Sunrise, Sunset

Reflections on Shuffle Play

Sunrise, Sunset – Fiddler on the Roof Soundtrack

And they are off. I got my babies up early and onto the bus and another school year has begun. I woke up with the song, “Sunrise, Sunset” going through my mind. It is a bit sad and melancholic – like my mood today. Even though I am thankful for each passing year, I notice how quickly the sunrises and sunsets pass.

I went for a run and then made my way over to church. There is no one else at the church this morning for a little while. I love the quiet – a perfect way to begin a week which is going to be very busy. This feels like the lull before the storm.

So many to keep in prayer today – my head practically spins with all the prayers: those recovering from Hurricane Harvey, those worrying about Hurricane Irma, all those in the line of the fires out west, a young mom from my church who is in the hospital with crippling headaches and no diagnosis yet, all the nervous students and overwhelmed teachers, all the parents feeling all the different feelings on this gorgeous fall morning, all the churches preparing for Rally Sunday, prayers upon prayers upon prayers.

My days are better when I begin them with prayer – and my prayers are often exactly like this: I write and see what comes out. Sometimes I don’t even know what is on my heart and what I want to tell God about (or what God is trying to tell me) until I am writing it down. It happens that way, or when I am out walking and suddenly I notice that I have been talking out loud to myself or to God or to some imaginary ‘other’ for the past few minutes.

Some people think prayer is akin to good thoughts – nice, but relatively powerless. Others see prayer as a good luck charm – if we just pray enough or in the right way, God will grant all our wishes.

But I see prayer as a conversation – it’s me telling God what is on my heart and if I am quiet enough and really listening, God revealing something of God’s own heart to me. It happens. I can’t explain it, but it is one of the truest things I know. When I pray, something breaks open in my heart and makes enough room for the Spirit to move, to give me some wisdom, some inspiration, some peace I was needing.

So, yes, I pray for others – but mostly I pray because this selfish heart needs it and the medicine only it can give.

Why do you pray? Do you pray?

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Sunrise, Sunset
from Fiddler on the Roof
Is this the little girl i carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older,
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday when they were small?
Sunrise sunset, sunrise, sunset,
Swiftly flow the days,
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers,
Blossoming even as they gaze…
Sunrise sunset, sunrise, sunset!
Swiftly fly the years,
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears…
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears…

Roots – (White Supremacy is Sin. Say it. Sermon 8/20/2017)

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Grace and peace to you on this Lord’s day. On our trip to Norway these past couple weeks, there were 34 people plus a guide who led us through the mountains, valleys, and fjords of the southern part of Norway. It was meaningful for me to see the places where my own family members had come from – to stand in the church and on the roadside where generations before me had stood, to smell the air, to feel the weight of the time that had passed. My great-grandparents who left Norway were people I never met but it was important for me to know something about those places they left. It reminds me of something the tour guide said one afternoon. She was talking about how so many come to Norway to learn more about their roots and that is important, because just as a tree dies if it is cut off from its’ roots, something inside us dies as well if we lose touch with where we come from.

Perhaps that is the only way to explain why it was so meaningful to catch a glimpse of the homeplaces of my ancestors. While I may know next to nothing about Johanna and Halvor Haugen and Jonas and Ane Hetland, now I’ve seen places they walked, felt the sunlight on my skin there, touched the baptismal font that held the spirit-filled water that was placed on my great-grandfather’s head the day he was baptized. These people and their lives are strangers to me and yet they are part of me. Our roots matter in complex ways and throughout all our lives we will find various ways to connect to our roots. That is important.

Our roots matter. That is why we take time to acknowledge roots in various ways. We celebrate anniversaries. We take time to mark birthdays. It’s why New Years Eve always has a little bit of a haunting feeling to it – because we think back over all that the last year held and the years before it, too. Where have we been? Where are we going? What is being written on the pages of the stories of our lives? How can we make the next chapter the best it can be?

Our roots as Christian people matter. If it weren’t so we wouldn’t spend time every Sunday recounting the stories from the Bible. We find our history as God’s people and our direction for how to live by studying God’s word.

And our roots as a nation matter. We remember those roots – not just the good stuff so we can pat ourselves on the back – but we remember the bad stuff, too because hopefully it can help us make better choices now. Hopefully. You would think this would be, true, but human beings seem to have short memories about certain things.  That’s the only explanation I can think of for why in the news the last weeks we have been hearing about things like white supremacy and neo-Nazi gatherings. If you watched the news at all, you heard about how in Charlottesville, Virginia, a group of White Nationalists chanting, “White Lives Matter” and “We Will Not Be Replaced” met at the same time as there was another group there celebrating peace and diversity – many of our ELCA brothers and sisters were there in the group advocating for peace and diversity. I was told about how they were gathered in a church and singing and praying and the white nationalist group surrounded the church, yelling and bearing their torches and refused to let those in the church come out. Those who were there say it was terrifying and like nothing they had ever experienced before. This was just the beginning of the terror as in the days that followed there was much bloodshed and injury and even the death of one of the peaceful protestors, Heather Heyer, by a white, racist terrorist driving a vehicle through a crowd.

