Monday, September 22, 2014

meaningful mondays: last-minute family love

Mom had sounded the alert last week: my Aunt Jeannine and Uncle Bob would be coming through North Dakota from Texas in the coming days.

When it comes to extended family, in my mind, everything gets set aside. The older I get, the more precious family becomes. And since losing our father, my sister and I have become more endeared than ever to the pieces of him we find through his siblings, cousins and others who have played a role in his life.

So I was thrilled to learn Jeannine, his baby sister, youngest of the nine siblings, would be shooting through town with her sweet husband Bob. But the week filled up quickly and I didn't get in touch until midweek, just a few days they were to arrive.

"We're in Great Falls," Uncle Bob said. By the time I got my aunt on the line, she was wondering if there was a way to arrange a meeting place for whatever family I could gather in a matter of days. "We'll be there Sunday. Would brunch work?"

With the help of another local relative, I was able to do some quick brainstorming, and by Friday, we had a game plan. We would reserve one of the club rooms of a local hotel and do what we could to reach people last-minute and hope to fill the room with a handful or more relatives.

One call led to another, and soon, we had more prospects than we'd even expected. A wedding in town meant that some of the cousins from as far away as California just happened to be around.

In the end, the club room was bursting at the seams with young old and middles, which seemed something of a miracle to me, given the amount of time we had to pull this off. People are busy, after all, and I just wouldn't have expected we could get this lucky!

I'm not going to discount the possibility that the Holy Spirit was working overtime to make these connections happen.

Just a day before the event, I was talking by phone to several cousins I'd heard of in name only, and maybe met at some reunion years ago; people my father had known better in another time. Some of them have read my column and kept in touch that way. But I had not been the beneficiary in reverse.

So Sunday morning, my youngest two boys and I joined this group for a breakfast buffet, and I came away feeling warmed to the core over this last-minute opportunity.

I caught up with my aunt, then had some of the loveliest conversations with cousins and cousins-once-removed and other relatives I have not had the pleasure of knowing well. A few of us agreed to stay connected through Facebook.

Once again, God has blown me away. Just when I think I'm settled in the friends who surround me, and in all the beautiful relationships in my life, He surprises me by sending a few more my way recently. Some have been new friendships that hold promise of new life, while others are connections with those who are tied to me by blood and bring me closer to my father.

People matter. Relationships are life. Family love is beautiful.

Thank you, God!

Q4U: How did God surprise you recently?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

second-chance sundays: couple sells it all to give to nepal

[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 Sept. 13, 2014.]

Trina & Ken Holmberg, left, with their friends, Vani and Shanti Pradhan and son, Nepal.

Faith Conversations: Couple sells it all to give to Nepal

By Roxane B. Salonen

FARGO – Eight years ago, Ken and Trina Holmberg were sitting comfortably in their well-furnished home in Edmonton, Canada, dreaming about retirement.

They’d recently relocated from Alberta, where the oil business had impacted their region much like western North Dakota, and were eager to settle into life as middle-aged empty-nesters.

“We were going to live and die there,” Ken said. “I’ve moved over 30 times, and I didn’t want to do it anymore.”

But soon they both began feeling an annoying inner tug, which challenged the picture of a simple, blissful future.

“Throughout our year in that house, we just realized, ‘This isn’t us,’ ” Ken says. “That’s when the decision for Trina to become a pastor started to gel.”

For the next several years, the couple lived in Bethlehem, Penn., where Trina studied at a Moravian seminary. While she took classes, Ken did odd jobs, including serving as a driver for a couple from Nepal who also attended the seminary but lacked access to transportation.

“Ken got to know them, and I did, too, and we talked about how neat it would be to go to Nepal and work for them from time to time,” Trina says.

After graduating in 2009, Trina became pastor at a Moravian church in Unionville, Mich. Then, in October 2010, the couple joined a short-term mission trip to Nepal with their friends, Vani and Shanti Pradhan, and helped lead a family conference.

