Wednesday, July 30, 2014

writing wednesdays: why i love writing local

There's just something about writing for those who are near, whether you know them or not.

I ponder this gift today on Peace Garden Writer. Come meet me there!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

second-chance sundays: Non-believer ponders: ‘Where will you go when you die?’

[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on July 19, 2014.]

Living Faith: Non-believer ponders, 'Where will you go when you die?'

By Roxane B. Salonen

We were driving through the emerald hills of southern Minnesota recently when the signs appeared.

They were spread out rather than clustered, distinct and direct, asking, “Where will you go when you die?” followed by a website where you could visit to ponder the question further.

I couldn’t help but think of the atheists I’ve known and the pattern I’ve discovered in talking with them; how mention of the afterlife often brings the discussion to a screeching halt.

I’m naturally curious about the non-believer, since the non-believer’s conclusions are the antithesis of my own. I am challenged by their thoughts and feel compelled to challenge in turn.

Likewise, I’m attracted to the stories of atheists who have, after a long discovery, found faith despite all the odds and fervent resistance.

One such person, Jennifer Fulwiler, had started seriously pondering the question, “Where will you go when you die?” at age 11, during a nature trip with her father. They’d stopped near a creek on land they’d visited many times before.

While there, she found a fossil that had been entrenched in rock since before Mount Everest was formed, and another near it that had existed even before that. That moment marked the beginning of a long, internal tug.

“I looked at the ammonite settled in between my soggy sneakers, and I understood for the first time that my fate was no different than its own,” she says in her book, “Something Other Than God.”

Fulwiler goes on to say that until then, she’d always thought of those long-ago creatures as being fundamentally different from her. “They were dead things, I was the alive thing, and that’s how it would be forever.”

But this time she realized, “Ten million years from now, there would be nothing left of me.” Even more jolting, she said, her strong, capable, loving father also would be nothing.

A short while later, another moment would have her giggling with her father and would provide relief from this dark thought, but only temporarily.

Fulwiler tried to ignore the haunting message from the fossils, and went on to become a passionate atheist. But when her first child was born, something began to awaken within her.

She realized that atheism could offer no satisfactory explanation for the love she was experiencing through her bond with her husband and love for her child.

Yes, the atheistic worldview can offer an explanation of the way our brain chemistry can be altered to experience more of the sensation we label “love,” she said, but it could not provide the full truth.

“It would be like confusing a picture of the Grand Canyon with the actual place; there’s nothing false about the picture, but it would be foolish to confuse the piece of paper with the real thing,” she writes. “There was more to human life than the atoms that made up our bodies – I was sure of it.”

Thus began a slow and methodical journey toward belief for Fulwiler, who ultimately found Christianity to be the most reasonable place in which to live out a life of faith.

As she quotes from former Chicago Tribune editor Lee Strobel’s book, “The Case for Christ,” “Regardless of your religious beliefs…you had to admit that something explosive happened to Jewish culture in first-century Palestine.”

In tapping atheists, I don’t believe I’m being unfair. I will give atheists this much: to a point, it can make sense to believe that this world is a godless one. But those who are being completely honest with themselves will eventually bump up against the kind of unnerving questions Fulwiler did.

When that happens, the even harder questions will have to be asked, such as those the signs posed: “What’s next?” And if nothing, then why does anything matter at all?

As Fulwiler discovered, there’s a beautiful life waiting for us, here and now and also after here and now. Finding it takes asking the hard questions and not stopping until they’ve been satisfactorily answered.

A key to this, as she also discovered, is that our hearts can’t be closed. We can absorb data under any circumstances, but to attain wisdom we have to be “in the proper position.”

“There was something about my approach to the question of God that had been blocking my ability to sense him,” she said. “Now, I just needed to find out what it was.”

The signs of southern Minnesota are beckoning us all to ask and dig deep for the answers.

