Today is Marathon Monday. It is also the second anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing. I am in Boston right now, perhaps running in the rain in the marathon as you read this blog. Runners and their families cannot fail to notice that security has increased exponentially since that fateful day two years ago when two pressure cooker bombs were set off near the finish line at 2:49 p.m. A massive manhunt for suspects and brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev ended when Tamerlan was killed and Dzhokhar was captured while hiding in a boat.

The worst terrorist attack on American soil since September 11, 2001 resulted in four deaths (including a police officer) and dozens of serious injuries.

In the face of this enormous tragedy, marring one of our nation’s most iconic sports events, the city of Boston quickly rallied as the phrase Boston Strong spread throughout the city.

Two Emerson College students started the campaign just hours after the bombing by creating blue and yellow (Boston Marathon colors) T-shirts. Boston Strong symbolizes defiance, determination, hope and, above all, resilience.

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A few weeks ago I participated in a webinar sponsored by the Massachusetts Resiliency Center, which was formed to assist victims, their families and anyone suffering trauma as a result of the Boston Marathon bombings. Opening in the summer of 2014, the Center offers counseling, behavioral health supports, traumatic brain injury services and deaf and hard of hearing services. The Center also places a high priority on connecting survivors with others.

A common definition of resilience is “toughness” and “determination.” We keep on going, no matter what. We never quit and have the capacity to bounce back after disappointment, failure or tragedy. For Christians, resilience has the added dimension of hope. Resilience is embodied hope, the understanding that profound difficulty is a normal part of life. At the same time God gives us the tools to not only survive but thrive. We emerge stronger than before because our lives are rooted in God’s love and faithfulness.

Open to all 2015 Boston Marathon runners, the webinar focused on resiliency in two areas: the aftermath of disaster or tragedy and in the 26-mile marathon itself. The psychological effects of trauma include:

  • Cognitive: confusion, memory loss, preoccupation
  • Emotional: shock, depression, fear, feeling overwhelmed, feeling nothing, anxiety
  • Physical: nausea, high heart rate, fatigue, hyper-arousal
  • Behavioral: suspicion, irritability, argumentative, excessive drinking, eating disorder, sexual dysfunction, indecisiveness

The presenters reminded us that the phases of recovery are different for each person. Recovery can last from one to three days or one to three years or even longer. Renewed grief, anger and disillusionment can be triggered by anniversaries or anything that reminds us of the tragedy. While some people experience a long-term psychological impact, it is not a given that trauma will be devastating.

They also referred to what is known as survivor’s guilt. Those who survive a trauma often want to assume responsibility for what happened and wonder what they could have done to prevent the tragedy. Survivor’s guilt is a normal reaction to an abnormal event. Runners in 2013 felt guilt, spectators felt guilt and even families who left the city for spring break felt guilt for abandoning the city. Yet the truth is that everyone is part of Boston Strong.

Most victims of tragedy or disaster are “normal” people dealing with abnormal circumstances. With help from family, friends and counseling, they will eventually be able to move on with their lives. Most of us heal on our own because resilience is part of the human condition and is a gift from God. In fact, post-traumatic growth happens for many. It may be a new sense of compassion, a greater capacity for finding meaning in suffering, a realigning of goals and values or new coping strategies that they did not have before.

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The presenters then moved into a discussion of resilience in the Boston Marathon itself. Most of us are aware of the mind-body connection, but it is especially critical in endurance races. When your body doesn’t want to move anymore, when you are so beat that you just want to curl up in a ball on the pavement at the 20-mile mark, it’s your mind that enables you to put one foot in front of another and keep on going.

Jeff Brown, a psychologist for the marathon medical team, stressed that the most important three pounds of our body are our brain. Resilience is the ability of our mind to encourage our body to withstand and adapt to stress and stressful situations. Resilience is part of who we are as human beings, but the cultivation of resilience is something we can develop in ourselves through learning, practice and coaching. Some of us are more physically resilient than socially or psychologically resilient, but it is clear that people with great social support and positive attitudes tend to cope better than others.

