Remembering Mike

Mike Szczepaniak was a big guy, tall and strong. A football player and a carpenter. A husband and a father. As big and strong as he was physically, his kind and gentle heart was even bigger.

I know that sounds like the worst cliché ever. I don’t care. Every cliché has roots in truth and If ever there was a guy about whom it could be said that his heart was bigger and stronger than his frame, it was Mike.

Mike was my friend. Of course that makes me about as unique as a Starbucks. Mike had lots of friends. I certainly wasn’t his oldest or closest friend. My wife, Joann, has known Mike and his wife Sherri longer than I. So in some ways I feel a little out-of-place writing about him. Others could tell his story better than I. Still, this is what I know:

Mike was my friend.

And one year ago, pancreatic cancer killed my friend.

One year ago, I had the honor and privilege of leading a prayer service at his wake.
Today, I’m playing golf. Today, lots of Mike’s friends are playing golf.

As a follower of God in the way of Jesus, I can’t claim to know exactly what happens after death. But I believe that in Jesus, God shows us that death is not the end. I trust that, however it works, we continue to live in God’s love. So, without diminishing the realities of grief and loss, I try to find hope even in the midst of death. A moment, a glimpse, or even a story. Demonstrations of healing, of giving, of kindness, of joy, of peace, of gentleness, of love…moments of life.

That’s why Joann and I were thrilled when TribLocal recently published an article about our friends Sherri & Mike and about today’s golf event. We’re raising funds for the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, “which helps abused, neglected and underprivileged children.”

Mike was a huge Bears fan. But the connection to the Payton Foundation is even more personal:

While in the hospital, Payton’s daughter, Brittney, came to visit Mike Szczepaniak and gave him a Walter Payton jersey.

“They connected right away,” Sherri Szczepaniak said. “She (Brittney) was very interested in his story. He loved the jersey so much.” []

So of course Joann and I are playing in the event. I expect we will share many laughs (and perhaps a few drinks) with many who loved Mike. It will be a festive occasion, full of life.

But still, I miss my friend.

Learning in the Boundary Waters

How would you sum up your experience…in 1 sentence?

…Asked Courtney Perry, the professional photographer who was cataloging our Doctor of Ministry cohort through pictures, video & audio. (She is also the spouse of our lead teacher, Tony Jones.)

Such a question! Just one sentence to encapsulate:

10 days talking about Christian spirituality through the lens of the doctrine of creation…
In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness & the northern woods of Minnesota…
With teachers Tony Jones & Brian McLaren?!

Factor in my 9 incredibly smart and dedicated fellow students, from whom and with whom I learned so much, and you can see why it was no easy task to answer Courtney’s question. Here’s what I came up with:

Being in the Boundary Waters again has taught me that if our spirituality is ever going to be healthy, whole, and Christian, it must include time in nature.

Granted, there is plenty that is wrong with that statement. What about people with physical disabilities? How will they go to the Boundary Waters? What about those who already live in nature-rich settings? Or, as a parishioner asked this week after I shared my encapsulation in my sermon, if being in nature is so important, why does our church’s most important weekly gathering always happen in a building?

I can’t fully explain it, but there was just something about learning about and conversing about the doctrine of creation in the midst of canoeing, portaging, camping, and sitting around a fire that was…different. Special. Powerful. Spiritual.

I can’t imagine having the same depth of experience in a classroom sitting around tables.

While prose is failing me, the audio, video and pictures that Courtney captured is much more evocative. Here’s a tremendous video she edited. The chant we’re singing in the background is a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer that Brian wrote. We sang it a couple of times throughout our 10 days, including as our benediction.

“Those to whom much is given, much is expected”

Maybe it’s because 6+ years into this parenting thing, every laugh, every joke, every hand held, every kiss given, every “Daddy, watch me do this!” still melts my heart.

Or maybe it’s because of 16+ years (and counting) spent as a pastor working with, talking with, listening to, dreaming with, consoling, encouraging, praying with, praying for, playing with, and learning with children, teens and young adults (along with, you know, regular adult adults).

Or maybe I’m just a heartless bastard.

Whatever the reasons, I find that I’m with DCFS child abuse investigator, Quad City Pat and sports radio host, Dan Bernstein: Joe Paterno’s death won’t elicit tears from me.

For reasons I cannot begin to fathom, many others are crying as they go on and on about what a stand up guy Paterno was. I guess we expect that by now from former PSU football players. And there’s no doubt his family loved him and will miss him. We must allow them to grieve. But why are so many others jumping up to defend Paterno?

Twice this week in the Chicago Tribune – David Haugh on Monday, Teddy Greenstein today –  sports writers seem to understand why Pat, Dan and I react as we do. And yet, they equivocate about Paterno’s legacy. (Interestingly, the headline in the print edition of Greenstein’s piece was definitive: Update (I shouldn’t have tried to quote from memory):Body of work overcomes one mistake” “Don’t judge Paterno’s life on one colossal mistake: Unfair to define coach solely by Sandusky scandal”; while the online version hesitates: “Can all good he did ever overcome one colossal mistake?”)

