Perfect

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Perfect

By Pink

I was so angry and I didn’t even know why. I was feeling jealous, competitive, spiteful, and impatient.  I didn’t want to feel any of those things, but there they were in all their ugliness. I wanted so much for that friendship to heal – why couldn’t all those other feelings catch up with that desire?

I knew it had little to do with her and everything to do with me. Yes, she had done something hurtful, but she had apologized and I had forgiven her, hadn’t I? Then, why did I still feel so utterly bad, mad, sad? Why couldn’t we get back to the way we were before?

Grown-up hurts remind us of childhood hurts…perhaps this is why we act like children when we get hurt. Being hurt by a friend brings up every insecurity, every bad feeling I’ve ever had about myself. While I put on my preacher face and tell my congregation to forgive one another and to speak kindly and work hard at loving each other, I pout like a petulant child when I feel I have been badly treated. I retreat into my shell where no one can hurt me. I tell myself I am over it, but I’m really not.  Finally, I resolve to keep the violator at arms’ length so that I can’t be treated badly again.

But this is the thing: Friendships can’t survive like that. Friendship is like a marriage in that you can’t have a close marriage if you have walls and boundaries up all over the place. There has to be trust. There has to be a letting down of the guard and the ability to be real. You have to let yourself be open to being hurt again or else everything remains shallow and surface – in marriage, in friendship.

I stopped letting myself be real with her when she hurt me. I didn’t want to, but I did. The fertile ground of our friendship may have been harmed by her initial neglect, but it was my own that kept the soil dry and parched. Nothing could grow there anymore.

Real friendship can’t be lukewarm or halfway. Real friendship sacrifices – it is patient and kind and humble. It trusts. It doesn’t keep a count of wrongs. And sometimes, friendship can be painful – but you keep working at it. Forgive the friend, forgive yourself, and trust that somehow God can heal what you can’t. With time, with patience, with prayer, God will heal it. Perhaps the ground just needs to lie fallow for a while, but trust that good things can grow again.

 

Perfect

Made a wrong turn, once or twice
Dug my way out, blood and fire
Bad decisions, that’s alright
Welcome to my silly life

Mistreated, misplaced, misunderstood
Miss knowing it’s all good, it didn’t slow me down
Mistaken, always second guessing, underestimated
Look, I’m still around

[Chorus]
Pretty pretty please, don’t you ever ever feel
Like you’re less than, less than perfect
Pretty pretty please, if you ever ever feel
Like you’re nothing, you are perfect to me

You’re so mean, when you talk
About yourself, you were wrong
Change the voices in your head
Make them like you instead

So complicated, look happy, you’ll make it!
Filled with so much hatred… such a tired game
It’s enough! I’ve done all I can think of
Chased down all my demons
I’ve seen you do the same, oh
Pretty pretty please, don’t you ever ever feel
Like you’re less than, less than perfect
Pretty pretty please, if you ever ever feel
Like you’re nothing, you are perfect to me

The whole world’s scared so I swallow the fear
The only thing I should be drinking is an ice cold beer
So cool in line, and we try try try
But we try too hard and it’s a waste of my time

Done looking for the critics, ’cause they’re everywhere
They don’t like my jeans, they don’t get my hair
Exchange ourselves, and we do it all the time
Why do we do that? Why do I do that?

Pretty pretty please, don’t you ever ever feel
Like you’re less than, less than perfect
Pretty pretty please, if you ever ever feel
Like you’re nothing, you are perfect to me, yeah

 

Lighthouse

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Lighthouse by Antje Duvekot

It’s not a song to get your heart pumping. It’s a song for a cool down, or even better, to listen to in the car and daydream as the miles drift by. If you don’t know it, you should. Antje Duvekot has a beautiful voice and is a wonderful song-writer.

The song came on as I was working at my computer today, not running. And even though I was sitting in my office, stewing about schedules and working on a letter to confirmation parents, in a moment, the opening notes of the song transported me to a night over twenty-three years ago in Nigeria. I was sitting on a picnic table under a full moon when the boy I loved quietly, but with every cell in my body, leaned over and kissed me.

