When I unwrap the holiday ornaments 
the stiff snowflakes pause a moment in my hand, 
fashioned, starched in precise geometry
by my mother, who stitched frugal threads 
into transcendence. 

Once I presented her with 
a bedspread from my husband’s family 
not quite finished, a long-forgotten interruption. 
She studied the pattern, dyed the thread 
to match someone else’s story, 
not unlike her dutiful life as pastor’s wife, mother of six. 

She sometimes tatted her fancies, a risky enterprise when 
mistakes could not be undone. 

She never felt the comfort of belonging, 
always outside an invisible, impenetrable barrier, 
until she looked out and saw that the circle 
was far more capacious and so 

she created a pattern of welcome 
for those who also felt unseen, unwanted, 
needed the offer of beauty she knitted and knotted 
from her humble, loving self. 

Life-Giving Sabbath

Photo by Rev. Tim Ten Clay

The word “Sabbath” calls up lots of ideas and feelings for different people.  As I grew up, we were expected to observe it strictly, with no unnecessary work and no homework done on Sundays. We could not patronize a swimming pool or a restaurant, because that would require other people to violate the Sabbath as they served us.  This was not altogether a negative thing. When I was in college I continued to avoid homework on Sundays, thus enjoying a true day of rest every week.

Over the years I have come to appreciate the concept of Sabbath deeply.

I am a person who likes to get things done, to have the satisfaction of achievement. I have struggled with the notion that to be significant I have to be this way; I have to produce something all the time to justify my existence.

            So when I entered full time ministry, I knew I had to rein in these impulses or I would burn out quickly, because in ministry, there are always ten more things to do and goals to set, people to see, etc. Someone recommended Marva Dawn’s book to me, and it helped a lot. I did other things to deal with this, but her exploration of Sabbath enabled me to have a way that helped me hold myself together in the midst of reining in my pushy impulses. It helped me to remain healthy as a pastor and non-anxious in my other relationships, as much as I was able.

            Gradually I realized that Sabbath is about more than a day. It is a lifestyle and a stance. But it helps to think first of it as that seventh day set aside at the very beginning, as described in the story of creation.

            Sabbath enables us to stop. When we stop, we can let our selves catch up with ourselves. And God can reclaim us too, because in keeping Sabbath, we can remember who we are—God’s beloved—and that everyone else shares that identity and grace that come from God. It also enables us to see where we are, what we have, who is doing life with us. We can step back and see the picture more clearly, more comprehensively.

            Sabbath helps us remember who God is too. We have the time to breathe and realize that we cannot do everything we want to do. We cannot even do what is within our capacity all that well. So we realize that we have to rely on God. So we can recognize what is our part, and what is God’s part, and not get them mixed up.

            In the process we realize that Sabbath is a gift. “Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, but the seventh is a sabbath to the LORD your God,” the Scriptures tell us. So apparently six days is enough to do all that we need to do.

            Enough. That is a key word in thinking about Sabbath. God seems to want us to know that we will have enough if we do our work faithfully six days of the week. To know that resting is part of the rhythm that will give us life. That whatever we can accomplish in those six days, we do not have to look at it and say it’s not enough. It is enough.

            So then I learned to extend this idea to everything else, all seven days of the week. That whatever I can bring to God is enough. That whatever time I have for family and work and study and friends and playing is enough, but I need to stop once a week so I can see how to balance all of it in a life-giving way.

            I also learned that I am enough. I do not have to prove myself to God, earn God’s favor by doing “godly” things, or be good enough for God to love me. On my own, there is not enough of me, but with God, there is always more than enough.

            I learned that Sabbath is about trust. That I can trust God to make up the difference where I cannot be or do whatever is needed. God will be faithful in that. Over my years in ministry this became very practical. If I had to deal with a lot of unexpected issues or pastoral care like a funeral or a catastrophic illness, I could give all the time needed to that, and still be ready to lead worship on Sunday. When I trusted God, the sermons just came, and everything else fell into place too. So I could relax and not be anxious about all I had to do.

