Monday, January 26, 2009

Thanks and Photos

Now that I am a full week removed from the rural immersion in Nebraska, I want to offer a few thanks for people who made it such a great experience for me. First I want to thank Gary and Betty for being such wonderful host parents. I want to thank Steven and Jerri for putting together a fantastic week. I want to thank Peter for leading the course and for the different perspective that he brought to this trip. I want to thank Shelisa, Mary, and Kelli for being adventurous enough to go on this trip with me. I want to thank the congregation of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd for being so welcoming. I want to thank everybody who met with us and shared their stories with us throughout our time in Hastings. Thank you Ruth for coming to Chicago and collecting the manure that helps make this program better and better. Thank you Dennis for coming to Chicago and helping us understand the farmer's perspective. Thank you Barb, Gretchen, and Rex for giving us rides to and from Hastings. THANK YOU!

I've put together some of the best pictures of this trip in an online album. Be sure to check it out!
Rural Immersion Album

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Leaving Town

It's Tuesday, and I've been out of Nebraska for 2 full days now. My time in Hastings seems distant and warm (weird right?), compared to the snow and cold of Chicago. I miss the community that we created during our time there. There was a common purpose and a real sense of camaraderie.

Before we left on Sunday, the five of us Chicagoans were invited to share our reflections on our time in Hastings during Pastor Steven's homily. None of us knew what the other was going to say, and yet somehow we managed to build off of one another and create a coherent and collaborative message while still maintaining the diversity of our individual perspectives. It was a beautiful experience. I really felt the spirit moving in worship on Sunday, and so must have the congregation. The worship lasted a full 45 minutes later than usual, and yet I did not hear one peep of complaint! Usually we Lutherans like to have things on a set schedule, so we know what to expect. So this was truly a rare and beautiful experience!

During my time at the pulpit, I mentioned that I considered myself to be a radical. I don't know if it was just my imagination, but I felt the congregation tense up when I said that. We are told that radicals are dangerous and they are to be feared. They are usually portrayed as being so sure of themselves and their cause that any criticism is ignored and any dissenting viewpoint is labeled ignorant and inferior. I am not this kind of radical. I am a radical Christian. I am a radical servant. Or at least I aspire to be.

I haven't read it yet, but it's next up on my list. I am told that Shane Claiborne may be a kindred spirit. Read his The Irresistible Revolution: Living As An Ordinary Radical and take a journey of self-exploration with me.
Jerri and Ruth come to Chicago tomorrow to help us reflect and evaluate our trip. I'll do one more post, dear readers, during their time here. So stay tuned for a few more days! Thanks for reading!


Saturday, January 17, 2009


Saturday can be summed up in two recipes. The first comes from Pr. Jeff Glau of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Glenvil. He's a new pastor at his first call and we got a chance to meet with him, his wife Jackie, and some fantastic lay leaders in his congregation this morning. He shared with us his recipe for mission.
(Brian Henricks, one of Immanuel Lutheran's prodigious lay leaders.)
Recipe for Mission
1. Devotions. Make it a practice to spend time every day with God. Spiritual self-care is vital to effective ministry.
2. Get out in the community. Build relationships with people so that they know your name and through you know the church's name.
3.  Know people's names. Especially know the names of people in your congregation.
4. Use a mission statement to direct ministry. The mission statement can be used to keep you accountable to Christ throughout your ministry and it helps keep the main thing the main thing.
5. Utilize effective ministry teams. You can't do everything, so help people identify their gifts and empower them to take part in ministry to youth, welcoming newcomers, reaching out to the unchurched, planning and leading worship, whatever.
6. Know the pastors in your area. These are your colleagues. Make sure you are all working together to serve Christ.
7. Find time to disengage. You can't work all the time. Make time to get away for a little so you don't burn out. It's hard to disengage, but you have to do it.
8. Have fun! Humor and laughter is a great way to build community and relieve stress.
9. Practice practical evangelism. Do small things for people that are truly helpful. Meet peoples' needs to get the Word out.
10. If God called you to it, God will see you through it. Trust in your calling.
We were able to see this recipe at work in the life two other congregations later in the afternoon. The first was Zion Lutheran Church in Sutton, NE where Pr. Judy Nuss was leading a vibrant and surprisingly young congregation. Then we went to The Way of Grace Fellowship to meet with Rev. Martha Nordt. The church was was housed in her basement! 
I had never been to a house church before, and it was exciting to see how free the congregation and pastor were to truly serve God in mission. Without all of the overhead of a separate church building, they are able to do more mission work than I would have ever thought possible for a congregation of 30 people. They serve meals to the poor, sponsor families in impoverished nations, help with a food pantry, promote and sell fair trade products, push for environmentally friendly practices, are involved in Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and many more initiatives. 
Martha spoke to us about the importance of standing up for what the Lord is calling us to do and maintaining grace under fire. Her personal story of being crucified (figuratively) by a congregation for the parish's own personal problems was extremely moving. Her story speaks about the reality of redemption and resurrection and the importance of following God's call no matter what the price.

