Faithful

“Look! A rainbow!” Gary and I were driving to a staff planning day when a stunning vertical rainbow appeared on the north side of the rising sun. I’d never seen anything quite like it before. As we drove on, we saw that the rainbow encompassed the south side of the sun as well – it embraced the sun. How appropriate. The rainbow, a sign of God’s grace and providence, was guiding our way to the former Berkley First United Methodist Church. This 85-year-old congregation closed its doors on December 31 after entrusting our congregation with its building and assets so that we could start a new worshiping community.

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The first thing we did upon entering the holy space that was once a vibrant congregation was to take individual prayer walks. We were asked to explore every area of the facility and be open to how God was speaking to us. What we saw was a large, lovely, well-maintained facility in the heart of an up-and-coming Detroit suburb. Many things caught our eyes:

  • A plaque in the parlor honoring the beginnings of this congregation in 1929 in an empty store building with 66 charter members and 105 children in Sunday school
  • Large trash bags full of coats, a tribute to a “coat” ministry in the public schools
  • Christmas decorations carefully labeled, the wise men in the large outdoor community nativity wrapped in heavy-duty trash bags
  • The names of teenagers painted on the walls of the youth rooms, an air hockey game and pool table waiting patiently
  • A renovated fellowship hall and kitchen, completely paid for by insurance after a major flood in the summer of 2014
  • An area in the narthex called Pew Pals, where children could pick up packets of crayons and papers to enhance their worship experience

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At the entrance to the sanctuary the sign was still there: “Faith built this church. Hope is our future. Love sustains it.” I couldn’t help but think of Steve Green’s poignant song, Find Us Faithful.

We’re pilgrims on the journey of the narrow road,
And those who’ve gone before us line the way.
Cheering on the faithful, encouraging the weary,
Their lives a stirring testament to God’s sustaining grace.

The witness of this faithful congregation to God’s sustaining grace over many decades was palpable as we walked through the building. After regrouping, we debriefed:

  • “It’s not what you’d expect a dying church to look like.”
  • “The potential is overwhelming.”
  • “It’s eerie. Everything is still here, just waiting for us.”
  • “This congregation was clearly a place of love, light, and mission.”
  • “The location is ripe for revitalization.”
  • “The rainbow this morning was a sign of hope for the future of this location. The tragedy of the flood of last summer not only enabled a brand new fellowship hall and kitchen renovation, but it also prompted a major clean-up of the entire lower level in preparation for new ministry to become a possibility.”

The congregation shared a “Closing Letter” on the Berkley First website in November. “It is with mixed emotions that we are writing to you today. Berkley First United Methodist Church has a long history of mission work, community outreach, valued friendships and fellowship within our church and in the Berkley community. Like many churches today, we have seen a dramatic decline in attendance. We have prayed for God’s guidance, explored many avenues and tried several things in order to draw people into our church, but it has not been successful.

“Therefore, the decision has been made that Berkley First UMC will close on December 31, 2014, leaving our assets as a legacy for a new church start. There are people trained in new church start strategies who are young and excited about this process and have the energy, time, and commitment needed for such an ambitious endeavor. We pray that our legacy helps in creating a new church experience that will fulfill the needs of many of those who currently do not have a church home. ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.’ Matthew 28:19”

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CHORUS:
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful;
May the fire of our devotion light their way;
May the footprints that we leave lead them to believe;
And the lives we live inspire them to obey;
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful.

The courage of First UMC Berkley in offering up its life so that new ministry may emerge was not lost on us. By choosing to close before they had exhausted all of their assets, this faithful congregation has left footprints and assets that will inspire future generations of disciples to reach this community with the good news of Jesus Christ.

The first of Berkley’s Core Values as found on their website was, “Jesus Christ is the Foundation of our Church. Everything we believe and everything we do is based on the example and teachings of Jesus. Loving God, loving one another and becoming disciples for Christ are the reasons we exist.”

Franciscan friar and ecumenical teacher Richard Rohr has written, “Love is where we came from. And love is where we are going. When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds. As Paul says ‘Love does not come to an end’ and ‘Love never fails.’” The core values of Berkley First UMC will live on as new ministry emerges.

Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
Let us run the race not only for the prize;
But as those who’ve gone before us let us leave to those behind us,
The heritage of faithfulness passed on through godly lives.

