“A Real Prosperity Gospel”

A sermon based on Luke 12: 13-21; Colossians 3:1-11

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ, from God, Our Father.

Looking at my smile today, you would never guess that I was a thumb sucker until the third grade. Sucking my thumb soothed my childhood insecurities and just like Linus, I had a soft blue night-night that was far from hand. It wasn’t until sleepovers became a common occurrence that I began to feel insecure over my source of security – and I gradually found my comfort elsewhere.

Jump ahead to two summers ago. My parents had both recently passed away within a year of each other and their deaths were such that my brother and I were not prepared for their departure – as if you can ever be. Needless to say, there were a lot of end-of-life projects multiplied by two left for my brother and me to endure. One of those was getting the family home of 28 years in Billings ready to sell which meant sorting through all the things collected by our parents over a combined lifespan of 167 years (not including the things collected by their two children)! There were times that I just wanted it all to go away. I was flabbergasted at the amount of things our family had collected and held on to throughout the almost 60 years of my parent’s life together despite having moved 23 times! In retrospect – I now see how those things helped foster a sense of place and security given our nomadic lifestyle during my father’s career with the government.

It was an emotional, sentimental, and nostalgia-filled time of decluttering. Several times I nearly flooded the basement with tears. Seeing the invaluable contents of our life as a family displayed and bargain-priced by the estate sale experts sent me careening through a lifetime of forgotten memories. How could they commoditize our belongings? That was our story for sale. So much value and emotion devoted to things and the life and memories surrounding them. The sense of security I felt each time I came home to visit was gone.  The emptied house was no longer home and forced me to contemplate what brings value and meaning to life. 

Perhaps many of you have experienced the same feelings in the wake of a loved one’s death. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize how much things have become a part of our lives. There is nothing like standing in a house emptied by death to make you realize that life is what made those things matter. I know I felt very alone and empty inside. 

Today Jesus tells us, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Lk. 12:15)[3] 

Really? Carl Richards, the Sketch Guy in the New York Times, writes of how we give up over 40,000 hours of life over 20 years in order to acquire more stuff.

After my brother’s and my experience of clearing out our family home of stuff, I swear it felt like whole lifetimes were swapped for it! And yet, I identified with that “stuff” and found it difficult to part with. That stuff represented the security of our life as a family together – and those times had come to an end.

Despite my life-changing decluttering experience, I will be honest with you, Luke’s parable of the rich farmer served as a reckoning for me. I see a little too much of myself in the farmer’s pursuits. Maybe you too felt a little uncomfortable sitting with God’s final words to the seeming-to-have-it-all-figured-out farmer. “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

He’s not a cheat or a thief, nor does he seem particularly greedy. Not unlike what most of us strive to do, he worked hard and made some money, and saved for the future – stocking away goods and treasure in barns for safe-keeping.  His land produced so abundantly that he does not have enough storage space so he plans to build bigger barns to store all his grain and goods. He set aside ample savings for the future and is all set to enjoy his golden years. 

I spend 40 hours of every week working for a financial advisory firm – and this is the kind of personal success we aim to see replicated in our client’s lives. This is what all the experts encourage us to do. Isn’t it wise and responsible to work hard, become successful, and save for the future? In my mind, I wish I had it as put together as this farmer.  If I were him I would be giving my soul a pat on the back too! “And I would say to my soul, Soul, you have ample savings put away for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God calls him a Fool! In Greek, this conjures up a senseless, mindless, rash or egoistic person.

There is one very important thing the rich farmer has not planned for — his reckoning with God. He has become so engrossed in his own livelihood – in securing for himself a good life –  that he has shut out the world around him. Perhaps not so unlike how ordinary hard-working people – you and me today – end up existing in our own seemingly secure universes, constructing lives solely focused on our own personal well-being, but all the while losing sight of what really matters in life until it is too late. When God demands his life, the farmer is faced with the fact that he has spent his entire life toiling and acquiring but not growing rich toward God. Jesus repeatedly warns that wealth will get in the way of our relationship with God. “Take care!” he says. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed;”

So what does Jesus mean by being rich toward God? To answer this it might be easier to look at what it is not.

We live lives in constant pursuit of more because we never have enough – not enough money, not enough status, not enough time, not enough stuff. We seek security in the tangible. Our culture regularly tells us that we are insufficient, incomplete as we are BUT we can have it all with whatever product or practice they are pushing. This constant pursuit of acquisition and egoistic perfection is in short, single-minded greed and this greed becomes our God. Like the farmer in today’s gospel, we have chosen to live in a world of one. This is not living richly toward God.

Money can do many things – it can provide for you and your family, it can be given to others in need, it can be used to create jobs and promote the general welfare of our communities, and it makes possible a more comfortable life. 

But money also allures us with the illusion of security and independence. Money deludes us into thinking that if we just have more of it we can transcend our everyday insecurities and needs that remind us that we are mortal beings who are and always will be dependent on others, most especially, on God. Money, or anything else for that matter, that we become fixated on, may bring us momentary happiness and satisfy our desire for security but in the end, it impoverishes our soul and rewires our values. This is not living richly toward God.

