Finding My Way

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.

Let your light so shine!

Awakening to Fear

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.[1] 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!

[1] Stanley Saunders, Assoc. Professor of New Testament Studies, Columbia Theological Seminary. Commentary on Matthew 10:24-39

There is Good News to Report

“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” – Psalm 27: 13-14

As the societal, market, and economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak evolves, I have tried to take the cancellation of school (especially hard on the Class of 2020), church services, many long-planned special events, rehearsed-for-months-for concerts, and the astoundingly sharp financial kick in the gut in stride. I don’t think any of us saw this crisis coming a month ago – I know I certainly did not; otherwise, I would not have been one of the few people who honestly needed to restock her toilet paper supply. One can easily get sucked into a state of despair amid the media-driven (social and otherwise) information and misinformation overload.

There are many things competing for space in your mind right now: anxiety, angst, fear, despair, disappointment, grief, loneliness, uncertainty, and shock as our very way of life changes day by day, if not between morning and evening newscasts.

It is times like these that remind us how very precious this present moment is. Yesterday has passed us by and tomorrow, as we are quickly learning is going to be very different from today – if we get the chance to see it. As scary as this might sound – this present moment is all we have for certain.

As I was walking in the waning but still warm sunlight last evening letting the chaos of a pandemic stricken world be someone else’s problem for just a short while, I felt a surprising sense of good come over me. I realized I was enjoying the moment and that joy – for however brief a time – shut out the anxieties that have made a home on my shoulders the last few days. Perhaps it was the first notes of a bird song or the lack of wind, the happy greeting from a fellow walker, or maybe my sweet boy Ember keeping pace right beside me for once – that made me stop and breathe and smile. There was goodness in this moment. I bent over and gave Ember a kiss on the head. He closed his eyes and smiled that content with the world smile every dog seems to have in their master’s eyes as I scratched under his chin. At that moment we were not just surviving but good – really good.

As you read this, I encourage you to look around you and look inside of you – there is goodness to be found. Perhaps it is found in the hand sanitizer the office supply company reserved just for you, perhaps it is the texted message of greetings from a friend who just happened to be thinking of you, maybe it is the warmth of your dog’s head pressing into your lap – hoping to gain a mile if you give him an inch. Maybe it is the laughter of your child – who for a moment brought you to your own childhood again. Perhaps it is in the phrase written so carefully and seemingly just for you by an author many miles and years away – but speaks to the now in your life.

When we look for it, we can see the goodness of Lord in the land of the living, even amid the Toilet Paper Chase of 2020 and the less savory of human character on full display. We see fear being replaced by acts of those simply seeking some semblance of control or at least normalcy in their lives. We see it in those who continue to eradicate injustices despite their own risks. We see it in those extending love instead of blame and expressing compassion in place of contempt.

As we separate ourselves from our neighbors and even our loved ones for the common good – we can still find goodness – in the quiet, challenging ways God shapes our character throughout life. Perhaps during this time of social distancing, we will become more cognizant of those who face this reality every day – those who are already lonely or struggling to belong, those who feel socially distanced by grief, broken relationships, or their current place in life. Contemplate who you are and who you are in the lives of others. How might you emerge from this crisis not just as an inconvenienced person but as a changed-for-the better human being? Remember that we are one nation under God, one people created in the image of God, all of whom are worthy of respect and compassion. We all need to be respectful of rules – even those you didn’t set – when the lives of others and your life are at stake.

I know the goodness of the Lord will be revealed in the land of the living as this crisis passes and we are brought together again. Let’s do our part to make sure everyone emerges whole. Support one another. Support your local businesses. Support your grocery store clerks and managers who are doing their best to keep our lives supplied. Support those in government and law enforcement, working to keep us safe now and who will have to work to meet our expectations for getting life back to normal when it is safe to do so. Most of all, support those on the front lines of Covid-19 – our medical workers, scientists, first responders and those infected with this virus.

Remember to pray and appreciate the goodness before you. Let your prayers go viral and let God’s all-encompassing love surround you. Be the good news in someone’s life today.

Let your light so shine (so bright we can see it from 6 feet away!)

