Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Other Side

There is a scene in scripture that seems to find and challenge me every time I get too comfortable in my life or cozy in ministry. In Mark 4, Jesus gets poetic and shares parables and teachings with the crowds. People are in awe and the disciples are finding some popularity in this place. Just when they get comfortable and confident about the way this ministry might play out, a storm blows in and the weather changes. Jesus surprises them by saying, "Let us go to the other side." He gets in a boat and heads across the lake where people don't know them and they're unlikely to be accepted. It is here, in chapter 5, that Mark tells the stories of mission and ministry that are most fascinating to me.

It is construction season in Minneapolis and 35W serves as a greater divide than usual this time of year. While the bridge near the U of M is back up and running, other bridges near my home and church are still closed. It takes creativity and patience to cross the divide, especially during rush hour.

Last night I bobbed and weaved through back roads to find a route under the highway and noticed a change when I reached the other side. I rolled down the windows and turned the radio up. The landmarks are even more familiar on this side with memories at every stoplight. The nostalgia steered me to the golf course and soon I was gathering my clubs from the trunk. Some of the starters still remember me from when my high school team practiced there and on the right afternoon, my range tokens and twilight rates are waived. The clubhouse smells like memories, reminding me how familiar this side is.

A huge smile spread across my face as I approached the putting green. Of all the people I could run into here today, it's my little brother. He was home from college for a tournament in the Twin Cities that I didn't know about. We had a good laugh and headed for the range, both admitting that we'd been drawn to Hiawatha for sentimental reasons and that we were surprised to see each other. It is good to come back to these places, to remember and to feel at home.

God has sent me to many places and put me in many boats bound for the far away 'mysterious elsewhere', but this first call takes me to a different kind of other side. It's so close to this side that I might mistake it for comfortable and cozy. So I will be watching and listening when I cross over each morning, ready for God to reveal ways I can participate in the divine mission over there.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Welcoming the Neighbor

You never know what you're going to get when you knock on a stranger's door. If you have ever been a solicitor or walked through neighborhoods taking a survey, you're familiar with the adventure of door knocking. Anything can happen.

I've spend many afternoons since arriving at this congregations walking through the community and introducing myself. I've been told to "milk being new", and this is one way I do. I knock with no intention to survey or sell, bother or harm. My smile and small flier simply inform neighbors that they are always welcome at St. John's. Sometimes, that's the most surprising news of all to those I meet.

I was called because this congregation believes they are meant to grow in and for the community. There is a desire to serve as a neighborhood church, to be proclaimers of the gospel and the hands and feet of Christ to those right here. There are plenty of churches in our neighborhood with bigger Sunday school programs and more bible studies. Other churches have more members or more Sunday services. But, in addition to our many strengths, we are right here.

I wander in good weather and sometimes in good weather turned bad. I meet people who tell me about their churches or seem completely apathetic about faith and organized religion. I meet friendly pets and dogs with deadly barks. I meet people who like to talk and people who'd rather keep a screen door between us.

Today I met a woman that made the whole block worth it. She lit up when I introduced myself. "Hi, there. I'm the new pastor at St. John's Lutheran right up the street and I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself. I want you to know that you're always welcome at St. John's. We worship on Sundays at 10am and here are a few fall events you might be interested in. You're welcome to join us anytime."

"You say you're a pastor? You're the first pastor who's ever knocked on my door. You're the first pastor who's ever been here. Will you poke your head in and say hello to my mother?"

As my eyes adjusted to the dark living room light, I found an old woman in a recliner waving. I waved back and listened to her daughter repeat my mini-monologue loudly to her. The daughter's voice quivered just a bit as though my knock had meant something.

Her voice provided fuel as I started another block.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I Know A Place

I know a place where a tiny cornfield thrives in the city and people come together to tend the soil. I peered at this garden from a bus window on the way to school and now run by it on sunny afternoons. I take a break from the sidewalks and houses to rest my breath and let the sweat beads gather on my temples. The bugs sing happily and and crickets chirp freely. I enter through the chain link fence lightly because something about this place is sacred and carefully designed.

September is a fall month that demands warmth and sunshine before the days draw too short. We know that each beautiful day will follow with another before snow dominates, so I enter with relief that warmth and growth are not quite gone. This is a good place to come when you want to believe in change and collaboration, hope and harmony. People in this neighborhood have miraculously turned a dusty lot into a sanctuary and brought life to a city block.

