One Great Love Story in the Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

A reading from our wedding ceremony:

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

–  Colossians 3:12-17

 

 

 

Make Your Ordinary Extraordinary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine!

 

Mountain Envy

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thoughts on Today ~ August 14, 2018

Saying goodbye.

There was no spectacular sunrise to mark this momentous morning – rather I ran under a smoke muted sky with no overwhelming sense that today would be any different from yesterday – in fact, I almost forgot this anniversary, and yet I felt a spark of something, perhaps a reminiscent twitch of anticipation for the events of this day exactly five years ago. The actual activities of August 14, 2013 were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me however, that day and the ensuing days of settling in were the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts at the End of a Life-Changing Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuel Your Faith

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

Grace and peace to you from God our Father!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Trail Faith

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

~ Charles H. Spurgeon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing Can Separate You from the Love of God

As I continue in my Lay Pastoral Associate studies,  I am growing more certain of the course my life is taking in answering His call.  I don’t know where this journey will lead me but as Martin Luther said, “well do I know my guide.” Or at least I am getting to know Him better!

Living an authentic life is powerful stuff. I have never felt more like I am who I am, than when I am studying, thinking about, interpreting, and sharing the Word. Do I have doubts? Oh yes, self-doubt is inherit to my nature. Questions? Oh yes! I will admit that reason messes with my faith more often than not. And then my faith messes even more with reason, and I feel stronger in my walk for the questions I ask.  Do I worry I will lead others astray? Absolutely. The weight of responsibility that I feel behind the pulpit is great. When someone comes to church, they come to to find God, to find welcome, to find peace. They come to be fed and to sort out the events of their life in sanctuary. I don’t ever want to mess that up! I don’t ever want someone to walk out of church feeling worse for coming. I pray every time I sit down to write, that my words reflect the shining light, the way, and the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ  and that they touch someone, in ways I may never know or need to know.

There will always be risk but even greater reward. 

***

Sermon: Nothing Can Separate You from the Love of God

Romans: 8: 26-39

Dear friends in Christ Jesus, Grace and Peace to you from God our Father.

Oh, those words!!! How many of you felt your heart leap, your spirit soar, your cares ebb as Krista read Paul’s powerful words from Romans today?

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We so often hear these words in the context of a funeral or memorial service and they bring us great comfort, knowing that nothing has separated our loved one from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.  Having completed their earthly journey with all their joys and sorrows, talents and flaws, deeds and sins behind them, we have confidence that our loved one lives on with the Lord.

But consider for a moment, who Paul was writing to and consider all of his words, not just the triumphant final three verses of this pivotal chapter. Consider for a moment that these words written to all of the Romans, not just the saints or the church as many of Paul’s letters were, he meant them for everyone. Give them serious consideration, as they also apply to you today, alive and well, on this beautiful, summer morning because I don’t have any plans right now to be giving your funeral sermon– I want you take these words with you for your life!

For when your life is not easy. When life seems to be made up of one crisis after another. When life separates you from joy. When life feels very lonesome. For when life takes your plans and throws them into the fire.  For when life feels like death. For when life challenges your confidence and exposes your weaknesses, your doubts, your fears, and your sins. For when life brings achievement and disappointment, celebration and regret, great success and great suffering. For when life hands you hardships that threaten to undo you –  hardships and failures in the present, from the past, and in the future. For when you feel distress, shame, stress, and opposition. For when your foolish choices, public failures, personal disappointments, and ever-present sin cause you to forget who you are and whose you are. For when life makes you question who’s in control and for when life brings you to your knees but you don’t know how or for what to pray for. These words were written for those times.

What does Paul say about these things, these times that try our souls??

