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.

 

The Gift of Courageous Vulnerability

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”  ― Brené Brown

“Listen to me!” we demand.

“Why won’t you listen to me?” we cry out.

“Now listen here, cowboy.” We reply with defensive offense.

We all want to be listened to. As I wrote last month, listening is at the heart of all relationships. To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. The act of listening taps into a deeper essence of being one with another – you share a oneness that precludes backgrounds, religions, cultures and class. In that moment all you are doing is receiving the essence of another, welcoming without judgement, the reality of their life. The act of listening leads to new understanding. It allows us to connect to each other at the heart level and discover common ground and new possibilities. It may even reveal opportunities for our own growth and inner healing.

Listening, really listening, is not a passive activity.  To be a good listener you need an inner strength and confidence to not need to prove yourself with wise declarations, witty statements, or surface level sympathy. An effective listener does not need to make her presence known other than to let the one being listened to know that she is ready to receive, to welcome, and accept what the other has to say. The good listener does not need to fill the silence with platitudes or hear his own voice. The good listener can and must simply share the silence and let the silence speak.

In short, being a good listener takes work. It can be an emotional exercise and a cathartic experience for both parties. It can also be a frustrating exercise.

Yes, we all want to be listened to, but are we cognizant of how what we are saying (or not saying) is being heard?

The act of listening requires someone else – the transmitter-  being willing to share –  to give of themselves – to be vulnerable – to be honest with themselves and their listener if they want the listener to understand what they are trying to express.

Do you cross your arms in defense while hoping your partner will take you into theirs? Are you feeling lonely and withdrawn but instead of sharing this you tell someone you don’t care for crowds? Do you hide your discomfort in a situation with laughter rather than stating you are uncomfortable with that kind of language or direction of the conversation? If you are feeling pain but instead express what seems to be joy, your listener cannot help but misread your conflicting messages or miss your need to be listened to in the first place.

If we want to be heard so badly, why do we struggle so to share? For one, it is scary! Readily letting down our walls of defense sets us up for hurt, humiliation, denunciation, and personal attack – at least that is what experience has taught us.  Secondly, being vulnerable, opening ourselves up – exposing our fears and frailties – is not a natural part of our societal customs. We are taught to be brave, to carry ourselves with esteem, to put on a good front, and make a good impression.

For myself, even though I came from a loving and supportive family – I was raised to not be a burden on others, to not let my troubles become a focus for anyone else. My brother and I were raised to be “good, solid kids” and as such, though life could be hard and even unfair at times, we faced our struggles on our own –  it built character. It wasn’t until much later in life, after most of my human “frailties” had been exposed in ways far more telling than any conversation could lay bare, that I found myself seeking someway to share what was really on my heart. The trouble was, I didn’t know how.  Fortunately, the church I attended at the time offered a course entitled “Non-Violent Communication.” Ironically, the class name was later changed to Compassionate Communication – because none of the attendees wanted to admit that they communicated violently or were recipients of violent communication! In truth, we were all victims of and participants in this form of “communication” and we were all hurting, badly, in the aftermath of communication gone bad.

Indeed, communication – both the acts of transmitting and listening – has incredible power – the power to heal and the power to maim. Those who haven’t been heard by others – especially those close to them – feel they have been invalidated, that their thoughts have no real worth, that their presence in others’ lives really doesn’t matter, that their troubles are inconsequential, and their goals lacking.

Likewise, those who demand to be heard but fail to be honest in their expression and  then cast offense or blame on those around them when they fail to read their mixed signals invite the exact opposite response to their need to be heard.

Communication can be a powerful force for good when done well and a powerful force for evil when done poorly or not at all. We all have the capacity to engage in violent communication – that which inflicts pain – and compassionate communication –  that which heals.   We are born with the tools to communicate but not the skills to use them. Thus, we learn as we go. The environment in which we learn to communicate will shape us and the nature of our relationships for life.

