2016: though the vortex

I shared this spiritual reflection at the Gamaliel of Iowa/Illinois Leadership Retreat in Rock Island, Illinois on January 7, 2016.

Living in reality

My son Amos just had his first Christmas. It was my daughter Susannah’s third.

Before the holidays, my father-in-law asked me what changed since Amos was born. I said, “We used to do tag-team parenting—my wife could tag out and I could tag in, or the other way around. But now, we parent man-on-man. There’s no tagging out. It feels like I have zero time for myself, and sometimes I’m just angry and resentful about that.”

And guess what my father-in-law said?

“Good. You’re living in reality.”

Change. Loss. Grief. It’s part of the same package. The same reality. Even with the changes we call good. They're layers of the same onion. Change. Loss. Grief.

I bring this up because, here we are talking about transformation. A transformational narrative. Pathways to societal change. Restructuring our organizations. Shifting priorities. Shifting decision-making. Shifting relationships.

Let’s peel a layer off that onion.

How does all of that make you feel? At the Gamaliel National Leadership Retreat in December—leaders and organizers from 17 states across the country—we were feeling everything. Confused. Excited. Terrified. Enlightened. Resolute. Suspicious. Hopeful. All the feels.

And that’s good. It means we’re living in reality. That’s transformation. Real transformation. Transformation is such a pretty word. A clean word. But in reality, it’s the onion.

It burns.

We’re people of faith. So we believe there’s reality and then there’s reality. Are you with me? I’m talking about revelation. A peak behind the curtain of we thought was real. An invitation to live in the deeper reality.

Change. Loss. Grief. That’s the real reality. We have to say no, before we can say yes.

We resist loss, not change

Here’s one of the laws of physics in that real reality. People don’t resist change. They resist loss.*

We don’t resist change. We resist loss.

Loss. And it’s stinky, weepy friend, grief. Change. Loss. Grief.

Sometimes it’s easier to construct a fake reality than live in the real one. Say we’re stretching for the next new thing while we’re really still clinging to the old. Denying the messy middle between the end and the new beginning. We deny the loss as a way of dismissing the negative emotions. Pay no attention to the reality behind the curtain.

Change. Loss. Grief.

Can I go deeper? Pain. Uncertainty. Fear. Powerlessness. Loss of identity. Shame. Who do you think you are? Unworthiness. Vulnerability.

Swirling vortex

Do you know Rev. David Gerth? Go to Gamaliel National Leadership Training. Weeklong. That’s where Rev. Gerth introduced me to the swirling vortex. That’s what the swirling vortex feels like. That gut-churning list.

Will press show up to this event?

How will this organization—this person—respond to my agitation?

Am I worthy of more power?

Hollywood gives us language to talk about the swirling vortex. It’s Alice in Wonderland—through the looking glass, or down the rabbit hole. The Matrix—red pill or blue pill. With all the messy, risky, painful, chaotic uncertainty. Change, loss, grief.

And what do those movies tell us? The swirling vortex may have many names, but there’s only one way to get from one reality to another. Even Hollywood says so: Love is not a victory march, and neither is liberation.

We are people of faith. How do we get out of this human-constructed reality—free-market military-prison-poverty-church-racism-sexism-industrial complex? How to we move into God’s real reality—the beloved community?

Faith languages, holy stories

Our languages of faith and our holy stories talk about the swirling vortex too. They also say there’s only one way. Through. The swirling vortex is really a door, a path, a portal to God’s reality. Hollywood is just ripping us off.

I’m a Lutheran pastor. I tell stories of death and resurrection. Of losing our lives to save them.

Others tell stories of liberation via wilderness wandering and a harrowing chase across a muddy Red Sea.

Others name peace as woven from the struggle of surrendering to God’s gracious will.

Others invite us to redefine God.

How do you name it? The swirling vortex. Change. Loss. Grief. The way to the real reality. The most gracious, spacious reality.

