Category Archives: Articles

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.

Article: Sunday Morning Faith

Before his arrest, Robert Courtney served as a deacon at the Assembly of God Church he was a member of in Kansas City. In 1990, Courtney began purchasing pharmaceuticals on the “gray market” and using them to fill prescriptions at his pharmacy. In time, he began diluting prescriptions to increase profits. Both practices were and are illegal.

According to law enforcement estimates, from 1990 to 2001, Courtney diluted 98,000 prescriptions, which were given to 4,200 patients. Courtney is reported to have diluted 72 different kinds of drugs. In August 2001, two months before his arrest, Courtney held total assets worth $18.7 million.

In 2002, Courtney pleaded guilty to 20 federal counts of tampering and adulterating the chemotherapy drugs Taxol and Gemzar. He also acknowledged that he and his corporation, Courtney Pharmacy Inc., had weakened drugs, conspired to traffic in stolen drugs and caused the filing of false Medicare claims. He was sentenced to 30 years in Federal Prison.

That is a tragic story. People died because of his greed. It makes me wonder how a Christian (and even a deacon in his church) would do such a thing? It is clear that he was a “Sunday morning Christian.” Those are the kind of people who appear very religious at church but lead a completely different life the other 167 hours of the week. 

Not only are certain believers called “Sunday morning Christians” they have a condition called compartmentalization. Their trust in God is only a small part of their lives. Their faith is only active when they are around other church people. Their lives are segmented. Every part of their lives is separate from the other. More simply, a compartmentalized faith tends to be rife with hypocrisy. 

Of course this is an extreme example but as a pastor my hope is that every person of faith develops a 7 day a week faith. A trust that informs every part of their life including how they interact with others, how they spend money and even how they vote. Jesus is not a hors d’oeuvre (appetizer)… he isn’t even the main course! Jesus is the plate on which all of life is served. 

But is it is more than trust, right? Remember our theme verse for the year? The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Galatians 5:6A faith given, received and shared in love. 

What kind of faith do you have? 

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: What the ELCA Did This Week

If you didn’t know, our Lutheran church body gathers for a “churchwide assembly” to do the business of our church. It is a like a congregational meeting for the entire Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Over 5 days the assembly: worships, learns, elects and set the course for our national church body. The delegates of this assembly come from every walk of life and are (of course) members of congregations within the ELCA. 

Below is the press release of the “major” happenings of the most recent assembly. I added links to the various actions if you are interested in reading more about the decisions made. 

Gathering under the theme “We are church,” voting members of the 2019 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) made a number of key decisions to further the mission and ministry of this church. The assembly, the chief legislative authority of the church, met Aug. 5-10 at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. 

More than 900 voting members:

  • Reelected on the first ballot the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton to a six-year term as ELCA presiding bishop.
     
  • Elected Deacon Sue Rothmeyer to a six-year term as ELCA secretary. Rothmeyer, currently serving as executive for administration with the Office of the Secretary, was installed during the assembly’s closing worship on Aug. 10 and will begin her term Nov. 1. 
     
  • Approved the social statement “Faith, Sexism and Justice: A Call to Action” and its implementing resolutions. The social statement, in part, names patriarchy and sexism as sins and calls the church to action on a range of issues, including gender-based violence, workplace discrimination and economic inequality. Here is a link to that document: https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Faith_Sexism_Justice_Social_Statement_Adopted.pdf?_ga=2.174531426.1386541037.1565907691-1996774349.1565907691
  • Adopted “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment,” which will serve as church policy for inter-religious relations. The policy statement was adopted with the witness of 39 ecumenical and inter-religious guests in attendance. Here is a link to that document: http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Inter-Religious_Policy_Statement.pdf?_ga=2.76353493.1386541037.1565907691-1996774349.1565907691
  • Approved the triennium budget for 2020-2022, which includes a current fund spending authorization of $68,378,325 for 2020, a current fund income proposal of $68,442,034 for 2021 and $68,507,018 for 2022; and an ELCA World Hunger spending authorization of $21.5 million 2020, and an income proposal of $21.5 million for 2021 and for 2022.
  • Adopted the “Strategy Toward Authentic Diversity in the ELCA,” which consists of a report and recommendations on how the ELCA exhibits authentic diversity and formulates goals for racial diversity and inclusion. Here is a link to that document: https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.guidebook.com/upload/151152/SGWzTmEkymzmnyZBSsWB17wdbqvKVvw97rWU.pdf
  • Witnessed the presentation of the “Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent,” which was accepted by the Rev. Lamont A. Wells, president of the African Descent Lutheran Association (ADLA), and members of ADLA.  Here is a link to that document: https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Slavery_Apology_Explanation.pdf
  • Adopted 26 memorials en bloc, ranging in topics from gun violence to engagement in the Holy Land and gender identity to seminary tuition. 
     
  • Adopted a memorial that affirms the ELCA’s long-standing commitment to migrants and refugees and declares the ELCA a sanctuary church body. Here is a link to a Washington Post article on this decision and the actions surrounding that decision: https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/08/08/an-entire-lutheran-denomination-has-declared-itself-sanctuary-church-body-signaling-support-immigrants/?noredirect=on
  • Adopted a memorial that calls for the development of a social statement and social message on the relationship of church and state.
  • Adopted a memorial to encourage all synods and congregations to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ELCA’s ordination of women in 2020, the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women of color in the Lutheran tradition and the 10th anniversary of the ELCA’s decision to remove barriers to ordination for people in same-gender relationships.
  • Adopted a memorial to support the vision and goals of the Poor People’s Campaign that align with the ELCA’s social teachings.  Here is a link explaining The Poor People’s Campaign: https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/demands/
  • Adopted a series of amendments to the “Constitutions, Bylaws and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” including one that makes ordination the entrance rite for ministers of Word and Service, and an amendment to no longer count deacons as laypeople for representational principles. 
     