We all have been bruised by communication failures – some bruises naturally go much deeper than others. What each person brings to the dance of understanding is the great enigma of our past communication experiences. Learning to dance with one another to  music of the spoken and the understood heart is the secret to communicating with compassion.  It means having the courage to lay aside our need to be right as the listener and the courage to be vulnerable so that we can be lifted up and understood as the listened to. True strength is hidden in our mutual vulnerability.  To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. But there is another gift of equal value – that you the courageous vulnerable one can give the good listener – your trust. When both are given freely, you will find yourself in the sacred space of giving and receiving, the place where true healing and true relationship are found.

Let your light so shine.

The Immense Grace of Listening

“Knowing how to listen is an immense grace, it is a gift which we need to ask for and then make every effort to practice.”  – Pope Francis

As I was out running a few mornings ago, I found myself listening. Not to the latest news or my favorite podcast or even Vivaldi (truly some of the best music to run to – try it!). No, I found myself listening to the chorus of chickadees and sparrows breaking the silence of a snow blanketed earth with their morning songs. In that moment, I felt the icy grip of this long, dark winter loosen its bonds on my soul. I wondered if they knew I was listening to their melodies. I wondered if they were responding to my conversation with God. I wondered if they could ever know what a gift they had given me in the act of listening and being listened to. It reminded me of the deep conversation I had with a good friend the night before, one filled with honesty and pain, hope and laughter. As the sun peaked over the mountain top and warmed the frosted valley and my frostbit face, I had a spiritual awakening. I realized that I had been heard.

I know that God always hears my prayers, but at times I don’t always feel like He is listening to me. This time I did, and the feeling of being listened to, of being heard, of being accepted and not judged for my thoughts and insecurities did more for me than any vain attempt to fill the silence with bluster and avoid the uncomfortable intimacy of deep conversation. God’s voice is not always something we can hear or want to hear. His voice reveals to us our deepest truths about who we are – and though that may be painful we also hear that we are His.

At the heart of all relationships is the act of listening.  To be heard by someone close to us is an incredible gift – one that can heal the scars left by this imperfect world and bring us into communion with one another. To listen to someone is to tap into a deeper essence of being one with another – you share a oneness that precludes backgrounds, religions, cultures and class. For in that moment all you are doing is receiving the essence of who they are, welcoming without judgement, the reality of their life. The act of listening leads to new understanding. It allows us to connect to each other at the heart level and discover common ground and new possibilities. It may even reveal opportunities for our own growth and inner healing.

Indeed, the act of listening has incredible power. Anyone who feels they haven’t been listened to can give testimony to this. Those who haven’t been heard by others – especially those close to them –  feel they have been invalidated, that their thoughts have no real worth, that their presence in others’ lives really doesn’t matter, that their troubles are inconsequential, and their goals lacking. Indeed, listening can be a powerful force for good when done well and a powerful force for evil to take hold in someone’s life when done poorly or not at all.

I must admit, I am not the best listener. To be a good listener you need an inner strength and confidence to not need to prove yourself with wise declarations, witty statements, or surface level sympathy. An effective listener does not need to make her presence known other than to let the one who needs to be heard know that she is ready to receive, to welcome, and accept what one has to say. The good listener does not need to fill the silence with platitudes or hear her own voice. The good listener can and must simply share the silence and let the silence speak.

The late Roman Catholic priest Henry Nouwen describes the act of listening as spiritual hospitality. “Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”

Having experienced the healing power of being heard, I am intent on becoming a better listening presence in the lives of others. I think the world needs more listeners – those willing to engage in an exchange from the deepest level of our humanity. Perhaps if we really listened we might all feel more at home with others and ourselves, comforted and encouraged by the grace and peace of authentic relationship.

Listen and let your light so shine.

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!

Our “Brown Furniture” is Priceless

Back on its golden hinges
The gate of memory swings,
And my heart goes into the garden
And walks with the olden things.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox – “Memory’s Garden”

The task that loomed before me was daunting. Armed with the background reading I had done regarding what to do with “your parents’ stuff”, what your parent’s stuff is worth and spurred on by the slightly offensive title of one article that warned, “Sorry, Nobody Want’s your Parent’s Stuff,” I was determined to get the job of cleaning out my parents’ stuff done. But now, surrounded by the accoutrements that once decorated our life as a family, I was overwhelmed by how empty I felt inside.

