Saturday, September 29, 2007

Last Post From Week II -- The Abbey Cemetery, and Thoughts on Work Unfinished

Looking out the church front doors, which are in the collage below, one can see down a path to the abbey's cemetery. It is a serene spot, surrounded by trees and flowers, and there is a secluded bench where I like to sit during the silent retreats. I don't especially love grave sites, so don't be concerned--but it really is a lovely spot.

This year I began the retreat with many conflicting ideas, questions, doubts and feelings of failure. Only an hour or so after arriving I entered the retreat center's tiny library. I don't know why I did, because we are encouraged not to read books but to concentrate on short passages of scripture. On the wall was something that may have been there during previous visits and remained unnoticed. Upon reading it, I hurried (as much as is possible when one is walking slowly) back to my little room for my notebook. I felt a great weight lift from my spirit. This was what I copied. The bold print is my addition. The peace it gave me was a precious beginning to the time of prayer and silence. I hope it encourages you as well.

Creating the Church of Tomorrow
Archbishop Oscar Romero

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

We accomplish in our lifetime a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.

Nothing we do is complete. Which is a way of saying that the Kingdom of God lies beyond us.

No statement says all the would be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the church's vision. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seed that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.

Nothing we do is complete.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, or a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.

Nothing we do is complete. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master Builder and the worker.
We are the workers, not the Master Builder, ministers not Messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

Later I took the notebook and my Bible and sat at the cemetery as the warm evening light faded. I pondered, what might these Norbertine priests and brothers, now gone from earth, have desired from life? Did they feel, as St. Paul did, that they had finished the course and kept the faith? Had they pursued the wrong things? Did they feel they were leaving too soon? Was work undone, spiritual seeds unplanted, unwatered or unharvested? (If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you can see some of their names and dates of their deaths.) Yet here I sat, seeking new focus and direction for my own life and work, and I watched the sun set and listened to a large flock of Canadian geese excitedly honk encouragement to one another as they practiced their formations for the upcoming migration. Life was continuing. God's presence was with me, and God's divine plans will proceed. I am only a worker, not Master Builder, and I do not have to understand the end.
Glory be to Jesus, the author and finisher (Master Builder) of our faith!
Postscript: I wanted to know more about Oscar Romero, since his words touched me deeply. Here is an interesting and brief article if you'd like to know more as well.
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St. Norbert's Collage

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Friday, September 28, 2007

More From Saint Norbert's Abbey

The rooms at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality are simple. They contain a small desk, a crucifix hanging on the wall, a closet, sink, and twin bed. Most of the beds are covered with colorful quilts. I brought the candle, a present from a friend, with me.

This window is in the church, of course, and is at least 14 feet high. I don't like the "modern" depictions as well as the old style, but I certainly do LOVE stained glass. I should be a Lutheran. ;-)

Interestingly (some might say oddly) the Assemblies of God district to which I belong is one of the most frequent users of the abbey's retreat center. This began nearly 20 years ago when "Pastor Pete" brought his congregation. Pete and his wife, Doris, were Roman Catholics who came to the Assemblies of God during the heyday of the "Catholic charismatic renewal." They had already been going for week-long silent retreat at Jesuit houses for many years. When Pete later was ordained an AG minister, it was a natural for him to combine the best of two widely differing traditions. They began to do retreats for the clergy of the district, then a yearly women's retreat and men's retreat. Other's did additional retreats for the churches. Now Pastor Pete is semi-retired, but he and Doris still visit the Jesuit Retreat Center in Oshkosh once a year. And we hope he continues to lead the one retreat he still does--the one for us clergy.

Sister Cala remarked (tongue in cheek--or maybe not) to my last post that she didn't know AG folks could be silent for that long! We aren't known for our silence, that is for sure. But those of us who have attended a few of these retreats make sure it goes on our calendar. Yes, Rita, the silence is to aid contemplation and--just plain ol' stillness. We also are encouraged to walk slowly and to avoid eye contact so as to be on our own "private" retreat with God. How often in our present world do we actually have silence? I consider the retreat a gift, whether or not anything profound happens to me. Sometimes it does, and sometimes not. Oh, the sheep reference is because I am a pastor a.ka. shepherd, with a flock. I also have a sheep collection, of sorts.

