Wednesday, November 30, 2022

“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?

Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?”

Habakkuk 1:2

I would love to say that I was blessed with the perfect childhood where I never experienced any pain or suffering.  Unfortunately, I cannot say that.  That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have some joyful memories and some times where I knew love and support unconditionally.  I did have some such times.  But my childhood was also filled with darkness and violence.

Most of my early memories of my mom were ones of a kind and gentle woman who worked hard to take care of her two kids.  I was the older one, and my sister, Becky, was born about two years and three months later.  But, by the time I had reached the end of my Jr. High School years, my mom started drinking alcohol, and that seemed to have a profound impact upon her personality.  When she started drinking, and later even without the drinking, she would see visions of things that were not there, she became violent without provocation, she afflicted physical and psychological abuse toward us, and she filled our lives with terror.  At first the outbursts were few, far between, and unpredictable.  Unfortunately, as time progressed, the outbursts grew to become many, frequent, and predictable. 

When we started to recognize the signs that something was not right, there was only one space in the house where we could be safe until the episode had worked its way out of her system.  My bedroom had a lock on the door.  So, my sister and I would run into the room, close the door, lock it, move a chair in front of the door, and remain in that space until it was safe to get out again.  Usually that meant waiting until she had fallen asleep.  If the episodes started at 4:00 p.m., that meant we spent hours locked in safety until she was asleep.  Then we could get out of the room, make something to eat and return to our separate rooms to sleep.  She rarely woke up after she had fallen asleep.  So, we were generally safe to move around the house once again.

Eventually things got so bad that my dad had to bring the police into our home to help him analyze what was happening.  Various visits with doctors followed.  I don’t know what her diagnosis was.  The adults from my childhood didn’t tell kids things like that.  But, as a result of whatever it was that they discovered, during the summer after my freshman year in High School, my mom spent about three months in an area hospital that was about 45 minutes away from our farm.  While she was in the hospital, she received electroshock therapy and was prescribed various mood-altering medications.  When she returned home, I did not recognize her – physically or emotionally.  She did not talk for several days; and the return to normal routines, whatever that meant, was slow. 

In Mom’s absence during that summer, I had learned to cook, clean, do laundry, and take care of my sister.  My dad worked in the oil rigs away from home and often had to spend at least a couple of days at a time away from home.  Family, friends, and neighbors checked in on the animals and on my sister and me when Dad was gone.  But, at 13 years old (for my sister) and 15 years old (for me), we were learning how to effectively and efficiently take care of ourselves.  We had little choice about it.  When Mom returned home, those skills that I had gained in her absence continued to come in handy as I learned to take care of her as well. 

Eventually the communication skills and life skills came back for her.  But things were never the same – in ways both good and bad.  The fear of experiencing the violent outbreaks once again was gone, at least for the remainder of my High School years.  When she was off of her medications at times in the years to follow, the violent acts and abusive behaviors did return.  But there was a reprieve for a few years, and that felt good.  What felt bad and continued to feel bad was the feeling that the woman that I knew as my mom when I was small had died – not a physical death, but a death nonetheless.  It was a strange thing to experience as a child.  It’s still a strange thing to experience as an adult.

I don’t know why God allows violence to persist in this world.  I know that I am not the only victim of such experiences in life.  And my experiences pale in comparison to those experienced by many others.  I wish it was not a reality, although I know for certain that it is. 

Even as I question why, I give thanks for the gift of a space in my childhood home where I could escape and be safe.  Even as I continue to question why violence remains so evident in this world, I give thanks for the promise of a new space in the future, a place in God’s Kingdom, where I will forever know the safety of being in God’s presence.  Because of the gift of the Christ child, because of the sacrifices of Jesus, and because of the resurrection of our Lord, I am promised a space in the future where I do not have to lock a door to feel safe, a space that is open so that I can forever see the glory of the divine, a space free from hurt and violence.  For that promise, I rejoice.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

“Who are you?  Let us have an answer for those who sent us.

What do you say about yourself?”

John 1:22

One of the things that was asked on the application to get into a seminary program was to list the date of your baptism.  I had no idea when that took place.  When I asked my parents to help me fill in this part of the form, they similarly had no idea when that took place.  My birthday was easy – March 28, 1964.  My home address was easy.  My phone number was easy.  Even the questions asking about my theological beliefs were easy.  But the baptism date was not so easy.  Not wanting to leave anything blank on the application, and being really curious myself as to the date of that Holy Sacrament, I went to the pastor at my home church to see if we could check the record books and find the date.  It turns out I was baptized on July 4, 1965.  I thought that was pretty cool.  It’s an easy day to remember.  It’s an important day in the life of American history (and, it turns out, my faith history).  And the best news of all was that I did not have to leave any lines on the application blank.