Then there’s the curious case of Shaun King. I like Shaun. I don’t know him, but from what I’ve read, I like him. He has a compelling story and has accomplished much good in the world. But he’s only half right about Paterno.

I’ll say this: King, Haugh and Greenstein are all correct about Paterno’s complexity. That’s simply the human condition. As Robert B. Parker was fond of writing, “No person is just one thing. Even Hitler liked dogs.”

King rightly points out that abuse, including child sexual abuse, happens all the time in almost all places and most of us are not doing anything about it. I agree, we are all complicit for evil in the world. Each of us must take responsibility for ourselves and our organizations, ensuring that abuse does not happen on our watch, under our roof. That’s why so many others and I are striving to abolish modern-day slavery, poverty, hunger, bullying, lack of clean, safe water… That is why so many of us are seeking justice for the oppressed.

But then, it seems to me, King missteps. He writes that only Paterno’s football victories separate him from you or me. Greenstein tries to provide cover for Paterno by saying the school administrators bear more of the blame.

That’s just not true. Joe Paterno was not Everyman.

He was a multi-millionaire, the head of a football empire, worshiped like a king by PSU people, and, almost certainly, the most powerful man in the entire state of Pennsylvania. Paterno may have reported to the administrators in some hypothetical university hierarchy, but he held all the power. In 2004, the PSU president asked him to retire. Paterno responded with, essentially, a paraphrase of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp in Tombstone: “I don’t think I’ll let you fire me today.”

Paterno held all the power. As Stan Lee has so helpfully taught us, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” That’s really just a paraphrase of Jesus, whose similar words from Luke 12:48 are the title of this post.

At the very least, Paterno knew about Sandusky’s pederasty since 2002. He could have barred Sandusky from PSU facilities. He did no such thing. He passed the buck and looked away.

If Paterno had been, say, a literature professor rather than a football demagogue, would we even be having this debate? Or would he have been dismissed right away and his subsequent death gone unremarked upon? We are not all Joe Paterno. Yes, we all must protect children, but we don’t all have the power and influence that he had.

As for Haugh, he claims, “There is no wrong reaction to an icon’s death.” That’s ridiculous. Of course there is. Like, say, this. Lionizing a flawed human being helps no one.

Refusing to admit the ugly truth that child rape and molestation happened with Paterno’s tacit acceptance not only helps no one, but spits in the faces of the already horrifically victimized.

Obviously I feel strongly about this. Perhaps you do too and vehemently disagree with me. Fine. I welcome your comments. But before you do, please read the grand jury presentment regarding Sandusky. You really cannot speak intelligently about this until you have read it.

Finally, please consider this. Like Bernstein, I cried when I first heard this and again when I read it on his post:

Penn State trustee Stephanie Nolan Deviney described to the New York Times her thoughts as she left home for the meeting at State College to determine Paterno’s future.

She went to the bedroom of her seven-year old son to kiss him goodbye.

“I thought of all the mothers of all those boys in the presentment,” she said. “And I thought about what they must feel when they kiss their sons good night.”

I’m angry and I’m sad. I suspect I’ll cry again tonight when I kiss our children good night.

Then, tomorrow, I’ll get up and do all I can to fight for justice. I hope you will too.

Dream big dreams

In the last year and a half we’ve seen report after report of teenagers (as well as kids not even yet in their teens) who have been bullied so badly that they took their own life. And there are many, many others who don’t take their own life, but who try to cope with their pain in other ways, like cutting themselves. It is so beyond obvious that this heartbreaking reality is unacceptable and must be stopped.

It is also beyond obvious (at least to me) that the church – that is, the church universal, meaning Christians everywhere – must be at the forefront of the fight against bullying. This can and should take many forms: standing with the bullied as advocates, speaking for them when authorities won’t listen, teaching our kids how bullying denies the image of God in the one being bullied, denies their humanity, etc.

I don’t know that we can stop bullying. (Although, if every bully who self-identifies as Christian were to stop, that would be a huge step forward.) But I hope and pray that we can give kids (adults too!) the resources they need to respond whenever someone tries to tear them down. We try to teach every person that they are a beloved child of God. That is the source of our value, our worth, our esteem. Nothing can ever change that. Beloved child of God is the core of everyone’s identity.

I think we can also help our young people by reminding them that we love them, that they are important to us, that when we look them we see hope and faith and love, that we have hopes and dreams for them. That’s why I asked my congregation to share their hopes and dreams for our confirmands last week. (This past Sunday was Confirmation Sunday. 10 young people took their vows and joined the church.) A couple responses:

-These young confirmands are the next generation of church leaders. May they continue to follow God’s teachings, to ask questions, and to love God as he loves them.

