A standing ovation

I love running races because of the cheering. There aren’t too many places in our daily lives when we get to stand up and actually clap for one another. But coming down the final stretch, whether it’s been 5K or 26.2mi, I know there will be a crowd making lots of noise to encourage me to the finish line and congratulate me on achieving my goal. It lifts me up and carries me into training for the next race.

Today I visited the emergency relief facilities at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, TX. Through a partnership with the city, other churches, and relief agencies, they are welcoming families with children (not unaccompanied minors) who have received their initial paperwork from Border Patrol to enter the US and connect with family members who are already in residence.

They provide gentle nourishment of chicken noodle soup, recommended by doctors as the most appropriate diet for people who are dehydrated. They have warm showers available with fresh-scented bath products and soft towels.

They can pick out 2 new outfits for each member of their family and also make a call to assure family back home that they have arrived safely.

Volunteers Walk with them to the bus stop to help them navigate the complicated transportation system and correctly utilize the voucher provided by the family member in their destination city (the government isn’t providing transportation for families- only dropping them off at bus stations.)

But the most powerful gift they are providing these families is a welcome. I was there at the door as 4 families arrived from Border Patrol processing. They looked weary from the journey and beaten down by all they had just experienced. And when they entered the doors of the fellowship hall, they were met by a wave of volunteers, clapping and cheering for them! It was a walll of welcome. It was a chorus of encouragement. It was a statement that love rules here, and that we begin, not with questions, but with compassion.

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A beautiful life

I can’t stop thinking about their eyes.

I was privileged to meet with children in transition today. They are temporary residents of Bokenkamp Children’s Shelter in Corpus Christi, TX, a ministry of Lutheran Social Services of the South. I learned that LSSS is so good at providing care for children at the border that the federal government came to them before the latest surge in child migration, asking them to expand their facilities.

Even as the new site prepares to open, Bokenkamp serves 500 teenagers each month. They are brought here by Border Control after their arduous journeys, and are given what they need: water for their dehydration, clean clothes and new shoes to replace the worn-out garments they arrive in, nourishment for body and spirit, pro-bono lawyers to begin the immigration process.

Many are reunited quickly with parents, grandparents, or other relatives across the US who have been waiting with bated breath for their arrival. Some linger at the shelter while the case workers try to locate a relative or family friend who is able to provide a stable, safe home for the children. But all of them have endured immense hardships, have risked everything, to arrive here.

I wasn’t prepared to face them today. Touring the facility was nice and meeting the staff people was interesting. I was beginning to put together the big picture of what LSS is doing to meet the needs of these children, when all of a sudden I came face to face with them. I was following our tour guide to the next room, and I walked unknowingly into a cafeteria full of teenagers.

They were expecting us, had been waiting excitedly for us. One of the Spanish-speakers in our group made a few introductory remarks thanking them for their willingness to talk with us, and then we were invited to join the youth at their tables for conversation with a translator.

I haltingly pulled up a chair with some teenage boys, using one of the common phrases I’d picked up, “con permisso,” to excuse myself, feeling like I was barging into the group. We began by talking about where they were from (all over Central America) and how old they were (14 – 17) and they shared their names (several common Latino names, and one Brian.) The whole time I was listening to them and to the translator, I was preoccupied by their eyes. They were curious eyes, radiating with anticipation. They darted around the room a lot, in the nervous habit of people who are slow to trust. Their eyes sparkled when they talked of home, and then glossed over a bit when we asked what they missed (family.) And then we asked about their journey.

Their eyes darted to the floor then. Darkened. Got distant. How we’re really they treated at the border? “Mal.” Bad. How did they get here? Several took “autobuses” and others also had to walk miles and miles. I heard the boy next to me say something and then I heard “tren.” I asked the translator what that meant and he said, “on top of.” I gasped. This was one of the young boys. He had come from El Salvador. 1500 miles away. By himself. On the top of a train.

That’s when the tears came. I couldn’t hold them back anymore. Looking into their eyes and realizing that these young people had endured the kind of danger I’d only seen in action movies was overwhelming.

But there was more to learn. Why did they come here? One boy was approached by a gang member on his way to school. He demanded payment to let the boy pass. Every day this young man was accosted and forced to pay the gang in order to get to school. There was no one to turn to for help.

Another’s answer was simpler: “Hambriento.” Hungry.

My eyes were cloudy by this point. And yet I hoped the boys could see the love I have in my heart for them, the hopes I hope for them, the prayers I am sending up for them.

I wanted to know one more more thing – what are they looking forward to, when they are reunited with their family here in the US?
“Seguridad.” Safety.
Another added, “It is going to be a beautiful life.”
His eyes sparkled then, and so did mine.

