The Four Words of Summer

I remember it vividly but didn’t really understand at the time. The summer after I completed seventh grade, my parents took our family of four children on our first trip “out west.” We flew from Philadelphia to Denver (my first plane ride) and rented a “woodie” station wagon for the next two weeks.

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Every few days my father would stop in a small town, find a pay phone and make a collect call back home to “the factory.” My father owned a medium-size commercial printing and manufacturing factory that began as a postcard company by my maternal grandfather in 1907. I worked at the factory in various capacities from the time I was a child until I was married. However, as a twelve-year-old, I didn’t fully comprehend why my father had to interrupt our trip in order to check in. Now I know all too well.

My mother realized that Dad needed to make sure everything was running smoothly at the factory while we were on summer vacation. My father worked long hours in the office and always brought home paperwork at night, so he needed the time away, even if he had to call in periodically.

My mother wasn’t too pleased, however, when my father sought out lunch-time Rotary Club meetings so he could fulfill Rotary’s strict make-up requirements. While Dad was eating a good meal with fellow Rotarians in Wyoming, Utah, and Arizona, we were relegated to the laundromat, where we did our wash and waited. It was a small price to pay for my first opportunity to experience the incredible beauty of the west.

Summer is a time when everyone ought to have the opportunity to kick back, let go and enjoy life. John 10:10 is the scripture verse that best describes for me the wonder and glory of summer. Jesus says to his disciples, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” The context of this verse is Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees, who are investigating his healing of a man born blind. The Jews don’t believe that he was born blind, even when the man himself testifies to his healing.

When the Pharisees claim that his so-called healer is a sinner, the man says, “I don’t know whether Jesus is a sinner or not. All I know is that I was blind and now I see.” After bantering with the Jews about their spiritual blindness in not recognizing him as the Son of God, Jesus states that he is the gate, for whoever enters the sheepfold by him will be saved and experience abundant life.

What God wants most for you and me is to live an abundant life. Yes, we have abundant life because Jesus also calls himself the Good Shepherd who cares for his sheep. Yet we experience life abundant through God’s gift of creation as well, especially in the summer.
Summer and vacations go together. In most locations schools are out, it’s the warmest time of the year, and we can be outside enjoying the beauty of mother earth. What is it about summer that evokes abundant life? Four words: energy, growth, light and rest.

Energy

In the summer the sun’s rays are most directly focused on our planet with an intense energy that is accompanied by powerful waves of heat. Certainly, heat can negatively affect our physical energy, and we can become sluggish. Yet the energy of the sun also elicits joy and abundant life.

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In the very first verse of the Bible we read that this energy was present from the beginning of creation. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1)

The energy of creation is nothing more than the activity of the Holy Spirit, this wind moving over the earth before humans were even created. Do you ever wonder why we humans pour outside on the first warm day of spring and stay outside all summer? It’s because we want to soak up Holy Spirit energy, whether we call it that or not. Whenever I am outside in the energy of creation, I feel fully alive.

Where do you receive Holy Spirit energy? How are you using your God-given energy to make a positive difference in the lives of others?

Growth

Summer is a time of ripening and abundance. The earth is alive with growth, much of it feeding our world and showing off God’s glory in a riot of colorful flowers, trees and plants. Hundreds of thousands of acres of corn, soybeans and grains accompanied my cycling journey through the Midwest several weeks ago. I learned much about farming and was especially intrigued with the many no-till fields along the way.

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Some of the farmers we talked with do not plow their fields at the end of the season, and we observed new crops growing in the midst of the residue of previous plantings. The benefits are many. No-till farming prevents fertile topsoil from being worn away by wind and water at tons per acre. Nutrients do not leach out in the winter, creating a more natural soil. In addition, farmers save time and money in plowing, equipment, and human resources.

Life abundant feeds our earth in the summer, as home and community gardens and local farmers offer fresh and healthy food for our table. In the same way, a tiny seed of curiosity, openness and faith can grow into a spiritual maturity that feeds bodies, minds and spirits. Summer reminds us that we either grow or die in our spiritual life.