Knowledge is there, and if we orient ourselves towards truth and seek openly and earnestly, wisdom will follow.

Friday, July 25, 2014

faith & family fridays: interior freedom in the summer

I'd never heard of Jacques Philippe until January, when my sweet friend from Canada sent me a book in the mail.

"Here is a little book I've enjoyed of late and thought you might appreciate as well," her inscription said. "Mine is coffee splashed and full of ink and pencil so this is absolutely yours. Hugs, C."

It's a precious thing to know you're being looked after -- a gift from God to realize that as faith sisters, we have one another in our heads and hearts, even through many miles. This is one of the primary ways God cares for us, I think, by putting dear ones in our path.

So I received this gift happily, but then life intervened. I read a little, loved it, but soon got pulled away to other readings and writings until I'd all but forgotten about Jacques Philippe.

Recently, however, I began being drawn to it again, and now, the gift that came to me back at the first of the year has become like gold in my hands during these summer months.

It is small, but rich. Like C's, my copy is all marked up, underlines and notes everywhere, and it's possible a few coffee splashes have found their way onto the pages, too.

"So what's it about?" friends I've mentioned it to have asked. Basically, what the title suggests: interior freedom -- something I've needed in a rather desperate way this summer.

This has been the summer my faith has been put to the test, in particular through what I have faced with some of my children. They are growing up, and making decisions apart from my influence. Some of the decisions have caused me pain. In the midst of this, I have felt numb, without fair recourse, and worst of all, cut off from the lifelong line that has led me to them.

There is a surrender in process that has been particularly soul-piercing, confusing, jarring. So reading a section of Philippe's book, "Consenting to difficulties," brought life, hope, a new perspective.

We cannot change our lives effectively without accepting, welcoming and consenting to all the external events that confront us, he says.

"That isn't so hard in the case of what we perceive as good, pleasing and positive. But it is hard when any kind of setback or suffering is involved," he says.

It is not a matter of becoming passive and learning to endure everything, without reacting, he says, nor should we limit ourselves to accepting things grudgingly. But we should truly consent to them, in a sense "choose them."

"Choosing here means making a free act by which we not only resign ourselves but also welcome the situation," Philippe says. "That isn't easy, especially in the case of really painful trials, but it is the right approach, and we should follow as much as possible in faith and hope. If we have enough faith in God to believe him capable of drawing good out of whatever befalls us, he will do so."

I don't know what you think about that, but to me, that's powerful stuff.

Philippe, as it turns out, is a priest, a member of the Community of the Beatitudes founded in France in 1973. This book and others he's written are translated from French. I'm glad there are more where this one has come from.

Fr. Philippe has spoken to my heart this summer and given me hope, all the way from France. I feel like I've stumbled onto a huge treasure in this man's reflections and insights. Perhaps he can offer the same to you.

Q4U: What has kept you bound this summer?  Have you been freed, and if so, how?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

writing wednesdays: yes, it's just a card, but...

Old-fashioned, belabored, not all that important, right? Just a greeting card. Doesn't need all that much attention.

Or does it?

Here's my take on that, and why the right space counts in writing just about anything, including messages in greeting cards.

It's over today on Peace Garden Writer. See you there!

Monday, July 21, 2014

meaningful mondays: farewell to an irish blessing

I didn't know Fr. Peter Hughes well -- not as well as some in my life.  I would see him at gatherings here and there during the years he served here, and I knew more than a few people who held him beloved. Then one day in 2011, I was given the honor of writing a story on him on the occasion of his golden jubilee as a priest. The day we sat down together, I discovered why he was such a magnet to so many.

With space constraints before me, my editor and I decided to let him do the talking. Our time at the now-defunct Cardinal Meunch Seminary in north Fargo is etched in my memory, in a precious place. Some of his thoughts became infused into the article that resulted, and the rest is simply in my heart, but I have called to mind his broad and loving perspective about God's hand in the world and in our lives many times over.

