Changes

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar…
“I hardly know, Sir, just at present,” Alice replied rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
– Lewis Carroll “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

The author, William Bridges, tells a story about teaching a class called “Being in Transition”.  The twenty-five adults who showed up for the class were in various stages of confusion and crisis.  He said he was surprised by the wide variety of people who ended up coming.  There were men and women who were recently divorced or separated.  There were a couple of people who were newly married or remarried, one a twenty-six year-old man who had suddenly acquired a full-scale ready-made family of four kids.  There was a widow and several recently retired folks.  There was a woman who had just had her first baby, a man who had just had a heart-attack, and even a man who had just had a big promotion at work.  There were three or four women who had just returned to college after year years of child-raising.  There were two people who had just been fired.  And there was a young woman who was living on her own for the first time.

Although there was a wide variety in the people and the circumstances, as they met together the first night, three similarities in their experiences emerged – each had been through an ending, followed by a period of confusion or ‘lostness’, leading to a new beginning, in the cases that had come that far.

As they talked about their various transitions, each person’s attitudes toward these different phases differed.  Those who had chosen their transitions tended to minimize the importance of the endings, almost as if they felt that to acknowledge that an ending was painful would be to admit the transition was a mistake.  On the other hand, those who had gone into transition unwillingly found it very hard to admit that a new beginning and a new phase of their lives might be at hand.  But all of them agreed that the in-between place was strange and confusing.  They hoped to get out of it as quickly as possible.

The in-between place – we’ve all been there at one time or another.  It is somewhere between the Good Old Days and the Brave New World.  Many people have written about it – one of my favorite reflections compares it to swinging on a trapeze.  Part of that reflection reads:

“Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings. I’m either hanging onto a trapeze bar swinging along or I’m hurtling across space in between bars.

Most of the time I’m hanging on for dear life to my trapeze bar of the moment. It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life. I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers. But once in a while as I’m merrily swinging along, I look ahead of me into the distance and I see another bar swinging toward me. It’s empty and I know that this new trapeze bar has my name on it.  I must release my grip on the present, well-known bar to move to the new one.

Each time it happens, I hope and pray that I won’t have to grab the new trapeze bar. But I realize that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar and for some time I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar. Each time I am filled with terror. It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing, I have always made it. Each time I am afraid I will miss -that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars. But I do it anyway.  I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.” It is called transition. I have come to believe that it is the only place that real change occurs.”

I wonder what transitions you are facing right now?  What are those changes and challenges you are wrestling with today?  John F. Kennedy said:  “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” How are you doing at facing the changes you meet?  Do you find yourself welcoming them or dreading them?

Certainly some changes are easier than others.  Someone who understood a lot about this was probably Job in our OT reading for today.  Job was a prosperous, respected, and good man whose life was devastated in one day.  He lost everything he had, including his ten children.  However, he refused to blame God for his troubles.  In fact, the first thing he says after he learns of the loss of everything he owns and all his children is, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Later, Job was stricken with a terrible disease and he suffered excruciating pain for a long time.  Then, some of his friends come to comfort him but later they criticize Job and tell him that the horrible things that have happened to him must be because of his own sin.  They told him to repent – but Job was convinced that he hadn’t done anything to deserve this kind of terrible luck.  However, he couldn’t understand how God could let this happen to him, either.  He struggled on with the confidence that he would eventually be vindicated.  Job never did lose his faith.  For a long time he suffered – but at the end, God restored Job’s fortunes – the scripture says he was blessed more in the end than in his beginning – he had ten more children and lived a long life.  The last sentence of the book says that ‘he died an old man and full of days’.

But before we dwell too much on that happy ending, it’s fair to spend some time on those terrible changes Job had to endure – changes that made absolutely no sense to him, changes that broke his heart and threatened to break his spirit.  Changes that we can’t understand as readers of his story.  Though we see that his fortune was restored at the end, I wonder if the more important lesson we learn from Job doesn’t have as much to do with his ending, as how he handled his own time of ‘lostness’?

It’s such a sad scene – shortly after Satan had smote Job with boils all over his body and he was sitting among the ashes, his wife comes out to talk to him and, she says, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?  Curse God and die!”  But even though he is in mourning, and in physical agony he says, “Shall we accept good from God and not accept adversity?”  Sure, in later pages he laments, sure he despairs, but at the same time he says things like, “I know my redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth.  Even after my skin is destroyed, yet I shall see God.”

Scott Peck said: “The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”

Job found that when all else was lost he still could find his truest answer in his God.  He still found his foundation there.  He still put his trust there.  I wonder how well we do the same when faced with the challenges and changes that affect us most deeply?  Are brave to face the in-between times, the times of feeling ‘lost’, trusting that God will bring us through them to a new beginning?

I was in my late twenties when I graduated from seminary and was sent out on my first call to a little church in New York.  I’ll never forget the feeling of packing up my books and clothes and cats and heading east in my old black 1984 GMC Jimmy.  While I had moved a million times before, this felt different.  When I said ‘goodbye’ to my mom this time I didn’t know the next time I would see her.  We had lunch together before I left and the soup we ate tasted bitter and sad as the reality hung in the air that I was really moving away.  This time it wasn’t for a school year or for a internship or some mission trip – this time it was indefinitely.

I remember being stuck in traffic around Chicago, praying my truck wouldn’t stall in the late summer heat.  My Siamese cat, Sam, looked up at me from her cat carrier giving me indignant meows.  She could tell everything was changing, too…It was hot and loud with the car windows rolled down…no litter box, no food dish, no catnip toys readily available.  Cats have their own transitions to deal with.

The next night I made it to New York and pulled up to the big old house next to the church.  There was an echo throughout the house as I opened the door and walked into the empty living room.  A parishioner who knew I wasn’t going to be bringing any furniture had brought a chair and a lamp over for the living room.  As the darkness settled over the house and the cats explored the smells of their new surroundings, I went out on the front step and sat on the concrete steps.  In the fluorescent light of the church sign I could see the tops of the tombstones in the cemetery across the street, the distant warm lights of homes of neighbors whom I imagined I would meet soon, the traffic from the cars speeding by on I-90.  I imagined how many of those souls out driving tonight were starting something new in the same way I was.  And I sat there quite self-pitying and wondered if any of them felt as alone as I did right then.

That house was so empty in every way when I came.  It felt like a foreign land to me – coming from a city full of friends and always being busy with school and work and travel to now be planted in this little spot in the country.  I felt strange in my own skin for a while to be so completely transplanted…there was nothing that was ‘usual’ anymore.

