Wednesday, October 26, 2011

losing my temper

I don't know what it was. It wasn't that I was having a particularly bad or stressful day. At least I don't remember it that way. So I'm not sure why I responded to this situation in the way that I did. But I'm choosing to not ask myself why I did it, instead I'm choosing to ask what I learned from it.

We were getting a new roof, and the roofers had been on top of our house all day banging away. One of our core members has a room on the top floor, so it must have sounded like they were coming through his ceiling. Being somewhat of an introvert, he likes to spend time in his room and then come downstairs when he feels like being around people. But the banging and the pounding were disrupting his safe haven. Because of this, he had been spending more time downstairs with us than normal. I think this was somewhat stressful and disconcerting for his introverted self.

He's not always the best at expressing his frustrations or his desires. This can sometimes come out in noncompliance, and often times he outright ignores the requests or questions that he doesn't want to answer. If he's exceptionally frustrated or upset, it can come out in vocal outbursts, or "whooping."

We were coming back to our house one evening, after the roofers had left for the day, and this core member had his van window rolled down and was already exhibiting signs that he was frustrated or out of sorts. In fact, he'd been exhibiting these signs most of the day.

As we pulled up to the house I asked him if he would roll up his window. But instead, he exited the van without rolling up his window or even shutting his door, and he walked across the front lawn and onto the porch. For some reason, this happened to push me over the edge, and I blew up.

I jumped out of the van and slammed my door. From across the front lawn, I spoke loudly (ok, I probably shouted) and said, "Why do you have to be so stubborn? All I asked was for you to roll up your window and shut your damn door! But you couldn't even do that?!?!" Now I was frustrated and upset, and I stormed across the front lawn. I noticed that the roofers had left our garage door open and so I chose to enter the house that way so I wouldn't even have to walk by this core member.

After coming inside, he quickly retreated to the now quietness of his room. I fumed and flapped around the main floor, administering medication to the other core members and grumbling all the way. After I had passed out all of the medication, I flopped down in a chair and just sat there. By now I was realizing that I had probably handled the situation wrong, that I shouldn't have blown up or yelled, that neither of those things had made the situation any better.

But then, a second core member walked up to me. Now, I have my share of frustrations with this particular core member. If you asked me to pick a core member I would butt heads with, it would be this second core member before the first one almost every time.. But today this second core member came up to me and said, "Mark? Are you mad at us?" and I said, "No, I'm not mad at anybody I'm just frustrated."

He stood there silently for a moment and then said, "Doesn't [the first core member] have trouble telling us when he's upset or angry?" and I said, "Yes..." and then he said, "And doesn't he show that he's upset through his actions because he can't put them in words?" and I said, "Yes..."

I wasn't sure what to feel right at that moment. This second core member, who I often get upset with for being self-centered was showing such insight and kindness for his fellow core member. And he was lifting up things that I already knew but in my anger and frustration I had chosen to forget. He was helping me to see that instead of seeing beyond the actions of the first core member I had chosen instead to focus simply on his actions and saw them as something he was doing purposefully to upset me.

And maybe he was, I guess I'll never know because I know he'll never tell me. But regardless of his motives,  I could have handled the situation with more grace and more compassion and more patience. And this was pointed out to me by someone with whom I don't always have the most patience.

I decided I needed to apologize for losing my temper. So when the first core member came downstairs to get something out of the kitchen, I approached him and told him that I was sorry, that my reaction to him not shutting the door was inappropriate and that I hoped he could forgive me. He said that it was ok, and then walked back up to his room.

A little later that evening, I was giving the second core member a haircut when core member #1 came back downstairs. He walked into the room where we were and said, "You're doing a good job, Mark. You should be a barber." Then he walked into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of hot tea and sat down at our dining room table. This was odd for him, to choose to be around us at that time in the evening. But after his comment, and as he sat there drinking his tea, I realized what he was doing. He was telling me, in his own way, that he had forgiven me for losing my temper. Things between were reconciled and he showed that by sharing a compliment and spending time with us.

A lot of times, we see those among us with developmental disabilities as people that need our help, or maybe even our sympathy. We see them as people that can't do things for themselves or that are somehow less than "normal" because of their disabilities.  But what I am learning is that they have a lot to teach us. If we listen, and pay attention, they can teach us about things like patience and forgiveness and love... you know, the important things.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

loaf lessons

Since embarking on this latest and greatest adventure, one thing I've had to become more accomplished at is cooking. Now, in former days, that would often mean taking something out of a box and popping it into the microwave. Or, at best, boiling some water and dumping in some pasta. At worst (and more often than I'd like to admit) it meant responding to the question, "Would you like to super size that?"

But since I now share a home with people who have dietary issues like diabetes and high cholesterol it has meant that I've had to work on my food preparation methods. For the most part, I'd like to think that I've risen to the challenge. I'v often surprised myself with my ability to make things in the oven and have them actually taste good.

One thing I've become quite accomplished at is meatloaf. Now, I know what you're saying. It's meatloaf, not rocket science. And, truthfully, in the scheme of things, meatloaf is not a very tough dish to tackle. It's taking ground beef (or turkey) and mixing it with some eggs and spices and whatnot, forming it into a loaf, popping it into the oven, setting the timer and then going to check your facebook account. But I'd like to think that my meatloaf is pretty good. In fact, the guys in my house mention my meatloaf and tell me that it's good. And not even on days when we're eating it!

