Frances

I found out yesterday that a friend of mine in Texas died. It wasn’t a surprise – she was ninety-five years old and pneumonia had set in a few days ago. Her name was Frances and she was a member of my church in Texas. Her husband had been a pastor, and together they had been missionaries in Japan for decades. She was a person who had lived in many places and parsonages and we were kindred spirits in many ways, regardless of our age difference. When my mom died, Frances was a comforting, mothering presence in my life over the years that followed. I loved to sit with her in her nursing home room and we would work on crossword puzzles together or just talk. My boys would bring her handfuls of flowers they picked for her, and she grand-mothered them – exclaiming over them and making them feel special and loved, as children ought to feel.

It was agonizing for us to say “goodbye” to her when we left Texas, but she understood how we longed to be back in our homeland. After all, she and her husband had done the same thing – served churches in different places but their roots called them home to Texas.  When we left a year ago, I knew I would likely never see her again here on earth, and now I know this is true.

So, while I’m physically here in my office in Minnesota, admittedly my mind is drifting back to our church in Texas today, and thinking about how her memorial service will be. Some other pastor will commit her body to its’ resting place later this week. Someone will climb up the steep stairs into the old balcony and ring the bell 95 times as she is brought from the church out to the quiet cemetery where her husband is buried. The church ladies will make a lunch for the family. Then, one by one, the parking lot will empty out.

I know exactly how that place and that day will feel because I buried so many friends at that little church in Texas. I know how my heart would ache and how the dirt would feel in my hand as I placed it on the coffin and said, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  Each time I would think about how it all felt like sadness and endings, even though the words coming out of my mouth, the words from Scripture, were all about joy and resurrection.

This is the contrast we live in as people who believe in Jesus Christ, people who know there are no final goodbyes for those who trust in a resurrected Lord. It’s always so hard to let go, to realize a chapter has truly ended, to know there will never again be those talks, those crossword puzzles, but even so – we hold fast to God’s promises. There’s a glory, a healing, a wholeness, a hope that we can only catch glimpses of here – but someday it will all be revealed when we are all reunited in the presence of the One who made us. Jesus has made this possible and this is the promise of Easter.

 

RIP L.Y.E.

I received word yesterday that Youth Encounter (formerly Lutheran Youth Encounter) was closing its’ doors. http://www.youthencounter.org/blog/posts/news/

This was not surprising news. Youth Encounter had been lacking in monetary support and struggling to find its’ place in modern times for a while now. It wasn’t for lack of trying – they had tried all different kinds of changes in leadership, changes in ministries offered, changes in formats, but finally it was time to stop trying.

I was on two different Youth Encounter teams in the early nineties. I had seen a team put on a program at the Bible Camp I loved, Luther Crest, and when I saw them, I was in awe. They were musical and funny and performed interesting skits. I got on their mailing list back then and then nearly a decade later, a recruiter from Youth Encounter called me to see if I would be interested in being on a team.

Of course I was!  I confessed I wasn’t musical at all but they didn’t seem to mind. They asked me to apply anyway and I did. The recruiter then met me in Alexandria for an interview and before I knew it, I was set to be on a team after college graduation.

I didn’t know if I would be traveling in the United States or Africa. I wanted to go overseas but I was told that they were still figuring out the teams. I spent the summer before training started working at a Bible Camp in North Dakota and I found out two weeks before I went to training that I would be on the North Central team – traveling in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and a little bit of Canada. No Africa for me, yet.

What followed were two intense, wonderful years. I saw so many tiny towns in the upper Midwest and then I was accepted to go on the West Africa team the second year. I loved living out of a van, the simplicity of our days, being surrounded by musicians, and sharing the Gospel. I met people who are still some of my best friends in the world.

Youth Encounter was a bit of magic. It was all about friendship and living simply and music and God. We relied on strangers for our food and our shelter. We laughed a lot. Sometimes we fought and cried – these things happen when you live together – but we learned how to forgive, too.

I remember someone saying to me when I was on team that they were surprised Youth Encounter was still in existence. They didn’t think the model of putting on programs at churches would last much longer. I was surprised to hear him say that. Why would people ever not want to come out and see a LYE program, I thought? But attention spans shorten, and options for entertainment have expanded beyond measure. Church attendance is shrinking. Youth groups are dying. The world we live in now likes flashy lights and fabulous screens a lot more than watching a group of young adults put on a puppet show.

But for those of us who lived Youth Encounter and know what it was like to live out of a backpack and share food in a van, show up at a different church every day, put on a program every day, and meet friends in piles of zip codes, we know it was all so good. Youth Encounter lives on in us no matter how old we get.

