Prayers on a Stick

They were unfailingly polite despite my stumbling at times.

“Do you have apple pie?” “I’m not sure. Hang on a minute and I’ll check.”

“You gave me ice tea instead of lemonade.” “I apologize. My mistake.”

“Can you give me that order again? It’s a bit complicated, and I need to write it down.”

I made my debut as a volunteer server last Friday at the West Des Moines United Methodist Church food booth at the Iowa State Fair. By most standards, the Iowa State Fair is one of the five best state fairs in the United States, having drawn a record 1,117,398 fair-goers in 2015. That’s one-third of the entire population of Iowa, which was 3,350,000 in 2016.

I confess that I had never been to a state fair before, and I had only been to one county fair when I served as pastor of a county-seat church in Michigan. I had no idea what to expect in Iowa, other than the three things that I’d heard over and over.

  1. Most of the food is deep-fried and is “on a stick.” And these 75 varieties of “on a stick” foods are not particularly healthy. Coney dogs on a stick, Oreo cookies on a stick, double-wrapped bacon coney dogs on a stick, cherry pie on a stick, pork chop on a stick, candy bars on a stick, deep fried Thanksgiving turkey balls on a stick, shrimp corn dog on a stick, and what grieved me the most: deep fried fresh fruit on a stick and deep fried sweet-corn corn dogs.
  2. The fair is very family-friendly.
  3. The winners of the Best in Show pigs and cattle are REALLY big.

In decades past, there was a “street” at the fairgrounds called “Church Row.” This is where many area churches operated “dining halls” at the state fair. One by one and for various reasons, these churches decided not to continue to serve at the state fair. In 2017, West Des Moines United Methodist Church is the only church to operate a concession at the fair. This is their 68th year! The church built a permanent structure for their concession in 1975.

The West Des Moines food stand was originally started by women in the church, with the men taking over in 1954. After the 2016 fair, the men needed help, so today, the stand is now a mission project supported by the entire church. It’s a huge undertaking! In the beginning, there were only two requirements for concessions at the state fair: you had food, and you could sell it. There are many more regulations today for operating a food stand, including added labor laws and tighter health codes, plus upkeep of the stand itself.

Various fair committees in the church seek workers, set the menu, and take care of the details of running a restaurant that serves food sixteen hours a day in two shifts (6 a.m. to 10 p.m.), over eleven days with 245 volunteers. In addition, two people stay for a few hours after 10 p.m. every evening to clean up. People of all ages help, even youth. And when all is said and done, every cent that is raised goes toward fulfilling the church’s call to be difference makers in mission and ministry around the world.

“Here, keep the $10 bill. We appreciate all that the church is doing here at the fair.”

“Do you have fried cheese on a stick?” “I’m sorry, that’s not on the menu, but we have some really awesome pulled pork!”

“I gave you a twenty. I think I should get another $5 bill back.” “Yes, you’re right.”

In my conversation with Pastor Cindy Hickman, I simply asked if I could visit West Des Moines UMC’s food booth during the fair. She was delighted and said that Gary and I were welcome to volunteer at the church booth on Friday while she was there. That way we could have a taste of what the fair was like from a food perspective.

As I put on a church baseball hat and apron and wash my hands, I remember back to my junior and senior high school days when I often served as a waitress for wedding receptions at my church. My friends and I were usually given wedding aprons as gifts for our service (not really usable for any other occasion!), and occasionally they gave us each $2.00.

“Do you make your own pie?” “Yes, a church member who owns a food business makes the pies.” “I’m in heaven. Please pass on my gratitude.”

I don’t turn off the ice tea machine in time, and it overflows. I try to clean things up and say to my fellow volunteer, “You can dock my pay for messing up the counter!”

The pace is intense. Customers keep coming and coming. They know our prices are very reasonable, and we want to serve them quickly and well. Keeping track of orders and payment is a challenge at times, but the volunteers remain cheerful and work together like a well-oiled machine. Many customers don’t even want to take the time to sit down and eat.

I chat with Jerry Slagter, the day manager. He arrives between 5:00-5:30 a.m. and leaves around 7:30 p.m. Managing a crew of sixteen along with a hired cook, Jerry says the stand is even busier than last year. It could be because of the beautiful weather or the great publicity they received after the Des Moines Register published a front-page feature article on the church’s food stand the Sunday before the fair. Jerry also says that a lot of people who come ask about the church and are very complimentary.

