Seventeen Years of Holy Moments

Today, June 2nd, I celebrate being ordained as a Lutheran pastor for seventeen years. A lot has happened over the course of that time and I find myself reflecting on how I have changed and who I have become since then. It isn’t like that day of ordination made me a different person, but it did change my life in both big and small ways as it has deeply shaped my identity.

Little did I know how my heart would feel all these years later….

In the first few weeks after my ordination I was sitting in the office of my new congregation and a phone call came in as I was getting settled and unpacking books. After answering and trying out the recent addition to my name I said, “Hello, this is Pastor Emily”, and the person on the other end asked to speak to my pastoral colleague. I replied, “He is out of the office and has a meeting when he returns, but I can take a message for him. Is there anything I can help with?” I could hear the person breathe deep, let it out, and sadly say, “I am at the police station. Our seventeen year old daughter was found dead in a gravel pit this morning. This is her father and I am sitting here alone. I don’t know what to do.” My heart dropped to the floor and pounded away as my brain tried to catch up, searching everywhere for the right words to say. I couldn’t find anything profound other than, “I will be right there.” My colleague drove into the church parking lot at that moment and I immediately communicated we needed to go to the police station, together.

During my training at seminary I had lots of experience dealing with tragedy and death, both during my internship and while I did a rotation of hospital chaplaincy, but never thought I would encounter something like this right at the start of my pastoral ministry. That particular day, something happened between saying I was Pastor Emily and actually having to BE Pastor Emily. It was in the in-between that I recognized myself and something just felt right. It was as if all of the years of doubting my sense of call, along with the challenges and questions posed by “the greater church leadership” about my future ordination, suddenly came together to help me realize THIS is who I was called to be. During these intense moments between hanging up the phone and driving to the police station, I needed to let go of wondering if I was worthy, holy, or good enough to be a pastor. It was no longer about what I thought I should be, but how God would work through me. (Because of course, I am totally unworthy, unholy, and most definitely not good enough! God works through all of that, thank goodness.)

As we entered the police station, (which by the way was a place I hadn’t frequented much and also scared the sh** out of me) we met the sobbing father of this now dead young woman. We were invited to sit in these uncomfortable red, plastic chairs in an air-conditioned freezing cold room, sterile as could be, and I looked to my colleague and wondered what insightful, spiritual words he would share in this moment. I felt a great sense of relief that he would know just what to say in this circumstance. I was happy to take the back seat. To my surprise, the father turned to me and said, “You are a new pastor. Why? Why on earth would you choose a job like this? Why would you ever be a pastor when you have to be with people in times like this? This is awful.”

After I reflected for a few moments, I responded in a small weak voice. My words filled the air which was heavy with grief, “I don’t know. I guess I think it is a privilege to be here with you. God is not far away from us, but very near. These are holy moments and right now, I am grateful to be sitting next to you, as awful, hard, and difficult as it is. I’m so very, very sorry.” I heard myself say these things and sort of marveled that these words actually came out of my mouth. After all these years, I recognize what I said on that particular day is the primary reason I am a pastor.

I have learned that death often shows up at very unexpected moments. This experience was just the first of many in which I have sat with people in grief. Over the last seventeen years, I have seen things and been a part of situations most people would never want to wander into or experience. And yet, they have been deeply holy, sacred moments. They are moments when people are at their most vulnerable and often seek hope in their darkness. It is more about just be-ing with people and loving them right where they are, sitting, praying, listening, and breathing with them.

As a pastor, I feel I have had the privilege to be with people, in all sorts of life moments, both sad and joyous and during the in-between times as well. I have served three congregations between Minnesota and Washington State and they have each taught me about myself and ministered to me in more ways than I can comprehend or articulate. It has been messy at times, really, really messy and that is because people are human. As I have been in relationship with my congregants over the years, I have made many mistakes (and so have they), I have been forgiven (and so have they), I have cried (they all know I do this from the pulpit when I preach!), I have laughed (sometimes at people, seriously.), I have drunk many cups of coffee at many tables with many people, I have shared communion and held the hands of the sick and the dying and the grieving, I have purchased a meal for someone who sat on a corner of a highway and had nothing to eat, I have prayed for more people than I can count (fortunately God has that covered!), I have baptized babies and children and adults, I have married couples who have only stayed married for 24 hours, I have buried WW2 veterans and infants, I have listened and listened and listened to stories of everything you can possibly imagine and cannot possibly imagine, and most importantly, I have loved and been loved. (And YES, I know that was the world’s LONGEST run-on sentence with commas EVER. I had to write that  for those of you who are grammar police.)

For the past three years, I have set aside my call as a pastor so our family could have the opportunity to live in Oslo, Norway, where my husband serves the American Lutheran Congregation. On most Sundays, I am just a pastor in the pew. When I served in the church every day, I was IN A CHURCH. Holy moments or milestones came to me because of where I was. It was easier to remember that God was in the midst of things, but now, I have to look a little bit harder, as I have returned to my undergraduate degree: teaching. I am a substitute teacher at an International Primary School, where I feel like I parachute into the classroom and teach everything under the sun at the drop of a hat. I have had to remember how to multiply and divide fractions, measure volume, and describe what a past participle is, amongst other things I haven’t thought of in years. Most of the time, I help my students to listen carefully and respectfully to each other, remembering we are all human beings who want to be loved and cared for. Being a pastor prepared me well for this experience, as every day shows and reminds me that the children I work with are like my own, hungry for love, affirmation, encouragement, and hope for the future. I never imagined I would love them so much.

When space allows me to share I am a priest/pastor/minister with this international community, many of who come from every corner of the world with every background possible, it is always in..ter…est…ing! Regardless of background and religion, people know I am a safe landing spot for them to share what is really going on in their lives. Therefore, with my pastor/teacher hat on, I listen, I watch, and I get glimpses of holiness out here in the world. When I leave to teach in the morning, I know this is the place where God has called me to serve for the time being. I am still a pastor sharing the Good News, called to love people right where they are at.

I am still Pastor Emily no matter where I am, because it is part of who I am. Every day provides us with the ups and downs and ins and outs of this thing called LIFE. I believe it is where God resides and always has. God is not far, but very, very near.

And right now, I am happy and filled with gratitude to be here in these holy moments of today.

On this anniversary day, I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has been a part of my journey through all of these years. I’d be less without you. Thanks especially to:                St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church (Grand Rapids, MN), Silverdale Lutheran (Silverdale, Washington), United in Christ Lutheran Church (Eveleth-Gilbert, MN), my family, my Christian, my non-Christian, my other faith and/or atheist friends! I thank God for all of you because you have shaped me to be the pastor and person I am today.

“I thank my God every time I remember you.” –Philippians 1:3





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I run by HER at least a couple of times a week. The very first time I saw HER, I was taken. She is exactly what I want to become. She stands with HER hands framing HER heart. You can see HER openness facing the fjord, ready for whatever the future holds. She faces east and when I have stood next to HER and watched the sun rise, I see the possibilities of a new day and future.

I met Erica two years ago.

We were supposed to meet under very different circumstances, but something happened. That something was cancer. It changed the course of HER life and unexpectedly impacted mine in many ways too.

One bitterly, cold day in January 2016, around the time when the sun returns to northern Norway, I flew to Tromsø to visit my friend Ann Christin, her husband Darin, and their three children. The purpose of my visit was to see my friends and together attend the International Film Festival, immersing ourselves in movies from every corner of the world over the course of a few short days. When I arrived at the airport I was greeted by Ann Christin who smiled and laughed when she hugged me. It felt so good. I had just landed on my own personal runway and it was here in Tromsø I would get fueled up. Good friends will do that to you.

