Good bye little nest. It really is time for me to fly.

I honestly did not see this night coming, even a month ago – my last night in this cozy little nest I have called home for the last 4 years. The walls of this apartment have kept me safe (although not always warm) and seen me through a lot of life – more than I ever expected to live through when I moved here. The times of sadness with the deaths of my dog and both of my parents, times of heart break, and times of frustrating illness along with times of immense joy and the triumphs of living life fully and finding “my place”, my sense of self, and my purpose in this world. I can honestly say I have grown more in heart, mind, and character in the last 4 years than I did in the entire 42 leading up to my move here.

Moving to the Flathead was a pretty bold and daunting endeavor for me and when things didn’t go “just as I had planned” I could have turned tail, took my parent’s line that I was always welcome and missed back in Billings to heart, and left. But I didn’t.

I don’t think it is a coincidence at all, that I as I close the door on this place so full of personal discovery I would also be forever severing the ties to my home of 24 years back in Billings. As the belongings of my family’s past are sold and my “home” now becomes where I make it, God has brought me to a very purposeful chapter in my life.

Until now, I always had Billings as a fall back, a safety net. Now it is all up to me. For so long my life has been in 2 places on separate sides of the state. It is hard to put down roots when you don’t know where home is. I was ok with that. Being rooted has consequences, it means you are claiming an identity of place. For so long I have struggled to define who I am. How could I know where I was supposed to be?

At some point on this year-long journey of grief book-ended by the deaths of my mother and father, I found light. Light that nudged me to see that I really do know who I am and I really do have something to offer this world. In all my brokenness, there is a place for me after all and that place is here. It is time to start planting new roots and writing the next chapter in the book of life, my own. I have never felt so sure and so damn afraid.

I have lain awake night after night of late tearfully asking myself, “What have I done???” I realized tonight as I made my way between the boxed-up necessities of daily life that what I have done is embraced the life God has called me to. I have committed myself to living life – not living in limbo. I am talking the clay off the spinning wheel and forming the mass into something. For too long I have been on an unrelenting quest to reshape my existence but never claiming it as my own. No longer. Now, as Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said: “Now with God’s help, I shall become myself.”

I feel like a baby osprey – watched by millions in my little nest, growing and strengthening my wings for one heck of a journey. Now with God’s help, I shall find home.

Good bye little nest. It really is time for me to fly.

Missing You, Dad

It’s easy to honor you this Father’s Day, Dad. Every day that I am alive, I live because you believed in me along the way… even when you had every reason not to.  Not a day has gone by the last two months that I have not thought about you, wanted to ask you a question, and hear your voice. I am afraid that one day I will not remember what you sound like, but today I can still hear your “Well heLLOOO there” whenever I called. If only I hadn’t erased that last message you left on my phone when you were still able to call me but, I didn’t know ….

I think you would be rather proud of me of late. The last two months have been quite a whirl wind and I have stayed upright – even without a toothpick anchoring me! I presided over worship and I decided to put down some roots and buy a house – all by myself and all in the same week! You would definitely approve of the yard but might think the master bathroom is a little pretentious. I know you would say it was the size of your and Mom’s first house in Dillon! Frankly, it is beyond me what I will do with all that vanity! On the bright side, I will have plenty of yardwork to keep me busy and a view that will last forever. You always said a view was more important than the house… the house could be changed; the view couldn’t be. Well, I think you will approve – granted it is an endless view of mountains not prairies, but I think I can win you over. I wish I could share my happiness of home and heart with you.

4 years ago, I would never have dreamed of calling western Montana home.  4 years ago, at this time, you were telling me that life still had much in store for me after I turned down the job offer in Whitefish because I couldn’t find a place to live in that I could afford. Just a few weeks later, you were giving me your blessing to do what I needed to do to make it happen, as long as I didn’t lose sight of my independence and my values. I never dreamed my life would become what it has, but I think you had an inkling. I felt like you really believed in me and wanted this challenge for me.

Thank you for raising me to be strong in faith, humble in mind, and trusting at heart.

Thank you for teaching me that it is okay and sometimes better to be alone, but that people really do make life richer.

Thank you for loving me through the struggles of finding my wings and learning to fly. And thank you for letting me know that you are here with me from time to time. I love you, Dad and miss you so very much.

