Shiny, Smooth Stones

January in Minnesota is like the end of July in Texas. The weather is unforgiving but there is still plenty of beauty if you choose to see it. In Texas, I used to find it when a rare cool breeze would sweep in by surprise during an evening walk in the cemetery or when the boys and I would go outside after dark and lie down on the cement basketball court and stare up at the stars. The cement would still be hot from soaking up the sun all day long. We would lie there in the warm night air and watch for shooting stars, talk, and laugh until one of us wondered out loud if the rattlesnakes liked to come out at night, too. Then, we would get up and make our way back inside into the cool air-conditioned comfort of the parsonage.

In these Minnesota winters, there is loveliness in the sun sparkling off the snow – even though by this time of year we’ve mostly stopped commenting on it. Too many of us are daydreaming about warmer weather to spend much time remarking on the beauty of a new snowfall or even the shocking splendor of the sundogs that come out to hover near the sun. No, these days we are more likely to see beauty in moments like I had yesterday when a friend stopped by when I was outside the church and we stood in the parking lot for nearly fifteen minutes to talk – no hats, no gloves – and the air didn’t even hurt our faces! It was only eleven degrees but it felt like Springtime was crawling up the hill toward us. January in Minnesota, like the end of July in Texas, you get grateful for the small favors that weather tosses your way.

Today I went to visit an elderly lady in my congregation. She lives in a farmhouse not very far from our church, the same church where she has worshipped her whole life. Her dogs came scrambling over to greet me as I got out of my car, sniffing my hands and my legs before losing interest and heading over to smell my car. I’ve been pretty lucky with pets as I have gone on home visits over the years – except for the time a dog decided to pee on my foot as I sat on the couch visiting with a parishioner in her living room.

I visit people in their homes fairly often, but usually it is because they are no longer able to come to church for one reason or another. This isn’t always the case as there have been more than a few times over the last twenty years I have run into my “homebound” members at the grocery store, the vet clinic, at concerts and basketball games, and at all these places they seem to get to just fine but they can’t seem to get to church. One homebound member at my internship church picked me up in her car and brought me to a restaurant in a neighboring town for a nice supper before I moved away. She told me she didn’t come to church because of all the stairs – even though an elevator had been installed fifteen years prior. I don’t ask questions. I figure if people want a visit from their pastor, I will go see them. Most of the time they have their reasons for not being in church on Sunday mornings and none of those reasons mean they aren’t still a part of the church.

There was a time in my ministry when I did not rejoice in the visiting that comes with being a pastor. I was at a very large church at the time, an Associate Pastor serving with another Associate who had been there much longer and a Senior Pastor who had been there for nearly forty years by the time I arrived. Nearly all the homebound people I visited were people who (I felt) saw the other pastors as the “real” pastors and I was the young pastoral substitute who came over sometimes. The list of homebound members was long. It was daunting to visit that many people regularly and really make a connection with them. I often felt overwhelmed at the task of all those conversations and bringing communion to so many elderly people who were dealing with so much that I had no inkling about. I didn’t have children yet. I was interested in climbing the nearby mountains and writing and finishing my doctorate. I felt so separate from these people and their pills and concerns for their grown children and dwindling days.

It wasn’t until shortly before my father died that I began to see the visits I do every day in a different light.  It was then that I finally noticed that my parents, whom I had been living away from for many years as I served different churches, were getting to be the same age as my homebound members. I started to look across the living rooms at the people I was visiting and notice a walker that was just like the kind I got for my dad on my last visit home, or someone’s skin had the same pale, translucent appearance that mom was getting.

I began to really see the people I visited then. I’m sad to say it took me so long, but I couldn’t come to maturity in that until I finally did. As a daughter who grieved the changes and losses my own parents were going through, I became a better pastor to those who were going through those changes and losses in my congregations.

