Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Boxing Day

I don't have many Christmas traditions that are set in stone. When I was in grade school, we spent many years as a nuclear family running around the beach in sweatpants and filling our hair with the smell of salt before a picnic or presents. When we moved back to the Midwest, we traded the beach for ice skating on the back pond and sledding down hills before bedtime. When I reached adolescence, some of my Christmases were spent far from family in Bangladesh or Antarctica. All of these memories are good, tying me more closely to the reason for the season than to something specific my family invented along the way. Christmas was mobile, fluid and always faithful.

My Christmases in Bangladesh have given Boxing Day special meaning. After such communal joy on the 25th, I've noticed that I often get quiet and pensive the next day. The 26th makes me attentive and vulnerable because I have sensed Emmanuel most deeply in the wake of Christmas.

On December 26, 1998 I stayed back from dinner and dancing at LAMB Hospital in Dinajpur, Bangladesh. I felt funny and thought I needed a nap. Flu-like symptoms crept over me as I waved goodbye to the group and I was glad for solitude once the door closed behind them. I don't like to be sick and didn't want others to see how crummy I really felt.

It took less than an hour to start fading in and out of consciousness, spike a fever and hallucinate. I remember what felt like hours alone, curled up on my hands and knees beside a filthy squatter toilet. I talked to bugs and shook uncontrollably.

I heard the group return later and remember that my behavior frightened some of them. I couldn't make sense or hold myself up. Our team nurse called a doctor and they moved me to a cot, trying to hold me still. I have never been so sick or so frightened, so when the doctor arrived, I had high hopes for his diagnosis and treatment plan. Instead, he pulled up a chair and laid hands on me. He prayed long and beautiful prayers that further confused me. And then I realized that prayers were not an afterthought in this hospital or a cute accessory to modern medicine. It was the middle of the night in a rural, third world nation. Care was basic and limited, so prayer was the only place they ever started.

When I remember my weeks and months of Dengue Fever, I first recall how cold his hands felt because my flesh was roasting with a temperature above 104 degrees. I remember his calm words and gentle grip on my flailing arms. I remember him being there until I fell asleep.

I slept for days and barely recall the journey to southern Bangladesh, which required hours in a small and stuffy van, treacherous ferry crossings and a short plane ride. When I was strong enough to participate again, we were in a little village called Dumki. Here, I received some care from a female doctor. She addressed the lesions that covered my mouth and throat, finding creative ways for me to eat and regain strength. But first, there was always prayer and healing touch.

This was twelve years ago, but I think about it often. Once a bubbly extrovert, Bangladesh made me a vulnerable and quiet observer for a few weeks. I noticed things, prayed things and believed things I never would have without Dengue. Boxing Day changed me.

Six years later, I returned to Bangladesh with a new group that included my father. It felt good to be back in Dumki with healthy energy. On Boxing Day, we went to a village I'd visited years earlier. Women had powerful stories to tell about their economic savings groups - the ways working together was changing their communities and helping them become valuable leaders in their families.

At the end of the visit, I wandered off with the kids. We made animal noises, played tag and laughed a lot. I fell in love with a little boy named Reuben. Our interpreter said he'd run home to change when he saw us coming and his red sweater vest was for special occasions. His hair was slick and he tried out several of his best English phrases on me. Every time I replied to his question or comment, proof that I could understand him, the gaggle of kids would hoot and holler with laughter. Before we left, our interpreter told me that most of these kids were delivered by c-section at LHCB, the Dumki hospital we support and were visiting. Most of them were delivered by the doctor who had cared for me six years earlier. And most of them were about six years old.

This news hit me hard. These beautiful faces and feet on the other side of the world had been held and prayed for by the same doctor as me. Reuben's bright eyes danced with mine in conversation and play today because we were both cherished and loved. We were both here, healthy and strong, thanks to the same hands and the same God. I wept quietly all the way back to Dumki, imagining their brave mothers with round bellies bumping up and down in rickshaws for the two hour journey from village to hospital six years ago. They were all Marys. And they were all blessed, full of grace.

It took days to learn that the earth rumbling gently beneath us that morning had shaken the whole world - that the earthquake so far away had caused waves of destruction everywhere but there. And thank God not there. Bangladesh is already flooded most of the time and Dumki would have been washed away before receiving any warning. We would have been washed away if the waves could have mustered strength in the shallow Bay of Bengal - me, my father, Reuben and all the prayers that had carried us this far.

Back in Dhaka, we watched a lot of Sky News. My friend Katherine was with me for both Boxing Days and the Tsunami had both of us dumbfounded. We sat on our beds in the hostel watching images of Asia tormented by waves and water, images that could have been our reality. Again, Boxing Day changed me.

This year Boxing Day meant celebrating the First Sunday of Christmas with lots of light. It meant white paraments and red plants and candles everywhere. It meant songs filled with promises that are not so separate from bright eyes and healthy boys in sweater vests on the other side of the world.

Christians in Bangladesh decorate by putting big red stars on the roof of their houses and in their worship spaces. I might not have a lot of Christmas traditions that are set in stone, but a red star has become one of them. Red paper ornaments I bought in Dhaka long ago adorn our little tree at home. And on clear winter nights I look up at the stars that seem yellow here, trusting that they still burn red above the doctors who pray and Reuben while he sleeps.

Happy Boxing Day.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Stillness and Planning

I’m a planner. I like to dream and scheme about things down the road. We moved a few times when I was younger and I would always sketch out my future bedroom the night we closed on a new house, eager to imagine the layout and get things organized.

These days, the liturgical calendar allows me a similar privilege. I can be steeped in one season, but am always thinking ahead. While the sanctuary is filled with evergreen and light, I am also wondering about Lent, repentance and springtime. There is always something new to wonder about as we plod through the same seasons and stories year after year. There is always something new to unfold or proclaim or digest. And I love that.

