Narrating Grace

Stories of grace in everyday life.


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I returned to my office at church on August 22, a little over a month ago, yet I’m still deep in personal adjustment and re-entry tasks. It’s a jarring experience to jump into a regular work schedule after time away, especially when it was combined with a new job for my husband–which started a week before I came back to church–and my kids’ new school year. It was good to begin our new schedules together; it was overwhelming to start everything at once. Our little dog reflected these quick changes: when he returned from time with a loving caretaker for 2 months, he skittered and shied away from us for the first couple of days; when school started, he raced around the house for several mornings in a row, wondering where we were going with such intensity. Now that my husband rises and leaves before the rest of us, the kids are grieving his French Toast and bacon and morning snuggles. Returning from sabbatical means giving some things up, yet I don’t know how to mourn a gift. It feels a bit like ungrateful-ness, though that couldn’t be farther from the truth. So much goodness at once is hard to let go of, and the sadness is a marker of the joy of the experience.

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Rachel and Marty, my brother and sister-in-law’s friendly dog, enjoying a moment together at Cannon Beach, OR in July. (Photo by my sister-in-law)

Returning to church has been clunky. I’m not the same as before I left for sabbatical and neither is the congregation. For some, my absence was hardly noticed in the busy-ness of summer; for others, sabbatical meant extra work and leadership tasks. It will take me a long time to process the impact of my time away, and it’s important that I stay aware of the changes I’m noticing. In the meantime, I’m asking for patience as I adjust and figure out what I want to bring from sabbatical into my daily life. I came back to several (wonderful!) big events at church and have been a bit overwhelmed by the pace of the past few weeks. Sabbatical is forcing me to also have patience with myself as I can’t run at the same speed I did a few months ago, and maybe my running style has changed, which is ok too.

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Photo also by my sister-in-law. Sabbatical and ocean joy.

I learned early on in my sabbatical that I wouldn’t be able to absorb everything at once and the impact would continue to affect me for a long time. I have a resovoir of experiences and learnings to share for months (years?) to come in sermons, teaching, conversations and publications. I feel a pull to share everything at once, to wrap it up and move onto the next tasks. But it’s not possible as the sabbatical–even now–continues to nudge me to slow down. My family was strengthened through time together in ways we’ve never experienced before. I rested and knew restlessness, unpacked my suitcase for the final time in August with relief after 8 weeks of travel, and indulged an impulse to organize, decorate, declutter and better my home after being away from it for so long. I loved being away and I love being home.

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A quite moment at St. John’s in Collegeville during my silent retreat at the end of the sabbatical time. It was a transformative few days for me.

 


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Fjord Adventures

We left Bergen on the 8am ferry heading east into the Sognefjord, the largest fjord in Norway. We enjoyed a 4-hour ride through increasingly high and craggy mountains with charming homes and villages dotting the shores. Photos do not do the landscape justice, and Tim kept saying, “There isn’t a bad view in Norway!” I found much of Norway to be eerily familiar and like Minnesota, though the sheer scope and majesty of the fjord was unlike anything I had ever seen.

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We got off the ferry in Balestrand, a small village of around 2,000 people deep in the Sognefjord. It’s far enough off the beaten path (or “Norway in a Nutshell” route that many tourists take) that it’s quiet and friendly, with locals who are used to tourists but aren’t overwhelmed by them. We stayed at the lovely Balestrand Hotel, run by a couple for 20 years who split their time between Balestrand and California, and our room had a balcony with a fjord view:

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A middle of the night wake-up surprised me with this beautiful scene. View from our balcony at 3:30am–the sun never fully set.

I loved the slow pace and beauty of Balestrand. The scenery never failed to amaze me. Tim and I took two day trips: one to the nearby village of Vik to visit the Hopperstad Stave Church, one of the oldest stave churches still standing (estimated building date is around 1000-1100 AD) and another to visit a glacier near the village of Fjaerland. One evening we walked down the road to the historic Kviknes Hotel in Balestrand and enjoyed their famous fish buffet dinner with spectacular views of the fjord.

