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.

Time to Shine

On the first Sunday of the year, I said that 2014 had been a difficult year but that 2015 would be better.  I was merely saying what I have been hearing and seeing since November. As we celebrated Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas, we seemed to gather ourselves toward the future.  There is a growing sense that 2015 will be a better year.

After the service, Allyn McCune shook my hand and said that difficult times for the congregation were not limited to 2014. “We have had many polishing years,” he said: “We are a well-polished congregation.”

To say merely that next year will be better fails to capture the truth Allyn helps us to see.  There is a feeling in the congregation not only of relief but also of readiness.

2015 is time to shine!

It is time to shine up the church.  Our lovely building could use a bit of polishing. Very much like we clean up our homes so that they sparkle when special guests visit, we need to look at how our building reflects our desire to welcome guests with warmth and hospitality.

It is time to shine out of the church.  Our members are hungry for local mission experiences that dignify the lives of others.  Mission is our purpose: it unites us together, renews our faith, and inspires our worship.

It is time to shine on as a church.  We often equate stewardship with an end-of-the year pledge drive, but stewardship is a spiritual discipline that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.  Stewardship is the practice of grateful living, saying thank-you, celebrating successes, and diversifying giving.

I look forward to the year to come, trusting that God has polished us to shine in 2015.

Pr. Craig

Unlikely Inspiration

How many Congregationalists does it take to change  lightbulb? One-hundred and nine:

Seven on the Lightbulb Task Force Sub-committee, who report to the twelve on the Lightbulb Task Force, appointed by the fifteen on the Trustee Board. Their recommendation is reviewed by the Finance Executive Committee of five, who place it on the agenda of the eighteen-member Finance Committee. If they approve, they bring a motion to the twenty-seven Member church Board, who appoint another twelve-member review committee. If they recommend that the Church Board proceed, a resolution is brought to the Congregational Business Meeting. They appoint another eight-member review committee. If their report to the next Congregational Business Meeting supports the changing of a lightbulb, and the Congregation votes in favor, the responsibility to carry out the lightbulb change is passed on to the Trustee Board, who in turn appoint a seven-member committee to find the best price in new lightbulbs. Their recommendation of which hardware is the best buy must then be reviewed by the twenty-three-member Ethics Committee to make certain that this hardware store has no connection to Disneyland. They report back to the Trustee Board who then commissions the Trustee in charge of the Janitor to ask him to make the change.

Truth be told, though meetings can be tedious and exhausting, I have been surprised by the energy, commitment, and good humor in our meetings.  The Constitution Committee has been meeting weekly, there is a team thinking through how to support the church though the changes coming next year, and a team developing innovative technology and communications strategies.  Throughout the week, volunteers come in to help with mailings and thank you notes, and groups meet to talk about books and read the bible together and pray together and to knit warm, fuzzy, comforting prayer shawls.

All of this passion, work and commitment gives me confidence that 2015 is going to be a good year for the church.  Though I am surprised to hear myself say it, I am inspired by the meetings I attend.  We are moving forward constructively, not in reaction to a difficult year in 2014, but in response to the hopeful future to which we are called as the people of God.

Slice of Heaven

Mathew 25:37-40
Hebrews 11:1

Last week, I visited Dick and Lois Gifford. Good Norwegian that she is, Lois offered me coffee as I walked in the door; when she brought me coffee she asked me if I’d like a piece of peach-cream pie.

O. My. Goodness. The pie was out-of-this-world good!

So I sat down to talk with Dick, and as we ate Lois’s heavenly pie he told me a story, a slice of his life.

Dick ran away from his home in Janesville when he was 16. His mother died when he was seven, and his father used alcohol to cope with his grief, so Dick needed to get away and make a new start.

He made a bag of sandwiches and took off walking. In the daytime, he walked along the road; at night he slept in the woods. Dick didn’t mention the cold—it was November when he left home—but he said that he was hungry; after two days of walking, he ran out of sandwiches.

Four days later, on his sixth day of walking, he saw a sign advertising malted milk in a Blanchardville cafe. He went inside and sat down at the counter and laid out a few coins.

“How much for one of those malted milks?”

