Friday, December 20, 2019

In Those Days...

Here it is, a few days before Christmas.  I have been lighting the candles and saying the prayers and going about my duties and my days, meeting with people and reading but not taking as much time for intentional reflection as I'd like.

A couple of days ago I went to visit a shut-in, and I brought my old confirmation Bible along with me instead of the newer, shinier translation.  It's still in pretty good shape, even though it is about 50 years old.  And I read out of that old translation, about Caesar Augustus and swaddling cloths, and I remembered back to when I made it my mission to memorize Luke chapter 2, out of this very translation.

I think I was ten or eleven years old, and I don't remember why I took up the challenge to memorize these passages.  It wasn't required for a Christmas pageant; my parents were not encouraging me to memorize scripture passages.  I didn't go to a parochial school either.  But somehow, one December I decided that this was what I would like to do:  memorize as much of the Christmas story as I could.

Every day I would crunch through the snow on the way to school, and I would start out with chapter 2, verse 1, and see how far I could get.  I didn't know who Quirinius was, or where Syria was, and I didn't know that the word "Caesar" meant "Emperor", but I plowed through the verses, understanding more or less, getting a little farther every day.

"In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.  this was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria."

I think I may have made it all the way to verse 14, in the end.  Every day I walked and recited, I recited and walked.  It was December.

I suppose it was my Advent discipline, although I would not have said so at the time.  At the time, I don't think I knew what an Advent discipline was.   And I'm not sure that the process of memorization itself yielded any special insights into the scriptures -- at least not at the time.

I think back to that year.  I have been a pastor now for twenty-five years.  At the time I tried to memorize the Christmas story I had no idea how my life would turn out.  I had not an inkling that I would be doing this work, that I would be reciting the story myself every single year.

A few years ago, in another congregation, I was visiting a shut-in just a few days before Christmas.  He was a retired pastor who had served our congregation.  Recently he had had a stroke, and this hearty active man was now in a nursing home, barely able to speak.

I came with communion and the Christmas story.  His wife joined us.  She was there every day, all day, just staying with him.  And when I began to read from Luke chapter 2, he started saying the words along with me.

By heart.

Every once in awhile he would fade out, but he always came back strongly on three words, "in a manger".  And while we were speaking together, reciting together, I noticed that those three words, "in a manger" -- were repeated three times in that one chapter.  How could I have been reading those words all these years and not noticed this.

There is so much in the Christmas story -- the shepherds and the angels, the long journey to Bethlehem, "Glory to God in the highest!"  And in the middle of it all is the manger.  The child is lying in a manger.

This is the sign.  This is the sign of Christmas.  It is the manger that carries the child.

All those years ago, I trudged up and down the streets, and I memorized the words, not knowing where the words really led.  And then one day, many years later, they led to the manger.  The lowly place.

And the words became food:  the bread of life.  In a manger.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Foreign Languages

On Friday, my day off, my husband and I drove south into Houston to attend the annual Christmas Bazaar at the Norwegian Seaman's church.  In some ways, going to this event seems a lot like going home:  my home state in Minnesota has a large Scandinavian-American community, and the decorations and the flavors and the sounds had a comforting familiarity.

And yet, it wasn't exactly the same.  This wasn't a church for people with a nostalgic, distant memory of their homeland, but for strangers and sojourners, people getting used to a new country.  Instead of feeling like the closed ethnic communities in my home state, there was an international flavor as we bumped into people from all over the country.  We talked to Minnesota Swedish Baptists and Wisconsin Lutherans and Norwegian immigrants planning a pilgrimage to the northern regions of the United States over the Christmas holiday.

While milling around a large crowd shopping for Scandinavian Christmas decorations, I happened to overhear some familiar sounds.  I recognized the sound of the Japanese language, although (sadly) I didn't understand any of the words.  I turned around and noticed four women perusing the Swedish linens and the Christmas trolls.

It has been over thirty years since I left Japan, after three and a half years as a missionary and teacher.  I recognized the sound of Japanese.  But I no longer understand the actual words.  Still, I wanted to make a connection.

'Are you from Japan?" I asked (in English).

"Kyoto," they told me.

"Ah," I answered.  "I lived in Japan a long time ago."  I emphasized word "long" so that they would not misunderstand that I was fluent in any way.

"Where did you live?" one of the women asked.  "Tokyo," I answered, ".... and Kumamoto."

"Ah," they answered.  (Kumamoto is not known as a haven for foreigners.)

We all nodded to one another in the Japanese way, and then we parted.  It was a small encounter.  I didn't find out why they were here, or for how long, or how they found this place.   It was almost as crowded in the church as in a crowded train in Tokyo; hardly room to turn around, much less to have a conversation.

A little later I was standing in line to buy some Christmas decorations.  Right in front of me was one of the four women from Kyoto.  She had some small decorations, and I said, by way of making conversation, "Those make good gifts."

"Not gifts," she answered.  Then there was a pause, and she said the word, "Souvenir."

I paused too, and I remembered something -- one word -- in a language I (mostly) no longer understood.  I remembered the word for souvenir in Japanese.  "Omiyage?" I said.

I remembered what it was like to be a tourist and a teacher and a missionary, and the "omiyage" that I brought home.  A Japanese ningyo, a handkerchief with flowers, a teacup, a pair of bamboo chopsticks.  I was buying memories, hoping that so many years later, I would remember something about living in that strange place.

And there is so much that I have forgotten.  I recognize the sounds, but I no longer understand most of the words.

But there is omiyage.  There are souvenirs, and somehow they still do the job:  they make real the memories that seem so far away.  Was my life transformed on that narrow island so long ago, when I taught students English and Jesus, and saw God in their faces?   Did I listen to church services in Japanese, and join the members afterwards for curried rice served by the pastors wife?

Sometimes it surprises me how spiritual we think we should be.  After all, we believe that God became flesh and blood, and that his disciples touched him and he touched them, and that they ate and drank together.    And when he left, I wonder if there were times when they forgot what the sound of his voice was like, or forgot the meaning of his words.

But there are still souvenirs -- things we taste and touch -- that suddenly bring the meaning back to us.  All we need is a word -- or a phase sometimes -- "Bread of Life" or "Good Shepherd" -- to remind us that we once spoke a foreign language, and hoped for a better country.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Seen and Unseen

Early this week a woman from my congregation stopped by and said she needed to talk to me.  She told me about a couple in her neighborhood that she visits.  They are somewhat shut in, so she has been checking on them and visiting with them to make sure they are okay.  Lately, the husband has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  She asked him if he wanted a pastor to come and visit him.  As it turns out, he had an affiliation with our denomination earlier in his life, and when she asked him, he got tears in his eyes.  She wondered if I would be open to paying them a visit.

