The Fear Within

“What are you afraid of?” The wily voice challenged as Common Sense screamed her rebuttal at the top of her lungs. The inner battle was fierce as I stood at the edge of the gaping crevasse. My summit destination awaited me just a “short” 3-foot leap across a void in my beloved terra firma that dropped to a rocky ending some 2000 feet below me.

Three of my companions had managed the death-defying leap and stood triumphantly on the other side, beckoning for me to follow suit. My mind, however, was dwelling on my less than graceful tendency to trip over my own shadow rather than how I bested the long-jump record in the elementary track and field meet  or how I had,  just moments before,  lithely navigated through a keyhole notch with hand and foot holds  of less than 2-inch widths and a similar  death-drop,  to my current vantage point.  What indeed was I afraid of? Obviously –  certain death!

Mustering all that I had within me and giving thanks to my God for the life I had lived, I took inventory of my physical being, surveyed the earth far below me one last time, and leaped across landing solidly on the other side. In jubilation and relief, I let out an exhilarated whoop! Forgetting, for the moment, that I would have to repeat this feat on the way back. I had faced down my fear and lived to tell many, many tales about it!

In fact, I have done this sort of nonsense as my mother would call it, over and over again ever since – at water crossings, on narrow ledges, in punk rock mosh pits, and on the back of a motorcycle – challenging my physical capacity and venturing beyond my “normal” to new heights.

But when it comes to the less tangible aspects of life – my fearless abandon seems to have run away and hid. It’s hard to be a risk-taker when the risks and fears you are facing down are of the innermost kind.

I know I am not alone in this. None of us are immune. All of us are managing some kind of pain, facing some fear, struggling with something inside that we hide from the world. At a recent class I am taking on leading and living with confidence, one of the exercises we were asked to do was to write down on a sticky note what we were most afraid of in coming to this class and then post it on a board. Without any sharing of ideas in the process, the one overriding fear was the fear of judgment. This word showed up so many times on the sticky notes that we all looked at each other and hesitantly laughed. As we discussed the fear we all had in common we also admitted that each one of us had walked into the room that night and made a mental note of how everyone else had it so much better than we did. If we had met any one of these individuals on the street or at a social gathering, we would have wished our lives were half as put together as theirs.

The ironic – and frankly rather funny – part of it all was that we all wanted the class to be a “judgment-free” zone. And yet here we all were with our inner struggles fighting a battle we presumed was unique to us, all the while judging each other based on our assumptions of one another.

There is no such thing as a judgment-free zone. Judging others is inherent to our survival – it is a basic instinct we use to assess the safety of our surroundings and its inhabitants. Our fear of judgment comes from our need to belong, our fear of being rejected, and it is most often a reflection of our own insecurities. We tend to judge other people based on what we think is acceptable or not – and we judge ourselves by the same criteria.

Our judgments are formed by the culture we have grown up in, the expectations of our family, and the lenses through which we see the world: our personal experiences, our peer groups, the social media we follow, our religious or spiritual background, the political viewpoints we choose to follow. The nature of judgment is not static but unique to each individual.

When you fear judgment by another, what you’re really doing is judging yourself AND those around you. All those beliefs you have about yourself – that you are a failure, a waste of space, that you are not thin enough or rich enough or smart enough or have it together enough – of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose – those are self-judgments based on the shame you feel and the failures you hold on to but try to hide. You assume that you’ve done something, or will do something, that is going to cause a negative judgment. This is a reflection of your own fears and a projection of your own thoughts onto those around you. You assume they feel the same way and will also judge you.

So, if everyone judges but seemingly fears being judged what are we to do? How do we deal with the fear of judgment so that our lives are not limited by it?

It begins with vulnerability. By vulnerability I mean being honest with others, allowing them to see who you really are, how you actually think and feel and in turn, seeing others as they really are – take the time to listen to what they think and feel. Rather than isolating yourself, engage in the give and take of relationship.

Remember that everyone around you – people you respect and turn to – may also be struggling AND those struggles don’t define us any more than our competencies do…Fight the comfort you find in hiding your struggles. As Brené Brown, a TED Talk phenomena, author, and research professor at the University of Houston who studies courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame writes, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Be brave like I was standing over that yawning chasm of nothingness in my pursuit of a summit and muster all that is inside you and share it. Be brave and be known for who you really are.

Start with someone you trust; someone your gut tells you will be supportive and share what holds you back then, offer them an invitation to trust. You may just find that you are not alone in the fight and find a fellow encourager rather than judgmental foe.

My own fear of judgment has been paralyzing at times – preventing me from making decisions and embracing opportunities that have come my way. My hope is that in finding fellow fear fighters and sharing the journey with them, reaching new heights in my life won’t be limited to mountaintops.

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” ― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Let your light so shine!

 

The Beauty Behind You

The day began with so much promise. Up before sunrise with a mountaintop destination in mind, I was filled with pre-hike exuberance. The sunrise confirmed every giddy emotion brewing within me as the long drive grew closer to an end. The forecast was a partly cloudy one with clearing skies by afternoon – a perfect photography setup in my book. A few clouds add interest to the landscape and cut the garish glare of sunlight. As I made my way to the trailhead I could feel the clamber of the world falling silent. I was early enough to have the trail to myself and my heart fluttered with the familiar sense of nerves that solo adventures always bring.

Lakes, waterfalls, rock formations, and plentiful wildlife awaited me and my camera. Morning sun highlighted the mountains and the low clouds that hung on my mountain top destination gave visual interest to the peaks surrounding me. Lakes shimmered in grey, gold, and deep blue hues reflecting the changing sky. I made my way in the soft morning breeze all the while dreaming of the incredible views that awaited me some 9 miles away. Surely the clouds would lift I kept thinking.  Surely the breeze and sunshine will burn them away. But the higher I climbed no such dissipation occurred. Instead, much to my chagrin, the wind seemed to be blowing in even more clouds.

By the time I reached the saddle my summit was invisible. My giddiness was quickly evaporating into a cloud of gloom. Confound it, I stammered to myself with an ache in my throat as I weighed my options. I thought back to my first ascent of her holy heights 3 prior climbs before and the reward of 360 views. Since that epic day in which I vowed to climb every peak I could see from on high, this mountain top has captivated me. Alas, on the next two attempts I was turned away by 60 + mph winds, thunder, and smoke so thick you slice it. This time I was determined to show the mountain who was boss and yet I felt defeated once again. All that work with nothing to show for it. And then I turned and looked back.

