working out what life and call and prayer and silence are all about

to the anonymous bully

I’m thinking of you today, anonymous bully. You’ve hurt people I love, the young people I’m called to support and encourage as they grow and develop and mature into the amazing adults they’re called to be. You’ve posted things online that aren’t true, or maybe are true, but are hurtful, things you would never have the courage to say to their face. And that makes me angry.

I want to know who you are. I want to confront you, to accuse you, to find out why you did this. It’s so frustrating not being able to track you down.

But bully, it’s probably good that you’re anonymous, because knowing your name would make it too easy. We like for problems to have simple solutions. We like for evil to have a face, because then we can focus on just one person, or even one group of people, and place all the blame on them. And after we’ve blamed and shamed and punished and found our retribution, we go home and sit in our self-righteous recliners and pretend that we’re not still tangled up in the problem. We kick back and relax because there’s no need for further investigation into all the complicated forces at work in the world and in our lives. There’s no way that any of our actions, any of our inaction contributed to the problem. Because we know evil’s name.

So it’s good that you’re anonymous, because we can’t just blame you. We have to acknowledge that we all could be you. And in fact, we’ve all probably been you at some time – lashing out in anger because we’re hurting, not thinking of the consequences. And so your anonymity makes us all stop and think about our own responsibility to the community. What ways have we hurt people that we need to apologize for and ask for forgiveness? When have we turned a blind eye when we’ve seen someone hurting and not responded? How have we worked to build up the community by encouraging someone who’s down, supporting someone in need, helping someone who’s struggling?

But what if you weren’t anonymous? What if I found out who you are? What would I do, really, if I could sit down with you? I think I’d look compassionately into your pained eyes, and put my hand on your shoulder as I asked how you’re hurting. What wounds are you carrying that make you lash out at everyone else? What pain is making you view the world with such judgment and venom? I’d want to listen as you shared, as the stories poured out of you about how you’d been bullied and degraded and ridiculed. And I’d want to give you a word of hope – that you’re not alone, that you’re not as worthless as you feel, that you’re valued as a part of this community.

I’d pray for you, right then and there. Not because I believe that you need me to put in a good word for you with God, but because you need to hear that God is as close as your very breath. And I’d pray that you would have the strength to make changes in your life, and the courage to reach out to the people you’ve hurt and make amends. I’d pray for the community we share here, that we would all have the compassion to forgive you, and the faith that enables us to work together, bullies and victims, to build new relationships based on our value and worth in Jesus’ eyes. I’d pray for that because I know we can’t do it without the power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us.

I’m thinking of you today, anonymous bully, knowing that you and I aren’t so different. We’re both beloved children of God. We’re both human and make mistakes. And we’re both part of this community. Let’s work together to build it up.

I never got around to framing the photos from my ordination. I had grand intentions of making enlargements of the photos of me with my home pastor, the laying on of hands, and the huge group of pastors who were present. But life got busy after that exciting day and there never seemed to be time for making a fuss over pictures. Except for one.

picture of friends at my ordination

picture of friends at my ordination

I found this frame and knew instantly that I would use it to display this photo of my friends. These are the women who encouraged me through the low points of seminary and who built me up to believe that I was gifted and called into ministry. They are all still my friends though we’re scattered across the country, and we continue to encourage each other across the miles. Because that has made all the difference.

Encouraging each other takes actually very little effort. When you ask people what helped them through a tough time, it’s usually not that a friend took over the running of their household and raising of their kids for a month so that they could sort out the challenge (although I’ve heard of that actually happening.) It’s usually just that someone called to see how they were doing, or that someone invited them to lunch, or that someone listened long enough to hear the whole story.

Encouragement is simple and profound. It gets us through the day. And for those of us who ask WWJD? (what would Jesus do?) it’s one of the first answers. Jesus was in the hope business, and encouragement was his specialty. And his disciple Paul, it turns out, gave instructions to new congregations of Christians that always included the admonition to encourage one another, like the verse on my picture frame.

