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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Starbucks

I'm blogging from Starbucks today.

See what happened is I meant to leave church and blog during the middle of my day before going back to plan Lent, but somehow it ended up being 3:30 p.m. and I hadn't eaten lunch yet, so I drove to Panda Express, scarfed down some egg roll and rice, realized they didn't have Wifi, and now here I am. Pretty glamourous stuff.

I walked into Starbucks and the first thing I saw was a little girl giggling on a chair. Immediately I was taken back to one year ago. I walk gingerly into the Starbucks attached to our apartment complex in Walnut Creek, CA, outside San Francisco. Jake is nestled up next to my chest in a baby carrier, and I hold his head as we walk back to meet another mom and her little baby.

That Starbucks is filled with memories of Jake's first year. It was the first place we took him after he was born. We were terrified new parents and slightly on the neurotic side, so it took us a good hour and a half to get ready to make the block-long walk to Starbucks. We had ... the nursing cover, about 18 bibs, 25 diapers, wipes, hand wipes, pacifier wipes, five possible changes of clothes ... We fastened him into the infant carrier just right and clipped it into the stroller. Went back to the apartment a few times for more things. We wanted to do it just right.



I remember I was still sporting that lovely postpartum belly, too, so I read an online tutorial about wearing a scarf as a vest and tied it around my swollen frame. It was quite the outing.



Looking back at that year in California now, I mostly remember the sunshine and the walks. The glorious walks when it never rained or snowed or got below around 50 degrees. Tracing the steps through the neighborhood, past the BART train, up the hill and over the bridge to the park and back. Sometimes I tried jogging a bit -- too much at the beginning -- but it was always me and Jake and figuring out how to be a mom.

I spent too much of that year wishing it away. I knew it was temporary. I was finishing my last year of seminary online and partially in classes at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. My drive to school looped over the hills of Oakland to stunning vistas of the whole Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, but I spent too much of that drive worrying.

Exactly one year ago yesterday I got the phone call I thought might ruin my life and my whole calling to the ministry. We'd planned most of the year to go to Chicago; Ben would ask to transfer his engineering job and I would get a call and finally - after nine years of trying - we'd both have jobs in the same place.

On February 20 I found out that I had been assigned instead to Region 3: Minnesota and the Dakotas. I prayed about it, decided God was pulling me back to the Twin Cities, to family and friends, and I waited to hear more. Ben fretted about the lack of engineering opportunities there, but we figured it was God's will.

A few days later, one year ago yesterday, I got a phone call from the Region Coordinator who popped my bubble. He didn't know me, didn't care about Ben's career needs, said I was heading to rural Minnesota and I'd better pack my long underwear (in so many words).

After nearly four years of thinking I was specially called, a full ride scholarship to seminary from the ELCA, great relationships at Luther, an incredible internship in Las Vegas at one of the ELCA's most innovative and exciting congregations, I was resigned to being a number. A notch in a line. It didn't matter. I had my marching orders.

On the outside I was all positivity, prayer, and action. I contacted everyone I knew who could possibly help, made tons of phone calls, did what I could to be switched into Chicago or Minneapolis.

Inside I was worried. Did I mishear God's call? Had He called after all? Should I have kept writing about sports? I knew I was good at that. Called even, maybe.

Day after day I took Jake to play groups, went to seminary classes, walked through the beautiful woods, and my mind was mostly swirling about calls, or the lack thereof. I was obsessed with watching my phone for new updates.

A week or two later, everything somehow got worked out. The Chicago Synod agreed to put me up for calls, as did Minneapolis. I'd gone from no metro area at all to the opportunity of two amazing locations. It was still no guarantee. Competition was stiff. One church in Chicago I'd thought God was calling me to wasn't the place after all.

A day later, Ron Branstrom, the chair of the Call Committee at St. Philip Lutheran Church in Glenview, IL, gave me a call. My process went from slow to hyper-speed. We were planning a Skype interview, a trip to Chicago, looking at houses.

Now, a year later, we have just moved into our first place. We bought a townhome near the church and after a long wait, it's finally ready.

When I look back at everything that happened, I feel like it sounds like one of those trite success stories. Like, well everything looked like it wouldn't work out but it just sort of fell into place. And here I am! Trial, no trial. It was all easy as pie (yeah, right).

I have plenty of new things to worry about now. Don't we always?

But as I sat at my new kitchen table yesterday afternoon looking out the window at a beautiful winter sunset, my toddler sitting grinning next to me, too big for the high chair and in a big boy booster seat, I realized that I didn't want these sunsets to be like the California Starbucks and the California walks and the California drive to class.