Mental strategies such as routine and visualization can also foster resilience. Many athletes and performers have pre-performance strategies that calm their anxiety. For runners it could be how you lace your shoes, using the same pins for your bib number, wearing your lucky socks, or consuming pre-race pasta. For performers it could be eating the same thing an hour before the show, doing the same vocal exercises or dressing in a certain way.

Visualization exercises where we imagine ourselves performing at peak capacity or rehearsing what we will do if something goes awry are also helpful in dispelling jitters and fostering resilience. The most important thing a Boston athlete can do when approaching the half-mile Heartbreak Hill is visualize themselves running steadily and strong rather than hitting the wall.

On April 8 a Boston jury found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev guilty on all thirty counts, and the second phase of the trial is about to begin. Will the same jury sentence Mr. Tsarnaev to life in prison or death? Last Friday (April 17), Bill and Denise Richards published an open letter in The Boston Globe. Their 8-year-old son, Martin, who was cheering on the runners with his family, was killed. But each family member was also injured. Jane (7), lost her left leg; Henry (9), witnessed unspeakable tragedy; their mother Denise lost sight in her right eye; and their father Bill had shrapnel burn his legs and his eardrums were perforated. Here is part of their letter.

“The past two years have been the most trying of our lives. Our family has grieved, buried our young son, battled injuries, and endured numerous surgeries – all while trying to rebuild lives that will never be the same. We sat in the courtroom, day after day, bearing witness to overwhelming evidence that included graphic video and photographs, replicated bombs, and even the clothes our son wore his last day alive…

“But now that the tireless and committed prosecution team has ensured that justice will be served, we urge the Department of Justice to bring the case to a close. We are in favor of and would support the Department of Justice in taking the death penalty off the table in exchange for the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison without any possibility of release and waiving all of his rights to appeal.

“We know that the government has its reasons for seeking the death penalty, but the continued pursuit of that punishment could bring years of appeals and prolong reliving the most painful day of our lives. We hope our two remaining children do not have to grow up with the lingering, painful reminder of what the defendant took from them, which years of appeals would undoubtedly bring.

“For us, the story of Marathon Monday 2013 should not be defined by the actions or beliefs of the defendant, but by the resiliency of the human spirit and the rallying cries of this great city. We can never replace what was taken from us, but we can continue to get up every morning and fight another day.”

Boston Strong Resilience: We are hope for each other.


Both Sides Now

Anyone growing up in my generation cannot fail to remember Joni Mitchell’s 1969 mega-hit Both Sides Now.

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all

Yes, I can finally say that I’ve seen both sides now. And it’s all the same to me. Within the next several months both the Detroit and West Michigan Annual Conferences will vote for this motion, “Be it resolved that the (Detroit Annual Conference/West Michigan Annual Conference) of The United Methodist Church agrees to take all necessary action in order to create a new conference to be the legal successor to the two existing conferences in the Michigan Area of The United Methodist Church.”

I spent the first thirty-one years of my ministry in West Michigan. I served amazing congregations, made close friends among clergy and laity, watched local churches grow into vital centers of ministry and rejoiced over individual lives that were transformed forever. Now, after almost two years in the Detroit Annual Conference, I can say exactly same thing.

From both sides people are people. United Methodists in West Michigan and Detroit have the same hopes, dreams and passions. Some claim that each conference has a different culture, but in my experience, there are many cultures within each conference as well as within many of our districts. After all, the line separating the conferences is artificial. The truth is that from both sides, United Methodists make disciples by loving and advocating for all, especially those on the margins, those left behind and those who are not welcome in other faith communities.

Yes, our conferences have attempted to “merge” in the past without success. The reasons are many and varied, and the emotional effects still linger. I voted for the merger each time. However, I am convinced that our 2015 vote may be our best chance to risk getting out of the boat and doing a new thing for the sake of the kingdom of God. There are three primary reasons why I believe a new conference is part of God’s hopes and dreams for United Methodists in Michigan.

1. It’s all about mission.

Creating a new conference is not about clergy and laity and their particular comfort. It’s about how United Methodists can best reach new people for Christ.

