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Tears at a Wedding

I arrived at the church to make sure things were ready for the couple. They were meeting a photographer early for pictures. The wedding would be an intimate affair in the chancel area of our sanctuary. A grand occasion of a wedding had been planned for later that winter but COVID regulations made it clear that any gathering would have to be very small. With great regret, they gave up on much of the desired fanfare and decided on an evening celebration just with family. When I planned the ceremony with them, I reminded them that this would be their wedding day, albeit much changed in external details. I urged them to shape it with significant details that would give them joy. I was delighted to see the bride, Eleanor, alight from her car wearing a beautiful white gown. The groom donned a handsome suit. Even as COVID kept our communities apart, there would be pictures of a December wedding on a sparkling winter night.

This was a meaningful ceremony for me. The bride’s family joined the church the same year that I was called to serve as pastor. The search committee told me they wanted to grow and needed young families. They were among the first families to join. I visited in their home and met two darling daughters. I commented to the mother about the different gene pools from which her girls drew their DNA. The elder had dark brown eyes and hair, like her papa. Eleanor was fair like her mother, with blonde hair and blue sparkling eyes. She was sweet and shy and seemed most at ease in the embrace of her mom, Sarah. Sarah responded that she didn’t know why God had blessed her with such beautiful children. She meant those words. The dad, Steve, seemed quietly proud of his life as a family man and provider.

Sarah developed cancer several years into her membership in the church. Sometimes her treatments were so destabilizing that she couldn’t drive so church folks picked her up for Bible Study. She seemed to gracefully accept the help of others as she battled a disease that didn’t seem to abate. When we talked about her life-limiting diagnosis, she described her faith journey as a free fall. She couldn’t stop the fall but she trusted God would never let her hit the ground. Wow. Who’s the pastor here?

Early one winter morning I received a call from the Sheriff’s office. I was needed at the home of a member. A woman named Eleanor had succumbed to cancer after a valiant battle. She left behind her beloved husband and children. I made my way to their home where I hugged the husband and wept with him. Two little girls huddled together on the couch, awaiting the arrival of the mortician who would remove their mama from the home she loved…and from their lives.

This was a gut-wrenching loss for me. I gave birth to my fourth child about that time and could not imagine being robbed of the privilege of raising my little ones. I anguished to think of my husband left alone to tend to their needs. At the funeral, we celebrated her life with family members whose faces were pained with grief. I managed to lead the casket to the hearse before fleeing in my clergy robe to weep in the privacy of my office. How could this be? What would become of these children? In whom would this quiet man confide in the dark of night when life’s fears encroached and the needs of his daughters seemed beyond his ken?

The family drifted from the church after a couple of years. I suspect we became a repository of corporate grief for them as our congregants persisted in carrying a deep sadness for the three of them. Occasionally I saw him at the grocery store, always with his children by his side. He remained single and carried a sadness even when he smiled. Or did I just sense the sadness because that’s what I felt?

Several years ago I received a call from the funeral home about a service. A young woman had died of cancer and the family had asked for me. When the undertaker told me the name I exclaimed aloud. Who? How? When? The mortician patiently answered my questions, waiting for me to tell him if I would officiate at the service. I said I would. He gave me the phone number so that I could call the young woman’s father. It was the widower who had lost his first-born daughter to a rare cancer that took her quickly. Once again, I found myself meeting with the family, hugging a bereft father who held himself together remarkably well. But Eleanor cried in my arms and I wept with her. I remembered what she told me at the time of her mother’s death when she was eight years old: I’m going to miss my mommy’s hugs. So I hugged this young woman who grieved the death of her only sibling and stood closely by her father to give him strength.

I carried these memories with me into the church on that snowy wedding night. I wept with my husband at home that day, hoping that my tears at our table would enable me to stay emotionally stable during the service. As I entered my office, I tried to think of anything that might have Sarah’s touch on it. Eleanor’s mother died so long before that I could think of nothing. In looking over my notes for the service I wondered if I had baptized Eleanor. I opened my pastor log and saw that I had! Hers was my first baptism at the church. Shortly after my arrival I had the privilege of anointing this two-month-old baby girl in the power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The chancel where Eleanor would be married that night was the same place where her mother, father, and sister had stood as she was welcomed into the embrace of Christ’s Church. God gave me that gift when I was looking for something tangible to present to this bride. This was news I would share in the intimacy of the wedding ceremony.

The bride arrived with her father and maid-of-honor. They brought candles and flowers to arrange in the front of the sanctuary, representing the presence of the mother and sister. They would light those candles near the beginning of the service at my invitation. Also on the table was her mother’s Bible, out of which a cousin would read Paul’s words about love, a sermon he addressed to the Corinthian believers.

I was aware as I started the liturgy that I felt the emotional weight of the occasion. Just a couple of minutes into the service I acknowledged that there was more to our reality than what we see. Our faith assures us that the great cloud of witnesses joins us in these human celebrations. Eleanor and her fiance, Trevor, would light the candles on the altar in honor of her mother and sister. Those were the words I tried to say but they were interrupted by a wave of emotion that prevented me from being able to speak. Finally, with a broken voice, I invited them to light the candles—which they did. The tears released my sadness so that I could continue with the service as planned, even when I spoke of a baptism that happened in that same space for their family years before. I was able to affirm the appropriate re-entry of her mother’s Bible into a sanctuary where she had once held it in her lap in the company her precious family. I appreciated the full-circle significance to the mystery of two lives becoming one on this cold winter’s night. Christmas lights twinkled outside and the incarnation seemed very real in that sacred space. The bride initiated hugs with me twice after the service and I hugged her for her mother. I hugged the graying father who stood with quiet pride alongside of his daughter during the ceremony. After extinguishing the candles and shutting off the lights, I drove home on a sparkly night, crying out to Jesus.

Why was I still grieving the death of that mother? Her departure from this earth and her family seemed so unfair. Was this young mother shocked to find herself enfolded in the bosom of Abraham? Did she desperately search for a way to get back to her elementary school-aged daughters? In a celestial panic, did she assure St. Peter that there had to be some terrible mistake? As she looked in on her sweet family through a telescoping vortex, did she let loose the silent screams of our dreams? Or was she able to flit faithfully among the departed souls, in timeless bliss, knowing that her children would grow in their father’s care without her? Did she have more unfinished business than other saints, trying to part the clouds to glimpse human life lived on a hard planet that sometimes delivers unyielding pain? I wonder if she wished she had the time to teach her girls to tie their shoes and ride a bike. Can we offer virtual hugs from heaven?

The question that gnawed at me cut to the core of Sarah’s free fall theology. Did God fail her in her belief that she would never hit that ground and be taken?

I don’t often question God. I am normally comfortably tethered to a theology of eternal life that assures me that all is well. I trust in an afterlife more beautiful than we can imagine, more peaceful than we’ve ever known. I preach about God’s goodness even if life isn’t fair. But I haven’t had peace about Sarah’s death 20 years ago because two small children and a good man were left behind without the mother and wife who made their house a home. I might have been able to let God off the hook if the elder daughter had not then been stripped from her father’s arms in her early twenties. Her death ripped the crusty bandage off my heart and I stomped my way into God’s presence once again, waving my fist at the Holy of Holies.

Ministering to this family of two, any trite assurances of eternal well-being only added to the sting of untimely death. How could you do this, God of mercy? No wonder this family drifted from the Church! Why does a young bride have to light two candles on the altar of her wedding to invoke the ethereal presence of her mother and sister? As a mother, I grieved for Sarah who was not able to pick out a wedding dress with her daughter or support her husband in the devastating loss of their child. The beautiful trust in Sarah’s free fall theology was mocked.

I came home and continued to weep with my husband. I carried deep grief for this family. Had I whispered “I’m sorry” to this family in so many tender embraces that I did not know how to be joyful with them? Had they possibly fared much better in the grief journey than I? Were my tears disruptive to their wedding celebration?

I found myself lying in bed at night thinking about those tears. I had hoped I would be able to get through that service without crying. But the tears were authentic. I wept for the mother who could not raise her children. I shed tears for the husband who stood alone with his daughter at the altar. I grieved for the beautiful bride whose mother looks back at her from the mirror whether she realizes it or not. I wept that a brown-eyed daughter who so resembled her father would never marry and bring home a brown-eyed baby from the hospital to hand off to her father with quiet pride.

In the dark of night, I wondered if I am crying for my 39-year-old self who lost her mother to cancer much earlier than she or the mother imagined? Was I flashing back to a moment of pushing my mother in a wheelchair through the Cleveland Clinic, knowing her energy and life were ebbing away? Was I remembering when I had to look up the word “palliative” to understand the hospital ward that housed my parents in their last days? Was I grieving the absence of a father who would have been so proud of the ministry work I have been doing? Is it enough to have my parents’ gifts part of the arsenal of personal attributes I use on a daily basis to spread God’s love? Is it enough to have the memories? Or do I, like little Eleanor, still miss my mama’s hugs?

