What does “Systemic Racism” mean?

In a discussion on the topic of “Systemic Racism,” someone asked for a definition. Too many people hear this phrase and have no idea what it actually means. I offer this as my attempt to help bring about greater understanding as a basis for this essential dialogue.


A system, at its most basic, is the way something is organized and its behavior is determined. I offer these examples to demonstrate:


A system on a written page of music

“A vertical line drawn to the left of multiple staves creates a system, indicating that the music on all the staves is to be played simultaneously.” – Wikipedia

Systems are one part of how music is organized to insure that it can be played by musicians once the composer has finished writing the piece.


The water and sewer pipes in a home are connected in a system that allows for fresh water to be delivered to faucets, etc.; and dirty water to be delivered to a sewage treatment system.


A military unit has a “Chain of Command” that is its system for organizing a unit (group of individuals) to work together to accomplish a single goal or mission.


Nations have a system of government to organize the collective society and culture. America’s system of government is a “Representative Democracy.” Citizens of the nation are elected by the population to represent them in decision making processes that are governed by a set of specified rules.


Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered there is a system to organize their behavior. The system may be well defined or or simply organic in nature. There may be specified rules for their collective activities or the group members may fall into roles by virtue of their individual strengths and abilities. These systems typically have method for making decisions and carrying them out.

  1. Three friends decide to get together for coffee: decisions need to be made concerning where, when, how, and who. How those decisions are made is usually not governed by a specific set of rules, but organic roles into which the individuals fall.
  2. A community wants to organize itself into an incorporated town. They must determine policies and procedures for making decisions and conducting the business of the organization.
  3. A family wants to incorporate it’s business into an LLC. There are specific rules which the family group must follow in order to complete the task of incorporation and by which they must operate to continue to qualify for LLC status.
  4. Religions are organized by theological norms to which their adherents adhere.


Too often when the terms “Racism” or “Racist” are used the range of understanding among the group listening varies widely. For some racism is academic while others understand racism from bone deep personal experience.

In my years studying at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, IA, I was blessed to be able to attend a “Racism Workshop” led by C.T. Vivian. That experience had a profound effect on me. I learned that “racism” is not necessarily about hating someone with a different skin color, or nationality, or language, but about ways in which power is exercised by an individual or group of people. Don’t get me wrong, far too often hatred is part of racism as a micro-reality, but you don’t have to “hate” any specific racial group to be an active participant in and benefit from racially biased systems. Or, “Systemic Racism.”

I remember the moment at which it started to click for me. C.T. Vivian played a recording of a very dramatic reading. It was powerful and moving, about a man struggling to meet the basic needs of his family in a world that seemed all too eager to crush him underfoot.

Following the recording he asked us, “Who is the man in that recording?”

My classmates gave answers like, “He’s everyman.” “He’s the embodiment of the human struggle in a hostile world.” Some really cool answers. Profound even, maybe. But the entire time I was listening to the recording I was sure I recognized the voice.

Finally, I raised my hand and responded, “It sounds to me like the actor who played Rizzo in M*A*S*H.” He looked at me with a slight smile and without a word moved on to the next part of the workshop.

I have reflected on that experience often over the past 34 years of my ministry. I’m still not completely sure what our class was intended to gain from that exercise, but what it taught me was to see each person for who they are. The color of a person’s skin does not define a person in any other way than that they have a specific skin color. I don’t mean that race and culture mean nothing, but I cannot presume to know the reality of a person simply by observing their racial physical traits.

I believe the lesson he was trying to convey is the same one Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us when he said,

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

It is imperative that we white people begin to see each person for WHO they are rather than WHAT they look like. To value each one for the gift they were created to be, not the stereotype by which bigotry and fear have defined them.

How is this SYSTEMIC Racism?

The most blatant example is the American financial system, which is the foundation of all matters of life in our nation. For instance, school funding processes. Property tax is used to generate revenue to fund the education within each school district.

A Hypothetical Example (which is not far from reality):

School district A is located in the inner city. Its students are primarily Black and Latino who live in apartment buildings within the school district. Because of the level of property tax support, the school is unable to purchase new books, new computers, new anything. And the primary deficiency is in technology with internet bandwidth. Plus, many of the students do not have the capability to use the internet at home. Because of this deficiency the students are limited in their ability to access the amazing collection of knowledge, research, information that fills the internet. And that creates a very high hurdle for those students to achieve a better life for themselves and their families.

School district B is located a few miles away in an affluent suburb. Its students are primarily white who live in single family homes in gated communities. Because of high property values the school is able to buy new books, new computers, keep up with the fast paced developments in technology. The school has fiber optic access to the internet with high bandwidth. In addition, the students has fast internet access at home to be able to take advantage of all that the internet has to offer.

That is the way the system works. It is a system that, by design, gives greater privilege to white students in affluent communities. It is a system that was created by elected white officials a long time ago that perpetuates itself daily and into the future. The system itself is just a system, what makes it a “Racist” system is that it is supported and defended by a white majority and it provides advantages to white students and disadvantages to Black and Latino students. And that is systemic racism.

Another Example (which is reality)

The Oglala Sioux live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. They were forced to live there by the U.S. Federal Government as determined in the Indian Appropriations Acts of 1851, 1871, and 1889 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Appropriations_Act. The decision was made by white people where their tribe should live, and it happens to be the least fertile, desolate region of the country the white people could find.

