20-30 More Years

Let me start with a timeline.

  • October 31, 2020 – I become the new Virginia Conference Lay Leader in a virtual Annual Conference where I take my Birkenstocks off and talk about standing on Holy Ground.
  • November 20, 2020 – With COVID still having things shut down, it seems like the perfect time for elective surgery on my right foot. Two weeks after surgery there is a little hiccup, but a round of antibiotics seemed to take care of the issue.
  • Physical therapy from mid-January to the end of February – Thought I was ready to be released but alas, the doctor came in from looking at x-rays and said, “Do you remember doing anything lately that put extra stress on your foot?” The hardware had pulled completely out of one bone, and there was an impacted fracture in the part of the bone that remained. “We have to fix this as soon as possible because you’ve got 20-30 more years of walking to do.”
  • March 26, 2021 – Surgery #2 to repair all the stuff that was broken. Beautiful new titanium plate in my foot. Eight weeks of no weight bearing turns into ten. A CT scan at the end of May shows limited healing. Gone is the knee scooter but more time in the walking boot.
  • June 18 – 19, 2021 – Annual Conference in a walking boot.
  • Mid-July – Finally get out of the boot only to learn that two staples are interfering with joint movement and need to be removed.
  • August 6, 2021 – Surgery #3 to remove hardware, while Steve is having an attack of kidney stones in the hospital parking deck. Last thing I hear the doctor say is that she will roll me down to the ER instead of the Recovery Room if Steve is there when I come out of surgery. Two more weeks of the boot.

Flash ahead to this spring when a 5K Run/Walk is announced for the Saturday morning of the Virginia Annual Conference to support the Annual Conference offering. The Conference Lay Leader has to set an example, right? Yet there is no way, walking as carefully as I do these days, that I can even try this walk early on the last morning of the Annual Conference session and be in my seat, ready for Bible Study at 8:30 AM. So I come up with the bright idea that I can tackle the walk following the last Annual Conference planning committee meeting. Who would have guessed that in mid-April the doctor would say “I think you are developing a bone cyst in your big toe joint?” Who could have imagined that the recommendation just last week would be to place carbon fiber inserts in my shoes? Who knew then that it would be 95+ degrees in Hampton on May 31st???

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith….

Hebrews 12:1-2, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (NRSVUE)

This brings me to the lessons learned on Tuesday afternoon.

  1. Be courageous. Be bold. Take a risk. Oh, lay leaders, how much do we need this commitment for the ministries of the church today? Coming out of the pandemic, it has been much too easy to slip back into comfortable, safe ways of “being church.” That is not what we are called to be about right now! We need renewal. We need new creativity. We need the fire of Pentecost to fall upon us. I have never walked a 5K before, much less considered it after a seventeen month journey of surgery, recovery and starting to walk again. I had to tell everybody as we were leaving the planning team meeting that I was walking; otherwise, I would have gotten in my car and driven straight home. My Fitbit showed 4,753 steps when I got out of my car at the trail. It read 11,180 when I got back one hour and four minutes later. Slow, but steady – with lots of pictures along the way.
  2. Be observant. Church, we have to recognize the diversity and changing needs in our communities. We have to listen – really listen – to the stories of those we worship with, pass on the streets, spend our working hours with and yes, even those with whom we disagree. We have to see and respect all the people. Signs along the Matteson Trail remind you to look out for golf balls as the trail winds around a local golf course. You also have to look out for the golfers searching for those lost balls…and the deer…and the squirrels…and the tree roots…and the sun peaking through the leaves bringing light into the shadows. You could easily get hurt if you’re not paying attention but more importantly, you might miss the beauty of God’s creation. You might not see the face of Jesus standing right in front of you. You might not hear the Holy Spirit as it moves among the leaves.
  3. Care for yourself. Recognize when you need to rest, when you need to learn something new, and when you need to feed your soul – even if that comes from walking a wooded trail at your very own pace, one step at a time. Find ways for your church leaders – clergy and lay – to rest and renew. Only then can we focus on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. There were lots of water breaks, lots of wiping my face on my sleeve while walking, and a moment or two of doubt that I could actually make it all the way without taking a shortcut across the golf course. But know what? I made it all the way!
  4. Celebrate what works and let what doesn’t fade away. Make space for new opportunities. We as church leaders are not the best at having fearless conversations and making challenging decisions as we evaluate ministry programming and attempt to objectively talk about our current contexts. It is so much easier to let things continue as they always have. We can’t do that any more – at church or in our communities. That is not who we are called to be. I wouldn’t have walked this trail if there hadn’t been plans for something new at this upcoming Annual Conference. I probably wouldn’t have even considered it if I didn’t hear the challenge of my doctor saying over and over in my head, “You’ve got 20-30 more years of walking to do.” I pray that I’ve also got 20-30 more years of being the hands and feet of Jesus, 20-30 more years of work to do to build the kin-dom of God.

As I came to the end of the walk, there were weathered, leaning mile markers on each side of the trail. In the direction I was heading, the marker noted the end of three miles. On the opposite side, it marked the beginning of the journey.

We stand in that space at every step of our walk as leaders in today’s church.

It just so happened that as I stood there, taking the last sip of water from the bottle I had been carrying, a couple of jets took off from Langley Air Force Base (just 5 miles away). There had been several flyovers as I walked the trail, but this one was timed perfectly: to honor the risk, to celebrate the finish, to mark the next 20-30 years of walking in the path of Jesus.

“…let (me) run with perseverance the race that is set before (me)…

A Declaration: Why I’m United Methodist

I was honored today to be part of the 30th Anniversary session of United Methodist Day at the Virginia General Assembly. Legislative advocacy is one way we can and should live what we say we believe as United Methodist, our holiness of heart and life. In the first session of today’s event, several powerful quotes from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu were shared including:

“I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t.

