Thursday, September 3, 2020

I Want to Scream (A Pastoral Response to Kenosha Violence)

I've been struggling to blog and respond to a lot this year, partly because the news keeps coming so quickly. Last week I had stared at a blinking cursor on my computer for way too long, so I recorded myself rambling to my iPhone instead and shared it with my congregation's facebook group. Since it's right in line with my blog's themes, I share it here, too. 

Be safe.

Be kind. 

I love and miss you.

God be with you all. 

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Faith Like Jazz

I love jazz music. One of my favorite albums (of any kind of music) is Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue."

I will also be quick to say that I don't totally get jazz. I know there are a lot of interesting things going on in jazz that trained musicians can pick up on and dissect. Some jazz gets really experimental and ... unique. That's not the jazz I love.

Instead, I love the Miles David/John Coltrane style of jazz. The kind of jazz you imagine in a smoky bar with a three- or four-piece group providing the background to conversations between people in fedoras and boas. (Which is where I've heard some of the best jazz in my life.)

What I love about jazz is the improvisation. I love listening to the way the band will take a riff and play around with it for several measures, trying different things each time. Or the way one of the instruments will go on a solo, pouring out sounds that are more like emotions than notes while the others maintain a regular rhythm to hold her/him on a path. In jazz there is both creativity and freedom, and there is a kind of restraint because all the parts are working together toward a common goal.

I love jazz.

I also love Jesus. And I think following Jesus should be a lot like jazz.

When I was growing up, a lot of Christian teaching made me think there was a specific way to follow Jesus. There was a set of rules to follow and a certain way to act and dress and if you followed all of them, you were Christian. If you didn't, well, thanks for playing.

In my music analogy, it would be like saying, "To follow Jesus, you need to play the piano and play 'Moonlight Sonata' perfectly."

But I think that's too narrow a view. Especially today. Life rarely follows a neat, clear path where every action has a predictable reaction. And every person in the church doesn't have the same gifts or passions or reasons for being in church. Instead, I think living a life of faith is like playing jazz music.

You have a group (church or fellow Christians) who have different instruments (talents) and you're all working together to make a beautiful piece of music (bring God's life to earth). But you're also improvising, repeating common themes (love, forgiveness, mercy) in different ways to create new sounds and ideas. The members are doing their own thing, but working together, being creative and free, but following certain patterns that are familiar to all participants.

This is much more like faith as I've experienced it than "Here's a piece of music. Memorize it." It's also what the church needs to be today.

We are in a time when technology and globalism are changing things constantly. We are in a time where we live with many differences in generations, ethnicity, gender identity, and more, even within one neighborhood.

In order to adapt, to love everyone, we need to improvise. We need to play around with familiar riffs in new ways. We need to work with the other members of the band to avoid chaos. We need to have a sense of playfulness and imagination, following the path of grace and love, but creating something new on the way.

This is why the church has been so different over the ages in a variety of cultures and eras, but still grounded in the same truths.

Faith is like jazz. Follow along.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

"Oh my life will be here waiting for you, my love, to find your way back home to me." -Sophie Milman, "Back Home to Me"

Thursday, April 2, 2020

So... How's it going?

Change is stressful.

Learning new skills is stressful.

Feeling like you're not in control of things is stressful.

Bad news is stressful.

Fear is stressful.

Any of these things, on their own, is often enough to make someone cranky, anxious, or overwhelmed. Right now, because of the new coronavirus, we are all experiencing most or all of them at the same time and together.

Chances are, you're stressed. I am too.

And that's okay. That's a normal reaction to the time we are in.

Since we are all stressed and not operating at our best: Be kind with yourself and others. Own your stress. Take a break when you need it. Let small things go as much as possible. Scream into a pillow. Take a nap. Take a walk. Again, be kind with yourself and others.

I know I'm not operating at my best, but I'm trying to not let it be an excuse to be at my worst. This won't last forever.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“We’d gain a lot of ground, ‘cause we’d both give a little.” -Diamond Rio, “Meet in the Middle”

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Yes, Virginia, God Really Loves the World

A member of my congregation texted me this week with a "HELP!!!" and a question from their child: "Is God punishing the world with COVID-19? Will God make me sick if I'm bad?" 

