Thursday, April 25, 2019

So long, Leisha; we will sure miss you!


On Tuesday, April 2, Leisha Woltjer, long-time Diocesan Administrator, announced her resignation from the Diocese, effective April 30. Her last day will be April 26. With her resignation on the heels of Bishop Michael’s, which becomes effective on May 1, it is truly the end of an era in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota.

Leisha began working for the Episcopal Church in April, 2002, when she was hired as the secretary of Gethsemane Cathedral. I was, at the time, preparing for my ordination to the transitional diaconate at Gethsemane and was in the office the day Leisha started. I still remember when I came in that day and saw a fresh-faced young woman at the front desk who had never worked in a church environment before. Later, she would describe her time as secretary as a true baptism by fire. In that time, she truly saw both the best and the worst of the Church.

Over the years, Leisha and I worked closely with each other, both at Gethsemane Cathedral and later in the Diocese office. While at the Cathedral, we saw Deans and transitional Deans come and go. We worked on funerals and weddings together. Many jokes were shared and much laughter filled the office, oftentimes with a Dutch version of the pop song “Barbie Girl” blaring from the computer. I remember clearly how she would put intentional mistakes in bulletins for me when I was proofreading them just to make sure I wasn’t just skimming them. Oftentimes we had very bizarre experiences happen: at one point, we both became victims of a seriously deranged stalker who hung around the cathedral; my car was keyed multiple times and Leisha’s purse was stolen.

 In 2009, when Bonnie Bernardy resigned as Diocesan Business Manager, Leisha moved across the hall from Gethsemane Cathedral office to the Diocesan office, becoming the new Finance Manager, after having attained a degree in accounting while working at Gethsemane.  At that same time, I became Bishop Michael’s Executive Assistant. Over the next three years, Leisha and I worked side by side in the Diocese, oftentimes under as equally unusual circumstances as we had at the Cathedral . One memory in particular stands out when, during the April 2009 flood in Fargo-Moorhead, Leisha and I were manning the Diocesan Office at a time when only “essential workers” were allowed on the streets. As sirens wailed and the city took on the feel of a ghost town, we fielded calls and wondered if she would be able to make it back home to Sabin safely.   

After my resignation as the Bishop’s Executive Assistant in 2012, Leisha assumed most of the responsibilities I had, including editing The Sheaf which I had edited for 10 years.

For many of us, Leisha has been the voice and face of the Diocese and with her departure, it will seem strange not see her or hear her voice on the phone.   I will miss seeing her at the table handing out packets at Diocesan Convention. I will especially miss the care and devotion she had to many of us.

I know that I speak for many of us in the Diocese when I say that Leisha has been a feisty, strong-willed but truly incredible and genuinely caring person in her position in the diocese. She was just the person for the job at just the right time. Her dedication and attention to detail will be deeply missed.  

Leisha, we all wish you the very best in your future endeavors. And know that you go from here with all our blessings, gratitude and best wishes surrounding you and remaining with you. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter


April 21, 2019


+ It’s really not much of a secret.

I LOVE Easter.

This, to me, is what it’s all about.

If anybody asks me, so what do you love most about being a Christian, I always say, Easter.

What isn’t there to love?

This is what it’s all about.

That holy moment—that moment when everything changed—when God raised Jesus from the tomb was the essential moment.  

The Jesus who appears to us on this Easter morning is not a ghost.

He is not a figment of our imagination.

He is not an illusion.

And this story isn’t a fairy tale.

Every so often, someone will come up to me and ask that age-old question: “Do you really believe in the Resurrection? Do really you believe that God raised Jesus from the grave?”

And my answer is always this: “Why not?”

Why couldn’t God do this?

And if we look long and hard at what happened on that Easter morning, we realize that what happened there was more than just some vague experience for some ancient people.

What happened happened to us as well.

Everything since that point has been broken open for us.

Our old fear of death and dying—that’s all gone.

Because now we know that what we once held to be a mystery, is no longer a mystery.

What happens to us when we die?

We know now, because Jesus has been there already.

Jesus has gone there and by going there has defeated death.

What seemed to be the end—the bleak and horrible end on Good Friday afternoon—has been broken apart.

And what we are faced with is life.

Life that never ends.

Now, when people ask me if I believe in the Resurrection, I say that I do, but I usually leave it there.

Anything beyond my belief that it happened—and that it will happen for us—is beyond me.

I don’t understand it fully.

I still find bits and pieces of it being revealed to me.

I find on bad days or skeptical days that I’m, not certain I believe in it.


But what I have discovered is that, mostly, I find one deep, strong emotion coming forth in me when I ponder the Resurrection.

And that emotion is: joy.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find joy.

