A Prayer for Saturday

breakdown-984812_1920I am stalled.

I have been pushing too hard for too long.

I’ve given my life more gas than it can handle, taken on too much, tried to do more than I am capable of.

And now I’m sitting by the side of the road, unable to get started again, watching the smoke pouring out of my broken-down life, weeping with frustration.

Come to my rescue, O Lord.

Dry my tears. Dry my engine. Give me rest and cool water. Teach me about the limits of my body and my spirit. Help me heal.

And when I am ready, send me on my way again. Gently, slowly, trusting in your watchful care.

Amen.

 

(Originally published at http://www.revgalblogpals.org,  Saturday, July 13, 2019.)

A Life, in Bags and Boxes

box-1209969_1920It’s been almost two weeks since the phone call came. He introduced himself as a police officer from a small town about three hours from where I live. He explained, as gently as he could, that he had been called to do a welfare check on my cousin and had found him dead in his apartment. It appeared to the medical examiner that his heart just stopped working.

Because of a variety of circumstances, I was the only member of his immediate or extended family who had the time or willingness to do the work of wrapping up his affairs. I spent most of the last ten days sitting in his apartment, going through his things. His life, a box at a time, a shelf at a time, an envelope at a time.

I got help from unexpected sources, and I got refusals of help from unexpected sources. My cousin was a man about whom few people were neutral. He had friends and neighbors who were fiercely devoted to him. One neighbor stopped in to tell me that Jeffrey had taken him grocery shopping every week because the neighbor could no longer drive. With tears in his eyes, he asked if he might have some small thing to serve as a remembrance. I offered a few ideas, but soon realized that my wisdom was not sufficient for the task of choosing such a remembrance. I invited him to look around, and he settled on a set of refrigerator magnets in the shape of dogs. It seemed to represent their shared affection for the pets they had each known. Another day, a 95-year-old man described my cousin, young enough to be his grandson, as his best friend. It was an honor to entrust the care of his favorite Christmas cactus to this friend.

My cousin’s apartment contained many items of furniture from the home of our mutual grandparents. While I might have wanted to take it all, I am recently  retired and trying to downsize, so that just couldn’t happen. One of the best gifts I received was the name of an antiques dealer who loves his work and knows that every piece in his shop represents a story from someone’s life. (If you are ever looking for an antiques dealer in eastern Iowa, here’s an unsolicited recommendation for Hoppy’s Primitives in La Porte City.) Dave Hopkins and his helper Nick spent hours helping me sort through the things in the apartment. They purchased many items for their own businesses, and they made daily trips to donation centers in the area to drop off things that I couldn’t keep and didn’t have time to sell.

In the end, though, I Two weeks ago, I didn't know that this thing existed; has my life been less for the lack of it_was the only one who could sort through the boxes (and boxes and boxes!) of photos, memorabilia from family members, and notes from my cousin’s extensive genealogy research. The landlords had been as generous as they could be in giving us time to vacate the apartment, but there was only so much that could be done. Finally, the choices were stark: Keep or throw. Take on the work of caring for this item, or let it go and realize that a tiny slice of our family’s history goes with it.

It would have been easy to step on the slippery slope of trying to preserve everything, and several times each day I was tempted to do just that. The question I settled on to keep me focused was this: Two weeks ago, I didn’t know that this thing existed; has my life been less for the lack of it? Sometimes the answer was yes; my grandfather’s cribbage board, the vehicle for many enjoyable hours of conversation and some memorable lessons in the art of gamesmanship. But other times, the answer was no; photos of family members I don’t recognize, even though I can see the family resemblance.

Jeffrey baby picsSomeone else doing this job might have made very different choices about what to keep and what to throw. Someone else may have had the luxury of space to store everything while they worked through it more gradually. Whoever was doing the work, whether it was compressed into a week or spread out over months, would still feel the burden of the decision: keep or throw. As it is, neighbors in his apartment setting are gratefully making use of his furniture, his food, and his things. Family members will choose whether to remember the baby placed in the arms of his adoptive parents one autumn day in 1959, the hurt and angry adult who never learned how to let go, or the lonely soul who desperately wanted acceptance.