Not too longer before that, a man from my congregation mentioned that his family had taken a single mom and her son under their wing.  They have gotten to know each other.  The mom has to leave early in the morning for work, before her son has to get up to catch the bus for school.  So sometimes this man will go and knock on their door in the morning to make sure her son is up and ready for school.

Recently our congregation completed a modest capital drive.  For part of our capital drive, we finished a modest face-lift of our sanctuary.  Now that we're done, we're asking, what's the next step? We are talking about the necessity to reach out in our community in new ways -- to know our neighbors, and think of ways that we can meet the felt needs in our community.  We are not a large congregation, but we know that we need to be a part of our neighborhood, know our neighbors, and care about them in real and concrete ways.

In the middle of thinking about what our "church" could do, I thought about these two small encounters that I knew about -- the woman who visits her shut-in neighbors, the family who has befriended a teen-age boy and his mom.  How many other unseen encounters are there in my congregation, just like these?

It's easy to focus on the things we can see.  In fact, it pretty much all we can do.  I can see the people who come to make supper for the homeless families who stay at our church a few times a year.  I can tell you all of the names of those who help serve communion or help with the children's church or make breakfast one Sunday a month.  I am grateful for the quilters who gather on Fridays, the altar guild who prepare the altar on Saturdays, the Bible study leaders who meet in homes.

But it suddenly occurred to me that so much may be going on that I cannot see, and that because I don't see it, I don't honor it, and make sure people know how important it is, and that this is a part of their calling to love their neighbor.

I keep reading things about how the church is too inwardly-focussed, too much worrying about maintaining their property and membership and comfort, and not enough focussed on their neighbors.    But maybe part of the problem is that this is what we can see -- but there is so much going on that we can't see and don't notice.

The same person who tells me she doesn't know what it means to be outwardly focussed -- just got home from going to the funeral of a neighbor's son.  She didn't know that what she was doing was ministry.

I noticed recently that a woman had not been to church for awhile.  In fact, it occurred to me that I had only seen her in church when she had a role in worship.  I will admit that my first thoughts were that she only thought it was important to come when she had to do something, but instead I decided to email her and ask how she was doing.

I found out that she had been through so many stresses in the past few months, illnesses and deaths in her family, people she was supporting with presence and prayer.  I had no idea.  So much of her life was unseen to me.

This is the church.  Seen and unseen.  But so much unseen.  Except by God.  The One who has planted us deep deep down in the world, from which we do spring up.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Following Jesus

Once upon a time, there was a church that thought they wanted to follow Jesus.  I'm not sure what it was, maybe it was the new pastor, and the fact that, after a few years of decline, people were beginning to visit the church.  Some of them even joined!  For the first time in a long time, they were hopeful about their future.

That new pastor even encouraged them to have dreams, to think about who they wanted to be and what they wanted to do.  She asked them what they thought God wanted them to do.  Groups of people from the church began to meet and consider what the gifts and needs of their community and their congregation might be.  They studied and they prayed.  And when they looked out of their back yard they saw something -- they saw a piece of property that they had had for a long time.  Many years before, they had been growing and they thought that their church would be larger.  They bought that empty land then but they had not kept growing and the land became a playground and a ball field.  They even considered selling it once or twice.

But after studying this time, when they looked out of the window of their fellowship hall, they had different dreams.  They had learned that there was a need for senior housing in their area, and so they had a dream about creating housing for senior in that back yard.  They even went a little farther, and considered that in the middle of the senior tower -- they should create -- a day care for children -- so that the old and the young could learn from and bless each other.

The members of the groups were excited about their ideas.  They knew that they were challenging goals, and that they probably would not be able to do everything at once.  But they called a meeting of the congregation one evening, where they shared their dreams with others.

After they got done sharing, one of the older members of the congregation stood up.  He opened his Bible and began to read from Luke, chapter 14:

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'"

That was it.  That was all he said.  Then he sat down.

But it was enough.  The disciples who had come to the meeting dreaming of following Jesus did not have a reply for the gentleman who spoke.  They did not know what to say.  They left their dreams behind when they left the meeting that night.

I wonder about the large crowds who were traveling with Jesus, and what happened when he told them this parable, and the other one, about the king going out to make war against another king.  I wonder what those large crowds following Jesus thought when he told them that they needed to hate their lives and carry the cross if they wanted to be his disciples.  I wonder if the large crowds got smaller after that.

Why were they following him in the first place?

He was eating and drinking with those who were left out; he was giving sight to the blind and restoring lepers to community and making the lame leap for joy.  He was multiplying loaves and casting out demons.  He was giving life, but there was a cost, and it was everything.  They should know that.

I wonder still about the dreams of that little congregation.  Maybe it wasn't what God wanted us to do, after all.  Maybe it was all right to give up when we heard those words about counting the cost.  But is that why Jesus spoke those words to the crowds?  Did he want them to turn away?  Did he want them to give up, knowing it was too hard?

Follow me, he still says, knowing that it is too hard, knowing that we will fail.

What does he want us to do?

Maybe he wants us to ask the question.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Hospitality to Strangers

My memories of Hebrews 13:2 go back to my childhood, and a book that I received from my godparents.  It was called, "Angel Unaware", by Dale Evans Rogers (remember Roy Rogers?) and was about their young daughter who died while she was yet a  child.  I remember the positive message that caring for a sick child turned out to be a blessing and a transformation rather than a hardship.

I suppose that this verse is one of the best known passages of scripture.  It's right up there with, "Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever."  Or "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen".  And who wouldn't want to entertain an angel (even though you didn't know it until afterwards)?

But since I am now a student of Biblical languages (especially Greek), and since I have been thinking more deeply (especially lately) about the word "stranger", I can't stop thinking about this passage of scripture.

I start with that really disarmingly short first verse.  "Let mutual love continue."  You know what "mutual love" is in Greek?  Philadelphia.  The city of brotherly love.  So love your brothers and sisters.  That's the first thing.  And that makes sense, right?  Not controversial at all.  Not that I'm saying that it's always EASY, but it makes sense to love "one another."

