Clearing the Counter

You might have seen the video made by a church making the rounds on social media in the last few weeks. You can watch it here. I won’t ruin it, but I will say that it has to do with perspective and thankfulness.

I’ve intended to blog in the last month, many times. Sometimes I’ve been too lazy to type out my thoughts. Other times–most times–I’ve had other, more pressing priorities to address than blogging. Frankly, I’m one of those people that can only skip daily tasks occasionally to write instead. The glaring needs, especially in a large household with many children, just can’t be ignored often or we will all drown in the detrius and chaos that is a large household with many children. So I don’t go ahead and blog unless I’m fairly certain I can spare some time away from the tasks around here that never end–meaning thirty minutes of blogging won’t mean four days of trying to catch up on the rest. I exaggerate, but only a little.

As a writer, having ideas to write and being unable to commit the time to doing so can be annoying, even highly frustrating. But I learned many years ago some hard truths. First, I would not die if I did not immediately drop everything and write. Second, the world would go on turning serenely if I did not write my burning ideas for posterity. The same was not the case if I decided, say, to skip making dinner. Both of these truths, but especially the second, were humbling for me to realize. And yet they are both true. The vast majority of the world does not need me to blog. But a small portion of it needs me–and primarily me–to do other things. Simple things; necessary things; loving things.

So I write this evening with this small thought, borne from the inspiration of the above video: that while life may be full of things that we desire to possess, either by material ownership or active doing, it is full already of things that we have been given, that are priceless in their own right. Last week, I cooked and baked a lot, and my counters were more cluttered than normal. While I felt disturbed by the mess, as usual, I didn’t feel the kind of selfish irritation such an obvious job that needed to be done used to provoke in me. I used to think, “I have so many better things to do!” Now I think, “I sure would like to do something else. But this is what has been given to me, and that is its own gift.” Dirty dishes mean food, and nourishment, and abundance. They mean deliciousness enjoyed. They mean beloved people and meals together and sharing and togetherness. Few things are better than these. I am deeply grateful for them.

Clear counters are good, too. At least until tomorrow.

And yes, I actually washed them all, and did not hide them in the oven. Which I may have done in the past.

October, Outside In

The Professor happened to come home earlier than usual one bright October afternoon. He left the walk and cut across the turf, intending to enter by the open French window, but he paused a moment outside to admire the scene within. The drawing-room was full of autumn flowers, dahlias and wild asters and goldenrod. The red-gold sunlight lay in bright puddles on the thick blue carpet, made hazy aureoles about the stuffed blue chairs. There was, in the room, as he looked through the window, a rich, intense effect of autumn, something that presented October much more sharply and sweetly to him than the coloured maples and the aster-bordered paths by which he had come home. It struck him that the seasons sometimes gain by being brought into the house, just as they gain by being brought into painting, and into poetry. The hand, fastidious and bold, which selected and placed–it was that which made the difference. In Nature there is no selection.

The Professor’s House

Willa Cather

I am no interior design expert. Both my gross lack of training and a requisite extravagance of funds for such a pursuit—for it is a pursuit—make it impossible. Nevertheless, I enjoy the approach and the duration of seasons, the newness of each timely arrival and its very familiarity. So I try to make the most of what we have to, as Cather wrote, bring the seasons into the house.

It is a joy to make the most of what I have to make our home attractive. While I constantly struggle to complete even the basic chores every day, the cleaning and tidying that never cease, I have learned to take some time each season to pull out silk flowers, arrange bouquets,  and rotate small mementos and dishes to make our home timely. We follow the Church calendar and lectionary, and our days are measured by months and intervals, clocks and wall charts. The little efforts I make, then, to echo the outdoors and its cyclical changes within our walls seem a requisite, respectful nod to our connection to the world outside.

I use hand-me-downs and gifts, flowers and pumpkins and candles collected over many years of end-of-season sales and random $5 Hobby Lobby and Walmart buys.  A boutonniere from an October wedding years ago. A fall birthday surprise from a dear friend. Is it kitschy and nostalgic? Sure. Nothing we own would look like much, or is much, on its own. But together, some vivid autumn colors and varied textures in simple objects can change what we see in our kitchen and living room every day. They can remind us, in visual ways, of time passing and of the importance of cherishing each day, of being thankful for beauty in every season.

A mason jar; some butcher block paper; a bit of ribbon. Small favors, but an autumn gain nonetheless.  

