Sunday, December 25, 2016

Blessed are you who bear the light...

A portion of Jan Richardson’s poem “Blessed are you who bear the light…”

Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith,
in stubborn hope,
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.

From Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons by Jan Richardson, pages 47-48.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Are you the one? Or should we wait?

 Isaiah 35 & Matthew 11

“Are you the one who we’ve been waiting for Jesus? Or what?”

John is in prison. Things are not looking good. Emboldened by God’s Spirit and maybe by the flocks of people coming to receive baptism, John had spoken out against the tyrants of his time—Herod and Herodias—and they heard the critique, were upset, and threw him in prison … and probably at this point in the story, John’s whole sense of God’s plans are called into question. Things are not looking good from the inside of the cell, so he calls out this question to Jesus. “Is there any reason for hope? Are you the one or did I stake my life on this God-mission for nothing?”

Whether or not we’re at John’s level of passion and commitment, we’ve had something like that question go through our minds. It’s a question about purpose, about where we put our hopes, and about wondering from the middle of the story what the end will be.

These past couple of weeks, several of us at Christ have been walking with and praying intently for the Humphrey family of Rock of Ages, the Baptist church that worships in this space right after us. Pastor John Humphrey gave me permission to share with you that their oldest daughter, Jonnay, has been in jail. She was coerced at gunpoint to participate in a robbery, and with the real criminals, she was incarcerated. Her faith has been tested in jail. Doesn’t God hear our prayers? Then, why is she still in the cell? Why is the bail so high? Why did this even happen to her? Knowing she was vulnerable, why didn’t God protect her?

These are the questions we ask God on behalf of Jonnay… these are the questions that rise up from the cell, when all looks bleakest… when it seems as if God is powerless or not acting on behalf of God’s people at all.

And here is what Jesus says in response to John’s deep questions (and ours)—

People who have been unable to walk can now walk. People covered with leprosy are now cleansed. People who could not hear can now hear. People who live in poverty can look forward to a time when there will more than enough…

God will release individuals and systems from these disabling conditions, so that all interactions and relationships take place according to God’s original purposes.[1]

And although some of God’s healing, then and now, is literal—literally, people being given glasses and being able to see—I think that Jesus is not saying that the physical cure is the main thing… because we can all think of so many examples, then and now, of moments when a physical cure just didn’t happen.

In fact, John’s story ends in a bizarre turn of events… with his death.

John’s story ends, but the storyteller seems to be trying to tell us that it is not the end for him, or for the God-movement that he was part of… God’s work continues in Jesus, who is confident that God never gives up offering the world opportunities to become more like heaven.[2] And God’s work continues through “even the least in the kingdom of heaven”… then and now.

Maybe we feel like “the least” as we wait and watch for God’s action… maybe we feel like those exiles Isaiah describes—with weak hands, feeble knees, fearful hearts, obscured vision, hindered hearing, broken bodies, and silent tongues… I imagine that with that long list, there’s none of us who can’t identify because either we have that physical challenge or we have it metaphorically. This season, so many people have been utterly overwhelmed by despair and weariness. Our capacities needed to move through this world have been diminished. We’ve felt sorrow in our bodies, deep in our bones.[3]

But the good news is that God does not abandon us to our despair. Our sorrow will come to an end, and on a day when the sick body will find new life in God, Isaiah says the people of God will: “Come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

It’s not just humans who will benefit, Isaiah describes the whole creation will experience new life… and Isaiah in the end invites us into this life-changing vision, giving us both something to do and something to preach to others (you heard me right, you are all invited to be preachers in your everyday life… sharing your reasons for hope and assurance with those who are bent down by despair and hopelessness).

Here’s the invitation to courage:

Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.”

That is not our usual picture of vengeance. It’s not our usual picture of payback.

God’s way is to protect and save—and it’s for you… and for everyone who needs to see this life and hear this word from you.

This morning, we’ll act this out. We’ll stand and sing. We’ll confess our sins and hear them forgiven. We’ll pray for people like Jonnay who are incarcerated and for all those who need healing—from physical pain and for all the other kinds of fear and despair that make us unable to move—and we’ll pray for confidence in God who has come in Jesus Christ and will continue to come to save us.

And then at Holy Communion, you are invited up to receive not only the bread and cup, the healing & restoring body of Christ… but to receive prayers personally, through the laying on of hands of another sister or brother in Christ who is clinging with you to the promise that this future that Isaiah and Jesus describe is not just a dream unfulfilled. In fact, it has been and is and will continue to come into being.

So we are invited to watch and walk with Jesus, the One, for signs of the Holy Way, both as we wait and then as waiting comes to an end… and God’s joy breaks through to us.