But the next part -- about showing hospitality to strangers -- well, that's another thing, if you really think about it.  Without any disrespect to Dale Evans Rogers, the word "hospitality to strangers" in Greek is really one word "philoxenia" -- which means "love of the stranger."  To be hospitable is to love the stranger.   And the word entertain?  is the word "xenos" in Greek, which means both to be a host AND to be strange.  To be a good host is -- in a way -- to be strange.  Or maybe -- just maybe -- the best host knows what it means to be a stranger.

This blows my mind.  This blows my mind as an American and a Christian and a pastor.  Partly because when I hear the word "stranger" -- this is a word that I don't associate with angels so much as I do with fear.  Especially these days, but not only these days.  These days we are afraid of the strangers at the border, people whose lives and poverty we cannot seem to imagine.  But most of us -- were at one time strangers and sojourners in this land as well.  We were immigrants from somewhere, poor or hopeful or fleeing oppression.  Most of our families have a story about when they were strangers, when they didn't know the language, when they prayed that someone would be kind, speak slowly, help them count their change in the grocery store, help them find their way in a strange city or a strange neighborhood.

But perhaps the best host knows what it means to be a stranger, and perhaps this applies to the church as well.  We have become too at home here in this world.  We have forgotten what it means to be a stranger, and this affects our ability to truly share the good news.

I remember that long ago, I lived as a missionary in Japan.  I was there to share the gospel, to invite people to the great feast, which is Jesus and his love.  But most of the time, I was a stranger.  I couldn't read the labels on food in the grocery store.  I didn't know how to cook most of the food I found there, at least at first.  I only knew a few other people, who came to Japan with me.  I understood the rhythm of the liturgy, but not the words.   And it seemed to me (although I didn't realize this for a long time) that this was a part of the point.  To be a stranger.  Not to know everything.  Just to know Christ, and him crucified.

We used to get off the trains in our neighborhood, and walk through the streets, smelling the good smells coming from people's houses.  We would joke about knocking on stranger's doors and invite ourselves in for dinner, but we had learned enough Japanese culture to understand that we should never do that.  But we knew that we were vulnerable, and needed help to navigate the world.

Perhaps the best host knows what it means to be a stranger.  I can't help thinking about Jesus, who was guest at so many parties, and how many people thought they knew him, but they didn't.  He was the best host who, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and shared it with his disciples.

The truth is, the world is a strange place, and the Kingdom of God is stranger still.  Love your enemies.  Forgive people, and keep forgiving them.  Be generous.  Give everything away, and you will be rich.  You are deeply flawed, and you are deeply loved.  You are not what you do.  You are not what you buy.   Love the stranger.

There is no "strategy" to mission.  It's just love.  Love one another.  Love the stranger.  Love yourself, in all of your strangeness.  Love Jesus.  After all, the best host knows what it means to be a stranger.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019


The other day a woman I am acquainted with startled me by saying that she has experienced people telling her to "go back where she came from."  I knew that she was born in the United States, so I could not imagine the scenario where someone would say something like that to her.

"When does this happen?" I asked.

"When I am talking to my 92 year old father," she said.

So people assume that, because she is speaking in another language, a language that they perhaps do not understand, that she is somehow less-than.  That she does not belong.

Things like this happen.  A woman from my congregation took her daughter to get her driver's license.  She has an hispanic last name, and the woman at the office asked if she or her daughter had a green card.  She is from CHICAGO.  But for some reason or another, because of the arrangement of certain letters in her name, it is assumed that she is less-than.  That she does not belong.

Like my new acquaintance, the one who speaks to her father in Spanish, and to me in English.  The fact is (and perhaps this is what really makes people uncomfortable) she is not less-than.  She is more-than.  She is bilingual.

I remember going to Disneyland when I was sixteen.  It was a long time ago, and we went on a tour with a number of other first-time visitors to Disneyland.  The tour guide was telling us all about the history of Disneyland, and then, she turned to some other guests sitting next to us, and she started talking to them in French.  I was fascinated.  I couldn't imagine being able to just switch languages like that.  I couldn't imagine being bilingual.

This is the immigrant experience.  It was the experience of my grandparents, on both sides.  My grandma Judy came from Sweden as a young woman, worked as a domestic in Connecticut, and kept her foot in both countries for awhile, traveling back and forth from Sweden to American until she met my grandfather.  She tried to teach us Swedish words.  I only remember a few of them now.

What is it that makes us want to believe that someone else does not belong?  That they are somehow "less-than"?  To know more than one language, more than one culture, more than one reality, is rich and necessary in our world.

I think that to be a follower of Jesus is, in a way, to be an immigrant.  When we take the values of the Kingdom of God seriously, we will realize that there is another language in the world.  It is the language of the Kingdom of God, and sometimes it doesn't make sense.  The kingdom of God speaks of valuing those who seem to be less-than:  the widow, and the orphan and the stranger.  The kingdom of God tells us to pay attention to the small and the vulnerable rather than the powerful and the successful.  The kingdom of God speaks of love that asks nothing in return.

And there are people who might hear that kind of language and say, "Go back to where you came from."

The woman I know who was told, "Go back to where you came from" -- she said that her family is from Patagonia.  She showed me pictures.  It's a beautiful place, where she's from. But she is called to be here now.  She promised to teach me a little Spanish.

The Kingdom of God is a beautiful place.  And more and more I hope to learn the language of that place too.   Every once in awhile I hear a new phrase:  "a bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench" -- so different than the language of the other world I live in, where the poor are crushed and turned away.

Someday this world will fall away, and all that will be left is the language of the love of God, and we will see the beauty in those we thought were less-than, and we will be astonished.  In the meantime, we are called to teach each other a few words of the New Language, to be bilingual.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Mine, Yours, Ours

This summer we have a tree in our sanctuary, and every week we are hanging a different fruit from the tree.  Every week we are exploring a different fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Preaching in series is something relatively new to me; I'm preaching some old scripture verses in a new context, and preaching some Bible stories I've never preached on before as well.

Last week our theme was joy.  The fruit of the Spirit is Joy.  And the text that I chose (usually read during Epiphany in my tradition) was from Nehemiah 8.  And of course the verse itself is so well-known, although most people don't know the story surrounding the verses.  "The Joy of the Lord is your strength."

I've seen it on plaques.
I've heard it in songs.

But not really thought much about it.