Yet, I often grieved that I wasn’t near my own parents to be more help to them during their final years. I thought about how every day I visited the elderly but I couldn’t visit the elderly people who needed me the most. I didn’t plan it that way. As much as I had always wanted to live other places and was glad that God brought me where God did, I pictured a time would come again when I would be able to be near my parents and journey with them through their final days. But time went by and I was busy – busy with work, busy with my babies, and while I spoke to my mom on the phone nearly every day what she didn’t mention was that time was running out. I did try more than a few times to get back to a church in Minnesota but I could barely get an interview anywhere in the state, much less anywhere near Mom and Dad. So, over fifteen years I served in New York, then Colorado, then Texas, all the while getting farther and farther from home. Dad died when we were in Colorado. Mom died while we were in Texas. Then, when I no longer could wish I was visiting my own elderly parents instead of the elderly parents of those in my churches, I tended the gravestones of the dead in my church cemetery, wishing I could plant flowers and pull weeds from the gravestones of my parents.

I see everything in ministry differently now than I did when I started. I am well-acquainted with the beauty of this clergy life and also the sorrow. When I think of all the cups of coffee shared, the foreheads of babies I have blessed and baptized, the dying I have commended into God’s care, the ways that prayer and mission are part of the fabric of my days, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude. The loss of time with my aging parents due to following this calling to ministry is the one shiny, smooth stone of sadness and regret I carry with me when I think about the years that have passed. If anything good comes from that it is this: it has made me a better pastor – because now I understand as I couldn’t before that every single one of us has shiny, smooth stones which weigh us down. I may not know what yours are but I know you have some. Life gives each of us our share.

And sometimes people let me visit them in their homes, or their hospital rooms or nursing home to pray over those smooth, shiny stones. Today, on this January day in rural Minnesota, with the sun sparkling off the snow as I drove along prairie roads, I did that.sundogs-prairie

Nursing Home Worship Service

snow-artMy car crept along the snowy, slippery roads toward the nursing home. Unlike normal, I was not racing to get to the morning worship service at the last minute. I had allowed an abundance of time so that I wouldn’t have to rush. Snow and ice on the roads is terrifying to me and I drive with a whole lot of caution.

Still, I ended up arriving one minute before the service was to start. I’ve led a monthly nursing home worship service for most of my ministry and I bet the average time I arrive beforehand is less than five minutes. It’s a small group that gathers for this weekly service led by different area pastors each week.

There is no musician of any kind who comes to accompany our singing, but we sing anyway. It reminds me of a Saturday Night Live skit as I (who am a quiet, off-key singer) lead this group in singing. I have to sing as loudly as I can into the microphone so they can hear where we are at in the song – but some still can’t hear anything and so our hymns turn into sort of a peculiar little round with some stopping and starting verses at their own pace.

I preach the sermon from the past Sunday, or if I already have a sermon ready for the coming Sunday, I will preach that. However, it is only 1.5% of the time I am ready with a sermon for Sunday by Thursday morning.

The people at this service are so sweet. They are warm and appreciative and kind. One lady grabs my hand to shake it and then she kisses it.  She does this every time I am there and I subsequently feel like the Pope.

While I don’t arrive early to mingle with folks, I do stay afterward and visit for a while. Today when we visited after the service we talked about the weather. They asked how the roads were and I was happy to tell them about my bravery in driving through the treacherous drifts to get to them.

One by one, the Activities Director took each of the worship attenders down the hall to lunch. I washed out the communion cup, put the communion wafers back into a baggie, put on my coat and headed outside.

The wind was brushing the snow into hard, squiggly waves on the ground. I paused to fish my phone out of my pocket and took a picture of it.

A Happy New Year (sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas)

When my youngest son, Jesse, was a baby – only about three months old, my mom got very sick and was sent to the hospital in Saint Cloud. My dad’s health was so poor he couldn’t be there with her and with St. Cloud being a couple hours from our hometown she didn’t have any friends or her pastor nearby – and I couldn’t stand the thought of her being in the hospital with no one around her, so I took some vacation time to come up to Minnesota to be with her. I brought Jesse with me and Owen stayed back with my Chad in Colorado and each day Jesse and I would spend as much time with mom in the hospital as we could.