When it’s Time to Go

I have loved each of my churches I have served. I remember each of them so fondly and hold such a dear place in my heart for each of them.

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Newstead in New York was a great place to learn how to be a pastor. There was a lot of energy there and people who were dedicated and active in ministry. There was also a bit of strife. It was a very happy call, until it wasn’t.  After three years, I got married and my husband and I set our sights on settling somewhere new together. It was time to go.

We were called to Colorado to a large church – First Lutheran in Colorado Springs.  I wondered how it would feel to be a part of a big church. I was up for the challenge and the change as an associate pastor on a large staff. We loved being in Colorado and had many friends both at the church and in the area because Colorado Springs had many people like us – fellow transplants. I met people who inspired me to run farther and I ran marathons – even up and down Pikes Peak. There were excellent people on the staff at the church and it was great to be a part of all the activity there. However, over the seven years there I kept feeling called toward something else. I tried to forget it – we loved that congregation (and living in Colorado!)  I worked hard to distract myself with writing projects and my children and working on a new degree, but I finally knew those distractions wouldn’t fix the restlessness and I couldn’t stay at First Lutheran. It was time to go.

We were called to Texas – a proud little Norwegian congregation, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church at Norse. I loved the people in my congregation so deeply. I adored the quiet country setting. I was enchanted with the history of that place. Walking over to the church on a warm night or sitting on my porch gazing at the cattle in the field, I often felt I could stay there forever. I felt peaceful, happy, and whole. My children thrived in the Texas warmth and were loved well by all their surrogate grandmas and grandpas at our church. For a long time, I really felt life couldn’t be better. But after five  quick years, the restlessness came back. We longed for our family and friends back in Minnesota, the reality loomed that the church wouldn’t be able to sustain a full-time pastor much longer, and while I personally couldn’t help aching for growth and change, that lovely little congregation was very happy just the way it was. It was time to go.

Now, God calls us to be in Minnesota, and here we are. It’s very good to be here and day by day, week by week, month by month, this place feels more like home. We’re happy that our story is slowly being knit into the story of Saint Peter’s.

So tenderly I hold it all in my heart: Each congregation, the faces of dear parishioners, the quiet of hushed sanctuaries, the gravesides, sunlight through stained glass, children stopping to give me a hug after worship, prayers by countless hospital bedsides, the benedictions, the ashes, the anointing oil, the lilies and poinsettias, the struggle and tears, the overflowing joy, the thousands of treasured, evanescent moments that make up this clergy life I get to live.

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What Pastors Really Think about While Preaching

I met with a friend for coffee today and we were comparing notes on how our Sunday mornings had been at our churches yesterday.  She was telling me about how she got a little distracted during her sermon and she had to stop for a few moments to collect herself while she was preaching. “Dramatic pause,” she said, and smiled.  I understood. Any preacher understands. Although we would like to always be 100% present in the words we are speaking and the spirit’s nudging in that moment, sometimes our minds do wander.  We laughed about how it would make a pretty humorous book if we were to collect the stories of what pastors have found themselves thinking about while preaching. It’s not always super pastoral…

On any given Sunday, while preaching, I have been known to be thinking:

1.       How to will my kids to look at me so I can give them a meaningful glare for wrestling in the front row.

2.       If that visitor in the third row who looks like the guy I used to send secret crush notes to back in high school could actually be the guy I sent secret crush notes to back in high school. (It was!)

3.       If I’m going to throw up in the pulpit or will I be able to finish my sermon first and escape to the bathroom during the sermon hymn.

4.       Good, Joe is here today, I need to pray with him after church because his surgery is coming up tomorrow.

5.       I can feel one of my knee-high socks sliding down my leg.

6.       Did I turn off the ringer on my cell phone?

7.       Only thirty minutes until vacation!  Woo-hoo!

8.       I don’t have any idea what I am talking about.

9.       John is sleeping again.

10.   Oh, there is Ole. It’s the first Sunday he is here after his wife died.  I want to talk to him after church.

11.   Oh crap, I skipped over the special music before the sermon. We will have to fit that in before the prayers.

12.   I think I need bifocals.

13.   I totally suck at this.

14.   I rock at this!

15.   I’m missing a page! Dear, sweet baby Jesus, I’m missing a page of my sermon!  Just keep talking…

16.   I see you yawning.

17.   This story is going to make so-and-so think I’m talking directly about/to him.

18.   Can they tell I totally recycled this sermon from six years ago?

19.   Dang, I wish I would have spent more time writing this/practicing this/praying about this sermon.

20.   Oh no, there is so-and-so. I forgot she wanted me to call her last week. 

21.   I don’t think anyone is listening.

22.   I think everyone is listening! You can hear a pin drop in this place!

23.   I need a Sunday off, like, NOW!

24.   Thank you, God, for this place/congregation/day/life.

Fellow preachers, how about you?