Joy comes to Mary Magdalene and the other Marys when they realizes that the tomb is empty and that it is Jesus, resurrected, standing before them.

We can almost feel that joy emanating from her as they rush to tell the other disciples about seeing him.  

Joy is an emotion we seem to overlook.

We think, maybe of joy as some kind of warm, fuzzy feeling.

But joy is more than just feeling warm and fuzzy.

Joy is a confident emotion.

It is an emotion we can’t manufacture.

We can’t make joy happen within us.

Joy comes to us and comes upon us and bubbles up within us.

Joy happens when everything comes together and we know that all is good.

This morning we are feeling joy over the Resurrection—over the fact that today we celebrate the destruction of everlasting death.

See why I like Easter so much.

Easter, however, is what it’s all about to be a Christian.

What I talk about when I talk about Easter is that fact that today is truly the embodiment of the joy we should all feel as Christians.

Today is a day of joy. 

Today, we are all filled with joy at the resurrection and the fact that the resurrection will happen to us too.

This is a joy that sustains us and lifts us up when we need lifting up.

It is a joy that causes us to see what others cannot see.

The Resurrection reminds us that God dwells with us.

God dwells within us.

And to see God, all we have to do is look around and see God in the faces of those around us.

See, Easter is about the Resurrection of Jesus, but it’s also about us as well.

That Resurrection is our Resurrection too.

What happened to Jesus will happen to us as well.

Why?

Because God loves us.

God loves us just for who and what we are.

God loves us, just as God loved Jesus.

And just as God raised Jesus up on that first Easter day, God will raise us up as well.

No matter who we are.

All us, fully loved and fully accepted by our God, will be raised up, just as Jesus is raised today.

By doing so, we no longer have to fear things like death.

By raising Jesus up, God destroyed our fears of an uncertain future.

By raising Jesus up, God brought victory to all of our defeats and failures.

See, there is a reason for joy on this Easter morning.

In fact, it is joy that dwells with us and among us as we gather here.

Joy.

So, on this Easter morning, let this joy we feel at this moment not be a fleeting emotion.

Rather, let it live in us and grow in us.

Let it provoke us and motivate us.

Let it flow forth from us.

And when you live into this joy—when you let this joy fully consume you—every day with be Easter day to you.

Every day will be a day of resurrection.

Every day will be a day of renewed life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed!

Alleluia!





Saturday, April 20, 2019

Easter Vigil


April 20, 2019


+ I don’t know about you, but…

I LOVE Easter!

Some people like Christmas.

For them, that’s the real magical time.

But for me, it’s all about Easter.

This is what it is all about.

There is nothing, in my opinion,  like gathering together here on this glorious morning, in all of this Easter glory.

I just love Easter!

I love everything about it.

The light.

The joy we are feeling this morning.

That sense of renewal, after a long, hard winter.

An Easter eve like this reminds me that there is more to this world than we thought.

There is a glory that we sometimes catch a glimpse of.

There is an eternity and it is good.

There’s an old saying, “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die, it starts now.”

I love that.

Resurrection is a kind reality that we, as Christians, are called to live into.

And it’s not just something we believe happens after we die.

We are called to live into that Resurrection NOW.

Jesus calls us to live into that joy and that beautiful life NOW.

The alleluias we sing this evening are not for some beautiful moment after we have breathed our last.

Those alleluias are for now, as well as for later.

Those alleluias, those joyful sounds we make, this Light we celebrate, is a Light that shines now—in this moment.

We are alive in Christ now.

We have already died with Christ when we were baptized.

And in those waters, we were raised with him, just as he is raised today and always. Easter and our whole lives as Christians is all about this fact.

Our lives should be joyful because of this fact—this reality—that Jesus died and is risen and by doing so has destroyed our deaths. This is what it means to be a Christian.

Easter is about this radical new life.

It is about living in another dimension that, to our rational minds, makes no sense.

Even, sometimes, with us, it doesn’t make sense.

It almost seems too good to be true.

And that’s all right to have that kind of doubt.

It doesn’t make sense that we celebrating an event that seems so wonderful that it couldn’t possibly be true.

It doesn’t make sense that this event that seems so super-human can bring such joy in our lives.

Tonight we are commemorating the fact that Jesus, who was tortured, was murdered, was buried in a tomb and is now…alive.

Fully and completely alive.

Alive in a real body.

Alive in a body that only a day before was lying, broken and dead, in a tomb.

And…as if that wasn’t enough, we are also celebrating the fact that we truly believe we too are experiencing this too.

Experiencing this—in the present tense.

Yes, we too will one day die.

But, THAT doesn’t matter.

What matters is that that death is already defeated.

We are already living, by our very lives, by our baptisms and our faith in Jesus, into the eternal, unending, glorious life that Jesus lives in this moment.

