Pura Vida

I had just completed seventh grade when my parents took us four kids on our first big trip “out west.” It was my grand introduction to the spirituality of travel. My father constantly encouraged us to “pay attention to everything.” As I observed weather patterns, ever-changing geography, and the variety of plant and animal life, I also began paying attention to the language, dress, culture, and habits of the people in the places we visited. Especially enthralled by Yellowstone, Arches, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Parks, I reveled in the handiwork of God around every corner and always wanted to keep hiking when it was time to turn around. I announced one night that I wanted to be a national park ranger when I grew up.

After my first overseas trip in high school with my church youth group, I realized that if I learned other languages, I could better connect with people around across the globe and celebrate that we are more alike than different. By participating in mission trips at home and abroad, I understood the importance putting my faith into action but also struggled with the danger of inadvertently exploiting the very communities we hoped to help. While studying music in Germany during college, I developed deep friendships and came to embrace a much simpler and meaningful life. This made it extremely difficult to return to our much more consumer oriented society in the US.

Today I strive to travel with humility, prayerfully seeking God in the most unexpected of people, forming relationships with those who speak, dress, live, and worship differently, and challenging myself to see my country and my own life with new eyes. One of my favorite travel quotes is from Maya Angelou, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” 

Gary and I just returned from a vacation in Costa Rica, and I am still reflecting on the spiritual impact of the land and its people. The national motto of Costa Rica is pura vida, which literally means “pure life.” Costa Ricans use this phrase to greet people, convey gratitude, and express the value of living simply. I experienced in Costa Rica a people who enjoy life, are not obsessed about “getting ahead” or competition, and are deeply connected with the land. For a country that is smaller than Lake Michigan and has 4.9 million people, Costa Rica leads the world in ecotourism, environmental imagination, and living in harmony with all of God’s creatures.

  • Costa Rica (CR) is the third “greenest” country in the world after Finland and New Zealand
  • CR contains 5% of the entire world’s biodiversity but only 0.03% of the world’s surface
  • CR uses 99.2% renewable energy, including hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind power; no nuclear, diesel, or coal is used
  • CR has vowed to become the first carbon-neutral country in the world by the year 2020
  • 25% of CR’s land is owned by the government, including 27 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, and many other protected areas that enhance the distinctive and diverse natural habitats found throughout the country.
  • CR is home to10,000 species of plants and trees, 850 indigenous and migratory birds, 205 species of mammals, 35,000 species of insects, and over 1,000 species of fish
  • 10% of the world’s butterflies are in CR

  • 99% of crops in CR are organic; McDonalds is not permitted to import beef or veggies because of the risk of pesticide contamination
  • Children are required to bring recycling items to school
  • CR has not had an army since 1948, when a conscious decision was made to use the money saved for education
  • CR has a government-run universal health care system
  • 98% of Costa Ricans can read and 66% have a university degree.
  • Everybody works, with employment offered to tens of thousands of neighboring Nicaraguans as well

Pura vida is an intentional acknowledgment of Costa Rica’s intimate connection with the environment and each other. As I reflected on my opportunity to visit Costa Rica, I wondered, “How can we recover a sense of pura vida in our country and world? How can we do better?

What will it take for us to realize that we have one precious earth that is shared by 7.5 billion people and countless other living creatures and that it is our human responsibility to care for it? What will it take for the US to have a national health care plan that prioritizes caring for the most vulnerable among us rather than giving tax breaks to the wealthy? What will it take to engage each other in open and honest conversation around issues that threaten to divide us, such as racism, immigration, poverty, world religions, human sexuality, and creation care?

To put it more simply, as people of faith, how can we ensure that all people experience pura vida? What is our responsibility as human beings created in the image of God to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” by embracing and witnessing to pura vida?

In Krista Tippett’s 2015 book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, she interviews Dr. Ellen Davis, with whom she studied the Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School in the 1990’s. In the interview, Davis says that a student approached her one day about how she lectured all the time about care for the “the land.” Davis said, “You can’t go more than a few chapters without seeing some reference to land, water, its lack of health, the absence of fertile soil and water.” Davis realized that in her own travels, she had become more aware of the huge difference between the detailed attention biblical writers give to the land and our obliviousness to the land in the US.

