Take Heart

It had been a long time in coming. For this impatient one at least.

The cloudless sky was bluebird, the sun brilliant, and the wind blasting and bracing. The smile on my face emanated from the tips of my toes as I stood firmly planted on the rocky outcrop – not a wobble in sight. My eyes glistened – from the wind mind you – as I stood atop the mountain and thanked God for knocking me off my pedestal of independence and caring enough to prove me wrong.

A few months ago, I had convinced myself that moments like this were not the end-all-be-all of my being. I was ready to write off my 50th year around the sun as a year of contentment with discontent. In fact I even wrote it down as such – albeit framing it as turning over a “new leaf” and embracing a “new way of thinking and living.” Faced with what I thought was a running career- and-joy-ending injury and still recovering from a major life upheaval – I was setting “a new course” and making peace with the cards life had dealt me.

Well, it turns out all I was really doing was continuing along  with the misguided idea that I had a mythic ability to not only heal thyself but control my destiny. My brother says it is in our blood – that my Nordic ancestry has made me strong-willed, obstinate at times, and thoroughly self-assured and self-possessed when it comes to matters of me. I am not one to seek or ask for help – knowing that I know what is best for me. My sky had fallen, and as per my usual modus operandi, I was stoically going about dealing with it as I knew best – my way.

But that wasn’t working. Deep in my heart I knew who I was trying to be and what I was trying to do wasn’t my reality, nor was it good for me. But I fought with all my might the notion that I might be wrong again – that this wasn’t the path I was destined to follow, that my inner compass may have been thrown off whack – by, oh, I don’t know – a pandemic?

We all face challenging times in life. We are all vulnerable to captivity by circumstances or conditions – be they physical, elemental, or spiritual – sometimes beyond our control. Each of us will respond as best we can – we simply do – even if it does not appear that way to others.

Unlike when we face a public tragedy – like the death of a loved one or a serious illness and are the focus of sympathies – these struggles are the ones we don’t share, they go too deep.

Sometimes it seems as though no one sees us, that no one could possibly understand the complexities we are facing or the anxiety we are dealing with; feel the sadness that grips us; comprehend the disappointment that lingers in us; or respect the fears that haunt us. Held captive by them long enough, our challenges can consume us, cloaking us in their heaviness and keeping us from seeing beyond them. Sometimes, this impenetrable darkness becomes unbearable, as our recent tragic spate of suicides across several generations in the Valley can attest. Other times, the darkness just eats away at us, slowly taking life from us.

The inner conflict I was experiencing became so intense I was seriously contemplating changing the course of my life altogether – the mountains that once called me now taunted me, the roads I once ran down were now streets of unmet desire; the little place I call home began to feel like an albatross, the faces and places that once made me happy served only to remind me of my failures and what could have been. My whole reason for being felt called into question. Why was I even here? I considered leaving everything I have here – my home, my church, my choirs, my mountains, my friends, and yes, even my job – behind to find a new course – one that fit my “turned over a new leaf” lifestyle. It just seemed easier that way. It was the best thing I could think of doing – because I had to do something.

Yes, you might say I was in a desperate state of funk!  A state my usual countenance hid well. And as such, no one paid heed. The shadows that hung over me kept me from being seen and the voices I listened to, namely me, myself, and I did a good job of hushing me even when I called out to God.

Perhaps that is why I identified so easily with Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in the Gospel of Mark during a recent reading. Bartimaeus once had a sighted life – perhaps even a full life – but was cast to the side of society by his blindness and condemned to his cloak of impoverishment. He so wanted to escape his condition, his circumstances – but begging was the best he could do. Then he heard that Jesus was passing through town and was coming his way along the road on which he begged. Mustering his courage despite the crowds trying to silence this stain on their community, Bartimaeus called out again and again to the One he believed would save him from his desolate place. He persevered despite the voices yelling at him to be quiet.

But there was one voice that spoke louder – to both of us.

“Call her here.” Jesus spoke over the cacophony in my head. Just as he did to Bartimaeus. And that cacophony in my head stopped! What filled the silence was not wholly unexpected given my lifelong following of Jesus, but it was certainly one of those “long-time no-hear pal” assurances. “Take heart! He is calling you!” Mk 10:49

Calling me to see things from His point of view; calling me to question my certainty of the direction my life was going in and instead place my certainty in Him; calling me to let go of my ways or the highway for once and maybe just maybe let others reflect His way in my life.

And so, like Bartimaeus, I did! I threw off my heavy cloak – I had grown so accustomed to wearing – even comforted by – and went!

In the story of Bartimaeus, Jesus asks him “What do you want me to do for you?” Boldly, Bartimaeus responds, “Let me see again.”  And Jesus sends him on his way saying, “Go, your faith has saved you.” Immediately, he receives his sight – but he didn’t go. Instead, Bartimaeus followed – followed Jesus on the way – the way that leads Jesus to the cross.

So, were all my struggles gone just like that? Have all my years of being a “good Christian” finally paid off? Have I finally merited some mercy here on earth?

Nope! That’s not how it works.

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from 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 12:8-9

As theologian Henri Nouwen posits, the deepest pain that you and I suffer is often pain that stays with us all our lives. It cannot simply be fixed or done away with. So, what do we do with “that pain, with that brokenness, that anguish, that agony that continually rises up in our heart?” We are called to embrace it, to befriend it, and say that this is my pain and it is the way God is willing to show me His love.

Here’s the awesome thing about that acceptance: Who knew that God has ears and hands and hearts right here on earth ready and willing to help us along the way? When we are consumed by our suffering; or, as in my case, stubbornness, these ears, hands, and hearts are easy to overlook. But if we take the chance of seeing as God sees – we find them.

God led me to seek out a caring listener who helped me sort through the cacophony, take a 30,000 ft view, a 10ft view, and a heart level view of my lot in life, and plan a course of action for living life fully right where I am rather than chase off looking for it.

