Sunday, January 20, 2008

Day Ten

Day One began with an excerpt, so the last day should, too. The following was written by Robert Vivian, as part of an essay titled “Hereafter in Fields.” You can find it in The Big Empty: Contemporary Nebraska Nonfiction Writers, a collection edited by Ladette Randolph and Nina Shevchuk-Murray.

“The way the sun shimmers in the long Nebraska grass just off the highway can make you feel hope again, like there’s still time for lovelier, finer things. It hovers in every reed and dust mote, rippling out into the tiny eyes of grain that burn with winter’s fire, an ember so small and subtle you know something is burning inside you, too. It’s a destination that breaks the spell, that teeters into dread. Dusk can make the fields remote, haunted, the patchwork of all your silent prayers. I drive because I have to. I drive to get where I am going, making the fifty-mile commute between Omaha and Lincoln three days a week. But what about these fields, these grasses? Why do they suggest something about time, about eternity? I’m just another pilgrim in his crude bark boat, making his way across the waters; I’m just another commuter fiddling with the dial. But more and more I wonder what it is to arrive; more and more arrival becomes the thing bequeathed, but not desired.

If only we could keep going, out of harm’s way, and take with us only the best part of ourselves; if only we knew why we dream at the wheel or think more clearly while moving down valleys and across rivers. Driving toward the horizon on Interstate 80 can make you feel this. Driving anywhere flat and endless can. It can wear you down to sheer seeing, to that mesh of changing light just over the horizon that blooms like sunflowers drenched in a cut glass vase. Sometimes the clouds above the Nebraska plains contain such towering beauty that you sense the sky is exploding around you in myriad waters, bearing down on you like grace before dying. The grooves of the highway moan, and just outside Lincoln the view north is endless in rolling fields, undulations firm as a roadkill’s thigh, a rigor mortis of earth chipped from the moving plates of time.”


I woke up this morning to our last day in Nebraska. It’s funny how you can get into a little routine and get used to things, and then suddenly you wake up one morning and things have come to an end, and in a moment all those past routine days seem different somehow, more important in the past now than they seemed in the present.

Anyway. Other than that odd feeling, the morning unfolded like any other. Dr. Cook finished chores, the Mathewsons dropped off Anett, and we all headed into town – Zoey, of course, in tow. Well, not in tow so much as climbing over everything in the car and finally settling down in my lap for the duration of the drive to Sidney. Zoey, you sure are a crazy dog, but I’m going to miss you anyway.

Ok, ok, I’ll miss Ken and Leslie, too. I’d like to thank you for your hospitality, but hospitality is such an opaque word, like a candy shell that conceals the real goodies inside. So let’s review, faithful readers, just a little of what’s been inside my host family’s hospitality this week. A partial list might include a comfortable bed with an alarm clock (that alarm clock was well-used this week); a quiet, even private space in their home for me to unwind after busy days of meeting new people; access to the internet and use of their computer so that I could write this blog every night; watching Westerns and predicting which character would be the next to die; cooking lessons and veterinarian lessons and livestock lessons; the opportunity to do chores (yes, I’m thankful for this) and get a little 4-H crash course; great frou-frou coffee (now I have to find a place for Irish Crème Mochas at home!); lots of extra warm clothes to wear when the temperature dropped to colder than I was prepared for; three (three!) new shirts to bring home, including an especially awesome one from the National Western Stock Show; and of course making me incredible gourmet meals that I could brag about to the other students and a different variety of cookies to share with everyone for the long drives through the panhandle. Yeah, that’s just one host family in just one week. Everyone keeps asking me if I’m going to move out here now. If this is the hospitality of Nebraskans, I can’t wait to return.

After saying goodbye to our host families, our group of 6 students, 1 professor, and 1 trusty guide piled into the big van for the 67th time this week and headed out to Immanuel Lutheran Church (Weyerts) in Lodgepole to worship with the congregation there. It was wonderful to worship with the people of Weyerts, and we thank them for their hospitality, too. After worship we joined the Weyerts congregation for their annual meeting and potluck dinner, and enjoyed delicious homemade casseroles and dessert and, yes, coffee for the last time in Nebraska.

