Homily, January 31

January 31, 2021

I stand by your side, sometimes, in front of the icon of our Lord and I listen.

Sometimes the words emerge with hesitance, the voice of a heart trying to find its depths. Sometimes the words have been planned, efficient, the reading of a list prepared with focus and direction. At times the words are afraid, a wall of embarrassment the speaker knows must come down even if it takes several good pushes.

Still, I stand by your side and listen.

Do you know this is hard for me as well? Do you know that as your confession gushes forth I say “Me too, me too” because I know that being a doctor exempts no one from illness and being a Priest exempts no one from sin? As hard as your words are to say they’re sometimes equally as hard to hear, not because of judgment or frustration or even sadness but because they’re a mirror to me and remind me of my own mortality, of my own need to have someone listen to me as well?

I close my eyes because I want all my thoughts to be directed to you, to really listen and I cover you with my stole because I want you to feel the shelter, and sometimes the words of help come quickly but, more often than not, I just stay silent. The truth is that’s its not about me really, never was. It’s about you coming to know that your darkness is not greater than God’s love, your sins not more powerful His forgiveness, and your brokenness not beyond God’s healing. For you, and me as well.

He was a sinful man, this Zacchaeus, a man who had made a good living at the expense of others, taking money by fraud and force. We’re never given his backstory, how he got into this sordid business, how he lived his life. We only know that one day, driven by something inside, he wanted to see Jesus and his wish was granted although it took a bit of tree climbing.

We know nothing of the conversation he had with our Lord that evening. Still, it must have been profound and touched the deepest part of his heart because the one who loved, even worshipped, money publicly spoke announced his deepest sin, promised to make more than restoration and, in turn, was publicly declared by our Lord, a former traitor to his people, to be a son of Abraham and worthy of grace and forgiveness.

Such things are one of the central themes of our Gospels, the desire, the willingness of our Lord, to seek out, to encounter, to befriend, and to forgive those who were caught in the webs of sin that so easily entangle us even today. To those who sought Him out in the midst of their brokenness he offered, not a glossing over of the things that had torn them apart, but a way out marked by a distinct and direct diagnosis coupled with a grace beyond measure that healed and rendered powerless the illness.

Although we are all bound by sin God sees His image within us and stretches His hands in mercy to restore that which has been marred. Although we all have moments when the sorrows and temptations of the world overcome even our best defenses, He pours oil and wine on the resulting wounds and resolves to care for us until we are restored.

Our Lord sees us as how we will one day be, not this broken and fading body subject to the pounding waves of life’s storms but as radiant, beautiful, the fullness of what we were created to be, the saint, the icon of His glory that is His plan for us. The name Zacchaeus means “pure” and our Lord saw the purity this man who others, even those who claimed a relationship with God, could not see. Our Lord saw not the cheat, the liar, the fraud, but the man who would one day be ordained by the Apostle Peter as the first Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, the very same Zacchaeus, who others had given up hope on served our Lord faithfully from that day on and died as his bishop.

It is the same with us as well.

We are afraid. We are embarrassed. The thought of our sins may overwhelm us even as we are hungry, like Zacchaeus, to be rid of their burden, free of their sickness, and released from their chains. I know this because I share those same feelings, that mixture of hope and dread as I approach making my confession as a Priest at the altar. Still, as a sickness has to be named before a proper cure can be found so my sins need to be declared, like Zacchaeus, in the presence of my Lord so that I, too, may be restored as a Child of Abraham and even more as a servant of the One who was Abraham’s hope.

All I can tell you is this. Come. As you stand before the icon of Christ those of us sinners that God has, in His abundance of mercy, granted the grace of the Priesthood are not your judge, your jury, and certainly not your executioner. It is our great and holy duty to, in some small way, be present to and with you as Christ was on that long ago day with Zacchaeus, to listen, to help, to point the way as best we can, and assure you, not because of our worthiness but because of our Lord’s that you are restored and forgiven.