God walked with me into the office of a physical therapist (my personal miracle worker) who didn’t tell me I would never run again! No! She said that together we would get me running again and running better! Together!

Not stopping there, God showed me there are others who want to do this journey with me. Me! The one hidden by her own blind certainty instead shining her truth in His light.

And in recent days, God has shown me how I can walk alongside others who need someone to walk alongside them. My challenges have become vessels for me to share God’s love.

God loved me through my desperate funk. He used my worst moments to show me just how much He loves me. And I truly believe God will do the same with you. I will believe that for you – when it is too dark for you to see that light.

That’s how it is when Jesus gets to join you on the way. Life doesn’t seem quite so heavy, so uncertain, so lonely, so dark. Sure, there are storms – but with them comes the revealing afterlight of God’s love.

The love you feel when the pain gives way to running with joy again. The love you feel when you know you are not alone – even when you make your way through life by yourself. The love you feel as you stand on a mountain top overlooking God’s grand creation and marvel at His wonders – knowing that you are one of them. Take heart.

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” ISAIAH 43:18-19

Let your light so shine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going West

“I’d say Lord has blessed us all today. It’s just that he has been particularly good to me.” – A River Runs Through It

Amen.

Let it be so. I could leave it at that sweet word of thanksgiving to sum this wonderful day up – but I am too much in love with words to be so concise. 😊

Go west, young lady, go west.

So west I went and I almost didn’t come back.

Have you ever been so relaxed in God’s creation that you cry? As the miles and hours passed en route to my destination I could have pinched myself. This was not a Glacier Park experience by any means. No 3 a.m. wake-up blasts to beat the maddening crowds, no seeing nothing but red taillights on the road before me, no wondering if I would find a place at the trailhead to park, or a private place on the trail to find a tree, no spiking of my blood pressure or clenched teeth. No, none of that!!!

As this peaceful Sunday morning unfolded, I was transported by Dvorak and Vivaldi into a place and time that I used to know. Pulse quickening anticipation of what awaited me – something new and unknown.

The autumn tapestry before me was like a warm quilt embracing me – not a red tail light in sight – just deep russet berry bushes lining the creek and river banks, rich cinnamon and sienna reds bringing Ember to mind, and leafy golden splashes of soaring light.

It was as if God was in His studio painting away – reading every thought of mine and knowing just the “thing” I needed.

Joy.

What I needed was joy.

Unadulterated, uncalculated, uncomplicated joy.

Honestly, the whole day seemed to be a simple gift, an answered prayer, a whisper of grace with every step leading me to joy.

Theologian Henri Nouwen writes that a joyful vision of life only can come when we realize just how short an opportunity we have to say yes to God’s love. Poet David Whyte says that to find joy you must become a living frontier. To both I can attest.

Amen. Let it be so.

A September of Sighs

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

I was driving back to my current home after visiting what will always be my home for a long holiday weekend. Living as I do in MT with my current home in the NW corner of this great big state and the place that will always be home on the far southeastern side – my drive was a long one – filled with long, deep sighs.

I love a good solo road trip – especially on the lesser-traveled backroads of MT. As the mountains give way to miles and miles of great big spaces, the familiar but always changing scenery usually takes me away from the daily stressors that fill my day-to-day experience. But not this time. In addition to the unexpected, unusual, and truthfully – unwelcome traffic – so many things weighed upon my heart and mind – decisions awaiting me, regrets, hopes, frustration, forgiveness, uncertainty, worry, homesickness, and the feeling that my soul was just tired. I sighed so much I almost got light-headed!!

Truth is, I find myself sighing more and more these days. I wish I could say they were all sighs of delight as I watch a glorious sunrise or sighs of contented rest as the last light of day paints the sky. No, these sighs have the hint of a whimper if not an all-out groan.

I sigh over all the things I had planned for this summer that didn’t happen and the ones that unfortunately did. I sigh over the rapid changes that are taking place in the two communities I call home – changes I don’t much care for.  I sigh when even the good-news news feeds I subscribe to struggle to find good news. I sigh at the struggles I see taking place in lives far different from mine – and yet no less important. I read the news and sigh. Haiti, Afghanistan, Hurricane Ida, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, racism, refugees, border closures, businesses closing, workers losing their homes, local, state, and national political divisions, and the relentless bickering over everything and anything! I sigh because things just don’t make sense, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Smoke-filled skies.

I sigh over our collective loss of civility and mutual respect for one another. The ongoing pandemic with its mask mandates, school closures, parent protests, vaccine mandates, hospitals being overwhelmed, fear and falsehoods spreading as fast as the virus itself, not to mention the weekly if not sometimes daily word of someone I know dying from the virus feels in itself like one great big life-sucking sigh.  I sigh as I reflect on the 20 years that have passed since 9/11 – wondering at how that passage of time is even possible and wondering again at how much things have changed. I sigh when I realize how little things have changed. I sigh when I catch myself turning to old patterns of living or thinking and don’t give a darn anymore. I sigh when agendas and individual agency become more important than love.

At times it feels like all I can do is expel a deep, groaning, relentless sigh.

What about you? What causes you to sigh today? Although I often feel very alone in my sighs, maybe we are sighing over some of the same things. Maybe I just made you take one big head-shaking sigh!

We sigh for lots of different reasons. Scientifically speaking, sighs are life-sustaining. It’s suggested that when we sigh, the action serves as a biological reset button, bringing on feelings of relief. Sighing allows an extra burst of oxygen to enter our lungs, which leads to improved blood flow, feelings of relaxation, and lowered levels of stress.

But what if our sighs were more than just biological but a spiritual awakening. What if our sighs serve as a revelation to us that we have encountered a closed place within ourselves, in a relationship, or in our life? In a passage from the Gospel of Mark, the people of a region Jesus is traveling through brought him a man who is closed. His ears are stopped up and his tongue is tied. Jesus took the man “aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”

Jesus encounters a man who is physically closed off from the world, unable to hear or speak but with the sigh and command from Jesus, the man is opened to the world.