[1] Ron Allen, Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11 at, Accessed 12/6/2016.
[2] Ron Allen, Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11 at, Accessed 12/6/2016.
[3] Michael Chan, Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10 at, Accessed 12/6/2016.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

In the wilderness... glorious signs

Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 11 and Matthew 3 

A friend of mine seems to always be watching for stories online… stories of that look like the vision of God as Isaiah paints it… she posts these stories of poor people being lifted up, of enemies reconciling, of violence ending… and she labels them this way. “The kingdom of God is like… [this].”
She is a more subtle John the Baptist…. But as for the original John the Baptist? There was nothing subtle about him! Out from the wilderness he speaks with total clarity, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He looks like a modern-day Elijah, a prophet inviting people into practices to prepare for a new way of life with God.
And in the part of John’s message that we didn’t print today, John compares this work of getting ready to removing the chaff from the grain. Or in other words, removing the protective covering around the grain that was very important while it was growing and maturing but that is no longer needed since the grain is now fully mature and ready for harvest. I wonder, What is chaff in our lives? “What has outlived its purpose in our lives? What have we convinced ourselves is protecting us when it is not?”[1] What is the chaff this season that could just as well be removed and thrown into the oven for fuel (where it could do far more good than it’s doing clinging to us)?
This reminds me a lot of the kinds of conversations we had together throughout the last month in the forums that Roger and Anne facilitated, as we talked about the book Being Mortal, and asked ourselves and each other, “What do we need to do as we age or face health crises to make life worthwhile, each step of the way?”  What can we do during this season to make life worthwhile? There are moments for acquiring (December can surely feel like that kind of month!) but there are also moments in this season for letting go of what is unnecessary (the chaff) so we can get to the real kernel.
So that’s one image… an image that in ancient language would have been called “purgation” or spiritual cleansing or in today’s terms, “Simplifying.” It’s emptying ourselves to make space for more.
It seems as if we’re being invited through Advent to be open to more.
All month, we’re preparing… for what? For Christmas Day? Well, let’s be honest. For our consumer culture, it all ends on December 25th when people throw out their trees on the curb, thanking God it’s finally over.  For Christians, this month is getting ready to start. It’s more like the concept behind the Black Belt in Taekwondo. You go through all this training, learn all these forms, and finally you achieve the Black Belt which means, “I’m ready to begin.”
That is what Advent is for us… practices, learning our forms, letting go of what is not needed anymore, and getting ready to be open to God’s fresh new start.
And in that way, perhaps the deep darkness of this month is a gift.
For those of us who feel such pressure to bring God’s justice and peace to people in need right now, to those of us who are impatient with God’s timing, for those who want to move mountains and make a way out of no way…For those who are crushed by their anxiety in not being able to do all and be all… the darkness of Advent blocks out so many things, makes it impossible to see the big picture, means we have to rely on just on what’s right in front of us, God, and each other… as somehow in this deep winter darkness, God is doing something bigger than what we can see, under the ground, in the root system.
When things look bleakest, when we look at what once was a grand tree and now appears to be a chopped-down stump, God’s work is like that strong shoot springing out from the stump, a signal to all of us that God doesn’t leave us in death. God doesn’t leave us lost in the night. God is not done yet. We try to chop these volunteer tree shoots away because this tree’s invading our fences or alleys, and in response, it relentlessly grows. It’s like a body giving birth. Once the labor has begun, there’s no going back for mother or baby… and really, although it’s painful, stressful, strange… we have to go through it to get through to the new life on the other side.
So what practices can we do to get ready for it all to begin again? Well David Whyte, a poet, invites us to be brave in facing the challenges this way:
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take…
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.
Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take2

Here’s where we might start being brave…
In prayer; In paying attention to other people
lighting candles in trust in the darkness and waiting time
Practicing silence and listening
Ramping down vs. ramping up… practicing peace

However we practice, we can know that the final result is not up to us. Remember the dawn at the other end of the dark that Pastor Elizabeth spoke of last Sunday? Remember Isaiah’s lion and ox, and that child with its hand over the snake’s hole (but unharmed)?
God’s vision of wholeness and completion has been around for all of time… and God is not done bringing this vision into being. We watch for God’s signal in the wilderness, flickering like a candle, growing relentlessly from the stump… crying out like a prophet… God is near and so we get ready… to begin again.

2 David Whyte, River Flow: New and Selected Poems

[1] From Denise Anderson, current Co-Moderator of the PC-USA

Sunday, November 13, 2016

By your endurance you will gain your souls

Luke 21                                                                                        

We woke up Tuesday and this is what we said in my house, “Today is a day for celebration because the campaign season’s over!” “Wait,” one child asked, “It’s over? Who won?” And we explained that Tuesday was voting day so everyone would be casting their votes… and all day, I prayed for people to make it to the polls, for voting to go smoothly, for everyone to have the opportunity to vote… and all day, I watched as my friends cast their votes, with a feeling of joyfulness and anticipation and because of the people in my circles of friends, lots and lots of “#I'mwithher.”  There was this sense among women leaders and friends in every category that Trump has diminished over the course of his campaign that… today, we’ll be done with this nonsense. We got this.

When colleagues said to me, “You know, I’m getting a little worried.” I said, “No, no… don’t worry!”