As exciting as it was to discover the date of my baptism, it also brought up lots of questions.  As I checked through the records book, I made a discovery that almost all of my confirmation classmates, who were baptized within the same general time period, were baptized within two or three months of their birth.  I was baptized when I was more than a year old.  All of my peers were baptized in the church sanctuary during a Sunday morning worship service.  I was baptized outside of the worship service setting and inside of the small chapel that was located in the Sunday School section of our church after worship on that Independence Day.  This discovery led to questions like this:  “Why was my baptismal celebration so different from all of my classmates?”

When I did press a little for answers to my questions, I discovered that it was best not to press too much.  People were not forthcoming.  And even in my early twenties I was smart enough to know when to seek greater clarity and when simply to let it go.  I suspect that there were lots of issues that led to the delay.  The fact that my dad was Lutheran and my mom was Southern Baptist may well have been a contributing factor.  Lutherans are fine with infant baptism.  Southern Baptists are not.  The fact that my mom was pregnant with me before she and my dad got married may have been a contributing factor as well.  The societal norms were different in the 1960s, and any baptism for such a child may have been encouraged to take place in a more private setting and time.  Again, these are guesses.  The family won’t talk about it.  And, for a while, this really bothered me.

But, over the years, I discovered something about my baptism besides the date and the location.  I discovered that the only thing that really matters is that, through the waters of my baptism, I am a child of God.  The age at which I was baptized doesn’t matter.  The location of the baptism doesn’t matter.  The number of people at the baptismal celebration (six, in my case – my mom, dad, two baptismal sponsors, the pastor, and me) doesn’t matter.  The date itself, so necessary for the form that it led to all kinds of interesting discoveries, doesn’t matter.  The amount of water that was poured over my head doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that water and word came together in the sacrament of Holy Baptism for me and, as a result, I am a child of God.  I have the promise that I am a member of God’s family.  I have been forgiven of my sins.  I have been given the promise of life that is everlasting.  I am loved by the one who died for me.  That’s what my baptism says about me.  And, as a result, that is what I say about myself.  The unknowns don’t matter.  What is known is what matters.  And what is known is a beautiful truth.

As a pastor, I have had the privilege of baptizing a lot of people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, making use of water and word.  Sometimes that has taken place around the baptismal font in a church sanctuary.  Sometimes that has taken place in a small chapel.  Sometimes that has taken place in a lake, a YMCA swimming pool, or a small outdoor stream.  Sometimes hundreds of people have gathered to participate in the celebration.  Sometimes only a select few have had the privilege of being part of the festivities.  Through all of those experiences I have been reminded over and over again that none of those details regarding location, age, and number of guests at the celebration matter.  What matters is what the sacrament of Holy Baptism means for me (and all of the baptized) – that I am a child of God, part of the most important family of all, and I have all the promises that Christ offers through that sacrament.  That makes me (and all of us) truly special.

Monday, November 28, 2022

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,

‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’”

Isaiah 6:8a

The first time that I remember stepping into my home church, St. Peter Lutheran Church in Hallettsville, Texas, I was about three and a half years old.  At my home church, in the fall of the year after you turned three, you were allowed to attend Sunday School for the first time.  Sunday School came after worship at about 10:15 a.m.  The worship service started at 9:00 a.m.  So, on that Rally Sunday in September of 1967, I sat in the pew on the third row from the front on the right-hand side of the church to the left of my Grandma Spies who sat in the place closest to the side aisle.  That became my worship spot for the next fifteen years.  I never missed a Sunday of worship or Sunday School from that first Sunday in 1967 until I graduated from high school and worked away from home for the first time in my life during the summer of 1982.  By then I was 18.  And, when I say I never missed a Sunday of worship or Sunday school at St. Peter Lutheran over an almost 15-year time span, I mean I NEVER missed a Sunday – not due to illness, not due to vacation (my parents did not know the meaning of that word), not due to oversleeping, not due to anything.  I never missed a Sunday.  Neither did Grandma Spies.

I don’t recall the exact date (please forgive me since I was only three and a half at the time), but I have vivid memories of a Sunday that fall – after I had been in worship and Sunday School for at least a couple of weeks – when I leaned over to my Grandma Spies, while we were waiting for the Holy Communion part of the service to finish, and said to her quietly, “When I grow up, I am going to be like that man.”  I was referring to the pastor. 

