Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Big Lessons from a Little Teacher



Being a Dad is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever gotten to do. Every day my little girl surprises me with what she knows, or makes me laugh by being silly. Every day she learns something new about herself and the world around her. How it works, how it functions, who people are, that she’ll get Daddy to jump up and down clapping by saying “B-B-B-Bennie Jets.”

But as she grows and learns, I also continue to grow and to learn. I’ve heard over and over that our faith ought to be like that of a child. Throughout my life, I have to admit that I’ve rarely given thought to what that meant or what it might actually look like. But as I’ve seen how she perceives the world, I’m learning what that’s really all about.

She still lives in the world of complete trust, of unjaded and uninhibited pure love. A world where she’s free to sing and dance and play to her heart’s content. She lives in a world where a stranger is just another tall baby she can say “Hi” to. There’s no suspicion, there’s no hate, there’s nothing but joy in learning that when you say hi to someone, they can’t help but smile and wave back. I cannot count the number of smiles that she has brought to the faces of old ladies in church, or strangers at the grocery store. She truly is still nothing but pure light and joy to others. (Except those who wanted a quiet meal at the Worthington Ground Round…)

As I watch her grow, and interact with the world, I can’t help but wonder when we lose that ability. When do we stop bringing joy to people’s faces at the mere sight of a wave? Yet I’m also struck by the thought that maybe we don’t have to lose that. There’s many times when someone says hello to you and it makes you smile. Or you get a call from a friend or a family member, and it makes your day. Perhaps we all could act a little more like a child in that respect. Being willing to say hello to anyone (and I really mean anyone) and making sure we wave back.

But the lessons my daughter teaches me go far beyond the hello. Before each meal, we pray. But instead of the normal grace prayers, we decided that we wanted to put it in words she could begin to understand. “Bless us O Lord with these thy gifts… or Be present at our table Lord…” or any of the others you can think of just weren’t going to cut it. So it has become “Dear God, Thank you for noodles, and puppy, and forks. Amen.” This went on for a couple of weeks. We’d sit down to pray, and thank God for 3 or 4 things we could see that we knew she could name. Thanks for milk, napkins, sunshine, and high chairs were a regular occurrence. She seemed to enjoy us listing off random things that she knew. After we’d pray, she’d take a couple of bites and then ask to pray again. So we’d name more things.  We’d pray 4 of 5 times a meal. Then something really great started to happen. All of a sudden she wanted to pray at other times during the day. So we’d do the same thing. “Dear God, thank you for books, and toys, and cribs. Amen”

I figured this prayer thing had sort of become a “let’s see what 3 things mommy and daddy says this time” game to her. And then something amazing happened.

“Mommy, Pray.”
“Dear God, Thank you for spoons, and puppies, and chips. Amen”
“and Daddy, Amen. and Mommy, Amen.”
With that, she picked up her fork and started to eat.

I wish I could say that prayer permeated my life the way it does hers. And I wish I could say that my prayers were as simple, uninhibited, full of love, and gratitude as hers.

Boy the huge lessons a little one will teach.

For her. Amen.  

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Who are you, and what do you do?

Who are you and what do you do?

It's a basic question, and one that you've probably answered at least a hundred times in your life. It's so basic that we don't really think much of it. However, it seems to me that in our day and our culture, we have fundamentally lost the ability to answer these questions correctly. Whenever it's asked of me, I always default into the way everyone else answers it.

"My name is Nate. I'm from North St. Paul. I have a wife and a daughter. I go to Luther Seminary, and I coach basketball."

Now this is all well and good until you realize that I've really not answered both questions asked of me. I've only told you what I do. But in our world no one seems to notice that. It happens because we've combined the questions and our own identities have become defined by what we do. To some, that may be good enough. But I'm not satisfied with that. When I answer in that way, I've told you my name, and where I spend my time. But that doesn't quite paint the full picture for you.

Instead, I'd love to tell you, "My name is Nate. I strive to be a man of high character and of deep faith. I love people and working with them in good times and in bad. That's why I'm going to seminary. I want to be classy, over being cool. I want to be known as wise rather than being smart. I work hard at the things I love to do. I am a loving father and husband, and I work every day to be better at that. I want to be the best at whatever I do. That is especially true when I coach basketball."