Earlier this week I was having a bad day. Technology was throwing up roadblock after roadblock and nothing I was trying to do was working. So I decided to go out for a run. Starting a run in a bad mood is usually counterproductive for me, but I had to do something to work out my frustrations, so I headed out on my warm-up walk. And just as I turned the corner where I start my run, I saw these friends:

cows who live on the ranch across the street

cows who live on the ranch across the street

They live on the ranch across the street from my neighborhood, and I see them from a distance most every day. They graze from pasture to pasture and usually aren’t very interested in the humans going about their lives on the other side of the road. But on this day, they were congregating around the fence, and seemingly very concerned with my day. Their heads all turned toward me as I walked past, and they rearranged themselves to face me. I got a couple of “moos” as well, which just added to the experience.

If you grew up around cows, this may mean nothing to you. But I needed encouragement that day, and these cows were it. They were there to send me off in my frustration and were there waiting for me to return transformed. No words were exchanged, no grand gestures were made. But only the gift of presence, and the reminder that I am part of a grander scheme of creation and connected with life in so many forms around me.

My girlfriends weren’t there to encourage me, but God’s creatures were. And as I ran, I remembered that encouragement is all around, in the life force surging through nature, in the faces of friends and neighbors, in the very act of breathing and moving and growing stronger. The Spirit is our encourager, ever present, ever hopeful, ever bringing life.

If you need encouragement today, let this be it: that the God who created heaven and earth also created you, and has promised to be with you through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God.

slacker

I was determined to have a real workout. I was out of town for a meeting and my travel schedule was interrupting my training schedule. In order to stay on track and be prepared for my half marathon that was 2 months away, I knew I needed to go for a run. And it couldn’t be just any run. It had to be a good run, a hard run, a challenging run. And so I headed out the door, hoping to find good weather and a safe route for this important workout.

forest 2

Shortly into my run, I came upon a gated park. The path looked inviting, leading off into the Ponderosa Pine forest, and the sign saying “Residents and Guests Only” made me want to discover what was behind the barrier even more. And so I took the path. It was a great start to my run – semi-paved and shaded by the trees, it led me to increase my pace and enter into that intense workout zone. I was cruising along when all of a sudden I was confronted by a hill. No, actually, it was a small mountain that rose up in the forest and taunted me from a distance. I judged its distance and incline and determined to keep running so that I could still get in a good training run.

I began to suck wind 2 minutes into my ascent. This was a serious hill with a serious incline and definitely not a place for a long distance training run. I needed to keep running. I needed to get a good run in during this trip or my whole training schedule would be thrown off. I needed to log these miles so I would be prepared for the miles of my race. But there was no way I could keep running up this hill. I was gasping for air, my hamstrings were screaming, and I was starting to get dizzy. So I stopped running.

Feeling defeated, I walked as fast as I could. Hiked, actually, as I was now on a dirt/rock path and was trying desperately to avoid twisting my ankle on the boulders. And the whole time, I was cursing this stupid path I decided to take. Private park? Nothing special here except a ridiculously steep hill. Training schedule? Shattered because I couldn’t run at the pace I needed to run. This crazy hill had ruined my workout and my day. All of those thoughts ran through my mind as I continued to climb and hope desperately that around the next bend would be the flat, beautiful part of the path that would redeem my run.

When all of a sudden I looked up. My eyes shifted from scanning the path for boulders to the view above the trees. And I was blown away. There beside me was a panoramic view of the valley – the homes in the neighborhood, the school at the corner, the fields of sunflowers across the street that faded into the base of the mountain peaks that rose up beyond the clouds. I could see for miles, and it was glorious.

I slowed my pace then. I didn’t care that I was missing out on an intense workout, because I was experiencing the intensity of the beauty around me. I had been so focused on my goal that I almost missed the opportunity that rose in front of me. And I had to laugh at myself. My workout was no longer the most important accomplishment of the day – what I valued more was being in the moment, being present to the beauty of the world around me.

I had been so angry about having to slack off my pace to climb the hill that I failed to see that the hill was leading me to a beautiful place. And I realized that I would have missed it entirely if I hadn’t been a slacker.

I get caught up in my regular life, too. I get focused on a goal and feel pressure to meet expectations from within and from those around me. But more often than not, the antidote to that hyper-focus and pressure is slacking off, taking a deep breath, and looking around. Because that’s where the Spirit is at work, swirling around me in creative bursts of energy and life, drawing me into new possibilities.

