Advent

In many places, Advent is cold. It is the church season of beginnings and yet it is winter and dark – there is very little in the natural world pointing to burgeoning life – but it is there. Under the ground the seeds are waiting for the warmth of the sun to bring them to bloom again. The trees will again show their leaves. The days will be getting longer and warmer again. It may not feel like it will happen soon – but the promise of it is there.

And there is a promise for us as well. In the midst of the things in our lives that may feel like dead-ends, that may feel like they are lost, or that we are just too tired to think about – God reminds us:

Those things for which you long…there is yet time!
Those things you dream about…they are still possible!
Those prayers you have been praying…God still answers!

No matter how today finds us – whether tired or refreshed, peaceful or anxious, hopeful or hopeless – there is a message we needs to hear: The story of Advent is the story of Emmanuel – God with us – and God is always about beginnings. Always. Even in the darkest night. Even in a hospital room. Even in hospice. Because it was even so on the cross.

Norway

The next day we woke up and had breakfast on our own. I went jogging out by the cemetery again and ordered some room service while I organized my luggage. I was enjoying a last few minutes alone before we started the journey. We met for lunch and then were set to depart for the airport right after that.

Lunch seemed to last forever – I was so excited to just get going! Finally, we boarded a couple shuttle buses and went to the airport. Brita and Ane helped us get all our luggage checked. Brandon’s bag was a little too heavy so he gave some of his stuff to different people to carry. I ended up bringing one of his shoes and a couple books for him.

We made it to Norway after a 7.5 hour flight. Breyanne and I sat in the same row with a Norwegian fellow between us. He seemed to be very interested in Breyanne and drank a lot – which was only annoying because I kept having to get up for him to go to the bathroom. Over and over and over. It was a long flight and I didn’t sleep at all but as the light began to fill the sky I was so excited to nearing Norway.

We finally landed in Oslo and went through customs. Then, we retrieved our bags and immediately went to the hotel and had lunch. The food was wonderful – an excellent buffet. I sat by Brandon and we talked quite a bit. I loved his personality and his warmth.

As soon as lunch was over we were told that we had the afternoon to ourselves except that we would each take turns getting outfitted for the next weeks. I was one of the first to be brought to a room where there were piles of bags and clothes and we had to try on quite a bit of clothes – mostly outdoor gear – to make sure they had the right sizes of everything. Then, after we had all the coats, pants, gloves, boots, etc. that we needed, we put all of it into a Helly Hanson bag with our name on it and were told that would be ours now. I had no idea we would get to keep so much cool stuff! Not that I can wear a lot of it in Texas, but still! Free clothes are awesome clothes – and everything they gave us was beautiful, high quality stuff.

I spent the next hours going for a walk, sitting and talking with some others from the group in the hotel lobby, and trying to stay awake. We had been told to not fall asleep until nighttime and that would help a lot with the jet lag. It had been a long time since I had been up more than 24 hours in a row. We were all looking forward to going to sleep that night.

We met for supper and then afterward we began our nightly ritual of meeting with “the mamas” (Brita, Ane, and Ragnild) to tell us what to pack, prepare for the next day. They reminded us what we needed to wear and bring with us and then I immediately went up to my hotel room to try to get to sleep. The next day we would be having a photo shoot at TV Norge! I was SO excited and looking forward to it.

Alt for Norge – first stop – New Jersey

The flight to New Jersey took me through North Carolina. By the time I finally landed in Newark it was after 10:00 p.m. I was to meet Ane from Monster in the lobby of the hotel. I easily found the shuttle to the hotel and was very excited and nervous to meet Ane. As I walked into the hotel lobby, she stood up to greet me and I was relieved that she recognized me and I didn’t have to hunt for her. She was very nice and reminded me of a college friend. We sat down for a few minutes and she gave me a folder of information, my room information, and told me that I would be having two meetings the next day with Thor and Brita. Otherwise, I would be free to do whatever I wanted except I wasn’t allowed to go into New York City. We would also be having supper together the next day with the whole group. I asked Ane how many of the cast members were already there and she said I was only the second to arrive. I found out later that Kent had arrived first.