Tippett asked Dr. Davis, “So how do you step back from the Genesis language of subduing and especially ‘dominion’ – what do you see that is not clear in the way we have translated and used this text?”

Davis answered, “The Hebrew word is a strong word, and I render it ‘exercise skilled mastery amongst the creatures.’[i] The notion of skilled mastery suggests something like a craft, an art of being human… But the condition for our exercise of skilled mastery is set by the prior blessing, in previous verses, of the creatures of sea and sky. They too are to be fruitful and multiply.” Pura vida.

Why is travel a spiritual act? Because it reminds me that, as an American and a citizen of God’s world, I can do better in my attempt to live a pura vida that respects the diversity of all living creatures. Because by connecting with and learning from people who are not like me, I am a more responsible world citizen who acknowledges the impact that my decisions can have on people across the globe. Because humbly embodying the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit has a difference-maker effect on others and our earth. Because travel enlarges our borders and draws the circle wider than it was before.

Mark Twain writes in The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” 
I really did want to be a park ranger, but God evidently had other plans. God wants to use each one of us to exercise skilled mastery and work for the day when the natural world, its human citizens, and every living creature experience a pura vida that embraces our common humanity. Wherever our travels lead us, may we be open to life-changing surprise, build understanding, and develop empathy for the millions of people the world over who attempt to live on far less than they need for a pura vida. May we always celebrate the amazing variety that is “us.”

[i] Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise; An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, New York, Penguin Press, 2016, pp. 37-39

Flourishing in Ministry

Last Friday I went for an early morning run at Centennial Park in Nashville. I was attending a three-day meeting sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to brainstorm ideas around the implementation of the new eight-year assessment of clergy that was approved by the 2016 General Conference.

It was a glorious morning, and I planned to run four laps around a one-mile loop through the park. After mile three, I decided to change it up by going in the opposite direction. There was just one problem. I was enjoying wasting time with Jesus and anticipating how God would speak to me that day, but I wasn’t paying attention to anything else!

Ten minutes later, I realized that I had veered from the marked trail. I had no idea where I was in the complex of paths that crisscrossed the park. After five minutes of running aimlessly and trying to find my way, I finally pulled out my phone and googled directions back to the hotel.

This week, hundreds of United Methodist clergy all over the United States are moving and settling into new homes and communities, anticipating a July 1 start date in their new ministry setting. As with any job, getting off to the right start is essential for pastors and congregations. Just as the failure to pay attention to my surroundings when running in a different direction got me lost, so clergy must be intentional and strategic in their first ninety days in order to flourish in their new ministry.

In Iowa, our appointive cabinet desires to increase the number of missionally effective appointments in order to fulfill our conference vision to be God’s hope for the world made real through faithful leadership, fruitful communities, and fire-filled people. One way in which we are doing that is by requiring all clergy moving to new appointments and all Staff/Pastor Parish Relations Committees who are receiving new clergy to participate in an Expectations Workshop. In addition, district superintendents will meet again with clergy and SPRC Committees three to four months into a new appointment to evaluate how those expectations are being lived out.

In our work last week on the eight-year assessment, we heard a report from Matt Bloom, Principle Investigator, and writer for the Flourishing in Ministry Project; Emerging Research Insights on the Well-Being of Pastors. The 2013 project, which is ongoing, is sponsored by the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. According to Bloom’s research, flourishing in ministry, as well as in most professions, means to experience well-being, which consists of everyday happiness, resilience, self-integrity, and thriving.

Everyday Happiness

Everyday happiness measures the extent to which you and I experience positive emotions during the course of a day. By contrast, unhappiness can be viewed as the presence of negative moods and emotions. The average working adult in the US experiences a “modestly happy” morning until the commute to work, when there is a dip. There is a spike in happiness at lunch and again when the work day is over. The clergy everyday happiness profile is slightly different because of a fluid and often unpredictable schedule and many night meetings. Bloom and his team’s research into young clergy in their first seven years also shows that there are higher highs and lower lows for clergy compared to other professions.

In general, sustained everyday happiness results in more positive than negative days and is associated with better physical health: i.e. stronger immune systems and cardiovascular systems and better stress responses. We also perform better and are more creative.

  • How can church leaders work together with clergy to manage their schedules at the start of their ministry in order to maximize their everyday happiness?