The Fear Within

“What are you afraid of?” The wily voice challenged as Common Sense screamed her rebuttal at the top of her lungs. The inner battle was fierce as I stood at the edge of the gaping crevasse. My summit destination awaited me just a “short” 3-foot leap across a void in my beloved terra firma that dropped to a rocky ending some 2000 feet below me.

Three of my companions had managed the death-defying leap and stood triumphantly on the other side, beckoning for me to follow suit. My mind, however, was dwelling on my less than graceful tendency to trip over my own shadow rather than how I bested the long-jump record in the elementary track and field meet  or how I had,  just moments before,  lithely navigated through a keyhole notch with hand and foot holds  of less than 2-inch widths and a similar  death-drop,  to my current vantage point.  What indeed was I afraid of? Obviously –  certain death!

Mustering all that I had within me and giving thanks to my God for the life I had lived, I took inventory of my physical being, surveyed the earth far below me one last time, and leaped across landing solidly on the other side. In jubilation and relief, I let out an exhilarated whoop! Forgetting, for the moment, that I would have to repeat this feat on the way back. I had faced down my fear and lived to tell many, many tales about it!

In fact, I have done this sort of nonsense as my mother would call it, over and over again ever since – at water crossings, on narrow ledges, in punk rock mosh pits, and on the back of a motorcycle – challenging my physical capacity and venturing beyond my “normal” to new heights.

But when it comes to the less tangible aspects of life – my fearless abandon seems to have run away and hid. It’s hard to be a risk-taker when the risks and fears you are facing down are of the innermost kind.

I know I am not alone in this. None of us are immune. All of us are managing some kind of pain, facing some fear, struggling with something inside that we hide from the world. At a recent class I am taking on leading and living with confidence, one of the exercises we were asked to do was to write down on a sticky note what we were most afraid of in coming to this class and then post it on a board. Without any sharing of ideas in the process, the one overriding fear was the fear of judgment. This word showed up so many times on the sticky notes that we all looked at each other and hesitantly laughed. As we discussed the fear we all had in common we also admitted that each one of us had walked into the room that night and made a mental note of how everyone else had it so much better than we did. If we had met any one of these individuals on the street or at a social gathering, we would have wished our lives were half as put together as theirs.

The ironic – and frankly rather funny – part of it all was that we all wanted the class to be a “judgment-free” zone. And yet here we all were with our inner struggles fighting a battle we presumed was unique to us, all the while judging each other based on our assumptions of one another.

There is no such thing as a judgment-free zone. Judging others is inherent to our survival – it is a basic instinct we use to assess the safety of our surroundings and its inhabitants. Our fear of judgment comes from our need to belong, our fear of being rejected, and it is most often a reflection of our own insecurities. We tend to judge other people based on what we think is acceptable or not – and we judge ourselves by the same criteria.

Our judgments are formed by the culture we have grown up in, the expectations of our family, and the lenses through which we see the world: our personal experiences, our peer groups, the social media we follow, our religious or spiritual background, the political viewpoints we choose to follow. The nature of judgment is not static but unique to each individual.

When you fear judgment by another, what you’re really doing is judging yourself AND those around you. All those beliefs you have about yourself – that you are a failure, a waste of space, that you are not thin enough or rich enough or smart enough or have it together enough – of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose – those are self-judgments based on the shame you feel and the failures you hold on to but try to hide. You assume that you’ve done something, or will do something, that is going to cause a negative judgment. This is a reflection of your own fears and a projection of your own thoughts onto those around you. You assume they feel the same way and will also judge you.

So, if everyone judges but seemingly fears being judged what are we to do? How do we deal with the fear of judgment so that our lives are not limited by it?

It begins with vulnerability. By vulnerability I mean being honest with others, allowing them to see who you really are, how you actually think and feel and in turn, seeing others as they really are – take the time to listen to what they think and feel. Rather than isolating yourself, engage in the give and take of relationship.

Remember that everyone around you – people you respect and turn to – may also be struggling AND those struggles don’t define us any more than our competencies do…Fight the comfort you find in hiding your struggles. As Brené Brown, a TED Talk phenomena, author, and research professor at the University of Houston who studies courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame writes, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Be brave like I was standing over that yawning chasm of nothingness in my pursuit of a summit and muster all that is inside you and share it. Be brave and be known for who you really are.

