The Waiting Time

It’s waiting time in The United Methodist Church. Only one more week until General Conference 2019. I sense the tension, the increasing anxiety, the wondering. What will happen to The United Methodist Church? What will happen to my local church? How will God show up? Will the Holy Spirit move among us?  

Sometimes I think we spend most of our life waiting. Waiting for our child to take his/her first steps. Waiting for school to start again after the summer. Waiting as a kid for our birthday to come. Waiting for our first appointment as a local church pastor. Waiting for medical test results. Waiting in airport security lines. 

Waiting is a natural part of life. Whenever I think of waiting, I remember the times that I was pregnant. I had already settled into the waiting time when one of my pregnancies ended in a miscarriage. The other three pregnancies went full-term, and I still remember what the last month was like. I was huge, extremely uncomfortable, and felt like I was waddling rather than walking. I never knew whether I was going to have a girl or a boy, but I was always keenly aware that I was about to give birth to something new and that it would change my life forever.    

Waiting is also a pattern in the Bible. Adam waits for Eve (Genesis 2). Noah waits for the flood to recede. Abraham waits for a son. Jacob waits to marry Rachel. Hannah waits for Samuel. The Israelites wait for deliverance. God’s people wait for a Messiah.  

But when the fulfillment of the time came, God sent his Son.” (Galatians 4:4) Jesus waits to begin his public ministry. We know that Good Friday leads to the Holy Saturday of waiting, which leads to the fullness of resurrection. The disciples wait for the Holy Spirit to be unleashed in Jerusalem.  

The waiting time is often called liminal time. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin root,  limen,  which means “threshold.” The liminal space is that “crossing over” space, the “in between” time when we leave behind something old and anticipate something new. It’s a time of transition, when we’re on the move but not quite there yet.  

pixnio.com

I have always experienced liminal space as a rich time of anticipation and expectation as well as hesitation and ambiguity. When we wait, we often imagine our greatest hopes but at the same time admit our greatest fears. Liminal time can also be a space where we begin to let go so that something new can emerge. I remember when I was finishing my sixth year as a district superintendent and entered into the limbo of waiting for a new appointment. I knew in my mind that I had to leave the old behind and sit patiently in the waiting space, but my heart was often unsettled. During the months that I spent in liminal time, I learned that completely surrendering my life and ministry to God was the only way to be healthy and whole. 

According to Franciscan Friar and popular Christian writer, Richard Rohr, “Some native peoples call liminal space ‘crazy time.’ I believe that the unique and necessary function of religion is to lead us into this crazy, liminal time. Instead, religion has largely become a confirmation of the status quo and business as usual. Religion should lead us into sacred space where deconstruction of the old ‘normal’ can occur.” 

I suspect that many of us can look back at our lives and identify the crazy, liminal times when we felt as if we were walking in the dark, without a clue where our lives were headed. We are in such a waiting time right now. A week from now the special called General Conference will be in session in St. Louis. (February 23-26) 

Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

 In a figurative sense, The United Methodist Church has been pregnant for the past several years and is now in labor. The Commission on a Way Forward was proposed by the Council of Bishops and approved by the 2016 General Conference to “do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality and explore options that help to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church.” Several plans will be among those in front of the delegates. General Conference will begin with a Day of Prayer on Saturday, February 23. This liminal space will bridge the waiting time and the three days of General Conference. Through prayer, you and I give ourselves completely to God, emptying our hearts of our own wants and desires to a God who makes all things new.  

We also wrestle with who we are as the body of Christ, pregnant with hope and expectation. To what will The United Methodist Church give birth at General Conference? Over these past several years, how has God been leading us, with all of our strengths, passions, hurts, hope, dreams, and disappointments? How has this liminal time forced us to slow down, listen to one another, imagine what could be, and use our own brokenness to release grace and hope into our world?  

As delegates discern in community which plan best expresses our Wesleyan passion for sharing Christ’s love and forming disciples of Jesus who go out into the world and make a difference, how will God speak to us in this liminal space? Just as a caterpillar emerges from the chrysalis, what will emerge from the “crazy time” of waiting? Can we focus intently on seeking God’s will at the same time as we acknowledge that love of God and neighbor lie at the heart of United Methodism? 

I leave with you John O’Donohue’s poem For the Interim Time. (from To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, 2008)  

When near the end of day, life has drained
Out of light, and it is too soon
For the mind of night to have darkened things, 

No place looks like itself, loss of outline
Makes everything look strangely in-between,
Unsure of what has been, or what might come. 

In this wan light, even trees seem groundless.
In a while it will be night, but nothing
Here seems to believe the relief of darkness. 

You are in this time of the interim
Where everything seems withheld. 

The path you took to get here has washed out;
The way forward is still concealed from you. 

“The old is not old enough to have died away;
The new is still too young to be born.” 

You cannot lay claim to anything;
In this place of dusk,
Your eyes are blurred;
And there is no mirror. 

