A Sad Day in Lake Wobegon

I live in Lake Wobegon country and I must say, that heroes are falling fast. Both Sen.Al Franken and Garrison Keillor have been on the front pages of our newspapers. I’ll leave it to others to determine the truth behind the allegations. But, I have to say that I have been disappointed. We make our heroes invincible. We tell ourselves that they only act justly and fairly in their dealings with others. We put our heroes on pedestals and pretend they are super human, not given to the faults and flaws of others.

We want our heroes to be more saintly than we expect of ourselves. As a fan of Prairie Home Companion and an occasional teller of Lake Wobegon stories in my sermons, I’m feeling a bit deflated. Our heroes are not supposed to act inappropriately. They don’t do drugs or drink excessively. Our heroes are supposed to remain true to our highest values and never let their humanness get in the way of their inspiring us.

There are, of course, no perfect people. Those on pedestals inevitably slip off. They make mistakes. Stress takes it toll in various ways. Sharp words, bitter words can spew from their mouths. Alcohol or drugs can be a too easy coping mechanism when one feels misunderstood or overwhelmed. Addiction can rob the people who we look up to of their credibility. Inappropriate sexual contact happens, even from our heroes. So, what is a Christian to do?

Our faith is one of second chances. We believe in redemption.  My New Testament seminary professor used to say, that “God forgives, but we live with the consequences of our sins.”   Then he would add the promise of forgiveness and new life. God is the one who gives us second chances, who restores us when we fail and promises us a life of new beginnings.  I’m not sure what is going to be happening in Lake Wobegon in the next few weeks. In good 12 step fashion, we made amends for our wrongdoing. We start again, fresh over, knowing that the God of second chances, gives each of us the same gift.  Meanwhile there is prayer.   Prayer for people being accused.  Prayer for those who feel victimized. And a prayer that we all learn something about respect and appropriate behavior from all of this.

Forgetting to Come Home

Ronnie was my first love. My earliest memory of him is of Ronnie standing by his mother and me standing by mine, while they visited over the low picket fence of my mother’s daisy bed. Ronnie and his family, from Colfax Iowa, were frequent guests at my parents resort on Lake Jefferson, near Cleveland, Minnesota.

You could say that we grew up together and apart. As small children we played in the sandbox, then as we grew older we would fish off of the dock on summer days. My parents insisted that it was Ronnie, then in sixth grade, who smashed the few watermelons growing in our lakeshore garden. (He later denied this.) In our early teens, I hung out in the fish house while he cleaned the family catch. We shared similar views on civil rights. Ronnie, however, was the first person to challenge my view of the death penalty.

The summer between our Junior and Senior year of High School, Ronnie began to return my affection. So it was, that on one June evening, we took off in a boat loaded with, rods, fishing tackle, and nets. We talked for hours and “yes” there was a kiss, but only one.  Night was rapidly approaching before we headed back towards home. Then on our way back, we missed a turn slipping into Swedes Bay. We lost half an hour there . . .  which was just enough time to stir our already anxious parents into doing something to find out what had happened to their children. We suspected trouble when we spotted a boat with a search light aiming in our direction. We knew we were in trouble when Ronnie’s dad called out our names.

Many times since, I’ve waited anxiously for the sound of a car in the driveway, or a door to open with the clear message that one who is late has made their way home. As a parent, I can well imagine the fears that had gone through the minds of our parents that June night when Ronnie and I, dawdled and got lost on the lake.  In our lostness, and yes, even in our dawdling, God searches for us. When we’ve over extended our time away, God comes to us wondering why it is we’ve stayed away so long. Are we lost or hurt? A call goes out to bring us back. Search lights scan the waters for signs of our return. God searches for us, in all our lost places, shining a light that we might find our way home. If you’ve been feeling a bit lost lately, perhaps it is because God is missing you, calling your name and just waiting for you to head home.

