For a Time

Dale wasn’t a member of the church but was there most Sundays this past year and called us the “Broken Pieces Church.”  He named it as:

  • A “foster” church for those in spiritual transition
  • A home for as long as people needed
  • A safe place to heal from brokenness
  • A place of restoration and resurrection
  • A home into which all are united and welcomed
  • A place to remember how to return thanks by giving of self to others
  • A place with high expectations to participate fully
  • A place for folks for whom a traditional worship service won’t fit

Over this last year of Plainfield United Methodist Church’s 134-year-old worshipping community, several people have become a part of our “broken pieces church” for a time.  I noticed it last summer when the attendance of our very small congregation began to increase.

Trumpet and kidsWe were in a time of discernment about our future, compelled to face the grim reality that we no longer had the human or financial resources to do effective ministry in our community.  Our plight was known by the Grand Rapids United Methodist community because our twenty metropolitan churches have been intentionally supporting each other in various ways for a number of years.

Our congregation of about twelve active members (the disciples) kept going because they were absolutely convinced that God wanted ministry to remain at this critical location of need in urban Grand Rapids for more than just a time.  But we were tired and overwhelmed from plugging leaks, fixing boilers, repairing roofs, and wearing way too many hats.

Almost every Sunday over the last twelve months we had at least one guest from another United Methodist church who was led by the Holy Spirit to offer support and encouragement for a time.  These guests always lifted our spirits.  When our pianist found another job, we hired a husband/wife duo who offered contemporary music to our congregation.  We could have never paid Zach and Lindsay what they were worth, but they felt called to walk with us for a time and immediately elevated the energy level of worship.

A few months ago when we were serving a dinner to the community on Friday night, our cook became ill.  The call went out around the district, and we were flooded with volunteers from other churches who came for a time and embodied our trust that “God will provide.”

I soon noticed, however, that some of our guests kept returning.  They didn’t join the church, but they became part of us.  They were “all in.”  Last fall Dorothy was on the way to her own church when she felt the Holy Spirit calling her to drive past the exit.  She ended up at Plainfield UMC and was with us almost every Sunday over the past year.

Dorothy’s husband died the year before after a long illness, and she was seeking healing.  She wondered who she was in light of her loss and what plans God had for the rest of her life.  It was just for a time, but Dorothy was a leavening influence on our congregation.  A person of deep prayer and spiritual perception, Dorothy could tell who was struggling and spoke gently to church members after worship.  She even came to our meetings “of the whole” and offered a fresh perspective when church members could not clearly discern the way.  Dorothy found new meaning by giving herself away to us.

Aileen, Steve, Ava, and Isaac decided to make Plainfield their home for a time when the White Pines UMC new church start to which they had been committed closed after teetering on the edge of viability for years.  Even though Plainfield was another struggling congregation it became a tranquil resting place on the way and a place to regroup.  Their very presence filled our church members with hope.

Dale, the one who called us the “broken pieces church,” was a local pastor without an appointment after having faithfully led the White Pines UMC through their painful closing.  At Plainfield he found safety, welcome, and unconditional grace in the knowledge that each one of us was also broken in some way.  Dale, too, was here for a time and served as liturgist, committee member, and steady presence.

Other White Pines refugees included Stephanie and her children John and Claire, and Charlie and his children Rose and Grace.  They found Plainfield to be a place to recover hope.  Teens John and Rose participated in the sermon on several Sundays.  Other times the children would go to Sunday school and help with the ten to twenty neighborhood children who were hungry to learn about Jesus.  These families, too, were with us for a time.  Because they became part of us, we grew, learned, prayed, and healed together.

Kids CommunionWhy did our for a time friends imitate the apostle Paul, who had a vision one night where a man of Macedonia pleaded with Paul to “come over to Macedonia and help us?”  Convinced that God called his party to proclaim the good news to Macedonia, they set sail immediately.  (Acts 16: 9-10).

Why did our new friends respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to come and help us?  All I know is that our congregation’s attendance more than doubled over the last year of our existence… for a time.  All I know is that the atmosphere in our congregation changed from one of depression and despair to anticipation and excitement at what God was about to do with our broken pieces.  The Holy Spirit seemed to literally dance around the sanctuary for months before our final worship service.  I could see it, feel it, and was caught up in it myself.