From there we pointed the Immersionmobile toward Denver and Denver International Airport, where Jim hoped to catch the Patriots game, Adam hoped to catch the Packers game, and all of us hope to catch a plane home.

In the next few days, we’ll regroup as a class to present projects for the course and talk about what we’ve learned and how we’ve changed. We’ll even welcome Kent to Chicago, though we’ll take away his 15-passenger van, thereby stripping him of his power to drive us 100 miles a day. Don’t worry, Kent – we’ll show you how us city dwellers have an even slower pace of life than you do.

I’ll continue to post reflections that come out of our discussions until the end of this week. Please continue to comment; it helps me think about things. More than that, it’s helped me keep writing these little reports night after late night. Thanks so much.

This experience has been more than I could have ever dreamed possible. I’ve learned a lot about the Nebraska panhandle and rural ministry. But here’s the kicker: These last ten days, I’ve felt reconnected to God and the people of God in new and extraordinary ways. That is a gift for which I am deeply grateful.

Thanks, Nebraska.


Day Nine

Every morning this week I’ve tried to get up early enough to do chores with Dr. Cook, and every morning I’ve failed, usually because I stayed up too late blogging. (Just so we’re clear, by “sleeping in,” I mean that I got out of bed at 6:45 AM.) On this particular morning, however, Adam was sleeping over in the next room, and he had said over and over the night before that he was determined to wake up for morning chores. Sure enough, he was knocking on my door by 6:15 and out with Dr. Cook by 6:30. Kent Miller doesn’t call him Ricochet Rabbit for nothing.

Since Ricochet Rabbit clearly has problems getting enough energy, Leslie decided he needed some caffeine. She took us out to the Coffee Corner, where she treated us to an almond latte and an Irish crème mocha. Starbucks has got nothing on the Coffee Corner, and there was certainly a heck of a lot more seating than in our tiny local Starbucks. (A friendly suggestion for Nebraska’s next state tourism tagline: “Nebraska: There’s a lot more seating.”)

Our first stop for the day was at another local family farm, where we were to have coffee and conversation with a group of local laypeople. It was a productive and insightful conversation, but a highlight was getting a tour of the farm from two kids who knew the terrain as well as anyone. They even introduced us to the chickens!

Again, since we’d only had giant coffee drinks and delicious baked goods all morning, it was definitely time for lunch, I mean dinner. Kent took us to Big V’s, a local hangout where we enjoyed the best steak sandwich ever (seriously, if you are ever in Dalton, Nebraska, you have got to try this thing) and also a certain red beverage that is apparently particular to Nebraska. I almost don’t want to post this picture because I’m afraid my mouth will start watering again.

On our way back to Sidney, Kent finally granted Adam’s weeklong wish: To get stuck at a railroad crossing waiting for a train to pass. Seriously. Adam totally geeked out, and then we kept going…until we had to stop and grant Jim’s weeklong wish: To get a photo of winter wheat. What a trip.

In Sidney we settled down at Holy Trinity for the last time to have conversation about ministry with Pastor Schambach. What I should really post here are the pages and pages of notes that I’ve taken during Pastor Schambach’s talks. It’s difficult to put into words what I’ve learned from him these few days, and I can see how he’s been a great colleague and mentor to so many of the pastors we’ve spoken to this week. May God continue to bless your ministry. I hope LSTC sends an intern out to you very soon.

Finally, finally, finally it was time for our concluding celebration with all of our host families. We enjoyed appetizers and a delicious meal of prime rib and awesome potluck goodies at the Goose Pit inside Buffalo Point Restaurant. Wow. Nebraska’s an incredible place for a lot of things, but it’s especially an incredible place to eat, with old friends and new friends alike. The crowning dish for our food-filled trip? A delicious cowpie!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you to our host families. And thanks to all the people of the Nebraska panhandle who have shown us unimaginable hospitality, who have opened their hearts and homes and histories to us, who have met, supported, taught, encouraged, laughed and prayed with us these last ten days.

