The Limp

“Are you limping?” I’ve heard that question several times over the past months, and the answer has been “Yes.” A year ago, I injured my left knee as I was beginning to ramp up mileage for a race. A visit to an orthopedic doctor eventually revealed a few stress fractures as well as a medial meniscus root tear. I wore a knee brace for seven months and stoically endured approximately twenty-five special airport security checks from very patient, kind, and professional TSA employees.

After continued doctor visits with the hope that my knee would heal on its own, I eventually decided to have surgery. However, that was near the beginning of COVD-19 when elective surgery was not permitted in order to ensure adequate medical resources for COVID-19 cases. I ended up having the meniscus repair a month ago and came home with an even larger knee brace! I am now rehabbing my knee in the hope of eventually being able to run again. I also have to confess that right after the initial diagnosis in June 2019, my husband Gary and I spent a month walking the 500 mile El Camino pilgrimage trail in Spain. Probably not smart, but I have no regrets!

Whenever I hear the word “limp,” I am drawn to Genesis 32. Do you remember how Esau was born before Jacob, who came out holding on to his older brother’s heel as if he was trying to pull Esau back into the womb so that he could be firstborn? The name Jacob actually means “he grasps the heel” and implies deceptive behavior in Hebrew.

We are also told that Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob. One day Esau returned from the fields famished and impulsively begged Jacob to give him a bowl of stew in exchange for his birthright. The birthright is the right of recognition as the first born. To make matters worse, Jacob also tricked Esau out of his father’s blessing. The twins were subsequently estranged.

After many years and more trials and tribulations, the two brothers came together on the banks of the Jabbok River. Jacob was terrified to come back home because he thought Esau was still out to kill him. Yet, it was God’s desire that these two brothers be reconciled with each other. At the Jabbok River ford, Jacob wrestled with God and with his guilt and fear. During the fray, an angel struck Jacob on the thigh, and he came away with a limp.

I suspect it was then that Jacob truly became a mature adult. Only when Jacob was willing to embrace his limp and the consequences of his youthful scheming could he be reconciled with his brother. When they finally met, it was Esau who ran to meet Jacob, embraced him, fell on his neck, kissed him, and wept. And Jacob said to his brother, “Seeing your face is like seeing God’s face, since you’ve accepted me so warmly.” (Genesis 33:19)

The most significant learning of my years at Yale Divinity School took place in a class taught by Henri Nouwen called “Ministry and Spirituality.” And the most transformative of the many Nouwen books I read during the years has been The Wounded Healer (1972).

Nouwen’s words changed my life and grounded my ministry. “Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”

At the time, I had not been wounded yet. Nor was I limping. I had a clear call to music ministry, but that changed dramatically during my first two years at Yale. Due in large part to Nouwen’s influence, I read all of his books, but I did not yet have the practical experience in the church to understand the depth of woundedness that was coming my way. Yes, I had a part-time job at a nearby United Methodist Church as the organist and choir director. And yes, I had to become hardened to the petty complaints that left me with a limp.

But I also came to realize how my own words and actions as a religious leader can hurt others deeply. Nouwen said this, “The Church often wounds us deeply. People with religious authority often wound us by their words, attitudes, and demands. Precisely because our religion brings us in touch with the questions of life and death, our religious sensibilities can get hurt most easily. Ministers and priests seldom fully realize how a critical remark, a gesture of rejection, or an act of impatience can be remembered for life by those to whom it is directed.”

Henri Nouwen’s legacy in my life was the realization that if I were to be an effective pastor, I would have to acknowledge my own woundedness and embrace a permanent limp.