All the things that made home “home” seemed at first to be just things on a list to be categorized as keep, sell, donate, or toss were now claiming a place in my emotions. The family pictures in the main hallway will forever document my brother’s and my youth. The end tables covered with golf and political magazines going back years recalled the Sunday afternoons on the golf course and dinner conversations on current affairs. The kitchen table etched with hours of homework into its mahogany top now sat covered with empty medicine bottles and stuffed medical folders. The living room furniture that was painstakingly chosen for its warm and inviting fabrics after hours of deliberation, that supported my family through many a holiday and warmed us after my mother’s funeral, certainly could not be considered worthless post mid-century “Brown Furniture” by the estate sale pros. The knickknacks Fred and I so proudly gave to our parents as gifts still held their prominence on windowsills, desk and dresser tops while others were tucked discreetly away in “special” drawers full of all kinds of special things.

16681786_1491067427584517_4990078830237632947_nThe book cases – oh goodness where would I begin with the bookcases filled with book collections from my parents’ college days some 60 years prior, Bible studies, agrarian philosophy, mysteries, western history, family history, religious history, Montana history, Viking history, geologic history – literally hundreds of books sometimes double stacked on shelves; many with personal inscriptions denoting the sentiments of the giver rendering them “unsalable” and others with momentos tucked between pages that would bring woe to us if they were lost when tossed into a bargain book bin. And this was just what I documented in the quick walk-through I made to refresh my memory of where everything was upon my return home.

All my course-of-action pre-planning that I did during the 7.5-hour drive to Billings for
the five-day regiment of claiming pieces of the past and clearing the rest for an estate sale went out the window into the dark and stormy night as I stood in the “emptiness” of the house.  With Mom gone and Dad moved into an assisted living home after a sudden spiral into severe Alzheimer’s related dementia, this once inviting (at least to me) home and its humble but comforting furnishings now felt lifeless. Even the sturdy hundred-year-old wall clock rescued from a barn fire in the 1930’s that ticked and chimed through the days of our lives was ticking out of synch.

I was encouraged to be ruthless in my endeavors by friends who have also been through this season of life. Faced with the reality of the tininess of my present living quarters and the vastness of things our house contained, I was determined to do my best. Surprisingly, my things were the easiest to part with. When I came across the footlocker that my mother had saved all my childhood fashions in, I spent an hour or so going from shock at how small I was as a first grader, to remembering the Hanes t-shirt with the butterfly iron-on I wore the entire summer of my 6th year after I wrecked my bike while wearing a Farrah Fawcett style angel top. My entire chest had to be wrapped in gauze all summer and cracked ribs prevented me from taking swimming lessons… My mother saved every dress, and during my tomboy years, the flannel shirts I wore for class pictures going through 7th grade. Yes, I saved a few choice pieces that my mom had sewn for me or were worn for special occasions, but the rest – too old to donate or sell – went in the trash. I am sure no little girl today would want to wear my rubber pants even with the lace on the back.

I spent many a summer afternoon and bedtime lost in the adventures of Nancy Drew. I could not wait to get my allowance and head to Walden Books to purchase my next adventure. The crack of the spine as I opened each story for the first time was thrilling. I still fancy myself a bit of a sleuth but my complete collection of hardback Nancy Drew books simply will not fit in my apartment and what good do those thrilling words of mystery do collecting dust on a shelf or being packed away in a box? Luckily, we have a darling little neighbor girl who has taken to my dad and loves to read. I am blessed to be able to pass my childhood (and to this day) joy of reading and adventures on to her.

This simple act of giving away a part of my childhood stirred in me emotions I was not expecting as it made me realize all the things I was saving for the daughter I would have someday had no value anymore. My life has turned out completely different than I or I am sure my parents – with everything they saved to pass down to our families –  had planned.  That particular someday will never come. The family line ends with me and my brother as neither of us have children.  This puts a whole new perspective on the value of our family “heirlooms.” Of course, we must hold on to them, mustn’t we? Some things have been in the family since before our parents’ time! But to be frank, what is the point? Our society is adopting a much more minimal, nomadic lifestyle. Collections of things are found in museums, not homes.