Lying in the frozen silence of a winter night, my mind moved back to my tears. I felt embarrassed. I think of the words to an Annie Dillard poem I read in seminary. Even though my capacity for theological illumination was fairly dim at that early stage in my ministry, I remember the poem clearly. Dillard wrote about a worship experience at an unpretentious congregation on an island where she would spend her summers. One Sunday she took note of the soloist, “a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, a totally secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”

In the dark of night, I fell into God’s grace. What I viewed as ugly tears reflected God’s compassion. I borrowed Sarah’s free fall theology and told God that we did pretty good work together that evening. My tears were real. I wept for the past and the changed course of the present moment. I wept for joy that our church could offer genuine hospitality to this family after such a long absence from our building. My tears came from a heart that has been inclined toward this disrupted family for decades. They felt my love and that was evident in their response to me after the ceremony. No one mentioned the tears or reacted negatively to them.

In church we gladly carry each other’s burdens. We dare to hope for the best possible outcome for others and support one another when it feels like God has abandoned us. We accept each other when we are railing at God. When we feel like we are snuggled into Father Abraham’s lap, alongside the panoply of saints who smile among us, we offer that sense of security to others. We have this precious community called “Church.” With all our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and joys, we celebrate that we are in this free fall together! Moments of doubt are allowed to rock my faith. God invites me to express my anger. Jesus tenderly holds me when I weep for a fallen world where death rocks our faith. What matters is that we support each other on the journey. What allows us to survive our sorrow is trusting that Christ carries our burdens. What this small family will remember is a beautiful expression of love courageously voiced in marriage vows on a quiet winter night. In the embrace of a familiar sanctuary, their commitment to each other was yet another miracle of God’s love melding two lives together as one–while a mother and sister cheered from another shore.

All is well. Safely rest. God is nigh.

Photo by Jonathan Petersson on Pexels.com
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An Election Day Prayer

My father served as an Air Force Chaplain for more than 20 years. When he was serving in Bolling Air Force Base, Washington DC, he got to know Senator Mark Hatfield. Hatfield arranged for him to open the Senate on April 5, 1984 with prayer. With a Masters degree in Political Science as well as a Master of Divinity, he regularly combined religion and politics in his personal life. In this case, he was able to combine the two in his professional life. Fortunately the prayer was printed in full in the minutes of the Senate session that day. I stumbled across these documents yesterday and they seemed fitting for election day. I share his prayer with you here:

Eternal God, Creator and Sustainer of each person and each nation, we bow to acknowledge Your sovereignty over us as a people. We know that whatever we do that is not within Your will is futile and counterproductive. We know as well that that which is Your will for us abounds beyond our wildest hopes. Your revelation of Yourself to us has been enough that we know quite well what You would have us do. We understand the goals that You have set before us. We have articulated them in majestic terms in our national documents. So we do not so much pray for wisdom and understanding as we do for courage to do that which we already comprehend. Having received Your directions for our lives, let us have the humility to put aside selfish goals in preference for those unselfish ones which best serve your kingdom. If we can do that, then we shall be known not for personal achievement, but for the shared good of all our people, and through them, the well-being of the wide world around us. In the name of Jesus Christ I pray. Amen.

Chaplain Colonel James W. Chapman. Thursday, April 5, 1984

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Our Yearning

“As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you…”

On April 24, 2022, I walked out the side doors of the church I had served for 25 years, retiring from 37 years of service as a parish minister. Three long-time church members had remained in the foyer, assuring me that they didn’t want my husband and me to exit the church for the last time without support from a representative contingent of my beloved congregation. That small token of hospitality in my final moments spoke volumes about my relationship with that church family. We cared for one another, ensuring that the needs of each member of the church would be spiritually met. Two of the adults had been on the search committee that called me to Rockford in 1996. One of them is the present moderator, leading her congregation through a pastoral transition. Several months removed from my quiet exit out the side door of the building, I am living the disorientation of that transition.

Let me back up a bit in my story. I didn’t go to seminary to become a parish minister. I thought I would become a counselor in a Christian holistic health center, a popular development for treating the spiritual needs of the whole person. I focused on social justice causes while studying at Chicago Theological Seminary. Having just returned from teaching nutrition to African mothers through the Peace Corps, my first internship was with Church World Service/CROP, raising money to combat hunger. I worked with a Catholic organization, the 8th Day Center for Justice. My task was to connect restaurants with soup kitchens so that restaurant leftovers wouldn’t go to waste. My husband, also a seminarian, did an internship with a clergy couple who shared a church together. We saw the joy they derived from shared gifts and shifted our sights to some sort of joint ministry. We received a call to serve as co-associate pastors for a suburban Chicago parish. When I stepped into this form of ministry, I was surprised at how immediately rewarding it was for me. My April 24 retirement concluded ministry in three unique church settings with somewhat different job descriptions. The common denominator for each of them was a love for worship and for pastoral calling.

I grew up going to church. My dad was assigned to a different Air Force base about every four years. We attended worship where he served. I chose to attend St. Olaf College where daily chapel services were well attended. If I didn’t feel like following the Lutheran liturgy (which I grew to love), I would walk about three miles round trip to a United Church of Christ on the other side of the small college town of Northfield, Minnesota. When I spent a semester in France, I found the one Protestant church in town and worshiped in their 12th century sanctuary. I sang French hymns in their choir. When I moved to Africa for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, I found a Protestant church led by an American missionary couple who became family to me. The congregation was African and they beautifully harmonized  their hymns without 4-part musical scripts! When I settled into seminary life in Chicago, I chose a United Church of Christ within walking distance of my apartment.

I love Christ’s Church, in all its beautiful variation! I’ve never taken for granted that I could plan worship services, starting with a Biblical text and fleshing out the service with liturgy, lay involvement and music. I have said to folks many times, “When else do you get to sing in unison with other people, accompanied by instruments?” My husband has always sung in the choir and his special music offerings were a gift to each congregation (and to me!). The one book I wrote, which was published just one week before my retirement, is a useful guide for worship leaders desiring to enliven their worship services with new ideas and resources. Setting down the mantle of parish ministry was a seismic shift in my professional and personal life.

Having been adrift from any one congregation for six months, I find myself in a strange land. If I am not the pastor of the church, what will I do? Can I sit in the pews and not get caught up in judging the worship service and overall health of a congregation? Where do I begin to look for a congregation we can call home? Why would I, when I can follow countless worship services from the comfort of my bedroom while drinking coffee? This present hiatus from in-person worship has served as a strange sort of sabbatical for me. We have enjoyed open weekends to visit family, take trips, and tune into different worship services when able. This is the first time in 37 years that I have my weekends free—and I’m loving it! Or am I?

We tuned into a service a couple of months ago. Their worship included hymns my husband and I knew with wonderful accompaniment on organ and piano. The liturgy effectively developed a theme that the Bible readings suggested. The preacher offered a message that was relevant, elicited some laughter at a point or two, and awakened a yearning within me to serve. I was caught up with the realization in my heart that I love Jesus. I love His Church! I want to find a place where I can use my gifts, albeit in a new capacity, so that my heart and my voice sing again! Something stirred within me at the end of his sermon and a longing for spiritual nourishment surfaced.

While there are several questions I am pondering in this interim period away from church membership, the one that has my greatest attention is this: What longings do churches fulfill?

What drove me to get out of bed and travel to churches wherever I roamed throughout my life? For what was I hoping when I slipped in doors of an ancient churches and knelt alone in the sanctuary to pray? Why did it matter for me to light candles that parted the darkness in stone cathedrals I visited? From whence does that longing come and how has it taken up residence in me?

While serving as a chaplain in a mental health hospital last year, I was struck with how often patients voiced a longing to connect with God. One man in his twenties shared his confusion about whether the longing he newly felt for God was to be trusted or if it was a symptom of his schizophrenia. Great question! When talking with mental health patients who are experiencing some form of psychosis, it can be difficult to discern when their religious convictions come from an authentic encounter with God or surface from a distorted worldview. I learned he was raised in the church but had abandoned his childhood faith, relying on alcohol to blunt the shame of his mental health crises. He spoke of a longing to know God and access God’s love. He asked for a Bible and we spoke of beginning points for his Bible reading. As our conversation concluded, I was quite certain that his ache for belonging was truly God at work.

Perhaps that longing is our deep desire to belong to someone. When human relationships fail us, we have to look elsewhere. For those of us raised within a faith construct, we are apt to return to that faith. Many of us learned through Vacation Bible School songs and with flannelgraphs in Sunday School rooms that Jesus loves us. Psalm 62:1 reminds us of the source of our longing: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” Nothing else will nourish our souls. When our own antics lead to emptiness, we have an opportunity to dig beneath the surface of our daily lives. This search has at its root a question about belonging. From the old English, this verb means to be “together with” or “at hand.” When my patient’s binge with alcohol led to a jail cell and then a locked psych unit, it was the God he met on Sunday mornings who was “at hand.” For the first time as an adult, this young man was searching for a faith of his own.