Thinking vs. Knowing

“Thinking implies a conclusion based on an observation that has not been verified beyond the fact of the observation. Knowing implies a conclusion based on a verified observation. In other words: knowing is a form of experiential knowledge, whereas thinking is a form of assumed knowledge.”

Did you know that there is neuroscientific research that quantifies the empirical difference between thinking and knowing? If you want to get lost for hours in philosophical thought, just dive into the vast commentaries concerning epistemology – the study of knowledge and justified belief.

But perhaps we will discuss that another time. Right now, I have a very important real-life example of the difference between thinking and knowing – the damnable process of settling an estate that my brother and I thought was in order.  In truth, we had drawn conclusions on the financial and material state of my parent’s estate affairs based on our observations of our father who was “always” sharp and on top of things but we didn’t verify that our conclusions were true.

Now I know you are saying, “But Erika, you work for a financial planner – don’t you practice what you preach?” Well yes, I do and my brother and I thought our parents had heeded our advice. But there’s that ominous word thought again…

2.5 years ago, my brother, Fred and I sat down with Mom and Dad for the big “family meeting.” At the time, both Mom and Dad were in their early eighties but still living comfortably in their multi-level 4-bedroom home. Dad was active and fit, went to the gym daily, enjoyed his games of golf, and kept busy with various community board activities and church council. He loved to work in the yard and they both enjoyed their neighbors. Mom was a little less outgoing and was in a stage of slow decline following a stroke 4 years prior that she had mostly recovered from aside from the immobilization of her right arm and some mental cognition and depression issues.

My dad had always been very keen with his finances and systematic in his record keeping – at least for him. To us his filing system was convoluted – but what do you do? His system had worked for him for years and after 85 years of living there is not much you can do to change someone’s ways. Dad did all the financial business for the household while Mom spent the money, but not carelessly. For the most part, they lived frugally even though they could have pursued a loftier lifestyle – they were simple folk with simple tastes and were happy in their home.

Dad came to our living room conference prepared… he had a binder ready – complete with a few hand scribbled notes inside and a few bank and brokerage statements. He told us where his accounts were held and what types they were. He told us the house was paid off so we didn’t need to worry about that. He explained how he kept track of his savings bonds. He wanted us to know the value of his gun collection and his plans for the sale of any firearms and reloading equipment. He was quite detailed on this – and we took comfort that if he was this detailed about his shotguns, he would be as detailed with the rest of the “stuff.” He told us the silver coins he had collected for my brother and I were in the fire safe along with the deed to the house and his will.  He told us he would complete the binder with everything we asked.  Mom and Dad had preplanned their “final expenses” and had already secured their resting place in Yellowstone Valley Memorial Park with views of the golf course and rimrocks. They had even done the same for Fred and me! (Gee, thanks!) Dad also told us he had talked to his attorney about the will and that it was his intent that should he die first, Mom would be taken care of as would Fred and I.

It was a good conversation and ended in an upbeat fashion. My visit home came to an end, life continued on and then rapidly went downhill.

Within 4 months of that visit my mom’s health declined rapidly and she was admitted to the hospital the day after Labor Day. This began a series of readmissions on a near monthly basis until her last emergency trip just before Christmas of 2015. At that point, her medical care team deemed her too unstable to return home and the drawn-out process of getting the insurance company to agree to pay for long-term care began. We found a suitable care facility for her in Billings, though she was not happy there nor about not returning home. We had to tailor our discussions of family financial matters and end of life decisions so that she would not lose hope. At some point the discussions just stopped. By March, Mom seemed to rally and her mood brightened only to take us all by surprise by passing peacefully in her sleep on March 20, 2016. The insurance company finally approved her long-term care the following week.

Once the mourning process had settled and Dad had his feet back under him, he told us he met with his attorney. And then, within 2 months of my mother’s death, Dad was diagnosed with cancer and a new battle began. Anyone who has had cancer strike a close family member knows that life as you know it ceases and the focus becomes centered on a cure and recovery and the chaos that surrounds the patient. He had surgery in July, his treatments began in August, and by the middle of November, the doctors declared him cancer free. Unfortunately, in the process of killing the cancer they nearly killed my dad. He never recovered. Despite living on his own throughout the cancer battle, by February of 2017 we knew Dad needed more help than we could provide at home so we admitted him to respite care. In a moment of financial clarity and purpose, my brother was able to accompany Dad to the bank to get Power of Attorney established for his bank accounts in order to keep up with the medical bills we were still receiving for my mom’s care on top of Dad’s.