            My husband and I have learned about Sabbath living and the concept of enough in our stewardship of finances. When we feel compelled by the Spirit to give more than we think we can afford at the moment, God always provides for our needs. Every time. We can trust God who asks us to give money, time (such as one day a week), effort, material goods and then provides abundantly when we respond in faith. So we can live life with an open hand and a trusting heart.

            Sabbath enables us to get our bearings. It enables us to be restored, to find our well-being in God’s goodness. It gives us time to rest our bodies, minds, spirits.  We can take time to delight in good food, loving relationships, the beauty of nature. It helps us take the time for gratitude, and for each other. It is a reset button that is pure gift.

            To me, Sabbath living is also about awareness. It is a way of savoring a slower pace of life and savoring the gifts that are all around and also within us. It is a way of saying yes to God and all that God offers.

            But in saying yes to God we are also saying no to other things. We recognize that we are humans with limitations. We will not work on that seventh day because we truly need the rest God offers. As we learn to do this, we realize that we do not want to rush through the rest of the week; otherwise one day to take a break is not enough. Something deep down tells us that doing so much is not abundance; it is exhaustion. So we want to slow down.

            There is no getting around it. Experiencing life as God means us to live it is not about doing as much as we can. It not about acquiring more that we do not need. It is not about hurry. It is about receiving the gifts and using them thoughtfully, with God’s help. It is about love that does not demand or push. It is a life of peace and well-being because we know who we are, whose we are, who gives us all things, and how we can care for one another.

            To me, this is Sabbath living.

Catching Up with God

 The following essay was originally addressed to the community of Spencer, Iowa, since it was written for the weekly pastor’s column of the local paper, the Spencer Reporter. As such, it is limited in scope and meant to be an article of interest to the faith population that typically reads it. The poem that follows it was written three years ago.

People tell me they want to keep learning about God and the Bible. So here is a perspective for you to consider, if it is new to you.

First, Jesus. Along with the comforting image of him as gentle Savior, he also challenged traditional understandings of the Levitical laws. He “broke” the Sabbath. He talked to women as though they were as intelligent as men. He conversed with Gentiles, touched the unclean and hung out with sinners, thus associating with all the “wrong” people.

            But there was that prophecy in Isaiah 43:18-19: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Jesus was demonstrating what it means to trust and honor God. He embodied the love he taught. We accept these “new things” he did.

            Second, Philip. There is a strange story in Acts 8 where he is told by an angel to go to a certain road south of Jerusalem. There was a eunuch who had worshiped God and was reading from a scroll of Isaiah in his chariot on his way home to Ethiopia. A eunuch was a man who was castrated to have presumably less power, so he could be trusted to serve in the king’s household.  This man had a high position as treasurer of all the queen’s money.

            A eunuch was among those considered sexual deviants in that time, no doubt disdained by both men and women for his condition. Yet among thousands of events that happened in the apostles’ ministries, this is one of the few stories recorded for us. When Philip told this man about Jesus, he responded in faith and asked a question that echoes through the ages: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer: nothing. Philip baptized him that day and was whisked away by the Spirit to another town. God was doing a new thing. (See also Isaiah 56:3-5)

            Third, Peter. He fell into a trance and saw something like a sheet coming down from heaven, filled with animals and birds that were on the list of non-kosher foods. He was commanded to eat, but he protested that they were profane and unclean.  But the voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” It happened three times, a sign in ancient times that it was real and important.

            Peter did not know what to make of this until representatives of Cornelius, a Roman centurion (a Gentile), told them they had been sent to fetch him. An angel had told their master, a God-fearing man, to send for Peter to hear what he had to say. Peter had the chance to sleep on it before he went with them the next day. He told Cornelius all about Jesus, but before he could finish there was a mini-Pentecost then and there. The Holy Spirit fell on everyone and they spoke in tongues. It was Peter this time who asked whether there was any reason not to baptize them. Again, the answer was no. God was doing a new thing.

