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After limiting my exposure to the news and social media for health and sanity reasons, tonight at 11 PM I checked in after finishing some writing and there it was: “Trump insults heckler’s weight.”

The portly president telling someone in the crowd they could stand to lose a few pounds? I flash back to his comments about ”horse-face” women and his ruthless pantomime of a handicapped person.

Clearly, acting “presidential” has been left behind long ago,

But instead of screaming, I just feel like crying.

Every single day, there is another outrage, a new insult, another scathing blow to an individual or group. My reaction is visceral.

When I try with all my heart to listen to 45’s supporters, the vast majority of the time they start talking about Obama. Where can you possibly go with that?

If I wanted to, I have the lessons to work with on Sunday to blast away at the Washington insanity. The Gospel talks about Jesus promising to bring division, not peace. In fact, he’s furious, almost out of his mind with anger about what he has to go through and the state of the world.

Me too.

I am so defeated by the constancy of it all that I am worn down, like I have PSTD. So I will focus on to the equally-scathing epistle (talk about violent language!) with its beautiful concluding words about the “cloud of witnesses,” that is people who have helped us know how to live. Three people who exemplify character, courage and creativity for me: “A Nun, a Bishop, and a Sinner”. Not one of them meek and mild.

The thing is, there are people who are upset on Sundays if the preacher isn’t traditionally “spiritual” enough and gets into political* (I would say moral) territory. There are others who are upset if the preacher ignores it. There are people who see church as a refuge from the world and others who see it as a place to confront the world.

So you say a few prayers, lead with the Gospel and follow the prompting of the Voice within that you just can’t ignore. None of us is cavalier about this, I assure you. We agonize over these decisions.

See you in church.


(*And if you’re worried about these words are too “political,” expect a little tutorial Sunday on the separation of church and state. I’ve done research.)

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Episcopalians believe that we shape our faith through interactions with Scripture, Church teachings, and our own reason and experience.

We will be working with two of the three this fall in Bible Study on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month from 10:00 until 11:30 at St. John’s in the library.
Facilitated by the Rev. Barbara Mraz, the group will be working with the lectionary readings for the upcoming Sunday.

Everyone is welcome but, if you haven’t done so already, please email Barbara to let her know you are coming.

Pictured is Barnabas, probably at a group studying Scripture.

Be like Barnabas.

Come to Bible study.


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by Barbara Mraz

An older Hmong woman tries to seat herself at the picnic table and has to force her leg over the seat. I nod and smile at her, like “Me too.”

Did she smile back at me? Is there an instant of connection here? I’m not sure. Walking among the tables later, I try to make self-disparaging comments about myself (“I’m always dropping things!” Gotta love dessert, right?”) but no one responds. I feel stupid. I so want to connect……

It’s the annual picnic for St. John’s and Holy Apostles, a primarily-Hmong congregation in St. Paul. We’re in the picnic shelter at beautiful Lake Phalen on a Minnesota-perfect early August day. I imagine the Feeding of the Five Thousand was on such a glorious day. We would probably have enough food for them, too.

I arrive here battered and teary after hearing about the second of the shootings last night in Ohio. I haven’t felt this vulnerable since 911. No one really wants to talk about it with me it so I mentally regroup, still sensing how vulnerable we are in such a gathering. God, I hope that is not the new normal…

Yet it is a glorious sight: Hmong people are sitting at picnic tables next to European-Americans and a few African-American people; the celebrants are a Hmong-American woman named Bao and Craig from Zimbabwe (he of the majestic voice); a young musician named Richard from SJE is accompanying the singing, along with a Russian from Belarus named Sergei who is playing the accordion; a very tall verger – Bob–in a knee-length verger ensemble towers over the four acolytes from Holy Apostles. Across the table from me is a woman who recently was a regular at the 8:00 service but now has lost her sight. The preacher is named “Romero” and greets us in Spanish and gives an inclusive invocation evoking several religions.

On the surface at least, we are Diversity Personified (maybe not economically though) and I breathe it in as my German-Norwegian ancestry recedes a little from its usual dominant Minnesota position. It is a relief.

The service is accompanied by the sounds of children playing outside the shelter and women talking while preparing food in the nearby kitchen; clouds of smoke ascend as the barbecue grills cook hamburgers for the picnic; Lake Phalen glistens in the sunlight; voices in two languages blend as we pray the Lord’s Prayer.

There is a sweet sweet Spirit in this place today.

The Martha’s are in the kitchen preparing food and laying it out; the Mary’s are in “church” – superficial distinctions, to be sure. A soft breeze blesses us as we listen to the Rev. Daniel Romero a UCC clergyman and tireless worker for immigrant justice. He mentions the sacred Episcopal name “Whipple,” in connection with the Whipple building at Fort Snelling which is now used by ICE to hold and process immigrants for deportation several times a month, information which elicits an audible gasp from me.

