I had a bit of reunion on Mount Cannon this oast weekend – with friends I hadn’t seen for a while, fellow adventurers who know there is so much more to any climb than just bagging a peak and reaching the summit in record time. We climb because it brings us to the base of who we are – it tests our sense of self, it builds our inner strength while humbling us at the same time. It creates a special bond with others -some lasting lifetimes -some lasting for just the moment – that you are in this together – this life, this moment – and you belong. You are scared and beyond thrilled together. And you know that is true – because often death – yes, death – is just one wrong step away – and yet every step is probably one of the most full of life steps you will take!
It has been a while since I realized these truths – far too long for my good. My mind and my spirit of late reflect this. And that was all summed up in what seemed like hours but was only a minute or less as I stood frozen on the ledge, staring down into the gaping crevasse that was taunting me – jump. The bottom was out of sight – literally – there was no bottom – just a very hard death awaiting me somewhere below. How could this be happening to me? I had crossed this very spot just a half-hour before! Granted I was going the opposite direction and this side had ridges for me to grasp. But the crevasse was no less wide and my legs surely hadn’t shrunk! But my mind was working against me -reasoning that my backpack was too heavy, my healing foot still too unstable to hold my landing, my bifocals were tricking my eyes, and I was just ‘too weak’ to leap like I knew I had to. Self-doubt was winning again.
Just as it has been for the last year or so as the crevasses of life sucked me down. Telling me that I was not worthy of love, that I was not healthy enough to thrive, that I was not talented enough to shine, that there is something wrong with me and I just can’t see it, that I was too weak to stand for anything – especially stand up for myself. I was dying inside and the sparkle was gone from my eyes. I did not know who I was anymore – I longed for days gone by.
And then a hand reached for mine and a voice said “Your mind is working against you, You can do this! Here take my hand and let me pull you across.”
And there I was, on the other side… full of giggles as I gasped for the air my nerves had sucked out me. And I was alive! Not only that, I felt like I was living again – not just remembering. On the mountain, I felt like me again only better. The summit views had changed my perspective – not just of the world below me, but of myself. The challenges I faced along the way both coming and going didn’t beat me down – they made me stronger for the next climb.
Mountains are formed by slow but gigantic movements of the earth’s crust. When two slabs of the earth’s crust smash into each other the land can be pushed upwards, forming mountains. It is a hard, life spanning work of metamorphosis. No wonder I get along with them so well.
It was good to find myself on the mountain again – it was even better to find myself. Oh the life that is waiting for us – when we live it! Thanks to all who helped me along the way – and thank you, God, for this wonderful up and down life!
Grace and peace to you friends in Christ near and far, from God our Father and friend.
I come from a long line of pastors, deacons, and missionaries in the Lutheran church. My great, great, great, great, great grandfather Peder Pedersen Mørch, was a Deacon in Jegindø, Thyholm Danmark until his death in 1752. His son Christian Pedersen Mørch, of Jegindø, Thisted, Danmark was also a Deacon in the church until his death in 1777; with even more ancestors listed as deacons going back to 1670. That is just on my father’s side of the family. You all know Pastor Pete, well we share quite a bit of Norwegian pastoral blood from my mother’s side of my family. The pastoral and missionary trait obviously runs strong through our veins.
I was a late in life surprise for my parents so I only knew my Grandma Dyrud, my mom’s Mom. I remember succinctly her devout faith. She made a strong impression on my own faith beginnings before she passed away when I was eight years old. Her favorite hymn was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and whenever she came for a visit she always packed candied orange slices and her Bible in her suitcase. She always wore a large cross necklace – visible in virtually every picture I can recall. She is the one who first proclaimed that I was going to be a pastor someday as she watched me play church after church on Sundays. It was through her that I saw that Jesus could be my friend. She lived her life with Him by her side – a life that was far from easy or comfortable – but she was always comforted.
It was through my parents that I came to know the working side of faith. They were church planters, served as confirmation teachers, my mom served as the church organist, and my Dad was the perennial council president in every church we belonged to even with our nomadic lifestyle.
And now here I am, carrying on the tradition, albeit with a few bumps in the road along the way. So, of course, I know who Jesus is. Not only was I raised with Jesus pretty much everywhere, but I can recite by memory the very definition of the man.
More than likely, you can too. He’s one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. The one Lord, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. He’s God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. He’s begotten, not made. He is of one Being with the Father and through him, all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and he became truly human. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried – for our sake! And then, get this – on the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Any day now He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
He’s also a Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, the Word made flesh, the good shepherd, Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, The Way the Truth and the Life, Lord of Life, Healer of our every ill and Forgiver for all, and of course, the Messiah.
You did get all that, didn’t you? It’s pretty lofty verbiage if you ask me – but it is easier to memorize those memorable words and phrases, don’t you think? So when we are put on the spot and asked like Jesus asks Peter in today’s gospel lesson – “But Who do YOU say that I am?” we are ready with a pithy response. I have to admit, I cheered for Peter when he got the answer “right.” exclaiming “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
But what does that mean? Again, lofty language describing the very reason we are here together today – Jesus. When we confess the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed together- what are we really saying? When I sit down and think about it, those beautiful liturgical words are safe – they keep me and my life at an arm’s distance from the wild and unpredictable nature of God and Jesus remains a rather tame and eminently safe figure in my life. And that seems just about right, right? We like to remain in control of our lives and keep things going just so.I may ask for Jesus to take my hand – but boy take my life? That seems like a lot when all I am asking of him is to get me through whatever it is I am facing. But Jesus doesn’t come in doses that I take as needed. His love and ways are all encompassing with no limits.
When it comes to answering the question of who Jesus is aside from what we are told in Sunday school or what we continue to confess together in the relative comfort and safety of church, on the other 167 days of the year who do we say Jesus is? And how big of a role does Jesus play in our everyday life? I am going to go out on a limb here and tell you that this is one of the most important questions you will ever answer (aside from are you ok if you are choking or maybe, will you marry me) in terms of the direction of your life. Who you say Jesus is has everything to do with who you are and how you go about the life you lead. In some ways, your answer says as much or more about you and us together as a community of faith, than Jesus. Because in Jesus’ eyes, you are His beloved, and the life he wants for you is provided to you freely with no strings attached or tests to pass.
And while we share the same words for confessing our faith in Jesus, who you say Jesus is will be different from my response. Just as the disciples came to know Jesus as the Messiah through their walk with him – observing his healings of mercy, hearing his sermons on justice, twice being awed by and tasting bread multiplied and shared with thousands, being saved by an ethereal Jesus on the water when stormy waters threatened to sink their boat, even extending mercy to those beyond the boundaries of prejudice and culture and showing unexpected more human side of himself – we too, come to our understanding of Jesus through our own walk with him.
Who Jesus is matters every single day and in every single place of our lives and who Jesus is to us is influenced by our experience of him in every single circumstance of our lives. Peter’s confession didn’t occur just anywhere. Jesus could have asked the question while in a familiar, friendly place like Galilee where most of his ministry has taken place or even while walking to this destination (because aren’t difficult conversations always easier on a walk?) but no, Jesus chose a very specific location – Caesarea Philippi.
