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Archive for the ‘Wellness’ Category

The following article was written for Bethel Lutheran Church in St. Louis, MO. 

emptybowlGrowing up, dinner at the Heise house was an experiment in color.

My mother made sure at every meal we had color on our plate.  If our dinner was filled with white rice and chicken, then we would add color with green beans and peas.  Spaghetti sauce brought the red, paired with green and orange in our salad.  I remember distinctively that after bowls were passed around to fill our plates, my mom would take a cursory look around the table before we said grace.  Our plates needed to pass the color test before we could eat.

I grew up in a working class suburb of Cleveland on the lower end of the middle class spectrum.  I remember going to dinner at friends’ houses and seeing a sea of beige food – rice, instant potatoes, chicken, and other colorless food.  It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how unusual my family’s table was for my socioeconomic context.  There was rarely a meal at our house that didn’t have fruit or vegetables.  What I experienced as an annoying color test was a luxury for friends whose food rarely had the color of nutrition.

We each have unique memories equated with food.  For some of us it’s the color test.  For others it’s gathering together at the holidays eating once-a-year recipes.  For others still it is waiting for the donations of strangers to balance out our pantry after the bills are paid.

shoppingbagEating and drinking is an intimate part of our life, and intimate part of our faith.  Our scripture is filled with food stories – the manna of the desert, Jesus fasting for 40 days, the feeding of the 5,000.  Some scholars describe the Gospel of Luke as being the “foodie’s gospel,” because at almost at every turn we see Jesus eating while he teaches.   We even experience our sacraments through food, as we physically consume the presence of Christ in, with and under the elements of bread and wine.  We embody our spirituality through food.

This November, Bethel will begin a journey with food.  We enter this experience recognizing that each of us has our own unique stories and experiences surrounding food.  These experiences have shaped our narrative in distinctive ways.  Together, we will reflect upon joyful and difficult memories with food, and noting where we experienced God’s Holy Spirit working in those memories.  We will participate in activities and discussions about the realities of food around the world.  We will take steps to help bring color to tables in our community that are beige, and build new food memories.

God has gifted creation with ample, color-filled food to be shared by all.  The possibilities for us to decrease food insecurity and increase food security are as abundant as the flavor in the fields.  In thankful response to the blessings we receive from Christ, we partner together with God and creation to explore new ways to bring nutritious food to every table.

Vicar Tina Heise

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A few days ago I attended a service event with my contextual education congregation, St. John’s Lutheran of Wilmette, IL.  We are part of a confirmation cluster, and once a month pastors, confirmation students, and seminarians from four local congregations get together to complete some sort of service project in the community.  Our September event was held at an organization called Feed My Starving Children.  This organization packs a rice/soy/veggie food combination and sends it to places in the world where children are dying of starvation.

This summer, while working as a chaplain intern during my clinical pastoral education (CPE), I had my first face-to-face encounter with a child who was starving to death.  At the hospital, we gave his condition a fancy, emotionally detached label – “failure to thrive.”  Despite the detached label, it was hard to detach from recognizing this child failed to thrive for only one reason – he was starving to death.  It was a horrifying reality to realize that hunger and poverty can be reality that a US native could starve to death in a town in New Hampshire.  I had never seen anything like that before in real life, and when we were at Feed My Starving Children, I felt a need to help fight hunger with a passion I never felt before.  I realized fighting hunger had many more layers than I had originally thought.

Fighting hunger is vital – According to Feed My Starving Children, 18,000 children throughout the world die each day of starvation.  I know that in a recent Chicago poll, over 60% of all Chicago residents are “food insecure,” which means that they do not know where there next meal is coming from.  Hunger is experienced both at home and abroad.