As I would sit by mom’s bedside holding Jesse I would think about the stark contrasts of my life just then. There I was holding this brand new little person, who was round-cheeked and full of health and smiles and new beginnings. And next to me was my mom, grayish and weary with tubes coming out of her arms, full of sickness and seeming very much to be at the end of her days. It struck me – how beautiful and broken life could be all at the same time. So much joy and so much sorrow intermingling and making up those days.

We are still in the Christmas season – just last Sunday we were gathering around the manger and welcoming a new baby – Jesus, the Christ, our Savior was born. Our Gospel was all about Light and Love coming into the world – pure joy and beauty.

And here we just a week later and we have probably the worst Gospel text we ever get in our three-year rotation of Sunday morning scriptures. King Herod, full of fear and jealousy, wanting to protect his throne from this infant king has put out a hit on all the children two years old and under in and around Bethlehem. Pure brokenness and horror.

Turns out the Christmas season can hold its’ share of joy and sorrow as well.

King Herod ruled in Judea for 37 years. He built many fortresses, aqueducts, theatres, and other public buildings and generally raised the prosperity of his land, however, there was a dark and cruel streak in Herod’s character that showed itself increasingly as he grew older. He was prone to intense jealousy and it is recorded that his mind was so poisoned against one of his wives, Mariamne, that he murdered her, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother.

We know the story about how he sent the wise men to go and search for baby Jesus and when they found him they were to send word back to King Herod. He told them he wanted to pay homage to this baby king as well. But then after the wise men found the baby Jesus and brought him the famed gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Herod’s darkness overcomes him when he finds out that the wise men haven’t done as he told them to do. Rage fills him and that is when he calls for the murder of these children.

It’s worthwhile to note that this story in our New Testament, only told by Saint Matthew, is never told anywhere else in any historical records. This has caused some historians to question if it ever really happened or not. Others say that it probably did happen – especially knowing Herod’s temperament – but the amount of children of that age in and around Bethlehem was such a small number, perhaps less than twenty, that it just was not recorded by other historians.

But regardless of the stories historicity, there is something deeply fitting about Matthew telling this story in his gospel even as we are still basking in the glow of the Christmas season. No matter how much we have tried to sanitize and tame the story of the birth of Jesus, turn it into a sweet story about a baby in a manger, the truth is that he was born into a world of sin. A place that then, as now, holds its’ share of both startling beauty and unspeakable darkness. He was born to be Light in that darkness. To be hope when all other hope seems lost.

Is he light in your darkness? Does God’s word bring you comfort and peace in times of distress? Do you find strength for your days and wisdom for your journey as you kneel at the foot of the cross? Do you long for more light, more comfort, peace, and strength?

If you are hoping to feed your Spirit in this new year, to feel more plugged in to the Source of Life – there are ways to do this. The first way toward that comes through prayer. It comes through daily making a practice of talking to and listening for God. It comes through meditation, stillness. You know how when someone is trying to speak to you but if you aren’t paying attention or only half-listening, you miss it? That’s how it is when we don’t make time for prayer and devotion in our days. God is always speaking to us, but much of the time we aren’t paying attention – we are so busy running from one thing to the next, filling our minds with noise, making lists, checking our phones, that we leave hardly any room for the Spirit to move. Just a couple days ago, I went to the eye doctor and I had brought a book with me for while I were waiting – but over the course of the appointment as I was ushered from one room to the next, of course they dilated my eyes and then I had to wait for a bit in a waiting room with my eyes dilated. I couldn’t read my book. I couldn’t check my phone. I had to just sit there quietly. It is moments like that when I realize how seldom I am just still without doing something or reading or watching something – I’m always filling in those spaces.

