How Long, O Lord?

May 28, 2013

It’s on the lips of every United Methodist clergy every year.  “How long, O Lord?  How long am I going to remain in this appointment?  Could this be the year?”  The cry is often a lament because we don’t want to move.  But it could also be a plea, “Please, Lord, get me out of here!”


     At the same time it’s on the lips of every United Methodist layperson unless they come from another religious tradition and don’t yet understand the system.  “How long, O Lord, will you leave our beloved pastor here?”  Or “How long, O Lord, will you afflict us like this?”


“How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”  (Psalm 13:1-2a)


     It’s annual conference time around the United Methodist connection.  We’ll be inspired by guest speakers, vote on constitutional amendments and other legislative items, reconnect with friends, and watch our bishops set appointments of clergy for the coming year.  Some clergy are grateful to be moving while others are upset at being uprooted from a congregation they love.  What we all hold in common, however, is a vow to be itinerant, to go where we are sent.


     John Wesley used an appointment system to deploy clergy in order to spread scriptural holiness across the land, make disciples, and start new churches.  In America this system was highly effective as our country moved west and Methodist circuit riders fanned out across the wilderness. 


circuit rider

(Circuit Rider: Illustration from Harpers Weekly, October 12, 1867)


     Clergy were appointed to circuits that might have up to eighteen societies or churches.  They were expected to visit each church at least once a year.  The role of the pastor was to preach, administer the sacraments, and train laypersons to do the work of ministry by forming class meetings, which were small groups that worshipped, studied, served, and witnessed to their faith.  After a relatively short stay clergy hopped on their horses and headed to the next church on the circuit.  Circuit riders never asked, “How long, O Lord?” because they expected to stay in their appointment for just a year or two before moving on.     


     When our country began to “settle” in the early twentieth century, so did the clergy, who began to assume responsibilities that were formerly done by laity: visiting the sick, leading class meetings, and evangelizing.  Congregations gradually grew larger and more stable, and circuits became smaller.


     Today we emphasize longer term appointments in The United Methodist Church in the belief that clergy can do their most effective ministry after four to six years.  It takes time to develop relationships between clergy and laity so that congregations can be equipped and empowered to foster holistic growth and effective outreach.  Pastoral stability is often a sign of vitality and health.            


     At Plainfield UMC, one of the churches I am currently serving, the pastoral record began in 1879.  For the first twenty years the tenure of the clergy was 6 months, 1 year, 1 year, 1 year, 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 1 year, 1 year, 4 years, 1 year, 1 year, 3 years.  For some unknown reason W.E. Frye hit the jackpot and stayed four years. 


     Despite occasional remarkably long tenures, short term appointments were commonplace into the 1960’s.  Over the years I’ve heard elderly clergy reminisce about the good old days when they would not know what their appointment was until annual conference.  When the bishop read their name and the clergy found out they were moving, they’d call back home and say, “Guess what, honey?  Pack your bags.  We’re moving again.”


     Life is different in 2013, and the needs of families in the twenty-first century are an important consideration in appointments.  Spouses often earn a higher salary than the clergy.  Teenagers may not want to leave their high school.  Frequent moves are not helpful to congregations or clergy families.  The itinerant system is not for everyone.  Yet “How long, O Lord?” is on every United Methodist clergy’s lips because we are still appointed for only one year at a time. 


“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? (Habakkuk 1:2)
      Even today clergy occasionally stay for only a few years in an appointment for various reasons.  After serving appointments of 3 ½ years, 4 years, 4 years, 13 years, and 6 years as a superintendent, surprise!  I find myself serving only one year in my present appointment, just like so many of my circuit rider predecessors.

     My circuit consists of just two churches, but I have discovered that positive, transformational ministry can take place in very short appointments as well as quite long appointments.  Here’s what I’ve learned from my one year appointment.


·         Because clergy never know the answer to “How long, O Lord?” effective short term clergy quickly discern the state of the church, gain a good grasp of current reality, and use their time in a way that will best benefit the needs of the congregation. 