As I've progressed in my meatloafing abilities, I've started to be a little more adventurous and add my own little flair. I've also tried to find ways to hide vegetables in it, for those among us who aren't big vegetable eaters. So last night I had a pan full of onions and mushrooms and some diced carrots and green peppers, and I was going to saute them before I mixed them into the ground beef.

Now, yesterday was a busy day. We had taken a trip to the zoo, so we were out most of the afternoon, and I had talked to one of our other houses about bringing my guys over for a cookout. But that didn't work out, and it was already close to supper time when I figured out it wasn't going to work out, so I was in a bit of a rush to get supper on the table before the guys thought they might starve to death.

It was in the midst of this rush that I took the hamburger and tossed it into the pan and browned it with all of the various vegetables. It was only after I had completely browned all of the beef that I looked down at the pan and wondered what in God's name I had just done. Now that this beef was browned its loafing abilities had been seriously compromised.

I suppose I could have figured out something else to do with all of this now-browned beef. But I was determined to make a meatloaf. So I tossed it all in a bowl with some bread crumbs, added some eggs (a couple extra than normal) and put in some ketchup and a wee bit of barbecue sauce hoping that all of this would help bind the beef into the appropriate loaf consistency.

A positive side effect of the browning of the beef, however, was that the cooking time for the meatloaf was seriously shortened. I kept checking its progress and removed it from the oven when it looked like it was ready. I carefully sliced into the loaf, and then took a spatula and gingerly lifted out a slice from the end. When I tried to deposit it onto a plate, it crumbled into about four pieces. And that was the slice that fared the best, I'm afraid.

I'm not sure if the correct name for what I created would be a meatloaf. I guess if you looked at it pre-slicing and serving it could have passed for one. But once it had been put on a plate it fell apart and lost all resemblance to any sort of loaf. It wouldn't have won any awards for presentation. It wouldn't have been featured in any food magazine. If I had been on a cooking show like "Hell's Kitchen" I probably would have been verbally berated and then kicked off of the show. But I served it up on plates and hoped for the best.

There were only two core members home for supper (two others were out with their families). One of them happened to be a core member who is the most finicky when it comes to vegetables. But we cut the meatloaf in to six slices and all three of us had two. Both of the guys said that it was good, and I have to say that tastewise it was one of my best meatloafs yet.

If I had judged my meatloaf by its appearance, I might have passed it up, considered it a loss and threw it away and decided to order pizza instead. I might have thought that there was something better out there for us to eat for supper. But because I was willing to take a risk, and give it a try, I realized that despite the crumbliness of the loaf and even though it might not have looked the best, or the way that I would prefer a meatloaf to look, it actually had some great flavor and made all of us want seconds.

A lesson I learned from this experience, besides not browning the ground beef, is that I need to treat people like meatloaf. Don't worry, that doesn't mean that I'm resorting to cannibalism. What it means is that I need to be more intentional about not letting appearance be a factor in how I deal with people. I need to be more willing to go beyond what's on the outside and give people a chance. Only then will I allow myself to be surprised by their great flavor that I would have missed if I had decided to go for something that I thought looked better or more appealing. In the end, limiting who I am in relationship with based solely on appearance really only limits me.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

going to mass

Sometimes part of my responsibilities for my new job include going along with the core members to the religious service of their choice. So, for the past couple weeks I've attended Saturday evening mass at a nearby Catholic church with two of our core members.

One of them is a very devout Catholic. He LOVES nuns and priests and monks and will talk about them nonstop. We have a volunteer who comes every so often who is a Jesuit and this core member will ask him all sorts of questions and talk forever about the nuns at a local convent that he knows.

He also enjoys worship and singing. His singing is fairly high pitched and when he enjoys the song he is singing, he can get pretty loud.

Well, this evening he especially enjoyed the hymn choices.

I go back and forth about this. On the one hand, I appreciate that he is enjoying himself. I like that he is having a good time and engaging in worship. I also know him and his personality and I know that he is a man with some developmental disabilities and so I have some understanding about why he is singing the way that he is. Also, his singing doesn't bother me, personally. I actually get kind of a kick out of it.

But, I also understand that there are many other people in that sanctuary. There are many people who do not know him, who might not know that he has developmental disabilities, and so they don't know why he is singing that way. Some people might find it loud and think it interferes with their ability to worship (in fact, I was told that a previous assistant was asked if, on days that choir sang, they would sit on the other side of the sanctuary because his singing has been known to make it difficult for them).

So, I struggle with whether or not to say something to him. Do I ask him to not sing so loud? Do I tell him that the volume of his singing might interfere with other people? And if I do, what affect will this have? Will it make him self-conscious? Will he be less likely to engage in worship at all? Will it make him feel uncomfortable in that setting? Or will it even have any effect at all? He has been know to be stubborn, and to do what he wants to regardless of how much you beg or plead or try to bribe him with the promise of chocolate cake. So, it might not even do any good to say something to him about it.

Or, do I let him sing as loud as he wants? Do I go with the line of thought that he has every right to participate in worship in a way that is meaningful to him and if he sings a little high and a little loud, it's not that big of a deal, especially because he only sings during the appropriate times. It's not like he's singing loudly while the priest is preaching.