One of the things i do these days (that I never have done before) is find images for the sermon.  We have projection in my congregation, and I look for pictures and sometimes for words that I can put up on the screen.  And I was looking for this verse, "The Joy of the Lord is your strength", and what was interesting to me is that, for the most part, I found this verse on line:  "The Joy of the Lord is my strength."

It made me think.  Those pesky pronouns.  I thought, of COURSE when Ezra is speaking to the people, he is going to say, The Joy of the Lord is YOUR strength."  But what does he mean?  Does he mean that the joy of the Lord is your strength as an individual believer?  Or does he mean that the joy of the Lord is your strength as a part of a community of believers?

Does it even matter?

Those pesky pronouns.  I was recently reminded in a Bible study that faith is an individual matter.  No one can believe for someone else.  We each stand before God on our own.  No one else's good word can get us in.  (Okay, except Jesus'.  That one doesn't really work.)

It's true; no one else can believe for us.  Except that I catch myself thinking about the times when I went to worship, with all of my doubts, and said the creed along with all of the other believers.  Somehow their faith made me stronger.  Maybe we can believe for one another sometimes.

And maybe the joy of the Lord is not my possession or yours, but it is the gift of the Spirit to the community of faith.  it is the Spirit that doesn't just live in our hearts, but it is the Spirit that also lives in our community, where we share joy and sorrow, fruit both bitter and sweet, and good.

On Sunday morning, I took out a small bottle of bubbles to show joy.  But I wasn't very good at blowing bubbles, and the six year old girl sitting next to me said, 'You're doing it too fast!"  Then she showed me how to blow a bubble properly.

And the joy of the Lord was our strength.

The Fruit of the Spirit is Joy

“The Power of Joy”
Nehemiah 8:1-10

             The fruit of the Spirit is Joy.  

            And the joy of the Lord is our strength.

            Do you recognize that verse?  I have seen it on placques, heard it in songs, know it by heart.  “The Joy of the Lord is our strength.”  
            Just one verse – but have you ever thought about it?  How is joy a strength?  Is joy strong?  Is joy powerful?

            Sometimes we think just the opposite – that joy is a child’s virtue.  I know when I close my eyes and think about joy
             – I think about children – the children at the pre-school, who, when I come over to visit – just to check in – are so happy to see me – are so excited to show me their new shoes, or tell me about their baby brother, or their trip to the Coca Cola Factory in Atlanta!  Joy!  
            They are joyful. But then -- they don’t have to deal so much with life – at least – most of them don’t.

            Joy seems to be a luxury sometimes – for us adults – 
            it’s a serious world after all. 
             There are many wrongs to right, so much pain to heal, so much tragedy ….  A little bit of joy might be okay, but in moderation….too much seems wrong, and frivolous and even – naive …. 
            You know what they say about Pollyannas, and their annoying cheerfulness – their unrealistic idea that you can always find something to be GLAD about….

            Pollyanna…. I even rented that old movie this week –(Pollyanna) in an effort to understand Joy,   
            I remembered that this movie was one of my dad’s favorites – my goofy dad, who liked to tell the same joke over and over, and who made up his own words to songs.  
            Pollyanna was one of his favorite movies.  
            And I remembered again about the girl who played the “Glad Game” – who tried to find something to be glad about everywhere.  Her father taught her the game.
            They were missionaries, and they were poor, and they had to rely on charity.  One thing Pollyanna wanted more than anything else was a doll, but they didn’t have money for it.  
            So they waited for the charity boxes from the missionaries.  There was no doll – but there were a pair of crutches.  What was there to be glad about?  Pollyanna’s father told her that she could be glad – that she didn’t need the crutches…. That was the glad game.  To find something to be joyful about – even In a pair of crutches. 

            And the fruit of the Spirit is joy.  
            And the joy of the Lord is our strength.  But joy doesn’t seem to be that powerful.  It doesn’t even seem realistic, sometimes.  In our world.   In our time. And it probably didn’t seem to be realistic to the people of Israel in Nehemiah’s time either. 

            Nehemiah – the book where those words “the joy of the Lord is your strength” comes from.   

            Here’s the scene. It’s about the year 538 BC.  
            The Israelites have been in exile in Babylon and they have finally been allowed to come home. They came back to a temple in ruins and a city whose walls had been destroyed.  And in those days it was important for a city to be fortified to have walls.  So the exiles had a lot of work to do.  
            Under the guidance of the governor Nehemiah and the priest Ezra, they rebuilt the temple and they rebuilt the walls of the city – not easy tasks.  There were a lot of setbacks and arguments and it was hard to unify the people.  
            They were probably tempted to give up.  A lot of times.
            But finally, in today’s reading, the walls are finished, and the people are gathered by what is called the “Water Gate.”  You might call it a sort of resurrection – the resurrection of the city of Jerusalem –
            And while they are there they asked the priest Ezra to read to them from the scrolls of the Torah – the first five books of the Bible.  And we don’t know exactly what he was reading from the Torah –
            Just that they hadn’t heard the Word of God for a long time –
            And that while he was reading, he was explaining so that they could understand, and that while he was reading, they fell on their faces and wept.
            And that is when Ezra told them to get up, and stop weeping -- for the Joy of the Lord is your strength.

             Why were they weeping?  They had reason to weep.  
            Some people speculate that they wept because they realized how they had failed their God, and strayed from him.  
            They heard the word of God, and the law of God, and they could not find anything to be glad about. Not just because of the way the world was – a dangerous place – but because of the way they were – turning their backs on God – forgetting his promises, and their responsibility to bless the world.  
            They wept because they realized all these things – and all of them were true –

            But the priest Ezra told them the truth – That Joy is more powerful than tears – and that the Joy of the Lord – is the most powerful of all.

            Get up and realize that despite everything – God is still with you.  Get up and rejoice in the voice of God.  Get up and feast – and share what you have with others who have less. Get up and realize that you are alive….

            It can be like this for many in our own day.  
            Sometimes it seems like our religious institutions are crumbling.  People are abandoning their practice of the faith, churches are closing, the situations in our society are leading to a lack of mercy and compassion for others.  
            When we see how far we are from the Word of God, we might want to weep.  The tasks we face as a church as a big as anything faced by the people of God in Nehemiah’s day.  
            But the joy of the Lord is our strength too.  And if we stand in that joy, the work we must do will be done.

            The joy of the Lord is resurrection Joy.  It is the fruit of the Spirit.  

