Blazing the Trail

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

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

     “Like what?”

     “I’m not sure.”

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackie Robinson:

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

Jason Collins:

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

Pat Summitt:

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

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

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

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





Sacred Swag

I’m sure people noticed, but they were mercifully discreet.  It was an unforgettable wardrobe malfunction, at least for me.  I dressed in my best clothes for an important meeting, hoping to impress, only to discover when I arrived that the top button was missing from my suit jacket.  Having just picked up the suit from the drycleaners, I never dreamed they would lose a button and not even tell me.  So much for my attempt at sacred swag.

After thirty years of ministry I’ve made a startling discovery.  I’ve been focusing on the wrong things and going about my ministry in the wrong way.  Oh, I’ve learned the jargon and played the game.  Healthy, vital churches; adaptive change; spiritual leadership; making disciples for the transformation of the world; rethink church; radical hospitality; missional church; open hearts, open minds, open doors: I’ve tried it all with varying degrees of effectiveness.

I have chosen to remember the fruit that my ministry has produced rather than the disasters, heartbreak, stupidity, foolishness, dumb mistakes, and messes I’ve made along the way… and had to clean up.  Somehow, though, I missed the key to unlock my pastoral success.  The secret is fashion.  Sacred Swag – and I don’t have it.

I finally got the hint when a friend gave me a precious gift, a What Would Jesus Wear Magnetic Dress-up KitThe kit includes a large magnet in the likeness of Jesus and a tasteful selection of magnetic mix ‘n match clothing and accessories.  As I began dressing Jesus in surfer shorts and tie-dyed shirt as well as a white robe and cross, with accessories such as loaves, fishes, chalices, hats, and tools from his carpenter years, I made the connection.  In a non-threatening way my friend was encouraging me to upgrade my wardrobe.

sacred swag 1

I think I need a new clergy robe, so I browse the web.  I had already looked at clergy apparel at General Conference last year, but the choices were so overwhelming that I shut down. carries a wide variety of “anointed custom ministry attire for women.”  Probably not my style. is a little more conservative but not me. has some nice robes like “Quick Ship Martha,” “Ruth without Lace,” and “Esther with Full Sleeves.”  C.M. Almy, “Outfitters to the church and clergy since 1892,” has a classic line of robes and stoles.  They even sell a clergy cloak to wear over your robe for outdoor ceremonies in the snow: only $443.  Nothing strikes my fancy, which isn’t surprising since I’m really not into clothes in general.  My lack of swag extends beyond the sacred.

My present clergy robe is a hand-me-down from a dear clergy sister who died of cancer.  It’s simple as simple can be, which I know because at the ordination service at annual conference, I check out the robes of my clergy colleagues.  Unlike their robes mine has no lace, no trim, no collar, no full sleeves, and no swag.  I’m out of their league.

What really sets clergy apart, however, is their stoles.  Everyone breaks out their most swaggerous stoles at the ordination service: gorgeous, handmade, custom-designed, colorful, can-you-top-mine stoles.  By contrast, most of mine are rather plain, like my Mennonite upbringing among the “Plain People.”  I did splurge once and bought a stole with two tiny bells dangling from one side, but I save it only for very special occasions.

One reason clergy wear robes is to cover their street clothes so that parishioners pay more attention to their words than their apparel.  Yet a dark secret of the clergy and church world is the hidden desire to exhibit sacred swag.  I wonder what would happen if I walked into the pulpit on Sunday wearing Justin Welby’s get-up as the new Archbishop of Canterbury?

sacred swag 2

My professional clothes are as undistinguished as my robe.  Even I find them so boring that within minutes of arriving home for the day, I’m wearing the same sweatpants and sweatshirt I’ve had for 20 years.  Comfort clothes, that’s what they are.  But did Jesus ever preach about being comfortable?  Well…

The solution has got to be swag, which is the current generation’s version of “cool.”  Swag is the online personification of “swagger,” which refers to a style of walking or presence that conveys an overbearing confidence or arrogance.  Clothes, of course, play a big role in a person’s swag.  You either have it or you don’t.  I don’t … yet.

How should I clothe myself?  Or how does God want to clothe me?  Colossians 3:12-14 says, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

I get this.  Jesus doesn’t really care about our clothes.  And he doesn’t want us to swagger around the chancel like Jimmy SWAGgart when we preach, dispensing pearls of great price to the faithless masses in our spectacular duds.  No, Jesus would prefer us to display the qualities of graciousness, generosity, humility, reconciliation, and shalom, which are all wrapped up in one word: love.

My fashion/theological worldview says that clergy should not draw attention to themselves with their attire.  In that sense I’m like President Obama, who has been mildly criticized for his lack of swag.  Whereas First Lady Michelle Obama generates much attention for her fashion choices, (including new bangs!), President Obama almost always wears a traditional-cut suit, a red or blue tie, and black shoes.  Obama told Vanity Fair that he almost always wears gray or blue suits because that is one less decision he has to make in the day.

