The Gift of Grace

“This is what the Lord says – HE who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” – Isaiah 43: 16-19

As I contemplated the dearth of topics I could pontificate on for my end of year offering to you, I considered sharing my year in review, but then if you are a regular reader you already know how completely blown away I am by what has transpired. With that said, I will spare you the details of that novella until I get my feet under me again. Let me just say that if you had asked me last year at this time what would come to pass in 2018, I dare say that none of the life-changing happenings that made this year the paramount chapter of happiness in the book of my life were even being contemplated, let alone hoped for as 2017 came to a close.

We are approaching the waning days of December and for me, as a Christian, it is the time of Advent – a time of anticipation and personal preparation for the coming of our Savior. It is also a time filled with traditions and festivities handed down to us from time immemorial. If you are anything like me – sentimental, deep thinking and even deeper feeling, you may feel everything more acutely at this time than other times of the year. Everything we anticipated and planned for has either come to pass or has not.  Another journey around the sun is almost complete and inherent in that journey is the realization that this moment in time can never be repeated, ever again. And yet, we have been here before – year after year we close out a chapter of our lives and open a new one with traditions that encourage us to hold on to the past all the while looking ahead to the unforeseeable future. Do we look forward with satisfaction at a year well-lived and with hope for what is to come or do we remain focused on a past that we cannot change mired in judgment and/or regret?

When you look at your past what do you see?  What thoughts and feelings arise? Is it a painful memory, one of grief for lost loved ones, an opportunity lost, a heartbroken, a chain that binds and confines your soul? Or perhaps the past brings about a smile of gratitude, puts a skip in your step over a goal achieved, or triggers a longing for the good old days. For me, it is a mixture of the two. Following the deaths of my parents, I struggled to see the good amid the sorrow and to let go of the past and look forward to the future. It’s not that I didn’t want a fresh start on life (one that we are promised every day, by the way) or wish that my life could be transformed from one that seemed stuck in the same old familiar patterns, telling the same story, and hearing the same old voices (usually the critical ones). But for a time, moving on from grief felt like I was dishonoring my parents and moving farther away from their presence in my life. In addition, the past was known to me – familiar – I was used to and longed for the way things were.

Sometimes we can be so focused on holding on to the past – the good, the bad, and the what-could-have-been – that we get lost in the wilderness of what was.

Regardless of how our past plays out in our minds, regardless of what did or did not happen back then, our past has made us who we are today but it does not have to define us, it does not have to lay claim to your life.

We are about to celebrate again the birth of the One who broke through the wilderness of what was to give us the promise of what could be and what is – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – God incarnate. We are told of His coming by a wandering figure – not someone sitting in a royal palace or government seat or even a religious authority.

No, the Good News came to John, “a voice crying in the wilderness,” who tells us to let go of what has laid claim to our lives – repent – if you will – from the powers that be that hold sway – be they political, economic, or status oriented. John tells us to escape the wilderness – to let go of the binding chains of fear, anger, disappointment, guilt, regret. loss, despair, and sorrow and calls us away from life-draining busyness, quenchless ambition, and the need for approval. He speaks of a transformer who will overcome our broken relationships, our broken hearts, and our harsh and critical voices. All of these things that lay claim to our lives, that have filled our past, taught us “how to live,” and shaped our character – none are more powerful than God.

John tells us to wake up to, break free from, and deal with these fraudulent powers that claim our souls so we can have a new life claimed by God’s faith in us, hope for us, and love of us.

None of us know what tomorrow or the year ahead will bring. In the closing days of 2017, I certainly could not have fathomed preaching would be a regular part of my summer and fall schedule of events let alone meeting the love of my life and getting married nine months later!  I wish I had opened and lived in the gift already given to me – the joy of trusting in God’s amazing grace for the days to come and letting go of the past that I could not change no matter how hard I tried.

We can face the unknown with the same old patterns, practices, and voices in our head or we can look forward in the freedom of God’s grace. Imagine starting the new year off with a fresh start, anticipating the unknown with confidence that a way will be made for us – no matter how daunting, unimaginable, or seemingly improbable the future is.

What would your life look like each day if you let God’s grace – faith, hope, and love have primary claim? What opportunities might you take? What doors might open for you? How might your relationships prosper? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up each morning with the courage to face the day knowing that you have been healed from the brokenness of yesterday through the redeeming grace of God’s love? Well, you can.

As you look back on 2018 – look back and be satisfied that your life was worthy no matter what did or did not get accomplished and, as you look forward, rejoice in the freedom given to you to start fresh with hope – every single day.

My Christmas prayer for you is that you find God’s gift of grace that is waiting for you under your tree and that you will open your heart to it. Let His faith in you, hope for you, and love of you strengthen you and guide all that you do in the days to come.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and your happiest New Year ever!!

Let your light so shine!

 

Reflecting On Life through Death and Learning to Dance Again

“This is what the Lord says—  HE who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” – Isaiah 43: 16-19

We will all eventually die. Learning how to live in this mortal truth has transformed me from my soul to my song.

I have known death from a young age as I watched grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and yes, dogs – die. And, for a long long time – even though my faith was strong –  I was so very afraid of death –  not so much the thought of me dying – for my faith was and is strong –  but the thought of the living on after that must follow when those we love leave us. That inescapable truth was made resoundingly clear in my life this year. Fear and love are forever intertwined – life teaches us this, death makes it real.

It is not an easy truth to grasp – even for those who have watched loved ones die. When my mother died last year, I was not with her. Her death seemed surreal to me – still does at times. One moment she was there –  as I knew she always would be – and the next – I was on the other end of a phone call no one wants to make. Her death journey during Holy Week made it even more, how shall I say it, awe-some? That our ever-loving God would call home his sweet sparrow on the first day of Spring – Palm Sunday, that we would memorialize her on Good Friday, and celebrate her new life with Jesus on Easter Sunday seemed so fitting -and yet her death and our journey through it is one I still have difficulty grasping. Perhaps because we didn’t have the chance to mourn.