Situated about 25 to 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi originally known as Panais, was near a trade route that connected Tyre in the West to Damascus in the Northeast. A nearby cave and spring served as a sanctuary dedicated to the part man, part goat Greek god, Pan. Greek inscriptions and niches carved into the rock suggest this area was dedicated to other pagan gods as well. It was also a place where the power and the authority of the Roman Empire were on full display. Herod the Great had built a temple near the spring in honor of Caesar Augustus. By the time Jesus and his disciples visited the region, Caesarea Philippi was governed by Herod’s son, Philip the tetrarch, who established the city as the administrative center of his government. And at the time of Matthew’s Gospel, people were likely aware that the Roman commander who led the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had returned with his troops to Caesarea Philippi in celebration of their victory. So Jesus pops the question—“Who do you say that I am?” at the intersection of economic trade, religion, and the power of the Empire. The very things that ruled heavily over the people’s lives. This was not a particularly safe place for the disciples to be spouting off about a Messiah – the Messiah they envisioned would release them from the bondage and oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. Aligning oneself with someone other than the emperor could get you thrown in prison if not to the pit.
The disciples had witnessed Jesus’s works and ways and though not yet aware that this Messiah’s deliverance would be far different from their expectations, they chose to follow him.
Who do you say Jesus is in your life, today? Who is Jesus when alternate kingdoms of power and authority vie for your allegiance? Who is Jesus in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty of this pandemic? Who is Jesus as you deliberate sending your children back to school or if it is safe to travel or too risky to visit with loved ones? Who is Jesus in the midst of a tenuous election year as you encounter those who may have a different view of things – mask-wearing, the state of our nation? Who is Jesus in the midst of racial unrest – in the aftermath of the Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland protests and riots, and the seemingly impenetrable wall of class and color? Who do you say Jesus is as your loved one dies or as you sit with the news of an unfavorable diagnosis? Who is Jesus when you consider the plight of refugees and immigrants seeking a new place to call home and that new home is your home? Who is Jesus when domestic violence invades your life or you can’t find a job to support your family? Who is Jesus when your family or a relationship falls apart?
Who is Jesus to you when you face the difficult decisions of life, the ones with no easy answers or when you feel overwhelmed by isolation or depression? Who is Jesus when your latest screw up weighs heavily on your chest, when your sin has clouded out your hope? When judgment is the only response you perceive from others? Who do you say Jesus is then?
Who is Jesus when your life is going well? When you don’t think about needing Jesus or think about Jesus, period?
How has your experience of Jesus shaped who you know Jesus to be?
Those lofty words we sing, confess and praise God with in worship an a way feel a little too distant, a little too beautiful when what we need is the wild, unflinching love and grace from our friend, our Lord and Savior, our sweet Jesus to enter into the darkest, ugliest places in our soul.
Who you say Jesus is will determine how you live into that truth for your life. Who Jesus is to you reveals what you stand for and guides your decisions, determines your actions, and forms the words you speak and how you will say them. If you align yourself with and define your heart with Jesus – you can expect the words that come from your mouth as Jesus taught in last week’s gospel – to come from your heart not defiled but filled with grace.
Today and every day, Jesus asks the evergreen question – Who do you say that I am? The Jesus I confessed before the church when I was 13 was certainly not the same Jesus I found when I searched for him 13 years later when I had nothing left BUT Jesus or the Jesus who walked beside me to my parents burials, or who walks with me today as I try to navigate through this new way of living and being in a pandemic. Hopefully, who Jesus is for you and me next year will be different from who he is for us today. It’s not that Jesus has changed. We have. As we go through life our experience and knowledge of Jesus grows. When we live this question we not only discover Jesus anew we discover ourselves anew. It’s not just about asking what would Jesus do – as those once trendy bracelets reminded us to ask when faced with a difficult decision. When you live every day with Jesus as a part of you and live your life with the heart and mind of Jesus those questions answer themselves. On our way, we have more and more experiences that show us something about the God whom we seek. For Jesus is always new, always different and our God is a deeply moved God with a heart and being far greater than our understanding.
Don’t feel as though your answer to Jesus’ question is too simple – too incongruous to the realities, complexities, and pain of “real” life. Don’t feel ashamed that your life does not always align with the words you profess on Sunday. After all – Jesus is calling into question everything about our lives, our world, the status quo, and business as usual. Jesus has a question for you. How will you answer Him? Who do you say that I am?
There is no correct answer – only your heart and your life can determine that. But the Good News is that God has done most of the work for you. We don’t have to take final responsibility for procuring the faith, hope, and courage that we may feel are in short supply in order to answer this question. Because the faith we seek, the confidence we long for, the courage we hope to find and to share – these are gifts from God. The kind of gifts God loves to bestow.
My favorite poet Ranier Maria Rilke provides insight on this life framing question: “(T)he point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” With that in mind, let your answer to Jesus guide your life.
May our friend, our comforter, our shoulder to lean on, our sounding board and confidant, our just and loving Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God – our way, our truth, and our life – guide you, free you, and renew you today and every day.
So, I “did a thing” in the popular vernacular these days. As of Monday, August 17, 2020, 3 years after purchasing my first home I now OWN it outright – my mortgage is burned and I am completely debt-free! The celebration is, of course, bittersweet. Mom and Dad had a lot to do with this – the payoff was half my hard-earned savings/half my inheritance from them – plus the mindset to get it done! I would give anything for them to be here but I know they would be proud of their only daughter owning her own home before she turned 50 and making wise long-term financial decisions beginning with my first paycheck some 30 years ago. Although, I did joke with my brother that I paid off my house so I would have a topic for my blog this month!
I will admit to feeling a pang of anxiety and momentarily lost my faculties as the wire went out of my bank account to the mortgage company and I saw my liquid cash drop to a quarter of its value the day before. But those feelings soon subsided as the realization set in that I OWN MY OWN HOME! With the way the world is going, having this peace of mind is everything! I am in complete control of my financial wellbeing – as well as completely responsible for anything and everything that goes wrong with it – namely, the house. (As I was reminded by a friend who chose to sell her home and move into an apartment rather than deal with a mortgage and the headaches of home & yard maintenance.) While I may have lost a bit of my free time and playtime – the freedom I gained in financial security and peace of mind far outweighs the importance of my freedom to quench my wanderlust on a whim.
This past weekend, August 14 to be exact, marked the 7-year anniversary of my move to the Flathead Valley in NW Montana. That I continue to observe and outright celebrate this milestone event in my life shows just what a turning point my decision to uproot my firmly planted prairie feet and move west was in my life. The actual activities of August 14, 2013, were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me, however, that day was the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new very independent life.
It seems like ages ago, and yet just yesterday, when I stood in the soft morning light of my final sunrise as a resident of Eastern Montana with so many dreams for my future. With all my belongings packed into a small trailer and the back of my Hyundai Santa Fe, I was off on a grand adventure of self-discovery. My eyes may have sparkled with anticipation, and my ever-present smile made it seem like it was the greatest day in my life, but I kept my fear of the unknown that lay before me well concealed with laughter and my hurried loading of the trailer. I had no idea what the next seven years would have in store for me except for a new job, new relationships, and of course plenty of trail dust.
Looking back at that time with 20/20 hindsight helps put this most uncertain year of 2020 in perspective. While I still have the same great job I moved here for and the mountains still beckon me with the same yodel, the rest of my life unfolded very differently than my original plotline. The love (besides the mountains) that I moved here for turned out not to be the one. My ideas of family get-togethers in the most beautiful part of Montana went unrealized with the deaths of both my parents within a year of each other.