5 Words of Wisdom to a New Pastor

On the way home tonight, I was listening to a podcast in which the author, Tara Mohr, was being interviewed. She was talking about her most popular blog post which was entitled, 10 Rules for Brilliant Women.  It includes some great advice for women to be brave about bringing their own particular brilliance to the world. It’s the kind of article I wish had been available to me when I was just starting out in my career.

In 1999, I was ordained a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. If I could give words of wisdom to someone just starting out in ministry, I would say:

  1. Don’t give energy to the alligators.  In every church (as in any place where people gather) there will be alligators – difficult people – those people who like to find fault, to criticize, gossip or just be plain disagreeable .  Also, in every church there will be people who like to build up others, to be helpful and hopeful. If you give too much of your energy to the alligators, they will slowly drain you of your own joy and peace and positivity. Looking back over my years of ministry, especially the early years, I wish I had not wasted so much energy on worrying about the opinions of the naysayers.   I was never able to turn a disagreeable person into a more positive person, not once.
  2. Build up areas of ministry that interest you!  So often I would come into a church and see what programs they had going and then just try to keep all those things going. It didn’t occur to me until much later that it wasn’t my duty to keep committees and activities going just because they had been happening for many years. Over time I realized that for my own sake and for the sake of the church, I needed to invest my best energy in areas in which I had passion and be able to let go of some other areas and trust that if they were meant to continue, I and the council would be able to find lay leaders to continue those things. A happy pastor is a good pastor – do what brings you joy!
  3. Your churches will break your heart.  It’s true – my heart has never been so broken as it has been by my congregations. I’ve left pieces of my heart all over the cemeteries and sanctuaries and council rooms of my churches. Sometimes it’s been shattered by disagreements and betrayals, sometimes by the weird isolation that comes with being a pastor, but most often by deep love and affection, and the heartache of saying “goodbye” when it is time to go.
  4. Your churches will love you and your family. It was very hard to leave my home and go all by myself to my first call as a pastor. It felt like stepping off a ledge into thin air and not having a clue what would catch me. Oh, the cigarettes I chain-smoked as I drove with my two cats across six states to get to the first church and parsonage I would call home.  I had no idea how each church I served would walk with me so lovingly through the changes life would bring. My first church helped to throw the most amazing wedding party ever when I got married!  My second church helped me usher in motherhood – showering me with gifts for the babies they were so excited to welcome! My third church walked with me on the sad journey of grief when my mother died – they listened to me cry and they showed me so beautifully how a Christian community comes together in times of grief and holds each other up. You think you are leaving behind family to embark on your first call, but you are just on your way to meeting the most wonderful extended family you could ever imagine.
  5. Don’t let the church be your whole world. When times are good as a pastor, I can’t imagine a career, a calling, quite as wonderful. We get to be with people at such monumental times. We get to be creative. We get to be flexible. We get to go to awesome potlucks. But when times are bad as a pastor, it can be really, really bad. To keep it together during the bad times, you have to have a life outside the church.  Nurture your faith!  Keep a spiritual life and discipline outside of what you do for and with your church. Nurture your family! Don’t let the church whittle away your time with your spouse and children. Nurture your interests!  Always make space for the things you like to do, and try really, really hard to have some real friends outside the church with whom you can be honest and laugh (and cry!)

There’s so many other things I could say – don’t forget to pray, to take care of your health, to keep going to continuing education, to take ALL your vacation time – but you’ll learn all these lessons and so many more as the years unfold. God bless you in your ministry, new pastor. God bless you every year you get to live in this wonderful, weird, and sacred calling.

 

Evangelism (a sermon from 1/19/14)

I wonder what comes to mind for you when you hear the word “evangelism”?  Do you think about street corner preachers calling out phrases such as “repent and be saved”?  Do you get a picture in your mind of the television evangelist in an expensive suit on the stage of a stadium-size church?

Do you think of yourself?  After all, we are a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  In truth, each of us are called to evangelism, to be evangelists – and yet there are many who would steer far from calling ourselves such a thing.  Perhaps that is because we have witnessed many times evangelism done so poorly. 

