The Journey

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.”
Mary Oliver

Fear

Oh God,

I am so deeply scared.

That is the sum of it.

Fear, Panic, Anxiety, Terror

Name it, claim it, and move forward –

Finally

And now let it be

that when the apprehension rises up in me

As it will

I will see it and know it for what it is –

Just fear

Nothing more

Nothing less

Real

But not real at the same time

And I will put my arm around fear’s shoulders and say

I see you.

Yes, you are here.

But you don’t drive this bus.

You aren’t the boss.

You can be here if you want

But you don’t get a voice this time

Not anymore

Not with what becomes

Of me.

saint johns lcms

Leap after Leap in the Dark…

“It seems to me this is much of what life is – trusting God, but also (and this is harder) learning to trust myself. It’s all leap after leap in the dark. Sometimes God seems to open a door, but just as often there is no door, no foreseeable route. It’s then I feel like God must be telling me there is no designated thing I’m supposed to do, I just need to move forward using the intellect and experience I have, make the best decision I can, and trust that God will be there in the beauty and brokenness that comes out of it. I’m lost and found at the same time.”   (from my forthcoming book, “Benediction”)

lake park lutheran (low)

Do Not Fear – an Easter Message (2017)

Grace and peace to you on this Lord’s day, in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

True story. A United Methodist pastor was asked to conduct a graveside service for a member of his church. The only problem was, the cemetery was more than an hour and a half away from the church. The pastor wasn’t feeling well so he decided to ride with the Funeral Director in the Coach.

By the time they arrived at the cemetery, the flu had invaded completely. Feverish and sick, he made it through the service, but he was starting to look like most flu victims, like death warmed over.

As they headed back home, the funeral director suggested the pastor stretch out in the back of the coach. It had curtains and nobody would see him. The pastor thought it was a good idea and promptly fell asleep.

He awoke when the vehicle stopped. Taking a few minutes to fully awaken, he slowly sat up and drew the side curtain to see where he was. He was face to face with a gas station attendant, who was surprised and shocked to see a body in the back of the hearse staring back at him.

With all the color drained out of him and his eyes as wide as saucers, the gas pump flew into the air, and the attendant ran on shaky legs back into the gas station, while the funeral director tried to catch up to explain the whole situation.

I’m pretty sure that’s how the women who came to the empty tomb that first Easter morning must have felt. They had to have run on shaky legs back to the Disciples, their hearts pounding with both shock and excitement.

Twice during the gospel this morning, the words, “Do not be afraid” are uttered. It was a message the people closest to Jesus needed to hear on that first Easter morning when they came face to face with him after he rose from the dead – and it is a message we need to hear today. Do not be afraid.

This week, as some pastor friends and I were thinking about that together via a message board on facebook, people started listing things that caused them fear. Within minutes, a long list had begun of people sharing their fears, including:

Danger befalling our children

Terminal illness

The leadership of our nation

Dying alone

Failure

Suffocating

Never being truly happy

Not having enough money to pay the bills

And so many more. People know how to name their fears. We get to know our fears so well, we carry them around with us all the time. Heaven knows we’ve each probably brought them right in here with us this morning as they linger somewhere in our thoughts filed away between the “alleluias” and thinking about what might be on the menu for brunch today.

And yet, Jesus’ message for his followers on the first Easter morning, and for his followers this Easter morning (that’s us!) – is do not be afraid.

Seems like a tall order to me.

After all, we’ve been carrying around our fears for a long time. We know them so well. Unfortunately, I often feel much closer to my fears than I feel to God. How, how, how do we not be afraid when there is so much to fear?

When my boys were little especially, and even now sometimes, I would have to laugh because I could be holding three bags of groceries, two coats, my purse, and balancing a pile of books on my heads and my boys would still ask me to hold the one small thing they were sick of carrying. “Here mom, hold this.” I would say, “what am I, your Sherpa?” But to them, all they knew was that I was there for them. I’m so glad they know that– that I’ll help them however I can, that I’ll listen to the small and big things, that I’m here no matter what – when they are the champion of the day, or if they mess up big time, I’m here – loving them through it all. We all need that – no matter how old we are – to know we have someone to lean on always.