Father Hughes' life ended where it began, in his homeland of Ireland; a place I also count as part of my ancestral grounding. The middle of his life, however, included long stops in both Nigeria, where he was part of a group of missionary priests known as the Holy Ghost Fathers, and North Dakota, where he spent several decades shepherding the prairie flock here. Many, far and wide, including in the Emerald country and here in the Heartland and there in the African jungle, have been touched by his life, which included a deep devotion to Jesus the Christ and his mother.

Since his death this week, I have learned even more about him, including that one young lad, name of Bono, who eventually found his fame in a rock band known as U2, once stood by Fr. Hughes' side as one of his altar servers. And in our local paper this week, I learned he once captured video footage of the civil strife in Nigera in the late 1960s, which was aired on NBC. He was interviewed during this time on the Today Show.

Fr. Hughes' real claim to fame, though, was of a humbler variety; the simple loving of God and neighbor, and doing what was possible to make life a little more charitable to those who walked near him.

I have not been able to find a link to that older story, so I am sharing it here, at the request of friends who now are yearning to remember, to hear his voice in phrases, to touch his wisdom and faith and love once more.

May the perpetual light shine upon you, dear Father Hughes. I have every confidence it will and then some.

Father Hughes celebrates Golden Jubilee

By Roxane B. Salonen

In his half-century as a priest, Father Peter Hughes has experienced everything from the high of Mass with Pope John Paul II to the low of a brush with what might have been an untimely and brutal death.

The high took place in 1984 when Hughes, a native of Dublin, Ireland, was just starting his 28-year stint with the Diocese of Fargo. He’d had the fortunate experience of helping lead a three-bus caravan from North Dakota to Canada to meet and celebrate Mass with the former pontiff.

The low happened while on a missionary assignment in Nigeria. As part of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit Order known as the Holy Ghost Fathers, Fr. Hughes was helping introduce Jesus to Africa. But when a civil war erupted between Christians and Muslims, things turned unsafe, especially at night.

One evening, six militants broke through a dividing line and forced Father Hughes to drive them to the next town. “I put two in the front seat, four in the back, and one had a tommy-gun to my head,” he recounted. “It wasn’t until later that I realized how it could have gone. When I got into bed that night I started to tremble. He’d had his finger on the trigger.”

Despite the difficult end, he’ll always remember that time as one of the most blessed of his priesthood. “The Church was thriving there at the time. I baptized about two thousand children a year. I once did 133 baptisms in one go.”

When it was time to leave, Father Hughes made the transition with ease. The pattern of going easily from one thing to the next seems to have been set during his earliest years as the youngest of six children. “Of course, I always claim I was the neglected one,” he said, grinning.

In reality, it was a good life lived in a country rich in faith; a place in which the whole community worked to raise up the next generation. “You didn’t just answer to your parents for misbehaving, but to the locals, too,” he said.

An altar boy in his parish of St. Sylvester’s, the young Peter was formed by parents who greatly respected the Church and priesthood. One priest friend would come over every Monday night to eat dinner and play cards with the family. And music nearly always rang through the house. 

“My mother was an opera singer…and we’d have a party every Sunday night at our house. If you wanted to attend you had to play or sing a couple songs.”

Eventually, his father, owner of a grocery store and tea business, moved the family to the coast eight miles from the city. There, the kids swam in the ocean several times a day and stayed active in sports. “We lived beside a castle,” he said. “We had cricket, tennis, soccer – what a life, I tell you!”

Soon after his mother died of heart failure, a teenaged Peter shared his thoughts of joining the priesthood with a local pastor. He finished high school in the seminary while continuing to enjoy his beloved cricket game and bicycling around his homeland.

A year after his ordination on July 16, 1961, he left for Africa. Nearly instantly, he felt at home. 

“People say that it must be so different, but human nature is the same whether it’s in white skin or black skin,” he said. “And they gave us a great reception there. There were 306 of us Irish Holy Ghost priests in Nigeria.”