So, anyway, all this was running through my head tonight at mass while he was getting into one of the hymns. He was singing and bouncing back and forth on his feet and every once in a while he'd throw in a snap or two. It seemed a little loud to me, and I was worried what other people were thinking or saying. Or maybe they were even laughing at him. But I couldn't bring myself to say anything because he was enjoying himself so much.

But then, after mass as we were headed out of the sanctuary, a man who was two rows behind us during the service tapped me on the arm and said, "I think we all should worship like that."

And that was just what I needed to hear tonight.

Friday, July 8, 2011

i like you!

Sometimes, part of my responsibilities for my new job include driving some of our core members to their job at a sheltered workshop. The first few times I went, I simply rode along with one of my coworkers driving, so that I could learn the route and figure it out. It took me a few days (and actually some attempts on my own during time off) for me to get comfortable with the route and the routine of driving to our two other houses, picking up the core members, driving to the workshop, walking inside and accompanying them to their different work stations, and then driving home. But I got into the groove and thought I had everything figured out.

That's when they switched it up on me. They decided to do some work on the parking lot. So the large parking lot where all of the buses would load and unload is now being dug up and expanded and resurfaced and all that fun stuff. Which means that the buses don't park there anymore. They now use the small lot which was used by the vans. Now dropping off and picking up people from this workshop is quite the ordeal. There are always at least three staff members in bright yellow vests directing traffic. They motion you in to park in the part of the larger parking lot that isn't being worked on, and you're not supposed to leave your vehicle unattended. Instead, they radio in and ask for the people you are picking up to be brought out. It's really quite the production.

What I do, however, is drive past this parking lot and into the upper lot which is where all of the employees and staff park. I then have to get out of my van, walk down the hill, around the usable portion of the larger parking lot, passed the yellow-vested staff members and into the building. Then I can go about dropping off or collecting my core members the way I've grown accustomed to. Apparently, not very many people do this, but the staff members expressed their appreciation to me the other day because this new modified pick-up and drop-off routine is really meant for those with mobility issues, like people in wheelchairs or with walkers or some other assistive device. It is preferred that those who are able would park in the upper lot and walk down. But not everyone follows along with this and they opt for the ease of being able to sit in their vans and dropping people off or having them brought out to them.

But, really, I prefer to be able to go in. I've gotten to know some of the other clients (I think that's what they call them) who work in the workshop. I've learned their names and they say hello and give me fives and "knuckles" when they see me. One guy has even said he's going to ask his mom if he can come over to my house.

There is one guy, in particular, who I've really grown to appreciate. He's always in the same spot, and I have to walk right by him to drop off one of my core members. He's in a wheelchair, and I learned the other day that he's actually deaf. But he can say some things and every day I walk by him he says the same thing to me. With a smile and a wave he says, "I like you! I like you!" I always smile and wave back and say "I like you, too!" I'm not sure if he can read lips, but I know he knows what I'm saying. One day, I walked past him while he was in the middle of another activity and I didn't say or do anything to bother him, but as I got a little way passed him I could hear him shouting it, so I turned and there he was, smiling and waving at me and telling me he likes me.

And this alone makes the inconvenience of the extra walking and maneuvering worth it. I don't mind that it takes more time to walk my people inside. Because I get the reminder that no matter what else happens that day, no matter how much I mess up or how many mistakes I make or how many things I forget to do or how little patience I seem to have or how miserable of a day I might be having that this one person likes me and he is so excited to let me know that.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

My New Life

So, I haven't really used this blog quite like I had planned when I set it up. It's been a combination of things, really.

First, my life has been pretty busy. In the first two weeks that I was a part of this L'Arche community I went to our annual "Faith and Sharing" retreat which is a two night retreat up at a convent in Leavenworth, Kansas. Then, only a few short days after that, our entire community went on a road trip to Memphis for our L'Arche Central Region Gathering. There we got together with our fellow L'Arche communities from Mobile, Chicago, Jacksonville, Iowa, and some forming communities in St Louis and Atlanta. That was quite the experience. It was a lot of fun, and I met some amazing people, and I got to tour Graceland (although my little headphones with the automated tour guide stopped working part way through. I found out later that one of our core members was repeating a lot of what was being said out loud. Had I known this I would have followed him around so I could have gotten some more insight into what I was seeing!), and we had a dance and a talent show! It was a great experience, but at that stage in the game, I have to say it was a little overwhelming.

I've also been trying to figure out where I'm going and how to find places without getting lost. One of the responsibilities we have in my house is transporting a group of 4 core members to and from their jobs at a sheltered workshop. It involves leaving from our house with one core member, driving to our two other houses to pick up three other core members, and then driving them to work. Then we have to accompany them inside the workshop and make sure that they get to where they need to go and, if they need to be, are checked in. I really enjoy doing this. It's fun, and there are now other people that work at this workshop that I enjoy seeing when I'm there. But my first few days, when I was merely a ride along while another assistant drove the van, I wondered how I would ever figure out where to turn and which direction to go. Several hours of my freetime were spent driving and trying to figure out the right route, so that when it came to be my turn to drop off or pick up the core members, that I wouldn't get lost. I thought I was pretty good, but the first time I picked them up I took a wrong turn onto one of the highways. Despite the protests of one of the core members who told me I was going the wrong way, I was pretty certain that I had made the right choice. It only took me going past one exit to realize that I had, indeed, made the wrong turn. So, apologizing to the core member, I turned the van around and made it home. I have gotten to the point where I have figured the route out, now, and have driven it many times successfully. But there are still places that I need to drive various core members to for various activities, and I often don't know where I'm going. So I rely heavily on google maps. So far I'm doing pretty well.