A woman in her fifties told me of her sexual abuse at the hands of a step-dad, beginning at age 4. She said, “I left my body in those times. But I was never alone. God was always with me. I had this deep relationship from God that no one had to teach me because I met Him.”

Could it be that God searches us out first? Does our longing for God emerge as a response from God’s divine pursuit of us? Must we claim our identity as the prodigal son or daughter in order to see that God is the loving Parent who has not ceased pacing the front porch, scanning the horizon for a sign of our return home? Thomas Merton wrote, “Surrender your poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you, and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon.”

A woman recently spoke in a worship service about how she ended up at that church. She had moved to a new area, lost two beloved parents, and her relationship with her husband was strained. She felt alone in spite of the fact that she spent Monday through Friday teaching a classroom full of 8-year-olds. She decided to get back into church after letting it slide for a year. The first Sunday was OK. She was relieved. She went the next week and somebody greeted her by name. She said, “Like a bridge over troubled water, I was called by name. It wasn’t just that woman—and I don’t even know who it was! It was Jesus calling me, walking with me. It was the Holy Spirit moving in me, calling me to this church. It was God who had plans for me, plans for a future and a hope. That was twenty years ago and now you are my family!”

There are times when God breaks into our lives in an epiphany that brings us to our knees. Sometimes that “shewing”, as Julian of Norwich named it, is the result of our fervent prayers. Other times it arrives unsolicited and even unwanted. Julian’s profound encounters with the tri-une God, as she lingered between life and death, led to her conversion to an anchoritic lifestyle. She chose to be secluded in a small apartment built into the walls of a church. In that tiny space, she served as a spiritual director in words spoken through her window and through her writings. The comfort she felt anchoring herself in God has drawn generations of seekers to Jesus as the answer to their inexpressible longings. In an era when God was understood as a harsh and punishing judge, she introduced others to a God who seeks us out with love. Five hundred years later, Richard Foster described the spiritual journey in this way: “Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and manyness. He longs for our presence.”

God longs for our presence? Is this the source of our own longing? Some people can’t imagine another human being weeping over their absence! One 40-year-old patient last year wept as he stated, “I just want one conversation with my mother before she dies where we can speak to each other lovingly.” Just as quickly as he voiced that hope, he told me he didn’t expect that to happen. We shifted to his desire to know God more fully. This is the One to whom he ultimately belongs. If he anchors himself in the God of Jesus Christ, he will be better able to let go of the wounds of those who have deeply disappointed him. Fully differentiated in himself, he can better endure the slights of his mother.

In the Women’s Lounge in one of the locked units, a woman listened to loud Christian music on her radio. The woman always spoke in Biblical verse. Virtually all of her sentences were formed around a Biblical reference. A song came on the radio: Ten Thousand Reasons by Matt Redman. I sat across from her and quietly sang the words, smiling at her in a shared moment of worship. I sang to show solidarity with her in the midst of her mania. I sang because that has been a favorite hymn of mine and I miss not being able to select songs that I can sing with musical accompaniment on Sunday mornings. In that moment, I was reminded of why I need to be part of a church family. Folks in memory care facilities who no longer know their own names will, nonetheless, sing the words to a beloved hymn in a Sunday afternoon worship service. The rich foundation upon which they established their days was poured into them in their childhood religious education. In singing “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my father…” their foggy mind cannot cloud their feeling of belonging. The yearning is met with rich fulfillment when the hymns of our past make sense of our present. When short-term memory fails, long-term meaning anchors us.

We do not have sole ownership of God as Creator or Jesus as Brother and Friend. Psalm 100 reminds us that all have equal claim to membership in God’s family: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his, we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”

 My brother-in-law grew up on a sheep farm in Morley, Michigan. We have visited in the Spring when his father, a shepherd, sometimes had 200 lambs to care for! When they are a month old, they leave their mamas and “frolic” in the meadow. One sheep runs down the hill and they all follow. Another one runs up the hill and they follow again. Absent a shepherd, who calls them into the barn at night for protection and to the trough for food each evening, they would wear themselves out in mindless mob movement. They congregate together—but they need a shepherd.

I have had the privilege both of being part of the flock that Jesus tends and acting as a shepherd to three congregations. I have known that my deepest longings can only be met in divine encounter. I have sought to convey the Truth of my experience to others so that they, too, might find that lifeline. As pastor, I joined scripture, liturgy and music each Sunday to inspire a multi-generational gathering into following Jesus. Dr. Henry Roediger stated in the Wall Street Journal that musical rhythm and rhyme provide a structure that is key to unlocking information stored in the brain. He writes that words put to music or learned by rote can be easily retrieved. The mom of a five-year old girl, with a keen sense of the Spirit, told me of an outing to a raspberry patch. Raspberry bushes are prickly and some of the outer branches had been picked clean. It was a hot day and the daughter was still searching for berries she could put in her bucket. Her mom suggested she pull back some of the outer branches to see what she might find deeper in the bush. A minute later she heard her daughter cry out, “Glory be to the Father!” She had found a pocket filled with ripe raspberries hidden from sight. The words of the doxology, sung in weekly worship, had taken up residence in her. Having been baptized into the faith, this little girl learned through our weekly rituals, to give God the glory—for life and for raspberries discovered on a hot afternoon. Since then she has been confirmed into the faith and is looking at Christian colleges for next fall. She knows where to turn to satisfy her sense of longing.

Sadly, I hear many stories from people about how the Church has crushed their spirit. They have felt judged, rejected, or devalued. They hunger for God but are not willing to go back to Church. I am deeply saddened by their hurt and search for ways to nurture their spirituality outside of the Church. Fortunately, I know God meets people where they are. I am often impressed with how some folks are able to hang onto their love for God in spite of their rejection by Christians. Many still turn to the scriptures for inspiration even though they will not hear the Word read in a sanctuary. I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with those who have made a sanctuary in their hearts because every human institution has failed them. Others can only affirm that there is some sort of Higher Power that has spared their life repeatedly. We talk about what honest conversation with that Higher Power might be (as that is prayer)! The psalmist leads the way for us to express raw emotions as we cry out, “Why me?”, “How long, O’ Lord” or “Where have you gone from my presence?” I can offer the gifts of the Church, as Jesus intends it to be, to those who may not enter a church building ever again. While life lived within the communion of the Church is God’s plan for our corporate lives, we all must watch for opportunities to point folks to God who, alone, can answer their deepest longings.

In this time of transition, I am beginning to feel comfortable in the cloak of “former pastor.” My husband and I have “zoomed” into different worship services but I know that a congregation of two will not fulfill my spiritual hunger. I think of Barbara Brown Taylor who left the Church for a time because of hurtful treatment at the hand of her parishioners. She is known as an advocate for night, the time when we have to squint to make out our reality. We choose every step carefully in the dark because the way is not clear. Her powerful writing points people to Christ who may have lost their way. I have had a beautiful experience in my parish ministry that worries me that I may not find a new congregation that lives the Gospel in a way that connects with me. I could easily settle in with those who choose Sunday mornings as the perfect time to take a deep breath and linger in night clothes, sipping endless cups of coffee. But I dare not. I have felt, in this transitional “dark night”, as described by John of the Cross, how Christ’s light shines brightest when the path we are taking is unknown. The moment of stirring I felt at the end of a zoom sermon summoned me to begin the search for a sanctuary where I can join my voice to that of other Christians, singing hymns and entrusting my heart to the nourishment of scripture. I am meant to join my talents to those of others who are meeting needs of those around them out of a sense of Christian conviction. I must find a safe space for my emotions to be moved by the Spirit in the vulnerable setting of a Church family. My longing is in response to God’s profound love for me in Jesus. I love His Church. I will find a new spiritual home by the power of the Holy Spirit where I can be accepted “just as I am.” In this time of transition, I rejoice that “I am my Beloved’s, and His desire is for me.” (Song of Solomon 7:10)  

For me? Amazing!

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In God’s Defense

I want to be asked to take the stand. I want to be a witness testifying in God‘s defense. I have heard God blamed and blasphemed. In the confessions of battle-weary patients in a psychiatric hospital, I’ve refrained from speaking in God’s defense when they have pressed charges against their Creator.

The hardest allegations to refute come from people who have told me that, in their abuse as children, they cried out to a God who never rescued them. The abuse continued. The need for healing leaves a gaping hole in their emotional and spiritual well-being. Many of them had parents who took them to church regularly, which complicates their theology. “If my parents modeled their faith in acts of cruelty, what does that teach me as an impressionable child? Why would I care about their God?” But something in that childhood religious training awakened a receptive spirit and they believed. They sang about Jesus’ love. They went to Sunday School and learned Bible stories. Yet very different lessons were taught behind closed doors. Many of these patients have spent a lifetime trying to resolve the disconnect between a powerful God that was preached at them and the everyday cruelty they endured.