Giving Thanks for Saints in our Lives

Like an onion, peeling memories till they placed her in a different time and era, my mother slowly lost memories of her family. Frustrated that she no longer knew everything she once did, she wondered out loud how it was that she could forget the people she loved. It seemed less cruel to tell her that my dad would be there if he could, rather than to remind her again that he died. In this odd period of her life I was touched by her passionate love for my father. She told me how she loved to hold her babies. I reveled in her memories of myself and my siblings as infants and the way that she cherished each of us. I saw a precious part of her I did not know

I was reminded of the words of scripture, “Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you! See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands. . . ” –Isaiah 49:14-16

My mother died just two days before we celebrated All Saints at the church I was serving in 2010. Worshiping at the special service, I took comfort in the knowledge that God will never forget us or those we love. I felt the assurance that when my memory fails (and family history isn’t too positive on this) that God will continue to love and care for the people I love . . .   All of those who live in my heart.

November 1st is the traditional celebration of All Saints, remembering those people who have been a precious part of our lives.   C.S. Lewis once wrote  that a saint  “is a person who makes God believable.”    All Saints is a day of both remembering and giving thanks for people who have touched our lives with grace, blessed  us with their love and nurtured  us with their presence.  It is a day to celebrate and  be grateful for the Communion of Saints, those living both on earth and in heaven.  As we remember these cherished souls, may it be a  reminder to live in such a way, that others will look at our lives and celebrate the people that we are.

God’s Saving Grace

My kitchen is overflowing with pots of flowers – my latest rescue attempt to push the cold of winter away for a few more days.  On the deck is a new experiment to keep other flowers alive. Every year I go through this same ritual . . .  trying to keep my flowers blooming just a little longer.

I am a rescuer by nature. When I was sent to small churches in rural Minnesota, I was convinced that churches in a spiral of death, had life still in them. It’s written into my DNA to encourage the life force,  whether it is a plant staving off the cold and snow of a winter day in mid fall –  Or a church giving up before their work is done – Or a person going through the pain of loss, heartache, addition or failure,  ready to give up.

It was in the midst of failure, poverty and despair that God rescued me. I couldn’t keep a dying marriage from failing. My rescue attempts were futile. But God’s rescue of me out of it was real. I look back on that time in my life as one of grace. God’s love and care was greater than I believed possible. And while I constantly condemned myself – I found encouragement in some of the most unusual ways. One day, while doing some work in the church library, I came across these words in a book, whose name and author I do not remember. The words were these, “When you refuse to forgive yourself, you are refusing to forgive a child of God and that is wrong.” I needed those words that day, as I have needed them since.

Today, I look at pots of flowers on my table. I see how much beauty is there and I know that this is how God sees each of us, when we are about to give up on ourselves. God sees the beauty in us and wants us to know that we are God’s beloved and precious children – Loved more abundantly than we can imagine.

“God rescued me out of the miry pit, out of the mud and clay; God set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm footing.” Psalm 40:2 REB

Favorite Quotes for Pastors

I keep some favorite quotes in my Bible to remind me of both my calling as a Christian and as a pastor. Some have inspired me, others challenge my attitudes, still other remind me that I can do nothing unless I’m attached to the vine of Jesus

“Lord, take me where you want me to go;
Let me meet whom you want me to meet;
Tell me what you want me to say and
Keep me out of your way.”
This prayer was on a card that Father Michael Judge Chaplain had in his pocket the day he died, ministering to firefighters at the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001.

“Communicate God’s heart, character and will.” Adam Hamilton, comments about his prayer in his book “Making Sense of the Bible”

“To be unclean is to turn away from union and intimacy with Jesus.” Gail R. O’Day New Interpreters Bible, Commentary on the Gospel of John (pg 723)

“God, help me to see those who have hurt me not as enemies . . . but rather as thirsty people. And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water, which alone quenches deep thirst.” Based on a prayer of Henri J.M. Nouwen

“God, I will guard my lips, my mind and my heart so that my language will not disparage, injure or wound another child of God. I must do no harm even while I seek a common good.” Rueben P. Job, “Three Simple Rules”

“Let me no more my comfort draw
from my frail hold of thee,
In this alone, rejoice in awe
Thy mighty grasp of me.”
This is from a poem of John Campbell Shairp, which I first found in a sermon by  Ted Loder.