Fighting hunger can be fun – St. John’s is now my fourth congregation who has a focus on hunger justice, including my home congregation.  Each place is different in how they serve, but the spirit of love that surrounds such efforts puts a smile on my heart.  At Feed My Starving Children, youth were broken down to into teams, and were told to cheer for each box of food they packed.  Each packing station was named after the country to which the food was going.  The five girls on my station cheered, “Cows go moo in Peru!” each time they packed a box, which always resulted in a stream of giggles.  Feed My Starving Children also played a blend of great, up-beat music.  Before that night, I had never done the Cha-Cha-Slide while packing food.

Fighting hunger leads us to quest for better answers about food justice – That night, we packed enough food to feed 600 children for 6 months, and the food all fit on skid the size of an ice cream truck.  That was because each bag of food only consisted of a cup of rice, a cup of soy, a quarter cup of vegetables, and a tablespoon of a condensed protein supplement.  That one bag of 2 1/4 of food is intended to provide six meals when mixed with water.  While it’s great this food will save lives, I couldn’t help but wonder how such a food source would be enough, or if the communities to which the food was going even had access to clean water.  Nutrition options for people in poverty are not easy, and what can keep someone from starving may not necessarily be a balanced diet.

Fighting hunger requires prayer – That night, we prayed for the food to safely reach its intended tummies.  We prayed for the donors who funded the food.  We prayed for the hands that packed it, and for the people who will receive it.  Since that night, I have prayed for the confirmation students to remember that they can make a difference.  I have prayed that we will one day be able to feed children with a healthier diet than 2 1/4 cups of food over six meals.  I have prayed in thanksgiving that my niece and nephew do not “fail to thrive” and are not food insecure.

Most importantly, I have prayed with a heart of peace knowing that where our human efforts fall short, God’s love does not.

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The following sermon was preached at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH, on August 19, 2012.  It was written on John 6:51-58

This Thursday was the end of my clinical pastoral education unit.  More commonly referred to as CPE, the ELCA requires that all candidates for ordination learn how to provided spiritual support in a clinical environment.  Like many of my seminarians, I fulfilled my CPE unit during a 12 week summer intensive.  During my intensive I worked full time as a hospital chaplain intern for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire.

A teaching facility of Dartmouth College, this hospital was an ideal learning environment.  One of our goals was learning how to make “cold calls.”  A cold call is exactly as it sounds, knocking on the patient room of a person knowing nothing other than their last name, and asking if they would like to speak to a chaplain.  The point of a cold call is for spiritual caregivers to develop the capacity to invite someone into a conversation without having any idea on how that conversation will go, and to show the least suspecting individual that their spirit is valued by another human being.

Needless to say, making a cold call is not easy.  Providing spiritual care in a hospital is not easy, particularly since I was providing spiritual care to all faith traditions, Christian or not.  I kept asking my supervisor for some sort of tool, some sort of book that would help make these encounters easier.  Surely I could carry scripture with me, or a prayer book of some sort.

My supervisor told me I needed to enter these rooms with my hands empty and my heart open.  He said, “You know, God as a voice told Adam and Eve that he loved them and they should trust him not to eat the fruit.  They didn’t listen.  Then God told the Israelites that he loved them and they should trust him to follow the laws he put in writing.  They didn’t listen.  So God came down as a human, and told them he loved them face to face.  That’s when things started to change.”

Today as we look at our passage from John, we see Jesus doing just that – sharing the love of God face to face with the people.  This is a pivotal moment in the John narrative, a point where the gospel shifts and the road to the cross becomes clear.  This is the moment where things start to change.

The gospel of John has a different flavor than the other three.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke all share information from one central source, source Q.  Q is a source that adds a level of historical integrity to the other gospels.  While occasionally John has a few stories and events that are found in the other gospels, Q segments don’t come into play.  John’s message is less focused on historically grounding the ministry of Jesus, and more focused than the others on emphasizing that Jesus is the Messiah in the flesh, the incarnate Son of God.

Because of this human emphasis, John shows Jesus repeatedly engaging in in-depth conversations explaining that he is in fact the Messiah.  Today’s gospel is one snippet of one of those conversations.

