Messages

A Eulogy for my Mother

These are the words I offered tonight, Friday, August 3rd, 2018 at the wake celebrating my mother’s life on the eve of her funeral.

IMG_0351.jpgWhen I was a young adult and had been paying my own rent for a year or two, it occurred to me that if I were to lose either or both of my parents, I would be alright. After all, I had a job and was paying my own bills, and that was all there really was to being an adult, right?

A few failures and heartbreaks later, I realized just how wrong I’d been. Being an adult is so much more than knowing how to take care of yourself. It is also knowing how to care for others and the world we share, and making the decision to do so over and over again, even when it isn’t easy. This is one of the many things I learned from my mother.

A decade or so later I’d begun to worry about what it would feel like to lose my mother. In times of stress or moments of victory, she was the person I wanted to share my successes and failures with. She was always delighted to hear from me. She supported all my endeavors. She shared my vision. She would say things to me like, “I want more of your voice in the world.” With her loving-kindness and devoted attention, my mother held a mirror up to my life that reflected back the best of who I could be, and did not dwell on my obvious shortcomings. Driving home after a week with Mom and Dad over the holidays, Kerry would sometimes need to remind me that I wasn’t entirely the person my mom thought I was.

None of us are entirely the person we wish we could be, but we all need people who decide to keep showing us the best of what we still might be. For me, that person was my mother and I now know that she was that person for many of you as well.

Many people mistook this quality of my mother’s for sweetness or naiveté. It was not. Mom had lived through enough in her lifetime that she had every right to be jaded. No one could have blamed her if she’d decided to lower her expectations for the world. She could be petty or jealous or insecure or angry like any of us. What we experienced as her reflexive instinct for love and loyalty wasn’t some miraculous gift. It was a quality she cultivated, practiced, and chose, over and over again.

One of the elements of Mom’s personality that made this possible was her humility. She was a working-class, Irish Catholic girl born in Boston the 1940s. School didn’t come easy. She didn’t grow up hearing how smart she was and, as a result, she always assumed she had something to learn from everyone she met. People sensed this about her, that she wasn’t condescending to them or looking down her nose at them. She knew what it was to be underestimated, and as a result she had a special love for those the world counts out.

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She ended up with two children who numbered among those the world counts out. A gay son and a developmentally delayed daughter. And heaven help you if you ever came for one of her children. Then you saw how tough she could be. But still, Mom’s toughness wasn’t what the world calls tough. Mom’s toughness was a refusal to remain silent about the violence carried out against the bodies and souls of children, children from all walks of life, vulnerable children like her own children, vulnerable like she had also been. Mom’s toughness was a doubling down on the power of relationships. She would enter the fray equipped with pictures of me and Tara and say, “I’ve heard what you say about gay people,” or “I understand you intend to cut funding to people living with disabilities and chronic illnesses,” and then “I’d like to tell you about my family.” Mom refused to return violence for violence. Instead, Mom opted for the love that does not give up on anyone, even those who have given up on you, or those who have given up on themselves.

Mom did not give up. Even when she learned that she had Stage 4 ovarian cancer, she chose to continue living, each day of her life a decision to be fully alive on her own terms. One of the first things she told us after she got diagnosed was that she didn’t want people to talk about “fighting” cancer, or “beating” cancer. She said, “my body is not a battlefield” and “if this is how I die, it will not be a failure.” She actively pursued healing and health. Even in her last days of life as she lay upon her deathbed, we marveled at how she extended her arms and legs, stretching her aching body like a dancer preparing to take the stage.

IMG_1184.jpgIt’s only been three days, and already I miss her so much. I miss the feeling of her arms around me, giving the hugs only your mom knows how to give. And I miss her voice. It’s been years since I’ve heard her voice at full strength, a voice that was at once pure in tone and full of emotion. Even as she grew weak, the music in my mother remained strong. She would go for walks in the morning, and by afternoon I’d have a voicemail or text message with an audio file of a song that had come to her as she traveled the paths around our home. She was made of music. The world needs more of her voice.

Thankfully, the world is full of people she taught to sing: infants and children in Kindermusik, fellow choir members, labyrinth walkers, Spirations sisters, neighbors and strangers, family and friends. Her song, her voice, is in us. We can cultivate it. We can practice it. We can choose it again and again. It is love, stronger than death. 

We love you, Mom.

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Messages

Resolved: A New Year

IMG_0048There it is, sitting open on the dining room table. The 2018 planner, with its blank pages and silent promise that this may be the year when I finally … what? What is it that I hope will slip in and replace this sense of fragile, tentative expectation?