            We are approaching the end of June, Pride month for the LGBTQ community. Christian friends, please set aside the “seven texts” that are debated about human sexuality and purity for a moment. Jesus reframed the ancient texts in Matthew 5 as he taught a deeper truth about morality centered in the heart. He taught and embodied the divine, generous perspective that flows from love and compassion.

Look at these stories. What is to keep God from doing new things now? What if condemning people based on their innate understanding of themselves as whole and beloved in this world is not what Jesus would do? I invite you to consider what matters most to him: loving one another. Be open to the Spirit that is alive, always reminding us what Jesus said and did. Trust the God who does new things that help us to love as we are loved, every single one of us.

How Far Have We Wandered

How far have we wandered from the heart of God
when we scorn and shame
those who have mustered the courage 
to express the deepest cry of their hearts?
They who have explored their inner landscape
--where many are afraid to go—
and found what and who can truly give them life?

They dare to name their joy
while others hurl unearned labels at them.
They claim their bodies, stake out their homesteads,
listen to the quiet authority of their worthiness.

Meanwhile, religious people have the audacity to insist
that what the brave ones know to be true
is a lie
on the basis of what somebody told them God doesn’t approve of.

Ancient words attempting faithfulness
are used to condemn
while the language of love and inclusion
is dismissed.

Trusted leaders eat at the forbidden tree 
of the knowledge of good and evil,
but they deny others a place
at the healing banquet 
to which all are invited.

Lay down your forbidden fruit,
your facile judgments.
Let your fellow humans teach you 
how to listen to God
through your own heart.  

No Escape

Splash, rumble, plink, whoosh,
Plop, mumble, bang, sploosh. 
Clang, jiggle, roar, ding,
Thrust, giggle, vroom, fling.
The onomata runs around 
attempting to be freer, 
but he cannot escape the sound 
of his pursuing poeia.

Adulting Adventures

	She’s not my little girl any more.  Hasn’t been for, oh, 17 years or so. 
	When they go to college, we know our relationship with our kids will change. As if we didn’t know that the minute they hit puberty.  But as we age, we become more like good friends than parents and offspring, if we manage to navigate some rough waters.  
	Any parent of adults does not need me to describe the trip through the rapids of our children’s early adulthood and how we can get tossed into the drink before we know it.  Misunderstandings and unrealized expectations arise without warning. Eventually we accept the fact that we now ride in different vessels.  We enjoy being together as adults whose ways of moving through this world had diverged.
	It is rewarding to reach this point, where we like being in each other’s company. For a limited period of time.  And we return to our separate homes and different lifestyles. I don’t rescue my kids any more, and they don’t come running for help. They don’t rescue us, either, until we reach that stage we don’t want to talk about yet.
	My husband and I paid a visit to our daughter and her husband in Amherst, Massachusetts recently. They have a spacious house with a lovely wood stove, in a charming neighborhood. We have several other family members and friends we can visit while we are in New England. We love to do day trips to see historical sites. This time we achieved a nice balance of time with them and time away. 
	My daughter and I love to hike together. The Holyoke mountain range has numerous trails to easy summits, with spectacular views. So at least few hours have to be reserved for that during each visit.  We throw on our gear, apply sunscreen and bug spray, and drive to a nearby trailhead.  I wrote the following poem after hiking both Bear Mountain and Mt. Norwottuck this time. 

Massachusetts, 5-14-22

We climb your mountains 
aiming for summit but 
content to share the 
effort, spending our breath on 
conversation, willing to pause 
and breathe together the air 
of companionship.

You lead me now.
I carried you, then led you 
too, sometimes on rocky climbs 
that rewarded you with a vista 
of new ideas, hard-won confidence. 
You have other companions now 
as you should, but today
we have these gifts of time 
and invitation, shared 

I find myself happy to let you lead.
I will have one more lesson 
to teach you if we are 
given the chance.  One more 
hike into the country 
of light.
If we are together then 
you will see, 
but if not, I will wait 
for you there, when we will 
breathe together the air of Love.