Everyone else has lost sight of your heart
And you can see nowhere to put your trust;
You know you have to make your own way through. 

As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow confusion to squander
This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground,
That you might come free
From all you have outgrown. 

What is being transfigured here is your mind,
And it is difficult and slow to become new.
The more faithfully you can endure here,
The more refined your heart will become
For your arrival in the new dawn. 

The Character Coach

As most of you know, the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl over the Los Angeles Rams a week ago, 13-3, which was the lowest score ever. It was the Patriots 11th Super Bowl appearance. Not only did they have the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Tom Brady (41), but they also had the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl, Bill Belichick (66).

But do you know about one of the most influential members of the Patriots staff? He flew under the radar for a number of years, and you won’t find his name anywhere on the Patriots website. After this year’s Super Bowl, however, he is no longer hidden. Since 2013, Jack Easterby has been New England’s Character Coach/Team Development staff member. Easterby is the only person on any National Football League team with this position.  A college athlete himself in golf and basketball, Easterby previously served as Campus Director for the University of South Carolina’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Character Coach for the Gamecock’s men’s and women’s basketball teams. After that, he traveled with the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL during the 2011-2012 season as a chaplain consultant.

So, what does a character coach do? Simply put, Easterby is a presence. He is a friend to everyone and is available to walk beside any and all of the Patriots players, to guide them in their relational, mental, emotional, and spiritual lives. Easterby counsels with players and their families when issues arise and is a resource when the Patriots face difficult situations. He is also a Christian. Easterby leads Bible studies and prays with players but never pressures anyone to attend. He’s there for players, coaches, staff, and families.

I was particularly intrigued by the uniqueness of Easterby’s job title: Character Coach.

Character can be defined as strength of moral fiber, or the personal qualities that are distinctive to an individual. When we say that a person has “character,” we often mean that this person demonstrates attributes such as integrity, honesty, compassion, self-control, kindness, consistency, graciousness, relational skills, a role model, and a welcoming attitude toward all.

When thinking about character, two quotes jump out at me. They are from Martin Luther King Jr. and the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans.

  • “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the contentof their character.
  • “Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

Imagine having a full-time staff member whose only job is to help create character in others! Easterby’s role is to build up the character of the Patriots players so that they not only become the best athletes they can be, but they also become the best human beings that they can be. In a February 1 article in USA Today, Easterby talks about his job. “I always make sure everybody’s here.” “If someone wasn’t on time, or was taking too long in the bathroom, or skipping, I need to know. I like to get ahead on any issues.”

Easterby also talks about character. “Character and the kind of people you hire is something that our country is in desperate need to get back to evaluating.” “Unfortunately, sometimes it matters most when we count it the least. And when we evaluate it the least, it matters most. It’s tough, but we have seen a lot of businesses and industries fall because of a lack of character. One of the things we’ve seen come up in our culture lately – from the (Harvey) Weinstein case and so many others – we’ve seen that choices matter.”

The door to Easterby’s office is always open. He is there to listen, offer guidance, recommend a book, pray, or meet with family members. He writes personal notes to players, offers scriptures and inspirational quotes, and is always available when Coach Belichick or other coaches need him. Fullback James Develin said, “Before every game – and I mean every game – he comes up to each of us and tells us he appreciates us.” Another player, defensive end, Ricky Jean Francois, said, “This guy here (Easterby), every day, he walks up to us and feeds us positivity. Every single day. This dude is not pretending.”

For his part, Easterly feels blessed to be the New England Patriots Character Coach and have the privilege of influencing the lives of others. During Super Bowl week, he spoke of his role. “When you lead people, you have to be with them at all points and for me, one of the biggest things is you come in as a servant. No matter if you’re winning and you’ve won Super Bowls which we’ve been blessed to do or you’re going through challenges which we did when we first got here. You have to serve. You have to serve. You have to take your gloves off. You have to get dirty and serve and work through any issue and every issue that’s thrown your way.”

Jack Easterby is somewhat is an anomaly. Can you imagine someone who is an integral part of a professional football team who is only there to encourage, appreciate, motivate, counsel, serve, and help develop character? It’s something to think about, especially as the time for the 2019 General Conference draws near. I wonder.

  • How can you, in your own setting, become a game changer like Jack Easterby?
  • What might happen if our primary goal for the General Conference is to exhibit character: the personal and moral qualities that can bring people together and really make a difference not only in The United Methodist Church but in our world?
  • What if encouraging, appreciating, and developing relationships between one another as brothers and sisters in Christ became more important than winning?
  • What if we ask ourselves the same question that Easterby asks himself in his role as Character Coach for the Patriots? “How can I leave everyone I interact with better than I found them?”
  • What if taking off our boxing gloves and serving one another is the only way we can be a witness to God’s unconditional grace for every person in our world?
  • What if each one of us made a commitment to become a Character Coach for Christ?

Today. Now.

