Author Archives: Pastor John Keller

About Pastor John Keller

I am a Lutheran pastor serving Intentional Interim Ministry in the Saint Paul Area Synod of the ELCA

Let Go of Words

wordleA young man came to my office years ago looking for help with his marriage.  An older friend had recommended me because “Pastor Keller is really good at prayer.”   I was surprised and a bit flattered by the recommendation but also confused.   How would someone know that I was “good at prayer?”  The young man clarified his friend’s recommendation, “When you pray in worship you seem to say the right phrases and words for talking to God.”  The young man continued, “So I am wondering, could you pray for my marriage.”  I did pray with him, asking for God to intervene and restore his marriage.  A few months later I learned that his divorce was finalized.

I remember that story not so much for the outcome but for that recommendation (and my reaction) based on my public prayers in worship.  As a pastor I am often asked to pray in public setting and I normally comply with my best words and ideas for addressing God.  Recently I prayed at the dedication of new fire station and felt honored to be part of a simple civic ceremony.  Yet, as the years go by, I wonder if all my words are becoming more of a barrier than a bridge to communion with the Divine Mystery that we so easily call God.

The barrier question is definitely part of my personal devotion.  For many years I have kept a spiritual journal, pouring out my thoughts, feeling and concerns to God on the written pages.  At times these words helped me come to some clarity in my relationship with God, yet often the writing just seem to stir up the dirt and garbage inside, like shaking a jar of glacial river water and seeing all the silt swirling around in the jar.  It is only when one sets the jar of river water aside and allows the glacial silt to settle does the water become clear.  That has been my discovery with silent contemplative prayer.  I need to stop the swirling words and allow the sheer silence of God to speak (I Kings 19:12).

I have learned that I am not alone. In his book. Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Paul Knitter, a Roman Catholic theologian, writes,

So often in Christian liturgies I find myself gasping for breath because I am suffocating on words!  Christian prayer, especially liturgy, is so verbose.  . . . God is Mystery and must remain so — the unknown part of God is much, much larger than the known part we are expressing in our prayers and services.  Our words don’t seem to respect that Mystery not just in their quantity but in their quality. . . .  Words are not only always inadequate in expressing the Divine Mystery, but they can actually be impediments to experiencing the Divine Mystery. . . .  In my own personal practice of prayer I have grown to feel the need for silence.” ( page 136)

Paul Knitter is not alone.  Ruth Haley Barton, an evangelical Protestant, writes in Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

In silence we begin to recognize that a lot of our God-talk is like the finger that points to the moon. The finger that points to the moon is not the moon.  Pointing to the moon, talking about the moon, involving ourselves in study and explanation about how the light of the moon is generated is not the same thing as sitting in moonlight.  It is the same with God. Our words about God are the not Reality itself.   They are only the finger pointing to the moon. In silence we give in the fact that our words can never contain God or adequately describe our experiences with God.  When we give in to the exhaustion that comes from trying to put everything into words and mental concepts, we give our mind permission to just stop. We give ourselves over to the experience of the Reality itself (page 75).

Enough words for today.   May I recommend that you seek some silence for your soul.


Let Go with a Limp

hiking with Springloaded technology braceA few months back I wrote about my experience in letting go of running.  You can read about it here.  One thing I should make clear is that the physician who diagnosed the osteoarthritis in my right knee talked about me not running marathons again, but she did not rule running out entirely.  She prescribed an off-loading knee brace and said, “You might be able to run with it; I don’t know.”


The Breg Fusion® OA Plus Osteoarthritis Knee Brace that I have. 

In early December I was fitted with the brace and started using it.  I noticed that I had a slight limp or hitch in my walk as I use it.  I mostly wear it when I go on longer walks of three to four miles. Also I have worn it on occasion at the gym, using it with an elliptical trainer and walking on a treadmill.  I have not as yet tried to run with it.  Partly because it is winter in Minnesota and I fear slipping on some patch of snow or ice.  Partly because I want my body to adjust to wearing the brace during walking.  This spring, when I feel the urge, I will try a short run.

For now, at this moment, I have set running aside.  I may be able to run in the future, but for now I am not.  What mindfulness continues to teach me is to live in this moment, accepting as life is, not as I would like it to be.  In the past I have wasted a lot of mental and emotional energy regretting some event or yearning for something different.  Learning to live in this moment is challenging.  My mind seems to have a default mental state (sometimes referred to as the default mode network) that likes to ruminate about some past event or fret about some future challenge or problem.

Jesus warned about the danger of future worries in Matthew 6:34

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Centering Prayer is retraining my mind to let go of these ruminations and worries while coming back to the simple awareness of God’s presence.  As one sits in centering prayer, one may notice the mind wandering to some thought, feeling or judgment. When one notices the mind moving off on this mental tangent, whether it be some joyful anticipation or some anxious though,  the practice of centering prayer is to gently let go of whatever thought or feeling my mind is following and return to my chosen sacred word.  I may do this dozens of times during my twenty minute session. It is the continual practice of letting go and turning to God that is the exercise portion of centering prayer.  (You can read more about centering prayer here.)

