Be the Author of Your Own Story!

Did you know that you are the author of your own story? StoryCorps is a non-profit organization that has been partnering with Iowa Public Radio during the month of August to record, preserve, and share the stories of Des Moines. Every Thursday during August, selected StoryCorps conversations are aired on Public Radio, “revealing the wisdom courage, and poetry in the words of people you might not notice walking down the street.”

As I listen to these stories of personal transformation and hope from ordinary people, I can’t help but be inspired in the midst of seemingly pervasive anxiety in our country and world. There is uncertainty about where our country is headed and distress about the reality of hate, prejudice, and divisions around racism. There are concerns about Russia, North Korea, immigration, and “the wall.” The destruction of Hurricane Harvey looms large.

Here in Iowa, there is great unease about health insurance. In the spring, two of Iowa’s three remaining healthcare providers, Aetna and Wellmark, announced that they would not participate in the state’s exchange in 2018. And the remaining provider, Medica, just announced that they would need to increase premiums by 57% to remain viable if President Trump cuts off a major source of Obamacare assistance.

United Methodists worry about what our denomination and local churches will look like several years from now if we are not able to find a way to remain united in mission and ministry. In the midst of these big issues, each one of us faces challenges in our personal, family, and work lives. Every day I talk with people who feel as if they are at the tipping point in their ability to cope. How can we take care of ourselves, live full and healthy lives, and be the author of our own story when it seems as if we have no viable choices or control?

In a recent conversation with my three siblings and several cousins, we lamented our family history of Alzheimer’s. My mother and two of her three siblings died of Alzheimer’s. It’s very tempting to live on pins and needles, to analyze every conversation and interaction to make sure our memory is not showing signs of deterioration. Is it just a matter of time before my generation of the family is doomed by our genes as well?

I was reminded of a discussion with some colleagues earlier in the summer about clergy health. It was recommended that we read Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi’s 2015 book Super Genes; Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being. The thesis of the book is expressed in Chopra and Tanzi’s words, “You are not simply the sum total of the genes you were born with. You are the user and controller of your genes, the author of your biological story. No prospect in self-care is more exciting.”

Epigenetics, which is the study of the modification of gene expression, is expanding exponentially today and reminds us that we humans are more than good and bad genes. We are a super genome, which is made up of the approximately 23,000 genes that we inherited from our parents, a “switching mechanism” in every strand of DNA that responds to our experience, and the “gut microbes” that live primarily in our intestine.

These components of our super genome form the mind-body system that is uniquely “us.”

According to Tanzi, “Every experience will cause chemical changes in your body and in your brain, and those chemical changes will then cause genetic changes. If those genetic changes occur often enough and with persistence, that can lead to modification of those genes such that they react the same way in the future because they’ve been trained.”[i]

Most important, what geneticists are learning today is that we humans have the capacity to use our genes to help us. We can do that by making positive life-style changes that can profoundly transform the relationship between mind, body, and genes. In essence, we can be the author of our own story.

I am convinced that you and I can create our own story, regardless of the circumstances of our personal lives, our church, our nation, or our world. By making our own emotional, spiritual, relational and physical health a priority, we are better able to be difference makers and change the world. Chopra and Tanzi illustrate the impact of this new understanding of genetics by focusing on six life-style choices for radical well-being.

Diet: Getting Rid of Inflammation

A typical diet high in refined sugar and lacking in fiber increases inflammation and is the body’s response to stress. Inflammation happens when the immune system rushes chemicals (free radicals) to diseased areas and is associated with chronic disease, obesity, and mental illness. A good diet is one way to promote better genetic activity.

Stress: An Enemy in Hiding

A surge of stress hormones can result in elevated heart and blood pressure, and acute stress could compromise the body’s ability to recover properly. Chopra and Tanzi cite various studies showing that Holocaust survivors had the potential of passing the effects of PTSD on to their children. Reduce stress by not multi-tasking, avoiding people who cause you grief, limiting alcohol, placing boundaries around work, taking up a hobby, and reducing noise and distractions.

Exercise: Turning Good Intentions into Action

Get up and start moving! Many studies show that you don’t have to start running marathons. In fact, it is well attested that yoga brings mind, body, and spirit into harmony in amazing ways. When we exercise even moderately, switches are turned off for pro-inflammatory genes while anti-inflammatory genes are switched on.

Meditation: The Centerpiece of Your Well-Being

Chopra and Tanzi are convinced that meditation should be a life-long practice. Those who take as little as ten minutes a day to be still with eyes closed have better health and higher consciousness. Meditation and prayer can also produce long-term structural changes in the brain.

Sleep: Still a Mystery, But Totally Necessary

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can function well with less than seven to eight hours of sleep. Make your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible. Avoid computers or TV thirty minutes before sleep, limit caffeine intake, and have a regular sleep routine. It is only a matter of time before overstimulation at night leads to inflammation and breakdown of the body.

