Betty’s Diner

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Betty’s Diner

By Carrie Newcomer

During seminary, I was a bartender for a few months in a tiny northern town bar. My mother needed some major surgery and so I decided to take a few months off from classes to live back at home and help out – although I’m not sure how much help I was. My dad and I couldn’t get along and so I spent much of that autumn smoking and reading in my makeshift office I had set up in the garage, and working at my jobs.

First, I worked as a telemarketer, which was horrible and easily the worst job I ever had. If you would like to steal someone’s spirit and their will to live quickly and efficiently, make them be a telemarketer. I was only there a few weeks when I just stopped going back.

Then, I tried to be a cook at a nursing home. I like cooking but since I am not a picky eater, I am not a picky cook.  Who cares if the toast is a little dark, the eggs a little crisp around the edges, the soup not piping hot – food is food, right? Well, turns out others care much more than I do about these little details. I quit before I could be fired.

Finally, I got the job as a bartender – I liked making and pouring the drinks. I liked talking to the regulars who came in, giving free drinks to friends and relatives who showed up – heck, if it was up to me, I would have given everyone free drinks. I liked the sense of community, the music, and how when the night was done, you cleaned up and went home and it was over. It was carefree for me, I didn’t have to figure out the books or wonder which rotten bartender was giving away all the free drinks and costing the bar big money. Luckily for the bar, I was only there a couple months before I went back to school.

While I may not have been a grade A bartender, that experience was a great one for me.  I still often say that people were much more honest with me about their lives when I was their bartender than they are with me as their pastor. People would come in after a hard day needing a place to sit and decompress or just be with friends and they knew they could do that at the bar. The bar was always open, warm, and waiting. If it wasn’t too busy, you could depend on the bartender to listen or just shoot the breeze.

It seems to me from what I know of Jesus, he would have probably much rather been a bartender than a modern-day pastor. He probably wouldn’t have cared a bit about church budgets or if the confirmation kids could recite the parts of the Small Catechism and their meanings. But I bet he would have liked being in a place where people felt welcomed at any hour, to listen to their stories and share some of his, to serve a hot meal and fill some stomachs, to warm some hearts in the process.

There’s a bar a quarter mile from our church – the last time it was up for sale I thought about how perfect it would be if our church could buy it and run it. A place to hang out, eat, listen to music and listen to each other without all the baggage that the church seems to bring with it for so many people.

The church’s baggage has never bothered me and I’ve always felt at home in a church. I grew up there and felt welcome. I see the steeple with a cross on top and it represents love and grace to me, a place I can completely be myself.

However, I know this isn’t the case for so many and when we invite people to church, we are inviting them into our experience of what church is even though they may see the church very differently.

So, I’m thinking about the middle ground between a bar and a church. How to create a space like that? We do Beer and Hymns. We have done Pub Theology. What’s possible now? How can we blend the best of what church and a bar/restaurant are? Here – in rural Minnesota. A place where people stop in after deer hunting or while out snowmobiling – come as they are and know they are welcome. Real community, real welcome – plus spiritual and physical nourishment.  Now, that is a place I would like to see…to serve…to hang out.

Betty’s Diner

Miranda works the late night counter
In a joint called Betty’s Diner
Chrome and checkered tablecloths
One steamy windowpane

She got the job that shaky fall
And after hours she’ll write till dawn
With a nod and smile she serves them all

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

Arthur lets his earl gray steep
Since April it’s been hard to sleep
You know they tried most everything
Yet it took her in the end

Kevin tests new saxophones
But swears he’s leaving quality control
For the Chicago scene, or New Orleans
Where they still play righteous horns

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

Jack studies here after work
To get past high school he’s the first
And his large hands seem just as comfortable
With a hammer or a pen

Emma leaned and kissed his cheek
And when she did his knees got weak
Miranda smiles at ’em and winks

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

You never know who’ll be your witness
You never know who grants forgiveness
Look to heaven or sit with us

