THE CALL OF LOVE            The Rev. Brian Backstrand            April 19, 2015

The other day I sent forwarded to all of you a column by The Rev. Scott Stoner in which he spoke of a moral bucket list.   Stoner writes a blog called The Living Compass and the other day he delved into the concept of having and keeping a bucket list—that is a list of things that we might want to do before coming to the end of our lives.   What might we choose to do?   Bungee jumping?   Sailing around the world?

Usually these things are pretty dramatic and seem to be oriented in terms of personal expression and personal satisfaction.   But Stoner takes things in a different direction.

Stoner cites a column in the New York Times by David Brooks in which Brooks puts forth the idea of a moral bucket list.   This bucket list has more to do with character than with personal activities or accomplishments.   The moral bucket list focuses on qualities that we might speak of in a memorial service.   Here is the moral bucket list from the perspective of David Brooks:

  • Practicing profound humility
  • Wrestling with one’s inner weaknesses
  • Being deeply rooted in connection and community with others
  • Sharing energizing love, the kind of love that radically de-centers the self
  • Finding one’s deeper call, one’s true vocation and purpose in life
  • Taking a leap past one’s greatest fears

In presenting this list, David Brooks seems to be asking us to think about virtuous living.   About being pure and selfless and life-giving. Here’s how he began his column:

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. 

Although Brooks is not a Christian, in many ways, he seems to be speaking of the best that Christianity can offer. He speaks of a virtuous life, a life that is pure, when he describes the people who brighten his day as “deeply good.” And two terms in his moral bucket list underscore this point:

  • Being deeply rooted in connection and community with others
  • Sharing energizing love, the kind of love that radically de-centers the self

It is easy to make Christianity into a belief system when it seems to be calling us into a lifestyle, a life based upon a profound relationship, a profound understanding that connects us with the ultimate, with God.  One approach tells us that we need to gather up all the right thoughts and make sure that all of our thoughts are correct. Another approach urges us to change, to be deeply formed in our relationship to the source of all life so that we can be deeply good and live in this goodness.

In our reading from I John this morning that relationship is captured, at least in part, when the author writes:

See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are. …Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed we will be like him for we will see him s he is. All who have this hope purify themselves just as he is pure.

Notice how I John also connects the idea of love with purity.   And with the hope of being in the presence of God.   Later in I John we read God is love and those who abide in love abide in God. Another passage underscores this same point: Beloved let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  And so love and living in the presence of God are connected.   Hope and purity and goodness and being in relationship with God are linked.   Is this how certain people radiate an inner light?   Does it come from their capacity to share an energizing love –a love that radically de-centers the self?

Richard Rohr in his book Breathing Under Water described an individual whom he met during one of his counseling sessions.   The man complained about always being irritated at other people and living a life of deep resentment. How can I change this? I don’t know how to be different! In response, Rohr asked the man if he were this way with his children and without hesitation he said No, not at all, hardly ever.

The man’s relationship with his kids captured a spiritual experience that placed his life on a different plane.   He was grounded there.   And then Richard Rohr suggests ~ Until we have found our own ground and connection to the Whole [capital W], we are all unsettled and grouchy.  

When Jesus appears to the disciples they were unsettled and grouchy to say the least. Some were in fact terrified. But then he teaches, he shows them his new transformed body and he proclaims peace: peace be with you.

One of the other concepts in the moral bucket list of David Brooks is fear. He speaks of “Taking a leap past one’s greatest fears.”   What are our greatest fears?   I am sure that the list is long and diverse.   But here are some common fears

I am afraid that when I die I simply might disappear.

I am afraid that my life will not have any final enduring value.

I am afraid that I will not have contributed much in the way of love or compassion.

I am afraid that I will not be remembered.

The Christian life asks us to shed these fears. In fact, I John tells us that perfect love casts out fear.  The Christian experience suggests that our true life is hidden with God and that in the very life of God our lives have been captured.   It asks us to lose our lives in selfless living and abandon what essentially are self-centered concerns and fears. It asks us to trust that what we will be has not yet been revealed and to focus on love and living in the milieu of love.   It pushes us in the direction of living a good life away from self preoccupation and self justification.   It pushes us towards love and supreme love. One of our hymns, “I sought the Lord (689)” puts it this way: I find, I walk,   I love, but oh, the whole of love is but my answer, Lord to thee; for thou wert long before-hand with my soul, always thou lovedst me.

I close with the great teaching of Jesus based upon the teaching of the Old Testament.   It too asks us to embrace an energizing love and to live in community:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

In the name of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.   AMEN.

