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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going West

“I’d say Lord has blessed us all today. It’s just that he has been particularly good to me.” – A River Runs Through It

Amen.

Let it be so. I could leave it at that sweet word of thanksgiving to sum this wonderful day up – but I am too much in love with words to be so concise. 😊

Go west, young lady, go west.

So west I went and I almost didn’t come back.

Have you ever been so relaxed in God’s creation that you cry? As the miles and hours passed en route to my destination I could have pinched myself. This was not a Glacier Park experience by any means. No 3 a.m. wake-up blasts to beat the maddening crowds, no seeing nothing but red taillights on the road before me, no wondering if I would find a place at the trailhead to park, or a private place on the trail to find a tree, no spiking of my blood pressure or clenched teeth. No, none of that!!!

As this peaceful Sunday morning unfolded, I was transported by Dvorak and Vivaldi into a place and time that I used to know. Pulse quickening anticipation of what awaited me – something new and unknown.

The autumn tapestry before me was like a warm quilt embracing me – not a red tail light in sight – just deep russet berry bushes lining the creek and river banks, rich cinnamon and sienna reds bringing Ember to mind, and leafy golden splashes of soaring light.

It was as if God was in His studio painting away – reading every thought of mine and knowing just the “thing” I needed.

Joy.

What I needed was joy.

Unadulterated, uncalculated, uncomplicated joy.

Honestly, the whole day seemed to be a simple gift, an answered prayer, a whisper of grace with every step leading me to joy.

Theologian Henri Nouwen writes that a joyful vision of life only can come when we realize just how short an opportunity we have to say yes to God’s love. Poet David Whyte says that to find joy you must become a living frontier. To both I can attest.

Amen. Let it be so.

Hanging Hope on the Christmas Tree

It was doomed to fail from the start. My heart set on a cozy evening spent decorating the Christmas tree by the fire with all the warmth and happiness this traditional activity surely evokes. My memories told me as much. Having listened to enough Pentatonix Christmas, Mannheim Steamroller, and Boston Pops Christmas while cleaning the house earlier in the day, my mood was headed in the right direction – or so I thought.

Out came the boxes of cherished crystal figures, lace snowflakes and angels, Christopher Radko mercury glass, and Hallmark Snoopy ornaments – each imbued with special meanings from significant events or the marking of the passing year. Given my age – I have far more  than my Hammacher Schlemmer World’s Best Noble Fir 7’ slim tree could ever gracefully hold.

Now all I needed was a good Christmas movie to accompany my nostalgic journey. Alas, the evening’s offerings from my limited TV subscriptions was confined to a repertoire of Hallmark Holiday romance movie sap; and given that my year began in a courtroom dissolving mine, that genre was not on my menu. So, I decided on the “uplifting and philosophical” tale of life as seen and told by a wise, car racing enthusiast dog, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” and I was sobbing within the first five minutes.

Bleary eyed already, I began adorning the tree. I have a method – beginning with the least emotion conjuring ornaments that usually decorate the back of the tree and moving on to the more and more tear producing: Snoopy ornaments from Dad, the Mercury Glass from Mom, then the crystal angels and Waterford crystal (!) Snoopys from Mom and Dad, then the family collection of Scandinavian hardanger lace snowflakes, and the hole filling Christmas balls, and finally the pièce de résistance – the delicate crystal icicles that dangle elegantly from each bow amongst the memory mishmash. This time I made it all the way to the Mercury Glass before I could go no further. Maybe it was the movie – the book of the same on my shelf has significant water damage. But alas, I do believe I was once again reacting to the disjuncture of what I had always hoped for and recreated in my memories, and the reality of what my family’s past and my present-day Christmases were; just like the caroling Snoopy under the lamppost ornament was as I pulled it from its “heirloom collection box” – broken, imperfect, and most definitely not Hallmark movie material.

