Monday, August 9, 2010


(Episode 1)

Twelve years old. Weekly Saturday morning Confirmation class, 1964. Pastor (the only name the kids ever knew for him) in black pants and black clergy shirt, looking like little less than God Almighty. He strode commandingly, back and forth, back and forth, in front of 45 anxious, insecure adolescents, lecturing. We sat in those hard, wooden, straight-backed chairs with the little 12”x12” writing arms attached, textbooks and written homework open. Even when we went on weekend Confirmation retreats at the Lutheran Bible Camp, the set-up was exactly the same. Nothing in the least bit casual about Confirmation. Better read that textbook, and take notes in class. Lots of notes. There would be a final exam at the end of the year. If you didn’t pass -- “B” or better -- you wouldn’t be Confirmed. “C” allowed one to take the exam again. Oh joy.

As he paced and lectured, he asked a question without even looking up. Being absolutely certain I knew the correct answer, I raised my hand. Since he wasn’t looking, and no one else raised their hand, I finally and quite confidently announced my answer.

“NO!” he said as he turned on his heal and pointed his amazingly large finger directly at me. Then he held his Bible straight out at arm’s length and looked me straight in the eye. I withered inside like a grape into a raisin as he said again, “NO!” Turning again on his heal, he asked the class the question a second time. No one dared raise their hand. This was remedied by our having to listen to the same lecture a second time. All of it. When this was completed, every single one of us knew The Right Answer.

Miraculously, when the final exam came, I correctly answered enough of the questions about the Bible and Lutheran doctrine, and could recite out loud the whole of Luther’s Small Catechism (including the meanings, of course), that I was confirmed as an Officially Approved Lutheran.

At age 13, “being confirmed,” as we called it then, was all about The Right Answers. It had very little to do with belief, or faith, a growing relationship with Jesus, or flat-out awe toward God. Actually, for most of us, it was really all about the rite of passage into the adult world by being allowed to wear girdles, nylons, and high heels (girls); and a man’s suit and tie which the boys had to learn to tie properly themselves (boys) -- most of which was hidden by the modest uniformity of white robes with wilting red carnations pinned firmly on front. On Confirmation Day, we were told that we were now adult members of the church -- though we were still treated like pesky kids and couldn’t vote on any church matters. Nevertheless, we were in the congregational big leagues.

Actually, just the high school Luther League.

This is typically when Lutheran kids and their families stop coming to church. Parents are confident that, now being an Officially Approved Lutheran, their kid’s got religion. Parental duty fulfilled.

(more to come)

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Shalom -- (Hebrew) Completeness, wholeness, health, peace, safety, tranquility, prosperity, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord.

Yesterday, I finished moving out of my office, with the help of wonderful friends. I can't begin to describe how painful, emotional it was; I have poured my heart and my health into the congregation, whom I still love.

As we packed, we came upon things like photos from my Call Interview almost 5 years ago -- the Call Committee and I on a pontoon boat on Gull Lake, everyone looking windblown and eager; a day which felt more like a family reunion than a job interview. Photos of the many baptisms I did, babies clueless but families radiating such joy; pictures of weddings, confirmation classes. And precious little gifts from members, drawings from children...

When all the packing was done, it was time to say my final shalom to the building. I stood in the dishwasher room where I had worked elbow-to-elbow with members scraping and cleaning and loading dishes into the huge dishwasher. The Celebration Center where we had so many significant events, from Annual Meetings to the Bluegrass Gospel Concerts to the legendary rummage sales to congregational fellowship events. The Chapel rooms where I did so much teaching of both adults and kids, and participated in or led meetings, meetings, meetings….

Then on to the hardest place of all -- the sanctuary. With my arms full of the last batch of “stuff” I would load into my car in a few minutes, I walked slowly down the center aisle toward the altar as I did every Sunday for over 4 years. I stopped in front, bowed my head, and prayed for the congregation, as I also did every Sunday for over 4 years. I walked around the altar to face the congregation, and saw with my heart all of the people I had come to love sitting in the pews, looking forward toward the altar with expectation on their faces. The choir loft, where the choir and soloists proclaimed the Gospel to me every week. And the steps in front of the altar, where I first began doing Children's Messages, even though there were very, very few children in worship when I first arrived. After a few months, the number of children at worship began to grow, children who came barreling down the aisle for their special Message (and some wiggle time), some snuggled around me, some keeping a shy distance, but all eager and expectant.

