Last night we observed Ash Wednesday with a ritual called “the imposition of ashes.” It’s called an “imposition,” I assume, because ashes are being put (“imposed”) on a person, rather than a person putting them on him- or herself.
And yet, the name of the ritual is strangely, ironically appropriate. It is an imposition to have ashes placed on us by another person. It is a violation of our personal space. It is an action that we will, at some point, have to remedy by washing our foreheads. The imposition of ashes is meant to remind us of our own mortality and stand as an act of repentance; it is a sign of our vulnerability.
What is truly incredible about it is that it is itself an act of vulnerability. In a culture that is so sensitive about personal contact between strangers and so deeply aware of our own appearance, people somehow are able to come forward and allow a pastor (sometimes a stranger, sometimes not) to mar their appearance. It’s a small act, true, but it is an act which requires us to voluntarily allow somebody else to invade our personal space, mess up our hair, touch us skin-to-skin and rub dirt onto an area that many of us spend a great deal of effort to keep clean and tidy.
As I stood at the front of the chancel last night, smearing ashes onto face after face, I thought of the blemishes that people were presenting to me: wrinkles and age spots, acne and receding hair lines. These people were inviting me to muss up their bangs and touch them where they may not have been touched by another person (aside from this ritual) since their mother last checked them for a fever (which, for many of these folks, has been decades).
I watched the faces parading up to me, one after another, some young and smooth, some worn with age and weathered by the elements, and I became acutely aware of just how much trust these people had in me to bare their foreheads to me to besmirch with ashes. I became aware of just how holy those few moments in time were.
I have grown up in a world where, whether I was always aware of it or not, personal contact has been limited. My family was always very physically affectionate, but outside of my family, touching is simply something we don’t do. I’ve shaken many, many hands, but any time I reach out to touch a shoulder or an elbow, I must think of whether it is appropriate. I am uncomfortable when my leg presses against another’s while sitting on a bench or a bus. I may occasionally pat a man on the back, but never a woman. As a pastor, I more than some others need to be very aware of these boundaries of touch.
And yet, in this moment, on a Wednesday night, people lined up and approached me with the expectation that I would touch them in a very visible, very sensitive place; that I would intentionally put my skin against theirs and leave a visible mark. How often does this happen outside of the Church?
Last night, a couple dozen people allowed me to impose upon them a sign of mortality and penitence. I would not have been expected or even allowed to do this if not for my position as their pastor, and if I tried to do the same to any of them when I ran into them in the grocery store or at a council meeting, they would likely pull back in surprise and confusion. All this is to say that the intimacy and the trust that existed in that moment is not lost on me, and that I am grateful that I have been called to be the person who is allowed into these moments with people. Its one of those small moments where God suddenly becomes a tangible presence, something that can be experienced with the senses rather than simply with the mind or heart.
The imposition of may seem like a silly practice to some or an undue display of piety to others, but to me, it is a moment of holiness, a moment when I may reach out and touch God, and when others may feel God touching them.
A thought occurred to me today while reading a wonderful blog post about God’s love, and following a continuing discussion with one of my cousins over the nature of hell.
We were discussing (basically) whether hell is eternal or temporal; that is, whether it exists as a place (physical, metaphysical, or otherwise) or an experience (metaphorical) in this life. My cousin asks me at one point, “If there is no hell, what is the reason for repentance?”
Rob Bell ran afoul of this same sort of discussion with his own community some years ago when he published “Love Wins.” He was declared a heretic by his Evangelical community for denying the existence of an eternal hell where people are punished for their sins for all eternity. The argument of his critics was basically the same: if there is no punishment, why do we bother with this? The implication then, intended or no, is that without fear of punishment, we don’t really need God.
That’s not the way I see it. I see God and God’s entrance into the world in the person of Jesus Christ as a way to save us not from punishment threatened by God, but as a way to save us from the hopelessness and the carelessness of our own human situation. The world is a cruel place, and we are cruel to each other, and not always intentionally. God offers us a way out of the cycle of violence, frustration, hopelessness and fear. That way out is love.
