Easter is my most favorite holy day. It has a special, complex meaning for me, having been so near death myself only to be brought back and given the chance at new life and then to experience the death of my mother on Palm Sunday, bury her on Good Friday, and celebrate her new life on Easter…
Yes, this most holy of all holy days speaks to me. I never forget that only through the grace, love and hands of God do I walk this earth today, and never do I lose sight that I live each day for Him. While this new life that I now know is only temporal, it is so worth living each and every day – even the cloudy, pitiful ones. The days where I ask Him what do I matter, what purpose does my existence serve?
And then I think back to Easter – each and every Easter morning that dawned no matter how dark the times have been – knowing the crosses I have borne serve a far greater purpose than my own present preoccupied discomfort. To shine the love, the truth, and the light of our Lord as bright as I can into the lives of others even when mine is flickering, that is my desire when my feet hit the ground each morning.
Come alive again with me on this blessed day in the blood of Jesus, washed clean and free of the broken past. Find your soul restored for the journey and the work He has called us to, even when you are not certain what that is. May you find renewal, passion, redemption, forgiveness, humility, love and calling for life on this day of Resurrection. As Christ is risen today, may He arise in you!
“What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.” – 1 Peter 1:3-5
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
– John 1:1-13
This has been a challenging and enlightening year. As I come to the manger tonight my heart will not be as full of joy as in recent years, as my life has changed course and I find myself pondering my future.
The world around me feels distraught if not chaotic- plunged into a darkness where even acts of charity are questioned for their ultimate goals, while hunger, strife, desolation, and frustration tear at our nation’s unique fabric- once held together by common beliefs and goals – now splintered across a dark abyss.
We are broken and yet, in this darkness we try to make do. We try to make our lives more perfect for this special time of year until our perfect plans go awry and our high expectations for the holidays go unmet.
Tonight brings to a culmination all of our humanly efforts to be perfect hosts and perfect people in pursuit of joy – our efforts to cast away the darkness in the world. We are not ready, some will say! Some will find themselves alone, longing for home. Others will wish they were alone, longing for peace.
And yet tonight, despite all our brokenness, turmoil, and testiness, despite our deemed lack of preparedness, despite this present darkness we are trying to cast away CHRIST, OUR SAVIOR COMES! BECAUSE of our brokenness, turmoil, and strife, BECAUSE of our deemed lack of preparedness, BECAUSE of this present darkness we are trying to cast away, tonight CHRIST, OUR SAVIOR COMES!
Jesus Christ comes tonight, to be the light of the world and shine in our lives once again.
Christ, Our Savior comes to BE our LIGHT! He brings light to the one who is alone longing for home and family and light to the one who wishes to be alone, longing for peace. What an amazing gift! What wondrous love!
Truly the most awe-inspiring gift from God is our redemption and freedom in Christ to live lives worthy of His sacrifice for us. As I relish in this truth, I feel so blessed to be alive, my heart beating, breathing in His creation, and shining His grace into the world. Immanuel, God is with us and IN us!
Tonight, as we celebrate Christ our Savior’s birth, I will be celebrating the new life each of us has each day in Him. Each of us broken and each of us a masterpiece, made in His image and given newness in Christ, Our Savior’s LIGHT. Let His light shine that beautiful reality on you. Let His light shine through you – through your outreach, your talents, your witness to the world, your love.
As I think about this year, Christ has shined His light on the people that have crossed my path and made a difference in my life. Thinking of you brings me peace. I thank God for each of you, for in some way, God is working through you to impact my life and I pray that in some way through me I have been a light in yours. I pray that you find His peace and glory tonight, that you feel His presence in your heart, that His power guides you on your journey, and that the Love and Light of Jesus Christ our Savior, will shine brightly on you.
Dear heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of your Son, a light that shines even brighter in the darkness that has found its way into my life this year. Thank you for your grace and for showing me the truth. For I know that with you, all things are possible and with you, I am never alone. Thank you for directing my path and my heart.
