In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. – John 16:33
September with its golden days, crisp mornings, and quieting evenings has always been my favorite month. With 16+ years of education, the “back to school” sense is ingrained in my being. September announces a return to a familiar rhythm of life with the added bonus of a few new beats – by this time each year I know a little more, have grown in some way, and see life just a little differently. No matter how much I may love the spontaneity of summer’s spirit in my life, this return to the familiar – to a well-practiced routine – brings a sense of comfort, even rest, to my adventuring soul.
Except, I am feeling anything but restful this year and the familiar rhythms of life seem just out of my grasp. The brilliant golden hues I have always associated with September have been stolen by awful wildfire smoke – echoing the reality of everything else this year – and I am feeling completely out of step with things. Call it COVID-confusion? In years past, my back-to-school sentimentality has been satisfied by going “back to singing” with the Crown Choir, the Valley Voices, Community Choir, and church choir – my camaraderie in harmony! Harmony – oh what a foreign idea in 2020!
Sadly, I am left longing for all of the above as COVID19 has infected the joy of these activities with fear and taken them away. I feel like I am wandering in the wilderness only this wilderness was not of my choosing. I am unsure of my footing; not certain I am prepared and have no idea what lays ahead – and I am growing weary. Weary of not needing a planner but in definite need of a calendar and daily lists just to keep me focused and on track with the passage of time. Weary of the unknown, weary of the unsettled nature of my life. I am restless and want my life back!
Indeed, like me, the world appears to be especially weary. The pandemic persists; the political climate continues wrought with tension; the earth’s ecosystems are being ravaged by water, wind, and fire. People have been forced from their homes into the unknown – some will never go back. And beyond that, no one’s personal difficulties have lessened in any way. So much unsettledness and restlessness. Restoration is needed at every turn!
The other morning, I was actually able to laugh at a news story. Amid all the other stories that morning of the fires out West, the political firestorm that just keeps getting hotter and more distasteful by the day, the protests and fires in our cities, the injustices felt by people of all walks and perspectives, the disparities in our economy, not to mention just how infected at every turn our lives continue to be by the COVID19 virus – I literally laughed out loud – at the news that there might be signs of life on Venus and the excitement that stinky phosphoric discovery brought to the scientists – and to me – for just a moment. Who among us hasn’t dreamt of escaping to a better place – to someplace familiar – to a place called “the way it used to be” – you know – quiet, peaceful, like last February – and yet we know that isn’t how life works.
All the events of life, even such dark events as a pandemic, war, fire, flood, protests, violence, and unrest are not in and of themselves a definition of our end. Each moment is like a seed that carries within itself the possibility of becoming the moment of change. A change we may not have sought out at first, but a change that will be with us for the long haul. We cannot run from this present time in search of a place where we think life is better.
Rather, we must reckon with our time, our place, and who we are in the process of becoming. As one writer recently put it: “The world will improve not on an arbitrary day but when you all decide to make it a better place” In truth, this time of upheaval is freeing us to choose a new identity and a new way of being in the world. I think back to the wilderness years of the Israelites, who chastised God for leading them into the awful unknown and wanted to go back to their fleshpots and pharaoh. Better the enslavement they knew than the scary freedom they didn’t know.
Much like the Israelites in their exodus from Egypt, we are in a period of wandering – a rather uncomfortable one at that – into a new way of being. As a person and as a country, we are on a journey towards a new identity with a new set of practices because the old way of doing things, of being in this world, may have seemed to be working fine for a few but wasn’t working for the many. Our sense and understanding of freedom need to be restored. True freedom is not just the absence of oppression or servitude – freedom means taking on a new identity – taking on a new sense of how we are defined and seen by others. True freedom allows you to claim your place in this world and gives you the responsibility to live well. True freedom means choosing a better way to live – not just the familiar one. True freedom means choosing to do what is right rather than insisting on being right. True freedom allows us to trust that God is always making things new and this time of uncertainty is all about that process.
There will be significant challenges to our sense of the familiar and the comforts of “old” in the days and months ahead. Who will we be when this day, this season, this time passes? As much as I long for the comforts of the familiar, I pray for the courage to live into the new identity God is leading us to. Letting go of old ways is hard, being reformed and refined even harder, putting our trust in God the hardest of all. But when we do, living in the knowledge of God’s grace and mercy and His ever-creating being, we will be restored and set free.
Be glad, people of Zion, rejoice in the Lord your God, for he has given you the autumn rains because he is faithful. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before. – Joel 2:23
“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
I never thought I would see the day that my faith would be a point of contention in the halls of Congress but alas, as a practicing, believing, and prayerful Christian, I watched as senator after senator demanded from the latest Supreme Court Justice candidate a statement professing that she would separate her faith from her judicial decisions. I admired her candor and resolute responses in which she affirmed her ability to separate the two, but I was troubled that people of faith who align their lives with a higher power should be forced to do so – especially in a country founded on the basic tenet of freedom of religion. “What difference does it make?” I spewed at the talking heads on the screen.
Though the citizens of the US have not always supported the rights of others to practice their faiths, seeing it as antithetical to our founding as a “Christian Nation,” our Constitution stands on the side of all beliefs or the lack thereof. Needless to say, it got me thinking about just how we separate from and align our lives with God and begs the question asked oh so long ago of a group of Pharisees and Herodians trying to entrap Jesus into defying the Roman empire: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” This question, of course, was posed to the Pharisees and Herodians in response to their question as to whether Jesus thought it was “lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Faced with this trap question, Jesus didn’t do what our politicians do today, which is to answer a different question, the one that he wished he had been asked. Instead he turned the tables on them and trapped them—the Pharisees at least, who seemingly adhered to a strict textual interpretation of God’s Law, including having no other idols before me and having no coinage (which bore the Divine Emperor’s image) in the temple — in their own question. Having caused them to display the coins in their pocket – Jesus tells his questioners to “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
But back to our lives and the world we live in today – though some of us may have fewer coins and more cards in our pockets and purses these days – we still disagree on taxation and aligning our lives along ruling parties. But I am not just talking about money and the things we spend it on, or taxes and whether or not we should pay them, nor am I just referring to the political party we identify with. I am talking about our whole lives. What do we give to God? Or perhaps the better question is, what are we taking away from God? If you believe as I do, that all things are created and inspired by God, then there shouldn’t be much to ponder; yet we so want to delineate that part of our lives which belong to God from that which belongs to – whatever we deem appropriate.
Granted, on the surface of this biblical story we hear Jesus saying there are things that belong to God and things that belong to the emperor. But I believe this message hits closer to home – there are the things that we allow God to handle and the things we want to have complete control over in our lives; the things that give us a bad taste in the mouth or that we can’t trust to the unknown. We try to separate our life and world between church and state, religion and politics, sacred and secular, saved and sinner, charity and taxes, spirit and matter, freedom and masks, death and life, heaven and earth, the divine and humanity, as if they are completely separate and unrelated, as if they are in opposition and have nothing to do with each other, as if some things can be trusted to God while others we need to keep well within our tight grasp.
