Life Goes On

Life goes on. My father said it often in his later years. I suspect it came from his own experience of change and loss over time. Whenever I visited, Dad and I would reminisce about the many wonderful times we had together, and, invariably he would say, “Life goes on.” In other words, we all experience sorrow and joy, good times and tough times, laughter and tears.

Last week was one of those times. At the cemetery, we prayed, “Almighty God, into your hands we commend your child, Gerald Francis Hartzel Sr., in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. These cremains we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” Then each family member took a turn shoveling dirt into my father’s grave.

My ancestors on both parents’ sides arrived in southeastern Pennsylvania from Europe in the early 1700’s. William Penn, who founded the state of Pennsylvania, was an early advocate for religious freedom, offering protection for minorities such as Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren.

What I am most grateful for about my father is that he always supported me, even though he didn’t always understand my career path. He helped me though college, then two years of graduate school for sacred music, then several more years in seminary. Women were not allowed to be pastors in the General Conference Mennonite Church when I was growing up, but my father always encouraged my call to ministry. Eventually, I was ordained in my home church, but my call ultimately led me to The United Methodist Church. “Life goes on,” Dad would say.

As I led the memorial service, it was all I could do to hold back the tears. They were tears of joy, however, because of the legacy that my father left for his family, friends, and church. Last week, I was able to talk with relatives I hadn’t seen for many years. I also connected with my cousins, not to mention my three siblings and spouses and their children. Our personal times of remembering were rich and poignant.

I was especially touched by the number of people who attended the service because they had been my Dad’s employees. Growing up, I always worked at his factory during the summer and was astounded that one of my work buddies from fifty years ago, Valeria, who is in her 90’s, took the time to come to the service. She still looked the same! My father provided many jobs for people in the small village of Vernfield, PA and was a wonderful and kind boss.

I was particularly close to my father because we were fishing, cycling, golfing, and singing buddies. One of my fondest memories was of my father taking me on a fishing trip to Costa Rica just two weeks before Gary and I were married. Unfortunately, I was seasick for the first two days out on the Pacific Ocean and spent all my time throwing up. After I got my sea legs, I did enjoy the last few days and reeled in a few sailfish.

What has touched me the most over these past weeks, however, is the dozens and dozens of cards and emails that Gary and I received, expressing condolences upon my father’s death. I tear up every time I look at the pile of cards. People from every church I have ever served, as well as clergy, laity, and bishops from around the United Methodist connection took the time to write a few lines on a card, send an email, say a prayer, make a phone call, or offer a memorial contribution to Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, PA, which was my father’s life-long spiritual home.

A number of people commented about the times when I would write, preach, or tell stories about the impact my father had on my life and faith. On some cards, people in local churches and/or staff members signed their names. Some of the people I did not even know, but their words of assurance and love have made a lasting imprint upon my heart. Here is just a sample of these beautiful messages of hope and love.

  • “Open when you have time.” These words on the outside the envelope. And on the inside, “May you feel the comforting embrace of the Holy Spirit now and all the times you will miss your father. Grieve well.”
  • “As you now add to all that the sacred task of commending a beloved parent unto God’s keeping, I am praying that you will experience the great strength, peace, and love of Christ.”
  • “Even never meeting him, it was clear what a wonderful person he was and how much he meant to you.”
  • “I write to offer my condolences after the passing of your dad, Gerald. Love and prayers from around the globe, including friends in Wisconsin. Please know you are held in community.”
  • “I pray you have time to simply be a daughter who had lost her dad. May God sing over you and give you peace.”
  • “May you feel the arms of God wrapped around you with comfort.”
  • “It is our prayer that you will be blessed with many wonderful memories of your dad and that you will have a sense of God’s grace as you gather with family at this time.”
  • “You have shared many stories of your father with us. May memories sustain you now.”
  • “May God comfort you as only God can.”
  • “Sharing in your sorrow and rejoicing with you in God’s promises”
  • “We pray that during these tender moments your heart is filled with wonderful memories of a beloved father. Further, we pray with you as you embrace the truth of his passing to the church Triumphant. You are beloved.”
  • “The Holy Spirit and your many friends are beside you.”
  • “May love be what you remember most. Prayers for comfort and peace.”

During the sermon, I shared a quote from the German theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart, who expressed it this way seven hundred years ago. “God lies in wait for us with nothing so much as love, and love is like a fisherman’s hook. Whatever the fisherman does, and whoever is caught by this hook, love does it, and love alone.”