As we exited the terminal, I looked off in the distance and noticed the sun’s rays hitting the mountains turning them pink at the very top. Since the sky was clear, Ann Christin suggested we head out and drive a ways to see if we could spot some whales. “Wow, OK!”, I said. On the drive I peered out the car window noticing the tinted blue sky was brighter with snow covering the earth and they seemed to meet as if they somehow just belonged together. Stunned by the view, I took blurry car-moving pictures, but they never did justice, until later when we stopped and I captured a few beauties.

After a long drive, we came to a fork in the road. Which way shall we go? Ann Christin looked to the right and said, “I haven’t been down to the end of this road in a long time. My aunt used to live down here. Let’s go this way.” We drove to the end, where a small hytta and lighthouse greeted us. We parked the car with hunger in our bellies and ate homemade bread with brown cheese, and snacked on almonds, and slices of red peppers sitting in the front seat. We sipped Freia hot chocolate from our thermoses as we gazed out the windows at the ocean blue.

“Oh! I see them! Out there!” said Ann Christin. We shoved the remaining sandwiches in our mouths, sloshed down the hot chocolate, and quickly dressed in snow pants. It was the kind of cold that numbs your fingers as you are zipping up zippers and buttoning buttons. We hopped over a fence and walked the trail to the lighthouse and water. You could see whales spouting and enjoying themselves as they were feasting on herring below.

On our walk back to the car, Ann Christin shared about her American friend, Erica, married to a Norwegian, and mother of three children. Erica was an artist, and lived further north of Tromsø, in Honningsvåg. Long before the cancer was ever discovered, or doing is stupid mutating thing in Erica, the original plan was for three couples to meet; Ann Christin and Darin, myself and my husband, Joel, and Erica and HER husband, Onar. Our mutual connections were around the places in which our lives intersected; our Christian and Lutheran seminary training and background, shared cultural insights and experiences from living in both America and Norway, and the commonality of what it means to be raising our families in this particular Nordic country we all live in. The plan again, was for the six of us to get together, watch movies at the film festival, eat super food, drink wine, laugh, and fill our souls with good conversation for a couple of days. That was all before Erica had gotten cancer.

Erica’s lung cancer, a rare type, spread into her lymph nodes. She was currently in Tromsø for her treatments for a number of weeks and Ann Christin said we would probably see her, if time allowed. I immediately got quiet and like every other time I hear about cancer, hardly can think of what to say. As we walked on the crunchy snow past the lighthouse and up to the car I could see my breath and inhaled through my nose, feeling sadness upon hearing about Erica, happiness I was in Tromsø looking at whales, and gratitude for friendship, all at the same time.

The first two days of the film festival were filled with intense movies, which managed to stir wide and deep conversations about the world, politics, the current refugee crisis, teenagers, and a park in China during the summer. The third morning, on Soldagen (The Day of the Sun’s Return), we watched a film which followed the stories of the elderly in a nursing home in Norway. Being a pastor, I’ve been in many nursing homes before so it was a comfortable film for me to watch, but it also brought tears to my eyes as it reminded me we are mortal beings. With reflective minds and hungry stomachs, Ann Christin and I decided on a local lunch/coffee shop for a bite to eat. As we sat around retro coffee tables, the main door opened and ushered in several cold blasts, so we defended ourselves by sipping lattes, and listened to friends chat away, us included.

Ann Christin leaned over and quietly mentioned that Erica had just finished a round of treatment that morning and would be joining us for lunch.

Suddenly, this slim, tall woman walked in with a very thick down Fjallraven jacket, fur hood, framing her gorgeous blue eyes and long lashes. As she laid her woolen mittens on the table, pulled off the hood, unwrapped the scarf tied underneath, and proceeded to shed numerous layers, she mentioned her new short bobbed haircut. She wasn’t quite sure what the chemotherapy would do long-term, so it was much shorter than it had been. I thought to myself, “Wow, she is really honest about where she is at.” She smiled, shook my hand as we were introduced, and I knew at that moment, Erica and I would be friends. I just knew it.

Erica began by sharing about how positive and grateful she was trying to be in the midst of the diagnosis and HER plan of attack. In the next breath, she told us about HER latest yoga class experience, where they were just beginning the session with quiet and meditation. The instructor told the participants to put their hand on their heart and it was at this point that I heard the crack in Erica’s voice when she said, “I put my hand on my heart and the tears came. I couldn’t stop crying.”

Because I am a person who feels so deeply, I could picture the scene as the grief overwhelmed her. I believe our minds and bodies are always in tune with what is going on, so when we stop to listen to our hearts, they often gracefully release the truth.

Erica continued to process HER cancer journey, telling us about HER children, who were trying to understand what this disease was doing and will to do to their mother. Their child-like power and understanding has given Erica insight into the warriors they will be. One moment they are doing whatever kids do and the next, they are figuring out and grieving the loss of what Erica was, to the reality of who she is now. Like all of us, we are evolving creatures and beings, letting go of what we once were, growing into the unknown future. Change is inevitable.

I listened and listened and listened. I wanted to have some kind of insight or word or something, but I found all I could do was listen. I had nothing to give, for I had not been on this road before. As Erica reflected on stupid doctors and the dumb things they say, we shook our heads, pissed off for HER. And yet, one doctor cried with and gave HER permission to get angry. “You can go into the woods and scream and yell and cry. It won’t affect the treatment at all.” I could hear the rally within Erica as she felt someone else understood and connected at HER very core.

As the three of us sat, ate, listened, talked, and cried, I felt moments of holiness like I’ve never experienced before. All I could think of was Exodus 3:5, when Moses takes off his shoes and is standing in the presence of God.

“Then He (God) said, “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

Listening to the unfolding story of cancer in Erica’s life was like standing on holy ground. My friend Ann Christin and I were allowed into holy space where one rarely ever gets to go. I felt this immense vulnerability, deep sadness, fear, pain, sorrow, terror, and anger. It was if a waitress served us a platter of raw-ness and that was something none of us had ordered, but sat in front of us waiting to be delved into. In order to really look at it, it required something of us: openness. We needed to take off our own stuff, our own sandals and go there with her into the holiness of what lies before us in both life and death.

By the end of the conversation, I wanted to call up my own husband and children and tell them all I loved them. I thought about all the dumb things I’ve said and done and realized, I really don’t need to get mad about all the clothes and Legos left everywhere and the fact that the boys pee on the floor in the bathroom once a day. Do these things matter all that much in the long run? Probably not. Erica reminded me life can change in an instant and this moment is all we have. This moment, right now, is ALL we have.

The joys of watching my children sleep and smile and fight, and do homework, and climb rocks and discover starfish is exactly what I need to be soaking in. The joys of being with my husband and feeling the hug at the end of the day, holding a hand when we watch a movie, and hearing the words of “I love you.” are just moments, but they are the most important ones I need to pay attention to.

Blessed. That is the word that I heard Erica say most. Ah, we are so blessed. I didn’t doubt for a moment that the cancer would change and bless her in some way. It would change and shape and mold her family and somehow and in some way God would work through it. But, it still doesn’t make sense and I was angry for her. I still am.

With a grateful hearts, we said our good-byes, gave big hugs, and I told Erica I would meet HER again. I would stay in touch. I would pray for HER, think of HER, and support HER from Oslo as best I could. Erica had settled on my heart and has never left.