I decided to give in to the movie, the adoring eyes of my puppy, and the tears brimming over my eyes and forgo the tree for the time being. After all – it wasn’t even my mother’s birthday yet – and she had a rule – the tree did not go up (live or artificial) until after her December 6th birthday. So I still had a day to wait. Truth be told, as I go about this season of Advent and the preparations for Christmas, I see my mom and feel her in almost everything I do. It’s not that our Christmas celebrations were overly joyous – more often they were anything but!

Despite my recent attempt to recreate the happy Christmases of the past, 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 beautiful Christmas trimmings, but it is in the quiet, simpler moments, in the silence by the fire that I see my Mom and where I now feel the most at home.

My family always held firm to the Scandinavian tradition that Christmas Eve is the big event – our presents were opened after church services (yes, often plural), after the Christmas light tour, after supper, and after me and Mom played the piano – while Dad listened in his Lazy Boy eating peanut brittle, and my brother – well, I am not sure what he did – but he was and is 10 years older than me so at that time we were in different worlds! 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 piano or organ for Christmas services and the weariness from all the rushing-to-church hubbub that happened on Christmas Eve (and always!). Finally, she would sit in the soft silent glow of the Christmas tree as the last of the fire’s 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 my concept of Christmas changed.  Because I saw 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.

My parents are gone now and my brother lives on the other side of this great big state. 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 and this world are! 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 at Christmas because they are now mine too – 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.

I wonder now if that yearly time of reflecting by the fire were threshold moments for my mother and now me. I, like many people I have encountered in the past year, find myself at a threshold, a threshold in life that feels extended and suspended at the same time. As Father Michael Marsh writes, “These threshold experiences are times of change and transition, invitations to self-reflection and growth, and openings to something new and unknown. They are scary and often painful times.” They leave you asking and not knowing whether your life is falling apart or falling into place. As I look back on the year that was and what lays ahead, I am uncomfortable with, afraid of even, this uncertainty and not knowing if I am falling apart or my life is falling into place. 

Perhaps this is one of those years when our hindsight will be mercifully clearer and more gracious than our present perspective. A new decade dawned into a darkness none of us saw coming – not just for the individual or unfortunate few but for the entire world. No one has been untouched by this pandemic, the racial strife and recognition of wrongs, and the national political turmoil that came to our streets, our screens, and our relationships. Lives have been lost. Livelihoods have been lost. Lives and how we live them have forever been changed – some more so than others – some for the worse and some for the better. It was, as I have said many times in passing conversations, the year that kept on giving even without the pandemic.

I have been walking through this trying time in a darkness I didn’t make but a darkness that I needed. This darkness has let my Lord and Savior’s light shine in my life – not necessarily making it easier – but showing me where I need Him – everywhere and in every way! Immanuel – amen!

Maybe instead of fighting the current darkness many of us are feeling right now, we need to sit with it in silence, befriend it, and feel its intense intimacy and holiness. Welcome God to join you. I know in my darkest times that is when God draws near. I was dreading Christmas this year – without even my church family to gather with – and yet as we move closer to that most holy night, I know that this will be the truest, holiest, most powerful – most real Christmas I have had in a long, long time – perhaps not since that first most imperfect and dark and scary one so many years ago – before we muddled it up with our commercialized concepts of good tidings of joy and presents and parties and reindeer and… Let’s sit in this dark silent night and let His radiant light illumine our hearts as nothing else can.

My tree is decorated now. The tears brought on by the longings of the past – of what was and could have been – now dried. It sparkles with hope. The symbols of the past remind me that I have passed through many threshold times, some much more difficult than what I am experiencing now and we are experiencing as a whole. And yet, I am here and so are you and so is Jesus, God, Immanuel. 

Yes, 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 I know I was seeing the true in-dwelling of God in the tears of my Mom and my own tears now. Now I understand why she insisted on the white lights of peace and His amazing radiant grace.

