Giving Thanks with the Eyes of Our Heart

Have you ever read stories that are so amazing and incredible that tears of gratitude, hope, and joy blur your eyes? As Thanksgiving approaches, we are all discouraged by our inability to enjoy the holiday with relatives and friends because of COVID restrictions. At the same time, we are given the opportunity to reflect on the blessings that God has given us: family, health, church, faith, and the opportunity to make a difference in our small corner of the world.

Reading the lectionary scriptures last week in the midst of my own disappointment around not being able to be with our grandchildren, I was inspired by four recent stories that fit the scriptures perfectly. You can access the scriptures here.

Chris Nikic. Getty/Michael Reaves.

Chris Nikic is a 21-year-old young man with Downs Syndrome who always felt excluded because he was different – until he found his place in sports. When Chris began to ride a bike at age 15 after six months of learning, there was no stopping him. A year ago, Chris decided to train for an ironman triathlon, one of the most challenging and grueling-long distance events in all of sports.

An Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile open water swim, 112 miles of biking, and a 26.2-mile run (marathon distance), all of which needs to be completed in 17 hours. On November 7, in Panama City Beach, Florida, Chris (with a guide) swam, cycled, and ran his way into the history books, finishing with a time of 16 hours, 46 minutes, and 9 seconds. “I learned that there are no limits,” Chris said. “Do not put a lid on me.”

“Enter the gates of the Lord with thanksgiving; go into these courts with praise; give thanks to God and call upon the name of the Lord. For the Lord is good, whose steadfast love is everlasting; and whose faithfulness endures from age to age.” (Psalm 100:4-5)

Michael Knapinski was hiking on Mt. Ranier in the state of Washington several weeks ago when he became lost in an overnight whiteout with freezing conditions. He was finally discovered the next afternoon and was airlifted by helicopter to a Seattle hospital. Unconscious and suffering from hypothermia, Knapinski’s heart stopped a few minutes later, and he died.

A nurse immediately started CPR, and for 45 minutes Knapinski was also was hooked up to a heart-lung bypass machine. Within two days, Knapinski was able to sit up in his hospital bed, and when the ventilator was removed, his first words were to express gratitude for being alive.

Dr. Sam Arbabi, the medical director of the surgical intensive care unit at Harborview, said, “He was as dead as somebody gets before they are truly dead… For this person to come back and his mental status to be great, it is as miraculous as it gets in medicine.”

“I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:16)

Maya Moore and Jonathan Irons. Instagram.

Maya Moore has been named by Sports Illustrated as the greatest winner in the history of women’s basketball. She was drafted out of the University of Connecticut in 2011 and played for the Minnesota Lynx of the Women’s National Basketball Association. In 2019, however, Moore took a break from her WNBA career to focus on restorative justice.

Moore and her family first met Jonathan Irons in 2007 through a prison ministry, right before she started college. The two became friends, and they kept in touch, with Moore visiting Irons in prison in Missouri as she was able. Eventually, they fell in love, and Moore began working to overturn Irons’ conviction for burglary and assault, which he claimed was a false charge.

Describing it as a call from God, Moore paused her basketball career by deciding not to become part of the 2020 Olympic team in order to work for his release, which took place on July 1, twenty years after Irons was wrongly convicted. The eyes of Moore’s heart saw the truth about Jonathan Irons, and on September 16, she announced their marriage.

 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” Matthew 25:37-40

LOUDER THAN 11 / JON GLASSBERG

On November 12, at 6:05 a.m., Emily Harrington became the first woman to free-climb the Golden Gate route of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in under 24 hours. The 3,000-foot-high granite face has 41 pitches or sections and attracts thousands of climbers every year.

The way a free-climb ascent works is that the climber goes up one pitch then stops. A belayer, which is a person attached to the other end of the rope, will then follow. If the climber happens to fall, she returns to the bottom of the pitch and begins again. Harrington said that while climbing, she repeated this mantra, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” It takes most people four to six days to make it to the top.

Harrington wrote on Instagram, “I never believed I could actually free climb El Cap in a day when I first set the goal for myself. It didn’t seem like a realistic objective for me. I didn’t have the skills, fitness, or risk profile to move quickly over a large piece of stone. But I chose it for exactly that reason. Impossible dreams challenge us to rise above who we are now to see if we can become better versions of ourselves.”

“I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers. This power is conferred by the energy of God’s powerful strength.” (Ephesians 1:18-19)

  • How might our world change if we looked at all people with the eyes of our heart?
  • How might we be able to change the trajectory of COVID-19 if we considered all of our decisions in light of God’s unfathomable love for all people, especially those who are most vulnerable?
  • As we celebrate Thanksgiving during this pandemic, many of us are without the normal presence of family and friends. How is God calling us to embrace and practice the spiritual disciplines of isolation, social distancing, and avoiding putting ourselves and others at risk?
  • As we sing in the Christmas carol, In the Bleak Midwinter, “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd. I would bring a lamb; If I were a wise man, I would do my part; Yet what I can I give Him – give my heart.”