Deidra bites her lip and frowns
She works the stop and go downtown
She’s pretty good at the crossword page
And she paints her eyes blue black

Tristan comes along sometimes
Small for his age and he’s barely five
But she loves him like a mama lion

Veda used to drink a lot
Almost lost it all before she stopped
Comes in at night with her friend Mike
Who runs the crisis line

Michael toured Saigon and back
Hair the color of smoke and ash
Their heads are bowed and hands are clasped
One more storm has passed

Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold

Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind

 

Adventure of a Lifetime

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Adventure of a Lifetime – Coldplay

This is my favorite song to run to lately – and especially a remix of the song I found on Spotify – the “Matoma” remix. I wasn’t a fan of Coldplay until this song – although I had a mild affection for “Viva la Vida.” “Adventure of a Lifetime” made me pay attention to them for the first time. I was so excited when they were going to be on the Superbowl halftime show that I made special snacks just for halftime – because of course, I never watch the actual game. I’ll post a video of the performance from the halftime show because it’s much better than the actual video for this song.

“We are diamonds taking shape,” Chris sings, and this is most certainly true. Whether we are brand new in an endeavor or if we have been working on a task, a career, a goal for years, we are in the process of being refined. When a person is just starting out, the world seems to take joy in helping refine you, smooth out your rough edges with their words of advice and/or criticism. As time goes by, we need to learn how to do more of that for ourselves – seek out change and challenges – because people begin to assume we know what we are doing and we do, too. We can positively lull ourselves to sleep in our own lives if we stay with the same way of doing and being for too long.

“Don’t live the same year 75 times and call it a life.”
― Robin S. Sharma

“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”

― Mary Oliver

 

Earlier today I went to a large meeting with a bunch of other pastors. Sometimes I hate those meetings. I have usually thought I feel that way because I am an introvert – but truthfully, it is fun seeing many of the people. I think what I don’t like is how I immediately start comparing myself with the other people there. My mind wanders from the speaker to wondering if I look more interesting than this person or as smart as that person. I look in awe at many of the young pastors who seem so self-assured, so deftly competent in ways I surely wasn’t early on (or still am not). I look with fear at some of the older pastors who look so tired and weary to the bone. I know I am somewhere in the middle. Definitely not new at this, but not nearly done. Still a diamond taking shape. Not as rough as I once was, but all my sparkle is not yet revealed either.

I left the meeting feeling unsettled. I didn’t like the way that being around all those other people made me think differently about life and work. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get my focus back to the place it was before, but something had shifted. New ideas had emerged. New insights were bubbling. Being around other people does that – and of course, that is the point. That is the reason they stir us pastors out of our own churches and into groups together sometimes – so we can learn and grow together in new ways that we don’t when we are off by ourselves and our own congregations. This learning and growth is not always fun. I’m much more a fan of my own thoughts and ways than of those of other people…but indulging myself in too much of that is a quick way to stagnation.

My father did that. He hated being around other people so much that he shut himself away in a house for forty years. Nothing uncomfortable could touch him there, but of course, nothing good could touch him either. His happiness and peace shrank to the smallest bits while his anger and animosity grew. He was so immensely stuck that his stagnation became the very thing that defined him. It was the saddest thing I ever saw.

 

“Adventure Of A Lifetime”
Turn your magic on
Umi she’d say
Everything you want’s a dream away
And we are legends every day
That’s what she told me

Turn your magic on,
To me she’d say
Everything you want’s a dream away
Under this pressure, under this weight
We are diamonds

Now I feel my heart beating
I feel my heart underneath my skin
And I feel my heart beating
Oh, you make me feel
Like I’m alive again
Alive again
Oh, you make me feel
Like I’m alive again

Said I can’t go on,
Not in this way
I’m a dream that died by light of day
Gonna hold up half the sky and say
Only I own me

