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.”

Listen…

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

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

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

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

When it’s Time to Go

I have loved each of my churches I have served. I remember each of them so fondly and hold such a dear place in my heart for each of them.

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Newstead in New York was a great place to learn how to be a pastor. There was a lot of energy there and people who were dedicated and active in ministry. There was also a bit of strife. It was a very happy call, until it wasn’t.  After three years, I got married and my husband and I set our sights on settling somewhere new together. It was time to go.

We were called to Colorado to a large church – First Lutheran in Colorado Springs.  I wondered how it would feel to be a part of a big church. I was up for the challenge and the change as an associate pastor on a large staff. We loved being in Colorado and had many friends both at the church and in the area because Colorado Springs had many people like us – fellow transplants. I met people who inspired me to run farther and I ran marathons – even up and down Pikes Peak. There were excellent people on the staff at the church and it was great to be a part of all the activity there. However, over the seven years there I kept feeling called toward something else. I tried to forget it – we loved that congregation (and living in Colorado!)  I worked hard to distract myself with writing projects and my children and working on a new degree, but I finally knew those distractions wouldn’t fix the restlessness and I couldn’t stay at First Lutheran. It was time to go.

We were called to Texas – a proud little Norwegian congregation, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church at Norse. I loved the people in my congregation so deeply. I adored the quiet country setting. I was enchanted with the history of that place. Walking over to the church on a warm night or sitting on my porch gazing at the cattle in the field, I often felt I could stay there forever. I felt peaceful, happy, and whole. My children thrived in the Texas warmth and were loved well by all their surrogate grandmas and grandpas at our church. For a long time, I really felt life couldn’t be better. But after five  quick years, the restlessness came back. We longed for our family and friends back in Minnesota, the reality loomed that the church wouldn’t be able to sustain a full-time pastor much longer, and while I personally couldn’t help aching for growth and change, that lovely little congregation was very happy just the way it was. It was time to go.

Now, God calls us to be in Minnesota, and here we are. It’s very good to be here and day by day, week by week, month by month, this place feels more like home. We’re happy that our story is slowly being knit into the story of Saint Peter’s.

So tenderly I hold it all in my heart: Each congregation, the faces of dear parishioners, the quiet of hushed sanctuaries, the gravesides, sunlight through stained glass, children stopping to give me a hug after worship, prayers by countless hospital bedsides, the benedictions, the ashes, the anointing oil, the lilies and poinsettias, the struggle and tears, the overflowing joy, the thousands of treasured, evanescent moments that make up this clergy life I get to live.

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Bread of Life

There was a couple at the first church I served back in New York State – very nice folks – and the wife, Diane, was an excellent cook.  In fact, she was such a good cook that every year at our church’s annual talent auction – she would donate two German dinners to be auctioned off. People would pay a high price for these dinners for the chance to come to Diane and David’s home and eat the food she would prepare. She would serve many courses and she would set the table with their finest dishes and silverware.

When Chad and I were first married they invited us over for one of these dinners and I was struck by how much care she put into the meal! The food was so beautifully presented in addition to being delicious and nourishing. Their home was warm and welcoming. I loved how she took these particular gifts Diane and David had for cooking and providing hospitality and used them to show love to the people in their life. When you left their home, you felt not only full but cared for.

Now looking back I have even more appreciation for the gift she gave. I didn’t realize then, because I didn’t have children yet then, so I couldn’t realize how particularly amazing it was that they would regularly have people over to their home for these elaborate meals – and they had a four year-old and a newborn at the time. Extraordinary!

Well, we all know people who show love through food, right? It’s a beautiful thing and it is shown in all sorts of ways. The hotdish brought over to a house when there has been a death in the family. The meal provided by the ladies of the church after a funeral. Some extra boxes and cans of food bought at the grocery store and then delivered to the food pantry – we know what it means to experience giving and receiving love through food.

So it isn’t strange at all that when Jesus tries to tell us what he means for us and for our lives he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

During Lent, each Wednesday a group of pastors in the area are all switching pulpits each week and preaching on the different “I Am” statements of Jesus. If you remember, in the gospel of John there were seven different “I am” statements that Jesus said – “I am the Light of the World”, “I am the true Vine”, “I am the Good Shepherd”, “I am the Gate”, “I am the Resurrection and the Life”, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and “I am the Bread of Life”.

