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.



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

How Should You Give – Ask Linda

How should you give?  Ask Linda.  My friend Linda occasionally helps me with tasks around the house that I can never seem to get to.   Linda has had a hard life, working full-time for minimal wages and also taking care of her mother and another elderly man.  For almost 20 years Linda and I have talked about how dehumanizing it can be to be poor in America, to live from paycheck to paycheck without hope of ever getting ahead.  Yet when I pay Linda for her work, she often gives back part of the money, saying, “Here, give this to someone in your church who needs it.” 

It’s that time, isn’t it?  The vast majority of churches in our country are already planning for 2013.  Committees are hard at work assessing the current state of their ministries and setting goals and expected outcomes for next year.  I am not naïve enough to think that local church budgets are always built around well-thought-out ministry plans.  However, a naturally optimistic faith refuses to give up that hope.      

One of the primary responsibilities of a local church pastor is educating, encouraging, and inviting the congregation to practice joyful stewardship.  I believe that people are generous by nature, but the lures of living in 21st century America have a way of choking off that generosity in favor of excessive spending or selfish hoarding.  Most of us would be better off learning how to give from those who have less than we do. 

Linda’s benevolence is confirmed by a report recently released from The Chronicle of Philanthropy called How America Gives.  Analyzing charitable giving trends at the zip code level, the report chronicles who the most generous givers in our country are and where they live.  Consider these provocative findings using 2008 statistics.

·         People who earn less money give a greater percentage of their discretionary income to charity.  

o   Families earning $200,000 or more represent 11% of U.S. tax returns and 40% of charitable giving, but high income earners give a lesser percentage of their income. 

o   Families earning over $200,000 a year gave only 4.2% of discretionary income to charity, whereas families earning $50-$75,000 a year gave 7.6 % to charity. 

o   Likewise, rich neighborhoods donate much less to charity percentagewise than low income neighborhoods.

·         Wealthy people who live in isolated enclaves or lower population density areas give less than wealthy people who live in economically diverse metropolitan neighborhoods.

o   When wealthy people live in neighborhoods where 40% of the people earn $200,000 or more, they give just 2.8% of discretionary income to charity as opposed to 4.2% for the general population of those earning $200,000 or more. 

o   As wealth increases, people tend to become more isolated, insulated, and immune to human need, which results in limited engagement with people who have much less than they do. 

Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, echoes these findings after years of his own research on giving, “The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become….  Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there is going to go a long way toward restoring the empathy or compassion deficit that we otherwise see.”  How should you give?  Ask Linda.

·         Religion makes a difference in charitable giving. 

People who live in areas where religion is a core value give more.  In addition, lower income donors tend to give more to religious organizations than high income donors. 

o   Two of the top nine states in charitable giving are Utah (10.6%) and Idaho, which have a high percentage of residents who are Mormons and strongly encourage tithing.  The other top 7 states are in the Bible Belt of the south. 

o   In contrast, New Hampshire, one of the least religious states in the country, has the lowest charitable giving rate at 2.5%.   

o   If religious charitable giving were excluded from this study and only giving to secular organizations was considered, the geography of generosity would look quite different.  New York State would go from 18th to 2nd, and Pennsylvania would go from 40th to 4th.   

·         How does your state or metropolitan area give? 

Check out

o   The highest charitable giving ZIP code in the U.S. is 10021 in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  This zip code contributed $478-million in 2008.

o   The ZIP code which gave the highest percentage in 2008 was 74103 in Tulsa, Okla., whose residents gave a generous 21.6% of their discretionary income. 

o   Nearly $1 in $8 given to charity in our country comes from California, whose residents donated more than $17.2 billion in 2008. 

Michigan ranks 13th out of 51 states (including Washington D.C) in charitable giving at 4.5% of discretionary income.  Of the 366 metropolitan areas in the U.S., my home of Grand Rapids ranks 115th with an average giving rate of 5.3%.

How should you give?  Ask Linda.  Linda is always looking to help people who have less than she has, but she soured on organized religion long ago.  She said, “My mother tolerated everything in the name of religion.  She would never confront my siblings with their inexcusable behavior and drug use and for scamming her out of her life’s savings.  And here I am, taking care of my mother now because no one else will.  I never had a chance to go to college, I hold down 3 jobs, and have no life. 

Where’s the church in all of this?  All they care about is taking care of themselves or offering handouts without accountability.  Giving money to the church is all well and good, but God calls all of us to be kind, compassionate, and wise, and I don’t often see that in church folks.”

            What does The Chronicle of Philanthropy report mean for the church as we prepare for commitment campaigns and budget-building?