  • A new conference will facilitate better appointment-making than two smaller conferences, both of which have been declining in membership and attendance for years. With a larger pool of clergy, the Bishop and cabinet will have greater success in appointing the pastor most equipped to serve a particular church.
  • We’ll be able to adapt our conference structure and use our conference staff to resource local churches more effectively.
  • We can better collaborate, connect and support each other in ministry across the state.
  • We can use the wisdom and energy of our episcopal leader more wisely by no longer having to duplicate every agency and expect her/him to do everything twice.

2. It’s all about trust.

This time we are voting to create a new conference without having the details fleshed out. I’ve heard some people lament the fact that we will be voting without having everything “in writing.” However, if we are willing to trust each other and our leaders, we can move forward in faith, confident that by creating one new conference instead of merging two “old” conferences, it’s no longer going to be “them” and “us,” but “we.”

We may weary of the marriage analogy, but the similarities are intriguing. Many of us grew up with a view of marriage where two people fell in love with one another and became engaged because there was a level of trust between the couple. Pre-nuptial agreements that made it clear who was bringing what assets to the marriage were not as important as the bond of trust that everything can be worked out. Living together as a “trial” before making a commitment to marriage was neither acceptable nor necessary.

What United Methodists are asked to do in Michigan this spring is trust enough to know that each conference freely offers unique assets to a new conference. Furthermore, when it’s not about us but about pooling our financial, human, administrative and spiritual resources to become more than we ever could become individually, we can then let go of “us” and “them” and give as well as receive.

Having lived on both sides now, I have observed the unintended consequences of the trust factor that has kept both conferences for the most part separate. In 2013 Gary and I were appointed to the Detroit Conference. We were thrilled with the opportunity to serve in our sister conference because we are “both sides” kind of pastors. We’ve made many friends in the Detroit Conference over the years and believe that God is a part of the appointment process.

Retaining our West Michigan Conference membership, we understood that we were not able to vote at the Detroit Annual Conference. However, we soon discovered that we would be relegated to the balcony and not able to sit on the main floor with our local church lay delegates. We are grateful that someone recognized our dilemma and moved that all West Michigan clergy be able to sit with their Detroit colleagues because they trusted that we would not vote. It sent an important message to both conferences that if we are to become one, we need to begin trusting each other now.

If we only vote to form a new conference if all the details are worked out to our individual liking, we’ll remain stuck in the past. A new conference, faithful to God’s call, will emerge as our bishop and elected leaders make the best decisions they can on our behalf. This new conference will fulfill its potential when we have the collective will to see from both sides.

3. It’s all about risk.

A favorite quote by Andre Gide reminds me how important it is to live faith: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” It’s not easy to move beyond the safety of our own conference boats, isn’t it? We don’t know exactly what this new conference will look like, and we don’t know how we are going to find our place in something larger than our experience. It will no doubt even be a bit messy as we live into a new reality because that’s how all adventures of faith start out.

However, if our leaders as well as all United Methodist clergy and lay persons in Michigan are willing to risk emptying themselves and be open to the movement of the Spirit, we will be far stronger together than separate. If we vow to be transparent and humble and are willing to lose sight of the shore for a while, we will discover new and deeper dimensions of spiritual growth, outreach and evangelism. If both sides discern that now is the time to formally join hands and hearts to bring in the kingdom of God in Michigan, then who knows how far God will lead us?

Let’s risk losing sight of the shore and create something new: a new Conference focused on mission and ministry in a new world!

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all


A Letter to River Axel Smith

Dear River,

I just met you last night, three days old, dark hair, cute as a button, looking very much like your six-year-old brother, Ezra. I’ve been pondering the fact that you were born on Maundy Thursday evening, just as we were finishing a worship service at our church.

We do have a bit of a tradition in our family of birthdays falling on holidays. Your great-grandfather was born on New Year’s Day, your grandmother (me) was born on Thanksgiving, your mommy’s sister was born on Valentine’s Day, and you were born on the day that our Lord Jesus celebrated a last meal with his disciples, knowing that he was going to die the next day.