On Saturday, we will have a Special Session of the Virginia Annual Conference to review the details of our denominational settlement as part of the bankruptcy proceedings for the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Questions have been raised as to why churches that may have never had a BSA troop are being asked to fund part of the settlement. …We are a connectional church. In The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, Tutu wrote:

“We are not responsible for what breaks us but we can be responsible for what puts us back together again. Naming the hurt is how we begin to repair our broken parts.”

Since VOICE is my word of intention for 2022, it’s time for me to share my declaration of why I am United Methodist. During his address at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg on November 23, 2004, Tutu said,

“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”

Thank you, April Casperson, Justin Coleman, Andrew Jarrell, Shandon Klein, Bud Reeves, Cory Smith, Molly Vetter, and J.J. Warren, for reminding me of the power of this UMC connection as we have talked about #BeUMC over the last few months! So, here’s why I’m United Methodist. For those of you who take the time to read my story, I invite you to share yours.

Why I’m United Methodist Martha Stokes, Virginia Conference Lay Leader

I grew up United Methodist. Actually, I was baptized Methodist in 1961 and confirmed United Methodist in 1972. A little bit happened in the life of the denomination between those years.

I must confess that it hasn’t been easy to stay United Methodist or even connected to the church. In my 61 years, I’ve experienced my share of unchristian-like behavior when we’ve quarreled over ministries (and ministers); when feelings have been hurt and hearts damaged; when we have forgotten that we, the people, are the church; and when we have failed to live as the people we claim to be – the people Jesus tried so hard to teach us to be. I’ve experienced the hurt and anger of being told as a young woman, eager to serve in the church, that I should not enter the ordained ministry because of my gender. I’ve lived through the highs and very dark lows of serving as a lay delegate to four General Conference sessions. I have questioned how we treat one another, how we forgive each other, and how we continue to grow as disciples of Jesus. I have been totally lost in my faith journey at times. Yet, the conclusion I’ve come to is that I wouldn’t be anything other than a United Methodist Christian.

I want to be United Methodist because we are not all expected to think alike. One of John Wesley’s quotes that I love comes from a letter he wrote in 1749 to a Roman Catholic. Wesley stated: “If we cannot as yet think alike in all things, at least we may love alike.” We have our basic affirmations, our foundational beliefs, which we share with all Christian communities, but with that comes a broad-mindedness to allow for dissenting opinions and differing values with the focus of always striving to live as Jesus modeled for us. We can’t come to understand each other unless we have built relationships that allow us to talk openly, feel safe, and be willing to set our own feelings aside to hear God’s call for ourselves and our church. My greatest desire for our church is that we truly live out more of this understanding in our conferencing, worship, and living.

Another thing that keeps me United Methodist is our understanding of grace. God’s grace has been with me from my first moment. No person can give it to me or take it away. A loving God cares for me no matter how undeserving I may be. Now, my job is to live like I believe it. Living in God’s grace requires that I show the unconditional love of God and model the teachings of Jesus in all that I do and say – 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I choose to be United Methodist because we believe that we have a responsibility to live out our faith in the world. Our Wesleyan heritage continues to call us to be and to make faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in the realities of today’s society. We are challenged to show compassion to all people: from the poorest of the poor, to the amazingly wealthy; from those whose skin color or lifestyle or abilities are like ours, to those who are as far opposite as possible. It would be so much easier to simply deal with those who are like us, but that is not the calling of the Methodist tradition.

As we pray, study the Scriptures, worship, and share in fellowship with other Christians, we deepen our knowledge of and love for God. As we respond with compassion to human need and work for justice in our communities, we strengthen our capacity to love our neighbors. Our mission together is to use that love for all our neighbors to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Because of this, I know I am called to #BeUMC.

Voice

With an early January birthday, in my adult years I’ve alternated between setting intentions at the start of the calendar year or waiting until my birthday, the start of my new year. I don’t use the word “resolution,” just like I don’t say I “preach” but offer a message. Surgery on December 28th for my spouse, Steve, made the decision somewhat obvious this year. Our New Year’s celebrations were pretty quiet. What I have struggled with is choosing a word of intention for 2022.

The word that has emerged over the last week is voice.

As of tomorrow morning at 6:53 AM, I will have been in this world for 32,061,600 minutes. I don’t remember ever hearing a story of whether I whimpered, cried loudly or silently entered the world. I know by the time I was a young child that my introverted tendencies were strongly emerging. It didn’t surprise anyone when I got the “unsatisfactory” marks on my high school report cards for not participating in class. My voice – as an advocate for myself and others, as a bridgebuilder, as a person worthy of trust – is something I have had to courageously work to use. My preference is to show you that I care, to express my character and opinions without words, to act upon my intentions – not state them loudly for all the world to hear.

But is that what is needed for this time and this place where we find ourselves at the start of 2022? In some ways, yes – more than ever! I believe, especially as a follower of Jesus Christ, that the world must see me act authentically, living out what I claim to be and profess. Yet, in so many other ways right now, we need non-anxious, steady voices to push for justice and compassion. Voice is needed to speak life to a future that is different from what we are experiencing today. That voice must help us realize that we are not going to return to what was. The voice must call us to accept the uncertainties of not fully knowing what is ahead and move us to be bold, creative and unafraid to take the risks that are necessary to faithfully step forward.

I pray as my new year begins that I use my voice in 2022 to do no harm, to do all the good that I can and to share the message of the unconditional love of God that I know through my relationship with Jesus. Wow! How much more United Methodist can you be?? #BeUMC

How will I use my voice this year? – as the child born over 32-million minutes ago – as sister and aunt – as spouse to Steve – as team member at Pinnacle Living – as Conference Lay Leader?

How will I use my voice to transform the world?

How will you use your voice?