For dinner tonight I cooked for Betty and Gary, to try to give back for all that they have given me this past week. 
I made Ham-Stuffed Apples and they were such a hit that I have gotten multiple requests for the recipe. So I figured I would just post it up here so everybody could have it. It's a pretty easy recipe and the final product turns out looking fancy and tasting delicious!

Ham-Stuffed Apples
(serves 6)
6 large red apples
8 oz cooked ham, cubed small
2 T. butter
1/3 c. raisins
1/3 c. pecans, chopped
3 T. brown sugar
1/2 c. apple juice (may need up to 1 cup)

1. Cut the tops off the apples and scoop out the centers, leaving a sturdy enough shell to hold the stuffing.
2. Preheat oven to 350.
3. Mix approximately 1 cup of the removed fruit with ham, butter, raisins, pecans, and brown sugar.
4. Spoon this mixture into the cored apples and place them in a baking dish.
5. Pour the juice over the apples and bake for 35-40 min., basting occasionally with the juice.

After a great dinner the three of us joined Lee Saathoff and Elaine for the Adams Central basketball game at Doniphan-Trumbull. Gary used to work for Adams Central, so we joined the visitors section and cheered our team on to a win! It was an exciting game, intense right up to the final buzzer. The gymnasium was packed too. It seemed like the entire community turned out to cheer on these kids!

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Town of Hastings

So far on this trip we have focused our experiences in the country outside the Hastings city limits. Today we went to town. It started off with a meeting with Dee Haussler, Jerri's husband and director of the Hastings Economic Development Corporation. He shared his story with us, including his weakness for nice automobiles. Then he took us on a tour of the Hastings industrial parks. Each warehouse or factory had its own story to be told, and Dee knew them all. "Such and such worked here; this company made me lose one of my good friends when I brought them here; this company moved to Mexico; this company lost $1 million on a spec building; I golf with the owner of this company." What Dee kept stressing throughout all his stories was the excellent work ethic of Nebraskans and how proud he was of how hard people worked around here. Being a Nebraskan myself, I agree with him on all accounts.

After Dee, we went over to the police station and got a chance to meet with police chief Thoren. He eloquently described his life as a cop as having "many hours of boredom, some moments of shear fear, and a lot of emotion." He really connected with us as pastors and pointed out that both pastors and the police have the opportunity to deal with humanity at its worst. For pastors, we are also given opportunities to deal with humanity at its best. That's not always the case with cops. Chief Thoren makes it a point that his officers become involved in the community in some beneficial way, so that they see good people as well as the bad. This also helps the public begin to view the police as someone other than their adversary, and everyone is better able to avoid slipping into the easy cynicism of a poor relationship.
The afternoon brought us into conversation with the director of Butler Volland Mortuary. He gave us wonderful advice on how funeral directors and pastors might best work together. As with many things, mutual respect seemed to be the key ingredient for a healthy relationship. I have to admit, funerals are one part of ministry which I haven't heavily dealt with yet. It was touching for me to see how he spoke of the unique difficulties of rural funerals and how often he had to bury someone he has been personally close with. 