In doing so, it becomes easy to allow the things we give to the emperor – the things we demand control of – to reign over our lives. We forget that when we embrace that everything and everyone belongs to God, our lives are not necessarily easier or without struggle – but so much richer and more colorful – less bleak and more hope filled. When we let go of the need to be right all the time, the need to stand in judgment, and the need to control the outcome of everything and trust that it all belongs to God we start living more wholly and have less want.
This time of pandemic and isolation has provided me with a wealth of opportunity for personal reflection, condemnation, exhortation, and commiseration. I have caught myself projecting my misery on to God and reveling in the joys of my own abilities. I have found myself hyper critical of others in how they are handling this time of novel non-coexistence while patting myself on the back for my righteous isolation that has led me to profound darkness at times. I have scowled at the abysmal political polarization confronting me from those I love and respect and then question my own personal convictions and belief in the common good.
As I prepare to vote in the most important election of my lifetime (emphasis on my – because I know the intensity and ramifications of these times must be put into historical perspective) part of me just wants to say: “God, I know you got this” while part of me is stricken with fear for the days months and years that lay ahead. Part of me wants to say: “Can’t we just give it ALL to God?” but the other part of me knows that this already is all of God’s, and for such a time as this He has called you and me to step forth in faith and with the intelligence and conviction he has inspired in all of us – senators, congressional representatives, candidates for offices, Supreme Court justices, and the likes of you and me – to do our very best for one another and for Him.
Maybe when we recognize and accept the great conflict in all of us to let go and yet hold on in realization that everything belongs to God – the struggle and the victory – maybe that’s when we really begin to follow Jesus. We can stop searching for answers and scapegoats and begin seeking life. We can hold to the self-evidencing truth that the earthly powers that be do not govern our heart or our mind. That’s when faith makes a difference, and lives are changed.
“Get out the message—God Rules! He put the world on a firm foundation; He treats everyone fair and square. Let’s hear it from Sky, With Earth joining in, And a huge round of applause from Sea. Let Wilderness turn cartwheels, Animals, come dance, put every tree of the forest in the choir— an extravaganza before God as he comes, as he comes to set everything right on earth, set everything right, treat everyone fair.” – Psalm 96: 10-13 The Message
I have made my peace with the mountain. Oh, Swiftcurrent – what is it about you that captivates me so??? I first ascended her holy heights and 360 views on the last day of summer in 2014. It was one of those adventures that live on ever grander in your memories – complete with autumn splendor, 2 grizzly encounters, pristine lakes, moose – not to mention being able to see the whole of Glacier from the summit-the highest trail accessible point in the park. Since that epic day in which I vowed to climb every peak I could see from on high (still working on that!!!) this mountain top has beckoned me every year. I was turned back the following year by 60 mph winds, by thunder and smoke so thick I should have been wearing a mask on my next attempt, and last year though I made it top I was enshrouded in clouds so thick I felt like I was ascending into an abyss rather than my idea of heaven.
So being 2020 and all and having to make the ascent from Logan Pass and the 9-mile traffic jam that is the Highline Trail for the coming and going part, I had set my expectations rather moderately. Having meditated on accepting the crowds for what they are – mutual lovers of God’s grandeur – on the drive up, I snagged the last parking spot below Logan Pass as the parking lot was already full (at 7:15 a.m. on a weekday!) and headed out to brave the masses on the mountainside.
I kept a steady pace and made my way through the oohing and aaahing and at times exasperatingly loud and boisterous groups with numerous “excuse me may I slip by you’s?” until I once again remembered the reason I dislike this beautiful trail so much. There is absolutely no safe place to answer nature’s call!! Now making time and getting to the lookout and home before my puppy really had to answer nature’s call became an all-out race to get ahead of everyone and find a forest! You will be as relieved as I was to know that I succeeded. I also met a fellow solo hiker about my age along the way who was keeping a fast pace as well. We shared the trail for a mile or two – she was a film-maker, actress, and freelance producer from New York City on a 6-week vacation after moving in with her mom in NJ in March – (because what else do you do when there is no work and it is dangerous to live in the city?) visiting 18 National Parks. How different her experience of COVID-19 was from mine and it really nailed home to me just how extremely fortunate I am to live where I do and how important it is to broaden your perspective beyond your own little bubble (on so many things!) After sharing with her some of the must see parts of the area, we parted ways and on I went to the top – and the sun was still shining!!
Finally past the final destination for many on the trail this day – the Granite Park Chalet – I was suddenly and quite wonderfully on my own! Arriving at Swiftcurrent Pass from the opposite direction left me rather unaffected compared to the breathtaking views and climb one experiences from the Many Glacier side. From the pass, I made surprisingly quick work of the 30 switchbacks to the top of Swiftcurrent Mountain and there my spirit soared. I could see forever – far past the tenuous and trying times of our present state – to times before when life was hard and life was oh so good and I caught a glimpse of tomorrow when life will still at times be hard and oh so good. And in the moment as I breathed in the clear blue expanse of fresh air, as the wind at times took that same breath away, as the sun warmed my face and dried the sweat off my back – I was very much at peace – high above it all – and so much closer to God.
And we were both smiling. 21 miles, 4701 ft elevation gain in 7 hours, 13 minutes.
The words came at me like a cleaver, blunt yet cutting, slowly digging into my very core. We were in the middle of a conversation about life, direction, purpose, and personal responsibility. Was I perhaps too reliant on the Lord in the course of my life?
For as long as I have conceived of morning and night my faith has been a central part of my life. Yes, there was a time I veered away from the concept of church, but the Lord redeemed me during a time of complete brokenness and it was then that I moved beyond just practicing my faith to having a deep relationship with Him. But every relationship has a dynamic, and not all dynamics are positive. When those words were spoken to me, I was caught off guard. Was my faith simply a crutch to lean on during difficult times?
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” Psalm 51:10
Later, pondering deeply as I walked alone, I found myself questioning my relationship with the Lord. Had I become too dependent on Him as I made my way through life? This question haunted me for days and weeks! I felt at odds not only with the person who had brought this idea to light but at odds with my Lord!
Then I began to feel at odds with myself, ashamed for my lack of spiritual integrity. I felt weak in my faith, me of all people, the one who encourages others to look to the Lord for strength, rest, and resurrection, the one who considered going to seminary and still contemplates the possibility of a theological vocation from time to time! What sort of hypocrite had I become? I should have defended the Lord but instead, like Peter who denied Him, I questioned Him in the face of ridicule. Needing to be identified as the strong woman I am, not someone who was insecure and unsure of my steps or weak and reliant on others (not even my Lord), I did not defend the One who has been grace-filled and just in my life.
About this time, I was fortunate to cross paths with a man who makes a point of actively living his faith in his life during a conference at 100Fold Studio, a servant-focused architectural firm based in Lakeside, MT. The firm offers architecture students and graduates a six-week studio internship in which they explore how Christian principles can inform a career in architecture. Speakers from around the country with expertise in design, business, and world missions focused on faith and vocation through lectures, small groups, and one on one mentorship.
