Connection is What Counts

Last week I wrote about our nephew’s wedding in Philadelphia. It was a wonderful celebration of reconnection with relatives whom we have rarely seen since living in Iowa for the past six years. After Jack and Danielle were whisked away on their honeymoon, many of our family took the Amtrak train from Philly to New York City on Sunday for another five days of delightful sightseeing and conversation. Walking through Central Park and window shopping on 5th Avenue reminded me of times spent as a child occasionally accompanying my father on business trips to the Big Apple.   

We started out on Monday walking the High Line Trail. This is a High Line-Elevated New York City Park Rail Trail that offers spectacular views of the city. Because our group included our 7-year-old grandson, River, as well as those in their 80’s, we took our time and looked out for each other. The street art and wall murals were most creative and delightful.     

Visiting One World Trade Center, with its spectacular 360 views, reminded me that I was, indeed, no longer in the cornfields of Iowa but rather in one of the grandest cities of our world. Our son, Garth, was kind enough to circle the building in which he works in Manhattan! I have always found it difficult to tolerate big cities because I easily become overwhelmed with the noise, traffic, smells, pollution, and sheer number of people. One of my favorite moments in NYC was walking with Garth and his fiancée Lillie through Prospect Park in Brooklyn with their dog Atari. Never have I seen hundreds of dogs in one park having the time of their life playing with each other! 

A highlight of the Big Apple for our extended family was the opportunity to see three Broadway shows. Monday was the Christmas Spectacular starring the Radio City Rockettes. What fun!  

Tuesday was Disney: The Lion King, which debuted on Broadway twenty-five years ago and has been seen by 110 million audience members across the world. Beginning with dancers costumed as birds and zebras twirling around a magical enchanting forest, the show is about a young lion cub named Simba, who idolizes his father, King Mufasa, and is eager for his own royal destiny.  

For many years, especially since a 1994 version of the movie and a recent remake, The Lion King has taught children lessons about the circle of life (the most popular song in the show), following your dreams, and learning from mistakes. Hakuna Matata! 

On Wednesday, we saw The Music Man, which originally opened in 1957.  It ran for 1,375 performances and won the 1958 Tony Award for Best Musical while Robert Preston won Best Lead Actor in a Musical as con man Harold Hill, who arrives in River City, Iowa, in the summer of 1912.  

The movie version was released in 1962, and I distinctly remember my enchantment with the movie when I saw it for the first time as a child. Of course, living in Pennsylvania at the time, I had no idea that sixty years later, I myself would be living in Iowa, the home of The Music Man’s “River City,” which was based upon Mason City, Iowa.  

After these fabulous experiences, our extended family took the train back to Philadelphia last Thursday and rented a 15-passenger van to take us to my home territory in Montgomery County in southeastern PA. I lived my early life on the outskirts of Souderton, a small town of 7,100 people. This is the home in which I grew up since the sixth grade, and relatives and family members still live in the area. 

I was thrilled with the opportunity to see my old haunts and know that, even with the Philadelphia suburbs creeping outward and Souderton only being 25 miles away from Philly, there is still a small-town Pennsylvania Dutch feel of connection. Here’s what I noticed: 

  • Many people drive in from “the country” to Philly for work.  
  • It’s still common to see “Old Mennonites” wearing their prayer caps and plain dresses. 
  • Much of the area still consists of hilly, narrow roads, but there are also new, widened roads to accommodate an increasing population. 
  • I couldn’t resist pulling into the driveway of our old house, built in 1965, when I was in 6th grade. 
  • As far as I could tell, the turkey farm is still across from our house, but there is also a new paved walking trail along the road. 
  • Whenever we return to PA, we visit Asher’s Chocolate Company in Souderton, which has been in existence since 1892.    
  • We also visited Landis Grocery Store in nearby Telford, which has all the Pennsylvania Dutch foods, baked goods, and candy that we crave. 

Most of all, I was delighted to be with my two brothers and my sister, Jenny, whose birthday is Nov. 26, one day after mine. I’m especially grateful to Jenny, who arranged for our four families and others to gather.    

The greatest gift of human life is connection with one another. On Thanksgiving Day, we remembered the legacy of our wonderful parents and vowed to remain connected with God and one another as disciples of Jesus Christ.      

Connection: a wedding; exploring New York City; enjoying musicals; buying chocolate; telling stories; reminiscing; romping with a dog; joyfully accepting our responsibility to live out our faith and make a difference in our world. That’s what counts. Thanks be to God!   