            It is the city of Jerusalem come back to life. 
             It is the gift of the word of God, the God who is still speaking to you, the God who still has a mission for you.  It is the gift of life – and it is the gift of the community – standing TOGETHER as they listen to the word of God.

            The joy of the Lord is our strength – and it is resurrection joy – and it is a communal joy. –We can give it to one another.  Pollyanna gave it to her community – where she came to stay – and they gave it back to her when she lost joy and felt she couldn’t go on.  

            The fruit of the Spirit is joy.   Resurrection joy.  
            We give it to one another. 
            Where have you seen joy this week?  Where do you find joy?

            I have a friend who has had cancer – who I have prayed for – and kept in touch with – and this week – I saw on video – I saw that she has been raising monarch butterflies – and releasing them.   

            Go out and look for joy this week!   And then come back to witness to the power and presence of God in the world.



The Fruit of the Spirit is Love

 Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places

Ruth 1:1-21

            The fruit of the Spirit is love.  

            I read an article the other day that might not seem to have anything to do with this verse – but it does.  Bear with me. 
            The article began with an odd experiment in what we notice.          People were asked to watch a basketball game.  
            Half of the players wore white shirts and half wore black shirts.  They were asked to pay attention to how often the ball was passed among the players wearing white shirts. 
             Shortly after the game began, a man in a gorilla suit came out and walked among the players.    
            And you know what? -- fully 50% of the observers did not notice the gorilla.  
            In fact, they would have sworn that there was NO gorilla.  They were looking for something else.
            In our modern world, we have been trained not to see something which was obvious to generations in the pass:  that a personal God is active and moving in the world.  
            We still believe it – or we say we do.  But our senses have been trained in other ways.
            So this summer, we are going to train our senses to see what we believe – that a personal God is active and moving in the world.
            Starting, today, with love.
            The first of the fruits of the Spirit.  
             It’s no accident, I think, that it’s first.  
            After all, Paul also writes that, “Faith, hope, and love abide, these three – but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is first.  
            And the other fruit is connected to love.   It is sort of a foundation fruit – and you will see that when you see love – you may see another one of the fruits as well.  

            How do we train our eyes to see love?  
            First of all, I think, by noticing the stories of love in the Bible – really looking at them – seeing the details, imagining the scenes. 
            Like this scene, in the first chapter of Ruth.   
            I think that if there is one thing that is famous in the book of Ruth – it is the verses spoken by Ruth – and we recognize them as words of love 
            – but most of us know them from popular weddings songs.   “Entreat me not to leave thee/for whither thou goest I will go…. Thy people shall be my people, thy God my God… and where thou diest I will die.”    
            We know that Ruth’s words are words of love –

            But they are spoken from a daughter in law to her mother in law – and they are spoken in bitter circumstances.  
            Naomi and her family had left Israel during a famine and moved to Moab – and their sons had married two Moabite women.   But both Naomi’s husband and her two sons have died.  
            She has lost everything. 
            She knows she needs to return home.  
            And her daughters in law – being foreigners – there is no reason to expect they would be welcome in Israel – and really – no reason for them to go to Israel.  
            There have no children with their husbands.  
            They have no ties any more to Naomi.  
            And yet – both of them – at first – tell her that they will go with her.   
            And I think it is an act of love on Naomi’s part – to tell them they don’t have to come – she doesn’t want to tie them down.  
            She doesn’t think there is anything for them in Israel.   
            Naomi isn’t going to get married and have more sons that will grow up and be husbands for them – and that’s what both of these women need – in that time and culture.  

            But for some reason – Ruth won’t leave.  
            She wants to go with her mother-in-law.  
            She is willing to go to a place where she might experience hostility – and do what she can to help Naomi.    
            Between a Moabite daughter-in-law and her Israelite mother-in-law.  
            Maybe it’s not where you would expect to see love.  But it’s there.

            The fruit of the Spirit is love.  

            And what does this tell us about love – the fruit of love?

            First of all – it tells us that the fruit of love comes in unexpected places and in unexpected people – even the “wrong” person.  
            The fruit of loves comes in a Moabite woman willing to go the distance for the mother-in-law that she loves – to go with her to a country that she did not know – and where a welcome was not certain  -- Look for the fruit of love – even in the unexpected and the wrong places.

            And the fruit of love comes to us in places the places of grief and death – also unexpected places. 
            Naomi is living in a strange land – she has lost her husband and both of her sons.  
            She expects that her daughters in law will leave her too.  
            Why would they stay? She has nothing to offer them.  
            And yet Ruth clings to her.  
            For us too – the place of grieving and death is also a place of love – maybe especially so. 

            It was on the night in which he was betrayed that Jesus said these words to his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  
             And then he washed their feet – and then he died for them.  
            He was preparing them for his death when he said these words – when he gave them these words – words about his deep commitment to them – a love that would never let them go 
            – and their commitment to one another, a love that would also show itself to be fierce in the time of death.    
            Not then – but later, after he died and rose.  

            In times of death – love is the evidence of life.  
             Love that holds hands at a bedside, comes out for the funeral, brings casseroles, listens.  
            They are sometimes little things, but they are big things.  
            Where have you seen the fruit of love in this world, in your life, in this community?  
            Because we believe that a personal God is active and moving in this world.  But we need to retrain our senses to notice it.

            For many years I saw the fruit of love – but I didn’t that’s what it was for a long time.  
            I used to know a man who walked permanently bent over.  I didn’t know why and I didn’t really think about it much.  
            He walked permanently bent over, sometimes straightening up just a little, to say hello.

            Sometime after his wife died, I realized it.  
            Is wife had had polio as a young mother, and developed something called post-polio syndrome later on. 
            She spent most of their marriage in a wheelchair.  
            He gave up a job he loved as a professor to take a higher paying job, and they remodeled the kitchen so that the appliances worked for her.

            Even though she was in a wheelchair, they still enjoyed going to the theatre and to concerts together. 
            But in order to get her into and out of the car, and into places, he needed to carry  her.  
            From the car to the wheelchair, from the wheelchair to her seat.  And so all of those years – in this bent over man – I was seeing the fruit of love.  
            Only I hadn’t trained my eyes to notice.

            A personal God is active and moving in this world…

            The fruit of the Spirit is love.  Where have you seen it?   Where have you seen God?

            Go out and look for him this week…. 
            And then come back to witness to his power.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Hand Motions

Yesterday was Holy Trinity Sunday at my congregation, the Sunday we make special recognition of the name of the one whom we invoke every single week:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So, among the songs we sang about the Trinity, was this simple one:

Father, I adore You
Lay my life before You
How I love you.