In order for the afternoon to not end on a minor chord, we finished it off with a trip to Carla Kocher's lighthearted sanctuary "Beads and Botanicals". She had many surprises in store for us. The first was that she wanted the four of us seminarians to hold a brief worship service, blessing her newly refurbished storefront. It was exciting to have that opportunity to work with my colleagues to develop something of value. When we finished I could see that Carla was clearly touched, and so was I. 
Then she gave us the chance to make Lutheran rosaries which we could use for our personal spiritual practices. I love mine and already have put it to very good use.

After "Beads and Botanicals" we had some rare down time to meander around downtown Hastings and spend our Hastings Bucks. Predictably I used mine to purchase a cup of coffee. Mmmmm.... coffee.

For dinner we joined our host families and had quite a fancy meal at the Lochland Country Club. The chicken parmesan was delicious and it was great to be able to share that companionship with everyone who has been involved in making this past week a reality. Thank you everyone!
Of course, I had to also make sure to get another ridiculous picture of Kelli. I title this one, "You have got to be kidding me!"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Joy of Journey

If today had a theme, it would be journeying. In Greek the word for "journey" is poreuomai and it is used to describe either a long trip, a life changing trip, or a way of life. The word is used by God in Acts 22:10 when God tells Paul to journey along the road to Damascus, where he will receive more instruction for his new life as an evangelist. It's also an appropriate word to describe the stories we heard today at the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, aka "the Archway". In both cases the traveling takes the traveler from one way of life to an entirely new way of life, and often it is the journey itself which truly changes the person.

The Archway is a huge arch spanning over I-80 just outside of Kearney, NE. The sides are made to match up to the line of the horizon and the burnished plates on the side show either a rising or a setting sun, depending on your direction of travel. It's a monument to the hundreds of thousands of pioneers who journeyed west on the California, Mormon, and Oregon trails. Fort Kearney was the site of the convergence of all major trails West and is often seen as the place where the West begins. East of Kearney are fertile lands with plenty of rainfall to support crops. West of Kearney are dry plains suitable for little more than grazing (although with advanced irrigation techniques even this has changed). 

"Two-Gun Pete" greeted us as we entered the Archway. This grizzly old man was one of the highlights for my entire day. His smile was classic and always ready. Shelisa especially got a kick out of him. He passed out headphones and away we went, up into the Arch. For those of you who have never been to the Archway, it's a self-guided tour which tells the history of everyone and everything that passed by from the pioneers to present day fiber-optic cables. Hearing the tales of these past travelers made me want to go on an extended journey of my own. I already have a thirst for adventure, and this monument made me even thirstier.

Vethanayagamony made a statement after we had all gathered back together after going through the exhibits. "I definitely have a new respect for the Mormon people, seeing the hardships that they had to go through for their faith." It's true too, the Mormons did suffer a lot to make it all the way out to Utah. One of my favorite stories was about the 1200 Mormons who got snowed into the mountains by an early blizzard. Brigham Young noticed they were late and sent out a search party to find them and rescue them. The rescue party found the trapped travelers and rescued over 800 men, women, and children from what would have been certain death. 

We don't face death anymore in the same way that people used to. In this country, most of us have insulated ourselves from the elements and the world. Don't get me wrong, it's great to be healthy and secure. But I wonder if we are becoming too removed from our own humanity in the process? We aren't challenged in the same ways. If we don't risk anything, then there is no commitment. This lack of commitment has created a vast ocean of shallow beliefs. I believe that as Christians we are called to discomfort and risk. God is committed to us. God has risked something for us. This point is clear. Now what do we risk in return? What commitment can we make for the glory of God? 

The afternoon's agenda included four stops, which I'm going run through slapdash since I waxed prolific on the Archway. First was MONA (The Museum of Nebraska Art). There were a lot of nice pieces of art there, but the Spirit Boat sculpture was what grabbed me the most. It spoke to the journeyer in me and reminded me that the greatest adventure I will ever take won't occur until I leave this world.

Second was Rowe Sanctuary. It was a beautiful nature preserve along the Platte River where thousands and thousands of sandhill cranes congregate every year between Valentine's Day and Tax Day. They stop to fatten up on leftover corn before continuing their journey north, some going as far as Siberia. Carcass Kelli found a dead mouse in the parking lot and shared a tender moment with the dead animal before telling me stories about how she once turned Thanksgiving turkeys into meat puppets!

