Author Archives: Andrew Kukla

“Unchartered Territories of Grief”

*the title isn’t mine, it is a slight shift on the name of the poem quoted here and is the work of Tanaya Winder.

Today I bring you a poem… preceded by three happenings:

Monday was Indigenous People’s day – a day we hope to bring forth from the ashes of celebrating Christopher Columbus “discovering” lands already lived upon and bringing tides of colonizing oppression to free hearts and spirits…

…flip to a pre-committee meeting Monday night where instead of talking about programs and ministries we shared on cameras and tv screens across miles a deep connection of our shared grief as “prayer concerns” turn heavy…. that was how it was described to me, “that meeting was so heavy with our grief”…

…I reside on lands that were roamed and cared for and lived on by the Northern Shoshone people who exist today in three federally recognized tribes of Idaho and Utah… (those words “federally recognized tribes” come clumsy off my lips as I recognize both the gift of being “recognized” and the curse of federally recognized as if without federal recognition you didn’t exist, which they did and do).  I live on the lands of the northern and western bands of the Shoshone and Bannock and Paiute people… and so I sought to center their voice in my listening and sharing today rather than my own and in my wandering I came to this poem from Tanaya Winder who is of the Duckwater Shoshone tribe with a mix of Ute and Pauite and Black heritage and she writes here about grief… so the tapestry weaves itself together with this excerpt from the middle section of larger poem I commend to you in full here:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/155485/uncharted-territory-of-grief

Our grandmothers told us stories of the desert,

how giant serpents laid on mountains

to create canyons. Imagine earth crunching

under the weight of unbearable sadness.

Imagine what it feels like to collapse

into an uncharted territory of grief.

As young girls we learned the tale

of a mother who cried so many tears

she created a lake in the middle of the desert.

Today she sits in stone beneath a star-stitched sky,

holding up the otherwise untethered blue.

Last month, I read an orca gave birth

to a female calf who died thirty minutes

after entering our world. The orca carried her dead

calf for 17 days. Tethered by grief, hers the price

paid for love and loving.

                               At 34, my sister gives birth

to her first child, a winter-born boy.

In recovery, my sister asks if she can walk yet.

Her nurse says, “Wait until your legs are yours again.”

I wonder who and what I’ve carried

and carry for days, months, for years. Grandmother,

take me back to your childhood, where you sang

“Blue Moon” in boarding school, where you won

the talent show.

                                         Take me back to 17,

when my back first curved into an S—

the serpent inside me coiled under grief,

my scoliosis stopping any sports

outside of prayers and inside dreams.

I wish we’d had more time.

I invite you to spend some more time with Tanaya’s words and gifts and offerings… you can find quite a few here: https://tanayawinder.com and here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/tanaya-winder

Fall Wisdom

Fall LeavesIt isn’t a new thought… it’s a yearly thought: We come to this season and the world reminds us that its time to do some letting go.  It would be ludicrous to go into your yard right now and start strapping leaves to the trees, so they don’t fall off… and yet in our lives we often cling to things we won’t don’t want to lose in that same kind of futile struggle.  We fight the progression of seasons.  Ecclesiastes reminds us “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”  This also means, reflexively, for that for every matter there are times that is simply isn’t the right season to be carried.  You can no more force a tree to hold its leaves in fall than you can make it bud out new growth in the depth of winter.  The trees live the rhythm of life, and we can learn that wisdom if we are willing.  Trying to do things “out of season” is costly for all involved. 

I invite you to reflect on what this “fall wisdom” is inviting you to contemplate in your life: where are you clinging to that which is not giving you life?  What is it time to let go? What is time to plant for the future?  Are you in step with this season of your life?

I leave you with this poem, Sonnet 73, from William Shakespeare on life, death, and love in the light of fall:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

As after sunset fadeth in the west,

Which by and by black night doth take away,

Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.

This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Gentle Expectations

The article I’m working off in this post requires a deep dive… (links at the bottom of this post) its lengthy and skims over a lot of data and ideas.  Its also provocative in ways that you might make someone “dislike” it before they really dive into it.  The major premise of the article is that most of us will experience a steep decline in fluid reasoning after age 50.  Fluid reasoning (for those not familiar) is basically your ability to problem solve… in a unique situation how well do you make leaps of understanding and connect seemingly unrelated ideas to find a previously unknown way out of an untread predicament.

For the sake of the article its tied to ingenuity and innovation and the author (Arthur C Brooks who, at the time he wrote this in 2019, was the President of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a public policy think tank in Washington, DC., and is now a professor of public leadership and management practices at Harvard) is making the case that for people in leadership and creative positions will peak at age 50 and experience a sharp decline in effectiveness after that age as a matter of biological development (in other words… its out of their control).  He will go through data on what age do people win literary awards, write great music, make scientific breakthroughs, etc.  You will get insulted (if you are over 50) but don’t let him scare you off.  His point is valuable, and he makes a lot of astute and helpful points along the way – each one worthy of an hour or two discussions.  If his provocative premise is a decline in fluid reasoning after 50, his conclusion is this: your skills are shifting – so shift your expectations and job to match those shifting skills, and he will then compare how this was done in the life JS Bach versus Charles Darwin:

“What’s the difference between Bach and Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected.

