Late in the day of a recent October Sunday, Molly persuaded me to accompany her on her walk along the creek. It was late afternoon, and the sun was shining through the trees along the river bank. It was a perfect afternoon.
As we approached the renewed children's park beside the path, I noticed a man sitting on a bench facing the small playground. I noted how warm the sun was for him. He was just soaking it in. Beside him, in a wheelchair, reclined his wife of many years, now suffering a debilitating disease that left her quiet and motionless at his side. He was holding her hand.
We sat down beside them. We had been friends for many years. Now, the circumstances of their life were greatly changed.
At one point in our conversation, he declared, "I have no problems. We had 50 years together, raising our children. I have everything: wonderful memories, and time together every day."
There was no note of self-pity, or sense of wrong about how dramatically their life had changed. His whole bearing was so positive, so faithful.
In my heart I often grieve over these sudden changes in the lives of couples coming into old age in our retirement setting. If I complain, Molly stops me short. "Remember, we are here to learn from these people - about life. About how to face it, and live it out."
She is right. We were witness to "the peace that passes all understanding" in the life of this couple experiencing their "golden years" in a way they never had expected when they started out on their long journey of marriage together.
The man talked cheerily of their long life and present days. No remorse. Just acceptance. Utter faith in the Lord they love. And a commitment to each next step before them, no matter how difficult it might be, or how sad.
We left chastened and deeply moved. It was so vivid in our minds. These two, sitting quietly in the sun, loving each other. Living faith. Acting out the deep peace God had given them.
I thought I knew the answer. But, its not so simple. It is a lot about Jesus and His love. It is about following faithfully - indeed heroically, the Lord of Love. And clinging to Him, and to each other.
What a witness they make. How humbling to us all. To be so deeply taught by the remarkable lives of these Christian friends.
Colonial Church has taken October to celebrate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. We've remembered Martin Luther, and the "priesthood of we believers."
It's been a month of discerning as a church the ways God may be calling us to be re-formed. Guest preachers have come to give us background and fresh insights on the Reformation, and some of the ways "church" needs to be "re-formed" today.
Our preacher today was a tall, willowy African-American woman University volleyball player, mother of two young children, and pastor of a "church plant" call Lighthouse Covenant Church in north Minneapolis. She's a protege' of Professor Kyle Roberts, former professor at Bethel Seminary and new Dean at United Theological Seminary, and a member of Colonial Church.
Dee McIntosh moved gracefully on the platform, speaking from Peter's Second Letter, in short, almost stacatto sentences on the crisis in the church today. The crisis is that statistically 59% of young people growing up in the church are leaving, and won't come back.
The reason, she says, is the church itself: Us. Who don't make the young feel welcome. Who don't offer a good reason why they should come back. She repeats, "That's the crisis."
One thing that needs to happen, she says, is for churches to become "confessing" churches. Churches willing to say "sorry" for their self-centeredness. Sorry for being more interested in themselves, and the old way, instead of reaching out to the visitors and welcoming them with love.
I thought of the 400 high school kids who came eagerly each Sunday night during the 1980's to be together with each other and the leaders who loved them.
I thought of the young woman who is an Assistant Attorney General in a western state, who writes each year to say, "I am trying every day to live by the faith that I was taught in my growing up years at Colonial."
Nor is she alone. And yet, the times have changed. We are a self-centered society, that has turned inward, and grown cynical about church, and things of faith.
As I grow older, I find myself longing for the beloved community. I find I need to be among the believers. I pray that for all people, young and old.
After church today we went to the after-session in the Hearth Room. Kyle Roberts was presenting our winsome guest preacher for a question and answer time. My Molly went straight to the front row. I resisted.
Then suddenly, as questions were invited, her hand went up and she spoke out of the deep pain she feels over slavery in America, and the wounds it still inflicts on our society. She was speaking to Kyle and to the young guest minister, earnestly and in tears. I knew what she was saying. She would not let a minute pass without herself saying "Sorry" for slavery, and going to her knees before the two young leaders.
With great grace the young woman minister touched her and, I believe, forgave her.
In a sense she was forgiving us all. For this little, white-haired senior woman had repented before the stranger, and incidentally shown that Colonial Church is itself a "confessing" church.