I wonder if it might be accountability.

New Year’s Day creates a moment for reflection on the patterns and habits that, over time, shape our lives into whatever they are. From the Earth’s point of view, it’s just another day, another twenty-four hour rotation. From the sun’s point of view, it’s the end of one earthly cosmic circuit and the beginning of a new one. Our planet’s steady wobble creates the periodic rhythm of seasons that help us track the course of each year, reminding us that we, too, will grow up, bear fruit, shed our leaves, and eventually rest with our ancestors in the ground.

Having firmly entered middle age, I’m newly aware that my life is not infinite. My time feels measured in ways both mysterious and urgent. I want to make something of myself, to use the time given to me wisely and powerfully, to make a difference, to leave something of value behind. I sense that there is another iteration of me lying just under the surface of my present life better equipped to meet the challenges of this broken and tragic world, and my blank planner is the outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible commitment to become that person.

This is the sentiment that gives rise to the ritual of making resolutions, and today is the day for doing just that. Yet, having lived through a few New Year’s Days already, we are all a bit suspicious and weary of resolutions. We remember too easily our stalled efforts and abandoned commitments. Perhaps we compensate by setting our sights just a little lower with each passing year, or by abandoning the ritual of making resolutions altogether. While that may be acceptable in a specific sense (we can surely make allowances for those who refuse to follow the crowd), what would it mean to live a life devoid of goals? What happens when we abandon any sense of agency to set and pursue a direction for our lives, our families and communities?

My suspicion is that the the sense of futility that haunts our efforts at reform is directly connected to the spirituality of individualism and the myth of willpower that props it up. As an undergraduate psychology major, I remember being surprised to discover that “willpower” was not a readily verifiable aspect of human personality. If willpower is measured by the ability to make significant changes in one’s life, then it runs counter to all the evidence that the single most important factor in making real and lasting change is the support of another human being to whom we make ourselves accountable. In one memorable study, a pool of heart attack survivors whose lives depended on their ability to make major changes to their diet and exercise regimens were split into two groups for observation. The first group was given clear information about the changes needed to improve health and prolong life. The second group was given the same information, and was also supported in identifying and recruiting another person to whom they would be accountable for making these changes. The results were dramatic. A year later, those who’d been given nothing but information had not made the necessary changes to their lives. Those who’d established relationships of accountability had made real gains toward recovering their health. Though willpower failed, relationships prevailed.

What does this teach us about what is needed in this present moment, in which it seems the whole world has suffered a heart attack? A moment in which the necessity of change is a matter of existential survival for the planet, and a test of moral credibility for institutions like the church that have for too long been silent about, and therefore complicit with, the unjust arrangements of power that have kept great swaths of humanity shackled in poverty and dependent upon untrustworthy actors. It teaches us that we need more than information. I believe it suggests that the time has come once again, as it does each and every morning, for us to make new resolutions — but now to make them together.

This is what I appreciate about community organizing. It begins with the assumption that we are all longing for change in our lives and in the life of the world around us. Furthermore, it does not blame us for failing to effect these changes on our own. Instead, it correctly diagnoses the issue — we lack the power to make these changes alone and, therefore, need one another. Where the spirituality of individualism with its myth of willpower blames and mocks us for what we fail to accomplish by ourselves, the spirituality of organizing assumes that we were always intended to arrive at God’s preferred future together. Therefore, it offers a process by which we can do so through deep investment in one another’s lives, solidarity with one another’s dreams, and collective action for the common good.

This is also why I find worship so nourishing. In worship I am reminded that my life is not my own, that we all belong to one another. I regularly name the ways that my life fails to conform to the image of God within me, and hear a word of forgiveness that frees me from self-hatred and useless guilt so that I can resume the work of building the beloved community of God here and now with other, similarly liberated people. Over and over again I am reminded that I exist as part of “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” (1 Peter 2:9) All of us in this together.

Science backs up what we intuit from our participation in worship as well. In his work on gratitude and self-control, Northeastern University professor David DeSteno has found that where individual strategies of change (let’s call them attempts at “willpower”) create body damaging side effects connected to the release of stress hormones, the intentional cultivation of gratitude in relationship to one another seems to generate higher levels of self-control while lowering blood pressure and reducing anxiety and depression. Our ability to act together may, in fact, be what saves our lives.

