Clouds Got in My Way

Last week, Gary and I went for a walk on a nearby bike trail. I enjoy living in the outer suburbs of Des Moines because the episcopal residence is at the top of a hill. I can see for miles in all directions and have come to love the amazing cloud formations and storm systems that rumble in from the west. All of the pictures in this blog were taken at or near our home.

A few hours after our walk, the storm clouds rolled in, delivering a one-two punch, with a vicious downpour coupled with marble-sized hail bouncing off our deck. It reminded me of the scariest airplane experience I have ever had, which just happened to take place in Iowa. In the summer of 2014, I was flying from Detroit to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to participate in the 1,000 mile Imagine No Malaria bike ride across the North Central Jurisdiction. I was in a relatively small commuter plane and watched out the window as our pilot navigated his way through enormous cumulonimbus clouds that produced intense rain and a lot of rock and roll! Let’s just say that not every cloud has a silver lining! I hung on to my seat for dear life and prayed my way to Sioux Falls.

A cloud is basically water drops or ice crystals floating in the sky. These drops often can’t be seen because they turn into a gas called water vapor. The higher the water vaper is, the cooler the air is, and the drops of water start to attach themselves to dust, ice, or even sea salt.

When these droplets join with other droplets, they become larger drops that then fall to the earth because of gravity: i.e. rain. When the air becomes colder, the falling water becomes snowflakes, freezing, rain, sleet, or hail. At night, clouds reflect heat and keep the ground warmer, and during the day, clouds make shade that can keep everything cooler.

As a child, I learned that there are different kinds of clouds. Some, like cumulonimbus clouds, can reach 40,000 feet in altitude. Cirrus clouds look like feathers and are usually high in the sky; big, puffy cumulus clouds are often in the middle; and low stratus clouds look like sheets. Some clouds are so close to the earth’s surface that when they touch the ground, we call it fog. I ran in dense fog early one morning last week.

Clouds are found everywhere on earth, even in the Bible! The most well-known cloud reference is in Genesis 9:13 (CEB), where God promised Noah that God would never again destroy the earth with a flood. The sign of God’s covenant with God’s people was a rainbow in the clouds, “I have placed my bow in the clouds; it will be the symbol of the covenant between me and the earth.” A rainbow is a natural spectrum of color that appears in the sky after a rain shower. It’s actually a refraction and scattering of sunlight caused by tiny drops of waters of water in the atmosphere.

In the book of Exodus, God leads the Israelites out of Egypt through the wilderness by the guidance of a cloud. “The Lord went in front of them during the day in a column of cloud to guide them and at night in a column of lightning to give them light. This way they could travel during the day and at night.The column of cloud during the day and the column of lightning at night never left its place in front of the people.”(Exodus 13:21-22 CEB)

The last reference to clouds in the Bible comes from Revelation 1:7 (CEB), where Jesus comes back to earth. Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen.”

Other meanings of the word “cloud” have come into usage in our vocabulary over the years. In the fourteenth century, an anonymous author wrote a mystical book called The Cloud of Unknowing. The author claims that God is surrounded by a “cloud of unknowing” that we can only access by love and not knowledge. Franciscan friar Richard Rohr writes about The Cloud of Unknowing, “The author believes that the spiritual journey demands full self-awareness and honesty, a perpetual shadow-boxing with our own weaknesses and imperfections. While physical withdrawal from the world is not essential, letting go of attachments to people, expectations, and things is. This requires contemplative practice, a true spiritual discipline.”[i]

Of course, many people today associate the word “cloud” with the Internet; or specifically, everything that you can access remotely because it is stored on internet servers rather than on our hard drive. “The Cloud” is a much more user-friendly word than “remote data storage,” which actually describes the function of the cloud. The first use of “cloud computing” may have occurred when then Google CEO Eric Schmidt introduced the term at a conference on August 9, 2006. It could be said that the billions upon billions of bits of information that we store are similar to the billions and billions of droplets that give actual clouds their shape and allow us the opportunity to dream and imagine.

One of the most wonderful images of clouds comes from Joni Mitchell in her 1969 hit song Both Sides Now.

Bows and flows of angel hair; And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere; I’ve looked at clouds that way.

But now they only block the sun; They rain and snow on everyone.
So many things I would have done; But clouds got in my way.

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now; From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall; I really don’t know clouds at all.