I want to be more present. In the moment. Doesn't mean I won't worry, because worry produces action, and sometimes God calls us to act to follow God's call.

But I want to soak in all the beauty of life fully. The crisp air. Jake's laugh. The family I dreamt of that is now here, beginning with the deep love and trust that started nine years ago on an old wooden basketball court in Columbia, Missouri.

Future worries will always rush in like a vacuum to fill in any empty space of life. The Comcast hold time; the wait at the post office, that slow computer, daily tasks and new challenges.

But sometimes Jesus went into the wilderness to pray. He was present, right there, with his Father, and his soul was renewed even unto the cross.

This Lent, as Easter approaches and the shadow of the cross momentarily envelops us all, I pray that I may soak in my wilderness. Embrace it. Let it cover me for a moment and be there, with my Father, with my husband, with my son, and with my church.

May you find your Lenten wilderness this spring, and may you pause there in the midst of worries and doubts, being with your Father, your loved ones, and your community of Christ, wherever and whatever that might be. Soak in your life. I'll try to, too.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ride It

Every single day - from the moment I wake up to the moment I go to bed - I receive all sorts of messages about Who I Am.

You do, too.

I wake up, wash my face, wonder where the Photoshop blur tool is for my bathroom mirror and those mysterious whiteheads that appeared overnight, and from my reflection cross-referenced with beauty magazines, TV shows, and the ideals of female beauty, I find out Who I Am - the sum of body parts and beauty products and a mysterious quotient of constantly varying attractiveness.

I hear my 17-month-old son babbling and banging on his crib, so I run into the room and sweep him out of his bed like a BLAST OFF! and in the delight in his eyes and the genuine toddler smile I find out Who I Am. I am Mom. I am trusted, loved, a source of deep joy and comfort.

We finally leave the house for child care and work (church), and on the way the motorist next to me who was tailing my back end gives me the stare down. I am That Annoying Car he couldn't pass. An object in the way of his destination. I account for him much the same lack of worth. We are all vehicle robots in our cars, invincible behind bravado of steel and rubber, capable of anger and impatience we rarely display face-to-face.

In church, at Bible Study, I am Pastor. We share together and learn from one another and laugh, and I try to facilitate rather than dominate. A member of the group, an auburn-haired Irish dynamo who gave testimony earlier in the morning to the service work she'd recently done and why it showed her faith in Jesus in Action, turns to me at the end and says "I'm your biggest fan!" and I'm humbled by the trust she has given me to be her Pastor, to open her heart to my ministry and all its imperfections, so that together we might experience the leading of the Spirit to grow as a community dedicated to the Gospel and mission of Jesus Christ.

An hour later, at church, in a meeting I've been nervous about for weeks, I am Pastor, but I am also a Threat because I am new and I mean change. There is palpable anxiety in the room and it makes me anxious, too. The worship service I planned so carefully, making pains to edit the whole service around the Bible texts for the day and the Sermon Series we're studying, has come across to one person as about Me, rather than the Bible. There is a rapid fire volley of questions that catches me off-guard. I Am Untrusted, Untrustworthy, an Insufficient and Imperfect Vessel of the Gospel.

For the rest of the day I get more and more messages about myself, on Facebook, from friends, from my husband, Ben, whose love I could never fully grasp or deserve or honor, but that I am so blessed by God to receive, my son's face again at pick-up time, the joy, the pure joy, as he bounds out of the room as soon as he sees me, moving as fast as a 17-month-old on wobbly legs and a grinning, bobbing head can go.

In the back of my mind, though, only one message dominates - really from one person - but as a Pastor the comments swell into a narrative about Who I Am and what God is up to here. I am not Trusted and I never will be. The efforts I make for Jesus are twisted and made into evil plots that I could never foresee but once exposed threaten to blacken the very core of the ministry I've been called into with trembling hands and a shaky voice hoping only for the Spirit and coming face to face again with myself.

Confession, Forgiveness, Grace, Freedom - the joyous verses of the Bible collapse in the face of ignominious defeat by my own inability to define Who I Am and my frailty in the face of intentions for worship filled with Jesus so unhappily and torturously received. 

I forget the love, the support, the incredible community that surrounds and hear only that one voice. Not the voice of the meeting but instead my own voice, colored by Evil and the Devil, taking its foothold and laughing its terrible laugh: "I told you it wasn't real. The happiness, the Gospel. I told you that they were all lies. It's all an illusion except for the darkness."