My phone had stopped working for some reason and so I went to the hotel computer to send a message to Chad. Then I went to my room, had a drink, and tried to organize my stuff. I noticed as soon as I opened my suitcase that it smelled distinctly like cat pee. Oh crap. Had the cat peed on my suitcase before I left? I soon realized it was my running shoes – they had been sitting by the door before I packed them and the cat must have had his way with them. I couldn’t ditch them – I wouldn’t have time to get new ones. I found a plastic bag that I could wrap them in when I wasn’t using them and hoped that would work. Maybe in time the smell would wear off?

I collapsed into bed and thought about all the people I would meet the next day. Would they be nice? I really hoped they would be nice. I wasn’t scared – just excited. I didn’t miss the boys or Chad too much – we had all been preparing for this time for months now so I just had to set my sights on moving forward now and experiencing all there was to experience. As I drifted off to sleep I thought about my church, especially those who were sick. I prayed for them and remembered that even though I couldn’t be with them, I could still pray for them. My prayers would be the same – whether in Texas, or New Jersey, or Norway. I hoped my congregation could be excited for me and happy for me. I hoped the weeks to come would be as good as I had anticipated. I was happy to finally be beginning the journey I had been looking forward to for so long.

The next morning I slept in a little bit. It was Sunday morning and while it felt strange to not be at church, I was so glad to have some rest. I went to have breakfast at the little restaurant downstairs. We had been told to charge all our food to Ane’s room. I had some sausage and eggs, a lot of coffee, and then I headed upstairs to meet with Thor. I knocked on his door promptly at 10:00 a.m. and then he brought me into his room to sit down at a table where he shared with me some logistics and information that he needed to share with all of us who were participating. As soon as I saw him, I remembered him from the interview in Chicago – tall, thin, and a beautiful smile. I liked his manner a lot and his words helped to put me at ease in many ways. He said something to the effect of, “we picked you to be you on the show. We don’t want you to try to be someone else and if something bothers you, let us know.” There was just something about what he said and how he said it that was very comforting – like even though I was about to go and be filmed doing who knows what on Norwegian television, it was going to be okay because they wanted me to be there, and they were on my side in all of this. After Thor and I had been talking for a while, there was a knock at the door – another contestant was there to meet with him and I would finally get to meet someone else who had been picked to be on Season 5. It was Norris! I greeted him and thought about how he looked very sweet and very young! I later found out he was in his early twenties. I went out in the hall to wait to meet with Brita next and then met Marshell. I was struck by how beautiful her eyes were and as she talked, she seemed very down to earth and I thought I would like to be friends with her. We only talked for a few moments before Brita called me into her room and I was so happy to finally meet Brita (even though I knew she had been there in Chicago so I had actually met her, but had been in too much of a daze to remember) since she had been sending all of us e-mails to get us ready for our journey. She also had some information to go over with me and asked if I had any questions. I remember asking her if I was the oldest participant this year. She said no. I asked her when I would have to give up my cell phone and she said when we got to Norway they would collect our phones.

After I met with Brita, I went outside to exercise. I found that the hotel was next to a number of cemeteries. I had to laugh – I usually go jogging every day by my own church cemetery and now I was out running by the dead people again. There were some beautiful gravestones and I took a lot of pictures. After I got back to the hotel, I took the elevator up to my room to change and saw a tall, blond fellow carrying the same Monster folder I was given when I arrived. I introduced myself to him and found out his name was Kyle and he had just arrived from Utah. He was heading up to meet Thor right then. Next, I went to have lunch and found that a group of Alt for Norge participants had now clustered in the restaurant. It was time to play extrovert and go say “hello.” Sitting at the lunch table was Beth (who got up and hugged me and greeted me like we were long lost friends – love her!), Leah, David, and Kent. We all sat there and talked and got to know each other as others came and went. Marshell stopped in and sat down to eat lunch, Kyle eventually came and sat down, Kent and Beth left to do some other things, eventually Brandon came in and I met him, also Breyanne stopped by the table briefly but she needed to go write in her journal and so she said she would come talk to us later. I finally went back to my room to spend some time alone before we all met for supper. I had met everyone except Candice and Guy by then – and I was so happy they all seemed very nice.

