Posted in God's Love, Ordinary Holiness

Was It Worth It?

It was worth it.

Every dollar.

Every minute.

Every drop of sweat.

Every late night.

Every early morning.

Every long line.

Every ounce of sunscreen.

It was all worth it.

Before leaving for the ELCA National Youth Gathering, I wondered on my blog about the cost of it all. Is the $1,000+ for each person a faithful use of the resources God has given us? I had decided that it was worth it, in part, because we who belong to small congregations need to feel how alive, enormous, and vital the Church is today. And while I know our kids will grow into adulthood and tell the story of growing up in a small ELCA congregation, I decided that the investment of all these dollars is faithful because at the Youth Gathering, they will learn to tell the story of growing up in a Church that serves and loves God and others in loud, brave, bright ways that change the world.

Because the youth group at Emmanuel, High Point is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic, we attended the pre-Gathering event called MYLE (Multi-cultural Youth Leadership Event) that ran the three days prior to The Gathering the 31,000 attended. MYLE is smaller, maybe 700 of us, on the campus of the University of Houston for a few days of intentional unity, praise, play, and service. If I’m honest, it’s a few days where my kids of color aren’t (pretty much) the only people of color at an ELCA event. We are the “whitest” denomination in America. I don’t like writing that sentence; I can’t take pride in that. But, we need to say it out loud, and we really need to face it. And work to change it, to embody the kingdom.

Though our church body has work to do, I am proud to be a pastor in the ELCA. Part of that pride comes from getting to see the ways we are acknowledging our lack of diversity, confessing the sin of clinging to our own kind, and taking a seat while non-white people, some of whom speak many languages, take the lead. MYLE is one of those ways.

At MYLE, our Puerto Rican sisters and brothers brought vibrance and resilience to any room they entered. The Glocal Band made up of talented musicians from many lands and languages invited us in and showed us the way as we sang of God’s love in Swahili, Korean, Spanish, English, Kannada, and other tongues!

Each day, speakers would challenge us to imagine the world through the eyes of “the other.” And every speaker pointed to Christ as our freedom and unity, helping us see where we still have boundaries that need erasing. It seemed that each of my teenagers tucked in their pockets the words of different speakers because when we gathered at the close of each day to talk and pray together, each person had brought home different words and images from that day’s experience. Each one found courage for the task of self-examination and growth; some from a lyric, some from a speaker’s refrain, some on a service project, some in a small group.

One night, very late, there was this moment. I’ll let you eavesdrop on my precious group for a bit:

Teen 1: I saw lots of Wakanda Forever shirts today.

Teen 2: Wakanda Forever! (crosses arms over chest)

Teen 3: It’s whatever.

(We all kind of pause because something has changed in the room.)

Me: What’s up?

Teen 3 (born in Africa): It took a movie for everyone to figure out that Africa is beautiful and strong? It’s like, “Okay, we’ve been over there being beautiful and strong, and you looked past us. Now, there’s a movie, so you are looking at us?”

Teen 4: (slowly and quietly) That never occurred to me before.

Right there, at nearly midnight, in a small, gray dorm room with nine people perched on desks, beds, and chairs, sweaty from a very long Houston summer day, snacks and drinks everywhere…a boundary was erased. Okay, maybe it was simply seen for the very first time, but it was crystal clear that the heart of the one who saw something for the first time was looking around for his eraser. And the young woman who showed him the boundary felt seen.

It’s really all we can hope for! It’s the finest of Christian formation when something painful bubbles from one heart and is seen and heard as true by another…and confession falls from the lips of those who see and hear the pain…and hearts are changed…and lives are stitched together. And when all of that happens when the very next thing is the prayer prayed together at the close of the day, it is the holiest of moments, and the messy, smelly dorm room is the holiest of temples.