Practice Resurrection

Wendell Berry, dubbed the “Poet Farmer,” has spent countless hours walking through the fields and woods of his property, writing about the wonder of nature and the stories that the land would recount if it could use our language. Any farmer or gardener can identify with his delight in the process of “dead” seeds springing to life and morphing into crops, flowers and trees. It is a marvel.

            But Berry also considers God’s hand in all of this, and most likely refers to more than horticulture in his exhortation to “practice resurrection.” In this first week of Easter we can take these two words as a way to proceed after six weeks of penitence and a day of celebration. To do more than go back to business as usual.

            The cross and resurrection can be regarded as a transaction: God erasing our sin and its consequences by substituting Jesus for us in atonement. That is one way to think of it. But frankly, a transaction is not enough to motivate me in a life of faith.

            The Scriptures emphasize over and over again that God has a relationship with us. God is present with us, involved with us. God invites us to share in life and all its goodness. The Old Testament made it clear that God looks on us with compassion and love, continually forgiving us. But we spurn God’s loving attention and take all that mercy for granted.

            So one of the ways I like to regard the cross is that God wanted to show us once and for all that our foolish, sometimes evil ways are deadly to us. They are the source of great suffering. But God refuses to hold that against us, and instead entered into it, took it into himself, and let it kill him. Then love lived on.

            That is the key: love lived on.  God’s love could not be killed.

            We are given the story of Peter to show us this truth in the life of one person. Peter, who denied the Lord he loved, whose remorse was profound.  Peter walked with Jesus on the beach after the resurrection, and Jesus not only forgave him, he entrusted Peter with the honor of leading his people. “If you love me, move on Peter. Feed my sheep.”

            So how can we “practice resurrection?” Jesus asks us to love as he loves. That is our primary responsibility. He said as much when someone asked him what was the greatest commandment. He repeated it in the upper room, in his last lesson to his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

            So we cannot let our love be killed by the actions of others. Like him, we can ask the Father to forgive them even if we cannot, “for they know not what they do.” Jesus chose to regard the brutal guards and haughty religious leaders—and us—as those who were ignorant in their actions instead of acting with malice. He saw them as God’s beloved. He sees us today as God’s beloved. We can do the same, seeing others as victims of their ignorance and sin instead of assuming evil intent. Remembering that they are God’s beloved no matter what they do.

            Jesus let the pain and suffering caused by human sin bind him to death of the worst kind because he loves us and has compassion on us. He identified with our worst selves, let us kill him, and broke through to the other side of it to its opposite. In doing so he showed us the reality that we can’t see when we are serving only our own desires and foolish ideals. The deep, eternal reality that is God’s love.

            It is that love that fuels the life of God’s reign. That is the source of life for us, the life God calls us to live, a life of fellowship with one another, caring for each other, and extending mercy toward one another.  Practicing resurrection is refusing to let sin and selfishness dictate how we will live. It refuses to live with suspicion and chooses love instead.

            Now we all know how hard it is to do this consistently.  That is why we have to admit that we cannot do it. We rely on the Holy Spirit God has given us.  One of the verses that stuns me the most is in Ephesians 1, where we are told that we are given power to live this kind of life. Paul cites “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead.” We have this power at our disposal! What an incredible gift.

            So we rise again daily, to God’s mercies that are “new every morning.” We look for opportunities to love, and even to forgive. We live with intention, with divine love as our source and way of life, love that cannot be obscured or erased. We practice resurrection.

Searching for Home, from Home

I welcome Char Gustafson as a guest writer today. This was written in March, 2021.

Now…” ,  the big man bus driver looked at me, a scared little 8 year old and said, “Where do you belong?”

Where indeed.

It was March…that time of the year in Iowa where those who rented farms moved.  Leases were up.  Farms were sold.  Families, uprooted. In 1961, I was alone on the bus, trying to get “home”. That bus experience became part of my story.

Fast forward to 2020.  I feel as though I’ve been alone, on the bus, once again and have asked myself that same question many times this past year, “Where do I belong?” “How does 2020 fit into my story?