I'm having a great time getting to know the people, too. I'd like to think that I'm off to a good start with building some great relationships with the core members. I enjoy being around them and they seem to enjoy my goofy disposition. I enjoy all of the other assistants and have a lot of fun being around them. I also like the community leader and the community coordinator, who are my two bosses. They are fun and the community coordinator just recently took me out for coffee. So he can't be all bad.

It definitely is a change of pace from what I've been used to. In my previous life, I was constantly planning, organizing events and classes, planning Confirmation, meeting with committees to plan activities and events and organize Sunday School. Every time I'd hear a siren I'd wonder if I was going to get a call to the hospital or funeral home.

But here, it's much more laidback. My main responsibilities most days are making sure the core members have the things that they need each day. And then a lot of what happens is extra stuff. Like a walk through the neighborhood, or a trip to the bowling alley, or a cookout. It's building relationships and getting to know people and spending time together. It's playing Uno, or celebrating that someone kicked the soccer ball. It's laughing and singing and dancing and telling stories.

So I'm sorry that I haven't kept this blog as up to date as you or I might have hoped. But life is definitely good. There are amazing things happening. And I promise that I will try to be better at sharing them with all of you!!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Prayer Night

Once a week, here at L'Arche, we have what's called a prayer night. We all gather together in one of the houses and we share a meal together. Then one of the assistants leads a group activity. After the activity, there's a time for announcements and prayer, and then we all mosey back to our houses for nighttime routines.

This last Tuesday was my first Prayer Night as an assistant here at L'Arche. Because of that, during the announcements, Thomas, our community leader, announced that I was finally here in the flesh. People started to clap but then one of the core members from my house said, at an elevated volume, "Hallelujah!"

This caused people to clap louder and to laugh. It was a funny moment (one of many to come, I'm sure) but it was also a heart-warming moment. Hallelujah is a word used to express praise or joy. It's said in thanksgiving to God for what God has done for us. And it was said last night at Prayer Night because I am now a part of the community here at L'Arche Heartland.

Hallelujah. I'm here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

As Long as I Journey

Since making the announcement to my congregation that I would be leaving, my life has been a jumble of emotions. There is great excitement and anticipation about what my future holds. I am eager to go and join this new community and to get to know them and to get situated there and start my life with them. There is also some anxiousness and nervousness. I am hopeful that I will fit in, that I will do good work there, that I will be what this community needs and that they will be what I need. But there is also a lot of sadness. I have been blessed to know some wonderful people here in my current setting. To embark on this new journey means saying good bye to them. Our relationships will never again be the way they are right now. I will not be as much a part of their lives as I have been these past five years. I will have to say good bye to the young people that I've seen grow and change in crazy and amazing ways. I will have to say good bye to people who have invited me into their homes and their lives, who have been my friends and surrogate families while I have been here. It is not easy to say good bye.

So my life has been a crazy experience of emotions lately. I was going to say it has been a roller coaster, but with a roller coaster you have very defined highs and lows. Sometimes my emotions are like that, easy to define and figure out which one I am feeling. But often it has been hard to define my emotions, sometimes I've felt great excitement and sadness at the same time, or great eagerness simultaneously with great nervousness.

The other day I happened to be flipping through our worship hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, and I came across a hymn that I became familiar with because of my friends Ben and Renee Larson, Jon Larson and Elly McHan. They are friends from seminary who are all very gifted in ministry and music. The first time I heard it was when they were singing it. Ben also happens to be my friend who we tragically lost in the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. This song was sung at his memorial service at Luther College. As I looked through it, I happened to notice that at the bottom it said that it was written by a L'Arche Community. I might have noticed that before, but this time, of course, it jumped out at me.

Then, today, I received a note from a friend who had just read my announcement. He asked if we were going to sing this same song at my final service at church because it was written by a L'Arche Community. It is actually very meaningful and applicable to where I am in my life right now, and so I thought I would share it with you here.

Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song
by Les Petites Souers de Jesus and L'Arche Community; tr. Stephan Somerville

Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey;
I'll tell ev'rybody about you wherever I go:
you alone are our life and our peace and our love.
Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey.

Lord Jesus, I'll praise you as long as I journey.
May all of my joy be a faithful reflection of you.
May the earth and the sea and the sky join my song.
Lord Jesus, I'll praise you as long as I journey.

As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant,
to carry your cross and to share all your burdens and tears.
For you saved me by giving your body and blood.
As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant.

I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey;
but courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side.
And with all of the fam'ly you saved by your love,
we'll sing to your dawn at the end of our journey.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Some News to Share

Well, I have announced it at both Sunday services this morning, and so most likely it is all over the greater Belle Plaine area by now. So I would imagine it is safe to share via my blog.

I have accepted a new position as Assistant at L'Arche Heartland in Overland Park, Kansas. L'Arche Heartland is a community centered around adults with developmental disabilities. My responsibilities there will be living and working with these adults, helping them to lead fulfilling and meaningful lives. I am sure they will help me to reach that goal, as well.