So I’m not telling you this because I think that you should believe and think as I do…

As Lutheran pastors, we don’t tell our congregations who to vote for from the pulpit—unlike some faith traditions—because we deeply value your ability to vote from your own conscience, but I’m revealing where I was at so that you’ll have a picture of where I was at on Tuesday night as the results started rolling in & commentators were both in shock (How did we get this so wrong?) and already giving all kinds of analysis about why of course this happened. There was no more memory of the hateful campaigning or the late breaking FBI accusations and withdrawals of accusations. (Now the new analysis was, well, the Democrats simply lost touch with the working poor. The Democrats chose the wrong candidate; the party got ahead of the country on social issues; it was a backlash; it shows the depth of racism in the U.S.)… and at 11 p.m. we tried to get to sleep but you know, it wasn’t a good sleep…. and when we woke to the news that it was done? For me… the unthinkable had happened.

When we’re hit with shock, fear, grief… we all have different responses. My first response was to get busy… to tell the news and reassure our kids—we’ll make it through this. I was so, so grateful that I got to meet with people all through the day on Wednesday. First, my weekly text study where we read this gospel from Luke together:

Jesus says the temple will be torn down. There will be news of wars and insurrections… there will be natural disasters… and people will be persecuted.

Just imagine the people who Jesus is talking with. They look together at the temple with mixed feelings, because it’s both a beautiful monument to their faith … but it’s also a source of embarrassment (because an oppressive ruler, Herod, had built it). By the time Luke is writing this story, the temple has already been destroyed, so this story of its destruction is not fortune-telling… it’s remembering together how Jesus told them, “Bad things will happen… and it won’t just be out there, it will be personal… they may come for you, Jesus’ followers…. But you shouldn’t fear it or worry about it… and the way that you should interpret all this suffering, if and when it comes to you, is as an opportunity to testify.

An opportunity to testify. An opportunity to tell your story, tell God’s story. An opportunity to say the truth of what you see to the best of your ability, to be ready for God to give you words and a wisdom that none of your betrayers can contradict… because by your endurance you will gain your souls.

So on Wednesday, my next gathering was our Matthew Bible Study that meets on Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m. and in that circle, I said to each weary and worried person, “Welcome to this circle of love.” And then, I got to visit members of our congregation who voted for Trump, and I asked why, and I listened to their response… and then, in the evening, I gathered with the Confirmation students… who had wise words and good questions and told about how they had hugged their crying teachers throughout the day, and told how they are accompanying with care & kindness other students who are worried that their parents will be deported.

Since Wednesday, I’ve been watching and reading as some of you have testified by going to protests… as others have shared ideas about how to deepen community in response to acts of hate by those who are now emboldened to bully and harass those who are most vulnerable…

I’ve wondered if there are those of you who haven’t felt safe to have conversations with others… or who just haven’t had the chance. I’ve wondered who is feeling worried and which worries are most founded…

I sat with another group on Thursday in which two African American pastors cried and said they are so tired of feeling unsafe… and so the fact that more that 50% of both white women and men voted for the agenda that Trump campaigned on is so disheartening. The fact that Evangelical Christians voted for this platform shakes their faith. In social media… I watched as witnesses are labeling hateful actions since Wednesday [for example, a parade by the KKK, racist graffiti, kids telling other kids to go back to their country (even if their home country is this one)] as signs of “waking up in a new America.” But the idea that this is new for white liberals and progressives feels so hollow to these Black pastors… because this is the America they have experienced far too much, far before Wednesday…

And then, there’s Michael Moore… and others. Who knew this outcome would happen all along. Who say those of us who thought Trump was not electable were living in a bubble. Who know everything.

It wasn’t until Friday morning that I finally broke down, really feeling the grief of it all. It was when a friend of mine sent an article I had written ten years ago for Café—an online magazine for young adult women who want to build their faith. This article was on “raising your voice” and had been published in October 2006, prior to a less consequential mid-term election, back before we even imagined having our first Black president. And as I read that article, I remembered…

Remember everything that you’ve survived?

Remember how we weathered the storm together after the events of September 11, 2001?

Remember how we’ve lived through other leaders who told us lies and didn’t serve our best interests? Remember, how in every political moment—no matter how good or faulty our elected leaders—we are freed in Christ and that is what gives us power to do good? Whether we are called to use that ability to bring about political change in the limelight, or whether we are called to simply serve, love, and shelter others in our daily life and work, in far less visible ways…

As I’ve been reading friends’ reactions to this election, there is one friend who is, I think it’s fair to say—madder than a hornet. She’s especially mad at Christians. She keeps writing scenarios that describe certain people’s shocking prejudice and then tags it with these words #YourJesusIsShowing.

Underneath all that fierce anger, I think there are two deeper questions that occur to many of us:

What in the world is God up to?

And how could people who call themselves Christians think any of this?

(How could any Christian reject the neighbor, support someone who says and does such hateful things, etc.)

And in a climate where workplaces and schools are reaching out to their employees & students with messages of solidarity, where is the church?