“Most of (the Nepalese) were born Hindu, so the conference was on what it means to be a Christian in the family context,” Ken says. “That led to conversations about future endeavors.”

Another short-term mission in May 2011 started a discussion about a return for a longer period.

“God just kept pushing these thoughts into us,” Trina says. “I’ve always been drawn to mission work. God put it there, and it just needed some watering to start blossoming.”

Leap of faith

Then this past December, the couple finally decided to put their heart-stirrings into action, agreeing to dedicate a year to the people of Nepal to teach them about Christ.

Several months later, in March, Ken left Michigan to enter into a transition time to prepare; namely to earn money to live for a year, since the work would be volunteer.

Because of connections in the Fargo-Moorhead area – the couple had met the Rev. Eric Renner, pastor of Fargo’s Shepherd of the Prairie Church, while in Pennsylvania – Ken moved here to seek work while Trina finished her commitment in Michigan.

She joined him in August, and the two have been worshipping with local Moravians since then, with plans to leave Oct. 1 for Kathmandu.

There, Trina will be a teacher and administrator at a Christian elementary school, and Ken will help with expansion plans for the school, lend support in setting up a mission house, be part of a worship team and share his cooking skills.

Despite their relatively short time in our area, the two have become endeared to the Shepherd of the Prairie community.

Amy LaFortune-Hewitt, a fellow congregant, says that while Ken provides the enthusiasm for the duo as “the team cheerleader,” Trina offers gentle leadership, providing stability through a “quiet yet strong, gentle faith.”

“Our church has definitely gathered around them and adopted them,” LaFortune-Hewitt says. “We have done what we can to help monetarily, and they will be in prayer at all times.”

The church recently hosted a Nepali dinner to help raise funds, and Renner has denied himself a haircut through the end of the month, asking anyone to donate money for the mission trip as a bribe for him to forgo a cut until their departure.

Being Moravian and missionary go hand in hand, adds LaFortune-Hewitt, who comes from a missionary family herself and says the Holmbergs have been inspiring in their willingness to leave everything for Christ.

“They sold one vehicle, they’re leaving another behind, and whatever possessions they didn’t sell will be left,” she says. “It impresses me so much that in this stage of their life, they’re willing to give up the level of comfort they’ve known here, along with close proximity to friends and family, to do what they feel God is calling them to do.”

No looking back

Not everyone in their lives has been on board, the Holmbergs admit. Some friends have questioned the move, and their three adult children and seven grandchildren have been skeptical at times, too. But by now, they are undaunted.

“There’ve been a lot of prayers, and a few times asking God, ‘Are you crazy? Because I’m feeling kind of crazy right now,’ ” Trina says. “But God has this plan, and he’s put the desire in our hearts so deep that we’re willing to make the sacrifices to follow through.”

Ken says he’s definitely going to miss certain aspects of life here, including bubble baths. “There’s no such thing over there,” he says, giggling.

The goal will be to enter fully into the culture, rather than impose, responding to the real needs as they see them from the inside.

“We’ll undoubtedly add prestige to their school by being white people teaching there,” Trina says, “but our attitude is not doing missions to people but doing missions with them, to enable them to grow their church.”

Life will be different in Kathmandu, a city of nearly 1 million.

“It’s a modern city, but it’s also embedded in the past and has a terrible infrastructure,” Ken says. “You might be driving next to a Mercedes-Benz and high-rise and all of a sudden you’re in a slum by the river.”

“It’s definitely a place of contrast,” Trina adds.

But even as they go, somewhere back in the United States in a modest-sized church in south Fargo, a group will be gathered, praying for their mission and safe return.

“We’re excited to see a year from now how they’ve changed,” LaFortune-Hewitt says. “And there’s no doubt they will be changed.”

Friday, September 19, 2014

faith & family fridays: the kiss of Jesus

I came to the Adoration chapel empty, confused, hurting, worried, spent. I came hoping that God would have something for me. "Dear Lord, please speak to me. I need to hear you tonight," I said.