That means I will be leaving St John Lutheran Church and Belle Plaine, MN. That has definitely made it a tough decision. These past almost five years of life and ministry here in this place and with these people have been some wonderfully amazing years. I didn't realize you could grow to love people so much in five years, but the people that I have had the opportunity to serve have made it pretty easy. I have been blessed with a very supportive and grace-filled congregation and there are many, many people who will be missed and who I will be carrying with me in my heart.

My last Sunday at St John will be Sunday, May 22nd. After that I will be moving to Overland Park at which point my address will change. I will let you know what that is when I know for sure.

I want to say thank you to all of the people who have made these past five years such a wonderful experience, from the staff and members of St John, to the great youth ministry workers in my local network, to all of the pastors and friends who have supported me and encouraged me and been my friends. I have been wonderfully blessed by all of the people that God has placed in my life, and I know that I haven't even begun to mention them all.

So it is with some sadness but also with joy and excitement that I think about this new adventure in my life. I'm sad to have to say good bye to so many people, but I'm excited about what God has in store for me in this new place.

If you are interested in learning more about what L'Arche is, check out the L'Arche USA website at If you want to learn more about the specific community where I will be working, check out their website at

Thanks for all of your prayers, support, love and kindness these past five years. They have been felt and greatly appreciated.
Peace to you!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

An Unexpected Guest

I think God has a sense of humor. I mean, God must have one to watch some of the things we do and still love us. And I'm not sure, but I think God might have been exercising that sense of humor with me today.

First, if you don't already know, I wrote a blog post about how March is National Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month. If you haven't already done so, maybe you might consider checking that one out and reading it. It's just the previous post on my blog, so it should be easy to find. But if you want me to make it easier for you, you can find it by clicking here. It's not imperative to this story that you read it, but to fully appreciate this story I think you at least need to know that I wrote it.

So, today I decided it would be a good day to take a book and go find a coffee shop and drink some coffee and read for a while. I drove a little ways out of town just so I could find one where I didn't think I'd know anyone. Not that I don't like talking to people, just some days it's good to be a little anonymous. I didn't have one in mind, I just drove for a bit and then saw a sign advertising a Caribou Coffee off the next exit of the highway, so I picked that one and decided to stop there.

When I arrived at this coffee shop, it wasn't very busy, so it wasn't hard to find a table and settle in. Now, I'm a people watcher and easily distracted, so every time the door would open I'd look up from my book to see who was coming into the shop. There were a few couples, some parents with kids, a few older ladies and some others. As more people came into the coffee shop, it began to fill up. Soon, as far as I could see, only one high top table was empty but no table was completely full. Most had only one, two or three people at them.

Well, one time the door opened and I looked up to see two young men walking in. As I watched them walk up to the counter and look at the baked goods, it became evident that one of them had a developmental disability (DD). I watched as the other young man talked to the young man with the DD and asked what he wanted to get. I didn't want to stare, so I turned back to my book and continued to read.

A few minutes later, however, the young man with the DD came over and sat right down at my table. He didn't say anything, just sat there and began to eat his chocolate chip cookie. I looked up from my book, startled and a little surprised, but I smiled and said hello. He mumbled a little hello before taking another bite of cookie.

I looked over at the counter and saw the other young man was still up at the cash register paying for the items that they ordered with his back to us, so I don't think he noticed what his friend had done.

Soon he was done paying and turned to see where his friend had gone and noticed that he was at my table. He came over with a sheepish grin and apologized saying, "I don't think he likes the high top table." I responded by saying that it was ok, that I really didn't need a four person table all to myself, so the other guy pulled up a chair at the end and sat down.

Pretty quickly after that, the first young man finished eating his cookie, so he turned and told his friend that he was done. As they got up from the table the other young man said, "Are you going to say good bye to your new friend?" The first young man stopped and turned and looked at me. I said, "Good bye!" and he looked at me for a second and then started to walk away. The other young man said, "Say good bye!" He then responded with a little wave before he made his way toward the door.

I couldn't help but laugh at this situation. Out of all of the coffee shops that I could have gone to I randomly end up at that particular one. I didn't choose any of the others I passed on my way there, for whatever reason I happened to pick this particular coffee shop, and so did these two young men.

And then, out of all of the empty chairs at all of the tables that were in the coffee shop, this young man chose to sit at the empty chair at my table, only days after I had written a blog post about my experiences with people with developmental disabilities. It just seems so random and so impossible, doesn't it? And yet, it happened. I was there and so were they. There was an empty chair at my table and he chose that one for his seat. I just can't not believe that God wasn't somehow at work in this situation, smiling at what was playing out, and probably even laughing a bit about it.

Oh, and what makes it even funnier? The book I happened to be reading was "The Road to Daybreak" which was written by Henri Nouwen during the year he lived in the L'Arche community for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their assistants in France.

So all of these things aligned at that one moment. Maybe it was random, just a coincidence. But I choose to believe that God was smiling down on it.

[For more information about L'Arche all over the world, click here. For information about L'Arche in the United States, try here.]

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

All the Body of Christ

March is National Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.

When I was in the 6th grade, my dad took a call as the Program Pastor at Martin Luther Homes (MLH) in Beatrice, Nebraska. That meant that he served as a chaplain to this residential facility for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Until that point, I had not really had much contact with people with disabilities. So when we attended my dad's installation service, it was an interesting experience. My dad sat up front, so my mom, 2 brothers and I chose a pew more towards the back. I remember my brothers and I were pretty strategic in where and how we sat, so that we were on the end of a pew followed by my mom so that if anyone sat next to us they would sit beside her.

