After tomorrow night's Game of Thrones finale, Michelle and I are finally breaking it off.
With DirecTV, that is. This will be the first time I'm without cable or satellite television since the early 1990s, when I was early elementary school and Armstrong Cable delivered liberation ocular liberation to my childhood boredom. Except now, we've got an incredible number of less expensive options. We'll keep Netflix and Amazon Prime, give Hulu a shot, and likely purchase a HBO Now subscription when the next season of WestWorld and GoT premier. I'm hoping that, with fewer options, we'll spend less time focused on the biggest screens in our home. And yes, before you wonder why we're talking about this, there is spiritual substance to this story.
Part of this is a decision on price. At it's cheapest for us (without an annual subscription promotional price), DirecTV cost about $80 a month. Netflix, Hulu (with commercials), and HBO Now altogether are $32. $48 dollars a month, across the year, is $576 dollars saved. Theologically speaking, there's a stewardship component for us in this decision. That money can be put to better use in our generosity toward others and in our care for the lives God has given to us.
A question related to financial stewardship is becoming increasingly important in my life. Wherever we spend money, Michelle and I now ask, "How is this helping us grow?" Too often, as Americans, we spend money without reflection. Asking how our monetary investments support our development as Christ's disciples tries to prioritize whole life stewardship and reminds us that money, along with our lives, our vocations, and our skills are God-given gifts meant to foster the Kingdom of God in our hearts, our communities, and our world.
This question also reveals the fruitless nature of some areas in our lives. Any farmer will tell you a fruitless plant serves little purpose. Sometimes pruning is necessary, and while painful, can lead to fruitfulness. Sometimes, though, fruitless plants must be rooted out to make space for more fruitful ones. I must admit, though I'm incredibly entertained by my regular television viewing - Highly Questionable, Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption, Dr. Who, The Daily Show, The Late Show, Last Week Tonight, The Walking Dead, Preacher, Game of Thrones, WestWorld, @Midnight, sports from Duke, Ohio State, and any team from Northeast Ohio - there's a ton of fruitless time in there. Some of it provides for an educational experience. Some it provides formative sermon fodder. Some of it provides joyful relief in the midst of Sabbath. But most of it is just wasted time and mental space. Simply put, much if it isn't helping us grow, so it's not worth the current level of investment.
Anticipating this weekend's divorce with my DVR, I had two choices: binge EVERYTHING that's left or start the process of separation. I chose the latter and found myself drawn to an old love, one I haven't fostered in a long time: music. As a pastor whose ministry is greatly formed by music, listening to new bands, learning new harmonies, tapping new rhythms, spitting new lyrics, and increasing the variety of music with which I'm familiar and that I enjoy, proves quite fruitful in my life. I've already found myself more energized for the work that I'm doing. I find my mind more invigorated by music than television. The aural engagement works my mind in a different way than ocular entertainment and also allows me to more easily multitask. God's shown up already in Duke Ellington, The Academy Is, Tonight Alive, Childish Gambino, twentyonepilots, and a host of other musicians, exciting me for worship in our congregation and connecting our campus ministries with more musical forms of spirituality.
I'm not saying this will or should be everyone's experience, though I do think the amount of money that we invest as a nation into entertainment is sinful. What I am saying is that I'm learning more each day that I don't need the things that I'm so often told by advertisers that I need. Choosing to do without some forms of entertainment, and less of it in general, sets us up to be better stewards of the gifts God's given to us. It also opens new space in our lives where God can show up to invigorate us personally and the vocations through which we serve God and neighbor.
Who knows. Maybe in a few months we'll have island fever without immediate access to 24/7 sports coverage (by "we" I most certainly mean me). But I hope not. It's an experiment worth taking, because as stewards of God's gifts, there so many other things that we might be doing with the time, money, and head space we devote to television. Music and its inspiration for my work as a pastor has been the firstfruits of this pruning process. I'm excited to see what else comes.
I write this from the second floor waiting area of University Hospital in Cleveland, OH. It's an odd place, feeling like home and yet having never been here, in this precise space, before. I'm praying in vigil for my sister in Christ and sister of choice Karen, whose second cancer surgery this year was successful, only to be plagued by complications since this latest surgical intervention a week ago.