I never imagined buying a home on my own or buying a home with a yard specifically with a dog in mind, nor did I dream I would find yet another Brittany (#5) that would lay claim on my heart and bring as much joy to my life as Ember has so expertly done. Nor did I fathom how much I would need his bright little light accompanying me along the way. Nowhere in my script for my life did I imagine needing an emergency lifesaving infusion of 5 pints of blood or getting married only to have that marriage end a year later. Fulfilling my lifelong dream to become a pastor – albeit via the Lay Pastoral Associate program in MT rather than going to seminary (but who knows!) – and filling my days writing sermons and guiding others in their faith journey was not even on my radar as a possibility that August morning 7 years ago.
Now, as I gather myself together after forking over so much dough and take stock of the life I have now given a bit more solid foundation, I am grateful to God for most of the unexpected or at least unplanned for adventures and resulting perspectives on life that have come my way the past 7 years. I am thankful for the dark times and the clouds in life (some real dark clouds) that make the good times and brighter days so much more precious. Times that taught me things about myself I would never have learned any other way. I thank God for helping me find my voice and using it to sing away the blues and sing in joyful harmony with others. I thank God for the new friendships I have made and the lasting friendships from back home that have stayed the course across the distance. I thank God, for this gift of LIFE!
Reflecting on the last seven years of my life has given me some much-needed perspective of the challenging times we are facing now. For the past 7 months, we have been living upended lives that certainly are not living up to the expectations we had on New Year’s Day as the COVID-19 pandemic does away with so many of our plans, dreams, and even just day to day regular activities. So much has been taken from us – and yet – as my 20/20 hindsight can attest – none of those things we hold dear – relationships, traditions, day to day life, hopes, dreams – are guaranteed. We take today and tomorrow for granted, that the people we love will be there for a phone call, that life will go as planned – until it doesn’t. And yet we get through it- through it all – and most of the time we are better for having lived through the challenges and changes. Knowing that I have survived some pretty hard times in the past and that I have done what I can to secure myself financially, I feel prepared for what could be stormy days ahead – or at least the unexpected.
I also know where the truest form of freedom and stability is found. Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble or disappointment – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the twisting, bumpy, costly, sometimes disappointing, long and lonely road of life alone. Through Him, we find a new kind of freedom and shelter from the storm. His love and mercy are mine, all mine – and the same is true for you.
“This is the testimony in essence: God gave us eternal life; the life is in his Son. So, whoever has the Son, has life; whoever rejects the Son, rejects life. My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion. And how bold and free we then become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening. And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours.” – John 5:11-15
Five years ago, today I climbed my first 10,000 ft peak. My sentiments shared on Facebook at the time were so filled with life and my hunger for high adventure was piqued. “Well Mount Siyeh, have you stopped giggling yet? What a spectacular day to climb my first 10,014-foot peak!! I am certainly not the same girl I was when I awoke at 4 a.m. this morning. So much to say, so much to share… I will tease you with this – we saw not one, or two but 5 grizzly bears!!” A year later my world was rocked by the death of my mother and as I reflected on this day at that time, my soul was seeking strength: “I was tested and I conquered some major hurdles that day – self-doubt being the greatest of them. What a difference a year makes… God must have been building me up for the year to come. Hope to one day have that thrilled smile again.” The following year my world was rocked again with the death of my father and I continued to find solace in the mountains, chasing after new heights and daring myself to go farther and deeper – into the mountains and into my soul.
For the last 7 years, my go-to form of solace and therapy has been a mountain trail. And after the last year with the end of my marriage and the throes of a pandemic rocking and shutting down my life, one would think I would be seeking that natural remedy once again for my ailing soul. And yet I am feeling this strange resistance inside of me that I can’t explain. Of course, I should be in the mountains – how can I not be? It’s what you do when you live in the Flathead! Just look at everyone having amazing adventures and capturing exquisite photographs of not-of-this-world scenery, I scold myself, just like I have done summer after summer since I first set my eastern MT prairie feet here. What is wrong with me, I wonder, as a rare glorious weekend unfolds and my once always ready to go backpack remains in the hall closet.
My newfound weekend ritual of waking at 4 am, filling my thermos with coffee, checking the weather apps for appropriate clothing, lacing up my dusty boots, and heading out for the wilderness eating my breakfast behind the wheel feels foreign to me this year. Rather, the life I lived before I discovered the wonders of the Flathead has been calling to me. Before I moved here, I actually enjoyed being home – I did not feel like I had to be on the go every weekend. Weekends consisted of long morning runs, leisurely breakfasts, house chores, yard work, and bike rides. I played piano consistently, I wrote for pleasure far more than I do today, I read lots and lots of books under the shade of our mature trees – and I was happy. So why do I feel so at odds with the two identities at battle inside of me?
Why do I feel guilty for not “going after it” this year – conquering once again every trail and mountain that I know of? I was addicted to the high of hiking and “bagging peaks” for so long that I forgot about the rest of the things that make up life – the simpler joys that don’t make for lots of likes and wows on Facebook. My competitive somewhat addictive nature objects to this present state of thinking – telling me there is something very wrong with me for not wanting to join the throngs of people exploring the park and surrounding areas – for not craving a 25-mile day trek that I can post about later on Facebook and enjoy the ensuing accolades.
Maybe, just maybe, I am coming to recognize the dark side of Facebook – it feeds an incessant desire to live a life worth posting about and the unhealthy byproduct of that goal – comparison. Hikers on the Appalachian trail have the motto “hike your own hike”- resist the urge to compare how many miles you cover in a day to how far other hikers are traveling. Nevertheless, the urge to make comparisons is strong. Especially when one’s life has fallen apart and you find yourself struggling to just be who you used to be – even though life has a rule against going backward. Teddy Roosevelt’s well-worn quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” is well worn for a reason. We are living in a time when making one’s unique mark on the world is now done in a very public way – for an audience we hope to please and wow and move – every single day. Fear of missing out has afflicted me from time to time as has the old favorite – woe is me – more often than I would like to admit. But as I sit here on my patio gazing into the mountains- remembering some downright amazing summits and summit shots, I am trying to find peace in my present moment. The sun is shining, my grass is freshly mown and the weeds invading my garden bed are under control for the moment. Ember just came up and rested his warm head on my lap for a quick pat before heading back to his shady spot under the tree, and I ran 16 miles this morning without pain!
I do not want social media to write the script of my life. I do not want or need to compare my own life with others. I want to get back to and be okay with truly living my own life, fulfilling my true happiness and treasuring each and every moment of time given to me – whether those moments are spent being at home, sharing a conversation, reading a book, elucidating on my latest ponderings, mastering a new song, snuggling with Ember or even climbing a peak. Every moment is time that I will never get back – rather than worry that I am wasting it by not making every day a greater adventure than the last – I want to savor each moment for the simple joy that awaits me in it. Perhaps one of these days I will even find joy in being me, again.
