Take Heart

It had been a long time in coming. For this impatient one at least.

The cloudless sky was bluebird, the sun brilliant, and the wind blasting and bracing. The smile on my face emanated from the tips of my toes as I stood firmly planted on the rocky outcrop – not a wobble in sight. My eyes glistened – from the wind mind you – as I stood atop the mountain and thanked God for knocking me off my pedestal of independence and caring enough to prove me wrong.

A few months ago, I had convinced myself that moments like this were not the end-all-be-all of my being. I was ready to write off my 50th year around the sun as a year of contentment with discontent. In fact I even wrote it down as such – albeit framing it as turning over a “new leaf” and embracing a “new way of thinking and living.” Faced with what I thought was a running career- and-joy-ending injury and still recovering from a major life upheaval – I was setting “a new course” and making peace with the cards life had dealt me.

Well, it turns out all I was really doing was continuing along  with the misguided idea that I had a mythic ability to not only heal thyself but control my destiny. My brother says it is in our blood – that my Nordic ancestry has made me strong-willed, obstinate at times, and thoroughly self-assured and self-possessed when it comes to matters of me. I am not one to seek or ask for help – knowing that I know what is best for me. My sky had fallen, and as per my usual modus operandi, I was stoically going about dealing with it as I knew best – my way.

But that wasn’t working. Deep in my heart I knew who I was trying to be and what I was trying to do wasn’t my reality, nor was it good for me. But I fought with all my might the notion that I might be wrong again – that this wasn’t the path I was destined to follow, that my inner compass may have been thrown off whack – by, oh, I don’t know – a pandemic?

We all face challenging times in life. We are all vulnerable to captivity by circumstances or conditions – be they physical, elemental, or spiritual – sometimes beyond our control. Each of us will respond as best we can – we simply do – even if it does not appear that way to others.

Unlike when we face a public tragedy – like the death of a loved one or a serious illness and are the focus of sympathies – these struggles are the ones we don’t share, they go too deep.

Sometimes it seems as though no one sees us, that no one could possibly understand the complexities we are facing or the anxiety we are dealing with; feel the sadness that grips us; comprehend the disappointment that lingers in us; or respect the fears that haunt us. Held captive by them long enough, our challenges can consume us, cloaking us in their heaviness and keeping us from seeing beyond them. Sometimes, this impenetrable darkness becomes unbearable, as our recent tragic spate of suicides across several generations in the Valley can attest. Other times, the darkness just eats away at us, slowly taking life from us.

The inner conflict I was experiencing became so intense I was seriously contemplating changing the course of my life altogether – the mountains that once called me now taunted me, the roads I once ran down were now streets of unmet desire; the little place I call home began to feel like an albatross, the faces and places that once made me happy served only to remind me of my failures and what could have been. My whole reason for being felt called into question. Why was I even here? I considered leaving everything I have here – my home, my church, my choirs, my mountains, my friends, and yes, even my job – behind to find a new course – one that fit my “turned over a new leaf” lifestyle. It just seemed easier that way. It was the best thing I could think of doing – because I had to do something.

Yes, you might say I was in a desperate state of funk!  A state my usual countenance hid well. And as such, no one paid heed. The shadows that hung over me kept me from being seen and the voices I listened to, namely me, myself, and I did a good job of hushing me even when I called out to God.

Perhaps that is why I identified so easily with Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in the Gospel of Mark during a recent reading. Bartimaeus once had a sighted life – perhaps even a full life – but was cast to the side of society by his blindness and condemned to his cloak of impoverishment. He so wanted to escape his condition, his circumstances – but begging was the best he could do. Then he heard that Jesus was passing through town and was coming his way along the road on which he begged. Mustering his courage despite the crowds trying to silence this stain on their community, Bartimaeus called out again and again to the One he believed would save him from his desolate place. He persevered despite the voices yelling at him to be quiet.

But there was one voice that spoke louder – to both of us.

“Call her here.” Jesus spoke over the cacophony in my head. Just as he did to Bartimaeus. And that cacophony in my head stopped! What filled the silence was not wholly unexpected given my lifelong following of Jesus, but it was certainly one of those “long-time no-hear pal” assurances. “Take heart! He is calling you!” Mk 10:49

Calling me to see things from His point of view; calling me to question my certainty of the direction my life was going in and instead place my certainty in Him; calling me to let go of my ways or the highway for once and maybe just maybe let others reflect His way in my life.

And so, like Bartimaeus, I did! I threw off my heavy cloak – I had grown so accustomed to wearing – even comforted by – and went!

In the story of Bartimaeus, Jesus asks him “What do you want me to do for you?” Boldly, Bartimaeus responds, “Let me see again.”  And Jesus sends him on his way saying, “Go, your faith has saved you.” Immediately, he receives his sight – but he didn’t go. Instead, Bartimaeus followed – followed Jesus on the way – the way that leads Jesus to the cross.

So, were all my struggles gone just like that? Have all my years of being a “good Christian” finally paid off? Have I finally merited some mercy here on earth?

Nope! That’s not how it works.

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” -2 Corinthians 12:8-9

As theologian Henri Nouwen posits, the deepest pain that you and I suffer is often pain that stays with us all our lives. It cannot simply be fixed or done away with. So, what do we do with “that pain, with that brokenness, that anguish, that agony that continually rises up in our heart?” We are called to embrace it, to befriend it, and say that this is my pain and it is the way God is willing to show me His love.

Here’s the awesome thing about that acceptance: Who knew that God has ears and hands and hearts right here on earth ready and willing to help us along the way? When we are consumed by our suffering; or, as in my case, stubbornness, these ears, hands, and hearts are easy to overlook. But if we take the chance of seeing as God sees – we find them.

God led me to seek out a caring listener who helped me sort through the cacophony, take a 30,000 ft view, a 10ft view, and a heart level view of my lot in life, and plan a course of action for living life fully right where I am rather than chase off looking for it.

God walked with me into the office of a physical therapist (my personal miracle worker) who didn’t tell me I would never run again! No! She said that together we would get me running again and running better! Together!

Not stopping there, God showed me there are others who want to do this journey with me. Me! The one hidden by her own blind certainty instead shining her truth in His light.

And in recent days, God has shown me how I can walk alongside others who need someone to walk alongside them. My challenges have become vessels for me to share God’s love.

God loved me through my desperate funk. He used my worst moments to show me just how much He loves me. And I truly believe God will do the same with you. I will believe that for you – when it is too dark for you to see that light.

That’s how it is when Jesus gets to join you on the way. Life doesn’t seem quite so heavy, so uncertain, so lonely, so dark. Sure, there are storms – but with them comes the revealing afterlight of God’s love.

The love you feel when the pain gives way to running with joy again. The love you feel when you know you are not alone – even when you make your way through life by yourself. The love you feel as you stand on a mountain top overlooking God’s grand creation and marvel at His wonders – knowing that you are one of them. Take heart.

“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.” ISAIAH 43:18-19

Let your light so shine!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A September of Sighs

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

I was driving back to my current home after visiting what will always be my home for a long holiday weekend. Living as I do in MT with my current home in the NW corner of this great big state and the place that will always be home on the far southeastern side – my drive was a long one – filled with long, deep sighs.

I love a good solo road trip – especially on the lesser-traveled backroads of MT. As the mountains give way to miles and miles of great big spaces, the familiar but always changing scenery usually takes me away from the daily stressors that fill my day-to-day experience. But not this time. In addition to the unexpected, unusual, and truthfully – unwelcome traffic – so many things weighed upon my heart and mind – decisions awaiting me, regrets, hopes, frustration, forgiveness, uncertainty, worry, homesickness, and the feeling that my soul was just tired. I sighed so much I almost got light-headed!!

Truth is, I find myself sighing more and more these days. I wish I could say they were all sighs of delight as I watch a glorious sunrise or sighs of contented rest as the last light of day paints the sky. No, these sighs have the hint of a whimper if not an all-out groan.

