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The Good Place

In times like these, we are looking for hope and wholeness in a world that seems very dark.

One of my favorite new TV shows is The Good Place. Kristin Bell plays the character of Eleanor who wakes up and is told she is in “the good place,” but soon discovers that while it may seem like the good place, it is actually a place of torment.

Church of the Resurrection, Leawood, KS

I spent most of last week at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas at the Leadership Institute hosted by Pastor Adam Hamilton. I’ve  read most of the books he has written and worshiped online with his church. COR is like Disney World for church people. It was an inspiration to spend a few days in this church that has paid so much attention to every detail, in order to achieve their mission. When I walked in, I thought to myself, “This is the Good Place!” Even though they are a great role model for our churches in how to be more effective in ministry, they have their struggles and conflicts. As much as we want to be in heaven, we find over and over again that we still live in a broken world.

Reverend Brinda LeBleu

On Saturday, I attended the celebration of the life of a former pastor who lived her life in The Good Place. At her service we had joy even in our sorrow, knowing that Brinda was free of pain and living into her heavenly future. She was a person who lived with resurrection joy. In an imperfect world, she loved others, even when it was difficult and spoke faithful words about how to live into a genuine Christian life. She was honest and vulnerable and lived her life as a supporter and encourager of others. Her light will continue to shine through all who knew her.

This morning, as I watched the news about the shooting in Las Vegas, I realized that I know the family of the shooter. As I have been praying for the victims and the families of those who were killed, I now pray for this family that I love as they try to make sense out of these actions.

Evil is such a mystery to us. It takes us by surprise. We have expectations of heaven while our reality is one of living in a broken world.

But, we keep our eyes on The Good Place, doing everything we can to follow God’s work in guiding us to that place of wholeness for ourselves, our churches, our communities, and our world. Many of us who are connected to a church have lost the urgency for what it means to share the healing, transforming love of God with the world. We need to reclaim that urgency, not simply because we want to save ourselves, but because we want the world to experience the wholeness that we call salvation.

We grieve for the brokenness of the world as our hearts break for others in so many different places right now. There has been so much pain, loss, and destruction, we find ourselves with compassion fatigue, almost becoming numb to the pain around us, as the hits keep on coming.

But as resurrection people, we believe that death and destruction is never the last word. We live into the hope that comes from knowing that God is with us and that we will experience the wholeness we long for, right now and more fully in a world to come. We know that everyone who has suffered or is still suffering is being held in the palm of the hand of a mighty, powerful, and loving God who will redeem all of the brokenness.

For this we give thanks and find strength to continue living lives of love and faithfulness, not so that we can go back to our normal lives and forget about all that has happened, but so that we can be even more devoted to sharing God’s loving care to all who need to experience it.

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Wine and Candlelight

I only bought one bottle of wine. A Merlot from the Francis Ford Coppola winery label at Publix. I made 4 or 5 trips to Publix before this storm, first purchasing water and a flashlight, then applesauce, then vegetarian baked beans. Wine was probably on the second trip.

I thought about evacuating. I would have loved to spend the weekend in Durham with its cool places to eat and with my friend Jen, or in Paducah with my Aunt Charlotte. But my gut told me to stay and I listen to my gut. I thought that I might be useful after the storm. Not so much. Not yet.

I finally opened the bottle tonight after the storm passed. While I have a deep and abiding sense of God’s love, I also understand that we are mortal beings. I know that even when God is with us, we sometimes die. To me, this is a deeper faith, that we know God’s love no matter what. But putting my insurance papers and my last will and testament in a zip lock bag was for sure, a solemn act. Before this gets too serious, let me point out that no way could I write this on my phone right now without auto-correct, you know, the wine and all.

I have sone experience with hurricanes. The first one I remember was David in 1979. I must have been a senior at Cocoa Beach HS. My family went to a shelter at an elementary school and we were instructed to leave the pets at home. My friend from chorus, Isabelle was also there. We found a piano and regaled the evacuees with our rendition of songs from Barry Manilow and Linda Ronstadt until some grumpy guy in the shelter told us to shut up. Then I found The Mouse and the Motorcycle in the school library and read until I fell asleep. We returned home the next day to minimal damage and critters who were happy to see us.

Last night, I finally resorted to one of my comfort activities, watching the West Wing on Netflix (okay, fine line between comfort activity and addiction) when the power went out with a bang around 10 pm.

My dog Gracie was trembling in fear and the mean kitty Annesley actually wanted to cuddle.

We made a bed in the walk-in closet, at which point I realized that the luxury of my walk in closet and bathroom is actually a pretty amazing space; one I could easily exist in for as long as necessary.

