Roots of Kindness

Wherever there is a human being there is an opportunity for kindness. 

-Thomas Bailey Aldrich

It’s that time of year when we head to the nurseries for all varieties of flowers, plants, and seeds, and get our knees dirty planting our gardens with zeal and frenzy.  Navigating jammed parking lots, we reunite with neighbors we haven’t seen since last fall emerging from their homes in getups reminiscent of Mr. McGregor of Peter Rabbit fame.  We have expectations that come with our agrarian purchases and efforts – praiseworthy yards, impressive front porches, and garden harvests to come.

If you are lucky, you live next to a neighbor with an amazing green thumb who will share their garden bounty in a few months. You might even want to offer them a hand with that load of topsoil and secure a coveted spot on their favors list.  This idea brings to the fore a question that has been running through my mind lately. When was the last time you engaged in an act of kindness or giving without any conditions whatsoever – that unspoken expectation for something in return?  – The secret expectation you keep hidden in your psyche simply because we are conditioned towards a give-and -you- shall-receive means to an end?

I recently watched a video circulating on LinkedIn of a young man encountering a beggar a few years younger than he on the street. Instead of passing by the rough and tumble looking, cardboard sign holding sidewalk denizen, he did something I think we all ideate ourselves doing at some point in our lives – he offered his hand to his fellow man. The man, who looked as “regular” as you or I, saw to it that his hungry counterpart got his hair cut, had professional clothes to wear; they enjoyed a good meal together at an upscale bistro, and he introduced him to the owner who happened to have a position open in the kitchen. Needless to say, the former sidewalk “lounger” was overwhelmed by the compassion shown him. That is where the video and story end. We can hope that he accepted the job and worked his way up through the ranks to the house manager and someday opened his own restaurant, but why must we expect that outcome? Why not just celebrate the act of compassion the other man showed – with clearly nothing in it for him – except the simple joy of sharing lovingkindness?

I find it ironic that in a world in which we can pay for nearly everything we could ever want, kindness costs us nothing, and yet most of us struggle with this sort of economy. I want to give and do unconditionally (at least that’s what I want on my better days). But to live unconditionally and without strings attached is harder than it sounds. We have been conditioned by a world of economy, exchange, and transaction. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, and that is as deep as it goes.

Think about all the ways this give and take happens and how commonplace and acceptable it is.

  • We exchange goods in hopes of a business referral.
  • We feel indebted upon the receipt of a gift to return the favor, or at least send a thank-you note. (Not that this is bad!! Manners do have virtue!) But even our best-intentioned gifts can leave the recipient with an unintended debt of gratitude.
  • And think about how you felt when you did not receive a thank-you note or other acknowledgment after giving a gift. Did you give that gift expecting something for your generosity?
  • What about the dinner invitations you’ve extended? Are you still waiting for your guests to reciprocate?
  • Have you ever sent flowers after an argument? Were you giving a gift or expecting forgiveness?
  • Do you determine whether your charitable gifts are charitable enough to get rewarded with a tax deduction before you give?
  • Have you ever wondered why somebody was doing something for you, wondered what was in it for them? Haven’t we all said or done something as a means to an end?

Societal norms expect us to return the favor or reciprocate in some way.  It’s a convenient economy that shields us from the true and revelatory nature of genuine kindness, kindness that has the capacity to transform the suffering that all of us experience in some form into generosity and compassion. This form of kindness is costly – it requires payment in the form of first acknowledging our own weaknesses, struggles, and suffering, and then instead of growing bitter or passing our pain on to others, we offer understanding and compassion because of it.

In her book “Words Under Words: Selected Poems,” the poet Naomi Shihab Nye has written an exquisite poem titled “Kindness”.  In it, she reflects on the gritty origin of kindness and how you must first lose something, see your future dissolve before you, know how desolate and lonely the landscape can be, realize that the person who lies dead next to the road once had plans and breathed just like you, and know sorrow as the deepest thing within before you can know what kindness really is. And once you do, then it is only kindness that can dwell in the deepness of your heart because kindness is the only thing that makes sense anymore.

I’ve tasted genuine kindness and I have known the depths from which it can be born. A kindness that knows no economy. A kindness that can only grow from the depths of my heart. As I plant my gardens this spring, my only expectation is one of myself – that kindness grows deep roots within me – the genuine, revelatory variety that can flourish, despite this sometimes transaction-heavy, economy of exchange world.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if gardeners everywhere were nurturing this kind of bounty? Happy planting and growing.

Let your light so shine!

The Light Shines in the Darkness

As part of our Lenten journey, members of my church were asked to share a glimpse of our faith – our beliefs and how we live them out – centered around a Bible passage that has served as an anchor for us or inspired how we go about living this life. Asking me to pick one Bible verse that has influenced my life is like asking which of my 6 dogs throughout my life was my favorite. There are so many that have served as anchors for living at various stages of my life – high school, college, navigating life as a single person, and now as a wife.

  • “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass … Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him.” Psalm 37:4,7
  • Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:3-4
  • Let me hear of your unfailing love each morning, for I am trusting you. Show me where to walk, for I give myself to you. Psalm 143:8
  • You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And, love your neighbor as yourself. Luke 10:27
  • For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. Ephesians 2:10
  • Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you. Psalm 25:5
  • Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6

I could go on and on! There are also several passages I have turned to for comfort during the darker times in my life.

  • “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.'” Isaiah 55:8-9
  • “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” Psalm 147:3
  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27
  • “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

Needless to say, picking one verse to share was difficult for me to do. Yet the one I kept turning to and the one that has followed me for as long as I can remember hearing the Word, understanding the Word, and living the Word is:

John 1: 1-7: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 

Not only are the words beautiful, but the opening lines of the Gospel of John have also captivated my imagination since childhood – at least once I was able to spit out the mind-bending sequence of sentences! Seeing Jesus as a glorious all-encompassing light in the darkness was an easy way for me to understand his presence and guidance in my life as a child.

My earliest memories, and later in my teens, my fondest memories, are often from times in church. I grew up in the church. My parents were church planters and builders. I always knew that Jesus loved me and oh, how I loved Jesus. My Grandma delighted in telling the story of the 5-year-old me standing on my bed with that Sunday’s bulletin in hand preaching the Good News. She was certain I was going to be a pastor someday. The church helped me navigate the turbulence of adolescence and the many moves my family made to places throughout my youth – giving me a safe place to land and find a good circle of friends.

But to be honest, I believed in God and went to church because my family did – I did not know any other way. Nor did I need to know any other way. I saw my parents make their way through life with their faith as a foundation. I saw them navigate the stressors of life, troubles in marriage, and the deaths of their parents and other family members with a certainty and will to persevere that can only come from a higher power.

“What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Sure, there are times when the relationship and abundant life that God offers me do not seem so apparent – when God seems very far away. Times when my life with God seems no different, no “better” than those who live theirs on their own accord – who have the “freedom” to just be and do, trusting only in what they know – themselves.  When you are in the mucky thick of it, life, real life, life lived, abundant life is hard to fathom, hard to accept, hard to imagine that it could and can be yours.