Sometimes, the wrong turns you make in life turn out to be the right ones all along…
Last evening, Ember and I embarked on our first hike of the season. The weather has not been on the side of this working girl and mother nature has been showing her wild and weedy side in my yard keeping my mountain sojourns at bay. In addition, I am beyond mortified at the hordes of people taking over the serenity of what little is open in Glacier NP right now due to the pandemic. That is not the Glacier experience I desire so I have deferred my hiking exploits to toiling in my yard and bike rides around the valley when the weather allowed. Of course, there are miles and miles of beauty to explore outside the park boundaries, areas that Ember is welcome to enjoy with me – I just haven’t taken advantage of the vast wilderness that awaits me like I have the well-worn trails of Glacier. The problem is, I am navigationally challenged. There, I admit it. I will get you lost if you ask me for directions. I am skilled at taking the route less traveled – because everyone else seems to go in the right direction. Over the course of my life, this has led to some high adventure, extra miles, and moments of exasperation and panic – but since you are reading this you know that I survived all my misadventures thus far and I have seen some beautiful sights along the way. However, this is not a good quality to have when you are a solo hiker looking to explore new territory!
So on this particular evening, I decided to stick with what I know – a trend, to my chagrin, that I am once again seeing take shape in my life. It is so easy to take the easy way through life and just keep doing what you know you can do, especially during times of upheaval and uncertainty like we are experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic and societal revolution. Who wants to throw more change into their already stressed lives? The problem is, doing the same thing again and again – even things that bring you joy becomes a stressor in its own right. Just like a runner who just runs every day without any variety to their regimen will eventually develop chronic injuries (I should know!), all work and no play, all darkness with no light, all the same all the time will make Erika and everyone else – down, dull, depressed, and stressed. You won’t likely get lost but you will likely start to wither away.
Last night, having had enough of my one-acre adventures on the home front, I decided to throw my routine to the wind and took off for a safe escape in the mountains. It was late enough in the day I figured I would miss the crowds rushing for the trailheads at the crack of dawn, plus if I was lucky I would be able to capture some great photos in the “golden hour” just before sunset. I had already run 15 miles in the morning so a six-mile round trip hike to the top of Mt. Aeneas was just what I needed to cap my day – and having already done this one before – I knew I could do it again – that safety thing you know…
I always forget the steep, washboard nature of the narrow string of the thing they call the Jewel Basin Road and its sheer drop-offs en route to Camp Misery – the trailhead for many adventures in the Jewel Basin of the Flathead Valley. It took me 30 minutes to go 6 miles – but I got there – and only met a few cars coming down (thanking God every time that I was on the inside!) The parking area was still jammed with cars at 6 pm. Thankfully, most had people in them readying to depart. After his thoroughly raucous ride in the back of my Santa Fe, Ember was more than ready to hit the trail-ready for his first “big hike” of the season and his first-ever “summit.”
I made an immediate discovery – to the chagrin of my fellow trail companions who occasionally accompany me on my hikes – hiking with Ember onleash adds at least 2 mph more to my already fast pace! Especially going uphill. This area requires dogs to be leashed – which is fine – but he is very good off-leash and hiking with a dog onleash takes a toll on my joints – but rules are rules for a reason and we obeyed. Everything was so interesting to his little nose. Ember’s tail wiggled his butt the whole way and his ears were tuned to every rustle, caw, peep, and thud. We came upon a Momma Grouse and about 6 chicks on the trail – oh boy was that fun! They all escaped no worse for the encounter. The darndest ground squirrels just kept disappearing before Ember’s eyes and he would look back at me incredulously as to why I would not let him off the leash.
Then we came to the moment of truth – the four-tined fork in the trail with one sign pointing back to the way we came and one sign pointing at all four trails. How the heck are we supposed to know which one to take to the top??? I searched my memory and recalled the one to the right and we took the best-maintained trail because obviously, that would be the one everyone took to the top – right? Off we went. I was so engrossed in the beauty of the valley below and enjoying Ember’s enjoyment of it all that we covered quite a distance before it struck me that we were not going up anymore. In fact, we were going straight down – I did not remember this from my last hike – but instead of turning around Ember pulled me onwards. It then dawned on me that we had only encountered two other people on the trail thus far – rather unusual but highly appreciated. Ember and I continued around a bend and crested a rocky plateau and right before us was the most beautiful waterfront property I have seen in ages. Clearly not a summit view but what a view nonetheless. Placid blue waters outlined by pines with a beautiful peninsula cutting through the middle of the lake. The deep blue of the water was absolutely mesmerizing and I wished for a moment I had brought a tent and sleeping bag to stay the night! I had no idea where I was – obviously, we had taken the “wrong“ trail – but I was so happy to be there!
I checked my mileage tracker and we had long passed the three miles to the summit. And then I hear “Erika, I can’t believe I am meeting you up here!” My dear friend Josie was coming up from the lake. She and her brothers had backpacked in the day before from the opposite direction for a day and night of fishing. I run into people I know in the darndest of places! Realizing it was getting late, Josie shared in my comical exasperation at my unexpected destination, and Ember and I headed back the way we came.
I must admit to a bit of excitement – a revelation of sorts – I had ventured outside my “safety boundary” without even knowing it and I was having a blast! As the evening sun got lower on the horizon, Ember and I began the climb back up the trail we never should have gone down. But I am so glad we did. If we had had another hour of daylight, we would have conquered Mt Aeneas’s summit too – I felt energized. Taking in the golden hour with my best pal, my heart felt lighter than it has in months. I realized I have trapped the heaviness of life inside of me and it is time to let that go.
We were making good time coming down the trail and I spied an off-shoot from the trail that led to the top of a very inviting mountain. I do not know the name of it, but it looked doable so I told Ember, ”We are going to get to the top of something tonight!” Standing at the grassy top amid wildflowers and trees that have seen better times (but none as wonderful as this moment) with Flathead Lake and the golden canola fields and the many ponds and lakes of the valley below me, I gave every bit of me to God – the troubles, the heaviness, the heartaches, the uncertainty of my life. In turn, I was filled with a rush of happiness that made me cry. It has been so long since I felt like the Erika I used to be. I let Ember loose to explore and we both rejoiced in the freedom in God that is ours when we accept it.
It is time to stray off the well-beaten path. It is in the unknown that the richness and real beauty of life reveal itself. The comforts of home and the security of the known can be stifling if you don’t break free of them once in a while.
Sometimes, the wrong turns you make in life turn out to be the right ones all along… Here’s to many more misadventures to come!
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”– John 14: 5-7
I do know the way after all – the only way that matters.
The Flathead River is a hop, skip, and jump from my home in Columbia Falls. At the start of the pandemic, the winter snows had just begun to melt away and for a brief period, I could take Ember down the steep brush-covered hill and enjoy a reprieve from the ever-present canyon wind while wandering along the rocky bank with the warmth of the sun reflecting off the placid water and a hushed quiet broken only by an occasional bird song. It was a surreal time that I relished – within a block from my home I found escape and respite from the daily COVID counts, the crashing stock market, and the loneliness of isolation.
COVID-19 stirred us from the usual narratives of our lives – shook our foundations of routine and wiped away much of what we took for granted – the air we breathe, the people we surround ourselves with (outside of our own four walls), the freedom to “go” to work and “go” to school among so many other facets of our daily lives. At first, we were incredibly disrupted, but as the weeks wore on and the idea of sheltering-in-place was less of a novelty and more of a necessity, a new rhythm of life set in. We began to celebrate our stay-at-home life and the notion of staying-in became the stuff of morning newscasts, cooking shows, and advertisements for everything from buying a car to lawn fertilizer. My phone and Zoom conversations really did seem like a lifeline and I found myself not wanting to say goodbye. Getting to know all about your nearest and dearest became not just an ancestral-oriented hobby but a real thing. And after far too many (for some) quiet moments of self-reflection and self-realization, getting really tired of knowing all about oneself also became a thing. All of this, of course, was our attempt to evade the much-feared Coronavirus that was invading our communities, upending economies, and snatching away lives and livelihoods.