Tomorrow is Day Ten. We’ll head out to Weyerts Immanuel Lutheran Church, where we’ll worship with the congregation, join them for an annual meeting, and then we’ll be off.


Friday, January 18, 2008

Day Eight

Day Eight, and we’re still lost in Nebraska. As you can see from the above picture, today our immersion kicked into a new gear when they dropped us off in the middle of a random snowy field and drove away. If we could find our way back into town on our own, we would finally be ready for rural ministry. They didn’t put this part in the course description…

Our first stop today was a federated ELCA/United Methodist church in Potter, Nebraska, where we enjoyed orange juice and lemon-poppy seed muffins. Rev. Terry Tomlinson, an ordained Methodist minister with over 30 years of experience, is the pastor there, and he shared with us some of the challenges, joys, and lessons of his work pastoring a dual-denominational church in small town. Our conversation with Pastor Tomlinson was one of our most helpful yet, as he emphasized the importance of having colleagues and the crucial importance of loving your people. One of the many, many ways he does this is by coaching a local high school basketball team, which some of us found ridiculously cool. (New dream: Become pastor in small town, coach local freshman basketball team, meet my brother’s freshman basketball team in tournament finals, beat my brother’s team in double overtime thriller. Any thoughts, Greg?)

From Potter we came back in the direction of Sidney to the Mathewson family farm, where they’re preparing for calving season next month. We toured part of the farm, then stopped back at their home, where Annette has been staying all week, to enjoy hot chocolate and cookies and even a few rounds of pool.

Since we’d only had breakfast and two coffee/cookie breaks, it was time for dinner. Dinner was an event in itself, as we headed back out to Potter to eat at the famous Potter Sundry restaurant.

Naturally, we ran into more of Kent’s extended family, an occurrence that has become something of a running theme of our trip. We ordered turkey dinners for under five bucks, and then enjoyed a famous Tin Roof Sundae, a gooey, nutty, chocolaty, ice creamy mess of deliciousness.

Next we headed out to open country, where we left the highways and byways and even the gravel roads in a determined archaeological quest that would make Indiana Jones proud. This was the true reason behind our tromping through vast snow-covered fields, and it was well worth it. Kent took us to the ruins of St. Peter’s Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church, established in 1903 by hardy Danish immigrants. It was amazing to find something like this in the middle of a field; the place seemed to breathe with history. And of course, it was fun just to romp around in the deep snowdrifts.

From there we headed to the Julius Nielson homestead, established in 1886, not quite as ruinously crumbly as the church but a historical find nevertheless.

Kent shared with us why this site was so important to him. “I wanted you to see,” he said, “that the first thing these people did was build a home for their family. The second thing they did was build a church. And now it’s our job to keep it going.” Roots run deep here; learning to understand that has been one of the true gifts of this trip. The people of the Nebraska panhandle have opened their hearts and homes and histories to us, and all that hits home on a day like today.

Before going home we stopped at one more church, First English Lutheran Church in Kimball. Pastor Wayne Hunzeker and especially his wife shared openly with us their experience of rural ministry and of living in a rural community. Every one of the pastors we have visited with on this trip has been different; each has shown us a different slice of rural ministry, a different angle, a different approach. These conversations have helped unfold for us the rich diversity, the exciting possibilities, and the concrete realities of rural ministry in the Nebraska panhandle. It’s been extremely helpful.

On our way back to Sidney, Adam and I were dropped off at the Cook homestead for the night. My host family, you see, was in Denver for the day attending the annual National Western Stock Show. Adam and I were to do the evening chores on our own. (Read that last sentence one more time. You can pick your jaw up off the floor now.) When we arrived, the cattle were hungry, and they let us know with all the lowing they could muster, so we quickly bundled up and headed out, checklist and pitchforks in hand. We fed the steer, then the cows, then the heifers, filled the massive tanks with water, fed the cats and rabbits and dogs, and finally mustered up the courage to shoulder our way into the henhouse and collect a few eggs amid lots of squawks and feathers.

