The Jesus Tribe

A sermon based on Mark 9:38-50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

Find True Belonging in the Journey of Lent

“Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something. Belonging is when others want you.”    – Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness

We are living in a lonely age, a time when, despite technological advances that make connectivity almost a distracting and annoying constant, we have never felt so disconnected from one another. It is our human nature to seek connection with others and we have an innate desire to belong. Scientific and social studies have concluded as much.  “(H)uman beings are fundamentally and pervasively motivated by a need to belong, that is, by a strong desire to form and maintain enduring interpersonal attachments.” (Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995).) John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, who has done extensive studies on the impact of loneliness, says that the “only real biological advantage we have over most other species is our connection, our belonging; our ability to collaborate, plan, be in relationship with in special ways.”

Our need to belong is beyond our control, it is a part of our DNA, we have evolved to need one another and yet, we have come to idealize the independent individual. Because of modern advances in survival we no longer “need” each to survive. The less we need each other the more dependent we become on ourselves. The more dependent we become on ourselves the more certain we become of our ways and our ways of thinking. Yet despite our independence and strength in self, our need for connection remains, thus we take the paths of least resistance and align ourselves with those who think like us, look like us, and believe like us. Social scientist Brene Brown calls this a “high lonesome culture.” One in which we are the most sorted that we’ve ever been. Most of us no longer hang out with people that disagree with us politically or ideologically. The sad part of this type of “belonging” is that the commonality we share with “our people” we have sorted ourselves to is we all hate the same people or things rather than being joined together on the basis of mutual respect and acceptance.  Brene Brown calls this “common enemy intimacy.”

The thing about “common enemy intimacy” is it negates the self. We are no longer drawn to each other by the one qualities of our personhood –  it doesn’t matter who you are but what you agree or disagree with. No wonder loneliness is pervasive! We have lost what it means to be in relationship with one another. We no longer need to adapt to or accept each other’s imperfections to find community. Instead, we move on in search of those who bear our more perfect likeness.  Father Adolfo Nicolas, the former head of the Jesuits (the pope’s religious order) termed our present state as the globalization of superficiality — an “emerging era marked by extreme anomie and the deterioration of human relationships through technological advancement and materialism.”

Today, we can block out the cacophony of the world by losing ourselves in the addictive blue screens of our phones and we can skim and scroll through our choice of “news”- that which affirms our ideology and confirms our rightness and righteousness.  In turn, our perception of others remains shallow and we can keep a safe distance from the burdens and brokenness of the world.

Today, we can foster superficial, pseudo, and incomplete relationships by “friending” mere acquaintances or total strangers on social media and then — when necessary — “unfriend” real friends without the hard work that goes into forming lasting and real relationships through encountering, confronting and reconciling. What we have come to accept as belonging is really just fitting in. Fitting in is less risky –  you choose who you want to align yourself with without running the risk of revealing and being judged by who you are – the real you with all your strengths and imperfections. We no longer need to be vulnerable to amass a community we just have to be strong and set in our similar ways.

What if this pervasive loneliness is driven in part by our lack of vulnerability and authenticity? Have you ever been surrounded by people at a party or out and about but feel completely disconnected, lonely, or anxious, because never once during that experience did you feel like you could be yourself? Instead, you were who you thought others wanted you to be. You put on a face that masked your true feelings and your fears. These connections do nothing to satisfy the innate desire to belong to someone – for someone to want us for who we are. As Brene Brown states – “Your sense of true belonging will never be greater than your willingness to be brave and stand by yourself.”

As I was sitting in church this past Ash Wednesday – I was contemplating what it meant to belong. To be a part of something that was bigger than myself while at the same time being accepted and wanted just as I am – real, imperfect, somewhat stubborn, determined, shy, lonesome, life-loving, childish at times, frequently forgetful, sometimes impatient, often in a hurry, occasionally late, full of myself at times, compassionate, wanting to love, wanting to be loved, fearful of change, hopeful for tomorrow, challenged by my past… the list goes on.  Aw, if only I could find someone who wanted me with that laundry list of qualities!

By some perfect measure, this year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day. The coincidence was not lost on me. As I thought about my 40-day Lenten journey to the cross –   the greatest act of love -where Christ died for our sins and freed us from our no-win human struggle for unachievable perfection – perfect love, perfect acts, perfect penance, perfect lives – and on to His resurrection with the promise of new life in the baptismal waters of Easter –  it donned on me that this is where belonging is born –  if we are up for the journey.