Dr. Kenneth Elzinga, the Robert C. Taylor Chair of Economics at the University of Virginia was the main speaker and the one who caught me with his message. While he certainly had insight on how these future architects and designers might finance their careers, he shared a far greater message of living out your faith in your daily work and interactions. He encouraged us, as the Apostle Paul did to the Romans, to not be ashamed of the Gospel or the role your faith has in your life.
“You have worth in Christ,” was his opening comment, and because of that, he makes no secret of his faith in the workplace, which for him is the staunchly secular arena of academia.
Listening to Dr. Elzinga speak of his courageously open faith in an atmosphere where such open religiosity raised the ire of department chairs reminded me that while God does not need defending by the likes of me, He does ask me to recognize His place in my life and not be ashamed of it. Dr. Elzinga shared a story of his early years at the University. He had placed a Bible on his office desk and when one of his fellow professors saw it he told him he would never gain tenure with a Bible on his desk. Dr. Elzinga certainly had moments of doubt and career consternation, but his inner certainty of his faith withstood intimidation. He continued to be open about his faith and while he never blatantly proselytized he welcomed discussions on faith. When students came to him with troubles, he listened and guided with love. Often, upon seeing his Bible on his desk students would ask him to pray with them. Soon he began asking the students if he could pray for them. Most of them said yes. In time, even his colleagues turned to him for spiritual support in times of need.
Despite, if not because of, his open faithfulness, not only did he gain tenure but he is now a distinguished chair of the University, regularly leads campus Bible studies and serves on the board of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He admits it was not always easy being unashamed of the Gospel and at times faced harassment, felt threatened in his career, and even felt as if he had failed in his efforts to quietly and gently share the Gospel through his actions, not just words. Yet, looking at his career and record from my standpoint, he certainly came out the winner with his Lord by his side.
Dr. Elzinga spoke about our human tendency to want to control everything in our lives. It is a natural state. It is not easy to go forth in faith – especially for young graduates who have the whole world ahead of them. We like to trust in our own abilities. Because we know our limits and can expect a certain outcome, we place our trust in ourselves and things of a concrete nature. We take pride in accomplishing things on our own. It is when we find ourselves facing difficulties that we begin to look elsewhere for support. Dr. Elzinga proposed that difficulties in our course of life are God’s way of getting our attention. If we don’t have difficulties in life we start to walk on our own. Many would counter that it is good to walk on our own – that independence is a sign of strength. There was a time in my own life that I felt pretty sure of myself and pretty sure that God did not have His eye on me, nor did I need Him to. I was strong in my own right and thought I had everything under control in check. No need to let anyone into my world. No need to ask for help when I in truth I needed it.
Alas, the Lord understands our prideful natures, and will occasionally take steps to knock us off our high horse to remind us who is in control. I don’t know about my self- assured friends, but I know I have been bucked off my stallion a few times in the crazy course of my life. Surprisingly, I was able to get up, dust myself off, and walk with my head held high shining in my Lord’s light. Sure my knees were a little skinned and my pride shaken in front of more than a few onlookers, but I did not doubt for one moment my worth in Christ. That is the amazing thing about Christ. He doesn’t ask for much but His gifts are gracious. If we open our hearts to Him and accept Him into our life, He will lead us down right paths and love us just as we are.
So how do I affirm and defend the Lord’s positive role in my wayward life in the face of those who have attained, seemingly on their own, certainty in the direction of their own? How can I not question my trust in Him?
As Dr. Elzinga pointed out in his remarks on being broken and redeemed, we can find the answer written in His Word. Perhaps I should spend more time with the original self-help anthology and less time trying to appear strong and self-reliant. The Lord sees and knows all my strengths and weaknesses. Placing my trust in Him will ensure a steadfast spirit within me.
But he said to me “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” ~2 Corinthians 12:9
I had a bit of reunion on Mount Cannon this oast weekend – with friends I hadn’t seen for a while, fellow adventurers who know there is so much more to any climb than just bagging a peak and reaching the summit in record time. We climb because it brings us to the base of who we are – it tests our sense of self, it builds our inner strength while humbling us at the same time. It creates a special bond with others -some lasting lifetimes -some lasting for just the moment – that you are in this together – this life, this moment – and you belong. You are scared and beyond thrilled together. And you know that is true – because often death – yes, death – is just one wrong step away – and yet every step is probably one of the most full of life steps you will take!
It has been a while since I realized these truths – far too long for my good. My mind and my spirit of late reflect this. And that was all summed up in what seemed like hours but was only a minute or less as I stood frozen on the ledge, staring down into the gaping crevasse that was taunting me – jump. The bottom was out of sight – literally – there was no bottom – just a very hard death awaiting me somewhere below. How could this be happening to me? I had crossed this very spot just a half-hour before! Granted I was going the opposite direction and this side had ridges for me to grasp. But the crevasse was no less wide and my legs surely hadn’t shrunk! But my mind was working against me -reasoning that my backpack was too heavy, my healing foot still too unstable to hold my landing, my bifocals were tricking my eyes, and I was just ‘too weak’ to leap like I knew I had to. Self-doubt was winning again.
Just as it has been for the last year or so as the crevasses of life sucked me down. Telling me that I was not worthy of love, that I was not healthy enough to thrive, that I was not talented enough to shine, that there is something wrong with me and I just can’t see it, that I was too weak to stand for anything – especially stand up for myself. I was dying inside and the sparkle was gone from my eyes. I did not know who I was anymore – I longed for days gone by.
And then a hand reached for mine and a voice said “Your mind is working against you, You can do this! Here take my hand and let me pull you across.”
And there I was, on the other side… full of giggles as I gasped for the air my nerves had sucked out me. And I was alive! Not only that, I felt like I was living again – not just remembering. On the mountain, I felt like me again only better. The summit views had changed my perspective – not just of the world below me, but of myself. The challenges I faced along the way both coming and going didn’t beat me down – they made me stronger for the next climb.
Mountains are formed by slow but gigantic movements of the earth’s crust. When two slabs of the earth’s crust smash into each other the land can be pushed upwards, forming mountains. It is a hard, life spanning work of metamorphosis. No wonder I get along with them so well.
It was good to find myself on the mountain again – it was even better to find myself. Oh the life that is waiting for us – when we live it! Thanks to all who helped me along the way – and thank you, God, for this wonderful up and down life!
Grace and peace to you friends in Christ near and far, from God our Father and friend.
I come from a long line of pastors, deacons, and missionaries in the Lutheran church. My great, great, great, great, great grandfather Peder Pedersen Mørch, was a Deacon in Jegindø, Thyholm Danmark until his death in 1752. His son Christian Pedersen Mørch, of Jegindø, Thisted, Danmark was also a Deacon in the church until his death in 1777; with even more ancestors listed as deacons going back to 1670. That is just on my father’s side of the family. You all know Pastor Pete, well we share quite a bit of Norwegian pastoral blood from my mother’s side of my family. The pastoral and missionary trait obviously runs strong through our veins.
I was a late in life surprise for my parents so I only knew my Grandma Dyrud, my mom’s Mom. I remember succinctly her devout faith. She made a strong impression on my own faith beginnings before she passed away when I was eight years old. Her favorite hymn was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and whenever she came for a visit she always packed candied orange slices and her Bible in her suitcase. She always wore a large cross necklace – visible in virtually every picture I can recall. She is the one who first proclaimed that I was going to be a pastor someday as she watched me play church after church on Sundays. It was through her that I saw that Jesus could be my friend. She lived her life with Him by her side – a life that was far from easy or comfortable – but she was always comforted.