Wishing you radiant grace, a deep peace, and a certain knowing that you are God’s Beloved this Christmas!

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Isaiah 9: 2-7

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.

Finding My Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine!

Awakening to Fear

The Flathead River is a hop, skip, and jump from my home in Columbia Falls. At the start of the pandemic, the winter snows had just begun to melt away and for a brief period, I could take Ember down the steep brush-covered hill and enjoy a reprieve from the ever-present canyon wind while wandering along the rocky bank with the warmth of the sun reflecting off the placid water and a hushed quiet broken only by an occasional bird song. It was a surreal time that I relished – within a block from my home I found escape and respite from the daily COVID counts, the crashing stock market, and the loneliness of isolation.

***

COVID-19 stirred us from the usual narratives of our lives – shook our foundations of routine and wiped away much of what we took for granted – the air we breathe, the people we surround ourselves with (outside of our own four walls), the freedom to “go” to work and “go” to school among so many other facets of our daily lives. At first, we were incredibly disrupted, but as the weeks wore on and the idea of sheltering-in-place was less of a novelty and more of a necessity, a new rhythm of life set in. We began to celebrate our stay-at-home life and the notion of staying-in became the stuff of morning newscasts, cooking shows, and advertisements for everything from buying a car to lawn fertilizer. My phone and Zoom conversations really did seem like a lifeline and I found myself not wanting to say goodbye.  Getting to know all about your nearest and dearest became not just an ancestral-oriented hobby but a real thing. And after far too many (for some) quiet moments of self-reflection and self-realization, getting really tired of knowing all about oneself also became a thing. All of this, of course, was our attempt to evade the much-feared Coronavirus that was invading our communities, upending economies, and snatching away lives and livelihoods.

***

When the mountain snows began to melt and the spring rains began to fall, my beloved river of respite began to rise; slowly at first, but gaining more and more of the rocky bank with every visit I made until there was nothing left for me to explore let alone stand on. And then the spring rains gave way to violent storms – sudden deluges of water from heavens added to the rising waters. The once sable colored reflecting pool was now a raging river of mud and fallen trees.

***

As the days, weeks and months of COVID-19’s unwanted presence wore on, the novel communal narrative of our lives began to change. Shelter-in-place restrictions were lifted and we emerged from our cocoons of confined comfort to a communal reality check waiting for us. It was as though the virus not only infected bodies but awakened us to a stark truth: while the media and CDC wanted us to think we were all in this fight together – clearly, we were not. Sectors of our society, those whose personal narratives have always been different from mine and most likely yours, were pummeled. Pummeled not just by the severity of the virus’s impact on certain ethnicities but on those whose already precarious financial stability was stripped away. COVID-19 exposed inequalities across many of society’s systems: justice, education, health care, food supply, employment, and housing. Add in the undercurrent of racism – whether one is blatantly so or our lives simply reflect the very long story and history of race and fights for equality across the many lines of division that have defined us as a nation, and we are now seeing the other side of American greatness and being forced to deal with a seismic shift in the narrative of our nation.

***

The last two weeks, my walks to the river have been few and far between. It would seem that mother nature is taking her cue from those of us on mother earth and throwing a bit of temper tantrum. One violent storm a week was something I was accustomed to growing up in Eastern Montana, but here in the Flathead, we seem to be having a rather unusually violent spring storm cycle. When the river’s roar beckons me near, my breath is taken away by the deep seductive green flows rushing by. Whitecaps and nearly surfable (at least for me) swells leave me in awe of the sometimes destructive, always humbling power of nature.

