The Suitcase

Is it possible to love a suitcase? After all, it’s an ordinary black Samsonite carry-on that I’ve had for at least fifteen years. I’ve spent more time with my suitcase than with almost any other possession I have. It’s my home away from home. It has gone with me on mission trips, to annual conference and denominational meetings, home to see family, on retreats and on vacation.

20160208-1My suitcase is probably the best friend I’ve ever had, outside of humans: faithful, dependable and flexible. And it’s pretty beat-up right now, with a huge crack in one of the wheels. “Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.” (Proverbs 18:24) Years ago I attached a Christmas ribbon with red and green dots to the handle so that I could more easily identify it among other similar suitcases. I also have a bright green TSA lock. I can cram my suitcase into the overhead bin, sit on it to get the zipper closed, allow it to be drenched and drag it around the world, and still it will not complain or resist.

Come to think of it, my suitcase is a metaphor for life, for it contains everything that is important as I journey. Each time I travel, my packing list reminds me what is essential and what I need to let go of. It is brutal in defining the boundaries, accommodating only a few extra items for each trip and encouraging simplicity. I know exactly how much discretionary space to leave in my suitcase for gifts to those I am visiting, knowing I only have that same amount of space for purchases to bring home. I especially like the extra strap that attaches my backpack to the front of the suitcase when trekking around the world.

My suitcase also grounds me. It’s plain, sturdy and functional. Nothing special, just like me. No matter where I go, the suitcase always contains an alarm clock, brush, zip lock bags, snacks and a flashlight. “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12) I also use the side pockets to hold all of my cords: laptop or iPad, cell phone, pedometer and earpiece. “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.” (Hosea 11:4)

More recently, the Bible app on my phone occasionally replaces a pocket Bible. I adore the nooks and crannies of the suitcase and know all the tricks for fitting in several suits, shoes, workout and casual clothes, cosmetics, books and work materials. In short, the suitcase symbolizes my call to travel lightly through life and take only what is necessary. “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic.” (Luke 9:3)

20160208-2I promised my suitcase that I would never check it and thus risk losing it in the bowels of airports in Nashville, Allentown, Tel Aviv, Johannesburg or Sarasota. “And, remember, I am with you to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Which brings me to my confession. I betrayed my suitcase several weeks ago for the sake of convenience.

Flying home from Portland to Seattle and then on a red-eye to Detroit, I decide on a whim to check my suitcase. I have four hours to spend in the Portland airport and don’t want to lug my suitcase through all three airports when I will only get a few hours of fitful sleep. Knowing how special our suitcase-human relationship has become, I ask for and receive assurance from Alaska Airlines reps that there is plenty of time in Seattle to transfer my suitcase to the next flight. “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.” (2 Corinthians 13:11)

In Seattle I walk briskly for a mile from one end of the airport to the other in order to make the red-eye to Detroit. I like carrying only a backpack, yet there is a vague sense of unease. Is my suitcase really going to make the transfer? Did I make a mistake in checking it?

I ponder the nature of baggage as I walk. What baggage do I need to release and let go of in order to live a healthy life? I do not want to carry around judgment, bitterness, despair, hopelessness, pride or the need to always be right. Nor do I want to drag along anything that is not critical to my personal mission statement or that does not align with my faith.

On the other hand, I want to make sure that grace, empowerment, assurance, vulnerability, forgiveness, humility and Holy Spirit power are all tucked away in the corners of my heart. “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22) I remember with joy that the purpose of my suitcase is to serve.

We land in Detroit at 6:10 a.m. in the midst of a passenger health crisis, and I pray for the person who is ill, even as I attempt to wake up. Because I’m at the back of the plane, I reach the baggage claim after everyone is gone and my suitcase is nowhere to be found. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Matthew 19:10)

20160208-3I’m sick about it. I feel as if I let my suitcase down. “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” (Matthew 26:21) Not only is my suitcase lost, but it feels as if everything I hold dear is lost as well. I go to the baggage claim office, submit my claim and receive a receipt with a website where I can track the delivery of my suitcase from start to finish,

Fifteen hours later, the suitcase is delivered to my doorstep in perfect condition. My green lock is still attached, and nothing is gone. “Did you miss me? Were you scared? I promise you, it will never happen again. Will you forgive me?” “Rejoice with me, for I have found my suitcase that was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:6b-7)

The season of Lent begins on Wednesday. Lent is that time of the Christian year when we intentionally slow down enough to ponder the state of our spiritual lives and Jesus’ call to repent, for the kingdom of God is near. It’s a time when we fearlessly lay out our personal baggage, hold close what is important for a life of faith and release everything that prevents the love of Jesus from shining through us.

