The Sacred Dance

It is not an easy thing to say goodbye to the people who have walked with me for thirty-five years. At a farewell gathering in Lansing on August 13, I had the opportunity to thank the faithful United Methodists in Michigan for their graciousness and support for my ministry. My remarks went something like this.

“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would be here today. As a child, I never considered being a pastor because women weren’t allowed to be clergy in the Mennonite Church. I never saw a woman in any kind of leadership position in the church until I went to graduate school at Yale to study sacred music and met women who were preparing to be pastors.

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“Yet, as a child and youth, I had a vision of how I could change the world, just as most of you did as well. My understanding of what it means to be a Christ-follower was nurtured by my parents, by my third grader Sunday school teacher, by a young organist whose tragic death inspired me to learn how to play the organ, and by our church choir director, who allowed me to sing Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion with the adults. I came to believe, along with St. Augustine, that those who sing and play the organ really do pray twice.

“My vision of the peaceable kingdom was formed in 1969 when, as a young teenager, I went with a busload of church people to Washington D.C. to participate in a peace demonstration. Three years later, my vision of what it means to be a servant developed when I traveled by bus to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania with Mennonite Disaster Service to clean out flooded homes after Hurricane Agnes.

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“I’m not exactly sure how this little Mennonite girl came to be here except for the hospitality and witness of The United Methodist Church, which welcomed me with open arms and said, ‘We’d love for you to be a United Methodist pastor. There is a place here for you to live out your vision and call.’

“Never could I have imagined the opportunities I have had to lead congregations into significant growth by putting faith into action, initiating transformative and sustainable ministries and seeing hundreds of lives changed and faith deepened. Many of you have been my teachers.

“I am convinced that each one of you also has a vision for the transformation you feel called to play in the world and what the world might look like in response. That vision could be ministering to others through music, poetry, Bible study or praying with someone who is in desperate need. Perhaps the fire in your belly is to teach confirmation youth, lead high school mission trips or tell Bible stories to children in the nursery.

“However you envision yourself serving, what we all hold in common is the hope that God will use us to be the manifestation of the body of Christ in and to the world by how we model the radical suffering love of Jesus, honor differences and give ourselves away to the very least of God’s children.

“I’ve had the privilege of serving in a great variety of United Methodist churches in Michigan, and what I’ve learned is best expressed by Bill Plotkin in his book Soulcraft. He writes about Harvey Swift Deer, a Native American teacher who says that every human being has both a survival dance and a sacred dance. The survival dance, which often occupies the first half of our life, is what we’re paid to do to make a living. By contrast, the sacred dance is what we are called to do to live fully and live well. It is the work and/or play that we were born to do in order to nourish our soul and change the world. Many of us expend so much of our time and energy in the survival dance that we never get to the sacred dance. For the sacred dance is not about ego, money, status, power or advancement. It’s about wholeness, passion and kingdom living.

“My ministry has always been about helping clergy, laity and congregations move beyond the survival dance to the sacred dance; to move beyond simply keeping the lights on because that’s all we know how to do; to beckon others to a life of joyful faith and service; and to step out of the building and engage a community that is desperately hungry for the invitation.

“Four years ago I finished up my six years as the Grand Rapids district superintendent and was appointed to a two-point charge in Grand Rapids. Both Aldersgate and Plainfield UMCs were in crisis mode, and my mission was to help the congregations recover their sacred dance. Aldersgate had to move to part-time when I arrived. The first Sunday there were about fifty people in worship, and I sensed depression. Attendance had been declining, apportionments had not been paid at all that year for the first time ever, and there was little responsiveness in worship. The depression was even more pronounced at Plainfield. A dozen people were scattered throughout the large sanctuary plus a few more who helped with a small Sunday school.

“I went home that first Sunday depressed myself! I wondered whether the spark of the Holy Spirit had entirely gone out. At Plainfield, we eventually determined together that the congregation was no longer viable and gifted the building and assets to the conference for a new church restart. By freely choosing to die, Plainfield hoped to give new life to others.

“Aldersgate still had some great leaders, but they needed encouragement. In the summer, we formed a Stewardship Committee, which formulated a plan to pay all apportionments in full by the end of the year. The SPRC also rightsized the staff. Still, the spirit had seemingly disappeared and the survival dance was in full swing … until the third Sunday in August.

“I’ll never forget the moment. It was the song the praise band led right before the sermon. I don’t remember the name of the song, but someone over on the left side started to clap, then another person began to clap, then another and another and another. Then they began to sway and move a little bit. The sacred dance had begun, and there was no turning back.

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“I don’t know if anyone else sensed it, but that day Aldersgate chose life. Apportionments were paid in full that year, committees were revitalized and a simple strategic plan was put into place with three task forces, including a new outreach to several public schools right across the church parking lot. When Gary and I moved to Birmingham the next July, Aldersgate was back to a full-time pastor, the school partnership is amazing, and there’s a baby boom in the congregation.

