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Archive for the ‘Devotion’ Category

This week begins our Advent midweek worship series, “Preparing the Way in Song.”  Each passage represented in our series highlights a different function of how songs were used to convey messages about God to the people.  Frequently these songs accompany a major shift in culture, serving as a frame for understanding where God is at work in the midst of tragedy or pointing to hope at the change God is yet to do.  These songs are liturgical narratives, often being repeated by faith communities for generations to come.

Our first week we encMiriam's Songounter two songs of praise by Moses and Miriam.  They are considered to be some of the oldest historical passages in Hebrew Scripture.  While presumed to be written down prior to the documenting of the creation stories, the use of water imagery suggests that the oral tradition of the creation stories was prevalent in the culture and influenced the mythological tone of these hymns.

Moses and Miriam’s songs serve as a liturgical ritual to reflect upon the dramatic experience of the crossing of the sea, all the while paralleling the events of the Passover.  In the history of tradition, it is likely that Miriam’s song came first when used in the liturgy, serving as an antiphon (or refrain) to reinforce the thanksgiving voiced by the people. [1]  The assembly would join Miriam’s words as an echoing refrain, breaking up the Moses’ song into sections.  We sometimes follow that structure in our own liturgy when we use a refrain in our Psalmody.  Also, Miriam is referred to as a prophet as the text introduces her song, suggesting that a “hymnic celebration by the people is a prophetic witness to God.” [2]

While researching these songs, I was surprised to learn from the Jewish side of my family that Moses and Miriam’s songs are still used as liturgical narratives in synagogues today.  It has caused me to ponder on many of the liturgical narratives that we use in Christian worship that have carried through the ages, such as singing Mary the mother of Jesus’ hymn of praise at evening vespers.

Our liturgy provides us with a frame work for encountering God in evocative ways in the midst of being in a community of believers.  We unite with our ancestors throughout the ages as we return to the liturgical narratives found in our scriptures, bringing them to life in the present with the sound of our voices.

As we eagerly await the babe in the manger, we stay united in the fulfilled promises of God throughout time through the gift of song.

Join us next week as we encounter Hannah’s Song.


[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 2010 ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 161

[2] Mark S. Smith, Exodus (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011), page 64

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Mystery in a Flag

I have never been one who is a fan of flags in worship.

My entire life, my father has taught me to be proud of my American nationality.  While there is no question that there is still an astounding amount of work to do to fully embody equality in this nation, I am proud to be a US Citizen.  I value that I am able both as a woman of faith and citizen of our nation free to spend my life working toward equality for all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of sexual orientation, skin color, or birth heritage.  

But I don’t like flags in worshipFlag_Casket

Worship is a time for us to look past our national identity and remember that God not only loves America, but every other nation and every group of people.  All people are welcomed in God’s house.  All people are welcome to receive the gift of grace found through Jesus Christ that is freely given – no matter where we were born, where we have been, or what stamp is in our passport.  Worship is about remembering how the whole world and all of creation is untied in Christ.  It has been my experience that flags in worship spaces rarely point to the unity of creation, but more often divisively point to a specific group of people. 

So imagine my surprise that at my first military funeral this afternoon I was evocatively moved by the folding and distribution of the flag. 

I think part of the power was seeing for the first time the flag used in a spiritual way to help bring unity.  The funeral flag united a family that was grieving to a broader connection of our nation and its history.  With the three shots of the rifle, I was provocatively reminded of the unity found in the Trinity.  With each fold of the flag into the perfect triangle, drawing two soldiers physically together with every bend, I was again reminded of the unity of the Trinity.  When the officer knelt before the grieving family and stoically stated, “On behalf of the President of the United States as the Commander in Chief of the United States Military, please accept this flag as a sign of our thankfulness to your family’s service to our country and all it protects,” I was reminded of the eternal protection we find in the cross and how it equips us to strive for justice and peace throughout the earth. 

I don’t think I’ll ever like seeing flags in worship, but I am grateful today at the graveside I for the first time saw God in our flag.  I once again am humbled in the truth that no matter where our life’s journeys take us, God is forever with us, empowering us, equipping us, and sheltering us with a grace beyond our understanding. 

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LadyOfSnows_2One of the challenging things about moving to a new location is the struggle to establish a new stomping ground for everyday things.  This past weekend, my struggles centered on finding a bank.  I knew my bank didn’t have any Missouri branches, but since St. Louis is literally the border of the state, I thought for sure it would be no trouble to find a branch of my bank on the other side of the river in Illinois.  Especially since Siri kept telling me there were 12 branches in a 14 mile radius or less from my home.