The Oglala Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation is governed by the same financial system mentioned earlier. And a good example of how it impacts the lives of tribal members is attempting to qualify for a home loan. The items of reference and credit available to most white people are not available for tribal members, making it nearly impossible to establish a credit rating. Having a good credit rating is fundamental to qualifying for a loan. The system of mortgage lending was designed by white people, taking into account the needs and resources available to white people. The system assumes that all mortgage applicants live under the same set of rights, privileges, and opportunities. Which is not the case. And that is systemic racism.

A Political Example (From the State of Iowa in which I live)

Iowa House File 802 which went into effect July 1, 2021 from the Des Moines Register:

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a new law that she said will target the teaching of critical race theory and other concepts in government diversity trainings and classroom curriculum.

“Critical Race Theory is about labels and stereotypes, not education. It teaches kids that we should judge others based on race, gender or sexual identity, rather than the content of someone’s character,” Reynolds said in a statement. “I am proud to have worked with the legislature to promote learning, not discriminatory indoctrination.” 

Critical race theory, a decades-old legal theory that examines how slavery’s legacy continues to influence American society, is not specifically named in the new legislation. But the law would ban teaching certain concepts, such as that the U.S. or Iowa is systemically racist. 

Click to access HF802.pdf

Essentially the Iowa State House of Representatives (whose majority racially is white) passed a law saying,

“We are not racist, and you can’t say that we are.”

This is a governmental entity run by white people, dominated by white people, making laws restricting freedom of speech and public sharing of information to the advantage of white people and the detriment of racial minorities in our state. And just for good measure, they also declared that you cannot say the United States is systemically racist.

A system is racist when it is:

  • Created by members of a specific racial group
  • Fundamentally follows norms determined by that same racial group
  • Displays a distinct preference for members of that same racial group
  • Any change of which is prevented by processes designed by that same racial group
  • Continually renews and strengthens the power and privilege afforded that same racial group

The problem really is that too many white people are comfortable with the system the way it always has been and see no need to change. This willful ignorance and blindness is at the heart of systemic racism in America.


An example of White Privilege

This one is going to be short.

Recently in a discussion about Black Lives Matter and the civil unrest …

(I won’t call them riots, because they have a purpose and a message. And even though there are some that take the opportunity to loot and cause destruction, the foundation of these protests is justice and equity in the power structure of our country.)

a friend made the remark,

NOTE: When I say friend, I mean FRIEND. a person I love and deeply respect. I cherish our friendship and believe him to be a good and godly man, servant of Christ, Pastor of the Church, a man to be emulated in his words and deeds. Which is also why it is extremely important to offer a loving correction to his mistaken perception and cultural bias. My friend has an adopted daughter who is black, and and a son who is a police officer, so he has a vested interest in this cultural struggle.

“The real problem is black on black violence, look at Chicago.”

I missed the opportunity to correct that idea because my mind was focused on something else entirely. But it has bothered me that I did miss it.

This comment is an example of White Privilege for 3 reasons. And I know this will sound harsh and judgmental, but until we (white people) can begin to see that the comments we (white people) hear every day and accept without question are “racist”, we cannot make any progress in addressing this very serious evil amongst us.

First: The person making the comment was a white male in his 70’s who lives in a very nice house, in a very white town in Iowa, in a very safe white neighborhood. That is the privilege in which many white people find themselves. Safe and secure in their enclaves where they have no fear of dialing 911 because they know the police will respond swiftly to any trouble they may face.

Second: He presumed to have the right to look at the black community in Chicago, from the safety of his home, and judge and criticize “them.” It is a subtle way of blaming black Americans for the problems they face. It is founded in ignorance, which is in itself a privilege of whites in America.

Third: This comment is intended to absolve the speaker of any responsibility for the mess in which we find ourselves today. It is the privilege of the group in power to wash their hands of any wrongdoing because they don’t believe that they personally have had any part in causing the problem, and can point to some concrete evidence of their lack of complicity.

I write this with the intent of helping to educate friends and strangers alike to the realities of White Privilege to which we are blind. That blindness is way too often due to miscomprehension, which I freely admit is one of my own failings. But in Christ-like love for my neighbor, I will not allow that miscomprehension to be willful, and strive to do my best to help root out that miscomprehension in others.


As I Understand It: Racism, White Privilege, and White Supremacy

I have talked with many white friends who are angry with the Black Lives Matter movement. They generally think of themselves as good people, and feel that BLM is an attack on them personally.

But the real problem is that few of my white friends have even taken the time to research BLM, and the motivation behind it. The Holy Spirit has been needling me to do or say something about this problem. I have no illusions that I am the expert on the subject, and if some of my Black sisters and brothers would offer me some creative criticism, I would appreciate it. Please remember I am a 59 year old white pastor trying to bring understanding to an issue that is impossible for me to experience first hand, but I’m trying.

Racism, White Privilege, and White Supremacy are right before our eyes. We see it every day the murder of George Floyd, or Breonna Taylor, or #SayTheirNames too many others whose deaths go ignored. If you haven’t viewed the many sites that list names of Black Americans who have keen killed, then you need to. Because failing to care enough to take this problem seriously, saying

“It’s their problem not mine.”

is the quintessential example of Racism, White Privilege, and White Supremacy.

Here are some sites to look at:



And that is what Black Lives Matter is all about. The fact that Black Americans, our sisters and brothers, are shot to death and the majority of white Americans act as though it’s simply another day in the life and death of “those people.”