·         Effective short term clergy gain trust early on by building primary relationships with lay leaders, who help clergy establish priorities while they do the rest.  Identifying, cultivating, training, and encouraging lay leadership bears fruit in every congregation, especially in brief appointments where the imprint of effective clergy will be found in leaders who will carry on ministry for years to come.

·         Effective short term clergy know that the conventional wisdom to wait a year before initiating any change does not apply uniformly in every situation.  Comprehensive transfer of information before an appointment begins can prepare clergy to hit the ground running.  Sometimes immediate change is essential and welcomed.


·         Effective short term clergy thoroughly review the mission, strategic plan, and systems of a congregation to determine how they can build upon the church’s strengths at the same time as they address weak links that threaten to derail ministry.

·         Effective short term clergy nip conflict in the bud by practicing open and honest communication and self-integration.

·         Effective short term clergy usually don’t have time to sweat the small stuff, play on the church softball team, or lead the breakfast club because they are spiritually preparing the congregation for growth, health, and the next appointment, which will hopefully be a longer tenured pastor.

·         Effective short term clergy focus their best effort on energetic, creative worship that connects people with God and each other, inspiring them to reach out beyond the church in ministry to the world. 

·         Effective short term clergy can make a huge impact in a brief time by the witness of their life as well as the sound of their words.  They model faithfulness by their encouragement, gentle persuasion, positive attitude, and unquenchable hope. 

·         Five or ten year guaranteed contracts are not offered to clergy in The United Methodist Church.  Therefore, because short term clergy don’t have an answer to “How long, O Lord?” unless we are specifically designated as an interim pastor, we must rely on the intuition of the Holy Spirit to custom make our ministry in every location. 


     The most important lesson I’ve learned over the past year is to live and serve fully in the present moment because that’s all we have.  It doesn’t have to take thirteen years to leave God’s mark on a congregation through your ministry.  In fact, in a span of thirteen years during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, A.D. Newton, S.G. Warner, J.P Force, A.J. Russell, H. Borgelt, L. Dodds, W.M. Puffer, D. Kronk, A.J. Wheeler, and W.D. Frye all served Plainfield UMC, most of them for one year.  And what a legacy they left!    


     Some clergy and congregations can accomplish more for the kingdom of God in one year than other churches can do in fifty years.  God redeems everything, even short-term appointments.  We never know who will be touched by our ministry, brief as it may be.  In the twinkling of an eye, lives can be changed, congregations can be turned around, the Holy Spirit can set a church aflame, and ministry can be revitalized. 


      “How long, O Lord, will you look on?” (Psalm 35:17)  I never dreamed that God would look on my appointment as a one year adventure of faith.  But I thank God for the opportunity to impact the life of two congregations in a short term way that will lead them into a bright future.  Most of all, I am grateful for the long term joy and hope that two congregations have given to me.  “How long, O Lord?  Never mind.  However long you wish.  Where you lead, I will follow.” 





I Changed My Heart

The U.S. Post Office announced last Wednesday that it will seek to stop Saturday delivery of letters, hoping to cut $2 billion from $15.9 billion in 2012 losses.  Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe said, “Our financial condition is urgent.  This is too big of a cost savings for us to ignore.”  It’s a huge change that will take some getting used to.

On the same day, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it needed more time before deciding whether to move away from its long-standing exclusion of gays as scouts or leaders.  The BSA was poised to recommend that sponsors of local troops decide for themselves on gay membership but backed down because of pressure from both conservatives and gay rights supporters.  A decision was deferred until the BSA’s annual meeting in May.

Approximately 70% of all Boy Scout units are sponsored by churches.  The United Methodist Church hosts more scout troops than any other religious group except The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  After 103 years of scouting it would be an enormous change.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced in January that the Pentagon was lifting its ban on women in combat as long as they can pass the requirements.  A poll released last Thursday by Quinnipiac University showed that 75% of voters support women being able to serve in ground units engaging in close combat.  Nevertheless, it will be a significant change in the military culture of combat units.