Standing behind the altar, I spoke, slowly and deliberately, the opening Greeting/Blessing to the congregation which was gathered that day only in my heart:

“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”

Their response echoed, “And also with you.”

I moved over and stepped up into the pulpit, where the Lord had used me continually to bring the Word of Life to worshipers in such a way that often surprised even me. As I gazed around the sanctuary, I blessed the congregation with the Benediction:

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord look upon you with favor…
and give you peace.”

Hardly able to make myself leave, I walked out of that Holy Space. I locked the church door, got into my loaded-down car, sat there for a few moments until the tears stopped so I could see the road, and drove away.

Today, I am simply resting in the great lap of God, who promises in this morning's First Lesson: "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you" (Isaiah 66:13a).

Tomorrow? Tomorrow I move forward on this unpredictable journey of life and faith, dancing in the faithful, loving light of God.

"O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord." Amen. (ELW, Vespers, p. 317)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


The disciples were together.
The doors were locked, because they were afraid…
John 20:19 

Jesus’ closest friends and students of grace were in anguish. Jesus, who not only embodied the “fullness of God,” but who had also embodied the fullness of being human, was dead. Dead and buried. Buried in a borrowed tomb like any Jewish peasant. Crucified with relish by the same people who, just a few days before, had welcomed him as a hero -- healer, teacher, miracle worker, with power over demons and oceans.

Though Jesus had raised and restored the already decomposing Lazarus from the dead; and had repeatedly told his disciples that he, also, would rise from the dead, such extraordinary possibilities weren’t even on their radar. They had just had a disastrous dose of “the real world,” after all. It would seem that even God was no match for the power of Rome, especially when coupled with the power of the Temple leaders’ rigid dogma and underhanded politics. From where they sat, there was no reason to wait expectantly, to prepare for the Easter that Jesus assured them would come.

Saturday was the day Jesus lay dead, the day the disciples hid out in a locked room, frightened that they might be next; the day their whole world had shrunk to just that room, filled with grief and hopelessness. There was no secret way out. Who knew how long they would be there?

People continue to have “good Friday” experiences, no matter what the cause -- divorce, death of a loved one, loss of employment, the doctor saying "terminal," a tragic accident -- when the trap door you didn’t know you were standing on suddenly opens and you find yourself falling, alone, into a very dark place. Hopelessness and dread cling to you like the dankness of a cave.

Saturday is the day the freefall comes to a stop. You land. Hard. Wounded, you look for a way out with what little energy you have after such a terrifying fall and landing. You see no doors, backlit by the sun, promising release. And if there’s a secret way out, that is not evident either. You lose all motivation, all hope. It seems to make more sense to get used to the darkness than to continue looking. Your whole world shrinks to that lonely, dark place.

Saturday is that long, hopeless, grieving day between good Friday and Easter. And Saturday can last a long, long time.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. 
Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.”
John 20:19-21

When our world becomes that small, that dark, Easter just doesn’t seem possible.We lose all sense of expectancy that this will ever get better, that anything will ever change. Instead of being reassured if someone says “God is with you. God bless you,” we begin to wonder if God is around at all. Even later that day, when Mary assured them that Jesus was not only around, she had actually seen him, talked with him -- the disciples didn’t budge.

Instead of them having to find their way out of that room and go somewhere to find and see Jesus, Jesus comes to them in that small, dark place. Suddenly, unexpectedly, he is there, where they are. Easter came to them, and not in measure with their faltering faith. This is not the chocolate bunnies and jelly beans easter. Jesus comes precisely into their grief, their hopelessness. Rather than saying to them, “What’s the matter with you? I told you I would rise again,” he says, “Peace be with you.” Then he shows them his own wounds. Wounds from falling and crashing into a dark, solitary space -- often called hell. Wounds from having made a way out for us when there was no way. Wounds that looked an awful lot like their own.

Only worse.
 The Lord lifted me out of the pit of despair… 
He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked.
Psalm 40:2 
And so it is true:

Saturday is the hardest day of our lives.
Saturday can last a long, long time.

Easter comes.