They did not know that this woman, at the call of God, had done this all over the Genocide countries of Africa. "Why have you brought me here?" she had asked God. "To ask forgiveness for what you and your people of the West did to divide these people from each other," He answered.
She has been faithful to that, all the years since. And her daring has marked the whole ministry of the Pilgrim Center for Reconciliation, as we have seen that to open the door to forgiveness and healing, we ourselves must come to the deep work, by ministering on our knees.
It was moving for us all, an act itself, of re-formation.
I missed a funeral the other day. I could have gone. I had the time. The service was near enough. But I had misunderstood where and when the service was to be.
We probably don't think much of funerals being important occasions, not to be missed. We are likelier to think they are the families' particular business, and not such high priority for us.
But this woman who died was my friend. As a young person she had been part of our church. She had felt a call to the ministry in her early middle age. We had worked with her and encouraged her in her studies and progress toward Ordination. She had even served on our staff. She meant something to us. Her life was important. I had visited her in hospice before she died.
But, I wasn't there when those who cared, gathered in love to send her on her way home to heaven. That is the time when people need each other. When it means something to see the faces of people dear to you. When it helps to know people care about the dear one in your life who's gone. When those who care come close and speak a word of love.
We make a difference to each other . We need to honor that when we can. We count in the lives of others. And they do to ours.
Something to remember in this divided world.
I wondered what awaited us as Dr. Jim and his Annette picked us up Saturday morning, and packed us into their ample van for our drive north. The road was familiar, harkening back for me, to 45 journeys north to paddle the Boundary Waters, or veer off to Walker on our annual early December Saturday for lunch in the back room of Jimmie's Restaurant, with dear George Ross, my Ojibwe ministerial brother, and his friends.
I knew the territory but I wondered about the mission. We were headed for Kettle River where I'd never been. It was the place of our new president's first little church. He wanted to try one of his new four-hour half-day retreats--a "heart of reconciliation retreat." How would it work? What would happen?
It was a land of hardscrabble soil fit for some kinds of farming, bordered by forests of "popple" trees, birch, and scrub pine. And then, tall and straight white pine stands of windrows to protect small houses and clinging farmsteads.
And there, at the junction of a state highway crossed by a gravel road was the picturesque, plain and simple, meeting house of the Westside Church. Jim observed that a tall steeple would have looked nice, but "never mind."
Several trucks and a few cars were already parked in the wide space that was the parking lot. Just outside the doorway two or three people waited, casually and curiously, to meet us. "Come on inside," they said. Our day was to begin with lunch. Soon we were at it, with home-made stew and ham and cheese sandwiches, trying, between bites, to make awkward, if not inane conversation.
Mercifully, we moved to the worship space, where a circle of 30 chairs waited, and we soon were under way.
Looking around, there were many heavy-set, ruddy souls who must be workers in the woods, or farmers. There were men who worked outside, and women who kept gardens and canned.
Our introductions were briefer than usual. There was an air of uncertainty. But clearly, they were determined to be there. They had taken a chance, and come. As we sang and prayed, one sensed these folks were waiting for the Lord.
We explained that, in our experience, Jesus always comes. And quietly, mysteriously, He does His work.
My talk was to paint the picture of Jesus on the beach, meeting the young fishermen, James and John, Simon and Andrew, for the first time, and finally interrupting their net-making with His simple, and eternal offer: "Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men!" And to remind our gathered group that "immediately, they left their nets and followed Him."
So sudden. So dramatic. The journey of a lifetime, beginning in faith. Out across Galilee and Judea, this wounded world, they went, following the stranger who spoke the truth on mountainsides, who raised little girls from death in rabbis' houses, who felt the touch of a woman sick with a blood disease for years. "If only I can touch his robe..."
Those young men saw miracles, over and over, and heard stories, and listened to eternal words, "I have a new commandment for you: Love each other." So simple. So sweet. So true. Until at last they were asking among themselves, "Who is this?" And Jesus, overhearing, said suddenly, "Who do people say that I am?" The stammering. The rumors reported. And finally Simon's blurted answer, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."
And, within minutes, there by the trail in Caesarea-Phillipi, was the call to the cross. "Anyone who wants to be mine, must take up his cross and follow me." Sacrifice waited. Death would come. And then, new life. Stunning.
Three years, till they reached the deepest place, the ultimate meaning of faith and following.