As I sorted, I thought often of the words I have said to hundreds of parishioners on Ash Wednesday each year: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The bags and boxes of things from Jeffrey’s life are just that: things. Ashes and dust. Adiaphora (a Greek word meaning “the little stuff”).

Jeffrey recent pics 2Jeffrey was a complex person. He experienced much pain in his own life; and he caused much pain in the lives of others. Some people will remember Jeffrey as mean-spirited, delusional, and angry. Others will talk about his warmth, his sense of humor, and his gentle manner. And they will all be correct; Jeffrey was all of those things. He was not merely the bags and boxes that we carried to the dumpster and hauled to the donation sites. He was not completely his worst self, and he was not completely his best self. The truth that will remain is this: Jeffrey was a child of God, claimed in his baptism, “a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.”

Rest eternal grant him, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him.

 

 

Ordination Anniversary – July 21

Ord 000I’ve been thinking more about my ordination day this year than I have on any of my ten prior “ordiversaries.”  Maybe the fact that I’m transitioning (gradually) from full time ministry to retirement is making me more reflective than usual. I have some thoughts about the eleven years of ministry that I’ve been able to serve since then, and I’ll share those with you in another post. Today my mind is on the path that got me there in the first place. It was a rather long path, so this might be a rather long post.

I was not a likely choice for ministry; I didn’t have any of the usual credentials. There’s only one person in my family tree who is a pastor; I didn’t major in religion in college; and I hated my weeks at Bible camp as a kid. Still, God is not in the business of fitting in the boxes we build. So one day in college, my campus pastor told me that I should consider attending seminary after I graduated. I thanked him for the compliment; but privately, I was pretty sure he had me confused with someone else. And my life went on.

Over the next 30 years, I continued hearing (and ignoring) the same message from other people. (God is nothing if not persistent.) One Sunday, I was driving home from church after an encounter with someone who told me – again – that I should be a pastor. I was on Interstate 35W in Minneapolis, near the 35th street exit, when I reached into the back of my mind to pull out the list of all the good reasons I shouldn’t go to seminary. I came up empty. And so it was decided, that quickly. No drama, no harps, no angel voices, not even any angry car horns (I had actually managed to stay in my own lane). I changed at my core, from being a computer software trainer to being a future pastor.

Minnesota ValleyFor the next few years, God opened the doors that needed opening and closed those that might have distracted me. I moved into campus student housing and enrolled as a full-time student. In the spring of 2007, I was assigned to the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA to pursue my first call. After interviewing a few places, I accepted the call of Minnesota Valley Lutheran Church and Borgund Lutheran Church to serve as their pastor. I would be living just a few hours away from my home town, where my elderly mother was living. I began making plans for my ordination to take place at St. Mark Lutheran Church in Sioux City, where I had grown up, so that Mom would be able to attend.

The next few months were a roller coaster of events, from sublime highs to lose-your-lunch drops to the lowest of lows.  I don’t think I’ve ever again been able to look at one of those magazine articles that lists life events and assigns points, in an attempt to tell you how stressed you are.

The church that had been my home for over 30 years was Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. It was considered one of the “big steeple” churches, a reflection on both the church’s imposing architecture and its reputation in the larger Lutheran world. Every year on “Seminary Sunday” in the spring, a graduating senior was invited to preach at the Sunday services. That year, the invitation came to me. I had preached in other places, but there was something about that pulpit in that worship space, with its history of great pastors and preachers who had stood in the very same spot. I was struck by how big this calling really was.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of May, I was back in that same worship space as one of 178 people graduating from Luther Seminary. I got to share the day with two of my favorite study-buddies,  Meredith McGrath and Wayne Gallipo. We had all met on the first day of my first class in seminary, we’ve supported one another through all kinds of life “stuff,” and we’re still the closest of friends.