“Can I have a receipt?” “Sure,” I say and write on a scrap of paper, “jumbo chili dog $5.00.”

“I’m so sorry we’ve run out of ground beef. We’re really busy today, but we’ll have more beef burger combos and walking tacos in about twenty minutes if you want to come back.” They often wait.

The blessings of West Des Moines’ food ministry at the state fair are many. Is this a fundraiser or a ministry? Why, it’s both!

  • Church members have a way to serve the public.
  • Through the food booth, church members build community with each other and develop friendships as they work together.
  • The food booth is an entry point into the church for new people who yearn to make a difference and are invited to volunteer.
  • All the money raised from the food booth goes to worthy ministries around the world.
  • Volunteers have an opportunity to witness to the love of Jesus Christ through their interactions with customers, including the prayer stick ministry.

It’s not until Gary and I pause to eat pulled pork sandwiches that I remember about the prayer sticks. At the picnic tables, there are small containers with a prayer printed on tongue depressors that serve as prayer sticks. There are also pieces of paper on which customers can write prayer concerns, which are then prayed over by church members.

I don’t end up eating anything on a stick at the Iowa State Fair. But here are my prayers on a stick, which I suspect reflect the prayers of many others:

  • I pray for the increasing tension and escalating rhetoric between North Korea and the United States. God, may you soften the heart of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, as he threatens the world with nuclear missiles, and may you give wisdom to President Trump and his advisors, that they would seek first to engage in diplomatic efforts for a peaceful resolution to the issues that are dividing our countries.
  • I pray for the farmers in Iowa, as a deepening drought threatens many of their crops and is resulting in lower yields and dried up pastures used to feed cattle.
  • I pray for The United Methodist Church during this time when the Commission on a Way Forward is discerning a way for United Methodists to worship, serve, and witness together in the midst of our differences around human sexuality.
  • In light of the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend, I pray that each one of us would renew our own commitment to work for peace and justice at the same time as we name and resist hatred, prejudice, and bigotry in whatever forms they present themselves.

Thank you, West Des Moines United Methodist Church! I am thankful that your example reminds us that Jesus has called each one of us to be a servant leader who models grace, courage, and hope for our world. May you continue this witness and ministry for years to come.

The Best Kept Secret in The United Methodist Church

The best kept secret in The United Methodist Church? The answer is Wespath. For most of my ministry, I knew it as the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits. When I started out in ministry, I was given this sage advice, “You won’t get rich as a United Methodist pastor, but you will have always have some form of health insurance and a pension when you retire.” Last month, when my husband, Gary, received his first pension check from Wespath after retirement, all I could say was, “Hallelujah!”

In these days of economic uncertainty, I am grateful that our retired United Methodist clergy receive a monthly pension payment, at the same time acknowledging that many other workers do not have that guarantee when they retire. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a great health advocate and gave practical advice to others in his book, Primitive Physick (London, 1747), from which the quotes in red that follow are taken.

“The air we breathe is of great consequence to our health. Those who have been long abroad in easterly or northerly winds should drink some warm pepper tea on going to bed, or a draught of toast and water.”

 

Last December, I had the opportunity to spend a day at Wespath in the Chicago suburb of Glenview. Wespath became the new name of the General Board of Pensions and Health Benefits in the summer of 2016 in order to distinguish itself from all the other “General Boards” of The United Methodist Church and provide a simpler name. Wespath has two parts. “Wes” honors the legacy of John Wesley, and “Path” reminds us of the path Wespath provides to serve the retirement, health, and investment objectives of its clients.

“Everyone that would preserve health should be as clean and sweet as possible in their houses, clothes, and furniture.”

  • Wespath is the largest reporting faith-based investor in the world.
  • Wespath is among the top 100 pensions funds in the US and the top 150 in the world.
  • Wespath manages $22 billion in assets as of June 30, 2017.
  • The formal mission of Wespath is, “We care for those who serve by providing investment and benefit services that honor the mission and principles of The United Methodist Church.”

“For studious persons, about eight ounces of animal food and twelve of vegetable, in twenty hours, is sufficient.”

Wespath provides services in several different areas. Pension and Health Benefits administers the pension plans that protect the retirement futures of 91,000 clergy and lay workers.

The Central Conference Pension Initiative provides pension payments for clergy and surviving spouses in annual conferences outside the US. This is done through investment earnings on a challenge goal of $25 million donated and pledged by individuals and conferences across the denomination.