But wait! You are not supposed to do that! Not on the mountain and not in life! Boston – my all-time favorite rock band – hit number 4 on the Billboard Top 100 with their second album’s title track “Don’t Look Back” in 1978. One of my favorite theologians and thinkers, C.S. Lewis, in his infinite wisdom wrote: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

Psychologists, TED talkers, and pithy Facebook posts give similar advice for those looking to make a success of themselves. “Never look back. Always take the next step forward.” “Don’t look back; you’re not going that way.” “Keep your eyes on the prize.”  “Move on.”

Despite the oft-quoted posit of George Santayana and retro-fitted versions of it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” conventional wisdom of late urges us to let go of the past and leave it there if we want to make any positive steps forward.

Or perhaps you are more inclined to philosophies of the present –  to live in the now – to embrace the present – to meditate on the moment. Leo Tolstoy wrote: “Remember then: there is only one time that is important – Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”  And the ubiquitous Oprah tells us that, “Living in the moment means letting go of the past and not waiting for the future. It means living your life consciously, aware that each moment you breathe is a gift.”

Danish theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that while life can only be understood backwards it must be lived forwards. I have been working hard to heed such time-spanning wisdom and keep these forward-thinking ideas forefront in my mind during challenging times of late – having been told I spend too much of my brain matter reflecting on what was, contemplating on past regrets and what could have been. Despite my deep faith and trust in the Lord, it is not in my nature to put too much stock in the future. I’ve had too many of my hopes dashed by the potholes of life. Indeed, my life would be much easier to navigate if my faith was as clear and strong as my 20/20 hindsight.

We all have moments in life when our exuberant determination for that which is before us is given a cold shower. When our drive for the summit is dampened by dark clouds of self-doubt. When our confidence is shaken by one too many missteps and it seems no matter how hard we try to move forward, it is a slow journey of one step forward and five steps back. It is tempting to give-in, to stay where we are, in the comfort of what we know – in other words – get stuck – or simply retreat.

Which is where I found myself at that saddle of disappointment below the cloud enshrouded summit. Facing the unknown above me, not being able to see past my hand, I stood bereft and pondered. Would I press forward to the top despite my dampened spirit or once again turn back?

As I turned around with my eyes no longer focused on the destination in front of me, I was stunned by what I saw. The valley below me was bathed in sunlight and I saw how far I had come. I saw how far I had come!!

I was captivated! I was stirred. I was energized by my new perspective and I was oddly motivated to press on!

Up, up, up I climbed with my head quite literally in the clouds. I met a lovely ram and his darlings halfway up and then the clouds really started to get low. My eyes began to play tricks on me and I had moments of doubt when I lost the trail. I pressed on. I was not going to let the weather deny me! Not this time. I saw what I thought was a bear causing my heart to stop – only to go faint with relief when it turned out to be a really fat marmot whose girth was amplified by the fog!! A few times the sun tried to shine turning my surroundings into an ethereal misty white – giving me a glimpse of what it must be like on our way to heaven – only to turn a thick soupy gray again.

Up, up, up I went and suddenly, just like that, I was at the top. While I had arrived – you could have fooled me! The air was strangely still atop the mountain after being buffeted by gale-force winds the entire hike up. The swirling abyss surrounding me seemed to buffer sound and was oddly tempting. Indeed, the thought crossed my mind – one could easily plunge off the edge into the marshmallow world – but I had too much to live for! I had accomplished my goal – thanks to looking back.

When we are stuck in the muck of the present, unsure of how to move forward with dark clouds diminishing the promise of what lays before us, how often do we turn around and see how far we have come?

It is only when we look back on our lives that we can truly comprehend the journey we have been on and give thanks for the important lessons we have learned and the people we have met along the way.

It is those lessons and those relationships that allow us, prepare us, and propel us forward in life even as we do not know what tomorrow will bring – let alone comprehend it. Yes, our past does define us but it doesn’t have to confine you. Who you are today is the product of the experiences you couldn’t comprehend or appreciate yesterday.

If you find yourself unable to move forward in life, I encourage you to take some time to look back and appreciate the beauty behind you. Embracing how far you have come may be just what you need to head out strong for the rest of your journey.

Boston sang it best:

It’s a bright horizon (ooh, and I’m awakin’ now)

Oh, I see myself in a brand new way

The sun is shinin’ (ooh, the clouds are breakin’)

‘Cause I can’t lose now, there’s no game to play

 

I can tell there’s no more time left to criticize

I’ve seen what I could not recognize

Everything in my life was leading me on

But I can be strong, oh, yes, I can

 

I finally see the dawn arrivin’

I see beyond the road I’m drivin’

Ooh, far away and left behind, left behind

Let your light so shine!

Mountains, Molehills, and the Necessities of Life

If mankind can send men to the moon, surely we can deal with the molehills that become mountains in our lives here on earth. Or so one would think. Six years ago, I pulled up my firmly planted stakes in the ground after discovering a whole new way of experiencing life in the wilds of terra firma. Indeed, the encounter spurred me to pursue a much higher calling – in the mountains of NW Montana and the heaven on earth that is the Flathead Valley and now, the place I call home. As I reflect on who I was then and who I am now, I am struck by how significantly this higher perspective has changed my approach to life. As someone who had spent more than half her life on the urbanized plains of Eastern Montana and the Rocky Mountain front, I was surprised to find such an innate sense of place and a passion in the wilderness and mountain climbing, a pursuit that eclipsed any of my previous past-times.

 Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Despite my prairie legs (though some say I have chicken legs – I’ll stick with my descriptor), navigating the wilderness and climbing mountains really wasn’t such a foreign concept to me after all.

 I remember the first time I visited Glacier. I was timid in my steps. I stayed firmly planted in the middle of the Avalanche Lake Trail, I shuddered at the height of the Hidden Lake Overlook, and I clung to the walls of the Highline Trail, afraid to look down for fear that my less than graceful tendency to trip would send me plummeting to my certain death.

 A lot has changed in my life since those early days of exploration. I went from living a rather sheltered life in a place I had known for more than 24 years with lots of friends and family providing a safety net of support to one of the unknown with a new job, a new town, and very new lifestyle. I will admit to suffering serious bouts of doubt in my decision to pull up stakes and head west in the years that followed. Rather than reaching mountain summit after summit with grand views, I found myself, like many people I have encountered on this journey, in a wilderness I had not prepared myself for – the twisting and often hard road of life without the comforts of the home I left behind.