Like walking with my brace, my practice of centering prayer still feels like it has a pronounced limp. Yet my trust is not in my feelings during centering prayer, but in the fruit of the Spirit that has come with the practice in my daily life.  I have discovered that I am more consistent in letting go of my worries and my attachments, such as my fixation on running.  At least for the moment, which is sufficient for today.

Let Go

landscape bookcase

Several years ago, I started giving away my books.  Early in my ministry, I took pride in the collection of theological and ministry-related books I had in my personal library.  I had various Bible translations and commentaries.   Using books, I earned a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry.  I thought that if I had all the right knowledge, I could discern God’s path for myself and my congregation.  If I could fill my head with the right ideas, concepts and principles, I would succeed.

I discovered the knowledge path can be a dead-end. Though I did learn many wonderful and helpful things, I found less and less deep satisfaction in knowing ideas, concepts and principles. Knowledge did not equal wisdom.  I needed to learn to “let go.”

For over a decade, I taught a course called BeFrienders which trained lay people in my congregation to do basic pastoral care through the practice of active listening.  At the beginning of each new training course, I and my co-leaders would tell an ancient story about a young man search for wisdom.   He traveled to a wise elder and began to tell the elder all that he knew about wisdom.  As the young man talked, the elder poured tea into the young man’s cup.  The young man kept talking and as the elder continued to pour, the tea cup overflowed.   The young man looked in horror at the overflowing cup and shouted, “Stop, my cup is already full.”  The elder stopped pouring and says, “Yes, it is.  The cup is like your mind.  Your mind is so full of itself that it cannot take in anymore.  You need to empty your mind in order to receive wisdom.”  It was several years before I  caught up with the story’s full impact.

The scripture that guides my path towards wisdom is Philippians 2:5-7

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

I have thought a lot about what it meant for Christ Jesus to empty himself. Emptying is a way of letting go.  Since Paul is talking about the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, it makes sense that Jesus gave up being “all-knowing,” an attribute that many Christians give to God.  Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not all-knowing, but rather asked questions (Mark 2:8-9, Mark 5:30, 10:51).  Furthermore, Jesus strongest rebuke was for the religious know-it-alls: the Pharisees and scribes (Mark 7:1-13).  Now I understand Jesus more as a “love-it-all”  rather than a “know-it-all.”  A big part of love is letting go.

In the next few weeks I plan to write more on this theme of letting go.  Letting go of my past, letting go of words, letting go of status and pride.  It hasn’t been easy, but as backpacking has taught me, “a lighter pack (or mind) creates a more pleasant hike.”



Riding Into the Darkness

16460554715_7e0e09e482_cLast month I wrote here about the disappointment I felt when a physician diagnosed my chronic knee pain as the early stages of osteoarthritis.   She said that my marathon running days were over.  Her diagnosis has felt like a dark shadow creeping into my life, robbing me of my identity as a runner.   I recognize that I am over reacting.  After all I can still walk and bike and paddle and swim.  I can remain active if I choose.  Yet running remains something I embrace, something I share with many of my buddies, even in the dark days of winter.

The season of Advent comes during the shadowy, short days of December.  In Minnesota we often drive to and from work in the dark. It is challenging to find ways to get outdoors for exercise.  Thus the darkness often can be internalized.   A favorite Advent scripture verse captures the season’s gloom and yet offers hope.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

One recent Saturday two of my running buddies invited me for a winter bike ride.  We each have one of those fat tire bikes that make possible riding in snow.  It was still dark as we started off, our headlamps pointing the way. As we rode the Gateway Trail, the sun rose and the clouds turned pink and red. It was beautiful morning and I gave thanks for chance to ride with friends.  I adapted Isaiah, thinking, “Those who ride in darkness have seen a great light.”

I continue to miss running.  When I drive pass runners, I feel a pang of sorrow.  I wish that I could tie up my running shoes and go for a quick run around the local trails.  Yet I recognize that my emotional attachment to running will fade and that I am capable of finding other ways to be outdoors.  My identity as a runner is not my core.   My simple daily prayer has become, “Lord, let me rest in my identity as your beloved child.”

As Isaiah states, “a great light shines.” The promise of God’s love continues to illuminate our days.  Jesus’ birth is celebrated in the depth of winter because Christ is the light of the world that shines in our darkness.   On Sunday, with the whole church, I can sing

Silent Night, Holy Night, Son of God, love’s pure light!
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.


Gate Closed

Yesterday a gate closed for me.  Others may close in the coming months and years.  All are a part of the growing older.