***

“Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed,” said actor and director Will Smith in August 2016.  Who could have imagined how true these words would become? Things are not worse; they are being uncovered and the truth is seeing the light of day. As Jesus says to his disciples as he sends them out to tend to the people on the margins of society of the Roman empire in Matthew 10:26-27: “Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now.” (The Message)

As the fear of COVID-19 seemed to disappear overnight, news reports and social media were flooded with images and stories of a new fight taking place on the streets of our country and in our hearts and minds. And if you find yourself asking what happened to the way things used to be – you know just four short months ago before the great disruption – you are not alone. But the chasm that divides our nation and brought throngs of citizens to the streets has infected us much longer than the virus that has recently plagued our society – it just took death and perhaps communal isolation to make them visible.

And behind that longing for the way things “used to be” – if you are really honest with yourself as I have been – is the underlying force of fear – fear of being wrong, fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of being unsettled and uncomfortable, fear of losing power and control (who doesn’t crave power and control?), fear of loss, fear of the truth, fear of disruption and confrontation, and fear of what we do not understand. Perhaps foremost, fear of a damaged or lost identity and being called to a higher allegiance than the powers that be in this world.

Fear. Is there any more pervasive or powerful motivating force in human experience?

From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us, certainly to fear the stranger, sometimes to fear even those who are closest to us. Political leaders have long recognized the power of fear in ensuring our conformity to the structures of this world, even when doing so does not serve our best interests. Fear is the driving force behind vast segments of our economy, as well as, increasingly, our political priorities.[1] Fear is what gives rulers power over their subjects – it has been a reigning force in authority from the beginning of man. Why do you think most animals run from us?

But there are other motivating forces that can topple the fiercest fears – the direct opposite of fear – knowledge coupled with love. When we become cognizant of the facades of human power attained by the power of fear and recognize the infinite power over our whole beings of mercy and love, the threats of hate, injustice, and racism are no longer the determining forces in our lives.

It is hard work confronting fear and power, but it is work that Jesus called his disciples to do – the kicking out of evil spirits and of tenderly caring for bruised and hurt lives – and His call continues to us age after age.

While Jesus warns his disciples of the hazardous work ahead of them, He also empowers them with the Holy Spirit: “Stay alert. This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack, so don’t call attention to yourselves. Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove. Don’t be naive. Some people will impugn your motives, others will smear your reputation—just because you believe in me. Don’t be upset when they haul you before the civil authorities. Without knowing it, they’ve done you—and me—a favor, given you a platform for preaching the kingdom news! And don’t worry about what you’ll say or how you’ll say it. The right words will be there; the Spirit of your Father will supply the words.” Matthew 10:16-20

While I don’t feel as though I am a sheep among wolves, I do find myself having more and more difficult conversations with people – those I barely know and those I admire and love. Why can’t they just see?? See the truth?  See the other side of things? See it my way? Just look for heaven’s sake! And I am sure they are thinking the same thing following our discussions. But I soldier on – in my quest for knowledge and understanding. My work is much less hazardous – it mainly consists of less talking and more listening – to all points of view. I do refuse to be, as Jesus says, “bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.”  (Matt 10:28) But I keep an open mind knowing there is nothing they can do to my soul, my core being. I’ll let God handle that.

One of my struggles in life as a whole has been accepting change and making decisions in the face of change. I am always afraid of making the wrong decision – but if I allow myself time to make decisions and research my options and learn about the opportunities – I find myself less fearful of the unknown that comes with all change. Last month I wrote about being okay with not knowing things. However, with knowledge comes power – power over my own fears – and the power of understanding. So, I have taken it upon myself to try to understand the lives of those whose narratives are vastly different from mine. While I wish I could say I have been doing this all along in life, that would be a self-serving blatant lie. On the contrary – it all began just a few mornings ago.