I was with father when he died, just over one year later. His death remains very much alive in me – almost as much as his life continues on in I me. I was there for his last breath, I saw the light leave his eyes, and felt the life leave his body. It is a feeling that has accompanied me to bed at night, in the pews at church, but mostly when I am out walking. That my Dad would die after a hard-fought battle with cancer and the rages of sudden onset Alzheimer’s left me numb and yet completely aware of every whisper of his life. The greatest man I had ever known was gone. With his death, I was awakened to the reality of life.

It is in death when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is about learning to live through death. We experience death more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. When we graduate high school and college that season of our lives dies as we enter the next stage of adulthood. When we marry our life as individuals ceases. When a relationship ends – a part of us dies – the part we had given to that other person. When we leave a job, that part of our daily life ends. And yet, with each of these deaths we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go, they cut away the ties from our past, and lead us to discover a new direction in life.

Indeed, in this year I have experienced many deaths. It has been the most sorrow-filled time of my entire life. I have never been one who could let go of people or things –  I am loyal and committed to the end – sometimes to my detriment. Saying good-bye does not come easy for me –  and I have had to say goodbye so many times to so many people and things this year (good grief I even sobbed when I closed the door on my apartment for the last time!) but sometimes we have to say good-bye to live again.

During my journey through grief this year I stumbled upon a gem of a book: “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” by Henri Nouwen. The title strikes me tonight, this eve of a New Year and the end of year that has left my heart ravaged and my life unfamiliar, because I have found myself dancing, yes DANCING this year away!  I am dancing once again as I reflect on a year of fear and love and the new life borne of them.

As I mourned my mother and father, I made peace with who I am now –  I can be no other than the daughter and woman God created through them 46 years ago. They raised me to shine a light in this world and shine it in honor and love for them I will!  This year, I found my voice and my place. Never have I felt so fulfilled and so right then when I am sharing God’s love and the Good News through Word and Sacrament.

Committing myself to doing more than simply following in Christ’s footsteps but going to wherever He leads me, has transformed my faith from one of rigor to one of complete awe, trust, and love.

As I said goodbye to my family home of 25 years in Billings and my little nest of 4 years in Whitefish, I embarked on a journey of independence and responsibility I hadn’t yet known – proud Columbia Falls home ownership – all in one month!

As I let go of one I was holding on to because I do not fail at love –  I discovered what self-love is all about –  the door to giving and receiving more love to others.

As I struggled with despair and loneliness, I was humbled before God and found that life is far richer when shared with others and that meant letting go of my need to control and my fear of failing and not just share my life with others but give my life to others.

And most of all, I learned yet again that sometimes with great sacrifice comes great reward –  that life is more than great running times and a good night’s sleep –  that puppies are worth lost mileage and every sleepless moment. That out of the ashes of life and death comes new light, new life, and great love. The Ember of my heart.

So yes, as another year passes, as another season of life dies away – I am carried into the new year by the melodies of new life showing me how good it is to dance once again.

Thank you, dear Lord for the lessons of death and the light of new life –  there for us each and every day.

May God bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you with mercy and grace and give you peace, joy, and new life in the New Year!

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.

Booking It

I have always believed that when we die we are released from the bondage of our earthly bodies and our spirits are given a new life in heaven with those who have gone before us and with our Heavenly Father. This belief has brought me comfort as I faced the deaths of my parents, friends, relatives, and each one of my dogs. Ironically, the more I study the Bible and the various interpretations of it and plow through the dearth of theological commentaries, my comfort has been brought into question. And it is not just death. So many of the “beliefs” I have held that formed the foundation of my faith are now being challenged by the very Word I have professed as the bedrock of my faith. As someone who feels called to share the Good News of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, I am starting to wonder if I am cut out for this role with these questions stirring in me. Is this a natural part of the discerning process or is it a cruel culling of the soul?

My faith remains as strong as ever – if not more so, but explaining that faith is becoming a much more strenuous endeavor. Gratefully, my Lord is merciful. The same source of my questions is the source of my comfort. I do walk by faith and not by sight… simple as that – just don’t ask me to explain it to you – at least not right now!  Faith is messy and mighty and wonderful. I need to spend more time pondering it like I used to instead of booking it.  There is so much to learn in this process and yet I already know all that I need to know.

“Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.  Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”                       – 2 Corinthians 5:5-10

Nothing Can Separate You from the Love of God

As I continue in my Lay Pastoral Associate studies,  I am growing more certain of the course my life is taking in answering His call.  I don’t know where this journey will lead me but as Martin Luther said, “well do I know my guide.” Or at least I am getting to know Him better!

Living an authentic life is powerful stuff. I have never felt more like I am who I am, than when I am studying, thinking about, interpreting, and sharing the Word. Do I have doubts? Oh yes, self-doubt is inherit to my nature. Questions? Oh yes! I will admit that reason messes with my faith more often than not. And then my faith messes even more with reason, and I feel stronger in my walk for the questions I ask.  Do I worry I will lead others astray? Absolutely. The weight of responsibility that I feel behind the pulpit is great. When someone comes to church, they come to to find God, to find welcome, to find peace. They come to be fed and to sort out the events of their life in sanctuary. I don’t ever want to mess that up! I don’t ever want someone to walk out of church feeling worse for coming. I pray every time I sit down to write, that my words reflect the shining light, the way, and the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ  and that they touch someone, in ways I may never know or need to know.

There will always be risk but even greater reward. 

***

Sermon: Nothing Can Separate You from the Love of God

Romans: 8: 26-39

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

Oh, those words!!! How many of you felt your heart leap, your spirit soar, your cares ebb as Krista read Paul’s powerful words from Romans today?

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We so often hear these words in the context of a funeral or memorial service and they bring us great comfort, knowing that nothing has separated our loved one from the love of Christ Jesus our Lord.  Having completed their earthly journey with all their joys and sorrows, talents and flaws, deeds and sins behind them, we have confidence that our loved one lives on with the Lord.