-I hope you are able to continue to share your talents and minds and hands and energy and vigor and vitality and health and brains and skills and power with the church in the future. It is guys and gals like you that bring life and praise and worshipful energy and keep us older ones remembering to stay young and keeps us to the dreams and prayers and plans God has for us all. And fun too! God bless you all!

And, as I said in my sermon last week, I asked the confirmands’ parents to share their hopes and dreams for their teenagers. Their responses are beautiful:

-When we look into the future we see our son in a career helping others.  He has made that clear to us as a goal. We hope he is happy at whatever he does in life.  He has a great attitude about life and cares deeply for people…..he truly has a kind heart.

-We hope our children become responsible, loving, giving, compassionate adults who would help those they they meet every day in any way they could. In being confirmed we hope they would realize someday that was the first time they stood up and accepted that they were now responsible for the relationship that they would have with God. A relationship that no matter how hard it is challenged, and it will be challenged, they will always know and feel His love and support and presence – never feeling alone.

-We hope that whatever opportunities and challenges are presented to our children that they have the strength and guidance from their parents and God to help them achieve their hopes and dreams.

-We see our daughter changing the world one person at a time with her kindness, gentleness, and optimism. We hope she is able to fulfill her dreams while still being true to herself and that she is treated with love, kindness and respect on her journey through life. Our daughter loves this church and sees it as part of her future.

-We see our Children doing what makes them happy and possibly enjoying families of their own, and raising that family with the Christian values they were raised with.

-Our dreams for our daughter are that she finds joy in giving to others and that she is comfortable with herself.

-We want our son to be happy. To be able to chase his dreams. And to help create and maintain a giving community wherever he lands.

-My easy, but sincere answer is that my dream for my son is that he will be able to use his gifts to help save the world!  He is so smart. Maybe he will design an affordable engine that will help eliminate global warming. Maybe he will find a way to deliver water to drought-stricken areas. Maybe he will find a cure for Alzheimer’s, or build us a community on Mars! Most likely it will be something that I can not even imagine, but I believe that all of this, and all of the small pieces of work that will contribute to these big goals, are God’s work.

Pretty great, right? I’m thrilled we have such engaged parents.

How about you? What hopes and dreams do you have for changing the world?

The White Sox new closer

I’m very bummed that the Blackhawks couldn’t complete the comeback, losing Game 7 in OT…Next goal wins the series. Damn, that’s intense.

Meanwhile, the White Sox are still struggling. But they managed to win their second game in a row.

Yankees threatened with runners on 1st & 2nd with only one out in the bottom of the ninth…enter Brent Lillibridge, who’d only come into the game in the eighth as a pinch runner. Then he did this:

Unfortunately, MLB is run by morons who don’t want people to see their product so I can’t post the video here. Best I can do is link to it. Sorry. Take it up with Bud Selig.

As promising as Sergio Santos is as the new go-to pitcher for the 9th inning, Brent Lillibridge is now the new Sox closer.

Let’s put an end to cyberbullying

Want to do something about cyberbullying? Me too. But really? All of the “if you REALLY care about ___ then you’ll post THIS as your status” memes on facebook make me twitchy. So I’m not going to tell you what to do.

But I am going to tell an idea my new friends at Lockport’s YASO are doing:

Challenge yourself, commit to non-tolerance of social network bullying.

Commit to not “like”-ing any status or comment that uses anti-LGBT or slut-shaming slurs or slurs in general.

Then take another step and tell your friend why you can’t “like” what they wrote.

Take a minute to read their full 9 part plan, you’ll be glad you did. While you’re at it, read about what else they’ve done. I’m blown away by this group and by my new friend, Patrick Green, who leads them. Absolutely amazing and inspiring.

It seems to me that change starts at home, that is, it starts with me. And, I hope, with you too.

Sure, this may be a small step. But small steps taken together can add up to something much bigger. That’s the hope anyway.

RE-POST: Tyler Clementi and Me. And You. (via god is not elsewhere / some conversation about movies, art, politics and spirituality with gareth higgins)

There is no joking around about this one: I’m furious. And my heart is shattered.

6 teens from across the country dead at their own hand. 6 teens dead at their own hand because they were mercilessly bullied. 6 kids bullied, 6 kids dead because they were gay. And those are just the ones we know about.

Today I add my voice to so many others, saying: ENOUGH! The violence against gay people must stop! And our culture which fosters and approves of violence against gays must change. Enough! 6 dead kids is 6 too many. And the Christian church – which I call home, and in which I serve as a pastor – must acknowledge its role in creating a culture that encourages violence against the gay community, must repent of that role, and must change.

I hope to have the video of my sermon from today on this posted here soon. A video that includes a surprise ending, when my congregation did something I’ve never experienced or seen or even heard of it doing before.