Our bodies MAY be broken.

Our bodies WILL die.

But we will live because Jesus lives.

What we are celebrating this evening is reality.

What we are celebrating tonight is that this resurrected life which we are witnessing in Jesus is really the only reality.

And death is really only an illusion.

We aren’t deceiving ourselves.

We’re not a na├»ve people who think everything is just peachy keen and wonderful.

We know what darkness is.

We know what death is.

We know what suffering and pain are.

For those of us who have losses in our lives, we know the depths of pain and despair we can all go to in our lives.

It is this Light of Christ, that has come to us, this glorious night, much as the Sun breaks into the darkness.

What Easter reminds us, again and again, is that darkness is not eternal.

It will not ultimately win out.

Light will always win.

This Light will always succeed.

This Light will be eternal.

I am honest when I say that part of me wishes I could always live in this Easter Light.

I wish I could always feel this joy that I feel this morning.

But the fact is, this Light will lose its luster faster than I even want to admit.

This joy will fade too.

But I do believe that whatever heaven is—and none of us knows for certain what it will be like—I have no doubt that it is very similar this the joy we feel this morning.

I believe with all that is in me that it is very much like the experience of this Light that we are celebrating this morning—an unending Easter.

And if that is what Heaven is, then it is a joy that will not die, and it is a Light that will not fade and grow dim.

And if that’s all I know of heaven, then that is enough for me.

The fact is, Easter doesn’t end when the sun sets tomorrow night.

Easter is what we carry within us as Christians ALL the time. Easter is living out the Resurrection by our very presence.

We are, each of us, carrying within us the Light of Christ we celebrate this evening and always.

All the time.

It is here, in our very souls, in our very bodies, in our very selves.

With that Light burning within us, being reflected in what we do and say, in the love we show to God and to each other, what more can we say on this glorious, glorious morning?

What more can we say when God’s glorious, all-loving, resurrected realty breaks through to us in glorious light and transforms us;

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!



Holy Saturday



April 20, 2019


+ We’ve all been here.

We’ve been here, in this belly of    hell.

We’ve been in this place in which there is nothing.

Bleakness.

No hope.

Or so it seems.

It’s not just a bad place to be.

It’s the worst place to be.

We have been in that place in which we seemed abandoned.

Deserted.

No one was coming for us, we believed.

No one even knew we were here, in these depths of hell.

Hell.

Holy Saturday is the time in which we commemorate not only the fact that Jesus is lying in the tomb—in which we perform a liturgy that feels acutely like the burial service.

We also commemorate a very long belief that on this day, Jesus, although seemingly at rest in the tomb, was actually at work, despite the fact that it seemed he was dead.

He was in the depth of hell.



This belief, of course, comes to us from a very basic reading of 1 Peter, and from the early Church Fathers.

Jesus descended into hell and preached to those there.  

The popular term for this is the Harrowing of Hell.

He went to hell and harrowed until it was empty.

As a follower of Jesus, I find the story of the Harrowing of Hell to be so compelling.

I find it compelling, because I’ve been there.

I’ve been to hell.

More than once.

As we all have.

I have known despair.

I have known that feeling that I thought I would actually die from bleakness.

Or wished I could die.

But didn’t.

Even death wasn’t, in that moment, the worst thing that could happen.

That place of despair was.

It’s the worst place to be.

Which is why this morning’s liturgy is so important to me.

In the depth of hell, even there, when we think there is no one coming for us—just when we’ve finally given up hope, Someone does.

Jesus comes to us, there.

He comes to us in the depths of our despair, of our personal darkness, of that sense of being undead, and what does he do?

He leads us out.

I know this is a very unpopular belief for many Christians.

Many Christians simply cannot believe it.

Hell is eternal, they believe

And it should be.

If you turn your back on God, then you should be in hell forever and ever, they believe.

If you do wrong in life, you should be punished for all eternity, they will argue.

I don’t think it’s any surprise to any of you to hear me say that I definitely don’t agree.

And my faith speaks loudly to me on this issue.

The God I serve, the God I love and believe in, is not a God who would act in such a way.

Now, I am not saying there isn’t a hell.

There is a hell.

As I said, I’ve been there.

But if there is some metaphysical hell in the so-called “afterlife,” I believe that, at some point, it will be completely empty.

And heaven will be absolutely full.

What I do know is that the hell I believe in does exist.

And many of us—most of us—have been there at least once.

Some of us have been there again and again.

Any of us who have suffered from depression, or have lost a loved one, or have doubted our faith, or have thought God is not a God of love—we have all known this hell. 

But none of them are eternal hells.

I do believe that even those hells will one day come to an end.

I do believe that Jesus comes to us, even there, in the depths of those personal hells.

I believe that one day, even those hells will be harrowed and emptied, once and for all.