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The stave church.

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We saved room for dessert.

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I loved Balestrand (and I can’t lift my arms without it looking like I’m presiding over communion).

We left Balestrand on June 18 and took yet another scenic ferry to Flam, with tourists scrambling to the front (including me) to try to capture the magical views.

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In Flam we caught the well-known train to Myrdal, Norway that took us uphill past stunning vistas, waterfalls and through many tunnels (Tim says this may have been his favorite part of the trip). In Myrdal we met another couple also waiting to catch the train to Oslo, and discovered he is a professor at MN State University in Moorhead and she teaches in the Fargo school district. Minnesotans love to visit Norway!

Waiting for the train in Flam and a waterfall stop on the way to Myrdal.

The train brought us into Oslo late in the evening and we began to wind down our Europe adventure, knowing this was our last stop before hopping on the plane home.


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The Land of the Midnight Sun

Tim and I left Dublin on June 14 and flew to Bergen, Norway via a connection in Oslo. It  was a surprisingly long travel day (though isn’t every travel day long, especially when it involves public transportation and airports?) and when we arrived in Bergen at 6:30pm we were feeling haggard, tired and wondered if the long day was worth it. Then we saw Bergen!

We settled into a guesthouse that’s been run by a Norwegian couple for 20 years. They live on the top level of the house and the bottom level has several rooms as well as a shared kitchen and bathroom/shower. We were delighted to see the owner Elisabeth’s friendly face after walking up a steep hill from the bus station, and then we saw the view from our room:

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Bergen is a lovely city and was a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of central Dublin (though we enjoyed that too). It’s a harbor city surrounded by green hills with many houses sitting high on the mountainside. We had a relaxing dinner by the waterfront and were surprised at the late sunset–something I had experienced in Scotland too. The entire time we were in Norway, we woke up early each day thinking we had slept in, only to find out it was 5am and the sun was already up and bright.

We had 2 nights and a full day in Bergen, and on Wednesday we decided to take the tour of Edvard Grieg’s summer home high in the hills outside of Bergen. Grieg (6/15/1843-9/4/1907) was a well-known Norwegian composer who was born and raised in Bergen. Later in his life he built a summer home, Troldhaugen, where he composed many famous works.

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Troldhaugen hosts tours over the lunch hour each day that include a short concert of Grieg’s works in a stunning concert hall. We first walked through his home, where we saw the small frog he used to keep in his pocket and rub for luck before performing.

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We also walked down the hill from his home to visit the small hut he built so he could compose in peace and quiet. We also saw the tomb set into the side of the hill, near the water, where his ashes are kept along with his wife Nina’s.

The concert hall has incredible views!

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We were lucky to be there on Grieg’s birthday, and to celebrate the pianist wore a special Norwegian dress and everyone present was offered a beautiful piece of traditional celebretory Norwegian marzipan cake.

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After the tour we had lunch in the Bergen fish market, a touristy lane of sellers along the waterfront with every type of fish imaginable. The rest of the day we spent relaxing and exploring the city and getting ready for our 8am ferry into the fjords the next day.

 


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Reunited in Dublin

My goodbyes with my new friends in Iona were heart-warming and full of hugs and kisses as we celebrated our time together and went our separate ways. Now that I’ve been gone for a few days, I’m looking back with affection at the opportunities I had to get to know and worship with people from around the world.

My roommate for the week, Erdmuth, and the room we shared.

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imageA foggy view of The Abbey as the ferry took us away from the island early in the morning.

After a long day of traveling, including 2 boats, 2 buses, a train, and a plane ride, I finally arrived in Dublin in the evening last Friday. It was wonderful to see Tim had arrived safely and was resting at our hotel, and to know I’d have my own room after sharing space for almost a week. We dove right into the Dublin sights and spent a wonderful few days exploring the city. We stayed right across the street from Christ Church Cathedral and close to Temple Bar, the busiest tourist area in Dublin, full of people and energy day and night.