Last month, in rearranging our basement storage room, I came across a box with notes from Henri Nouwen’s Ministry and Spirituality class as well as several typed papers that he had written. In his paper, The Minister as a Healing Reminder (1977) Nouwen wrote,

  • “The great vocation of the minister is to continuously make connections between the human story and the divine story. We have inherited a story which needs to be told in such a way that the many painful wounds about which we hear day after day can be liberated from their isolation and revealed as part of God’s relationship with us. Healing means to reveal that our human wounds are most intimately connected with the suffering of God himself.” (Nouwen had not yet been exposed to inclusive language.)
  • “By connecting the human story with the story of the suffering servant, we rescue our history from its fatalistic chain and allow our time to be converted from chronos to kairos, from a series of randomly organized incidents and accidents into a constant opportunity to explore God’s work in our lives.”
  • “All of ministry rests on the conviction that nothing, absolutely nothing in our lives is outside the realm of God’s judgment and mercy.”

This is a very tender time in our history as a conference, country, and world. We are struggling around the legacy of racism in the U.S. as well as the devastating effects of COVID-19. So many people remain unemployed, and in The United Methodist Church, we are still wondering what we will look like in the future because of our differences around human sexuality. At the same time, I experience every day the walking wounded among the clergy: those who have lost hope; those who bear too many responsibilities; those who are struggling to help their church make ends meet; and those who carry the burden of complaints and pettiness, knowing that they cannot possibly please everyone.

The wounds seem unbearable at times, and we wonder how reconciliation and healing can become a reality. As disciples of Jesus Christ, whether clergy or lay, our own woundedness reminds us of the suffering of all humanity as well as the wounds experienced by God through the suffering of Jesus.

I’m in the midst of physical therapy now and am working hard to strengthen my knee and enhance the healing process. At the same time, I am reminded every day of the limp that grounds me in my humanity and frailty. Even if I am able to start running again, I will not forget that it is our own wounds that bring healing, hope, and compassion to our world. Perhaps it is only the wounded who can truly heal.

P.S. I will be taking a summer break from writing my blog. The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Tuesday, September 8.

P.P.S. If you are looking for summer reading, I invite you to pick up a copy of my 2020 book, Wandering into Grace, published by Abingdon Press. You may purchase the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Laurie-Haller/e/B084RFGDJH?ref_=dbs_p_pbk_r00_abau_000000

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go Be the Church!

The email came just a few days ago. Retired clergy Phil Dicks is serving as the pastor of two small churches in the Central District, Farrar and Mingo. Pastor Phil sent me an email last week, wanting me to know about the amazing ministry that has been taking place in his churches since COVID-19 has forced many congregations to rethink the way they do ministry.

Referencing 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, where the apostle Paul writes about the many hardships he experienced in his mission to preach the gospel, Phil lifted up his two small town, rural congregations as an example of how they, too, were facing adversity in the form of quarantine in the midst of a growing pandemic. Just as Paul’s disorientation resulted in transformation, so Mingo and Farrar needed to do a new thing immediately.

How were Pastor Dicks’ churches going to respond? After never having had an online presence, Mingo and Farrar began using Zoom for worship, and in a matter of days, they progressed lightyears. Finding a way to connect online lessened the fear and anxiety of COVID-19, and people felt closer to one another. Pastor Phil said, “They discovered a way of meeting together that lessened the separation and loneliness… The ‘disorientation’ helped people understand the importance of relationships in our faith—God’s desire to not be separated from us, our desire to not be separated from God, and our faith relationships with others in the Church. There was opportunity in the adversity.”

Every week, the Zoom services attracted more people as word spread through the local communities as well as around the country and world. The virtual doors were opened!! Time is allotted at the end of each service for people to visit and get to know each other. Communion is celebrated online every week. Pastor Phil sends out “pre-sermon” messages during the week, and the sermons, which are posted weekly, are receiving many more views. There have been over 136 hours of online viewing, with a high of 110 viewers one Sunday and 65 unique first-time views another Sunday.

“We’ve never seen anything like that before,” Phil said. “We planned online the planting of a community ‘milpa garden.’ We found an organic farm that was open to us, scattering an acre of ground with bulk assorted seeds to get ready for a summer-time and fall harvest to meet the needs of our ‘neighbors’ and stock up the local food banks as needed. The garden provided us a way to invite and connect with other churches in the area to be a part.”

