Loyalty

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Keith Drambot is the men’s head basketball coach at the University of Akron. Before returning to his hometown and alma mater in 2004 he was the head coach at Tiffin, Ashland, and Central Michigan. His overall record at these four institutions is an eye-popping 412-208. Throughout his career at Akron he has had several offers to move on to bigger programs, most recently the University of South Florida, all coming with larger salaries and greater national exposure. Yet he has chosen every time to remain at Akron, eschewing opportunities to showcase his coaching talents. One might reasonably ask why? The answer is simple yet unusual in this day and age: loyalty.

After being blackballed at Central Michigan for allegedly making a racist comment (which led to his firing) Drambot was hired by St. Vincent-St. Mary High School where a young man by the name of Lebron James just happened to be on the squad. As we all know, Mr. James learned a lesson or two about loyalty when he chose to take his talents to South Beach before returning to his hometown to lead the Cavaliers to its first NBA championship. Apparently, both Lebron James and Keith Drambot understand the notion that when someone is willing to give you a second chance, especially in your hometown, you say thank you by staying put and giving back to the community, which they have certainly done.

Drambot’s latest decision to stay at Akron made me think of my father. He was a “Ford man,” as was my grandfather. Neither would ever think of driving anything else. Back then that’s just how it was. As time passed that sense of loyalty became a bit broader and shifted to American made cars. I remember my father saying he would never own one of those “cheap Japanese pieces of junk.” He’s probably spinning in his grave over the long line of Toyotas and Hondas I’ve parked in my garage over time.

I guess people are still loyal to all kinds of things, from sports teams to grocery stores, clothing brands to barber shops, political parties to musicians, tool brands to television shows, coffee to computers. But where I see a sense of loyalty waning at an alarming rate is in our churches. In a recent conversation with a pastoral colleague we lamented the idea that churches have become consumer commodities like toothpaste or the latest pharmaceutical promising to relieve your digestive problems. That is, people seek out churches with one primary question on their minds: “what can you do for me?” If a church happens to change in some way and it is perceived to no longer meet one’s needs then folks simply move on to another one that does. Regardless of how much time and energy one may have invested, or how many friends one has made, or how much church feels like a family, when something happens that one doesn’t agree with it seems a rather easy decision to head to some other congregation that is better equipped to provide what is wanted. The grass is always greener somewhere else. Until, of course, one arrives and realizes the new church is not all it’s cracked up to be because every congregation has its own unique set of challenges.

From my point of view this trend needs to stop. It’s hurting our churches. Pastors are often pressured into making decisions based not on what might be a faithful, long-term vision for congregational life, but instead on whether or not Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith will pick up their marbles and go elsewhere, taking their offering contributions with them. Rather than focusing much needed energy on evangelism and outreach, or social justice and service, we create a revolving door with neighboring churches, shifting our members from one faith community to another. At some point don’t we have to get back to understanding ourselves as a family (no matter the size of one’s congregation), all of whose members are seeking to follow Jesus, who support one another in all circumstances, who put their personal desires aside for the betterment of the whole, and stick together no matter what?

If we can be hard-core-until-the-day-we-die fans of our local sports teams, or life-long devotees of our favorite musicians, then can’t we be proud members of whatever church we currently call home and make a commitment to be there doing our best to support its ministry because our allegiance to Jesus is deeper and stronger than anything else in our lives? For the sake of the gospel, I hope so.

Fanfare

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The late American composer Aaron Copland once described how he understood his vocation like this: “You compose because you want to somehow summarize in some permanent form your most basic feelings about being alive, to set down some sort of permanent statement about the way it feels to live now, today.”

Since Copland lived for all but the last ten years of the 20th century one might be tempted to believe that his music might not be particularly relevant for whatever it is that American culture has become. But this would be flawed thinking.

Recently my wife and I attended the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Copland’s Third Symphony. The piece took Copland nearly three years to complete and was premiered in 1946 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Admittedly, we don’t often go to the orchestra, mainly because it’s not my preferred musical genre. Give me Springsteen or Peter Gabriel or Rush or Led Zeppelin or just about anything in the classic rock line before a bunch of dead guys from centuries gone by. In all honesty, the Orchestra’s opening piece, Juggler in Paradise: Violin Concerto No. 3 by the contemporary composer Augusta Read Thomas was completely off the weirdness scale.

I’m not going to be able to adequately describe how I felt during the Copland performance but it was a thing of sheer beauty. I was drawn in from the first notes, and just surrendered myself to going wherever the music was content on taking me. If this was the composer’s statement about what it means to be alive then I was willing to make that journey with him.

What I hadn’t prepared myself adequately for was the gloomy sadness of the third movement, the Good Friday kind of darkness that descended like a pall. Where was this going I wondered? And please don’t leave me here. Thankfully, at just what seemed to be the lowest moment of the entire piece came the familiar opening strains – introduced lightly by the flutes, and quickly spreading to the grand rhythms of the brass and timpani – of Fanfare for the Common Man. I had heard this many times before but never in the context of the entire symphony. It was as if Copland was thumbing his nose to everything that might threaten or impose itself on the nobility of life. It was his proclamation that love and justice and truth would always win out, his vivid reminder to us that good will triumph over evil every single time, and that the Creator intended for us to live abundant lives filled with joy. These ideals will never be thwarted by ill-intentioned individuals or institutions. Never.