“My friends, our country is filled with United Methodist churches like Aldersgate that are ready to ditch the survival dance and engage their sacred dance. I am convinced that virtually any church can grow with the right lay and clergy leadership, the vision to imagine what could be and the commitment to reach out to their community with grace and hope. Every time we sing, study, preach, serve, reach out and pray, we participate in a future that is more just, merciful, inclusive and kind, and we bring the ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom closer to reality.

“You are the ones who have shaped and formed who I am today. And so I go to Iowa with joy and the sacred dance, taking with me the love and grace with which you have showered me for thirty-five years. Thank you, Bishop Deb, for being our spiritual leader over the past four years. And I know that my friend, Bishop David Bard, will also be a great leader for the Michigan Area. I will be cheering you on from afar. God bless each one of you.”

Blessings,
Laurie

The next Leading from the Heart will be published from Iowa on Monday, September 12.

Swim With Me, God

Transitions have not always been easy for me. Like many others, I like to be comfortable and tend to fear the unknown. Yet over the years I’ve discovered that times of transition always provide opportunities for spiritual growth. As we move from one stage of life to another, God often appears in the unlikeliest places if our hearts are open and our eyes are focused on the love of Jesus, which will never let us go.

I wrote these poems as part of my 2015 book, Recess; Rediscovering Play and Purpose, which was published by Cass Community Publishing House and is also available through Amazon.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 19: The Pavilion of Wings & Live Animal Presentation held at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum on July 19, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging) LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 19: The Pavilion of Wings & Live Animal Presentation held at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum on July 19, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)
God of Small Doses

Small images here and there of a God who longs to be seen;
God in excellence, God in music, God in people, God in the world;
Whatever you do, do it with your whole heart as best you can.
Signs of the holy are everywhere.
Don’t let God pass you by.
Stop.  Look.  Listen.
Butterflies again – they chase me; my head is a landing strip.
A continual emptying of self makes room for God.
Can I still see God in the midst of long days and a myriad of demands?
Do I work at my play?
Worship my work?
Play at worship?
Maybe there is another way.
Give surprise a chance.
Work at work,
Play at play,
Worship at worship.
Small doses of a God who longs to be seen.

Moving to a new job or location is often unsettling, and we ask ourselves, “Will I find friends? Will I be successful? Will you go before me, God?” Andre Gide’s words give me hope and remind me how important it is to trust that God goes before us, “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

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Swim with Me

I don’t want to lose sight of the shore, God.
I’m scared that I won’t be able to find my way back.
Frankly, God, I’ve never done transitions well.
I’d much rather stay in my comfort zone than discover new lands.
So why am I putting myself through this?
Why do you put me through this?
I want to stick close to shore.
Keep my feet on the ground and my head above water.
What do I need to learn about you, God – and about myself?
The disciples put their nets out into deep water when you asked.
They couldn’t even gather in all the fish.
I’m afraid of losing control – of letting go – of trusting you totally.
Maybe you’ll just have to push me into the water, God.
Just don’t leave me, please.
Swim with me.
Keep my head above water.
Flood me with a cold, sea-sharp wash of relief so that I can see my life more clearly.

Today I am going home to Pennsylvania to reconnect with my past and remember who I am. I will be visiting my father and the rest of my family saints, those who knew me from birth, formed me spiritually and have always loved me unconditionally.

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For All the Saints

Where would I be without the saints?
The great cloud of witnesses that cheers me on.
Nurturing and guiding me, modeling what a Christ-like life looks like.
My beloved grandmothers, Mary and Martha, reminding me of the importance of both action and contemplation.
My mother and father, without whom I would be nothing;
Joan, whose tragic death inspired me to dare to sit on an organ bench and carry on her legacy;
The faithful in my home church, encouraging me, showing me what a faithful life looks like.
The nameless people whose kindness touched me when I was in need.
Why was I so blessed?
How many lives have I touched on my journey?
How will I be remembered?
She was too busy?  She never stopped to talk?  She didn’t know how to let go?
All I want, God, is to love you and bring in your kingdom on this earth for all people.
May I be faithful to you in one life I have.
More hugs, more smiles, more mentoring, more inspiration;
More of you, less of me.
For all the saints who have gone before and blazed the trail;
A path of wisdom, love, courage, strength and spiritual wisdom.
I mean to be one, too.

As I prepare to move to a new home in Iowa, may I remember that I am always at home with God. Grateful for old friends from many different locations, I look forward to making new friends, embracing new adventures of faith and seeing new glimpses of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Swim with me, God.

The Courage to Begin

It started quietly three years ago when Thomas Bach, the new president of the International Olympic Committee, wondered how he might connect the worldwide refugee crisis with the Olympics. It was also a time when the Olympics needed to reinvent its image after doping scandals, corruption among Olympic officials and problems with the Rio venue threatened to tarnish the Olympic reputation.

