Tuesday, September 25, 2007

How Can I Keep from Singing

For as long as I can remember, I have been afraid of bears. I can remember dreams when I was very young about being chased by bears. I am not entirely sure what that stems from, but needless to say- it's been a lifelong horror. I am not certain that I could put a fine point on the fear- being mauled, just seeing a bear, being eaten. I'm just afraid of bears.

How ironic that someone who is terrified of bears lives in Alaska. I've seen a black bear less than a quarter-mile from my house. Once I was in the path of a running grizzly while in the tundra outside Nome. I've seen bears from far away and not far away enough when I've been hiking in different places. I generally feel pretty calm about at the time, though my heart pounds.

Why am I thinking about bears now? I have had a hymn going through my head for a couple days. Not a hymn about bears (which one would that be?), but the hymn "My Life Flows on in Endless Song".

My life flows on in endless song; above earth's lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.
(Chorus) No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that Rock I'm clinging
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing? (Chorus)

What thought my joys and comforts die? The Lord my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth. (Chorus)

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine since I am his! How can I keep from singing? (Chorus)

Like many Alaskans, I love to hike and sometimes I have to do a short one by myself. Though I have resorted to the "Hello...coming through" style of announcing my presence, I like to sing as long as I have the air to do so (some hiking can be too strenuous to allow for melodic announcing). My heart is usually pounding because, though not bearanoid, I do wonder what greets me around the corner.

This hymn gets me through more than just lonely hikes. It's gotten me through some lonely months. There are six more weeks (I hope) until my husband comes back from overseas. At a recent "reunion training", family members were told that the last few weeks can be the hardest because you can see the end (and you're hoping information about extension doesn't come!). I cannot pretend that I am happy all the time. Some days are harder than others, but I can say that I haven't felt too alone through the past months. Even in dark days, my life has flowed on in endless song (sometimes a very mournful tune) and I haven't kept from singing.

Life is full of bears and other things. There are no promises that we will always feel like singing, but God does provide the background music of faith- so that when we catch the "sweet, but far-off hymn", we can rejoice with all of creation.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Opportunities from Heaven

I recently went with a friend to see the movie Evan Almighty- the story of a modern man whom God tells to build an ark. He encounters a great deal of ridicule from his friends and even his family as he outlines the plans for the giant boat and begins to appear more and more like a biblical figure each day.

While I wouldn't recommend the movie for its theological soundness, I do think it had a few good points to consider. In one scene, Evan's wife is in a diner and is very upset. She left Evan and took their sons with her because she believed he was going crazy and was potentially harmful. As she looks lamentably at her plate, the "waiter" stops by her table. Though she doesn't know him, the audience recognizes "God" as he has appeared in the movie.

"God" tells her this: How do you think God answers prayers? If you pray for courage, does God give it to you or make an opportunity for you to be courageous? If you ask for patience, does God grant that or show you a chance to be patient? If you ask for family togetherness...

That, of course, was the catchphrase for her. She had prayed for her family to grow closer together, she just hadn't seen working together on the ark as that heaven-sent opportunity.

Life and faith are not always Hollywood-neat, but I think there is a little bit of sense to this idea. How often have we prayed for this or that and believed our prayer to be unanswered? Admittedly, some of our deepest prayers aren't for things that call for opportunities- we want someone's safe return, healing or other specific action. God hears these prayers and is with us in our cries, our anger and our need.

Prayer is yet another mystery in the life of faith and it can be one that is difficult to maintain Martin Luther says because God has called us to prayer, it is okay to ask God for the strength to pray, to remind God of the difficulty of prayer and even to revisit God's promises to hear our prayers.

May you have strength in your prayers and confidence that you are being heard. May the Spirit open your heart to see when and where God has laid the groundwork for the granting of some of your prayers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering

Everywhere you turn today, there are flashbacks and memorials to September 11, 2001. People are talking about where they were, what they remember or how they were affected. Many people are also reflecting on the aftermath of that attack and tragedy, even how it is affecting us today in cautionary actions and in worldwide conflicts.

