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“Therefore encourage one another. . .”

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.

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.

Responding to the Michael Brown shooting by sharing stories, building trust

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

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.

20140718-083512-30912059.jpg

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20140718-083552-30952717.jpg

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.

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