But you know – the foundation of my life has never left me; God is and always has been there – I just have to let Him into my heart and my life.  As I reflect on my faith journey, especially in the context of this Easter season, I see it as a resurrection story – over and over again. In fact, every day I die in my failings but am given a fresh chance in our Lord.

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 

As an adult, I am quite certain clinging to these illuminating words saved my life during my darkest hours and would later give me hope in the darkness of grief. It was the light of Christ shining in the darkness of the ICU that brought me back to life at age 23, willed me to fight my inner battles and give my life back to God.

It was the light of Christ that embraced my mother on the morning of Palm Sunday three years ago and led her on her journey to her heavenly home. It was the light of Christ that embraced me and strengthened me against the fierce, cold grayness of death as we laid her to rest in a cold rain that following Good Friday, and it was the light of Christ shining through the darkness of sorrow that helped me rejoice in the promise of her resurrection that Easter Sunday and every single day since.

None of this, however, would be possible were it not for my Dad and his gift of faith to me. I don’t know where I would be today without it for it was the light of Christ that guided me safely along a tear-filled, 465-mile highway of memories as I rushed home to be with my father in his last moments just a year after my mother’s death.

I share this from a daughter’s faith-filled heart renewed by the promise of life in a new day. A promise my dad shared with me. In the days after his death, so many who knew my dad, even only in passing, remarked how happy he always was. As I poured through the photographs of his life, it was hard to find one photo where he didn’t have a robust smile on his face.

Of all the things that brought happiness to my dad’s life – the people he shared it with, his family, his grand-dogs, his colleagues, his career, his past-times – the one constant source of happiness and strength and peace – and I firmly believe the most important source of happiness and life in his last days – was his faith!

I opened his obituary with the Bible passage Proverbs 20:7 – “The godly walk with integrity – blessed are the children who follow them.” My brother and I were surely blessed! And, as I was going through his scrapbook the night before his memorial service, I found another verse – one that meant something to my dad as a 17-year-old in 1949 and one he obviously carried with him throughout his life – Proverbs 22:6, “train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

I know I am blessed to follow in my dad’s walk of faith. Dad raised his kids in faith, as beloved children of God, and he entrusted his life and ours to the Lord. He encouraged us in our faith growing up. I know it brought him great concern and sadness when I, for a wayward time in my 20’s, quit going to church.  And I know how much it meant to him when I came back. To have my brother and his wife and me willingly sitting in the pew with him again on Sunday mornings in his waning years was the capstone on his spiritual mission in life.

Dad never missed church and thus neither did we. He was always raring to go on Sunday morning – much to my poor Mom’s demise. There were more than a few horn honks and terse words said as we sped to church – but Dad knew he needed church just as I do today. He needed the grace and mercy, the forgiveness and love that our Lord freely gives. As great a man as he was – as kindly and gentlemanly as he was to everyone – Dad knew he was a broken man as we are all broken people – and he knew he needed the Lord.

Every church we were a part of meant so much to him (and there were a lot of them as we moved many times when I was growing up.) The people found inside were so important to him as they are to me today. Keeping a congregation alive meant he was bringing the Lord deeper into his heart and the hearts of others. I feel the same way today. And that is why he and I have devoted so much of ourselves to the church. He never shied away from saying yes to the Lord when He called him to a ministry – be that building a church, leading a congregation, cleaning a bathroom, raising funds, teaching Sunday school, or serving as an usher. Dad served our Lord with a sense of honor, respect, and love. I am proud to follow in his example. As they say, I am a chip off the old block – like father- like daughter in every way.

My dad had a deep, abiding faith, one he nurtured through continued study, service, and sharing and I am so glad he shared his mighty faith in the Lord with me. I can only hope to be half the leader of others to the peace of Christ as he was in his quiet, humble ways. His steadfast faith is the greatest gift, aside from his love, that he could have ever shared with me.

My dad’s faith was a beacon and source of strength for him. A beacon for my life, my faith has sustained me too, through all the opportunities and challenges that have come my way.  Because of the gift of faith my dad gave me – I have faced those opportunities and challenges with a sense of strength that I know comes only from the Lord’s presence in my life. Unlike my dad, I can’t be as quiet about it as he was.

I leaned on my dad an awful lot in life – he was my source of wisdom, of political intellect, of what is fair and what is right. He was my counselor on all matters of living – and he did so with the heart of Jesus. He knew he had done his job well when he saw how deeply I was growing in my own faith.

In the last few minutes I had with Dad, we shared the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we spoke of how he let his light shine so that others could see the good works of God, and how I hoped and prayed that I may do that as well and as purely as he did.  Finally, we spoke about letting God’s perfect will be done. My dad had found the peace that surpasses our understanding – and while at the time I was not willing to let him go without a fight – I was able to – as that same peace began to wrap around me.

Being Neil Morck’s daughter was a pretty honorable position to be in and how I most often identified myself to others!  Dad prepared his children well for life – to forge ahead in our own identities accompanied all the way by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, the godly do indeed walk with integrity; blessed are their children who follow them. I happen to know that the godly also walk in happiness and as my dad’s favorite daughter, I am eternally blessed and happy to walk in his footsteps too, guided out of the darkness by the shining light of Christ.

I know that not only am I Neil Morck’s daughter and a child of God but a woman who lives for God. It was the light of Christ that set me on a new course in life that would semi-culminate last summer with me becoming a Lay Pastoral Associate in my church. Now, in my spare time, I chase sunrises on my runs in the summertime and cry at sunsets whenever one paints the sky knowing that I am seeing the light of Christ.

My hope in sharing my faith story with you is that you too will know that the most amazing gift you can give or receive is that of knowing the Lord and living a life in faith. For as each of our days come to an end, it is your relationship with God and knowing His peace that will carry you through.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Happy Easter!

 

Bittersweet Spring

Today marks 3 years since you found a new Springtime and a new life with Jesus, Mom. The first day of Spring will always be bittersweet for me. Not only does it mark the end of the dying season, but it is also the day you died. I know that death has no grip on you – but for me left to live with it, it is hard to shake free from death’s cold hands. The absence of your presence is no less today than the day I held your remains one last time – and yet you are always with me. My heart aches with longing to see you, to hear your voice again, and feel your loving arms around me – and yet I do – every time I hear a bird sing or feel the warmth of the morning sunshine on my face. I love you, Mom – more than words can ever say.

 

March 20, 2016 – As I walked through the woods yesterday I could hear the promise of Spring- of new life- in the songs of the birds… My mother loved to watch the birds and the squirrels, and of course our four-legged family members – the little joys the Lord gave us to make our lives richer, more joyful, more wonderful here on Earth. These blessings made her life sweeter and more joyful these last several years; our conversations always included a synopsis of Tucker, squirrel, and bird activity of late.

As we enter this Holy Week, a time when we look to the promise of resurrection and life everlasting with our Lord, Jesus Christ and rejoice in His conquering of death so that we may all live free from its bonds through Him, I take comfort in knowing that my beautiful mother has conquered her earthly bonds and now lives free with her Lord and Savior today. Her spirit left us peacefully this morning, through an open window, perhaps following the song of a bird calling her home. One of her favorite songs was “His Eye is on the Sparrow”. I know He is watching her shine and sing once again.