Coming Home

Loved ones looking at a loved home

In July, our family spent two and a half weeks away from home, the longest separation from home we’ve had in many, many years. Driving west through white-bright afternoon sun outside Scottsbluff, Nebraska, under the wide, pale blue sky, we saw a green sign that listed Casper, some 175 miles away. We all cheered. We were coming home.

Ideally, coming home from time away arouses a deep cherishing and gratitude. Years ago, I wrote of this quiet joy of homecoming, of the familiarity and certainty of returning to your place, your life, located geographically and emotionally in the circle of many other lives.

 [On the way,] we stopped in south-central Minnesota at a BP, which happened to be across the road from an implement business. We sat on the curb next to the pump, drinking Mountain Dew Throwback … listening to the quiet roar of traffic on I-90 and the periodic buzz of crickets in the surrounding fields. “You can tell the pace has slowed down already,” [Jon said], and I realized that I was breathing differently–more relaxed, slower. Sitting there, pointing out the occasional car, enjoying the silences that only family togetherness can create, I realized it felt like home, felt like here. We still had a few hours to drive, but it didn’t matter–the rush and bustle of the more metro areas we visited in the last ten days were fading. And I was glad. Really glad.

I think experiencing these kinds of homecomings is important. Despite their nostalgic, gooey emotional fervor, They portend, however dimly, of the great homecoming we await in Christ. As Martin Luther put it, we will go to sleep and awake to the gentle sound of our Savior’s voice and open our eyes to see His face. We will know we have arrived at our final Home–the place and endless time where we will never, ever have to leave Him.

Perhaps an even closer comparison to our final homecoming, then, would be a church homecoming. A short story: I attended a conference five years ago in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and several pastors and I who were driving to the airport together had some extra time to spare before our flights left.  “Do you mind if we visit Zion?” one asked. “I did my fieldwork there.” During seminary study, Sem students are assigned to local congregations to be mentored by those congregations’ ordained and installed clergy, to participate in services by assisting with communion and the like, and generally to get a small taste of a church home. We all agreed to swing by the majestic church. No one was there, but the pastor jumped out and took a selfie anyway.

As we drove toward the airport, several of us realized that we were close to Redeemer, another beautiful church where another pastor with us had done fieldwork. Jon had been placed there, too, and he and I had attended there many times during his last year of seminary, so I was very familiar with it. We pulled into the parking lot and I ran to the back door, expecting no response, but after a moment, Pastor Petersen answered. He’d thought he was hearing things when he heard the bell on that slow July midweek afternoon, but he was thrilled to greet us and show us in.

We walked through the dim hall toward the sanctuary, the only light streaming softly through the stained glass. We paused in the narthex as Pastor Petersen opened the double doors that led down the center aisle of the nave. When he opened them wide, he turned to us and said quietly, “Welcome home.”

In all the years of referring to my church home, truly I had never quite connected the idea of home with church. Yet at that moment, hearing that welcome made sense. I realized that it was a truer description than any of a place where I could claim to rest and to know I belonged, forever.

In my life, I have been blessed to be a member of congregations in Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, and now Wyoming. Jon has been a member of congregations in Wisconsin. We both loved his vicarage year at a congregation in Connecticut. We have visited wonderful congregations in Indiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Missouri, and many other places. When we have been able to visit churches where we have been members, and even those we have not, we have cherished the common gifts we recognize and receive–the Word and Sacrament. Though our childhood homes have long since passed from our experience, our church homes have not.

Even more importantly, the immortal Truth they share will never pass away. We may be nomads, physically, while as sinners, we always wander away from God. Much of what we know here on earth is rootlessness, the unrest of the wanderers longing for our eternal home. Yet we can rest, in the knowledge that our Savior is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And He desires nothing more than for us to come home.

Coming soon: What happens when our earthly homes, particularly our churches, are broken?



Never whole, and yet beautiful, marriage

Looking ahead at the unknown, together.

Last night at supper I told our children, “Well, fourteen years ago tonight, your father and I were eating lasagna together.”

“And cheesecake,” he added.

“Why?” asked one of the boys.

“It was our rehearsal dinner,” he said. Just this past weekend, we all attended a rehearsal dinner and then a wedding, so the connection was bright and immediate. “Oooo!” They crowed, no doubt thinking of parties and chocolate treats, and little of the import of such surface adornments.

After fourteen years, I feel the most insight into marriage we might offer the world is what we bring to it. Words of advice come to mind, but most or all of it is known to you all. Show affection. Repent and forgive each other. Stay married.