And my first thought when I heard about it was that, well, it was far away from our little church here in MN.  However, then I saw an interview with a white supremacist in Fargo – and it is becoming clear that maybe while this is one of those things that feels like an earthquake far away, the tremors of it are much closer than we think.

I have been guilty myself of thinking that racism isn’t actually a thing anymore. I remember saying that. Because I have friends of all races, and you know segregation and all that was a long time ago and we are all supposed to be equal, right? – so why are we even still talking about this?

But then I learned that point of view is a luxury of people who enjoy privilege. Because people who are marginalized don’t ever get that luxury.

I studied for a while at a diverse little seminary in Denver. In my class, there was a variety of faiths represented – one Lutheran, one Presbyterian, a couple Unitarians, a Buddhist, a Baptist, and a United Methodist – we also had a variety of races.  The summer seminar was on racism and I was deep in my thinking that this was all kind of “ho-hum” – that racism wasn’t really a thing anymore.

But the professor did an exercise with our class that I will never forget.  She asked us to each tell what our first impression of other members of the class would be if we only saw each other on the street or had just briefly met each other.  I thought it was so ridiculous and probably a waste of time. I glanced at my watch as the first person who tried this practice, Veronica, a black woman, offered to give her first impression of me.  She said she assumed I was wealthy and had always been wealthy, that I probably lived in a nice suburban house, that I liked to shop, that the church I served was probably all white and in a nice part of town.  I forget everything she said but I remember feeling a little like I had been punched.  Even though I knew this was just an exercise for a class, I was angry that she judged me just based on the color of my skin and what she thought she knew of me – guessed that I was rich and I had never wanted for anything.  How dare she think my journey had been one of ease and security when the truth was that my childhood had known its’ share of food stamps and government cheese and wearing the same pair of jeans and shoes every day because that is all I had for school.  How dare she think that she really knew me…

And then I got it. I realized the exercise our professor was trying to do with us had worked perfectly – because for the first time I understood the smallest speck of what it felt like to experience racism.  That thinking that something can be known about another person just by the color of their skin.

That exercise informed me of my privilege. Most of us probably don’t feel like we are super privileged, and yet most of us have more privilege than we realize. I am a good example – as a middle-aged white woman, I could probably go walking anywhere, linger in any aisle of a store, sit on a park bench for any length of time, and go relatively unnoticed. Few people would stop to question if I am up to something. This would not necessarily be true if I were a black teenager. It’s unfair but it is true – and this kind of thing is called privilege – an advantage someone carries around not because they earned it but because they were born into it. And with privilege comes responsibility, with being followers of Jesus comes responsibility, to stand up for those who do not share in that privilege. Jesus always, always, always was on the side of those who were marginalized – and so we must be as well.

White supremacist gatherings are a cancer, an infection – they need to be called out and cut out, recognized and eradicated as quickly as possible or they can slowly poison the rest of the body. While we might feel far away from racism and all of that in our own thinking and in our own family, or church, or community – we must be on guard and be vocal for the sake of others who still experience it every day. We Lutherans, have a history of wanting to be so nice and not wanting to make waves – but we have to be brave to say, “that is not okay” when we hear the racist joke or remark – because otherwise we contribute to the cancer of racism. It’s like Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end we will not remember the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.” Dear God, help us to not be silent when faced with racism.

One of the most chilling things about this news story for me was seeing several of the white nationalist young men wearing crosses around their necks – as they held their torches, as they shouted their hate – they wore crosses. And I thought, “Shame on us.”  Shame on us – if we don’t teach our children better than that. To be a Christian is the opposite of hate like that. To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to promote love and peace and all God’s children. Dear God, help us to raise up our children in the church better than that.

And while we need to be vocal to shut down voices of hate, we need to learn to be quiet and listen when those who are oppressed are trying to speak. Everyone needs to be heard.  We all need to know our stories matter – to one another and to God. There’s a great example of this in our gospel. A Canaanite woman approaches Jesus.  She needs help for her daughter, yet she just doesn’t count as a real person. Nor does her daughter. Jesus’ disciples want Jesus to send her away, and Jesus seems to agree. Jesus refuses to meet her, dismissing her because she is not an Israelite, he says: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”.  She kneels before Jesus, and he calls her a dog. Jesus and his disciples deny this woman’s humanity. It’s a difficult story. It doesn’t paint our Jesus in a pretty light.

The Canaanite woman struggles to be heard. She cries out. That doesn’t work. She kneels, begs. Jesus rejects her. Finally, she says something so clever that Jesus grants her request – she is the only person who wins an argument with Jesus.

But it took Jesus a while to get there – perhaps his humanness was coming out a little more than usual that day.  And it may take us a while, too.