When we later told people about this unsolicited pronouncement on my part, people thought I was kidding or too young to understand what I was saying.  They were wrong.  I knew from that moment that God was calling me to service in the church in this way.  I may not have understood all that would be required of me.  I may not have always felt prepared or ready for what service to the church in an ordained ministry role would mean for me as the years progressed.  But I knew this is what I was called to do and that I was going to do whatever was necessary to fulfill that call.

My home church was the first place where I started to understand the meaning and importance of sacred space.  Sacred space was where I felt welcomed, where I felt comfortable, where I felt safe, where I felt God’s presence, and where I could hear the voice of God offering words of forgiveness, words of healing, words of comfort, and words of commission – calling and empowering me for service.  And my home church was the first place where I started to understand the meaning and importance of having people in that space who helped to listen, to support, and even to question the call to service.  To this day, I give thanks to God for that space and for the people in that space.

Isaiah heard this divine question:  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  When Isaiah heard this question, he responded, “Here am I; send me!”  I have always felt a kinship with Isaiah.  Maybe we were born at different times, lived in different spaces, and experienced different situations.  But I, too, heard the call from God to serve.  And I, too, replied to that call:  “Here am I; send me!”  Isaiah may have had his moments, as we learn later in the prophetic work, where he questioned the wisdom of that response.  To be honest, I have had a few such moments myself over the years.  However, one of the last words of prophecy that the Lord revealed to Isaiah was this:

As a mother comforts her child,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.                                                                                                                                                          Isaiah 66:13

Ultimately, Isaiah was comforted by God throughout his call, and Isaiah was called to share a word of comfort to others.  I, too, have been comforted by God throughout my call, and I hope that I have been faithful in the call to share that word of comfort to others. 

St. Peter Lutheran Church was an amazing and sacred space, and not just when I was three and half years old.  I felt the divine presence in that space for years to come.  It was there, in that sanctuary, that I received my First Communion.  It was there that I was confirmed in the faith.  It was there that I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament twenty-three years after that first pronouncement to my Grandma Spies.  And, by the way, she was there for each and every one of those celebrations, sitting in the pew on the third row from the front on the right-hand side of the church in the place closest to the side aisle.  

Sunday, November 27, 2022

“Elijah then came near to all the people, and said,

‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions?’”

I Kings 18:21

Making decisions can be an easy, straightforward, and simple process for me.  It can be.  And sometimes it is.  But many other times it is not.  This is particularly true when I am given more than one choice that makes sense.  And it seems to be especially challenging for me to make a decision when the choices get narrowed down to two good options.  I think that is part of the reason why I hated multiple choice questions on exams when I was in school.  I usually had no problem eliminating two of the four options.  The problem came when it was down to two options.  I almost always picked the wrong one.

Maybe that is why, when given the choice of two relatively good options that both have their pros and their cons, I sometimes get stuck – even frozen – with a complete inability to make a decision.  When this happens, it is not as though I make no choice (although that can certainly happen).  I usually end up making the choice to take more time to gather additional information and delay a decision until such a time when it is revealed to me which decision is clearly the right one.  

This very project that you are reading now is one example of how I can take way too long to respond to an idea that comes into my brain for consideration.  More than a year before I started writing these devotions, the idea came to me to do what you see before you.  This idea was formed in the place where many such ideas are formed – in my car during my drive to and from work.  I spend about 40 minutes on the road each day, and the time that I spend on the road is generally some of my most creative and innovative time.  Those are often the quietest moments of the day where I can be with my thoughts in a more focused manner.  Flashes of ideas may come to me on a drive.  Most of those flashes are gone from my brain almost as quickly as they appear.  They appear for a moment, and then they are gone forever.  But once in a while, as with the idea for this devotion, the ideas come, come back, and keep coming back until I finally do something with them.

Jonah had the big fish for his space to consider God’s call to share the divine word with the people of Nineveh.  When Jonah didn’t listen to God’s call initially, God provided an opportunity for him to be swallowed up by the big fish and to spend three days contemplating his choices.  Moses had the burning bush where he heard the voice of God and spent some time debating the wisdom of God’s choice with the divine.  In each of these cases, and in all such cases in scripture, ultimately God wins, and the servant of God obeys and fulfills the call.  And God is always there to provide strength and guidance as needed.

Although my times of wrestling between two (or among more) choices can and does happen in all kinds of places and at all kinds of times, more often than not it seems that the place of such fights and struggles tends to be in the quiet of my car.  The year, make, and model have changed over the decades.  It was once a Chevy S-10.  That was during my seminary days.  The Ford Explorer became the location for contemplation for most of my early ministry.  The Saturn SL, the least favorite of the models that I owned, got me through the late nineties and the early 2000s.  For the last thirteen or so years, the Toyota RAV4 has served as the place where visions could be received and debated. 