The lesson for you and me, especially after 50: Be Johann Sebastian Bach, not Charles Darwin.”

We’d all like to imagine that we will defy the odds.  That isn’t how the odds work.  And there is great wisdom in reminding ourselves of our mortality and what is simply a fact of nature: our skill sets change. A major league baseball player’s eye no longer catches the spin of the stitches… and they can’t hit the ball anymore.  For me… a pesky disk in my back made my doctor tell me I had to stop running and really should not lift anything heavy… for the rest of forever.  What?  I’m only 45!! Apparently that argument doesn’t change anything. Facts are facts.  This doesn’t have to be “bad”.  It a matter of how we learn to live within this new world we didn’t ask for… can we alter our expectations for ourselves?  Can we recognize the need to change what we expect of similar people around us?

There is a really popular refrain from an old Dylan Thomas poem that reads “Do not go gentle into that good night.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (Did you know that Bob Dylan changed his last name to Dylan in honor of Dylan Thomas… that’s a lot of Dylan.) This refrain is popularized in movies and funerals (or at least, movie funerals).  Its one of those “excepted as universally wise” refrains.  But is it, wise I mean, for us to rage against the dying of the light?

I’m not an either/or kind of guy.  I like to “hold ideas in tension” so I’m not saying let’s throw out the idea of not succumbing to death… but do we really want to make our life about raging against the inevitable?  Who benefits from this?  You cannot fight death.  You can seek life.  I have always liked the idea of recognizing that there is a moment when we want to start paddling downstream and stop forcing ourselves to go forward in unlikely ways that requires nature to become our enemy. 

What does it mean for us to recognize, and even accept our limits (or shifting gifts… lets even stop calling them limits)?  What does it mean to live within the world presented to us rather than continually trying to force a different reality?  What would it mean to question the polarity of options of “passive acceptance or rageful fighting” as if there is no middle way?  There is in fact a whole world of opportunity where we allow ourselves the grace of shifting talents, gifts, and possibilities – and then play within those.  Brooks notes that highly intelligent people are prone to less happiness in mid-to-late life, likely because since childhood their keen intellect has been central to their identity… and the didn’t imagine that keen intellect might fade in the same ways a pitching arm, or a running backs legs do.  We cannot fight nature… what we can do is learn, and live to learn, within these inevitabilities so that our happiness is not tied to “defying the odds”.

I’m living in a season of telling myself not to expect fish to fly and giraffes to swim.  (They can swim – giraffes that is, but not well – so don’t ask them to be lifeguards at the pool.) If I know premise A to be true, then I need to play by the consequences of that reality.  I’m usually better at the first part than the second.  I want to make all things work. I want to defy the odds.  But that’s not how the odds work… and we live with some toxic American myths that tell us “you can do all things” and that the highest good to force your way through where no way exists…. We are told stories that revere and set the standard at the larger than life concepts like Paul Bunyan and John Henry.  Stories that teach us to work ourselves to death.

You, we, deserve more than rage… and unending work.  Don’t you? What does it mean for you to shape a life more like Bach than Darwin… more like peace than rage?

Links for further readings, the article on the decline of innovation reasoning:

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/07/work-peak-professional-decline/590650/

Link for Dylan Thomas’s poem (which I still like even if I question its wisdom):
https://poets.org/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night

author’s additional note:
Acknowledging that I have not lived this journey but have lived alongside this journey hundreds of times I want to say this is not an accusation and is meant to be the exact opposite of “out with the old and in with the new”. Its about recognition and appreciation. I experience in people the grace of naming things. When we name a reality and realize we aren’t the only ones experiencing this we can sometimes finally breathe and say: “ok. This isn’t just about me.”

Not everyone feels that grace but so many people do and I think Brooks’ article (when you sift through some of the data that can get insulting as if its saying people over 50 aren’t worthwhile… which is not where he is taking us but on how to reclaim worth by being realistic about expectations and goals) is about being willing to offer ourselves the grace of admitting we aren’t the thinkers and innovators we used to be. And that’s ok, let’s find the gifts of experience and wisdom and the time for mentoring and guiding, and the intentional paring back of life to enjoy what is, rather than rail against what is no longer.

Our world will get smaller.
We will lose independence.
We will lose intellectual skills.
Our work will become someone else’s
(often without the gratitude and recognition we wish for… see the Charles Darwin story)
This is not something we can stop.
But we can change how we choose to relate to that journey.

The consequence of this for me are wide-ranging but I didn’t have time to do it all in the article itself but one of the things I am telling my church leadership right now is “we have to stop worrying about who is no longer here or what we can no longer do”. We have to be the church with who shows up and the means available to us. And when we make that pivot I think we will be much more hopeful about tomorrow. (The exact point Brooks’ make about happiness through mid-life.)

The Power of Names: Why I go by Andrew

(edit: Not sure why this post today… I wanted to talk about “naming things” and in some roundabout way I got to this. I’m not talking to you… none of you offended me by calling me Andy. I like when folks from my childhood call me Andy and I don’t expect you to do otherwise, but it’s not my chosen name for people who know me from now… and this story just served as an anecdote to a larger conversation about the importance, challenge, and power of names.)

