Posted in God's Love, Ordinary Holiness

Sonder

When Sage was maybe a middle schooler, she brought home a new word. I don’t know how she had found the word, but when she told me about it, her eyes were so alive with fascination…and maybe relief.

She said she never knew there was a word for something her imagination had dwelt upon for hours on end – over months and years. She said she had always looked at the person standing in front of us in the line at the grocery store and thought, “They have a whole life just like mine. They have friends and maybe siblings. They have ideas and dreams about what they want to do, and they have people and circumstances in their lives that help them get there – or stand in their way. They go to school or work and there are parts of their days they like and don’t like. Their life is as complicated and full of people and relationships as mine is.”

It turns out the word for that concept is sonder. If you would like, check out this video about the concept of sonder.

It happened to me a little bit today while I was at my friend, Daniel’s, installation as the pastor of a congregation about an hour and a half away from where I live. He started working there a couple months ago, but today was an official installation service.

Daniel asked me to preside at the Lord’s Table during the service of installation. As I drove toward his church today, I thought about what an honor it was to have been asked to lead in this way, how much I miss having him nearby to have lunch and study the biblical text each week, how it would be nice to see his amazing family today.

When I arrived at the church and found the room where the pastors were putting on their robes, Daniel smiled when he saw me. I’m sure I smiled, too, and we hugged hello.

Then another pastor came in, another friend who was leading a different part of the service. Daniel smiled when he saw him, and they hugged hello. Soon, the room was filled with maybe 10 pastors, all of whom made Daniel smile. One of them was his mother.

And I thought to myself how wonderful it was for him to have so many people who love him in his company on this important and holy day.

Then, we moved to a hallway just outside the worship space, and the choir was lined up ready to go in before the line of pastors would enter. And the choir members greeted Daniel, and he smiled a warm, honest smile.

As we processed in, singing a hymn, walking down the center aisle and taking our places in the front row, we walked past row after row of people who had come to bear witness to his installation. Teenagers and tiny kids, middle aged folks and those certainly in their 80s and 90s. They were at the beginning of their relationships with him, and some of them were surely already trusting him with their worries, their dreams.

I thought about the people in my congregation, and how much I love them. I thought about how my life as their pastor is just rich with our relationships! With some, I have shared serious and scary moments in their lives. With some, I have hysterically funny memories. Daniel just left a congregation full of those relationships, and he is beginning that same journey with these folks at his new church.

After worship, there was a reception where people mingled. Every person I met said something like, “We just love Pastor Daniel. He is exactly what we need here.” And I thought, “That’s precisely how I feel about him.”

And while I felt sad to drive away because Tuesday will come, and I won’t be meeting him for study and lunch, I felt mostly amazed at the ways God knits us all together. I felt mostly astonished as God offered me a tiny glimpse of the ways Spirit is stitching Daniel’s life together with more relationships and laughter. I felt mostly grateful that love is not finite, that there is enough love-thread to stitch and keep stitching us one to another every single day.

Posted in God's Love

remembering the gentle way Love shows up

I am a pastor in the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Most pastors in my tradition don’t choose the biblical text from which we will preach each week; we use a lectionary, a calendar of texts.

Some use the Narrative Lectionary which has us reading through the story of God and God’s people…as a story. It has longer passages each week, and you pick up next week where you left off today, so you get a sense of the narrative of God’s action in the world. The Narrative Lectionary is a four-year cycle of readings. When you reach the end of it – start again! It’s been four years, and God has something new to say and new people who are listening.

Most use the Revised Common Lectionary which has us reading (mostly) through one of the gospels – and a few other texts from various parts of the Bible which work to help us better understand the gospel reading for that day. The Revised Common Lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings.

Year A, we read through the Gospel According to Matthew – and some coordinated readings.

Year B, we read through the Gospel According to Mark – and other readings.

Year C, we read through the Gospel According to Luke – and other readings.

And St. John’s gospel gets lots of focus sprinkled throughout in all three years.

And some pastors in our tradition create their own lectionaries. For example, I once attended a church where we used the Gospel According to Luke all year, we didn’t insert any of St. John’s gospel where the RCL does. Other pastors do sermon series preaching and various other patterns for proclaiming who God is and what God has done in Jesus.