But consider for a moment, who Paul was writing to and consider all of his words, not just the triumphant final three verses of this pivotal chapter. Consider for a moment that these words written to all of the Romans, not just the saints or the church as many of Paul’s letters were, he meant them for everyone. Give them serious consideration, as they also apply to you today, alive and well, on this beautiful, summer morning because I don’t have any plans right now to be giving your funeral sermon– I want you take these words with you for your life!

For when your life is not easy. When life seems to be made up of one crisis after another. When life separates you from joy. When life feels very lonesome. For when life takes your plans and throws them into the fire.  For when life feels like death. For when life challenges your confidence and exposes your weaknesses, your doubts, your fears, and your sins. For when life brings achievement and disappointment, celebration and regret, great success and great suffering. For when life hands you hardships that threaten to undo you –  hardships and failures in the present, from the past, and in the future. For when you feel distress, shame, stress, and opposition. For when your foolish choices, public failures, personal disappointments, and ever-present sin cause you to forget who you are and whose you are. For when life makes you question who’s in control and for when life brings you to your knees but you don’t know how or for what to pray for. These words were written for those times.

What does Paul say about these things, these times that try our souls??

Romans 8 is a powerful chapter with a powerful ending, smack dab in the middle of 16 chapters explaining the Christian life to the Romans – chapters filled with what Martin Luther called the purest gospel … a bright light almost sufficient to illuminate the entire Holy Scriptures.” Many theologians say the verses you heard today –  that caused you to take a deep breath and rejoice in your baptismal promise of salvation – are the key to the whole Bible – the summa theologia – the summary of the Gospel.  Paul’s last letter; a letter written at the height of his ministry – some 30 years after his conversion – is a powerful summation of what he has been trying to say all along – the grandness of God’s grace and the power of his uncompromising love are yours.

Paul is seasoned. He writes with conviction and authority and passion what he knows to be true. His missionary life has not been easy.  He has endured imprisonment, beatings, stoning, constant harassment and strong opposition – just as God promised he would shortly after his conversion – that he would suffer much as he witnessed for the reign of God’s kingdom.  A kingdom, as we learned in today’s gospel reading, that can be much different than it appears. A kingdom that challenges what we value and what we think is good. Though sometimes obscure, the ultimate reality of God’s kingdom is that God’s love is unconditional and inseparable.

Despite his suffering, Paul was convinced of this and you should be too: we have a sovereign and loving God who has searched our hearts, who knows our minds – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and get this, He still loves us. Loves us so much that he sent His only Son to die for our sins and destroy the curtain of sin and death that separated us from Him. And then, through the promise of the resurrection sent His Spirit to forever dwell in us and intercede for us.

In the midst of desperation over a sudden illness, as you yell at the kids as the toilet floods, as your boss tells you your position is not needed anymore, as your spouse slams the door one last time, as you feel the need to cover your indiscretions yet again, as you look in the mirror with disdain after another let down or as anything that life deals you separates you from that confidence in God’s love – you might say, yeah right – a loving God – What kind of God let’s suffering happen? If all we had were the first few chapters of the Bible to understand the Christian life, some might believe that God really was against us. But Paul shows us the lengths that God went to save us from His wrath and equip us for victory over sin and death and the trials and storms of this world with the sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ and the gift of His Spirit.

The letter Paul writes to the Romans is about living life with the Spirit in us. It is for these times that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”  When we do not know how to pray as we ought, that very Spirit who searches our heart,  intercedes with sighs too deep for words. He guides our prayers according to the will of God.  That’s the kind of God we have. Given that, who can doubt that God is for us?

Have you ever been insulted? Have you have been taken advantage of or hurt by someone else? Has someone ever wished you ill? I remember well, being the new girl in town – the new girl from back-woods Montana (even though eastern MT didn’t have much forest to speak of) when we moved to Fairfax, VA just before my 6th grade year. Fairfax was a middle-class suburb of Washington, DC where most of our neighbors were military brass or some other mid to upper level government office holders like my dad.   I soon found that I had landed in a trough of military brats who in turn found me to be a prime target for bullying with my odd style of jeans (hey, they were hip in Billings!) and last year’s shoes. That I was a shy tom-boy didn’t help matters with this catty bunch of snobby girls and I was subjected to having mashed potatoes further mashed into my hair at lunch time, tables emptying when I came to sit down, snickers when I walked down the hall, kicked shins, and nasty notes slipped into my locker. Even Mrs. Johnson, my assigned sixth grade teacher made me feel like an odd ball – singling me out when, to my utter horror, my Snoopy lunch box slid off my slanted desk and crashed to the floor. I was forced to stand and apologize for distracting the rest of the class – who were already making plenty of noise ahead of lunch time. I was completely humiliated. I had left a home in Montana where I was the kickball queen who giggled – a lot- and moved to a place where I was afraid to ride the school bus and I would be sick before going to school every morning. I had never felt so alone in all of my 12 years and to this day, I still have moments of self-doubt and flashes of utter fear before meeting new people, wary of what they will think of me and the pain I know I am about to experience.

As that school year progressed, over-crowding forced the school administration to add another sixth-grade class that was housed in a portable classroom – separate from the main building. They hand selected the students who would move. Providence was mine and Mrs. Shaw- a true southern belle with beautifully painted fingernails that scratched the chalkboard when she wrote, became my teacher. She quickly showed her students how special it was that we were brought together to this new space – and that we were going to be the top sixth grade class in the school – if we worked together. We did and we were! Tops in grades, tops in field day events, and tops in learning how to make do with what life handed us.  She turned what could have been my worst year ever – if I even survived – into a year of new friendships, gained confidence, and a renewed trust that people are good.

Paul writes: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

In moments of desperation we wonder how any of this can be for the “good” of God. We feel abandoned. We feel weak with the forces of the world closing in on us. Even at the tender age of twelve, I wondered where God was and why, oh why He was letting these awful things happen to me. I was made well aware of the evil in the world, and I didn’t understand why our move to Virginia had brought this evil into my life. Was I being punished? Worse, was I being punished by God?