Somewhere between my 18th and 24th years of life my name changed from Andy to Andrew.  It wasn’t seamless, this transition in names. It has a muddy middle when I went to college where monosyllabic grunts are necessary. For many years I went by Kuk more than any version of my given name.  This means if you meet someone that knows me from my early years (mostly in Illinois), then they call me Andy.  (If you happen to get me to play tennis with you I will yell at myself as Andy… old habits die hard.)  But now, and for everyone that met me after college, I go by Andrew. In fact it is something of a personal pet peeve of me if people who meet me now call me Andy – it usually signals things for me, as I have never introduced myself that way, written my name that way, or granted permission for you to simply change my name on me.  There is a power in names and one’s own name can be intensely personal.  It bothers me to no end when I learn I have been pronouncing someone’s name wrong.  It is a most basic courtesy to name someone based on their own identity work with their name.  You don’t get that power, its theirs to give you.  You never know what you are signaling with a small shift… so let me tell you a story about my name. 

I am sure that at some point in life every person looks up their name to find out what it means.  They lay this alongside stories of origin from their parents and families about why they were given a name and what legacy that name might carry.  Each of my four children were blessed (and burdened) with significant names to the merged family trees and history of Caroline and myself.  Those names mean something, and we named our children with deliberate care – as most people do. 

My given name means “strong, and manly”.  No matter what I say in this story I love my name, don’t hear that wrong, but I have a history with it and that’s the point to this story. It is Greek in origin (think Andrew the disciple) and has its roots in the Greek generic word for man, άνδρας (andras). Now let me tell you something about me and my childhood.  I have never felt strong… or manly.  I had good friends growing up who were great athletes.  I was not.  We played football in my side yard, and basketball in my driveway, we played backyard wiffle ball across the street… sport defined my childhood play and I wasn’t gifted at any of it.  My friends were/are good friends and never made me feel “less” than them.  But I always did. I remember the triumph of beating them in tennis for the first time because as my chosen sport there was a moment when training overcame talent.  (It happens!) And I used to revel in gym class when they would let the boys (rarely) test on the flexed arm hang.  I would never score well on pushups and pull ups… but I could endure pain with the best of them.  Stubborn, I am, in the way of smaller kids who grew up trying to run with the “big boys”.  But I never felt strong… and thus I never felt manly.  I was quick to cry, and carried many fears with me everywhere. I had little self-confidence.  I didn’t have the language then for “toxic masculinity” but I knew there was something different about me… something “less” though I stubbornly refused to imagine that was a problem I needed to solve – I was happy being me for all that it was “less”.  I played with ants in the sand at the edge of the swings during recess instead of joining kickball games.  (I’m not making that up.)  I have always hated changing clothes in the locker room for gym class… or anything.  I have far too embedded a sense of my “failing” as a male to ever be comfortable in that space. I was small, mostly quiet (but not if you were in my circle of trust), and… different.

Let’s not say more of that… not because I won’t – I’m happy to… I believe telling stories (telling secrets as Fredrick Buechner writes) helps empower other people to connect with their stories.  So I will tell it, but not more today because its straying too far from the purpose of our dialog here.  My name.  My name means strong and manly.  And I never felt it.  And I went by Andy… a nice comfortable diminutive version of my name… it fit me… something less than strong and manly. 

That’s the rub… I came later to imagine I wasn’t strong and manly enough to be called Andrew – so Andy was my appropriate name. It wasn’t how I thought of my name so much then as what I came to learn (thanks therapy and reflective journeying) in my twenties.  Partly aware and partly subconscious the changing practice to using my full given name of Andrew was a personal journey to claim my identity as strong and manly… in my own way.  Not what I was taught by the culture around me… but what I had learned as a small kid who was weaker of muscle and strong of spirit.  I was a poor public speaker due to so much nervousness around people, quick to tears and happier by myself than with people because I found peace of mind not worried about how to act and if I belonged.  I was embarrassed by so much social interaction and with a deep fear of being unaccepted.  My willingness later to claim (by act of agency) my name, Andrew, was a willingness to understand that I could give wings to my personal identity and own my own strength. 

A poor public speaker? It is what I do for a living now every single day.

Embarrassed by social interactions?  A lot of people wish I shared a lot less! 😊
Quick to tears?  I hope so!
Fear of being a burden and unaccepted?  Ok… I still carry that one around… the naming wasn’t all magic!

But my name matters to me… and it represents a story of becoming and of being unashamed of the whole story.  I love the child I was, the complicated youth I maybe still am, and the adult I have become.  It isn’t perfect and its plenty burdened and blessed… but I claim all of that as me: Andrew. 

So, you may not mean anything by it all… but if you call me Andy (and you recently met me… my mom gets to call me Andy for life) then you are touching a very personal narrative and you are telling me things you don’t know you are telling me about how you view me.  I know you don’t mean to do that (or I hope you didn’t mean to… some people actually do)… that’s why I’m telling you this now.  I have the strength and the position to say: don’t name me (or anyone else) different than I name myself (themselves).  I’m telling you that because some people don’t yet feel that power, or lack my position, and they are deeply hurt when they are being named in “less than” ways. 

Names have power.  Names can shape our identity and give voice to it.  The right name is a blessing, the wrong name is a distraction and confusion at best and burden and oppression at worst.  Respect the power of those narratives; respect each other.  A name is deeply personal thing, and the power of our names is a gift that should be received humbly and with care. 