Talk about becoming vulnerable! As people of all different ways and ways of thinking we willingly stepped forward from the pews to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads as the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” were spoken. The ritual reminds  us of our common mortality and symbolizes God’s judgement upon us –  a rebellious creation and our sinful need for repentance.  Smudged with blackened ash as a sign of the divine love God has for us – a love that is depicted in a gruesome death and a new life because of that death – at once, there I was, inextricably connected to these likewise fallible and broken people by something greater than all of us. And that thing that is greater than us is rooted in love and compassion. It is a love so great and so deep that it is willing to suffer and die for another.

The traditional gospel reading for Ash Wednesday is Mathew 6:1-6, 16-21. Jesus instructs his followers in the manner of giving alms, praying and fasting: if done with the goal of gaining the attention or approval of one’s peers, that attention is your reward. There is, in other words, no spiritual value to the practice, if it only feeds your desire and need to “be seen” by your neighbors – kind of like that artificial self we share with others to fit in with “our people.” Rather, such practices should flow from a devotion to God that is expressed through caring for our neighbor, praying, and disciplining ourselves with fasting – attuned to our failings and in humble repentance for our sins – being authentic and selflessly driven. When this happens, we are seen by God and in this way rewarded. The text repeatedly talks of the Father seeing you.

Who doesn’t want to be seen –  to belong? Imagine a type of belonging born out of mutual love for one another! Rather than acting in ways we think will win approval from our peers, or make us appear more righteous, we must act out of genuine devotion to one another. Nowhere in Matthew’s gospel does it say that it is wrong to want to be seen by others, to matter to someone, to be noticed for who we are and be counted as worthy but Jesus urges us to look to God, the one who is not impressed by outward righteousness but sees even the hidden and broken places of our heart to fulfill those desires.

God sees us for who we are.  God notices us in all we do. In the waters of our baptism, God claims us as His own. What a wonderful sense of belonging that inspires! Belonging of the truest, richest kind! The Lenten journey to the cross – the greatest act of love – is one in which we can learn how to love again and find true belonging.  Over the next 40 days I will realign my life to one rooted in the authentic assurance of my relationship with God – not hoping to achieve the approval of others but trusting that God’s approval has already been given. With that confidence I can offer my life as testimony to the One who gives me worth and dignity in the first place and let my light and love shine on others so that they too may know what it means to belong.

Let your light so shine!

Who is Your Master?

Matthew 25:14-30, Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, Psalm 90:1-12, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father!

I love to read obituaries, much more than write them mind you. I often find myself skimming past the headlines of the day but once I get to the obituary page, I read them word for word. It is the only time, that I know of at least, that the dash takes center stage – the life in between the numbers. I know what an impact the dash can make. Seeing the dash on my family’s headstone with both of my parent’s birth – dash – death years is one thing. Seeing my name with my birth date – dash – (blank) is a rather unsettling experience! But I digress…

0505171400bObituaries can move me, leave me awestruck, and inspire me. The really good ones cause me to reflect on what I have done with the dash in my life. They don’t dwell so much on one’s scholarly or professional achievements, though certainly worthy of mention, but where those achievements led the person and the impact that person had outside of themselves during their dash. We get to learn about what is really important in life and we get to laugh at the humorous side of our humanity.

I have noted two commonalities among most obituaries: they often recount a person’s relationship with God and they rarely list one’s fears. For good reason. With God, our lives are lived with anticipation whereas fear negates the talents we are given – the opportunities and the possibilities God entrusts to us. Fear can have a very powerful role in the direction of our lives. We see that play out in today’s Gospel. Imagine if you will:

Jesus was going on a journey, one that he knew he would be on for quite some time.  He called a few of his followers to him and entrusted some very valuable treasures to them. To one, named Martin, he gave stories; to another named Paul he gave compassion; and to a third, John Doe, he gave the bread of life and the cup of salvation. These treasures were of incredible value – he deemed each of them of equal importance even though the weight and substance of each differed.  Then Jesus went away.

Martin took those stories and studied them and wrote them out so the stories could easily be read and shared. While a little unsure of where Jesus was leading him, he knew his guide well. His Lord, had been a dwelling place for all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever he had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting He was God. That He had entrusted Martin with stories filled Martin with joy as he set to work. Soon there were five more followers of Jesus reading and sharing those stories and those stories are still being read and shared today.

Reflecting often on his mangled past, Paul couldn’t believe Jesus had entrusted him with compassion – him of all people! And yet, Paul, acknowledging Jesus’ decisive impact on his life, changed his name from Saul to Paul and relinquished his life to him. The freedom he found in trusting Jesus fueled him with a drive that couldn’t be stopped. He took the compassion and traveled all over the region offering compassion to all who would hear and open their hearts to him. The first two who opened their hearts shared the compassion with another 2 and so on and so forth. Soon all across the world many were receiving and giving compassion in the name of Jesus.