Conference Lay Leader Remarks, 2021 Virginia UMC Annual Conference

What happens when you elect an Enneagram Type 9 (Peacemaker), Myers-Briggs ISFJ, and Strength Finders – Harmony, Connectedness, Responsibility, Empathy, Developer type to the role of United Methodist Annual Conference Lay Leader? You get remarks from your Lay Leader like the ones below, delivered through tears.

Many have asked for a copy of the remarks I offered at the end of a very long day last Friday so I’m sharing them here. The very beginning was added on the spot so what you see here is not exactly what you heard – only what I remember adding as I clutched Mrs. Callis’ handkerchief. Here’s the written version of the remarks, minus the very unexpected tears.

During my high school years, Rev. and Mrs. Robert Callis, Jr. were appointed to Fieldale UMC. Mrs. Callis, who had been an early Local Licensed Elder in the Virginia Conference, was instrumental in helping me identify my gifts for use in the life of the church. She always carried an embroidered handkerchief, holding it in her hand each time she preached. Just as many of you who are clergy pass a stole to the person following behind you at a local church or to an entering member of your order, Mrs. Callis passed on her handkerchiefs. Before she left Fieldale, I was blessed to receive one. I carry it with me whenever I know I will be facing something difficult. I wasn’t planning to bring it with me to Annual Conference, but before I left the house this morning I clearly heard that I needed to get the handkerchief out of my dresser drawer. It’s been on the table with my notebook all day and now, I’m going to hold it in my hand tightly as I share my remarks with you. Mrs. Callis was one of the influential people in my faith journey who helped me see God’s call upon my life.

Darlene Amon was another one of those influential people. I would not be standing here today without Darlene’s example, guidance and witness.   The announcement of Darlene’s death on May 27th has left a deep sense of emptiness throughout the Virginia Conference.

Darlene was serving the last few months of her term as the Virginia Conference Lay Leader in February of 2000 when I applied for and was offered a position on the Conference Connectional Ministries staff.  I knew of Darlene through her leadership with the United Methodist Women and as Conference Lay Leader, but it wasn’t until that interview that I got to finally meet her.  That day – in the old Conference Office building on Broad Street, Darlene as Conference Lay Leader and Chair of the Personnel Committee, greeted me with such graciousness.  She and the others in the Cabinet Room that day took a risk, offering an unknown lay person the opportunity to lead in a position that had previously only been held by ordained clergy.

Darlene held numerous roles across all levels of The United Methodist Church.  I will not note them all but must recognize that she was elected to the General Conference delegation from Virginia every quadrennium since 1992. Darlene served as President of the Southeastern Jurisdiction Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders and the National Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders. She was the first woman to serve as the President of the National Association. 

The impact of Darlene’s leadership in the church will go on for generations. I am eternally grateful to have learned from her.  I would not be who I am today without Darlene’s example.  We would not be the church that we are today without her courage and boldness.  Join me in a moment of silence to give thanks for the life and witness of Darlene Amon…..Amen.

My sense of time has been thrown off-kilter since stay-at-home orders were put in place 15 months ago. Without consulting the calendar, I could say that it has been a year since I stepped into the role as Conference Lay Leader. Yet it was only eight months ago that I first stood before this body in this role. That day, I asked you to stand with me on holy ground, the sacred space where our words and actions matter more than ever. I slipped my Birkenstock sandals off as I spoke as a symbol that we have been called, just as Moses was before the burning bush, to open ourselves to the uniqueness, the wonders, the holy of this unusual time in which we find ourselves as members of the Body of Christ in this community we call United Methodist.

Three weeks after last year’s Annual Conference, I had foot surgery. Six weeks later when I put my foot back in a shoe for the first time, everything was different.  The Birkenstock that had for years been conforming to the shape of my foot didn’t fit. My toes did not fall into the same spaces that had cradled them. The leather straps had stretched to accommodate the shape of my old foot, not my new reality. The footprints I left looked like they belonged to someone else. I spent weeks in physical therapy retraining my toes, ankle and knee to move in different ways.  Somewhere in that process, multiple breaks in a repaired bone in my foot required a second surgery.  For the last twelve weeks, I’ve been in a beautiful surgical boot. Don’t expect me to slide out of it right now! 

Due to the “failure” in the structure of my repaired foot, I have to start again.  I’ll be looking for new sandals to conform to a new foot. I’ll be strengthening muscles that haven’t been used for a while and figuring out how to walk on different terrains and along new paths.  My footprint has changed again so there will be no stepping in my old patterns or directions.

We are experiencing exactly the same reality as “church.” 

  • The familiar ways of being church don’t fit any more; we are being called to find new opportunities for worship together. We must learn new ways to be and make disciples.
  • The pews that cradled us so comfortably have given way to being church outside the building.  We have always known that’s what we were supposed to be.  COVID just showed us that we must be.
  • The straps that held us in place have stretched and loosened, giving us greater opportunity to reach new places and new people – to step outside what has held us tightly in place.
  • The footprints that we’ve been following are gone.  The walk ahead is not the same as it was in the past.  We are being called to redefine and reinvent being “church.”  

One of the books I read in the early months of the pandemic was The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage by Joan Chittister.  In the forward, Sister Joan, an American Benedictine Sister, tells us that we have a choice as we stand between two worlds: the world we were told and never doubted would last and the world where we find ourselves living now that defies everything we were taught.  She reminds us that we each have a prophet within ourselves, but recognizing that prophet requires us to enter into spiritual discernment where we ask ourselves what we really stand for – and what we have done to prove it.

As a result of that discernment, Sister Joan writes, “we either become prophets – or simply churchgoers.”

“The prophet calls us to the best of what we say we are.  The prophet confronts us with the deep-down great goodness of our common call to holiness, to love of neighbor, to commitment to the life of the whole world.” (p. 75, The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage)

I can’t speak for you, but I want to be this kind of prophet.  I believe this type of spiritual prophecy is what we are called to by virtue of our baptisms. Yet the one thing I have heard over and over since November is that we must find new ways to talk about the call to ministry that all of us share.