How many of our sighs come at times when we cannot hear or feel the peace of God in our lives or speak the words of His truth – because we frankly find them hard to believe?

I think most of us think of our sighs as a form of surrender – we accept that this is just how things are going to be. In doing so, we close ourselves off from the future, each other, and the possibility of something new happening. With that tired breath out, we resign from life.

But what if our sighs are not just a surrender to the way things are going to be but instead, a continuation of the creation story – that with each sigh we release, God breathes into us new life? With each sigh released – God gives us a glimpse – however momentary – of the good things, of the openings God intends for us?  And for that life-sustaining moment, we relax, we rest, we see clearer, and feel a bit more alive.

When I look at the sighs in my life – and especially those that rode shotgun on my recent road trip – I can see my actions and reactions, my ways of thinking, my version of the truth, my dreams and hopes, and my vision for how life should be. My sighs are a reflection of all of those things as they play out in my life.

When I sigh a little longer and breathe in a little deeper, I also see the closed parts in me – the parts that don’t necessarily want to hear what God has to say. The parts I’d rather not put into words.  The parts of me I need to release from deep within. Those sighs tell me that I still have work to do, and they point me towards healing as well as opportunities for growth.

If we sit with our sighs – let them linger in the air for a while – before hurriedly moving on, maybe we can learn something important about ourselves. We might see what is not right with us and maybe just maybe feel a spark of something new – something better… After a summer of smoky skies closing in upon us – I am ready to be opened by a breath of fresh air from God leading me towards a better way to be.  Where are your sighs leading you?

“Whether you are surrounded by the singing of a lamp or the sounds of a storm, by the breathing of the evening or the sighing of the sea, there is a vast melody woven of a thousand voices that never leaves you and only occasionally leaves room for your solo.”

– Rainier Maria Rilke  (Letters on Life)

A true sigh of delight as morning breaks in eastern Montana.

Let your light so shine!

Confessions of an Extremist

Having completed 50 evolutions around the sun, I expected this year to be my shining moment – that perfect balance of life experiences which would in turn inform a wealth of new discoveries. I have indeed learned many valuable life lessons up to this point in my life but the new discoveries I am making in this 50th year aren’t the grand adventures I was hoping for – just more hard lessons. My parents decided against naming me Grace for a reason and I am finally seeing that there was more to that reasoning than my affinity for tripping on my shadow.

Perfect balance

You see, balance is not my forte. You will not see me standing on one leg for any length of time – nor making it across a rushing creek by hopping rocks – without getting soaking wet.  “Better, Stronger, Faster”, “No Pain, No Gain”, and “A Jane of all trades, is a master of none…” (my adaptation) were the mantras I followed for much of my life – believing that I could always be better – I was never enough; that pain was just a part of the deal, and once I found something I was good at I had to be the best at it and I went all in – all or nothing. Sure, these are all noble ideals when part of a well-rounded life-style buoyed by a healthy self-image or specific goals – but dangerous when they become coping mechanisms to deal with the challenges and travails of living.  Everything in moderation is a nice concept but putting it into practice has never occurred to me. 

Balance – in many facets of my life – has eluded me. I have always marveled at gymnasts who can twirl, leap and spin on a plank no wider than my hand; athletes who never seem to falter; dieters who manage to find the perfect combination of health and pleasure in their meals; professionals who have a successful career and an equally fulfilling personal life; climbers who can leap from ledge to ledge with full confidence in their footing; couples who can’t get enough of each other and yet celebrate their individuality… I could go on.

As the office administrator for a financial advisory firm – readers can take comfort that I have at least succeeded in mastering a balanced checkbook and have never once carried a balance on a credit card. But for most everything else in life I tend to go to extremes.

Take my running. I am a runner. Period. It is who I am. People who I’ve never met before greet me as an old friend in the grocery store saying  “Oh, you’re the runner we see every morning.”  For 35+ years I have started every day with a run. Nothing got in the way except for when I was physically incapable of doing so and even then – running injured became a badge of honor. Just like the Olympic gymnast who wins gold with her blown ankles wrapped to keep them stiff, I chased mile after mile through stress fractures, shin splints, migraines, and fevers. I was driven to log more miles than the day before – even in a blizzard. Don’t ask me why – it was simply ingrained in me to start every day that way – always going a little bit farther then the day before. I even ran 8 miles on the morning of my morning wedding. And God help me and those around me if I couldn’t run… it wasn’t pretty.

And this is where the hard lessons have finally come to light  – to use an old adage – again adapted  – the chicken running with her head cut off finally came home to roost – because this year I finally couldn’t. I couldn’t run any more.

It took a broken foot and the ensuing overcompensation injuries that followed to lead me down a path of discovery I never wanted to go on. And yet what a discovery it has been! I realized just how out of balance my life has been. Not that I didn’t already know it – I was just finally forced to come to terms with this tidbit of truth. More is not always better – and choosing balance is a lot harder than chasing the single-minded ease of excessiveness – of going to the extremes.

Extreme runners know they should cross-train but it is so much easier to fall in step with the farther-faster mindset and seek that addictive runner’s high rather than balance their daily training with strength and restorative work. This will inevitably come back to bite us somewhere down the road when an overtraining, overuse, or overcompensating injury sidelines us – as I learned the hard way this year. There I was, sidelined from my greatest coping mechanism of all time – running – during one of the most stressful, challenging times of my life. While I never ran from a challenge, running helped me through them. Now I was forced to not only come to terms with the challenges of life but I also had to shift my identity.

Letting go of running has been quite daunting and challenging – I literally built my life around it. What was I supposed to do with my Saturday mornings now that a 17-mile run was off the schedule let alone – how do I face each day? My well-meaning friends didn’t help matters when they also chimed in with “but what will you do?” What will I do?  As if the only thing I was truly capable of was a good run!