But bit by bit I saw in a way that was mystical to me, that empty house being filled over the months and years that followed.  In a tangible way, of course, as I collected some old furniture from thrift stores and began to fill in the spaces. But in a less tangible way, God brought me the things I really needed – like friends – out of nowhere they appeared, people with whom I could laugh and talk.  And after a while, one of those friends, Stephanie, needed a place to stay and since I had this huge parsonage filled with just me and a couple cats and I said, “come stay with me.” And she did.  And suddenly it wasn’t just me in that house – but Stephanie, and all of Stephanie’s bohemian friends stopping by.  And then before I knew it on a trip to Minnesota I ran into an old friend named Chad and on a July morning we had a little wedding at my church and a picnic on the yard between the house and the church.

And I remember being amazed as the years there unfolded that now I could almost see the life overflowing out of the windows and doors of that house.  There was nothing empty about it anymore….but in ways I never could have imagined God filled that house so perfectly.

Anatole France writes, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

May God make us brave to face our changes…brave and faithful.  God is with you in whatever changes you face today.

Mary

I’ve been thinking about you, Mary. This time of year I tend to think of you a lot – partly because everywhere in this season of short days and long nights we hear about you in our carols and in our scripture readings. In the Lutheran church we don’t tend to spend as much time talking about you as do our brothers and sisters in the catholic church, but this time of year we turn our gaze toward you a bit more.

I’ll always remember how much I thought about you the two Decembers I was pregnant with my sons. I felt like I experienced the Advent season, the season of waiting and expectation, in a whole new way then, and I thought about you, Mary, in a new way. Between you and me, during the worship services on Christmas Eve those years I was boiling in my robe and stole, both my boys were like little furnaces growing bigger by the day – so I was always hot. The Christmas tree in the sanctuary at my church in Colorado obstructed the view of the chairs where the pastors sat, and so during the hymns, I stood behind that tree, took off my shoes, and rested my face on the cool marble pillar back there. I was so hot, so tired, so not glowing or any of the good things they say about pregnant women – but I was thankful. And I thought about you, Mary. You were no longer just a character in a story I had heard my whole life. You were a mom, like me.  

But of course, much different than me, too – because your pregnancy was announced to you by an angel and all.  And you were probably about fourteen years old at most. You had never slept with a man, you were unmarried.

So, when Luke writes that you were “perplexed” or “troubled” at what the angel was announcing to you, I tend to think that must have been an understatement of biblical proportions. I mean, I feel perplexed or a bit troubled when the dryer quits working or if there is stain on the couch that has appeared that no one is taking responsibility for. But when an angel appears with news that is not only going to change your life but the entire world through you – well, I can think of better words to use: stupefied, astonished, flabbergasted, dumbfounded.

And, Mary, isn’t it wild how streamlined Luke makes your story? I mean, just a few neat and tidy verses and your tale is told. In verse 31 you begin to find out all that is about to happen. You ask one question, “how exactly is this going to happen?” in verse 34, and by verse 38 you say essentially, “Okay then.”

Pretty sure that moment wasn’t quite so neat, tidy, and quick as Luke portrays it. Mary, only you and God and perhaps Gabriel got a glimpse, too, of how this really went down. I’ve been thinking about you and wondering – If you felt terrified, if you wanted to say “pick another girl from the village, please!”, if you had sleepless nights over the months that followed as you wondered, and worried at this strange blessing that was happening to you.

Through history you are often portrayed as so meek and mild. But Mary, that’s not how I think of you. I think of how brave you were. Brave to say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word,” even if your voice was trembling when you said it.  God blessed you with that bravery and Gabriel reminded you that nothing is impossible with God. I wonder if you repeated that to yourself over and over, a mantra of sorts that held you up through the morning sickness, the swelling, the heartburn, all the glorious accompaniments to pregnancy? “nothing is impossible, nothing is impossible, nothing is impossible with God.”

I think about you, Mary, and this story of how you believed and trusted God. For however many doubts were woven in along with it, God blessed you with just enough faith – and you leaned into that faith to carry you through all that was to come. Day by day.

That’s what I wish Luke could have written more about. Sure, he was just trying to tell a story and it’s easy to criticize the storyteller, but he made it sound so easy. We get to learn so little about you and we are left to wonder so much. And if we aren’t careful we can think that you had some superhuman faith and bravery and if we were only better people, we would have that kind of faith and bravery, too. We can think that as followers of God we can’t have doubts and we need to be sure and certain all the time, confident as we proclaim with voices that don’t shake, “Here I am, Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

But you were a fourteen year old girl, Mary. Maybe as young as twelve. You were the age of a middle-schooler. You were a human being, like any of us. Luke doesn’t write about your fears or hesitations, he doesn’t linger over how common you were, how completely unremarkable you were compared to any other girl alive in those days. Rather, he focuses on what happened through you – which is, of course, the point. Jesus is the point. Jesus is the reason. Jesus is Christmas.

But you mattered, Mary. You mattered so much – I hope you knew that. You matter because we all matter. You matter because you remind us that God is able to work through any of us. You remind us that the extraordinary can still happen – because nothing is impossible with God.

26-28 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

29-33 She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.

He will be great,
    be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him
    the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob’s house forever—
    no end, ever, to his kingdom.”

34 Mary said to the angel, “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”

35 The angel answered,

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
    the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
    will be called Holy, Son of God.

36-38 “And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:
    I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
    just as you say.

Then the angel left her. (Luke 1: 26-38)

Christ Still Comes

Christ still comes – ready or not.

Grace to you and peace on this Christmas morning.  Advent has come and gone;  the candlelight of Christmas Eve is over – and here we are in the broad daylight of Christmas day. 

To tell you the truth it all snuck up on me.  We just moved into a different house and even though it was several weeks ago we still haven’t uncovered the Christmas ornaments or lights.  You wouldn’t know it is Christmas if you came to our house unless you saw the spectacular lights on our next-door neighbor’s house.  It is surprising to me that even though we’ve had our advent journey and lit the candles on the advent wreath one by one, I wasn’t quite ready for Christmas Eve to arrive yesterday.   Frankly, even now I’m not all that filled with what anyone would recognize as stereotypical Christmas spirit.  I’ve had a cold all week, I’m sure I’ve gained at least three or four pounds since Thanksgiving, and for the 34th year straight I haven’t sent out any Christmas cards.  Yesterday as I scuffled my way from the parking lot into the church I was in a sour mood.  I couldn’t find the right outfit to wear, my hair had turned out wrong, the cat had thrown up on the kitchen floor, and my head was full of congestion.  And worse than that, I felt guilty that I was in such a bad mood on the morning of Christmas Eve.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t shift my gaze from myself to that manger.  No matter how much I wanted to be full of Christmas cheer, my demeanor better suited Good Friday.