Before the icon of Christ there is grace, mercy, healing, and peace. Before the words of confession come out of your mouth love is already prevailing, wellness is flowing from heaven, and chains are being torn asunder. As you whisper, heaven sings. As you shed tears the waters of your baptism, refreshed by the Holy Spirit, clean you anew. As you, and I, admit where we have fallen, even before the sound comes from our throat our gracious Lord is already lifting us up.

Some say the health of a Church is in the number of people in attendance or the amount of the budget. Perhaps, though, the true measure of a healthy church is in the number of people who come to confession because numbers and money can be a formality but a true confession comes from the heart and reveals a desire to draw near to God that sets both people and parishes alight with a holy fire.

All I can say is “Come”. Don’t be afraid. Your secrets are safe. God’s love for you is undaunted by any of your sins. His grace is beyond measure. You have nothing to lose except those things that were already making you sick, the darkness that took the light from your soul, the guilt that made you miserable, and the chains, so unnecessary, that held you in despair. 

Homily, Myrrh Bearing Women

Sunday of the Myrrh Bearing Women – 2021

Jesus, in His public ministry, was hardly ever alone.

We often have a picture of Jesus and His 12 disciples wandering the Holy Land together almost like an extended camping trip, but even a quick reading of the Gospels reveals this to be a rare occurrence. As Jesus began to teach and heal, he soon attracted attention, and with that notoriety came a certain kind of celebrity, and, of course, the crowds of people who always seemed to be close to wherever He was.   

Jesus last three years on this Earth were often spent in the middle of a crowd. His attempts to have people not publicize the healings and good deeds he did for them were ignored. In the story of the woman with a bleeding illness the Disciples were amazed when Jesus claimed someone had touched him. How could He have known that when he was surrounded by people? To even see Jesus in the throng Zacchaeus had to climb up a tree. The blind man seeking healing resorted to yelling at the top of his voice to get Jesus’ attention. The paralytic’s friends cut the roof off from a house because it was the only way to get him to Jesus. On one occasion Jesus needed to preach from a boat in the Sea of Galilee to avoid the crush.  Several times Jesus was required to miraculously feed thousands of people who came to hear, and see, Him. Before Elvis and the Beatles, Jesus had to endure all the downsides of celebrity including people looking into every nook and cranny of His life for possible scandal.  

There were, of course, times of rest. The Gospels record Jesus going to remote places to pray. Sometimes He took His disciples with Him and other times it appears He was alone. Yet it seems, for the most part, our Lord’s three years of public ministry were in the thick of the crowd, a near constant ebb and flow of people with private times few and far between and constant demands.

And all those people who came to Jesus, who surrounded Him, had as many motivations as there were multitudes. Some had deep needs and had run out of other kinds of help. Some were just curious about who this person was who had attracted so much attention. There was an occasion when the people, who had just witnessed Jesus miraculously feeding a multitude, wanted to make him King because even then there were folks who wanted the government to provide free food. Some, perhaps, wanted to see the “show” and hoped to witness a miracle. There were those who, jealous of Jesus’ teaching and power, followed Him from place to place trying to trap Him in His words and discredit Him. Every person in every crowd had their reasons to be around Jesus, and as famous people through history have often discovered, they mostly wanted whatever they could get from Him.

This, as an aside, is why we Orthodox Christians should, following the example of our Lord, never try to be famous. What seems, in an earthly sense, to at first be interesting and exciting can quickly become a burden and a trap and eventually destroy the person who seeks it. Public acclaim came to Jesus because His words and actions were remarkable, but He appears to have, at best, tolerated it and while He taught and served the masses, He also was remarkably unaffected by either their adulation or scorn. We can learn from this.

There was, however, one group of people who appeared to have been in Jesus’ life who traveled with Him, who followed Him, who served Him, not for what they needed or what they could get but rather for what they could give. We know them in our Tradition as the Myrrh Bearing Women.

The Bible gives us the names of some of them like Mary Magdalene, Salome, the sisters of Lazarus, and, of course, Jesus’ mother, but most of them have remained anonymous except to God. These women, from various backgrounds, became part of Jesus’s circle, something quite unusual for a Rabbi in that era, and provided support for our Lord and His ministry in a variety of ways. They were as essential as any of the Apostles and probably, as they could be, part of the traveling community that went with Jesus throughout the Holy Land. Their allegiance to our Lord was deep and unwavering, their love for Him was sincere, and their commitment firm.