Romans 8 is a powerful chapter with a powerful ending, smack dab in the middle of 16 chapters explaining the Christian life to the Romans – chapters filled with what Martin Luther called the purest gospel … a bright light almost sufficient to illuminate the entire Holy Scriptures.” Many theologians say the verses you heard today –  that caused you to take a deep breath and rejoice in your baptismal promise of salvation – are the key to the whole Bible – the summa theologia – the summary of the Gospel.  Paul’s last letter; a letter written at the height of his ministry – some 30 years after his conversion – is a powerful summation of what he has been trying to say all along – the grandness of God’s grace and the power of his uncompromising love are yours.

Paul is seasoned. He writes with conviction and authority and passion what he knows to be true. His missionary life has not been easy.  He has endured imprisonment, beatings, stoning, constant harassment and strong opposition – just as God promised he would shortly after his conversion – that he would suffer much as he witnessed for the reign of God’s kingdom.  A kingdom, as we learned in today’s gospel reading, that can be much different than it appears. A kingdom that challenges what we value and what we think is good. Though sometimes obscure, the ultimate reality of God’s kingdom is that God’s love is unconditional and inseparable.

Despite his suffering, Paul was convinced of this and you should be too: we have a sovereign and loving God who has searched our hearts, who knows our minds – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and get this, He still loves us. Loves us so much that he sent His only Son to die for our sins and destroy the curtain of sin and death that separated us from Him. And then, through the promise of the resurrection sent His Spirit to forever dwell in us and intercede for us.

In the midst of desperation over a sudden illness, as you yell at the kids as the toilet floods, as your boss tells you your position is not needed anymore, as your spouse slams the door one last time, as you feel the need to cover your indiscretions yet again, as you look in the mirror with disdain after another let down or as anything that life deals you separates you from that confidence in God’s love – you might say, yeah right – a loving God – What kind of God let’s suffering happen? If all we had were the first few chapters of the Bible to understand the Christian life, some might believe that God really was against us. But Paul shows us the lengths that God went to save us from His wrath and equip us for victory over sin and death and the trials and storms of this world with the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ and the gift of His Spirit.

The letter Paul writes to the Romans is about living life with the Spirit in us. It is for these times that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”  When we do not know how to pray as we ought, that very Spirit who searches our heart,  intercedes with sighs too deep for words. He guides our prayers according to the will of God.  That’s the kind of God we have. Given that, who can doubt that God is for us?

Have you ever been insulted? Have you have been taken advantage of or hurt by someone else? Has someone ever wished you ill? I remember well, being the new girl in town – the new girl from back-woods Montana (even though eastern MT didn’t have much forest to speak of) when we moved to Fairfax, VA just before my 6th grade year. Fairfax was a middle-class suburb of Washington, DC where most of our neighbors were military brass or some other mid to upper level government office holders like my dad.   I soon found that I had landed in a trough of military brats who in turn found me to be a prime target for bullying with my odd style of jeans (hey, they were hip in Billings!) and last year’s shoes. That I was a shy tom-boy didn’t help matters with this catty bunch of snobby girls and I was subjected to having mashed potatoes further mashed into my hair at lunch time, tables emptying when I came to sit down, snickers when I walked down the hall, kicked shins, and nasty notes slipped into my locker. Even Mrs. Johnson, my assigned sixth grade teacher made me feel like an odd ball – singling me out when, to my utter horror, my Snoopy lunch box slid off my slanted desk and crashed to the floor. I was forced to stand and apologize for distracting the rest of the class – who were already making plenty of noise ahead of lunch time. I was completely humiliated. I had left a home in Montana where I was the kickball queen who giggled – a lot- and moved to a place where I was afraid to ride the school bus and I would be sick before going to school every morning. I had never felt so alone in all of my 12 years and to this day, I still have moments of self-doubt and flashes of utter fear before meeting new people, wary of what they will think of me and the pain I know I am about to experience.

