“You Only Get One Go Around”

Discernment takes many paths. Many walk at times with you, maybe for a day or a season; some bless you with a lifetime. Travel partners come by your side as family by DNA. Some are invited intentionally; others are brought along by chance. Those who journey alongside stretch us, nurture us, support us, lead us to new growth. It can be years sometimes before we realize how those who walk with us transform us.

In less than three weeks, Steve and I have come to face the deaths of three people who journeyed with us during different points in our lives. The first was my second cousin who died much too young as a result of serious health conditions. Most of my memories are of a tiny little guy, 10 years younger than me, with a head of curly, white-blond hair. There was a framed piece of art in his grandparents’ house of a young Englishman. It was one of those paintings where it looked like the eyes of the person in the portrait followed you around the room. I have a picture of my cousin sitting on his grandparents’ couch with that painting over his shoulder. When my uncle died, of all the things in the house that had belonged to her sister, my mom wanted that picture. Those eyes continued to follow everyone who came into our house in Fieldale for many years.

This past Friday we learned that a friend with whom Steve played senior softball and basketball had taken his life the day before. The “Nothing Better than Age,” THE NBA, was the beginning of our path together. There were many stops for nourishment around our kitchen table. Nobody ever complemented my cooking the way he did. An accomplished athlete in his younger years, there was always a high level of energy when he was present. Yet, many also knew there was just as high a level of anxiety and stress.

Today we learned of the expected, but still difficult to comprehend death of “The Other One.” A few years after we met, the other Martha and I jokingly talked about what to call each other. The choice was “The Other One” and it stuck for 27 years. Our birthdays were just 8 days apart so the cards would always be from “The Other One.” Every email was signed, “The Other One.”

Often leadership development starts when one person sees gifts and graces in another and calls them to life. In our work of multiplying leaders for the church, the responsibility is to take the next step to encourage that person to find the place to use their talents to build the Kingdom of God. We must then continue to check in, to see if there is a match and to determine what we can do to support the new leader in their journey of discovery and service.

Not six months after I joined Shady Grove UMC, “The Other One” – with whom I had been singing in the choir – invited me to lunch. It was a fancy place, the original DeFazio’s at The Shoppes at Innsbrook. Well, for me it was fancy. We went after church one Sunday. After enjoying the meal and conversation, I was hit with the ask. Speaking as a member of the Nominations Committee, “The Other One” asked if I would consider becoming the Lay Leader. I’d only been at the church for 6 months, so my immediate reaction was that the committee had to be really desperate! Everybody else must have already said “no” or worse, there must be so many challenges that they couldn’t get any of the long-time members to take on the role. But “The Other One” continued, sharing with me the gifts she had seen in me and telling me how they were needed for that particular time in the life of the church.

I sent a card to her before the party she wanted to celebrate her life on Sunday, July 19th. After initially planning to attend, we learned that Steve would be having elbow surgery last week so we had to change our plans due to COVID-19 concerns. In the card, I shared the memory of sitting in the restaurant that day and noted that I hold “The Other One” responsible for every church leadership role that I have found myself in since that fateful day in the late summer of 1993.

Discernment can take many paths, but “you only get one go around.” That quote is from a song on the “Discernment Playlist”: “Be a Light.”

In a place that needs change, make a difference. In a time full of noise, just listen. ‘Cause life is but a breeze, better live it. In a place that needs change, make a difference.

In a world full of hate, be a light. When you do somebody wrong, make it right. Oh, don’t hide in the dark, you were born to shine. In a world full of hate, be a light.

In a race that you can’t win, slow it down. Yeah, you only get one go around. ‘Cause the finish line is six feet in the ground. In a race you can’t win, just slow it down.

In a world full of hate, be a light….”

Words by Josh Thompson, Joshua Miller, Thomas Rhett Akins, and Matthew Peters Dragstrem

Who are you encouraging to take on a leadership role in this time when everything is changing? What will you say to the one who says everyone else must have said “no”? How will you encourage just one person to see how their gifts and graces can show another the love of Christ in this place that needs change, this world full of hate, this time full of questions?

Be “The Other One.” Be a light.

