abundant life starts with release

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Last night in worship, we used sand to represent our confession. Bins of sand lined the walls of the sanctuary with signs describing character traits and experiences that get in the way of our relationship with God: selfishness, despair, greed, self-doubt. As we added sand to our personal bags of life, the heaviness was obvious: we carry around a lot of baggage. After hearing words of forgiveness, the people were invited to come forward to receive the ashes on their forehead, acknowledging their humanity. Afterward, they could take their bag of sand and pour it out at the foot of the large standing cross erected for the season of Lent.

And so I stood at the altar, dipping my thumb into the black, messy ashes, and carefully marking a cross on each person’s forehead. I looked into their eyes, connecting with their stories and our shared history, and together we acknowledged that life is short, and that we will one day become ashes ourselves. The moments were precious enough in themselves, each person receiving the experience in their own way. But in the background, there was something more. There was a sound, and a movement stirring. As people began to pour out their sand, there was a whoosh. The sound of the sand leaving the paper bags accompanied the ashes as one by one, people continued to come with their baggage in hand. And the sound was the sound of release, of letting go, of loosening our grip on old resentments and fears for the future. The whoosh was the sound of the Holy Spirit blowing through us, emptying us, and filling us all at once.

The sound of the sand pouring out was the sound of abundant life. We begin to live when we let go of all that binds us, that holds us back, that keeps us preoccupied. Christ calls us to receive new life, but how can we accept this great gift when our hands are already full of heartbreak and anxiety and envy? It is in the release that we are filled. It is in letting go that we are able to grasp real love, real life. Abundant life begins with the whoosh of pouring out ourselves and trusting that Christ will fill us with all good things.

time to start living

I have spent far too many Ash Wednesdays dreading the words “Remember that you are dust.” As a teenager, those words resonated with my already-low self-image and it felt like God was reiterating what I believed: I was worthless. As a young adult in seminary, I felt resentment as I participated in an out-of-touch ritual that seemed to perpetuate a theology of fear and hopelessness. For far too long, I have missed the hope, the life that is the promise hidden in this ancient day. But today I am throwing back the drapes, unlatching the windows, and letting the fresh air of the Holy Spirit blow through my Ash Wednesday observance.

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Today I will remember that life is short. I’ll say the words, “to dust you shall return,” remembering the canister that holds my mother’s ashes, lovingly placed in the columbarium at her home church. I’ll give thanks for the lives of my colleagues and friends, so many of whom died unexpectedly and too soon. And I’ll acknowledge that each of their deaths makes me a little more fearful that I will leave this world before I’m ready to go.

But in that same moment, I’ll also remember that death does not have the last word. The good news of Good Friday is that Jesus has gone before us and we don’t have to be afraid. We can live each day in the joy of being God’s precious children, loved and never abandoned. And so on this Ash Wednesday, I commit myself to living, really living. Jesus died so that I could live, and live abundantly. And so I’m gonna. Today. With ashes on my forehead, I’m going to remember that today is a gift, life is precious, and love is all around. Thanks be to God for the good news of Ash Wednesday.

Choose Life

So about Ash Wednesday. . . It’s coming, and coming soon.

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And even though I’m a pastor and I spend months planning for the church’s observance, it always sneaks up on me. Personally, I mean. I am so wrapped up in helping others journey through Lent that I don’t have time to pause and consider how I want to experience the season. This year is no exception. In fact, it’s even more crazy than usual, because I’m without my incredible friend and former Administrative Assistant. (Miss you, Deb!) But somehow, the Spirit is speaking to me this year to get ready, to make plans, to actually live Lent.

I can’t do the self-flagellation, though. I’m not into asceticism and extreme fasting and making lists of all my sins (there’s not enough paper in the world for that list!) But the Old Testament reading from last Sunday struck a chord with me. In Deuteronomy 30, Moses speaks to the people about the covenant God has made with them, reminding them that God has chosen them and made them God’s people. And then Moses lays out the choice they have to make: they can either follow God’s commandments that lead to life, or follow another way and experience adversity and death. Verses 19-20 read, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” It’s not a transactional arrangement: if you do this, then God will do this to you. It’s a matter of consequences. God’s greatest desire is for us to experience abundant life, and God’s commandments lead us there. But when we choose selfish gain or acquiring power or accumulating wealth instead of the commandments, we will run into trouble at every turn. God wants us to choose life.

What in the world does this have to do with Ash Wednesday, you ask?

We begin this Lenten season being marked with ash and soot. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

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These words are jarring. We don’t want to remember that death is approaching. We don’t want to acknowledge that our lives will come to an end. We don’t want to live with a constant reminder of all the people we’ve lost, many of them way too soon. Ash Wednesday calls us to face reality, but we do not face it alone.