Coming home

I’ve lived in a lot of different places by now. I moved every year through college and seminary, I’ve owned two homes and rented several in between. I’ve traveled to Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East and all over the US, and I’ve lived in 6 different states. I’ve loved it all – discovering new cultures, exploring new terrain, meeting new people. And because I’m an organizing geek, I’ve loved finding ways to arrange my stuff in each new locale.

But with traveling and moving comes some stress. There are new customs to decipher, procedures to follow, information that’s needed but can’t be found. It’s hard to start your day when you can’t find the basic necessities of life: towels, soap, toilet paper. And it simply takes a while to get used to a new place. So even as I seek out new adventures, I long for the comforts of home.

One thing has always helped me find the balance between adventure and safety. Wherever I’ve traveled, wherever I’ve moved, I never feel right until I’ve found a place to run. When I’m running, I’m able to explore new places in a way that most tourists don’t. I’m up early and out the door as the shopkeepers begin their daily chores and the locals are walking their dogs. I learn which bars were the rowdiest the night before and which parts of town get overlooked by other travelers.
But even as I get to experience something new on each run, I’m also returning to the safety of what I know: the way my knees creak during my warmup, the satisfaction of deep breaths, the rhythm of my stride that remains the same, no matter where I am.
When I’m running, wherever I’m running, I am home.

On Sunday I ran in that fabled city of runners, Austin. It was in the mid-90’s by the time I got to Lady Bird Lake in the middle of town. But I knew I needed this run, to remind myself of who I am, and so I took off into the humidity. I ran under the shade of trees that line the lake. And I partook of life-giving water from fountains generously located along the trail. I was entertained by the hundreds of kayakers and SUPers learning their new skills, and by the families with kids in various stages of grumpiness and irritability. And as I was buoyed by the crowd of runners braving the heat, I realized that once again, I had come home.

I still can’t find the box that has my belts and scarves, and I don’t know how we’re going to get to the decorations in the garage come Christmastime, and who knows how long it will take to get my car and self registered and licensed in the state of Texas. But none of that really matters. Because I found a place to run.

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and it was evening, and it was morning. . .

I closed my eyes as I listed to the creation story this morning. The reader had a Texas drawl and I could just imagine her as a grandmother, eager children at her feet, begging her to tell the story again. “Let there be light,” and they ooh and ahh. “God saw that it was good,” and they smile contentedly. “And it was evening, and it was morning,” and they relax into each other, knowing that the story is long.

I am grateful for the storytellers in my life. On this Father’s Day, I celebrate a man who has never met a stranger, someone who strikes up a conversation wherever he happens to find himself, one who can tell you the same story again and again and tell it with even more passion the 23rd time. My dad has taught me the Southern art of storytelling, the way men and women have been passing down tales from generation to generation. It’s a way of connecting – with the people around you, with the events of the past, with our collective hopes and dreams for the future. It’s made me a better preacher and a better pastor, and for that, I’m grateful.

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I’m also thinking of another storyteller today: my mom. Today is her birthday; she would have been 64. She told me stories, too, but not always with her words. Her life spoke to me of challenges and accomplishments, of struggles and victories, of fear and faith. When she graduated from college, she and my dad moved hundreds of miles away from family in Indiana to start a new life in South Carolina. When life took several unexpected turns, she told me everyone who knew her expected her to go running home. But she didn’t. She stayed. And struggled. And built a life, one with meaning and purpose and filled with sisu (that’s Finnish for bravery and courage in the face of adversity.) Today I celebrate her life, her teaching, her determination to the very end.

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“And it was evening, and it was morning. . .” The creation story reminds me that life goes on, creating continues, one day at a time. Even if you’re not in a 12-step program, it’s still a pretty good motto. Each day is another day to celebrate the relationships in our lives, the love we share, and the support that is always available. Each morning we can give thanks for God’s presence within and around us, for the calling we receive in baptism, and for our role as co-creators with God. Each evening we can rest in the assurance that the Holy Spirit will take our efforts and multiply them like loaves and fishes to satisfy the needs of the world.

Today I begin my call as Campus Pastor to Texas Lutheran University. I am still in shock that God has called me to this new place, for this exciting new ministry. I am thrilled to be able to devote my time to young people as they respond to God’s call in their lives, both for the future and here and now. I am blessed to be joining a team of faculty and staff who view college as a time of formation, not just education. I come to the task bringing all that I am, all that I have experienced, all I have learned from the people God has placed in my life. It’s time for a new adventure with the Spirit, a new chapter in my ministry, a new challenge of co-creating with God. It will be evening, and it will be morning, and the journey will continue. I give thanks that God sees that it is good.