Ever since that first stick had two pink lines and the second stick had two pink lines and the third stick read a definitive, digital YES, I have tried to live more in the moment than usual. I have tried to learn about what is happening each week and to appreciate each stage of this journey. I have tried to make good time for my relationship with Matt that has nothing to do with pregnancy or a tiny person coming home with us next year. I have tried to live in season.

But as summer yawns turned to autumn energy and then to winter cankles, it has been difficult to stay put or bask solely in the now. Checklists, doctor’s appointments and nursery ideas have infiltrated my plans for Zen and peaceful appreciation. I cold call people about childcare openings, make preparations at work for maternity leave and speak a new language that includes crib mattress regulations and brain development. It’s weird. Way beyond thinking about Lent during Advent weird.

But on Saturday, we found a little piece of that stillness. A friend took maternity photos of us at the Minneapolis Photo Center in Northeast. We got to enjoy what it means to be 31 weeks pregnant and together all afternoon. We ate dinner at the Craftsman and got lost in the flavors of cheese, potatoes, root vegetables, kale, fish and pheasant. And then we curled up on the couch for a few episodes of Pillars of the Earth, a television mini series based on the Ken Follett book Matt read a few years ago.

We laughed about how well I could follow the plot. When Matt loves a book, he paraphrases it to me, chapter by chapter. He reads whole pages aloud and wonders about where the characters are going after putting it down for the night. This means I often put my book down and listen from the edge of the story – partly because it’s endearing and partly because his enthusiasm is too loud for two readers in the same room.

Tonight we’ll finish the series and then we’ll probably go back to reading before bed, enjoying that late night stillness while we still have it – while it’s just the two of us. But every once in awhile, a kick to my ribs will break into that stillness and remind me that we are already more than just two. It will remind me that while we are dwelling deeply in Advent and life as Meta and Matt, there is something pulling us forward into a new season. And that's worth planning for.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It's a lot to take in.

Andrew didn't grow up in the church. Saying grace, scenes in stained glass, Bible stories and liturgy are all converging to form a new language he is learning each week at St. John's.

Andrew wandered into St. John's because his girlfriend was planning her grandmother's funeral. In death, he heard the truth about life and started asking questions about what we believe and what it all means.

Watching Andrew worship is worshipful. His joyful curiosity is contagious and you can see the radical message that seems familiar to many washing over him with power and mystery. I stand in the pulpit telling people that God knows all of who they are - the good, the bad and the ugly - and desperately loves us anyway. I say it to a lot of people who have heard it a million times. They look at me and listen as quiet transformation trembles. Andrew looks at me like this is the best news he's heard all week and it's performing all kinds of demolition and reconstruction in his heart and mind. He looks at me like it's a brand new promise and he might actually tell someone about it.

He's been attending Casserole Club and brings all kinds of unabashed wisdom to our conversation, noticing the little things about scripture I've failed to recognize as awesome or the things I've never noticed at all. Instead of clamming up because he's new to the language, he speaks with confidence that the gospel is for him to receive, digest and share.

Andrew came to my office on Friday afternoon so we could talk about his baptism. This will be the first adult baptism I've seen at St. John's and I can't wait. His questions were wonderful. We talked about the service, the theology and all the beautiful promises. And every now and then he would lean back in his chair and pause before saying, "I'm sorry. It's a lot to take in." His slight smile was proof that this was all very, very good news.

When we finished, I could tell that he was still wonderfully overwhelmed. So I said, "You don't have to be able to wrap your head around this before your baptism. This theology - this good news about God's gift of new life and salvation and forgiveness in Christ - will continue to unfold in all kinds of bold and subtle ways to come. You'll learn something new about God's love every day and now you're part of a community that wants to wonder about all this stuff together with you."

This morning Andrew wore a robe and sang in the choir. I watched him pass the peace and could see that he really believed God's peace was getting passed from saint to saint. And that, too, is a lot to take in.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Control the Controllables

This is my view. From my perspective, I no longer have toes. My belly is 38" around, mostly in front, but I'm sure my addiction to ice cream drumsticks will eventually settle in wherever it likes. I'm technically in the beginning of my third trimester now, but still confused about how 'they' divide that up. The first is 12 weeks, the second is 13 weeks and the third is 15 weeks?

I've also felt pretty invincible lately. I've been able to work long days, don't need naps and haven't had to pay for stretching myself. We had a nasty storm last week and I chased our patio umbrella around the yard before wrestling it into the garage. That was dumb, but I felt fine.

This week, things are a little different. We had two funerals and Reformation Sunday was also our stewardship celebration. Friday was a long day of errands and phone calls and writing that had my whole torso tense and shaking. My body was begging me to slow down and put my feet up, but I couldn't. I thought I'd been doing a good job finding a new pace, but I hadn't really been challenged yet. Friday was spent trying to do everything and doing a really mediocre, dissatisfying job as I checked each item of the list.

I didn't sleep well on Friday night, caught between the things I think I'm capable of and what I can actually handle. As I put on my alb before the funeral service on Saturday morning and tied my cincture, I looked down. Suddenly, my body spoke volumes, convicting me of a pace I couldn't keep and calling me to readjust my expectations. My bump was literally in the way of my feet and my speed. I sat down for a few minutes and took deep breaths, trying to look at the service and the day ahead in new ways.

It is good to serve in a place filled with people who really know and look out for each other. I received words of grace and "go home" from several of our funeral reception volunteers. They keep an eye on me like I keep an eye on them. And while there was plenty to do to prepare for our stewardship celebration the next day, I decided to leave everything in my office. It would get done. Things would go well. And if they didn't, it wouldn't be because of the things I'd put down. The controllables were checked off the list and it was time to let go.

These last 14 weeks - or however many I have before Baby C debuts - will be a big stretch for me. Yes, literally. But also emotionally and professionally. I like doing things my way. I like letting my feet lead. I like being the last one out of the building. But this belly is giving me new perspective, teaching me to look around my office before I go home and choosing to put the things down I don't really need until tomorrow. It's teaching me to make fewer trips up to the sanctuary for service preparation. It's teaching me to not carry all of my groceries at once from the car to the house.

I'm growing.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Chalk. It. Up.