  • There have been exciting conversations about how we change our language around “call” to encompass all our varied gifts and talents; ALL of us, not solely those set aside by action of the denomination for licensed and ordained ministry. We are a team – laity and clergy together – both with 100% responsibility for outcomes as we live out our shared vision for the church.
  • We are excited by the opportunity to focus on this call during the Laity Celebration worship service which will premier on Sunday morning at 11 AM on the VAUMC Facebook page.
  • As we move forward, you will see how these conversations about our call to ministry are being brought to life through expanded opportunities in Lay Servant and Certified Lay Ministries.  You can find a new video celebrating our call to ministry under “The Ministry of the Laity” section of the Conference website. (https://vaumc.org/lay-servant-ministries/)

God continues to call us to stand as witnesses to the dual pandemic of COVID and racial injustice as well as to the power of our faith and congregations – even when we don’t have answers about the future of The United Methodist Church.

  • It is hard for me to describe what a joy it has been to share my kitchen with Deborah Straughter, Hungsu Lim and Dan Kim as we created the first two episodes of Diversity Kitchen. My hope for Diversity Kitchen is that we can model a way of bringing people of different cultures together over the love of food and love of Jesus that furthers conversation and relationship-building.
  • The efforts of the Call to Action Work Group for Racial Justice and Reconciliation have created resources and events to guide discussion around systemic racism, division within our communities and social unrest.  On this eve of Juneteenth, we recognize more than ever before that we cannot sit as observers to the events of the last 15 months. We will not go back to normal nor can we be silent. We are called as prophets of our time to create safe spaces for hard conversations – just as Jesus did – so that our understanding of and love for one another can grow.
  • Our acts of witness and servant leadership often mean we need to let go of old ways and old thinking that may allow us to perceive that some people are better than others and deserve more, while accepting that other people, ideas or dreams are disposable.  None of us is disposable in the Body of Christ. We are so much stronger together, even when we disagree. 

I have taken these last eight months to listen.  Laity and clergy: I hear you today and will continue to actively listen to all voices.

In the reality of leading in this space of not having answers about the future of our denomination:

  • I ask you to pray for the delegation as we participate in a called session of the Southeastern Jurisdiction Conference on July 21st.  This session is being called for the purpose of voting on a resolution from the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences to unite the two conferences to form the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference. Delegates will also receive reports on the pandemic response in the jurisdiction, the work of antiracism across the jurisdiction, and the work of the jurisdiction moving forward.
  • There is ongoing discussion as to how best to move forward with preparation of the delegation in anticipation of the postponed General and Jurisdictional Conferences.
  • Expect updates at next year’s Annual Conference on the work of the General Conference which is now scheduled for August 29 – September 6, 2022, and the Jurisdictional Conference which be held the following November.

Twenty-five or so years ago, Darlene Amon wrote an article that has been widely distributed about laity and clergy working as partners in ministry.  I could not close with any better words than these that she wrote from her heart, as a prophet of her time. She wrote:

“This new style of partnership calls for ministry and leadership to be shared by the pastor and local church laity. It calls for teams of lay and clergy to trust each other, to always seek win/win solutions, to keep agreements, and to assume full responsibility. We can’t become what we need to be by remaining what we are. When we risk enough to move from where we may have been for years by opening ourselves to the transforming work of God in Jesus Christ, there’s no telling what will happen in our lives, our churches, and our annual conferences.”

Here these words again:

“We can’t become what we need to be by remaining what we are. When we risk enough to move from where we may have been for years by opening ourselves to the transforming work of God in Jesus Christ, there’s no telling what will happen in our lives, our churches, and our annual conferences.”

May it be so.

I Forgot the Mother’s Day Cards

It hit me last night that I had forgotten to send Mother’s Day cards to the very special women in my life that I would normally remember this weekend. I haven’t been into a store in the last six weeks because of my second foot surgery, but that doesn’t explain away the fact that I didn’t get cards. I honestly just didn’t think about it. That makes me sad. Now, I have obsessed over it all night. With little sleep and tears flowing, I’m watching the dawn break.

Tomorrow will be the second Mother’s Day without my Mom physically here. Last year, my professional counselor asked me often leading up to Mother’s Day how I was going to honor my mother since it had only been seven months since her death. She asked me about my process of mourning and how I was handling my grief. She was trying to help me prepare for the challenge of the weekend. I appreciate how she guided me to think well in advance of how to recognize the day. As the COVID pandemic raged and stay-at-home orders were in place, Steve and I planted roses, azaleas, and butterfly bushes. Each plant brought memories of how my mother loved flowers. She always said she wanted them while she was living, not at her funeral. The blooming of each one this spring has brought back precious memories.

This year, the counseling questions have been focused on how I’m dealing with this ongoing foot surgery and recovery. In advance of the second surgery, I bought Easter cards and prepared them on the weekend following my surgery. But I forgot the Mother’s Day cards.

A dear friend is preparing for her mother’s celebration of life service this afternoon. Other friends are walking the journey of being with their mothers as they transition from this life. Still others are facing this first Mother’s Day following the deaths of their mothers. I know I’m not alone in dealing with a challenging weekend.

Yet, there are those mother figures in my life that I needed, that I wanted to honor. Yes, I can pick up the phone and call, but I’ve missed the one tangible act this year that I could easily accomplish. I forgot the Mother’s Day cards.