I sing this song at the pre-school connected with the church sometimes.  It is simple enough to learn, even though the concept is too hard for pre-school children to grasp.  We learn the simple words, and we also learn some hand motions.

Come to think of it, every single song I sing with pre-school children has hand motions.  

Usually on Sunday morning we do not use hand motions.  We sing complicated songs with a lot of words, some of them hard:  words like "Trinity" or "Immortal" or "cherubim".  So on Sunday morning we were singing a song much simpler than our usual fare.

I decided to teach the congregation the hand motions too.

Why do I do hand motions with the children at the pre-school?  I can't say that I have thought about it very deeply.  It's just something you do.  Children need to learn not just with their eyes, and not just with their voices, but also with their hands and their feet.  Learning is active.  Learning is a whole-body experience.

I like to think that worship is a whole-body experience too, but when I think about it, I realize that a large part of it is learning to sit still and pay attention.  Sitting still does not seem very whole-body, although it is an important thing to learn to do.  It is also (and even more so) very important to learn to pay attention -- not just for an hour or two on Sunday -- but in every part of our life.

I learned well how to sit still in church.  And there were times when this skill was very helpful.  I was a good student.  I knew how to listen to the teacher.  There are times when sitting still is very important.

But I confess that sometimes I think I learned that lesson too well.  I was so good at sitting still, that I was afraid to get up.  If I sit still, I thought, I can't get into trouble.   Not getting into trouble became the point.

But sometimes faith calls us to get into trouble.  Sometimes faith even calls us to make a ruckus.  How do we learn that?  How do we learn that there is a time to sit still and listen, and there is a time to stand up and do something?  There is a time to walk right over to the wounded man by the side of the road in Jericho and help him.  There is a time to stand up and say something is wrong.  There is a time to use your hands and your feet and your whole body to worship God.  There is a time to stretch out your hand to help, to comfort, to heal, even to raise a fist.  There is a time to do the hand motions, to use your whole body to worship God, to follow Jesus.

Hand motions.

Jesus, we adore you.  Lay our lives before you.

Our whole lives:  hands, feet, voices, shoulders and knees, eyes and ears.  Our beating hearts.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Behaving in Church

One day during the coffee hour after church I mentioned to someone that I enjoyed the fact that there were more children in worship than there used to be.  "I think it's important for them to be there,"  I said, by way of making conversation.

My conversation partner agreed.  "Yes," she said, "it's important for children to learn how to behave in church."

"Behaving in church."  Is that what we are doing?  Maybe it is.  We sit and we stand at the right time.  We are silent when we are supposed to be silent.  We speak when we are supposed to speak.  We sing (or we don't sing if we don't know the song.)  We listen during the sermon, or our minds wander.  We shake the hand of the pastor as we leave, and say, "nice sermon, Pastor."  That is how we behave in church.

Or, if we are children, we sit still and try to fidget as little as possible.  We color in the pew, or we go elsewhere to have an age-appropriate experience.  Sometimes our parents help us follow along, a little.  But what is most important is to behave, not make a ruckus, not run up and down the aisles, not shout or say something inappropriate.  You know, behave in church.

There's 'behaving' and then there's worshipping.  We come to church not simply to behave but to worship.  To worship means to listen and to speak, to sit still and to stand up, to sing and to pray.  To worship is to participate.  I want children, in all of their fidgety, wondering uniqueness, to participate in worship.

When I was a little girl, I sat next to my dad most Sundays.  I looked up the hymns in my hymnal, and I sang along with my dad when he sang the hymns in his baritone voice.  He participated, and I wanted to participate too.  He said the prayers and I said the prayers.  I learned to worship by worshipping with him.  And I loved the liturgy because he loved the liturgy.  I still do.  I love knowing the parts by heart, when to sit and to stand, and to participate.

But that is just a sliver of what worship can be.  In our church now, we do something that we would never have done in my church growing up.  it would not have been considered proper.  Sometimes we invite the children up during the last song, to play musical instruments.  We let them help with the benediction by putting their hands up in blessing.  We let them know that worship is an active verb.

One Sunday, something out of the ordinary happened.  Just before the end of the service, a woman in the congregation asked for prayer.  She said she had gotten a text from her son, and her grandson was in the hospital.

So we did something that might not have been considered proper when I was a little girl.  We invited her to come forward, and we prayed for her grandson.  And I asked if anyone in the congregation would come up and surround her while we prayed, and help us pray for her grandson.

A few adults came to the front of the church.

 All of the children came up to pray.

Because, they had learned how to behave in church.  

Friday, May 3, 2019

Casting our Nets on the Right Side of the Boat

I was innocently reading aloud the Gospel story the other day, when I noticed something I had never noticed before.

I've been a pastor for a long time, and occasionally I suffer from the occupational hazard of thinking that I know the scripture passages from which I preach.  Sometimes I even think I know them by heart.

But there I was on Wednesday, reading John 21, that addendum to the Gospel of John, that beach story of fishing and breakfast and restoration.  I was reading it to a group at an assisted living center, and I noticed something.  The disciples had fished all night and caught nothing.  (haven't we all had experiences like this?)  And then -- Jesus appeared to them on the beach, but they didn't know it was Jesus.

And Jesus told them (we all know it's Jesus, but the disciples don't) to cast their nets on the right side of the boat, and they will catch something.

And of course, they do it.

And they catch so many fish they can barely handle them all.

So far, so good.

But on Wednesday, I noticed for the first time:  the disciples do what Jesus tells them to do, without knowing that it is Jesus.  They obey him, they take his advice, even though they think they are talking to a complete stranger.

Why do they do it?  Why do they cast their nets on the other side?

They are the fishermen, after all.  They know what they are doing (even though their expertise did not yield anything this time).  The person on the beach has wisdom (because he's Jesus) but they don't know that yet.

And yet... they do what he says.

I am reminded of the time I went to preach at the City and County Jail.  My text was from Matthew 4:  the call of the disciples.  I thought it was odd that the disciples dropped everything immediately and followed Jesus.  But the inmates were not so surprised.  It was Jesus calling their names, after all.  If Jesus calls you, you have to do it.  You can trust Jesus, even if you can't trust anyone else.  Of course they followed immediately.

But this time -- the disciples don't know who is telling them to lower their nets on the other side, the right side of the boat.  They do it anyway.

