Hope is Orange

Now that the election is over, there seems to be a stillness here at the office.  People seem less frenzied, less preoccupied – and once again there is time to reflect.

October was a crazy month around here.  Frankly, I only remember it in flashes of image and color.  In my mind’s eye, when I think about last month I see a whole lot of orange.

If you are a member or a neighbor of Hillside Christian Church, then you understand the orange thing.  Our life has revolved around (or at least it has been framed with) pumpkins.  Lots and lots of pumpkins.

Basically, the entire month of October was a grand experiment: bring in an enormous truckload of pumpkins, pull together a wide variety of church volunteers, step outside the church building, invite the wider community to come have some fun…and then see what happens.   It was an exercise in trust, in hope – a hope that we might become more like the Kin-dom of God if we met our neighbors outside of the church walls.   And you know, I think it worked.

At the very least, the experiment started us on the right track.  Though we were raising money for our youth mission trips, we also got the opportunity to interact with families who live near the church or who come to the church for food assistance (and to interact with them in a different way).  Our volunteers saw parents beaming as their children danced and bounced through the pumpkin patch, families gathered in that sea of orange for an autumn family picture, teenagers meticulously searching for the perfect carver…these neighbors of ours, who sometimes have been seen simply as mouths to feed, became real multifaceted people.  That alone is enough to call the experiment a success.

But there was more.  One of our wealthier neighbors who often disapproves of our signage and activities, fell in love with the vibrant display spread across our lawn.  She went so far as to send us a letter expressing her gratitude for our presence in the neighborhood.  Local grocery stores started sending customers our way when they ran out of their own pumpkin stock.  People looked out for us, and we experienced a complete lack of vandalism and theft, though the pumpkins weren’t guarded during the night.  We all became neighbors.

And at the end of the month, when we set up for our annual Trunk or Treat event, our neighbors came back.  They came back in droves.  We served hot dogs, chili, cocoa and candy to a thousand people that night – and we recognized those who had come earlier in the month, even though they were in costume!

As a church, it is our calling to take seriously those two greatest of commandments:  Love God and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.  But it is downright impossible to love our neighbors if we don’t have the slightest clue about who they are.  With the help of a few hundred pumpkins, we’ve begun to figure that out.  It’s making a difference already, sending ripples of hope throughout our area.  And it’s given me hope, that maybe all this work we do really is pointing to something (and Someone) greater than ourselves.  Maybe, just maybe, we’re laying some foundation for the Kin-dom right here along Vivion Road.

If that’s the case, then around here hope is orange.

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It’s strange how sometimes the human brain (or perhaps the human spirit) is able to cordon off the darkest of our fears, creating a pen for them so that we can function. They’re still there with us, never far off – but there are times when we can forget them, if only long enough to get a job done, tuck the kids into bed or be present for a loved one who has needs and fears of her own.

Sometimes, the pen works so well that we forget just how dark our fears actually are – until they erupt, a maelstrom of tears, shouts, pain and violence. And sometimes, there’s a day like today.

For several months I’d worried over the knot in her little abdomen, alternating between quick furtive touches and thoughtful caresses, like someone probing a new cold sore with her tongue. Each time I felt it under her skin, the nerves in my fingers screamed a single fear throughout my consciousness: cancer. Then the memories would flood in: finding the lump on Bartleby for the first time; hearing the vet speak my fear into reality; watching him waste away; after the final decision was made, watching him seize as the drugs worked death through his body; the mournful cries of his playmate as she grieved him each night once he was gone.. Would our Shelby, our fur-child, go out this way too? It hurt too much to think about, so all that fear, all those memories were slowly herded into the pen. Without realizing it, I became numb.

Today, at her annual check up, I finally mustered the guts to ask about the knot. The vet probed the spot, his expression darkening. A few hinges on the pen began to twist and complain. He examined her from multiple angles, following the knot to where it originated on her belly. The pen’s crossbeams splintered. Then, with a smile, he announced two surprisingly beautiful words: umbilical hernia. Like rainwater tearing through a drought-cracked creek bed, relief ripped through the pen, washing all the stored up emotional debris out into the light. With a very confused dog in the passenger seat, I cried most of the way home.