And so…“Do not fear,” Jesus says to us this brilliant Easter morning. “I’ll help you carry that load.”  “Do not fear,” he says – are you sick of carrying around that burden? Leave it with me. Do not fear, Jesus whispers – has the way been hard and your destination is unclear? Rest with me a while. I’ll give you strength for the journey. I love you, I love you, I love you – just as you are. No matter what. Do not fear. This is the message for you today and every day. This is the beautiful message of Easter. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

church lake

Burning Bridges

lilacsIn the late summer of 1996, I was 26 years old and I had packed up my car and headed to Wyoming for an internship at a church there. It was just me and a pile of cassette tapes and a boombox next to me as I drove across the prairie toward my home for the next year. I arrived on that cool August Saturday evening where I met up with a member of the church who took me over to where I was to live. She showed me around the place – it was half of a townhouse. She dropped the key in my hand and said brightly, “See you tomorrow morning.” And then left me alone there.  Even with the traffic outside, it felt like I had never been in a quieter or more lonesome place than being in that empty half of a townhouse that evening. The neighbor kids rang my doorbell shortly after I got there and looked at me hopefully and said, “Do you have any kids?” I shook my head and said no, and they said, “oh” – and walked away.  “Welcome to Wyoming”, I thought.

I began to unload my car and get settled in my house and even though I was nervous, I was determined to learn as much as I could and make the most of being in this new place where I didn’t know a soul. Over the next days and weeks I got to know the congregation and they were very nice. There was about one other single person my age in town – he was the Presbyterian minister – and he called and we started going out to movies now and then. I was busy and staying productive and doing my best – things would have been looking pretty good – except for one large, looming problem – that my internship supervisor didn’t think I was doing a very good job at all.

Within days of my arrival he began to come in my office each morning with a list of ways I was failing miserably. The way I preached – not good. The way I taught – sorely lacking. The way I dressed – I looked “too female”. My personality – too quiet. Each day I began to dread going to work as I knew what was coming – more criticism. Being the dutifully obedient girl I had been brought up to be, I spent each day trying to become the kind of pastor he wanted me to be and do what he wanted me to do – but it was never good enough. At a time in my life when I needed encouragement and support in the gifts I did have – every day was a painful gouging of my spirit as he pointed out all the gifts I didn’t have. By the end of the first month, he sat across from me in my office shaking his head as he said, “Ruth, I just don’t think you have what it takes to be a pastor. I wish you hadn’t come here.”

He said all this to me – and I absorbed all his criticism and anger and thought, “wow, he must be right.” He’s a pastor – he is older than me – he knows stuff. What did I know? My spirits began to sink lower and lower. The weeks ticked by and I grew more and more miserable. The thought of being there a whole year brought me nearly to despair.

So after a few months of this, my office phone rang one bleak morning. It was my hometown pastor. He had run into my mom at the bank in Henning who had told him how horrible I was feeling and what an awful experience I was having. God bless him – but he said to me, “You know, Ruth, you don’t have to stay there.” He said some other stuff, too – but that was what I heard – “you don’t have to stay there.”  That had honestly never occurred to me – that I could leave – that I could refuse to agree with being told I was garbage, and I could shake the dust from my feet and leave. That same day, I called the seminary and finally told them how awful it had been. The office that had set up that internship knew me because I had worked in that office and they knew I wasn’t bluffing. They said one of them would come out to see us the next week and see if they could help us work things out.

But that night as I sat in my half of a townhouse, I knew “working things out” was not what I wanted. I didn’t want one more minute of that pastor’s influence in my life. I was going to leave first thing in the morning – leave Wyoming, leave seminary. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have the foggiest clue. I just knew I had stayed too long already and I all I could see was the road away from that place and that awful internship. It was equal parts liberating and crushingly sad to me as I packed up my car that night – getting ready to leave at first light.  I felt like I was setting myself free – but I also felt I was letting God down. As I drove away I remember I just kept saying, “I’m sorry, God”, “I’m sorry, God” – over and over. I said “goodbye” to no one. When I tell this story I say it was the only bridge I ever burned.