The cars have changed over the decades.  What hasn’t changed is the need for a space to contemplate the options, wrestle with the choices, and, ultimately, to make a decision to heed the call of God and do what I am being asked to do.  In addition, what hasn’t changed is my thanksgiving for the time, the space, and presence of God through the struggle.  Someday, perhaps, I will learn how to make the decision-making process go more quickly and respond to God and to people more swiftly.  But, for now, I rejoice in the time and space God has given me to vision, reflect, wrestle, consider, and be strengthened for the journey – however long it takes.

Introduction to My 2022 Advent Devotional Booklet

I Wonder So I Wander

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “I Wonder as I Wander.” The tune and lyrics are both credited as being from an Appalachian carol. It was included in our With One Voice hymnal from the 1990s. When the newer Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal was published, this hymn did not make the final cut. There are various reasons why this kind of thing happens. Sometimes the cost of getting publication rights is too expensive. The national church tries to keep costs down for congregations. Therefore, the editors work within a certain budget to make the final cost of the hymnal reasonable. As a result, choices have to be made to cut favorite hymns from the collection. Sometimes the hymn doesn’t fit a certain theological perspective. It may be a nice hymn, but it may not communicate the gospel in a manner consistent with a certain theological perspective. So, the hymn gets rejected. Sometimes the hymn is just not very popular or is too difficult for the average person to sing.

I don’t know why “I Wonder as I Wander” was excluded. It could be any of the reasons listed above. It could be for another reason altogether. My guess is that part of the reason might be that the tune has kind of a minor tone to it. It sounds sort of melancholy in a season filled with rejoicing and celebration. So, for many people, there may be a disconnect between the hymn and the season of Christmas. It could be because of the way that the hymnwriter abbreviates the word “ordinary” as “ord’n’ry.” Who knows? But I still like the hymn. It makes me think. And that is usually a good thing.

The lyrics to the first and last verses of the hymn are identical. They are:

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,

how Jesus the Savior did come for to die

for poor ord’n’ry people like you and like I.

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

I find that to be a beautiful message – and a thought provoking one. In the journey of the songwriter’s life, there is a realization that the journey itself leads to questions. And the questions are not easy ones. Why did Jesus come to earth for me? Why did Jesus die for me? Why does Jesus care about people like me?

I have experienced similar things in my life. As I have had the privilege of living in different parts of our country and traveling to see other parts of our country and of our world, I have found that the journey has led me to ask questions – tough questions where answers are not always clear. So, the order of a journey leading to questions (I wonder as I wander) is something that resonates with me. Maybe that’s part of the reason I like the hymn so much.

I have found another reality to be true as well. Sometimes I find that I have questions so I journey. Sometimes, in the past, when I have had questions – big questions, tough questions, persistent questions – I would journey to places that helped to provide answers for me or, at least, give me a break from all of the questions. There was solace in having a break from a mind filled with questions. These spaces that I found myself drawn to in the past have helped me in my own journey to find answers to the tough questions of faith and life. The answers haven’t always been clear. The answers haven’t always been complete. Sometimes the answers have seemed nonexistent. However, whatever the discovery may have been, these places, these sacred spaces, have provided relief in times of weariness.

For this Advent, I have felt called to share with you part of my own journey with the tough questions of faith and life, and to share with you some of the spaces that have provided me with comfort and clarity – not absolute comfort and not absolute clarity, but comfort and clarity nonetheless. If you are looking for answers to all of the tough questions, I need to give you a warning. You may be disappointed. But, even if I can’t help you find all of the answers to your questions, I hope that you can find connections to your own sacred spaces as you learn more about mine. I would love to hear from you regarding spaces that have helped you in your own journey in this life. Perhaps, together, we can learn from each other’s journey and find comfort and clarity through those conversations.

Each reflection in this devotion starts with a question – a question that I have asked in my own life and that others have also asked. These questions come from scripture. Some are from the Old Testament. Some are from the New Testament. Many of the questions find their way into both parts of scripture. For each question, I then share with you a space that I have found to be holy – a sacred space, a space that is set apart from the rest of the world, a space that has been a source of comfort in the midst of the question. Some of these spaces are places that can be located on a map. Most of them I have visited regularly in my life. But some of the spaces are less about geography and more about theology – places where I have found God even when the space itself may change.

Thank you for being a part of this adventure with me. I pray that this resource will be a blessing for you in this Advent season as we prepare for the gift of the Christ child. As we continue to wrestle with the questions of life and faith, may we find comfort, ultimately, in the one place where answers are found – in the word of our loving, forgiving, and living Lord who loves us, forgives us, and gives us the gift of life that is everlasting.

Pastor Lester Spies