We received this message from our Roseville schools superintendent—

“As we end what can best be described as a challenging week, I want to take this opportunity to remind our students, families, and staff members that we value each and every one of you. As even our youngest students react to what they are hearing at the national level, I urge each of you to remember that at the core of our school’s equity mission is the need to treat one another with dignity and respect and to communicate those values loud and clear to our children.”

Here is where I think we need to be as church.

We may not be of one mind, particularly on how to move forward… but we are one body. Every part of the body is vitally important. If one part suffers, the whole body suffers.

There is one other story that has come up for me this week—it’s a story that only appears in Luke—the gospel we have journeyed with all through this last year. It was the text at my ordination, and it’s a resurrection story.

And this is how it goes. Two disciples were on their way to Emmaus, and a stranger joined them on the road. The stranger asked them what was wrong, and they said, “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what has happened?” They described Jesus’ horrible death and the death of their dreams. “We had hoped that he would be the one to save us.”

Then, the stranger began to tell them how God works—and as they neared the place they would stay for the night, the two disciples invited the stranger in. Maybe they wanted to hear more, maybe they were showing hospitality… but they invited the stranger in, and when he broke bread with them, they recognized that this was no stranger but the risen Christ. They responded, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us as he walked with us?” And in retrospect, they could see how Christ had been with them every step of the way.

When we are filled with grief and despair, when we are afraid that life as we know it has ended, when we have witnessed injustice first-hand & we don’t exactly know where to go from here… that is exactly when God our Advocate meets us along the way and invites us to come and eat. At the table, we not only receive nourishment for all that’s to come but we realize our oneness. In Holy Communion, we are not only receiving but we are becoming the body of Christ, and that means that as Bishop Wohlrabe said last week, “The worst thing will never be the last thing.”  God gets the last word. The sun will rise, with healing in its wings.

So do not fear. Instead, come and witness the risen Christ here in the middle of us… the one who will give us the words and a wisdom of how to testify in this next season.

Come, eat & drink, and taste healing.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

If Jesus makes you free

Reformation Sunday                                                                   

Each year, at this time, we celebrate a holiday on October 31st and it is… well its not just Halloween. On the eve of All Saints’ Day (which we’ll celebrate next Sunday), we commemorate Reformation Day. It marks the anniversary of a beginning of a reform movement within the larger church, when Martin Luther posted 95 thesis (or suggestions for reform)… and this action, because of so many other events happening in that turbulent moment in history, began a seismic time of change in the church. Some people believe that right now, 500 years later, we’re in another time like that…

You’ve noticed. Think of someone in your life (maybe you) who isn’t finding relevance or value in church participation. What do they say about that? What is it exactly that they are opting out of? How does this make you feel?

Christian author Phyllis Tickle noticed that every 500 years or so, it seems like God has (or God’s people have?) a big rummage sale: A lot of things that the church used to see as central are no longer needed and are “put out on tables in the driveway” in order to make room for a new day. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the front door of the church. Five hundred years before that, the Great Schism happened, and the Church split into East (Constantinople) and West (Rome). Five hundred years before that, the monastic movement brought new life to the Church; and 500 years before that, it was JESUS.

So, here’s a big question: What if the changes in attendance and priorities aren’t about the church failing or society going bad; what if God is simply doing something new?

If that was true, if this is another moment of Reformation, then this is a terribly exciting time to be church. It’s a time to turn off the auto-pilot button and be curious. It’s time to listen and learn together. What is God up to? Churches that are curious and connected to God, each other, and the neighborhood are the churches that are vital. Life-giving. Even life-changing.[1]

The prophet Jeremiah imagined a future time—that there would come a time when the law of the Lord would be inside people, written on their hearts/minds… God and people would be intimately connected. From the least to the greatest, all would know God because God forgives and remembers their sin no more.

When I interview confirmation students, this is what they think God is about… God is mercy. God is forgiveness. God is love.

But… God is also mystery. There’s a lot of things we’re not really sure about and there are not lots of places to explore our questions… but we do have ideas about God’s actions.

We also wonder about what God requires of us. On one hand, we imagine that God expects us to live lives of serving others, and we love that baptismal promise “to work for justice and peace in all the earth,” starting in our own schools and work places… on the other hand, we know how we fall short. In Confirmation class this week, the topic was about how we are both sinners and saints. Not like 50% one and 50% the other. Not 80%-20%. But we are 100%  both… paradoxically, total sinner, by that we mean we’re capable of horrible things & even if we seem like pretty good people, we fall short either because of what we do or what we don’t do…

But we are also 100% saint (before we die even, before the church declares us saints) because of what God has done for us, because of how God sees us. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “We see that people are acceptable to God because they have faith, and not because of any good works.” This was an insight that completely changed Martin Luther—who struggled for his whole early life with the sense that he could never be good enough for a judging, holy God, and finally realized that the gift was that God makes the first move, God is mercy, God is compassion.

Because of God’s deep, abiding love, because of God’s choice for us, we are freed to be salt, to be light… to finally be actually free.