After graduation, I took some time to spend a few days with my mother. While I was visiting her, she fell and broke her hip. She was recovering well after surgery, and was to be transferred to a rehab facility in a couple of days. She was determined to be strong enough to attend my ordination in July. She bought my red ordination stole as a gift for me, and she had even picked out what dress she was going to wear. With everything looking so hopeful, I felt safe heading back to my seminary apartment to start packing for my upcoming move. Sometime over the weekend, there were some questionable (probably even irresponsible) decisions made about Mom’s medications. The new (unnecessary) meds knocked her flat on her back and pinned a “Pneumonia Welcome Here” sign to her chest. When I had left, she was walking up and down the hall to build up her strength, and three days later she was in the ICU. I still harbor a lot of anger about the medical “care” she received. She died just three weeks before my ordination date.

The next few weeks were a blur of tears and travel, of packing my things to move for my first call and packing Mom’s things to be sold or donated, of planning Mom’s funeral and planning my ordination service. I’m sure there were points when I couldn’t have told you my own name.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy ordination day was… I’ve actually started this sentence about a dozen times and backspaced over all of them. There just aren’t words (even from a wordsmith) to capture the ways that I was carried along by all the circles of community in my life. The people of that congregation, whose fierce love for my mother had brought us together in grief just three weeks earlier, gathered around me with equally fierce love to bless me into my ministry. People from my Minneapolis church family, people from my internship congregation, family members, people from the synod where I would be serving, a motorhome full of people from my new congregations, pastors who had welcomed me into their text study groups, my internship supervisor, my Sunday School classmate and friend who had been my parents’ pastor for about three decades, the Bishop of the synod where I would be serving, one of my seminary best friends and one of my long-before-seminary best friends… we all gathered to worship and sing and pray and grieve and rejoice.

 

There are some big moments and some funny details that stick in my mind from that day. I remember kneeling with a score of pastors surrounding me and laying hands on me… and I remember wishing that the kneeling pads were a little thicker because my knees were sore from kneeling for a long time. I remember that one colleague had just finished a graveside service for a member of her congregation, so the funeral director brought her to church in a hearse. I remember the bittersweet moment when my mother’s pastor presented the red stole that my mother had purchased for that day, and we both wept a bit at her absence. I remember another pastor-friend working absolute magic from the organ bench and my internship supervisor’s sermon wrapped around a story about sharing the light we’ve been given.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMost of all, I remember being carried along by a cloud of witnesses surrounding me, filled with love and joy and hope. And song… oh my, did we sing:

“Gather us in, the lost and forsaken.
Gather us in, the blind and the lame.
Call to us now, and we shall awaken.
We shall arise at the sound of our name.”

Gather Us In, words and music by Marty Haugen, © 1982, GIA Publications, Inc.

 

 

The Politics of “Just”

SELRES_b9c822e9-2cda-4a6e-b2b8-c7a9105634b5SELRES_e94ef793-d697-4d1e-84a0-516057e25d67SELRES_9df5d44a-10bf-4f9b-875f-3cfdbf8cfa26RevGalBlogPals SELRES_9df5d44a-10bf-4f9b-875f-3cfdbf8cfa26SELRES_e94ef793-d697-4d1e-84a0-516057e25d67SELRES_b9c822e9-2cda-4a6e-b2b8-c7a9105634b5is an organization dedicated to the mission of creating community for female clergy. Their website (www.revgalblogpals.org) has new content every day. One of those features is a weekly column called “The Pastoral is Political.” Here is the column I wrote this week:

I have served almost exclusively in small-town and rural congregatioQuiltsns in the Upper Midwest. Each of those congregations has a quilting group that makes dozens, sometimes hundreds, of quilts each year. Today I’m thinking about two of those groups. In one group, one of the members made it her special ministry to cut up the donated fabric into standard size squares, pin the squares into bundles so they could be sewn together into strips, and ordered the strips into a pleasing design of colors and prints. The tops were stitched together, batting was added, and a coordinating backing added to the quilt. The other quilters occasionally grumbled about her high standards, but the quilts they produced were lovely, and sturdy, and warm.

