“But, Wait!”

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I am intrigued by the gospel stories that describe the calling of Jesus’ disciples. Mark’s version (1:16-20) is this weekend’s Revised Common Lectionary reading. According to Mark, Jesus has passed the “temptation in the wilderness” test and discovered that John the Baptist has been arrested. In typical Markan fashion, we don’t get details about either.

Jesus makes his way up from Judea to Galilee, “proclaiming the good news of God.” Then, as he walked along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew out fishing, and you know the rest of the story. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people”. An odd recruitment offer, but they are fishermen, after all. What might he have said if they were librarians? Or engineers? Or retired pastors!?

Their response – Simon, Andrew and later in this paragraph, James and John- has always astounded me. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him”. Seriously? They dropped everything. They left their work, their families and their homes based on that brief invitation? (By the way, Matthew records the story the same way. In Luke, Jesus’ disciples witness the miraculous catch of fish before leaving it all to follow him.)

I just have to think there was more to it. They must have heard Jesus preach. They must have known something about him. Maybe they had a mutual friend. And they must have had some reason – a reason we don’t get to know – for trusting him enough to make the sacrifices required to leave their familiar lives to follow him. Or… maybe not. Maybe there was something in his persona, his eyes, his tone of voice that made the offer irresistible. I wish I knew.

Here’s what troubles me most. Not what Simon and Andrew and John and James did, but what I would have done. If it had been me, if I’d been the one going about my daily work and Jesus came up to me and said, “Come and follow me”, I know what I would have said. I would have said, “What? Right now? I’m a little busy. And where are we going? When will I be back? What will be required? Do you have a brochure or a business card or something? Who else is going? Can you give me a day or so to think about it and then get back to you?” I see Jesus shaking his head and moving on. “But wait!” I say.

Spontaneity is not my gig. I’m not a “drop everything and go” kind of woman. And I wonder how many “Jesus invitations” I’ve missed out on, how many times I have overthought details and potential consequences in service of being “safe” and “in control”. Maybe you have too.

I suspect there is more to the gospel story than we’re told. But the point is made and taken. For me, it’s about playing it a little less safe, taking a few more risks, being a bit more bold when it comes to following Jesus. I’m convinced that that’s where the joy is. That’s how we are blessed to be a blessing!

Lessons Learned and Relearned Pandemic 2020

Perhaps it’s too soon for us to be very objective about the year that’s about to pass. Certainly, historians will have much to say in years to come about how we suffered and survived, what forces were at work in the systems and institutions of our time. But I’m a perpetual student, always trying to parse what learning is available in the circumstances and experiences of life. So here’s a preliminary list of things I’ve learned or relearned in 2020.

First, life can turn on a dime. Everyone learns this eventually. But it’s an uncomfortable truth and readily ignored, whenever possible. Sudden change – big, consequential, sometimes terrifying change – can happen at any time, in any place and in any life. Life really can be going along just fine, when bam! Out of the blue, disaster strikes. Covid-19 crashed into our consciousness for real in the midst of March, when we found ourselves dealing with “stay at home” orders and health threats that rattled us to the core. Such a thing had never happened to us, never even been imagined by most of us. Suddenly, what was “normal” life the first week of March had been turned completely on its head and everything from work to school to grocery shopping to being with friends had to be radically reconsidered.

Second, leadership matters. Before this current administration I would have not considered the U.S. president to be much of an influencer when it comes to public behavior. But this president has refused to promote the common good, and has rejected simple, scientifically solid prevention measures, and thousands have followed him, much to our detriment. If we could have avoided politicizing public health policy, we might have saved thousands of lives.

Some seem to have forgotten that we belong to one another. It’s imperative that we learn and remember this as we move forward. The stubborn individualists that refused to adopt simple protocols like mask-wearing for the sake of the greater good serve as a harsh reminder of just how far down the road of “every man/woman for him/herself” we’ve come. It’s confounding and disheartening. After all, we all breathe the same air. Unless you have your own personal supply of air, you have a responsibility to me and everyone else who breathes around you. My health is my own responsibility? Yes. And no. Our collective health is our collective responsibility.

We really are all in this together. We really do have to look out for one another. Not just because it’s right – “Love your neighbor as yourself” should sound familiar to most of you –  but because it’s the fastest way to get through this. It’s not just common good; it’s common sense.

Finally, my biggest takeaway from the 2020 pandemic is this: the ability of human beings to endure and to adapt – to pivot, they say – is astounding! This has been so hard, and yet we’ve done it. Every single business, every single church, every single home, every single person had to change how they lived, some much than others, those at the bottom most of all. And not discounting the many losses, nor denying the need to grieve what we’ve lost, it’s still surprising the new ways that blessings have come.