But make no mistake – racism is still a thing.

In the twisted, tangled roots of our nation, there is a history of strife between races. Horrible injustices have happened – most at the hands of white people – but there has also been healing – a healing that is slow and was fought for by so many. We’ve seen great strides happen. But now we get to guard the healing that has begun so that it continues. We have a holy and urgent task – to make certain our children and grandchildren grow up knowing that every person – regardless of race or religion or social status or ethnicity or gender has unsurpassed worth in the eyes of God. We say it out loud again and again so that there is no mistaking whose we are – followers of Jesus Christ, a brown-skinned, middle-eastern Jew, who taught us unequivocally that God’s love is for all – and that white supremacy is sin.

In Jesus’ name we pray – Amen.

Rest and Grace (sermon – July 9, 2017)

Last Tuesday, the Fourth of July, was a blissfully inactive day at our house. It was one of those rare, precious days when we were all at home the whole day. We made no plans for any of it and just did what we wanted – which, for me, included about three movies, a walk, eating, and a nap. I tried to read part of a book but the nap quickly overtook the reading. For a little while the boys and I sat out on the deck just talking about nothing. For a moment, I was transported to summer days when I was a kid – most of which seemed to be filled with nothing and a lot of sitting outside with my parents and brother to try to catch a cool breeze when the house was hot and stuffy. Sometimes I remember getting very bored, aching for something to do, but my parents believed too many extracurricular activities were unnecessary and learning to enjoy quieter pursuits like reading and going for walks in the woods built character. Looking back now from the vantage point of my often overscheduled days, I know I was lucky to have those long, quiet days, plenty of time to think, to create, or just to sit and talk about nothing with my parents.

It seems like usually at least once every summer there is a text that comes up in our Sunday morning readings that includes something about the importance of rest. It often seems to come at just the right time, too – about this time of the summer when all I hear people saying is that summer is going too fast and they just want it to slow down!  But there is so much fun stuff to do and only so many gorgeous days to be outside! We schedule ourselves from dawn to dusk – mostly loving every bit of it – but with hardly any time to breathe, to be, to rest.

Sometimes we need a reminder like the one Jesus gives us. I’ll read a couple verses of our gospel for today from Matthew – but this time from another version of scripture, The Message – as I love this paraphrase…  Jesus says, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Are you tired? The National Center for Sleep Disorders estimates that 30 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation. Often, our sleep deficit is related to too much caffeine, nicotine, alcohol. Many times it’s related to work – stress from work, putting in long hours at work, working night shifts, working on the home computer until the second we go to sleep.

Sleep deficits have been linked with poor work performance, driving accidents, relationship problems, and mood problems like anger and depression. The growing list of health risks has been documented in recent studies, too. Heart disease, diabetes, and obesity have all been linked with chronic sleep loss.

But we know that we can be and feel tired more than physically – we can grow tired emotionally and spiritually, too. No matter how we are attacked by weariness, each of us have experienced it in our own ways – whether it is the exhaustion that parents of a newborn can feel; or the bone-tired hours, days, weeks spent at the bedside of a loved one who is sick or dying; it could be the flagging energy and depression that comes from being overworked or just doing work that doesn’t suit you, or the draining, heart-rending work of trying to save a dying relationship – every person has faced days and nights when we understand to our very core what it means to be weary and heavy-laden.

To us, to all, Jesus says, “I’m here.”  “You don’t have to struggle so hard to carry it all by yourself because I am already here – let me help you carry those things weighing you down.” “Rest.”

David Whyte writes, “To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there to put it right.”

Are you guilty of thinking that everything rests on your shoulders? Do you ever fall into the trap of self-important thinking where you can’t stop racing around and fixing things, because if you stop, everything will surely fall apart?

And In the church we are so good at talking about all the things we need to do – to pray, to serve, to study scripture, to meet for worship, to live out our discipleship – but our gospel for today blows in like a cool summer breeze and reminds us that resting is holy and necessary, too. When we do not rest, we suffer – not just physically, but spiritually and emotionally.  To rest is not self indulgent.  Rather, to rest is to prepare to give the best of ourselves, and perhaps, most importantly, to pause to appreciate everything we have already been given.

What is something you could do this week to slow down and rest? Could you find a way to leave some open spaces in your schedule for blissful nothingness, some open spaces to be surprised by the beauty of a sunset, a conversation about nothing with a friend or a stranger?

Or if you are at a stage in life where rest isn’t as hard to come by, is there some gift of your time or energy you can offer to someone who is stressed out, overworked, bone-tired? When my friends Terry and Amy had their first born child nearly twenty years ago, one of our mutual friends, Cathy, offered as a gift to them to babysit once a month so that Terry and Amy could have a date night. And while of course that gift of time alone together was a gift to Terry and Amy, Cathy talks about how offering to do that blessed her so much as well with a decades-long relationship with this baby girl and eventually that baby’s siblings as they grew up. An older couple in Colorado Springs offered to do something similar for Chad and I when we had a toddler and a newborn. The words had barely come out of her mouth, “We’d love to watch your children sometime if you and Chad would like a date night,” when I practically shouted “yes, yes, a thousand times, yes!” and I was digging out my planner to figure out a time that worked.