My experience of God has been primarily an experience of love, but there are others for whom that is not the case. There are many people who have left the Church and/or their faith in God because of this idea of hell: that God loves us, unless we don’t meet a certain standard; in which case God gives you up to fry forever. I think that is why we have seen a renewal in recent years of people like Bell rebelling against the concept of hell.
The thought I had was this: it seems that there are two kinds of motivation for following God. First, there is motivation by fear of punishment. Some people see the need for us to be confronted with our own hopelessness before we can recognize our need for God, not unlike an alcoholic who must first admit her powerlessness to her addiction before being able to move forward. Then, there is motivation by love. This is the approach that says you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. People who have already experienced the worst the world has to offer find more enrichment in the idea that there is actually a God out there who cares deeply about them than in the idea that the Divine Bean Counter has it in for them.
Both motivations are valid, I think, and both necessary together. Martin Luther would have described this as Law and Gospel: our need to both be convicted of our sin and, at the same time, accepted by God’s love. So, this is an old concept. I think what draws us apart on this debate is our constant need to boil things down to a single point. Too many of us on both sides want to reduce God’s work to either Law or Gospel, when in reality it is both. However, whether the Law side or the Gospel side—the repentance and fear or the love and acceptance—speaks more to a person really depends upon their own experience.
This is why I still follow in Luther’s footsteps. He made a lot of mistakes, and he was wrong about a lot of things, but I think he had this one pegged. There will always be both people who won’t find any use for God until they are confronted with their own hopelessness, and there will always be people who will never accept a God who threatens them with punishment for not believing or doing the right thing. Nevertheless, I still believe, from my reading of scripture, that God’s primary, overarching characteristic is love, and that the punishment we have to fear is not God’s, but the misery we find simply in living life on this earth.
I began this blog back in ’06 when I started seminary and wanted to keep in touch with people from college. Back then, I had several people who followed it somewhat regularly, and I posted somewhat regularly. Since that time, Facebook has become huge and this is now how most of my friends and I keep “in touch” (though, this is a relative term, with Facebook).
In any case, as I migrated to Facebook and had less to write about, I slowly abandoned this blog. Over the time I had it, I mixed personal updates with random thoughts about theology and life. I really enjoyed having a place to post some of those thoughts, and as I am now becoming a more avid reader of different theology blogs, I am thinking it would be nice to have a place to discuss and develop some of those thoughts, as well.
So, I’ve decided to undertake some work and rebrand this blog. It will still be primarily personal in nature, but rather than writing about myself, I want to focus more on writing about thoughts and discussions that interest me. My interests being what they are, I expect this will primarily be theology. I considered simply using my professional blog (where I post sermons), but I hope to be a little freer, perhaps a little more controversial here, and I don’t necessarily want that connected (directly) with my office. As a pastor, I work with people for whom controversy may not always be appreciated.
On that note, I was quite amused to discover today that though this blog has been dormant for a number of years by this point, it still gets a fair amount of traffic, and the vast majority of that traffic is from people searching “chemistry pick-up lines” and “dirty organic chemistry jokes” and the like. Since I am a softie, I do not wish to deprive these seekers of their destination, so the Chemistry Pick-Up Lines page will stay. Perhaps it will even grow if anybody gives me any suggestions (wink-wink). It may also be a little because I’m flattered by the traffic. Maybe.
So, some things will be changing around here, but hopefully for the better. Welcome newcomers, and if there are any of you old hangers-on left by now, thanks for sticking with me.
This morning, I woke up around 7:15, showered, put on my clerical shirt and collar and went to church to preach. As I walked into the small, country church where I led worship today, I thought to myself that there was nowhere else that I would rather be as the sun rose on this morning, nowhere else that I really could be. Twenty years ago today, my mother died; so yeah, church—or rather, the Church—seems the best place to begin this day.
I’m not sure I know what to do with that. 20 years is a long time, but longer for me. 20 years is two-thirds of my entire life. The only time this anniversary has been more bizarre was 10 years ago, when I passed the half-way point; I’d officially been without her as long as I’d been with her.