I wonder if you have ever felt that way during the Christmas season? Have you ever felt like if you could just pause for a moment and catch your breath you might be able to enjoy this time of year a little more –but there is too much to do:  too many people to see, gatherings to attend, gifts to buy and cookies to bake?  Have you ever felt like it’s too hard to dig through the wrapping paper and tinsel and colored lights to even begin to find the real meaning of this holiday?  Wouldn’t it be kind of nice if we could put off Christmas until we were really ready for it?  Until a time when everything was in place and we all felt like celebrating?

Well, that is how I felt.  But Christmas came anyway.  It came in spite of me.

A friend of mine in Minneapolis told me a story about her young daughter who is fascinated with the little green plastic army figures that belong to her brother.  Her daughter picks up these army figures and moves them around the house and so my friend said she wasn’t surprised when one day a few weeks ago she noticed in her family nativity scene, there wasn’t just Mary and Joseph, but six little green army men pointing guns in all directions.  She said that she immediately took out the little green figures, but then she realized that maybe it was more symbolic of the true story of Jesus’ coming than she had initially thought.  Jesus was not born into a world free of violence or hate.  He was not born into a perfect world – but rather he was born into our world, right how it was, and he still comes into our lives, right now, just how we are.

It’s interesting, isn’t it?  We dress up our houses and dress up ourselves and pour all sorts of time and effort into creating just the right holiday and to exude some sort of Christmas spirit to those around us – but the truth is that Jesus came for Scrooge just as much as Tiny Tim.  He came just as much for the antagonist as the protagonist, as much for the villain as the hero, as much for the person you like the least, as for the person you love the most.   We gather to celebrate Christmas and the good news of Jesus’ birth – but the best news is that he came even for those who cannot or maybe even will not celebrate his birth.  That is amazing love.  A love that though we may search for it, actually finds us all along.

One December when I was around 20 years old.  I was full of righteous indignation at the commercial excess of the holidays and convinced that no one understood the depths of my feelings about this – including my family –  and so on my Christmas break from college instead of going home or going to a friend’s house or staying at school and working, I went out to stay at my old Bible camp by myself. 

I had high hopes for spiritual enlightenment as I went to live in the wilds of northern Minnesota for those weeks.  I didn’t tell anyone where I was going.  It was my secret pilgrimage.  I sat and wrote in my journal by firelight and thought deep thoughts about the true meaning of Christmas far away from any of the commercial trappings, far away from my family’s traditions. 

On Christmas day in the midst of the silence, the phone rang – it was my mom.  To this day I don’t know how she tracked me down – but she called just to say “merry Christmas” and “I love you.”  Although I was annoyed that my pilgrimage was not so secret after all, it provided me with the greatest revelation I had that week.  There was nothing I was going to find by putting myself apart from everyone for that week.  No great words of wisdom were written down in that journal.  Although I had listened for God in the sound of the trees and the quiet of the snow dancing across the ice-covered lake, it wasn’t my searching that brought me closer to any great understanding.  Rather, the things I needed to find were looking for me all along.  The things I needed to find had been knit into my life from the very start.  The things I needed to find were things I just had to learn to recognize rather than hunt down and conquer. 

What does all this mean?  It means that especially today, don’t worry so much about the searching – you have already been found.  It means Christ comes to us again and again.  Emmanuel – God with us – God with us in so many ways!  Christ comes to us in parents, in each other, in strangers, in words that startle and amaze us, in the sacraments we share, and in a manger.   Christ comes to us though we may not feel ready or happy or sane.  Comes to us just as we are.  When all is said and done, Christmas Spirit is something we are given, not something we create.  And for that I am grateful.  Merry Christmas. 

(December 2004)

A Christmas Day homily

One of my best friends and his wife are expecting a new baby any day now.  So I’ve been having fun doing a little baby-clothes shopping.  Holding the soft sleepers and tiny blankets brings back memories of days that weren’t that long ago when my own boys were that small. 

Most of the lessons of parenthood are things they truly have to learn on the job.  No matter how much reading or preparing the nursery or talking to other parents one does to try to get ready for a baby, one is never really ready.  A parent can only gain the wisdom they need by experiencing parenthood – being in the trenches, experiencing the sleep-deprivation, the complete disorder of once orderly lives, the complete surrender of schedules and priorities and resources to their teeny-tiny, demanding, unreasonable, yet entirely beloved baby.

Elizabeth Stone said, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Charles Osgood states, “Babies are always more trouble than you thought — and more wonderful.”

Leo Burke writes, “People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one.”

And Theresa Bloomingdale once said, “If your baby is “beautiful and perfect, never cries or fusses, sleeps on schedule and burps on demand, an angel all the time,” you’re the grandparent.”

Whoever would have thought something as small as a baby could change everything.  Yet it has always been this way.

In fact, that is a good way to think about today – because of course it is one baby’s birth in particular that we gather to celebrate this morning. 

One of the stories about Jesus’ birth that I’ve thought a lot about in recent years is the story of the three wise men placing gifts before the baby Jesus and throwing their own little royal baby shower. Yet if you stop to think about it, the gifts are  strange to bring for a newborn baby.  There’s no soft blue blankets no baby toys, no diaper genie or onesies or an ancient version of any of these things. 

Remember the gifts they brought? They placed at His feet gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible doesn’t tell us what Mary and Joseph did with Jesus’ gifts, but since having babies of my own every time I hear the story, I personally have to wonder what Mary really thought of those presents.  Perhaps she understood their symbolic meaning – but I have a feeling that it could just as easily be that in her mind she is thinking, “Come on!  Couldn’t these guys have consulted with their wives or even a sister and maybe come up with something a little more useful?”

However, the story seems to assume that the reader won’t think these gifts are strange at all – and when one pauses to look at what each gift represents, it makes all the difference in this story.  I was recently reminded of what their meanings were – and I thought I’d share a little bit about these meanings with you this morning.

 Gold – it is perhaps easy to guess why this was one of the gifts – because gold has always been a symbol of royalty. This gift signaled the wise men’s understanding of who this child was, and how we should receive Him. Because of this child, we are transformed from lowly paupers to royalty seated with Christ. He had to leave the perfection and grandeur of heaven in order to walk among us, trading His royalty for a time, but never losing His deity.

Frankincense.  Incense was a symbol of His purity. Because He was born sinless and lived a perfect life, Jesus was that perfect lamb, without blemish, offered up for our sins. Incense was used as a fragrant offering to God. But the beauty of the scent couldn’t be released without being touched by fire. Jesus’ life became a fragrant offering through the flames of affliction. And in His death, we receive His purity.

Myrrh is the third gift – and this is the gift that no parent would ever want to receive – because it symbolized death.  Myrrh was used for embalming in those times. As these men laid this odd collection of gifts at the feet of this child, a little shiver had to have run down His mother’s spine when that last one was placed before Him. Of course she had known that Jesus was no normal baby.  The angel Gabriel had told her that Jesus would be great, and he would be called the “Son of the Most High, and the Lord God would give him the throne of his ancestor David and he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end.” 