May you have a meaningful Thanksgiving holiday, and may the energy conferred by God’s powerful strength empower each one of us to give thanks with the eyes of our heart, to rise above who we are now, and to see what is the hope of God’s call for just such a time as this.

The Common Good

When very young, our son Garth liked to say the word “good” in response to almost anything.

How are you doing, Garth? “Good.”
How’d school go today? “Good.”
How was band practice? “Good.”
How was soccer practice? “Good.”

I can still remember the inflection in Garth’s voice when he would say “good.” Garth was a good and sweet boy who never gave us any problems. And now he is a good man.

This past week I was thinking a lot about the idea of the “common good” that is required of all of us in order to make it through the COVID-19 pandemic. So, I turned to Genesis chapter 1 (CEB) where the word “good” appears seven times.

  • On the first day, God said, “Let there be light,” and saw how good the light was.
  • On the second day, God created the waters and dry land.
  • On the third day, God created the earth and seas and saw that it was

God also created plant life and fruit trees and again proclaimed it good.

  • Stars, sun, and the moon were created on the fourth day, and God saw how good it was.
  • On the fifth day, God created birds and sea animals and saw how good it was.
  • On the sixth day, God created every kind of wildlife and saw how good it was. Finally, God created humanity in God’s own image. When God saw everything that God had made, God called it “supremely good.”

At the same time, I noticed that there is a place where the words “not good” are used. In Genesis 2:15, we read, “The LORD God took the human and settled him in the Garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.” It was not good that it was not good, so God put Adam to sleep and took a rib from him, fashioning a woman.

Jesus made it clear in John 10:10b (CEB) that his mission from God was to proclaim and advocate for abundant life for each person on this earth. “I came so that they could have life – indeed, so that they could live life to the fullest.”

You and I were created and called good so that we could embody the common good by our words and actions. Brittanica.com defines “common good” in this way: “In philosophy, economics, and political science, the common good refers to either what is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a given community, or alternatively, what is achieved by citizenship, collective action, and active participation in the realm of politics and public service.”

Our corporate responsibility to ensure the common good for all is clearly expressed in the Preamble to our US Constitution, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

As disciples of Jesus Christ and world citizens, we are called for such a time as this to set aside personal desires in order to serve the common good. This is especially relevant as we approach Thanksgiving Day on November 26. Families all over the country are agonizing about whether to travel to visit friends or relatives. At a time when COVID-19 cases continue to escalate dramatically in Iowa and in virtually every other state in the U.S., what is the common good?

We are hearing over and over that we must take every precaution when gathering with others over the holiday weekend. One of the public voices that we have come to trust the most is that of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Fauci has gained the deep respect of Americans because he tells us the truth and challenges us to consider the common good.

In an article in the Independent on October 16, Dr. Fauci was already warning Americans about Thanksgiving gatherings. “Calling it an ‘unfortunate fact’ that Thanksgiving gatherings could kick the spread of the virus into an even higher gear, Fauci expressed his regret that Americans might have to choose between coming together as a family and their own and others’ safety. ‘That is, unfortunately, a risk,’ he told CBS News, ‘when you have people coming from out of town, gathering together in an indoor setting, you don’t know what the status of it is – it is unfortunate because that’s such a sacred part of American tradition, the family gathering around Thanksgiving, but that is a risk.’”

In Iowa, we had 52,917 new COVID cases between October 31 and November 13. And last Friday we reached 10.8 million total cases in the US with 244,250 total deaths. On a day when our country had a record of 181,196 new cases, 1,389 deaths, and 65,516 hospitalized and knowing that we all want to be a part of the solution, not the problem, Dr. Fauci emphasized that Thanksgiving could be a serious transmission risk. He asked us to double down on these suggestions.

  • Keep your mask on, if at all possible, even if it is a very small group.
  • If families have been quarantined or tested, it is not quite as necessary.
  • Stay socially distanced and frequently wash hands.
  • Limit the number of people handling food.
  • Avoid prolonged indoor gatherings with people not living with you.
  • Take special care because there is widespread community spread right now. People do not know that they are infected.

“If you do the things that are simple public health measures, that soaring will level and start to come down,” Fauci said. “You add that to the help of a vaccine, we can turn this around.

It is not futile.”

My friends, this is a time when we must think seriously and soberly about the common good. I implore you to do all that you can to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Too many people have died, and too many people are still becoming infected. Genesis reminds us that God not only creates each person in God’s own image but calls everything that God has made “supremely good.”

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks, even in the midst of hardship, just as the pilgrims did. Now it is our time. Be wise. Be diligent. Be safe. Be grateful, and work for the common good. We can do this together!

Getting the Church Ready for a New Time

I remember vividly the first time I knew that something was very wrong. It was March 14, and I attended a funeral. COVID-19 had just emerged, and my colleagues and I didn’t know what to do. Several hundred people were at the funeral, no one was wearing masks yet, and I was sharing a remembrance. We didn’t fully understand the gravity of what was to come, but all reports were that COVID-19 had become very real.