Sunday was one of those Sundays for the books. But it was memorable in a sneaky way. You could almost miss it and I would hate for you to miss it. So here are a few reasons I will always remember September 26, 2010 at St. John's.
  1. Two young couples joined our ranks. One is getting married in December and I'm doing their wedding. The other helped plan a grandparent's funeral here last spring and it has felt like home ever since. I love new people and watching others gather around getting to know them and showering them with welcome. One of these newbies has not yet been baptized. I look forward to splashing him with holy promises and new life in Christ.
  2. It was Pack the Church Sunday. We tried this last year and our worship attendance increased by 80%! This year our worship attendance wasn't much higher than usual, but just about everyone brought a visitor. It was fun to meet the friends, family and neighbors who came and hear what they loved. One had been excluded from his home congregation's communion table for a long time. It was an honor to place bread in his hands. Another was overwhelmed by the noise of children helping, making music and crawling up the aisle. She teared up sharing what those young faces meant to her.
  3. We took a noisy offering. Our 10th graders were in charge of this offering, which they collected in noisy tin cans. People dropped their loose change in trying to make as much noise as possible. It was a great way to include visitors who might normally feel anxious about this part of the liturgy. They were all told in advance and came with baggies and socks of change. The noise had everyone giggling and it all added up to $335.96 for hunger ministries through Second Harvest Heartland.
  4. The construction dust was flying. Our narthex expansion and kitchen update projects have begun! St. John's is 127 years old, so new and tangible projects that everyone participates in and remembers bridges old members with new members. We all stood in awe of how our space is changing and slowing becoming more welcoming.
  5. So many people were involved. This is my third fall at St. John's and - boy- are we waking up! People say YES and participate and offer to lead and get others involved and believe that being part of things is stewardship and discipleship and life giving and bearing good fruit.
I could go on and on. I love these people. I love this call. I love the ways we are living into the growth they knew they were made for when they asked me to join them a few years ago.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Two Tablespoons of Gudrun

I have a lot of wild aunties in my life. One of them is a tall and generous woman named Gudrun. She sprinkles her speech and storytelling with Norwegian phrases that warm your soul and snaps her fingers when she forgets the next word. She gets tipsy at family weddings and teaches old people the electric slide, busting so many joyful moves that she needs a Cortizone shot in her knee the next day. When her life changed with the removal of her reproductive organs, she gave them ceremony and burial while rejoicing for the children they helped make. She lives out loud, naming things that are lovely or hard and, often, both.

Gudrun lives on Lake Superior. Her backyard unfolds into a sandy beach and you can find her there walking with her dog and handsome husband. She's the one with wind whipped hair and arms filled with trash she picks up along the way. She's the one you see and think yourself I'll bet she is worth knowing well. And she is.

I am blessed to be welcoming a new sister into my life this year. Gabe is getting married next summer and Cara is quite the family acquisition! I love this woman for her wisdom and words, thoughtfulness and humor. Cara is worth knowing well, too.

Gabe and Cara have decided to make kransekake for their wedding reception, a Norwegian wedding favorite. In order to learn (and to lap up a weekend of maternal love and care on the north shore) Cara and I spent last weekend at Gudrun's house baking and laughing. Gudrun's daughter Laura came over and the kitchen filled with estrogen, our conversations nourishing each other.

Gudrun is the first person who has asked to hold my growing belly and burst out in songful melody. When she was done with the ditty, I looked down at my unborn and sent a silent message: That was Gudrun - I'll explain her later. This kid doesn't know it yet, but soon its photograph will adorn her refrigerator that operates like a string of prayer beads, filled with images of people and places that Gudrun holds in her heart. It's a good place to be.

Cara and I drove home in agreement the next day. The simple visit filled us up. Sure, we were full of chili and vaffler and delicious tea and the extra kransekake dough. But we were also filled with the love of a wild woman who took time to shower us with celebration and wisdom. As we rounded a cloverleaf on the highway just south of Duluth, I felt the child within me do a complete 360.

There were lots of reasons to leap and flip for joy on Saturday. I have no doubt that our dose of Gudrun was one of them.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Retro Stewardship Posts

I told Erica I would repost these two pieces.

Money and More: The "M" Words

Everyone Has a Stewardship Story

The first was written shortly before graduation in 2008. Jerry later included it in the Stewardship Newsletter resource. I include the link from this page because I think it provides two lessons: the first is my take on the M words. The second is don't wear pigtails on your first day of seminary. I already looked young - I didn't need to look like an escaped Wee Care kid on my ID card for four years and neither do you. You're welcome.

The second is something I wrote after this same Financial Coaching event last fall. It was exciting to hear Nathan Dungan's enthusiasm and see so many students interested in the coaching program. It gave me energy for our stewardship season at St. John's.

Oh, I just found one more from last fall, too. It seems I was on a soapbox about financial pledging and why I hope my generation can get on board with this valuable tradition.

I hope they're helpful.

First Week

It’s First Week at Luther Seminary. New students are being inundated with information about campus, classes, candidacy and everything they need to know as the crazy journey begins. I remember getting a parking ticket the first day of First Week six years ago. Maybe that irritating $35 fee played into my decision to sign up for a financial coach that day – I know several things did.

I’d never taken a loan out or balanced my checkbook for more than a few months at a time. I had spent the whole summer applying for scholarships and grants, but needed to buckle down and organize the responses I was getting. I was several steps away from forming a realistic budget and didn’t even know if I'd have the gumption to stick to it.

I signed up for short-sighted and personal reasons. I wanted to become a money person according to my own definition – I wanted to be wise and generous and self aware and confident when I left seminary a few years later. While working with a coach helped me achieve these goals, my new skills also translated to my professional life. My new found identity as a money person naturally wandered beyond my own wallet as I dreamed about my leadership style in the parish.