I have no easy defense for their suffering.

It’s interesting to me how easily people blame God or badmouth Jesus for their life circumstances when they’ve never really invested in a spiritual relationship. It would be as if we blamed our benevolent Uncle Max for all our problems when we never really met Uncle Max face-to-face. He’s invited us to his house for dinner. He’s sent us birthday gifts that we have torn into. We haven’t taken the time to get to know him or thank him. But, when the chips are down and we can’t make sense of the latest crisis, Uncle Max‘s name surfaces. With vehemence, we excoriate the ways he has hurt us.

In the last year I can’t tell you how many times I was sure I had heard it all, only to discover that yet another story leaves me speechless. I no longer find it difficult to believe the statistic I heard many times in parish ministry that one in seven children suffers abuse, most often at the hands of their parent. When those children grow up, they are very likely to struggle with their mental health which prevents them from completing their education or choosing good partners for themselves. One in four men and one in three women are abused by their partners. These are the individuals I sat with on psych units, inviting them to share their story. Through tears and a clenched jaw, they cried out their abandonment not just by those adults entrusted with their care. They felt abandoned by the deity from whom they sought peace. 

This confusion began with abusive parents whose love the children seek almost no matter the damage the parent has done. A child’s default is to love their father and mother. Patients I met in their 50’s and 60’s were still trying to make that relationship work with their octogenarian bitter parent. The elderly parent continued to curse them and reject their overtures of love. The message was consistently cruel over the years: “You are a burden to me!“ Grown children have wept with me, aching for their parents’ affection before death separates them.

I always commend people for their desire to find an authentic faith when they could easily and understandably ditch the Church completely. Atrocities committed in the name of God would repel most of us for a lifetime. However, many patients clung to a barely flickering divine spark deep within that continued to summon them toward a divine Rescuer and loving Parent.

On the in-patient units, my empathy as a chaplain fueled a desire to find a fail-proof lesson that would assure them of God’s love. I wanted to wave a magic wand over their chaos that would bring healing and restore faith in God. I have learned that they won’t easily hear my assurances. It’s presumptuous for me to think that I have the answers when, in fact, they have been the ones to teach me so often! My theology, cultured in a delightful childhood, often contradicts their experience. Maybe the only solution to their pain is to blame someone who can’t physically retaliate. 

In my imagined lesson, I want to remind them about sin, that three-letter word that packs a punch. It reminds us that something other than God‘s will has a grip on our world. We experience trials in our communities and in our families. Some difficulties stem from our own decisions and others result from what others inflict on us. God gave us free will. All you have to do is look at the reactions to mask mandates during COVID to know that we are a people who cherish our free will! “I’m entitled to my opinions and my own choices,” we have yelled. I want to remind these patients that the alternative to free will is a scripted life where God is puppeteer and we are puppets with no choices to make. Some days that may feel like a relief! But few of us would want to be reduced to life as pre-programmed robots who can’t choose whom to love and how to shape our day. Free will is given in equal measure to all. Some use their freedom responsibly and others abuse it, even harming those closest to them. I was reminded in a conversation recently that “Hurt people hurt people.“

Yes.

Folks who weep about the abuse of their parents will tell me how their grandparents abused their parents. The destructive cycle stretches back generationally and the pattern continues. Many of my patients told me they swore they would never do to their children what was done to them. Many of them greatly improved on their parents’ example and I lavished praise for their commitment toward mercy. The easiest course is to do what was done to us. But so many in my “congregation” this year courageously changed course, raising their own children with great kindness and vulnerability. They used their free will to foster rich family relationships. Even so, they could not let go of the yearning for their elderly parent’s love.

The evening before my final day of work at a Christian mental health hospital, my husband and I went to an outdoor concert to hear Emmylou Harris. We have not followed her in our adult lives. I can’t say that her music has ever been meaningful or known to me. But the venue is a fantastic setting that always entertains and it was a heart-warming evening. I appreciated Emmy Lou‘s banter, perhaps because she is a wise 75-year-old woman who has been humbled by life. She smiled as she stated, “I had one helluva happy childhood. No one’s supposed to. Well anyway, I had nothing to write about … so I made stuff up.” She laughed and the audience did too. She understands what a gift it is to lack tragic content for her songs. She acknowledged that she writes sad songs because those seem to connect with her audiences. The lead-in act was Mary Chapin Carpenter who is equally talented. She commended her band for always being willing to perform her musical laments. In an interview she made this comment: “When songs make that connection, you don’t feel so alone in the world.” That kind of emotional connection is what Carpenter says she’s looking for when she’s seeking out new music: “I want it to take me somewhere and bring me to my knees and make me cry or make me feel great.” At Carpenter’s concerts, her longtime fans laugh when she introduces yet another melody in a minor key. Carpenter says she was inspired by something she heard many years ago from a musician who was asked why she sang so many sad songs. The singer replied: ‘Sad songs make me feel brave.”

One of the greatest strengths for those who wake up to discover that they have been given an in-patient room on a psychiatric unit is the fact that they are not alone. They emerge from their broken lives and whatever recent chaos landed them there and are given an opportunity to share their stories. Very common themes of shame, anger, hurt, and grace surface regularly. I have been so moved to witness the tenderness that emerges from those who have been lifelong victims. With shoulders slumped, they quietly admit to fellow patients that they give too much to others with nothing given in return. The well has run dry. Heads nod around the room. People confess that they have done foolish things. They take responsibility for creating a wedge between themselves and their loved ones. But they’re also weary of being judged by those same people, mistrusted even in their healthy moments because of their past. They admit to being criticized for having a mental illness. 

In those groups that I was privileged to lead, people listened to one another and became brave. Brave to share their hurt. Brave to encourage one another. Brave to begin to hope for a different future. Courageous enough to believe that God is there for them even if they felt ignored in earlier times of need. I am so humbled and impressed with the courage of the patients I have met over the past year. I can relate to Emmylou Harris who named her own childhood as rosy beyond all deserving. There is no crime in that. In fact, those of us who have such a strong foundation are often called upon to offer strength to those for whom the water is choppy, the boat is flimsy, and the swimming skills were never taught. Emmy Lou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter “lead groups” through their music. At a good concert we laugh, we cry, and we sing in harmony because it is our life‘s song as well.

We are each invited to find the places where our voice can make a difference; where our voice can point to an ever-present God who knit each of us together in our mother’s womb. The psalms introduce us to One who has never slumbered, never missed a step we have taken. We may not be able to convince those who have been particularly damaged in life of our personal faith convictions. Rather than debate and pressure people into accepting our way, we model it through our kindness. Rather than taking the stand to preach our theology at others and expect it to fit their experience, we offer prodigal acceptance. All of these graces were extended on a regular basis by a compassionate and capable staff in the psychiatric hospital where I was privileged to serve.

On the final week of my chaplaincy, I was able to lead a morning group on a unit that includes folks who struggle with addiction. These patients know how to go deep because they have faced their demons and some confess to having been spared from death more times than they can count. They learn to speak their truth in 12-step program meetings. I wondered what I should choose as my last topic after a year of being blessed by their vulnerability. I decided that the lesson on forgiveness always elicits rich sharing. The class members readily acknowledged their need for forgiveness. Some gave specifics for their embarrassing antics for which they carried great shame. Some spoke of attempts made in vulnerable conversations to ask family members for forgiveness. Most of them said it was particularly difficult to forgive themselves. They encouraged each other. They spoke of the community fostered on that locked unit because folks dared to be honest about the fact that they needed forgiveness. As always, they were the wise teachers and I was in their debt.

After the class I realized that forgiveness is a central theme for me. When my license plate fell off my car and was lost the day before the quarantine began, I had an opportunity for a vanity license plate. What I ultimately decided on was this: 4GIVTOO. Our world would be a healthier, more peaceful place if more of us engaged in the courageous conversations of these patient groups. We need greater trust to confess our sin to one another, to admit to our struggles of faith, and assure one another that God is good and has saved us more times than we will ever know. 

We have been forgiven over and over again. Like the fresh morning breeze, each beginning gives us hope for a new day. I don’t need to take the stand in defense of a God who has managed quite well to direct the universe. I show my hubris when I assume that my perspective will be universally appealing. My Christian duty is to listen empathically to those around me, trusting that their perspective will offer me healing even as I do my best to shine Christ’s light into broken places.

I readily forgive because I am forgiven too! Thanks be to God.