I have described MYLE as being spiritually expensive. Spending time attending to racial identity and reconciliation costs a lot of energy that is not easily replaced with a nap or a cup of coffee. The cost hangs around a while. MYLE was so packed with gorgeous, serious, funny, musical, brave, deep, and silly moments that by the time Wednesday came, and 30,000 of our closest friends were arriving for The Gathering, we were pretty tired. But, God had plans for our tired bodies and spirits, so we took naps, drank coffee, and pressed toward the stadium…where we received an I.V. infusion of the joy of 31,000 people who had been waiting for this holy party for three long years!

Now, I suppose I could write endlessly about The Gathering because the planners crafted a masterpiece of a Gathering. Each day was full of opportunities for worship, service, learning, play, music, and unity. And I’m sure some other blogger has written well about all of that.

So, let me tell you some of the words the speakers said that were like Velcro to my youth group, the words they brought back to the hotel with them for our late-night conversation and prayer. Each speaker had 10 minutes, and their speeches were packed with Christian hope, love, and light, but these are some of the words which have clung to the young people I love. I do hope I’m paraphrasing faithfully:

“We don’t have a hunger problem; we have a greed problem. There is enough.” Maria Rose Belding

“YOU are defiant hope in a broken world.” The Rev. Dr. Stephen Bouman

“You have a reason and purpose.” “Show up!” Joe Davis

“There’s grace for that.” Pr. Will Starkweather

“Your current situation is not your ultimate situation.” Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber

“We are hope for the world. People need us!” Rebekah Bruesehoff

“I felt like the world was trying to break me, but one day my heart started to change.” Michaela Shelly

“If you can still feel, you have the strength to carve yourself into a new tomorrow.” Deborah D.E.E.P. Mouton

“Am I willing to live for this?” Savanna Sullivan

Is there another setting where you can bring your youth group to hear people of varying ages, male, female, every-possible-shade-of-skin, immigrant, citizen, LGBTQIA, ordained pastors, poets, musicians, a terminally ill teen, and people recovering from addiction, eating disorders, and self-harm speak honestly about what they’ve been through…and point to Christ as their source of strength and healing, saying as plainly as possible that God’s call, hope, grace, and love change everything?

If you know another place to find all that, then you know of a rare and precious gem. Please tell us all where to find such a gift.

As for me and mine, we’ll start fundraising right away for our trip to Minneapolis in 2021. And in the meantime, we will continue to bear witness to God’s love and point to the cross of Christ – which changes everything!

Posted in God's Love

Is It Worth It?

It’s a whole lotta money.

9 people.

9 airplane tickets

4 hotel rooms

9 registration fees

27 meals a day

It’s more than a thousand dollars per person to attend the ELCA National Youth Gathering – and the pre-Gathering conference called MYLE (Multi-cultural Youth Leadership Event). When I think of what that kind of money could do for a struggling family, or how it could pay for attorneys to help immigrants at the border have their cases heard, I wonder if we are spending God’s gifts faithfully.

In that light, let’s ponder (some of) what we get for that large wad of cash:

6 years ago, my son went to the National Youth Gathering when it was in New Orleans. He texted me from the arena where 30,000 Lutheran teenagers were gathered to hear speakers and sing praises and sing songs that taste like electricity. I expected his texts to say things about a great band that was on the stage or how much fun it was to be in the city of New Orleans earlier that day. But, one of his texts was a question: “Why didn’t I know that our presiding bishop is amazing?” Another text was a quote about grace from one of the main speakers, Pr. Nadia Bolz-Weber. Yet another was an ALL CAPS exclamation about how, together, the youth groups had brought nearly half a million dollars in offerings for ELCA World Hunger…and someone had promised to match those offerings dollar for dollar!

He’d been a church kid all his life. But, let me tell you something about your average Lutheran church: it is not big, not flashy, not the one everyone is talking about at school. It has a name like St. Peter or Emmanuel or Holy Trinity, nothing edgy like Summit or The Gathering Place or something about a Hill or a Star or a Mountain Top…unless Mount Pisgah counts, which, it doesn’t. It has about 100 people on a Sunday morning. Some have hundreds of people, but most have one hundred. A handful of ELCA congregations can use the word “thousand” when they talk about worship attendance, but loads of us have 50 people gathered in sanctuaries built for 400 people in the pews decades ago when you went to church on Sunday morning because…it was Sunday morning.