Jerry invited me up to share my story, which is always a slippery slope. I could talk all day long about the ways stewardship quietly permeates every class and conversation at seminary. I could share about the ways becoming a stewardship leader has been good for my personal relationship with money, my marriage and my imagination for St. John’s. But instead, I settled for this: If you decide to get a coach, make that learning and relationship a priority. Trust that the uncomfortable places you go and the hard questions you ask will bear good fruit long after you leave Luther. You'll get out of it what you put into it.

Before I left, I told Jerry that I would devote my next few entries to stewardship and seminary. He could point students and/or coaches here to read and discuss ways to live as good stewards during these strange and wonderful years. So use the comments section. Leave your thoughts, ideas, fears and hopes. They’ll inspire what I share next.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Lord be with you.

We've been preaching familiar tales from the Old Testament during August. On Sunday we hear about David and Goliath. I write my sermons even later in the week when they are not based on the lectionary. It is a blessing to wander outside the structure I am used to - choosing stories I like and texts that interest me - but it is also a strange curse because my mind and heart tug the sermon in so many different directions, it takes awhile to get legs and move. On these weeks my sermon preparation mirrors the children's book If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, finding new tangents and distractions around every corner. But that wandering is one of my favorite things about life and scripture, so today I'm taking you with me.

The first thing I noticed about this tale is that David approaches the battlefield and his brothers as an unwelcome runt. They hear him yapping that Goliath is no match for the living God. His comments make them defensive and David continues his naive and adorable take on the situation by volunteering himself. King Saul catches wind of this and, after trying to talk David out of it, simply says The Lord go with you. These are valuable words in David's ears - God's presence is the only reason David thinks he can defeat the giant! And while the soldiers of Israel watch a small shepherd boy approach the enemy, David knows he is much more than an army of one.

Then I was taken by the jealousy David's older brothers feel. As an oldest sibling, I can relate to that envy. Gabe would get swept away in rip currents when we'd play at the beach. He was so carefree and unaware by the time I would reach him and remind him to stay between the flags. I remember pushing him off the monkey bars one afternoon because I wished I were brave enough to jump off the top. He, of course, landed on his feet like a cat, giggling and ready to take another fearless dive. I wished for that ignorance and confidence that Gabe and David knew.

Next I could picture King Saul dressing David before battle, giving him fine armor and a heavy helmet for protection. Little David tried to walk, but he couldn't move! So he took the pieces off and stepped out as himself, totally vulnerable and possessing only the gifts he'd been given: a slingshot, good aim and a voice that proclaimed the true God. David wasn't a soldier and didn't need to look like one to stand up for himself, his people and his God. He just needed to stand up.

And when I imagine David walking toward the beastly Philistine holding just a staff and slingshot, I lift up a prayer for the people of St. John's and for all our churches. May the promised presence from God that Saul spoke so simply give us courage to be ourselves, to know our gifts and to stand up for the things God can do in this world. Imagine what our congregations and communities could be capable of if we trusted in whose we are and what God thinks we can do instead of banking on what we produce and who the world tells us to be.

And then I pray that we start trusting the value of our own gifts enough to call other people out on theirs, promising God's presence and creativity to our neighbors at Holy Communion and the grocery store alike. Because the world could use another optimistic runt or two.

It is Friday and the words I keep coming back to have titled this post. I have dwelled deeply in the text and wondered a lot about what God has to say this week. Who knows were Sunday will end up? That's what the Holy Spirit is for. And it's used to working with me, my crooked staff and my no-frills slingshot to preach great news.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

These are my favorite people under 40 lbs.

This was last winter, so they're bigger now. And even cuter, believe it or not. I stopped over to see my goddaughter and her equally fantastic little sister today. They knew I had a "baby in my belly" and when they didn't see a huge bump, their disappointment was palpable. We caught them sneaking glances at my stomach during lunch, probably hoping it would be bigger and more impressive by the time I left.

B had a question right away, "Meta what's your baby's name?" We brainstormed for a little bit and after considering our three names they decided on "Baby Shortcake". I like it.

L asked if I could feel it kicking yet. "Nope, but when I do, I'll come over so you can feel it." Then we colored and she helped me shop through her beautiful momma's maternity clothes. "Meta, I like this tank top on you. It's cute. Try on the capri pants again!" I got some good stuff and I made a mental note to be a reference for L's first retail interview down the road.

But the kicker melted my heart while we were using big-girl-glue to put googly eyes on wooden stick dolls:

"Meta, when you're at our house, it's like you're in our family."

"Oh, thank you, L. Can I be in your family even when I'm not at your house?"

"Um...yes. I think you definitely are."

Technically that means Baby Shortcake will be in their family, too. Lucky.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Great. Tell me about it.

I officiate a lot of weddings. I love the adrenaline rush when there are lots of details to get just right. I love to speak words of value on their big day. I also enjoy the counseling sessions that proceed the chaotic event, although I've noticed that the same conversation seems to begin most of our sessions.

“And we wanted a pastor to do the service because we were both raised in the church and, I mean, we are still very spiritual. We definitely believe in God and a higher power and want that represented in the ceremony, but I wouldn’t say we’re actively religious. I guess we haven’t talked much about our spirituality – it’s more of a personal thing – but we are both definitely spiritual.”

Great, I reply. Tell me about your spirituality.

This is the depressing part. It would be one thing if couples consistently convinced me that their personal spirituality is satisfying and shaping their everyday lives in radical ways...but they don’t. They seem apologetic, sheepish or defensive when it comes to articulating what they believe and why. Most try to explain that it’s something they’ve been meaning to get around to, like taking up yoga or cleaning out the garage. This pastor doesn’t buy it, though. Their tone, their ambiguity and the way this conversation about spirituality hangs separately from the rest of their life has me convinced: Moralistic Theraputic Deism is trendy, but it’s not actually workin’ for people.

