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.

Are You Okay?

“Are you okay?”  Hundreds of thousands of people around the world were asking this question last Monday.  Many were seeking to know if their loved ones running the Boston Marathon were safe.  Others were emailing, tweeting, Facebooking, and calling because they weren’t sure if their friends were running or not.

Because I’ve run the Boston Marathon eight of the last fifteen years, I received several dozen inquiries throughout the week, “Are you okay?  Were you running today?  Thinking about you.”  Others were hesitant to contact me and called Gary or other friends instead.  “Are you okay?”  The sensitivity and compassion of this simple question is one of the most profound marks of being human, for it opens the door for others to share their deepest fears and greatest hopes.

Boston MarathonI was sitting at a car dealership waiting for my oil to be changed when I saw the breaking news about twenty minutes after the bombs went off.  I involuntarily began to cry because no one who has ever run this iconic race can forget what it feels like to run down Boylston Street toward the finish line.  “Are you okay?” asked a woman sitting beside me.  “I can see how heartfelt your response is.”

The bombs were a complete shock, yet in another sense it did not surprise me.  More than once since September 11 the thought has crossed my mind that an attack on the Boston Marathon would make a stunning statement for anyone wishing to wreak havoc.  It’s almost impossible to secure a marathon, especially the most famous marathon in the world where huge numbers of spectators enjoy the Patriots’ Day holiday by partying along the entire 26.2 mile route.

As Gary and I began processing this tragedy late Monday afternoon, I blurted out, “This is the most dastardly and cowardly act I can imagine.  What pain could have prompted someone to target innocent runners and spectators who are celebrating the determination and persistence of the human body and spirit?  Whoever did this has no idea who they are dealing with.  Nothing can stop us.  We will keep running.”

“If you want to run, run a mile.  If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.”  These words were on the back of a friend’s t-shirt as I was running at the local health club last Tuesday.  The quote comes from Emil Zatopek, a Czech runner who won three gold medals in the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics, the last coming when Zatopek decided at the last minute to compete in the first marathon of his life.  The editors of the February 2013 issue of Runner’s World chose Zatopek as the greatest runner of all time.

Are you okay?  “Yes,” a marathoner will say. “I’m okay as long as I can run.”  The mystique of the marathon is that in 26 miles we experience a microcosm of life itself.  To run a marathon is to make a decision to experience a different life by doing something great.  Make no mistake, running 26 miles is something great, no matter how fast or slow we run and no matter whether we are at the front or in the back of the pack.

How do marathoners experience a different life?  We do three things that produce greatness in all areas of life, not just running.

  • We prepare. 

The process of preparing for a marathon is transformative in itself.  To experience a different life we have to make a commitment to the training.  We follow a plan that gradually builds up our mileage over the course of months.  We alternate hard and easy runs, long and short runs, and rest days.  By resting and eating well our muscles repair themselves, preparing us to train whether we are tired, sore, depressed, under the weather, or overwhelmed.  To run a marathon is to drag ourselves out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to willingly undergo suffering for the sake of a noble goal.

The vast majority of Boston marathon registrants have to qualify by running another marathon at a pace that sets them apart from other age-group runners.  Some try to qualify for years until finally it all comes together and their dream becomes a reality.  Others are able to register for Boston by contributing a certain amount of money as a charity runner.

The actual marathon contains an entire lifetime in two to six hours.  On Boston Marathon day we get up early, butterflies in our stomach.  We shake off the phantom aches and pains that turned us into hypochondriacs for months.  We make sure our digestive system is working properly, gather our gear, eat and drink food that agrees with us, kiss our loved ones goodbye, take the subway to the bus, and ride 26 miles out to the start at Hopkinton.  We meet new friends, make small talk, and ask constantly, “Are you okay?”

By the time the fighter jets scream over ahead, we hear the Star-Spangled Banner, and we’ve stood in line one last time at the porta-potty, we are ready to begin the journey.  “Are you okay?” we ask complete strangers.  “You’re gonna have a great race.  You’re prepared.  Now enjoy every minute.  This is your time.”  There are high fives and fist bumps all around, and off we go.  Even the apostle Paul is present through thousands of runners who repeat the Philippians 4:13 mantra, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

runnersIn the same way, the police, first responders, and marathon volunteers did great things last Monday because they were prepared for anything.  They were present to the wounded within seconds of the bomb blasts and saved the lives of many with traumatic injuries because they were trained and ready.

  • We let go of assumptions.

Experienced marathoners know not to assume anything about a marathon because we never what’s going to happen in such a long race.  We have to continually adjust to changing temperatures and wind conditions as well as hydration and food intake.  We may go from an adrenaline rush at the start, to feeling great and on pace at five miles, to a leg cramp at 10 miles, to the deafening cheers of the Wellesley College women at the halfway mark, to a boost from a little kid giving you an orange slice at 15 miles, to the agony of Heartbreak Hill at mile 20, to the shuffle past Fenway Park, to the last exhilarating half mile down Boylston Street where adrenaline returns and wooden legs keep on going.  Sometimes we have the race of a lifetime.  Other times we tank and never really know why.