The first day we toured St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where we saw Jonathan Swift’s pulpit–complete with wheels–so he could wheel close to sleeping congregants in order to humiliate and harass them.

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We also spent time touring the Guinness Storehouse and stopped by a local fish and chips shop, recommended by a cab driver–delicious.

The next day we visited Trinity College and saw The Book of Kells, a gorgeous hand-written and illustrated manuscript of the four gospels. It’s said to have been created by the monks on Iona around the year 800 A.D. and was smuggled to Ireland to keep it safe from Viking attacks. We also saw the long library in Trinity, pictured above.

We also toured the amazing National Archeology Museum of Ireland and walked through a sunny Stephen’s Green.

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The evening included an Irish Musical Pub Crawl, with local musicians teaching us about Irish history and music as we traveled to 3 separate pubs. It was a crowded evening, but the music was fantastic and the witty stories from the musicians were even better. image

Our last day in Dublin was slower for us, with a visit to Christ Church Cathedral (which has a fascinating crypt) where we walked up the bell tower and visited the bell-ringer’s room (Christ Church has 19 bells and 11 regular ringers). We also stopped to see the Charles Beatty library, which includes early papyrus manuscripts of the gospels and Paul’s letters–wow!

Our last evening we decided to go for a special dinner, and on our way we passed a peaceful gathering of hundreds of people in Temple Bar. Upon closer look, we realized they were draped in American and rainbow flags and held silver balloons spelling out “Orlando.” We had been watching the Orlando tragedy closely and seeing a group of people in Dublin expressing solidarity and compassion touched me dearly.

Before we knew it, our days in Dublin were done and we soon found ourselves landing in Bergen, Norway. It’s been a wonderful day here. More to come as we travel into fjord country tomorrow.

I can’t say enough how thankful we are to have this opportunity to travel, and to know our kids, dog and CTK are being lovingly cared for as we take in everything around us. I lift all of you up in prayer every day. I light candles in gratefulness every chance I get.

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It’s Always Sunny in Scotland

Scotland has been experiencing an extraordinary stretch of wonderful weather while I’ve been here, and I’ve been joking that when I go home I’ll have to tell everyone that Scotland is always sunny and 70 degrees. I’m told this isn’t typical, but I have yet to see the frequent wind and rain.

I leave Iona tomorrow. The week has been long and short at the same time with days stretching on like dreams but also moving quickly by. I feel saturated and I don’t know when I’ll fully process the experience: meeting and spending time with people from around the world; soaking in the rich history and sacredness of the place; absorbing the beauty of the rocky shores and white beaches; walking in steps of pilgrims from centuries ago. Being at The Abbey, in intentional community, has been hard work–physically, emotionally, spiritually–and I’ve been much busier than I expected to be. My introvert self has been challenged by the lack of privacy and yet I wouldn’t trade the conversations I’ve had with the fascinating and warm people here.

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The last two days have included two incredible experiences. On Tuesday I participated in the “off-road” pilgrimage, a weekly trek that many visitors at The Abbey take. A group of us went on a 7-mile hike around the island, stopping at various sacred and historical spots to reflect, hear Scripture and pray. I was surprised by the power of the reflections and how they moved me. Every where we went the scenery was breathtaking, including Columba Beach and the top of Dun I, the highest point on the island.

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On Wednesday, a group visited the island of Staffa, an hour away from Iona by boat. It’s a popular tourist spot that draws tons of visitors from around the world. There we hiked around the amazing rock formations, experienced the majesty of Fingal’s Cave and got up close and personal with puffin penguins. It also happened to be the only foggy day we’ve experienced, and the island eerily appeared out of the mist once we got close enough, which felt like we were visiting a fantastic movie location.

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(This was taken at the edge of the top of the island, many feet up, and the puffins would fly up to meet us and fly off again. Apparently they like when humans visit, as it keeps the sea gulls away.)

