Being “Embodied” with brain health issues

Nightly my routine includes 150mg of Sertraline, also known as Zoloft. I really wish it wasn’t part of my life, but it is. My brain health issues include depression, anxiety, and adult ADD. I take the SSRI along with regular exercise and time with a therapist. Some days are still better than others. I will never be someone without a brain health condition. 8 years ago when I was pregnant with our one and only, my fervent prayer was that these brain health issues would not be genetic. We welcomed our daughter into the world in June 2004. Postpartum depression robbed me of the first 6 months of her life. I was there, but I don’t remember anything. 

I prayed, a lot. I wondered if Mary ever went through PPD. I wondered if Mary cried when (or if) Jesus refused her breast. I wondered if Mary ever laid her hand on Jesus’ back, feeling him breathe. She certainly missed out on those amazing mesh undies they give you in the hospital! I thought a lot about her when I cried over drying out milk ducts and when I put my hand on my daughters back and when I cried over, well… anything. You don’t hear those stories in the Bible. Did Joseph get up with the infant Jesus in the middle of the night? 

Our daughter is now fiercely independent, incredibly smart, and hilarious. So sure, some of it was genetic. But when she starts to have trouble processing things, speaks to herself with such cruel words, and practically works herself into a panic attack, my worries sneak back. I usually pull my beloved girl in close and tell her the things I would want to hear in that moment, the things I long to hear on the days when my depression and anxiety are winning. I am trying to get better  listening to God when She whispers these things to me. “You are beloved. There is nothing wrong with you. You are safe. You are loved. Take a deep breath. You are not a failure. This is a bad moment, not a bad day or even a bad life.” As I cradle our gift from God, I like to picture God, pulling me closer to Her. My girl lays her head on my bosom and I rest assured that for today, God knows what it’s like to parent. I speak grace to my congregation on a regular basis. I speak grace to my daughter daily. Every day, I’m getting better at hearing it myself when Mothering God pulls me close and speaks grace to me until I believe it. 

This post is part of the book launch blog tour for Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God. Embodied includes reflection questions at the end of each chapter, to instigate conversations that lead to support and new perspectives. The book is available this September from, Amazon, or Cokesbury

February newsletter

I sat down to write this article, it feels like the 74th day of January. In reality, it’s the end of the month. What is it about January that it seems to drag on forrrrreeeevvvvveeeerrrr?? And I don’t know if it’s January or the cold or what, but I really struggled with what to write to you this month. After a very challenging month, I’m feeling a bit dry, honestly. So I turned to my trusted confidant, our secretary Lynn, and asked her “what should I write about this month?” And in her infinite wisdom, she said “well, February is the month of love. Why don’t you write about love?” But here’s the thing, beloved, I’m in the mindspace that I’m more wanting to talk about grief. 

I don’t want to assume that all of you reading this know, but a young man in our congregation, Tristan Toppert, died on January 13. I confirmed Tristan. I took him to the Lutheran Youth Gathering in Houston (along with Kristi Lueders, Katelyn Howe, Paige Bauer, and Sam Lueders). Chris, Ellen and I have had the honor of spending many of the major holidays at the Stuedemann house. This means that I have spent many Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easters with Tristan. The story of his death, while not private, is one familiar to too many families in this congregation. It comes with a different kind of grief. 

I have walked with many of you through grief. And if I have had the honor of doing that (and yes, for me it is an honor to be invited into such a sacred place) you have heard me say something like this. Grief never happens at a convenient time. It never happens when you’re home alone, with the lights turned down, and a kleenex box nearby. Grief happens at really dumb times, like when you’re at the grocery store and you pass by a woman who wears the same perfume as your grandmother and now you’re crying in the potato chip aisle. And yes, this really happened to me. And it happened to me more than once. I ran into someone at the meat counter at Hy-Vee less than 24 hours after Allen Petersen died. They asked me “how’s Allen doing?” and there I was, crying in front of the sirloins. Grief is terrible and awful and confusing. But, grief is the price we pay for loving one another so fiercely. Grief is the price we pay for having loved. 

And yes, sometimes love looks like chocolate, roses, even folding the laundry. Sometimes love looks like holding hands to steady one another. Love looks like rides to chemo, sitting in the silence waiting, rocking babies, and being comfortable with one another’s wrinkles and rolls. And sometimes love looks like picking out the perfect casket for a 17 year old who should still be here if it weren’t for bullies. I don’t think we often think about that grief and love are partners that go hand in hand. What love and grief have in common is that God is present in them both. 

I think about the first time I laid eyes on Ellen and my heart just about exploded out of love and I know God was in that moment. After years of infertility and our struggle to bring this little girl into the world, I knew without a doubt, God was there as we fell in love with this amazing creation of God who bears the image of her redeemer. At the same time we know and must lean into the idea that God is most certainly present in our grief. I don’t dare imagine how unbearable grief would be without God or without faith. If I need proof of God’s presence in grief, I think about the story of Lazarus. When Jesus arrived and heard his friend Lazarus had already died, his first reaction was one of tears. Sorrow. Pure grief. This was the very human Jesus having very human emotions. 

The only way we can avoid grief is to not love. Grief physically hurts (like that gut-wrenching hurt) because something or someone we love has been removed from our lives. I believe that loving is worth the hurt. At the same time, I also believe that life is too short and nothing is guaranteed. I am writing this just a few days after basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a tragic helicopter accident. So if you’ve been waiting for the perfect moment, the perfect words, the right opportunity or whatever to act on love, stop waiting. Stop waiting because I don’t want you left with grief and “what if’s.” Love and grief are both gifts from God. Yes, gifts. Love we can understand as a gift. Grief is a gift because it reminds us that we are capable of loving and being loved. When we read “for God so loved the world” (see John 3:16) that includes you, me, and everyone you love and everyone you may not even know. Love is not a precious commodity. Grief isn’t a precious commodity either. So don’t wait for Valentine’s day. Don’t wait another moment to love. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my short time thus far on this spinning ball of madness it’s that there’s always room for more love. 

