Listen…

September 12th was my 17th anniversary of ordination. I remember my ordination day so clearly – as one remembers any day that marks something significant. I woke up that morning in my parents’ house, had waffles and coffee with my mom, got dressed in my brown skirt and jacket, tied a scarf in my hair, and went to my home church in Henning for the service. So many friends and family came. We had a little lunch afterward. Within days after that I was driving east with my two cats, heading to my first call in Western New York. I remember it felt a little like stepping off a ledge to leave everything I knew behind to go where nothing was familiar to do work that I had no idea how to do. I got a terrible cold immediately and I was so immensely homesick the first days and weeks.

But friends came to visit and there was much to do. Before I knew it, I made a home there and new friends. Suddenly seventeen years have passed – years plum full of the cycle of the church seasons, weddings, births, and deaths – in my churches and in my own life. From far-flung churches in New York to Colorado to Texas, now my path has led back to only 54 miles from the place I was ordained.

The first day I went to my office at that first church I served in NY, I remember arriving at my office early and looking out the window which had a view of the cemetery. I had no idea what to do next…so I just prayed that God would lead me. Then the phone rang, and seventeen years passed. Still, each day, I pause and look out the window and pray that God will lead me, lead us, to what we are to do next…and the one thing that has not changed in seventeen years, is that I am certain God will. God will lead us. God is leading us. All we need to do is be still and listen and God will guide us in exactly the direction we need to go. Thanks be to God.

In these cool days of autumn, as the leaves change color all around us, I pray you will take time to listen for God. Take time alone to pray, to walk, to sit under a night sky and give thanks. Know that God is near to you in every moment, in your every breath, in your every joy and every need…and that the One who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Maundy Thursday (2010)

Late into the summer afternoon we laughed and talked. The children played tag on the grass and their shadows grew longer as the grownups lingered over one more cup of punch, maybe another cookie. It was the kind of afternoon we didn’t want to end. Time together had become rare over the years and we had looked forward to this get-together of family and friends for a long time. The children were lined up and pictures were taken. Good friends smiled at each other over picnic tables and observed the traces of time gone by on one another’s faces.

The boys and I had a long drive ahead of us and so finally it was time to leave. Michelle, my best friend since the first day of kindergarten, who now lives in Boston, walked us to our car. Her four boys ran circles around my two boys and they roughhoused like old friends even though they had all only met that week. For at least that moment it was how we had always thought it would be – her children and my children all good friends just like we had always been.

Michelle and I stood by the car. We talked about how good it had been to see each other again. How we would make sure that it wouldn’t be so long until the next time we got together. We marveled at each other’s children and how we couldn’t believe that here we were – old married ladies with families and homes.

Owen and Jesse hugged their new little friends goodbye and I buckled them into the car seats. Michelle and I hugged and then stood facing each other, motionless, until finally she smiled and said, “I’ll see you later.”   In that moment I thought about the first time I saw her, all pigtails and freckles, playing with blocks in the corner of a classroom, I remembered long walks on gravel roads, long talks about boys and then us driving around town in her dad’s big orange truck.  A thousand memories in a split second as I saw the late afternoon breeze brush through her hair.  I simply smiled back at her and said, “I’ll see you later.”

As I finally got into my car and headed west, the boys dozed off, and thought about the day and my dear friend and how we never said “goodbye.”

I don’t know about you – but I don’t like goodbyes. I’ll do most anything to avoid them. I still cry nearly every time I leave my mother’s house for the long drive back to Colorado. I don’t even like leaving my boys behind at preschool for the day – unless they’ve been particularly whiny – then, I don’t mind so much.

And of course, these days, the word “goodbye” has been on my mind a lot.  Partly because soon our family is going to be making some big changes as we move from here to Texas.   But also because I’ve been thinking a lot about the events we remember on this Maundy Thursday.   

Maundy Thursday always rings of such sadness to me. It’s almost more sad to me than Good Friday – partly because I can’t fully comprehend the horror of the crucifixion, but also because I know how hard it can be to say “goodbye”.  As I think about the last supper, the last meal that Jesus ate with his disciples, I can only imagine the sadness around that table.  I think about them wondering exactly what he meant as he kept saying “remember me”.  “Remember me by eating this bread and drinking this wine.”   I imagine constricted throats trying to choke down pieces of bread, sips of wine.  “What does he mean? He’s leaving us?  What does he mean?  One of us will betray him?”  What had it all meant if it only had to end this way? Did the shared walks and talks and the moments the disciples and Jesus had spent together, and all he had taught them mean anything if it all was just ending?