This conversation began a few weeks back with the feeding of the multitude.  This miracle is one of many demonstrations in John where Jesus shows that we can count on God to provide for our needs, to sate our hungers.  The community doesn’t exactly understand this message, so the conversation moves to Jesus telling the people “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever drinks of me will never be thirsty.”[1]  Again, this message isn’t overly clear to the people.  Last week’s gospel passage ended with Jesus explaining that not only is he the bread of life, he is also the bread of heaven.

Today’s message begins exactly where last week’s gospel ended, with Jesus professing, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”[2]

Looking at the Greek of this passage, I was surprised to discover that the word John uses for eating can also be translated as “to munch.”  I don’t know about you, but when I think about Holy Communion, I have never envisioned myself as “munching” on the body of Jesus.

Yet, when we participate in Holy Communion, our Lutheran tradition confesses that we are consuming a literal presence of Jesus.  Christ is in, with, and under the elements, so that the morsels we eat are both fully bread and wine while being fully the body and blood of Christ.

However, a communion conversation isn’t John’s focus.  John never shows us a traditional last supper moment, with the dialogue of “This is my body…this is my blood…do this in remembrance of me”.  This gospel instead shows Jesus washing the feat of the disciples.

So we must ask ourselves, without a communion connection, what is the point of this lengthy dialogue about the body, bread from heaven, bread of life?  Why is this conversation so important that it takes us five gospel lessons to finish reading?  How can a conversation that began with a hungry crowd help us understand our own faith?

As I read this passage, I am reminded of an infant I met on one of my hospital units this summer, a child in the Intensive Care Nursery.  Annalee was born at 30 weeks, weighing a little over one pound.  At 30 weeks, she should have been at least triple her size, but because of a genetic defect, not enough oxygen went to her brain and her body did not grow like it was supposed to.

This dangerous birth weight resulted in a variety of birth defects.  Her lungs were ill formed, her heart had not closed, her kidneys and liver in failure.  Because of her breathing issues, Annalee had a trach installed in her neck, which is a breathing tube so thick in relationship to the rest of her body that she could not swallow or cry aloud.  She was fed through a tube directly into her stomach.

I became very attached to this family and to the beautiful little girl who, without the tubes, would have looked like a perfectly formed baby from the outside.  I found myself fascinated in how the nursing staff tried to normalize Annalee’s life.  When I met her, she was 6 months old, and like many young infants, smacked her lips at the smells around her.  Because of the trach in her neck, she could not swallow anything greater than her own saliva.  She will mostly likely never eat solid food, never be able to munch.

But she could taste.  I’ll never forget watching the developmental specialist brush applesauce across Annalee’s lips with a tiny paint brush.  The applesauce was not enough to force her to swallow anything solid, but just enough for Annalee to lick the sweet treat off of her lips.

That applesauce brush sated a hunger.  For Annalee, whose tummy was always full because of a tube in her belly, the applesauce brush sated her hunger for taste.  For her parents and myself, that applesauce brush sated our hunger for an innocent child who is unable to eat to be able to experience the pleasure of food.

When Christ tells us that through his body and blood we will be fed bread and wine of the heavens, he is telling us that in him and through him, our hungers will be sated.

Hunger is an important part of our human experience.  We may hunger for food.  We may hunger for love.  We may hunger for financial security, a job that fulfills us, better relationships with our children, a cure for cancer.  We may even hunger for things that may do us harm; like revenge, alcohol, drugs, nicotine, vengeance.

My CPE supervisor told me that it was when God came into human form and talked to people face to face things began to change.  I have thought about that statement many times and wondered if I was standing face to face before Christ, what would be the change I would look for?  What would be the hunger that could only be sated by coming face to face with God’s presence on earth?

It begs to ask, what is the hunger that keeps us from realizing that our needs have already been sated?  What is the hunger that keeps us from experiencing Christ in, with, and under the elements of our life?

