About Gretchen O'Donnell

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer and columnist for The Globe. In her column she discusses everything from her lifelong secret desire to be a DJ to the humiliations of skiing in Switzerland. Occasionally she talks about parenting and ornithology and the pressure of having an Irish last name on St. Patrick's Day. She and her husband and three children live across the street from Iowa, where she writes, cooks, drinks the occasional cup of coffee, and reads. From time to time she even dusts.

Oh, the humanity of Christian leaders

I was in early middle school the first time that I was terribly disappointed in a Christian leader’s behavior. I didn’t fully understand what was going on at church, but I knew that my parents were embroiled in some sort of issue with the pastor, and many other people at the church were, too. We ended up leaving that church it got so bad, and since we lived on an island — Orcas Island, Washington — where the only other church available was Episcopal, my parents and others started a new church which met in homes for a while and then in the local high school. Quite a few years later — maybe 20 — the two churches reunited, which was a lovely ending to the old hurts.

Though I saw the hurt that my parents’ suffered in that situation, it didn’t impact me a whole lot personally. I didn’t have strong feelings about the pastor either way other than I disliked him for hurting my mom and dad. A few years later, however, when I was in college, I experienced two separate hurts from Christian leaders who were closer to me. These weren’t moral failings, or even theological failings, as the situation with our pastor had been, these were personal hurts. I was hurt because, with one of them, she left the church — as in the extended, universal Christian church — entirely. I couldn’t believe it. How could she? The other hurt was because I expected too much from a person and was horribly saddened by what I saw as a personal rejection of me as a disciple of this person’s teaching. I wanted more of their attention but I was given less.

I learned several things through these three situations. I learned that my expectations of people were often wrong and possibly even ill-advised. But more importantly, I learned that Christian leaders fail us. They don’t meet our expectations of who they should be. They prove, over and over, that they are human. Whether through moral failure, rejection of the church, or failing to meet our expectations, they make their own choices and those choices don’t always line up with what we think they ought to be.

But the core truth that I learned is far deeper: people will fail us, but Jesus never will.

In all of those years when I felt disappointed in God’s people, never once did God himself fail me. In all of those times when I compared people to God’s son, felt cynical over human behavior and wept metaphorically or truly over my hurt feelings, never, ever, did Jesus fail to live up to what he promised to be.

Never.

It was good to learn at a young age that Christian leaders are fallible, because it has kept my eyes open and my heart more attuned to the infallible Jesus. A church — or a nation — should not be filled with people who are there only for the leader. That becomes a “cult of the personality”, a group there not for a higher purpose (that of serving God) but there because they think the leader is such a great guy (or gal).

Christians are called Christians because we are named after Christ. Not after any human being. Jesus is the only sinless one, the only perfect one, the only one worth following. He will not disappoint. He will not morally fail. He will not change like shifting sands.

The hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” came to mind this morning as I saw the headlines in the news. “My hope is built on nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness: I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand: all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.”

If your faith is built on people, it will sink.

When my faith was in people, even my very world seemed to crumble, but Jesus was solid. That was a good lesson to learn given that today, when the world truly is in massive upheaval, I know and have seen through 50 years of living, that Jesus is unshakable.

Set your mind on Jesus, friends. Build your hope, your faith, your life on His unchangeable love.

“Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

Such a high priest truly meets our need — one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever” Hebrews 7:23-28

I’ve been having fun on Canva

My head is tired. Tired of planning when I can’t plan because who knows what will happen in the world in a week? Tired of thinking deeply. Tired of trying to organize my thoughts into coherent words that people can read and be inspired by. Can you tell I’m tired? I even ended my sentence with a preposition.

Since I feel incapable of thought, I decided to have fun instead. I hopped onto Canva and began messing around with Bible verses and old photos. So, for the next few weeks, this is what you’re getting: verses and pretty pictures. 🙂

I took this photo several years ago. It’s of beach glass that my sister and I collected over years of beachcombing. This photo makes me happy and this verse is comforting in these difficult days.



Barn Blessing

 

The Apple Barn

I’m a sucker for old barns. The kind that are barely standing, just waiting for a massive gust of wind to smack them down. The kind where the wood is gray with age and the last re-roofing took place in the Carter Administration. The kind where skunks are more liable to live than horses or cows.