His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy; 
I sing because I’m free; 
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know He watches me.

Mom, I know we had our struggles as a mother and daughter but I will forever carry with me your sweet love of the joys of life, the tender ways you loved me through childhood, and your simple understanding of what is good. I will continue to strive to live the kind of life you so wanted for me – one that is happy and lived for the Lord. I never stopped loving you and I will always hear your voice and feel your love whenever a songbird sings. 


And when I do, I will sing because I know you are now happy, and I’ll sing because I know you are free. And I will smile at the sight of every sparrow, because I’ll know you are still with me.

Minding our Mortality

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

It seemed innocent enough. It was, after all, just a Google Maps picture. But the picture in front of me made me gasp. I don’t know what I was expecting to see or how I could have expected a different reaction; it was and always will be my family’s home and Google seems to know that. My husband and I were showing one another the different houses we had lived in growing up by Googling our old addresses on the internet. Some of our former residences looked so small – compared to our memories of them from our childhoods. But this picture of a place and not so distant time in my life caught me unaware.

There before me was our home – not just a house – but my family’s last home as a family on a sunny mid-September day (according to Google). The lawn was freshly mown. The lawnmower sat in the shade waiting to be rolled back to its storage place under our deck. The garbage bin was awaiting one more dumping of grass clippings. The flower pots lining our front walkway dazzled with their patriotic display of red, white and blue petunias – Dad’s perennial planting.  Dad’s Buick sat in the garage and the SUV sat in the driveway – looking freshly washed. And if I looked hard enough, I swear I could see Dad sitting at his desk in the front window still wearing his sunhat and sunglasses and munching on an oatmeal raisin cookie with his afternoon cup of coffee.

To anyone driving by – such as the Googlecam car – 4150 Audubon Way was just an address to map. There were signs of them but there were no people. My family did not exist to whoever was driving by. It was sort of like the last picture I took of our home, only different. The Googlecam photo was void of life before death. My photo was void of the lives that once called this place home after death.

The Googlecam photo brought me back to a time before the lives of my parents ceased and reminded me once again that they and my family as I once knew it are gone – even though pieces and memories of them remain. It reminded me that I too, will one day be gone. The house I now live in will be void of my life. Who I am will no longer be. Indeed, we can try to forget, ignore, or deny that death is in our cards from the day we are born to the moment we draw our last breath – but no one escapes a final ending.

But death doesn’t just come at the end of our physical life. We experience it all along the road of life. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our lives as individuals come to an end. When a relationship ends a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. Death makes itself known in our failures, shattered dreams, and lost opportunities. Death haunts our regrets and disappointments. A part of us dies each time we betray ourselves and live contrary to who we truly are or want to be.

And yet, with each of these deaths, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

Theologian John Caputo writes in his book, Hope Against Hope, that death is not a diminishment or negation of life but is its intensification. Our mortality is what gives our life its vitality. Death focuses our attention and forces us to prioritize what matters. Death does not diminish life’s value, it gives life value.

The overtly objective glimpse into the past of my life reminded me of its fleeting. There will never be another moment like the one captured for “map-eternity” or like the now I have right now. It reminded me that this moment, this now, is priceless. And of course, this caused me to ponder – even more deeply – is there really life in my life?

Is there life in the way I am living in this moment; in the way I see the world and relate to others? Am I growing or just being? Am I bringing life to others or taking from theirs? Am I embracing the opportunities for life in those moments of death along life’s road? And if not, why not? What needs to change, to be let go of, to be done differently?

Fortunately, the place I spend the majority of my nows – at least five days a week – Coco Enterprises – espouses a way of living that helps me give life to my life. Joe Coco built his financial planning practice on the foundational pillars of S.P.R.I.F.  – a model of living in which we guide our clients towards achieving balance in the areas of their lives that they value while striving for the same balance in our own. Though iconic and evoking an aura of power and Wall Street wealth, The Coco Enterprises logo consisting of five Greek pillars is actually meant to represent each pillar of S.P.R.I.F. – the Spiritual, Physical, Relational, Intellectual, and Financial components of our lives.  By aiming for balance, strength, and stability in each of these areas, Coco Enterprises employees and our clients live lives that flourish and inspire instead of lives encumbered with regret.

I try to employ the SPRIF model of living in my daily life and I add two more pillars to it – vocational and avocational. If I am spending too much of my focus and energy on any one of these aspects of life over a prolonged amount of time – I know am not giving life to my life but rather, pulling life from it.

What do YOU want to do with your life? How do you want to live? Will you have life before death?

The important point of giving life to life is not how you plan to improve yourself based on standards set by others – this sort of focused living invites us to a life tainted by fear, arrogance, pride, delusion, ignorance, denial, wounds and pain; a life filled with the illusions of success and accomplishments based on an unwinnable human race. We clamor for the public and passing opinions of others. In our quest to succeed we practice our life before others; hoping to be seen, recognized, and praised.

The joy of being seen, recognized, and praised by others feels good today but by tomorrow the shine will have worn away, and you’ll have to do more to achieve that same feeling of satisfaction and success. This is not putting life in your life. This is the presence of death in our lives – taking with it our joy in living.

The point is not to become obsessed by winning at the unwinnable human race. Having life in our life does not mean working really hard to always get it right or always having the answer. Having life in our life does not mean that we will always know what to do or be able to speak the right words. Having life in our life does not mean that we have to always be strong and in control.

We should try to do the right thing, make the best choices, and accomplish everything we set out do to but we must acknowledge that at some point – death will come and our quest for perfection and success in all things will have far less meaning to us and have been far less than life-giving. Having life in our life is about savoring all that we have in the now and accepting what we don’t. It’s about flavoring your life by sharing it and opening it to the lives of others – others who are living through life’s deaths before death – as well as giving life to life.

For me, the answer for giving life to my life and the only one whose standards can ordinate my life is Jesus. As an Episcopal priest recently shared with his congregation, Jesus never said, “I came that you might be a good, better, or an improved version of yourself.”

No, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That is the freeing truth of the gospel. Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls us to a meaningful life in the now, in this time and in this place. Life is now.

What does life before death mean to you? If you are given the opportunity to see this moment of your life through another’s eyes will you see life or death?

May the closing lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “When Death Comes” inspire you to have life before death.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Live and let your light so shine!

One Great Love Story in the Making

All photographs in this post courtesy of Brenda Ahearn. https://brendaahearn.com/

“Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over knowledge.”

It’s February, the month of love. As a newlywed who just experienced what I thought was the greatest love story ever told, what else could I write about other than the wonderful, terrifying, miraculous, tumultuous, confounding, thrilling, joyous topic of love?

If you had asked me on the momentous day that I said “Yes” to my husband-to-be on top of a mountain 6 months ago to describe what life together would be like today – almost three months after our bliss-filled-on- top-of-the– world-head-in-the-cloud-nine wedding day, I dare say my response would have been nothing close to the reality that is our life that we now live together today.

Mind you, we did things the old-fashioned way in that we did not live together – at all – before our wedding. November 24, 2018 was not only the happiest day of our lives but it also marked the beginning of a very different kind of living arrangement between two people that had been living quite happily and singly for an average of 31 years.

