Bread

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We were babysitting our two young grandchildren while their parents went to a wedding.  Rydia, 3 ½, was recovering from a little stomach bug and maximizing the rare privilege of watching endless cartoons.  Link was his usual energetic toddler self, alternating between pestering his sister, begging to be held, and investigating the kitchen drawers.

I tried to get Link to eat something during the supper hour.  He picked at some cereal, drank some water, took tiny sips from an applesauce pouch.  He usually eats enthusiastically, but teething and ear problems have stifled his appetite lately.

I had to take him out of his high chair, because he was throwing food to the two golden retrievers, eager recipients of a forbidden practice in this household.  Little ones are better at paying attention to their bodies than we are, and it is futile to try to force them to eat when it doesn’t appeal to them.  Supper was finished.

Eventually Link wandered over to the bread drawer and opened it.  The clear acrylic lid posed a challenge for him, and he whined for help to open it.  I thought, “Why not?” and got out a slice of bread to see whether it was the food or the challenge itself that interested him.  He took it and began to take little bites.  Interesting; this was out of character.  When pain isn’t interfering, Link will stuff his mouth with whatever food is within reach.

My husband and I go by the old German endearments for grandparents, “Opa” and “Oma.”  Rules are slackened with Oma and Opa around, and I let him take his food over to the leather couch.  I figured plain bread wouldn’t spill or stain.  Rydia was on Opa’s lap by now, so Link took over her spot, testing the feel of the quilts and pillows.  He climbed onto the short, sturdy table nearby, then perched there grinning, bread in hand, king of his domain.  I lingered nearby gathering crumbs, troubleshooting.

Link ate his bread politely, grabbing his water at intervals with the spastic movements of a 16-month-old.  At one point he laid his half slice down, and it was gone!  Sabin (the dog) snatched it in one bite.  But Link didn’t even cry.  I got him another slice and he ate it at the same leisurely pace.  His sister played the part of sibling, requesting a helping equal to her brother.  And they both dined as though at a picnic, simple fare made delicious by eating it in the outdoors, only this time it was in their living room with their grandparents.

When they heard that the children had eaten bread from the drawer, our son Kyle and his wife Janessa were puzzled.  They didn’t know there was any bread in the house.  They couldn’t remember buying any for weeks and weeks.  They surmised that the preservatives in the bread kept it edible for the children after weeks of neglect.  And it was.  I checked; it was just fine.

Simple sustenance, forgotten.

I remember how demanding it was to raise young children.  Sometimes I wondered if there was enough of me to get us through the day.   But there was always more in reserve than I realized.   Our children can uncover nourishment in us that we didn’t know was there.  There is more to us than we think is possible—more energy, more creativity, more grit.  Our children can feed off us day after day, and it is enough.

Elephantine Grace

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“Who is this who even forgives sins?”  And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”  (Lk 7.49b-50)

I know that this weekend is filled with tension for Reformed Church people.  How will our delegates speak to the issues at hand?  Will they be the church, allowing the grace of Christ to unite us, or will  disagreements tear us apart?

Well, how does the church behave when tensions threaten to undo us?  Maybe a story of a pastor’s blunder will give a little hope.

One summer Sunday morning I had a conversation with one of the leaders of the women’s group.  I’ll call her Joan.  Nothing special about that day, so I was puttering around with the usual tasks, checking the sanctuary and Power Point equipment, making notes for the prayers.  I saw Joan arrive—she was usually among the first because her husband was an usher—and made small talk for a minute before checking with her on a detail about the upcoming youth mission trip.  I had asked whether the women could make sack lunches for the youth trip again, as they did the year before.  Food is something that Lutherans are especially good at, and I assumed the ladies would repeat the favor annually.

Somehow the conversation went south, and I left the office fuming.  I got the impression that the ladies felt put-upon, taken for granted.  My anger simmered for a few days.  I loaded my arsenal with ammunition, and then I fired off an email to the entire women’s executive team.  I had that moment of hesitation before hitting the send key, then self-righteously landed on it.  Hard.