The respite care became permanent. Soon Dad’s mental faculties began to deteriorate – rapidly and his physical condition did too. He would have moments of cognition but was spending more and more of his days “with” our Mom or out on the range harkening back to his days as a range manager.  We never gave up hope, clinging to statements from doctors that his symptoms were not out of the norm for cancer patients, that he had a thyroid deficiency, that if we could get him to eat more his brain would respond. But by March the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was made and it was rapidly attacking his brain.

Talking about end of life issues like wills and beneficiaries is not what you do when you are trying to rally around someone, especially your father. To make matters worse, the disease attacking his brain was making him suspicious and extremely anxious about money issues. The man that once openly discussed financial issues with his children and later adult children had become very protective of the information he gave us. We felt like greedy children looking to grab Dad’s money –  when in fact all were doing was trying to understand where things stood. The last thing we wanted was to come across like we were losing hope in his recovery. The chaos of caregiving overrides any thought of financial and estate matters and the emotional toll it takes on the caregiver leaves little energy left for thinking about anything other than getting sleep and praying for miracles.

Pray we did. Then, just 13 short months after our mother passed away, our Dad did too.

I share our story, because we thought we had time for the financial discussions, for confirming what we thought to be true, but once the rapid downward spiral began that time was long past. Life can change in an instant or a year. We were not prepared.

In the aftermath of our parent’s deaths, my brother and I began to discover that what we thought had been taken care of was far different from what actually was.

Dad, God bless him, did have the presence of mind to update his beneficiaries on his IRA’s and brokerage accounts. We can thank his financial advisor for steering him in that direction. When she closed out our mother’s accounts, she made sure Dad’s were up to date – naming my brother and me as beneficiaries.  Dad had also arranged for his shooting partner to sell off his shotguns within the trap club community- again, God bless his foresight. But that is where his system ended.

We began discovering death benefits and life insurance policies existed, only when notices from the government arrived in the mail. His savings bond record system that he had meticulously maintained apparently went kaput when his computer was infected with a virus 2 years ago and it was beyond him to start again. And then there is that bastion of family fealty, the will.

Despite all the conversations he had engaged in with his attorney over the past 2 years, that is all they were – conversations. Unfortunately, not every service provider is as proactive as my dad’s financial advisor or Coco Enterprises. The will that was drawn up in 1979 when I was 8 and my brother was 17 was the only one on file. It named my dad’s brother as executor, my mother’s sister as guardian and second executor, and my mother’s brother as the last resort or the estate would be turned over to the bank to be executed. 38 years later, my dad’s brother is in poor health and unable to leave his home, my mother’s sister is 86 and failing, my mother’s brother has passed away, and the bank no longer exists. There was nothing stipulating any changes to my dad’s instructions should my brother and I reach adulthood and be sole survivors. So, despite the fact that my brother and I have no disagreement on how the estate should be divided, the existence of a will does us no favors as it is out of date and leaves much to question.

Welcome to the wonderful world of probate where the wheels of progress turn excruciatingly slow. The attorney who was a phone call away for my dad has far more lucrative cases to focus on and won’t answer any of our questions. We are stuck with a looming estate sale deadline, a house to sell, a brand-new car in the garage whose title can’t be transferred and thus not insured or driven, and savings bonds that can’t be redeemed – until the process of probate is fully fleshed out. We don’t even know who will lead the charge of fleshing it out! And these are just the most obvious objects of the mess.

This is why it is so important to participate in the annual reviews we encourage you to schedule with us. Not only do we go over the performance of your accounts, we make sure your beneficiaries are up to date. We review what accounts you have with us and elsewhere. We track life insurance policies. We request copies of your will if you have one (and believe me, you had better!) so we can help you review it and keep your financial and family lives in step with each other. This is all part of the services we provide our clients because we care about more than just your money – we care about you and your family. We want you to flourish financially. We don’t want to see your financial life become a burden to you or your survivors.