As civil strife increased, the priests became “black-listed” from the area. “They maintained we prolonged the war for 18 months because our guys started airlifting food and medicine every night for the Christians.” Recently, the ban was lifted.

After a pause back home, Father Hughes went to Zambia, where he spent another 13 years. In 1983 he came to North Dakota to help one of his fellow Irish priests and was swiftly snatched up by Bishop Driscoll. “I arrived on a Monday, went to a funeral on Tuesday, and I got a letter in the mail the next morning appointing me to Jamestown.”

Though North Dakota was no Africa, he took to the prairie quickly. “I’m a bush boy at heart,” he said. “I enjoy people no matter where I go, but I like North Dakotans and I like the pace here.”

In his many years of priesthood, he’s seen many changes within the Church, but appears to have it all in perspective. “I went to Africa 49 years ago to bring them into Christianity, and now they’re coming back to save our Christianity,” he said. “It’s all in Scripture. If God doesn’t get the grapes in one vineyard, he’ll go to another.”

That’s not to say the lack of gratitude he’s witnessed in “richer” countries doesn’t concern him. “You see people going to the lake, mowing the lawns, playing with their snowmobiles on a Sunday morning; that hurts me,” he said. “The more we have, the less time for God. It’s a material paganism.”

He added that though we’re surrounded by goodness, we’re not necessarily reaching those at the bottom of the steps outside. “Are we reaching the people who are not (in the pews)? Are we only saving the saved?”

Regardless, he still finds the attempt to bring Christ to others worth the trouble. “That’s the joy of it, isn’t it?” he said, a sparkle in his Irish eyes.

Father Hughes will celebrate his Golden Jubilee in his homeland, where he and a group of priest friends will convene for the first time in many years.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

second-chance sundays: grandpa of lutheran bishop-elect predicted his vocation

[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following ran in The Forum newspaper on July 12, 2014.]

Faith conversations: Bishop-elect looks to guide region's Lutheran synod

By Roxane B. Salonen

"The Rev" (Photo credit: Nick Wagner/The Forum)
FARGO – To exemplify how he’s feeling about having been elected future bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s local synod, the Rev. Terry Brandt recounts a news story from 1982.
It involved a truck driver from California who dreamed of flying. Without a pilot’s license, the man thought up a way to do it, taking flight in a lawn chair launched by a hoard of helium balloons.

The balloons ended up hoisting him much higher than he’d originally planned, however. When he was finally brought back down to earth with the help of a rescue mission, the media met him.

“They asked him, ‘Why did you do it?’ And he said, ‘Well, you can’t just sit there and do nothing.’ ” Brandt recalls. “ ‘Were you scared?’ they asked then. ‘Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘I was scared; wonderfully so.’ ”

That sums up Brandt’s feelings, too, as he orients himself for his newest commission, which will take place officially during his installation on Aug. 23.

“We have a lot of change happening in Eastern North Dakota … and the future’s going to be different than the past,” he says. “It’s frightening, but wonderfully so, because we know God’s in the midst of it.”

Unlike in previous times, he says, the church is no longer the center of community life where people come to be shaped morally. “Now, the church is more on the fringes of the community, and we’re just starting to get our heads around that.”

As society changes, believers are asking new questions. Young people don’t want to be told what’s black and white, he says. They want to be welcomed for who they are.

“They’re looking for a church that welcomes them to bring all of their wondering, to join with other believers to figure out what God is doing in their lives,” he says. “They want a place that’s hospitable, where their gifts are put to work and congregations are mission-minded.”

All this requires a new way of looking at how past and present might meld, and attempting what he calls “holy experiments” to see where God is leading the church.

Best man for the job

As interim assistant with the bishop, the Rev. Lee Yarger has worked closely with Brandt, who has been serving the bishop as associate the past six years, witnessing what he says is a very balanced personality well-suited to his new role.