Grand Valley

Last summer I backpacked in the Olympic National Park and my first day included a two thousand foot descent into Grand Valley.  It was late in the afternoon and my right knee began to ache as I dropped altitude rapidly.   I took some ibuprofen that night and hiked on.

When I returned home and started running again I notice that my right knee became sore after most runs.  It usually subsided in a few hours, but not always.  Occasionally the pain and discomfort woke me up at night.  In late September after a full day bike ride, I noticed the discomfort as I drove home.  I stopped running and biking.  The pain continued.   I started a series of trips to my family physician, an MRI, and finally Dr.Andrea Saterbak , a respected orthopedic surgeon who is the team physician for the US Ski team.

I went in knowing from the MRI that I had a torn meniscus but that it was “complex” tear.   Many meniscus tears can be “repaired” with arthroscopic surgery.  Friends had told me of their surgery and how they were back running within weeks.  I hoped my story would be the same with a successful arthroscopic surgery soon behind me.

After examining my knee and while looking at the MRI Dr. Andrea Saterbak said emphatically, “This cannot be repaired by surgery.”  Then she wrote at the top of on my treatment plan, “Early Osteoarthritis in Right Knee.”

She asked, “What exercise do you use to stay fit?”

“Running.   I like to run marathons.”

“I don’t think marathons are in your future,” She responded.

A gate closed for me as she said this.  She went on to explain that the pounding of running will aggravate the knee further, resulting in more arthritis.  My heart sank a bit as she carefully explained that my tear was more like a “frayed” meniscus and that orthopedic surgery would only aggravate the joint and cause further  pain.  She didn’t rule out running entirely, but she emphasized I will need to be gradual in my approach and see how my knee responds.

Other aerobic sports will need to be monitored as well, including biking and hiking. Especially long downhill descents like the one I did last summer into Grand Valley. She said a specialized knee brace may be helpful for such adventures and she gave me a referral for the brace.  The gates to bikes and hikes may be closing as well, but it is too early to know.

She gave me a four point treatment plan.

1.      Lose 10 pounds (mostly by restricting calorie intake)

2.      Cortisone Injection  (she gave me one before I left)

3.      Low impact activity

4.      NSAIDS (Ibuprofen occasionally as needed).

I walked out of her office disappointed but not devastated.  I could look for a second opinion.  Dr. Saterbak said that I could probably find a surgeon who would arthroscopically “trim” the meniscus, but I would be back in the surgeon’s office complaining about pain and inflammation within six months.  Overall, I trusted Dr. Saterbak’s experience, diagnosis and treatment plan.  I may not like what she said, but that does not invalidate it.

My practice of Centering Prayer, a form of Christian meditation, has strengthened over the past three years.   Centering Prayer has a corollary prayer called the Welcome Prayer in which I am instructed to welcome whatever new circumstance may enter my daily life with the prayer,  “Welcome, Christ, in the midst of this new circumstance.”  Whether it is a pleasant experience that I enjoy or drudgery that I wish to avoid, God will be present in my response.    With this diagnoses of osteoarthritis I am practicing the Welcome Prayer as follows  “Lord, I may not like this diagnosis, but You are here in the midst of it and I welcome you and ask you to help me respond with grace and compassion – towards my body, my community and you.”

One thought I have embraced is that this diagnosis is not life-threatening.  I will not die tomorrow or next month.   It is life-changing and that is the part I am seeking to understand and affirm.

Now I could respond with requests for healing, but somehow that seems unwise.  God could miraculously heal my knee, but then I would miss out on what God is teaching me in the midst of this situation.  I believe that God is present as I rethink, refocus and deepen my trust in God.

The diagnosis is still fresh and my emotions and thoughts are processing.  This blog post is part of that process.  I will probably write more in the coming weeks and month.

Thanks for taking time to read this.  Peace be with you.


“My own congregation”

Christ the Servant 170630

Christ the Servant Lutheran Church in Vadnais Heights, MN

I am wrapping up my second interim this week and will probably start another interim later this summer.  What a joy to serve among the people of Christ the Servant and I am excited to see how they move forward in ministry with the leadership of their new pastor.

On Saturday, I was conducting a funeral and had a brief conversation with one of the attendees.  She commented on what a lovely congregation Christ the Servant is and how I must enjoy serving there. I told her yes it was a joy. I continued, “I am the interim pastor and tomorrow the congregation will vote to call a new settled pastor.”  She said, “Do you like doing interim ministry?”  I responded, “Yes, I do.”  Then she said, “Well, don’t you want to have your own church?”