“Ministers are like trumpets, which make no sound if breath be not breathed into them.” John Flavel

 “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  John 15:5-6

Needing a Certificate of Martyrdom?

A magazine advertisement I once read offered a Frameable Certificate of Instant Martyrdom printed with these words: “The suffering you have had to endure at the hands of life has been almost more than any person can bear. Rarely has such a noble soul been forced to put up with such undeserved agony. In recognition of your extraordinary plight, the Church of World Peace hereby awards this ‘Certificate of Martyrdom.’ ” To receive this certificate” the ad read, “all you need to do is list in your letter three horrible events in your life, enclose $10, and you will have in hand something “to console your misery.”

The writer of Hebrews had a better solution for those times when we feel overwhelmed with the trials in our life. Its author suggests: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus.” (Hebrews 12:1) In our moments of discouragement, it is tempting to give up . . . Tempting to think of ourselves as the only one who has ever endured the loss, hardship or loneliness that we encounter.

The writer of the book of Hebrews points us instead, to the lives of our ancestors in faith who have walked in painful, difficult places before us. In spite of their trials, they continued to trust in God. Something in me soars whenever I read the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. . . “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen . . . By faith Abraham (and Sarah) obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going . . .all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.”

Within its long list of faithful are people who remained steadfast, continued in hope and believed that the final victory was God’s. “Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.”

I generally gain some perspective about the time I reach these verses. Life can be difficult. Heartaches come. Our lives can get really messed up. Bad things happen to some very good people. Our hearts bleed when grief strikes and when grief strikes people we love. What gives me strength, and I believe gave our ancestors in faith strength, is  the assurance that even when life is hard, God is at work.  Troubles come.  But, in the midst of our trials God is with us to walk with us through them.

In your times of despair and doubt, when the race seems hard and you are weary  – Remember that there are those who have run before you on this journey of faith. Those so running would testify to God’s faithfulness and the wisdom of continuing the race. For they know in the deepest part of their being that the final victory is God’s.  Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”  John 16:33

Building Hope

           Imagine a world where nobody helped anyone else. Or, where those who did help, only helped family and friends. Wouldn’t our world be less? One disaster follows another and we find ourselves stretching to do what we believe is right. There is never a shortage of places to give from local concerns to those which come to us by way of You tube videos. Imagine what it must be like to receive a gift of food when you’ve been displaced by an earthquake and all is lost, except the most elemental pieces of your life. Imagine what it is like to live  open to the elements after a hurricane has ravaged your land and receive the gift of shelter. Imagine wondering where to turn and how to cope, then someone you do not know, offers you the necessities of life.

On September 11, 2001 the city of New York faced its worst crisis. Attacks carried out on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center left the city crushed and broken. Throughout the  nation people responded to the need. Many sent money, while others came to search the ruble and heal the injured. The steady stream of donations profoundly touched Jeff Parness. A couple of years later he created a Foundation called, “New York Says Thank You.”

Each year, near September 11, the Foundation reaches out to an area of the country which has been hit by a disaster. They spend time rebuilding homes, churches, camps or whatever that city’s greatest need is. He says, it is not as much about the building itself, as it is about building hope. Hope came to him, in the darkness of the September 11 attacks, through the outpouring of kindness across the country. Today, Jeff tries to pay it forward, touching other lives even as his was touched by an earlier generosity.

The recent disasters have left us many places to offer our gifts and our service.    But, one doesn’t have to look far from home to offer help.   There is someone in your life who needs some extra love, extra care, extra time.   The happiest people I know are the ones who have found ways of reaching out to others, sharing their resources, their time and themselves with people who need someone to care.  Today, may you find joy in the giving of your self.