What is the story of your name – not just the story of the name you were given – but the story of the name you claimed in your personal narrative?

The Great Resignation

I first came across this phrase this summer in church leadership circles where people were beginning to name this era we currently live in as the time of “the Great Resignation” that describes both the literal – people resigning from leadership and volunteer positions left and right – to the metaphorical… as people’s capacity for care dried up.

Then I did some reading to learn that the term was credited to Texas A&M Associate Professor Anthony Klotz in 2019 when he predicted a coming mass resignation from the workplace… one that is in full throws right now in the summer of 2021. There are literally hundreds of articles out there now trying to talk about the why of it all. Social upheaval. Loss of meaning in the workplace. Yearning for new ways of doing things. Lack of voice in saying this isn’t working.For further thought on that I will simply convey to you this article with Prof. Anthony Klotz: https://www.theversemedia.com/…/anthony-klotz-defining…

But I want to think more broadly about all of this than employment… to circle back where I started before I knew the terms most popular history to think broadly about this whole sense of a time of “great resignation” which is resonating with me in every room I am in right now from the civic process of our country, to volunteerism on the soccer field and at board meetings, to the dwindling life of the church as a gathered community of faith. I want to think largely about the fact that we are so tired of even talking about being tired that we are left with only the capacity to withdraw and that couples with a constant demand for “hard untrained decision making”. But it also covers over that the problems behind the “great resignation” aren’t simply “COVID” but the way in which COVID acted (as Klotz’s says) as an accelerant to trends that were already happening (again, he predicted its coming in the workforce BEFORE covid).

And then I get theological… I’m preaching with a friend on EXILE this Sunday… exile and wilderness are a favorite subjects of mine. I believe them to be fruitful and essential for all that they are defined as unwanted and cut-off. And I wonder if something of the “great resignation” is actually a run toward, and not away, from exile. Exile is actually the place in which we want to make our home right now. And maybe that is right… and then we get this old gem:”The most remarkable observation one can make about this interface of exilic circumstance and spiritual resources is this: Exile did not lead Jews in the Old Testament to abandon their faith or to settle for abdicating despair, or to retreat to privistic religion. On the contrary, exile evoked the most brilliant literature and the most daring theological articulation in the Old Testament.” (Walter Brueggeman, Cadenences of Home)

(deep breath) (pivot)

The soil in my yard is very, very dry. I haven’t run a sprinkler system in years. I live in a very arid place. And you can’t just water my lawn anymore. It’s baked and dried and become somewhat hydrophobic. Hydrophobic soil actually repels water. And while my yard is not fully hydrophobic it is, at this point, so in need of water that it rejects water. (Do you see where I am going with this?) And I’m aware that at such a point if you want to bring life back to my yard it cannot be achieved by simply watering it. My soil lacks the organic and fungal material that makes soil soak up water. And in order to do that, I have to recondition the soil. I have to do deeper soil work and interrupt the water-repellant layers and create more healthy organic “wettable layers”. There is a temptation to think that if its really dry you need to unleash the firehouse. But all that will do is drowned whats left of life. We need to back off… get more subtle… and break it down even more… before anything new can fill up.

Anthony Klotz studies resignations because he says it the one time the employee gets the power away from the corporation. And he wonders what they will do with that power when they have it. He also argues that it’s taboo to talk about resignations because that taboo helps organizations/corporations to keep the control and power. “We don’t talk about it” so that nothing changes. And one of the things he sees here in mass resignation is a desire to force the conversation. Or.. what I will call… to break open the water-repellent layers so we can unearth and cultivate a healthy and whole organic system again.

Now… deep breath… again…

This reflection has no answers. Simply some observations and random connecting of dots that may be completely unrelated. I do not know what to do to inject vitality back into a congregation, or volunteerism, or the workforce. But I do think I see something of the process we are needing to have across the board:

We need to borrow from Jewish tradition and engage in a radical exilic conversation – and we need to lean into it… letting go of taboos and control and embrace deconstruction and imagination.

We need to admit that we are traumatized and something of a byproduct of that is that we are all more than a little hydrophobic right now. (And we cannot afford to get tired of admitting this.) So these conversations need to be slow, gently invasive, and creative.

We need to foster conversations about meaning and the loss of meaning in our lives… Klotz recommends this very thing: “Organizations can help remind people of how their job contributes to the wellbeing of the world.” We need to find clarity about what we are rejecting and what we are seeking and their overlaps.

We need confession about complicity and honest truth-telling in order to deconstruct all that is at work and to hold on to the clarity of what it is that we really want… and really endorse.

We need to stay very close to the experience of suffering and to those experiencing suffering… we need to lay ourselves bare before each other for isolation, insulation… and the comfort they bring hold exile and its fruit at bay.

We need ambivalence. Deconstruction and new construction is neither all old stuff reordered (deck chairs on the Titanic) or all-new replacements (there are deep and helpful resources we need… like radical exilic conversation).

We need to imagine that this is all possible – actively work on imagining it every day and committing ourselves to be willing to look for it, push it, and respond to it, just plain show up for it… because its all too easy to decide it isn’t my job… after all – I’m living the Great Resignation too.