And I feel my heart beating
I feel my heart underneath my skin
Oh, I can feel my heart beating
‘Cause you make me feel
Like I’m alive again
Alive again
Oh, you make me feel
Like I’m alive again

Turn your magic on,
Umi she’d say
Everything you want’s a dream away
Under this pressure under this weight
We are diamonds taking shape
We are diamonds taking shape

If we’ve only got this life
This adventure, oh, then I
And if we’ve only got this life
You get me through

And if we’ve only got this life
In this adventure, oh, then I
Want to share it with you
With you
With you
Yeah I do

 

Eighteen Years

I remember the day clearly. I was 29 years old. I wore my dark brown suit with dark brown heels and a tiger-striped scarf in my hair. My robe was from the on-sale section at the Catholic supply store in Saint Paul, my red stole was made by my grandmother and was a hand-me-down from my father.

I was ordained at my home church – Good Shepherd in Henning, MN. It’s hard to explain how much an ordination day means to those who haven’t experienced it. The vows carry such weight, each word so full. The bishop asks:

“Before Almighty God, to whom you must give account, and in the presence of this congregation, I ask, ‘will you assume this office, believing that the Church’s call is God’s call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament?”

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: The Church in which you are to be ordained confesses that the Holy Scriptures are the Word of God and are the norm of its faith and life. We accept, teach, and confess the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian Creeds. We also acknowledge the Lutheran Confessions as the true witnesses and faithful expositions of the Holy Scriptures. Will you therefore preach and teach in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and these creeds and confessions?

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: Will you be diligent in your study of the Holy Scriptures and in your use of the means of grace? Will you pray for God’s people, nourish them with the Word and the Holy Sacraments, and lead them by your own example in faithful service and holy living?

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: Will you give faithful witness in the world, that God’s love may be known in all that you do?

The ordinand responds: I will, and I ask God to help me.

Bishop: Almighty God, who has given you the will to do these things, graciously give you the strength and compassion to perform them.

The ordinand responds: Amen.

Then, prayers are said, blessings are given, the stole is placed on the ordinand’s shoulders, and finally the candidate is ordained. After four years of college, four years of seminary, countless approval essays, interviews, psychological testing, a year-long internship – I had a call to be a pastor.

That first call was in New York State – Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Newstead outside of Akron, New York – to be exact. After all that preparation and training and testing I so clearly remember standing by my window of my office on the first day and not having a clue what to do next. But then the phone rang, and then someone stopped by, and then eighteen years passed.

The feeling I have today is gratitude: the kind like when you sheepishly receive a gift you know you didn’t deserve. A gift you might have easily given back several times over the years, but one that you have come to understand is one of the most precious things you could ever have. I feel that way about this work. This simple, complicated, beautiful, infuriating, inexplicable work.

Eighteen years ago tomorrow, I packed up my two beloved cats, George and Sam, said “goodbye” to everyone who mattered most to me, and drove across several states – smoking Marlboros one after another, listening to the pile of cassette tapes next to me.  There was nothing but this calling, an invitation from a little German Lutheran church next to I-90, a hope, a prayer, a blessing placed on my head by the bishop and those gathered on my ordination day. Those things have proved to be enough. That is what God has always provided: enough.

I am thankful. For today and for anything God still has for me to do, my answer is still, “I will, and I ask God to help me.”

Everything You Want

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

Everything You Want – Vertical Horizon

Jealousy sucks. I’ve been struggling with it so much lately, too, and I can recognize how it poisons me. I agree with the writer of Proverbs who wrote that “envy rots the bones.” (14:30)

I wonder what the root of jealousy is? Elizabeth Bowen wrote, “Jealousy is no more than feeling alone against smiling enemies.” This describes well what jealousy feels like: others are happy, overly joyful or secretly mocking, while we are left alone to look like a fool.