Sometimes we are able to give each other the gift of rest or help each other carry a burden. Sometimes we are the ones needing a break.

But truthfully, resting in Jesus is more than taking a nap – it is leaning into Jesus’ love. Ultimately, this scripture is about much more than just self-care. It’s about discipleship, really. It’s about grace. Jesus tells us, “I am with you as you live as my disciples.” Self-care matters, of course, but we have to be careful not to confuse the good news with good advice.  Good advice is nice, but it doesn’t save. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it this way to his students: “God’s intention is to bear or sustain us, not to teach or improve us.”

So hear this, church: Jesus is beside you, loving you and forgiving you – helping you weather it all – the good days, the awful days – the sunny and rainy days and every other day. And we as a church community are here to support one another as well…to do our best at loving each other and the world as Jesus taught us.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I love that picture from 1946 we have hanging in our hallway out there – the picture of the whole congregation then. The picture we are going to try to recreate after worship today. They are sitting and standing side by side – the people of Saint Peters in that time. So many different people. So many different gifts. Perfectly flawed and perfectly beautiful. God brought them together – to love and serve God as best they could.  God called them. And today God calls us.

In Jesus’ name we work and rest – today and every day. Amen.

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The congregation of Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church – 1946
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The congregation of Saint Peters Lutheran Church (with a few missing…) – July, 2017

An Everyday Prayer

Dear God,
I yelled at the dog
I had a cookie for breakfast
I was impatient with the children
I sighed over another cold, snowy day
I worried, and worried, and worried some more.
Countless times I lose my way as your follower each day.
Countless ways I wander in the darkness
So much for being a light in the world for you.
So much for showing others the way to you when so often I am distracted,
Disturbed,
Day-dreaming,
Dead-tired.
But still, you are here. For me, for all of us.
But still, I hear your breath in the evening breeze.
But still, your wonder is painted in the sunrise.
But still, you are everywhere – in the warm handshake on the way into church,
In the sweet smiles of children listening to stories about you.
In their squirminess, too.
You are here – in this holy place – so old, and yet being made new each year.
You are here – loving us at our best, holding us at our worst.
So thank you, God. Thank you for this day – snow and cold and all.
Thank you for blessing us with relationships, people to love. Help us to be better at that.
Thank you for all there is to do and be each day – but help us to not take it all so seriously that we miss the joy of the journey.
Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, God. In Jesus’ name we pray.
Amen.

A Happy New Year (sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas)

When my youngest son, Jesse, was a baby – only about three months old, my mom got very sick and was sent to the hospital in Saint Cloud. My dad’s health was so poor he couldn’t be there with her and with St. Cloud being a couple hours from our hometown she didn’t have any friends or her pastor nearby – and I couldn’t stand the thought of her being in the hospital with no one around her, so I took some vacation time to come up to Minnesota to be with her. I brought Jesse with me and Owen stayed back with my Chad in Colorado and each day Jesse and I would spend as much time with mom in the hospital as we could.

As I would sit by mom’s bedside holding Jesse I would think about the stark contrasts of my life just then. There I was holding this brand new little person, who was round-cheeked and full of health and smiles and new beginnings. And next to me was my mom, grayish and weary with tubes coming out of her arms, full of sickness and seeming very much to be at the end of her days. It struck me – how beautiful and broken life could be all at the same time. So much joy and so much sorrow intermingling and making up those days.

We are still in the Christmas season – just last Sunday we were gathering around the manger and welcoming a new baby – Jesus, the Christ, our Savior was born. Our Gospel was all about Light and Love coming into the world – pure joy and beauty.

And here we just a week later and we have probably the worst Gospel text we ever get in our three-year rotation of Sunday morning scriptures. King Herod, full of fear and jealousy, wanting to protect his throne from this infant king has put out a hit on all the children two years old and under in and around Bethlehem. Pure brokenness and horror.

Turns out the Christmas season can hold its’ share of joy and sorrow as well.

King Herod ruled in Judea for 37 years. He built many fortresses, aqueducts, theatres, and other public buildings and generally raised the prosperity of his land, however, there was a dark and cruel streak in Herod’s character that showed itself increasingly as he grew older. He was prone to intense jealousy and it is recorded that his mind was so poisoned against one of his wives, Mariamne, that he murdered her, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother.

We know the story about how he sent the wise men to go and search for baby Jesus and when they found him they were to send word back to King Herod. He told them he wanted to pay homage to this baby king as well. But then after the wise men found the baby Jesus and brought him the famed gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. Herod’s darkness overcomes him when he finds out that the wise men haven’t done as he told them to do. Rage fills him and that is when he calls for the murder of these children.