Invitation to Share

In his book, To Heal a Fractured World, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reflects on the Jewish practice of sitting shiva. The word shiva means seven to reflect the practice of immediate family mourning the loss of a loved one for a week. After immediate lamentation there is a time of embracing the comfort of the community and it often can be – like in many funerals – a time of story telling and giving thanks for the life of the person. Anyway… Sacks reflects on sitting shiva for his father and all the wonderful stories he heard in that week, stories of deep impact his father made in the world. Stories he wished his father had heard when he was still alive.

Bringing that forward to my own life I am currently walking with two of my best friends in cancer journeys. My father Bob Kukla and Duncan Filson, the office manager at work. They both discovered agressive cancers around the same time at the end of last year and are both going through equally agressive treatments to hold cancer at bay and maybe even try to beat it into submission. They have both spoken to me about being overwhelmed at how many people have reached out to them. My dad keeps talking about fraternity brothers… from 55 years ago!! Duncan said to me today, “it is like getting to attend your own funeral. If I don’t die, which I don’t intend to do any time soon, I will almost feel guilty. I will feel like I owe these people an apology that they came out of the wood work for me and it wasn’t so fatal after all.”

And I realized… why does it have to be death? Why do we wait for the tragic to happen? How many have not know the impact they have made in other’s lives because… we just don’t do that… until they have died… and we share with each other what we never shared with them?

So here is my invitation. Reach out to that teacher that made a difference in your life – and tell her. Reach out to that coworker or boss or mentor who inspired to you dig deeper and reacher farther. Reach out to the parent who you told that you didn’t need them. Reach out to a sibling who never had to ask why when you called on them for help no matter what baggage there was… Remind your spouse why you married them!!

Reach out and tell someone now, while there is still time, while they can still feel uplifted in the knowledge. Sit shiva with the living – and promote that which is good through the sharing of our gratitude for one another. Reach out and share.. No matter how awkward it may seem I guarantee – I GUARANTEE – it will be a mutually upbuilding experience… and it will make you want to do it even more. Champion that which is good, and right, and whole.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8

Boise Kukla 2020 Christmas Letter

Dear Friends and Family,

One of the Kukla Christmas Traditions is watching the movie Christmas Vacation. That’s right, of all the hallmark movies, ol’ time greats, and fun animated fare… the one and only one we watch every year is Christmas Vacation. And every year we crack up laughing at the same moments as the year before.

I love it for more than just the humor aspect. I love it for fact that it’s the perfect Christmas movie. The diamond in the rough of the movie is that within the gags and gaudy is a deep heart for family and a desire to wrangle chaos into some kind of order – to birth something beautiful against all odds.

It’s also a perfect commentary in 2020… as things spiral out of control for Clark and the larger Griswold family tensions rise and climax with this conversation:

Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his ass down that chimney tonight he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nut house….

Clark, I think it’s best if everyone just goes home. Before things get worse.

Worse? How could they get any worse? Take a look around you, Ellen. We’re at the threshold of hell.

Son? I love you. We all love you. But this is a terrible night. Nothing’s gone right. It’s a disaster. You losing your temper with the whole family only makes things worse. You’re too good a father to act like this. In years to come, you’ll want your family to remember all the love you gave us. And how hard you tried to make the perfect Christmas.

There is a lot of Kukla spirit in the Griswold family. The more things go wrong the more stubborn pride and unwillingness to give up kick in. I’m not saying we take a chain saw to the newel post… but we aren’t far off. And frankly, if nothing else we try to raise our kids to be Clark Griswold. Clark for their family… but also for their community, for justice, for the world. Raising stubborn children isn’t easy. But it’s something we foster. Kids with their own minds who want to work with others but without comprising the goal and a shared vision for what the world SHOULD be and not just what it is. Not losing our tempers… but also not losing a passion for continuing to wrangle what is into what it should be.

You all know what this year has been like. I don’t really need to tell you any of that. We figured out online band… and online school… we started and stopped sports more times than I can count… we had to improve the internet for all the work going on in the house and yet they won’t come in the house to install it right so perhaps my favorite picture of 2020 is Meredith’s bedroom window which is permanently slightly ajar to have an internet line go through it and then packed with paper towels as homemade insulation. And instead of a bookshelf, she has a wifi tower.

2020 may have robbed us of many things… but it also gifted us memories. We ate more meals as a full family in the last year than in the three years before that! There was a lot of laughter… some a bit maniacal but still laughter. We overcame so many hurdles – and we will remember the overcoming more than the hurdles themselves. And there are a lot of tools in our belt that were not there before March. We spent more time talking to extended family in 2020 than we did for… ever. I mean it. With ZOOM extended family conversation, I probably had more minutes of conversation with extended family in 2020 than I did with those folks for my whole life before that. That’s a gift! A gift we created but also was created by the circumstances. A gift that was created by adapting to adversity and wrangling a loving environment out of chaos.

In 2020 Elizabeth became a vegetarian. It’s all kinds of chaos for the cooks. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. She took a stand and there was no stopping her. Tonight, while we are having ham… she will be having tofu. We now consistently make two meals. But she has a personal value and she is not giving it up. And headache or not… that’s awesome.