Virtual choirs, Zoom meetings, tele-health, Zoom happy hours, working from home, entertainment work-arounds, worship via Facebook Live and so much more. Such creativity! And most especially the work of teachers, parents, students and medical professionals.  Such fortitude!

I’m not claiming that any of this easy or over with. I know we are desperate for relief. But how many times did we say “I can’t do this” and then went ahead and did it? We are stronger than we thought we were. This, too, is worth remembering.

So good-bye, 2020. Someday our grandchildren will be talking about you to their grandchildren. I’m praying that they’ll be able to say it was a turning point in our history. That after the suffering of 2020 we became kinder, wiser people who learned to take better care of the earth and each other. Please God, may it be so.

It’s Perfect!

Last Minute Christmas Gift Ideas - Holiday Gifts

Perfectionists have a terrible time buying gifts. At least this one does. I have some truly awesome people in my life – dear family, friends old and new – and the love I feel for them is so deep and wide that sometimes I cry tears of gratitude for them. Seriously.

When Christmas comes around, my desire is to take all that love and gratitude, all that admiration and affection, and find the one perfect gift for them that will convey the entire weight of that emotion. I want to wrap it up and present it to them as a total representation of my utter devotion.  It should be something that makes them grin from ear to ear and declare from the newly-warmed cockles of their heart, “Wow! This is perfect! You really do love me, don’t you?” You see my problem, right?

So I try to start my shopping early in the season. But that just allows me more time for indecision, second-guessing, and angst. I wander the aisles or the websites for hours, asking myself, “Is this good enough?” “Would this be better?” I lie awake at night, wondering, “Red or blue? Which would she like better?” Taking a deep breath, I finally make a decision and a purchase. Gift receipt firmly in hand, I walk away thinking, “Maybe I should have bought the other one.”

Some people make Christmas lists. This wasn’t part of my childhood. I was raised by serious and practical people. We weren’t encouraged to ask for specific gifts. The giver was completely in charge of the gift, not the receiver. If they got it wrong and you were disappointed, you smiled and said thanks and hoped for something better next year.

Christmas lists take the pressure off gift-buying, that’s true. Shopping off a list is much like choosing food off a restaurant menu. People get exactly what they want, no more, no less. There’s no having to hide disappointment behind a fake smile, no hassle of return lines, no worries about if it will fit and be the right color. Also, none of that occasional hurt that comes when someone who should have known better gives you something thoroughly unlikable.

But lists take the pleasure out of gift buying as well. You lose the experience of bringing that person to mind and imagining what might please them, the excitement of anticipating the opening and (potential) delight. You know, the part that makes it fun!

Here’s the thing. All good gift-giving is rooted in love. The kind of love that comes from having made time enough and paid attention enough to really know the other. Not just in their role – husband, child, friend – but as a separate person, with desires and preferences of their own. When you’ve dedicated time, money and energy to knowing and pleasing them, and when you get it right, wow! It’s not just the object, it’s the recipient’s joy in being known and loved. That’s the best kind of gift!

But oh my friends, we love so imperfectly. Our attention to our loved ones is fleeting and often distracted; our seeing is clouded by our own egos and biases. We’re so quick to presume we know someone, and we don’t, really. We make judgements, and we judge wrongly. “Who are you, really? What would make you happy?” These questions take patience and humility to answer. It’s hard work. It’s time consuming and self-sacrificial. And that’s before we even begin the work of shopping and find out that generosity is harder than it looks.

We love imperfectly, so we give each other imperfect gifts. Oh, once in a while we get it right. Most of the time we come pretty close. And God willing, we’ll have another chance at it next year. It’s important that we give and receive gifts with an abundance of grace. Of course, any relationship that lives or dies based on right gift-giving isn’t worth the effort anyway. I don’t remember what my husband got me last year, or most of the forty-two Christmases we’ve shared. But I’ve never, in all those years, doubted his love and commitment to me, which he shows in thousands of non-gifting-buying ways.

Truth is, any and all human gifts are pale shadows of the one great gift we celebrate every year at this time. The One God who in the beginning spoke the world into being, who created us in our mother’s wombs, who is intimate and infinite, transcendent and tender, the source and end of all life – that God – is the ultimate gift-giver.

God listens, watches, knows our darkest secrets, and our highest hopes, attending to us as beloved children – all day, every day, our whole lives long. God desires what is best for us and longs for our pleasure. God’s generosity knows no bounds. In God, we are completely known and unconditionally loved, just as we long to be.

