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Hey, how ya’ doin’? Feels like spring today! But, remember a week or so ago?
Walking back to church after a coffee warm-and-wake-up, I find myself hunching up my shoulders, bending over a bit at the waist, holding my hood so the wicked wind doesn’t peel it off my head. It’s brutally cold, even without the wind, which does its job of driving the frigid air right through my wind-resistant, very warm coat and into my rapidly-chilling hide! “Yikes, it’s cold!” I say out loud to no one in particular. I think that’s what I said.
I come around a corner and three younger persons are exiting one of the little shops in the strip across from the church. We make eye-contact and I feel obligated even in these miserable conditions to say, “Hi.” That’s all I’ve got.
One of the three, a guy, replies, “Hey, how ya doin’?”
Again, obligation takes hold and I respond not quite truthfully, “Not so bad. How ‘bout you?”
He comes back with, “Hey, it’s just another day in paradise, my man!” What? This was not at all what I expected. And, as humorless as I felt, I had to laugh! “…It’s just another day in paradise, my man!” Really? It is certainly a well-disguised paradise today!
Whoever that guy was, what he said had such natural energy, and directness, the grin on his face and the life in his voice convinced me of what he was saying – momentarily…almost. His good humor and grace caught hold in me and I walked the rest of the way back to church giggling to myself, in spite of the wind and cold. That’s no small thing.
I’m still thinking about that amazingly brief encounter that is frozen, or rather thawed and thawing me from within, in my memory. It is working on the ice and snow, the wind-chill that threatens to add injury to insult and aggravation. It is trying to take the wheel of commutes that are frustratingly long and messy simply because a couple inches of snow have fallen in a very short time, at almost the exact time that the entire driving population of the Twin Cities is out traveling to or from work, or school, or a diversion that was supposed to make them forget their frustrations. How funny is that?!
And it is trying to find a lasting place to lodge in me, this person I am who can be challenging at times to appreciate. I know. I get that. I can see it sometimes in people’s faces. And some have told me as much. That’s just life. We all get that in some form at some time or other. But I digress.
Here’s the thing: If I let in that little bit of light that that young guy shone my way, am I not choosing to participate in a larger brilliance that is present in all and obvious in some? Am I not joining a wonderful little revolt, putting some warming, lightening leaven in the frozen lump of January? Or, put it this way: If I try to embody the Spirit of God (that is breathed into us, poured out upon us…) as only I can, with integrity and authenticity, not allowing disapproval or animosity or wind-chill, to stifle it, there will be a light that shines forth, that isn’t mine, but that comes alive and shows through me.
And as my buoyant brother helped me see, I may well help you or someone else to see “…It’s just another day in paradise, my man!” So may it be!
Peace. I wrote this last night. It was a terrible night. The dog got sick around 3:00. I’ll spare you the details but it involved getting him and the rug onto which he expressed his inner self out of the house and into the subzero cold at a time when all God’s creatures should be snug in their beds, fast asleep. It would have been a rude awakening, had I been asleep.
I did not sleep much after that, expecting more of the same. And I had not slept much before that because the sadness of this year came to visit me… my own Christmas Carol, with some regret, but more just the heaviness that surrounds the loss of friends, family members, and the losses in the congregation most recently.
So you may choose to not read any further… it won’t be light-hearted. Just so you know. I wrote the following in the wakeful, fitful hours this morning. It is what I intend to offer as a reflection for the Service of Light and Hope this evening, December 14th, in the chapel at 5:30.
There are times when it seems that all is lost – the most precious person, the treasured relationship, the long-time connection, the work into which you have poured yourself, the time and place that was your world, your life, essential to your very being – gone with that particular loss.
You can’t see or hear or feel with reliable depth or clarity – the world around you has gone flat, empty, without light or life. It’s hard to breathe, to think, to do the most basic things. You forget what you have or have not done. You’re not sure what to do now.
You go through your days and they all seem the same. The distinctive things lose their definition and their defining power… nothing matters.
People who care about you may tell what to do, what you need to do to get going again, what you should do to make them less uncomfortable. It is well-intentioned for the most part, though it is often for themselves as well as for you.
But, even if you felt like doing what they suggest or urge, or had the energy to act as they advise, you don’t care. Why bother? It doesn’t matter… there is just deep emptiness inside that feels like it will go on forever. It is so dark. And that darkness seems to have won.
It has not. I know you can barely hear that right now – but it’s true.