Start with someone you trust; someone your gut tells you will be supportive and share what holds you back then, offer them an invitation to trust. You may just find that you are not alone in the fight and find a fellow encourager rather than judgmental foe.

My own fear of judgment has been paralyzing at times – preventing me from making decisions and embracing opportunities that have come my way. My hope is that in finding fellow fear fighters and sharing the journey with them, reaching new heights in my life won’t be limited to mountaintops.

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” ― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Let your light so shine!

 

The Beauty Behind You

The day began with so much promise. Up before sunrise with a mountaintop destination in mind, I was filled with pre-hike exuberance. The sunrise confirmed every giddy emotion brewing within me as the long drive grew closer to an end. The forecast was a partly cloudy one with clearing skies by afternoon – a perfect photography setup in my book. A few clouds add interest to the landscape and cut the garish glare of sunlight. As I made my way to the trailhead I could feel the clamber of the world falling silent. I was early enough to have the trail to myself and my heart fluttered with the familiar sense of nerves that solo adventures always bring.

Lakes, waterfalls, rock formations, and plentiful wildlife awaited me and my camera. Morning sun highlighted the mountains and the low clouds that hung on my mountain top destination gave visual interest to the peaks surrounding me. Lakes shimmered in grey, gold, and deep blue hues reflecting the changing sky. I made my way in the soft morning breeze all the while dreaming of the incredible views that awaited me some 9 miles away. Surely the clouds would lift I kept thinking.  Surely the breeze and sunshine will burn them away. But the higher I climbed no such dissipation occurred. Instead, much to my chagrin, the wind seemed to be blowing in even more clouds.

By the time I reached the saddle my summit was invisible. My giddiness was quickly evaporating into a cloud of gloom. Confound it, I stammered to myself with an ache in my throat as I weighed my options. I thought back to my first ascent of her holy heights 3 prior climbs before and the reward of 360 views. Since that epic day in which I vowed to climb every peak I could see from on high, this mountain top has captivated me. Alas, on the next two attempts I was turned away by 60 + mph winds, thunder, and smoke so thick you slice it. This time I was determined to show the mountain who was boss and yet I felt defeated once again. All that work with nothing to show for it. And then I turned and looked back.

But wait! You are not supposed to do that! Not on the mountain and not in life! Boston – my all-time favorite rock band – hit number 4 on the Billboard Top 100 with their second album’s title track “Don’t Look Back” in 1978. One of my favorite theologians and thinkers, C.S. Lewis, in his infinite wisdom wrote: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Psychologists, TED talkers, and pithy Facebook posts give similar advice for those looking to make a success of themselves. “Never look back. Always take the next step forward.” “Don’t look back; you’re not going that way.” “Keep your eyes on the prize.”  “Move on.”

Despite the oft-quoted posit of George Santayana and retro-fitted versions of it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” conventional wisdom of late urges us to let go of the past and leave it there if we want to make any positive steps forward.

Or perhaps you are more inclined to philosophies of the present –  to live in the now – to embrace the present – to meditate on the moment. Leo Tolstoy wrote: “Remember then: there is only one time that is important – Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”  And the ubiquitous Oprah tells us that, “Living in the moment means letting go of the past and not waiting for the future. It means living your life consciously, aware that each moment you breathe is a gift.”

Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that while life can only be understood backwards it must be lived forwards. I have been working hard to heed such time-spanning wisdom and keep these forward-thinking ideas forefront in my mind during challenging times of late – having been told I spend too much of my brain matter reflecting on what was, contemplating on past regrets and what could have been. Despite my deep faith and trust in the Lord, it is not in my nature to put too much stock in the future. I’ve had too many of my hopes dashed by the potholes of life. Indeed, my life would be much easier to navigate if my faith was as clear and strong as my 20/20 hindsight.

We all have moments in life when our exuberant determination for that which is before us is given a cold shower. When our drive for the summit is dampened by dark clouds of self-doubt. When our confidence is shaken by one too many missteps and it seems no matter how hard we try to move forward, it is a slow journey of one step forward and five steps back. It is tempting to give-in, to stay where we are, in the comfort of what we know – in other words – get stuck – or simply retreat.