When the mountain snows began to melt and the spring rains began to fall, my beloved river of respite began to rise; slowly at first, but gaining more and more of the rocky bank with every visit I made until there was nothing left for me to explore let alone stand on. And then the spring rains gave way to violent storms – sudden deluges of water from heavens added to the rising waters. The once sable colored reflecting pool was now a raging river of mud and fallen trees.
As the days, weeks and months of COVID-19’s unwanted presence wore on, the novel communal narrative of our lives began to change. Shelter-in-place restrictions were lifted and we emerged from our cocoons of confined comfort to a communal reality check waiting for us. It was as though the virus not only infected bodies but awakened us to a stark truth: while the media and CDC wanted us to think we were all in this fight together – clearly, we were not. Sectors of our society, those whose personal narratives have always been different from mine and most likely yours, were pummeled. Pummeled not just by the severity of the virus’s impact on certain ethnicities but on those whose already precarious financial stability was stripped away. COVID-19 exposed inequalities across many of society’s systems: justice, education, health care, food supply, employment, and housing. Add in the undercurrent of racism – whether one is blatantly so or our lives simply reflect the very long story and history of race and fights for equality across the many lines of division that have defined us as a nation, and we are now seeing the other side of American greatness and being forced to deal with a seismic shift in the narrative of our nation.
The last two weeks, my walks to the river have been few and far between. It would seem that mother nature is taking her cue from those of us on mother earth and throwing a bit of temper tantrum. One violent storm a week was something I was accustomed to growing up in Eastern Montana, but here in the Flathead, we seem to be having a rather unusually violent spring storm cycle. When the river’s roar beckons me near, my breath is taken away by the deep seductive green flows rushing by. Whitecaps and nearly surfable (at least for me) swells leave me in awe of the sometimes destructive, always humbling power of nature.
“Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed,” said actor and director Will Smith in August 2016. Who could have imagined how true these words would become? Things are not worse; they are being uncovered and the truth is seeing the light of day. As Jesus says to his disciples as he sends them out to tend to the people on the margins of society of the Roman empire in Matthew 10:26-27: “Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now.” (The Message)
As the fear of COVID-19 seemed to disappear overnight, news reports and social media were flooded with images and stories of a new fight taking place on the streets of our country and in our hearts and minds. And if you find yourself asking what happened to the way things used to be – you know just four short months ago before the great disruption – you are not alone. But the chasm that divides our nation and brought throngs of citizens to the streets has infected us much longer than the virus that has recently plagued our society – it just took death and perhaps communal isolation to make them visible.
And behind that longing for the way things “used to be” – if you are really honest with yourself as I have been – is the underlying force of fear – fear of being wrong, fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of being unsettled and uncomfortable, fear of losing power and control (who doesn’t crave power and control?), fear of loss, fear of the truth, fear of disruption and confrontation, and fear of what we do not understand. Perhaps foremost, fear of a damaged or lost identity and being called to a higher allegiance than the powers that be in this world.
Fear. Is there any more pervasive or powerful motivating force in human experience?
From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us, certainly to fear the stranger, sometimes to fear even those who are closest to us. Political leaders have long recognized the power of fear in ensuring our conformity to the structures of this world, even when doing so does not serve our best interests. Fear is the driving force behind vast segments of our economy, as well as, increasingly, our political priorities. Fear is what gives rulers power over their subjects – it has been a reigning force in authority from the beginning of man. Why do you think most animals run from us?
But there are other motivating forces that can topple the fiercest fears – the direct opposite of fear – knowledge coupled with love. When we become cognizant of the facades of human power attained by the power of fear and recognize the infinite power over our whole beings of mercy and love, the threats of hate, injustice, and racism are no longer the determining forces in our lives.
It is hard work confronting fear and power, but it is work that Jesus called his disciples to do – the kicking out of evil spirits and of tenderly caring for bruised and hurt lives – and His call continues to us age after age.
While Jesus warns his disciples of the hazardous work ahead of them, He also empowers them with the Holy Spirit: “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove. Don’t be naive. Some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation—just because you believe in me. Don’t be upset when they haul you before the civil authorities. Without knowing it, they’ve done you—and me—a favor, given you a platform for preaching the kingdom news! And don’t worry about what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The right words will be there; the Spirit of your Father will supply the words.” Matthew 10:16-20
While I don’t feel as though I am a sheep among wolves, I do find myself having more and more difficult conversations with people – those I barely know and those I admire and love. Why can’t they just see?? See the truth? See the other side of things? See it my way? Just look for heaven’s sake! And I am sure they are thinking the same thing following our discussions. But I soldier on – in my quest for knowledge and understanding. My work is much less hazardous – it mainly consists of less talking and more listening – to all points of view. I do refuse to be, as Jesus says, “bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.” (Matt 10:28) But I keep an open mind knowing there is nothing they can do to my soul, my core being. I’ll let God handle that.
One of my struggles in life as a whole has been accepting change and making decisions in the face of change. I am always afraid of making the wrong decision – but if I allow myself time to make decisions and research my options and learn about the opportunities – I find myself less fearful of the unknown that comes with all change. Last month I wrote about being okay with not knowing things. However, with knowledge comes power – power over my own fears – and the power of understanding. So, I have taken it upon myself to try to understand the lives of those whose narratives are vastly different from mine. While I wish I could say I have been doing this all along in life, that would be a self-serving blatant lie. On the contrary – it all began just a few mornings ago.
I was out for my morning run without a care in the world, other than my ridiculously slow pace. As I listened to the news, story after story from the frontlines about the fractured state of our nation left me numb – but one story left my heart broken – and maybe for the first time really cognizant of the privileges I do have for being born – white. Shawn, the son of a MN State Representative, is a 17-year-old star athlete who happens to be an avid runner himself – albeit a much faster one than me. This young man’s determination to be the best he can be should be the only thing that defines just how great he can be. But that is not the case. Because he is black – he cannot run alone in the neighborhood in which he lives – because “black boys” who are running – are running from trouble. Shawn knows this first hand as he has been stopped on more than one occasion and questioned by “good folks” and the police. He has made peace with the fact that he can only run on the school track or with the team from now on – but he shouldn’t have to do that. He should be able to run in his neighborhood just like I do every morning and worry only about his pace. Amid all the other stories about racial disparity and strife, his story hit home with me.
As did the story of a fellow partner in ministry. As I read an essay written by a woman pastor in the Lutheran church her words stopped me short: “The toughest thing I have ever tried to be is both black and Lutheran.”
I spent some time by the river a few days ago – it was still rushing wildly, still rising and disturbing the landscape that directs its course. It was early morning before the sun could warm the air. Waves lapped at my feet and every so often would crash against a logjam splashing me with icy cold water. What a wake-up call.