The Bell of Liberty and the Joy of Celebration

Last Thursday, Gary and I got up at 4 a.m. in order to make a 6:15 a.m. flight from Des Moines to Detroit and on to Philadelphia. Gary’s nephew was getting married on Sunday, and our extended family was very excited about being together since the wedding had to be postponed for more than two years because of COVID.  

Being back in my home territory was especially wonderful, having grown up just thirty miles northwest of Philadelphia in southeast Pennsylvania. Mind you, this is also Pennsylvania Dutch country. It’s a land rich in the Mennonite heritage in which I was raised, with iconic foods such as tomato pie, butterscotch Krimpets, Tastykakes, Philly cheesesteak, hoagies, soft pretzels, Scrapple, and Pork Roll.

One of the first things we did was visit the Liberty Bell on Independence Mall. Meditating upon this iconic symbol of freedom, I was reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “Let freedom ring. Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” and “No one is free until we are all free.” I started to weep, realizing how deeply grateful I am to live in the US where we are free to live, serve, live, and reach out to the huddled masses yearning to be free.

The Liberty Bell became of major importance when abolitionists adopted it as a symbol as they attempted to end slavery throughout America. Since the Liberty Bell was created to commemorate the golden anniversary of William Penn’s 1751 Charter of Privileges, the words inscribed on the bell “Proclaim freedom throughout all the land” (Leviticus 25:10) are particularly apt. The abolitionists were the ones who gave it the name “Liberty Bell,” in reference to this inscription. It was previously called simply the “State House Bell.”

It is a tradition every year on the Fourth of July, at 2 pm Eastern time, for the children of all families who are descendants of the Declaration of Independence signers to gather to symbolically tap the Liberty Bell thirteen times. At the same time, bells across the country ring thirteen times to honor the patriots from the original thirteen states. In addition, the bell is gently tapped every year in honor of Martin Luther King Day. This ceremony was initiated in 1986 at the request of Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King.

I was not prepared for the deep emotions that surfaced as I simply stood in the presence of the Liberty Bell, gave thanks to God for the freedom we have in the United States, and renewed my commitment as a disciple of Jesus Christ and a United Methodist to accept the freedom and power God gives all of us to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression.”

We had the opportunity to see other sights in Philadelphia as well, including the Reading Terminal Market, which opened in 1893. As William Penn and his associates began the town of Philadelphia, they gathered fishermen, hunters, and farmers, who were selling their goods along the Delaware River. Today the Reading Terminal is considered one of the finest public markets in the US, with more than eighty merchants selling fresh produce, meats, fish, groceries, flowers, baked goods, crafts, books, clothing, and hard-to-find specialties and ethnic foods. Gary and I had a great time taking our grandsons to the Reading Terminal, where they were so awestruck they didn’t know where to even begin choosing what foods to try!   

In addition to learning more about our heritage as a nation, we also prepared for a wedding. Gary’s nephew Jack Haller was married to Danielle Fanelle on November 19. What joy it was to gather with several hundred people to celebrate Jack and Danielle’s love for each other and their desire to make a difference in the world. 

Gary co-officiated at the wedding with John Fanelle, Danielle’s uncle and a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church. What a blessing to not only have our own extended family be present but also to be graced by the hospitality of the Fanelle family. 

Eternal God, Creator and Preserver of all life,
Author of salvation, Giver of all grace:
Bless and sanctify with your Holy Spirit
Danielle and Jack, who come now to join in marriage.
Grant that they may give their vows to each other
in the strength of your steadfast love.
Enable them to grow in love and peace
with you and with one another all their days,
that they may reach out
in concern and service to the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 
 

This Thanksgiving, I’ve had time to reflect on the many blessings of my life, and I would encourage you to do so as well. Thanks be to God for the gift of family, the joy of celebration, and the bell of liberty. 

The Great Letting Go (Corrected)

The Great Letting Go

Posted on  by Laurie Haller

Originally published October 10, 2020 

Today’s blog, The Great Letting Go, describes the times in our own lives when God invites us to let go of our fears, uncertainty, and doubt in order to live more fully and joyfully. The blog has more personal meaning today than it did two years ago when it was first published. As I prepare to retire after forty-one years of ministry, the Holy Spirit is nudging me to begin The Great Letting Go, knowing that new adventures, opportunities, and possibilities lie ahead. 

“What’s your favorite time of year?” I asked a friend as we were walking. 

“Fall. I love this time of year! The leaves are changing, it’s getting colder, and the days are growing shorter. I really like the clouds and darkness of fall and winter.” 

“I’m just the opposite,” I said. “I dislike fall and always have. I love light and sun, and after the time changes and it gets dark so early, it’s depressing. Besides, fall was always the time when school started, and as a kid I never wanted to give up the freedom and joy of being outside playing all day. Summer has always been my favorite season, and I never want it to end.”   