For some reason.

And I can't think of any reason why they do what Jesus suggests, except for this:  they have been fishing all night, and have caught nothing.  What do they have to lose?  They have come to the end of their own expertise and are willing to try something, something that might even seem foolish.

When I think of us modern-day disciples, I think that the problem is that we rarely feel that we are in this position.  Instead, we usually believe that we have a lot to lose -- too much to lose to risk casting our nets anywhere than where we have always put them down before.

I know that is often what keeps me stuck:  worrying so much that anything I do, any change I make, will mean loss to me, will mean loss to my congregation.  I don't realize that, in truth, my nets are really empty.

How do we get to the place where we have nothing to lose?  In truth, I do not know, but I know that somewhere, the resurrected Christ stands on the shore, inviting us to put our lives in his hands, inviting us to a strange and unexpected abundance.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Child Who Held My Hand

It was Holy Week last week.  Our new pre-school director had a great idea, something we hadn't done in exactly this way before.  She wanted to have a short chapel session every day, and every day tell a little more of the story of Jesus.

So on Monday we had palms and marched around the chapel and told about how Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and how people spread their cloaks on the ground and shouted 'Hosanna!" And on Tuesday we told about how Jesus washed his disciples feet and how he shared supper with them.  On Wednesday we had flowers and Jesus prayed in the garden, and we prayed too, and the soldiers came.  And on Thursday -- on Thursday there was a cross and a tomb, and a centurion told us how he felt about Jesus and the cross.

At the end of the chapel on Thursday, I told all of the children to gather with their teachers so that they could go back to their classes.  And as always, I went to the door of the chapel and greeted all of them as they lined up with all of their classmates and prepared to go back to their classrooms.  And somewhere, in the middle, one little boy grabbed my hand and just held on.

I could have made him let go, but somehow I didn't.

Because he held my hand, I ended up walking with him out of the chapel and onto the sidewalk.

Because he held my hand, I kept walking with him.

A couple of times he rubbed the back of my hand on his cheek.  And then he just kept holding on.  So I kept walking with him.  We went through the front doors of the school, and he kept leading me until I ended up in his room.

I keep thinking about the journey through Holy Week, and the little boy who held my hand.

Usually I just say goodbye to the students at the door of the chapel.  I don't go any further with them.

But on Thursday, I walked the whole way, just because he held my hand.

This is how it is with us, and with the story of Jesus as well.  We can leave it there at the door, and wave goodbye, and go about our week.

Or we can walk with the story all week.  Jesus can become real to us, and his story our story, and we can walk and walk until we find ourselves in a place we never thought we would be.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Serving Communion in the Dark

I was glad on Sunday morning when I realized that the rain had not started yet.

Sometime on Saturday afternoon, I started getting news reports about severe weather.  It was first scheduled to arrive in the middle of the night, then sometime early Sunday morning.  But when I got up on Sunday, the rain had not arrived yet.

I was pleasantly surprised.  It was going to be an important Sunday in church, not just the 5th Sunday in Lent.  We had important things to do.  Afterwards, we had scheduled a meeting of parents and youth planning activities for the coming year.  We have never had enough children and youth to plan activities before, and I did not want our planning meeting to be rained on.

I also had scheduled a home communion visit in the afternoon with a homebound couple from the church.

We made it through worship without any rain.  I won't lie:  it was a gloomy, threatening morning, but it didn't rain and we even made it through our youth planning meeting.  When I went back home it had just started to sprinkle.

I called the shut-ins and said I would be over after lunch, but that I would be keeping an eye on the weather.  They said they understood and would see me later.

It wasn't long after we finished eating that the wind came up, and the thunder started.  On my phone I saw that there was a tornado warning in the area.  Then, just a few minutes later, we heard a sound I had never heard before.  I thought perhaps sirens were going off, but it wasn't exactly like that, either.

It was over soon after that.

I called my shut ins.  I couldn't get through.  My husband said, you will just have to go over.  So I did.

When I got there I discovered that their power was out.  They were sitting in the dark, eating hamburgers that one of their daughters had brought them.  Even the stoplights were out on the neighboring streets.

It was still daylight outside, but inside the house it was more like twilight.  We visited for awhile about natural disasters:  tornadoes and earthquakes and hurricanes and blizzards -- all of the normal things.  Their daughter fretted about what would happen if the power did not come on, and said she would be back to check on them later, to make sure they got to the bedroom all right.   They kept re-assuring her that they would be all right.

Finally, I opened up my communion kit.  It was getting darker, and I wasn't sure how well I would be able to read the prayer book.  But just as I was pouring the wine, the husband got out the biggest flashlight I have ever seen and flashed it right at me.  I felt a little like I was in the spotlight.

I tried to hold the book under the light and read the words while he held the light in his hand.  I opened the Bible and read the gospel reading:  about Mary and the anointing oil she poured over Jesus' feet -- and we wondered together about that scandalous generosity.  I felt the light on the book as I tried to read the pages, and the light warm on my face, making me blink.  The light exposed some things and hid other things.

And when I got to the words of institution and I held up the wafer and the small cup to the light, somehow I felt like a player on a stage -- the darkness all around -- this moment in time, this act, illuminated.

The body of Christ given for you.  The blood of Christ shed for you.  In the darkness.

I watch the news and despair sometimes.  Of disasters natural and unnatural, preaching a gospel of chaos.  These are dark times, when it seems like we cannot see each other's faces, and know that we are made in the image of God.

And then the spotlight comes on in the darkness, as the oil is poured out on Jesus' feet.  The spotlight hits my face, and I realize that God is calling me to lift the cup, to break the bread, to say the words by which God reconciles the world.

The body of Christ given for you.  The blood of Christ shed for you -- and for all people.  In the darkness.

Friday, April 5, 2019


Last Sunday afternoon I was in a meeting after church with a few other church leaders.  Our facilitator went around the room and asked us to introduce ourselves.  One of the questions she asked us to answer was "Tell us about something interesting that happened during the last week."

This should not be a hard question.  Right?

But when my turn came at the table, I drew a blank.  What was something interesting that happened during the past week?  I couldn't think of anything.

I wanted to excuse myself and go into my office and stare at my calendar for a few minutes.  Because interesting things happen to me all the time.  I have conversations and go to the hospital, and kneel down to talk to small children.  I was sure if she could give me a minute I could think of something.