I’ve discovered the best cure for jealousy is to spend less time thinking about what others are up to and more time thinking about my own actions and ambitions. I don’t mean in a selfish way, ignoring the needs of others. Rather, I mean it in a “get off of Facebook” kind of way. The pretty pictures people post only display the very best of what is going on for them. The reality is much less perfect. We all have struggles, trials, bad days. We all have victories and joys. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to see a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time. She is one of those friends who has always seemed to so easily get the things I had to scratch and claw to get. In many ways, I dreaded seeing her because I felt like it would be painful – another reminder of all the ways I fall short and she is succeeding in her perfect life. However, what happened was that when we finally got together and spoke face to face, all I saw was a fellow human being and friend with her own quirks and gifts. We laughed and shared stories – honest stories about the good and bad the last years had held. Simply being together and seeing her in real life instead of imagining her life was all I needed to let go of all my visions that her world was so much better than mine.

Another elixir for envy is simply remembering to speak kindly to myself. When my mind starts ramping up with negative thoughts about myself and my abilities, it is time to stop, breathe and pray – and speak to myself like a friend. It’s usually easy for me to be kind to others, to point out their good qualities, to tell them the ways I notice they bless me and others…but when I look at myself, my attention immediately darts to my flaws. Treating myself with kindness includes making sure I have some fun each day, too, and to not let my life completely revolve around caring for my congregation and caring for my family. An old episode of Mad Men, a movie with my boys, lunch with a friend, going to bed early and reading, any of these things help me feel cared for and a tiny bit spoiled and reminds me of how much good there is in my life, just as it is.

Do you struggle with jealousy? Does envy creep into your bones more often than you would like? Don’t be too hard on yourself because jealousy is a very human emotion – it is normal to feel that way. But you get to decide what to do with that emotion.  You get to decide if you will feed those feelings or starve them. Social media, isolation, trying to undermine the efforts or speaking badly of those you envy – that will only intensify the feeling. However, if you help others celebrate their successes, wish them well, pray for them, keep working hard on what matters to you, and take good care of you, the jealousy will starve to death.

Everything You Want

Somewhere there’s speaking
It’s already coming in
Oh and it’s rising at the back of your mind
You never could get it
Unless you were fed it
Now you’re here and you don’t know why

But under skinned knees and the skid marks
Past the places where you used to learn
You howl and listen
Listen and wait for the
Echoes of angels who won’t return

He’s everything you want
He’s everything you need
He’s everything inside of you
That you wish you could be
He says all the right things
At exactly the right time
But he means nothing to you
And you don’t know why

You’re waiting for someone
To put you together
You’re waiting for someone to push you away
There’s always another wound to discover
There’s always something more you wish he’d say

He’s everything you want
He’s everything you need
He’s everything inside of you
That you wish you could be
He says all the right things
At exactly the right time
But he means nothing to you
And you don’t know why

But you’ll just sit tight
And watch it unwind
It’s only what you’re asking for
And you’ll be just fine
With all of your time
It’s only what you’re waiting for

Out of the island
Into the highway
Past the places where you might have turned
You never did notice
But you still hide away
The anger of angels who won’t return

I am everything you want
I am everything you need
I am everything inside of you
That you wish you could be
I say all the right things
At exactly the right time
But I mean nothing to you and I don’t know why
And I don’t know why
Why
I don’t know

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.

IMG_1180
The congregation of Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church – 1946
IMG_0234
The congregation of Saint Peters Lutheran Church (with a few missing…) – July, 2017

It Matters – Sermon from 7/2/17

Last week I took my own boys to Bible Camp. I have always liked to use the time they are at camp as my own time to catch up on reading and writing and I did the same this year. However, because of Owen’s tonsillectomy and the upcoming trip to Norway and other commitments, we couldn’t find a week that worked for us to go to Camp Emmaus like usual, so finally – I began looking at other camps. After comparing schedules and costs, we decided to go to Red Willow Bible Camp near Binford, North Dakota. 