There is light, faint though it may be for you right now, it is there… hiding deep within… positioned just out of reach of your tired eyes and weary heart. But it is there, and it will grow. It will expand and deepen and grow stronger. One day, it will take you by surprise, large, bright, powerful enough to catch you, surround you, fill you, keep you.
For now, know that it is. And let it simply be, settling into that inner place. Hold that soft, bright warmth. Let it do its work… until it joins the larger light breaking through. It is coming. It is on the way.
PS. Ozzie, the sick dog is fine this morning. I know you’d want to know that.
Hey, do you have time for a few thoughts before, or after, or while you vote?
On the last Sunday of October I referred in the sermon to the story of “the woman caught in adultery” from the gospel of John. It had come up in a conversation that Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, had had with a woman on the steps of a courthouse following a particularly sweet victory. The woman had been in the courtroom then, and numerous other times when Stevenson was there. She “worked” there too.
In the story the adulterous woman, her partner in crime having escaped apparently, is dragged by her captors before Jesus. They tell him her sin, for which the penalty is clear: “ The law says she is to be stoned to death. What do you say?” It is to test him. A set-up perhaps?
Jesus pauses to write or draw in the dirt. Legend suggests he was writing the names of the lynch/stone mob and their respective sins, when he says, “Whoever of you is pure, free of sin, go ahead, fire away.” They drop their stones and exit the scene quietly.
Stevenson had been speaking to a church group on behalf of a member of their community who’d been wrongly convicted of murder and was awaiting execution. The good church-folk were luke-warm in their support because the man on death row was not a church-goer and he’d had an affair. Stevenson asked them to remember the would-be stone-throwers. “We know the story. We still throw lots of stones.”
The woman nodded at the reference, chuckled, and then said, “But I watched you. I heard what you said. You’s a stone-catcher.” A role she also tried to play when she could. And she took his hands in her own and began to massage them lovingly, reflecting aloud on how hard and painful it is to catch stones.
I suggested in the sermon that that’s church work – catching stones. Refusing to throw stones. Challenging those who are in their own wind-up, about to let fly. Well, you almost need a helmet and mask and a mit on each hand these days given the volume of verbal stones flying and the ferocity with which they are flung!
We claim to have the best form of government on earth. (Until recently we claimed also to be the greatest country in the world. What happened to that?) But the process of electing those who will lead and govern is often so brutal, bloody, and ugly that it’s not to be commended to our children! That doesn’t seem right, does it? So what are we to do? How about these:
Choose wisely and carefully for whom you will vote. Be able to explain rationally – to your children, your grandchildren, the children in the neighborhood – that your choice is about them. And, do the work of stone catching. You and I are the people of God. This is God’s time and place. Let us claim and live that, without apology or excuse. And something more, if you’re interested.
Faith Ralston had a short article in the Star-Trib on October 20th under the title “We can put civility back in discussion.” In it she says four things: 1) Don’t get boxed in. Avoid labels and categories and focus on specifics. 2) Ask questions. Be genuinely curious. Try to understand the other person. 3) Refuse to be offended. Be respectful instead of insisting on being right. 4) Stick with it. The easy thing is to give up and join the fight – pick up a stone and let fire. There’s more than enough of that already.
Grief. Whether we want to or not, we have to deal with it. Sooner or later loss comes, sad stuff happens. If it happens directly to us, we do what is necessary to find our way through, almost always with the assistance of others. When it happens to others close to us, we offer what we can, some of us coping quite well, even managing to be helpful, while others of us never knowing quite what to say or do, always feeling awkward, watching for a reasonable opportunity to escape.
In my work grief is always close by. Ironically, when I “heard” my call to ordained ministry, I did not envision or imagine spending so much time in the grief and loss department. And the fact that my call really emerged from my own dad’s death makes that blind spot even more glaring. How could I have not seen that coming?!
Still, I am not one of those people who is “good” with grief. Over the years I have come to uneasy terms with it. However, it is quite different being on the edge of someone else’s loss, stepping in to offer what I can as a clergy person, compared to being in the middle of the situation myself. I prefer the former to the latter. I’d rather someone else experience the loss, as cold as that may sound, I’m just being honest.
On the ninth of October, the day I turned 60, I was sung to after church, received many birthday wishes, and enjoyed cake and ice cream with many of you. Thank you. You helped me turn the dial with a little less pain. I’m grateful.
In the afternoon I drove to Rochester to attend a memorial service for one of my closest friends. So, on the same day I celebrated the beginning of a new decade of life for myself, I also celebrated the end of a life that changed mine.