It was through my parents that I came to know the working side of faith. They were church planters, served as confirmation teachers, my mom served as the church organist, and my Dad was the perennial council president in every church we belonged to even with our nomadic lifestyle.
And now here I am, carrying on the tradition, albeit with a few bumps in the road along the way. So, of course, I know who Jesus is. Not only was I raised with Jesus pretty much everywhere, but I can recite by memory the very definition of the man.
More than likely, you can too. He’s one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. The one Lord, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. He’s God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. He’s begotten, not made. He is of one Being with the Father and through him, all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and he became truly human. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried – for our sake! And then, get this – on the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Any day now He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
He’s also a Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, the Word made flesh, the good shepherd, Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, The Way the Truth and the Life, Lord of Life, Healer of our every ill and Forgiver for all, and of course, the Messiah.
You did get all that, didn’t you? It’s pretty lofty verbiage if you ask me – but it is easier to memorize those memorable words and phrases, don’t you think? So when we are put on the spot and asked like Jesus asks Peter in today’s gospel lesson – “But Who do YOU say that I am?” we are ready with a pithy response. I have to admit, I cheered for Peter when he got the answer “right.” exclaiming “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
But what does that mean? Again, lofty language describing the very reason we are here together today – Jesus. When we confess the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed together- what are we really saying? When I sit down and think about it, those beautiful liturgical words are safe – they keep me and my life at an arm’s distance from the wild and unpredictable nature of God and Jesus remains a rather tame and eminently safe figure in my life. And that seems just about right, right? We like to remain in control of our lives and keep things going just so.I may ask for Jesus to take my hand – but boy take my life? That seems like a lot when all I am asking of him is to get me through whatever it is I am facing. But Jesus doesn’t come in doses that I take as needed. His love and ways are all encompassing with no limits.
When it comes to answering the question of who Jesus is aside from what we are told in Sunday school or what we continue to confess together in the relative comfort and safety of church, on the other 167 days of the year who do we say Jesus is? And how big of a role does Jesus play in our everyday life? I am going to go out on a limb here and tell you that this is one of the most important questions you will ever answer (aside from are you ok if you are choking or maybe, will you marry me) in terms of the direction of your life. Who you say Jesus is has everything to do with who you are and how you go about the life you lead. In some ways, your answer says as much or more about you and us together as a community of faith, than Jesus. Because in Jesus’ eyes, you are His beloved, and the life he wants for you is provided to you freely with no strings attached or tests to pass.
And while we share the same words for confessing our faith in Jesus, who you say Jesus is will be different from my response. Just as the disciples came to know Jesus as the Messiah through their walk with him – observing his healings of mercy, hearing his sermons on justice, twice being awed by and tasting bread multiplied and shared with thousands, being saved by an ethereal Jesus on the water when stormy waters threatened to sink their boat, even extending mercy to those beyond the boundaries of prejudice and culture and showing unexpected more human side of himself – we too, come to our understanding of Jesus through our own walk with him.
Who Jesus is matters every single day and in every single place of our lives and who Jesus is to us is influenced by our experience of him in every single circumstance of our lives. Peter’s confession didn’t occur just anywhere. Jesus could have asked the question while in a familiar, friendly place like Galilee where most of his ministry has taken place or even while walking to this destination (because aren’t difficult conversations always easier on a walk?) but no, Jesus chose a very specific location – Caesarea Philippi.
Situated about 25 to 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi originally known as Panais, was near a trade route that connected Tyre in the West to Damascus in the Northeast. A nearby cave and spring served as a sanctuary dedicated to the part man, part goat Greek god, Pan. Greek inscriptions and niches carved into the rock suggest this area was dedicated to other pagan gods as well. It was also a place where the power and the authority of the Roman Empire were on full display. Herod the Great had built a temple near the spring in honor of Caesar Augustus. By the time Jesus and his disciples visited the region, Caesarea Philippi was governed by Herod’s son, Philip the tetrarch, who established the city as the administrative center of his government. And at the time of Matthew’s Gospel, people were likely aware that the Roman commander who led the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had returned with his troops to Caesarea Philippi in celebration of their victory. So Jesus pops the question—“Who do you say that I am?” at the intersection of economic trade, religion, and the power of the Empire. The very things that ruled heavily over the people’s lives. This was not a particularly safe place for the disciples to be spouting off about a Messiah – the Messiah they envisioned would release them from the bondage and oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. Aligning oneself with someone other than the emperor could get you thrown in prison if not to the pit.
The disciples had witnessed Jesus’s works and ways and though not yet aware that this Messiah’s deliverance would be far different from their expectations, they chose to follow him.
Who do you say Jesus is in your life, today? Who is Jesus when alternate kingdoms of power and authority vie for your allegiance? Who is Jesus in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty of this pandemic? Who is Jesus as you deliberate sending your children back to school or if it is safe to travel or too risky to visit with loved ones? Who is Jesus in the midst of a tenuous election year as you encounter those who may have a different view of things – mask-wearing, the state of our nation? Who is Jesus in the midst of racial unrest – in the aftermath of the Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland protests and riots, and the seemingly impenetrable wall of class and color? Who do you say Jesus is as your loved one dies or as you sit with the news of an unfavorable diagnosis? Who is Jesus when you consider the plight of refugees and immigrants seeking a new place to call home and that new home is your home? Who is Jesus when domestic violence invades your life or you can’t find a job to support your family? Who is Jesus when your family or a relationship falls apart?
Who is Jesus to you when you face the difficult decisions of life, the ones with no easy answers or when you feel overwhelmed by isolation or depression? Who is Jesus when your latest screw up weighs heavily on your chest, when your sin has clouded out your hope? When judgment is the only response you perceive from others? Who do you say Jesus is then?
Who is Jesus when your life is going well? When you don’t think about needing Jesus or think about Jesus, period?
How has your experience of Jesus shaped who you know Jesus to be?
Those lofty words we sing, confess and praise God with in worship an a way feel a little too distant, a little too beautiful when what we need is the wild, unflinching love and grace from our friend, our Lord and Savior, our sweet Jesus to enter into the darkest, ugliest places in our soul.
Who you say Jesus is will determine how you live into that truth for your life. Who Jesus is to you reveals what you stand for and guides your decisions, determines your actions, and forms the words you speak and how you will say them. If you align yourself with and define your heart with Jesus – you can expect the words that come from your mouth as Jesus taught in last week’s gospel – to come from your heart not defiled but filled with grace.