Shelby doesn’t have cancer, she has the canine equivalent of an outie belly button. As I smile about that almost whimsical revelation, I’m also stunned by how much this blessed relief hurts. How numb had I forced myself to become if good news is this painful? At the same time, I marvel at the strength of the spirit within us – that we are able to cope with things like this and things far worse. And in this recuperative wonder, I sit with a sleeping Westie curled beside me, thanking God for every breath she has left.


Fully Relying on God? – Some Thoughts on Hillside’s 40 Days of Prayer

To my Hillside family:

Several years ago, while working in the Great River Region of the CC(DOC), one of our summer camps for young children focused on the theme of: F.R.O.G.  The theme spelled out the name of an animal loved by many children, and some of the crafts and decorations played upon that, but the meat of the message was found in what the letters stood for:





Through play and song, lessons and crafts, worship and relationship, these kids explored what it can mean to rely on God in their lives completely. It was a fun camp and the kids seemed to absorb much of the message, but it also left me wondering how many of us, and how many of our congregations, actually do this?  There’s not a way to accurately answer that question, but my hunch is this:  not many.

It’s not that we’re bad people.  I believe that a great many individuals and a great many communities of Christ-followers really do try to rely on God for their sustenance, their direction, their vision in life.  I also believe that quite a few of those people and groups manage mostly to succeed in this endeavor, at least on the best of days.  But the key word here is “mostly”.  Because we don’t truly rely on God until we do it FULLY.  Not partially.  Not halfheartedly.  Not as a last resort after all our other plans and schemes have failed.  FULLY.

Just as the goal with a safety regulation is full-compliance, our spiritual goal is full-reliance.  And just as it is physically dangerous to settle for less than full compliance with safety regulations on a work site, it is spiritually dangerous to settle for less than full reliance on God.  We aren’t perfect, and we have to acknowledge that we will often fall short of this goal, but when we don’t strive for full-reliance, more and more of our own agendas start slipping into the mix.  Our vision becomes more about our own desires and pride and less about God’s hopes for the world.  When we don’t strive for full-reliance, we slowly cease to work for the Kin-dom – and more often than not, we fail to notice.  Our wants become “God’s wants”, our views become “God’s views” and our work either becomes stagnant or destructive.

A church that ceases striving for full-reliance on God is a church destined to fall apart.


All of this can sound rather negative.  So many of the wider conversations about “The Church” that are happening these days tend to take the negative approach:  the Church is declining, the Church is losing members, the Church is no longer relevant in the world, the Church will cease to exist in X many years…  And it is very true that the Church (with a “big C”) and our church (Hillside) both have real challenges that have the power to erode our witness to Christ and our usefulness for the Kin-dom in the world.  The danger of this moment is very very real.

But there is also great hope in this moment!  Not that sugary pseudo-hope that sings “everything is fine” despite all evidence to the contrary, but REAL hope.  Resurrection hope.  A hope, rooted in reliance on God, that can move us to stare faithfully and courageously INTO the face of our challenges instead of pretending that they don’t exist.  A hope, grounded in God’s own vision, that can turn our gaze toward the future Kin-dom rather than a nostalgic past that never really was.  A hope, woven through with God’s purpose, that can put flesh on our dry bones that we might get up and work for justice and beauty and on-the-ground love in the community around us.  When I look around us in this moment, I see that real hope just as clearly as I see the challenges we face.

This is why I am so excited about the process of spiritual renewal that is taking place at Hillside.  By entering into 40 days of prayer for our church, we have acknowledged some powerful truths:

1.We are facing some serious challenges that need to be met faithfully and head-on.

2. We want to live and to be fruitful! 

3. We need to make a shift towards full-reliance. 

4. God is still speaking in the world – and God has something to say to us in this time and place.  God has a vision for our church and wants us to receive and live into/out of that vision. 

5. You can’t rely on God without listening for and to God’s voice.  Prayer (in all it’s diverse forms) is how we “shut up and listen” to God.

6. If we take the time to ground ourselves in prayer, we will come out of this time with a clearer sense of purpose, vision and hope – and that clarity will come from God, not our own desires, agendas or pride. 