How are you growing in your relationship with God? Are you following the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for you so that you might have abundant life?

Light

Summer is characterized by light early in the morning until late in the evening. The birds wake us up at dawn, and the crickets beckon us to sleep deep into the night. The nuances of dawn and sunset create spectacular splashes of color and light, inviting us to ponder Jesus’ assertion to the Pharisees in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

It is well-attested that light enhances mood. Light evokes both playfulness and attentiveness. In the light of summer we are called to see God, others and ourselves in new ways. I have wonderful memories of summer as a child but recall virtually nothing about fall, winter or spring. What I remember is light, sun and being outdoors.
I lived in a small town where I left the house after breakfast and didn’t come home till the sun set, except for lunch and dinner. Baseball glove on the handlebar of my bike, I rode around town attending summer recreations programs, frequenting the candy store, playing sandlot baseball and touch football, climbing trees and making miniature golf courses in the back yard. We didn’t have bike helmets, cell phones, iPods and video games. What we did have was abundant life.

For whom will you be light today?

Rest

The rhythm of summer reminds us of the need to slow down and rest. Energy, growth, and light are all dependent on fallow times. In John 12:24 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Pulling back, waiting, practicing sabbath, and being rather than doing are integral to the abundant life that Jesus offers to each one.

That’s why vacation is so important, even if we do not leave town. The origin of the word vacation goes back to the Latin, vacare, which means to be empty, be free from, be unoccupied, be idle, or be vacant.

My mother and father were not able to take us on other big trips like our adventure out west. But they did understand the importance of recreation, renewal, play and experiencing abundant life. Even though Dad had to make periodic phone calls to check up on the factory, once he was done he gave his full attention to his family and helped us to learn about the world and its people through travel.

Are you slowing down this summer to rest, relax and become playful?

  • Can you feel and harness the energy of the Holy Spirit through creation?
  • Are you open to growth in your own life and facilitate growth in others?
  • Will you soak up and absorb the light and reflect God’s light back at others?
  • Will you be unoccupied rather than preoccupied, vacate your mind from work, be attentive to creation and rest in God’s love?

I am going to vacate for the next two weeks. No blog, no cell phone, no meetings or Rotary lunches. Just the four words of summer/abundant life: energy, growth, light and rest.

Blessings,
Laurie

P.S. The next Leading from the Heart will be on Monday, August 4.

No More “GM Nod”

A few weeks ago my car wouldn’t start in the parking lot of the dry cleaner. There had been a clicking noise for a few weeks when I started the car, but each time I ignored it, hoping it would go away. Well, it didn’t. It just got worse until we had to take the car to our local mechanic, who said I needed a new ignition switch. After the car was fixed and I didn’t have to worry every time I tried to start it, I realized what I had been doing. Even though my car is not a GM, I’d been giving it the “GM Nod.”

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I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in my neck of the woods, it was a big deal when Mary Barra became the first female CEO of General Motors and first head of a major U.S. automaker on January 15. Senior Vice-President for Global Development for the two previous years, Barra was highly respected and well positioned to lead General Motors.

Imagine Barra’s surprise, then, when after barely starting, she was presented with the news that faulty ignition switches on millions of GM vehicles since 2002 had led to thirteen deaths. It soon became clear that dozens of people knew about the design flaw, but information never flowed to the top levels of the company. Barra described it as the “GM Nod,” where managers would sit in a room nodding in agreement that steps needed to be taken to address the issue, but they would leave the room and do nothing about it.

Mary Barra quickly became the public face of this scandal. Rather than hide or side-step the issues, Barra openly and honestly admitted GM’s responsibility and initiated steps to correct the problems. Former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas, who was charged with producing an investigative report, interviewed two hundred and thirty people and reviewed forty-one million documents.