Bach shared his idea with two-time New York City Marathon winner and Kenyan hero Tegla Loroupe, who had committed her career to identifying and training South Sudanese runners. Last fall the IOC authorized $2 million to aid refugee training worldwide. Part of that funding was used by Loroupe to expand her training camp in Ngong, fourteen miles outside Nairobi, to include thirty runners.

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The ten-member Refugee Olympic Team was announced in June after a year-long selection process that included seventeen national Olympic Committees and the United Nations Refugee Agency. Bach said of the team, “It is a symbol of hope to all the refugees in the world. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic village with all the athletes of the world.” With 21 million refugees around the world and 44 million forcibly displaced people, many living under appalling conditions, the Refugee Team is also a symbol of courage, determination and heart.

The Refugee Olympic Team consists of five South Sudan runners, two swimmers from Syria, two judoka from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a marathon runner from Ethiopia. They have been given three stipulations: they could walk in the Opening Ceremony, live in the Olympic Village and participate in the qualifying heats.

Only one athlete, Yonas Kinde from Ethiopia, would have qualified for the Olympics strictly on achievement. No one watching the Opening Ceremonies could fail to have been moved when the Refugee Olympic Team entered the stadium to applause that was more sustained than any other team except the host country Brazil.

What the Olympics really signifies is the triumph of the human mind and heart as well as our God-given and God-encouraged ability to push our amazing bodies beyond our limits. When I watch the beauty of the shot put, the 10,000 meter run, the swimming medley relay, the balance beam or volleyball, I can’t help but think of the words of the Psalm 139.

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

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While each refugee’s story is both horrific and inspiring, Yusra Mardini’s journey typifies the Olympic spirit. Eighteen-year-old Mardini was born in Damascus and became a part of the Syrian swimming team. War broke out in 2011, her home was destroyed in 2012, and Yusra, her sister Sarah and two cousins finally fled last August.

Flying to Beruit and then to Istanbul, they hired smugglers to take them to Greece. Yusra and Sarah boarded an inflatable dinghy from Izmir, Turkey, to the Greek island of Lesbos, but the motor soon died and slowly took on water. The dinghy held twenty people, including a six-year-old boy.

Yusra and Sara and two young men were the only ones on the boat who knew how to swim, so they jumped into the water and pushed the boat for three and a half hours. Yusra described the experience, “All the people were praying. It seems funny now, but it was really hard. Me and my sister were in the water. Everyone said I had so much courage, but I remember thinking, I am a swimmer, but I am going to die in the water. I had to smile and be funny because there was a boy on the boat.”

After arriving in Lesbos, Yusra and Sarah walked or traveled in smugglers’ buses through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary and finally made it to a refugee camp in Berlin. There Yusra was able to find a local sports club and a trainer. When she heard about the Refugee Team, Yusra applied for and was granted a training scholarship.

During the first weekend of Olympic competition, Mardini placed 45th in the 100m butterfly freestyle heats, twelve seconds behind the winner. Reflecting on her Olympics experience, Yusra said, “I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go… When you are an athlete you do not think of country – you just have your lane, your cap and methods. My goal is a gold Olympic medal.”

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The Refugee Olympic Team is already changing the world.

Rami Anis set a personal best in the 100m freestyle. “It’s a wonderful feeling to compete in the Olympics. I don’t want to wake up from this dream.”

Popole Misenga lost in the second round of judo. “I have two brothers and I haven’t seen them. I don’t know how they look anymore because we were separated since we were small. So I send hugs and kisses to my brothers.”

Yonas Kinde will compete on August 21 in the men’s marathon. “It’s very good news for refugee athletes that Olympic Solidarity have given us this chance to participate here.”

Yolande Bukasa Mabika was knocked out in the first round of the 70 kg women’s judo.
“Judo never gave me money, but it gave me a strong heart. I got separated from my family and used to cry a lot. I started judo to have a better life.”

Yiech Pur Biel did not qualify for the semi-finals the men’s 800m. “Sport gave me a sense of belonging. Even if I don’t get gold or silver, I will show the world that, as a refugee, you can do something.”

Paulo Amotun Lokoro will compete Tuesday in the men’s 1500m heats. “A dream would be to break a record. To win a medal, a gold, that is my dream.”

James Chiengjiek finished eighth in his heat of the men’s 400m. “My dream is to get good results at the Olympics and also to help people. Because I have been supported by someone, I also want to support someone.”

Angelina Nadei Lohalith finished 14th in the second of the women’s 1500m heats.
“I’m happy because it will be the first time refugees are represented in the Olympics. It will inspire other refugees because wherever they are they will see that they are not just the ‘other people’.”

Rose Nathike Lokonyen competes Wednesday in the 800m heats. “My dream, my first priority, is to help my parents and my siblings and then after that to help my fellow refugees.” (Team member quotes from BBC Refugee Olympic Team Update August 13)

Do you think God ever imagined how far or how fast we humans could swim, run, cycle or jump? One thing I do know. Each one of us has far more potential to bring hope, joy and peace into our world than we can possibly dream. All we need is the courage to begin.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
T. S. Eliot

Blessings,
Laurie