As that school year progressed, over-crowding forced the school administration to add another sixth-grade class that was housed in a portable classroom – separate from the main building. They hand selected the students who would move. Providence was mine and Mrs. Shaw- a true southern belle with beautifully painted fingernails that scratched the chalkboard when she wrote, became my teacher. She quickly showed her students how special it was that we were brought together to this new space – and that we were going to be the top sixth grade class in the school – if we worked together. We did and we were! Tops in grades, tops in field day events, and tops in learning how to make do with what life handed us.  She turned what could have been my worst year ever – if I even survived – into a year of new friendships, gained confidence, and a renewed trust that people are good.

Paul writes: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

In moments of desperation we wonder how any of this can be for the “good” of God. We feel abandoned. We feel weak with the forces of the world closing in on us. Even at the tender age of twelve, I wondered where God was and why, oh why He was letting these awful things happen to me. I was made well aware of the evil in the world, and I didn’t understand why our move to Virginia had brought this evil into my life. Was I being punished? Worse, was I being punished by God?

Mind you, I was not the innocent angel I am now. I once pushed a girl into the creek behind our house in Billings when she made fun of my mother’s shoes, and I took off on my Schwinn banana seat bike many a time to explore the wilds beyond our neighborhood without letting my parents know where I was going.  But back to my misery. If ever there was a time to ask where the good was in what was happening to me, this victim of bullying certainly had found it.

Paul makes it clear that the “good” which God brings about is His ultimate good for us. God never causes evil or harm to come our way –  that is the work of the fallen world – but God will use our suffering as a result of that evil to bring us closer to Him. God made an enduring promise to those who love Him – if we persist in faith, He promises to see us through to glorification. He alone has the power to work all things, not just some things, not just the things we associate with the “good” like health, comfort, and success, but all things, together for His ultimate purpose.   “All things” includes our suffering and our groaning. It includes our weakest moments when we don’t know how or for what to pray. It includes our times of sorrow and sickness and death. Just look at the ultimate good He worked through the storms, struggles and death of Jesus Christ!

This is why Paul commanded in his letter to the Thessalonians, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Looking back some 30 years later, I know that the suffering I faced as a bullied 6th grader, while not God’s doing, was redeemed by God giving me a deeper level of empathy for others and a streak of independence that continues to strengthen and serve me well today.

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

Our lives are governed by laws and regulations, worldly judgements, class, party, and rank. We can be deceived by moral superiority and cast away from the church.  Legalism and reason test our belief.  These things serve only to crush our spirit, bring us sorrow, and encourage us to ask how God can be for us if we have failed Him with our errant ways. But God wants to transform us and conform us to the image of His Son, and that entails persevering through all things in life.

In 2nd Corinthians, Paul makes a clear distinction between godly and worldly grief (in today’s language:  guilt and shame): “Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor 7:9-10) The kind of sorrow, grief, guilt and shame God wants us to experience and yes you will experience it, leads us away from sin and results in salvation.

But, if we love God and we strive to live in the ways of Jesus Christ we can be secure in our belief and assured of God’s love. Again, we have the promise of the resurrection. God’s gift to us – Jesus Christ.

God did not promise that our lives would be free from suffering and hardship but he assured us in our baptism that our lives in Christ Jesus have been freed of judgement and condemnation. In Baptism, God defines and claims you as His own – forever, a relationship that no matter what you do, you can’t screw up! When you were baptized, God proclaimed His unconditional promise to accept you as you are, adopted you into His family, and forgave all your sins including those you have yet to make! Martin Luther, a man who suffered greatly from doubt and guilt himself, urged his followers to remember their Baptism daily,  to wash themselves in God’s unconditional love daily. But relationships take two to tango – God’s unconditional love cannot be one-sided. Indeed, the only thing that can separate you from the love of God, in Christ Jesus is YOU.

When the hardships, ills, judgements, sorrows, struggles, and guilts of this world threaten to steal your confident trust in Christ, rather than turn away from Him, let the Spirit intercede for you, strengthen you, and carry you until you can believe again.