This room, with it's necessarily wipe-able plastic furniture and unexpectedly empty seats on a Sunday, feels familiar for at least two reasons. To quote Hawthorne Heights (my emo game was strong in high school and college), my heart is in Ohio. Though I love Virginia, where I live and serve, as well as North Carolina and South Carolina, where I've lived and was educated for service to the church, Ohio is where I met God, where God found me, where I was born into a loving family and reborn into a wonderful church family at my baptism. Ohio is a home to me, so the very same hospital here would feel more familiar than if it were in Kazakhstan, Belize, or Wyoming. Yet, since I've left this original home, I've sat in a number of hospital waiting rooms alongside family who are hoping and praying for the healing of their loved ones. Simple, elective procedures and sudden, complicated interventions alike, I've found an odd stability in these otherwise unstable environs. No waiting room is a home, per se, but I've been prepared by the church and the academy to exist in this liminal space between sickness and health.
The date is also important for two reasons. It's August 13th, the day after violence broke out in Charlottesville as a white supremacy demonstration led by the KKK, NeoNazis, and other Alt Right groups was met by counterprotesters advocating for racial equality. Our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was among those nonviolent demonstrators, confronting messages of hate with the Gospel declaration that, "we stand against all forms of hatred and discrimination. We believe that cultural, ethnic and racial differences should be seen and celebrated as what God intends them to be – blessings rather than means of oppression and discrimination. We are a church that belongs to Christ, where there is a place for everyone. Christ’s church is not ours to control, nor is it our job to sort, divide, categorize or exclude." It's a day where we vigil not simply for peace in America, but for God's good justice that declares all people worthy of equal inclusion in the Kingdom of God because we all, of every race and gender, of sexual orientation and ethnicity, of language and ability, are made in the image of God and made one in Christ Jesus, This also ends the first week of my life where nuclear war seemed a legitimate, albeit not likely, possibility. The leadership of our own United States, along with that of North Korea, seem hell bent on a hellish end to a conflict that's lasted for over seven decades. We vigil not just for cooler heads among heads of state, but for a worldwide commitment that we would turn our swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
I learned to vigil for the great feasts of our faith, Christmas and Easter. More precisely, from those feasts I learned to vigil for the Lord's presence, for God's answer to our prayers that comes most clearly and distinctly in Jesus Christ.T This word vigil is most common after tragedies, where people gather with candles, drawings, and stuffed animals to support one another in the pursuit of healing after pain. This is included in the Christian sense of vigil, but there's a key difference. Many churches hold Christmas Eve services, and if you've been to one, it may have felt simultaneously much like a vigil and entirely different. The candles are there, as are spiritual songs and readings common to the vigils we experience in wider society. But what makes Christmas Eve (and Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday) different is that, at these vigils, we already know the end of the story. After Columbine and Sandy Hook, after Charleston and Orlando, we vigiled not knowing the outcome of our experience, not knowing the answer to our lament. In the church, we vigil already knowing the end to the story. In Jesus, God's already established the kingdom of God. We vigil because we hope in God's promises being realized. We vigil because we hope in the truth God has told us.
To vigil is an expression of hope. I'm here in a waiting room, feeling at home not just because it's in Ohio or because I've spent days of my life camped in a hospital waiting room before. I'm at home because, in Christ, we're at home in hope. We're at home because we know how the story ends, with all things reconciled in Christ Jesus, even though we don't know what the journey looks like between here and there. We're at home in hope because, thus far along the way, we've seen Light when darkness seemed to reign, we've found the Way when the path seemed to disappear, we've heard the Truth when the cacophony of lies drowned all other voices, we've eaten the Bread of Life when starving seemed inevitable.
I just got word that Karen's prognosis is looking up, that she should be able to eat and regain the energy that's been sapped from her bones. I've begun to hear from pastors who confronted racism in their churches, some to support and some to antagonism, but all with a renewed sense of purpose that God's on a reconciling mission and the whole church must take part. I even read that, despite the rhetoric coming from The White House and Pyongyang, back channel diplomacy is at work for peace. That's all good news, but we must remember that our hope didn't make these things happen. The God in whom we hope works in ways sometimes obvious, sometimes beyond our comprehension, yet always mysterious. Hope keeps us focused not on the despair, but on the God who rescues us from despair.
That, then, is why we vigil. We await God's presence on Christmas and Easter, in hospital rooms and after tragedies like Charlottesville, in international politics and in our own homes. We vigil because we hope and we hope because God's given us reason to hope.