I stopped breathing, I think. I had a boyfriend. He had a girlfriend. But we had grown close over the months as we traveled with a small group leading programs at schools and churches. He was irreverent and funny. All the other girls thought he was so good-looking but what drew me into him was how we could sit and talk about music or books or God for hours. Our connection began slowly and built over time. Ultimately, I found myself thinking of him at odd times and so sweetly. I didn’t mean to. It just happened – I slipped and fell into adoration and affection, so deep.

We kissed that night and we kissed another night, and then we went back to the United States and back to our former relationships. Neither lasted very long. After kissing him, I didn’t want to kiss my boyfriend anymore – that was a problem. Then, we were living in the same city and we still hung out as friends, and made out now and then.

He was like air to me for a long time. I was desperate for him like in an 80’s romantic movie or an episode of Guiding Light. I couldn’t imagine my days without him. But he could imagine his without me. Our time together often became an exercise in pain as I would do anything to spend time with him, but that meant listening to stories about the different women he was dating. I hated them all with a smile on my face. I wanted to be able to be his friend – but it was excruciating to be near him and know he just didn’t love me the same way I loved him. He was my world….but I was his friend.

And so, I moved on. I fell truly in love again. He got married. I read at his wedding and danced at the reception. I got married. I have only seen him twice in the last twenty years.

But still, the right notes and lyrics send me directly back to that quiet Nigerian, moonlit night when he kissed me. For that moment, I was cooler than Beyonce, I was the Homecoming Queen, I was the Winner of All the Things. Amazing how young love can do that – make you feel everything. So completely exhilarated, changed.

Looking back, I can see what a crush it was. It had all the markings of infatuation. And while I did love him, we were not in love. Being in love is so different. The former takes your breath away, sure – but the latter goes to the store to get 7-up for you when you have the stomach flu. You can’t build a life on breathlessness, but you can build a beautiful life on being able to depend on another and knowing they depend on you.

What seasons of love have you known in your life? Who was your first love? Your unrequited love? Your love of a lifetime? What did you learn from each of those relationships? Are you glad to be where you are now or do you long for something different or more?

Pray about that. Jesus told us the most important thing is to love one another – and invite God to be part of your love stories – all of them.

Pray for the strength to let go.

Pray for the hope to try again.

Pray for the persistence to love when it is hard.

Pray for a thankful heart for the good memories.

Pray for healing for the hurts.

Pray. Love. Repeat.

lighthouse

Lighthouse lyrics:

You, you’re not the first to ask
And probably not the last
And I don’t expect you to understand

Why I stayed upon this rock
After the birds had gone
And all of the waves turned to sand

I am a lighthouse
In a desert and I stand alone
I dream of an ocean that was here a long time ago
And I remember his cool waters and I still glow

These days the sunlight has bleached my paint
And the moonlight has made it plain
That nobody needs me to call them home

But I swear there was a time when
I would shine for him through the night
And he was the only ocean that I have known

I am a lighthouse
In a desert and I stand alone
I dream of an ocean that was here a long time ago
And I remember his cool waters and I still glow

Now my lantern bears a crack
And I know he will not be back
But I will leave the light on forever

I am a lighthouse
In a desert and I stand alone
I dream of an ocean that was here a long time ago
And I remember his cool waters and I still glow

 

Wedding Sermon – Lars and Alisia

(Written for the wedding of my nephew and his bride in August of 2016)

I used to write in a journal every day – especially when I was in college and seminary and well, basically before I had children. It was before I had a cell phone, too – so it was kind of my default when there wasn’t anything else to do, I would write stuff down.

I was looking at a journal from my last year of college and I thought I would share something I wrote in the fall of 1991.

October 31, 1991; 11:23 a.m.

“I am an aunt. Nearly four hours ago my nephew, Lars Andrew was born! ”It is a beautiful, sunny, clear fall day – it is crisp outside – the kind of day that makes you want to praise God. (the famous Halloween blizzard that day hadn’t yet gotten to Moorhead) I concluded, “What will Lars be like? Thank you, God, for life, for love, for Lars.”

