Kari's Blog

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.

The Season of Light

This is the first weekend in the season of Epiphany, the season of the church that we focus on the ways that the love and light of God through Jesus is “made known.” Along those lines, I came across this poem written by Jan Richardson, whose words are inspiring and a testimony to the reality that the light of Christ shines in and through us, and when we shine that light, “The darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

Blessed are those who bear the light
by Jan Richardson (janrichardson.com)

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief.

Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith,
in stubborn hope,
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.

© Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons. janrichardson.com

Everything’s Going to Be Okay

“Everything’s going to be okay.” In those times when all I can see in front of me is brokenness, struggle, and impossibility, these are the words I most yearn to hear. When I am not confident in my ability to handle whatever I’m facing or am not feeling particularly hopeful these words are balm to my heart.

They are simple words, yet to me they are also a bridge. A bridge from despair to hope; from tightness in my chest to being able to breathe; from feeling trapped to being able to see beyond the wall of fear in front of me.
What I hear in the words, “Everything is going to be okay,” isn’t a dismissal of how I feel in the moment, but rather a reminder that I don’t have to figure things out on my own. That I’m not alone.

Sometimes these words come from my husband, who has been told outright to say them many times. Sometimes they come from a song that I’m listening to, like “You’re Gonna Be Okay,” by Lauren Diagle. And sometimes, it’s by remembering a verse in scripture like, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

“Everything is going to be okay.” I don’t know about you, but perhaps you need to hear these words today as well. Maybe you even know who someone who needs to hear these words. Someone who has been spent way too much time alone and is starting to get depressed. Someone who has been watching or listening to news that is starting to tear them up inside, and maybe tear up some of their relationships too. Someone who hasn’t felt the presence of God in their life for awhile and is starting to wonder if they even believe anymore.

“Everything is going to be okay.” Like I said, they are simple words, but they are also ones that have the power to change a life, one little step at a time. Because often, when we most need to hear these words, looking too far ahead doesn’t help. But hearing that we are not alone, that God has not forgotten about you, and that goodness still exists in the world sure does.

Christmas Preparations

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the preparation that goes into Christmas– buying and wrapping presents, getting special outfits picked out, sending Christmas cards.

It’s not lost on me as a parent that a lot of the things that we do this time of year are exactly what my kids– and lots of others like them– love about this season and look forward to most. Even during a year when many of the events that would fill our calendar are removed, there are plenty of other things we’ll still do to try and make Christmas special for our families.

Yet as many of you can relate to, even though things like baking and decorating and others add to the usual juggle of home, work, and school, we do these things because we love our kids and the joy our kids experience through them. To me, that’s part of what Christmas is all about.

Because just like we sometimes do things as parents or grandparents for the sake of our kids– because we love them and because it lights up our lives to see their faces overflowing with joy– just think how much more God feels that way about us.
Any joy we feel by doing something for someone we care about is just a just a glimpse of how much joy God feels showering us with love and seeing us smile at something God has given us or created. And when it comes down to it, that’s the reason God sent Jesus in the first place: to show us we are loved and so that we would always know Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

It wasn’t necessarily easy for God to do this, or simple. God knew what Jesus’ life was going to be like and the many hardships that he would face, yet God decided it was worth it to send Jesus to become one of us anyway. And so Jesus came to show us the fullness of God’s love and forgiveness. It’s pretty remarkable when you think of it.

Yet as much as we might like to decorate or bake or do special things for our kids, maybe this Christmas more than ever, it’s important to remember that Jesus coming to us isn’t based on how pretty our decorations are or having a Pinterest-perfect tree.
Jesus coming to us isn’t based on how many different kinds of cookies we bake and getting them all just right. Jesus coming to us isn’t even based on getting everything ready on time. Rather, Jesus coming to us is all about God’s love. Jesus didn’t come to judge a baking contest or see how many things we can get crossed off our list. Jesus came to show us God is with us, not to see how “put together” we are.

So if you are reading this just after your kids threw a tantrum, or have felt recently that you really don’t have anything left to give, hear this: the promise is that Jesus comes for you– not perfect people, not those who have it all figured out, not the wealthy, the rich, the powerful, or those whom we might consider important, but for people whose lives are messy, who don’t always feel filled with hope, who are beloved yet pretty ordinary.
The promise of Christmas is that God loves you and is with you always, and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more. May you rest in that promise, and let it wash over you this Advent.