And certainly their brightest moment was at the crucifixion of our Lord when they, unlike the majority of the Apostles, neither denied or fled Jesus but chose, instead, to be with Him, to hear the taunts against Him, to bear witness to His suffering, and to do what they could to support Him when the crowds that had acclaimed Him on Palm Sunday blasphemed Him on Good Friday. When the crowds abandoned Him they, out of a sincere love for Him, remained and when Jesus execution was completed, or rather when Jesus Himself made a completion of it, they took His battered remains and lovingly prepared them for burial.

In Jesus earthly ministry there were multitudes who wanted something from Him, throngs who were attracted to the idea of Him, and perhaps many more who followed Him not for what He was but their own projection of who He should’ve been. Even His closest disciples could fall into that trap. Few, it seems, truly loved Him and fewer still were willing to stand by Him when the fickle nature of celebrity had turned against Him and the crowds that had adored Him for their own reasons abandoned Him for the same. Perhaps this is why, in part, our Lord, after his resurrection, asked Peter three times if he loved Him

And in some ways, nothing has changed.

Jesus is still a kind of celebrity and people talk about Him, read about Him, and often follow Him for what they can get for themselves. They bend and twist His person, His words, His life, to their own ends. They use His name to justify their causes, their politics, and sometimes even their sins. Everyone seems to have their own idea of who He is, or at least who He should be, and what He could or should do for them.

But how many genuinely love Him?

How many of us have Jesus in our lives not for what we can get but purely for our love of Him? How many of us come to church simply to be with Him, to worship Him, and not as a kind of bargain where we trade showing up for His obligation to do nice things for us? How many of us love Jesus as much as our football team or our car? How many of us are perfectly content to bask in His glory but unwilling to share in His humility? And when the tough times come, as they always do, who of us will be willing to, for the sake of love, stand with Him at the cross while the rest of the world rejects Him?

I often ask myself if I truly love Jesus. Is my desire to be with and in Him motivated by anything less than a genuine love? Am I willing to be numbered among His faithful not for what I can get, but for what I can give? Would I be able, like the holy Myrrh Bearing women, to stand at the cross and make it my own? Do I His glory but not His humility? Does my heart truly belong to Him? The only answer I can give to those questions right now is “I’m trying, as best as I can.”

In the days to come as our culture changes,  and being a follower of Christ begins to increasingly carry with it more stigma than approval, more consequences than adulation, all of us will be required to really ponder who, and whose, we are and whether our commitments are rooted in convenience or in a true and living love for Christ.  There may be some very hard moments ahead for us.

And as we are challenged by the reality of our love for Jesus the lives, the works, the voices of these holy women from so long ago are calling out to us, and to me. They set an example we can follow, a path we must also walk, an attitude we must share, a love that must grip our souls and never let go. The spirit of these holy women, their courage, their devotion, their faithfulness even in the face of hostility, needs to become ours, to flow in and through us as Orthodox Christians and as a Parish. Let the crowds think what they want. Let our one love be only for Jesus and in so doing, and so being, may God grant us, even as we come to the tombs, to be filled with Christ’s resurrection.

Homily, March 28, 2021

March 28, 2021

Some thoughts for the younger people in the spring of life and worth the consideration of those of us in our autumn as well.

You’ll be amazed, when you reach 60 or more, how fast the years have passed. In the spring and summer of youth time can seem to stand still.  There’s s so much to experience, to know, to absorb, and to live, and everything seems to be in the moment. It’s an amazing time of life with the potential for adventure, romance, and horizons extending beyond the sky.

Somewhere in your 30’s, though, you’ll start to notice that when you were young and ambitious and busy time was also moving at that same pace. You’ll first see it in the face that looks back at you in the mirror, and then, perhaps in the realization you have children and are more like your parents then you could have ever imagined. When you look up from your work you’ll start to notice the carefree days have slipped into responsible adulthood and your body will remind you that just exercising without warming up is not such a good idea. These are the days when you discover the necessity, and the pleasure, of an afternoon nap and sometimes you may look out your window and wonder where all those kids you hung out with are now, what they’re doing, and if they’re happy.