I think of a clear and cold winter day back in the mid-nineties.  My car had broken down on a freeway in North Dakota and a man and his wife had stopped to pick me up and bring me to the nearest phone.  I was thankful for their kindness and we chatted as we shared in that short time together.  Inevitably, they asked me where I was from and what I did and at the time I was a student in seminary studying to be a pastor and I told them so.  Their response was one that by then I had gotten used to as they then began to evangelize to me about how I was being misled, that it was sinful for a woman to presume she could be a pastor, that they would be praying for me that God would point me back on His path.  I sighed and politely thanked them for the ride.  I knew by then that they were just two of many, many people who interpreted scripture in such a way.  There was nothing I was going to be able to say in such a short amount of time that would change their mind.  Yet I wondered why they thought they could change my mind.  Did they imagine that what they were saying (these entire strangers) was going to be entirely new information and by the end of the car ride I would abandon religious studies after years and years of pursuit and the calling placed on my heart since the age of fourteen, a calling that had been affirmed and nurtured within me by my home pastor and my home church and my family who loved me and brought me up in the faith and taught me not only a love of scripture but to understand  and live in the life-giving faith and grace found in Jesus Christ – did they imagine their few words were going to strip away all of that?

What that couple tried to do that day, while I’m sure it was well-meaning, was hollow and only alienating.  It took into account nothing about me or my journey or my understanding of who God was and is.  They were trying to take their experience and their journey and impress it upon me, squish me into their idea of what a Christian really should be like in the time it took to travel over a few windswept Dakota miles.  I resented it. 

And that sort of thing, unfortunately, is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the word evangelism.  I don’t like that because I know the heart of evangelism is much deeper and richer and far more meaningful than that – but I know well what our knee jerk reaction to that term “evangelical” can be – because I have felt it myself.

So what is being evangelical at its best really about?  We can take some lessons from our gospel today as we think about that.  First, there is John the Baptist who when he sees Jesus he can’t help but tell others about his experience, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about, ‘the One who comes after me but is really ahead of me.’ “I watched the Spirit, like a dove flying down out of the sky, making himself at home in him. That’s exactly what I saw happen, and I’m telling you, there’s no question about it: This is the Son of God.”  So John can’t help but share this amazing thing that has happened and what he has witnessed to be true.  And he’s doing just that one day, and John’s witness must have been very compelling because two of his disciples who hear him then follow after Jesus – they want to experience some of the wonder that John is feeling in knowing Jesus. 

I think John the Baptist was a great evangelist because a synonym of the word evangelize is “Proclaim” – and he couldn’t help but proclaim who Jesus was and by doing so, he drew others to Jesus.  Some are able to do that.  Have you known people like that?  Their love for the Lord is infectious, their thirst and hunger to know God and live for God and study God’s word is so beautiful and humbling and passionate that it makes you want to have a closer walk with God?  That can be a beautiful form of evangelism, to be so in love with God and so devoted to learning as much as we can and serving as much as we can that we are consumed by love and we can’t help but share that joy we have found. 

However, while there are some who can do this, and perhaps all of us can at certain times – the difficulty of trying to be this kind of evangelist is that very few of us are always spilling over with our passion for faith.  It’s not because we don’t want that, I think all of us would want that, but the truth is that life is complex and there are dishes to be done and the cat needs to be taken to the vet and there are  appointments to keep and the constant buzz and hum of things to do and think about can so easily overpower our inclination toward always having our thoughts turned toward God.

So for those of us who might fall into this second category, we can take comfort in knowing there is another, even more powerful way of being an evangelist.  A way that draws us gently together and creates a space for the spirit of God to enter.

And it is all about relationships.  Yet not in the ways we might initially think about relationships and evangelism.  Oftentimes when we talk about relationships and evangelism in the church we think of them as a means to an end.  You know what I’m talking about – we worry about our attendance and so we say “invite your friends to church” and we think that will help fill in some of the empty spaces;  and we worry about our finances and so we say, “we need more people to come so then we will have more people giving.”  Or perhaps that couple I met back on the road in North Dakota was worried because the ways God had called me to serve him challenged everything they had been taught about what was right and so they needed to try to point out my error of thinking and set me on the right path.  Too often in the church when we think about evangelism and relationships we think of doing so as a means toward something else in the end.    As it says in the book, “Relational Pastor” by Andrew Root, “We have deeply wanted our ministry to be relational, but not for the sake of persons, for the sake of ministry, for the sake of initiatives.  In other words, we have wanted people to be relationally connected so that they might come to what we are offering or believe what we are preaching or teaching.”  I think it is human nature and we all fall into this way of thinking sometimes – sort of a selfish evangelism – one that focuses on a goal somewhere off in the distance, not simply on that person and that relationship right here and right now. 

