You, Too, Can Choose

It was truly a night to remember. A few weeks ago, I attended the Board meeting of our United Methodist-related Morningside University in Sioux City, Iowa. President John Reynders, now in his 22nd and last year before retirement, is the longest-tenured president in the university’s history. Beloved by faculty and students alike, President Reynders has transformed Morningside into a world-class institution of higher learning. At the annual Sioux City Chamber of Commerce dinner on September 30, President Reynders was given the 2021 W. Edwards Deming Business Leadership and Entrepreneurial Excellence Award in recognition of his vision and leadership in the Siouxland region. But it was what came next that rocked my world.

The evening focused on a celebration of our veterans and members of our Armed Forces, with keynote speaker Melissa Stockwell, who has written a book, The Power of Choice; My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion. Stockwell captivated the audience by sharing her story. Melissa was a 24-year-old 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army, deployed to Baghdad in March 2004 as part of the Global War on Terrorism. Three weeks after Stockwell arrived in Iraq, an IED roadside bomb exploded under the Humvee in which she was riding. A combat medic pulled her out from under the vehicle.

Stockwell wrote, “‘I’m hurt!’ I screamed out. Then I was gone. As soon as I screamed, I passed out. It was quick, probably only ten to fifteen seconds. It was the strangest experience. I went to the most beautiful vibrant place, full of pink and purple flowers. It was the happiest, the most joyous place that I had ever experienced.

“Then I resurfaced. Sergeant Pavich, a combat medic, was pulling me out of the vehicle by my bulletproof vest and laying me down on my back. He had been a few vehicles behind us and heard my scream.

“I had just been in my happiest place. Now I was trying to understand exactly where I was. It had been like a scene in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, where pretty music played, and everything was colorful and animated and full of life. I’m in Iraq. I was on the ground, I was hurt. Sergeant Pavich was working on me.”[1]

Melissa, who was seriously injured, was transported in a military helicopter to a hospital for life-saving surgery. When she awoke, she learned that she had lost her left leg above the knee. In fact, Melissa was the first female in the US Armed Forces to lose a limb in active combat. Stockwell was eventually flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. for recovery and rehabilitation and to learn how to live with a prosthetic leg. She received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

But Stockwell found herself at a crossroads. Losing her left leg was not on her to-do list. How would Melissa reinvent her life? Would she become stuck in self-pity or decide to live her life fully? Would she lament what she had lost or focus on what she still had left? In confronting her own loss and self-pity, Melissa met many people at Walter Reed who had injuries that were far worse than hers. She marveled at their resiliency and learned that none of us has control over every aspect of our life. What we can control, however, is our attitude. Melissa decided to commit herself to those who offer their lives daily in the military, especially those deployed far from home. And, having been a competitive athlete since she was a little girl in swimming, tennis, and gymnastics, Melissa chose to devote herself to sports again.

Rio de Janeiro – Provas de triatlo feminino PT4, PT2 e PT5, em Copacabana. (Tânia Rêgo/Agência Brasil)

In an interview with the  Chicago Tribune in 2016, Melissa said, “Obviously, losing my leg was a traumatic event, but I had the power to choose how I went from there. So I chose to accept the loss of my leg, to be resilient through it and to make my life what I wanted it to be.”

Melissa became the first Iraqi war veteran to qualify for and participate in the Paralympics, which welcomes athletes who fit into six disability categories: amputee, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, visually impaired, spinal injuries, or other (not fitting into the other categories). Unlike the Special Olympics, athletes in the Paralympics must meet certain sport-specific qualifying standards.

Stockwell participated in three swimming events at the 2008 Paralympic games in Beijing, China and was honored to carry the USA flag during the closing ceremonies. Subsequently, she made a transition into paratriathlons. Stockwell represented the United States in the 2010 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in Budapest and won the Women’s TRI-2 (above knee amputee) class. In 2011 and 2012, she defended her TRI-2 World Champion title.

