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The Life Enrichment Center, Fruitland Park

This past weekend, I took some centering time at one of my favorite sacred spaces, on a personal clergy retreat, provided by Shade and Fresh Water, a ministry of the United Methodist Church that provides a transformative sanctuary for the restoration of body, mind, and spirit toward more abundant living. Not only is this retreat center a beautiful and peaceful setting, it also contains some markers of my personal growth.

This place is where I took my first official step in the ordination process with a call retreat in January  2011. One of the new friends I made that weekend is now my grandchildren’s pastor. This is a pretty cool journey. 

I spent time there on a personal retreat when I began serving in ministry full time. My soul kept getting pulled toward conflict. I was so busy trying to save the church that I didn’t take enough time to properly love the people who were there. This past weekend I spent some time in prayer trying to understand if I am making this same mistake over again. On my journey God continues to file away more of my rough edges.

There is a beautiful little chapel there where I enjoy times of silent centering prayer. I spent time there before my interview to be commissioned as a Provisional Elder in 2016 and then two years later before my interview for ordination. In the beginning, I wasn’t so sure about God’s wisdom in calling someone like me to be in ministry (too broken, too old), but I always appreciate the time to look back over the ways that God has equipped me for this work and to see how far I have come.

I  sometimes wonder why I let even the smallest criticism undermine everything that I have learned on this journey.  I went into the retreat feeling a little wounded by criticism (most often in the form of an email) and maybe even more by people who have wandered away from the church without a word. 

I read Bishop Carter’s book this weekend, called Embracing the Wideness. This book was like a healing balm for my soul. In it he talks about generous orthodoxy, which is characterized by grace. He says this:

“This grace is a broad, deep river, a wide reservoir of divine love, a fountain filled with blood that cleanses my unrighteousness and overcomes all my resistance and rebellion It is a grace greater than all my sin.”

I attended a funeral service on Saturday and was so blessed to hear two of my colleagues giving words of hope to family they have pastored and loved. People sometimes fear getting close to Methodist ministers, since they never know when we will be moved, but these two pastors were able to speak to the hearts of the family and the church because they have walked with them. They have truly been incarnational to the people they served. One of the things I love most about being a pastor is when people invite me into their lives.

Another book I read over the weekend was The Untethered Soul by by Michael Singer. In it he talks about the decision to be unconditionally happy. I realized how much I was basing my happiness on everyone around me also being happy. I’m going to stop doing that. I have made the decision to simply be happy. 

There is a lot of brokenness in the world today. Every day there are things that break my heart, but my gratitude list is longer than I have space for in my journals, I have blessings in my life beyond what I ever would have imagined ten years ago and my journey has the marks of a rich, deep expression of the beauty only God can make.

I can’t see any reason in the world not to live life to the fullest and give thanks every day for a beautiful life filled with amazing people and the most important work in the world. 


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Thirteen years ago I didn’t listen to Christian music. Well, that’s not totally true. I was a church choir director and listened to demo recordings of potential anthems, but none of that contemporary stuff. My religious experience was contained in a very carefully packed box containing what I liked and didn’t like in worship, and what I would and would not accept in a church. I made sure that my Sunday morning worship didn’t really leak out into the rest of my life. The result was that I was living on auto-pilot; a life with no defining purpose except to get through the day with as much comfort as possible. I don’t know if I even wondered if there was more, I just sort of drifted through life in a daze.

Thirteen years ago this week, a former student who had been in my inner circle of jazz band kids died unexpectedly at the age of 16. It was as if someone kicked me in the stomach and turned the lights off in my life. I found no help or comfort from inside my carefully curated religious box and wandered in a black fog for days.

On March 17, 2005, Staci Stephen’s witness, captured on video and brilliantly recorded in her daily journals, flipped the lights on for me. At her funeral service, when I heard about her life and her faith and the fulfillment she found in Jesus, I was done with the auto-pilot life. I was done with the darkness. I was ready to walk into the light.

I began listening to the Christian radio station, reading the Bible intensely, devouring books about heaven, attending multiple churches, and cornering pastors and trusted church elders with rapid fire questions about how God works in life and death. I began to find the truth that I was seeking. The soundtrack for this time in my life was the song I Can Only Imagine by Mercy Me. I realized that there was abundant life outside of the box.

Today I saw the movie of the same name and it spoke loud and clear to me about a dissonance I have experienced since I decided to answer the call to ministry.  The movie tells about the life of the songwriter and his early disappointment in his career. The criticism from the record label reps was that the band was good and he was a good singer, but it just wasn’t genuine. They weren’t getting to the heart of what it’s all about. To do that you have to face your fear, walk into your pain instead of walking away from it. For the music to reach people, it has to come from a lived reality.

