Laying Myself on the Shelf

Have you ever heard the phrase “lay on the table”? The Iowa Annual Conference ended its four-day session yesterday, and I have been pondering how, at one point, we used the motion to “lay on the table.” `Under Robert’s Rules, the subsidiary motion to lay on the table refers to temporarily setting aside a pending motion (or a series of pending motions) to take care of something else that is urgent and cannot wait. The motion to lay on the table is less about the business being discussed than about the assembly needing to handle something else immediately. I remember feeling exhausted at the time and recall thinking to myself, “I wouldn’t mind lying on a table myself right now!”

It reminded me of one of Mark Twain’s books. Twain (1835-1910) was the pen name for writer, humorist, entrepreneur, lecturer, and publisher Samuel Langhorne Clemens. In 1869, he published a travel book called The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress. The book chronicles what Twain called his “Great Pleasure Excursion” with a group of Americans on a chartered boat through Europe and the Holy Land in 1867.

Twain wrote, Afterward we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some time, enjoying other people’s comfort and wishing we could export some of it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home. Just in this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe – comfort.

In America, we hurry – which is well; but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man’s prime in Europe. 

“When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it lie fallow and rest for a season; we take no man clear across the continent in the same coach he started in – the coach is stabled somewhere on the plains and its heated machinery allowed to cool for a few days; when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord.

“We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!”

It’s pretty amazing that the words Mark Twain wrote 150 years ago are still true for many Americans today. In the midst of fast-paced lifestyles that are increasingly complex as well as demanding, many Americans are literally making themselves sick from overwork and are refusing to care for their mental, emotional, relational, physical, and spiritual health.

It’s been an intense year for United Methodists. After the Traditional Plan was adopted by the February 2019 General Conference, our denomination was broken. No, we haven’t made any decisions yet to part ways. However, our inability to find a way to live together while honoring differences around human sexuality has again left us in a liminal space, which I wrote about several weeks before the February General Conference.

Richard Rohr’s description of a liminal space seems to fit us well: “… a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” I have discerned that in this liminal space, it is good for me to stop a while. Thus, I will be laying myself on the shelf for part of the summer, lying fallow, actively resting, and renewing my edges.

If God didn’t make it clear enough in the ten commandments that we need to rest, Jesus made sure we knew. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus intentionally took time to go away and be by himself to rest and pray. Already in chapter one of Mark (1:35), we read, “Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.” In chapter three, we read that “Jesus left with his disciples and went to the lake. A large crowd followed him because they had heard what he was doing.” (3:7) In chapter six, Jesus said to his disciples, “Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while.” (6:31) Later in that chapter (6:46), Jesus sent the people away and climbed a mountain to pray. And in chapter seven, (7:24), Jesus entered a house in Tyre where he didn’t think he would be found, but he couldn’t hide.

As it was with Jesus, so it’s difficult for you and me to stop. It’s not easy to say “No.” It’s tempting to work at a pace that seems to get faster with each passing year. Unfortunately, it’s also a tempo that will eventually make us sick, give us compassion fatigue, or burn us out if we do not follow Jesus’ example and rest. Rest is not a waste of time. Rather, it’s holy time. It’s a life-giving opportunity for growth, maturity, and waiting for something new and unlikely to emerge.

I enter the summer with a deep sense of gratitude for the faithfulness of United Methodists around our worldwide connection. In the midst of major differences around human sexuality, there is still so much more that we share as disciples of Jesus Christ. What might happen if, during this in between time, all of us as United Methodists would lay ourselves on the shelf and renew our edges? Could we become more robust disciples of Jesus if we intentionally created more space to honor different theological perspectives at the same time as we continue to share in mission and ministry? How might our evangelism and discipleship expand if we were open to where the biblical God is leading us? Can we hold our anxieties for a bit longer, live with ambiguity, let go of our comfort zones, and imagine possibility? How is God calling us to renew our edges?

This will be the last Leading from the Heart until Tuesday, September 3. Have a wonderful summer!


God’s Hope Made Real

The signs of hope are everywhere. Do you see them? Last Wednesday evening a four-year-old girl was hit by a line drive foul ball at a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. The batter, Albert Almora Jr., knew right away what happened and fell to his knees crying. “Just praying. I’m speechless. I’m at loss of words. Being a father, two boys,” Almora said.

The little girl was immediately rushed to the hospital. After a few minutes, Almora went up into the stands to check on the girl and was consoled by a security guard. He said later that when the child is feeling well enough, he wants to meet with her. “God willing, I’ll be able to have a relationship with this little girl for the rest of my life. But just prayers right now. That’s all I really could control,” Almora said. The little girl is expected to be okay. As for Almora, he is not only a professional baseball player. He is a difference maker. Of that I am certain.