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Vine Valuation

My interactive devotion today stemmed from Jesus’ teaching in John 15. I headed out into the wilds of my yard ready to yank, cut, and destroy unwanted growth from my flower garden. This has been the summer of invasive vines. There are two main varietals, one of which is a grapevine. Highly valued in biblical writings, it has become my nemesis. Foolishly, perhaps, I planted two grapevines in my vegetable garden years ago. They have quietly gained momentum and, this summer, climbed to new heights! They are boldly climbing up my fruit trees, inhibiting their growth. They have killed a couple of pin cherry trees near the garden by choking the life out of them. (They’re a weak species and an easy target.) My vision of harvesting healthy bunches of juicy grapes has not been realized. The vines that are weighing down the fence that surrounds my vegetable garden have no grape clusters hanging from them—not one grape is within easy picking distance. When I looked skyward to see the vine that is having a party at the top of an apple tree, I see those grape clusters which are impossible to harvest! I may be imagining it, but I’m pretty sure those vines are smirking at me as I walk around my yard purveying their dominance.

But not today. I covered myself with clothing since a recent spontaneous weeding session resulted in a rash requiring a dose of prednisone. My daughter’s scrubs are my favorite outfit to wear for dirty projects. Instead of a stethoscope, the side pocket holds my phone. I wear a baseball cap that proclaims, “Half Full.” (I’m not so sure about that optimism when confronting these vines!) I have turned old, unmatched socks into arm protection by cutting out finger and thumb holes. They go under my gloves. Boots and socks complete the outfit. With clippers in hand and a tarp for hauling the verdant carnage away, I head to the side yard.

No one looks at that side of the yard. It’s easy for us to ignore it since it faces a big hill and the homes on that side of the house are in the distance. Our neglect of the yard is easy to conceal on that southern exposure. However, I am concerned about our air conditioning unit, which has been a lifesaver many times this summer. I noticed that it was nearly covered with vines, which can’t be healthy for a system whose very function is to inhale air and run it through a cooling system.

I also saw that the same vine had covered a Rose of Sharon bush that didn’t deserve to struggle to bloom in the grip of such an aggressive foe. So I started pulling on vines to find the root. As I jubilantly cut those sturdy stems, I had a pang of guilt. Didn’t Jesus say He was “the true vine”? Should I view this vine positively rather than with murderous zeal? Am I doubly guilty because I am delighting in the notion of doing a follow-up attack with a spray bottle of Round-Up? As I victoriously hauled one tarp-ful of hacked vines after another into the nearby woods, I wondered what could possibly be good about vines!

So I turned to John 15:1-2. “I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.”

So God prunes the vine. What a concept! I planted a couple of grape root balls more than ten years ago and have never pruned them. In fact, I never really paid attention to them since my attentiveness to the things I plant is greatly curtailed by other obligations in my life (namely the fact that I drive off to work each day and tend to a household). I am certain there is great joy among the vines as I head down our driveway each day, giving them the freedom to wrap their tenacious tendrils onto the plants and trees I value! It’s a veritable reproduction rights rally taking full advantage of my absentee gardening style! God prunes the vine, which is life in Christ, so that all growth that doesn’t produce fruit is clipped off. The expectation is that we will bear fruit, not just grow without purpose.

I’ve heard so many stories this past year at the mental health hospital of how folks have latched onto some of my patients, demanding too much of them and giving nothing in return. In groups that I lead, folks confess how guilty they feel that they need to focus on themselves while hospitalized. They have nothing left to give. We explore if it is “selfish”, as they believe, to value themselves enough to say “no” to the unending requests of others. As the tendrils of others choke the life out of them, they have no energy to bear good fruit in their own lives. This lands them, in an exhausted, hopeless heap, on an in-patient psych unit. Slowly, through good medical care and compassionate conversations, life returns and their beautiful, authentic self begins to bloom.

What I can tell you about vines is that they are strong. They put down roots along their journey at ground level. They have tremendous climbing skills and stretch with amazing determination from one branch of a host tree to another. They reproduce with force, much more easily than the plants I have hoped would thrive in my garden! If ignored, they will waste their energy on overtaking whatever plants surround them rather than producing nourishing fruit. A pruned vine responds to the painful process by producing fruit that is of good use to others. Like small children who yearn for discipline, a productive vine needs intentional cultivation.

As I dumped piles of dismembered vines into the woods, I remembered another teaching of Jesus: The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. The weeds that grew among the sown wheat were allowed to grow together until the wheat was mature enough to survive the violence of weeds being plucked up around them. The instructions to the gardeners were severe: “Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, and to put the wheat in the barn.” I felt less guilty about yanking out vines and tossing them in the woods to die! If something grows, only to leach the life out of their surrounding culture, it rebels against God’s intent for good harvests. Communities rely on the mutual sharing of our gifts so that all needs are met. What I am able to provide with my gifts is different from others and all are needed. Pruning is painful but keeps us honest about how we need to use our personal resources for the common good.

So my AC unit can breathe and the flowers on the Rose of Sharon bush need no longer fear for their lives. The satisfaction I derived from my morning weeding session spared me at least a couple of therapy sessions! And I’m sure that I have undermined the arrogance of prodigal vines wasting their energy on useless climbing! Further uprooting and pruning are assured as the battle for my yard continues!

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It’s a wrap.

Walking back to my car after a day at work, I am tired and gratified. I was the chaplain on duty to lead worship at the psychiatric hospital where I have been working for nearly a year. Worship leadership is different here than in a church building. I travel between locked units, with bulletins and blue tooth speaker in tow. My accompanist for hymn singing is YouTube amplified on a 3” x 3” speaker that fits securely in my pocket. My chaplain badge identifies me as the one who will gather willing patients into the proper room on their unit so that we can attune our hearts to God.

The service I have prepared plays out differently on each unit, depending on how many show up and their level of mental health acuity. Two younger women made up the “congregation” at one of the services, one of whom overshared because of her mania. Her reflections where generously sprinkled with four-letter words for which she apologized halfway through our 45- minute worship window. She explained that she likes to be straightforward with her thoughts. I assured her that I was glad to have her authentic participation. At another service, an older gentleman didn’t want to commit to sitting for the service. He stayed just outside the door, particularly seeming to enjoy the music. I took a bulletin to him which he referenced occasionally. He disappeared without explanation after thirty minutes. A couple of months ago, the staff decided to allow a patient to join the service, something her behavior had prevented her from doing up until that point. Immediately following a responsive call to worship, she grilled me on a cruel God’s justice and how bad things will be for us if we…mess up…our lives.( Her language was a bit more colorful.) After the fourth angry inquiry into my theology on “sinners in the hands of an angry God…”, I suggested kindly that I didn’t wish to use time in corporate worship for theological debate. She wadded up the bulletin, throwing it out as she stormed out of the room. The experiment to include her in groups failed.

It has been a different experience to serve as a chaplain in this setting. The “congregation” continually changes. What inspires on one unit doesn’t work in another. The liturgy and sermon are unpredictably interactive and raw emotions run the gamut from tearful sadness when singing a hymn to fury over broken promises at home. The show must go on. My very first service here, a patient managed to kick their way out to freedom before we could grasp what was happening. Staff were stunned as those windows had not been breached by anyone in more than 40 years. I learned to keep any “equipment” that I carry onto a locked unit small and by my side. I don’t wear dangly earrings that could be yanked or necklaces that could be used to choke. Even my pen, if left on a unit, could be used for harm. While these possibilities are relatively slim, it could happen and I would be the fool for ignoring precautions. After 37 years leading services in congregations, it is safe to say that I have been stretched this past year!

You might think that I dread going into each of these five units on a Sunday. But I don’t! What a privilege it has been for me to bring a Word through the scriptures to folks who are at one of their lowest points in life. (Those who are homeless or who have spent time in jail would argue that those settings could certainly be more confining.) I am moved when I look around the room at those who are mustering the energy to sing the hymns while others wipe tears from their eyes as Alan Jackson sings, “Amazing Grace.” I give God thanks as patients recite the 23rd Psalm by memory, many using the words of the King James version of the Bible.

A couple of weeks ago I led worship on a unit that had several COVID+ patients. Only the healthy residents could attend the service but I still had to wear an N-95 mask, shield, medical gown and plastic gloves. I might as well have been leading a service on the moon! Yet the women who sat with me sang the hymns I had chosen and spoke earnestly of their desire to serve Jesus. I am blessed by the transparency with which these patients speak of their hardships, any one of which could lead to my admission onto one of these units. Our church congregations would do well to mimic the willingness of these patients to share the raw elements of their life that have left them disappointed, angry, or betrayed. I have been surprised so many times when someone who seems particularly psychotic offers to read a scripture and does so beautifully. I was moved as one patient voiced her prayer that those gathered in a circle this Sunday morning would find peace. “We’ve all become so close,” she exclaimed with a smile. She looked around the circle at others who nodded their agreement. These “congregations” may be transient but their sharing is deep. There is no “My life is just fine, thank you” façade. Their prayers are unapologetically from the gut. Jesus is clearly present in the lives of these hospitalized congregants.

