I wrote the following for a wellness newsletter at OHSU Health Hillsboro Medical Center, where I work. I wanted to share it with you on this All Saints’ Day.

As autumn seems to have taken hold in the Northwest and Halloween approaches, I am reminded a year ago I was in San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala. I had traveled for a short mission trip with an organization who builds houses and home kits consisting of water filters, “smokeless” stoves, and latrines, and spent about a week absorbing local culture, learning new skills, eating amazing Guatemalan food, and experiencing Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) festivities. Family members go to local cemeteries and clean tombs of their loved ones, decorate with beautiful flowers and other items, and even prepare special foods – including favorites of the departed – to share at the cemetery. It is a loud, festive, celebratory event, attracting all of those who share this grief, the departure of a loved one.

In Guatemala, this celebration also includes a Kite Festival, where intricate homemade kites are flown from the tops of tombs, traditionally in order to communicate with the spirits. On Halloween and All Saints’ Day last year, I was blessed to spend much of these two days walking through cemeteries, even witnessing a local “marching band” of family members playing marimbas through their village as they approached the festivities. This experience was easily the highlight of my time in Guatemala.

While I am too familiar with grief and its hold, I had never experienced this kind of collective lament over what has been lost. While each family openly and authentically mourned their loved ones, the festive atmosphere of such an experience gave permission to friends, as well as strangers, to acknowledge their losses, comfort one another, and encourage those they don’t even know that their experience is a shared experience. And knowing our experience of sadness, struggle, and emptiness is shared to me seems the most comforting step towards wholeness.

The thing about grief is we must lament our losses or we are captive to them. Grief never tells you that. It always seems you can compartmentalize what has happened and move on. Families do this all the time as they hush one another around dinner tables, whispering “we shouldn’t talk about so and so because it will make everyone sad.” Psychotherapist Francis Weller (The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015) writes of the “direct relationship between mourning and memory. To counter the amnesia of our times, we must be willing to look into the face of the loss and keep it nearby. In this way, we may be able to honor the losses and live our lives as carriers of their unfinished stories.”

When we hold up our memories and give thanks for what was, we honor that person or that experience. When we do not lament our losses, we are captive to them.

In this time of Pandemic and collective loss, I wonder if lamenting what was is even more important. Whether we fly a kite, make a special meal, write a reflection, or remember our loss in some other way, we memorialize this time, giving shape to its meaning for us and for those around us.

— Rev. Rachel M. Stramel, M.Div., Chaplain


This is the Church

A little over a month ago, pre-pandemic, I attended a pastor group meeting across town. Before the pandemic, these PC(USA) pastors began gathering for friendship and support. Who knew we would need it more than ever? And at this most recent in-person gathering, our facilitator brilliantly used an old-school Serendipity resource to get us sharing a bit more from our hearts than our heads, something that is not always easy for pastors to do, at least the Presbyterian kind.

One of the four Quaker questions used in this particular conversation asked about a source of warmth we experienced as a child. We conversed first – somewhat uneasily, but growing in trust with one another – about our childhoods, where we spent them, and how those homes were heated. And from there, our time of sharing grew more interesting and vulnerable.

Some answered grandparents’ homes. Some answered their sources of warmth were found at school or an aunt or uncle’s house. I thought of my grandparents with sadness, my remaining grandparent turning 98 this year. Yes, those were times of warmth as well. But when it was my turn to answer, my words surprised me. “The Church,” I answered.

My ordination into the PC(USA) was only a few months ago. It was better than well-attended, I was honored by old friends and new friends who played significant roles in a really meaningful service, and I never imagined – never! – that ministry would look like this just three or four months later. I spent half of my career outside of “the club,” a youth minister, a mom, a military wife, a pastor, with kids and the slow, long journey through seminary, only to finally (!) complete every requirement sometime in the mid-point of my career. The mid-point? It’s true! I had already been in ministry twenty-some years. This halfway point was truly special and so appreciated, marking a fresh start and a new season. That was fine by me, and I grew to be humbled by the entire experience and so grateful to my God for choosing me – imagine that? – for ministry. So at my ordination, I cried … I mean cried, the entire time.

A few months later, here I was with colleagues I still sort of forget are colleagues now, not Committee on Preparation for Ministry members, and we shared from our hearts and memories where warmth was found. And I answered “the Church,” an institution I am fully aware has hurt and abused people along the way, sometimes affecting one’s faith and trust in God and people for years to come.