I had been there before, helping with retreats in college and it was nice to go back. I spent time reading and writing but then when the nice day outside would start calling too loudly to me, I would leave to go explore – many times just the trails around the camp, but also the area. Many of you know I like to take pictures of country churches and there were no shortage of them. On the plains of North Dakota you can see the steeples rising up for miles away and I would head in that direction to see what there was to see. I found many abandoned churches – the doors secured shut with plywood and heavy nails; their bells plucked from their towers and now resting in the cemetery with a commemorative display of the history of that church’s rise and demise.

I found plenty of thriving country churches as well – and most of them with unlocked doors so I could go inside and peruse the confirmation pictures, check out their bulletin boards, their sanctuaries – see what their was to see. One late afternoon I came across a small church at the intersection of two gravel roads.  This church still has worship each Sunday, but no indoor bathrooms, rather – an outhouse behind the church. I always think it is interesting to see what churches have decided is a necessity and what isn’t over the decades. They had a sound system, an elevator, gorgeous stained glass – but somewhere along the way they had drawn the line at an indoor bathroom.  There has to be a story there. Anyway, this church was very cool – if you take a tiny stairway going up at the back of the sanctuary, you come to the cutest room in the world up in the bell tower – it has huge windows on all sides so you can look out over the prairie in all directions. Gorgeous! IMG_1454.JPG

And one afternoon when Owen was exploring with me we went to Norway Lutheran Church, a unique, lovely sandstone brick church built in 1903, perched on a remote hill in McHenry county. It was thunderstorming when we got there but a man was there who had been mowing the cemetery before the storm started and he was waiting to see if the rain would stop. He had keys to the church and let us in – His name was Ivan and he was a grandson of one of the charter members and told us stories – including that there was a famous Norwegian buried there, Sondre Norheim, who had invented a certain kind of ski strap and is considered the Father of Telemark Skiing. But that wasn’t the end! Then, he invited us to see the basement – which could only be accessed through a storm cellar door – but sure enough, once you got down there, there was a small kitchen and a seating area, and the requisite stand for the confirmation pictures. The church had stopped having regular services twenty years ago because the once thriving congregation had shrunk to six members. Ivan said that when he was growing up the church had been full every Sunday, but as families shrunk, and people moved away, and the location of the church remained remote, within a few short decades there was no choice but to close.norway lutheran church

Not long ago, a friend asked me why in the world I like to visit these little churches and particularly abandoned churches and cemeteries. To her it seemed like such a morbid hobby. However, I like to imagine all the life that was once in those places. The best way I can explain it, going out of my way to find those places feels like I am paying tribute to what once happened there. Those lives, those hymns they sang, those times they gathered for fellowship or to study scripture or to support each other in grief – all of that mattered. Those people Ivan pointed out to me on the picture board as he told stories of friends and neighbors, fellow Christians who had lived and died in the faith, cared for each other and the world in the good and the bad – they mattered. And even if ministry in that place seems to have ended, it really didn’t because the ripples of what was taught there, the goodness shared through the people there, it continues through the generations through the descendants of those congregants wherever they go. The Word of God continues. It mattered and it matters still.

In fact, much of this Christian faith is based on trusting that things that seem small or maybe things we can’t even see at all – matter. Take the gospel for today as a good example – Jesus says even giving just a cup of cold water to someone who is thirsty shows the One to whom we belong. It’s not flashy. It’s not going to get us on television or one million hits on Youtube – and yet, the smallest, simplest acts of helping and welcoming others are what matter the most in God’s Kingdom.

Welcoming others is a holy task. We don’t invite people here or get to know people out there just because it is a nice thing to do or because we want them to be nice to us in return or even because we want to plump up our membership rolls, we do it because we take to heart what Jesus said here, “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.” How we treat others is how we treat Jesus himself.

What would happen if we began to treat each and every encounter as if it were with Jesus himself? What would happen if we saw every conversation as an opportunity to speak words of grace, every interaction as an opportunity to embody Christ’s love for the neighbor?