I spent the most of my morning driving from one fictitious bank location to another, finding myself frustrated that I didn’t consider finding a bank would be an all day possibility when I threw on a T-shirt and left the house without putting make up on.  After I drove to yet the third fake-bank location, I felt the little patience I have for these tasks slipping quickly away from me.  That’s when I saw it – a gigantic sign that said “National Shrine to Our Lady of the Snows.”

LadyOfSnows_1aAs a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I’m not as up to date with saints and icons that other traditions hold dear.  I was pretty impressed with myself that I remembered that Our Lady usually refers to Mary the mother of Jesus.  Since I began seminary, however, I have started to fall in love a bit with the idea of icons – people and images that evoke a strong message about a journey of faith or a spiritual discipline.  In a moment where my secular world of GPS and ATM’s seemed to be failing me, I turned my car off-the-beaten path into the compound of the shrine.

It never ceases to amaze me that God’s Holy Spirit finds us just when we need her the most.  As I climbed out of my car, it must have been obvious that I was on unfamiliar grounds, because a woman got up from a kneeler at the outdoor altar and walked over to me.  She explained to me that the shrine compound contained many images of Mary.  When I asked how she discovered this place, she told me that she was “not religious” but, much like myself, felt drawn here when driving past one day.  She shared that once she began walking around she realized the shrine compound was a holy place, and regularly found herself coming back at the joyous and sorrowful times of her life.

Together we wLadyOfSnows3aalked around a portion of the compound.  She showed me various icons of Mary, directing me to countless miles of walking paths and meditative gardens throughout the compound.  She showed me the Seven Stations of the Cross, telling me what she experienced when looking upon the crucifixion of Christ.  Through her soft-spoken explanations, I saw a side to our Triune God that I had not yet seen, her words speaking to me as boldly as a well crafted sermon.

It has been a long time since a person has witnessed their faith to me in such a way, and it was humbling in ways I cannot begin to put into words.  In a week where the ELCA has elected our first female Presiding-Bishop, I have been overcome with the progress and empowerment we have made for women leaders and their public positions.  But there, on that compound, I was hearing the truth of Christ through a woman who never went to seminary, shared she rarely went to church, and probably never studied theology for any extended period of time if at all.  In some ways, she reminded me of the woman that shrine represented – Mary, the mother of Jesus, a regular girl whose humble and unexpected journey of faith brought forth the transformation of the world forever.  Our God works through leaders big and small, educated or not, who are disciples either by their publicly accountable held positions or who witness to a stranger in front of an icon of Mary.

I’m grateful I was sent on a fictitious scavenger hunt for a bank that day.  It led me to a truth I needed to experience from an unexpected witness.

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This evening I attended a confirmation cluster class with the confirmation from my contextual education congregation, St. John’s Lutheran of Wilmette.  This cluster gathers several nearby congregations together twice a month to offer students an opportunity to learn with other confirmands and participate in service projects with one another.  While I used to work with children and teens in libraries in my life before ministry, I know I have much to learn on helping young people prepare for the affirmation of their baptism.

Today’s topic centered on peace and justice.  Echoing our service project two weeks prior at Feed My Starving Children, tonight’s conversation focused on understanding how we complete good works as a result of our love for God, not as a condition to guarantee some sort of salvation.  We also explored that we are called to behave with a spirit of justice equally to all people, and the struggles that can come with living into that equality.

I think the most enlightening moment for me was recognizing that acting from a spirit of peace and justice is something we promise at our baptism and when we affirm our faith.  I didn’t recall this from my own confirmation, and when hearing those words wondered if this was an add-on to the newer hymnal, the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book.  Upon returning home, I opened my old LBW, the Lutheran Book of Worship that contains the words of my baptism and affirmation.  There it was, the exact same promise – “to strive for justice and peace for all the earth.”

It was striking to see that not only do we commit to God and one another to live with a spirit of peace and justice, we commit to striving for peace and justice for all the earth.  Not just our neighbors.  Not just the St. John’s community or the confirmation cluster or even the synods in Illinois.  For all the earth.

We are fortunate that we have a true example of such a commitment through the life of Jesus Christ.  Jesus showed us through his actions and teachings that anyone can take steps for peace and justice.  Jesus hand-picked the people who in their high-school year book would have been voted “Least Likely to Care for Others” and empowered them to be disciples.  Out of the twelve in our scripture, each disciple had some issue or fear to overcome when being in service to others.  But held in the love of Christ and empowered by that love, they were sent out to teach others how to strive for justice and peace for all the earth.

Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we too are empowered to take such steps to strive for justice and peace.  We are further empowered by one another when we enter into the community of believers at our baptism.  This empowerment is one of the things we affirm at our confirmation, to support one another when we struggle to live in a spirit of equality, and such a promise is made back by the community.

That support of the community is the first step in striving for justice and peace for all the earth.

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“The peace of Christ be with you always.”

“And also with you.”

“Let us share this peace with one another.”

Every Sunday, Christians around the world share the peace of Christ with one another.  In my tradition, this point comes in the service after we have born witness to Holy Word and have uplifted our prayers of lament, reconciliation, and thanksgiving to God.

There are many reasons why we share the peace.  The apostle Paul tells us that in order to receive the Sacrament of the Altar, we must first reconcile ourselves with our neighbor, encouraging us to extend a sign of peace to the person we are most estranged  from.  In my experience, I rarely see people crossing the aisle to the person they just got into an argument with.  Rather, I regularly witness people using this time in the service to greet their friends and loved ones with a sign of affection that solidifies the connection they have with one another.

In seminary last year, there was quite a lot of talk about passing the peace.  As pastors-in-training, do we hug?  Do we extend a hand?  Do we engage the person who chooses that time to set up a pastoral counseling appointment?  I have a dear friend who takes quite literally the idea of “the kiss of peace”.  As a person who is not so comfortable with casual touch, I engaged in a lengthy discussion with him on why I was uncomfortable being kissed on the cheek during a worship service, even if it is intended as a holy kiss.

It pains me to say, sharing the peace of Christ was such a regular aspect of my worship experience and dialogue within my faith that I began to take it for granted.  It was just something in the service that I did because the liturgy prompted it.  I had not real appreciation of what it means to extend the peace of God to another.

I am in the midst of working as a chaplain intern in a hospital in New Hampshire.  A seminary requirement, learning how to provide spiritual care in a clinical environment is an important part of developing my pastoral identity.  It is hard, powerful, emotionally grueling work.  Day after day, I have the great privilege of being with people in some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives.  God’s presence is at work in this place, healing wounds that doctors will never be able to witness through an MRI or blood panel.  It has been a humbling, rewarding and joyful experience.

But it is also really hard.  Within the past two weeks, I have had several traumas that have affected me in ways that I had never anticipated.  Working in the Emergency Department and Intensive Care Nursery, I am with families when they decide to remove their children from life support or learn that their spouse has had a fatal accident from which there is no recovery.  The grief in these times is overwhelming, families traveling from all over the state, hoping to say their last goodbye to a person whose brain can no longer process their words.  I have seen more times than I would like to admit loved ones clutching the body of the recently deceased, totally unaware as the room becomes heavy with the stench of death.  I have seen people of the greatest health crumble to the ground by merely looking upon the face of a doctor who has come to share the news no one wants to hear.

The shocking reality is a moment without time.  Some families stay for hours, days even, before then can bring themselves to make the impossible decision or leave the hospital after someone has passed.  Time has no meaning in a place of such anguish, and something that I have learned to do is help these families realize that it is time to leave and return to their achingly empty homes.

There are no words to explain how sacred it is to hold the hand of a stranger as they say their last goodbye.  There are no words to describe how I can feel the Spirit of our Triune God enter my mouth, hands, and mind, guiding me to say words that I later will never be able to clearly recall.  There are no words to that can begin to explain to these families how grateful I am that they have allowed me to bear witness to such holy and steadfast love.

Somehow, in the midst of this unexplainable time, we together find a way for these families to leave the hospital and the moment behind.  Walking them to the door, praying for them as they enter their car and drive home to a future I will never understand or be a part of, I remember the peace of Christ.  It is the peace of Christ that allows us to move forward from an inexplicable loss and remember the hope that lies within the sorrow.  I have come to understand that peace can be something that we extend to one another, but it is merely a fraction of the power of God’s peace that gives us the strength to keep carrying on when time has stopped.

And I remember that the peace of Christ is with us always, even when the time stands still.

 

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In three days I am packing up my home for the third time in the past year and moving to New Hampshire to begin my CPE training.

Looking around my house, my home kind of matches my head.  There are stacks of clothes and books in almost every room, little lines of organized chaos.  I know in what container everything will be packed by the time I leave on Thursday morning, but right now, all I see is clutter. 

I am so grateful for this ride that is the seminary experience.  Even still, as I drove my closest campus friend to the airport this morning for her own CPE journey, I realized that I am nostalgic for a little stability.  I have changed so much since moving to Chicago last August.  My theology is different, my preaching is different, my writing is different, my body is different, the way I communicate with my loved ones is different.  In seminary, every day is an opportunity for transformation  While it is exciting, this fast paced change can be intimidating at times.