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GOLDEN GRAINS OF WHEAT           The Rev. Brian E. Backstrand            Easter Day 2015

In the middle of the Lenten Season, I got word of the death of Wayne Carver.   Wayne lived for much of his adult life in the town of Northfield, Minnesota which goes by the motto: Home of Colleges, Cows and Contentment. Wayne fought in WW II in the Battle of the Bulge; after the war he earned a degree from Kenyon College in Ohio and then came to Northfield in 1954. For thirty-eight years, he taught at Carleton College and made a huge, incalculable contribution to both the education and the personal humanity of generation after generation of students at Carleton.   I took several classes from him and our daughter Brenna, near the end of his career, took a class as well.

When I got the news of his death, I was surrounded by darkness, my mind flooded with random memories of Wayne and I felt the weight of his loss.   His death marked not only one of the great presences at the College (he was the best teacher I ever had) but also he took with him a good deal of knowledge of the institution in which he served.   His sense of humor, modeled after his great idol, Mark Twain, always turned up in odd and important moments.   One colleague described his teaching methods as sly.   All I know is that he planted a lot of seeds. In the classroom, he was the sower who went out to sow.

As you listen to me this morning somewhat selfishly speaking of this important presence in my life, I know that you also can in the book of memory finger the pages and find the names of so many others.   Persons in your family (some of them no doubt this morning remembered by flowers), important influences,   good friends.   Some like Wayne’s passing are recent.   Others are to be found only in the corridors of time.   But we know who they are.   We know the contributions that they have made to our own lives.

As the news of Wayne’s death was published on the website, one of Wayne’s colleagues in the English department, Bob Tisdale, in outlining some of the facets of Wayne as person and professor, commented the he was “one of the giants in the earth.”

This was a telling reference that would be understood by many in the Northfield community as well as the extended communities both of Carleton and St. Olaf. St Olaf is a Lutheran school with deep Norwegian connections. Giants in the Earth is a reference to the novel of Norweigan immigrants written by O. E. Rolvaag and it is well known.   Rolvaag taught at St. Olaf and Giants in the Earth is his novel about pioneer life on the high plains.   This morning I would like to speak of Easter power in terms of Rolvaag’s story about the great sacrifices of those early pioneers.

In the first wave, many came from Scandinavia – moving onto the high plains where they built sod huts far from anything they had ever known.   All that they would ever have of their former life they packed into steamer trunks that now seem so small. It was a long journey and often they came late, just as winter closed in. There in the depths of winter, they would struggle to survive, struggle to keep their animals alive, struggle to hang on to some remnant of their own personal identity in the bitter cold and the howling wind.   I think of women, unpacking their small trunks with so little of their former life stowed, taking things out and looking and remembering. My own grandparents had such a trunk. In the novel, Beret, the wife of Per Hansa struggles to keep herself from insanity even as her husband battled the inhospitality of the plains.

If Wayne Carver was a teacher who planted seeds in the classroom, Per Hansa in Rolvaag’s novel was planting the real stuff, gleaming golden seeds of wheat.   Per Hansa almost died in one of the blizzards of the first winter on the high plains of the Dakotas and now there he was shooing away his two young sons out on the land where by hand he was sowing wheat.

It was very early in the spring and he was working hard to get the seeding done before any of his neighbors. He was trying to get it right and he hadn’t done it much. Then a neighbor came over and told him that he was a fool, an idiot to be sowing seed so early.   You’re plumb crazy man and I don’t mind telling you so. …The ground isn’t half dry enough. Why…there’s a foot of frost in the ground. But on and on he sowed – half exultant, half afraid

Today on this Easter morning Per Hansa’s sowing of the gleaming seeds of wheat reminds me of Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection.   We read a portion of it in the second lesson this morning: I Corinthians 15.   Inspiring stuff that I encourage you to visit or revisit in the Easter season.   Well, eventually, past our reading,   Paul gets down to speaking of wheat and of other seeds:

But some will ask,   “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool!   What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen and to each kind of seed its own body.

Per Hansa sowed four acres of wheat by hand in the early spring. And then it rained. And then the air turned cold and snowed. He did not sleep that night.   Rolvaag writes Out in the field, under the snow, lay all that priceless wheat, smothered to death and frozen as hard as flint. Twenty-five bushels and all that work – gone. As he opened the door that morning, saw two feet of snow covering the ground and felt the bitter cold stinging his face, he has an irrestible impulse to fling himself down in the snowdrift and cry like a baby!  Instead he went to bed, refused breakfast, refused the concerned solicitations of his wife, Beret.   It lasted for days.   And then he went out to look.

We all know what death looks like. We know what it feels like. Today we will let Per Hansa, Norweigan sailor turned into farmer, tell us what it looks like.