This past summer has been the summer from Hades, and brought me and my mother heart near the brink. Just when I have felt I could take not one step more, however, a sliver of grace has been given to get through that moment, that hour, that day.

It has been in the Adoration chapel where I have found the only solace at times, and this night was no different. I felt assured that at some point in the course of that Holy Hour, God would give me what I needed.

A little over a month ago now, I finally decided to dive into the "33 Days to Morning Glory" do-it-yourself retreat in preparation for Marian consecration. This whole consecration thing is a new idea to me, but I have become convinced of its merits, and my time of surrender was near.

It was August 27 precisely, and I turned to Day 15. "Lover of the Heart of Jesus;" the section of the retreat focusing on Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta -- a woman who held fast to Our Blessed Mother as she lived out her earthly life, always keeping her sights on Jesus.

As I reached the direct quote from this dear, humble, diminutive saint who lived in our own time, I knew that God had pointed me straight there. The revelation gripped my heart as I read Mother's account of suffering, and one way we might look at it.

"Suffering has to come, because if you look at the cross, he has got his head bending down -- he wants to kiss you -- and he has both hands open wide - he wants to embrace you."

Crucifix at Carmelite monastery in Wahpeton, N.D.

Immediately, I was drawn deeply in. It was as if the Lord himself were cupping my face to get my attention.

"When you feel miserable inside, look at the cross and you will know what is happening. Suffering, pain, sorrow, humiliation, feelings of loneliness, are nothing but the kiss of Jesus, a sign that you have come so close that he can kiss you."

In that moment, I could feel something deep inside shift. It's like looking through a prism of colors and seeing one that you didn't know existed until that moment. I could feel my body respond, my breathing slow, the toxins that had been building up within begin to dissipate.

"That suffering has to come," Mother continued, "that came in the life of Our Lady, that came in the life of Jesus - it has to come in our life also. Only never put on a long face. Suffering is a gift from God."

I know it's hard to wrap our brains around that last utterance. A gift? But when you think of suffering as Mother describes it -- a gift from Jesus -- and consider the suffering he went through for us and in order to return to the Father, it becomes apparent that we, too, will have to experience suffering if we, too, are to return to the Father. Not that we should ask for suffering or enjoy it when it comes, but at the very least, we can take heart that the trials of this world will more surely orient us toward our good God, who awaits us on the other side of them.

I don't like it as it's happening. I don't want it, to be honest. And yet...when I think of it this way -- the kiss of Jesus, and a more sure way to God himself -- I can more easily accept it, and cling to Jesus and Mary for help in overcoming it.

Q4U: Have you been kissed by Jesus lately?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

writing wednesdays: a place to curl up

Where do you curl up to write or read?

Here's where Flannery O'Connor used to take refuge.

Toward the end, when her world became very small, this was it, and she wrote some of her richest writings in this little spot.

There's more today on Peace Garden Writer!

Monday, September 15, 2014

meaningful mondays: the day i became a christian

For years, ever since my children were small, I've been making a big deal of their baptism anniversaries. To me, this day equaled and even exceeded the importance of their actual birthday. And so we celebrate with pie of their choice, a special meal and the lighting of their baptismal candle.

Because this wasn't a tradition in our home growing up, I haven't thought much about my own baptism date. Instead, I focused on the kids' special days. But recently, I got to thinking about my own pivotal moment of new life in Christ while perusing my first-ever photo album, and I realized anew that I, too, have every reason to celebrate my becoming a child of God.

Fr. O'Flannigan and my Aunt Aunt and me, 9-12-68
The more I grow in my own faith journey, the more meaning I find gazing at this certificate:

Why it took so long for me to fixate on this, I don't know, but suddenly I am overtaken with gratitude that my mother took the time to record this special day, certainly one of the climactic moments of my life. Her mother heart knew I wouldn't remember the day, but guessed I'm sure that someday, I might want to reflect back on it.

