Ten Years of Leading from the Heart

In January of 2006, I was appointed by Bishop Jonathan Keaton as a district superintendent in the West Michigan Conference. Both excited and terrified at the thought of what lay ahead for my ministry, I went away on retreat to St. Simons Island in Georgia, a holy place for United Methodists. During this time of solitude, I walked the beach for miles every day, pondering my call and God’s grace.

A major discernment from that week away was to regularly communicate with the clergy and laity on my district once I became a superintendent. I did not want to send out a newsletter filled with information, however. I wanted to share my heart. On July 11, 2006, I published my first blog and have written almost five hundred weekly essays since.

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Now, ten years later, I am a bit older and, hopefully, wiser. But, again, I am both excited and terrified. Last week I was one of four clergy elected to be a bishop in the North Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church and have been assigned to the Iowa Conference as of September 1. As I transition into this new role over the coming weeks, I will be posting some of my favorite blogs from the last ten years. I anticipate retooling Leading from the Heart as a way of communicating my heart as a United Methodist bishop.

My first blog was published on July 11, 2006. “In the summer, I have a practice of taking a walk every night that I am able. It is a time to let God speak to me through the beauty of God’s good creation. I don’t power walk. I simply saunter along, opening my eyes and heart to all that surrounds me. At times, I will replay the events of the day and ponder issues of concern. However, I attempt to quickly clear my mind so that I can make room for God’s presence to surround me with joy.

“Tonight I was walking after 9 p.m., just as the sky was beginning to turn yellow and orange. As I gazed at the sunset, I thought to myself, ‘These are the most amazing clouds I have ever seen!’ Wispy, swirling, dancing, grace-filled clouds, beckoning me to come out and play, reminding me of the promise of a Holy Spirit that blows where it wills, urging me to rest in God’s love and then go out to serve.

“Please take the time to rest and savor the very best that Michigan has to offer this summer. Walk, run, play tennis, hit a few golf balls, fish, feed the birds, sail, swim, eat an ice cream cone, read a good book, enjoy a picnic with friends. Most of all, remember that God saw everything that God had made and called it good.”

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As I prepare to begin my ministry as an episcopal leader, I offer the words that I shared with the delegates shortly before my election as a bishop last week. “The heart of my ministry is modeling the radical, suffering love of Jesus for all people as experienced around the table of the Lord. It’s the Heavenly Banquet, the Peaceable Kingdom.

“Suffering love is not just the foundation on which we build everything, but it’s also the energy with which we proceed, and it’s the final goal toward which we strive. The spiritual writer Richard Rohr says that love has two lovely daughters, twins called grace and mercy. Like identical twins, they are often indistinguishable. Grace is the inner freedom to be merciful, and mercy is grace in action. Both are children of love. Radical, suffering, unconditional love.

“Can we United Methodists create a church that will witness to everyone that we not only love the world but we actually love each other as well? Are we willing to let go of self, ego, pride and our tightly held convictions in order to see God in the face of someone who is not like us? Can we stand firm that God’s love is also found in the very least of God’s children and that God’s call is to transformative action to bring in God’s kingdom on this earth through Jesus Christ?

“This is the challenge and the task of The United Methodist Church. And it is the challenge and task to which I have offered my life and ministry.”

Wherever you live or serve, may you find ways this summer to feed your spirit, lead from your heart and be a walking witness to the radical suffering love of Jesus.

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.
Be still, they say. Watch and listen.
— Linda Hogan

Blessings,
Laurie

 

The Black Eye

You know people want to ask, but they are too polite to risk it. Others just come right out and say it. “What happened to you?”

Late in the evening on July 1, Gary and I were on a commuter plane from Chicago to Detroit. We boarded, stowed our hand luggage and sat down. As other passengers streamed on, I started to read a magazine when, out of the blue, something whipped across my face and whacked me near my left eye.

I felt excruciating pain, lowered my head and began to breathe deeply. What struck me could have been a strap from someone’s backpack, but the person continued down the aisle, most likely oblivious to what happened.

My cheek rapidly swelled up and turned black and blue, so I made my way to the front of the plane, explained my predicament and asked for some ice. Both attendants were very gracious, offering ibuprofen, water and snacks as well as ice. They also called for paramedics to take a look at my eye, delaying the plane.

The arrival of three burly Chicago paramedics dressed in firefighter garb was a bit embarrassing, but they did their job very well. My eyesight did not seem to be affected, and I really wanted to get home. So I signed a waiver, refusing to go to the hospital for treatment, thanked them for their kindness and off we went.

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Of course, my journey with a shiner was just beginning. A black eye is a bruise or discoloration caused by broken blood vessels under the surface of the skin as a result of blunt force trauma. The slang name for a black eye is a “shiner,” which describes how the skin around a black eye may appear shiny.

The good news is that black eyes eventually heal and the colors disappear, but it takes a while. Most people with shiners, however, have one overriding concern. What are other people going to think or say when they see this hideous black eye? And how can I cover it up? After ten days with a shiner, I can say with confidence that many people are uncomfortable around me because they’re not sure how to respond.