As our staff sat in the parlor planning for the future, two key lay persons from Berkley were also present in the building, working to bring closure to the transition process. Nancy, who was at the very heart of this congregation, shared the excitement of the other Berkley members that ministry would continue in this location and said she can’t wait to see what God will do. Nancy also expressed the intentionality of the congregation in leaving a building that is in very good shape and assets to begin a new faith community. Art, the Trustees chair, was also very positive and committed to helping us learn the nuances of this “house of God.”

In their final website communication after the closing worship service on December 28, the congregation wrote, “Thank you to Birmingham First UMC for accepting our legacy gift and agreeing to start a ‘new church’ in the Berkley building in the future. We have faith that God will lead you on the path of success in reaching those in the community who need and are touched by the program that you will bring.

“May God bless each and every one of you who has been a part of the life of Berkley First United Methodist Church. It has been an honor to worship and serve together over the years. And finally, thank you, God, for the many blessings that you have given us through the shared ministries and memories of this church family. As we walk in faith and trust you to guide us as we search for a new church home, we believe and are comforted by knowing that you will be with us along the way. ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Matthew 28:20

After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone,
And our children sift through all we’ve left behind;
May the clues that they discover and the memories they uncover
Become the light that leads them to the road we each must find.

Last week we discovered countless clues through the legacy that Berkley has left behind. May those clues become a rainbow of hope as the faithfulness of Berkley First UMC becomes the light leading to new ministry. Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful.

Blessings,
Laurie

Deep and Wide

“Mom, my sister was taken to the hospital in the Congo,” he said quietly when he came home last Monday night. Eric Mulanda was one of twenty-two students from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary hosted by our church last week. Taught by Dr. Mark Fowler, this church leadership class provided a variety of cross-cultural immersion experiences in the Detroit metro area.

Gary and I first met Eric in Zimbabwe five years ago when he was the student body president of Africa University. Our mission team subsequently “adopted” Eric and facilitated his enrollment in the Master of Divinity degree program at Garrett. The friendships I have developed over the years with Eric and other United Methodists from around the world have always found their expression in an old Bible school song with accompanying hand motions: “Deep and wide, deep and wide; there’s a fountain deep and wide. Deep and wide, deep and wide; there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.” One reason I am a United Methodist is that our theology is both deep and wide.

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I knew that Eric was worried, so we prayed before bed that God would take care of Sarah and that the doctor would be able to diagnose the cause of her stomach pains and provide the care she needed. In the morning Eric came down for breakfast with the news that 29-year-old Sarah had died overnight and no one knew what had happened.

Eric’s agonizing pain tore at my heart. Here he was in Michigan, far, far away from his mother and father, four remaining sisters, two brothers and extended family. Eric is the preacher in the family, the one who, by God’s grace and the wideness of the generosity of The United Methodist church, received a full scholarship to Africa University, was ordained in the South Katanga Annual Conference in the Congo, and has a full tuition scholarship at Garrett. Eric is their hope and their rock.

Eric is going to be a great leader in The United Methodist Church, but he is already changing the world because of his deep faith, gracious spirit and perseverance through many dangers, toils and snares. Eric has been separated from his wife Corrine for two and a half years for no reason except for arbitrary U.S. immigration restrictions. And he could not go back to the Congo for his sister’s funeral because of missing school, the exorbitant cost of airline tickets and the danger of not being granted a visa to return to the U.S.

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Gary and I prayed with Eric last Tuesday morning and sent him off to class at the church where his friends surrounded him with love. We all laid hands on Eric and prayed for God’s grace to strengthen his family, provide a way for him to pay for Sarah’s funeral and enable his wife Corrine and sister Charlotte to travel from Africa University to Congo for the funeral. I will never forget the prayer that Rwandan native Ornella prayed in French, tears running down her cheeks. Ornella, more than anyone else, knew the distress that Eric was experiencing, not only separated from his family but limited by the challenges of everyday life in many African countries. Deep and wide.

The miracles came fast and furious over the next day. A few hours after Eric learned of his sister’s death, our associate pastor Chad hosted the Garrett students at hungry?, a weekly ministry where hundreds of juniors and seniors at the local high school are offered a free lunch funded by our church and hosted by a small United Methodist church across from the school. $280 was raised by students who never met Eric until that morning but were moved by his story and the conviction that by throwing in just a dollar, they could help in a significant way.

A volunteer helping at hungry? was so touched by Eric’s story that she made a major donation. Several UM churches in Michigan that know Eric gave four hundred dollars, and before the end of the day we had enough for Eric’s family to buy a coffin for Sarah, purchase food for Eric’s extended family and other mourners keeping vigil at the house and pay for bus tickets for Charlotte and Corrine to travel up to 48 hours one way to the Congo.