The words of a black mother haunt me, she said, “Every time my son walks out the door I fear he will be shot just because he is black.” I cannot understand what that must feel like, because I live in a quiet Iowa town I have no cause to fear when my daughter announces she is leaving the house, other than the things every parent, no matter the color of their skin, worries about.

And that, my friends is White Privilege.

I live a privileged life free from the fear that my child will die needlessly and senselessly at the drop of a hat. Like 17 year old Trayvon Martin who was shot to death by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012 because Zimmerman saw the color of his skin and automatically assumed he didn’t belong in the exclusive gated community where he was patrolling as part of the Neighborhood Watch. The chances of that ever happening to my child are so low as to be nil.

Because of the color of her skin, and BTW she is adopted from China, she can go wherever she wants and feel safe doing so (although one kid on the bus told her to “Go back where you came from.”) And I am assured of her safety and go through my day without fear. And that is my White Privilege. The color of my skin assures me of my daughter’s safety and my peace of mind.

And I take it for granted.

You may say, “If the neighborhood in which they live is so dangerous, why don’t they move somewhere else?” That may seem like a logical and simple question, and to us white people an easy solution. But that question is a very racist question. Yeah, I know you’re angry because I just called you racist and you vehemently deny that you are racist. So, let me ask you some questions:

  1. Where would “they” be welcome? Next door to you? And if you feel even the least bit uncomfortable with that question, ask yourself why?
  2. Would “they” even be able to buy a house in your neighborhood? Would the bank lend the money? Would the realtor show the house?
  3. Why should “they” have to be refugees in their own country? The fact that white people can so carelessly talk about black people uprooting their families and moving to a new community where “they” will likely be viewed with suspicion and their children experience hatred and bigotry?
  4. Why do you think of Black and Brown Americans as “they” in contrast to “us” white people? And yes, I know that’s not what you intend. However, that is what the listener/reader perceives.

White Supremacy is another term being used that is either not understood at all by white Americans, or misunderstood as referring primarily to Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist radical groups. While that is true, White Supremacy is the fundamental understanding that supports and encourages white privilege.

It is a philosophy that undergirds all aspects of American culture, the idea that by virtue of being white we deserve to be on top. We deserve to be rich, and live in gated communities, and always be at the front of the line. We deserve, because we are white, to run the country because “they” aren’t as smart as we are. The concept that white people are just plain better than anyone else.

When you hear a black or brown person speaking in a voice, or accent, or verbal syntax different from we were taught in school, do assume that it is because “they” aren’t as smart, or educated as “we” are? How many people were confounded by President Obama’s manner of speaking? Did you ever think, “He sounds too intelligent, well reasoned, and eloquent to be a Black man?” Because, “we” assume intelligence, reason, and eloquence are reserved for white people.

I know you, my friends and readers, don’t think that way. Because you have convinced yourself, “I’m not racist.” So, let me give you an example:

In his interview with Laura Ingraham, Trump stated that Democrats are “trying to destroy the suburbs,” he said. “They want low-income housing, and with that comes a lot of other problems, including crime.”

When you read the phrase “low-income housing” what was the first image that came into your mind? Was it of black or brown people living in low-income housing? Be honest. I mean really be honest. Because the white supremacist culture in which we live has conditioned us to believe that. Good hard working white people live in the suburbs because they deserve to live in the suburbs, and black and brown people live in the inner city where “they” belong. It’s the way the world works, that’s just the way it is.

WRONG! That’s the way white Americans have created the system to work, to our advantage. And that is systemic racism, white privilege, and white supremacy all rolled up in one false claim.

White supremacy, white privilege and racism are the motivating factors behind President Trump’s WALL. “I’ll build the wall and Mexico will pay for it.” And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

So, as a white man, why does this matter to me? Because my life is dedicated to serving Jesus Christ my LORD.

Matthew 25:31-45

The Judgement of the Nations

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” 

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

Jesus instructs us to treat each person we meet as though she/he is Jesus himself. And I teach confirmation students to Christ in others. And by the way Jesus did not have blonde hair, or blue eyes, or white skin as in so many of the pictures that hang on our walls. He looked more like this:

Jesus Christ's REAL Face Has Been Discovered - British Scientists Claim -  Information Nigeria

Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from the University of Manchester in England used the science of Forensic Anthropology to create this image of what Jesus might have looked like. He was of Hebrew descent, living in or around Jerusalem in the first century. Compare this image with the ones we have grown up with and see hanging in our churches and on our walls.

And so you may ask, “when was it that we saw Jesus hurt, or hungry, or thirsty, or in danger, and did not help him?”

And the King will answer, “When George Floyd was murdered and it was just another tragic story on the news. Or when Breonna Taylor died because police shot indiscriminately through the walls of her home and you were not outraged at her senseless death. Or when you demand good schools for your children and ignore the horrible conditions of schools in the inner city. And on and on and on.”

Oh, BTW, school funding is another sign of our racist system. White people have set it up so that rich white people’s taxes go to fund wonderful schools for their privileged children, while inner city schools are funded by the taxes paid by those who live in the inner city.

White privilege is real! White supremacy is real! Racism is real! Yet white people refuse to believe it or admit it, we like to think of ourselves as good people. We couldn’t possibly be complicit in the kind of heinous activity as racism. White privilege? Bah, we worked hard for what we have, we deserve everything we have earned.

