Sunday, September 30, 2012

SERMON: The Comforts & Challenges of Servant Leadership (Brian E. Konkol)

The following link provides a written transcript and audio for "The Comforts & Challenges of Servant Leadership", which was delivered at Lake Edge Lutheran Church (Madison, WI) on September 23, 2012.

With Mark 9:33-35 as the central text, this message focuses on political division, the servant leadership model of Jesus, and our calling to restore communities through radical hospitality.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Climate Change, Poverty, Distractions, and Denial (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics Blog on September 14, 2012, and can be found at:

Since the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC) came into force in 1995, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNCCC has met annually to assess progress in dealing with global climate change.  From November 26 until December 7 in Doha, Qatar, the Conference of the Parties will meet again, for the 18th time, thus the title “COP18”.  Among other things, COP18 will bring together various world leaders in order to adopt decisions and resolutions, publish reports, and attempt to establish legally binding legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

While many North Americans are immersed in election season politics, football season, and climate change denial, the time is upon us to face the increasingly conclusive scientific evidence, reflect upon our theological and moral affirmations, and for both ecological and economic reasons, ensure that the United States contributes toward a fair and binding agreement at COP18 in Qatar. 

In addition to the overwhelming consensus amongst credible scientists about the validity and seriousness of climate change, the scientific body of knowledge also reports that climate change has a direct influence upon increases in poverty, especially within the developing world.  Among other things, extreme weather has an impact upon productivity and can raise the price of staple foods, such as grains, that are important to many households throughout the world.  In addition, studies have shown that global warming increases the frequency and intensity of heat waves and drought in many areas.  While these realities have a deep and dramatic impact upon developing nations, they have also shown an increase in consequences within Europe and North America. 

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), climate change is a deep and wide-ranging global concern, for it increases poverty and halts sustainable development in the following ways:

·         There has been considerable research surrounding climate change and agriculture.  Among other things, climate change impacts rainfall, temperature, and water availability in vulnerable areas, thus it has a strong influence upon productivity, agricultural practices, and distribution of rural land.  In addition, climate change worsens the prevalence of hunger through effects on production and purchasing power, thus some predict the number of people to be impacted by malnutrition to be nearly 600 million by 2080. 

·         Of the 3 billion population growth projected worldwide by 2050, the majority will be born in countries that already experience water shortages.  As the temperature of the earth warms, changes in rainfall, evaporation, snow, and runoff flows will be impacted. 

·         As a result of accelerated ice sheet disintegration, rising sea levels could result in 330 million people being permanently or temporarily displaced through flooding.  In addition, warming seas can also fuel the increase of more intense tropical storms.

·         An increase in temperatures leads to illnesses and deaths.  In specifics, climate change alters the geographic range of mosquito-born diseases, such as malaria, thus exposing new populations to the disease.  As a changing climate affects the essential ingredients of maintaining good health (clean air and water, sufficient food and adequate shelter), the consequences could be widespread. 

·         The report of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health points out that disadvantaged communities are likely to shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of climate change because of their increased exposure and vulnerability to health threats.  More specifically, over 90 percent of malaria and diarrheal deaths are experienced by children aged 5 years or younger, mostly in developing countries.