Sermon for 12/20/15 Luke 1:39-55

an I have a moment of honesty with all of you? I am asking for permission to be honest and show you some of my scars; is that okay? I’ve had a difficult fall. The fall is always hard for our family. Chris is gone a lot for work; of course I support him 100%. But, this also means that many nights it’s just me and Ellen. And I love being a parent, I really do. She’s a complete and total joy. But, she’s also 2. The fall has been difficult. And as we’ve transitioned into winter, some of those difficulties have followed. As we get closer and closer to Christmas day, I can feel my anxiety starting to go higher and higher. It’s not fun. Just the other night I told Chris “I’m not right.” I will be right. I’m not sharing this with all of you so that you worry about me. I share these things with you because if you feel even just a little bit like I do, you’ll know you’re not alone. It has been hard for me to get into the Christmas spirit. Even as I was writing this sermon, the fact that my shopping isn’t done was still hanging over my head. The irony that in the season of Advent when we talk so much about waiting and anticipation that I seem to rush around more than normal is not lost on me. In a time that is touted as being “merry and bright” sometimes it is less than merry and bright for some people. My anxiety finally manifested itself the other night in the form of a nightmare where my sister got kidnapped. It was one of those dreams where I woke up exhausted because I had spent the entire time looking for her. Mercy!

While most of you have been busy shopping, purchasing, wrapping, preparing, checking and re-checking, cleaning, cooking, baking, and all the other activities that go into the holiday that you might have forgotten about yourselves. I know I have. Maybe you’ve come to church thinking that this is the one place you can escape all of that stuff. But, even that is exhausting for some of us. There’s the dressing up. There’s the pressure to appear perfect even though we’re anything but. We may hold hands with our spouse despite the fact that the last words we spoke to each other were filled with anything but love. We drag our children along and tell them “going to church is good for you” when many of us struggle with our own faith. And we settle into our pews (our own pews) slap on a fake smile, go through the motions, and hope no one notices the stress we’re carrying. Then we hear the story of Mary. Great, one more happy person I get to hear about during this holiday season. Of course Mary is happy, she’s pregnant with Jesus! She’s so damn happy she’s singing. When’s the last time I was so over-the-moon happy that I sang with joy?? Mercy!

But what if, seriously, what IF Mary’s song could also be our song too? (No, I’m not going to make you sing.) What if we look past the joy of her song and look at reality? It’s easy to first think that Mary is singing for joy, and she is. But, it’s not just joy that she is with child. Her joy comes from something deeper: change. I can’t believe that I’m talking to Lutherans about singing for joy over change. This seems contradictory and almost like an oxymoron. Mary is singing because by being chosen as the bearer of the redeemer of the world, her status has changed too. God has looked with favor on her even though she is a woman, even though she is a teenager, even though (in the eyes of her society) she didn’t matter before this moment. And it’s not just Mary that is being changed. The world around her is being changed by this too. Mercy!

The powerful are being humbled. The hungry are being fed. Those who are low are brought high. The rich who always cry “more more more” are sent away with empty hands and pockets. And this isn’t in a future time. Mary is singing in the present tense: God has already made these things happen. On top of all of this, God has shown to Mary and to us one very important and crucial thing: mercy. When is the last time you experienced mercy? Let us not confuse mercy with being blessed or a blessing. We use the idea of “blessed or blessing” almost judgmentally or as a statement of status. Many of the Christmas letters we get this time of year talk about being blessed with vacations, retirement, a visit from old friends, or even the blessing of new vehicles. This isn’t how God works! A blessing is forgiving sorry sinners like us over and over and over. Being blessed is being loved despite the amount of times we screw up on a daily basis. I digress…

When is the last time you experienced mercy? Would you know it if it happened to you? I don’t know about all of you, but the present I need the most this year is mercy. I guess moreover I need to remember that God’s mercy has already been given to me in the cross. I once heard this phrase “you’re forgiven. Start acting like it.” Maybe you will experience mercy when you screw up your mother in law’s cookie recipe and she later shares with you the story of screwing up the recipe of her own mother in law. Maybe you will experience mercy at work when instead of being chastised for something gone wrong, your boss takes the time to sit down and make sure you know how to do the job correctly next time. There are so many times in our lives that we experience mercy and we just need to recognize it.

God has handled us with mercy. God has handled us with great mercy. If I think of the number of times and number of ways I have messed up and strayed so far from God that I don’t think I’ll ever make it back to God it can get overwhelming. And then I remember mercy. God’s mercy is like a kiss from a parent on our boo-boos. That scar may still be there, but it no longer bleeds. God’s mercy is what allows us to sit in these pews week after week and finally get up the courage to turn to our friends, our family, and one another, and say “I’m not okay” and still know that we are loved. God’s mercy is what pushes us forward to this table and be fed even if we don’t believe we deserve it. God’s mercy is what encourages us to sing “alleluia” even at the grave.

Maybe you aren’t feeling it either this holiday season. Maybe the holiday spirit hasn’t found you yet. Maybe you’re even dreading all the celebrations and festivities. My brothers and sisters, be gentle on yourselves. God has found mercy with you. God has found mercy with you. Above everything else, thanks be to God, God has found mercy with you. With us. With all of us. In a world and a time where not a lot of other things make sense, God has found mercy with you. Wait for the Lord whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart!

