Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why my balcony garden was not a failure

... even though all I got out of my plants were a few green beans, decent chives, teeny basil, and a misshapen green pepper that I am trying to coax along until it frosts. No tomatoes (from two plants) no cherry tomatoes (two almost ripened, then fell off), and no peas.

And yet, I don't really consider that to be a failure, at least not a complete one.

There were a few things that I couldn't account for - the torrential rains, then baking sun, then torrential rains again. And the July squirrel attack.

A few things I could have done better - I tended to underestimate the pot size needed for most of what I planted. And I didn't fertilize at all when I should have.

Not only was this a learning experience that hopefully will help me next year, but it is also good for our God-given earth. A few weeks ago, we invited a local expert on climate change to speak at our adult forum time on a Sunday morning. She not only spoke about the things that we as a species are doing to mess up our planet, but she also talked about what we can do to help. Even our littlest choices, if made consistently, can at least help slow the damage that we have done.

Living in the suburbs, I have seen first-hand how our lifestyles can wreck havoc on our environment. I have been stuck in rush hour traffic many-a time and thought about all those vehicles with one person inside, and also felt guilty myself, as I drive home from church. Granted, at least I don't have an hour or more commute like many people, but I do my fair share of driving, and thus polluting. In order to get around out here, a car (usually one car per person) is required, because nothing is within easy walking distance of anything else (and frankly I would be terrified to cross most roads around here - much less bike them). We have built our society on convenience and individuality, and I fall into that just as much as the next person.

But I'm trying. I try to bundle as many trips to the same strip mall as I can so that I only have to go there once a week. I pack a meal with containers that I can wash when I have a late night meeting. And I planted a failed garden on my porch that did nothing but take just a little bit of CO2 from the air and replaced it with just a little bit more oxygen.

The earth is God's gift to us. And this is a gift that should not go into the trash.

Psalm 24:1-2 

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
   the world, and those who live in it; 
for he has founded it on the seas,
   and established it on the rivers. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

"If I were a rich man...deedle deedle dee...."

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

What would make you get up and go? To make you get up out of your seat and leave, right now? Or what would make you leave work in the middle of the day, or to immediately scoop up your kids and pack them into the car, or to just get up and walk out of class?

Would you do that for a family emergency? Of course you would. Would you for the chance to meet a really famous person? Hmmm, Maybe?  Or for a really short but awesome sale at your favorite store, or for the chance to get free tickets to your favorite show? What if it was for the chance to see a person who you KNEW was from God and could tell you if you were going to heaven when you died? Would YOU drop everything and see this person? And more importantly, would you leave everything you owned, leave everyone you loved behind, in order to follow him? Not exactly an easy decision, is it?

We’re just past the midpoint in the Gospel of Mark, and Jesus is about to set his sights toward his final destination: Jerusalem, where rejection and death await him. Jesus has been trying to clue in his disciples that this is where he is headed, but so far they haven’t been very quick on the uptake. But Jesus knows what he has to do, and he is going to carry out his mission all the way to its conclusion, no matter what the cost.

So Jesus is about to take the first step toward his death and resurrection … when this rich guy flags them down before they've even left the city limits. A man, probably well dressed, ran up to Jesus, knelt down, and asked about the one thing in his life that he had left to worry about - the one thing that we all have wondered about, at one time or another: he wanted to know about the state of his afterlife. Had he, by his good deeds, in fact, been able to secure his place in eternal life? Inquiring minds want to know, Jesus.

After Jesus quizzed the man about the 10 commandments section of his confirmation exam, the man assured Jesus that he had kept all that since he had been confirmed. He had not stolen or defrauded, killed, or committed adultery; he had honored his parents, gone to church every Sunday, and often left a large check in the offering plate. He may have even been serving on a committee or two.

But in order to go to Jesus, the man must have felt that this was not enough. He might have felt a growing sense, deep in his heart, that there had to be something more to this “eternal life” thing than doing good deeds and avoiding evil ones. Even though this man had done everything right in the eyes of the world by becoming a rich, successful, church-going man, he still felt that something was missing. And he was right.  His abundance had become his lack.

In middle class, suburban America, I would guess that most of us could sympathize with this man’s quest. Most of us do not want for enough food or sufficient shelter, as most of the people of Jesus’ time did. Yes, these recent times have been rough, but I doubt that most of us know what it feels like to have gone hungry for more than a meal or two. For the most part, we’ve made it. Good houses, good cars, good jobs, good vacations. Life is good.

An yet… you have a nagging feeling that this can’t be all there is. Otherwise you would not be here today, in this place, at this time. Life can’t just be about the commutes and the carpools, the endless meetings and tournaments and bills. There has to be more than the endless traffic and long lines at the grocery store. There has to be more than the exhausting cycle of church, work, school, homework, dinner, practice, burping, changing, bedtime… and doing it over and over again, week after week.

We’ve done everything that we feel we’re supposed to do in this life, and yet… has it been enough? Have we been good enough people? Is God pleased with who we are and how our lives have turned out to be? This is what the rich man wondered – has it been enough?

It wasn’t enough for the man who had everything he needed and had done everything “right” in his life. Jesus, though he loved him, demanded something more. And if the life of this man was not enough, then whose life is? If this man did not get the divine stamp of approval, then who can?

The rich man left in despair, grieving for what he could not do on his own, and we will never know what became of him. But we at least have the benefit of hearing what Jesus said to his followers, after these hard words. Jesus did not end his tough teachings on the note of impossibility, to leave us in a place of despair. Instead, he gives us hope: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible.”