Joy and Sorrow

Nora McInerny has made it her career to talk about death and loss.  She certainly has reason to: in 2014, in the space of two months, she lost her second pregnancy, her father, and her husband.  

According to Nora, when most people hear her story, they respond with some version of, “Uh, I just can’t imagine.”  But her response to them is, I think you can.  And I think you should.  Because though the particular events may be different for you, we will all experience grief.  We will lose loved ones.  We will experience loss.  We will be pushed to our limits in one way or another.

Nora is very aware of the line that exists between those who are grief stricken and those who are grief adjacent.  Often, our inclination is to push grief into a corner where, if it has to be seen, at least it won’t be heard.  However, it’s misguided to think that those who have experienced a terrible loss will move on from that grief.  Rather, if they grieve in a healthy way, what they will do instead is move forward with it.  

Once it’s your grief, Nora says, you get that what you’re feeling and experiencing isn’t a moment in time but rather something that will last.  You can understand the nuances that exist with grief: that there are memories of our loved ones that will always make us laugh, as well as memories that will always make us sad.  That grief doesn’t exist in a vacuum but rather alongside all these other emotions.

I don’t know about you, but I think this is something we all need to hear these days.  Because almost all of us are experiencing grief and loss as well.  There are things in each of our lives right now that we can’t fix.  And there is a mixture of emotions that most of us likely feel on any given day.  

The loss isn’t only the loss of people we love, or the number of lives and jobs that have been lost as a result of the pandemic.  There’s the loss that has come from cancelled activities and gatherings.  In addition to all of that, a lot of us have also experienced fractured relationships as a result of differing views regarding our political climate or how to handle the pandemic.  

There is a sense of grief that can result from realizing that people you are close to hold a worldview different from your own, especially when those differences are met with an inability to accept one another’s viewpoints.  When it comes to the pandemic, it’s tiring to be someone who carefully follows the recommended guidelines when not everyone else does.  

But there is a whole lot of grief that is not being dealt with in healthy ways, and that can lead to making things worse.  Instead of trying to push it down or only being kind to people who agree with us, what we need to do instead is allow ourselves to feel our grief and frustration and even anger all the way through so that we will no longer be held hostage to it and can find some peace instead.

With this in mind, I was reminded of something a friend recently shared with me.  She reminded me that joy and sorrow are sister emotions.  That the two live in the same house and are often inextricably linked.  

She shared about how the day her mother died was the same day one of her grandchildren was born and how something she read during that time invited her to take a walk with her sorrow, really taking the time to feel it all the way through rather than try to push it away.  Then the next day, she took a walk with her joy, allowing herself to fully experience that rather than rush through it either.

If we put all our energy into trying to say positive and spirited this time of year, we might be missing part of what we actually need…time to sit with our grief, time to feel our feelings through, time to give voice to how we are actually feeling.  

I’d be the first one to acknowledge that finding time to do this isn’t always easy, especially if you have other humans to take care of with a mixture of feelings all their own.  But giving ourselves the time and permission to do just that can be incredibly powerful, and And giving voice to all that is stirring inside is also really important if we want an authentic relationship with God.

So today, wherever you are, I invite you to not shut out our grief or loss or the pain you have experienced, but to instead allow yourself to feel deeply both the joy and the sorrow, to perhaps even take a walk with each of them.  I invite you to turn all that you are feeling over to God, to allow God into every crevice of your being, so that you can be set free from whatever is holding you down.  

When we are able to do so, it is then that we can truly move from a place of hopelessness to one of hope, not because our circumstances necessarily change, but because of the promise that God is here and that God is at work.  

Advent Hope

When I was in college, living in Duluth provided me with many memorable winters. I remember the time we got so much snow it was nearly impossible to get in and out of the parking lots. On the way home from work one night, knowing that I had to use my car again the next day, I decided to park my car on the street, knowing full well that if I parked there overnight I would get a ticket. However, the prospect of getting a ticket seemed better than having to shovel myself out the next morning, or worse yet, the possibility of getting stuck.

