The Power of the Christmas Tree

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Yesterday we did it, we got our whole family in the house at the same time and decorated the Christmas tree. While this may not be special occasion to you, it was for us for two reasons. First, last year our house was “under construction” which meant, among other things, no Christmas tree and no Christmas decorations. Second, yesterday afternoon was the only time when all four of us could be present to do the honors in a two week period.

Tonight, soaking in the glow that only a Christmas tree offers, I’m taken by the power a Christmas tree has in our home.

As crazy as it sounds, with girls are in their twenties, picking out and decorating the Christmas tree is still an event you have to do together! Maybe it is just a habit that became a family tradition, maybe it is because the tree is the penultimate symbol of the season for two girls who love Christmas (don’t get theological on me yet), or maybe it is because in the midst of all the laughter and storytelling we are reminded of how we love being part of this crazy, mixed family. I’m not sure why, but I do know that trimming the Christmas tree has the power to draw us all together, if even only for an afternoon, to pause our busy lives and be together.

As I have given over my vision for decorating and let others exercise their creative imagination, I’m take by the reality that the decorations in the box are more than ornaments, ribbons, and tree toppers. Ornaments have special meaning and decorations bring back memories of earlier years. Hanging them on the tree recognizes their importance and the past, present, and future come alive in our living room. Values become visible, stories get retold, memories are made, and hopes direct our eyes to the days ahead. Trimming the Christmas tree with our decorations has the power to transform a Blue Spruce into an Elton storyboard.

As the days become shorter and the winter air colder, it amazes me how the power of a few strains of Target lights change the atmosphere in our home. Coming home from a busy day to the warmth of our house illuminated by this sign of Christmas invites me to slow down and sit for awhile. For those of us with hurried lives, being still is a gift we do not often afford ourselves, and somehow the tree has the power to get all of us to slow down. And this energy cannot be contained in the house. Shining through the picture window, the lights of the Christmas tree have the power to make a dent in the vast darkness outside as well. Even in my fifties, I have not lost my love for driving through neighborhoods where the lights of Christmas interrupt the night sky. In its own little way, our Christmas tree is a sign of hope in a dark world.

I have been working on an Advent practice this year – sitting quiet for a time each day. It is not much, I know, but it is enough to calm my soul and ground my life in a season when the world is pushing me in all directions. Tonight, with the light of the Christmas tree filling the room and the memory of yet another “Elton decorating party” fresh at hand, I am grateful for this simple, but powerful tradition.

In this season where we prepare for God’s coming to live among us, how might your traditions prepare you?

Taking a Leap of Faith

My colleague, Rabbi Hayim Herring, and I, are thrilled to announce that Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platform, People and Purpose, is now available.

Order in time for Hanukkah and Christmas and receive a 40% Discount  (Save 40% on all purchases for a limited time by using the code RL40LC16 when you order!)

Two years ago, we didn’t know one another. But we took a leap of faith (one Protestant, one Jewish) to collaborate on a significant project. The value of learning from a member of the same human family, but a different spiritual tribe, has been immeasurable.

Are you curious about:

  • How congregations and nonprofits are seeking to maintain community when relationships seem so fragile today?
  • How spiritual and nonprofit communities can make decisions rapidly, thoughtfully and inclusively in these changing times?
  • How professional and volunteer leaders are navigating the tensions of being faithful stewards of their organizations’ traditions, and responsive leaders to the disruptive pace of innovation?

We were, too, so we took another leap of faith and invited fifteen Jewish and Lutheran congregations and nonprofit organizations throughout the United States to be part of a research project. Some were established congregations and nonprofits that were becoming less hierarchical and more innovative. Others were start-ups that emerged at the dawn of social networks, are now adding more structure as they have grown, but don’t want to lose their entrepreneurial D.N.A. Whether old or new, they are navigating a paradigm shift in minimizing more cumbersome, hierarchical ways of working and fostering more fluid and creative networks to advance their missions.