No, my enraptured response would have been much different than our reality. A response conceived through a culture- skewed filter of what not necessarily perfect love is but what normal love is – especially normal love ensconced in marriage. Despite having grown up with two sets of parents who loved each other – however imperfectly – and seeing couples in our social circles navigating married life with what we assumed was aplomb – we frankly had no idea what normal love in marriage was like. And apparently, our idea of what love is, let alone our idea of what is normal in love, is rather abnormal.

Within three months of our blissful wedding day my husband and I realized after many mutually restless nights and days filled with tormented thoughts that we were both castigating ourselves for not having a normal love-filled married life – although given the number of marriage counselors and self-help / couples-help books on marriage out there – no one seems to have a normal love-filled married life. In one book I read on marriage recently, it was stated that marital counseling, while prolific in our population, is the least successful form of therapy out there. I pity the counselors who must reflect on the numbers of couples they counsel who still end up divorced.

When the tension between us finally became more than we could bear, we spent another sleepless night talking it out into the wee hours of the morning. In doing so, we both experienced a marital epiphany of sorts. While we both had vowed to communicate with one another openly – no matter what – we were both too afraid to put into words the feelings that were brewing inside of us. Once out in the air we realized that these feelings were mutual – and the fact that we both shared the same fear about them seemed to cement our commitment to each other to keep trying. The first lesson of love in OUR marriage learned: communication is key and our love for each other is like no other and will look like no other.

As a culture, we are seemingly obsessed with the romantic run up to and creation of the epic wedding day that epitomizes and celebrates a couple’s love for each other. It would be interesting to compare the numbers on how lucrative the wedding planning and wedding production industry is with the marital counseling industry in all its manifestations – but space and time do not allow for that here. My husband and I kept our wedding celebration very low key and considerably budget minded. We were more interested in professing our love in a way that was true to who each of us was than having the party of the year – yet we still found ourselves getting caught up in the expectation trap.

Perhaps a wiser course on the way to marital bliss would be to recognize that the start of a relationship and its frenzied journey to the altar (or lakeside, or wedding hall, or beach) is not the high point; it is merely the first step in a much longer, more ambivalent adventure. A journey towards understanding our inner selves in relation to the one we love for the long-term that deserves far more attention than most of us would like to give.

When we said our vows, our hopes triumphed over knowledge – love was all that mattered. Knowledge would come later – after the commitment had been made. Knowledge was not intentionally avoided – we went through premarital counseling – we had the deep conversations we thought we needed to have – but nothing can truly prepare you for the far less romantic mundane aspects and minutiae of life together after the celebration is over and real-life sets in.

How, for instance, would each of us who were both very independent spirits, each proud owners of their own homes in which we relished our solitude, react and adapt to sharing that solitude with someone all of the time? Or, how would two people whose only companions within those respective homes having been two dogs (of completely different generations and personalities,) react to having those cherished companions in a constant argument with one another and furthermore have those companions get scolded by our beloved??

Perhaps we should have been talking about how we felt about putting a used coffee cup back in the cupboard since it had only been used once instead of putting it in the dishwasher; or how we interpreted one of us spending their evenings lost in books and music while the other recharges with football on the big screen, or when two people who are used to silence at home are suddenly sharing a home – what happens to the silence and what happens when that silence grows (oh my!) – than spending our precious pre-wedding time searching for a rustic unity candle that exemplified our perfect love for one another!

Each of us is unique and every marriage is unique – and our understanding and view of love and what is normal in a marriage will be just as unique. Our ideal of what love is – formed by a culture that romanticizes and materializes every aspect of it – dares to threaten and diminish the love that was so alive at the beginning. The idea that there is a perfect way to love and a perfect formula for marriage is just wrong. But, these conflicting narratives are everywhere – in movies and songs – great forms of literature and greeting cards – even jewelry and breakfast cereal commercials, and they fly in the face of the normal-for-us love that survives and thrives amid our conflicting schedules, tired minds, long workdays, differing fiscal philosophies, and dogs that don’t get along.

As author and founder of the School of Life, Alain de Botton, said in a recent On Being interview, “We must fiercely resist the idea that true love must mean conflict-free love, that the course of true love is smooth. It’s not. The course of true love is rocky and bumpy at the best of times. That’s the best we can manage as the creatures we are. It’s no fault of mine or no fault of yours; it’s to do with being human. And the more generous we can be towards that flawed humanity, the better chance we’ll have of doing the true hard work of love.”

Nowhere, other than through firsthand experience, do we learn how love deepens and stumbles, survives and evolves over time. Love is at once a painful and perplexing, touching and revelatory attempt by two flawed but earnest individuals trying to meet each other’s needs in situations of frustrating uncertainty and stubborn ignorance that neither of us had really contemplated before. No one had the nerve to tell us that our feelings of angst and conflict towards one another in the process of loving one another have much more to do with ourselves than what is wrong or right with our partner as we prepared to walk down the aisle.

Nowhere are we taught that love grows in the disappointing and the mundane moments of our day to day life just as much as it grows in the romantic, playful and joy-filled times.  If we all could have that insight, we would be starting our married lives off from a much more generous starting point.

Being a human being and trying to relate to another human being in a loving relationship is challenging no matter how well-matched the couple may be; there is no such thing as a perfect match; and every couple will encounter problems. Love is something we have to learn and keeping learning from. What challenges us the most we learn from the best. Love is not just an emotion, it is a skill acquired through time that requires patience, understanding, tolerance, generosity, imagination, courage and hope.

Frederick Buechner’s words on marriage inspire me to believe my husband and I are enjoying one great love story in the making:  “They both still have their lives apart as well as a life together. They both still have their separate ways to find. But a marriage made in heaven is one where they become more richly themselves together than the chances are either of them could ever have managed to become alone.”

Our marriage continues to be a beautiful risk of the heart made with complete confidence in one another. We are learning to appreciate each other’s individuality, flaws, and imperfections as they are every bit a part of the wonderful person we fell in-love with and married. We are triumphant with hope and growing in love and becoming more richly ourselves together than either of us ever could have become alone. May you be blessed in such a way  as well – no matter where you are in your relationship with the one you love.

~ ~ ~

A reading from our wedding ceremony:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 

–  Colossians 3:12-17

 

 

 

Make Your Ordinary Extraordinary

Last month as we came to the end of another journey around the sun, I reflected on that which lays claim to our lives – the same old patterns, practices, and negative voices in our head that tend to hold us back from looking and living forward in the freedom of God’s grace.

With the dawn of a new year, there is nothing most of us would like better to do than to break free from the bothers and burdens of life. Aware of our shadows and short-comings, we resolve to change – to be more positive, virtuous, charitable, forgiving. Striving for a more perfected or at least presentable version of ourselves, we set goals for the 365 days ahead determined to make something of our ordinary lives.

Before adding another list of “to do’s” to your daily regimen of being human, I think a good starting point for positive change in our lives is to once again look at what currently lays claim to it, reckon with it, and make peace with it. Rather than close the door on our struggles and burdens – past or present – no matter how difficult, examine them for the lessons learned and the strength gained, and yes, be grateful for them.