Now I've told you a little bit about who I am. You see, the difference in that answer is that I'm no longer defined by what I do. Instead, what I do is defined by who I am. All too often in our world, I see people who get into a career with the intention of defining it. With all the hopes and dreams of a bright future and all the wonderful things they'll be able to do. But as they get caught up in the whirlwind of the daily grind, they lose sight of who they are and the desire to define their job. Then they become a label. Perhaps we don't answer in the full way because people don't want to stand their listening to the whole thing. Perhaps it's because we don't want to brag about ourselves.

Here's the deal. I know you are much more than what you do. You, who are sitting at your computer, or reading this on your phone, who clicked some random link to get here, or maybe got this emailed to your inbox. You are much more than what you do. I know it. So let me ask you again,
Who are you, and what do you do? I really want to know.

(p.s. I have changed around some settings so that anyone can comment. So I'd love for you to actually answer that question if you'd like to!)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A little validation might be nice around here...

NOTE: There is a danger in writing a blog like this. This is in no way some sort of needy, passive way at hinting at a need of mine.

"Validation" for some reason carries a bit of a negative connotation these days. Images of past acquaintances or modern day martyrs start flying through your head of people fishing for compliments based on their inherent need for love and attention, or serving in order to be notice for how wonderful they are. Though all that can be true, and filling that need for someone may not necessarily be a bad thing, that's not really what I'm talking about.

See in those situations, there seems to be some sort of deficit that needs to be filled and the only way to do it is to validate someone's actions. However, what I want to tell you about is the power of the unexpected validation.

I have a friend who I love and respect a great deal. She has this incredible gift to not only see, but to point out the gifts and talents that someone has. And it's not just an occasional thing either. It's constantly. (and I really do mean constantly, like several times a day) No matter who this person is, what their past, present, or future look like she can find the good in them, and she tells them about it too! I must admit that I've given her a lot of crap about this, but I also have to say that you'd be hard pressed to walk away from an interaction with her feeling bad about yourself. Her unexpected validation does wonders for the people around her. She truly becomes the light of Christ and spreads it to those she meets. Incredible.

I have a mentor whom I hold in the highest regard. I am honored to call him my friend and aspire every day to model the example that he set out for me. While trading emails with him, he told me very simply "You inspire me." I have to tell you, those three words carried an immense weight for me. When your inspiration is inspired by you, boy is that ever some validation. That sort of thing can keep you going for years.

But this unexpected validation doesn't need to be some big extravagant thing. A colleague of mine ran our confirmation orientation a couple of weeks ago. She had everything laid out, she worked really hard on the hand outs, the schedule for the meeting, all of it. Watching her run this orientation was awesome. She rocked it. After that meeting, she got an email that said something to the effect of "thank you for the meeting. It was well organized and well presented. I know what's going on for this coming year and I feel ready for it." As she told our team about this, you could just see the satisfaction on her face. She reflected "That sort of thing really makes you feel like you're doing alright."

So I have been inspired by all of these things. So I decided to try a little bit of it. I was at a council meeting this past week. One of the council members stepped in to run the meeting. Before hand he talked me through a few other things that I'd need to know about this congregation and some things I needed to do for it. He ran a great meeting, and then stayed after a little bit to chat with a couple of us that lingered a bit. As I talked with him, I found out all of the other things that he does for the church and for the community. I will tell you, this man has A LOT going on. But all of the things that he does seem to be those sort of thankless jobs. So seeing this opportunity, I simply said, "I just want to say thank you. I know I'm new here, but I can see how much work you do, and I know that your work makes life easier for the rest of us. So thanks." He seemed a bit taken aback by my statement, but then a smile came across his face and he said "well, I try, and I really appreciate that." This was not a difficult thing on my part at all. I simply had to keep my eyes open and see how God is using this man. What a gift for service he has, and I have to believe that a little validation made a big difference.

So I challenge you to do the same. Open your eyes. Look at those around you. Who do you see that is doing God's work with excellence? Who makes life a little easier for you? Who inspires you? Who has amazing gifts that you can see?  Maybe it's time to let them know.


Friday, September 6, 2013

An Update from the Prairie!

So I've discovered that none of my posts thus far have really kept anyone up to date on what's happening so far. So here goes...

We moved down to Fulda on August 26th. As soon as we arrived, we had wonderful people around us to help unload and to make us feel welcomed down here. We spent the remainder of that week unpacking, though we're still living in a minor maze of cardboard boxes. The house is GREAT. It's got plenty of room for Paige and Maddie to run around, and for visitors!!! I'm sure at some point we'll post a virtual tour of the house, but that would require me taking pictures, which would require time. That seems to be lacking.