And I hate that this is true, but sometimes despite all the talk about Jesus and the Resurrection and Letting Go and Letting God, the voice of the Devil is loudest of all. I focus on one negative thing and it swells to a cacophony that can only end in nihilism or despair.

Do you do this? Listen only to that one thing, that one voice that tells you: You Suck.

But I've, we've, left out a voice. I've left out a messenger. The one voice that gives me the only identity that truly matters, the voice that told me Who I Am in May 1985 on the day of my baptism and marked me with the cross of Christ and sealed me with the Holy Spirit forever.

God speaks. 

In the midst of a day where voices compete to tell me my identity and why I don't really matter after all, a still small voice in the wilderness comes to me in prayer and tells me I am loved, I am His child, I have been called by Him to spread His Gospel and His plan will come to fruition whether I always actively realize it or not. It is His narrative that prevails. Jesus rose again, and the Devil's lies are always fleeting.

Sometimes God speaks unexpectedly.

I heard His voice as I pulled up to church yesterday morning, anxious about the impending meeting and what might ensue. A few minutes before I pulled in the theme to Chariots of Fire came up, bursting out of the car's speakers. I used to listen to these straining chords as I ran outside, pushing myself each straining step to hmm, hm, hm, hm, hmmmm, hmmm, hmm hm, hm, hm, hmmmmm ... Inspiring, beautiful.

And I said God, why this song, right now? I never run anymore. I'm out of shape. I'm pulling up to this church full of anxiety and fear and I don't know what's going to happen and I'm trying to laugh it off and play it down and pretend like I don't care about this place with every single depth and core of my being, on the outside keeping cool and holding back and on the inside full-on in, 100 percent, trying to imitate Christ even though it's never quite right.

God said: "I'm giving you a Chariot so you damn well better ride it."

I swear. Those exact words. I know it's odd that God would use the word (damn), but I've listened over and over again and He keeps saying it that way. God knows I spent years in hockey and football lockerrooms, raised in the curse words and rough 'n' tumble truths of gritty sport. God knows He has to get my attention, to speak over the din of lies and the devil who spins comments into narratives of defeat.

"I'm giving you a Chariot so you damn well better ride it."

It was the perfect line because as Satan's lies tried to dominate, God's Truth kept crashing in. I'm giving you a Chariot! Ride it! You don't have to drive, don't have to strategize cutting that guy off and turning here and weaving in and out ... just Ride It! Follow me. I've given you this place and this dream and these golden people who follow me and I'm giving you a Chariot so Ride It!

It was a reminder of Who I Am. I am loved, I am called.

I am not sent into this world without a map, low on gas, riding close to the ground in a dilapidated Chevy where the brakes don't work and my seatbelt won't stick. 

I'm giving you a Chariot so you damn well better ride it.

God's telling me, he's telling you: I've given you a Chariot. Get in, go along for the ride. Witness! Preach!

And maybe sometimes your chariot's a little rusty. Chipped paint, fading cloth seats and pews. Pipes that clog and toilets that won't flush. Doors that won't lock and lights that burn out. Maybe you have to clear away the dust and the cobwebs to reach the chariot God's giving you. 

But it's there. So we damn well better ride it.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why

I'm one of those people who always has to know the REASON for everything. Maybe that's why I became a pastor. I needed an overarching understanding ... and I found instead the person of Jesus Christ.

But we'll get to that. We'll start instead with Why. Why a blog. Why an Overwhelming Jesus.

Six years ago a blog nearly dominated my life. It was called the NDN 'Blades Blog, and it was a huge bulk of my job as a sportswriter for the Naples Daily News in Naples, FL. Actually there was a group of about 20 people or so who called themselves the "Blades Bloggers." They commented incessantly, scrutinized every post, even had unofficial get-togethers. It was actually kind of fun.

Then I left hockey for the ministry. Spent three years studying and one year as an intern pastor in Las Vegas. People would always ask: hey are you going to write a blog?

Writing a blog was easy when it was my job. And when 90 percent of entries dealt with fights or trades or goals. But personal blogs were different. They were for taking daily photos or talking about kids. It seemed narcissistic or egotistical or too navel-gazing for me.

Then I was called as Pastor to St. Philip Lutheran Church in Glenview, IL outside Chicago in September 2013. It's a small but vibrant church bustling with activity, and we're in the midst of finding our way forward in a changing community and a changing world.