It’s worthwhile to note that this story in our New Testament, only told by Saint Matthew, is never told anywhere else in any historical records. This has caused some historians to question if it ever really happened or not. Others say that it probably did happen – especially knowing Herod’s temperament – but the amount of children of that age in and around Bethlehem was such a small number, perhaps less than twenty, that it just was not recorded by other historians.

But regardless of the stories historicity, there is something deeply fitting about Matthew telling this story in his gospel even as we are still basking in the glow of the Christmas season. No matter how much we have tried to sanitize and tame the story of the birth of Jesus, turn it into a sweet story about a baby in a manger, the truth is that he was born into a world of sin. A place that then, as now, holds its’ share of both startling beauty and unspeakable darkness. He was born to be Light in that darkness. To be hope when all other hope seems lost.

Is he light in your darkness? Does God’s word bring you comfort and peace in times of distress? Do you find strength for your days and wisdom for your journey as you kneel at the foot of the cross? Do you long for more light, more comfort, peace, and strength?

If you are hoping to feed your Spirit in this new year, to feel more plugged in to the Source of Life – there are ways to do this. The first way toward that comes through prayer. It comes through daily making a practice of talking to and listening for God. It comes through meditation, stillness. You know how when someone is trying to speak to you but if you aren’t paying attention or only half-listening, you miss it? That’s how it is when we don’t make time for prayer and devotion in our days. God is always speaking to us, but much of the time we aren’t paying attention – we are so busy running from one thing to the next, filling our minds with noise, making lists, checking our phones, that we leave hardly any room for the Spirit to move. Just a couple days ago, I went to the eye doctor and I had brought a book with me for while I were waiting – but over the course of the appointment as I was ushered from one room to the next, of course they dilated my eyes and then I had to wait for a bit in a waiting room with my eyes dilated. I couldn’t read my book. I couldn’t check my phone. I had to just sit there quietly. It is moments like that when I realize how seldom I am just still without doing something or reading or watching something – I’m always filling in those spaces.

It struck me as I read our Gospel that it was twice in dreams that God gave a message to Joseph – first to tell him to take his family and flee, to become refugees, immigrants in a strange land, because they were in danger and then the second time to once again take his family and go to Israel.  It had also been in a dream when Joseph was informed that Jesus would be born. Dreams – and visions – (which are simply dreams while awake) were written about all the time in the Bible. God used visions and dreams to communicate with people – in fact, when there was a lack of dreams or visions among the people, it meant that something was wrong, that people weren’t paying attention to God.

Just doing a quick search I could find at least 39 times in the Bible when God spoke to people through dreams and visions. God didn’t just speak to people of old – God is still speaking to us and through us. The only question is, are we listening?

And the best way to listen is to well, listen. Monks set aside hours for lectio divina – or spiritual reading. However, even we non-monks need to make time for transcendent matters – such as beauty, creativity, service, faith – but too often these get pushed aside for more urgent demands, and life begins to feel empty and purposeless. So my first challenge for you in this new calendar year is to make time to listen, be still, and pray.

And the second excellent way to feed your spirit and feel connected to what is important is this:  find a way to serve. Partly because there are countless places and people that need help, but mostly because you need it. We all need to daily remember God put us here not just to get through our days and collect as many things as possible while we do it, but to make those days matter. As Jesus came to be Light in our darkness, every day we can be light in the darkness for others. What a magnificent and beautiful and holy thing – and we get to be a part of that.

So a new year begins. How lovely we get to begin it here in worship, our hearts centered on the One who made us and loves us most of all – and as we do, my challenge for all of us this year is that we come to this place every day – not to this church building – but to this place of worship – through moments of devotion and prayer, through daily looking for ways to serve God and others.

And when we do, it truly will be a happy new year.  

Let’s pray –

Oh God,

Thank you for this new year – a fresh slate upon which to draw

May we draw love – bringing mercy and grace and goodwill into every room we enter.

May we draw justice – standing up for others, never allowing hate or prejudice to thrive.

May we draw stillness – quiet moments with You, giving us strength and wisdom for our days.

May we draw compassion – reaching out with the time and energy we have to do good in our church, community, and world.

May we draw creativity – imagining new ways to share your love

May we draw strength and guidance only from You, our maker and redeemer, our light, our life our hope. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

The Day After Christmas

A blizzard sweeps across the fields

I won’t go to the church today.

My 200-foot commute is unnecessary

As no one will be coming by my office.

If I am needed, they will call me.

Today, I stay at home and pray –

exercise, watch a movie, read, and write.

It’s a mandatory day of peace and quiet –

And I rejoice in this snow paralysis.

It’s the day after Christmas

And a nap is whispering my name.

Soon enough the wind will die down

The drifting will cease

And I’ll make my way back toward the stained glass structure of my life…

But not today

this day after Christmas.

A Pastor’s Christmas Eve Prayer

I’m listening.

Still my spirit.