Later that day we all met in a conference room and introduced ourselves to each other. I finally met Candice (who I thought was so beautiful and full of life) and Guy (who seemed so smart and well-spoken). As I looked around the room I was deeply impressed by what a unique bunch we were and I was very pleased that I somehow had ended up included with this group of people. I remember as I introduced myself to the others I said that it was “one of the greatest surprises of my life that I get to be a part of such a fun thing as this.” Thor briefed us on the details of our journey to Norway the next day.

We went downstairs to have supper and there was a lot of talking and laughter. I remember I had a steak and a glass of wine. Then, I went upstairs and called my boys and Chad. I was glad to see their faces as we Facetimed, I was happy to hear about their day, but I was too excited about everything that was to come to be sad about being away from them yet.

I went to sleep and dreamed about Norway.

Alt for Norge – Holy Week and the Most Difficult Challenge of All…

After the camera crew left, it was Holy Week, so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about anything aside from church and doing the final hospital and homebound visits before my departure. I left a lot of instructions for the deacons and the secretary and also for the pastors who would be subbing for me on Sundays. We had services on Thursday and Friday and on Sunday we had a wonderful Easter morning complete with an Easter egg hunt for the children, breakfast, and decorating a cross outside with fresh flowers. I was relieved when church was over that day – exhilarated, actually. I hadn’t taken a Sunday off in over six months. I knew I needed a break and I was so grateful that I would soon be getting one.

I didn’t know what to expect in the weeks to come but I knew whatever it was, it would be a different time, an alternate circumstance to the one in which I had been living. I needed that so badly. I think stepping apart from one’s own life for a time is valuable in so many ways – especially when one is starting to feel stale and stagnant. I love my work and my family and my church deeply, I have been given so much that is so good – I will not tolerate myself seeing any of it as stale or stagnant. My most heartfelt prayer in those days was that being away from my life for a while would give me fresh eyes and a renewed heart again.

In the final days before I left, the boys stayed home from school so we could be together. We went to the zoo in Fort Worth and I got to meet up with a friend who came to visit from Wisconsin. I figured out the last-minute things I needed to get. I found myself worrying a lot about little things – like how much my hair would grow while I was in Norway and if I would ever have the chance to color it there. My natural hair color is very gray and I knew within a few weeks I would have a distinct line visible on my head where the brownish red lowlights stopped and the natural gray came in. I invested in a hat that I thought I might wear at some point to cover it all up. I brought it to Norway and back and then gave it away – it was an ugly hat. I never wore it.

The morning I left, my sons and I played baseball out in the yard for a while. They took turns asking if I really had to go. I kept saying I would probably be back very soon – just a few weeks. I said if I was gone longer, I would just have to stay to the very end so I could win the prize for them and then they could come to Norway, too. They seemed somewhat satisfied with that answer. We drove to the airport, stopping on the way to have lunch in Hillsboro. I felt so excited and sad at the same time. I never for even a moment considered not going, but I knew my heart was going to burst right in two when I had to say goodbye to my boys. I had envisioned our parting many times and had thought about how I would try my best to be cheerful and upbeat so that they would hopefully not take it all so hard. When we finally stopped at the airport and got out my luggage and it was time to part, however, I was distinctly and unashamedly crying. They clung to me and it was all terribly sad. Still, as I hugged them and Chad and then watched them drive away, I felt pretty good – because I knew that now I had already completed the most difficult challenge I would face in this whole Alt for Norge experience. Next, I just had to go have some fun.

Alt for Norge – On your mark, get set…

I was so shocked to be selected. I am quiet country pastor in my early forties. I’ve always gravitated toward the academic and the introspective far more than lights, camera and action. Some of my closest friends were astounded I had even wanted to apply to be on a reality show in Norway. I can’t even explain how much I wanted to do it, and how once I applied, I longed to be selected. I had absolutely no doubt I should do it and that it would be an immensely good experience.