I sigh over all the things I had planned for this summer that didn’t happen and the ones that unfortunately did. I sigh over the rapid changes that are taking place in the two communities I call home – changes I don’t much care for.  I sigh when even the good-news news feeds I subscribe to struggle to find good news. I sigh at the struggles I see taking place in lives far different from mine – and yet no less important. I read the news and sigh. Haiti, Afghanistan, Hurricane Ida, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, racism, refugees, border closures, businesses closing, workers losing their homes, local, state, and national political divisions, and the relentless bickering over everything and anything! I sigh because things just don’t make sense, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Smoke-filled skies.

I sigh over our collective loss of civility and mutual respect for one another. The ongoing pandemic with its mask mandates, school closures, parent protests, vaccine mandates, hospitals being overwhelmed, fear and falsehoods spreading as fast as the virus itself, not to mention the weekly if not sometimes daily word of someone I know dying from the virus feels in itself like one great big life-sucking sigh.  I sigh as I reflect on the 20 years that have passed since 9/11 – wondering at how that passage of time is even possible and wondering again at how much things have changed. I sigh when I realize how little things have changed. I sigh when I catch myself turning to old patterns of living or thinking and don’t give a darn anymore. I sigh when agendas and individual agency become more important than love.

At times it feels like all I can do is expel a deep, groaning, relentless sigh.

What about you? What causes you to sigh today? Although I often feel very alone in my sighs, maybe we are sighing over some of the same things. Maybe I just made you take one big head-shaking sigh!

We sigh for lots of different reasons. Scientifically speaking, sighs are life-sustaining. It’s suggested that when we sigh, the action serves as a biological reset button, bringing on feelings of relief. Sighing allows an extra burst of oxygen to enter our lungs, which leads to improved blood flow, feelings of relaxation, and lowered levels of stress.

But what if our sighs were more than just biological but a spiritual awakening. What if our sighs serve as a revelation to us that we have encountered a closed place within ourselves, in a relationship, or in our life? In a passage from the Gospel of Mark, the people of a region Jesus is traveling through brought him a man who is closed. His ears are stopped up and his tongue is tied. Jesus took the man “aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”

Jesus encounters a man who is physically closed off from the world, unable to hear or speak but with the sigh and command from Jesus, the man is opened to the world.

How many of our sighs come at times when we cannot hear or feel the peace of God in our lives or speak the words of His truth – because we frankly find them hard to believe?

I think most of us think of our sighs as a form of surrender – we accept that this is just how things are going to be. In doing so, we close ourselves off from the future, each other, and the possibility of something new happening. With that tired breath out, we resign from life.

But what if our sighs are not just a surrender to the way things are going to be but instead, a continuation of the creation story – that with each sigh we release, God breathes into us new life? With each sigh released – God gives us a glimpse – however momentary – of the good things, of the openings God intends for us?  And for that life-sustaining moment, we relax, we rest, we see clearer, and feel a bit more alive.

When I look at the sighs in my life – and especially those that rode shotgun on my recent road trip – I can see my actions and reactions, my ways of thinking, my version of the truth, my dreams and hopes, and my vision for how life should be. My sighs are a reflection of all of those things as they play out in my life.

When I sigh a little longer and breathe in a little deeper, I also see the closed parts in me – the parts that don’t necessarily want to hear what God has to say. The parts I’d rather not put into words.  The parts of me I need to release from deep within. Those sighs tell me that I still have work to do, and they point me towards healing as well as opportunities for growth.

If we sit with our sighs – let them linger in the air for a while – before hurriedly moving on, maybe we can learn something important about ourselves. We might see what is not right with us and maybe just maybe feel a spark of something new – something better… After a summer of smoky skies closing in upon us – I am ready to be opened by a breath of fresh air from God leading me towards a better way to be.  Where are your sighs leading you?

“Whether you are surrounded by the singing of a lamp or the sounds of a storm, by the breathing of the evening or the sighing of the sea, there is a vast melody woven of a thousand voices that never leaves you and only occasionally leaves room for your solo.”

– Rainier Maria Rilke  (Letters on Life)

A true sigh of delight as morning breaks in eastern Montana.

Let your light so shine!

What Difference Does Any of This Make?

credit:istock

August 1, 2021

A sermon based on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35

Dear Friends in Christ,

What difference does this make? What difference does any of THIS MAKE? That was the question I asked myself as I finished reading through what I thought was my third and final attempt at a message for you this Sunday. What difference does any of this make in our lives after this hour together is over and we go back out into the world?

You came or joined us online fully expecting to sit for a minute or two to ponder at another week behind you and another one about to start, to confess and be absolved of your sins, to hear a few stories about God and Jesus, hear me try to make sense of these stories for 15 minutes if you mind doesn’t wander off,  sing a few songs, say a few prayers, eat the bread, drink the wine and maybe leave a little something in the offering plate as you depart and get on with your day.

 It’s a routine many of us have done our whole lives – even before we knew we were doing it. Until we couldn’t – at least not in the ways we have always done it before. And yet life still went on. And so, as I read through the lessons and Gospel for today, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of cynicism creeping in. Manna from heaven, unity in Christ, just believe and never again hunger or thirst. As I looked in the mirror, as I surveyed my heart, as I thought about you and the community in which we live, the nation and the world – it all sounded rather trite.

 In the context of our current  communal experience on the timeline of human history, I couldn’t help but think – what difference does any of this make – this worship, these words, this faith in God – because it sure seems like this world – that we are a part of – is as messed up as when Moses was leading the Israelites in the wilderness and a Man who fed the hungry and healed the afflicted was hung up on a cross to die a brutal death by the powers that be.

What difference does any of this make to the farmer who just lost his livelihood to a brutal drought, or the lines of tourists waiting at the gate to Glacier, or the cattle rancher forced to cull his herd because he can’t feed it, or the concert promoter bringing in thousands of revelers to our community, or the exhausted wildland firefighter called to fire after fire in an endless season of fire, or the ER nurse seeing patient after patient arrives with a potentially lethal virus that could have been prevented, or the former business owner whose livelihood was lost, or the new business owner finally seeing a profit, or the family who just celebrated a joyous reunion, or the woman who has spent the last 16 months painfully alone.  What difference does it make to those who tell me they have never felt more distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life?

Have we not evolved at all in our human endeavors since we cried out: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Indeed, the past two years have seemed like a biblical wilderness experience. COVID has impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to the Spring of 2021. We’ve seen the rise of racial tensions and been called to a racial reckoning. Economic disparity is as evident as ever as many lost their jobs and their homes while others are cashing in on newfound wealth. Political polarization and disinformation are rampant and threatening our democracy.  The earth is at once drying out and burning up and drowning in epic flooding upending lives and communities. And now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” that threatens to upend our semblance of normal life once again.

 What difference does God make in this wilderness?

While the wilderness for those of us accustomed to its raw beauty and proximity can be a source for rest and recreation there is another kind of wilderness place – a place you didn’t expect to be in, a place that’s unfamiliar and beyond your control, a place of testing and doubt, and a place that calls into question much of what you thought mattered in life.

Whether you are adventurous or not, you’ve probably been there. It’s the place you may find yourself in right now, or after a divorce, a significant death, the loss of a job, a career or lifestyle-ending injury, a loss of a significant friendship, a challenge to your ideals, or a serious diagnosis. It’s that feeling you get deep inside when the life you once knew is suddenly pulled out from under you. You feel bewildered, broken, and alone.

 These wildernesses have a way of stripping away all the trappings we bring with us in life to make it more livable – the comforts of home, the security of routine, our notions of self and the things that make us happy. In their wake we are forced to reckon with our deepest most basic longings – the hunger for a sense of identity, belonging, meaning, and purpose we’ve made our way through life trying to satisfy.

That’s a hard hunger to fill, especially in the wilderness.

St Theresa once said that the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.  Substitute a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and meaning for life and the message is the same. When we have it – it feels like we have everything. Without it it feels like we have lost everything.