Are you helping God’s hope to be made real? Difference makers are all around us, if only we have eyes to see. I recently learned about one of our ordained deacons, Rev. Helen Parks, who is a part-time youth pastor at Christ Church in Davenport along with her husband, James, who is the lead pastor.

After the Parks arrived at Christ Church in 2018, Helen decided to become involved at Buchanan Elementary School because of the church’s partnership there. She joined Americorps so that she could work in the school, with a focus on attendance. When the position of Family Involvement Liaison became open, Helen applied because of her elementary education undergrad degree and the church’s connection. Now she serves part-time at the church and part-time as the school’s Family Involvement Liaison.

As a result of Helen’s ministry, Title 1 events for which Helen is responsible have increased from 60 to about 300 participants per month. Christ Church provides food for these events and at least half of the volunteers. She also works with the food pantry that Christ Church operates at the school.

How can we be God’s hope made real at a time of such division and partisanship in our church, country, and world? Difference makers are all around us, if only we have eyes to see.

  • I see hope made real when men, women, and children arise each morning and pray, “God, help me to be a difference maker today.”
  • I see hope made real when we listen deeply to one another without judgment.
  • I see hope made real when we remember our Wesleyan DNA of evangelism and make conscious efforts to create a welcoming atmosphere in our local churches.
  • I see hope made real when congregations take the time to assess the needs of their communities and then develop ministries that address those needs.
  • I see hope made real when we deliberately attempt to become more inclusive in our decision-making at each level of the church.
  • I see hope made real when prayer undergirds everything that we do.
  • I see hope made real when communities come together after floods and tornadoes to help each other in recovery efforts. That hope extends to Rev. Catie Newman, our Iowa Annual Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, who works tirelessly to communicate the needs of our churches and communities.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days with my father and other family members in Pennsylvania over the Memorial Day weekend. I am the only one in our extended family who has left the area. Since I can only get home a few times a year, I am always surprised to see how fast things change. My 92-year-old father’s health continues to deteriorate, and he no longer recognizes me, but I am astounded at the love and tender care that he receives in his care facility. Because my two grandmothers and my mother were also residents in this facility until their deaths, everyone knows my dad, Gerry.

He is no longer able to speak in sentences and only occasionally makes sense, but he still has a great smile! Nor is my father able to read, so he can’t sing the words to the hymns. However, as a life-long member of the church choir at Zion Mennonite Church, he knows all the tunes. Every single one.

On Sunday, we went to church in the care facility, with my father in a wheelchair on one side of me and my two brothers on the other side. My father hummed every hymn perfectly, alternating tenor and bass. He has such a wide range to his voice that he has always been able to sing whatever part needs the most help. A choir director’s dream!

Of course, he could not read the words, but the tunes have been indelibly imprinted on his heart, and his pitch was spot on. Even as my father’s life winds down, he is still able to be hope made real.

How can you and I in Iowa be hope made real? Please pray for our Iowa Annual Conference, which begins with the clergy and laity sessions on Friday night. Pray that God will be glorified, that we will make wise, Spirit-led decisions, and that we will make a difference by how we treat one another and reach out to a hurting world

How can you be hope made real? Bring cash cards and gas cards to annual conference, where they will be blessed on Saturday, and then hand them out to those in need in Des Moines and in your local area. Our Conference theme is Creating Difference Makers in Ministry with the Poor. If you are not a delegate, please purchase and hand out restaurant, supermarket, gas, and cash cards to those in need in your community

How can we be God’s hope made real? Invite your congregation to take the time to see where hope is needed in your community and then allow the Holy Spirit to get to work through you.

Faith. Fruit Fire. That’s our vision.

Inspire. Equip. ConnectThat’s our mission.

Together, we can be hope made real and make a difference!

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith
so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

See you at annual conference. Or join us by livestream by…

P.S. Because of annual conference, Leading from the Heart will be published next week on Wednesday, June 12. That will be my last blog before the summer break.


The Risk of Going Too Far

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” This quote from T.S. Eliot has been one my personal core values for years. As a pastor and now a bishop, I have often wrestled with knowing when to play it safe or venture out on a limb, when to be quiet or speak out, and when to hold back or go for it. In order to be faithful to our call as disciples of Jesus Christ to transform the world, there are risks that we must be willing to take.