While I am filled with joyful anticipation about the return to in-person worship tomorrow at our church, I acknowledge that there will be many of us entering worship expecting the hurt and tears that come with traditional acknowledgements of this weekend. I’ve had 46 years of Father’s Days without my Dad, but churches have never placed the same emphasis on recognizing fathers as they do mothers. Mother’s Day has been hard enough for decades now, even when my Mom was seated by my side. When you do not have children of your own – whether by choice, health or life decisions, Mother’s Day is hard. There are so many others who bring the memories and emotions of their own life contexts into this weekend. The same professional counselor who helped me face the first Mother’s Day without the presence of my mother, has also guided me through all the emotions of making a decision to not have children that flooded back with the birth of a step-grandchild.

Some of my tears this weekend come from actions of well-meaning church people who do not recognize the harm they cause. Especially since 2016 as the United Methodist debate over ordination of persons who are LGBTQ+ and same-gender weddings has intensified, more and more people have shared with me their argument that same-gender marriage cannot naturally fulfill God’s command that we multiply in order to glorify God’s kingdom. From their understanding has come the words that say one is not worthy of God’s love if you cannot or do not produce children without the help of medical science or choose not to do so at all. To members of my own church family who have made that argument while sitting directly across the table from me, I’ve wanted so many times to say, “Do you realize who you are talking to? – a woman without children of her own to whom I hear you saying that I don’t glorify God.” As the arguments are growing stronger again, as conversation gets louder about the future of The UMC, I forgot the Mother’s Day cards.

Daylight breaks, and I am grateful that May is Mental Health Awareness Month. We all face difficulties. We are all struggling with the effects of the COVID pandemic. We all need the counselors and friends in our lives who ask the good and appropriate questions that help us deal with the challenges of life. So, I forgot the Mother’s Day cards; it’s just another step in the journey of walking Martha home.

Renewed, Restored and Rekindled Hope

Posted over on the VAUMC.org website today under “The Ministry of the Laity” pages (https://vaumc.org/cll/) and sharing it here.

As we anticipate longer days and the coming of spring, I encourage you to spend time in reflection of all that has happened in what seems to have been two very short months at the start of 2021.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic continues, but there is renewed hope for a different future as the most vulnerable in our communities and the essential workers who have kept our society going over the last year have received vaccinations.  What wonderful news that the majority of adults in our country may be vaccinated by early summer.
  • The pandemic of institutional and systemic racism continues, but there is restored hope for a different future as we focus on intentional work in the Virginia Conference to address our history and strive for greater understanding and advocacy.
  • The political division that grips our country continues, but there is rekindled hope as our first ever National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, challenged us as she delivered her inauguration poem:

“We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.”

Renewed hope emerges when together we stand with those who struggle, whether that struggle is with health, employment or injustice of any type.  Listening to one another, understanding one another’s needs and dreams, and working side-by-side to address concerns are required of all of us.  Creativity, innovation, and nimbleness are needed more than ever from the laity and clergy in our congregations.  Our lives are filled with constant change. All of this requires that we live into our call to be lifelong learners, disciples who continue to study and question as we grow in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Restored hope intensifies when we realize that before we can transform the world, we must first do the hard work of recognizing where transformation needs to happen in our own lives.  Are we really listening to one another and doing all that we can to understand one another’s personal stories? Are we willing to talk about our past and learn from it to create a different future? Relationships built with understanding and mutual respect come from shared stories and experiences.  Serving together creates the space and connection for trust to be formed, for reconciliation to occur, for lives to be changed, for communities to be transformed.

Rekindled hope ignites when we use our shared influence as partners in ministry, laity and clergy together, to take the gospel message into the world through our words and actions.  To become what we need to be in this time, we must be willing to take risks, to ask hard questions, to offer steadfast leadership when there are many more questions than answers.  We must remember that as the people of God called United Methodists, our call is to “convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced.”(Section 2: The Ministry of All Christians130. Faithful Ministry, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church– 2016)

The challenges of our time call us to a revitalized commitment to partnership in ministry.  Differences in how we understand our faith and how we experience events of the world will always be part of our life together in the church.  However, our united mission as disciples of Jesus Christ should always be the central focus. 

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23 (NRSV)

I ask you again to enter into a time of reflection as winter closes and the signs of new life that come with spring begin to emerge.  Join me in prayer that, united as one, the United Methodists of the Virginia Conference will demonstrate the kind of holy living that our founder, John Wesley, understood as our primary task: loving God and caring for one another with Christ-like love.

Peace and Blessings,

Martha

Reset, Emerge, Embrace

I’ve had a hard time discerning a focus word or phrase for 2021. After my choice last year, I’ve almost been afraid to commit to anything. Gilda Radner’s quote that moved me to settle upon “Delicious Ambiguity” as my focus phrase for 2020 couldn’t have been just a random statement that appeared from a simple search. How much more ambiguous could a year have been? Doubtful, of uncertain nature, obsure, problematic, puzzling, difficult to comprehend….all of those definitions of “ambiguity” perfectly describe 2020. I had almost reached a point of keeping the ambiguity going into 2021.

But three words have continued to call to me this week: reset, emerge, embrace.

  • Time Magazine had a cover and article in early November which described “The Great Reset,” how the COVID-19 pandemic has presented all of us with the opportunity to think about the kind of future we want, to transform how we live and work. Entering 2021 demands a resetting of priorities, intentions and outlook. Turning 60 soon demands a RESET.
  • The Oxford Languages dictionary defines EMERGE as to “move out of or away from something and come into view,” to “become known.” With a reset, new visions and demands come into view. Marianne Williamson, author and political activist, is quoted as saying: “Every problem emerges from the false belief we are separate from one another, and every answer emerges from the realization we are not.” That is a vision that cannot just emerge in 2021 but must take hold in our communities, in our church and in our world.
  • Did I mention that I’m turning 60 soon? If you teach and preach that getting older can mean accepting who you have become over time and are continuing to become…that purpose and meaning can become more clear…that priorities come into focus…you better live that way. In her book, The Black Hawk, one of the characters created by Joanna Bourne remarks: “I like the woman you became better than the girl you were. I like the story you’ve written on your face.” This year ahead is the time to EMBRACE the story that has been written thus far on my face and anticipate the story that will continue to unfold. Oh, how deliciously ambiguous the story unfolded in 2020! Embracing a COVID vaccine, family members and friends we haven’t been able to hug in so long, uncomfortable conversations with the power to transform, challenging decisions that may change the church…are all anticipated to be part of the unfolding story of 2021.