Until then, two things:

1) To all young people, wherever you are, who ever you are: I am your ally. And my congregation is with me on this. If you are being bullied, we want you to know that we love you and that you are not alone. And whatever is being said to you, isn’t true. God loves you. And so do we.

If you are a bully, we want you also to know that we love you and that you are not alone. We will help you with whatever it is inside you that is pushing you to hurt other kids. We love you. God loves you. And you are not alone.

And, of course, you don’t have to be a young person. All of this is true for anyone. If you are hurting, suffering, or have been victimized: you are not alone. We love you. God loves you.

2) I’m going to re-post a few thoughts on this from others.

Starting with this from Gareth Higgins…

Of course I never knew Tyler Clementi, the young Rutgers student who took his own life last month in a tragedy so unfathomably horrific that it doesn’t permit adequate attempts at description.  The story that has emerged so far is that Tyler was enjoying a romantic moment with another guy, while his roommate secretly streamed the encounter live on the internet.  Shortly after Tyler found out, he jumped off a bridge. Of course I never knew him, bu … Read More

via god is not elsewhere / some conversation about movies, art, politics and spirituality with gareth higgins

Offering of Letters – Update

Bread For The World (logo)

As I wrote here and here, my church (Woodridge United Methodist) participated in a Bread for the World Offering of Letters on Sunday, August 22.

It was still quite hot that day. And, for many of our families, it was also the last weekend before school started. Perhaps for those – and a myriad of other possible reasons – attendance was below average in worship.

Still, our Offering of Letters produced 82 letters asking our U.S. Representatives to preserve current funding levels for tax credits. Since then I’ve heard from several families who sent a letter on their own, putting our letters total at 85. Which is great! Thank you to all who participated!

But then there is this: we had a lot more than 82 people in worship that Sunday… I would love to hear from some of you who chose not to participate so that we could have a conversation. Even if you aren’t part of WUMC, I’d still love to hear from you. What would keep you from participating in an offering of letters? (I know you don’t have the benefit of having experienced the manner in which the offering was presented, but in general or in theory, what barriers would you need removed in order to participate?)

I always want to learn and there is often no better way than to hear from a different perspective. Part of our mission statement at WUMC reads: we are “united in serving others.” That’s absolutely NOT the same as being uniform in our thinking! We want and need and welcome a diversity of thoughts and opinions.

So leave a comment and in the process of engaging in conversation we’ll strengthen our community (locally or globally) in the way of Jesus!

Theology After Google: More Thoughts from Afar

All that Ken Silva talk distracted me so much I never really said anything about the TAG gathering itself.

(Though that tangent was hardly without value – it ultimately turned me into a bona fide emergent when Silva slammed me! Seriously, I’m not worthy. There are many more important emergent writers/thinkers/leaders who deserved this honor first! Though I’m sure I’ll just as quickly lose that newly earned title when I admit that Silva and I had a pleasant exchange and even came to an agreement. Ok, sure, it was an agreement to disagree agreeably, but that’s not nothing, right? We might not ever be friends but certainly we managed to be friendly. And I doubt I’ll ever again be able to think of him as merely a pompous, windbag, asshat. Turns out he’s an actual human being. Who knew?!)

At TAG ’10, fellow Illinoisan Kevin Bowman, tweeted this: “Bring the margin to the center. Make the margin farther away until the kingdom is realized in all places.”

I don’t know when in the conference this was said and I’m not sure if Kevin said this or if someone else at TAG said it and Kevin tweeted it. I apologize for the lack of proper credit and context. Still, I think that’s really good. “Bring the margin to the center” seems to me a beautiful way to describe what Jesus was about. He found those rejected by society, those taken advantage of, those left for dead, those dismissed as less than human, – those on the margins – and by word and deed (Luke 15:1-3 for instance, “This man is friendly with sinners. He even eats with them.”), told them they were not forgotten, told them they belonged to God no matter what other people might tell them.

The caution I hear in that quote though is to remember that when society gets reoriented so that those currently in the center, those in the seat of power, are booted to the margins…well, then suddenly God is on their side. Here I think of Peter Rollins’ fascinating parable project, The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales. Most especially do I think of this parable called God Joins the Army.

In other words, the point of the coming of the Kingdom of God is not simply to replace the current in-crowd with the current out-crowd and thereby perpetuate injustice, just with the players in inverted roles. No, God’s dream for the world is to be a place without margins; to be a place where all belong! This is our eschatological hope.

Can theology after google accomplish this? I don’t know. But I hope so, however unlikely that may be. At the very least, today’s announcement that the FCC plans to make high-speed internet access available to 90% of the U.S. by 2020 could help answer one of the best questions I heard at TAG (again, I don’t know who asked this or in response to what, sorry): What about people without access to technology? How will they be included?