Blessing the Backpacks

Last Sunday I preached at a church on the cusp of a new school year. The congregation had collected school supplies and backpacks. At this worship service, they blessed the items before donating them to two local elementary schools. The children and youth had also brought their backpacks to church, to be part of the blessing.

At the blessing time, more than a dozen children and youth came forward, filling the chancel area. Three lay leaders offered eloquent and heartfelt prayers: for children and teachers, for safety and wellbeing, for the process of teaching and learning.

When it was over, a long-time member of the church stood up to continue the service. Unscripted, she spoke with emotion: “I remember when there wasn’t a single child in this church.” She was an older white woman, wearing a beautiful dress that a Nigerian friend had made for her. To me, she symbolized welcome, and there was no mistaking the blessings that had returned to her because of her welcoming spirit. Her feelings of joy spilled out in tears in a moment of grace.

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Your LinkedIn Profile: An Obituary in Progress?

As I updated my Linked In profile today, it felt like I was writing an early draft of my obituary. Perhaps the difference between the two documents lies mainly in timing. A LinkedIn profile covers work in progress. An obituary doesn’t show up until our work is done.

Since LinkedIn is a professional tool, the information has to fit certain parameters: keep it positive; use active verbs; highlight results; quantify accomplishments. I tried to do those things. But as I crafted my profile, I thought about the transitions from one position to another. Words on paper convey a certain inevitability; they even create their own reality. But the real reasons for job transitions might be different from the ones we announce. After all, we know that professional transitions are supposed to look seamless and logical. Defensible. But transitions are rarely seamless, and in my life, at least, might appear to make little sense. Yet there is more to life than logic.

Why did I leave a successful church position in order to write a book, for which I had no publishing contract? What about salary, benefits, pension? Why did I take a lowly job as an administrator when my previous positions had entailed significant responsibility? What about the career ladder?

To an outsider, my decisions might appear daft! But I did not make them based solely on bettering my finances, or climbing a ladder. Like many people, I was following my sense of the Spirit’s leading.

I have followed the Spirit my whole life. That Spirit led me to seminary, and from there to ordained ministry. It was not an easy beginning, but eventually I thrived as a pastor and preacher. I loved immersing myself in words and the Word. But after a couple of decades, I felt the Spirit calling me into a different vocation of words. I let go of the sure thing (the pastoral role), to take up something less sure (the writer’s pen, okay, keyboard). Along the way I have been blessed. I have the support of my husband and family, the encouragement of a few people who believe in my gifts, and outlets for my writing. Even so, I have had to let many good things fall away, which has not been easy.

I like to read obituaries. A good one is more than a chronological listing of a person’s accomplishments. It gives a sense of a life. An obituary hints at the complexity that is each one of us. Who was this person and what calling did they find irresistible? How did various responsibilities arise in their life, and how did they meet those? What passions did they pursue? A life’s trajectory is not smooth and predictable — at least not the interesting ones. In fact, the most significant decisions might appear unlikely. Perhaps that is even the mark of the Spirit at work.

A quote attributed to John Calvin is this: “True wisdom consists in two things: Knowledge of God and Knowledge of Self.” What I’m recognizing is the lifelong character of these quests, which are related. Who can fully know either God or self, and the relation between these two?

Each believer attempts to follow God’s call. Each wrestles with vocation. This is the process of discernment, one of the tasks of discipleship.

What decisions are you ruminating about these days? As “back to school” approaches, a sort of new year appears. What calls to you during this season? May you feel the Spirit’s leading as you ponder the decisions that will someday appear on your obituary!

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Hospitality Makes A Happy Heart

My husband and I have been Air Bnb hosts for more than a year. In addition to providing income, hosting brings emotional rewards. It feels good to offer hospitality to people who need a place to stay. (I’ve blogged about hospitality in relationship to ministry here and here and here.)

This summer Doug and I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the hospitality equation. During our recent house/dog-sitting escapade in Norway, we took a 4-day trip to Oslo. To economize, I booked a whole flat on Air Bnb. The access to a kitchen meant we could pack picnic lunches and cook our own suppers, rather than rely on restaurants. We made a long list of sites to see. We even watched film versions of plays by Ibsen, Norway’s famous playwright.

