So What Do You Do on Friday Night?

It’s Friday night all across America.  What are you doing?  Attending a high school football game, going out for dinner and a movie, grocery shopping, walking the mall, visiting family, or crashing after a hard week?

On the 2nd Friday of every month the tiny congregation of Plainfield UMC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, opens its doors to a hundred individuals and families in the Creston neighborhood.  Although the church accepts donations and some put a dollar in the basket, most people don’t have money to contribute.  They simply need a good, hot meal and some TLC.

Jesse oversees the kitchen, and Ray is outside on the sidewalk grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, a last tribute to summer.  Bob and Wanda drive over from Muskegon because they have a heart for this neighborhood and a gift for engaging our guests in conversation.  Craig rides his bike 10 miles one way from another part of the city to help.  Sharon, Marianne, Pam and Gina supervise the food and clean-up.  Theresa serves, and her husband Jim welcomes people at the door.  Their son is getting married the next day.  Where were you the night before your child’s wedding?

Meanwhile I have the best job: introducing myself to our neighborhood guests and listening to their stories.  “Hi, my name is Laurie, and I’m the new pastor at Plainfield UMC.”  Without exception, everyone expresses gratitude for the dinner and is appreciative for the warm welcome they receive.  However, they will definitely not be attending a football game, taking in a movie, or cruising the mall after dinner.  They are simply trying to survive.   Their stories are heartbreaking, but their spirits are not broken.

Joseph, Tony, and Ron are sitting together.  Joseph asks, “What’s the difference between a born again, a Lutheran, and a Catholic?”

I stumble.  “Hmm.  Well.  Okay.  Lutherans and Catholics affiliate with a specific Christian group.  However, born again is not a denomination but describes a spiritual self-understanding that crosses all boundaries.   Lutherans and Catholics can be born again.  I’m born again, and I’m a Methodist.”

“What’s a Methodist?”

“We’re a community of disciples of Jesus Christ that was started by a man named John Wesley.  We believe that God’s grace is free, and there is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s love.  We also believe that God calls us to love our neighbors.  That’s why we’re having this dinner.”

“I like that.  I’ve been here before.  I’ve gotten food at the pantry.  I was married once and divorced.”

Tony says, “I go to the Open Door Pentecostal Church on Knapp.  We only have about 20 people.  Our pastor is an African-American woman, and she is on fire.  We have healing services on Sunday evening where people fall under the power of the Holy Spirit.  I am a schizophrenic, and the healing prayers help me.  Do you have Sunday evening or weeknight services?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t.  But we do worship on Sunday mornings at 11:15 a.m. with a free breakfast before.  You are always welcome.”

“What’s the difference between Methodists and Pentecostals?”

“None.  We love Jesus and our neighbors just as you do.”

“Love covers a multitude of sins.  I’ve never been married.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joseph chimes in.  “I’ve had some hard lessons to learn.”

“Don’t we all,” echoed Tony.

Ron, who lives in the same nearby adult foster care home as Tony, finally enters the conversation and says, “I don’t have a family.”

I move to another table where Randy, Jack, and Sam are sitting.  Randy had a kidney transplant a year ago.  He has experienced numerous complications but says, “Somebody always has it worse off than me.  I feel welcome here.  It doesn’t matter what religion you are.  Just love others.  That’s it.”

“Did you get enough to eat?” I ask Jack.

“You bet.  I grew up with hardly any food, so I’ve learned how to make do with little.

“I watch what I eat because I’m on disability.  If you are smart you can make it on a food card.  But I do come here and to the food pantry, and I go to St. Al’s for the free dinners on Tuesday and Thursday.”

Sam chimes in, “I’m a handyman and a painter, but I don’t have much work .  I learn how to be a smart shopper with my food card.”

Jack says, “I had cancer 5 years ago and went back to work as a furniture refinisher, but I can’t do it anymore.  It’s hard to find a job at 60, but I was raised to work.  I’m no freeloader.  I’ve learned that you don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy.  I’ve had a lot and a little.”

“I want you to know how much we appreciate what you’re doing,” Randy says.

A family with a husband, wife, and 6 small children settle down to eat.  We chat for a few minutes, but they’re really busy making sure their children eat.

I greet a middle-aged man who is holding a 1-month-old baby and is accompanied by 3 teenagers.  Each of the girls asks me to guess how old they are and who the mother of the baby is.  They are 15, 16, and 19 years old.  The 16 year old is the mother.

Alex and Elizabeth share with me that Elizabeth attended Sunday school at Plainfield UMC until she was 10 years old.  She just got a job in a business across the street, and Alex does electronics and computer work.   “I love to help churches.  If you ever need anything, just call me,” Alex said, handing me his card.