The Israelites knew that feeling. They had been wandering for a very long time – their sense of place non-existent, their sense of identity in flux, and their trust in their leaders Aaron and Moses, waning. On top of this, they are hungry. No wonder they start waxing nostalgic. I can’t blame them. When my present gets tough, I tend to linger in the before times – longing for the life I once had. After all, it was what we know and with familiarity comes comfort. Never mind the fact the Israelites had escaped brutal enslavement, at least they had lamb stew and bread to eat. Wandering as they are without a sense of identity or place – it is easier to see the benefits of the past they left behind instead of contemplating the possibilities of what could be. 

Hearing their protest, God intervenes by providing manna and quail for them to eat – and reminding them of His presence. God knows that a hungry body, heart, and mind can focus on nothing else than satisfying that hunger and so God provides – food for the body as well as restoring their sense of identity – as God’s people with a future and a promised land.

And that’s why all this matters. You see, if I lingered more with God than in the wonders of my past, I would recall many of those times weren’t so wonderful until God made them so. 

It’s no wonder this story is recalled as Jesus speaks to his disciples and the crowd that didn’t just follow – but chased after Him to Capernaum. Here we find Jesus fresh off his miraculous feeding of the 5000, walking on water, and stilling the storm. Not only is the crowd still hungry, but they are full of questions for the man they want to be their king.

They’d not had a Passover feast quite like the one they just experienced, and they wanted more. There was something about that bread – and more than likely the fish too. (But who wants to do a 6-week sermon series on smelly fish?)

Like his Father, Jesus had satisfied their hungry bodies, now He is determined to satisfy their hungry minds and hearts. He wants them to feel a deeper hunger – one that doesn’t come from scarcity but from abundance. He replies to them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

And that’s why God makes a difference for us today.

Like the crowd, we are accustomed to surviving life as best we know how. We seek control, power and protection against our vulnerabilities, and we see ourselves as the proper agent of that security.  In this sense, our trust is rooted in ourselves, and we are left to find our sense of place, purpose, belonging, meaning, and yes – love in whatever way we can. More stuff, more accolades, more money, better performances, higher scores, more wins. The saying you are what you eat holds true. Not all the bread we eat is good for us.

Think about the variety of bread we make regular meals of in our lives today. It is usually very tasty at first, easy to digest and often offers immediate satisfaction but in the end, we are left with an unpleasant feeling inside. We feel distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life. We eat all kinds of bread. And we do all kinds of things to get it – sometimes to the point of depression, desperation, depletion, even, ironically, starvation. No matter how much we eat, it will never be enough.

If this is what we do to define ourselves, to find belonging, to bring purpose to our lives – no wonder we are starving! It’s a very different bread of life than what God wants for us. Jesus didn’t just come to perform miracles, impress people, and preach a good sermon. He came to meet us in our deepest hunger. To satisfy our deepest most universal needs of belonging, identity and purpose. Jesus doesn’t just feed us this with bread – he becomes the bread and fills us with the very presence of God. 

It’s when we are driven into the wilderness that we realize this bread we’ve been relying on for survival isn’t enough. Sure, it’s often easy to come by – tantalizingly so at times – but it won’t feed us for the journey ahead. I came to this stark realization myself even before I started working on this sermon – and that is why God makes a difference. 

As more and more of the things I filled my pre-pandemic life with were shut down or taken from me – even my running when I broke my foot – I literally began to ache inside. While I thought I was filling my life with the right survival gear or eating the right kind of bread – you might say – just as on many of my wilderness outings – I realized I had left behind one key piece of gear – trust. Trust that the God who created me and provided for me up to this very moment is enough for me. That there the only limits on God’s provision in my life are mine. That in God, my identity is secure and because of that I can hope.

God’s greatest desire is to be present with us in all our wildernesses – creating, sustaining, and nourishing us with the Bread of Life. When you open your hungry heart to Jesus and invite him to join you each day, you see things differently. You live differently. You discover that you are not a solo traveler in the wilderness of life. Rather, you belong to a creator and creation far greater than anything or anyone this world can provide. As St Paul writes, we are a part of one body and one Spirit, called to one hope in one Lord, with one faith, through one baptism into one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 

And because of this, our false notions of self and others are replaced by the ability to see and love ourselves and others as persons created in the image of God rather than issues to be overcome. We say yes to a life set free from the captivity of believing we have to be someone we are not and instead live as God already made us to be with many different gifts. Gifts that when shared with the community give us a new purpose in carrying out God’s goodness for all to receive. Secure in our identity in God, we choose love and forgiveness over anger and retribution; and we relate to each other with intimacy and vulnerability rather than superficiality and defensiveness.

If history is any indicator of what is to come, we have a lot of wilderness times ahead but when we see through God’s eyes, listen to God’s voice, and walk with God’s steadfast presence the wilderness can be a place of transformation instead of brokenness.

Jesus is the bread of our life so that we may live life, not just hunger for it.

And that makes all the difference.

Amen.

The Wilderness

Dreams of Happiness

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.” – Soren Kierkegaard

As I put my ponderings to paper, we are, unbelievably, more than halfway through the first month of the new year. More a date on the calendar than the reality of our lives and the world, the new year heralds a time of change, transition, and closure. Perhaps more so this year than any other new year I can remember, (I have had 49 of them and I still have not perfected the art of change) there was a universally felt glee with which we kicked 2020 to the curb and slammed the door on it for good measure. Some have gone as far as to refer to the cataclysmic, destructive, really bad dream that was 2020 half-jokingly as THE Apocalypse. And did so without realizing how right they were! The original definition of apocalypse – as one of my New Testament professors, Bart Ehrman, explains: is a disclosure or revelation of great knowledge. In religious and occult concepts, an apocalypse usually discloses something very important that was hidden or provides “A vision of heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities.”

As I sit here with a little more than two weeks of distance from the year past (and in 2020 and apparently 2021, A LOT happens in two weeks) I dare say that the events and circumstances of 2020 were indeed great revealers; not just on global, national, political, and social levels but personally as well. 2020 gave me glimpses of truth that helped me start to make sense of my own reality.  Solitary confinement does wonders for engaging in the practices of self-reflection and self-rejection if you spend too much time in that “fun” house of mirrors. But it also provided a safe environment for soul searching and soul pruning – which when you are truly honest with yourself can be a particularly challenging and painful process. 2020 revealed how necessary deep and intentional reflection is and how difficult it is to sort through those revelations, both internal and external, to discern a truthful and positive way forward.

The unhappy person is never present to themself because they always live in the past or the future. – Soren Kierkegaard, Danish poet, author, philosopher, and theologian.

I don’t know about you, but I found myself spending a lot of my time this past year longing for the time before – the time before the pandemic, before things fell apart, before I said yes, before I said no, before Mom and Dad died, before I graduated kindergarten, insert your own past tense here.  When present times are difficult the past is a much more inviting place to reside – and with each passing day, the past becomes longer and more encompassing just as the future grows dim.  In the comfort of the past, you have seen it all and you know how to make it through each day. You are, in fact, living proof of that certainty, you tell yourself. And those days of yore seem so much brighter and clearer too, don’t they? The unknown before us does not feel too inviting. There are too many ifs, too many chances to fail, too many chances to be hurt again; the days ahead are just too unsettling compared to the days of before that you know.

And yet, those happy times that kept coming back to me over and over again this past year weren’t making me happy. On the contrary, they just made the present seem more depressing and the days ahead even more obscure. Truth: You cannot remember the future. Keep trying and you will not have one.

“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

Kierkegaard said that the more a man can forget, the greater the number of metamorphoses which his life can undergo; the more he can remember, the more divine his life becomes. My 2020 reflections helped me realize that I survived life. I know that sounds obvious from a 30,000-foot perspective, but when you are in the thick of things it is sometimes easy to forget that you survived that very past you long for.

The past I long for is what brought me to the moment I am in. Yes! At some point in my life, I had dreams and I chose to pursue them.