I was filled with anxiety. I became depressed. My serotonin levels – naturally elevated by endorphins – plummeted. I had a hard time sleeping. Adjusting from a daily half marathon of exertion to virtually no activity at least at the time of my broken foot left me feeling like I was bouncing off the walls.

This would never do. And then I discovered chair cardio.

Friends, this is not the “Sit and Be Fit” your 90 yr. old grandmother enjoys before playing Bridge at the senior center. No, this was an intense set of core workouts I found through the wonders of YouTube led by a runner and trainer who had also broken her foot and needed an outlet during recovery. She was also an extremist when it came to fitness – the operative word being WAS.

One of her favorite mottos is: More is not better – better is better. Having a balanced approach to exercise is a lot more work and a lot harder to do than going to the extremes.

I came to realize the coping mechanism that had been so valuable to me through the ups and downs and the joys and the griefs of life had become a prominent roadblock to my growth. My rigid my-way- is-the-only-way-for-me thinking had not served me as well as I thought – in more ways than just running!  I branched out to cross-training, high-intensity interval training, lifting weights, and doing a cross between Pilates and yoga. And I discovered that a fast walk works your legs more than an easy sprint – without the pain! Who knew?

I won’t say that I don’t long for those long Saturday morning runs and the exhilaration of a fast sprint to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” … Indeed, I am having a hard time coming to terms with the idea that my running days – that my life as a runner – may be behind me even as I realize that my running also brought me pain – pain that has kept me from enjoying the other parts of my life.

As I learned that running wasn’t the only thing I could do to stay fit and actually enjoy doing because it feels good, I began to grow stronger in mind AND body. I am finding a new place to anchor my identity – not in the extremes of my miles logged and my performance but in the wholeness of my being – created and loved by God

One of the primary difficulties of a lifestyle change – or any major change in thinking – revolves around our attachment to our identity. Although we can clearly see it is an obstacle to our growth, the loss of this part of our identity is daunting. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the loss of an old and tired or detrimental feature of our identity may provoke a deep sense of loss. The uncertainty of new terrain invokes discomfort – even disingenuity – as we encounter surprises and maybe feel a bit less confident as we learn new things. Embracing new ideas and new ways of living takes work and perseverance. But when we let go of our disserving coping mechanisms, rigid thinking, or extreme ideals and break free of old, worn-out encumbrances we give way to higher forms of ourselves. We are coping. We are thinking not just following the easy path because it affirms us. We are stronger and able to see anew.

I can’t help but think there may be a lesson in this for our politics and our times.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Romans 12:2

Memories of the miles…

Let your light so shine!

 

What Difference Does Any of This Make?

credit:istock

August 1, 2021

A sermon based on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35

Dear Friends in Christ,

What difference does this make? What difference does any of THIS MAKE? That was the question I asked myself as I finished reading through what I thought was my third and final attempt at a message for you this Sunday. What difference does any of this make in our lives after this hour together is over and we go back out into the world?

You came or joined us online fully expecting to sit for a minute or two to ponder at another week behind you and another one about to start, to confess and be absolved of your sins, to hear a few stories about God and Jesus, hear me try to make sense of these stories for 15 minutes if you mind doesn’t wander off,  sing a few songs, say a few prayers, eat the bread, drink the wine and maybe leave a little something in the offering plate as you depart and get on with your day.

 It’s a routine many of us have done our whole lives – even before we knew we were doing it. Until we couldn’t – at least not in the ways we have always done it before. And yet life still went on. And so, as I read through the lessons and Gospel for today, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of cynicism creeping in. Manna from heaven, unity in Christ, just believe and never again hunger or thirst. As I looked in the mirror, as I surveyed my heart, as I thought about you and the community in which we live, the nation and the world – it all sounded rather trite.

 In the context of our current  communal experience on the timeline of human history, I couldn’t help but think – what difference does any of this make – this worship, these words, this faith in God – because it sure seems like this world – that we are a part of – is as messed up as when Moses was leading the Israelites in the wilderness and a Man who fed the hungry and healed the afflicted was hung up on a cross to die a brutal death by the powers that be.

What difference does any of this make to the farmer who just lost his livelihood to a brutal drought, or the lines of tourists waiting at the gate to Glacier, or the cattle rancher forced to cull his herd because he can’t feed it, or the concert promoter bringing in thousands of revelers to our community, or the exhausted wildland firefighter called to fire after fire in an endless season of fire, or the ER nurse seeing patient after patient arrives with a potentially lethal virus that could have been prevented, or the former business owner whose livelihood was lost, or the new business owner finally seeing a profit, or the family who just celebrated a joyous reunion, or the woman who has spent the last 16 months painfully alone.  What difference does it make to those who tell me they have never felt more distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life?

Have we not evolved at all in our human endeavors since we cried out: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Indeed, the past two years have seemed like a biblical wilderness experience. COVID has impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to the Spring of 2021. We’ve seen the rise of racial tensions and been called to a racial reckoning. Economic disparity is as evident as ever as many lost their jobs and their homes while others are cashing in on newfound wealth. Political polarization and disinformation are rampant and threatening our democracy.  The earth is at once drying out and burning up and drowning in epic flooding upending lives and communities. And now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” that threatens to upend our semblance of normal life once again.

 What difference does God make in this wilderness?

While the wilderness for those of us accustomed to its raw beauty and proximity can be a source for rest and recreation there is another kind of wilderness place – a place you didn’t expect to be in, a place that’s unfamiliar and beyond your control, a place of testing and doubt, and a place that calls into question much of what you thought mattered in life.

Whether you are adventurous or not, you’ve probably been there. It’s the place you may find yourself in right now, or after a divorce, a significant death, the loss of a job, a career or lifestyle-ending injury, a loss of a significant friendship, a challenge to your ideals, or a serious diagnosis. It’s that feeling you get deep inside when the life you once knew is suddenly pulled out from under you. You feel bewildered, broken, and alone.