  1. Resist making assumptions about who the most generous givers in your church are.  Who is most generous: the family that makes $1 million a year and gives $50,000 to the church or the family that makes $30,000 and gives $3,000 a year?  Remember the widow’s mite.
  2. Knowing that we rely on more well-off members to provide a good part of the church’s budget and that the average wealthy family in the U.S. gives only 4.2% of their income to charity, gently challenge all people in your church to step up to tithing. 
  3. Be aware that the church is one of the best places for middle and upper class families to be exposed to the poor.  How diverse is your congregation socioeconomically?  Are you intentional about finding ways for rich and poor to learn from each other?
  4. Use mission trips in and outside of the country as opportunities for children, youth, and adults to expand their borders and experience different ways of living, serving, and giving.
  5. Cultivate a holistic, year-round stewardship program of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  Statistics show that cities with generous givers also give more volunteer time.  The spillover effect means that donated money goes further. 
  6. Debunk the claim that secular giving is other-centered and therefore more altruistic than religious giving, which is self-centered.  In forming your church’s budget for next year, avoid the pitfall of focusing on institutional maintenance rather than mission and outreach.
  7. Inspire your congregation to give as a joyful response to God’s grace by telling the story in creative and compelling ways of how lives are being transformed through the ministries of your church.

In the thick of budgets, statistics, stewardship campaigns, planning, and a maze of church conference forms, all I can think of is Linda.  I suspect that we need Linda more than she needs us, for she is the expert on generosity.  In addition to being one of the most honest, perceptive, and pointed critics of the church (and rightly so), Linda gives way more proportionally than most church people, she is more sensitive to the needs of the poor, and her grace, hope, and perseverance put me to shame.

How should you give?  Ask Linda.



So What Do You Do on Friday Night?

It’s Friday night all across America.  What are you doing?  Attending a high school football game, going out for dinner and a movie, grocery shopping, walking the mall, visiting family, or crashing after a hard week?

On the 2nd Friday of every month the tiny congregation of Plainfield UMC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, opens its doors to a hundred individuals and families in the Creston neighborhood.  Although the church accepts donations and some put a dollar in the basket, most people don’t have money to contribute.  They simply need a good, hot meal and some TLC.

Jesse oversees the kitchen, and Ray is outside on the sidewalk grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, a last tribute to summer.  Bob and Wanda drive over from Muskegon because they have a heart for this neighborhood and a gift for engaging our guests in conversation.  Craig rides his bike 10 miles one way from another part of the city to help.  Sharon, Marianne, Pam and Gina supervise the food and clean-up.  Theresa serves, and her husband Jim welcomes people at the door.  Their son is getting married the next day.  Where were you the night before your child’s wedding?

Meanwhile I have the best job: introducing myself to our neighborhood guests and listening to their stories.  “Hi, my name is Laurie, and I’m the new pastor at Plainfield UMC.”  Without exception, everyone expresses gratitude for the dinner and is appreciative for the warm welcome they receive.  However, they will definitely not be attending a football game, taking in a movie, or cruising the mall after dinner.  They are simply trying to survive.   Their stories are heartbreaking, but their spirits are not broken.

Joseph, Tony, and Ron are sitting together.  Joseph asks, “What’s the difference between a born again, a Lutheran, and a Catholic?”

I stumble.  “Hmm.  Well.  Okay.  Lutherans and Catholics affiliate with a specific Christian group.  However, born again is not a denomination but describes a spiritual self-understanding that crosses all boundaries.   Lutherans and Catholics can be born again.  I’m born again, and I’m a Methodist.”

“What’s a Methodist?”

“We’re a community of disciples of Jesus Christ that was started by a man named John Wesley.  We believe that God’s grace is free, and there is nothing we can ever do to earn God’s love.  We also believe that God calls us to love our neighbors.  That’s why we’re having this dinner.”

“I like that.  I’ve been here before.  I’ve gotten food at the pantry.  I was married once and divorced.”

Tony says, “I go to the Open Door Pentecostal Church on Knapp.  We only have about 20 people.  Our pastor is an African-American woman, and she is on fire.  We have healing services on Sunday evening where people fall under the power of the Holy Spirit.  I am a schizophrenic, and the healing prayers help me.  Do you have Sunday evening or weeknight services?”

“I’m sorry, we don’t.  But we do worship on Sunday mornings at 11:15 a.m. with a free breakfast before.  You are always welcome.”

“What’s the difference between Methodists and Pentecostals?”

“None.  We love Jesus and our neighbors just as you do.”

“Love covers a multitude of sins.  I’ve never been married.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Joseph chimes in.  “I’ve had some hard lessons to learn.”

“Don’t we all,” echoed Tony.