That Saturday evening, I sent an email to all clergy in the conference, writing, “I know that it is now Saturday evening and Sunday’s a’coming. However, the rapidly evolving face of the Coronavirus Pandemic means that continual reevaluation of safety procedures is necessary… While it is likely too late to contact people before tomorrow morning’s worship, I am asking that you consider suspending in-person worship services until the end of March or until it is deemed safe.”

I also included recommendations such as no hugs or touch; social distancing; no coffee hour; electronic giving; encouraging social media as one way to communicate; learning how to use YouTube, Facebook Live, or live streaming for worship; using Zoom to lead classes or hold meetings; and reaching out into the community so that people can be connected to resources for spiritual, physical, or emotional support.

It’s now eight months later, and our world is still in an upheaval. “We’ve never been here before.” I’ve heard that from dozens of people over the last nine months. We’re still in an in-between time, betwixt and between. The word for a time like this is liminality. Author, teacher, and consultant Susan Beaumont defines liminality as “a quality of ambiguity and disorientation that occurs in transitory situations and spaces when a person or group of people is betwixt and between something that has ended, and a new situation not yet begun.” “Liminal” comes from the Latin word limen, which means “threshold.” A liminal space is a threshold, an in-between space where things pass through and don’t remain.

We’re in a liminal space right now regarding COVID-19, which has changed everything in our world. Last Thursday we had a record 4,562 new cases in Iowa, with 839 hospitalizations. The highest previous daily total had been 2,887. We have now surpassed 150,000 total cases in Iowa. Most of the state is definitely in the “red zone,” and we are strongly encouraging our congregations not to meet in-house.

We’re passing through an in-between space in this liminal time because we have no idea when the coronavirus will abate. All we can do is try to provide the best worship we can, take the strongest precautions, wear masks, social distance, and stay home, if possible. Another casualty of COVID-19 is that a number of our churches are struggling financially. When parishioners lose their jobs and/or are not able to worship in their building, programming and mission decline as well as giving. This is especially the case with congregations that have been teetering on the edge of viability.

 

Of course, we’ve experienced other liminal spaces over the past several years. Our differences over human sexuality in The United Methodist Church have created a liminal space, an in-between time as we await the postponed 2020 General Conference in 2021. In this waiting time, various proposals continue to develop that occasion hope for some resolution and a crossing of the threshold. A further liminal space centers around racism. We are struggling to become an anti-racist country and an anti-racist church. When George Floyd was killed on Memorial Day by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck and ignored his cries for help, protests exploded throughout the country against police brutality and have continued through the summer and fall.

In addition, we just emerged from five days of liminality last week as we waited for all ballots in the presidential election to be counted. Now we will enter another liminal time as we wait for the inauguration of President-elect Biden on January 20, 2021. As we continue to sit in this season, between what was and what is next, we wonder how we arrived at such an unsettled time and where we are headed.

Last week the Council of Bishops engaged in a learning experience with Susan Beaumont, author of How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season. To access an online workbook format of Beaumont’s book, click here. Beaumont reminded us that one of the primary characteristics of a liminal season is disruption. We have a sense of unsettledness and disturbance because we don’t know when, where, or how we will emerge and return to normal. Nor do we know what a new normal might look like if there is even such a thing. Beaumont also shared with us how a pattern of emergence is found in liminal times.

  • There is a disturbance of the status quo.
  • This disturbance causes disruption/disharmony of our practices.
  • We empty ourselves in this liminal space: waiting, vulnerable, silent, and
  • We achieve coherence (integrating what is new into what is already known) by clarifying what wants to emerge and who will do what according to their gifts.
  • The result is a commitment to the adoption of new narratives and innovative practices, avoiding premature solutions and certainty, and using new metrics to evaluate effectiveness.
  • Throughout the process, it is critical to be clear about our core values and missional priorities.

Most important is to recognize that in liminal times of distress, uncertainty, and dislocation, God wants to teach us something new and give us a new identity. In a recent interview with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks, Beaumont says, “Every one of our biblical heroes is a story of someone transformed – who went from an old identity to a new identity. We can see that in the figure of Moses. We can see that in Job and Jonah, in Abraham and Sarah. Everybody is drawn out of, ‘I was this kind of person in this settled place, and then that identity undid itself and God took me to a new identity.’ Many of us will have ministries entirely defined by liminality, as Moses did.

“If we can contextualize what we’re experiencing now in light of that instead of looking at this period of time as a ‘woe is us’ period of time, we can come out of it with a deep sense of hopefulness and expectation about what God might be doing with us and the identity that we are being drawn toward. This is not that somehow we have failed the church, but that God is getting the church ready for a new time and we’re key players in it.”

In this liminal season in our world, clergy and laity together are called to actively lead our churches and engage our communities in new ways. At the same time, we must care for ourselves and each other. What unique activities/programs can we offer for our communities right now that will bring people together and enhance cohesiveness and solidarity? How can we engage disturbance by innovation and experimentation? How can we embrace this liminal season to learn new ways of living out our faith that reach far beyond the walls of the church?

How can you and I get the church ready for a new time?