I also learned early on that runners come in all shapes and sizes and that it is foolhardy to stereotype people on the basis of how they look.  When our son, Garth, was in fifth grade I ran with him in his first ten kilometer race.  I’ll never forget the look on Garth’s face when an “old man” passed him running up a steep hill.  Indignant, Garth exclaimed, “He’s a grandpa!”  That’s nothing compared to being passed by Dick and Rick Hoyt, competing in their 31st Boston Marathon last Monday.

Dick and Rick HoytPeople who do great things do not let their own theories and hypotheses blind them to what they are really seeing.  When the bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, some assumed that it was the work of foreign terrorists.  Harsh and uninformed words were spoken about who the perpetrators might be.

We eventually learned that the suspects were Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 26 and 19 year old ethnic Chechen brothers who lived, studied, and grew up in the U.S.  Even then some immediately blamed their Chechen ethnicity and Muslim religion while others cited the influence of their American upbringing.  At the time no one knew the real story of why these two brothers became murderers.  Rushing to judgment is always unwise.  We experience a different life by starting with a clean slate devoid of assumptions and remaining open to whatever truth emerges.

  • We ask, “Are you okay?”

Marathoners often greet one another by asking, “How’s your training going?”  Runners often perform best when they are part of a running group where everyone can offer support and encouragement.  We don’t compete against each other.  We compete against our own expectations, goals, and dreams.

No one can complete a marathon, let alone live a different life, unless we have the support of our loved ones and friends.  That’s why the Boston Marathon is so beloved by runners.  It’s because of the spectators.  Every one of the 25,000 runners streaming down Boylston Street toward the finish is cheered on as if they were the winner – because they are all winners.

“Go for it!  You can do it!  You’re looking great!  You’re almost there!  You’re okay!”  It is precisely those words that enable all of us to finish strong, whether in a race or in life itself.  It did not escape notice that the vast majority of victims were not runners but spectators.  Last Monday it was the runners’ turn to ask, “Are you okay?  How can I help you?”

            Thousands of photos and videos sent to law enforcement enabled them to zero in on two people.  The FBI released pictures of the two suspects on Thursday night and again asked for the public’s help.  A citizen alerted police on Friday night to the fact that someone was hiding under the tarp in his boat in Watertown.

Heroes stepped out of the crowd to help, medical personnel saved lives by their immediate response, and people around the world sent prayers to heaven.  Thousands of Boston residents offered to open their homes to stranded runners and visitors.  Acts of kindness overshadowed the smoke and ashes.  It was truly a marathon effort on the part of everyone to locate the suspects.  If our world is going to become the kingdom of God, we need each other, and the only way to do that is by asking for, as well as accepting, the help of others.

Everyone will experience a different life after the Boston bombings: runners, family, friends, a grieving city, and a shocked world.  Yet our spirit has not been extinguished. 

Greatness happens when people of love and peace ask, “Are you okay?  How can I help you?”  We experience a different life when people of resilience and courage ask, “Are you okay?  What do you need?”  Light overcomes darkness and grace overcomes evil when people of faith and hope ask, “Are you okay?  With God’s help we will get through this together.” 

            “Are you okay?”  And the answer?  “Yes, nothing will stop us.  We will keep running and cheering, and we’ll be back next year stronger than ever.”

Blessings,

Laurie

 

The Reminder

She was the cashier at Sam’s Club who checked us out last week.  When I gave her a check for our groceries she began talking to Gary and me about her grandfather, who was dying of cancer. She said there was no treatment that could help him anymore, he couldn’t stand up, and it was difficult for her to get a good night’s sleep.  I asked if she was especially close to her grandfather, and she replied, “I live with him.  I’m his caretaker.”

“I am so sorry for you and your grandfather.  God bless you during this difficult time,” I said.  Already suspecting the answer, I asked Gary on the way out, “Why do you suppose she shared this with total strangers?”  “Because the top of the check said Rev. Laurie Haller and Rev. Gary Haller.”  Those three letters, “Rev.” not only reminded the young woman of her pain but opened a door for her to seek a blessing.

This encounter sparked the memory of a seminary professor whose class forever changed my life.  In 1977 I was studying music at the Yale University Institute of Sacred Music but lived and also took some classes at Yale Divinity School.  I met my husband in this class where we were in the same small group, and we were married the following year.  Hmm.  Could Gary have somehow arranged to be in my small group?

nouwen

Our professor was Henri Nouwen, and the class was Ministry and Spirituality, which Henri (as everyone called him) described this way, “This course will focus on the relationship between the practice of ministry and the spiritual life of the minister.”  At the time all I knew about “practice” was the two-plus hours I spent on the organ bench very day.

I was a twenty-two-year old with zero practice in ministry, and I had no clue what the spiritual life of a pastor was all about.  Therefore, when Henri talked about clergy being wounded healers it was a purely academic exercise.  I didn’t have the life experience for his words to move from my head to my heart.  Yet from the very first day I sensed that Henri Nouwen was a living reminder and that what I learned from listening to and watching Henri would last for a lifetime in ministry.