And so we come to Christmas again, not just to give gifts, not just to stumble and fret over our own gift-buying challenges, but to celebrate once more the very best gift:  The great God of all creation wrapped Godself up in frail human skin and gave us Godself. The perfect gift. Once and for all.

Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.”

Slow, Hard Soul Work

We were just leaving my mom’s assisted living residence, waiting for the light to change, when there was a sudden movement at the driver’s window. There was a black woman in very obvious distress, pleading tearfully for help. She needed $14 to take the Greyhound bus back to Wisconsin with her four kids; they had all been sleeping in their car and she desperately wanted to get back home. I quickly handed her a twenty dollar bill – and yes, I know it might have been a scam. Years of church work taught me that. But maybe it wasn’t.

Driving away, I was aware of several uncomfortable feelings. First, guilt. I have a terrible time with white guilt. Why do I have everything I need and more, and she doesn’t have $14.00 to get home? Why do I feel protected by the police, when people of color are justifiably frighted of them? Why do I get to live in this beautiful suburban neighborhood so far from the turmoil of racial unrest? Truly, my white guilt is of no benefit to anyone, including people of color, but guilt is something I do often and well. So, there you are.

The second feeling was more damning. I didn’t like seeing how needy she was. It was so emotional and so overt. I come from a line of quiet, unemotional people; public displays of emotion often make me squirm. But this was more than that. I knew there was a deeper story here, where it was a scam or not. There was a story, a sad, maybe tragic story – and I just didn’t want to stay and hear it. This was a human to human, mother to mother encounter, and truly, part of the reason I gave her $20 was to make her go away, which she did. And I got to drive away – that’s what privilege looks like.

If. I told myself. If it wasn’t for COVID and the fear of exposure, if the light hadn’t turned green, if I wasn’t worn out from our morning; if, if, if. Maybe then I would have gotten out of the car. Maybe I would have sat down with her and listened to the whole story. Maybe I would have learned something, Maybe we would have cried together. Maybe we would have prayed. But I didn’t and she was gone by the time we pulled away.

Anti-racism work is soul work. It requires a willingness to go into the deep, dark corners of your motivations and behavior. To question much of what you were taught and what you absorbed from the home and community of your childhood – and to acknowledge that some of it is bone-deep requiring serious emotional surgery. Anti-racism work means learning to see, to really see and recognize, your white privilege. Not to make yourself feel guilty – guilt is cheap and easy. But to begin the agonizingly slow work of heart change.

This is our work, my dear white friends. We, who so confidently claim to be not racist, need to learn how to be anti-racist. Our work for justice has to move out from our comfortable liberals mindsets and eager charity work to the long hard work of self-education, advocacy and a whole lot of listening to black voices. If you think it will be easy or quick or fun, you’re not paying attention. It’ll be none of those things. But it will be good.

If you are committed to this work, take out your calendar, digital or paper, and move ahead to early December, 2020, six months from now. Make this note to yourself “BLM, what have you learned? how have you changed?” Pray that when we get there, we’ll be satisfied with our answers.

Risen, Indeed!

I love the Bible stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. All four gospel writers include them. My favorite is one of Luke’s stories, known to most of us as the Walk to Emmaus. But John’s stories – he has three – delight just as much. Matthew’s narrative jumps pretty quickly from Jesus greeting the two Marys at the tomb to the brief commissioning of the disciples and ends there. Mark, of course, has a different feel to his story entirely, assuming you follow the most ancient texts and end it at verse 8. The disciples were terrified, they ran away and told no one. The end. (But of course, they must have told someone, right? Because we know the story!)

But let’s go back to Luke. Here’s Cleopus and his friend, walking home (presumably) on the Day of Resurrection. A mysterious stranger joins them, appearing it would seem, out of nowhere. Now these two disciples must have seen Jesus during his ministry; later in the chapter Luke tells us that they were friends of “the eleven”. But for some reason “their eyes were kept from recognizing him”. Huh. In the margin of my seminary Bible I wrote this question: by whom? Who or what kept them from recognizing him? And why?

Wouldn’t you have loved to hear Jesus’ words to Cleopus and friend, “…beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”? Makes me wish Cleopus would have taken notes! The Gospel according to Cleopus – I’d buy it!

Then there’s the meal they shared that sounds so much like other meals they might have shared that they finally see him for who he is. And just like that, he’s gone.

It’s apparent from these stories that there is something different about Jesus’ resurrected body. He can appear and disappear. Locked doors don’t keep him out. His looks have changed enough that people don’t recognize him right away (or was it so unimaginable to see a dead person alive again that their brains just couldn’t go there?) Yet his very human crucifixion wounds remain, and in both Luke and John, he eats fish, just any other person would. The wonder and mystery of it intrigues me. The disciples don’t know what to make of it. And what about Jesus, what was this like for him?