A good friend of mine who has seen a lot of life in his life including surviving a severe motorcycle accident out in the middle of nowhere alone with a broken femur and later, a head on collision with a drunk driver. He served as a missionary with Young Adults in Global Mission and as a youth leader and camp counselor at a Lutheran bible camp. He pursued outdoor ministry, photography, and plans to go back to school this fall to finish his Secondary Education degree. Last year he started his own business as a handyman doing painting and construction work and it was this success that now threatens to undo him. Scaffolding collapsed on one of his jobs causing him to fall and this time shatter his femur and his knee. When I told I was praying for him and asked how I could pray for him, he shared with me that he no longer walks in faith, hasn’t for a long time. He has separated himself from God.

I don’t know what to say to my friend. I don’t have the answers to his loss of faith or the life changing circumstance he now finds himself in. All I can do is pray for him. MY faith tells me he will get through this crisis and because I know his heart, I know he will be stronger in the end. My faith tells me that God is with him right now even though my friend is not with God, and God WILL use this momentary pause in my friend’s life for His ultimate good.

 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Take Paul’s powerful words home with you today. Let them live in you and guide you through your day and week ahead. Remember your baptism. You are a child of God. A loving God whose ultimate purpose, whose ultimate good for you, is to preserve you pure and holy.

Dear Lord, thank You for giving us Your Spirit as our constant companion who, in the depths of our desperation, is present to help us when we have no idea how to pray, with sighs too deep for words. Thank you for your uncompromising and unconditional love. Help us to keep our hearts and mind open to You as we walk faithfully in your name. Amen

Don’t Cry Because it’s Over, Smile Because it Happened.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

– Dr. Seuss

15585330_1423685114322749_7195857032468761883_oI had a difficult time letting go of 2016. In all the years of my life I do not recall one that contained so many life changing circumstances as the past year. One would think I couldn’t wait to close, make that slam, the door on the year that brought emotional upheaval, sickness, strife, and death to my life but instead I found myself wanting to hold on to the year that was as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. In every aspect, 2016 was a year that will shape the narrative of my life for some time to come.

The stories we tell others of the most extraordinary events –  good and bad – that we have experienced in our lives and that help us make sense of the world and shape us as individuals are what Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology, calls our narrative identity. We tell these stories to give our lives meaning and help others understand us. While many people may experience a similar event in their lives, each person interprets the event differently and assigns different levels of importance to it. Some people will simply move on from an experience like a swimming lesson gone awry, while others are transformed by it, perhaps emboldened to face their fears throughout life or traumatized by the experience they viewed as a broken trust.  McAdams calls these “narrative choices” and they predominantly fall into four thematic categories: redemption (stories that transition from the bad to the good that follows), contamination (stories that transition from the good to the bad), communion (stories that emphasize connection, love, friendship, intimacy, caring, or belonging), and agency (stories that emphasize achievement, self-mastery, empowerment, status, and influence).

McAdams’ studies have shown that those whose narratives fall into the redemption, communion, or agency themes have a better outlook on life, find more meaning and purpose in their life, achieve more of their goals, seek out and find more connection, enjoy deeper relationships, and generally report a greater sense of well-being. People who tell their stories through a contamination lens tend to see themselves as victimized, less-than, and fail to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits.

7803683540_76d8f5f45d_bHow we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction of our journeys in the year and years to come.

I tell my story through a lens of overcoming and persevering through events which brought me to a closer walk with God. By overcoming a near fatal eating disorder in my twenties – the ramifications of which altered the trajectory of my life including my schooling, my career, and my relationships –  I gained an inner strength and appreciation for life itself that I would not have otherwise acquired. I truly was born again into a life with Christ when I came out of ICU and gave my life completely into His hands and the hands of others He worked through to make me well again. I have lived every day since, cognizant of His divine mercy and grace in my life.

While 2016 had its fine share of wretchedness that at times drove me to places of darkness and sorrow, it was also a year of great personal growth and new direction in my life. My mother’s death changed who I am in this world going forward. I no longer have my mother to stand by me and as odd as it may sound, at 45 years of age I no longer feel like a child. Rather, I am determined to be the woman she never imagined I could be with a strength that I know she quietly and not so quietly instilled in me throughout our tumultuous yet loving mother-daughter relationship.