Sermon for 12/6/15 Luke 3:1-6

I think we humans struggle to take compliments sometimes. Ladies, I’m sorry to say, we’re the worst at this. More than once I’ve heard someone say “thank you” only for the other person to respond “it was no big deal.” It was a big deal to me! If I said “thank you” it’s because you helped me and I am grateful. I have given someone a compliment on a nice top, piece of jewelry, or lip color only to have someone poo-poo the compliment by saying things like “oh this old thing?” or “I don’t wear it very often because I’m not a fan of this…” I think what you meant to say was “thank you for the compliment.” I think that at the root of this is the idea that in one way or another, we’re just not worthy.

We have convinced ourselves that we’re not worthy of a lot of things. We’re not worthy of that new position or raise at work. We don’t think we’re worthy of that gym membership, new outfit, or haircut. We don’t think we’re worthy of whatever fun shiny new object we’ve put on our Christmas list. We don’t think we’re worthy of love. And we may struggle with the idea that we’re even worthy of the grace that God gives us. Of course, maybe this is just me. But, I think we all at some point in time or another struggle with the idea that we are worthy of whatever we may be receiving.

While I understand this attitude, and heck, I actually know it all too well. It can actually be something that hampers us in the process of being Christians. I learned a lot of things in seminary, but one of the things that really stuck and continues to comfort me is this: God does not call the prepared. God prepares the called. So if for some reason you think that you are not worthy to go into this world spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone who will hear it, you need to stand corrected. We are all called to do this. God prepares us for this task through the words of scripture and through this Holy meal. God calls all of us to be disciples. And before you’re too quick to say “nope, Pastor, not me!” allow me to tell you you’re wrong. Luther even talked about this concept (quite a bit) and called it the “priesthood of all believers.” We are all equipped, or become equipped, to be disciples.

And so why does it matter? What in the world does this have to do with our reading for today? The word of God came to John, son of Zachariah. So? Look at the list of people in our reading that the word of God could have come to. The Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate (who was the governor), Herod (ruler of Galilee), his brother, Philip (who was also a ruler), Lysanias (also a ruler), and Annas and Caiaphas (both priests). The word of God could have come to any of those men. Any of them. They were men of power. People would have listened to them. In that time, if any of those men spoke, people listened. Who better to have the word of God come to than any of those men? But, instead, the word of God came to John.

Now, as a reminder, this was John the Baptist. He wasn’t the most popular person around. He lived in the wilderness, which was known as a place of darkness, danger, and uncertainty. He ate honey and locusts. He wore clothes made out of camel’s hair. To put it bluntly, if you saw John the Baptist on the street, you might divert your eyes or even cross over to the other side of the road. John the Baptist was the most unlikely person for the word of God to come to. But, God did as God does and God found John the Baptist in the wilderness (of all places) and turned him into a prophet. For the record, Herod later had John the Baptist beheaded. He was most likely intimidated by this new found power that John had. The point is, in the most unlikely of places and with the most unlikely of people, God acted.

What if we heard the start of this Gospel reading in a new way? What if we heard it for our current context. It would sound something like this. In the fifteenth (almost sixteenth) year of the twenty-first century, when Barack Obama was President of the United States of America, and Terry Brandstad was Governor of Iowa, and Mark Vulich was the mayor of Clinton, Don Thiltgen was the mayor of DeWitt, and Kenneth Fahlbeck was the mayor of Camanche, the word of the Lord came to the people of Elvira Zion Lutheran Church in rural Clinton County. Oh can you imagine!

How quickly would we try and shoo God away? “You don’t mean us, God. Certainly not us! Maybe you should choose someone else. Can we give you directions to that bigger church down the road?” And before you’re quick to say “yeah, but that’ll never happen” it actually already has, brothers and sisters. Many many times this has happened. God has come here, to this place, spoken to us many and various ways and what have we done with the message? Every time we witness a baptism, God is here. Every time we eat the body and blood of Christ, God is here. When we gather to celebrate the lives of our saints, God is most definitely here. God is in our tears and in our laughter. God is in our youngest member and God is in our oldest member. God doesn’t care if you think you’re capable or not, God’s word has come to you in one way or another. What have you done with it?

Have you invited someone to come with you on a Sunday? Have you offered to pray for or with someone? Have you visited someone that cannot be with us? Have you made a meal for someone who is sick or mourning? Have you written a note, letter, or card to someone letting them know you care? In these actions, brothers and sisters, you are being Christ to one another and to a hurting world. Now, before you say “oh, that’s just what I do…it’s nothing special.” Yes it is. And here’s the thing, once the word of God gets a hold of you, it doesn’t really let go. When we talk about preparing the way of the Lord, perhaps the best thing we can do is prepare ourselves. We are worthy of God coming to us and using us (yes, little ol’ us) to help prepare the way of the Lord. As baptized people of God, we’re incredibly suited to go from the wilderness, to go from the farmland, to go from the city, or to go from a metropolis and share God’s love with the world through service to one another. The Lord is coming. Don’t think he won’t come to you.

“Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong take heart.”

Sermon for 11-29-15 Luke 21:25-36 Advent 1

Maybe you’re just as confused as I am by this reading and why we are getting it now. It is, after all, the first Sunday in Advent. We want the story of the cute baby Jesus and the details leading up to his birth, right? We want to picture cute, tubby angelic cherubims singing and dancing for joy at the arrival of the Christ child. We want to put up the tree, sing carols, drink eggnog (or not), wrap presents and just get caught up in all that this season has to offer. We want to shop, bake, eat, travel, wonder, anticipate, and bask in the joy of holly and jolly. What we get instead is a reading about the end times. It is anything but joyful, holly, or jolly. But so it is with our reading from Luke. And so it is that we have the difficult task of talking about this scripture today in a time when we’d rather hear about baby Jesus. And maybe what we so desperately need to hear is stories of comfort in these times that already feel like the end times.