Resilience

Resilience is the ability to adapt and grow in our capacity for spiritual vitality and skill development. Our brains are hard-wired for self-awareness, reflection, and self-control. However, many clergy tend to live outside our bodies and do not listen to the signals that our bodies give us to slow down, relax, sleep, or call it a day.

When our self-regulating capacity declines, burnout builds over time. Burnout implies physical, emotional, and/or mental exhaustion, reduced adaptability and competency, and apathy, depression, or cynicism. Resilience can be especially elusive for clergy because of our tendency to think we cannot be truly happy as long as there is suffering in the world. How can we take time for our own well-being when there are so many people to serve?

Interviews of seven thousand clergy of different denominations through the Flourishing in Ministry Project indicate that 40% are experiencing some level of flourishing. However, at any one time, 25-33% of clergy are suffering from high or severe burnout.

  • How can clergy form new patterns and habits that foster health and well-being, especially at the beginning of new appointments?

Self-integrity

The Flourishing in Ministry Project shows that a clear sense of call and identity contributes to the well-being of clergy. Clergy who are comfortable in their own skin and pastor out of a deep sense of inner wholeness tend to flourish more than clergy who continually question their call because of a lack of confidence or continual conflict.

Clergy are most able to be authentic and self-integrated when their skills, values, beliefs, and passions align with their context and they are affirmed in their particular ministry setting. By contrast, clergy who are not fully welcomed into a new congregation or are not able to fulfill the unwritten and unexpressed expectations of laity become more easily estranged from their own call.

  • How can clergy and church leaders intentionally work together to build relationships, create trust, and provide opportunities for congregations to get to know their pastoral leaders in the first three months?

Thriving

Clergy tend to thrive in their ministry settings when they feel connected with their congregation in meaningful ways. The Flourishing in Ministry Project indicates that clergy have the highest well-being when they are accepted, affirmed, and cared for by their congregation. Despite common perception, clergy are more effective when they have a close friend(s) in the congregation who can provide rich feedback and informal mentoring and with whom they are able to be vulnerable. On the other hand, clergy often feel like outsiders and are isolated when they are not made to feel part of the community. In addition, clergy thrive when they are able to express deep convictions and passions in a sensitive and non-threatening way, even when not all parishioners might agree with them.

  • When receiving a new pastor, can church members embrace the fullness of their pastor’s being, including the pastor’s need for friendship as well as becoming involved in ministries that feed their soul?

O God, during this time when clergy are beginning new ministries in local congregations, may you surround both clergy and laity with a sense of anticipation, hope, and grace. I pray that all clergy will pay special attention to how they can get off to good start, which includes tending to their physical, spiritual, emotional, and relational well-being.

I also pray that through the every eight-year assessment, which is in the beginning stages, our clergy will be encouraged to flourish by pausing periodically, taking a deep breath, and asking, “Who am I? Am I still running in the right direction? Am I paying attention to where God is leading me? How can I keep growing, flourishing, and adapting to new ways of ministry? Who will walk with me on that journey?”

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1b

P.S. I will be on vacation on July 2 and 9. The next Leading From the Heart will be published on July 16.

Enough

In early 1994, I saw the movie Schindler’s List, which is based on a true story and had a profound effect upon my life. Oskar Schindler is a German businessman who travels to Krakow, Poland in 1939 to make his fortune from World War 2. Schindler joins the Nazi party to help his career and staffs his factory with Jewish workers for economic reasons. An opportunist, Schindler manages to protect his Jewish workers … and his profits. Eventually, however, Schindler realizes that he is actually saving their lives.

 

Oskar Schindler literally saves the lives of 1,100 Jews from being gassed at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. At the end of the movie, Schindler is given a ring in front of all his workers as a sign of their gratitude. The man presenting the ring to Schindler says about the ring’s inscription, “It’s Hebrew from the Talmud. It says, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

In the movie, when Schindler realizes the extent of the Nazi extermination of Jews and what he has done to protect his workers, he breaks down and weeps. “I could have got more. I could have got more. If I just … I could have got more.”

“1,100 more people are alive because of you,” the man responds.

“If I made more money… I threw away so much money.” Sobbing, Schindler continues, “You have no idea… If I just …”

“Generations will remember…”

“I didn’t do enough…”

“You did so much.”