The lesson I take from these findings is this: that the sense of urgency I feel on this particular day of the year to do something new, something better, something effective, powerful and lasting will quickly dissipate unless I find a way to do it with others. This means the resolutions I make need to make space for the resolutions you may be making as well, which means we each need to hear one another’s stories of resolve. I need you to understand what I am trying to do with my “one wild and precious life” (to quote Mary Oliver), and I need to understand the same from you. These goals won’t make much sense unless we understand the paths that led each of us from our various pasts to this fresh moment in which, once again, everything is possible.

So let this be one of the handful of commitments we make today: to share our resolutions with each other, and then to ask the other,

“Why are you making this resolution?”

“What is at stake for you in this commitment?”

“What will happen if you fail to make this change?”

And, most importantly of all, “How can I help you keep this resolution?”

Happy New Year,

Pastor Erik Christensen

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:17-18)

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Messages

LSEA Awarded “Community of the Cross” Award by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

The following remarks were offered by the Rev. Erik Christensen on behalf of the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance (LSEA) on the occassion of being awarded the “Community of the Cross” award by the faculty of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago (LSTC) at their commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 21, 2017.


Thank you, President Nieman, and thank you to the faculty of LSTC for bestowing the “Community of the Cross” award on the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance in recognition of our efforts to live out the call of the gospel for the sake of our neighbors, to witness publicly to God’s liberating power and proclaim the repentance and forgiveness that is our mutual inheritance in Christ Jesus. (Luke 24:47-48)

It is an honor to receive this award, particularly on a day when we are celebrating the commencement of a next chapter in the ministries that will be led by those graduating today — ministries of Word and Sacrament, Word and Service; ministries of scholarship and education, of justice and advocacy; baptismal vocations, all, and all needed in our world, which is so terribly wounded and divided.

I would like to share just a few words about how the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance came into being, in the hope that this story might somehow serve today’s graduates.

Like many Chicago neighborhoods, Logan Square is a community divided along deeply entrenched lines. It is divided by race and class, by income and ethnicity. It is divided between those who have lived there for generations and whose families are being pushed out, and those who have recently arrived and are trying to make a new home for themselves. It is divided by language and immigration status, and by the prejudices and presumptions people make about one another on the basis of their skin tones and names and accents.

Sadly, it is also divided by religious identity, and nowhere is that division seen more clearly than in the great chasms between the various congregations who all name themselves Christians.

When the Logan Square Ecumenical Alliance was being formed just over seven years ago, it was not because our congregations had a desire to worship together. In fact, I think we all suspect that if the initial invitation had been to come together for worship, we might never have gathered at all. Of all the things that divide the body of Christ (and, for that matter, the ELCA), our habit of mistaking comfort for culture and preference for praxis has got to be one of the most embarrassing. So worship, which we might assume — or at least hope — would serve as the starting point for our ecumenical witness, is often times in reality its greatest barrier.

Instead, what drew us together was our commonly held vision for the neighborhood we shared, for the people of our separate congregations who were living side-by-side, and our conviction that faith in Jesus Christ calls us to leave our sanctuaries and join the struggles taking place in our streets — not as a demonstration of self-righteousness, but as an act of solidarity, an acknowledgement of our shared humanity, and an outpouring of love which (to quote the Rev. Dr. Cornel West) when made public, looks like justice.

So, over the years, whether our work has been directed toward the scandal of the $480 million dollars of federal housing funds the city of Chicago is sitting on as it flips public housing land into market rate developments; or the loopholes in Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance that allow the police to co-operate with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in detaining and deporting members of our communities; or calling for a new police contract that makes it possible for us to hold the Chicago Police Department accountable for its deeds and misdeeds as we labor for civilian oversight over those charged with protecting and serving Black and Brown lives to the same standard and with the same care White people take for granted; this work is rooted in love — love for one another made possible by the love we have first known from God through Christ Jesus.

And here’s the thing that gives me such hope. As we have done this work together, it has been our experience that the lesser issues of comfort and preference have largely resolved themselves, and the more important issues of culture and praxis have become for us opportunities to know each other in new and important ways, so that now we are glad to worship together and, in fact we look forward to it, because we have gotten a foretaste of the feast to come and we therefore cannot wait to join each other at the banquet.

May the ministries inaugurated on this day prove as great a blessing to each of you as our joint ministry has been to each of us. May you find common cause with the people of those other dwelling places where God’s people gather. May your labor for justice come from the place of love. We’ll be watching for you at the banquet.

Thank you.

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