All posts by Ben

Article: Change is Hard

If you are from Bethel Lutheran Church in Cupertino and did not see the email I sent out this morning, I informed the congregation that I will be leaving Bethel in mid-October. 

If you are reading about this for the first time, I apologize for the shock of these words. I accepted a call to be the next senior pastor at Community Lutheran Church in Las Vegas Nevada. The decision to leave Bethel was personal. Rachel and I are concerned about my long term health and the current schedule I am keeping. I have gained 50lbs since moving to Bethel and I do not have the time to exercise more and eat at home (healthily) on most days. This is the hardest decision of my pastoral career because of my strong feelings for the people of Bethel.  

I first served Community Lutheran Church after I graduated from seminary and will return the congregation I served so many years ago. 

With that being said… change is hard. 

I understand if you don’t believe that this is hard on me too. 

There are lots of ways to react to stress and change. Some eat, some fast. Some become angry and others passive. And the list goes on. 

After letting my heart and head get the best of me (that happens sometimes) I turn to God. 

I am reminded of the Psalm that Martin Luther used as inspiration for his famous (and very Lutheran hymn) “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” It is Psalm 46. 

Verse one of that psalm tells me everything I need to know about God…

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 

God alone is my safe place when life is uncertain. God alone is the one who will be there all of my days and at the end of my days. 

All I can do as a pastor is point to God and trust that God is a promise keeper. (Spoiler: God is reliable)

I am also reminded of the words of Paul that come with a promise. 

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7

Paul reminds us that instead of worrying or having anxiety in times of uncertainty we should turn to prayer. The simple act of lifting your concerns to the One who is always listening has a benefit. Did you see it when you were reading the verse? 

The God of peace (not anxiety or worry) will watch over (actually guard) your heart and your mind. As a pastor once said, “If you have time to worry, you have time to pray.” I choose the latter. 

These will days of prayer for me. I hope that you will join me.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben

Article: Pope Francis and the Golden Gate Bridge

Last week I wrote about horses and hurricanes. You can read the article here: https://benbergren.com/article-horses-and-hurricanes/. Since then, many people have asked me how the Spanish Colonial Mustangs are doing after Hurricane Dorian past over the Outer Banks of North Carolina. After doing a little digging online, I am happy to report the wild Spanish Colonial Mustangs weathered the hurricane and are doing just fine! No injuries! They did exactly what their instincts told them to do: They huddled together, went to high ground, took shelter under trees and kept their faces out of the wind!

After Hurricane Dorian

Now on to other things…

I cross the Golden Gate Bridge a lot. Like 10 times a week. I have contributed much to the upkeep of that iconic bridge through my tolls. 

I am amazed literally every time I cross it. It is an engineering feat of the early 20thcentury. 

I am no engineer, but I’ve read that strength and longevity of the bridge comes down to its foundations and its flexibility. The north and south towers of the Golden Gate bridge are what give the bridge its strength. The north tower on the Marin County side was built on dry land. The south tower, on the other hand, was built 1100 feet off shore and at a depth of more than 90 feet under water and just so you know the foundation goes deeper than that! 

As strong as the two towers are, the bridge’s other strength is its flexibility. It is designed to sway 27 feet laterally. 

For example, in June 1935 an earthquake struck the region as men worked atop the bridge’s unfinished south tower. According to PBS’ American Experience, one worker recalled, “the tower swayed 16 feet each way. There were 12 or 13 guys on top with no way to get down… The whole thing would sway toward the ocean, guys would say, ‘here we go!’ Then it would sway back toward the bay.”

The bridge roadway can even flex up and down depending upon the amount of traffic.

The Golden Gate Bridge During Construction

Like last week when I was writing about horses you might be wondering why on earth am I talking about a bridge even if it is the Golden Gate Bridge?

I have no doubt that a strong Christian needs a firm foundation in Christ. Remember what Jesus said at the end of the “Sermon on the Mount”?

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” Matthew 7:24-25

Unfortunately, some theologians over the centuries have taken this to mean, being good and following the rules versus the one primary instruction Jesus impressed upon his disciples above all others: LOVE. 

We must remain flexible enough (like the Golden Gate Bridge) to love others. The winds of hate and the waves of division will try to shake our foundations. Love is more powerful than either of those things but it is sure easy to give into anger, jealousy and the like. Just keep loving…even the haters. It is not easy, but that is what we have been called to do. 

Just last week, Pope Francis was talking to the press after a visit to Africa and they were asking him about those in the Roman Catholic Church who see him as too soft on people and that might cause a schism in the church. Pope Francis replied that he wasn’t concerned about a split in the church and then he added this…

“When you see rigid Christians, bishops, priests, you know there are problems there. We need to be gentle with these people and accompany them.” 

