In the Ashes

On August 22, 2001 lighting struck our home in Oak Park, Illinois. There was destruction everywhere. Our son, the only one at home at the time, was spared his life by moving from one floor to another to check the Cub’s score. We will never stop thanking God for his life, saved from what could have conceivably been an unlivable loss.  

We were not allowed to go into our home until the fire department let us enter the next day.  We were devastated. Ashes filled the attic. Water damage and destroyed wood and furniture spilled over all of the 2nd floor. Water was still dripping thorough the ceiling. It was our own “war zone.”

In the midst of the destruction, my husband and I kept repeating, “We have Andrew, our son” who could have lost his life. Yes, we had life even in the midst of all the loss. But the ashes were real. Darkness and despair entered our lives in a new and profound way.

Is this not what starts us into the Lenten season?  Is it not from the ashes and ruins of our lives that we walk the valleys and hills of despair and destruction into the light and hope that comes with the morning? 

But our family didn’t enter into the morning light easily or quickly. The ashes were real. Our losses were real. When the insurance adjuster walked through our home he kept saying to us that it was “just things” that were lost. At one point of frustration I declared in a loud voice, “Sir, these are not just things, they are our family’s story. See that picture, it came from Great Grandma Moody who brought it from Sweden.”  Stories and people are not things. Darkness and loss cannot be dismissed.

All of us have had “fires” of some kind in our lives that bring ashes of despair and hopelessness. As hard as it may be, Ash Wednesday and all of Lent reminds us to remember the ashes and despair. It also invites us to walk together in the weeks ahead through the ashes into the dawn.

Shalom,

Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President

Order out of Chaos

As I sat in a Hebrew Bible class in the early 1980’s my mouth dropped and tears filled my eyes. We were studying the creation narratives in Genesis. I heard for the first time that God created order out of chaos. I had been taught that God made nothing into something and that God separated things and had males rule over females, but I had not learned that one significant role of our divine creator was and still is to bring order out of disorder.

Today we are living in a time when chaos is becoming the norm. Chaos is praised as “change.” Chaos is celebrated! So as I reflected back on my class I found comfort in the interpretation that God is a god of order not chaos. Chaos and darkness were the norm before humanity was invited to be in relationship with the divine.

In my early ministry days I walked with a young mother who had been severely abused as a child. She and her children lived in daily chaos. As she received professional and spiritual counseling to care for her wounds, I noticed a pattern that kept appearing. Just when her professional counselor declared that she was “stabilized,” she created a scene that caused her peace to be thrown into chaos again.

I was puzzled. Why didn’t she like to live in order?  What internal force kept pulling her back to chaos? I realized that all through her childhood and adult life chaos was her place of comfort, control, power, and security. It was where she found her identity.  

In these last months I find myself reflecting on her story. Where and what tempts me into the swirls and twists of chaos? Separation and hatred enter my chaotic world when I twist with the noise and clutter of unhealed and power hungry voices screaming division and hatred to others. Chaos drives me to unending circles of hopelessness.

I am tempted to stay in chaos for its false sense of power. But eventually I remember the One of real power who always invites us to be “ordered” in love.

Shalom,

Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President 

Fear Not

240_f_53122771_tqkhvmtgkmzpcven7osu5ocdfogd5hyo“Fear Not” is not only told to Mary and to Zacharias and the shepherds but is also repeated 362 more times in our scriptures. We are given one “Fear Not” for each day of the year.
 
Most of us would love to have our fears released but it that really possible?

Perhaps the following testimony of our youngest daughter will give us some insight into honoring and living with our fears.

I am all too familiar with fear. I am a six on the enneagram and have been a sensitive person since birth. I vividly remember checking my closet before bed to make sure no one was hiding in there. I always asked my mom to please tell the shoe store salespeople not to help us so I could avoid talking to them. I have learned how to navigate my fears through the help of a great therapist and spiritual director. I also was guided by two faith filled, human, and grounded parents.

I recently had an experience that gave me new insights into my own fears and those I see developing in my own beautiful children. My husband and our two young sons were driving back home to Texas from visiting his parents for Thanksgiving in Illinois. We were on our last day of travel and had stopped for lunch. Our youngest needed a diaper change, so I took him into the stall with me where there was a wall pull down changer. He looked up at it and started to get teary eyed. His voice quivered, and I felt his very legitimate fear. I asked him a few questions and spoke to him gently to let him know he was safe. This isn’t new for us. It is how we address fears and how we try to communicate regularly with our children. (Of course we ALL have those days and hours where we wish we could change the way we speak.) Compassion and empathy are at the root of our home, and the home in which I was raised. After listening carefully to his fears, he and I decided it was better to change his diaper standing as we talked about the favorite toy he griped tightly in his hand. We came to the end of the change with smiles on our faces. 

We left the bathroom and went back to our table. A few minutes later, a kind older woman came up to me and said, “I just wanted to thank you for how you spoke to your little one in there, you’re babies are going to be just great in our world.” Tears formed in my eyes as I thanked her for her support and gift of connecting. I didn’t know someone else was in the bathroom with us. She could have left without saying a word to me.

As a mom I have many fears. Am I doing the wrong thing? Are they going to be okay? Am I doing too much? Am I doing too little? What I realized that moment in the bathroom with our son is that the greatest gift we can give to each other is to sit with one another’s fears. We need to hold the fear and each other. I didn’t try to wipe away his fear because it was something he was experiencing on a very real level. We talked through it, and I comforted him. I didn’t tell him “to get over it” or “just toughen up.” I gave him the opportunity to experience his fear, and helped him realize there are ways he could move through it. Through the kind woman’s encouraging words, I felt supported and held in my own fears. A gift from a complete stranger. We deserve to be held, and we deserve to be community to each other in the midst of all the fears we face in our ever changing world.