The farmer’s mistake and regretfully, that of many today,  doesn’t have to do with his riches; rather, he goes astray by believing that he alone can secure his future. That his treasure, possessions, and money can make him independent – independent from others, independent from need, and independent from God. We sometimes forget that our lives and possessions are not our own, that they belong to God. We are merely stewards of them for the time God has given us on this earth. Our need to be in charge and in control of our lives gets in the way of our relationship with God. Greed compels us to banish from our lives anyone and anything that might threaten “what’s ours.” This is not living richly toward God.

Yes, money can do many wonderful things – it just can’t produce the kind of full and abundant life that each of us seeks and that Jesus promises. Solomon warns in Ecclesiastes: “He who loves money will never be satisfied with money; his desire is meaningless vanity and futility, a striving after wind” (5:10). We will never find security and lasting happiness if we base them on our attachments to the world where virtue is constructed around our own self-interest.

The farmer’s legacy was a full barn but an empty life without purpose or relationship. This is not what God wants for us. But it is hard to live into that concept – to place your trust in something you cannot grasp, to find security in the sometimes temporal realm of relationships, to derive meaning and happiness from that which you cannot control. Money, acquisition, pursuits of perfection – have one distinct advantage over the abundant life Jesus promises us: they are immediately tangible. 

The rich life that Jesus invites us to embrace and strive for – one secured in relationships, community, and purpose – is much harder to lay our hands-on. We know what a good relationship feels like, but it’s hard to point to or produce on a moment’s notice. We know how wonderful it feels to be accepted into a community, but you can’t run out to Walmart and buy it. And because we live in a culture that tells us this – whatever this may be – is the best there is, we repeatedly buy into the immediate gratification and security offered by money and material goods only to need more later because that kind of happiness and fulfillment will never be enough – nor does it last.

So, what, then, shall we do? How do we start living and being rich in the way of Jesus? First, by recognizing that all that we have and are is not truly ours, we can rejoice in the freedom this truth brings to our lives. Because all that we are and all that we have belongs to God, our future is secure beyond all measure. You are free to be all that God created you to be and live into the pleasures and purpose that He has given for your life. 

We can change our culturally informed beliefs about what constitutes the good life. St. Augustine once said that God gave us people to love and things to use, and sin, in short, is the confusion of these two things.  Let’s start having conversations about money and wealth and how we can live into and share the abundant life that money and material goods support but cannot produce with those who still search for and need the security that only God can provide. Let’s recognize that greed in all its forms can corrupt the poor as easily as the rich. 

While the entire media universe pushes us to tune into what is negative or missing rather than what is positive in our lives, lets name and celebrate our blessings. Rather than grasping for more stuff – cultivate an awareness of how many ways we are blessed each and every day.  We experience the wonders of abundant life every day. The joy of a good conversation, the sense of purpose that comes from helping another, the warmth of a loving relationship, the feeling of community found in friends or family – these are the very elements of the abundant life that Jesus describes throughout the gospels – relationship, community, love, purpose. 

While these abundant elements of life may be less tangible they are far more powerful than material goods and they are infinitely available to us if we seek them out. 

Living into the abundant life Jesus promises is incredibly hard and almost impossible to do alone. Find a community of support that seeks a higher purpose – those sitting around you today would be a great place to start. Make it a practice to see yourself as part of something bigger than you and your stored up treasures.  

Stop the habit of buying happiness – and look for ways to experience it without spending a dime. There’s something to be said for contentment and for perspective about how we view money and possessions. In His grace, we can find a healthy perspective on the things we possess – so they don’t become the things that possess us.

Practice an awareness of time.  We don’t like to think that our time with our loved ones, that our own time, frankly, is finite. I took for granted the time I had with my parents, and as many wonderful memories and not so wonderful memories that I have of our family, I will never have enough. I still take my time for granted.  It is so easy to just exist from day to day. I look at how much time I spend on advancing my own interests along with my skewed attempts at the perfect life and confess that I do not always invest my time nor the time I have with my family and others wisely.

I’ll leave you with a little investment advice without any disclaimers. God wants so much more for us than what our worldly and yes, our own little world’s pursuits can provide. God wants for us life and love and mercy and community. Nurture your relationships, give your time away to others, share your talents, bear another’s burden and let them help you with yours. Faithfully take risks and open your life to possibility. Your life will be so much richer if you do. 

The Apostle Paul tells us to be serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ. Pursue the things over which Christ presides – foster goodness, grace, and gratitude. See things from His perspective. Remember, your old life is dead. Baptized in Christ, your new life, your real life is secured with Christ in God. 

May the freedom that we have in Christ, empower you to live boldly into a legacy rich with relationships, purpose, and peace.

 

Amen

Mountains, Molehills, and the Necessities of Life

If mankind can send men to the moon, surely we can deal with the molehills that become mountains in our lives here on earth. Or so one would think. Six years ago, I pulled up my firmly planted stakes in the ground after discovering a whole new way of experiencing life in the wilds of terra firma. Indeed, the encounter spurred me to pursue a much higher calling – in the mountains of NW Montana and the heaven on earth that is the Flathead Valley and now, the place I call home. As I reflect on who I was then and who I am now, I am struck by how significantly this higher perspective has changed my approach to life. As someone who had spent more than half her life on the urbanized plains of Eastern Montana and the Rocky Mountain front, I was surprised to find such an innate sense of place and a passion in the wilderness and mountain climbing, a pursuit that eclipsed any of my previous past-times.

 Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Despite my prairie legs (though some say I have chicken legs – I’ll stick with my descriptor), navigating the wilderness and climbing mountains really wasn’t such a foreign concept to me after all.