Some will ask about it right away. Others will avert their eyes, ignore the shiner and act as if I look perfectly normal. Still others (it happened numerous times to me) will attempt a weak joke about domestic violence, “Who hit you?”

At first glance, this last response may seem offensive. Why would someone automatically think that I was the victim of domestic violence? But the reality is that domestic violence is a huge problem in our world, and it is everyone’s responsibility to protect and support the victims. According to the most recent statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

  • Nearly twenty people per minute on average are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than ten million women and men and one-fifth of all violent crime.
  • On a typical day, more than 20,000 phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
  • One in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
  • The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation increases the risk of homicide by 500%.

When you see someone with a shiner and have reason to be suspicious, ask them, “Are you okay? Has someone hit you?” I have occasionally asked that question of parishioners over the years when a person comes to church with unexplained bruises all over their face. I have also called domestic violence hotlines to seek help for them.

Unfortunately, domestic abuse is socially shameful, so many people will not volunteer the information unless asked. In fact, one definition of “black eye” is “a mark or source of dishonor or shame.” Not only do victims of domestic violence live in the shadows, without much support or even sympathy, but they are often the focus of blame. “Well, you must have done something to provoke him.”

An attempt to cover up my black eye for a video interview the day after the accident lasted only a few minutes. Realizing that there was no way to hide it, I decided to let those blue, purple, yellow and green colors shine in all their brilliance. I also explained what happened at the beginning of the interview in order to dispel any uneasiness.

My shiner has become a teaching moment. I’ve learned that not covering up my black eye symbolizes the transparency and honesty that I hope to convey in my life and faith. I am far from perfect but believe that my flaws and wounds can become a source of healing for others.

With my shiner I stand in solidarity with those who are victims of domestic violence and pledge never to cover up the tragedy of abuse. In addition, my shiner is an acknowledgment of people of faith who have been bruised and battered black and blue by clergy, laity or “the church,” whether because of theological, moral and ethical differences or simple “church fights.”

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My black eye also exposes the “black eye” of political, social and legal systems and structures that systemically alienate, reject or unjustly treat others, especially minorities. The tragic deaths of Alton Sterling, shot and killed on Tuesday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana by police officers, and Philando Castile, shot and killed on Wednesday in Minnesota by a police officer after a routine traffic stop, remind us that these killings need to stop.

Then the shooting deaths of five law enforcement officers by Micah Xavier Johnson in Dallas last Thursday at a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally. Each new tragedy is a black eye on our inability to address the underlying anger of ongoing racial tension in the Unites States. It’s not someone else’s problem. All of us are called to bear the responsibility to break the cycle. We have unfinished business.

What witness can we United Methodists make in the face of such continuing violence? Henri J.M. Nouwen shared this story in his classic book on the spiritual life, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. “One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every man in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn.

“The people went to the minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing over the boy to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: ‘It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.’ Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden.

“And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village because the minister had saved the lives of the people. But the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him and asked, ‘What have you done?’ He said, ‘I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.’ Then the angel said, ‘But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?’ ‘How could I know?’ the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said, ‘If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.’”

What is our witness in The United Methodist Church in the face of so many black eyes and such violence? What will it take for us to look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters who are victims of domestic and racial violence, oppression, terrorism or prejudice and see grace and hope? What will it take to stop covering up our fear and step out in faith to advocate for justice and reconciliation? What will it take to engage in conversation and listen to one another as we address the issues that precipitate violence? What will it take to recognize our own shiners and use them to bring redemptive, healing love to every corner of our world? What will it take?

Blessings,
Laurie

We’re StickingTogether

They touch your life for a moment, and you become family. Then they are gone. Axin, Hans, Penille, Rana, Mousa and Gary and I found each other on June 24 in the Copenhagen, Denmark train station after learning that our train to Stockholm was canceled because of electrical problems from severe thunderstorms the night before. And on the national Midsummer holiday, of all times! Little did we know that our lives would intermingle for the next eight hours in a way we would never forget.

The focus of the Midsummer celebration is the maypole (or Midsummer Pole), which came to Sweden from Germany in the late Middle Ages and is decorated with greenery and flowers. Since spring comes later to Sweden, greenery was difficult to find on the traditional date of May 1, so the tradition was moved to June. Midsummer is now on the Friday closest to the summer solstice.

Gary and I had planned to get off the train in Linkoping to celebrate Midsummer with a Swedish friend whom we had not seen for thirty-seven years. Unfortunately, when Gary and I reached our track in Copenhagen, a train official informed us of the cancellation. Five other people arrived at the same time, and we engaged them in conversation. We soon became as one in our quest to reach our destinations.

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Axin is a forty-year-old single man from Taiwan who is taking his summer off as a teacher to travel throughout northern Europe and Croatia. Hans and Doris, a surgeon and bookkeeper from Copenhagen, are planning to visit friends in Stockholm for the weekend. Vacationers Rena and Mousa are from Lebanon and Turkey respectively and are both studying for advanced degrees and living in Brussels, Belgium.

We are given no instructions for getting to Stockholm on this national holiday other than: 1) take the metro from downtown to the Copenhagen airport, 2) find a bus that will take us over and under the sixteen kilometer Oresund Straits into Malmö, Sweden, 3) find a train to Linkoping and Stockholm, and 4) Good luck!