 These wildernesses have a way of stripping away all the trappings we bring with us in life to make it more livable – the comforts of home, the security of routine, our notions of self and the things that make us happy. In their wake we are forced to reckon with our deepest most basic longings – the hunger for a sense of identity, belonging, meaning, and purpose we’ve made our way through life trying to satisfy.

That’s a hard hunger to fill, especially in the wilderness.

St Theresa once said that the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.  Substitute a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and meaning for life and the message is the same. When we have it – it feels like we have everything. Without it it feels like we have lost everything.

The Israelites knew that feeling. They had been wandering for a very long time – their sense of place non-existent, their sense of identity in flux, and their trust in their leaders Aaron and Moses, waning. On top of this, they are hungry. No wonder they start waxing nostalgic. I can’t blame them. When my present gets tough, I tend to linger in the before times – longing for the life I once had. After all, it was what we know and with familiarity comes comfort. Never mind the fact the Israelites had escaped brutal enslavement, at least they had lamb stew and bread to eat. Wandering as they are without a sense of identity or place – it is easier to see the benefits of the past they left behind instead of contemplating the possibilities of what could be. 

Hearing their protest, God intervenes by providing manna and quail for them to eat – and reminding them of His presence. God knows that a hungry body, heart, and mind can focus on nothing else than satisfying that hunger and so God provides – food for the body as well as restoring their sense of identity – as God’s people with a future and a promised land.

And that’s why all this matters. You see, if I lingered more with God than in the wonders of my past, I would recall many of those times weren’t so wonderful until God made them so. 

It’s no wonder this story is recalled as Jesus speaks to his disciples and the crowd that didn’t just follow – but chased after Him to Capernaum. Here we find Jesus fresh off his miraculous feeding of the 5000, walking on water, and stilling the storm. Not only is the crowd still hungry, but they are full of questions for the man they want to be their king.

They’d not had a Passover feast quite like the one they just experienced, and they wanted more. There was something about that bread – and more than likely the fish too. (But who wants to do a 6-week sermon series on smelly fish?)

Like his Father, Jesus had satisfied their hungry bodies, now He is determined to satisfy their hungry minds and hearts. He wants them to feel a deeper hunger – one that doesn’t come from scarcity but from abundance. He replies to them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

And that’s why God makes a difference for us today.

Like the crowd, we are accustomed to surviving life as best we know how. We seek control, power and protection against our vulnerabilities, and we see ourselves as the proper agent of that security.  In this sense, our trust is rooted in ourselves, and we are left to find our sense of place, purpose, belonging, meaning, and yes – love in whatever way we can. More stuff, more accolades, more money, better performances, higher scores, more wins. The saying you are what you eat holds true. Not all the bread we eat is good for us.

Think about the variety of bread we make regular meals of in our lives today. It is usually very tasty at first, easy to digest and often offers immediate satisfaction but in the end, we are left with an unpleasant feeling inside. We feel distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life. We eat all kinds of bread. And we do all kinds of things to get it – sometimes to the point of depression, desperation, depletion, even, ironically, starvation. No matter how much we eat, it will never be enough.

If this is what we do to define ourselves, to find belonging, to bring purpose to our lives – no wonder we are starving! It’s a very different bread of life than what God wants for us. Jesus didn’t just come to perform miracles, impress people, and preach a good sermon. He came to meet us in our deepest hunger. To satisfy our deepest most universal needs of belonging, identity and purpose. Jesus doesn’t just feed us this with bread – he becomes the bread and fills us with the very presence of God. 

It’s when we are driven into the wilderness that we realize this bread we’ve been relying on for survival isn’t enough. Sure, it’s often easy to come by – tantalizingly so at times – but it won’t feed us for the journey ahead. I came to this stark realization myself even before I started working on this sermon – and that is why God makes a difference. 

As more and more of the things I filled my pre-pandemic life with were shut down or taken from me – even my running when I broke my foot – I literally began to ache inside. While I thought I was filling my life with the right survival gear or eating the right kind of bread – you might say – just as on many of my wilderness outings – I realized I had left behind one key piece of gear – trust. Trust that the God who created me and provided for me up to this very moment is enough for me. That there the only limits on God’s provision in my life are mine. That in God, my identity is secure and because of that I can hope.

God’s greatest desire is to be present with us in all our wildernesses – creating, sustaining, and nourishing us with the Bread of Life. When you open your hungry heart to Jesus and invite him to join you each day, you see things differently. You live differently. You discover that you are not a solo traveler in the wilderness of life. Rather, you belong to a creator and creation far greater than anything or anyone this world can provide. As St Paul writes, we are a part of one body and one Spirit, called to one hope in one Lord, with one faith, through one baptism into one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 

And because of this, our false notions of self and others are replaced by the ability to see and love ourselves and others as persons created in the image of God rather than issues to be overcome. We say yes to a life set free from the captivity of believing we have to be someone we are not and instead live as God already made us to be with many different gifts. Gifts that when shared with the community give us a new purpose in carrying out God’s goodness for all to receive. Secure in our identity in God, we choose love and forgiveness over anger and retribution; and we relate to each other with intimacy and vulnerability rather than superficiality and defensiveness.

If history is any indicator of what is to come, we have a lot of wilderness times ahead but when we see through God’s eyes, listen to God’s voice, and walk with God’s steadfast presence the wilderness can be a place of transformation instead of brokenness.

Jesus is the bread of our life so that we may live life, not just hunger for it.

And that makes all the difference.

Amen.

The Wilderness

Living the Dream…?

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

When did you let go of your great big dreams or put your once exuberant soul to slumber?


