Complicated Blessings

William Sloane Coffin Jr. wrote the prayer in 1983 when he was the pastor at Riverside Church in New York City. I had just started my ministry the year before and was inexperienced, idealistic, and naïve. But one phrase in his prayer has remained with me all these years: “And grant us to count our more complicated blessings.”

A Prayer for the Church in These Times

O God, whose mercy is ever faithful and ever sure, who art our refuge and our strength in time of trouble, visit us, we beseech thee – for we are in trouble. We need a hope that is made wise by experience and is undaunted by disappointment. We need an anxiety about the future that shows us new ways to look at new things but does not unnerve us. As a people, we need to remember that our influence was greatest when our power was weakest. Most of all, we need to turn to thee, O God, and our crucified Lord, for only his humility and his strength can heal and free us. O God, be thou our sole strength in time of trouble. In the midst of anxiety, grant us the grace to count our blessings – the simple ones: health, food, sleep, one another, a spring that is bursting out all over, a nation which, despite all, has so much to offer so many.

And, grant us to count our more complicated blessings: our failures, which teach us so much more than success; our lack of money, which points to the only truly renewable resources, the resources of our spirit; our lack of health, yea, even the knowledge of death, for until we learn that life is limitation, we are surely as formless and as shallow as a stream without its banks. Send us forth into a new week with a gladsome mind, free and joyful in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.  

When I pray, whether privately or in public, I often begin by thanking God for my many blessings: faithful parents; beautiful children and grandchildren; the opportunity to go to college; and the privilege of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, called to embody and share God’s love.

Each one of us has been lovingly created by God, blessed in order to be a blessing to others. As I have matured in my life and faith, however, I have discovered that there is also much pain, disappointment, and heartache in our world that calls for a response. There are not always easy answers to our questions, and in the midst of sighs too deep for words, I realize now more than ever the more complicated blessings of which Coffin wrote.

  • Failure is my constant companion, yet God continues to surround me with love and urges me to keep on keeping on.
  • When my faith falters and I cannot sense the “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:3-5), still Jesus whispers encouragement in my ear.
  • Complicated blessings, which include COVID-19, struggling economies, and a world turned upside, remind us that every life is precious and no one is more deserving than another.
  • Our lives are ultimately not our own. Rather, they are about how God desires for us to serve through personal sacrifice as well as by a sensitivity to the oppressed and the downtrodden.
  • We are connected to the welfare of all living creatures on this earth, which becomes complicated when we are unwilling to address our complicity in the inequalities that plague our world. Bearing the load of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation leads to liberation.

  • Our long and complicated journey toward becoming an anti-racist conference, an anti-racist denomination, and an anti-racist world gives us the courage to admit our own fears and prejudices and take active steps to dismantle racism. Anthea Butler writes in Faith and Leadership (Duke Divinity School), “In a season of reckonings, forgiveness is not forgetting. Extending forgiveness isn’t simply about comforting or healing those who have been wronged. There are emotional and psychological effects for all of us, especially when there is no hope of restitution or resolution.”
  • Our inability to let go of power and entitlement is challenged by our responsibility to create a more just world so that all people have the opportunity to become who God created them to be.
  • As we prayerfully await the results of our local, state, and national elections, we are reminded that government of the people, by the people and for the people continually creates a new birth of freedom.

The complicated blessings of liberty and justice for all must lie at the center of our commitment as followers of Jesus Christ to deeper levels of discipleship. Only when we are willing to give up ourselves, take up our cross, and humbly follow Jesus can we truly bless, serve, and empower others on their journey.

Regardless of how the election results come in tomorrow, may we all turn to our more complicated blessings to embody the hope that is in us. William Sloane Coffin Jr. offers one more complicated blessing.

May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short;
Grace to risk something big for something good;

And grace to remember the world is now
too dangerous for anything but the truth and
too small for anything but love.