It’s also an opportunity to reassess our collective baggage as a community of faith. Will we leave behind criticism, stereotypes and assumptions so there is room for seeing with new eyes, the grace of compromise and the hope of unity? Don’t assume that an old, battered, ripped suitcase no longer contains reconciliation, healing and hope. Might we even dare to think outside the suitcase?

What’s in your suitcase this Lent?


Gerry and Jean: Love Never Ends

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation has a rendezvous with destiny.” So spoke President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 27, 1936, when he accepted the Democratic nomination for a second term as president.

The Greatest Generation is now gone in Gary’s family. Last Friday Gary and I attended the memorial service for his father Paul’s sister, Jean Raley. Jean was born in 1922 and was ninety-three years old when she died. The month before, Gary’s mother, our beloved Gerry (Alma Geraldine), died at age ninety-six, having been born in 1919.

We often think of World War II veterans in conjunction with the Greatest Generation, which includes those born between 1914 and 1929. According to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, a WWII veteran dies approximately every three minutes and at the rate of 430 a day (U.S. Veterans Administration figures). Most veterans are now in their 90s. Out of sixteen million Americans who served their country in World War II, less than a million are alive, and by 2036 there will likely be no veterans left.

20160201-2Gary’s parents, Gerry and Paul, were both WWII veterans, and so was Jean’s husband, Porter. Gary’s mother was one of the first women to ever serve in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, enlisting in Nov. 1942. In September 1943 she became a 1st Lieutenant in the WAC, the Women’s Army Corp. She met Captain Paul Haller while he was serving in the Army Air Corp.

Meanwhile, Jean and Porter were married on February 8, 1942 and said goodbye on Easter Sunday, April 7. They did not see each other again for over three years, until the end of July, 1945. Porter was in the Army and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

The grit, determination and spirit of the Greatest Generation were not found just in those who enlisted in the armed forces. We also saw it in those who stayed behind to take care of children, support the war effort and keep the home fires burning.

The Greatest Generation took responsibility. They did not whine or shirk their duty, whether at home or abroad. They faced challenges head-on and got the job done. Gerry, Paul and Porter all enlisted in the armed forces, although Gerry’s mother had to sign a waiver in order for her to serve (too short, too skinny, only one lung fully functioning).

The Greatest Generation was frugal. They did not take anything for granted and appreciated what they had. They learned how to find happiness in whatever they did and focused on excellence and determination. They did not need big fancy cars or homes. One of the mottos of the Greatest Generation was “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”

The Greatest Generation was humble. Most returning soldiers did not readily share war stories, not only because it was painful to remember but because they believed they were simply doing their duty. It was only in recent years that I heard about Gerry’s amazing experiences in the bunkers below Washington D.C., as the brightest and best of the women trailblazers in the armed forces were trained to take over the anti-aircraft defense of Washington D.C.

The Greatest Generation loved loyally. This was the last generation where divorce was uncommon. People made commitments to marriage, family, friends, God and country and stuck with it. Christianity boomed after World War II when young families with children embraced faith and flocked to churches. Gary’s parents and his aunt Jean and uncle Porter were very active at First United Methodist Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. In fact, Paul and Jean were born into this congregation, with Jean joining the church at age six and remaining at the heart of the congregation her entire life.

The Greatest Generation embraced challenge and was willing to sacrifice. This generation was not great despite the immense challenge of the Depression and World War II but precisely because of those challenges. In the crucible of deprivation and war, they chose to live with integrity and with their whole heart. Why? For the sake of their families, their country, the world and, most of all, their God.

20160201-1In his sermon at Jean’s memorial service, Pastor Doug Vernon emphasized that Jean Raley’s life was one of love. She loved long, well and deep. In fact, as 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us, love never ends for those who seek to follow Christ. Jean’s home was always welcoming and comfortable. Most of all, it was a place where love never ended. That love continues in her family and her church.

Would that my Baby Boomer Generation might embody the grace and resolve that made our parents great and pass those characteristics on to Generation X, the Millennials and Generation Z. I have no doubt that Gary’s character was formed through the close bonds he and his family had with Jean and Porter’s family as well as the church. Gerry and Jean were like sisters.

As I sat in the sanctuary of First UMC, Battle Creek, for Jean’s service, I couldn’t help but recall the last chance that our children and grandchildren had to be with Gary’s mother a week before she died on December 4.