Was it something about our impending congregational death and rebirth as a new church restart that acknowledged death and resurrection in our own lives?  Could it be that the letting go we experienced as a congregation was helping everyone to let go of whatever was preventing us from living fully in the midst of difficult times?  Was it the joy of becoming something greater than ourselves, something God alone can see?  Did we all become wounded healers for one another for a time? 

A critical lesson that I have learned from my year at Plainfield UMC is that it’s okay for church membership to be fluid.  Over the years I’ve seen more and more people moving back and forth between churches for a time, but now I no longer get bent out of shape.  I get it.

When a church member feels led by the Holy Spirit to affiliate with another congregation for a time, whether for missional or personal reasons, I am learning to rejoice rather than cling tightly to “my members.”  If a church member has the gifts to help another church begin a major ministry, I say, “Go for it!”  If someone wants to walk alongside a church that has come on hard times, I say, “Hallelujah!”  If a family decides to attend another church for a time because their children love that youth group, I say, “Thank you Jesus that someone is reaching them.”

After all, what business are we in, anyway?  Is our mission to build our own fiefdoms, or are we called to build the kingdom of God?  And if it’s God’s kingdom, then who are we to buck the Holy Spirit and become possessive of our own?  Could it be that we live up to our calling as a connectional church when we share all of our broken pieces and together fit them together into a tapestry of shalom and hope for our world?

Welcoming and caring for people who are in churches for a time is a cutting edge ministry that can no longer ignored.  Perhaps they are in town for a six or twelve month work project.  Maybe they are in emotional, physical, or spiritual transition and don’t feel able to go back to their own church.  Perhaps they are peregrini, nomadic pilgrims who are “prone to wander” because they feel called to by God to various congregations for specific short-term ministries.

Whatever the reason, our churches must find immediate ways for “for a timers” to connect, be active, and even participate in leadership, if appropriate.  Don’t get hung up on membership.  Don’t make the boundaries around participation too tight.  At the same time let people be if they simply need to heal and only want to worship with you.  And for God’s sake, don’t quench the Holy Spirit.  Let the Spirit move where it will.

Zach, Lindsay, Dorothy, Dale, Aileen, Steve, Ava, Isaac, Stephanie, John, Claire, Charlie, Rose, Grace, and others: your presence at Plainfield for a time has been one of the greatest gifts we could have ever received this year.  Your steady presence has been a symbol of the great cloud of witnesses cheering on the Plainfield congregation.  You have brought with you light, caring, faithfulness, peace, hope, joy, and the Comforter.  Most important, you became part of us.

Wherever God leads you next, remember the words of one of our favorite songs this year,

“You make beautiful things out of the dust.  You make beautiful things out of us.  You are making me new.”  God made something beautiful out of you for a time.  Thank you, dear friends, for a beautiful and holy sojourn together.

Blessings,

Laurie

P.S. 150 people “for a timers” graced Plainfield UMC yesterday for our last worship service before the new church restart.

Blazing the Trail

    Trailblazer: one who blazes a trail to guide others; pathfinder; pioneer

     “I know there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing.  There’s something God wants me to do.”

     “Like what?”

     “I’m not sure.”

     “You don’t think winning eight national championships and raising a son is enough?  You think there’s something more you’re supposed to be doing?

     “I know there’s something else.  I feel it.”

     Pat Summitt, head coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball program, said those words on February 23, 2011, just months before her diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. 

Summitt

      Summitt’s just published memoir, Sum It Up, tells the story of how a country girl from Henrietta, Tennessee, blazed a trail for women in sports by becoming the head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols at the age of twenty-two.  For over four decades Summitt led her teams to more victories than any man or woman in NCAA Division 1 history.  Even more remarkable, every one of the 161 players over 38 years who completed their NCAA eligibility under Summitt received their degree from the University of Tennessee. The Lady Vols became the most elite and iconic basketball program in the country because of Pat Summitt’s intensely competitive spirit, love for her players, and determination to draw the very best out of those she coached.