We all have barriers that keep us from experiencing the grace Christ’s presence in our lives.  Often times, those barriers are found within our own grief and expectations.

Part of why John depicts such a long conversation is because people kept asking Jesus to re-create the miracle of the feeding.  Their expectation on being fed physically kept them from seeing how they were fed spiritually.  Despite Jesus saying that he is the bread from heaven over and over again, people kept missing the message.  The very next lines after where our message ends shows the disciples saying to Jesus, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”[3]

I sort of wish the formers of our lectionary would have left that verse in, because to me it names a tension this passage evokes.  Jesus tells us that the hunger of our salvation is sated in him, but quite frankly, this teaching is difficult.  Who can accept it?

Who can accept that there is a little girl in New Hampshire who can only experience taste when someone paints her lips with applesauce?  Who can accept that there are many of us in our Divinity family who are living pay check to pay check, trying to find a way to be fiscally stable?  Who can accept when tragedy occurs, loved ones die, and families break apart?

It is in these moments that we need to realize that the expectations of our hungers can serve like barriers to experiencing the grace of God.  The disciples are right.  This teaching is difficult.  It is difficult when we are so caught up in the munching and the drinking that we lose focus on what those physical manifestations tell us.  We eat this bread and drink this wine because in doing so we remember that Christ abides in us.

Christ tells us, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”[4]

We may never accept that there is a little girl in New Hampshire who can only experience taste when someone paints her lips with applesauce.  We can be sated in knowing that Christ abides in her, loving her with every stroke of the brush.

We may never accept that there are many of us in our Divinity family who are living pay check to pay check, trying to find a way to be fiscally stable.  We can be sated in knowing that Christ abides in those experiences, and will never forsake us during the darkness of those moments.

We may never accept when tragedy occurs, loved ones die, and families break apart.  We can be sated in knowing that Christ abides in those moments, grieving the losses along with us, standing strong behind us as we move forward.

God loved us enough to come down in human form and abide within us, sating our hungers as we face them face to face.  It is in the embrace of love that we can release our barriers and feel the gift of Christ’s sacred change.


[1] John 6:35

[2] John 5:51

[3] John 6:60b

[4] John 6:54

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Tonight a dear friend of mine pointed out that as a non-Christian, it can be somewhat confusing to understand what being a Christian actually means.  At the time, I responded by saying that the one thing that stretches across the board is that Christians believe God was made present on earth in the form of Jesus the Christ.

I’ve been wondering what other connections there can be, but really, I can’t think of another.  Some Christians believe in a virgin birth, others don’t.  Some believe homosexuality is a sin, others don’t.  Some people believe in a physical resurrection of the body, while others believe that Christ was resurrected in the minds of the disciples.  Some believe baptism is necessary for salvation, others do not.  Don’t even start asking about when is the right time to be baptized, have a first communion, begin tithing, hold worship services, or take on leadership roles within the church.  The differences are astounding.

The incongruity of what it means to be Christian can be confusing to say the least, and at times rather damaging.  It is no surprise to me why when someone has had a negative experience in one Christian tradition they become a bit skeptical of others.  Whose to know what’s different and what’s the same?  Is it worth taking the risk?  A few years ago, when I began my seminary process, a friend I had for almost a decade cut ties with me.  Her experience in her own Christian upbringing was painful and oppressive.  When I brought up anything Christian related, she could only see it through that lens.  This lens, and the inability on both of our parts to work around it, resulted in the loss of one of the more formative relationships I had during college.

I think it is also challenging because while our traditions throw around faith catch phrases that claim to be universal, what they mean to the individual changes constantly.  Not too long ago my mother told me that I used a lot of water imagery in my work, an observation that was entirely true.  At that time, I was working through my astonishment that God would call someone as flawed and damaged as myself to be a leader for the church.  While I still don’t understand and continue to feel unworthy, at the time the notion of being washed clean and born anew allowed me the strength to begin this journey that is becoming a rostered leader of the ELCA.