Her question plucked a emotional string within me.  At one time in my ministry I definitely wanted to have “my own church.”  The thought appealed to my ego and my desire to be in charge.  However, when I had the opportunity to lead a congregation, I discovered that though I liked the title and some of the challenges in leading a congregation, my heart was restless and troubled.  Upon prayerful reflection, I learned that I was “over-identifying” with the congregation and tying my personal worth into the successes and missteps of the congregation.  When the congregation felt good, I was good; if the congregation felt down, I was down.

When I stepped into interim ministry I was able to detach these emotional strings that I had created.  As an interim pastor I have a “lighter” touch on the congregation, relying heavily on the lay leadership to guide the congregation.  I am both a consultant who comes from the outside and can observe the current behavior and mission of the congregation while also being a pastor who steps into the community to shepherd them during the interim. As my trainer said, “An interim pastor has one foot in the system and one foot outside the system.” Also my heart is not as restless and my mind is more fully engaged in the community.  I believe that this is my calling from God for this stage of my ministry.

I am thankful that God has provided a variety of gifts within the church.  I am thankful for those pastors, deacons and lay professional who can faithfully serve many years in one congregation, guiding them into deeper levels of vital ministry. I am also thankful for the calling I now have, to guide congregations through the transitions between such settle pastors.  The body of Christ needs all the gifts to be healthy and vibrant.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of services but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but the God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit in everyone.  1 Corinthians 12:4-7

How are you using your spiritual gifts?



My friend, Bob Timmons, wrote an article for the Minneapolis Star Tribune called “Making 2017 a year for microadventure in Minnesota’s outdoors”  He inspired me to consider my own micro-adventure: a two night winter campout at Gooseberry Falls State Park.

Though I have done plenty of summer camping and backpacking, I have never tried winter camping.  Living in a state best known for winter, I had to try.

I started by simply setting up my tent in the backyard to see if two sleeping pads and two sleeping bags would be sufficient.  Also to see if my CPAP machine for sleep apnea would work on battery power.  Though it only dropped to 28 degrees that night, I was warm and the CPAP worked fine.

Next I invited my son and grandson to enjoy an overnight campout at a nearby state park.  I had purchased a new 6 person tent and wanted to test it out prior to the Gooseberry Falls trip.  The weather was fairly warm, about 30 degrees for the night low.  We all fun, so my plan moved forward.


Son Jon and Grandson Jack at William O’Brien State Park

I arrived at Gooseberry Falls State Park on the North Shore of Lake Superior at about 3 pm.  I discovered that the plowed roads had only four campsites; the other campsites were available but I would need to hike through icy snow.  I was the only camper in the park and picked one assessable by car.

My micro-adventure had several lessons to teach me.  All of Minnesota had been experiencing a recent warm spell which melted all the snow in the Twin Cities.  However at Gooseberry Falls there was still some snowpack, but most of it had a thick glaze of ice which made footing treacherous.  There was an open patch for my tent, but the ground was still frozen and my aluminum tent pegs were bending prior to penetrating the soil.  Lesson one: find alternative tent pegs or ways to secure tent.

I brought plenty of clothes with the idea of trying various layers.  My basic down coat and three lower layers all worked well, but my hands were cold much of the first evening.  I was wearing thick gloves but probably should have worn mittens with liner gloves.  Lesson two: explore different glove/mitten options.

gooseberry1It was nearly dark by the time I finished setting up my tent and got a fire going.  My dinner was fairly simply to fix but I hadn’t organized my cooking gear in any reasonable way.  With the light of my headlamp I was able to find the needed items, but only after searching several bags or boxes.  And with heavy gloves the search was more difficult.  Lesson three: organize cook gear prior to leaving home.

The night sky was brilliant with stars; Venus, Orion and the Big Dipper clearly visible.  After enjoying the campfire and a last cup of tea, I climbed into my tent to sleep.  I was not worried about bears (hibernation) and the night was clear so I left several items on the picnic table as I went to bed.   I did bring the water bag into the tent to avoid freezing.

gooseberry2My CPAP machine worked but breathing cold air kept waking me up.  When I climbed out of my sleeping bag at 7:00 am and opened the tent, I was surprised to see three-inches of snow covering all the gear left on the picnic table. Lesson four: put gear away even on a clear night.

I spent the day hiking the trails of Gooseberry falls and taking a few pictures.  The problem remained the patchy glare ice, especially troublesome with the fresh snow covering it.  Though I used my trekking poles and extreme caution, I still fell four or five times during the day.  The austere scenery kept me moving forward.  Lesson five: micro-spikes?


Where the Gooseberry River enters Lake Superior


Gooseberry Falls 


Gooseberry River and Lake Superior in the snow


Lake Superior in Winter Sunlight

The second evening and night were colder, probably 11 degrees, and I thought about nearby warm motels.  But my goals was two nights so I stayed in my tent through the night, got up, made breakfast, packed up and headed home by 9 am.  Thus forty continuous hours outside is my first microadventure of 2017.  What is yours?