God is doing something here. Through some painful times - losing their previous pastor in a minor scandal before I came, and losing our music director and parish administrator just months after I arrived - God seems to be at work, with some new staff members and a buzzing energy of sorts running through Sunday worship and our twice-daily AA meetings and our meal kitchen on Tuesday nights.

But we're all caught by fear. This Pastor included. Fear that the various contingencies of the church: the organ contingency, the praise music contingency, the outreach contingency, the party contingency -- fear I will not hold everyone together and the seams might split.

We have new people coming in our doors - even telling us they want to join the church - and I find myself sometimes holding my breath too much. We're afraid, maybe of that classic scenario at a small church that I myself know all too well. The new person walks in and everyone rushes up: JOIN OUR SMALL GROUP! COME TO OUR PARTY! VOLUNTEER! GIVE US MONEY! SAVE US!!!

We don't do that here. But as we - as I - stand on the precipice of God doing something New here, there's that caution. Do too much. Do too little. Don't overwhelm anyone. Don't scare them off. Don't lose them.

I think that maybe for decades churches, especially mainline, especially many Lutheran, churches, have operated more under fear than faith. That pastors - this pastor included - have operated too much on fear rather than faith.

We've overwhelmed people because we've led with ourselves. Hey, look what our church does. Look what we do! Aren't we awesome? Check out our radical new pastor and her cute little baby. Watch out, he may scream in your ear ...

But overwhelming in itself is not a bad thing. That's why I called this blog Overwhelming Jesus. Not because we're about to overwhelm Jesus - but because Jesus is Overwhelming.

For too many years we - as the church generally and as people who follow Jesus particularly - we've been too quiet about this terrible, incredible, amazing, astounding, revolutionary, irrational secret of the Gospel. We've held it too tightly, keeping it a caterpillar encased in our cocoon of churchy language and private events and theology and liturgy and cliques and ethnicity and culture and potlucks. We haven't always told the full truth about what following Jesus really means.

It's overwhelming. Jesus is overwhelming. If he's not, he's not Jesus.

I think - tell me if I'm wrong here - that people who walk into a church now don't want an overwhelming church but they DO want an overwhelming Savior.

I do. I want God's incredible forgiving love and grace to take my breath away as even the darkest, most broken parts of my life are redeemed by God's justice and God's forgiveness.

Only an overwhelming Savior could hit us where it counts. Could make us get up on Sunday morning and drag into church for the life-giving Word of God and Bread of Life.

Because we could get everything else someplace else. Want friends? Join a MeetUp group. Go to the Community Center.

Want learning? Take an online college course or peruse the community college booklets. Go to the library.

Want service? Local food banks, kitchens, Red Cross, hospitals: they're all desperate for volunteers to help do God's work.

But want hope? Real hope?
Want Faith? Real Faith?
Want Love? Real Love?

You can find God's match for you on ChristianMingle, but I believe only in community - we'll call it church - with fellow believers, studying the Bible and worshiping God together - will we know the love of God that makes romantic love here on earth possible.

In a 21st Century full of beautiful distractions and lovely innovations, only an Overwhelming Jesus - a God proclaimed in full color, a God of incredible grace for ALL and incredible rage against injustice, a God who climbs mountains and enters cities under siege and answers the desperate prayers of men and women in need all over the world - only that Overwhelming Jesus, that Overwhelming Savior, will matter in the face of chemo, of heroin addiction, of chronic unemployment and devastating depression.

See Jesus is, Jesus was, and Jesus always will be Overwhelming. Peter knew it during the Transfiguration. Saul knew it on the Road to Damascus when he became Paul. Martin Luther knew it when he tacked the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg and sparked a revolution.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew it when he challenged the Evangelical Church in Germany and plotted against Adolf Hitler, only to lose his life.

MLK, Jr. and Nelson Mandela knew it when they used their FAITH to confront racism, segregation, and apartheid - speaking the Overwhelming Word of God against nations who claimed God's Word only for white people.

A quiet priest, carrying out a mass a few months ago in a bombed out shell of a sanctuary in Peshawar, Pakistan, knew it, and so he gave Jesus' body and blood in the eternal hope that an Overwhelming Savior would overwhelm even religious hatred.

And I know it, today, that in order for something amazing to happen here in America and our churches to be reborn - for God to keep working at St. Philip and bringing us everlasting new life - sometimes I have to get out of the way. Stop worrying and fearing and, hey maybe write it all down in a blog.

When Jesus is Overwhelming, Nothing Else Is.

I hope you join me on this blogging journey. I think God might just be teaching us something together, or saving our lives.