When we were done we had earned our dinner of gourmet leftovers, including, yes, crème brûlée (finally fixed that spelling, Leslie) that we fired the top of ourselves. Anytime you use a pitchfork and a tiny flamethrower in the same 24 hours, you know you’ve had a good day. By this point Ken and Leslie had arrived at home, and Adam picked their brains about veterinary practices and clay shooting and the various varieties of cooking salt before we all finally turned in for the night.

Tomorrow we’ll only have a half-day of activities, and then close with an evening of social time with all of our host families together. It’ll be our last full day in the state of Nebraska. To paraphrase a Nebraskan: This may not be the end of the week, but you can see it from here.


Day Seven

When you wake up with Zoey scratching at your door, you know it’s going to be a good day. A cold day, to be sure, as low as –5 this morning, but I wore four layers with long underwear, wool socks, and a sweet hat from Nepal. One thing I’ve learned out here on the panhandle: Nature matters.

Today we jumped right into that theme from the get-go, stopping at a family farm where creation is in full view.

This stop was kind of special for me: I have grandparents in northwestern Iowa (hi Papa and Grandma if you’re reading this); we often visited their friends who lived on farms, and this farm was so similar to those that it brought back memories from visits long ago. There are more cattle here instead of pigs, some of the equipment is different, but that feel of being inside a family farmhouse with really friendly people who have lots of stories to tell…that sense was just the same somehow. We enjoyed brownies and cookies and some delicious cinnamon coffee before being on our way.

From there we headed out to Ogallala, once called the “Gomorrah of the West” for its abundance of brothels and bars and lack of church steeples. Ogallala’s a bit more tame now, but the Ogallala Livestock Auction is still going strong.

We walked along the catwalk and watched the cattle being herded around by cowboys (real live cowboys! yes we’re urban nerds alright), then headed inside to experience the actual sales. Doors open on the right, cattle rush in and walk around in circles while the auctioneer does his thing, and then the doors open on the left and the cattle rush out…then it starts all over again.

At the auction Kent, our fearless Nebraskan leader, ran into his brother. Either Kent has them all planted for effect, or finding friends and family at every turn seems to be a common theme out here…either way, it’s pretty cool.

We grabbed some lunch (or dinner, I suppose) before making our way to Lake McConaughy. That’s right, there’s a lake in western Nebraska. I wouldn’t have believed it either! Look, I have pictures to prove it.

And here’s the ridiculously awesome thing about Lake McConaughy – they have bald eagles! Let me repeat that: They. Have. Bald. Eagles! In Nebraska!

We used the binoculars at the viewing station to enjoy some stunning views of our national bird sitting in trees and soaring through the sky, and even took digital pictures through the scoping lenses. (Stephen Colbert would be so proud of us right now.)

After our wildlife tour we drove along the Platte River, stopping to check out little country churches along the way, until we arrived at Berea Evangelical Lutheran Church, otherwise known as “the Swedish church.” (And right now my Swedish neighbors back home would be so proud of us.)

Berea is part of the Tri-County Parish, a four-point (I think) parish consisting of smaller outlying country churches like itself. For being a small parish out in the country, we were surprised to find new ELW hymnals filling the pews. We were not surprised to find fresh hot coffee, though the brownie with ice cream and chocolate syrup was pretty awesome even by the high hospitality standards we’ve already encountered out here. We had a good discussion, but had to hop in the car again because the night was far from over.