Phil continued, “We were seeing a God ‘momentum’ begin in mission. This has been a miracle. Like the ‘crossing of the Red Sea,’ it was challenging, but as the 23rd Psalm promises: ‘Thou art with me (us).’ Each Sunday, we included it in our online worship, and we asked people to share God sightings: ‘God Winks’ as they call it…which increased our awareness of God at work in and through us. Even our traditional ‘sending out’ phrase: ‘Go Be the Church’ took on new meaning as we discovered the opportunities in leaving the building and scattering – ‘The Church has left the building.’ The World is our Parish!”

As I experienced the blessing of worship with Mingo UMC, I remembered that the Chinese word for “crisis” is often referred to by motivational speakers as consisting of two Chinese characters that signify “danger” and “opportunity” respectively. The disorientation of which Pastor Phil spoke became the catalyst for an explosion of creativity in ministry. Each week, more and more people gather online.

My virtual visit to Mingo confirmed Pastor Phil’s description of the transformation of Mingo UMC. I watched people logging on from different towns, cities, states, and countries. The congregation is preparing for a gradual “soft” reopening of in-house worship, and I could see a scattering of people in the sanctuary wearing masks and sitting socially distanced. I don’t think online worship is going away, however.

I got a sense of how both the Mingo and Farrar congregations were becoming more confident in their ability to worship online and form connections with new people. Folks use the chat function to catch up with each other. I especially appreciated the “God Winks” part of worship where anyone could share a way in which God was working in their life that week.

  • Seeing my brand-new grandson’s face
  • Forming new relationships
  • Watching the funeral service for George Floyd and Al Sharpton bringing a biblical and theological word
  • The full moon last night, shining bright through the thin clouds
  • A major transformation in someone I love

Special music came all the way from Decorah from a husband, wife, and young son.

Inch by inch, row by row, Gonna make this garden grow.
All it takes is a rake and a hoe, And a piece of fertile ground.
Inch by inch, row by row, Someone bless these seeds I sow.
Someone warm them from below, Till the rain comes tumbling down.
Pulling weeds and picking stones, We are made of dreams and bones.
Feel the need to grow my own, Cause the time is close at hand.
Plant your rows straight and long, Temper them with prayer and song.
Mother Earth will make you strong, If you give her love and care.

Pastor Phil’s sermon was a powerful and personal reflection on the fragility of this time when the world is protesting the murder of George Floyd and we are all learning what it means to be racially inclusive. What role can we play in the healing of our world, and what would Jesus say to us this day? Pastor Phil’s biblical text was Micah 6:8, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (CEB)

I was left with much to ponder and pray about the rest of the day. Can I live in a different way? Mercy and justice must go hand in hand. I will do what is fair and just for my neighbor. I vow not to take myself too seriously but will take God seriously. I will assume the best in other people rather than the worst. I will stand with those who need me. I will love.

We can be a force for Christ. Let’ go be the church! Thanks be to God.

 

That We May Love the Way You Love

It was God who first breathed life into George Floyd, but it was a police officer who took away Floyd’s breath a week ago. It all started when police were called, with the report that Floyd might have used a counterfeit bill in a store. Forty-six-year-old Floyd was handcuffed and pinned to the ground by the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Three other officers stood by and did nothing. Even when Floyd cried out, “Please. Please. I can’t breathe,” and bystanders pleaded, the officer did not let up. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, officer Chauvin’s knee prevented Floyd from breathing. Finally, Floyd stopped moving.

The four officers who were present were later fired, and Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Chauvin had eighteen previous police misconduct complaints against him, without any disciplinary action. Breathe on us, breath of God, fill us with life anew. (UM Hymnal #420, adapted)

Floyd’s death is but the latest in a string of troubling incidents that have reignited the simmering cauldron of racism that continues to haunt our country. Earlier that same day in New York City’s Central Park, Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police, claiming that a black man had threatened her. Evidently, the man, Christian Cooper (no relation), who was birding, had simply asked the woman to leash her dog, which is required in that area of the park because of the wildlife. Before she made the call, Amy Cooper warned Christian Cooper that she was going to call police and tell them that an African American man was threatening her, thereby setting him up. Fortunately, Christian Cooper recorded the incident on his cellphone, and Amy Cooper was fired from her job. That we may love the way you love and do what you would do.

