Sabbatical – Lying Fallow, Wading in Baptismal Waters

The following is the first entry from Pastor Kent’s Sabbatical blog.  You can check out his blog on the Blogroll or by clicking here.

An old familiar proverb says the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Another version of the same proverb says the journey must begin where you stand.  With the wisdom of Confucius, my father used to tell me no matter where you go there you are.

On May 27 after Sunday’s worship, I begin a several-month, several-thousand-mile sabbatical journey that will take me from worship at our sibling congregation of San Pablo Lutheran Church in Bogotá, Colombia all the way to the Christian worshipping community in Taizé, France.  God-willing, the journey will take me from a concert performance by world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell at the Oregon Bach Festival all the way to a music and worship conference led by well known hymn writer John Bell on the Isle of Iona, Scotland.

I’ll admit, it’s kind of funny to take a sabbatical journey.  After all, the Hebrew word for rested is where we get Sabbath.  But Sabbath is so much more than just taking a nap.

The idea of “sabbatical” and “Sabbath” can be found as early as the second chapter of Genesis.  After God’s Spirit “brooded like a bird above the watery abyss” (translated from Eugene Peterson’s The Message) and after God spoke, named and pronounced the cosmos “good,” chapter two says that God rested, blessed and thus hallowed or ‘made holy’ all creation.  Sabbath is about more than God taking a nap in the shade of a tree because God was tired.  Sabbath has to do with a little bit of distance – a little bit of stepping back from work so what is, can be and in this (according to our holy scriptures) things are made holy and blessed.

Everything needs a break, needs to be “stepped back from” now and then, says God.  After a commandment not to take advantage of a “stranger” (after all, says God, you’ve been a “stranger” yourselves) and before a commandment to observe three festivals per year (the festival of unleavened bread called Passover, the festival of summer harvest called Pentecost and the festival of fall ingathering called Sukkoth), God says in Exodus 23:10-11 to let the land rest and lie fallow and to do the same with yourselves and your possessions.

Sabbath is about letting the work-worn parts of all creation lie fallow.  After all, even God… even God took a rest, stepped back and lied fallow.

It’s funny the way things sometimes fall.  The day that my sabbatical begins just happens to fall on Pentecost Sunday.  Remember Pentecost, it was one of those three festivals back in Exodus that God said to observe.  One of three times throughout the year to intentionally stop and remember and experience the abundance of God’s saving and nourishing grace.

The day that my sabbatical begins also just happens to fall on the thirty-third anniversary of my baptism Image(I’m the one being held just next to the cross in the attached photo taken on May 27, 1979).  How funny, since we as Lutherans say the Christian journey begins and ends with baptism.  No matter where you go, the promise spoken over baptismal waters is there.

I give thanks for your prayers as I begin this journey, which will take me around the world and back to Custer Lutheran Fellowship.  Even as I pray that the next few months might provide you opportunities for Sabbath rest, that you might take a step or two back from work-worn parts of your lives and let them lie fallow.  It’s amazing, after all, how God’s abundant grace often springs up in the fallow places of our lives… with a well-placed promise and some water of course.

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Planted by streams

Young trees seem to grow in one of two ways in the Black hills.  The first way is for a single wedge-shaped wing of a pine cone to catch the wind, blow into a crack high on a granite face, land in two teaspoons of dust and grit, and begin growing straight out of the rock.  If you’ve looked at Paul Horsted’s photos you’ll see that some of these tough “rock” trees are well over one hundred years old. 

The other way to plant a tree around here is to lovingly dig a very large hole, fill it with decent top soil, water it generously, wrap the healthy young trunk to keep the rabbits away from the bark, fence it at least six feet high to keep the deer from eating the leaves, water it some more, pray that the hail or wind don’t snap it in two, and then enjoy its blossoms in the spring.

Some have compared planting pine trees verses decorative trees to planting dandelions verses orchids.  If you’ve ever had a lawn you have noticed that it is quite easy to grow a healthy crop of dandelions.  Orchids on the other hand are so fragile that they require precise temperature, sunlight, humidity, fertilizer, and much tender loving care.  However, those who have happened upon a wild, lady slipper orchid in a remote, Black Hills creek bed will be startled by its beauty.  Sometimes it is well worth the work to create an environment where even an orchid can bloom.

                The book of Psalms begins with the image of the people of God being like a tree planted by a stream of water.   I like to think that the stream sometimes is natural, like rainwater that is funneled into a tiny crack, allowing a tree to grow in a seemingly impossible place.  Other times that stream is created by intensive human work in order that the tree can be grown where we need a tree to be.   There is a place for both dandelion trees and orchid trees in the kingdom of God.

Speaking of trees, we’ve begun our most recent landscaping project at the church.  The front lawn has been torn up and hopefully in the next few days we will have three new trees planted.  We will plant them with love looking forward to beautiful blossoms and a reminder that it is worth the work to create environments where God’s creation can thrive.