In the other group, the phrase I heard most often was “It’s just for mission.” The quilts were usually made from donated bed sheets. Fitted sheets had the elastic cut off, and the corner seams cut out. Some other random-color fabric was used to patch the empty corner. A second sheet, or perhaps a donated tablecloth, was used as the “batting” and another sheet (similarly patched in one corner) was used for the backing. Newcomers to the group who asked about finding coordinating colors for the patches were quickly reminded that such effort wasn’t necessary. “It’s just for mission.”

Hearing the phrase “It’s just…” makes me cringe, every single time. It has also taught me to listen for the occasions when the word “just” is used to demean and dehumanize those whom we claim to care for, to excuse a lesser degree of caring for our neighbor.  How often to we think or speak the word “just” as we provide lesser quantity or lesser quality items to be given to those in need. Anyone who has volunteered at a food pantry can tell stories of donated items with expiration dates several years in the past. A few years ago, I helped to organize a drive to gather shoes to be distributed through clothing “free stores” in a several county area. Despite our requests for new shoes only, we filled a few shopping bags with well-worn (and sometimes aromatic) shoes to be discarded.

I have sometimes found it difficult to encourage members of my congregations to consider their “it’s just…” words. Sometimes they are proud that they can donate more pairs of shoes if they buy inexpensive, inferior brands. My spirit resists that quantity-over-quality reasoning. Still, it’s important that I keep raising the question. “It’s just” language can grow roots and turn into “it’s just” attitudes. “It’s just” attitudes can create a background against which “it’s just” actions can flourish. “It’s just” a refugee, a poor person, an LGBTQ+ person, a woman, a child, a person suffering from mental illness. “It’s just” someone we can ignore, someone we can make assumptions about, someone we can separate from their families, or imprison, or kill, without ever actually seeing them as God’s beloved children.

A number of years ago, I learned a lesson from a friend and mentor. In one of our “coffee and wisdom” conversations, she told me that when she looks in her grocery cart or her cart from Target, she doesn’t want anyone to be able to guess which items are for her family and which are to be donated. I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that way before. But ever since that conversation, I have made it a practice to shop for donations from exactly the same stores and brands that I shop for myself.

Buying Campbell’s soup instead of a house brand isn’t going to end poverty and discrimination or stop police shootings of people of color. And it may not even make a huge difference in the life of the person who gets that can of soup at a food pantry. What it does, however, is change me. It makes me more aware of the recipients of this food as individuals with names and lives and families and stories to tell. It’s not “just” for the food pantry, or for mission, or for disaster relief. It never is.


Barbara Bruneau is a retired Lutheran pastor, living in southeastern Minnesota and currently serving in interim ministry. She is a knitter, a weaver, and a very occasional blogger at An Explosion of Texture and Color.


RevGalBlogPals encourages you to share our blog posts via email or social media. We do not grant permission to cut-and-paste prayers and articles without a link back. For permission to use material in paper publications, please email revgalblogpals at gmail dot com.

 

Cloud of Witnesses

FB_IMG_1521021848451In the church, we often speak of the communion of saints, of being part of a great cloud of witnesses. Mostly, we think about that cloud of witnesses as being invisible to us; they are the children of God who have lived in all times and in all places. Once in a while, though, that communion of saints becomes visible in an undeniably powerful way.

On Tuesday, I was one of a few hundred people who gathered to commend our friend and colleague, Ben Ahles-Iverson, into the arms of our Heavenly Father. Ben was only 37 years old when he died a week ago. I knew him for just half a dozen of those years, as a friend and colleague in ministry. Ben was known by church members in the area as the pastor with the amazing singing voice. Our congregations worked together on joint worship services and fundraising events in support of the ELCA campaign to fight malaria. For several years we were part of the same round robin preaching group for Lenten services. Ben and his wife Mara regularly joined our weekly text study group. I remember Ben never being content with easy answers as we discussed the scripture passages for the week. And I remember the charming delight he took in sharing with us the latest antics of their daughter Elizabeth. When a pastor was going to be away, Ben was one of the first to volunteer to be on call in case of emergency.

In the days since he died, I’ve learned more about Ben as I have read Facebook posts and other reflections by friends, colleagues, and especially by those who knew him when he was at Wartburg Theological Seminary. On Tuesday, nearly a hundred of those friends, colleagues, and classmates were part of the congregation that gathered for Ben’s funeral. We cried. We laughed. We shared Holy Communion. We remembered. And we sang. Oh, did we sing!