But of course, it’s not my delight in John’s and Luke’s storytelling, nor my curiosity about the physical/spiritual details of the resurrected Jesus that matter the most. It’s what Jesus, formerly dead and now alive, did and said. (And maybe what he didn’t do or say, like complain about their betrayal and scold them!)

The post-resurrection Jesus did such familiar things – such Jesus-like things -when he was reunited with his disciples. He taught them, as he always had, opening up the scriptures. He took bread, blessed, broke and gave it them, such strong echoes of the Last Supper. He forgave them and commissioned them and performed a miracle of fishing abundance. And over and over, he offered them his peace. All this, I believe, so they might know him, and see the continuity between the Jesus who was and the Jesus who is.

When someone we love dies, we often talk about the importance of closure – that it’s necessary to view the dead body and carry out our rituals of mourning, so our minds and hearts can truly accept the truth of our new reality.

Maybe that was the point of Jesus’ post-tomb appearances. Not to help them accept his death, but to grasp the new reality of his victory over death. “It’s really me,” he seems to say. “Listen and watch, talk with me, eat with me, touch me and see, I am alive! I want you to know this for absolute certain, because you, my friends, you’re going to be telling the whole world.” And so they did. And so must we.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!

Love and Suffering

I’ve been feeling the need to “say something”, to offer up some kind of comfort or wisdom or spiritual perspective about this pandemic we’re living through. And I’m trying to. But there is so much I am simply unwilling to say. I refuse to offer up shallow pep talks and trite adages. There are no easy answers or fast-forward buttons. This is really, really hard. And although I do believe, absolutely, that we’ll get through it together, and maybe (if we’re wise and well-led) even be better people on the other side. But the truth is, there’s a lot of suffering to be endured before then.

You can disagree with me, of course, but I don’t believe that my generation, or the generations that have come after mine are much acquainted with suffering. Some have experienced personal loss and periods of great distress. Yes. We could all offer up names. And those on the margins of society, the poor, the weak, the small, they have always known what it is to suffer.

But I’m talking about shared suffering, suffering that transcends our individual lives and rises from great disturbances beyond our control. Suffering that changes our collective history, like the coronavirus. We are all of us – every single one of us – vulnerable right now and we will all suffer in one way or another. Even if no one we love gets sick, please God, we will feel the pain. Routines that have long given structure and security to our days are disrupted, likely for a good long while. We are being asked to do our lives much differently, without any preparation and completely against our personal choice. Anxiety – generalized and specific – is high; despair threatens. What will tomorrow bring? Next week? How long, O Lord?

This is uncharted territory for most Americans alive today. I think of my dad’s generation. Good grief. Born in 1911, he endured the flu epidemic of 1918, the early death of both his parents, WW1, the Great Depression and WW2, all before he was past his 40’s. His generation was acquainted with suffering, real, genuine, long-haul struggle. They learned the hard lessons of endurance and courage and sacrifice in the school of life.

So now, it’s us. And maybe we’ll adapt more slowly, inexperienced as we are. But we’ll endure, because we have to. What feels so totally foreign today will become a new normal. Some morning we’ll wake up and the knot in our collective stomachs will be gone. In my somewhat long life and experience, I have often been amazed at the capacity we human beings have for adapting to hard stuff. And every night since this crisis started I go to bed amazed at and grateful for what I see brave and generous human beings doing in the face of it. Maybe you are one of them. If so, thank you.

I get a daily email meditation from Father Richard Rohr, a teacher/theologian and spiritual sage. He founded and runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque (cac.org). I’m cutting and pasting a large section of today’s writing.

“We are in the midst of a highly teachable moment. There’s no doubt that this period will be referred to for the rest of our lifetimes. We have a chance to go deep, and to go broad. Globally, we’re in this together. Depth is being forced on us by great suffering, which as I like to say, always leads to great love. But for God to reach us, we have to allow suffering to wound us. Now is no time for an academic solidarity with the world. Real solidarity needs to be felt and suffered. That’s the real meaning of the word “suffer” – to allow someone else’s pain to influence us in a real way. We need to move beyond our own personal feelings and take in the whole. .. And we have to allow these feelings, and invite God’s presence to hold and sustain us in a time of collective prayer and lament…Love alone overcomes fear and is the true foundation that lasts (1 Corinthians 13:13).”

Today I am suffering because the people I love are suffering. The world I know and love is suffering. I want so badly to numb out the pain, to push it away and refuse to give it voice. It would be so much easier! But if love is the root of that pain – and it is – then perhaps my suffering – and yours -can be a holy thing. I will lean into it, I’ll let myself feel it (but not constantly, that’s too much! ) and give thanks for the connection at its root. And I’ll pray some more, maybe shed a few tears, then go find some way to make a difference. I bet you’re doing the same.

