In My Kingdom, Are Many Nancys :-)

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.  –John 14:2


I don’t know if you have noticed, but there seem to be a lot Nancys in our church.

There are in fact 19 Nancys in the church.  Supposing the church to be a house of God, we might update John 14:2, “In our Father’s house, there are many Nancys,” each one individually is dwelling place for God, each and all together make the church a place of healing and hope for others.

How many Nancys can you name?  And what is it about women named Nancy, anyway?  Why do we have such a cluster of Nancys in our church?

Nancy was a name given by a generation in a hopeful time, a statement of belief in positivism, hard work, and honesty.

Spiritual Engagement Ministry Board: Nancys Lackey and Keller, Chair and Vice-Chair, respectively.  Building and Finance: Nancy Ulrich.

Currently, Outreach and Mission Ministry Board is Nancy-less, but this is sure to change. Neither are there Nancys currently serving on our Christian Education Ministry Board, but this board has a rich tradition of Christines (Chris, Kristi), a name which may be the next generation’s answer to Nancy.

I can tell you from experience, it is good to have a Nancy or two on your side: ditto Christine.  To get things done requires a commitment to detail and follow through.  Without a good attitude and faith in hard work nothing worthy gets done.  These good souls are not only people in whom God dwells, but who help to make us better dwelling place for others.

What do you think is the most common name in the church for men?

I don’t know for sure, but can you think of two Nancys married to Bills?  How many Williams do we have?

There are 24 Williams. There are 43 Johns.  I could count the number of Barbaras, Jims, Mikes, and Deannas–do you get this beautiful picture?

We don’t think of these individuals as a group; we think of them as individual people, for it is with these people as individuals that we experience the indwelling of God.

Yet if we imagine together as one all the individual Nancys and Chistines, Williams, and Johns, and Jims, and Mikes, and Deannas–then we may see how they collectively become God’s dwelling place, the home Jesus promises.

“In my Father’s House there are many dwelling places.”  Indeed.

Ashes to Ashes

Karen Gullickson lives with her sister, Ruthie, in a little house behind Gullickson’s Grocery Store, which has been closed for decades. If you were to ask Karen when the family store closed, she would tell you the date along with a complete history of the store and town, Keyeser, Wisconsin.

Spring Prairie Lutheran Church is across the street from Karen’s house. The church was founded by Norwegian Lutherans, who were dairy farmers and tobacco growers back when tobacco was a government subsidized cash crop like corn and soybeans are today.

If you were to open Karen’s front door and walk across the street in a straight line, you would find yourself in the parking space marked by a sign, “Reserved for Pastor.” This was my parking spot–Spring Prairie Lutheran Church was my first congregation.

I went to Spring Prairie Lutheran Church knowing nothing about Lutheranism, to serve as an Interim Pastor following a Pastor who had hurt the congregation in ways that are all too familiar to church goers. The pastor who preceded him, Pr. Rolf Olsen, had served Spring Prairie faithfully for 38 years, so the congregation soon recovered from the shenanigans of the Pastor I succeeded. The resilience of the congregation grew from the deep roots of relationships of a community cultivated over time by working together, by cooperating and sharing farm machinery, by helping one another chop and spear tobacco, by celebrating the end of growing seasons, and by going to church.

The story of these relationships is told in the cemetery, which surrounds Spring Prairie Lutheran Church, and Karen has long tended this cemetery and curated its stories. She has maps for every plot and knows the story of every family member buried there, stories which grow from the Keyeser soil of Norwegian Lutheran relationships.

Funeral services at Spring Prairie Lutheran Church conclude with a congregational procession to the graveside, bells tolling, led by the Pastor, robes flowing in the prairie breeze.

Karen taught me about funeral processions at Spring Prairie. The very first funeral I officiated over was for Esther Gilbertson, the matriarch of Gilbertson’s Grocery Store, which is across the street from Gullickson’s Grocery store. Karen would gladly tell you the complicated story of these two grocery stores.

I asked Karen to walk me through how Pr. Rolf led the the funeral procession and conducted the committal service at the graveside. She told me that Pr. Rolf, while saying “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” made the sign of the cross on the casket with soil from the graveside.

I began to understand beauty of soil at Spring Prairie. The Norwegians moved to Keyeser because it looked like home and because of the soil–fertile, black loam left by glaciers plowing across Wisconsin eons ago, soil that was fed for millennia by prairie grasses. The sign of the cross inscribed with that rich soil traced not only generations of relationships: it connected souls to ages and eons of time that created it.

For the year that I served at Spring Prairie Lutheran Church, I carried a small container of that soil in my robe pocket, and began to follow the 38 year custom established by Pr. Rolf Olsen–“ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

When my year at serving at Spring Prairie Lutheran Church ended, Karen gave me a gift: a tin box with a bag of that beautiful soil. The tin now sits in my study in a cabinet that once belonged to John Deere.

Each time I prepare to officiate a funeral, I open the tin to fill a small container with Spring Prairie soil. The last time I opened the tin was to celebrate the life of Belinda Johnson, and I found that the soil Karen gave me is nearly exhausted.

It is time now for me to find some soil along the Mississippi River to refill the tin.

I am thankful for Karen Gullickson and the good people of Spring Prairie Lutheran Church; it was a profound honor to serve as Pastor in Keyeser, Wisconsin, and as I begin serving as Pastor and Teacher of First Congregational UCC, Moline, Illinois, I can only hope to be as faithful as was Pr. Rolf Olsen. I  believe this faithfulness is about finding the soil of this place.