But when she said “Here I am, Lord, let it be with me according to your word” – could she ever have understood the kind of sacrifice this child would make?   This gift of myrrh may have been her first clue about the inestimable amount of ways this baby was not only going to change her life, but change the world – through his life and ultimately through his death.

They were three gifts that together foretold the story of this new, sacred life.

They were three gifts that together foretold his royalty, his priesthood, his death.

They were three gifts that together foretold how every life from then on would be different.  Every life.

 Let us pray:

Living God, how do we sum up in a few words all that this day means to us?  All we can do is gather together here in this quiet place and give you thanks for all that you are to us, all you have done for us, and all you are encouraging us yet to be.  As we think about the wise men who brought their prophetic gifts to set before you, we humbly bring our gifts to you as well.  Help us to use everything we have and everything we are to serve you. 

And so we have spoken and sung of how we warmly welcome your birth.  Now, we invite you to come home to live with us.  Not just today, but every day.  Not just this Christmas season, but every season.  Make us different than we have been.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen

A Star Wars Advent Wreath? Yes! Check it out by clicking on the picture…

Christmas Light

Christmas is a lot more cheerful for me these days than it used to be.  In addition to the joy that sharing Christmas with our children brings, I really am happy to be at a church that has one Christmas Eve service instead of five.  I feel like I really get to worship on Christmas again instead of participating in what felt mostly like a frantic Christmas assembly line.  Back in those days, by this time I would be pretty Christmas-ed out.  It would be fantasizing about throwing snowballs at the cheery giant Santa at my neighbor’s house that plays tinny Christmas carols all night.  I used to say my tolerance for all the usual trappings of Christmas has about the shelf life of a dairy product.  It’s pretty curdled by the end of advent.  I’d be longing for the peanut brittle, holiday movies and Christmas music to go away because I was done.

 I’m thankful that I’ve found my Christmas Spirit again – because as you know – the thing is that we’re not done!  We’re SO not done – especially in the church.  In fact, we’re just at the beginning of the Christmas season now.  Advent has ended and Christmas is here – but oftentimes these days of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day come to feel like a culmination of sorts.  A time to arrive at and then collapse.  Now do we just rest a few days and get ready for New Year’s Eve?  Isn’t there more to Christmas than this?  Isn’t there anything left to astonish us?  After the carols have been sung, after the traditions have been played out, is it just time to go home and start the cleanup?

 Back in college, my two closest friends were from Montana.  During spring break of our freshman year, one of those friends, Kaia, invited me to go home with her to Billings.  I thought that sounded much more fun than going back to my little hometown for the week, and I had never seen the mountains, so I agreed to go.

 We caught a ride with a senior from our college named Darren.  We chipped in some money for gas and piled into his tiny yellow Toyota pick-up truck for the 12 hour drive from Moorhead to Billings.  I remember his little truck didn’t have a lot of pep and it would slow down to about 40 mph on every hill and he loved John Denver and the Carpenters – so we listened to them the whole way.  Still, whenever I hear “Rocky Mountain High” or “We’ve Only Just Begun” I can only think about that long drive.

 We arrived in Billings on a cloudy evening.  The next day, Kaia’s father had arranged for a little trip for the whole family and me to go up into the mountains for a skiing adventure.  The weather was still cloudy as we drove up into the mountains and it was dark as we pulled into the lodge where we were going to stay for the night.  As we unloaded the car, Kaia’s dad said to me, “Well, Ruth, you are in the mountains now!” – but with the overcast sky and the darkness and the snow, it looked just about the same as anywhere else.

 The next morning when I woke up, however, I could see the sun was shining – and blue sky peeking through the curtains.  Like a little kid I ran to the window to look outside – and there they were – giant peaks erupting from the ground in every direction I could see.  Even though I knew they had been there when I fell asleep, the darkness had kept me from seeing them.  But now, in the light, my surroundings were no longer a mystery.  It’s amazing how the light changes things.

 The gospel of John talks about the Word coming into the world – Jesus.  He was in the beginning with God. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  That light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

 What difference does that particular light, that light of Christ, make to us?  I wonder if we might be amazed at all his light could change if it were to truly shine in the dark places in our lives? 

 If we stop to think about it, it spurs a lot of questions:  How might the choices we make be different when we see them in that radiance?  How might our interactions with loved ones, with strangers, look if we gaze at them in Christ’s luminescence?  How does last year look if we reflect on it in that particular light?  How might next year be different if we choose to air out some of those darker corners, allow Christ’s brightness into every area of our lives?

 Isn’t it possible that following that light, like a star, it might guide us, too, to places beyond our dreaming?

 You see, there is something left to astonish us.  Because we not only have a Savior who chose to come to us just as we are:  to the saints and sinners, the crabby and the joyful, the honest and the cheaters, the nice and the cruel;  but already we see that while he came to us just as we are, his presence isn’t going to leave us that way.   We come to see that in fact, he’s more than a light, he is a fire, refining us, perfecting us in fits and starts and in spite of ourselves. 

 This Christmas stuff – it may seem tame and comforting, the same carols, the same nice story about a baby king and a manger year after year – but now, if you are feeling brave, stick around and see the revolution he has come to lead in your life.   

 C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian way is different:  harder, and easier.  Christ says, “Give me your all.  I don’t want so much of your money and so much of your work:  I want you…no half measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want the whole tree….  I will give  you a new self instead.  I will give you Myself.”

 Maybe we’re ready for the peanut brittle, the reindeer, the twinkling lights, the Christmas tree and the ornaments to be gone.  That’s okay, because those things have their time and place.  They come and go with the season – and they can only take us so far.  But if we have come here this today seeking Christ, then we’ve only just begun.

Blue Christmas (a sermon for the Longest Night)

Luke 2:1-20

2 Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David;5 to enroll himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child.

6 And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased. And it came to pass, when the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing that is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. And when they saw it, they made known concerning the saying which was spoken to them about this child.

18 And all that heard it wondered at the things which were spoken unto them by the shepherds.

19 But Mary treasured all these sayings, pondering them in her heart.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, even as it was spoken unto them.

 

 

Shortly after my mom died, some friends bought a nice wooden and iron bench for our yard in memory of her. It sits under the mulberry tree behind our house and I like to go sit out there in the evening sometimes.  It is quiet place and a place I’ve set apart for remembering and for prayer.  Lots of prayer.

I think of this Blue Christmas or Longest Night service in that way.  It is a time and place set apart for prayer and for remembering and for anyone who is having a hard time finding joy during the Christmas season.  This time of year brings many emotions stirring to the surface and the things that set apart this time of year are not only the joyful things but the poignant things…deep memories, hopes, and longings.  Many are the concerns and cares for our present situations and the world in which we live.