The last few weeks I’ve talked about fear and that it has become part of the reality of which we live. There are people, maybe even some of you included, that feel like we are already living in the end times, or at least coming close to it. I don’t want to try and negate those feelings. I understand. We are living in very uncertain times. We don’t know from day to day if we will be safe, secure, or protected. It seems that the enemy is moving closer every day. We no longer know what the enemy looks like. It can be someone who looks like you and me. That is enough to be scary. The rhetoric surrounding our security can also be scary. We need more guns. Or less. We need more nuclear weapons. Or less. We need more security. Or just different security. And what it comes down to is that fear is a very real and very palpable feeling in our society.

So perhaps you come to church for refuge. You come hoping to feel good. You come hoping to see familiar faces, talk about the “old times”, and laugh (because laughter has become a commodity). And this time of year, it’s especially nice to come to church as it’s all decorated and warm and we anticipate the birth of the Christ child. And so it is, perhaps, that while we often turn to the Bible (and books like Revelation) to point to the future, it is more than just a little unsettling to hear readings like the one we have today and realize that signs Jesus talks about could be the here and now. And maybe it’s not specifically our time and place that Jesus speaks of. But, Jesus could just be pointing to the way that the powers of this world can take hold and it is easy, almost too easy, for God’s message of love and redemption to be lost and go unheard over the sounds of shouting, protesting, bombing, crying, and ultimately, death at the hands of greed.

This reading comes on the heels of a story we heard a few weeks ago. It was a different Gospel, but the same story. The story was of a widow who put every last penny she owned into the treasury. She was practically shamed into it by a system of oppression. And Jesus warned the disciples about the end times; how no stone would remain unturned and there would be many false prophets. The disciples, much like many of us, want to know exactly when this time will come. Jesus tells the disciples that when the fig tree starts to sprout leaves that summer is near. Much like that, when there are signs in the sun, moon, and stars and distress among the nations that redemption is drawing near. Distress among the nations? Good thing we don’t have any of that.

I guess the frustrating part about this reading today is that Jesus could have been speaking of any time in history thus far. It could have been any war, any natural disaster, any national catastrophe, any single headline written on the pages of history. Did Jesus know that we would always struggle with worshipping power, privilege and greed instead of him? Did Jesus know that we would always struggle with identity, eager to group people into quick and easy categories of “us and them” instead of our universal identities as children of God? Did Jesus know how mightily we would struggle with loving ourselves (and find loving the “other” almost impossible)? So it seems, then, that the more things change the more things stay the same. And that is frustrating to me.

Our realities are all too grim. Too many of us will enter this holiday season with empty chairs at our tables. We may have less money in our bank accounts. We may have health issues that remain unresolved. We may fight demons to scary to even name out loud. Perhaps the idea of a revelation, of God’s inbreaking and coming into this world is almost a comfort. The idea of the reality that God has prepared for us is intoxicating. Yet we live in a very pregnant place. And I used that word on purpose. In this time of Advent, we live in the already but not yet. We journey, step by pregnant step with a young girl as she makes her way into the unknown. We know what is coming, but we have no idea how to prepare or what to expect. This is not the way many of us like to live. We’re planning people, you and I. And so to live in the “already but not yet” seems jarring. We live in our current reality and yet are very well aware of God’s vision for our future. Advent is the time of longing and yearning and waiting. We are confident in what is coming, and yet we have to wait anyway.

Maybe what comforts us in this time of pregnant waiting is knowing that God, unlike the world around us, does not change. God, unlike the world around us, is just, merciful, kind, and full of love and compassion. God, unlike the world around us, is unshakable. God, unlike the world around us, will not crumble. God, the ultimate power, comes to us in the most unlikely of places: a dirty barn, surrounded by smelly animals, to an unwed pregnant teenager. This baby will be born into a world set out to persecute and kill him. And they will be successful, for three days at least. God, who hung on a cross, who was buried behind a stone that was later rolled away, who appeared in the garden that early Easter morning, could not be restrained by death. The powers of this world, the powers that seem to be against us, are no match for our God. “Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, be strong take heart.”  

Visiting the “First Holy Church of Hy-Vee”

I love grocery stores. I have always loved grocery stores. I don’t know why. Perhaps it comes from watching too much “Supermarket Sweep” (a game show) in the late 80’s/early 90’s with my sister. Maybe because I live in a country where I always have my choice of food, it’s clean, it’s processed, it’s okay for me to eat. So, of course, I love Hy-Vee. Hy-Vee is our local grocery store. It’s a mid west institution (similar to H.E.B., Trader Joe’s, and Food Emporium in other parts of the country). It’s based out of Des Moines and has been part of my life for some time. Even in high school I worked at Hy-Vee. Besides my beloved United Market Street grocery store in Wichita Falls, TX, I love this place. You may think I’m weird or whatever, but I love grocery stores. Deal with it.

So, I like to frequent our Hy-Vee. They have recently done some remodeling. It looks pretty amazing. They now have this awesome Hy-Vee Market Cafe which is basically a sit down restaurant. Anyone visiting the Cafe can order off a menu or bring in food from the smaller venues (Italian, Chinese, fried chicken, salad bar, etc…) and have a sit and eat.