Which is where I found myself at that saddle of disappointment below the cloud enshrouded summit. Facing the unknown above me, not being able to see past my hand, I stood bereft and pondered. Would I press forward to the top despite my dampened spirit or once again turn back?

As I turned around with my eyes no longer focused on the destination in front of me, I was stunned by what I saw. The valley below me was bathed in sunlight and I saw how far I had come. I saw how far I had come!!

I was captivated! I was stirred. I was energized by my new perspective and I was oddly motivated to press on!

Up, up, up I climbed with my head quite literally in the clouds. I met a lovely ram and his darlings halfway up and then the clouds really started to get low. My eyes began to play tricks on me and I had moments of doubt when I lost the trail. I pressed on. I was not going to let the weather deny me! Not this time. I saw what I thought was a bear causing my heart to stop – only to go faint with relief when it turned out to be a really fat marmot whose girth was amplified by the fog!! A few times the sun tried to shine turning my surroundings into an ethereal misty white – giving me a glimpse of what it must be like on our way to heaven – only to turn a thick soupy gray again.

Up, up, up I went and suddenly, just like that, I was at the top. While I had arrived – you could have fooled me! The air was strangely still atop the mountain after being buffeted by gale-force winds the entire hike up. The swirling abyss surrounding me seemed to buffer sound and was oddly tempting. Indeed, the thought crossed my mind – one could easily plunge off the edge into the marshmallow world – but I had too much to live for! I had accomplished my goal – thanks to looking back.

When we are stuck in the muck of the present, unsure of how to move forward with dark clouds diminishing the promise of what lays before us, how often do we turn around and see how far we have come?

It is only when we look back on our lives that we can truly comprehend the journey we have been on and give thanks for the important lessons we have learned and the people we have met along the way.

It is those lessons and those relationships that allow us, prepare us, and propel us forward in life even as we do not know what tomorrow will bring – let alone comprehend it. Yes, our past does define us but it doesn’t have to confine you. Who you are today is the product of the experiences you couldn’t comprehend or appreciate yesterday.

If you find yourself unable to move forward in life, I encourage you to take some time to look back and appreciate the beauty behind you. Embracing how far you have come may be just what you need to head out strong for the rest of your journey.

Boston sang it best:

It’s a bright horizon (ooh, and I’m awakin’ now)

Oh, I see myself in a brand new way

The sun is shinin’ (ooh, the clouds are breakin’)

‘Cause I can’t lose now, there’s no game to play

 

I can tell there’s no more time left to criticize

I’ve seen what I could not recognize

Everything in my life was leading me on

But I can be strong, oh, yes, I can

 

I finally see the dawn arrivin’

I see beyond the road I’m drivin’

Ooh, far away and left behind, left behind

Let your light so shine!

Sunday, Sunday – So Good To Be Free

A sermon on Luke 13:10-17

Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ from God, our Father!

The world weighed heavy on her shoulders. For eighteen years her burdens had claimed her spirit and held her captive – bound by chains of judgment, guilt, shame, regret, and hopelessness. The harshness of the world had not been spared for her. The divisions among neighbors, the violence permeating the streets, the economic and political roller coaster – all seemed to mirror her own experience. At times she felt invisible to her community but to be honest – that felt better than judgment. Fearful at what she might see, she had gotten used to looking down, only glancing at people out of the corner of her eye. It was safer that way- feet don’t look back. Feet don’t judge or dismiss. Still, she made her way to worship every Sunday, in spite of her struggles. And here she was despite the troubles at home, despite the sleepless night before, despite the fact that she had so much to do and so little energy left to do it, despite the storms that defined her very being. She was at a breaking point. She was here simply to escape.

The council president was busy making sure everything was in place for worship and the guest preacher. Order was the priority of the day. The batteries for the microphone were fresh, the sound system was working, and the bread and wine finally made it to the altar. The ushers were busy handing out bulletins and fretting that there wouldn’t be enough large print versions while preschoolers scampered back and forth from their seats to the activity bags in search of any activity but. The sanctuary was abuzz with chatter  – members of every age and stage of life – were all in their assigned seats sharing their latest hiking adventures, golf scores, bodily ailments, grandchildren tales, and business deals. This is good – GOOD – she thought to herself. Our guest will be impressed with our summer attendance. Now, what were those special announcements I was supposed to make? Oh yes, the rummage sale needs more helpers, especially for clean up, and the community dinner is coming up – volunteers needed, and Sunday School – oh goodness – we still need Sunday School Teachers.  Her mind drifted back to that week’s council meeting. There were issues, big ones to be dealt with and right now no one seemed to agree on anything. She longed for a break. But oops, no more time – it’s showtime! The prelude was over. 

