Benediction

They sang the closing hymn and gathered in the fellowship hall. One last potluck together. One last time they sang grace gathered around those embroidered table-cloths made by their mothers and grandmothers. One last time they were together under the roof built by their fathers and grandfathers.

After one-hundred twenty-five years of ministry, the doors of their little church were closing. Their prairie town had shrunk to only a few houses. The school was closed. The stores were gone. Their zip code was taken away last year.

When the meal was over they gathered outside in the summer evening air and read some scripture. The bell tolled a final time and the benediction was given.

They lingered a long time on the church lawn and shared memories from when their families were young and their children laughed and played in this place. They remembered the weddings, the funerals, and the pastors that had come and gone.
Tears were shed. Hugs were shared. They could hardly believe they would be worshipping somewhere else next Sunday.

But there was joy, too. Not only in thankfulness for all that had been – but for the promise that hung in the air as the last car drove off. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Isaiah 40:1-11
“… the word of our God will stand forever.” (v.8)

Evanescence

It had been a long day. At four a.m. the baby woke up crying. Wintery roads, a day of meetings, and a stunning headache had frayed my nerves. Soon, I could pick up my children from the church nursery and go home.

It has been nearly six years now – but I remember the phone ringing that afternoon. Another parishioner in the hospital. I said I would go see him that night but inside I was nearly crying. I was so tired. Motherhood and Pastor-hood were both such blessings, but my blessings were exhausting me.

I decided to bring my toddler, Owen, with me to the hospital. We visited the fellow from my church and then Owen pulled me toward the cafeteria. He asked for some string cheese and I told him to find a table.

In a sea of empty tables, Owen plopped down at the one table that already had someone sitting at it. The elderly woman smiled at him over her cup of coffee.

As Owen ate his cheese, the woman and I talked and after a bit she told me she was at the hospital because her daughter was dying.

Then she reached out and touched Owen’s hand and said, “He’s precious.” I smiled.

As we drove home that night, I was still tired. It had still been a long day. But for that moment at least I remembered how beautiful it all is. Every evanescent second.

October Morning

It was a cool October morning when the doctor sat down with my infant son and me in the hospital waiting room. My mother was gravely ill in the Intensive Care Unit. He fumbled with his pen as he explained that she was “a very, very sick lady” and that she probably would not survive.

He left the room and I held the baby close. I could hear the sounds of people in the hallways, the sounds of the elevator doors opening and closing around the corner. How could people be going about life as usual when the entire world had obviously just shifted? My mother was dying.

My cell phone rang – my friend, Amy. I told her where I was and what was happening. Within two hours she was sitting next to me, which means she had packed up her baby daughter and started heading up the freeway immediately. She didn’t ask if she should come. She just came.

We didn’t talk much during the hours she was there. There wasn’t much to say. We just sat and held the babies, drank coffee, and fielded updates from the doctors and nurses. Yet her presence in that waiting room helped hold the sky in place when it seemed everything was about to come crashing down.

Philippians 1:3-11

“I thank my God for you…” (v. 3)

This Day

 

This is the day.  It’s the last time the scent of coffee will drift from the kitchen.  Never again will you see the baby rub sleep out of his eyes as he sits up in the crib to call for you.  Your spouse – with tousled hair – gives you one final good-morning kiss.

You observe these things you will not see again – the morning sun shining on pots and pans still in the sink, the cat crying for her food, the dog scratching to go outside, the children bickering in the bedroom.

A concluding full schedule of commitments awaits you.

It seems the same as it is most mornings – yet it will never exist again.  Never again will it be this way.

Today is the only day there is.  This instant is the only one you have to live.  This is the moment you get to love one another.  This is when you must bless the world with what only you have to give.  This is the hour to savor, treasure, and be present fully.

Yesterday is gone.  Tomorrow is a chance.

God has brought you this far so that you can live in this day – just this day.  What in the world will you do with such a stunning gift?cemetery sunrise

2 Samuel 7:18-29
“Who am I…that you have brought me thus far?”

Stillness

I am the pastor at a country church in an area known as Norse, Texas. One of the things I treasure most about being at Norse is the quiet. I often feel like I have the best of everything. I get to be a pastor in a great church and I get to live in a quiet place where there is room to breathe and think. My children are growing up being able to see the stars that dot the night sky. We are able to often be outside and not hear the sound of vehicles or other voices – only the sound of the wind and the birds, the cats playing, the dogs barking. It’s heavenly.