A lot can change in one year; have your estate plans and financial records changed as well? Take it from someone who should have known and not just thought, it is far better and easier to discuss financial matters and end of life plans when life is good than when your mind is clouded with the stress and sorrow of sickness, tragedy, or death.

 

The Spirit at Work

 

 Writing a sermon, I am learning, is far more than sitting down and writing about whatever moves me. It entails a thorough reading and research of the scriptures and lots of time spent pondering the message contained therein until the Spirit moves me to share that message in a way that is relevant to today and moves others to a closer relationship with and/or understanding of God. This is exciting  to the writer in me but I am also daunted by the incredible opportunity and responsibility I have to share the message of Jesus Christ! It is a heavy burden knowing that someone in the pews really needs God in their heart that day and I don’t want to let them down. I want my words to be God’s words and I want them to mean something! And so, after much prayer for the right words, God’s words. I endeavor to bring His light to someone’s life. 

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Grace and peace to you, fro God our Father.

In today’s Gospel, we find the disciples hidden away on the evening of Easter Sunday – their Lord had just been crucified, died, and apparently risen and they had been left behind. These were the people who had given up their lives to follow Jesus. Their hope for the promise of salvation that Jesus taught had now become their fear. I am quite certain none of the Disciples expected the story to end this way when they signed on with Jesus. How could they possibly comprehend that the story was just beginning as they wrestled with their fear, grief, and shock at what they had seen that morning, gathered in the safe confines of that locked room? What had they just witnessed? Would they be next in line for the cross if they continued to spread the news of Jesus the Messiah? To the casual bystander, the story of Jesus Christ “the Messiah” appeared to be an utter failure!  Would the Disciples trust the words of Jesus that he would indeed return, that they would never be left alone, or would they let their dreams die on the cross? Amid the Disciples shock at Jesus’ resurrection and their fear of the unknown, Jesus broke through the barriers of this world and came as a vessel of peace. He breathed into them the amazing gift of the Holy Spirit – giving them and all who believe His ever-abiding presence, His oneness with us and with God, and the strength that comes only from an uncompromising faith.

How often do you let your own dreams die on the cross? How often do you rely on what you know to be true when facing big decisions rather than where your heart – the Spirit within you-  is leading you? We come to church on Sunday mornings to be fed with the bread of life and have a right spirit renewed within us, and then what? We go back to our comfort zones because we are comfortable and have control over what happens there. Why is it so difficult for us to trust this Spirit we seek on Sundays with all of our days and all of our ways? We like to leave “it” safely behind in the church sanctuary “where it belongs” until next week.

We make our way through life, trying to control our interactions, the outcomes of our actions, and we expect certain results from our efforts –  but we blame God when things don’t turn out as we intended. We believe we can secure our destiny and our salvation through our own means, even if our ways lead us to despair. This is human nature. We are given free will after all, and we like to run wild with it at times. But what guides that will? From whom do we seek our direction?

For those of us lucky enough to have been schooled on Luther’s Small Catechism, we know (but perhaps we have forgotten or are too set in our logical ways) that our friend Martin emphasized our utter dependence on faith. This faith cannot exist apart from the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the Word. We cannot believe in Jesus Christ without the aid of the Holy Spirit nor enjoy God’s saving power without the Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ calls us through the gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, makes us holy, and keeps us in faith not by our own means and strength but only through the Holy Spirit that dwells in us just as it does the whole church.

In todays’ readings, we find very different manifestations of this Spirit. We hear about the powerful rushing wind-like force of the Spirit complete with lashing tongues of flame – the Spirit we traditionally associate with Pentecost – the Spirit that gave birth to the church, and we hear about a much more intimate encounter with the Spirit – where the Holy Spirit speaks of peace and breathes into our hearts and empowers us.

We see the Spirit at work in the texts, at times doing some pretty amazing things – creating community, renewing the creation of earth, inspiring gifts in service to the Lord, and breathing life into and empowering dreams – but do we stop to recognize when the Spirit is at work in our own lives?

We are infinitely blessed by the Spirit’s work in the creation and we rejoice in the grandeur that surrounds us. We give thanks for the bounties and blessings He provides when we gather in celebrations. We see the goodness of God when life is good, but when we face challenges in life- be it a serious illness, loss of a job, divorce, death, financial troubles, wayward children, struggles with addiction, even just the daily monotony of living that wears us down – we wonder “Where is God in this?”  But what if God is right there in the mess?