Easter Birthdays

My daughter will celebrate her birthday on Easter Sunday this year.  In her ten years of life this is the second time that her birthday has fallen on this most important Christian holiday.  She turned five the last time it happened, and it was the same week that her grandfather had emergency coronary bypass surgery.  That was one memorable birthday party as we gathered for cake and presents in the nearly empty Easter Sunday cafeteria at Sanford Medical Center.  The handful of nurses and other families of patients smiled at a little girl riding her brand new pink scooter around the salad bar.  When Olivia and her similarly young cousins made their way into the lobby for an improvised Easter egg hunt, we were shushed repeatedly by the volunteer at the welcome counter.   Thankfully, Grandpa recovered well and the deep fear of that Maundy Thursday heart attack was replaced by an Easter Sunday party.

 

 

 

 

 

The great drama that we reenact each year beginning with Ash Wednesday and leading up to crescendo of holy week gives us a chance to relive and remember the salvation story of Christ being led to a tomb and the great, mysterious party that follows.

I certainly hope that we don’t have a family medical emergency this year surrounding Olivia’s birthday.  I’d just as soon eat our Easter ham with family and friends and enjoy a little birthday party in the quiet of our own home this time.   However, even that birthday in the shadow of the intensive care until five years ago was still a wonderful party.  Because Jesus lives, all our personal Maundy Thursdays lead to a party in the end.

Renewal

I recently realized that the subscription to a magazine we receive had expired.  I hurried to “renew” it in time so that we didn’t miss an issue.  We were joking at the recent Custer Lutheran Fellowship annual meeting (not your average annual meeting, but then again, not your average congregation either) that someone’s term on one of the ministry teams had “expired” – as if they were salami accidentally left on the counter – but fortunately the individual was willing to “renew” another term on the committee.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “renewal” since Custer Lutheran Fellowship was humbled to receive a National Clergy “Renewal” Grant from the Lilly Foundation.  Through the work of a four person committee (never think that a committee can’t accomplish amazing things!), Custer Lutheran Fellowship was awarded about $36,000 for “renewal” activities.  Much of the funds will pay for a sabbatical for me and my family this coming summer, however about one quarter of the funds are designated for congregational “renewal” activities.  Hopefully, you’ve heard about these activities – a Spanish language learning group; Dakota Road Music leading a workshop, concert and worship the weekend of January 21-22; and an exchange trip from Pastor Jairo Suárez and another lay leader from our sister church, San Pablo Lutheran Church in Bogotá, Colombia.

Our friend, Mr. Webster, suggests that “renew” means “to begin or take up again;” “to make effective for an additional period;” “to restore or replenish;” “to make, say, or do again;” and “to revive; reestablish.”  The bible too has a few things to say about being made new again.  Especially in the letters of the New Testament, it seems as though being found “in Christ” has to do with “renewal” (check-out for example: 2 Corinthians 5:17, Colossians 3:9-12, Romans 12:1-2). Unfortunately the “in Christ” part reminds us of the difficult mystery that often renewal comes only after a “death.”

So what does “renewal” look like to you? …a day off? …a hike to Little Devil’s Tower? …a week at home? …or maybe in Jamaica? …a good night’s sleep? …a few uninterrupted hours with your partner? …or with a good book? …or just alone? …in silence?

There is often a sense of “getting away from” something or someone or somewhere as we talk about “renewal,” but sometimes it’s just as much about “getting in touch with” something or someone or somewhere that’s been lost.  In all of it though, there seems to be a simple reality that comes with a recognized need for “renewal” – we are people who expire.  We don’t “last” long without certain things.  We get thirsty and need a renewing drink of water.  We get hungry and long to be satisfied.  We work too hard and yearn for Sabbath.  We are dust and without the renewing breath of life, to dust we shall once again return.

The season of Lent begins with this reminder on Ash Wednesday.  This Lent, you might ask what ways you yearn for renewal? …in your life? …in your health? …in your body? …in your mind? …in your spirit? …in your relationships? …in your community? …in the whole cosmos?

Someone once told me: “Not working is part of your job too” and quoted the commandment regarding Sabbath-keeping to back it up.  May we remember that “renewal” is part of the fabric of who we are.  May we be reminded that God’s gracious gift of “renewal” is part of the fabric of salvation as much as anything else.  And may you be renewed like a salami sandwich left on the counter, which ends up in the compost heap and turns into new soil that feeds the seeds of spring.

Motivation

Recently I’ve been reading a book by Daniel Pink entitled, Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us.  In the book, Pink tackles the somewhat controversial topic of why the reward and punishment approach to motivation doesn’t really work all that well.   Conventional wisdom says that we work harder when “carrots” are placed before us.  The carrot may be more money, recognition, or a new video game.  A “stick” often accompanies this approach where punishments are given for not working hard enough – the loss of vacation time or loss of the video game.

What Pink argues is that, though the carrots and sticks work sometimes, the most vital motivation comes from inside a person, not from external rewards and punishments.  The joy of doing a task well is its own reward.  Of course he has many examples that make his point, but the basic logic doesn’t need much applifying.  We work hardest at tasks we find interesting,  engaging, and worthwhile.  How else does one explain the thousands of volunteer hours given to building Wikipedia or the intense concentration of a child lost in play?  