Then I took the next most likely leap of faith and filled my room with space – outer space – because I just had to know what heaven was all about. After Shaun Cassidy faded from the scene, posters of rockets and galaxies and even F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles graced my bedroom walls – because I knew you had to start somewhere and jet pilots were frequently chosen to be astronauts. I’m not quite sure when that dream faded from view – it was a focal point of my Tomboy days for sure, along with my wardrobe fixation of flannel shirts and waffle stompers. I’m sure my mother wondered where her little girl disappeared to.

images (1)


Enter the late 70’s and early 80’s and the debut of the epic television series FAME. I was convinced I would be the next Coco played by Erica Gimpel (she even shared my name – though not the spelling of it, darn it all) flying across the stage with athletic rhythm along with singing and even acting! I played Scrooge in our 5th-grade play and nailed it! Then we moved to Virginia where I put in hours and hours of practice choreographing dance routines in the cool air of our basement during our stint in Washington DC for my father’s job. I practiced the piano religiously and played competitively – first under the tutelage of an old bat who rapped my knuckles with a ruler over any mistake and then under the angel of all piano teachers, Mrs. Pataro, who believed in me and encouraged me and saw me shine at every piano recital and guild competition. I was going to make it as a star somehow! I even lived in a metropolitan area where the dream really could come true (not some hick MT town from whence I came!) Anyone heard of the Kennedy Center?


Ah yes, those were the good days when anything was possible. By the time I reached high school we were living out west again (but far from Hollywood) and it was time to start settling down and setting real goals (according to my father.) By then I was writing – quite prolifically. Ronald Reagan was president and I hung on every single word of his speeches. They were brilliant in my mind, and so I determined I would become a presidential speechwriter and then the White House press secretary. Having been exposed to the world of government and politics when one could be proud of both, this seemed a worthy avenue to pursue. While it may not have been as concrete a goal in terms of landing a job post-graduation as becoming a nurse, a teacher, or astronaut, it was at least academic.


And so I pursued mass communications and political science with a focus on public administration in college. I put in my time in a U.S. Senator’s field office (what an eye-opening experience THAT was into the true nature of politics and one’s constituents…a.k.a Your Constituents Hate You 101), the Public Relations office of the Bureau of Land Management (Bureaucracy and Politics 202), and interned at the CBS news affiliate in Billings (You Have a Face for Radio 402). Everything seemed to be falling into place, right? Except by the time I graduated from college life had gotten in the way of my dreams in a rather dire way. Rather than graduating into the field of my choice, I spent considerable time (and money) in the hospital and then recovery. By the time that ordeal was behind me, my dreams seemed out of reach and unrealistic so I took whatever job I could find that would help me emerge back into the land of the living and make a living. I have been working my way through the land of the living rather than the life of my dreams for some 25 years now. I have a great job and a vast array of experiences behind me, but my dreams are still just that – dreams.


I bring all this up now as we watch the launch into space of the 82- year old Wally Funk, who was on the first crewed flight into space by the rocket company Blue Origin. Funk is the oldest person ever to travel into space. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to go up,” Funk is quoted as saying.


Years ago, Funk had dreams like I did. Then a 21-year-old pilot, she was the youngest of the 13 women who passed the same rigorous testing as the Mercury Seven male astronauts in NASA’s program that first sent Americans into space between 1961 and 1963 but were denied the chance to become astronauts themselves because of their gender. She went on to become the first female flight instructor at a U.S. military base and the first woman to become an air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. But she never went into space – until now. She did not live out her ultimate dream – to venture into outer space – at least on her schedule – but she made the best of her pursuit nonetheless. I doubt her life was one of ennui or regret. Quite the contrary it appears, for in various interviews she recounts a very full and vibrant life utilizing her gifts and skills to help many others, especially women, achieve their own dreams of flight.


Which begs the question that corresponds to one of my boss’s favorite lines: “I’m living the dream.” Just how does one live the dream? And furthermore, what defines a dream worth living for?


If you were to go back to your launching pad into life, what would you do differently, if anything, to achieve the dream(s) you once had? What stopped you from attaining them? Money, health, lack of education, family issues, or circumstances beyond your control? Maybe it was a more personal reason: doubt, fear, lack of vision, or a commitment to others above yourself.


Or, maybe you are one of the lucky ones who had a dream, chased it, and realized it. What now? Is living the dream any different than pursuing life as best possible?


As one who may have more years behind me than ahead – unless I somehow manage to defy my octogenarian heredity-fated lifespan – I wonder if it is worth taking time away from living my best life to pursue living the life I dreamed of? Is it worth asking the question “What could have been, if…?” Am I setting myself up for a nostalgic walk down “What-a-Failure Way”?


Or, maybe I am already realizing the dreams I once had but in my own unique and different way? I’m not an ordained Pastor with my own church but I am a Lay Pastoral Associate serving and preaching in the church and walking closely with God in His grand creation; I’m not a star of the stage and screen but I am singing – on a stage even – (when we can safely resume that art) – though no one would pay to hear me; I don’t dance much anymore but I would with a partner; I’m not a concert pianist but I have two pianos that I play with great abandon for an enrapt canine audience; I’m not flying into space but I can climb to what I now consider heaven on earth during less crowded times, and though I am not representing the President of the United States, I do write for a pretty swell boss and have my own blog!


“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;”

How about you? Are you living your dream or living your best life possible? Is there a difference?


Whatever your answer, I think we can all raise a toast to Wally Funk in her flight to the heavens above. She has lived a life with a heart for any fate, still achieving, still pursuing, learning to labor, and to wait. I pray that when I come to the end of mine, I will be able to say the same.

 


A Psalm of Life
What The Heart Of The Young Man Said To The Psalmist.
BY HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,— act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.

Let Your Light So Shine!!!

Thirsting for Adventure…

“If you don’t die of thirst, there are blessings in the desert.”
Never before have I considered drowning myself in a lake… yesterday, I came very close to doing just that.

After navigating the insanity of the 5am traffic on the west side of The Going to the Sun Road (ah, I remember way back when….) My two hiking companions for the first leg of the day – who were backpacking in for a two-night stay – and I were pleasantly surprised to find the Saint Mary Valley void of anything but expansive views, 2 bears, and a few respectful humans. Clouds hung o’er the valley from the previous night’s storm giving definition to the sky and the mountains below. I was a bit frustrated at first, having missed the early light of the day casting its glow on their eastern faces thanks to the d#$@ traffic, but the mountains still sang their morning story. I rethought my initial ire – giving thanks instead that so many people value something as beautiful and life-giving as God’s creation as I do.