I usually have breakfast at the Hy-Vee before I go to therapy. (Going to therapy is a totally different blog post for a totally different time). I think I’m becoming a regular there because my awesome waitress, Nikki (shout out to Nikki) usually greets me with a smile, and a casual greeting “hey Pastor! Coffee?” I answer back “yep” as I get settled into my seat. Nikki knows that I don’t want cream with my coffee. She knows I like my hash browns extra crispy. She knows I don’t want butter on my toast. It’s a weird relationship. Nikki knows a lot about my eating habits; she knows I’m a pastor; she knows I like to read; she knows I have a husband and a child. I know she works at Hy-Vee and is dealing with some family issues.

I watch Nikki go about her work with the regulars. I am amused by the dance that happens. Older, retired men (usually men) come in and take their seats, ready to discuss the issues of the day (luckily, it seems, FOX News is on–what seems like–every station!) She knows all of them by name, and they all know her. “Want a cup for your coffee, Stan, or did you bring your own today” Nikki asks as another regular shuffles in. He removes his VFW cap (it seems this is part of the “uniform” for a lot of the regulars). The regulars are sassy with Nikki and she gives it back. And it hits me….

What is the difference between gathering at church every Sunday and gathering at the Hy-Vee Market Cafe every day (or even every week)? It would be easy to say “Jesus” and just leave the argument at that. But really, Jesus doesn’t just show up in churches (thank goodness). And other people might say “it’s communion.” And so I say what makes the hashbrowns and coffee that this group of men share any less Holy than the bread and wine we drink on a Sunday. Maybe someone would say “but we have fellowship at church–we are in a relationship with one another.” Yep–and so are the folks that gather at the First Holy Church of Hy-Vee.

So, what is the difference? Is there a difference? Is the gathering of friends old and new, over coffee and eats, any different than the gathering of friends (old and new) over bread and singing? Some might say “at Hy-Vee there’s no preaching” and trust me, after eavesdropping (purposely and accidentally) there’s some hard core “preaching” that goes on between these folks gathered at Hy-Vee.

And maybe instead of trying hard to find the differences between these gathering places, we highlight and lift up the similarities. Why can’t Jesus be at the Hy-Vee? Why can’t he be present in coffee and hash browns? We’re often quick to limit Jesus to where we’d like him the most: all to ourselves and in our own time. We want Jesus on Sunday for one hour a day in our church. But again, Jesus doesn’t work like that (again, thank goodness). Jesus is going to show up where, when, and how Jesus so chooses.

So yes, Jesus will show up on Sunday at your church (and every church for that matter). But Jesus is also going to show up at the grocery store; and at the bar; and at the post office; and at the bank; and while you’re pumping gas (I think you get the point). Maybe that’s what I’ve affirmed by my breakfast at Hy-Vee with coffee by Nikki and conversation with the “older man” crew: Jesus really is everywhere. Trying to limit the whereabouts of Jesus is nothing but a test of your patience.

Part of my operating theology (the idea that is core to my belief in God) is the scripture from Matthew 28:18-20 “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'” This is often called “the Great Commission.” And I take it very seriously. The most important word for me in this scripture is “Go.” Not “sit and wait for people to come to you” or anything of the sort. Go! Go to the places where Christ’s people are and encounter them (and thus, the risen Christ). 

Yes, something amazing and special happens in church. We gather, we confess, we are forgiven, we hear the Word read, proclaimed, and sung. We offer, we eat and then we are sent. There is a rhythm to our gathering. But, it’s not enough to encounter Christ in worship and then expect him to stay there. It’s to us to follow Christ out into the world, attempting to spread the good news and doing work for the good in his name. So, be on the lookout for Christ next time you’re out.

I hear he likes to hang out at Hy-Vee.

A Year In

Today I celebrate my one year installation anniversary serving as pastor of Elvira Zion Lutheran Church. I remember the celebration fondly because it was the final step in something I had waited for so long. I’ve learned a lot in my first year as an ordained leader. I’m no where near done learning, I hope to never be done learning. But, for now, here are some of my thoughts on what I’ve learned while “taking stalk.”

1.  I really am called to do this. That may sound strange, but I waited for so long to receive a call that I started to wonder if God really wanted me to be a Pastor. As I have walked with this amazing group of people this last year, my call has been affirmed over and over and over again. I’m so grateful.

2. I had/have no idea what I don’t know. You know that saying “I don’t know what I don’t know”? Yep….that was me for a good portion of my first year. It is often assumed that a pastor, not just me, knows what has happened in a congregation in the past or how “we’ve always done things.” I didn’t. I often learned on the fly, which was fine (since that is most like my learning style). But, I am still learning a lot of what I don’t know.

3. I know nothing about building maintenance. Thank God I am surrounded by very capable men and women who do. But, I had a lot of conversations this year about sewers, boilers, how to capture rodents, floors, painting, etc… None of these things are in my wheelhouse. But, I am still grateful that I was part of the conversation. I’m still learning and so far, haven’t had to plunge a toilet while wearing my alb. Finding the dead squirrel, however, that’s a different story.

4. Taking an accounting class while in seminary would have done me worlds of good. Thank God I have a treasurer and financial secretary who are very patient with me and are more than happy to explain figures and spending and accounts to me. Thank God they also both want to be as transparent with numbers, budget, and spending as I do.

5. Funerals never get easy. Funerals are part of what I do. In fact, it is probably one of the moments where I get to encounter the “Holy” the most. That said, it doesn’t get easier with time. Walking with a family in grief (sometimes in great grief) is hard. When you see people that you love hurting, it’s difficult. Speaking of…

6. I had no idea how capable of love I would become. I consider myself a pretty loving person. I am affectionate and I’m not shy about it. However, in a year, I have grown to love these people more than I ever thought was possible. That’s not to say that they’re not lovable; it’s more of a reflection on my ability to love. They make me laugh, they challenge me, they accept me, they love our daughter, they know how to have fun, and most importantly, they know what it means to be Christ to me and to one another.