Each of these are beautiful symbols and each of these tell us something different about Jesus.

This past Wednesday night I preached at Eksjo – we ate chili and crackers and then we gathered upstairs in the sanctuary. In my sermon, I preached about how Jesus said he was the bread of life and he used that illustration right after performing the miracle of turning a few loaves of bread into enough to feed thousands. I preached about how Jesus nourishes our bodies and souls through his body and blood and as long as we are fed with his word, we will be truly full.

It was a fine sermon. Finely constructed, finely delivered – fine. Sure. But ever since I preached it, there has been a troubling question that keeps drifting back to me. It’s a troubling question that steals away the crumbs of peace in neatly summing up Jesus as the bread of life who fills us full.

It’s one of those questions that people of faith often pretend not to have, and yet we do. The question is this:  if Jesus is the bread of life, why are there so many starving places? I don’t just mean people who are hungry. I don’t mean the kind of hunger you feel in your stomach, but the kind you feel in your heart.

Because even though we gather here and confess that Jesus is our bread of life, even though those of us who gather here love him and love the church and confess Jesus is the Lord of our lives – sometimes the truth is that we feel hungry, even starving for something we cannot name.

And how can we help it? This world is full of starving places. We see brokenness all around, children who have been abused, addictions that ruin lives and homes, questions that have no answers, healing that doesn’t come.

And it seems to me we are so hungry for peace, for answers, for healing.  What has this bread of life done to fill our hunger? The hungry places of this world don’t just disappear the moment we believe in Jesus Christ and the cross.

And that’s not all – you know what else is troubling?  That there is this hushed fear that we hardly dare think – but there it is, humming beneath the surface of our days – the doubt, the distrust, the truth that sometimes we need help even really believing in Jesus and in what he taught us. If this isn’t true, then, how else can we explain the fact that we don’t live like we really believe in this gospel?

Just a few examples: Jesus says, “Do for others as you want them to do for you.” And yet, I wonder who among us has not reasoned that we were too busy or too broke or too whatever to help someone who came to us asking for help.

Jesus says, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven.” And yet, the last time I checked, most of us not only have the things we need, but plenty of extra things filling out our houses and garages.

Jesus says, “the one who is least among you is the greatest,” yet whose call would you return quicker – your favorite celebrity, or that annoying neighbor down the road who keeps borrowing your tools and not returning them?

If we really stop to think about it, this gospel is so troubling. It asks impossible things of us. It becomes easiest to just smile and pretend we are feeling full of the bread of life when we aren’t and compare our less than holy actions to others instead of to the standard God holds for us.

Yet, the vision that captures my attention is this: how would it feel if we chose instead to be really truthful in our faith or lack of it. If instead of smiling and talking about how full we feel, fed by the bread of life, if we could look at each other and admit that we still feel hungry sometimes, and that is scary.

And I think about how great it would be if we could be honest and talk about the ways we tend to twist and manipulate the gospel to fit the way we are living and how we don’t really live like people who have had any kind of revolution happen in our hearts.

I think if we could do that, it would be quite wonderful.

Because when we begin to admit those desperately flawed things about ourselves – that is when we finally catch a glimpse of how desperately we need a Savior.

We are a gathering of broken people who make selfish choices – we worry and distrust even the God who knit us together, and it takes so dreadfully little to turn our eyes and thoughts and hearts away from him and his will and toward shiny things, or a little cash, or a juicy piece of gossip.

This is us. Martin Luther would say it is only when we can acknowledge the truth about our sinfulness that we should dare come to the altar rail for communion.

We don’t share in this sacrament because it is a nice thing to do or because we want to pay tribute to what Jesus did for us – we receive his body and blood because we are starving for the bread of life. So we come as beggars to his table and know that just as we are – full of doubts and flaws and questions, lacking in so many ways, and he sets out his best for us. The finest feast, the warmest welcome – every time we come. Not because we are good, but because he is good.

Those hungry places are there in our hearts and in our world, it’s true – but they aren’t places God is absent. If we don’t see him or feel him there yet, it’s because our vision is cloudy, not God’s. Those hungry places are simply where God’s glory and provision are yet to be shown – either to us or through us. We can trust the bread of life will be enough for us. Always. Keep turning to Jesus to feed the hunger you feel, keep being fed on the Word of God and this sacrament of Grace we share. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.