Life goes on. Yet, for just a moment, can you be still and know that God is God? Have you been caught yet by the hook of God’s love? How will you fish for people by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, embodying the gospel, and then patiently waiting for God to work? How does God want to use you as a channel of grace, hope, and love? How will make a positive difference in the lives of those around you in the days and months ahead?

Laying Myself on the Shelf

Have you ever heard the phrase “lay on the table”? The Iowa Annual Conference ended its four-day session yesterday, and I have been pondering how, at one point, we used the motion to “lay on the table.” `Under Robert’s Rules, the subsidiary motion to lay on the table refers to temporarily setting aside a pending motion (or a series of pending motions) to take care of something else that is urgent and cannot wait. The motion to lay on the table is less about the business being discussed than about the assembly needing to handle something else immediately. I remember feeling exhausted at the time and recall thinking to myself, “I wouldn’t mind lying on a table myself right now!”

It reminded me of one of Mark Twain’s books. Twain (1835-1910) was the pen name for writer, humorist, entrepreneur, lecturer, and publisher Samuel Langhorne Clemens. In 1869, he published a travel book called The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress. The book chronicles what Twain called his “Great Pleasure Excursion” with a group of Americans on a chartered boat through Europe and the Holy Land in 1867.

Twain wrote, Afterward we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some time, enjoying other people’s comfort and wishing we could export some of it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home. Just in this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe – comfort.

In America, we hurry – which is well; but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man’s prime in Europe. 

“When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it lie fallow and rest for a season; we take no man clear across the continent in the same coach he started in – the coach is stabled somewhere on the plains and its heated machinery allowed to cool for a few days; when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord.

“We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!”

It’s pretty amazing that the words Mark Twain wrote 150 years ago are still true for many Americans today. In the midst of fast-paced lifestyles that are increasingly complex as well as demanding, many Americans are literally making themselves sick from overwork and are refusing to care for their mental, emotional, relational, physical, and spiritual health.

It’s been an intense year for United Methodists. After the Traditional Plan was adopted by the February 2019 General Conference, our denomination was broken. No, we haven’t made any decisions yet to part ways. However, our inability to find a way to live together while honoring differences around human sexuality has again left us in a liminal space, which I wrote about several weeks before the February General Conference.

Richard Rohr’s description of a liminal space seems to fit us well: “… a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” I have discerned that in this liminal space, it is good for me to stop a while. Thus, I will be laying myself on the shelf for part of the summer, lying fallow, actively resting, and renewing my edges.

If God didn’t make it clear enough in the ten commandments that we need to rest, Jesus made sure we knew. From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus intentionally took time to go away and be by himself to rest and pray. Already in chapter one of Mark (1:35), we read, “Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.” In chapter three, we read that “Jesus left with his disciples and went to the lake. A large crowd followed him because they had heard what he was doing.” (3:7) In chapter six, Jesus said to his disciples, “Come by yourselves to a secluded place and rest for a while.” (6:31) Later in that chapter (6:46), Jesus sent the people away and climbed a mountain to pray. And in chapter seven, (7:24), Jesus entered a house in Tyre where he didn’t think he would be found, but he couldn’t hide.

As it was with Jesus, so it’s difficult for you and me to stop. It’s not easy to say “No.” It’s tempting to work at a pace that seems to get faster with each passing year. Unfortunately, it’s also a tempo that will eventually make us sick, give us compassion fatigue, or burn us out if we do not follow Jesus’ example and rest. Rest is not a waste of time. Rather, it’s holy time. It’s a life-giving opportunity for growth, maturity, and waiting for something new and unlikely to emerge.

I enter the summer with a deep sense of gratitude for the faithfulness of United Methodists around our worldwide connection. In the midst of major differences around human sexuality, there is still so much more that we share as disciples of Jesus Christ. What might happen if, during this in between time, all of us as United Methodists would lay ourselves on the shelf and renew our edges? Could we become more robust disciples of Jesus if we intentionally created more space to honor different theological perspectives at the same time as we continue to share in mission and ministry? How might our evangelism and discipleship expand if we were open to where the biblical God is leading us? Can we hold our anxieties for a bit longer, live with ambiguity, let go of our comfort zones, and imagine possibility? How is God calling us to renew our edges?

This will be the last Leading from the Heart until Tuesday, September 3. Have a wonderful summer!

 

God’s Hope Made Real

The signs of hope are everywhere. Do you see them? Last Wednesday evening a four-year-old girl was hit by a line drive foul ball at a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. The batter, Albert Almora Jr., knew right away what happened and fell to his knees crying. “Just praying. I’m speechless. I’m at loss of words. Being a father, two boys,” Almora said.