2020 scares me a bit for her and Meredith, they are our most introverted kids and while they thrived this year it didn’t exactly help any “teamwork” development. Fortunately… they live in a house where “privacy” is hard to come by and daily chores are a practice in getting along. Meredith jumped headfirst into a highly gifted class this fall. She skipped an entire year of math… and had to catch up to all her classmates all while managing her fear that she didn’t belong AND online school…. And she did nothing but leap over every benchmark set in front of her.

In the Spring I walked up to give Warren lunch at halftime during a soccer game he was ref’ing. And he was crying. He had called a horrible half. Made multiple mistakes and missed calls and everyone knew it. I had to get him to do some deep breathing. But then he took two bites of lunch, and went back out there (I stayed and watched), and called a good second half. He has always been our sensitive kid. He cried as a kid when we threw away an old toothbrush! He feels every mistake and every injustice… and we’ll keep working on him to give himself grace. But he doesn’t let adversity keep him from doing anything and that’s a piece of Warren that groomed on the monkey bars of every playground in Florida and I am glad he never lost it. (He never let us leave a park as a young kid until he made it all the way across without falling.)

And then there is Danielle. She literally is bouncing off walls minute by minute to get through the world of COVID. I’m not sure she even sleeps anymore. She is a bundle of potential energy constantly a moment away from spontaneous combustion… but usually one of joy and laughter. And she has fallen in love with space. She is a girl ready to run among the stars. And as the most social of our children, she keeps talking…. Constantly… but COVID didn’t set her back. She just kept talking. To anyone and everyone that will listen. And if there isn’t anyone volunteering… she will talk to the stars. That girl doesn’t even see hurdles… just objects to bounce off of…

We mucked up a lot in 2020.

There was a lot we couldn’t control in 2020.

There are lingering hurts and laments and much yet to wrangle towards the right.

But in the midst of all that… life finds a way. And we are grateful to have courtside seats to the way our kids lived that through all our adversity this year. And I’m grateful for the networks of co-workers, friends, and family – not just the 6 or 19 or 24 of us… but layers and layers of family beyond what we normally mean when we say “our family” came together this year to nurture each other and help life find a way to clear all the hurdles of what wasn’t the way it was supposed to be.

Our “Christmas Vacation” hope for the world is that we never lose the vision of what “should” be, but that we always find the joy in the midst of what “is”… and we keep working to bring those two visions into unity. Much love to you all from the Kuklas. Here is to 2021… and maybe a little less unprecedented.

Grace and Peace,

Andrew, Caroline, Warren, Elizabeth, Meredith, Danielle…and Leo and Storm (the dog and chinchilla)

Pastoring During COVID-19

(Warning: I meant this to be about a paragraph and then it became a whole sermon… you’ll understand – preachers gonna preach.)

This email went around last week:

https://sixtysecondpreacher.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/top-ten-reasons-why-your-pastor-may-need-a-break-a-special-message-for-clerks-of-sessions-and-elders/

I shared it with a couple of colleagues. And a colleague of mine shared it with my clerk of Session who sent it out to our Session. I got a call from the chair of personnel telling me to schedule a vacation in place of my canceled sabbatical.

I endorse the message of this article. It’s true for all leaders right now, not just pastors of course. And for some, it will stop there. But I feel a need to flesh out the full story that this is missing for me (not necessarily for everyone) right now:

1) This time is also energizing.

I’m more aware of my calling and why I do what I do than ever. There are a lot of days that ministry seems futile or unimportant. These are not those kind of days. This takes me back to chaplaincy at Grady Memorial – walking the hallway at 3 in the morning while working simultaneous deaths… it was harrowing but you knew what you did mattered. You felt your calling and importance of it. And I feel that now. And that is empowering.

2) This isn’t all work.

I actually buy into this whole calling thing. I’m not simply a person who preaches. I love to preach – if I didn’t I would admit isn’t not the most effective of practices and stop doing it. But saying, “don’t you want to take a week off preaching?” is like asking a musician why they play an instrument. Preaching is in my bones, and those bones – like the stones – will sing out if I stop preaching. Hearing other voices is important… so yes, I will get some other preaching voices in there this summer – worry not about that ye who is tired of me. But preaching isn’t work – its the art that makes my soul sing.

3) This isn’t all work (again).

I would live my discipleship whether I was paid to do it or not. I’m lucky. VERY lucky. I’m paid to do what I would have to do even if no one paid me. I lead as a volunteer in other areas. Those same anxieties on this list are true there as well. And I would do those things anyway. Because I believe it is how life should be lived. I’m just lucky. Because its also my job.

4) I love you.

I am not a touchy-feely person. I’m an introvert. I could ride this “storm” out at home and never leave and feel just fine with it all. If it wasn’t for you. But I love you. I love my congregation. I love my community. And love draws you in. Love compels compassion and care. I couldn’t sit this out. I canceled my sabbatical without question or regret. I will get the break and time away. I’m not worried. You love me too. I know you will make sure I take it. But this simply isn’t the time – and we know it.

5) You love me.