So it is good to have this time together and this place to just be.  We sing some songs, we are sung to, we reflect, we pray, and ask for God’s healing balm on the hurting places.  For us.  For all.

Last Sunday we had our Sunday School Christmas pageant at Our Savior’s.  It’s such a truly good time of the year.  There’s nothing quite like hearing that old, old story of our Savior’s birth being told by the youngest voices of the church.

We had our rehearsals and got the costumes ready to go.  The littlest children who had all been sheep and cows and chickens in the play in years past now wanted to have lines – so we had five angels and seven shepherds and a few extra wise men – but that’s okay.  We had a new baby born in our congregation this year so we were excited we even had someone to play the role of the baby Jesus.

It was a perfect evening with lovely weather, the excited children all showed up on time.  As we stood out on the steps before we processed in I thought about how it was one of those moments I wouldn’t forget as I ran my gaze over the children in their costumes laughing and talking in the twilight and then glanced at the parents inside, poised with their cameras, ready to take pictures with their hearts swelling with pride at their little shepherd, their little wise man, their little angel.  The kids did their parts wonderfully, they sang “Away in A Manger” so sweetly, the play went smoothly.  We really couldn’t have asked for a better evening.

But that evening at the very same time our church was full of all that sweetness and goodness, if you had looked over near the altar, burning silently the whole time was a long line of candles lighted since earlier that morning in memory of other beautiful children, twenty of them, and their teachers who died last week in violence.

Such horrible things, such blessed things, the sum of our days are knit together with both.

Every week at the end of the children’s sermon I say a prayer for the children – that God would guide them and guard them and this last Sunday as I said those same words I always say, the words felt so heavy and strange.  I’m certain Pastors and parents had prayed for those dear children in Connecticut, too, and yet they spend this Christmas grieving unspeakable loss, not getting to watch their child act in the pageant or sing “Away in a Manger.”

It’s times like this when we are forced to remember, in case we ever forgot, that faith in God is not a magic charm that keeps away bad things.  Trust and belief in Christ is not some sort of guarantee that harm will not come.

The steering wheel can still slip, the playground equipment can yet malfunction, the storm clouds could gather, the medicine can stop keeping the illness at bay at any time.  We cannot manage the future or predict what will meet us as we step into each minute.

So what do we do?

We cherish the now.  We do not know what will come, but we give thanks for the blessings there are.  I take a note from Mary, the mother of Jesus here.  One of my favorite verses from the Christmas story I just read is where all these things were happening the night that Jesus was born and Mary was taking it all in.  It reads, “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  The wisest and happiest people are the ones who notice their blessings, take time to treasure the moments while they are happening.

Pause over your coffee, go sit on the step when the breeze is just so, take the long way home, listen to your child’s breath – in and out, in and out – and whisper thanks to God.  These are the holiest moments there are, and when we really notice the loveliness of this world, that is greatest Hallelujah.

What else can we do?

We can trust that God is strong enough to hold the things we place in God’s hands.  It’s something my hometown pastor wrote to me when my mom was very sick and dying that brought me such comfort then and I know it will in my ministry and life for the rest of my days.  He wrote simply, “no matter what happens, Ruth, your mom is held in God’s hands.  And God’s hands are strong.”

Those simple words meant so much to me.  In her last months and days there was nothing we could control – it felt like everything – her life, our time together, our hopes for healing – all of it was just slipping right out of our grasp.  I knew I was losing her.  I knew the sadness of it all was going to be too much for me, I would disappear.  I always used to say that nothing was real until I told Mom about it – so then after she died, obviously, nothing would be real anymore.  The grief was crushing.  It filled me and then emptied me entirely.

But those few words her pastor wrote to me provided the one image of comfort during that time.  In life and in death, she was held safe in God’s hands forever.  She would never slip from his strong embrace.

And the old hymns ran through my brain all the time, their words of comfort and peace and assurance falling fresh on my ears as though I was really hearing them for the first time.        And while I knew that there was nothing I could do to get through that dark time and I knew that the sadness was going to be too much for me, I had a suspicion and a promise that it was not going to be too much for God.  God’s strong hands could hold me as well.

This is the message of hope that can carry us through this longest night and give us strength for seasons to come.  If it seems the illness has lasted too long and the healing will never come, remember you are held in God’s hands and God’s hands are strong.  When the worst thing has happened and so much is broken you are certain you will never be whole again, remember you are held in God’s hands, and God’s hands are strong.  When the diagnosis is grim, when the way is scary, when the promises have not been kept, when it seem darkness is all that will ever be – remember you are held in God’s hands, and God’s hands are strong.

(December 2012)

Even If

Reflections on Shuffle-Play (the daily exercise to write a reflection based on a song from that morning’s run)

There are two pivotal words in the Bible story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

The words are “even if.”

If you grew up in the church you likely have known this Bible story most of your life. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have had their story told over and over – there’s even a Veggie Tales cartoon version of what they went through.

These three Jewish young men refuse to bow down to a huge gold statue that the king has put in place to show off his power. If you read the full story from Daniel, it is almost comical how he demands all these officials come to the dedication of this statue and he commands that whenever people hear the sound of all these musical instruments: the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon (which was a triangular-shaped stringed instrument), harp and drum – they were to fall down on their knees and worship the big ol’ golden statue.

So all the instruments play and the people are falling to their knees to worship the statue when they hear them, but the king finds out that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do not.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were not always known by these names. If you looked a little bit earlier in the book of Daniel, you would find that their names first were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.

These young men had been brought to work in the king’s court and taught the language and literature of the Chaldeans. These three young men were being forced to give up their own heritage and even religious beliefs.  Their original Jewish names had meanings: Hananiah meant “Who is like God” and Mishael meant, “God is gracious”, and Azariah meant, “God keeps him.” 

But now when they were brought into service in the king’s court, their new names had references to Babylonian gods – such as Nego — Abednego means “servant of Nego.” Now, not only are these young men expected to change their Jewish names but now there is another attempt to compel these immigrants to change their religion and heritage as they are expected to bow down and worship the golden statue of the Emperor, and thus to submit to his authority instead of the God of Israel.

They won’t do it.

And the king is so angry. That’s how leaders who are full of themselves (hmmm…sounds familiar) get when people aren’t doing what they want – they throw tantrums. He says, “if you don’t worship you’ll immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego say simply, “We don’t need to defend ourselves to you, O king. Our God is able to deliver us out of the fire – but even if he doesn’t, we will never serve your golden statue you have set up.”

Even if.

Our God is able to rescue us but even if he doesn’t, we will serve no other god.

Even if.

I was listening to a story told by the lead singer of the Christian band, Mercy Me, Bart Millard. He was talking about how one of his children has a chronic illness and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age two. His family has learned how to handle this challenge and that child is now 13 so Bart estimates that his son has had over 37,000  shots in his life – because pretty much any time he eats, he needs a shot, too. And it will likely always be this way.