I’m so glad Christian Smith (author of Soul Searching) came up with a label for this trend within the inactive Christian community. While 75% of Americans identify as Christian, I’m afraid most of them do so because there hasn’t been a name for what they now ascribe to – a watered down, politically correct, individualistic version of modern monotheism. Smith says this creed of beliefs includes:

  • Faith in a God who created everything.
  • God wants people to be good, nice and fair.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself.
  • God is not involved in everyday life except when I need God to solve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

Moralistic Theraputic Deism (MTD) would be just fine if the people I knew subscribing to it seemed fulfilled by its doctrine or practices. MTD would be just fine if the church were better at proclaiming how Christianity is more radical, grace-filled and life giving than this. MTD would be just fine if we all called it that instead of Christianity because Jesus did not have to die or rise for any of these bullet points above.

It turns out, we’re not a Christian nation anymore. Christendom is over and 30 years from now, I might be serving a church that doesn’t have synods or pensions or global relief funds or buildings because we forgot how to tell the story of Jesus to each other and the stranger. We might look back on 2010 and wonder what we were preaching and teaching if it wasn’t God’s truth, forgiveness and a faith that isn't trendy.

MTD is the hardest thing about weddings, but it is also my greatest motivating factor. If a couple asks me to do their wedding outside or in a public space, they are inviting me to put on my collar and tell the truth. They are giving me 150 of their closest friends and a microphone. And that’s reason enough for me to say yes.

I like to stick around after the ceremony because wedding guests with MTD often prove me right and approach me. They introduce themselves and their faith story. They don't tell me about the last few years of Sunday brunches with friends and the New York Times or finding God in nature on the 18th green. Instead, they tell me what they remember about church and pastors and the Lord’s Prayer and what kind of liturgy has been woven into their being by hymnals, Sunday school, table grace and grandmothers. They thank me for being there and for speaking words that really resonated with them.

And this is the moment that gives me great hope. They cannot articulate their spirituality or their personal creed of wandering, but they can speak fluently and firmly about their memories of faith in the church. They can tell me what it meant to be in Christian community long ago. They light up while they share - suddenly remembering where they come from.

And that’s when I always, always invite them back.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

I do not recommend morning sickness on a moped…

…or ten minutes before worship on a Sunday you’re preaching. Or at your husband’s favorite fish restaurant in Skagway, Alaska. But sometimes that stuff happens. And all you can do is take deep breaths, be quick on your feet to the bathroom and laugh about it.

It turns out I’m pregnant. We found out a few days before my brother was proposing to his beautiful girlfriend and just a few weeks before my mom got really, really sick. So we kept it quiet, enjoying our secret and waiting for the right time to tell our families about the little fetus I’m baking.

The first few weeks we knew, I thought I would explode. I wanted to spray the good news all over random strangers and thought I felt it dribbling down my chin in front of friends and family. But instead of buying billboard space or making t-shirts that said FEB 9! in enormous font, we would come home at the end of each day and talk about it with each other. We would research its growth and what I shouldn’t eat online. We would exchange na├»ve smiles, blissfully unaware of how much our life will soon change.

It was hard to keep quiet while my mom was in the ICU. Her brain was bleeding and we weren’t getting the answers we so desperately wanted. I would stand by her bed and hold her hand, wishing to crawl in alongside her because I, too, was tired and nauseas. When my matriarchs would call and ask how I was doing, I refused to cry. I was doing as well as a busy pastor with a sick mom and a worried dad could be doing…while carrying a clandestine zygote.

But Friday made all the waiting worth it. We were back from our vacation in Alaska and my family didn’t suspect a thing. Matt made a DVD of some of our photos and videos to show them before dinner and half way through, they were blown away when Matt referred to me as pregnant. Squealing ensued. It felt good to let it out and to be surrounded by their love!

I don’t know much about this fetus, but I do know a few things. We fell out of a hammock – hard – the day we found out about it and it kept clinging anyway. I climbed mountains and hiked the Chilkoot Trail in 2.5 days and it stuck with us. It really liked beef jerky for awhile and now it’s not so interested. When the ultrasound technician tried to make it roll over, the little alien threw defiant jabs and kicks. It’s now the size of a peach and will soon retire most of my pants.

These are the things I will share and yet there are so many more things that I will continue to write down elsewhere, hidden for just my new little family to know. And I guess that’s the most exciting part of all.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

This is how I cope.

My mom's brain was bleeding last week. It was scary and painful and has meant too many days in two different ICUs before doctors decided it was a clot and blood thinners might slowly break it up.

My mom is the hub in our family's communication wheel, so without her gift of gab and trusty cell phone, we have scrambled to provide information to our loved ones. On the evening I was most frightened and stressed, I created a Caring Bridge page. I hoped it would mean less time spent on the phone discussing all the maybes and I don't knows that drive me batty. It was a functional way to channel information to caring people while showing gratitude. It was a sneaky way I was able to steer clear of so many conversations that tugged at my heart strings and dared me to break down sobbing. (I'm Nordic. Sometimes we like to keep it inside until we know what's going on outside.)

Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there and say to them, "The kingdom of God has come near you." - Luke 10

This week I am living with Sunday's text about hospitality. Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and equipped seventy servants of the gospel to go into far places without toiletries or wallets or shoes. They are to proclaim, "Peace" and "The kingdom of God has come near!" to those they meet. Some will hear these words as good news and others will sense judgment - their job is simply to proclaim the truth.

They are to eat what is put in front of them and heal those who are sick. This means they are to share humble and grateful hearts in the ordinary moments of dinner together and the extraordinary moments of illness defeated. They are to be aerobic and generous and wild with their hospitality, showing people that the kingdom of God is weird and different and really good.

This text seeps into my thoughts and limbs as I thank people for their generous offers of food, time and prayer. It dwells in the dark hospital room while my mother naps or tries to keep food down. It gives me legs for what news may come tomorrow and the updates I will type and the shift schedule I will create for when she needs care at home.

Hospitality is much more than opening the doors and hoping people will come inside. It is mobile and active and communicative and patient and risky. It is about being brave enough to be vulnerable. It's about letting your daughter change your hospital gown and letting other people pick up the slack. It's about telling the truth and being uncomfortable and finding satisfaction in our plain old relationships. Because you never know when sharing a meal will turn into illness defeated.