You see, this is the weekend of the Minuteman Activities Conference basketball tournament, hosted by the Creek Valley Storm. The Creek Valley Storm has pretty much one of the coolest mascot logos ever. It’s a cyclone or tornado with angry eyes. Their fans call themselves the Creek Valley “Storm Chasers.” That’s just too cool for words. Despite all of this it was hard for us to cheer for Creek Valley, because Kent had a niece playing for Leyton, Creek Valley’s opposing team in the girls bracket, and then I think a nephew playing for another team in the boys bracket…it’s hard to keep track. It’s a rural cliché that everybody’s connected, but how do you manage that when they’re all on opposing basketball teams? Now there’s a real rural ministry question. In any case, the Leyton Lady Warriors beat Creek Valley in a comeback overtime thriller. Back at LSTC Thursday night is basketball night, so Adam and I were thrilled to get our fix, at least from the stands, at the MAC tourney.

From there we headed back to Sidney, where we were to enjoy wine and cheese with Pastor Schambach and his wife Betty. Wine and cheese? Apparently they didn’t get the message, because they lavished us with all sorts of delicious goodies and assorted drinks, including a fantastic North Carolina-style barbecue. (Zach, you should be so jealous right now – this was really good stuff!) We enjoyed conversation and fellowship in their warm and beautiful home until it was time even for Kent, our Energizer bunny of a leader, to call it quits. Another day done.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Day Six

They keep telling us about the slower pace of life in the rural communities, and we keep having packed thirteen-hour days of dashing from place to place at lightning speed. It just seems a little ironic is all I’m saying.

The effects of our breakneck speed are beginning to show. The bloodshot eyes, the desperate search for coffee every time we enter a room, the mutinous looks. Our leaders have noticed, and today seemed to cut a third out of the itinerary, filling out the extra time by stuffing in two hours of group reflection. In short, we’ve done a lesser quantity of stuff today, so I have less of a blow-by-blow account to write, which is probably a good thing. On the other hand, the quality of what we did do was pretty important.

The first place we visited was the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Administration. That’s a mouthful, and probably conjures up images of dry bureaucratic cubicles. Such a notion couldn’t have been further from the truth. The people we met were warm and engaging and greeted us with orange juice and donuts. (In case you haven’t noticed, a really easy way to win over Lutherans is to provide them with orange juice and donuts, or coffee and seven-layer bars, or Adam’s personal favorite, orange-flavored drink with anything.) Then they used colorful graphs and vivid photographs to help us grasp the drought and water problems out here on the high plains. ‘It’s a little drier out here’ doesn’t quite cover it; western Nebraska and its neighbors have for several years been experiencing one of the worst droughts on record, though we rarely read about it in the Chicago Tribune. In the face of such challenges the folks out at Sidney’s branch of the NRCS do some incredible work in order to, in their words, “help people help the land.”

Besides the sheer information we received, many of the people we met at the NRCS and FSA were tied to the land themselves, and partly because of this they seemed to take their jobs personally. One of the people we met was a farmer when he wasn’t in the office; he actually held down three jobs in order to preserve his farming lifestyle. Another was the daughter of our Sidney tour guide (a farmer himself) who with the utmost professionalism (seriously) asked Dad to confirm this or that fact or experience during her talk; this was pretty much the coolest thing ever. Both spoke of their deep love for rural life.

And then after lunch today we had the following itinerary:

1. Physician’s Clinic.
2. Hospital and Emergency Room.
3. Cancer Care Center.
4. Funeral Home.

What a doozy.

On our first night in Sidney, the Nebraska Synod Rural Ministry Task Force asked us what we hoped to get out of this immersion course. In addition to some other hopes I said I hoped it might transform my learning at LSTC; I hoped it might affect the way I take classes, choose classes, and approach my learning generally. I hoped it might help me know a bit more about how to prepare for a first call out on the high plains – or anywhere, for that matter.

After today, I know I’m going to need more pastoral care classes. Partly this is because I took CPE at a homeless shelter and I don’t have the hospital experience many of my colleagues do. I don’t regret that; I needed the CPE experience that I had. But it does mean that I have more work and more learning and more practice to do to get as comfortable as some of my colleagues seem to be walking the halls of the hospital.