Still the voices in my head.

Let me hear You.

Directing my deeds.

Directing my words.

Directing my days.

This Christmas Eve.

Every day.

Every year.

The chatter is loud inside my head –

Presents to wrap!

Sermon to practice!

Chores to do!

Christmas chatter.

So I pray for ease –

To give gentleness and joy and a spirit of peace to all who come to worship today.

Let the anxiety be.

No need for it.

People bring enough of their own anxieties – there is plenty to go around without my contribution.

God is near.

God is here.

Emmanuel.

Christ, our King

Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the Church year. Next Sunday we begin a new church season and a new church year with the beginning of Advent. This is a day we acknowledge and remember that Jesus is the Lord of our lives and ruler over our decisions. He is our first and our last, our beginning and our end, our all in all. And so we crown him with many crowns, our king of kings, our Lord of lords.

Christ the King Sunday often gets lost in the shuffle as it happens right around Thanksgiving and right before Advent. Yet, this is one of the most important days of the church year. Do you know how this festival of the church began?  Christ the King Sunday is not an ancient festival like Easter or Christmas. In fact, it is less than a century old. It was established by the Pope in 1925. Europe was in chaos. The seeds of evil that were to produce the terror of the Holocaust and World War II were being planted. Against all this chaos and evil, the Pope established the Festival of Christ the King to declare that Jesus Christ is king. The day began as a reminder that Christ is our ruler and the one whose voice we listen to first and above all others. And we need that reminder still.

So if Christ is our King, if Jesus is our Lord, then what does that mean?

Well, if Christ is our King, then violence and anger are not. Christians treasure peace. Jesus, after all, is known as the Prince of peace. If Christ is our king, then we look for ways to live in harmony, to speak peace-fully, to lift each other up, let go of grudges, and make room for each other. I like how Martin Luther talks about this in his explanation of the eighth commandment. He wrote, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.”

If Christ is our King, then nation, president, or even family is not. Christ commands us to speak respectfully of leaders and to be true and honest and faithful to our families, but Christ is the one to whom we turn for wisdom and direction. If leaders or family members try to direct us in ways that are opposite of what Jesus teaches, then we do the hard work of respectfully disagreeing and working for change and justice.

If Christ is our King, then our stuff is not. Our Christian faith is intimately connected with how we spend money, whether we like to think it is or not. We can’t separate the two. How we spend, how we give, how we worry about money – all of it says something about what we think of Jesus’ words to us about generosity and simplicity. I don’t say this to conjure feelings of guilt, but to remind all of us, to keep wrestling with this. Keep asking ourselves each day if our spending and our collecting and our giving is in line with our faith in Jesus Christ. I wrestle with this all the time – do I need that new book or can I exercise some patience and get it from the library? Do I need this new style of black pants, even though I already have six other pairs of assorted other styles in my closet? Does my giving back to God of my time and resources reflect the myriad of ways my family has been blessed in the last year with health and a warm home and everything we could possibly need? Jesus is Lord, my stuff is not. Are we living like this is true? Keep asking that question.

If Christ is King, then I am certainly not. This Christian life is one of surrender. To submit our lives to Jesus is not easy – especially when the holy spirit seems to move us in so many different ways. If this were not true, we wouldn’t have so many denominations, so many people so fired up about what God really says about this or that. Some of my dearest friends who are also Christian see certain issues very, very differently than I do. Within our own congregation we surely do as well. And most of us have some friends or family who are not Christian, they may hold to a different belief or may claim to have no belief at all. With everyone, we look for ways to build bridges of understanding and harmony whenever possible. Ask questions, share our faith and listen to others as well. We don’t judge because that was never a job God entrusted to us. In James chapter 4 it reads, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?” So we let God do the work of judging and we do the work of caring for God’s people – all of God’s people.

And if Christ is King, and I am not – then it means I am no more deserving of comfort and warmth and love and peace and a home or any of the things I treasure – I am no more deserving of those things than anyone else. It was Jesus Christ, our king, who taught us about humility, about letting others have first place, how to heal with gentle hands and words, to be ridiculously generous with grace and mercy and kindness.

 That means that as a follower of Christ, until everyone does have enough, and until everyone is treated justly, there is much work to do. Every day we do bits of that here – every time we collect funds or food for others, every time we visit folks in the nursing home or those who are homebound, every time we work on projects to make our community better, every time we share Jesus’ love and acceptance through a kind word or a helpful gesture – especially to those who live on the margins, those whom society is not treating justly, we are showing Christ is our king. 

Now all of this is great and we know it’s true – this is what we have been taught our whole lives as Christians. But we might be thinking, what do we do when we live in a world that seems to teach the exact opposite of all of this all the time. Most of what we see – from media to leaders to people around us living quite differently – treats violence and anger and material possessions and self as gods, not Jesus.

