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That season Again…. (Lent)

I stumbled upon an article I wrote for the  Covenant Companion, in February 2010.  It felt oh so current as I reread it this week.  It was spot-on for Lent: heavy with themes of death and resurrection, and as is always true, the scriptures spoke deeply then and speak deeply today.  It’s Paul saying: We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  So here I go again.

I have officiated or participated in 5 funerals in the past 10 weeks.  You do the math.

One was a father of the church in his 90’s, another was a mother of the church who almost reached her  90’s, both of them well known and much beloved.   One was a woman I only recently meet, but longed to know better, she too, in her 90’s, but had only been attending a few years.  One was a man who I had never met, but he had connections to the church from his childhood.   He lived with cognitive disabilities all his life. His was a very solitary existence as dementia further eroded his limited capacities.  The latest funeral was for a friend, a mother of a young child, he 12, she just 40.  We were the birthplace of her faith, this was her spiritual home.  Her husband wanted her to be honored here.  She had lived with the debilitating physical assaults of MD:  the symptoms first becoming evident as a teenager in our youth group.  But more importantly, she possessed  deep, enduring  spiritual faith and  the tenacity to allow her countless talents and personal skills to flourish.  Her influence was deep and wide.  Her service taxed every seat in the house, demanded that we open all the sanctuary doors so the overflow crowd in the narthex could participate. 

 

Four of these five services involved the whole church family.  The kitchen crew,  who should really be known as the Hospitality Ministry, do the hard work.  They cook and clean and prepare and serve, and then clean again.  As they do this, I know they pray that the peace and comfort of Christ will be poured out in coffee cups and eaten in the bars they cut and serve.  Inevitably, someone I don’t know seeks me out in the church basement, and over the muted conversations around various tables they thank me for what we all have done. In their own words they say something like how they sense a certain feel, or  atmosphere that pervades the church, both in the Service that happens upstairs, and the service that happens downstairs.  I know what they are feeling, I know what they are trying to describe.  They are noticing that they are surrounded by the love of Christ which is so powerfully  present in the face of grief. They are being ministered to, whether they know it or not, far beyond what a message or a simple refreshment can do.  They are being ministered to by the Holy Spirit.  Some can name that, some can’t. 

 As I said in my article many years ago: I know that holding funerals is NOT a church-growth strategy: but it surely is a faith-growth strategy.  The Apostle Paul wrote this: We always carry around in our body the  death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  2 Cor.  4:10  

That’s the thing.  What our guests are trying to say I believe,  is that even in the face of painful and sometimes tragic loss, they feel, they experience,  the reality of the living Jesus revealed  in our midst.  Because we do.  We experience the life of Jesus revealed in our body. Upstairs, we remember the loved ones we have lost as we sing again their favorite hymn or hear their favorite scripture.  We remember them downstairs as we anticipate a cup that needs refilling, or as we make new connections in the sharing of simple food.  In this season we can’t help and wonder about our own deaths as we receive cross-shaped ashes on our foreheads.  We proclaim the victory of the cross, and the certain hope of the resurrection in word from the pulpit and in deed as we ready the food, or shovel the driveways, or set up and take down tables and chairs. After one of the services, which happened to coincide with one of our many snowstorms in February I watched as Tom and Mark went outside once more to shovel the walks.  They had already shoveled several times  because  the snow was piling up so fast.  We had to delay the start of the service because a family member just couldn’t make it through the storm.  “Thanks, Tom”, I said, and he simply replied,  “Well, you’ve got to do it for Arnie.”  How true.  We do it for love of who they were.  We do it with confidence in the mystery of who they have now become.  We do it because God breathes life back into our lungs, and we don’t have the luxury of taking that for granted.  We always carry the reality of death around, and this somehow feeds our desire for Christ’s life to be  present and active.  As we move through the season of Lent this year, dear family, may it stir in us the powerful longing for life!  Full, abundant, fruitful life.