The fellow behind the counter went over and made a malted milk and took it to Dick. “That much,” he said.

Vic Bredeson came over and sat down next to him. People tell me Vic was a big, strapping guy; it appears he had a big heart to match.

“You hungry?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well then, what would you like to eat?

“I ain’t picky.”

“How about a hamburger.”

“I guess so.”

Vic ordered him two hamburgers and a plate of fries, and Dick ate like a sixteen year old boy who hadn’t eaten for four days.

Vic sat with him at the counter while he ate. “Looks like you might like a warm bed.”

“I guess I might.”

Vic took him to his farm. “He took me upstairs to a bedroom with a nice bed in it and made me feel right at home.” When he came downstairs in the morning, he found that Vic’s wife, who was expecting her first child, had breakfast on the table. After breakfast, Vic took him to the barn to do chores, including milking twelve cows.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Vic was checking around trying to find his parents and in time he located his father. He let him know that Dick was safe and his father was glad to let his son stay and help out. Several weeks later, his father came to see him at the Bredesons. He saw how good things were for Dick and how well he was doing, so his father wished him well and went home to Janesville.

Dick stayed on with the Bredesons and learned to do chores and to help out around the farm. One day, Vic asked him if he could handle milking and the chores so that he and his wife could go on a little vacation.

“I told him ‘sure, I could.’ Milking twelve cows was nothing for me and I enjoyed doing the chores.”

So the Bredesons went away and left Dick in charge. I can’t imagine a better thing for a 16 year old going through a tough time than to be given some work to do and to be left in charge and to be held responsible. When Vic came home and found what a good job Dick had done taking care of things, he praised him for his work and bragged on him to others.

Dick didn’t much want to go to school, but the Bredesons insisted that he finish high school. He got to play sports. In shop he made Mrs. Bredeson a watering can for the flowers on her porch. “Do you know: she was so proud of that watering can and praised me for my work and made me feel pretty good.”

While Dick was living with the Bredesons, their first child was born. After Dick finished high school, he volunteered for the service and was later deployed to Panama. His service complete, he came home to Blanchardville, where he met Lois, “and the rest is history.”

Dick keeps in touch with the Bredeson family, including the son who was born to them while he was living with the.  He says that the time he spent with them was the best time of his life.

The Bredesons could not have known in advance the difference they would make in Dick’s life. Faith looks a lot like generous openness when there are ample reasons for tight-fisted close-mindedness. But Christ comes to us in the form of hungry strangers and faith is about reaching out to others beyond our own comfort when there is no guarantee of success.

Thank you to Dick for sharing his story and to Lois for her divine pie, and thank you to the Bredesons for their generosity and faithfulness.

Sometimes, You Can Hear

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.  Romans 12:2

On October 20th, as I stood behind the communion table with Pr. Todd, I heard something for the first time.

It was Children’s Sabbath that Sunday.  In the children’s moment we talked about fairness and gave the children fair trade chocolate, much to their delight.  The sermon and our prayers were focused on the lives of children, and our communion liturgy spoke to our belief that we are all children of God.

I stood there with Pr. Todd realizing that we would serve communion together one more time before he leaves to serve as Senior Pastor at St. John’s, Monroe.

As communion ended, we stood together and prayed our prayer of thanksgiving–it was then that I heard it.

In a single, familiar movement, worshippers put their communion cups in the pews and reached for their hymnals.  As each cup was placed in the pew, it made a single sound, a tinkling sound, and all the sounds together was music.

There are moments of grace when the soul senses what otherwise cannot be perceived–a sound, a vision, a feeling.  The perception alters the way we experience ourselves in the world.  Our spiritual practice is to open ourselves to these moments, to be shaped by them, formed and transformed by our willingness to respond to that which is given rather than to resist that which cannot be changed.

That moment of music still resonates.  It lasted for only a second or two, but in those few seconds were contained over a century of worship and thousands of people who have fed and nourished by the Lord’s Supper.

I close my eyes and imagine the seconds of each month and and all the years combined, and in this moment my prayers  for the coming year are answered.

May God grant us openness in the coming year; may we be transformed by our willingness to respond to what we are given; and may we experience moments of grace that renew our souls and minds.