My father’s car accident and battle with cancer which began shortly after my mother’s death reminded my entire family that we cannot do this life thing on our own. We were richly rewarded through the goodness of friends and family surrounding us with acts of love and prayers. Through it all, my Lord was there, walking with us, carrying us, and working through His angels here on earth – and there were many- ensuring that this battle was fought with faith and determination and through His great providence, we won!

In 2016 I was reminded that I am not invincible and God knew just how to do that. The mountains that once gave me so much exuberance and fed my conquering spirit would put me in my place and lead me towards a new respect –  that for myself and my own well-being. Mind you, the mountains are really not the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. The events of the year had been quietly taking a toll on me, leading me to crash and burn on a mountainside for the first time in my epic climbing life (writer’s opinion inserted there). It was the first of many signs that I had been neglecting my own health but I ignored them and pushed through the symptoms of exhaustion, collapsing spells, and stomach issues chalking them up to stress.

When fear started to overwhelm everything else in my life, I headed to the clinic one morning for a check-up and ended the day being thought of as a bit of a walking miracle as I sat for five hours in the transfusion chair receiving three units of blood. This was a rather unexpected outcome of quick check-up! To put it bluntly, I had no red blood cells and quite frankly, the doctor told me – I should have been dead.

My 2nd brush with death in life reminded me once again that my physical body –  God’s temple on earth-  needs attention too, and for the first time in too long, I began to take serious responsibility for my own health. To win in life, one must be strong, unwavering, and humble – we must know our weaknesses to overcome them and I found mine.  Now I am in a process of restoring my health and I am making good progress! Which is a good thing because I have embarked on a new direction in life that had been far too long in the planning stages. My mother’s death and father’s illness made me very much aware that life is to be lived – not just observed or reflected upon. My goals of becoming a Lay Pastoral Associate and becoming a voice of hope in others’ lives will be realized.

While it is easy to succumb to a woe-is-me-what have-I-done-to-deserve-this-attitude when life goes awry, (which is a perfectly natural response) I choose to see my experiences as stepping stones rather than hurdles and tell a redemptive story of new goals, new opportunities, and strengthened relationships, rather than a story of my life going from good to bad which would ultimately lead to a life suspended. By choosing to see the events of my life through a lens of redemption and communion I am choosing to embrace the challenges I have faced and use them for good.

1795353_897513270273272_6053940868719391842_oI used to look to the mountains for my escape. They were a place I could go to get away from the chaos of life, challenge myself and come out on top (literally and figuratively), talk to God, and find peace. But my mountain sanctuaries did not avail themselves to me as much last year as in the recent past, partially due to the incessant rainy weather, partially due to my health, but mostly because God determined the chaos of life needed to be lived not escaped from, my challenges would come from within not from a wanderlust adventure, and I would come to find my peace in Him at all times – not just when the mountains called me.

2016 changed me. I am stronger now, in WHO I am. I am humbler. I am more aware. I am more alive!  I don’t need to run from life or the circumstances I encounter any longer. When I turn to my Lord instead of running away, I have the strength to find the good in the moment – even when it seems this moment is all I can see. When I call on Him to shine His light in my life, I can be a light in the lives of others. When I am weak, when I have lost heart, He picks me up and restores my spirit.

I don’t need to prove myself on a mountain or be anyone other than the me God created. In fact, as I gaze out at the mountains from my valley home now, the anxious desire I once felt to constantly climb and conquer every trail and peak I could sanely ponder has quelled to a more restful yearning filled with an appreciation of the beauty, opportunity, and peace that awaits me.

What is your story of life and 2016? How will you tell it and how will it define your goals and direction for 2017 and the years to come?

This is what the Lord says— he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”

~ from Isaiah 43

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