 Losing myself in and climbing the genuine deals helped me realize just how important having the proper tools for navigating the wilderness and climbing the metaphorical mountains of life are. Now, with a few year’s worth of trail dust permanently ingrained in my soul and grander vistas broadening my perspective on life, I am learning to overcome the equally rocky, often steep mountains that tower within me with some key pieces of equipment and a hefty dose of strength and resilience

 A good pair of hiking boots are imperative to my hiking and climbing adventures. I will pay a premium price to ensure that I am walking in comfort and with control. Just like we need a good pair of hiking boots to keep us on solid ground and sure of foot when climbing mountains, we need a foundation of inner strength to keep us upright when we encounter the challenges we face in life. This foundation consists of the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that help us maintain emotional, physical, social, environmental, relational, spiritual, and intellectual wellness. It can be developed by the practice of our religious faith; the moral and ethical values we were brought up with; and/or the lessons we learn from mentors and friends throughout our life. Your foundation of inner strength includes positive feelings such as calmness, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation. Your foundation of inner strength is the stable traits that serve as an enduring source of well-being and wise and effective action as well as the contributions you make to the lives of others. A strong foundation of inner strength helps us to be self-directed and self-reflective in our goals and maintain excellence and integrity in our work. When we encounter the unknown, our foundation keeps us focused. It allows us to be humbly aware of our successes; acknowledge areas where growth is necessary and to be courageous in our curiosity for what we might become. Simply put, this foundation is the basis of our identity.

Without a strong sense of who we are and what we desire for our lives, the challenges we face will be difficult to overcome as we do not know where we are going or how we define success.

 My hiking boots have seen me through some challenging routes and very long days on the trail. I am confident in their treads to keep me from slipping and their support keeps me pushing forward to the end. Likewise – my foundation of inner strength – knowing who I am at my core – has helped me make difficult moral judgment calls as well as life-altering decisions with confidence rather than doubt. And just like hiking boots need to be maintained and eventually changed as our feet flatten with age (ahem!)  – our foundation is a constant work in progress as we progress through life.

The next piece of equipment that accompanies me on all my hikes are my trekking poles. I used to eschew them as inconvenient hindrances to the free movement of my arms; an unnecessary weight on my pack, and a crutch for the clumsy. That was until I started climbing 10K foot peaks and descending scree slopes that grabbed and tore at my ankles and shins. Trekking poles give us much needed balance when navigating across rocks in a running stream, take the load off our knees on steep descents, and give us stability when scrambling through boulder fields. In essence, they are our friends – not an inconvenient weight on the journey.

 I have always been a bit of an independent spirit – choosing to make my way in life on my own. Certainly, I have friends, but it wasn’t until the last several years that I realized what true friendship is about and how important it is to have that connection with someone. It is important to have one, two, or if you are lucky, several good friends in your life- trekking poles, if you will, who can share your load, give balance to your perspective on things and provide support when the going gets rough. A good friend sees through our tough skins, excuses, and doubts and tells us like it is. They support us even when we don’t think we need support. They provide humor when needed and a non-judgmental shoulder to lean on when the trials of life get dark or endless. Like good friends, trekking poles make the steep summit climbs and descents of life a bit less painful and make the celebrations when we conquer the mountains of life all the more sweet.

 The last piece of equipment that is crucial to your survival on the mountain is your backpack. I have met many a hiker on a trail with just a water bottle clipped to their belt and maybe a fanny pack. I am amazed, not at their scarce need for sustenance and supplies but by their sheer stupidity. Inside my backpack are the tools critical for survival – first aid, food, water, bug and bear spray, extra clothing, matches, a map, and of course my camera! Suffice it to say my backpack contains everything I would need to survive if I couldn’t make it back to my car as planned. The necessities of life. Over time I have learned which items I will always take with me, which items simply add extra weight to my burden, and which items my fellow hikers swear by and I will one day too.

 The backpack you carry with you as you climb the mountains of life contains all the life lessons you have learned along the way, your experiences – both good and bad, and the wisdom you have acquired along the way. Some refer to this carryall as “baggage” in a negative sense. I look at this “baggage” as a collection of tools I have gathered throughout life, experiences in the past that have prepared me for the challenges I am facing now – just as these challenges are preparing me for the next life adventure. I am also learning to let go of some of the past that I have clung to for its familiarity – things that weigh me down or lay claim on my present and future sense of being: negative habits, wrongly help assumptions, and grievances I would be better off forgiving. When I look at my sometimes-heavy backpack filled with life lessons from that perspective, I gladly carry it with me and take comfort in knowing that in it I have the tools necessary to climb and conquer the mountains of life.

 With a firm foundation of inner strength to see you through the longest of journeys, friends you can trust to support you and give you the balance needed when everything else in your life seems off-kilter, and a backpack filled with the life lessons you have lived and learned upon your shoulders, you’ll have the tools necessary for climbing the mountains of life. So far, they have not let me down. The summits I have reached with them have provided life-changing perspectives worthy of celebration.

 So, go on, take stock of your equipment and go climb those mountains. If this once timid flat-lander can do it, so can you.

 Let your light so  shine!

 

 

Roots of Kindness

Wherever there is a human being there is an opportunity for kindness. 

-Thomas Bailey Aldrich

It’s that time of year when we head to the nurseries for all varieties of flowers, plants, and seeds, and get our knees dirty planting our gardens with zeal and frenzy.  Navigating jammed parking lots, we reunite with neighbors we haven’t seen since last fall emerging from their homes in getups reminiscent of Mr. McGregor of Peter Rabbit fame.  We have expectations that come with our agrarian purchases and efforts – praiseworthy yards, impressive front porches, and garden harvests to come.

If you are lucky, you live next to a neighbor with an amazing green thumb who will share their garden bounty in a few months. You might even want to offer them a hand with that load of topsoil and secure a coveted spot on their favors list.  This idea brings to the fore a question that has been running through my mind lately. When was the last time you engaged in an act of kindness or giving without any conditions whatsoever – that unspoken expectation for something in return?  – The secret expectation you keep hidden in your psyche simply because we are conditioned towards a give-and -you- shall-receive means to an end?

I recently watched a video circulating on LinkedIn of a young man encountering a beggar a few years younger than he on the street. Instead of passing by the rough and tumble looking, cardboard sign holding sidewalk denizen, he did something I think we all ideate ourselves doing at some point in our lives – he offered his hand to his fellow man. The man, who looked as “regular” as you or I, saw to it that his hungry counterpart got his hair cut, had professional clothes to wear; they enjoyed a good meal together at an upscale bistro, and he introduced him to the owner who happened to have a position open in the kitchen. Needless to say, the former sidewalk “lounger” was overwhelmed by the compassion shown him. That is where the video and story end. We can hope that he accepted the job and worked his way up through the ranks to the house manager and someday opened his own restaurant, but why must we expect that outcome? Why not just celebrate the act of compassion the other man showed – with clearly nothing in it for him – except the simple joy of sharing lovingkindness?