He was telling about one particular day when the reality of his son’s chronic illness was just getting him down, and he felt weighed down by his worries for his son. He and his son and wife had just left the doctor’s office and they ran into a woman from church. She asked what they were up to and he told her they had just been to the doctor to get the 6-month check-up on their boy’s diabetes and the woman said, “I’m going to pray for healing for him – and I’ll have my church do that, too.”

He said his gut reaction wasn’t gratitude, but anger. He thought to himself, “Like that never occurred to me – to pray for healing for my son. I pray every day for that. I know God can heal him, but God hasn’t.  And that is okay.” He talked about how his family and his son have learned how to thrive in spite of the illness and they believe that somehow, some way God will work through that illness to bless the lives of others through their son.  But then he shook his head and admitted it doesn’t feel okay every day.

He talked about how he wants every day to be like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and be able to say “I know God is able to heal – but even if God doesn’t, I will serve no other god.” Sometimes he is able to do that with his whole heart as he sings praise music in front of churches and stadiums, but sometimes he isn’t able to do that – and then he leans on Jesus and just has to trust that Jesus’ strength will get him through.

It was a beautiful witness as he talked about a song he wrote called “Even If”.

I pray that God gives us that “even if” kind of faith that helps us remember that God isn’t like a genie to grant our wishes. Rather, God is with us in the fire and we can trust that. Even if and when the worst happens. Even if healing doesn’t come. Even if we mess up bad. Even if, and no matter what – our hope is in Christ alone.

I felt that when my mother was dying in a hospital in Waco, Texas. I knew I was losing her and my heart was breaking – but when the nurses needed to change her bedding or get her cleaned up, I would go for a walk on the path around the outside of the hospital. I would walk and cry and walk some more. I didn’t have any words to pray, I have no idea how I wrote any sermons during that time, but out of nowhere in the midst of the despair, old hymn lyrics would come to mind.

“When peace like a river attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say

It is well, it is well with my soul.”

It was mysterious and comforting and haunting. God kept singing to me in the midst of the fire of that loss, never letting the reassuring songs leave my mind even as I suffered, even as I knew I had to let go.

Even if. Even if and when the worst happens, God is with you in the fire.

Even If

By Mercy Me

They say sometimes you win some
Sometimes you lose some
And right now, right now I’m losing bad
I’ve stood on this stage night after night
Reminding the broken it’ll be alright
But right now, oh right now I just can’t

It’s easy to sing
When there’s nothing to bring me down
But what will I say
When I’m held to the flame
Like I am right now

I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone

They say it only takes a little faith
To move a mountain
Well good thing
A little faith is all I have, right now
But God, when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Oh give me the strength to be able to sing
It is well with my soul

I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, and I know the hurt
Would all go away if You’d just say the word
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone

You’ve been faithful, You’ve been good
All of my days
Jesus, I will cling to You
Come what may
‘Cause I know You’re able
I know You can

I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, I know the hurt
Would all go away if You’d just say the word
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone

It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul

Sermon – Where Do You Find Your Peace? (10/8/17)

 

When I was reading the scripture for today from Philippians and how Paul writes that he counts all his accomplishments and credentials as nothing next to the beauty of knowing Christ, I was reminded of the story of Saint Francis of Assissi.

Saint Francis was the son of wealthy parents. In fact, his father named him Francis in honor of the country of France where he had gained great wealth as a cloth merchant.

Francis was intelligent and eventually became a merchant like his father. However, he liked to have a good time more than he liked to work. He like to be with his friends, party and dance. His biggest dreams when he was young were to become even richer and to be admired by all. When wartime came, Francis went to war with dreams of military glory.

However, he was captured and spent a year in prison and when he returned home, he was sick for a very long time. After that, Francis was changed. It troubled him that he was no longer happy with all the things that used to make him happy – the dancing, the partying, his things – nothing was bringing him joy.

So he began to listen closely for God’s direction and prayed often. He spent a great deal of time alone asking for God’s guidance.

Eventually he received direction from God – first, to rebuild an old church that was falling apart. As he was doing this work, his parents thought he had lost his mind and tried to get him to come back to the family business but he said, “I’ve realized that from now on only our father in Heaven is my father.”  He gave back to his parents everything they had ever given him and left to wander in the woods, singing, praying, and preaching now and then. He took to heart Jesus’ message to the apostles to “take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals.” He just existed with only what he had on his back, preached, prayed, fixed up old churches, and sang praises to God.

Eventually, others saw light in Francis and in the simple work he was doing. Others began to follow him. They learned from Francis and then he sent them out to preach and pray and teach more people about Jesus.

Francis saw poverty as a holy thing. When his followers met someone poorer than they, they would rip off their habit to give to the person. They wouldn’t accept money from anyone. They treated coins as if they were pebbles in the road. Francis said, “If we had any possessions we should need weapons and laws to defend them.” Possessing something was the death of love for Francis. Also, Francis reasoned, what could you do to a man who owns nothing? You can’t starve someone who is fasting, you can’t steal from someone who is penniless, you can’t ruin someone who doesn’t care about status. They were truly free.

In time, there were so many following Francis that he decided to go write down a few simple lines that described their way of life and went to the Pope to get his approval for their way of life based on poverty as it is found in the gospels.

The pope gave his blessing to Francis and his followers and they continued their work – helping others, and especially preaching. He left behind no opportunity to preach – in fact, one of the most infamous stories about him is that he preached a sermon to a group of birds once. He believed all of God’s creatures benefited from the good news of Jesus Christ. There are other stories of him being able to communicate with animals in extraordinary ways and this is one of the reasons the Catholic church recognizes him as the patron saint of animals.

Throughout his life he chose to live in poverty. He saw it as perfect joy, salvation, and virtue to endure suffering with patience and calm. At the end of his life he experienced great suffering – and it was in the midst of that he wrote the Canticle of the Sun – which we read part of as our opening litany today.

He died on October 3rd of 1226 at 45 years of age.

Like Paul, Francis found his joy in Christ Jesus. He found his identity in Jesus. He found his meaning, life, purpose, his peace in Jesus. The prayer of Saint Francis that is on the front of our bulletin today wasn’t written by him, but it was written to share the spirit of the peace he found only through Jesus Christ.

Where do we find our peace?

It’s a good question – maybe especially these days when it seems there is so little peace. When we hear news reports yet again of mass shootings. Yet again. Again and again. The shootings at Columbine High School happened the same spring I graduated from seminary – I was ordained a few months later. I remember how horrified we all were, what a strange and unheard-of thing it was. I had no idea that in the years to come we would hear again and again and again of people dying in mass shootings – in high schools, in elementary schools, at concerts, at nightclubs, at malls, at workplaces, at churches…you name it – wherever people gather, violence has found a way in.