Mind you, I was not the innocent angel I am now. I once pushed a girl into the creek behind our house in Billings when she made fun of my mother’s shoes, and I took off on my Schwinn banana seat bike many a time to explore the wilds beyond our neighborhood without letting my parents know where I was going.  But back to my misery. If ever there was a time to ask where the good was in what was happening to me, this victim of bullying certainly had found it.

Paul makes it clear that the “good” which God brings about is His ultimate good for us. God never causes evil or harm to come our way –  that is the work of the fallen world – but God will use our suffering as a result of that evil to bring us closer to Him. God made an enduring promise to those who love Him – if we persist in faith, He promises to see us through to glorification. He alone has the power to work all things, not just some things, not just the things we associate with the “good” like health, comfort, and success, but all things, together for His ultimate purpose.   “All things” includes our suffering and our groaning. It includes our weakest moments when we don’t know how or for what to pray. It includes our times of sorrow and sickness and death. Just look at the ultimate good He worked through the storms, struggles and death of Jesus Christ!

This is why Paul commanded in his letter to the Thessalonians, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Looking back some 30 years later, I know that the suffering I faced as a bullied 6th grader, while not God’s doing, was redeemed by God giving me a deeper level of empathy for others and a streak of independence that continues to strengthen and serve me well today.

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

Our lives are governed by laws and regulations, worldly judgements, class, party, and rank. We can be deceived by moral superiority and cast away from the church.  Legalism and reason test our belief.  These things serve only to crush our spirit, bring us sorrow, and encourage us to ask how God can be for us if we have failed Him with our errant ways. But God wants to transform us and conform us to the image of His Son, and that entails persevering through all things in life.

In 2nd Corinthians, Paul makes a clear distinction between godly and worldly grief (in today’s language:  guilt and shame): “Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor 7:9-10) The kind of sorrow, grief, guilt and shame God wants us to experience and yes you will experience it, leads us away from sin and results in salvation.

But, if we love God and we strive to live in the ways of Jesus Christ we can be secure in our belief and assured of God’s love. Again, we have the promise of the resurrection. God’s gift to us – Jesus Christ.

God did not promise that our lives would be free from suffering and hardship but he assured us in our baptism that our lives in Christ Jesus have been freed of judgement and condemnation. In Baptism, God defines and claims you as His own – forever, a relationship that no matter what you do, you can’t screw up! When you were baptized, God proclaimed His unconditional promise to accept you as you are, adopted you into His family, and forgave all your sins including those you have yet to make! Martin Luther, a man who suffered greatly from doubt and guilt himself, urged his followers to remember their Baptism daily,  to wash themselves in God’s unconditional love daily. But relationships take two to tango – God’s unconditional love cannot be one-sided. Indeed, the only thing that can separate you from the love of God, in Christ Jesus is YOU.

When the hardships, ills, judgements, sorrows, struggles, and guilts of this world threaten to steal your confident trust in Christ, rather than turn away from Him, let the Spirit intercede for you, strengthen you, and carry you until you can believe again.

A good friend of mine who has seen a lot of life in his life including surviving a severe motorcycle accident out in the middle of nowhere alone with a broken femur and later, a head on collision with a drunk driver. He served as a missionary with Young Adults in Global Mission and as a youth leader and camp counselor at a Lutheran bible camp. He pursued outdoor ministry, photography, and plans to go back to school this fall to finish his Secondary Education degree. Last year he started his own business as a handyman doing painting and construction work and it was this success that now threatens to undo him. Scaffolding collapsed on one of his jobs causing him to fall and this time shatter his femur and his knee. When I told I was praying for him and asked how I could pray for him, he shared with me that he no longer walks in faith, hasn’t for a long time. He has separated himself from God.

I don’t know what to say to my friend. I don’t have the answers to his loss of faith or the life changing circumstance he now finds himself in. All I can do is pray for him. MY faith tells me he will get through this crisis and because I know his heart, I know he will be stronger in the end. My faith tells me that God is with him right now even though my friend is not with God, and God WILL use this momentary pause in my friend’s life for His ultimate good.

 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Take Paul’s powerful words home with you today. Let them live in you and guide you through your day and week ahead. Remember your baptism. You are a child of God. A loving God whose ultimate purpose, whose ultimate good for you, is to preserve you pure and holy.

Dear Lord, thank You for giving us Your Spirit as our constant companion who, in the depths of our desperation, is present to help us when we have no idea how to pray, with sighs too deep for words. Thank you for your uncompromising and unconditional love. Help us to keep our hearts and mind open to You as we walk faithfully in your name. Amen

Overwhelmed by Love

13147272_1204040166287246_6929792025810359721_o “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” — Rumi

I am embarrassed to admit how many times I have started to write this piece only to delete everything (computers are an amazing writing tool!), walk away, and endeavor to try again when courage is restored. I feel completely inept to write about a subject I have avoided to address in my life for far too long out of a keen desire for self-preservation, feelings that I am not worthy of it, and my tendency toward perfectionism that sways me away from things I know I will ultimately fail at or be rejected by. For certain, it is not out of delight that I feel called to write about LOVE.

While I may not be very good at it, I do not shy away from loving deeply. To be honest, I find it hard not to love everyone. Sharing life with people brings great joy to my heart and things that bring joy are easy to love. But love is about more than sharing life with people. Love is about risk and pain as much as it is about trust and joy.  In the aftermath of a broken heart, the death of my dog, followed by the death of my mother, the very real risks and pains of love made me rethink how much love I could let in to my life anymore. Closing the door on love seemed like a good decision but doing so left a lot of room in my life to fill.  I filled that void with busyness, commitments, complicated scheduling, and mindless wandering where I swore to myself that I would never again allow myself to love too much, too deeply, or too easily – because too much love guaranteed too much hurt when that love was lost.