“Walking is the best exercise for those who are able to bear it; riding for those who are not. The open air, when the weather is fair, contributes much to the benefit of exercise.”

The Center for Health promotes wellness and provides health and welfare benefits to 28,000 participants through thirty-one HealthFlex plans sponsored on their behalf. Annual conferences and other UMC-affiliated organizations can sponsor these programs and services for their clergy and lay employees. These services include HealthFlex/WebMD, Virgin Pulse Physical Activity Program, Blueprint for Wellness, United Methodist Church Health Ministry Network, HealthQuotient Health Risk Assessment, Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and WebMD Health Coaching.

The wellness programs offered through the Center for Health have been recognized with the Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles award from the National Business Group on Health. Click here to read the 2015 clergy health survey report.

“Water is the wholesomest of all drinks; it quickens the appetite and strengthens the digestion most.”

 

Wespath’s Investment Management Division is the fiduciary and steward of assets that support current and future pension benefits, investing in a socially responsible manner aligned with our United Methodist Social Principles. This division is active in shareholder advocacy, proxy voting, portfolio screening, and community investing.

What impresses me the most about Wespath is that its sustainable investment strategies attempt to align with the words of John Wesley, “Do all the good you can by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

“Those who read or write much, should learn to do it standing; otherwise, it will impair their health.”

Wespath’s board of directors also determines specific guidelines around portfolio screening based on The Book of Discipline 2016 (¶717), which instructs all boards and agencies to “seek investments in institutions, companies, corporations, or funds that promote racial and gender justice, protect human rights, prevent the use of sweatshop or forced labor, avoid human suffering, and preserve the natural world, including mitigating the effects of climate change…”

Wespath employs ethical exclusions that generally exclude companies that derive 10% or more of their revenue from gambling or from the sale of alcohol, adult entertainment, tobacco, weapons and operating private prison facilities. For nuclear weapons, the threshold is 3%.

“Strong, and more especially, spirituous liquors, are a certain, though slow poison.”

In addition to portfolio screening, Wespath participates in active ownership by engaging companies directly to address social, environmental, and governance issues of concern. Wespath writes letters to companies, seeking additional disclosure of important information, meets with companies to discuss issues and opportunities for improved corporate performance, and files shareholder resolutions that are voted on by all shareholders at a company’s annual meeting.

“Tender persons should eat very light suppers, and that two or three hours before going to bed. They ought constantly go to bed about nine, and rise at four or five.”

Wespath also has a significant positive social purpose program that promotes affordable housing and community development throughout the country, supports important community facilities like rehabilitation centers, and funds microfinance investments that improve the lives of people in developing countries around the world. From the Wespath website, “Investments are made according to values that create a healthy financial bottom line as well as positive social and environmental returns. Wespath remains the largest denominational investor in affordable housing programs for low- and moderate-income families in the nation. To date, we have allocated nearly $1.8 billion to affordable housing and community development investments.”

“The love of God, as it is the sovereign remedy of all miseries, so in particular it effectually prevents all the bodily disorders the passions introduce, by keeping the passions themselves within due bounds; and by the unspeakable joy and perfect calm serenity and tranquility it gives the mind; it becomes the most powerful of all the means of health and long life.”

One thing is no longer a secret. As it seeks to be an advocate for health and wholeness for clergy as well as for our world, Wespath is making a difference in areas that go far beyond clergy health and pension benefits. Thank you, Wespath!

A Little Ride with Jesus

It’s day six of the RAGBRAI bike ride across Iowa. I stop at the tiny town of Castalia to wait for the rest of the team. In 2016, the population of Castalia was 106, but there is a church on the main road through this village. Day six is when the going gets tough. We know that the really big hills are yet to come and wonder if we will have enough energy to make it to the top. At the same time, our minds begin to think beyond RAGBRAI to the end of the race and all that faces us when we get home.

All of a sudden, I hear music. A live group is singing in the church parking lot.

Now let us have a little talk with Jesus, and let us tell him all about our troubles.
He will hear our faintest cry, and he will answer by and by.
Now when you feel a little prayer wheel turnin’, then you will know a little fire is burnin’,
And you find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.

As I listen, I think about all that I have learned from my first RAGBRAI experience.

Learning #1: Ride Your Own Ride

Our Circuit Rider Team consisted of five riders of varying ages, experience, abilities, equipment, and pace. We were all riding to the same destination, but how and when we got there was determined by each one of us individually. At times, the faster riders would wait by the side of the road for the others to catch up, but we always regrouped at the formal stops to eat, rest, share stories, and enjoy the entertainment. We learned to ride our own unique ride toward our common goal and encourage each other on the journey.