Third was the grave of pioneer woman Susan C Haile. This pioneer woman died of poisoning along the Mormon trail. Her husband went all the way back to Missouri to bring back a marble headstone in a handcart so that his beloved would have a lasting memorial. The people of the area have protected the grave and cared for it ever since.

Last was a visit with the parish nurse of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Shirley Winter. I finally figured out what a parish nurse does! Shirley promotes wellness within the congregation and works with the parishioners on preventative care. She also offers additional pastoral care for parishioners when they are experiencing illness. 

The night ended with a dinner out with my mother and grandmother, who drove over 2 hours just to have dinner with me! I feel truly blessed to have a family that loves me. Now it's getting late and I must get some sleep. Only a few more days of our immersion left! It's going so fast!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Today we immersed ourselves in the childhood world of Willa Cather. Betty Kort was our guide through historic Red Cloud, Nebraska. The small town was the prototype setting for many of Cather's prairie novels. This morning we visited some of the prominent Cather-related buildings in town and heard all sorts of stories, but my imagination wasn't captured until we headed out to the prairie after lunch.

Just on this short little jaunt out into the prairie, I've scared up five whitetail deer and two hawks. All of them rose up out of the grass within 20 feet of where I was walking. The effect was stunning, it was as if the earth birthed them and they leapt out into life through the air. I sat and watched the hawks float on the air currents for a while. It's been a long time since I've had the time and stillness to be able to observe birds in flight. It is so peaceful and uplifting.

Most everybody is probably back in the van by now. In fact, I think I might even hear the horn honking. I should go... One more deep breath. . . . Okay.

I ran through the grass, leaping and bounding like a deer. The cold air in my lungs hurt, but in a refreshing and vivifying sort of way. Stalks of red, gold, and brown bent and crunched under my boots. A small flock of birds, sparrows perhaps, rose up on my right into the cold blue sky. 

I followed the valley north down to the pond. It was frozen. Dark barren trees defiantly jutted up through the surface of the ice, challenging the prairie with their presence. I turned up the adjacent valley and sped back south towards the van. As soon as I got past the ice, I descended the western bank down to the skinny mud flat at the bottom of the valley. The mud was riddled with the footprints of whitetails and the wrinkles left by run-off water. 

Leaving my own trail of boot prints on the soft earth, I ambled up the eastern slope and tore across the open prairie. The van came into view as I crested the hillock, but I lost it soon thereafter when I dropped into one final steep valley. I climbed the opposite slope in five bounds, covering perhaps 20 vertical feet, and the van popped back into sight. I walked the rest of the way to catch my breath before I got back to the group, refreshed.

I have to admit that I am no Cather-phile. It's been a while since I have read any of her writings and many of the details and stories of her life inspired little of my interest. However, I did truly appreciate how our trip today and our discussion of Cather really romanticized the Great Plains. Today showed me that this fly-over state has produced stories of great beauty and gripping personalities. The challenge is to continue to see the romantic and the story-worthy amid the events of our own lives. Our perceptions, especially as we age, become trapped in the realistic and the mundane. It's not that our lives are void of stories. Rather it is that we are so often blind to the romance of our own lives. We fail to perceive our own importance in the world, and we think our stories to be boring and unoriginal. In doing so, we are robbing ourselves of the power of creation. I believe that within each person there is a great epic story. I just wish I could figure out what mine is.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


On Saturday at the Rural Ministry Conference one of the presenters proposed a metaphor. Christians are like manure. Pile them up and nothing good happens. Spread them around and other things start to grow. Tonight I want to propose a similar but different metaphor. Jesus is like cow manure. The gross, dirty, unwanted, and discarded is redeemed through Christ to be the harbinger of hope and life.

Coming from a broken family, I know that some things are more than the sum of their parts. I believe that something great can come from something horrible. I know that delicious organic fruits can be grown with feces. I know that God has wrought holiness, love, and life out of human suffering, hatred, and death in the person and life of Jesus. I know that through the Holy Spirit the same possibility has been given to us.