My beginnings in the church echo the writer’s. We both had moms who were church organists, we both were in church every Sunday, and we both remained involved throughout high school and desired a deeper life with God. She pursued seminary – despite the fact that women pastors were still the rarity – I did not. But while our beginnings were the same, our experiences in the church were not. Unlike her, I have never been asked why I became a Lutheran – I am a blond Scandinavian – you just are. Nor have I been accused of not being Lutheran enough or told I am not the best one to be making decisions about the direction of our ministry based on my background. We are two women who believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. And, so are all the people who are on the margins in this world. We are two women who share a living, daring, confidence in God’s grace that welcomes all as a whole person.
My most formative years were spent in the cultural stew of Northern Virginia. I like to say that my Black, Asian, Hindu, Iranian, Turkish, and Hispanic friends were a great group of kids with similar ideals and plans for life. Ideally that would be the truth. Perhaps I was too young and colorblind to understand. Perhaps I am still too colorblind. I have scoffed at the notion of white privilege. I believe we are each responsible for making our way in this world and every single one of us will encounter hardship along the way – some more than others – but that really is life. Life is not fair. We all face circumstances that we would never wish on anyone else. But my circumstances occur in a world where I can pretty much do anything I want within the systems I have grown accustomed to. The odds are on my side if I set my mind to do something – for people like Shawn and Pastor Tiffany, the odds are not so favorable.
Yet they are confronting fear on all fronts – their own and those of a society ingrained in systems that only work for some. I am listening to their stories with an open heart and mind that wants to understand. I am confronting my fear of challenges to the systems that have served me so well because these systems are not what I chose to align my life with. Paula D’Arcy, a writer who also serves as adjunct faculty at Oblate School of Theology and Seton Cove Spirituality Center, in Texas shares in her essays “The Freedom of the Greater Heart,” and “Emancipation,” these thoughts: “The illusion is thinking that, by changing a system, an ideology, or our external circumstances, things will change. No; freedom is . . . realizing that this Love is not a symbol or an ideal; it is a living power. . . . There is a living love that exceeds our circumstances and our conditioning. That’s the truth we all must find. The profound problems of hatred, judgment, [racism,] and revenge, our jealousies and our violence, will be solved by love, and love alone.”
There is a lot of which to be afraid of in the world these days, but it is not just the spread of COVID-19, economic instability, and violence in the streets. My fear is living in a world where people align themselves with the powers gleaned from fear rather than those from courageous love.
“Chaos calls to chaos, to the tune of whitewater rapids. Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me. Then God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night! My life is God’s prayer.“ – Psalm 42:7-8
Let your light so shine!
 Stanley Saunders, Assoc. Professor of New Testament Studies, Columbia Theological Seminary. Commentary on Matthew 10:24-39
“(B)ecause as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.” – Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, Dept Of Defense news briefing, 2-12-2002
“It’s okay not to know things.” – Sesame Street’s Grover, NPR’s Morning Edition, 5-18-2020
“Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you?” – Jesus
I graduated college with a B. A. degree in Mass Communications and Political Science. As a former student of Mass Media and requisite news junkie for most of my life, the above two statements would normally be anathema to my ears. How can anyone exist in this world without the urge to know all the answers? It is our civic responsibility to be well-informed citizens of the world, and as one who grew up with dinnertime conversations around current events and reading news magazines and multiple newspapers a day for fun, I like to think that I know more than a few things about being a citizen of the world. But I have to admit, COVID-19 has shaken my well-informed certainty. I don’t know who or what to believe. I have fallen victim to the overload of information, pontification, and supposition that seems to be invading every newscast, social media feed, and friendly conversation.
Crisis moments call for strong, well-informed decisive actions. We want to know that someone is in charge and things are being managed. The trouble is, this pandemic has thrown us into two seemingly paradoxical states of being: disorientated chaos and intentional stopping. Most of us have one foot rooted in something trying to end while our other foot is caught mid-step waiting to land in a thing not yet defined, something waiting to begin. Normally, I like to be the one in control – I like to be the one in charge – at least of my own life – but I would not for one minute want to be the one in charge of managing this crisis for our community, our state, or our nation. I will not even fancy the idea of little ol’ me could doing a better job of handling this spiky red viral ball’s calamitous invasion of our lives.
And so that leaves me feeling rather unstable – not able or willing to control what is happening on the grander scale around me and not able to pursue the things that ground me – or if I am really honest with you – distract me from feeling ungrounded during this time of uncertainty. Nor am I able to rest in the way things are going to be or be okay with not knowing things.
When this pandemic began shutting our lives down and wreaking havoc on our economy and everything we hold dear – like relationships and accomplishments and dreams, I recall feeling unmoored. I wrote about appreciating how very precious the present moment is. Yesterday has passed us by and tomorrow is going to be very different from today – if we get the chance to see it. The present moment is all we have for certain. And in this present moment we are told it is safer to be still – to not do what we normally do.
Well, we’ve been saying that for over three months now with no real end to the great unknown in sight. How long can we go on living in the present moment not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring? How do we navigate the unknown of today and tomorrow?
First, accept that this present moment is just the place we need to be and trust that what we are doing is enough. When this pandemic began, we hoped our industriousness, busyness, and surges of creativity and compassion would protect us from the difficult reality of COVID-19. We adopted new ways of being with one another, we banded together to celebrate front-line workers and survivors, and we learned to do our work in new and different ways. Even television commercials morphed into feel-good celebrations of a new way of living that none of us were quite ready to embrace. We have done good work but now we are reaching the limits of our own resourcefulness and knowledge. We must be willing to learn new things to replace the old things that have gone away.
This virus has brought chaos to the status quo. But study after study in relation to science and business show that in chaos, the components of living systems self-organize and cause new conditions to emerge. Use the disorientation in your life to your advantage. Rather than clinging to the old ways of doing things, find refreshment in the discovery of the new ways of being emerging in our lives. Letting go of the old way of doing things is painful – but if we cling to structures, identities, and relationships formed in our past we limit, pandemic or no pandemic, who we can become. There are parts in everyone’s lives that just need to die in order for new life, new experiences to spring forth. Take a risk and lean into the opportunity before you to redefine yourself and how you are going to be in this world.
Just as we let go of some of our old ways, we have every right to grieve what we have lost. We have also lost the connection with others that defines us as human beings – the celebrations and rituals that mark our journeys through life together. While difficult, this time of separation can inspire us to make our connections deeper and be more committed to maintaining the friendships and ties that bind us together going forward.
Many of us can no longer participate in the activities that gave richness and meaning to our life. While their absence no doubt leaves a great void in our daily lives, it also frees us to reexamine our lives without the distraction of our normal busyness. We can also reflect on what else we might pursue given the opportunity until we can once again resume that which once and still gives us joy.
Humans cannot exist without meaning. We have defined ourselves for too long by what we do instead of who we are and how we live with another. With every day of not knowing what tomorrow is going to bring and what part of normal we are ever going to get back to, I am redefining how I want to be in this world – even amidst the uncertainty of it all. What I do know for certain is who I am – that never changes – a beloved child of God. A child of God who wants to be at peace and can be at peace in a time such as this because I know from where my certainty can come.
Jesus said: “Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.” (John 14:1-4) “I am the Road, also the Truth, also the Life. (John 14:6) – The Message
Jesus’ words are part of his promise to his followers before he went to the cross and continue to empower us to live in confidence in Jesus’ abiding presence today. These words come from someone well acquainted with isolation, sorrow, confusion, and disappointment; the One who took on flesh and shared our lot and our life so that we might know that God not only cares but that we may see that he does. These promises came from the One who hung on the cross to fulfill the promises he made throughout his life.
