Thursday, September 26, 2013


One of our lovely quilting ladies
cleaned up at the state and county fair!
I get to church when the quilters do on Tuesday mornings. Just two women this week, but there are always enough hands for the work to be done. Always enough words and ears for listening, too.

There was a woman waiting for me by my office door. We introduced ourselves and she confided about her current struggles. I hear a lot of these down-on-your-luck stories and can smell a bullshitter a mile away. Lucy* is not one of them. She is discouraged and misses work and wishes she had a place to call home. We came up with a flimsy plan with promising resources and then I asked her to get her phone charger out of her truck. "Come down to the Banquet Room so you can charge your phone and start making these connections on a full battery. The quilters are downstairs. They've got banana bread and coffee, too."

She returned with her charger and casually mentioned that she'd been baptized here long ago. "It still smells the same," which, to her seemed a comfort and to me seemed like a poor church marketing strategy. I introduced Lucy to the ladies and left her in good hands.

On my way back up the stairs, I found a Somali woman ringing the doorbell 8,000 times. When I opened the door, she shouted, "Sewing machine, sewing machine!" Ah yes. I remember this woman from ESL classes. She's likes to bridge the language barrier with volume and has a hurricane for a three year old daughter. She had misinterpreted "quilting group" as "free sewing lessons" and was soon inside the door handing me a stroller to take down the stairs. Our gracious ladies received her with the same good hands.

Late morning, I wandered back downstairs to put something in the refrigerator and found a beautiful sight. One of the quilting ladies was laughing with the Somali Shouter, both hunched over a machine and making great progress on a zig zag stitch. Her daughter was napping on a Princess-and-the-Pea-sized stack of quilts in the corner. The other quilting lady had invited Lucy to pin and tie on a big purple quilt. She remembered Lucy's baptism and they had catching up to do. Lucy's eyes smiled with the warm relief of being useful while her phone slowly filled with juice.

Later our youngest quilter dropped by to catch up and share material. She's in her twenties and doesn't have class until late afternoon. Her grandmother once taught her to quilt and she makes the most beautiful quilt tops you've ever seen. And so the Banquet Room filled with hands.

Two quilters began the morning alone in the big Banquet Room. You might have seen them and assumed the ministry was stalled out or dying. You might have been fooled into thinking their hands were doing simple things, but they are not. They are holy and gentle hands that stir up love and hope right under our noses.

Monday, September 23, 2013

remembering buddy.

He killed Osama bin Laden. He was a five-star general in World War 1. He was the self-appointed grounds keeper of Zion. He was a life-long Lutheran and I'd been his pastor for 37 years. He lived to keep the streets of Lyndale safe. "People out there call me Vietnam Rambo. You can call me Buddy."

Brian "Buddy" Arland Lemke had a rough life. He grew up surrounded by mental illness and drugs, dysfunctional relationships and instability. By the time I met him in February of 2012, he was a roller coaster of mood swings and personalities. He had been in and out of treatment several years earlier and now he claimed Jesus and recovery as his healers. But he usually smelled like booze. His shame and secrecy and defensiveness about drinking was tangible. And that only added to the unpredictable nature of his relationships.

But several weeks into my call at Zion, I had a neighborhood bully in my face, ready to punch me during the Wednesday meal. He was spitting and swearing and my heart pounded until I got him seated again. Twenty minutes later, Buddy approached me and said George wanted to talk to me. "I'm not talking to George right now. He needs to finish his dinner, use kind words, and leave quietly when he's finished." But Buddy had been lecturing him about respect and authority since the confrontation. And George was ready to apologize. I have rarely seen George make eye contact and offer genuine confession since that evening. Buddy had my back and he made perfect sense in ways I could not.

I learned a lot about myself and human nature from Buddy. He embodied our insatiable need for love and affection, for praise and community. He danced on the edges of both harmless and harmful behavior. He was Christ. And then sometimes it was really, really hard to be Christ to him.

There is a banner that hangs on the wall in Zion's sanctuary. It reads, "We welcome diverse individuals and build community in the Lyndale neighborhood." Everyone interpreted these words differently when it came to Buddy and his occasional and exhaustive boundary crossing. Were we being gracious? Were we being doormats? 

