Wednesday, March 18, 2020

We have all been on alert lately. Each new day brings a barrage of new information, protocols, procedures, and worries. Each morning our phones, radios, and TVs provide us with the things that we need to know during this time of uncertainty.

It’s right in the midst of that breaking news, press conferences, and live updates that the author of Lamentations reminds us of another message that comes to us each day. God’s mercy and love are new every morning. With the rising of the sun, the darkness fades and Christ comes into this world again and again to provide us with peace and with hope, even during the most uncertain of times.

The steadfast, enduring love of God is with us now. That is a truth we must hold onto. The things of this world are not forever. These worries that stir us from our sleep will not last. Headlines, school closings, and even pandemics will fade to memory, but the love and mercy of God never will.

God’s peace,

Pastor Ben
Sunday, March 22, 2020
This beloved psalm has long been used as a source of comfort and hope in times of trial, fear, and grief. Because the COVID-19 outbreak fits all three of these categories, this psalm is a helpful reminder that just as God has led us and provided for God’s people in the past; God will continue to do so for us.This is a time of loss for almost all of us. It takes constant intention to not get swept up into the swarm of anxiety and fear around us. We have all had to shift our agendas, change our behaviors, and find new ways to connect with our loved ones and friends. Some have lost their jobs; others are having to learn new skills quickly in order to meet the demands they now face. In truth, there is hardly any aspect of our lives that has not been touched by the needed safeguards we’ve all been asked to put in place.
At the same time, there is an incredible amount of good happening as well. People are noticing and taking action to support those in need. They are calling and keeping track of those they know who are vulnerable. They are sharing what they might otherwise have kept for themselves, and they are continually looking for ways to support local businesses and the people at the front lines of caring for those who are sick and our community at large.Personally, when I find myself starting to get anxious or caught up in “What ifs,” I am reminded to focus my attention on these good things, and to turn to our Savior, our Shepherd, and Friend. It is by turning to Jesus that I am led beside still waters, that I find rest for my soul, and where I hear the words I so need to hear, “Everything is going to be okay.” It is here that I find the strength I need to keep doing what needs to be done, one day at a time.
In these times when so much is uncertain, may we keep turning to and trusting our God – the One who has been there in the past, is with us now, and will be with us tomorrow too. In so doing, may you be encouraged and find peace.
In Christ,
Pr. Kari
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
There is a patch of black dirt in our backyard. In the past few days, the snow has melted and a few of last fall’s leaves blanket the soil.
A few years ago, we turned that soil over and planted asparagus. Each spring those little stalks make their way through the dirt. A green reminder that winter eventually and always yields to spring. A little resurrection story told again and again.
We cannot always see past the snow or the leaves or even the black dirt in this life. In these strange days, those moments of worry and anxiety and uncertainty overwhelm us. Sometimes all we see is today’s news and tomorrow’s fears, the dirt.
But someday soon our asparagus will come up from the ground and with it the swelling buds will burst to vibrant leaves and singing flowers. These signs of new life will tell us what we need to hear. Our God is eternal and our God holds this world even now.
Let’s lift our eyes together today to God, who is our help. Let’s see past the present moment to the future that promises to be full of joy, a future where we can gather together again as families, congregations, and communities.
Our asparagus will grow. Christ holds this world. Let’s place our hope in that.
God’s Peace,
Pastor Ben
Sunday, March 29, 2020
If you’re anything like me, you have had “moments” during these last days when it felt like you were running on fumes or maybe even that your tank was empty. It’s been exhausting for all of us to make our way through this challenging time.
I was listening to a series on MPR the other day called A Beautiful World. Their guest was Ann Scott Dumas who works with clients who are experiencing trauma and anxiety. She pointed out how when we focus on what’s wrong, “it is metabolically expensive.” In other words, it burns up the energy in our bodies very quickly. She continued, “We are not designed to focus that way. We’re really designed to focus on what’s wrong only as long as it takes us to run from the tiger and climb the tree. And then our systems want to calm down again.”
For many, it feels like we are constantly scrambling up that tree and not finding moments or ways to calm down. We are expending an incredible amount of energy every day. Whether it is financial worries, concerns for our families and friends, health concerns, keeping up on the latest directive or advice anxiety about our employment or our business; it is all taking a toll on us.
So, what are we to do? The first step is to acknowledge that we are human and that we all have our vulnerabilities. Next, we need to remember that our feelings are normal. We shouldn’t be surprised that we are exhausted or that our tanks feel like they are on empty. We also should not ignore our emptiness or exhaustion. As a wise mentor has reminded me numerous times over the years, “we have to put our own oxygen masks on first, or we won’t be much good to others.”
