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?

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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Nouwen focused on three unpublished papers which were typed on an electric typewriter and copied for the class, “The Healing Reminder,” “The Sustaining Reminder,” and “The Guiding Reminder.”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

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?

Blessings,

Laurie

Sleeping on It

January 14, 2012

“Sleeping on it” seemed counterintuitive when I was younger.   One of my pet peeves has always been procrastination.  Responding in a timely manner to requests, phone calls, emails, and project deadlines values other people and is a best practice in all organizations, including the church.  I become impatient with myself when I can’t make decisions or motivate myself to get a job done, especially when my delay negatively affects other people.

Unfortunately, I had gotten into the habit over the years of making decisions too quickly.  Rather than take careful time for discernment, I would find myself saying yes on the spot.  Unfortunately, the next day I’d regret my haste and berate myself, “Why did you do that, Laurie?  Why didn’t you make room for God to weigh in?”

     It’s only been in recent years that I have learned to value the spiritual necessity of intentional delay.  I now know that I make better decisions when I wait rather than respond immediately to major requests.  After making one too many commitments that I could only keep by doing shoddy work, I promised myself to do all in my power not to say yes right away.  Sleeping on it gives God a chance to speak when I am resting and open.

A few weeks ago a colleague asked me to take on a major responsibility.  It was intriguing and fit my skills and passions well.  I almost blurted out “Sure, I’ll do it” but bit my tongue.  I listened carefully, asked many questions, and replied, “This sounds very interesting, but I can’t make a decision now.  I need to pray about it for a day or two, then I’ll get back to you.”  Two days later I said no, explaining that the timing was not right.

     Knowing when and how to delay an action or decision is not only an art and a skill, but it’s a mark of spiritual maturity as well.  In his recently published book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, author Frank Partnoy writes about the advantage that the great tennis player Novak Djokovic has over other professional tennis players.  It’s the fact that he waits a few milliseconds longer than his opponents before hitting the ball.

Partnoy writes, “Djokovic wins because he can procrastinate – at the speed of light.  During superfast reactions, the best performing experts in sport, and in life, instinctively know when to pause, if only for a split-second.”

Tennis players have only 300 milliseconds to react to a serve and try to return it.  Amateurs cannot possibly move to the right spot and swing with accuracy and power in 300 milliseconds.  However, Djokovic can do it in 100 milliseconds.  Because he has so much physical speed Djokovic has more time to process the serve and swings at the last possible millisecond.   Why should we wait?  Because it gives us time to observe, process, and prepare.

Great athletes, writers, actors, musicians, and leaders pause as long as necessary.  Have you ever noticed that the best hitters in baseball know how to wait for the best pitch?  Writers don’t publish the first thing that pops into their head but allow ideas to percolate and compose many drafts before they are satisfied.  Actors practice pausing over and over until they know how to best convey their message.  Rests in music are deliberately and strategically positioned by composers in order to maximize the effect of the notes.   The pregnant pause is a rhetorical technique in public speaking and preaching.

Patience in investments can reap enormous returns.  When Warren Buffet is asked how long he will delay in buying a stock, he will say “indefinitely.”  Partnoy quotes Buffet, “I call investing the greatest business in the world because you never have to swing.  You stand at the plate, the pitcher throws you General Motors at 47, US Steel at 39…  All day you wait for the pitch you like; then when the fielders are asleep, you step up and hit it.”

     When making important decisions, science has taught us the value of “sleeping on it.”  Simple decisions are best made by our conscious mind.  Overthinking easy decisions like what to eat for breakfast, what to wear for a routine day at the office, and what pew to sit in on Sunday morning robs us of the energy we need for more important decisions.  Hence, the origin of the “my pew” syndrome!

Most complex decisions, on the other hand, are best left to the unconscious mind.  Rather than stay up all night and agonize about a problem, sleep allows us to clear our minds and relieves us of the immediacy of making a decision.  Our own biases interfere when we brood incessantly.  By literally sleeping on important decisions, however, we allow the unconscious mind to bypass our own distortions and better assimilate information and solve problems.   Christians have been known to call it “giving it up to God” or “waiting on the Lord.”

Researchers tell us that when we are considering a major decision, like buying a car or house, taking a new job out of state, or getting married, “sleeping on it” offers a deeper perspective that complements the conscious weighing of the pros and cons of the situation.   It appears that the many factors affecting complex decisions can frustrate our conscious mind and are better processed by our unconscious mind during sleep, resulting in better choices.

When angels appear to individuals in the Bible, I wonder whether it might actually be a case of “sleeping on it,” even if a dream is not specifically mentioned.  An angel appeared to Zechariah in the temple, proclaiming that his barren wife Elizabeth would become pregnant with a son named John.  An angel appeared to Mary, announcing that she would bear the son of God.  An angel appeared to Joseph, urging him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.  After Jesus’ birth the same angel told Joseph to flee with his family to Egypt, and in a subsequent dream the angel said it was safe to go back to Nazareth.  An angel appeared to the magi, urging them to go home by a different way.

Is it any coincidence that angelic appearances in the nativity story occurred when individuals were asked to make major life decisions that involved no little degree of faith and trust?  Could it be that Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, and the wise men all needed to “sleep on it”?

     Churches have much to learn about the value of “sleeping on it.”  What frustrates many about decision-making in churches is that even the simplest decisions are often slow as molasses.   Church members procrastinate in completing projects because they are busy.  At times we put people in the wrong positions, and they don’t have the skills to lead others in making effective and timely decisions.   Leaders don’t follow up, committee meetings are not well run, and things slip through the cracks.

     Congregations can become more effective in their ministries by learning to make simple decisions more quickly and complex decisions more slowly.  Complex decisions might include a building program, the initiation of a major outreach project, starting a new worship service, developing a strategic plan, or entering into holy conversation about the sustainability of a declining church.  

At these times churches must allow their collective unconscious mind to be open to God’s leading.  Clearly, we cannot drag our feet, nor should we be influenced by a “heavy hitter” to act prematurely.  We need to exercise appropriate delay but not lose momentum.

When congregations engage in periodic prayer vigils and take time in meetings for discernment, we are better able to let go of our own biases, fears, and judgments and allow God to work through us, individually and corporately.  We seek God’s will, nothing more, nothing less.

Unexpected challenges will continue to crop up in our personal lives and in our churches in 2013.  We’ll be asked to take on major commitments and make critical decisions.  Occasionally, we should trust our initial gut instinct and go for it, impulse shopping and knee-jerk Facebook postings excluded!  Most often, however, rather than react instantly and regret unthinking words or decisions, we would do well to wait by practicing a standard reply, “I’d like to pray about this and will need to sleep on it.” 

“But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

They shall mount up with wings like eagles,

They shall run and not be weary,

They shall walk and not faint.”  (Isaiah 40:31)

Blessings,

Laurie