Keep Smilin’ for God Walks with Y’all

Dear Friends in Christ, We are circling you in prayer as you remain faithful, “standing on the promises of God.”  God will be with you and lead you in this new pathway.

I recognized him immediately as a guest.  When you have a very small congregation, it’s not difficult to recognize visitors.   I introduced myself, and he said his name was Jeff Gantz, a United Methodist pastor in Texas.

When I asked how he found his way to Plainfield UMC, Jeff said that he was in Grand Rapids visiting family and was searching for a place to worship on the Sunday after Christmas.  He looked up a number of churches in Grand Rapids and was most attracted to Plainfield’s website.

     We are so excited about the future of your church.  Keep the faith!  Praying for you.

So there he was.  During the prayer time after the sermon, the congregation engaged in informal discussion about a major decision facing them.  We have been praying and discerning God’s will for the future of the congregation since last fall.  I introduced Jeff and asked if he would tell us about the congregation he served.  Jeff spoke for a few minutes about First United Methodist Church in Bay City and then offered words of encouragement to our congregation in regard to their impending decision.  It was a tender moment as I witnessed first-hand the power of our United Methodist connection when we bear one another’s burdens.

     Keep smilin’ for God walks with you all.

Jeff had never been to Plainfield UMC before, but he immediately sensed the importance of the moment and wanted to be supportive.  He said that he understood what we are going through and that many declining churches around the country are having the same discussions.

I said to Jeff, “I feel strongly that there is a reason God led you to Plainfield today.”  Jeff replied that he had no doubt God wanted him to be in worship with us that morning.

     My prayers to all of you.  Just as I have moved to Bay City and am finding a new start here in the Lord, may you find a new start in faith and hope.

Jeff gave me his contact information, and I wanted to thank him for his kindness and encouragement but misplaced the card.  Four days later Jeff called and said that his congregation has the spiritual gift of encouragement.  He was wondering if it would be okay to share the story of his visit to Grand Rapids and give his congregation the opportunity to respond.  Not only would church members pray for us that Sunday, but Jeff wanted his parishioners to write notes of encouragement during communion, which he would then send to the Plainfield congregation.

     The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness SHALL NOT overcome it.  Be the LIGHT in your corner of Michigan.  Don’t lose hope.  Trust God. 

The next day I left for vacation, and when I returned to the office a week ago, a large envelope sat on my desk.  My jaw dropped as 95 cards spilled out, cards from the very young to the very old, along with a letter from Jeff.

“Upon returning to Bay City, Texas, I shared my experience and asked if the congregation would want to help me in praying for Plainfield UMC.  The response has been overwhelming.  Enclosed you will find note cards that my congregation would like your congregation to have.  They are noted of encouragement and support.  It’s just our ‘Texas’ way of saying that you guys are not alone in this transition time.

“Change can be hard and scary.  But change also gives us an opportunity to experience the presence of a graceful and wonderful God.  Like the Magi that encountered Jesus and then took a different way home, we pray that your next journey is filled with wonder and amazement at what God is doing through you.  May Christ shine through your future decisions!

Your brothers and sisters in Christ, First UMC Bay City, Texas – Rev. Jeff Gantz

     A Navy jet pilot told me of having a flameout over the ocean.  The restart procedure was to perform a steep dive toward the ocean.  He followed the procedure and the engine restarted.  What a great feeling when he felt the regained power of the engine.  I pray that you feel the joy of a successful restart.

One of the greatest gifts that we can offer to another person is encouragement.  The word “encouragement” can be traced to the old French word encoragier, which means “to put in courage.”  Even more fascinating is the fact that the Greek word for encouragement, paraclesis, is closely related to parakletos (Comforter), which is the New Testament word for the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is our Encourager.

One of the great encouragers in the early church was Barnabas.  Originally named Joseph, the apostles changed his name to Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement.”  When a person’s name was changed in the Bible it was because the new name better described that person’s character and essence.  This first-century missionary initially appears in Acts chapter four when he sells a piece of property and the proceeds are distributed to those in need.

     Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, Change often is frightening.  Yet it is sometimes necessary and, in the end, greatly rewarding.  I pray that each of you are strengthened by your faith and your love for your neighbor.