The Great Letting Go

“What’s your favorite time of year?” I asked a friend as we were walking.

“Fall. I love this time of year! The leaves are changing, it’s getting colder, and the days are growing shorter. I really like the clouds and darkness of fall and winter.”

“I’m just the opposite.” I said. “I dislike fall and always have. I love light and sun, and when it gets dark so early, it’s depressing. Besides, fall was always the time when school started, and as a kid I never wanted to give up the freedom and joy of being outside playing all summer.  Summer has always been my favorite season, and I never want it to end.”

But there’s more to it. A few years ago, I finally realized why fall is challenging for me. Fall is a time of change and movement, and I often struggle with transitions. During the summer, nature explodes with growth, light, energy, warmth, and fruitfulness. Fall, by contrast, is the time when crops have been harvested, fields are plowed under, leaves fall to the ground, and the earth becomes fallow. Wood is chopped, silos are filled, warm clothes come out, storm windows replace screens, and we anticipate hunkering down for the winter. What has been given in such abundance is now taken away.

No wonder I am wary of fall. I don’t want to let go of summer, contemplate six months of darkness and isolation, and be forced inside my house, let alone inside my heart, where God waits to teach me patience, hope, and the value of rest and growth.

On my daily walks, I check out the leaves. From a maple tree, I pick three leaves that have not yet made their way to the ground.  One is green, one is half green and half red, and one is red. These leaves reflect not only the progression of fall but the letting go that characterizes the spiritual life.

I confess that I am not ready to yield fully to God. I want to live life on my own terms and remain green forever. At the same time, I yearn to align myself with the fullness of life that God offers. I grudgingly allow myself to turn partly red but keep one foot firmly planted in the life I desire.

I remember John 12:24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” I turn a brilliant red, offering myself completely to God’s cycle of life and death. As I prepare to die to all that prevents me from becoming who God created me to be, my color is a witness to the obedience and trust that guide my life’s journey.  “The summer ends, and it is time to face another way.” (Wendell Berry, Fourth Sabbath Poem, 1984)

The earth prepares with me. Squirrels hoard acorns. The coats of animals thicken. Deer are active through the winter, their digestive systems adapting to a changed diet. Bears gorge themselves as they anticipate the long rest of hibernation. Birds head south, finding their way together. Carved pumpkin faces delight. Children roll in the leaves.

Of course, the word “fall” does not come from a bed of leaves but from the sun. The amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface determines the change of seasons. As the earth slowly falls away from the sun, the intensity of light lessens. The light then “springs” back in six months.

Finally, there is The Great Letting Go, and I fall, playfully surrendering to the ground, where I lie, waiting to be transformed and ultimately reborn in due season. The losing of my life: surrender, emptiness, melancholy.

Letting go of possessions, children, perfection, youth, dreams, productivity, relationships, addictions, anger, and old ways of thinking. Completeness in nature. It’s done for the season.

Waiting.
Gather it in and wait;
Wait for the cold;
Wait for restoration;
Wait for hope;
The ebb and flow of life… the spirituality of fall.
All things pass away.

Completely free, I am able to see myself and God more clearly. I recite Psalm 8, which I memorized during Disciple Bible Study many years ago, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

I can’t tear my eyes away from the heavens, claiming the beauty and gifts of the darkness in my own life.  “I will love the light, for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness, for it shows me the stars.” (Og Mandino)

As I walk, I wonder and ponder, eyes and ears open to God’s leading. I ask the hard questions. What do I need to let go of in order for Jesus to fill me up again? Disappointment, bitterness, fear, hopelessness, helplessness?

In the midst of COVID-19, ours struggles around racism, worries about the future of our beloved UMC, the health of our local churches, a farm economy that has suffered great losses this fall, and fears around the future of our beloved United Methodist Church, there is a great letting go.