Today and every day, Jesus asks the evergreen question – Who do you say that I am? The Jesus I confessed before the church when I was 13 was certainly not the same Jesus I found when I searched for him 13 years later when I had nothing left BUT Jesus or the Jesus who walked beside me to my parents burials, or who walks with me today as I try to navigate through this new way of living and being in a pandemic. Hopefully, who Jesus is for you and me next year will be different from who he is for us today. It’s not that Jesus has changed. We have. As we go through life our experience and knowledge of Jesus grows. When we live this question we not only discover Jesus anew we discover ourselves anew. It’s not just about asking what would Jesus do – as those once trendy bracelets reminded us to ask when faced with a difficult decision. When you live every day with Jesus as a part of you and live your life with the heart and mind of Jesus those questions answer themselves. On our way, we have more and more experiences that show us something about the God whom we seek. For Jesus is always new, always different and our God is a deeply moved God with a heart and being far greater than our understanding.
Don’t feel as though your answer to Jesus’ question is too simple – too incongruous to the realities, complexities, and pain of “real” life. Don’t feel ashamed that your life does not always align with the words you profess on Sunday. After all – Jesus is calling into question everything about our lives, our world, the status quo, and business as usual. Jesus has a question for you. How will you answer Him? Who do you say that I am?
There is no correct answer – only your heart and your life can determine that. But the Good News is that God has done most of the work for you. We don’t have to take final responsibility for procuring the faith, hope, and courage that we may feel are in short supply in order to answer this question. Because the faith we seek, the confidence we long for, the courage we hope to find and to share – these are gifts from God. The kind of gifts God loves to bestow.
My favorite poet Ranier Maria Rilke provides insight on this life framing question: “(T)he point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” With that in mind, let your answer to Jesus guide your life.
May our friend, our comforter, our shoulder to lean on, our sounding board and confidant, our just and loving Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God – our way, our truth, and our life – guide you, free you, and renew you today and every day.
So, I “did a thing” in the popular vernacular these days. As of Monday, August 17, 2020, 3 years after purchasing my first home I now OWN it outright – my mortgage is burned and I am completely debt-free! The celebration is, of course, bittersweet. Mom and Dad had a lot to do with this – the payoff was half my hard-earned savings/half my inheritance from them – plus the mindset to get it done! I would give anything for them to be here but I know they would be proud of their only daughter owning her own home before she turned 50 and making wise long-term financial decisions beginning with my first paycheck some 30 years ago. Although, I did joke with my brother that I paid off my house so I would have a topic for my blog this month!
I will admit to feeling a pang of anxiety and momentarily lost my faculties as the wire went out of my bank account to the mortgage company and I saw my liquid cash drop to a quarter of its value the day before. But those feelings soon subsided as the realization set in that I OWN MY OWN HOME! With the way the world is going, having this peace of mind is everything! I am in complete control of my financial wellbeing – as well as completely responsible for anything and everything that goes wrong with it – namely, the house. (As I was reminded by a friend who chose to sell her home and move into an apartment rather than deal with a mortgage and the headaches of home & yard maintenance.) While I may have lost a bit of my free time and playtime – the freedom I gained in financial security and peace of mind far outweighs the importance of my freedom to quench my wanderlust on a whim.
This past weekend, August 14 to be exact, marked the 7-year anniversary of my move to the Flathead Valley in NW Montana. That I continue to observe and outright celebrate this milestone event in my life shows just what a turning point my decision to uproot my firmly planted prairie feet and move west was in my life. The actual activities of August 14, 2013, were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me, however, that day was the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new very independent life.
It seems like ages ago, and yet just yesterday, when I stood in the soft morning light of my final sunrise as a resident of Eastern Montana with so many dreams for my future. With all my belongings packed into a small trailer and the back of my Hyundai Santa Fe, I was off on a grand adventure of self-discovery. My eyes may have sparkled with anticipation, and my ever-present smile made it seem like it was the greatest day in my life, but I kept my fear of the unknown that lay before me well concealed with laughter and my hurried loading of the trailer. I had no idea what the next seven years would have in store for me except for a new job, new relationships, and of course plenty of trail dust.
Looking back at that time with 20/20 hindsight helps put this most uncertain year of 2020 in perspective. While I still have the same great job I moved here for and the mountains still beckon me with the same yodel, the rest of my life unfolded very differently than my original plotline. The love (besides the mountains) that I moved here for turned out not to be the one. My ideas of family get-togethers in the most beautiful part of Montana went unrealized with the deaths of both my parents within a year of each other.
I never imagined buying a home on my own or buying a home with a yard specifically with a dog in mind, nor did I dream I would find yet another Brittany (#5) that would lay claim on my heart and bring as much joy to my life as Ember has so expertly done. Nor did I fathom how much I would need his bright little light accompanying me along the way. Nowhere in my script for my life did I imagine needing an emergency lifesaving infusion of 5 pints of blood or getting married only to have that marriage end a year later. Fulfilling my lifelong dream to become a pastor – albeit via the Lay Pastoral Associate program in MT rather than going to seminary (but who knows!) – and filling my days writing sermons and guiding others in their faith journey was not even on my radar as a possibility that August morning 7 years ago.
Now, as I gather myself together after forking over so much dough and take stock of the life I have now given a bit more solid foundation, I am grateful to God for most of the unexpected or at least unplanned for adventures and resulting perspectives on life that have come my way the past 7 years. I am thankful for the dark times and the clouds in life (some real dark clouds) that make the good times and brighter days so much more precious. Times that taught me things about myself I would never have learned any other way. I thank God for helping me find my voice and using it to sing away the blues and sing in joyful harmony with others. I thank God for the new friendships I have made and the lasting friendships from back home that have stayed the course across the distance. I thank God, for this gift of LIFE!
Reflecting on the last seven years of my life has given me some much-needed perspective of the challenging times we are facing now. For the past 7 months, we have been living upended lives that certainly are not living up to the expectations we had on New Year’s Day as the COVID-19 pandemic does away with so many of our plans, dreams, and even just day to day regular activities. So much has been taken from us – and yet – as my 20/20 hindsight can attest – none of those things we hold dear – relationships, traditions, day to day life, hopes, dreams – are guaranteed. We take today and tomorrow for granted, that the people we love will be there for a phone call, that life will go as planned – until it doesn’t. And yet we get through it- through it all – and most of the time we are better for having lived through the challenges and changes. Knowing that I have survived some pretty hard times in the past and that I have done what I can to secure myself financially, I feel prepared for what could be stormy days ahead – or at least the unexpected.
I also know where the truest form of freedom and stability is found. Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble or disappointment – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the twisting, bumpy, costly, sometimes disappointing, long and lonely road of life alone. Through Him, we find a new kind of freedom and shelter from the storm. His love and mercy are mine, all mine – and the same is true for you.
“This is the testimony in essence: God gave us eternal life; the life is in his Son. So, whoever has the Son, has life; whoever rejects the Son, rejects life. My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion. And how bold and free we then become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening. And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours.” – John 5:11-15
Five years ago, today I climbed my first 10,000 ft peak. My sentiments shared on Facebook at the time were so filled with life and my hunger for high adventure was piqued. “Well Mount Siyeh, have you stopped giggling yet? What a spectacular day to climb my first 10,014-foot peak!! I am certainly not the same girl I was when I awoke at 4 a.m. this morning. So much to say, so much to share… I will tease you with this – we saw not one, or two but 5 grizzly bears!!” A year later my world was rocked by the death of my mother and as I reflected on this day at that time, my soul was seeking strength: “I was tested and I conquered some major hurdles that day – self-doubt being the greatest of them. What a difference a year makes… God must have been building me up for the year to come. Hope to one day have that thrilled smile again.” The following year my world was rocked again with the death of my father and I continued to find solace in the mountains, chasing after new heights and daring myself to go farther and deeper – into the mountains and into my soul.