Thank you, dear Lord for shining your light in my different Christmas.
Amen, Come, Lord Jesus!
May this Christmas Eve have a special significance for all of us— broken people in need of a Savior, who comes to us tonight just as we are….
Let your light so shine, as His light shines in the darkness.
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
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.
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!
So, I “did a thing” in the popular vernacular these days. As of Monday, August 17, 2020, 3 years after purchasing my first home I now OWN it outright – my mortgage is burned and I am completely debt-free! The celebration is, of course, bittersweet. Mom and Dad had a lot to do with this – the payoff was half my hard-earned savings/half my inheritance from them – plus the mindset to get it done! I would give anything for them to be here but I know they would be proud of their only daughter owning her own home before she turned 50 and making wise long-term financial decisions beginning with my first paycheck some 30 years ago. Although, I did joke with my brother that I paid off my house so I would have a topic for my blog this month!
I will admit to feeling a pang of anxiety and momentarily lost my faculties as the wire went out of my bank account to the mortgage company and I saw my liquid cash drop to a quarter of its value the day before. But those feelings soon subsided as the realization set in that I OWN MY OWN HOME! With the way the world is going, having this peace of mind is everything! I am in complete control of my financial wellbeing – as well as completely responsible for anything and everything that goes wrong with it – namely, the house. (As I was reminded by a friend who chose to sell her home and move into an apartment rather than deal with a mortgage and the headaches of home & yard maintenance.) While I may have lost a bit of my free time and playtime – the freedom I gained in financial security and peace of mind far outweighs the importance of my freedom to quench my wanderlust on a whim.
This past weekend, August 14 to be exact, marked the 7-year anniversary of my move to the Flathead Valley in NW Montana. That I continue to observe and outright celebrate this milestone event in my life shows just what a turning point my decision to uproot my firmly planted prairie feet and move west was in my life. The actual activities of August 14, 2013, were rather commonplace in our shared human story: packing up one’s belongings and striking out for somewhere new. For me, however, that day was the opening sentence of the first chapter of my new very independent life.
It seems like ages ago, and yet just yesterday, when I stood in the soft morning light of my final sunrise as a resident of Eastern Montana with so many dreams for my future. With all my belongings packed into a small trailer and the back of my Hyundai Santa Fe, I was off on a grand adventure of self-discovery. My eyes may have sparkled with anticipation, and my ever-present smile made it seem like it was the greatest day in my life, but I kept my fear of the unknown that lay before me well concealed with laughter and my hurried loading of the trailer. I had no idea what the next seven years would have in store for me except for a new job, new relationships, and of course plenty of trail dust.
Looking back at that time with 20/20 hindsight helps put this most uncertain year of 2020 in perspective. While I still have the same great job I moved here for and the mountains still beckon me with the same yodel, the rest of my life unfolded very differently than my original plotline. The love (besides the mountains) that I moved here for turned out not to be the one. My ideas of family get-togethers in the most beautiful part of Montana went unrealized with the deaths of both my parents within a year of each other.
I never imagined buying a home on my own or buying a home with a yard specifically with a dog in mind, nor did I dream I would find yet another Brittany (#5) that would lay claim on my heart and bring as much joy to my life as Ember has so expertly done. Nor did I fathom how much I would need his bright little light accompanying me along the way. Nowhere in my script for my life did I imagine needing an emergency lifesaving infusion of 5 pints of blood or getting married only to have that marriage end a year later. Fulfilling my lifelong dream to become a pastor – albeit via the Lay Pastoral Associate program in MT rather than going to seminary (but who knows!) – and filling my days writing sermons and guiding others in their faith journey was not even on my radar as a possibility that August morning 7 years ago.