Unlike the sun, moon, and stars, clouds are continually changing and can have whatever meaning we give them. Our reality is that none of us can ever remain the same as individuals or churches. The ability to continually adjust and adapt in order to make a positive difference in our world is essential to becoming who God created us to be.

Sometimes my head is in the clouds, but at other times I am on high alert as clouds get in my way. At times, the future seems cloudy, like right now in The United Methodist Church. None of us knows exactly what shape our beloved church will take in the future.

But I do know this. Whenever I see the bow in the clouds, I remember God’s covenant with human beings. And whenever I see the column of cloud guiding me by day and the column of fire leading me by night, I give thanks for the privilege of being a servant of the living God whose only calling is to share Christ’s love.

My dear friends, God loves us so much that God is working every day for good in the world through you and me. Can you see it in the clouds? Can you feel it in the rain? Will you live it your heart?



The Unlikely Legacy of John Stewart

It’s an improbable and amazing story. But, then again, God always seems to work in mysterious and wondrous ways. The 200th anniversary of the first permanent Methodist Episcopal mission in America began with a man named John Stewart, who was born in 1786 in Virginia to parents of mixed ancestry, including African, and European. Because his parents were free, Stewart was able to receive a public education and was raised as a Christian, his brother being a Baptist minister.

Stewart, who experienced ill health as a child, remained in Virginia as a young adult, while his parents moved to Tennessee. Eventually, Stewart left Virginia in search of his parents and ended up in Marietta, Ohio in 1811. There, he fell into the hands of robbers, who stole everything he owned. Distraught and depressed, Stewart started drinking to deal with his problems and even thought about suicide.

Realizing that he needed to get his life together, Stewart recommitted his life to Christ and became an apprentice on a sugar maple farm. Once he got back to Marietta, Stewart fell into drinking again, and, once more, promised God that he would change his life. This time, after deciding to form a blue-dying business, Stewart also made a decision to join a Methodist Episcopal church.

At the same time as John Stewart was discovering his life’s calling, the Methodist movement had already been established in America for seventy years, had moved beyond the original thirteen colonies, and was expanding west.

  • 1736: John and Charles Wesley arrived in Savannah and stayed less than two years
  • 1739-1740: George Whitfield had his first American preaching tour
  • 1763-1766: The first Methodist societies were founded in Maryland, Virginia, and New York
  • 1771: Circuit rider Francis Asbury traveled to America and became a leader of American Methodism after the Revolutionary War
  • 1780: John Wesley’s A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists became a standard songbook
  • 1784: John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke in England, appointed him as a general superintendent and sent him sent to America to oversee the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.
  • 1784: At the Christmas Conference in Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, 86 Methodist preachers gathered to form a new denomination. On three successive days, Thomas Coke ordained Francis Asbury as a deacon, an elder, and subsequently as general superintendent (bishop).

John Stewart was born in 1786, two years after the American Methodist Church had established its own denominational identity and was pushing beyond the boundaries of the thirteen original colonies. At the time, there was lots of evangelism among the Methodist circuit riders but little organized mission.

As a new Christian and a Methodist, John Stewart suffered from tuberculosis for four years. In 1815, after he was cured, Stewart felt God calling him to share God’s word with the Native Americans in Ohio, so he made his way to Sandusky to work among the Wyandotte (Huron) Indians. On his journey, Stewart sang and preached to the Delaware tribe.

Of course, Stewart could not communicate with the Indians because he did not know their language. However, after reaching Sandusky, Stewart became acquainted with a black man who had become a prisoner of the Wyandottes as a young child. Jonathan Pointer became Stewart’s interpreter, and in 1816 Stewart began to reach out to the Wyandotte Nation. This was during the time of the camp meetings, which were held in forest clearings and consisted of passionate preaching, enthusiastic singing, fervent prayers, and many conversions. Through his singing and preaching, Stewart converted Pointer as well as some of the women, tribal members, and chiefs to Christianity, thus forming the first permanent Methodist mission in America.

When Stewart traveled down to southern Ohio in 1817, rival missionaries began accusing him of performing ministerial functions without a license. This caused some to lose faith in Stewart, even calling him a runaway slave. However, after Stewart returned in 1819, he became fully licensed by the Methodist Episcopal Church.