The residents of MLH ranged from profoundly disabled to mildly disabled. There were residents in their 60's and 70's all the way down to Gary, who was close to my age. So it was quite the crowd that joined us for worship that day. It was noisy, with a lot of talking and laughter, some shouts and yelps (some voluntary, a lot involuntary), and everyone seemed to be very aware and interested in the group of people (us) who were visiting.

They loved to sing, too. When it came time to sing there were always a few that wanted to get up and help lead the singing. I remember Rose, a woman in her 60's, would always want to get up and conduct. She'd stand up front in the chapel, a big grin on her face, and her arms waving back and forth as people sang. It wasn't the best singing I'd ever heard, but it was some of the most heartfelt. My dad would later say, "The Bible doesn't say you need to sing well, it just says 'make a joyful noise,' and they certainly do!"

After the service, the staff wanted us to stand and greet people as a family. Reluctantly, my brothers and I agreed. We stood there and shook hands for a little while until Lori came through the line. Shaking hands was not good enough for Lori. With the biggest smile on her face, and an excited laugh, she came with open arms and wanted hugs. She embraced my dad, first. Then she gave my mom a big hug. I was next in line, so she wrapped her arms around me, too. Then she turned for my brothers, but they had quickly run away to the safety of my dad's office.

The years that my dad served, and loved, the people of MLH, were pretty formative for me. I'd often spend time in his office, just hanging out. My dad's assistant led the chapel bell choir, and using a color code she'd lead the bell choir in playing hymns and songs. They would often travel to area churches to play, and I remember traveling on a bus with them on a few different occasions.

There was one resident, I think his name was Phillip, who when he met my dad for the first time said, in his gravelly voice, "Nice to meet you, Pastor Weber." No matter how much my dad would correct him and say, "No, Phillip. It's Pastor Lepper," and no matter how many times Phillip would say, "Oh yeah!" he'd always come back and say, "Hello, Pastor Weber!" Until the day when my dad bet Phillip a can of Coke that he couldn't get his name right for a week. From that moment on Phillip never got my dad's name wrong!

My dad was the pastor at MLH for four years and loved it so much he would have stayed there longer (the reason why we left is another story, probably not suitable for a blog). In those four years, I spent a lot of time with him in his office. In that time I began to get to know a lot of the residents. By taking the time to get to know them, I was able to see past their disabilities and to see what great and fun and amazing people they could be.

Since that time, I have had many opportunities to get to know and love numerous people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. Through these relationships I have been greatly blessed and I have been able to learn a few things. I don't claim to know everything there is to know about living with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I don't know if anyone could ever learn all there is to know. But I have been fortunate enough to learn some things, and so I wanted to take this opportunity to share them with you.

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities are not incomplete. They are not any less of a person than anyone else. They are not missing or lacking something. Granted, something happened that caused them to develop differently, but they are fully human. They are still perfect and wonderful and amazing exactly as they are, exactly how God created them.

Along those same lines, we are ALL created in the image of God. In the book of Genesis, when it says that God created humankind in God's image, it doesn't just apply to people who look and act and think like you, but ALL people. This applies to everyone, even if they have cerebral palsy or autism or Down Syndrome or anything else. Just because they have disabilities does not make them any less in the image of God, they just show us the image of God from a different angle.

Disabilities do not define who a person is. When my brothers and I first visited MLH, we saw what was "wrong" with the people there. When we would look at them, we'd see things like Doug walked with crutches or Phillip had some facial and hand deformities or Lori couldn't talk and was prone to squeal loudly when excited. But when I took the time to get to know them, I learned that Doug was a very caring and compassionate young man, Phillip had a fun sense of humor, and Lori had more love in her heart than anyone I've ever met. I would have never learned those things if I had let their disabilities be a barrier to getting to know them.

It's also not a one way street. When we see people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, we can often view it as a one way relationship. They are the ones receiving care and therapy and education and we are the ones who have to provide that for them. But when we allow ourselves to be in relationship with them, we quickly learn that they are not the only ones receiving these things, and we are not the only ones providing them. In fact, more often than not, they give far more than they receive.

There is a wide variety of intellectual and developmental disabilities. Some affect a person's physical development and some only affect their cognitive development. Many times you can't even tell by looking at someone if they have a disability or not. But regardless of these things, they are all children of God. They are all created and known and loved by the same God who created and knows and loves each one of us. They are just as much a part of the Body of Christ as anyone else and they deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect and compassion and love.

So, although March is a month set aside to be mindful and aware of intellectual and developmental disabilities, my prayer is that we all would be just as mindful and aware all year long - mindful about how we treat and often discriminate against people with disabilities, aware that they are a part of our communities, and open to how we might reach out to them and more fully include them as our brothers and sisters.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

What I'm Reading

My senior year of seminary we had a guest presenter for a couple days during our Church History class. Roger Fjeld, a previous president of Wartburg Seminary, came to talk to us about the history of the Lutheran Church in the United States.

I sometimes think that history can be a bit dry and not always that exciting, but I have to say I was riveted. I couldn't get enough of what Roger was saying, especially as he talked about the years leading up to the merger of the LCA (Lutheran Church in America), the ALC (American Lutheran Church), and the AELC (Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches) into the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).

