Stay in the City

“Are we forgetting anything?” At least ten times I walk through the house for a final inspection and ask two of our children and a niece and nephew to check as well. The workers are loading up the rest of our belongings to deliver them to the Des Moines area. Gary and I have begun the slow process of reuniting our two households after nine months of living apart.

What I’ve missed is amazing! First, it’s a painting in the downstairs bathroom. Then it’s a bathmat in the shower upstairs and a tiny drawer filled with kitchen items. On my final obsessive walk-through, there sits the bathroom scales, in plain sight. Somehow, no one has seen it.

I wonder, how many invisible people are there in this one precious world we that inhabit? They are often in plain sight, but we do not see them. Why? Because they are poor? Because they do not look or speak or dress like us? Because their religion or culture or education or gender identity is not like ours? In my rush from one meeting to another, who do I miss, neglect or ignore? After all, we are all in this together,

As we walk out through the garage for the last time, I thank God for the joy of being a part of the Birmingham community and congregation for three years and for the privilege of living in that house. I head to the car, and the movers climb into the cab of the truck and turn on the engine. All of a sudden, I shout, “Stop! Stop! Don’t leave!”

There, in the front yard, stands the peace pole, our family’s witness to God’s desire for all living creatures in this world to experience the wholeness of shalom. The words are displayed on all four sides in Latin, Spanish, Japanese, and English.

  • Regnet Pax Omnem Per Terram
  • Que La Paz Prevalezca En La Tierra
  • 平和が地球上に勝つこと
  • May Peace Prevail On The Earth

How could we have missed this intentional witness and sign of God’s hope for the world? “Don’t forget to take your peace with you,” God whispers in my ear. Do you take your peace with you wherever you go and offer it to everyone you meet?

During the four days that we wait for our “stuff” to make its way across the Midwest to Clive, Iowa, Christians around the world observe Ascension Day. In the gospel of Luke, the resurrected Jesus appears to two of his disciples on the Emmaus Road and makes himself known to them in the breaking of the bread at supper. Their hearts burning, the disciples return to Jerusalem, where Jesus appears to the eleven and their companions and opens their minds to understand the scriptures. Then Jesus says, “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so, stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Stay in the city. Where would we be today if the disciples had bailed? How many times have you been tempted to leave, to give up on the church, or our country, or God? How often have you felt like admitting defeat, as if there were no more hope? Can you trust that God will clothe you, too, with the power from on high? Do you have faith that God will equip you with everything you need to witness to the grace of God as experienced on the day of Pentecost? Will you pay attention to needs of the world around you and acknowledge the burning in your heart and the movement of God in your life?

The moving truck finally arrives in Iowa, and as we unload boxes from the truck to the house, I see two birds flying around the front porch. I also notice debris on the cement floor as well as high up on the stone alcove. “These birds couldn’t be building a nest, could they?” I ask Gary. “There’s not enough room between the stones to create anything!” A week later, our barn swallow friends have constructed a small shelf out of mud and twigs, upon which sits a beautiful half cup-shaped nest. Each day the nest becomes more elaborate.

It’s an engineering marvel. What I am learning about barn swallows is that they are very familiar birds in rural areas and semi-open country. Barn swallows have also adopted humans as friends, typically nesting in barns, garages, under bridges and docks, or in the alcoves of porches like ours. In fact, most of their nesting sites are made by humans.

Often both the female and male take turns incubating the eggs (typically 4-5). It’s not uncommon for one or two offspring from the pair’s previous broods to attend the nest and feed the baby birds, who usually leave the nest around 18-23 days after they are born. Day by day, as we wait with our barn swallows for their babies to be hatched, I have no doubt that they will “stay in the city,” which for them is the safety of our alcove. We’re in it with them.

But what about you? How was God preparing you for the wind and fire of the Spirit to blow into your city or town yesterday on Pentecost Sunday? Did you pay attention to the signs? Were you inspired in the truest sense of the Latin word inspirare (God-breathed)? Were you even expecting the Spirit? How will your life be different? And with whom will you share the power?