And then too many lines were crossed all at once. A few had very good reason to feel unsafe at Zion because of his behavior. So there was a holistic intervention involving church members, property owners, social workers and police officers. And new rules. And opportunities for health and support. And love and prayer and tears. And for a few days, there was hope.

And then, for a year, there was nothing.

Buddy disappeared into the neighborhood as quickly as he'd come. One day of vulnerable honesty and acceptance was real but unbearable - his comfortable layers of stories and personas soon returned and we existed apart for some time.

I still wrote him letters and we still prayed for him regularly.
Maybe he'd be back someday.

But we learned this weekend that he's gone. Buddy died last week of a drug overdose in his rent-a-room. The neighborhood mascot, the cyclone of mania and sadness is now at peace. He now knows -really knows - how fiercely he is loved and can be himself without shame or illness in tow.

There is one sign of Buddy during this year of absence that I will miss. He wore lipstick on his manic days and we have often found pink kiss marks on the sanctuary doors. The sun would bake them into the windows and I hated the idea of scrubbing his shadowy presence away. These sweet signs will be missed by quite a few.

Teenagers and widows are grieving for Buddy. God bless Zion, where sweet Joan says prayers for him and tears up at the loss. Where lovely LuAnn buys flowers in remembrance of Buddy. Where members of the choir dig up copies of his favorite anthem to sing later this fall. This is the feast. This is community and being known.

I will speak of him this Wednesday at Recovery Worship when we remember and commend him. And I will speak of him on All Saints Sunday when I remind folks about the wideness of the Meal. We are still feasting with the ones who are gone. And they are feasting in preparation for our arrival.

And thank God for the feast. Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Matt has been working long days, away. I am tired, but doing my best. Jasper senses a shift. He recently gave up pacifiers and moved into a "big boy bedroom". Turns out, this doorknob is easier to open than his old room and the newfound freedom has gone to his head.

He used to wait quietly in bed each morning, sucking on his pacifier and stroking his blanket with his thumb until we came to get him. Now he wakes with urgency, ready for the day to begin. I feel hands on my face at 5:45am and hear, "Wake up!" Naps are disappearing, too. And because he's exhausted but in denial, the whining and crabbiness is off the charts.

Yesterday was one of those long days and by 9:00pm, he was still fighting me about everything. We'd had several bedtimes, dozens of books, a few drinks of water, and my rocking chair offer was refused. My sermon was only half done and I kept bursting into tears of frustration. And so, I gave him a dose of Benadryl. I mixed it with apple juice and he downed it while I put the baby gate up outside his bedroom door. He watched from the inside, curious about this relic from babyhood.

"Can you climb over it?" He tried, but it was several inches too high.

And then I walked away while he screamed for me to come back.

Downstairs I opened my computer and began to write. The house soon grew quiet and I waited for a thud - thinking the dose might hit him like a tranquilizer hits an elephant. But it was peaceful and there were tears of relief. I had made it through another day of his bold reaction to all this change. I fed him and held his hand crossing the street and didn't shake him to death. And today, that was enough.

Today was Polka Sunday at Zion! We host a homegrown polka band each fall, lots of visitors, and a potluck. We sing hymns and liturgy to tunes like The Happy Wanderer and Roll Out the Barrel and The Budweiser Song. The ring leaders, husband and wife, dance with jubilee as they rock out on the trombone and accordion. It's festive and warm. I was proud of my congregation for being so proactive about inviting friends and family - we doubled in size and the singing was fantastic!

We follow the Narrative Lectionary at Zion, so today's text was The Binding of Isaac. Because nothing says Polka Sunday like near child sacrifice, right? But there were, of course, good things to hear in this weird and wild Word. Abraham knows both deep discouragement and great laughter. And in the midst of all things, he shows up. Three times he answers, "Here I am". And while showing up might break him, it might bless him, too. I thought a lot about Abraham's tears this morning - tears for every emotion - every breaking and every blessing.

The congregation was in great spirits with one exception - that pastor's son was whining for his mother the whole time and finally his poor, brave godparents had to take his crabbing outside. This is exactly why I don't bring Jasper to church when Matt is gone - he's a drain on everyone when he doesn't have his pew, his dad, and his routine.