The next day President Lallene Rector of Garrett donated $1,000 to enable Eric’s wife and sister to take an express bus to the Congo rather than the “local” so they could spend more time with their family. Another person slipped me a $100 bill for whatever Eric needed for his family. If I ever doubted the depth and wideness of the United Methodist connection, those doubts were dispelled in a mighty way.

When Eric returned from class at night last week, he would share vivid images of Congolese funeral customs and what was happening in his town of Kolwezi. While the body of Eric’s sister rested in a funeral home attached to the hospital, extended family, teammates, coaches, work colleagues, neighbors, friends and the community spent the time between Sarah’s death and her Sunday burial at Eric’s parents’ house.

By Thursday evening a thousand people had gathered. At night the men slept outside and the women slept inside. Part of the money Eric wired to his family was used to buy a tent to keep the men dry during the night because it was raining. No one enjoyed sleeping in a bed, for sleeping on the floor or the ground is a sign of mourning.

Eric’s mother and sisters cut their hair as another symbol of mourning. Two times during every night last week the United Methodist church choir sang, waking up the sleepers and reminding them of their grief. The donated money provided food for all those gathered. In addition, Eric’s best friend went out into the community, showing Sarah’s picture and asking for contributions of food to ensure that everyone was fed.

At 5 a.m. everyone awoke and spent from sixty to ninety minutes in ritual crying. Then the community left to go to work, returning at 6 p.m. to repeat the routine. Eric said that the entire mourning process was a living example of the African concept of Ubuntu, “I am because you are.” We are all part of each other. Even though the people who offered financial help were not physically present in the Congo, their generosity connected them with Eric’s family and all those who mourned Sarah’s death. Deep and wide.

Yesterday the funeral and burial began at 9 a.m. with the entire family and community walking to the hospital. The family washed Sarah’s body, dressed her in new clothes and covered her with a blanket. Sarah’s extended family took whatever of her clothes they wanted and the rest was buried with her. Cremation is not practiced in the Congo.

Sarah’s body was then placed in the coffin and taken to the church in a car, which also seated the family. Everyone else walked. Up to fifteen hundred people were present, many standing outside. Eric said that in the Congo, Christian funerals are an opportunity for evangelism, for modeling the hope that we have in Jesus Christ because of the promise of resurrection. In the service, which lasted about an hour, the pastor preached and family members spoke.

When the burial was over, Eric’s grandfather, Luz Mwengo, said a word of thanks to those who came, after which everyone went back to the family home for a meal, ritually washing their hands before eating. They all stayed together for one more night, after which everyone went back to their homes on Monday.

Last week the fountain of God’s love was flowing deep and wide as United Methodists in Michigan were connected with United Methodists in Africa because of a young woman, a fervent disciple of Jesus Christ, whose life ended far too early but who had a far-reaching impact.

In addition, the cross-cultural immersion experience of the Garrett students included far more than interacting with Caucasian, African-American and multi-cultural congregations and social service agencies in the Detroit area.

The students and those who hosted them learned that whenever we allow ourselves to go deep into our faith, which calls us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort those who mourn and seek fullness of life for all people, we see Christ in each other. And whenever we risk widening our horizons by embracing those whose theology, customs and traditions are unlike ours, we come face to face with a God who delights in seeing us splash together in the fountain of diversity, understanding and hope. If twenty-two seminary students from around the world are any indication, the future of the church is both deep and wide.

Blessings,
Laurie

The Spines

I’m lying in the nurse’s office at the hotel, incredulous at my predicament. She is meticulously removing a dozen tiny sea urchin spines from my right foot. For several days my foot has been feeling tender, and it isn’t until Gary examines it closely that he sees numerous black spots in my skin. The nurse says that removing sea urchin spines is a normal part of her job.

I’ve been an avid beachcomber my entire life. Vacationing along the Jersey Shore as a child, I adopted my parents’ love of shell collecting. It always seemed like a safe hobby … until six weeks ago when our family vacationed together over Thanksgiving. I was walking through shallow salt water looking for sea urchins, not realizing that I should have been wearing water shoes. I did find some beautiful sea urchins (I did not touch the lives ones), but it came at a cost.

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How is it that something as tiny as part of a sea urchin spine can cause so much discomfort? It reminds me of all the baggage that we humans carry around with us, petty things in the grand scheme of life that weigh us down because we cannot let them go: resentment at a perceived slight, jealousy at another’s good fortune, unresolved anger over a small matter, failure that holds us back from ever risking again.