Dennis and I discovered some 30 years ago, as we served small churches in southwestern Minnesota, and “did time” on a district committee together, that we shared a somewhat warped view of the world and had similarly misshapen senses of humor. We laughed a lot together over the years. Survival tactics.
Dennis was a creative spirit who did all kinds of things that I did not. He baked, designed and created costumes for plays and other events, he drew and painted. He spoke German very well and performed in German a very funny version of “The 3 Little Pigs” that cracked me up every time I saw it.
During the past several years, as his wife Linda’s health failed, he and I were in contact a lot, talking on the phone several times a month, and texting almost daily. He would come to the Cities often to spend part of a day with me…a mental health rendezvous. He helped me survive the move here, and I was nearby as his wife moved toward the final exit. We became very close.
Dennis’ wife died in late June. He spoke at her memorial service on July 31st. He was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia on August 2nd and never came back out. He died September 25th. He was 62.
I will beg your understanding as I take my turn grieving. I am not good at it and I don’t like it, not at all. Dennis’ daughters Blair and Beth don’t either. Your prayers for them and Dennis’ family are welcome. You can even include me if you want. I can use the help, as you well know.
“The Danes are coming! The Danes are coming!” That was the cry of the Saxons in England in the 600’s when the raiders from the north invaded in their long ships. I just finished watching a Netflix series titled “The Last Kingdom” that dramatizes that time. Well, the Danes are coming again… here!
A little context: around 1900 Christian Hansen came by himself to this country from Denmark, married, had a family, and made a place for that family in southern Minnesota. He never saw his Danish family again. He died the same year his youngest grandson was born. He left before I arrived.
In 1985, twenty-nine years after Christian died, and ten years after his youngest son Bruce, my dad, died, Julie and I visited Copenhagen and spent several days with some of Christian’s Danish family. They did not know us, or what to expect of us. We didn’t know them or how they would receive us. Early on however they spoke of our “coming home.” It felt very much like that. Days later when we left, we all cried. Recalling that even now brings tears.
Since then, the relatives we stayed with, my dad’s cousin and her husband, have both died. They were delightful, funny, sweet people. And now, this coming week, their daughter and son-in-law are coming to visit us!
Soren and Bente traveled here in 2004 when we lived in Alexandria. Their 4 teen-age children came with them, and a good time was had by all – I mean they saw Big Ole and shopped the Mall of America! This time, Bente and Soren are on their own. They’re going to Washington D.C. and New York City and eastern Pennsylvania (to visit my brother and sister-in-law) and on to New Hope and Golden Valley, Minnesota… and Spirit of Hope UMC!
I hope you know that you are pretty special if these (to us, extremely) special people are making it a point to be here on a Sunday morning so they can join you in worship! And that’s exactly what they plan to do.
Now, this can be our little secret, yours and mine…shhhhh…. You can show up and pack the place, and sing your hearts out, and applaud the musical gifts, and laugh loudly and often at the many funny points in the message, and fill the offering plates to overflowing, and simply act like this is what we do all the time! It will give our guests one more thing to tell their friends and family when they return to Denmark.
And the next Sunday, you can do it all again, if you want. It could become a habit. And a good one I think. Well… I think so.
Of course the Danes will have left by then. You see this time they’re flying; no long ships, no scary face paint or strange haircuts or beards, no pillaging or plundering. They will be swordless (can’t bring a sword on a plane anymore). They have no plans of taking over or staying, though they would be wonderful neighbors and great fun to have around.
So…. Just whisper it, “The Danes are coming! The Danes are coming!” Hope you are too.
Welcome to this perch on the church webpage! As some of you know we are in a transition, moving away from the paper newsletter and into more electronic communications. We’re doing this both to better use resources (we’ll spare a whole bunch of trees and toner ink bushes!) and to place ourselves where more people are seeking and finding information and connecting with churches.
So, I’ll be writing something here on an irregular basis, but hopefully at least as often as I did in the newsletter, and maybe even more often! I’ll likely go shorter with these pieces so they’ll take less of your time.
As I was telling people on Sunday, I spent last week at a “School of Contemplative Wisdom” at the Episcopal House of Prayer at St. John’s in Collegeville. I estimated that 2/3 of our time was spent in silence, working on deeper listening, paying attention, reflection. It was a rich and intense week. And, it’s sort of hard re-entering a very noisy world after being quite quiet.
I also thanked people for building into my compensation some money for continuing education. “You actually pay me to go away… and wise up!” God knows I need the wisdom and I think you need me to be away – at least occasionally!