Melissa subsequently won a bronze medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and was honored as Paratriathlete of the Year for two consecutive years. Today Melissa is married with two children. She is also a certified prosthetist and elite coach and has dedicated her life to service and giving back to others. In The Power of Choice, Stockwell shares life lessons that have shaped and formed her life.

  • Stockwell affectionately calls her prosthesis “little leg.” On each anniversary of the attack, she acknowledges the injury and celebrates the life that she still has.
  • Melissa’s hospital stay was the turning point. “I have a chance. I will deal with this.”
  • We cannot change reality, but we can always choose how we will react to events beyond our control.
  • There is great power and hope in the resilience of the human spirit. The enemy took Melissa’s leg, but they could not take her spirit.
  • It doesn’t matter what you look like. By coaching kids, Melissa regained her confidence and self-worth.
  • Find people you can trust and rely on.
  • Give yourself credit. Maybe I CAN do this.
  • There are two roads – determination or self-pity – recovery or giving up.
  • There is power in perspective. Is it really this bad?
  • Focus on what you still have and not on what you lost.
  • Life is short, and dreams can come true.
  • What matters the most is how we live and love and make a difference.

As Stockwell concluded her inspiring talk, the “MC” for the event came forward and announced to Melissa that they had a surprise for her. A man suddenly walked onto the stage and gave her a hug. It was Alex Pavich, the medic who stabilized and saved Melissa’s life after the bomb went off seventeen years ago. They have stayed in touch over the years but had not seen each other since that traumatic event. There was nary a dry eye in the audience.

Stockwell ends her book with these words, “We all have the power – to make our lives what we want them to be, and to feel like the luckiest people alive. We have the power to choose to embrace change instead of resisting it. We have the power to find motivation in our adversity. We can adapt and thrive in life. We have the power to take charge of our destinies, however difficult it might seem, and to live our lives in ways that make the stories we want to share with and inspire the world. I hope that my story helps you along your way.”[2]

My hope is that Melissa Stockwell’s story inspires you. For you, too, can choose.

 

[1] Melissa Stockwell, The Power of Choice; My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion, New York, Post Hill Press, 2020, pp. 72-73.

[2] Stockwell, The Power of Choice; My Journey from Wounded Warrior to World Champion, New York, Post Hill Press, 2020, p. 238.

The Way of the Heart

My life changed in 2006 when Bishop Jonathan Keaton invited me to be a district superintendent after thirteen years of pastoral ministry at First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Never could I have imagined that I would have the opportunity to come alongside clergy in a way that would engage their gifts, encourage their ministries, and empower their congregations to grow in grace and hope. Actually, I was scared stiff! I had served congregations of all sizes but wasn’t sure how all this would all work. Plus, I recognized that I would deeply miss being a local church pastor.

One thing I did know, however. I wanted to lead from my heart. I distinctly remember taking an evening walk in early July of 2006, which had become a daily practice. For several months before I began my ministry as a district superintendent, I realized that I would need to find a way to stay regularly connected with eighty clergy and hundreds of laity. That night I decided to create a weekly blog called Leading from the Heart that would be sent out by email to clergy and anyone else who wanted to subscribe. My hope was that my words might be a source of encouragement and inspiration to clergy and laity alike. More than six hundred blogs later, I want to share a few brief excerpts from my first three blogs.

July 11, 2006

In the summer, I have a practice of taking a walk every night that I am able. As I walk, I vow for this to be a time to let God speak to me through the beauty of God’s good creation. I don’t power walk. I simply wander along, opening my eyes and heart to all that surrounds me. At times, I replay the events of the day and ponder issues of concern. However, I try to quickly clear my mind so that I can make room for God’s presence to surround me with joy.

Tonight, I was walking after 9 p.m., just as the sky was beginning to turn yellow and orange. As I gazed at the sunset, I thought to myself, “These are the most amazing clouds I have ever seen!” Wispy, swirling, dancing, grace-filled clouds, beckoning me to come out and play, reminding me of the promise of a Holy Spirit that blows where it wills, urging me to rest in God’s love and then go out to serve.

Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.

Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.

Be still, they say. Watch and listen.

— Linda Hogan

From July 18, 2006

The ancient Hebrews believed that the heart was more than just a physical organ. The heart was the crucible of a person’s true essence, whether that essence was good, bad, or in transformation. The heart, Lev in Hebrew, was the seat of wisdom, intellect, understanding, moods, personality, passions, and emotions. Most of all, it was within the heart that people truly met God’s word — where real knowledge and conversion took place.

When Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest of all, he built upon his Jewish heritage by replying that we need to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. For Jesus, loving God and others with our entire being is the source of the wholeness of life. It is the way of the heart. Unfortunately, what seems to be missing in much of our world today is even a little heart.

The desire of the head for more and more so dominates the heart that we forget that there is more to our heart than simply a beating muscle. We forget that in order to be a whole person, we need to do more for our heart than simply exercise it. Our hearts become so anesthetized that we can no longer feel. And because we are not able to reach out to our neighbor with passion and grace, we risk a broken heart ourselves.

Thousands of years ago, the Hebrews knew about the possibility of this type of heart. Why don’t you and I have this kind of heart? What’s stopping us? If we allow our hearts to lead us, what transformation might take place in our churches, communities, individual lives, and the world? I invite you to listen to and lead from your heart.

From July 25, 2006

Last week, for the first time in 25 years of ministry, I went to the health club on Sunday morning! I am now officially out of my normal Sunday routine. I did not need to be in church until mid-morning, so I decided to go for a swim. I admit I felt incredible guilt. I was looking around me all the time, afraid I’d run into someone I knew. I thought to myself, “This is not right! I shouldn’t be here!”

As I headed to the women’s locker room to hide, I heard a familiar voice, “Hey, Laurie!” It was Jim, who is Jewish. He broke out into a big smile and said, “I didn’t think I’d ever see you here on Sunday morning. Welcome to my world.” Actually, few people were working out that morning. Of course, I hoped that everyone was in church!

There are as many unchurched people in Grand Rapids as anywhere else in the country. You and I are called to reach people for Jesus Christ and not just stay in our sanctuaries and wait for them to come to us. At our church conferences this fall, I look forward to hearing how you are reaching out to your communities and making disciples for the transformation of the world!

Fifteen years after my first three blogs, I am still committed to leading from the heart. How might our world, our church, and our individual lives change if we all had the courage to follow the way of the heart?

 

 

 

Just Tell Everybody That I’m Grateful

The occasion might well have slipped by me. Bishop Gregory Palmer reminded us last Tuesday at our North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops meeting that September 21 was the 25th anniversary of the death of Henri Nouwen. On September 21, 1996, Nouwen, my seminary professor, died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 64.

Nouwen played a significant role in my life. After college, I went to Yale University to study music at the graduate level. As part of my interdisciplinary curriculum at the Institute of Sacred Music, however, I was encouraged to take courses at the Divinity School as well.

Nouwen’s class, Ministry and Spirituality, has had more impact on my life than any course I have ever taken, not to mention that I met my husband Gary in this class. A Catholic priest from the Netherlands, Nouwen had become a leader in the emerging disciplines of pastoral psychology and clinical pastoral education. Preferring simply to be called “Henri,” he taught at Yale Divinity School from 1971 to 1981, and his students, to his embarrassment, considered him a real “rock star.”

I wasn’t headed toward pastoral ministry when I took Henri’s class, but I was keenly interested in the spiritual life. Eighteen months before enrolling in Ministry and Spirituality, my heart was strangely warmed through a conversion experience I had after months of struggling with my faith. I was deeply committed to Christ and had already read Nouwen’s1972 classic, The Wounded Healer. However, my faith was black and white and untested in many ways.

I understood “wounded healer” as a theological concept. Yet, as a 22-year-old, my only real experience with “wounds” was occasional laments from church members about my eclectic choice of choir music at the Stratford United Methodist Church where I was the part-time Director of Music during my time at Yale.

