Sunday, May 12, 2019


Today, during prayers in worship, a member prayed for all mothers, especially those suffering.  He mentioned that Friday was Mother’s Day in Mexico (it’s always on May 10), and that Sunday was Mother’s Day in the United States.  I thought about that during the rest of worship, especially during communion.  I couldn’t remember when Mother’s Day was on Friday and Sunday.  During the announcements, I commented on that, and asked where Mother’s Day was on Saturday? I shared that I thought it was at the border between the two countries.  Where mothers are desperately trying to cross to a place of safety, in order to protect their children.  I don’t know if Mother’s Day was celebrated at the border on Saturday, or not.  But I’m pretty sure our Mothering God was there.

Let us be at the border.


Monday, April 15, 2019


Today was a strange day.  A day of last days, of endings that I witnessed.

After a latte and end of semester conversation with our seminary student, I walked down Como Avenue in St. Paul.  I went by the group of shops where Micawber’s Bookstore has been for decades.  When I lived off Como Avenue in 1984-85, I would stop in now and then. I hoped that one day I would hold a reading at Micawber’s for a book of mine.

My first book came out last month.  Soon after that, I read the Micawber’s was closing for good.  Today, I walked in the little courtyard where I remember the bookstore being, thinking maybe they were having a sale to dispose of their last inventory.  I didn’t see any sign for Micawber’s, and I couldn’t remember which of the little shops it occupied.  Then I saw a door with a bumper sticker about supporting your independent bookstore.  I peered through the glass of the door—the place looked empty, but there was a light on.

I tried the door and it opened.  I walked down the few stairs, calling out “hello”.  No answer.  In the main space there was a long table with a sign saying “70% off”.  I called out again. Still no answer.  So I started perusing the books.  At one point the phone rang. I hoped the ringing of the phone would bring someone out from the back, but no one came.  Who was on the other end of the line?  Did they know that no one was there, except for me?  How could they know?

I saw the cash register on the counter by the phone.  It was open and empty.  The computer it was attached to was buzzing along.  There was a little sign about writing a note to the owner. I called out again, but no answer.  I had picked out three books; the list price totaled $45, with 70% it would be $13.50.  I had only a $20 bill in my pocket, and it had become clear that I wasn’t going to be able to pay with a credit card.  I found another book for $10, which brought the total to $50; $16.50 with the discount.  I went around the table again, found another $10 book I liked, which brought the total to $65, or $19.50 discounted.  I left a note with the twenty. As far as I know, it’s the only time I’ve ever tipped a bookstore.

I went back to the car, and that’s when I paid attention to the titles of the five books I had bought.  I had picked them because of their authors or subjects, but in the car, I read the titles again:

The War Within

Is Religion Killing Us?


Feeding on Dreams

Brokeback Mountain

Seems appropriate for the last days of a beloved bookstore, doesn’t it?

Earlier that morning, I had listened to a voice mail at the church. A man called to say his grandmother Dorothy, who had been a member of St. Paul’s for over 40 years, was dying. He asked if I could go pray with her, and if we could do the funeral.  I talked with the grandson in the morning.  He texted me the address of the nursing home. It turned out to be fairly close to the café and the bookstore, so I called him and told him I would visit her that afternoon.

When I got to the nursing home and entered Dorothy’s room, there were three generations of her family there, and the chaplain of the nursing home.  I introduced myself as the pastor of St. Paul’s, and the chaplain said, “Oh, I know Pr. Wells well.”  Oh I see, Dorothy had been a member of the other St. Paul’s, the one on Portland Avenue.  That St. Paul’s was founded in the 1870’s by Norwegian immigrants.  Our St. Paul’s was founded in the 1880’s by Swedish immigrants. 

The family invited me to sit and pray with them and the chaplain.  So I did.  They asked me to read the 23rd Psalm.  They talked about her life.  I sat across from Dorothy, whose labored breathing I had seen in many hospital rooms over the last 34 years as a pastor.  I prayed for her and her family, thinking that had it been our St. Paul’s instead of theirs, I would have been called on to speak of her life, and the love God had for her.  A woman I had only met in her last days. 

On the ride back to church, I heard on the radio that Notre Dame was ablaze.  I ran a couple of errands, and each time I got back in the car, it sounded worse.  On the way to my final meeting, the reporters said that firefighters were not sure if they could save any of the 850 year old church.   When I got near our home, they were saying that the firefighters thought they would be able to save the two towers and much of the structure.