I had to set the alarm to get to work on time to begin my sabbath duties. Thanks to coffee and a shower, I felt ready for the day. I played my chosen hymns for today’s service over our sound system so that my husband could hear organ, guitar and voice on surround sound at 7AM. I sang along, even pausing in my kitchen at one point to lift my hands in worship of the One whose glory I seek to carry into weary corners of our world. As I left, my husband reminded me that today would be my last time of serving as a regularly scheduled worship leader. I retired from parish ministry in April and will conclude my Chaplaincy Residency in three weeks. I will not be leading worship at the hospital again. While I may do supply preaching on occasion, I am done leading worship on any kind of a regular basis. My Sunday mornings will be strangely free.

Singing “Amazing Grace” at the last of five services today, I felt a mix of emotions as I reflected on the privilege it has been to craft worship services that have given a variety of congregations an opportunity to attune ourselves—once again—to the work of the Spirit in our lives. One of my scripture passages for this last service was from Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”

What a wonderful season it has been for nearly four decades, praising God alongside my brothers and sisters in Christ. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” I wonder what will mark the next season? I choose to trust the One who has guided me faithfully. Walking to my car, I place my badge in my briefcase. For this pastor and chaplain, it’s a wrap!

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“Who will tell me about Jesus?”

Driving south out of Grand Rapids, there’s a billboard the proselytizes a product in bold letters:

Church Cannabis Company: Baptism by Fire!

So, I’m confused. Take the word cannabis out and I get it. The Holy Spirit has the power to bring healing to those who are alienated from each other. The Holy Spirit has power lead us in directions that we never would choose on our own. The Holy Spirit can bring life out of death, resurrection out of crucifixion. But what does cannabis have to do with the church?? Can a newly legalized substance bring the same kind of Holy Spirit power as baptism in the church can provide? What is truth in this highway  advertisement?

I think of Pilate interviewing Jesus and sneering at him, “What is truth?“ How ironic that he would say that to the One who identified Himself as “the way, the truth, and the life.” We continually have to sift through the elements of our culture and our world to understand what is truth and what will fail us.

As Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb, in the dark of morning, she thought she knew the truth about Jesus. She had kept a vigil at the foot of the cross. Most of the disciples were unable to do this. She had seen her Savior die a horrific death. His body had been claimed by two converts to the faith even though it could have cost them their political careers. He was dead and buried and she went to anoint his body to honor Jewish customs. When she saw that the stone was rolled away, suddenly she questioned what the truth was. The disciples, at her beckoning, ran to the tomb to investigate. It says that John saw the emptiness and believed yet we don’t know exactly what it was that he understood as truth.  Mary remained and, looking into the tomb, she saw two angels. She gave no indication of being alarmed. She was caught up in the grief of losing her Savior. It was only when Jesus spoke her name that her clouded vision became crystal clear and she could see Jesus. Within the confines of a dark grave, resurrection triumphed over crucifixion. Since that time, generations across the globe have had to determine what is truth about that morning. We are called to consider what Jesus’ resurrection means for us.

We have this wonderful story from the Book of Acts about Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch was on the court of the queen of Ethiopia. He had traveled to Jerusalem to worship. He was a convert to the Jewish faith and had embarked on a lengthy journey to worship in the Temple. On his way back, being pulled in a chariot, the Rolls-Royce of his day, he was reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The man was educated. He had access to a library, which was rare indeed. He was trying to understand the truth of the Scripture that he was reading.

Phillip was minding his own business when the Holy Spirit prompted him to approach the chariot. He was the answer to the Ethiopian’s prayers. When the convert to the faith was asking about the suffering servant in Isaiah, Phillip was ready to give his sermon. He preached about Jesus as the fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy. Jesus was the lamb that was slain and who now reigned over an eternal kingdom. Even the one who served on a royal court with high honors would not be able to imagine the immensity of that kingdom.  He wondered what was the truth of that scripture. Phillip dropped everything to give interpretation that would answer the foreigner’s questions. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the resurrected Savior. The man from the royal court asked to be baptized in a body of water they were passing. Phillip obliged and one of the most unlikely candidates for membership in the Early Church was welcomed into the fold  of the Messiah who claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life.

When I was leading a group discussion on a psychiatric unit recently, there was a man who stormed out, angry at something another class member had said that he perceived to be false. I sought him out afterwards to apologize for any hard feelings. He immediately said he was sorry , admitting that he should have not been so explosive. Then he cried out to me, the chaplain who stopped by his room, “Who will tell me about Jesus?“

The question caught me by surprise. I had gone in to placate someone who was angry about the group dynamics of the class I had led.  Now he was asking for a Sunday school lesson. My job is not to convert but to invite patients into their own understanding of the deepest convictions in their lives. So I spent time with him, getting to know his circumstances. I learned that his mental illness and struggle with addiction had cost him his marriage and custody of his children. He was deeply grieved as a young father.  He was hopeless about triumphing over a mental illness diagnosis that had put his life on a downward spiral. He was raised in a home where he was told that everything was his fault. There was no appreciation for spiritual matters. He spoke to me of the ways that God has been present to him throughout his life. Years earlier, God protected him during a home invasion when he cried out for help. His addiction had brought him near death several times but God had revived him. He wondered why? What was this purpose for which he was being saved? He named these moments of grace when he could hear a directive from God that led him down right paths. He carried with him a worldview shaped by being demeaned in his childhood home and losing his own family because of an illness that he could not control.

 The question he cried out to me became clear when he said that, recently, the Holy Spirit was prompting him to look into the person of Jesus. I was stunned to think that God moved in such a specific manner so as to proselytize this man who was despairing of hope and bereft of joy.  Forty-five minutes into our time together, I began to talk about Jesus at his repeated request: “Who will tell me about Jesus?“

What would you say to someone who has no background in the faith and is crying out for understanding about Jesus? As I started offering Sunday School Lesson 101, I was aware of how unlikely  some of our beliefs are about this man called Jesus. Born of a virgin, hailing from a backwoods town in an insignificant part of the world, being born a Jew (historically a persecuted race), crucified as a despised criminal and dying a public death to intimidate others into obeying the rules in the mighty Roman Empire.

But wait! Death is not the end of the story! Even though he was laid in a tomb with a boulder in front of it, the Holy Spirit (through baptism fire!) brought him back to life. Truth! Resurrection out of death. Can you believe it? We are incredulous even though we have been going to church for years.

There are people in our world who want to know about truth. In our own city there’s an investigation into the truth of the death of a young African man. During Holy Week, video footage was released and, once again, we recoiled in horror and were filled with grief. Local and national news look in on this senseless  death with a question of “What is truth?” A review board investigates the death, but nothing will bring solace to a family who grieves a son.

We are seekers of truth on a daily basis, and we sometimes forget where to turn. We forget our spiritual mooring. This young in-patient’s question, that came from the gut, awakens me to the need to preach my faith in Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. I am sensitive to delivering the sermon in the manner that is most likely to be heard. Many times, that will not be through words but by example. When I have an opportunity and an invitation to share what I believe, I had better have a response ready. I am called to have my spiritual antennas up to notice the hunger of those around me who are struggling to believe. There are people at every crossroad in our daily life who are searching for truth. Some are sitting in the pews here every Sunday morning. Some are in our neighborhood or serving on community boards with us. Some are the folks who badmouth religion most loudly. Inwardly they are asking, “What is the truth? Who will teach me about Jesus?”

The truth is, we are all continually learning about Jesus. We meet Him in unlikely corners of our world. We see Him at the intersection when a red light gives us ample opportunity to look into the eyes of the man holding the sign. We meet Jesus when our child or grandchild asks to read stories together from their Children’s Bible. We meet Jesus when one family member finally reaches out to another to invite them for Easter supper after a lengthy stalemate in relationship. We meet Jesus on our knees and at the wheel; in our office and walking a dirt road. We meet Jesus in an African father who asks for peaceful protests after his son is gunned down during Holy Week. We meet Jesus when an American friend crosses the border into the Ukraine to fight for the citizens of another country. We meet Jesus when we whisper a prayer for mercy in the depths of a depression. We meet Jesus when we pack our bags to go where we feel led to go. The Truth of Jesus is that endings are often times beginnings and new life begins when we dare to walk into the unknown.

Who will teach others about Jesus? We need to be ready!

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Witnesses to God’s Hesed

I was heading into one of the units with a person’s name in my head. This person had asked to speak with a chaplain so I headed into the unit with conviction and purpose. I was going to find them and take care of their spiritual needs. We try to get to folks within 48 hours of asking to speak with one of us and it’s gratifying to be able to check their name off the list—especially if you’re a list person, like me! So as I’m walking through the large open communal area, looking for my victim, I mean patient, I catch the eye of someone who is throwing her trash away. She looks at me—actually, she looks at my badge. We are known by our professionalism in the hospital. So she looks at the badge, then up at me and we have this exchange:

So….you’re a chaplain?

I’m a chaplain.

Like…. …..for God?

I am a chaplain for God! I’ve never said it that way but, yes, I am a chaplain for God.