Yet how would it be to think of the relationship as our only goal? Not so that we can have them come to church someday and not so that we can get them to think about Jesus like we do someday and not so that their kids might come to youth group – no, just so that we can know another person and they can know us.   What if that was our only goal?  Could that possibly evangelism at its finest?

May I give you an example?  I think of the first Bible camp counselor I ever had.  Her name was Beth.  I was a terribly shy kid, uncomfortable in my own skin, awkward, deeply uncool.  She liked to tell us stories – sometimes about Jesus but sometimes just about life and every night she would hug each of us goodnight and as she did she would whisper to us that Jesus loved us.  It was powerful and welcome – I would lie there in the dark and think about it.  Jesus loves me – I’m so strange and unpopular, but yet Jesus loves me.  Beth said so.  And mom and dad say so.  Grandma says so.  And if these people who take time for me and care enough to journey along with me in life wanted me to know about this precious love of Jesus, then it must be really something.  And so over time, the background noise that people kept telling me about Jesus’ love for me became a song, the dearest thing I had ever heard.  It was not a sudden thing, it was not because of just a moment or a single person, and it was never because of anyone trying to win me over for a particular cause or goal other than they wanted to know me and for me to know them.  And to know them was to know they loved Jesus.  And because of them and their care and the witness of their very lives – I fell in love with him, too.

Being evangelical will only start to sound like a welcome thing when we realize what it really is.  It is sharing faith, yet only sometimes with words. Sometimes it is sharing faith through a powerful and positive verbal witness to Jesus Christ but it is also sharing faith no less when you took time to bring over that food after he had the surgery, or to pause, even though you had so much to do, pause long enough to sit down and listen to the story when she was heartbroken.  That’s sacred, folks – Someone who wants time with you, whether going on a walk down the road, or hearing someone say “come on over sometime” or sharing a cup of coffee. There’s a reason these things feel like they matter, because they do.  It’s time shared, it’s life shared, it’s why when those disciples caught up to Jesus and they asked him where he was going, he didn’t just tell them, he said, “Come along and see for yourself.”  Jesus was modeling evangelism for us right there.

In the church we might do well to focus less on what the fruit of building relationships might be and more on just being present with one another.  At work, at home, at the grocery store, at the post office – being a gentle presence, being interested in others, listening without judgment, wanting to know the stories others bear and share ours with them and trust that in ways we don’t know and may never see, God will work through us to bring others to Christ.

So go on and be evangelical, church.  Proclaim Jesus through your words and through your lives this week.  Love and live in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Transformation is Real

A friend asked me to write a blog post for his blog (http://transformation-is-real.com/). I was happy to be asked because I love to write, but I found this assignment taking me on an emotional journey.  I’m glad to share it with you and even more glad to be telling this story from where I am at now than where I was at a few months ago.

You can read it here:

http://www.transformation-is-real.com/transformation-is-real/2015/9/2/ruths-change-finding-gratitude-in-brokenness

Losses

Today I led the funeral for a woman whom I hardly knew.  I had just met her in the last weeks of her life and was glad to bring her prayers and communion as her health steadily declined.  When I gathered with the family to pray before the service, I noted my heart wasn’t breaking like it was the last time I did a funeral.  Being relatively new here, I haven’t had time to fall in love with my new congregation yet.  I like them very much and I’m sure I will love them soon enough – but for now I’m still at the brief, easy stage of ministry in this congregation where it’s still kind of just my work.

But in this life as a pastor, I have found that this stage passes quickly.  Soon I will feel at funerals here like I did at my last funeral in Texas – when I walked up the stairs to the church with 92 year-old Olee as we were about the begin the memorial service for his wife of 65 years, Maxine.  The tears were right behind my eyes and my throat was thick and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get the words out when the time came. Or just as hard was a few months before that when I made that same trek up those stairs with Joe as we got ready for his wife’s service.  His wife, Audrey, had been one of my favorite parishioners of all time – so wise and kind and altogether lovely.  I didn’t want to commend her to God’s keeping at all – I wanted her to stay alive and well so I could keep visiting with her and absorbing all the good things that one felt whenever you were around her.  I felt the same with Estella, the queen of all quilters, who died three days before Christmas, and Maurine, who died shortly before that of a quick and brutal cancer.  Right around the same time Mickey died, a husband and father and active parishioner, whose death kicked the stuffing out of all of us as he left behind his beautiful wife and two high school-aged daughters.  The pain of all these deaths in the months before I left was so hard on our congregation – and harder on me than I can even still understand.  None of these people were my family and of course it was my job to visit them and then preside at their memorials…but when the funerals were over, and all the crowds were gone, I would walk out to the cemetery and watch the Texas wind whip up the dust and occasionally some flowers left behind, and I would cry like a forlorn child.