I don’t know what to say about that beautiful place.  I hope that it is not in its last days; I hope they will be able to restore her.  But I think that time may be out for me to visit her again.  Luisa and I went there several times in 2013, on our 25th anniversary trip.  It was there that I had my confession heard most recently by a priest—perhaps ironic for a Lutheran pastor, but not for the Roman Catholic boy I was, dreaming of the great cathedrals in Europe.

I pray that Notre Dame will be restored. But I have no idea how long that will take; nor do I know how long I will live.  I just turned 66, and even if I live to be 100, I am therefore in the last third of my days.

It is Holy Week, when the suffering and love of humanity and of the whole world become ever more poignant.  It is a time when we are more attuned to loss, and also more attuned to hope, I pray.

The “other” St. Paul’s is much more conservative than “our” St. Paul’s.  Given its location in the current theology of the United States, I imagine that at least some of the members have a vision of the “last days” as a great big battle, where Jesus comes back to slay all the people who don’t believe in him.   You can find those images in the Bible, of course, especially in Revelation. For some reason, many of the Christians who live in the richest nation on earth have latched on to the apocalyptic language—a language not of those in power and plenty, but those persecuted and hopeless—as some portend of a magical future.  (Overlooking, in our last days of empire, that Revelation was written against the terribly cruel political, economic and spiritual oppression of the Roman Empire.)

I don’t find my hope in a war to end all wars, but in the promises above all promises. It is in Revelation that we see the images of a new earth, a new city, a new garden; where there is no more death and no more weeping.  A city where the River of Life flows straight down the city from the home of God; the trees give fruit in all seasons, and the leaves of the trees are healing for all peoples of all time.

That’s the prayer I have for Dorothy tonight.  That is where both St. Paul’s hope together: that there is another life arriving—and is already here, Jesus reminds—another life promised for Dorothy, for lovers of old bookstores, for people who see their earthly joys go up in flame.

Be beauty.  Be justice.  Be unafraid of loss, for these last days are not the last.


Friday, February 22, 2019


Last fall, I travelled with my wife Luisa to Chile, her native country.  Although she has visited there every other year or so, I had not been there since January 2002, primarily because of my back and the difficulty of long plane rides.

Chile—like every other country—has changed over 17 years; some good, some bad.  There is more acceptance for LGBTQ people, there is more homelessness and a growing inequality.  One of the profound changes is simply due to the passage of time: today, most people in Chile have no first-hand memory of the military dictatorship, because they were born in the last couple years of Pinochet, or after democracy was restored in 1990.

But thank God, Chile has not allowed that memory to disappear.  Some, who still admire the dictatorship, continue to try to sweep it under the carpet or try to rewrite history, casting military rule as some kind of strict but benevolent parent that was needed to straighten out its misled child.  But memory is not that easy to bury.

We went to two places where that memory is guarded.  One was Villa Grimaldi, a secret detention center in Santiago, where at least 4,500 people were tortured, and at least 240 were killed or were disappeared.  This torture site has now been converted into “El Parque Por La Paz”—the Park for Peace.  It is a peaceful place, in one sense, because of the flowers and trees that have been re-established.  But it is also a place of peace in a more difficult way: where the memory of those who were victimized helps keep history alive, and (we hope) prevent a military coup from happening again.  As Chile Today puts it, it is “Peace In Memory”.

We also went to the Museo de la Memoria, built so that the memory of those who suffered will not disappear.  One part that impacted me fiercely was the wall with photos of all those who are known to have been killed or who were disappeared.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s, “to disappear someone” became a verb in the lexicon of the military regimes of Latin America, implemented by military and secret paramilitary officials, many of whom were trained by the United States.  It happened in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, El Salvador, Guatemala and other places.

“To be disappeared” means that your family and friends may never find out what happened to you.  Often, you were kidnapped at night, taken to a secret location.  Maybe you were tortured there for weeks or months.  Maybe you were thrown—alive—from a helicopter into the ocean, or buried in a mass, unmarked grave.  When your family went to look for you, there was no record of you ever having been taken.  No file on your arrest, no help from any agency.

One of the most cruel aspect of intentional disappearing was the taking of babies born to women who were being held as political prisoners.  After they had given birth, their children were given to officials in the military, or sold to wealthy families connected to the regime.  Usually, the mother was killed or disappeared afterwards.  There is a powerful movie, made in Argentina, called “La Historia Oficial” or “The Official Story”:

The title is in itself a macabre play on words of how truth is silenced, even disappeared under dictatorship.  The official story given to the families of the disappeared in Chile and elsewhere was that the government and the military knew nothing about their loved one.  The real story, uncovered by courageous family members and journalists, who fought for decades to bring the truth to light, can bring healing and a recommitment to fight for justice.

I write this because of my love for my adopted country, which is suffering through one of the hottest summers ever, while I gaze out at mountains of snow (clearly nothing like Chile’s mountains!).