     Yet the trail Pat Summitt is blazing now is very different.  It’s that “something else” God wants her to do.  At the height of her professional career, Summitt’s life changed at age 59.  After the Alzheimer’s diagnosis Summitt remained as the head coach of the Lady Vols for one more year before deciding to retire in 2012 as head coach emeritus.  Pat and her young adult son Tyler have formed the Pat Summitt Foundation, whose mission is to promote education, awareness, prevention, and support services for people with Alzheimer’s and their families. 

     Did I tell you that Pat Summitt is a United Methodist?  She writes, “We were in a pew as long as the doors were open at Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church, where the Heads have attended for over fifty years and my father’s parents had gone before us.  There we learned to worship with a simple gratitude to God and affection for Christ.  We were taught that you didn’t talk about faith; you showed it through kindness to neighbors and humility, the recognition that none of us was more valuable than another.” 

Jackie

       The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.  The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it.” (Jackie Robinson)  The recently released movie 42 is the story of Jackie Robinson, who also blazed a trail by becoming the first African American to play Major League Baseball.  Robinson’s number 42 is the only one ever retired by the major leagues.

     In 1946 every one of the 400 major league players was white.  Branch Rickey’s risky decision to offer Robinson a major league contract in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers was made easier because of the potential he saw in Robinson.  First and foremost, Robinson was a man of deep faith.  Did I tell you Robinson was a Methodist?  In a favorite line from the movie Rickey says, “Jackie’s a Methodist, I’m a Methodist, God’s a Methodist.  You can’t go wrong.” 

     Branch Rickey was also impressed by Robinson’s character, knowing it wouldn’t work if Jackie fought back after facing the inevitable insults, hatred, threats, and abuse.  “What about if you can’t get in a hotel or restaurant?  What will you do?  Will you fight?  It will ruin all my plans,” Rickey said.

     “I want a player with the guts not to fight back or lose his temper.  Like our Savior you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek.  We win if you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player.  Can you do it?” 

     “Give me a uniform and a number.  I’ll give you the guts,” said Robinson.  Jackie Robinson’s “something else” blazed a trail that opened doors for Martin Luther King Jr. and many others who confronted racism with a non-violent and grace-filled response.

Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks

      I’d never heard of Jason Collins until his picture was on the cover of the May 6 Sports Illustrated.  Collins, a National Basketball Association player, is the first professional male athlete in a major U.S. team sport to “come out.”  Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated that he felt there was “something else” he was supposed to do, “I’m a 34 year old NBA Center.  I’m black.  And I’m gay.  I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport.  But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”

     Jason Collins is blazing a new trail.  While tennis player Martina Navratilova came out in 1981, and while there are many closeted gays in male professional sports, “coming out” has always remained a taboo subject.  Although Collins knew he was different as a kid, he didn’t accept the fact that he was gay until he was a young adult.  He didn’t even tell his twin brother Jarron until last summer.    

     Oh, did I tell you that, like Pat Summitt and Jackie Robinson, Jason Collins is also a Christian?  He writes, “My parents instilled in me Christian values.  They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand.  I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding….  I’m learning to embrace the puzzle that is me.”  Collins received immediate support and expressions of respect and gratitude from his colleagues.

     How do trailblazers do it?  How do human beings garner the courage and strength to do “something else,” to pave the way for others to live whole and healthy lives and make a difference in the world?   There is no better model for trailblazers than the apostles who waited an upper room in Jerusalem until Pentecost.  Their hearts knew there was something more that they were supposed to do than go back to fishing.  When the Holy Spirit came upon them, the apostles were empowered to blaze a new trail into a hostile world, witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, and make disciples. 

·         Trailblazers have a calling from God that spurs them on.  Pat, Jackie, and Jason all relied on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of their faith, and the power of the Holy Spirit to guide them.

·         Trailblazers have the vision and willingness to travel into uncharted territory, breaking the trail for others to follow and keeping on even when the way seems unclear. 

·         Trailblazers count the inevitable cost of leading the way by controlling their own reactions, returning evil with love, and demonstrating emotional and spiritual maturity.