I know some of us may be getting questions like that (or even wondering ourselves). Below is the response I shared in case it is helpful for any other children of God out there. (The name has been changed for anonymity.)

"No, Virginia, God is not punishing the world with COVID-19. God created a complex and amazing world. Just as we don't always do what God hopes for us, the rest of creation doesn't always do what God hopes either. Sometimes it's a disease and sometimes it may be a natural disaster.

"These times are scary, especially because they feel so much bigger than us. But God ALWAYS loves us and wants what is best for us. When we are scared, we can do something. We can help God in doing good and making things better.

"We can pray. We can talk to people to help them feel better. We can make cards or letters and send them to people. We can see if we can donate something to help people. We can help the helpers so they can do their jobs well. We can find small things to do to help parents.

"God tells us that love changes the world. When times are scary, we need that love as much as ever. Keep loving and don't be afraid. God loves you."

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“There’s still times I fall apart and all I am left with is ‘why’s, but then your love falls like a heavy rain and my heavy heart doesn't feel the pain.” -Philip LaRue, “Chasing the Daylight”

Sunday, March 15, 2020

How to Be Church Without Going to Church (Pastoral Letter for Coronavirus)

(Note: This is adapted from the email I sent to my congregation announcing our decision to cancel worship.)

On Friday evening, my church decided that we will cancel all church events, including worship, for two weeks in response to the coronavirus. We hope to reopen on March 29, but that will depend on what happens in those two weeks.

I slept in my office during a Saturday blizzard once to ensure I wouldn't have to cancel worship, so know that canceling worship is not something I take lightly. My natural inclination is to let my Scandinavian stubbornness say, "We're not going to let a virus tell us what to do." But stubbornness and strength are not the same as wisdom. When we look at how this virus has (or has not) spread in other areas around the world, it is clear that limiting social gatherings has an impact in slowing the spread and reducing stress on hospitals. I don't want our church to be a place that increases infections. That is not "Sharing the Love of Jesus Christ with All People," as our mission states.

BUT, not meeting in person does not mean we don't have church. Church is not a building. You are the Church, dear siblings, and this is a time the world needs us more than ever. We can still "Share the Love of Jesus Christ with All People." We just need to be a little creative.

So, what are we doing?
  • I will be using our facebook page ( to share resources and ideas and avoid flooding our email boxes. (If anyone has a good sharing app, please let me know.)
  • We will be creating a plan to have worship available by streaming or online for Sunday morning. Details will be on our facebook page.
  • We will be putting together a plan for caring for our homebound and vulnerable members. If you are interested in being part of a calling team, let me know. If you or someone you know needs pastoral care, please let me know. Don't assume someone else has told me.
  • Isolation can be very hard, and the community of support we have at MLC is one of the most valued things people name. I encourage you to call or text someone from church once a day. We can maintain friendships and care for one another this way. If you can, please reach out to members you haven't seen in a while.
  • Do the same for friends and neighbors outside MLC. "You are the light of the world" -Matt. 5:14
  • We are putting together a system to care for physical needs of people, too. If you depend on food banks for food or other items, please email me and we'll connect you with someone to arrange delivery. Your request will be held in confidence by our small team.
  • If you are someone whose mental health or addiction suffers from isolation, please find someone to do regular wellness checks on you. Remember, you are loved and not alone.
  • I'm planning to have regular conversations in our facebook group so we can continue to learn and grow together. If you have ideas for distance activities we can do, please let me know.

We have not experienced a pandemic like this in our lifetimes. We know it is serious, but not how disruptive it will ultimately be. Hopefully we will look back and say it was not as bad as we feared. 

Whatever happens, the Gospel message of Jesus Christ is as true now as always. God promises new life and resurrection, God meets us in our places of fear and death, and God's grace is greater and more permanent than any evil in this world.

We may not be going to church for a few weeks, but we can still BE the church. You are the living stones of God's temple (1 Peter 2:5). Do not be afraid, dear Church, God is with you.