I was out for my morning run without a care in the world, other than my ridiculously slow pace.  As I listened to the news, story after story from the frontlines about the fractured state of our nation left me numb – but one story left my heart broken – and maybe for the first time really cognizant of the privileges I do have for being born – white. Shawn, the son of a MN State Representative, is a 17-year-old star athlete who happens to be an avid runner himself – albeit a much faster one than me. This young man’s determination to be the best he can be should be the only thing that defines just how great he can be. But that is not the case. Because he is black – he cannot run alone in the neighborhood in which he lives – because “black boys” who are running – are running from trouble. Shawn knows this first hand as he has been stopped on more than one occasion and questioned by “good folks” and the police. He has made peace with the fact that he can only run on the school track or with the team from now on – but he shouldn’t have to do that.  He should be able to run in his neighborhood just like I do every morning and worry only about his pace. Amid all the other stories about racial disparity and strife, his story hit home with me.

As did the story of a fellow partner in ministry.  As I read an essay written by a woman pastor in the Lutheran church her words stopped me short: “The toughest thing I have ever tried to be is both black and Lutheran.”

***

I spent some time by the river a few days ago – it was still rushing wildly, still rising and disturbing the landscape that directs its course. It was early morning before the sun could warm the air. Waves lapped at my feet and every so often would crash against a logjam splashing me with icy cold water. What a wake-up call.

***

My beginnings in the church echo the writer’s. We both had moms who were church organists, we both were in church every Sunday, and we both remained involved throughout high school and desired a deeper life with God. She pursued seminary – despite the fact that women pastors were still the rarity – I did not. But while our beginnings were the same, our experiences in the church were not. Unlike her, I have never been asked why I became a Lutheran – I am a blond Scandinavian – you just are. Nor have I been accused of not being Lutheran enough or told I am not the best one to be making decisions about the direction of our ministry based on my background. We are two women who believe that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. And, so are all the people who are on the margins in this world. We are two women who share a living, daring, confidence in God’s grace that welcomes all as a whole person.

My most formative years were spent in the cultural stew of Northern Virginia. I like to say that my Black, Asian, Hindu, Iranian, Turkish, and Hispanic friends were a great group of kids with similar ideals and plans for life. Ideally that would be the truth. Perhaps I was too young and colorblind to understand. Perhaps I am still too colorblind. I have scoffed at the notion of white privilege. I believe we are each responsible for making our way in this world and every single one of us will encounter hardship along the way – some more than others – but that really is life. Life is not fair. We all face circumstances that we would never wish on anyone else. But my circumstances occur in a world where I can pretty much do anything I want within the systems I have grown accustomed to. The odds are on my side if I set my mind to do something – for people like Shawn and Pastor Tiffany, the odds are not so favorable.

Yet they are confronting fear on all fronts – their own and those of a society ingrained in systems that only work for some. I am listening to their stories with an open heart and mind that wants to understand. I am confronting my fear of challenges to the systems that have served me so well because these systems are not what I chose to align my life with. Paula D’Arcy, a writer who also serves as adjunct faculty at Oblate School of Theology and Seton Cove Spirituality Center, in Texas shares in her essays  “The Freedom of the Greater Heart,” and “Emancipation,” these thoughts: “The illusion is thinking that, by changing a system, an ideology, or our external circumstances, things will change. No; freedom is . . . realizing that this Love is not a symbol or an ideal; it is a living power. . . . There is a living love that exceeds our circumstances and our conditioning. That’s the truth we all must find. The profound problems of hatred, judgment, [racism,] and revenge, our jealousies and our violence, will be solved by love, and love alone.”

There is a lot of which to be afraid of in the world these days, but it is not just the spread of COVID-19, economic instability, and violence in the streets. My fear is living in a world where people align themselves with the powers gleaned from fear rather than those from courageous love.

***

“Chaos calls to chaos, to the tune of whitewater rapids. Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me. Then God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night! My life is God’s prayer.“  – Psalm 42:7-8

Let your light so shine!

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

Hope from the Ashes

The ashes I wore on my forehead in observance of Ash Wednesday weighed heavy on my thoughts and heart. I left our evening service feeling as dark and broken as the ashen cross smeared across my forehead.