There is a labyrinth there which is modeled after the one at Chartres (see link) but is a "natural" one that is mowed into the grass of a large field. This is also something considered too "new agey" for most AG minister's comfort levels. But over the years, Pete tells us, there have been more profound breakthroughs occurring in the labyrinth than any other spot at the center. Last week I passed it as I walked outside and out of the corner of my eye noted one of my fellow pastors lying prone in the center. Later, as I passed by on the return walk, I noticed he was still there and momentarily wondered if I should check to see if he was all right. Just then he rose. Later, at a sharing time, he told us an incredibly moving story of a deep inner healing. Perhaps God appreciated his willingness to try something different?

Here is a prayer I found moving and helpful for this retreat. If you are questioning some things, perhaps it will bless you too.

My God,

I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will , does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believer the the desire to please You does, in fact, please You. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me and will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Thomas Merton

Sometimes we don't see any of the abbey's residents, but this time two elderly Norbertines passed me in a hallway one morning. Apparently not realizing I could hear them, one said as they passed, "I see that Assembly clergy are here for a retreat." The other replied, "Yes. Isn't that surprising? But I think it is wonderful."

Me too.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Second Week of Sabbatical -- St Norbert's

I just returned from a three-day silent retreat with some other AG ministers from my district. So far, my time away from church duties has not been particularly enjoyable. That is not to say that it has not been necessary. But it seems that I am evaluating, repenting, forgiving, grieving, letting go--the process of refining is not pleasant. I don't know if much is worthwhile to share or not. At least I won't be doing so quite yet. Later--maybe.

For a couple of days I'll share some of the beauty of the abbey. I'm not sure I was supposed to, but I took my camera along. The stained glass portrayal of Augustine is in the abbey church. A thistle bush is in front of him, representing his struggle with sexual temptation and other sin. He holds a book, representing his prodigious writing. The book contains a flame, representing his zeal for God.

It made me wonder, if someday someone portrayed me symbolically--what would the portrait contain? (A sheep?)

There is a hallway that divides the retreat center from the Norbertine residence. It features themed exhibits, artwork, sculpture, etc. and is changed every few months. Interestingly, right on the heels of Dr. Platypus' Augustine festival (can't get a link to work but I will try later), I found myself in a hallway labeled "Augustine of Hippo." I couldn't help but smile and think of my (slightly disrespectful?) blog post, Ode to St. Augustine. I looked at the photos of great paintings and the sculpture of Augustine pictured as a nude--depicting his conversion experience in the garden. These words from his Confessions were on the wall. How powerful they are!

I came to love you late, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new.
I came to love you late.

You were within me and I was outside,
where I rushed about wildly searching for you...

You were with me but I was not with you.

You called me, you shouted to me, you broke past my deafness!
You flashed, You shone, You bathed me in your light, you wrapped me in your splendour,
You sent my blindness reeling.
You breathed your fragrance on me, and I drew in breath and now I pant for you,
Seeking, breathing hard after you.
I tasted, and it made me hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned to know your peace.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday Five, Decluttering Edition

I haven't participated in the RevGalBlogPals Friday Five for quite a while now. I suppose it is time, being fall and all--and hoping that doing this one will help me get motivated to clean up the totally trashed home office in which I am sitting at this moment...
1. Are you a hoarder or a minimalist?
Both. No, really. I am not a hoarder (that is my beloved spouse, actually) but I can accumulate way too much stuff, and then I reach a point where I say, "Enough, already! Out with this stuff!" and I become a minimalist. I wish I'd be a consistent minimalist.

2. Name one important object (could be an heirloom) that you will never part with.

We have a Mah Jong set that belonged to my in laws that has an interesting history. (The tile game of Mah Jong is nothing like the online versions, btw.) This game originated in China, and is usually a gambling game. (Wang of Pearl Buck's classic, The Good Earth , spends too much time at the Mah John parlor. Gambling is not required, however. Our set, we are told, spent time in India during the British colonial period, and during W.W. II stayed out on a table so that officers coming in could play, and when they left another just continued on in a game that lasted the length of the war. The tiles are bamboo and ivory, with beautiful hand carved and painted faces. The box that contains them is teak with an inlaid ivory dragon. We think our set dates from the heyday of Mah Jong, which was the 1920s. Handling the tiles is an aesthetic pleasure all by itself. Our set has travelled with us all over the country. During our USMC days we would teach the game to a new couple at each duty station so we'd have someone to play it with us. Nowadays a family get-together with the kids, such as Thanksgiving, is not complete without several hours of playing the game.