But even so, maybe all the classes and all the practice in the world won’t prepare me for the first times I’ll have to go to the places on today’s itinerary as a pastor. And maybe it’ll always make me a little nervous and scared inside. I don’t know. I guess what I’m trying to say is that today brought home something that’s been true of the Rural Ministry Immersion course at various points throughout the week. Perhaps inevitably, this week hasn’t been about rural ministry exclusively. In a relentlessly concrete way, it’s been about ministry in general.

And that’s been incredibly powerful, for me at least. There’s something very different about sitting in a pastoral care classroom talking about grief and loss versus standing in a tiny room in the basement of a funeral home with formaldehyde on the table and talking about where your role as a pastor is in helping a family decide whether to bury or cremate. Classroom preparation is essential, absolutely, I know, but the reality of being out here, all day, every day, is hitting me with the force of concrete.


Which is why it’s nice to come home a little early tonight, to put on a warm coat and go out into the cold night, stealing glances at the stars (stars!), as I learn how to do the daily chores of feeding heifers and steers and cats and chickens, to come into the house and smell a gourmet (not even exaggerating, read Day Three for more) meal already cooking, to have a dessert of crème broulet that I helped make (crème broulet? what?!?!), to watch the end of Comanche Moon and finally to collapse onto bed with a dog sleeping in the next room. Rural ministry: it drains you, and it fills you up again.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Day Five

So far I’ve received one comment on this blog (thanks Zach), and it was a request that I talk more about the food. Well, here it goes.

I woke up this morning to find that my host mom had just taken a homemade cream cheese-filled pastry out of the oven, hot and fresh. Of course, I’ve only made a dent in my quiche, so I had a hearty slice of that, too. And, of course, a cup of coffee.

When I arrived at church, I realized one cup of coffee was not going to cut it. I had stayed up late the night before watching Westerns with my host family, enjoying another slice of homemade apple pie, and then blogging till well past midnight. I was definitely going to need more caffeine. None was to be found, so I sufficed with the homemade cookies my host mom had sent with me. I shared them with the group, too, to which at least one person responded “Thanks be to God!” An appropriate response to cookies, I think.

Still needing my coffee, I checked our schedule for the day. I was in luck. We were going to visit at least three churches! As I expected, the first had coffee freshly brewed and waiting for us. Along with a platter of freshly cut oranges and apples.

As we enjoyed the plentiful second breakfast, Wayne Frass spoke with us about his role as a Parish Ministry Associate, or PMA. (As I understand it, PMA’s serve many (though not all) of the same roles as pastors do, and are often commissioned to serve in places where there is no pastor to serve.) Wayne gave, in his own quiet and unassuming way, a very moving talk in which he spoke openly of his own faith and vocational journey. Today he works part-time as a PMA even as he is still fully a farmer, a balancing act that was never more clear than when he explained that he’ll have to cut back a bit in the next several weeks because it’ll be calving season.

I was particularly struck by a metaphor Wayne used to describe his own fears before preaching for the first time. “I was afraid these people were expecting steak,” he said, “but were going to get a cheese sandwich instead.” But, of course, Wayne preached the gospel, and everything was fine.

From Gloria Dei we went out to Sullivan Hills, a camp that is a part of Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministries. When we arrived, they too had hot coffee waiting for us, along with some tasty little chocolate-topped bars. Besides refreshments, Sullivan Hills has wonderful facilities, well-furnished and well-equipped buildings with vast expanses of prairie fields for playing and hills for hiking and lots of space to take some time for spiritual retreat. We wandered the grounds for an hour or more, taking in the open air, walking across a frozen-over pond, and sitting a spell.

From Sullivan Hills we headed to a farm sale, or auction. We chatted up the farmers and checked out some of the equipment. Peter, our professor, almost bought a riding lawnmower, but decided the shipping costs would be too high. Jim and Annette discussed buying a tractor and getting into the business, or perhaps just trying some cow pies instead. All of us stopped for lunch here. The menu: Sloppy joes, baked beans, Mountain Dew in a can, and homemade cherry pie. D-licious.