For the last 7 years, my go-to form of solace and therapy has been a mountain trail. And after the last year with the end of my marriage and the throes of a pandemic rocking and shutting down my life, one would think I would be seeking that natural remedy once again for my ailing soul. And yet I am feeling this strange resistance inside of me that I can’t explain. Of course, I should be in the mountains – how can I not be? It’s what you do when you live in the Flathead! Just look at everyone having amazing adventures and capturing exquisite photographs of not-of-this-world scenery, I scold myself, just like I have done summer after summer since I first set my eastern MT prairie feet here. What is wrong with me, I wonder, as a rare glorious weekend unfolds and my once always ready to go backpack remains in the hall closet.
My newfound weekend ritual of waking at 4 am, filling my thermos with coffee, checking the weather apps for appropriate clothing, lacing up my dusty boots, and heading out for the wilderness eating my breakfast behind the wheel feels foreign to me this year. Rather, the life I lived before I discovered the wonders of the Flathead has been calling to me. Before I moved here, I actually enjoyed being home – I did not feel like I had to be on the go every weekend. Weekends consisted of long morning runs, leisurely breakfasts, house chores, yard work, and bike rides. I played piano consistently, I wrote for pleasure far more than I do today, I read lots and lots of books under the shade of our mature trees – and I was happy. So why do I feel so at odds with the two identities at battle inside of me?
Why do I feel guilty for not “going after it” this year – conquering once again every trail and mountain that I know of? I was addicted to the high of hiking and “bagging peaks” for so long that I forgot about the rest of the things that make up life – the simpler joys that don’t make for lots of likes and wows on Facebook. My competitive somewhat addictive nature objects to this present state of thinking – telling me there is something very wrong with me for not wanting to join the throngs of people exploring the park and surrounding areas – for not craving a 25-mile day trek that I can post about later on Facebook and enjoy the ensuing accolades.
Maybe, just maybe, I am coming to recognize the dark side of Facebook – it feeds an incessant desire to live a life worth posting about and the unhealthy byproduct of that goal – comparison. Hikers on the Appalachian trail have the motto “hike your own hike”- resist the urge to compare how many miles you cover in a day to how far other hikers are traveling. Nevertheless, the urge to make comparisons is strong. Especially when one’s life has fallen apart and you find yourself struggling to just be who you used to be – even though life has a rule against going backward. Teddy Roosevelt’s well-worn quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” is well worn for a reason. We are living in a time when making one’s unique mark on the world is now done in a very public way – for an audience we hope to please and wow and move – every single day. Fear of missing out has afflicted me from time to time as has the old favorite – woe is me – more often than I would like to admit. But as I sit here on my patio gazing into the mountains- remembering some downright amazing summits and summit shots, I am trying to find peace in my present moment. The sun is shining, my grass is freshly mown and the weeds invading my garden bed are under control for the moment. Ember just came up and rested his warm head on my lap for a quick pat before heading back to his shady spot under the tree, and I ran 16 miles this morning without pain!
I do not want social media to write the script of my life. I do not want or need to compare my own life with others. I want to get back to and be okay with truly living my own life, fulfilling my true happiness and treasuring each and every moment of time given to me – whether those moments are spent being at home, sharing a conversation, reading a book, elucidating on my latest ponderings, mastering a new song, snuggling with Ember or even climbing a peak. Every moment is time that I will never get back – rather than worry that I am wasting it by not making every day a greater adventure than the last – I want to savor each moment for the simple joy that awaits me in it. Perhaps one of these days I will even find joy in being me, again.
Sometimes, the wrong turns you make in life turn out to be the right ones all along…
Last evening, Ember and I embarked on our first hike of the season. The weather has not been on the side of this working girl and mother nature has been showing her wild and weedy side in my yard keeping my mountain sojourns at bay. In addition, I am beyond mortified at the hordes of people taking over the serenity of what little is open in Glacier NP right now due to the pandemic. That is not the Glacier experience I desire so I have deferred my hiking exploits to toiling in my yard and bike rides around the valley when the weather allowed. Of course, there are miles and miles of beauty to explore outside the park boundaries, areas that Ember is welcome to enjoy with me – I just haven’t taken advantage of the vast wilderness that awaits me like I have the well-worn trails of Glacier. The problem is, I am navigationally challenged. There, I admit it. I will get you lost if you ask me for directions. I am skilled at taking the route less traveled – because everyone else seems to go in the right direction. Over the course of my life, this has led to some high adventure, extra miles, and moments of exasperation and panic – but since you are reading this you know that I survived all my misadventures thus far and I have seen some beautiful sights along the way. However, this is not a good quality to have when you are a solo hiker looking to explore new territory!
So on this particular evening, I decided to stick with what I know – a trend, to my chagrin, that I am once again seeing take shape in my life. It is so easy to take the easy way through life and just keep doing what you know you can do, especially during times of upheaval and uncertainty like we are experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic and societal revolution. Who wants to throw more change into their already stressed lives? The problem is, doing the same thing again and again – even things that bring you joy becomes a stressor in its own right. Just like a runner who just runs every day without any variety to their regimen will eventually develop chronic injuries (I should know!), all work and no play, all darkness with no light, all the same all the time will make Erika and everyone else – down, dull, depressed, and stressed. You won’t likely get lost but you will likely start to wither away.
Last night, having had enough of my one-acre adventures on the home front, I decided to throw my routine to the wind and took off for a safe escape in the mountains. It was late enough in the day I figured I would miss the crowds rushing for the trailheads at the crack of dawn, plus if I was lucky I would be able to capture some great photos in the “golden hour” just before sunset. I had already run 15 miles in the morning so a six-mile round trip hike to the top of Mt. Aeneas was just what I needed to cap my day – and having already done this one before – I knew I could do it again – that safety thing you know…
I always forget the steep, washboard nature of the narrow string of the thing they call the Jewel Basin Road and its sheer drop-offs en route to Camp Misery – the trailhead for many adventures in the Jewel Basin of the Flathead Valley. It took me 30 minutes to go 6 miles – but I got there – and only met a few cars coming down (thanking God every time that I was on the inside!) The parking area was still jammed with cars at 6 pm. Thankfully, most had people in them readying to depart. After his thoroughly raucous ride in the back of my Santa Fe, Ember was more than ready to hit the trail-ready for his first “big hike” of the season and his first-ever “summit.”
I made an immediate discovery – to the chagrin of my fellow trail companions who occasionally accompany me on my hikes – hiking with Ember onleash adds at least 2 mph more to my already fast pace! Especially going uphill. This area requires dogs to be leashed – which is fine – but he is very good off-leash and hiking with a dog onleash takes a toll on my joints – but rules are rules for a reason and we obeyed. Everything was so interesting to his little nose. Ember’s tail wiggled his butt the whole way and his ears were tuned to every rustle, caw, peep, and thud. We came upon a Momma Grouse and about 6 chicks on the trail – oh boy was that fun! They all escaped no worse for the encounter. The darndest ground squirrels just kept disappearing before Ember’s eyes and he would look back at me incredulously as to why I would not let him off the leash.