“This car. Why did I keep the car? That’s ten people right there… Ten people. Ten more people. This pin is two people. This is gold. Two more people. It would have given more two more, one at least. For this I could have gotten one more person and I didn’t… And I didn’t.”

I thought of Schindler’s List as we neared the end of the Iowa Annual Conference and were trying to fit in everything that was on our agenda. Could we have done more? Was the offering to God of our commitment to be difference makers enough? Whose report was left out? What words were left unsaid? How could we have done better? Was annual conference enough?

I have struggled my entire life with enough because God’s claim on me has been so strong. How can I rest when people are hungry? How can I say “no” when people in my church are counting on me? How can I stop when the to-do list never ends? I could have done more. When is enough? What is enough, anyway?

 

At the conclusion of Annual Conference on June 12, I shared with the body these words, which could apply to many different settings. “We have done enough. Over the last several days, we have worshipped, prayed, ordained, served, taken offerings, hugged, debated, voted, laughed, cried… and now we are done. We pray that we have been difference makers at this annual conference. We pray that the fruit we bear when we leave here and the crosses we bear when we go back to our communities as servants will honor and glorify God. Yet there is often the nagging sense that it is not enough.

“Reinhold Niebuhr writes in his book, The Irony of American History,
Nothing that is worth doing is achieved in our lifetime;
therefore, we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense
In any immediate context of history.
Therefore, we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however, virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
Therefore, we are saved by love.

“We can’t always get everything right. No one is perfect. Sometimes, despite our best intentions and efforts, the right result doesn’t always happen. You know that because Iowa is a farming state. Farmers are extraordinarily vulnerable every year. No matter how carefully you sow, fertilize, or watch over your crops, all it takes is one terrible weather event, and you can lose it all. My first congregation in Michigan was a bunch of cherry farmers, and I’ve witnessed firsthand losing an entire year’s crop in one night of a hard freeze.

“Wayne Muller writes in his book, A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough, ‘We cannot control what will happen to the seeds we sow, the words we speak, the actions we take. We can only be as honorable, truthful, and compassionate as we are able. The moment we try to control what does or does not happen, we are left in a lingering state of insufficiency, wondering what more we could, should, have done to make it all come out right…’

“We have done what we could at this annual conference. We voted on constitutional amendments. We have tightened up our rules of order. We have a new vision statement. We are God’s hope for the world made real through faithful leaders, fruitful communities, and fire-filled people. And we have a new mission: inspiring, equipping, and connecting communities of faith to cultivate world-changing disciples of Jesus Christ for our conference. We have been inspired. We have committed to bearing fruit and bearing the cross.   

“As we leave this sacred place, in Wayne Muller’s words, ‘Our work is on ourselves, to be clearly certain we have listened, seen, felt in ourselves what, in this moment, is required. Then, forces far greater than ourselves, will have their way with whatever we plant, build, grow, or create. This, then, is our work and our challenge: to do what we can and have mercy.’”

 

I long for the day when all of God’s children will not only believe that they have done enough but will also know that they are enough.

I pray for the day when you and I know that we not only have enough for ourselves but we have more than enough to share with others.

I yearn for the day when no one will ever say to another person, “You are not good enough, smart enough, athletic enough, capable enough, or tough enough.”

I dream for the day when loving and being loved, showing grace and being shown grace, is all that we need to make a positive difference in the world. Yes, we could have done more, but God invites us to be content with enough.

  • Enough: to smile
  • Enough: to do what we can and have mercy
  • Enough: to risk loving extravagantly
  • Enough: to do the right thing today and not worry about tomorrow
  • Enough: to reach out across the divide and join hands with our neighbor
  • Enough: a hug, a phone call, a visit, a letter
  • Enough: “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided; Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”
  • Enough: a candle burning in the night, guiding us through the darkness on our life’s journey

Oskar Schindler spent millions of dollars to save his Jewish workers and died penniless … with enough. Today thousands of descendants of Schindler’s Jews are living in Europe, the US, and Israel. We are not saved by doing, getting, or serving enough. We are saved by faith, hope, and love. Each step we take toward someone else, each word that shows grace, each act of kindness … is enough.