Emotions: How to Find Deeper Fulfillment

Our bodies are deeply affected by our moods. Choosing to be positive rather than negative has a profound effect on our well-being and physical health. Spend time with people who are happy. Express gratitude. Find something that you are passionate about and devote yourself to it. Practice your ability to empathize with others. Set worthy goals that can only be filled over a long period of time. Lead from your heart and trust your gut instincts. Be kind, generous, non-judgmental, and forgiving. Focus outward on serving others, and let the love of Jesus shine through you at all times.

Chopra and Tanzi encourage us to make wise choices and activate the life-giving side of our DNA. They write, “We are learning how to make our genes help us. Instead of allowing your bad genes to hurt you and your good genes to give you a break in life, which used to be the prevailing view, you should think of the super genome as a willing servant who can help you direct the life you want to live. You were born to use your genes, not the other way around.”[ii]

Yes, we are living in anxious times. All the more important to be the author of your own story!

P.S. In honor of Labor Day and the sacredness of both work and rest, I will not be publishing my blog on Labor Day. The next Leading From the Heart will be published on Monday, September 11.

[i] Deepak Chopra on How to Modify Your Own Genes, Kathleen Miles, World Post, May 2, 2014.

[ii] Deepak Chopra and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Super Genes; Unlock the Astonishing Power of Your DNA for Optimum Health and Well-Being, New York, Harmony Books, 2015, p. 4

Love, Serve, and Change

I couldn’t help but marvel. This morning I recorded brief congratulatory videos for a number of United Methodist congregations in Iowa that are celebrating anniversaries this fall. While I would love to attend each anniversary celebration, it is not physically possible. As I checked out websites and tried to get a sense of the history and ministry of each church, I wondered. How could these congregations last for 100, 150, or even 160 years?

Over the weekend, on a brief visit to my father and family in Pennsylvania, Gary and I drove past the factory that my grandfather started in 1908. But something was different. Rock Community Church was the name on the sign in front of the building.

William G. Nyce was an entrepreneur who founded Nyce Manufacturing Company, Inc. in a tiny village thirty-five miles northeast of Philadelphia. He was just twenty years old. My grandfather started out printing postcards and selling them to mom and pop stores in the area. The business expanded to include selling calendars, novelties, toys, and school supplies across the country and also became a thriving commercial printing company.

After my father took over the business, I remember working every summer in the factory as a teenager. In the very place where I used to sit and stuff greeting cards into cellophane wrappers, disciples of Jesus Christ now sit every Sunday in this non-denominational church and proclaim, “We are family on a journey, bringing to life our purpose in authentic, uncomplicated community… If you’re new, you’re invited and very welcome to join a bunch of people who actually believe that together we can make a difference in EVERY facet of life…”

Nyce Manufacturing Company closed sixteen years ago because of the erosion of its retail base by big box stores and the changing needs of printing in the 21st century. Never could I have imagined, however, that one day the factory would be a church! At the same time, there are some important parallels between longevity in a church and a business.

First is the importance of customer service. One of my prized possessions is a framed invitation to the opening of the newly remodeled factory in 1924.

Announcing Opening of the New Modern Plant of Nyce Manufacturing Company
February 15-16, 1924
We cordially invite you to inspect our new factory building during above mentioned days including evenings and become acquainted with our new home now practically completed. Come early or late, anytime to suit your convenience. We also take this opportunity of expressing our sincere appreciation to the many friends who have so generously accorded us their support in this undertaking.

In our fifteen years of business experience, we have learned that the confidence and good will of our employees and customers and of our many friends and business acquaintances are our most valuable assets. We know this confidence and good will, which we consider a sacred trust, will be inspiration for the entire organization to still greater service in the distribution of our many products thruout the country.
Cordially yours, Nyce Manufacturing Co., Vernfield PA

My grandfather knew that in order to be successful in business, he had to understand the context of the small general stores he served around the country, anticipate the needs of his clients and what might sell, and provide outstanding customer service. He did that exceedingly well.

Second, my grandfather and then my father were always experimenting with new ways of doing business and were not afraid to fail. My grandfather tried different ways to expand the customer base, such as selling custom calendars and postcards that were printed in house. He also serviced the printing needs of the stores he served by offering business cards, stationery, envelopes, and invoices. Some things worked, others didn’t.

Third, those who led Nyce Manufacturing Company always treated their employees well. Employment was provided to many people in the small village of Vernfield, and they were highly valued. There was a Christmas party and an annual summer outing to watch the Philadelphia Phillies play baseball. Employees received vacation and a fair wage. They were like family, and Nyce was a highly respected business in the area.