It isn’t difficult to wonder that ourselves when we teeter on the brink of goodbyes. When the illness has run its course, when a journey together has culminated and paths separate, when we find ourselves at that moment when the roads diverge and we face an ending. How do we make sense of all that has been shared? Do the long walks and the talks and the laughter and the tears and all the wonderful and difficult moments shared really mean anything if they just have to end in a goodbye? Where do we find our hope and our peace when we face endings?

I think Jesus answers this for us in words that he also spoke on this night we are remembering.  Gathered there with his disciples he said, 33“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.

34“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Why this talk about love right now?  I think it was more than just a new commandment or some good advice for their future work together and as they went about their lives.    I think it was more than just a way for people to recognize Christ’s ideals still in alive in the disciples.

 

Listen to the words of Saint Paul: Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 1but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three abide: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

That is a scripture often read at weddings, but I like to read it at funerals, too. I love it because in verse it says that faith, hope, and love abide. That word “abide” is a beautiful word that we don’t hear too often anymore but it means, to go on, to remain, to last, to stay. Love remains.

 

Jesus was telling his disciples that by continuing to love one another and to love others, he would always be with them.  The presence of love in our world means Christ’s own presence, Christ’s own resurrecting presence, Christ’s own eternal presence remains. And do you know what this means for us in our relationships here on earth? It means that everything matters because even if we have put just a thimble-full of love into a relationship, that relationship will have an eternal dimension, because Love goes on forever.

And that is how we can put time and energy into our relationships here and now and know that while moments of separation may come, whether short or long, those do not last. Not even the ultimate separation of death. That is how a few months ago I could stand over my father’s grave and pour the sand over his coffin and speak the words, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” with no tears in my eyes. While life as we knew it was ending, I knew then as I know now that the most important things remained. Certainly, many things do die when the last breath is drawn – things like broken bodies and sadness and strained relationships, things like misunderstandings or bitterness or hopelessness – all those things do die, but what lasts is Love.  There are no real goodbyes for people who believe in a resurrected Lord.  We can always simply say, “I’ll see you later.”

Easter morning is yet far away. There is a sad and bitter journey we need to yet take with our Lord.  Jesus leaves the meal with his disciples to go to the garden of Gethsemane to pray in anguish, knowing that there is a cup that only he can drink.  He sees his only friends have fallen asleep rather than staying awake with him in this bitter hour. 

But one thing we can trust as darkness falls on our Lord. One thing we can trust even as the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard and the elders come for him.  One thing we can trust as the crowd shouts for his death and he carries his own means of execution to Golgotha is that the whole way, through his sweat and his tears and his blood and his cries, if you listen carefully you will hear him whispering to us the whole way – not goodbye, never goodbye  – no, he is whispering  – “I will see you later.”

Let us pray…

Dear Lord, on this Holy night we pray that you be with us.  Be with us in our prayers and sighs.  Be with us as our Lenten journey comes ever closer to the cross.  Be with us in our relationships with one another – help us to build each one of those relationships on a foundation of love.  Be with us especially when it becomes difficult to love.  Be with us as you have promised you always will be in our sharing of bread and wine.  How we do we remember you, Lord Jesus.  How we love you.  How we praise you.  How we thank you and adore you.  In Jesus name we pray, Amen.

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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Love Each Other

34-35 “Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (John 13:34-35 The Message)

A few nights before my wedding, some friends and I gathered together and spent a few hours gluing hundreds of tiny pieces of paper to hundreds of Hershey’s kisses.  They were little party favors placed at each table.  Printed on the tiny pieces of paper were quotes about love.  Everyone had a different one.  I had so much fun finding all those quotes.  There were thought provoking quotes like one of my favorites from Toni Morrison when she said, “I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it.”  There were cute ones like the one I chose from Winnie the Pooh which said, “It isn’t much good having anything exciting like floods if you can’t share them with someone.”  There were words from poets – Oscar Wilde who said, “who, being loved, is poor?” and great leaders – Winston Churchill’s words to his wife when he wrote to her, “my greatest good fortune in a life of brilliant experiences has been to find you, and to lead my life with you.”

As I found these quotes and typed them up and then cut them into tiny slips of paper before my friends came over with hot glue guns in hand, it was a blessing to think about those words.  To think about reflections of love – some romantic, some cute, some bittersweet, some courageous and to think about the love I had come to know in my own life.

Chad and I weren’t engaged very long.  It was the end of April when he asked me to marry him as we sat at my kitchen table one evening.  And we decided we’d get married at the end of July.  My memories of the days and weeks before my wedding are some of my favorite.  That summer it seemed like the weather was always perfect, every meal was the best meal, every song that came on the radio was one of my favorites, everything was happy and good.  I knew I was living in the first bloom of love and I knew that love has many seasons…so I was going to just enjoy every minute of those quick days.