I officially started on September 1st. That was a Sunday and I attended 2 worship services. One at Evangelical Lutheran in Heron Lake and One at Amo Lutheran near Storden. In all I have 5 different congregations that I'll be working with. The two I just mentioned, plus Immanuel Lutheran in Fulda (which I live next to), First Lutheran in Dundee, and Grace Lutheran just outside of Worthington. Luckily I'm not alone. I'm the 4th pastor on staff and the rest of my team is absolutely awesome. They all differ in personality, gifts and talents, as well as many other things. I can certainly lean a lot from them.

Right now my supervising pastor and I are making the rounds through the congregations, getting me introduced to everyone. I will begin leading services on my own at the end of this month. That's awesome and terrifying at the same time. I have worked really hard so far at trying to contribute something instead of feeling like the extra weight. I'm not sure how well it's going, but I haven't even been on the job for a week yet... So maybe I'll cut myself a bit of slack.

I'm starting to feel a little more settled down here. I'm getting used to seeing corn and soy beans everywhere. The peace and quiet of this setting is really allowing me to have some peace and quiet in my mind and soul, something I guess I was lacking. I've already had some great moments where the Holy Spirit sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly gives me a kick.

But I've also found some difficulty. This past week, My dad lost his cousin who was really more like his brother. My Mom lost one of her good friends. And we all lost a good friend in my home congregation. Though those events made me sad, I found it especially difficult to not be around while all this is happening. They say a pastor is called to a church to shepherd a flock. While I am down here, I'm learning to shepherd a whole new flock, but not really sure how to help take care of my old one. Sorrow is a hard feeling, but helplessness really sucks!

Keep walking, keep praying, keep growing I guess!
God Bless!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Rambling on leadership and a kick from the Spirit

 "A leader is a person that you follow to a place you'd never go by yourself." This was a statement by a very wise and good friend of mine. It has been a statement that has stuck with me since the moment I heard it. I've been thinking a lot about that statement recently. Tomorrow I begin my internship. It is one of those major milestones that one hits in their seminary career. I have long considered myself to be a public, Christian leader, but tomorrow seems to embody an enhancement of that idea. As I think about what that means, and what being a pastor means (or at least what it seems to mean to me at this point) there are many different areas that come into play. Preaching, teaching and administering the sacraments are chiefly among those. But another huge part of it is leadership. I've often heard that as a pastor, one is called to be a leader of the congregation. I have to be honest in the fact that I've always found that idea to be a little bit uncomfortable. First off, I have to believe the Holy Spirit is the one who leads the congregation. But I'm also a bit wary of the image that "leading" portrays. I do not want to be one of those pastors who pulls the congregation where I think we ought to go. Instead, I want to be the one to help the congregation discern where the spirit leads them to go.

As I'm thinking about this and looking back on everything I've written, it occurs to me that I really am lost when it comes to this leadership idea. I have a ton of ideas swimming around, but nothing coherent is coming out. So, I pray that God will be with me as I figure out this whole leadership thing.

Now, I'll be honest with you. I am feeling a big push from the Holy Spirit to say something. I'm not really sure why, but hopefully it's something that someone out there needs to hear. Maybe it's something I need to hear. Who knows?

A mentor pastor of mine preached a sermon once on the 23rd Psalm. (Probably one of the best I've ever heard)

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Remember that the Lord is your shepherd. He is your leader. As my Pa told me "I like to read it, The lord is my shepherd, and that's all I want."

But the major thing you need to hear, whoever you are, is that even though you're in the valley, you've gotta walk. It's not a run to get out, but it's not a crawl, and it's certainly not a lay down and call it quits.  Keep moving, keep walking, the Lord leads you, and someday you'll find yourself out of the valley. JUST KEEP GOING BECAUSE HE'S RIGHT THERE WITH YOU!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Call...

Last week, my bishop told a story to our group amidst the election of a new Presiding Bishop. I don't remember who exactly said what in the story, but the point was that the Holy Spirit doesn't pluck out one person who is right for the job and hand them to the person/group doing the hiring. Instead the Holy Spirit sometimes says "you've got a bunch of great people. Pick one and I'll make them right for the job." I've been pondering the implications of that story for a while, and I think it's quite possibly one of the wisest things I've ever heard. These words have come back to me almost daily since I've heard them, and today they did again.