Also in attendance were thinkers thinking various thoughts. “Will I ever be able to say no to my boss? This church is so tired. We need more singers in the choir.  I wish my husband would listen to me. The same ten people do everything around here. I wish my wife would hear me. I am afraid of failing tomorrow. Why am I here? I am scared about starting school tomorrow. I can’t pay my bills. I love this place. Does anyone even see me here? People are drifting away.  We feel so welcome here. Visitors must feel so unwelcome. Finally, people who see things as I do. The gatekeepers here just sit in judgment. Why do they always ask me? Why am I never asked? I can’t feel God anymore.”

What brings you to church this morning? Some innate sense of obligation to God? Because the third commandment says you should be here? Is it just part of your weekend routine followed by a trip to Costco? Maybe you were assigned to read or serve communion or more importantly serve the coffee afterward? Did you come to see your friends? Did you come because someone needs you to be here this morning? Or did you come because, like me, you just don’t feel complete if you don’t? I for one would like to thank you for being here this morning – I feel a distinct sense of wholeness when I gather here with all of you – my church family, not to mention I worked long and hard on this sermon!! Obviously, in my role as an LPA – Sunday’s hold special significance for me.

But, do you ever wonder why? Why this weekly ritual of gathering, worshipping, singing, reading, preaching, mingling — why do we do it? What is THIS all about? Has it ever gotten to you – church that is? To the point where you needed to take a break? Has Sunday/Sabbath lost something in the modern-day translation? I’ve heard the church as a whole referred to as a bunch of hypocrites  – not just by outsiders, mind you, but by actively practicing Christians.

In our Gospel lesson, we get to see into a day in the life of a church and a couple of its members in biblical times.  Jesus is at worship on the Sabbath Day. In those days, not unlike today, synagogues would invite guest Teachers – especially those of community interest who might be passing through – to come and teach and that is what Jesus was doing as he continued on his journey to Jerusalem. A woman with a crippling spirit about her is also there to worship. Jesus calls her to him and heals her. She is able, for the first time in a very long time, to breathe free and stand tall and she praises God. At once, the leader of the synagogue objects. Though he is “indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath,” he doesn’t attack Jesus; he goes after the crowd for having the wrong “standard” of Sabbath behavior, for not following the exact letter of the law. He cajoles the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”  And Jesus responds calling those gathered – you got it – Hypocrites! But the synagogue leader is right, you know. In Jewish custom, you are not supposed to do any work on the Sabbath. And here is this visitor – a fellow Jew – subverting God’s law in God’s house! The Jewish people took the Sabbath observation much more seriously than the rather happenstance way we sometimes view the various Sabbath “requirements” or restrictions today. There is not much that we do on the other six days of the week that we don’t also do on Sunday.  

I can empathize with the synagogue leader. Can’t you? Like him we like order.  Most of us have certain rules and standards that govern our lives that we think are particularly important. Think about your steadfast adherence to a morning ritual or more trivial laws such as eating only organic foods, your children’s bedtimes, refusing to schedule anything before noon on a Saturday, or refusing to buy anything not made in the USA. These legal tendencies are alive and well in our religious life too. We have firmly staked positions on who can and cannot receive communion, issues of marriage and divorce, human sexuality and gender; who can and cannot be called and ordained into ministry; and who we can and cannot minister to – as in the case of the recent Sanctuary Denomination declaration at the National Synod Assembly defining outreach to immigrants, refugees, and those seeking asylum. And then there is the almighty law of “because we have always done it that way.”  We can get so caught up in our positions on issues of and the “doing” of church that we lose sight of what Sunday and church is really all about. 