Its an anniversary that almost gets harder the more distant it gets from the original event. After 20 years, there’s so much about her I’ve forgotten; it seems like the only stuff I do remember is the stuff I have “officially” remembered in stories. The random snippets of memory and flashes of her face, her voice, things she said and did are all slowly disappearing. I also can’t help but think of all the things I never knew: what her favorite beer was or how she voted in elections or the jokes she would only ever tell when there were no kids around. There is so much a 10-year-old doesn’t know about the human beings who are his parents.
What I do know is this: as a pastor, I have heard dozens of stories about people facing tragedy. Sometimes the experience strengthens their faith, and sometimes it destroys it. I know that my faith could easily have been broken by mom’s death, how quickly it could have been scoured away by the sheer force of that calamity.
But it wasn’t.
What saved my faith—what may have saved me—was the Church.
My mother was a very faithful person. Even through her illness, she maintained a relationship with God, and she came to worship every Sunday as often as she could make it. She and my father both made the Church a huge part of their lives and mine from the time when I was very young. Seeing this helped me maintain that connection even when everything else was shaken loose for me.
But then there was the people, my congregation. Lots of people from my generation have turned from the Church, saying they can’t see God there. They say that they find God in the sunset and in the rainbow and in the quiet that settles on a dewy field as they sit in a deer stand on a cold November morning. I see God in those places, too, but not nearly as clearly or as brilliantly as I have seen God in the faces, the hands, and the hearts of those people who held us together when the world fell apart.
Redeemer Lutheran Church in Great Falls, MT showed me what God’s love is. They showed me in the meals they prepared for us after Mom died. The showed me in the visitors that came to see us at our house in those days following. They showed me in that packed sanctuary at her funeral. They showed me in all the days before that, both before she got sick and after, in all the people—some old enough to be my grandparents or great-grandparents—who loved, me taught me, comforted me.
Once, after Mom got sick and mostly confined to a wheelchair, my congregation raised money for my family to take a trip to Disney Land. What an incredible gift to a couple of kids who are desperately trying to make the most of the time they have left with their mother! Those are treasured memories for my family and I as we look back on the time we had with her.
In these 20 years that she has been gone, my relationship with God has been one of only a handful of constants in my life. As sure as the sun will rise, God is beside me. I know this because I have witnessed it firsthand. Those people didn’t just preach or proclaim or show me God’s love, they lived it to me, they demonstrated it.
After 20 years, there is a lot I wish I could remember about my mother; but the important things are preserved through my family and my congregation. They remember her better than I do, and they share those memories with me from time to time. The most important things I remember about her are almost all tied up with my memories of people from Redeemer, because the kind of person she was is the kind of people they are. She and they formed one another, and in a very real way she is still alive in that community.
I miss her like crazy. 20 years is an awfully long time to be without her. At the same time, the beauty, the love, the life that I have seen since then, the work God has done with that pain and death that I have been privileged to watch and even to participate in, I don’t know where I would be without all that. That’s part of what makes this day so bizarre; as much as I wish that 20 years ago today had simply been another day, unremarkable and unmemorable, I have been insanely blessed by all that has come from it.
And that is why I can believe in the resurrection. In my life, through the work of the Holy Spirit lived out in the Church, I have experienced resurrection. I have seen life literally come from death. We all know that dead people don’t get up and walk; but I know just as surely that God brings life from death—I have literally, actually, physically seen it. I am a witness to the resurrection.
So, I don’t really know what to do with this day, or with all these memories and emotions that come up around it, but I felt like I had to share that. I feel like it’s important to get that out there, to thank those people who were Christ to me, who carried my burdens and believed for me when I couldn’t. What they did doesn’t make today any less terrible, but it does make today holy.
A dear friend of mine passed away on Wednesday, Pastor Olaf Borge. I went out today to buy a card to send for the funeral. This was no easy task, as I am generally disappointed by pre-printed cards. Funny ones are great, but this is hardly the occasion to send a humorous birthday or get well card. Nearly all the religious cards offered for any occasion are excessively kitschy, and the religious sympathy cards are often full of bad theology like “God just needed another angel” or crap like that. My quest for Olaf’s card ended in a simple “Thank You” card, blank inside, because how does one honor the life of a friend like Olaf with words other than these?