Nyce Manufacturing Company made a difference for an amazing one hundred and nine years, leadership having by then moved to the third generation. They were able to anticipate trends and adapt to changing business conditions. Eventually, however, the world started to change so rapidly that the business could not remain profitable. Now Rock Community Church continues a rich tradition of reaching out, serving, and giving back to the community.

I wonder, will all of the churches that are celebrating major anniversaries this fall survive? As the demographics change in Iowa and other states, schools are consolidated, and small towns decline in population, can our United Methodist churches continue vital ministry to their communities? Not all of our churches make it. Some close, and remaining assets are gifted to other vital ministries. Some small churches consolidate, as is the case with Rock Falls UMC, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary. But they are also celebrating that twenty years ago, Nora Springs, Rudd, Plymouth, and Rock Falls UMC’s decided to a create a vital partnership called the Shell Rock Valley Parish.

1910’s Postcard

Still, other churches reinvent themselves and continue to love, serve, and change in order reach out to their communities. Recently, I watched a video presentation by Salim Ismail, who is the best-selling author of Exponential Organizations, a sought-after technology strategist, and a well-known entrepreneur. Ismail notes that any company that is still designed to serve the 20th century is doomed because it is not designed for the flexibility and adaptability of the 21st century, where the pace of change is accelerating at a rate that is mind-boggling.

Every eighteen months to two years, technology in our world doubles in capacity and the price is cut in half. Most of us used to have a skill that lasted a lifetime. Now it’s more like seven years. A billion people in our world were online 2010. By the end of this decade, most of the 7.5 billion people in the world will be online. The characteristics of exponential organizations in this new future that Ismail cites apply to the church as well. How can The United Methodist Church reach out to tomorrow’s world in ways that make a difference?

  1. Have a massive transformative purpose that emphasizes continuous spiritual growth for all ages.
  2. Create a one-year operating plan that is updated in real time. Change is happening too fast for the traditional five-year plan.
  3. Invest in the latest technology to reach out to and communicate with your constituents.
  4. Encourage forward-thinking, risk, and flexibility.
  5. Use a horizontal and permission-giving form of organization: there is no longer time to go through a hundred hoops.
  6. Leverage your core capabilities in areas that will truly make a difference in your community and the world.
  7. Spin out a successful ministry, knowing that it will not last forever.
  8. Recognize that the “immune system” of many churches will try to kill “disruptive” new ideas in order to keep the status quo and preserve a dysfunctional “culture.”
  9. Acknowledge the place of intuition and gut feelings as you lead through exponential change.
  10. Keep the main thing the main thing. People of faith still have tremendous influence in the world. Continue to share and model the unconditional, transformative, and inclusive love of Jesus, speak out against injustice and oppression, and invite all to join you on the journey of grace and hope.

To all of the congregations in Iowa that are celebrating anniversaries: God bless you as you continue to love, serve, and change.

Prayers on a Stick

They were unfailingly polite despite my stumbling at times.

“Do you have apple pie?” “I’m not sure. Hang on a minute and I’ll check.”

“You gave me ice tea instead of lemonade.” “I apologize. My mistake.”

“Can you give me that order again? It’s a bit complicated, and I need to write it down.”

I made my debut as a volunteer server last Friday at the West Des Moines United Methodist Church food booth at the Iowa State Fair. By most standards, the Iowa State Fair is one of the five best state fairs in the United States, having drawn a record 1,117,398 fair-goers in 2015. That’s one-third of the entire population of Iowa, which was 3,350,000 in 2016.

I confess that I had never been to a state fair before, and I had only been to one county fair when I served as pastor of a county-seat church in Michigan. I had no idea what to expect in Iowa, other than the three things that I’d heard over and over.

  1. Most of the food is deep-fried and is “on a stick.” And these 75 varieties of “on a stick” foods are not particularly healthy. Coney dogs on a stick, Oreo cookies on a stick, double-wrapped bacon coney dogs on a stick, cherry pie on a stick, pork chop on a stick, candy bars on a stick, deep fried Thanksgiving turkey balls on a stick, shrimp corn dog on a stick, and what grieved me the most: deep fried fresh fruit on a stick and deep fried sweet-corn corn dogs.
  2. The fair is very family-friendly.
  3. The winners of the Best in Show pigs and cattle are REALLY big.

In decades past, there was a “street” at the fairgrounds called “Church Row.” This is where many area churches operated “dining halls” at the state fair. One by one and for various reasons, these churches decided not to continue to serve at the state fair. In 2017, West Des Moines United Methodist Church is the only church to operate a concession at the fair. This is their 68th year! The church built a permanent structure for their concession in 1975.