Three focus words for 2021: reset, emerge, embrace.

As I begin to reset on this first day of Janaury, it’s good to remember how the name and focus for this blog were chosen. The first post to what was then “Walking Martha Home” was at the end of May in 2013. My early morning walk that day was filled with reflections on events of the last week.  In the midst of all the thoughts swirling in my head, there was a constant call to write about my experiences.  There was a persistent question of whether my life lessons could impact the direction of lay leadership in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church. There was also a flashback to a quote I had tweeted a few weeks prior from Todd Adkins (@Todd Adkins):  “Sometimes God puts young leaders around you who need to hear your past so it doesn’t become their future.” 

As my walk ended and I came to the lamp post at my sidewalk, I snapped a picture which is still attached to my profile: a blooming clematis vine wrapped around a garden flag and an old brick. That day in May, the climbing vine was breaking forth with purple blossoms and stretching in every direction possible, unconcerned about how I tried to tie it off and make it conform to my expectations.  The garden flag had grabbed my heart when I saw it at a local produce stand because of the goofy blue bird in its center: a bird so wacky looking that I just had to have it in my yard to prompt me daily to enjoy life.  The brick was set in place to remind me of my life story, taken from the pile of rubble after the demolition of a 90 year old building in my hometown which was destroyed by fire that same year.

Joyce’s Drug Store filled part of that building for many, many years.  It was across the street from the primary school I attended.  When I was young, that store is where I would meet my mother after school, have a drink or ice cream and possibly buy a comic book, before we walked home.  Sometimes I’d have to wait a little while in the safety of the drug store before she arrived.  In 1968, the school system was finally integrated, and one day that year when my mom was very late coming to the drug store, a new male friend who was in my second grade class decided to walk me home.  The house I grew up in was on the edge of the road that divided the black and white sides of our little village.  Ronnie lived on one side; I lived on the other. At age 7, we were too young to know the turmoil we might be creating.  As we rounded the curve toward my house, I remember seeing my mother on the front porch. I can’t recall the look on her face.  I do remember Ronnie’s words:  “I’m walking Martha home, Mrs. Ensley.”  I realize now that my journey of authentic leadership began that day. 

In “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,” an old article from February 2007 in the Harvard Business Review, authors Bill George, Peter Sims, Andrew McLean and Diana Mayer described a process of research interviews conducted with 125 leaders identified for their success.   The interviews were based upon one question:  “How can people become and remain authentic leaders?”  In analyzing the results, the research team found that the leaders did not identify specific essential leadership characteristics or traits.  It was their life stories that formed the foundation of their success.

So, my journey of authentic Christian leadership which began the day Ronnie walked me home continues with this blog.  By the way, we all knew by the time we became teenagers that Ronnie was gay.  By the early 1980s, he had died from complications of AIDS.  His life continues to impact my life story.

My prayer on May 31, 2013, was that this blog would impact the lives of those who are on this journey with me to be the best United Methodist lay leaders we can be. Little did I know then that today I’d be the Virginia Conference Lay Leader…and “Still Walking Martha Home.”

A different clematis vine grows on the lamp post of our house now. The holder for the garden flag has been RESET in a new community. Since foot surgery has kept me from cutting it down, the vine is frostbiten but new white blossoms will EMERGE soon enough. The brick from Joyce’s Drug Store greets me everytime I walk to and from the house. And what better time than now for all of us to EMBRACE the story of incarnation in the words on the flag: “Love is born.”

May just the right focus words or phrases find you this year.

Frostbitten vine, brick and Christmas flag – 2020
Wild bird, brick and vine – 2013

On the Eve of October 15th

I can remember my mother telling people that I only said what I really wanted people to know.  That was her way of saying that despite being a true extrovert who could strike up a conversation with anyone she met, she had raised a very quiet, private daughter. 

One thing Mom never knew was that at various times in my adult years I’ve sought the guidance of professional counselors to help make sense of life.  She would have been the first to tell me to seek help if needed, but I never wanted her to see me as needing it.  With World Mental Health Day having just passed on October 10th and today being the eve of the day Mom took her final breath last year, I’m acting upon the suggestion of my counselor to write a letter to my mother.  

Grief has emerged in various forms over the last couple of weeks leading up to this first anniversary of Mom’s death.  I’m not at a place of writing a new letter today, but there are two that I pulled out of scrapbooks last night.  Both were written as nomination letters for recognitions I learned about for parents who had been role models for their children.  I don’t recall if I ever told Mom that I had submitted either of them, one in early 1990 and other in November, 1998.

Since I can’t write a new letter tonight, I’m sharing the letter from 1998. Much could be added to highlight the additional 21 years of Mom’s life especially as I think about the example she set for me and my brother – no, more like the amazing gifts she gave us – as she cared for all of her end-of-life plans, made her own decisions to move from her home of 60+ years to a senior apartment and later called us to say she was going to stop driving and give the car away. So back in 1998, I wrote….

In 1925, Elijah and Mattie Helton were supporting their family by working as tenant farmers on a piece of land in Russell County, Virginia.  My mother, Trula Annette, was born that December 1st, the youngest of the nine Helton children.  Like her brothers and sisters, she grew up helping tend the tobacco and other crops on the land.  Mom, from what I’ve heard, was also a pretty good athlete while in school, possibly the result of developing her strength and endurance from working the crops. Basketball was her sport of choice.