I felt like somehow, I had not been present during the past week.  Had I let a whole week go by without paying attention?  I had to do better.

I remembered going to the bookstore a couple of days before.  This is a big outing for us.  It's a sort of a mental health break during the week.  I usually spend a little time checking out the current magazines.  I notice that there are a lot of magazines these days with names like "Breathe" and "The Mindfulness Journal" and "10 Minutes to Mindful Living."

I am not sure what Mindfulness is, except that it is supposed to be good for you.  I suspect that it is the exact opposite of letting a whole week go by without noticing when something interesting is happening to you.  I suspect that it has something to do with paying attention.  Maybe if you pay attention, there are more interesting things going on than we think.

There are the mockingbirds building their nests, there are people holding hands and praying in hospital rooms, there are tiny flowers pushing their way up in front of the sanctuary.  There are small children who wave at me when they are leaving pre-school in the afternoon.  There are people who will dare to tell you a story from their life, if you are wise enough to listen.  There are poets whispering words into your ears, and the azaleas are preaching.

I am not going to say that suddenly this week everything was better, that I started paying attention suddenly.  Life is still a blur sometimes.  But I am hoping to snatch a moment, here and there, like the little boy who was so excited that he got to go to chapel on Wednesday.  Like mist on the windshield, or the touch of anointing oil, when someone asks for prayer.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Lent is Not Self-Help

I'm spectacularly bad at giving things up for Lent.

Truthfully, I'm pretty bad at any sort of regular Lenten discipline at all, except going to Wednesday evening services, which is required because I am the pastor.  I keep thinking that it would be good if we got one of those cardboard banks for Lent and practiced giving a special offering for a particular cause, but I haven't gotten around to doing it.  One of these years...

But I digress.  Mostly, this is about my inability to give something up for Lent.  Partly this is a failure of imagination:  as Lent draws hear,  I think:  what would be a good thing for me to give up this year?  And most of the time, I can't come up with anything that I would consider interesting.  There was one year that I gave up buying books for Lent, which turned out to be excruciating, which means it was a good idea.  Right?

I also remember one Wednesday morning early when I was taking the garbage out to the curb.  It was a snowy, icy, cold morning in Minnesota, and suddenly I realized that it was Ash Wednesday (which I did actually know) and that I did not know what I was going to give up for Lent.  And I thought, what if I get rid of one thing a day for forty days?  That was a really good idea, theologically, I had to admit.  But logistically, it was not as easy as it sounded.  Bags of things accumulated before I got them to the thrift store.

Most of the time though, I don't manage giving something up for Lent.  It was not a part of my practice growing up.  I don't automatically think of it.  I don't think it's a bad idea, though.  I like the idea of finding some special way to mark the forty days before Easter.

I think that one of my problems is that when I think about what I should give up, it's usually something bad for me.  Like sugary treats, or potato chips, or soda (although I don't drink soda, so there's that.)  Then I start thinking of Lent as some sort of self-improvement project, a way to lose weight, or change a bad habit, at least temporarily.

Don't get me wrong:  I think changing bad habits is a good idea.  I think becoming healthier is a great idea.

I just don't think that's what Lent is for.

I think that Lent is more about failure than success.  Maybe the point about giving things up (if you do) is not to be so good at it.  Maybe the point is to come face to face with the grace of God, the grace that only failures need.  All of you who can make it on your own need not apply.

Lent is about getting ready for Easter, getting ready for not only Jesus' resurrection, but our own.  I am not sure what is the best way to get ready for that, except living and paying attention, and being honest.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

A Sermon Illustration from my Life

I remember once going to visit my uncle in the hospital in Sioux Falls, after he had heart bypass surgery.  It was early in January, and since I was a pastor in a small town in northeastern South Dakota, and since it was in that little lull you get right after Christmas and New Years, I decided go go and keep watch with other members of the family.

My uncle had never married.  But my aunt Margret came, and I think my mother's other brother as well.  They lived nearby, so they came and waited as well.

I knew that my aunt and uncle were proud of my vocation.  They had come and visited me one summer, and stayed in the parsonage.  They came to Sunday worship too.  I still remember that my sermon was on the text from 2nd Samuel about David and Bathsheba and the death of their son, and my uncle was impressed that (whatever I said) I did not sneak around the text.

So I was sitting with my aunt, and I was telling her about how Christmas services had gone.  I told my aunt about my Christmas Day sermon, that I had told a story about going to the farm one Christmas when I was a very little girl.  It was the farm where my aunt and my mom and her sisters grew up.  My mom was the middle one.  Margret was her older sister.  Her younger sister was still living on the farm when I was small.  So I told my aunt about the time when when visited the farm and I was afraid that Santa Claus would not find us.  My mom's younger sister slept in the bed with me, and she reassured me that everything would be all right, that Santa would find me.

It was a sermon illustration from my life.

My aunt thought it was a good story.

Then she asked me a question.  "Have you ever told a story about me in one of your sermons?"

I thought about it.  I thought that I should.  But I couldn't think of anything.

My aunt has always been such a faithful presence in my life.  I remember her colorful china dishes, which she used every day.  She wasn't a gourmet cook, but she was a good no-nonsense cook.  She used to work for General Mills, so she knew her way around the Betty Crocker cookbook.

She always wanted to be a teacher.  She was good at talking to children.  When I was in high school, she took me to the University of Minnesota with her one day, just to walk around the campus and sit in on the classes with her.  

I remember she got involved in visiting shut-ins at her church.  It made her feel good to talk to people who were hurting or lonely, and to befriend them.  She had a pastor's heart.

But when she asked me if I had ever used a story about her as a sermon illustration, I couldn't think of anything.  She was just there, always, a constant presence.  I couldn't think of a single particular thing.  Just that she was always there.

I didn't answer her question then, and I don't think I ever did.

But actually she did become a sermon illustration once.

When I was in college, I got involved in a pretty intense religious group.  They were the kind of people that thought they were right, and that everyone else was wrong.  I was "on fire for the Lord," and sadly, that meant that I was pretty judgmental for awhile.  I questioned everyone else's faith, including my Aunt's.  In fact, I even wrote my aunt and uncle a letter, and although I don't remember exactly what I wrote, I think I wrote some pretty terrible things.

My aunt wrote me back.  And this I remember:

She forgave me.

She loved me anyway.

That was a sermon illustration.

And Aunt Margret, I want you to know this -- your whole life was a sermon illustration for me.