The next months were mostly fantastic as I prepared to go. I studied some Norwegian in the car on my way to and from hospital visits. I ran four miles every morning and was feeling great. I tried to prepare my church for my absence – which was the most difficult part. When I told the church council what I had been accepted to do, they gave me their blessing and seemed very excited for me and I was so happy and relieved about that. As I had hoped would be their reaction, they were glad that I could learn more about Norway and make connections with the country of our origin. They agreed to let me use my vacation and then if I was gone longer than my allotted vacation, I agreed to pay for pulpit supply in my absence. Unfortunately, as time went by, I found not all were happy for me and some were even upset that I hadn’t told them before I applied. I heard grumblings that some felt it would be a bad thing for me to participate in a reality show. Of course, this began to dampen my spirits but I knew I had to keep everything in perspective. I couldn’t make everyone understand why this was so important for me to do. I couldn’t make everyone agree it was a wonderful thing that their pastor could experience such a thing. Not everyone automatically saw my point of view – that our church had been here for 140 years before I ever arrived and they would be fine without me for 2-10 weeks. I didn’t want to upset anyone – but I also knew I couldn’t plan my life around the reactions and feelings of a few who thought this wasn’t a worthwhile venture. I needed to go. Those who didn’t understand that would learn to accept it. I was going to Norway! Woo-hoo! For the first time in a very long time I had something so deeply cool and it was all for me! I chose to be happy about that.

A camera crew was sent to our home a couple weeks before I left for Norway. First, they interviewed me and then they filmed us as a family – playing basketball, playing a game, the boys helping me pack, and me jogging down to the cemetery. I have never looked over my house with such a critical eye as I did when I knew there would be cameras filming in those rooms. I realized with dismay that many of my decorations, well, just suck. I have never invested any time, money, or energy into decorative items and so my house was basically decorated in a rag-tag bunch of items I had been given over the years: a dream catcher here, some colorful scarves there, a whole LOT of ugly religious art bestowed upon me by dear parishioners whom I love. I decided if I was ever going to put any thought into how I would like to decorate my rooms instead of just hanging up some things by default since there was a nail there and someone gave me something to hang on it, the time was now.

I started scouring pinterest for inexpensive decorating ideas. I made some cool wall hangings for the bedrooms and they turned out great. I cleaned and straightened and purged all the rooms until everything was so tidy it looked like we were half moved-out and the children were afraid to touch anything for fear of me getting after them for upsetting my precisely staged household.

It was the day before Palm Sunday when the director, Astrid, and three members of a camera arrived at our house. After filming at the parsonage all day Saturday, they came to church on Sunday and filmed there at worship and lunch. Some of the church ladies made some Norwegian foods and we sang the Norwegian national anthem. It was a very lovely day. The director wanted to film the congregation waving “goodbye” to me and so we did that. I was so glad to have the church featured in the filming because it was really my church’s love for all things Norwegian that had made me more interested in my own heritage. Growing up in Minnesota, I had really taken my Norwegian heritage for granted because so many people there had Scandinavian roots. Leaving that behind for many years and then coming to live here felt like coming home in many ways and these years here have taught me so much about my own history.

I absolutely loved the camera crew and the director – they were so nice and pleasant to work with. After they left I felt even more peaceful about being a part of Alt for Norge because it was already such a good experience. I was certain there would just be more good stuff to come. Soon.

Here is the beautiful video Alt for Norge made from their visit to my home in Texas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQYgiT9Wq_8

Alt for Norge – the Journey to Chicago

It was only a few weeks later that I received an e-mail that I was being flown to Chicago to meet with the producers. I didn’t know how many people got to come to these “callbacks” but I read somewhere it was maybe 40-60 people. My only plan was to just go and be myself and have fun and enjoy the moment. After all, how many times in my life was I going to be flown somewhere to meet with a casting director? The casting office in Chicago made all my arrangements and I was flown into Chicago on a February evening. I took the train into Chicago and then proceeded to get lost and wandered around downtown Chicago for about an hour before I found the hotel. Fortunately, there were lots of street lights and people out and about even though it was quite late, but I still was getting frustrated because it was very cold and I couldn’t figure out the direction to go for the longest time even though I had a map of downtown Chicago in my hands! I have come to rely on my phone to tell me directions but my phone was out of battery and without it, I was literally lost for a bit. As I wandered, I laughed to myself that maybe finding the hotel was the first challenge in the Alt for Norge competition and I was failing miserably! Finally, I got going in the right direction and knew I was getting close. I actually walked right by the hotel several times before I found it. It was a very cool place – and looked like no other hotel I had ever been to. Once I could plug in my phone, I called my husband and told him I wasn’t nearly cool enough to be at that hotel. (This is the hotel: http://www.acmehotelcompany.com/) There was great artwork everywhere and just a vibe that was the opposite of a regular chain hotel in most every way. I set down my small bag in my hotel room and immediately went down to the bar for a ridiculously expensive martini and appetizer. Then, off to bed – I had to get up early the next morning to go to my audition!