Easter searches us out in the deep darkness. Jesus comes to us when we are least prepared for him…

…and loves to raise us from the dead.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


The idea of an annual Mother’s (Peace) Day originated with Julia Ward Howe, remembered primarily as the poet who wrote the words for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Born in May, 1819, Julia was an abolitionist and, with her husband Samuel Gridley Howe, co-published the anti-slavery newspaper The Commonwealth. She was a committed Christian, also active in the peace movement and the women's suffrage movement.

In 1870, Howe became outraged by the ravages of the Civil and Franco-Prussian Wars. Believing that women had a particular sensitivity and understanding of the human costs of war, Julia called upon women everywhere to stand up for peaceful resolutions and negotiations rather than violence and bloodshed. In an effort to draw this into public conversation and commitment, Howe issued a proclamation:

Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

From the bosum of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

In 1872, the first Mothers' Peace Day Observance was held on the second Sunday in June, and the meetings continued for several years. Her idea was widely accepted, but she was never able to get the day recognized as an official holiday.
After she died, other women took on the cause of establishing a Mother’s Peace Day, notably Anna Jarvis, an Appalachian woman whose own mother was an inspiring community leader involved in reconciliation efforts between Confederate and Union neighbors.

In 1907, the first Mother’s Day was celebrated in West Virginia. In 1914 the second Sunday of May was finally declared an official national holiday, “Mother’s Day,” by President Woodrow Wilson. It had taken 34 years, but Julia Howe didn’t live to see it.

Anna did. The day was intended to be spent first in church, and then at home with everyone writing special letters to their moms. In the spirit of Julia Howe, people were to be particularly mindful of mother’s teachings of “charity, mercy, and patience.” People wore red or pink carnations in honor of their moms if their mothers were living, white ones if they had died.

But Anna also lived to see this day, dedicated to peacemaking and world peace, quickly overtaken by commercialism. The greeting card industry jumped in, and Anna was appalled that anyone would buy a Mother’s Day card rather than write a letter themselves. Florists exploited the sentimental symbolism of the carnations, and made a fortune selling more and more every year. By 1924, just 10 years after establishing Mother’s Day as a federal holiday, Anna was so offended by the commercialization which had taken over the Day that she began to petition Congress to abolish it. It was no longer anything close to what it was intended to be. In 1930 she was arrested for disturbing the peace at a Mother’s Day carnation sale. She spent the rest of her life and finances fighting the holiday.

Today, Mother’s Day is one of the most profitable commercial holidays for florists, greeting card publishers, and phone companies. The emphasis on mothers’ roles in peacemaking and world peace has long since vanished.

Anna died in 1948. She had no children.

Sources:, article by Anne Gibbons, chaplain at Lynchburg University

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mother's Day Prayer

Remember with your comfort, O Lord, all those for whom Mother’s Day is difficult:  single moms with little support, those whose circumstances required that they find another family for their baby, those whose mothers have died since last year, those whose mothers were neither kind nor loving, those who have suffered the death of a child, those whose longings for a child have not yet been fulfilled.  Fill their sadness with your love which never disappoints us, never abandons us, and never dies.  Amen.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


We baptized and buried her 6-week old baby the same December day.  We met at the small cemetery chapel, and walked in toward the tiny casket, set gently on a small table in front.  It was a non-denominational -- no, non-religious -- chapel, built of dark stone.  No Christian cross, no religious symbols at all, so as not to offend.  Cold.

Her face was expressionless as she, her husband, and a few family members numbly sat down.  We had all gathered here, in this same comfortless place, barely one year before, to do this same thing for their firstborn son.  Baptize, then bury.

I poured the water I had brought from a small plastic bottle into the crystal bowl I removed from my canvas bag.  I lit two white candles.  Light against the darkness; flame against the cold.  There would be no hymns today.  No responsive readings.  No formal sermon.  It was just the six of us, after all, gathered to lay this tiny one to rest.  The promises of Jesus, St. John's vision of God wiping our tears away, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and a few prayers.  Just as we had done a year ago.  That was all any of us could manage.

It was good there were so few, as my own emotions kept my voice low and quiet.  I grieved as the mother stared blankly at the casket as I performed the ministrations of Word and Sacrament, offering what few words of comfort the Lord gave me.

