North Dakota

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Secret in the Church Tower #3

Johanne

Johanne sat in Bakken Kirke that hot July morning.  She did not remember it ever being so hot in Norway as it was here in America. All the windows were open but there was no breeze drifting over the Dakota prairie. She looked out the window next to the rough oak bench on which she sat. It had been so dry that summer the grass was hardly green but more a light brown color. They needed to keep praying for rain.  God had been so faithful to bring them safely to this new land and they had to believe the journey and all the tormenting goodbyes they said to their family and friends would be worthwhile.  The crops would grow.  Their life there would be good.  It just had mostly been very, very hard so far.

At least her family had all made it there alive.  Some other families had suffered great losses on the journey.  The Jenson’s youngest daughter had come down with a terrible fever as they traveled by wagon through Illinois.  Her name was Inge and she had only been three years old with white blonde hair.  She had been a joy to everyone in their village of Heskestad. Johanne remembered Inge’s baptism day at their little church back in Norway.  On the day they buried her in a field in Illinois, Johanne had wept to think of how happy Inge’s baptism day had been and now they had wrapped that dear little girl in her mother’s shawl and they were burying her lifeless body.

Other families had lost elderly members who were weakened from the hardships of travel and illness, and a few other young women had died in childbirth like the pastor’s wife.  Although their church in the Dakota territory was only a few years old, there were already quite a few graves in the small cemetery.  In fact, the cemetery was established before they even started building the church.  Mr. Haugen’s wife died just the first week they arrived in Dakota and he buried her on the beautiful hill on the land they homesteaded. He then met with the other men in the community and offered to give the entire hill so that a church could be built there.  And Bakken Kirke was established.

Bakken Kirke was a simple building, although they did build it with a strong frame and a tall steeple. Johanne loved how the placement of the church on the hill made it stand out over the entire countryside and when the bell tolled it could be heard for miles. The bell was tolled on Sunday mornings as the pastor walked from the small parsonage over to the church and beckoned all within its’ hearing to come to worship.  The bell was also rung as they departed the church after worship.  On New Year’s Eve they gathered there and rang the bell at midnight just as they had done in the old country and as the church was one of the only community gathering places in the area, the bell was rung if there needed to be a meeting of the men in the area to make decisions or share information.

Johanne and her family went to church every Sunday morning but as she glanced at her father and the sweat running down the side of his face as he listened to the preacher, she guessed that he, too, longed for the service to be over today so they could get out of that hot church building.  She noticed his hair was much more gray now than it had been just a few years ago.  He was starting to look a lot like her grandfather, who was still back in Norway.  She would likely never see either of them again during her time on earth.

The pastor’s sermon ended and the congregation sang, “O, Bli Hos Meg.  It was a quiet, somber hymn, but this Sunday held a bit of sadness as today was Pastor Knudsvig’s last Sunday with them.  His wife had died earlier that spring and he had decided rather than trying to raise their six children alone or find a new wife in America, he would return to Norway where his sisters could help him and he would help with the family farm, which was necessary as his older brother who had been overseeing the farm since their father’s death, had just had an accident leaving him unable to discharge his daily duties on the farm.  Pastor Knudsvig had been a faithful, gentle pastor and Johanne was not sure he was suited to the life of a farmer and to work in the fields but she did know by now that one had to do what was necessary.  She looked at his children, all sitting in the front row.  The eldest was merely eight years old.  The youngest was the baby, sleeping now in the eight year-old’s arms.  Their mother had died giving birth to the baby.  Deaths during childbirth happened frequently, so frequently that there was an entire section of the small cemetery where babies were buried.  When the mother died in childbirth, usually the baby didn’t survive either, but Pastor Knudsvig’s infant was hearty and strong. He had been given the name Jens, everyone assumed in loving tribute to his mother, whose name had been Jenny.

Jenny was soft-spoken with an easy, sparkling laugh, and although it was unspoken, Johanne felt that what people liked best about Pastor Knudsvig was that he was married to Jenny. She had a way of putting everyone at ease and her lightness of spirit cheered anyone who was around her. Johanne thought about how awful it must be for her children to be without her. Johanne glanced over at her own mother sitting a few seats away.  She could not imagine being without her mother.  Although she and her mother were very different, her mother’s loving presence and steadfast strength in their family was what had made these last years of leaving Norway and beginning a new life in the Dakota territory tolerable. Her heart ached for the pastor and his children to have to make the journey back to Norway when the children had all been born here and this was the only home they had ever known. And for Pastor Knudsvig to give up his calling to ministry for his family, well, that was surely the greatest sacrifice of all.