We willingly receive the mark of death on our forehead in the presence of the one who has faced death before us. Jesus the Christ, our brother, our savior, stands with us as we hear the ugly truth: “to dust you shall return.” But that is not the end of the story. Jesus also reaches out to us, offering the gift of abundant life through the power of his Resurrection. Jesus died so that we would not have to fear death, but could embrace the life we have been given. Like the Hebrews gathered with Moses, we can choose life.

This season of Lent, how will you choose life? Is there something you need to let go of, release, walk away from? Make this your Lenten discipline. Is there something new you can incorporate into your routine, a habit or a practice that will enrich your spiritual life? Make this your Lenten discipline. Whatever you choose, let it be life, abundant life, the life Jesus died to give us.

There’s a Hole in the Middle of a Pretty Good Life. . .

David Wilcox wrote those lyrics years ago. I fell in love with his songs my freshman year of college. He sang about taking risks in life and letting go of love that wounds and feeling alone and finding yourself again, all of which resonated with me. But one of his songs I didn’t understand: it described the pain of a friend whose world had been shattered by grief. “There’s a hole in the middle of a pretty good life,” he sang, and at that point in my life, I just had to take his word for it. All of my family members were still alive and kicking, and even my cat was living a long and healthy life. I had not yet faced the darkness of loss.

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20 years of living later, those words have new meaning. The grief seems to be stacking up, with one loss not quite healed before another one comes along. I have lost mentors from school, faithful saints from my home church, friends from seminary, parishioners in my own congregation. All of these deaths I grieved and kept moving. And then my mom died. And my world stopped. And I understood those lyrics for the first time. “There’s a hole in the middle of a pretty good life.”

I do have a pretty good life. A joyous life, in fact – a blessed life. I have an amazing son who adores me. I have a job that enables me to a make a real difference in the world. I have a body that can move in ways that continue to surprise me. I am surrounded by friends and family, near and far, who love me. But there’s a grief-sized hole in the middle of my life. And I’m reminded of it every time I lose another friend, another colleague, another saint of God.

This past week I was honored to vest and process in the funeral of my friend and colleague Adrienne. She was a vibrant woman, a compassionate pastor, and an ambitious leader of the Church. She had a passion for campus ministry and for young people’s faith development that I admired. And she had an adventurous spirit that I shared. At one point we were making plans to cruise the Mediterranean as part of our Continuing Education requirement as pastors – learning more about Paul’s journeys should be fun, she thought! Losing Adrienne put some extra strain on that hole in the middle of my life.

Just 2 days after Adrienne’s funeral, I lost a dear man from my congregation. Bud was one of the first people I met when I moved to Flagstaff to be pastor at Living Christ Lutheran. He and his wife Susan helped us get settled in and offered their babysitting services for my then-3-year-old son. Bud loved to make jokes with Ethan and always pretended to get his colors mixed up so Ethan would have to correct him. “I’ll miss how funny he was to me,” Ethan told me this week. I’ll miss that too.

It’s Friday morning here in Flagstaff. For the last 2 years, I have spent my Friday mornings with Bud and Susan. His declining health meant that he was home-bound and couldn’t come to church. So every Friday, I brought the church to them. It was my job to remind them of God’s love and Christ’s promises, but it was always Bud who reminded me. No matter how he was feeling, no matter how he was declining, he always rallied for my visits. When I asked how he was doing, he was always “fine” and then he immediately turned the conversation to me, asking how I was, how Ethan was, how things were at the church. He always had a joke to make, a laugh to share, a good story to tell. And to the end, he was a man of patience, hope, and peace.

It’s Friday morning and I don’t know what to do with myself. That hole in the middle of my life is a little bit bigger because I won’t be seeing Bud’s sweet smile this morning. But I will remember it. And I’ll remember the lessons he taught me. God’s love is real. Christ’s promises are true. Peace is a choice. And hope will never disappoint.

Go Tell It. . . on a mountain

Christmas is full of songs that conjure up memories of another time and place. I grew up singing Go Tell It On the Mountain every Christmas Eve at St. Michael Lutheran Church in Greenville, South Carolina. And since we were close to the mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains, to be exact, it meant something specific to me. I could picture the ridges with lookout towers at the end of the trail. I had sat perched on expansive, flat rocks that were scenic overlooks, having lunch with family or laughing with friends from summer camp.

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I remember driving in the mountains of North Carolina – long, rolling hills covered in hardwoods bright with the colors of fall or evergreens sturdy and showy in the crisp air. The curves of the highway were sharp and led us up to the ridges and down into the “hollers” (valleys, to those who need the translation) that made the mountains feel that they were wrapped around me like a warm blanket. Those mountains echoed with the sounds of folk singers with guitars and old folks playing banjos and hammered dulcimers. The history of people making a way, making a living, making a home in the midst of those mountains whispered to me in the craft shops and in the homes proudly displaying quilts handed down through the generations. 