At the completion of the performance, as everyone stood in unison to congratulate the orchestra on whisking us away on a grand spiritual journey, I realized just how much I needed to hear this particular piece at this particular time. With our country writhing in pain over the divisions we ourselves have created, it was a blessing to be reminded that there is beauty in this world, and that it’s still possible for the arts to speak words of joy to us, for music to reach us at such a deep level that it moves us to tears, to make us remember that we continue to have the capacity to feel something strong and vital within our heart of hearts, and to instill in us a lasting sense of purpose and meaning. I left feeling more hopeful than I have in a long, long time.

For those of you who need a similar shot in the arm, here’s Copland’s Third Symphony in its entirety. If you don’t have 45 minutes then fast forward to the 29:30 mark and listen to Fanfare. May it move you as it did me to trusting that hope is still alive.

Live a Life

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Viola Davis won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Fences. I love Viola Davis. She is an extremely powerful actress, giving life to what she called “the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.”

But I take exception to one thing she said in her acceptance speech. In an emotionally charged, sometimes even angry oration she said, “I became an artist and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” I’m sorry Ms. Davis, but I believe you are wrong. Acting is indeed a noble profession, and it is now more than ever much needed to tell the very stories of seemingly ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things. But acting is NOT the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.

If you don’t believe me then I suggest you seek out the nearest social worker, health care professional, clergy member, funeral director, teacher, artist, sculptor, author, coach, journalist, soldier, community organizer, hospice worker, and I could go on. Buy them a cup of coffee and ask them about their jobs. Ask them why they do what they do. Listen carefully. You may be surprised to hear their stories.

My point is that A LOT of people in A LOT of different vocations know what it means to celebrate a life well lived. These are people who are in the trenches every single day, week after week, month after month, year after year, who actually serve and lift up the very ones you have the honor of portraying on a stage or screen.

If you’re lucky you are rewarded with a little trophy and get to say some nice words about people who have supported you along the way. And then you are on to your next character portrayal, making a handsome sum in the process. But others don’t have that luxury, nor do they ask for it. After a couple of hours at the local cineplex hoping to be inspired or entertained by your work, they are right back out there in the real world tending to the lives of real people because they do, indeed, know what it means to “live a life.”

As in thousands of Christian churches around the world, at First Lutheran we will observe the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. At this service people will receive ashes on their foreheads with a remembrance that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” It is a stark symbol of human mortality, but also a vivid reminder that during our limited time on this earth we are called to make a difference, to live a life of self sacrifice and service to others, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus even though the road led to a cross. We do it because we know, Ms. Davis, there is value and integrity in every single life.  We were taught this by  the One who gave his life for us.

If you know someone who knows what it means to celebrate life, to live life abundantly, and would like to honor them, kindly write their names in the response box.  And, more importantly, if they are still alive take a moment to share with them how important they are to you.

Hopeful

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True story. I read it in the Chicago Tribune and saw it on NBC News. As far as I can tell, neither are fake news outlets. Two men found themselves standing next to each other at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. It was a bit uncomfortable because one was a Jew, a rabbi no less, the other a Muslim. But they had come to the airport for a shared purpose: to peacefully protest the travel ban. While they were rooted in very different religious backgrounds, and had been taught to be suspicious of one another, they had yet one more thing in common. Each carried a child on his shoulders. The Jewish man, a son. The Muslim man, a daughter. And as they stood side by side, their arms brushing unintentionally, they noticed the children above them had struck up a conversation. Apparently the children had no awareness of their religious and cultural differences, and they had not yet been taught to be apprehensive of – or worse, to hate – another human being.

This unlikely encounter led to the Jewish man inviting the Muslim man and his family to his home to celebrate Shabbat. Remarkably, the Muslim family accepted the invitation. They got to know each other better. They asked questions about each other’s faith. They found common ground. They began to build mutual respect. But there was a price. Both men began to receive hateful emails. Friends could not understand why either man would find value in such cross-cultural relationship building, and were advised to stop. Certainly they could not overcome centuries of animosity. Still too much fear, not enough hope.

I am convinced that we are not going to get anywhere as long as we allow fear to determine our behavior and attitudes. And quite frankly, I’m beyond tired of the fear messages that get hurled at me every single day. I refuse to be afraid of whoever the “other du jour” is. It’s just not healthy. I’m making a conscious decision to not be suspicious of others, but rather open to what I might learn. You can call me naive, stupid, idealistic, or even a snowflake. I honestly don’t care because when I take an honest assessment of my own faith tradition it simply does not allow for fear. But it does create a lot of space for hope.

Here’s what Jesus said: “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That’s where I choose to hang my hat. Not once did Jesus ever avoid anyone because he was fearful of them. He traveled through dangerous places, hung out with people that everyone else would have been scared to death of, and never once drew a distinction between races, cultures, genders, or classes.

Instead of fear, Jesus approached people from a position of hope. For healing, forgiveness, a new start, a fresh outlook, reconciliation, justice, and peace. Hope for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, a time when absolutely nothing will separate us from the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

This is a worthy goal, to approach life with hope. And maybe it starts with one person, one family at a time. Like a Jewish family and a Muslim family breaking bread together. What would it mean for you to be more hopeful? And what can each one of us do to spread a message of hope? God knows, we could sure use some.