The trailhead was deserted! A bit daunting when one has never hiked this way before, but even for me it was a straightforward route (Though my Alltrails app kept saying otherwise.) We soon realized those clouds were our friends but unlike true friends, they deserted us when we needed them most.


The morning light was soft as I made my way to Red Eagle Lake – thank God for the neverending views of my destination – though the water would only come into view the last 1/4 mile. Fire has decimated any earthly source of shade in this valley and by 9am I was becoming increasingly aware that this day would be a long hot one. The eight + miles to the lake passed fairly quickly. The wind shrieked through the stands of petrified trees at times, hauntingly so – even on a HOT and bright day. I felt as though the spirits of my past were walking with me – and soon I was working things out with them. Amazing how 8 miles can disappear when one is lost in thought.


Nestled at the base of a few of East Glacier’s impressive red peaks, Red Eagle Lake is a beautiful destination – the journey to and from less so – at least on a 90-degree day. The wind off the water was invigorating though – and I actually got a bit chilled. I would need that distant memory later in the afternoon. The lapping of the water, a lullaby that almost made me forget I still had a long journey back.


Cognizant that sun and heat were not on my side and would only grow more intense as the afternoon wore on, I departed the cool waters and headed east. The expanse of which did not thrill my eyes as my destination’s alluring views had. I had a long, hot, and dry solo journey ahead of me.


It’s funny what you think about when you realized you weren’t thinking when you packed your pack. I did not bring enough water for one thing – a very bad one thing to do… I started playing a game with myself – when I crossed a footbridge or suspension bridge I could take a sip of water. While the river that rushed next to me could be a source of water, it was only a tease as accessing that rapid refreshment wasn’t as easy or safe as needed. I felt my skin dehydrating and crinkling. Small patches of shade created by the brush were like desert oases to my eyes. And then I discovered the biting flies – I had sweated away all the bug repellant I had previously applied and now the flies were hungry. If I stopped to open my pack they attacked so I just kept walking – as fast as I could – which created a slight breeze – so there was a small blessing realized.


I love challenges like this. No, it is not the same as climbing a peak, but the will to keep going always kicks in whether you are summiting a peak, or enduring a hot, desolate trail. The body can withstand a lot if you train it properly. The mind can too. I can handle days like this long, hard, sweaty – it’s the other ones when I can’t prove myself through physical means that get me.


Needless to say, in 17 miles I learned what a precious commodity water is and reaffirmed how very much I need this natural escape from reality on a regular basis. (It seems lots of people do). That I pretty much had this trail all to myself aside from two backpackers hiking out from a night’s stay and a group of Hutterites in full-garb I met at the end who inquired if they had much farther to go (!!!) was good and bad. Though I detest the masses of people clamoring for selfies on the prime trails, I enjoy meeting the random kindred hiker in the middle of nowhere.


The water of Saint Mary Lake was an incredible reprieve after 6 hours (was that all it was??) in the scorching sun. I wanted to drink the entire lake and let her waves wash me away. The fact that I left my car window wide open and nothing had been disturbed – was a sign that there is still lots of good in this world.


A long hot day is once again in the books. Another page in the adventures of Erika Morck written. I am grateful for it.

Emergence

Everything is as good or as bad as our opinion makes it.  -C. S. Lewis

“How was COVID for you?” Mamie asked, her smile warm, her inquiry genuine.

We were seated next to each other in chair groupings according to our ticket purchase, Mamie with her husband and daughter and I with myself, awaiting the start of our first live, in-person concert in well over 16 months.

The question gave me pause. So ready was I to respond with the usual masked response. But having realized over the time of COVID how much masking we do throughout our lives, I heard myself saying – challenging. COVID was challenging for me. And then I immediately felt ashamed of my answer. How could I even begin to call my sheltered, relatively healthy (I did break my foot!), overwhelmingly quiet, pretty-much-the-same-as-before- existence COVID-experience challenging?  Aside from not being able to sing, let alone perform with the 3 choirs I sing in or go to church in person for much of the time, or working by myself in the office for 6 weeks, or wearing a mask in public and confined places – my personal tangible life really wasn’t all that affected by COVID. I still took my morning runs and evening walks with my dog in the great outdoors without a mask, I still went hiking, I still had a job, I put the same food on my table and still had a roof over my head.  I need not list the challenges this past year (and then some) has presented the world with to make my personal plight sound positivity absurd. We have all witnessed the havoc of the pandemic with the addition of sudden, unexpected storms, wildfires, economic, political, and social upheaval and loss, so much loss.

Moments earlier, I had entered the performance hall with butterflies in my stomach. A combination of excitement, dread, joy, and sorrow danced or perhaps more honestly – churned inside of me, and I wasn’t even performing!  Excitement for what I knew was going to be an amazing night of music, dread because I was emerging from the comforts of my solitude completely solo and self-conscious, joy over seeing smiles again and feeling the warmth of people close by, and sorrow for the loss of 16 plus months of the life I knew and the lives lost during this pandemic time. It felt so good to be on a stage again. But the other part of me wondered at just how much has changed over this period of disrupted lives and livelihoods.

As Mamie awaited the details of my answer, she provided a different take. As an introvert she offered honestly, that she “relished every COVID moment.” Later comments from the audience highlighting their accomplishments in response to their “COVID-time experience” made me wonder if I hadn’t wasted the pandemic. The comparison trap had pulled me right in. Had I failed at this too?

How was COVID for you? 