I find it ironic that in a world in which we can pay for nearly everything we could ever want, kindness costs us nothing, and yet most of us struggle with this sort of economy. I want to give and do unconditionally (at least that’s what I want on my better days). But to live unconditionally and without strings attached is harder than it sounds. We have been conditioned by a world of economy, exchange, and transaction. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, and that is as deep as it goes.

Think about all the ways this give and take happens and how commonplace and acceptable it is.

  • We exchange goods in hopes of a business referral.
  • We feel indebted upon the receipt of a gift to return the favor, or at least send a thank-you note. (Not that this is bad!! Manners do have virtue!) But even our best-intentioned gifts can leave the recipient with an unintended debt of gratitude.
  • And think about how you felt when you did not receive a thank-you note or other acknowledgment after giving a gift. Did you give that gift expecting something for your generosity?
  • What about the dinner invitations you’ve extended? Are you still waiting for your guests to reciprocate?
  • Have you ever sent flowers after an argument? Were you giving a gift or expecting forgiveness?
  • Do you determine whether your charitable gifts are charitable enough to get rewarded with a tax deduction before you give?
  • Have you ever wondered why somebody was doing something for you, wondered what was in it for them? Haven’t we all said or done something as a means to an end?

Societal norms expect us to return the favor or reciprocate in some way.  It’s a convenient economy that shields us from the true and revelatory nature of genuine kindness, kindness that has the capacity to transform the suffering that all of us experience in some form into generosity and compassion. This form of kindness is costly – it requires payment in the form of first acknowledging our own weaknesses, struggles, and suffering, and then instead of growing bitter or passing our pain on to others, we offer understanding and compassion because of it.

In her book “Words Under Words: Selected Poems,” the poet Naomi Shihab Nye has written an exquisite poem titled “Kindness”.  In it, she reflects on the gritty origin of kindness and how you must first lose something, see your future dissolve before you, know how desolate and lonely the landscape can be, realize that the person who lies dead next to the road once had plans and breathed just like you, and know sorrow as the deepest thing within before you can know what kindness really is. And once you do, then it is only kindness that can dwell in the deepness of your heart because kindness is the only thing that makes sense anymore.

I’ve tasted genuine kindness and I have known the depths from which it can be born. A kindness that knows no economy. A kindness that can only grow from the depths of my heart. As I plant my gardens this spring, my only expectation is one of myself – that kindness grows deep roots within me – the genuine, revelatory variety that can flourish, despite this sometimes transaction-heavy, economy of exchange world.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if gardeners everywhere were nurturing this kind of bounty? Happy planting and growing.

Let your light so shine!

Make Your Ordinary Extraordinary

Last month as we came to the end of another journey around the sun, I reflected on that which lays claim to our lives – the same old patterns, practices, and negative voices in our head that tend to hold us back from looking and living forward in the freedom of God’s grace.

With the dawn of a new year, there is nothing most of us would like better to do than to break free from the bothers and burdens of life. Aware of our shadows and short-comings, we resolve to change – to be more positive, virtuous, charitable, forgiving. Striving for a more perfected or at least presentable version of ourselves, we set goals for the 365 days ahead determined to make something of our ordinary lives.

Before adding another list of “to do’s” to your daily regimen of being human, I think a good starting point for positive change in our lives is to once again look at what currently lays claim to it, reckon with it, and make peace with it. Rather than close the door on our struggles and burdens – past or present – no matter how difficult, examine them for the lessons learned and the strength gained, and yes, be grateful for them.

Indeed, to be grateful for all of our lives – the good and the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, our successes, and our failures, the rewards we have earned as well as the rejections we have faced, all the parts of our ordinary, everyday life – is what Henri Nouwen calls spiritual hard work. I call it necessary work.  If we don’t make peace with the journey that brought us to this decision point of change and honor the exceptional, uniquely formed being that we are, we just become a busier and more distracted version of ourselves without much space in our lives for something truly new to take hold.

The events, experiences, and people of our past have brought us to where we are and shaped us into who we are in this present moment. They will continue to shape us in the present and as we meet the journey ahead. Perhaps you’re coming off a particularly busy holiday season – one where there were just not enough hours in the day to experience joy. Perhaps you are one of the 800,000 federal workers trying to make ends meet while higher powers hold your income and daily life hostage. Perhaps you just received a raise after months of hard work. Perhaps your child made the winning shot in the basketball game last night. Maybe you just finished a term on a board and are reflecting on your accomplishments and frustrations and wondering what to do next. Maybe a long-time friend or parent has just passed away. Perhaps an important relationship is feeling the strains of dullness, distance, or distraction. Or maybe a relationship just became something much more wonderful.

Look at the ordinary and everyday circumstances of your life – those that bring joy and those that well – don’t. What do you see?  When life has left you feeling lost, who found you? When your workday or circumstances at home have left you exhausted and overwhelmed, how did you overcome those feelings to face another day? When circumstances put a skip in your step or laughter in your heart, where did you find yourself?

Look at the people in your life and the relationships you have – the good and the bad – in what circumstance were those ties formed? How have they enriched your life or enlightened you on the qualities you desire in yourself or want to rid yourself of? As long as we separate the times, places, and people in our lives that we would rather forget from those we relish in remembering, we will never accept the fullness of who we are or who we can become.

Ordinary life is our primary practice, so why not make it a spiritual one?  It is in the ordinary of life that we rediscover and reclaim ourselves – where the hard work is done and where good work can shine. It is in the ordinary of life that we must ask the question “Who and how do I want to be in this moment?” This question is about more than just making a choice in your response to an event or deciding between an array of options of who you are going to be today as you smile or frown during your morning mirror time. It is a question we should ponder every ordinary day.

It’s about taking all the lessons you have learned and letting the you that has been shaped and refined by your journey to this very moment in time shine through. Your response to who and how you want to be in this moment will define what you value and set the trajectory for – the course of your life.

Are you a stressed-out parent? A sandwich generation child? A spouse? Are you a rancher, a framer, a cook, a teacher, or bookkeeper? A CPA, a carpenter, a ski instructor, a salesperson, a lawyer, a medical professional? Are you a student, a politician, a police officer, a retired person, an unemployed person? Remember that before you were any of these, you were you – God’s best version of you. And look who you have become!

If you are busy setting goals to make more of your ordinary life this year, make one of them to change “for the better” by honoring ALL that you are right now. Look at your life through different eyes – those of a child of God. Claim the fullness of who and what you are now and share it with those around you. Don’t wait until you are a ‘better version.”