That’s a very long way to get to this: I use the Revised Common Lectionary. I mean I really use it. I have only been a pastor for 4 years, so I am not tired of the three-year cycle of readings, and I have a gut feeling that I should not be the person choosing the text for the week. So, I really do like using the RCL. I nearly never stray from it.

We are smack dab in the middle of St. Matthew’s gospel. We are in chapter 13 right now, and Jesus has a lot to say to the Pharisees who are furious that he is healing on the Sabbath and such. He uses lots of language about punishment and the fiery furnace and people gnashing their teeth in agony and suffering. It’s hard to hear. I know that we are sinful, and God is righteous. I know the wages of sin really are death, but sometimes in the middle of this gospel, I feel a bit desperate.

This week, the focus for our Wednesday evening time of worship and study is Christmas. We have something called Chrismons, symbols of Christ which hang like ornaments on a tree. This week, we’ll study the meanings of them, where those meanings are found in scripture, and how to make one. We will surely sing some Christmas hymns and tell the Christmas story.

As I sat to do some preparation for Wednesday evening, remembering the meaning of all the symbols, looking up some of Jesus’ names in scripture, and thumbing through the hymnal to choose a few Christmas hymns, I felt relaxed. As I sang through a few verses, I noticed that gentle feeling of familiarity settling around me. One of the joys of Christmas is hearing the first few notes of a hymns and thinking, “Oh, I love this one!”

It felt so different from last Sunday morning when I read from the pulpit that all evildoers will be collected and thrown into the furnace of fire where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The poetry of Christmas hymns works to wrap words around the mystery of the ways God loves the world. And while St. Matthew certainly reveals God’s love to us in the ministry, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – it’s sometimes a hard road following Jesus around Galilee.

So, this lectionary preacher decided that we will tell the Christmas story this Sunday in worship (for not all our folks come out for the mid-week classes). And, maybe since I never change the lectionary texts, I came here to write about it and process it, making sure it’s a good idea.

I guess Spirit is telling me in many and varied ways that it is always good to tell the story of God’s choice to “move into the neighborhood” as Eugene Peterson puts it. Surely, we need always to keep in focus the miracle and mystery of the choices God makes to be in relationship with us. The story of God’s birth is one of those choices.

In the midst of the language of punishment and gnashing of teeth, can you imagine Love growing in Mary’s womb in order to be born into this world ~ in order to teach us about Love? I think we need to imagine it again – in the middle of our journey through St. Matthew’s gospel. We need to peer into the manger to see the gentle way Love shows up.

Now, please join me in turning to hymn #283, Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.

After we sing, please wash your hands and come to the table where sugar cookies and icing is ready for you to make creative and delicious symbols of God’s love. (Now, you bigger ones be sure to help the littler ones among us.)

Posted in God's Love

Promises

Sometimes, God gives you people you really need…in ways you didn’t really know you needed them.

In seminary, I had a classmate named David. He lived on campus with his wife, Karen, and I lived a couple of towns over with my husband and kids. My being a commuter student meant I didn’t always get to know people all that well outside of the classroom. While they were having cook-outs and studying together, I was driving home to my family. So, I knew David in the classroom. He was smart and good at computer-y things when I had questions. He was also not from the South, so we had a kinship in that. His wife, Karen, was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of our seminary journey. She died during the first year or so of David’s first call as a pastor of a congregation. I think that was about 4 years ago. David was maybe 50ish when he became a widower. My heart broke for him, and as Spirit would have it, we were in a group of brand new pastors who met monthly for support and fellowship.

When I was called to be the pastor of the good people of Emmanuel Lutheran Church, (as Spirit would have it) a small group of female pastors (who had been pastors for 20 years or more) in my area gathered me under their experienced wings. We met for lunch once a month for support and fellowship. Judy was one of those pastors. I liked her right away because her smile, humor, and kindness are captivating. Over the months of getting to know each other, we found we had both been divorced when our kids were young – and our sons were attending the same university! We have a lot in common and have become dear friends.

Spirit drew David toward and into my life.

Spirit drew Judy toward and into my life.

Two years ago, I became a widow at the age of 45. David and I were suddenly in the same club: Pastors Who Are Too Young to Be Widows/Widowers. It meant we could nod and make eye contact with each other when we heard someone ask the other of us an awkward question or try to offer comfort. It meant we both knew that when we entered a room at a pastors’ conference for our region, those who didn’t know us personally knew of our losses because our names had been in the newsletter and on prayer lists. We knew what it felt like to have well-meaning people shake our right hand and put their left hand on our shoulder, make meaningful eye contact and ask, “How are you?” And we both new that the weight of the hand on our shoulder and the answer we really wanted to give to this virtual stranger were far too heavy.