CPE will be twelve weeks of even more change.  These weeks will be spent learning how to provide spiritual care within the context of a hospital setting.  I’ll be working with people of all faith traditions in all walks of life whose lives transition as a result of life-changing medical moments.  Some people will be expecting the changes their health situation brings, like a senior who has been preparing for the end of this life.  For others, like those in a car accident, change will be unexpected.  CPE will teach me to how to faithfully be with people from all edges of the spectrum.  In that process of learning, my expectations of what it means to be a pastor will become something very different then how I understand it to be today.

The irony is, I begin my CPE unit exactly one year after my final day of employment at the congregation which opened my heart to a life of pastoral ministry.  It is also ironic that one year later, I learned that this congregation is also transitioning in its life as I transition in mine, as I learned via a social media announcement this morning their senior pastor has accepted a call to a new congregation. There is a part of me that wishes I could go back to that parish and we could wade in these unsure waters together.  But in my heart, I know that our simultaneous transitions need to travel on separate currents to end up where we need to be.

There is no shame in acknowledging that these currents feel uncertain at times, and that our uncertainty has us reaching for the familiar.  We all crave stability in times of change.  I know right now I am searching amongst the stacks in my home and head , searching for some metaphorical life preserver that will ease the fear of the ambiguity of what is to come.  It is natural for us to quake when we feel the tide of our lives shift directions, even when that change will bring goodness, knowledge, and peace.

But in these moments when we wade, not quite understanding how the water laps at our feet, we should remember that we were called into a relationship of security through turbulent waters.  We were called into a life of faith through baptismal waters, waters that while appear gentle in the font yet powerfully remove the bondage that comes from being victims of a fallen humanity.  Such waters brought a change so strong that we went from being dead in sin to alive in Christ with a few drops and the seal of a cross upon our head.  It happened quickly, in the blink of an eye, and in that blink gave us a life preserver that will never waver no matter how strong the current.

The tide is changing.  Who we were yesterday will inform how we will move tomorrow, but not determine who we’ll be tomorrow.  A change is coming.  Praise and thanksgiving to the One who equipped us to brave the storm through the waters of our baptism.

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Steadfast Humility

Today I said goodbye to an amazing woman who I have only known for a few hours but who has impacted me more than I think she will ever know.

Yesterday I began working as a part-time administrative assistant for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church of Logan’s Square, and have spent the last two days training with my predecessor.  This kind, unassuming woman served St. Luke’s faithfully for 31 years, many of which as the only staff person, including pastoral staff.  It was partially in thanks to her steadfast devotion that this parish was able to take some risks which eventually allowed it to rebuild itself.  Looking at the three decades she was at St. Luke’s, at the highs and the lows, the challenges and the triumphs, and I can’t help but recognize that this parish would look very different today if she had not been a part of the process.

What I think is the most inspiring characteristic of this truly lovely person is how humble she is.  It takes a strong person to last 31 years in ministry.  It takes a resilient person to spend that time in one institution, especially when that institution came close to closing its doors.  One would think that someone who weathered the storm successfully for so many years may have some sense of entitlement, some sort of self-righteousness.  But not this woman.  As she passed what could be passed of her knowledge unto me, not once did she boast.  Not once in her stories could I separate her successes from the church’s.  Not once did she imply that the church would be at a loss without her.  Instead, she looked to the future of what my ministry would be at St. Luke’s, being excited about the work that is to come even as her time there ended.

I didn’t make a New Year’s resolution this year, but from this day forward I am resolving to try to embrace some of the humility of my predecessor.  It is all too easy to become a minister who is so self involved that they can’t tell the difference between church branding and ego stroking.  It is challenging to be progressive in this field while still keeping in check that the progression really has nothing to do with you personally.  There are times in ministry where we need to take a public role and to discuss the work that we’ve done, but our intention should not be to pat ourselves on the back but rather use that experience to help inspire the future of our community.

We ended our time with my predecessor today by reflecting together on her ministry at St. Luke’s.  If ever there is a time when one may seek a compliment of their work, I think the final moments of a 31-year-career would be it. But self congratulations were not her way.  Instead of thinking of herself, in her humility she prayed for the future of St. Luke’s, giving thanks for its people, the senior pastor, and surprisingly, even me.

Humility of that magnitude can only come from a deep love for God and the people of God.  The power of that love washed over me and has inspired me to rededicate myself to a life of service to others and not service to myself.  As I continue along in my time in ministry, I pray that at the end of my career my focus will be as centered on God as the woman who I have had the privilege of getting to know these past few days.

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