It was pouring rain the next morning and I had to make it across Chicago to the casting office. The casting office had given me directions for how to take the bus there but after getting lost the night before, and not having taken a city bus for about twenty years, I decided to just ask the front desk to get a cab for me and that worked out really well. I made it to the casting office with about an hour to spare so I walked to a nearby coffee shop and had some coffee and a scone.

When the time got closer, I walked back to the casting office and entered. I had to fill out some forms and then waited for just a short time before the casting director, Joan O’Connor, came out to greet me. She told me that the Norwegian producers would be in one corner of the room and I could greet them but when I answered the questions, to talk to her and not them. She brought me into the room and I greeted the Norwegians – who all seemed to be impossibly good-looking and very well-dressed. I sat down and began to answer the questions and I don’t remember a lot of the questions. I do remember she asked me what my parents would think if they knew I got to go to Norway, and just the thought of that made me tear up. I said that they would be so glad to know I had the chance to go even though they never got that opportunity. She probably only interviewed me for ten minutes and then I was done. I remember she remarked that I “looked really good on camera” – which I enjoyed hearing. I didn’t get to meet any other people who were there auditioning. Just like that, my moment auditioning for something was over and it was time to go home.

It was just a few days later I was sitting in a meeting and I got an e-mail that Joan O’Connor, the casting director, had a few more questions for me and she wanted to Facetime with me sometime that day. It turned out she only had one question, which was, “Do you still want to go to Norway?” And I found out I was selected. I could not freaking believe it. I still can’t.

Right after I finished talking to Joan, I went to eat lunch with the other pastors in the meeting and could hardly eat a bite. I called Chad and told him the good news. A little later that day, I told the bishop’s assistant who was there at the meeting, and as soon as our activities for the day were over, I went to my room and watched Alt for Norge videos on youtube and marveled at what was to come.

The Road to Norge

(I’m going to take some time to recount my experiences leading up to and participating in Alt for Norge for any who might care to know about this wonderful journey. Here is my first entry:)

I was on a Norwegian Reality Show.

I still can hardly believe I did such a fun thing. I hope that when I am old and reclining on my death bed, my children will share that story with the nurses tending to me or the chaplain visiting that day. They’ll say, “Yes, she was a pastor and a great mom…and this one time she was even on a wildly popular Norwegian reality show.” I treasure this story like a precious gem among all the lovely stories I’m collecting in this life.

The reality show is called “Alt for Norge”. It has been on the air in Norway for five seasons and they select 12 U.S. citizens with Norwegian ancestry to come over to Norway and participate in challenges while learning more about Norwegian culture and history and customs. I wasn’t most interested in the competition (although I have to say, the competitions in which we participated were so good-natured and positive that I very much enjoyed them) or because there was the chance I could win $50,000 (although if I had won it certainly would have been a nice nest-egg for my sons’ college education) or even that I had the chance to meet my living Norwegian relatives (although it would have been stupendous to meet them – and I do very much hope to meet them someday, without cameras rolling). I was mostly deeply enchanted by the idea of doing something so different and fun, getting to experience Norway, and connecting with the land that my parents always wanted to see but never got a chance to do so while they were alive, the land my ancestors left in the late 1800’s.

I filled out the application and filmed a short audition video right after Christmas. I had heard about the show through a fellow I dated for about two seconds back in seminary. He posted an article about the show on Facebook and I clicked on it – and the more I learned about it, the more interested I was. I devoured episodes of the show I could watch on youtube. The more I watched, the more I believed I needed to be a part of it. Maybe it was because the people they had selected to participate in the past had all seemed like people I would like to know – they seemed like people who would be great to have as friends. Maybe it was because I liked the heart of the show so much and it always seemed to be about so much more than the silly competitions. Maybe it was because I had been learning more about Norway in recent years and I felt like this was a great way to expand on that. Or maybe it was just because a new adventure sounded, really, really good. Whatever it was, I was as certain as I have ever been about anything that I wanted to be on Alt for Norge.