Encouragement is one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit.  Every once in a while we encounter an ordinary person who makes an indelible impact on our life because of their encouragement.  When was the last time you inspired someone with courage, spirit, and confidence through your encouragement?  A note, an email, a touch on the shoulder, attentive listening, words of affirmation, a plate of brownies, a phone call, a hug, a crockpot of soup, a special scripture verse, an offer to sit with a friend who is sick.  There are endless ways to encourage.  Who will be a Barnabas?

     Keep your faith dear church, beautiful sisters and brothers in Christ.  We stand with you and rejoice in your faithfulness, and ask continued prayers for what God will do through you.

We often have no idea how a simple gesture of love can rekindle purpose for the hopeless, impart strength to the weary, and offer wisdom to the confused.  Conversely, when we ignore those who are suffering because it’s too uncomfortable or remain silent because we don’t know what to say to someone experiencing uncertainty or distress, we miss a God-given opportunity to offer Holy Spirit encouragement.  Who will be a Barnabas?

     We will keep you in our prayers.  Never lose faith in God.  I praise God for the commitment you have all chosen.

A favorite New Testament scripture is 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 because of Paul’s repeated use of the word “consolation,” (paraklesis), which could also be translated as “encouragement.”  Paul wants us to understand that when disciples share the heartache, difficult decisions, and pain of others through encouragement, the love of Jesus is made real.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all encouragement, who encourages us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our encouragement is abundant through Christ.  If we are being afflicted, it is for your encouragement and salvation; if we are being encouraged, it is for your encouragement, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.  Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our encouragement.”  Who will be a Barnabas?

     I have never experienced anything like this in 31 years of ministry:

  • “You are in our thoughts and prayers.  Praise be to God.  Through God all things are possible.
  • Keep the faith and rock on.
  • Be bold and may forces come to your aid.
  • God is with you always.  Keep your eyes on the cross.
  • Hoping and praying that God leads you to a bright future…  We need you.
  • Our church will be praying for you as you make important decisions about your church.  God bless you.

God bless you, Bay City United Methodist Church: aka Barnabas.  Your 95 notes of encouragement have put courage into our hearts.  We have been enriched and strengthened by the Holy Spirit and know that, no matter what decision is made, you and God are with us on this journey.   Who will be a Barnabas?



Forty Years Later, Still Living in Hope

“Happy 40th anniversary!  This date in 1972 was a Thursday.  You gave the valedictory address at 7:30 in the evening, and I have a picture of you in the line as we walked out to the chairs on the football field.  You were looking pensive.  I was goofing around behind you.”  I received that email on June 8 from a high school friend while I was sitting in a plenary session at the West Michigan Annual Conference.  I was taken aback, having completely forgotten the anniversary.

A week ago I was rearranging the basement when I stumbled upon a box labeled “Laurie senior year in high school.”  Intrigued, I removed the tape from a box that hadn’t been touched in 40 years and began reliving my past.  It was fascinating to discover that what I chose to keep reflects interests and values that continue to shape and form me today.

  • Dozens of newspaper clippings and box scores, many related to the field hockey and basketball teams in which I participated
  • My hockey cleats
  • A letter from the local bank, giving me a $25 scholarship
  • Report cards (my biggest regret: why didn’t anyone require me to take typing?)
  • Church bulletins and concerts where I played the organ
  • The worship service from a 24 hour prayer vigil for the Vietnam War
  • Clippings from a life-changing experience with Mennonite Disaster Service, assisting flood victims in Wilkesbarre, PA after Hurricane Agnes
  • A pin that said “War is not healthy for children and other living things”
  • Information from several colleges that I visited in the fall of my senior year

My passions as a teenager were sports, books, writing, music, church, and peace and justice.  Not much has changed over the years.  My biggest find, however, was four handwritten rough drafts and a final manual typewriter copy of my speech on graduation night, “Living in Hope.”

“Are you living in hope?  Are you looking to the future with anticipation or dread?  Are you able to endure the trials of the present because of a confidence in the future, or are you so weighed down by earthly problems that life promises nothing anymore?” 

Could have been written today.                                                    

“Unfortunately, life has no meaning for many people, for they have nothing left to believe in; nothing to comfort and reassure them; no life preserver to cling to.  They see no reason to continue their struggle in life because they are sure that the future will bring nothing but more problems.  For other people, however, hope sustains life, for hope is a faith in the future.  The kind of hope I am talking about is not a craving for material possessions, nor is it a blind optimism which sees only a world of roses.”

