Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

God is our refuge and strength...

My top 10 favorite moments of the ROAR 2013 senior high servant trip, where youth from all over NJ helped people still affected by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In no particular order:

1. Even campfire at Cross Roads Camp. Brought back a lot of fun memories.

2. When we were cleaning a street in Ortley Beach, within 20 minutes we had three offers of cold water from the neighbors, plus the lady who's yard we were weeding cut up some watermelon for us - best watermelon I ever tasted! This woman was 85 years old and had been living with one of her nieces for the last 6 months after Sandy. She said that after Sandy, she couldn't function, couldn't write her own name. Her sister, with whom she had lived in that house, completely shut down and stopped talking to anyone to this day, and now lives in a nursing home. But she was so glad to see us, and so glad for the help.

3. One night at the church we were staying at there was a meeting that wanted to meet in the church where it was cool (that week the temps were in the upper 90s!), so we had evening worship in the lounge where we ate. While singing "Trouble won't go," some of the kids really got into it, and kept the beat (gently-ish) on the tables... it sounded awesome! Gave me goosebumps.

4. Seeing the giant bucket-brigade-like line the kids created to unload loads of food at the PERC shelter in Union City. We boxed up enough food to feed 340 people. And our youth got to hear the "homeless homeless" story from one of the staff who was there the night it happened

(The "homeless homeless" story, in case you haven't heard it from me before, is about the night after Sandy hit Union City area, and one homeless shelter in one part of the city, in order to make room for the displaced people with damaged homes, put 90+ homeless people on a bus and dropped them off in front of PERC, which was already full. No warning or anything. They found room by clearing their dining area. We also learned that this happens on a smaller scale all the time - people just released from prison or the hospital are often given a free taxi ride directly to PERC.)

5. Debbie leading yoga for us in the evening at the YMCA - relaxing and rejuvenating!

6. Communion at our closing worship - seeing everyone gathered around the alter in one big circle!

7. Being at the beach in Point Pleasant and seeing a rainbow. And then driving just a little way down the road, toward Mantoloking, where you can still see piles that once were houses. Mind-blowing.

8. Helping St. Barbara's Orthodox Church in Tom's River prepare for Camp Noah... getting two entire rooms painted and gift kits sorted. The kids worked so hard, even on the last day. And getting to see their awesome sanctuary. It's huge and completely covered in beautiful icons. Just gorgeous.

9. Helping out Covenant Church in West Long Branch get ready to host volunteers - we made them look beautiful by weeding, and set up some cots (which are super comfortable, being the good helpers we are we tested them out a bit...) and learning about the congregation. The picture from my last post was taken there. One of my youth had the idea, and I took the pic with her phone. Neat, huh?

10. Getting to meet the pastors of St. Thomas in Brick where we stayed... a clergy couple! They were wonderful. And the church was great - most rooms had AC!!!

Many other things happened, but those were definitely the highlights. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers this week, it was big success!!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

#ROARNJ 3013

God's Work, Our Hands

July 14 - 19

Cross Roads Camp, PERC Union City, Brick, Tom's River, and more...

Monday, July 8, 2013

An M.A. in marriage. :)

Six years. That's like getting your B.A. then going on for  your M.A, right? :) Believe me, we are no masters, but I think that we've done pretty well for ourselves making it to 6. Maybe we should think of it more like our marriage can now go to kindergarten!

We celebrated early by spending the 4th holiday in Philly, which was pretty cool beyond cool for these two mid-westerners. We sat outside of Independence Hall and watched the the festivities and dignitaries, which was surprisingly sparsely attended.  My theory is that all the locals stayed home, and the audience was full of non-jaded people like us, tourists or people not from the East Coast. It was fun to be there and see the commemorations, speeches by Mayor Nutter and his wife, and a performance by a marching band from Wisconsin and also Ben Taylor. Then came a parade that was fun - full of performances by cultural and ethnic groups around the city - but it never seemed to end! We had lunch nearby, and when we went back outside, it was still going on!

Later that night we were going to be at the big concert in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art - with the Roots!! and other bands. But it was so hot, and so crowded, and kind of smelled, and it was loud but we couldn't hear anything, so we went back to our cool, quiet hotel room, and watched it on TV. Great sound. Best decision ever.

The next day we went to Love Park - of course.

