Reflection on my Recent trip to Pakistan and illness; March 1, 2024
I went on my second trip to Pakistan with my husband, Dan for two weeks at the end of January and the beginning of February. This time we brought 4 lay members of the congregation he serves and one member of the congregation I serve. They had a chance to see the profound Christian faith of people whose faith is precious to them because they are not always free to practice it in a majority Muslim country where Islam in preferred, practiced and enforced by the national government. Christians make up only 2% of the population, but as the 5th most populous country in the world, that still leaves them with about 1.2 million Chrsitian belivers nation-wide.
But they are isolated. No one visits Pakistan because of it's reputation for violence (mostly extremists near the Afghan border who prefer a more strict and conservative enforcement of their version of Islam). To have Christians visitors from another country come and preach, visit, and pray with them, means the world to these Pakistani believers. Everywhere we went, we were treated like royality and loved like family. It is both startling and so affirming and connecting to be with believers so fervent in their faith and overjoyed to be connecting with others who share their hope in Jesus Christ.
The night before we were supposed to leave, I got very sick from apparent food poisoning from something I ate at another church event that afternoon (we think it was the potato salad). After 6 hours of being sick, our host, a pastor insisted I go to the hospital. By the time I got to the ER, my blood pressure was 80/40 and I learned later that my kidney function had dropped and my creatnin levels were high. I was admitted for 2 days to bring up my fluids, give me antibiotics, and get me out of the danger zone.
But as Pakistanis live every single day as an often persecuted minority, spiritual transformations almost never come from success and strength. As Fr. Richard likes to say, "the way down is the way up." It is when we fail, when we are in crisis, completely out of control, or flat on our back in a foreign hospital, at the mercy of others for everything, that life's gifts and their spiritual depth come in to sharp relief.
What do we behold from the hospital bed, the persecuted minority, the graveside, the cavernous ache of our heart, the bottom of the cross, or the closed tomb of holy Saturday? After my recent ordeal, I see with fresh eyes. Now I see infinite love from a God who manages to find us wherever life has swallowed us, carrying us through friends and strangers alike; I feel the depth of human love that bespeaks holiness across time and space that I dare not take for granted (especially in my children); I witness a Chrsitian community in Pakistan and in my own congregation so full of gifts and spirits coming alive it takes my breath away, and brings me to my knees in gratitude; I hear a new internal conversation between my spirit, which is always saying, yes, and my body which is sometimes saying, no or go slow, and I sense the only way to work this out is by living it, with the incarnate Jesus and other believers as my companions.
The way down is the way up, and the way up is the way down. Maybe that's why we practice walking down with Jesus during Lent. So when hardship happens we know God is working up to spiritual renewal and resurrection for those with spiritual eyes to see. May we all see more clearly this Lent. May we be willing to walk with those who are persecuted for just believing, and learn to not take for granted the pure gift that expressing our faith affords us.
Message for Christmas Eve on Luke 2:1-20 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
Sometimes I try to imagine what Mary was thinking about on that trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. She was losing whoever stood by her in this unplanned pregnancy. She had to know that she would not make it back to Nazareth to deliver this baby—so her mind must have been full of questions. Where will she deliver? Who will help her? Will Jospeh’s distant relatives welcome her?—These are all anxieties around the question: How will my needs be met?
Mary, the Mother of our Lord faces the same question we all do, no matter our circumstances, gender, age, or stage in life, because life and it’s challenges are always changing around us. How will my needs be met?—
- How will my needs be met as I age?
- How will my needs be met with no health insurance?
- How will my needs be met as I live with so much grief
- or with inflation of whatever anxieties raise questions in your own mind.
We all know how Mary’s needs were met—not ideal circumstances, by any means, but they did have a roof over their head, and she had help. Joseph’s relatives did take them in, but traveling slowly, they were the last ones to arrive. The “inn,” which is not a motel as we imagine it, but is really the “guest room” of a home—was already full, as was the rest of the house. The only free space was at the front end of the home, off the living platform, where the animals stayed at night lending their warmth to the whole household.
But there is another clue in the story that lets us know that not only Mary’s needs will be met in the future, but all our needs, too. We have heard it perhaps a hundred times, but maybe never paused to ponder in our hearts the true meaning it conveys.
It’s the word, “manger”—did you notice that Luke repeats the word 3 times? A careful writer usually picks another word to avoid repetition. After using the word, "manger” the first time, one would pick “feeding box” or “trough” the second time, or possibly, “in the hay” the third time, instead of “manger" over and over again.