Forty-six years later, these photos mean so very much.

I am reminded anew that the water poured over my head...

and the the oil placed on my forehead in the sign of the cross...

along with the priestly blessing in the stead of Jesus Christ himself...

and the very real but invisible grace imparted in this moment with the words, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit..."

...combine to create the beginnings of my life in Christ. And despite all my missteps along the way, and all the fussing I've done, somehow because of this day, I have managed to find my way back to the center of love.

Catholics believe in infants being baptized for this reason. We don't believe baptism to be a moment when we can audibly profess our belief in Christ, but the one when Christ himself chooses us, claims us for His own. With the help and support of our families and Church community, this seed of grace will be watered. And then ultimately, we decide whether to continue to grow in this direction through the choices we make each day.

We can't undo our baptisms. Once we are claimed by the God Most High, that's it. We are His, forever. Certainly, we can choose to turn our backs on this Love, but He will always be waiting for our return.

Remembering our baptism is about more than a piece of pie (though, in case anyone is wondering, I chose my favorite, pecan) and a special meal. It is a thinking back on the most monumental moment of our life as a Christian.

I didn't need to be fully cognizant of what was going on. That seed of grace was planted, and over time, did grow into something that has changed my life, forever.

Thank you, Mom, thank you, Dad, for passing on this beautiful faith of hope, love and life to me. Please be assured I am doing all I can to make good on the promises you made to God to bring me up in the faith. Please pray with me that my children will feel this grace stirring within their own souls so that they, too, will feel compelled to run into the arms of Jesus and surrender to his plan for them.

Q4U: What do you know of your baptism day? How has its meaning to you changed over the years?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

second-chance sundays: potato chip aisle provides 'God moment'

[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 Sept. 6, 2014.]

Living Faith: Chip aisle provides 'God moment'

By Roxane B. Salonen

I’d plotted out my evening grocery run. I had only one item to buy, after all, so it would be a quick in and out.
Even as I parked, I began envisioning sinking into my couch at home. I was close. So close.
And then I saw her – the friend with whom I’d tried to plan a coffee date several months back without success due to similarly harried schedules.

Her face showed she was rushed now, too; this surely would be a short and sweet “good to see you” kind of deal.

But a few words into it, there between the candy and the potato chips, something began to happen, and by the time I got back to the van, my clock showed after 11 p.m.

Ninety minutes from starting, I had only one item in hand, but a full heart.

I am reliving that moment again now, remembering her with her grocery cart half-full and the weight of the world on her face, and me on a mission to make a hasty getaway.

But God had other plans. First came her update, then mine. Before we knew it an invisible force had pulled us together and was keeping us bound, unmovable, in the grocery aisle.

We were two mothers whose summers had exploded – a couple of hurting souls confounded by similar things – and we couldn’t part.

It was a “God moment” of potato-chip proportions, you might say.

At one point, the guy cleaning the floor had to clear his throat as he waited for us to move. Finally feeling his stare, we mumbled a collective, “Sorry,” and relocated around the corner, transfixed anew now near the center-aisle cereal display.

At 10 p.m., my husband called. “Where are you? Are you OK?” Yes, yes, all is well. Just ran into a friend. Be home soon.

How could I begin to explain what was keeping me attached to that small section of grocery-floor tile? That despite our inability to seal a connection several months back, and being worn and weary this night, God had arranged a way for us to meet anyway, right here and now?

What words could relay well enough how looking into her deep brown eyes and hearing of her trials, not as in a “woe is me,” but an “I am in survival mode right now and this is hard” kind of way, had left me no choice?

And then she became very quiet. “I have to admit, there have been times in all this that my faith has felt very weak.”

“My prayers have become pretty subdued lately, too,” I said, nodding in understanding.

“I feel guilty,” she admitted.