I also write this because of my love for the country I was born in.  For we are, once again, intentionally disappearing people.  In this case, children of migrants coming here to seek asylum or a better life.  Our government has flatly stated that it doesn’t know where thousands of these children are, and that it may never be able to find them.  Some parents of these separated children have had their parental rights terminated, because they failed to show up at the court hearing.  Failed to show up, because they were deported (a “softer” kind of disappearing) without knowing what was happening to their children.

We shouldn’t be surprised at this.  We have a long history of disappearing children: children of slaves sold away from their parents; Native American children forcibly adopted and robbed of their language and culture; a disproportionate number of children of color today being labelled as deviant in schools and as criminals by the society.  We shouldn’t be surprised, but we should be angry.  And we should keep their memory alive. 

How can do that as a people?  How can we make our history—especially the parts we want to stay hidden—present before our daily lives in such a way that produces real peace?

Be justice. Be beauty.  Be skeptical of the official story.


Tuesday, February 12, 2019


When Pr. Luisa and I were on sabbatical in the last part of 2018, we had the privilege to spend three weeks at the La Muse Artist Retreat in Labastide Esparbairenque, a small village (83 people) in the mountains in the south of France.

Many mornings, I would walk about a quarter mile up a hill to an old church, with a churchyard and cemetery.  I would sit in the churchyard, meditate, listen and write.  We later found out that the church had one Mass per year!  As I entered the churchyard, I first passed through a bower of cypress trees. I could see the trees as I walked up the path, and I came to feel that they were welcoming me to that quiet, and fruitful space.  My mind, my spirit and my body felt their welcome, and their invitation to not worry, but trust. Some days, it felt like a lovely serenade.

Most of the time, I was alone for the hours that I spent there.  A few times, Lupi, the mayor’s dog came to visit, and a couple of times, the mayor—a man in his seventies—came with Lupi and his other dog.  The mayor would greet me heartily with a “Bon Jour!”; I would respond in kind, and soon say to him “I don’t really speak much French.”  That was his signal to keep talking in French!  The few things I did understand was that he always inquired about how I was, and wished me well.  And one day, he told me about the wrought iron cross in the churchyard—what I understood was that there was a priest of the parish buried under there.  I heard the word “ans”—years—but missed the number that came before it.

So I added the priest to the “great cloud of witnesses” who were with me at the lovely garden where I prayed, listened and wrote.  The young man whose gravestone said he “died for his homeland” 101 years before.  The women who had lived well into their nineties, and the children who had died so young.  And so many people who passed over that hill, for so many years.  Though I was almost always alone, I was part of a beloved community, stretching way back, and stretching forward.

I asked the host of the retreat center how old the church was.  She said she wasn’t sure, but that the trees were 900 years old!  How many people, dogs, wild boars, deer and winged creatures had passed through those arboreal arches and found peace there?  How many still linger in that sacred space?

I wonder how many times we have been welcomed by the trees around our spaces, and we didn’t realize it, or stop to wonder at their music.  I’m looking out the window at home at the neighbors tree, which is surrounded by a tree house built many years ago.  It is covered in a cloak of beautiful fresh snow. When we first moved here almost ten years ago, we would see the two children and their friends playing there.  They are now older teens, and so the lure of that special space has faded for them.  But it’s not hard to imagine them dancing and laughing up there, their happy minds, bodies and spirits welcomed by this beautiful tree I’ve so often overlooked.

Be beauty.  Be justice.  Be welcomed by the patient, loving trees.


Monday, December 3, 2018


It's springtime in Chile--where Luisa is here pictured hugging a tree in Patagonia.  Technically, we’re in “meteorological winter” in Minnesota (and it looks like it outside), but it’s still fall in terms of the equinox-solstice thing, so a couple musings on fall:

This is the first fall in 22 years that I have not had my morning routine include getting a child to school.  (The first fall in over 25 years, if you count taking our first born to day care.)  It’s kind of strange: nice to be free of that urgency, but a little sad to see it go.  BUT…

It’s also the first fall in a long, long time that I have not been working, since we are on sabbatical.  That sets up a whole other routine, to say the least.  We’ve done our travelling, we’re at home, getting ready to return to work next week.  Like not having children going to school, returning to work is a mix of emotion: sadness to see the sabbatical end, excited about reconnecting with our community of faith. 

I’m back in the writing studio at the Loft.  I didn’t rent it while we were travelling, but now cold December is upon us, and it is a warm and welcoming place. (There were even dark chocolates left for us writers today!)  I look out at the Vikings stadium on this gray day, and see it’s massive black face staring back, a stark contrast to the white snow all around.  Advent is a season to let go, to wait for that which we can’t see.  Pretty much like being a Vikings fan since 1961.

