Capturing the Energy of Love

The Holy Spirit arrived early! Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, gave a stirring sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on Saturday at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. He said, “Dr. King was right: ‘We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.’”

Bishop Curry also cited Mark chapter 12, where a scribe asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answers by saying that the first is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Curry reminded his listeners, “Love is the only way. There is power in love. Don’t underestimate it.”

At the end of his sermon, Curry referred to 20th Century French Jesuit, Roman Catholic priest and scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote that one of the greatest discoveries in human history was the harnessing of fire. De Chardin said that “If humanity ever harnesses the energy of fire again, and if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it would be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.” Curry’s remarks, which reflected the racial, cultural, and religious diversity of the wedding, were followed by a black gospel choir singing, “Stand by Me.”

When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound from heaven like the howling of a fierce wind filled the entire house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak.(Acts 2:1-4, CEB)

The fire of the Holy Spirit actually appeared even earlier last week when the appointive cabinet for 2018-19 gathered for an overnight retreat at Honey Creek State Park. Sitting around a bonfire on Wednesday evening, we were about to share our faith stories when the Holy Spirit blew in. A young woman in her early 20’s walked over to join us and asked, “Are you The United Methodist group?” “Yes,” we said. (This was a bit disconcerting. Can people really tell that we are United Methodists by our appearance?)

“I’m on the staff at Honey Creek for the summer, and I saw that a group of Methodists was here. I’m in need of some prayers and was hoping you could help me.” Jodi said that she is a student at Iowa State, where she became a Christian. She loves the way that some of the churches in Ames “cross borders” and work together for the good of their community and the world. “Most important to me is that we are all bound together in Christ,” she said.

Isn’t that the essence of Pentecost? Suddenly, the bonfire exploded with spiritual energy. Jodi said that she is living for the summer in a co-ed dorm where two of the young men are not Christians. Jodi has felt called to be a missionary to them, to share Christ’s love, and she was seeking advice on the best way to do that. Jodi wants to be invitational rather than confrontational, yet she doesn’t want to compromise her faith.

“We are all part of one human community,” someone said. “God loves each one.” Jodi explained said that she is attempting to clarify her call, part of which is to go back to her home town of Council Bluffs. She is committed to cross-generational ministries and believes that it is possible to do ministry together, regardless of denomination. For, in the end, as happened at Pentecost, we all speak the same language of love.

Jodi was delighted to hear that one of our new cabinet members, who is currently serving a dynamic church in Council Bluffs, will stay in contact with her. We circled around Jodi, laid hands on her head, and prayed for God to use her in a mighty way to witness to her dorm friends. We also asked the fire of the Holy Spirit to lead Jodi into the future as she continues to discern her call into professional ministry.

What fascinated me last week was the spiritual energy that was palpable around the bonfire as well as during the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Yes, Pentecost Sunday was yesterday, but the breath of God that is the Holy Spirit is always deep inside each one of us and blows where it wills. The Greek word for Holy Spirit is pneuma, translated as “breath.” We breathe in the love of God and breathe out the wind of the Holy Spirit. And wind produces energy, especially in Iowa! The state of Iowa has 3,957 wind turbines and is third in the nation, behind Texas and Oklahoma, in wind energy generation. We know all about wind!

Convinced that energy is a key to vital living, I am constantly aware of my own energy level. Whether we are parenting children, preparing a sermon, participating in athletic events, completing a major project at work, or rehearsing with a choir, success usually demands the careful cultivation and dispersal of energy.

Energy can be variously defined as “the capacity of acting or being active,” “a usually positive spiritual force,” and “a vigorous exertion of power.” Do you sense it when others display an incredible amount of energy?  It’s palpable and almost magical, isn’t it?  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had it. The University of Iowa and Iowa State football teams have it. The Downtown Farmers’ Market in Des Moines has it. The violinist Joshua Bell has it. Tiger Woods and LeBron James have it. Martin Luther King Jr. had it. The farewell concerts of Elton John, Paul Simon, and Neil Diamond have it. Bishop Michael Curry has it. Harry and Meghan have it.