But not Luke, He makes no effort at literary variety and in fact, does the opposite. He seems quite intent on making sure we read or hear that word, “manger” at least 3 times: Mary laid Jesus, this Messiah, in a manger; the angel tells the shepherds the sign will be a baby lying in a manger; the shepherds go and find Jesus just as the angels said, “lying in a manger.”
Why the repetition of this one word, this feed box for donkeys, sheep and goats?
By using the word, manger repeatedly, Luke foreshadows, in neon, truths about this Messiah he wants us to watch for in Jesus’ mission of nourishment, care and sustenance.
For this Savior will grow up and take 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish and feed 5,000 people. Jesus will become the manger for hungry people, feeding them, providing for their physical needs.
This Messiah, will grow up and touch lepers and restore sight—healing people. Jesus will become the manger of healing nourishment for people seeking for their bodies to made whole.
This Messiah will grow up and welcome sinners, and the outcast and rejected, and provide the soul sustenance of community, forgiveness, and acceptance –the bread of new life. Jesus will become the manger of shared community where all are welcome.
And this Messiah now lying in a manger, will take the bread of the Passover and say, "this is my body given for you," and this Messiah, will take the cup of wine and say, "this is my blood shed for you."
This Messiah, lying in a manger, will feed us with his very life—with his body broken and blood outpoured,
• so that we might have forgiveness, and life,
• so that we might have strength and love,
• so that we might have nourishment and peace now and through eternity.
The Messiah and Savior, first held in the feed box for animals, becomes our food—providing us with every source of sustenance and nurture we could ever need or imagine.
Yes, Mary did have her needs met, and so do we. Our Savior Jesus Christ, born among the family of creation, human and animal together, lying in a manger, provides for all our needs—physical, emotional, spiritual, communal, eternal.
So, ask the Lord for what you need this Christmas, this new year. Trust the Messiah in the manger, and the Christ risen and present at this Table to be your eternal source of sustenance, offering you the hope, peace, joy, and love you need for today, tomorrow, and always.
When Dan and I were first married, we lived in Detroit, Michigan where I had already served as a pastor for a year. The summer before our September wedding, Dan had finished seminary and been interviewed for a placement at an urban church in consultation with the Presbytery (the same as our Synod) who was going to help pay the salary. They thought they had the agreement of the congregation’s board.
We announced at our wedding that Dan finally had a call to a congregation, and we all cheered. We weren’t on the ground for 12 hours after our honeymoon, before the Presbytery called Dan into their office and said, “oops, you don’t really have a job." It was an ethnic-specific ministry and they wanted a pastor from their culture. We completely understood that, but felt whip-sawed that the judicatory leadership did not do their homework before promising him a job, complete with a signed salary package.
This was a rough way to start a marriage. Dan was a 6th generation pastor with both the weight of and expectation for the church to show up for him. No matter how hard I worked, my $17,000 salary was not going to pay insurance for his car or for more food.
After two weeks of lying on the couch watching Leave It To Beaver reruns, Dan got a job at the fanciest restaurant nearby—but because he didn’t have waiting experience, he had to start bussing tables. They all treated him like dirt. The future looked bleak and barren; we were not sure from where a sign of hope would come.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had resigned themselves to a bleak and barren future. In their culture, value, and status, especially for women, lay in having children. But Elizabeth had become too old for that dream to come true. They seemed resigned to this reality and settled into a routine of service and faithfulness despite this hopeless truth. They were both faithful and devout, Zechariah was devoted to serving in the Temple, Elizabeth worked at home and helped other women in the community, but there was no hope of a changed future for them.
So, of course, Zechariah is terrified when the Angel Gabriel appears to him in the sanctuary where for that ministry, he served alone, offering incense. Then when the angel announces that Elizabeth will give birth to a son, all Zechariah can think about is how old they are, and how unlikely it all is. If God wanted to do this, why did he wait so long? You can hardly blame him for questioning the Angel, Gabriel. Sure, it happened to Sarah and Abraham hundreds of years earlier, and to Hannah in the early Scriptures—but both of those stories were so long ago. Wouldn’t you ask for some kind of proof?
How will I know that this is so? Where’s the proof that God can do this? I had already lost all hope that my life could be different—that this bleak and barren place in my life could have any hope.