Because your mother is Christian and your father is Jewish, you are doubly blessed! Passover started on the evening of Friday, April 3, just a day after your birth, and ends on Saturday, April 11. What joy both sides of your family celebrate in knowing that you have arrived safely into the world.

Your mother and father have chosen River Axel as your name. It’s a strong name that may define who you will become as you grow and mature over the years. I associate the word “river” with life because flowing water is the source of human existence and growth in our world. I am reminded of John 4, where the Samaritan woman asks Jesus where she can get living water and he replies, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

In similar fashion, there is a ritual on the first day of Rosh Hashanah after the afternoon prayer where Jews sometimes go to a lake, river or sea and recite the Tashlich prayers. In these prayers, Jews symbolically toss pieces of bread or another food into a river of flowing water as a symbol of casting away their sins. By leaving their old shortcomings behind, they start the new year with a clean slate.

Your middle name, Axel, is a popular Scandinavian and German name, which is derived from the Hebrew name Absalom, who was one of King David’s sons. The word ‘abshālōm means “the father is peace” or “the father of peace.” I pray, River Axel, that you will always be a person of shalom, someone who experiences fullness of life by living out your call as God’s precious child and chosen one.

I can’t help but wonder at how fortunate you are. You have been born into a stable family with parents who will love, nurture and protect you. You have an older brother who already adores you and can’t wait to guide you through your childhood. I wonder if you will adopt his interest in baseball, karate, golf, math and cooking or whether you will go off in a different direction.

You have great-grandparents who will pray for you. Your grandparents, aunts and uncles don’t live nearby, but trust me. They will be an important part of your life, doting on you, teaching you, having fun with you, and helping you along your life’s journey.

As I look into your eyes and marvel at your perfect little body, I thank God, but I also realize that most of the children in our world do not have the same advantages you have. In fact, they are at great risk. More than one million babies die every year on the day of their birth, according to the latest UNICEF statistics. Close to two million babies die every year in the first week of life. The number of under-five deaths was cut in half between 1990 to 2013 from 12.7 to 6.3 million a year. Still, 17,000 children under five years of age die every day.

According to the National Center for Children and Poverty, more than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, which is $24,250 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children in our country live in low-income families.

Poverty can negatively affect children’s ability to learn. It contributes to poor physical and mental health as well as social, emotional and behavioral problems. Poverty can also lead to various forms of abuse. Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being.

If that weren’t enough, according to the U.S. government, 600,000 to 800,000 women, children and men are bought and sold across international borders every year and exploited for forced labor, organ trafficking or commercial sex. In 2012 the (UNODC) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the percentage of child victims had risen in a three-year span from 20% to 27%. Of every three child victims, two are girls and one is a boy. When international trafficking victims are added to the estimates, the number of victims annually is in the range of two to four million. 50% of those victims are estimated to be children.

I know you aren’t interested in any of those statistics right now, River. Your only concern is that your mother stay close to feed you when you are hungry.

Whenever I get a chance, I check you over. Your face, your fingerprints, your footprints and your brain are unique. No one will ever be exactly like you, River Axel. While your family can’t change your physical characteristics, we hope that we can mold and shape your character. I promise to teach you:

  • How to be tolerant of others who are not like you.
  • To respect yourself and others at all times.
  • The importance of giving, not taking. God calls you to share your abundance with other.
  • That each person in this world has a responsibility to make it a better world for all.
    To be a seeker, always learning, always growing, always loving with reckless abandon.
  • To find your passion and use it to change the world.

I keep thinking back to the night of your birth, Maundy Thursday. Do you know what Jesus taught his disciples that night? In John 13:34-35, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

If there is one thing I hope your family can teach you, it’s how to love not just those who love you but everyone in this world. I’ve also learned over many years that I can’t love alone. I’m not strong enough or good enough or committed enough. That’s why both sides of your family are part of a faith community. It’s the community of faith that instructs, encourages and empowers children, youth and old people like me to change the world.

It’s a big job, River. But with love of God that is already flowing in you and with your middle name reminding you every day that you are a person of peace, we can do it together. I just hope I can keep up with you!