It’s way past time we stop trying to fool ourselves. And sincere confession and repentance is long overdue. In our traditional Lutheran liturgy we make confess of our sins with the following:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

White Supremacy, White Privilege, and Racism are sins that pervade our nation: our culture, our financial system, our political system, our educational system. To deny that is to “deceive ourselves” and continue living a lie. Because good people abhor injustice no matter whom it is aimed at. Justice for Just Us is not Justice for anyone.

Again, as a white man, why does this matter to me? Because in Lutheran Confirmation Class I learned that as someone who is baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God is calling me to work to make the world into the place God intended it to be from the beginning. And as one who worships every Sunday, and prays the Lord’s Prayer multiple times each week, I know that when I pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven” that is not an idle request, but a call to action.

When I was confirmed in the Lutheran church in June of 1975, I was asked to make certain promises:

Brothers and sisters in Christ: In Holy Baptism our Lord Jesus Christ received you and made you members of his Church. In the community of God’s people, you have learned from his Word God’s loving purpose for you and all creation. You have been [nourished at his holy table and] called to be witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, therefore, I ask you to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, reject sin, and confess the faith of the Church, the faith in which we baptize.

Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?

And I responded: I do. Before God, my church, my family, my friends, and my grandmothers who were also my baptism sponsors.

You have made public profession of your faith. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in Holy Baptism:

to live among God’s faithful people,

to hear his Word and share in his supper,

to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,

to serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus,

and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?

And I responded: I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.

So you see, I made a vow before God and everyone I hold dear “to serve all people, following the example of our Lord Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” And my conscience is bound to that vow. Please do not think it arrogant of me to quote Martin Luther at this point, but his words echo through my soul.

“it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me! Amen.”

In case an appeal to righteousness before God and faith in Christ don’t motivate you, here are a few reminders of what America stands for:

Our pledge of Allegiance ends, “… with liberty and justice for ALL.”

From the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Racism is an affront to everything America claims to stand for. It dishonors the flag, is an insult to those who gave their lives to insure the freedoms we cherish, and is a disease that eats at the heart of the Constitution upon which our nation is founded. It is an attack on every aspect of the lives of Americans. Not “their” lives. American lives. Lives that matter to “us.” Because as a nation our fundamental character is defined by these words:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

In case you don’t recognize those words, they are the preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America.

To me, that’s what it means when I say Black Lives Matter.

“Do not be afraid”

It is estimated that there are 365 times that the words “Do not be afraid” or their equivalent appear in the Bible. The significance of this is that there are 365 days in the year, that translates into God telling us every day not to be afraid.

Why is that important? Because fear is one of the most powerful emotions that motivates people to do stuff, and (in my experience) when you act according to the fearful voice in your head you most often do or say things that you regret later.

Now, you have probably heard people (especially tough guy men) say, “I’m not afraid of anything.” Because they consider fear to be shameful, which is funny, because shame is the fear of what others might think of you. So we claim to be unafraid because we are afraid of being shamed for being afraid.

But fear is a natural part of how our brains react to the world. Let me stop here and define the word fear.

Fear is not necessarily terror. Fear is the heightened state of awareness we experience when our brains perceive something odd. For instance if you walk into your bedroom and notice that some of your stuff has been moved. Your brain senses that something has changed and you scan the room to determine what that is, only to discover that Mama has piled your clean clothes on the chair for you to put away.

It’s not a big deal, but it is a natural process through which your brain continually scans your sensory input to determine if something is wrong. If you smell a strange smell or hear a strange noise, it is natural for you to suddenly become alert to what’s going on around you to determine if there is danger or not. These are simple examples of the kind of thing we experience every day.

But the same thing happens when we perceive real danger such as lions, and tigers, and bear, “Oh my!” Things that truly threaten our survival cause an even more powerful response from the brain which then motivates us to a fight or flight reaction. We either perceive the danger as something we can confront and subdue or defeat, or something from which we must flee.

For instance, a bad smell in the house could be a sewer problem that could easily be addressed (fight) with a plunger for a weapon. But the smell of gas motivates us to leave (flight) the house and call the gas company to deal with the problem. And through experience and education we learn to interpret the difference between the two.

The part of the brain that processes this information is called the Amygdala which interprets what the eyes and nose perceive and if it’s danger we face, it sends a signal to the Sympathetic Nervous System. At which point the hypothalamus triggers the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (aka adrenaline) which acts like the accelerator of a car being pushed down hard sending us surging into action to deal with the situation.

(For more information please see https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response )

This is all part of our natural survival instinct, it serves us well to keep us alive and out of danger. So, fear is a good thing when we understand it and learn how to react properly to the experiences of our daily lives.

But fear can also be a dangerous thing in itself. When we misinterpret what our senses perceive we can easily be forced into a course of action that is not to our benefit. One of those things is knowing whom to believe, whom to trust, and discerning the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. The way we determine those things is based on our experiences in life, what we have learned from our parents and teachers, and the source(s) we look to for helping us understand what is true.

An example of the problem: You see a stranger, someone you do not know, and they are coming toward you. How do you react? Do you trust them?

Things your eyes will see and send to your brain to be processed and interpreted include: Age, gender, race, clothing, the sound of their voice, the expression on their face, the speed at which they approach, and many more things about this person all add to the amount of information upon which you will make the determination of whether this person is a threat or not.

Then there are things about your own context that also add to the pool of facts you have at your disposal. Are you alone? at home? can you shut a door between you? Are you in a strange country, or city? Do you know the language and customs? Are you in a public place with others around? Do you have a route you can easily take if you need to run? Do you have transportation? Have you just robbed a bank?