Reformation

For a long time, many years of my ministry, it seemed like the recipe for a good Reformation Sunday sermon was to tell the story about Martin Luther again and again. And it never occurred to me to do anything else until I read an article by a well-respected Lutheran theologian last year who said, “Preachers, this Reformation Sunday, I don’t want to hear about Martin Luther. Instead, I want to hear the truth.”
And it occurred to me that he was right. I mean, the story of Martin Luther is compelling, but if you don’t already know it, or want a refresher, you can google “Martin Luther” on the internet or I’ve left some handy pamphlets in the back that you can feel free to take with you. Because this Reformation Sunday, you aren’t getting a history lesson on Martin Luther, you are getting the truth. And the first truth is a hard one that comes barreling at us out of our Gospel from Saint John where Jesus says, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We do not like this idea very much. It goes against everything we might like to think about ourselves and about how life works. I think that is why the writing by Chad Bird that I put on the front of our bulletin this week (you can read Chad Bird’s brilliant piece on the “Deathbead Defeats: Five Failures I Hope to Achieve Before I Die” and his other great writing at: http://birdchadlouis.wordpress.com/) caught my eye – because upon first glance the failures he says he hopes to achieve sound so opposite of how we normally are told we ought to live. What does he mean he hopes to fail to follow his heart? That’s crazy! But then we read further and we recognize he is just describing our Christian walk and how we can’t use our own hearts as our guide, but rather God’s word needs to be the light to our path.

He hopes to fail at being one of whom all people speak well. What? We all want to be liked and we don’t want to be busy upsetting people, do we? But it was Jesus himself who said “woe to you when all speak well of you.” We should be upsetting some people if we are busy being about sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus upset a lot of people with his message of radical inclusion and completely undeserved love. He upset many by always placing people before protocol.

He hopes to fail to devote his life to the pursuit of happiness. He recognizes the key truth that the pursuit of our human ideal of happiness is far different from the sacred thing called joy. In addition to this piece, this author wrote another brilliant piece this week and it had to do with this idea of things that humans think will bring them happiness as opposed to what actually brings joy. It was a reflection on the new television program that just started airing on Showtime called “The Affair.” The premise of the show is that there are these two people who are in marriages that are fine but not really very exciting anymore, and they have endured the usual difficulties that come over the course of a life together, but now they have met each other and feel this immense attraction and are thinking they have found their “soul mate” and hence, the name of the show, “The affair.” There is a happiness they are pursuing and they feel like they have no control over it. Chad Bird writes, “falling in love” has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with love. No exceptions. It is not the prelude to love, nor the foundation of love, nor the ongoing nurture of love. What we term “falling in love” is stumbling into a state of emotional bliss with another person. True love, on the other hand, is the willful choice to act selflessly for another person, to commit yourself to that person, regardless of the emotional ups and downs. A man and woman who commit adultery together cannot love each other. It’s impossible. That’s like saying two people who are stabbing each other are giving life to each other. If they loved each other, they wouldn’t be harming each other through adultery, harming their spouses and children, and living a lie. Adultery begins in selfishness, continues in selfishness, and breeds yet more selfishness. It is not, and cannot be, a relationship of love. They may mouth the words, “I love you,” but what they really mean is, “You are meeting my selfish emotional needs and I am meeting yours.”

I thought the words he wrote were so strong and good and right on. It doesn’t mean that divorce is always the wrong choice – sometimes divorce is very much the right choice, but faithfulness while in that covenant of marriage, raising Godly children if you have them, remaining diligent at work, being truthful in our words, all of these things show we are pursuing God’s will and bring such greater joy than simply pursuing our own vague vision of “happiness.” God’s vision for our future is far, far greater than our own vision.