The report detailed a “pattern of incompetence and neglect,” as the ignition defect was ignored for over a decade. Valukas also described the “GM Salute” as part of the auto giant’s dysfunctional culture. The “GM Salute” was the practice of employees sitting through meetings with their arms folded and pointing at others, indicating that it was others who were responsible, not them. Six days after the report was released on May 29, Mary Barra fired fifteen people who she said did not take responsibility. She also recalled 1.6 million GM cars and arranged to compensate the victims.

A week ago GM recalled another 8.4 million vehicles, the vast majority because of ignition switch defects. Barra also revealed three more deaths, eight injuries and three crashes related to the latest series of recalls. “We have worked aggressively to identify and address the major outstanding issues that could impact the safety of our customers,” Barra said. “If any other issues come to our attention, we will act appropriately and without hesitation.” It is estimated that GM will have spent $1.2 billion in the second quarter of 2014 on expenses related to the recalls.

Although some people still see women CEOs as a novelty, Mary Barra has already proven to be a leader who is calm, able to lead with authority and insists on facing issues directly rather than passing the buck or attempting to protect herself or the company. The “GM Nod” is over, as Barra models the kind of openness and ethical integrity that has described the ideals of our country from its very founding two hundred and thirty-eight years ago.

General Motors will surely recover as it refocuses on its stated vision, “At the new General Motors we are passionate about designing, building and selling the world’s best vehicles. This vision unites us as a team each and every day and is the hallmark of our customer-driven culture.”

Fred Keller.  Photo by Johnny Quirin

Another one of my business heroes is Fred Keller, Chair and CEO of Cascade Engineering, a diversified manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose markets include large truck and automotive transportation, waste management and recycling, office furniture, agricultural/industrial containers, water filtration, polymer compounding and renewable energy project management.

Cascade Engineering, which Keller started forty-one years ago, is also one of the largest certified B corporations in the world. A B corporation is a new kind of company that redefines success by using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. Keller has long been a champion of the Triple Bottom Line, which means that the mission of any company should not simply be economic profit. The purpose of business is to positively impact society and the environment as well as make a profit. Keller is convinced that great leaders are not only good at building businesses but they lead change in their communities as well.

Fred Keller was recently named Executive-in-Residence at the Center for Positive Organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. In a speech given in June at the Ross School of Business as part of the Positive Links Speaker Series, Keller said that today’s business leaders are called not only to help grow their own companies but to make the world a better place by helping to solve wicked complex problems.

A wicked complex problem is a cultural or social problem that is challenging to address because of the great number of people involved, different opinions on the nature of and economic burden of the problem and the interconnected nature of the issue. Wicked complex problems such as poverty, racism, sustainability, equality, and health touch all of us, and Fred Keller believes that business leaders have a responsibility to move beyond economic profit to give back to their communities through positive leadership.

Cascade Engineering’s nationally known sustainability philosophy includes this statement, “We have worked diligently over the past decade to create a strategy focused on sustainability that propels our innovation and sets forth our future direction. In fact, our company’s purpose as defined by our employees is to make a positive impact on our society, the environment and to be financially successful.” The company also places high value on each employee, including this statement about culture, “A culture of inclusion allows people to feel comfortable contributing, encourages new perspectives, and makes the most of each person’s potential.” There is no “GM Nod” or “GM Salute” at Cascade Engineering.

I might add that Fred Keller is a life-long United Methodist and often quotes John Wesley in his presentations, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Because John Wesley would not ignore the social ills of his day, he left the church building to meet the common people where they were: in the mines, the prisons, the slums, the fields and the slave ships. A hallmark of our United Methodist heritage is that we do not disclaim responsibility for the wicked complex problems of our day but jump in with heart, mind, soul and strength to change the world.

What can the church learn from General Motors as well as Cascade Engineering?