Last night we watched our wedding video, I think for the third time ever. Though we figured out that the service itself was actually only 50 minutes or so, we still apologize to everyone who was there for not shortening the communion liturgy and prayers! What were we thinking, including ALL the parts of "Now the Feast" in an un-air conditioned church service in July! But we promise, that was the only time we'll ever get married, and we'll never do it again. ;)

We still agree that our reception was the most fun reception we've ever been at, before or since (yes, we are probably biased). My maid of honor's toast was still the best: "...and to top it all off, she's LUTHERAN"! (she was quoting Beau). And yes, he is still my Mr. Darcy.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Left To Our Own Devices

Devotion – Midweek Service – Wed. June 19, 2013
Text: Isaiah 65:1-9

It was raining heavily on highway 78 that day, when my husband and I found ourselves suddenly tailing a slow car in the left hand lane. At first I couldn’t quite tell, but as we pass her my sight confirmed my gut feeling – sure enough, she was texting while driving. HeLLO! I wanted to tell this woman. Didn’t she know that not only was this illegal and dangerous, but also downright rude? Sure, she may have been connecting to a long lost friend or a family member in need, but it was at the expense of the safely of those around her. It was as if the rest of us didn’t exist, or at least didn’t matter enough to warrant her consideration. For her, following her device mattered more.

Now, in Hebrew, the original language for this text, there is no word for smart phones or iPods or laptops, but the beauty of the word of God is that it is alive. Because the biblical scholars who dedicate their lives to this work decided to translate a particular Hebrew phrase a particular way, and because English is a nuanced and ever-changed language, these words written thousands of years can speak to us today.

Humanity has been inattentive to the words of God since the beginning of time, but never before had we so many devices, so many activities, so many plans to distract us before. Summer especially seems to be a time where too many voices vie for our attention, where it is easy to notice that God is calling out and reaching out to us. Because who really needs God when there are beaches to lie on and sports to be played and movies to watch and places to go and people to text?

Understandably, God sounds a little annoyed at getting the brush-off over and over again from the very same people who God saved from slavery in Egypt and set apart as a holy nation. Any parent would feel the same in a similar situation - showing nothing but love to a child who returns nothing but… nothing. It might be tempting to disown such an unresponsive child. But instead, though hurt and frustrated, God shows his children the patience of a gardener.

A friend of mine, avid gardener herself, recently bought a house with her husband, and in the backyard was a patch of what looked like unruly weeds near their compost pile. She had been on her husband’s case about cutting down a small tree in the patch… until just the other day day she noticed small purple berries growing on the tree. It turns out it was a mulberry tree, and she’s been making delicious jam ever since.

A more logical God might have given up on his easily distracted and impatient people. But luckily our God thinks in the future tense. While we only see clusters of grapes, hanging on the vine, a gardener can imagine the wonderful wine that will be the final product. While we may only see a crazy mess of weeds today, God sees what we cannot – that in the mess that we often create for ourselves, God is still calling our name and reaching out a steadying hand.

We may not be fine wine yet – we may yet have a lot of growing to do – but God is going to stick it out with us. God’s not going to stop reaching, and he’s not going to stop calling, day or night, winter or summer. Amen.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Jesus, you are soooo unreasonable.

Sermon, June 30th, 2013

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

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding
In all your ways acknowledge him.
And he will make… your path straight!”

That song is from a Vacation Bible School year, way back when I was young. I don’t remember exactly what the theme was for VBS that year, but I still remember this song. How many of you who’ve been to VBS as a kid still and find yourself occasionally humming a song or two?

Now, I’ve participated in quite a few Vacation Bible school curriculums over the years, and I’ve started to notice a pattern. No matter what the “theme” of the week is, be it rainforest, down on the farm, castles and kings, wild west, beach party, Babylon, or Everywhere Fun Fair, just about every single VBS talks about putting our trust in God. And over the course of a lifetime, hopefully a child will grow up having this message reinforced year after year, so that when life does hand them a tough situation, they may find themselves humming that maddeningly catchy VBS tune from their childhood.

Just last year at this time, we were concluding VBS 2012, singing songs with words like: “The storms of life will push and pull, but we are standing on the Rock that never rolls.” We had no idea that a few short months later we would be facing a real-life storm, the likes of which we had never seen before. We had no idea that some parts of our lives will never quite be the same again.

For a week, or more for some, our lives were on hold. Any plans we had made went out the window when Sandy rolled in. As we waited for the electricity to come back on, we realized that when it got cold outside, we were cold too. We realized that when the sun set at night, it would be dark inside as well as outside. We realized it was harder to get in contact with family and harder to stay connected to the outside world. We realized that without gas and working traffic lights, driving had become very tricky. For a week, we knew full well that we were not in control. And for most of us, that is a very scary feeling, one that we would do anything to avoid feeling every again.