Indeed, to be grateful for all of our lives – the good and the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, our successes, and our failures, the rewards we have earned as well as the rejections we have faced, all the parts of our ordinary, everyday life – is what Henri Nouwen calls spiritual hard work. I call it necessary work.  If we don’t make peace with the journey that brought us to this decision point of change and honor the exceptional, uniquely formed being that we are, we just become a busier and more distracted version of ourselves without much space in our lives for something truly new to take hold.

The events, experiences, and people of our past have brought us to where we are and shaped us into who we are in this present moment. They will continue to shape us in the present and as we meet the journey ahead. Perhaps you’re coming off a particularly busy holiday season – one where there were just not enough hours in the day to experience joy. Perhaps you are one of the 800,000 federal workers trying to make ends meet while higher powers hold your income and daily life hostage. Perhaps you just received a raise after months of hard work. Perhaps your child made the winning shot in the basketball game last night. Maybe you just finished a term on a board and are reflecting on your accomplishments and frustrations and wondering what to do next. Maybe a long-time friend or parent has just passed away. Perhaps an important relationship is feeling the strains of dullness, distance, or distraction. Or maybe a relationship just became something much more wonderful.

Look at the ordinary and everyday circumstances of your life – those that bring joy and those that well – don’t. What do you see?  When life has left you feeling lost, who found you? When your workday or circumstances at home have left you exhausted and overwhelmed, how did you overcome those feelings to face another day? When circumstances put a skip in your step or laughter in your heart, where did you find yourself?

Look at the people in your life and the relationships you have – the good and the bad – in what circumstance were those ties formed? How have they enriched your life or enlightened you on the qualities you desire in yourself or want to rid yourself of? As long as we separate the times, places, and people in our lives that we would rather forget from those we relish in remembering, we will never accept the fullness of who we are or who we can become.

Ordinary life is our primary practice, so why not make it a spiritual one?  It is in the ordinary of life that we rediscover and reclaim ourselves – where the hard work is done and where good work can shine. It is in the ordinary of life that we must ask the question “Who and how do I want to be in this moment?” This question is about more than just making a choice in your response to an event or deciding between an array of options of who you are going to be today as you smile or frown during your morning mirror time. It is a question we should ponder every ordinary day.

It’s about taking all the lessons you have learned and letting the you that has been shaped and refined by your journey to this very moment in time shine through. Your response to who and how you want to be in this moment will define what you value and set the trajectory for – the course of your life.

Are you a stressed-out parent? A sandwich generation child? A spouse? Are you a rancher, a framer, a cook, a teacher, or bookkeeper? A CPA, a carpenter, a ski instructor, a salesperson, a lawyer, a medical professional? Are you a student, a politician, a police officer, a retired person, an unemployed person? Remember that before you were any of these, you were you – God’s best version of you. And look who you have become!

If you are busy setting goals to make more of your ordinary life this year, make one of them to change “for the better” by honoring ALL that you are right now. Look at your life through different eyes – those of a child of God. Claim the fullness of who and what you are now and share it with those around you. Don’t wait until you are a ‘better version.”

Here’s the extraordinary thing about our ordinary – no one else’s is like ours. Our ordinary is extraordinarily unique! Crafted by the guiding hand of a loving God, your ordinary life is your life to live and give to others as they have given to you in their own extraordinary ordinary way. Our ordinary becomes extraordinary when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life – all of our life – to those we meet in our ordinary days. Our greatest fulfillment, our greatest opportunity to make more of our ordinary days lies in giving ourselves to others.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead, you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”                           – Isaiah 43 1-4

Let your light so shine!

 

“When You Care Enough to Send the Very Best…”

Tis the season of gratitude and the Hallmark Christmas Channel with a record 34 new merry movies guaranteed to move you between this Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now don’t get me wrong –  I love a good movie and I love the occasional good cry –  but to be perfectly honest with you – I watch the Hallmark movies for the commercials. Hallmark Greeting Card commercials rank right up there with the Budweiser Clydesdale’s Super Bowl commercials on the tear-jerk scale for me.

This year you can spend “Christmas in Evergreen” or “Christmas in Graceland” or even “Christmas at the Palace” for all you royal wedding buffs. You can be “Home for Christmas”, have a “Homegrown Christmas”, “Mingle All the Way” to “Merry Matrimony”, be “Just in Time for Christmas”, find “A Family for Christmas”, make “Christmas Cookies” or a “Christmas Connection”, share “Christmas Joy”, get cozy in the “Christmas Cottage” or find “Christmas Love” just to name a few.

But the one movie that takes the cake for me is getting “Hitched for the Holidays” because … well… I AM!!! (Well technically over Thanksgiving – but the two holidays seem to merge into one another anymore anyway.)  Never, never in my life did I think I would be the subject of a Hallmark Christmas Movie, but then again, as of late,  I have lived through all the requisite movie making ingredients: calamity, tragedy, sorrow, heartbreak, new home, new puppy, getting snowbound, surprise guests, a new chapter in life,  and now a fiancé for the holidays – someone I had pretty much thought didn’t exist for me (see the plot thickening already!!) not even 9 months ago – and if you are reading this story on November 17th  I will be walking down the aisle in my holiday best just 7 short days from now!

Now it wouldn’t be a Hallmark-worthy story without a bit of nostalgia thrown in for good measure and so as I sit here during one of my less frazzled pre-wedding evenings – doing what I do best – remembering times gone by while paging through old photo albums and sharing Facebook memories – it has become obvious that Thanksgiving was NOT a photographic holiday in my family!!! I found 2 – TWO! pictures of my family at Thanksgiving – all taken in the last 6 years and one in a photo album. This is probably because I can recall many Thanksgivings when calamity reigned over peace in our kitchen and our meals were not always bubbling with joy. Broken casserole dishes, dry turkey, watery green bean casserole, arguments over Christmas lights – and when we could turn them on, and who was or wasn’t coming for dinner. Oh yes, we had separate Thanksgivings and silent Thanksgivings, soup for Thanksgiving, and yes, WONDERFUL Thanksgivings.

The last Thanksgiving my whole family was together was 2012. I never dreamed that would be the last one we celebrated together but it was. Illness, inclement weather, plans elsewhere, and death came between us in the following years. The last Thanksgiving we had with my Mom we didn’t have with Mom as she stayed home in “one of her moods” while the rest of us went to a relative’s house for the feast.  No, I never claimed we were a perfect family – but we loved each other even in the mess.

The year after that would be the last Thanksgiving I would have with my Dad and last year was the first one my brother and I had without either of our parents.

Every Hallmark Movie has a moral to the story and my morality lesson goes right to our mortality and the finite essence of life. I have learned that nothing – nothing can replace relationships – nothing is more important than family – and I must do a better job of nurturing the bonds I have with the people who have found their way into my life going forward. Love everyone at your table despite any irritations they might inflict and cherish every moment you have with them. Life is fleeting.  Forgiveness is a gift that should not be given sparingly, and as Eleanor Roosevelt once said – “The giving of love is an education in itself.”