It was my dream for what could be that brought me to the point where I am today – searching in longing for the dreams I once had – or better – daring to dream the dreams I did that set me on the journey to today. When I was dreaming, my eyes, ears, and heart were open to the world around me, discovering things I had not known before and feeling safe despite the uncertainties that come with the unknown being discovered. Where did I get that feeling of security that allowed me to even dare to dream and where did it go?

In the fierce light of now, I find myself grounded in a reality more real than the illusions of what I dreamed of – searching for the hopeful, faith-filled, purpose-driven, and truly happy person I once was. My circumstances in 2020 exposed my fear of change, fear of losing control, my inability to trust, and my low opinion of myself. The dreamer I once was has since given too much power to the voices of the world to determine if I am admired, successful, attractive, courageous, and valued enough to be loved, to be worthy, to matter – to deserve to dream. The conditional nature of the world’s approval keeps me in a constant state of doing – trying and failing and trying again only to fail again because the conditions always change – the goalposts keep moving. I will never be enough by the world’s standards –  and the keyword here is BE. I am so busy doing that I have lost my sense of being and with that, my ability to dream. I forget that from my first breath to the core of my being, I was and am someone’s beloved. I was beloved in those rose-hued days long ago and I am beloved in the messiness of right now – without any doing on my part. Not a single condition is attached to this belovedness  – the only strings attached are the apron strings of God. And with God, I am free to dream.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” – Psalm 139: 13-14

With God I do not have to be afraid, I do not have to grasp for and hold onto the only life I know, unwilling to change. With God, I do not have to believe in the ways of the world. With God, I can dream of tomorrow.

As Father Michael Marsh, of St Philip’s Episcopal Church in Uvalde, TX wrote recently, “Dreams come to us.  We go on searches.”

Dreams urge us to go where we have never gone before and do what we’ve never done before. We can only search for what is already familiar and known – something we have lost or the life we used to have.

2020 served as a mirror for me to see the dilemma I have put myself in – stuck in my search for the way things used to be rather than how they might be; searching for what can never be again – instead of dreaming for what God has in store for me next. A hard reflection to find myself in at the moment – but it has given me a positive goal to work towards in 2021.

I will close with two guiding principles that will guide me through the uncertain days of dreaming ahead:

“I know not the way God leads me, but well do I know my Guide.”  – Martin Luther

There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” – C.S. Lewis

Perhaps you might want to do some dreaming in 2021. Dream of a life yet to be revealed and trust that it is possible. Let go. Get up and go in faith. Dream!  Dare to dream! Happier days are ahead.

Let your light so shine!

Radiant Grace – My Mother

The essence of my mother is here. More than any other time of year – my mother comes alive in me now. In the waiting and wondering and preparing the way of the Lord – and preparing myself for the Lord. Today would be her 87th birthday and it is her 4th birthday with our Lord and Savior instead of with me, with us. But as I go about this season of Advent and the preparations for Christmas, I see her and feel her in almost everything I do. It’s not that our Christmas celebrations were overly joyous – quite often they were anything but! I remember more than a few times in my life feeling distinctly melancholy in the celebrations around Christmas time. Yes, we had all the Christmas trimmings, the Boston Pops Christmas Spectacular album was always playing on the record player, and our home was always decorated in conservative yet beautiful Christmas tidings but it is in the quiet, simpler moments, in the silence by the fire that I see my Mom.

My family has always held firm to the Scandinavian tradition that Christmas Eve is the big event – our presents were opened after church services (yes, often plural), Christmas light tours, supper, and me and Mom playing the piano – while Dad listened in his Lazy Boy eating peanut brittle and my brother – well I am not sure what he was doing! Christmas Eve would often go into the wee hours of Christmas morning. Then off to bed I would go so Santa could come and fill my stocking. It was then that Mom would begin tidying up the wrapping paper while waiting for the fire to die. She would write each of us a letter from Santa – including herself, and I imagine breathe a sigh of relief after playing for Christmas services and the weariness from all the rushing-to-church hubbub that happened on Christmas Eve (and always!). Then she would sit in the silent glow of the Christmas tree as the last of the embers lost their warm glow. As I got older, much older, I began to stay with my mom during this time. And it was in this – this quiet time of waiting and wondering at the miracle of God coming into this mess of life that I will forever see my mother – weeping.

I never asked her why or what was wrong. I was at times taken aback, perhaps disillusioned – why would anyone cry at Christmas? My young mind couldn’t fathom it and my older mind couldn’t deal with it.

Now as I carry on with my own traditions of white lights (they had to be white!) lots and lots of candles, Nativity scene-setting, and of course decorating and redecorating to perfection the Christmas tree, I sense deeply the reason for her tears. The joy and warmth and festiveness I endeavor to create in the darkest days of winter contrast greatly from the feelings in my heart – no matter how much Pentatonix Christmas I listen to.

How very much in need of a Savior I am and this world is! How humbling and amazing that God has claimed me as his beloved – despite my failures, despite my sins, despite everything I try to do that never quite measures up – God loves me, and God loved and still loves my mother!

I know my mother had her personal struggles – the depth of which can only be appreciated with hindsight and grace. And I know my mother loved our Lord in her sweet, gentle, sometimes broken ways. I understand her tears – of shame and relief, of immense disbelief and incredible faith, of joy and sadness, of turmoil and the sense of peace found in the silence and reflected in the shimmer of white lights.

At times I long for a red and green holly jolly holiday reality instead of the blue & white Christmas I have come to know so well. But now I know I was seeing the true in-dwelling of God in the tears of my Mom and I understand why she insisted on the white lights of peace and His radiant grace.

Happy Birthday, Mom… carrying you with me today and always in all ways with love.

When Your Lamp is Flickering

A Sermon on Amos 5:18-24; Matthew 25:1-13

Grace and peace to you dear friends in Christ from God our Father!

Ah yes, just the words of inspiration and hope your COVID and election weary soul needed to hear this morning, am I right? As I spent days pouring over the texts preparing for this sermon I kept thinking, aw geez, are you serious, God? Do you have any idea what we are dealing with right now? Well of course He does, it’s an age-old condition of the human story. Why do you think Jesus tells so many parables that leave us rather stunned and wondering what Jesus is telling us no matter how many times we hear them. Stories that leave us with more questions about our questions than before. But maybe this is what we’re supposed to do with Jesus’s parables.  Maybe we’re supposed to let their meanings open out, wider and wider as we sit and wrestle with our questions, our discomfort, our wonder. You see the truths the parables reveal are various and infinite; their interpretation as ever-changing as our lives. I preached on these weary and wayward bridesmaids three very long years ago and while the words and the struggle to comprehend them are the same, they sound very different to me now in this time and place. 

Quite honestly, the passages of scripture chosen for today could have been pulled right out of one my pandemic nightmares of late. Alas, the call of this Lay Pastoral Associate is not to regal you with my dreams, it is to find the good news – to shed some light on the darkness. So where to begin…  

This is one of four parables Jesus uses toward the end of his ministry to prepare his disciples for His 2nd coming, all bearing upon the relationship between the return of Jesus and a final sorting – of yes, the good and the bad. Matthew is writing to a community who was dealing with an oppressive government, a rupture from the synagogue, and a delay in the much awaited return of the Messiah.The return of whom we are still waiting for today.  Matthew fills his Gospel with judgment scenes, especially those with elements of harshness and surprise. But it is in the harshness and the surprise that the hidden meaning is often found. The surprise this time for the disciples and for us is that  the wedding banquet – the return of Christ – is not going to go the way we think it is or WHEN we think it is.

These parables ARE challenging ciphers at times but I always find it helpful to try and identify with the characters whether it is the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the old woman who lost the coin, or the servant who buried his talents rather than risk investing them. 

I’ll be honest with you, for most of my life, I have identified with the five wise bridesmaids. The good girl. Always prepared. Always having a plan for every moment of my day and always  making sure I had more than  “enough of the good stuff in my lamp – you know good works and faith.”  Quite simply I have used perfectionism and control  to a fault to get me through life. Spontaneity is not my strong suit. 