I get that. I spent a few years outside church walls. Having served as a youth minister, I reached the point a good sixteen years ago when I felt I needed to leave my profession and leave the Church in order to save my faith. I was disappointed, I was textbook burned-out, and I had reached the point of apathy where you just don’t care what the course of your career looks like from there on.

The story of coming home is a long one. And so is the story of where it all began. But just months ago – at this pastors’ meeting – I answered, “the Church.”

I grew up in the Church. It is where I learned to drink coffee. It is where I learned to do karate. I spent several afternoons a week in tow by my pastor-father to his after-school program, only realizing years later this was a brilliant design for youth ministry, especially in the 80s and 90s. The Church is where I learned to love people who were not like me – I mean really not like me – like the gentleman from remote parts of Nevada who spoke in gobbledy-gook but you had to love him, he was there and he loved people and wanted better for his life. Like the man who would come to my parents’ house; that was the first time I ever smelled whiskey, from his paper bag. Whew! Like the kids – like lost sheep – my loving parents let sleep in our basement because their homes were tough. Mine was not. The Church was a place where they too would know they were loved and embraced – why others and not them? – no matter who they were or what they had done. It was where I played youth group games in the dark, sang Amazing Grace at the top of my lungs, held a dripping candle each Christmas eve, and got to direct a church choir! I fell in love at the church, I learned to care for children and teach them at the church, I lost friends and experienced heartbreak at the church, because of the Church, and for the Church.

I suppose that remains true. But as the Church remains its people – those with whiskey on their breath and scars on their hands and bags under their eyes and stories they do not want to repeat – it remains. It is still the Church. It looks a little different right now, as we gather for Zoom meetings and comb sides of our hair and brush our teeth for afternoon Bible studies or meetings. It’s a bit different now, as we wear medical masks and hold our breath as we grab boxes of pasta and TP and sauce and maybe a candy bar or something non-essential on the way out for those who need help shopping and shouldn’t be leaving their homes. It is a little different now, as we seek and pray and discern how to reach those who cannot Zoom, who do not care, who are hurt and lonely and do not know the love of Christ and do not know the love of the Church, at its best, the love of people, who just want things to be a little better, give you a cup of hot coffee, a shy smile so you know you are loved.

We will sit again in those pews and sing Amazing Grace at the top of our lungs, laughing over the coffee pot and running through the halls for youth group and leaving messes behind for the custodians. And we’ll probably take the Church for granted again too, its warmth, its people, its blessing and presence in the most important parts of our lives. But where two or more are gathered, we remember. We remember those times. And we will feel that warmth upon our faces and our hearts again. ❤

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion …
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
Psalm 137:1, 6


Lessons from Isolation

This is not my first time in isolation. I have spent many times in my life alone – or alone with my children – in seasons of isolation, with little connection to other people. This is not how I believe God designs us to live. As a human being and one who loves God’s Word, I firmly believe we were created not only for a relationship with our very Creator but also with others God created. In all of these relationships, we live out the love God demonstrates for us.

Twenty years ago I lived in Fairbanks, Alaska. We were newly married and off on a grand adventure. My husband served in the US Army – as he does now – and was stationed there at Fort Wainwright. We didn’t have children early on. We wanted to wait until he was off of active duty and on with his career, so he would be around more once we had a family. (My, how God has a sense of humor!) This was pre-9/11, so deployments were somewhat rare and had not touched our little family. Brian’s absences at that time were for training. So as a young adult, I spent sometimes a month, sometimes up to two or three months, alone.

I worked, which helped. But working in the church, of course, I was with others who also craved relationship or – like me – struggled with how to adapt to the difficult climate, darkness, and isolation of central Alaska. We now tell stories with laughter of temps 40 degrees below zero and the climate’s effect on our mental health, resilience, and development as young adults. But it was hard. It was especially difficult in combination with other stressful circumstances, like job changes, or family changes, or Brian’s training missions. I learned a great deal about myself and my own capacity during adversity. And I developed resilience I hadn’t had before.