So yes, my collection of Precious Moments figurines will be sold. Hopefully someone will still buy them! And apparently, Fisher Price Barns, Dollhouses, and Parking Garages still have collector value so… maybe those will be worthy in the estate sale. Original Lincoln Logs anyone? My tin tea set with place settings for 6? Hmm… I’m afraid too many moms will have read about the hazards of tin to even touch that remnant – oh the hours I wiled away playing house, serving visitors, and opening restaurants!

By the time I made it through the thousands of dollars worth of Christmas décor (I kid you not!) nostalgia was turning into exasperated exhaustion. I decided it was not worth my time or sanity to test all the strings of lights and find their replacement bulbs which I know my mother saved yet I struggled to part with the ornaments of happiness encased in Rubbermaid bins.  No doubt about it, our family loved to celebrate Christmas and we did it in fine form! How do you sell or give away these things that we loved so much –  they belong to our family’s memories not someone else’s!

I spent 2 days searching for the prized collection of Bing and Grondahl Danish plates dating back to 1923 and have mysteriously disappeared in the crawl space but all I could find were tax documents and federal land plats.  After wrenching my back a few times lifting box after box of tax records dating to the 1960’s I was ready to scream. Honestly! My parents had moved 23 times throughout their marriage and they saved this but not the plates???

Now the cedar chest was another story. Safe within was a treasure trove of memories. Goodness, the things my mom saved – mittens from when I was 5, confetti from her wedding, her wedding dress, the patterns she used to sew her high school majorette uniforms and wedding dress, even the scraps from her wedding dress, and letters from her mother in-law tied lovingly with a ribbon… Going through her memories made me wish she could be with me as I sorted through all these things. How much more meaningful it would have been to share the stories behind instead of guessing why these heart items mattered to her.  Still, I love her even more now as I remembered this lesser known sentimental side of my mother. At this point, I realized I was going to need more than 5 days to do all this… and several boxes of Kleenex. I couldn’t be ruthless anymore. I realized we still have months to go before the house will be sold and more importantly, my dad is still with us. By the way, her wedding dress fit me perfectly!

Instead of slogging through the rest of my to-do list alone, I was able to bring Dad home for two afternoons and together we went through some of his things. Granted, I did not get very much done. We spent time going through photo albums dating back to the 1800’s. Surprisingly and a bit confoundingly, he could remember the names and events surrounding pictures from the 1930’s and even pictures of his grandparents and aunts and uncles in Norway and Denmark. We had a good laugh over a letter he wrote to his English teacher his senior year in high school not really apologizing for but doing his best to explain his bad behavior. This man who demanded straight-laced behavior in his kids wasn’t the squeaky-clean student we had presumed! We now have pictures to prove it!

I wept with pride as I read a letter written by a coworker upon his retirement after 40 years with the Bureau of Land Management, lauding his work ethic, philosophy on good government, professional but kind management style, and reinforcing how much his mentoring had meant to so many who continued on after him.  There are newspaper articles and more photo albums that will be gone through next time I am home, hopefully with Dad again.

Putting aside the schedule, one afternoon I just played the piano for my dad as he sat in his favorite chair. What becomes of the old upright Baldwin piano is much less important now than keeping the joy its music brought to our family over the years as my mother, brother and I played away live for him.

I realized that the things we hold on to do indeed tell our stories but the value of them lies only within our hearts. No price tag will ever adorn our memories. Time with those we love can never be bought or reclaimed.  The Bavarian china that sits in the cupboard awaiting a box will never have the same meaning in my home as it did when we all gathered for Thanksgiving around the table it graced. It could slip out of my hands and shatter in an instant but the memories will never be lost.