Andrea is eating dinner with 2 small children.  Her husband works in Holland, but they were in the area running some errands and saw the sign advertising our dinner.  “What a godsend this is.  Thank you so much.”

I welcome a few parents and grandparents of our Sunday school children.  Two courageous and deeply faithful young adults volunteer every Sunday to teach anywhere from 4 to 15 neighborhood children.  The children show up for breakfast every Sunday morning and then stay for church school.  It’s extremely challenging ministry, with children who come and go at will, have little parental supervision, and are more hungry for the love of Jesus Christ and the care of this church than an actual breakfast.

When the evening is over, we have 6 hot dogs and a few desserts left and no hamburgers and baked beans.  As we’re cleaning up, a few more young men arrive and inhale the rest of the hot dogs.

Are we making a difference on this Friday night in Grand Rapids?  Are we changing the face of poverty in the Creston neighborhood, or are we simply putting on Band-Aids?  It’s making enough of a difference that the church borrowed from its endowment to renovate the kitchen so that outreach meals can be served at least three times a week in the fellowship hall.  We’re not in it to earn money, but what little we raise goes toward mission around the world.

It’s making enough of a difference that when we smelled gas in the afternoon and a technician charged more to fix the stove than we gathered in donations, we smiled and knew that God would provide.  An unexpected $200 donation was sent the next week by a family from another United Methodist church in the area who could not attend the dinner but wanted to help.

It’s making enough of a difference that even though we cannot fix the lives of our guests, we are connecting with our neighbors.  We are sitting at the same tables together, talking about our lives, sharing in God’s bounty, and giving thanks for simple joys like fresh apple pie and a place to sit for a while.  Plus, we’re offering a sneak preview of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God.

Come to think of it, this wasn’t just a preview, this was the Kingdom come on this earth: here and not yet.  Kind of like World Communion Sunday.  The menu was different: hot dogs and lemonade rather than bread and grape juice.  The liturgy was different: heart to heart conversation rather than the Great Thanksgiving.  And the setting was different: beat up tables and chairs rather than cushioned pews.  But the same Holy Spirit was present: swirling, dancing, delighting, empowering, encouraging, dispensing hope, and including all at the table.

No one ever gives up at Plainfield UMC.  This small but mighty congregation is convinced that their presence in the Creston neighborhood is leaven, light, love, and hope.  Thirty years from now none of these faithful church folks will probably be around.  Yet there is absolutely no doubt that every person who attends this 2nd Friday dinner and every child who comes to breakfast and church school on Sunday morning will remember Plainfield UMC.  They won’t remember what they ate, but they will remember this:

  • the open doors of this congregation
  • the loving consistency and safety of our presence
  • the stories of a Jesus whose grace won’t ever let them go
  • the sweet, sweet power of the Holy Spirit, which mysteriously blew them in the door and somehow stayed in their heart.

So what do you do on Friday night?



Struck Down But Not Destroyed

Phyllis Mohr put her hands in my hands last Friday, looked me in the eye, and said, “Ed had no idea how much he was loved and respected by other United Methodist pastors.  The presence of each one of you means so much.”

When I first heard that my friend, Rev. Ed Mohr, died in a car-bike accident last Tuesday morning, I was shaken to the core.   Ed designed the current website for my blog, Leading from the Heart, and we were in touch last week about adding some widgets to the website.  Ed responded immediately, did his usual great job, and we had the following email conversation.

“Have you been riding this summer, Ed?  I am participating in a triathlon tomorrow morning in Grand Rapids, my only race of the summer.  Blessings, Laurie”

“Sure have been riding.  I’ve got almost 1,600 miles in and hope to make 2K.  Best of luck in your race.  God bless, Ed.”

“Wow! I’m impressed. That averages well over 100 miles a week during the summer.  Wish I could do that.  Maybe next year.”  Four days later Ed was gone.  He was 64 years old.

I respected Ed as a valued colleague and a techie who generously shared his expertise with novices like me, but I especially admired Ed for his passion for cycling.  Two  years ago I spent a day cycling 80 plus miles from Muskegon to Manistee with Ed as part of the West Michigan Conference Ride for Haiti.  It was a gorgeous, but long day with many hills that taxed our physical energy and mental fortitude.  However, no one heard a word of complaint from Ed, who kept grinding away on his bike and did double duty at night as the HaitiRide webmaster.  This past June Ed participated in the Ride for Haiti for the third time with his new 2012 Mercier Corvus AL bike.

