The Great Letting Go

Originally published October 10, 2020 

Today’s blog, The Great Letting Go, describes the times in our own lives when God invites us to let go of our fears, uncertainty, and doubt in order to live more fully and joyfully. The blog has more personal meaning today than it did two years ago when it was first published. As I prepare to retire after forty-one years of ministry, the Holy Spirit is nudging me to begin The Great Letting Go, knowing that new adventures, opportunities, and possibilities lie ahead. 

“What’s your favorite time of year?” I asked a friend as we were walking. 

“Fall. I love this time of year! The leaves are changing, it’s getting colder, and the days are growing shorter. I really like the clouds and darkness of fall and winter.” 

“I’m just the opposite,” I said. “I dislike fall and always have. I love light and sun, and after the time changes and it gets dark so early, it’s depressing. Besides, fall was always the time when school started, and as a kid I never wanted to give up the freedom and joy of being outside playing all day. Summer has always been my favorite season, and I never want it to end.”   

But there’s more to it. A few years ago, I finally realized why fall is challenging for me. Fall is a time of change and movement, and I often struggle with transitions. During the summer, nature explodes with light, energy, warmth, growth, and fruitfulness. Fall, by contrast, is the time when crops have been harvested, fields are plowed under, leaves fall to the ground, and the earth becomes fallow. Wood is chopped, silos are filled, warm clothes come out, storm windows replace screens, and we anticipate hunkering down for the winter. What has been given in such abundance is now taken away. 

No wonder I am wary of fall. I don’t want to let go of summer, contemplate six months of darkness and isolation, and be forced inside my house, let alone inside my heart, where God waits to teach me patience, hope, and the value of rest and growth.

On my daily walks, I check out a maple tree that is in the process of letting go of its leaves. Those that have already made their way to the ground are red, yellow, green, and orange. These leaves reflect not only the progression of fall but the letting go that characterizes the spiritual life. I confess that I am not ready to yield fully to God. I want to live life on my own terms and remain green forever. At the same time, I yearn to align myself with the fullness of life that God offers. I grudgingly allow myself to turn partly orange but keep one foot firmly planted in the life I desire.   

I remember John 12:24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” As I prepare to die to all that prevents me from becoming who God created me to be, I turn a brilliant red, offering myself completely to God’s cycle of life and death. My color is a witness to the obedience and trust that guide my life’s journey. “The summer ends, and it is time to face another way.” (Wendell Berry, Fourth Sabbath Poem, 1984) 

The earth prepares with me. Squirrels hoard acorns. The coats of animals thicken. Deer are active through the winter, their digestive systems adapting to a changed diet. Bears gorge themselves as they anticipate the long rest of hibernation. Birds head south, finding their way together. Carved pumpkin faces delight. Children roll in the leaves.    

Of course, the word “fall” does not come from a bed of leaves but from the sun. The amount of sunlight reaching the earth’s surface determines the change of seasons. As the earth slowly falls away from the sun, the intensity of light lessens. The light then “springs” back in six months. 

Finally, there is The Great Letting Go, and I fall, playfully giving myself over to the ground where I lie, waiting to be transformed and ultimately reborn in due season. The losing of my life: surrender, emptiness, melancholy.

From left to right: Bishop Lanette Plambeck, Bishop Laurie Haller, and Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai.

Letting go of possessions, children, perfection, youth, dreams, productivity, relationships, addictions, anger, and old ways of thinking. Completeness in nature. It’s done for the season. 

Waiting.   

Gather it in and wait.

Wait for the cold. 

Wait for restoration. 

Wait for hope.   

The ebb and flow of life… the spirituality of fall. 

All things pass away. 

Completely free, I am able to see myself and God more clearly. I recite Psalm 8, which I memorized during Disciple Bible Study many years ago. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”     

 I can’t tear my eyes away from the heavens, claiming the beauty and gifts of the darkness in my own life. “I will love the light, for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness, for it shows me the stars.” (Og Mandino) 

As I walk, I wonder and ponder, eyes and ears open to God’s leading. I ask the hard questions. What do I need to let go of in order for Jesus to fill me up again? Disappointment, bitterness, fear, hopelessness, helplessness? 

In the midst of the pervasive impact of COVID-19; our struggles around racism; the health of our local churches; severe drought conditions that deeply affected Iowa’s farm economy; and fears around the future of our beloved United Methodist Church, there is a great letting go.