Back home from vacation, my foot seems better, but after a few weeks I realize it’s not healed. Gary looks closely with a flashlight and sees more black spots deeply embedded in the ball of my foot. I investigate online and discover that multiple deep sea urchin puncture wounds may result in swelling and redness around the area, which may cause “fatigue, weakness, muscle aches, shock, paralysis, and respiratory failure. Death may occur.” Hmmm.

I call my internist, who asks me to come in early the next morning. He delights in a new challenge and uses a razor blade, tweezers and headlamp to “operate.” It takes a half hour, but he finally removes several microscopic spines and thinks he got them all. My foot feels better immediately.

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I ponder how God is speaking to me through the spines. How many of my unhealthy practices result in physical, emotional and spiritual pain. How many tiny spines prevent me from experiencing fullness of life because I’ve allowed them to become embedded habits: over-functioning, work-obsession, enslavement to the expectations of others and perfectionism, to name only a few of my more egregious patterns. Instead of acknowledging and embracing my shadow self and seeking necessary change, I allow the darker aspects of who I am to fester like tiny sea urchin spines, gradually infecting my entire being. The “letting go” that God continually asks of us reminds me of a story that I include in my new book, Recess; Rediscovering Play and Purpose, which will be launched in several weeks.

I hadn’t thought about this story for years. Garth and Talitha were in the middle of a fight. Tears and angry words flew about the room. Normally, I let the children resolve their own differences, but this dispute called for parental action.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Garth won’t let me play his harmonica!” Talitha sobbed. I never knew Garth had a harmonica, so I called him into the room.

“What’s this about a harmonica, Garth?”

“Mom, I found a harmonica out on the street this afternoon, and I don’t want Talitha to play it.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m collecting harmonicas.”

“Oh, really? Since when?”

“Since yesterday. Now I have two harmonicas, and because I’m collecting them, nobody else can touch them.”

I didn’t buy his story and told Garth that if he was not going to play the harmonica himself, he had to share and let Talitha use it. Garth absolutely refused. He stormed into his room, shut the door and proceeded to sulk. Fifteen minutes later, he came into my room and said, “Mom, I just threw the harmonica out the window. I decided it was causing me too much trouble.”

It was an incredible insight for a 10-year-old boy. Garth realized that the harmonica wasn’t worth holding on to. It wasn’t worth the conflict it was causing. Garth didn’t have any interest in harmonicas anyway. He was simply using it as a way to provoke his younger sister. When it dawned on Garth that he was not going to get his way, he wisely gave up. He didn’t need to get into trouble over a dirty, bent harmonica.

I can think of a whole lot of harmonicas I need to throw out the window. Having the opportunity to step back from active ministry for a few months, I am beginning to realize the unnecessary baggage I carry with me. To live a whole, spiritually healthy life centered in God, I need to throw away some stuff:

  • the feeling that I am indispensable
  • the craving for recognition
  • the desire for attention
  • the need to be right
  • anger when I don’t get my way
  • bitterness toward people who have hurt me
  • the inability to call it quits and relax
  • an obsession with work
  • the insistence that I don’t have time to nurture my spirit

Of course, I can think of countless harmonicas others can throw out the window as well, but I’ve decided to focus on myself. As we all know, the only person we can change is ourselves. I’m going to start and end with me.

Unfortunately, the irritation in my foot does not completely go away, but I have to focus on Advent and Christmas, just like so many others who experience deep pain at this time of year but don’t want to be a Scrooge. Because we don’t give ourselves permission to accept who and where we are in our spiritual lives, we go through the motions in December without allowing our melancholy to inform our faith and deepen our awareness of the depth of God’s grace.

On Christmas Day, Gary takes one more look and says, “I think I see a black spot, and your foot is red. It’s time to go back to the doctor.” I have an appointment for this afternoon, hoping to let go of the last spine. Then again, I suspect spines of one sort or another will always be a part of my life, reminding me that discomfort and pain are pathways to spiritual growth.

How will the year 2015 be different for you? What deeply embedded behaviors and unhealthy attitudes do you need to let go of? What harmonicas do you need to throw out the window? O God, the Great Physician, use the tweezers of faith to remove whatever spines prevent me from being a pure reflection of your grace and hope.

Blessings,
Laurie

P.S.
Recess recounts the gift of a three month recess from pastoral ministry in 2001. This leave gave me the opportunity to face burnout and depression after twenty years of active ministry, look deep into my heart, reassess my vocation and rediscover my love for God and the church. You are invited to two book launch events:

Books may be purchased for $20 after the launch events from Cass Community
Publishing House at ccpublishinghouse.org.
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