From there we visited Weyerts Immanuel Lutheran Church and marveled at its records that dated back to the 1880s (it even had pages where the pre-printed date was "18__ ".). We listened to the soon-to-be-retiring Pastor Wells, who serves Immanuel as part of a four-point (!) parish, speak of his many years of ministry and his bold and surprising (for us) vision for the future of the church. He’d like to see a model of more lay leaders (e.g. PMA’s) serving outlying churches and highly skilled pastors serving “hub” churches; he thinks this is the most sustainable model for rural ministry in the coming decades.

After drinking some more coffee, we visited an elementary school and then a high school, and then stopped by Trinity Lutheran in Dalton to visit with Bud Gillespie, a CLP, or the Presbyterian version of the PMA. Bud works with Pastor wells in the four-point parish. Both Bud and Pastor Wells are Presbyterian, and their four-point parish is made up of three Lutheran churches and one Presbyterian church. Their examples make it clear just how innovative rural churches have to be in order to find ministers for their congregations.

From Trinity we had to rush back to Sidney to make a church council meeting, so we ate at a Taco Bell/Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way. My host mom would be appalled to hear of this culinary choice, but all was not lost: I was able to try Mountain Dew: Tropical Lime Storm edition for the first time. It has a very strange color. I’ll leave it at that.

Finally we arrived back at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Sidney for a church council meeting. Brown Church Development, who helped Holy Trinity build their fantastic new addition two years ago, was giving a presentation to the council to begin Phase 2 of Holy Trinity’s building project. What was most fascinating about Brown’s presentation was their process. They describe it with colorful charts and graphics, but in short, the church discerns what their ministry needs are, prioritizes them, puts them into a document for all the church to see, and then Brown helps the church come up with a building plan to match their ministry needs. Obviously there are many more details in there (seriously), but the critical thing is that the congregation puts its ministry goals first.

After Brown left, we talked with church council members about the last several years of growth at Holy Trinity. Council member after council member made it abundantly clear that Holy Trinity grew spiritually in ways their new architectural additions only hinted at. Spiritual growth, both personal and communal, was at the center of their growth as a church.

This is a long post, reflective of another long day (thirteen hours from leaving home to arriving home). I’m worn out. But I can’t help feeling like this was a critical day for me personally, spiritually, and vocationally. I struggled to put my finger on why, until Wayne’s steak and cheese sandwich metaphor floated to the surface of my thoughts. Today I saw the deep hunger of these churches for pastoral leadership and spiritual nourishment. I saw the joyful excitement on the parishioners’ faces as they asked us what brought us to seminary. I heard our leader’s voice crack as he told us how much it meant to him that we were here. And it scares the crap out me. I want to help, but every time I imagine myself doing it I think my God, these people need a steak, and I am nothing but a cheese sandwich.

And then I remember the conclusion of Wayne’s story of stage fright. He preached the gospel, and the fear went away. And that’s what I saw today, too: the reality of the power of the gospel. The reality of the presence and love and grace and attention of God, even out here on the dry and drought-plagued Western plains where joy has no business flourishing, even here, where there should be only isolation and loneliness, even here God’s Spirit kindles a fire in the hearts of God’s people; the fire of the gospel burns within their hearts, and they are not afraid. They build the kingdom in spite of it all.

And the kingdom is growing, dear reader, make no mistake, the kingdom is growing. So when the call goes out – WORKERS NEEDED – remember this: Jesus turned water into wine. Surely he can turn a cheese sandwich into a steak.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Day Four

I've left you some long posts the last few days, faithful reader. To make up for it I'll tell you about pictures only. (Ok, I've partly run out of time because when I got back I watched 3:10 to Yuma - another Western!) Glean what you can from these snapshots - they're only a taste of today's 13-hour whirlwind tour.