And though I have been a lifelong Lutheran saved by grace and not by works, my parents did a good job of “raising me right” instilling in me the importance of perfect church attendance, giving regularly a portion of my allowance and later income, holding leadership positions within the church, including two stints as a council president, a call committee chair, and Vice Chair for a million dollar church building campaign, not to mention adding my voice to every church choir that I could come across. (Can you imagine my utter chagrin as I heard the words of Amos today? But I digress…) So yes,  I envisioned myself as one of the wise, firmly holding onto my lamp and my stores of the requisite oil in the dead of night.

And to be sure I was saying the right things to you today I immediately turned to my considerable collection of outside resources: Bible commentaries, different Bible translations, word studies, and on and on. I needed to consult all the outside experts and then share THEIR wisdom and insights of this challenging text  because I am not one to trust that I have it in me alone to correctly share the Good News of today’s Gospel with you. Because you see, I also have this terrible tendency to doubt, especially with regards to my inner qualities and abilities.  

Ah, but wait a minute! Isn’t that what the five foolish bridesmaids did in their midnight quest to go buy oil – you know the good stuff for their lamps? Doubt? Doubt that their presence alone was what the Bridegroom desired?

But hey, none of this would have happened had the Bridegroom been on time in the first place so I definitely identify with him as I am always running late!

In truth, what drew me into this parable this time is the startling idea that despite my best efforts in life, on that much awaited day when God’s kingdom comes in all of its fullness, and our broken earth is restored and made whole, just as Scripture promises – that God wouldn’t know me. 

I mean how could that be? He knows every hair on my head! I was made in His image? 

It reminded me of this dream I had recently about my father. It began as I was preparing to fly to Washington D.C. for a theology conference – yeah, I know – a nightmare inside a dream right there! I hate flying under normal circumstances  – road trips for the win any day!! –  and despite all the reports saying it is safe to be on an airplane there is no way I am flying anywhere right now.except of course in a nightmare. The plane landed at Dulles International Airport  – but when I got off the plane I was in Billings and was headed to my old house on Audubon Way. Of course the weather was terrible – dark, gloomy, rainy and the wind was howling as it always does in Billings even when the sun is shining.  When I pulled my Santa Fe – which came along on the plane with me – into the driveway, my brother Fred and his wife Kathie were there as were the neighbors from across the street. There was a lot of activity as there always is in dreams  and everything was so alive  – including both of my parents who have been with God now for over three years. I could see the glow from inside the  house as I ran from my car to the front porch in the pouring rain. I was all set for the much anticipated big hug from Dad that always awaited me when I came home –  but instead all Dad said to me was “I don’t know who you are.” A wave of sickness and grief washed over me and I woke up shaking. 

My Dad and I had an extremely close relationship – he inspired me in my walk in faith and guided me through the rough patches of life with an earnest faith. We golfed together, went to church together, discussed politics and relationships. We even served on church council together. I didn’t hide much from him – not that I could if I wanted to – nothing got past him – and I always tried to live up to his standards and expectations of me. But now that he s gone, I have come to realize that there is still so much I don’t know. There is still so much I need to know and tell my dad  and my mom but my questions can’t be answered now and I wonder how much closer and richer our relationship could have been had I only taken more time to ask the questions – if I had been more vulnerable at times and really opened up. I wanted to be perfect in their eyes – what child  – deep in their hearts doesn’t  – even as adults? 

I got to thinking about how that might be how it is with God. He longs to know you but will you let him and trust him? What does it take to be known by the Lord? Digging into one of my word studies, the word “know” in our passage today  is oida. This word can simply mean “to have information about,” but it also has the meaning, “to be intimately acquainted with or stand in a close relation to.”

We often say that we know the Lord but do we ask ourselves if we do? Do we live in close relationship to God? Do we let him in?  Examine your relationships in life – your friends and family and casual acquaintances. How well do you let yourself be known to them? We have  surface level relationships – we know each other’s names, birthday, favorite foods, occupation, likes, dislikes. And then we have those critical deeper trusting relationships  – ones in which you can share your deepest secrets, confess your darkest thoughts, and expose your greatest struggles. You can trust them with the real you. 

If you are like me – you probably think you have a good relationship with the Lord – you know with all your church doings  – but how much of you do you trust to God?  How much of God do you let into your life? Into your uncertainties, Into your waiting? Does your waiting reflect a confidence in God?  Do you still wait for God? We have been doing a lot of waiting lately and I wonder where you find yourself?

I am not good at waiting, are you? And I am definitely not good at letting go of control in my waiting.  

Waiting carries many emotions — anticipation, wonder, eagerness, dread, agitation, fear, longing, loss. Of course, our emotional response will be determined by that for which we wait and our time of waiting will be experienced differently depending on that which we expect. 

In truth, most of what we wait for is not  guaranteed.That prolonged uncertainty can bring out the worst in us. We act out in fear, anger, distrust, or simply fade away losing hope. What we wait for can leave such a void in our lives that we attempt to fill with busyness, excessive work or spending, substance abuse – anything to block the discomfort, anxiety, or emptiness that waiting can cause. And perhaps we have let our waiting for Christ’s return affect us in the same way – we turn to doubt or skepticism because we have grown tired of waiting. Maybe your heart for Jesus’ has grown cold with impatience. 

Speaking of which, I don’t much  like the fact that the story leaves five women out in the cold. Especially after they waited late into the night for the bridegroom to arrive. I don’t like how their fearful quest out into the dark of night for external sources of light led them to be excluded from the wedding feast and denied by the bridegroom. 

But it reveals to us a harsh truth.

And this is the nugget of light I found this time as I waited for divine sermon inspiration from on high. More often than I would like to admit I have been a foolish bridesmaid. I know how hard it is to stick around when my “light” is fading and my reserves are low.  To this day I scramble for perfection, insisting on having my ducks in a row before I show up in front of God, or the church, or the world.  How about you? Do you put God on hold so you can put your game face on? How is he ever going to know you? 

There will come a time when we face darkness, when we are not ready, when the unexpected takes our light away. Doors close. Chances fade.Time runs out. Words go unsaid. Friendships end. Debts are called. Addictions break us. Wounds grow deep.. Courage flees. Justice is too hard. Bitterness sets in. Faith ebbs. Life closes down.The opportunity ends.

It is in these moments of darkness  – often our darkest hour  – when our faith has all but expired and our attempts of perfection and doing for the Lord rather than getting to know the Lord have left us exhausted – that the bridegroom comes. Darkness is the greatest revealer of light.  God comes when we least expect it with a glimmer of light – signs of a better way to wait – a better way to live.

Allow me to share a little bit of my oil with you –  yes this uncertain Lay Pastor  has oil to share afterall – lingering in the dark when your woeful wick is flickering, your once-vigorous faith is vanishing, and  your  sodden soul is filled with nothing but doubt and pain and grief and weariness – that my friends is when God knows you best and when you come to know the fullness of God. 

Be willing to show up as you are — complicated, disheveled, half-lit and created in God’s perfect image. God delights in you — not what is in your lamp – not what you prove to the world.  

Have the will to wait, have the courage to question, have the faith to doubt.  The God whose deep and unconditional compassion,with light and oil to spare, who finds your messy and imperfect presence is of intrinsic value will meet you there. As baptized children of God, His presence was never in question – learning to live in His presence is our lifelong quest.

My favorite theologian, Henri Nouwen writes – “People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God. They discover that there are people who heal each other’s wounds, forgive each other’s offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and live in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God’s glory.”

In these anxious, uncertain, judgment-filled times of waiting we are experiencing take time to let God know you and strive to live into the joy of His presence. Remember, your light doesn’t have to dazzle. God created light. God is light.  And Jesus is the light of the world. That your lamp is flickering isn’t the point. You are.  So stay and wait in the good news of God knowing you and let that be the light that sustains and inspires you to love and serve the world.  

Thanks be to God.

Let your light so shine!!