Leading Congregations and Nonprofits in a Connected World: Platforms, People, and Purpose provides practical guidance to professional and volunteer leaders who view their organizations as platforms where people can find greater personal meaning by engaging with others who care about the same mission. We believe the book is unique as it:

  • Bridges faith communities.
  • Blends theory with tools, texts and hands-on resources.
  • Combines research with lived stories of congregations and organizations.
  • Addresses the desire of both established and newer organizations to deepen engagement with individuals, and transform their communities by redesigning how they are organized.

Several of our colleagues graciously shared their reactions to our book:

Allison Fine, co-author of, The Networked Nonprofit, and renowned expert on social networks and organizations noted, “One of the most pressing issues facing our society is the disruption of traditional organizations dedicated to our communal well-being; congregations and nonprofits. Herring and Elton have written a very important and practical book on a critical topic; how to restructure our most important institutions to match the urgency of working in a networked world.”

Peggy Hahn, Executive Director of LEAD, a national organization dedicated to growing Christian leaders, said that, “This book dares to link congregations and non-profit organizations in strategic conversations essential for thriving in a fast-changing world. This is a way forward.”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, co-founder, executive director of Mechon Hadar, and author of Empowered Judaism added that, “This book artfully breaks down the barriers that often exist between new and old non-profits. By taking a critical eye to both, the authors present findings untold in other books on congregational change, facilitating a powerful experience for the reader looking to reflect on organizational success.” (You can click here for additional reviews.)

We hope you’ll take a leap of faith, too, and not only purchase Leading Congregations in a Connected World: Platforms, People and Purpose, but enter into discussion and innovation with leaders in your community, and maybe even someone from a different faith background! The dynamics of disruption and leadership responses are similar in Jewish and Protestant communities, so stay tuned for more news about how you can participate in a network of leaders interested in these issues. You can do so by connecting with Hayim (options for social media of your choice, top right) or connecting with Terri (telton@luthersem.edu, www.facebook.com/terri.elton, @TerriElton).

Thank you,

Terri Martinson Elton and Hayim Herring

 

 

Platforms, People, and Purpose

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It’s arrived! After months of conversations, planning, research, writing, editing, and waiting, I received my first copy from the hands of a FedEx delivery person. Nervous and excited, I opened the package and held the book in my hands for the first time. Our baby has arrived and is ready to meet the public.

In the weeks and months ahead, my co-author, Hayim Herring, and I will be introducing you to our findings and to the congregations and nonprofits we studied. Until then, I simply wanted to share the good news with you, and invite to you take a peek (click here for more information).

The election, the aftermath, and the work that lies ahead

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This morning I got up and headed to the kitchen to do some baking. Baking, like running, is for me a calming pastime; a form of therapy if you will. It’s been a long week, after a really long campaign season, and I needed to do something mindless and productive. I’m happy to say before noon I had three recipes of muffins in our freezer ready for the holiday season.

For me, this has been a hard week. I have ridden the roller coaster of emotions; I have listened to friends, family, and colleagues process the election; and I have tried to get a handle on my own thoughts and feelings. I have tried to speak less and listen more. I have tried to be kinder and offer support where I could. As I see it, at least today, many people are hurting and our United States is divided on many fronts. This reality brings me deep sadness and is one of the reasons for my grief. I wonder where we, as a people, go from here.

But I grieve for other reasons as well. For more than a year, and particularly these past few months, the political climate has set the tone of our conversations and behaviors, as it filled the air with accusations, suspicion, anxiety, and name calling. The language and behavior present in this campaign did not bring out the best of us, as a nation and as a people. Instead of focusing on the issues important for our common life together, the tone that echoed across our land won the day, igniting anger and fear. No one person or party is responsible. Rather somehow the ball got rolling and we, the people, didn’t stop it, change it, or redirect it. I have been baffled by this experience and it has caused me to pause and reflect. As a society, I believe we can do better. And I want to work toward rebuilding trust in the communities I am apart of – among family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors – knowing we are shaped by different experiences and not of one mind.