Here’s the extraordinary thing about our ordinary – no one else’s is like ours. Our ordinary is extraordinarily unique! Crafted by the guiding hand of a loving God, your ordinary life is your life to live and give to others as they have given to you in their own extraordinary ordinary way. Our ordinary becomes extraordinary when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life – all of our life – to those we meet in our ordinary days. Our greatest fulfillment, our greatest opportunity to make more of our ordinary days lies in giving ourselves to others.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead, you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”                           – Isaiah 43 1-4

Let your light so shine!

 

The Jesus Tribe

A sermon based on Mark 9:38-50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

The Gift of Courageous Vulnerability

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

“Listen to me!” we demand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let your light so shine.

Fuel Your Faith

 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”    Matthew 25:1-13

Grace and peace to you from God our Father!

August 14, 2016 dawned a perfect, bluebird sky morning. It was the day I would meet heaven on earth!   Not just any heaven mind you, but the most anticipated, dreamed about, read about, prayed about, planned for, trained for, stayed up late waiting to get on the much-prized waiting list for –  journey across the infamous Floral Park Traverse in the back country of Glacier National Park. From the first time I heard about it, the Floral Park Traverse captivated me to the point of nearly reaching an obsessive quality in my mountainous pursuits. Tales of deaths, grizzlies, cliffs, glaciers, even just the name – inspired my wanderlust to go wild with want. After enduring a year of emotional trials with the death of my mom and my dad’s illness I was ready for a challenge of a completely different sort. And finally, the day had come when my wanton wanderlust would be fulfilled!

You have to plan and train for an excursion of this magnitude –  proper equipment is essential: pack, poles, good boots, water, food, clothing for all seasons, and for climbers like me – camera gear and back up batteries. This route is not for the lazy or inexperienced hiker. With 4000 ft of elevation gained and a 7000 ft descent over 21 miles and 14 hours of trail time you must be prepared physically and mentally. As a distance runner and hiker with plenty of 20+ mile excursions in my trail journal I was certain I could handle the mileage and having a few mountain summits under my belt I was pretty sure the elevations would not get to me either.

I felt sure and strong as we hit the trail at the crack of dawn. I was in my element with a great group of friends. Although I had never ventured across a landscape as challenging as what we were about to embark on I felt safe knowing that most of my crew were more experienced than I. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, I was in the mid stage of a serious medical condition. My red blood cells – the ones that carry oxygen through your body and basically keep you alive were quietly disappearing. As a result, I found myself struggling to keep up with a crew I usually had the lead on. By mile 17, I had fallen so many times in water crossings and on scree slopes that my hands couldn’t bleed anymore, and my body was shutting down. Thankfully my crew had an incredible leader who was not only prepared for her hike but my crisis – giving me electrolyte shots, Advil and caffeine boosts – she helped me get over the last 4 miles and through a wicked thunderstorm to the journey’s end alive where we enjoyed a fabulous tail gate party. But I was shaken. I was not prepared for the long haul or the hurdles I faced that day – just the wonderful experience I had anticipated for so long – and as a result I put someone else in the position of saving me.

Let me give you fair warning – the mountains are NOT the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. While I thought I was prepared for everything my mind could conceive of happening, I clearly was not prepared for a physical crisis of my own. Those things simply didn’t happen to me.  Like the bridesmaids in today’s Gospel, I had brought my lamp with the usual amount of oil in it, but I did not bring the right kind or enough oil to keep my lamp burning through the unexpected and the revealing judgment of the mountains.

Thoughts of heaven can be spurred by joyous mountainous adventures, the grief of death close to home, or tragedies like those we recently witnessed in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs that strip away our comfort and complacency and bring to mind the question:  what awaits us at the end of our earthly journey? Is it a festive feast from a tailgate like the group I hike with has at the end of every adventure? After a long day in the mountains, we know that we have earned our celebration with plenty of dust on our boots to prove it. It is heaven in a parking lot or highway pullout.

Jesus tells His Disciples that the kingdom of heaven will be like a wonderful wedding banquet. As believers we believe that we have all been invited to this most wondrous occasion. It is a comforting thought, isn’t it – especially after enduring life here on earth.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus takes that comfort and does a pretty good job of dispelling it, doesn’t He?  It would seem that our end-times expectations may not be so cut and dry.

We meet ten bridesmaids awaiting a bridegroom’s return for his bride, but he is delayed.  Five of the bridesmaids are described as “wise” for they were prepared for the unexpected by bringing along extra oil for their lamps; the other five are described as “foolish” because they did not bring along extra oil to keep their lamps burning. When the foolish realize they have run out of oil they ask their wise cohorts to share some of theirs but are told to go get their own. The foolish five abandon their posts in search of oil to buy. In their absence the bridegroom arrives, the wedding banquet begins, and upon their return, the foolish bridesmaids find themselves not only shut out of the festivities but denied by the bridegroom.

Matthew shares Jesus’ words as instruction to a community dealing with several issues: a destroyed temple and people questioning what it was to be and judging who could be a Christian. The delay in the promised return of Christ – their Messiah – was causing a flagging vigilance to His teachings. They were weary of crisis after crisis occurring without any sign of deliverance. They were becoming too worldly giving into their desires and straying from God’s while also being overly spiritual – relying on God as a magician who would perform acts at their request and alleviate their troubles.

In those days, people lived with the belief that the end-times were near. There were many apocalyptic teachers and Jesus was one of them. With this story, Jesus sought to clarify what it meant to truly be ready for his return and how to live until that time.

But what are we to make of a bridegroom, that by all accords represents Jesus, who denies entry to the kingdom which we thought was open to all believers? What do we make of a bridegroom that offers welcome to bridesmaids who don’t share and denies it to a few who were simply unprepared?

This Gospel story raises a lot of questions for those of us who follow Jesus.  Just last week we heard Jesus give the Beatitudes –  comforting words that turn our worldly assumptions upside down — that in the brokenness and injustices of this world we find those who are blessed in His eyes. We could dwell on that scripture for quite some time and never tire of it. Today’s Gospel also turns our assumptions upside down, but this is one we are likely to read and then move on from, quickly.

Yet while stern, they are the words of Jesus. Given as direction to his followers. To you and me. As much as I would have liked to preach on the Psalm today, we need to spend some time listening to Jesus.

As Bible commentator Richard Bruner writes, “If we teach only Jesus’ mercies but not his judgements we disfigure the Gospel.”

And boy does this gospel lend itself to me standing up here and scaring you straight – with a fire and brimstone sermon of judgement on who will and won’t be celebrating with me and Jesus in heaven!  But our heavenly fate is not for me, or any human to judge.  Who God choses to know at the hour of His choosing is His judgment alone.

