It was the last week of August, and I was reflecting upon the fact that it was exactly four years ago that Gary and I drove out to Iowa along with a moving van and all of our stuff. I had been elected a bishop of The United Methodist Church at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in Peoria, Illinois on July 14, 2016, and had six weeks to wrap up my ministry in Michigan and prepare for a new life in Iowa. And, oh, what a life it has been!
Gary and I traveled to Iowa for a few days in late July 2016 to meet the cabinet, and as soon as I stepped foot in the Conference Center, I knew that I would be at home. The hospitality Gary and I received and the grace that I was shown again and again relieved much of the anxiety of this incredible new adventure upon which I was embarking. Moving into the episcopal residence marked the beginning of the journey.
The fall of 2016 was a whirlwind, and as I visited each of the districts for a time to get acquainted, I began to get a feel for this state which is known for being “Iowa Nice.” During that first year, we formed a new mission statement:
- Inspire, equip, and connect communities of faith to cultivate world-changing disciples of Jesus Christ
and a new vision statement:
- God’s hope for the world made real through faithful leaders, fruitful communities, and fire-filled people.
The kindness with which I was received throughout the state was sincere and touching. Even when we began several years of conversations around human sexuality and were not of one mind, I sensed the Spirit of God continually moving in our midst, urging us to stay at the table, listen carefully and prayerfully to one another, and continue to love each another in the process.
Never could we have imagined, however, that the year 2020 would bring one challenge after another, including COVID-19; a postponed General Conference; an anti-racist movement that continues to gain momentum; severe economic hardship in many families and communities; the necessity of reinventing how we do worship; and the derecho of August 10.
The lectionary epistle from August 30 lingers in my mind. Not only does it summarize the apostle Paul’s wisdom for his readers, but it expresses my sense of what God has been calling us to in the Iowa Conference over the past four years. Paul writes in Romans 12:9-15 (CEB), “Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic – be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. Bless people who harass you – bless and don’t curse them. Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying.”
Is there any greater declaration of the heart of Christianity as well as the character of United Methodists in Iowa? Yes, we have had differences around our biblical understanding of human sexuality, which has caused deep anguish and pain. As we wait for the postponed General Conference in 2021 and anticipate voting on The Protocol, we also recognize that one or more new denominations may emerge from our differences. At the same time, I truly believe that our deep desire to be on fire with the Holy Spirit, hold on to what is good, devote ourselves to prayer, and live in peace with one another honors God and is a sign of hope.
Romans 12 became real to me when I spent several days in Cedar Rapids after the derecho (a wide-spread, long-lived windstorm with rain) that swept through Iowa on August 10. As the storm system moved east across the state, atmospheric instability heightened the strength of the storm, producing the highest measured wind of 126 miles per hour for 30-45 minutes. The result? Widespread damage across central and eastern Iowa, including the loss of 23,000 publicly owned trees in Cedar Rapids alone. 43% of the state’s crops, including 24 million acres of farmland, mostly corn and soybeans, were adversely affected. Virtually every property had some damage, and a team of over 2,000 people from different states and Canada worked tirelessly for several weeks to restore power after a complete breakdown of the communications grid.
A group of volunteers gathered in Cedar Rapids on August 27 with our Iowa UM Disaster Response Coordinator, Rev. Catie Newman, and other leaders to plan the day and pray for all those affected by the derecho. A chainsaw gang led by Pastor Andrew Happ was clear about their job to cut down felled trees so that they could be taken away. Andrew said to the group that the most important thing you can do as a person of faith is to make a difference in someone else’s life.
Another crew worked to affix tarps to roofs that had been damaged so that water would not leak into homes waiting for roof repairs. Pastor Jason Collier was quick to point out that even though people often tried to pay his crew for their help, they always refused. Jason would say, “God’s love is free. You cannot pay us. Our job is to simply bless people.”
Meanwhile, I visited with area United Methodist clergy to hear their stories and offer encouragement and support. Their days have been filled with checking up on their parishioners as well as tending to the damage that many churches experienced to their own buildings. Most of all, they bless people. In the midst of the bone-weariness of disaster relief, their spirits are on fire as they offer pastoral support and care for all.
No one can pay us United as Methodists to help others. It’s our calling. We simply bless people by using chainsaws to help clear downed trees and tarps to cover roofs that have been damaged. And we bless people through Matthew 25, a UM-related non-profit organization in Cedar Rapids whose vision is “creating a thriving, connected community where people are valued and talents are multiplied; where neighborhood families have access to safe, affordable housing and healthy food; and where youth are empowered through reading and the creative arts.
Matthew 25 has offered generators to those without power, especially those who need them for dialysis and other medical conditions. Volunteers and staff go door to door in hard-hit neighborhoods and bless others by offering shelter, distributing meals, checking on people to see if they are okay, and representing the unconditional love of Jesus Christ for all people.
Our clergy are responding. Our laity are responding. Our children and youth are responding. Those with building skills are responding. And our churches, not all of which are able to worship in their buildings yet because of damage, are witnessing to God’s grace and reaching out to their neighbors with care and concern.
And, no, you cannot pay us. We simply contribute to the needs of God’s people. That’s what I have learned in my first four years in Iowa. What might happen if we simply blessed people?