Not long ago, a friend was talking about an interaction she had with the person who bagged groceries at our local grocery store. They had been talking off and on for a year, and finally my friend, out of the blue, invited the woman at the grocery store to come to her church. The woman responded by giving her a hug!

We may rarely receive such a positive response when we take the risk of reaching out, yet we may be surprised at how ready some are to receive our humble invitations and efforts. We need to remember Jesus’ promise: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” 

But this welcoming goes much farther than pleasantries exchanged at the grocery store. Jesus brought healing and taught justice every place he went and he calls us to do the same.

This is why we do what we can each day – because each of our small acts matter – whether it is collecting funds to help a local family going through unspeakable loss, or when we collect groceries for the food shelf so that no one will have to worry about getting food on their tables. This is why put together the personal care kits for Lutheran World Relief and spend time picking up garbage on the side of the road to care for this earth God gave us. It matters.

And this is why Christians care about everyone having access to healthcare and yes, even helping to provide it for those who can’t afford it on their own.  It matters. It is a holy thing to care for each other because when we do, we show what we think of Jesus and what Jesus has asked of us. We’re showing that we recognize that we are more than just human beings, skin and bones and breath – we are each children of the same heavenly father.

It matters. Caring for each other, caring for strangers in whatever small and great ways God puts in front of us. It matters. When we do these things, we do great things.

Both when we give help – and when we receive help. This is important to remember as well. There is holiness to be found not just when we are able to offer help to others but when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and receive it. In many ways, this is the harder thing – to admit when we need help and then let others minister to us. Indeed, vulnerability is a key part of the Christian faith.

Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Seminary writes, “Somewhere along the line, we lost our view of the fact that God becoming human was as much of a commitment to vulnerability as God’s death. We have a vulnerable God. Relationships, by definition, are vulnerable. By instigating a relationship with us, God decided and determined that vulnerability is at the heart of faith.”

There was a couple I knew who had three children and the oldest had just graduated from high school. People told them many things to expect as they began to see their children leave home – they were prepared to slowly see their nest empty out and head toward a new season of their lives.  What they weren’t prepared for was to find out they were pregnant with twins. Everything turned upside down for them as they realized the next years were going to be much different than anticipated. They felt bad that they didn’t feel immediately elated about two new members coming into their family – instead they felt many conflicting emotions as they got used to this news and figured out how they were going to afford these new babies and how they would care for them and the needs of their older children.

The ladies of my church at the time wanted to throw a baby shower for this family. The family had been attending our church very sporadically for a while and even though they needed everything for these new babies, they hesitated at the offer of a shower because they hadn’t been around much at our church in the last year. But I explained to them that we longed to be supportive to them during this unexpected time. This congregation made up of many, many elderly folks positively ached to go shopping for baby things and welcome these new babies. It was going to be an easy and a happy thing for us to do that. “Please, please let us,” I said. And the couple let themselves be vulnerable and let us help them and while that family went home with truckloads of great stuff for their soon to be born babies, I hope they understand that it was even moreso a blessing for all of us to throw that baby shower. We were a congregation that experienced more funerals than anything else at that time and so everyone was giddy to think about bottles and diapers for a bit.

Sometimes we are able to help, sometimes we need help – and there is holiness and joy to be found in both. Wherever you are at this week – trust God will work through you in your strength, and in your vulnerability. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Abundance

Today was one of those Sundays where no sermon could fully be formulated until the wee hours of Sunday morning. Then, when it came, I wrote about abundance – the text was about how Jesus came to give life and give it abundantly. I asked the congregation what abundance is to them. After church one of the ladies said to me, “my answer is, ‘my life.’

So then I took my after-church-nap and when I woke up I was thinking about that.

What is abundance to me?

Abundance is:

Time with my children

Time in the sun

Time to write

Time to laugh

Time to talk to friends

Time to follow the leadings of the Spirit in my life

Time to read

Time to remember

Time to walk

Time to pray

Time to think about ideas

Having enough.