Over the past five years, I’ve had people complain to me that they don’t like new songs, that children in worship make too much noise, that we shouldn’t begin a new service, we shouldn’t sing music from black composers for black history month, that it was a bad idea to hold a healing service, that I should be condemning LGBTQ people from the pulpit, that the 50 year-old Sunday school curriculum doesn’t need to change, to stop preaching about discipleship, to not say that I’m divorced from the pulpit because it makes me look bad, that worship should be at 11 am not 9:30, that change is happening too quickly, that we need to cater to preferences of the older people in the congregation, and for heaven’s sake, don’t even think about moving the chairs in the Worship Center!

Here’s the dissonance I’m experiencing: NONE OF THAT STUFF IS OUR WITNESS!!

My life changed when a 16 year-old girl who died too soon, witnessed about how her life had been transformed. As a result, I got out of my carefully curated religious box and found joy and purpose that guides me every day.

I’ve been too sensitive to the criticism that comes with the territory of being a pastor of a congregation full of human beings. I’ve taken complaints personally, allowed my heart to be broken for the people who have stepped away from the church, and have constantly searched my conscience to see if I am operating out of false or self-serving motives. But I realize that I am falling into an old favorite of mine, codependence. I’m taking on their pain as if I could heal it.

I can’t.

But I know who can.  Today, the movie reminded me about the life changing power I experienced when I made the decision to walk in a genuine, authentic life in Jesus. No matter how much we’ve been hurt, no matter how hard it is to forgive, we can lean into a power that is so much greater. A power that can heal hearts, reconcile enemies, and make new anything or anyone we thought was beyond redemption.

I needed this movie today, especially during this anniversary week of Staci’s death. It reminded me that in every church I’ve served, there are people farther along the path, guiding me forward, just as there are some people still walking in darkness. It reminded me that even middle aged Christians like me can still be transformed by the power of a genuine witness. I’m grateful to Staci, who wanted a unique ministry and to her mother, Kristen for getting her story out there in the world.

To hear more about Staci’s amazing story, click here.

Also, go see the movie. Let me know what you think.

Ash Wednesday is a time to remember our mortality and to enter into a time of repentance. This year, the day was punctuated with a graphic example of this brokenness in our world, the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

As a pastor, I want to say healing words to all who are hurting. As a prophet, I want to call out the responses that are preventing us from working together to solve this. I believe that our only way forward is to make peace with one another and take faithful steps together.

There has been a lot of criticism of offering thoughts and prayers. If our thoughts and prayers don’t lead to action, then they are certainly empty gestures, but before we dismiss this as a first step, what kind of thoughts and prayers can lead us faithfully to take action?

Lament – Before we jump in with our opinions, let us first honor the victims with deep prayers of lament. Our Bishop has asked us to read the names in worship on Sunday. Have you read each name and looked at each face, learned something about each person and celebrated who they were before their lives were cut short? You can read about them here.  We can also lament the other school shootings that have taken place this year. Sit with the pain and sadness of the loss of each person before moving on to a solution.

Repentance – Lent is a season to reflect on our own sin. How do each of us contribute to the violence in the world? Before posting something angry on social media that points a finger at someone else, have we taken some time in prayer to reflect on the anger in our own hearts? Jesus says that anyone angry with a brother or sister is committing murder (Matthew 5:21). In the safety of prayer, lay down your anger to God and let your heart be healed. More anger is like pouring gasoline on the fire.

Discernment – Before taking action, have we prayed about how God wants us to act? Have we allowed the Holy Spirit to lead us forward? What is God calling you to do? We know by now that social media debates do little to solve our problems. We also know that we can achieve much more when we work together. The United Methodist Church’s 2016 Book of Resolutions contains a call to end gun violence. Click here to read ways that you can join together with others to work toward the vision of shalom or God’s perfect peace.

Walk Faithfully – Pray for the courage to take whatever action God is calling you to take. Our political divisions have caused us to choose silence as a way of avoiding conflict. We have to care about our brothers and sister enough to enter into a thoughtful conversation together. We have to put our relationships above our political parties. Get out of the echo chamber and learn how to have loving and respectful conversations with people who have opinions that are different from your own. If we can find a middle ground in love, we can move forward.

I have seen what can happen when faithful people walk together for good. Let’s do that.

It’s a little late for New Year’s resolutions. Whatever I might have resolved, I’ve probably already blown it for the year anyway. Going into 2018, I realize two things about why this annual desire to be a better person fails:

  1. I try to do it all on my own.
  2. I focus more on what I want to stop doing than what I want to start.

I went to a celebration of life today for a woman who lived life as a gracious  example of how to be a better person. She was described as being determined, faithful, kind, fun, loving, and a true lady. Gwen Puryear was a member of Edge Memorial UMC, the church I served before moving to Fleming Island. Even though I haven’t stayed in touch, Gwen continued to send me birthday and Christmas cards. I got a card from her a few weeks ago, then learned this week that she had died suddenly of liver cancer. In her last days in hospice, she faced death with the same sense of peace and assurance that she had in life.