But John Doe, who had been given the bread of life and the cup of salvation, dug a hole

in the ground and buried them because he believed the Lord would plunder his wealth and lay his house to waste. He was afraid— afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what Jesus would do to him if he didn’t get it right, and because he had no idea what might happen to him if he shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others. There were so many unknowns! People might expect him to do more than he thought he was capable of! Surely, all would be better if he just stored the bread and cup until Jesus got back. Besides, John Doe thought, he was a much better farmer than an evangelist.

Finally, back from his journey – no worse for the wear – Jesus stopped by each of his follower’s homes and asked them what they had done with the treasures he had given to them.

The first two followers offered Jesus some coffee and cookies and told him about how the stories were now in book form and in their millionth copy! They told him how the compassion had grown and was now administered not only on the streets but in buildings called churches. They introduced so Jesus to some of his new followers and the new followers in turn introduced Jesus to their friends and families.

Jesus was very pleased.  He thanked each of them for their wonderful hospitality and told them, “Well done, good and trustworthy followers! You have been trustworthy in a few things, now I will trust you with many things. Enter into my joy!”

Martin and Paul and all Jesus’ followers, now called brothers and sisters in Christ, went about their lives with the joy and freedom knowing Jesus brought them. For all those who have the Good News, even more will be given to them. Gone was their need to control and worry about everything, for Jesus showed them that He was their true Master, who, with grace and mercy, would lead them through life’s ups and downs and welcome them home at the end of their days.

Then it was John Doe’s turn. After a long hot day working in the field harvesting his pea crop, he was slow to answer the door when Jesus knocked.  “Hello J.D.,” Jesus greeted him, as he looked over his shoulder at an empty room accept for a Lazy-boy recliner and a radio blaring some hotheaded advice guru. “I’ve come to review your work. May I come in?”

“Geez, Jesus, now? Can’t you see your interrupting…”

“J.D., please, it is time. Let’s talk.”

John Doe stepped aside and let Jesus into his house. He felt a bit nervous – no make that terrified – worse than when he was first given the bread and the cup. But Jesus just stood there and waited patiently until John Doe cracked.

“Jesus, I knew you were a harsh man. I knew you reaped where you didn’t sow and gathered where you didn’t scatter seed. I don’t much care for people who trespass on my property.”

Jesus raised an eyebrow.

John Doe’s reddened face paled. He continued. “Alright Jesus, I was afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what you would do to me if I didn’t get it right. Besides, I had crops to tend to. With no idea of what might happen to me if I shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others, I just couldn’t bet the farm.”

Jesus stopped him mid breath. “JD, I think you’ve misread me. Of course, I reap where I don’t sow! I give you free will to live your life as you will and sometimes I get really lucky when someone gets a brilliant idea – like your friend Martin did with that printing press! Boy, I never saw that coming! But I entrusted you with a few tasks I thought you would be perfect for. I guess you didn’t see what I saw in you.”

John Doe continued in his protest, “But there were so many unknowns! People might have expected me to give more of my time than I was able! So, I thought, surely all would be better if I just stored the bread and cup until you got back. Besides, I am no evangelist.”

And that could have been the opening line to John Doe’s obituary and the engraving on his headstone. There would be no dates with a dash in between. What would anyone want to remember him for? After their conversation, John Doe gave the bread and cup back to Jesus. Condemning himself to a place of darkness rather than risk the unknowns, he turned Jesus away. Feeling what was left of his poor sham of a life suck out of him, he wanted to stop living – after all what was the point? He did the same thing over and over again and look where it got him. Nowhere.  Standing in the darkness of his empty living room he ground his teeth so badly he felt a filling fall out.

That is what happens when you let fear be your Master. Indeed, we all have times of anxiety — times filled with worries over the direction our culture is drifting or concerns for our children, our marriages, our businesses, our finances, our personal health and well-being. Whether it is fear of losing control  – so you live your life so tightly shut that no one can venture in and you cannot get out, fear of being alone or standing alone in your beliefs, fear of not measuring up, or fear of the unknown – staying well within your comfort zone, walled off from the risks of new opportunities and possibilities – nothing Godly or goodly can come from fear.

Fear limits us. But our fear cannot limit God, nor can it limit what God wants for us.

John Doe walked to the sink, spit the metal out of his mouth and went to bed. After a restless night with little sleep there was a knock at the door. “Now who could that be? Why won’t people leave me alone?” he muttered as he passed by the empty mail catch and phone that never rang.

He opened the door and a radiance shown into his dreary space and forlorn face.

“Jesus! You came back!”

“I just couldn’t let it go – you saying I was a harsh man.” Jesus looked at John Doe. He looked pretty scruffy and what was going on in that mouth of his? Could it be he wasn’t frowning quite so much?  “You’ve had a long night. What do you say we go get some of this bread of life and a good swig from the cup of salvation? It really is far more appetizing than you think, and I know just the place.”