As most of us live in “quarantine” at this time due to the risk and impact of Covid-19, we may be experiencing isolation like we never have before. Some of us live alone. Others are in family circumstances already causing tension and stress, such as separation or deployment. Our children are home from school but not yet schooling, adding a unique dynamic to our attempts to work at home. We may even be caring for other loved ones during this time, given no other options. Each person’s situation carries its own difficult set of dynamics.

Caribou in the White Mountains

We can withdrawal. There is great temptation there and sometimes it seems even value. In my time in Alaska alone, there were times I withdrew and chose not to interact with anyone, instead finding company in the TV, for example. These times sometimes coincided with depression, increased sleep, and some of the things you may be experiencing – or are tempted to live out – in quarantine now.

But today I got up, exercised, got ready as if I were driving to work, and remembered the gifts of that time.

  • Exceptional Creativity. Twenty years ago, we ordered a brand new desktop computer, which arrived from Dell in what must have been seventeen boxes! We set it all up and enjoyed the advent of awesome graphics cards and programs. Brian played games sometimes. I learned how to design websites. Instant messaging was beginning to become a thing. From our dark apartment in Fairbanks, we were able to message with friends and family throughout the United States. I developed other hobbies during that time too. I learned how to cook. I fiddled on the guitar. Each of us has creative ability because we were created by the One who is most creative! And we are made in God’s image. One gift of a quarantine or season of isolation is truly exceptional creativity. At our church, as we offer online worship services this month for the very first time, this creativity is exemplified in our worship band and tech team’s abilities to create.

  • Physical Activity. Exercise isn’t and never was something I really enjoyed. Through high school it was not my thing, and I regret not giving it a shot. As a young adult, in large part out of boredom and weight gain in the darker months in Alaska, exercise became a new hobby. I would stay up late at night (a habit I’ve never really broken!) and good ‘ol Chuck Norris would sell those early Total Gyms on TV. So I ordered one and set it up in our apartment. It was my first experience lifting weights, it was something I could do inside at any time, and it kept me a little bit active during a difficult time. While we are quarantined, out of boredom, extra time, or the need for a break from loved ones, remember our bodies are a gift and they are our responsibility to keep healthy. Walk a little every day, do some body weight exercises, or maintain a physical activity you already enjoy. This is for our bodies but also for our minds. I have learned from seasons of isolation that it is essential.

  • Connection with Others. Just as I discovered, from Alaska, some of our early technological tools for staying connected, there are so many more available now that make a tremendous difference in our ability to be with others. Early on, my husband and I only communicated by satellite phone, when we were lucky. Many times our phone calls dropped or cut off, which can be emotionally devastating when you are looking forward to hearing your loved one’s voice and feeling so alone. Now there are apps that allow us to talk across the world and even see one another. These tools are so valuable now even as we are all quarantined just a few miles from our friends and family members. Try Facetime. Or Skype. Or any of the other apps allowing you to communicate, if you have these at your disposal. Do it often. Stay connected. Smile at one another and share just a few sentences of encouragement. We were not created to be alone, and we can feel forgotten. This is a unique season, a pandemic (!) – tell someone how you feel about them and remind them they are loved.

    We lived in Alaska about three and a half years. But the hardships I faced at that time prepared me for even harder times to come. Remember – today, in quarantine – you can and will get through this. You can do this. And this time will pass; this is not forever. Most of all remember, you are not alone. And you are always loved. My prayer for you is to see glimpses of that love our Creator has for us. Today – and every day.

God is our refuge

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea …

Psalm 46:1-2

This morning I preached on Psalm 46. Actually, for the first time, we pre-recorded a worship service, so I preached two days ago, which means I am hearing my sermon and a reminder of God’s faithfulness through this text, as you are. And two days after I studied it and prepared it and wrote it and even preached it, I need that reminder.

I woke up today to the news that we will be even more restricted this week (“spring break”) than we already are, as a bunch of Portlanders fled to the beach yesterday in the sunshine. Who can blame them really? It was such a beautiful day I spent most of it outside. I prayed. I meditated. I mowed the lawn. I listened to the birds. And I also reflected upon creation spirituality, courtesy of Julian of Norwich. My headache and allergies didn’t abate until I woke up this morning, but it was worth it.

And today, upon news that I’ll likely have to change my plans to see the coast this week, I’m grateful for her and for you for worshiping with us and listening to some of my thoughts on Psalm 46.