  • Don’t assume that someone else will do it. People at all levels of the church must take responsibility for excellence in ministry by eliminating the “Church Nod” or the “Church Salute.”
  • Create a culture that encourages every voice to be heard. Mary Barra made it clear to all GM employees, “If you are aware of a potential problem affecting safety or quality and you don’t speak up, you are a part of the problem.” In the same way, we need to empower all church members to offer ideas and suggestions for improving our systems and processes.
  • Eliminate a silo mentality. All areas of a church’s operation are interconnected. Churches that function most effectively never say, “If it’s not in my area, I don’t care about it.” Constant and effective communication and support between ministries and staff eliminates many potential problems.
  • Value people over profits. Many churches are so caught up in survival that they forget all about their mission and vision to share God’s unconditional love with a hurting world. Don’t let finances or buildings trump relationships or mission.
  • Adopt a customer mindset. The church is not about us and our preferences. The church is here to serve the world and bring in God’s kingdom. It’s about all those who are just waiting to an invitation to lose their lives and become part of something larger than themselves.
  • Act with urgency. The Valukas report said,“Throughout the entire eleven-year odyssey, there was no demonstrated sense of urgency, right to the very end. The officials overseeing the potential fixes and investigations did not set timetables and did not demand action.”
  • The needs of our world are urgent, and there is no time to waste. May God grant all of us the courage to move beyond mere nodding and saluting to acting with justice, kindness and mercy now.

Blessings,

Laurie

Spirituality from the Bike Seat

I just returned home from riding my bike nine hundred and forty miles from Brandon, South Dakota to Port Clinton, Ohio. I was riding with three other people to raise awareness of The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign. In cooperation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United Nations Foundation and the Global Fund to end AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, our denomination has committed to raising $75 million to eradicate malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Over the past twelve days, I’ve learned a thing or two about the spiritual life from my bike seat, which is now my good friend but can also be a bit uncomfortable when riding long distances. First, a few general observations about cycling.

  • Helmet hair happens. Deal with it.
  • Unique tan lines form on your body. Why not flaunt it as a fashion statement?
  • There are tricks of the trade to alleviate seat discomfort. Desitin isn’t just for babies.
  • Clean your chain, keep your tires properly inflated, and pray that you don’t get a flat tire. Even if you can change one, a flat tire in the middle of nowhere is not fun.
  • Get used to bruises, cuts and scrapes. Owies go with the territory.
  • Earphones are no-no. Listen to the music of creation. Besides, it is important to be aware of everything going on around you.
  • Swallowing flies or even bees is inevitable in long-distance biking. Beware the ones that that you can’t spit out because they fly right down your throat.
  • Don’t be afraid to get creative about bathroom breaks. A tree or ditch is less disgusting than many restrooms in gas stations.

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  • Potholes don’t just ruin cars. Watch out!
  • Carry enough food and liquids. Clif Bars and Gatorade are your friends.
  • The agony of intense effort is nothing compared to the agony of families in Sub-Saharan Africa, where every sixty seconds a loved one dies of malaria.

Of course, I’ve also learned a thing or two about spirituality and the church from dozens of hours on the bike seat.

1. Open doors really do demonstrate Christ’s love.
On day three of our ride, we stopped in the small town of Terrill, Iowa for a bathroom break, and all we could find was the United Methodist Church. The door was open, but no one was in the building. So we used the restrooms, checked out the sanctuary and fellowship hall, and left a note of thanks for their hospitality. Open minds, open hearts, open doors.

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2. Vacation Bible School Rocks.
Almost every church that hosted us was having Vacation Bible School or a kids summer camp that week or in the near future, including Celebration UMC in Brandon, South Dakota, Forest City UMC and Charles City Trinity UMC in Iowa, Grace UMC in Naperville, Illinois, Lowell First UMC in Indiana, and Niles Wesley UMC in Michigan. In every case I sensed Holy Spirit energy from the excitement of both adults and children as Jesus showed up big time in these congregations through VBS. VBS is alive and well and changes children’s lives.

3. There is great power in our connectional system.
According to Pastor Rob Nystrom, organizer of the INM Ride for Change, it was easy to secure churches to host us, for we are all part of the United Methodist family. As United Methodists we are connected with each other all over the world. Everyone was glad to help, especially when they learned that this was a fundraiser for Imagine No Malaria, a project with which most of them were already familiar. Our host families went out of their way to make us comfortable.