Most of my career I have felt very lucky to care deeply about the work I do.  But sometimes, especially my last year at Norse, I knew I cared too much.  I loved them so much and I knew they loved me, too.  But I think a pastor has to be able to keep some distance – if only so that when one needs to push a congregation toward change, he or she is able to do that and not be crushed by the resistance.

Yet I knew I could be too easily hurt if I stayed at Norse.  I no longer had any kind of professional distance in my heart – I just loved them to pieces.  I knew that for their sake and for mine, I had to go.  I needed to go so that my work was just my work again and not every all-encompassing moment of my life.  They needed me to go so that someone new could come in and see them with fresh eyes and challenge them in ways that I couldn’t anymore.

I’m thankful for my new church and all the new life that there is here.  I’m reading all sorts of good books about keeping myself healthy and how to be connected but not entirely enmeshed in my new congregation.  It’s good.

But today after doing this funeral, my mind and heart have decidedly taken a detour to Texas for the day.  I’m thinking of hot breezes blowing through the cedars, a red brick steeple rising high into the sky, a limestone fence surrounding an old Norwegian cemetery, and so many friends buried there.

Brave?

Since I wrote my last post, the sermon I gave this last Sunday at my church:  “Okay, God, What Next?”, I’ve received some comments from friends that I was brave to preach that sermon which stated my complete support of the Supreme Court decision that all gay and lesbian people deserve the legal right to be married.

I’ve been thinking about that.  I know I am not brave. My friends are brave who came out to their families and friends not knowing what kind of support or derision they would receive.  I may have had the smallest snippet of bravery when, sixteen years ago, I preached a similar sermon at my first congregation in New York – long before my own denomination stated their support of gay and lesbian marriage and ordination, but even then I knew my synodical bishop and many fellow clergy agreed with me, so I was not standing alone.

But now, as I sit here in 2015, with the ruling of the Supreme Court and the affirmation of my own denomination behind me, I am not brave to speak out in favor of gay and lesbian people having full marriage equality.  Rather, I feel remorseful and ashamed.

I am remorseful and ashamed that I was not more brave and vocal about this in the years between my first call and now. There were many years when I no longer had the vigor and passion of being a first-call pastor, ready to change the world and willing to say the hard things that needed to be said.  Those years when I was an associate pastor and I did not feel it was “my place” to speak out on issues and show disagreement with a senior pastor or those years when I was in rural Texas and knew my congregation was just barely holding on to the ELCA by a thread and I didn’t want to be the one to push them too hard for fear of them leaving the ELCA altogether. Those years when I supported my gay and lesbian friends, attended and sometimes was given the beautiful honor of preaching or presiding at their weddings, and yet I did not post the pictures on Facebook or speak about it too widely because I wanted to be sensitive to “where my congregation was at.”  I took the middle path – not too far to the right, not too far to the left, but not really going anywhere at all – the path that I told myself was pastoral and that I had to take for the sake of my position – but yet a path that left me the worst of people.  Spineless.  Neither hot nor cold.  A hypocrite, really.  I would have defended myself by saying that if people asked me point blank my views on the matters considering gay and lesbian weddings or ordinations, I would tell them the truth.  How dang noble, Ruth.  Don’t offer up your opinion for years, water down the Gospel fire burning within for years, don’t speak up loudly for your dear friends for years, don’t vehemently proclaim the presence of injustice for so achingly long and then find ways to rationalize this ineffectual and feeble sort of ministry.  I’m ashamed of it.

This is my confession today.  I am not brave.  I have been the opposite of brave.

The culture of our churches in these times makes it difficult, truthfully.  Clergy have families to feed and so there is a certain amount of wanting to keep a congregation happy so that one’s paycheck keeps coming.  The problem is that the real, raw gospel of Jesus Christ is upsetting and even infuriating…but none of us like being confronted and challenged regularly. So there is this balance that pastors try to find between sharing the convicting truth of the Gospel and also the endless grace.  We need both.

But too often, way too often, churches get so worried about anyone getting upset about ANYTHING.  So much so that this becomes a god of its’ own.  I’ve sat in countless council meetings where fear of losing members was the guiding decision-maker, not “what would Jesus do.”