Driving to work this morning, I wondered about how the apostles might have felt at the Passover - a year after the crucifixion. A few of them might have still be in Jerusalem, since some of Paul's letters talk about a group of disciples there, but others left that area and went to other parts of the world to spread the message of Jesus. Yet I am sure at Passover, that celebratory meal, they always thought back to that one time, in the Upper Room- when everything was so uncertain. And then three days later, everything they thought they knew was upturned.

We have slowly found the world moving forward from that particular September day. The memorials will probably space out more and we will remember the 10th anniversary, the 15th... Like other events in our national conscience, we will ask each other where we were on that day.

Yet, let us also remember the apostles and be like them. Remember this moment. The blessing of the bread and of the wine. The knowledge and comfort of the presence of Christ in that action. The blessing of it in the dark times of your life.

In a day full of remembrance, take a moment to remember all for which you are grateful and all that has been done for you.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

September Newsletter Entry

It is hard to believe that fall is here. It is not yet time for sweaters, but I find my hand moving past the lighter shirts in my closet, down toward the longer sleeves and darker colors. My drive from Eagle River has changed too. I have to think about the school traffic and more people driving in and out of the city. Everyone is hoping for one more fishing trip, one more hike, yet another campout- trying to enjoy the vestiges of the summer and the fun that autumn can provide in the short time it’s here.

This month marks a mental change for me. For the past three years, the end of August has meant a return to Connecticut and to school. I had to think about books, class schedules, and travel plans. I was a student.

Now I’m still learning, but from you. This year is my transition from student to pastor and Gloria Dei is helping me over that bridge. Internship brings new levels of authority, involvement in decision-making, surprising ministry experiences and absorbing the nuances of the role to which I have been called.

There is a delicate balance to learning about this position. I have to learn the balance between what I studied in school and what happens when knowledge is applied, between being a leader and encouraging others to lead. I have begun to hear from you about what you like to see in a pastor regarding preaching, visitation, teaching and presence.

In the spirit of learning about my new role, I have taken a new title. According to the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, I can be called pastoral intern, intern or vicar. Though titles are not that important to me, what’s in a name is actually important. Part of internship is learning about being a pastor, but one only actually earns that title through a call to a congregation and ordination.

In the meantime, “pastoral intern” seems like too many syllables to ask you to use. That title was too big. “Intern” does not seem to clearly describe what my role is here; thus, that title is too small. “Vicar” is unusual, but can be explained in its originality. “This is our vicar, Julia. We’re helping her learn to be a pastor.” It does sound very British and it is unfamiliar to most of us, including myself. However, it is the title that best seems to fit the position. It is just right. We will all learn to use it together.

All this change does make me think with gratitude about the unchanging nature of God. No matter what kind of changes I experience, it is blessedly assuring to know God remains the same today, tomorrow and forever. May that thought comfort you as well this month, during a season of change.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Faithfully Stepping Out in Doubt (Sermon 9/1/07)

Lectionary 22 Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK
September 2, 2007 Vicar Julia Seymour

Proverbs 23:6-7, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14


Peace and grace to you in the name of the Holy Trinity who gathers us together here, nourishes us and will go forward with us into the world.