Nov. 23: Gerry had a bad reaction to a new medication, which caused her to spill a glass of water over herself in the middle of the night. “How dumb can you get?” she admitted.

Nov. 24: A wheelchair was delivered to Gerry’s assisted living room because congestive heart failure limited her ability to walk. “I don’t want a wheelchair, I want a scooter!” she said, desiring to be like her 101-year-old friend down the hall.

Gerry told us how she almost died after her second child, David, was born. “I was in my hospital room, and I started hemorrhaging. There was nothing I could do. The woman who had been my roommate was taking her baby out to her car with her husband when she said to him, ‘I didn’t say goodbye to Gerry. I need to go back up and say goodbye.’ When she got into the room, she saw blood everywhere and called for help. I had an out-of-body experience where I could see from above how the doctors and nurses were desperately trying to stop the bleeding. If my roommate hadn’t returned to the room, I would have died. She saved my life.”

Nov. 25: “I don’t feel good. I want to be well,” Gerry said. I had never heard Gerry complain about her health in the thirty-eight years I knew her. This, from a person who spent a year bedridden on her back as a teenager because a lung had filled up with an infection.

Nov. 26: Gerry was able to get to our daughter’s house for Thanksgiving, where she nibbled at her food but ate a big piece of pecan pie. She said to granddaughter Sarah, “Your babies are so cute. Don’t tell (7-year old) Ezra I called him a baby. The little baby River is so smart and adorable. I’m still getting used to his name.”

Nov. 27 (the day we all left for home): Gerry to Gary, who was caring for her, “Don’t flirt with me or I’ll jump into your lap.”

Gerry told us that when she was stationed at Boeing Field in Seattle in 1942 with the job of setting up a budget, she crawled through the very first B-29 that was ever built.

One by one we all said goodbye, knowing we would not see her again. The love was overwhelming. Then we held hands and prayed. In the middle of the prayer, Gerry said, “And I’ll get to see Pop.” (her husband, Paul, who is in heaven).

It’s possible for every generation, including yours and mine, to become the greatest generation when we let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection and outdo one another in showing honor. It’s possible for every generation to live peaceably with all if we place our trust in the God who promises to bear us up on eagles’ wings, no matter what happens. And it’s possible for every generation to have a rendezvous with destiny and change our world for good when we take up our cross daily and follow Jesus.

Gerry and Jean: the Greatest Generation once again leaves its mark on future generations because their love never ends.


Let’s Do Us Differently!

Let’s Do Us Differently!

How is it possible that for the second consecutive year, all twenty contenders in the acting category for the Oscars are white?  Jada Pinkett Smith announced last Monday that she and her husband, Will Smith, will boycott the Oscars.  Will did not receive a best actor nomination for his role as Dr. Bennet Omalu in Concussions.  Jada said, “Maybe it is time we pull back our resources and we put them back into our communities, into our programs, and we make programs for ourselves that acknowledge us in ways that we see fit, that are just as good as the so-called mainstream…  We are a dignified people, and we are powerful – let’s not forget it.  So let’s let the Academy do them with all grace and love and let’s do us differently.”

The Academy voters are 93% white and 74% male.  Director Spike Lee announced that he and his wife will also not be attending.  While expressing gratitude for the honorary Oscar he received at the Governors Awards in November, Lee also lamented the recurring lack of diversity in this year’s nominees.  The hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite… Again,” used last year by Twitter user @ReignOfApril, is trending once more.

According to our United Methodist Social Principles 2012, “Racism is the combination of the power to dominate by one race over other races and a value system that assumes that the dominant race is innately superior to the others.  Racism includes both personal and institutional racism…  Institutional racism is the established social pattern that supports implicitly or explicitly the racist value system.”

Institutional racism perpetuates white privilege.  I have privileges in the United States simply because I am white.  I don’t have to worry about being stopped for “driving while white.”  I don’t have to worry about what I wear or where I walk or the company I keep.  And I don’t have to worry about drinking the water that comes out of the tap in my home.

How is it possible that a city of 100,000 people in the United States that is surrounded by the largest freshwater lakes in the world has struggled with lead-contaminated water for two years?  It wouldn’t happen in my city of Birmingham, located just fifty miles from Flint.  Birmingham is a predominantly white and wealthy city while Flint is 56.6% African-American (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010) and one of the poorest cities in the U.S.

flintDr.  Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Medical Center, a public hospital in Flint, was one of the first people to raise her voice about the water and was dismissed.  She said, “When pediatricians hear anything about lead, we absolutely freak out.  Lead is a potent known neurotoxin.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, everybody tells us that there is no safe level of lead.”  If General Motors stopped using Flint water because engine parts were being corroded, imagine the damage this poisonous water is doing to the brains and growing bodies of children.