Nouwen focused on three unpublished papers which were typed on an electric typewriter and copied for the class, “The Healing Reminder,” “The Sustaining Reminder,” and “The Guiding Reminder.”  These papers, which I still have today, were published seven years later as The Living Reminder; Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ. 

Henri kept reminding our class that one of the ways in which humans suffer most deeply is through wounded memories that need healing.  Our painful memories are often deeply hidden but can cause much harm because they are often raw and ooze into consciousness at inopportune times.  Our challenge as clergy is not to avoid our own wounds but to recognize, acknowledge, and lift those wounds into the light of Christ’s love.  Once we seek and receive healing, we are able to connect our pain with the suffering of God, the world, and its people.  By becoming wounded healers for others, we prevent further wounds in the future.

I’d never heard anything like it, but neither had I ever suffered deeply in my short life, having grown up in a sheltered family without significant trauma.  Now I know.  As a pastor and parent I’ve experienced the horror of childhood sexual abuse, the tragedy of suicide, families torn apart by addiction, the humiliation of bankruptcy, homelessness, and hunger, and the hopelessness of incarceration.   It is the reminders of my own woundedness and healing that enable me to empower healing in others.

Not only did Henri Nouwen teach us about being healing reminders for others but he himself – by his words, actions, and demeanor – modeled what it meant to be a wounded healer.  It is the Christ in us who heals.  Who will be a healing reminder of wholeness?

In his second paper Nouwen explained that not only does the memory of past wounds lead to healing in others but the memory of love sustains us in the present.   In John 16:7 Jesus says to his disciples at the Last Supper, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

How many times in your life have you looked back and said, “Aha.  I never understood why that happened.  But now I can see how the puzzle pieces fit together.”  Although the disciples would grieve Jesus’ absence, only in death would they realize the full impact of Jesus’ life.

Our memory of love received and given helps to sharpen, clarify, and shape the present.  In my life leading up to graduate school and seminary I had little understanding of divine presence in the face of the darkness of God’s absence.  Yet now I can look back on months and even years of uncertainty and pain with no clear word from God and admit that it was precisely during those times that I experienced intense spiritual growth.  When all else was taken away it was the Jesus I experienced through the love of others who sustained me.  The heartache of God’s absence is just as formative as the joy of God’s presence.  Who will be a sustaining reminder of love?

In his third paper Nouwen writes, “The memory that heals the wounds of our past and sustains us in the present also guides us to the future and makes our lives continuously new.”  Jesus’ mission was to remind the people of God of their past, challenge their misunderstandings and narrowness, and renew the vision of God’s continuing care and presence.  So we minister to the wounds of others by not only reminding them of the One who lived, died, and rose from the dead for us, but by becoming a guiding reminder ourselves.  Even when we are weak we can inspire.  Even when we are down and out we can witness.  By the transparency of our own struggles others see God in us.  Who will be a guiding reminder of hope?

We have entered Holy Week.  With each successive year I feel more deeply the passion of Jesus, the pain of my own wounds, and the suffering of our world.  I don’t want to follow all the way to the cross, but I am compelled because Jesus is not only a healing, sustaining, and guiding reminder of God’s love, he is also a passionate reminder of the victory of grace.

The word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patiov, which means “to undergo or suffer or submit.”  It’s the same root from which we get our English word “passive.”    I don’t know about you, but I need to see and experience Jesus on the cross.  The empty cross is not enough.  Skipping Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is way too convenient … because it’s too difficult.  But it’s in the gutsy agony of life that resurrection occurs.

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It was in a later book Adam that Henri Nouwen writes about passion.  “Jesus’ passion came after much action.  For three years he went from village to village, town to town, preaching, teaching, responding to people’s questions, healing the sick, confronting hypocrites, consoling the sorrowing, calling the dead back to life.  Wherever he went, there were large crowds of people admiring him, listening to him, asking him for help.  During those intense, nearly hectic years, Jesus was in control.  He came and went as he felt it was right.  His disciples accepted his leadership and followed him wherever he went.”

But in the Garden of Gethsemane all of that ended.  There Jesus was handed over to others to undergo suffering.  From that moment on, Jesus could not do anything.  Everything was done for him.  He was arrested, put into prison, whipped, had a crown of thorns put on him, was ridiculed and given a cross to carry.  He could no longer act.  He was acted upon.  Jesus was totally given into the hands of others, and he did it willingly.  It was pure passion.

“The great mystery of Jesus’ life is that he finally fulfilled his mission not by action but by passion, not by what he did but by what others did to him, not by his decisions but by decisions others made concerning him,” not by his will but by God’s will.  So Jesus’ passion is a radical call for us to accept the truth of our lives and choose to be healing, sustaining, guiding, and passionate reminders of God’s work in our world.

To the young woman at the Sam’s Club register, “Thank you for sharing your burden with Gary and me.  I hope that we inadvertently reminded you of the power of God’s love to heal, sustain, and guide you and your grandfather during this Holy Week of the Passion of your Savior.  God bless you.”

To whom will you be a reminder this week?

Blessings,

Laurie