With all the above thoughts in mind, it is clear that the world cannot afford to engage the false debate of having to choose between environmental sustainability and economic growth, for the two go hand in hand within an interconnected system.  In many ways, the current global economic downturn shows how a failure to promote environmental sustainability drives economies into further crisis, not only in the developing world, but also within those countries that have enjoyed generations of prosperity.  And so, as increases in global temperatures lead to dramatic rises of inequality and poverty, those who are most responsible for climate change – such as the USA – are called to take responsibility in order to offer sustainable livelihoods for people and places throughout the world.  The issue of climate change – and the resulting consequences of economic crisis, inequality, and poverty – has reached a breaking-point, and a lack of significant and far-reaching action will lead the world further down a dangerous path.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transformation was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people”.  And so, because the scientific evidence surrounding climate change is clear, and the implications for humankind are many, the response to these global challenges need to be persistent, organized, and significant.  As Jesus calls upon humankind to “love thy neighbor”,  and as the Old Testament prophets remind us to strive for justice, we recognize that within a deeply connected world “neighbor” implies all that God has created, and injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.  And so, an implication of Jesus’ words and actions is to share and receive the Good News not only on Sunday mornings, but through daily acts of long-term advocacy that promotes sustainable livelihoods.  As a result, with COP18 in Qatar on the horizon, the time has come when humanity can no longer afford to fight over our resources, and the moment is upon us to communicate with our elected officials in order pass legally binding legislation that values the gifts of creation that God has entrusted us to manage.  The time is now.  God has allowed humankind to serve as stewards of creation, and the time has come to embrace this sacred responsibility more fully, value the resources that God has so graciously offered, and ensure that all of God’s creation – in this generation and the next – receives the fullness of life that God has promised. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

A Season of Civility in Response to Campaign Incivility (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics Blog on September 7, 2012, and can be found at:

"In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve." – Alexis de Tocqueville

With the Democratic and Republican national conventions behind us, and an increase of political campaigning in front of us, we recognize the timeliness of the above quotation from Alexis de Tocquville. In a democracy the citizens choose their government, thus we indeed receive the government we deserve. As Lisa Sharon Harper recently stated:

"In its purest form, politics is simply how we organize our life together in society…in a Democratic Republic like our own, the [people are] ultimately responsible for the policies, laws, and structures that guide daily life. As we vote for candidates and ballot measures, we shape our society."

With such thoughts in mind, we affirm the collective ability to “shape our society," but we do so not only through the ability to choose our candidates and pass ballot measures, but we also possess the capacity to shape the process of how our leaders and policies are selected. In other words, while many complain about the high quantity and low quality of political campaigns, we are confronted with a harsh reality: In a democracy, we get the political campaigns we deserve. 

While an assortment of citizens confess their frustrations surrounding the time, effort, and financial resources that are poured into negative campaigns, we recognize a simple political truth: partisan leaders behave in such ways because we allow it to work.

According to Mark Penn, a former Democratic Party strategist, he and his colleagues once designed research for President Bill Clinton’s re-election bid in 1996, in which voters were shown negative campaign ads in public places. After voters were shown the negative ads, they were interviewed in private (where the participants could speak more openly), and most admitted that negative campaigning had a direct impact.  Similar studies show that while many citizens state publicly that they detest all negative campaigning, privately many are indeed moved by them. Thus the political parties seize upon this opportunity, and the result is a continuous offensive of negative campaigns from all sides of the political spectrum. 

While there is far more that can be stated surrounding the consequences and effectiveness of negative campaigns, (and many others have done so), it is worth reflecting upon the type of society we wish to shape. In other words, citizens of a democracy such as ours are not powerless in the face of mass negativity and contempt, but we possess the collective authority to reshape our society in the ways we see most fit.  So the time has come to not only advocate for particular policies and public leaders, but we should demand a more civil process of campaigning that leads to such policies and leaders. In other words, the journey of a campaign shapes us is ways similar to its results, thus we deserve better than the current state of incivility, and the time has come to demand more.

Among other things, one of the ways that citizens can shape a more civil society is to embody respect and value the dignity of all people. Along these lines, one can highlight the Wisconsin Council of Churches and Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee, for they are leading a “Season of Civility” in response to the divisive and disrespectful nature of politics in Wisconsin and throughout North America. 