·         Trailblazers always rise to the occasion by understanding that failure and disappointment are great learning laboratories.  Our true character is revealed during the tough times.  There are many things in life we cannot control, but we can always choose our attitude.

·         Trailblazers know that if it were not for the support, encouragement, and prayers of others working together with them, they could do nothing. 

Jackie Robinson:

     When asked about his nightly ritual of kneeling at his bedside to pray, Robinson said, “It’s the best way to get closer to God.”  Then the second baseman added with a smile, “and a hard-hit ground ball.”

Jason Collins:

     “Doc Rivers, my coach with the Celtics says, ‘If you want to go quickly, go by yourself – if you want to go father, go in a group.’  I want people to pull together and push ahead.”

Pat Summitt:

     “Standing there (outside her house, gazing at the Smoky Mountains after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis) I know something with a certainty.  God doesn’t take things away to be cruel.  God takes things away to make room for other things.  God takes things away to lighten us.  God takes things away so we can fly.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

     “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”        

     What is that “something else” that God wants you to do so that you, too, can blaze a trail, pull people together, and fly?  Do you feel it?

Blessings,

Laurie

 

 

Whose Voice is Missing?

“Hey, Laurie, what’s up with the feature in the paper, ‘Is Religion Sexist?  Panelists Discuss Gender Imbalance in the Church.’ You’ve got to be kidding!  Did you see this article by the Ethics and Religion Talk Panel and that great stock picture of you?  There are all men on the panel, and they didn’t quote you!”  Click here to read the article.

My curiosity piqued by my friend’s email, I found the Religion Section of the October 18 Grand Rapids Press.  There was the article on the front page along with a prominent color photo from 2006 when I served in a previous church.  The Ethics and Religion Talk feature is compiled and written by David Krishef, rabbi at Congregation Ahavas Israel in Grand Rapids, with readers submitting questions and panelists weighing in on their perspectives.

Since August Krishef and his panel have tackled lively and timely issues such as birth control, marijuana, how to respond to a beggar on the street, depicting God in art, and organ donation.  When the MLive group of Michigan newspapers announced this new interactive feature, however, critics immediately pointed out that the panel included 6 male clergy.  In response the panel added a woman from the Catholic Church, which still does not represent gender equity, especially since that voice comes from a church which does not permit women clergy.  Furthermore, this lone voice for women was not even included in the article.

I have never fashioned myself to be a crusader for women’s rights, although many things were off limits during my formative years simply because I was a girl.  Over 30 years of ministry my primary goals have been excellence, faithfulness, and the kind of spiritual depth and leadership that creates healthy and vital churches.  I’ve always believed that competence speaks for itself.  At the same time I realize that there are still networks of power and status that shut women out of the highest levels of leadership.

Like other women I am acquainted with sexism in the church.  When I shared my call to ministry with my pastor’s wife when I was in graduate school, she said, “If all potential women pastors were like you, I’d support women in the ministry.  But they’re not, so we can’t allow any women to be pastors.”  I was among the first women ordained in the General Conference Mennonite Church, but all of the clergy in the Eastern District Conference boycotted my ordination service.  Eventually transferring my ordination credentials to The United Methodist Church opened many more doors to me as a woman, yet sexist attitudes lingered.

I’ve had families leave one of the churches I served simply because I was a woman, never even giving me a chance.  I’ve heard every argument under the sun for why God doesn’t allow women to be pastors.  I’ve seen women clergy receive lower pay than men of equal ability and be passed over for larger churches for no apparent reason.  My clothes, shoes, hair, and parenting have been freely critiqued.

At the same time I have been blessed beyond measure by countless parishioners who believe that both women and men are called by God into the professional ministry and are gifted with spiritual leadership.  Effective and amazing transformation takes place when clergy and laity, men and women, partner as laborers in the field of God’s kingdom.  I thank God for congregations who do not stereotype women clergy any more than they do male clergy.

I was surprised by the October 18 Ethics and Religion feature in the Grand Rapids Press but not because of the content.  Yes, I disagreed with Rabbi Krishef when he said, “I have to point out that it is the repressive political system – one not open to religious freedom – rather than a repressive religious tradition that has created the oppression (of women).”  I and countless other women have personally experienced repressive religious traditions.