But we would be lost without them – our laws and traditions – wouldn’t we? The thing is – we need them. God would not have given the Israelites the law in the beginning if it wasn’t necessary for human flourishing. Throughout the Old Testament, we see how the law was used to provide guidance on how to live with one another so that all would get more out of this life and world. The law, in short, promotes civility, cooperation, and health and lends a sense of order to our chaotic world. But let’s be honest – we pick and choose the laws we follow. We follow the laws that keep us comfortable and safe. We like the laws that provide structure and familiarity to our daily lives. We defend the laws that support our ideologies and protect our beliefs and traditions. We get anxious if we see challenges to our way of doing things coming down the line. Our need for order and stability in this broken world makes it difficult for us to imagine “exceptions” to the law – even those that promote greater life and health. The good leader of the synagogue was charged with upholding a semblance of order and seeing to it that the Law was obeyed. The law is the law after all and if you start making exceptions goodness only knows what will happen next.

But as important as law is –  Jesus sees things differently and thank goodness he does! What better way of exemplifying the Sabbath’s origin as a covenant of deliverance than by freeing this woman from her crippling spirit while celebrating the Sabbath? Jesus draws directly from the law gifted in Deuteronomy 5, connecting the rest ordained in the Sabbath to Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you…” “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” 

In Jesus’ view, since the Sabbath law commemorates and celebrates Israel’s liberation, it ought to be a day for enacting – not inhibiting – liberation in the present-day. He’s been saying things like this since his synagogue debut in his hometown after his time of testing in the Wilderness.  When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” 

I like to think that Jesus was a rebel with a cause – not to break the law but restore to the law the love that inspired it. In freeing the woman from her crippled spirit and challenging the letter of the law, Jesus reclaimed the Sabbath as an opportunity to draw closer to God, to contemplate God’s goodness and love, recall God’s gift of freedom from bondage, and to be schooled in God’s will. 

As David Lose, the senior pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minn., former president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, and one of my favorite modern-day theologians explains, while the law matters,  it must always bow to mercy, to life, to freedom. Law helps us live our lives better, but grace creates life itself. Law helps order our world, but grace is what holds the world together. Law pushes us to care for each other, but grace restores us to each other when we’ve failed in the law.

We are captive to the law when it blinds us to God’s loving will. There are a myriad of reasons for us to be disconsolate and look to the security and comfort of law: oppression at the hands of corrupt power; guilt from the knowledge of participating in or benefiting from, systems of oppression; fatigue in faith; disintegration of community life; broken hearts and misunderstood identity; suffering caused by chronic physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional pain; and the list goes on. But with his outstretched arm, Jesus broke into the dogmatic world of first-century Judaism and our present-day with a new set of eyes and a fresh voice bearing witness that when it comes to upholding the law or nurturing life, God always comes down on the side of life. The entire law is summed up in a single command and is the one law by which to measure all others –  the absolute law of love. Love God and love your neighbor. And love God by loving your neighbor.

And so, while we gather today in this ritual of worship I want you to know that this is what it is all about: Sunday is about letting go of all those things you carried in with you this morning – the good and the bad – and laying them all before God to take rest in this,  HIS red-carpeted sanctuary – even if only for an hour. Sunday is about remembering how God has freed us so that we might be rebels with a cause to free others. Sunday is about calling to mind the mighty acts of God so that we too dare mighty acts ourselves. Sunday is a day to remember that God has freed us from the bondage of sin and death itself so that we might boldly bring order to this world with love rather than law. 

Finally, beloved children of God, God sees YOU and claims you this morning and all those with the weight of the world on their shoulders, those who lead, those who follow, those who are angry, those who despair, those who are weary, those who worry, those who are lost, those in the shadows, those who hurt, those who believe and those who have yet to believe;  and with an outstretched arm, God calls each and every one of us to receive His gift of Sabbath, to give us rest, free us from the burdens of this world, and to help us breathe again. He sees you and knows your deepest hurts. There is no sorrow or bondage on earth from which Jesus cannot set us free.

We will never be able to confine God’s grace and love with our laws, so why even try? Instead, let’s consider ways our insistence on law and order in our lives blocks us from showing genuine, heartfelt compassion to those in need and limits God from entering fully into our lives. 

When we let God break into our lives and break the laws of our lives with his grace and love – some amazing things can happen. So stand up straight and breathe – you are free – not just on Sunday, but every day. 

This is such Good News! Amen!

1. The Law of Love; David Lose

 

“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!