  • Adopted a resolution that committed the ELCA to support the World Council of Church’s “Thursdays in Black” campaign toward a world without rape and violence. Here is a link to explain this campaign: https://www.oikoumene.org/en/get-involved/thursdays-in-black
  • Adopted a resolution to commemorate June 17 as a day of repentance in the ELCA for the martyrdom of the Emanuel 9—the nine people who were shot and killed June 17, 2015, during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. (The shooter was raised in an ELCA congregation.)
  • Adopted a resolution to condemn white supremacy, calling all ELCA congregations to engage in a “study of the structures and rhetoric that empower and fuel racism and white supremacy and to take to heart the teaching of Scriptures, so we may all be better equipped to speak boldly about the equal dignity of all persons in the eyes of God.”
     
  • Celebrated the end of Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA, which concluded June 30 with nearly $250 million raised in cash, multiyear commitments and planned gift commitments. At the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, voting members approved the $198 million campaign to help sustain and grow ministries of the church. 

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: What Are You Seeking and Serving?

Flawed American writer and intellectual David Foster Wallace once gave a commencement address before he committed suicide in 2008.

This is what he said to the graduating class…

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism …. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And … pretty much anything you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things—if they are where you tap real meaning in life—then you will never have enough …. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you …. Worship power—you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart—you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

His words are very true. They are reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s song, “Gotta Serve Somebody”…

You may be a state trooper, you might be a young Turk
You may be the head of some big TV network
You may be rich or poor, you may be blind or lame
You may be living in another country under another name

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Everybody worships and serves something. Sometimes more than one thing.

The one thing Wallace missed and possibly intentionally passed over is the worship of God, specifically Jesus. He will not disappoint or consume your life and leave you empty or used up. 

Jesus is one we can turn to once we have exhausted all other options for worship. And when we do, here is the promise Jesus makes to us…

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Instead of being bound in servitude to a thing… you can be freed to rest in the love of God. 

What are you worshipping?

What is taking most of your energy these days?

What inside of your is never quenched or satisfied?

Seek Jesus…because He is looking for you. 

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: Sunday in Gilroy…and Now El Paso…and Now Dayton

I am distraught.

Like you, I heard about the murders at the Gilroy Garlic Festival on Sunday evening and now the shootings in El Paso, Texas. I am not distraught because it is so close (Gilroy), I am saddened that mass gun violence is prevalent and a part of our culture and this event reminded me that this type of violence in the United States will not end. I am convinced this will continue because it is a part of our national culture.

This Sunday at church, we will lift up the family and friends of Stephen Romero, 6, of San Jose, Keyla Salazar, 13, of San Jose and Trevor Irby, 25, of Romulus, N.Y. We will also pray for those who were wounded and those who were traumatized by this senseless attack.  The prayer list just got longer. We will pray for those affected in El Paso Texas too.

I am generally an optimist and believe that change can happen but not in this case. I guess I am surprised that I actually thought change could actually happen… especially after the mass shooting in Arizona that included Rep. Gabby Giffords, a federal judge and a 9 year old girl. That was back in 2011 and here we are in 2019 and the mass shootings continue without any attempt to curb this tragic problem.  With each and every mass shooting I wondered, “Is this enough loss of life for the powers that be to do something?” The answer is sadly “no.”

I lived a sheltered childhood. I grew up in a place where people didn’t lock their doors and left their car keys in the ignition. The violence of the world seemed so far away and something I didn’t need to deal with or address. As it is, I am powerless. 

I am privileged but I am weighed down… but it is a light, privileged weight. I can only imagine what the Christians of Rome during the reign of Nero must have felt. I can only imagine the fear of Pakistani Christians in Pakistan encounter when they are persecuted. My sadness is but a fraction of what they experience and experienced.  Yet, I know this isn’t about Christians at all, just a reminder I live a sheltered life.

This past Sunday and now Saturday were more stark reminders that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ”Philippians 3:20 and “We do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” Hebrews 13:14

I am not going to go hide and wait for Jesus to return (as appealing as that sounds). Instead I will continue speak out against the unjust ways, people and policies that contribute to the pain and suffering of this world. Personally, I will also to continue to follow Saint Paul’s advice to…

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: 

‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; 
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. 
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:15-21

Will you join me?

God bless you,
Pr.Ben

Article: What I am doing in Illinois

Right now, I am at Leadership Lab. It is a leadership laboratory for Christian students to grow in faith and acquire leadership skills. I’ve been a part of this one week a year “camp” for 34 years or about 70% of my life. 

I personally witness changed lives year after year… including my own. I am fairly sure I wouldn’t be a pastor if my father didn’t make me go to Leadership Lab. Thanks dad!

On Sunday night, one of the directors I work with (and took to Leadership Lab for the first time as a student in 1999) provided us with some statistics to show us the importance and impact of a camp like experience.

One week of Leadership Lab is equivalent to:

  • 28 hours of youth group meetings =  3-6 months of youth group meetings
  • 17 meals with loved ones/mentors/youth leaders/pastors 
  • 22 hours of worship = 5 months of regular worship 

Building relationships and community take time. You need least 8 hours of face time with a person or a group to build community. In church that would mean:

  • 8 weeks of worship
    • 4-8 weeks of youth group meetings 
    • One lock in or mini-retreat
    • Or just Monday and Tuesday of Leadership Lab 

This is an intensive and action packed week… devoted to building up the church and future leaders. 

I wish I could bottle what we do here and bring it home… but alas I cannot do that. I do however thank you for your support as I serve the larger church. 

God bless you,
Pr. Ben