There are so many things to consider, so many things to fear. But here is the truth that will define your life. if you allow your life to be ruled by fear you will never experience the fullness of life you were created for. Don’t let the fear of what might happen prevent you from knowing the joy of the adventure we call life. Be willing to put yourself and your skills and talents before the world, some may be critical and mean, but from what I’ve seen of you over the past 13 years you have so much to offer, and you will make a tremendous difference in the world. You are a gift and the world is blessed to have you in it. Be the most awesome you you can be and you will change the world.

I love you.

Annababa. 🙂

Letters to Anna.

I started this blog a few years ago, and have been foundering. I struggle with what to write and how to write it, because I don’t know my audience. As a preacher, teacher, spiritual leader I have always considered the context of my words to be extremely important. And the audience to whom I write is probably the most important part of that context. Jesus used the symbolism of farming, sheep herding, and fishing because he was speaking to farmers, shepherds, fishermen. And many of those images make little or no sense to 21st Century people because too many of us only know that our food comes from the grocery store, or GrubHub/Uber Eats/other delivery services.

So, I have decided to write with only one person in mind: Anna. And I invite everyone and anyone to eavesdrop on our conversation. I hope this will help me to be more prolific in my writing, as there is so much I want Anna to know about the world, me, and the faith by which I live.


Belonging 2: Where Is Your Hogwarts?

I have struggled with belonging what seems like my whole life. Never truly feeling like I was accepted for who I am. Always feeling like I needed to change in order to conform to the widely divergent expectations of others. I have always felt like an outsider looking in on life.

I think that is partly because of the way my brain is wired. In 1983 I took the Graduate Record Exam. It is a test similar to the SAT or ACT, but it is for people applying to graduate school (I was applying to seminary for my Master of Divinity). There was a logic portion of the test back then and I scored a 98, meaning I scored better than 98% of those who were taking the GRE back then. It means I have a highly analytical brain, which is why things like math and music come easily to me.

Plato quotes Socrates as teaching, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The problem with my brain is that I tend to examine my life too much. There are many days when I wish I could shut my brain off and just be. Since I like to analyze everything, I have many description for how my brain works. Here’s one: As a boy I had one of those Hotwheels race tracks that had a set of spinning wheels that sent a car careening toward a banked turn on an oval track. Every time the car came back around and hit those wheels again it would go screaming forward nearly flying off the track. Then it would complete the oval and do it all over again.

For those of you who know someone who has a clinical diagnosis of depression, this is also how I would describe my experience of ruminating. My mind gets stuck in a loop of negative self-criticism. “Why did I …?” “If only ….” “I shoulda, coulda, woulda, oughta, ….” On, and on, and on careening around an oval track being constantly reignited every time I come around to those spinning wheels again. The problem with an oval, it’s like a circle with no beginning and no end. Except the beginning often happens when I wake up at 2:30 in the morning and start pacing the floor going over and over a conversation or action of the previous day or month or year or decade. Yes, I sometimes ruminate about mistakes I made decades in the past.

If you want to understand ADHD, there is a great book titled, “Driven to Distraction” by Edward Hallowell and John Ratey published in 1994. I’m sure there are others that are newer, but that was the one that caused the lightbulb to go on for me.

“And now back to our regularly scheduled program.”

It is hard to develop a feeling of belonging when you constantly have to tell your brain to “Shut up!” because it is going off on tangents that wouldn’t make sense to HEY LOOK! A SQUIREL!

In “The gift of Imperfection” 2010, Dr. Brene Brown describes belonging in this way:

“Belonging is the innate human desire to be a part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic imperfect selves to the world. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

Fitting in is what I have had to do most of my life. And I have a feeling the majority of you reading this would agree with that. I see people yearning to feel true belonging, but settling for just fitting in because that’s all they can hope to achieve. Things like Tattoos. I remember an episode of the TV show MASH where Radar O’Reilly wanted to get a tattoo so he wouldn’t be bullied by other soldiers. In the end he got a teddy bear on his butt, much to the disappointment of Hawkeye and B.J., only to reveal that it was only temporary.

Let me be clear. I am NOT criticizing people who get tattoos. But there are some who get them because they like body art and want to display their inner identity through amazing color and design on their skin. However, there are others who get tattoos because they yearn to be part of a group of people they admire, or think that by getting a tattoo they will be admired and accepted by others with tattoos.

Or, Harley Davidson. I continue to maintain my motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license for those occasions when I get the chance to ride someone’s bike. I like motorcycles. I like Harleys. But how many of the people that we see wearing Harley Davidson clothing have ever ridden a motorcycle? Or ever will? There are plenty who do, and I have had some marvelous conversations with them. Like the guy with the Hell’s Angels jacket I met at a wedding in Las Vegas. I was in my suit and clerical collar and we spent about an hour talking off to the side of the reception. He was an interesting person I will never forget. He loved delivering Toys for Tots on his Harley at Christmas.

But how many others wear the clothing because they want to be perceived as a Harley rider? And how many more go so far as to buy an actual Harley so they can take the fitting in illusion even farther.