And the deepest truth. That letting go and braving the vortex—as we actually do it—is really a gift we are receiving, not an achievement we’ve won and have any right to brag about.

Leaving All Saints

Listen. I’m telling you this from the swirling vortex. I’m in it right now.

I used to be the pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church in Davenport, Iowa. Three weeks ago, I was, but I’m not anymore.

In our Lutheran bureaucratic language, I “resigned without call.” But what I’m saying is, I quit my job and now I’m unemployed and I’m not sure what will happen next.

People who know me know I do not make rash decisions. Leslie knows. Leaving All Saints was not a rash decision. I spent a lot of time in prayer and in conversation with my wife and others I trust.

But when it came down to the reality of life coming at me, clarity came suddenly and abundantly. I was not the one to lead All Saints into its next chapter. And the most transformational thing I could do…was leave.

And whatever leaving meant for All Saints (a congregation I love), or for me and my family, or for my reputation with my bishop, or for my role as president and work with Quad Cities Interfaith—whatever it meant, I needed to live in reality. The real reality. And it was now or never.

So I woke up one morning in November—Amos wasn’t even 6 months old yet—and I started making phone calls. And that initiated a series of scary, shitty days.

And also, hope, peace, new life.

Two ways to fail

Friends, as I see it, there are at least two ways we can fail. The first is fear. We can find the swirling vortex—the change, loss, grief—and we can refuse to jump. I think you know what I mean. The danger of fear gets a lot of air time around here, so I’m not going to say more about it.

There’s another danger. The second way we can fail. It’s also fear, but fear masking as arrogance.

We can pretend jump into the swirling vortex and sing our own praises. Or we jump but on the way down, we grab hold of the the diving board and claim we’re still falling. That’s what happens we don’t really get real. We refuse to really get vulnerable with each other. We deny the loss. We dismiss the grief.

Be. Listen. Feel.

“Be the change you want to see!” But don’t let the slogan go to your head!

Yeah, be the change. And also, take off the armor. Surrender the blame. Listen for the loss, your own and others. Let the grief just come. That’s the only way to really receive the gift of we’re striving for. It’s the only way to find gratitude. To change the world—not just any old way—but with wholehearted love.ϯ

I don’t have this all figured out, but I’ve learned this.

There are people who have willingly surrendered much more than has ever been taken away from me. People who have willingly laid down more than I have yet found a way to let go of.

All for my sake and for the sake of this whole world. For all. So together we can live—and taste in some real, if sometimes small ways, freedom, belonging, honest work, growth, friendship, dignity.

When I stop in awe and gratitude and honest confession about my failings, I can finally behold this revealed truth for what it is—that I am not the source of the change I am striving for.

We are not the source of the change we’re striving for.

Put a toe in that swirling vortex. Throw yourself, your organization, your enemies into that powerful love.

I can’t tell you what the most transformational thing you can do is. You have to follow the call of love for you. I can only invite you to follow me.

And receive the new, transformed world that’s already being born.


2015: my mission to mars

In "5,200 Days in Space," Charles Fishman celebrates that very achievement. Humans--American and Russians, mostly--have lived on the International Space Station for over 14 years...and counting...

This is amazing. But what really grabbed me were two passages that may really have more to do with life on Earth. My life and your life.

Source: NASA's Instagram

Before those two passages, a little context. If this length of time alone wasn't enough to amaze you, Fishman explores the value and purpose of the ISS, after detailing the physical, technological, and logistical challenges that make the streak so meaningful and amazing. It really is amazing and strange. Most people know...

"[Spaceflight is] hard on the body because it’s so easy on the body. "

But that's not the half of it.

"...life in space isn’t just stranger than ordinary folks realize; it’s harder. Harder even than NASA has always imagined."

It's really worth your time to read, even if you're not a Star Wars or Cosmos kind of person. It will help you appreciate life on Earth all the more.

Now, here comes the money lines.

