What is Saving Your Life Right Now?

As the four of us sat down for an extended lunch recently, one of my friends asked, “What is saving your life right now?” We sighed, laughed, and began to reflect, all of us United Methodist clergywomen. We didn’t bother trying to unpack what the question meant because we instinctively knew.

What is it that keeps you going during this uncertain time in our denomination, country, and world? How can we live fully when others are living in fear, refugee families are desperate to find safety, friends are reduced to poverty because of medical debt, and racial/ethnic tensions continue to simmer? What does Jesus mean in Matthew 16:25 when he says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

What is saving my life? Let me count the ways.

  • Visiting the Detroit Zoo with my three friends on a spring-like February day and running into a former church member, who was carrying on his back a six-year-old Syrian refugee boy sponsored by the church. What joy was on his face!
  • Hearing about a church that made several hundred paper hearts for Valentine’s Day and delivered them to a nearby Muslim congregation.
  • Celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah with our Christian family and our son-in-law’s Jewish family. Talking about how we are all obligated to advocate for those who are on the margins, for we rise and fall together.

  • Reading books that deepen my faith, challenge my mind, and inspire me to make a difference: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, and A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough by Wayne Muller
  • Meeting with various groups in my travels who are asking, “How can we be people of faith in the times in which we live, especially when our own families are divided?”
  • Spending time with United Methodist college students who are grateful for a safe place to explore their faith and do not hesitate to make their voice heard.
  • Walking through a botanical garden and marveling at the variety of God’s world, including the sausage tree, which is sacred to many communities.

  • Observing how people are learning to dialogue about difficult issues in ways that are not defensive, accusatory or mean but rather honor others.
  • Driving across Iowa on I-80 and listening to the splendid symphonies and symphonic dances of Sergei Rachmaninoff.
  • Discussing theology with my new six-year-old friend Kinnick from Council Bluffs, who asked what a bishop is and then prayed for me in worship the next day.

What is saving my life?

  • Celebrating the lives of two dear friends who died recently. Dorothy Wimmer, who died on her 90th birthday, sent more encouraging cards and notes to me over the past twenty-four years than anyone else. And Helene Hill, a deaconess in The United Methodist Church, was a prophet and leader in the area of social justice for the very least of God’s children. If only I could be more like Dorothy and Helene.
  • Reveling in the sweet song of a cardinal in a tree.
  • The wonder and innocence of small children.

  • Appointive cabinets across the country working prayerfully, strategically, and fruitfully to make clergy appointments.
  • Clergy giving themselves fully to ministry, yet also intentionally caring for their own physical, mental, and spiritual health.
  • Those who believe that the church is a big, big tent where there is room for all of us to live in peace, follow our passions, and change the world together.
  • A flower poking up through the ground in February.

  • Reading Exodus 3 and reminding myself that the God who self-identified as “I am who I am,” is also the One who will always be there for you and me.
  • Late night comedy shows that remind me it’s okay to lighten up once in a while.
  • Dear souls who pray for me and make sure I get where I am supposed to be.

What is saving my life?

  • Interacting with people who are bent over by the pain of the world but at the same time stand tall and reach out to others in need.
  • Welcoming to our churches those who are openly skeptical but have found a sanctuary where they can explore who God is and who they are called to become.
  • A husband and children who love me as I am and are doing their part to change the world.
  • Watching ordinary people do extraordinary things through the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • An Iowa sunrise from a different perspective

  • Children of God who are hungry to learn, grow, and serve.
  • Stimulating interfaith conversations with Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists, confirming that we humans are more alike than we are different.
  • Saying “I’m sorry” and receiving grace.
  • After Meals on Wheels was in the news last week, remembering my mother, who served Meals on Wheels for many years and modeled for me the importance of using our time and gifts to make a difference in the lives of others.
  • Saving my life by losing it, and losing my life in order to find it.

What is saving your life right now?