 


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Connections

We (Brookdale Covenant Church) got a thank you note this week. It’s addressed to me, but really, it’s to all of us. It’s from our denomination, signed by Donn Engebretson and Cat Knarr, thanking us for being a part of the Congo Kids 6K. Together we joined 80 other Covenant teams, 4,000 other people, and raised $340,000 for clean water. 6,800 people will gain access to clean water, and we got to help! I feel like we ought to send back a thank you note. Thanks for letting us participate! We had a ball. Thanks for letting us be a part of a hopeful solution! Thanks for letting us feel like we are actually doing something. Take a moment and imagine one of the Congo Kids looking you right in the eye and saying “Merci Mingi”, as they take a first sip of clean, cool water. (By the way, we can do it again next May 4. Are we game?) We joined in this effort, of course, because we are all connected. We are connected to our larger Covenant family here and abroad and we are connected to our Congo Kids. Someone asked me recently if I was ever going to go meet my Congo Kid. Wow, I’d never even thought of that! We are connected to God’s enormous family that spans geography and time. In church language we are referred to as “the communion of the saints”. I was reminded again of the amazing connection we have as followers of Christ on our recent family vacation out East, where Tim spent his childhood summers on Cape Cod. That’s where all his early connections with family and church and summer camp are. Then we headed north to explore coastal Maine. Book storeOne day we stumbled upon a used bookstore late in the afternoon in Northeast Harbor. We “stumbled” on this quaint Harbor town, simply by following the road we were on. Turns out, at the turn of the century it was the very elite summer vacation community of America’s most powerful and influential: people with last names like Rockefeller and Aster. You know, people not like us. The store owners were retiring after some 40 years and you know what that means: deep discounts. (Two of my favorite words.) Sometimes used bookstores are a little haphazard (a nice way of saying they are a piled up mess). This one was pristine: these were fine used books all with laminate covers and most more than a few decades out of print. I walked around the stacks and pulled a few off the shelf…most were collector editions and way out of my league, but a slender volume caught my eye: The Golden Book of Psalms and Prayers. Inside the store owner’s note said it was “published between the 1960-70’s” and that it had “annotations and original sketch by the artist-owner”. I looked at the front flyleaf: in impeccable and artistic handwriting was the book owner’s name: “Betsy F. Melcher”, who received the book as a gift from “Aunt Winifred”. I turned to the back; sure enough: an ink pen sketch of a “Pot of Red Geraniums” signed on June 10, 1975, Mt. Desert Hospital. So Ms. Melcher was in the hospital when she penned that drawing!
Sketch of Geraniums
This little book had been her companion for some time; because like me, she underlined and dated some Psalms that must have spoken deeply to her. Some of the notes were dated ’66. I paged through and was immediately struck by this: Betsy Melcher, whomever she may be, underlined many of the same Psalms I have underlined in my Bible. Connection! She dated and put little red hearts in front of prayers. These private notes hinted at the story within the story. The store owner told me she was indeed a famous local artist of some renown. You bet I bought the book.
I did my research when I got home. Born in 1900 Betsy Melcher was not just an artist. One of her portraits hangs in the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art. (And I have her little drawing of geraniums in her prayer book!) One little bit of internet sleuthing led to another. Her father was a world famous architect named Ernest Flagg. He married a cousin of the Vanderbilt family. These are people I have zero connection with!
Except for this: the communion of the saints connection. When Betsy was elderly, when she was in peril, she was lying in a hospital, reading the Psalms. The very same Psalms I read when I am struggling. The Psalms she underlined, or commented on, or drew a little heart in front of, are Psalms that I have underlined, or commented on, and have let my heart be changed by too. We both underlined: Be still and know that I am God. We both underlined: my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips when I remember thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the night watches…
Her translation, still in the poetry of King James, mine in the New Revised, but both of us, a generation and world apart turning our hearts over to the same God, who was and is and is to come.
This woman of substance, born in 1900 and passed 91 years later, was in possession of skills and story that are utterly different than my own. Yet, we have this timeless connection. Grass withers, flowers fade, but the Word of the Lord endures forever. We are bound in relationship with people who move in affluent circles that we only read about in history books and with little kids in the Congo, who take a sip and discover that Jesus is the living water.
I close with a prayer my new friend Betsy underlined in our little book:
We thank Thee for our deep sense of the mysteries that lie beyond our dust, and for the eyes of faith which Thou hast opened for all who believe in Thy Son. May we live altogether in Thy faith, and love, and in that hope which is full of immortality. Amen