In my heart of hearts, I know that all of these things are true.  And, based upon the number of you who have committed to pray for our church for 10 minutes each day and to meet and pray with two other people for 30 minutes twice during these 40 days, I can see that you know these things are true as well.  We’re not at full participation yet, but by the end of these 40 days I believe that a majority of you will have participated in this process.

Our prayer has power!  It has the power to change our own minds and hearts, to reconnect us with God’s vision, and to strengthen and deepen the bonds between us (and between us and our neighbors).  And while ten minutes may not seem like very much, it can make all the difference in the world.  It can be the difference between halfhearted reliance and full reliance.  It can be the difference between abundant, vibrant, challenging life and a slow, easy decline into death.

So, if you’re already praying – let Rodger, Shandra and me and your fellow church members know how it is going.  If you’re catching glimpses of God’s vision, tell us!  If you haven’t seen anything yet, be patient and hopeful and tell us that too.  If you’ve made the commitment and have fallen short, don’t beat up on yourself.  That’s time wasted that could be spent getting back into your commitment to pray.  And if you’d like to join in this process, let us know – we’ll jot down your name and make sure you get teamed up with two other prayer partners.

Throughout our 40 days of prayer, I will periodically share some of my experiences with you in writing – and with your permission, I’ll share some of yours.  If you have something you’d like me to share, send it to me at: lara@hillsidecc.com or give me a call at the church.

But for now, be encouraged!  Know that the Lord is with you, and turn your heart to God in prayer.  Even if you are uncertain that this process “will work”, even if you don’t think that you pray well, even if you don’t know what to say, pray.  Just be still, know that God is God, and give a few minutes of your life over to the Creator of all that is good.

I am very much looking forward to hearing what God has to say!

Blessings and hope,

Rev. Lara

Utoya… (Memories and Hopes)

**Note**  I wrote this on July 22, 2011 – after hearing about the massacre that took place on Utoya that day.  Because I was at camp, and because I felt too raw to do anything beyond scribbling it out in longhand, the post didn’t make it here until today.  Much has come to light in the days that have followed, but this post does not reflect any of that information.

In 1999, the summer after my junior year of college, I was sent to Norway to represent the Council of Ecumenical Student Christian Ministries (CESCM) at a World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) conference held in honor of a milestone anniversary of the Norwegian Student Christian Movement.  Though I flew into Oslo and spent the afternoon finding my way through the city and its famous sculpture park, the event actually took place on a tiny island outside of the capital: Utoya.

It was the first time I traveled outside of the US completely on my own, the first time I was the only US student present in a large gathering of people from around the world, the first time I found myself in a position where there weren’t others who shared my assumptions, my norms, my cultural biases.  And it was the last time I traveled internationally before 9-11.  The experience was transformative…and it hurt.  

There were various speakers called in to discuss the concept of utopia and whether or not it has a place within Christian ecumenical dialogue/work.  The talks were fascinating, but not what I carried back with me when I returned home to Texas.  What’s stuck with me were the one on one conversations, the relationships formed in the in between times.

In between speakers and other scheduled activities, we had large spans of free time to mingle – time that turned into me fielding questions and accusations about the US government’s involvement in world affairs.  Whether I liked it or not, I was the only representative of the US on that island, so every question, every grievance fell in my lap.

In particular, a Serbian student named Lazar took every opportunity to lay into me for the NATO bombings in Serbia.  He’d never met an American, and I’d never met a Serbian.  We only knew what our respective news outlets and politicians were telling us – so it started off with some rough encounters.  There wasn’t much I could say because I was so ignorant of the situation, the history, the messiness of it all (on all sides).  He’d accuse, I’d listen.  He’d raise his voice as he recounted events I’d never heard of.  I’d quietly take it in, awash in disbelief or horror or anger or grief.    

Somewhere in those encounters, a miracle took place.  We became friends.  Noting my silence, Lazar started asking questions instead of lobbing accusations.  Together, we started wading through layers of propaganda, both Serbian and American.  Together, we discovered gray in the midst of black and white.  Together, we learned humility.

Transformation took place on that island.  Relational webs were woven from that point on the globe and stretched across borders, oceans, ideologies.  Dayanthi in Sri Lanka, Marcus in Finland, Thandiwe in Zambia, Lazar in Serbia, Moatlhudi in South Africa, Thorsten in Germany, Lara in the US…we (and many others) experienced a taste of what utopia might bring.  In those moments of listening, laughing, straining and stretching, we caught a shimmer of the Kin-dom of God.