I rise from my bed of sleep to adore your holy name, to live for you this day, to work with you in the bringing in of your reign, and to find in you eternal life. I consciously renew my calling as this day begins, thanking you for the privilege of living my life in this way. I know that I need to take care of myself if I am to be of any use to those I am called to serve. Grant me grace to walk in health and wholeness. Most of all, thank you that I can live today, knowing that I am your beloved. Amen.  

So begins my day. What will you do with this precious and sacred day: February 4, 2019? Today. Now. Jesus reminds his disciples in Matthew 6, “So do not worry about tomorrow, or tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, after spending forty days and nights in the wilderness tempted by the devil, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. Luke 4:14-30 tells us that word about Jesus has spread like wildfire. Here is their hometown boy, teaching in the synagogues and being praised by everyone!  

On the sabbath, Jesus stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth to read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

Just like that, Jesus unveils his mission statement and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” Today. Now. Everyone is quite impressed by the gracious words flowing from his lips and says, “Wow! Is this really Joseph’s son?” But Jesus isn’t fooled. “I’m sure you’re gonna want me to do miracles in Nazareth, just as I did in Capernaum. But no prophet is ever welcome in the prophet’s hometown.” Well, well.

 But they don’t get it, do they? The very people who know Jesus the best expect that he is going to save them. Instead, Jesus disses them! He says that his mission is to minister to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. I can just imagine Jesus looking into the eyes of his own people and then saying gently, “Today. Now. This is your mission, too, and it’s not gonna be easy. It may even cost you your life. Still interested?”  

But this very day – today the people of Nazareth are so angry with Jesus for his arrogance than they run him out of town and are just about to throw him off the cliff. But Jesus passes through the crowd and goes on his way.

And what about us? Could today be the day when you and I feed the hungry, care for the poor, house the homeless, shovel snow, show grace, listen attentively, and act prayerfully? Who is God calling you to be today? Who is God calling The United Methodist Church to be today? And who will God call us to be later this month when the General Conference becomes today? 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not wait for tomorrow. Martin Luther King Jr. did not wait. Nelson Mandela did not wait. Mother Teresa did not wait. Martin Niemöller did not wait. Archbishop Oscar Romero did not wait. Ghandi did not wait. Archbishop Desmond Tutu did not wait. Today is the day to change the world by modeling hope, grace, mercy, and unity in diversity.

Last week, I had the opportunity to be a part of our annual Advocacy Day in the Iowa Annual Conference. Forty United Methodists gathered to learn more about the legislative issues that are important to our state. Iowa has a part-time legislature that normally meets from January through April. We have a small volunteer group of committed United Methodists who advocate for legislation that aligns with our United Methodist Social Principles. This year the emphasis is on five areas: mental health, poverty, gun safety, the environment, and human rights.  

For many years, Iowa United Methodists have had an active presence at the State Capitol. Last week I had the privilege of offering the prayer for both the Iowa Senate and House of Representatives, and a small group of us also met with both Republican and Democratic leaders in the legislature. I was very impressed by our stimulating conversation about these important issues, especially when one of our legislators said, “Those Methodists. They’re going somewhere! They’re a force!”

Yes, we Methodists are going somewhere, and we’re going today! Who is God calling The United Methodist Church to be today? And who is God calling you and me to be today? God’s reign is here, and the mission is now! There is an urgency in our faith that requires us to be faithful now, in this moment of time, because The Spirit of the Lord is upon us today.  

But Jesus’ friends don’t quite understand. They keep saying, “But what are you going to do for us? We’re your tribe, your family, your people. What has gotten into you, Jesus? Why are you associating with ‘them’? What’s wrong with you? They’re not worthy.” Rejection. Misunderstanding. They expect what they experienced of Jesus in the past. But Jesus has come to preach, release, recover, liberate, and proclaim. 

When? Today. Now. No more delay. No more waiting. God’s reign is here today. So why are you waiting? God can use any person – even you and me – to change the world today. Now! 

Last Saturday I attended the funeral for Bishop Judith Craig, who served as the episcopal leader of Michigan from 1984-1992 and West Ohio from 1992-2000. One thing I admired the most about Bishop Craig, who was my bishop for eight years, is that she was unafraid to lead now. She believed that life was too short not to be a witness today, not to be a prophet today, not to show grace today, not to liberate the oppressed today; not to make a difference today.   

Now the silence. Now the peace. Now the empty hands uplifted.

Now the kneeling. Now the plea. Now the Father’s arms in welcome.

Now the hearing. Now the power. Now the vessel brimmed for pouring.

Now the body. Now the blood. Now the joyful celebration.

Now the wedding. Now the songs. Now the heart forgiven leaping.

Now the Spirit’s visitation. Now the Son’s epiphany. 

Now the Father’s blessing. Now. Now.

Jaroslav J. Vajda 1968 (words), Carl F. Schalk 1969 (music)

If those Methodists are a force and are going somewhere, then who is God calling you to be today … now? Who is God calling The United Methodist Church to be today … now? What will you do with each precious and sacred day? Today. Now.