And so when I get scared, I picture my mom and her appetite on Saturday evening. She sat before a tray of chicken pot pie and mashed potatoes and steamed carrots. And after five aggressive bites, my eyes filled with tears. It was good to see her hungry and eating. Her blood pressure monitor beeped because her enthusiasm or the food had changed her readings. But without hesitation, she ripped off her blood pressure cuff and dug back in. She was going to eat what they put before her, damn it!

Thanks be to God for my little, brave mom and the truth we are called to proclaim: The kingdom of God is right here, creeping into our everyday lives and surprising us with reasons to celebrate.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Cause for Celebration 6.0

Uff da.

Pastor Mark took this Sunday off, so he missed out on the heart-racing hilarity before worship today. Ten minutes before worship began, the sound system wasn't working and communion was not prepared. I had enlisted our sole eighth grader to be my assisting minister, but she hadn't been able to practice with a microphone. People asked me if so-and-so was doing okay. I had no idea and threw her on the list of prayers anyway.

These ministry moments are both entirely draining and energizing because there are two choices. I can wear the anxiety like an alb and freak everyone else out or I can invite them into the chaotic backstage of worshiping God, lightening the load and finding the humor together.

Larry and Bob became detectives and tracked down the missing key to the sound system. Within minutes, it was up and running.

Kari arrived with the bread and found Gladys, who was already in her pew and had forgotten about preparing communion. Together with another recruit, they filled cups and trays in record time.

I looked at my eighth grade assistant and shrugged. Sometimes it looks like this. She smiled and I knew she was up for the challenge, willing to fly by the seat of her pants...er...robe.

And then the Prelude begins. The candles are lit and people assemble. Suddenly, it turns into worship again. We sang Alleluias and I splashed kids at the font. My sidekick's prayers were loud and clear. I preached about this in between place - living out of the story of Paul and Lydia, living into Revelation's vision of the Lamb as our temple. We prayed our hearts out for one who may or may not be ill and consumed sourdough forgiveness. Perfect peace.

And then we were sent back out where sound systems will continue to fail and folks will forget the little things and we often don't get a dry run. But it is also where good things come from; detectives and helpers and young women willing to wing it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cause for Celebration 5.0

The fifth week of Easter was less about worship at St. John’s and more about my grandmother’s last days. At 92.5, my grandmother finally said something entirely vulnerable to me. Watching her set her stubborn independence aside, she peered up at me through her fingers that guarded the window’s light from her tired eyes and said, “I just want to stay here. I don’t think there’s anything the hospital can do for me.”

I was really proud of her. This old nurse and her young granddaughter with chaplain tendencies sat engulfed by this life’s only guarantee. Death was coming. And something even better than fighting pain, fragility and boredom lay on the other side. That day and the next were some of the best moments I ever had with her. Too tired to worry or provide pessimistic commentary, she was funny and relaxed in her wakeful moments. It was surprisingly good to watch her let go and I dreamed about her twenty two years of widowhood ending, her sight and strength returning, her back straightening and her joy overflowing in the moments after breath and beating here on earth.

When she was rarely conscious a few days later, I sat with her and held her hand. Grandma could no longer swallow and struggled to take in air, but her heart continued to reign, beating in defiance of her own wishes and the hospice life. When I was sure she couldn’t hear me, I said what I needed to say for my own resurrection. I whispered words from one stubborn Herrick to another and knew there would be grace.

“Grandma, I was really mad and hurt when you wouldn’t come to my wedding. It broke my heart to see all four of Matt’s grandparents there and to know that you were just a few miles away, too stubborn to get in a wheelchair for safety and sanity’s sake. And while I still don’t understand it, I forgive you. I’m sorry that you weren’t there to celebrate, but I will choose to remember how much you love me instead.”

I said other things, but this was the heaviest and hardest to put down. She died a day later and, though I waited for the reality of her absence to hit me, I could not cry. In fact, I found myself dancing around the house that first evening singing, “Barbra Herrick is ris’n today! Alleluia!” It felt like Easter and that hymn was the only thing I could muster.

The memorial service was lovely and while my eyes welled and my voice shook that morning, the tears would not drop and my shoulders would not shake. I lapped up stories and dinner invitations from her friends. I was grateful to see her descendents gathered together.

Her apartment still smelled like her when I went to help clean stuff out a few days later. I took jewelry and pictures that meant the world to me, signs of the grandma I am much like and will miss often. Her rings reminded me of the way they would slip around her fingers. She would point that out often, fishing for compliments about how thin she looked while simultaneously pilfering dining hall cookies into her purse. It felt strange to put those rings on my fingers – to see them on young hands. The photograph of her as a toddler always hung next to one of me because we looked so similar. It is the only reason I think I look like a Herrick and was glad for the evidence collected.

I took sentimental and valuable items, but I also took her face lotion and Saran wrap. I even wanted the cheap AM radio she used to listen to Twins games. She wouldn’t want the simple things to be wasted and neither did I. Placing the box in my car, I resigned myself to this strange and tearless goodbye.

A few days later, I found myself running errands near a jeweler I trust and hesitantly entered with items I had not yet made decisions about. Carefully, I showed her my grandmother’s locket and rings, touching them and lost in thought about how to clean them and whether to resize them. The woman was gruff, or at least she seemed that way. “Well, just tell me what your grandmother wants with them.” I can’t.

She slowed to my pace and together we made decisions about the memories I held in my hands. And then, she held out her palm as if to ask for the rings on my finger. They were going into an envelope and on to another jeweler for further care. Looking down at the diamond, I finally started to cry. These rings aren’t supposed to be on my fingers, let alone into your hands and shipped to someone I don’t know.

There, in a small jewelry store with an emotionally detached saleswoman, I my shoulders finally shook. And it felt really good. The belated tears and snot and sobs didn’t make my Easter hymn the day she died any less true. In fact, I think this was just the next stanza.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Old Baggage

I remember the day I found this bag. I carried it around the store for more the an hour, waiting for a long conversation with an old friend to end before I approached the register. I had my cell phone in one hand, the bag in the other as I shared the big news - I was moving to Arizona for pastoral internship.