Why all these changes?  Because in our fast-paced world, if we don’t change we die.  If we don’t keep moving forward, we fall behind.  The good old days aren’t good enough anymore.  If we don’t continually evaluate our values, practices, and systems and make appropriate changes, our minds become entrenched, and our procedures become obsolete or irrelevant.  Most of all, our hearts can become hard.

Have you ever changed your heart?  The phrase “change of heart” was first found in the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary where it was defined as conversion, in either a theological or a moral sense, to a different frame of mind.  If you look up “change of heart” in Webster’s online dictionary today, the current definition is “a reversal in position or attitude.”


In the 19th century, however, change of heart clearly referred to a religious conversion.  Popular fiction even shortened the phrase simply to having “a change.”  Gail Godwin, in her book, Heart; A Natural History of the Heart-Filled Life, writes, “In revival language, religious converts were described as having ‘experienced a change.’”  Usually, this kind of change was sudden.

The much beloved story of Scrooge’s conversion in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol, remains a classic example of an overnight change of heart.  Saul’s conversion took place on the Damascus Road, when, in an instant, he went from one of the most feared persecutors of Christians to one of Christianity’s most effective evangelists.

Even John Wesley had a dramatic change of heart on May 24, 1738 when he went to a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and wrote in his diary, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation.  And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Most changes of heart, however, are gradual, even imperceptible.  We wake up one day and suddenly realize that we are not the same person we were last year, last month, or even last week.  But we’re not sure how and when it happened.

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, wrote an autobiography called Confessions, beginning it in 394 A.D. when he was 43 years old.  It’s one of the finest documents in history about a change of heart.  In the thirteen chapters of Confessions Augustine traces his progress from babyhood to a proud, ambitious young professor who enjoys the pleasures of the flesh.  One of his more famous pre-conversion prayers was, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”  After a period of violent floundering and intense searching, Augustine’s heart changes, and he experiences a joyful conversion at age 33.

In the first paragraph of the first book Augustine writes, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  Augustine uses the Latin inquietus (unquiet, restless) to describe the unstable condition of the human heart, a restless yearning for wholeness that eventually moves us toward God.  Augustine’s premise is that we may be doing all the right things, or we may be doing none of the right things, and we can still be restless.  Outwardly we may be fine, upstanding people, or we may be wreaking all kinds of havoc, but our hearts can still be far, far away from God.  All hearts are restless; all hearts are unquiet until they rest in God.

Ash Wednesday is two days away.  Through the symbolism of ashes the first day of Lent asks us to confront our own mortality at the same time as we are called to confess our sin before God and change our heart.  The beginning of repentance is always changing our heart, which is precisely what the Greek word for repentance means, metanoia.

Have you noticed that each lectionary scripture for Ash Wednesday refers to the heart?

  • “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”  Joel 2:12-13
  • “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  Psalm 51:10
  • “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you…  In return – I speak as to children – open wide your hearts also.”  2 Corinthians 6:11, 13
  • “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Matthew 6:21

The ashes of Ash Wednesday invite us to move from the outward sign of repentance on our forehead to the inward cleansing of our heart through grace.  It’s a strange and disquieting warming that convicts and encourages as we venture into deeper waters than the sentimental romanticism of Valentine’s Day.

Ultimately, it’s the heart that matters.  We may seem to others to be doing and saying all the right things, but until our heart is right with God, we cannot be the whole people God has called us to be.  The key is the changed heart.  In Gail Godwin’s book she asks some friends around the dinner table what change of heart means to them.  A country doctor sums it up best, “It’s a phrase we use when we don’t feel the same anymore.”

The change of heart is God’s work as much as our own.  It’s called grace.  God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel (36:26), “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.  And I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  God is just waiting to give us a new heart through Jesus Christ.  All we have to do is say yes.