I have this theory that Holy Spirit energy has four dimensions, which, not coincidentally, are described in Mark chapter 12, to which Bishop Curry referred on Saturday. A scribe asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus responds, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

When you and I capture the energy of love, we engage in healthy practices in all four areas. On the other hand, when our energy is sapped in any of these areas through misuse, disuse, or overuse, if affects our overall ability to faithfully and fruitfully model Christ’s love.

  • When our heart is healthy, we are emotionally mature, and our relationships are mutually life-giving. (emotional)
  • When our soul is healthy, we are spiritually formed and connected with God and others through Jesus Christ. (spiritual)
  • When our mind is healthy, we thrive on dynamic and creative intellectual activity. (mental)
  • When our strength is healthy, we take care of our bodies through exercise, sleep, and good eating habits. (physical)

How is this energy supplied to human beings? Through the fuel of the Holy Spirit! The Holy Spirit is the manifestation of God’s energy in our world: God in action. I wonder what might happen in our local churches if we were intentional about tapping into Holy Spirit energy. What if our pastors and lay leaders became Chief Energy Officers who are on fire with the Holy Spirit? What if we made it a priority in both our programming and outreach to minister to the four core needs of humans, all demonstrated through the power of love: heart, soul, mind and strength?

How might our churches look different if every child, youth, and adult were inspired to discover the untapped energy of his/her spiritual gifts and use them to inspire the energy of others? What power to love might be unleashed if we could access hidden sources of collective energy in our churches and communities?

Don’t miss out on the fire and power of Pentecost! Can you capture the energy of love? Can you see it and feel it? One thing I do know: Bishop Michael Curry has it and has shared it. Jody has it and is sharing it. What about you?

When Stuff Happens

It was a parliamentarian’s worst nightmare. Last week, three of the five amendments to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church were approved by an aggregate two-thirds vote of all the conferences in our global church. However, the first two amendments, which related to the rights of women, girls, and various other groups, were narrowly defeated.

Many United Methodists were both surprised and disappointed in the vote and wondered what happened. Then, last Friday, it was announced by the Secretary of the General Conference that an error in the wording of constitutional amendment #1 had been discovered. A new ballot is being prepared for distribution to all the annual conferences to consider at their next meeting.

I’m glad that the error was discovered but am not too concerned because stuff happens. Yes, this was a whopper. But the human condition is that sometimes we make mistakes. And when we do, we hope that we can learn from our mistakes, make amends, be the recipient of grace, and move on. The funny thing is, I learned about the amendment mistake just as I was beginning to write about another mistake.

The text message came at 2:39 p.m. a week ago Friday. “American Airlines. We’re sorry, but one of your two checked bags will arrive on a later flight in Des Moines. Set up free delivery at aa.com/delaybag/V5QU1CW”.

At least my suitcase disappeared on the way home from the Council of Bishops meeting in Chicago rather than on the way to the meeting. Nevertheless, it was annoying. After all, I was on a direct flight from Chicago to Des Moines. What could possibly go wrong?? Well … plenty!

After vainly checking to make sure that my bag was not on the carousel, Gary and I went to the baggage claim counter at the Des Moines airport to confirm the plan. I had already checked out the “delay bag” website and signed up on www.wheresmysuitcase.com to receive free delivery.

The young woman at the counter said, “Unfortunately, your bag was rerouted to Manhattan, Kansas.” I remembered Dorothy, who said in The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”Please, purple suitcase, don’t let them take you to Kansas!

“The good news,” she said, “is that someone detected the error and removed your bag from the plane before it actually took off. The bad news is that we couldn’t get the bag back to Gate G-8 in Chicago in time for your flight. But the good news is that your bag will come on the next flight to Des Moines and will arrive at 6:30 p.m. It should be on your doorstep by 9:00 p.m.”