I browsed clothing racks while confessing that I wasn't too sure about this whole "pastor" thing. I'd come to seminary hoping to study theology while avoiding pulpits and clerical collars. Suddenly, two years were almost over and I'd been matched with an internship site I was actually excited about.

I bought this red bag on one of the last days of class. It came with me to every day of CPE at Fairview Ridges in Burnsville that summer. It held my occasional services book, pastoral care resources and my smallest leather bound Bible while I moved from room to room, patient to patient. The bag came with me while I learned how powerful it is to represent God's loving presence to another. It came with me when my pager would go off in the middle of the night and when I would meet families in waiting rooms.

My red baggage got plenty of use in Arizona. It held my books and church keys. I brought it with me on bike rides and even kept bear spray in it during hikes to appease my supervisor. (He'd had 24 interns and none of them were eaten by bears - why start now?) The bag is big with plenty of pockets so I would find old post-it note prayers and little gifts from parishioners weeks and months later. I reached for this bag all 50 weeks of internship - 50 weeks of finally falling in love with God's call.

The bag has been tearing here and there since it became my backpack during senior year and my purse during this first call. Now it peels, leaving little red crumbs around our house and my office. It's been ready for a replacement, but I've been hesitant to say goodbye.

Call it idolatry. Tell me I have attachment issues or that I need a pet. Still, I'm feeling sentimental as I toss the tattered bag that saw me through so much discernment and ministry.

Bye bye, baggage. Thanks for tagging along through big, beautiful years.

Cause for Celebration 4.0

Newcomers brought their coffee into the lounge to learn more about St. John's today. One couple brought their small children and I chuckled watching them eat donuts. Like so many of our youngest Sunday schoolers, they chewed the frosting off the top of the doughnut and then handed the leftovers to a parent. Mouths colored with sprinkles make me happy.

Each visitor shared their St. John's story - how they came upon the church and what keeps them coming back to find out more. It was good to learn what they need and notice. Hooray for new members of the Body! When the building was finally empty, I locked the door and headed into the overcast day wearing a frosted sprinkle, hope-filled smile.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cause for Celebration 3.0

We have a lot of Alleluias to sing and a lot of candles to light during the Easter season. I make a lot of dumb jokes to the acolytes because they a) make funny faces that suggest they're mostly unimpressed b) have nowhere to hide from my comedy routine during the prelude c) need to know that what they do is a big deal.

More than two dozen candles await them and, this morning, James took his time making sure they all found flames. He came back into the narthex pleased with himself, but I later noticed that one never took. A wall of fire was missing one, small light.

And I kind of like it that way. In a church of imperfect people singing glory to God, that dormant candle reminded that God still chooses this quirky, lovely worship over no worship at all...and that each Alleluia that reached a high D was perfect in God's ears, even if my high D is far from pleasant.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cause for Celebration 2.0

Today I stood outside the Sunday school area as class was coming to an end. Engaged in conversation with a parent, his son approached with a coloring sheet. Hoping up and down, desperate to interrupt, he finally got our attention.

"Dad, he was in there, but now he's not there anymore. It was empty. When they looked in there, Dad, it was empty!"

The coloring sheet was waved in front of us like an Easter parament or a resurrection flag. We nodded and rejoiced and affirmed his proclamation, but it wasn't enough for him.

Again he interrupted to tell the story that was captivating his little mind and heart. He mom soon appeared and his witness had a new audience. With the same urgency, he told her the truth he couldn't hold in. Mom said the coloring sheet isn't going in the recycling bin anytime soon.

It's a banner of faith and, on this less spirited, less attended Easter Two, I'm glad he waved it wildly for all to see.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Is there a pastor here I could talk to?

When I hear these words from outside my office door, I put down my sermon or book and turn to see The Stranger.

The cynic in me prepares for an embellished story about a relative's funeral in South Dakota and how they need gas money to get there and how they've tried all the social services in town and no one can help. (Some even add a frosted layer on top of their story like, "The other pastor has helped me when I've come here before" or, "I just thought the church would be the place to turn since you guys are in the business of helping widows and orphans".)

Today, it was a big, bleary-eyed fella who had hard work spelled into his hands and face. He wanted to see a pastor because he is piecing is life back together after a break up and a few weeks of sobriety. He doesn't believe in much of anything and couldn't quite explain why he'd dared to come inside this limestone fortress.

He wasn't after the tangibles: a bus ticket or gas card or diapers.
He was in search of the big answers: faith and hope and love.

These are the people who sit down in my office and ask if they can close the door a crack. Then they unload their sins, waiting for me to look appalled or to tell them that grace does not apply in these circumstances. They name their shame and loneliness. They speak of lost dreams and the way each day teeters between sobriety and letting it all go to hell.

His phone rang twice and then he had to go back to work. His lunch break was over. I invited him back next week and before he left, I gave him God's promise:
There is nothing you could walk in here and tell me that would make God write you off. Every time you've run to a dark place, God has both already been there and followed you - ever present and waiting for you to come home. You mentioned several times that you have given up on God, but if you can remember one thing about today, remember that I looked you in the eye and told you this: God has never and will never give up on you. You don't have to believe it yet, but you do have to look at me while I say it, okay?
If he comes back next week, I'll tell him again. And if he comes back four months from now deeper in darkness and further off his hopeful path than today, I'll tell him then, too. All I can do is keep my promise to pray for him until he comes back.

Gracious God, may the people who dwell most deeply in the law know witnesses of gospel. Make these voices prominent in the face of sin and things that separate them from feeling worthy of your love. Amen.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Cause for Celebration 1.0

I've decided to note seven reasons I love celebrating resurrection at St. John's, one for each week of the Easter season. Here we go...

The sanctuary was filled with 260 people this morning. I do my best delegating on busy mornings like this, inviting people to participate and lead well in advance so I can roam around chatting and preparing for worship. Today's egg hunt had several saints behind it. Anne stuffed the eggs last week before heading out of town. Val supervised the herd of youth hiding them for the little ones. And Maria, a very responsible ninth grader, was given my camera to take pictures while the smallest kidlits went on the prowl for pastel plastic and sugar.