I’m fairly sure that I know the origin of my love of barns. My dad, a semi-professional photographer when I was growing up, had the same obsession. If a barn on Orcas Island was picturesque, screaming for a photo shoot, he was there to oblige.

Several of those barns remain in my mind and, thankfully, in his files. There is one – most people called it the Apple Barn – which sits (yes, it’s still standing) in a small, often misty valley, not too far from my sister’s house.

We pass the Apple Barn on the way to and from the ferry landing whenever we visit. When we pass it upon arrival, I feel like I’m really there, back in Washington State. Home. When we pass it upon leaving, I feel like it waves goodbye. Like the benevolent apple-scented spirt of the barn ushers me off of the island and wishes me farewell wherever I fare.

We round the corner, and the barn disappears, and always, always, the loss that settled down upon me like a cloak as we braked down the hill from my sister’s house, releases like a wheezing balloon and for the rest of the drive to the ferry dock the tears I fight back are tears of joy. Joy that I grew up in this place. Joy that I have sisters and parents and family to love. Joy that God has given me this visit, this moment, this island to come home to.

 “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” Colossians 2:6,7 NIV

Wildflower inspiration

Last week I posted a photo of me as a wee girl in a field of daisies. I have always loved that photo (is it vain to love a photo of oneself?!)  and always loved daisies – perhaps this photo is the reason why!

Daisies are, I suppose, wildflowers. Or, as my husband calls them, “weeds”. I refuse to call them weeds because they are too beautiful! I admit that they are rather hard to get rid of if you don’t want them in the particular area that they planted themselves. Tough roots. Strong stems. But that doesn’t stop me admiring them for their simple beauty. Yellow and white. Long petals, solid center. A child’s idea of a classic flower.

Ok, I know this isn’t a daisy. I love it anyway.

Another thing I like about daisies is that they are benign. Every summer I fight against Deadly Nightshade, another rather pretty weed/wildflower/vine that grows like…well…a weed around here. And while it may be pretty with its purple and yellow blooms, it is, as its name suggests, not something that you want to mess with as it is, as you may have guessed, extremely toxic.

I prefer flowers that are pretty and won’t poison you.

Daisies are also better than many other wildflowers in that you can cut them and bring them into the house and they won’t die immediately. My youngest daughter has brought me several wildflower bouquets recently, and virtually all of them – with the noted exception of the horsetail reed – have died within hours. They just can’t adjust to life when cut off from their roots.

Think about that a moment.

Wildflowers can’t thrive when cut off from their roots. They wither. They die.

A lot like people, when they’re cut off from each other.

I’ve thought often of Hebrews 10:24 & 25 in recent days.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Ok, for all of you true theologians out there, I know that the context of this verse is about growing in our faith. That’s not where I’m going with this today. Today it just makes me think about our relationships with each other, rather than our relationship with God.

This is a weird, difficult, stressful time in the history of the world. Now don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to be political about this issue. I am not saying that isolating ourselves to protect each other is either right or wrong. What I am saying that as we continue to socially distance ourselves – to whatever degree our particular state or country says we must – we also must remember to reach out to those in isolation because to be alone, to be cut off from our roots, is to wither and die.

I remember, just a couple of weeks into one state’s Stay at Home order, a friend from college posted that his neighbor had killed herself because she couldn’t take the isolation. She didn’t want to face weeks – and as it turns out, months – of living all by herself in fear.

Again, I am not politicizing this. What I am saying is that people need each other.

Apparently this is the day for pictures of bees on wildflowers. 🙂

I have loved seeing how organizations, camps, churches, etc. are thinking of creative ways to reach out. For example, Lakeside Church here in Worthington, MN, dropped off crafts kits this week to those who requested it. Totally free. Totally to encourage.

How can you encourage others in this unique era? How can you spur people on toward love and good deeds? How can you “meet together” in safety? How can you reach out to those who are particularly isolated?

These are things I think we must all consider thoughtfully and then act upon our ideas.

Because no one wants to be a wildflower, cut off from its roots, withering away.

Please share some ideas in the comments of how you have reached out, or how you have seen others reach out to encourage one another in this COVID-era. Thank you in advance for your thoughts!

“Let the little children…”

Yep. That’s me. Age about 4. I’m in the empty field next door to the house I grew up in. Dad told me to pick some daisies and so I did but there was a bee on one that I reached for and that is the shot that Dad liked best. Me, a little tentative, holding my Bouquet for Mommy.