Hear this: I have never received so much appreciation and love as I have in the last 6 weeks. People worried about me. People grateful for me. People giving witness to the impact of our shared ministry. These are things a pastor loves to know is true. We don’t want to admit it because we also believe it’s not about us. We also want to be humble servant leaders. But we aren’t immune from some ego. We like to imagine that what we do matters and that someone, anyone, is listening – responding – feeling like this whole thing makes a difference in their life and the life of the world. And right now… you are making know the truth of that. Thank you. And that goes a LONG way. Literally, I find myself getting tired or overwhelmed and then I get email gratitude or a text and I feel like the Hulk – and I’m ready to take it all on again. Ok… some times.

6) We love the church.

It is hard to love a thing that is in rapid decline. It’s hard to love a thing many people are ambivalent to, or hostile towards. And it’s hard to love a thing that earns that hostility and ambivalence far too often. But that does change that we love it. And that we find it good, and transforming, and essential. So to exist in a time when I feel like the Church is more the Church than ever is powerfully important to me. I feel grateful to be a pastor in this season. I hope I never forget the gifts this season of pastoring has given me. Given us.

So yes. I get tired. I don’t sleep well. I take on too much anxiety and feel overly important. I am overwhelmed by dim glass gazing and guessing and praying I lead well when the consequences seem beyond my comprehension.

But I’m also deeply grateful for reminders I’m not doing this alone. I’m doing what I love. And I love what I’m doing – we are doing – together. Apart.

So thank you all for your concern. Love compels it. And I love you too. But I’m good. I’m also binging Netflix, playing video games, watching my weeds grow in my garden without rising up to pluck them out because, really, rest in this moment is more important than weeds. And isn’t there a parable about letting them grow…

 

What Online Communion Taught me About Worship in the Time of COVID-19

Two weeks ago, we ventured into the world of online celebration of the Lord’s Table.  We did not do so with “undo haste or undo delay”.  😉 A friend in ministry had mentioned Calvin’s theology of the Table which greatly helped me – and our congregation – think through celebrating a meal we have always believe had to be celebrated “in person” and “in community”.  Calvin reminds us that the real presence of Christ is a product of the Holy Spirit.  The elements don’t become Christ in metaphysical change… the elements are Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit which transcends gaps of time and space. The most powerful statement Calvin makes is “let us remember how far the secret virtue of the Holy Spirit surpasses all our conceptions, and how foolish it is to wish to measure its immensity by our feeble capacity. Therefore, what our mind does not comprehend let faith conceive—viz. that the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.”
(John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion, Chapter 17.10)

This thought continues to be provocative to me.  Tomorrow night a task force of our church will consider the what, when, and how of re-opening our church building, programs… and in-person worship.  It’s complicated because the national setting for this debate is not the same as the context of this discernment in Idaho.  Idaho had a light touch from COVID-19.  We are naturally physically distant, we closed down early, we didn’t have much spread at all.  And that means people have a logical case for re-opening even while that seems strange to consider in other larger urban areas where community spread (of people and viral outbreaks) is much more radical.  So, the debate is challenging. To open or not?  I’m prone to say no… but I understand, and I am nagged at by the whole “Idaho argument”.

And then I hear again: the Spirit truly unites things separated by space.

And I wonder again what it is that we think we have really lost by not having in-person worship (for the sake of the well-being and health of our community and the most vulnerable among them)? And this question confronts me: is my theology of the Spirit so impoverished, and my trust in the depth and breadth of God’s being so limited that I can’t imagine worship doesn’t need a building, or in-person-ness at all?

What if what is lost in worshipping physically-distant over worshipping in-person is so small that any instinct that puts people at risk to overcome it is foolish disregard for human life?  I have wondered over and again the last three or four weeks if we don’t worship the act of worship more than God we claim to worship.

I wonder if the challenge to open a building, to meet in-person, isn’t far more about the church as a social club, about my own stubborn sense of rugged individualist, and my own ego than it is about being disciples of the way of the Jesus Christ.  Discipleship – our risen Christ-given mission – needs neither worship, nor building, nor in-person gatherings… and I have said before that I think the Church has been more the Church in the last 6 weeks than in the years before them.

Online Communion ended up being as rich an experience as it was in-person.  More so in some ways for breaking down the routine-ness of it all and making us think more intentionally about the what and why and how of it all.  And for being a sign and seal and remembering of the reality that thinking we can measure the ability of the Holy Spirit by our feeble observations is…. foolishness.

I am trying these days not to do lots of comparing.  I don’t want to feel like I’m failing because my capacity for ministry is different than the church down the road, across the country, or on the other side of the globe.  I have always been grateful that we all express and enrich each other’s faith because of – not in spite of – our differences.  I do not wish to judge any other communities’ discernment – their context has intricacies I couldn’t even guess at, let alone know with certainty.  I’m not sharing this to tell anyone they are wrong… particularly because I’m not sure what is right.  I seek here to give witness to my own “wrestling with discipleship” by way of maybe learning through the articulation what I wouldn’t have otherwise. And I hope maybe the way I feel challenged in my faith and leadership… may challenge you as well – even if it takes us to different conclusions.