I am especially touched by the first verse of Acts 2, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” Would the power have been activated if everyone had gone their own way after the resurrection? As I ponder President Trump’s decision for the US to withdraw from participation in the historic Paris climate accord, when 195 other countries (all but three) are “all in,” I wonder. How much stronger our world is when we work together than separately. How much more can we cooperate in saving this one earth of ours by making commitments and keeping them together. How much greater our witness, how much deeper our bonds, and how much more effective we are in creating a world where everyone has enough, when we move beyond “What’s in it for my country?” to “We share one nest, one alcove, one future.”

Pentecost has already come to our home, as our barn swallow friends teach us to pay attention to things like earth care, nature, sharing, simplicity, nesting, and taking turns. In this time when annual conferences are meeting across The United Methodist Church in the US, dare we stay in the city together? Can we proclaim in all the languages of the world, “May peace prevail on the earth?” Can we pay attention to who’s missing and search until we are reunited? Will we covenant to strengthen our mutual commitments and seek the welfare of all people on the earth?

In the spirit of St. Francis, may we always look for beauty, care for the very least of God’s creatures, and find ways to serve and stay in the city until, together, we (including our barn swallows) are clothed with the power on high. Thanks be to God for peace poles, barn swallows, wind, and fire.

Because the Iowa Annual Conference will be in session this weekend through Monday, June 12, the next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, June 19.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Make Your Life a Blessing

Last Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, gave the commencement address at Harvard University. In case you didn’t know, Zuckerberg was accepted at Harvard and enrolled in 2002. By his sophomore year, he was known for his software developing skill and created Facebook out of his dorm room. After dropping out of Harvard in 2004, Zuckerberg moved to California and had a million Facebook users by the end of the year. Today his net worth is $56 billion.

In his commencement speech, Zuckerberg said, “Today I want to talk about three ways to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose: by taking on big meaningful projects together, by redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose, and by building community across the world.” As I read the transcript of Zuckerberg’s speech, it dawned on me that most of what Zuckerberg shared with the Harvard graduates could apply equally well to the women and men who will be ordained as elders in The United Methodist Church as annual conferences meet at this time of year.

Creating a sense of purpose by taking on big, meaningful projects together

Zuckerberg said, “Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness. You’re graduating at a time when this is especially important… Membership in communities is declining. Many people feel disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void.

“As I’ve traveled around, I’ve sat with children in juvenile detention and opioid addicts, who told me their lives could have turned out differently if they just had something to do, an after-school program or somewhere to go. I’ve met factory workers who know their old jobs aren’t coming back and are trying to find their place. To keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge – to not only create new jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose.”

Aren’t we as people of faith also in the business of helping others find purpose and community? A few weeks ago, I met with the clergy who will be ordained as elders in the Iowa Annual Conference in mid-June. One of the questions I asked was, “What gives you joy and purpose in ministry?” Their answers included:

  • People beginning to trust you and let you into their lives
  • Helping people find their purpose and spiritual gifts through Bible study, compassionate caring, and mentoring
  • Watching churches grow, develop, and reach out into their communities with hope
  • Preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ; saying, “Here I am, send me!” and then encouraging others to consider God’s call as well
  • The privilege of leading and walking alongside all kinds of people in community and witnessing transformed lives
  • The joy of participating in the most important times in people’s lives through baptism, confirmation, graduations, weddings, and funerals

What I heard from those about to be ordained is that their call to ministry has been intertwined with others who saw potential in them, encouraged them to name their call, and provided prayer and moral support. Their ministries continue to gain purpose as they shepherd others to find purpose by claiming faith in Jesus Christ, discovering their gifts, and making a positive difference in the world.

Redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose

Last week Zuckerberg said to the Harvard graduates, “Anyone taking initiative will get criticized for moving too fast, because there’s always someone who wants to slow you down. In our society, we often don’t do big things because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we ignore all the things wrong today if we do nothing. The reality is, anything we do will have issues in the future. But that can’t keep us from starting.”

“Every generation expands its definition of equality. Previous generations fought for the vote and civil rights. They had the New Deal and Great Society. Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation.”

When I met with the ordinands, we talked about the importance of taking risks in ministry, the necessity of failure, and the lessons we learn about leadership in the process. What are the risks that clergy must have the courage to take in order for their congregations to pursue their purpose to build community, make connections, and change the world?