He is, you know, always, just as He promised.  And that is what makes us nervous. The Spirit is always with us and at work in ways that will sometimes affirm, sometimes surprise, and sometimes forever alter our faith in Jesus. That is the Spirit’s intent. If only our faith was as strong and true as our hindsight!

None of us are immune to the difficult challenges of life. I will be the first to admit to bouts of faltering faith, complete frustration, irritation, hopelessness, and despair especially in the last year, as I dealt first with my mother’s unexpected death, my father’s cancer diagnosis and debilitating treatment, my own health crisis, and then Dad’s rapid onset of Alzheimer’s leading up to his recent death – my faith faltered and despair hung over me – for as long as I was trying to control the outcomes. This was not how 2017 was supposed unfold! Things like this didn’t happen to us! It wasn’t supposed end this way! Yes, I demanded, where was God in this chaos?

He was right there with me, and when I yielded control and opened my heart to accept that His way was better than MY way, that life was unfolding as it would even though I couldn’t comprehend why at the time, I felt empowered to keep on. God moved me out of my comfort zone, that frankly really wasn’t all that comfortable, and with His Spirit coming alongside, showed me the peace that comes with trusting that He was with me and would guide me when I needed to be guided, He would lead me when I needed to be led, and He would comfort me when rest was needed but would not come. Just as He was doing with my Dad.

Where was God? Well, not only was he working through the Holy Spirit in me, he was working through the Holy Spirit in YOU! That same Holy Spirit that was coming alongside me was manifested in and poured out from you! Just as Paul said, some of you were given the gift of wisdom which you shared with me when I was frustrated, some of you were given faith which you held for me when mine was faltering, and some of you were given the gift of healing which you did when you cared for me. And it wasn’t just me that was the beneficiary of these gifts and all the fruits of the Spirit. I saw them poured out from you in times of need and times of joy onto other members of this congregation, on members of our community, and this church body as a whole.

That is the Spirit at work. There you see God.

Without the Holy Spirit’s presence, there is no Christian community because the Holy Spirit is essential in calling, gathering, and creating community. The Holy Spirit is the direct presence of God in our life.  The Spirit expressed in the love of our hearts and that remains there throughout our lives is God’s spirit. God will act in our life in ways we don’t always understand or even like. God will correct us when our ways need correcting and sanctify us with the grace revealed in the resurrection when our human predicament of sin gets in the way.

That is the Spirit at work. There you see God.

My Dad knew and was guided by the Spirit within him and he was the greatest example of a life lived in faith that I have ever known. He lived assured in his decisions and he carried an essence of joy with him because of this. He knew how important it was that his children had the same foundation of faith and confidence that he did. He was eager to get to church on Sunday mornings and he did not leave the Spirit safely behind. Aside from his love, our faith is the greatest gift our Dad could have my brother and I. The circumstances of my Dad’s last days were beyond my brother’s and my control and seemed at times to be a constant swirling chaos in our heart and minds. We felt we were failing him, that we had to do more.  But the same empowering peace the Holy Spirit breathed into the Disciples was ever present in my Dad throughout his last days. As Dad left us, he took with him an intangible part of our lives and we were emptied but the one called alongside us, the Holy Spirit breathed into us His empowering peace, redeeming our greatest loss into our Dad’s greatest victory.

That is the Spirit at work. There we saw God.

The Holy Spirit is there to guide us, to comfort us, and advocate for us. Look at what God has done- the Word became man; this man did things so contrary to popular belief that he had every reason to fail; and He endured the ultimate failure – humanity’s greatest failure – humiliation for His acts and death on the cross. But God redeemed our failure with the ultimate victory over sin and death – raising His Son in the glory of the resurrection and sending the Holy Spirit to dwell within us.  If God can do this, imagine what He can and will do in your life!

Will you let go of your fears and be nudged from your comfort zones? Will you trust the Holy Spirit with your dreams and let Him guide your life?

Let us pray-

Come Holy Spirit, help us in our unbelief and open our hearts to the work you are doing in our life. Direct us by the light of your Spirit that we may have a right judgement in all things and rejoice always in your presence and peace. We are never alone for you are our Lord and our God. Amen