As I baptized the infant, water and Word ran down his cold face, into his eyes.  A baby should object, cry when waters gets in his face.  Not a flinch.  No reflexive squeeze of his eyes.  It was all just so wrong.
Then, the quiet procession to the grave.  Everyone wanted to walk.  No one wanted to get there any faster than necessary; dreading, preparing themselves for what had to come next.  As I read the committal readings and prayers, the young father turned and walked about 25 feet away, his back toward the grave, eyes glaring at heaven.  He could not watch.  Not a second time.  He could not stand there as his second baby son was lowered into the ground next to the first.

"Let us go in peace."  The mother leaned down and numbly sprinkled dirt from the mound next to the grave, over her baby's casket.  It made a horrible, thudding sound.  The men picked up shovels and filled in the grave.  Suddenly, the mother emerged from her silence with a wail, and threw herself onto the mounded earth, pounding on it and crying in heaving sobs and groans.

No one tried to stop her.  No one could
Finally, she tried to stand again. Though a small delicate young woman, it took two people to get her on her feet.  It was done.  Her aging parents helping her, we began turning to walk back to the chapel and our cars.  She stopped, turned, and walked a few steps to me.  We hugged, and I held her as she went limp in my warms and wept.

Slowly, laboriously, we made our way to the car.  Her family helped her in, then quietly got in themselves, and drove away.

As I stood and gently waved, I felt something cold on my face.  I touched my face, and realized it was her tears on my cheek.  Sign and symbol of a simple parish pastor.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

BLOOD RELATIONS - An Easter story at Christmas time

Fog.  Drizzle.  Incessant gray.  December in northwest Ohio.  As a passing truck sends one more blinding spray of smudge across my windshield, I pray, "Jesus, you're the only light I have today.  This darkness is overcoming me.  Be my light which this depressing darkness cannot overcome."

To someone is born this day a baby.  The time is not right.  It fights for its life in a hospital incubator.

As I drive, I release my dismal spirit to the Lord, and soon feel a quiet peace moving the shadows away.  By the time I reach church 45 minutes later to lead my Bible study, I am ready, eager to mine God's Word with the faithful women who attend despite the fog, despite the busy season.  Their presence alone blesses me.

To someone is born this day a baby...
Later, as I drive another hour back through the fog to Toledo to keep an appointment with the Red Cross, I recall the woman who called asking me to donate blood this week saying something about "preemies."  I make a mental note to ask the receptionist what that means.

Through the drizzle and holiday traffic, I finally arrive at the appointed place.  I am ready for the procedure, looking forward to the few quiet moments of rest I will be given as my blood slowly fills the pint bag.  I am always struck by the miracle of being able to give of my life without actually giving my life in order to help someone else.

To someone is born this day a baby...

As the receptionist takes the required information, I remember to ask my question.  "The woman who called me said something about preemies.  What did she mean?"

"When we tested your blood last time you gave, we discovered you are CMV-negative."

"What does that mean?"

"CMV is a kind of virus most adults have in their blood which, if active, produces flu-like symptoms in adults.  They may have picked it up from another person, or even from handling dirt, or by getting sick themselves.  We have to screen those because if CMV-positive blood is given to premature babies, whose immune systerms are not working yet, it could be fatal.  When we find someone like you, who is CMV-negative, in addition to being O-negative, making you a universal donor, well, you can probably expect to be called pretty regularly to donate for the preemies from now on!"

To someone is born this day a baby...

Awe gripped my heart.  I sat in stunned silence for a moment, taking in what she had told me.  "I'll share something very personal with you," I said after a time.  "My husband and I struggled for 10 years trying to have a baby.  For reasons medical science could never explain, we only seemed able to have miscarriages.  Both sides of our families have been 'fruitful and multiplied,' but not us, and for no clear reason.  Now you are telling me there is something rare about my blood that can save the lives of premature babies -- after all those years of trying to give life..."  My throat closed, tears welled as four of us -- two receptionists, another donor, and myself, let the miracle wash over us.

To someone is born this day a baby.  The time is not right.  It fights for its life in a hospital incubator.  Its parents wait the agonizing wait of helpless love and passionate hope.  The baby, dearly loved of God, is desperately sick.  She needs blood.

As I lay on the table giving my blood, blood which will bear life and power for a premature baby eagerly loved by her parents and by her God, I am facing a window.  I stare out into the fog and drizzle, and tears of awe and joy sweep over me again.

And I swear I hear the voice of a single angel whispering, "To you is born this day a baby..."