That afternoon, Ann Christin and I hurried to the next movie, which were short films by young directors from all over Scandinavia. We watched two hours of snipets of life; from a day on Svalbard, to a Russian boy shipwrecked on an island, to young girls and their body image. It took my mind off of our conversation with Erica, but still she was there. Seeing the mid-winter darkness from the theater lobby, we snuggled into our coats and headed to the store to buy ingredients for a sushi dinner. After long conversations with Ann Christin and Darin which went well into the late evening, we fell into bed exhausted.

When I awakened that night to go to the bathroom and the nights after, I thought about Erica. What are HER nights like? How is she feeling and is she up right now, sick from the treatment? Is she crying? Is HER hair thinning? Does she look in the mirror and wonder how this happened? Does she see a strong, beautiful woman with life or does she see the cancer, or both? Is this the battle between good and evil? Where is God in the midst of it all? Does she know how loved she is? How does her husband deal with this? Her parents? Sibling? Friends? The list of questions went on and on and on…..

At the end of the week, I left Tromsø, tank filled. When you spend time with good friends in the winter darkness of northern Norway, you get your fill in the light they provide with food, laughter, conversation, and just be-ing together. I was blessed in so many ways.

I have kept my promise and Erica and I have stayed in touch. This past fall she visited me in Oslo and we had a couple of good lattes and a really good conversation. Our time didn’t seem long enough, which is how it always is with good friends.We mostly chatted about our families, the challenges and great things about living in Norway, our disgust for Donald Trump and the situation in the US, our church lives, and the struggles of raising kids. Cancer didn’t hold the conversation, as it wasn’t allowed, but it did have a presence.

Erica’s cancer has spread to her brain and continues to be an on-going battle. She lives with it every day, as it the unwelcomed guest who has come to stay. It has shaped and will continue to shape HER, in ways she never imagined. She is a different mom, wife, friend, and artist because of it.

At the end of our coffee conversation, those gorgeous blue eyes filled with tears across the table. She shared, “When you are first diagnosed, everyone seems to know and reaches out, but after awhile people just move on. They know you have cancer, but they forget that you are living with it every single day. I don’t want to be forgotten.” In some small way, I wanted her to know she is not forgotten, so I reached across the table and grabbed her hand, my own tears spilling over, to tell HER I think of and pray for HER daily. The prayer team at our church has also prayed for HER every single Wednesday night for the last two years, so no, you are not forgotten, Erica. You are not forgotten.

If I had met Erica under the original circumstances for which we were to meet, our relationship would be very different. It is because of faith we have connected. Erica has taught me that in life and in the face of death, we must become open and hold the moments we have. For in these moments, lies the grace of God, waiting to be claimed as reminders of love. My friendship with Erica is a matter of life and death. We need each other. God is a part of what we have together and for that, I am so deeply grateful and blessed. She has taught me about my own heart and vulnerability. She has taught me that my moments here on this earth REALLY matter, and it is my job, my call, and blessing to be loved and to love others. I think I would be less if I hadn’t met Erica, but because of the cancer, I am more.

When I go running down to the water now and see HER, I see Erica, who gets up and faces each day with those hands framing her heart, for this is the time that she has, whatever the future may bring. When I see HER now, I see myself, remembering when I am open, God works through me in ways I never imagined. When I see HER now, I think of all the possibilities that await each one of us every single day. When I see HER now, I feel how blessed I am and am filled with gratitude. When I see HER now, I am reminded how important it is to be community with each other, for we  belong together.

When I see HER now and look down the fjord to the east facing the sun, I feel the present moment and nothing else.














What Norwegian Light Sounds Like in the Darkness

Norway is dark during the winter. Bleak, gray, and a bit Harry Potterish, so when you are standing at the bus stop at 7:45 in the morning, you expect the “Knight Bus” to pull up. It is Dark; as in the days feel like they take forever to get going and finish far too soon. The darkest time of the year is at Christmas during the winter solstice. Most Norwegians embrace the darkness, because you really can’t do anything else! Starting on the first Sunday of Advent, many windows reflect a star and a row of candles, as if someone has left a light on for those making their way home.  The soft, gentle glow in the darkness is very “koselig” as they say på norsk.

I understand darkness because a certain kind of darkness has hovered around and within me for a long time: since birth. I claim this darkness as my own and have wrestled with it for years. My darkness has shaped who I have become and how I have responded to the world. My darkness has bound me to the point that I have denied and hated it, but have never embraced it. Perhaps I have come close, but the darkness in this Nordic season of my life has urged me deeply that the time to grab onto it, is now.

You see, Norway has allowed me to hear light in my darkness.

What has been my darkness, you ask?

When I was three and a half years old, my mother noticed I was not hearing her in certain contexts or situations. When I yelled, “Mom!” from one room and she yelled back from another, I didn’t hear her. I became frightened and scared, and started to cry. At that point, I think she knew something wasn’t quite right with my hearing, so we soon visited the audiologist at the University of Minnesota, who put me in a sound proof booth to test my hearing. I can still feel the “whoosh” of the air against my face as the thick, metal door closed. I looked up and waited to see the audiologist’s face through the double paned glass window. The minutes from when the door closed to when she took her seat and saw me face-to-face, were filled with panic. The thought that I might be locked in there forever crossed my mind; a lump was felt in my throat and tears surfaced, not only that first time, but for many times and years to come.

“Listen to the tones and push the button when you hear the various beeps”, were words I would become familiar with every time I sat in the chair and looked through that double paned glass window at the face concentrating on the various dials in front of him or her. Visiting the sound proof booth the first time was just the start of this dark journey. In years to come, I would visit the booth often, waiting for results and wondering what it would mean for me. DARKNESS. I noticed that as the tones got higher and higher, the more they faded away. What would happen if I didn’t hear the tones at all? What would that mean for me? Out of that fear, I sometimes I pressed the button even when I didn’t hear the sound.   

The first audiogram indicated I was “slightly hearing impaired” and needed to be fitted for a hearing aid in just my left ear. My right ear hearing was within the normal range therefore, I didn’t need a hearing aid for that one. Within days of that appointment, I was different. Wearing a hearing aid made me different from the other kids. I was a kid of the 70’s, whose parents cut her hair like a helmet, so you couldn’t always see the hearing aid, but I knew it was there. The darkness began to hover and creep in, deeper and deeper.

 “Emily is hearing impaired” was the statement that was declared every time I went to school or  playgroup or gymnastics. “She needs to be up front and you need to look at her when you are talking to her.” My parents began to ask people to change their behavior to accommodate me and I didn’t really want that in any way, shape, or form. When people found out I was hearing impaired, they immediately treated and spoke differently to me. They often talked louder or articulated themselves more. I was the child who needed extra help. I had to sit in the front of the class, go to speech therapy, and being hearing impaired became the definition of who I understood myself to be. It was always my hurdle to jump over.  I became a slave to this darkness and began to tell myself I was not equal to others. Because I could not accept this part of who I was, it clouded how I looked at myself. I was less. Everyone else was more. DARKNESS. Why couldn’t I be normal? I sure didn’t want ANYONE to know ANY more about it than they needed to. So, I started to hide it whenever possible. If I didn’t tell anyone, no one would know and they would think I was just like everyone else.