Most of my uncles and aunts left Russell County to seek their fortunes in other localities.  My mother watched as they moved away from rural southwest Virginia.  The oldest child settled in Ohio, the second remained in Russell County, and the third moved to Kentucky.  The youngest brother (and the child next to my mother in age) was killed in action in World War II.  The other brothers and sisters settled in a small Virginia village called Fieldale. Jobs were plentiful in the new towel mill built by Marshall Field so many people, including my relatives, moved into the town to manufacture soon to be famous Fieldcrest linens.  As my uncles and aunts began work in the mill, they also began their families. Even then, in the early 1940s, good child care was hard to find, so they called upon my mother. She came to Fieldale to care for her nieces and nephews, and it was there that she met and married my father, Eugene (Gene) Ensley.

If there is a woman that exemplifies the qualities not only of a great mother but a true role model, it has to be my mom.  My mother has accepted numerous challenges, exhibiting a very strong character, loving personality, and courage along each step of her journey.   She has raised two children during two very different eras.  My brother was born in 1946, a part of the baby boom when soldiers returned home from World War II.  He attended the segregated schools of Henry County and graduated only to enter the Marines and the Vietnam War.  It was fifteen years later, in 1961, when I entered the family.  My mother jokingly compares herself to Elizabeth in the Bible, for her first reaction after finding out she was pregnant with me had to be, “God, what am I going to do with this child at this point in my life?” Thirty-five seems fairly young by standards these days for having a baby but in 1961, it was not the norm!  As I grew, the world was changing drastically.  Schools in Henry County were integrated when I entered the second grade. It was the Iran Hostage Crisis that was changing the international landscape when I entered college. My mother made sure that both her children, despite the difficulties of the times in which we were growing up, maintained a sense of pride in ourselves, our spiritual foundations, and a love for all our neighbors.  In reality, she raised two children in two very different times.

As long as I can remember, my mother talked about wanting to be a nurse.  Because she chose to come to Fieldale to help her sisters with their newborns then married my father, she did not have the opportunity to follow her dream.  Instead, she went to work to help support our family. She spent several years working in a hosiery factory and then worked for 25 years at E.I. DuPont in Martinsville, Virginia.  She truly was one of the first working mothers to skillfully handle all of her responsibilities.   My mother and father both worked in order to provide for our family.  The longest lasting possessions they provided, however, were not bought with the money they earned, for what they provided the most of was love, courage against all obstacles, and compassion for all humanity.

I was 14 when my father died in 1975.  My mother was 49 years old but was still acting 30 in order to keep up with her teenage daughter.  In order to spend more time with me following my father’s death, my mom retired from her textile job.   Mom had never learned to drive, but soon she climbed behind the wheel of a driver’s education car.  She used her “expertise” to teach me to drive a few years later.  Once she could drive, she became active in all of my high school’s parent groups and was almost more well known among my peers in my small school than I was. She also volunteered in the local hospital’s emergency room where she consoled family members waiting on word of their loved ones’ conditions.  She was finally getting to work in a medical setting.

It didn’t take long for her to accept the challenge of returning to school to fulfil her dream.  She enrolled in a nursing assistance program at the local community college.  The emergency room volunteer job gave way to a full time, paid position in the physical rehabilitation department of the hospital.  Talking to and helping others has always been easy for my mother.  This job was perfect for her.  My mother was a respected member of the hospital staff, recognized for her work and love for people by being chosen by her fellow workers as the hospital’s employee of the year in 1988.  Not only did she achieve her life-long goal of caring for people during times of illness, but she received the highest honor given by the hospital employees to a colleague.  Following her retirement, she continued to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the hospital by “modeling” in their advertising campaigns and volunteering with the hospital auxiliary.

My mom has taught me by example how to be a true woman of substance.   In the past few months more than ever before, she has exemplified the height of grace and true compassion. Her male friend and companion of about 15 years was diagnosed with heart problems and cancer in May.  Jim was like a second father to me as well as grandfather to my niece.  Mom cared for him daily at his home, then later at a skilled health care center until his death in October.  During the same period of time, she lost her oldest and last surviving brother, the husband of her last surviving sister, and her best girlfriend.  Just a few weeks ago, she was the first to arrive on the scene when a neighbor was inside his burning house.  Mom was there to comfort everyone else as his body was pulled from the flames.  Through all of this loss, mom has been a rock — showing the rest of us how to give with all our hearts and souls for no earthly reward but out of the kindness of our deepest selves.  Would you believe that as all this was happening, mom decided to — of all the difficult jobs to take on — enter a hospice volunteer training program?  

Throughout her life, the rearing of her children, and her work in and for the community, Trula Helton Ensley — my mom — has shown us all that respect and genuine compassion for all individuals can lead to better lives for everyone.  People I don’t even know tell me all the time what a special mother I have and often call her “Momma Trula.”  She continues to be a role model for her children, other family members, the people with whom she works, and the community by always being willing to share her time, concern, and happiness.  She has led, I am sure, to changes in people’s lives whether outwardly by making their hurts and injuries feel better or more importantly, inwardly through a kind word or compassionate hug.  She has been there whenever a call for assistance has come and usually before the call was ever uttered.

I wanted you to know how much I value my mother and all the lessons of life and faith I have learned from her.  I only hope that I can exemplify in my life the qualities she has shown me.  My deepest regret at this point in my life is that I have no children of my own to pass on all of the lessons I’ve learned from my mom.  I told her recently that if I could only be half the woman she is, I’d feel I’d done well with my life!  

And if I can be half the woman she was for whatever remaining time I have on this earth, I will have done well with my life.