 I remember the first time I visited Glacier. I was timid in my steps. I stayed firmly planted in the middle of the Avalanche Lake Trail, I shuddered at the height of the Hidden Lake Overlook, and I clung to the walls of the Highline Trail, afraid to look down for fear that my less than graceful tendency to trip would send me plummeting to my certain death.

 A lot has changed in my life since those early days of exploration. I went from living a rather sheltered life in a place I had known for more than 24 years with lots of friends and family providing a safety net of support to one of the unknown with a new job, a new town, and very new lifestyle. I will admit to suffering serious bouts of doubt in my decision to pull up stakes and head west in the years that followed. Rather than reaching mountain summit after summit with grand views, I found myself, like many people I have encountered on this journey, in a wilderness I had not prepared myself for – the twisting and often hard road of life without the comforts of the home I left behind.

 Losing myself in and climbing the genuine deals helped me realize just how important having the proper tools for navigating the wilderness and climbing the metaphorical mountains of life are. Now, with a few year’s worth of trail dust permanently ingrained in my soul and grander vistas broadening my perspective on life, I am learning to overcome the equally rocky, often steep mountains that tower within me with some key pieces of equipment and a hefty dose of strength and resilience

 A good pair of hiking boots are imperative to my hiking and climbing adventures. I will pay a premium price to ensure that I am walking in comfort and with control. Just like we need a good pair of hiking boots to keep us on solid ground and sure of foot when climbing mountains, we need a foundation of inner strength to keep us upright when we encounter the challenges we face in life. This foundation consists of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help us maintain emotional, physical, social, environmental, relational, spiritual, and intellectual wellness. It can be developed by the practice of our religious faith; the moral and ethical values we were brought up with; and/or the lessons we learn from mentors and friends throughout our life. Your foundation of inner strength includes positive feelings such as calmness, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation. Your foundation of inner strength is the stable traits that serve as an enduring source of well-being and wise and effective action as well as the contributions you make to the lives of others. A strong foundation of inner strength helps us to be self-directed and self-reflective in our goals and maintain excellence and integrity in our work. When we encounter the unknown, our foundation keeps us focused. It allows us to be humbly aware of our successes; acknowledge areas where growth is necessary and to be courageous in our curiosity for what we might become. Simply put, this foundation is the basis of our identity.

Without a strong sense of who we are and what we desire for our lives, the challenges we face will be difficult to overcome as we do not know where we are going or how we define success.

 My hiking boots have seen me through some challenging routes and very long days on the trail. I am confident in their treads to keep me from slipping and their support keeps me pushing forward to the end. Likewise – my foundation of inner strength – knowing who I am at my core – has helped me make difficult moral judgment calls as well as life-altering decisions with confidence rather than doubt. And just like hiking boots need to be maintained and eventually changed as our feet flatten with age (ahem!)  – our foundation is a constant work in progress as we progress through life.

The next piece of equipment that accompanies me on all my hikes are my trekking poles. I used to eschew them as inconvenient hindrances to the free movement of my arms; an unnecessary weight on my pack, and a crutch for the clumsy. That was until I started climbing 10K foot peaks and descending scree slopes that grabbed and tore at my ankles and shins. Trekking poles give us much needed balance when navigating across rocks in a running stream, take the load off our knees on steep descents, and give us stability when scrambling through boulder fields. In essence, they are our friends – not an inconvenient weight on the journey.

 I have always been a bit of an independent spirit – choosing to make my way in life on my own. Certainly, I have friends, but it wasn’t until the last several years that I realized what true friendship is about and how important it is to have that connection with someone. It is important to have one, two, or if you are lucky, several good friends in your life- trekking poles, if you will, who can share your load, give balance to your perspective on things and provide support when the going gets rough. A good friend sees through our tough skins, excuses, and doubts and tells us like it is. They support us even when we don’t think we need support. They provide humor when needed and a non-judgmental shoulder to lean on when the trials of life get dark or endless. Like good friends, trekking poles make the steep summit climbs and descents of life a bit less painful and make the celebrations when we conquer the mountains of life all the more sweet.

 The last piece of equipment that is crucial to your survival on the mountain is your backpack. I have met many a hiker on a trail with just a water bottle clipped to their belt and maybe a fanny pack. I am amazed, not at their scarce need for sustenance and supplies but by their sheer stupidity. Inside my backpack are the tools critical for survival – first aid, food, water, bug and bear spray, extra clothing, matches, a map, and of course my camera! Suffice it to say my backpack contains everything I would need to survive if I couldn’t make it back to my car as planned. The necessities of life. Over time I have learned which items I will always take with me, which items simply add extra weight to my burden, and which items my fellow hikers swear by and I will one day too.

 The backpack you carry with you as you climb the mountains of life contains all the life lessons you have learned along the way, your experiences – both good and bad, and the wisdom you have acquired along the way. Some refer to this carryall as “baggage” in a negative sense. I look at this “baggage” as a collection of tools I have gathered throughout life, experiences in the past that have prepared me for the challenges I am facing now – just as these challenges are preparing me for the next life adventure. I am also learning to let go of some of the past that I have clung to for its familiarity – things that weigh me down or lay claim on my present and future sense of being: negative habits, wrongly help assumptions, and grievances I would be better off forgiving. When I look at my sometimes-heavy backpack filled with life lessons from that perspective, I gladly carry it with me and take comfort in knowing that in it I have the tools necessary to climb and conquer the mountains of life.