I have been filled with much sadness, regret, guilt and shame since my brief but once so blessed marriage was annulled. There is heartbreak, a sense of deep loss, and a distinct absence of belonging – belonging to someone and finally belonging in a world that doesn’t always include the individual who is alone. I failed.  He failed. We failed. Our relationship didn’t work.  Our marriage was not the kind of marriage reflected in our vows before God and to one another. When one is more alone in marriage then they were when they were alone in life, the way forward is hard to discern.  Trusting that  God brought us together and trusting that He would see us through no matter the path we chose, we let each other go.

And yet, I could not let it go. For I was afraid. Not afraid of being alone – though that saddened me greatly – no, I was afraid of God –  the retributive God that I had minded all of my days. How could I – me the ever faithful, chaser of God’s own heart- walk away from a covenant I made before God?

And so I wrestled, mightily. My life forever changed – condemned to a darkness one who believes should never know.  I let the darkness get the better of me. I felt compelled to share the darkness of our situation and in so doing I gave more life to it.  In hurt, anger, and shame I said things better left unspoken.  I regret that. That is not who I am.  I brought myself down and away from God. God knew the truth and that should have been enough for me.

I have felt separated from God and the life God intended for me ever since.  I have transgressed from the way I have always strived to live my life – with perseverance and honor – striving only to share hope and shine God’s light into this world. Not dwell in darkness.

Yes, the ashes of Ash Wednesday felt heavy on my soul – long after they had been washed away.  For a few hours, I bore the cross of Christ for all to see – while hanging on to my own cross of shame, regret,  sin –  at least that is what I thought my cross was about.

Later, as I was reflecting on the Words of Ash Wednesday, I realized that I seem to have forgotten the very faith that I profess, the very faith of which I preach the Good Life Saving News.

“God at the margins,
We have wandered far from your home;
again and again, we lose our way.
We turn inward, afraid of the world around us.
We forget that you have saved your people before
and promise to do so again.
Do not remember the deeds of our past,
but turn our faces toward the future,
where your forgiveness is sure,
your welcome is clear,
and your love overflows.
Amen.”

“Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”

“My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.” – from Psalm 51

Oh me, of little faith! The cross I bear is of my own making. The darkness I have held within me is my greatest sin. It has tamed and impoverished my life. I am the one who separated myself from God – He has never let go of me. God did not bring my marriage to an end but He will use every moment of that union and dissolution for good.

I have let fear, self-doubt, guilt, regret,  disappointment, and wounds control my life. God did not put these stifling parameters on me.  I let my brokenness embody my spirit rather than let the Holy Spirit embody me.  I have let life go by me – afraid of what might come at me next.

The ashes weigh heavy. They remind me that life is fragile, finite, precious, and unpredictable. There are no guarantees on tomorrow and the past is but a memory – all we have is the beautiful, painful, everchanging now.  God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in regret.  He made that perfectly clear in the waters of my and your baptism. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. God is not my source of condemnation. He is my strength and my shield.

From the ashes God calls forth a question -Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? Well, if God can quote Mary Oliver –  then so can I – I will pay attention, I will fall down into the grass, I will kneel down in the grass, and I will be idle and blessed – and revel in His presence. with a pure heart and a renewed steadfast spirit within me.

Strengthened I can let go of what I cannot change and focus on every single wild and precious day that lays before me. That is the life God wants for me and it will be good, Changed and strengthened – transformed by pain and redeemed by grace.

The light has shined in the darkness. Lord, have mercy on me.

Grace in the Fall

“For each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.”

Autumn, my favorite time of year, came and ended early this year – disrupting my much anticipated moments of relishing the peace that settles into our tourist mecca in the waning days of summer’s glorious reign. With a bone-chilling gale-force wind and a threat of white precipitation, my attention was caught, if only briefly, as warm days with gold and rust-hued pleasantries returned to soothe my shaken spirit. And for a week, all was right in the world! Autumn’s cool crisp mornings invigorated my body and brilliant sunsets disguised the encroaching darkness that would soon confine and redefine my activities.