I remember writing that. The words had felt very full as I wrote them down. We had all anticipated that day for so long and we were all so excited you were finally here. We had no idea all that was ahead but there was just this wonderful sense of joy in what God was doing. A new life, created out of love; our family was growing, and we were so thankful.

Kind of like today, a day full of life and love. Today I gain a niece – although, truth be told, Alisia, it feels as though you have already been part of our family for a long time. What a true joy that today the commitment and devotion you two have shared for so long becomes official. What a great thing it is that we all get to come together and celebrate the love God has blessed you two with. Thank you for letting us share in your joy. Your joy brings us joy.

I thought for a very long time about what I might say today. About fifteen months, actually, ever since you asked me if I would officiate today. Although I have officiated at a lot of weddings, I’ve never gotten to preside at a wedding for a family member before. I wanted to be able to convey so much in this message, to say just the right words and share with you just the right bits of clever wisdom. I fall into that trap all the time, thinking stuff is all about me. This service isn’t about me or what I am doing.  And it isn’t about you two or any of us here, really. Because we are gathered here in God’s house, to ask for God’s blessing on you two, whom God has seen fit to bless with life and love. This service is about God and what God is up to. That is why we are here, to thank God, to praise God, and to point to God, from whom all blessings flow.

The scripture reading I shared with you from Colossians talks about what we need to wear as God’s people. And although everyone here today looks really nice, all dressed up for this special day, what God wants us to be sure to wear for our everyday clothes is a different kind of wardrobe.  God tells us to dress in compassion, kindness, quiet strength, humility, and to be even-tempered, quick to forgive. Long after today is over, after the tuxes have been returned and the dresses have been put in storage, clothe yourselves with these kinds of attributes and the peace of Christ will keep you in tune with each other.  Dress in compassion. Dress in kindness. Dress in humility, quick to forgive. We have to dress right for the occasion. If you are going snowmobiling, you don’t wear shorts and a t-shirt. If you are going swimming, you don’t wear a floor-length gown. And if you are setting out for a long, happy life together, you don’t dress in selfishness or anger or grudges.

A long time ago, about 26 years ago, I was in a wedding. It may or may not have been a family member’s wedding. Okay, it was your parents’ wedding, Lars. The bridesmaid dress I got to wear was really pretty – lots of pink and lace and ribbons going on. The shoes were pretty, too – but I realized at the last minute I had ordered shoes that were way too small. All I could think about during the whole wedding was how I couldn’t wait for it to be over because my size 11 feet were crammed into these really cute, size 8 shoes. It’s hard to maintain a good attitude if you are trying really hard to make something fit that just does not fit. What you wear can affect everything.

So I don’t think it’s strange that the Bible gives us this advice on what to wear each day. Our days look different if we go about them wearing kindness rather than cruelty. Our days are richer if we go about them wearing thankfulness instead of bitterness. Our days have more life to them when we keep God and others at the center rather than our selves.

Which brings me to a reading from the Gospel of Luke.

When Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a story. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This is the Gospel reading for this Sunday. I hear an important message in this for all of us, but maybe especially good advice for a young couple just beginning married life. The message of this gospel is to remind us how living God’s way looks. Living God’s way means we put our best energy toward serving and loving others. It means we get our focus off ourselves and onto others, lifting others up, not ourselves. In a marriage that means each day working to make life better for your partner.

That doesn’t mean we don’t take care of ourselves or treat ourselves with compassion, too, but very few happy marriages can be built if the only question we are asking is, “What have you done for me lately?” No, if we listen to God’s wisdom about putting others first, and both partners are each day seeking to make life better and richer and more full for each other, then the peace of Christ will be at the heart of your home.

I bet if you think about your parents, your grandparents you can remember ways they lived examples of this for each other and for you. The examples are often quiet and understated but they are what good lives are built upon. I’ll never forget when Chad and I were dating – the first time he came out to visit me when I was at the church in New York. He was only there for a few days – but after he left I kept finding things around the house that used to be broken but were now fixed. The sink no longer leaked, my computer was working better – he had been fixing stuff around my house when I was at work and never said a word about it, just quietly and sweetly making my world a little better.