 With a firm foundation of inner strength to see you through the longest of journeys, friends you can trust to support you and give you the balance needed when everything else in your life seems off-kilter, and a backpack filled with the life lessons you have lived and learned upon your shoulders, you’ll have the tools necessary for climbing the mountains of life. So far, they have not let me down. The summits I have reached with them have provided life-changing perspectives worthy of celebration.

 So, go on, take stock of your equipment and go climb those mountains. If this once timid flat-lander can do it, so can you.

 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!

 

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.

 

Thoughts on Today ~ August 14, 2018

Saying goodbye.

There was no spectacular sunrise to mark this momentous morning – rather I ran under a smoke muted sky with no overwhelming sense that today would be any different from yesterday – in fact, I almost forgot this anniversary, and yet I felt a spark of something, perhaps a reminiscent twitch of anticipation for the events of this day exactly five years ago. 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 and the ensuing days of settling in were the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new life.

Looking back, it seems like ages ago and yet just yesterday, when I stood still in the soft morning light of an Eastern Montana sunrise and breathed a weary sigh as I surveyed the pared down contents of 42-years of life stuffed into a trailer and the back of my Santa Fe. Saying good-bye seemed surreal; the actions felt imagined, my throat constricted with a twinge of guilt, and my stomach was a flutter with nerves.

As I pulled out of Billings bound for the far northwest corner of Montana, a heavy silence enveloped me despite my planned departure soundtrack of Neil Diamond tunes keeping my tears at bay. Gone was the chaotic din that was constant in my life for the past month of job leaving, possession packing, possession discarding, panic attacks, and the social commitments that came with saying good-bye.

So, this is it! Here I am world, I thought at the time. I felt emotionally exhausted and amazingly free. I had no idea what awaited me in the year and years to come. Yes, I expected change but nothing as dramatic as the changes to the entire dynamic of my life that would unfold. Little did I know that those last moments with my family in the early dawn light would be one of the last times we were all together and filled with happiness and hope.

Had my life so far prepared me for that moment of independence? Oh, YES! All at once, I was alone, truly and wonderfully alone for the first time in my life. I at once marveled and trembled at what was transpiring. I was leaving behind a life that was full of responsibility and friends. People of all walks in my community recognized me. I was leaving a well-paying job for what I hoped would be a career that used my talents and challenged me. I was leaving my history behind. Now I was free to be me.

Naturally, I am not the same woman today that I was that mid-August morning five years ago. I realize now that I am a very independent spirit with a heart that longs to be shared. My treks into the mountains seeking ever-higher peaks and grander vistas reflected the journey I was taking personally. After years of living a regimented work-a-day life, I discovered this crazy, wonderful, selfish desire to play! I still panic with realization that time slips away quickly and I wasted a lot of it in the past doing every-day, comfortable, and safe tasks rather than challenging myself, taking a few risks, and having fun. While I refused to be fenced in as I grew into this new sense of self, I desired boundary lines I could grasp onto from time to time, seeking direction and support.

In the five years since that moment of independence was celebrated, I have come to know the joys and sorrows of self-discovery. The things I once valued in life have been tested. I have come to know the depths of grief and heart break and had to navigate the roughest waters of my life on my own. I questioned my direction, my reason for being, the quality of my character, and the choices I made. In the wake of more loss than I had ever known in my life, the light that had always filled me was put out in the storm. I walked in darkness but fought for the light. I never doubted that God had a plan and purpose for this proving period of self-examination and self-revelation.

Eventually, I found my way again – led by a light that was so much brighter than the darkness that had enshrouded me. I learned to accept the compassion of others and as my spirit healed my horizons brightened and expanded.

Today, I walk stronger and surer of who I am – a child of God, a woman of faith, and journeyer of the heart. I am pursuing my passions and callings with a confidence  acquired through the fires of life.  Learning to share my heart again is where I am now. The independence I embraced 5 years ago bears little resemblance to the freedom to be, to love, and to grow that I live everyday now. Relationships matter so much more to me than the need for boundary lines and control. Each day presents an opportunity to enrich a life and mine in doing so. Yes, I get caught up in the chaos of life – one that is more wonderfully chaotic than I could ever have imagined it being when I pulled out of the driveway on that morning five years ago – yes, I can be overwhelmed by responsibilities and challenged by my choices – but the essence and outcome of both are positive growth and deepening commitment.

I am forever thanking God for the friendships that have crossed the miles with me and sustain me, my Flathead friends, who are more like family, who gathered around me as I learned to live again after deaths of my parents, and for my brother and sister-in-law who remind me of where I am from and what I am made of.

While I have known times of great loneliness in this adventure of independence,  today, I rejoice in the wonder of love and such happiness and belonging that I pinch myself. Life is certainly an interesting roller-coaster ride of emotions! I thank God for every tear and fit of laughter as each enrich my life with colors of the heart and make me feel alive.

The melancholy moments of longing for what was and the joyous highs of the adventures that lay before me can exhaust a person at times. I gather that is why life reveals itself to me on an as needed basis, a situation that reveals my lack of patience when it comes to my personal soul searching. Nevertheless, each day I awake with renewed vigor in my quest. What a book I will have to write before it all ends (I am obviously extending the publication date by years!)