The first rule of traveling is that life does not go as planned. Not only was the weather dreary and rainy, but Doug got sick on the day we arrived — the kind of sick that keeps a person very close to the bathroom. It’s dispiriting to spend a long-anticipated holiday under rain and clouds, especially while the person you love is miserable. It’s like watching a sidewalk list of gaily chalked plans wash away in the rain. There goes the happy face — dissolved into a smear of yellow chalk. And you can’t even complain because you’re not the one who’s sick.

The Kon-Tiki Museum.

The Kon-Tiki Museum.

Still, on the second day — with Doug’s encouragement — I left him behind, borrowed my host’s umbrella, and ventured into Oslo on my own. There were many moments when I almost turned around. It’s not that fun to be alone in a strange, overwhelming place in a pounding rain. Not only did the wind threaten to turn my umbrella inside out, but most signs were in Norwegian only. I struggled to decipher the bus and subway maps. I kept on, determined to return with a story worth telling, at the least. Eventually I found my way to the peninsula housing the Fram Museum (polar exploration ships) and the Kon-Tiki Museum. After that I took the bus to the Ibsen Museum, and the subway home.

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Preachers on Preaching

Over at RevGalBlogPals, a first-year preacher asked the matriarchs for help with the logistics of the preaching task. It’s a great question so I weighed in, along with many others. Plus there’s a lot of fodder in the comments. If you’re a preacher, check it out and add your thoughts!

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Scenes from Norway

This summer my husband and I were able to spend a couple of weeks in Norway. Because we were house/dog-sitting for some friends in Bergen, we made the visit very inexpensively. Here’s to Layla, the pooch that made it possible.

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Identifiers

One of our recent Air Bnb guests, a physical trainer, went for a run wearing his CrossFit T-shirt. He met one of my neighbors, who happens to be a celebrity in CrossFit Games. Telling me about this encounter, our guest couldn’t stop grinning. He had found his people.

I have lived in this neighborhood for 16 years and have never met this neighbor. I had no idea she was a CrossFit celebrity. I do workout regularly, but I don’t do CrossFit and knew nothing about that world.

The T-shirt helped my Air Bnb guest connect with the celebrity. I saw the same T-shirt, but to me, the uninitiated, it meant nothing.

Every group has identifiers. When you enter a new group, you learn to notice what matters to that group. Sometimes this new group is one we chose to join, and sometimes it’s thrust upon us. Parenthood can feel like one long course in learning new identifiers.

The most crucial piece of knowledge is always the piece we haven’t noticed yet.

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When Sanctuaries Aren’t Safe

Recently the pilgrim site at Tabgha, Israel was attacked by arsonists. Very little mention was made of this in US media. I wrote a blogpost for EerdWord, the Eerdmans blog. Thanks for reading.

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Writing Potato

Someone asked me why I have a potato on my writing desk, as pictured above. I was surprised. I thought writing potatoes were a common practice!

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Changing Seats

Growing up, my family took long car camping trips. My father was a principal and my mother was a teacher, so they took full advantage of summer vacation. All seven of us piled into a Ford Galaxy for trips we measured in weeks and thousands of miles.

Our trunk was stuffed to capacity and an enormous car top carrier weighted the roof like a turtle. Dad drove and Mom navigated. The youngest sibling sat in the front seat between them and the other four of us were in the backseat, three on the bench and one in the foot space, a cramped spot that we rotated. The arrangement might sound odd today, but in the 1960s and 70s there were no seatbelt laws.

This past week was a sort of family-car-trip reprise, some fifty years later, only this time we changed seats. I was in the driver’s seat, chauffeuring my parents on a 3-day, 700 mile car trip “up north” to the upper peninsula of Michigan. Continue reading

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Signs vs. Sidewalk: Which Speaks Louder?

I was walking through an unfamiliar residential neighborhood to get some exercise, going at a good clip when I was brought to a sudden halt because the sidewalk disappeared. A certain establishment had not installed sidewalks along its considerable property line. The name of the establishment? “Health Network.” I could not continue my healthy walk past the Health Network, but had to turn around.

Sometimes I think this is what the church must seem like to people outside the church — an establishment that says one thing on its sign, and another thing by its behavior.

I know churches that say “Welcome” on their sign, but good luck finding a door that will open. Some churches unlock only a few of their many doors, even on a Sunday morning.

I know churches that proclaim “All Are Welcome” on their sign, but heaven help the young lesbian couple that walks in, hand in hand.

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