Do you have a moment?

And off we went to a quiet part of the unit to talk. The person for whom I came wasn’t the one I saw that day. I was re-routed to someone who told me she wasn’t very religious but had some questions. I was honored to be able to sit with her and hear her story. I didn’t even get a check mark for that interaction—but that didn’t matter. That was the appointment I was meant to keep that day. And she sent me off with a memorable job title I haven’t forgotten: A Chaplain for God!

I’ve been packing out my office and finding things that I’ve carted around with me for 37 years of parish ministry. One thing that surfaced is a portable communion set. Garrett and I purchased this in the first months of our ministry so that we could take communion to those who are unable to leave their homes. We carried it into hospitals on occasion and many nursing homes. People appreciated being included in the life of the congregation even if at a distance from us.

Learning the details of ministry, like any new position, requires some humility. I remember taking this communion kit to an older couple’s home. We filled the little portable container with grape juice and had a small piece of bread that could be broken and shared. The couple took care of their 50-something year old son who was bed-ridden. At a very young age, he had contracted some dread childhood disease that stole his mind and control of his body. He lay in bed all day and they cared for him. The husband couldn’t hear but he could see. It was the opposite for her so they used their gifts together. When the doorbell rang, she told him and he went to greet their visitors. So we sat down at the kitchen table with this salt-of-the-earth couple and pulled the communion elements out of our little kit. What a privilege to be able to celebrate the sacraments! Our seminary education and ordination gave us the privilege of overseeing this meal. The couple sat quietly as we began the liturgy. I broke the bread into four small pieces. Then I poured the juice from the plastic container into one of the glass communion cups. It didn’t pour well and spilled onto their table. My response was to stray for the age-old liturgy by saying quietly, almost reverently, “Darn it!” The woman, in spite of not seeing well, understood what happened and hopped up to get some paper towels. She smiled as she mopped it up and assured me that it was fine. She sat down again and we managed to finish our time of communing together. She offered me such grace in a very human moment. Reflecting the Jesus of the Eucharist, she reminded me that we don’t have to be perfect. We have to be faithful to God.

After our congregation’s concert that celebrated 175 years of ministry, I talked with a woman who had read about it in the local paper and attended. She loved the music and talked with me afterwards. She said she could tell that this was a close congregation and a church that was centered on the Spirit. I told her I was blessed to hear her say that. I asked her how she had come to that conclusion. She noticed that we didn’t sweat the small stuff. If there was a technology issue with a song or someone needed prompting with the words they were singing, the congregation was supportive. We laughed at our humanness at times. And we prayed. And we SANG! She felt the Spirit in the way we sang in that first moment when we began to feel like we were back in our sanctuary in a somewhat “normal” way after two years of COVID restrictions. I celebrate that a stranger could gather with us for an event and draw the conclusion that we are folks who live our faith together in humble and loving ways. In a world that is marked by division and rancor, this is clearly the work of the One we serve!

I’ve mentioned before that the one tattoo I would ever get is a beautiful calligraphic rendition of the Hebrew word, HESED. Instead of getting inked, my daughter made a clerical stole with the Hebrew word on it. She invited congregation members to sign the back of it! It takes several of our words to capture the meaning of it. Sometimes words are put together in pairs to convey the proper meaning. The translation I like is “lovingkindness.” Hesed described the kind of love God has for us. We hear it in our reading from Exodus today, when Moses is getting to know this God who asked him to side with his own people, the Jews, and put his life (and sanity!) at risk by leading them. Up on the mountain top for the second time (since the first time he came down with the tablets of the law in hand, they were dancing around a golden calf), Moses meets God. This divine being offers a brief resume to Moses who is already fed up with his people. God reassures him, encourages him by saying, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

God’s true nature is described as “hesed”: loving kindness, devotion, loyalty, mercy and goodness. It’s used some 250 times in the Old Testament. Its frequency should profoundly affect how we view God, not as a vengeful deity watching for us to trip up. Rather, we meet a loving Parent who, even after a transgression as egregious as dancing around a golden calf, assures us of love! Generations have carried that God of hesed love in their hearts and shared that faith with their children and grandchildren. What a gift it is for us to know that these are God’s attributes that we are encouraged to share with others.

The first picture to go up on the walls of my office at First Congregational Church of Rockford, United Church of Christ—and the last to leave—was this block print done by Japanese artist, Sadao Watanabe.  When I was installed as pastor at this church, my father presented it to me. Watanabe was a Christian who depicted Biblical themes in his artwork. He was very popular when my parents were living in Japan. This image is of the prophet Elijah dropping his cloak down to the fledgling prophet, Elisha. Elijah is whisked off in a chariot of fire, entrusting his spiritual legacy to the one who had studied under him. I began my service at First Congregational with the blessing of my parents. My father’s ample gifts for ministry certainly shaped my leadership with this beloved congregation. He loved to teach and preach from the Bible, always finding ways that the message was relevant for the here and now. He led with creativity and a unifying spirit. My mother served alongside of him, quietly caring for those in the church with supportive words and prayer. I am so grateful for the mantel of ministry they passed on to me. I met the God of HESED in my childhood home and rejoice in how our congregation taught our children and youth about God’s lovingkindness. On mission trips, in VBS, in supporting Compassion children in other parts of the world, by leading zoom Sunday School classes during a global pandemic, we were faithful to the mandate of sharing the gospel with all generations.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who inspire and equip us to live our Christian faith. I’ve talked with church members whose loved ones have died. They described how, in their last days, their loved ones began to interact with an unseen world. They sometimes mentioned names of family members who had died earlier. These invisible interactions sometimes brought smiles to their faces, something you would not expect to see in a dying individual. Our faith reminds us that there is something spiritual going on that is so much greater than anything we can see or imagine. We stand in awe in privileged moments when this world and the next seem to converge and the distance between us is momentarily bridged. In our congregation, we meet in a space that has nourished generations! Just as they carried in with them the influence of their ancestors, we bring with us each week the presence of those in our lives who witnessed to God’s HESED. That cloud of witnesses is closer than we think, encouraging and equipping us for the tasks at hand. The Apostles’ Creed speaks of the “quick and the dead.” Some of us may not feel quick but we are not dead! We are the living, moving, breathing Body of Christ called to witness, on this side of heaven, to eternal truths that give us hope. The work my congregation and I offered was to faithfully instill a sense of the holy in the midst of ordinary daily experiences. It is most often in the small gestures that we meet the God of HESED and can offer the ongoing refrain, like the writer of the 136th Psalm, “God’s steadfast love endures forever!”

The final memento I brought home from my office is this guy. I loved him from the time I first saw him at a shop in the Breton Village Mall. My mother and I called it “the jelly bean mall” because a centrally located candy shop sold little packs of jelly bellies, which were newly on the market and beloved by my children. This figurine of a man wearing a clerical collar was somehow standing amidst the candy choices and my mom bought him for me. I loved the joy on his face as his hands are raised in obvious prayer. He exudes a love for God and a powerful connection to the Spirit. I wanted that at that early stage in my ministry. He’s been on my desk all these years. He suffered some abuse over the course of time. He fell off my desk a couple of times and both of his hands have fallen off and been glued back on! Not all the fingers are intact. So he’s aged a little bit as have I. I was disappointed to learn a short while after receiving him that the title for this particular figurine was, “Thank God I’ve retired!” What?! I thought his smile reflected the joy of his active service to God, not retirement from ministry! But his zeal for his Creator has inspired me for years.

As I retire from parish ministry, I can feel how my body parts don’t function quite as easily as they once did. I’m not as “quick” as I was when I first placed this preacher man on my desk But I share in his gladness of heart, rejoicing simply because I have been privileged, like Moses, like Elijah and Elisha, like my father and mother and countless saints who have dropped that mantle of ministry down to me, to have experienced God’s HESED in the Church of Jesus Christ. I thank my beloved church family for walking with me on this amazing journey of faith. Their love will always be one of the greatest gifts in my life. Together, with smiles and upraised hands, we can affirm what we know as truth: God’s steadfast love endures forever! GOD’S STEADFAST LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!

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Walk with Me

I’m excited to share that I have just published a book entitled, Walk with Me: A Year of Worship in the Gospels. Our congregation received a grant of about $10,000 to use for vitalizing worship during one year. I met with a creative worship planning team and we shaped new ways of meeting Jesus. Our people looked forward to each service, never being sure what would move their hearts from one week to the next. The book tells the story of how we used the grant. It offers pastors, worship teams, Diaconate members, and passionate church members lots of new ideas for enlivening your worship and using the talents of your congregation in new ways. The details to 55 worship services are given to enhance the planning process for other congregations. Our church family never went back to “business as usual” after that grant year. Adding new elements to each service has become the expected and anticipated experience! This book tells a love story between pastor and people as we walked with Jesus through the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. My last Sunday with this remarkable congregation is this Sunday so I’m thankful to be able to share our story with others. The link for the book is below.

