Kari's Blog

When will we get “back to normal?”

It’s a question that has been asked a lot this past year: When will we get back to normal? It’s an understandable question, and one that’s been asked in a variety of circumstances and places, by people old and young, and more times than any of us have been able to keep track of.

Yet as more than one person has voiced over the last many months, there is actually no way to go back to exactly the way things were before COVID-19 became a reality in our lives.

Granted, some things have returned to some semblance of normal, and for many of those we are grateful. But there are other things that can’t––or shouldn’t––just go back to the way things were. That’s because in the past fifteen months, we have all changed. We have experienced things both good and bad. We have seen the best and, in some cases, the worst in one another. Not only that, certain things that aren’t working anymore have been brought into the light––both in our personal lives but also in how we relate to one another as fellow humans.

So maybe the better question to ask ourselves is: Lord, what do you have for us now, in this new time and season? What does this new future look like?

I once heard a young man named Josh Sundquist speak at an event, and this was a question that he had to ask early on in his life. At the age of nine, he was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer and given a fifty percent chance to live. After spending a year on chemo, his left leg was amputated.

When this happened, Josh and his parents had to reconsider what they had imagined his future to look like. There’s no doubt there are lots of options available to amputees, but as Josh was growing up, having him lose a leg was likely not something anyone had considered. So when he did, they had to imagine a new way of doing things. They also had to choose how they would look at this experience and how they would let it define Josh’s life.

Would they go forward, always looking over their shoulder in regret for what was and might have been? Or would they go forward with a certain degree of optimism and determination to make the best of the hand they had been dealt?

Three years after the doctors declared him cured of the disease that took his leg, Josh started ski racing, eventually earning a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team for the 2006 Paralympics in Turino, Italy. Today, Josh represents the United States in international competition as a member of the U.S. Amputee Soccer Team. He is also a comedian, motivational speaker, author, and Halloween enthusiast.

There’s no doubt that Josh’s determination, sense of humor and exuberant personality has a lot to do with him becoming so successful today. But after his surgery, the option for him and his family to go back to normal was taken off the table.

In fact, if they would have tried to do that, it would not have been helpful or productive for anyone. As I listened to Josh’s story, it struck me that his ability to move forward with optimism was because he and his family were willing to consider what else was possible, and how they could help Josh blossom in this new season in his life.

Though many of us may not lose a limb, the reality is that things do and will happen in each of our lives that change us and shape us in ways that we did not ask for and might not like. We don’t always get a warning that they are coming, and they can feel like an incredible blow when they do.

But after giving ourselves time to grieve and––maybe even having a funeral for our expectations––we do get to choose how we will greet the new dawn, so to speak. There’s no doubt that the pandemic pushed us to do that in ways that many of us were not seeking out. We had to find new ways of doing things and, if we wanted any sense of peace of mind, accept what was.

Yet pandemic or not, the option of going back to everything just as it was before the pandemic is not truly an option. And it would even be wise to not expect that things will simply go back to the way they were.

Because the thing is, though God is steadfast and faithful, God is not only God of the past but also God of the future. And that’s a promise we can each cling to. So again, what will we do now? What do we need to let go of? What might God be preparing us for?

As we consider these questions, it can be helpful to remember that we are not left to our own devices to figure it out. And it is also helpful to remember that as uncomfortable as these sorts of conversations are for many of us, they are ones with which God is extremely comfortable.

After all, God is in the business of death and resurrection. That is what God does. So as followers of Christ, we can expect that we will experience death and resurrection in our lives too, both individually and as a people.

In his teaching on baptism, Luther referred to this as a daily dying and rising in Christ, through which we are freed to live without guilt or fear or worrying if we are worthy.
Yet at times, there are behaviors, practices, thoughts, and attitudes that need to be laid to rest. And sometimes things happen that cause a dream or desire of ours to die as well. When that is the case, we don’t always know what resurrection will look like in that area or when it will come.