Then we came to the moment of truth – the four-tined fork in the trail with one sign pointing back to the way we came and one sign pointing at all four trails. How the heck are we supposed to know which one to take to the top??? I searched my memory and recalled the one to the right and we took the best-maintained trail because obviously, that would be the one everyone took to the top – right? Off we went. I was so engrossed in the beauty of the valley below and enjoying Ember’s enjoyment of it all that we covered quite a distance before it struck me that we were not going up anymore. In fact, we were going straight down – I did not remember this from my last hike – but instead of turning around Ember pulled me onwards. It then dawned on me that we had only encountered two other people on the trail thus far – rather unusual but highly appreciated. Ember and I continued around a bend and crested a rocky plateau and right before us was the most beautiful waterfront property I have seen in ages. Clearly not a summit view but what a view nonetheless. Placid blue waters outlined by pines with a beautiful peninsula cutting through the middle of the lake. The deep blue of the water was absolutely mesmerizing and I wished for a moment I had brought a tent and sleeping bag to stay the night! I had no idea where I was – obviously, we had taken the “wrong“ trail – but I was so happy to be there!
I checked my mileage tracker and we had long passed the three miles to the summit. And then I hear “Erika, I can’t believe I am meeting you up here!” My dear friend Josie was coming up from the lake. She and her brothers had backpacked in the day before from the opposite direction for a day and night of fishing. I run into people I know in the darndest of places! Realizing it was getting late, Josie shared in my comical exasperation at my unexpected destination, and Ember and I headed back the way we came.
I must admit to a bit of excitement – a revelation of sorts – I had ventured outside my “safety boundary” without even knowing it and I was having a blast! As the evening sun got lower on the horizon, Ember and I began the climb back up the trail we never should have gone down. But I am so glad we did. If we had had another hour of daylight, we would have conquered Mt Aeneas’s summit too – I felt energized. Taking in the golden hour with my best pal, my heart felt lighter than it has in months. I realized I have trapped the heaviness of life inside of me and it is time to let that go.
We were making good time coming down the trail and I spied an off-shoot from the trail that led to the top of a very inviting mountain. I do not know the name of it, but it looked doable so I told Ember, ”We are going to get to the top of something tonight!” Standing at the grassy top amid wildflowers and trees that have seen better times (but none as wonderful as this moment) with Flathead Lake and the golden canola fields and the many ponds and lakes of the valley below me, I gave every bit of me to God – the troubles, the heaviness, the heartaches, the uncertainty of my life. In turn, I was filled with a rush of happiness that made me cry. It has been so long since I felt like the Erika I used to be. I let Ember loose to explore and we both rejoiced in the freedom in God that is ours when we accept it.
It is time to stray off the well-beaten path. It is in the unknown that the richness and real beauty of life reveal itself. The comforts of home and the security of the known can be stifling if you don’t break free of them once in a while.
Sometimes, the wrong turns you make in life turn out to be the right ones all along… Here’s to many more misadventures to come!
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”– John 14: 5-7
I do know the way after all – the only way that matters.
The Flathead River is a hop, skip, and jump from my home in Columbia Falls. At the start of the pandemic, the winter snows had just begun to melt away and for a brief period, I could take Ember down the steep brush-covered hill and enjoy a reprieve from the ever-present canyon wind while wandering along the rocky bank with the warmth of the sun reflecting off the placid water and a hushed quiet broken only by an occasional bird song. It was a surreal time that I relished – within a block from my home I found escape and respite from the daily COVID counts, the crashing stock market, and the loneliness of isolation.
COVID-19 stirred us from the usual narratives of our lives – shook our foundations of routine and wiped away much of what we took for granted – the air we breathe, the people we surround ourselves with (outside of our own four walls), the freedom to “go” to work and “go” to school among so many other facets of our daily lives. At first, we were incredibly disrupted, but as the weeks wore on and the idea of sheltering-in-place was less of a novelty and more of a necessity, a new rhythm of life set in. We began to celebrate our stay-at-home life and the notion of staying-in became the stuff of morning newscasts, cooking shows, and advertisements for everything from buying a car to lawn fertilizer. My phone and Zoom conversations really did seem like a lifeline and I found myself not wanting to say goodbye. Getting to know all about your nearest and dearest became not just an ancestral-oriented hobby but a real thing. And after far too many (for some) quiet moments of self-reflection and self-realization, getting really tired of knowing all about oneself also became a thing. All of this, of course, was our attempt to evade the much-feared Coronavirus that was invading our communities, upending economies, and snatching away lives and livelihoods.
When the mountain snows began to melt and the spring rains began to fall, my beloved river of respite began to rise; slowly at first, but gaining more and more of the rocky bank with every visit I made until there was nothing left for me to explore let alone stand on. And then the spring rains gave way to violent storms – sudden deluges of water from heavens added to the rising waters. The once sable colored reflecting pool was now a raging river of mud and fallen trees.
As the days, weeks and months of COVID-19’s unwanted presence wore on, the novel communal narrative of our lives began to change. Shelter-in-place restrictions were lifted and we emerged from our cocoons of confined comfort to a communal reality check waiting for us. It was as though the virus not only infected bodies but awakened us to a stark truth: while the media and CDC wanted us to think we were all in this fight together – clearly, we were not. Sectors of our society, those whose personal narratives have always been different from mine and most likely yours, were pummeled. Pummeled not just by the severity of the virus’s impact on certain ethnicities but on those whose already precarious financial stability was stripped away. COVID-19 exposed inequalities across many of society’s systems: justice, education, health care, food supply, employment, and housing. Add in the undercurrent of racism – whether one is blatantly so or our lives simply reflect the very long story and history of race and fights for equality across the many lines of division that have defined us as a nation, and we are now seeing the other side of American greatness and being forced to deal with a seismic shift in the narrative of our nation.
The last two weeks, my walks to the river have been few and far between. It would seem that mother nature is taking her cue from those of us on mother earth and throwing a bit of temper tantrum. One violent storm a week was something I was accustomed to growing up in Eastern Montana, but here in the Flathead, we seem to be having a rather unusually violent spring storm cycle. When the river’s roar beckons me near, my breath is taken away by the deep seductive green flows rushing by. Whitecaps and nearly surfable (at least for me) swells leave me in awe of the sometimes destructive, always humbling power of nature.
“Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed,” said actor and director Will Smith in August 2016. Who could have imagined how true these words would become? Things are not worse; they are being uncovered and the truth is seeing the light of day. As Jesus says to his disciples as he sends them out to tend to the people on the margins of society of the Roman empire in Matthew 10:26-27: “Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now.” (The Message)
As the fear of COVID-19 seemed to disappear overnight, news reports and social media were flooded with images and stories of a new fight taking place on the streets of our country and in our hearts and minds. And if you find yourself asking what happened to the way things used to be – you know just four short months ago before the great disruption – you are not alone. But the chasm that divides our nation and brought throngs of citizens to the streets has infected us much longer than the virus that has recently plagued our society – it just took death and perhaps communal isolation to make them visible.