7. Thank God for my secretary. Seriously. This woman saves my sanity quite often. She is reliable and efficient. Most importantly, she has become a trusted colleague. Speaking of…

8. Thank God for my colleagues. I have amazing colleagues both near and far. My text study group that meets weekly has been a safe place for me, has helped me to grow, and has been a place of a lot of laughter.

9. It is really hard (I mean, really) to be a full time pastor, a full time mom, and a full time wife. I rarely seem to get all of these roles balanced. I am still learning what it means to have all of these vocations at the same time. I remind myself to be gentle with myself if one of these roles suffers because of the other (but try to not make a habit out of it).

10. Self-care is crucial…and I usually suck at it. I am horrible about putting myself first. I hope to make this more of a goal for my second year. Many aspects of my health suffered off and on this past year because I neglected my self-care.

11. I really do love rural ministry. When I first entered seminary, I thought that I wanted to serve an urban, inner-city ministry with an outreach to the homeless, HIV, LGBT, etc… population. And perhaps, someday, a long time from now, that will be the kind of ministry I am called to. But for now, there is something lovely about where I am. I can’t say I’ve grown accustomed to the “smell of money” but really, does anyone ever grow accustomed to that??

12. I am busier than I ever thought I’d be. At first, it would be easy to think “it’s a small church, there won’t be enough to keep me busy.” That’s not true. That’s pretty far from the truth, actually. In fact, i think I’ve spent the entire year feeling behind on things I need to do.

13. The Holy Spirit is amazing. Every time I get to preside at the table or do a baptism, I get the chills. Being trusted to be Christ’s hands and feet in these instances is really humbling and something I am honored to do. Every time.

14. What I do is really fun. For some people, it may not seem that way. But seriously, I love what I do. I can’t believe I get paid to do this (for the record, I appreciate the fact that I get paid to do this–it helps me pay student loans). Is every moment fun? Nope. But, every moment is filled with God and that’s pretty powerful.

15. God is always here making all things new. God doesn’t need me–but it’s nice to know they’ll keep me around for a little while longer.

I think that’s it for now. I’m sure this list could go on and on and on. I am looking forward to year 2 and learning even more about the people I serve, the God we all serve together, and myself.

Sermon for 10/26/14 (Reformation/Confirmation Sunday) John 8:31-36

What a spectacular day! Caleb, Katelyn, and Karlee have worked really hard to get here today. They had a very untraditional Confirmation class by having Pastor Engstrom and then myself teaching. But, they learned a lot and I think we had some fun along the way too. We learned that there is no difference between a snowmobile and a snow machine (just like there’s no difference between a snow blower and a snow thrower). We learned that Katelyn loves her neon colors and Karlee helped us to figure out whether or not donut holes bounce. In the midst of all this fun, we talked about faith. We may have done it in some unconventional methods, but we talked about faith.

If you have not taken the time to read the faith statements of these young people, please do. Caleb, Katelyn, and Karlee all managed to accomplish something that I think most of us would find difficult: to write a statement of faith. I mean, really, could you do it? Given the chance to respond to the question “why do you believe what you believe?” most of us would probably stop and stutter and struggle to answer. Here are some other questions I asked them to think and pray about (although not necessarily answer) “what does God’s grace mean to you?” “What does it mean that Christ died on the cross for you?” “Does being forgiven by God change the way you interact with the world around you? If so, how?” “Why is having a good faith foundation important to the rest of your life?” These are difficult questions to answer and let’s not forget that these young people are 14 and 15 years old. Did you have any idea what your faith meant at 14 or 15?

Last night we celebrated these three young people with a lovely dinner at Rastrelli’s and I expressed something then that I will share again now. So often, people lament that the church is dying. Attendance is down, giving is down, churches are in conversation about how they can afford pastors, some churches talk about consolidating with other churches, some churches make the difficult decision to close their doors. The lament is real. However, after working with these three and as I continue to work with our confirmation class that we have now, I am convinced that the church is not dying–at least not here. In fact, this church is thriving and honestly, I think, on the verge of another Reformation.

That’s how this whole party got started anyway, right? Our buddy, Martin Luther, I like to call him Marty, was studying to be a Monk. The more he studied, the more uncomfortable he became with the structure of the church and the interpretation of scripture. Marty didn’t set out start a revolution or a reformation for that matter. He just wanted to bring to light the places where he thought church was incorrect in its teachings. And so, as the story goes, he wrote his list of issues, 95 of them as a matter of fact, and nailed them to the church door. The rest, as they say, is history. But, I’d like to believe that because Marty truly believed that he was free in Christ, that he had been set free by the cross, that nothing, not even challenging the system he was a part of, could ever take that freedom away.

I think it’s hard for us, as Americans, to talk about freedom of a Christian and separate it from the freedom of politics and Constitutional freedom. Our Constitutional freedom encourages us to vote in the upcoming election. Our Christian freedom encourages us to research the candidates and issues so that we may best be informed who stands on the side of justice and righteousness. Our Constitutional freedom gives us the right to keep and bear arms; our Christian freedom begs us to keep asking how those same firearms are used in unjust ways and in places that should be holy (like mosques or temples) or safe (like schools). Our Constitutional freedom provides for families and individuals who struggle to make ends meet; our Christian freedom calls us to provide for families and individuals who make just enough money to be outside the guidelines of “helping” yet still go hungry, naked, and cold.