While at the school I was fascinated by the tree frogs that come out at night and sit on the lights by the doors of the buildings at the EHoP (Episcopal House of Prayer…not Pancakes), feeding on the insects that are drawn to the light. Those little frogs seem a perfect emblem for this place where being still, listening, seeking Light are central. So, when one of our assignments was to pay attention to what spoke to us, to set with whatever that was, and then to write a haiku expressing something of how it spoke, I wrote this:
Frogs out of your trees
Dining quietly on Light
This night is friendly
There is a lot of night to go around. Darkness claims plenty of time, space, people. So, it seemed particularly powerful to feel welcome in the dark, to be safe even there to seek Light and meaning. And small things, small actions can speak loudly, even in silence.
Where can I go that you are not, God? Even the darkness is as light to you.
I wish you a beautiful end of summer and a long and lovely fall, full of beautiful autumn sunlight and seasonal sounds that bring you a sense of peace and hope.
Paul David Stanko, Instrumental Music Coordinator
A multi-instrumentalist as well as composer, arranger and singer, Paul David has various church families as a church musician for over 25 years. Paul David graduated from Coe College with a degree in percussion performance studying under such teachers as Dr. Paul Smoker (The Paul Smoker Trio, Joint Venture), Dave Samuels (Spyro Gyra), Bill Moersch, Libby Larsen and Eric Leeds. Paul David continues to be an active musician here in the Twin Cities. He works with several theater companies as a percussionist. You can find on iTunes, his recently released rock single, “Superhuman (feat. Dr. Fink)”, which he worked on with Grammy Award winning artist, Matt Fink (Dr. Fink of Prince & the Revolution). Paul David works for Macy’s Minneapolis as the General Manager for the Signature Kitchen, Gourmet Foods and Confections area downtown. He and his husband, Tom, live in Plymouth.
Melissa O’Neill, Quartet
Melissa has performed professionally in a wide variety of venues from Opera to Musical Theater to Jazz and Contemporary Christian. She toured nationally as a featured soloist with Tony Sandler (Sandler & Young), and has sung and danced on the stage with such greats as Joel Grey, Phyllis Diller, Michael Feinstein, and with Steven Ross at the Ordway’s McKnight Theatre in the acclaimed production of, “I Won’t Dance.” Melissa has had the great pleasure of performing in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary Chorale, with The Mn Opera Co, The Dale Warland Singers, Skylark Opera Company, The Guthrie Theatre, Nautilus Music Theatre, Paul Bunyan Playhouse and in many musical productions at The Ordway. Recently, she and her husband Tom have joined Martha and Dana Mathewson to form a vocal & instrumental quartet entitled “From the Heart”. Melissa is a music teacher at Wayzata High School. There she directs two 9th grade choirs, the fall and spring musicals, a women’s ensemble called, “Vive Voce” and has a private voice studio. It brings her great joy to sing with her hubby Tom at Spirit of Hope. Tom and Melissa feel truly blessed to have a wonderful 12 year old son named Ian.
Max Wojtanowicz, Quartet
Max Wojtanowicz is thrilled to be singing at Spirit of Hope! A native of Rice, Minnesota, Max has been performing in the Twin Cities since graduating from St. Olaf College in 2006. He has worked with many theaters around town including the Children’s Theatre Company, Guthrie Theater, Skylark Opera, Heritage Theater, Urban Samurai, Paul Bunyan Playhouse, Minneapolis Musical Theatre, Populus Theatre, the Great River Shakespeare Festival and Nautilus Music-Theater, where he first met Jerry and Susan. He has written two musicals for the Minnesota Fringe Festival, coaches speech for Lakeville North High School, and curates a monthly cabaret series at Hell’s Kitchen in downtown Minneapolis.
Tom Witry, Quartet
Now in his 19th year at Spirit of Hope, Tom feels blessed to celebrate and participate in many facets of worship: As baritone in the Praise Quartet, playing trumpet in the Praise Band, and lead and assisted the children’s choirs and adult and children’s bell ringers. Tom has performed locally and nationally in over 60 professional productions, often sharing the stage with his wife Melissa O’Neill. Locally he has performed at The Guthrie Theatre, The Ordway Music Theatre, and Chanhassen dinner Theatre, and many private and corporate gatherings. His extensive choral background, musicality and leadership skills provide him great versatility as a vocalist, music director, composer and arranger. His musical compositions in all the children’s shows at The Old Log Theatre have been enjoyed since 2005. Tom freelances regularly with many vocal groups in the twin cities, including “Voices 360”, “Classic Big Band & The Nostalgics”, and a new vocal & instrumental quartet called, “From the Heart” with his wife, Melissa.