It struck me as I read our Gospel that it was twice in dreams that God gave a message to Joseph – first to tell him to take his family and flee, to become refugees, immigrants in a strange land, because they were in danger and then the second time to once again take his family and go to Israel.  It had also been in a dream when Joseph was informed that Jesus would be born. Dreams – and visions – (which are simply dreams while awake) were written about all the time in the Bible. God used visions and dreams to communicate with people – in fact, when there was a lack of dreams or visions among the people, it meant that something was wrong, that people weren’t paying attention to God.

Just doing a quick search I could find at least 39 times in the Bible when God spoke to people through dreams and visions. God didn’t just speak to people of old – God is still speaking to us and through us. The only question is, are we listening?

And the best way to listen is to well, listen. Monks set aside hours for lectio divina – or spiritual reading. However, even we non-monks need to make time for transcendent matters – such as beauty, creativity, service, faith – but too often these get pushed aside for more urgent demands, and life begins to feel empty and purposeless. So my first challenge for you in this new calendar year is to make time to listen, be still, and pray.

And the second excellent way to feed your spirit and feel connected to what is important is this:  find a way to serve. Partly because there are countless places and people that need help, but mostly because you need it. We all need to daily remember God put us here not just to get through our days and collect as many things as possible while we do it, but to make those days matter. As Jesus came to be Light in our darkness, every day we can be light in the darkness for others. What a magnificent and beautiful and holy thing – and we get to be a part of that.

So a new year begins. How lovely we get to begin it here in worship, our hearts centered on the One who made us and loves us most of all – and as we do, my challenge for all of us this year is that we come to this place every day – not to this church building – but to this place of worship – through moments of devotion and prayer, through daily looking for ways to serve God and others.

And when we do, it truly will be a happy new year.  

Let’s pray –

Oh God,

Thank you for this new year – a fresh slate upon which to draw

May we draw love – bringing mercy and grace and goodwill into every room we enter.

May we draw justice – standing up for others, never allowing hate or prejudice to thrive.

May we draw stillness – quiet moments with You, giving us strength and wisdom for our days.

May we draw compassion – reaching out with the time and energy we have to do good in our church, community, and world.

May we draw creativity – imagining new ways to share your love

May we draw strength and guidance only from You, our maker and redeemer, our light, our life our hope. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Better Than Before

I read a lot of books in 2016 and happened to end the year with a book perfect for the beginning of a new year, “Better Than Before” by Gretchen Rubin. I was familiar with Rubin through other books and her podcast and was particularly interested in this book after I heard her interviewed on another podcast. The power of this book is that it doesn’t prescribe “you should do this” – rather, it helps the reader consider his or her own personality and what methods might work best for each person in seeking some new goals. I liked this approach and also found the book affirming in that she mentions some tactics that I had already learned to employ for myself over the years.

She says there are four categories of people – Obligers, Upholders, Rebels, and Questioners – and once you figure out which category you fit into, this will help you see better how you successfully form habits (or don’t.) I took her quiz to figure out which category I am and I don’t fit neatly into any. I hear she is working on another book about these four categories and I look forward to seeing it as she writes about this more in-depth.

One of the helpful habits she discusses is that of scheduling – that it can be helpful to schedule the habit into your day, but also to schedule a break. For example, if I know I am going to be at a party and won’t be able to stick to my habit of eating clean for that meal, to schedule parameters within which I will work for the party and then go immediately back to my regular habit after that. I tried that this week with a gathering I needed to attend. I knew that for that luncheon, pizza was on the menu. I decided before I left for the luncheon that I would have two slices of pizza, no alcohol, and then go back to life as usual right afterward. Scheduling this brief “break” helped me not feel deprived but also feel still very in control.

Rubin’s book is easy to read and great food for thought. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to understand themselves a little bit better and wanting to figure out habits that will help them increase their joy in everyday life.