Ron, who lives in the same nearby adult foster care home as Tony, finally enters the conversation and says, “I don’t have a family.”

I move to another table where Randy, Jack, and Sam are sitting.  Randy had a kidney transplant a year ago.  He has experienced numerous complications but says, “Somebody always has it worse off than me.  I feel welcome here.  It doesn’t matter what religion you are.  Just love others.  That’s it.”

“Did you get enough to eat?” I ask Jack.

“You bet.  I grew up with hardly any food, so I’ve learned how to make do with little.

“I watch what I eat because I’m on disability.  If you are smart you can make it on a food card.  But I do come here and to the food pantry, and I go to St. Al’s for the free dinners on Tuesday and Thursday.”

Sam chimes in, “I’m a handyman and a painter, but I don’t have much work .  I learn how to be a smart shopper with my food card.”

Jack says, “I had cancer 5 years ago and went back to work as a furniture refinisher, but I can’t do it anymore.  It’s hard to find a job at 60, but I was raised to work.  I’m no freeloader.  I’ve learned that you don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy.  I’ve had a lot and a little.”

“I want you to know how much we appreciate what you’re doing,” Randy says.

A family with a husband, wife, and 6 small children settle down to eat.  We chat for a few minutes, but they’re really busy making sure their children eat.

I greet a middle-aged man who is holding a 1-month-old baby and is accompanied by 3 teenagers.  Each of the girls asks me to guess how old they are and who the mother of the baby is.  They are 15, 16, and 19 years old.  The 16 year old is the mother.

Alex and Elizabeth share with me that Elizabeth attended Sunday school at Plainfield UMC until she was 10 years old.  She just got a job in a business across the street, and Alex does electronics and computer work.   “I love to help churches.  If you ever need anything, just call me,” Alex said, handing me his card.

Andrea is eating dinner with 2 small children.  Her husband works in Holland, but they were in the area running some errands and saw the sign advertising our dinner.  “What a godsend this is.  Thank you so much.”

I welcome a few parents and grandparents of our Sunday school children.  Two courageous and deeply faithful young adults volunteer every Sunday to teach anywhere from 4 to 15 neighborhood children.  The children show up for breakfast every Sunday morning and then stay for church school.  It’s extremely challenging ministry, with children who come and go at will, have little parental supervision, and are more hungry for the love of Jesus Christ and the care of this church than an actual breakfast.

When the evening is over, we have 6 hot dogs and a few desserts left and no hamburgers and baked beans.  As we’re cleaning up, a few more young men arrive and inhale the rest of the hot dogs.

Are we making a difference on this Friday night in Grand Rapids?  Are we changing the face of poverty in the Creston neighborhood, or are we simply putting on Band-Aids?  It’s making enough of a difference that the church borrowed from its endowment to renovate the kitchen so that outreach meals can be served at least three times a week in the fellowship hall.  We’re not in it to earn money, but what little we raise goes toward mission around the world.

It’s making enough of a difference that when we smelled gas in the afternoon and a technician charged more to fix the stove than we gathered in donations, we smiled and knew that God would provide.  An unexpected $200 donation was sent the next week by a family from another United Methodist church in the area who could not attend the dinner but wanted to help.

It’s making enough of a difference that even though we cannot fix the lives of our guests, we are connecting with our neighbors.  We are sitting at the same tables together, talking about our lives, sharing in God’s bounty, and giving thanks for simple joys like fresh apple pie and a place to sit for a while.  Plus, we’re offering a sneak preview of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God.

Come to think of it, this wasn’t just a preview, this was the Kingdom come on this earth: here and not yet.  Kind of like World Communion Sunday.  The menu was different: hot dogs and lemonade rather than bread and grape juice.  The liturgy was different: heart to heart conversation rather than the Great Thanksgiving.  And the setting was different: beat up tables and chairs rather than cushioned pews.  But the same Holy Spirit was present: swirling, dancing, delighting, empowering, encouraging, dispensing hope, and including all at the table.

No one ever gives up at Plainfield UMC.  This small but mighty congregation is convinced that their presence in the Creston neighborhood is leaven, light, love, and hope.  Thirty years from now none of these faithful church folks will probably be around.  Yet there is absolutely no doubt that every person who attends this 2nd Friday dinner and every child who comes to breakfast and church school on Sunday morning will remember Plainfield UMC.  They won’t remember what they ate, but they will remember this:

  • the open doors of this congregation
  • the loving consistency and safety of our presence
  • the stories of a Jesus whose grace won’t ever let them go
  • the sweet, sweet power of the Holy Spirit, which mysteriously blew them in the door and somehow stayed in their heart.

So what do you do on Friday night?