This year I will be feasting on memories and giving thanks for lives well lived and a life still worth living. I will be celebrating the joining of two families as my fiancé, John and I become one of our own. We will be busy little premarital mice putting the finishing touches on our Scandinavian wedding day while entertaining out of town family for Thanksgiving. The turkey dinner has been ordered – so no drama will ensue in the kitchen this year but we will have plenty of opportunities for epic hilarity as burlap and wheat, lefse, lingonberries, and lox get thrown around the church fellowship hall.

We will have many romantic Hallmark-worthy moments and some not so memorable or romantic ones to come in the days and years ahead but one thing I know for sure – Getting Hitched for the Holidays is going to be the best story either of us will ever tell.

Wishing you a blessed Thanksgiving!

Let your light so shine!

Vanity of Vanities and the Value of Life

“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.”

I am a bit in awe that the words of King Solomon written some 2400 years ago could have such relevance in a life as inconsequential as mine. Not that I possess kingly or divine wisdom or anything close – nor am I living in the depths of despair – although I have been there quite recently – but I must hand it to the man, the sage of a bygone age – he took the words right out of my mouth. But then again, American novelist Thomas Wolfe said of Ecclesiastes, “[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth.” So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by my shared sentiments with a king.

Image result for probate in montanaWhat do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  Almost a year and a half after my father passed away the Morck family “estate” is finally coming to a close. A year and a half of emotion-filled frustration and emptiness that no one other than the people living it understand. Certainly, the attorneys and staff who saw my parents’ assets and the distribution thereof as anything more than a pile of papers that kept getting piled upon by more pressing and lucrative matters did not understand. Surely, the sting of death is gone by now they must have assumed. Surely, it was strictly a matter of business for my brother, the executor of the estate, to call time and again for “any news” on the process, and not something that reminds one of a life lived that is no longer with us – taken away in a manner of death that had no respect for the caliber of life lived.

This is the road we have traveled since saying goodbye to our parents beginning with our Mom 2.5 years ago and our Dad an impossible 18 months ago. A road of lessons learned we don’t intend to ever need again – other than to pass on our death wisdom to others.

“All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.”

I have shared a considerable amount of our journey through the end of my parents’ lives with you. It is quite the topic for contemplation – the value of things and what makes up this big thing we call life.  I shared with you as my brother and I sorted through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children) and how flabbergasted we were at the  sheer number of things collected and types of things held on to during their nearly 60 years of marriage.

I shared with you my family home decluttering tales, the sentimental moments of nostalgia that flooded the basement with tears, the moments of shock that sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories at seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain priced for the estate sale. So much emotion devoted to things and the memories made with them.

I shared with you the ramifications of trusting but not verifying that my father had the affairs of his estate in order—after all we had gone through all the “actions,”  family meetings,  attorney appointments, etc. That unverified trust turned into an unfortunate surprise for my brother and I after Dad had passed away and there was no one left to ask the pertinent questions of. Granted, my parent’s deaths were so close together that we still didn’t have our feet under us before we were grieving all over again, but we had plenty of time during the “good” years to have made sure we weren’t dealing with the unsavory issues of death afterward.  But those were the “good” years and death, while not unmentionable in my family, seemed a long way off. Until it wasn’t.

One would have thought that we would be done by now – left to regroup and remember not the losing of our parents’ lives but the living of them. But unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way – life has far too many complexities and complications.

But then last week – out of the blue it would seem – the beginning of the end came. The attorney was ready for us and with a mere signature at the bottom of a bunch of sterile legalese, the sum of my parents’ and more specifically my father’s life will officially come to a close.

The irony of the timing was not lost on this sentimental, deep-thinking, slightly emotional bride-to-be. As I look forward to the beginning of sharing the rest of my life with someone – just as my parents did some 63 years ago – I realize just how very much death has changed me. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how little those things matter in life.

My family lived a comfortable life. We wanted for nothing – okay that is a stretch – of course, I wanted cool games, designer jeans, my own car, and fantastic trips to places other than relative’s homes, the list goes on – but we did not get everything we wanted. We had what we needed – each other and love.

I used to be a wedding planner for an upscale floral and home shop.  I was jokingly known as “always the wedding planner never the bride.”  I helped brides dream up lavish wedding day celebrations and register for every possible thing they could ever want for feathering their nest. The more the better seemed to be the modus operandi. I, just as every girl and woman I imagine, once had dreams of my own wedding someday – big floral ensconced, orchestra – serenaded dreams.

“I said to myself, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But again, this also was vanity.  I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”  I searched with my mind how to cheer my body with wine—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, until I might see what was good for mortals to do under heaven during the few days of their life.”

I almost fell into the trap of wedding extravagance, of material expense, and emotional overwhelm. The dress, the flowers, the food, the rings, the shoes, the websites, the registries, and the self-imposed desires for the perfect day right out of a Montana Bride magazine, oh my!  But as I drove home one evening recently after a day of bridal “bliss” my thoughts turned from matching ties to ribbons and centerpiece ideas to the condition of my heart and where my mind had been the day before – at the end of lives lived.

After taking stock of my parent’s lives, the life I have lived so far, and the life I am about to begin, the idea of registering for “things” is almost repulsive. Things do not matter. The thought of a lavish affair that smacks of competing for “event of the year” leaves me cold. What we value reveals the nature of our hearts. There is nothing like seeing life reduced to words on a paper that make you realize it is the life lived and love that matter – it is the life and love therein that remain in your heart long after the living is done. Everything else is meaningless, “vanity” as Solomon wrote; remnants of the human struggle to mask over where life and love are missing.

As I begin this next chapter of my life – there will be no masks needed. There will be nothing more and nothing less than life and love for all the days my fiancé and I  have together, beginning with our first.

“I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.”

 

Let your light so shine.

The Jesus Tribe

A sermon based on Mark 9:38-50

The words were flying like bullets. I had shared what I thought was a well thought out, reasoned article on faith in today’s politically polarized environment on my Facebook page – then without a second thought headed out for a walk. When I returned I found a message waiting for me from one of my high school friends apologizing for the messy tirade she had made of my post. I had no idea what she was talking about but when I looked at my Facebook page – holy moly! While I was out enjoying God’s magnificent creation, a few words had turned into a violent verbal battle between two friends of mine who did not know each other but shared me as their common, well-meaning opiner. I had missed most of the volleys thrown my way – the writer had deleted her words before I could read the vitriol – but I was filled in on their content later.  Words that went along the lines of because of who I did or didn’t support as president (which I did not divulge, to begin with) I could not possibly be a true Christian. ME! Of all people!! My high school friend, someone who is also strong in her faith, had met with the fiery tongue of yet another strong believer who just happened to be of very different political stripes and unfortunately, the two did not see eye to eye. Needless to say, my high school friend felt bad about airing her views while the other posit-er blocked me and would not respond to my attempts to temper the discussion – deleting all of it instead. Not that I had anything to say that could change such polarized minds. In the end, all parties involved retreated to our safety zones – our respective tribes – the place where we belonged, where we found camaraderie, loyalty, and protection for our differing views on what it means to do life and what it means to be a Christian.

In ancient times, tribes provided the social, economic, and religious structure along with the necessary physical protection that we humans needed for survival. We humans were and still are ill-equipped to survive on our own. I like to think and am pretty sure that God had a hand in that piece of our evolution.

