First Assembly of God, Bemidji…

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Driving through Bemidji this morning and I wanted to stop here. In college days this was one of the churches many, including myself, attended. We were earnest seekers of God like we were earnest seekers of knowledge and degrees in those days and this was one of the “live” churches in town that also had transportation from campus so those of us, most of us, who were carless had somewhere to go on Sunday mornings (A lesson there for people wanting to reach out to people on campus).

It was led by Pastor Ed Korthals, a middle aged and godly man, who, as I remember, had a good heart and truly loved God. Like many Assembly of God parishes the worship was casual and fervently emotional. The sermons were topical and always drawn from a biblical text. The people were friendly and welcoming (Another lesson there for people seeking to minister to college students) the music was upbeat and sometimes interesting. I do remember people bringing their own instruments, including a kazoo, to church.

Alas, I was probably not the best Pentecostal. I was seeking God and I learned much there but I was not good with all the emotional stimuli. There were times when I felt lost in a sea of people singing in tongues and wondering if I was missing something because I was not with them. I enjoyed the emotional power of people who truly were seeking to love and worship God but I needed a quiet place to do that and that may or not have been the case depending on the Sunday. Yet still I came and this church, because of the love they shared, became a home away from home for me and deeply instructive as I applied for seminary in my senior year.

Little did I know, of course, in those days how far I would have to travel and through how many changes I would need to make before arriving where I am. Over thirty years later and the spiritual journey of a lifetime I found myself, this morning, standing on the lawn of this church and asking God’s blessing on them in thanks for how they helped me along the way at a crucial point in my journey.

If Pastor Korthals is still alive I’m not sure what he would say about the path that I’ve traveled. I hope he would understand that the same earnest young man who came to him with questions and was searching for God has kept on the path, although in a way we both probably couldn’t have imagined. And I hope that he and the good people at First Assembly of God, Bemidji, would know that I was, and am, grateful for the gifts they shared with me along the way. Wherever I have traveled being with them was an essential part of the journey.

You see, some people do look down on what they consider the excesses of the Pentecostal experience and faith. Too emotional, they would say. Too susceptible to “fads” cloaking themselves as moves of the Spirit. Sometimes just plain too noisy. Some or all of that may have some substance from time to time but there are things they taught me that have graced all my life and flowed easily as I traveled towards Orthodoxy and are even, dare I say, worth our consideration.

First, it’s okay to love God, to really love God, even with your emotions. Your emotions are part of who you are and yes, they can be unstable sometimes but they can also be used of God and I don’t think it would hurt us as Orthodox if we loved God not just as a formality but also with a sense of feeling.

Second, we need the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and the life of the Church.  So often we plan the life of our parishes like a business and forget we are a movement whose goals and methods need to be filled with the reality that the Holy Spirit can accomplish what a purely and perpetually practical outlook would never imagine. We see this, of course, in the lives of our Saints but for the most part I wonder if we’ve forgotten that what we see in the Saints is also for us here and now if we would open our hearts and lives to it. Sometimes we may think the Pentecostals go overboard on this but even if that’s true it doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bath water. Some times we have so little but the reason for that is because our hearts and lives and resources are closed off to the possibility that the Holy Spirit is waiting to do something amazing through us.

Finally, there is a burden for the lost. Yes, First Assembly of God had a lady who would come with a kazoo sometimes but she was welcome and you could have probably come into that church dirty and smelling like booze and still found a place because the people had a heart for those outside their walls who needed to know Jesus. We Orthodox were like that in the very beginning and there have been some noticeable times and places in our history when this was the case but we could do so much better. There’s a reason there’s an Assembly of God in every reasonably sized town, and a few tiny ones, in the United States. The people believe they need to reach out to people for the sake of Jesus and they’re willing to put the time, energy, and resources into the project. If we who claim to have seen the True Light and found the True Faith actually believe this should we not at least try to share this gift? In fact, aren’t we actually commanded by Jesus to do so? We could learn a thing or two, I think, from the Pentecostals in this regard.

Looking back it’s amazing how far God has taken me in the years that followed those days at First Assembly of God. To the causal observer, I suppose, it would seem like I’m a world away. Yet, I’m grateful for that time and that parish and what God was preparing for me through them.  Of course much has changed but there was a fire there that the people sought and tried to keep alive, a fire that was Orthodox in it’s source and longing even if it was sometimes distant in it’s application and that fire has remained. It compelled me to go on from that place but, having been molded and shaped in a more ancient way, still burns inside and for that I am eternally grateful.

 

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Ghana Beckons…

like Alaska and Uganda before, their beauty, their people, the Faith we share and the service we can give.

The bags are almost packed, every vaccine has been given, and there are gifts waiting to be shared. It’s a week and change at a youth camp, the first of its kind in a country where Orthodoxy is young and the horizons are vast and broad. Everything we have is needed and much of what we carry will be left there.