As Jesus invites, “If you continue in my word, your are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Now, depending on our own personal histories, perhaps we would say to Jesus with the Pharisees in the story in John… “Um, Jesus, we don’t really need you… we’ve always been free.”

That’s very ironic coming from the Pharisees, since the story of Moses leading the people out of slavery is absolutely a key part of their community history…

And, if we dig a little deeper, slavery is absolutely a key part of our stories. Whether that’s the reality of slavery that has made the U.S. what it is today, or if it’s more mental or metaphorical kinds of slavery (addictions or misplaced loyalties)… we all have experienced being enslaved to something or someone, we all have a need for freedom.

Think of it… there are so many times when we don’t feel free… even here, even now…

But Jesus invites us through all the changes and chances of life, to follow, to get on board, to continue in Christ’s word, to know real truth, to actually be free.

When have you been really free?

Have you ever? Have you ever known deep in your gut that there is enough, God has provided more than enough, and it’s just about the will/faith to believe it?

It’s kind of like in one of the old adventure movies where someone has to take a step out into the dark abyss on pure faith and… there, a step appears.

Here’s the thing… if this is a time of great Reformation once again, that means there are no experts anymore about exactly what we need to do next. What the most faithful next step would be, what exactly God intends for us to do…

But the good news is this. God equips, inspires, and calls us to go out together where there aren’t any experts anymore.

God’s abundance isn’t just in what we have, but in what we can do for each other, and in every part of our life together, we have the freedom to set things down or take things up, praying that God’s Spirit in the middle of us will help us know together the opportune, “just right” times for laying down certain things and taking up others. Some days, we get to joyfully witness people like Will, Erin, Noah, Emma, and LeighAnna Affirming their Baptism, and new members joining in this ministry, by their actions saying that we are one in this faith adventure. Other days, we may be less certain about what we have to celebrate together…

But one of my colleagues wrote this: “If I was an author, the title of my book would be Trust How God Works. God comes to us in God’s Word. Jesus sneaks in and forgives us in the bread and wine. The Spirit blows new life into us in the waters of baptism.”[2]

And because God does all this, it may be that we find ourselves being salt—salt that seasons the whole batch of dough. We might find ourselves glimpsed as light—for those who need hope in the midst of fear, grief, and despair.

If Jesus makes you free, you will be free indeed. Free to gather together, free to live fully, free to serve, free to advocate, free to transform the world.

In just a moment, we’ll sing together… calling out again God’s vision of Christ as Tree of Life. For now, let it be our prayer:

Christ, you lead and we shall follow, stumbling those our steps may be;

one with you in joy and sorrow, we the river, you the sea.

Light of life beyond conceiving, mighty Spirit of our Lord;

Give new strength to our believing, give us faith to live your word.[3]

[1] Edited from a blog by Deb Stehlin,, Accessed 10/26/2016

[2] Deb Stehlin,, Accessed 10/26/2016

[3] Marty Haugen, “Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery,” ELW 334

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Lost... and found

 Luke 15

In Luke the story of the lost sheep is just the first of three stories in a row about something or someone who’s lost. These three stories are a response to grumbling at Jesus about who Jesus eats with… sinners, tax collectors… distasteful people of both the low and high class. And in response, Jesus tells stories about one sheep in a flock of 100 who goes missing. A wise shepherd, of course, goes and finds that sheep and celebrates the find (sheep are valuable)… The second story is about a woman who loses one of her ten precious coins. She sweeps every nook and cranny until she finds it and celebrates (coins are valuable). The third story is about a son who leaves home with his inheritance, spends it all, experiences famine and when all is lost, when he finally comes to himself and decides to return home, his father runs to him in celebration (children are valuable).

Lost stories

Some pastors gathered around a table Wednesday morning… to talk about lost things.

A lost sheep, a lost coin… a lost boy from Minnesota whose bones were finally found, after his disappearance and tragic death 27 years ago.

And at our table, there was deep grief for everything and everyone… lost.

We all have our “lost” stories.

On this fifteenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001, we remember … some of us were there in New York, many others can remember where they were in the moments they heard the news and how it impacted them that day and in the days and weeks and months that followed. It’s a “lost” story—loss of lives, loss of a certain sense of security and invulnerability…

When we try to hold all those lost stories by ourselves, they become overwhelmingly heavy. But at that table of conversation and grief, here are some of the ways forward that we imagined together:

Yes, we all have “lost” stories, but we also have “found” stories… some we might even remember that were connected to that day, Sep. 11th, neighbors who looked out for each other in new ways, an outpouring of support for firefighters and others who rush in to find when others are rushing out, people gathering together throughout this country and throughout the world for vigils out of their grief and love. There were some ways that we found one another again in the days after feeling so lost…


Found stories

What are your “found” stories? When have you known that someone, that God, sees you, knows you deeply, loves you even more deeply?

On Friday, I found myself at Luther Seminary to meet some of the 95 new students entering the Christian Public Leader program… at least one of whom plans to join us this year at Christ. I had no sooner announced that we still had openings for a seminarian when Rev. Bitrus Bamai, from Nigeria, said, “I will be your student. I will come to Christ.” As we chatted, we found we had children of similar ages… but Bitrus was also drawn to this context because he has never worked under a woman. So, immediately, we found both places of connection and places where we will have work to do as we learn one another’s cultures.