However, as I once heard someone put it, “When your dreams turn to dust, it might be time to vacuum.” And as people of faith–– followers of Christ––of this we can be sure: that the same God who began a good work in you will bring it to the day of completion” (Phil 1:6).

Thinking about balance

There’s a lake near our house where many types of waterfowl gather in the summer.  In the winter, there’s an area of water that remains open, and the ducks huddle around this open water in order to survive.  This time of year, although we are on the brink of spring, the ice has not yet melted, so the geese and ducks still linger near that spot.

This image is one I often go back to when I find myself having had too little time to breathe and be still, too frequently.  The ducks are a picture for me of what it looks like to stay centered in the midst of unbalance and to take time to be filled up with the life-giving water of Jesus, in the midst of life’s challenges and responsibilities, knowing that my livelihood depends on it.  

I’d be the first one to encourage others to take this time, yet I also know that it rarely comes without having to say “no” to something.  These days, those things to say no to are usually good in and of themselves, but as difficult as it may seem to find and take time to tend to our heart, it is crucial that we do.

I’ve said before that seasons ebb and flow, and phases come and go, but there will always be multiple demands and responsibilities to juggle and finding the perfect work-life balance is a bit like trying to outsmart the process of aging: the target is always moving.  So, for me, the question has shifted from, “When or how will I find the right balance?” to, “What do I need in order to stay centered?”

For me, one of the necessities is time for quiet, when my creative juices can flow without being forced, when my schedule doesn’t feel like stuffing sausage into casing.  There are times when these moments are few and far between, and when what is going into my bucket doesn’t match what is going out.  In those times, we have to do what we have to do.  

But as our patience and compassion for others and sense of calm starts to wane, the invitation is to pause at the river of God’s love in order to be filled to the measure with the fullness of God (Eph 3:19).  As you do, perhaps you will think about the ducks, and how staying near the water isn’t only for when they have nothing else to do but rather a life-giving necessity.

My wish for you

I saw a bumper sticker recently that read, “I hope something good happens to you today.”  I’m not much of a bumper sticker sort of person, but if I had the chance to purchase this one, I think I might just stick it on the back of my vehicle.

This simple wish of well-being isn’t fancy, but it is a refreshing change from a lot of the noise that fills our days.  Rather than wishing others well, in many ways our society has gotten pretty used to criticizing, complaining, and attacking others.  On top of that, we are constantly fed a message that there isn’t enough to go around, so we better hold on tightly to what we have so that no one else gets it.

The bumper sticker reading, “I hope something good happens to you today,” reminds me of something I once heard in a meditation and breathing exercise.  During the meditation, listeners were invited to extend kindness to themselves, using simple words like, “May I be happy; may I be safe and free from suffering.” 

Then listeners were invited to imagine extending this sort of blessing to others as well.  The leader started by asking us to picture someone we cared for deeply, then to bring to mind someone we had indifferent feelings about, and finally, someone who had caused us a great deal of pain.

Of course, it was a lot easier to offer words of blessing and well-being to those we thought fondly of and enjoyed spending time with; it was less natural to extend it to those we didn’t like.  Still, the invitation was to put our feelings for a particular person aside and to wish them well, simply because they were a fellow human being.  Could we recognize that each person longs to be happy, just like us?  Could we wish them well rather than harbor resentment or ill-will? 

In our world today, with so many things coming our way to try to pit individuals against one another and in which we are fed images and advertisements that are made to make us feel inadequate and insecure, it’s pretty easy to fall into the comparison game, which can easily lead to being judgmental and untrusting of others.   

However, what I’ve found is that when I am able to say something in my mind of someone else, such as, “May they be happy…may they be at peace,” or, like the bumper sticker read, “I hope something good happens to you today,” I feel a whole lot better about a lot of things.  And it’s also a whole lot easier to experience the peace of God that Jesus promises and desires for all of us.

Thank you…

Poet e.e. cummings once wrote a poem titled “i thank You God for most this amazing day” which reflects on the beauty and wonder of God while also including all sorts of seemingly ordinary things for which he is thankful. 