It’s like all the people wearing clothing from that Arm Pit brand. People of all ages displaying the Arm Pit logo on their clothes because they want to fit in. Oh, my bad, I mean Under Armor. Years ago the cool fitting in clothes required the IZOD label. I met a young teen who paid $700.00 for a pair of shoes, which she is afraid to wear and get dirty, so she keeps them in a box in her closet hoping her parents won’t find them. Just for the emotional boost of being able to tell others that she owns them, and by owning them it makes her feel like she fits in. But fitting in is false belonging.

In “Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone” 2017, Dr. Brene Brown asked groups of 8th graders, “What is the difference between belonging and fitting in?” Their answers were very poignant:

“Belonging is being somewhere you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere you want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.”

“Belonging is being accepted for being you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else.”

“If I get to be me, I belong. If I have to be like you, I fit in.”

And the most sobering answer came when they talked about belonging at home:

One student wrote: “Not belonging at school is really hard, but it’s nothing compared to what it feels like when you don’t belong at home.” When Dr. Brown asked the students what that meant here’s some of the examples they used:

Not living up to their parents’ expectations.

Not being as cool or as popular as your parents want you to be.

Not being good at the same things your parents were good at.

Your parents being embarrassed because you don’t have enough friends or you’re not an athlete or a cheerleader.

Your parents not liking who you are and what you like to do.

When your parents don’t pay attention to your life.

When you don’t feel you belong in the world, at least you have a safe sanctuary where you can retreat from the world, relax, stop the worrying. That place we call home.

But when home is not safe, where do you turn? For Harry Potter it was Hogwarts/Gryffindor/Mrs. Weasley.

Other fictional characters have had their retreat/sanctuary/hidout/etc.:

For Frodo it was The Shire. Or Rivendell

For Batman, the Batcave.

For the Black Panther it’s Wakanda.

For Wonder Woman it’s Themyscira or Paradise Island.

Even superheroes need a place to call home where they can be themselves and feel safe. It is a fundamental basic human need to belong.

So, where can you be authentically you? Be safe and have a sense of true belonging?

Where is your Hogwarts?

Belonging: 1

4:51 a.m. Friday July 20, 2018

Sitting on the screen porch listening to the wind making music on our wind chimes and in the trees of our neighborhood. It’s dark, except for the light from my laptop and a few yard lights on the houses behind ours.

All around me people are still asleep preparing to begin a new day. Alarm clocks are set to go off and the frenzy of life is about to begin for another period of consciousness. Some dreams are playing out and some nightmares are coming to a welcomed end.

What will this day hold?

One of the most profound privileges of being a pastor of the church, is that I am blessed to be integrally connected to the lives of people for whom I care deeply. Some of them I have known for a very long time. Some of them I will never meet, never know their names, never even realize they exist. Yet we are connected in ways that transcend the mere external experiences of sight, sound, touch, and taste.

I excluded smell because, in the words of a man I only met through my mom’s stories, “I don’t smell so good.” I lost my sense of smell years ago. Mom had a friend named Dorothy who also had no olfactory sense, and her son used to say, “Yeah, my mom she don’t smell so good.”

I don’t recall ever meeting him, but through my mom’s frequent sharing of that quip whenever the mention of my disability came up, I get a smile on my face. That brief experience of inward laughter produces a slight spike in endorphins released into my blood stream and I feel a little bit better and more connected to the world in which I live.

I feel just a tinge of happiness.

The sky is beginning to lighten and traffic is picking up on the highway just to the north of our house. And so another day is in the offing. The events of this day will bring some to the peak of elation as expectations are met, hard work brings projects to completion, success is celebrated and hopes and dreams come to fruition. The events of this day will also bring some to their knees in grief and sorrow as expectations are smashed, hard work comes to naught, success is not achieved, and hopes and dreams are crushed under the weight of inexplicable circumstances.

I consider all these things, knowing that the day will be both boon and bane. I have expectations, hopes and dreams of my own for the day. I have plans. I have desires. I have needs and wants.

I also have fears and apprehensions. I have confidence and faith to counter those.

I am an optimist. I believe that I will finish this day’s race alive and healthy. I expect to receive hugs from my wife and daughter, speak on the phone with at least one friend, and spend time in prayer with people I love. I will read, drive, clean (it’s my day off and we are clearing out the basement after water got in a ruined a bunch of “stuff.”) I will go to my Dermatologist appointment and have spots Actinic Caratosis removed via freezing. It will hurt, but then that pain is a reminder that I am alive, I am privileged to live another day and experience all that the day holds in store for me.

I am blessed. Another smile (with its accompanying endorphins) as for some unknown reason memories of my grandmother flood my mind. I have a picture of her wearing my brown leather fedora that is both whimsical and gives me a deep sense of foundation upon which my life is built.

I have a major spiritual connection to my grandmothers. They were my baptismal sponsors and in many ways taught me the importance of the spiritual bond we have with one another. Grandma Olive (mom’s mom) was the one with which I had the privilege of worshiping whenever we visited. We would stay for the weekend and attend worship together at least once each month as I was growing up. I learned the value of faithfulness and commitment from her. When she was 70 years old, her church needed to hire a new secretary. She volunteered to fill in temporarily until they found a permanent secretary. On her 80th birthday she finally had to put her foot down and say that 10 years was enough.

Grandma Hannah (dad’s mom) taught me an important lesson in belonging through a very simply and humble witness to our shared identity as children of God. Grandma was as dependable as clockwork. My sister, brother, and received cards for our birthdays every year. In them was a small gift of money, the same year after year. My sister would get a card with $2.00. My brother would get a card with $2.00. And I, the youngest (by 10 and 8 years) got a card with $3.00. We each got $2.00 because we were her grandchildren, by my card held an extra $1.00 because I was also her godchild.