Zechariah has several months to ponder God’s unexpected and surprising ways of bringing him a message of hope, since he is rendered mute until his son, John the Baptist is born. I wonder if this forced silence is not so much a punishment, but an invitation—an invitation to really listen for the on-going messages of hope that God will send as Elizabeth goes through pregnancy. When one adjusts oneself barrenness and hopelessness, it becomes harder to listen, to hear, to notice the unexpected and surprising ways that God shows up for us with messages of hope.
Silence attuned Zechariah to noticing hope, to looking for signs of new life, and to watching his wife transform—releasing expectations of barrenness, and instead paying attention to an expanding belly with kicking feet. Muteness forced him to break the habit of repeating pessimism; it gutted the power of despair because it simply had no air time. All Zechariah could do was notice the repeated flutter of angel wings, the echo of Gabriel’s words, the moments of joy and gladness in the life, the good, the hope, the light, the womb, the expanding truth becoming bigger and more present in his household until at last it made its presence known in the cry of a newborn.
By then hope had taken over barrenness completely—not just in their life, but in their hope for the world. After his son, John, the Baptist, was born, Zechariah was re-born—broken out of silence, he could now himself become a voice of hope—taking up the role of an angel among us—a messenger of good news along with his son of the coming Savior. An angel is a messenger of good news—the one who has been ministered to by an angel, becomes one himself. It took nine months of silence for Zechariah to become an angel among us—and then he sings a prophecy similar to Mary’s, a few verses which proclaim:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour[g] for us
in the house of his servant David,
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon[h] us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Gabriel, Zechariah’s angel of hope came unexpectedly, and so did Dan’s when he was in this season of despair with no church to serve coming out of seminary. One Sunday Dan decided to visit a small inner-city church. He arrived and the sanctuary door was locked. At first, he thought it was for safety, and he couldn’t believe he was locked out of worship—couldn’t life get any worse! But then it occurred to him, they probably could not afford to heat the building, so he walked down to the fellowship hall, and sure enough, a group of about 25 were starting worship. He snuck in the back and sat in a dark corner.
After the sermon, the Pastor asked if anyone needed prayer, and when Dan tells the story, he says “before my feet could consult with my brain, I was already walking up to the front of the church.” He told the pastor about having a church and then not having a church and didn’t know what God was up to or what he was supposed to do with his life when no other churches were open.
The pastor asked all the elders to come forward and lay hands on their brother. And all these beautiful souls got up and surrounded Dan and laid hands on him. Dan says, they did not have many teeth among them, but they had more faith than anyone he had ever met. They prayed him up from here to Calvary to heaven and back again. It was like being touched by a forcefield of angels.
Everything changed for him after that. Barrenness turned into hope, bleakness turned into gladness, despair turned into possibility, doubt turned into confidence. Like Zechariah, Dan began to look for opportunities and signs of life. Pessimism was on “mute.”
About 3 weeks later a suburban church needed an Interim Pastor; Dan put in his resume and was called in for an interview. Dan continued to look 16 until he was about 35, so when he arrived for the interview the chair of the committee asked if he was looking for the Agoraphobics in Motion meeting.
But the good news is, because he had been visited by angels among us, he had become a messenger of hope. So he got the job and was finally ordained. And what a party we had! He did a second Interim in the area and helped facilitate a merger between two congregations. All this experience uniquely qualified him for his next call in Kansas City, Missouri.
Like Zechariah, we do not often get to see the big picture, but there are angels among us who bring us good news for today, who give us hope for the next step, who show that Christ is with us, who let us know that God is here with a plan, and hope for our future.
Where do you need hope spoken into a barren spot in your life? We are here today to ask God in Jesus Christ to bring you a message of hope in your life where it feels bleak. Then I invite you to notice who or what brings you messages of hope, signs of new life, moments of joy and gladness. Who are the angels among us—for you, who are the messengers of good news? It may come from unexpected sources in surprising ways this week. They may be human or a furry friend. They may have good teeth or no teeth. They may vote like you or be the polar opposite of you. This season is about being open to unexpected messages of hope from unlikely sources. Jesus opens our hearts to receive the angels among us who bring good news.
Then God calls us to expand hope as we become messengers of hope ourselves—angels for others. How might we become angels among us for others? Like Zechariah, what message of hope do you have to offer the exhausted parent at the mall, the stressed store clerk, the overworked airport staff, the underappreciated teacher or principal, the unnoticed neighbor? Ask God to show you one way this week to be a messenger of hope and good news for someone else.