Ever since I first came across this poem, every so often, I hear its words in my head.  I thank you God for most this amazing day.  I’ve written before how important I think gratitude is, and what a difference it can make in our outlook on life and in our relationships with others.

But it’s something I have to keep coming back to, because recently and not so recently, it can be pretty easy to get swept up in thoughts about what isn’t working or what I’d like to change.

When that is the case for me, I have to nudge (and sometimes pull) myself to focus on what is good, right, and beautiful in the world.  To start my day with thanks for all that God is, has, and is doing in my life, and to take notice of all the things I have to be grateful for…my husband and kids, our dogs, a hot cup of (not too strong) coffee…

For baby steps towards tackling a challenge, for when I don’t forget something on the calendar and for grace when I do, for the people who are light-bearers in my life and who help me recognize the good rather than point out the negative.  

When it comes to the power of gratitude in our lives, many studies have proven the difference it can make.  But one of the biggest impacts I think it can make is in helping us stay centered in the midst of everything else going on in our lives and the world around us.  It can also make a big difference in how we relate to others.

Although gratitude surely won’t solve all the challenges we face today or every hardship you are facing in your own life, I believe our lives are profoundly improved when we take the time and make the effort to give thanks and to recognize God’s promise and presence in our lives, seeing us through all that comes our way, both big and small. 

When we make the effort to find something to be grateful for, to express our gratitude, or to simply say a prayer of thanks in the quiet of our hearts, it helps us feel a greater sense of peace in who we are, as well as a greater sense of connection to our fellow human beings. 

And the thing is, when we feel at peace with who we are and a sense of connection to others, it makes us more able to listen to them rather than critique or defend, and it helps us be able to give them the benefit of the doubt rather than jump to conclusions.  When we are able to do those things, I think we are also better able to see that there is good in the world, and in us.

Life-saving love

I once read an article written by a mom whose two boys got caught in a rip tide.  When she saw her boys struggling, her gut reaction was to run in after the boys to try and save them, even though she knew that was exactly what she wasn’t supposed to do.  

The mother and her boys were rescued in large part because of a couple who happened to be at the beach that day as well.  When this husband and wife saw the commotion in the distance, they ran over to survey the scene and could tell that the family was drowning.  But they could also see that there was no way to get to them without also putting themselves in danger.

That’s when they yelled to others on shore to make a human chain until they could reach far enough out into the water to reach the struggling swimmers.  What started with six people volunteering to help quickly became ten, and then pretty soon there were fifty people who had joined the chain.  

In a matter of minutes, they stretched out from shortest to tallest.  The wife, who was an expert swimmer, ran to the front of the line with two bodyboards and forged her way to the two kids, who were fifteen feet away from the front of the line.  Then, one by one, the chain pulled each boy and then the adults from person to person until all those who had been stuck in the rip tide were safely back on shore.  

When I read this article, as a mom, I could understand how the mother of the two boys must have felt when she saw them struggling in the water.  Like her, I would have done anything to try to save my own kids.  I reflected on how emotionally and physically taxing an experience like this would be for all those involved. 

This story got me thinking about caregiving. Although it can certainly be rewarding when you know you are making a difference in someone else’s life, and although many of the situations that we face as parents and caregivers are thankfully not quite as intense, caring for others can be exhausting.  And these days, extra stressors and limitations can make that all the more true.   

However, although caring for others does involve the risk of getting hurt, experiencing heartache, and feeling worn out, the alternative would mean turning our back on Christ’s call to love, and missing out on experiencing the love and support of people we’ve grown close to over the years.  

When we give ourselves permission to take the time we need for self-care––and then guard that time to the best of our ability––it can make all the difference in being able to do the work God has called us to do.  Whether it be exercise, some quiet time, journaling, or getting a massage, our love for others is almost always healthier when we are able to practice love toward ourselves.