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I can’t change what can’t be changed, but I’m still gonna try.” -Garrison Starr, “To Garrison, On Her 29th Birthday”

Friday, February 28, 2020

Self Improvement and Confession Kind of Suck...In A Good Way

One of the requirements of becoming a pastor in my denomination is completing a unit of CPE (or Clinical Pastoral Education), which is a fancy way of saying "pay to be a volunteer chaplain and have everything you do be picked apart." I did my CPE at Cooper Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, a level one trauma center in one of the poorest cities in America and had a supervisor who didn't cut his students any slack, Rev. Cholke.

It was stressful, it was exciting, and it was one of the best learning experiences of my life.

One day, I was sharing a written report about one of my visits with a patient where I had danced around his concerns about losing his legs. Rev. Cholke was having none of it. He interrupted me, pointed a finger in my face and said, "You're afraid of conflict. You avoid the tough questions and you can't really help people if you do that."

In that moment I was embarrassed, and ashamed, and angry. And I felt those things because he was right. I kind of knew that about myself, but he had stripped my personality naked and put it on display in front of the group. I hated that moment.

It was one of the best things someone has ever done for me.

Because of that moment, I started paying attention to my motivations. I learned to recognize when I was avoiding conflict out of fear. When I did that, I could push my fear back or lean into the stress to build up resilience. Over time, I became a better leader and a better pastor because Rev. Cholke named a problem that I needed to work on.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

What to Do When We Don’t Know What to Do

(Note: This was first written for my church's newsletter in March 2020.)

In January, I started participating in a program supported by our local synod called the Adaptive Leadership Academy. The goal of the academy over the coming year is to develop leadership skills for situations where there isn’t an easy solution--or perhaps there isn’t a solution at all. 

I’m still early in the program and haven’t finished all of my homework for the first month, but the class has got me thinking about the leadership lessons I’ve learned from experience, wiser people, and a whole lot of trial and error. They have proven useful not just for leadership, but for life and faith growth as well. I share them here hoping they can be useful for someone else as they have for me. 

Be Kind -- Give the benefit of the doubt. You catch more flies with honey. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. However you name it, I’ve learned that treating people with kindness and dignity is the best way to move things forward.

See Every Person As Someone Jesus Loves -- I’ve mentioned this in at least one sermon, but a woman in Bible study once told me she tries to look at every person in her day and say, “This is someone Jesus loves.” I try to do this and it always makes a difference. Looking at people through the eyes of Jesus helps me to have more patience and grace and see possible actions I wouldn’t otherwise.

Participation Is More Important Than Perfection -- I can get stuck sometimes not doing something because I don’t have the perfect answer or don’t think I can do the work as well as others. I’ve learned it is usually better to just do my best with a few mistakes than to do nothing at all. People are often forgiving and are more likely to remember the effort than the mistakes. 

When in Doubt, Ask -- I can have a bad habit of not asking questions because I’m afraid of looking like I don’t know. Or I can assume I know what someone wants or needs when I don’t. I’m slowly learning to ask questions when I don’t understand so I can do what is needed and do it right the first time. 

Don't Get Defensive; Get Curious -- When there is disagreement, our natural tendency is to get defensive and prove our point, but responding with curiosity can build trust and solutions faster. I try saying, "I'm having a hard time understanding your perspective. Can you help me understand?" or "This seems really important to you. Why is that?" As a friend and colleague once said, "We need to think of curiosity as a spiritual discipline." (She's one of those wiser-than-me people.)

What Does Love Look Like in This Situation? -- Sometimes it’s being active and sometimes it’s just being quiet and listening. Asking this question when I’m not sure what to do helps me put God’s priorities in the picture and focus my options.

There are many times in life where we may not know what to do or have a perfect answer. Those moments can be scary, but I’ve found that if I work through those moments with practices like these, the destination is better than when I don’t.

Move forward. God is with you.

From the Gray,

Pastor Ari

“All these thoughts are an ocean that I’m drowning in.” -Judah & the Lion, “Over My Head”