Now, as I gather myself together after forking over so much dough and take stock of the life I have now given a bit more solid foundation, I am grateful to God for most of the unexpected or at least unplanned for adventures and resulting perspectives on life that have come my way the past 7 years. I am thankful for the dark times and the clouds in life (some real dark clouds) that make the good times and brighter days so much more precious. Times that taught me things about myself I would never have learned any other way. I thank God for helping me find my voice and using it to sing away the blues and sing in joyful harmony with others. I thank God for the new friendships I have made and the lasting friendships from back home that have stayed the course across the distance. I thank God, for this gift of LIFE!
Reflecting on the last seven years of my life has given me some much-needed perspective of the challenging times we are facing now. For the past 7 months, we have been living upended lives that certainly are not living up to the expectations we had on New Year’s Day as the COVID-19 pandemic does away with so many of our plans, dreams, and even just day to day regular activities. So much has been taken from us – and yet – as my 20/20 hindsight can attest – none of those things we hold dear – relationships, traditions, day to day life, hopes, dreams – are guaranteed. We take today and tomorrow for granted, that the people we love will be there for a phone call, that life will go as planned – until it doesn’t. And yet we get through it- through it all – and most of the time we are better for having lived through the challenges and changes. Knowing that I have survived some pretty hard times in the past and that I have done what I can to secure myself financially, I feel prepared for what could be stormy days ahead – or at least the unexpected.
I also know where the truest form of freedom and stability is found. Jesus never promised us that our lives would be free of trouble or disappointment – in fact, he guaranteed his followers would face hardship. What he did promise was that we would never have to face the twisting, bumpy, costly, sometimes disappointing, long and lonely road of life alone. Through Him, we find a new kind of freedom and shelter from the storm. His love and mercy are mine, all mine – and the same is true for you.
“This is the testimony in essence: God gave us eternal life; the life is in his Son. So, whoever has the Son, has life; whoever rejects the Son, rejects life. My purpose in writing is simply this: that you who believe in God’s Son will know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you have eternal life, the reality and not the illusion. And how bold and free we then become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening. And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours.” – John 5:11-15
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.
Holy Saturday, a day in-between. Our Lord has been crucified and now we wait – wait for the celebration we know is to come – of resurrection, of life, of promise, and hope. But for now, we are suspended in the grief of our Lord’s death – cognizant of our fallen ways. With a broken spirit, I am uncertain of how to go about this day. In better times, this day would be filled with Easter Egg hunts or as we did in my childhood – Easter Snow-bunnies. Others will go about the day as if it were any other Saturday – doing household chores, runs to the dump, shopping, sleeping in, and if we are lucky to be free of snow, maybe some early Spring yard work or a trek into the hills.
And why not? It is difficult to dwell in grief and uncertainty; to live with the darkness a day like Good Friday brings into our being. We want to move on – quickly – to the joys of life we know and are coming. We want to live in the triumphant brass and bold joyous singing of Easter morning and drink in the “Good News” of Easter. Anything to distract us from what this day in the Christian belief system represents – Jesus Christ’s death and descent to hell and the numbness and fear felt by Jesus’s followers after the horrifying events of the previous twenty-four hours. A day where a suddenly and frighteningly unknown future pierces the heart.
I know this day well, as I suspect many of you do too. I lived it after the deaths of my parents and the ending of my marriage. Anyone who has been on the journey of life for a good distance is cognizant of what a great loss can do to upend your world. The day after death. The day after your heart is broken. The day after the divorce. The day after the job was lost, the day after the diagnosis, the day after a dream was shattered, the day after a part of your life has died. The day after a part of you has died. Today is the day after, where putting the pieces of life back together seems unimaginable; when the sheer shock of catastrophe that muted our feelings and sheltered us from the raging storm has worn off.
Today is the hard day. Today is the painful day of initiation by reality. The time after the funeral when the calls and visits stop. The uneasy time between your diagnosis and treatment, when there is absolutely nothing you can do. Today embodies the loneliness and the nothingness that invade the soul after the divorce, miscarriage, or loss of livelihood when friends no longer check-in and life is supposed to get back to normal – or at least they have to get back to living their normal lives. And isn’t that what we all really want to do – just get back to living our normal lives?