The little girl was immediately rushed to the hospital. After a few minutes, Almora went up into the stands to check on the girl and was consoled by a security guard. He said later that when the child is feeling well enough, he wants to meet with her. “God willing, I’ll be able to have a relationship with this little girl for the rest of my life. But just prayers right now. That’s all I really could control,” Almora said. The little girl is expected to be okay. As for Almora, he is not only a professional baseball player. He is a difference maker. Of that I am certain.

Are you helping God’s hope to be made real? Difference makers are all around us, if only we have eyes to see. I recently learned about one of our ordained deacons, Rev. Helen Parks, who is a part-time youth pastor at Christ Church in Davenport along with her husband, James, who is the lead pastor.

After the Parks arrived at Christ Church in 2018, Helen decided to become involved at Buchanan Elementary School because of the church’s partnership there. She joined Americorps so that she could work in the school, with a focus on attendance. When the position of Family Involvement Liaison became open, Helen applied because of her elementary education undergrad degree and the church’s connection. Now she serves part-time at the church and part-time as the school’s Family Involvement Liaison.

As a result of Helen’s ministry, Title 1 events for which Helen is responsible have increased from 60 to about 300 participants per month. Christ Church provides food for these events and at least half of the volunteers. She also works with the food pantry that Christ Church operates at the school.

How can we be God’s hope made real at a time of such division and partisanship in our church, country, and world? Difference makers are all around us, if only we have eyes to see.

  • I see hope made real when men, women, and children arise each morning and pray, “God, help me to be a difference maker today.”
  • I see hope made real when we listen deeply to one another without judgment.
  • I see hope made real when we remember our Wesleyan DNA of evangelism and make conscious efforts to create a welcoming atmosphere in our local churches.
  • I see hope made real when congregations take the time to assess the needs of their communities and then develop ministries that address those needs.
  • I see hope made real when we deliberately attempt to become more inclusive in our decision-making at each level of the church.
  • I see hope made real when prayer undergirds everything that we do.
  • I see hope made real when communities come together after floods and tornadoes to help each other in recovery efforts. That hope extends to Rev. Catie Newman, our Iowa Annual Conference Disaster Response Coordinator, who works tirelessly to communicate the needs of our churches and communities.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days with my father and other family members in Pennsylvania over the Memorial Day weekend. I am the only one in our extended family who has left the area. Since I can only get home a few times a year, I am always surprised to see how fast things change. My 92-year-old father’s health continues to deteriorate, and he no longer recognizes me, but I am astounded at the love and tender care that he receives in his care facility. Because my two grandmothers and my mother were also residents in this facility until their deaths, everyone knows my dad, Gerry.

He is no longer able to speak in sentences and only occasionally makes sense, but he still has a great smile! Nor is my father able to read, so he can’t sing the words to the hymns. However, as a life-long member of the church choir at Zion Mennonite Church, he knows all the tunes. Every single one.

On Sunday, we went to church in the care facility, with my father in a wheelchair on one side of me and my two brothers on the other side. My father hummed every hymn perfectly, alternating tenor and bass. He has such a wide range to his voice that he has always been able to sing whatever part needs the most help. A choir director’s dream!

Of course, he could not read the words, but the tunes have been indelibly imprinted on his heart, and his pitch was spot on. Even as my father’s life winds down, he is still able to be hope made real.

How can you and I in Iowa be hope made real? Please pray for our Iowa Annual Conference, which begins with the clergy and laity sessions on Friday night. Pray that God will be glorified, that we will make wise, Spirit-led decisions, and that we will make a difference by how we treat one another and reach out to a hurting world

How can you be hope made real? Bring cash cards and gas cards to annual conference, where they will be blessed on Saturday, and then hand them out to those in need in Des Moines and in your local area. Our Conference theme is Creating Difference Makers in Ministry with the Poor. If you are not a delegate, please purchase and hand out restaurant, supermarket, gas, and cash cards to those in need in your community

How can we be God’s hope made real? Invite your congregation to take the time to see where hope is needed in your community and then allow the Holy Spirit to get to work through you.

Faith. Fruit Fire. That’s our vision.

Inspire. Equip. ConnectThat’s our mission.

Together, we can be hope made real and make a difference!

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in faith
so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13

See you at annual conference. Or join us by livestream by…

P.S. Because of annual conference, Leading from the Heart will be published next week on Wednesday, June 12. That will be my last blog before the summer break.