A Web of Discernment

I’ve been listening to my Discernment Playlist tonight as I watch a spider build a web outside our dining room windows. I first noticed the spider at dusk. A huge, yellowish brown spider. It hadn’t been at work long; you could just begin to see the main threads of the web coming down from the gutter to the shrubs below. The floodlight at the corner of the garage made the silky threads glisten brightly as a misty rain fell.

The floodlight brought forth all the food the spider needs. Every flying creature in close proximity began to quickly get caught.

As darkness has fallen, the spider has worked harder and harder; it’s web serving it’s intended purpose. The web has now expanded to fill almost the entire corner. Looking from the safety of inside the house, the web is beautiful. What a work of art and mystery! The weaving of every small strand has become an amazing creation.

The song that’s now playing is Confidence by Sancus Real.

"I feel unqualified for what you're calling me to
But Lord with your strength
I've got no excuse
'Cause broken people are exactly who you use
So give me faith like Daniel in the lion's den
Give me hope like Moses in the wilderness
Give me a heart like David, Lord be my defense
So I can face my giants with confidence"

 - Copyright Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner Chappell Music, Inc. 
Songwriters: Matthew Ross Armstrong/Jordan Michael Bailey/Tony W. Wood

“I feel unqualified for what you’re calling me to…” resounds in my head tonight. And yet this spider…. There it is, constantly spinning, constantly creating, constantly moving – just as God has called it to do without fear or hesitation. And I stand amazed at what one small spider is doing, watching as if I’ve never seen anything like this before. (I’m saying it’s small, but from in here it actually looks pretty huge as spiders come.)

So what am I afraid of? What awe-inspiring work is God calling me to do – one thread at a time until the creation is finished? Faith, hope and heart: looks like the spider’s got it even if the “giant” may come crashing right through its work early in the morning light. So I’ve got no excuse, and neither do you. Just “Lord be my defense so I can face my giants with confidence.”

First notice of the spider…
As darkness began to fall…
It’s still not done…

Unfriending

Deep within the Doctrinal Standards and Theological Task section of our United Methodist Book of Discipline are the rules John Wesley offered to the small groups of Methodists meeting as classes.  It was toward the end of 1739 when one of the groups reportedly came to Mr. Wesley seeking advice about how they might “flee from the wrath to come.”  Thanks to the work of Bishop Rueben Job we know these as the Three Simple Rules: “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.” Yet, today just as in the time of Mr. Wesley, these are not simple rules to follow.  They require every bit of our energy and commitment to be authentic followers of Jesus.

These rules, the promises made on my behalf at my baptism, and the vows I spoke when I became a member of The United Methodist Church are ingrained in my heart and soul. They have become more and more important as I continue my spiritual walk home. Over the last few months, I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering how I am to live them out in this new reality in which we find ourselves.

Early this morning, that pondering led me to unfriend a childhood friend on Facebook.  Truthfully, that’s a first for me.  I’ve blocked people’s newsfeed temporarily. I often ignore people’s rants and overly political memes.  If I’m really honest, I have to admit that I just skip over some Facebook friends’ post because I assume I know where they are headed.  I do my very best not to join in politically-based discussions or respond to things I know or can research as being complete or partial truths.  I pray that you can never say you see much that is negative in anyway on my Facebook or Twitter feed because I try really hard to not use social media that way.

But this morning, first thing, there was a post that shared a description of a person that was not acceptable by any means.  It did harm just by being written and posted.  It was a post in the same vein as many this individual had put up, posts that I would usually just say something under my breath about and go on.  This one was different, though; one word stereotyping a person, causing hurt and fueling division that I couldn’t let go of as I started my day.  So before I left home, I made a decision to unfriend the person and committed to doing the same to others, no matter how long we have known one another. I just don’t need this in my life. The world doesn’t need it.

Instead of responding in any other way, I “unfriended” and posted the words St. Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth century nun, is famous for saying: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

I hopped in my car and headed to work. I knew better than to listen to the news which is my normal habit at 8:00 AM so I switched to “The Message.”  The first song I heard played in its entirety was new to me.  Now, it’s in my “Forward to 2021” playlist.  The words have echoed in my head and resonated in my heart all day. 

Before starting to write, I searched for the story behind this song that was released just a few months ago.  These words are from the American Songwriter website from July 9th.

I wrote ‘Revolutionary’ in October of last year, not knowing anything about what 2020 held. I never could have imagined that this year would bring both a worldwide pandemic and the racial tipping point we’ve experienced because of the murder of George Floyd and so many others….All that I knew is that in the USA, 2020 was already set to be a divisive and polarizing year due to the upcoming presidential election. When I sat down with my friends James Tealy and Steve Fee to write these lyrics, we wondered if we could pen something that would inject a little bit of hope into the political situation we’d all be facing in the coming months….I didn’t intentionally write ‘Revolutionary’ for the pandemic and for this specific moment of racial tension and reconciliation, but I’m so glad this is the song I get to sing during this time….”  

Josh Wilson: Striving To Be “Revolutionary” in Kindness
https://americansongwriter.com/revolutionary-by-josh-wilson-meaning-behind-the-song/

I take hearing this song as soon as I got in the car this morning as the Holy Spirit’s leading.  You can interpret that as you like.  If what you want to say in response is in anyway negative, don’t comment about it on my Facebook page. If you disagree with anything I’ve said, don’t note on my Twitter feed or in the comment section of WordPress that I’m damned to a life in the flames.  I’m going to hold on to St. Catherine’s message that if I live as I believe God is calling me, I’ll set the world on fire – and I might just be singing these words (since I can’t get them out of my head today).

Maybe you’re not like me
Maybe we don’t agree
Maybe that doesn’t mean
We gotta be enemies

Maybe we just get brave
Take a big leap of faith
Call a truce so me and you
Can find a better way…

Why does kindness seem revolutionary
When did we let hate get so ordinary
Let’s turn it around, flip the script
Judge slow, love quick
God help us get revolutionary…