And it seems like as soon as another incident happens, people start fighting with each other about why it has happened. Oh, we all have our opinions: Too many guns. Not enough God. God is punishing us for our sins. And whatever your opinion is, you get to have that opinion, but no opinion can take away the pain that countless families are feeling today.

The feelings that swirl around us and in us at times like this are overwhelming. Anger, utter disbelief, the sinking feeling of inevitability that we have heard this story so many times and we are sure now we will hear it again soon. More lives lost. Worry, worry, worry – for our children, for our friends, for ourselves.

It isn’t easy to preach on weeks like this. Because we need to hear a word of hope and sometimes hope seems so slim. Sometimes God seems all too silent. Sometimes I don’t want to look for the silver lining, tell stories about the heroes, the rescuers, all the good that happened even in the midst of the tragedy – I just want to mourn the unspeakable loss.  This was a hurricane of brokenness and we can’t begin to understand it. But you can’t end a sermon there.

So what can we do?

Well, gathering together here is a good start. At times when God seems silent, coming together for worship can feel like we are just going through the motions – and yet we trust that somehow, when God’s faithful people gather, healing happens. Here we are reminded of God’s word and God’s direction for our lives. Here we think of people like Saint Paul and Saint Francis – people who found meaning and purpose in serving Jesus Christ. We think of ways to follow in their footsteps and let go of things that are shallow and meaningless – excess of possessions, worries about status and popularity, anything that can cause harm to others or ourselves.

What can we do?

We can pray. Please don’t think that is a small thing. We do it for the world, but we do it for ourselves, too. We need to pray because that is one of the surest ways to give God’s peace a chance at penetrating our hearts.

What can we do?

Well, lamenting, crying is important. Be angry about events like this but don’t stop there – let those emotions fuel your behavior. What will you do now to be the change the world needs to see? Write letters to your congress people? Practice more random acts of kindness?  How can each of us do our small part to promote peace?

By last Tuesday, I was pretty much angry at the whole world. Not only had Las Vegas happened, but Tom Petty had died. And I still had to come up with some kind of hopeful message by the end of the week.

Fortunately, God gave that message of hope to me. Because on Tuesday afternoon I went in to meet Travis and Heather’s brand new baby, Archer. As I held him, I remembered that in spite of all the bad that can and does happen, in spite of how desperately weary I get of it, in spite of everything else, hope still breaks in. God’s goodness…and peace…and promise…is still all around, even in the darkest times.

So what can we do?  I recommend holding babies, too.

Sisters and brothers, take the time you need to mourn and lament – and then remember God is with you and find ways to contribute to the good, stand up to the darkness, don’t back down. As Tom Petty would say,

“No, I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won’t back down.”

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

What Brings You Life? (Sermon – 10/2/17)

22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Galatians 5:22-23 – The Message)

 

In the fall of 1988 I was a freshman at Concordia. I lived in Park Region hall. I loved that dorm and made some of my best friends to this day over there. The rooms were so small that we spilled out into the hallways and found our own little community there– talking, ordering pizza, listening to the Indigo Girls,10,000 Maniacs, and John Denver, and figuring out life together day by day.

Some people have wild and crazy college memories…but my friends and I enjoyed quieter pursuits – camping, biking, a lot of baking cookies. One particular night my friend Mary and I wanted to make cookies and so we went down to the tiny kitchen in Park Region. We had most of the ingredients except for sugar – it was a blizzard outside, and so we didn’t want to go all the way to the store – we decided instead to go to the neighbor’s house to borrow a cup of sugar. So, we walked over to President Dovre’s house, rang the doorbell, and like good neighbors he and his wife gave us a cup of sugar. On the way back, Mary was carrying the cup of sugar and she slipped on an icy patch – the sugar flying into the air and swirling with the snow.  So we did the only thing we could do, we picked up the measuring cup and went back to President Dovre’s house and asked for one more cup of sugar.

We laughed so hard that night. 

But there were difficult times, too, of course. I was an avid journaler, so I have piles of pages I wrote then. I was just looking back over some of those in the last week. I kept thinking as I was reading that I wish I could sit down with the girl who wrote all those pages, that girl who was a professional worrier, and who felt so out of place and ill at ease – and invite her to breathe, invite her to lean into the things and people that bring her joy and life – to do more of those things rather than work so hard to fit into some arbitrary mold she thought she should work her way into. I’d tell her that she is lovely – just as she is – stop it with the dieting. And I’d look her in the eyes and say to her, “for heaven’s sake, stop obsessing about finding true love. It finds you when the time is right and there is no stopping it. In the meantime – enjoy your friends, talk, listen to music, adventure, be.”

Of course, it is easy to dole out advice with the advantage of a few more decades of life lived. The truth is that there’s so much we can’t know until we live into it. This last week I preached at an evening service at Concordia and they told me the theme for this year for Campus Ministry is “Seeking”. I thought a lot about how college is such a seeking time, but so is the rest of life. Every single stage – we are simply viewing life from different vantage points…finding our way…living into it.

We are always asking ourselves big, important questions: Should I go down this path or that one? Should I take the new job or keep my old one?  What does God want me to do? How do I know where God is leading me? We are finding out what suits us and what doesn’t. What brings us joy and what doesn’t. What brings us life and what doesn’t – that is a big one. Do you ask yourself that – “what brings me life?”

These questions, seeking, searching – it is a holy task. Jesus talks repeatedly about seeking, finding answers through prayer, the guidance and presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Life.  He knew that we would feel lost sometimes, that we wouldn’t always know the direction to go, the choice to make, and assured us that we aren’t alone. God’s Spirit is with us and in us, guiding us, yet oftentimes we need help listening for the guidance of that Spirit.

There is an old prayer practice – the Prayer of Examen – that can help with this. This practice helps us pay attention to times of consolation (what gives us life, joy, peace, love – or any of the fruit of the Spirit) and to times of desolation (what brings us anxiety, worry, fear, anger).

When we notice feelings of desolation we begin to have a sense of what the spirit of God is leading us away from. When we notice feelings of consolation, the fruit of the Spirit, we are noticing what the Spirit of God is leading us toward.

In this prayer practice, you choose a period of time to examine. It can be a day, a week, even a specific event.

As your mind wanders through that time, ask yourself some questions – like:

What am I grateful for during that time?

When did I feel a sense of love, peace, joy, life?

When during that time did I feel exhausted, dead, drained, angry, mean?

When did I notice God during this time? What felt like a time of God’s absence?

Take notice of your answers to these questions – because those answers give you important information. Those things and people and places that bring you life and joy – lean into those. Because where we sense any of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – the Holy Spirit works through those things to tell us more about who God is, and what we are being called toward. As Paul writes, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” The Holy Spirit is in motion. God loves us just as we are – but too much to leave us perpetually the same.