Pope Francis talking to the press on the way back from Africa

Amen to that. Now I may not agree with Pope Francis on everything but I can totally get behind this. Let us be gentle with the rigid people of this world. Our foundation is in Christ and he has given us the power to be flexible in love with those who blow a lot of hot air at us.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: Horses and Hurricanes

In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazano of Spain mapped the coastline of North Carolina. Most likely Verrazano left a gift that still resides in North Carolina today. Wild Spanish Colonial Mustangs still roam the outer banks of North Carolina today. There are not many left and they are critically endangered. 

Currently, there are about 100 Spanish mustangs that live on the Outer Banks. Since I have never traveled to North Carolina, I have never heard about them until today. As Hurricane Dorian bears down on North Carolina, a mandatory evacuation of humans have left the Outer Banks devoid of people but the horses remain. 

I learned that the horses know exactly what to do in times like these…

“They will move to higher ground and gather under sturdy oak trees to shelter from the storm, said the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, which manages the herd and sends a similar reminder during major hurricanes due to the outpouring of concern for the horses.

‘They’ll likely ride out winds and rain as their ancestors did before them — in huddles, butts to the wind,’ it added.

And unlike human beings living in the Outer Banks, the wild horses are better equipped to handle a hurricane. They’re already sensing a change in air pressure and are grouping up together.

‘Remember, they’ve been doing this for 500 years!’ the Fund said.”

What an instinct! Head to high ground, look for shelter, huddle together and keep their faces out of the wind. 

That is vastly different than what Lieutenant Dan did (in the movie Forrest Gump) during the hurricane he faced at the top of the mast on a shrimp boat daring God to make the storm worse. 

These horses are survivors. This herd has endured many hurricanes over the past 5 centuries. Maybe we can learn something from our equine friends.

There is no escape from hardship in this life. So when it comes, do what the Colonial Spanish Mustangs do…

  1. Look for high ground and look for shelter. Go to the place that is spiritual high ground. In other words, go to worship. When life gets difficult there is no better place to be than in the spiritual presence of God and be reminded of Jesus’ love. Church is a safe harbor from the storms that inundate our lives.
  2. Huddle together. There is nothing worse than going through difficult circumstances alone. If you seek out the spiritual high ground and shelter, you will others who will walk with you through the storms of life.
  3. Keep your face out of the wind. Don’t ignore the storm, but don’t magnify it either. By focusing all your energy on the storm you have little energy to do anything else. Turn your back to it. You can still feel it but you will also be able to have a better perspective by having your back to the wind and potentially see what God is up to in your life. 

Listen to this promise from Psalm 107:28-31

Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven. Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for us. 

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: Hate and Mental Illness

Last week my friend and colleague the Rev. Cindy McCalmont of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) wrote an “op ed” for the Mercury News that has not yet been published. She sent this to me and other clergy to ask if we would sign on to this “op ed” at the time of publishing. I agreed to sign my name to the document below. 

You might remember Cindy came and spoke to Bethel about the wonderful work NAMI is doing at one of our First Wednesday Speaker Series earlier this year. 

I wanted you to see the important distinction between hate and mental illness when it comes to mass violence. 

August 23, 2019

To the residents of Santa Clara County:

As spiritual leaders in this beautiful valley, we unite to make this proclamation: 

Hate is not a mental illness.

While these words aren’t original to us, they speak a truth we desperately need in the aftermath of yet more violence in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton.  It’s a truth that unites us, emboldens us, and makes clear the work that is ours to do in this community.  And what is that work? 

To stand against hatred and to stand beside those with mental illness.  

Despite what the media and our elected officials may allege, those with mental illnesses are not the primary perpetuators of gun violence. Yes, of course, untreated psychosis can lead to violence, but the vast majority of gun violence is the product of far more insidious problems–problems like racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia.

Our diverse spiritual traditions have much to say about the many faces of hatred and the violence they incite. “Whoever kills a person [unjustly]…it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind.”(The Qu’ran)

Our traditions also make it clear how easy it is to point a finger at others without taking a hard look at ourselves: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?” Jesus asks.

The plank in our own eyes is how passive we’ve been as we’ve allowed the media to perpetuate the myth that mental illness equals violence.  The plank in our own eyes is how little we’ve done to challenge all that fuels hatred.

Hark! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the earth,” God says to Cain in the Torah.  The blood that has been spilled far exceeds that at the Gilroy Garlic Festival or the Walmart in El Paso or outside the Ned Peppers Bar in Dayton.  It is blood that is being spilled in suicides in our community every day as people with mental illnesses struggle not just with their symptoms but also with our disdain.

Hate is not a mental illness.  It is a condition that must be transformed, as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, into love. 

Together, we commit ourselves to transforming hatred into love by speaking against extreme acts of violence but also against the small discriminations and implicit biases that plague us all.

Amen. 

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Update: The Mercury News printed the “op ed” today.