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Brookdale Water Walkers

When I was growing up my family sponsored a young Korean boy through World Vision. His picture was always on our refrigerator, and we often prayed for him before bedtime or meals together. We never forgot that we were sitting down to a home cooked meal and there were children all over the world who couldn’t do that. We prayed that God would provide for them too.
I would look at the World Vision magazine that came in the mail, and see the world in grainy black and white images. As a kid it boiled down to this: the world looked like a hard place for a lot of children, but there was always something I could do to help. I guess you could say I grew up with a “world vision” thanks to my parents’ commitments. I also grew up highly aware of the Congo. Jody LeVahn was Brookdale’s bush nurse and missionary to the Congo, commissioned just before I was born. Her picture was on the refrigerator too. Every 4 years she would come back and show her slides and tell us stories about life in Africa.
When our denomination was asked to join up with World Vision in the Congo it was like two pieces of my world coming together seamlessly. The CongoKids page on the ECC website says this:
The Evangelical Covenant Church and World Vision have collectively spent over a century working with our friends in DR Congo. For about 80 years, the ECC has walked alongside the Covenant Church of Congo (CEUM), witnessing the creation of strong and vibrant church life that enriches communities in northwest DR Congo. Additionally, World Vision has been working in other areas of DR Congo for over four decades. Their proven community development model for sustainable long-term solutions is built on 60+ years of experience building a better world for children. World Visions ability to communicate with people on the ground as well as donors with relevant, timely, and transformative insights has caused them to become a world leader in community development efforts. Together, the ECC, World Vision, and the CEUM are taking the best they have to offer and committing it to a holistic journey to transformation for DR Congo as well as for us, the ECC.

Emmanuel Konzi Dati
Emmanuel Konzi Dati Brookdale Covenant Congo Kid
Brookdale Covenant Congo Kid
Brookdale became one of the early and eager churches to sponsor a Hope Sunday in 2012, when individuals took on the sponsorship of nearly 40 children and together we as a church sponsor one child who is now 10 years old: he was four when we first “met”: look at him now! World Vision and the Covenant’s commitment to the Congo are in my blood. But here’s the 3rd leg of the stool: I’m a born and bred Minnesotan. I love being from the land of 10,000 Lakes. I love water. I love to drink it, swim in it, fish from it, listen to it and just stare into it. Water is life. So the very simple fact that by joining in walking the World Vision Global 6k I can help bring our kids in the Congo fresh, healthy water is a full-on no-brainer. Join us in spirit (sponsor one of our walkers) or sign up and show up on May 19 with your walking shoes, strollers, or skates! We’ll meet in the parking lot and make our way together to Victory Memorial Drive and celebrate when we get back to church. An “event” trek for us: a daily grind for too many. I am so grateful there is always something we can do to help! With joy we will draw water from the wells of salvation…Isaiah 12:3

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A Word about the Blizzard…

 
Well, that was something! Hope you are safe and recovered from that historic storm.
Calling off church isn’t an easy decision, but I think we made the right call. What did you do with your morning? You know, there are times when I envy the Sunday brunch crowd. I have a lifelong habit of setting Sunday’s aside for gathering with the church. But there are days when I wonder….
So on Sunday morning I was basking in the leisure, trying not to curse the endlessly falling snow, and praying about the mysteries of nature and timing. Why a blizzard this weekend? I was really looking forward to our Merge Sunday. As my colleague, Pastor Hollis is oft heard to say, “How is God in this?” We certainly will try to reschedule that as soon as we can.
As the day wore on, I realized this (not for the first time); I missed the rhythm of the worshipping community. I don’t hold to a legalistic church attendance policy. Gone are the days when we awarded “perfect attendance” pins. Sometimes people apologize to me for “missing a Sunday”, and sometimes they just boldly explain “I don’t come if I don’t feel like it.” That’s what I was pondering yesterday: why any of us commit to family of faith, and arrange our Sundays (and other days too) around church life.
How would you answer that question for yourself? Here’s my honest, but incomplete answer: my life is better for the worship and relationship that happens on Sundays. Worship orients my life toward God. I get reminded every week that we, at Brookdale, are a smattering of wonderful created-ness. What a group! I get reminded and have evidence that God is active, loving, mysterious, good, and surprising.
So I thank God for the day off, and I thank God for our shared life. For whatever reason I tried to memorize these verses from Psalm 36 as the snow fell and the wind howled:
 
Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the skies.
6 Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,
your justice like the great deep.
You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.
7 How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
8 They feast on the abundance of your house;
you give them drink from your river of delights.
9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.
10 Continue your love to those who know you,
your righteousness to the upright in heart.
 
 
 
See you next Sunday!