For God, all things are possible!

With God, it’s possible for the blind to see and the hungry to be feed and for the demon-possessed to be healed. With God, it’s possible for a poor teacher and healer from the middle of No-Where’s-Ville to be the face that God chooses to show us. With God, it’s possible that his oblivious students would become the mouthpieces of a movement that changed the world. With God, it is possible that thousands of years later and thousands of miles away, people like us can hear the same good news that those disciples preached.

And with God, it is even possible to find new life out of something as impossible as death.

The rich man despaired, because he knew that he couldn’t do it by himself. But he did not know that he wouldn’t be going it alone. He did not trust that all things are possible for God. He did not see what Jesus saw: that he was enough – a created, beloved child of God.

WE trust this God who knows what it’s like to struggle and to suffer. Jesus has felt what it’s like to be homeless and misunderstood, to be tested and mistrusted, to be abandoned and friendless, to be tempted to take the easy way out. Jesus gets it.

And Jesus gets that is a hard thing to ask when he calls us to follow him. He knows that it is a hard thing to follow him every single day of our lives, not just for one hour on Sunday mornings. He knows that it is a hard thing to give up the stuff we cling to, though we know they will just get in the way. He knows that it is a hard thing for us to follow Jesus on HIS terms, not our own.

But what if we really did live as if “for God, all things are possible”? What if we saw that we are part of a new family of faith that God is creating here among us? Take a look around you – see your mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters in this community of faith. Go ahead, take a look. These are your companions in Christ, here to persevere by your side, shoulder your burdens with you, and to do the impossible when we all respond to God’s call.

Responding to this call is not easy. To be here today, you may have had to leave nice warm beds or leisurely Sunday breakfasts or soccer tournaments. A life following Jesus will not be without challenges, but it will not lack in rewards. A follower of Jesus will gain much more than these things back – we will receive eternal life itself. For God, all things are possible. AMEN

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

May God Bless You With Discomfort

WHAT A WEEKEND! I can't remember the last time since I did so much and saw so many people and states in just four days! And, after visiting both my Alma Maters too, I now understand the term. It really felt, in so many ways, that in this trip we were (at least briefly) going back in time, back into the womb, to different formative places from our past.

First: Luther, both first to be visited and most recent Alma. After getting over our shock and jealousy of seeing the new coffee shop, we could not get over the feeling that this place (actually the entire Twin Cities) felt like home. They say that you can't go back, and you really can't, but this is the closest we'll ever come. We only caught a few profs, but it was enough (one even said "ok, give me your elevator speech!" like she knew that we were seeing tons of people for a short time and saying the same thing, basically! Gotta love Mary Sue!) And the bookstore was like a mini-Christmas. We even sat in on a Pentateuch class that one of our friends was taking, and it was like the exact lecture I needed to hear, about the "J" source of all things. Sometimes I miss being a student (but not the homework!)

Being back in the Twin Cities was such a bizarre and somewhat heart-wrenching experience. You never really know how much a place feels like home until you leave it for a while... and then come back. But the very reason that we may want to go back is the very reason that we can't, at least not for a while. More about that later (it was sort of a theme of the trip). The overall feeling I got from being back in Minneapolis was... calm. People there aren't in as big of a rush there. Frankly, I was surprised at how much I missed it.

We stayed with some friends who had gotten back from the peace corps literally WEEKS after we moved to NJ, so it had been at least 3 years since we had seen them. We stayed at their house, helped them with a last harvest of their lovely garden and put it do bed. Did I mention it was freaking freezing in the Midwest? 80 to 49 as the high in the space of a day. Anyway, then we road down to Waverly IA for the wedding with them, the whole time talking nonstop about their years in Burkina Faso, our year in NJ, the weirdness of life and seminary, and why the church frustrates us sometimes.

Waverly.... had grown up. And there is no one left we know as a student on campus, so Beau and I only spend about half an hour wandering around campus (we did find Dr. Mrs. Black!!!). We realized that the specialness of Wartburg, like that of Luther Sem, is that of its people and relationships we build there. Really it is nothing more than some nice buildings - but the memories are the important thing.

The wedding was lovely and the reception fantastic as we literally danced the night away. Again, it was seeing the people we had not seen in 3-4 years that made all the difference.

We had breakfast one morning and later lunch with some past beloved Wartburg profs, which were right there with us as we shared with them the frustration and joys of ministry, but most especially we felt their support as we struggled with the location that God has placed us - that the East Coast is such a different animal than anything we've ever experienced. Even after a year, it's still hard some days. But as we attended St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Waverly on Sunday morning and heard the sermon, you can't go right from wheat to bread. The kernel must be broken open, ground up a bit, stretched with discomfort, and more before it can truly become bread, bread that God can used to feed people.

It is because of this desire to go back to what feels safe and comfortable is the very reason we can't leave yet. And that is a very hard thing.

And there's even more from the weekend. (I never promised that this would be a short post). I was able to reconnect to a camp friend I hadn't seen in 4+ years, and we had one of those deep conversations about life and God and peace, justice, and urban ministry, dissatisfaction with the sometimes rigidity of established religion. I hadn't realized how age-lonely it can be in the church, but it is friends like these who give me hope for the future.

It has been a lot to process, and I'm still processing. But I will end with a benediction from that Sunday, St. Francis Sunday, which is attributed to him:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.