But fear is not in my nature and not something I take kindly to, especially when it threatens to surpass joy. By closing the door on love, I was closing the door on joy.

summit climbHenri J Nouwen, a Catholic priest and one of the most insightful theologians I have ever come across, encourages us to love deeply and to feel the pain that deep love can cause because the pain that comes from deep love makes your love ever more fruitful. “It is like a plow that breaks the ground to allow the seed to take root and grow into a strong plant.” In his book, The Inner Voice of Love, he goes on to say: “Every time you experience the pain of rejection, absence, or death, you are faced with a choice. You can become bitter and decide not to love again, or you can stand straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds.”

My fear of failure, rejection, and being hurt has no root in the soil that grows love. The Bible tells us this: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18) I will never reach a state of perfection in love because there is only one perfect love, and that love has already been freely given to me (and you) by our Lord. By accepting this as truth, His perfect love cast out my fear and changed my heart from one that avoided love to one that wants to know how to love like the Lord loves.  No more will I let my fear of rejection by others become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For the more I fear rejection by others, the more likely my actions towards others will cause them to reject me.

“The giving of love is an education in itself.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

I write this with a heart that has been overwhelmed by love.  I am ashamed at how selfish my understanding of love was. I have always marveled at the charity of others-  those good souls who give so freely of their hearts and of their lives towards the needs and betterment of others. I never felt qualified and sadly, I told myself I was too busy.  Besides, what could I give that someone else couldn’t provide better than I? Once again, I let my fear of failure keep me from loving others. Now, as my family has been humbled by the graciousness of neighbors and church friends who have given their time and hearts in love to my father as he battled and now recovers from cancer and who have extended their love to me, I understand that there is no measurement for the right way to love.  The only right way to love is to simply do it. Make time for it. Sacrifice for it.

C.S. Lewis believed that those who fear direct their focus inward and worry about what will happen to them if they fail or are rejected. Those who love direct their focus outward towards caring more for others than themselves. The more you look outward the less time you have to dwell on your fears.  Martin Luther called the love of neighbor the highest and most important form of love aside from loving God. He went as far to say that those who do not love their neighbor could not love God. Luther believed that to know God was to understand that He is nothing but an active and self-giving love. Therefore, if you do not have faith in God, or do not love God through faith, you will not be able to do any truly good deeds.  While Luther believed we are saved by grace and not by works, this does not lessen God’s greatest commandment to us – to love one another as He loved us. Luther calls us to act in love, to be reflections of Christ in the lives of others.

Still, works of love take courage. Works of love make us vulnerable but maybe that vulnerability in the end makes us stronger, our lives fuller, and our hearts happier. C.S. Lewis wrote that the only place outside heaven where you will be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. Have you ever noticed how full of joy and full of life those who love through their works are? They have brought a small part of His kingdom down to earth and are blessed to live in it.

Nouwen sums this up nicely: “The more you have loved and have allowed yourself to suffer because of your love, the more you will be able to let your heart grow wider and deeper. When your love is truly giving and receiving, those whom you love will not leave your heart even when they depart from you. They will become part of yourself and thus gradually build a community within you. Those you have deeply loved become part of you. The longer you live, there will always be more people to be loved by you and to become part of your inner community. The wider your inner community becomes, the more easily you will recognize your own brothers and sisters in the strangers around you. Those who are alive within you will recognize those who are alive around you. The wider the community of your heart, the wider the community around you. Thus, the pain of rejection, absence, and death can become fruitful. Yes, as you love deeply the ground of your heart will be broken more and more, but you will rejoice in the abundance of the fruit it will bear.”

12657168_1145106078847322_6415618807933147334_oThis Valentine’s Day marked one year since I last saw my mother alive. She did not like me to take risks in life – she wanted to protect me from being hurt. This was a constant source of frustration between the two of us. The love a mother has for her daughter is something I will never personally know but I do know how very much this daughter loved her mother. That I said goodbye to her on Valentine’s Day holds a far greater significance in my heart than I ever dreamed it would as we parted that last time. In honor of her love, I am going to go take a big risk and start loving deeply again – in new, fruitful, active ways. That will mean I will have to sacrifice some of that “busyness” I used to fill the void when I closed the door on love but I am okay with that. If you are living in fear rather than love, I invite you to  have courage and join me. I expect we will be overwhelmed by love as we do love and maybe, just maybe walk in His perfect ways in a small part of His kingdom here on earth.

Let your light so shine!

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So much for that strength, hope and faith thing…

evening-glowThere was something about my Mom dying at Easter that helped me get through her death with hope and faith. I felt a strength and peace I didn’t know was possible getting me through that week and even though  the days and weeks afterward were hard, I pushed through my grief and was able to resume life or at least tried to.

So much for that strength, hope and faith thing. I’ve been going through the motions of the Christmas season trying to be merry, trying to be strong, trying to be a light while all the time dreading the “Different Christmas” I knew would be coming yet again.  Last week I wrote about how I had come to accept my different Christmas and the peace I felt in doing so last year. But I don’t feel so peaceful now.

As I sit here trying to write Christmas cards on the 20th day of December (a little late, I know), there are no joy-filled words flowing on to the stack of greeting cards I intended to send, just tears.  I find myself overwhelmed with loss. The loss of my mother, the loss of what  family had always been to me, the loss of ever experiencing my mother’s unique love at Christmas again, the loss of something that I struggle to even define except for loss…

I struggle with all the happy gatherings going on around me – they seem so foreign to my reality right now.  I used to delight in them; delight in the baking, decorating, and gift giving and all the things that gave “meaning” to Christmas. This year there has been no time for baking, not much to decorate, and I can ill afford my Christmas gifting pleasure.  I know that giving of myself to others is the only act that truly shows the meaning of Christmas and yet I can’t even seem to do that! How can a holiday that is filled with so much love, light, and joy hurt so much? How can I, someone who knows the truth, who knows the love and peace of Christ, feel so utterly alone and forlorn at this most wondrous time?  And why does the Classical Christmas station I am listening to play so many songs that seem so sad?

I have no words of light to share with you right now. Just a prayer that the peace of Christ will be with you all this Christmas. That you find Him in the ordinary and the extraordinary but most of all, find Him in your heart.

Seeking His light, so that I may shine it again.

 

How Much More, Lord, How Much More?