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Renee’s 6K walk

Hey Friends,
We are super excited to be running and walking in the World Vision Global 6K for Water! On May 19th, 2018, we will be joining thousands of others around the globe to run 6k and provide clean water to children in communities around the world.
Brookdale Covenant has had a love affair with the Congo for more than 60 years. We sponsor more than twenty “Congo Kids” in Gemena, one of poorest regions in the World. Help us get our kids clean, fresh, life-giving water.
I would love for you to either register and run/walk with us for the Global 6K or make a donation to and sponsor one of our of our young willing walkers!
For $50 World Vision can provide an individual with clean water that lasts! Go to this site to sponsor me.
Thanks for your support! Better yet, why not join me in walking or running the 6k and find sponsors to help you raise even more for life giving water for the kids in the DR Congo.
World Vision works with communities in desperate need to help provide things like clean water, nutritious food, education, medical care, and economic opportunity.

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I Did NOT See This Coming…..

Well this is a first: a dictionary moved me to tears! I can honestly say I have never had that experience in all my life, until this week. It happened as I was doing my homework for my “Interpreting the New Testament” class taught online by Jay Phelan. You know his name from North Park Seminary or if you read the Covenant Companion. One required resource is called, Dictionary of the Later New Testamenti, and it has 1289 pages, is 3 inches thick and weighs nearly 5 pounds (according to my bathroom scale). Needless to say, I don’t lug it around a lot.
This week we are studying 1, 2, and 3 John. (In the Dictionary these are listed under: John, Letters Of, because that is how you do it in dictionaries, I guess. This is where you go to get facts: dates, places, names, etc. This is the background you need to better understand scripture. Surprisingly, this is where things got personal. I was reading on page 590 (in case you want to check my facts). This is the very sentence that got to me: “But the Johannine church was not to survive the conflict”. That was it- tears came to my eyes.
A bit of explanation perhaps, but first, a sidetrack. Like everyone else I don’t watch too much TV (heard that one before), but one show Tim and I watch frequently is called “Persons of Interest”. My favorite character on the show is Detective Joss Carter: a strong female character who has done the right things all along and has a moral core and has been brave and strong and true in her fight against corruption. And they killed her off this week! Man, I did not see that coming either! I didn’t cry, but I sort of wanted to. It was a mini-shock, because I know she isn’t a real person, but I wish she was. She just deserves to be a real person, in my mind. So I didn’t tear up, but if she had been real? Oh, my.
Back to John.
Here’s why “the Johannine church was not to survive the conflict” did make me cry.
Johannine is theology-speak for the church that John founded. I have always loved John (the Gospel, and the writer). I could connect with this follower of Jesus because he was so emotional. He wore his heart on his sleeve. His love for Jesus was steadfast. He was there right until the end. He wasn’t afraid to show his emotions, and he was the one Jesus trusted to care for his mother. Those are just some the reasons I have to love John. So think about John, yes, THAT John being the pastor of our church. You could not find a more loving, caring, supportive Pastor. He was an eyewitness, a personal friend of Jesus; he was front and center for miracles and meals. He understood the Holy Spirit. What more could a church ever ask for? And yet, according to page 589 and 590, conflicts rocked the churches that he founded. In spite of all the love and prayer he poured out on them, the church “was not to survive the conflict.” I did not see that coming. Are you closer to understanding my reactions?
The rest of the dictionary article goes on to define what those conflicts were about, and how they came about, and how the culture of the time played a part. It says, “We can only speculate that something serious happened”, and the “once unified congregation began to tear apart from within”. The conflicts were about Jesus, and who he really was, and a congregation that once loved Him and loved each other became hateful towards each other.
In the end, some of the followers of Christ gave up. They quit. They moved on. That makes me weep. They gave up believing that Jesus was the Christ, and that He was going to return to earth. Most of the eyewitnesses were no longer living. The First Generation of believers were growing old and dying, and persecution and hardship had discouraged them, and some would no longer believe that Jesus was who he claimed to be.
John isn’t a literary character, like Detective Carter. He isn’t a mythical character, like Thor. He is our brother, and one day I assume he will be a friend. We are joined, he and I, because of who we know: Jesus. We are family because of that connection. Even so, I have never sat and wondered what it was like to be John, what it must have felt like to know with all his heart, soul, and mind, the truth about Jesus Christ. What is must have been like to wonder if that truth would survive the evil age he lived in. The odds of the Christian faith surviving his generation were not at all good. Dire, I would say. So I shed some tears for my brother, John. And, I marveled at the power of God to keep the church moving forward against all odds.
What would John say to us, the family gathered at Brookdale Covenant Church, nearly 2,000 years later? Read his letters and find out. (And maybe audit a North Park Seminary class. I’ll be happy to lend you the Dictionary).
 
i G. M. Burge, John, Letters of, in Dictionary of the Later New Testament, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill. 1997.

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