Our little retreat was at a new level. A reflective time followed. Then Mama Molly and her passionate word on repentance and forgiveness, the two keys to reconciliation. She told of Africa's horrors and miraculous answers and America's unfinished business to say sorry for slavery, and mean it.
We were at real issues. Our brother Jim drew it all together, laid out the table of Communion, and said, "Come for prayer, if you will, for your life, your need, your pain, your sin. Let Jesus know your heart."
And they did, one by one, with tears, to be anointed, and touched, and changed. Their pastor came before them, going to her knees.
It was all very real. And we saw the heart of these people -- tender, hurt, yet sweet, longing. Way up there, in Kettle River.
It wasn't Africa. They'd not seen genocide. Their families had not been killed by neighbors. But there were wounds. Sweet souls, facing the hurtful things of life, and bringing them to Jesus.
We knew He had come again. Dinner followed. Then, merciful rest. And next morning, church. Two hours of it. Singing. Praising God together. Offerings. Announcements. Molly's and my brief story of how the Pilgrim Center came to be, the call to Rwanda. The work of these 23 years - and the need of a divided world today. And Jim's persuasive preaching of God's call to stand. To not be defeated. To not give up. To stand in the power of the Spirit. Then more prayers for those who wanted to come for it. And the blessing. And then it was over.
Good-byes in the hallway. A family dinner at the Pastor's home. And soon the highway home, under blue October skies, and a golden sun that touched changing leaves, and made them iridescent with color.
We sped along, through Minnesota's autumnal beauty, talking of the retreat, the time we'd had, the wonder of it, and the future of this mysterious ministry that has come to mean so much to us all.
An outdoor, fireside Hymn Sing awaited Molly and me, and then bed, and a week of gatherings - especially the Fall Gala.
The Pilgrim Center is alive. It will go on. Another generation already leads us. What a gift. What hope it holds. May it bless all who dare to a part.
The clouds were low this morning as I traveled Highway 100 south to the day's appointments. By afternoon the sky grew ominous. The rains came. By mid-evening a thunderstorm was rolling directly overhead. Lightning flashed. At home the television went off.
The news being broadcast, was of a country music concert outdoors, in Las Vegas. Thousands were gathered. 'Till suddenly, from above, death rained down. Hundreds and hundreds of bullets, raked the innocent audience. Bullets of hate, many of them by rapid fire from a military machine gun, came down, seemingly, from the sky. People ran in all directions, trying to escape.
A 64-year-old man from a retirement community, was staked out on the 32nd floor of the nearby Mandalay Bay Hotel, was firing on people he didn't know, intending to kill as many as he could. At least 59 of them were dead; 500 or more were wounded. While people ran, many others stopped to help the wounded - to carry them out, to get them to the nearest trauma hospital.
When police entered his hotel room they discovered the shooter dead by his own hand. The man's brother, interviewed in Orlando, Florida, was stunned. "He was a wealthy man," he said, "who went on cruises, and sent cookies to his mother. He loved to gamble. He had no affiliation to movements, or religion, or governments."
The 17 or more guns in his room and the thousands of rounds of ammunition told their own story - of a man filled with enough hatred that he wanted to kill as many as he could of his fellow human beings. Somehow he imagined them to be his enemies - perhaps citizens of a society he had come to hate.
But surely, hatred itself is the form that evil has taken to overwhelm and possess that man's life, and bring destruction to as many lives around him as he could.
Strange things have happened to us as a country, and a human community. We have given up on God. We have made ourselves God, turning to our own ways, our own pleasures. We want morality loose, and easy. We distort sexuality. Our sins are writ large before in the book of Books that brings us the Words of God. His truth, His love, His way of living is abundantly clear to us. But we do not want to hear it. We don't want to be told "this is the Way, walk in it." We know the story, the life, of the Man Who said, "I am the Way, yes, and the Truth and the Life."
We need Jesus, friends. America needs Jesus. He is God's living word to us. He is the bearer of love. He is the offerer of Hope. He is our Help -- "Our God, our Help in ages past, our Hope for years to come."
Jesus the Word will change society. He alone can change our hearts. Changing laws, even banning guns, will not change us. Jesus will.
Let's dare to see that, and say that, and have that.
Arthur A Rouner, Jr -
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ARTHUR ROUNER MINISTRIES