Now, especially as I come to the end of spending the summer working as chaplain intern at a hospital, the image of the body and blood speaks to me.  Before, it was a comforting, distant image, one filled with allegory and the image of many people clasping hands like that of a paper doll chain.  It was a joyous, emotionally detached image.

It feels very different now.  Now that I have washed the blood of another out of my clothes, now that I have seen grown adults shrink away at needles and children with IV’s peppering their arms and vents in their noses, it feels very different.  I also write this being in the midst of a frustrating time within my own body as I await yet another surgery, a time where I have had only a handful of days within the past 7 months that one part of me or another hasn’t been bruised, bleeding, or in pain.  I have become increasingly aware that the body is a fragile thing, something that should be held sacred and preserved, protected while alive and laid peacefully with dignity and respect when its life has passed.

The image of the body and blood is no longer safe for me.  The paper dolls grasping hands have been tossed aside.  I am no longer innocent in understanding the magnitude of how blessed a healthy body can be, or how the image of body and blood can be a haunting and painful thing.

I think that on some level this is why many Christians feel called to use such imagery to describe our church.  It is a blessing when we are united together, working as a healthy extension of one another, not only standing side-by-side but working as one cohesive entity.  There is also deep pain when our connection to one another is damaged, infected with jealousy, hesitancy, or distrust.  It may seem easier at times to walk away then to go through the rehab of rebuilding into a new entity that will never be without the memory of it’s illness.

After this summer, when I hear people describe the church as being the body and blood of Jesus Christ, I can no longer forget how fragile a body is, or its strength of resilience. Body and blood are now loaded words for me, causing a tension within my heart that I am happy to hold.  I am glad they are loaded, glad to be reminded that being in community is a gift that is as sacred as the life coursing through our bodies, fragile and strong all at the same time.

I doubt that I will ever find appropriate words to describe what it means to be follower of Christ that will fully embody everyone’s beliefs.  We will never know when the words that we hold sacred will be a loaded statement to another.  I am glad to embrace the ambiguity within those words, holding them close to my heart.

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The following sermon was preached at Community Lutheran Church of Enfield, NH on July 1, 2012, on the texts of Mark 5:21-43 and 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

I must be honest with you, when I read our gospel lesson in preparation for today, I had a moment of internal groaning.  Of course the lectionary would lead the seminary student interning as a hospital chaplain to a story of death and illness.  The irony is palpable.

I have been more than a little struck at how much the text resembles what I am witnessing at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.  If you were to pluck the hemorrhaging woman out of the crowd, place her in a waiting room and strap a blood pressure cuff to her arm, she could easily be one of the patients I’ve encountered this past month.

I would imagine that there are many of us here today who can relate to what is happening in our text this morning.  I imagine there are some of us who have battled difficult illnesses, those of us who have lost a child or another intimate loved one.

Maybe we don’t have such a literal connection to this passage, but perhaps we are people who can connect to it because we feel a deep sense of loss.  It could be that we are struggling at our jobs, fighting with our spouse, feeling a separation from our once attentive child who has increasingly become more distant as they grow into their teenage and adult years.

In those moments of loss and uncertainty, we may feel that we are like Jarius, proverbially prostrating our self before Jesus, begging for the healing touch that will take the pain, illness, and loneliness away.  We are faithful people, and we want to feel the relief in knowing that our faith can indeed make us well.

And here we wait.  Waiting for the miracle.

The gospel of Mark is filled with miraculous healing stories.  In fact, healing is one of the first notable acts of ministry Jesus performs.

In the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is baptized by John, a moment so powerful that Jesus is thrust into the wilderness for 40 days.  Upon his return to civilization, Jesus meets a few disciples, does a little teaching in the synagogue, and then begins healing.