The President wears his cell phone on his belt, which is not really a fashion faux pas but does not evidence swag.  Esquire’s senior editor Richard Dorment said a few months ago on National Public Radio, “The best advice I can offer the President is to make sure that nobody’s talking about what he’s wearing, because the last thing we need in the current political rhetoric are armchair fashionistas commenting on what he’s wearing on any given day.”

What we wear when leading worship, whether a robe, suit, jeans, or t-shirt, makes a statement about who we are and the values we hold dear.  Clothes can express our individuality, and some clergy have a great fashion sense.  Of course, what we wear needs to be contextual.  Tweaking our fashion to fit with our particular ministry setting is important.  The bottom line, however, is that Christian worship is not about us, and when our clothing draws attention to us rather than God we need to rethink.

I’m convinced that clothing wasn’t a big deal for Jesus because he told us not to worry about what we wear (Matthew 6:25-34).  Instead, God will clothe us with righteousness.  Jesus’ wardrobe evidently didn’t stick out because the gospel writers make no mention of his clothing except the outer robe he took off before washing the disciples’ feet, the purple fake-royalty robe in which the Roman soldiers dressed Jesus after flogging him, and the seamless tunic Jesus was wearing when he was crucified.  It did not escape notice that the first thing Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires wore last week when he greeted the crowd as Pope Francis was a simple white cassock rather than the traditional red ermine-lined cape.

What does it mean to give our best to God as far as dress goes?  If you’re in need of fashion tips and feel called to be a model example of sacred swag, why not check out  Created by Ed Young, founding pastor of Fellowship Church with four campuses in Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami, and Columbia, South Carolina, this website offers frank and hip advice on how to show sacred swag.

According to the website, “ is designed to have some fun with fashion and put it in its proper perspective – it’s a relevant tool in reaching the world with the hope and love of Jesus.  This is a place where pastors (and anyone who shares that perspective) can get some tips on what to wear, how to wear it, and when to wear it.  But the ultimate question isn’t ‘what,’ ‘how’ or ‘when’? It’s ‘who?’

“Our fascination with fashion is really just a microcosm of our desire to be clothed in the ultimate designer – Jesus Christ.  Until we put on the grace and mercy of Jesus we’re all stitched in sin and cut up with compromise.  But in Jesus, God has provided us a seamless garment; a perfect wardrobe so that we can discover what true fashion is really all about.”

I sewed a new button on my suit as I “put on Christ.”  Do I qualify for sacred swag now?



The (Ice) Fishing Life

If I didn’t do it now it would likely never happen.  For twenty winters I’ve passed by Reeds Lake in Grand Rapids a few thousand times and seen hundreds of people fishing on the ice.  For some unknown reason, however, I’ve been hesitant to walk out on the ice myself, fearful that I’m going to be the one to break through.

A week ago my curiosity got the best of me.  I gingerly stepped onto the ice and walked out to a man fishing 200 yards off shore.  “Would you mind telling me a little bit about ice fishing?”

ice fishing 1

“What kind of fish are you trying to catch?”

“We’re fishing for blue gills, but others fish for crappies, perch, and northern pike.”  This is known as a very good ice fishing lake, especially since it’s in an urban area.”

“How thick is the ice?”

“Eight inches.  It’s not as thick as it normally is at this time of year.”

“How do you know when the ice is unsafe?”

“If it starts to warm up or get too windy the ice can break up pretty quickly.”

“What’s this?”

“It’s an auger.  It makes holes in the ice, and then we put the fishing line down the hole.”

“You have six lines here for two people.”

“The limit on Reeds Lake is three lines per person and twenty-five fish per day for pan fish.”

“Why don’t you have an ice shanty for protection like some other guys do?”

ice fishing 2

“It’s sunny today, and we’re wearing warm clothing.  We’re fine.  The huts with heaters get so warm that you don’t even need to wear a coat.  You ought to try ice fishing some time.”

“Maybe I will.”  What I neglected to tell him is that fishing is my life, too.  The only difference is that I’m fishing for people.

The fish is an ancient Christian symbol.  After all, Jesus’ disciples Peter, Andrew, James, and John were commercial fishermen, and Jesus spent most of his ministry teaching, preaching, and healing around the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus used fish and bread for the feeding of the 5,000, commissioned his disciples to “catch people,” and asked them after his resurrection to cast their nets on the other side of the boat where they caught 153 fish.

It was so dangerous to be a follower of Jesus in the first centuries of Christianity that they developed a secret password for identifying fellow disciples as well as marking meeting places and tombs.  According to tradition, when Christians met one another the first person would draw the arc on the top half of a fish.  If the second person was a believer, he or she would respond by drawing the bottom half of the arc slightly overlapping on the right edge.


fish 2

Fishing was a wonderful part of my childhood because my father was an avid and artful fisherman.  My first memory of fishing was at a family church camp when, as a six-year old, I cast my line into the lake and got a bite.  After struggling to reel in the line my dad and I discovered that I’d caught a huge snapping turtle instead of a fish!