And when that is the case, we are more likely to be reminded that just as we wouldn’t hesitate to join in a human chain to save someone else from drowning, numerous people are more than willing to do the same for us.  Trusting that human chain makes it possible for us to look with compassion on those we are called to care for, near and far, clasp hands, and do whatever we can to help.  

Be Mine

When I was a counselor at Flathead Lutheran in Kalispell, MT, I learned a song that went like this: 

I will change your name / You shall no longer be called / Wounded, outcast / Lonely or afraid / I will change your name / Your new name shall be / Confidence, joyfulness / Overcoming one / Faithfulness, friend of God / One who seeks my face. 

Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp songbook

The creation story in Genesis tells us that God looked at what God had created and said, “It is good.”  The Bible tells us that we were created for God’s pleasure (Rev 4:11).  That means God delights in us, which means that we don’t have to wonder if God cares for us, or if God is listening to our prayers, or about doing enough to please God.  It’s quite the opposite, actually– there is nothing God likes more than to be with us and hear from us.  Just looking at my garden in the growing months fills my heart with joy; that’s how God feels when God looks at us and when we lean on God.

At times, this truth can be hard for us to believe.  We know ourselves well, and, as someone I know once said, “We carry our faults, failures, and insecurities like a snail carries its shell.”  But because of the cross, we can be certain that nothing will change how much God loves us and delights in us.  In fact, through our adoption as God’s children, when God looks at us, God sees nothing less than what God sees when God looks at Jesus.

It’s like when my kids were in preschool and their class would sing a couple songs for the parents.  When the kids lined up to sing, I smiled as I watched them crane their necks to try and spot their parent or grandparent.  They were thrilled to have us there and soaked up the attention.  As I watched, I thought that they wouldn’t have had to sing a single song and we would still be crazy about them.  

If you are a loving parent, you know exactly what I mean.  We love our children so much that sometimes it hurts, simply because they are our children.  This is something I tell parents when they come to have their child baptized, and then I tell them that that’s how God feels about each of us.  There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s love; God loves us simply because we are.  It gives me goosebumps every time.

We often try to make it more complicated than that, and, certainly, there are ways that God desires us to live in order that we might be whole, have meaningful relationships, and enjoy a safe and healthy life.  But even though that is the case, God’s love for us is never contingent on us getting or doing things right.  Just as a loving parent looks forward to holding their child and looks on them with adoration, that’s how God feels about us.  As it says in Isaiah 43, “I have called you by name, you are mine.”

One at a time

I drove to interview at my first call congregation during an April snowstorm.  About thirty miles from the church, my wheels hit some ice on the road and my car jack-knifed from one side of the road to the other. Somehow my car didn’t go in the ditch, and though I was a few minutes late to my interview, I was just glad to make it there in one piece.  

If I were someone on the lookout for signs from God, I might have rationalized that the fact that I made it to this interview safely meant that this was the place where God wanted me to be.  Or, because some pretty hairy things happened shortly after I started, I might have wondered if that nerve-wracking experience on the road was God saying, “Look out!”  

As it is, I’m pretty hesitant to say for certain what God might be doing in a particular situation.  That’s not to say that God doesn’t give us signs, or to deny that it works for some people to ask God for a sign to affirm something they are supposed to do. It’s just that for me, looking for signs isn’t my go-to way of seeking God’s guidance. 

Perhaps this is because I tend to think things through from every angle.  At times this can be helpful, but at others it can be exhausting.  That’s why, instead of looking for signs to confirm what God wants me to do in life, what I try to focus on instead is cultivating a sense of trust as well as appreciation for where I am and what I have. 

To that end, I’ve come to accept that there are certain things we may never know, this side of heaven.  We live in a broken world, and because of that brokenness, pain, disease, violence, and other horrible things happen.  This isn’t the way God wants the world to be, but it’s our reality nonetheless.  And I can’t help but think that most of the time, it’s best not to know when a curveball is coming our way.  