Bird next writes that he hopes to fail to believe in himself. Certainly it is important to have confidence and to do our best – but far more beautiful than confidence is humility and the recognition that however brilliant or talented or accomplished you are, you wouldn’t be much without a Creator who made you and a Savior who died for you.

And finally, Bird says he hopes he fails to be a first place winner. Maybe this is the most difficult one of all to swallow. Because we know it feels good to get the prize, to receive the honor, to gather up that promotion, and it’s very tempting to treat all those things as the most important thing. But it just isn’t. Not according to Jesus. Rather, in the eyes of Jesus we are shining the brightest when we are lifting up others. When we humble ourselves so others can receive the spotlight. When we sacrifice comforts and honors so that someone else might have such things.

I love underscoring all these failures that Bird wrote about because they illustrate very well how much we have affection for sin rather than the truth. Because all of us can resonate with wanting to follow our hearts, or wanting people to speak well of us, or wanting to pursue happiness, or wanting to believe in ourselves, or wanting to win first place. There are a thousand “buts” that rise up out of us as the knee-jerk reaction to thinking any of those things could possibly be bad or wrong. And that is sin, right there. We love it. Most days we would rather cuddle right up to it and go with the flow of what culture and our own senses tell us rather than sit with the hard truth of living the life Jesus calls us to live.

But thank goodness there is another truth which must be proclaimed on this Reformation day. There is not only the truth that we are slaves to sin. There is also the truth that we desperately need to hear. The truth about God’s great love for us. It comes through loud and clear in the first reading for this day, where after acknowledging that Israel — and, let’s be honest, all of us — shattered God’s covenant and commands, God still says, “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sin no more.” God doesn’t just forgive but also forgets. God develops a case of intentional amnesia when it comes to our sin and regards us as if we were perfect, blameless and whole. God regards us, that is, as if we were Christ.

Now this is a beautiful truth, but not necessarily an easier truth. Because here’s the thing: as much as it hurts being justly accused, sometimes it hurts even more when we’re unjustly forgiven. This may be hard to explain at first, but maybe a story will help.

When I was in my first semester of seminary, I was taking an Old Testament class plus a few other classes and everything was going fine. I was getting good grades, I was working a lot, I was spending time with friends. I thought I was the picture perfect seminary student. But then the very last week of my first quarter, everything kind of collapsed at once. I got really sick with the flu, I had a car accident that totaled my car and left me in a cast, and my boyfriend of two years broke up with me. I was miserable. I just had this one paper left to finish before the quarter was done and I could have a few weeks off to recuperate. I knew I would be fine if I could just get this one paper done. But I would stare at the computer screen and try to work on this paper but I just couldn’t come up with any words. It didn’t occur to me to ask for an extension, because I never had before. But the hours and days were ticking by and I had to get this stupid paper in. And what did I decide to do? I plagiarized about three pages from a book – used someone else’s words to finish what I couldn’t get finished myself. And I got caught.

That was pretty much the worst feeling I had ever felt. To know I had made such a ridiculously bad decision and I had gotten caught. I was humiliated and I figured, well, that was it. I would drop out of that school. I was too ashamed to even fathom continuing on there. I wrote a letter of apology to the dean and to my advisor and said I would be dropping out.

But you know what? They asked me to reconsider. I wasn’t ready to give myself a break, to forgive myself for what I had done, but they were. What I deserved was to be kicked out, but what they gave me was another chance. And that new chance wasn’t easy – because it meant I had to walk back onto that campus and face the dean and my advisor and the professor who knew what I had done. I had to humbly begin the next quarter knowing I was anything but the picture-perfect seminarian, and live into the knowledge that I was welcome and encouraged to be there regardless.

I’ve never, ever told anyone that story before. But now that enough time has passed I can see how maybe it was the perfect lesson for the fledgling pastor I was and perhaps for all of us on Reformation day. That there are two great truths to who we are as Christians and they must both be told. That we cannot skip too quickly to the second truth of God’s great forgiveness before we admit the fullness of how true it is that we are all slaves to sin. We all make really bad choices sometimes, and oftentimes our sin is so ingrained into who we are that we don’t even realize how sinful we are…but still, we come here to this place, and we confess those things – humbly – and we don’t receive what we deserve for those things, instead, we receive forgiveness.