A recent Google search returned page after page of insight on modern-day tribalism. There are tribes designed for sports enthusiasts and business influencers. There are tribes for hobbyists and travelers, tribes for political junkies and naturalists. Musicians, parents, adventurists, holistics, yogis, the list goes on. There are “find your tribe” memes, inspirational tribal quotes, and tribal gurus ready to help you find your special tribe. Companies build advertising campaigns appealing to our tribes. Tribes are apparently good for business and obviously, finding yours has become an important quest in today’s world and for good reason. Tribes at their best nurture an environment for generating new ideas for work and life and create a sense of community which is vital for a healthy productive life. Our tribe provides us with a sense of purpose, a reason to interact with others and, if developed to its highest purpose even provides health and wellbeing benefits.

According to management consultant and TED Talk presenter David Logan who has researched and written on tribal development in modern society, there are millions of different tribes in the world but they all fall into one of five categories determined by their stage of cultural development. Those consist of the undermining stage which is often seen in prisons and gangs who share the belief that life sucks and you are coming down with me,  next are those in the apathetic victim stage who share the view that “my life is hopeless, your life is better” which in turn breeds resentment among the tribe members with a kind of ‘lose/win’ mentality, next are those in the lone warrior stage who say  “I’m great and you’re not” which creates a ‘win/lose’ mentality within the tribe and sets members up for disappointment in their fellow tribe members. Those in the tribal pride stage belong to a group that is united around a set of values and form the view that “we are great, they are not” – it is still a ‘win/lose’ approach, but one where the ‘win’ is based around the group rather than an individual. The final stage is the innocent wonderment stage; the stage of highest purpose and not surprisingly – the least likely level in tribalism to achieve. It is also the most enlightened stage of tribalism, where life really is great and a healthy ‘win/win’ mentality forms. The group is in competition with what’s possible, not with each other or another tribe.

According to Logan, most of us find ourselves in tribes characterized by the middle three categories: apathetic victims, lone warriors, and tribal pride. All three of these tribal development categories share a win/lose or an us versus them worldview.

Worldviews set on human things like judgment and greatness. Views built around fear, anger, resentment, envy, and acquisition. Views set on perfectionism, our need for approval and to be liked, or in control. Views that harbor prejudice, indifference, or apathy. These tribes nurture and advance our stumbling blocks rather than help us overcome them, and in the eyes of God – do nothing to advance His kingdom on earth.

Not that this form of “belonging” or joining together is anything new. This sort of tribalism began in the Garden of Eden and follows through all human history. It confounded Moses, it inspired David’s Psalms, and it provided plenty of teaching material for Jesus. Today, this win/lose, us versus them, I am right and you are wrong vision permeates our politics, defines our dogma, and has crept into our churches. Even with our increasingly pluralistic society, perhaps because of it, we hold tightly to our doctrines and orthodoxy – certain that our tribe has all the answers, knows the ways and will of God. We take ownership of and want to control what God’s work in the world will look like, even to the point of deciding who can witness to it and experience it. We, of course, are foolhardy in doing so as God can never be owned, can never be controlled. But we sure try!

September 9th was Rally Sunday. It was a kind of unusual one for us this year with Pastor Pete on sabbatical. Rally Sunday is usually full of excitement – everyone is back from their summertime doings – Sunday school kicks off – new programs are introduced, new liturgies are sung, and the pews are filled with all ages again. This year we struggled to get Sunday school teachers – and we are still searching for a Sunday School Director by the way – we were singing the same tired liturgical verses we had sung all summer long – and our pews were certainly not full. As a member of the congregation’s leadership, I notice these things. I was also very aware of the big deal happening down the street and around the corner from us. The grand opening of a “mega-church’s” Columbia Falls satellite congregation with their praise band and worship team all set to put on weekly concerts for God lovers. Their parking lot was reportedly full – for all three services mind you – and I couldn’t help but wonder… We have competition! If all those people were so hungry for God – why not just join us??  We obviously had plenty of room – and maybe we could even find a few more Sunday School teachers! My tribal pride was aroused – feelings of envy, frustration, fear that we might lose members to the next big thing to hit Columbia Falls swirled inside me. What do they have that we don’t? God should be working through us!

Now I admit, I am not proud of my reaction. But I know I am not alone with thoughts like this. Heck, even Jesus’ earliest followers went wayward in their discipleship, quite often in fact, as we have seen lately throughout the gospel of Mark.

In today’s gospel reading, John zealously informs Jesus of someone performing acts in His name, but the disciples stopped the exorcist because he was not one of them – not a part of the “in” group. We don’t know much about this outsider – perhaps he didn’t speak, think, act, or look like them but we do know this – he was not part of their Jesus Tribe – and the disciples saw him as getting in the way of their faith and ministry. And when they could not stop him they told on him.

One can only imagine the thrill it gave John to tattle on the outsider given that the disciples themselves had just recently failed at what this outsider was succeeding at – driving out demons. They were also still puzzling over the comeuppance Jesus gave them when they were arguing over who among them was the best. This act of loyalty would surely please the teacher. Apparently, to the disciples it was not enough to be a follower of Jesus; you have to be a certain kind of follower – one of them (or one of us?)

But Jesus sees through John’s self-righteous glee. In Eugene Peterson’s Bible translation, The Message, Jesus wasn’t pleased. “Don’t stop him. (Jesus says) No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he’s not an enemy, he’s an ally. Why,  anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice. On the other hand, if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.”

Once again, the disciples find themselves on the receiving end of a whole new way of thinking. I imagine they were a little disappointed in Jesus’ response. Not only does Jesus not support the disciples in their action, but he also does not criticize or condemn the outsider.  As Duane Priebe, Professor Emeritus at Wartburg Seminary, says, “every time you draw a line between who’s in and who’s out, you’ll find Jesus on the other side.”  Not only have the disciples drawn a line between who is in and who is out, it seems the disciples have crossed a line – the line between protecting the faith and claiming ownership of the faith.

It is a line each of us has to negotiate as we encounter the others in our lives, as we encounter differences of opinion, as we encounter different practices and understanding. Is our zeal for our particular view of the gospel – or maybe it has nothing to with the gospel but rather – our fear of those who are different from us – is that zeal or fear placing a stumbling block before others that makes it harder for them to see and feel the love of God in Christ?

Do we stay within our win/lose us versus them tribal safety zones or do we strive for an enlightened response – do we dare contemplate the possible (because with God anything is possible)? Can we step up to the next level of wonderment described by David Logan or the kind of discipleship we are freed in Christ to live?

Only if we surrender the tribal patterns of life we have created for ourselves or to which we allow others to perpetuate in us. Only if we surrender the ways of seeing, thinking, and acting that blind us to who we, our neighbors and God really are.

The choice is ours, but it is a heavy choice. As Fr. Michael Marsh, an Episcopal priest writes, “Every time we stumble or cause another to stumble we have denied life – our own or another’s. We have diminished the kingdom of God and ultimately destroyed love.”