He heals a man in a synagogue in Capernaum.  He heals a bunch of people at Simon’s house.  He heals a paralytic.  He heals the man with the withered hand.  He heals the man called Legion who was filled with so many evil spirits that when leaving Legion’s body they filled a flock of pigs.  This all happens within the first four chapters of the gospel.  Every place he goes, Jesus heals and heals and heals.

Mark wants us to take note of this miraculous healing.   Jesus’ healing ability enlightens us to the extent of his authority.  Jesus can go where no one else would dare to go, do things that are beyond anyone’s expectations.  Not only does Jesus engage the social and religious outcasts by talking to them and teaching them, but he eliminates the barrier that keeps them from their community.   The fact that Jesus can heal what others cannot shows us the limitless nature of his anointed power.

Jesus and his ministry are a contradiction to the reality of the world.  The reality of the world is that people are sick, people die, people struggle in their marriages and feel distant from their children.  The reality is that in a world of hardship and struggles, a miracle is the last thing anyone really expects.

Jesus stands in contrast to all of those difficulties, and the relief he provides in that contrast is beyond anything anyone could imagine.  The people are simply not prepared for the miracles, as seen by the action of the bystanders and disciples in today’s lesson.  Where there should be celebration, skepticism abounds.

After the woman touches Jesus and she felt her body heal, Jesus turns around and asks his disciples, “Who touched my clothes?”  The disciples, steeped in reality, can’t understand why being touched is such a big deal.  Almost mockingly they say to him, “You see the crowd pressing in around you?”

If you we could read the cartoon thought bubble above their head, it would probably read, “Come on, Jesus, it’s a mob out here.  Of course someone touched you.  You probably got bumped, get over it.”

Getting bumped in a crowd is a pretty real and normal thing.  It is such a regular, non-miraculous every day occurrence that it never crossed the disciples mind that in that moment of contact something extraordinary happened.  It was so far from their mind, a woman was healed right next to them and they didn’t even notice.  Their skepticism kept them from seeing what was happening right before them.

But Jesus names the not-so-obvious, calls to their attention the moment that was overlooked.  He tells the woman, that her faith, her faith in something greater than all human reality, made her well.

One would think that bearing witness to the exchange between the woman and Jesus would be enough to open the hearts and minds of the disciples.  Especially after seeing so many miracles before.  Yet again, in the very next encounter, we see the disciples and bystanders’ opting to believe what is most logical to believe.

When Jesus tells them that Jarius’ daughter is not dead but merely sleeping, they not only don’t believe him, they outright laugh at him.  “Okay, Jesus.  She’s sleeping.  Can you believe this guy?”  Again, Jesus makes the impossible possible.  He awakens the girl from death.

I imagine we can all see ourselves in the characters of the woman and Jarius, waiting upon God for our faithful miracle.  But if we look a little deeper, can we also see ourselves in the hearts and minds of the skeptics?

In a world of science and technology, of answers and proof, where is the room for faith?  We claim to be faithful people.  As Lutherans, we confess that we are justified from sin by faith in Jesus Christ.  But do we actually live what we confess?

Do we really believe that our faith in God will mend our broken hearts?  Do we really believe that wellness is within our reach?  Do we trust that Christ will continue to go where the reality of humanity has failed us?

Or are we like the disciples and the bystanders, taking the steps to follow our Triune God while a part of us remains behind and just a little bit skeptical?

Perhaps the reason why it is easiest to identify ourselves with the hemorrhaging woman and Jarius is because illness and grief are emotions that are easier to understand.  It is easier to see ourselves as the person needing a healing touch than to acknowledge that we are as skeptical as the bystanders and disciples, trying to live our faith but not quite seeing the miracle right under our nose.

There is a reason why Mark tells of healing story after healing story.  Yes, these stories show the magnitude of Jesus’ sacred and anointed authority.  But the other reason we see these stories is to bear witness to the bystanders who remain skeptical that their faith will be enough.  We need to remember that there are times when it is not always so easy to believe.