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Body Talk

We sometimes ran into each other when picking up our children after school. We had kids in the same class in elementary school. One morning she looked particularly uncomfortable. I asked her how she was doing. She knew I was a pastor. She told me that she was having a particularly difficult day. She had struggled with intestinal issues for 12 years and had found no resolution. She had seen doctors and specialists. She had all the tests run that made sense to pursue. But she lived with a stomach that could cramp up and tie in knots. She kept working through the pain–usually. She tended to her son’s needs. She had learned over the course of 12 years that she couldn’t just stop living her life. So she pushed her way through the unpredictability of how each day might play out. She voiced your disappointment that a doctor’s visit that past week with a specialist at Mayo had not revealed any issues. She had been so hopeful about a possible new diagnosis that would make sense of her suffering. But the doctor said he was sorry he couldn’t find anything wrong with her.

I knew she was a strong Christian. She was part of Bible study group at her church and the members in that small group prayed for her regularly. She told me she was beginning to think it might be a Spiritual issue. She wasn’t sure why she felt that way but was beginning to wonder if there wasn’t something that couldn’t be diagnosed medically.

That next week she found me at in the parking lot and told me that a crazy thing had happened at her Bible Study. A woman joined the group who hadn’t been a part of it before. She knew this woman from a previous connection and knew that she was a true prayer warrior. It seemed odd that this woman would join their group mid-way into the study. As women were wrapping up the class session with light-hearted conversation, the woman asked my friend about her health. She was surprised to be asked. When she told her what was going on, the woman stated matter-of-factly, “I think it’s spiritual in nature.” My friend said her jaw dropped. How could this woman know that this was her very thought as well? The woman asked her if she had considered fasting for healing. She said she had not. But that week, she began to fast. She called her father, who lived out of state, and he mentioned that he had felt led to pray for her and was fasting for her healing. Again, her jaw dropped. Something, she told me, was at work. God was doing something great and she didn’t know where it would lead. But she had hope—for the first time, in a new way!

One week later, on my day off, we connected at the school again. She approached me briskly. Her eyes were lit up and she had this broad smile on her face. She whispered to me that she thought she was healed. “In fact, I don’t want to say “I think.” That introduces doubt. I am healed. This week I have had no stomach issues whatsoever. My father has found the things in his life have gone better . There have been so many amazing spiritual moments this week. I wish we had two hours so we could sit down and I would tell you about the amazing things I’m seeing around me.“

While I believe God‘s sovereignty over all earthly trials, there’s a bit of skepticism I had about whether this healing would be lasting. After all, she had been battling this for 12 years.  I told her that her situation reminded me of the woman who sought out Jesus because she had hemorrhaged for 12 years. She had spent her money and time pursuing medical care that had accomplished nothing. In the end, she just touched the hem of Jesus’ garment as he talked to others and found immediate healing.  Why would I doubt that this woman, 2000 years later,  found healing after fasting, prayer, and active involvement in the faith community. Over the next weeks, every now and then she would mention her wellness and her gratitude for that. I stood in awe of the healing power of Jesus  and the role that fasting plays in our faith journey.

In this final pause before Easter we have the opportunity to more fully commit ourselves to that relationship with Jesus. It could easily be put on the back burner as we rush through each day. Sometimes it is only when we are brought to our knees in a time of despair or agony that we begin to deepen our spiritual roots out of desperation. Lent invites us to engage in spiritual discipline when we’re not necessarily desperate. Fasting is one of those disciplines that has been valued and practiced for thousands of years.

When you look in the Scriptures, there are countless examples of people fasting for specific purposes. In the wilderness and when moving into their own land, the Israelites were urged to fast. David fasted before battles, inviting God to give the Hebrew people the victory. In the time of rebuilding the temple, Priest Ezra and Governor Nehemiah urged the people to fast for the successful completion of this sanctuary. Daniel fasted regularly to maintain a spiritual acuity. Jonah called upon the Ninevites to fast and repent and God forgave them—much to Jonah’s disgust! John the Baptist invited his followers to deepen their faith commitment by fasting. Anna, the elderly woman who took baby Jesus in her arms when he was dedicated in the temple, was known for her fasting and prayers. Believers in the Early Church fasted with regularity to heighten their awareness of God. More than 75 times, fasting is mentioned in the Bible.

Why are we invited to fast? Jentezen Franklin describes fasting as “body talk.” We do something sacrificial that we feel in our bodies. It let’s God know that we are serious about our faith. The prophet Isaiah assures us that withholding food from our bodies with spiritual intention will loose the things that hold us back in our faith. Fasting will undo heavy burdens. The bad habits that hinder our health and destroy our ability to serve God can be broken when we fast for God. Often those who are seeking clarity of vision for the next step of their faith pilgrimage will combine fasting with scripture reading, meditation and prayer. Franklin describes how he did a 21-day fast when he was 19 years old. He heard God affirming, “Because you have sought me out, I am going to advance your ministry.” For ten years, his ministry was clearly directed by the God he sought to please.

When we fast, it adds extra power to our prayers. I think back to the early video game, Super Mario. He had the ability to jump up to stars over his head and he would have a brief surge of power and energy. That is what fasting does to our prayers: it shows the sincerity of our conviction, our willingness to submit to God’s purposes for our lives. Jesus began His ministry with 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. He had the strength to resist temptation and He emerged from that setting empowered for His redemptive ministry.

When we fast we stand alongside of those who live with hunger on a daily basis. 811 million people are estimated to go to bed hungry each night. 14 million children under age five worldwide suffer from severe malnutrition. We watch the images of mass displacement of families in Ukraine and mobs of people taking refuge in subway tunnels. We can’t help but wonder where food will come from and how long they can last in these dire circumstances. Intentional efforts by many organizations have sought to eradicate hunger and they were making good progress on that goal. In 2019, 8.9% of the world’s population was undernourished. In 2020 there was global conflict, a global pandemic, and a world recession that set us back in trying to make sure that people have enough food to survive. When we choose to fast and we do it quietly for God, we feel a physical solidarity with these folks that we may not know but who are part of our human family.

When fasting, I always commit to a particular cause that I offer to God. I fast for a person or situation. It’s a no-strings-attached offer on my part that seeks to bring to God’s attention someone or some situation that needs extra attention. I may never know the impact of that sacrifice but there may be times when I hear how someone’s life has changed while I’ve prayed for them. Like my friend outside the school, there are wonderfully rewarding times when we hear from someone that our fasting has led to their healing. What a powerful testimony this is for us to continue to seek out ways to practice spiritual disciplines.

We need to fast for the right reasons. There are Biblical examples where folks’ acts of piety are to advance their own agendas. Jezebel fasts and prays that Naboth will die so that her husband, the king, can take over his lush vineyard. In the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee, we read that the Pharisee fasts two times per week. He boasted of this whereas the humble man simply came before God quietly. The man who came to God with humility was forgiven. Inauthentic fasting did not buy God’s favor. Our spiritual discipline can’t be used to manipulate God for our own purposes.

There are health benefits to fasting as well. Animals often use fasting to overcome illness. A man in California lived to be 123 years old. His secret? He stated that he didn’t drink or smoke. He said he fasted one meal per day. Muslims fast for the month of Ramadan, eating nothing from sunrise to sunset, so as to deepen their commitment to God. In the past I have fasted one day a week and found that to be a useful reboot to my physical well-being. On a spiritual level, it allowed me to choose a particular prayer cause each week and feel like I was contributing to the healing of that person or situation.

Some of you are not able to fast—from food. Your blood sugar doesn’t allow for it or there are other health concerns. Pregnant women should not commit to a rigorous fast. So we can choose other ways to fast. We can limit time on our phones or sitting in front of screens. We fast from spending unnecessarily. We fast from arguments with someone who seems to make our lives difficult. We can add on to each day meaningful ways to connect with God: scripture reading, a prayer group or Bible study, being physically active and using that time to commune with God. We can fast from Starbucks coffee or other luxury items and commit the money saved to a worthy cause. We find a fitting way to deliberately withhold from ourselves the things that we enjoy doing so that God sees, through our Body Talk, that we are hungry for that relationship.

My friend’s miraculous healing after twelve years of ineffective treatments has stood out to me over the years about how we underutilize the spiritual discipline of fasting. We expect little from God and are not disappointed when it seems like God didn’t show up as we hoped. When we are facing physical danger, like Queen Esther, we would do well to fast. When we feel besieged by forces that work against God’s will for us, we should consider fasting. When we want our family members to know and love God, we can fast for present and future generations. When we are daring to embark on a new endeavor, we should invite God into the process through our Body Talk. Since our church is facing a transition, we should certainly consider fasting.

Through the prophet, Joel, God entreats the Israelites to show their desire to be holy. These words call out to us today as we face changes ahead: “…return to me with all your heart, with fasting, and weeping, and with mourning: and rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Hallelujah!