I’m depressed about our political systems, not because Trump won but because of how we got to our final two candidates in the first place. I’m curious about what this moment will mean for our political parties in the days ahead. Will leaders use this experience for good? Will I use this moment for good? All of my life I have lived among friends and family who have different political views and claim different parties. Somehow we have managed to stay together even with our differences. But as I look at our two main political parties, both are in trouble. Both are without a center, have gone to extremes, and in many ways have lost touch with “the people” whom they seek to serve. While I don’t believe government will save us, or that it is the only way to cultivate our common good, I do want more from both our Democratic and Republican leaders. And as that gets worked out, I commit to doing my part to work for the common good in the arenas I find myself.

Finally, I’m stunned and broken by the behavior and language of the president and vice president elect around women, ethnic and religious minorities, and LGBTQ persons. For months I have been without words. And I have been silent in the face of hurtful words and accusations, except for conversations within my family. My deepest pain has been this dimension of the election. I didn’t need Hillary Clinton to win to prove I matter or women can lead, but I do need to stand up when people are mistreated and treated as objects. Why did I not stand up? How will I find my voice? As a Christian, I believe loving my neighbor involves both serving and advocating for my neighbor. Electing leaders to our highest offices who treat women as objects and demean ethnic minorities rips my heart, making me scared for our shared future. Many of my friends and colleagues know this pain deeper than I do, having been mistreated because of their skin color, minority religious beliefs, and/or sexual orientation. Yet God created us all; we are all subjects of God’s love. Nothing changes that, but this election told me this core belief of mine is not shared in society. We have a long way to go in creating communities where this belief is embodied and we act from this baseline. In the months ahead I hope to turn my brokenness into action, into tangible ways I can love and serve those who feel vulnerable as we move into this new political leadership.

Please, please don’t reduce the message of this post to simply whining about Trump’s victory. My attempt here is reflect on the pain and shock I experienced integrating it with what I heard from listening to others (who were both celebrating and grieving) in order to understand our country today. My conclusion is I have work to do. And I hope the church, with its many expressions and congregations, will be there alongside me working on the healing, uniting, and moving forward our society so all people are valued, cared for, and loved. Maybe you will be too.

But first, it’s time for a run.

Reflections

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I promised to share some of my favorite bike rides from summer 2016. So on this beautiful fall day, let me share 5 new rides I did this summer that I’d recommend.

#1 Spring Lake Regional Park to Hastings, MN – Bike #44 was a lovely Friday evening ride along the Mississippi River, corn fields, rolling hills and bluffs. For those of us that live on the southside of the Twin Cities, it’s a gem right in our backyard. Trails take you through the regional park and Hastings and this fall the trail opens going north. For more, here’s the link: https://www.threeriversparks.org/parks/spring-lake-park.aspx

#2 Carver Park Reserve – Bike #32 combined the popular Lake Minnetonka LRT Regional Trail and exploring the Carver Park Reserve. While I knew about the trail, I had never been to this expansive reserve before. It was a quiet park on a lovely day. Walk it, roller blade on it, and even go to the nature center if you have the time. For more, here’s the link:  https://www.threeriversparks.org/parks/carver-park.aspx

#3 Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge – Bike #36 and #46 started from the parking lot of Stagecoach Road and Highway 101 (close to ValleyFair by the Highway 169 bridge). One ride took me over the Minnesota River to Bloomington, the other ride brought me through Shakopee in the woods near the river to Chaska. It is a great ride, but note these trails are impacted by flooding, so check the website for updates – https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Minnesota_Valley/map.html

#4 – Elm Creek Park Reserve and Rush Creek Regional Trail – Bike #50 not only raised money to support Pancreatic Cancer, it helped me explore the Elm Creek Park Reserve and the Rush Creek Regional Trail. A few days later I did part of the Rush Creek Trail from the Shingle Creek Trail. And on Bike #52 – my century ride – I returned this time coming at the trail from the Coon Rapids Dam and then exploring Maple Grove and Rice Lake trails. Elm Creek has many miles of trails and they are in great shape. It’s a gem for those on the northwest corner of the Cities, but it is also worth the drive for those who are not. Rush Creek has more intersections, but it is well maintained and a good ride. For more, here’s the link: https://www.threeriversparks.org/trails/rush-creek-trail.aspx