As a child, my parents loved me to the moon and back and they still do. My parents did everything they could for me and provided me with appropriate resources so I could function and thrive in school. They affirmed and told me that there was nothing wrong with me and again, that there was NOTHING WRONG WITH ME. My sisters and I played, fought, argued, laughed, and they loved me too, hearing aid or not. My family did what families are supposed to do; love you to the core of who you are and support you in everything you do.

But I did not love me at all. I was ashamed of my hearing impairment and operated out of negativity, therefore that darkness overshadowed things for years to come. I was angry. I was pissed off. I was bitter. I hated my darkness and couldn’t possibly imagine how I could love or embrace it, ever.  So I tried to compensate. If I could look good on the outside, by dressing with the best clothes and having the attitude that came with being better than other people, then I might just be something to myself and this world. I wanted to be defined other than “Emily is hearing impaired.” You see, I wanted to be loved by someone else other than my family. I wanted to be accepted somewhere else, other than in just my home.  That would be light in my darkness.

The problem with thinking this way, is that I was looking for other people to love, accept, and define me. That was not very helpful. Duh. And I didn’t want other people to change their behavior when they were around me, even if it cost me the expense of not being able to hear them. Other people shouldn’t have to change how they interact when they are in a conversation with me, in order to help me. I’m not worth that much, at least that’s what I told myself. When you are never worthy, you are always “less than”. I can honestly say that operating out of that SUCKS because you are always trying to achieve something you never arrive at.

For many years, I managed quite well with one hearing aid, but when I was twenty-six, I had to get a second. As my life advanced in years, my hearing progressively grew worse because of a late in life diagnosis of EVA (Enlarged Vestibular Aqueduct Syndrome). EVA can cause you to lose hearing, if your head is bumped hard enough or experienced great pressure changes, like scuba diving or even, flying in airplanes. MORE DARKNESS. The visits to the sound proof booth with the audiologists just got scarier and funnier, all at the same time. In addition to listening to the tones, I also had to repeat sentences in a variety of contexts and voice settings. I really wasn’t clearly understanding all the words, as I listened, thought, and started giggling……”Goodness, that’s not appropriate. They didn’t say, “The girl played with the f**k!” Often, I would tell the audiologist, “I’m sorry, but I can’t even repeat what I’ve just heard, which is clearly an indication that I am not hearing exactly what I should be.” If there is one thing I’ve learned in this lifetime of hearing loss, it is this; you HAVE to have a sense of humor because it makes what you hear that much better, really.    

To top it all off, when I was thirty-four and our family moved from Washington State to Minnesota, as the airplane landed at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul Airport, all the hearing vanished out of my right ear. I could see the mouth of the flight attendant moving, but could barely hear her. At the time, I was holding my three week old infant and two and a half year old as we walked off the plane together. The world suddenly got very quiet and that terrified me more than anything. My right ear had always been my stronger ear and now I could hardly hear a thing. My biggest fear was not hearing my children. EVEN MORE DARKNESS.  After completely losing all hearing in my right ear, I began, what took seven years to finally be evaluated and readied to be a candidate for a cochlear implant.  

In 2014, I received a cochlear implant from the Mayo Clinic. On my 42nd birthday, the cochlear implant was activated and I started the journey to hearing out of that ear again. The DARKNESS was off-set by a ray of LIGHT.  Today, I hear with two ears, one with a hearing aid and the other, with a cochlear implant. Hearing with both ears was like being reconnected with love. It was amazing, simply amazing. And it still is. LIGHT.

And it just keeps getting lighter. Since moving to Norway almost two years ago, I have discovered the blessing of socialized medicine. Upon arrival, I was approved to receive a new hearing aid. BRAND. NEW. HEARING. AID. FOR. FREE. Why? Because I needed a new one and providing this for people who need one is part of health care here. In the States, it would have cost me at least $2,500. While I was at my audiologist’s office, he said to me, “You know Emily, there is another audiologist by the name of Elizabeth that works here, who can help assess your home and work life and can make sure you get the best products to help you hear in those various situations. I’d be happy to give you a referral to her and have you find out what you can get.”

Wait. What?! There is even more goodness for me?! (Yes, I did hear that correctly.) MORE LIGHT.

A week later, Elizabeth, called me to set up an appointment. On a dark December night after work, I made my way to her office. With blonde hair, dressed in a scarf tied fashionably around her neck, and Johnny Depp like looking glasses, she welcomed me. She is of course, Norwegian, with an edge. A very good edge, I might add. I love Norwegians because they are truthful and honest right up front. You don’t spend a lot of time wading through the small talk we Americans do, you get right to the work that is in front of you. That evening I was nervous, as I have always been when I am with someone in the audiology world, mostly because our conversation was going to be about this delicate subject: my hearing loss.

She proceeded to share with me that I could “sync” both my hearing aid AND my cochlear implant with one simple device, that would make it possible for me to listen to music or talk on the phone using both ears. So, as Elizabeth shared this information with me and gave me this device, I plugged it into my phone and heard the Norwegian news out of both ears. AT. THE. SAME. TIME.  Up until this point, I couldn’t have something streamed to both, but only to one or the other. This is extremely helpful because it helps my brain to connect sound on both sides and grow in my understanding and hearing overall. LIGHT.

After that, she said to me, “You need to always ask people to look at you when they are talking so you can hear. You need to remind them that they need to face you.  They need to be reminded to not yell at you from another room. Don’t answer them if they do. Make them come to you and tell them that you need to be closer to hear them. You need to know that if people aren’t willing to come to you and speak to you, then they aren’t worth it. You are worth it. It takes a great deal of energy for you to listen, Emily. It takes more energy for you to listen than people with “normal” hearing. People have no idea how exhausting it is for you at the end of a day. Again, YOU are worth it.” WOW…..BLINDING LIGHT.

I could feel the lump in my throat. Someone just told me that I was worth it. Someone just told me that I need to ask for others to be engaged in conversation in different ways. Someone who works with people like me every single day and understands what it is like, just reminded me about the core of who I am. I am worth it. I am loved. If I am going to be engaged in relationship with other people, then I have to see myself as an equal and demand that we do this together. This is “Janteloven”.

Janteloven is this; we are ALL equal and no one is better than anyone else.  This is so very Norwegian and so very beautiful. Norway has shown me light in the midst of my darkness.

Hearing is more than just hearing. It is also listening. We listen with our ears, but we also listen with our hearts. UFF DA. Here I am almost 45 years old and it has taken me this long to really hear with my heart and see the core of who I am. (Well, I might have a ways to go ‘cause the darkness always seems to find a way to creep back in and also…..I don’t think I’ve really “arrived” yet.)

My familial roots come from Scandinavia and living here has brought me back to those deep roots of who God has created me to be. I am worthy and loved, by God, myself, my family, my friends, my church, my community, and my world. And, I might mention…… so is everyone else on this planet earth.

Did you hear that?

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”—John 1:5

Letter to Annela: Pastor Aunt to Niece, A Candidate for Ministry

My niece, Annela, has started the journey to become a Lutheran pastor. This is my letter of love to her as she prepares for her future at seminary and beyond.

Hanging with my pastor peeps, Heidi and Erin!

Dearest Annela,

As we sat on the shores of Nokomis beach this summer, I listened to you. I smiled as the water reflected the summer sun and we felt the humidity drench our faces with sweat. I felt like I was participating in the same conversation I had with myself 25 years ago when I felt the inner tug and listened to my heart about wanting to be a pastor.

As I discerned the call to pastoral ministry, I remember the following questions which rolled around in my head; “How could God use someone like ME?” and “What if people really knew who I was and how  many times I’ve messed up?”, and most importantly, “What if I make mistakes or even worse, fail, and am not the perfect person I think a pastor should be?!”