That’s what Dad titled the photo: Bouquet for Mommy. He enlarged it in his mysterious and malodorous darkroom and it lived on our living room wall for so many years that it faded to a pale shadow of its former self, leaving a rectangular mark on the wall the day we moved away.

“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said. Let them pick flowers from my fields. Let them enjoy bugs. Let them find the wild strawberries just over to the left, close by the gate — just out of the shot of the camera — where blackberry brambles grow fiercely along the edge of the cliff and the eagles rest in the old fir tree.

Let them come. Let them learn to know me as they learn to know my creation. Let them fall in love with my world and let them fall in love with me. Do not hinder them. Do not call them in too soon.

Let them make mud pies and walk along the beach and skin their knees and wade in the water. Let them climb the rocks and climb into my lap and reach up to touch my face, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

Let them come, and they will keep coming when they grow older. When they question who I am and when they need reassurance. And when, after they run away and rebel and call out to me in the reaches of the night, they will remember. They will see that I am the same God they found in the fields, the same God of the mountains and the daisies and the bumblebees, and they will climb again, into my lap. They will reach their hands, tentatively, needfully, desperately, to touch my face, and they will remember.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this first of the occasional photo-centered posts. I have hundreds and hundreds of photos of my dad’s that I am excited to share with you. I have a few decent ones of my own, too! So, from time to time, I’ll focus on a photo!

Enjoy your week, my friends.

Summerband and the living is easy…

Video

I was supposed to do something tomorrow, June 24th 2020, that I’ve never done before. I like doing new things and I think that I would have liked doing this.

I was asked, back before COVID controlled the world, back when we thought that summer would find us doing our usual things, to be the Master of Ceremonies at an Amazing Worthington City Band concert at historic Chautauqua Park on the banks of Lake Okabena here in Worthington, Minnesota.

Kinda makes me think of Harold Hill and The Music Man, though actually I wouldn’t have been directing – heaven help the band – I’d just be introducing the songs, talking a little, giving the band time to pull up their music for the next song.

Sadly, all of the band concerts have been cancelled for June, but happily the ones scheduled for July are still on! Summer band concerts have been a big part of our lives, given that two of our kids have played in the band for several years now and we’ve attended concerts since we moved to Worthington in 1997. (It helped that we lived across the street from the park for 8 years!)

(I don’t know why this video looks sideways, but it will play just fine!)

I truly have missed the concerts these past few weeks. Something in the air one evening last week – a scent or a sound, I’m not sure which – made me suddenly think of the band and I felt a little bit sad and a little bit nostalgic and a little bit cross with this COVID world, all at once.

Which is a lot of emotions to handle in 5 seconds!

Another aspect of the weekly (for June and July) concerts is that it’s a great time to hang out with friends, see people you don’t see very often, and meet new people – or at least identify them from afar.

Example: “Oh, the MC is so-and-so tonight. I’ve never realized that’s who that is!”

Or this:

Me: “Oh, I see that the intermission entertainment is Rolly Polly and his Dancing Dogs! I hope the dogs don’t leap into the audience and bite anyone this time like that did that other time.”

Friend: “Oh, I kinda hope they do. That was entertaining!”

(Just kidding. That never happened. But the microphone did misbehave badly once or twice, causing one or two headaches for the friendly neighborhood sound guy.)

One particularly cool thing about the band is that it is 127 years old! It began in 1893 and the bandshell itself, built from 1941-1942, is on the National Register of Historic Places. To top off the coolness, Chautauqua Park is so named because the Reverend Billy Sunday, professional baseball player of the 1880’s turned itinerant evangelist, preached there in his heyday, a fact which made this seminary graduate smile as suddenly her Church History class actually intersected with her real life.

I like it when that happens. When the things I learned in Seminary or in Sunday School or from sermons interconnect with reality. When the Bible applies to everyday life.

Which, of course, it does all the time. I just don’t always realize it.

That’s kind of my Disheveled Theologian mantra, actually. Or, rather, my prayer. That by telling my stories of everyday life, and showing how God and His Word applies in each of those situations, people will see God more in their own lives. In other words, I pray that when I open my eyes to see God in my life, you too, will open your eyes to see Him in yours.