So much has changed in the years that have passed.  Though the world was never “safe” or “secure”, the specter of terror has crept into new markets.  That relational web still remains, but the ground beneath it has shifted and begun to crumble.  These last twelve years I’ve teetered between cynicism and hope – one moment knowing the hopes we shared on Utoya are a pipe dream, and another moment trusting that even in the worst of times the Kin-dom is still breaking into the world.  

And then, today, during nap time at our high school summer camp, I got word via Twitter of another attack.  Oslo is trending – a bomb has gone off in the city – and Utoya has also become a hashtag.  Today that island, upon which my life was changed, is stained with the blood of children – campers the same age as these teens sleeping around me.  Campers murdered by someone who would do anything to destroy these webs that draw us near to one another.

In the midst of this terrible news, and this consuming grief, I’m completely at a loss.  What can be done to counter such hatred?  What can be done when utopia is stained with the blood of so many innocent kids?  

I have no idea – except that I know the web must continue to be woven.  

Thy Kin-dom come…on earth as it is in heaven.

One Word…

This December I have committed to join other writers/bloggers/artists/etc. in a project called Reverb10 (www.reverb10.com).  Every day of the month each participant will receive a new prompt encouraging reflection on the past year and hope-casting for the coming year.  Participants are encouraged to reflect through writing, art, photography, etc. (I’ll be writing my reflections).  As the website proclaims:

  • “[Reverb10 is] an open online initiative that encourages participants to reflect on this year     and manifest what’s next. It’s an opportunity to retreat and consider the reverberations of your year past, and those that you’d like to create in the year ahead. We’re connected by the belief that sharing our stories has the power to change us.”

Because I believe that shared story has transformative power (that’s part of the power and potency of the Bible and a reason that I study it), I’ve decided to try my hand at this communal reflection – and to share it each day via this blog.  Each blog will begin with the prompt for the day (as found on the Reverb10 website) and will end with my own response.  If you’ve got a hankering for reflection, I encourage you to visit the site and do the same!


THE PROMPT:  December 1 – One Word.

Encapsulate the year 2010 in one word. Explain why you’re choosing that word. Now, imagine it’s one year from today, what would you like the word to be that captures 2011 for you?
(Author: Gwen Bell)


Context and perspective matter, so I think it best that I begin this project by reflecting on my own experience.  In the grand scheme of things, that experience seems so very small, yet it is what I have to offer – so here goes:

I have lived out so much joy, frustration, hope, sorrow, excitement, fear and wonder in the course of 2010… but none of those words could capture the essence of the year.  The closest word I can come up with that encapsulates the past eleven months of my life is TEMPERING.

Obviously, “tempering” can mean many things.  In this instance, I’m drawing from two of its meanings:

  1. to harden (as steel) by reheating and cooling  -or-  to make stronger and more resilient through hardship
  2. to put in tune with something

The ups and downs of the year have had a heating and cooling effect that has strengthened both my will and my faith.  I’m not so sure I would compare myself to steel, but I have certainly learned more about myself (my hopes, fears, strengths, motivations, prejudices and gifts) than I discovered in many a year past.  And, perhaps more importantly, the realizations and insight gained through the course of 2010 have nudged me closer and closer towards a harmony with myself, with others and with God.  It is as though the stretching and straining (the alternating cycles of pain and relief) of the year have wound me like a guitar string – and though my pitch is not perfect, I’m more in tune than I once was.

With all of this in mind, I hope that a word for 2011 might be DEEPENING (yes, I realize that I am in love with gerunds…).  If the past year has helped stretch me into tune, then I would like to see the next twelve months bring me to a point of more complex harmony.  I want to read more, love more, experience more, listen more, pray more, play more, be more – not so much in a quantitative sense but in a qualitative sense.  In fact, I envision that the act of “getting rid of” may be a part of this deepening.  Over the course of a couple decades, I’ve built up a lot of “stuff”, so with this transition to something new I pray for a year of less stuff, less worry, less fear, less bitterness and judgment and self-centered-ness, and a year of deeper and broader God-centered-ness.

What words would you use to describe what has come to pass and what will be?