He told us about the schism in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) over disagreements about Biblical interpretation, among other things. This schism led to the AELC, as well as Concordia Seminary in Exile, which later became Christ Seminary-Seminex. The AELC then became a voice for Lutheran unity and was an impetus for conversations about a new Lutheran church which eventually led to the merger of the three Lutheran bodies and the creation of the ELCA, at that time the fourth largest protestant church body in the United States.

This kind of stuff fascinates me. I could hear about it and talk about it for hours. So, when Roger Fjeld mentioned a couple of books that were written about this subject, I think it was almost immediately after class that I got onto a computer and found and purchased these books.

Now, I have to admit that I have a severe case of A.D.D. when it comes to reading. I'll start a book and read for a bit, but then I'll see another book I think looks interesting so I'll start to read that and lose interest in the first one. So I've started to read one of the books a couple of times, but each time I'd get distracted by a different book. But this time I sat down to read one of the books and I'm currently on the last chapter. I've almost made it!

This book is "Anatomy of a Merger" by Edgar Trexler. Trexler served in the LCA as the editor of their periodical The Lutheran, and went on to continue to be the editor of The Lutheran when it became the publication of the ELCA. So he was present as media at all of the meetings and conventions that led up to the merger.

It's a bit dry, sometimes it felt like I was looking through really extensive minutes from a church council meeting. But it gave a inside look at what led up to the merger - the struggles and the joys, the ego trips and the compromises, the long journey and finally the celebration when the three churches voted at their respective assemblies to merge into this new church.

There were lots of people involved in this process, too. People like Barbara Lundblad, who now serves as Professor of Preaching at Union Seminary in New York. Herbert Chilstrom was very involved, and served as the first presiding bishop of the ELCA. Will Herzfeld was also very involved, and was a strong voice for the inclusion of minorities and women (sidenote: Herzfeld was an associate of Martin Luther King, Jr. and served as the bishop of the AELC making him the first African-American to lead a U.S. Lutheran church body. He also came to speak at my college when I was a student there and, had I really known all of this about him at the time, I probably would have taken more time to get to know him and hear his story). Even Stanley Olson is mentioned who was serving as a synod bishop at the time but then went on to be the Executive Director of the unit for Vocation and Education in the ELCA and now serves as the current president of Wartburg Seminary.

It's really quite an interesting story. It's about people trying to discern what God might be calling us as Lutherans to be about and to do, and seeking to be a united group and a unified voice. It wasn't a perfect process, there were little groups that broke off and didn't want to merge, there were people who thought things went too far or not far enough. But they worked together and compromised and tried their best to do what they discerned to be the will of God.

Next in line is the book "High Expectations" also by Trexler which is sort of the follow-up to "Anatomy of a Merger." In this second book, Trexler details the first few years of the ELCA as it began to get its feet and figure itself out.

Then, the next book is "Memoirs in Exile" by John Tietjen. Now this should really be interesting. Tietjen was president of Concordia Seminary in St Louis, MO which was the flagship seminary (I think) of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. They got into a "discussion" about the use of the historical-critical method of Biblical interpretation and whether it should be used, or not. Tietjen led the group that left the seminary and started the AELC and Concordia Seminary in Exile. This book is the story of his experiences during that time.

So that's what is on my list of things to read. If you've read this far, I'm impressed. I think when I sat down to write this blog entry it seemed a lot more exciting and fascinating in my head. But then, I am a self-avowed church nerd and this kind of thing really does interest me.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Is there a draft in here?

Is there a draft in here? or, The Movement of the Holy Spirit in the ELCA Assignment Process

This week is Regional Assignments for ELCA seminarians. It's an interesting process full of excitement and uncertainty. It's exciting to know that you are learning about your future, but it's uncertain because you don't have all the control over what you're learning.

You see, among all the paperwork and essay writing you do in the candidacy process, your senior year you fill out some forms to let the ELCA know where you would like to end up. The ELCA is separated into 9 regions and within those regions there are 65 synods. On the paperwork, you are given the opportunity to let the ELCA know where in the midst of all of them you'd like to go.

You have a few options on how you'd like to do this. One option is to restrict. You can say that you only want to end up in a certain synod (or perhaps synods). They give you space, then, to explain why you are restricting. Perhaps you have a spouse who has a job they love, or a loved one with health concerns that you want to be near. Or any number of reasons really. The synod(s) you choose to restrict to then have the option to approve or deny your restriction.

Another option is the "go anywhere" box. There is a box on the form that you can check that let the synods and bishops know that you are open to going anywhere, without preference. There is some excitement in checking that box and leaving the future wide open. But, then you have to really be open to going anywhere. As in South Carolina, or Western North Dakota, or Kentucky, or Missouri, or Nebraska, or Wyoming, or Delaware, or New Mexico... basically anywhere. I mean, you could get upset if you ended up somewhere you didn't like, but then why'd you check the "go anywhere" box? A note about this particular option, you would think that bishops and synods would like this option. Here is someone who is open to the process and willing to go anywhere to serve the mission of the Church. But, in conversation with a handful of them my senior year of seminary, they said that they know that people have preferences. There are places you would like to end up and places you would not like to end up. So let them know where you'd like to end up.

To do that, you have the third option of checking the "open to anywhere, but with preferences" box. This option says that there are places you would prefer to end up. Then, it gives you space to write down three regions of the ELCA you would prefer. And then, within those three regions, you are allowed to choose three synods in each. This gives you the opportunity to express where you would like to end up, but it leaves you open to other possibilities, too. Most people, in my experience, choose this option. The bishops I referred to in my previous paragraph said that they try to honor one of your preferences, but that is not always the case. Sometimes people end up somewhere that wasn't on their radar. Often times it's because bishops and synod staff have ideas for that particular person. But sometimes it just happens.