And when a church does this too much, not only does the pastor get disillusioned, but so do the people.  People are passionate about the church when it is fired up about sharing the gospel, not when it is fired up about itself.  When we find our identity in Jesus, not when we find our identity in our programs or our pretty buildings, then we are authentic and brave and frankly, irresistible.

Anyway, here’s to being brave.  I just turned 45 a few weeks ago, an age that I am comfortable saying I may be halfway through my life.  The first half was very good – full of love and beauty and grace.  Now, the second half – I pray I will be truly brave.

Okay, God, What Next? (a sermon from June 28, 2015)

I was ordained almost sixteen years ago.  I had a shiny new call in hand from a little church in Western New York and planned the ordination service at my home church – Good Shepherd Lutheran in Henning, Minnesota.  My pastor from all my growing up years, Rev. Darrell Vetter, preached.  Bishop Arlen Hermodson of this synod did the ordination.  My internship supervisor, Rev. Allyne Holz, placed the stole on my shoulders.  Afterward, the wonderful ladies of the church provided a lunch – little sandwiches, cake, and coffee.  It was a gorgeous September day.

A few days later I was driving out to New York with everything I owned in my black 1984 GMC Jimmy.  My two faithful cats, George and Sam, meowing at me the whole way.

There were many unforgettable moments in that trip and those weeks but one that often comes to mind is my first morning in my office.  I arrived early – the sun was just coming up.  I stood looking out the window across the street at the cemetery and the church’s former building which now stood empty and peeling paint.  I stood there and thought, “okay, God, now what?” Here I am.  Now what.

Years and years and years of preparation had led to that moment – and I didn’t have the foggiest clue what to do.  But then the phone began to ring and people began to stop by and hour by hour, day by day, prayer by prayer, joy by joy, and frustration by frustration, suddenly sixteen years have gone by.

But most days I still look out my window and my silent or whispered prayer is, “okay, God, now what?”

It’s my ineloquent way of saying, “God, please lead me and guide me.”  Partly because God must, and partly because I am clueless on my own.  I always have been – I have no qualms about saying that.  I need God’s guidance in all things.  I listen like a hawk for the still, small voice of God’s direction because without it I am just floating about on the wind.  Without God’s guidance I would be easily deceived, I have no doubt about it.  So I cling to God’s promises and I cling to the assurance that I belong to Him.

What am I going on about here?  I don’t know.  It’s just been another one of those weeks where as a preacher, I’m a little bit terrified to preach. The Bishop of the ELCA recommends that we keep talking about Charleston and I agree this is important.  Did you see President Obama’s beautiful eulogy at Reverend Pinkney’s funeral – it was gorgeous as he talked about God’s amazing grace and even sang. 

But also in the news this week we have huge news about the Supreme Court of the United States saying all gay and lesbian marriages are legal.  This is huge. And this is news that I know everyone here has an opinion about and I don’t think it does us a lot of good to not talk about it.  In fact, I don’t think it is faithful for us to not talk about it.

So let me start – I grew up as the daughter of a preacher – but my father was a very different sort of preacher than me.  He loved the fire and brimstone.  He preached law with a small sliver of grace on the side.  And don’t get him talking about “the gays” because for some reason, in his view, homosexual people were excluded entirely from God’s grace. 

I didn’t understand this.  To me, it seemed so contrary to everything else I had been taught about God.  Then I went to college where I knew a lot of nice conservative Christian people who were super kind people – when talk about homosexuality would come up there were a lot of phrases like, “hate the sin but love the sinner.”    I remember I had to do a little speech in a class after reading a required book called, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor” and I spent hours and hours studying and preparing my opinion piece – which basically came down to the simplistic, yet I felt faithful, conclusion that God made us all and loves us all just as we are.  Period.  From that point on there was a small group of particularly ardent conservative Christians on campus who were gently trying to confront me lovingly and steer me back in the right direction. 

It wasn’t until seminary that I actually had a close friend come out and tell me he was gay.  He was so scared to tell me.  I hated that he was so scared to tell me.  But growing up in the Christian church, he knew that admitting this about himself was a big thing.  He knew there were good people for whom this would be no big deal but he also knew that for other good people, this would be a deal breaker.  They wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore.  They would distance themselves from him.  And many did. 

