Your Gift to God

It was a stupid thing to do. Ten days ago, upon returning to my hotel room at the end of the first day of a conference, I could not find the keys to my twelve-year-old Honda. Gary and I drove separately, and I hadn’t needed to use my car that day.

We looked everywhere, dumping out the contents of both suitcases and computer bags and checking the pockets of our clothes, all to no avail. I must have dropped the keys outside a side entrance of the hotel as we attempted to carry all of our stuff up to the room. My hands were full, the key card was a bit tricky, and it just happened.

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We scoured every square inch of the parking lot and yard, peered under cars and checked at the front desk to see if anyone turned in the keys. No luck. Stupid… Especially since I didn’t have a spare set of keys and there was no Honda dealership within many miles. Not everyone was sympathetic. You live in Detroit country now, Laurie, remember?

That same day I read an article by Dr. Lovett Weems, president of Wesley Theological Seminary, who recalled an address that R. Kevin LaGree gave to the graduates of Candler School of Theology of Emory University a few years ago. LaGree offered two bits of wisdom. The first was “Don’t do anything stupid.”

How can I have made it through so many years of active ministry, and I’m still doing stupid things? My gaffes and mistakes are legendary, at least in my own mind. A month into my first appointment I preached what was evidently a controversial sermon about peace-making to a rural congregation. The district superintendent was called, and I learned a lesson about trust and pastoral sensitivity.

In my next church I tried to institute a new program called “Advent Night,” where families would gather to engage in different Advent activities. It had worked very well elsewhere. After failing to get others on board, I did almost all the work myself, the evening was not particularly successful, and I learned about the importance of contextual ministry.

In the church after that, we initiated a building program to remodel the sanctuary and construct a new fellowship hall and handicapped restrooms. Despite our hard work, the Building Committee was a bit too far ahead of the congregation. They voted against the project, and I felt foolish. Fortunately, we kept the lines of communication open, the proposal passed handily the next year, and we easily raised all of the necessary funds.

Don’t do anything stupid. It really is good advice, but stupid things don’t always have to be bad. In fact, failure is one of the best learning laboratories around. Failure not only keeps us humble, but when we are willing to learn from the stupid things we do, we gain confidence, acquire courage and are not afraid to risk again. So I say to seminary graduates, go ahead and do stupid things, for risk at times invites stupidity, and if we don’t risk, we don’t grow. We don’t grow personally and professionally, and we don’t grow the Kingdom of God. Be bold in your mistakes, but minimize the pitfalls by following these tips.

  • Be proactive rather than reactive. People will forgive almost anything if you admit your mistakes, apologize and ask for forgiveness rather than react defensively or blame others.
  • Think before you speak or act. Rash decisions, impulsive actions or losing your temper can come back to haunt you.
  • Practice what you preach. “I’d rather see a sermon rather than hear one.”
  • Remember, the church is not about you. Get yourself out of the way and focus on the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives.
  • Take the high road no matter what. When you listen carefully and are unfailingly gracious to those who hurt or criticize you, you model the love of Christ.
  • Rely on a few trusted friends to be a reality check and gently hold you accountable.
  • Pay attention to your spirit and take care of yourself. Undue stress can lead to irritability and poor decision-making.

LaGree had a second piece of advice for seminary graduates. “Be the person God created you to be.” Whenever clergy are reappointed, whether it is our first or last church, we need to reinvent our ministry according to the context in which we now serve. At the same time some church members will invariably seek to remake us into the pastor they are hoping we will become for them. I’ve learned the hard way that I can only pastor effectively when I am authentic, and I can only be authentic when I know who I am and who God wants me to become.

I remember being appointed to a large church fairly early in my ministry and asking myself, “Why me? I’m not a city person. I don’t come from wealth. I’m not well-versed in the finer points of etiquette. What can I offer?” A wise friend said to me, “Laurie, just be yourself. Remember, your congregation is made up of people with the same hopes and dreams that you have. Just be you, and you’ll make out fine.”