Granted, I’m no longer that frightened 3rd grader but this past year has presented me with that all consuming frightening question “where do I belong?”  Uprooted from our norms, we’ve had little of the leadership  to “guide” us during the  past four years. There has been no “driver”.  I’ve had to find my way.

My dad died when he was 47. My spouse when he was 57.   I remember the feeling of being alone on the bus.  Later as a bereavement counselor I often told other widows that grief is  like “travelling in a foreign country where there are no maps and no one knows your name”. 

COVID , I realize, has brought me back to the early “grief days” on the bus.  We have had so much loss and there has been little memorializing. I can’t quite grasp that  we’ve lost more people to this scourge than to all our combined wars.  Expectations are gone.  Things that once gave sustenance to the soul no longer exist… going to church, a concert or to an afternoon matinee … all gone.   As the late Iowa author Curtis Harnack aptly titled his book about loss, “We Have All Gone Away”.  I’ve found that perhaps these things, the things that we have always done, that have made up the moments of our lives… perhaps they have been mere substitutes for what really matters. And, as in the grief process, the only thing to do is go forward, one day at a time, sometimes, one hour at a time, doing the only thing that we know how to do or can do in moments of any kind of loss.  Find our peace…with ourselves.

So, “where do I belong?”…  some days, on the couch, with a book in hand and a good cup of coffee at my side.  Somedays I belong looking out at the timber in my back yard… the gold finches flitting about for their black thistle coveted treasures, the squirrels gleefully running up and down, up and down, forever grasping for their holds on life.  Somedays I email, or actually write letters or send cards. My Colorado grandchildren think Grandma G. is hilarious when she asks them to “write her a letter”… and reply with their quizzically “I have no idea what you are talking about”  zoom looks.

Early in the pandemic, I had a purpose…making masks to help and protect those on the front lines.  I reported to my sewing  room daily where I would turn out thousands of masks for Iowans in need.  It gave me a “purpose” and at least I felt that I was doing SOMETHING even though our then president thought that the masks I and thousands of other men and women made in their homes and on their sewing machines, were not important enough for him to wear.  I pressed on .

I’ve become quite the “online shopper”… I don’t think that I will EVER have a need to go inside a grocery store again (Costco, however, that is a totally different thing all together..this author says with a smile).  You Tube?  I’m totally in love and have found that there are many women, like me, who have become Ok with no visits to any hair or nail salon. I find solace in the instagram celebrities who show up sans make up.  In a  society where youth is everything, they are brave to show up as they are, and so that makes me brave too!  I know now what “hard pants” are and really don’t want to go back to them either, although I’m sure I will as sweats are rather hot in the humid Iowa summertime.

I know and love Marco Polo (no, not the guy explorer) and receive not enough updates on the weather, flora and fauna from children in California and Colorado, respectively.  I almost feel as I’m there and long for that day…

I listen to too much “news” and have uttered “huh? Or whhaaattt?” far too many times. There have been dark, dark days when only Stephen Colbert could provide the antidote  for the snake bite that was 2020.

I’ve become quite the Facebook Marketplace aficionado and from my front porch have traded or given away things I no longer need.  I have given to those who are in need wherever I safely could (Des Moines, how can I help you?  Facebook site has proven just how many are hurting…)  I have “met” many women such as myself who search for “things” that remind them of a favorite kinder, simpler decade when life was simpler and the things that Grandma or Grandpa had have the uncanny ability to make us happy…whatever trips your trigger and my memories have been tripped by— dishes!

I have found kind people in my neighborhood.  I fulfilled a dream of placing a Little Free Library in the yard this year (made from inexpensive items from Facebook Marketplace!).  A neighbor, whom I did not know, rang my doorbell and left a holiday gift, stating how she appreciated its use.  What can I say,? That little kindness made my season.  I passed it on.

I utilize my little library’s card catalog, reserve books on line, call and my library delivers to my car.  I asked friends for recommendations and have developed a love for entirely new genres I never thought I would touch.