Jesus put his hand on John Doe’s shoulder – he felt the tension release and the strength he once saw in him come back.  John Doe closed the door to his emptiness and headed down the road to this place Jesus had heard about from Paul.

“You say they call this a church?”

“Yup,” said Jesus. “It’s full of people just like you – I was kind of surprised, but then not so much as it is kind of hard to surprise me. There are people in there just as fearful as you. Life isn’t easy, I know.  There are people inside who see me as harsh and full of judgment, easy to ire, impatient, and kind of surly and so they go to this place because they think they have to. And then – then there are those inside who have fully embraced the new me – loving and kind, patient and enduring – I like to think I’m their Great Protector – of course, I am, to all of them.”

On the way they pass by a few who see Jesus as someone who will not do good or do harm – Jesus shook his head, “They think I’m a willy nilly – to them I’m some old man from ages past who doesn’t much impact their day to day lives. Do you know how that makes me feel? After all I’ve given? But enough about me, we should welcome them.”

John Doe and Jesus went inside the church and found themselves surrounded by children of the light – clothed in their Sunday best – faith, love and hope. And they heard the story of a God who loves us so much that that he came in the person of Jesus to experience our lives first hand, to share our hopes and dreams, and our fears and failures. A God who does not want the time between our numbers to be spent in fear. A God who wanted working knowledge of our trials and tribulations and to see just how amazing His creation turned out to be. A God who entrusted us with stewarding his amazing creation for our joy and our fulfillment.  A God who fell so in love with us that He died for us on the cross, so that we could be freed of our sins, and live our lives abundantly – without fear.

John Doe felt his fears melt away. He realized his life was not his alone to live – his life belonged to God – the One who gave his own, so that he, John Doe, might live fully –  and by golly, live it fully he would! Surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters – the body of Christ-  who would continue to hold him and each other in love, encouraging and building one another up in their various pursuits, until the day of Our Lord comes again.

Amen.

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.

Overwhelmed by Love

13147272_1204040166287246_6929792025810359721_o “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” — Rumi

I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have started to write this piece only to delete everything (computers are an amazing writing tool!), walk away, and endeavor to try again when courage is restored. I feel completely inept to write about a subject I have avoided to address in my life for far too long out of a keen desire for self-preservation, feelings that I am not worthy of it, and my tendency toward perfectionism that sways me away from things I know I will ultimately fail at or be rejected by. For certain, it is not out of delight that I feel called to write about LOVE.

While I may not be very good at it, I do not shy away from loving deeply. To be honest, I find it hard not to love everyone. Sharing life with people brings great joy to my heart and things that bring joy are easy to love. But love is about more than sharing life with people. Love is about risk and pain as much as it is about trust and joy.  In the aftermath of a broken heart, the death of my dog, followed by the death of my mother, the very real risks and pains of love made me rethink how much love I could let in to my life anymore. Closing the door on love seemed like a good decision but doing so left a lot of room in my life to fill.  I filled that void with busyness, commitments, complicated scheduling, and mindless wandering where I swore to myself that I would never again allow myself to love too much, too deeply, or too easily – because too much love guaranteed too much hurt when that love was lost.

But fear is not in my nature and not something I take kindly to, especially when it threatens to surpass joy. By closing the door on love, I was closing the door on joy.

summit climbHenri J Nouwen, a Catholic priest and one of the most insightful theologians I have ever come across, encourages us to love deeply and to feel the pain that deep love can cause because the pain that comes from deep love makes your love ever more fruitful. “It is like a plow that breaks the ground to allow the seed to take root and grow into a strong plant.” In his book, The Inner Voice of Love, he goes on to say: “Every time you experience the pain of rejection, absence, or death, you are faced with a choice. You can become bitter and decide not to love again, or you can stand straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds.”

My fear of failure, rejection, and being hurt has no root in the soil that grows love. The Bible tells us this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18) I will never reach a state of perfection in love because there is only one perfect love, and that love has already been freely given to me (and you) by our Lord. By accepting this as truth, His perfect love cast out my fear and changed my heart from one that avoided love to one that wants to know how to love like the Lord loves.  No more will I let my fear of rejection by others become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For the more I fear rejection by others, the more likely my actions towards others will cause them to reject me.