“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” 2 Peter 1:3 NIV

P.S.: In light of the fact that I’m pining away for summer band concerts, I dug up a couple videos to entertain you! The first one (above) is a band classic, a patriotic tune we can all enjoy. The second (below) is a fun one that clearly entertained the audience!


Again, why this looks sideways I don’t know. I am no expert. I’m certain that someone can tell me rather easily, but I don’t know exactly who that someone is. I’m just glad that it will play correctly for you! 🙂

Destination

It’s windy. So windy. And has been for days. Sustained winds of 20mph and gusts of 35 or more. 24/7. Literally. I love to sleep with the windows open, but the noise of the wind and the blowing of the drapes defies my desires.

On many an evening recently, from our vantage point on the lake, we’ve watched novice kayakers struggle against the waves, their lack of experience clear as the wind pushes them further and further west. “Go west, young man,” they used to say. Only these guys’ destination was east.

This past weekend was supposed to have been the Windsurfing Regatta, held here annually on Lake Okabena. The second weekend in June was chosen as the ideal date to hold the event, when the winds and the weather averaged perfectly to present sailors and spectators both with idyllic sailing and viewing conditions. This year would have challenged the heartiest of participants, I think, but, like so many other events in this weird COVID world, the event had to be cancelled. “Postponed”, they said actually, for a year, with all the participants rescheduling for 2021. But “cancelled” is what it amounts to in the short-term. Another destination missed.

Sometimes we aim for something – an event, a location – and we hit it smack-dab. Front and center. Bulls eye. Other times we take aim but end up – whether by our own fault or by things beyond our control – missing the mark entirely.

My mom flew into Edinburgh, Scotland, many years ago, intending to meet up with her sister for a long weekend. Their parents grew up in Scotland, so this was going to be fun. A reunion not just with each other but with their roots.

Mom’s flight was delayed out of Germany. She missed her connection, arrived hours late. Her sister was nowhere to be found. Mom, having left all of the planning to her, had no idea where to meet her. In a series of near misses that would have been funny in a movie but weren’t at all in real life, Mom spent the entire weekend alone. There were no cell phones. Phone messages left back home went unheard as no one was there to receive them. Her destination was reached…but it wasn’t the destination she’d hoped for at all.

Point of fact: sometimes the wind blows us off course.

Point of mind: sometimes we get where we’re going but it’s not at all what we wanted it to be.

So what do we do then? What do we do when, despite our best efforts, we wind up at the wrong end of the lake? What do we do when, despite our success, we find that our reached goals aren’t all that we expected them to be?

What do we do, in short, when life doesn’t turn out the way we thought it would? When we planned, and maybe even prayed, yet still we beat against the wind? Do we panic? Do we pray all the more? Do we give up, throw in the towel, hop on the next flight home?

I suppose the answers to those questions are innumerable. But here’s what I witnessed out on the lake:

Those poor people – I don’t know their age or their gender or anything about them – when they found themselves out in the middle of the lake, being shoved by the wind in the opposite direction that they wanted to go, tried, ineffectually, to paddle. They waved their paddles about in a frantic “X” motion for a while until they realized that nothing they were doing was working. Then, finally, they sat back, reevaluated the direction of their boat in relation to the waves, rethought their paddling methods, worked out the kinks, and got back on course despite the wind working against them. They came safely into harbor, sorer and wiser than they were before they got themselves into that boat. Were they scared out there in the middle of the lake? Probably. Were they off schedule and out of sorts? Possibly. But they got themselves to safety.

Or, you can be like my mom in Scotland, all alone, all those years ago. She explored. She did a little shopping. She bought herself a kilt in the Fraser family tartan. She made the most of it. She did not want to be there by herself and she did not enjoy her trip as she thought she would, but she did not waste her time sitting alone in a hotel room, feeling sorry for herself. She got back on the plane at the end of the weekend wiser than she was three days before. Was she scared being there alone? Probably. (I can guarantee you that she did a lot of praying.) Was she disappointed and out of sorts? Possibly. But she chose to go out and see the city and it remains the only time she’s ever been able to visit the land of her ancestors.


Our family Fraser tartan.

Life leads us on a merry chase sometimes. We can panic when it leads us into danger. We can throw a fit when it leads us into disappointment. Or we can sit back. Evaluate. Experiment. Explore.

And, in all of that, in all our decisions and promotions and set-backs, we keep on praying.

“My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Proverbs 3:1-6 NIV

Even a twisted path can lead us straight to God.