Those introspections often don’t last too long. After all, there’s soccer practice and extra paperwork from the job, and a lawn needing to be mowed. Someone must pay for that boat you just bought, and the season tickets and that someone is you. As quickly as you begin to ponder about life, the journey, and the deeper meaning of things the thoughts are snatched away by a whirlwind of tasks to maintain everything you have and ensure there’ll be more in the future. Your mortgage is infinitely more effective in getting you up in the morning than any alarm clock. So in to the car you go and off to the office you race and every time you almost get the carrot you discover someone else further up the flow chart has just made the stick a little bit longer.

Over time a kind of world weariness can set in, the adventure begins to dim, and somewhere, in a place you dare not admit exists to even those closest to you, you’ll ask “Is this what it’s all about, is this life?” Is this why I’m here to work and pay and buy and work some more and maybe get a weekend at the cabin every so often? And the possibility the answer is “Yes” can leave you empty inside or even scare the hell out of you because so much has already been invested, so much energy given, so much time spent, so many inevitabilities taken for granted even as we discover a restlessness within, the caged animal feeling of being trapped in a space that tires us even as we feel bound to it hand and foot, body and soul.

Yet within each of us is also a quiet place, a sacred garden, the remnants of a lost Eden, a place of quiet, of peace, a holy ground where God, if we wish it, can walk with us in the cool of the evening and we can be naked and unashamed. And in many moment of solitude, of quiet it will call to us like a distant homeland or the breaking of a morning’s dawn.

This is the place which was washed clean, set right, and returned to its primal holiness in our baptism and filled with the Holy Spirit in our chrismation. It is our heart and soul, a sacred garden and  the true home of the person God meant you to be, the deified body and soul God breathed his life into at the dawn of time and the one your destiny when time gives way to eternity.

Alas, the busyness of life too often takes over. The brokenness, the tasks, the sins, the good things twisted into darkness, and the noise of the world have left our sacred gardens unvisited, untended, choked with weeds, and a remnant of their former beauty. And in the quiet moments, the time away from chasing carrots on sticks God allows us to get a glimpse of that place, and as we do we may, in a moment of sanity, despair at its disrepair even as we long for its glorious holy presence.  We know there is an Eden within and when we come to our senses we weep because we ourselves have chosen to wander away from its pleasantness for the sake of an illusion, a mirage in the desert, a dream that wakes us up shivering in bed.  In the busyness of life we have neglected our salvation, the promise given by angels and reality revealed when Christ walked among us.

Yet all is not lost.

Even in the busyness of life we can, if we wish, return to that sacred garden within. We can still ourselves, our lives, our thoughts, and, in those moments when we reflect only on God, and our life turns from noise to holiness, begin the journey back to what is both our ancestral and heavenly home, the normal that should have always been.  In our Liturgy, before we receive the Holy Gifts we ask as Priests on behalf of you all God’s help in laying aside all earthly cares so we can receive the king of all who arrives on angelic wings and becomes the bread of life. This great grace is not just for the moment of sacred liturgy but also for every day of our life.

We don’t have to be a monastic to seek out and live in the presence of God, to reside, again, in the sacred garden.  We can do so now if we choose, but we must choose, to be still, to set the present aside for a time and to look at ourselves as we really are, how far we’ve come and how far we need to travel, and resolve to become not what the world has told us we must be but rather what a loving God has called us to be in the still, small, voice we can hear even in life’s chatter if we are ready to listen.

We marvel at the words, the lives, of great saints, mothers and fathers of our spiritual life and yet we’ve forgotten these gifts were given to them because they chose to seek them, these miracles were part of their lives because they were open to the possibility, and they could hear the voice of God because they chose to be quiet and listen. They did not neglect their salvation and in return they were lit from within by a holy light.