We are currently packing up to head out on internship. I feel like we're drowning in cardboard boxes. We roll out of the driveway Monday morning, and the next Sunday I officially start my internship. It is a really exciting time for me and my family. But it's also an absolutely terrifying time. My wife looked at me this evening and asked, "are you ready for this?" The answer that immediately popped out of my mouth was an emphatic "NO!" only to be followed up by my own even bigger mental NNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! It was in that moment when the words of my bishop came back to me.

I have come to realize that there is a huge difference between a job and a call. The modern day professionalization of the clergy would seek to equate the two, but they are vastly different. When one accepts a job, the premise is usually that they're well prepared, well educated, and adequately skilled. They are often viewed as a missing cog in the machine of the company. But that is not how a call works. Don't get me wrong, think those going into a call have usually been well prepared, well educated and are adequately skilled. But a call is something more organic. A call is about shepherding and loving, and about growing together. It's all about companionship and walking with a group of people through the ups and downs of life.  A job often forces you to look at past performance, benchmarks, and productivity levels. There is a sort of cold statistical analysis that can be done. The central question is always, "Have I performed and am I currently performing at a level to warrant my employment." However with a call, it is all about the future. Am I the right person to walk into the future together with these people? Is this place the one where God needs me to be in the coming years?

Now, don't get me wrong, these divisions are not so neat and tidy. And I also realize that a call may not be part of a church, but can be any vocation.

I have thought a lot about this, because I know I'm called. I'm called to head out on this internship to a place and a people I don't know. I'm called to try and fail and learn and grow. Though I don't feel ready, though I don't know what lies ahead, I know that it is my calling. So with that I pack up my life, and the lives of my family to move ahead into this calling. I rest assured that I don't need to be perfect, and that the spirit will shape me into the right person for this calling.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 3:12-14 NRSV)

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Holy Golfer

Today we ended the 2013 Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA. It was an absolutely incredible event, and one that came with many big surprises. I came to Pittsburgh about a week ago, expecting to sit through a bunch of plenary sessions and hear a bunch of people talk. We'd approve some things and elect a new secretary. As I sit here on the other end of things, I cannot believe how much the Holy Spirit has taken us in a new direction.
I often tell people that my faith works a lot like the way I play golf. A typical hole goes something like this:
1- I look at the yardage and where I want to go.
2- I think about the club most people would use.
3- I take one club down from that and whack the ball as hard as I possibly can.
4- I find the ball and repeat.

Now step 4 is the interesting one. Sometimes, and I do stress sometimes, the ball has landed in a pretty good spot, making the next shot a little bit easier. But more often than not, I have to venture off into the wilderness on the side of the course to find the ball and whack it back toward where I wanted to go in the first place.

When I look at this metaphor in terms of my church, I'd have to say that this hole is a pretty sharp dogleg. (For those unfamiliar, a dogleg hole is sort of "L" shaped, and often involves teeing off without being able to see the hole.)  25 years ago, we teed off unable to see exactly where we wanted to go. Unlike most of my shots, this one sailed pretty straight, and landed just short of the bend in the course. Now, most people, like me thought that we'd just be following the fairway  around the bend. But the spirit had other things in mind. Instead of working around the bend, I think the spirit spotted little opening in the trees, and decided to cut the corner. There's risk in this approach and we may find ourselves in some "sticky" situations. (see what I did there???) But the spirit decided to take that club from our bag and swing away.

This happened in many ways. Obviously it happened in terms of our leadership, electing a new presiding bishop and secretary. But it also happened in stepping boldly into a capital campaign over the next five years. It happened when we decided to take a stand for criminal justice, immigration reform and to advocate for voting rights. It happened when we decided to continue to strengthen our relationships with our ecumenical partners and dialogue with ones we're not in full communion with.

I am proud to be a member of this church, and thrilled to become a member of its clergy in a couple of years. There is no doubt that the Spirit has just given us a good whack. We cannot be sure where we'll land, or if the spirit will have to come find us in the middle of the wilderness. But regardless of that, we can be assured that the spirit is the one who swings the clubs.

The good news for everyone I believe is that the spirit doesn't just work for my denomination, or even just for Christians. God in the Spirit is active in all of our lives, whether you choose to know it or not. No matter who you are, where you are, what your struggles are, or what you believe, God is swinging the clubs for you. Some of you may be being hit with a driver, and some may be tapped with a putter. But in order to be successful on the course, all the clubs are needed. You're needed.