Amid the not knowing – amid your uncertainty, unsettledness, pain, grief, fear, confusion, and frustration at how messed up things are – perhaps these words can help you find promise in tomorrow and peace for now. The God Jesus showed us throughout his life is not unmoved by our troubles or dispassionate towards our doubts. The God Jesus brings to us is not a distant God, but rather one who is engaged in our lives and committed to bringing us through all things. This is a God who took on all our trouble in the most visceral way to remind us that this present darkness does not get the last word and that this unsettled way we are living is not the final way.
Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the road alone. It’s okay not to know things when Jesus is guiding our way. He will help us find our new way of being and give us peace in the way things are going to be.
Grace and peace to you, dear friends in Christ from God our Father!
“Don’t let this throw you. You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live. And you already know the road I’m taking.” from the Message
I sat at my Dad’s side – holding his hand, massaging his calf, willing him to open his eyes just one more time. After the longest, fastest drive I have ever made across the state of Montana, I’d made it home to Billings in time to hear him say my name one last time. His last conscious words were just a whisper over the annoying din of an old western movie playing on the TV. I will never forget the sound of his voice – it jarred me so. It was not the voice I wanted to remember my Dad by. I wanted to remember him waving goodbye to me from the assisted living center when I was home for Easter just two short weeks before. I would never have expected to be in this austere hospital room facing his ending so soon thereafter. But there I was looking at the shell of the man who with our wonderful mother had created for me and my brother, lives we wouldn’t trade for anything.
In the last hours of his life- as his body was shutting down, betraying him every step of the way – he seemed so meek and so willing to go on his way while I wanted him to fight, FIGHT with all his might to stay with me. There was so much I needed from my father.
There was so much living left to do. So many things I had yet to know about him. So many things left to say. I didn’t want to be alone. I was afraid of discovering what life still held for me without his wisdom and love to see me through it.
Yes, in the hours before his death, my heart was troubled. Those last moments were the worst moments of my life. I wanted to die with him and at the same time I felt raw and alive with the wonder of the liminality of life. It was a blessing to share his last breath and lay my head on his chest for one last heartbeat.
I have thought about my last moments with Dad a lot lately – moments I didn’t have with Mom when she died. I still struggle with how his life came to a close. But Dad was ready. He knew where he was going, he had walked with Jesus his entire life and I could tell he was at peace – a peace that I longed for – to be at peace with the way things were going to be.
Today’s Gospel from John may have you scratching your head. Didn’t we just celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus? Didn’t we just sing Alleluia – Jesus Is Risen? Why do we have to go back to the hard realities of that dark night before Jesus’s death? Dare I say that much of our lives are not lived as though we are Easter people? That we are more likely to search for God in the darkness of life rather than our celebrations? And for this very reason, we need to be reminded of just who this Savior we celebrated 5 Sundays ago – really is.
We find the disciples in the Upper Room with Jesus at their last supper together. Jesus has washed their feet and He has foretold his betrayal by Judas. He has told the disciples that he will be with them only a little while longer, and that where he is going, they cannot come. And just before our reading begins today, He describes in detail Peter’s imminent denial of him.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “Believe in God and believe also in me.”“In my Father’s house there are many rooms.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
You have heard these words before – even if you didn’t know they came from the Gospel of John or the setting they are said in. They are frequently read at funerals, including my mother’s just a year before my father passed away, and for good reason. Here are promises from Jesus that are profoundly comforting in the face of death. And yet, I’ll be honest with you, just a year after hearing them there I was again with a troubled, scared, grief-stricken heart – knowing I should believe but like Phillip, so wanting tangible proof and like Thomas – in desperate need of a road map. Painfully frustrated, desperate even, with a deep longing for a tangible sense and experience of the presence of God.
Oh yes, I can easily identify with Philip and Thomas, and I am sure you can too.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled?” Are you kidding me? The disciples have every reason to be troubled. Their beloved teacher is leaving them, one of their own has turned against them, and Peter, the stalwart leader among the disciples is on the cusp of his greatest failure yet. It is as though the ground is shifting beneath their feet.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says. “Believe in God and believe also in me.”
Do you think Jesus even knows what is happening in our lives and our world, right now? It’s easy to listen to these words on Sunday morning followed by a reassuring hymn and prayer of thanksgiving. But when we find ourselves at the side of a dying loved one, parting ways with a spouse, receiving a pink slip, or smack dab in the middle of a pandemic that we didn’t see coming with no end in sight – these words can ring rather hollow. When we find ourselves in the middle of yet another culture war over what is essential and what is not, blasted by counter-narratives from the left, right and everywhere, whether to mask up or not, and whether to open our churches or not. We long for the way things were, you know – two months ago – but even when things do get back to normal, most of us have realized that the new normal won’t resemble the old normal for a long, long time. This is unsettling to our souls. I don’t think we can look at the pain of the world today, the suffering of a loved one, or our own wounds and hurts and not have a troubled heart. I think it is safe to say that none of us will get through this life without a troubled heart.
And Jesus knows that. Oh, how he knows. So he tells the disciples there is plenty of room for them in his Father’s house – a place for them in the storms of life. The word often translated as “mansions” or “dwelling places” is actually a form of the word “abide” and refers to “places of abiding.” In John’s gospel “abide” is another word for “faith.” It speaks of an “abiding” relationship with Jesus that begins in faith here and now in this life and continues in life after death.
Jesus’ words are part of the promise to a-soon-to-be Easter people then and continue to empower us to live in confidence in Jesus’ abiding presence today. Remember, these words come from someone well acquainted with isolation, sorrow, confusion, and disappointment. Who took on our flesh and shared our lot and our life so that we might know that God not only cares but so we can see that he does. These promises came from the One who hung on the cross to fulfill the promises he made that night.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in me. Trust me. I am the way and the truth and the Life. Hearing these words on the other side of the cross in the clear dawn of Easter light – as the words of the resurrected Jesus – do they ring truer to you? Amid your uncertainty, unsettledness, pain, grief, fear, confusion – frustration at how messed up things are – do these words sound different to you now? Do you see Jesus in a different light?
The God Jesus shows us throughout his life is not unmoved by our troubles or dispassionate towards our doubts. The God Jesus brings to us is not a distant God, but rather one who is engaged in our lives and committed to bringing us through all things. This is a God who took on all our trouble in the most visceral way to remind us that this present darkness does not get the last word! That this way we are living is not the final way. This is a God who not only saves but abides with and in us so that we have not just life, but abundant life, in Jesus!
Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the road alone. Having faith doesn’t necessarily make things easier. Sometimes we will find ourselves just getting by with our heads barely above water but at other times we will flourish in the most challenging of circumstances. And when we share our lives of faith with one another as we are doing today, it makes things richer, more meaningful, and maybe just a little easier to handle. Trusting – believing in God means that in all times and all places we have the presence of God revealed to us through Jesus.
When your heart is troubled and the journey seems long, remember that Jesus has already traveled it and is with us on it now. Believe! He really is the way, the truth, and the life, the one who leads us to an abundant life in and through his Father and helps us find peace in the way things are going to be.