When I think of love, real love, selfless love – that is what I think of…those thousands of teeny-tiny opportunities each of us get every day to try to make life better and sweeter for each other. Chad’s always been better at it than I am. But I’ll keep trying. And my prayer for the two of you is that as you enter this new stage in your life together, you will always look for those opportunities to love each other better each day.

Some days that will be easy. Some days that will be the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do – but don’t worry – because just as God brought you to the moment you met each other years and years ago, and just as God brought you to the moment you fell in love, and just as God brought you to this wedding day, God now goes with you into the future.

In a few moments we will share in the vows – and the vows you are about to make are not ones that two human beings can fulfill on their own. When times get hard, call on God who promises to be with you and help you fulfill the vows you make today. Vows to live in love, real love. Love that is knit together through thousands of small kindnesses, humility, and grace.

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)

 

 

Love

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

A few years ago I presided at the funeral of a young man who had died suddenly from a previously undiagnosed heart condition. He felt like maybe he was coming down with something and went to lay down and take a nap and just never woke up again.  39 years old. Of course, it was a devastating time for the family. I met with his wife to plan the service and we talked for a long time about their life together.  They had been extremely close – truly great companions.  She told me many stories – about how they met at a bar on Saint Patrick’s day, a holiday particularly special to them as they were both Irish, and by the end of that evening when he drove away she said out loud to herself, “he is the one.”  She told me about all the things they loved to do together, how thoughtful and capable he was.  I remember she also talked about their wedding fifteen years before. They had been married in a Lutheran church and she talked about how much fun they had planning their wedding and making it just how they wanted it to be and it had included some things they thought were unconventional and quirky. They liked that their wedding hadn’t been like every other wedding and how she and her husband used to kind of joke about how every wedding they went to always used the same scripture – from I Corinthians 13:1-13. No, they would never have this reading about love that was so common and used all the time.

Well, the wife asked me to choose the scripture for the funeral service and maybe because she had joked about this text from I Corinthians, I kept thinking about it and as I thought about everything I knew about this young man and how he lived his life and the love they shared, I asked his widow if I could share this reading from I Corinthians at his funeral and why I wanted to do that.  She agreed, and in fact, I often use it now at funerals because of verse 15 where it says that faith, hope, and love abide and the greatest of these is love.  To abide means to last, to stay, to remain – and what a comforting thought it is to know that even though death happens, there are some things that last, that remain – God’s love for us, surely, and by God’s grace, the love gifted to us by one another in this life.

So although this text is one of the most well-known and maybe overused texts there is, it truly is a great text when we stop to see what is really being said. Certainly it is a great text for church communities to look at as we think about our life together – particularly if we look at what was happening in Corinth when this was written.

I Corinthians was written to a community that was having a very difficult time staying together. There was division, disorder in worship, people were bickering over spiritual gifts and there was an overall sense of immaturity in the church. Paul was writing to the Corinthians to get them to move past all of that and to live, as he describes it, in a more excellent way:  to live in love.

Live in love.  We might think that sounds a little bit flowery. A little bit too much like a tagline from a Hallmark movie of the week, but the truth is that “live in love” could perhaps be the best mission statement a church could possibly have.

Because without love, it doesn’t matter what budgets, buildings, or missional strategies we have. A balanced budget, an attractive and well-kept building, a perfectly worded vision statement – these are not the things that give the church the shape that God desires. Even if we were to have our Bibles and Small Catechism all memorized, be theologically rigorous, or even if we were to excel at activism and pursuing justice every day – if we do all these things and forget to be a community of love, we have lost our way.

It’s unfortunate that in our language we tend to water down the word love.  I mean, isn’t it just a little bit tragic that we use the same word to say such wildly different things – such as, “I love peanut butter.”  And “I love my children.”  While we know what we mean – that peanut butter and our children are loved in totally different ways, this overuse can tend to take away some of the power behind the word.

The thing that is often overlooked in this text is that the love being talked about here is active.  It is best translated “love shows patience” and “love acts with kindness” – love is an active, busy thing which never ceases working. The point of the text is not to share some flowery description of thoughts of love – but rather, to describe what love does.

