Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Stars Come Out

After the late departure from Chicago and a bumpy ride into Omaha, our spiritual treasure hunting expedition arrived to Nebraska delayed but undaunted. We were greeted by our host pastor, Mike Kern, as well as fellow synod pastors Ruth Boettcher and Gretchen Ritola, who treated us to an abbreviated lunch at the airport (the engine problem in Chicago cost us what surely would have been a splendid meal at the Spaghetti Works). Lorin then took the keys and subsequent command of the 2011 version of the Immersionmobile (a 12-passenger van), and we headed for the base of operations for Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries, an organization sponsored by the Nebraska synod that operates a food pantry and provides clothing/basic personal supplies in one of Omaha’s neediest areas. Pastor Damon Laaker (right, in background) and food pantry operator Lori Lindberg gave us a tour and explained the center’s operation, before we met the administrative assistant, Francine, whose deep faith and unfettered joy brought smiles of admiration and inspiration to all of us. In these people and their wonderful ministry, we had indeed discovered spiritual treasure worth savoring.

Francine's smile lit up our day!

Boarding the van, we followed Pastor Mike for the two and a half hour trip past seasonally-bare crop fields, farm machinery dealers, and several tiny towns, then along progressively less smooth and more remote country roads to reach Immanuel Zion Lutheran Church, which emerged as a beacon from the pitch darkness of the countryside. Warm light poured through the stained glass of the sanctuary into the cold, giving us a glimpse of the fullness of nourishment and hospitality that awaited us inside. The members of Pastor Mike’s main congregation had prepared a magnificent spread (below), which they had generously refrained from partaking of until we arrived, even considering our tardiness. We enjoyed great food and conversation with the dozens who had gathered to greet and feed us. Exhausted but satiated, we travelers then separated into pairs and were chauffeured by our host families to our places for the night.

Before retiring, I stood outside and looked up into the night sky for some time. I marveled at the unencumbered view, at the ring of the Milky Way visible to me for the first time in many years. The number of stars was breathtaking. It was indeed a multitude of the heavenly host, precious gems sparkling as brilliantly as had the faces of our “heavenly hosts” who welcomed us with such kindness and grace. Thanks be to God.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Camels? No. Willing and Expectant Spirits? You Bet.

In the gospel reading for Epiphany read in chapel yesterday, we heard the story of the magi who follow a Star westward to an unfamiliar land, bringing with them precious gifts for the Christ child.

We prepare to board our plane, and like the magi we also follow a star - our daystar, the sun - as it makes its trek westward toward a land that is unfamiliar to us. As our journey unfolds, where will we encounter the Christ child? In whom will we perceive the Light of Life? What gifts do we bring to honor him? May the Spirit grant us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hands to feel.

Three Wise People: Lorin, Becca, and Kaila “gaze expectantly” towards the Star before heading west... after an hour and a half delay.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Indiana Jones Would Be Envious

Whoever entitled this blog “Adventures in Rural Immersion” was a wise person indeed – for we are definitely in for an adventure.

My six traveling companions (including our intrepid and enthusiastic leader, Kadi Billman) and I have spent the past two days in class at LSTC getting a crash-course on the great state of Nebraska and rural ministry in general from Pastor Brenda Pfeifly of Salem Lutheran Church in Stromsburg, NE and farmer/rancher Kent Miller of Sidney, NE. These classes follow our reading of three assigned books about various aspects of rural ministry: Dynamics of Small Town Ministry (Lawrence Farris); Sustaining Heart in the Heartland: Exploring Rural Spirituality (Miriam Brown); and Rural Evangelism: Catching the Vision (Mark Ruffcorn). In the midst of heartfelt conversation throughout this second day, we gathered around the Lord’s Table for Epiphany Eucharist, after lunch shared a delicious dessert, celebrated dinner at Cedar's courtesy of the Nebraska Synod, and overall enjoyed the initial jelling of our resolute group of spiritual treasure seekers.

Kadi Billman, Patricia McClean, Pr. Brenda Pfeifly (front), Kaila Hochhalter, Lorin Kirksey, Becca Ajer, Kent Miller (front), & Alpha Sabbithi enjoying amazing dutch apple pie in honor of Patricia’s birthday tomorrow. Not pictured: Yours Truly.

For most of us in the group, this trip represents a journey into a culture and way of life that we have been exposed to only sporadically at most. Also, with almost 70% of the ELCA’s congregations being in rural/small town settings, there is a good possibility that all or most of us studying for ordained ministry will find ourselves in such a context for first call. That makes this present adventure also a glimpse into a possible future. For these reasons at least, I’m sure there are varying degrees of apprehension and anticipation present in all of us; at the same time however, as a group we are excited to witness the incarnation of that which we have been reading and learning about.

For me personally, this will be a new adventure in an additional way: I have never “blogged” before. An earlier blogger here was advised to, “keep the entries short” (not starting off so well there, am I?). With practice on my end and patience from our followers, I don’t expect my lack of blogging experience to have a negative effect on the trip. What may actually have a negative effect is my being a University of Tennessee football fan and still just slightly bitter about the results of the 1998 Orange Bowl (final score: Tennessee: 17, Nebraska: Waaay more than that). Being that Cornhusker football is the religion of Nebraska, I promise to bear this cross with grace!

Despite the comments some of us received from family members and friends over the Christmas break when we mentioned our plans for J-term – “Nebraska in January? Eeewww!” – we are all genuinely looking forward to this opportunity to learn more about Nebraska, its famously kind and generous residents, rural ministry, and yes, more about ourselves. Thank you for joining us. We are honored by your presence.

Now, where’s my Indiana Jones fedora? Shoot – back home in St. Louis. Sigh. Anyway…

Let the adventure begin!