I’m grateful for that hill. I’m grateful I was forced to be a slacker. And I’m grateful for the chance to notice all the ways the Spirit is creating and renewing and completing life around and within me.

lifted up

Binge-watching is evil. There may be a scientific, physical explanation for why I can’t stop watching episode after episode, but it mostly feels like I have an emotional disorder. I cannot walk away from a TV series after a cliffhanger or a new plot twist has piqued my interest for just one more episode. And so I stay up late. Way too late. Way, way too late for someone who has to get up early and have enough energy to coax a 9-year-old boy out of bed early, too.

So this morning started slowly for me. Foggy, in fact. And I’m not a caffeine consumer, so I was dragging by the time 10:00 chapel rolled around. Gratefully, I wasn’t the preacher today. And so I settled in to my chair on the aisle and prayed for energy to face the rest of my day.

But it wasn’t a day to settle in – it was a day to stand up and praise. The Chapel Band was leading us in worship and they were on top of their game. There were 3 guitars and a bass player, 4 vocalists, a pianist and a percussionist. They filled the front corner of chapel with their presence and filled the entire space with their sound and their energy. The variations in the verses, the lead guitar improvs in between, and the stylistic flourishes that emphasized certain lyrics all combined in a mass of praise and creativity and joy.

chapel band

And they lifted me up. Watching them play together – not just play instruments, but really play, having fun together – it lifted me out of my haze. Their swaying, their grooving, their giving it their all moved me to a higher place and enabled me to gather strength for the day ahead. It reminded me of the fun I had as a music major in college, singing with my roommates while we put on makeup in the mornings, making up harmonies just to try out a different sound. But it also reminded me of the great pleasure God takes when we use our gifts to lift others up.

I felt the presence of the Holy today in chapel, not because I was particularly attuned or prepared, but because of the collaboration of our student musicians who may not even know how valuable their gifts are. But I’m here to say that we couldn’t worship without them, and I, for one, couldn’t have gotten through my morning without them.

Thanks be to God for the opportunity to use our gifts to lift one another up.

living day – to – day

I don’t know about where you are, but around here, we’re all exhausted.

It’s the end of the first week of classes at TLU, and everyone is frazzled. This makes me happy. Why? Because I don’t feel so bad about being frazzled myself. Everything is new for me – the names of the buildings, the code names for the groups on campus, the names and faces of students, faculty, and staff, and this week, especially, the pace of life on campus. And taking in all this newness is wearing me out. It’s been all I can do to show up to events on time, in the right place, and with whatever presentation or sermon already thought out.

It’s not like I’m some incredibly prepared person on a regular basis. Since becoming a mom, and a single mom at that, I regularly find myself in procrastination mode, throwing events together at the last minute, finishing a sermon just before putting on my alb to lead worship. And as a former perfectionist, I’ve come to terms with that reality. But the last couple of weeks have been worse than usual. Each morning I wake up and check the calendar: what am I supposed to lead today? And each night I fall into bed thinking “I hope there’s not something huge happening tomorrow morning that I should have planned for.” All I can do is whatever I’m supposed to do today. Like Scarlett O’Hara, I can’t think about all I’ll have to do later on. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.

But in the midst of my panicky planning for the presentation I’m giving in 1 hour, a beautiful thing has happened: I’ve been living in the moment. Everything I’ve been doing is for right now. All of my conversations are about what’s going on today, what’s happening next. And in focusing my attention and heart and brain power on what’s right in front of me, my anxiety level has dropped. I’ve realized that all I can do is what I’m doing, and so my focus has been extra-sharp. I’ve eased up on trying to make everything spectacular, and so my fear of failure has been replaced with joy in the moment. I’ve been dependent on others to accomplish each project, and so I’m filled with gratitude for the student leaders and faculty and staff who are helping me along.

Being present in the moment wasn’t my goal. Getting through a crazy schedule of events was my goal. But instead of trying to seize control of every detail and manipulate every outcome, I just let go and trusted that the Spirit would work through whatever effort I had to give. And that letting go and being present has made all the difference.

rainbow in New Braunfels, TX

rainbow in New Braunfels, TX

Driving to yet another campus event last night, I pulled out of my driveway only to discover a beautiful rainbow in front of me. I could have missed it if my mind had been working out curriculum for next Wednesday’s Grace Place Bible study or my next sermon for Sunday night worship. But I wasn’t. I was there, enjoying a moment in the car with my son, and noticing a small rainbow in the sky. I’m glad I didn’t miss it, because rainbows are one more reminder that God is ever present in our world, in each and every moment.