North Dakota

by Lyle Lovett

The boys from North Dakota
They drink whiskey for their fun
And the cowboys down in Texas
They polish up their guns
And they look across the border
To learn the ways of love

If you love me, say I love you
If you love me, say I do
If you love me, say I love you
If you love me, say I do
And you can say I love you
And you can say I do

So I drank myself some whisky
And I dreamed I was a cowboy
And I rode across the border

If you love me, say I love you
If you love me, take my hand
If you love me, say I love you
If you love me, take my hand
And you can say I love you
And you can have my hand

I remember in the mornings
Waking up
With your arms around my head
You told me you can sleep forever
And I’ll still hold you then

Now the weather’s getting colder
It’s even cold down here
And the words that you have told me
Hang frozen in the air
And sometimes I look right through them
As if they were not there

And the boys from North Dakota
They drink whisky for their fun
And the cowboys down in Texas
They polish up their guns
And they look across the border
To learn the ways of love

Things Happen

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Things Happen

By Dawes

Last Summer, my older son had his tonsils taken out. We knew he wouldn’t be feeling good for a bit after the surgery but had no idea that the healing process was going to be as long or complex as it was. Our poor boy pretty much sat on the couch for a week, woke up during the night crying from the pain in his throat and ear, and lost thirteen pounds. After a week had gone by, it was time for both the boys to go to Bible camp in North Dakota but Owen was nowhere near ready to leave the couch yet. So, I left with our younger son and Owen stayed home with my husband. We decided that if he was feeling better in a couple days, Chad would bring him to camp to join us.

It turned out that Owen was feeling better, so he came to camp but we realized quickly that the loud noises of 100 other kids made his ear throb with pain. So instead of him staying with the other kids in the cabin and joining them for their activities, Owen spent much of his time with me in the Retreat Center. He watched movies and rested his ear on a heating pad, I read, we talked.

I take pictures of country churches. The smaller and more remote, the better – and being in North Dakota for a week I was excited to take some time prowling around the backroads and looking for churches. There was one I had read about that I particularly wanted to see but it was a couple hours away. I didn’t want to leave Owen alone all day but I also knew he doesn’t enjoy the picture-taking days as much as I do. In the end, he decided to come along. We stopped at Walmart and found some little warming pads that he could use if his ear started to bother him.

It was a splendid and simple day. Somewhere in the middle of North Dakota, there was a crazy-good radio station that was playing some great stuff. The lyric, “may all your favorite bands stay together” caught my ear and before I knew it, I was searching for the name of the band. It turned out to be Dawes – so when the radio station faded out, I looked them up on Spotify and fell in love with them immediately.

Their songs became the soundtrack for that day. Riding around the countryside of North Dakota with my eldest son, who is so close to being a teenager it takes my breath away. We rode along through sunshine and then pouring rain, along interstate and then miles of gravel road until we found the little church we were looking for. Like a tale in a storybook, a man with a glass eye was there and he let us in the church and told us stories about that magical little place on the prairie. He lifted up the trap door to the cellar fellowship hall and we went down there to see pictures of that congregation’s rich and beautiful past. Even though the thunder and lightning kept me from taking many pictures, it was worth every minute and mile to get there.

We headed back toward camp, stopping at some other churches on the way – I took photographs and Owen did bottle flips on the front steps. We stopped to eat. I had soup. He had 1/8 of a pancake (still not much appetite). The sun came out and the shadows were growing long.

Some people say they don’t know where the time goes. Some people say they missed out on their kids growing up. But I know where the time goes – I have every second of it stored in my mind and heart. And I have not missed out on my kids growing. I have been here every day. I’ve reveled in their laughter and I’ve dried their tears. I have shown them the joys of cupcakes, meteor showers, watching for the space station to fly over on a quiet night, a great movie, singing around a campfire. I’ve taught them to say “thank you” and “I’m sorry” and “have a good day,” to say their prayers, that love is the most important thing.  And I have understood with each day how precious these days are. I have not taken a smidgen, an iota, the tiniest whit for granted.

Sure, there were times I got tired of them always wanting to sit on my lap or weary that as soon as I went to the bathroom they needed me DESPERATELY! All that is mostly gone now. With each day they get more of their own lives and need less of mine. I know we will always be knit together, but it changes.

So, I’ll treasure every second I get.

I’m a mom who never thought I wanted to be a mom, but dear God, my boys fill my heart full.

bottle flips

 

Things Happen by Dawes

I could go on talking or I could stop
Wring out each memory til’ I get every drop
Sift through the details of the others involved
The true crime would be thinking it’s just one persons fault

Like an honest signature on a fake ID
Like the guilty conscience with the innocent plea
You can just ignore it, put it out of mind
But ain’t it funny how the past won’t ever let something lie

Let’s make a list of all the things the world has put you through
Let’s raise a glass to all the people you’re not speaking to
I don’t know what else you wanted me to say to you
Things happen, that’s all they ever do

In a different time, on a different floor
I might mourn the loss of who I’m not anymore
So I’m driving up to Oakland for a good look back
And a few revisions to my plan of attack

Let’s make a list of all the things the world has put you through
Let’s raise a glass to all the people you’re not speaking to
I don’t know what else you wanted me to say to you
Things happen, that’s all they ever do

I think I’ll see Lily, see where she stands
I can’t help how I feel, I don’t think anyone can
Sometimes we’re lovers, sometimes we’re friends
Behold the magnetism between two dead ends

Let’s make a list of all the things the world has put you through
Let’s raise a glass to all the people you’re not speaking to
I don’t know what else you wanted me to say to you
Things happen, that’s all they ever do

Lets’ make a list of all the things the world has put you through (we can qualify the spirit guides we listen to)
Lets raise a glass to all the people your not speaking to (or why are moms compelled to bronze your baby shoes)
I don’t know what else that you wanted me to say to you
Things happen, that’s all they ever do
That’s all they ever do
That’s all they ever do
That’s all they ever do

 

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.