Instead, we offer you this. A child staggering out of the bathroom with no pants, yelling, “I need some help!” Another handing over a chewed-over roasted chicken leg: “Here, Mommy.” Raucous laughter. Exuberant and passionate telling and yelling. Puddles of spilled milk. Baby grins. We make eye contact over the messy table, my husband and I, and we smile. We are exhausted and yet not used up. We are in life together.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” We read this in Genesis, and Matthew, and Ephesians. The words mean what they say and do what they say. Once bound together, we are bound. We fight our union by fighting each other, by wearying of the toil of our sinful flesh ever warring against the very one our soul has loved. And yet God gives to us Himself, over and over again, and rebinds us up. We are grateful, and we appreciate all He has given us, much of which we do not even recognize. Marriage is an unending struggle, and an infinite joy, and a deep mystery. It is a breaking and a healing, over and over and over again.

You come near me

with the nearness of sleep.

And yet I am not quiet.

It is to be broken. It is to be

torn open. It is not to be

reached and come to rest in

ever. I turn against you,

I break from you, I turn to you.

We hurt, and are hurt,

and have each other for healing.

It is healing. It is never whole.

~ Wendell Berry


Devoting Yourself to Prayer

All good Christians know they should practice devotions–that is, they should devote themselves to the reading and contemplation of God’s Holy Word at certain deliberate times every day. In a world obsessed with and built around convenience, we can easily schedule, connect, and read in just a few minutes’ time what we know we should do and remember and cherish. And yet we don’t.

Habits are self-reinforcing, and the habit of daily devotions comes like that of most healthy practices: repetition, repetition, repetition. For instance, I brush my teeth every night before I go to sleep. Every tool I need, from the brush to the paste to the floss, is in the same predictable place in my bathroom, so I don’t need to perform a search and rescue just to get the job done. I also brush just prior to sleep because it’s been part of my regular routine for most of my life (thanks, Mom!), and I can do it without even thinking much about it.  And precisely because teeth-brushing happens regularly, I dislike the feeling of my unbrushed teeth on the rare occasion I skip the bristles. The lack of the habit automatically becomes uncomfortable.

So how can devotions become habitual? One of the best tools we’ve discovered in the last several years is the excellent Treasury of Daily Prayer published by Concordia Publishing House (CPH). Every day’s readings contain a Psalm, an Old Testament and New Testament excerpt, a writing from a Church Father, a hymn verse, and a prayer of the day. On feast or festival days, extra information about saints or holidays are included. Orders for daily prayer, as well as Luther’s Small Catechism, the entire Psalter, preparation for confession and absolution and the Lord’s Supper, as well as other prayers and schedules, are also included. It’s truly a magnificent resource for a well-rounded, all-in-one devotion. We don’t have to scramble or try to put together multiple sources for devotions. We don’t even have to figure out what Bible passages to read–and the Treasury follows the church year, so the readings always fit the liturgical season. It’s truly been a game-changer in our habits.

Also, the Treasury been a wonderful tool for me in writing for Portals of Prayer, a daily devotional long published by CPH and written by lay Lutherans and church workers. This July, you can read my devotions (and a few prayers) in Portals, either in print or digital form (there’s even an app!). I have followed the Treasury closely in writing for Portals, so if you prefer to use both, you’ll find them complimentary–and other writers often do the same thing.

Another simple part of regular devotions is where they take place. Since we invariably join together for breakfast at the same time every day, the kitchen table is the best spot for our Treasury, in particular, to sit. It’s a visible reminder of what we need to do. Yes, it has been sprinkled with cereal and soaked in spilled milk (thank goodness for leather covers!), but having the book sitting on the table makes it much, much easier for us to hear the Word. I’d rather move the book to wipe off the table than to place it somewhere we can easily overlook it.

And prayer before meals is a habit we’ve long practiced. So while we might not often make time for all of the suggested daily readings together, we always have time for a Psalm. The kids can even take turns reading it. It’s literally a minute or two of time, and it gives us reminders of God’s steadfast love that we can carry with us all day long. Again, we don’t always do this. But we should, and you should. It’s a habit worth making and keeping. So what are you waiting for?

 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

~ Psalm 51:1-9

The Psalmody for July 2 in the Treasury of Daily Prayer

Update: There’s an app for the TDP, too (at least for you Apple users)! You can find the PrayNow app here.