“The giving of love is an education in itself.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

I write this with a heart that has been overwhelmed by love.  I am ashamed at how selfish my understanding of love was. I have always marveled at the charity of others-  those good souls who give so freely of their hearts and of their lives towards the needs and betterment of others. I never felt qualified and sadly, I told myself I was too busy.  Besides, what could I give that someone else couldn’t provide better than I? Once again, I let my fear of failure keep me from loving others. Now, as my family has been humbled by the graciousness of neighbors and church friends who have given their time and hearts in love to my father as he battled and now recovers from cancer and who have extended their love to me, I understand that there is no measurement for the right way to love.  The only right way to love is to simply do it. Make time for it. Sacrifice for it.

C.S. Lewis believed that those who fear direct their focus inward and worry about what will happen to them if they fail or are rejected. Those who love direct their focus outward towards caring more for others than themselves. The more you look outward the less time you have to dwell on your fears.  Martin Luther called the love of neighbor the highest and most important form of love aside from loving God. He went as far to say that those who do not love their neighbor could not love God. Luther believed that to know God was to understand that He is nothing but an active and self-giving love. Therefore, if you do not have faith in God, or do not love God through faith, you will not be able to do any truly good deeds.  While Luther believed we are saved by grace and not by works, this does not lessen God’s greatest commandment to us – to love one another as He loved us. Luther calls us to act in love, to be reflections of Christ in the lives of others.

Still, works of love take courage. Works of love make us vulnerable but maybe that vulnerability in the end makes us stronger, our lives fuller, and our hearts happier. C.S. Lewis wrote that the only place outside heaven where you will be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. Have you ever noticed how full of joy and full of life those who love through their works are? They have brought a small part of His kingdom down to earth and are blessed to live in it.

Nouwen sums this up nicely: “The more you have loved and have allowed yourself to suffer because of your love, the more you will be able to let your heart grow wider and deeper. When your love is truly giving and receiving, those whom you love will not leave your heart even when they depart from you. They will become part of yourself and thus gradually build a community within you. Those you have deeply loved become part of you. The longer you live, there will always be more people to be loved by you and to become part of your inner community. The wider your inner community becomes, the more easily you will recognize your own brothers and sisters in the strangers around you. Those who are alive within you will recognize those who are alive around you. The wider the community of your heart, the wider the community around you. Thus, the pain of rejection, absence, and death can become fruitful. Yes, as you love deeply the ground of your heart will be broken more and more, but you will rejoice in the abundance of the fruit it will bear.”

12657168_1145106078847322_6415618807933147334_oThis Valentine’s Day marked one year since I last saw my mother alive. She did not like me to take risks in life – she wanted to protect me from being hurt. This was a constant source of frustration between the two of us. The love a mother has for her daughter is something I will never personally know but I do know how very much this daughter loved her mother. That I said goodbye to her on Valentine’s Day holds a far greater significance in my heart than I ever dreamed it would as we parted that last time. In honor of her love, I am going to go take a big risk and start loving deeply again – in new, fruitful, active ways. That will mean I will have to sacrifice some of that “busyness” I used to fill the void when I closed the door on love but I am okay with that. If you are living in fear rather than love, I invite you to  have courage and join me. I expect we will be overwhelmed by love as we do love and maybe, just maybe walk in His perfect ways in a small part of His kingdom here on earth.

Let your light so shine!

10623748_840596969298236_8600439258773463266_o

 

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

12247762_1169091306448799_8649917963243347013_o

 

How Much More, Lord, How Much More?

20160716_060207“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79

How much more, Lord, how much more? It was a question I found myself asking as I said goodbye to my Dad following our nightly phone conversation as I walked away the cares of the day. I had called to tell him about my latest auto-mechanic adventure and the unexpected bill I was facing to replace wheel bearings and rotors. Expecting him to commiserate with me, I was instead stopped dead in my tracks as I heard him wearily exclaim, “well, I think I can top that.” Curious as to why his brand new sizzling red GMC Terrain – the first brand new car he has bought since I was in first grade- would be causing problems- I could not believe the words I heard next. “I wrecked…”

My dear old Dad was finally on his way to Costco to begin the process of getting hearing aids – something my brother and I have been trying to get him to do for years – when in the middle of a lane change on the busiest street in Billings he somehow collided with an unknown number of cars, flipped and rolled his own – landing upside down, surrounded by airbags and trapped. To say I was aghast is an understatement. The fact that he was home and talking to me after the fact is even more startling. After emergency responders cut him from the vehicle he was taken to the ER for treatment of severe cuts and bruises and to be assessed for any damage to his defibrillator that keeps his ticker ticking.

After assuring me he was alright, he said an early good night and I broke down in tears – tears of relief, of emotional exhaustion and absent daughter guilt, and finally tears of defeat because I knew I would never get my Dad to get his hearing checked again. My thoughts then turned to my brother who has borne the weight of the family crises this year much more so than I have. He too must be exhausted – walking through my Mom’s end of life deterioration and death, followed by my Dad’s lymphatic cancer diagnosis and the multiple trips to the hospital this entailed, and now this- getting a call from a police officer while at work informing him that his father was taken to the ER following a serious car wreck – the same wild wreck his colleagues were talking about seeing when they came back from lunch.