Thank you, Lord for sustaining me through this journey, for filling me with the bread of life, and giving me wonderful hope in tomorrow. I cannot wait for the next chapter to begin!

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

“Answer me quickly, Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.” Psalm 143-7-12

“But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.”  Isaiah 40:31

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

“So, I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 8:15

Let your light so shine!

Following My Heart – To Be a Voice of Hope for Yours

“In times when everything is changing, when everything seems to be in transition, when nothing seems certain, God plants people in our lives with voices of hope. These are those who in our times of suffering point us toward the day when suffering will end. They reassure us in times of doubt that we can have faith. They remind us of our baptismal callings and of the God who makes a way out of no way. They remind us of God’s purpose and God’s love for us. They believe in miracles, not least of which is the miracle of God calling us to fulfill God’s purposes. And when we cannot, they remind us that God claims us as beloved anyway, just because.”

Three years ago, I read those words as I was idly skimming through a random Lutheran website. Yeah, I know you are asking who randomly skims Lutheran websites?? Well, I did at the time -and do so more fervently now –  but I began to slow down as the words caught me with my guard down and my heart quickened.

Every single word spoke to me. This was who I wanted to be. THIS IS WHO I was called to be. This was the beginning of a much different kind of adventure than the mountainous escapades that had captivated my soul and inspired many a loft  thought for much of my recent past.

And so, I took a giant leap of faith toward fulfilling that dream. On June 2, 2018 I stood before a gathering of 225 people from across the state to profess my willingness to answer the Lord’s call. Two years of challenging, inspiring, and thrilling study of God’s word and the Lutheran faith with an abundance of self-discovery thrown in for good measure came to an end as I became a certified Lay Pastoral Associate of the Montana synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

My life is so very different now than when I first heard God whispering to me. It is amazing as I look back on the last three years just how dramatically my approach to life, concept of life, and perspective on life has changed in such a relatively short time. When I began this journey, it was to be a stronger, more authentic voice of hope in the lives of others. Little did I know that I would be the one needing a beacon of hope, a reassuring voice leading me through some very dark days of grief and personal wilderness, reminding me that God does indeed end all suffering and that no matter how much I questioned His will –  His grace would set me free. This program and my fellow classmates became that voice and the one constant positive I could focus on and find myself through during the most difficult time of my life – losing both my parents and finding myself feeling very much alone in this adventure called “life”.

In the process, I gained an even greater appreciation of my faith and deepened my relationship with the Lord. I have grown as a person and as a disciple. I have been inspired to think beyond what I assumed was my calling in life and dared to open my heart and my mind to the ways and will of the Lord.

As I stood before that assembly, I so wished that my parents could have finally seen their daughter accomplish something she set out to do with such passion and heart; but losing them both as I delved into the tenets of my faith made everything I profess as a follower of Christ that much clearer – there is more to this life and beyond this life than I will ever know, our God is a loving, merciful God, and the promise of the resurrection IS REAL. I have been forever changed by these truths and by trusting in Him, I was able to stand strong in spirit with a happy heart again.

Through my wayward and wandering life, He has prepared me to be one who in times when everything is changing, when everything seems to be in transition, when nothing seems certain  – is a voice of hope for you; one who in times of suffering points you toward the day when your suffering will end; one who reassures you in times of doubt that you can have faith – because I know what it means to doubt and to see; one who reminds you of your baptismal calling and of the God who makes a way  – an amazing way – out of no way; one who reminds you of God’s purpose and God’s love for you; one who believes in miracles, not least of which is the miracle of God calling me to fulfill God’s purposes; and one who – when you cannot – will remind you that God claims you as His beloved anyway, just because. I cannot begin to imagine a more fulfilling, more life-giving, more challenging calling in life.

My father always told me to find my passion not in that which provides material wealth but from a source that only my heart can define. I am doing just that and my heart could not be happier or more at peace. I have no idea where God is going with this endeavor, but I do know I will let my Lord’s light so shine through me wherever He leads me.

Thoughts at the End of a Life-Changing Journey

“In times when everything is changing, when everything seems to be in transition, when nothing seems certain, God plants people in our lives with voices of hope. These are those who in our times of suffering point us toward the day when suffering will end. They reassure us in times of doubt that we can have faith. They remind us of our baptismal callings and of the God who makes a way out of no way. They remind us of God’s purpose and God’s love for us. They believe in miracles, not least of which is the miracle of God calling us to fulfill God’s purposes. And when we cannot, they remind us that God claims us as beloved anyway, just because.”

Three years ago, I read those words as I was idly skimming through a random Lutheran website. Yeah, I know you are asking who randomly skims Lutheran websites?? Well, I did at the time -and do so more fervently now –  but I began to slow down as the words caught me with my guard down and my heart quickened.

Every single word spoke to me. This was who I wanted to be. THIS was WHO I am called to be.

And so, I took a giant leap of faith toward fulfilling that dream. This morning, two years of challenging, inspiring, and thrilling study of God’s word and the Lutheran faith with an abundance of self-discovery thrown in for good measure came to an end as I became a certified Lay Pastoral Associate of the Montana synod of the Lutheran church.

When I began this journey, it was to be a voice of hope in the lives of others. Little did I know that I would be the one needing a beacon of hope, a reassuring voice leading me through some very dark days of grief and personal wilderness, reminding me that God does indeed end all suffering and that no matter how much I questioned His will –  His grace would set me free. This program and my fellow classmates became that voice.