But for some, that feeling of powerlessness could descend at any moment. Your world can change out of the blue, be it from sudden illness, pay cut or job loss, accident, or any other sudden change in plans.

Sometimes, it just takes one tragedy to reveal to us the truth: that we are not in control, no matter how much we think we are. No matter how many precautions we take or backup plans we make, we simply cannot plan for every contingency, and we will drive ourselves crazy with worry if we try. But we still cling so tightly to what little control over our lives that we do have that it’s hard to let go, even when it is Jesus who is asking us to.

Do you remember that face your mom or dad made growing up that told you it would be useless to argue with them? Their mind was made up, end of story, thank you very much. Jesus must have been wearing that kind of look when he decided it was time to get down to business and head for Jerusalem in order to complete the mission that God had given him.

Because of this, the Samaritans in a town on the way wanted nothing to do with Jesus. And so, his disciples, being wonderful examples of loving Christian behavior, turned the other cheek, right? Well, actually…Two of his followers, James and John, were so angry that their rabbi had been insulted that they were ready to wipe this sorry little town right off the map. And they probably weren’t too happy that Jesus wasn’t flattered at their show of devotion. They were probably disappointed that Jesus was actually pretty annoyed, and instead puts the kibosh in their plans for revenge.

No biggy, they’ll just find another town on the next exit along the Jerusalem highway. But along the way, a man recognizes Jesus and is so excited to meet him that he instantly promises to follow Jesus “wherever he goes.” And Jesus turns to him and says, “Yes, that’s the spirit! I like that show of eagerness – come on along with us!”, right? Not exactly… Instead, Jesus responds - not by saying, “poor me, I have no home,” but by revealing that this man may not have completely thought through the implications of such an important decision, and thus might not be ready for the reality of the life of a disciple.
Here, Jesus is saying to the man that following him is not a life of ease and comfort. Discipleship means living a life that the world is uncomfortable with, a life that means you will not find comfort in the ways of the world. If I were this man, I might have responded, “Wow, way to rain on my parade, Jesus.”

The second man they encounter actually gets a personal invitation to follow Jesus – how exciting! Does he drop everything at the chance to follow, like James and John and Peter, and the rest? No, he doesn’t. First he must do what any good and loyal son would do – honor his dead father’s memory. First he must honor his previous commitments, THEN he will be only too glad to follow Jesus.  Is that really too much to ask?

Is it also too much for the third man to ask for just a little down time before his career as a disciple begins, in order to explain himself to his family and say goodbye? Even though, his family may try to talk him out of going - because surely this is too drastic of a change in lifestyle to make, and yes the call DID come from Jesus, but surely this position doesn’t have good pay or adequate benefits, and how will they hear from him to make sure he’s safe and well-fed?

You are right if by now you are thinking that Jesus is being completely unreasonable. After all, we all have commitments to keep and obligations to fulfill. Doesn’t Jesus see that we have convinced ourselves that we are in control of our own lives, that we are the ones who make the plans and sets the schedules? And doesn’t Jesus see that we are ok with that, at least until the next life-shattering event threatens?

Of course Jesus knows that. And he also knows that when we make plans under the yokes of our own desires, the end results are often selfishness, divisions, addictions, suffering, indifference, hate, and fear. The tighter we grasp at control over our lives, the more out-of-control we actually are. Jesus knew all this, and still he submitted himself to humanity’s control. For that is why he had to go to Jerusalem in the first place – to show that there is another way to live.

There is life beyond fear, free from all the reasonable obligations and plans we’ve create for ourselves. Free from the fear that death and suffering are in control of our lives. Free from the burden of thinking that everything depends on us.

Jesus lived that by giving up control over his own life, to show us that our lives are in the hands of God. And Jesus shows us that there is another side, and that Jesus will see us safely there.

That’s what following Jesus means – trusting that he joins us in this adventure that we call life, trusting that we don’t have to have our lives together in order to follow him, trusting that something good is going to come out of all of this.

I’ll admit it – working with children, especially large groups of them, often contains an element of chaos. Sometimes it can be exasperating, but other times I have been pleasantly surprised at how much some kids absorb during one crazy week at VBS. One minute, they might be running around and yelling, and the next, they might be telling one kid not to be mean to another. This just one way God is using us to plow the fields for the Kingdom of God. This is just one way that God is using us to make disciples and change lives. And our lives are being changed in the process. AMEN.