When I was a senior, I lived off campus with my friend Jeanne, and that winter was especially brutal. On more than one occasion we received over twenty inches of snow in a twenty four hour period. Second semester, I was assigned to student teach at Hermantown High School, which was about 15 minutes from where we lived.
One particular morning that winter, I couldn’t get my car out of the driveway because it had snowed the night before. I remember shoveling out from behind my tires, throwing sand down, backing up and then trying to go forward, doing just about anything to get my car to move. Nothing worked, so eventually, I ended up calling a cab in order to get to school.

It just so happened that the night before, I had stopped by the ATM to get $20 cash. I didn’t really have a good reason to take the money out, but as it so happened, the $20 I had withdrawn was just enough to cover my fare and tip the driver.
The fact that I had that money, and was able to get to school on time to teach because of it, despite all the hassles and delays of the morning, was a tangible reminder to me of God’s presence and provision. It was a moment when I knew for sure that God was looking out for me and that God does provide.

I’ve been thinking of this as I’ve reflected on the season of Advent. During this season, as Christians, we boldly proclaim that our hope for life, wholeness, and healing is not in vain. Like a musical overture, Advent hints at things to come, while at the same time reminding us that our hope is in this truth: God has acted in the past. God is acting now. And God will continue to act in the future.

The reminders of this truth aren’t always obvious, and this year that may feel as the more true. But the promise is that just as God acted in the past, God will act again. And even more than that, the promise of Advent is that whatever we are facing right now, God is with us, here.

It’s Here!

Often, when I talk to people about the process of writing and publishing a book, they relate it to what it is like to give birth to a child. Of course, it’s usually women who make these sorts of comments. But to some extent, it is definitely true. The process of writing and publishing a written work takes time, is a labor of love as well as one of vulnerability, and once it is out in the world, there are lots of things that are beyond your control.

It’s with all these emotions that I am so happy to announce that my book, Unbalanced but Centered: Tending to Your Heart in the Frenzy of Life, is now available on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

I wrote this book because I wholeheartedly believe that though a perfectly balanced life is a myth, a centered life is possible. it is by staying centered in who we are in Christ that we can find peace and calm in the midst of the frenzy of life. By sharing some of my own journey, I hope you will be inspired in your own.

You can purchase the book for you and your loved ones here.

Words of Hope and Promise

I would guess that most of us don’t think that much about the prophets in the Bible on a regular basis.  In fact, though there are some great verses of comfort and promise included in these various books, they probably aren’t the ones most of us go to when we thumb through our Bible.

But when we do dig into these stories, we’re reminded of how, just as God spoke to and through God’s people then, God is still speaking into our lives today.

I got to thinking about this when I recently read through the prophet Isaiah’s call story in Isaiah 6. At first, Isaiah questions his ability and worthiness as God’s messenger, but then Isaiah’s lips are cleansed with a burning coal, and in that act of cleansing, God equips Isaiah to serve as God’s spokesperson. 

The message Isaiah was sent to share wasn’t an easy one. Although the people of Judah will lose everything and although they will live in exile for a number of years, that is not the end of Isaiah’s message.  Rather, into their devastation and destruction, Isaiah speaks words of encouragement and hope: he tells them that God will raise them to new heights and is at work in their lives.

That message includes what we hear in chapter 9, where Isaiah announces the coming of of a new king, who will shine light in a land of deep darkness and bring peace to those living in exile: 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

I can imagine how comforting these, and some of Isaiah’s other words, were to the people of Judah. To hear that God had not forgotten about them and would not abandon them was likely exactly what they needed to hear and yet hard to believe, all at the same time.

I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that you can imagine how comforting and reassuring those words would have been, because in a lot of ways, these past six months have been difficult and trying as we’ve dealt with the pandemic.   

There is so much loss and disappointment and bad news coming our way that that if we’re not careful, our minds and homes can easily become filled with a sense of gloom and images of darkness.  We are wary.  We are weary.  Like the people of Judah, we need a word of hope, a sense of peace, a reason to keep pushing on.

That’s what a man named John Kralik needed at a particularly low time in his life nearly 10 years ago.  His small law firm was struggling, he was in the middle of a second, painful divorce, he had an estranged relationship with his kids, his girlfriend had broken up with him, and a number of other things weren’t going well for him either.  He was only 53, but as far as he could tell, there was nothing to look forward to and the future looked bleak.