When scarcity feels far away.

To be loved

By my tribe

By myself.

Abundance is meaningful, joyful work.

Abundance is Jesus – the Jesus I know and love – the Jesus of justice and grace and hope for the poor, the marginalized, the worried, the worn-down.

Abundance is my little sunroom where I write – I have a little desk here and an old lamp, some beloved bookshelves filled plum full with gorgeous books, a map of Norway pinned to my wall, post-it notes of quotes and poems scattered around, twinkles lights on the ceiling; and my treadmill – for when I need to get my body moving because my mind has stopped moving.

Abundance is the wind in the chimes outside

The geese honking at each other in the cornfield

How my son brushed his hair out of his eyes to smile at me as he walked by just now

And my husband clinking pots and pans around in the kitchen now as he is making supper.

Abundance every which way in this life of mine. My cup runneth over.OJDQ4363

Thank you, thank you, thank you God.

Sacred Spaces Photography Available Now

For many years I have taken photographs of churches and cemeteries. I’ve been asked numerous times if my photographs are available in a coffee table book or somewhere else and so I have set up a little shop on Society 6 where you can find some of my photos available as prints, notecards, and even some iphone cases!  Have a country church you love? Look for it here:  https://society6.com/pastrgrrl

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Sermon – November 13, 2016 – A Letter to My Sons

Grace and peace to you on this Lord’s day in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

When our boys were teeny-tiny, back in Colorado, my sermon one Sunday took the form of a letter to our boys. It was mostly advice, inspired by the gospel that day, about things I hoped they would remember as they grew. I don’t know what I did with that letter but I am sure it is saved in a computer file somewhere. They will get the letter someday.

This week, I wrote another letter…because it has been the kind of week where people think a lot about the world in which they live, the world in which the children we love are growing up. For some it has been a great week, for others it has been a devastating week – but for all it has been hard because we’ve come to understand in a way we didn’t before there is a great divide within our country. People, good people, seeing things very differently, responding in fear, lashing out with anger – these are strange, hard times. So, today, I’m sharing this letter, I want to let you eavesdrop on my prayers for my children, because these are my prayers for all of us.

A letter to my sons – November 13, 2016

Dear Owen and Jesse,

Your mom is a pastor. You have known this your whole lives. From the time you were only days old you have come with me to visit and pray with people – in nursing homes, hospitals, houses, places of work – you have been there and you have bowed your little heads and prayed with us. It has been my greatest joy to share that with you. To see you come to know and love Jesus, my heart can’t get more full than when I think of that.

So, on a week like this, when there’s been elections and shock and hurt and protests and winners and losers and those who are excited and those just plain terrified, I want to point your eyes away from the media, away from the divisiveness and ask you to focus on as Saint Paul said, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, excellent or praiseworthy” to fix your eyes on those things. I need to remind you who you are as Jesus’ people, as children, not just of me and your dad, but of God.

First, there’s this: you remember a couple years ago, that lady at the nursing home in Texas who frightened you one night? We were there visiting our congregation member Estella in those hard weeks right before she died and you two decided to wait for me on the big, soft chairs in the lobby while I went down the hall and prayed with Estella? One of the residents wheeled up to you as you were sitting there and told you to leave. She was confused and convinced you didn’t belong there and she yelled at you. You cried and you didn’t understand why she was yelling at you – but you grabbed each other and came to find me in Estella’s room. I could see how sad you were – your whole lives you had only known older folks to be kind to you and suddenly this happened. We talked about how sometimes people who are in the nursing home get really confused, especially after dark. Or maybe she had just had a really bad day and was upset about something else but took it out on them. We talked about how it didn’t do any good to be angry about it, we just needed to respond with kindness and gentleness. 