The following is an excerpt from their statement on civility, a document that was signed by numerous spiritual leaders – from an assortment of religious traditions- located throughout Wisconsin:

… we commit ourselves to a Season of Civility: 
  • We will seek to model and support respectful and honest conversations on public issues within our congregations, assemblies, and other forums. 
  • We will make a genuine effort to understand the reasons for the views of those with whom we disagree and try to explain the grounds for our own positions clearly and without arrogance. Our goal will be to identify shared values and concerns, rather than to “win” arguments. 
  • We will be mindful of our own fallibility and keep our views open to correction and reconsideration without betraying our deepest convictions. 
We encourage all of our fellow citizens, to likewise commit themselves to a Season of Civility: 
  • Our congregations should be places where civility is taught and practiced as together we seek to learn what our faith calls us to do and be in the world.
  • Candidates should strive to adhere to high standards of civility, integrity and truthfulness and insist that the advertisements produced by their own campaigns, and those of third parties, do the same.
  • In their campaign reporting and commentary, media should subject all claims and counterclaims to rigorous but fair scrutiny, checking facts, critiquing logic, evaluating sources, and providing context.
  • As citizens we should all be critical consumers of media and advertising, questioning claims and resisting attempts to manipulate our emotions.
In lights of such thoughts, we should support a season of civility during this era of increasingly uncivil political campaigns. While it is indeed necessary to constructively critique the candidates and their political affiliations, we should also expect more from ourselves. 

When we demean politicians and when we show disrespect toward those who hold different views we often feed a massive cycle of communal negativity and disregard, and as a result we see minimal progress and maximum division. And so, instead of trying to fight fire with more fire, the time has come to practice civility among ourselves as we engage in public life, and as we do so, learn to demand respectfulness from our elected officials, before and after Election Day.                   

In addition to the temptation of feeding the cycle of public and political incivility, we also recognize the appeal of withdrawing from participation all together. There are many who believe the best option is to retreat, not answer the telephone, avoid campaigns (if it were possible), and/or hide from friends and family members who wish to speak about the choice of candidates. 

But such attempts of seclusion are not helpful as we try to reshape our society, for brushing the dirt away from view does not make the house clean. In contrast to attempts at escape, and in response to incivility, the time has come to engage with the political process, observe it, examine it, correct it, and participate in the long-term journey of transforming our political culture and infusing our public institutions with dignity and respect in a communal search for a common good. 

When we wish to see more respect from others, we start by practicing respectfulness among ourselves. And so, in the midst of so much incivility during this election season, let us promote and practice a season of civility. We can reshape our society, and by God’s grace, it can start today.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Conversion of Connections in the Global Village (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics Blog on September 4, 2012, and can be found at:

We are connected with people and places through ways and means unlike any previous generation.  We live in a “global village”.  For example, we are connected through worldwide round-the-clock television networks, rapid international travel, mobile phones, Skype, and wonders of the Internet.  However, while such connections are indeed profound, the bonds of our global village run far deeper, for we are also linked through global events and international endeavors.  Whether it is sporting events like the Olympics, a royal wedding, or various natural disasters that capture worldwide attention and compassion, the reach and depth of our global village passes through time zones and crosses national boundaries. 

While these characteristics of the global village are astounding, our connections run even deeper as a result of the global process of production, distribution, consumption, and waste.  In other words, the architects of our global economy intentionally linked local communities with others that are thousands of miles away.  And so, while these massive multi-national connections are often unnoticed in daily North American life, once a deeper look is taken, we recognize that they are not only evident, but are also far from impartial.  As a result, the global village is not in a romantic valley on a beautiful green hillside (as it is often depicted), but to the contrary, as stated by the late South African theologian Steve de Gruchy:

This is a [global] village that has a chief, a headmen, and favoured families, and poor families, and women who collect the water and the firewood, and beggars living on the scraps on the edge of the town; and lepers who aren’t allowed in town.  And the price of having a stall in the market is too high for some families to trade their goods.

With de Gruchy’s image of the global village in mind, we can affirm that people and places are deeply connected due to a far-reaching economic structure.  However, the harsh reality is that such an arrangement leads to – as Jim Wallis stated – an “un-economy” that is unfair, unsustainable, unstable, and leaves millions of people around the world quite unhappy.  Whereas some in the global village have access to the above mentioned material advances and advantages, others are outwardly marginalized a result of (among other things) inequality, ecological destruction, violence, and poverty.  And so, while people are indeed deeply connected with others in the global village, the connections are too often unjust, and the result is that far too many people are disconnected from their basic human rights.