In the process, I gained an even greater appreciation of my faith and deepened my relationship with the Lord. I have grown as a person and as a disciple. I have been inspired to think beyond what I assumed was my calling in life and dared to open my heart and my mind to the ways and will of the Lord. This class became my rock and my salvation – giving me something to focus on and find myself through during the most difficult time of my life – losing both my parents.

As I stood before the synod assembly this morning, I so wished my parents could have finally seen their daughter accomplish something she set out to do with such passion and heart; but losing them both as I delved into the tenets of my faith made everything we profess as followers of Christ that much clearer – there is more to this life and beyond this life than I will ever know, our God is a loving, merciful God and the promise of the resurrection is real. I have been forever changed and by trusting in Him, I was able to stand strong in spirit with a happy heart again.

Through my wayward and wandering life, He has prepared me to be one who in times when everything is changing, when everything seems to be in transition, when nothing seems certain  – is a voice of hope for you; one who in times of suffering points you toward the day when your suffering will end; one who reassures you in times of doubt that you can have faith – because I know what it means to doubt and to see; one who reminds you of your baptismal calling and of the God who makes a way  – an amazing way – out of no way; one who reminds you of God’s purpose and God’s love for you; one who believes in miracles, not least of which is the miracle of God calling me to fulfill God’s purposes; and one who – when you cannot – will remind you that God claims you as His beloved anyway, just because.

Tonight, my heart could not be happier or more at peace. I have no idea where God is going with this endeavor, but I do know I will let His light so shine through me wherever He leads me.

Fuel Your Faith

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”    Matthew 25:1-13

Grace and peace to you from God our Father!

August 14, 2016 dawned a perfect, bluebird sky morning. It was the day I would meet heaven on earth!   Not just any heaven mind you, but the most anticipated, dreamed about, read about, prayed about, planned for, trained for, stayed up late waiting to get on the much-prized waiting list for –  journey across the infamous Floral Park Traverse in the back country of Glacier National Park. From the first time I heard about it, the Floral Park Traverse captivated me to the point of nearly reaching an obsessive quality in my mountainous pursuits. Tales of deaths, grizzlies, cliffs, glaciers, even just the name – inspired my wanderlust to go wild with want. After enduring a year of emotional trials with the death of my mom and my dad’s illness I was ready for a challenge of a completely different sort. And finally, the day had come when my wanton wanderlust would be fulfilled!

You have to plan and train for an excursion of this magnitude –  proper equipment is essential: pack, poles, good boots, water, food, clothing for all seasons, and for climbers like me – camera gear and back up batteries. This route is not for the lazy or inexperienced hiker. With 4000 ft of elevation gained and a 7000 ft descent over 21 miles and 14 hours of trail time you must be prepared physically and mentally. As a distance runner and hiker with plenty of 20+ mile excursions in my trail journal I was certain I could handle the mileage and having a few mountain summits under my belt I was pretty sure the elevations would not get to me either.

I felt sure and strong as we hit the trail at the crack of dawn. I was in my element with a great group of friends. Although I had never ventured across a landscape as challenging as what we were about to embark on I felt safe knowing that most of my crew were more experienced than I. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was in the mid stage of a serious medical condition. My red blood cells – the ones that carry oxygen through your body and basically keep you alive were quietly disappearing. As a result, I found myself struggling to keep up with a crew I usually had the lead on. By mile 17, I had fallen so many times in water crossings and on scree slopes that my hands couldn’t bleed anymore, and my body was shutting down. Thankfully my crew had an incredible leader who was not only prepared for her hike but my crisis – giving me electrolyte shots, Advil and caffeine boosts – she helped me get over the last 4 miles and through a wicked thunderstorm to the journey’s end alive where we enjoyed a fabulous tail gate party. But I was shaken. I was not prepared for the long haul or the hurdles I faced that day – just the wonderful experience I had anticipated for so long – and as a result I put someone else in the position of saving me.

Let me give you fair warning – the mountains are NOT the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. While I thought I was prepared for everything my mind could conceive of happening, I clearly was not prepared for a physical crisis of my own. Those things simply didn’t happen to me.  Like the bridesmaids in today’s Gospel, I had brought my lamp with the usual amount of oil in it, but I did not bring the right kind or enough oil to keep my lamp burning through the unexpected and the revealing judgment of the mountains.

Thoughts of heaven can be spurred by joyous mountainous adventures, the grief of death close to home, or tragedies like those we recently witnessed in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs that strip away our comfort and complacency and bring to mind the question:  what awaits us at the end of our earthly journey? Is it a festive feast from a tailgate like the group I hike with has at the end of every adventure? After a long day in the mountains, we know that we have earned our celebration with plenty of dust on our boots to prove it. It is heaven in a parking lot or highway pullout.

Jesus tells His Disciples that the kingdom of heaven will be like a wonderful wedding banquet. As believers we believe that we have all been invited to this most wondrous occasion. It is a comforting thought, isn’t it – especially after enduring life here on earth.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus takes that comfort and does a pretty good job of dispelling it, doesn’t He?  It would seem that our end-times expectations may not be so cut and dry.