Reaching the field, he fell on his knees, dug into the soil, and picked up the first kernel he came across; he laid it in the palm of his left hand and turned it over and over with the forefinger of his right;   the seed was black with clammy dirt, which clung tightly to it. Slowly and carefully he picked off the particles of soil—and there it lay, a pale little thing, grayish-white and dirty, the golden sheen … entirely gone, the magic departed, the seed cold and dead.

Again and again he dug. Again and again he found the seed, cold and dead.   It was over. Wayne’s death,   the death of the important people in your lives, the dead seed in Per Hansa’s wheat field – it is all the same.   And it is hard to believe that anything past death can come to life.

This week hopefully all of us have journeyed with Jesus.   Stretched our minds and our spirits towards the cross.   From the standpoint of history the death of Jesus is hardly noted beyond the proclamation of the scriptures.   Only two historians—Josephus and Tacitus—record the event.   It is a singular seed of wheat and we must understand that when the women came with their spices to anoint the body certainly they must have been prepared to find the body of our Lord to be like a dead and exhausted seed,   in the words of Rolvaag, a pale thing, grayish-white and dirty, … the magic departed, the seed cold and dead.    But what did they find?   They found instead a young man, they found his words He has been raised; he is not here. And they found something else, they found terror and amazement that –the Gospel of Mark tells us— seized them.   And they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.

He has been in bed for days, this Per Hansa.   He has wasted twenty-five bushels of precious wheat.   This may be the end.   There may not be enough food for family and for livestock. In his bed he is lying there, day after day, thinking   It has all begun to rot.

But in the depths of our spiritual winter,   in the depths of depression and discouragement, in the depths when we lack faith and would abandon it, in the depths when death surrounds us in one form or another with its blackness – in the depths there comes this renewing force, this power, this Easter presence.     And one day it came to Per Hansa.

Suddenly a violent stamping of feet sounded outside; someone came running up, with another close at his heels.   Ole jerked the door open, took one leap and landed in the middle of the floor. The boy was wide-eyed with excitement.   “Per Hansa”, he cried, calling his father by name. “The wheat is up!” Then he took another leap and stood leaning over the bed. “The wheat is up, I say!

He got up trembling in every limb, and rushed to the field and, there, stood spellbound. “His whole body shook; tears came to his eyes, so that he found it difficult to see clearly.

… Over the whole field tiny shoots were quivering in the warm sunshine.”

How do you see Easter? How do you image resurrection?   Listen, the Apostle Paul says, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye….   For this perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality.

Easter 2015 — The sun is up.   Winter is past. The cross is empty and the stone, rolled away, reveals an empty tomb.   Women are filled with wonder and terror—all at once.

And the seeds? Whatever they are, they are sprouting new life.   The wheat is up. Jesus is about to appear to His followers.


Happy Easter.

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Palm to Passion

Palm to Passion                        The Rev. Brian Backstrand                   March 29, 2015

When I was a senior in high school one of my friends was a guy named Alan Amos.   Alan was lanky and had long hair and loved both buildering and mountain climbing. He sat in front of me in AP English class and talked of some of his mountain climbing experiences with the Mazamas (a First American word for mountain goat), a local mountain climbing group in Portland Oregon. I got interested and eventually took one of the Mazamas rock climbing courses.

In the middle of that last year in high school, one day in January I found Alan quite subdued.   He had been climbing up Mount Hood with a friend, Carter Smith. The idea was to do a night climb to the top of 11,250 foot Hood and send a signal back to Portland. The first climbers to reach the top would send the signal.   I suppose it is fair to say that both Carter and Alan did not really count the cost of their climb, fathom the risks of climbing on New Year’s Eve in the dark.

Somewhere up on that dark mountain, Carter slipped. My memory is hazy but I seem to remember that Alan tried a belay but was also swept off his feet. The two went down the mountain on a jagged ice field.   Both men knew that ahead of them was a drop off, an edge of a cliff that meant death.   Alan rolled on his stomach to stop his and Carter’s descent and almost did, but his cramp-on on one of his boots caught the ice, flipped him so that he was heading down the mountain head first.   He tried again and finally succeeded.  He lay on the slope exhausted but alive.

Shaken, cut and exhausted, both walked down the mountain in the darkness after that horrendous experience of a free fall down a steep icy slope.

For me, Palm Sunday is a lot like that experience of my friend, Alan.   It begins in glorious fashion. Jesus enters the holy city. Palms are laid down and robes grace the roadway, making his entrance into the entrance of a king.

For a while, in the holy city, things go well. Jesus confronts his religious opponents,   Jesus cleanses the temple in some gospel accounts, Jesus hold a private Passover seder meal.

But then things radically change.   Exultation and control and powerful mastery of the situation turns in one moment when Jesus is betrayed.   From the disciples’ perspective, everything unravels. Life becomes a free fall down a jagged icy mountain slope and there is no escape.