As a result of various injustices in our global village, the economic connections that shape our world are too often biased and prejudiced, for they are loaded with power and privilege, and thus allow for the most powerful to succeed at the expense of the most vulnerable.  Without question, while all people are indeed connected in the global village, there are winners and losers as a result.  And so, while it may be impossible to slow-down or reverse the process of economic connections, the task for people of faith is to convert our global connections so that all of humankind – regardless of national citizenship – are valued and given life in its fullness.  In other words, as a core expression of faith, our global connections should be recognized, identified, and converted to more fully embody Jesus’ proclamation of love, life, and a continual commitment of solidarity alongside the poor and marginalized.

As the Latin root for religion, religare, means to “re-connect”, it can be argued that religion was never meant to be private, but rather, it should connect people around the world with God, one another, and all of God’s creation in ways that model mutuality, grace, and interdependence.  And so, instead of embracing individualism and placing personal profits before the dignity of other people, we are called to incorporate togetherness, recognize Jesus’ commitment to life after death and life after birth, and thus convert our global connections from an un-economy into a system that offers sensitivity and opportunity for all.  In other words, perhaps the public expression of Christian religion is not to merely seek the conversion of individuals – as is so often assumed, but a conversion of the connections that intimately and intricately bind people together within our global village.    

With these thoughts in mind, while it is tempting to focus solely upon what takes place in our immediate surroundings, a reality of human life is that we are deeply connected with all people in every part of the world.  In specifics, many of our daily decisions have a direct impact upon the wellbeing of those who reside thousands of miles away.  And so, the time has come to more carefully consider the nature of our connections and the consequences of our economic choices.  If our connections with fellow members of the global village consist of exploitation, unfairness, and greed, then we are called to seek conversion of such connections through the promotion of fairness, sustainability, stability, and happiness.  In addition, if our federal policy decisions prop-up processes that promote the abuse and ill-treatment of others within the global village, then we are required to examine our long-term vision and ensure that our own quality of life does not bring a quantity of death to others. 

All together, as people of faith we affirm that our identity transcends citizenships of a particular city, state, or nation, for we are members of a deeply connected global village and participants within the community of God’s creation.  And so, as an expression of faith, and in response to the gracious love of God and call to follow Jesus, the time has come to function in ways that restore the global village into that which God is calling it to be.  We are connected, so let us ensure that our thoughts, words, and deeds make these connections beneficial for all.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Life, Death, and Connectedness in the Company of Strangers (Brian E. Konkol)

The following was published on the Sojourners' God's Politics Blog on August 27, 2012, and can be found at:

In the recent past there was a small group of children gathered in the village of Tucville, located near Georgetown, Guyana.  After a few hours of games on the street, the curious crew wandered from adult supervision and explored a nearby abandoned sewage facility.  The children enjoyed their playful investigation, but as they walked a narrow path near the edge of a raw sewage container, a 5-year old girl named Briana Dover accidentally slipped, fell, and quickly sank to the bottom.

As to be expected, Briana’s friends immediately screamed and ran for help, but as neighbors and witnesses rushed to the site, they all stood in shock.  Although some considered diving into the tank, no one stepped forward.  The container was too large, the smell of rotten feces too disgusting, and the actions required far too dangerous.  With each passing moment Briana held to the brink of life at the bottom of the sewage reservoir, moving closer to death with each tick of the clock.

In the mean time, a middle-aged Rastafarian named Ordock Reid heard the commotion.  After initially thinking it was a worker dispute, he eventually examined the situation, and as he approached the tank, he was greeted with loud screams and anguished faces.  When he was told about Briana’s predicament, he acted immediately.  Ordock Reid – a total stranger – took off his clothes, tied-up his dreadlocks, fastened a rope to his waist (handed the other end to an onlooker), and submerged himself through the muck and filth in an attempt to rescue Briana Dover. 

After a few minutes, a large crowd gathered near the sewage container.  Over and over again, Ordock rose to the surface for oxygen, and within seconds, dove back into the sewage.  As time passed, he cut off his sacred dreadlocks in the hopes of moving more freely within the reservoir, for he believed such efforts would improve his chances of saving Briana.