So after worship I collected his tears and scraped knees. And instead of welcoming visitors and enjoying the feast with my people, I cowered in a dark room with My Little Terrorist, who was determined to fun-suck Polka Sunday. A few saints tried to help and did. A few others thought they were helpful and I smiled. I hate when my vocations collide and make me feel like the rusty hinge between them. His ache got inside of me and soon there were tears in my eyes, too. Tears of exhaustion. "You broke me this week, Jasper. I don't have anything left. I'm sorry."

The nap was evaded once again this afternoon and I knew it was time to call for back up because:
  1. It was no longer healthy for us to hang out in this house by ourselves.
  2. I really, really wanted to attend my friend Ingrid's ordination.
The village came barreling down 35, timing their departure from the lake just right. They rang the doorbell and said simply, "Here I am". And like Abraham, that was more than enough. They would love him and like him in ways I could not. They would take a turn being broken and blessed while I healed a little bit. And so I cried tears of thanksgiving before grabbing my purse.

The sanctuary was filled when I arrived and, like a late Lutheran, I had to sit up front. I didn't vest since I thought I'd have Mean Jasper with me, but I ended up squatting undercover in a seat reserved for the clergy members processing. 

The music began and I melted into pew-lay-parishioner-not-in-charge mode. The choir and bells and children filled the aisle, chanting about light and love and life. Their voices were strong and seemed to believe in these things, so I trusted them and leaned into their news. It washed over me and filled me with good things. And soon I opened my mouth and sang along.

Ingrid is called and blessed and loved. 
Every time I looked at Ingrid, I wept tears of awe. She will be so very good at this work. She is blessed by the saints who surrounded her - people of every time and place who know and love her and champion this call from God. It made me recall my own ordination more than five years ago and soon my heart swelled with something besides weary insecurity and discouragement. For days I had shown up only to be broken by Jasper. But this time was different. This time I was blessed by the Promise and the Call and the Community. I was being restored by Word and Meal and song and the faces of people who know hard life and who show up anyway.

I stayed late into the evening, laughing with friends and bursting into tears of joy every now and then. I am so very grateful for signs of the blessing: for Ingrid and my village and baby gates and Benadryl and Zion and liturgy and wild rice soup 

and the Call to keep showing up.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

what to wear.

Today was the last of four Sundays in Ephesians. The author, probably one of Paul's friends or students, ends the letter by encouraging believers to "go all in". Discipleship is not like an Old Country Buffet where you pick and choose your carbs. It's not like designing a new laptop on, customizable and tailored to your liking.

It is like full body armor you shlep around. It is like a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, shoes made for walking, a shield of faith, and a helmet of salvation. It is like a sword of the Spirit, which you steward - the sword of scripture and the Story that knits us together with promises from God.

You don't just wear the belt because it's light and fashionable. Or the helmet because it's sunny out. You don't hide the sword when it gets inconvenient to be proactive and proclaiming. The author tells us to put it all on because we never know what we'll need. The future is unknown, but God gives us the armor to weather challenges and create hope. And so we take it all.

Not in a creepy "we're all drinking the Kool-aid" way. There is still a deep need for diversity and questioning, struggle and doubt. We still need to read the whole Creed and then stumble through a few lines we're not so sure about these days. Put it all on. Wrestle with it. Carry it around. Keep it all in the mix so it saturates your worries and needs and dreams.

When I received the offering plates during worship, I noticed a well-worn baggie of quarters. Laundry money. Someone had offered their funds for clean clothes and sheets and towels upon hearing this news of holy armor. Someone had offered their own armor for God's clothing.

I wept in my office a bit before heading home today, partly because I'm hormonal and partly because I'd planned to spend the afternoon doing my own laundry. In my basement. Quarter-less. I am in awe of the faith and stewardship of people at Zion. They give regularly and generously. They give faithfully and creatively. They believe in God's deep protection and provision.

I saved the baggie. It's a sign of the flimsy, but very comforting armor we create for ourselves. And it's a sign of the ways we can offer our whole selves to God's armor and shelter instead.