In the end, isn’t that what God asks of each one of us? Spiritual growth is in large part a journey toward knowing not only who God created us to be but who God is calling us to become. At a transition point some years later, I was attempting to discern my future in ministry. After several months of being stuck, I heard a clear word from God, “What you end up doing and where you end up serving is not nearly as important as who you are becoming.”

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For many years I had a painting in my office with these words from the 20th century Swiss theologian and Catholic priest, Hans Urs Balthazar, “What you are is God’s gift to you. What you are becoming is your gift to God.”

How can we continue to “become” as God’s beloved children?

  • Be a continuous learner. Read, listen, think critically and engage in holy conversation.
  • Be self-aware and transparent. Take time for prayer and self-examination and be willing to change.
  • Take regular time away so that you can regain perspective.
  • Seek honest feedback from others so that you can grow in skills, emotional intelligence and grace.
  • Don’t cling to who you were in the past but empty yourself and seek to be transformed into the person God hopes you will become in the future.
  • Pray John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer regularly.
    I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Rather than pay $400 to have my Honda towed back to Birmingham because I didn’t have the extra set of keys, Gary drove two hours home and two hours back to get them. Thank you, Dr. LaGree and Dr. Weems, for the gift of your simple yet profound wisdom to seminary graduates and all of us. “Don’t do anything stupid” and “Be the person God created you to be.” Since I haven’t been able to become perfected in either of these areas, however, I’ve had to tweak these bits of advice. “Learn from the stupid things you do” and “Keep becoming who God created you to be.” These are our gifts to God.

Blessings,
Laurie

Head and Heart

“I wanted to go on the senior high Costa Rica mission trip this summer,” said Isis York to the congregation during worship. “I’m not even sure exactly why because I really don’t like manual labor. My parents said that the only way I could go was if I received a partial grant, so I decided to apply for one of the scholarships awarded from the proceeds from the annual summer Garden Tour.

“I didn’t know what to write on the application, and when I finally sat down to complete it, my mother read it through and basically said, ‘This is pathetic! You’re going to have to do it over again.’” At this point Isis had the congregation in stitches. Here was an articulate high school student, humorously admitting that she was stumbling. Of course, we’ve all been there before, so Isis had our full attention as we admired her vulnerability.

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Isis went on, “I talked to my grandmother about the application, and she said, ‘Isis, when you write for the church, you need to write from the heart, not from the head.’ My grandmother prompted me to take a hard look at my life, and I realized that my relationship with God was not very strong. I thought about the mission trip and said to myself, ‘This is my chance to make a difference. This is my chance to help others. This is an opportunity to learn from others and transform my life.’ That’s why I want to go to Costa Rica.” Isis’ honesty and courage touched every heart in the congregation.

Right after Isis spoke, the choir sang an arrangement of the hymn that Charles Wesley wrote and sang with his brother John immediately after “conversion” experiences they both had within days of each other.

And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood!
Died he for me? who caused his pain! For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

This coming Sunday is not only Pentecost Sunday, it’s also Aldersgate Day in The United Methodist Church. I like to think of it as the day when John Wesley’s faith moved from his head to his heart. On May 24, 1738, Wesley was in the midst of a spiritual crisis. Having recently returned from a disastrous journey to the colony of Georgia to convert the Native Americans, Wesley felt like a failure. He also realized that all of his spiritual disciplines were nothing more than an attempt to earn his salvation. Wesley yearned for a faith that completely trusted God.

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On May 24, 1738, John Wesley attended a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. He said, “In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where he was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

John Wesley finally realized that the holiness he sought does not begin with head knowledge or human striving. It begins by opening our hearts and trusting the pardoning and empowering grace of God in Jesus Christ. Amazingly, John’s brother Charles had a very similar “conversion” experience three days before.

On May 21, which happened to be Pentecost Sunday, Charles wrote in his journal that the Spirit of God “chased away the darkness of my unbelief.” Also, “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ… I went to bed still sensible of my own weakness (I humbly hope to be more and more so), yet confident of Christ’s protection.” The genius of Charles is that he was able to express the warmed heart of Methodism in poetry and song.

‘Tis mystery all: t’ Immortal dies! Who can explore his strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries to sound the depths of love divine.
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore; let angel minds inquire no more.
‘Tis mercy all! Let earth adore; let angel minds inquire no more.