It’s probably important to note as well that in this text it never says that this kind of love feels good. We’ve talked in our Bible study on Wednesdays about how there are different kinds of love in the Greek language – there is “philia” which is the love shared between friends and there is “eros” which is passionate love, and there is “agape” – which is the kind of love God has for us. That is the kind of love being talked about here. And it rarely is a feel-good kind of love when we practice this kind of love. In fact, in the context of this text, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.

So this is why it is a great text for church communities, for funerals, and yes, for weddings. No, this text isn’t about flowery, romantic love, it’s not the kind of love decorated in the frosting of wedding cakes or dressed up in a white dress and a black tux – but the kind of love that people know when they live life together for any real amount of time.

Louis De Bernieres, the novelist, wrote “Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. It is like roots that grow toward each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.

It’s the kind of love that works to forgive and rebuild trust when trust has been broken.

It’s the kind of love that weathers the years – years that surely contain joy and laughter and good times as well as worries and disappointments and aching struggles.

It’s the kind of love that celebrates all that is good and sticks with it through the bad.

And sometimes it is the kind of love that knows it is time to let go of another person and trust that even this can be done with love and caring respect.

I knew an extraordinary couple at my church in Colorado who had been married for ten years and had two children when they realized after many years of therapy and prayers that they both did not want to be married anymore.  They cared for each other, they wanted the best for each other, neither were having an affair with someone else – they just came to the mutual conclusion that they shouldn’t be married. An extremely faithful couple, they asked me if I could pray with them the day they signed their divorce papers.  They talked about how important prayer and being in their church had been to them during their wedding – and they needed God’s presence now more than ever as they divorced.  They came over to the church and we went into the quiet sanctuary and I shared some scripture and some prayers, they took off their rings and gave them back to each other.  They hugged and they cried. It was so deeply sad, but so full of love at the same time. And over the next years I saw this couple handle their divorce with an immense amount of love.  Sunday nights they still always were together as a family for supper.  Both parents went to all the games and school activities to support the kids. Their houses were only blocks apart so that the kids could easily go from one house to the other. They might have been divorced, but their love did not end. It was an extraordinary thing to behold.

But real love always is.

I think of my pastor friend who told me about how she has always given her children a blessing every morning before they leave for school and one day she and her youngest were having a quarrel over something and he grabbed his backpack and went out the door that morning, slamming the door behind him.  But a moment later he came back in and said gruffly, “you didn’t bless me yet.”  And she blessed her boy with his brow still furrowed in anger at her and she with tears running down her face. Real love is an extraordinary thing.

I think of Mickey, a man whose funeral I did almost exactly a year ago.  Diagnosed with cancer in the spring, it spread quickly through his body and by Christmas he was in hospice care – his wife, Amanda, sleeping every night in the chair by his bed. Each day I would ask her how she was doing and if she was getting rest but all she cared about was being near to him, doing whatever she could to ease his pain in his final days.  Real love is an extraordinary thing.

And I think of how God has seen fit to love us so much – giving Jesus’ life for us so that we don’t have to fear death.  I can’t pretend to understand it, but I know it is grace and because of it, we need to do all we can to bless the world with grace as well, to live in love.

That is my prayer for us, dear church, I pray that we live in love.

Because Real love is an extraordinary thing. 

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.

The Jewelry Box

The other night I remembered the jewelry box played music – the tinny notes it played had been part of its’ “magic” to me when I would admire it as a young girl.  The box has been sitting in my bathroom since I brought it home from Minnesota a few months ago – Jesse likes to open it and look at Grandma’s bits of jewelry.  He calls them her “shineys.”  I turned the key to see if it still worked and there was only silence.  I wish I could remember what song it used to play.

My mom did not have a lot of fancy things.  She and dad lived very simply – partly out of necessity – money was tight since Dad couldn’t work for most of his adult life due to his disabilities, but also because of a fierce thriftiness they both held.  If they could make something keep working, keep serving its’ purpose, no matter how bad it looked or how many times it had to be taped together to keep functioning, they kept using it.