Until that day happens, none of us should be too content.

None of us should rejoice too loudly.  

None of should exult in our own salvation, until salvation is granted to all.

If there is an eternal hell and punishment, my salvation is not going to be what I thought it was.  

And that is the real point of this day.

I love the fact that, no matter where I am, no matter where I put myself, no matter what depths and hells and darknesses I sink myself into, even there Jesus will find me. 

And I know that the Jesus I serve and follow will not rest until the last of his lost loved ones is found and brought back.

It’s not a popular belief in the Christian Church.

And that baffles me.

Why isn’t it more popular?

Why do we not proclaim a Savior who comes to us in our own hells and bring us out?

Why do we not proclaim a God of love who will bring an end, once and for all, to hell? 

We as Christians should be pondering these issues.

And we should be struggling with them.

And we should be seeking God’s knowledge on them.

On this very sad, very bleak Holy Saturday morning, I find a great joy in knowing that, as far as we seem to be in this moment from Easter glory, Easter glory is still happening, unseen by us, like a seed slowly blooming in the ground.

That Victory of God we celebrate this evening and tomorrow morning and throughout the season of Easter is more glorious than anything we can imagine.

And it is more powerful than anything we can even begin to comprehend.

In my own personal hells the greatest moment is when I can turn from my darkness toward the light and find consolation in the God who has come to me, even there, in my personal agony.

Even there, God in Jesus comes to me and frees me.

God has done it before.

And I have no doubt God will do it again.  

In the bleak waters of abandonment, God has sent the buoy, the lifesaver of Jesus to hold us up and bring us out of the waters.

That is what we are celebrating this Holy Saturday morning.

That is how we find our joy.

Our joy is close at hand, even though it seems gone from us.

Our joy is just within reach, even in this moment when it seems buried in the ground and lost.


Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Friday


April 19, 2019


+ The one word that has been with me these last few days has been a word most of us know well in our lives.

Brokenness. 

In many ways, that is what this day is all about.

Brokenness.

The Jesus we encounter today is slowly, deliberately being broken.

This moment we are experiencing right now is a moment of brokenness.

Brokenness, in the shadow of the cross, the nails, the thorns. 

Broken by the whips.  

Broken under the weight of the Cross.  

Broken by his friends, his loved ones.

Broken by the thugs and the soldiers and all those who turned away from him and betrayed him.

 In this dark moment, our own brokenness seems more profound, more real, as well.   We can feel this brokenness now in a way we never have before.  Our brokenness is shown back to us like the reflection in a dark mirror as we look upon that broken Body on the cross.

Like Jesus, we have all wondered at times in our lives if God, who once was such a source of joy and gladness to us, had turned away from us.  We have all known what the anguish of losing someone love feels like, whether we lost that person to death, or to a change of feelings, or simply due to desertion.  Some of us have known that fear that comes when we are faced with our mortality in the face of illness, and we think there will never be a time when we will never be well again. 

This dark place is a terrible place to be.

But as Bishop Charles Stevenson once wrote:

“To receive the light, we must accept the darkness. We must go into the tomb of all that haunts us, even the loss of faith itself, to discover a truth older than death.”

 Yes, we have known brokenness in our lives.  We have known those moments of loss and abandonment.  We have known those moments in which we have been betrayed.   We have known those moments when we have lost someone we have cared for so much, either through death or a broken relationship.   We have known those moments of darkness in which we cannot even imagine the light.

But, for as followers of Jesus, we know there is light.  Even today, we know it is there, just beyond our grasp.   We know that what seems like a bleak, black moment will be replaced by the blinding Light of the Resurrection.  

What seems like a moment of unrelenting despair will soon be replaced by an unleashing of unrestrained joy. This present despair will be turned completely around.  This present darkness will be vanquished.  This present pain will be replaced with a comfort that brings about peace.  This present brokenness will be healed fully and completely, leaving not even a scar.

In a short time (though it might not seem like it) our brokenness will be made whole.  And will know there is no real defeat, ultimately.   Ultimately there will be victory. Victory over everything we are feeling sadness over at this moment.  Victory over the pain, and brokenness, and loss, and death we are commemorating

This is what today is about.    This is what our journey in following Jesus brings to us.

All we need to do is go where the journey leads us.  All we need to do is follow Jesus, yes, even through this broken moment.

Because if we do, we will, like him, be raised by God out of this broken place. The God in whom we, like Jesus, trust, will reach out to us, even here, in this place, on this bleak day, and will raise us up.  

Following Jesus, means following him, even to this place. But, we, who have trusted in him, will soon realize this is, most definitely, not the end of the story. Not by any means.  We will, in a short time know, that,  in our following of him, we will know joy—even a joy that, for this moment, seems far off.