But there’s more to it. A few years ago, I finally realized why fall is challenging for me. Fall is a time of change and movement, and I often struggle with transitions. During the summer, nature explodes with light, energy, warmth, growth, and fruitfulness. Fall, by contrast, is the time when crops have been harvested, fields are plowed under, leaves fall to the ground, and the earth becomes fallow. Wood is chopped, silos are filled, warm clothes come out, storm windows replace screens, and we anticipate hunkering down for the winter. What has been given in such abundance is now taken away. 

No wonder I am wary of fall. I don’t want to let go of summer, contemplate six months of darkness and isolation, and be forced inside my house, let alone inside my heart, where God waits to teach me patience, hope, and the value of rest and growth.

On my daily walks, I check out a maple tree that is in the process of letting go of its leaves. Those that have already made their way to the ground are red, yellow, green, and orange. These leaves reflect not only the progression of fall but the letting go that characterizes the spiritual life. I confess that I am not ready to yield fully to God. I want to live life on my own terms and remain green forever. At the same time, I yearn to align myself with the fullness of life that God offers. I grudgingly allow myself to turn partly orange but keep one foot firmly planted in the life I desire.   

I remember John 12:24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” As I prepare to die to all that prevents me from becoming who God created me to be, I turn a brilliant red, offering myself completely to God’s cycle of life and death. My color is a witness to the obedience and trust that guide my life’s journey. “The summer ends, and it is time to face another way.” (Wendell Berry, Fourth Sabbath Poem, 1984) 

The earth prepares with me. Squirrels hoard acorns. The coats of animals thicken. Deer are active through the winter, their digestive systems adapting to a changed diet. Bears gorge themselves as they anticipate the long rest of hibernation. Birds head south, finding their way together. Carved pumpkin faces delight. Children roll in the leaves.    

Of course, the word “fall” does not come from a bed of leaves but from the sun. The amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface determines the change of seasons. As the earth slowly falls away from the sun, the intensity of light lessens. The light then “springs” back in six months. 

Finally, there is The Great Letting Go, and I fall, playfully giving myself over to the ground where I lie, waiting to be transformed and ultimately reborn in due season. The losing of my life: surrender, emptiness, melancholy.

From left to right: Bishop Lanette Plambeck, Bishop Laurie Haller, and Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai.

Letting go of possessions, children, perfection, youth, dreams, productivity, relationships, addictions, anger, and old ways of thinking. Completeness in nature. It’s done for the season. 

Waiting.   

Gather it in and wait.

Wait for the cold. 

Wait for restoration. 

Wait for hope.   

The ebb and flow of life… the spirituality of fall. 

All things pass away. 

Completely free, I am able to see myself and God more clearly. I recite Psalm 8, which I memorized during Disciple Bible Study many years ago. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”     

 I can’t tear my eyes away from the heavens, claiming the beauty and gifts of the darkness in my own life. “I will love the light, for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness, for it shows me the stars.” (Og Mandino) 

As I walk, I wonder and ponder, eyes and ears open to God’s leading. I ask the hard questions. What do I need to let go of in order for Jesus to fill me up again? Disappointment, bitterness, fear, hopelessness, helplessness? 

In the midst of the pervasive impact of COVID-19; our struggles around racism; the health of our local churches; severe drought conditions that deeply affected Iowa’s farm economy; and fears around the future of our beloved United Methodist Church, there is a great letting go.

The Haller’s new home in Michigan.
  • A hawk glides through the sky. I, too, yearn to fly free.   
  • As wind whistles through the trees, so I long to follow the wind of the Holy Spirit. 
  • I rejoice in the warmth of the fall sun, knowing that those precious days are already giving way to the coldness and darkness of winter. 
  • Just as the clear water reflects my own image back to me, so I long to reflect God’s grace back to others. 
  • I long for the faith of trees firmly rooted in the earth, trees that trust God enough to offer their leaves to death, believing in the new life that will return in the spring.   
  • I long for Jesus to carry me through periods of dormancy, knowing that God can work through me even when I cannot see it. 
  • I long to be nimble as the white-tailed deer bounding through the forest, always ready to go where God calls. 
  • I long to clear out the undergrowth weighing down my spirit so that I can see and smell the flowers that still hang on to life. 
  • I long for the drops of dew that are my tears to be a source of healing and hope for others. 
  •  I long to say goodbye to what no longer matters rather than cling to what I do not need. 
  • I long to respond to the persistent call, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  (Isaiah 43:1b)  

Like nature, I am dying to live.  The Great Letting Go.