I hear myself challenged, again and again, to trust that the Holy Spirit is more at work than I give her credit for, that God is bigger than what I can see and measure AND what all of us collectively can see and measure, and that the Church is usually more the Church when it looks nothing like our routine imaginings.  These are things I professed to know, but the knowing didn’t go too deep.  And I feel grateful for the events of the last two months pushing me towards a deeper and richer theology of the Holy Spirit (not something Presbyterians are known for…)

I believe that COVID-19… that celebrating a Sacrament as I have never imagined doing so before has taught me greater faith and trust in God, and far less obsession with our human machinations towards God.  And I think I’m being challenged in the Spirit, and by the Spirit, to get really iconoclastic about my traditions and my motives and my reasons for those traditions and motives… and to be very careful that what I claim is about God, is really about God – and not me and my comfort.  Or, for that matter, you… and your comfort.

The Temptation to Define “the Good” as Comfort

Currently, I’m preaching three different ways for each Sunday. A live dialog, a pre-recorded YouTube link, and a written (shorter) version sent to non-internet users. So here is the written version and the YouTube version for this coming Sunday. I’m pumped about spending 6 weeks in Daniel!

The Temptation to Define “the Good” as Comfort

First in a Series on Daniel: “Faith in Trying Times”

(video link here)

Genesis 3:1-8

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. 8They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Daniel 1:3-8

3Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, 4young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans. 5The king assigned them a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine. They were to be educated for three years, so that at the end of that time they could be stationed in the king’s court. 6Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. 7The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.

8But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine; so he asked the palace master to allow him not to defile himself.

Typically, in Eastertide we would study the resurrection experiences of Jesus and the emerging Church.  But this year we are turning clocks back to a forerunner of faith: The Book of Daniel.  Daniel is a book we look at a little differently from a historical lens than what it presents itself to be.  The entirety of the book is presented as written about a Jewish exile named Daniel (and his friends) in Babylon during Jewish exile and early days of the return (from somewhere post 586 BCE (the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians) to the reign of Darius the Great of Persia post 522 BCE).

The first six chapters develop his/their character, and then the second six are apocalyptic visions of Daniel about the future predicting coming evil empires and their fall before the Sovereign God of all Creation (the Ancient of Days).  And yet, with a lens to history and critical scholarship we have every reason to believe it is written (or collected and edited) during the reign of Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire – and more particularly around 167 BCE.

Antiochus is the villain of both Daniel and the Maccabean revolt.  His harsh anti-Jewish oppression sparks the Jewish underground to recall the events of Babylonian exile.  The stories of Daniel then are used to empower the lives of Jews under Antiochus’ reign.  And the demonizing of “kings” during Daniel’s time is coded way of talking about the evils of the Seleucid Empire.  Therefore, the Book of Daniel comes together as a guide, of sorts, to surviving oppression, exile, and – what I’m calling – trying times.

It is with this in mind that we turn to Daniel for the next 6 weeks to give us guide points in discipleship and faith when we feel overwhelmed by oppressive circumstances… like, say, quarantine during a global pandemic.  This week we turn to the beginning.  The VERY beginning as first we hear from the “snake” of Genesis.  The snake is viewed as crafty.  In the Hebrew there is word play between the crafty and naked.  These two words are very similar in the Hebrew and the connection is made to illuminate that Adam and Eve are vulnerable to the truth-twisting deception of the snake.  They are open to be manipulated.

This is a lesson Daniel keeps close to his own heart.  When Nebuchadnezzar offers a table of fine foods, Daniel declines.  What’s the harm – we might say – in a good double cheeseburger?  I mean, I love some fine foods.  But for Daniel this is only the beginning.  It is the beginning of defining his “good” as his own comfort.  It is the temptation to listen to “crafty serpents” in the society around him redefine his own values and ethics.

Peter Rollins, in his book Insurrection, quotes a favorite Slavoj Žižek parable.  As the parable goes there is a man who thinks he is seed.  Finally cured by a psychotherapist, he shows up a week later paranoid again.  His neighbor has bought chickens.  And while he knows he is no longer a seed… do the chickens know?  Rollins uses this absurd story to illuminate how often we act in ways contrary to our own beliefs.  We don’t, Rollins contends, act out of our values and in consistency with what we think is “good”.  We act in ways consistent with the oppressive marketing forces around us.  So, we say relationship are more important than things… and then we accumulate things left and right because society tells us we should want them.

This is the wisdom of Daniel – resisting the temptation to define our good by what is comfortable for us.  And Daniel resists that comfort because once you dine at the Emperor’s table our value foundation is lost and our agency is given over the ethics of the Emperor whose table is now our table.

How many of us right now feel a major sense of loss because we uncomfortable?  When we define “the good” by those things that make us comfortable we begin to feel “oppressed” at the slightest inconvenience. We begin to rewire our journey by the social expectations around us… rather than in obedience and faith to the God who gave us life.  We trade the good of the Creation we are called to steward for our own comfort. We trade community connection for social norms and marketing defined good.

Resisting the temptation to define what is good by what is comfortable is the first lesson Daniel gives us – and in many ways it will prove to be the most important.  A foundational part of our journey then is to ask, what is the good we seek?  And as disciples of Jesus’ Way – and the predecessor way of Daniel, the root of our answer must lie not in our comfort, social norms, or consumer goods.  It must lie in our identity as God’s good creation and as stewards of that good for all Creation and our trust in the provisions and generosity of God as “enough” against the Empire’s desire for “more”.

This is the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.