As we receive God’s hope for us today in our Savior Jesus Christ, we become messengers of hope for others—and not just a flutter, but we go from here as a force field of angels among us!
Message for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost on Matthew 25:1-13 given at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson Texas
When our two sons, Daniel and Jacob were just shy of turning 3 and 1, I resigned from full-time parish ministry to stay home with them. I ran a home business, to earn some money, and have some adult conversation. Two years later, Leah was born. I had a story that I told myself which was that Dan and I serving 2 different congregations in two denominations was never going to work with three kids—and that meant that I was just never going to be a pastor again while the kids were home.
When they were small, this was fine—I really needed a break from the church after some difficult experiences anyway, and I was bawling dropping them off at day care. But things started to shift when Leah entered Kindergarten. I was getting tired of my home business, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do the work to take it to the next level, and I started to help out part-time at an after-school ministry program in the city, which was really fun.
I was asking God for answer about what to do with my life, but I couldn’t hear anything because I was locked into the story that me being a pastor didn’t work for my family, so nothing was getting through. This went on for about 3 months—me asking, hearing nothing. Finally, Dan said we have to make summer plans, are you going to the business convention or not because that affects everything else we do. I needed God to give me clarity. I needed an answer and a plan.
That’s what I like about the wise bridesmaids in our parable from Matthew—they had a plan, they had clarity, and they were ready for when the bridegroom—a metaphor for Jesus—arrived. This parable’s meaning is often viewed only as being about the end times, but like it says, we do not know the day or the hour that Jesus will return and bring the kingdom into its fulfillment. So what do we do in the mean-time? I think the parable’s more compelling meaning is about right now, today.
The parable reveals that Jesus has already invited us to be an attendant in his kingdom—• to stand up for him,
• to witness to his commitment to the world,
• to honor his vows of love to us and for our salvation,
• to participate in the party of justice and joy, forgiveness and freedom, that his coming has inaugurated!
That’s a pretty awesome invitation! So his return is delayed and unpredictable, but because he has already come—how are we serving as attendants in his kingdom right now? We have pretty good idea of what kind of bridesmaid or groomsman Jesus is looking for in the realm he has already begun to usher in. The message is to keep our lamps lit and burning—which is another way of saying, let your light so shine before others—which is another way of saying fulfill the purpose to which God calls you. Don’t be foolish and squander the light that God created in you. Keep your lamp lit and burning--feed it, show it, share it, shine it. Fulfill the purpose to which God calls you and places you here, in the kingdom already begun.
So how do we figure that out? How do we know God’s purpose for us? I have a formula!
A friend in a 12-step program shared a speaker tape with me about 20 years ago, and this formula was on it. I have taught this formula to several people individually and last week when I did it, I thought, “I need to preach about this” and then this week, the Holy Spirit said, “do that this week. This formula works discerning a new job, going back to school, hobbies, service opportunities— You can even apply this to a business you own and if you want to take on a particular client. We can even apply this to the congregation as a whole. You make a DATE with God—and bring a sheet of paper and write out D-A-T-E down the side of your paper in a vertical column. Go to a quiet place for prayer, reflection, conversation—out in nature, a coffee shop –wherever you can reflect.
Right now, you can think about something you need to make a decision about, (including your Time & Talent Sheet for 2024!). We call this discernment- discerning & listening how God calls you and gives you purpose.
D – “D” is for “Desire” – God does work through our desires. Sometimes we think if we hate something, then it must be what God wants us to do. It doesn’t mean that we love every aspect, or that we all don’t have to do things we don’t like as part of our work—that’s called being an adult. But if we are drawn toward, have an interest or desire to do something—that is a big clue. Moses did not initially desire to do what God asked him to do, but he did desire to have his people freed.
The prophets did not always want to say what they were told, but they had a deep desire for their nation to be more faithful. If you have a deep desire or are drawn toward a vocation, goal, mission, opportunity, service—there is a reason behind it.
A – “A” is for “Ability” – This is in part about skills. Do you have the training to do what you desire, or do you need to go to school, get training, shadow someone?