As churches are changing and we focus on reaching new people in new places, there is something very beautiful about the old established churches that have mature Christians with deep roots, who have lived through the many decades of a changing world. Gwen was always kind to me and supportive of my ministry. She was always looking for new ways to spread love and kindness to people around her.

As I think about the opportunities to grow in the new year, I recognize the importance of those who have been part of my journey. Some are in past chapters, where we may only connect with the random Facebook updates, but each one has contributed to my life and my character. Gwen meant a great deal to me and I’m not sure I realized how much until I heard that she had died.

I also want to live more fully into the relationships that are part of my current journey. There are beautiful people in my life right now. In this new year, I hope to more fully cherish our time together.

I usually have a theme word for the year. A colleague posted her word as “focus.” I’ve decided to co-opt her word and try to focus in on everything that has been a little blurry in the past year.

Gwen’s service today inspired me to connect more fully with the people around me and to begin doing those  things I have wanted to do, but have just not gotten around to doing. I love that Gwen could face the end of her life without any regrets, knowing that she allowed God to work through her to reflect God’s divine image, making her the truest version of herself.

A person who is faithful, determined, loving, and graceful is the person I want to be.

 

So Much Love!

To be honest, even though I was eager to enter into a partnership with a sister church in Cuba, I was a little ambivalent  about actually going there. With all that is going on politically, would it be safe? Would I be able to communicate? Would I get sick from eating or drinking? Would we like each other? Would I be able to understand what was happening in worship?

By the end of the first day it felt much more like a family reunion than what we would think of as a mission trip. The people of the Methodist Church in Calabazar (about 20 minutes south of Havana) welcomed us with love and joy that I will never forget.

Doilys, Russ, Danielle, Me, Pastor Javier, and Irina

So, to answer my own questions:

Safety

We felt very safe. People have very little as far as material resources, but they work together little by little (poco a poco) to do what they need to do. They have many challenges, but they understand their life as being one that is lived together in community. Things we take for granted (things like toilet paper and shopping for what you need) are much more difficult there, but it was a place of peace and contentment.

Communication

We were fortunate to have a wonderful woman serving as our translator. Doilys works for American Airlines and is one of the sisters of the church. (By the way, they take seriously the understanding of church as being the body of Christ, the family of God. We were confused about which people were blood relatives because they call each other their sister and brother. We were accepted into the family right away.) When Doilys wasn’t there, the church secretary Yanet served as our translator. When Yanet wasn’t there, my daughter Danielle did the translating. They all did so great! I sort of enjoyed having to struggle a little bit with the language because I think it helped me learn a little more, but when any of those three ladies were not there, it was frustrating to want to communicate, but not know how. Duolingo is once again a part of my daily morning routine. Next time I go, I want to be able to carry on at least a simple conversation without help. There were times though, that even though I didn’t know the words that someone was saying, I knew exactly what they meant.

Eating and drinking

Wow, we really ate well. They showed us love and hospitality very kindly through the meals they prepared for us. The Cuban people share my love for sugar and coffee. We had café a few times every day – espresso with lots of sugar. After a big meal there was always some kind of sweet (dulce). If they didn’t have dessert they had pear nectar or a soft drink that was like Sprite. It was all very delicious and very satisfying.

Smile if you like chocolate!

Would we like each other?

The custom of kissing on the cheek is alive and well in Cuba to say hello and goodbye. We sort of noticed that you get one kiss on the cheek until you become beloved, then you get the double kiss. I came back home wanting to hug everyone (I stopped short of the kiss) and remembered that we are much more guarded about our personal space here.

I felt bad that we didn’t have personal gifts for each person who meant so much to us during our visit because each one gave us some treasures to show their love in addition to the love they showed through their hospitality and preparation of beautiful meals for us. We will have to remember to take gifts next time.

The worship times opened all three of us up to a fuller experience of the Holy Spirit. Where we have been settling for a drip, like shower with low water pressure, the Spirit is pouring in Cuba.  There is singing, dancing, fainting, tears, joy, proclamation, and no one thinks about how long the service is. Two hours doesn’t seem like very long at all because time seems to stand still in the presence of  Jesus. The church is bursting at the seams and needs a bigger building. The missions that meet during the week are thriving. They have a sports ministry that is reaching unchurched youth. Children, youth, and adults are all an active and vital part of the worship services. We all three had an intense experience of the Holy Spirit that brought us way outside of our comfort zones into new territory. Pastor Javier invited me into this Spirit-filled worship in a way I could have never imagined. We left wanting more.

Many United Methodist Churches in Florida have this sister church partnership, through Methodists United in Prayer . I am really excited to be a part of this ministry and can’t wait to go back.

Bendiciones!

 

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.

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?