As I have shared my house clearing experience with my older friends, some have commented that they are not going to leave anything for their children to deal with. I can understand their well-meaning intentions, but I would caution them not to do this. The process of cleaning out and claiming pieces of our past is incredibly emotional and incredibly cathartic at the same time. Even the everyday items that made life livable like Sunbeam mixers, cookie sheets, Reynolds Wrap, outdated salad dressings, and crossword puzzle books remind us that life before illness, death, and grief took over really happened in this house. Some of the things I have touched and cried over will be let go and others will be kept.  Yes, it was emotionally exhausting at times but the process, even for just a moment, brought to a halt the chaos of the present day, the urgency of caretaking, the stress of not knowing what tomorrow holds for our family as I know it, and enabled me to pause and remember the times and trivialities that made life good for our family in the years leading to our present day.

If the storyline of our family does indeed end with my brother and I, I can be happy knowing the chapters of our lives were full and well documented. Whether or not the setting and accessories of our story sell at an estate sale matters little to me now.

 

 

Getting to the Heart of What Really Matters

Family. I wish I knew mine better.

Sometimes it takes extreme circumstances to awaken us to something we take for granted as just part of life. This entire year has been one of those extreme circumstances for me. Until I moved to Whitefish a little over three years ago, I had never lived away from my family. While my brother lived in other state for much of my adulthood, my parents, many of my aunts and uncles, and cousins were nearby if not just down the hall. Because of their close proximity, they more or less just became a part of my everyday life. Nothing special. NOTHING SPECIAL until they were gone.

Why does it take separation or loss to make things, and yes people, matter more to us?

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Me, Mom and Grandma Dyrud

I never had the chance to truly know my grandparents. My grandpas had passed away years before I was born and my grandmas died when I was still very young – at an age when my grandma’s few and far between visits meant candied orange slices and fun with dentures but not much more. It pains me to write that, but it is true! I was not old enough to truly appreciate the wealth of life that sprung from my Grandma Dyrud, my mother’s mother. I do remember fondly our visits to her lifetime home from marriage forward- a converted rail passenger car that housed a family of 10 in Conrad, MT. She was widowed by my grandfather, Adolph Dyrud, when my Mom was 17 and never remarried. She was content in her faith and the lives of her many children.  She was the bringer of orange slices and dentures. She prophetically announced during one of her last visits to our home in Rock Springs, WY that I, at the verbose age of 6, would be a pastor someday.

I visited my father’s mother in a nursing home in Plentywood, MT one time when I was all of 5 years old. Grandma Cummins had already succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s by that time and did not know me. We lived too far away to make more frequent visits. Much of what I know about Grandma Cummins – who was widowed by my Dad’s father, Frederick Dorph Morck (a good Dane!), when my Dad was 6 – comes from picture albums and a few stories about my Dad’s childhood. She was one of the few working women with children at that time. They also took in boarders to make ends meet. Then she met and married my Dad’s stepfather, Wilbur “Bill” Cummins – THE only border patrol agent for Sweetgrass County. My Dad had several older step-brothers and sisters I know nothing about – some from his Dad’s first wife who had passed away and others from his step father’s first wife who also had passed away. In those days, families that were far apart age and distance wise stayed that way in relationships as well.

My entire life I have envied those who knew their grandparents and actually had relationships with them as I feel somehow cheated out of my own history – not to mention the special love and bonding that grandparents seem to have with their grandchildren. I had and still have wonderful aunts and uncles who, perhaps realizing the void in my life left by the absence of grandparents, stepped in and filled my heart with pseudo-grandparent love as best they could.

When I moved from Billings to Whitefish – a place with virtually no family ties, I had the wind at my back. I couldn’t wait to live life on my own, to prove to the world that Miss Morck could stand alone and stand on her own two feet and remain upright – granted it would be much easier to do in Whitefish where the wind isn’t at a constant 30 mph breeze, but I digress. And yes, indeed, I proved it. But then the first and second Christmases that I couldn’t make it home hit home. And then illness after illness hit back home. And then Mom died. And then Dad got cancer. And I was here… Far away from it all.