I’ve always been a serious person.  No humor in this speech!

“Hope recognizes the inevitable suffering of man but elevates him to a level where he can realistically cope with life and at the same time eagerly await the future.  Hope provides a foothold to grasp for many people who are poor, sick, and lonely.  Hope is, in fact, a will to live….”

Clearly, I had not yet been exposed to inclusive language.

“Hope is naturally directed toward God, for He is the ultimate source of hope.  Only through faith and trust in God can we look to the future with confidence and anticipation.  Hope can give us security in times of loneliness and faith in times of despair.  Hope can free us from the life that binds us and lead us into a new kind of freedom, a freedom in which we know that the future is in God’s hands.” 

Even as a teenager, I took advantage of times when I could witness to my faith.  Probably wouldn’t be allowed at today’s graduations.

“But what do we graduates, who are the future of the world, have to hope for?  The future looks very dim when we talk about the senseless of Vietnam, the tensions in the Middle East, the growing arsenal of nuclear arms, the pollution of our environment, the overwhelming number of college graduates out of work, or such issues as poverty, ignorance, dissension, and prejudice.  It seems that we are living in a sick society for which there is no hope.”

Forty years later, and we’re still lamenting the same problems.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.   

“Many young people, even your own sons and daughters, are speaking out against the corruption and hypocrisy in America.  Contrary to the opinions of many Americans, however, we are demonstrating and protesting out of a genuine concern for America.  The popular folk song, ‘We shall overcome,’ reflects this hope and confidence that we still have in America and the world.…  Although the words do seem a bit idealistic, our hope and willingness to work toward a better life for every man can become a reality.”

Protesting injustice and oppression wherever they present themselves is the responsibility of every Christian as we work together to bring in God’s kingdom of shalom.  

Near the end of the speech, I quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  “I don’t know what will happen to me….  We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it doesn’t matter to me now….  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 

I graduated from high school just four years after King’s death.  I still remember the pit in my stomach when I heard the news that day.

     “What Martin Luther King Jr. said applies to me as well as to all of you.  Like Mr. King, I don’t know what will happen to me after tonight.  I know that my life will not be all happiness and that I will have to suffer endure much (I changed words at the last minute), but I am able to look beyond today toward a joyous future.  I am not afraid because I am living in hope.”

How could I have ever imagined the truth of this paragraph?  I was just 17 years old: out of the mouths of babes. 

     “We all have great hopes for the future, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the present.  Everyone must do whatever he can to make hope for the future a reality so that all people can live in happiness and peace.”

I had no inkling at the time that this just might have been my first sermon.

The primary difference between the five drafts was the beginning.  Even though I had not received any coaching or help with the speech, I evidently realized how important it was to get off to a good start.

I was also curious that the fourth draft included this sentence, “The old proverb, ‘Where there is life there is hope’ has a much deeper meaning to me if it were turned around and it read, ‘Where there is hope there is life.’”  For some unknown reason it didn’t make the final cut.  I should have kept it in.

I am much older and a little wiser than I was in 1972.  I now know what it is like to feel utterly helpless and subject to circumstances beyond my control.  I know what it is like to offer up my life and my loved ones to God because there is no other option.  I have known deep suffering, intense fear, and existential sadness.

I have also seen the fruit of intense prayer for individuals, nations, and our world.  I know what it is like to ride the crest of the Holy Spirit as it makes all things new.  I’ve seen great and lasting change take place because of the persistent outcry of faithful people who imitate Christ.  Like Martin Luther King Jr., I’ve been to the mountaintop and the thin places and have seen the glory of the Lord.

     Forty years later, I am still living in hope, especially as we enter the season of Advent, for the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  I am still looking beyond today to a joyous future as I do my part to prepare the way of the Lord.  And I still vow to make hope for the future a reality so that all people can live in happiness and peace.  Come, Lord Jesus, come.



P.S.  My 40th high school reunion was last Friday night in Souderton, Pennsylvania.  I chose instead to spend a few days in Florida with my four year old grandson, Ezra, who inspires me by living every second of every day in hope, wonder, and joy.