“It’s hard, I know,” I said, “but you can’t always be strong. I think sometimes all you can do is coast, to survive off the prayers of others, and that God’s OK with that.”

It’s hard to admit we are broken and doubtful.

“God, why aren’t you intervening here? This is too much,” we might say, tempted to shake our fist at the almighty.

She’s been there, and I have, too.

But then, as another floor cleaner whooshed past, forcing my friend to pull her cart flatly against the juice section to make room to pass, she said, very intently, “It’s crazy, though. Despite all of this, God keeps showing up.”

She shared about the many in her life who have reached out in love, and how it’s kept her buoyed even as she’s been on the verge of total immersion.

As I listened, I saw a woman who knows she’s blessed despite trial and who loves her child with a boundless love, even though right now things aren’t as she wishes.

I saw a friend clinging onto life by a thread, but one that has been fashioned by a good God who loves her and her daughter even more than she can, and who will see them both through if only she hangs on and trusts.

I saw myself.

We agreed together to keep moving ahead, to keep trusting in God, to not give up on the good ending we know will come, even though it seems so unreachable now.

Fiction author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote that it is when our prayers seem to have been lost that God is most present.

“We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly,” she wrote. “We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly. There is no such thing as belief without doubt or struggle.”

It’s true, and it helps me know I can hang on one more day, and then another after that. Together, we can do this.

Monday, September 8, 2014

meaningful mondays: teresa, joan and beauty

The ironic confluence was nearly impossible to miss. Just a day after Joan Rivers passed away on September 4, we celebrated the birthday anniversary of another woman who has made an impression on the world, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

They were both in their 80s when they died, just six years apart in ages of death: Joan was 81, Mother Teresa, 87, and yet what a contrast.


I think Joan Rivers was a gorgeous woman, especially before plastic surgery. Here she is in the 1980s at a premiere of "Steel Magnolias."

I wish she could have embraced her beauty the way Mother Teresa embraced hers, not through searching the mirror for affirmation, but seeking beauty in the faces of the sick, dying and destitute all around her.

Mother Teresa was on a mission to find Christ's face in everyone whose path she crossed, and it was there, too, that she found her worth. Botox would have been the furthest thing from her mind and heart.

I don't write this as a criticism of Joan Rivers. She lived in a different world altogether, and she had her own motivations for living her life the way she did, but I think the images of these two women and their two different approaches to beauty can teach us so much.

I'm looking at myself now, and my own weaknesses, which became strikingly apparent to me this morning when I accompanied my youngest son into the elementary school "in the raw;" in other words, without a stitch of makeup -- an unplanned event.

I will admit, I feel better with my mask intact. I've become accustomed to my morning routine, and it's what I most often present to the world. But I also know it's a crutch, and that on some level I'm bound like Joan was.

What's perhaps different is that I am resisting it, internally at least, and I'm going to keep working at how I can let go of the external fixes with the goal of becoming as free as Mother Teresa, who, I'm thinking, never rose in the morning with the thought of applying mascara to her eyelashes before dashing off to go about her business.

I'm not quite there. I am in the world and need to figure out a balance. I don't think it's wrong to want to present oneself in a way that instills confidence. At the same time, I'm going to keep challenging myself on this point, because we have so many influences all around us, every day, that lure us toward more fixes, and there should be a healthy limit to the lengths we go to to make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

Joan Rivers was the ultimate example of what can happen when we get carried away by trying to manipulate the exterior beyond what is reasonable or fair to ourselves.

God rest her soul. I truly hope and pray that now she is free and understanding how much she was loved all along.

Let's learn from her. Let's see what we can do differently, day by day. Perhaps we can take a hint from Mother Teresa, aiming to focus less on what we see in the mirror and more intently searching out beauty on the faces of those around us who are in need and begging for us to respond in love. We don't have to go far. As Mother Teresa pointed out many times, it often begins right in our own homes.

Q4U: How has our culture's concept of beauty challenged you? What lengths are you willing to go to challenge back?