Now, after all the forms are sent in, bishops and synod staff members and seminary presidents get together in what we call "The Draft." We call it that because it seems to be very similar to something like the NFL or NBA draft. You have all these candidates looking to be rostered leaders in the ELCA, the seminary presidents representing them and you have all these synods with spots they want to fill. Now I cannot write with any certainty what this process actually looks like, as I've never been to the draft. I want, with every fiber of my being, to see what happens there, to watch the interaction between the bishops and synod staff as they sort through the candidates. But somehow, at the end of the day, all of the candidates are assigned to a region.

Then, the presidents return to their schools and let the students know what region they've been assigned. Then the students wait (sometimes a couple days, sometimes a couple weeks) for a phone call from a bishop letting them know which synod they've landed in. This is a nerve wracking time for seminary students. It can be an exciting time (for those who are open to going anywhere, or receive an assignment they are happy about) and it can be an upsetting time (to someone who has their restriction denied or who gets an assignment they didn't list as a preference). I am sure that all involved in the process - ELCA, regions, synods, seminaries, students and families - would love your prayers.

Even though it's been five years now since I was in the process, I remember it vividly. As I mentioned before, there was a group of about five bishops who showed up on the campus of Wartburg Seminary my senior year. It was an annual event, a different group of bishops showed up each year to talk to the senior students and spouses, to give them some sort of idea of what the assignment process looked like. After a time of questions and answers (where I asked about checking the "go anywhere" box, which I was seriously contemplating) there was a wine and cheese reception.

It was at this reception that I happened to have a long conversation with one of the bishops. He was representing a synod out in Pennsylvania, which at that time was nowhere on my radar. But we hit it off famously and had a wonderful conversation. At the end of the evening he asked if he could take my name so that, when it came time for regional assignments, he could make sure to request me for his synod. Excited at this prospect, I gave him my name.

Then, as I filled out my assignment paperwork, I would often e-mail him asking his advice on how to fill parts of it out so that I would end up in his synod. I picked Region 7 as my first choice, since that's the region where his synod was. I put his synod as my first choice, followed by Metro New York and Upstate New York. I then picked Region 5, which is Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, and chose three synods in Wisconsin as my preferences in that region. Then, as my third choice I picked Region 3, which is North and South Dakota and Minnesota. At that time, I really only wanted to end up in Northeast Minnesota, as some of my best friends were in that synod at that time. But I was afraid if I only chose one synod and left the other two options blank, that it might leave me open to ending up somewhere else in that region. So I put the Minneapolis and St Paul Area Synods in those two open spots because I knew there really was no reason I would end up in either. The "word on the street" was that there are waiting lists for both synods of seminary graduates looking for calls in these synods. No way a Wartburg grad would end up there.

I met with my seminary's president and showed him my paperwork. He said that if I put that particular synod as my first choice, and that the bishop there was asking for me, it was pretty certain that I would end up there. He also said that I could scratch the Minneapolis and St Paul synods off of my list because Wartburg grads never ended up there. I told him that was pretty much why they were on the list.

Finally, it was Assignment Day. My class gathered with our families in one of the rooms on campus. Staff and faculty showed up to support us. Our Academic Dean shared a few words and then sealed envelopes were passed out. Inside those envelopes was our future. Some quickly opened them, some were more tentative. I think I was a quick one. I pulled out the letter, knowing I was going to see Region 7 printed on that paper. But, lo and behold, there was Region 3. I was a little taken aback, perhaps a bit upset. But I knew that it was a preference I had listed and so I couldn't be angry about it.

I figured, then, that I was going to end up in Northeast Minnesota. That made the most sense to me, but I also knew that it wasn't written in stone. I could still end up in Southeast MN or Western North Dakota or anywhere in between. So I learned the names of the different bishops and prepared myself to sound excited regardless which voice was on the other end of the phone.

Well, a few days later I was doing my work study job down in the youth room of the seminary. There were kids running all over. Some were watching a show on TV, a few were playing a game on the computer, and little Erica was smacking the daylights out of a large, bouncy ball with a wiffle ball bat. And that's when my cellphone vibrated. And that's when I found out that I had been assigned to the Minneapolis Area Synod. I was the first Wartburg Seminary grad "in memorable history" to get assigned to that synod. And it had been my second synod preference in my third regional preference, and had been put there simply to hold a spot not because I actually thought I'd end up there.

But that was five years ago now. I have been in my current congregation since then (well, about six months after that) and have been greatly blessed by the people I serve and the ministry I do. It was not what I was expecting, and not really the place I had been hoping to end up in, but the Holy Spirit is funny that way. God can take our best laid plans and mix them all up until they don't look anything like what we imagined, but if we are faithful and trust that God knows what God is doing, and we open ourselves to the work of the Spirit in our lives, the result can be amazing. This might not have been where I was expecting to end up, but I wouldn't have had it any other way.

So my prayers go out to you, my brothers and sisters who will find out tomorrow (Wednesday) what your Regional Assignment will be. Enter in this process with excitement and trust and faith that even if you don't end up where you've been planning, that God has amazing things in store for you.