“To be an effective bishop, you have to be a leader – a pastor to people, and especially a pastor to pastors – but there are a lot of other things involved, too, and he seems to embody them all,” Yarger says.

Being financially astute, liked by the flock and employing a strong work ethic while still staying dedicated to one’s family are all in place within Brandt.

“He is such a good family man, a good husband and father, and that has really stood out to me,” Yarger says. “That isn’t the case with everyone who has a job that is so demanding.”

He also has an unusual ability to keep his sanity in the midst of chaos. “He can have things swirling around him, and then come into the office and still have a smile on his face,” Yarger says.

A good bishop also must know his theology and be comfortable with it, yet not throw it around unwisely, he adds. “You have to have it in mind and heart and live it, and he’s a guy who can do that.”

In addition, Brandt gets along with just about everyone, according to Yarger, whether the Scandinavians who have long inhabited our area or New Americans more recently joining our communities.

As always, ‘The Rev’

Brandt’s destination seems to have been sealed in childhood in Elmore, Minn., where he was growing up with his parents and older brother, learning with his 10 classmates, and active at Shiloh Lutheran Church.

It was then that his Grandpa Arnold “Arnie” Brandt, who’d long dreamed of an offspring going into ministry, applied a label to his young grandson that stuck.

“I was probably about 7 or 8 when he gave me a nickname that to this day my entire family calls me – ‘The Rev,’ ” Brandt says.

At the time, he took it more as a joke. But after a stint as a counselor at a summer Bible camp during college, Brandt began wondering if his grandpa hadn’t been prophetic.

Until then, while studying at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, he’d imagined himself as a business teacher, maybe an administrator someday. But now he’d been shown something new about himself.

“I was given an opportunity to be a leader in the church, and that was a powerful time for me,” he says. “I began to wonder and pray, asking God if he was calling me to be a teacher or a pastor.”

Brandt made the decision his junior year to pursue seminary after college.

“I was excited and frightened all at the same time,” he says. “This was when I had this sense of what God was up to, and it was much different from how I had thought my life was going to turn out.”

Principal partner

With his home congregation and all of his family supporting him, Brandt stepped into his future, which now also included a girl named Kristi.

The two had hung out as friends throughout college, and during his time at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, the city where Kristi was working, the two realized they might be a permanent match.

“We can’t even name when we started dating because we had such a good friendship for so many years,” he says. “It was this gradual thing.”

Kristi says Terry’s authenticity claimed her heart.

“When you’re with Terry, you feel like you’re the only person that matters at that moment,” she says. “I used to give him a hard time because he’s always one of the last ones to leave when we’re somewhere visiting. He wants to truly know people and their stories.”

She also feels like one of the luckiest women in the world to have him for a spouse. “He has a great sense of humor; our kids adore him, and he’s just been a rock for us.”

In marrying him, Kristi also was agreeing unknowingly to a future that would include a series of jolting moves and big decisions, which the two would tackle together, always seeing one another’s vocations as equally important.

Kristi Brandt is a high school principal in Valley City, N.D., where the family lives with their children, Lindsay, 18; Kallie, 15; and Austin, 11. They’re still discerning whether they’ll move to Fargo or continue having Terry Brandt commute, as he’s been doing.

Current calling

Past congregations Brandt has led include Concordia Lutheran Church in Crosby, N.D, where he did an internship; the two-point congregation of Trinity Lutheran in Alberta, Minn., and Good Shepherd in Appleton, Minn.; along with Clarkfield Lutheran, Clarkfield, Minn.; and Grace Lutheran, Fairmont, Minn.

He says the call in 2008 from his former pastor, Bishop Bill Rindy, asking him to consider coming to Fargo to work for the local synod was unexpected. But he’s enjoyed it – “the joys and struggles alike” – and feels well prepared for the course on which he now finds himself.

As he ponders all that’s ahead, Brandt can’t help but think of his Grandpa Arnie.