We meet ten bridesmaids awaiting a bridegroom’s return for his bride, but he is delayed.  Five of the bridesmaids are described as “wise” for they were prepared for the unexpected by bringing along extra oil for their lamps; the other five are described as “foolish” because they did not bring along extra oil to keep their lamps burning. When the foolish realize they have run out of oil they ask their wise cohorts to share some of theirs but are told to go get their own. The foolish five abandon their posts in search of oil to buy. In their absence the bridegroom arrives, the wedding banquet begins, and upon their return, the foolish bridesmaids find themselves not only shut out of the festivities but denied by the bridegroom.

Matthew shares Jesus’ words as instruction to a community dealing with several issues: a destroyed temple and people questioning what it was to be and judging who could be a Christian. The delay in the promised return of Christ – their Messiah – was causing a flagging vigilance to His teachings. They were weary of crisis after crisis occurring without any sign of deliverance. They were becoming too worldly giving into their desires and straying from God’s while also being overly spiritual – relying on God as a magician who would perform acts at their request and alleviate their troubles.

In those days, people lived with the belief that the end-times were near. There were many apocalyptic teachers and Jesus was one of them. With this story, Jesus sought to clarify what it meant to truly be ready for his return and how to live until that time.

But what are we to make of a bridegroom, that by all accords represents Jesus, who denies entry to the kingdom which we thought was open to all believers? What do we make of a bridegroom that offers welcome to bridesmaids who don’t share and denies it to a few who were simply unprepared?

This Gospel story raises a lot of questions for those of us who follow Jesus.  Just last week we heard Jesus give the Beatitudes –  comforting words that turn our worldly assumptions upside down — that in the brokenness and injustices of this world we find those who are blessed in His eyes. We could dwell on that scripture for quite some time and never tire of it. Today’s Gospel also turns our assumptions upside down, but this is one we are likely to read and then move on from, quickly.

Yet while stern, they are the words of Jesus. Given as direction to his followers. To you and me. As much as I would have liked to preach on the Psalm today, we need to spend some time listening to Jesus.

As Bible commentator Richard Bruner writes, “If we teach only Jesus’ mercies but not his judgements we disfigure the Gospel.”

And boy does this gospel lend itself to me standing up here and scaring you straight – with a fire and brimstone sermon of judgement on who will and won’t be celebrating with me and Jesus in heaven!  But our heavenly fate is not for me, or any human to judge.  Who God choses to know at the hour of His choosing is His judgment alone.

We don’t like to think about the judgment factor as part of the Christian life, as humans both saints and sinners, we never have.  Yet just about every week we profess our belief that Jesus died, descended to the dead, and on the third day rose again and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father and will come again to JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.

After much blood, sweat and self-condemning tears while trying to discern the Good News in this text, I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t any!!

Just kidding… I have come to the conclusion that this parable is not all about God’s judgement – even though it is our sinful nature to immediately start looking around and pegging who will and won’t be joining us in heaven all the while wrestling with our own failings.

We like to think that we are wise in most contexts, but we secretly admit to being foolish in others. What if that moment of foolishness is the judgment factor? Who are in the insiders and outsiders? The true believers? What is the distinguishing factor of those for whom the door is open?

The Good News is that God frees us from these fears of judgment by giving us His Son and a better way to live. Just like a parent warns a child out of love, so too does Jesus. Jesus loves us too much to leave us as we are or leave us left out. The Gospel today is all about that better way to live. Prepared – like my crew leader was – with plenty of lamp oil, awake, alert and full of anticipation to get you through the waiting time for the wedding banquet and me down the mountain to the tail gate party.

Lamp Oil? Yes, it is all about the lamp oil – your faith.

Last Sunday, we recognized the saints who have gone before us and guided us in our faith journeys.  I dare say they had plenty of lamp oil. They tended it well and brought you along on their journey with plenty of light. But they didn’t get that lamp oil at the last minute – well maybe they did, but it is likely they had been nurturing their faith for a lifetime.  We are reminded today that our relationship with Jesus, though nurtured by many, must be our own. Our faith is a gift from God but he gives us the reigns to maintain the condition of it; tending to it must be a part of our daily life, not just at special times like baptism, confirmation, Easter and Christmas, or the death of a loved one. Our faith cannot be bought or borrowed at the last minute. Martin Luther thought the condition of our faith was so important he gave us the Small Catechism to nurture the formation of it daily.

Fuel your faith by putting Christ first in your life, being obedient to his word, abiding in Christ and letting the Holy Spirit work in you and through you, acting in love towards others, and sharing your faith, the Good News, with the world. You might be saying “but Erika, hold on there –  we are Lutherans! We are saved by grace, not by our practices.” Being prepared, tending to the oil, keeping the faith is not about works righteousness – we cannot earn our way into Gods favor or His kingdom.  But we can live in a way that frees us from the tension of waiting for an unknown end.

A fueled faith is an engaged faith – one that is found through prayer, trust, and gratitude.  Let God nurture a relationship with you before you have an emergency and you will find that you have enough faith to get you through those dark nights of the soul and the unexpected.

The thrill of being baptized into new life and attending praise services with awesome music that leave you feeling charged for God are a wonderful part of the Christian experience, but true faith means abiding and trusting in Him in the day to day busyness of life, sometimes in drudgery with little of the ecstatic flair of worship. It means having enough oil for God to use you as a light in the lives of others. It means living the kind of Christian life that allows you to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, not proud of the good works you have done or the desires you didn’t give into but knowing that you have honestly prepared and tended to the condition of your faith. God offers a special wisdom to those who belong to Jesus. We await the kingdom with eager readiness because we know that Jesus turns all the demands of God’s law–our lives spent in judgement — into pure grace and mercy.