Sitting in front of my computer a few hours later, I uploaded the photos to have a look at the action I'd missed while dressing for worship. There, in the corner of Maria's pictures were some of the most grace-filled moments I've seen at St. John's. A prayer partner connected with her shy seventh grade match, handing her a gift bag and causing the teen to blush with joy. Older siblings helped little ones fetch eggs from behind bushes and then placed them delicately in the basket instead of stealing them. Friends helped friends with allergies sort peanuts, chocolate and hard candy. New members were laughing with old ones.

In the background of nearly every photograph, I saw new life. And that's what today is all about.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Two friends asked me yesterday what I love about being a pastor. They wanted to know what I do all day and why I am nourished by work in a small congregation. These questions are my conversational gateway drugs. I start talking faster and faster, smiling wider and wider as I tell about the beauty of being a generalist in ministry. I ooze gratitude for the lessons I'm learning and the people who whisper their sacred sorrows and joys in my ear.

Yesterday, for instance, was an ordinary day. I put the key in the door to my office expecting to do a few particular things, assuming I would not get to others and waiting for the "interruptions" that always call me into true ministry.

I read and prayed and scribbled sermon ideas for Palm Sunday. I wandered through the sanctuary, preparing the space for worship. I read the children's book "Benjamin's Box: The Story of the Resurrection Eggs" to get a sense of the Sunday school project this week. I answered emails.

Then I drove to a lunch meeting where we discussed Luther Seminary's role in preparing healthy stewardship leaders for congregations across the country. A member of the team's car broke down and I took her home. Our conversation had more time to grow and it was a worthy digression from my day.

I finished my afternoon visits sitting with a brave and beautiful and stubborn woman getting used to the idea of comfort care and saying goodbyes. She told me things about her prayer life that sounded naked and vulnerable, as though they had never been given words until now. We held hands and prayed.

It is an honor to serve people communion by name, to remember their baptisms and to listen to the complexity of their job searches or the hymns their mother loved as we plan a funeral together. It is a lovely thing to be invited into the home of a widow who has never managed money or technology and now must fax her late husband's will. It's a beautiful victory to show her weathered fingers something new and to see her strong smile when she hits "send".

I am grateful for the Valentines I receive from Sunday school students, covered in glitter and made with love. I am grateful for the stale cookies I am offered during home visits and they way they soften in my mouth with the help of dark coffee. Yesterday was a good day and, as I put the key in my office door this morning, I got the feeling today will be filled with blessings, too.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dust to Dust

The season of Lent begins with a dimly lit sanctuary and Psalm 51. The remements of last year's palms are mixed with oil and lodge under my fingernails as I paint them on the foreheads of my fellow sinners. The mark of our faith is often traced with water, oil or just a finger itself. Tonight we make our humanity visible in the ashes, signs of this life as creatures of God.

Tonight was especially worshipful as I watched the people of St. John's welcome my favorite season with all of their strength and gifts.

When Brian and Kevin realized that we didn't have any ushers, that offering baskets had been placed near the perimeter, they convened in back to debate how they could help during the communion liturgy. Their leadership is part of how they worship and I smiled with gratitude during their summit.

Deborah and Sarah acted faithfully when they noticed how slowly we were moving through communion without the help of an acolyte. They came alongside us with quiet grace because their leadership is part of how they worship and I smiled with gratitude as they handed each other trays.

The most sacred moment about the service was breaking bread. The loaf that we share most often during worship is a hard, crusty bread. In order to break it (without using my knee!) I have to dig my thumbs deep into the center and rip it with all of my strength. Crumbs fly everywhere and only the very center is soft and fleshy.

On nights like tonight, this bread showed all of my senses what a violent and radical gift we have in Christ's perfect body. The loaf's golden hue, it's crunching as I ripped and pulled, the sweet smell of each piece and the way it felt both rough and tender in my hand - I placed a piece of this body in each pair of hands, watching them taste its truth and grace.

Sometimes it's easy to miss the details or forget the power of these holy moments. When the lights dim causing new reflection, the ashes smell faintly of green spring and the body sprays crumbling flesh all over the table, I suddenly remember. And being present in worship with other believers makes that a beautiful thing.

Because nothing beats remembering together.

Friday, January 8, 2010

glitten up the gray

Christmas brought snow. The new year brought ice. Epiphany brought a deep chill that has settled over much of the country, pressing down on us during the short days and dark nights. These are the things of winter gray and they can make us do silly things.

I love the tundra because it is never too much for the seasoned veteran. Once you agree to plan ahead and put fashion aside, you are warm enough - even on days like today. One of my favorite pieces of winter equipment? A pair of glittens - that's glove|mittens. Every pair I own are colorful with a hoodie for my fingertips when the wind starts to whip or I'm scraping my windshield. They are stuffed into pockets, purses and glove boxes, worn so often that my parishoners have started to notice my manus flair.

Today I was visiting a beautiful woman I see often. She loves to tell stories and I listen, wondering if I only care about each random collection of tales because I care so deeply about her. Some were new and some were the old favorites I hear each visit. I played with my glittens as she talked and somehow they were back on my hands before we reached for each other to pray. I started to take them off again, but she stopped me. "Keep them on - they're beautiful and cozy and I want to touch them while we pray." And so she rubbed my fingers through the soft wool, smiling as we declared Amen together.

Before I left, I snooped around the curtain that divided her room. I like to check on roommates at nursing homes for all kinds of nosey and well-intentioned reasons. Sometimes they are sawing logs or crabby, but usually they're curious and lonely. While this curious stranger didn't speak much English, she was glad I had stopped over and offered me a seat on her bed. She reached for my glittens and I let her hold my hands. She traced the colors with her long fingernails, then gestured toward the curtain. "You are her family? You listen to her stories?"

Come to think of it, yes. It's what we all do. It's a simple and beautiful thing that breaks through the gray and all the layers of winter.