The West Des Moines food stand was originally started by women in the church, with the men taking over in 1954. After the 2016 fair, the men needed help, so today, the stand is now a mission project supported by the entire church. It’s a huge undertaking! In the beginning, there were only two requirements for concessions at the state fair: you had food, and you could sell it. There are many more regulations today for operating a food stand, including added labor laws and tighter health codes, plus upkeep of the stand itself.

Various fair committees in the church seek workers, set the menu, and take care of the details of running a restaurant that serves food sixteen hours a day in two shifts (6 a.m. to 10 p.m.), over eleven days with 245 volunteers. In addition, two people stay for a few hours after 10 p.m. every evening to clean up. People of all ages help, even youth. And when all is said and done, every cent that is raised goes toward fulfilling the church’s call to be difference makers in mission and ministry around the world.

“Here, keep the $10 bill. We appreciate all that the church is doing here at the fair.”

“Do you have fried cheese on a stick?” “I’m sorry, that’s not on the menu, but we have some really awesome pulled pork!”

“I gave you a twenty. I think I should get another $5 bill back.” “Yes, you’re right.”

In my conversation with Pastor Cindy Hickman, I simply asked if I could visit West Des Moines UMC’s food booth during the fair. She was delighted and said that Gary and I were welcome to volunteer at the church booth on Friday while she was there. That way we could have a taste of what the fair was like from a food perspective.

As I put on a church baseball hat and apron and wash my hands, I remember back to my junior and senior high school days when I often served as a waitress for wedding receptions at my church. My friends and I were usually given wedding aprons as gifts for our service (not really usable for any other occasion!), and occasionally they gave us each $2.00.

“Do you make your own pie?” “Yes, a church member who owns a food business makes the pies.” “I’m in heaven. Please pass on my gratitude.”

I don’t turn off the ice tea machine in time, and it overflows. I try to clean things up and say to my fellow volunteer, “You can dock my pay for messing up the counter!”

The pace is intense. Customers keep coming and coming. They know our prices are very reasonable, and we want to serve them quickly and well. Keeping track of orders and payment is a challenge at times, but the volunteers remain cheerful and work together like a well-oiled machine. Many customers don’t even want to take the time to sit down and eat.

I chat with Jerry Slagter, the day manager. He arrives between 5:00-5:30 a.m. and leaves around 7:30 p.m. Managing a crew of sixteen along with a hired cook, Jerry says the stand is even busier than last year. It could be because of the beautiful weather or the great publicity they received after the Des Moines Register published a front-page feature article on the church’s food stand the Sunday before the fair. Jerry also says that a lot of people who come ask about the church and are very complimentary.

“Can I have a receipt?” “Sure,” I say and write on a scrap of paper, “jumbo chili dog $5.00.”

“I’m so sorry we’ve run out of ground beef. We’re really busy today, but we’ll have more beef burger combos and walking tacos in about twenty minutes if you want to come back.” They often wait.

The blessings of West Des Moines’ food ministry at the state fair are many. Is this a fundraiser or a ministry? Why, it’s both!

  • Church members have a way to serve the public.
  • Through the food booth, church members build community with each other and develop friendships as they work together.
  • The food booth is an entry point into the church for new people who yearn to make a difference and are invited to volunteer.
  • All the money raised from the food booth goes to worthy ministries around the world.
  • Volunteers have an opportunity to witness to the love of Jesus Christ through their interactions with customers, including the prayer stick ministry.

It’s not until Gary and I pause to eat pulled pork sandwiches that I remember about the prayer sticks. At the picnic tables, there are small containers with a prayer printed on tongue depressors that serve as prayer sticks. There are also pieces of paper on which customers can write prayer concerns, which are then prayed over by church members.

I don’t end up eating anything on a stick at the Iowa State Fair. But here are my prayers on a stick, which I suspect reflect the prayers of many others:

  • I pray for the increasing tension and escalating rhetoric between North Korea and the United States. God, may you soften the heart of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, as he threatens the world with nuclear missiles, and may you give wisdom to President Trump and his advisors, that they would seek first to engage in diplomatic efforts for a peaceful resolution to the issues that are dividing our countries.
  • I pray for the farmers in Iowa, as a deepening drought threatens many of their crops and is resulting in lower yields and dried up pastures used to feed cattle.
  • I pray for The United Methodist Church during this time when the Commission on a Way Forward is discerning a way for United Methodists to worship, serve, and witness together in the midst of our differences around human sexuality.
  • In light of the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend, I pray that each one of us would renew our own commitment to work for peace and justice at the same time as we name and resist hatred, prejudice, and bigotry in whatever forms they present themselves.

Thank you, West Des Moines United Methodist Church! I am thankful that your example reminds us that Jesus has called each one of us to be a servant leader who models grace, courage, and hope for our world. May you continue this witness and ministry for years to come.