Crap. I shouldn’t be a pastor. God can’t use someone like ME. If people REALLY knew who I was and how many times I’ve messed up, it could be awful. I’m sure I’ll make mistakes and fail (which I hate to do) and won’t be perfect (even though I might die trying). I’m going to be a big let down if all this goes through and I actually become a pastor and, and, and……..blah, blah, blah, blah. I’d like you to notice how much this was all about me and how little it had to do with God.

So, with that being said, it was never about me; it was always about God. I just seemed to think it was about me.

This desire to know God deeply and serve God in church ministry started at the age of fourteen when I went on a church mission trip. The intern pastor and his wife showed me that faith can be super fun, serious, full of laughter and music, and at its very core is all about the relationships we have with each other which revolve around God’s love, forgiveness, and grace.

After that mission trip, I started going to a Missouri Synod Lutheran High School and that experience shaped my call to ordained ministry. I suspect the school wouldn’t take pride in that, especially since women are not allowed to be any kind of leader other than a Sunday School teacher.

One warm spring day when I was a junior, we spent every class period discussing and biblically reflecting on how women are not called to serve as pastors. My teachers actually thought that it would be better to skip the designated subject lesson at hand, as this was a biblical topic I needed to understand more fully. I was the only non-Missouri Synod Lutheran kid in my class. It was me vs. the teacher and my classmates. (These were biblical literalists who told me the world was created in seven, 24-hour days, so you might understand I was fighting a losing battle.) At the end of the day, I felt more than ever that I needed to discern how God was working in and through this conversation and in my own heart. Looking back, I think God was just starting to scratch the surface of my call as a female clergy. After the big debate in school, I went to my own pastors on Sunday to ask for ammunition, but who, in quiet, calm, grace, asked if I really needed to fight or if it was even worth it. I decided it was probably not. Nevertheless, the day still sticks in my mind.

It would not be the last time I would find myself theologically reflecting on how and why women can and should be ordained and more specifically, how I was called to be a pastor.

The theology I experienced in high school was law-based, judgmental, all about earning God’s love by striving for perfection. As I watched my classmates, many of whom behaved in ways I thought were sinful and unforgiving, I tried harder to be perfect. I would show them what it meant to be good on so many levels. And I was….. except for the time I was peer pressured into toilet papering another classmate’s house the week before I graduated. (I know, can you believe it?!)

All was good, until I moved away from home, went to college, and decided I’d try new things (the usual kinds of things most college kids do) and none of them I will post on this blog. I spent four years of college in church every Sunday morning confessing and asking forgiveness for the behavior I’d exhibited the previous days. My faith became about recognizing how sinful and not-perfect I was and knowing how much I needed God’s grace. The only thing was, I didn’t think I deserved that big dose of grace that was imparted to me Sunday after Sunday. It was exhausting, trying to be perfect. To be honest, I’m still working on that. (“That” would be letting go of perfectionism and letting God’s free grace drip all over me.)

After four years and an education degree (which I am SO glad to have), I was half-way through student teaching when I found it difficult to wake up in the morning to go. I dreaded the long days and couldn’t imagine working day after day after day as an elementary school teacher. It just wasn’t life giving. One Sunday afternoon as I reflected in my journal, I read the words I had just written; I really want to be a pastor. I told my mom, who said, “Well, why don’t you do that?” Yeah, why don’t I do that?! Crazy thinking, that’s what that was.

When I started seminary with my rose colored glasses, I thought every other person there was nearly perfect. (If I kept quiet enough, no one would know that I’m not, right?!)  I mean, I thought my pastors were really holy, perfect people, as most of their congregants do. Wait, what? Pastors are just like every other human being? Wow…..and then, I took my rose colored glasses off and quickly came to learn that this new seminary community was pretty wacky, weird, fun, and just as broken as I was, some just hid it better. Seminary contained people from all walks of life and I soon found out that most others hadn’t really figured things out either. We often didn’t want to share if we weren’t TOTALLY sure about the pastor track, because it might look bad. Then there were those academically and theologically driven folks, who separated themselves from most everyone else. I must admit, they bored me and I prayed I didn’t have to listen to their theological banter at the cafeteria during lunch or dinner.

Through the colorful tapestry of people that God calls into the world of seminary and beyond, YOU, Annela, will be one little strand, just like I am. Somehow, God works through all of us. Studying scripture taught me how God used and uses those who are broken to share the Good News. I started to love the Old Testament for this very reason. Theologically, I started to love why I was a Lutheran and how the theology of the cross was exactly what I needed. Throughout the seminary process, what I discovered is that most of us are just trying to figure out who we are as beloved children of God. Not only that, but the process of becoming a pastor never really ends. Even after fifteen years, I’m still discerning my call and still feel inadequate for the tasks at hand. BUT….there is always a big BUT, I strongly feel God calls me to share the Gospel news and it is usually in ways I never imagined.

Throughout seminary, your friends, however young or old they are, will stick with you, uplift you, pray for you, and will love you, that I can promise. When I need a word of encouragement, I think about and reach out to my pastor friends from seminary who, even though they are far away, encourage, love, listen, and pray for me. Because we have experienced this bond of going through what we did to become a pastor and working in church ministry, we have a kinship similar to those who have fought wars and have walked through battle together. We just get each other.

One of the greatest challenges of being a pastor is the fact that it is primarily “people work”, so you don’t often see the fruits of the work you’ve done. But every once and awhile, you get a glimpse of how God worked through you and it touches you deeply. It gives you hope and energy to keep doing what you love.

Last week, I received a message from a former parishioner whose name is Adam. I sat and wept as I read this note, which was so personal and vulnerable. I thought about how privileged I was to walk a small portion of this man’s life with him. You see, Adam was in a very bad car accident two and a half years ago and when I showed up to visit him at the hospital, doctors warned me that what I would see, might be very disturbing. When I walked into his room, Adam was lying flat on his back, with a shattered pelvis, broken legs, wearing a neck brace and had tubes coming out of every place in his body. The fact that he survived the accident was a miracle in itself. I silently sucked in my breath and asked God for grace. I didn’t want to cry, even though everyone around me was.

I listened to his girlfriend, his mother and father, and extended family and friends who sat nearby. I held his hand and watched the tears fall down his cheeks as he told us he was concerned about his two children, who were the same ages as mine. I leaned over,  whispered a prayer in his ear, and left him with these words, “Adam, always remember that God is with you. You are a child of God, marked with the cross of Christ forever. Until I see you again, peace.”  I walked out the door, held it together until I got into the car and then sobbed.

Over the next year, I watched Adam slowly heal.

I watched Adam go from being flat on his back, to sitting up, to a wheelchair, to walking again. The fact that he lived was a miracle, but his life has been forever changed. Since the day of the accident, Adam has been in pain. He takes medication every single day to manage and do what he does to support his family and loved ones.

Before the accident, Adam was a high school basketball referee and his dream was to “ref” at the college level, but I knew the accident would make it that much harder for him to achieve. A year after I visited him in the hospital, I attended a local basketball game. As they introduced the referees for the night, I watched Adam walk out on the floor (with a little limp) and the tears rolled down my face. A couple next to me asked why I was crying. I turned and said, “If you knew the full story of what an accomplishment it is for this man to be standing before you, you would be crying too.” I was so proud of him that night, but I knew it would take days for him to recover.