We are nine and a half years, two children, and about 1500 miles from that place and that summer now…and while I’m thankful for those first weeks and months of love’s first bloom, I’m much more thankful for the time that has passed since then.  The sharing of life.  In my memory it is a slide show of small and big moments:  loading a moving van in New York, buying our first house, seeing our boys being placed in Chad’s arms after they were born, standing by the graves of Chad’s parents and then my father, loading a moving van again and seeing the mountains disappear in the rear view mirror and our arriving at our new home here.  The seasons of our lives and the lives of the people we love unfolding all around us.

But that is how it is, isn’t it?  Love.  Some bits of it are about the romantic quotes, the sweet kisses, love’s first breathless bloom.  But true love is something different.  True love is what remains after the first bloom fades.  True love is the companionship through good times and bad.  True love is steady.  True love is built over a lifetime, only really recognized through shared experience and achieving shared goals and continuing to choose each other.  Continuing to care about the other’s cares.  Continuing to listen to stories you’ve heard before.  Continuing to keep building onto the village you’ve begun rather than leaving to start a new one.  I think C.S. Lewis said it best,  he said, “Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing…Love…is a deep unity maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habits reinforced by the grace which both partners ask and receive from God…On this love the engine of marriage is run; being in love was the explosion that started it.”

Our gospel for today talks about love.  It tells us that love is not just a nice thing, but that it is something we are commanded to do.  Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” 

It is a big commandment, because yes – it means those people whom we have vowed to love – our partners and children.  Sometimes that can be challenge enough – to really love them with a life-giving kind of love.  But this commandment doesn’t just mean we need to love those people closest to us – but to have real love for everyone we encounter. 

What does this mean?

It means that everyone – you and me, and the college kids jogging down Cascade Avenue, and the homeless folks at the bus terminal, the person driving too slow in front of you, and that stranger on the sidewalk, and the one sitting next to you at jury duty – everyone we meet has unsurpassable worth.  Everyone we meet, according to Jesus, is worth our time.  Everyone we meet, according to Jesus, is so precious that Jesus died so that they could have a chance to live and breathe and love. 

And so we treat each other with grace and goodness.  And so we go out of our way to help the stranger.  And so we risk our intricate schedules and let go of some of our fears to try to be the change we wish to see in this world.  Because when we do, we will begin to understand love.

I believe in many ways that God has given me children so that I will learn something about this.  Because I’m learning day by day that I can’t get too worked up about time or getting where I need to be too quickly when my children are with me.

I’ve told the following story a few times already in different settings so if you have heard it before please forgive me.  But it is a good example of what I’m trying to say here.

It had been a long day.  At four a.m. Jesse woke up crying.   Wintery roads, a day of meetings, and a stunning headache had frayed my nerves.  Soon, I could pick up my children from the church nursery and go home. 

 The phone rang – a parishioner in the hospital.  I said I would go see him that night but inside I was nearly crying.  I was so tired.  Motherhood and Pastor-hood were both such blessings, but my blessings were exhausting me. 

I decided to bring my toddler, Owen, with me to the hospital.  We visited the fellow from my church and then Owen pulled me toward the cafeteria.  He asked for some string cheese and I told him to find a table.

In a sea of empty tables, Owen plopped down at the one table that already had someone sitting at it.  The elderly woman smiled at him over her cup of coffee.  My heart sighed, the last thing I wanted to do was make small talk with someone.  I just wanted Owen to eat his cheese and then we could get home.

But I sat down and as Owen ate his cheese, the woman and I talked and after a bit she told me she was at the hospital because her daughter was dying.   In that empty cafeteria she told me about her girl.  She clutched a tissue in her hand but she looked like she was too tired to cry anymore.  She didn’t know I am a pastor but she poured out her thoughts right then and there to us.  I listened, and I knew the moment was holy because Owen, who is always moving, didn’t move a muscle.  He just sat there eating his cheese and considering the woman with his big blue eyes.

After a long while she said she had to go.  But before she did, she reached out and touched Owen’s hand and said, “He’s precious.”  I smiled.

As we drove home that night, I was still tired.  It had still been a long day.  But for that moment at least I remembered how beautiful it all is.  Every evanescent second.  And I was thankful that somehow Owen knew we needed to sit by that woman and hear her story that night.  I’m glad his vision is still clear enough that he can recognize the things I’m often too busy or too blind to see.

Love.  It’s about learning how to really see each other.  And not turning away once we do.  It’s about slowing down enough so that we have time for each other. 

How might you be better at loving your partner ?

How might you be better at loving your children?

How might you be better at loving your co-workers?

How might you be better at loving the strangers you meet?

These are questions we all need to consider not because I asked them – but because Jesus is asking them of us all.

(written February, 2011 – First Lutheran Church – Colorado Springs, CO)