"But spacewalking is also a window into how dangerous space is, how a single connector not properly mated can lead to disaster, and how NASA has grappled with that risk by wringing all the spontaneity, all the surprise, out of it. That’s why every scheduled space walk is scripted, and then rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed in a pool big enough to immerse two space shuttles."

This, despite the opening scene of the movie, Gravity. Remember G. Clooney doing space-donuts with his jetpack, while S. Bullock does all the hard work? In reality, no. Not at all. Everything is by the book, according to a plan that ground control decided for astronauts simply to execute.

But it raises the question: how do we--you and me--deal with the risk of living on Earth? Scripts? Rehearsals? What about spontaneity and surprise?

Boy, is this a big one for me right now! Over the summer I started preaching from handwritten notes, instead of a fully-typed manuscript. This experiment with "under-preparing" (from the point of view of previously overworking) really is about risk. Standing up and saying anything in public is risky. Even if I do it weekly, as a "calling." It's scarier without a neatly printed script.

But also worth it--and valuable at a much deeper level than, "Is my preaching better now?" It fits with my 2015 goal: more and more to encounter risk with action. When I'm unhealthy or nervous, I can get stuck withdrawing and thinking, overthinking, overinterpreting. This year, act first, reflect second. Take a risk. Roll the dice. Less NASA, more spontaneity and surprise.

How about you? We all have our own ways of coping with risk. Yours probably isn't the same as mine. And what feels risky is probably different for you too. Two simple questions will help you sort that out. When do you get nervous? When you're nervous, what do you do?

Okay, so why would I want to change my default (aka, automatic) response to risk? Why would you? Why make that a goal for 2015?

Consider Mars. Fishman says astronauts traveling to Mars will experience 30 minute communication-delays with Earth. Scripted and rehearsed and controlled-from-Earth won't work at those huge distances, with those delays. So he writes,

"That could be the real value of the Space Station—to shift NASA’s human exploration program from entirely Earth-controlled to more astronaut-directed, more autonomous. This is not a high priority now; it would be inconvenient, inefficient. But the station’s value could be magnified greatly were NASA to develop a real ethic, and a real plan, for letting the people on the mission assume more responsibility for shaping and controlling it."

What is your "mission to Mars"? There are places that you and I cannot go because our default, automatic responses to risk limit us. If we want to leave Earth's orbit and explore Mars in person, we have to learn and grow. You, me, and NASA are in the same space boat on that one. Even if Mars is a metaphor.

I want to go to Mars. (Do you?) That's why I've been determined to learn and grown. For me, Mars is leading All Saints' people into growth, sustainability, and thriving.

My leadership is limited by that "step back and think," that "overplan and eliminate surprise" approach. My default approach is a blessing and a curse... Unless I can work with God to transform the curse into another blessing. Which--good news/bad news--will come only at the cost of transforming myself in the process.

And it gets bigger. The invitation, as I see it, is about me sharing the risk, encouraging others' spontaneity, and All Saints' engaging risk together. We're already doing that. The mission--God's mission, now--invites it all the more. As Fishman says, it's about developing "a real ethic, and a real plan, for letting the people on the mission assume more responsibility for shaping and controlling it."

The Christians are the mission; not their pastor. If I, the pastor, have it "all under control," then everyone else can sit back and enjoy the ride. This is hard on faith because it's so easy on faith--just like space on bodies. Many (non-pastor) Christians get this better than I do.

Because if the goal is more than floating around out there, but is actually landing somewhere new, making meaningful contact and connection with people who are not at home in a spiritual life and in the church--well, I, the pastor, have to keep letting go a little more by sharing control and supporting autonomy. (That does not mean I do less, but I do different things and do things differently.)

As I see it, this is the invitation to every Christian, pastor, congregation, denomination, and the big C Church.

But anyway, that's my soapbox, my "mission to Mars." What's yours? And what new way of dealing with risk must you learn to get there?