  1. The risk of being transparent and vulnerable
  2. The risk of witnessing to the unconditional grace of Jesus Christ and challenging others to a deeper walk with God
  3. The risk of sharing power with laity
  4. The risk of failing
  5. The risk of talking openly about stewardship and advocating for the importance of our United Methodist connectional ministries
  6. The risk of valuing diversity and welcoming differences
  7. The risk of practicing sabbath and opening ourselves to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit
  8. The risk of dialoguing about the needs of our world from a biblical and spiritual perspective
  9. The risk of moving ministry outside the church building through adaptive change and necessary endings
  10. The risk of saying “I’m sorry.”

Creating purpose by building community across the world

Toward the end of his address, Zuckerberg said, “In a survey asking millennials around the world what defines our identity, the most popular answer wasn’t nationality, religion, or ethnicity, it was ‘citizen of the world’. That’s a big deal. Every generation expands the circle of people we consider ‘one of us’. For us, it now encompasses the entire world…

“We get that our greatest opportunities are now global – we can be the generation that ends poverty, that ends disease… This isn’t going to be decided at the UN either. It’s going to happen at the local level, when enough of us feel a sense of purpose and stability in our own lives that we can open up and start caring about everyone. The best way to do that is to start building local communities right now…  Whether our communities are houses or sports teams, churches, or music groups, they give us that sense we are part of something bigger, that we are not alone; they give us the strength to expand our horizons.”

 

One of our young clergy ordinands, Nick Grove, is the pastor of a church that is intentionally building that kind of community. The St. Charles Parish, which is a yoked United Methodist and Disciples of Christ congregation, is participating in the Healthy Church Initiative process and did something new this year. They decided to give all of their Easter offering away!

On Easter Sunday, they took in the largest offering anyone can ever remember for a single Sunday. It was over $5,000, which was twice as much as the last two Easters! Half of the offering went to help a family in the area whose house burned down and the other half went to the I-35 School District to be used at their discretion. Creating purpose. Taking on big, meaningful projects together. Making connections. Building community. What a blessing!

Zuckerberg closed with these words, “Before you walk out those gates one last time, as we sit in front of Memorial Church, I am reminded of a prayer, Mi Shebeirach, that I say whenever I face a challenge, that I sing to my daughter thinking about her future when I tuck her into bed. It goes: “May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.”

On this Memorial Day, when we remember the courage of those who sacrificed their lives while serving in the armed forces; and at this time of year, when young people graduate and candidates for ministry are ordained, may you, too, find the courage to make your life a blessing!

Ode to a Re(tired) Pastor

Pastor Gary is officially re(tired)! And today is his 65th birthday! I’d be tired, too, if I had his stats. Imagine! It’s been thirty-nine years of (approximately):

  • 1,000 sermons, most preached multiple times on a Sunday
  • 195 weddings (average of 5 per year)
  • 390 baptisms (10 per year)
  • 390 funerals (10 per year)
  • 500 youth confirmed
  • Dozens of Bible studies and other small groups led
  • 10,140 handwritten notes to parishioners (5 per week)
  • 4,056 hospital calls (2 per week)
  • 20,280 meetings (10 meetings per week, a conservative estimate)
  • 468 potlucks (one potluck a month), consuming an average of 1,500 calories each time for a total of 702,000 calories; since 3,500 calories is a pound, this is a net weight gain of 200 pounds at church
  • 202,800 handshakes/hugs (100 per week)
  • 121,680 hours worked (average 70 hours a week)
  • 101,400 pieces of paper handled (50 per week; much more were it not for computers)
  • Occasions when Gary had two weeks off in a row (not nearly enough)
  • Churches Served: First UCC Congregational Church in Milford, Connecticut (3 years); Ogdensburg UMC (6 months) and Central UMC in Traverse City, Michigan (4 years); Centenary UMC in Pentwater (8 years); First UMC in Grand Rapids (20 years); and First UMC in Birmingham (4 years)
  • Numerous conference leadership positions, including chair of the West Michigan Annual Conference Program Committee, chair of the Conference Nominations Committee, Dean of the Michigan Area School for Pastoral Ministry, and member of the Board of Ordained Ministry.

Of course, these stats do not take into account innumerable youth group sleepovers (i.e. sleepless nights) and mission trips, nursing home visits, CROP Walks, graduation parties, and millions of dollars raised from ten building campaigns.