“Who will actually deliver my bag?” I asked. “Oh, we contract with a delivery service. There’s nothing to worry about, and it’s free!” In hindsight, we should have driven a half hour home and then returned to the airport at 6:30 p.m. to retrieve my wayward purple suitcase, but we trusted the system.

At 8:33 pm., I received two identical texts from wheresmysuitcase.com, one again saying that my bag had been delayed. I filled out all the information online, which indicated that my bag would arrive at the airport late in the evening. If I wanted the delivery company to bring the bag to my house by 3 a.m., we could make sure the porch lights were on and sign a waiver (which I did) so the driver would not have to ring the door bell and wake us up.

We called the phone number that was given, just to make sure everything was on the up and up. I like my purple suitcase and wanted some assurance that it would not be lost forever in conveyor belt heaven. Plus, I had a lot of material from the Council of Bishops meeting in my suitcase that I needed ASAP. The rep said the suitcase would arrive at our doorstep at 4:30 a.m. “Now I lay me down to sleep…”

I woke at 6 a.m. and opened the front door. The outside light was still on, but no suitcase. Gary got through to a customer service agent for American Airlines after being on hold for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, I received one email, saying that the bag was delivered at 11:55 p.m., and another saying, “Case closed.” Hmmm. The person who finally answered was very pleasant, but when Gary asked why my suitcase hadn’t arrived yet, he said, “We don’t deliver bags during the night.”

“But my wife received three emails, one saying the bag would arrive at 4:30 a.m., and another that it would arrive at 3 a.m., and another to say it had been delivered at 11:55 p.m. What’s up with that?”

“I don’t know, but we don’t deliver bags at night.”

“You mean, it was fake news?”

“I guess you could say that.”

“Don’t you coordinate with the airlines, wheresmysuitcase.com, and the delivery company? Why did we consent online to have the bags delivered overnight when they were not even going to be delivered? And why did we get an email saying the case was closed?”

“All I know is that bags are never delivered at night. Our records show that bag will be at your house at 9:30 a.m.”

“How can I contact the delivery company to make sure the suitcase is really on the way?” “I’m sorry, but there is no one you can contact. The emails are automatically generated.”

Clearly, it’s a deeply flawed system. Sigh. I go out for an early morning bike ride and when I return, there is my purple suitcase, delivered at 10:16 a.m. by Joseph, the driver, safe and undamaged. Gary said, “It’s good I was here. Joseph was driving a car that looked like it was in an accident, with a gaping hole where the right headlight had been. When he came to the door, he gave me a beat-up black suitcase. I said, ‘That’s not my wife’s suitcase.’ He replied, ‘Oh, it isn’t?’”

Evidently, Joseph went back to his car and had to open the front door on the passenger side from the inside because it was too banged up. My purple suitcase was on the front seat. Twenty-two hours after parting with my bag in Chicago, we were reunited. Case closed.

My experience with both the bag and amendment #1 reminds me a lot of the local church. As leaders, we all mean well, but sometimes stuff happens. When we don’t have our act together, it can really irritate others. I’ve heard hundreds of complaints about the church over many years, some of which are amusing, others of which are sad, and still others that cause me to roll my eyes in amazement. And for the sake of full disclosure: I have accepted responsibility for all of the following mistakes at one time or another.

  • Why didn’t you visit Aunt Mabel when you knew she was very ill?
  • Why wasn’t my financial statement correct? It’s missing a huge contribution.
  • Why didn’t you let Johnny go on the middle school field trip? He’s almost old enough.
  • Why are there no safe sanctuary procedures for children?
  • Why did you let the announcements run on for 15 minutes this morning?
  • Why did a stranger sit in my pew today?
  • Why are major decisions made by a few “influential people” and not by the Administrative Council?
  • Why did you let Rachel and Judy get into an argument about who’s in charge of the mission fair without intervening?
  • Why weren’t you in your office when I dropped by yesterday?
  • Why didn’t anyone call me back when I signed up to help at the Wednesday dinner?