It is a masterful sermon with cringe-worthy statistics. Rarely do I throw twenty bucks in the offering plate unplanned, but the Rev, Romero brings me to this point where I feel I have no choice. I go up to him after the service: “I’m a pretty good speaker and a decent writer and I have time. What do you want me to do?” There is a gracious response. He thanks me. He will be in touch soon.

I am intrigued by Sergei, who is the resident musician at Holy Apostles. I can tell he is Russian Orthodox from the way he crosses himself. Sergei, I find out, has been here since 2006, having to leave his family in Belarus because there were only funds for one person to emirate. He worked to establish a place for his wife and two daughters and also to get together the $1000 a piece for “the papers” necessary to bring them here, finally in 2016. He is a composer and has much of the thoughtful melancholy I associate with Russians I have known (“It’s all about the money,” he tells me, referring to the immigration process), as well as artistic flair. Playing the keyboard, his hands dance.

We send forth the pilgrims: campers from Holy Apostles headed for the Boundary Waters; Sheryl and Jennifer, going to the St John’s Clinic in Uganda.

It is an international world here today.

I am sitting at a table with Marv and Sue and I ask the older Hmong woman sitting next to Marv about something on her plate. Struggling with the language, she says it is cabbage and proceeds to give me a bunch of it. And then some to Marv. And to Sue.

Later I tease Marv about being in the clean plate club. In a few minutes he has an egg roll on his plate. His Hmong neighbor is softly giggling as she keeps putting food on his plate whenever it’s empty. A small but genuine connection here and I try not to make too big a deal of it but I am loving it very much.

This is such a fine day but I can’t help but think that the people heading for the Walmart or to the streets of Dayton thought they were in safe territory, too. And yet we are so vulnerable to the next crazed white male who comes packing heat and sprays bullets around like confetti at a birthday party. This seems like the elephant in the room and I wonder if we should all be talking about it openly. I would love to hear what some of the Hmong community think about this. Why do I not have the courage or energy to ask?

No I think the cabbage is a better strategy.

I feel like a Viking giant next to these short, compact people. I am trying not to loom or tower over them, to smile a lot, and to ask questions. I will ask even more questions next time (while not looming or towering).

And then Russian Sergei launches into “The Beer Barrel Polka” on the accordion and we are in Minnesota again.

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Driving home from church up Summit Avenue last week, I saw a woman laying by the side of the road. It seemed like a pretty serious bicycle accident, and there were a number of people on the scene helping so I didn’t stop. I knew that I was preaching the next week on the Parable of the Good Samaritan (about an injured guy in a ditch by the roadside) and I had to smile. Some times I think God messes with my head. (Or would I not have seen this in the same way had I NOT been focused on this story? Head messed with, I swear.)

I’ve been a preacher for a long time and was pretty sure I knew a whole lot about the popular parable (I’m already in deep trouble whenever I think this). But most of us have heard the story so often that we no longer even “hear” it.

Besides over-familiarity, I knew the sticking points: Jesus never calls the Samaritan “good;” the lawyer who asks the question “who is my neighbor” really means “who is NOT my neighbor” i.e. “Who can I rule out and make this easier?” The priest and the Levite who pass the Samaritan by were bad guys and didn’t care enough to help. Conclusion: we should also be good too, and help our neighbors.

I don’t know about you but I tend to tune out generic messages about being good. I KNOW I should help others; I KNOW that there are many who need help; I KNOW that Jesus calls us to be his Body in the world. But somehow I confess that, like the story of the GS, I don’t really “hear” it. Or if I do, I don’t change that much.

Given the demands of time (or having too much time) and numerous obligations (or the loneliness of NOT having obligations) I think the real question often is: What’s in it for me? What’s in it for me to act more charitably, to go out of my way to help those who need it? To actually change something about my own life to benefit others?

And who is this neighbor I am supposed to be helping? And how am I to help? What would I really do instead of just thinking about it?

As I said earlier here, I thought I knew a lot about this parable. However, there is always more and I discovered a new way to think about these questions that address “What’s in it for me?” Of course, the idea is not original with me (duh) but is from the brilliant theologian Sam
Wells (who was with us for a weekend at St. John’s a few years ago). Actually, Wells’ theory happened to me this week at Target in Midway (head-messing again!) I’ll tell you about it. Ironically, Target-Midway has almost become holy ground for me.

See you in church. (Yes it will be hot but you won’t be wearing vestments!)


For some early tips about how to be a good neighbor, watch the master at work with the ultimate “other” – another species….

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By Jennifer Neil Tianen

My dear friends in Christ,

I am not the pronoun police and I do not have a politically correct ideological agenda to impose upon you. This renaming is an invitation to a process of me becoming a new creature in Christ. It is not mandatory upon you. My birth name is Neil and I have always loved that name. For those of you who have known me as Neil for the approximately last three years that I have been with you, and who feel more comfortable still calling me that, then I welcome still being called so. For those of you who are willing to call me Jennifer, then I embrace your affirmation.