Suddenly this busy, independent life of mine seemed to not matter so much. The chaos and callous of the world we get so wrapped up in didn’t matter so much. My life didn’t matter so much.

dscn6527And then this started to mean something to me…. This antiquity my dear Aunt Mary sent with me when I packed up my things and moved West. It had belonged to my Grandma Dyrud, sat in her cozy little kitchen, and at one time registered the temperature. Aunt Mary thought I might like it. I set it on the little ledge in my own cozy little kitchen and let it be. This pastoral picture-thermometer of Meadowbrook Dairy, a Voermans Bros. property with a phone number of 89Y situated on Voerman Road in Whitefish MT – the very same Voerman Road I have run on every single day since I moved here – suddenly mattered to me. How did Grandma come to have this? I wanted to know! Had she been to Whitefish? What was her life like after she left her family in MN to move to MT? How did she manage any time to herself with 10 kids in a railcar? How did she come to trust in her dear Lord Jesus so deeply that He was all she needed in her long life? What was my I want to know, and I will never be able to ask her. All I have now, is our own little connection made here on Voerman Road.

My mother. We lived together for so many years; she was just part of my everyday life, sometimes a very frustrating part of it, but also a very wonderful part of it. She was always there. I know about her life. But as I think of her now, I really never got to know her. I know she grew up in the Great Depression in a converted rail passenger car with 10 brothers and sisters, lost her Dad at 17,was the state champion majorette (that was a big deal in those days),  loved her summers as a nanny on Whitefish Lake and as a counselor at Flathead Bible camp, had a great time at the same college I went to, got into hot water a few times (doing things that I must never, ever, EVER do), met my Dad while teaching in Livingston, fell head over heels in love,  married him 6 months later, and the rest is history…. History that I never really took the time to talk to her about.

Oh, Mom, how did you manage to throw that baton, twirl, catch it and keep twirling it without breaking your nose? I would have been so sick with nerves!  How did you know that Dad was THE one other than his grin? What was your favorite date of all with him? How Picture1on earth did you manage to eat while buying all those shoes before you got married? Was your heart ever broken so deeply you were afraid to love again? What did it really feel like to become a Mom? When you were a little girl, what were you most proud of? Fearful of? How about that Trump??? OH! There are so many things I want to ask you!!  Why do we disagree so much? Mom, will you ever forgive me?

Our one deep connection – one she seemed to treasure in her last few weeks – was the fact that I now lived in Whitefish, a place where she found so much joy in being. She only came here one time to visit me. And that one time I was so busy – busy with a choir performance and busy worrying about what we would do for dinner since she was hard to please and didn’t like going out until she was out, and busy making everything right, and busy with life, that I did not take the time to talk or listen to her. Did the sunsets on the lake make her cry too?

And now she is gone. And, I will never be able to ask her.

It is a hard, aching lesson to learn- what matters. But when you do, you realize that your own life really does matter because you matter to the people who matter to you. It is one of those wonderful circular courses where each relation grows from the other over and over again. You find your life fuller and richer as you share in other’s lives and as your relationships deepen beyond the surface niceties.

This Thanksgiving, this girl that proved to her family she could stand very well on her own, thank you very much, is going home to get to the heart of what really matters. My Dad.

I have always been Daddy’s little girl and for a long time that was all that mattered. Now I want to know what really matters to him. I will ask him all kinds of questions that never get asked because we are too busy doing life. And my brother and sister in-law… well they better be prepared to be peppered as well. After the life-shaking events of this year, we need to have a nice long chat!

I encourage you to do the same with your family and friends as you gather to celebrate and give thanks for the blessings and challenges we have been given this year. Relish the TIME you have with them. Go ahead, talk politics and religion around the table (trust me, someday you will cherish their perspective), and ask that silly question you are just dying to know the answer to over a game of Scrabble. Tell them what gets your goat and ask them what keeps them up at night.  Take long, quiet walks and share your hearts, even in the silence. Ask for forgiveness. Forgive. Love.

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Family. The Heart of What Really Matters

Don’t let the heartache of the unspoken, the relationships that just touched the surface, and the letdown you feel after the chaos is over and the time together is lost be your lesson about what really matters. Cherish those moments of connection. Find the treasures in their hearts and take them with you. Because that is what really matters.