#5 – Paul Bunyan Trail – Rides #8, 9 and 10 took place on this popular trail. One ride was on a Sunday afternoon. The trail was busy, but it was still a great ride. The other rides were early in the morning on weekdays, so the trail was not very crowded and I could set the pace I wanted. (One more I rode with two of my brothers and my sister-in-law and we got moving pretty fast.) I explored the end south of Brainerd and north of Brainerd. If you want to do it all it is over 100 miles long. Many sections are wooded, so the wind wasn’t too fierce. Here is a great map of the whole trail, with details for various sections – http://www.paulbunyantrail.com/trail-maps/

I could go one, but will stop for now. To see pictures of these rides, go to my Instagram account and search for #BikeMn52.

Here’s to memories and anticipating!

Passing on Blessings

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What does it take to bless future generations?

I have been pondering this question quite a bit lately. And there are many reasons, I suppose. One reason could be because of the conversations my husband and I now have with our parents. They are healthy and active “senior adults” – still very active in their communities and present in our life. But they, and consequently we, are aware of the gift these years are and don’t want to take them for granted. So much can change quickly, as we have witnessed with their friends and other family members. So we find ourselves appreciating the moments and savoring this chapter of our lives together. What will life be without them? A question we don’t want to delve into too deeply, but one that could be over the horizon sooner than we’d like. They have been such blessings to us in our lifetime, in profound and ordinary ways. How do we tell them of our gratitude? How do we thank them for their love and support? How do we let the blessings they have bestowed on us flow to others?

Another reason could be the frequent reminders that I am not as young as I use to me. In fact, I’m getting old. If I am average (something I’ve never been accused of) I have more years behind me than ahead of me. I don’t remember if it was the trifocals or the AARP application that first tipped me off to this reality, but I do know my visits to the gym and 5K running times have let me know I’m in a new age bracket. Mostly I don’t mind being in my 5th decade of life. I’m certainly more comfortable with who, and whose, I am. I’m glad for a family to ground me and for work that is meaningful. But I also live with a greater sense of urgency and desire to make an impact. I have less patience for the mundane and more interest in the meaningful. And sometimes it is hard to tell the difference. I want to make good choices, for me and for the people I love around me. What does that look like? Does that change any of my priorities? What do I need to step back from? What do I need to step into more deeply?

The final reason, and the reason that most often captures my attention, is parenting young adult children. How do I treasure these years without over, or under, parenting? What does that look like? When do I listen and when do I speak? How do I grow to love what and whom they love? What can I learn from them, as I also remind them of what’s important to me? I am appreciating the days we have together, sharing living space, talking about the daily, helping each other navigate the twists and turns of adult life. And I see their confidence in who, and whose, they are grow. But I also know there will be hard times ahead, times I can’t be there or protect them from or even experience for them. I’m hopeful these “good days” provide the soil from which abundant living will grow – in good seasons and difficult ones.

So today, I wonder…how do I pass on gratitude, values, leadership, and the blessing of family? And how do I open myself to new ideas, accept help, move aside, and accompany? On a journey…learning as I go.

Mission Possible

One of my “minor” projects this summer was participating in the making of this trailer for Luther Seminary. In so many ways this was out of my comfort zone, yet the people (at Luther and outside) put us all at ease and made it fun.