John’s Aldersgate experience was so intense that in the first days and months afterward he claimed that he hadn’t even been a Christian before. Later, John realized that he had, indeed, been a Christian. The difference was that now his faith wasn’t just in his head. It had moved to his heart. Both John and Charles underwent spiritual recalibrations.

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One of the hallmarks of Methodism is that we hold in tension the duality of head and heart. Balancing the quest for holiness with trusting in God’s grace enabled the Methodist movement to explode throughout England and then America.

Knowledge was always vitally important for John, and he insisted upon an educated clergy. However, it was at Aldersgate that Wesley’s heart was warmed by the unconditional love of God. From that time on, John’s spirit was at peace with the promise that no matter how many souls he saved and no matter how many times he failed, he was assured of God’s grace.

It happens to many of us. The apostle Paul. St. Augustine. Martin Luther. You and me. Our parents read Bible stories to us as children. We hear the stories of Jesus in Sunday school. We learn what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in confirmation class. But it often takes an Aldersgate experience for the head knowledge we’ve gained to warm our hearts with the unconditional love of Jesus.

How interesting, then, that when John went back to Oxford University and other Anglican churches to preach, he was so filled by the Holy Spirit that he offended people by his seeming fanaticism. Wesley was even called an “enthusiast,” which was not a polite term at the time. His most famous sermon, The Almost Christian, was preached at St. Mary’s at Oxford, before the University, on July 25, 1741.

Wesley compared the “almost Christian” with the “altogether Christian.” John acknowledged that “the almost Christian does nothing which the gospel forbids.” They have the outward form of religion, for their sincerity to serve God is real, and they do everything right. John claimed that he himself was an “almost Christian” for many years.

On the other hand, the “altogether” Christian is characterized in three ways.

  • The altogether Christian loves God.
  • The altogether Christian loves their neighbor (they are not rash or hasty in judging).
  • The altogether Christian believes that faith that does not bring forth a warmed heart is not faith.

Wesley writes, “Faith is a sure trust and confidence which a man hath in God, that by the merits of Christ, his sins are forgiven.” John was never invited to preach at Oxford again.

He left his Father’s throne above (so free, so infinite his grace!),
emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!

On Saturday night I called Isis and asked permission to share her story on my blog. I told her that she had warmed my heart by her sincerity in sharing that she was faltering in her faith and that her grandmother had advised her, “Isis, when you write for the church, you need to write from the heart, not from the head.” Isis gladly allowed me to use her name. Then she said, “I got up front to speak, and I didn’t say a word that was on the paper in front of me. I just spoke from my heart.” And my heart was strangely warmed once again.

Amazing love, how can it be?
‘Tis mercy all, Let earth adore.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Blessings,
Laurie

Don’t Postpone Joy

The birds wake me up early every morning in the spring. In particular, the song of the cardinal always brings a smile to my face as I rise to a new day. I think of a quote from Joan Walsh Anglund, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

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On my walks through Cranbrook, I keep track of the geese with their baby goslings at the same time as I keep my distance, remembering a few years ago when I was attacked by protective parents for venturing too close. Observing the world come back to life brings renewed life to my spirit. A new song. Pure joy.

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“Don’t postpone joy.” It’s the motto of a couple with whom Gary and I became acquainted several years ago. Wally told the story of how, not too many years before, he was working eighty hours a week in a very stressful job. He didn’t have a life. When a friend of theirs died at a young age, these words became the theme at her memorial service, “Don’t postpone joy.” In other words, enjoy life now. See the red bird right in front of you. Don’t wait until it is too late to fulfill your heart’s desire. Taking that wisdom to heart, Wally retired early, and he and Eileen have spent these last years traveling the world.

“Don’t postpone joy.” A dictionary will likely define joy as “an emotion of great delight and happiness caused by something exceptionally good.” Kind of like Easter joy. Somehow it just doesn’t ring true to me, though. Do we have to enjoy great wealth in order to experience joy? Do we have to quit our job, wait until everything is perfect in our life or travel to exotic lands to have joy? Do we even have to be happy to experience joy?