3. What is the oldest item in your closet? Does it still fit???
I don't have stuff in my closet that does not fit. I keep them for a while and then...well, see answer to question number one.

4.Yard sales- love 'em or hate 'em ?

I usually hate them. My husband makes up for it though. I think he is addicted to yard sales. To be fair, I must admit that he has found some great stuff. Like the wooden cradle he found last year about this time. If we pass up several yard sale signs and he does not stop, he starts telling me he wants "husband points" in his account. Yeah, right!

5. Name a recycling habit you really want to get into.

I can't think of one, but I am open to suggestions!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

First Week of Sabbatical

UPDATE: Oops. Thank you, Jeni (of Down River Drivel), for pointing out that I neglected to post that I am beginning a sabbatical. I forgot, having posted it elsewhere, that I never said anything about it here! So I'm adding this at the beginning. Yep, I will be away from my church until October 28. I started last Monday. I'm not sure how much I will be posting about what transpires. I suppose that all depends, right?

Back to the original post:

I've only received four phone calls that were church related. Not bad. It will be different next week when I am mostly out of town.

It has been a difficult week--mostly issues with my mother at the nursing home. I don't want to post about it except to say she seems to vacillate between three "personalities." One is depressed and crying, very disoriented, and confused and sad about it. The second is furious, totally lacking in reason, full of hatred and anger. The third is somewhat "normal" -- at least somewhat aware of things, smiling and generally sweet.

My sister with Alzheimer's fell and broke her leg. She is going into surgery about now. Thinking of her makes me very sad.

Enough about that.

Yesterday was a wonderful day. The sky was partly cloudy but the air was balmy and the sun was warm. I'm not a shopper, generally, but once in a while I get in the mood. So I drove to Sheboygan for a mall visit, and I took the camera. Here is a bit of what I saw on the way.

The soy bean fields are glorious right now. The pictures just don't capture it, but you get the idea.

Even the weeds and grasses along the roadside are beautiful.

Some fields are golden yellow and some are a deep amber.

My shopping trip resulted in some new decor for the wall...

...and the table. I made the arrangement myself, and bought new place mats--and other stuff.

In the afternoon, Tara a.k.a. "Little Red" came over for some conversation before she heads out for some intensive training and then a missionary journey to Africa. I don't know what God has in store for her, but it is a blessing and a joy to have had a part in her life. Oh, to be 22 again--as long as I know what I know now!

I'm spending the next couple of days cleaning a badly-disorganized home office and I may sneak over to the church to clean up my office there too. I'm in get-rid-of-stuff mode...Odd, since I just acquired stuff yesterday. I'd take a before and after picture, but it is too embarrassing. ;-) Next week I'm off to a silent prayer retreat.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

September is Here...How Can You Tell?

The ceramic pumpkins and the earth toned candles are out.

The Little Scarecrow waves from the dining room.

Pumpkins and Indian Corn decorate the house.

Other signs:
I don't care if there are weeds among the tomato plants.
Geese are starting to practice their formation flying.
Leaves are already falling -- and the yard is full of crabapples.
Two days ago the temperature hovered in the 30s adn 40s, but today it was 90!
And the clearest sign? I saw CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS AND TREES for sale at Kohl's today!

Baby's First Drum Set

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Our Second Annual Historical Camp

Last year our church held it's first historical camp. I posted pictures and wrote about it HERE. This weekend was our second camp. Our guest, David Popilek, a.k.a. Jacques La Christian, the French Canadian Voyaguer from the fur trade era, returned by popular demand. David has a unique style of ministery which combines reenacting, humor, legend and scripture.In the photo above, Jacques is the man in the middle. Bearded Eagle (my husband) is on the right and I'm on the left.

Here are a few of the Sunday morning worshippers.

Jacques La Christian will be back next year. Want to join us? We'll be hosting our third encampment on the first weekend after Labor Day!

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Book Recommendations?

The comments to the rant below caused me to post a positive follow up...I mean why complain without offering at least some sort of solution?

What are some recommendations that would be alternatives to the "cotton candy" variety of books we see all too often?

What are your favorites? These can be scholarly or they can be fictional or devotional, whatever.