On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery, who was jogging in a suburban neighborhood in Georgia, was allegedly shot to death by former police officer George McMichael, 64, and his son Travis McMichael, 34, each of whom has been charged with aggravated assault and felony murder. Breathe on us, breath of God, until our hearts are pure.

And just a few weeks ago, DarQuan Jones, a 22-year-old black man and warehouse worker from Des Moines, was viciously assaulted by three white men in front of his girlfriend’s house. They shouted racial slurs and accused Jones of breaking into a nearby home. Chasing him into a nearby field, they choked Jones and dragged him to nearby water, where they held his head under the water and cocked a gun. “I can’t breathe.”

Fortunately, two women heard Jones’ screams and ran out of a house to help, which prompted the assailants to flee. DarQuan Jones was left with five fractured bones in his cheek and a broken wrist and nose.

A tense protest last night outside the Des Moines police headquarters ended peacefully when police agreed to take a knee in prayer with protestors in honor of the memory of George Floyd.  Until our will is one with yours, to do and to endure.

“On the day the Lord God made earth and sky before any wild plants appeared on the earth, and before any field crops grew, because the Lord God hadn’t yet sent rain on the earth and there was still no human being to farm the fertile land, though a stream rose from the earth and watered all of the fertile land; the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.” (Genesis 2:5-7, CEB) Breathe on us, breath of God, till we are wholly thine.

The same breath of God that breathed life into you and me continues to create and recreate and offers to each one of us the power of the Holy Spirit. John 20:19-23 (CEB) tells the Pentecost story, “It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.’ Then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.’” Till all this earthly part of us glows with thy fire divine.        

Breathing is a powerful and involuntary instinct. But what happens when entire groups of people cannot breathe? The United Methodist Church is very clear about the evil of racism. “Racism is the combination of the power to dominate by one race over other races and a value system that assumes that the dominant race is innately superior to the others. Racism includes both personal and institutional racism. Personal racism is manifested through the individual expressions, attitudes, and/or behaviors that accept the assumptions of a racist value system and that maintain the benefits of this system. Institutional racism is the established social pattern that supports implicitly or explicitly the racist value system.” (2016 United Methodist Social Principles) Breathe on us, Breath of God, so shall we never die.

The most important rituals of The United Methodist Church, among them baptism, confirmation, and church membership, include this question, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

In addition, the Ordering of Ministry liturgy at Annual Conference includes these words of responsibility and accountability from the examination of elders about to be ordained: “to lead the people of God in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world; to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people; and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church and in service in and to the community.”

My prayer is that we will use this moment in history to be clear about and work toward the positive change that we are called to make in our world. That includes ensuring that all people, no matter the color of their skin, the language they speak, or where they live, are free to become who God created them to be. Only then will George Floyd not have died in vain. Freedom implies the responsibility to be empowered for good and create a more just and compassionate world. But live with you the perfect life for all eternity.

May the words of African-American poet, novelist, fiction writer, and playright Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Let America be America Again, lead us into a future where all people have the opportunity to discover and use their gifts to make a positive difference in the world (as referenced by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on May 31).

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine – the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME –
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose –
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

God of might and mercy, we confess to you our human struggle to live together as your beloved children on this earth and the deep harm we have caused by our refusal to create “the land that never has been yet – and yet must be – the land where everyone is free.” Purify our hearts, sharpen our senses, and give us the courage to embody the admonition to which you call us: to accept the freedom and power You give us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Breathe on us, breath of God, till we are wholly thine. Till all this earthly part of us glows with the fire divine. Amen.