We slept soundly until the iPhone alerts about flooding and storm surges woke us up. Every time falling tree branches hit the house Gracie wanted to bark and scare the predators away, but I held her close.

When I felt like waking up it was about 7:30 am, which is sleeping in for me. I dined on brown sugar Pop Tarts and some cold brew Starbucks coffee and began to realize that the worst was over.

Tonight as I sit here in the Candlelight, my heart is unbelievably warm in the light of God’s blessings over this past year.

Maybe like fasting, hurricanes give us pause from our busy lives to take a moment to say with deep and utter sincerity:

Thank you, God. Really, thank you.

Now, how can I pay this forward?

When John Wesley set sail for the New World, his ship hit some very rough seas and he feared that he would die. He attended a prayer session with a group of Moravians onboard who were calm as they prayed through the Psalms in the midst of the storm. It made Wesley wonder how he could experience that sense of peace. While he was a devout man, diligent in his Bible study and life of piety, he didn’t have that calm assurance in his heart that God was with him. When he saw the Moravians experiencing that sense of tranquility even in the midst of the stormy waters, he wanted that for himself.

Three years later, when he was coming out of a Bible study, he found that sense of assurance, that God’s love was with him.

That evening he reluctantly attended a meeting in Aldersgate. Someone read from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to Romans. About 8:45 p.m. “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.”

That journey was transformational for him. If our faith only consists of rules for what we are supposed to do or even worse, rules for how others should behave, then we are missing a key part of the relationship with God. Trusting God means knowing with head and heart that every single one of us is a beloved child of God.

As Irma approaches, we have made our preparations, even though we aren’t exactly sure what to do. We have likely already made the decision to evacuate or stay put. For most of us, that decision has been complicated.

As we wait, the fear of the unknown threatens to unsettle us. If we engage in too much media or talk to people who are in a panic, that fear can become contagious. My suggestion is to get an update from the National Hurricane Center every three hours, but turn off the news and do other things. Spend time with people you love, take some of this time of waiting to read scripture or devotional books that bring you comfort and peace. For suggestions, take a look at these resources.

When the storm passes, we will need to work together to rebuild. Take moment now to register as a volunteer with Volunteer Florida.

One of our church members, who just turned 78, is trained as an early responder for the Red Cross. He has inspired me to also become trained once we recover from this current storm. I support our United Methodist Committee on Relief and plan to go through any trainings that they offer to be able to provide that help in the future. Also, before the storm, this would be a great time to give blood.

There are benefits to the ecosystem from hurricanes. This article from the Weather Center highlights some of these benefits. While we only see the destruction, these disasters also serve to remind us what our true values are. When we experience power outages, we have a renewed and profound sense of gratitude once our power is restored for the comfort of electricity and air conditioning we take for granted every day. We find in the storm that we care less about our possessions than we do about the ones we love. Many choose to be uncomfortable in community instead of safe in isolation.

Join me in praying that through this storm everyone in its path will know the peace that comes from knowing that God is with us.

 

Wesley and the People Called Methodists by Richard P. Heitzenrater, p. 59 – 60.

Through the Waters

I am watching the coverage of Hurricane Harvey this week while studying this passage from Isaiah 43.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned and the flame shall not consume you…Do not fear, for I am with you.

Just a few days ago, I remembered Hurricane Andrew that hit Miami on August 24, 1992, finding it difficult to believe that this was 25 years ago.  While I evacuated with my daughters, the aftermath and recovery from this storm took years.

Throughout that time, we had a sense of God guiding us through it. While we felt like our lives had been turned upside down, we got through it and even had some blessings as a result. In that difficult economic time, our rent was suspended for over 6 months, as our apartment building was declared uninhabitable. People in the neighborhood pulled together, with everyone sharing food and people with gas grills cooking for everyone. While I was a brand new resident of Miami – only one week before the storm – I bonded with my community through it.

Now, we are waiting to see how we can help those who are going through another storm in Texas. Our church will collect donations for the United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR) This is wonderful organization where 100% of the donations go to the work they are doing. Please consider this if you are looking for a way to help.

We can also pray. Along with providing help and assisting them, we can continue to pray.  Here is a prayer from the Bishop of the Texas Annual Conference:

The preparation for this journey included a reading list to learn about what we were going to experience before we went. It helped me to be in the mindset of pilgrimage before the trip began.

On the trip, though, we could tell when we had switched from being Pilgrims to tourists. In tourist mode, the cameras came out and our desire to experience famous places became primary. As pilgrims we were content to journey together caring more about the shared experience of walking through the history of the Methodist movement together. Beginning our days with morning prayer and communion was one of the most beautiful parts.

Pilgrim

 

Tourist

This parallels the tension of the Christian journey; being in the world but not of it.

We are the perfect blend of pilgrims and tourists at the Turf Tavern in Oxford.