Our reality in the church is that when stuff happens, we too often minimize the issue, avoid taking responsibility, or make excuses. Whether it’s constitutional amendments, runaway suitcases, or church goof-ups, the questions for leaders are always the same when stuff happens.

  • What actually took place and how will we admit responsibility?

As leaders, there is no substitute for honesty and transparency about our mistakes, even if we personally did not make the mistake. In my experience, church folks are usually very gracious and tolerant if we admit our gaffes and apologize. When we refuse to admit failure, we project an image of ourselves and the church as incompetent, unresponsive, and uncaring.

  • Where and how did the failure take place in the system?

When stuff happens, it’s critical to humble ourselves and take the time to thoroughly investigate the problem. Hoping it will just go away never works. Carefully and prayerfully examining processes and procedures against our mission, vision, and values is critical. Other common problems include sloppy systems of accountability and lack of clear and frequent communication.

  • What commitment will we make to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

The key to healthy organizations is having the will to change, taking the time to create better processes and procedures, and continually evaluating and communicating our progress.

I have more confidence that The United Methodist Church will “fix” the constitutional amendment issue than American Airlines will “fix” their lost baggage delivery system. But I do know this. The greatest secret to a healthy response when stuff happens is creating transparency, always showing grace, and continually going on to perfection. But I still wonder. Where did my purple suitcase actually go?

Why Postville Matters

It was the second to last day of the 2017 RAGBRAI bike ride across Iowa when I rode my bike through Postville. I did not know about this tiny northeast Iowa town before, but my curiosity was raised when I heard buzz among the riders. As I walked my bike through town, I noticed ethnic restaurants as well as orthodox Jews walking the streets. That is not a normal scene in small town Iowa.

When I started asking questions, not having grown up in Iowa, the story unfolded. On May 12, 2008, Postville, population 2,273, advertising itself as “Hometown to the World,” was the place of the largest immigration raid of a single-site employer in US history. On May 12, students in the schools heard the sound of helicopters overhead and wondered what was happening. Was it simply the National Guard performing exercises or coming to recruit teenagers, or was it the worst nightmare of immigrants: the fear of deportation?

More than one thousand heavily armed ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and federal agents arrested 389 people, mostly Guatemalan, in a raid at Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat-packing plant in the world. Immigrants were handcuffed and bused to a makeshift prison at the National Cattle Congress grounds in Waterloo where they were held pending adjudication. Most of the detainees were unaware that they needed Social Security numbers to work in the US and were charged with document fraud. They could plead guilty to one set of felony charges and receive five months in jail and deportation, or they could face the prospect of much more serious charges and a considerably longer jail term.

Hundreds of families were separated, and Postville lost 20% of its population overnight. The raid cost the United States five million dollars. Meanwhile, company officials were arrested for immigration violations, worker exploitation, and financial crimes. Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy, and the town’s major employer was shuttered five months after the raid. Sholom Rusbashkin, CEO of Agriprocessors, was convicted and served eight years of a 27-year sentence for bank fraud. His sentence was commuted in December 2017 by President Donald Trump.

This Friday, May 12, marks the tenth anniversary of the Postville raid and offers the opportunity to look back on this significant and defining event in the state. Most people outside of Iowa assume that there is little ethnic diversity in the state. They have visions of miles and miles of corn and soybean fields, huge cattle farms, and mostly white people driving trucks and tractors.

In a 2006 article by Stephen G. Bloom, a journalism teacher at the University of Iowa, “Immigration comes to the small-town Midwest,” he noted that 60 percent of graduates at UI leave the state because of a lack of opportunities. He also wrote that from 1980 to 1990, all but seven of Iowa’s 99 counties lost population, with many school districts consolidating. We find the same trend in The United Methodist Church, where it is no longer impossible for many rural churches to support full-time clergy or for county seat towns to maintain two or three United Methodist congregations.