I’m so thankful for that grace. How about you? Brothers and sisters, as God has promised to forgive you, now forgive yourself. Whatever you have done, whatever you have said or thought, God washes the repentant heart in grace, and there is always the chance to do better moving forward. Please grant that same grace to yourself. Treat yourself and others kindly. Know you are loved and forgiven this Reformation Day and always. Thanks be to God. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

All Saints

Henry Scott Holland wrote, “Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt. Nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!”

It was three years ago this past Sunday that I woke up on the couch of room 379 of Providence Hospital and noticed I couldn’t hear my mother breathing in the darkness anymore. A few hours before I had set down my book I was reading, “Water for Elephants,” glanced over at her lying there, and thought for the thousandth time how I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. I couldn’t bear for her to leave me. I couldn’t bear for her to be so sick anymore. And so my prayer in those days just had kind of become, “Please…God.” And I understood God would just have to fill in what I didn’t know how to say. I had turned off the light and fallen asleep to the sound of her breathing. And at some point while I slept, she slipped away. Went on to the next place.

I’ll keep telling that story as long as I live. The story of her loss is now such a big part of my own story because now I’m not just Ruth, Betty’s daughter, but I’m Ruth, whose mom is no longer here. Ruth, the forty-something orphan. Ruth, who was overjoyed a few months ago when I was back home in Minnesota and I ran into my hometown pastor who is nearly blind now – and I went up to him to say “hello” and he said even though he couldn’t see me, he knew me by my voice, because I sounded just like my mother.

As of three years and a few hours ago, I cannot tell the story of me without telling the story of her loss. I think you probably understand that because this is just how it is once we have known great loss. Our stories are knit together and when we experience the death of someone closest to us, we don’t expect the empty spot they left behind to ever really be filled again. We may grow accustomed to the empty spot, we may get used to the ache, we certainly go on and live and love again, but we would not wish the echo of their loss to ever disappear, because we know there are just some things in life that are irreplaceable. It’s like Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say God fills the gap; God does not fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.”

And yet, it’s not just the pain and the emptiness that remain with us after our loved ones die. In a mystical, yet very true way, they are a part of us. In countless ways we feel their presence. Think about it, how the scent of a particular gum brings back memories of the fellow who used to always share a piece of it with you before church. Or how when you hear a certain hymn you remember how your grandma would tear up whenever she sang that song. Or how when you look at the smile of your grandson you can so clearly see the same grin your father had. And these things feel like small miracles because they bring back dear memories and glimpses of loved ones long since gone.

But it goes even farther than that. Here in the church we believe that those who have gone before us are not just with us in those memories. Rather, the communion of the saints is a fellowship we continue to share as the body of Christ – regardless of time and space, life or death. I was told a fascinating thing this week – something I don’t know if I had heard before, but if I had, I had forgotten it. That there is a very intentional reason for the half moon shaped altar rails in the Scandinavian churches. The current congregation gathers around the visible half circle rail, while the circle is completed beyond time and space by those who have already died. The altar rail may look like an incomplete circle, but when we gather there we can know that those who have died in the faith are kneeling with us at and complete the circle.

So the tradition of All Saints Sunday that is celebrated in many churches is a powerful time – to not only take time to remember the people from our congregation who have died in the last year, but also to remember all our loved ones who have died, and to remember that while we miss them so much, we are still knit together in the mystical communion of saints. When we sing together, they sing with us. When we share in communion, they share in that meal as well – and it is a thin veil that separates us.

Frederick Buechner wrote, “They live on, those giants of our childhood. They manage to even take death in their stride. Death may take them, but it can never take our relationship with them. However else they still live on, they still live on in us. Memory is more than looking back to a time gone by; it is looking into another kind of time altogether. A time where everything that was continues to be – and grows and changes with the life that is in us.

The people we loved and who loved us; for good or for ill, taught us things. Dead though they may be, as we come to understand them in new ways, it is though they come to understand us – and we come to understand ourselves – in new ways too.

Who knows what “the communion of saints” means, but surely it means that these people we once knew are not just voices that have ceased to speak. They are saints because though them the power and richness of life not only touched us once, but continues to touch us still.”