But the thing is, great loss changes you, forever. Normal will never look the same again. Great loss forever unsettles you from the life you once knew. Life won’t be the same. You won’t be the same. Today you are in the shadow of The Cross.
And that cross will transform you.
It may harden you, it may fill you with bitterness or remorse. It may soften you and make you more present. In whatever manner, it will change you.
In this time of global pandemic, we are living in a prolonged Day After. A prolonged Time In-Between. As the entire world struggles with the great unknown – where lives seem to be snatched away on a whim, parts of our lives may be lost forever, and life as we know it has been suspended, we rightfully struggle through the absolute uncertainty of what our future might possibly hold.
We have gradually adjusted to restricted lives and sheltered in-place, given up physical human connection, stopped gathering with others for any reason, closed our businesses for the good of the community, stretched our life-saving entities to a crisis point, incurred great financial losses, and lost trust in our government. It’s as if we have been isolated and entombed with hardly a sliver of light coming in.
And yet… From our tombs, in those slivers of light, we have seen amazing acts of solidarity and love in this transformation of our lives. For the love of our neighbor and the stranger we have restricted our lives and sheltered in-place, given up physical human connection, stopped gathering with others for any reason, closed our businesses for the good of the community, incurred great financial losses, and worked together to feed the hungry, defended those fighting for us with sewing machines and 3-D printers, helped our business rivals endure, and lifted each other up in prayers and with songs.
Indeed, without the horrors of The Cross and the bleak uncertainty that reigns over This Day, we would not have the hope and promise of a new life tomorrow – Easter Day – reigning in our lives as I write.
Remember that new life sprang from The Cross and in the tomb, a history-changing transformation began.
Our world and our lives won’t be the same after this pandemic – and there will be a day after.Just like today. How will you live in it and how will you live it? How has the shadow of the cross changed you? Have you let it change you?
As we try to carry on with our lives – however unsettled and uncertain each day may be – remember the One who endured this Day After, this Time In-Between. Trust that God is neither absent nor inactive. We know that God was preparing to raise Jesus from the dead and provide the turning point for time immemorial. God was creating a future that none on that Saturday after Good Friday could imagine and God is not finished yet – He is never finished. God never stops creating in us and He never stops loving us.
Today, God is at work – redeeming and restoring the whole of creation with His mercy and grace. Let this be so. Let His will be done.
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. ” – Colossians 3:1-4
Oh God of second chances and new beginnings, here I am AGAIN! Do you think this “masterpiece” of yours will ever find her way? As I begin the much too steady march toward the half-century mark, one would think I would have some inkling of purpose, some sense of Your plotline, something more than a faint goat trail leading me along the cliff edges of life… And yet this work in progress just continues to evolve – my life is Your whimsy – and while I am often more bemused than amused with Your sense of humor, I do trust. I trust the twisting, turning, sometimes jagged, often bumpy road I have traveled is exactly the way I was meant to go. And with each turn, I grow closer to You. In every darkness, You are there leading me on towards the light. Sometimes those rays of hope seem far out of reach and that is when You send beams of light into my life. You never stop creating in me and recreating me. Thanks, God. Thank you for not giving up on me – once, twice, again, and again.
The words I speak and write of You come straight from my heart. Perhaps, indeed, that was and is Your plan all along. Here’s to another year in Your light – all I ask is that Your will is fulfilled – and that I might shine brightly again.
“You’ll sing God’s praises to everyone you meet,
testifying, ‘I messed up my life—
and let me tell you, it wasn’t worth it.
But God stepped in and saved me from certain death.
I’m alive again! Once more I see the light!’
“This is the way God works.
Over and over again
He pulls our souls back from certain destruction
so we’ll see the light—and live in the light!” Job 33:27-30
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.
“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.