20160716_060207“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79

How much more, Lord, how much more? It was a question I found myself asking as I said goodbye to my Dad following our nightly phone conversation as I walked away the cares of the day. I had called to tell him about my latest auto-mechanic adventure and the unexpected bill I was facing to replace wheel bearings and rotors. Expecting him to commiserate with me, I was instead stopped dead in my tracks as I heard him wearily exclaim, “well, I think I can top that.” Curious as to why his brand new sizzling red GMC Terrain – the first brand new car he has bought since I was in first grade- would be causing problems- I could not believe the words I heard next. “I wrecked…”

My dear old Dad was finally on his way to Costco to begin the process of getting hearing aids – something my brother and I have been trying to get him to do for years – when in the middle of a lane change on the busiest street in Billings he somehow collided with an unknown number of cars, flipped and rolled his own – landing upside down, surrounded by airbags and trapped. To say I was aghast is an understatement. The fact that he was home and talking to me after the fact is even more startling. After emergency responders cut him from the vehicle he was taken to the ER for treatment of severe cuts and bruises and to be assessed for any damage to his defibrillator that keeps his ticker ticking.

After assuring me he was alright, he said an early good night and I broke down in tears – tears of relief, of emotional exhaustion and absent daughter guilt, and finally tears of defeat because I knew I would never get my Dad to get his hearing checked again. My thoughts then turned to my brother who has borne the weight of the family crises this year much more so than I have. He too must be exhausted – walking through my Mom’s end of life deterioration and death, followed by my Dad’s lymphatic cancer diagnosis and the multiple trips to the hospital this entailed, and now this- getting a call from a police officer while at work informing him that his father was taken to the ER following a serious car wreck – the same wild wreck his colleagues were talking about seeing when they came back from lunch.

How much more, Lord, how much more? If the cliché- ridden statement that the Lord will never give us more than we can bear holds any truth, I am not sure how much more of the Lord’s whims I can sanely handle.13177480_1208998692458060_8651611342329675533_nMeanwhile, the world around us seems to be growing darker and darker as international terrorists wage war on our sense of security and humanity, homegrown hate and division is running rampant through our cities, towns, and social media pages – spurring on acts of violence on par with the atrocities committed by the terrorists who threaten us from “afar.” Even our political candidates seem to be washed in a dirty gray hue of filth rather than the red, white, and blue shades of greatness and hope characterized by past election years.

How much more, Lord, how much more? Locally, my community has been rocked by the closure of a manufacturing plant leading to the loss of hundreds of good paying jobs and destabilizing the lives of numerous families; and the tragic deaths of two vibrant young men – pillars of the community and incredible models of goodness gone before their work on earth was done.

How much more, Lord, how much more? Within my own circle of friends, I know of family trauma and betrayal, as well as families enduring battles similar to my own against the ravages of cancer, dementia, addiction, or simply struggling to make ends meet.

Even the weather has been unduly harsh across the board-  battering communities with hail, tornadoes, floods, and fire. Indeed, it feels like a very heavy dark cloud is hovering over all of humanity – raining darkness on our parade of life. Weariness seems to be a common trait shared by those who go through the motions of living, but have become numb to news of the latest unrest of the day.

Sadly, for some, too battle weary with no end in sight, keeping-on doesn’t seem possible.  The struggle between darkness and light ends in the silence of a never-ending night; leaving others behind to pick up the pieces in the chaos and darkness, to keep on keeping on – amid shattered lives.

How much more, Lord, how much more?

God has yet to answer my persistent questioning of how much more. I wish He would. I like to be prepared for the adventures I go on in life; but lately, He has managed to seriously alter the courses of my travels with little thought to my need for a sense of control or even a schedule. Heck, He hasn’t even let me escape to the mountains once this hiking season without drenching me in “blessed” water and hail from above.

Frankly, all this darkness has made me a bit cranky and recently I have become aware of negativity seeping into my nature, a quality that for most of my life – despite my trials – has been absent. I wonder if others sense this, and I am ashamed if they do. And yet, the fact that I am aware of it gives me hope – yes, hope that this is not what God wants for me to know – this darkness that seems to have permeated our daily life.

Rather, He wants me to grow in confidence born from the keeping on of keeping on each day – growing through the struggles and pain so that I find myself and those walking a similar path still standing but changed – matured, sharpened, softened, more inclined to His will, rather than mine. He wants us to see the garden instead of the weeds. With each day of growth, He makes more apparent the blossoms of goodness growing around us in the company of each other rather than the thorns of a turbulent world that we have no control over and that tear our hearts.

How do I know this? While I may not know How much more, Lord, how much more, I can see His promise in each new dawn – even those clouded over with rain. In each new morning that I wake to keep on keeping on He shines a little brighter and I feel a little stronger, even through the clouds. He reminds me of goodness in the morning melodies of our tiniest neighbors from on high – bird songs overcoming the night, and in the friendly waves of other early morning meanderers, who like me are just keeping on keeping on as best they know how – a shared continuity of struggle and growth that comes with the living of each day.

And perhaps, there you have the answer to the question of “How much more, Lord, how much more?” Until the day when we can look at each other with eyes softened by darkness and only see the wonder of His light.

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance;  and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”                           ~ James 1: 2-4

Let your light so shine.

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Called by Grace

10711062_861264793898120_7417205138361937001_n Grace and Peace to you!

I recently had the honor of writing and giving a sermon for my congregation while our pastor was away. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to “test the waters” as I ponder just what on earth I am here for. I am sharing with you a revised version that has been edited only to remove the names of local people I refer to so I can share without exposing them to my “vast” readership!

What on earth am I here for? It’s a question that earned Pastor Rick Warren a spot on the best seller list for 90 weeks with his book, The Purpose Driven Life. If you Google the word calling, or its synonym “vocation” you are going to be overwhelmed with sources for self- improvement and spiritual journeys. As individuals we are a hungry people, hungry for meaning in our lives, hungry for purpose, and hungry for finding the perfect combination of purpose and meaning that makes us feel we have made a difference.