I’ll tell you one thing. It’s a super simple thing – but it’s the thing that helps me when I feel overwhelmed by the hate speech I see on television or frustrated by my own materialism or worried about the future for our children. It’s a two-part prayer, really – First, each day I pray God helps me really see others. To get my focus off of me and onto the people around me, that God will help me this day to see a need, a hurt, an emptiness somewhere around me that I might be able to do something about. Then, the second part of the prayer is that God gives me the wisdom for something I can do to help. It might mean praying for that person or need, it might mean sending an encouraging note or phone call, it might mean stopping to see someone or volunteering my time. All I know is that the more often I practice this, praying God gives me the vision to see others and the needs around me and then the wisdom for some small thing I can do to help, the easier it gets to focus on being the kind of change I want to see in the world rather than just festering over all that is wrong.

Christ is our King. His grace sets us free to be God’s people in this world. I’ll pray for you and you pray for me as we work to live in Jesus’ way each day.

Like a Mustard Seed…

At the church I served in Texas, we lived about seven miles out in the country. Out my kitchen window I could see the parish hall of the church about fifty paces to the east. A rock fence, painstakingly put in place by the first Norwegian settlers surrounded the perimeter of the church and cemetery. Over the years, parishioners and former pastors had planted all sorts of beautiful trees and flowering shrubs on the church property. There were two pear trees to the north of our house, two beautiful mimosa trees in the front yard – the boys loved to climb those – grape vines, climbing roses, and honeysuckle wound their way around our front gate, and directly outside our back door, there were two mulberry trees. Once I found out what they were, I wondered if some former pastor had planted them with a chuckle, like if he wondered if someday some pastor who followed him would look out their kitchen window now and then and see those trees and remember the verse from Luke in our gospel today and say out loud to the tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea…” just to see if anything might come of it that day. I admit I did it a few times.

In today’s gospel, the disciples ask for more faith. We, like the disciples, like the idea of more faith. Often we feel like that would be a good answer to times of trouble or doubt – if we just had more faith we would be better off or at least feel better, right?

What is faith? In Marcus Borg’s book, The Heart of Christianity, he talks about four different meanings of the word “Faith.”  He refers to them by their Latin names and they are the primary meanings of the word faith throughout Christianity. 

The first meaning of faith is referred to by the Latin word, “assensus”.  Its closest meaning is assent – and this is faith being synonymous with “belief.”  This is the predominant meaning of faith in modern culture. 

There are two main reasons it is the prominent meaning in modern Western Christianity.  The first is the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation produced many new denominations – each defined itself by their distinctive doctrines or confessions.  Lutherans believed certain things, Catholics believed certain things, etc.  Of course, some things overlapped – but it was during this time that Christian faith became about believing right things – having the “right” beliefs instead of “wrong” beliefs.

The second development happened in the Enlightenment when truth was identified with what was factual.  And over time, for many, Christian faith began to mean believing questionable things to be true.  Faith is what you turn to when knowledge has run out. 

While thinking of faith as belief is certainly valid in many ways, the difficulty is then we think if we have doubts, we don’t have much faith. 

A Carmelite nun who was the mother superior of a cloistered convent was interviewed. The interviewer asked her what was the hardest thing about her job. 

“I thought she was going to say the hours were terrible or the food was bad,” he said.  “Instead she said the hardest part of her job is the doubt.” She says she has great doubt – she struggles with it every day.

As Marcus Borg says, “When you think about it, faith simply as belief is relatively powerless.  You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage.  You can believe all the right things and still be miserable.  (Understanding faith to be simply) Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”

The second form of faith is expressed in the Latin word, “Fiducia.”  Fiducia is a radical trust in God.  Not trusting a set of statements about God – but trusting in God.

Soren Kierkegaard describes it like this – “Faith as trust is like floating in a deep ocean.  If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink.  But if you will relax and trust, you will float.

This is the kind of faith we display whenever we take a leap of faith – to go where God calls even when it seems to make no sense, to live the way Jesus teaches us even when it is contrary to everything the world will tell us.  It is doing the scary, uncomfortable, upsetting, often disturbing thing – but knowing God is big enough to catch us if we fall.

The third face of faith is known by the term “Fidelitas.” Fidelitas is fidelity, loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at the deepest level, the commitment of the heart.  It isn’t faithfulness to statements about God – it is faithfulness to God. 

Fidelitas is like this – we may not always feel God’s presence, yet we continue to come to worship.  We may not understand the mystery of the sacraments, yet we share in them because Jesus asked us to do so.  We may have questions galore about faith – yet we continue to turn to Jesus with our asking and seeking and knocking.  Faith as fidelitas isn’t swerved by the winds of emotion.  It is steady. 

Fourth, there is Faith as Visio.  Faith as a way of seeing.  We share God’s worldview and compassion for others. Our faith is expressed in sharing Jesus all-encompassing love.

So faith has many shapes and forms: belief, trust, commitment, vision. In the Gospel today, Jesus shows that it’s not the size of our faith that matters, because God is able to do a lot with even the tiniest bit of faith. Even though our faith is small, the One in whom we have faith is magnificent and all-powerful.