Can we trust the changed heart?  I believe we can.  Most of the time the changed heart lasts, but sometimes it doesn’t.  As John Wesley would remind us, we are all capable of backsliding.  At the same time I am a firm believer in the changed heart.  I’ve seen it happen.  I am convinced of God’s desire and our human capacity to change our hearts, so I’m willing to give people second chances, third chances, and even fourth chances.  I don’t give up easily.

I admit that at times I have been taken advantage of.  I’ve been conned, and I’ve been fooled.  Some people say I’m too soft.  But my heart tells me that the church is a place where we must offer grace and the hope of transformation.  The secular world doesn’t often give a chance to people who have a criminal record, are ex-convicts, have wrestled with substance abuse problems, or have a mental illness.  But the church opens its heart as well as its doors.  The church is in the business of changing lives and hearts, and I’d much rather that our churches be known for showing too much grace than showing too little grace.

Change will keep pounding the shores of our world, wave after wave of opportunity to embrace the restlessness of the heart.  When our heart beats with God’s heart and the heart of our world, all of the other external changes will take care of themselves, even no mail on Saturdays, a possible new day for the Boy Scouts, or women fighting alongside men in combat.  We’ll be more open to surprise, more willing to dialogue with those who disagree, more intent on seeking God’s will, and more passionate about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

When is the last time you had a heart check-up?  Is your church a saving station where it’s safe to respond to the disquietude in our heart by “experiencing a change”?  Is your faith community a lighthouse where God creates a clean heart in us so that we can pass on light to others?  Is your congregation a beehive of both restlessness and discernment where having a good heart is more important than following correct rules?  Most of all, is your heart a cauldron of change where it’s okay not to feel the same anymore?

Ashes.  Ashes.  We all change our hearts.




The Slow Work of God

January 28, 2013

It’s not a surprise.  After all, we are headed right into the depths of a lake-effect blizzard.  The I-94/I-196 corridor along Lake Michigan is known for intense snowstorms, but we have little choice.  Three colleagues and I are driving back from a North Central Jurisdiction Episcopacy Committee meeting in Chicago.  The skies are clear until we cross from Indiana into Michigan.  Then the heavens open, and all we can see is white.


     We slow down with the traffic until both northbound lanes stop.  After sitting for ten minutes, we creep along for an hour, covering three miles.  We laugh and tell stories while the storm swirls around us.  I finished the last 30 pages of a novel.  We stop again.  This time there are no fits and starts.  We aren’t going anywhere for a while.

     As resignation sets in, Joy reminds us of our closing devotions that morning.  After our committee spent three days discussing the challenges and opportunities of episcopal leadership in The United Methodist Church, Joy quoted a poem by Teilhard de Chardin from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals,

Above all, trust in the slow work of God. 

We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.

We would like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability and that it may take a very long time.

     Ah, yes, the slow work of God.  Forgive our impatience, God.  Remind us that our insistence on always being in control does not apply to blizzards, icy roads, and zero visibility.    Jesus, you who never had the joy of driving in a snowstorm, help us to see you in the enforced slowness, empower us to relax into the experience, and open our eyes to the world of the Holy Spirit, which too often remains hidden from view because we are moving too fast through life.

Jackie and I call our spouses to say, “You’re on your own for dinner.”  Joy says, “I guess I won’t make it back for bell choir.”  Laurie D. says, “I should have prepared the guest rooms in case you don’t make it beyond Kalamazoo.”  We break out little packs of trail mix and commune together.

Entertainment abounds when I make a makeshift restroom by opening the front and back doors of the car to create a semblance of privacy.  We laugh some more and tell more stories.  We speculate about “what if’s.”  Could we have avoided this mess by taking the southern route on I-80/90 over to US-131?  But we also delight in the pure Michigan beauty of elegant snowflakes blanketing the pines and dancing around us.  We revel in the slow work of God, grateful that we are safe, and offer silent prayers for whoever was involved in the accident ahead.

     What is this slow work of God, anyway?  It’s unknown, new, mysterious, unstable, and even dangerous, so we’re reluctant to trust it.   In fact, we do not know the day or the hour of anything.  We have no idea what tomorrow will bring, which is why God insists that we live one day at a time and be fully present to the moment.  God invites us to embrace discomfort, anxiety, and even suffering as a necessary part of our life’s journey because wisdom and growth come from the bearing of infirmities.