This gospel lesson is a message about healing and hope.  It is also a story that reminds us that it is in our human nature to carry a little bit of doubt, and that followers of Jesus for centuries have sought the balance between reality and the miracles around them that defy such a reality.

The Apostle Paul certainly understood the struggle to remain a faithful person.  In our epistle today he tells us that in order to be faithful, we must commit acts of faith, commit acts of good works to those around us.  In order to see Christ in our world, in order to feel the healing miracle of Christ’s love, we must show that love to others without reservation.

The hemorrhaging woman made her public witness to Jesus by merely touching the edge of his garment.  This one touch allowed the possibility for the bystanders to witness Jesus’ healing presence.  Had that moment remained silent, the bystanders would have missed it.

Jarius’ daughter, by rising out of her death bed, bore witness that Jesus’ love transcends life and death.  Had she laid quietly in her bed, waiting for the crowd to leave, the bystanders would have missed it.

These were healing acts had been seen before, over and over again, but still people needed to see them.  Those miracles needed to be uplifted in that crowd and outside Jarius’ house, because miracles that seem too good to be true are easily forgotten.

We complete acts of faith and show our love for Christ by completing good works.  In our actions and our steps, we provide proof that cures the skepticism.  Our actions as faithful people remind ourselves and those around us that God’s love is always with us, from the hospital waiting room to our dinner tables.

Every time we bring in food for the hungry, we are testifying our faith.  We are curing the skepticism that the hungry are forgotten.  When someone receives that testimony of faith, we provide an opportunity to stop the hunger in both their stomachs and their hearts.

Every time we make a prayer quilt, we are testifying our faith.  We are curing the skepticism that love cannot transcend the cold, dark night.  When someone receives that quilt of faith, and wrap it around their shoulders, we provide an opportunity for someone to remember that God’s arms are also wrapped around them.

Every time we participate in worship, donate money to our teenagers going to New Orleans, invite a friend to join us on Sunday, pray for someone who is struggling in their own lives, we testify our faith.  We shake the walls skepticism.  We invite Christ into our hearts and minds, and in that inviting, create a little room to receive the gift of healing.

It may not be as obvious as being raised from the dead or being cured from a chronic illness.  But it is still a miracle.

Amen.

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There are times when I feel when my biggest obstacle with my vocation is my health.  Today is one of those times.

I am a lupus patient who has nerve involved complications.  I have a major organ system that has been going in and out of failure for the past four years, and last night I discovered a mass that indicates that this system is back in failure.  I am extremely disgruntled because I just received documentation less than a month ago that this system failure was in remission.  Having that letter facing me on my refrigerator is not only emotionally taxing, but it also bears witness with the new fight that I will have with my insurance company.  Because lupus is the great masquerader and always manifests itself in ways that do not look lupus-like, like for me endomitrial cysts on my chest wall or damaged nerves that need to be removed, my experience has been that that there is a struggle to get insurance companies to cover necessary procedures because they feel it’s elective.

As much as my soul wishes that my vocation was my top priority, my health truly has to be.  So this morning, I spent several hours trying to figure out why I could not book an appointment at my doctors because of an outstanding bill that I never received.  I spent those several hours on the phone instead of in class, and of course it had to be on a day that a major paper is due in another course and half my class was missing because they were finishing their work.  It doesn’t matter that I emailed my professor explaining what is going on, the coincidence to these two things lining up could easily give anyone the impression that I was using my condition as a reason to excuse why I wasn’t there.

It is a hard truth to recognize the limitations of my condition.  I share my story because I hope to create awareness for lupus patients and to create awareness for what it means to be a person in ministry who has a chronic condition or disability.  Next year I have been assigned to work with a pastor who has a disability, and on a day like today I clearly see God’s hand in that placement.  I want to learn how to best tell my story in a way that is transparent and still uplifting, and it will be helpful to learn from a pastor who has journeyed this path. Despite my frustrations, my worries, my anxieties, and my overall fear of what my body is doing to itself, I know that part of the reason I have been called into a life of service is because of my condition.