Most kids who grow up in these congregations know about praise bands and projection screens because they worshiped at their friend’s church one time after a Saturday night sleepover. And there is probably a guitarist at their church with a great voice who sometimes sings a solo during the offering – a song you can hear on K-LOVE in your car or at Hobby Lobby. But, Sunday mornings at St. Peter/Emmanuel/Trinity Lutheran Church all over the nation most often sound like organs played by older people because the young ones aren’t learning to play anymore. Sunday mornings at small Lutheran congregations that dot the towns and prairies and cities of our country have small choirs and pastors who can sing well enough to lead worship.

Most ELCA kids are members of small, loving congregations.

And every three years, we gather as one big congregation for four days.

Because there are 30,000 of us, we gather in a city large enough to have an arena where we can meet, hotels to house us, restaurants to feed us. Also, big cities have lots of opportunities for service, and while we come to worship and play together, we also come to serve. 10,000 of us each day for three days are bused into the city to participate in healing and wholeness for our host city. Three years ago in Detroit, we cleaned up vacant lots, boarded up old homes, cleaned up parks and greenways, visited local schools and day care centers to deliver books and read with children. We gathered and delivered thousands of packages of diapers to the various agencies in the city that serve young children or families with young children. We also learned how gorgeous and kind and fun the people of Detroit are.

We are headed to Houston next week. It was decided years ago that the city would be Houston, and just last year, hurricane winds and rains were swallowing up Texas and the Gulf Areas. I was moved to tears when I realized that after the first wave of rescue and recovery was done, when things are still a mess in some places and there are still areas that need a work force…30,000 of us in bright orange t-shirts and work gloves are headed your way, Houston!

I am the pastor of one of those beautiful, small congregations; her name is Emmanuel. When we collect money for disaster relief, we gather a few hundred dollars and send it in. When we collect peanut butter and jelly for the local food pantry, we put our dozens of containers in grocery bags and someone drives them across town to restock the shelves that are bare. We generally work in numbers like dozens and sometimes hundreds. Three years ago, the ELCA youth brought diapers to Detroit and stocked every cupboard and closet in every agency that needed them. It was incredible to be a part of a huge effort like that.

This year, we are bringing children’s books. They gave us a list to buy books from, and we could have them shipped to a local congregation who would receive them and ultimately get them to the giant Gathering, or we could bring them with us. Here in North Carolina, a long-haul trucker offered to take a load of books to Texas for us, so we loaded them up. I suppose that happened around the country, and there will be (tens of?) thousands of books to deliver to local school, agencies, doctor’s offices, and wherever children might sit a while and read.

Three years ago, we brought half a million dollars in offerings for ELCA Walk for Water – for digging wells and providing fresh water access in places around the globe that need it – and our dollars were also matched, to make it more than a million dollars to affect true and faithful change in the lives of God’s people!

This year, that dollar-for-dollar match has been offered again. And this year’s focus is about farmers. ELCA World Hunger’s Global Farm Challenge (click here for a 90 second video) is working to support farmers around the world. And I do not doubt that we will meet the challenge, filling the bank account that makes withdrawals on behalf of those in need…to the tune of a million dollars or more!

Our youth will fill an arena and sing great songs at the top of their lungs, and then each at their appointed time, speakers will come and take center stage to talk for a few minutes about things that our young people need to hear. Maybe one will speak about mental illness, working to reduce and finally remove the stigma about it. Maybe one will speak about gender identity and how God is creative and loves nuance – and this life and these bodies are not just black and white. And speaking of black and white, maybe one speaker will talk about what it means to be a Christian and how we can be anti-racist. Surely, at least one of the speakers will say clearly into the microphone that we who are gathered in the name of Jesus, though we are young, we are not the future of the Church: We are presently the Church! And I hope our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton says something about how there are future pastors sitting all over that arena – because I know a young woman who needs to hear women say that over and over and over.