Go Tell It On the Mountain was a song that spoke to me of the joy of the season and the faith we all shared as Southerners. Telling the news “that Jesus Christ is born” on the mountain was metaphorical, because everyone on the mountain already knew. I couldn’t imagine anything different.

Now I live near much different mountains, the San Francisco Peaks in northern Arizona. They rise up out of the high desert like giants, standing watch over the land with power and majesty. These mountains are boastful, almost daring anyone to try and conquer them. There’s a sense of wildness and adventure to them, and a spaciousness I’m not used to. The wideness of the land rings true even as the road or the trail guides me higher in elevation. The vegetation thins out and the trees get sparse and I feel exposed, vulnerable. On a clear day, I can see for miles, and the possibilities unfold before me. These mountains don’t have expectations of me – tradition seems to be a concept not yet invented here. 

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And so Go Tell It On the Mountain has a whole new meaning for me as I prepare for Christmas. Advent is calling me to openness and possibility and vulnerability. My Advent discipline is about looking beyond the expected and keeping my eyes on the horizon for what God is doing next. It’s about remembering traditions but also creating new pathways for Christ to come into my life. Go Tell It On the Mountain reminds me that here, on this mountain, not everyone is from the same culture or the same religion. And that some people are desperately searching for that joy, that hope that comes in the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. I’m much more comfortable in that world where everyone is like me. But I’ve been called here, to this mountain, where I’m challenged to open my heart and open my mouth to tell the good news. So I’m preparing this year, traditions in one hand, possibilities in the other, and trusting that the God who empowered the shepherds to pass on the news will show me the way, too.

Feeling Better

I just lost weight without trying. As I type that, I’m flabbergasted myself. Who does that? Born-skinny models with over-the-top metabolisms? That’s never been me. I was born chubby, wore “husky” fit jeans as a child, and started dieting when I was 11. I found my mom’s old diet books in her closet and realized I was just following in her footsteps. It was my destiny.

I’ve always loved exercising. I loved swimming, I had a great time in gymnastics, and I fell right into the step aerobics craze of the 80’s when I hit my teen years. Burning calories was never my problem. It was consuming calories I’ve always had to work on. Eating has always been my comfort, my solace, my calming activity. Whatever the drama or crisis in my life, snacking was the answer. And so every time I went on a “diet” and controlled my snacking, I would lose weight. But when the next big crisis came along, the weight always returned.

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The last big crisis in my life was my mom’s death. Two years ago I got a phone call at 7:30 in the morning and my world shifted. In the days and months afterward I was a zombie. I showed up at work, I got my kid to school, but I wasn’t really there. I was mostly on the couch, snacking my sorrow away. And the weight piled on. As I began to emerge from my grief haze, I tried to make small changes in my eating habits and I made an effort to get back to the gym. But the weight wouldn’t budge. I wondered if I was just stuck with the extra pounds. And at some point, I decided I had better things to worry about. I wasn’t going to try to “lose weight.” I was going to appreciate being alive and being able to run and swim and bike and play with my son.

As my focus shifted to appreciating my body for what it was, I began to long for my body to feel better than it did. I got tired of feeling bloated after overindulging on sweets. I got tired of feeling sluggish after eating a breakfast with no nutrients. I wanted to have more energy for my long days of ministry and mothering. I wanted to have more strength for my bike rides up and down these hills (mountains!) in Flagstaff. I wanted more.

So I started paying attention to how my body felt after eating different foods. Days with salads and grilled meats were high energy days. Days with processed carbs and snacks eaten on the go were foggy, sluggish days. And so I began to choose what made my body feel better. It also helped that I was paying attention to my heart, as well. Spending more and more time in silence and in contemplation gave me a deeper awareness of what my heart needed. And I began to manage crises without turning to food.

And then one day I woke up and my pants didn’t fit. I hadn’t noticed it, but I was losing weight because of the choices I was making. My mind immediately went to that “diet” place and I started to lay out a plan for continuing my “weight loss.” But then I stopped myself. I wasn’t in this to “lose weight.” I was in this to feel better. So I didn’t need a plan. I needed to keep making choices that made my body feel better.

It’s been a few months since I first noticed the difference in my clothes. And I’ve had to go down a couple of sizes to find clothes that fit. That’s a good feeling. But you know what feels better? Feeling better every day, because I’m making choices for my body that feel better. Who knew the secret to “weight loss” was giving up, and feeling better?

 

Inspired

I’ve been following the news of Diana Nyad, the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage. At age 64, she finally completed a task she had first attempted 35 years ago. When she came out of the water, she bravely advised, “You’re never too old to chase your dreams.” Apparently, there are some in the marathon swimming community who doubt that she completed the distance without “cheating,” ie, getting into a boat to rest at some point, drafting on the current created by the boat in front of her. No matter what the investigations reveal, I’m still amazed.