I found great warmth and comfort being part of the group. When we were all traveling somewhere together, we all looked out to make sure each person was with us. When we went out together in small groups, the will of the group shifted to whoever wanted to do something the most. My group was wonderful to accommodate my desire to have dinner at the Turf Tavern in Oxford and to have Indian food in London.

Our last full day there, we all got on the tube together (the subway in London) and made our way into town. We waited for each other and navigated this new land with the joking and familiarity that comes from being comfortable in a group.

The next morning I took almost that exact same route, but it was very different alone. Instead of the confidence of community, I felt a little anxious about getting around by myself.  This is what it is like to be held close in Christian community and then to be sent out into the world.

Church is supposed to feel like this. It should be a close-knit community bound together in love and a common journey, where we gain strength, purpose, and courage. We hold each other accountable in this church family, to grow to be all that we can in the image of God. Then we are sent out to share that love in the world.

Too many times Church has become a place for us to seek our own feeding, our own preferences, instead of learning how to grow in the self-giving love of Jesus. We stop being pilgrims on a journey together and become tourists wanting to be thrilled and entertained.

As I re-entered my faith community today, I felt very vulnerable after such a meaningful journey. I was very moved to take and serve communion with my own church after being away. This coming week, we will shape and form children in the love of Jesus through our Vacation Bible School. As I continue to process all that I learned, I look forward to the next steps on this journey.

The Salisbury Cathedral with sheep grazing in the meadow

I am not a good photographer. I’ve deleted at least 20 pictures of my thumb, the ground at my feet, or the inside of my pocket. Luckily some sites are so beautiful, the pic comes out okay if you just point in the general direction and click. 

We are so much freer with picture taking now that we don’t have to worry about having enough film to capture everything we want to remember. So what prompts the impulse to take a picture?

I think it’s a way of giving thanks. When we see a work or art or architecture, a beautiful scene, or have people who mean something to us, the act of taking the photograph shows gratitude for this moment. 

I have hundreds of these moments of gratitude. Most of them may never be shared, but in that moment of “click” my soul experienced gladness for creation and God’s renewing work in it. 

On the grounds of the Hayes Conference Center in Darbyshire

I love taking path pictures. Every time I travel, there has to be at least one. They are great symbols of the journey. 

My walk for these ten days is in the footsteps of the early Methodists, John Wesley and his brother Charles in the beautiful country of England. I met my fellow pilgrims in Salisbury at Sarum College. I love being here and already love these people. 

This is my room. It is simple, comfortable, and everything I need. There is a shower, a loo, and a little pot that heats water for tea really fast. 
Right across the street is the Salisbury Cathedral, a magnificent building with the tallest spire in Britain. 

Salisbury Cathedral


The contrast of the simplicity of my living space and the grandeur of the cathedral struck me as being rightly ordered. We usually have this backwards. We have opulent homes for our personal space and then toss a few dollars into the plate for the life and work of the church. If we were really walking the walk this would be the other way around. 

Each day begins with morning prayer and communion. Each evening ends with compline. I have the honor of playing piano for our hymns. Tonight we experienced evensong at the cathedral. The choir was like angels singing. I walked away with a complete sense of fulfillment. 

I haven’t watched television or heard any news since I’ve been here, so when the priest prayed for Donald Trump in morning prayer this morning, I realized that for this time away, the words of tweets, fake news, and alternative facts have been replaced by the words of prayer, community, and learning. Everything we are learning is true in a way that resonates deep within me, not just because someone said it. 

While many of my mornings at home begin with media, here it is much more unplugged. 

Prayer labyrinth at Hayes Conference Center

Instructions for the journey


I woke a few hours early yesterday to be able to walk the labyrinth, spend time in intercessory prayer for my congregation, then be at our beautiful outdoor communion service at 7:30. 

After breakfast we headed to Epworth, Lincolnshire, where John and Charles were born. We toured their house, the Old Rectory, as well as the church where their father was appointed as an Anglican priest. 

Rectory


One thing I love about the churches over here is the baptismal font at the entrance, which symbolizes the beginning of the journey. It was very moving to be able to see and touch the font where John and Charles were baptized. 


To prepare for this we had talked the night before in our small groups about baptism, and I realized I had some theological questions about it. I read the UMC publication By Water and the Spirit and remembered that when we baptize children or are baptized ourselves we are entering this new covenant with God, a new way of living. Remembering our baptism reminds us that we belong to God and seek to live into this life to grow in holiness of heart and life. 

As the journey continues, I am moved by the zeal of Frances Asbury, who began his ministry in the United Stated in 1771. He stated his mission of going to the New World to live for God and bring others to do so. 

My prayer this evening: let me so live as well.