Only the Cross Survived

March 13, 2017

It was the largest pipe organ in Iowa. This glorious Casavant organ, with four manuals, 94 ranks, and 5,122 pipes, was dedicated on April 29, 1984 at Wesley United Methodist Church in Muscatine, Iowa. The congregation was eager for me to visit their church and try out the organ. Now it lies in ruins.

Last Monday night, severe weather battered the state of Iowa, spawning high winds, hail, intense rain, and tornadoes. Clocks indicate that at 10:10 p.m. the electricity went out at Wesley UMC. 115 mile winds ripped through the town, with a tornado headed right toward the church. In the blink of an eye, the roof at the front of the sanctuary was torn off and the organ was completely destroyed, with woodwork and hundreds of pipes collapsed onto the floor, twisted, bent, and shattered. In addition, the adjacent Family Life Center had a huge in its roof.

Miraculously, the only thing left untouched at the front of the sanctuary was the cross, hanging by a few chains from the ceiling. On Tuesday afternoon, I was able to visit Wesley UMC and talk with pastor Bruce Ursin, his wife Susan, organist Sally Potter, and Director of Media Ministries, Katie Roquet.

My first reaction was visceral, coming from deep in my heart. How could this be? What kind of power could throw around 5,122 organ pipes and leave them in a twisted heap? I felt a mixture of awe to find a jewel of a pipe organ in a town like Muscatine, grief at the devastation, and gratitude that most of the rest of the church was intact. Jesus, keep me near the cross.

After shedding a few tears, I simply walked around the sanctuary, examining the damage and meditating upon the magnificent and irreplaceable stained glass windows that were spared. The Wesley United Methodist Church building was constructed in 1912, and the sanctuary is gorgeous. The original Skinner pipe organ lasted for seventy-one years, when it finally needed to be replaced.

The Organ Committee retained Robert Scoggin as their organ consultant and recitalist for the dedication. Not only was Scoggin an outstanding organist who studied with my organ teacher, Robert Baker, but he was also a United Methodist elder. Scoggin traveled the country, visiting organs constructed by contemporary builders and discerning how the new organ in Muscatine could lead and enhance worship, function as a concert instrument, and also serve the musical needs of the community.

Pipe organ construction is extremely complex, sensitive, and expensive. This organ was made possible by the Jackson Trust. Robert S. Jackson, a Muscatine attorney, church member, and music lover, died in 1979 and left a major portion of his estate to the church to be used for the music program, including a new organ.

There is also a Jackson concert series. According to the church website, “From the first concert by soprano, Louise Russell, in 1981, the Jackson Concert Series continues to present musical concerts by artists of distinction. Over the years we have been privileged to provide the community with concerts by Roger Williams, Bobby McFerrin, The Four Freshmen, Jerry Hadley (20th anniversary of the series), Marvin Hamlisch (25th anniversary), Simon Estes, many great organists, and also some of the most celebrated jazz bands and vocalists. The series is varied and has something for everyone – from the opera buff to the jazz aficionado to the child in all of us. To date we have presented over 175 artists free of charge to our community.” How incredible is that for a town of 23,000 people?

As one who devoted ten years of my life to playing the organ, I was utterly amazed at the story. I have no doubt that the Jackson organ will be rebuilt and will continue to glorify God again. Yet, there is much more going on here. God is already at work, transforming hearts and lives through the witness of Wesley UMC. In the cross of Christ I glory.

The very day after the storm, church leaders made a decision to become the communications hub for storm damage in the Muscatine area. Their website, wesleyonline.org, is a clearing house for information about the storm. Is it any wonder when you read their mission statement on the home page, “Transforming lives through hands-on ministry with children and families in need.” And their vision is, “Growing together in Christ, reaching out in love.” After all, the organ is at the heart of Wesley UMC, and the congregation, as the largest church in town, is at the center of the community.