We are all fueled in different ways. We all know the importance of caring for our bodies, getting exercise and getting our rest. Another significant part of who we are that needs to be nurtured is our spirit and soul. One way to do that, is to take out your bible and turn to a text like Matthew 6:34, Psalm 23 or Isaiah 41:10 and find the promise in it for us. Music is another great source of peace. Taking time to talk with God and letting God know what’s on our hearts and entrusting those concerns to God can take a tremendous load off our shoulders.
I want to remind you again to not hesitate to reach out to us. The First Lutheran pastors and staff care about you and what you are going through. We are more than willing to connect by phone, text or email. Our worship services are available online. We also have other ideas in the works so groups will be able to connect through virtual platforms such as Zoom.
Social distancing has caused many challenges including how we reach those who are isolated and do not have access to Facebook or other online resources. It is important for us to be accessible to all. If it feels like your tank is running on empty, I encourage you to pay attention and not simply ignore it. We are in this together and we are going to find our way through.
Gracious God, calm us, fill us and use us. Help us to be aware of the needs of those around us. Awaken within us your grace, that we may reflect your light each day. In Jesus name, amen.
Pastor Greg Billberg
Wednesday, April 1, 2020
A Prayer of Help for our Country and World in this Time of Crisis
Our Heavenly Father,
we come to You at your invitation and promise. “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you.” We acknowledge our present trouble: the Corona virus; we fear it. Our prayer begins simply—Let the virus die, and let people live here and all over the world.We pray for all who are afflicted with the virus. Give them hope and healing. To those families having experienced death, bring them comfort, peace and help Keep us from allowing the virus or the fear of it to take over our lives, robbing us of hope, peace and joy in living.
God, help all who are involved in the Battle: We pray for scientists who are working diligently to find curbs and cures; lead them in their search. We pray for doctors, nurses, health care workers and many others who fight on the front lines in this battle. Protect them in places of danger; give them strength and courage to labor in the high-risk areas. We pray for political leaders to forget differences and join hands in their efforts. We pray for all of us. Help us to use good judgment in our comings and goings. Help us to be unselfish and caring in our daily living. We pray for those who are out of business, work and income. We pray your support and relief. Turn the hearts of those who have to generously reach out and share with those who don’t.
God, be with my family and me as we stand together in the high hope of a peaceful passage through the dangerous waters of this troubled sea. Keep us safe. All thanks to you, our Heavenly Father, that you have shown over and over again that You can harvest good out of evil; healing and life often come out of hurt and pain. We ask You to do that again, now. Bring healing, hope, peace, comfort and newness of life to me and to all the world. We take You at your word that assures us that You are with us in this world-wide conflict. We leave with You that which only You can do, but ask you to help each of us to accept the responsibilities that are ours.
This prayer was written by my grandfather, Pastor Bob Bergland. I have used it often in these past days. I hope that as you pray this prayer, it brings you comfort and peace.
Pastor Ben
Sunday, April 5, 2020
On Palm Sunday, we remember and celebrate how, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, all along his path, people wave palm fronds and shout, “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!” in celebration of his arrival. They had been waiting for a king and were exultant, thinking their king had arrived.
However, it isn’t long before they realize that Jesus is different than the king they expected. And when they do, the crowds that had celebrated him turn against him. If we’re honest, we sometimes feel the same as they likely did, expecting God to show up in a particular way and being disappointed when God doesn’t.
But that’s exactly where the good news of Palm Sunday and Holy Week is found as we walk together toward the cross. We are reminded that we are not alone, no matter what we are feeling. Not only that, we are reminded that Jesus has felt what we feel, and that he is with us even when we feel scared and alone. In Jesus, we see the promise that no matter how hard things get– even when death feels like it is all around– there is still the promise of resurrection and new life.
This is the promise we celebrate on Palm Sunday and that we are reminded of during Holy Week- that in both ordinary times and the most challenging of times, God is present with us and is at work, even now, creating new life.
Dear Jesus, thank you for loving us as much as you do, and for coming to live among us in the world. Help us remember your love and the hope you bring as we walk with you during Holy Week. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Pastor Kari
Wednesday, April 8, 2020
In his book, Barking to the Choir, Father Gregory Boyle writes, “Certainly, if we live in the past, we will be depressed. If we live in the future, we are guaranteed anxiety. Now is always vast and new. Like any practice, it’s not about technique or program. It’s a decision.” As I read these words, I am reminded how clearly they apply to this time in which we are living. When there are so many unknowns, it is tempting to want to look back or to worry about what is ahead. However, neither of these options will get us far.