I can see planes taking off from the airport, until they disappear into the gray sky.  Part of me wants to flee.  But I am tired of travelling, and my calling calls.

Our sabbatical’s theme was “Spirituality and Art”.  (I should say it “is”, not was, since there are 10 days left!) During our travels, we saw incredible art (and I hope created some).  As beautiful as the art was in cathedrals and museums, what impressed us the most were much of the memorials and the street art.  Memory is so important, even—and perhaps especially—the painful ones.  From memorials to the Holocaust and the Wall in Berlin, to a visit to the Terezin Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic, to the memorials to the disappeared during the dictatorship in Chile.  Why don’t we have many memorials in the U.S.—to slavery, to the genocide of the indigenous peoples, to people fighting for worker’s rights, women’s rights, children’s rights?   There are a few, but they feel cordoned off to me.  In France, nearly every town we visited has a plaque—at a school, or a town square—remembering those deported to death camps.  A small reminder of who we were and what we did and was done to us. Luisa and I want to talk to people about doing some kind of deportation memorial in Minnesota.  Maybe just the names of all who have been separated from their families.

I spent a couple days in my hometown of Austin, MN, doing research for the novel I’m working on.  The last day I spent hours reading newspapers from 1916-1919.  When I got back to our house, it took me awhile to return to the present.  I wonder if we could do that with Scripture in a way that was transforming.

This was the first Thanksgiving where I did not eat turkey and “all the trimmings”. Chile does not celebrate Thanksgiving, but alas, Black Friday is trying to gain a foothold there. I had been out of the country once before on Thanksgiving, in Mexico, while Luisa and I were courting.  There were sufficient ex-pats in our circle that we had quite a feast.  Luisa and I still laugh about how the Blessed Jim Peterson—who never quite got fluency in Spanish—sent the two of us to pick up what he thought was a 22 pound turkey.  Of course, it turned out to be 22 kilos.  That was a trip from the store to the car!  Maybe our back problems started then!  As I recall, we had to cut the drumsticks off the bird in order for it to fit into the oven.

Advent is a time for cutting off, or letting go. As the nights grown longer and the days colder, the Spirit moves us inwards: indoors, into the recesses of our heart, into the hurts of the world, and ultimately into the story of that migrant family seeking Posada, seeking asylum.

Be Fall. Be Advent.  Be Beauty.  Be Justice.


Friday, November 23, 2018


Luisa and I spent four days in Patagonia in southern Chile.  We saw King Penguins mating, lots of guanacos and other animals, amazing mountains and the Straits of Magellan.  We stayed in Punta Arenas, whish is latitude 53 south.  It was often terribly windy and cloudy, but it stayed light well passed 10 pm.

Part of our travels took us along “La Ruta del Fin del Mundo”—the Route at the End of the World.  Of course, it isn’t quite the end of the world!  But every time we looked at a map, or travelled along the Strait, we were reminded that following the 1973 coup, for many Chileans Patagonia was the end of the world.  Dawson Island was turned into a political prison, where many leaders of Chile were imprisoned, tortured and killed.

Since I was a kid, I’ve loved to look at maps and calculate how far one place is from another.  Punta Arenas’ latitude is 53º south.  For reference, Minneapolis, where I live is 45º north.  Punta Arenas and Tierra del Fuego is the farthest south I’ve ever been.  It’s not as far south as the farthest north I’ve ever been.  That would be Helsinki at 60º north.  But it is, I think, almost as far south as the farthest northern latitude my father ever crossed.

My father enlisted in the army in 1940.   On December 7. 1941, he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands. As far as we can tell—his military records were destroyed in a fire, apparently—he probably was on Attu Island at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.  Attu Island is 53º North—as far north as Punta Arenas is south. 

To say the least, I think my father was scared that December 7.  He didn’t talk too much about the war—some stories he told to me, some to my older brother, some to no one.  He did share that they were much closer to Japan than Pearl Harbor was.  Attu is roughly 54º North 173º West.  Pearl Harbor is 158º west, 21.3º West.  Flying distance: Attu Island is a little less than 2000 miles from Tokyo, Pearl Harbor about 3850/

My mom died in 2004, my dad eight years earlier, in 1996.  When we went through my mom’s house after her funeral, we found some of Dad’s stuff from the war.  One was a program for a formal military dinner on board a ship.  It listed the Invocation, the National Anthem, the main speaker and the menu.  I think I remember that it was roast beef and potatoes.  The date of the proposed dinner was December 7. 1941. Needless to say, I don’t think that dinner took place that night.