It is such an honor and privilege for us to have international seminary students each year at Christ. It gives us the opportunity to stretch and grow. It helps us to ask the question, “What are our patterns of sameness and what could we do differently?” Although we are a multicultural congregation already, these relationships can help us to grow from a place of de-emphasizing difference (a belief that we are really all the same essentially) to more deeply comprehending the beautiful diversity that God created and loves and somehow, miraculously brings together here… and as we do that, as we comprehend how different we really are, we start to really see and know each other, and potentially find that we are deeply known. This takes work, but it is good work, it is life-giving work, it is visionary “tree of life” work.

Where do you feel lost?

What are some of your own stories of being found?

This week, think about these stories… are there certain stories that you come back to again and again? I know there are for me… And what would it mean for us to release into God’s care some of those lost stories and shape our storytelling, shape our lives around the ways that we’ve been found?

Would re-telling our stories, and especially the stories of how God finds us, help us to have more energy to reach out, build community, act as the body of Christ?

I’ll never forget one of the storytelling events that Humble Walk hosted a few years back. My friend Nate Houge shared a story about the grief-filled process of giving up on a dream. He wanted to be a full-time professional musician, and he described in detail his last tour… a tour where few fans showed, and finally he decided to give it all up. He ended the story saying something like this, “So now, I’m baking bread... and on Wednesdays, that’s where I can be found.” The way he said that, “that’s where I can be found…” hit me very deeply, it was very deeply true, full of possibility, the Holy Spirit was there… after this vulnerable story of feeling like a failure, this ending had this little spark of life. It was hopeful.

Some of you know the rest of the story since then… Nate and Micah not only continued but expanded their bread-baking. They have their own bakery, and on Wednesdays, we have bread deliveries here from Brake Bread.

We don’t want to lose anyone or anything we care about… we don’t want to fail, we feel crushed, we can’t see the way forward, we get lost…

But Jesus challenges us and stretches us in this story because too often, our imagination is not as big as God’s imagination.

God is not only the Good Shepherd, but is Our Lady of the Broom. God is that Father that runs out to meet and welcome home the child that was lost. And we sometimes grumble about that because it’s hard to believe that God is that deeply compassionate… we would sometimes rather have God just be fair, particularly in the face of evil, we don’t know what to do.

We weep. We become angry. We resist. We despair.

But God invites us to another set of practices, another way of life so that we may know that we are truly known, that we are beloved, that we are free, that we are found… this is what God does and invites us to join in:
We hope. We forgive. We gather together. We receive communion. We sing. We pray. We serve. We advocate. We act. We seek. We find. We draw in. We belong. We look for the reign of God breaking in. We practice.

I’ll end with this blessing from Jan Richardson – Beloved is Where We Begin[1]

[1] “Beloved is Where We Begin,” found in Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons by Jan Richardson

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Like a tree planted by water

Deuteronomy 30, Psalm 1, and Luke 12  - Cosmos Sunday 

Who are you?

It’s Labor Day weekend, so we might answer the way so many North Americans answer… with our jobs. I’m a pastor. I’m a lawyer. I’m retired. I’m an artist, a musician, a writer. I clean houses. I work in a hospital. I work for 3M or Boston Scientific. Or maybe since it’s back-to-school time, we might answer, I’m a teacher. I’m a student. I’m a weary parent…

Who are you?

Last Sunday, I was in Decorah, Iowa because a college friend had died and in trying to understand what had happened to her, I realized that other close friends were going through major life changes in that same congregation… the whole Decorah community reeling from horrible flooding, our friends packing up boxes after 15 fruitful years there, their pastor grieving the loss of her best friend. It was a kairos moment—the opportune time to be a friend, to be present, to share a meal, to pack some boxes… to reflect on who we have been over the years, crossing paths with them. And then at Monday’s funeral, I kept looking at the family of my friend who had died suddenly—her husband, her kids—and I kept thinking, “Who will they become in view of this deep loss?” True… people are often so much more resilient than we can imagine, life goes on, but I cried a lot looking over at Sarah’s 16-year-old daughter, Anna, and younger Maren and little Stefan… and I’ve been carrying her little leaflet around in my purse. She selflessly ministered to others… and now she’s dead.

Who are you?

It’s Cosmos Sunday, so maybe our imaginations get a little bigger, imagining who we are on this tiny but (as far as we know) uniquely life-giving planet. Who are we in view of the whole cosmos, all God’s handiwork? In one way, we could see ourselves as no more important than a speck of dust, but then… I think of Madeleine L’Engle, an American writer of young adult fiction who won a Newberry Medal for A Wrinkle in Time, whose writings reflected both her Christian faith and her strong interest in modern science. In some of her novels, the characters travel in time and space. In others, they travel to the most microscopic places of the human body. These books captured my imagination, noticing our God who is not only present in the widest parts of the cosmos but in the tiniest mitochondria.