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

I never thought I would see the day that my faith would be a point of contention in the halls of Congress but alas, as a practicing, believing, and prayerful Christian, I watched as senator after senator demanded from the latest Supreme Court Justice candidate a statement professing that she would separate her faith from her judicial decisions. I admired her candor and resolute responses in which she affirmed her ability to separate the two, but I was troubled that people of faith who align their lives with a higher power should be forced to do so – especially in a country founded on the basic tenet of freedom of religion. “What difference does it make?” I spewed at the talking heads on the screen.

Courtesy: Catholiclane,com

Though the citizens of the US have not always supported the rights of others to practice their faiths, seeing it as antithetical to our founding as a “Christian Nation,” our Constitution stands on the side of all beliefs or the lack thereof. Needless to say, it got me thinking about just how we separate from and align our lives with God and begs the question asked oh so long ago of a group of Pharisees and Herodians trying to entrap Jesus into defying the Roman empire: “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” This question, of course, was posed to the Pharisees and Herodians in response to their question as to whether Jesus thought it was “lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

Faced with this trap question, Jesus didn’t do what our politicians do today, which is to answer a different question, the one that he wished he had been asked. Instead he turned the tables on them and trapped them—the Pharisees at least, who seemingly adhered to a strict textual interpretation of God’s Law, including having no other idols before me and having no coinage (which bore the Divine Emperor’s image) in the temple — in their own question. Having caused them to display the coins in their pocket – Jesus tells his questioners to “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

But back to our lives and the world we live in today – though some of us may have fewer coins and more cards in our pockets and purses these days – we still disagree on taxation and aligning our lives along ruling parties. But I am not just talking about money and the things we spend it on, or taxes and whether or not we should pay them, nor am I just referring to the political party we identify with. I am talking about our whole lives. What do we give to God? Or perhaps the better question is, what are we taking away from God? If you believe as I do, that all things are created and inspired by God, then there shouldn’t be much to ponder; yet we so want to delineate that part of our lives which belong to God from that which belongs to – whatever we deem appropriate.

Granted, on the surface of this biblical story we hear Jesus saying there are things that belong to God and things that belong to the emperor. But I believe this message hits closer to home – there are the things that we allow God to handle and the things we want to have complete control over in our lives; the things that give us a bad taste in the mouth or that we can’t trust to the unknown. We try to separate our life and world between church and state, religion and politics, sacred and secular, saved and sinner, charity and taxes, spirit and matter, freedom and masks, death and life, heaven and earth, the divine and humanity, as if they are completely separate and unrelated, as if they are in opposition and have nothing to do with each other, as if some things can be trusted to God while others we need to keep well within our tight grasp.

In doing so, it becomes easy to allow the things we give to the emperor – the things we demand control of – to reign over our lives. We forget that when we embrace that everything and everyone belongs to God, our lives are not necessarily easier or without struggle – but so much richer and more colorful – less bleak and more hope filled. When we let go of the need to be right all the time, the need to stand in judgment, and the need to control the outcome of everything and trust that it all belongs to God we start living more wholly and have less want. 

This time of pandemic and isolation has provided me with a wealth of opportunity for personal reflection, condemnation, exhortation, and commiseration. I have caught myself projecting my misery on to God and reveling in the joys of my own abilities. I have found myself hyper critical of others in how they are handling this time of novel non-coexistence while patting myself on the back for my righteous isolation that has led me to profound darkness at times. I have scowled at the abysmal political polarization confronting me from those I love and respect and then question my own personal convictions and belief in the common good.

As I prepare to vote in the most important election of my lifetime (emphasis on my – because I know the intensity and ramifications of these times must be put into historical perspective) part of me just wants to say: “God, I know you got this” while part of me is stricken with fear for the days months and years that lay ahead. Part of me wants to say: “Can’t we just give it ALL to God?” but the other part of me knows that this already is all of God’s, and for such a time as this He has called you and me to step forth in faith and with the intelligence and conviction he has inspired in all of us –  senators, congressional representatives, candidates for offices, Supreme Court justices, and the likes of you and me – to do our very best for one another and for Him.

Maybe when we recognize and accept the great conflict in all of us to let go and yet hold on in realization that everything belongs to God – the struggle and the victory – maybe that’s when we really begin to follow Jesus. We can stop searching for answers and scapegoats and begin seeking life. We can hold to the self-evidencing truth that the earthly powers that be do not govern our heart or our mind.  That’s when faith makes a difference, and lives are changed.

“Get out the message—God Rules! He put the world on a firm foundation; He treats everyone fair and square.  Let’s hear it from Sky, With Earth joining in, And a huge round of applause from Sea. Let Wilderness turn cartwheels, Animals, come dance, put every tree of the forest in the choir— an extravaganza before God as he comes, as he comes to set everything right on earth, set everything right, treat everyone fair.” – Psalm 96: 10-13 The Message

Let your light so shine!

Climbing Mount Cannon – A Reunion with Myself

I had a bit of reunion on Mount Cannon this oast weekend – with friends I hadn’t seen for a while, fellow adventurers who know there is so much more to any climb than just bagging a peak and reaching the summit in record time. We climb because it brings us to the base of who we are – it tests our sense of self, it builds our inner strength while humbling us at the same time. It creates a special bond with others -some lasting lifetimes -some lasting for just the moment – that you are in this together – this life, this moment – and you belong. You are scared and beyond thrilled together. And you know that is true – because often death – yes, death – is just one wrong step away – and yet every step is probably one of the most full of life steps you will take!

It has been a while since I realized these truths – far too long for my good. My mind and my spirit of late reflect this. And that was all summed up in what seemed like hours but was only a minute or less as I stood frozen on the ledge, staring down into the gaping crevasse that was taunting me – jump. The bottom was out of sight – literally – there was no bottom – just a very hard death awaiting me somewhere below. How could this be happening to me? I had crossed this very spot just a half-hour before! Granted I was going the opposite direction and this side had ridges for me to grasp. But the crevasse was no less wide and my legs surely hadn’t shrunk! But my mind was working against me -reasoning that my backpack was too heavy, my healing foot still too unstable to hold my landing, my bifocals were tricking my eyes, and I was just ‘too weak’ to leap like I knew I had to. Self-doubt was winning again.

Just as it has been for the last year or so as the crevasses of life sucked me down. Telling me that I was not worthy of love, that I was not healthy enough to thrive, that I was not talented enough to shine, that there is something wrong with me and I just can’t see it, that I was too weak to stand for anything – especially stand up for myself. I was dying inside and the sparkle was gone from my eyes. I did not know who I was anymore – I longed for days gone by.

And then a hand reached for mine and a voice said “Your mind is working against you, You can do this! Here take my hand and let me pull you across.”

And there I was, on the other side… full of giggles as I gasped for the air my nerves had sucked out me. And I was alive! Not only that, I felt like I was living again – not just remembering. On the mountain, I felt like me again only better. The summit views had changed my perspective – not just of the world below me, but of myself. The challenges I faced along the way both coming and going didn’t beat me down – they made me stronger for the next climb.

Mountains are formed by slow but gigantic movements of the earth’s crust. When two slabs of the earth’s crust smash into each other the land can be pushed upwards, forming mountains. It is a hard, life spanning work of metamorphosis. No wonder I get along with them so well.

It was good to find myself on the mountain again – it was even better to find myself. Oh the life that is waiting for us – when we live it!
Thanks to all who helped me along the way – and thank you, God, for this wonderful up and down life!

Let your light so shine!!!

Who Do You Say That I Am?

A Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20

Grace and peace to you friends in Christ near and far, from God our Father and friend. 

I come from a long line of pastors, deacons, and missionaries in the Lutheran church. My great, great, great, great, great grandfather Peder Pedersen Mørch, was a Deacon in Jegindø, Thyholm Danmark until his death in 1752. His son Christian Pedersen Mørch, of Jegindø, Thisted, Danmark was also a Deacon in the church until his death in 1777; with even more ancestors listed as deacons going back to 1670. That is just on my father’s side of the family. You all know Pastor Pete, well we share quite a bit of Norwegian pastoral blood from my mother’s side of my family. The pastoral and missionary trait obviously runs strong through our veins. 