I used to feel a lot of shame about this story. I saw it as a failure – my failure – that if I were stronger I would have stayed and toughed it out. That if I were stronger I would have stood up to the bully internship supervisor and fought for my place there. But now I know that it was probably good I left when I did….to preserve whatever gentleness I still had within me. As it was, it took me six months to return to seminary – to begin to believe that maybe, just maybe one awful pastor in Wyoming shouldn’t have the final say in what was to become of me.

And the reason I tell this story is because of how I returned – how I came back to life after that…because it was one of the darkest times I have ever known. I can tell you about it because I know you have been there in your own ways. We all know times in the valley of dry bones.

How I came back to life was like this: A friend let me sleep in her spare bedroom while I tried to figure out some brand new course for my life.

How I came back to life was like this: Another friend who helped me find a job would bring me a cold diet coke and place it on my desk for me each morning – she knew I was so sad I could hardly speak and so she would bring this little gift for me each day.

How I came back to life was like this: Countless people – my friends, pastors, professors, my family – kept checking in with me and encouraging me – not to do anything in particular – but just to let me know that I was okay, and I was loved, and I was held.

How I came back to life was like this: That winter I got a job in a bookstore, I began dating the long-haired opera singer who worked there. He was decidedly not Christian – he called himself a pagan – but we would spend hours talking about faith and God and the church. Hours and hours. And maybe one might think that that spending oodles of time talking about God with my pagan boyfriend might be the thing to draw me farther away from seminary – but it was precisely that which brought me back. God works how God works – and suddenly I had the energy and desire to try again. The belief that I could. And while my pagan boyfriend and I didn’t last all the way through seminary, he bought me this clergy stole I’m wearing today, and he couldn’t have been more proud of me on ordination day. We are still good friends. God worked through that relationship and so many others in my life at that time to heal me and get me headed in the direction I needed to go again.

So – as Martin Luther would say – what does this mean?

At Bible study on Wednesday, we talked about the story of the Dry Bones and how God breathed life into the bones and they lived. A discussion question we pondered was, “What kinds of situations do people face which might cause them to despair that they feel like dried, dead bones?  How might God’s Spirit breathe life and hope into these folks?” The stories people told were beautiful and awful and meaningful – all at the same time. I marveled at how we each understand at our very core what it means to be in the midst of the Valley of Dry Bones – and thank God, by God’s grace, we understand what it means to have the breath of God grant us newness of life again.

What does this mean?

I read recently that the road to Easter runs through the graveyard. We can’t get to Easter morning without first going through the horror of Good Friday.  I don’t understand why times of devastation must come in our own lives, but I do know that when the ease, and laughter, and joy return after wandering in darkness, we catch a glimpse of the joy of the resurrection. I’m thankful for that.

What does this mean?

Be present for each other.

Know that God is with you – even in the darkest, driest, most desolate places you go through.

Wait patiently for that renewing Spirit to fill you again with breath and life

Don’t expect that Spirit to come in any certain way

Or to always feel its presence quickly

Or to arrive on demand

But you can trust it will come.  

It always does.

It’s with us right now.

I pray that Holy Spirit fills you full today and you will know how precious and loved you are.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. 

“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 37:5-6

Easter is Coming

“Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 37:4-6

Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dried-up bones being brought back to life is mesmerizing to me. It’s kind of like when it is the dead of winter and everything is white and gray and bitter cold – but I remember that someday it will all be green and warm again. Somehow, time and time again, God brings new life, restoration, resurrection.

The key is to remember that, to hold on to that, when all you can see is the dry bones. I think that is one of the main reasons God gives us each other – to help one another remember things about life and about ourselves and about possibility or laughter that we have forgotten and help us get headed toward hope again.

As you journey through this day, I pray you encounter people who will surprise you with grace, who might say something to ease the crease of worry on your forehead, or who just might make you laugh out loud and remember this is a day the Lord has made and anything is possible in it.

Or even better – maybe you will do that for someone else.

Keep on walking, friends! Easter is coming…

worry