My mother used to love to sit outside our house and just enjoy the peace and the seasons as they passed. We lived about five miles outside of a small town in Minnesota. When I was growing up I couldn’t imagine what she could possibly enjoy so much about that sort of stillness. When I dreamed about the future I always pictured moving to the city and being a part of something active and exciting! So that is what I did. Like many small town Minnesota kids I move to Minneapolis and learned my way around. I frequented the bars that had great bands that came to play. I knew where the cool restaurants and coffee shops were. I walked everywhere along the paved streets and I didn’t think twice about the constant hum of traffic, the incessant lights and thick odors. It was like my senses craved being overloaded. So I plugged headphones into my ears and blasted angsty music. I lit my Marlboros and drew in deep, cancerous breaths. I stayed up far too late and woke up late for class quite often. When faced with the decision between whether to go for a run or do homework, I always ran.

Life felt jittery then. I guess days filled mostly with caffeine, nicotine, excessive exercise, a poor diet, and constant activity will do that. There was no space – I filled in all the spaces. Quiet moments were something to be cancelled out with noise as soon as possible. Solitude and silence were lonesome things back then.
The shift happened slowly. I ended up living in the country for my first call as a pastor. I was just a few miles outside a small town but near a freeway so the noise of the trucks and cars passing made it not entirely serene. We then moved on to Colorado and lived in a large city not far from downtown. Within twenty minutes I could be hiking on a mountain trail but it was not peaceful. The mountain was a significant tourist destination. And it began to bother me that when I put my baby in his crib at night, the noise from the neighbor children in their back yard seeped in through the windows and walls. I started to notice that whenever I left the city to go back to Minnesota and spent time at my house where I grew up or by the lake, I felt the tension in my neck lessen and the frantic chatter in my mind would shut up a little bit. I began to dream about my children having the sorts of things I had growing up – gravel roads to walk on, mud puddles to play in, space enough for boredom and thus creativity to enter in. I began to listen for God to beckon us back home to Minnesota. I was certain that was what would happen next.

So this church, Norse, was supposed to be a practice interview. I can admit this now – now that we have been here three and a half years. I can admit that before we came here we couldn’t fathom God could actually be calling us to a church in Texas. We were northerners. We didn’t even like country music! In late 2009, when the call committee invited us to visit and discuss the possibility of me being a pastor here, my husband and I joked privately about how ridiculous the idea was. But leaving wintery Colorado for a warm interview weekend in Texas sounded just fine. And so we went.

We observed everything coolly for most of the trip. We were friendly and polite. The church was wonderful, the potluck lunch after worship was amazing, the people were lovely – they just didn’t realize that we weren’t supposed to be here. They weren’t in on the joke yet that God was going to be calling us back to Minnesota any second because that was where I was going to find the quiet place for my boys to grow up. That was where I was going to reconnect with where I came from and figure out where I was still going. That was home. This was just an interesting weekend trip.
I think if it had been any other time of day that we chose to make a quick drive out to Norse from the hotel to return a hymnal I had inadvertently taken with me after church, things might have turned out differently. However, it was evening, and the sun was slanting just so over the quiet church lawn when we drove up. We were flying out the next day. It was all going to be done and we would probably never come this way again. But if you have ever been here in the evening, when the sun goes through the stained glass at just the right angle, and washes over the gravestones in the cemetery, and there is only the sound of the breeze passing through the branches of the live oaks and the cedars, you know how easy it is to fall in love with this place. Although my children were asleep in their carseats, I could hear their laughter echoing over these hills and picture them coming around the corner on their skateboards and bicycles in the years to come. Although every plan we had was to keep working our way back home to Minnesota, I distinctly felt in that moment that perhaps I was already home.

In truth, I imagine that is why I so love to take pictures of this church in the evening – because that is when I first could picture us living life here. It was when the sun was low and turning the grass golden that I first could fathom that the story of my family could become intermingled with the stories of your families and this place. In the stillness of that February evening, I caught on to the notion that perhaps God could be calling us here. I remembered that perhaps God’s plan was still better than mine.

Psalm 46:10 – “Be still, and know that I am God..”