Praying for all of us, that we can live in the present moment, and participate in God’s gracious action in the world.

 

finding home

Yesterday was my opportunity to introduce myself to the faculty and staff of Texas Lutheran University. As the Campus Pastor, it was my responsibility and privilege to offer an opening devotion at the annual State of the University gathering at which the President and other cabinet members speak about the health and growth and stability of the institution. To set the tone for this gathering, I invited everyone to join me in singing “Home on the Range.”

by William C. Matthews www.singingcowboy.com

by William C. Matthews
http://www.singingcowboy.com

Right. That’s what they were thinking, too – whatever it is you’re thinking. Some joined in with gusto, laughing at the juxtaposition of “serious devotion to start our year” and “cheesy, slightly sentimental song of our nation’s past.” Others sang, but weren’t so sure what the point was, and how this might help them get in the right frame of mind to empower young adults to “learn boldly & live to inspire.” And still others sat there not participating, thinking “we chose this woman to be pastor, why?”

It got better from there. I talked a bit about how the song refers to getting out to the places we call home, where we can find rest and comfort. And so we had an audience-participation segment where they yelled out the places they had traveled this summer to find that sense of home. People were eager to share that they had spent time in Paris, or Cheboygan (which Spell-check doesn’t know is an actual place in Michigan,) or the beach, or, because this is Texas, the barn.

But then we transitioned to thinking of our internal life as a place of refuge, that to find home we need only turn to the silence of our hearts where our Creator resides and is waiting to welcome us. The time we spent in silence together was golden. The entire staff and faculty of TLU sat in the auditorium inhaling the life-giving Spirit and exhaling the stress and anxiety of beginning a new term. For just a few moments, we were united in the silence, we were unified in our seeking, we were together at home.

I’m so grateful for that moment. Because in the midst of my moving and unpacking and registering and licensing and signing up in this new place, I was feeling like I had no “home.” Everything still feels new. Everywhere I go, I’m getting used to a new procedure or a new arrangement. There’s no place where it’s comfortable, where I can relax, where it feels like “home.” Even my house that’s filled with all of my same stuff, doesn’t yet feel like home. Because it takes a while. It’s just a fact – it takes a while for a new house to feel like home.

our new townhouse in New Braunfels, TX

our new townhouse in New Braunfels, TX

And so I needed that silence yesterday. I needed the reminder of my own devotion presentation, that while I am in this transition, while I am waiting for my space to feel like a refuge, I can find home within. The Creator of all things is also the Creator of me, and I am awed by the mystery that the Creator makes a home within me. When I take a moment to listen to my breath, there I discover the Spirit of the Holy. When I find time to pause before giving a presentation and open my heart for guidance, there I discover the Voice of the Holy. When I begin my day in my prayer corner, even though it’s in a new place and my candle doesn’t fit where it used to, still there I discover the Comforting Presence of the Holy.

Home is a gift given in the silence. No matter where we are. No matter how we feel. No matter who is with us or who has left us. Home is here, in the ever-expanding love of the Creator planted in each of us.

Kara Joy Stewart:

A helpful perspective on the tragedy on MO and how we might talk about it together with young adults.

Originally posted on Episcopal Young Adult and Campus Ministries:

Michael Brown’s story is on our minds this week. Michael was about to begin college classes. He died at 18.

Young Adults and College Students across our country are asking big questions about Michael’s death. As with any death, the answers aren’t easy to come by. The best grief work is often done not by finding concrete answers but by sharing stories. The best eulogies help us catch a glimpse of someone’s life.

Though we lived in the same city, unfortunately I didn’t know Michael Brown. I can’t share stories of his life that could make you laugh out loud or thank God for his presence with us. Instead, I am faced with the only story I know of him, the story we are hearing reported of Michael’s encounter with the police on Saturday. So many of the details in that story are unknown, but the story has given rise…

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