Lord Jesus, We have a long road ahead of us, help us to remember that You have already traveled it and accompany us upon it now. Help us to see you always as the way, the truth, and the life, the one who dwells with us and leads us to abundant life. Thanks be to God.
Ours was a difficult relationship, but then, the things that matter most in life are not always easy. Nonetheless, I know my mother loved me as deep as any mother could love a head-strong daughter. While I often wished we could have a relationship like those my friends enjoyed with their Moms, one filled with lunch dates, laughter, and dreams for tomorrow – I came to accept that those things were not important to my Mom. Counselors told me I needed to set boundaries in our relationship but how do you set boundaries between yourself and the person that gave life to you? While fences make good neighbors, boundaries do not address the conflicts that created the need for them. However, putting a physical boundary of 400 + miles between my mother and me with my move to the Flathead changed the dynamic between us. On visits home, we still engaged in rapid-fire from time to time but during our phone conversations, rather than constant head-butting, my Mom seemed to relish the fact that though I was living my own life, she could live vicariously through me in her old stomping grounds. Yet by this point in her health and our relationship, our conversations never ventured much past the surface.
Since my mother’s illness and death, I have learned much about what is important in life and the lesson has been painful. Past conflicts between us remained a barrier to my heart and have raked my heart ever since. The fact that my mother and I could not realize a reconciliation of any meaningful depth fills me with deep regret. Why had I not pursued this with my Mom sooner? My hopes are such that the pain and anger we inflicted on one another disappeared into her lost memories as I am not sure she could comprehend the feelings I wanted to express. Part of me feels at peace in the simple sweet conversations that we did share. Perhaps that is God’s grace reigning over my ineptitude. I have learned that life is finite. Its seasons far too short for anger, guilt, pride, and selfishness to linger in our relationships. Storms will come and we do not know when or how they will end.
King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes:
“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”
Solomon was wise. Life is meaningless if we do not tend to what truly matters. All the fun, work, accolades, and treasures of life we collect along the way are meaningless. What matters are the relationships we have; that our hearts are right with God; that we resolve conflicts with those we love; that they know they matter to us; and how very much we do indeed love them.
Reconciliation with my mother was a selfish goal of mine. But how much more powerful and life-giving it would have been had I been able to make peace with my mother while she was alive and not as I write this today in an attempt to honor her life and role as my mother. Perhaps it is best and all I can hope for that my Mom and I pursued the springtime memories of our life as we walked through her final winter together.
I last spoke to my mother on my 45th birthday, 18 days before she passed away. It was a conversation I will never forget. Aside from the fact she was upset that I would be celebrating alone and didn’t have a special dinner date (Hey, I had church and choir practice, what’s new?) she just kept saying all she wanted was for me to be happy and would I consider coming home. I kept telling her I was happy but I had too many mountains left to climb to think about coming home –but that didn’t mean I didn’t miss her. I told her I loved her so very much. Her last words to me were: I love you and I just want you to be happy.
One of her favorite songs was “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.
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 then I’ll know you are still with me.
Holy Saturday, a day in-between. Our Lord has been crucified and now we wait – wait for the celebration we know is to come – of resurrection, of life, of promise, and hope. But for now, we are suspended in the grief of our Lord’s death – cognizant of our fallen ways. With a broken spirit, I am uncertain of how to go about this day. In better times, this day would be filled with Easter Egg hunts or as we did in my childhood – Easter Snow-bunnies. Others will go about the day as if it were any other Saturday – doing household chores, runs to the dump, shopping, sleeping in, and if we are lucky to be free of snow, maybe some early Spring yard work or a trek into the hills.
And why not? It is difficult to dwell in grief and uncertainty; to live with the darkness a day like Good Friday brings into our being. We want to move on – quickly – to the joys of life we know and are coming. We want to live in the triumphant brass and bold joyous singing of Easter morning and drink in the “Good News” of Easter. Anything to distract us from what this day in the Christian belief system represents – Jesus Christ’s death and descent to hell and the numbness and fear felt by Jesus’s followers after the horrifying events of the previous twenty-four hours. A day where a suddenly and frighteningly unknown future pierces the heart.
I know this day well, as I suspect many of you do too. I lived it after the deaths of my parents and the ending of my marriage. Anyone who has been on the journey of life for a good distance is cognizant of what a great loss can do to upend your world. The day after death. The day after your heart is broken. The day after the divorce. The day after the job was lost, the day after the diagnosis, the day after a dream was shattered, the day after a part of your life has died. The day after a part of you has died. Today is the day after, where putting the pieces of life back together seems unimaginable; when the sheer shock of catastrophe that muted our feelings and sheltered us from the raging storm has worn off.
Today is the hard day. Today is the painful day of initiation by reality. The time after the funeral when the calls and visits stop. The uneasy time between your diagnosis and treatment, when there is absolutely nothing you can do. Today embodies the loneliness and the nothingness that invade the soul after the divorce, miscarriage, or loss of livelihood when friends no longer check-in and life is supposed to get back to normal – or at least they have to get back to living their normal lives. And isn’t that what we all really want to do – just get back to living our normal lives?
But the thing is, great loss changes you, forever. Normal will never look the same again. Great loss forever unsettles you from the life you once knew. Life won’t be the same. You won’t be the same. Today you are in the shadow of The Cross.
And that cross will transform you.
It may harden you, it may fill you with bitterness or remorse. It may soften you and make you more present. In whatever manner, it will change you.
In this time of global pandemic, we are living in a prolonged Day After. A prolonged Time In-Between. As the entire world struggles with the great unknown – where lives seem to be snatched away on a whim, parts of our lives may be lost forever, and life as we know it has been suspended, we rightfully struggle through the absolute uncertainty of what our future might possibly hold.
We have gradually adjusted to restricted lives and sheltered in-place, given up physical human connection, stopped gathering with others for any reason, closed our businesses for the good of the community, stretched our life-saving entities to a crisis point, incurred great financial losses, and lost trust in our government. It’s as if we have been isolated and entombed with hardly a sliver of light coming in.
And yet… From our tombs, in those slivers of light, we have seen amazing acts of solidarity and love in this transformation of our lives. For the love of our neighbor and the stranger we have restricted our lives and sheltered in-place, given up physical human connection, stopped gathering with others for any reason, closed our businesses for the good of the community, incurred great financial losses, and worked together to feed the hungry, defended those fighting for us with sewing machines and 3-D printers, helped our business rivals endure, and lifted each other up in prayers and with songs.
Indeed, without the horrors of The Cross and the bleak uncertainty that reigns over This Day, we would not have the hope and promise of a new life tomorrow – Easter Day – reigning in our lives as I write.
Remember that new life sprang from The Cross and in the tomb, a history-changing transformation began.
Our world and our lives won’t be the same after this pandemic – and there will be a day after.Just like today. How will you live in it and how will you live it? How has the shadow of the cross changed you? Have you let it change you?
As we try to carry on with our lives – however unsettled and uncertain each day may be – remember the One who endured this Day After, this Time In-Between. Trust that God is neither absent nor inactive. We know that God was preparing to raise Jesus from the dead and provide the turning point for time immemorial. God was creating a future that none on that Saturday after Good Friday could imagine and God is not finished yet – He is never finished. God never stops creating in us and He never stops loving us.
Today, God is at work – redeeming and restoring the whole of creation with His mercy and grace. Let this be so. Let His will be done.
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. ” – Colossians 3:1-4