How much more, Lord, how much more? If the cliché- ridden statement that the Lord will never give us more than we can bear holds any truth, I am not sure how much more of the Lord’s whims I can sanely handle.13177480_1208998692458060_8651611342329675533_nMeanwhile, the world around us seems to be growing darker and darker as international terrorists wage war on our sense of security and humanity, homegrown hate and division is running rampant through our cities, towns, and social media pages – spurring on acts of violence on par with the atrocities committed by the terrorists who threaten us from “afar.” Even our political candidates seem to be washed in a dirty gray hue of filth rather than the red, white, and blue shades of greatness and hope characterized by past election years.

How much more, Lord, how much more? Locally, my community has been rocked by the closure of a manufacturing plant leading to the loss of hundreds of good paying jobs and destabilizing the lives of numerous families; and the tragic deaths of two vibrant young men – pillars of the community and incredible models of goodness gone before their work on earth was done.

How much more, Lord, how much more? Within my own circle of friends, I know of family trauma and betrayal, as well as families enduring battles similar to my own against the ravages of cancer, dementia, addiction, or simply struggling to make ends meet.

Even the weather has been unduly harsh across the board-  battering communities with hail, tornadoes, floods, and fire. Indeed, it feels like a very heavy dark cloud is hovering over all of humanity – raining darkness on our parade of life. Weariness seems to be a common trait shared by those who go through the motions of living, but have become numb to news of the latest unrest of the day.

Sadly, for some, too battle weary with no end in sight, keeping-on doesn’t seem possible.  The struggle between darkness and light ends in the silence of a never-ending night; leaving others behind to pick up the pieces in the chaos and darkness, to keep on keeping on – amid shattered lives.

How much more, Lord, how much more?

God has yet to answer my persistent questioning of how much more. I wish He would. I like to be prepared for the adventures I go on in life; but lately, He has managed to seriously alter the courses of my travels with little thought to my need for a sense of control or even a schedule. Heck, He hasn’t even let me escape to the mountains once this hiking season without drenching me in “blessed” water and hail from above.

Frankly, all this darkness has made me a bit cranky and recently I have become aware of negativity seeping into my nature, a quality that for most of my life – despite my trials – has been absent. I wonder if others sense this, and I am ashamed if they do. And yet, the fact that I am aware of it gives me hope – yes, hope that this is not what God wants for me to know – this darkness that seems to have permeated our daily life.

Rather, He wants me to grow in confidence born from the keeping on of keeping on each day – growing through the struggles and pain so that I find myself and those walking a similar path still standing but changed – matured, sharpened, softened, more inclined to His will, rather than mine. He wants us to see the garden instead of the weeds. With each day of growth, He makes more apparent the blossoms of goodness growing around us in the company of each other rather than the thorns of a turbulent world that we have no control over and that tear our hearts.

How do I know this? While I may not know How much more, Lord, how much more, I can see His promise in each new dawn – even those clouded over with rain. In each new morning that I wake to keep on keeping on He shines a little brighter and I feel a little stronger, even through the clouds. He reminds me of goodness in the morning melodies of our tiniest neighbors from on high – bird songs overcoming the night, and in the friendly waves of other early morning meanderers, who like me are just keeping on keeping on as best they know how – a shared continuity of struggle and growth that comes with the living of each day.

And perhaps, there you have the answer to the question of “How much more, Lord, how much more?” Until the day when we can look at each other with eyes softened by darkness and only see the wonder of His light.

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance;  and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”                           ~ James 1: 2-4

Let your light so shine.

20160606_055758

I Got By with a Little Help from my Friends

“Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

– Albert Camus

13147272_1204040166287246_6929792025810359721_oWe are meant to live in companionship with others. Nothing brings that truth to light more clearly than when we lose someone important to us, whether through death or the parting of ways.

After the initial shock and ensuing chaos in the days following my mother’s passing began to subside, my life took a serious turn into darkness. Not only was I dealing with the grief over losing my mother, I also had to come to terms with the ending of another relationship, and the loneliness that comes with losses such as these. At times, it felt as though my light had been permanently extinguished – the darkness reigned so heavily inside me I nearly suffocated from it weight. When life takes a downturn, it often seems like troubles just don’t stop coming and I certainly met with a few of them. In exasperation, I asked God if He was there and just what was He trying to prove?

13177480_1208998692458060_8651611342329675533_nThen came the flickers. Flickers of light began to reveal themselves to me, in moments when hope seemed impossible.