Though I’m pretty sure that Mr. Pink didn’t have Christian congregations in mind when he put his thoughts on paper, he does a pretty good job of describing what I think makes congregations like Custer Lutheran Fellowship work.  Congregations with many people deeply engaged in tasks that they like to do, are good at doing, and make a difference being done are congregation that have are humming along well.

As we enter 2012 I’m excited about what is to come with the well-motivated group of Christian disciples called Custer Lutheran Fellowship.  In January the church council will be meeting in a retreat to begin the process of developing a new mission and vision statement for the congregation.  This will be a significant process and will involve the entire congregation as we lay out who we hope to be in the next decade.  I like to think that the work of the last mission and vision statement created nine years ago helped lead to the building of a new sanctuary, the calling of a second pastor, and the engagement of an entire new crop of motivated disciples. 

Thanks to the deep generosity of the congregation’s stewards and from the estimates generated on Consecration Sunday, we are planning on a 16 percent increase in financial giving in 2012.  This opens new opportunities for mission for us as a congregation as we look to the local community and beyond.

Christian leaders have reminded us that “It is a good time to be the church.” I think it is a good time to be the church because God always has work for us to do.  We do this work not because we are going to get rich doing it or because we will be struck by lightening if we don’t, but because Jesus’ work is good work.  Thanks be to God.

Love Your Neighbor as Yourself – Part 2

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,

and with all your soul, and with all your mind…

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

 — Matthew 22.37, 39 —

A Sunday not long ago these words of Jesus from Matthew 22 made an appearance in the Gospel reading.  When faced with the task of preaching on these words, I couldn’t help but think of a story I had heard this fall about a church near Memphis Tennessee.

It all started when the members of Heartsong Church put up a simple sign on their front lawn (pictured here).  While another Christian pastor was making news in Florida because he was threatening to burn the Qur’an, Pastor Steve Stone of Heartsong Church heard “love your neighbor as yourself” and decided to offer a word of welcome to a new mosque that was being built across the street.  Sometimes we call it The Golden Rule, I like to think of it as The Shoe Rule – if you were in your neighbor’s shoes, how would you like it? …or maybe that doesn’t go far enough.  Maybe we should call it The Skin Rule – if you were in your neighbor’s skin, how would you like to be treated?

The story doesn’t end there.  With the holy month of Ramadan approaching, the new mosque was behind schedule and they needed a place for prayer.  The leaders of Memphis Islamic Center approached the leaders of Heartsong Church and asked for a small room in the back where they could offer prayers.  However, members of Heartsong Church decided they couldn’t let them use a small room in the back, instead they told them, “No, you’re going to pray in our main worship space.”

It’s probably not a decision that a lot of churches might make, but it sure does make you think twice about The Golden Rule.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  The story of Heartsong has haunted me ever since I heard an interview with Pastor Steve of Heartsong and Danish Siddiqui, one of the leaders at the Memphis Islamic Center.  It haunts and it challenges because Pastor Steve points directly to The Golden Rule as a reason that Heartsong did what they did.  “I think it was just more that one of the basic tenets of our faith is to love our neighbors… really it was a no-brainer for us…” (from an interview on All Things Considered, 08/21/11).

So this is part 2.  When you type The Golden Rule into Wikipedia you learn that just about every faith tradition (Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, Baha’i, Hinduism, Sihism, Taoism, Wicca, and lots of others!) has some version of The Golden Rule as a central tenet of its teaching.  Where does that leave us as Christians?  Does the heart of Jesus’ moral teachings have to be unique to be true? 

Besides asking why we are often so concerned with being “unique,” we might also ask if maybe The Golden Rule or The Skin Rule has something to do with the “uniqueness” of the Christian gospel.  The good news on which we as Christians focus has to do with an audacious God who was willing to love us better than we can love ourselves by taking on our skin as humans in order to teach us to love our neighbor and remind us of God’s love.  It seems to me that this is good enough news to share with anyone, using words at times… and at other times just putting a sign on our front lawn and seeing what happens.

And two shall become one (vertebra, I mean)

Most weeks will find Pastor Kent or I visiting patients in one or more of the area hospitals.  When Pastor Kent had his knee surgery last winter I told him that it is good for a pastor be a hospital patient every now and then so that we get a taste of the anxiety, hope, and fear that surround such stays.

I guess I’ll have to take my own advice in a couple of weeks.  For twenty years I’ve been one of those people who complain to their spouses about having a sore back.  When the ache turns into significant pain even a man of stubborn Norwegian/German stock asks his doctor for help.  Several xrays, one MRI, and  a couple of specialists later I learned that many years ago I broke my back without knowing it.  However, the good news is that it can be fixed.  So on October 3 I’ll be having what my surgeon calls an “aggressive surgery” to fuse the troublesome bone to its neighbor.  When the procedures are all done I’ll have a piece of donated cadaver bone, several screws, and a rod in my back.  If all goes well I’ll be back to work in about four weeks and fully healed in six to nine months.

I ask for your prayers for my family and I as we go through this time of surgery and recovery.  The staff at church and leadership of the congregation has been very helpful as I’ve been making plans to be gone for a few weeks.  Thank you to you all.