Why did I do it? Well, as you will see, it is not because I believe I have a budding acting career or that I’ve always wanted to have a role in a Tom Cruise movie. I did it for two reasons. First, I think most of us (at least those of us over 21) take ourselves too seriously. So pushing our limits and imagination is good every now and then, and to top it off, we could all use more fun in our life. This project was serious and playful at the same time. Second, I do believe in the project – and that we as Christian public leaders have a mission and it is possible. I will say more about this next Wednesday, as I get to preach on this topic in chapel (tune into Luther Seminary chapel at 11:00 am Central time if you want), but for now it is enough to say: God invites all of us – pastors, church staff, lay people, moms and dads, kids and grandparents – to be ambassador’s of God’s love. We do that in big ways and small ways; from pulpits and at the playground. This mission is not about growing a church, or a seminary, it is about creating a movement of love in our world. #LutherSemGive

Enough for now, I’m off to my real job…teaching!

Turning

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As the leaves on the trees begin to turn vibrant shades of yellow and orange and the sun sets on September, I’m reluctantly letting go of summer and reflecting on these past few months, in particular my 51 biking adventures throughout Minnesota.

Some of you know what I am talking about; I’ve done a lot of biking this summer and conned many of you into joining me. But for those that don’t know, here’s the scoop.

In June, days before my 52nd birthday, I was out riding my bike and was reminded of all the great places we have to bike here in the Twin Cities. So I decided, on a whim really, that it was time to explore these many and varied bike routes in the state of MN. So the next day I called my parents and invited them to join me and my daughter for a ride. That day we rode the Greenway and Cedar Lakes trails, I took a photo, posted it in Instagram, and bike #2 was in the books. The adventure had begun.

My goal was 52 different rides, and my only rule was I had to bike different routes each time. Because my “normal” mode of biking was training for races (usually on the same course) this goal seemed pretty lame, maybe even weak, but starting simple I figured I could build from there.

The first few rides were easy, as I tried out some of the paths I knew but hadn’t ridden for awhile. But it wasn’t long before I needed to expand my horizons. So, I did two things: got some maps – one of which I marked each route after my ride – and I talked with people. To my goal and rule, I discovered I needed to add something else – a postureexplorer mode! Explorer mode was about being open, and required both doing research and trying new things along the way. Sometimes explorer mode helped me find new trails and beautiful park reserves, sometimes it was forced on me by construction and detours. At times it was the result of being at a fork in the road “and taking the one less traveled.” A few times it brought me to a dead end. Overall explore mode opened up new territory and the desire to visit again.

This goal, rule, and posture helped me develop a new skilladaptability. Adapting became central to everything and helped me reframe all kinds of situations. For example, I learned to adapt my expectation of time – what started as “oh this route will only take me an hour” often turned into 90 minutes plus travel time. Therefore as the summer progressed I learned to leave the end time open so I didn’t feel pressure. I also learned to adapt to the surroundings – a popular trail on a Saturday morning has more traffic than a less popular one on Monday morning; roads are slower than paths; and feeling rain in the air usually means a storm is brewing. And biking with people and by myself are different, so I learned to adapt my pace to be in sync with those I was traveling with. Some days I pushed it with hard core bikers and other days I had a leisurely ride with people more interested with what’s going on around them. The whole continuum was fine with me, because in the end, it was great to bring people into the adventure with me.

Practicing this skill help me name a second rulehave fun! Be it a solo ride along the river on a 90 degree day or an outing with relatives “up north” or chatting with a friend while going around the lakes, I wanted, personally and for my fellow adventurers, to enjoy the ride and remember something good about the adventure. (And I learned it is really OK to have fun be a rule!)

Saturday is bike #52100 miles around the greater Twin Cities. Most of the trails I will already have been on sometime this summer; a few connecting roads/trails will be new. A few of you may see me in your neighborhood, feel free to join in a few miles if you like, but know this…Minnesota is a great state for biking and invites us all into various adventures. This summer, biking was mine.

I’ll share more about the lessons I learned this summer…and give some links to great trails near and far…but until then I invite you to enjoy the turning of summer into fall and to wonder about your own adventures.

Ready or not…

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I’m not ready.

As the sun set tonight, so does summer 2016.

As the sun rises tomorrow, another season begins.