While I hate to think that God dabbles on Facebook, one Sunday morning a post appeared that hit me square between the eyes, it even used Snoopy as the messenger – my lifetime friend and companion. Charlie Brown thoughtfully tells Snoopy that “someday we will all die” and Snoopy replies “True but on all the other days we will not.”

13102770_1203499563007973_82552980296012255_n

As I headed out for my Sunday morning run I reflected on Snoopy’s message. I fought the heavy loneliness in my heart as I continued with my own thoughts, “And those who haven’t died are left to wander in the world just a little more alone by those who have gone before us.” That heart aching feeling of being alone had hung on my spirit for weeks and I had not been able to break free from it – despite my unwavering faith. Faith is great but it is sometimes quite the battle when pitted against the stark realities of life. But Snoopy was telling me to snap out of it – to get out and start living again.

As if on cue, my pastor’s sermon that morning reminded me that though I may feel alone, the Holy Spirit abides with me and in Him I can find peace. I so desperately wanted that! He reminded us that when two or three are gathered in His name, that is where we will find God. We will find the Holy Spirit alive in the lives of those around us. He works through the hands and hearts of those we walk among. As one who likes to believe that I can do this life thing on my own – I was starting to come to the humbling realization that no, I could not. And believe it or not, I am not expected to and neither are you!

Despite hearing the words, I still battled a bit of shame perhaps? That I really needed to talk to someone- and yet I didn’t want to burden anyone with my issues. And yet people were there for me. I had seen them in action and had proof for my psyche in the numerous thank you’s I had written. I had collected quite a list of people whose kindnesses eased the pain of my mother’s death and frankly the numbers were daunting.

As I pondered the goodness of others the heaviness of sorrow began to lift. In turn, I realized how important it is to reach out to others when they are facing sorrow or are in pain. I am eternally grateful for those who took a small amount of time to reach out to me – as their seemingly small (to them) gesture brought glimmers of light into my life again.

I re-read the sympathy cards and marveled at how wonderful the written word is at touching our hearts. Even those that said they didn’t know what to say spoke volumes as they shared a story about my Mom.

Getting back into the daily rigors of life illuminated the good things surrounding me and I found myself appreciating if not standing in awe of even the simplest things – a sunrise, a friendly smile at the post office, a great song on the radio, a turtle following my path. People I thought of as just acquaintances revealed themselves as bearers of hope with a phone call, a coffee shared together, an unexpected hug.

I realized that although I surround myself with people by singing in multiple choirs, attending church functions, volunteering for the symphonies and venturing into the mountains with like-minded mountain goats, I wasn’t very good at letting people into my life – allowing myself to be vulnerable. There were plenty of people out there that wanted into my life – if only I would let them in.

Then the flicker flamed.

On a particular difficult evening, I found myself walking with tears being my steady companion. I had a question for a fellow choir member and decided to send her a text message. By accident I hit the call button and to my horror the phone began to ring and she answered it! I was caught live in a moment of despair. I couldn’t hang up on her so I gulped and actually talked to her… apologizing for interrupting her evening. I was astounded when she replied that no I wasn’t interrupting her. Actually, she was dealing with severe pain of her own and really needed to talk to someone too.

90- some minutes later we were both laughing… a huge weight had been lifted from both of our spirits. I thanked her for sharing her time with me and she thanked me for helping her get through a rough evening and she actually felt like getting up and taking a walk! We had borne each other’s burdens for a while and my goodness it felt good to rest! Rest in the caring arms of someone else. We both felt so much better having opened up to each other.

“Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief.”

-Joseph Addison

Doctors realize this too. Numerous studies have been done over the last few decades that show social support and good health are connected. One study of cancer patients showed that those who had a good network of social support had much lower levels of a protein linked to more aggressive cancers which made their chemotherapy treatments more effective. Other cancer patient studies show that those with a good support group live longer and feel less pain than those lacking a social network. The Mayo Clinic identifies maintaining friendships as a key component of wellness. Friendships increase your sense of belonging and purpose; boost your happiness and reduce your stress; improve your self-confidence and self-worth; help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one; and provide encouragement to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits.

Making friends and maintaining those friendships is not always easy. It requires work and sacrifice from both parties but the payoffs are huge.

13115995_1206885849336011_8875907049387650549_o

I know that by leaning on others during the past few weeks I have regained my strength. I know that by helping others carry their burdens, my own seem lighter. My world seems less small and I feel a greater sense of responsibility to live well and help others do the same.

I won’t say that darkness has been completely obliterated from my life by a bonfire of buddies, but those buddies have become flickers of brilliant light when I am having a hard time finding my way. I feel less alone, even on days spent on my own and I feel much more alive when I have been able share a friend’s burden.