Here are some of the events of this time that moves so quickly from glory to an ignominious death. In listing them I am also going to include a quotation or phrase or two.

The entrance into Jerusalem~ Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord

The cleansing of the temple~My father’s house shall be a house of prayer but you have made it into a den of thieves

The dispute with religious authorities

The Passover meal in the Upper Room ~ A new commandment I give to you that you love one another

The Prayer Vigil in the Garden of Gethsemane ~ Could you not watch with me one hour? My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;   nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt.   The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Betrayal and The Healing at the time of betrayal ~ Put your sword into its sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me.

The interrogation during that first long night

Peter’s betrayal and the crowing of the cock three times

Caiaphas and Pilate

The crucifixion

The seven last words

Father forgive them for they know not what they do

Mother behold your son; behold your mother

Verily verily I tell you today you shall be with me in Paradise

I thirst

My God, My God why hast Thou forsaken me

Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit

It is finished

The centurion’s proclamation: Truly this man was a Son of God

The curtain of the Temple is rent in two and the earth shook

The burial of the body Joseph comes to claim the body

The empty tomb


Free fall.

One of the groups to recognize and identify with this suffering journey that we know as The Passion of Christ were the African communities enslaved in the new world. And one of the haunting and probing spirituals from the slave community in the United States is the famous   Were you There?

This hymn is Hymn 172

Let us read the first stanza

This hymn was first published by William Eleazar Barton in 1899 in a collection of African American spirituals entitled Old Plantation Hymns. Our version includes the final stanza which reads Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? The Old Plantation version does not include this stanza but in its place has the following: Were you there when the sun refused to shine.

In 1940, it was included in the Episcopal Church hymnal, making it the first spiritual to be included in any major American hymnal.   As reported in Howard Thurman‘s autobiography, the song was one of Mahatma Gandhi‘s favorites.  

The song has been recorded by artists including Marion Williams,[4] Johnny Cash,[5] Phil Keaggy,[6] Max Roach,[7] Diamanda Galás,[8] Harry Belafonte,[9]

Were you there?     Today we begin the journey but the question lingers. Are we going to journey with Jesus and with his bewildered and scared disciples and with his mother and all those other women who followed him along the way to Golgotha?

Today we are invited by the Spirit to a time of meditation and reflection. Let us journey together on Thursday evening and on Friday afternoon in preparation for what we know awaits us in the glorious season of Eastertide.

In the name of God–Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Reflecting on St. Andrew’s as a “Small” Church

Reflecting on St. Andrew’s as a “Small” Church

Maybe it’s just because this column is being written just before our Annual Meeting in which we naturally survey our past and future, I don’t know.   Maybe it’s because I have been drawn to think about the many Episcopal churches that are small in number, scattered across our nation and in foreign countries as well.   Whatever the reason, I have been thinking about being with you in a “small” church.

It turns out that “small” has some important and wonderful positives.   Here are a few to consider.

  • A small congregation has an important dynamic in which members and friends are truly known. It’s not just the “you’re a stranger only once” approach to welcoming. Rather, we know one another and therefore enter into a depth of relationship that larger churches work so hard to attain. Each one of us is different and we are challenged to be together in community in the midst of and (sometimes) in spite of these differences. This is what makes a small church community important and vital.


  • A small congregation means that everyone is important.   Everyone counts. When someone hurts, we all hurt. This is a Biblical statement of course when Paul speaks of the church as the Body of Christ. But it also is a reality for a small church. What a gift to be in a Christian community in which we bear one another’s burdens—in good times and in bad.


  • A small congregation means that we may be “forced” to enter into collaborative relationships when it comes to mission and outreach projects, mission trips, youth groups. Already our Loaves and Fishes ministry has “forced” us into some wonderful collaborative relationships with individuals from other congregations. This opens the door of possibility thinking as we look to the future.


  • A small congregation promotes moving forward through consensus. Because we value our relationships, we move ahead only when we together feel comfortable with the directions we are taking.   This does not mean that everyone must agree on everything.       But it does mean that consensus building is especially important.   Our All-Church Leadership Mini-Retreats help us in this regard.


  • A small congregation means that your personal gifts, talents and abilities are critical and will be used.       Some of us preach, some of us lead Morning Prayer, some of us focus on financial management,       some of us envision and dream,       some of us serve at the altar or read, some of us teach and inform, some of us maintain the building, some of us promote fellowship and hospitality. What are your gifts?   This Spring we are contemplating a time (Stewardship Time and Talent Fair?) in which we can survey our gifts and abilities together.

Let us give thanks and praise to the Spirit of God, that sustaining force in our midst, that makes our weakness into a spiritual strength that far exceeds our numbers. Let us thank God’s Spirit for giving us one another in the “small but mighty” community known as St. Andrew’s. And thank you for being here and being involved.





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