I’ll be sad to leave Iona tomorrow, but I’m looking forward to meeting Tim in Dublin and enjoying the comforts of a hotel room and the ease of a looser schedule. There’s so much more to say about Iona, and many more pictures to share (!) and I anticipate this experience will shape and form me long past my time here.

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Glasgow and Iona

After a smooth couple of flights to Glasgow (stopping over in Rekjavik), I arrived in Glasgow last Thursday afternoon. It’s a bustling city with stunning architecture and a down-to-earth feel.

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I spent Friday resting and touring the city. The picture above is of George Square, a beautiful spot in the city center where people gather. The weather was gorgeous–sunny and in the 70s–and the square was full of people enjoying the day. I also I loved walking through Glasgow Cathedral, which was built in the late 12th century and stands next to the Glasgow Necropolis, a Victorian cemetery the sits on a hill overlooking the city.

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Saturday morning I woke early to catch the 8:21 train to Oban, which was the first leg of my trip to the island of Iona. After a 3-hour train ride through the beautiful Scottish countryside, an hour-long ferry, an hour-long bus ride, and a 5-minute ferry, I finally arrived at Iona.

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The picture above is of the cloisters at The Abbey in Iona, where I’m staying. The Abbey hosts visitors from around the world. There are 25 or so of us who arrived on Saturday and will stay until Friday, and it’s a global group including seminary students from The Atlantic Theological Seminary in Halifax, Nova Scotia as well as people from Germany, The Netherlands, England, and Switzerland. I’m the only person from the US! I’m struck by how our conversations about church reveal many similarities despite our global differences.

Staying at The Abbey on Iona is an experience of community and in many ways reminds me of summer camp. There are university students from around the world who volunteer here all summer as kitchen and housekeeping staff and the accommodations are comfortable but simple–shared rooms with baths down the hall (my roommate is a theological student from Germany). We eat all our meals together and we also have daily chores to foster a sense of connectedness. I’m feeling simultaneously overwhelmed, delighted, challenged and in awe of the history and beauty of this place. Each day there are multiple opportunities for worship in the Abbey chapel and when I attend services I’m keenly aware of the many people who have also worshipped in the space throughout the years.

The Abbey also doesn’t offer Internet to its guests, which means I’m down the hill at a hotel, using their spotty wireless to download a few pictures. I’ll add more when I get another chance. Tomorrow and Wednesday I look forward to a pilgrimage (or walk) around the island and a boat trip to Staffa, which includes views of puffin penguins (which I’m told are out in force this week).


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New

Sabbatical has begun: final details are wrapped up, my email auto-reply is active, my office door is closed. I spent a whirlwind weekend in New Jersey at a dear friend’s wedding, and the plane takeoff provided me with a marker of separation. Yet now I’m home and beginning to live into the sabbatical reality. Final Scotland packing lists need to be made, but I’m taking a couple of days to simply be.

Letting go has been harder than I expected. There were a few tasks that didn’t get done before I left and it’s been difficult to fight the temptation to sneak into the office and finish them off. I feel the stretching of moving outside my comfort zone in a myriad of ways, from preparing for a summer of travel to simply being at home and not in my office. I’m tired. Transitioning to sabbatical, especially after a busy few days full of congregation goodbyes and travel out east has left me drained. Letting go takes physical, emotional and spiritual effort.

A pastor who took a sabbatical a couple of years ago told me about the physical change he felt while he was temporarily released from his pastoral responsibilities–his shoulders felt lighter and he noticed himself walking taller. He connects this to taking off his stole. Each Sunday, many pastors wear a fabric stole around their shoulders while leading worship, representing the yoke of Christ; the opportunity to set down my stole, if even for a few weeks, removes a physical weight from my shoulders. My muscles are used to carrying it; it will take a little while for them to adjust.

The past few nights my dreams have repeated the same theme: pregnancy. New life, however it’s created or birthed, involves physical change, stress and work, yet it also brings hope and joy. I’m feeling the tiredness of adjustment, yet I’m also beginning to walk lighter as I embrace a completely different way of living.