Day Three

Quick Zoey update: There's a crack on the windshield of Dr. Cook's pickup. Today I learned that Zoey made it while being a little, er, rambunctious in the car. Remember yesterday, when Zoey punched me in the face? I consider myself lucky...

In other, non-dog news, today we were able to worship with Holy Trinity Lutheran Church here in Sidney. They have two services, a Festival (traditional) service and a Celebration (contemporary) service. It was a joy to worship with the community. It was also fascinating to be in another parish and see how their worship practices compare and contrast.

On the one hand, the order of service is explicitly similar to the ELW rubrics that we use at LSTC - even more so than in the geographically-closer-to-churchwide parish I currently serve in Chicago. They even call the various sections "Gathering Together," "Hearing the Word," "Sharing the Meal," and "Sent Forth to Serve." The basic building blocks are quite clear and follow the simplifying trends toward which the ELW seems to be trying to point the ELCA (sorry for all the acronyms today).

On the other hand, it's odd that I should mention the ELW, because we used no hymnals, and really no handouts of any kind other than a very, very basic printed order of service. Nearly all of the participation elements of the service were projected onto a screen - and I was surprised at how much I liked the screen. Usually I find them kind of tacky, but Holy Trinity has integrated their screen into their worship space better than any I've seen so far (it's even located just underneath a hanging cross, for those who get hung up about that sort of thing).

So, in short: Rural parish. Up-to-date (for lack of a better word) worship that's in line with the trends of the church and is often more forward-looking and "cutting edge" than worship at seminary. That said, I've heard from more than one person that this sort of thing is rather atypical for a rural parish, and that Holy Trinity and Sidney churches in general are the exception rather than the norm for a number of unique reasons. Still, I'm glad to have seen what's possible in a rural parish out here on the Nebraska panhandle.

After church, the real fun began. The Cooks (my host family, whose last name will seem even more appropriate later on) hosted a 4-H meeting for a dozen or more boys and girls in their home. Their ranch is actually the home base of this 4-H group; some of the kids had clearly been out here many times and called out to the animals by name. Other kids were here for the first time; their families had moved from places as far as Phoenix, Arizona only recently, and they, like me, were learning thing about cattle-raising for the first time. (See the post for Day One on why so many folks are moving out here.) For example: Did you know the difference between a bull and a steer? I did not. At this point, you're either rolling your eyes at my ignorance, or you, too, are wondering just what I learned today. To find out, well...come out on the Rural Ministry Immersion trip.

One of the young gentlemen whose expertise was far superior to mind (and who explained to me quite clearly the difference between a bull and a steer) was very excited for 4-H this year because he had turned 9 last August and could now be in "real 4-H." Another boy piped up that this was his first time in any kind of 4-H, but that he had seen a branding before. After enjoying some brownies and Gatorade during the meeting, we all headed outside to do some chores. The older kids knew what to do right away, and did the first few feedings themselves. Then they stepped back a bit, and showed the younger kids what to do, making sure everyone got a chance to participate and learn. Some of the kids bypassed tools altogether and just grabbed big fistfulls of alfalfa to throw into the trough. All of them seemed to be having a blast, leaning over railings to see the cattle, yelling out answers to Dr. Cook's review questions, and, of course, tromping through the mud.

After everyone left I took a nap. When I woke up, dinner was ready. Have I mentioned that my host mom is a gourmet cook? Often people say they are gourmet cooks, but I mean this literally: She has studied at culinary school, works as head chef at the local steakhouse, and has a fantastic reputation that everyone at church has been telling me about since I got here. Today I learned the rumors were true: A mouth-watering Greek lemon chicken dish followed by homemade Julia Child-inspired apple pie. Have you seen Ratatouille? Remy couldn't cook like this. And there are rumors of a mushroom and sausage quiche already prepared for tomorrow morning.

We finished off the evening with a Western, "Comanche Moon," which seemed rather appropriate for being this far out west for the week. The Comanche Moon is high in the sky now, so I'm off to get a few hours sleep for the big drive tomorrow.