·      A hawk glides through the sky. I, too, long to fly free.
·      The wind whistles through the trees. I long to follow the wind of the Holy Spirit.
·      I rejoice in the warmth of the fall sun, knowing that those precious days are already        giving way to the coldness and darkness of winter. God, I long for the warmth of your love in my life so that I can warm the hearts of others.
·      Just as the clear water reflects my own image back to me, so I long to reflect God’s grace back to others.
·      I long for the faith of trees firmly rooted in the earth, trees that trust God enough to offer their leaves to death, believing in the new life that will return in the spring.
·      I long for Jesus to carry me through periods of dormancy, knowing that God can work through me even when I cannot see it.
·      I long to be nimble as the white-tailed deer bounding through the forest, always ready to go where God calls.
·      I long to clear out the undergrowth weighing down my spirit so that I can see and smell the flowers that still hang on to life.
·      I long for the drops of dew that are my tears to be a source of healing and hope for others.
·      I long to say goodbye to what no longer matters rather than cling to what I do not need.
·      I long to respond to the persistent call, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  (Isaiah 43:1b)

Like nature, I am dying to live.  The Great Letting Go.

From Everywhere to Everywhere

Many of you know of my love for Africa University. Ten years ago, in 2010, I made my first visit to AU when I was a district superintendent in Michigan and created a task force to raise money to build a retreat center on the campus. During that first visit, we had a vision of what came to be named the Ubuntu Retreat Centre, a place where visitors could enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the university and learn more about the culture of Zimbabwe and the African continent.

In 2014, I led another group from Michigan, including Bishop Deb and Brad Kiesey, for the dedication of the Ubuntu Centre, which was not quite completed. What joy to see our United Methodist Africa University thrive and become a leader in education among countries on the African continent.

A third group from Iowa traveled to AU in the fall of 2018 after we raised over $45,000 to complete the kitchen so that meals could be prepared for guests at the 24-room Ubuntu Centre. On that trip, our group became acquainted with Larry and Jane Kies, both of whom were General Board of Global Ministries missionaries for many years. Larry formally retired on September 30. I first met Larry in 2014 when he agreed to guide me on a hike to the top of nearby Mt. Chiremba.

Jane, who is British but grew up mostly in southern Africa, and Larry, who is originally from Iowa, have always looked forward to providing hospitality for United Methodists from Larry’s home state. In 2018, we enjoyed a wonderful tour of the Africa University Farm, where Larry served as the Technical Advisor for many years. Larry also led DS Paul Wilcox, Pastor Ben Wedeking, and me on a second climb up Mt. Chiremba.

After serving as directly hired missionaries in Botswana where Larry managed a farm at a mission high school, Larry and Jane underwent formal missionary training in Atlanta in the early 1990s. They were assigned in 1994 to Nyadire Mission in Zimbabwe. Larry managed the UMC mission farm, with dairy and beef cattle, corn, cotton, and a butchery, while Jane taught English at Nyadire High School.

In 2002, they moved to Africa University and have been there ever since. Larry has provided technical assistance to the AU farm and has also taught many agricultural classes. Jane has been teaching English at AU for the last 18 years while raising their children. Jane said, “Learning the ropes in teaching English to university students was fun. The mix of culture, language, and dress was … and still is … very exciting.” I asked Larry and Jane several questions a few weeks ago.

  • What have been the greatest challenges you have faced as missionaries?

Larry: “My greatest challenge came when I had been in Maun, Botswana, for five years. I had felt God calling me to teach in Africa since my undergraduate years at Iowa State. When the opportunity arose for me to start working for the church in 1980, I felt that I was finally where God wanted me. I felt that I was effective in my work there in running the school farm, in teaching, and in advising the Scripture Union (Christian youth) group at school. But by 1985 being single had become a burden… Although Jane didn’t realize it when she first arrived in Maun, she was the answer to my prayers.