It is the blind leading the blind, with Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Turkish, Danish and English as our native languages. The seven of us make our way to the airport, then stand in line for an hour in the hot sun to get on a bus to Malmo along with hundreds of other stranded travelers. We endure a bus driver who gets lost finding the Malmo train station, sit through several hour-long delays and finally board a train for Stockholm, five hours after our scheduled departure time.

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But that’s not the story. Not by a long shot. Over eight hours, seven people from different countries, languages and cultures bond in a way that none of us ever dream could happen. Vowing to stick with each other no matter what, we become pilgrims, brought together by God for a brief time and leaving each one transformed. Here’s what we learned.

The journey matters more than the destination. In sharing our lives with each other, we discover that human hopes and dreams are the same around the globe. We want a good education, a safe place to live and raise children, meaningful work and the opportunity to make this world a better place.

Axin is often asked why he travels so much. His friends wonder why he does not stay in fancy hotels or buy expensive clothes or bring souvenirs home. This sensitive young man says that he is not interested in making a lot of money. Staying in hostels and Airbnb’s gives Axin the opportunity to learn about this beautiful world and its diversity of cultures and peoples.

Mousa’s family still lives in Turkey. After he completes his master’s degree in international relations, a job awaits Mousa back home where he will become a difference-maker. He already has a degree in engineering and a MBA. Rana is an attorney and is now working on a PhD in economic theory at the Brussels campus of the University of Kent, England. They have been together for less than a year and are not sure what the future holds for them. Mousa and Rana’s articulate and compassionate voices give me hope for the world.

Hans is a surgeon in the Copenhagen area, and Penille is a bookkeeper. Their kindness, knowledge of Danish and Swedish and local travel savvy help us navigate a potential travel nightmare. And their commitment to world peace and being good global citizens is touching. Remembering that the word “companion” literally means cum panis (“with bread”), none of us complain about the incessant delays because we all share our bread and have each other as companions on the journey.

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We are all in this together. If peace is ever to come on this earth, each one of us will have to do our part, no matter who we are or where are come from. A primary subject of conversation in Europe on June 24 is the vote of Britain to leave the European Union. Everyone in our group is saddened by the vote, especially those living in the EU, who are convinced that Britain and the other EU countries are much stronger together than apart. Rana wonders how her school will be affected because her university in Brussels is a branch of the University of Kent in England.

Penille believes that the Syrian refugee crisis and burgeoning number of immigrants flowing into EU countries played a role in the vote. The refugee crisis is placing great stress on all European countries who welcome immigrants, as social services are stretched and people wonder how many refugees their countries can realistically accommodate. As we wait in line in the hot sun to get on the bus to Malmo, we imagine what it must be like to wait for years to be resettled. Hans and Penille express how important it is that all countries do their part to welcome refugees in their midst.

After our bus stops for Swedish passport control in Malmo, we experience a reality check when a teenage boy near the back of the bus cannot produce a passport. His mother sitting next to him also has no valid papers. After a supervisor escorts the mother and son off the bus, we are informed that they are undocumented Syrian refugees. Silent prayers flow for these two precious children of God.

After spending hours together, our group of seven does not lack for conversation. We remember how Sweden remained neutral toward Germany in World War 2, but Denmark was occupied by Germany on April 9, 1940. The Nazis left the seven thousand Danish Jews alone until 1943, when plans were made to transport them to holding camps in Germany.

In a heroic show of courage, almost all of the Danish Jews were hidden by Lutheran families in their homes and churches, except for several hundred taken to the holding camps. In the middle of the night, with German boats searching the waters, the Danish Jews were ferried by ordinary citizens in small boats to Sweden without incident. The Danish government guaranteed the Jews their jobs and homes back after the war was over.

Enjoy every moment. You will never know how long it will last. It isn’t until shortly before Gary and I get off the train in Linkoping that Rana shares her story. Her family lived right next to the one of the embassies in Beirut, which was attacked two different times by suicide bombers. Their home was also destroyed. Rana commented how strange it seemed the night after the bombings when everyone gathered in the bars and clubs again as if nothing happened. She learned in a tragic way how life goes on.

After the second bombing, Rana’s family left Lebanon and scattered to different parts of the world. Ironically, Rana and Mousa were in Brussels at the time of March 22 ISIS bombings and had to stay inside for several days. It was a terrifying time for both of them.

Rana and Mousa are both Muslims, although not of the same branch. Axin is a Buddhist, and Hans and Penille are Lutherans. When I give my card to Rana, which contains my blog website, she says, “Why do you blog?” I answer, “I feel led to share with others how I see God working to bring hope, joy and peace to our world through the everyday lives of people who chose to stick together.”

Axin, Hans, Penille, Rana and Mousa, thanks for sticking together with Gary and me on June 24. And Mousa, my heart goes out to you and your country after the senseless suicide bombings at the Istanbul airport last week. May God bless each one of you on your journey as we continue to work for the day when love is stronger than hate in every corner of our world.

Blessings,
Laurie