Adam amazes me. He was sad when we left our Iron Range community to move to Norway, but said he would keep in touch. The latest note was filled with God’s love, grace, and gratitude, which I was so happy to receive!  It was vulnerable and difficult and yet, incredibly uplifting. By God’s grace, Adam lives a life of love and healing, even with all of the great challenges that lie before him. It was a privilege to be with Adam and he ministered to me, as I ministered to him. That’s what pastoral ministry does, you know……it goes both ways.

At the moment, you know I am on-leave from call as our family came to Norway with Joel, your uncle, where he serves as pastor at the American Lutheran Church. I am not able to serve as a pastor, so I am working as an elementary school substitute teacher at an International School, which if you remember from my undergraduate degree, is what I am grateful for. Stepping away from pastoral work is both my Nordic light and darkness in so many ways. My ministry now is different, as I spend my days leaning over desks teaching young ones how to put things in alphabetical order or how to use the metric system (which I am still trying to figure out). It’s not nearly what it was when I was student teaching and on many levels, it is a whole lot easier.

What do I miss the most? You probably know.

As you prepare for the journey ahead, know your years at seminary will teach you a great deal, some of what you will remember, but a lot you will not. You see, institutions cannot teach you how to hold the hand and pray for someone who is dying of cancer, or what the best way is to deal with the leaking roof at church, or when it is the best time to change or try a new liturgy (because the old one has been done since 1864), or how you deal with those who do not believe you should be a female pastor, or why you cry when you preach the Good News. God will work through your shining moments and perhaps even more, the ones where you didn’t feel adequate enough. You will laugh, cry, raise your fists in frustration, ask questions, listen, and wonder what in the world you got yourself into. Annela, your story, your narrative, will tell the Gospel.

Hold this close; faith and doubt go hand-in-hand and you will dance with them as you continue to discern God’s leading.

Annela, may you know you God is with you and you are a beloved child, marked with the cross of Christ, forever. I am cheering you on, loving, listening, and will encourage you each step of the way.

Klem fra Oslo, (Hugs from Oslo)

Aunt Emily






My First Year Living in Norway….in a nutshell.

When we first moved to Oslo in the summer of 2015, I awakened each morning looking at the white wall beams high above me and wondered, “What will we do today?”

Everything was new:  living in our small 900 sq. ft. apartment, my walk to the grocery store and shopping for smoked salmon, brown cheese, and cucumbers, looking for adventurous activities for the boys, learning the Ruter (public transportation) system, finding appropriate length hikes and sandy beaches to explore, listening to Norwegian, and last, but not least, for the first time in 15 years, I was not defined by my occupation. You could say that I went from being sure of who I was in a certain place and time as a pastor, to suddenly not knowing my role or who I was. I felt quite vulnerable, insecure, and unsure of anything, the minute I stepped out the apartment door onto Vestheimgata. It was all NEW.

I have learned that for our family, it has taken an entire year to adjust and get used to all this newness. Through this experience we have been shaped to think differently about ourselves, our family, our friends, the strangers we meet, our church, community, and the world.

The following reflections are what I’ve thought about, experienced and learned, and how the lens through which I see is just a little bit different now that I’ve lived in Norway for a year. First of all, I have to say that it was a choice to move here. It was a choice my husband and I made as we discerned the tug of our hearts and truly felt God’s call to be here in this place we now call home. Our children on the other hand might have different opinion about how and why we came to Oslo. One more thing we’ve learned; moving a family isn’t easy, regardless of where you move and sometimes, not knowing what you are in for, is a good thing.

Norwegian culture is not that different from what I grew up with. I come from a Scandinavian background and heritage, which defines a good part of who I am. But with that being said, being Norwegian is very different from being American. I have to admit, when we moved here I had a lot of preconceived notions of how I thought Norway would be.  Over the last year I’ve discovered most of them aren’t true. I am an idealist and have read portions of “Scandinavia: Land of the Almost Perfect People”, therefore, I’ll tell you I actually heard these words rolling around in my head prior to departure……. “Norway will be so much better than the US on so many levels. I’m sure we won’t use plastic bags, the grocery stores will not allow chemicals on produce or anything that might harm the consumer, it will be immaculately clean, schools will be far ahead of where we came from, my kids will be accepted by the Norwegian kids, and we will all learn the language quickly.” Since actually living in Norway, I have found my heart has been pushed, pulled, and yanked at with all its reality, which is neither good nor bad, but simply, different. As my ten year old would say, “It’s just life.”