It is a profound and humbling honor to be officially called by this congregation. We do not know how many years we will be given to walk upon this earth, nor how long we will be given to serve God together, but we can be sure of the soil. In a church that remembers John Deere and the plow he created to prepare the earth for planting, we now look forward to planting seeds and growing together.

At the graveside in the years ahead, as I trace the sign of the cross with the soil of this place, I will remember Karen Gullickson and Spring Prairie Lutheran Church, and I will pray that we will faithfully tend and care for the soil we have been given by God to grow something beautiful and lasting at First Congregational UCC Moline.

Letter to Mother Emanuel, on Behalf of First Congregational UCC, Moline, Illinois

Dear Mother Emanuel,

First Congregational UCC, Moline, Illinois, has been praying for you. We are prayerfully asking what we can do, as a white church, as our brothers and sisters in Christ attending historic black churches find themselves again as targets of racial terrorism. We have been asking the Spirit to lead us as we seek to make good on a prayer we say each time we celebrate Holy Communion together: “May our every prayer be an action that brings healing, hope, and reconciliation to a broken and hurting world.” We know our $3,000 check is only a beginning, but we send it to you along with our broken hearts, prayers of lament, and openness to how God in Christ calls us to respond as people of faith.

Our faith has been renewed as we witness your response to this tragedy. We affirm the words recently said by Rev. Nelson Rivers: “You cannot be the thing you hate. You cannot become the evil you seek to eradicate. Forgiveness is not the same as ignoring the facts. We want justice.” We are talking with our children about racism, and asking ourselves how through our passivity we have contributed to a culture that has ignored the burdens borne by our brothers and sisters in African American Churches. We are praying for pastors and congregations who seek to answer the call we share together of seeking justice for all of God’s children.

We are also sending cards made by our children in our VBS program, which we offered during the week of the Charleston Massacre. We are committed to raising children who will take up the standard of love and justice and who will, like David, sling stones to slay the lumbering giant of racism.

We will not forget you nor the churches we know you represent. In Christ, we are joined with you in this struggle, and pray that the Spirit will reveal how we can work together in the Quad Cities to be united with you in Charleston.

In Christ,

Rev. Craig Jan-McMahon
Senior Pastor
First Congregational UCC, Moline, Illinois

On the Word “Massacre”

I use the word massacre intentionally: The Charleston Massacre.  In fact, the word is accurately used for the murder of 10 or more people.  Literally and accurately, I use the word inappropriately.  However, I view the murder as more than the number of a beating hearts that were ceased that day.  And as a person of faith, as I watch Mother Emanuel respond, I believe more than ever in the the power of resurrection, which raises us up not only when we reach the end of our lives, but also when the power of death visits us as it did in Charleston.

Conclusions: Starting With Now

A book by Anthony de Mello, Wellsprings (Doubleday: New York.  1986) begins with a spiritual exercise called “Conclusions” (14-15).

The spiritual life requires courageous ventures into what is new, unknown, and uncomfortable. There, in the process of discovery, meaning is to be found–or rather, created. Faith is about trust founded on remembering how God has been with us in the past, so we have courage as we follow the Holy Spirit into the new life God is creating through us in the present.

Here is de Mello’s spiritual exercise for new beginnings.

Pr Craig

I imagine that today I am to die.
I ask for some time alone and write down for my friends a sort of testament for which the points that follow could serve as chapter titles.
1.  These things I have loved in life:
Things I tasted,
looked at,
2.  These experiences I have cherished:
3. These ideas have brought me liberation:
4.  These beliefs I have outgrown:
5.  These convictions I have lived by:
6.  These are the things I have lived for:
7.  These insights I have gained in the school of life:
Insights into God,
the world,
human nature,
Jesus Christ,
8.  These risks I took,
these dangers I have courted:
9.  These sufferings have seasoned me:
10.  These lessons life has taught me:
11.  These influences have shaped my life (persons, occupations, books, events):
12.  These scripture texts have lit my path:
13.  These things I regret about my life:
14.  These things are my life’s achievements:
15.  These persons are enshrined within my heart:
16.  These are my unfulfilled desires:
I choose an ending for this document:
a poem–my own or someone else’s;
or a prayer;
a sketch
or a picture from a magazine;
a scripture text;
or anything that I judge would be
an apt conclusion to my testament.

Trout Skin

Trout slip through the water and the water doesn’t touch them.  They have a slime, a film, which protects them.  There is an ichthyological name for it: mucoprotein coating.  This coating contains enzymes and antibodies that fight infection.  When even a small portion of this coating is compromised, fish bleed essential electrolytes into the water.

This slime coat is what stinks on your hands after you have touched a fish.

When you love trout as I do, you handle them gently so as not to mar their delicate, essential protection.

Before you touch a trout, you dip your hands in the stream as if it is holy water, gathering enough water to make your hands a font. Your touch does not injure; it anoints.

In that moment, there is but one thought in your mind: release. 

If you practice enough–and if you love trout you will practice–you can release a trout without touching it at all.  It doesn’t happen every time, but if you keep the trout on the line just long enough, and if you use barbless hooks, and if you are focused on the fish so that you become one with it for the brief time of your connection with it, then you can reach down, grasp the fly, and remove the hook without even touching the fish.

Often, the fish will swim behind your waders, breathing, regaining strength.  You wait and watch, yet the trout disappears like a dream.

Effortlessly, silently, it glides into deep waters.