Yes, we are meant to be in companionship with others. If you need a spark, a flicker, or a flame in your life, shine the light of friendship into someone else’s darkness and you just might find yourself dancing in the light again.

Let your light so shine.

13177241_1210608838963712_7993545290641545397_n

January 1, 2016 Choosing to Dance in the Light

20160101_103026“I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my Guide.”

~ Martin Luther

As the New Year dawns, I like to review what my goals for the passing year were and luckily, as a writer I have all of those hopes of yesteryear at my fingertips.  January 2015 marked the continuation of a major change in the life of one Erika Morck. Despite seeming to have it all: a great job, new friends, plenty of singing opportunities, and scores of mountain adventures my life seemed out of balance. So I resolved to put the SPRIF model for living back into practice, giving proper attention to the Spiritual, Physical, Relational, Intellectual, and Financial aspects of my life and making some intentional changes in areas that needed some work.

“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”

~ Proverbs 16:9

Looking back at the excitement I felt as I met the year ahead made me smile, with just a touch of melancholy in my heart. Oh such plans I had in store for the year to come!

I am happy to say that I found a wonderful new faith community in which to worship and find myself becoming more involved in the life of this church. I look forward to the many opportunities it offers me for the serving others part of my faith I wanted to work on. My faith and my faith community are my backbone. I am feeling much more complete spiritually now.

In terms of balancing out my physical life – that remains a work in progress- but then it always should be! I was recently told that “The word going round is that you’re a finely tuned athlete,” which I must say has been my aim all along. I still need more sleep, because even though I believe we will get enough sleep when we are dead, living life to its fullest does require periods of restoration.

In terms of focusing on myself and not losing sight of my own goals and objectives, I failed miserably up until I was forced into solitary at the end of the year, but that does not go without saying I am not learning as I go. The relationships I have with others in my life remain far too valuable to me to devote less time to maintaining and growing them than spending too much time reflecting on myself. I know that sounds like a cop-out on my intentions, but I have learned this year that connection with others is vital to my spiritual and mental health.

I am pleased to say that I have indeed spent more time reading good old fashioned books this year and renewed my love affair with the written word. I have also expanded my repertoire of subjects that I read THANKS TO and not in spite of online media – from political and religious thought to science, health and historical genres. I have also fulfilled my goal of writing my own blog… a long held aspiration that I finally saw come to fruition.

Financially this has been a hard year for me, influenced by many outside factors. However, with hardship came learning opportunities in areas of budgeting I have never had to worry much about. So while buying a house may not be in the cards for me right now, I am still on my way and haven’t lost sight of that not-so-far-in-the-distance goal.

“Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.”

~Proverbs 19:21

If I have learned anything this past year it is that life happens outside of my plans – sometimes the happiest moments are those I never saw coming and yes, the hardest ones too. Nonetheless, no matter where my paths led me – from mountaintop celebrations to tear-filled goodbyes until heaven, my life was made richer, fuller, well-lived. Wisdom comes with the walk, and I have walked many a mile this year. I know God was with me every step of the way. I still have much to learn, but I am well-prepared for lessons yet to come.

 “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”  

~ C.S. Lewis

In deed, 2015 was a year of challenge and growth, of new lows weathered and new heights achieved, of monotony and adventure, of great sorrow and abounding hope, of renewed understanding of the importance of family and finding family with friends, and of most importance to me – a closer walk with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

As I look to the New Year I won’t be making any resolutions. Rather, I will be making a promise to myself.  Every day is filled with darkness and light, clouds and sun. We can choose to dwell in the shadows or dance in the light. My promise for 2016 is to find the sunshine even in the darkest of days. Wishing everyone a very happy 2016- one where you don’t have to look too hard to find the sun!

“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

~ Jeremiah 6:16

The Third Day of Advent

12308420_10153302419408775_5673143513246647896_n

courtesy: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Happy 3rd Day of Advent. I was baptized as a child of Christ at Trinity Lutheran Church in March 1971 while living in Rock Springs, WY. As a month old child I had no say in such matters of faith but I am grateful to my parents for giving me to God when they did. As I grew into my own, my church and my faith  evolved in the years since.Trinity. From Atonement Lutheran, Lord of Life Lutheran, Lutheran Church of the Master, Holy Shepherd Lutheran, Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, All Saints Episcopal, to where I worship now at Our Saviors Lutheran, each change brought me closer to God, more sure of His promise, and instilled in me the importance of having a community of faith. I don’t know where I would be in this world today without the support and love I found in all of my church families at every stage of my life. Through their examples of faith I witnessed God at work during good and bad times. I saw trust where trust would not be found without God. God worked through the special people He brought into my life to help me along my wayward path in life.

Let your light so shine  – just as His light shines in the darkness.