4. Navigating is a spiritual discipline.
Rob and Wayne Bank worked on the initial route across the country, but Zach Frid was our driver/navigator en route. Unlike the early settlers who moved west without a clue what they would encounter along the way, technology takes much of the surprise out of traveling today. Cell phones can tell us exactly where we are at any moment and show us precise topographical features and weather systems that lie ahead. They can also reconnect cyclists when we become separated from our sag vehicles or from each other.

Still, technology could not always predict whether there was a shoulder along the highway or whether a road was paved or gravel. We couldn’t always tell where detours were, which roads were flooded, how well traveled roads were or whether numerous potholes would force us to turn around and go another way. Even the weather apps could not guarantee that a storm would not suddenly move in a different direction and drench us.

So navigation in our personal lives and in the church is much more than simply getting from here to there. It’s one of life’s most profound challenges. Finding our way is how new worlds are discovered, barriers between people are broken down and God’s kingdom breaks into our everyday life.

5. It’s always something, so improvise and adapt.
On Day Three we were riding from Spirit Lake, Iowa into a fierce and unusual east wind all morning. Despite expending a lot of energy, we only covered thirty-one miles. At a break Chad Jennings said, “Since the wind is so strong today, and we don’t want to ride all eighty-seven miles into that wind, what if we rethink the route? Why don’t we ride the other direction so that we’re going with the wind?” So that’s what we did.

We loaded the bikes into the vans and drove the next thirty-five miles east along our route. Then we rode those same thirty-five miles on our bikes back west along the same route. Finally, we piled into the vans once more and drove the route a third time to return to the sixty-six mile mark. If that wasn’t enough, we did the exact same thing with the last twenty-one miles in order to reach Forest City.

What a perfect example of adaptive leadership. Every day you and I face choices about how we are going to live, and we have to make adjustments on the fly. It’s the same with the church. Every night on our ride, I would ask my host family variations of these questions, “How are you known in the community? What is God doing in your congregation to make a difference in your context and the world?

The answers were always fascinating as well as telling. Many of the churches were doing amazing ministry by thinking outside the box, willing to do whatever it takes to change old patterns of thinking and acting and creatively share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world.

A few times, however, I heard laments like, “We don’t have a vision for where we are going. We’re stalled right now. We don’t know how to reverse the decline.” Churches that learn improvisation as a way of life usually flourish.

6. As long as we are headed in the same direction, we’re usually fine.
Those who ride have different personalities as well as abilities. Thus, we have to learn to dance together in order to be a team. At times it is important to be close for safety, like riding on busy highways or through a town. Other times, when climbing hills or hitting a long straightaway, we go separately because we each have our own rhythm, leg strength and pace. Knowing that the sag vehicles are always in front and back keeps us connected. In the same way, in the church we need to give each other freedom to discover and use our unique gifts for ministry. At the same time, it’s our vision, mission and shared goals that keep us moving in the same direction.

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7. The Holy Spirit is not always a head wind.
We learned very quickly that riding with the wind gave us an enormous energy boost while riding against the wind quickly sapped our strength. It could mean the difference between riding at twenty-three miles an hour or thirteen miles an hour. The most obvious and tidy analogy is that when we yield ourselves to the Holy Spirit, the road through life is always with the wind: smooth and trouble-free. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to ride with a headwind where God’s intentions for our lives are clear.

On the other hand, the spiritual life reminds us that the Holy Spirit can also be a tail wind, leading us into situations that are challenging and might even prompt us to fail. A mature faith realizes that it is only through testing, rough pavement and even failure that we grow into the fullness of the Christian life and learn to trust even when the wind is in our face.

I’ll be getting on my skinny little seat again real soon because I love to ride my bike. Every time I do, my seat reminds me that the Christian life is not always comfortable, but it will inevitably lead me home to God.

Blessings,
Laurie