And our kids will feel something new.

They will experience the Lutheran Church in a way that many of them never have before. They’ll see how big it is. That their congregation of 50 is part of something so alive and enormous, something that is big enough to say, “Let’s raise a million dollars to dig wells, so God’s children can drink clean water.” And then watch as a million dollars rolls in. That their little Trinity Lutheran in rural Iowa is a part of something so alive and intentional about bringing resurrection life everywhere that their 30 books are stacked on another congregation’s 25 books and the stacks grow until there are semi-trucks filled with books driving toward Houston, so that every child in a huge city can have a leg-up in literacy.

Our kids will walk around the Interactive Learning Center and stop at a booth that has little old ladies with gray hair and soft bodies (that look just like the ladies at their own church) and hear one of those women say, “We are WELCA, the Women of the ELCA, and we will not stand for human trafficking. Because we love you, we have some education for you, so you can identify if someone is trying to groom you away from your family. We also have hundreds of backpacks here you can help us fill with these toiletries and other supplies. We always need a supply of these backpacks, so when a person is rescued from a trafficker, they’ve got some basics – and they know someone cares.”

So, here’s the thing:

Our kids will tell the story of the church.

They will.

With their words or their lives, they will either engage with or leave the Church. They will tell people what it was like to be a Lutheran kid in the early 21st century. I want them to tell the story of their small, faithful church who loved God and loved them and loved the community. But, I also want them to be able to tell this story, the big story that blew their minds when they filled a huge arena with Lutheran teenagers and raised enormous amounts of money and cried and cared and heard people say things from the stage they had to really think about. I want them to feel connected and electric sometimes – because a lot of life in the church is not electric. But those parts are holy, too. After all, our little youth group from a little congregation in the middle of North Carolina will be traveling together for a week, sharing rooms and meals and bug spray. Super regular stuff.

And every minute and dollar spent will have been worth it.

Posted in God's Love

Holy Hands

In the spring of 1983, dressed in a white robe with a red stole I had designed, I stood in the front of our church with eight other 8th graders as we affirmed our baptisms.

Confirmation Day Page 1983
I’m so grateful my mother has archived our lives on these pages. And I’m a bit overwhelmed seeing my name on this page. Long before I started wearing other people’s names, I was Jennifer Lynn Shimota. The two decades I was Jennifer Lynn Shimota were the safest of my life.

There were lots of words and promises and prayers, and I regret to say that I was likely more interested in the baby’s breath my mother had arranged in my up-swept hair. Or maybe it was the electric feeling of wearing high heels for the first time (apart from the hours and hours I wore my mother’s around our house). However, we had gone to the Gunne Sax outlet in San Francisco to find the perfect white dress. Layers of white gauzy fabric with white lace up the bodice and around the high neck – and crisp, white ribbon, sewn precisely around the cuffs at my wrists. So, I could have been waiting to get the robe off, so I could show off my dress.

 

Confirmation Class - Jennifer
See that stole my dad was wearing? I wore that today, as I asked Indigo and Chol if they renounce all the forces of evil that defy God.

It only occurs to me now, that the adults in the room were teary with pride and brimming with hope as the next group of young women and men claimed their own baptisms and became adults in the life of the church. Our parents had brought us to the baptismal font when we were infants, answering God’s call to raise their children in the Christian church, which for them meant the Lutheran church. They brought us to the waters of baptism and bore witness to a pastor saying things like, “sealed by the Holy Spirit forever” and calling upon the Holy Spirit to come and stir up in us, “the Joy of the Lord both now, and forever.”

We had attended confirmation classes and retreats. We had memorized the entirety of Luther’s Small Catechism. Our Confirmation Day was a lifetime in the making, but more specifically, it was two-years-of-preparation in the making.