Some are lucky to find such fulfillment in their professional life be it as the doctor who heals the sick, the teacher who grows minds, the fireman who saves lives, the pastor who shepherds souls, the missionary that serves the vulnerable, the counselor who listens, the social worker who tends to the destitute, or the activist who rights wrongs. But for many of us, finding, following, and fulfilling our calling is not a clear path.

If you think this is a relatively new aspect of the human condition, think again. The search for purpose spawned the great philosophers, it flows through religions of every sect from ancient times to present day. For Christians, while the path to fulfilling our calling may still be discreet, there should be no question as to where to turn for guidance. Of all the books written about finding purpose and meaning for our life, the Bible is the greatest source of inspiration and encouragement. If you are searching for your calling in life, you might even recognize yourself in some of the dominant characters! Most of the Biblical heroes and followers of Jesus did not know what their calling was or where their often difficult paths would take them, yet they followed God’s call to journey with Him rather than follow the ways of the world.

There are many stories in the Bible about Jesus healing the afflicted, raising the dead, and tending to the widows and orphans. What does healing have to do with finding our calling you ask, especially if you are not the one performing the act?

As the Apostle Paul states in his letter to the Galatians, “God has called me through His grace.” It is through God’s grace that we who are sick, broken, vulnerable, weary, or destitute are healed. Who better to minister to those in need than someone who has been in their shoes and experienced the healing power of God?

More often than not, your calling will not come with a paycheck. Your calling will come through your personal experiences and the extent to which you use those experiences to help others. Those times when you needed God the most in your life will be the experiences he calls you to draw upon to help others.

Survived the ravages of cancer?  Perhaps God will lead you to walk alongside a newly diagnosed patient.

Know the pain of divorce? Perhaps God is calling you to support a newly married couple in prayer.

Walked the lonely road of depression? Find someone with whom you could share the 20160422_181414fight and share your light.

Landed a great job after returning to school for a new career? Someone equally as motivated could use your mentorship.

While researching the topic of “calling”, I stumbled upon one pastor’s words that really hit home with me: Quoting Jesus he wrote “In this world you will have trouble.” He continues:  “If you’re called to something, expect trouble. If the Son of God didn’t get a free pass from trouble, then why do we think we should? A lot of people view trouble as a sign of something wrong in their lives, but it’s usually a good sign you’re headed in the right direction. To the degree you are willing to endure pain; will be to the degree that God can use you. The greatest people used by God in the Bible endured great amounts of pain. Pain seems to be the price to be paid for a life of significance.”

As Christians, we are baptized in Christ and called to be His servants, vulnerable to one another, and to the world, for Christ’s sake. We are to seek out and serve, not just the comfortable and the familiar, but the stranger and the alien, the least and the last, the lost, and the most vulnerable.  This is God’s call to us in our baptism and one that Martin Luther, a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation believed was central to the faith.

Martin Luther’s teaching regarding your calling centered on the belief that all God’s people are called to respond to God’s grace by serving our neighbors within our own particular places in society. Luther’s teaching liberated God’s hands here on earth from the papacy and gave new stature to the laity to do God’s work.

You may not feel particularly gifted or worthy of being God’s light in the world, but then look at the Apostle Paul!  Paul shares with the Galatians (Galatians 1:11-24) that he was a fanatical Jew—one who sought to destroy people whom he believed to be opposed to the ways of God – UNTIL the scales were shed from his eyes and he was called by God’s grace. Knowing about the Apostle Pauls’ background, no one would likely conceive that he would become the greatest advancer of Christianity aside from Jesus himself. Indeed, sometimes God uses the most broken among us to be His light in the world.

But your calling doesn’t necessarily have to dwell in the dark places of this world or your life, although it is there that we often find ourselves drawing closer to God, seeking His compassion and forgiveness the most. As Father Fr Frederick Buechner states “the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meets.” Imagine finding your purpose, your passion, your greatest sense of call in what was once your most difficult journey!

Jesus heals us. We are called to do the same.

Throughout the Bible we are witness to the healing power of Jesus.  Jesus raises a young man from the dead but then focuses on the young man’s mother who has also lost her husband. He has compassion for her and he tells her not to weep. Jesus has compassion, and gives her back her son. Jesus restored purpose and meaning to this woman’s life.  Not many widows could fathom as much.

Recently, at the Montana Synod Assembly for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), a widow was lifted up and celebrated as she fulfilled God’s call to her. This woman, a widow, was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. I am not certain how much you know about the process of becoming a pastor, but the formation of pastors in the Lutheran church  is a long, thorough, multi-faceted process.  Some people graduate high school, go to college, then on to seminary, live on campus, do their internships, finish up, and get ordained.  Some people wait a year or two, or a decade or two.  Some do much of their academic work online, or in periodic visits to seminary, accompanied by intensive study and practical work in between sessions.

This woman did not follow the traditional route to ordination as her predecessors did. She married, had children, did a variety of things, and went to a variety of churches. Rather, she served as a legislator, and worked as a drama teacher.  She was a Lay Pastoral Associate (non-ordained clergy), and a widow.  And slowly, gradually, throughout her life experiences she began to hear God’s call. Ultimately, she saw a way forward to answer that call. This courageous woman’s journey through life was transformed by Christ’s love into a calling to minister to others.

God calls a variety of people in a variety of ways. He healed me when I was very sick, has helped me through many life-altering trials, lead me on a journey of discovery and blessed me gifts that I am still uncovering – gifts I hope to use as He calls me to pursue ministry through the Lay Pastoral Associate program.

Did you ever think that God might be calling you, or someone you know? Look within you and around you. Consider how God has been at work in and called others in their own lives. Undoubtedly, some stories of call will be dramatic, life-altering experiences, while others will be much more mundane. Have you seen lives or has your life been transformed? Changed direction?  How might God be calling you?

I know God has plans for me. He has called me through His extraordinary grace. I expect He plans to use my personal struggles and my greatest triumphs for something far greater than the pain, questioning, and jubilation I have experienced on this journey.  If you find yourself asking “What on Earth am I here for?”, listen for where God is calling you to. You may find that perfect combination of purpose and meaning, your greatest sense of call, in what was once your most difficult journey!