I was a late in life surprise for my parents so I only knew my Grandma Dyrud, my mom’s Mom. I remember succinctly her devout faith. She made a strong impression on my own faith beginnings before she passed away when I was eight years old.  Her favorite hymn was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and whenever she came for a visit she always packed candied orange slices and her Bible in her suitcase. She always wore a large cross necklace – visible in virtually every picture I can recall. She is the one who first proclaimed that I was going to be a pastor someday as she watched me play church after church on Sundays. It was through her that I saw that Jesus could be my friend. She lived her life with Him by her side – a life that was far from easy or comfortable – but she was always comforted. 

It was through my parents that I came to know the working side of faith. They were church planters, served as confirmation teachers, my mom served as the church organist, and my Dad was the perennial council president in every church we belonged to even with our nomadic lifestyle. 

And now here I am, carrying on the tradition, albeit with a few bumps in the road along the way. So, of course, I know who Jesus is. Not only was I raised with Jesus pretty much everywhere, but I can recite by memory the very definition of the man.

More than likely, you can too. He’s one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. The one Lord, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father. He’s God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. He’s begotten, not made. He is of one Being with the Father and through him, all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and he became truly human. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried – for our sake! And then, get this – on the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of the Father. Any day now He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. 

He’s also a Beautiful Savior, King of Creation, the Word made flesh, the good shepherd, Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, The Way the Truth and the Life, Lord of Life, Healer of our every ill and Forgiver for all, and of course, the Messiah. 

You did get all that, didn’t you? It’s pretty lofty verbiage if you ask me – but it is easier to memorize those memorable words and phrases, don’t you think? So when we are put on the spot and asked like Jesus asks Peter in today’s gospel lesson – “But Who do YOU say that I am?” we are ready with a pithy response. I have to admit, I cheered for Peter when he got the answer “right.” exclaiming “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”   

But what does that mean? Again, lofty language describing the very reason we are here together today – Jesus. When we confess the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed together- what are we really saying? When I sit down and think about it, those beautiful liturgical words are safe – they keep me and my life at an arm’s distance from the wild and unpredictable nature of God and Jesus remains a rather tame and eminently safe figure in my life. And that seems just about right, right? We like to remain in control of our lives and keep things going just so.I may ask for Jesus to take my hand – but boy take my life? That seems like a lot when all I am asking of him is to get me through whatever it is I am facing. But Jesus doesn’t come in doses that I take as needed. His love and ways are all encompassing with no limits. 

When it comes to answering the question of who Jesus is aside from what we are told in Sunday school or what we continue to confess together in the relative comfort and safety of church, on the other 167 days of the year who do we say Jesus is? And how big of a role does Jesus play in our everyday life? I am going to go out on a limb here and tell you that this is one of the most important questions you will ever answer (aside from are you ok if you are choking or maybe, will you marry me) in terms of the direction of your life.  Who you say Jesus is has everything to do with who you are and how you go about the life you lead. In some ways, your answer says as much or more about you and us together as a community of faith, than Jesus. Because in Jesus’ eyes, you are His beloved, and the life he wants for you is provided to you freely with no strings attached or tests to pass.  

And while we share the same words for confessing our faith in Jesus, who you say Jesus is will be different from my response. Just as the disciples came to know Jesus as the Messiah through their walk with him –  observing his healings of mercy, hearing his sermons on justice, twice being awed by and tasting bread multiplied and shared with thousands, being saved by an ethereal Jesus on the water when stormy waters threatened to sink their boat, even extending mercy to those beyond the boundaries of prejudice and culture and showing unexpected more human side of himself – we too, come to our understanding of Jesus through our own walk with him. 

Who Jesus is matters every single day and in every single place of our lives and who Jesus is to us is influenced by our experience of him in every single circumstance of our lives. Peter’s confession didn’t occur just anywhere. Jesus could have asked the question while in a familiar, friendly place like Galilee where most of his ministry has taken place or even while walking to this destination (because aren’t difficult conversations always easier on a walk?) but no, Jesus chose a very specific location – Caesarea Philippi. 

Situated about 25 to 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, Caesarea Philippi originally known as Panais, was near a trade route that connected Tyre in the West to Damascus in the Northeast. A nearby cave and spring served as a sanctuary dedicated to the part man, part goat Greek god, Pan. Greek inscriptions and niches carved into the rock suggest this area was dedicated to other pagan gods as well. It was also a place where the power and the authority of the Roman Empire were on full display.  Herod the Great had built a temple near the spring in honor of Caesar Augustus. By the time Jesus and his disciples visited the region, Caesarea Philippi was governed by Herod’s son, Philip the tetrarch, who established the city as the administrative center of his government. And at the time of Matthew’s Gospel, people were likely aware that the Roman commander who led the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE had returned with his troops to Caesarea Philippi in celebration of their victory. So Jesus pops the question—“Who do you say that I am?” at the intersection of economic trade, religion, and the power of the Empire. The very things that ruled heavily over the people’s lives.  This was not a particularly safe place for the disciples to be spouting off about a Messiah – the Messiah they envisioned would release them from the bondage and oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. Aligning oneself with someone other than the emperor could get you thrown in prison if not to the pit.  

The disciples had witnessed Jesus’s works and ways and though not yet aware that this Messiah’s deliverance would be far different from their expectations, they chose to follow him. 

Who do you say Jesus is in your life, today?  Who is Jesus when alternate kingdoms of power and authority vie for your allegiance? Who is Jesus in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty of this pandemic? Who is Jesus as you deliberate sending your children back to school or if it is safe to travel or too risky to visit with loved ones? Who is Jesus in the midst of a tenuous election year as you encounter those who may have a different view of things – mask-wearing, the state of our nation? Who is Jesus in the midst of racial unrest – in the aftermath of the Minneapolis, Seattle and Portland protests and riots, and the seemingly impenetrable wall of class and color? Who do you say Jesus is as your loved one dies or as you sit with the news of an unfavorable diagnosis? Who is Jesus when you consider the plight of refugees and immigrants seeking a new place to call home and that new home is your home? Who is Jesus when domestic violence invades your life or you can’t find a job to support your family? Who is Jesus when your family or a relationship falls apart?  

Who is Jesus to you when you face the difficult decisions of life, the ones with no easy answers or when you feel overwhelmed by isolation or depression? Who is Jesus when your latest screw up weighs heavily on your chest, when your sin has clouded out your hope? When judgment is the only response you perceive from others? Who do you say Jesus is then?

Who is Jesus when your life is going well? When you don’t think about needing Jesus or think about Jesus, period? 

How has your experience of Jesus shaped who you know Jesus to be? 

Those lofty words we sing, confess and praise God with in worship an a way feel a little too distant, a little too beautiful when what we need is the wild, unflinching love and grace from our friend, our Lord and Savior, our sweet Jesus to enter into the darkest, ugliest places in our soul. 

Who you say Jesus is will determine how you live into that truth for your life. Who Jesus is to you reveals what you stand for and guides your decisions, determines your actions, and forms the words you speak and how you will say them.  If you align yourself with and define your heart with Jesus – you can expect the words that come from your mouth as Jesus taught in last week’s gospel – to come from your heart not defiled but filled with grace. 

Today and every day, Jesus asks the evergreen question – Who do you say that I am?  The Jesus I confessed before the church when I was 13 was certainly not the same Jesus I found when I searched for him 13 years later when I had nothing left BUT Jesus or the Jesus who walked beside me to my parents burials, or who walks with me today as I try to navigate through this new way of living and being in a pandemic. Hopefully, who Jesus is for you and me next year will be different from who he is for us  today. It’s not that Jesus has changed. We have. As we go through life our experience and knowledge of Jesus grows. When we live this question we not only discover Jesus anew we discover ourselves anew. It’s not just about asking what would Jesus do – as those once trendy bracelets reminded us to ask when faced with a difficult decision. When you live every day with Jesus as a part of you and live your life with the heart and mind of Jesus those questions answer themselves. On our way, we have more and more experiences that show us something about the God whom we seek. For Jesus is always new, always different and our God is a deeply moved God with a heart and being far greater than our understanding. 