Occasionally, I have conversations with both laity and clergy about the role and importance of risk pastoral ministry, specifically:

  • The risk of being transparent and vulnerable
  • The risk of clergy and laity sharing ministry together
  • The risk of failing
  • The risk of talking openly about stewardship as a spiritual discipline
  • The risk of advocating for the importance of our United Methodist Connection
  • The risk of valuing diversity and welcoming differences
  • The risk of challenging others to a deeper walk with God
  • The risk of taking time away to nurture mind, body, and spirit
  • The risk of seeking out a spiritual director
  • The risk of being open to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit
  • The risk of engaging in dialogue around current issues from a biblical and theological perspective
  • The risk of leading through adaptive change and necessary endings
  • The risk of saying, “I’m sorry”

In my experience as a runner, I have discovered that when I am participating in a long-distance race, I face choices every step along the way. When my body starts screaming, “Stop!” it’s my mind that tells my body to ignore the pain and keep going. Later, when my mind is no longer functioning clearly and my body begins to shut down, it’s ultimately my heart that wills me to risk putting one step in front of another and making it to the end. Giving up is not in my DNA, but risking is.

Going too far. It’s risky business, isn’t it? Not just in athletics, but in our personal, relational, and spiritual lives as well. I was introduced to a work of art a few months ago titled Resurrection II, by American sculptor and Lutheran Paul Granlund (1925-2003). The sculpture depicts the moment of Christ’s resurrection where he breaks out of the burial place that has held him in death and rises to new life. It’s as if, on the third day, Jesus has decided to take the risk of gathering up his wings to fly from all that has held him in the tomb.

Dr. Jane Leach has been Principal of Wesley House, a Methodist theological college in Cambridge, England, since September, 2011. In a 2009 lecture to strategic leaders of the Methodist Church of Britain, Embodying Holiness and Risk [i]Dr. Leach used Paul Granlund’s sculpture as a symbol for how easily Christians become entombed in old structures and ways of doing things.

Are we in The United Methodist Church able to release ourselves from who we have been in the past and do a new thing? Can we rise from up from our decades-long insistence on drawing the battle lines around human sexuality, which keeps us mired in our tombs and alienates us from many in the world who see us as irrelevant?

Can we allow one another the freedom to celebrate the various ways in which we engage in contextual ministry to form and send disciples of Jesus Christ out into the world rather than keep one another bound in chains? Would we prefer to keep Jesus in the tomb rather that see him as a liberating, freeing, empowering God who always risks going too far out of love for you and me?

Dr. Leach challenged these Methodist leaders to sit with Granlund’s sculpture for a while and envision what it suggests about holiness and risk. Dr. Leach said that the group she was supervising asked whether she was trying to think outside the box from inside a tomb. Leach responded, “Perhaps that is just my story. But if it resonates with you – or with some of the people in your congregations or with some of those who have left or are hanging on by a thread – there is hope for the people called Methodist if we can make room to hear Christ’s voice calling to us, as he did to Lazarus, saying, ‘Come out!’ and to others of us, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’”

Of course, creating the kind of space in which God’s voice may be heard in The United Methodist Church is not an easy matter. So, I invite you to ponder Resurrection 2. Jesus almost looks like a bird, doesn’t he? The screws are loosened, chains are broken, and Jesus is poised and ready to fly.

Is it possible to embrace different ideas in our local churches when we are stuck in our tombs of insularity? Could it be that we entomb ourselves by beliefs, practices, and expressions of faith that limit our witness to as many people as we can in as many places around the world as we can? Can we risk going too far by overcoming our unwillingness to reach out beyond the walls of our church and our hesitation to embrace the other as holy? Might we create beloved community by intentionally seeing all people as created in God’s image and being willing to learn from one another?

How does our Wesleyan understanding of the radical nature of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying, and liberating grace for all inform our theology, attitudes, and actions? What might happen if we loosened the screws of the tombs of our fears, doubts, and stereotypes and boldly rise to something different in The United Methodist Church, something only God alone can see right now? I can’t help but believe that another way of being Wesleyan is waiting to emerge: a way that liberates, empowers, and embodies the grace of Jesus Christ for all people.

In John Wesley’s sermon, The Character of a Methodist, he claims that a Methodist is:

  • One who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart;
  • One who cannot but rejoice, having peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ;
  • One who has the hope of immortality;
  • One who prays without ceasing;
  • One who loves and does good to neighbors and friends, strangers and enemies;
  • One who is pure in heart and shows mercy, kindness, humbleness of mind, long-suffering, and forgiveness;
  • One who seeks to please God and keep God’s commandments

Near the end of The Character of a Methodist, Wesley writes, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand.” The risen Christ told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit to let loose. As we, too, wait for Pentecost, could it be that the only risk of going too far is to take the hand of our neighbor?

[i] “Embodying Holiness and Risk,” Dr. Jane Leach, a paper given to a conference of Methodist strategic leaders on Feburary 7th, 2009 at Swanwick