As was written in Jeremiah – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Jeremiah 29:11

If you listen with an open mind and eager heart, you might just hear God’s call for you.

Let your light so shine.

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I Got By with a Little Help from my Friends

“Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

– Albert Camus

13147272_1204040166287246_6929792025810359721_oWe are meant to live in companionship with others. Nothing brings that truth to light more clearly than when we lose someone important to us, whether through death or the parting of ways.

After the initial shock and ensuing chaos in the days following my mother’s passing began to subside, my life took a serious turn into darkness. Not only was I dealing with the grief over losing my mother, I also had to come to terms with the ending of another relationship, and the loneliness that comes with losses such as these. At times, it felt as though my light had been permanently extinguished – the darkness reigned so heavily inside me I nearly suffocated from it weight. When life takes a downturn, it often seems like troubles just don’t stop coming and I certainly met with a few of them. In exasperation, I asked God if He was there and just what was He trying to prove?

13177480_1208998692458060_8651611342329675533_nThen came the flickers. Flickers of light began to reveal themselves to me, in moments when hope seemed impossible.

While I hate to think that God dabbles on Facebook, one Sunday morning a post appeared that hit me square between the eyes, it even used Snoopy as the messenger – my lifetime friend and companion. Charlie Brown thoughtfully tells Snoopy that “someday we will all die” and Snoopy replies “True but on all the other days we will not.”

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As I headed out for my Sunday morning run I reflected on Snoopy’s message. I fought the heavy loneliness in my heart as I continued with my own thoughts, “And those who haven’t died are left to wander in the world just a little more alone by those who have gone before us.” That heart aching feeling of being alone had hung on my spirit for weeks and I had not been able to break free from it – despite my unwavering faith. Faith is great but it is sometimes quite the battle when pitted against the stark realities of life. But Snoopy was telling me to snap out of it – to get out and start living again.

As if on cue, my pastor’s sermon that morning reminded me that though I may feel alone, the Holy Spirit abides with me and in Him I can find peace. I so desperately wanted that! He reminded us that when two or three are gathered in His name, that is where we will find God. We will find the Holy Spirit alive in the lives of those around us. He works through the hands and hearts of those we walk among. As one who likes to believe that I can do this life thing on my own – I was starting to come to the humbling realization that no, I could not. And believe it or not, I am not expected to and neither are you!

Despite hearing the words, I still battled a bit of shame perhaps? That I really needed to talk to someone- and yet I didn’t want to burden anyone with my issues. And yet people were there for me. I had seen them in action and had proof for my psyche in the numerous thank you’s I had written. I had collected quite a list of people whose kindnesses eased the pain of my mother’s death and frankly the numbers were daunting.

As I pondered the goodness of others the heaviness of sorrow began to lift. In turn, I realized how important it is to reach out to others when they are facing sorrow or are in pain. I am eternally grateful for those who took a small amount of time to reach out to me – as their seemingly small (to them) gesture brought glimmers of light into my life again.

I re-read the sympathy cards and marveled at how wonderful the written word is at touching our hearts. Even those that said they didn’t know what to say spoke volumes as they shared a story about my Mom.

Getting back into the daily rigors of life illuminated the good things surrounding me and I found myself appreciating if not standing in awe of even the simplest things – a sunrise, a friendly smile at the post office, a great song on the radio, a turtle following my path. People I thought of as just acquaintances revealed themselves as bearers of hope with a phone call, a coffee shared together, an unexpected hug.

I realized that although I surround myself with people by singing in multiple choirs, attending church functions, volunteering for the symphonies and venturing into the mountains with like-minded mountain goats, I wasn’t very good at letting people into my life – allowing myself to be vulnerable. There were plenty of people out there that wanted into my life – if only I would let them in.

Then the flicker flamed.

On a particular difficult evening, I found myself walking with tears being my steady companion. I had a question for a fellow choir member and decided to send her a text message. By accident I hit the call button and to my horror the phone began to ring and she answered it! I was caught live in a moment of despair. I couldn’t hang up on her so I gulped and actually talked to her… apologizing for interrupting her evening. I was astounded when she replied that no I wasn’t interrupting her. Actually, she was dealing with severe pain of her own and really needed to talk to someone too.

90- some minutes later we were both laughing… a huge weight had been lifted from both of our spirits. I thanked her for sharing her time with me and she thanked me for helping her get through a rough evening and she actually felt like getting up and taking a walk! We had borne each other’s burdens for a while and my goodness it felt good to rest! Rest in the caring arms of someone else. We both felt so much better having opened up to each other.

“Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief.”

-Joseph Addison

Doctors realize this too. Numerous studies have been done over the last few decades that show social support and good health are connected. One study of cancer patients showed that those who had a good network of social support had much lower levels of a protein linked to more aggressive cancers which made their chemotherapy treatments more effective. Other cancer patient studies show that those with a good support group live longer and feel less pain than those lacking a social network. The Mayo Clinic identifies maintaining friendships as a key component of wellness. Friendships increase your sense of belonging and purpose; boost your happiness and reduce your stress; improve your self-confidence and self-worth; help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one; and provide encouragement to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits.

Making friends and maintaining those friendships is not always easy. It requires work and sacrifice from both parties but the payoffs are huge.

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I know that by leaning on others during the past few weeks I have regained my strength. I know that by helping others carry their burdens, my own seem lighter. My world seems less small and I feel a greater sense of responsibility to live well and help others do the same.

I won’t say that darkness has been completely obliterated from my life by a bonfire of buddies, but those buddies have become flickers of brilliant light when I am having a hard time finding my way. I feel less alone, even on days spent on my own and I feel much more alive when I have been able share a friend’s burden.

Yes, we are meant to be in companionship with others. If you need a spark, a flicker, or a flame in your life, shine the light of friendship into someone else’s darkness and you just might find yourself dancing in the light again.

Let your light so shine.

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