Swimming is an incredibly difficult activity. It works all of the muscles in your body. When you get tired, the hardest thing to do is what you need to do the most: breathe. You’re surrounded by a substance that can overtake you and end your life in a matter of minutes. And yet you depend on that substance to hold you up and perhaps, even propel you forward.

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I became a swimmer at an early age, growing up in a condominium community with a pool. I loved spending every day in the summer playing in the water with friends, seeing how many crazy dives we could invent, screaming “Marco!” and “Polo!” at the top of our lungs. The water made us silly and carefree and empowered us to do things we couldn’t do on land (2-minute-long handstand, anyone?)

But more than that, I saw that the water could transform you. My mom had MS and as a child, I saw her struggle each day to put one foot in front of the other. Eventually, she began using a motorized wheelchair to travel long distances, and that included getting her down to the pool. My mom loved to swim like I did. And as MS began ravaging her body, taking away her mobility, she fought back in the water. Her upper body was still strong, and when she slid into the water, she was powerful, a machine. She would crank out laps like it was her job. Pulling her useless legs through the water, I saw my mom become a force to be reckoned with. The water gave her life.

Life is full of barriers. Diana Nyad apparently never let those roadblocks distract her from her goal. She learned from her experience and kept moving forward. The endurance swimmer in my life never let roadblocks hold her back, either. My mom kept moving, using the water as her ally, never giving up. So on the days when the world is throwing up roadblock after roadblock, I remember my mom, slicing through the water, smooth and powerful. And I know that nothing can keep me down for long. The water (of baptism) gives me life.

A bigger vision

How many times have I deflected the blame that was clearly mine? How many times have I been quick to judge others and point fingers? I’m the mother of an 8-year-old son and often find myself in the position to discern the origin of a fight between him and his friends – when I arrive on the scene, the boys are ready with their own fingers to show who is at fault.

Today’s reading from Isaiah 58:9b-14 is a message from the prophet to people who are like me – educated, privileged, and influential. And they’re pointing fingers, blaming and most likely shaming the laborers who are just doing their job. And God has noticed. Their behavior toward people in need is pretty shabby, too. While they’re throwing parties, celebrating being home from exile, their neighbors are starving in the streets. And in the midst of the parties, they have time to complain about their neighbors’ progress in rebuilding the Temple.

To address this self-centered behavior,  the prophet shares God’s vision for life together. No more finger pointing. No more speaking evil about the laborers.

And then the prophet lays down this seemingly simple directive: offer your food to the hungry. But the Hebrew word commonly translated as “food” means much more than that (so I’ve heard from Hebrew scholars.) “Nephesh” means “your whole being.” That’s much bigger than just bringing a few cans of food to the food bank for people who are hungry. That means getting to know them. Letting them get to know me. Offering understanding and acceptance. Welcoming them into community. Helping them achieve and learn and grow. Learning from them what they have to teach me. Speaking for them when my voice travels farther because of my privilege. And making room for them at the table, so that their voices can be heard.

That’s the vision. And that’s the call. And that’s really what I hope my life can be about. When I get caught up in petty rivalries – when I get distracted by insignificant details – when I get bogged down in paperwork – when I get discouraged by other people’s opinions of me – this vision is where I return. This vision of people knowing deep down their value to God. This vision of people working side-by-side. This vision of everyone having what they need. This is the real stuff of life.

So today, I lift up the vision, for myself and for others. Let’s be about something bigger. Let’s be about God’s vision.

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a big day

I never thought it would happen. Yesterday, a woman was elected to lead my denomination. I’m a pastor in the ELCA, ordained for over 11 years now, and while I have seen several women come and go as bishops of the smaller regions called synods, I really thought it would be years, decades even, before a woman would be considered for the top post of Presiding Bishop.

It was an emotional day for me. The news was unexpected – it came via text from a parishioner (thanks, Marty!) and interrupted the very important administrative tasks I was trying to finish. And then Facebook exploded with comments from friends and colleagues, all of us celebrating and wondering how we got here and what comes next. I found my heart racing and my mind buzzing and I started to feel different about my call. Honest. There was a shift in my perception of myself as a female pastor. Just because I saw someone who looks like me with the screen showing the tally of votes in her favor.

I am so filled with hope about our Church. Having a woman at the helm makes a difference. I’ve experienced the shift every time I’ve been the first female pastor at a church. I’ve heard the gratitude expressed by so many people – women and men – who take note of our different leadership style and approach to ministry. I’ve seen my colleagues take on huge challenges and bring new health and vitality to struggling congregations. And knowing that our entire denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, is going to be shepherded by a woman – I am certain that change is coming!

 

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