Because the thing is, if we knew a challenge was coming and made a decision to avoid it, we would also miss out on the joy and blessings that might be found along the way.  For example, if we had known how much trouble we would have going through the immigration process, would Thomas and I still have pursued a relationship?  Or if I had known how difficult Esme’s birth would be, would I still have wanted to get pregnant?  What I do know is that I would never want to trade having either of them in my life, no matter what.

My high school tennis coach used to remind us to take things one point, one game, one set, one match at a time.  Especially in matches when there was a lot on the line and every point mattered, these words became a sort of mantra.  It was her way of reminding us to not get ahead of ourselves or too flustered by a missed point.  To this day, I can still hear the echo of Solie’s advice in my ears, and this wisdom extends far beyond the tennis court.  

Yes, there are many times when I’d love to know where God is leading our family, or what might happen a few months or years down the road.  But when I am able to take a deep breath and take one step at a time, it is much easier for me to recognize all the good things in my life right now.  

Not only that, making the effort to notice these things and give thanks for them then helps me feel a sense of peace.  And when I feel at ease, no matter what questions remain unanswered, it makes it much easier to trust God’s promise that whatever happens, everything is going to be okay.

I thank you God…

Poet e.e. cummings once wrote a poem titled “i thank You God for most this amazing day” which reflects on the beauty and wonder of God while also including all sorts of seemingly ordinary things for which he is thankful.  

Ever since I first came across this poem, every so often, I hear its words in my head.  I thank you God for most this amazing day.  I’ve written before how important I think gratitude is, and what a difference it can make in our outlook on life and in our relationships with others.

But it’s something I have to keep coming back to, because recently and not so recently, it can be pretty easy to get swept up in thoughts about what isn’t working or what I’d like to change. 

When that is the case for me, I have to nudge (and sometimes pull) myself to focus on what is good, right, and beautiful in the world.  To start my day with thanks for all that God is, has, and is doing in my life, and to take notice of all the things I have to be grateful for…my husband and kids, our dogs, a hot cup of (not too strong) coffee… 

For baby steps towards tackling a challenge, for when I don’t forget something on the calendar and for grace when I do, for the people who are light-bearers in my life and who help me recognize the good rather than point out the negative.   

When it comes to the power of gratitude in our lives, many studies have proven the difference it can make.  But one of the biggest impacts I think it can make is in helping us stay centered in the midst of everything else going on in our lives and the world around us.  It can also make a big difference in how we relate to others.

Although gratitude surely won’t solve all the challenges we face today or every hardship you are facing in your own life, I believe our lives are profoundly improved when we take the time and make the effort to give thanks and to recognize God’s promise and presence in our lives, seeing us through all that comes our way, both big and small.  

When we make the effort to find something to be grateful for, to express our gratitude, or to simply say a prayer of thanks in the quiet of our hearts, it helps us feel a greater sense of peace in who we are, as well as a greater sense of connection to our fellow human beings.  

And the thing is, when we feel at peace with who we are and a sense of connection to others, it makes us more able to listen to them rather than critique or defend, and it helps us be able to give them the benefit of the doubt rather than jump to conclusions.  When we are able to do those things, I think we are also better able to see that there is good in the world, and in us. 

The choice is ours

When I was in third grade, I went to my first overnight camp, and one of the things I remember from that week is hearing a story called The Tale of the Two Wolves.  In it, an old Cherokee man is teaching his grandson about life.  “A fight is going on inside me,” he says to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

He continues, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.  The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thinks about it for a minute and then asks his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?” The grandfather simply replies, “The one that you feed.”

I got to thinking about this recently. Many of us have heard the adage, “You are what we eat.” But I would say the same goes for the news we watch, the soundbites we listen to, and the message we believe about the world. They can impact how we interpret things and even how we feel. That’s why it is important to be mindful about what is going in, because as is often the case, what goes in, is what comes out.