In a flash of hope and excitement, after thirty minutes of searching, Ordock felt a slight nudge near his waist.  He reached down, grabbed Briana, and brought her out of the filth and back to the surface.  After Ordock lifted Briana from the tank, she was immediately rushed to the local hospital for emergency medical attention. The crowd cheered and congratulated Ordock for his bravery.  Some offered him cash donations, while others gave a pat on the back and a few kind words.

I first heard this story of Ordock Reid and Briana Dover while serving in Guyana (…I lived a few hours from where the events took place), and while it all occurred over six years ago, I continue to reflect upon it often, as there is much within it to consider, and various insights to receive.

While many would take risks for the wellbeing of a loved one, a call to action is often neglected without an observable personal connection with those in need – even if the needs are immediate.  However, a reality of life is that each day we depend upon the love and faithfulness of strangers, and in turn, strangers continuously depend upon us.  As a result, to follow Jesus within our interconnected world is to resist indifference and apathy, for we are called to recognize the profound connectedness of life, and thus live in faithful companionship with all of humankind.  As spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr.:

In a real sense all life is inter-related.  All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the inter-related structure of reality.

As for Ordock Reid and Briana Dover, I wish there was a happy ending to share.  I wish that Briana had survived the horrific experience, but she did not.  While Ordock acted with great courage and Briana clung to life as long as she could, she died on Monday, July 17, 2006 in the Georgetown Public Hospital.  She was submerged for far too long, and after five short years of life, young Briana Dover was dead. 

Within this story we recognize much of our human experience.  In specifics, on the one hand there are times when we stand at the crossroads of love and apathy in the company of strangers, and like Ordock Reid and those standing on the edge of the sewage container, we discern which path to take.  Do we jump into the mess of life for the sake of others, or shall we stand on the sideline and wait for someone else to step forward?  On the other hand, there are times when we are like Briana Dover, when our livelihoods are threatened as we slip, fall, and sink through the journey of existence, and while some look the other way, others come to our aid, at times in ways that are profound and noticeable, but most often in methods that are quite subtle and mostly hidden. 

Over the past days I have contemplated these thoughts with increased frequency and intensity, for my wife and I just celebrated the birth of our second child, and while it is natural for friends and family to congratulate us as parents, I am mindful of the countless strangers that made our daughter’s life a reality, and I am thankful for the countless contributors who guided my wife through surgery.  Among others, I think of physicians, nurses, receptionists, custodial staff, administrators, etc., all of whom served with compassion and excellence.  However, there are many others – strangers that I will never meet – who also assisted in my wife’s difficult labor.  What would we have done without the medical advances, technological breakthroughs, specialized facilities, medical school improvements, and developments in surgical methods that occurred over the past generations?  While I will never meet the thousands of strangers that contributed through these various advances, my hope is to remain mindful and thankful, for there are other strangers who will rely upon my thoughts, words, and deeds – both directly and indirectly – in similar ways.  And so, such knowledge of connectedness provides motivation to ensure that the same love we received from strangers this past week – both known and unknown – can be extended through us and toward others, directly, indirectly, far, and wide.

All together, as I reflect upon Ordock Reid, Briana Dover, my daughter, and my wife, I recognize that with each passing day we are deeply connected within the company of strangers, for they depend upon us, and we deeply depend upon them.  This is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the “single garment of destiny.”  And so, just as we would hope that someone – anyone – would jump into the sewage of life to save us in our moments of need, we are to be mindful of the times that others need such acts of faithfulness from us.  These actions may be profound, like those of Ordock Reid, but most often they are the subtle deeds of kindness – performed each day – that often go unnoticed and/or unconsidered.  And so, within this circle of life and death that we all participate within, may we be attentive to the inescapable network of mutuality that we all share, for we are indeed tied together, this day and always.  In light of our connectedness within the company of strangers, may we be aware of – and thankful for – the aid, relief, and comfort we receive due to the faithfulness of others, and may we be inspired to take the path of faithful action for the sake of others.