“He’s no longer alive, but he was there when I went to seminary and into serving my first two congregations,” he says. “He was able to see this grandson become a pastor and he was oh-so-proud.”
Brandt recently emailed his extended family to see if they had anything of his grandfather’s he might bring to the installation.

“One of my uncles has his confirmation Bible, so I’ll have it there that day,” he says. “It will be a day I’ll certainly be thinking of him.”

Friday, July 18, 2014

faith & family fridays: Jesus' grandparents

When people ask the name of our parish, and I answer, many scratch their heads. "Who are Sts. Anne and Joachim?"

When I tell them they are Jesus' grandparents, I often get even more befuddled looks.

What's so interesting to me is the fact that despite the Christian belief that Jesus was truly and fully human, many Christians don't consider that, just like every other truly and fully human out there, he had grandparents!

Yep, grandpa and grandma, pappy and nanny; who knows what he called them but he had them!

This gets interesting, though, because the names of Jesus' grandparents are not recorded in the Bible. So to many Christians, especially those who believe that the Bible alone contains all we need to know about faith, Anne and Joachim, parents of Mary and grandparents of Jesus, just don't come onto the radar.

But Catholics have a little more to draw from. We've got Scripture, which is our go-to book above all others, and then we've got tradition -- all the things that were passed down orally from the time of Jesus that are every bit as much a part of our faith as the Bible. In fact, the two complement one another, and there is an incompleteness to each one on its own. Or so goes the Catholic view.

And yes, there has been a lot of contention over this point through the years, but to me, it just makes sense. We have our lived experience and our recorded experience. Why would it be different for Jesus? I mean, at what point did Jesus say, before he ascended, "Put it in the book, and whatever isn't in the book isn't true." It would take a hundred books to record everything anyone has ever known about Jesus' life!

Case in point: you don't find Anne or Joachim in Scripture, but they existed, they were real, and our tradition goes a step further and says they are bonafide saints. And why wouldn't they be? They're Jesus' grandparents after all. Mary was a special gal, and it goes to reason her parents would have been faith-filled examples to such a young lady; a girl who would someday bear the very son of God!

Our parish was named after these saints because we are a younger parish with a lot of families, and Sts. Anne & Joachim are the go-to people for families. They know what it takes to have faith, to teach faith, and to live out faith. And it's not easy, but we can rely on them for help when we falter. They've been there before, after all. No, they're not God. They can't effect miracles. But they can pray for us.

Thursday night, we gathered for our parish's annual celebration in honor of our patron saints. We started with Mass. Afterward, I thought it the perfect time to grab some shots of Sts. Anne & Joachim as depicted in the painted mural on the back wall of our altar. I just love this depiction. It says love, and faith, and commitment, and it's beautiful besides. Look at the way Mary is humbly accepting her special mission.

From there, we moved outside for our yearly picnic. I was too busy enjoying being with my family on a nice summer day to take photos, but the line for the brats, hot dogs and hamburgers was very long. We enjoyed catching up with some friends we hadn't seen in a while, and having some Dippin' Dots ice cream. We had to leave before the magic act, unfortunately.

I also enjoyed reading the reflection about Sts. Anne & Joachim in this month's Magnificat; the author is Pope Francis: "According to a second-century tradition, Anne and Joachim conceived Mary as a gift from God after years of fertility. Devotion to Anne dates to around 550, when Emperor Justinian built a church in her honor."

According to the pope's summary, Anne is frequently shown teaching Mary to read the Scriptures. "Sts. Joachim and Anne were part of a long chain of people who had transmitted their faith and love for God, expressed in the warmth and love of family life, down to Mary, who received the Son of God in her womb and who gave him to the world, to us. How precious is the family as the privileged place for transmitting the faith!"

Sts. Anne & Joachim, pray for us!

Q4U: What are your thoughts about Jesus' grandparents?