Since my second husband died, Judy and I have shared many long conversations about singlehood, single parenting of adult children, and single-female-pastorhood. She has shared that she longed for a life-partner again. I have shared that I simply have no such longing at this point.

David and I have had the same conversations. As Spirit would have it, they met, fell in love, and…

…yesterday, Spirit drew me to Ebenezer Lutheran Church to bear Christian witness at the wedding of David and Judy.

I am so happy for them. And I wondered how it would feel to be at their wedding – my single-mom friend and my widower friend both filling spaces in their hearts and lives, spaces that we have in common. I wondered how it would be to hear them promise forever to each other. Would it sting a little? Would it make me wonder if I might find such love?

The ceremony was beautiful! A trumpet and organ filled the old, stone building as the bridal party walked down the aisle and took their places. Their astonishingly talented friends sang beautiful solos, scripture was proclaimed, a fine sermon was preached, and then it was time for the Rite of Christian Marriage. Our bishop asked David and Judy if they intended to live within a covenant, a holy promise. Do they intend to go through life together, regardless of what life has in store? And I remembered how very hard that can be.

And then came the vows.

I got stuck on these words: I will share my life with you, through the best and worst that is to come.

I can’t do that. I cannot spend that kind of energy. I can’t make that kind of promise.

I confess that when the bishop prayed the next prayer, I was flipping back to the first page of the worship booklet. I knew I had heard the bishop say something about marriage that I needed to read again. And there it was:

Marriage is a call from God.

When we try to do things we are not called to do, that for which we do not have the gifts, things don’t go so well.

If God calls me to marriage again, first God will equip me with the stores of energy, forgiveness, humility, and patience marriage requires. And, certainly, while equipping me with such gifts, Spirit will continue to help me heal from the unhealthy ways I have learned to protect myself. God is in the business of helping me unlearn unhelpful things. This, I believe.

And in just the way that I am not called to be a doctor or politician or work in retail, I may very well not be called to be married. God has called me to holy and marvelous things in this chapter of my life. This, I believe.

Posted in God's Love

Immeasurable and Surprising

Just over two years ago, my husband, who was drowning in a fresh bi-polar diagnosis after struggling through a bout with cancer, bought a gun and took his life. That’s a blunt way to start this post, but it matters. And in the last couple of years, I have learned that more words, softer words, are not necessarily better or easier. So, there you have it.

And I have something to say about God’s immeasurable and surprising love.

+ + +

There are those who worry that people who die by suicide have sinned in such a way that they might not be saved, that they have rejected the gift of life, thusly rejecting God. And they have died in and at the moment of this grievous sin, so they have no chance to ask for forgiveness.

This is a theologically important discussion, more so because of what it says about God than what it says about sin and forgiveness.

If you accept that a person needs to be “right with God” at the time of his or her death, then you are accepting that what happens when we still have a human heart that beats and lungs that breathe is all-important. If you say that what we do/believe/say/ask while we still live is decisive in our salvation, then…

You reject Romans 8 which asserts that there is nothing, including death, that can separate us from God’s love.

You assert that Christ has not really conquered death because it is actually still a boundary through which God cannot or will not step to reach us, to draw us near, to redeem us.

You presume that you know precisely what God will and won’t do in the grand scheme of God being God and choosing to love or to condemn.

When you talk about the unpardonable sin, you not only shred the scabs we who mourn keep knitting protectively together, but I believe you underestimate how much God loves each of us, how far God has gone, and will go, to make us whole.

Thankfully, I believe that in the end, we will all be surprised by the enormity of God’s love…even those of us who are certain God’s love is bigger than all hate and indifference, even we will be surprised by it’s reach.

This photo feels like I think it feels when God comes to us. Maybe we have somehow gotten ourselves stuck on a concrete piling. We scrambled to the top with our strength or courage or orneriness. And we say, “SEE!!? I did it myself. I’m up here.” And before long, we discover that getting down is frightening, so we sit there convincing ourselves that we want to be there, that we don’t really want to go home, that we aren’t actually cold or hungry. God sees us alone, and right exactly in the bed we have made for ourselves, and draws near to help us…but first, a hug, a claiming, a safety.