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

 

Do Something Great

It’s a messy thing, this democracy of ours.  Government of the people, by the people and for the people is beautiful yet fearsome to behold.  When a country is founded upon freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equality for all, fierce disagreements, chaos, confusion, political posturing, and down and dirty fighting are inevitable.

That’s why I love Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday honoring the birthday of our first President, George Washington.  It reminds me how precious our freedom is, especially when we are not of one mind.  The first Presidents’ Day was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, Feb. 22, 1796, during the last full year of his presidency.  Today the holiday honors George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in particular as well as all of our other presidents.

“I am keenly aware of my aloneness.”  In the movie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln thus describes to his wife a dream he had in January 1865, shortly before his inauguration for a second term.  The number of dead continued to mount in the Civil War where 750,000 people died, which was almost 2.5 percent of the U.S. population at the time or the equivalent of 7.5 million people today.   The pain of every death weighed upon his heart.

Lincoln

The toll of this brutal war would not be redeemed unless slavery was ended, but it was not assured simply by a military victory for the North.  Lincoln was committed to keeping the Union together as well as abolishing slavery, which was deliberately omitted from the U.S. Constitution a century before as an unsolvable problem.

Lincoln had declared that all slaves were free in his January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, but it was merely a proclamation.  If the13th Amendment to the Constitution were not passed before the Civil War ended, Lincoln would no longer have the authority of War Powers, in which case the Emancipation Proclamation could be declared illegal, throwing the country back into the abyss.

Abraham Lincoln was a mysterious, complex man: private, intuitive, politically shrewd, and profoundly relational.  Unlike George Washington, who was one of the richest men in America, Lincoln was a most unlikely president, pulling himself out of poverty by his proverbial bootstraps.  Lincoln had almost no formal education, mourned the death of his first love, failed in business, and had bouts of melancholy.  Only one of his four children lived to adulthood.

In Lincoln we see one of our greatest presidents lead this country through one of our darkest moments by allowing his God-given gifts to guide him.  First, Abraham Lincoln was a man of acute emotional intelligence.  He was the quintessential non-anxious presence who virtually always remained calm and centered even when the storm raged around him.

Much of Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Teams of Rivals; The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  Goodwin writes that when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election he appointed to his cabinet three men who had competed with him for the Republican presidential nomination: New York Senator William H. Seward, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri’s distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates.  There was rivalry, competition, and outright fighting among Cabinet members, but Lincoln managed the intensity of his team with kindness, an open mind, encouragement, and gratitude for the skills each man brought to the table.

Although the decision to seek passage of the 13th Amendment was his alone, Lincoln knew that without input and counsel from others the goal could not be accomplished.  Lincoln had an uncanny ability to individually connect with his cabinet and lawmakers from both ends of the political spectrum.  Because he was not threatened by a variety of perspectives, Lincoln was able to build trust and form coalitions that accrued political capital.  Whether in politics, business, the church, or our families, it’s always about relationships, isn’t it?

Lincoln’s “Honest Abe” reputation did not put him above the nitty-gritty of cutthroat politicking, however.  Republicans constituted 56% of the House of Representatives, but they needed a 2/3 vote.  Lincoln’s team did whatever was necessary to win, including arm-twisting, bullying, offering patronage jobs to Democrats, or threatening other lawmakers if they were resistant.

A second gift of Abraham Lincoln was an inner moral compass that pointed him toward true north.  Thaddeus Stevens was by most accounts the fiercest opponent of slavery and had the sharpest tongue in Congress.  Because Lincoln was committed to both ending slavery and preserving the Union, he planned a careful strategy to pass the 13th Amendment.  However, by 1865 Stevens described Lincoln as “the capitulating compromiser, the dawdler.”

In a memorable scene between Stevens and Lincoln, Stevens argued eloquently that all men and women, whether in the north or south, should listen to their inner moral compass.  That compass, Stevens continued, points toward True North, to the truth that all people are created equal and slavery should be abolished.

Lincoln’s reply demonstrated his political genius.  “The compass may point true north, but it does not warn us of obstacles and swamps along the way.  If we plunge ahead without heeding the obstacles we could sink in a swamp… and then what good is true north?”  In other words, doing the right thing is not always a straight road.  When both sides are convinced they are right, barriers will usually appear that hinder the road to True North.  If Lincoln had plowed heedlessly ahead without caution, prudent negotiation, and getting everyone on board, the path to equality might well have become sidetracked.

A third gift that undergirded Lincoln’s presidency was his deep compassion for the suffering of an entire country.  At the end of his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln said,  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Lincoln insisted that there be no retribution shown to the South after the war was over.  In the movie, Lincoln speaks to General Ulysses S. Grant at the end of the war, “Once he surrenders, send his boys back to their homes, their farms, their shops…  Liberality all around.  No punishment, I don’t want that.  And the leaders – Jeff and the rest of ‘em – if they escape, leave the country while my back’s turned, that wouldn’t upset me none.  When peace comes it mustn’t just be hangings.”

Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of religion in public life and had considerable contact with preachers of various denominations.  Lincoln’s theology was eclectic and his spirituality authentic.  Lincoln knew who his True North was and relied on God’s power to give him wisdom and grace to lead the country.

On May 18, 1864, Lincoln wrote a letter in his own penmanship to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which had passed a resolution of encouragement and sent it to Mr. Lincoln.  This was his reply,

“Gentlemen: In response to your address allow me to attest the accuracy of its historical statements; endorse the sentiment it expresses; and thank you in the nation’s name for the sure promise it gives.  Nobly sustained as the Government has been by all the churches, I would utter nothing which might in the least appear invidious against any.  Yet without this it may fairly be said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the rest, is, by its greater numbers, the most important of all.  It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospital, and more prayers to heaven than any.  God bless the Methodist Church, bless all the churches, and blessed be God, who, in this our great trial, giveth us the churches.”

Abraham Lincoln was a regular attender at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, four blocks from the White House.  In order to assure privacy for Lincoln during Wednesday night prayer services, Rev. Phineas Gurley allowed the president to sit in the pastor’s study with the door open to the chancel so he could listen to the sermon without having to interact with the crowd.

One Wednesday evening as Lincoln and a companion walked back to the White House after the sermon, the president’s companion asked, “What did you think of tonight’s sermon?”

“Well,” Lincoln responded, “it was brilliantly conceived, biblical, relevant, and well presented.”

“So, it was a great sermon?”

“No,” Lincoln replied.  “It failed.  It failed because Dr. Gurley did not ask us to do something great.”

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865.  President Abraham Lincoln asked the House of Representatives to do something great so that our country would become something great.  Despite his assassination on April 15, 1865 Abraham Lincoln changed the course of human history.  Lincoln’s legacy will forever inspire and encourage ordinary people like you and me to discover our truest self in Jesus Christ and make a positive difference in our world.  Do something great.

Blessings,
Laurie