The goal of faith is not winning, unlike that of our tribalistic culture. Those of us in the Jesus Tribe need to remember that the goal of believing is not who can be better – whatever “better” means. We need to remember that being a Christian is not about comparison but individual expression, as individual as the incarnation of Christ is in us. The new satellite church is not Our Saviors and we will never be like them. But together we will express the love of God in ways that reach people who may not be able to hear it as they or we might express it. Just think how boring it would be if we all believed and worshipped the same way. Not even our Scriptures propose that. If we truly believe what we confess, that the Holy Spirit lives in each of us – then we should rejoice in and encourage that expression of God through us in its beautiful particularity.

In this time of pluralism and polarization, we need the community and support of a tribe. A tribe that reframes how we think about our lives, our commitments, our identity, and our vision of what constitutes authentic Christian community. Let’s ensure the Jesus Tribe is one in which we do see Jesus – one that is open to all who seek to know his grace, his forgiveness, his amazing love. One in which life really is great – for everyone – because in it we see God. Our God is there.

Amen.

 

Mountain Envy

“The few who do are the envy of the many who only watch.”

My father always told me that envy was not becoming to me nor would it do me any good. “Just because so and so has (you name it here) doesn’t mean that you need to have it nor deserve to have it.” My mother grew up in a family of 10 and lived in a railcar until she went away to college. Aside from her love of fashionable clothing – much of which she sewed herself – she delighted in the simpler things in life. She did not need grandiose experiences or the next best thing to make her happy and neither did our family. Growing up with this household ethos, I learned to accept and be thankful for what our family did have. I still take a great deal of pride in being satisfied by the simpler things in life and place more importance on the relationships I have enjoyed than any possession I might acquire.

These values became even more ingrained when I moved to the Flathead Valley of NW Montana 5 years ago, but I also realized that same contentment had limited the expanse of my horizons. There was a lot more to life than I had been allowing myself to experience. I discovered a zest for doing things I had never done before – like climbing mountains and letting my wanderlust go wild. The experiences inspired in me an unquenchable desire to explore and challenge myself physically and mentally. Not only was I doing something that brought me joy but I was also meeting wonderful people along the way. The best part of this new discovery was I had become a do-er rather than the contented watcher I used to be. This new zeal extended into other areas of my life too – I found myself saying yes to things I had always just thought about doing. Singing in Choirs (plural), joining Toastmasters, pursuing my Lay Pastoral Associate license, and volunteering for various organizations and events. Saying yes can become addicting and, as I found out at one point, can quickly lead to overwhelm and burnout – but for the most part – saying yes simply opened doors to opportunities that in the past would have passed me by.

And therein lays the rub – while pursuing one profound opportunity this summer, other passions and opportunities have been passing me by. I can’t do it all. This has been a difficult reality for me to accept. Normally, I would have accumulated, at the minimum, 100+ miles worth of snow and dust on my hiking boots by this time of year but alas, I surrendered my mountain adventures to a higher calling of sorts. While my hiking buddies have been climbing to mountaintop after mountaintop and posting stunning photos all over my Facebook feed every weekend, I have either been studying or writing sermon after sermon and cramming my other duties into the few hours I have outside of work all year long. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to use my recently attained Lay Pastoral Associate license to its full extent while my pastor is on sabbatical this summer. There really is nothing I enjoy more than dwelling in the Word, writing about it, and now preaching it (I still have to pinch myself!) except maybe contemplating those words on top of a mountain.

So yes, I will make a full confession here to harboring within my soul a severe case of mountain envy.  As unbecoming as it may be, after seeing the beauty of blue skies and majestic mountains only through the eyes of my fellow mountain lovers – my home – work – church existence has been getting to me. I longed to escape, to behold what I couldn’t, to experience what I didn’t have time for – a dirty mountain trail and the endless vistas I had coveted from my computer screen.

And when I finally, FINALLY, got the chance to hike my favorite hike recently… there were no beautiful blue skies and the mountains were enshrouded in smoke. I would like to say that I sucked it up and didn’t pout – but then I would be committing yet another sin on top of envy – deceit. Recalling my friend’s (who don’t work in the summer) joyful posts from the day before – ONE DAY mind you –  showing the bluest skies I have ever seen (ok, so maybe I am milking this…) and abundant wildlife (bears and moose galore) did nothing to help quell my urge to stomp down the trail with a welt in my throat and moistened eyes. Thank goodness it was a solo hike!

 

 

 

 

16 miles of a smoky Many Glacier day lay before me. The long, pre-dawn drive to the trail head is what kept me motivated to go on. And go on I did! Because I am doer now, remember?  Besides, it is hard to stay mad or miserable on a mountain trail (unless it is raining, then I am mad and miserable!) As I walked (note I wasn’t stomping anymore) I could feel my clenched jaw slacken and the tension between my shoulders ease. I have completed or attempted this hike three times before. The first time being the only time I actually made it to the Swiftcurrent Lookout. The other two attempts were thwarted by forces of nature I could not control. This time, the only force I had to contend with was my attitude and as it would turn out later – smoke. I determined I was not going to be disappointed again. But I still had this bitter taste of disappointment that lingered as I passed by lakes reflecting nothing but greyness and made my way up the switchbacks with repetitive views of a grey valley diminishing the higher I climbed.

“Why, oh why couldn’t you have made today be a good day?” I demanded of God.

By the time I made it to the pass, I was in a severe depression – not because of any emotional issue I was dealing with but from the smoke wafting in the air blighting the sun and blunting out any view while telling a story of fires burning again somewhere.

Another mile straight up now and I would answer the Lookout’s beckoning. I started on my way.

“But really, why?” I kept thinking. Is this some sort of obsession I have with making it to the top? It started to rain. I turned back for a moment and then in defiance I turned around and continued on. The wind started to howl – how could it be so windy and still be enshrouded in smoke? And then my lungs began to burn and my eyes water. It was 7.5 miles back to the trailhead and I had had enough.

I sat down on a protected ledge and had my lunch as I gazed out at a darkened valley.  It was delicious. And God finally answered me.

“What makes you think today isn’t a good day?” was all He said.

Feeling a bit convicted, I took a swig of hot coffee, gathered up my gear, and glanced up at the lookout in the grey yuck above me. “I win,” I declared, “and I am going to enjoy the rest of my hike.”

With a skip in my step I made my way down to the pass where I met a couple from Texas who were freaked out because apparently a bear had been following me.

Then I saw a cow moose and her baby, and I met longtime friends who were hoping to make it to the pass but weren’t sure they could, and I found the most beautiful patch of wildflowers blooming vibrantly under the grey skies.

A hint of sun broke through just as I made my way down the still flowing creek bed and shone on a lone stem of fireweed. It was a magnificent photo.

Chipmunks and ground squirrels stopped and posed for me, sharptails strutted for me,  and tree branches created the perfect frame for an exquisite waterfall shot.

The grand finale was a majestic bull moose bathing in grey waters and putting on quite a show for my appreciative eyes.

It was a good day! I laughed as the sun came out for the last 2 miles – making the forested walk glisten and the birch bark glow. I was reminded of my father’s words, “Envy is unbecoming” and added some new-found wisdom of my own – it will wreck your day. No matter how much “better” someone else may have had it, your present is all that you have. Make the best of it and you will find much more joy on your journey of being a doer.