I know that God rides the wave of this roller-coaster with me, is with me as I argue with insurance companies, and is my source of relief when I have surgeries without pain medication because of allergies.  I know that God will show me the way of strength that will carry me towards my next phase of remission, and will help me readjust my lifestyle to accommodate the permanent damage that has come from my periods of failure.  This steadfast devotion is radical good news, and in order to share how good it is at times it must be contrasted with the stories that are not always easy to share.  Tending and being vocal about my health is a part of my vocation, and it is by God’s grace that I have been given the opportunity to tend to both myself and the church.

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Last night I returned from spending ten days on an academic delegation in El Salvador to learn from a local television station that the nearest morgue of my Chicago home has been piling bodies in a corner for several months, stacking 400 adult and 100 babies like piles of trash.

It is clear to me that my time in Central America has been and will continue to be a transformative time in my life.  I’m sure that the impact of those ten days will continue to roll out feelings, thoughts and insights for many years to come.  I learned a lot about humanity, hope, the impacts of civil war, U.S. foreign policy, violence, peace, faith, healthcare, justice and solidarity from the Salvadoran people.  I am beginning to realize that my former understanding of the complexities of life barely scratch the surface to what those complexities actually are, particularly in a non-first-world country.

But what I cannot understand is how in a first-world county, in the same county as what I consider to be one of the greatest cities of the United States, can the remains of people be treated with such blatant disrespect and disregard.

To make matters worse, the responses I’ve read this morning of the people in charge do not seem to be so disheartened.  I am appalled and horrified that not only something like this has happened, but that the response by Commissioner Fritchey includes the statement, “It’s difficult to find a morgue anywhere that’s going to look like one out of a TV show where everything is shiny and spotless.”  Clearly this issue is bigger then a difference between Hollywood and Main Street.  To attempt to make that parallel almost as disgusting as the conditions of which these bodies are treated.

Medical Examiner Jones has tried to brush this off as a result of the poor of our community not being able to afford proper burials.  Unclaimed bodies of Cook County are typically buried in the pauper’s grave of Homewood, along with the fetuses and babies who died during delivery of families who cannot afford a private burial.  While there is no doubt that $13 million dollars of budget cuts accounts for a challenging process to afford to bury these bodies, news reports have proven that many of the bodies currently in the morgue are family members of people who are trying to find out what happened to their loved ones.  The report I watched last night showed a mother who called every day seeking answers for the whereabouts of her daughter.  She was not notified that the morgue had her daughter’s remains until May, only to discover later that the body had been identified as early as April.

El Salvador taught me a broader understanding of the word “solidarity.”  As I sit here in my comfy apartment in Hyde Park, I am reminded that part of my responsibility as both a human and a Christian is to be in solidarity with those who suffer, whether they are families in Cook County or families near the equator. I will never be able to sort through what I learned in another nation if I am unwilling to do the work and sort through what I am seeing in my own backyard.

Those of us who are fortunate to be born in a first-world country and be born into a place upper societal standing within that world need to not be passive observers of the horrors and frustrations of our surroundings.  I could look at this morgue situation and do what I have always done – pray for the families, follow the news stories, vote for different officials – or I can take this message of solidarity and push harder against the injustices in my surroundings.  I’m not sure yet at this present moment how I can be a voice of change in this situation, but I need to do more than be a passive observer.

I live in a nation where I am free, and have been my entire life, to express my thoughts about what is happening in my government without the fear of being massacred.  This is a luxurious right that far too many inhabitants of this world do not or have not had.  I was fortunate enough to learn about the struggles that unfold from fighting for that right, and it would be an insult to my experience in El Salvador to forget that the moment I first encounter injustice in my own community.

What is happening at the Cook County morgue is an injustice, and it should not be tolerated.  I pray for the courage to devise a way to take action and remind my local authorities the responsibility that comes with the benefits of being a first-world nation.

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