The Haller’s new home in Michigan.
  • A hawk glides through the sky. I, too, yearn to fly free.   
  • As wind whistles through the trees, so I long to follow the wind of the Holy Spirit. 
  • I rejoice in the warmth of the fall sun, knowing that those precious days are already giving way to the coldness and darkness of winter. 
  • Just as the clear water reflects my own image back to me, so I long to reflect God’s grace back to others. 
  • I long for the faith of trees firmly rooted in the earth, trees that trust God enough to offer their leaves to death, believing in the new life that will return in the spring.   
  • I long for Jesus to carry me through periods of dormancy, knowing that God can work through me even when I cannot see it. 
  • I long to be nimble as the white-tailed deer bounding through the forest, always ready to go where God calls. 
  • I long to clear out the undergrowth weighing down my spirit so that I can see and smell the flowers that still hang on to life. 
  • I long for the drops of dew that are my tears to be a source of healing and hope for others. 
  •  I long to say goodbye to what no longer matters rather than cling to what I do not need. 
  • I long to respond to the persistent call, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  (Isaiah 43:1b)  

Like nature, I am dying to live.  The Great Letting Go.

A Very Fine Adventure, Indeed

Last week, the laity and clergy of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference, guided by the theme We Press On, gathered in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to elect episcopal leaders. The Conference was conducted very smoothly and harmoniously. Wonderful sermons and worship were offered, which can be seen online here. Three bishops were elected for 2022-2024, the remaining years of this Covid-shortened quadrennium. What joy it was to hear our episcopal candidates share their faith as well as their hopes and dreams for The United Methodist Church.

For those who were not able to follow the results, delegates had the opportunity to interact with and ask questions of the ten candidates. Over the course of six ballots, Rev. Kennetha Bigham Tsai from Michigan was elected on the first ballot, our own Rev. Dr. Lanette Plambeck from Iowa was elected on the third ballot, and Rev. Dan Schwerin from Wisconsin was elected on the sixth ballot. The Conference delegates are eager to have the new bishops begin their ministry on January 1, 2023. What an adventure it will be for these episcopal leaders to lean into their new calling and “Press on!”

The Consecration Service for our new bishops was held on Saturday morning, followed by the announcement of assignments. My heart is filled with joy for Bishops Bigham-Tsai (Iowa), Plambeck (Dakotas-Minnesota), and Schwerin (Northern Illinois) as they prepare for their ministries. We Iowans are especially proud of the election of Lanette Plambeck, a daughter of our Conference, as she begins her episcopal ministry. We are also delighted in the appointment of Bishop Kennetha Bigham-Tsai to Iowa, as Gary and I have known and admired her for many years.

After the consecration service, we prepared to head home, for many of the delegates had Sunday responsibilities in their own settings. Gary and I packed our suitcases and were driven by a conference volunteer to the Fort Wayne airport. As we waited for our boarding time to Chicago and then on to Des Moines, I had the opportunity to chat with several clergy about their ministries. As always, I was greatly inspired and encouraged by the gifts of both clergy and laity.

About an hour before boarding, we heard an announcement that the first flight to Chicago had been canceled because of unusually high winds. To add insult to injury, the next flights out would not leave until Monday morning! This was not good news at all, especially for those who had to get home to preach and lead worship on Sunday. I remember saying to myself, “Oh, my! This may turn into an unfortunate adventure for many of us.”

To make matters worse, we were told that there was no room at the Fort Wayne airport hotel. At 4:45 p.m., and to our amazement, the car rental agencies seemed to have only one car they were willing to rent for a one-way drive to Des Moines. There were fifteen other people waiting. I remember thinking, “I am utterly exhausted. I just want to go home!” Meanwhile, I received a text saying that I had a new seat assignment on a nonexistent fight. Okay … Clearly, airport staff were overwhelmed dealing with bad weather, a lack of rental cars, and unhappy United Methodist travelers. “We are preachers! This is what we do! We need to go home,” some lamented. The only response was, “We are so sorry we cannot help you. We simply don’t have enough cars.”

Facing reality, one of our party immediately rented that lone vehicle, a Ford Explorer SUV, in order for us to drive 478 miles (7 hours and 29 minutes) all the way to Iowa. Our Ford Explorer left at 5:00 p.m. with seven of us and all of our luggage crammed into every nook and cranny we could find. I sat in the middle “seat” of the middle row with absolutely no leg room and came away with a terrific backache, but I survived. By releasing ourselves to our reality as “Explorers” heading home, we chilled and were able to have a very fine adventure indeed.