Olaf has been a member of my home congregation for a great many years. Like so many people there, I grew up around him. He was old as far back as I can remember, just one of the many elderly friends I’ve had my whole life from that place. I think I was in high school before I really figured out that he was a retired pastor. To me, he was always just “Olaf.” Unlike some adults that I know even now, he never insisted on being addressed by children as “Mister” or “Pastor.” He just loved the companionship of children, and of anybody, really. I suppose at least some of the fondness I have for him is inherited. My parents have been friends with him for a long time as well. He and my mother shared a birthday, February 29. Leap-year kids have a special bond, my mother had told me, because so many of them experienced the same teasing growing up, the same waiting for a rare birthday. Since she died, I think that, at least for my part (and perhaps for his), that bond they shared passed from her to me.
I grew up loving Olaf for the gentle soul that he was, but my appreciation and gratitude to him goes deeper than that. When I graduated high school, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that it had to do with the sciences. I don’t remember exactly when he started, but about that time he began quietly but persistently suggesting that I consider attending seminary and becoming a pastor. I will admit, I humored him at first. “Sure, Olaf, that sounds interesting. I’ll look into it,” I would say, never intending to do any such thing because I knew that I was certainly no pastor. I began college in a mechanical engineering program, later switching to chemistry, but he never gave up. When I came home on break and attended church, I would always see him and say hello, and he would once again suggest that I consider the ministry.
He was not the only person I heard this from, but he was the most consistent. Most folks would mention it once, and when I let them know I wasn’t interested, they’d back off. Olaf was never in my face about it, but he never gave up on trying to convince me. Once, I told Karla, my campus minister at college about how people would keep suggesting that I go to seminary, but that I wasn’t interested. “Yeah,” she said, “some people just can’t take a hint.” Exactly, I thought. Some people just can’t take a hint, like Olaf.
I was enjoying my chemistry studies immensely, but wasn’t really sure what I would do with the degree after I was done. I can remember spending quite a bit of time thinking about what I would ever want to do. Teaching was out, as I didn’t have the patience for it. I could be a lab monkey, doing grunt work either academically or corporately, but that likely meant tedium and a severe lack of creativity. I imagined myself running dozens of the same experiment, day after day, as my entire job. On the other hand, getting an MS or PhD didn’t sound that great either because, while I would have creative control, I would also be constantly hunting for research grants; not exactly what I signed on for.
The following winter, over Christmas break of my sophomore year, a number of things lined up. First, I had signed up to attend my first Lutheran Student Movement gathering in Albuquerque. I rode the Greyhound from Great Falls, MT to Albuquerque for the convention, a 36 hour trip. At the gathering, they had an area where many different colleges, camps, and other organizations had booths and gave out swag. Karla told me that she had seen a seminary classmate of hers working the “Seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” booth, and so she had mentioned to her friend that she had a student who might be stopping by. Great, thanks Karla. Some people really can’t take a hint, I thought. Weren’t you on my side? Simply to be polite, I checked out the booth and left my info.
The next day I was on the bus back to Great Falls, and when I arrived home, I had a letter from Luther Seminary waiting for me. That was quick, I thought. It had been less than 72 hours since I gave those people my address and here was a letter already. I opened it up and was informed that I had been nominated for a full-tuition scholarship to Luther Seminary for the 2003-2004 academic year. The nominator: Luther alumnus Olaf Borge.
I began to realize that day that it wasn’t Karla or even Olaf who wouldn’t take the hint; it was me. God had been speaking to me through so many people, but most stubbornly through Olaf. I owe that epiphany to many friends and mentors in my life, but perhaps none more so than him. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and he never gave up on me. He refused to take the hint.
That was the year I discerned a call to seminary. I couldn’t take Olaf’s scholarship because the timing wasn’t right, but after earning my chemistry degree I did enroll at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg. During those years, whenever I came home, I made a point to see Olaf. It was easy in college, as I was home several times a year, but after moving to Gettysburg, trips home became very rare. Yet, every chance I could get to go home, I stopped in to see him. I remember introducing him to my fiancée and the two of them reminiscing about growing up in Wisconsin. I remember him telling me stories about his friendship with my mother. I always left those visits grateful for the time we had, but also a little sadder for seeing him growing older and more frail.