May we hear a fresh, “Fear Not” each day of the year as we remember to hold each other’s fears as the incarnate Jesus holds our fears. “Fear not for I bring you good tidings of great joy…”  Believing this and the simple act of listening and holding each other will change our fear filled world. 

Merry Christmas! 
 
Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson and Emily Carlson Tucker
Executive Director/President

Advent 4: Learning from Fear

advent-4Children at play are pulled into fright and then run out screaming in pretend terror. Fear shows up in many places inviting some of us to pretend as we watch scary movies, and at other times, it forces us into an uncomfortable or even intolerable place.

One time I was scheduled to be with my spiritual director at the end of a particularly exhausting day. I called to cancel. He said to me, “Please, if you can drive safely, come. When we are tired, we are more vulnerable and open to honesty and growth.” I went and had an amazing and frightening time walking into moments of vulnerability and healing.

Our internal fears often come to us in vulnerable times. This is a challenge because being vulnerable is one of our fears. We fear it for good reasons. We live in a culture where we are expected to be “right”, to lead by giving answers and rarely if ever saying, “I don’t know.” Our first “go to” when we have been wrong is to blame another rather than to admit the mistake. When we are hurt we hold it inside. Showing our raw feelings makes us vulnerable. Being vulnerable is often seen as a weakness. Who wants to risk being seen as weak and incompetent?

What if they don’t respect me? What if they don’t want me around anymore? What if they don’t love me? I’m scared to be lost and alone.

After my husband died, I spent many sleepless nights wondering if I was going to die during the night. Part of me wanted to, but a deeper voice wanted to spare our children from the trauma of grief upon grief. Yet even the desire to protect my children, didn’t erase the deep fear of loss and pain and looking at my own mortality in the stillness of the night.

Heightened fear is within us and all around us. We can’t turn on the news or read articles or listen to the radio without hearing the realities of fear.

“ ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ These words of FDR spoken to a Depression-era audience, sounded reassuring at the time. But on closer inspection, this statement exemplifies the fear of fear in our culture. Actually, life presents us with many fearful things. And it would be good if we learned how to experience our fears mindfully rather than to deny them.” p. 177, Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan

Naming and experiencing our fears depletes their powers. What fears do we need to name and experience?

Shalom,

Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President

Advent 3: Learning from Fear

advent-3
To witness from the safety of a television screen, the fear in the eyes of families struggling to leave Aleppo, brings not only tears and heightens my own fears but also releases rage.
 
How can we as the human race participate in such lack of love and care for the lives of others?
 
How can we fear others so much that their lives and hopes and dreams don’t connect with our own love of our families and friends and hopes and dreams?
 
How can we experience our own fears and see the same fear in the bodies and souls of people around the world that some want to call “the other” and not respond? How can we watch an elderly woman bent over with crutches hobbling in an attempt to honor her fears to flee from the threat of death and not scream:
 

NO MORE!

No more fear driven wars.
No more fear promoting leaders who want to feed their power.
No more domestic agendas that hurt vulnerable people.
No more children dying.
No more senior citizens scared to death that their only source of income may be threatened.
No more, no more, no more!
No more fills my soul. I feel empty and powerless.
I’m tempted to honor the voices of powerlessness. I’m tempted to remain in my cocoon of inertia.
I am only one unheard voice in the midst of millions of voices of power.

Then I remember the homeless people I see every day and know that more people must use the church’s food pantry.

I see the fear in the eyes of the children who speak a different language or wear different clothes.

My husband’s prophetic question replays in my heart, “Is fear really becoming our norm and casting out love?” Once again I scream: NO!

This time I hear my biblical sister Mary say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”    

May we be so honored and humbled to hear and heed her words.

Shalom,

Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President

Advent 2: Listening to Fear

Advent-1 When fear enters our hearts and minds there is little room for anything else. Fear keeps us from feeling safe. Yet, ironically, when danger comes, fear seeks to keep us safe.

Fear has saved many lives. Since the beginning of time fear has sounded the warning cry for fires, storms, and dangers of all kinds. Just this past week we have heard how fear drove many survivors to safety from the Tennessee fires. These fears help us. They give us strength to escape to safety. We instinctively listen to these fears and act upon them for our survival.

But other kinds of fears may not give us overt direction for our behaviors. These are fears that may remain unknown to us. They may even be unconscious. Often these unnamed fears divide us. They fulfill the message that, Perfect Fear Casts out Love

Still these fears are real. They become hurtful to us and others if we don’t see them and name them for what they are. When they remain unconscious we may act on them with divisive, hateful, or uninformed behaviors. We can see this happening in our country today. But if we name them, perhaps they can give us wisdom, grace, and dispel division.

Thus one of the gifts we may receive from our fears is the opportunity to face them, to name their power, and to realize that they can be our teachers. We may choose to ignore them, but we can also be open to receiving the gift of the information they are beckoning us to learn. It seems that Mary did just that.     

The angel said to Mary:

Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you. But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. (Luke 1:28-30)

What fears do I need to ponder?

What fears do we as a country/world need to ponder?

Shalom,

Rev. Jolene Bergstrom Carlson
Executive Director/President

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