How many of you have heard about the book coming out that contains the letters of Mother Teresa? It is a collection of letters she wrote to her spiritual advisors over the course of fifty years about her struggle with doubt and darkness. Mother Teresa writes that she continues to believe in God, but that she no longer hears God’s voice and she is no longer assured, as she once was, of God’s will.
These letters date from the time, in 1948, when she began the Missionaries of Charity in India. Before that time, she came to India with the Sisters of Loreto and then she believed she heard Jesus telling her to start a new mission, a mission for Indian nuns to minister to the poor of that nation. When she finally received Vatican approval to begin the new mission, she believed stopped hearing the voice of God.
There have been many reactions to the news of these letters. Many people have expressed shock to know that Mother Teresa felt this way, but I think most people are not surprised. If anything, I think more people will consider Mother Teresa saintly for her struggles than even for her works. Because a struggle with faith is something to which most people can relate.
The Bible is full of people who needed affirmation of their faith, who longed for an extra assurance of God’s presence. The list even includes Jesus who, in His most human moment- suffering on the cross… in His most divine moment, suffering on the cross, said, “My God, My God… why have you forsaken me?”
The theologian Frederick Buechner says God only allows His greatest saints to experience that level of feeling, but I disagree. I do not believe there is a hierarchy among saints and, if I ever needed proof, I find it in the reality that we all have or all will experience that kind of moment in our lives. It is that moment when the rug comes out from under us so quickly… we did not even know we were falling until we hit the floor. Accidents, illnesses, deaths, personal realizations, life changes, and revelations can take our breath away and make us look around and say, “Where is God?”
Later, in reflection, we are able to see God in the people who came to our aid or in the small miracles that helped us make it through one day at a time. Perhaps they did not know that card meant everything to you. Maybe the ability to get out of bed and take a shower seemed like a miracle. Even in something good happening to someone else that reminds us of positive things in the world.
How do we keep going when we feel that way? And what about those times when we are not devastated, but just feel bland, not bad…not good… just waiting for something to happen- something to affirm our faith in a small way.
We can and should be consoled by the realization that faith does not depend on us. It is a gift from God that we could not produce ourselves, even if we wanted to. The small blue book to which members of the congregation contributed, God Provides, is full of stories of people right here who were very worried about various things and God came through… maybe not how they expected, but in a way they were able to experience as a blessing, as divine provision.
The reading today from Hebrews tells us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the Word who was with God in the beginning, the man who walked next to the Sea of Galilee, and is the word and sacrament present in, with and under us today. God has promised that will not change… not matter how dark the walk gets.
That’s when I think we need to look again at the smallest things possible. Faith is like the mustard seed… not that we have to plant it and make it grow, but its tiny size grows into a miraculous plant. God gives us that mustard seed each day… in the sunshine, in the ability to make decisions, in the people around us. When you start with the smallest thing possible for which you have to be grateful, your list of blessings can grow to enormous proportions.
Yet, in the midst of that blessedness, we can still have doubts about our relationship with God and even about God’s own self. What to do then? We have nothing to prove to God. God knows us in our innermost selves and loves us despite what’s in there. In the knowledge of that love, we are called in today’s readings to turn to the people around us… to look around our tables, our neighborhoods and our world and say, “What can I do with what God has given me?” This is how Mother Teresa ultimately found her only consolation. She put on foot in front of the other each day and helped the Christ she saw in the people around her. She heard God’s voice in them and responded in the only way she knew how… believing that what she did for them, she did for God.
When I think about the 12 apostles, there is only one I have ever wanted to be. Not Peter…bumbling along. Not James and John, fighting over who will sit next to Jesus. Certainly not Judas. But I wouldn’t mind being Thomas. I would like to have the chance to see and to touch. But instead, you and I are among the blessed who have not seen, but have believed.
Until the day that we do see, when Christ comes again… God has promised to give us faith… to help us in this world to help each other. That faith is not the absence of questions or the absence of doubt. That faith is action in spite of doubt. Actions like, letting mutual love continue… showing hospitality to strangers… visiting those in prison… honoring loving relationships… sliding over and letting someone else have a better place at the table.
When we let these actions fill our lives… when we count the tiniest things with gratitude…when we keep moving even in times of uncertainty and in darkness, we open ourselves to the possibilities of reaching beyond our doubts and fears… to the possibility of entertaining angels… to the possibility of touching Christ in the person right next to us. How do we know he’s there… because God has promised it and God always keeps the faith.