All this talk about crap comes from our having spent the afternoon at the Juniata Feed Yard. Joe Boyer hopped in our van and showed us around the expansive feed lot. We saw the feeding process, the pens, the lagoons, the veterinary services, the mountain of manure (which was affectionately termed "Nutrient Mountain", and even the organic corn fields which were fertilized with feed lot byproduct. 

I took a lot of great photos today. I thought I would share three of my favorites. 
First - my favorite sign of the entire trip:

Second - my new favorite pastime, taking ridiculous pictures of Kelli.

Third - Bob the dog, an instant hit!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Walt "The Vault"

This morning we picked up Walt "The Vault" Miller and got a drive-through tour of the Naval Ammunitions Depot just outside of Hastings. I was surprised to see something so large and historical out here in the middle of Nebraska. The facility manufactured shells and ammunitions for use in WWII and the Korean War. The factories were enormous and most of them had fallen into severe disrepair.

We stopped to briefly walk around inside a building which had been used to melt and pour TNT into torpedoes and depth charges. Further down the assembly line was the site of an explosion which disintegrated 8 people instantaneously on April 6th, 1944. The explosion was so powerful it blew out the windows in the nearby town of Glenville. The building we explored was full of broken walls, twisted metal, and shattered windows. When the facility was shut down, the marines didn't know what to do about all of the explosive residue which had gathered into the cracks and crevices of the building. So they soaked wooden pallets in kerosene, piled them up inside, and set the place ablaze. It was a wreck afterwards, but man alive - what a bonfire!

We were already running late, so after leaving the site we hurried over to meet with Scott Opbreck at the Meat Animal Research Center. This is a place, run by the government, that is doing world class research in order to make the best and most delicious steak in the world. The entire lab facility we were in smelled like a steakhouse. In back we ran across two women whose job as far as I could tell was to cook steaks to perfection and then analyze the tenderness of the meat. Get this - there is an actual gene in the DNA of a cow which can predict the meat's tenderness! Who knew?
We got in a van and drove around to see the different animals they were doing research on. We saw cows, sheep, and pigs. (Well, we didn't see pigs because the pigs were quarantined in huge windowless sheds so they wouldn't contract diseases.) They had about 27,000 head of cattle (which is apparently a ton) on their property. One cow got feisty and stared me down between the gates of her feeder.

The sheep reminded me of New Zealand, although they don't keep them in little pens there. I was impressed especially by the self-shearing sheep. What a great idea if you're only raising sheep for meat! However the shedding did make the sheep look extra scraggly and pretty hideous. New Zealand sheep are much cuter, especially the ones with the black faces!

After lunch we took in the sickly-sweet stench of the Chief Ethanol Plant. It smells kinda good at first, a little yeasty. But after a really good wiff of it you kind of want to throw up. Duane Kristensen gave us the rundown on the plant and let us smell some of the 200 proof ethanol they had produced. It was completely potable alcohol, quite strong, but drinkable. It smelled so good that I wished I had a mixer to make myself a stiff drink!

Stiff drinks were not allowed at our next stop - the Crossroads Homeless Shelter. That's where the news media met up with our group and I got tapped to be interviewed. Five minutes later and I was on my way to being a local TV star! My short appearance was a huge hit with the old ladies at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. Tonight I joined one of the women's circles while they met at my host's home and after I told them about the interview one of them called up her husband and told him to make sure and tape the news tonight! I felt quite loved.

Interesting story: Everyone forgot to tell Pastor Peeler where the women's group met! So he sat at the church all by his lonesome waiting for people to show up. Finally he called over to Betty to ask if they might have cancelled it. Poor Pastor Peeler! 
While he made his way over, that left me stuck in a room with about 10 old ladies. Betty is going to be mad at me when she reads this. She told me personally, "We have a wide range of ages in our circle." Now that may be, but as Gary pointed out, not one of those women was under 55 years old! It was a lot of fun though, and I got to practice my storytelling skills. The night ended with a warm slice of peach pie topped with vanilla ice cream. Mmmmmm...