Fifteen Things I Learned from Being on a Norwegian Reality Show

Earlier this spring I participated in the filming of the fifth season of Alt for Norge, a Norwegian reality show. I can’t give out details of the experience until after the show airs in the fall, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the time I spent there and here are just a few things I learned:

1. Just as I was told it would be, Norway is simply beautiful. It is so clean and cool and green. I can’t wait to return someday.

2. Being on a Norwegian reality show is fun. The first day in Norway we participated in a photo shoot at TV Norge where they are making commercials and posters featuring all of us for the fall line-up of shows. To get my hair and makeup done and pose for the cameras was an interesting and cool experience. TV Norge said we’ll get copies of some of those photographs in the fall – it will be fun to share them with you.

3. Being on a Norwegian reality show takes a lot of patience – there was so much hilarity and adventure but also a LOT of waiting: waiting for camera setups, waiting for people to get in place, waiting for interviews.

4. If you are in a Norwegian restaurant, have the fish – you’ll never be disappointed.

5. A common saying about Norwegians is that they are “born on skis” – skiing is a popular hobby among much of the population. It had been about twenty years since I had been on skis and I was never good at it back then – and as it turns out, I’m not any better at it now.

6. I learned that while most Norwegians left Norway because of the poverty and lack of land in Norway and the possibility for land and religious freedom in the United States, there were others who left for different reasons – namely, a fresh start for their family and for their family name. (This revelation came to me after I was given particular information about my own family history while I was in Norway…I can’t elaborate now but it will be part of an early episode)

7. While some people, namely most of the other cast members, seemed to love being in front of the camera and having their life and conversations being filmed, I found it to be slightly entertaining for a couple days but then after that I was less than enchanted with the process of having to reconstruct conversations for the camera, being interviewed incessantly about the “challenges” we had to do and our thoughts about this or that. It’s good that I never aspired to be in front of the camera for a career – because a little limelight goes a long way with me. It was a great experience and I am so glad I could do it, but the friendships made with the other cast members and the things we saw and did were much more valuable to me than actually being a part of the filming. Upon reflection, I think being a director would be a very hard job – to try to find a balance between dealing with the people who crave the spotlight and those who are nonplussed by the camera operations and incessant questions (me) would be constant challenge.

8. Most of the time we were being filmed for challenges, we were outdoors, it was freezing cold or raining, and there was no access to mirrors or makeup – so it’s awesome that for majority of my stint as a Norwegian television personality I will probably be looking about as good as an uncooked chicken leg with glasses and a stocking cap.

9. It’s nice to have a chance to write in a journal and live out of a backpack and remember what that feels like. But it is even nicer to come home and be with my boys and spouse.

10. I feel like I’m still in my 20’s – until I hang out with a bunch of people in their 20’s – then I remember I’m definitely in my 40’s.

11. There are many places in Norway where you can get sparkling (carbonated) water out of the tap. Out of the TAP! Seriously – one faucet will have regular water and the faucet right next to it has wonderful sparkling water. I need this innovation in the parsonage immediately.

12. One can get used to the little luxuries of being on a reality show cast very quickly: we never had to make any plans or arrange any details of our days. We were told when to wake up, given clothes to wear (I now have a pretty great cold weather wardrobe I was given to KEEP!), fed delectable meals, stayed in (mostly) excellent accommodations, shown gorgeous sights, and then our “job” was to participate in fun “challenges” (these challenges were never hard – each one was mostly based on luck or speed, not skill). It was not a hard life.

13. The greatest part of being on Alt for Norge was spending time with the rest of the cast. What a truly wonderful group of people. I laughed SO much.

14. I learned that while you can take the pastor away from her congregation, the congregation is never, ever far from the pastor’s heart and thoughts. Each day when I was writing in my journal I would write down all the things we were doing so I would never forget, but then I found myself also always writing about my prayers for my congregation – wondering how they were and what was happening. Since we couldn’t have contact with anyone while we were in Norway, it wasn’t until I called my husband to tell him I was on the way home that I found out one of the active members of our church had died shortly after I left. It’s still difficult for me to believe he is really dead. I went to visit his grave site in our cemetery as soon as I got home and stood there for a long time, wondering how it could be possible that the last time I had seen him we had been having a conversation in the Parish hall just like we always did, and now his body was laid to rest in that rocky Texas soil. I can’t believe I wasn’t here to lead his funeral service, to sit with his wife and family and pray with them in the days that followed. I feel sad about that and yet I knew when I left that there was the very real possibility something like this could happen in my absence.