I believe that to live in this present moment is to step out in faith. It is to admit that I cannot change the past or control the future, but I can trust God for today. Jesus’ words offer solid advice for each of us when he says, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
The following prayer, written by Nadia Bolz Weber, is a good way to start this practice of choosing to live one day at a time:
“I know that not a single one of us is promised another day, God. But I guess I am asking for the strength for just the one we are in. Give us today our daily strength. Strength for today. And if You could spare it, bright hope for tomorrow. Amen.”
Pastor Greg Billberg
Sunday, April 12, 2020
“Let’s have a party,” she said.
My grandmother, Phyllis, passed away when I was seven, so my memories of her are few and precious. Though many of the details have faded, the edges blurred by time, I can still hear those words.
It was summer and grandma was babysitting us when the tornado sirens started. Before we headed down to the gray concrete of the unfinished corner of the basement, she had us gather up some toys and books and blankets because this was going to be a celebration.
I have no idea if she was scared. I would guess I was, but I cannot remember for certain. All I know is that with some quick thinking and a heavy dose of love, my grandma took fear and worry and turned it into a joy that lives on even now. Looking back all I see is my siblings and my grandma and me huddled up close, smiles and laughter on the cold floor under the stairs.
That is the heart of the Easter story. God loves this world enough to come downstairs to the dark corners where fear and worry take hold and fill them with something else entirely. By Christ’s love those tombs of our lives are transformed into places of joy as life, new and eternal, springs forth.
Remember today what those brave women found years ago. The tomb is empty. Christ the Lord is risen today. Alleluia. Let’s have a party.
Happy Easter,
Pastor Ben
Wednesday, April , 2020
Ten years ago a group from First Lutheran toured the Holy Land. Scripture came alive every day as we visited various locations throughout Israel. You cannot help but be changed when you walk where Jesus walked and experience these old familiar stories up close and personal.
Early one morning we visited what is called the Garden Tomb. It is the more traditional of two possible sites considered to be where Jesus was buried (pictured). While there, we set aside time to worship and to celebrate communion together. It was meaningful to reflect on the scriptures describing the resurrection. No longer did we have to simply rely on our imagination. Whether this was or wasn’t the exact location did not diminish our ability to see and experience the old story of Jesus and His love.
What a privilege to be able to share the Lord’s supper with dear friends and reflect on the good news, “He is not here; He has risen, just as He said. Come and see the place where He lay.” I will never forget those moments we had to “taste and see that, the Lord is good.” It has been a source of both comfort and strength for me countless times over the last ten years.
Today, as we face so much uncertainty, I continue to lean into the good news that not only was the tomb empty but that our hearts and our lives can be filled. That is our shared hope and it is what each one of us will need, as these days and weeks continue.
Let us lean emotionally and socially on one another and let us also lean on our God. Jesus is no longer limited or contained by a tomb or by death. Jesus comes to bring life, to roll away our stones of fear and uncertainty and to give us a hope that each one of us can hang onto for the long haul.
Living Lord, continue to reveal yourself anew to us and give us life. Amen
Pastor Greg
Wednesday, April 19, 2020
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thes 5:16-18
Perhaps like you, I’ve been noticing how many different entities seem to be trying so hard lately to be as relevant as possible. Just about every organization has turned to social media to communicate with its constituents; podcasters, journalists, and yes, even preachers, have turned to online platforms through which to share their reflections on these times with readers and listeners. I know they all mean well, but perhaps like you, it can all leave me feeling a bit weary.
Personally, I don’t have any particularly wise or profound words to say that capture these times or to articulate all the emotions that I’ve felt on any given day. What I do know is that each day has many dichotomies present. There is a part of me that is tired of all this time at home and part of me that is soaking up all this time with my kids. I enjoy not having lots of activities that fill each of our nights, but I’m also aware that my kids are starved for in-person connections with their friends. There are moments when I think we’re figuring out a new normal and others when I wonder if we’re ever going to get there.
In addition to these dichotomies, I also know this: despite all the things that have changed in the last month and all the ways all of us have had to learn to do things differently, there are some that remain as before. Babies are still born, loved ones still pass away, tantrums still happen, and people still struggle with addiction.
Some of these are wonderful things; others are quite challenging. But the fact that they continue includes a certain degree of promise. No matter how much things change, life goes on. Love prevails. And on top of all that, there is the promise that no matter what our circumstances are– and regardless of how we feel– God is here with us. For that, we can say (especially when we have nothing else to say), “Thanks be to God.”
Pastor Kari
Wednesday, April 22, 2020