 

 

abundant life in the little moments

This is a big week. For pastors and for musicians and for church leaders, Holy Week is the busiest time of year, with extra worship services that all have different liturgies, different sermons, different music, different decor. And it usually coincides with the busyness of the world around us: spring sports overlapping, choirs and bands with their spring concerts, end-of-year standardized testing, graduations, weddings, and vacation planning. 

Which is why today has surprised me. The abundant life I’ve been on the lookout for has shown up in small, unexpected ways, in moments that I could have breezed right past. 

Talking with another mom after dropping off my son at school, we connected on an entirely new level, sharing our backgrounds and religious experiences and hopes for our kids as they grow.

Deciding to cut my workout short because I was so low on energy this morning, I ended up with extra time to chat with a friend I always see at the gym, and was able to share in her joy at the news of her first grandchild on the way.

Expressing my frustration at the many details still to accomplish this week, I received a very heartfelt and generous offer of time and support for our office work from a dear friend and member of the church.

I’m grateful that in the midst of a very busy week, I was able to slow down and allow these people to touch my life. In the pauses, in the breaks, in the exhaling, I’ve received the gifts of connection and understanding and compassion. And that’s what abundant life is about. Opening up and allowing the Divine Love to touch me in my vulnerable places, those places that need healing and wholeness more than ever.

I pray that you might find little moments today, too, to slow down, to listen a little more, to share a little deeper, and in those moments, discover abundant life.

Abundant life in camaraderie

These are my people:

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We sing together every Tuesday from 6:00 – 7:00 and sometimes it’s a drag. Some weeks, there are people who haven’t had time to practice the new music, and so we’re stumbling through pieces we were supposed to simply review. Some weeks, half the choir is suffering from the latest bug to pass through town, and there’s more hacking and sneezing than beautiful tones coming from the rehearsal room. And some weeks, many of us are distracted by the various responsibilities and demands of jobs and family and other volunteer work we have to do, and so we keep stumbling over the same easy lines of music just because our brains aren’t working.

And then there are weeks like this one. We held our very first Arizona Mountain Chorale concert last night. In the past, we’ve just performed a couple of songs as part of Master Chorale of Flagstaff concerts. But this time, it was all us. And we shifted into high gear.

I don’t know whether we were all terrified or excited or both, but whatever the motivation, we got down to work. We shifted our schedules so we could add extra rehearsals. (I even delayed going out of town for my birthday to attend an extra rehearsal!) We spent hours at home going over those trouble spots – the tricky rhythms, the challenging harmonies, the dynamics that surprise us on the page turns. Every time we gathered together to get ready for our show, we were intense. And we were together.

And that’s what made last night so amazing for me. Did we get all the rhythms right? No. Did we smooth out all the pitch problems? No. But when we sang, we sang as one voice. We swayed to Cuban beat. We jammed on the spirituals. We floated the motets. Throughout the concert, there was a spirit of unity that swept me up. My voice was made stronger by all the other voices. My effort was increased by all the others offering their efforts. My passion for the music and the message was multiplied because I was not alone. I was with my people.

Today, I’m so filled with gratitude for this group. I am amazed at what we can do when we work together. I am surprised by the relationships that have deepened simply by sharing our talents with one another. And I am grateful for the opportunity to make music with my voice and my body and share that gift with the world. 

I found abundant life in the striving towards a goal and in the finished product of a performance well received. But mostly I discovered abundant life in relationships forged through music, strengthened by the camaraderie of singing.

 

Abundant life in transformation

I am not an artist. I am definitely not crafty. This has been my identity for a very long time. In 6th grade, I was forced to make daily sketches for art class, and I was miserable. I just didn’t know how to translate what I saw to the paper. And ever since then, I have avoided artsy-craftsy situations like the plague. At VBS, I’ve busied myself with learning the music for the next day instead of helping in the craft room. During Sunday School time, I’ve always had very important pastoral duties to attend to whenever there’s been a request for help with the art projects. I’ve always felt that there was just no need for me to even dip my toe into that pool. Art and me don’t mix.

But that’s where God’s humor comes into play. Lately I’ve found myself smack dab in the middle of artsy-craftsy chaos. Here I am at Messy Church, surrounded by kids and adults being creative:

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And again, helping kids learn about the Lord’s Prayer by making a bead bracelet:

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And then, in the midst of learning different prayer forms to help people descend into the silence of contemplative prayer, I’m instructed to use my creativity and create a collage:

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Honestly, what is going on here? I was perfectly happy avoiding art and devoting all my time to something I’m already good at: music. Why am I continuing to bump into craft projects that make me feel inadequate?

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe in those times when I’m feeling off-kilter, when I’m caught off-guard, I’m more open, more able to hear the whispering of the Holy. When my ego has to take a step back, there’s actually a little bit of room for the Spirit to move around in and do the work of transformation that’s needed in my heart. It doesn’t feel great – being put in a position of ignorance. But it’s in the not knowing that my heart is softened and my mind refocused on what is truly life-giving.