The summer after eighth grade my father joined a fishing club on a remote lake in northern Quebec.  Every summer for ten years our family spent a week at what became one of my most cherished places on earth.  One time my little sister hooked a walleye, but the fish fought so hard it yanked the fishing pole right out of her hands.  We were fairly close to shore, but the wind was up, the water was stirred, and we couldn’t see the bottom to find the pole.  The next day the water was calm, so we returned to the same spot and, sure enough, there it was.  We recovered the rod, the fish was still on the hook, and we ate it for dinner.

Fishing is important for Christians because Jesus instructed his disciples and us to fish for people.  Unfortunately, United Methodists haven’t been fishing too well over the past 45 years.   If we could regain our fishing touch we’d also recover our lost skills in disciple-making.

The (Ice) Fishing Life: How to Catch People

  • Be clear about why you’re fishing.

As Christians we’re understandably hesitant to pressure people into becoming followers of Jesus by giving the impression that they’re out and we’re in, they’re lost and we’re saved, and they’re off track, and we’ve got it all together.  The reality is that we’re all out, we’re all lost, and we’re all off track at times.

Jesus asked us to fish in order to build Christ’s church.  You and I are called to “catch people” by inviting others to encounter the living God, experience the unconditional grace of Jesus, allow their lives to be transformed, and then join us on the Way to the kingdom of God.

  • Know where to fish.

My father had an intuitive sense of where the fish were because he could think like a fish.  He knew the lake he was fishing inside and out, and he understood the habits of the specific fish he wanted to catch.  Anyone could catch fish with my dad.

In the same way, in order to grow, local churches need to study the demographics, know their neighborhood, target a specific audience, and then seek to understand their lifestyle, needs, hopes, and dreams.  This is no longer the 1950’s when churches quickly grew simply by opening their doors.  In order to experience growth in today’s world we must know the context of our setting, be intentional, have a plan, and get outside the building.

  • Know how to catch fish.

If you want to be a fisherman, you need a rod, reel, and bait suitable for the specific fish you want to catch.  Out on the ice the man fishing for blue gills used a tiny rod, whereas another fellow I visited let down a line inside an ice shanty with a huge artificial fish lure that he would periodically bob up and down.  The lure sat in several feet of water, and when a pike came by to check it out the fisherman would stab it with a spear.              

By contrast, fly fishing demands more skill than simple casting because aim is everything.  The artificial fly sits on top of the water, and the fish rise to the surface to eat the fly.  The challenge of fly fishing is to aim your cast about five feet upstream of a fish rising to the surface.  You have to target an individual fish or you’ll never catch anything.  Then you have to watch the fly move downstream.  If the fly disappears, it means a fish has taken it.  You can’t rely on feel for this; you have to watch.

What system does your congregation have in place to “break through the ice”- to watch, reach, invite, welcome, follow-up with, and assimilate guests into the life of the church?   How are you using outreach, social media, marketing, personal contacts, and worship to “go fishing”?

  • Be flexible and patient.

Each day on the lake, river, or ocean is different.  The sun, clouds, wind, air and water temperature, currents, water flow, depth of ice, and angle of the sun all affect the fishing.  When fly fishing I am especially aware of the wind.  If it’s gusty, the wind will take the end of my line when I’m casting and double it back on the rest of the line, creating a humongous tangle called an air hole.  It works much better when I don’t cast into the wind but with the wind.

The same principle applies when we fish for people and invite them into a transforming relationship with Christ.  Sharing our faith is not a one size fits all process.  Every person is different and has unique needs.  Our goal is to authentically connect with people and respect where they are on their spiritual journey.  Above all, we have to follow and work with the wind of the Holy Spirit, not against it.

  • Rely on God’s grace.

Norman Maclean’s novel A River Runs Through It is about a Presbyterian minister and fly fisherman in Colorado who teaches his two sons to fly fish.  The story is told through the eyes of the oldest son, Norman, who said that he and his brother Paul were left to assume that Jesus’ disciples were fly fishermen because all first class fishermen were fly fishermen.  He said his father taught them that “all good things, catching trout, as well as eternal salvation, come by grace.  And grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.”

Fishing for people is a work of art undergirded by grace and seasonal ice.  We fish because Jesus calls us to build the kingdom of God; because all people yearn for fullness of life by connecting with the divine and with one another; and because, as a just released survey ( from Rasmussen Reports shows, “nothing else comes close” to the bond Americans have with their local religious institutions.

Ultimately, however, we fish because Easter’s coming, and we have a whopper of a fish story to tell.