It had been a New Year’s Day tradition for him and his girlfriend to walk through the hills near his house, and even though he didn’t look forward to taking the hike alone, on New Year’s Day that year, John headed out for the hills anyway.  

As he hiked, desperately searching for some sort of answer, he started to think that maybe his life might become at least tolerable if, instead of focusing on what he didn’t have, he could find some way to be grateful for what he did have.  

That belief led John to set the goal of writing one thank you note a day, every day, for a year.  He decided he would think back on his life and pay attention to any act of kindness he had received, and write to that person to say thank you.  He wrote to former colleagues, his doctors and friends, handymen and store clerks, anyone who had shown him some sort of kindness at some point in his life.  He even wrote to people he considered current foes.  

What strikes me about John’s story is that this act of writing a thank you card not only touched those on the receiving end of those notes; according to John, this daily practice had the habit of completely changing his own life as well.  

It reminds me how often, the way God uses us isn’t in some big, dramatic way, but rather through small yet intentional acts that shift our perspective and help us recognize the goodness of God right where we are. Not only that, God doesn’t wait for us to get our lives together before God is able to work in and through us.  Rather, like Isaiah, God can us us just as we are and where we are to share some words of encouragement and hope.

John’s story also reminds me of the truth that many of us know, but often forget.  It’s the reality that we can’t control other people.  Nor can we control a lot of our circumstances in life.  But we can choose how we respond to them and to use our words to sow hope, peace, gratitude and encouragement.  And most of the time, when we do, it not only has the potential to lift someone else up, it often has a way of buoying our own hearts and spirits too.

Today, I’m not going to suggest that writing a daily note of gratitude will change your life, although it might.  And I’m not going to tell you just how God will send you out to share words of encouragement and hope when you say, like Isaiah, “Here I am, send me.”  

But what I do want to remind you of is the fact that you are among those whom God has called.  You are among those whom God has claimed and who have received the message of hope that Isaiah shared all those years ago: The light shines in the darkness but the darkness cannot overcome it.  Though things might not look so great now, this is not the end.  

Having been on the receiving end of this message, we are then invited to share it with others, to bring words of healing and promise into a broken and hurting world. As we do, we can be sure that whenever we choose to use our words to share hope and encouragement, God is there, working in, through, and among us.


Remembering the Saints

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. (Phil 1:3-5)

This past Sunday was All Saints Sunday, a day when we take the opportunity to remember in a special way those who have gone before us, those who have inspired our faith, those who have left a tangible yet, perhaps invisible, mark on our lives– much like the sign of the cross we were marked with in baptism.

Aside from funerals, we don’t have a lot of rituals that involve us marking the memory of a loved one. In my opinion, that’s part of what makes All Saints Sunday so holy and precious. On this day, we are invited to light a candle, to reflect, and to specifically give thanks for those we remember.

One of the people I personally think of on All Saints Sunday is a woman by the name of Shirley. Shirley was a member of my home church. Our bond was initially forged when I was in high school, and Shirley signed up to be my “secret prayer sponsor.” Every so often, I would receive a card in the mail, reminding me that I was being prayed for, encouraging me in my various activities, or in response to some sort of article she had seen in the newspaper with my name in it.

Eventually, I started to recognize her handwriting, and to this day, I can still picture it. It wasn’t until the end of that school year that I learned who the sender of these cards and prayers was. But even after her commitment to being my secret prayer sponsor ended, Shirley stayed in touch. She tracked with what I was up to, especially once I started seminary.

Several years later, Shirley’s granddaughter and I ended up being in the same cohort for our clinical pastoral education experience. Her granddaughter was enrolled at a different seminary, and as you might imagine, Shirley was tickled by this connection. To me it was a wonderful reminder of how we truly are knit together as the communion of saints in the body of Christ.

Shirley and I continued to exchange notes a couple of times a year until a few years ago, when she passed away. As I remember and give thanks for Shirley, I do so encouraged by her example and grateful for her prayers. I’m also inspired to consider how I might do the same for someone else by saying a prayer or sending a card. As you remember the saints (those living and those who are no longer living) in your own life, I hope the same is true for you.