As a response to John Stewart’s work with the Wyandotte Indians in Ohio, the Missionary Society was formed in New York City on April 5, 1819. Subsequently, on August 7, 1819, the Ohio Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church established the first official mission to the Indians. The Church financially supported John Stewart as well as the mission.

Today, the Wyandotte Indian Mission is one of forty-nine United Methodist Heritage Landmarks, which are considered to be the most sacred places in global United Methodism. Our General Board of Global Ministries is the successor to the Missionary Society, which was affirmed by the 1820 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church as our first mission society in the United States.

Around this time, John Stewart married a mulatto woman named Polly, and money was raised by the Methodist church to help buy them a tract of land for their home. Missionaries were also appointed to assist Stewart’s ministry. Unfortunately, Stewart’s health began to decline, and he died on December 17, 1823 at the age of 37.

What does the unlikely legacy of John Stewart teach us as United Methodists?

  • Mission is the lifeblood of The United Methodist Church. After John Stewart became a Methodist, he was compelled to share his faith with those who had never heard the gospel.
  • God used a black man of mixed racial heritage, one who would have been rejected by many at the time, to share God’s love and the gospel of Jesus Christ with the Wyandotte Indians.
  • Whereas the Methodist circuit riders cross-crossed America, John Stewart stayed in one place, choosing to devote his life to a particular people and missionary endeavor.
  • God’s grace enabled Stewart to persist in the face of many difficulties and challenges, and he has left a legacy that will never be forgotten.
  • John Stewart UMC in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, is an active church today and carries out Stewart’s missionary legacy.

Mission and evangelism still lies at the heart of Methodism. Two hundred years after the first permanent Methodist mission was established, United Methodists are in in the forefront of mission in every corner of the world. Fifty years after the first Methodist mission was formed, women in the Methodist Episcopal Church came together to create the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, the precursor to today’s United Methodist Women. In addition, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) was formally constituted in 1940 and is known around the world as one of the premier disaster relief agencies.

In 2019 The UMC is celebrating 200 years of mission around the world. As part of that observance, the General Board of Global Ministries will return the title of the land of the Wyandotte Indian Mission back to its original owners, the Wyandotte Nation. The unlikely legacy of John Stewart changed the world. What might your legacy be?

We heed, O Lord, your summons, and answer: Here are we! 
Send us upon your errand, let us your servants be.
Our strength is dust and ashes, our years a passing hour;
but you can use our weakness to magnify your power.

(John Haynes Holmes, 1913)

May Day Surprises

It was quite a day! I knew it was May 1 because the appointive cabinet was meeting at the Iowa Conference Center for the first of three days, and my monthly From the Heart of Iowa newsletter is published. Little did I know what surprises the day would hold.

After our weekly Wednesday worship service in the Conference Center chapel, the cabinet had the privilege of meeting Katherine Parker, who is a General Board of Global Ministries missionary serving as a Health and Community Transformation Advisor with the United Mission to Nepal. As a missionary, Katherine is itinerating in the U.S. right now, and we were blessed by her presence among us. Missionaries take extended time away every three years to visit the conferences that support them.

Katherine, who is a native of California, graduated from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA. with a degree in biology. In 2000, she became a mission intern for three years with the Asian Rural Institute in Japan and also Practical Farmers of America in Iowa. Before starting her ministry in Nepal in 2013, Katherine was assigned to Cambodia, where she worked with the Community Health and Agricultural Program.

Having spent several weeks in Nepal last summer, I was fascinated with Katherine’s description of Nepal as a closed country for 350 years. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that Nepalis began to encounter Christ, and the first churches were formed by Nepalis returning to their native country. Today, Nepal is a primarily Hindu country (81.3% of the population), followed by Buddhist (9%), Muslim (4.4%), Kirant (3.1%), and Christian (1.4%).

The United Mission to Nepal is a partnership of seven denominational agencies whose mission is, “Inspired by the love and teachings of Jesus Christ, in partnership with the Christian community and others in Nepal and worldwide, we will serve the people of Nepal, particularly those who live in poverty: to pursue peace and justice for all; to address the root causes of poverty; and to make Christ known by word and life.”

Katherine’s ministry in Nepal is centered in three areas: 1) Adolescent empowerment, including sexual reproductive health and rights and menstrual hygiene; 2) Maternal and child health; and 3) Water, sanitation, and hygiene. Katherine of part of the 5th generation of her family to serve in the Methodist connection. What a joy it was to hear Katherine share how the United Mission to Nepal is reaching out to Nepali citizens in holistic ways to address the roots causes of poverty.