Three of us will head off to school bright and early. A new schedule, new weekly rhythm. New students to meet; new learnings to discover; new goals to attain. This new season is exciting and it comes with its own joys. Yet tonight it is not the future I’m concerned about, it is what’s past and unfinished.

The summer house projects are not done, in fact we have piles of dirt and landscaping rock in the driveway waiting for their permanent home in our front yard.  I have more bike paths to explore and want more hot summer nights. The weather has been beautiful. And there are the writing projects that aren’t yet complete. As a person who loves checking items off my list, my summer checklist isn’t done. I am not ready for summer to come to a close. Yet ready or not, here it comes.

Tonight dreams for this season, and the images I had of summer 2016, all move from hopes to memories … from what’s ahead to what has past. Sure, there were great parts of the summer. Big moments, like watching the Olympics, having a family reunion, and going on a mission trip to Louisville. And there were fun, ordinary days, like biking around the Cities, impromptu fires in the backyard with college kids, and going to Twins games. But this day is always melancholy for me. The melancholy comes not from the value of the summer (the summer can be great or awful, it doesn’t matter). The melancholy comes from the passing of it.

You see summer is my favorite season and it is always hard parting ways. The sun rises later and sets earlier, the jackets come out and the leaves turn brilliant colors, and the hours of my day have more demands in the fall. Soon enough I will come to embrace the gift of fall, but tonight I recognize the end of another chapter, another summer season come and gone. And unlike  the shift from fall to winter or winter to spring, the change from summer to fall can be marked on my calendar. Scheduled, yet still abrupt, summer concludes on Labor Day. This year it ended with four of us gathered around the table for dinner, a Netflix  movie, and an early bedtime.

Thanks summer 2016 for the lessons you taught me, the space you let me explore, and for the many people I shared memorable moments with. The memories are stored in my phone and in my soul. To all who were apart of it in some big or small way, thank you.

 

Anyone, and everyone, can lead!

This afternoon I have the privilege of spending time with the camp counselors at Green Lake Ministries. For those who don’t know, Green Lake Ministries has three camp sites, two in southern MN and one in northern MN. Over the years I have known many people who have served in this ministry in some capacity. They entered with a role, short-term or long-term, a heart of Jesus, passion for serving God and eager to be a leader in outdoor ministry. The completed their time of service, months or years, more deeply rooted in faith, with Christian community supporting them, and with enhanced leadership skills for serving God’s church.

What can I say to these 50 adults preparing for another exciting summer of ministry? What difference can I make? What word can I share that, sometime in July when they are tired or next October when they are lonely and questioning faith, will be remembered and matter?

Bottomline – nothing! So rather than be profound, or offer the top ten things outdoor ministry leaders need to know, I’m going to say this – You are already a leader! You have already received a call. Now live into it! Everyone is called to be a leader, because in our world today living a Christian way of life, following Jesus and loving our neighbor and caring about the world God created, is being a leader. Sure some of us lead on a small scale and others lead on a larger scale. Some of us see ourselves as leaders, others of us just call it being a disciple of Jesus. And leading can happen anywhere – at any time.

I’m hoping, at the end of my 90 minutes, a growing number of people in the room believe they are called to lead and that it is not about them, but about God working in and through them. And it might seem odd, at times, or it might feel awesome. That actually doesn’t matter. Leading is seeing an opportunity, an opening to make the world more like the world God imagines it to be, and then going for it. Doing something, being with someone, recognizing someone, praying for peace even in the midst of suffering or violence. All of us, 15 months, 15 years, 50 years, can lead. Will you?

As I was doing some last minute prep, I opened my computer and Facebook came up. I scrolled through and stumbled on two videos that made this point real. If you need encouragement, or a push, today, take some time and watch these stories of two people offering up a bit of themselves for others. It’s amazing.

Your story could be next!

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The other is about a man who was having a bad day and was moved to buy a women sitting in her car in the parking lot flowers. (If you can find the link, post it or send it to me.)

And if you want the notes from my presentation, you can get them here:

http://wp.me/P3aRO2-rD