Here are a few things I’ve learned about Norway and its inhabitants……

  • Norwegians ARE hard to get to know, especially if they have never lived outside of Norway and have never been a stranger in a foreign land. You should NEVER ask a Norwegian that you don’t know VERY WELL, “How are you doing?” They might feel threatened and think they have to answer and tell you about every personal aspect and detail of their life. You just simply say hello and move on with whatever you are doing with them.
  • Norwegians DO use plastic bags and plenty of them. You could put a cement block in any one of them and it would hold. They are amazingly sturdy. Apparently, you can eat some of them, as they are made of very compostable material, not that I would recommend it. (But, perhaps if you were in the woods and ran out of food and it was your last option…… then you could eat your bag.)
  • Oslo is very different and diverse compared to the rest of Norway. I have been told by Norwegians, “Oslo isn’t the REAL Norway.” (Whatever that means.) I’m going to the west coast next week. Maybe then, I’ll see and experience the REAL Norway. I don’t know, I think Oslo is pretty real when it comes to diversity, integration, and what it means to be Norwegian or NOT.
  • When learning a language, you have to be vulnerable. My dear Irish-Norwegian-who-speaks-Italian friend Camilla told me that the first time I met her and I’ve tried my best to be vulnerable whenever I have the opportunity to speak and use my Norwegian. The other day, I spent 5 minutes with my pharmacist, who spoke ONLY Norwegian with me and it took THAT long to understand he was asking for photo ID. When I finally recognized the words and the light bulb went on, it was beautiful. I’ve got a LONG ways to go, but I’ve got a good base to go from.
  • Bunads are cool and I wish I were Norwegian, just so I could wear one. They are a source of pride and heritage. Of course, I could wear a traditional folk dress from the Swedish area my family is from…..maybe I should look into that. It is really a source of identity and that is a good thing, I think. This year on syttende mai, I wore a blue suit (with a Norwegian flag pin), along with red clogs. I looked like an airline stewardess. I got several looks while walking down the streets, as Norwegians do not hesitate to stare at you, or glare at you, especially when you are wearing something with color. Black and gray are ALL these Oslo-ites wear, except when they dress in their national costume, then color abounds.
  • Norwegians don’t mean to be rude, but sometimes they just are. I’ve discovered that they are just totally unaware of other people. They hardly ever acknowledge you while walking down the city streets, but they will when you cross paths in the forest. They will also budge and cut in front of you when waiting in line, walk as slow as they want and not move over when you want to pass them, and most often use their “Norwegian arm” when they want something on the table that is far away from them. This self-centered attitude really comes historically from being separated from people who lived over the next mountain or across the fjord. They didn’t HAVE to talk to anyone else. It isn’t bad or good. It just is. After a year, I’ve fought the urge to give up saying hello or at least acknowledging the other person on the street, but when I see someone, I just say a good ol’ fashioned American hello and greet them, just because I like to see them squirm a bit. They are usually a little bit caught off guard, but most people smile! That is a great accomplishment.
  • Norwegians like to use the “F” word in English because it naturally seems to roll off their tongue and they are not emotionally attached to it like I am. Because it is my native language it drives me absolutely nuts to hear it at soccer games and out on the street. Actually, most kids use every swear word in the book and it comes out of their mouth as if they’ve been drinking heavily. Maybe they have.
  • Kids here in Norway have a lot of freedom. They also learn about sex way before I ever did. When my son told me he learned about sex in school, I was concerned that he didn’t understand everything that was told to him in Norwegian. He responded with, “Yes, mom. I understood everything and I sure wish I hadn’t!” In the US, we might not tell our kids enough, not soon enough. In Norway, they give the kids way too much information and all too soon. Norway is one of the most promiscuous countries in the world. Now, I need to clarify that this was something I’ve heard from other people. It is not a fact that Norway is one of the most promiscuous places in the world and I cannot write something that I cannot back up with real data. As my Norwegian friend challenged me on this, I realized it was too general and I need to have some good solid evidence when I proceed forward! What I was really trying to say was…..somehow there has to be a compromise in between not enough and too much information…..I guess it is ALL out on the table then. Maybe that’s what our kids need!
  • Norway imports most of the fresh fruits and veggies, naturally, because there isn’t any place to grow them here. They come regular (conventionally grown) or organic, just like in the US. Take your pick: pesticides or no pesticides. If you pick no pesticides, you pay the price of a small cow. I will say that what IS grown here, tastes superior. When it comes to strawberries, beets, rutabagas, or carrots, they surpass the rest of the world.
  • The schools are different. Not better or worse, just different. I will say that my children are outside playing a lot more and it doesn’t matter what kind of weather, they are dressed for it all. They have many breaks outside each day, with time to play four square, stickball, or fotball. During this school year, my younger son learned how to knit, macramé, and refined his drawing skills. When they went on a field trip to the park, they needed to bring a piece of firewood to contribute to the fire. How totally awesome was that to read about what the kids needed to “bring on our field trip” list?! And yet, my older son has found the subjects to be much easier than in the States and looks forward to a greater challenge next year. The hardest thing for both of them: learning Norwegian. They are braver than I will ever be and I admire them every day as they walk out the door to immerse themselves in Norwegian life.
  • Oslo is not a clean city and I have found trash littering the fields of my son’s fotball team LOTS. No one wants to pick it up, because they expect that “someone” else will do it. Oil wealth has shaped this attitude for sure.
  • Hospitality? Welcome? The place where we have found we are most welcomed and accepted is where there is diversity and the international community. People who have lived elsewhere, including Norwegians who have lived abroad, are the most accepting and kind people we’ve met. Our family makes a point to invite people over to our home and sometimes they are completely floored when we do! We make it a priority because we know what it is like to be a stranger and experience hospitality and welcome in a new place. Food is a place of connection.I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE hearing the stories I’ve heard over the last year. My life is an on-going social studies course I didn’t have to pay for. People are fascinating.
  • I believe that God is alive and well in this atheistic AND secular society that supports the “beliefs” of all. In the midst of everyone trying to find their way in the world, I have had more interesting and deep conversations than I have ever had in my life. Maybe this is because I am a person of faith and a pastor (even though I am not currently serving a congregation), which both disturbs and interests people.
  • Traditions are important to Norwegians, even if they don’t know why they do them anymore. It gives definition to this homogenous society, but makes it nearly impossible for integration from anyone who comes from another culture. The recent wave of immigrants is testing the waters and changing the landscape. I thank God for them.
  • I have more observations than I have room for, so stay tuned for a “to be continued”.

This year of “firsts” has been completed and now, we are onto the second. Adventure continues to await us each day and now when I step onto Vestheimgata, I know where I’m going. The “newness” has worn off, but that’s okay because it is a sign that this is now home. Thanks be to God!

4 Jewish Atheists + 4 Lutherans= Unexpected Friendship

Matzo Ball Soup–Passover 2016

When we moved to Norway last June, we were told we would be getting new neighbors across the hall in August. They would be a family from the US, moving here for just ten months, and had two girls around the same ages as our boys. My husband Joel and I looked at each other and said, “Well, this could be really good or really NOT good. I guess we’ll just have to see.”On a cool late summer Saturday, we heard movement outside our door which alerted us that our neighbors were now moving into the other flat. After secretly peeking through the eye hole of the Rova-Hegener apartment, I looked at Joel and said, “I think we should go meet them.” Five steps later, we knocked, wondering what these new people would be like on the other side of the wall.


The door opened and in front of us stood Edi and Marla, and their two daughters, Alicia and Eve, who were tucked neatly behind them and poking their faces out. In a thick Spanish accent, which seriously sounded like Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, Edi said, “It’s nice to meet you.” We exchanged niceties and introduced our children to each other. Their girls looked the opposite of our blonde hair, blue-eyed boys; they had long dark hair and deep brown eyes. Searching for a commonality, besides being from the US, we learned very quickly that we were living across the hall from readers, who brought many books with them. Books are also our friends and we need them when we move somewhere far away as they are a source of familiarity and comfort. Books were swapped and our friendship began.

We learned that their family was from Chicago, Illinois and they came to Norway, as Marla was a Fulbright Scholar, here to research and study patient and doctor relationships. The research done over the course of the ten months would add to her wealth of knowledge, experience, and work, as a Ph.D. in Public Health. Edi has a Ph.D. in Political Science, and was taking a year leave-of-absence from teaching to care for the girls, but he would also spend time writing. Edi, of Polish Jewish ancestry, grew up in Costa Rica, thus, the lovely thick Spanish accent. He also speaks Hebrew, Portuguese, and of course, English. Marla, also Jewish, grew up in Ohio. We learned that she and Edi met in Israel. The girls, who are fluent in English and Spanish, would also learn Norwegian very soon, along with our two boys.

“If you need anything, just let us know.” I said, as we walked back five strides to the place we called home. I turned to Joel and said, “They seem nice and super interesting. Should be quite an experience to have them as neighbors!” Little did I know what the future of our relationship would hold and through time, how dear they would become to our hearts.

Secretly, I’ve always dreamed of being friends with someone who is Jewish. Really. And, not only Jewish, but who actually practices the Jewish faith, rituals, and traditions. I felt a little giddy when I learned I was living next to four people who were Jewish and actually attended their synagogue ON A REGULAR BASIS in the US. It is hard enough to find other Christians who attend church ON A REGULAR BASIS. Yes!

You see, I’ve been a life-long Lutheran, whose world has been full of other Lutherans. I have a lot of friends who are of Scandinavian heritage and proud of it. These are people who tell stories about Ole and Lena, eat lutefisk and Swedish meatballs on a fairly regular basis, might take a sauna at least one day a week, and can sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in four-part harmony. This is the world I grew up in. But in all my life,  I have never, ever had a Jewish friend. I thought we struck the jackpot of religious diversity and would get to see it up close, if we were lucky enough. (And we were.)

In the beginning, I was a little bit terrified of what they would think of us and that is because I’m always a little bit terrified to tell people that Joel and I are Lutheran pastors. The typical response when we tell people we are pastors is, they either, a) feel guilty or apologize for not being at church or swearing around us or b) look at us with wonder and say things like, “Really? Wow.” or c) say nothing but, “Oh.”.

To our surprise, once they heard what we were, they responded with, “One of Alicia’s best friends in Chicago is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.”  I guess there was a sigh of relief on our parts, that they didn’t see us as these strange green aliens next door.