In days the planes will take us from across the country to Florida for a brief stop to meet and make plans. Then on to New York, Amsterdam, and Accra, all in one airborne day. One night’s sleep and we’ll already be about our tasks, sharing our lives, and building relationships. Just servants, I guess, to something larger and greater than ourselves, and servants, too, to people we have yet to meet and whom we’ll never forget.

In time faster we can imagine we trace the route back, Accra to Amsterdam and then departing each back to our home in separate ways, one long last flight home to those who are holding the fort while we were gone. Yet having done this before I know all of us will never quite be home in our entirety again. A part of us will remain in Ghana, people, faces, emotions, memories, and a bit of our heart. Once having gone you can never completely come back but that’s how it’s supposed to be.

The bags are on my living room floor, just a few more things to pack before everything starts in motion. Nervous? A little. Excited? A lot. Ready? I guess as ready as I’ll ever be.

Godspeed, and in your mercy, Lord, watch over everyone I leave behind.

Of Cemeteries and Life…

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The miles passed beneath our wheels as we headed west from the city to the Minnesota prairie. Among the towns that dot the rolling hills and open sky is Osakis, a small dot on the map with a life all its own, a town nurtured first by farms and then by tourists who come to the lake just off of downtown.

There were things for us to do in Osakis, possessions to clear away and graves to clean after the winter snows left them inaccessible. A family member had died in that same winter, just before Christmas past, and before the family went their separate ways for the summer there were things to handle. So back home we went past farms and fields to a place rich, like many small towns, with the memories of people who long ago left but somehow still feel they belong.

Arriving, we sat for a while and filled the air with small talk first putting boxes of knick knacks together for a rummage sake and then gathering in the car for the trip to the graves. In a small town nothing at least the cemeteries are not far away and in the time for a sentence or two we were at the graves of grandparents on the Protestant side of the family. We stood for a while and retold a few stories about who, and when, and where, put the flowers in place and then returned to the car. Next was a brother of the family, by himself in a cemetery west of town, a new one because even if prairie towns don’t grow their cemeteries can and do. Arriving we repeated both the rituals and the stories as we looked around the cemetery.

Here there was a stone for a baby who lived just over a week. They would have been in high school and driving now had death not intervened. A few feet away was the grave of a young man around 20. Pulling aside a metal cover you could still see a color photograph of a boy, really, who’s journey stopped for reasons that weren’t shared but at the bottom of his stone was an inscription “Mike, my friend, my friend.”

In what seemed like no time at all after leaving we were at our final destination. My father in law had died in 1985, his wife just before last Christmas. After decades apart they were finally next to each other in presence as they had been in spirit for all those years. There were flowers for that grave, too, and thoughts among us because the memories of her passing were still so fresh. Around that grave there were others of the family, each of them eliciting a story. For the most part they were pleasant but some were hard because lasts longer than death but so do some kinds of wounds. No one cried, though, because I suppose we all felt some pang but we also knew that this was the way things are.

Not too far away from these family graves are the graves my wife and I will one day inhabit. They sit on a hill overlooking a lake in the farm country a few miles south of Osakis. I know there are more years behind than ahead of me and that perhaps, one day, some members of the family will visit my resting place, clean the headstone, and put up some flowers. My hope is that anyone who comes will hear what I hear when I visit the graves of those I love, a voice of hope from heaven and the insistent whisper of God reminding us all to live holy, true, and well.

 

 

A Blessing in Aging

To me there is a kind of blessing in growing older because, in some ways, as our physical vigor diminishes so does the ability to actively sin. Surely our thoughts can be hot beds of temptation at any age but to turn that temptation into action can be more difficult as our bodies age. Quite frankly there are some checks, as we get older, that we just know our mind may be able to write but our body can’t cash. Perhaps aging’s limits of our physical ability to do what our mind contemplates can be a kind of gift when it comes to living out our temptations, a grace that keeps us from doing, by virtue of age, that which would deface and destroy us if we had the ability.

The Class of ’79

I had the chance to meet a member of my high school class a short while ago. We had both found our way to the hot tub in our health club and, while it took a second, we recognized each other and began to talk.

We talked about knees, mine, hers, the operations we had or anticipated. When only a few years have passed since high school people talk about jobs, success, cars, and such. As the years pass we talk about children, grandchildren, and knees that don’t quite work the same way as they did when we were younger. I suppose that in the years to come those of us who remain will talk about those who have passed on and one day there will only be one of us left to remember anything at all. Such is the nature of things.

In some ways my high school days seem like they really were decades ago, and sometimes it seems like an instant. I was new to town and so I didn’t have the advantage of history with people that’s so important when you try to fit in in a small town, and although the town I went to high school in was a metropolitan suburb, it was also a small town. My father’s job, a good job for him and us, uprooted me from the place where I had grown and I don’t think I ever was successfully transplanted to the new garden.