Attu Island was the site of the only land battle on United States soil in World War II.  After the Japanese Army occupied it in 1942, they deported some 47 inhabitants.  16 of them died or were killed in camps.  The U.S. fought to take it back in 1943.  According to Wikipedia, “there were 3,929 U.S. casualties: 580 were killed, 1,148 were injured, 1,200 had severe cold injuries, 614 succumbed to infectious diseases, and 318 died of miscellaneous causes – largely from Japanese booby traps and from friendly fire. U.S. burial teams counted 2,351 Japanese dead, but it was presumed that hundreds more had been buried by naval, air, and artillery bombardments over the course of the battle.”

In addition, some 800 Aleuts—American citizens all—were deported internally to detention camps inland, where some 75 died of infectious diseases.

While in Patagonia, we went to Tierra del Fuego, where we learned the history of the indigenous people there. The native people were never conquered by Spain, though Spain claimed sovereignty over the whole southern part of the continent.  It was after Chile gained its independence—in fact, almost near the end of the 19th century that the extermination of the indigenous Tehuelches. Onas and others began.  Chile invited immigrants—from Germany, England and especially Croatia—to settle in the south, and “gave” them land in exchange for their support of Chilean sovereignty. Of course, it wasn’t Chile’s land to give. 

The extermination began with the importation of sheep and cattle to the pampas of Patagonia.  The native people were hunters, and it was a lot easier to hunt a docile sheep than a guanaco.  They didn’t massacre the cattle and sheep, but the “pioneers” saw them as a terrible threat.  Bounties were given for ears, tongues, genitals and eventually heads of the Tehuelches and other people, until they were all but exterminated.  The last “full-blooded” indigenous person, an elderly woman, died a few years ago.

Today, the indigenous people of Chile—Mapuches in particular—continue to fight for their land, their language and their dignity.  While we were in Chile, the police shot and killed an unarmed 16-year old Mapuche boy, in the back of the head.  The circumstances around his death, and the immediate coverup were so eerily like so many shootings of African American and Native American people in the U. S.

Why do I share all this on Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S.?  Because I think memory is essential to gratitude. And essential to working for a different end for our world. Today, we went to the Museum of Memory in Santiago, a museum dedicated to remembering all those persecuted during the military dictatorship, and to working to keep it from happening again.  In the dedicatory plaque, there is this quote from former President Michele Bachelet (who herself was imprisoned, tortured and exiled):

“We cannot change our past.

We can only learn from what we lived.

That is our responsibility and our challenge.”

For all of us, I dear say.  I hope to keep imagining a different end for our world, one of beauty, justice and hope for all from 53º South to 53º North, and everything in between, and everything beyond.

Be memory.  Be justice.  Be beauty.  Be thankful.


Saturday, October 27, 2018



Forget the commercialism of Christmas, which we rail against the same way we rail against negative political ads: righteously, loudly, while making no changes.

Forget the “War on Christmas”. In my view, the only war on Christmas is the one that turns a revolutionary act of power arising from the edge of the margins into a triumphant celebration of how good and generous we are (and how “persecuted” we are as Christians in the U.S., which is utter nonsense).

That’s not the reason I’m not saying Merry Christmas this year.  It is because of the way we treat Jesus.  This is what I might say:

“Bless Jesus, who was poor, a migrant, a Jew, a refugee from violence, homeless.” Doesn’t seem as cheerful as “Merry Christmas”?  Well, the birth of Jesus was a joyful, transforming event in the midst of poverty, violence and racism.  His parents had to travel because of an emperor who thought he could control the world and all people in it.  He was born in a barn because no one gave them shelter.  He sought sanctuary in a foreign country because of a murderous king. 

Better yet, I think I will say, “Bless Jesus who is poor, a migrant, a Jew, a refugee from violence, homeless.”  Because as a Christian, I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, is alive in us and in the world, and especially to be found in the poor, persecuted and outcast.

To my friends who are not followers of Jesus, I bless you.  And I say to everyone, regardless of what you believe, don’t you think the power of the world, the hope of the world, the love of the world should be, and is, standing side by side, living and dying with the poor, migrants, Jews, refugees, victims of violence, homeless, trans and every other person who is condemned, violated or refused?

Pittsburgh. The MAGA bomber.  Yemen.  The caravan. Matthew Shepard. Khashoggi. Vicky Lee Jones and Maurice Stallard in Jeffersontown. That’s where my Christmas Jesus was just this week: being born, living, rejoicing, suffering, dying, and dare we hope, rising in us.

Be Justice        Be Beauty       Be with Jesus by being with those where he is