In the past few decades, however, Iowa has experienced slow and steady growth, due in large part to immigrants moving to Iowa from other countries. Immigrants are often willing to work in low paying jobs that others do not want, including service industries and meat-packing plants.

Postville was one of those places. In 1987, Aaron Rubashkin, a Russian-born Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, decided to get into the business of mass producing kosher meat in Iowa. He purchased an abandoned slaughterhouse outside Postville, converted it into a processing plant, and hired 350 workers. Two of his sons were sent to oversee the plant, with Sholom Rubashkim becoming the CEO. By 2007, Agriprocessors was suppling 60% of kosher meat and 40% of kosher poultry in the US.

The Hometown to the World became a grand experiment in multi-culturalism. Many Jews relocated to work at Agriprocessors, and people from fifty nations also converged on Postville, with immigrants being given dangerous and the lowest paying slaughterhouse jobs in the nation. Postville was changed forever.

How did this tiny community learn to live together? Amazingly, Postville made great progress in creating a sustainable, multicultural community. With rapid changes in the global economy and traditional midwestern tolerance, residents of Postville were able to transcend ethnic, religious, and class differences.

Postville schools had students from more than thirty-five countries. People from many cultures worked together to address community concerns and organize events. Despite built-in segregators such as religion, food, and separate schools, Jews, Christians, Muslims, people of various ethnicities, and locals became neighbors and friends.

By attempting to build a tolerant respectful community, Postville became a model for diversity, despite occasional setbacks. The multicultural and popular Taste of Postville was intentionally designed to break down barriers between residents. A multilingual Postville radio station started, and the Postville Soccer League became an opportunity to have fun together.

Unfortunately, after the raid, the town fell apart. Businesses and restaurants were forced to close. Undocumented workers disappeared, which meant they were foreclosing on houses or not paying rent. And far fewer people were around to spend money in town. All this, as the recession of 2008 was beginning. The kosher slaughterhouse was bought by SHF Industries in 2009 as a meat-processing plant and was renamed Agristar.

Postville has come a long way in recovery with many Somali refugees now working legally and living in town. Why does Postville matter ten years later?

  • Postville matters because it has become the poster child for the global themes of refugees, poor working conditions. and false promises. A multicultural and multireligious world is right outside our doorstep, no matter where we live.
  • Postville matters because it reminds us that immigrants are human beings made in the image of God who deserve to be treated with respect and grace.
  • Postville matters because ministries like Iowa Justice for our Neighbors can provide legal immigration resources for individuals and families who have no other place to turn for help. After the raid, eight local faith communities came together through the Decorah JFON clinic to assist immigrants still living in Postville through the Path to Citizenship. 
  • Postville matters because wherever diversity exists, even in small numbers, training is necessary around language, health care, teachers, law enforcement, and churches.
  • Postville matters because last month, on April 5, 2018, an immigration raid at a meat packing plant in rural Morristown, Tennessee resulted in the detention of 97 people. More than five hundred children missed school the next day. It was the largest workplace immigration raid since Postville.
  • Postville matters because we are all called to demonstrate bold resolve by championing the rights of immigrants, respecting and defending their inherent dignity, and welcoming their many contributions to our neighborhoods, towns, and to our society. “

On Friday, May 11, the 10th anniversary of the federal immigration raid will be observed in Postville. Organizers of the event say it will be a time to remember the 389 people who were arrested on May 12, 2008, “as a summons to challenge current anti-immigrant rhetoric and behaviors and to unite in demanding just, humane and comprehensive immigration reform.”

The day will begin with a 10 a.m. interfaith prayer service at St. Bridget Catholic Church, followed by a noon rally at Meyer Park, close to the site of raid. Postville matters.