In verses 7-10, after Jesus talks about the mustard seed, he mentions that when a slave comes in from the field, the slave then serves the master before the slave himself eats. What is this all about? Well, servants aren’t invited to the table with the landowner; they eat when their work is done. They don’t expect thanks for doing their job; they just do it. That’s what faith is like, Jesus seems to say –the willingness to do what needs to be done. The people Jesus called faithful were not illustrious or noteworthy – a centurion concerned for a sick servant, a woman who was grateful for being forgiven, a leper who turns around just to say “thank you”, the blind beggar who asked Jesus for sight – these were the people Jesus called, “faithful.”

Faith is found not in the mighty acts of heaven but in the ordinary and everyday acts of doing what needs to be done, responding to the needs around us, and caring for the people who come our way.

Do you realize, people of God, all the ways you show faith? In small and great ways each day, you display it. When you show up for worship. When you bring a can of food for the food shelf, when you arrive at your job each morning and do your work honestly and to the best of your ability, when you take care of the family God has entrusted to you, when you honor your parents by listening to them and doing your chores, when you pray for your neighbor who is going through a hard time, when you send the condolence card, when you show up to vote even when you feel the field of candidates is discouraging.

We may tend to dismiss all the small acts of faith and wonder what good they really do. But imagine if none of these small acts of faithfulness that each us did this last week had never happened. Life and faith – it’s made up of all the small things, ordinary things. God blesses the ordinary, small things. Even as small as a mustard seed.

Lenten Discipline

During the church season of Lent, it isn’t uncommon to hear church-y folks talk about a “Lenten discipline”.  Well, at least I know some pastors talk about it and in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday, the congregation will often pledge to commit to the discipline of Lent: repentance, prayer, fasting, and works of love as a sort of spiritual training period.

I love Lent and that during this 40 day period we are to take on special practices to help bring our thoughts back to God more frequently. I’ve preached about this in different ways over the years and it often reflects what I’ve been reading or thinking about. One year I encouraged my folks to add something to their routine instead of fasting – for example, add some devotion time or add more Bible study time to their week. Too many years I have engaged in fasting from different foods but it always seemed to turn into just another diet plan, disguised as being spiritually motivated, but ending  as most regular diets do – feeling mad at myself when I eventually got too hungry to continue. To tell you the truth, for the most part, over my years, I have not done very well at mastering any sort of Lenten discipline except to show up and preach and lead worship an extra time each week at the Wednesday night services – which I guess is something, but it’s also a part of my job, and I’ve always wished for more.

I have grand visions of a day, when my kids are grown, when I’ll take the forty days of Lent to engage in a retreat of pure silence or spend the forty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter morning on a long hike on El Camino de Santiago.

For now, however, I’ll stick to small things. I won’t write about what I have chosen to do this year because I just preached about how in Matthew 6, we are told that it is better to be quiet about our giving and our fasting and our works of love. It’s best to keep our Lenten discipline between us and God, let this season quietly and subtly transform us.

Whether or not we participate in a Lenten discipline, God loves us. However, we need reminders sometimes of how much we have and that we can’t be a slave to the many comforts that most of us have. This is the great value in fasting from a particular food or from any enjoyable activity: each time we reach for that sweet or that remote and remind ourselves that isn’t a part of our lives for the next forty days, the spoiled brat inside says, “why not?” Then, each time we get to answer, “because I was made for more than my belly and my own comforts. I was made to be a child of God. Now, what does that mean?”  What a great thing to be thinking about over and over again. Fixing our minds on these kinds of thoughts help us arrive at Easter morning a little more aware of who we have been, who we are, and how we want to be.

If you haven’t yet decided on a Lenten discipline, it isn’t too late. Here are some ideas:

  1. Prayer: set aside some special time each day for prayer. You could send a note each day to a different person and let them know you are praying for them. Don’t forget to pray for your pastor and the Sunday School teachers and church office staff!
  2. Repentence: Each Sunday in the Lutheran church services we say the confession together. Don’t forget to include confession to God in your own personal prayers. Remember that repentance means to turn away from our sins. Spend time contemplating how you can turn away from temptations and pray for God’s strength to live in Christ’s light.
  3. Works of love: Anything we do for others in Christ’s name is a work of love. Is there someone in your community who could use a little extra help? Does someone need a note of encouragement? Could you bring in lunch for the office or buy coffee for the person behind you in line? Committing to doing one work of love each day in Lent could change your life in beautiful ways.
  4. Fasting: fasting is quite simply, to deny ourselves something for a time and then each time we think of that thing, to turn our thoughts to God.  Many people in the Bible, including Jesus, fasted. This self-denial helps us to grow spiritually.  I like how Jen Hatmaker put it, “A fast is not necessarily something we offer God, but it assists us in offering ourselves.”