My last LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat in October focused on the art of writing the sermon. We were introduced to the concept of discerning the text through a trouble in the Bible –  trouble in the world –grace in the Bible – grace in the world format. Sounds pretty straightforward until one is faced with a text like today’s. My Floral Park adventure was less of a challenge than this!

““Truly I tell you I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore for you do not know the day or the hour.”  I ask you, where is the grace???

Believe it or not, the grace was there from the beginning.  ALL were invited to the wedding banquet and the door to the party is still open for you. The Lord is still coming – and you have been invited to greatest wedding banquet ever held. Now don’t panic because you forgot to fill up the oil this morning. We are living in the grace period and you happen to be in a pretty fancy filling station where all the pumping is done for you. So what are you waiting for? Open your heart, open your life, and say, “YES!” I want some of that oil. Now, live in the light of Jesus and await His kingdom with joy.

Amen.

Trail Faith

To trust God in the light is nothing, but to trust Him in the dark—that is faith.

~ Charles H. Spurgeon

On a recent Sunday, I was on an adventure in the mountains. Yes, I know I should have been in church, but it was a respite from the everyday life I have been living that was sorely needed. Besides, I was in the mountains thinking about God rather than in church thinking about the mountains, so I think I can claim a bit of redemption, no?

Anyways…. As many of you know, and now the rest of you do, in the few short years that I have resided here in paradise this former eastern Montana flat-lander has acquired quite the affinity for climbing mountains. This is actually quite an amazing feat for me, as anyone who knows me well also knows that there are significant reasons that my parents decided against naming me Grace. My blog site is suitably subtitled Tripping Gracefully through Life One Adventure at a Time. I have a fear of the unknown, a fear of heights, and a fear of losing control. But I digress…

I have acquired this affinity hiking mile after mile on and off trail, up rocky slopes and down scree slides. I have a quick, determined pace; eager to get to the top, but not so eager that I can’t stop to take in the beauty around me, do a bit of photography, and wax philosophically with my hiking partners. I always seem to fall into the lead on the trail, a place I am most comfortable – as it means I am in control – and I am not stepping on the back of anyone’s heels. I am a leader not a follower- I am my father’s daughter. I like to rely on my own compass – not someone else’s and usually it serves me well, usually…

So, on this Sunday there we were, hiking(!!) one of my favorite routes, the epic 22-mile (at least the route we took was that long) Dawson – Pitamakin Loop and after enjoying the best-ever turkey sandwich at Dawson Pass we headed on our way across the very rocky, trippy slope in-route to Pitamakin Pass. I kept thinking this route seemed a lot more precarious than the last time I hiked it 3 years ago… but then the earth shifts and so do rocks, so I pushed ahead. I was in the lead and determined as usual, so determined that it took me awhile to face the facts that we were NOT on the trail – my natural compass was OFF and I had us cliffed out – yes, cliffed out on the Dawson Pitamakin trail (who does that??). Unfortunately, my wayfinding had brought us to a point 200 yards below the actual trail in the portion of cliffs that sent my head spinning the last time I hiked this when I was ON the trail. (Granted, I was not as trail dusted and tested back then.)

Suddenly, this confident mountain goat turned into a quaking, peeping pika. I’ve climbed cliffs far more difficult than the ones towering above us this Sunday, but for some reason I was off my game. I felt out of control, and I froze. I am sure my face went white as a ghost and that turkey sandwich in my tummy suddenly didn’t feel so good. I was embarrassingly afraid. I began to doubt every step I took because my prior confident steps had landed us in a spot with no place good to land! In that moment, all the climbs I have logged disappeared. I didn’t know where to turn. I didn’t have it all together. My determined role as leader went tumbling down the slope with the rocks that did the same. I lost faith in my ability to navigate the terrain.

And then I heard it, this familiar, comforting voice pulling me out of the gripping fear that was causing my eyes to well with tears and my head to spin. “Erika, it’s up this way. Here, take my hand.”

Take it I did. I blindly trusted that someone knew what they were doing, because I sure didn’t. Scrambling up the cliff on a wing and a prayer I put my trust in something other than me. When I couldn’t quite get my trembling leg on the just too high ledge above me, a knee was bent to help me along. And with that, I did it. My innards quit trembling and I think some color returned to my face. I climbed the rest of the way up with vigor – and once I was standing on top I was ready to give my hand to my helper – though he didn’t need it. I felt safe and confident again.

We can’t face everything in life on our own. We weren’t made that way. It is scary to put our trust in someone else and difficult to have confidence in the unknown. We know that we are imperfectly human and thus we are placing trust in imperfect humanity. But when we allow ourselves to be helped by another we allow them to show mercy – acts that both parties can grow from and be blessed by.

It is easy to trust God, when the going is good – not so much when you can’t see around the cliff, or where your next foothold will be. By faith, we know that God is perfect and His power a certainty. When we trust God, we may not know what the outcome will be but we can rest assured in His mercy, knowing He is always with us offering a hand and bent knee along the way.

How kind the Lord is! How good he is!
So merciful, this God of ours!
The Lord protects those of childlike faith;
I was facing death, and he saved me.
Let my soul be at rest again,
for the Lord has been good to me.
He has saved me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
And so, I walk in the Lord’s presence
as I live here on earth!
~ Psalm 116: 5-9