(Note to self:  That small moment before hitting “send” is verrrrry important.  The hesitation is telling you something!)

I can hear the groans.  Yes, this was a low moment in my ministry.  I must have hit myself with a stupid stick, because I had a mess to clean up.

To her credit, the president of the congregation (in this case a woman) called me the next day and set up a meeting with her and the co-chairs of the women’s group two days hence.  And to their credit, they did not yell at me.  They were visibly anxious, however.  “Pastor, you made a lot of people upset with your email.  The women do a lot of things for the youth.  We’ve always loved the youth.  We support their fundraisers.”

I didn’t see it the same way, but it didn’t matter.  The tension of the past week had coiled steadily tighter in my chest, and now it unwound in one torrent of apology and not a few tears.  I was embarrassed.  I was also still angry, but I had to lay it aside.  I had let my anger loose on my keyboard, lashing out and making a case when asking questions and listening would have been a far better strategy.  The congregational president, a wise leader, gently encouraged us to talk about it, forgive one another, and move on.

Though I left with my tail securely tucked in, I found that I was able to move on, mostly.  The church—the people of God—had behaved with maturity.  I had a newfound respect for those three women.  They faced the difficulty instead of sweeping it under the rug where it might cower and reemerge later on.  They made the decision to forgive, and I needed to do the same.

It wasn’t easy to forgive.  Joan had clashed with me in the past, and I had confronted her in private.  Ours was that kind of relationship where you feel the energy of the other in the room, and your mind is occupied with imaginary conversations where you always come out ahead.  Forgiving wasn’t easy for Joan either.  At the end of our ‘come to Jesus’ meeting, three of us hugged each other, but Joan busied herself with pushing chairs under the table and avoided sealing the deal, so to speak.

As luck would have it, the text for the next Sunday was Ephesians 2.  Great.  I had to talk about reconciliation, about Jesus bringing hostile groups together in his death.  “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”  (v.14)

Word spread fast about “pastor’s email,” so there was no speaking in the abstract. The elephant in the sanctuary was me, the pastor who had carelessly offended the ladies populating the pews.  The way I saw it, I had no choice but to use my story as Exhibit A, admitting my carelessness and commending the leaders for acting according to Scripture, forgiving me and restoring me to the fellowship, promising to move on and not mention it again.  It was one of the most difficult but heartfelt sermons of my career, and I think the Holy Spirit did some healing among us in the process.

But the healing came not through my sermon, at least not in the carefully crafted message.  It happened afterward.  I was back in the robing room, putting things away, when Joan appeared in the doorway.  She is a short woman with grey hair in a stylish short cut, always fashionably dressed.  Because she was on the level of the chancel and I was one step lower, she could look me in the eye.  She seemed to speak quickly so as not to lose her nerve.  “You did not have to do that, Pastor.”

“Yes, I did,” I replied.  A sigh.  “I realize that I can be hard to work with sometimes, and I have to face it.”

“Well, I’m not always easy to get along with either!” she admitted, and opened her arms for the hug she had resisted only three days earlier.  The tension melted away.  The sermon for the day was unfolding right there in the closet.

Neither Joan nor I felt like forgiving each other, but the president, with clear head and deep faith, implicitly reminded us how Jesus’ followers conduct themselves.  When we faced the problem honestly, first around a table, and then around the Word, we found that the One who forgives us all is truly present in our vulnerability.  He enables us to see ourselves as we are—broken, every one—and to forgive one another.

After that Joan and I smiled at one another more often, even though there was an unspoken question between us as our eyes met:  Am I still forgiven?  It was an invisible thread that connected us, thin and taut.  The air was clearer, no longer fraught with the suspicious tension of the past.  We were marked by the grace that surprised us both.

The secret of the body of Christ had been revealed to us, that we can make a safe place together in which to live the good news, where we forgive one another for not being Christ himself, and hold our frailties gently so as not to let them soil the fabric of mutual love.

I had this quote taped above my desk for the past few years of ministry.   Like Jonah, I had to let amazing grace happen, and let it happen in me.