Every penny mattered.  They didn’t say things like “it’s just twenty bucks, why not get it?” – they said things like, “waste not, want not.”

There were times I felt my dad took this to the extreme – like when the window in my upstairs bedroom (which had a beautiful view of the hills and woods in the distance) broke and rather than get a new window, he just told my brother to nail a board over it – first stuffing the window frame with insulation so that it could now keep the cold air out more efficiently.  The fact that my room was now a dark tomb with no natural light was not a consideration.

Or there was the car we had when my brother and I were small – it needed a screwdriver stuck somewhere in the engine in order to get it started.  Rather than fix whatever was causing this, mom and dad just dealt with it and drove it that way for years.

And particularly unforgettable were the years when there was something wrong with our well and we used the outhouse out back and washed clothes at the Laundromat in town and filled jugs of water at grandma’s house to use for drinking and bathing.

Some people had more than us and some people had less.  Us kids might have thought our inconveniences were terribly lame, but we knew we weren’t deprived. We had no frills, but we had enough.  Mom and Dad would always figure out a way to make do.

There’s so much of this I admire.  I imagine I would have all my student loans paid off by now if I managed my money and “made do” half as well as my parents did.  As it is, I lean toward the frivolous more often than I should.  Particularly with my children – I like to buy them things.  I think it shocked my mom when she came to stay with us how much stuff we bought for the kids.  I remember admitting to her, “They are spoiled.”  She did not deny it, she said simply, “Yes.  But they are cute.”

For however little material possessions mom wanted or needed during her life, it became even more extremely this way the last year of her life.  When she came to live with us, I ached to be able to ease sadness that she was carrying.  Since I didn’t know what else to do – I would try to bring her little “treats” – things that she would normally have enjoyed – some nice soap or a pretty cup, some fresh stationery or even a tall, cold bottle of diet coke.  She would politely thank me and bring them into her room where she would place them carefully in her bedside drawer or closet.  She did not need them or want them or even barely consider them for longer than it took to store them away.

Sometimes I think, whether she realized it or not, her vision was already set on the Next place.  Her whole life she had needed so little but for where her journey was leading her now, there was absolutely nothing she needed or wanted.

After mom died, my brother and I went through her house in Minnesota and took care of what was left behind. There was nothing of great value – but much that was precious, of course, including that jewelry box.  It is pink with pink satin and velveteen on the inside.  I remember as a child creeping into my parents’ room to open that pretty box and look at her treasures.  When I came across it after her death it still contained many of the same things I had remembered she kept in there – some earrings she used to wear when she was right out of college and worked in Minneapolis, her high school Letter, a locket with a picture of dad, and dad’s wedding ring.

I took dad’s ring and slipped it onto my thumb.  It was just a few days earlier that I had put on mom’s wedding ring.  When she was in ICU they had to take it off her since her fingers were swelling so badly.  I put it into a plastic bag along with the only other piece of jewelry she wore, a black hills silver ring I had given her some years before.  I told her I would hold onto them until she got out of the hospital.  The night she died, while I was still in the hospital room trying to gather the strength to stand and leave and go home, I kept looking at her hands and seeing the indentation on her ring finger. I remembered the rings still in my purse.  I took them out and slipped both those rings on my finger.  I had planned to just bring them back to Minnesota and give them to the funeral director to have them buried with her – but when I got there, I couldn’t do it.  I felt guilty about that because her thin gold wedding band had been on her hand her whole life.  She had held us as babies while wearing that ring.  She had cared for my father wearing that ring.  It rightfully belonged buried on her finger, but I couldn’t part with it.  Mom would have to forgive me for that – because I knew I somehow needed it to help me get through the rest of my life without her.

It makes no sense that a thin gold band should help me feel near to my mom who cared so little for material things.  Yet perhaps it does.  This ring was one thing that did matter to her.  It stood for a promise she made that mattered to her more than any other in her life.  I look at it and I can see her hands still.  Truthfully, I would give away every single possession I have before I would get rid of this ring.  It rests on my finger just below my own wedding band.  Like a firm and gentle reminder from my mom about the things that matter most: persistence, promises kept, and love.  Always love.