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.

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!

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

Don’t Cry Because it’s Over, Smile Because it Happened.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

– Dr. Seuss

15585330_1423685114322749_7195857032468761883_oI had a difficult time letting go of 2016. In all the years of my life I do not recall one that contained so many life changing circumstances as the past year. One would think I couldn’t wait to close, make that slam, the door on the year that brought emotional upheaval, sickness, strife, and death to my life but instead I found myself wanting to hold on to the year that was as the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. In every aspect, 2016 was a year that will shape the narrative of my life for some time to come.

The stories we tell others of the most extraordinary events –  good and bad – that we have experienced in our lives and that help us make sense of the world and shape us as individuals are what Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology, calls our narrative identity. We tell these stories to give our lives meaning and help others understand us. While many people may experience a similar event in their lives, each person interprets the event differently and assigns different levels of importance to it. Some people will simply move on from an experience like a swimming lesson gone awry, while others are transformed by it, perhaps emboldened to face their fears throughout life or traumatized by the experience they viewed as a broken trust.  McAdams calls these “narrative choices” and they predominantly fall into four thematic categories: redemption (stories that transition from the bad to the good that follows), contamination (stories that transition from the good to the bad), communion (stories that emphasize connection, love, friendship, intimacy, caring, or belonging), and agency (stories that emphasize achievement, self-mastery, empowerment, status, and influence).

McAdams’ studies have shown that those whose narratives fall into the redemption, communion, or agency themes have a better outlook on life, find more meaning and purpose in their life, achieve more of their goals, seek out and find more connection, enjoy deeper relationships, and generally report a greater sense of well-being. People who tell their stories through a contamination lens tend to see themselves as victimized, less-than, and fail to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits.

7803683540_76d8f5f45d_bHow we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction of our journeys in the year and years to come.

I tell my story through a lens of overcoming and persevering through events which brought me to a closer walk with God. By overcoming a near fatal eating disorder in my twenties – the ramifications of which altered the trajectory of my life including my schooling, my career, and my relationships –  I gained an inner strength and appreciation for life itself that I would not have otherwise acquired. I truly was born again into a life with Christ when I came out of ICU and gave my life completely into His hands and the hands of others He worked through to make me well again. I have lived every day since, cognizant of His divine mercy and grace in my life.

While 2016 had its fine share of wretchedness that at times drove me to places of darkness and sorrow, it was also a year of great personal growth and new direction in my life. My mother’s death changed who I am in this world going forward. I no longer have my mother to stand by me and as odd as it may sound, at 45 years of age I no longer feel like a child. Rather, I am determined to be the woman she never imagined I could be with a strength that I know she quietly and not so quietly instilled in me throughout our tumultuous yet loving mother-daughter relationship.

My father’s car accident and battle with cancer which began shortly after my mother’s death reminded my entire family that we cannot do this life thing on our own. We were richly rewarded through the goodness of friends and family surrounding us with acts of love and prayers. Through it all, my Lord was there, walking with us, carrying us, and working through His angels here on earth – and there were many- ensuring that this battle was fought with faith and determination and through His great providence, we won!

In 2016 I was reminded that I am not invincible and God knew just how to do that. The mountains that once gave me so much exuberance and fed my conquering spirit would put me in my place and lead me towards a new respect –  that for myself and my own well-being. Mind you, the mountains are really not the place to discover your weaknesses – at least not your physical ones. The events of the year had been quietly taking a toll on me, leading me to crash and burn on a mountainside for the first time in my epic climbing life (writer’s opinion inserted there). It was the first of many signs that I had been neglecting my own health but I ignored them and pushed through the symptoms of exhaustion, collapsing spells, and stomach issues chalking them up to stress.

When fear started to overwhelm everything else in my life, I headed to the clinic one morning for a check-up and ended the day being thought of as a bit of a walking miracle as I sat for five hours in the transfusion chair receiving three units of blood. This was a rather unexpected outcome of quick check-up! To put it bluntly, I had no red blood cells and quite frankly, the doctor told me – I should have been dead.

My 2nd brush with death in life reminded me once again that my physical body –  God’s temple on earth-  needs attention too, and for the first time in too long, I began to take serious responsibility for my own health. To win in life, one must be strong, unwavering, and humble – we must know our weaknesses to overcome them and I found mine.  Now I am in a process of restoring my health and I am making good progress! Which is a good thing because I have embarked on a new direction in life that had been far too long in the planning stages. My mother’s death and father’s illness made me very much aware that life is to be lived – not just observed or reflected upon. My goals of becoming a Lay Pastoral Associate and becoming a voice of hope in others’ lives will be realized.

While it is easy to succumb to a woe-is-me-what have-I-done-to-deserve-this-attitude when life goes awry, (which is a perfectly natural response) I choose to see my experiences as stepping stones rather than hurdles and tell a redemptive story of new goals, new opportunities, and strengthened relationships, rather than a story of my life going from good to bad which would ultimately lead to a life suspended. By choosing to see the events of my life through a lens of redemption and communion I am choosing to embrace the challenges I have faced and use them for good.

1795353_897513270273272_6053940868719391842_oI used to look to the mountains for my escape. They were a place I could go to get away from the chaos of life, challenge myself and come out on top (literally and figuratively), talk to God, and find peace. But my mountain sanctuaries did not avail themselves to me as much last year as in the recent past, partially due to the incessant rainy weather, partially due to my health, but mostly because God determined the chaos of life needed to be lived not escaped from, my challenges would come from within not from a wanderlust adventure, and I would come to find my peace in Him at all times – not just when the mountains called me.

2016 changed me. I am stronger now, in WHO I am. I am humbler. I am more aware. I am more alive!  I don’t need to run from life or the circumstances I encounter any longer. When I turn to my Lord instead of running away, I have the strength to find the good in the moment – even when it seems this moment is all I can see. When I call on Him to shine His light in my life, I can be a light in the lives of others. When I am weak, when I have lost heart, He picks me up and restores my spirit.

I don’t need to prove myself on a mountain or be anyone other than the me God created. In fact, as I gaze out at the mountains from my valley home now, the anxious desire I once felt to constantly climb and conquer every trail and peak I could sanely ponder has quelled to a more restful yearning filled with an appreciation of the beauty, opportunity, and peace that awaits me.

What is your story of life and 2016? How will you tell it and how will it define your goals and direction for 2017 and the years to come?

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.”

~ from Isaiah 43

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Clearing the Gloom- Rejoicing in Light

But as for me, I will sing about your power.
Each morning I will sing with joy about your unfailing love.
For you have been my refuge,
a place of safety when I am in distress.
~ Psalm 59:16

dscn6501I love Sunday. Especially sunny Sundays after 20 straight days of rain. It is the day each week my strength is restored, my thoughts gain perspective, my heart is filled, and my soul rests, in Him.

Sunday- when my Lord deconstructs the chaos and reconstructs my life.

Escaping life. I don’t desire that anymore. There were times in my life that I looked for that secret door that would take me to a better place, but I look no longer.
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When I turn to my Lord instead of running away, I have the strength to find the good in the moment – even when it seems this moment is all I can see. When I call on Him to shine His light in my life, I can be a light in the lives of others. When I am weak, when I have lost heart, He picks me up and restores my spirit.
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Where do I find Him? Surely in the quiet of morning, even before the light of day springs forth, and certainly in the majesty of the mountains he formed, but my true relationship with my Lord is found and made complete and solidified when I share in His Light, His Love, and His Amazing Grace in the company of others.
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There is no better place than a sanctuary on Sunday mornings followed by God’s grandest sanctuary – his natural world, especially when He has been busy painting.

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Let Your Light So Shine.

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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