What I loved most about Ed was that he followed his bliss.  1,900 years ago St. Irenaeus was no doubt referring to Ed when he said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.”  Ed had a gift for technology, owned an electronics store for many years, and loved to use his expertise to assist others.  In mid-life Ed felt a call to ministry and served eight years as a United Methodist pastor.  His congregations fell in love with Ed because he was always looking for someone to help, someone with whom to share Jesus, and someone to mentor and guide.

When Ed Mohr was outside on his bike, though, he was fully alive.  As his family described it, cycling was Ed’s therapy, his time to think, his opportunity to become one with creation.   Because Ed lived a rich, balanced, and fulfilling life, he was a highly effective pastor to his congregations.

Tragically, road cycling can be a dangerous hobby as well as an abiding passion.  Every cyclist knows the risks involved, including vicious dogs, speeding cars, and no bike lanes or shoulders.  We try to minimize the danger as much as possible by riding in groups, avoiding headphones, using less traveled roads, and obeying all traffic rules.  Unfortunately, we are at the mercy of drivers who use cell phones, are occasionally distracted by food, drink, and conversation, and sometimes make a game of driving as close to cyclists as possible.

When Ed emailed that he had already ridden 1,600 miles this summer, my first reaction was, “You’re a braver person than I am, Ed.  I don’t often ride the roads alone because I am fearful of accidents, which means that I don’t get as many miles in as I’d like.  I wish I could be more like you because you don’t let fear hold you back.”

What a wonderful celebration of Ed’s life and faith we experienced at Gobles United Methodist Church on Friday.  Ed and Phyllis’ blended family testified to their joy in the midst of deep sorrow, their laughter in the midst of tears, and their faith in the midst of grief.  The scripture that especially spoke to me was 2 Corinthians 4:8-10, “We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

Yes, Ed Mohr was struck down by a car, but he was not destroyed.  Yes, Ed’s earthly life is finished, but his eternal life has begun.  Yes, Ed is absent in the body, but he is home in the Lord.  Praise God for a disciple of Jesus Christ who used his gifts to the fullest.  Praise God for a servant who felt compelled to leave a profession he loved for a vocation he loved even more.  Praise God for a man who dedicated his life to be present with the flocks he was called to lead as shepherd.

The sanctuary on Friday was full to overflowing.   Many clergy colleagues traveled long distances to honor the life of a fellow pastor.  People came from the communities in which Ed lived and served throughout his life.  Some were not even United Methodists but had been touched in some way by Ed’s ministry.

The pews were also filled with members of Ed’s current congregations: courageous, faith-filled, grief-stricken disciples who had lost their leader.  It’s not supposed to happen that way, is it?   And then there was Bishop Deborah Kiesey, having just begun her ministry last week, taking time to be present to the family of a pastor she had never met and congregations who were now part of her Michigan flock.  The presence of every single person was a blessing.     

At the end of the Service of Death and Resurrection we commended Ed to God, “Receive Ed Mohr into the arms of your mercy.  Raise Ed up, with all your people.  Receive us, also, and raise us into a new life.  Help us so to love and serve you in this world that we may enter into your joy in the world to come.”  Ed may have been struck down, but he has not been destroyed, and his legacy will live on in his friends and family.  How, then, shall we live, mindful of the gift of Ed’s life?

  • Savor each moment.

Even if you are afflicted, you don’t have to be crushed.  Even if you are perplexed, you don’t have to be driven to despair.  Even if you are persecuted, you don’t have to be forsaken.  Find joy in each day, for all we have is the present.  Don’t wait until tomorrow because tomorrow may never come.  Live now, love now, for every day is complete and a gift in itself.

  • Do not live in fear because life is unpredictable.

Don’t hide in your room because the world is a dangerous place.  Don’t hold back.  Don’t be a dead person walking around.  Follow your passion, but be prudent.  Count the cost but determine to be fully alive.  Risk all.  As T.S. Eliot once said, “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”  Take a deep breath and go for it!

  • Don’t waste time on anger and bitterness. 

You only have so much energy and time in this world.  Focus on the positive energy of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace-making.   In 2 Corinthians 5:18, the apostle Paul urges us to become a new creation in Christ and says, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”  What relationships do you need to mend now?

  • Be a clay jar by making the life of Jesus visible in your brokenness. 

Paul says, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)   Each one of you lives a sorrowful life.  Yet precisely because you bear the scars of pain, disappointment, and dashed hopes, you become wounded healers.

Relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, draw closer to one another, keep on keeping on together, and even carry one another when life’s journey becomes too heavy.  And when the day comes that you fall down, just as Ed fell off his bike last week, may you, like Ed, fall right into the arms of Jesus. 

     Hallelujah!  Struck down, but not destroyed.