It is with all this in mind, that I hear in these Bible readings for today questions about our identity, “Who are we?”

Who are we in view of the words from the prophet in Deuteronomy—

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…” and what would that mean to choose life? Well, to this prophet it meant to follow the Torah, the instructive law, the way of God.

Who are we in view of Psalm 1, which is the Psalm for this Sunday and goes like this:

Psalm 1

Happy [“enviable”[1]] are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; 2 but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on God’s law they meditate day and night. 3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. 4 The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous, 6 for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

What does wicked mean here? Judging life according to their own standards.

What does it mean to be in the company of the righteous? Being with those who rely on God…. until we get there, too.

And right in the middle of that 1st Psalm—there is an image again (this image that we’ve been focusing on all year, this image that is repeated over and over again throughout the Bible) of the tree, a tree planted by water, roots drinking it in & being nourished, lush leaves, bearing fruit in season…

Who are we? Do we delight in God’s ways? Do we meditate on God’s word day and night?

A Danish Lutheran said, “To meditate on the psalms is … to be ourselves before God, to sing full-throated songs of praise when that is appropriate and to give honest articulation to our despair when we are sad. To present our very ordinary selves, our daily selves, to God, that is the advice of the Psalm.”[2]

Who are we in view of this challenge from Jesus in the words from Luke—

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus invites followers to form their identity in full view of death and loss, the loss of everything… but this is not just counting the cost…

Caroline Lewis says this:

“When it’s all about cost, it’s all about what you give up. What you sacrifice. What you deny. When faith is cast as cost, we become rather ignorant of the fact that life itself is costly, not just faith. Life is full of choices, of counting the costs, weighing the costs. The cross is not unique but representative of what life is. To carry your cross is to carry the choices and burdens and realities of a life that has made a certain commitment -- a commitment to a way of life that is committed to bringing about the Kingdom of God here and now. That’s certainly what it meant for Jesus.”[3]

“So, carrying your cross is a choice and ironically, it is a choice for life and not death.”

Who are we today? Who will we be?

[1] Rolf Jacobson, Sermon Brainwave, for September 4, 2016
[2] Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, Paul K.-K. Cho, Commentary on Psalm 1 from, accessed 9/2/2016
[3] Caroline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, accessed 9/2/2016

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Free to flow


River Sunday 

We are about 60% water, unless we are infants and in that case, it’s more like 75% water. So when people say, “Babies bounce,” I’m guessing that if there’s any truth to that, that must be why. Those are two of the little facts I learned this week as I thought about this day – River Sunday – and how intimately we are connected to our closest rivers.

If we live in Saint Paul and throughout whole metro area, our water sources are the Mississippi River and three main aquifers… so it’s at least partially accurate to say that the Mississippi River not only runs to the south of our church, but it is present right here (in us) – we are the Mississippi and it’s health and our health are intimately tied together.

August is a month that is sometimes so hot and dry… usually, I would think of this as a month in which the imagery of Isaiah, “I will….. in parched places...” would be such good imagery. We’re hot and thirsty. God will provide water to quench our thirst. But this August, although we’ve had many hot days, we have also experienced an abundance of rain. Not only here where our grass and plants are green and growing abundantly (did Minnesota suddenly turn into the tropics?) but basements have been flooded… and in other parts of the U.S., the over-abundance of water has been even more serious. In the Gulf Coast Synod of our church, these kinds of messages have been sent this week:

Dear Gulf Coast Synod Leaders,

This morning we began daily check-in calls with our Baton Rouge and Lafayette pastors on the ground and our Disaster Team. Here's what we know:

Twelve dead; fourteen arrested for looting. Thirty thousand rescued and 40,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Authorities have instituted a curfew from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am. There is still water in South Baton Rouge, which will remain there until it is pumped out.

Our congregations, Our Saviour and St. Paul in Baton Rouge and First in Lafayette, and their pastors are all high and dry. St. Paul has 7-8 families flooded. Our Saviour has 14 families who have lost everything. First has 12 families flooded. The congregations are helping their families and also looking to their neighborhoods.

St. Paul and First Christian Church are partnering right now to house and feed Red Cross workers. First is offering gift cards. The Synod Disaster Fund will be available to help support gift cards and possibly a shower house for First, as they host work groups.

They are not ready for volunteers yet, but soon. The number one need will be volunteers to help muck out. We will be organizing some groups to participate in mucking out days. No firms plans yet, but soon. We are considering August 27 and Labor Day weekend.

Donations have been slow. Please consider giving to the Gulf Coast Synod Disaster Fund ( Things are changing by the minute. Keep up-to-date through our website and Facebook disaster page (


Bishop Michael Rinehart (Gulf Coast Synod, ELCA)

And so we might feel like “River Sunday… this week? Is this really the right time?” Or at least I’ve wondered about the timing… and isn’t that just like a religious leader, to wonder about the timing?!