Maybe I'm an easy sell, but a moment in this place is enough to satisfy any reason I've come. It quenches the restlessness that fueled my run and I amble back home more slowly. These are the things that we forget to enjoy and rarely speak of as we campaign for a better world. These are the things that matter.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Back to School

This week, buses have been lining up outside the schools near church. Kids pour in and out of the buses with new backpacks, homework, and friends. Our childcare center is in full swing, welcoming kids for another year of fun during the day.

Since I’m a “pipeliner” and went straight from college to seminary, I have never experienced this season without new classes of my own. Even pastoral internship was marked with self, supervisor, and committee evaluations that marked the time like a school year.

I celebrated this week by cleaning out the Sunday school classrooms and restocking them with fresh supplies. I love this ritual that takes place every late summer. I used to bring my supply lists to Office Max and cruise the aisles. Like most Type A - First Born children, I color coded my notebooks and folders for each class and had everything tucked in my backpack neatly by mid-August.

In college and seminary I loved receiving my new syllabus on the first day (or download it ahead of time) and flipped through to take in the readings and assignments. For a moment, I would believe that all of this would get done with the same perfection as the nicely stapled instructions. I crave that fresh start and I think the seasonal and liturgical calendars mark the cycles of my mood and transitions well.

Last week I brought my September issue of Lutheran Women Today to a coffee shop near church and had lunch by myself. I like to read it through cover to cover because the theme permeates each article and they can hold each other up in my memory. LWT also offers a 9 month bible study every school year and a 3 month bible study in the summer that is great for small groups and circles. This month we begin with Ruth and Naomi, so many stories in this issue reflect that companionship.

While I sat reading Martha E. Stortz’s Tale of Two Widows, I listened in on a man and woman having coffee behind me. I would guess them to be in their late 70s, but the roar of their laughter sounded like two teenagers skipping class. They waded through stacks of pictures telling stories about their families and Labor Day weekend. “There was no way in heaven I was gonna get on that blasted jet ski, but they invited me along so I said, ‘You bet. Why not?’” Later I heard her review on the weekend of relaxation. “One of my knees got sunburned. That’s about the most exciting thing that happened.” (Giggles.)

It sounded as though they’ve both lost their spouses and have been friends long enough to know each other’s children well. They cared for each other’s stories and details like true friends. I smiled when they laughed and thought about how Martha’s article connected with their friendship. “Put simply, suffering is what happens to you; grief is what you do about it.” She gives the example of a woman who suffers a stroke. That’s suffering because she was the object of the sentence. Because of the stroke, the woman uses a cane and, on bad days, uses a walker that her grandchildren painted like a rainbow. That’s grief. Grief is dealing with the suffering in a way of your choosing.

Sometimes grieving brings us back to our old lives, like Mary at the tomb on Easter morning. Grief can mean sitting still and dreaming about the life we used to have or the one we wish we had instead. But here were two friends built up by the other’s listening ear and hooting about the ways life is funny sometimes. New life, fresh starts, and a new school year can turn grief into living forward when we have someone to share pictures with and tell stories to.

Another rhythm begins as fall approaches. May you have a good laugh with a dear friend who helps your grief become life. And may you begin this school year looking to learn and become.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Thousand Words

I am slowly hanging things on the walls of my office, in part because these walls are stubborn. Behind the paint is red tile that only a drill hammer can conquer. For now there is one piece that claims my identity in this room and perhaps it deserves this time alone. I reused a nail that remains from pastors past and proudly display a large photograph of my great, great grandfather, Pastor Nils Arveson, and his 1904 confirmads from North Prairie Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The scene is a formal sitting room with heavily draped windows and a large rug for d├ęcor. The girls wear long, white dresses with high laced collars, their hair in sensible and stylish buns. The boys are in suits and ties, hair parted down the middle and straight faced. My grandfather sits in the middle, his clown collar a distinguishing sign of the times.

The matte and frame are originals and the back of the frame is closed and contained by the slates from an old orange crate. Somehow it has lasted in fair condition to find a place on my wall and in the life of my ministry.

The strangest part? He looks like an Arvesen. Even though we are four generations removed and we have since changed the spelling slightly, I see my mother and grandfather’s faces in his. He is a spiritual ancestor, part of my Modern Church History curriculum at seminary, and the story of my immigrant past.