My dad was my pastor, so he was my confirmation teacher, and he was so good at it. He’s a story teller, and he is funny as can be. So, we really couldn’t have had a better teacher, and yet we goofed off in class, memorizing paragraphs just well enough to recite them to him and have him make a check mark by that portion of the Small Catechism. You see, he was a great and patient teacher…but we were 8th graders. And (I’ll only speak for myself at this point) I was in confirmation class because that’s what you do in the Lutheran church when you are in middle school. It was the next obligation. I had completed First Communion classes and had my first communion in 5th grade. Then, I guess 6th grade was just regular Sunday school. But, I knew that 7th grade was when you start confirmation classes.

I remember no movement of the Spirit.

I remember no holy tremble when I first knelt at the railing and received a piece of God into my hands, placing it in my mouth.

I was simply a part of the church, and she was offering what she had by way of education and experience, so I could more fully live into my baptismal life.

Now that I’m a pastor, I see all this from the other side. And today, two of my favorite humans, Chol and Indigo, stood in the front of our church and affirmed their baptisms. Was Indigo thinking about her dress? Were Chol’s new shoes on his mind? I don’t know. But, I was there for a miracle – even if they missed it.

There is a part in the rite where the pastor lays her hands on the Confirmand’s shoulder or head and prays the same words that were written about Jesus by the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2-3)

This was written hundreds of years before Jesus was born. It’s a prophecy. Those who spoke and heard it believed it would happen. And it did.

So, we gather around our 8th graders and speak these words of prophecy. Today, I invited all the people who had ever been a part of Indigo and Chol’s faith lives to come and lay their hands on their shoulders as we prayed for them. There were so many people gathered around each of them that some people couldn’t reach them. The people on the outside of the clumps of humans who love Indigo and Chol touched the shoulders of those who were touching the shoulders of those for whom we prayed.

And with the weight of the hands of those who love them and the voice of their pastor who loves them, they were the center of the ancient prayer that the Spirit would rest upon them, bringing wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear (respect), and the joy of the Lord, forever!

I don’t know what they experienced today. They may have been distracted and not heard the words. But, there is no way they missed it when dozens of people stood up and walked toward them to physically draw near them. There is no way they missed it when “their people” showed up to pray.

And if they did miss it. If they weren’t really present for it, then I’m grateful that the church never stops offering us opportunities to be prayed for. I’m grateful that there are other times we receive the weight of the hands of our church family and hear at least one voice asking God for healing or guidance on our behalf.

I don’t remember the weight of my dad’s hands on that spring day in 1983. But, I remember it at the railing a few times on Maundy Thursday. And at El Camino Pines summer camp a few years after my confirmation day, my cabin mates laid their hands on my shoulders and prayed while I wept with sorrow I didn’t even know I was carrying. And when I left for college, my congregation gathered around me and prayed. And when I knelt at the altar of Emmanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church in High Point as I was ordained into the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, “my people” showed up with their hands and voices to pray for me. When I returned from bereavement leave after my husband’s death, I told a group of my pastoral colleagues that I was having a hard time re-entering into my role as pastor. I told them I didn’t really know what I needed to feel ready to re-enter, but that I felt “off” and would appreciate their prayers. I meant, later: in their own prayer lives, to remember me to the Lord. Instead, they moved closer. They drew near and laid their hands on my shoulders and prayed for me. The weight of their hands and the sound of their voices are fingerprints on my life.

Teresa of Avila said of our risen and ascended Lord, who no longer walks the earth with us, “Christ has no hands but yours.” So, I’m grateful that when I need to feel Christ’s presence, my human family draws near to touch me with the hands of Christ, calling to the Spirit, “Come!”

* If you are reading this and feeling claustrophobic, if the description of people drawing near you and touching you causes you to flinch, please know that we ask permission to offer our touch. In the case of confirmands, as we plan their service, we discuss if it is okay for people to come forward and lay hands on them. One year, I had a confirmand who only wanted his parents’ and my hands on him; we obliged because if it doesn’t feel like love, we don’t want to do it. If he had resisted any physical touch at all, then I would have stood next to him and spoken the words without touching him.

Posted in God's Love

The Really New Revised Non-Standard Version of the Passion of our Lord

I’m a pastor.