I heard once that the roots of oak trees, though not deep, will often spread four or fives times wider than the crown of the tree. These large systems of roots dig into the soil and draw just what the tree needs to survive the seasons of its life. What makes the tree strong cannot be seen.

I wonder if we aren’t the same way. We are so much deeper and wider than what we see in ourselves. We are more than others see in us. Beneath our surfaces lie our foundations, our relationships, our roots that ground us through life’s seasons.The first Psalm teaches us that when we follow in the path of God, we are “like trees planted by streams of water.” The way of God is the root system that taps us into something so much larger than ourselves. It will give us what we need to be strong through sun and rain and wind.

In this strange season of our lives, I pray that you are drawing upon your root system. You are planted firmly in the love and care of God. Never forget those roots. Continue to draw on those roots during these days. Let worship, prayer, scripture, and love be the things that ground you. Let Christ be the thing that nourishes you. Today. Tomorrow. Forever.
Pastor Ben
Wednesday, April 26, 2020
My phone has been needing to be plugged in a lot more than usual lately. Zoom meetings, FaceTime chats with family, texts, phone calls, and listening to music as I journal all contribute to draining my phone’s battery of its charge.
One day I was getting so many texts I felt like I was being pecked by ducks. Each time I’d sit down to try to get some work done, ping, my phone would let me know that another message had come in. After this continued for a while, I turned my ringer off. I felt a little guilty at first, but after having more than a few minutes of uninterrupted work time, I realized turning off my ringer for a few minutes was actually one of the best things I could have done.
I’ve been thinking of this a lot lately. Ever since the shelter in place order, distance learning, and working from home started, I’ve become aware of how difficult it has been to disconnect and “turn off”– not just my phone, but also the feeling that I have to be constantly accessible, available, and connected. Truthfully, this is a struggle even in normal times, but lately it has taken on a whole new dimension.
This reality is one of the reasons that taking a break– physically, mentally, and spiritually– is perhaps more important now than ever. Although it may be difficult to believe, the truth is that none of us has to be “on” all the time. In fact, if we try to be, eventually the energy, the joy, and the life will drain right out of us.
In the book of Genesis, we read how even God rested on the seventh day of creation, and in the gospels, we are told repeatedly that Jesus retreated to a quiet place to talk to his Father and rest. Through this time, Jesus was recharged and refreshed to continue the work God called him to do.
If Jesus needed this time, it shouldn’t be a surprise that we need this time too. How your soul is recharged may be different from mine– through walks, journaling, listening to uplifting music– but quiet and uninterrupted time to hear yourself think and talk to God are helpful components. No matter how you do it, there’s no getting around the fact that your heart, your brain, your body, and even your relationships will benefit from the time you take to unplug from our devices and responsibilities and connect with God.
Pastor Kari
Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A character in the book I’m reading right now reflected on something he had been taught by another person in the fictional town. Everybody needs three things in life, that person had told him:
1) Somebody to love
2) Something to do
3) Something to look forward to

The character then listed the things he had under each of the categories. He didn’t have any family anymore, but he did have several friends of a variety of ages who were like family. He had a job cleaning a store after hours and prepping deliveries. And “as for the that last part– he had solved it by always, always keepin’ a good book underneath his candy jar.” (To Be Where You Are, by Jan Karon)