Controversial filmmaker Michael Moore, who was raised in Flint, spoke at City Hall and declared that the situation is “not just a water crisis.  It’s a racial crisis.  It’s a poverty crisis…  That’s what created this,” he said.  Last Tuesday President Obama met with Flint’s mayor Karen Weaver and said the next day in a speech in Detroit, “We’re going to have her back and all the people of Flint’s back.”  And Michigan Governor Rick Snyder finally apologized in his State of the State address on Tuesday night.  The cost of fixing the Flint water infrastructure is estimated to be $1.5 billion.  Let’s do us differently with all grace and love and get it done!

Most Americans don’t want to be racist.  Nor do we desire to capitalize on our white privilege.  We value the diversity that makes our country strong and want to do us, meaning all of us, differently.  But we have some work to do.

Being able to communicate across cultures is critical for living in today’s world.  People across the globe are interacting with different cultures and ethnicities like never before.  We do it for work, we do it for play and we do it in our faith life as well.  In order to successfully navigate our diverse world, we need to do us differently, which means become culturally competent.  Cross-cultural competency refers to an awareness of how our own history affects our ability to understand and effectively engage people from different cultures.  Many major companies in our country include mandatory cross-cultural training in the hiring process.  In every case, bridging cultural divides requires cultivating relationships with humility and openness.

Our world is a very complex place, including the church.  In particular, we are going to have to loosen our white American-centric hold on The United Methodist Church in order to make disciples of Jesus Christ in new places across the globe.  How is it possible that our churches can become culturally competent?

Last week I attended a denominational meeting in preparation for our United Methodist General Conference in Portland, Oregon in May.  One of the greatest blessings of our quadrennial General Conference is the opportunity to witness first-hand the global nature of The United Methodist Church and celebrate both the blessing and the summons to do us differently with all grace and love.  350 of the 864 delegates to General Conference are from outside the United States, primarily Africa, the Philippines and Europe.

Rev. Gere Reist, Secretary for the General Conference, shared how challenging it is to understand and fulfill the needs of these Central Conference delegates.  1,488 pages of petitions and reports will be translated into French, kiSwahili and Portuguese.  But there are many different dialects of Swahili.  Which one should be used?

Central Conference delegates will be given tablets onto which all of their materials will be loaded.  Why?  Because hard copies would take up all of the space and weight in their suitcases.  But there’s another reason.  How do you deliver books to a rural village in Africa where the only address is, “The third hut on the right after you get into town and turn left off the main road at the big acacia tree.”

The proceedings of General Conference will be translated into eight languages, including French, German, KiSwahili, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian and Swahili.  The cost of translation services is $2.3 million.  This year we’ll also have simultaneous voice translation.  For the first time 1,200 delegates, bishops and official participants will do us differently by wearing infrared headsets so that non-English speakers can speak on the floor in their own languages and everyone will hear the translation at the same time.  As many as 3,000 guests will be able to use a smart-phone app in connection with a dedicated wireless network to stream audio.

In addition to building relationships with United Methodists in other parts of the world, we will continue to be intentional about doing us differently by celebrating diversity within the United States.  We have six “ethnic/language ministry plans” that aim to expand the ministry of the U.S. church in ways that emphasize the unique cultural context of each of the communities they serve (African-American, Hispanic, Korean, Asian, Pacific Islander and Native American)

Why is it necessary for disciples of Jesus Christ to be culturally competent and do us differently with all grace and love?

  • White privilege can blind us to the ways in which other ethnic constituencies are marginalized.
  • It is not possible to welcome all until we embrace different cultures, build relationships and intentionally provide opportunities for leadership development.
  • Making places in our churches for people whose cultures, languages and ethnicities are unlike ours reflects the richness of the kingdom of God and strengthens our ministries.
  • Let the children lead us. Our children and youth are very comfortable living in a multi-cultural world that is filled with different skin colors, languages, world views and traditions.  They excel in doing us differently!
  • By planning mission trips and cultural immersion experiences, we learn from the vibrant spirituality of different ethnic groups.
  • Active engagement with individuals and churches of various ethnicities empowers a greater sensitivity to issues of racism, poverty, immigration, social exclusion and preservation of culture.

Oscars host Chris Rock is rewriting his monologue for the Oscars, I believe that Flint will recover, and I pray that General Conference 2016 will empower us to become more culturally competent.  Let’s do us differently!