I stand here in the shadow of a lifelong fear. Not an over-concerned fear born of vain male pride. Rather, a fear born of violation, assault, suicide, and harassment. A fear that taught me to blend in to survive. I should not have survived; there are factors that can be tallied and I had too many of them to have come through to health and spiritual glory. But I did survive and thrive. So I am here today, moving from joy to joy.

It could have been otherwise. When I was young, I secretly carried a knife in my pocket. It was not there to defend myself or to hurt anyone else. It was there as a great comfort and solace that I could make it all go away in one quick slice. The blade was resting upon my wrist and I very nearly pulled it. Instead, I chose to live and suffer through to a hoped-for better day.

I am so glad that I lived to have this better day. To have known the love of my life who prepares my heavenly mansion next to hers. To have stared into the trusting eyes of my baby boys. To come here on Sundays and share communion with you.

I was born differently than I would have liked to be. That was God’s Will. But God’s Will is not always immutable. God has opened new doors and shown me a way forward at last to be my long-wished-for self.

There are pictures of me from when I was 5 years old. I have always loved those pictures. When I have shown them, I have been asked, “Who is the little girl?” That used to embarrass me, but not anymore. I see them as how I would like to have stayed while growing up. Frail, blond, and pretty. There is one picture in particular. I wrote a poem about it:



















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It was a beautiful day; the sun shining, the garden greening, no bugs yet. But somehow I just couldn’t get a break. The handyman wouldn’t return my calls and I needed STUFF
FIXED NOW, the car was making a funny sound, I received a surprise medical bill, everyone seemed to be disappointing me one way or the other. I must have said “Are you bloody kidding me??!” dozens of times.

And then then the wind shifted, a friend called, the car kept quiet, and I felt that things would work out. I breathed again.

Some people call that the Holy Spirit.

The disciples were having a series of bad days and a cold fear was in the air. Persecution was intensifying; Jesus was leaving (again) and the usual arguments were taking place. But then Jesus promises to send a “spirit” to help.

The apostles were celebrating a Jewish harvest festival when it happened: The wind shifted and everything changed. The disciples stopped arguing and started doing good things. Peter preached up a storm and converted thousands on one day.

Sunday is Pentecost – a confusing celebration if there ever was one! It’s about tongues of fire and people speaking in different languages and still understanding each other and is called “The Birthday of the Church”. The color of the day is red (for the tongues of fire).

But mainly it’s about “spirit” and what that means for us now. When this Spirit touches us through words, music, the Bleeding Heart in the garden, or a feeling that won’t quite go away, we might call it coincidence, wishful thinking, or our imagination. We can dismiss it and reason it away.

Or we can listen, and pay attention, and see what God has to say to us. It can be pretty interesting and sometimes even save the day. Or our life.

And I’m not just being dramatic here. There will be plenty of drama on Sunday! But there will also be more……

See you in church.


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By The Rev. Barbara Mraz

Mary Johnson and Dr. Lynn Hartmann each spent over thirty years working at the world-renowned medical facility in Rochester. Lynn was an oncologist and Mary was a chaplain. They’ve been together for 24 years and married for five. They recently moved to St. Paul, started attending St. John’s last year, and can usually be seen at the 8am service.

At the upcoming OWLs luncheon on May 14, they will speak about their experiences and the insights they have gained during this time. Following are two brief bios:

Mary Johnson:

I was born and raised on the banks of the Missouri River in a small, college town in South Dakota. I became a Minnesotan when I moved to Rochester to complete my chaplaincy training in the late 1970s after finishing my theological education in Seattle.

Hospital chaplaincy at The Mayo Clinic was a wonderful privilege. Over the course of 30+ years at the bedside, I had the opportunity to work with individuals and families from all over the world whose lives were in transition because of life-limiting or life-threatening illness. They were my greatest teachers.

At this point in my life, my spiritual journey brings me to the Episcopal Church where I find warmth, hospitality, intelligent theological reflection, and meaningful spiritual practice.

Dr. Lynn Hartmann:

I was born and raised in the Chicago area but migrated to Minnesota in 1986 to start an Oncology fellowship at Mayo, after medical school (Northwestern) and Internal Medicine training (University of Iowa). While I have come to love Minnesota deeply, during my first years here I was still a Cubs fan and thus missed rooting for the 1987 and 1991 Champion MN Twins!

Some highlights of my years at Mayo: Meeting my life partner Mary Johnson; being the first woman to join the Oncology staff in 1988 and helping to mentor and recruit numerous trainees and young staff—women now make up 30% of the Oncology staff!

My areas of focus in Oncology were breast and gynecologic cancers, especially improving options for prediction of risk of developing these conditions, and options for risk reduction. I started the Women’s Cancer Program at Mayo, which today is the largest program in the Mayo Clinic Cancer Center.

What I enjoyed most about my career at Mayo was the team spirit among the staff and sharing in the lives of so many remarkable patients.

Originally published in the May-June 2019 Evangelist.

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