Transfiguration: Did you even hear what God said?

If you heard a really inspiring Transfiguration Sunday sermon, or, my dear pastor friends, you preached what seemed like a helpful, grace-filled message that day, good on you! I always thought the Transfiguration was a challenge for preaching.

The whole scene- glorious, wonderful as it is – is heavily weighted with Old Testament themes. Moses on the mountaintop, the bright cloud, the appearances of Elijah and Moses (The 6-year-old that still lives inside me still wants to know how they knew that’s who they were; it’s not like they had pictures!). It all requires some kind of explaining, in order to get into what the event might signify. But I’ve never found that explaining to be very helpful, in and of itself.

And then there’s the whole “whiz-bang” nature of it. I mean no disrespect. It’s just SO unusual, SO other-worldly, SO unreal that the very nature of the miracle gets in the way of its relatability. Again, no disrespect intended.

So, as I was thinking about the story, using all my smarty-pants seminary knowledge, trying to fit it into some kind of cognitive whole, I remembered (God reminded me, once again) of the limits of human knowledge and imagination. Of the limits of MY knowledge and imagination!

There I was, caught up in my ego-driven, analytical mind, needing to affirm myself by “getting it”. And then I heard (in my head) an echo of what the voice of God said in the story, “listen”. Although in my head, God said, “Stop thinking, shut up and listen!” But not in a mean way.

God says, “listen.” It doesn’t get much more basic than that. All that smarty-pants analysis has its place, of course. I’m not against study, God knows! But first, we listen. We shut off our analytical, studious brain, quit talking and listen.

And so, there’s my Lenten discipline: to listen to Jesus, while simultaneously releasing my desire to control and comprehend the message. Maybe there will be new ways, or rediscovered old ways for me to hear. Who knows? But I’m committed to paying attention more carefully for the next forty days. It seems doable, but kind of hard – very “Lent-ish”.

Lenten blessings, all.

Tending the Bookends

One was born in 1921; the other in 2011.

Ninety years separate them, almost to the day.

The elder is my mom; the younger, my granddaughter.

Old and young, they enclose the living generations of my family. Bookends, so to speak.

Mom’s in an assisted living facility now; I visit often.

Sometimes there are tasks to be done: reading her the paper, arranging the closet, trimming fingernails.

Some days we gather around the table for coffee and cookies and conversation with her friends.

Their average age exceeds ninety; what were they like at my age, I wonder?

These quiet days with Mom are precious, I know.

She’s still lucid enough to laugh with and catch up on family gossip.

But that’s changing.  And whether I lose her to dementia first or death sooner,

I know that this is a window of time that will not stay open much longer.

Granddaughter Linnea, age eight, has a four-year-old sister, Britta.

Full of energy and spunk; they gift us with delight!

We spend a lot of time together too. We color and build and blow bubbles and play playdough.

We read and laugh and sing and visit the playground and the Arboretum.

There is great delight in being part of their lives and knowing them well.

Our home is their second home, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

They’re both still very young, and being with Grandma and Grandpa is still a treat.

But time is hurrying along for them, too; this phase of grandparenting will soon be past.

One old woman and two little girls bless my days, in this short overlap of their lifespans.

I’m struck by how alike they are, and the similar things they require of me.

By necessity, they teach me patience. It is impossible to hurry any of them.

Things must be explained slowly and carefully, and often several times.

I keep watchful eyes on each of them, paying careful attention to how they move.

Mom’s balance is unreliable; the girls’ judgement about safety is still developing.

I’ve cut food for young and old, and helped them all manage bathroom chores.

I’ve zipped up jackets and tied shoelaces for each, and counted it all privilege.

My mom was once a little girl; Linnea and Britta will be old women someday, God willing.

Being female defines them, but in such different ways. Different eras, different expectations.

Smooth young bodies, strong and healthy. Old body, frail and failing. But equally female.

Generations apart, but bound by genes and blood and love. And these few years of intersection.

So I bring them to see her. We play Go Fish and Uno. Sometimes we color.

We don’t stay long and try to end each visit with a big hug for Great Grandma.

They bring her joy, and she deserves that.

They will have living memories of her; they don’t know yet what a gift that is.

Little girls and an old woman, each breathtakingly dear to me.

I am Grandma and I am Daughter. Bound by genes and blood and love.

Right now, they all need me. But in a few short years, it won’t be so.

And I will be bereft. So bittersweet, so deep and wide, these loves.