I still don’t plan on leading the crafts at Messy Church any time soon. But I’m learning to be grateful for the chance to try a new project, and for the gift of the Spirit working through my inadequacies. There is abundant life in our weaknesses, and transformation underneath every failure. Bring on the scissors and glue – I’m diving in!

When there’s no time to reflect

It’s been almost 2 weeks since I last shared a reflection on abundant life. It was going to be a daily discipline for me during Lent: becoming increasingly aware of God’s presence within and around me, and sharing thoughts on my blog about the abundant life God was gifting me. But the pace of life picked up. There were more appointments, more tasks, more projects to manage. And slowly I found myself without time to reflect on my day. Life became a blur of getting things done in the nick of time and putting off what wasn’t urgent and falling into bed, afraid to think about what the next day’s busyness would bring.

But this morning, I am claiming for myself. I’m not going to accomplish anything. I’m not going to plan for anything. I’m simply going to rest in God’s lap for a while. And maybe ponder these last two weeks. There have been some marvelous moments, after all.

My sister has been in town and we’ve had some wonderful adventures. I think we’re both most proud of our hike up Bell Rock in Sedona.

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The weather was perfect. And the mountain just kept calling us higher and higher. There were more levels to explore, new curves of the rock to investigate. And these piles of rock that marked our path:

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There were moments to stop and turn around and experience another breathtaking view. And there were moments to encourage one another: “Put your foot here – there’s a ledge to grab onto here – you can make it!” What a blessing to be able to share this special place with a special person. Who knew that’s what sisters were for?

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Twice in the last 2 weeks I was surprised by a family of deer. Driving home from Chorale rehearsal late at night, their eyes reflected the light of my headlights and I slowed my car, pausing with them to consider our encounter. Deciding that I wasn’t a threat, they would amble slowly, gracefully into the woods, slipping away into the darkness.

I was showered with love on my birthday. My sister decorated my living room in the middle of the night so I would wake up to streamers and balloons and a “red carpet.” Image

My congregation surprised me with balloons and a cake and The Birthday Song in Lutheran harmony after worship.

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Then more singing, in more parts than I could count, at rehearsal with Arizona Mountain Chorale. And then, of course, there’s Facebook, which allowed birthday wishes to flood in from people I haven’t seen in years. The day was overwhelming, in a good way.

I’m so filled with gratitude for my life, for the people in my life, for the love that we share together. And I’m grateful for this morning to stop and remember the abundant life I’m living. Time to reflect is life-giving. Time to reflect is love-increasing. Time to reflect is essential to my well-being. Praying that I remember that tomorrow. And praying that you are able to find time to reflect on the abundant life that surrounds and fills you this day.

 

abundant life at home

Traveling is incredibly stimulating to me. Seeing new sites, meeting new people, experiencing new cultures – all of this sets my senses on high alert and makes me almost giddy. And this state of being is perfect for the discipline of awareness. Looking for abundant life in a new setting was a breeze. Where wasn’t I seeing God at work, pouring out life in abundance?

And then I came home. I had to do laundry. I had to go through the mail. I had to feed the dog. And my son. None of these are exciting tasks in my life, yet they are all necessary (especially feeding that boy.) So where is the abundant life in the midst of the drudgery?

I led worship this morning. I was kind of a mess. I couldn’t find where last week’s substitute pastor left my lavaliere mic. I almost started the service without a bulletin to tell me what page we needed to be on. And I totally blanked on what I say every week when we collect the offering. But as I was swirling in my own personal chaos, people were gathering and sharing stories of their week’s work. Our pianist played a moving prelude. Readers proclaimed God’s Word with passion and expression. Kids came running up to me for the children’s sermon. People responded to my sermon, even when I felt like I was heading off on too many tangents.

And just in case I wasn’t paying attention to all these wonderful signs of abundant life, God gave me the choir. They sang a John Bell song from the Iona Community: We Will Take What You Offer, and let me tell you: they rocked it. 4 parts, staggered entrances, building excitement, conveying commitment to discipleship, filling our hearts with passion to do the same.

Their voices lifted me up and reminded me that I was home. These are my people – friends in Christ, partners in ministry. And as we sing together and pray together and work together, we live out the abundant life Christ promised. I thank God for them.

abundant life breaking through

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Some days there is just too much coming at me at once. That’s when I need to remember this image. Even when I feel buried under the burdens of life, still there is abundant life breaking through – signs of love, signs of hope, signs of peace. I give thanks for the small signs of abundant life that sustain me in the midst of the swirling chaos of life.