After detouring to Wendy’s for a quick meal, we entered Iowa. Nearing Des Moines, we made a stop to drop off two fellow explorers. Then we headed to the Des Moines airport, where the rest of us had parked our cars because, after all, we were supposed to be flying! The Ford Explorer spit us out with all our stuff, we found our cars and drove to our homes, many arriving at around 2 am.

I will never forget our “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” back from the 2022 North Central Jurisdictional Conference. It was a very fine adventure, indeed. We laughed, we cried, we lamented, and, thankfully, nobody threw a fit. But we also had some very fine conversations. 

Additionally, despite being cramped and uncomfortable, it gave each of us space to center ourselves and reflect on the week just past. Yes, we had conversations among each other, but there were also long periods of silence, each one absorbed in our own thoughts, hope, dreams, and prayers. I took this time to turn off my phone and simply be quiet. I had no need to talk and was grateful to be free of stimulation and commotion. I reflected on how we are a pilgrim people on a journey of faith. And I pondered how, as a little Mennonite girl, it was never even in my ability to conceive of becoming a pastor, let alone be elected a United Methodist bishop.

Lifting up our North Central Jurisdictional Conference elections, I gave thanks for our three new episcopal leaders and began letting go of a forty-one-year ministry career in order to open myself to whatever new and very fine adventures lie ahead. On Saturday night, as throughout this Conference, we were family, beloved community rather than random encounters, and became the body of Christ for one another and our world.

O God, may I continue to be open to surprise along the way. Help me to remove my blinders so that I can truly see the glory and beauty of our world and reach out to my neighbors with compassion and joy.

Not Really Demons, But Angels in Disguise

Today may be Halloween, but tomorrow is All Saints Day, when the demons are really angels in disguise. Taking time in worship to honor those who have gone before us is one of the most meaningful days of the church year. In The United Methodist Church, All Saints Sunday is traditionally celebrated on the Sunday closest to November 1, which is All Saints Day. Every year I take time to remember my parents, grandmothers, and countless saints whose witness in their life and death has strengthened my faith and spiritual practices over many years.

I especially give thanks this year for my seminary teacher, Henri Nouwen, who died suddenly of a heart attack twenty-six years ago, on September 21, 1996. He was 64 years old. I had no idea at the time how privileged I was to be Henri Nouwen’s student. After all, I had originally gone to Yale University to study music, not theology. 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.        

Henri Nouwen’s class, Ministry and Spirituality, has had more impact on my life than any other class I have ever taken, and that is not counting the fact that I met my husband Gary in his 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 was a true “rock star.” 

I hadn’t yet felt the call 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, but my faith was black and white and untested in many ways.  

I understood “wounded healer” as a theological and even theoretical 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 in Stratford, Connecticut, where I was the part-time Director of Music during my time at Yale. 

The only notebook I kept from my seminary days is from Ministry and Spirituality. How I wish I could take Henri’s class again now that I am in my fourth decade of pastoral 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 people, and my now husband Gary just happened to find his way into my group. Hmm. 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 groups 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 body, mind, and spirit.

  • Nouwen was a very 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 importance of solitude, retreats, and time apart spent with God in silence.  
  • Henri never judged others and always called his students to spiritual disciplines of prayer, relationship, and solidarity with the poor.
  • Henri continually wrestled with what “success” means. His celebrity status never changed him. In truth, it embarrassed him. He lived a simple life. Nouwen spent years at L’Arche Daybreak Community in Ontario, Canada, where 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 thirty-nine published books and was delighted to purchase his latest book, Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life. Published just this month (Convergent Books, 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.” Among the 204 letters in the book, several excerpts spoke to me. 

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.” 

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.” 

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.”

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.”

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.” Henri died early the next morning.

They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still. 
The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. 
You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, in church, by the sea, 

in the house next door; 

They are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.  

A demon … or an angel in disguise? How are you dressed for Halloween … and for life?  I, too, am enormously grateful. For all the saints, especially Henri Nouwen … and you.

P.S Because it is Halloween today, you might be interested in John Wesley’s Ghost Story about “Old Jeffrey.” Click here.