I spoke to my more-seasoned cousins who live in San Francisco in a “cozy” abode overlooking the Bay Bridge a few days ago. We talked frequently during the more turbulent and downright scary times of the pandemic and I often wondered at just how different our experiences were. They were, for a time, confined to their home. When they did venture out, they wore masks everywhere. Her husband turned into a master bread baker and baked bread for the entire neighborhood, delivering loaves to doorsteps on a weekly basis. Now, they were fully vaccinated and enjoying the new freedom of breathing fresh air after most of California’s restrictions were dropped (much, much later than the relatively few we had here in MT). BUT- she laughed – they were completely exhausted! Now their grown children and grandchildren wanted to come visit – ALL THE TIME! They had grown accustomed to their quiet sanctuary and now felt overrun by what was once the “occasional” visit. It’s funny how our perspectives can change.

Two dear friends of mine lost their fathers to COVID. One of them just recently laid her father to rest – after 9 months of waiting until it was  “safe” to do so. Another friend’s husband passed away from pancreatitis – a complete shock to everyone – their children were unable to be with their father in his last days and my friend only allowed to sit with him in his last hours – fully masked of course. Another was diagnosed with cancer and had to navigate this difficult diagnosis on her own – no hugs for comfort, no groups for support. How will they be now, living into their very real “new normal?”

My challenges were of a far more personal sort – I was forced to spend time with me – grappling with who I am after a failed marriage one month prior to the pandemic setting in. The monotony of just getting through life became my safe place and default. I truly felt like I was on the outside looking longingly in on the lives of others – while placing my own on the burn pile. This pandemic time for me has been a time of waiting and discerning and waiting some more. I am not a patient person when it comes to what tomorrow will bring – I like to be in the know, you know? Wondering throughout, just what God is up to – if anything – was and is challenging!

I am certain that alongside all the accomplishments achieved by my fellow audience members as well as those whose lives seemed so much better than mine, they too had times of darkness, woe, worry, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. I am sure some of them feel they too failed the pandemic. Some of us are just much better at showing our brilliant sides than say, me.

It is remarkable just how differently we all experienced this time of pandemic, complicated even more by the social and political upheaval that clung to the virus’s coattails. Despite the initial “we are all in this together” mantra, we quickly siloed ourselves off into what I call our own individual Twilight Zones of Stranger Things. As we begin to emerge from our respective COVID-worlds, how will you be?

Many will be carrying the burdens of lingering illness, loss, regret, and unfinished changes taking place in their lives. How will they be?

We have lived physically, philosophically, and politically polarized from each other for some 15 months. Learning how to show ourselves again and how to interact with one another will be an interesting time in our societal evolution. How will we be?  

If the post-concert atmosphere is any indication, I have hope it will be a time of heavy hearts mixed with joy, tears brightened by laughter, fear assuaged by warm conversation, anxiety dampened by anticipation, and genuine smiles that light the way to a more gracious way of living with one another, again.

Let your light so shine!!!

A Little Less Broken

Last night I enjoyed my first live concert in 16 months! By. Myself.

This was huge for me. Not only is music an intrinsic part of my being, but doing this on my own was life-giving! You see 18 months ago, my brief marriage ended. Up until my marriage, I was just fine being independent, doing things on my own for my own enjoyment. It is what I had known for most of my adult life. Sure, at times I longed for a companion, but I did not let that stop me from enjoying life. But then my marriage ended and COVID hit and I found myself navigating this all too strange world by myself and something happened to me. My singleness suddenly became something that was to be ashamed of, I was alone and had no one to “pod” with and God forbid I reach out to anyone for fear of burdening their already COVID-stressed lives with my neediness. And so, for the last 16 or so months I have been trying to pick up the pieces of my life by myself – and growing more and more inward and self-conscious of my singleness. The monotony of just getting through became my safe place and default. I started to think that I didn’t deserve to enjoy things on my own – that I had too much work to do – both real tangible work – and cleaning up the broken pieces of my life.

Well last night, the COVID-cancelled concert season I had bought my single season-tickets for long before COVID hit resumed and I had to make a decision – did I dare go, alone?

I almost didn’t. I had spent 4.5 hours mowing the lawn (push mower) and was tired. I could easily have taken a hot shower and spent the evening on the patio with a book. BUT I didn’t.

I am friends with Mike, the creator of this concert series and one of the main performers. This was a special night for him, his first live concert in 16 months. He needed an audience!! Because I am a sponsor, I get reserved seats. When I arrived at the performance center for this “concert in the round” where we sit right on stage with the performers, there it was – a single seat saved for me in the front row. Mike greeted me heartily when he saw me come in and the rest was history. The couple sitting in the next seat grouping told me to move my seat over and join them! I had never met them before and they have no idea what a gift from God that small act of compassion did for my soul!

Coincidentally, the opening song, a Larry Gatlin oldie I had never heard before almost made my already emotional state of joy of just being on a stage again, spill over my cheeks:

She’s a broken lady, waiting to be mended
Like a potter would mend a broken vase
A broken lady, waiting to be mended
And have what’s left of the pieces put back in place

Her love is like a fortress around a man she would have died for
Taking care to take of all he needed
But the ladies fortress slowly turned into a prison
And the warning signs he gave, she never heeded

She vowed every morning that what God joined together
No one else in the world could pull apart
Then the walls came tumbling to the ground
And her world came crashing down around her heart

Now she’s a broken lady, waiting to be mended
Like a potter would mend a broken vase
A broken lady, waiting to be mended
And have what’s left of the pieces put back in place

She’s a broken lady, waiting to be mended
And have what’s left of the pieces put back in place

Broken Lady – From the album High Time, written by Larry Gatlin

It was a magical night and I left floating – by. myself. I am not putting my life on hold waiting for my pieces to be put back together any longer. I finally accepted and believed that my worth is not measured by my relationship status! I am not a failure – my marriage failed. I deserve to enjoy life – as much if not more than I did before. Blessings to all of you who may be on a journey to put your broken pieces back together! I feel just a little more whole today!

Grateful for the privilege…

We talk about it, think about it, hear about it, accuse it, and deny it – but trust me – if you are enjoying any moment of this weekend – you are privileged. A profound thank you to those who died in service to our country – whose sacrifice I most certainly have not lived up to – but am eternally grateful for.