As I have said, Olaf was old (to me) for as long as I can remember. By the time I got into seminary he was much older, and his health was beginning to decline. Given the role he played in my discernment, I could not imagine being ordained without him being there. I took 5 years to complete college, and after seminary, I delayed my ordination for a year so that my wife (who was a year behind me) and I could enter the assignment process for first call together. Many were the days that I tried to figure when I might be ordained and if Olaf would still be around for it. Every time I heard news from home that Olaf was feeling just a little worse, that he was becoming more forgetful, that he had moved into assisted living… I prayed a silent prayer that he could be there with me to see his persistence pay off.
On March 12, 2012, I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Pr. Olaf Borge, old and frail and forgetful as he was, was there to celebrate with our congregation and with me. Pr. Marty from my church picked him up from the nursing home and wheeled him up on his walker as all the clergy processed in.
Before I was ordained, Olaf gifted me with his full set of stoles. Every time I wear one of those stoles in worship, I think of him. I think of how he answered God’s call to serve the Church, and how he fulfilled Christ’s command to make disciples, including by gently, persistently asking one gawky kid to just think about going to seminary. I look at those stoles and I think about how the man wearing them touched the lives of so many people with God’s word. I think about the long line of servants God has called to serve, a lineage which both Olaf and I have been blessed to be a part. For me, Olaf and his life and ministry are a sign of God’s gentle and persistent love for me, and for all of us. God refuses to take the hint, God keeps working through people like Olaf to lend a hand or give a hug or help someone hear God’s invitation to them to be a part of something greater than themselves.
So, thank you Olaf. Thank you for not giving up on me, and for not ignoring God’s whisperings. Thank you for your friendship, your love, your guidance, your presence, and your stories. Thank you for your time. Thank you for not taking the hint. They don’t make a card that can adequately capture what you have been to me. Words fall short, so all I can say is thank you, and I look forward to seeing you again. I miss you, and I love you.
+Requiescat in Pace+
I’ve been on a little break from the blogosphere lately as I have been a little busy. On March 12, I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. For the service, my wife and I went back to my home in Great Falls, MT where we held the worship service at my home congregation of Redeemer Lutheran Church. The church went all out in preparing a reception for me afterwards, which really meant a lot. I was baptized and confirmed at Redeemer, so it was special for all of us to be able to share the celebration.
The entire event was wonderful; I love getting to reconnect with people from my home. I even got to see a few folks who I haven’t seen since I was a kid, folks who heard about the service through my parents or the newspaper and came to take part. My godparents presented the stole, my parents sang a duet during the offering, my campus minister from the U of I preached a wonderful sermon and both the current pastor of Redeemer and the pastor who confirmed me there were able to take part in the liturgy.
Probably the best part, though, was the special gift my parents got me. They had a pectoral cross made for me from the set of silverware my parents had when I was growing up—a reminder of my family and particularly of my mother, gone now for 19 years. Not only that, but the cross was passed around through the congregation during the service so that everyone there had a chance to touch it and pray over it. I am delighted to wear it when I lead worship now, a reminder of my family: my mom, my dad and stepmom, and all the brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles from Redeemer.
Thursday after we returned, I started work on Thursday the 15th. I have been called as associate pastor to Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Swift Falls, MN and Our Redeemer’s Lutheran in Benson, MN. I work 3/4 time at OR and 1/4 at SOTH, and the senior pastor and I will be switching off Sundays at each congregation. I am excited to begin this new career in ministry, and very excited to see where God will lead me now.
Even though I’ve been working as a pastor for the last year, it is satisfying to finally be able to do all parts of the job (I could not officially preside over communion or baptisms before, since I was not ordained) and to be officially recognized by the rest of the Church. Overall, it’s a small thing; I was still doing ministry before just as effectively, but now it feels as though I’ve really begun and am finally living out my call. It is good to be here now!