So high school was often odd and lonely for me and I certainly don’t look back at it as some kind of “Glory days.” It’s hard to be forced by law and geography to be at a place where you don’t feel you belong and combining that with all the craziness that is adolescence was sometimes overwhelming. There are days when even now I wish I could have somehow stayed in my hometown with the people who knew me from when I was a kid, the people I had to leave suddenly in the middle of 8th grade. That place wasn’t perfect either, no place is, but sometimes when I walked the high school halls alone I wished I was somewhere, anywhere, else and the place I left behind seemed as good a place as any.

Thirty plus years out from high school, of course, everything is different. Time and maturity do their work and wisdom helps you gain perspective. High school was hard for me but it also helped me grow strong, become a caring person, and provided the storm that made the calm that followed even more sweet. I left the place like a rocket launching into the air and I’ve kept climbing. A substantial part of who I am now is rooted in that time, the largest part, I suppose, just the sheer determination to prove to the world that the person they saw in those days was never going to be my destiny and that there was, and is, so much more. Knowing what it was like to hurt, and hurt badly, my whole life from those days has been about healing, my own, and, even more than that, doing whatever I could to see healing happen wherever I happened to be. It helped make me a Priest, and a caregiver, and a person fiercely passionate about the amazing power of Jesus to transform lives, even reality itself. Though I was often a stranger at my own high school I’d like to think that if they saw me now they would know that things have worked out well, thank God.

Still, I don’t keep track of many of the people from my high school class. I know some of them have died and from time to time I meet one here and there. It’s in my nature to have only a few close friends. It’s not that I don’t like people, my work is such that I’m surrounded by them every day and I probably know, or have known, hundreds of people all around the world. My inner circle, by my own preference, is just small. Still, I do pray for my high school class often, sometimes at church and more often when God wakes me up in the middle of the night to pray. I wish them well, I really do, and I wish them all the blessings and good things this life has to offer. I hope they are at peace and sometimes when I ponder things I think about what they may be doing or where they are and I hope the life they have is wonderful in the best sense of that word.

So it was good, this chance meeting in the health club hot tub with an old classmate. I remember her as a good person, still is, and we talked about knees, hers, mine, and ours, the kind of talk you get from people in their middle age. The thoughts of that chance encounter are the seed of what I’ve written and I pray, too, that her life has been, and will be blessed.

God is good, all the time, and because of His goodness to me I wish every one in the Mahtomedi High School Class of 1979 all of His blessings as well, peace in this world and heaven in the world to come. This coming Sunday I’ll do what I’ve often done before and light a candle at church with your names on it.

 

 

 

Sometimes Faith…

is really just patience, the art of not trying to make things happen before the times and seasons that God, and only God, knows are best. It is the act of surrendering agendas and timetables of our own design to the better plan of the One who sees everything from a better vantage point, namely eternity. Such a surrender can be a difficult thing because it means giving up the cherished sense of identity we ascribe to the illusion of being in control of every aspect of our world.

The Journey Continues…

I received a phone call yesterday from OCMC (Orthodox Christian Mission Center) asking me to consider if I could move my participation in a Uganda Health Team from mid August to early September. It was for a good reason, they had health care practitioners that could only make it for the mission team at that time. I, however, could not.

It isn’t a complete loss because I simply moved my application and my funding to place me in Tanzania later this year, helping the local clergy and sharing the Faith. Yet it was kind of disappointing as well because I had prayed, fundraised, prepared, planned, researched, and sent letters overseas in the hope that in just a few weeks I would be in Uganda. A part of my heart was already there. I thought the hand of God was in this.

So now comes the task of untangling myself and rearranging all the details. It can be done. I’ve done it before. I’m grateful for the quick assistance of my Senior Priest and Bishop who enabled me to make a quick decision by their blessing. OCMC will change all the travel arrangements. No money will be lost. Good work will still be done. The next months will be spent learning about Tanzania, picking up some of the language, and finding out how I need to serve.

I may, however, never know the movements of God behind all of this. Originally I had hoped to go to Ghana and then a pregnancy in my office changed the whole schedule and rerouted me to Uganda where everything was ready to go until the last minute. Then it changed. It is, as we Orthodox like to say, a mystery and the answer may never come.

Yet I need to trust that the hand of God is working in my life even if I don’t always see it or understand the specifics. Perhaps I’ll know in time. Perhaps not until that day. Still, there is a reason and all I can do is pray and take one step in front of the other.

The next week brings the untangling process. I’ll need to rearrange the travel insurance. There’s a Metropolitan Bishop in Uganda to whom I have to send my regrets. I have to check the paperwork and relearn details.  On the whole I would rather have been on cruise control in these coming weeks. Now I need to start over.

Yet, its not my will but God’s be done and one step in front of the other.