The church is used for school concerts and other community events. Director of Media Ministries, Katie Roquet, explained that so many people have stepped forward and offered to help the church in any way they can. Yet Pastor Bruce and church members want to use this tragedy to share Christ’s love, encourage each other, and reach out to others whose homes or businesses were damaged by coordinating volunteers. Wesley UMC refuses to lament and instead seeks to look outward and make a difference in the community. In that old rugged cross … a wondrous beauty I see.

Wesley UMC’s Presbyterian neighbors have invited them to worship with their congregation until they are able to be back in the sanctuary. In fact, the Presbyterian pastor called Bruce at midnight on Monday, shortly after the tornado, saying, “We’re with you. We’d love you to worship with us as long as you want.”

Sally Potter has been the organist for decades, and Pastor Bruce is a skilled, spirit-filled pastor. The discipleship pathway of the congregation includes connection, growth, serving, and missions, which is why Wesley UMC has a partnership with Franklin Elementary School. The children at the school sent a banner and messages of love and support to the church last week, with one 2ndgrader writing, “I feel so very sorry about the tornado, but want you guys to know that I love you. I drew you a rainbow so you wouldn’t feel sad.” In the Cross of Christ I Glory.

What a witness Wesley UMC is making! It’s all because the cross is at the center of this church’s existence. Is it any coincidence that, after the massive destruction of the chancel and the organ, the cross was unscathed? The cross, symbolizing Christ’s self-giving sacrifice, reminding us that no matter what happens, God is with us, strengthening us to reach out to our world in love.

Last week organist Sally gave me a copy of the 1984 dedication service for the new Casavant organ. As part of the dedication, the congregation read these words, “We dedicate this organ to the healing of life’s discords, and the revealing of the hidden soul of harmony, to the lifting of the depressed and the comforting of the sorrowing, to the humbling of the heart before the eternal mysteries, and to the lifting of the soul to abiding beauty and joy, through the gospel of infinite love and good will.” Lift High the Cross!

Wesley UMC, I can’t wait to see what your new organ will look like! And, yes, as I promised last week and, God willing, I will play a piece at the dedication of the organ, all to the glory of God.








The Times They Are a-Changin’

In the Northeast District of The Iowa Annual Conference, there is a tiny church called Oran United Methodist Church. When I first heard about the church last fall, there were just two members at Oran, Dorothy and Mildred, who are in their 80’s. They faithfully attended church every Sunday, and Fred and Sue had been leading worship for the past four years.

The church was slated to close in 2011 because of the decline. Of the four remaining members, two wanted to close and Dorothy and Mildred wanted to remain open, even though there was no running water in the church building. When it was too cold or snowy, they worshipped in town at Fred and Sue’s home. In 2015, Oran UMC celebrated its 100th anniversary, with seven people in attendance. They were very happy to receive a 100th anniversary certificate from the conference.

Rev. Jackie Bradford, Superintendent of the Northeast District, didn’t have the heart to shut the doors. After all, Dorothy and Mildred took care of all the bills for the church, covered 100% of their apportionments, paid their pastor, and gave to missions. And they were evangelists, too! Last summer at the Oran town festival, Dorothy and Alice passed out water bottles and a little wooden knick-knack with the name of the church on it.

All I could do is marvel. Two faithful women gathering to worship and serve. I suspect they just wanted to keep going until they die so that their funerals could be held in their beloved church building. Where two or three are gathered, right? But are lives being changed? Is the gospel being shared? Is any kind of vision being realized? Is it really a church if we are no longer able or willing to see our communities with new eyes and reach them with Christ’s love? There are not always easy answers.

Life is a continual process of beginnings and endings, sowing and reaping, taking hold and letting go, life and death. In the past several months, I have been astounded by the number of businesses and organizations that are downsizing, shifting, reinventing themselves, or just plain closing. The times they are a-changin’!