Meeting Katherine would have been enough of a May Day surprise, but in the afternoon, we received word that one of our United Methodist bishops from Africa was in the building! Bishop Daniel Lunge Onashuyaka is the resident Bishop of the Central Congo Area, which includes Central Congo, Kasai, and Western Congo conferences in the Congo Central Conference of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Lunge and his wife Julianne live in Kinshasha and have seven children.

Bishop Lunge was in the U.S. for another denominational meeting, and it wasn’t practical for him and Julianne to return to the Congo for a few days and then fly right back to Chicago for the Council of Bishops meeting, which started yesterday. Therefore, one of our district superintendents, Kiboko Kiboko, and his wife Betty, offered to host the Lunge’s in their home.

It was amazing for our cabinet to hear how similar and very different The United Methodist Church is in Iowa and the Congo. Bishop Lunge has three annual conferences with 29 total district superintendents! To travel from one side of the Congo to the other side is two thousand kilometers. Bishop Lunge meets with his DS’s two times a year to help them accomplish their mission, which includes visits to their pastors, evangelism, and staying connected with United Methodist schools, hospitals, and other social work agencies. The spouses of DS’s are also expected to care for the spouses of the clergy.

One of the greatest challenges in the Congo is transportation because most of the roads are not well maintained. Bishop Lunge’s priorities for his clergy include inspiring and mobilizing lay people, calling others to ministry, forming district leadership programs for young people, and encouraging an outpouring of generosity to all those in need. What an inspiration to hear Bishop Lunge’s passion and know that, far across the globe, The United Methodist Church is also making a huge difference. He said to us, “Every day I ask, ‘What work of God have I done, according to my schedule?’”

What a privilege to be blessed by the presence of Katherine and Bishop Lunge and Julianne. But May Day had more surprises in store. After a lunch meeting, I returned to the cabinet room to discover a row of large red cups lined up on the counter. Inside the cups were all kinds of goodies, including popcorn, nuts, chocolate, jelly beans, and other candy. Later I discovered that Diane Brockmeyer, our beloved episcopal administrative assistant, created this culinary delight for us in honor of May Day.

It’s a curious custom, one that I had never really paid attention to until last week. May Day is a northern hemisphere tradition that usually goes like this. As May 1 approaches, people begin gathering flowers, candy, and other small items to put in baskets and then hang them on the doors of families, friends, and neighbors. In 19th and 20th century America, May baskets were quite popular. On May 1, the basket was hung on the door of a loved one or prospective girlfriend or boyfriend and then the person ran away.

Louisa May Alcott wrote about May Basket Day in New England in her 1880 children’s book, Jack and Jill, “Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another’s arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly; such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling – it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener.”

The surprises and blessings of May Day came at just the right time for the appointive cabinet. As we continue to work carefully and prayerfully on the last phase of our appointment-making, we are also caring for our clergy and families and encouraging our congregations to engage in transformative ministry in their local communities in Iowa and around the world.

Des Moines Register

Heavy on our hearts, however, is our continued struggle in Iowa with extensive spring flooding. According to a National Public Radio report, Iowa has received more precipitation in the last year than in any recorded period in 124 years of available information. In March, parts of southwest and northwest Iowa were flooded, primarily from the Missouri River, including several of our United Methodist churches. We are grateful for the help of UMCOR and hundreds of individuals and churches who have contributed to flood relief, knowing that this will be a long-term recovery.

Meanwhile, the Mississippi River on the eastern border of Iowa has been at a dangerously high level. Last Thursday, a tipping point was reached when the river level in the city of Davenport reached an all-time high at 22.64 feet. Instead of a flood wall, Davenport has several hundred feet of a riverfront park in addition to HESCO barriers, which are similar to fencing with a liner filled with dirt or sand. Last Tuesday, the temporary levee broke, inundating the downtown business area with contaminated water. Fortunately, there were no deaths, and, once more, people from all over the state are doing what they can to help.

May Day surprises (and I dare say miracles) happen when the people that God so lovingly created and into whom God breathed life, use the gifts they have been given to make a difference in the far corners of the world, from Nepal to the Congo, to Iowa, to May Day baskets/cups that surprise and bless. Thanks be to God!