The religious leaders surrounding Jesus’ healing of the bent-over-woman said that same fear aloud in the story we heard today. Sabbath—a day for rest, a day to remember that God’s work and activity are what sustains us (not our constant work and activities, however important they might be…), a day to “be” instead of “do”… this is the Sabbath. And so in one way, I can totally see why they would question people’s timing. Isn’t there another day we could tend to this in order that the Sabbath could really be God’s day? I get their fear, their sense of protection, their wanting to keep a sacred space for Sabbath…

But Jesus reminds these worried, fearful people… who wonder about the right timing, who are fearful about losing sacred times and spaces… that God’s timing is kairos (καιρός) time. For ancient Greek culture, there was chronos (χρόνος) time – that’s clock time, chronological, sequential, scheduled time – and kairos time –  a period or season, a moment of indeterminate time in which an event of significance happens, or we might say, “the opportune moment,” the “just-right” time. And kairos ongoing, eternal…

So, this argument is kind of a chronos/kairos argument. When should healing happen? Jesus reminds them that it is always the right time for God’s healing. It is always the right time for setting a “bent-over” woman free. True… the slippery slope fallacy might make us say (or think) “Don’t break our traditions… because if you make that small change, what will it lead to?… maybe a total erosion of the whole bank, the banks that hold this river to its course, the banks that control and direct the water when the waters get too high…” Maybe, God, we are in the fearful places we are today because You, in the person of Jesus, and in so many other ways… keep breaking all the rules!

Or maybe, it’s not actually our rule-breaking God who is the problem, but it’s our unfair rules for ourselves, for others… rules that keep us from being the people that Jesus and Isaiah imagined…

They imagined us as people who say “No” to some things—pointing the finger, speaking evil, etc., etc.

And we say “No” to those things in order to make space for other ways of being—

Removing heavy yokes, removing burdens that bend people over until they are unable to stand up straight…Feeding the hungry, comforting the afflicted. We’re invited into a life of being people who restore, people who mend, people who heal… and we’re invited to all that because God is the one who models it, so we’ll want to be a part of that work, too.

This week, ten youth and four adults went on an adventure called “Three Days of Awesomeness.” Let me tell you how the first evening of our trip went… One of our drivers happened to turn on the radio and heard the weather report when there was no obvious sign of bad weather. This was incredibly fortunate because he learned that there was a powerful storm on its way, traveling 55 mph, scheduled to arrive at our destination at the same time as us. We had to adjust our plan on the drive, skipping the stop at DQ (disappointing news to most participants…), but when we were 10 minutes from our destination, we could finally see why. A dark green, foreboding cloud was rising up in the west. We kept things light and cheerful but all three drivers were focused, racing this storm. In the last curves, we turned directly into it and the rain began. “Okay, girls, here’s what we’re going to do.” I told my vanload, “We’re going to leave all our stuff in the van, and we’re going to get in the cabin. We’ll get our stuff later.” That’s what we did. Not 15 minutes after our arrival, the wind was whipping and trees began falling. They fell all around us… across the path to the house, across the driveway, across the road. One hundred-year-old trees took down 20- and 50-year-old trees. Whoa! The power flickered once, twice, and then was out. We weren’t scared, actually there was a kind of calm excitement at the time, and we really didn’t know what was happening all around us… but after the storm had passed, after the power company employees had come and gone, restoring power in a fairly quick timeframe, when we walked around at dusk to see the first glimpses of the damage… and the next morning, as we saw the extent of the fallen trees and worked together to clear the driveway… it was only bit by bit that we became more and more in awe and grateful… for the series of what felt like small, insignificant, accidental choices and decisions and timing that allowed us to be completely safe rather than blocked out of the driveway in the storm or  still there, unable to come home, or a variety of other scenarios we wouldn’t even want to imagine…

The cabin was not crushed—only a nick on one small part of the roof. The vehicles were not crushed. Even the Tree Farm sign had trees down all around it, but stood.

In fact, although the one of the workers said, “Oh, you must be heart-broken…”  and indeed, it is heart-breaking to see strong, old, living trees taken down in a storm, as well as formidable to think about the hours and hours of work ahead, we felt like we witnessed so many miracles in a row… far more than we could have asked for or imagined. Neighbors in the area kept pulling up to the driveway and asking Sam, “Where did you get your work crew?” as they noticed our little team of 14 working together and clearing the driveway in record time.  How could we have known that this weekend was the kairos time, the “just right” weekend for us to be there, ready to serve?

It’s true that rivers both sustain us and they are powerful beyond measure… they give us life and they take it away. They are icy cold, refreshing, invigorating… and this is the image that we hold onto not only on this Season of Creation River Sunday, but it is an image that we’re diving deeper into as we imagine how God is calling us to Christ the Tree of Life, whose roots stretch across and deep into the river of the water of life.

We are rooted into God, our source. From God’s living waters we drink… and maybe we can imagine that we become about 60% those waters. We are saint and sinner, we experience loving creativity and fearful brokenness. But it is God’s intention to set us free, free from fear, free to do good, free to flow with love like the river that flows through us.