The Psalmist it seems tells us to flee to places like a coastline or our bedrooms or our backyards to simply breathe, and listen, and know that He is God. But there’s more than that. To be still is to stop. It’s to stop all the arguing and posting and worrying and talking and striving and working towards and goal setting and lamenting and fearing …. to stop in the midst of all of this chaos and to know, simply know, God is God. This strange and surreal season we are in will not last forever. Our God who makes wars cease (46:9) is still in control.

Julian of Norwich, an anchoress who lived in a small cell, whose real name we don’t even know, recorded visions in fresh language of God’s love for God’s created. If our creator loved us enough to create us, she would say, then why would we think any different of what our maker wants for us now? In a time of poverty, unemployment, corruption, sickness (we’ve got nothing on the Black Plague), and fear, Julian pointed to creation and fresh expressions of God’s love.

Since I was only thirty and a half years old, it pained me to think of dying — not because I had special plans for my life nor for fear of any pain. But I longed to live to love God better and longer here, so I might know and love God more in the joy of heaven. In so short a time I have experienced so little of life. I thought my life as nothing and no longer giving praise to the Good Lord.

Brendan Doyle, Meditations with Julian of Norwich (New Mexico: Bear & Company Publishing, 1983), 23.

How are we going to get through this? How do we remain as faithful and focused as Julian? You and I have a lot to distract us and yet we’re still trying to find our way. I offered some suggestions this morning, perhaps hard to hear, but crucial for us to develop resiliency. Because we will get through this.

  • Ask yourself how you cope with stress. How are you managing your fear right now? Only you know what you’re truly up to. Could you be doing it better?
  • Limit your time spent on social media and watching the news. Now don’t shoot the messenger! But we don’t see a lot revealed there that is from our creator himself! We see a lot of opinion. Imagine what great theological reflection would have been lost had these tools existed during Julian’s day. Take time during this season of pandemic to spend it differently. Don’t immerse yourself in the fear and opinion right now. Take space.
  • If prayer or meditation is not part of your daily routine, start. And start now. I can’t say enough about this. This is the perfect tool as you sit in God’s creation. Check out Romans 12:1-2 in reflection upon these points.
  • Finally, get outside. Get some fresh air. Get some sunshine. Get some perspective. As we see all God has created we are reminded just how much God loves us and everything he has created.

Tomorrow I’ve set aside time to consider other ways we may digitally practice our faith and come together as a church family – wherever you may be, near and far – during this time. So check back. We are excited about some new ideas! And for now, remember always that nothing, absolutely nothing – no quarantine, no sickness, no fear – separates you from the love God has for you in Jesus Christ. Amen.


Save Mountain Wave

Sometimes we focus on the glamorous. We’re enamored with the high profile. But what is behind the scenes is just as important and so often holds everything together.

Earlier this week an agreement was reached between Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR) and Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office. While we do not know the details of the agreement, that’s great news for PMR, who performs high profile rescue and recovery missions on Mount Hood several times per year. After public outcry via media coverage (so pleased to have had my letter published!), PMR and the Sheriff’s Office made statements indicating they will continue to work together. And sadly, this week’s recovery mission highlighted the need for their expertise on the mountain. This is a traumatic loss that is difficult to describe to anyone who has not experienced it, and my prayers are with this family.

A recent social media post by Mountain Wave Search and Rescue indicates close to 90% of SAR calls by Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office are to request assistance in other areas of the county, besides Mount Hood. Organizations such as Mountain Wave also receive requests from other counties, in the case of missing persons. These persons’ cases are sometimes not well publicized by media, yet their families still look for them, waiting and working for their return. Mountain Wave’s expertise is unmatched, utilizing equipment such as communications rigs, drones, cell phone tracking, overhead support, snow machines, ATVs, human remains detection, and K9s and their handlers. Mountain Wave is funded by private donations and is not supported by government funding. Their members are trained, equipped, and passionate about what they do, volunteering their services for countless hours per year. Mountain Wave was founded in 1992 following the Oregon Episcopal School accident of 1986. For those who haven’t crossed paths with Mountain Wave, their services may have been unnoticed, as you may have benefited from their efforts at local runs and other events, such as the Portland Marathon.

While these missions on Mount Hood are always publicized by our local media, the consistent and dedicated work of organizations like Mountain Wave can go overlooked. Mountain Wave played a significant role in the recovery of my brother on Mount Hood in 2012. I will forever be grateful for their service on normal days as well as dark days, where families of loved ones lost rarely speak of such events. 

