence of, or to what degree can we connect, the Tweets and tone of a particular Tweeter-in-Chief to the seeming continued downward spiral in our national conversation? Putting more armed guards at schools, churches, public places in general only supports a culture that argues only a gun can keep us safe. What have we become (and I use what purposely)? All of this will give me yet another opportunity to reflect, but I will return to my initial blog intent. I do believe the place we were 50 years ago, the year 1968, has incredible connection to this weekend, but I will not go completely down road in this blog.
I was all of 12 years old that spring and summer of that fateful year in our national history. From the beginning of the year I heard the word Tet, but I did not know what it meant. I knew we were in Vietnam, but I had little idea that I would someday go there too. By April, Dr. King would be assassinated, and I realized that was both terrible and important, but had no idea nor the degree to which those things would be true. In June, another assassination and the 3rd grade memory of my parents and I watching the television for three long days on a late November weekend came rushing back. This time a younger brother would be laid to rest and the world I knew as a middle schooler would tragically become more violent as riots and tensions across the country about justice and equal rights, civil rights, and a war in a far away land would boil over in Chicago, Detroit, Newark, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and in other places. I remember being warned by my parents even in my relatively small NW Iowa community to be careful and to not say anything that could be construed as inflammatory. What I know now is that year would lead to a profound change in how we saw “the other,” something I would not realize for decades, or after a lot of growing and even more significant changes in my viewpoint about both the world and the people in it.
Certainly the 60s is complex and there are amazing books authored about that time. One of my colleagues noted a book about this very year, it is titled 1968: The Way We Were. I think many of the positive consequences, and certainly some of the more profound negative, come from that period, and are possibly directly connected to that traumatic moment, the 525,600 minutes that were 1968, in our history. We believed (perhaps not corporately or societally, but enough in individuality) somehow the way to stop political movements or individual political ambition was through assassination. We (certainly many) believed the way to respond to violence was with violence. We believed as a country we could impose our political desires and practices on people and cultures through money and military. Unfortunately, little has changed, and, at least in my humble opinion it is now more pronounced, more extreme and more hateful. However, lest you think I only see negative consequences, certainly concern for our planet, our environment, issues about feminism certainly come to the fore in that time. Without a doubt, all of them have gone through various iterations, as the political powers change, the way in which we respond seems to sway in those proverbial winds. The issue is profoundly more complex than what I offer here in a small blog post, but the point is 50 years ago changed the trajectory of our country. I am not sure I see that consequence as a positive thing from my station in life. There had been an appeal to our better angels as of late. I think we need every angel we can summon.
As always, thanks for reading.