In the same way, each United Methodist church is unique. In order to fully engage their communities, congregations must seek out the needs of their constituents, discover their own strengths and then develop ministries that make a difference by sharing God’s love with all.

I had a marvelous time getting to know churches and clergy all the way across the state. Every church along the RAGBRAI route found some way to welcome and engage the riders, using their own location and special gifts to make a difference. One church had at least a dozen signs beginning ten miles before the stop, advertising “church lady pies.” It worked! By the time we arrived at the town, we couldn’t wait to dig into a piece of pie!

I may have doubts and fears, my eyes be filled with tears,
But Jesus is a friend who watches day and night.
I go to him in prayer, he knows my every care,
And just a little talk with my Jesus gonna make it right.

Learning #2: No Whining

“No whining!” was the headline of a sign that was posted on Pope Francis’ office door last month. The sign was given to the Pope by Dr. Salvo Noe, a psychologist and motivational speaker. The sign says in Italian, “Violators are subject to a syndrome of always feeling like a victim and the consequent reduction of your sense of humor and capacity to solve problems…Stop complaining and take steps to improve your life.” Pope Francis, who undoubtedly has to deal with many whiners and complainers, as do all leaders, was said to have laughed heartily.

RAGBRAI riders have many reasons to complain during the course of the week. It’s not easy to ride with 10,000 people, often in close proximity. Our lips are blistered from the sun, our bottom is sore, and we can’t drink enough to stay hydrated. Maybe the loud music of the partying at night has kept us awake. We ride for an hour in a severe downpour and are feeling chilled, or else we are pedaling into a fierce wind, getting nowhere fast. We’ve waited in line at the United Methodist church for their sloppy joe and macaroni and cheese dinner, and when we finally get to the front, we discover they have run out of food.

As I was standing in line one day in the hot sun, I looked around and marveled at how all of the riders are upbeat, positive, gracious, and polite. They know how fortunate they are to be able to savor the moment, have this incredible experience, and enjoy “just a little ride with Jesus.”

As a bishop, I hear whining from time to time from churches, laity, and clergy. “Why do we have to pay apportionments when we can’t fund our budget? Everything revolves around Des Moines, and the rest of the state is forgotten. How can our church survive when our town is declining rapidly?” It is important to hear from everyone, and I take all of these concerns seriously. But I also hear positive statements like, “What a joy it is to serve Jesus! We are making a difference one person at a time in our town. We love The United Methodist Church!”

This past April, Pope Francis met with clergy and said that complaining “dashes hope.” I pray that when I am tempted to whine or complain, I will have a little talk with Jesus, who will make me whole.

I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in,
And then a little light from heaven fill my soul.
He bathed my heart in love and He wrote my name above,
And just a little talk with Jesus makes me whole.

Learning #3: You can do good wherever you are.

So many amazing things come out of RAGBRAI. As I stood at the end of the ride, waiting the bikers arrive at the Mississippi River, tears came to my eyes when I saw the RAGBRAI Dream Team ride to the finish. They were all chanting “We are the Dream Team! We are the Dream Team! We are the Dream Team!”

Twenty-one years ago, in 1996, a small group of RAGBRAI riders who were concerned about at-risk youth in the Des Moines area met to discuss how these youth could experience the benefits of training for and participating in RAGBRAI. The first Dream Team rode in the 1997 RAGBRAI, and since then 20-30 youth have participated each year.

The mission statement of The Dream Team is, “To assist youth in developing a healthy spirit, mind and body by developing a productive, positive approach to life’s challenges through preparation for and participation in RAGBRAI® as members of The Dream Team.”

Youth are recruited through the Des Moines school system, church groups, after school programs, and the court advocate system. They receive all the necessary riding equipment for free and start training with adult mentors in February. Those who go on to complete RAGBRAI come away with the skills to set goals, work as a team, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Thanks be to God for all those who were able to participate in RAGBRAI as riders, support people, and food providers last week. I especially praise God for lives that were changed forever because of their “little ride with Jesus.”

Now let us have a little talk with Jesus, and let us tell him all about our troubles.
He will hear our faintest cry, and he will answer by and by.
Now when you feel a little bike wheel turnin’, Then you will know a little fire is burnin’
And you find a little ride with Jesus makes it right.