If we are talking about the Time and Talent sheet—there’s training for every ministry on here. Just check what you’re interested in and put “need training.” Assisting Min, visiting homebound, ushering, streaming, audio technology, etc--all of it can be easily learned. There is another aspect to ability and that is if it works in your whole life with other duties and obligations. Being a parent, a caregiver of sick spouse—some responsibilities put constraints on our abilities. We may have the skills, but our life situation does not enable us to make a commitment to follow our desires at this time. Or maybe through prayer, God can find support to free up a few hours a week so as a care-giver, you can maintain your obligation AND do something you Desire. (This is why we call this discernment --this process needs prayer and sometimes conversation …). God does not desire you to be a miserable victim of circumstance. God gives you abilities and wants you to use them for good, so discernment and conversation with your Pastor or good friend can help you reflect on God calls you to use your abilities.
T--“T” is for Time—do I have the time available for this new job, way of serving, opportunity, client, friendship? And if it is something that through prayer becomes more of priority, what is that I am doing that I need to let go of, to create the time? You have all the time there is, the question is, am I spending it how God wants me to?
E – “Energy” is for Energy which sounds a lot like Desire, but it’s different. It’s about passion. When you close your eyes and imagine yourself in the future doing this activity, job, service opportunity, or whatever--what does your body tell you? Do you experience that picture as life-giving or life-draining? Energy is about doing activities that are life-giving and energizing—it’s partly why our motto at St. Luke’s is “where spirits come alive!” Because when we’re serving in line with our purpose and our gifts—that is where God’ calls us—we are energized and passionate. But if we feel like we are a warm body in an empty slot—that is life-draining—because that has nothing to do our God-given purpose and gifts.
So we need all 4--Desire Ability Time and Energy for it to be God’s calling and purpose for us right now. And this changes over time and chapters of life, so I have used this formula many times over.
When Dan asked me, "are you going to your business convention this summer or not, we need an answer to make plans"—I remembered this formula. The kids were off to school, Dan went to go to take a shower, and I sat in my prayer chair. I told God I had been waiting patiently and now I needed an answer and I need it right now.
I thought about my home business and I finally admitted I no longer had the Desire or Energy to do it, even though I had the Ability and the Time. And then I thought about becoming a pastor again. I realized I had all 4. Desire, Ability, Time and Energy. A big light bulb went off in my head!
Dan got out of the shower 10 minutes later and I said, “I have an answer! I am going to do my business as a hobby and go back to being a Pastor full -time, so no, I’m not going to the convention this summer, let’s figure out our plans from there. And we’re just going to have to figure out the 2-church thing.”
Using this formula unlocked me, and got me out of the story I was telling myself that we couldn’t do 2 churches in 2 denominations with 3 kids. I could not hear God calling me to this because of the story in my head. But this formula got me out of my belief system. When I felt in my gut-- Desire Ability Time Energy—I realized that if God called me to this, he would work out the details. And God did. I was called to a church 3 miles from where Dan was serving, and we could have lunch together, stay connected and keep our life in balance. He had meetings on Mon & Wed, I had meetings on Tue & Thurs so one of us was home every night with the kids.
Jesus' parable calls us to "Keep your lamps lit and burning." Desire-Ability-Time= that’s the Lamp, your container of your gifts and skills. The Energy = that’s the Holy Spirit—that’s what enables us to let our light shine, no matter what we are doing—because we are fulfilling God’s purpose for us.
I invite you to use the formula for discerning activities that God calls you to in 2024, and maybe re-evaluating commitments that may no longer fit if God invites you into something new.
We do not know when Jesus is going to return, but because he has already come, he is showing up in us, and also in everyone we meet.
• Because we keep our lamps lit and burning Jesus shows up at our free breakfast and the Dover Mobile food pantry-- in our servers and in our guests
• Because we keep our lamps lit and burning Jesus shows up in our Preschool staff and the children and their families
• Because we keep our lamps lit and burning, Jesus shows up in our inclusive welcome, in delicious food and fellowship, in our outdoor food pantry and Hunger Helper lunches.
• Because we keep our lamps lit and burning Jesus shows up hundreds of health and school kits and over 50 quilts being sent to Lutheran World Relief
• Because we keep our lamps lit and burning Jesus shows up beautiful music and worship—and technology with those joining us from home, and in the service of our Veterans
• Because we keep our lamps lit and burning Jesus shows up in your daily life and work, at your job, at your dinner table, in your service, in the love you share and the light you shine.
The bridegroom has already invited us to be an attendant in his kingdom—
• We get to stand up for him,
• to witness to his commitment to all of humanity,
• to tell others of his love and salvation for the whole world
• and to participate in the party of justice and joy, forgiveness, and freedom.
Let’s continue to this with purpose—with Desire Ability Time and Energy as we keep our lamps lit and burning.