“Another major challenge came from 2000 to 2008, when Zimbabwe suffered from extreme hyper-inflation and political instability. In 2000 we had to leave Nyadire Mission for six months because the local church leaders felt that due to political issues (in which we were not directly involved) our presence was not only a risk to us but also a threat to those with whom we worked… In the end, God did provide for all of our needs during those years, but it was a trial.”

Jane: “In my first weeks in Zimbabwe on a remote mission, surrounded by friendly people I could not understand, in a rather dry and dusty environment (it was in the dry season), I often asked the Lord: ‘What am I doing here?’ It was a lonely time, and I often worried that our children would not thrive in the small mission school with its unfamiliar approaches to teaching and learning. God has shown me how wrong I was since they are all thriving now and value their upbringing and African roots. In time, I also discovered God’s purpose in making a life with people there and teaching English in the High School. We have some good friendships that continue to this day.”

  • What have been your greatest joys in your missionary role?

Larry: “Treasuring relationships formed in each community where we served. Also, seeing former students progress professionally, not only the few who I knew from the start would be successful: earning advanced degrees, becoming productive farmers, rising to responsible positions in companies, even becoming involved in agricultural development as missionaries. But there were also several who gave me a special joy when they struggled in their first couple of years here at AU.

“After words of encouragement, they found their niches, improved their grades, and earned their degrees. I know that the future of Africa is in their hands. I also know that there are many people who want to make a difference in the world, and they can do so by enabling others to do work that they themselves can’t do. Connecting the two groups (those in need and those wanting to help) has given me great joy.”

Jane: “Friendships, family life, meaningful roles in the church, influencing, and being influenced by so many Zimbabwean and international students. Watching students smile with pride as they become more fluent in English and move on to their degree program with greater confidence. The great beauty of the country itself and opportunities to hike, camp, and view game have given me incredible joy.”

  • When do you plan to come back to Iowa for a time?

“We are not making plans to return to Iowa for now. Our main purpose in flying to Iowa would be to see people, many of whom are in high-risk groups for Covid-19. Even if travel restrictions are lifted, as long as Covid-19 is a threat, we will not feel comfortable coming into close contact with many people, risking our health and theirs. We hope that by the summer of 2021 the situation will have improved enough that we can come for a short visit. We hope that in 2022 we can visit churches again.”

  • Since you were not able to come back to our Iowa Annual Conference this year to speak, what else would you like to share about your time as a missionary?

Larry: “When I first left Iowa for Africa, I had secret dreams of following in the steps of Norman Borlaug, the Iowan who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work that started the Green Revolution. Nearly three decades (now more than four) later, I realize that I will never be short-listed for a free ticket to Oslo, but also that, for all of us, it’s all about making ourselves available to carry out God’s purposes – making a difference where we can, using the skills God has given us. Jane and I know that Africa University will not be able to solve all of Africa’s problems, but still, we are proud to be part of the church’s effort to do what we can.”

“In our travels, while speaking in churches, we were continually impressed by congregations and individuals who are, in the name of Jesus, doing what they can in their own communities and further afield. Like the boy with the loaves and fishes, doing what they can where they are with what they have.”

  • Do you have any words of encouragement for the clergy and laity of Iowa?

Jane: “I am not American, but I have been made to feel special as we visit churches in Iowa. I have appreciated the hospitality and warmth of congregations, the effort made to ensure that our visits are fun and enjoyable, and the interest so many show in mission – our joint mission (from everywhere to everywhere!) as Christians. I have also seen how young people from America can be so touched by the experience of coming to Zimbabwe and interacting with students and churches here. It is a life-changing experience! So, planting seeds of missionary service in the lives of the youth is so vital to keeping the mission of the church alive.”

The Kies’ plan to stay at Africa University for the foreseeable future, where Larry will continue teaching as a volunteer and Jane will continue as a GBGM missionary, teaching Intensive English. Thank you, Larry and Jane, for keeping the mission of the church alive from everywhere to everywhere. We look forward to seeing you when you are able to return to Iowa.