I'll start:

Fiction -- I don't see why a specific "Christian" or religious genre of books is really all that necessary. I'd rather read something from an author that doesn't hit me with the obvious. I'd prefer to see Christian authors write books that will sell outside a "religious" bookstore. That is why Tolkein and Lews are so great. You have to think and "chew" for yourself. Some of you will groan, but I LOVE the Mitford series by Jan Karon. It is light reading, suitable for a plane, or an afternoon curled up on the couch with a cup of tea, etc. Some people think Father Tim, the lovable Episcopal priest who is the main character in the series, is too good to be true. I disagree. I think his human frailty is obvious. If I feel like I know the people in the book, it's a success. Fantasy/Science fiction fans, I liked Ted Dekker's "Circle Triogy ("Red," "Black," "White") and I found the portrayal of the Christ character compelling--most especially in the first book of the series. And of course, Lewis' Space Trilogy (three books). What? You haven't read them?

Devotional: Simple and profound, "The Practice of the Presence of God" by Brother Lawrence. "My Utmost for His Highest" by O. Chambers. I do prefer the updated version. O.C. is deep enough without struggling with the writing style. For difficult times, "Streams in the Desert" by Lettie Cowman (not for "up times" IMO. For the spiritual desert times, as the title says.) Anything by Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton. No. I don't agree with every single thing they say. Not necessary.

I've got to get some real work done, so I'll stop. Maybe will add more later.

Monday, September 10, 2007

"Inspirational" Equals....Pablum? Here Comes a Rant

Today I stood in the book section of K-Mart while I waited for a prescription to be filled. I wandered to the "inspirational" section. I know that the updated version of J. Lee Grady's, Ten Lies the Church Tells Woman is coming out at Wal Mart soon, and I wondered if K Mart might feature it too. (Not yet.) Looking at the titles was enlightening, and quite discouraging, to say the least.


There were at least 20 titles which I would characterize as from the "prosperity gospel" genre. One author had nine books in that section! Nine? I don't want to be overly critical, but I could not help but wonder, "Is that woman really finding time to write prolifically or are most of these books a rehash of the same theme?" I noted a large number of "Your Best Life Now" by Joel Osteen, and titles such as (my paraphrase) "Seven Steps to Greatness," "How to Overcome Your Fears," "God Wants You Blessed," "Being All You Can Be," and book after book with similar titles. Because all the books were in one relatively small space, I was struck with something that seemed overwhelming.

It was not that there is no truth in these volumns. There probably is. Do I not want to be the best I can be? Yes, of course I do. Do I want to overcome fear, or things that hold me back? Oh, very much! Don't I want to have the best life I can have? Yep, for sure.

So what is the problem?

The books do not turn one's focus to the greatness of God, the beauty of his holiness, do not call us to repentance and righteousness, do not rebuke us for our lack of sacrifice and submission and discipleship, do not deal with our pride (the perpetual sin of mankind).

It's all about....ME getting happy!

The topics are, with some exceptions, a rehash of self-help and pop psychology with religious terms attached to make it seem "Christian." Perhaps some will say that it is sour grapes for a pastor of a small rural church to criticize the pastor of one of the largest churches in America, but to me there is little of Christ in Joel Osteen's runaway best seller.

You may already know what I think about what is largely offered in most "Christian" book stores. I think the inflated prices and the "Jesus junk" and the shelves loaded with books characterized by shallow exegesis (if any at all) and humanistic theology and "devotional" baby food are disgraceful. As for the gender specific books like "Wild at Heart" and "Captivated" -- back away quickly! And it grieves my heart to admit that some of the worst offenders are in the "charismatic" camp.

Some stores are better than others, of course. All have sections with books that will genuinely challenge, stretch your brain, make you think and ask questions. Bypass the current best sellers and the books with girly or manly covers and head for the theology or the classics sections. Read Bonhoeffer and Murray and Moody and Chambers and even Billy Graham. And don't be afraid of contemplative authors such as Nouwen. Some wonderful devotional material is available from Catholic authors.

Or maybe don't read anything for awhile except the Bible.