Don’t feel as though your answer to Jesus’ question is too simple – too incongruous to the realities, complexities, and pain of “real” life. Don’t feel ashamed that your life does not always align with the words you profess on Sunday. After all – Jesus is calling into question everything about our lives, our world, the status quo, and business as usual. Jesus has a question for you. How will you answer Him? Who do you say that I am? 

There is no correct answer – only your heart and your life can determine that. But the Good News is that God has done most of the work for you. We don’t have to take final responsibility for procuring the faith, hope, and courage that we may feel are in short supply in order to answer this question. Because the faith we seek, the confidence we long for, the courage we hope to find and to share – these are gifts from God. The kind of gifts God loves to bestow.

My favorite poet Ranier Maria Rilke provides insight on this life framing question: “(T)he point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” With that in mind, let your answer to Jesus guide your life. 

May our friend, our comforter, our shoulder to lean on, our sounding board and confidant, our just and loving Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God  – our way, our truth, and our life – guide you, free you,  and renew you today and every day.

Amen.

Let your light so shine!!!

Finding My Way

Sometimes, the wrong turns you make in life turn out to be the right ones all along…

Last evening, Ember and I embarked on our first hike of the season. The weather has not been on the side of this working girl and mother nature has been showing her wild and weedy side in my yard keeping my mountain sojourns at bay.  In addition, I am beyond mortified at the hordes of people taking over the serenity of what little is open in Glacier NP right now due to the pandemic. That is not the Glacier experience I desire so I have deferred my hiking exploits to toiling in my yard and bike rides around the valley when the weather allowed. Of course, there are miles and miles of beauty to explore outside the park boundaries, areas that Ember is welcome to enjoy with me – I just haven’t taken advantage of the vast wilderness that awaits me like I have the well-worn trails of Glacier.  The problem is, I am navigationally challenged. There, I admit it. I will get you lost if you ask me for directions. I am skilled at taking the route less traveled – because everyone else seems to go in the right direction. Over the course of my life, this has led to some high adventure, extra miles, and moments of exasperation and panic – but since you are reading this you know that I survived all my misadventures thus far and I have seen some beautiful sights along the way.  However, this is not a good quality to have when you are a solo hiker looking to explore new territory!

So on this particular evening, I decided to stick with what I know – a trend, to my chagrin, that I am once again seeing take shape in my life. It is so easy to take the easy way through life and just keep doing what you know you can do, especially during times of upheaval and uncertainty like we are experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic and societal revolution. Who wants to throw more change into their already stressed lives? The problem is, doing the same thing again and again – even things that bring you joy becomes a stressor in its own right. Just like a runner who just runs every day without any variety to their regimen will eventually develop chronic injuries (I should know!), all work and no play, all darkness with no light, all the same all the time will make Erika and everyone else  – down, dull, depressed, and stressed. You won’t likely get lost but you will likely start to wither away.

Last night, having had enough of my one-acre adventures on the home front, I decided to throw my routine to the wind and took off for a safe escape in the mountains. It was late enough in the day I figured I would miss the crowds rushing for the trailheads at the crack of dawn, plus if I was lucky I would be able to capture some great photos in the “golden hour” just before sunset. I had already run 15 miles in the morning so a six-mile round trip hike to the top of Mt. Aeneas was just what I needed to cap my day – and having already done this one before  – I knew I could do it again – that safety thing you know…

I always forget the steep, washboard nature of the narrow string of the thing they call the Jewel Basin Road and its sheer drop-offs en route to Camp Misery – the trailhead for many adventures in the Jewel Basin of the Flathead Valley. It took me 30 minutes to go 6 miles – but I got there – and only met a few cars coming down (thanking God every time that I was on the inside!) The parking area was still jammed with cars at 6 pm. Thankfully, most had people in them readying to depart. After his thoroughly raucous ride in the back of my Santa Fe, Ember was more than ready to hit the trail-ready for his first “big hike” of the season and his first-ever “summit.”

I made an immediate discovery – to the chagrin of my fellow trail companions who occasionally accompany me on my hikes – hiking with Ember onleash adds at least 2 mph more to my already fast pace! Especially going uphill. This area requires dogs to be leashed  – which is fine –  but he is very good off-leash and hiking with a dog onleash takes a toll on my joints – but rules are rules for a reason and we obeyed. Everything was so interesting to his little nose. Ember’s tail wiggled his butt the whole way and his ears were tuned to every rustle, caw, peep, and thud.  We came upon a Momma Grouse and about 6 chicks on the trail – oh boy was that fun! They all escaped no worse for the encounter. The darndest ground squirrels just kept disappearing before Ember’s eyes and he would look back at me incredulously as to why I would not let him off the leash.

 

 

 

 

 

Then we came to the moment of truth – the four-tined fork in the trail with one sign pointing back to the way we came and one sign pointing at all four trails. How the heck are we supposed to know which one to take to the top??? I searched my memory and recalled the one to the right and we took the best-maintained trail because obviously, that would be the one everyone took to the top – right? Off we went. I was so engrossed in the beauty of the valley below and enjoying Ember’s enjoyment of it all that we covered quite a distance before it struck me that we were not going up anymore. In fact, we were going straight down – I did not remember this from my last hike – but instead of turning around Ember pulled me onwards. It then dawned on me that we had only encountered two other people on the trail thus far – rather unusual but highly appreciated. Ember and I continued around a bend and crested a rocky plateau and right before us was the most beautiful waterfront property I have seen in ages. Clearly not a summit view but what a view nonetheless. Placid blue waters outlined by pines with a beautiful peninsula cutting through the middle of the lake. The deep blue of the water was absolutely mesmerizing and I wished for a moment I had brought a tent and sleeping bag to stay the night! I had no idea where I was – obviously, we had taken the “wrong“ trail – but I was so happy to be there!

I checked my mileage tracker and we had long passed the three miles to the summit.  And then I hear “Erika, I can’t believe I am meeting you up here!” My dear friend Josie was coming up from the lake. She and her brothers had backpacked in the day before from the opposite direction for a day and night of fishing. I run into people I know in the darndest of places! Realizing it was getting late, Josie shared in my comical exasperation at my unexpected destination, and Ember and I headed back the way we came.

I must admit to a bit of excitement – a revelation of sorts – I had ventured outside my “safety boundary” without even knowing it and I was having a blast! As the evening sun got lower on the horizon, Ember and I began the climb back up the trail we never should have gone down. But I am so glad we did. If we had had another hour of daylight, we would have conquered Mt Aeneas’s summit too – I felt energized. Taking in the golden hour with my best pal, my heart felt lighter than it has in months. I realized I have trapped the heaviness of life inside of me and it is time to let that go.

We were making good time coming down the trail and I spied an off-shoot from the trail that led to the top of a very inviting mountain. I do not know the name of it, but it looked doable so I told Ember, ”We are going to get to the top of something tonight!” Standing at the grassy top amid wildflowers and trees that have seen better times (but none as wonderful as this moment) with Flathead Lake and the golden canola fields and the many ponds and lakes of the valley below me, I gave every bit of me to God – the troubles, the heaviness, the heartaches, the uncertainty of my life. In turn, I was filled with a rush of happiness that made me cry. It has been so long since I felt like the Erika I used to be. I let Ember loose to explore and we both rejoiced in the freedom in God that is ours when we accept it.

It is time to stray off the well-beaten path. It is in the unknown that the richness and real beauty of life reveal itself. The comforts of home and the security of the known can be stifling if you don’t break free of them once in a while.

Sometimes, the wrong turns you make in life turn out to be the right ones all along… Here’s to many more misadventures to come!

 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”   Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.   If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” – John 14: 5-7

I do know the way after all – the only way that matters.

Let your light so shine!