15. Just as I imagined it would be, the experience of Alt for Norge was tremendous. It was challenging and restorative and invigorating. I made wonderful friends whom I cannot wait to see again. I saw places I never dreamed I would get to see and did things beyond the imagination. Stay tuned for more stories in the fall when I can share more.

 

dark times…

It was a dark time. 

Not the season – the season was bright and the days were getting warmer, long and lazy.  The trees were green and lush, the world around her was burgeoning in flowers and there were babies and kittens and lambs – new life seemed to be bursting forth everye babies and kittens and lambs – new chasing after ers and ottom of a creek bed after the water has been rushing over where she looked.  However, this only made Annie more aware that all that she felt was still, cool, and worn, like she was a stone in the bottom of a creek bed after the water has been rushing over it for decades.

Annie pulled up to the grocery store and parked in front.  Same store, different day.  She wasn’t pleased to see Mrs. Anderson’s van in the lot as well as she walked toward the front door. She knew that if she ran into her this shopping trip would take three times as long as it normally would.  Mrs. Anderson liked to talk and talk and talk.  Annie wanted to just get in and out of the store as quickly as possible today.

She entered the grocery store and the cool air surrounded her, she got a cart and began wheeling it toward the baked goods.  “Some cupcakes would be nice” she thought as she glanced over the selection.  She sighed as she noted there were only mini white cupcakes and no chocolate cupcakes whatsoever.  The chocolate cupcakes were infinitely better and mini cupcakes were just so much work – you had to eat two or three of them to even feel like you ate something.  Not that she had felt like eating anything lately anyway.  She grabbed two packages of the disappointing mini white cupcakes and put them in her cart. 

She turned her cart toward the vegetable section and she spied Mrs. Anderson and her son Jimmy Joe by the avocados.  Annie decided she would come back to the vegetable section a little later.  She headed down a nearby aisle and hummed along to the music coming over the loudspeaker.  One of the back wheels of the cart wobbled.

“Same old carts, different day,” Annie thought.  Sometimes it seemed like nothing ever changed – but then she obviously had.  She remembered a time when she would walk down these same aisles with joy and anticipation – planning for a family gathering or a dinner with friends.  Picking up some ingredients for a birthday cake or a bottle of wine with supper.  It seemed like a lifetime ago – who was that person that used to laugh so easily and had energy enough for three people?  It had been her – such a short time ago, really.  Before everything fell apart.  Before.

Annie sometimes felt like a ghost now – moving slowly and silently through her days.  She imagined herself drifting through those grocery store aisles.  A filmy, pale hand grasping cans of soup and bags of noodles.  How strange to feel only partly here.  And to not be able to admit to anyone the truth – not that anyone cared to hear – that sometimes she wished she weren’t here at all. 

She stopped her cart and looked at the selection of coffee.  What would be best?  Organic?  Dark Roast?  Breakfast Blend?  Folgers?  She picked up one of the bags of coffee, squeezed it slightly and breathed in the aroma.  It smelled like that coffee shop where she always used to meet her friend Rita back in college.  Such good memories they had there.  She wondered how Rita was doing – they hadn’t been in touch for decades.  She wondered if the coffee shop was still there or if it had turned into something sad – like a fast food place or a furniture rental shop.  She hoped not.  She liked to think of friends still gathering there and sharing stories over cups of coffee and scones, dreaming of the future and thinking deep thoughts. 

She put the coffee in her cart and continued down the aisle.  She wondered where Mrs. Anderson was in the store by now.  Annie looked up and noticed that the clock at the front of the store still wasn’t working.  “Same broken clock, different day.”  Annie sighed and checked the time on her cell phone.  She had to get moving a little quicker. 

Some cheese, some ground beef, a tub of ice cream and frozen juice. She was almost done and only had to slip over to the vegetable section now without running into…

“Well, Hi Annie!” said Mrs. Anderson as she appeared from behind a display.

Annie’s heart sank.  “Hi there, Bonnie,” Annie said and plastered on a smile.  Now she was stuck. 