As we travel through this Lent please understand it’s not the giving up of food and drink so much as making space, again, for God in our lives, to return to the sacred garden within and having a vision of its possibilities and perfections, commit ourselves to pulling out the weeds, watering the ground, and rejoicing in it’s beauty.  One can follow the diet to perfection and if there is no time or place to be present with God it’s futility at best. That time with God, without agenda, without any other purpose than to be with and in Him is Lent’s object and the source of all holy endeavor. Without it even the good things we do are just that, things.

And the truth is, once having returned to our inner sacred garden everything else finds its perspective.  The things we often thought so important because the TV told us they were will lose their value. Every bauble that once caught our eye will fade as we gaze on the face of our Savior. Yes, we will live in the world as we must but we will live differently because we’ve already found our place, our destiny, and our home. The world may scream and holler at us but in the quiet holiness of our recovered Eden the power of those voices will dissolve. We may labor for our daily bread but that labor will be filled with joy as it becomes absorbed into the greater heavenly labor of prayer, worship, stillness, and the holy. We may question the meaning of our lives because this is a human thing to do but within our hearts we will know we need no longer be restless because we have found our rest in God.  We may wonder sometimes who we are but in that sacred garden our Lord will tell us the only words we need to hear on the matter, “You are mine and I am yours, forever.”

Those who seek will find. Those who ask will find answers. Those who knock will have the door opened. And those whose only and basic desire is to know and love God will find themselves and eternity as well.

A Cold Week…

It has been a cold week here in Minnesota. Air temperatures dropping to the 30’s below farenheit and the wind chills falling even further.

We’re actually kind of used to it here. Not that it happens often but rather because enduring rough weather is part of the “soul” of Minnesota. No one moves here for the weather, too cold in winter, too hot and humid in summer, but we all figure out a way to make do. This last week was no different. Cars started, at least most did. People who needed to be at work found a way and those that could stay put at home, did. And everyone put on layers and continued on with life as people in more southern climes stared in wonder, or horror, or both.

Living here, though, has made me a lover of spring. If winter must be endured I find that, as I grow older, spring is to be embraced. The sensitive can feel it coming as nature fills the air with subtle hints of its arrival. Daylight increases. The warm breezes from the southwest begin to win their battle with the Alberta clippers. The sky seems different, and long sleeping animals begin to awake.

If a person can make it through January, then the worst is over. January will claim some, that time of the year always does. Still, if you make it through, the end, if not the snow, is in sight and spring’s inevitability begins to make itself known. Years of experience makes a person wise in this regard and those who are aware of the surety of spring, even in the howling winds of winter, can endure.

Thinking about Dottie Morken…

white cap

She was a nurse of the “Old School” even back in the 1970’s when I first started working in nursing homes. White dress, white stockings, white shoes, and something you basically never see any more, the nurses cap.

She ran her floor tight, her wing of the White Bear Lake Care Center. Cares had to be done. No lolligagging around. Beds made with hospital corners and no sheet or blanket showing and the pillow in the right place. At the time I think most of us thought she was kind of a pain and we dreaded be assigned to her floor.

But she was right.

Her formality and precision I think, looking back, came from a place of wanting to do the best for people who often were in great need. Then and now, perhaps even more now, a nursing home is a place of last resort. Out of money, out of options, it’s the place you must go if you need too much care for home and too little care for a hospital. If there’s a pecking order in health care this is about as bottom as one can get.

So what can you give to people who’ve lost their home and almost everything of what they own except for a few pictures on the wall and a small closet of clothes? Beds made neatly. Rooms that are clean and smell that way. People treated like humans and not cargo. All of those things are love in deeds.

Dottie Morken, white dress, white hose, white shoes, and nursing cap in just the right place on her head was, in her own way, giving gifts of care to people who had virtually nothing left. She understood that even if you’re poor and sick and old that you still should have a well made bed, a clean place to sleep, and people caring for you who do it right the first time and every time. Perhaps some times we thought she was a witch when we wanted to get through things the quick and easy way but in truth she was an angel who watched out for people who couldn’t watch out for themselves.

Forty years later and I’ve returned to work in a nursing home. As I walk through the door to face whatever comes that day I realize she trained me well. Presuming she has passed from this life I hope she knows that a little part of her is still with me every time I try to make things “just so”. And I hope she’s pleased.

 

 

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.

 

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.