Our older children traveled from their Norwegian language school on the other side of Oslo and back to our apartment together every morning and every afternoon for five months. I wasn’t so sure what an 11 year old boy would think about hanging out with an 11 year old girl, but the time allowed them to have deep intellectual conversations about books they had read and found themselves bonding over missing the communities in the US Midwest  they had left. Both of them had to move to this place called Norway because their parents dragged them here unwillingly. These two “tweeners” worked hard to learn Norwegian, listened to each other, processed their experience, and shared conversations that gave them a bit of grounding in their new home and community.

Our youngest kids were walked to school everyday by their dads. 8:05 a.m. was the departure time. Sometimes Eve would knock on our door and other times Johan would knock on theirs. If Johan knocked on their door, we could see Eve sitting on the floor,  trying to put her boots on, refusing to wear socks (regardless of how cold it was out), and listened to her father say, “Come on, Eve. Hurry up!” Joel and Edi walked Johan and Eve to school EVERY SINGLE DAY this year. Edi and Joel would spend their moments to school listening to Eve and Johan, reflect on life and ask good and thoughtful questions about anything and everything they noticed. On the way back home, Edi and Joel would have man-bonding time for just a few minutes, when Joel wasn’t a pastor, but a friend.They talked about history, movies, religion, culture, music, children, and life. They commiserated and laughed about the challenges of parenting and raising children today in this new country of Norway.

I was fascinated by Marla, one of my first female friends here in Norway. Within a couple of weeks after they arrived, the doorbell rang. I was finishing up some dishes, but as I ran to answer the door, noticed how much “stuff” we had laying about everywhere in our apartment. I thought, “Oh shit. Nothing is cleaned up and here our neighbors are going to see what we really live like.” I feared they would see our space and home for what it really was: imperfect. Good grief, it was hard for me to have someone see what my house REALLY looks like on a daily basis.You see, books were strewn all over the floor, laundry was hanging on the drying rack, legos could be stepped on, food was on the table, with crumbs everywhere and there was a glass with leftover milk that was waiting to be cleared. Uff. Da.

I greeted Marla and tried to keep the door open, but was trying to figure out how to not have her come into the apartment all the way. But that was just plain rude, so I said, “Come on in and sit down. I am SO sorry that it looks like this. Please come in. Oh, let me move that pile of books so you can sit down on the sofa.” Marla, being the direct and scholastic person she is, said, “Stop apologizing. I’m not judging you for what your house looks like. So, you are just going to have to get over it. Besides, we’ll be coming over and seeing you and you can’t apologize every time we come.”

Suddenly, I realized it was okay and that was freeing.

Over the course of the year, we learned to just “be” with our neighbors. The best thing about being neighbors with Edi and Marla was that they let us be us and we let them be them. We walked carefully around each other’s core values and asked questions when we wondered about why they did what they did. We played family games and our kids went to movies and we had deep conversations that included debate. We got hugs from the girls and non-Norwegian “hellos” as we greeted one another on the streets. We gathered around the table to break bread on Shabbat and ate Edi’s homemade tortillas. We passed desserts, food, sewing needles, an iron, butter, and olive oil across the hall and celebrated birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Passover. We made kransekake (Norwegian wedding cake) and decorated them with Israeli, US, Norwegian,  rainbow, and unicorn flags. We dyed Easter eggs and talked about why we do it. We studied and learned about each other and found, we had much more in common than we imagined.

Even when we learned they were atheist and practiced the rituals and traditions because they needed to keep their cultural and ethnic heritage, we asked questions, listened, and debated. As a Christian, I have times of doubt and truth be told, I hope that if Edi and Marla are open, they might have glimpses of faith in some small way. I have no doubt that God works in and amongst people and situations that are far beyond my understanding.  No matter what religion, non-religion, background, life circumstance, gender, or whatever, we are all in this thing we call “life” together. Somehow, we are all trying to figure it out, making mistakes, hopefully learning along the way, and trying to make this crazy world we live in a little bit better. Marla, Edi, Alicia, and Eve have been a source of light and blessing my life and our family’s life in ways they’ll never know. Because of them, we are different and will not ever be the same again.

I went running today and found myself getting choked up at the thought of their leaving Norway. This coming Sunday, they are moving out of the apartment and going back to Chicago. This means no more hugs from my adopted daughters, no more Passover meals, no more walks to school, game nights, or just stopping over to say hi. The floor will be quieter and less filled with the life across the hall as we now know it.

God must have known how much we needed Jewish Atheist neighbors. Boy, am I grateful.

Joel and I will both tell you ten months later…… the neighbors across the hall, well………. they turned out to be very, very good.


Velkommen til oss


It was a bleak, cold, damp, and cloudy mid-winter day as we stood outside a friends’ home. From where we stood the windows reflected trees and the outdoor elements, but inside, the candles showed warmth and light. We could hardly wait to go in, to relax and more importantly, not be chilled anymore.

As our family walked in the house, we heard, “Velkommen til oss!”. In English, the direct translation would be “Welcome to us!”. Where I come from, we say “Welcome!” to the  people coming in, but it usually stops there. The “to us” is left off, but I like it better in Norwegian, because it means we are going into something.

“Welcome to us” is sort of like saying, “Come on in, enter into our space, our home, our life, and be a part of what we have going on here.” What I experienced with this phrase makes me think of our friends, their warm home, hospitality, delicious food, glasses of wine, good conversation, smiles, and hugs. You might think we had known them for a long time, but no, they are new friends.

New friends. Thank goodness for new friends. Not that I don’t love the old ones, but new ones take a bit of exploration. The stories of new friends are like a new landscape that we must walk upon and become familiar with. When I listen, I feel like I am looking for points of connection, something I relate to, a shared experience, passion, or even a loss or grief. Some people are so different from me that the points of connection are few, but the basic line is, we are all human and we all want to belong.

That’s why when “Velkommen til oss” were the first words we received upon walking into our friends’ home, it became an imprinted image of what it means to extend welcome to others. I want others to be received into my home, my community, my children’s school, my church, and my life with welcome. I want them to come in and enter my space and be a part of what I have going on.

As a pastor, I have always urged, asked, pleaded, even begged my congregations to welcome other people to church or the fellowship hour or to Sunday School or to a community event or…..into their daily lives. Of course, most people rarely did this because it was easier to do as they’ve always done. It is easier to not welcome and engage and sit and be with the old friends and family with whom they were familiar. I understand that, of course! It is much more comfortable and a bit like the old shoes that have formed to our feet. There is no risk involved when we don’t welcome.

But….. what are we missing out on when we don’t welcome others to us?

We miss out on the opportunity to learn something new. We miss out on discovering our connections. We miss out on opportunities to minister and be ministered to. Our lives miss out on being added to. We miss out on shared meals, good conversation, hugs, laughter, and insight into this life we are all journeying on together.

When we welcome others, we add light to the dark corners of our life. It is a bit risky having a new friend, but it’s risky not to have one as well. Here in Norway, I love my new friends. They come from all parts of the world and add a whole lot of flavor to my life.  Some are deeply spiritual and full of insight and others make me laugh.  Some are quirky and weird. Some are just plain fun and others are in grief or loss. Some are compassionate and others can hardly see beyond themselves. And yet, I think my life would be much less without them.

Invite. Welcome. Listen. Love. Share. Eat. Laugh.  And then, do it all over again.

I have to say thank you to our new friends. They  have reminded and taught me the Norwegian way of welcome. With that, I encourage everyone to find ways to say, “Velkommen til oss!”