Every year, before we read the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial, I remind people that when we read “The Jews” in this story, we are not talking about your average Jewish person. We are talking about the religious leaders. The priests, the people in charge of the Temple and the holy scriptures, the teachers and the preachers…THOSE are the people who go to Pilate and convince him to crucify Jesus.

And every year, as I explain that, I am struck that I am describing myself. I am a religious leader.

So, tonight, when I got home from leading Good Friday worship and reading the Passion of our Lord according to the gospel of St. John, I wrote myself into the story. I wrote some others in, too. It was an ugly thing to write. Tammy and Tim, I included you because of your roles. I hope you don’t mind. If anyone reading this thinks it is sacrilegious and wants to call me a blasphemer, you may absolutely do so. After pouring over this for the last hour, any name you want to call me will pale. I’m clinging to my baptism as I crawl into bed tonight.

A North Carolina Passion Story

Jesus went with his disciples to the Blue Ridge Mountains; there was a park there where he and his disciples often went. So, Judas brought a detachment of police officers and a squad of security officers the office of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA had on retainer, and they came with cell-phone flashlights and a spot light and guns. Simon Peter had a gun, too, and he shot off the ear of one of the synod’s security officers. Jesus told Peter to put his gun away.

So, the police officers, their sergeant, and the synod’s security guards arrested Jesus and handcuffed him. First, they took him to Tammy Jones West, who was the Assistant to the Bishop at the time. She had been the one who had told the NC synod pastors, deacons, and deans that it would just be better for one person to die in this mess instead of many. Tammy questioned Jesus about his teaching, and he said, “Tammy, I’ve been teaching in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. They record me and put it on the internet. Nothing I’ve said is a secret. Have you listened to my preaching? Have you asked the people at Nativity in Arden? How about Grace in Hendersonville? They know what I said. Why are you asking me?” When one of the officers heard this, he punched Jesus and screamed at him, “Is that how you answer the Assistant to the Bishop?!” And Jesus replied, “Which part of what I said was untrue?”

Then Tammy had Jesus handcuffed and sent to Tim Smith, who was the bishop at the time. But they didn’t get anywhere with the bishop, so the officers and some of the pastors in the synod (Jennifer Krushas was among the pastors who were furious and going to get something done about this Jesus.) brought Jesus to Governor Cooper, who was in Asheville to oversee a major festival, and Governor Cooper asked them, “What are the charges you are bringing against this man?” They said, “Sir, seriously, would we be here if he weren’t a criminal?” Governor Cooper said, “This sounds like it’s a religious issue, so maybe you should go to the synod council and see about ecclesiastical censuring or whatever you folks do in cases like this.” But Jennifer spoke for the group and said, “Governor, we can’t. We need you in this case because according to church doctrine, we can’t kill him.”

So, Cooper went into his chambers where Jesus was waiting and asked him some questions, but he didn’t really get anywhere with him. Jesus evaded questions, not quite pleading the 5th, but Cooper couldn’t get the straight answers he needed. He went back out to the pastors and deacons and said, “I can’t actually find anything to charge him with. But, I was thinking, you know how you have that thing every year during the festival that one person gets pardoned? Let’s have it be him this year. What do you think?” Jennifer and the other pastors looked at each other, then looked back at Cooper and said, “Not Jesus. Give us William Marks this year. We know he’s a murderer, but set him free and keep Jesus for trial and the death penalty.”

So, Governor Cooper took Jesus and had him beaten. And when he was bleeding freely from open wounds, the officers put a robe on him, and they made a crown out of thorns and jammed it on his head, so he bled some more. He just stood there as they mockingly bowed before him and said sarcastically, “Hail, King! Hail, King!” and hit him about the head some more.

Then, Cooper brought Jesus out to Jennifer and the other pastors and deacons again. He was all bloody and bruised, his blood soaking through the purple robe and streaming down his face and neck from the crown of thorns. All Cooper said was, “Here he is,” and those pastors and deacons and deans (and it’s likely the bishop and his staff were present by now) screamed, “Kill him! Kill him!” And Cooper said, “YOU take him and kill him if you want it so badly.” And Jennifer shouted about how there is a law about claiming to be the Son of God, and that law carries the weight of the death penalty.