Nor does it count how many times our oldest daughter escaped from the nursery and ran into the sanctuary during worship or how many accidents our three children had on church property or at homes of parishioners: (a broken arm from falling out of tree; a broken wrist from falling off a pony in our backyard; a finger slammed in the front door of the church; a shock from a nail stuck into an electrical socket; lacerations from broken bottles and somersaults off couches, etc., etc.

The word “retire” comes from the 16th century French word retirer, which means “to withdraw” or “to retreat” and was used in reference to armies. It also meant to “withdraw to a place of privacy” or “leave an occupation.” Actually, Gary is withdrawing from Michigan today. A moving truck is arriving to take our remaining belongings to the Des Moines, Iowa area, where he will start a new life as chief cook, bottle washer, chauffeur, golf partner, and comic relief.

Gary was a highly effective pastor for 39 years and will always carry with him the privilege of walking alongside others in the most tender, painful, happy, and profound times of their lives. Shepherding children, youth, and adults from guests to observers, to seekers, to learners, to disciples, to difference makers has been a source of great joy.

He’ll also remember the sixteen years (thirteen in Grand Rapids and three in Birmingham) that we pastored together in the same church. We were the source of endless good-natured ribbing from parishioners because our styles were very different. At the same time, we learned how to play off each other’s strengths, respect our individual uniqueness, and grow our congregations by focusing on the mission, vision, and strategic priorities of the churches we served. The memories are priceless.

  • Serving a church in the middle of cherry orchards
  • Living in a house on a hill overlooking the beauty of Grand Traverse Bay
  • Our tiny 12-month-old old daughter, walking underneath tables in the fellowship hall and getting into the purses of all the women
  • The three kids asking every Sunday when they were little, “Are we going to Mommy’s church or Daddy’s church today?”
  • Walking to the Lake Michigan beach from our parsonage in Pentwater
  • The time Gary had to leave for a week-long Board of Ordained Ministry interview retreat one day after I fractured a wrist. I had to care for three children under the age of six with one arm.
  • The Saturday night after Christmas when both Gary and I came down with the flu at the same time. We not only had to find people to fill the pulpit at a late hour but had to find someone to care for our kids the next day as well.
  • That fateful first Sunday in Grand Rapids, when our elementary school age children were being introduced and Garth marched right up into the chancel, waving like a politician. Later in the service he was making paper airplanes in the front row from church bulletins.

Through it all, Gary served faithfully, joyfully, creatively, and expectantly and was continually learning and growing. Every Sunday he expected God to show up and offered his very best. Gary loved the people in his churches, and they loved him. He offered Christ every Sunday and spread scriptural holiness throughout Michigan.

I am especially grateful that after I was elected to the episcopacy on July 14, 2016, Gary essentially did his job at Birmingham First UMC as well as mine over the past year. He did it willingly and eagerly, even though it meant that we would live in different states for nine months.

Gary’s last sermon series was called “I’m Still Growing!” On April 30, he preached about Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32 and concluded the sermon with these words, “May you wrestle until you stand up in the dawn with the assurance in your heart that you’ve seen God face-to-face. And, like Jacob, know not only that your life was spared, but that the eternal God of our mothers and fathers is with you. And that the nature and the name of this God is love. It’s worth wrestling for, my friends. God wrestles with us before we even know God’s name. We wrestle with our sins and doubts until God’s grace transforms us. Then we wrestle for a better life, for ourselves and for all the world. And we do it with a leap and a laugh. Hell, earth and sin are all overcome. We belong to the One whose nature and whose name is love.”

Ministry is a very demanding vocation, and many of us are constantly tired. Gary, like all of the other pastors who are retiring in the next month, especially deserves to be tired, but now he can sleep in as long as he wants, and a whole new life awaits. One thing I do know. When you are a pastor, that’s who you are forever. For it’s not a job, it’s a calling. As a re(tired) pastor, Gary will continue to grow, learn, and serve.

But most important, will you be making me dinner tonight, Gary? I confess I haven’t once turned on the oven yet. It’ll be great to have you in our new home in Iowa. And if you ever get bored, I think I might be able to find you an appointment. No pressure. Just love and gratitude. Well done, good and faithful servant!