Related to this, there’s a part in the gospel of Mark where Jesus is talking to his disciples about what is clean and unclean. He tells them it’s not the food they eat that defiles a person but rather what is in the heart. We often take these words to mean that food doesn’t matter and the heart does, and as a result, this passage doesn’t disturb us that much.  But the thing is, this passage should disturb us.  

Because Jesus isn’t saying that if we just get in touch with our hearts, we will find true happiness, meaning, and fulfillment. After all, what if the feelings that we find when we examine our hearts and that define who we are currently are ones that turn out to be murderous, adulterous, envious, and other things of that nature?  Jesus isn’t saying that since these feelings are in our hearts, they are validated.  In contrast, he’s saying that we have a problem, and that problem runs right through us.  Not only that, it’s not a problem we ourselves can fix.    

However, the good news of the gospel is that this is exactly what Jesus makes possible for us, and all we have to do to receive it, is open our hearts to him.  It’s not the opening of our hearts to Jesus that makes God love us or forgive us, but it is through the opening of our hearts that we are transformed by these gifts.  

This good news isn’t the same as someone saying God loves you just the way you are.  But it does mean that in Christ, we get to start fresh each day.  That God doesn’t hold our mistakes against us.  And that God doesn’t expect us to be able to save ourselves in the first place.  

This is the promise that is bestowed on us in baptism, and that Luther encourages us to claim afresh each day.  It’s the promise that the grace and love of God go with you wherever you go, no matter what you do and no matter what anyone says about you.  

It’s the promise that always, we begin anew, and that even when we mess up, our mistakes don’t have the final word.  And it’s the promise that though we are indeed sinners, we are also saints, and the Spirit of God lives inside us.  

The fact that this is the case still means it is up to us to decide how we will live, or, to go back to the imagery of the story of the old Cherokee man and his grandson, which wolf we will feed.  Each day, we get to decide if we will put more effort towards gratitude or jealousy; kindness or judgment; generosity or greed.  

Whatever kind of thoughts and actions we decide to feed will indeed bear more fruit of the same.  But there’s no doubt that our lives will be more full, more meaningful, and more gratifying when we choose to “eat” of the fruits of God’s Spirit over others.  

A Little Goes a Long Way

I was reflecting on some of the ways people have shared feedback or opinions throughout my years in ministry. I’ve long believed that, “If you don’t stick your neck out during the meeting, you shouldn’t stick your tongue out afterward,” advice that I heard at a student council convention in high school.

However, just how we stick our neck out can make a big difference in how what we are saying is received. As so many of us heard growing up, but often don’t abide by as an adult, “It’s not just what we say, but how we say it.”

The thing I’ve been thinking about on and off is how we have gotten to where we are in our culture today. This is largely because of the sociologist in me. But especially because we have gotten so used to criticizing people we don’t have a relationship with (legislatures, media personnel, actors, athletes, etc.), it seems we have lost a certain sense of tactfulness and respect in how we interact with people we do have a relationship with, but with whom we don’t agree.

For example, even when it comes to something simple like asking a question about why your church or school district or health clinic does what they do. Sure, you could fire away an email laying out all your questions. Or, you could start your email by saying something you have appreciated or that you recognize all the hard work that is being put in. Then, you could say, “There are a few things I’ve been wondering about…” and go from there.

I don’t always get it right myself, but I do try to remember the “sandwich method” of giving feedback that I was taught in school: Say something positive, then give your constructive criticism, then end with something positive or that you appreciate again. That may seem a little “too Minnesota nice” to some people, but when we make an effort to remember that the person is a human being, just like us, trying to do his or her best, it might make us approach things differently. And as is often the case, taking a few extra moments to be kind to whoever we are talking to can go a long way.

What I’ve realized is that when I focus on finding something good or something to be grateful rather than only on the bad, whether I am sharing feedback or not– when I remember to say a prayer of blessing for someone who is bothering me instead of focusing on why I’m annoyed– it opens up space within me to feel more patient, gracious, and compassionate. When that happens, it helps me feel better about the other person. It also helps me feel more at peace, with myself and the world around me.