How I wish I could take Henri’s class again now that I am in my fortieth year of ministry. As a young adult, I did not have enough pastoral wisdom, life experience, or hard knocks to fully understand the depth of Henri’s spirituality or my own. He was always quiet, unassuming, and humble. Yet I sensed that Henri was a holy man, chosen by God to model the spiritual life for millions of students and readers around the world.

Henri divided our class into small groups of six or seven students, and Gary just happened to find his way into my group. One of our assignments was to go away to a retreat center for a weekend, and we ended up in a monastery in upper New York State. The bonds we formed were deep, as our group attempted to develop spiritual practices that would last a lifetime. I will always carry with me the way Henri embodied the heart of Jesus in his mind, body, and spirit.

  • Henri was an authentic and transparent person. By his willingness to share his vulnerability, insecurities, doubts, and brokenness, Henri created a safe place where his students could wrestle with their demons as well.
  • Henri insisted on the importance of listening and connecting intimately with others. At the same time, he recognized the value of solitude, retreats, and time apart spent with God in silence.
  • Henri never judged others yet always called his students to spiritual disciplines of prayer, relationship, and solidarity with the poor.
  • As a Catholic priest, Henri struggled mightily with celibacy. Yet he vowed to remain focused on his fervent desire to connect others with God.
  • Henri continually wrestled with what “success” means. His celebrity status never changed him, and Nouwen lived a simple life, even spending years at L’Arche Daybreak Community in Ontario, Canada. He took care of a severely handicapped young man named Adam, who became a source of healing for Henri after an emotional breakdown.

I have read many of Henri’s 42 published books, the last of which is Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. Published in 2016, Love, Henri commemorates the twentieth anniversary of his death. When Nouwen died, he left a legacy of personal papers and letters, which have been collected and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw. She wrote, “Over his lifetime, Henri received more than 16,000 letters. He kept every postcard, piece of paper, fax, and greeting card that arrived in his mail. And he responded to each of them.”[i] Among the 204 letters in the book, several excerpts spoke to me. I suspect his thoughts may resonate with you as well.

In a letter to Walter J. Gaffney July 8, 1979:

“The whole central idea of meditation is to simply pay attention to God and find your real self in God. If I keep paying attention to myself and my little world, I get more and more entangled in the old self, which really amounts to a death trip.”[ii]

To a student named Timothy in 1980:

“When I discovered not only that my weakness was my humanity but also that my humanity was a forgiven humanity, I truly found my freedom.”[iii]

In a letter to a friend in 1991:

“Jesus’ invitation to ‘lay down my life for others’ has always meant more to me than physical martyrdom. I have always heard these words as an invitation to make my own life struggles, my doubt, my hopes, my fear and my joys, my pains and my moments of ecstasy available to others as a source of consolation and healing.”[iv]

To another friend in 1993:

“I know that I do not need to be ashamed of my needs, that my demons are not really demons but angels in disguise, allowing me to love generously, to be faithful to my friends, to be sensitive to many forms of human suffering and to live my priesthood with courage and confidence.”[v]

Henri’s last words, spoken to his friend, Nathan, in a hospital in Hilversum, The Netherlands, after suffering a heart attack in 1996:

“I think I’m going to be OK, but you never know. So if I die, just tell everybody that I’m grateful, that I’m enormously grateful. Make sure you tell everybody that.”[vi] Henri died early the next morning.

It’s good to remember Henri. Thanks be to God for richness of Nouwen’s life, for his generosity of spirit, and for demonstrating to all of us that we, too can be grateful, wounded healers of mind, body, and spirit.

 

[i] Love, Henri; Letters on the Spiritual Life, Henri J.M. Nouwen, edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw, New York, Convergent Books, 2016, p. ix.

[ii] Nouwen, p. 36.

[iii] Ibid, p. 41.

[iv] Ibid, xii.

[v] Ibid, xv.

[vi] Ibid, p. 346.