We don’t like to think about the judgment factor as part of the Christian life, as humans both saints and sinners, we never have.  Yet just about every week we profess our belief that Jesus died, descended to the dead, and on the third day rose again and ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father and will come again to JUDGE THE LIVING AND THE DEAD.

After much blood, sweat and self-condemning tears while trying to discern the Good News in this text, I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t any!!

Just kidding… I have come to the conclusion that this parable is not all about God’s judgement – even though it is our sinful nature to immediately start looking around and pegging who will and won’t be joining us in heaven all the while wrestling with our own failings.

We like to think that we are wise in most contexts, but we secretly admit to being foolish in others. What if that moment of foolishness is the judgment factor? Who are in the insiders and outsiders? The true believers? What is the distinguishing factor of those for whom the door is open?

The Good News is that God frees us from these fears of judgment by giving us His Son and a better way to live. Just like a parent warns a child out of love, so too does Jesus. Jesus loves us too much to leave us as we are or leave us left out. The Gospel today is all about that better way to live. Prepared – like my crew leader was – with plenty of lamp oil, awake, alert and full of anticipation to get you through the waiting time for the wedding banquet and me down the mountain to the tail gate party.

Lamp Oil? Yes, it is all about the lamp oil – your faith.

Last Sunday, we recognized the saints who have gone before us and guided us in our faith journeys.  I dare say they had plenty of lamp oil. They tended it well and brought you along on their journey with plenty of light. But they didn’t get that lamp oil at the last minute – well maybe they did, but it is likely they had been nurturing their faith for a lifetime.  We are reminded today that our relationship with Jesus, though nurtured by many, must be our own. Our faith is a gift from God but he gives us the reigns to maintain the condition of it; tending to it must be a part of our daily life, not just at special times like baptism, confirmation, Easter and Christmas, or the death of a loved one. Our faith cannot be bought or borrowed at the last minute. Martin Luther thought the condition of our faith was so important he gave us the Small Catechism to nurture the formation of it daily.

Fuel your faith by putting Christ first in your life, being obedient to his word, abiding in Christ and letting the Holy Spirit work in you and through you, acting in love towards others, and sharing your faith, the Good News, with the world. You might be saying “but Erika, hold on there –  we are Lutherans! We are saved by grace, not by our practices.” Being prepared, tending to the oil, keeping the faith is not about works righteousness – we cannot earn our way into Gods favor or His kingdom.  But we can live in a way that frees us from the tension of waiting for an unknown end.

A fueled faith is an engaged faith – one that is found through prayer, trust, and gratitude.  Let God nurture a relationship with you before you have an emergency and you will find that you have enough faith to get you through those dark nights of the soul and the unexpected.

The thrill of being baptized into new life and attending praise services with awesome music that leave you feeling charged for God are a wonderful part of the Christian experience, but true faith means abiding and trusting in Him in the day to day busyness of life, sometimes in drudgery with little of the ecstatic flair of worship. It means having enough oil for God to use you as a light in the lives of others. It means living the kind of Christian life that allows you to go to sleep at night with a good conscience, not proud of the good works you have done or the desires you didn’t give into but knowing that you have honestly prepared and tended to the condition of your faith. God offers a special wisdom to those who belong to Jesus. We await the kingdom with eager readiness because we know that Jesus turns all the demands of God’s law–our lives spent in judgement — into pure grace and mercy.

My last LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat in October focused on the art of writing the sermon. We were introduced to the concept of discerning the text through a trouble in the Bible –  trouble in the world –grace in the Bible – grace in the world format. Sounds pretty straightforward until one is faced with a text like today’s. My Floral Park adventure was less of a challenge than this!

““Truly I tell you I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore for you do not know the day or the hour.”  I ask you, where is the grace???

Believe it or not, the grace was there from the beginning.  ALL were invited to the wedding banquet and the door to the party is still open for you. The Lord is still coming – and you have been invited to greatest wedding banquet ever held. Now don’t panic because you forgot to fill up the oil this morning. We are living in the grace period and you happen to be in a pretty fancy filling station where all the pumping is done for you. So what are you waiting for? Open your heart, open your life, and say, “YES!” I want some of that oil. Now, live in the light of Jesus and await His kingdom with joy.

Amen.

Strength in the Silence

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.”  ~Isaiah 30:15

Silence. I used to crave it. I could walk for hours enrapt in its immensity; comforted by its softness as the chaos of the world swirled around me. Sometimes my thoughts would speak to me and sometimes I thought of nothing. It was my time to ponder and wonder with God. It was my escape – until Mom and Dad died.

I used to have wonderful conversations with my father on the other side of the state during my evening walks. My dad was not always the best conversationalist as he always had something to say and wouldn’t let me finish my portion of the conversation before moving on (a trait, I hate to admit, I have inherited), but for the most part, after an evening walk and talk with Dad, I usually felt like most things in this chaotic world were going to be alright and I felt infinitely wiser.

In the months following my parent’s deaths, silence became unbearable for me. It reflected far too intensely the emptiness that welled in my heart. And so, I did everything I could to avoid it. On my walks I became the annoying little sister who called her brother every night – and when I realized that wasn’t going to do much for our relationship, I searched, sometimes in vain, for anyone to talk to – to keep the silence at bay. Then I turned to listening to newscasts and podcasts – anything to break the silence and make me feel like someone was talking to me – because I couldn’t bear the depths my own thoughts would drive me.

I am a little late to the technology game. For the longest time, my cellphone was just that – a phone the size of an extremely large cell, used to communicate when I wanted to communicate. I live my life through a camera lens so when I discovered cameras that also functioned as phones I made the huge leap and upgraded to a 32-gigabyte photographic phenom that also made phone calls and sent text messages – as many as I wanted!! It also came with all these nifty things called apps. For years I never paid much attention to these revolutionary gizmos, even as apps began taking over the world, doing things instantly for us mere humans who used to be able to do things like: add and subtract in our heads or at least on our fingers, read books that we held in our hands and actually turned pages, find places on a map, feel for a pulse, and order pizza. I even have an app now that tells me how many miles I ran at what pace and how many of those pizza calories I burned. If I want, I can send my numbers into the app unified world and race and pace against the best, but I haven’t quite gone there yet. I know there are a bazillion more functions of life that apps now perform – I just saw an ad for whole house monitoring and I seriously considered getting the new door lock app so I don’t have to remember my house key, but hey, like I said I am new to this game.

But back to the point of this story… see apps have a way of distracting – even me!