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A Question in the Wilderness

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As I approached my departure from parish ministry, people were curious.  They asked me what I will do next.  It seemed easiest to tell them that I was taking a couple of months’ sabbatical, a break from ministry before determining my next steps.  I didn’t tell them that what I was feeling God calling me to a wilderness time, and I figured the next steps would emerge soon enough.  The wilderness itself is the destination.  One does not get a syllabus or agenda upon entering; openness and patience are the only tools I will be allowed to take with me.

In the past, I have learned that spiritual time in the wilderness functions in a variety of ways.  It can be a time of learning to trust God, as in the book of Exodus.  Paul mentions the time he had to be away from Jerusalem after his conversion (Gal 1.17-18).  My guess is that he did as much unlearning as learning in that interlude.  In the past I have developed new perspectives and deeper trust in God from times of darkness or spiritual solitude.

Wilderness itself seems unproductive at first glance, but it yields growth out of its barrenness if we have the courage to embrace it.  With only ourselves for company, the inner landscape beckons, and we have time to uncover intriguing—or disturbing—parts of ourselves we never knew were there.

In such times familiar comforts and distractions are ineffective, if not altogether absent.  We can see them for what they are, and unmask the urgency of their appeal.  It occurs to me this time around that sustained time in the wilderness can force me to identify and seek those things that I need in order to survive.  Was this at work in Jesus when he spent his forty days fasting and praying in the wild?

It is interesting that the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” quoting the exhortation to the people of God after the forty years of their own wilderness sojourn.  Thus Jesus defines the distinction between his life—and his followers’ lives—and an existence focused on physical survival alone.  True life, to him, has its source in God’s self-revelation to us.

This begs an existential question about times in the wilderness:  What is required for me to be fully alive?  “Every word that comes from the mouth of God” covers a lot of spiritual territory.  I wonder about any connection between Jesus’ desert orientation and the Beatitudes.  Was Jesus describing the people who are most alive?  The poor in spirit, those who mourn, are meek, hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful and pure in heart and lovers of peace, even those who suffer persecution for his sake—do they have the greatest capacity for awareness and love in the reign of God?  (Matt 5.1-12)  Did Jesus have these in mind when he denied the temptations to make bread, try base jumping, and claim his rights as sovereign?

The gospel text for Pentecost 3 has Jesus resurrecting the son of a widow in Nain (Luke 7:11-17).  It seems to me that these stunning, life-creating miracles of Jesus are not highlighted as superlative to his other miracles in the gospels, at least until he raises Lazarus to life after three days in the tomb.  I don’t think it is a stretch to infer that the saving work of Jesus is about more than restoring people to physical life or even good health.  There is something about the abundant life in God that is richer and deeper than possessing a heartbeat.  I imagine that many people who have been thrust to the brink of death and come back from it might have something to tell us about this.

I needed my own holistic rebirth a few years ago at a low time in my emotional and professional life.  I was ground down by the responsibilities of parish ministry, so I went to Quiet Waters in Parker, Colorado for two weeks of therapy and retreat.  It was a time of deep rest and evaluation of my habitual ways of functioning.  One of the exercises during the second week was identifying my personal vision and values, as well as the specific ways those would be enacted moving forward.  I was able to tease out my values such as transcendence, impact, and beauty.  These are life-giving aspects of my humanity, and occasionally checking my attentiveness to them has indeed helped me appreciate the richness of life more fully than before.

I suppose my time in Colorado was not a wilderness, but a chance to interpret the wilderness I had been experiencing in ministry.  I had felt alone and exhausted, unsure of who I was and wrestling with my call.  It was only in retrospect that I could mine the gifts of that desperate time.  I had expert assistance in finding my way back to health and joy.  From my brokenness, a new energy—new life!—emerged.

The fallow time I am entering is intentional this time, and I am aware of many forces from both within and without that I need to fend off to protect it.  Inner gremlins niggle, books tantalize, my smart phone vibrates in the next room.  Gradually I will get better at dismissing them and allowing myself to sit with the question I pray God will help me answer.  What do I need in order to be fully alive?