I don't know about you, but I am not "inspired" by most of what is published today. It seems "inspirational" means "pablum." (Note: Babies need healthy baby food. Spiritual babes need good, wholesome spiritual baby food as well. Not self-help books with Jesus injected. For most of us, it's past time we grew up.) And as for Christian fiction--well, again, there are some notable exceptions, but for the most part, skip the current best sellers and opt for Tolkien, Lewis, McDonald (one of my favorites), Williams...If you are not a great reader, McDonald's books are being published in abridged versions for modern readers, but if you can find the originals I recommend them.

"In Search of that Which is True" has a blog post that is must reading. It is titled Popular Christian Literature as a Reflection of an Intellectual Crisis. Here is a quote from the longer post.

"I argue that this kind of reading is the reader's TV. It dumbs you down, is easy to get through, entertains you, and makes you feel good. The only lasting benefit is that it perhaps can improve your vocabulary.However, a meaty non-fiction book on philosophy, theology, apologetics, or even an old fiction book clothed in rich philosophical allegory, such as an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn work will be quite the opposite. It will challenge you, will sometimes be difficult to wade through, and is usually far from anything resembling a feel-good text. The lasting benefits include: increased brain function, improved speech and vocabulary, greater intellectual discernment, and more patience in study among various others."
WOW! Preach it, brother!
Another rant on a similar subject is coming soon....

Friday, September 07, 2007

Autumn Changes

Isaiah 40:8

"The grass withers,
The flower fades,
But the word of our God
stands forever.”

I recently travelled several hours from "the north woods" down to my home in east central Wisconsin. Driving along, I sipped my diet soda and smiled to myself, recalling how odd it seems that I, Southern California "born and bred" should end up in this rural, pastoral setting (ha--no pun intended).

Sitting on the rail fence at night during my teen years, listening to traffic and pondering where life might take me, I can say with conviction that Wisconsin never entered my thoughts. Yet here I was. So many changes, so many joys, sorrows, questions and unexpected turns in life have come through the years.

Sunlight filtered through wind-tossed woods, casting dancing shadows across the highway. I almost expected the dappled light to scatter before my wheels like leaves. The trees, some flashing a spot of early red or gold, turned to farmland, red barns, and the occasional horses or cattle. The shadows of late afternoon stretched in elongated stripes, curving over the gentle contours of the fields. Except for the engine, it was quiet. I saw few vehicles and fewer people.

Stopping to stretch my legs, I stepped onto crunchy gravel at the side of the road. It was warm, even hot, but there was that awareness that fall is nearing--something in the breeze and the shadows and the sky. I gradually became aware of an almost undetectable sweetness in the air. Sniffing, I wondered what caused it--too mild to be called an aroma, exactly. Then I saw that on each of the four corners of the intersection was a different kind of crop.

To my rear on the left stood corn, tasseled and turning brown, loaded with ears that would become food for the cattle during winter. Behind me to the right the "spring green" of alfalfa grew in astonishing brilliance. In front to the left a field of soybeans, one of the loveliest crops imaginable, stretched to the horizon. In summer its leaves are a deep glossy green, but now they were turning to the characteristic mottled red, gold and yellow of fall. On the other corner stood a farmhouse. To the side of the wide lawn was a garden. Around the edges grew late-summer flowers--Gladiolas, Black-Eyed Susan's, Snapdragons, and many more I could not name. I was too far away to identify all of what remained in the garden, but I could see what I guessed were tomato plants along with the broad leaves of squash plants. I surmised that all these lovely growing things were what filled the air with that subtle freshness.

I love this time of year in the north. I am sad as summer goes, but if we have a good fall it is my favorite season. A bad fall means endless dreary days and rain. And cold. And early frost. And a blasting storm just as the leaves are turning so that instead of color we go from leaves of green to slightly tinged to totally gone. A good fall means gently cooling days, crisp air, fabulous autumn colors, and sunshine. Good or bad, fall is all to0 short here. By mid-November it is cold. Hunters hope for snow by Thanksgiving so they can track deer. I root for the deer and hope for snow to hold off until December.

The main reason for me to be sad at summer's passing is that fall is coming which means that in a very short time winter is here. Winters here can be dreary and cloudy or brilliant and blue. Either way, they are cold. And they last for what seems like forever. Any long time readers of this blog know how I anticipate spring each year!

Does fall make you nostalgic as it always does for me? Do you ponder life and passing years and changes? I don't know what it is about fall, but that always happens to me. Is summer fading, or is it in full swing where you are?