Too often (to be honest, once would be too often, but I've heard it much more than once), people have questioned the value or validity of campus ministry. "What's the point of investing time, energy, and resources into this group of people who aren't investing their resources, time, or energy in our congregations?" This question betrays a defunct theology of vocation, a poor ecclesiology, and a limited missiology. But I can't fix any of that in a blog post. What I can do, however, is offer a few vignettes into why I believe campus ministry isn't simply worth doing, but a vitally important ministry of the contemporary church (and through that, I'll at least address some of those theological concerns).
Our goal in discipleship is both personal growth in God's image and helping others to experience that growth as well. In short, our campus ministry efforts should affect the church, but that doesn't necessarily we'll see that fruit born in our particular congregation. Simply because we don't see someones' discipleship coming alive firsthand doesn't mean that we should give up on our call as disciples to bring opportunities for abundant life to campus. Indeed, the vocation of a student is to be just that, a student. We ought to be first supporting them in their God-given vocations and helping their faith to come alive on campus, and then invite them to explore how that vocation connects with congregational life. That's a longer process, but it more faithfully reflects our Lutheran theological commitments and our call as Christ's disciples. As Paul reminds us, we're one body with many members, so while we're bound together by the Holy Spirit living in us, we don't all perform the same function or even worship in the same spaces. The church isn't bound by a particular hour on Sunday morning, but by the mission we share to help the world look, live, and love more like Jesus.
The limitation in missiology is equally problematic. We often view Christian mission as something that's done in the Global South by embedded missionaries, week-long service trips to perform disaster cleanup, or the street preachers that all too often give evangelism a bad rep. We assume that campuses are Christianized, and so don't need a Christian witness. We assume that in the 21st century Western world, there's not immediate suffering. We're wrong on all accounts. Just this week, I've dealt with students who can't afford regular meals because their job is tied to work study jobs, and so they rely on our ministry to help bridge the gap with food until work returns in the fall. I've dealt with students who can't afford rent because they've fled an abusive household and have had to declare themselves legally independent, leaving them homeless and unable to pay rent until financial aid comes through at the beginning of the semester. We support victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. We advocate for full equality and absolute integrity of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other sexual and gender minorities on campus in a part of the country that's not often safe for them. Most important, we do this all through the unique and necessary lens of Jesus.
The confusion is understandable. The campus is one of those strange places that is both church and mission field. I say strange not because it's uncommon - in fact, much of our public spaces are intermingled in this way - but because we have such trouble comprehending their existence. We like to neatly categorize places and spaces, but the reality is much more complicated. The worth of campus ministry isn't just supporting Christians on campus, though it is that. It's not just inviting new people to experience the abundant life that Jesus offers, though it is that. It's both. And it's more.
There's also a dirty little lie that campus ministry costs more resources than it brings in. When I got to CLC, we brought in no money for campus ministry. This coming year, we anticipate $5,000 in grants and another $3,000 in direct giving to campus ministry. That more than funds the budgeted items we've committed to Radford University, and a consistent presence projects consistent growth. The time that I spend on campus comes back to the congregation through student participation in programs and assistance in community service, as well as the growth of faculty and alumni relating to the church's ministry.
Most importantly from a Lutheran perspective, our decreased funding from all levels - churchwide, synodical, and congregational - has left a gap that's too often been filled by destructive theologies. Theologies that deny the space for questions about God and instead force a false dichotomy of total acceptance of their litmus test or atheism writ large. Theologies that undergird the oppression of women, LGBTQ+ people, refugees, immigrants, and those with brown and black skin. Theologies that give lip service to grace but entirely lack forgiveness. In the midst of the gap we've left, distorted versions of God's Word seem true. This is a liminal space after high school and before total immersion into the working world, filled with potential that the church may serve. At this most opportune time in the lives of students, where they're open to education, to learning, to exploring the world beyond their wildest dreams, we've left generations of opportunities backslide through the front door. It's time to change that trend.
But the best vignettes are the good stories. Soon, one of our most recent Virginia Tech alums will head to South Africa as a part of the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission program, an opportunity she discovered through campus ministry. Our Radford ministry is in a trial period of joint ministry with our Episcopal and Presbyterian siblings in Christ, hoping to better serve Radford by combining our resources and raising our critical mass. We're planning Sex Positive Spirituality presentations for each campus, approaching issues of consent, joy, and intentionality as God's heart for sexuality. We've got students discovering more than just careers. They're finding God-given vocations from faculty and staff who help students to envision how faith comes alive in work that's worth while.
Why does Lutheran campus ministry deserve our time and effort? Because that's where the church is now, and we're helping the church of the future come alive. Now is the time to embrace that idea, of being the church and building the church, with wonder, with purpose, and with joy.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.