These handy apps open up the wonderful world of podcasts and books that can be read to you. With apps, your smarter-than-you phone also accesses the world wide web so you basically have the whole world in your hand – beckoning you to learn more, search for more, buy more, listen more, and with social media you can always know more about every piece of minutiae happening in everyone’s life 24 -7 – all in the palm of your hand.

For those of us living insanely busy lives these apps with their lure of instant connectivity are wonderful conveniences. In the last month alone, I was able to listen to 19 theology lectures and 8 round-table discussions on the New Testament, countless newscasts and political commentaries, and a few symphony concerts for good measure – all while I walked or ran. This was on top of the 4 hours of actual textbook reading I was doing on an almost nightly basis, my 8-hour work day 5 days a week, and weekly after work meetings with their various assignments. For a while I was feeling pretty high on my intelligent horse named Audie (as in audio – get it?). Not only was I getting my exercise but I was filling my brain with everything I wanted to know and more and getting so much done!

But there was a problem.

I started to notice how anxious and irritable I was becoming. I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t find words anymore. I couldn’t remember what I had read. I was re-reading chapters and irking myself at the time wasted.  Frightening thoughts started to come to mind –  I had just watched my dad succumb to dementia (horrid thoughts are always the first to come, you know) – what was wrong with me?

The answer was actually pretty straight forward –  I had become too connected – to everything but me and my God. My rhythm of life had been invaded by apps that quenched my need to accomplish far more than truly possible – for me at least. Before I invited technology to come along, I used to feel a bit selfish and underachievement oriented allowing a few hours each day for my meditative morning runs and evening walks. I thought I should be studying and filling my head with lectures and learning new things. Ironically the more time that I ceded to those active-mind activities –  the duller I became spiritually and intellectually.

This constant activity of the mind has a name most of us in the modern working world have grown accustomed to claiming as an asset. Multi-tasking may be a key skill to highlight on your resume, but it is not, according to scientific studies, beneficial to productivity. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

Multitasking also increases the production of the stress hormones cortisol and the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. Basically, you are overstimulating your brain and the result is not what you are aiming for by trying to focus on too many things at once: mental fog or scrambled thinking. THAT would explain my list of distressing symptoms.

The mind needs space to process all the information we are putting into it and the spirit needs rest to prevent us from burning out, going into overload, and losing touch with ourselves and the matters that God intends us to focus on.

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”   ~Mark 1:35

Even Jesus knew this. In Mark, the shortest Gospel in the Bible, I counted 9 instances of Jesus intentionally seeking out solitude and quiet to pray. I would have to say that Jesus had a lot more on his plate than I do right now and if he saw fit to make solitude and quiet a part of his daily regiment, then I certainly can to.

I must confess, the addiction to connectivity and constant “learning” has been a hard one to break. I have found a bridge though, that may lead me to a higher plain of thinking. Not every walk or run is accompanied by sounds other than the rustle of the trees, my footsteps, or bird song, but nothing can compare to a run in the countryside with Vivaldi as the soundtrack. No words to listen to or think about, just soaring movements of music that lift me out of the here and now, take my mind to a place of rest and refreshment, and lighten my step. I know Jesus didn’t have background music for his times with God, but I am pretty sure God gave us this wonderful gift of music for a reason and I intend to relish in it. I can back the benefits of studying and working to classical music up with scientific studies as well, but who needs to when all you have to do is download a music app and select classical for your listening pleasure. Trust me on this.  Respighi’s The Pines of Rome will keep your eyes open and the words on the page flowing.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”   ~Psalm 23:1-3

I encourage everyone to tune out the world and tune into you for a few minutes or a few hours a day – whatever it takes. A set time with silence and solitude makes the chaos of the world more bearable.

In the past few weeks I have felt brave enough to seek silence again. I have listened to the rain fall on the leaves and the wind rush through the trees. I have listened to birds serenade and screech.  I have let my thoughts go where they would – I got lost in them – I cried- I breathed – and I began to make peace with the emptiness inside me. Silence brought me to that peace. Silence has made me stronger.

Hello Silence, my old friend.

The Little Faith that Cried, “Lord, Save Me”

 

Matthew 14:22-33
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.  But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Dear friends in Christ Jesus, Grace and Peace to you from God our Father!

Four years ago, tomorrow, I got out of the boat.

With all my belongings loaded into a cargo hauler hitched to a Flathead County licensed pickup truck, I departed from the only place, aside from the town I was born in, that I had lived in for more than 4 years at a time. A place where after 24 years my roots had grown deep, tested and nurtured not only by the incessant winds, biting cold winters, tempestuous thunderstorms, and hot summer days of eastern Montana, but the storms and sanctuaries of life – college, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th jobs, illness, failure, challenge, success, family, community, and faith. The longest chapter of my life was written there. My sense of determination and my will to live was born there.  It was there that I learned to walk strong again, in the light of the Lord, wherever that path led me. Four years ago, today, that path was about to lead me here, to the next chapter of my life.

If there was one thing I was not in Billings, I was definitely not spontaneous! My life didn’t stray outside the lines of my highly scheduled routine. You could pretty much find me at the same places at the same time every day of every week of every year. Sleep, walk/run, work, walk the dog, church, home. Once a week I ventured into the countryside on my bike, but even then, my route was pretty much always the same.

Now I will admit, I have acquired a pretty well-worn running and walking route here in the Flathead, and if you are looking for me at 5:00 a.m. you can be sure to find me running down Monegan road dodging skunks and capturing sun-rises when the timing is right. Actually, I am a bit surprised at how quickly the once amazing-to-my-eyes landscape of the area I now call home has become a part of me, and how quickly I have created a new “routine”. I guess that is what they call life.

I have always found comfort in routine.  For as long as I can remember I have sought certainty. Why the unknown frightens me so, I am not sure. As a person of deep faith who trusts in the Lord, one would think I could trust in the surety of my step, come what may. But I did not. Rather, before I moved here I kept myself sheltered from too much spontaneity and secured my days in routine. Perhaps it was my sense of inadequacy as a person, my fear of failing at something I wasn’t prepared for, or a sense that I could never measure up that made me stick to what I was good at and master it… trying something new took a great deal of planning and preparing for me to take on the adventure!

Four years ago, my Facebook post was short and sweet: “HELLO WHITEFISH, MT!! Are you ready for Miss Erika Morck???” The exuberance I expressed as I settled in for my first night in my new town belied my fear and my trepidation… what in the world had I done uprooting a perfectly good life and moving by myself across the state at 42 years old; leaving all my family behind, my beloved dog, a good job, my friends, my church, life as I had known it and made it for 24 years, behind.