I’m finding a kinder, gentler Iowa in spite of our current “leadership” and the not so kind ways that the “leaders” “lead”.

So, I’m still looking.  As in the early days of other grief journeys, I go forward and sometimes falter in trying.  An important quote from a favorite book came to mind again and again as I tried to bring peace and kindness into my small world this past year.  Don Marquis is quoted in E.B. White’s “The Second Tree From the Corner” in one of my favorite E.B. W. essays, “The Door”, 

‘My heart has followed all my days something I cannot name’…  

On the farm, rural Iowa, when days were long and people close, long ago now, E.B. White wrote to me, for 13 years,  a rural Iowa woman who liked his work. But that story is for another time.

Literature and music bring me solace…always have, always will.

So…”where do I belong”?  Where indeed.  Not on that bus with the driver who had no idea …or in a school system that failed to tell him that there was a new little girl that would need to find her way…or in a world where dads die and husbands do too.  I belong, exactly where I am now.  Feeling giddy, like an 8 year old school girl who has just figured out what to tell the bus driver.  I got my second COVID shot last week and now, I’m driving the bus.  I will go forward in the ways that I know how, hoping that everything will be kinder and gentler to those who have lost their way.

Char Gustafson is a graduate of Buena Vista University. She has her Death &  Grief Studies Certification from Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s Center for Loss, Ft Collins, Co.  A  former hospice  bereavement counselor, she  has presented workshops on hope, creativity & writing “your story”.  Forever a “creative” who believes art has the power to change lives, she continues to find hope in the creative journey. She lives in Ankeny and loves to travel and explore California and Colorado where she  spends  time with her children, Matt and Joanna and grandchildren, Andrew and Grace. 

The Music Over There

I cannot put the glory into a poem.
The Kyiv Chamber Choir sings 
“In Thy Kingdom”, their voices 
resonating, swelling in 
what I picture as a beautiful cathedral.
How they cannot make this beauty 
now. How they are scattered 
and the church is a shell where 
the music cannot carom off its walls but its memory 
flies into the atmosphere as a prayer.
How the music has to be inner 
now and cling to the walls of terror 
to be planted as seed 
to be heard as silent lament 
to mimic the blasphemous 
vibrations of bombs flinging 
their hopes to smithereens.  
The corner of the tattered bridal veil 
lifts with the indifferent breeze.

Winter Day in Nebraska

Winter Day in Nebraska

I glance out, see the geese 
stitch the sky over Interstate 80 
their ragged, urgent arrows aiming 
somewhere east southeast 
no big deal 
but they keep coming 
prophecies sliding like hieroglyphs 
against a cave wall of grey clouds 
as “I Got the Boy” blares 
on the pickup radio 
reflecting on the passage of time 
without resentment:
“She got the future, I got the past”
and once they’re behind us 
a few miles later 
a herd of Angus cattle trot in unison 
kicking up dust.

Ten miles before the exit to Denver 
my husband notices how 
the wind tugging at us all day 
has died down.

A cemetery appears on cue 
yonder on the side of a hill. 
I can barely detect the granite stones 
in the endless brown grass.
It’s the conifers that catch the eye.
I could count them 
they’re so clear and earnest 
marching in place 
ever greening.

Open, Open, Open

Revelation 3:8 has been my go-to verse for a couple of years now. It leapt off the page of my Bible one day and has held a place in my awareness. It urges me to keep looking, to see how big God is and all the ways the Great Love manifests in the world around me. It is God’s invitation to keep seeking new ways to love, new stories to listen to, new people to meet, new opportunities to explore.

A couple of days ago this prayer formed inside me, so I will share it with you. Be blessed with peace and every good, dear reader.

Most Holy One, open me.
Open my heart to receive 
all that comes to me today.
Open my eyes to see the beauty 
and the need.
Open my ears to listen.
Open my mind to consider ideas 
other than my own.
Open my lips to encourage 
and to bless.
Open my hands to give generously.
Open my arms to embrace.
Open my home 
to welcome the stranger.
Open my heart and my life to love.