When I was at Concordia earlier this week, it was the first time I had been in the chapel there for many, many years. It’s funny, isn’t it, how when you walk into a place you haven’t been for a long time, you expect it to look just like it did before. I had pictured it all in my mind how it was going to be, a plum full chapel, the hushed lights of the evening service, I’d be up on the podium in the spotlight just like the esteemed campus pastors when I was a student there.

But it turns out evening communion services are not much the same as they used to be at Concordia anymore. There were about fifty there and they said that was good attendance these days. There was no podium, no spotlight, not even a microphone. Gone were the older, established campus pastors in their full robes and stoles – replaced by flannel-clad campus ministers – one of whom is significantly younger than me. I found myself feeling dismayed right at first. This was not the way I remembered it!

But as my time there went on, I was reminded that different does not mean bad and the Spirit is at work. While Pastor Elly with her long blond hair and bubbly laugh is very different from Pastor Carl Lee who served there when I was a student, that chapel remains a place where God’s name is praised and the Word of Life is shared. As she sang a new liturgy I had never heard before with her crystal-clear voice and I saw her laughing joyfully with the students before and after the service – even as she was sharing Holy Communion, I remembered different can be very good. Indeed, different can be holy.  

At Concordia, at everywhere, at every season of life we have to listen for the motion of the Spirit – because it is never calling us to stay exactly the same. We don’t have to fear changes. We can embrace the changes, trusting God is guiding us as we notice where the Spirit is bearing fruit – around us, and in us.

What are you good at doing?

What do you enjoy doing so much that when you are doing it, you lose track of time?

What moves you, stirs you, brings you joy, inexplicably beckons you to something greater than yourself?

Listen to these questions and answers – listen your life and trust this is holy work…because the Spirit is speaking…whispering to you all that is yet possible, all that you might still become.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

What to do When You Just Can’t Get Along… (sermon – 9/10/17)

For the better part of two years, she didn’t speak to me. When I saw her at church or downtown, she pretended not to see me. She skipped the line to shake my hand after worship.

I suppose I’m normal in that I hate conflict – I loathe it with the fire of a thousand suns. Yet, I knew I needed to do something. I tried to reach out to her by brightly saying “hello” when I would see her; then, by calling and leaving her messages to call me back. She responded with more silence – for months and months and months – until one day she the phone rang and it was her.

“You ignored me,” she said. I asked her when and she said that one day, shortly after I arrived at that church, I had walked up to a group of people where she was standing. “You said ‘hello’ to everyone in that circle of people except me.”

I remembered the day she was talking about. It had been a beautiful, warm fall day. I saw the group standing outside as I was on my way into the church from the parsonage. A friend of mine from home was visiting and I wanted to introduce her to the group – so as we walked over I was going over everyone’s names in my head. I remember being proud of myself because I could remember each name. When we got to the group I introduced her to each person by name…or so I had thought. In my nervousness I forgot her, or maybe because I had been practicing all the names in my head I thought I introduced her but I didn’t – and anyway, in the end, I had apparently overlooked this lady. And she had never forgotten it.

I did the only thing there was to do – I apologized to her. I admitted I can be so scatter-brained sometimes and to please forgive me. I was sorry I had hurt her, so deeply sorry. (Even though to tell you the truth – inside I was feeling hurt and angry, too – because of getting the silent treatment for so very long.) But I said, “I’m sorry”. And She said, “I forgive you.”

Saint Matthew writes in the Gospel today about how we as Christian people are to deal with conflict. In fact, in our own church constitution and in the constitution of the entire Evangelical Lutheran Church in America it has this as our method for dealing with any conflict in the church. First, you talk face to face. Then, if it isn’t worked out, you talk about it in the presence of one or two others, and try again. Then, finally, in the presence of the church. Now keep in mind that “the church” here was often groups of people who met in homes, so it wasn’t like bringing it up at a huge congregational meeting – rather it was like discussing it with a living room full of people and trying to work it out.

What’s interesting is that in the New Revised Standard Version, verse 17 reads, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Often when we hear that we might think the scripture is saying it’s time to cast that person out, put them outside the community – but then we stop and remember how Jesus treated the outsiders, the tax collectors, that Saint Matthew himself was a tax collector – and we remember that Jesus was always, always, always still trying to draw everyone into community over and over again. That’s why I like how this version of scripture puts verse 17, “If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”

So we understand this scripture not so much as a quick and easy recipe for conflict resolution – but an unending process. It’s like when we soon come to the text about when Jesus is asked how many times are we expected to forgive and he says seventy times seven. He wasn’t telling them to do some mental math and then forgive others exactly 490 times. Rather, those numbers signified an infinite amount – that’s the way to forgive. And in turn, when we look to heal hurting relationships we keep trying.

This is never to say that an abusive relationship should be allowed to continue. There has to be mutual love, mutual forgiveness, mutual humility, mutual grace. Sometimes that never comes and we must entrust that person to God and move on.

But sometimes reconciliation happens – even in the most surprising ways. Even when we never thought it could. By God’s grace.

Once upon a time, two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch. Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on the older brother’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there?” “Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor, in fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence — an 8-foot fence — so I won’t need to see his place anymore.” The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”

The older brother had to go to town, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing. About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job.

The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge — a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work — handrails and all — and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched. “You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand.

Do you have a relationship that you think can never heal? Has so much time and hurt happened that it is just impossible for things to mend? Maybe you have no idea what to do anymore. Don’t give up. Because you never know what God can do. And because there is always something you can do, something healing.

My apology to the woman from my church was either too little or too late because our relationship didn’t improve. We had said the I’m sorry’s and the I forgive you’s – but something had been damaged permanently it seemed. Maybe I continued to be scatter-brained and forgot something else. Maybe she just realized she wanted a different pastor. Anyway, she slowly drifted away and began to worship elsewhere. I moved away…and nearly fifteen years have passed since I last saw her.

But I still think about her. I think about how she clung to her hurt, and I did, too. I think about what I might have said or done differently. I may never see her again in this life. I may not ever be able to have understanding about why we were like oil and water – but I can pray for her – and I do. I pray for her joy, for her family, that her life is good and peaceful. And that brings a healing of its’ own.

So there is something we can do when relationships seem broken beyond fixing – we can pray for that person. And it is quite something the peace that can bring.

God doesn’t call us to be best of friends with everyone – God made us too unique for that to be possible all the time. But God did create us to seek peace, to work toward understanding, to, as Paul says in Romans, “love other people as well as you do yourself.”

Let’s do that with our words. Let’s do that with our actions. Let’s do that with our prayers. In Jesus’ name.

Amen.