Because we are freed in Christ, we are freed for the opportunity to serve one another in Christ’s name, we are freed to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world, we are freed to go and “make disciples of all nations”, we are free to respond to the call that Christ has on our lives. Because we are freed in Christ, we are also freed for the opportunity to dream, to imagine, to envision, to explore, and to hope. I hope you’ve been asked this question before: what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? So often we think about that question in regards to personal failures. If I knew I couldn’t fail, I would lose weight and keep it off. If I knew I couldn’t fail, I’d try my hand at cooking different ethnic dishes. If I knew I couldn’t fail, I’d moonlight as a writer who’s also a world-class wine expert.

It would be good of us, as we celebrate Reformation, to ask the same question of our church. As we have three young people hungry to help us move into the future, what would we, as a church, do if we knew we couldn’t fail? Would we be willing to have Katelyn sing more of those songs she hears Joel listening to on KLove? Would we take our Sunday school classes down to Karlee’s calves as a way of talking about stewardship of land and animals? Would we encourage Caleb to host a COD tournament here because we want young people to see that the church can be a place for them too?

Reformation wasn’t a one time event, friends. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are constantly being reformed. With bread and wine, body and blood, we are being fed and reformed. In the waters of baptism, we were reformed. When we affirm that baptism, as we did today, we are reformed. Every time we are forgiven for our sins, we are reformed. Reformation happens daily therefor freedom happens daily.

Jesus didn’t realize the call on his life and so he decided to stay where he was, hoping people would come to him to heard the good news and be healed. Nope. Jesus listened to that still, small, voice that reformed him and us. Jesus listened all the way to the cross. In that cross comes freedom. And yes, I know that it may not be comfortable and yes, it may not be the way that we’ve “always done things before” but that freedom requires and enables us to form and reform ourselves and others around us.

What would you have us, as a church, do if you knew we couldn’t fail? In what ways do we need reforming? In what ways is our freedom nudging us towards new horizons? You may have an idea in your head and immediately, a little voice says “but what if… “ or “how much…” or “it’ll never…” and that is the voice of fear. See, the opposite of freedom is fear. Fear can paralyze us and lead to a stagnant church that has long forgotten about forming or even reforming for that matter. Fear turns our “what if’s” into “no ways.” Fear turns our “maybes” into “never.” Fear turns our hope into hopelessness. Fear turns these young people (and many more like them) away from the church, never to be seen again unless they need married, buried, or splashed.

It is time to stop being paralyzed by fear. It is time to be prepared to be reformed. It is time to open our hearts and minds to Christ, the one who reforms us daily into beloved children. A mighty fortress is our God, right? Not “a wimpy pup tent is our God…we think.” There is no better occasion in the church than this one to start asking how we are reforming and how we are being reformed. Through faith alone, by grace alone, we cannot fail.

Sermon for 10/19/14 Matthew 22:15-22

It is often said that in mixed company there are certain topics that are not “suitable” for conversation. Usually it’s the big four: money, politics, religion, and sex. Luckily for us, we’re going to cover 3 out of the 4 today. I’m all for going against the grain and talking about things that society thinks we shouldn’t. What if I asked you to turn to the person closest to you (that’s not related) and asked you to share with them the balance of your bank account? Or what if, when it came time for the offering, I asked you to hand your checkbook or wallet over to the person close to you and allow them to decide your offering for today. As long as we’re making one another pretty uncomfortable here, how would you feel if I asked you to tell someone what you paid for your car, or the balance on your credit card, or even your yearly salary (if you have one). What if you had to bring a friend from church into the voting booth with you? What if I met you at your polling place and went into the booth with you? (I know what you’re thinking “Pastor’s hitting it pretty hard pretty early….now might be a good time to go to the bathroom.”)

Sometimes I wish that Jesus’ stories and parables were in a nice, neat little package that ended “and what Jesus meant when he said this was….” But that never seems to be the case, does it? Just like his listeners in this parable, we might be left a little awe-struck, confused, curious, or maybe even mad. What does this mean, “give to the emperor the things that are the emperors and to God the things that are God’s.” Once again, the Pharisees, in an attempt to basically frame Jesus (so they can arrest him and ultimately crucify him) are left with (I’m guessing) a lot of questions and not enough answers.

During this particular time period, Jews were taxed for a lot of things. There was a temple tax, land taxes, customs taxes, and on and on. The tax in question in today’s reading is an interesting one because it was the tax that the Jews were forced to pay their oppressors. An imperial tax (as the one in today’s reading) was a tax that paid to Rome to support the Roman occupation of Israel. Basically, it would be like being bullied, and then paying the bully to support him or her in bullying classes so that they can learn to be a better bully. Got it?

The Pharisees take the opportunity to ask Jesus what he thinks of such a tax. In Jesus’ typical style he doesn’t outright answer them. He asks to see the coin used to pay the tax and asks whose face is on the coin. Which, of course, got me to thinking about our own money. Our money has pictures of our deceased forefathers and is emblazoned with the phrase “In God We Trust.” Our money is an oxymoron, really. What Jesus told the Pharisees is just as prevalent today as it was in ancient Jerusalem. Give to the government the things that belong to the government and give to God the things that belong to God. You will notice that not once did Jesus say “and keep a little for yourself.”

What I am about to tell you, friends, may be an equal mix between shocking and not at all surprising. All that you own, all that you have, all that you are, everything that you says is “yours” actually belongs to God. Every square foot of your home, every possession in your closets, every vehicle in your garage (or machine shed or quonset), every last single penny you have to your name belongs to God. Before you start to form the argument in your head that I might just be wrong about this, let me give you some examples.