I’m not sure why these memories are flooding my mind as I write, except that I have been thinking a great deal about belonging lately. I peruse my Facebook feed each day and see the dramas of life played out in memes and posts, shares and comments, likes, smilies, emojis, hearts, laughs and cries. I read news that brings tears to my eyes as in the death of my friend Kim’s son, and joy to my heart in the adoption announcements of other friends. FB can be a rollercoaster, actually it is most days.

We will make it through this day together, because we belong to one another. We will share one another’s joys and sorrows, face to face or via social media. We will experience spikes of endorphins at the good, the happy, the joyful; which will strengthen and empower us to face the uncertain, the unknown and the temporary realization of our fears.

6:07 am July 20, 2018

My coffee cup is empty and it is time to get ready to do more basement cleaning. BTW, did I mention that I hate that job? But it does feel good when it is done.



I’ve been a pastor now for nearly 28 years. I’ve survived the “Worship Wars” and witnessed much of the upheaval that has taken place as “Christendom” has given away to whatever we call it now. I’ve read the books, listened to speakers, participated in conversations, discussions, debates, arguments, and am gearing up for the no holds barred Mime Wrestling Smackdown over worship styles.

Some background: I love to chant the liturgy, I also play guitar, electric bass, trumpet. I have played with praise teams, and polka bands for worship. I enjoy worship in all its fullness and diversity.

Really the answer is simple: It’s ….. wait for it ….

First a story about my maternal grandmother. She came into the world as a Methodist, and even though she spent the last 30+ years of her life worshiping at a Lutheran Church she was still at heart a Methodist. She frequently querried, “Why do Lutherans have to do the same thing every Sunday?” And she knew this because she was not only in worship EVERY Sunday; but, at age 70 when her Lutheran Church needed a secretary she volunteered to be the temporary secretary until they found a full time replacement. BTW, she retired from that position on her 80th birthday.

POINT #1: My grandmother worshiped every Sunday at a church whose liturgical worship style she didn’t particularly like.

At age 84 my grandmother moved from the little house across the street from the church to a Senior Living Apartment. It became harder for her to get there but she continued to attend worship every Sunday. The true revelation came after I was ordained and installed in my first call. Mom and grandma drove from Minnesota to southern Nebraska to visit me for a week and attended worship at the church I was serving. When I first told my grandmother I was going to become a Pastor she gave me one command, and only one: “You may sure to speak loud enough so that everyone can hear.”

After that one and only time my grandmother ever heard me preach, I was nervously standing at the back of the sanctuary greeting worshipers and waiting for my grandmother. When she came out, I asked the question that was foremost in my mind, “Did you like my sermon?” She smiled and replied, “I heard every word of it.” actually I spoke so loudly she even turned her hearing aid off and could still hear me.

She never said whether or not it was a good sermon. It took me the longest time to understand that interaction and what it really meant. And it was not until 27 years later that I finally understand the full significance of what she said. You see, she never even considered judging the sermon for content, delivery, effectiveness, style, or any of the metrics preachers and parishioners use to evaluate worship.  She went to worship every Sunday to worship God. She didn’t go to “church” (a noun), she went to “worship” (a verb.) Because worship was not about her, it was an act of devotion to God.

POINT #2: My grandmother worshiped every Sunday because it was not about her, it was about God.

The next thing that brought the truth of Point #2 home to me was when grandma could no longer attend worship because she didn’t have a way to physically get there, the person who had been bringing her was no longer able to do so. I could tell she was disappointed but she consoled herself with being able to watch worship services on TV. When I asked her about this she commented, “At least with the TV I can turn it up loud enough so I can hear the preacher.” I came to find out that for the final 10 years of her experience worshiping at her little Lutheran Church in Lester Prairie, MN, she hadn’t been able to hear a word the pastor said.

Now stop to ponder the significance of that statement: For 10 years my grandmother worshiped every Sunday without being able to hear a word of the 500 or so sermons that were preached during that time.


POINT #3: My grandmother worshiped as a Spiritual Discipline, because she knew that worship was a central part of what it means to BE a Christian, despite the fact that her physical hearing disability prevented her from “Getting anything out of the sermon.”

My grandmother chose to worship God regularly, it was part of the fabric of her life. She never asked questions like “Should I go to church today or stay home and read the newspaper?” She never refused to worship God because the service wasn’t designed according to her specifications.

Could she have chosen to do other things on Sunday morning rather than worship God? Yes. Did she? NO.

POINT #4: My grandmother worshiped every Sunday because she chose to do so.

And why did she choose to worship every Sunday? Because worship was important to her, it was a priority, it was the thing she put on her calendar before anything else.

Another story to help in understanding this issue:

When I served in Randolph, NE there were four men from Ohio who came every year to hunt pheasant on the farm of one of the members of the church. And every year they got up early Sunday morning and went out hunting, but they came back in time to clean up and attend worship on Sunday morning, every year. Why, because they chose to. Why, because it was important to them, a priority.

(I understand fully that nurses and others have to work on Sundays, and so for some of us our options and choices are limited. If you have no choice of where to spend your time on Sunday morning then you have a different issue to address regarding your Spiritual Practice of worship.)