Speak out now for Mountain Wave, whose services would be severely limited should Sheriff Roberts decide only to work with PMR, leaving other organizations unheard in this conversation. Mountain Wave has invited the Sheriff to meet, to better understand the needs of both organizations. It is the least Sheriff Roberts can do, given Mountain Wave has done so much for families just like mine. #SaveMtWave


Saturday Morning Blahs

Saturdays are always foggy and muddled for me too, especially if I am preaching the next day. In search of time with my kids, in search of a sermon, the end of a week and preparation for a new one, the exhaustion and the guilt of wanting to just rest. This from RevGalBlogPals is spot on for today.

Saturday Prayer: Morning Fog


my letter to the editor and Sheriff Roberts

I am a beneficiary of the emergency services of Portland Mountain Rescue, Mountain Wave Search and Rescue, as well as other organizations who risk their own lives on Mt. Hood and in other locations to find, rescue, and recover our loved ones. These volunteers spend countless hours each year training and performing search and rescue (SAR) missions and do so with passion, professionalism, and readiness for the task, no matter its outcome. For our family, the outcome was tragic, as my brother, Jared, summited Mount Hood in February, 2012 and fell upon his descent. These SAR groups looked into the night for him, and in the morning he was recovered from the mountain. Clackamas County Sheriff Roberts wants to undercut these organizations with his new plan to form his own SAR group, effectively putting these non-profits out of business. His research of only two county models is hardly extensive nor is it “comprehensive” (“Sheriff plans to dismantle search-and-rescue tradition,” February 15, 2020). Requiring SAR volunteers to apply to the county or turn in their SAR cards is at best, inefficient and expensive, and at worst, a choice which will result in less volunteers who will take years to achieve the level of training, ability, and credibility Portland Mountain Rescue and other local SAR groups are known for. Sheriff Roberts, this ridiculous plan is unnecessary and will risk lives. Our community expects you to work with those already doing effective work.  #savemtwave #savePMR


A Stone to Rest On (post preaching notes – Exodus 17)

My sermon from February 9 is up on the website (http://orencochurch.org/teaching), and I’m hoping to prioritize a few thoughts after I’ve preached on a regular basis to keep us thinking … I spoke yesterday about some of my favorites, Moses and the Israelites, and their adventures in Exodus 16 and 17. Moses was one tired guy, as their leader, and when it rained, it poured. Can you relate? First, there was the whining about the lack of food, along with their first accusation towards Moses trying to kill them (Exodus 16:3), and in Exodus 17, it continues, as they grow thirstier and thirstier out there in the desert. We thought Moses was trying to kill us. Now we know it! He must have water he is keeping from us! They again accuse him of trying to kill them in 17:3.

On and on it goes until we are reminded of God’s provision – then and now – there’s water from a rock and defeat of the Amalekites (17:1-16). Moses, growing more and more tired in these narratives, never seems to have enough help. As a pastor who today visited the hospital, investigated a leaking (?) toilet, and studied scripture, I kinda get the feeling! We grow weary. All of us are in need of others in our lives. And that brings us to our focus yesterday, good ‘ol Aaron and Hur who provide a stone for Moses to rest on and hold up his arms when he is heavy and cannot do this all on his own … (17:12). What would we do without those who hold us up?

In our time together during worship, I suggested during this divisive time in our country and perhaps even in our own families that we consider what we expect from our leaders and from others we are in relationship with. Here are three questions for us:

  1. Have you placed expectations on others that are not theirs to fill?
  2. Are those expectations causing discord and division between the two of you?
  3. What would it look like to let those go?

These are very tough questions. While the Israelites had all kinds of spoken and unspoken expectations for their leader, Moses, he was simply unable to provide everything and to be everything for them. Only God could get water from a rock. Only God could bring victory, not Joshua who did the fighting, not Moses who did the leading, not Aaron and Hur who propped up Moses’ arms. God did provide through each one of them … together, though. They needed each other. And so do we.

At Orenco Church, we are exploring one of our core values: the Body of Christ. This week, consider your relationships with discord, and ask those three questions of yourself. In our relationships, what are we able to let go of so that we can be better … together? And how can we help? Our friends may need a stone to rest on.