One of the most profound revelations in my life was the realization some years ago that for a Christian, joy is not related to happiness. In fact, Christian joy is very different from worldly happiness. Joy is a deep sense of wonder and oneness with God, creation, and others. Joy is recognizing the intrusion of God into our lives, even in the midst of pain. Joy is a splash of red in a dark world. Joy is our response to the fullness of life.

The Greek word for joy is chara. When we study how chara is used in the New Testament, we discover its richness.

  • At the last supper in the gospel of John (16:22), Jesus comforts his disciples by saying, “So you have pain now; but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
  • James encourages his readers to see joy in all circumstances by writing at the very beginning of his letter (1:2), “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”
  • The author of Hebrews (12:1-2) sees joy in Jesus’ sufferings, “… let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right and of the throne of God.”

It’s interestingly that chara is closely related to another key theological word, charis. Charis is translated as grace, the unmerited and unconditional love of God that takes root in human hearts. So chara: joy, results from charis: God’s grace. True joy is not based on human standards but is divine in origin. Joy is a gift of God.

There is yet another related word. If we put the Greek prefix eu in front of charis, we get eucharis: Eucharist, the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” When we read that Jesus gave thanks over the bread and the cup, the word is eucharis. Eucharist is the term that Catholics and some Protestant denominations use for holy communion. We shouldn’t postpone joy because joy, like the elements of communion, is foundational to life in Christ.

Joy is a surprising encounter with God, often coming at the least likely of times. I’ve learned much about Christian joy from C.S. Lewis. A most intriguing description of joy comes from his Screwtape Letters, where a senior devil named Screwtape writes to a junior devil named Wormwood. Keeping in mind that for Screwtape, the enemy is God, he describes the laughter of joy as similar to “that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven – a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us.” For a believer in God, however, joy is the exact opposite. Joy is a meaningful and surprising movement toward the divine, which is evident to those who believe but opaque to everyone else.

Another great C.S. Lewis quote is, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” We often experience the deepest joy when we suffer. Why was Jesus able to endure the cross? Why can we consider it joy when we face trials? Because it is precisely in the midst of profound sorrow that we discover God’s faithfulness and goodness. The meaningful acceleration of joy is not found by escaping from reality but by embracing the pain of the present with grace and thanksgiving.

Time after time we witness the rhythm of celestial experience by walking with others in their times of greatest need. We observe how people who are battered by the most awful circumstances find a deep sense of God’s care. We pray with those who are staring death in the face, yet they are often the ones to reach out to others. We see intense joy radiate from the most dire of situations when God is invited to be present.

Joy lets go of expectations and does not demand that things go the way we want them to go. Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” Don’t let anyone take your joy from you.

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In the midst of the darkness of our world, joy cuts through grief and brings hope.

  • A five-month-old baby found 22 hours after the Nepal earthquake covered in dust with minor bruising
  • A 101 year-old-man found with only minor injuries a week after the earthquake
  • Clergy taking to the streets in the Sandtown neighborhood of Baltimore, calling the community to prayer and dialogue in the wake of rioting after the death of Freddie Gray
  • Mothers the world over doing whatever it takes to nurture, guide and pray for their children and grandchildren
  • Graduates committed to using their gifts to make the world a better place
  • Local churches reinventing themselves to be centers of outreach, witness and hope

If joy is light piercing the darkness…

If joy is a red bird singing in the dead of winter as well as in the rebirth of spring, not because it has an answer but because it has a song…

If joy is an everflowing stream underneath the tumultuous surface of life…

If joy (chara) is accepting God’s grace (charis) with thanksgiving (eucharis)…

If joy is not so much believing that circumstances will improve but trusting that whatever happens, we’ll find our way, with God’s help… then don’t postpone it!

Will you open your heart and spirit to be surprised by joy every day? Will you slow down enough to discover the hidden secrets of the meaningful acceleration of joy? Can you experience a quiet joy in the midst of chaos, knowing that God helps us to grow strong through our trials? Do you know that Jesus can give you joy every day, no matter what happens? Can you taste the joy of the celestial banquet in the sacrament of communion as well as the depth of human love? “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

Blessings,
Laurie