Every one of us has 24 hours in a day. I know people who will move heaven and earth to watch “Dancing With The Stars,” or have the schedule of their favorite football/basketball/baseball/etc. team in their Google calendar the minute it is available. Their tee times are sacred, and opening day of fishing season is a high holy day.

So, Let’s be honest about worship. If you are in worship on Sunday morning, it is because worship is important to you, because God is important to you, it is a priority in your life, you make the time to attend worship. If you are not in worship on Sunday it is because you choose not to worship God. You can come up with all kinds of excuses why you make the choices you make, but in the end it comes down to priorities.

Some people impact our lives forever

This weekend I was at my sister’s house and saw an old picture of our dad pinned to the bulletin board. (The picture was pinned to the bulletin board, not dad.) Almost immediately tears began welling up in my eyes. I turned to my sister and said, “I really miss dad.” She replied, “Mmm hmm.”

We stood there for a brief time looking at the picture. She explained that it had been taken the weekend of our brother’s wedding, and she remembered that morning because someone had short sheeted their bed the previous evening.

Lynn went to finish making breakfast and I walked over to the light and looked closer at dad. He was standing talking to my sister, her husband and our family friend Bob Booth. As I stared at the picture I remembered that the last time I saw Bob was at mom’s funeral, it meant so much to see him there.

But my focus was on my dad. I could almost hear what he was thinking from the expression on his face. And right then the only thing I wanted was to be able to talk to him, or more importantly hear him share some of the wisdom I cherish so much t this day.

The thing you need to know, is that picture was taken 29 years ago, and dad has been dead now for almost 27 years. Some people may ruin or brighten your day with a word or action. Some people have a more lasting impact upon our lives that may or may not fade with time.

Then there are people like my dad who make a profound difference which only grows and becomes richer with age and the passing of time. The world would be much better off if there were more people like my dad. If I can be half the man he was I will have done very well in my life.

Following Christ has a Cost

Matthew 10:24 ff

Garrison Keeler was describing Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church and proudly talking about how diverse their membership is, he said, “We have both Norwegians and Swedes.”

We laugh, but the age old prejudice of those neighboring Scandinavian cultures caused sometimes insurmountable obstacles. Far too many communities continue to be divided by ethnic heritage, race, and other categories into which we pigeon-hole people. Those are just a few of the ways we hinder the work of Christ in the world.

In Chapter 9 of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is working miracles of healing. He heals a man who was paralyzed, gives life to a girl who was dead, heals a woman, two blind men, and casts out a demon from a man who was mute and gave him back the power of speech. The people were amazed, “But the Pharisees said, ‘By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.’”

This is the context for our Gospel lesson for today in which we hear Jesus make some troubling statements; specifically, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He goes on to talk about families that will be divided one against another because of him; and it disturbs us to think that Jesus would do that.

But Jesus is not describing his intent or purpose, he is warning his disciples and us of the consequences of following him. Because when we give our hearts to Christ, the Holy Spirit transforms us into new people, we are called to a new way of life, and those who have not had that transformational experience fear the change that living a Christ-like life brings. And they fight against it. This was certainly true for those of Jesus day who understood Jesus to be the Messiah. Many of them gave up everything to follow Jesus, because the Pharisees and other religious leaders rejected Jesus and demanded that the people do the same.

The more Jesus preached and taught, the more they resisted. And when Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, and cast out demons they came up with outlandish ways to explain why those were bad things. They were afraid of what they could not control, and the number of people following Jesus was growing daily.

Sadly things have not changed. Though no-one is being put to death in our country for believing in Christ, it still happens in other parts of the world. Yet the divisions are still real, and have major consequences for families and relationships.

But the saddest thing of all is when the church perpetuates division among Christians.

One of the most memorable experiences I have had as a pastor happened the day I visited a gentleman in the hospital who was facing open-heart surgery. I arrived and greeted him and his wife. He introduced me to his two older brothers and their wives who were also present. As we talked, he shared his fears and misgivings about the upcoming surgery, but also his firm faith that God was with him and would watch over him during the surgery. All six of them joined in affirming that truth.

I asked if there was anything specific I could do for him, and he asked if I would bring him Holy Communion in preparation for his surgery. I replied that all I needed was to retrieve the elements for the sacrament and I would gladly do so. When I returned the room was quiet and the brothers were looking back and forth between themselves. As I prepared the things I had brought one of his brothers asked, “Could I have communion too?” I explained what Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism that we are rightly prepared and worthy to receive the sacrament when we believe the words, “Given and shed for you.” He said, that’s what I was taught in confirmation class all those years ago. “But,” he said, “when my wife and I married over 50 years ago I joined the Missouri Synod.” I replied, “That’s not a problem for me if it’s not a problem for you.” He laughed and indicated that he would like to receive the sacrament.

Then the other brother asked if he could also have communion. I said, “You heard our conversation, if you believe the body and blood of Christ was given and shed for you, you are welcome to receive the sacrament.” He shared that when he had married his wife 50 years earlier he had joined the Catholic Church. Again I said, “That’s not a problem for me if it’s not a problem for you.” we laughed and he said he would like to receive the sacrament.

As I read scripture and prayed with them the tears began flowing from their eyes, because for the first time in over 50 years the three brothers were able to share in Holy Communion together. And their gratitude showed on their faces and in the money they pressed into my palm as they shook my hand (over $100 which I donated to the chaplaincy department of the hospital.)

Christ calls us to break down the walls and unlock the doors of division, prejudice and pride that get in the way of our experiencing the true joy of life in Christ.