And behind that longing for the way things “used to be” – if you are really honest with yourself as I have been – is the underlying force of fear – fear of being wrong, fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of being unsettled and uncomfortable, fear of losing power and control (who doesn’t crave power and control?), fear of loss, fear of the truth, fear of disruption and confrontation, and fear of what we do not understand. Perhaps foremost, fear of a damaged or lost identity and being called to a higher allegiance than the powers that be in this world.
Fear. Is there any more pervasive or powerful motivating force in human experience?
From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us, certainly to fear the stranger, sometimes to fear even those who are closest to us. Political leaders have long recognized the power of fear in ensuring our conformity to the structures of this world, even when doing so does not serve our best interests. Fear is the driving force behind vast segments of our economy, as well as, increasingly, our political priorities. Fear is what gives rulers power over their subjects – it has been a reigning force in authority from the beginning of man. Why do you think most animals run from us?
But there are other motivating forces that can topple the fiercest fears – the direct opposite of fear – knowledge coupled with love. When we become cognizant of the facades of human power attained by the power of fear and recognize the infinite power over our whole beings of mercy and love, the threats of hate, injustice, and racism are no longer the determining forces in our lives.
It is hard work confronting fear and power, but it is work that Jesus called his disciples to do – the kicking out of evil spirits and of tenderly caring for bruised and hurt lives – and His call continues to us age after age.
While Jesus warns his disciples of the hazardous work ahead of them, He also empowers them with the Holy Spirit: “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove. Don’t be naive. Some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation—just because you believe in me. Don’t be upset when they haul you before the civil authorities. Without knowing it, they’ve done you—and me—a favor, given you a platform for preaching the kingdom news! And don’t worry about what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The right words will be there; the Spirit of your Father will supply the words.” Matthew 10:16-20
While I don’t feel as though I am a sheep among wolves, I do find myself having more and more difficult conversations with people – those I barely know and those I admire and love. Why can’t they just see?? See the truth? See the other side of things? See it my way? Just look for heaven’s sake! And I am sure they are thinking the same thing following our discussions. But I soldier on – in my quest for knowledge and understanding. My work is much less hazardous – it mainly consists of less talking and more listening – to all points of view. I do refuse to be, as Jesus says, “bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.” (Matt 10:28) But I keep an open mind knowing there is nothing they can do to my soul, my core being. I’ll let God handle that.
One of my struggles in life as a whole has been accepting change and making decisions in the face of change. I am always afraid of making the wrong decision – but if I allow myself time to make decisions and research my options and learn about the opportunities – I find myself less fearful of the unknown that comes with all change. Last month I wrote about being okay with not knowing things. However, with knowledge comes power – power over my own fears – and the power of understanding. So, I have taken it upon myself to try to understand the lives of those whose narratives are vastly different from mine. While I wish I could say I have been doing this all along in life, that would be a self-serving blatant lie. On the contrary – it all began just a few mornings ago.
I was out for my morning run without a care in the world, other than my ridiculously slow pace. As I listened to the news, story after story from the frontlines about the fractured state of our nation left me numb – but one story left my heart broken – and maybe for the first time really cognizant of the privileges I do have for being born – white. Shawn, the son of a MN State Representative, is a 17-year-old star athlete who happens to be an avid runner himself – albeit a much faster one than me. This young man’s determination to be the best he can be should be the only thing that defines just how great he can be. But that is not the case. Because he is black – he cannot run alone in the neighborhood in which he lives – because “black boys” who are running – are running from trouble. Shawn knows this first hand as he has been stopped on more than one occasion and questioned by “good folks” and the police. He has made peace with the fact that he can only run on the school track or with the team from now on – but he shouldn’t have to do that. He should be able to run in his neighborhood just like I do every morning and worry only about his pace. Amid all the other stories about racial disparity and strife, his story hit home with me.
As did the story of a fellow partner in ministry. As I read an essay written by a woman pastor in the Lutheran church her words stopped me short: “The toughest thing I have ever tried to be is both black and Lutheran.”
I spent some time by the river a few days ago – it was still rushing wildly, still rising and disturbing the landscape that directs its course. It was early morning before the sun could warm the air. Waves lapped at my feet and every so often would crash against a logjam splashing me with icy cold water. What a wake-up call.
My beginnings in the church echo the writer’s. We both had moms who were church organists, we both were in church every Sunday, and we both remained involved throughout high school and desired a deeper life with God. She pursued seminary – despite the fact that women pastors were still the rarity – I did not. But while our beginnings were the same, our experiences in the church were not. Unlike her, I have never been asked why I became a Lutheran – I am a blond Scandinavian – you just are. Nor have I been accused of not being Lutheran enough or told I am not the best one to be making decisions about the direction of our ministry based on my background. We are two women who believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. And, so are all the people who are on the margins in this world. We are two women who share a living, daring, confidence in God’s grace that welcomes all as a whole person.
My most formative years were spent in the cultural stew of Northern Virginia. I like to say that my Black, Asian, Hindu, Iranian, Turkish, and Hispanic friends were a great group of kids with similar ideals and plans for life. Ideally that would be the truth. Perhaps I was too young and colorblind to understand. Perhaps I am still too colorblind. I have scoffed at the notion of white privilege. I believe we are each responsible for making our way in this world and every single one of us will encounter hardship along the way – some more than others – but that really is life. Life is not fair. We all face circumstances that we would never wish on anyone else. But my circumstances occur in a world where I can pretty much do anything I want within the systems I have grown accustomed to. The odds are on my side if I set my mind to do something – for people like Shawn and Pastor Tiffany, the odds are not so favorable.
Yet they are confronting fear on all fronts – their own and those of a society ingrained in systems that only work for some. I am listening to their stories with an open heart and mind that wants to understand. I am confronting my fear of challenges to the systems that have served me so well because these systems are not what I chose to align my life with. Paula D’Arcy, a writer who also serves as adjunct faculty at Oblate School of Theology and Seton Cove Spirituality Center, in Texas shares in her essays “The Freedom of the Greater Heart,” and “Emancipation,” these thoughts: “The illusion is thinking that, by changing a system, an ideology, or our external circumstances, things will change. No; freedom is . . . realizing that this Love is not a symbol or an ideal; it is a living power. . . . There is a living love that exceeds our circumstances and our conditioning. That’s the truth we all must find. The profound problems of hatred, judgment, [racism,] and revenge, our jealousies and our violence, will be solved by love, and love alone.”
There is a lot of which to be afraid of in the world these days, but it is not just the spread of COVID-19, economic instability, and violence in the streets. My fear is living in a world where people align themselves with the powers gleaned from fear rather than those from courageous love.
“Chaos calls to chaos, to the tune of whitewater rapids. Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me. Then God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night! My life is God’s prayer.“ – Psalm 42:7-8
Let your light so shine!
 Stanley Saunders, Assoc. Professor of New Testament Studies, Columbia Theological Seminary. Commentary on Matthew 10:24-39