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Trail Notes: 01/03/2016

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What would you put in your backpack?

This was question posed in a blog written by Winnie Horvat, who serves as a missionary for The Assemblies of God in Croatia. She and her husband Aaron, have been responding directly to the crisis of thousands of Syrian refugees desperately seeking safety in Europe. This is the question she asked all of us to think about.

Here is her list: 1. Wet wipes, it’s dirty on the road - how would YOU get clean?; 2. Kleenex- tears, pee - need we say more? 3. Flashlight, traveling at night, by foot, through a field? 4. Dried fruit, granola bars; 5. Copies of all our documents, important phone numbers; 6. Maps of Europe (hey- if the GPS goes out...); 7. Hand sanitizer- kill those germs; 8. Band aids and other 1st aid supplies; 9. A small zip lock filled with travel size toiletries; 10. Travel rain ponchos.

I’m not sure my list would be much different, but when I first thought about it I also included my cell phone and the necessary ways to charge it - outlet and car. And of course, I have never been in this situation or dealt directly with those who have. My only experience similar to this happened five years ago. In the spring of 2010 I had to move out of my house in SC; pack everything I owned into a storage facility; and placed those items I believed I would need for the next year into my car. It wasn’t easy but I wasn’t fearful for my life. I had time and space to think about those choices. I also had a place to go where I knew I would be greeted with love and welcome.

By night Joseph took Mary and their newborn child across the desert into Egypt with only what they could carry. They were afraid and it was probably a good thing that they were not at home in Nazareth. They were much closer to Egypt and had already packed for the journey to Bethlehem.

I wonder what I would take with me in the middle of the night.  If I didn’t know where I was going or how I was getting there and if I were different - looked different, spoke a different language, and was of another faith - I wonder who would choose to befriend and aid me. Someone surely did this for Joseph, Mary and Jesus. Are we not called to do the same?

Sue von Rautenkranz



Trail Notes: 12/20/2015

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Turning the world upside down?

This week we hear a very familiar story in our gospel passage commonly called the Visitation. In this particular portion of the birth narratives from Luke, we learn of Mary’s journey to the “hill country” to spend time with her relative Elizabeth. We are not told why Mary went, only that when Gabriel told Mary that she would be giving birth to Jesus, he also shared that Elizabeth was also pregnant. This was supposed to be impossible as Elizabeth was considered to be too old to have a child. And shortly after hearing all of this news, Mary left and spent about three months with these relatives. We could speculate as to why Mary goes, but probably the most remarkable aspect is the reaction of Elizabeth’s unborn child.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. Luke 1:41

I have no idea what this is like, even though I have had the pleasure of being allowed to touch another who is experiencing this movement. And I’ve even seen and felt the movement of both a calf and a foal in their mothers. It really is quite remarkable. But in this story, Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting and the child in her responds; and Elizabeth then shares her exhilaration about Mary and  the child that she is carrying.

It is a rather fantastic storyline, and many Christian scholars refer to the  birth narratives as myth. Some Christian scholars write them off and say we shouldn’t hold any truth in them. Maybe so. Yet, this story and the rest of the birth narratives are some of the most well-known and shared stories of Scripture. 

Why? I think we might find some understanding in the passage from Micah, a short but also well-known prophetic book. Micah describes the birth of one who is from a small unknown place, Bethlehem, and one who is both from of old and who will bring the return of all to Israel. This is one who will feed his flock, will make it so all shall live secure, and be the one of peace. Are these not the things we hope for deeply?

And wouldn’t the coming of the one, who brings all of this, turn our world upside down?

Sue von Rautenkranz



Trail Notes: 12/13/2015

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Wanted: Anger, and Courage


“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”
—Saint Augustine    

In seminary at VTS years ago, we had a course called, “The Bible and the New York Times.”  Each week, the class worked through the scriptures appointed that week, and the articles published in the New York Times, looking for connections.  It was a great class. 

And there are always connections.  The Gospel message of Jesus has everything to do with today’s news: the moments of victory and joy, and the pain and misery that are reported every day. 

Last Saturday, the NY Times did something it has not done for 70 years: it published an editorial on the front page, down the left hand side, above the fold.  It’s entitled: “The Gun Epidemic.”  Its point is clear:  American gun policy and gun laws, and rates of death are a “moral outrage and a national disgrace.” 

The U.S. is an outlier in this way – unlike any other industrialized nation.  We allow easy access to weapons whose only purpose is to slaughter human beings, and we pay a terrible price.  For instance, in the U.S. I am 62 times more likely to be a victim of gun death than our daughter Maggie is in Scotland.  

This is not the kind of “American Exceptionalism” we can be proud of.   We have allowed a noisy minority in our nation to cry “Second Amendment” whenever gun regulations are even mentioned (even though we haven’t seen a militia in these parts for a long, long time).  No right is absolute and unlimited.  We reasonably regulate all behavior that can be harmful to oneself or others, from seat belts to smoking to prescription drugs.  

St. Augustine tells us that hope is not a passive emotion.  Hope has two beautiful daughters and they are anger and courage. 

Jesus wouldn’t even let his disciple defend him with a sword; how Jesus must weep to see our gun-riddled society.  It’s time to change our response to the latest shooting, from lament to anger, from paralysis to courageous action.  To overcome the gun lobby will require millions of us to start voting for candidates who promise to act on common-sense gun regulation.  We must be noisier than they are – we can no longer be a silent majority.  We need to show the world that we object to the violence of easy guns – we should be wearing buttons and ribbons.  We should write our legislators. Churches and other institutions need to announce and post a “no-guns-here” policy.  We need to get angry.  We need courage.  Let’s start praying for anger and courage to act.  And then can begin to hope for a safer, saner, better future.  JBM  



Who is your John and Baptist?

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As I get older, my relationship with the scriptures has changed. These texts become less an object to study, and more a life-companion to point the way on this strange journey with Jesus. In other words, the biblical writings – especially the gospels – get under my skin. How about you? 

This Sunday’s Gospel introduces, or re-introduces, a figure well known to us: John the Baptist. We know him as the feisty, unvarnished character who confronted the people who came to him with the truth of their lives: their need to repent, to turn around. For those who accepted John’s challenge to see themselves as they really were, John used a symbolic act: ritual washing in the River Jordan.  We call it Baptism. 

My thoughts run to those few brutally honest, candid, blunt people in my life who have told me the truth about myself – confronted my self-deceptions, and challenged my way of seeing and acting. I’m grateful I’ve had a few such people in my life. I hope you have, too. 

A true friend, a colleague, an honest mentor, or a good psychotherapist - they can all be a “John the Baptist” to us.  They will challenge us to see your life more clearly – both the bad and the good.  They knock down our delusions of grandeur, and also challenge our irrational self-criticism. In spiritual terms, they reflect back to us what God sees in us: flawed, but cherished, human beings: 

  •  “Do you think you are so capable that you can get along without any          help?”
  • “Are you really aware of the amazing gifts you offer…at home, at work, at church?”
  • “How come you are so ready to forgive others, but you are so hard on yourself?” 
  • “Why do you pay attention to other people’s feelings, but discount your own?” 

We need this honest self-examination – a stark wilderness time – to prepare ourselves to receive Jesus fully at Christmas – a time in the verdant garden of God’s love and light poured out upon us. That’s what Advent is about.  I hope there is someone in your life who will honestly reflect back to you your whole human self: the dark hidden places that need to come to light, and also the glorious, God-filled person that you are. If you have a “John the Baptist” in your life, you are blessed indeed.  JBM 


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