At the end of the service, clergy were invited to join the family in gathering around Ben’s cremains for the prayer of commendation. One of Ben’s seminary professors began the prayer. A moment later, without planning or intention, there were nearly a hundred voices joined in this prayer that we have all said so often in our own congregations.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Ben. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

As those words flowed from some deeply ingrained part of my memory and joined with the voices of colleagues, I could imagine the very same prayer being prayed by generations of pastors with countless families as they took that painful but important step of commending a family member into God’s loving care. This is the great cloud of witnesses. This is the communion of saints.

 

Photo credit: Jacob Sorenson ©2018

Blind Dating with Books

pexels-photo-267586.jpegMy local public library is sponsoring a program this month called “Blind Date with a Book.” This is apparently not a brand new program; libraries have been doing this for a few years, and there are websites where you can purchase books based only on a very short description. But this was my first encounter with the phenomenon.

I saw a description of the program on the library’s website, so I made it a point to visit the library last week. On a table in the center of the room, they have a display of books wrapped in bright red paper and decorated with valentine stickers. Each book contains a label that gives clues about the contents of the book and a suggested age range for readers. The idea is to select a book based only on the somewhat cryptic description. The “bait” is that you may discover a new genre or author to add to your reading list. That, and a prize drawing at the end of the month for anyone who fills out and turns in a rating form for their “blind date.”

My first blind date was an audio book. It was described as one of the most challenged books to appear on Oprah’s recommendation list. I listen to a lot of audio books while I’m driving, so I decided to give it a try. After checking out the book, I unwrapped it in my car and found The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I had not been aware of the book when it was first published in 1993, and I wondered if it would feel dated to listen to it in 2018. A closer look at the box of CDs revealed that one of the readers was the author herself. I was completely drawn into the world of the main characters from the first moment. I laughed, I cried, I recognized familiar situations and I struggled to absorb foreign ones. As a “blind date,” I call this a success. I would spend time with Ms. Morrison and her books again.

Today I returned that audio book and chose a print book. It was described as a suspense novel set in a time when “crimes weren’t solved with DNA evidence.” There was something about the description that made me wonder if I had read it before; so I picked a backup book just in case. If my first choice was one I had already read, I would return it (still wrapped in red paper) and check out the backup. No need for the backup, however. I had not yet read The Alienist by Caleb Carr, had not heard of it in fact. From the summary on the book jacket, I learned that the title derives from a term used to describe psychologists in the 1890s. Only one of my Goodreads friends has read the book, so it feels a bit like I’m breaking new ground (kind of the point of a blind date, I guess). I haven’t started reading the book yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

I have really enjoyed this “blind date” idea; I had become a little too comfortable with my short list of familiar authors and genres. This has been an enjoyable way to step into some new arenas for my reading this year.

 

Friday Five – Halloween

Over in the RevGalBlogPals Facebook group, Monica Thompson Smith brought this week’s Friday Five questions: Halloween Candy

1. What is your favorite Halloween candy?
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

2. What candy lingers in the bowl because it most definitely is not your favorite?
Good & Plenty, or any black licorice

3. Will you participate in trick-or-treating this year?
I’ll be giving out candy and glow sticks.
Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids that I’ve never heard of the Teal Pumpkin Project. It’s a movement to offer allergy-safe Halloween treats, instead of or in addition to candy. A teal pumpkin is a sign that you have allergy-safe options to give out. I overheard a woman in Target talking about it last week, as she put a teal pumpkin in her cart. I tried to be subtle as I swooped over to the shelf she had just left; but there were only orange pumpkins left. But thanks to Target’s website and their free Halloween delivery, I now have two teal pumpkins to go with the orange ones on my front steps.

4. Do you like to decorate your home for Halloween?
Not extensively. I have a few things by the front door to welcome trick-or-treaters.

5. What was your favorite costume when you were a child?
Honestly, I don’t remember what costumes I had as a child. So I really hope my parents didn’t spend much time or money on them.