Come gather round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone,
For the times they are a-changin’.
                  Bob Dylan, 1964

It began with the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which announced in December that the company was going to close by May of 2017. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Whitechapel is the oldest manufacturing company in Britain, having opened in 1570 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Big Ben in London is the most famous Whitechapel bell ever cast, with the 1752 Liberty Bell in Philadelphia a close second. The ringing of church bells in communities around the world has always been a witness to God’s presence and love, but the times, they are a-changin’!

But, that’s just the beginning. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus announced on January 14 that after 146 years in business, they are going to close in May. The reason: declining tickets sales, high operating costs, and retiring its elephant act last year because of a suit brought by animal rights activists. The Greatest Show on Earth is coming to an end.

There’s more. As the new year began, a seeming avalanche of retailers announced plans to close stores in light of the changing shopping habits of young people and falling sales. J.C. Penny will close 130-140 stores this year, which is 13-14% of its locations. Macy’s is closing 100 or 15% of its stores, and Sears is closing 30 stores by April.

The mall anchor store closings are creating a ripple effect. CVS is closing stores in 70 locations. In January, The Limited closed all 250 of its stores, and Wet Seal closed all 171 stores. BCBG is closing 120 stores and filed for bankruptcy on March 1 for the third time in two years.

None of these businesses wanted to close or downsize, but they realized that the times, they are a-changin’. Of course, faith-based organizations are not exempt from necessary endings, either. On February 23, Family Christian Stores, which has claimed to be “the world’s largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise,” announced that it will be closing all 240 stores in 36 states. The reasons are familiar: “changing consumer behavior and declining sales.” Three thousand employees will be affected.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

Of course, the church has not escaped the changing times, either. Over the past ten years the number of United Methodist churches that are closing has accelerated. Most congregations, like all human beings, come to an end. There is a lifecycle to a church, and when a congregation begins to decline and is not able to reinvent itself and start a new lifecycle, it will die.

The pace of change in our world is so fast today that many of our churches are simply not able to or refuse to adapt. Shifting demographics, increasing cultural and ethnic diversity, lack of missional focus, and huge gaps between the spiritual preferences and needs of the elderly and young adults overwhelm congregations that are not prepared to change.

Endings in churches are natural occurrences, just as they are in other organizations and the created world. Blindly keeping on when all other options are exhausted and there is no realistic chance of revival is not really hope. Congregations that know when “it’s time” can choose to leave a legacy by gifting their building for a new church start or offering their assets for new faith communities elsewhere in the conference. They can celebrate their ministries over the years and lives that have been changed and then commission remaining members to become active in other churches.

On the other hand, I have seen churches of all sizes rise from the dead and start a new lifecycle when no one imagined there was any hope left. I have also been a part of congregations that refused to fold and found a way to bring new vision, Holy Spirit energy, and motivation to their ministry. But it doesn’t usually happen unless the leaders say no to toxic cultures and mistrust, say yes to a clear vision, mission, and strategic priorities, and are willing to do whatever it takes to reach their communities with Christ’s love.

The line it is drawn,
The curse it is cast
The slowest now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fading
And the first one now will later be last
Cause the times they are a-changin’.

Last week District Superintendent Jackie went to Mildred’s home to conduct a church conference because Dorothy and Mildred decided it was finally time to close the church. Worship leaders Fred and Sue had gone south for six weeks, and Mildred was not able to get out to church anymore. There are two potential buyers for the building.

As Mildred and Dorothy reminisced and shared memories, they expressed no regrets. After all, the church had been open for 101 years, and with every organization there does come the moment to admit that the times they are a changin’. Mildred and Dorothy are going to attend different churches from now on, but their friendship will remain forever. In Jackie’s words, it was a “God-inspired time.”

Jackie has taken a lot of good-natured razzing over the last several years for allowing a church to remain open for two members. But she has no regrets. Besides, it wasn’t quite time. As one of our other district superintendents prayed for the closing of Oran last week, she said, “The ministry of the Oran United Methodist Church that has changed lives for one hundred and one years will continue to transform our world through their witness to God’s love.” Love remains, even as the times they are a changin’.