I also took issue with Rev. Christian, who quoted Galatians 3:28, “There is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ.”  Then he stated, “Some churches, including ours, disagree regarding women as senior pastors, but not as pastors.”  What is the difference between a pastor and a senior pastor anyway?  If it’s authority, how is the authority of women senior pastors not acceptable while the authority of “ordinary” women pastors is?  And if it’s age, then I guess I qualify as a senior pastor because AARP’s been wooing me for a while.

Rev. Christian’s statement, “In creation, God saved the best for last: women,” strikes me as a sexist statement in itself.  There is no best and worst in God’s kingdom.  We are all equal in God’s sight.  Furthermore, his quote, “There is a godly order in the home, but not for suppression,” highlights the immense gulf that still exists in the perception of women’s roles among Christian groups today.

It’s healthy to agree to disagree and still respect and honor one another.  However, beyond the content of the article, it was the publishing process itself that was troublesome.  Despite a disclaimer with an excuse for why all 3 panelists were male, how could an article about women in religious leadership exclude the voice of women themselves?  The panel’s good intentions are not in question, but the absence of women’s voices is indicative of institutional sexism.

The Press reporter and panel convener could not find even one woman to express her views on this matter, yet a stock photo of a woman pastor was evidently available.  I’ve lived in Grand Rapids for the past 19 years and am readily accessible by phone or email, yet I was never contacted.  Was my picture deemed more important than my words?  If so, what does that say about gender imbalance in the church?  A number of people commented about the article, asking incredulously, “We saw your picture and were eager to read what you had to say about the issue, but there was nothing.  Don’t you think that’s strange?”

My picture was there, but I was invisible, along with the many other women clergy in the Grand Rapids metropolitan area.  The United Methodist Church itself has at least 2 dozen clergywomen within the reading audience of the Grand Rapids Press, yet no one from the Press or the panel thought about publishing a current picture and hearing from a current woman pastor.  Are only males eligible to speak about female leadership in the church?

It was particularly telling that of the 20 online comments about the article, not one reader decried either the lack of women’s voices on the panel or the fact that the woman whose picture accompanied the article was never quoted.  Rather, they all focused on their own opinions about what the Bible says regarding women’s leadership in various religions and in our world.

The article, “Is Religion Sexist?” is both a challenge and an opportunity to rethink the “isms,” those exclusionary and discriminatory practices that have limited the richness of the God-given gifts that abound in our world.

  • Can we talk about racism with integrity without hearing directly from African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, and other racial and ethnic groups?
  • Can we talk about immigration with understanding without soliciting the experiences of immigrants themselves, documented or undocumented?
  • Can we talk about other religions with respect without listening to the voices of the people who practice those religions?
  • Can we talk about homosexuality with an open mind without having conversation with those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered?
  • Can we talk about disability issues with sensitivity without hearing from those who live with disabilities?
  • Can we talk about the poor and unemployed with compassion without engaging their stories? 

This year, 2012, is the Year of Interfaith Understanding in Grand Rapids.  In one of the churches I serve we have invited people representing diverse religious traditions to preach one Sunday a month and speak to an adult Sunday school class.  We’ve learned about Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Baha’i, Quakerism, Native American spirituality, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, and the Church of Latter Day Saints.  Our horizons have been broadened, and we have learned much.  But more important, we have discovered how condescending it can be to talk about anyone without inviting them to the table and allowing them to speak for themselves.

Whose voice is missing at your table?

From whom do our congregations need to hear in order to understand the fullness of religious expression in our world? 

Will you resist making assumptions about others without talking directly with them?

Can you enlarge your borders to include those who can teach you?

I have been silenced before, and I will likely be silenced again.  But this time I speak out not for myself but for my children and grandchildren and all of God’s children in our world.  I speak out for the voiceless, the invisible, the rejected, the forgotten, the abused, the dismissed, the victimized, and all the Lazarus’ of this world who eat the scraps from their master’s table.

May the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead guide our living and serving, “If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”

Blessings,
Laurie