My dear boys, kindness is key. It always is. We don’t know the battles others are fighting. We don’t know half the demons that follow others around or the sadnesses that have bitten at their hearts. Whenever possible, be kind and it is almost always possible. Our Christian faith instructs us in this as the Bible reads in Ephesians, “Be ye kind one unto another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” And Jesus’ words in Luke, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.” Kindness, mercy, grace, forgiveness, these are words that we hold close, cherish, center ourselves around as people who believe in Jesus.

But, my dear boys, hear this – being kind is different than being complacent, complicit, or a doormat, or even nice. Jesus himself, when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, taught us to stand up for what is right. Jesus was always, always, always on the side of the oppressed. Jesus always, always, always spent time with those who lived on the margins – the poor, the outsiders, the refugees, those who had messed up big time, those with bad reputations, Jesus was all about finding ways to make room for everyone. He had no patience for leaving anyone behind or creating walls of division. Do you remember the Bible story where there was a group of people who were angry at a woman who had sinned, they were so angry with her they thought they should just kill her, but Jesus said, “Okay, then, whoever among you has never sinned, you get to be the first to start killing her.” And of course, no one could say they had never sinned. He pointed out all the time that we are all sinners, all of us need forgiveness, we can’t judge each other. 

My boys, I’m so in love with your loving hearts. When I see you do something kind, my own heart couldn’t be more full. But I’ll always pray, too, that when the time comes to call someone out who is being mean to or speaking badly about anyone because of their race or gender or political affiliation or sexual orientation, that you will have the strength to do that. Turn some tables over like Jesus did – it has to happen sometimes. Never be okay with injustice. Always, always, always speak up for those who are being bullied, no matter what age you are or they are, because this is the way of Jesus. And because if you don’t, your mama will kick your butt. And you know I will.

But even more than that, take it one more step. Don’t just react to injustice, but work first to promote peace. How does this look? Well, every day it looks different and for each person it looks different. Find ways to build community. Look for opportunities to build bridges. Your mom hasn’t always been so good at this – sure, within my own white, churchy, Lutheran, Christian, Scandinavian-American circles I can network and reach out like crazy, but what about beyond that? I need to keep looking for ways to be a safe person for those outside my own bubble of life and faith and experience. Pushing my introverted self to not only speak peace but live peace – look for ways to do that with all people. People of color, white, gay, straight, immigrant, native-born, Muslim, Catholic, able-bodied and disabled, men and women, the crabby and the sweet, the democrat and the republican, the gun-toters and the gun haters – everyone. Jesus crossed boundaries and social barriers to share a message of love and peace, radical inclusivity, grace for all – and so that is our goal, too. I promise, my dear boys, to keep looking for ways to do that, and you must, too. Because this is the way of Jesus.

Let’s see, what else? There’s so much. This task of living as Jesus’ people is expansive the most important thing you will do – but this is something that will help you: pray. Pray hard. Pray every day. Pray for those you like and especially for those you don’t like. Our Christian faith instructs in this also. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And so we do. We pray for others, partly for them, but it helps us, too – it can soften our hearts and ease our bitterness. It makes us better. We pray for our leaders, for our president-elect, and work hard speak respectfully of them, whether they were the one who received our vote or not. This, too, is the way of Jesus. We can work for change and disagree without slipping into speech that is beneath us. Be clear, be smart, be faithful, live passionately, but also watch your words because they always say more about you than they say about anyone else.

I remember like yesterday those June days when you were born. I held you close, looked at your little faces, and then I looked out at the mountains in the distance and I wondered what life would hold for you. So much was unknown. I was scared of becoming a mom – worried I would mess it up big time, worried I wouldn’t have the kind of love and tenacity a parent needs. But then, we did what parents do, we gathered you up and took you home, trusting God would bring us through the journey of parenthood one day at a time. And God is faithful.

One day at a time, my dear boys. Trust God is with you. Be kind. Work for justice. Live peace. Pray. Follow Jesus. 

I love you to the moon,

Mom

 

Maundy Thursday (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Let us pray…

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