And then, as is so often the case in life, just like that it was gone. Almost overnight the golden glory in the trees was stripped away, and the lollygaggers that had yet to debut their autumn-hued wardrobe were frozen in time, left to wither and shrivel to a boring brown descent. The vibrancy of life was interrupted by the suddenness of death – a painful ending.

“We were robbed!” some, including me, would exclaim. An air of solemnity permeated gatherings. Moments of shared panic ensued as readying for the long nights of winter was packed into already too-short days instead of a few leisurely, festive weeks. And yet, as abrupt as her arrival was with her fierce demands for attention that shocked my system, I find comfort in autumn’s whimsy, and no less so this year.

Of all the seasons we are so fortunate to observe, autumn’s nature feels most promising to me. I have come to realize that there is a quiet, if not hidden, beauty in the dying that takes place – in this season and in life. Life is a continual series of dying’s – endings – that give way to seeds of new life. Parker Palmer, an American author, educator, and speaker, eloquently describes the grace of this truth: “The hopeful notion that new life is hidden in dying is surely reinforced by the visual glories of autumn. (Indeed,) what artist would paint a deathbed scene with the vibrant and vital palette nature uses?”

We often associate the radiance of springtime with the beginning of life. We celebrate the emergence of tender shoots and sprigs of green from the cold, barren, snow-covered earth; beginning a cycle that winds slowly down to the rustle of dying leaves that have fallen back to earth. But something first had to die – come to an end – so that a newer life, fed and strengthened by whatever has been lost, could come alive in its place. It is in the radiant dying in autumn and the barren sleep of winter, that the seeds for the new life born in spring and lived in summer, are first imagined.

Resurrection can only come through death. Fr. Richard Rohr describes this passageway to new life: “Jesus willingly died—and Christ arose—yes, still Jesus, but now including and revealing everything else in its full purpose and glory.” It is in the dyings of life when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is born through death. We experience these dyings more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. Ideas, plans, and philosophies die back to engender new ones. When we graduate high school and college that season of life dies as we enter the next stage of life in adulthood. When relationships begin and end, when we marry, when we have children, when we leave a job or a neighborhood, when we begin a new endeavor or pursue a different direction, a part of us dies. Must die. Must end. You can choose to view the dyings and painful endings in life as passages to anger, blame, hatred, depression, and resentment, or you choose to let them be passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. With each of these dyings, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go and lead us to discover new directions, new purposes. With every ending, we are given a passageway to something more.

That’s much more hopeful than the idea that life, the moment it appears, begins winding its way inescapably toward death. If you think about it, everything alive in the world and in us is made up of things that have passed before us, gone about the business of dying.

We live in a culture that wants light without darkness, the radiance and revelry of spring and summer without the demands and dying of autumn and winter, the pleasures of life without the pangs of death. But the longer I walk this earth, the more I have come to realize that the fullness of life can only be gained in the tension of this paradox. Life is not diminished by darkness or death. It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings, the autumns and springs of life remind me that everything is forever being made new.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:19-20

Let your light so shine!

Sunday, Sunday – So Good To Be Free

A sermon on Luke 13:10-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is such Good News! Amen!

1. The Law of Love; David Lose

 

My prayer this Maundy Thursday

Lord,
Forgive me for the times that I too have been Judas. One cannot betray unless you’ve first been given something to betray. You entrusted Judas to be one of the twelve. You entrusted to me love, friendship, trust, confidence, responsibility, a call – promises and gifts that I have left unopened, broken, or thrown away. This Maundy Thursday, I recognize that I am not deserving of your gracious love.
But you are Jesus. Your economy of grace is different than mine. You washed Judas’ feet just like the other disciples. You loved him with the same love that you loved them. Oh, what wondrous love is this? I want to love like You. I want to live not just for You but like You.
Help me, Lord. In your name, I pray.