Cooper was kind of freaking out at that point, so he went over to Jesus and questioned him about where he’s from, and Jesus refused to answer at first, but then he started saying that he’s not from this world and weird stuff like that. So, Cooper kept trying to release Jesus, but the pastors and deacons and synod staff kept coming up with new reasons for Cooper to convict Jesus and sentence him to death. So, he said, “You really want me to kill your King?” And they put their shoulders back and said resolutely, “We have no religious king. Our allegiance is to our country and its leaders.” So, Governor Cooper handed Jesus over to Jennifer and the other Lutheran leaders, so they could have him killed.

And when he had died, a couple of guys who weren’t very churchy, who kind of only went to church on Christmas and Easter, and who didn’t have any “God Loves You” t-shirts or listen to K-Love on the radio, who were never on congregation council or acolytes or anything…but things Jesus had done and said had shifted things for them…they asked if they could take care of Jesus’ body, and Governor Cooper gave them permission.

Posted in God's Love

The Light Persists

(I wrote this article for our local newspaper last month. I’m posting it here on my blog and adding some pictures, so I can share it with someone over the internet.)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John 1:5

This short verse from the gospel of John contains the fullness of what Christians believe about what God did in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the Light that shines in the darkness, evil, jealousy, hatred, fear, and injustice in this world. A long time ago on a Friday, Darkness threw everything it had at Jesus, and Sunday morning, Darkness learned it had not overcome the Light.

Light persists. I see it everywhere. Light shines in musicians who hone their skills and

concert
Classical flute and guitar concert at First Baptist in High Point

offer them to us live in sanctuaries, concert halls, and nursing homes. Light shines in local agencies like BackPack Beginnings, feeding hungry school kids and Reading Connections, helping adults become literate.

Light insists. It will not relent. Light glows in women who say #MeToo, shining its rays in old, painful corners and exposing ugly truths. Light glimmers in the holy work of those who serve refugees in this and all nations. When people have awkward, honest conversations about race, the Light shines. The Light insists on justice for the oppressed and reconciliation where there has been disunity.

We Christians who follow the liturgical calendar are in the season of Advent. It’s a four-week period before Christmas wherein we spend time anticipating the birth of the Light

bells
Emmanuel Lutheran bell ringers – ringing for the Salvation Army at the grocery store.

among us. We hear the prophets foretelling the Messiah, the promises of God, and the way Israel longed for a Savior. While ancient Israel waited for a Savior to be born, we wait for Christ to return, to set all things right.

While we wait, we look for the Light in the world around us. My friend, Chantal, glimmers with the Light of Christ as she works planting a new bi-lingual and bi-cultural Beloved+OfficialChristian community in Winston-Salem. But, the Light isn’t only found in congregations and Bible studies. It glows in foster families and animal shelters. You can see it shimmering among friends laughing over a good meal and adult children caring for aging parents. In every parent who is patiently negotiating mealtime or bedtime with a toddler, the Light shines.

While we wait, we participate in the Light; we run into the darkness with our candles of

Caroling
Carolers from Emmanuel Lutheran visiting some of our homebound members.

hope. We reflect the Light’s rays when we have a hard conversation in order to work on forgiveness. The light glints off the barrel of our pen as we write a check to a helping agency. When we pile in a van to visit a lonely friend and sing carols in his living room, we are rays of the Light.

Living in a divided nation, in a world pulsing with war and injustice, we might feel hopeless, like the Darkness is winning. But it’s just not true. There is more love than hate, more Light than Dark. Our call is to keep walking with our candles, to keep persisting and insisting in our parts of the world that the Darkness did not overcome the Light. If you look just so, tilt your head and squint your eyes just right, you’ll begin to make out the shape of a candle and the glow of its flame in your neighbors’ hands, too.

Reverend Jennifer Krushas is pastor at Emmanuel Lutheran in High Point, NC.

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.