Have you noticed?  Jesus said nothing during his life and ministry about the importance of becoming rich and successful, but he said a whole lot about how we have to lose our life in order to save it.  Jesus said nothing about becoming powerful, but he said a whole lot about denying ourselves, losing our ego, and letting go of selfish desires.  Jesus said nothing about being honored by others, but he spoke volumes about humbling ourselves and taking the last seat rather than the first.  In fact, the central metaphor of the human condition in the New Testament is the necessity and slow work of dying in order to experience new life.

And so I think it is with you.

Your ideas mature gradually.  Let them grow.

Let them shape themselves without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time

–that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will–

                                                          will make you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit

gradually forming within you will be.

     What is this slow work of God?  It invites patience, vision, steadfastness, and quiet confidence.  But I, who am always in a hurry, want to see immediate results.  I, who can’t sit still, am forced to stay put, and my body is protesting.  The slow work of God is convicting me as I sit and wait.  I leave the car for a few minutes to walk in the snow and clear my mind.

God is molding and reshaping me on the potter’s wheel without undue haste, even as I wonder, “Why is it taking so long?  Why is growth so uncertain?  What do you mean it may take a very long time?  Can I skip that part?  Is it possible to trust that God is gradually forming a new spirit in me?”

     Patience releases the clenched hands of white knuckle driving and opens them to God’s movement in God’s time.  Yet the slow work of God won’t happen without us, either.  After Jesus finished his work on our earth, he commissioned the apostles and each one of us, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.”  But not after he spent three years insisting, “You are salt and light…  Go and do likewise…  Love your enemies…  I appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last…  Follow me…  Be reconciled to your brother or sister.”

Two hours after we stop for the first time, the long line of cars suddenly begins to move, we gather momentum, and we’re on our way.  We cheer, “Thank you, Jesus” and settle in for a quick trip home.  Not to be.  We occasionally reach 45 miles per hour, but the storm still rages, cars are sliding off the road, and the slow work of God continues.  It will take a very long time to make it home.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,

 and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.

Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.

     What is this slow work that causes God to chuckle, sigh, lament, comfort, and chide God’s people?  I wonder about our local churches and our denomination.  Could God be emboldening us, “United Methodist Church, you worry about too much.  You are too impatient to fix things without delay.  You are too uptight, too obsessed with your decline, and too concerned about a theological divide.  Take a deep breath.  Be yourself.

“Will you trust my slow work that is refining you so that you can focus on mission and ministry and kingdom-building?  Can you imagine that your divisions might be my way of slowing you down to build relationships and stop being too full of your opinionated self?

“Will you engage an active patience that celebrates small steps toward greater vitality at the same time as you risk everything in seeking justice for all of my people?  Will you act urgently but without undue haste?  Can you accept the anxiety that accompanies falling numbers yet blow the wad by starting new faith communities, developing strong leaders, and equipping clergy and local congregations for effective contextual ministry?

“Can you live with instability, relish incompleteness, and mature in my time?  Will you dare to consider any and all crazy ideas, experiment freely and smartly, create healthy systems that facilitate effective ministry, and lead your church folk outside the building?  Can you focus on teaching and nurturing the children and youth to be witnesses by knowing me, loving me, and serving me?

“Will you be a relentless optimist rather than a negative curmudgeon?  Have you ever considered living in hope rather than despair?  Can you dream even bigger and start marching in the light of my love?  Can you abide in the vine and covenant to bear luscious fruit for the sake of our loving vine-dresser?  Will you leave the safety and warmth of your car sitting in the middle of the interstate to play in the snow, build a snow person, lick the snowflakes, and make a snow angel?

     “Do you believe that I am working for good in the world through you all day long?  Will you trust in my slow work, no matter how long it takes?”

     We all arrived home – slowly, safely, and in God’s time.