Over the next years there was this huge wave of honesty as friend after friend of mine came out.  All of them Lutheran Christians who had grown up in surroundings so much like mine. Some told me through conversations, quite a few through letters they constructed to tell me this news about themselves.  I was always surprised – I have no gay-dar whatsoever.  But one by one they entrusted me with this news that they had wrestled with and struggled with and had come to love and accept about themselves.  And they became even more dear to me because I knew that this process of unfolding and becoming their real selves was painful for them – but ultimately it was part of their becoming even more of the precious people God had made them to be.

I knew it.  I knew it like you know a good melon.  I knew it like you know that rain is in the air or that you are pregnant.  I just knew. 

But the hard thing is that there are just as many people, good people, faithful people, people I love, maybe even some of you, who just know that homosexuality is wrong and are certain that what is happening in our country is a slippery slope to Armageddon.  You know it like you know a good melon, or that rain is in the air, or that you are pregnant.  You just know. 

In 2009 our ELCA churches had a lot of heartfelt conversations around this topic.  Good, faithful people of all opinions came together to pray and think and listen for God’s voice.  I went through this with my church in Colorado and also in Texas in 2010.  In Texas it was harder because there was a small group of people, lifelong members of this little historic church, who just saw the issue of homosexuality as the deal breaker for them.  They wanted our church to be the church in our area to leave the ELCA.  They pushed hard and rallied members but they couldn’t get much traction.  About ten ended up leaving our church and started their own non ELCA church downtown. 

It was so hard for all of us.  I prayed so hard all the time – especially then – that if I was wrong, that God would help me see it.  I wanted to do what was right, not be blinded by my own emotions, my sentimentality for the friends I love who are gay. 

But the more I prayed, the more I was just convinced that there was no part of the God I had been raised to know and love or even the scriptures I had studied my whole life that informed me that the thing to do would be to tell all gay people that the love they have for one another was lesser than the love given to heterosexual people. 

Yes, there are parts of scripture that are complex – there certain texts that some want to hold up as a beacon that homosexuality is wrong – these scriptures reside with many others that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God:

Concubines and polygamy and the use of slave girls as surrogates in childbirth were all acceptable family values in the Old Testament.  Slavery was found to be morally acceptable in the Old Testament and slave-owning Christians in the early church were not asked by the apostles to set their slaves free.   Priests were commanded to burn their daughters alive if they became prostitutes, and rebellious children were to be stoned to death. Women who were raped were required to marry their rapist.  And when Israel went off to war she believed God called her to destroy every man, woman, and child among the nations she conquered—what today we call genocide.  The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids.  They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.

But if I’m not willing to embrace slavery or polygamy or to tell a rape victim they have to marry their rapist, and if I, as a woman can feel the call to ministry and the calling to speak in church – and all these things go against certain cultural laws in the Bible – how can I tell a gay couple their love is wrong – especially when the overarching message of Jesus Christ is that love is the greatest of all things? 

How can I feel anything but glad for the healing that so many gay and lesbian families are feeling now – because of all the big and small rights they now have that they never had before.  And does that healing mean any less to them than the kinds of healing we read in our scriptures for today?  A woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years is healed.  A young girl who is thought to be dead hears a word from Jesus and walks.  A group of people feel marginalized and unaccepted their whole lives, undeserving of love, unable to participate in the gift that is family – but then allowed in, over time welcomed, over time given justice and rights.  All these things seem like healing to me.  All these things seem holy to me.

People of God, please don’t think I stand up here thinking I have everything figured out or that it is my job to convince or sway opinion.  I only share all this with you because I want you to know how much I wrestle with all these matters of faith, too.  I share my own journey with you so that maybe you will share yours with me, too, and with each other.  As we seek to listen to each other and understand each other – I think there is more room for the Holy Spirit to really move.  As we let love and grace guide us, rather than fear or judgement, we become more nimble vessels for sharing all that is beautiful and helpful and life-giving about the church.  If we can talk openly and lovingly about things that matter, if we can disagree with each other and still live and worship together in respect and work together to serve God – then our children will grow up knowing that they can do this, too.  That they will know, with no shade of doubt, that no matter who they are or who they love, they are welcome here and beloved to us and to God.

This is what we need.  We need to be able to stand together in our questions and our certainties, all our stumblings and steps of faith and trust that in the end, it’s God who catches us.  Whether we end up wrong or right, it’s Jesus who saves us and loves us to the end.  That we are wrapped, cloaked, enveloped in this Amazing Grace that is big enough to cradle us all.  That when we say, “Okay, God, what next?”  The answer is always going to be grace.  Treat yourself, treat one another with grace – because this is what God pours out to us and wants us to be about as God’s church on earth.  Amazing Grace.