The nights I put Ellen to bed, I trace the sign of the cross on her forehead as a reminder to her of her baptism. But it’s a reminder to me that she ultimately belongs to God. I didn’t make her, God did. Every month when I open my student loan bill (and groan a little) I remind myself that God gave me the knowledge I needed at the university level, God provided in ways I still don’t understand while we were in seminary and I am quick to thank God for the opportunity to study and be in school because there are others in this world that are literally dying for that right and privilege. Everything that is in my fridge belongs to God. The milk came from a cow that was cared for by someone like you and that cow was created by God. My bread came from fields of Kansas wheat, carefully cultivated by farmers just like us, on land that was created by God. When I start my car up in the morning, I give thanks to God for the gas that allows it to run. This is gas (which is partially corn) grown by you, combined in machines that also belong to God.

Everything we have, everything we are, it all belongs to God. This kind of thinking isn’t easy and honestly, it’s not what we’re used to (it’s not “natural”). It’s MY stuff. It’s MY car, MY house, MY kids, MY money! But really, it’s not. I have never seen a Brinks truck pull up behind a hearse. You can’t take it with you, right? I saw this great poster on the internet somewhere this past week and it read “when all the trees are cut down, when all the animals are dead, when all the waters are poisoned, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover that you cannot eat money.” That has been with me all week.

I’m not an expert in this kind of thing, I still get wrapped up in the “mine mine mine” attitude. Sometimes I buy something because I think “I deserve it” instead of remembering that God provided the funds for me to buy whatever it is that I am wanting. Not too long ago a colleague shared that she had done something that changed her perception of money and served as a small reminder of what it means to be a good steward of everything God gives us. She took out her debit card and with a sharpie, she drew a cross on the corner. Every time she takes it out of her wallet, she is reminded of who is providing for what she is buying. This could be an interesting exercise. Draw a cross on your debit card, your credit cards, your check book, your wallet, your front door, your fridge door, your car door, your combine door, and on and on and on.

In our baptism, we were claimed by God. That cross on our foreheads is a reminder to us and to all who see us that we belong to God. We are so much more than the total in our bank account, or the labels on our clothes, or the number of bushels in storage, and we are so much more than lies we have bought into that make us believe that we alone are not enough. We are so much more than all of that. We were made by God, in the image of God, marked with the cross of Christ, and claimed by God for all eternity. No matter what, we are first and foremost beloved children of God. That mark on your forehead, that identity, that is worth more than all the riches of the world combined. The meal that we are about to eat is so amazing, it could be served in the best 5 star restaurants in the world, but instead it’s free.

Not my table, but God’s. Not my church, but God’s. Not my people, but God’s. Not my life, but God’s.

Being surprised by grace

I try to live my life by a standard of grace, not perfection. Many times, often, okay…almost daily I fail at this.

I believe that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God gives to ALL of God’s people grace upon grace upon grace. This is my operating theology and I will talk until I am blue in the face to get others to understand or believe this. It is so important to me that you understand that nothing, absolutely positively nothing, NOTHING (just in case I didn’t make it clear enough before) will ever or can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (see Romans 8:38-39 if you don’t believe me). And I will use my last dying breath to proclaim this good news to anyone who would listen, I, for some reason, struggle to believe it actually applies to me. I TOTALLY believe it applies to you. I feel like in the book of life I have an asterisk by my name or something. Now that you have a little background….

My most fantastic health care plan (insurance provider) increased their rates for the upcoming year. Although it may seem reasonable, an increase of 11% caused me a lot of stress. I spent the majority of this past Monday researching plans, finding comparison tables, carefully crafting my argument (in my head) as to why we should select the same plan, and almost drowning in general worry. I was preparing all of this information for presentation to my church council. On top of a raise in rates for insurance of 11%, our local synod has also suggested a 2.5% increase in base pay for clergy within our synod. Overall, this was going to be an increase of just over $2500 for pay and insurance combined.

You should know (if you didn’t already) that I am quickly coming up on my first year anniversary as a Pastor. My first year as an official rostered leader. This would also be my first time negotiating my own salary and my own benefits. By the time Monday night came around I had worked myself into a full-blown panic/anxiety attack complete with: hyperventilation, an ulcer flair up, a migraine, and ugly crying (if you don’t know what ugly crying is–just watch a Lifetime movie–they do a lot of that there).

Tuesday’s council meeting quickly approached and I was nervous. I didn’t eat dinner. 1) because I was nervous and 2) have you ever tried to eat with a cute toddler attached to your legs, arms, or other body parts? Eventually it became time for the discussion. I rationally explained all the numbers, suggested (more like requested) the plan we go with, and prepared myself. I was ready for all the discussion, all the objections, all the questions of plan A versus plan B. Bring it!

The discussion was minimal.
The explanations were non-existent.
There were no objections.

The council president said “I move we just go ahead and have Pastor continue with the same plan she had last year.” And it passed with no objections. And then I cried.

Like openly wept.
(I’m still tearing up thinking about it)

After I composed myself (I think there were some who weren’t quite for sure how to handle the crying Pastor)I said, “I was just so nervous about this conversation. I was prepared for this to not go well.” And without hesitation another council member said

“This conversation would be a lot different if we didn’t love you.”

*BAM.* Grace.

In that moment,in that brief moment, I felt it. I felt what I so desperately try to get others to understand. God will provide. If you allow yourself to be loved, you will be surprised by the results. This conversation was about so much more than insurance, and salary, and numbers. It was about grace I wasn’t expecting.

How often do we expect God to send down God’s judgement on us and instead, we are surprised by grace and love?
How often are we even scared to approach God because we may think we already know God’s reaction and then we get surprised, even get off kilter, by grace?

My church council didn’t set out to show me grace. But, they did. I am so grateful they did.