When I read these words, it struck me that this is a valuable list for all of us. Listing our responses to each category is quite worthwhile too, although our answers may be quite different lately than they were a month ago.
I’m willing to guess that the first thing on the list is probably the easiest one for most of us to answer right now. Hopefully number two on the list isn’t too challenging either, although it may be more so than number one. Some of you may feel like you’re not doing much these days. Others of you may be feeling a lot of tension these days because of the many hats you have to wear simultaneously.
These days, number three on the list may be the most difficult thing to come up with. After all, we are all experiencing a sense of loss lately, and many of the things we had been looking forward to have had to be rescheduled. Even still, I hope you’re able to find some little things to look forward to these days, whether it’s your morning cup of coffee, seeing your tulips bloom, or setting up a scheduled time to connect with a friend.
However, no matter how you feel as you read the list of three things I included, I hope you’ll remember some important truths: God has good plans in store for you, even now. God is working in and through you, even now. And perhaps most importantly of all, God loves you more than you know. If nothing else, rest is these promises, knowing that the God who created you is walking with you and will see all of us through this time.
Pastor Kari
Sunday, May 3, 2020
I recently ran into someone who had been trying to process all that is going on in our world today. They asked me if I thought that this was God’s way of punishing us. Not long after that, a different person wondered aloud with me if this is God trying to get our attention. It is tempting during a difficult time such as this to question or blame God.
We are all trying to figure this situation out to the best of our ability. Our tendency is to want to be in control, so for most of us this, this virus is unnerving to say the least. It is not easy not knowing “when” or “if” life will ever return to “normal” again. The truth is, every one of our lives have been impacted by this virus and it is a stark reminder that we are much more vulnerable than we care to admit.
Around 1400 A.D. Julian of Norwich wrote the following words: “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in the same precious love.”
There are no simple answers to the challenges we face these days. While having a faith and trusting in God makes a tremendous difference, it does not offer anyone a “pass” from the difficulties of life. God does not promise us that we will always be safe or experience no harm. The promise from scripture that I lean on is the solid assurance that God will be present with us and sustain us through whatever it is that we face.
When I take the time to look back over my life, I could not begin to count all of the bumps, bruises and times that I have fallen. The one constant that has enabled me to get back on my feet again, the thing that has sustained and carried me, is precisely what Julian of Norwich discovered so long ago, the precious love of God.
My prayer for each one of us is not that we come out of this completely intact, but rather that the love of God surround, sustain and heal us through our losses, struggles, questions and doubts. Because as we are promised, there is absolutely nothing in this world, not even this virus, that can separate us from the love of God that we know in Christ Jesus.
God’s peace,
Pastor Greg
Wednesday, May 6, 2020
I have discovered over the past few months that I sometimes feel stuck. And then at other times, I find myself sprinting toward…who knows what? Neither of these options are healthy or good for me. When I get stuck, it usually means I have become mired down by a burden, trying to do too much, am tired, or haven’t been taking good care of myself. The other extreme is what a friend of mine describes as, “getting out too far ahead of God.”
These days, I seem to be doing one or the other more often than I care to admit. As one of your pastors, I wish I could tell you that I am the Rock of Gibraltar. But the reality is that I do have moments of worry and there are days when I wonder how we are going to get through all of this. There are also days when I apparently seem to think that God needs my help because I find myself trying to figure it all out.



I know in my head that God does not require or need my assistance. I also know that “worry” does not help or solve any of the issues that I have on my mind or my heart. In fact, I believe that God is capable of handling things without me. However, there is a tsunami of issues that can easily get the best of us these days. Here are a few of the waves that seem to push my buttons; the uncertainty of this time, our isolation from one another, the sobering impact this is having on each of us, daily updates on death tolls, news, seeing people grieve a loss or wanting to celebrate a special event and are only able to do so alone. I could go on and you have your list as well.

I wish I could I wave my magic wand and make it all go away. When I was a kid, I talked my parents into ordering a magic kit. Back then I had great aspirations of being a magician. However, when the magic kit arrived it was full of disappointing and cheaply assembled “tricks” that wouldn’t have even fooled my greatest fan (my grandma). I learned from that experience that my magical powers were extremely lacking.
Sometimes people might think that pastors have a superpower or that we are able to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” but the truth is, we are people just like you. I don’t have any “superpowers,” but what I do have and what has enabled me to put one foot ahead of the other each day is “faith.” I have learned over time that Faith brings me back to my center and enables me to find my true North. Faith frees me up when I am stuck and slows me down when I get too far ahead of myself. When I have not had the strength to believe, I have learned to lean on those saints who I have been blessed to be able to walk along side and they have believed for me until I can find my bearings.
We are all learning a great deal these days. We are learning what is important in life and what really matters. We are discovering that we are much more vulnerable and inter dependent than we ever imagined. I hope we are also discerning that cheap tricks are just that and that easy answers only get us so far. At such moments, hopefully we will realize the incredible gift that faith is and the difference that knowing and walking with God can make.
When we get past this time (and I believe that we will) my hope is that we will look back on these days and see how our faith accompanied, encouraged and changed us. As Laura Kelly Fanucci writes regarding this process, “we may find that we have become more like the people we wanted to be, were called to be and that we hoped to be.”
Pastor Greg