No, I am not one who likes the unknown, and yet for the past four years that is what I have faced at every turn. I felt like a fish out of water, surrounded by water, after years of swimming with the tide in one of the driest parts of our state.  But somehow, I have mustered up the fortitude to take the unknown and unexpected in stride. Surprising everyone who knew me before with my affinity for the mountains and bear encounters.  Perhaps my Facebook post should have said, “Welcome to your new life, Erika! Are you ready for what God has in store for you?”

I can’t tell you that the last four years have been an easy walk with the Lord as my best buddy. In all honesty, I have looked back on that day in 2013 with a bit of cleared eyed realism and smirked at my naive exuberance for what my “new life” would entail.  This “new life” certainly didn’t turn out as I had planned it on August 12, 2013.

Sometimes we must face our fears, embrace the unknown that awaits us, and take the leap. And while leap I did, despite my best intentions of being a brave new me – as the storms and waves of life passed through, as they always do, those feelings of inadequacy, trepidation, and fear of failure have managed to creep back into my being and hold me in their grip.

What holds us back from risking it all? What do we do when we choose to doubt rather than trust that God is writing a new chapter of life for us each day? How do we overcome our fears? It is easy to find comfort in the routine when life gets chaotic – to become risk averse and focus on our problems rather than our goals and where the Lord is calling us to.

In today’s gospel reading we see Peter, always the adventurous disciple, despite being storm battered and weary, not to mention wary that he is about to make friends with a ghost, take the opportunity to focus on Jesus and show his trust in a remarkable way.  “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus invites him to come. Peter jumps out of the boat and walks on the water with his trust steadfast in Jesus, his Lord and Savior, until he lets the wind get to him. Peter saw the wind and HIS “better judgment” kicks in. He took his eyes of his Savior, he let his faith lose focus, and he looked around him. If he was anything like me standing on the water in the middle of the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a storm he would be saying, what in the world am I doing? Why am I here? I am going to get hurt, or worse, die! The waves are too much; the wind too strong! What is going to happen to me?!

Peter took his focus off his source of power and he began to sink.

I can relate to this. I start everyday confident that this is the day that the Lord hath made. I rejoice and I am glad in it. Heck those words sometimes become part of my cadence as I run. And then the storms roll in, the wind turns against me, and the waves start crashing… my faith turns to fear –  and my response to fear is to rely on what I know, to return to what feels familiar and safe – I get back in the boat, or worse I never even set foot out of it.

I am a lot like Peter.  Maybe you are too. I don’t always trust God. I don’t always trust that His will is being done and despite the encouraging words from Romans I shared with you 2 weeks ago, that God is working everything that happens to us for our eternal good, it sure doesn’t feel that way in the middle of a storm. I prefer to rely on my own strength to protect me and work things out for me.

We have plenty to fear outside of our inner sanctums – threats of nuclear war, financial woe, health insurance premiums, fire, flood, terrorism, hate. Add our own problems and fears to these outside forces and little wonder we have trouble rowing the boat let alone getting out of it. In response, we put our trust in our own skills, our intellect, our money, and our connections to navigate the stormy seas rather than in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! But what happens when our own strength is weak and our power lacking? I know I will get nowhere. Fear will certainly take over.

Some preachers and maybe even a few lay pastors will condemn Peter for his lack of faith. I am not one of them. No, I want to be more like Peter –  yes, the Peter who had ” little faith”; the Peter that doubted, because Peter’s little faith got him out of that boat to follow Jesus – while the rest of the disciples stayed in place.  And when he began to sink, when the storm began to overwhelm him?  I want to be like the Peter who let go of himself and cried, “Lord, Save Me!”

And what did Jesus, do? Despite Peter’s little faith, Jesus saved him! Do you know what became of Peter?  Despite being a disciple who faltered and feared, Peter’s earnest faith led him to the soothing balm of forgiveness;  he will know the joy of being used greatly by God on the day of Pentecost, and he will preach a sermon that will lead 5000 people to join the church. He will be martyred because of his great faith.

I seem to recall Jesus saying, “For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Why is it so hard to cry, Lord, Save Me? Why do we wait so long to cry Lord, Save Me? There are storms on this sea of life that you and I can’t deal with. Waves are crashing in and threatening to drown us! Ironically, the more we hold onto our problems, the worse they become. We tend to make the problems of life worse in our head than they really are. We are masters at seeing the worst possible outcomes and worrying ourselves to death.  We drown ourselves in our problems, rather than seek their solution who stands right in front of us.

Most of the challenges in our life are insignificant. Little challenges that throw us off our schedule, that wrangle with our sense of control, an errand here or there interrupted by a very long oil train, a surface wound or biting word, a little rain when we want to go hiking. Much of our time gets focused on the little things that interfere with our ideal plan.

What if we could spend a little more time each day focused on the good that we do have control over?  What if we could reach out from our inner self and live into the grace that we learn from our faith? When we take our eyes off our problems and instead focus on God, we will begin to see the miracles of His goodness. Perhaps, you and I, can be more like Peter, and call out to Jesus to help us bear through our problems and in turn focus more on living out God’s grace. We can do that when we place our trust in the One who watches over and lovingly cares for us.

And don’t wait until you are drowning. Why not get to know Jesus when the wind is still, and the water calm?  As Lutherans, we understand that God comes to us, His saints and sinners, and we confess our sins to God, who is faithful and just, and He forgives us. We know that our actions don’t earn our place in heaven or make us the better Christians.  But imagine if we all got out of the boat together and overcame many of the little things that make life hard. What if we had more strength to be a little more welcoming and capable of showing a little more forgiveness. Imagine if we all found a touch more peacefulness in our lives and extended more joy and kindness to one another. If you have the Lord as your focus, you might be amazed at the power you will find inside of you.

Making a new life someplace is anything but routine, especially in a place as ripe with adventures as the Flathead, and the unexpected can be expected.  I have had a lot of “Lord, Save Me” moments in the four years since I moved here – with all my exuberance for life. I have been buffeted by winds, drowned by incessant rain, and lost to my problems. But I have also had some mountain moving moments, when I let go of my fears and trusted Jesus. Although I ventured here on my own, I know I was never alone. In fact, I have never felt closer to my Lord, than when I stood on my own, in my own right, faced the world with Jesus and followed His plan. The result? Well, I survived and am still standing here today, with an even greater faith in the One whom I occasionally doubt.

The good news is, as we heard in Romans today, is that is okay. You see if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  If you believe with your heart and so are justified, and you confess with your mouth you are saved.  The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

When you cry, Lord, save me… you are confessing that He alone is your Savior. He alone can save you. So, get out of your boat. Jesus is calling you and you have really good news to share.

Let your light so shine!