Within moments Mrs. Anderson was telling Annie about how she needed to get some garlic bread because her cousins were coming over and she wasn’t sure which brand would be best because she had tried a certain kind and it hadn’t been very good….

Although Annie kept her eyes fixed on Mrs. Anderson and smiled and nodded dutifully her mind slowly drifted.  How could anyone possibly talk this much, she thought.  Then she made a mental list of the things she still had to get on the other end of the store and calculated how long it would take her.  She needed to think of a way to escape Mrs. Anderson.

Mrs. Anderson paused ever so briefly to catch her breath and Annie quickly said, “Bonnie, I am so sorry but I really have to get going.  Hair appointment!  See you on Sunday at church!”  She smiled and waved as she pushed her cart away and Mrs. Anderson looked slightly put out as she said, “Oh, well, okay – see you then, dear.”

Annie hurried toward the vegetable section.  She just needed to get some tomatoes and some lettuce, maybe some peppers.  Why was she even bothering with all of this?  It wasn’t like it mattered.  It wasn’t like any of this was going to make a bit of difference now.  It was too late, she was too late, all of this was too little, too late.  She thought about everything that had happened in the last months and wondered how she was going to get through it.  So many worries, just a different day.  Every stupid day.

Her head hurt.  Her eyes were stinging.  She knew it was going to happen.  She was going to burst into tears right here – in front of the cherry tomatoes.  Right here – in the store where everyone knew her, had known her since she was a child.  She considered just leaving the full cart behind and dashing to her car but heaven knows that would be the talk of the town if she did.  There was nothing in this town that wasn’t everyone’s business.  Same small town, different day. 

As her tears began to fall she felt an arm come around her shoulders. “Honey, let’s go get some coffee, okay?”  It was Mrs. Anderson.  “No, Bonnie”, said Annie –
“I have so much to do and I have to cook this perfect supper and I’m already so late…” But Mrs. Anderson said, “there is always time for coffee”.  She waved at her son to take Annie’s cart – “Jimmy Joe will make sure those get to your house, okay – so we have plenty of time to go and just get a cup of coffee.”

Mrs. Anderson propelled Annie out the door and down the sidewalk and into the coffee shop next door.  Annie sputtered, “Bonnie, really, I am fine.  And I seriously don’t have time.”

“You have time,” said Mrs. Anderson.  “Sit down.”  She motioned to a booth in the corner.  Annie went obediently and sat down.    She wasn’t sure whether to be put out at Mrs. Anderson’s bossiness or touched at her concern. 

Mrs. Anderson sat down across from her and as the waitress came toward them she said, “Two cups of coffee, honey, and two of those heavenly chocolate cupcakes.”  Then she turned her attention toward Annie.  She said, “I hate it when they are out of the chocolate cupcakes at the grocery store.”  Then she winked, “But they always have them here.”  She smiled as the waitress brought over the coffee and two perfect cupcakes.

“Now,” said Mrs. Anderson.  You look like you need a good cry, and maybe a listening ear.  And you have been looking like this for a while, dear – today isn’t the first time I’ve seen you moping around that grocery store.  Whatever is going on with you is none of my business but I know what it is like to suffer, and I know that sometimes it just helps to talk.  So.  Maybe I am wrong, but I’m just going to sit here and eat my cupcake and drink my coffee and not say a word.  And you can do the same or…feel free to talk.  I’ll listen.”

Annie looked out the window.  She saw two small girls running through a sprinkler in the yard across the street.  They were laughing so loud she could hear them all that way – even over the hum of the traffic going by.  Annie was so tired of feeling so bad.  It felt like joy and laughter were just distant memories – things that happened to other people these days, not her. 

She eyed Mrs. Anderson sitting there, sipping her coffee and then taking a bite of the cupcake.  It was strange to be in her presence without the constant chatter of her talking – so maybe it was to fill the silence, or maybe it was because Mrs. Anderson was right and Annie needed this…but Annie started to talk.  She talked, and cried, and talked some more.  She ate the chocolate cupcake and then ordered another.  And Mrs. Anderson listened.  Same old Spirit of the living God at work, mysteriously and truly, different day.

I Peter 4 reads, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.  Be steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.  And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.  To him be the power forever and ever.  Amen.”