Discernment Playlist – Songs 1 – 10

Fifty-Nine Songs, 4 Hours and 13 Minutes

A long, challening period of discernment began for me in early February. By the time a decision became time sensitive, COVID-19 had begun to craft a new reality for all of us. Decisions that Steve and I were in the midst of about church community had to pause. A multitude of concerns were happening that impacted my current leadership roles in the church. The United Methodist General and Jurisdictional Conferences were postponed, pushing decisions about the future of the denomination into the second half of 2021. The discernment continued through March, then into April and May. Still today, I wonder if I have made the right decision. More on that at a later time.

COVID-19 changed the vision I had for a Clearness Committee. In its place was a series of Clearness Conversations by phone, Zoom and FaceTime. Knowing how powerful music is in my life, one of those surrounding me in this process asked what songs I would have in my playlist for this time, this questioning, this decision-making. And a “Discernment” playlist was born, just like the “Called General Conference” playlist that some of you reading this blog helped create. There is also now a “Forward to 2021” playlist.

Today seems like the right time to start sharing a little about the songs on the playlists: 37 songs (to date) on the “Discernment” list and 22 on the “Forward to 2021” list. Fifty-nine songs, 4 hours and 13 minutes.

So the first song, chosen with deep memories, struggles and learnings: “Humble Yourself” by 2nd Chapter of Acts.

Heading to college in 1979, I didn’t have much exposure to contemporary Christian music. Honestly I don’t remember there being much of it. Patty Jo Riddick would be the one to introduce me to Tim Sheppard, Amy Grant, and 2nd Chapter of Acts. I carried the 2nd Chapter of Acts *With Footnotes album from place to place for years, having memorized every song and loving the tight harmonies of the siblings in the group. Patty Jo also introduced me to homemade souse meat from her family’s hog farm but that’s another story. She was the only other young woman on 3rd Stringfield at Meredith that fall who wanted to watch the World Series. Patty Jo should actually be credited with the beginning of the Psychiatric Help 5 Cents role in my life as we paraded around campus for Halloween that year dressed as Lucy and Snoopy. By the spring, we were singing “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” for Stunt and laughing so hard that we couldn’t continue the song.

Patty Jo married during our junior year. Soon after we graduated, she and her husband, Rick Pulley, began traveling up and down the East Coast hoping to start a contemporary Christian singing career. I had the opportunity to see them perform a few times. They eventually moved to a church in Ringgold, VA, that I drove within 5 miles of every time I traveled home to Fieldale from Richmond. For the years they were there, we were never able to connect because they were traveling or involved with church activities or I felt too pressured to get to my Mom or back to Richmond. You know…twenty and thirty-something year olds are busy! We stayed connected – before cell phones – with cards and notes.

I’ll never forget the phone call in May, 1999, telling me that Patty Jo was missing. She left home to go shopping and did not return. Her remains were found over the state line in Caswell County, NC, in December, 2002. In February of the next year, Rick was charged with first degree murder in her death.

For some reason, the physical distancing of COVID-19, the feelings of loss and mourning that have come in this odd season and this period of discernment brought back wonderful memories of Patty Jo. At the same time, I realize how wrong my priorities were in not nurturing our friendship. I allowed my perceived priorities to become more imporant than a person who had enriched my life in so many ways.

So in memory of Patty Jo, “Humble Yourself” became the first song on the “Discernment” playlist. It is a reminder of how I need to approach God and the continuing formation of my faith. “Humble yourself before the Lord…

If you’re weak, He is strong
In His strength you can carry on
When you lay down your life before the Lord.”

Songwriters: Anne Herring / Jim Tenneboe
Humble Yourself lyrics © Latter Rain Music

It Takes a Google Doodle

There’s been a weariness, a heaviness in my heart and soul this week that I haven’t been able to accurately name until this morning. Events of yesterday helped to call it to life. Steve and I spoke to a friend yesterday evening whose father died last weekend. His father had been in declining health. He was a year younger than my mother who died last October right before her 94th birthday The realization that his family had not been able to surround him as death neared and now hearing his son talk about sitting Shiva without being able to carry out traditional rituals with family and friends brought back a high level of greif and sadness for me. It’s also Father’s Day weekend which, even though my father died forty-five years ago, always brings tears. Then there are the realities of our struggle with inequality and justice. For weeks I’ve been urgentlly feeling the need to come up with concrete steps for what I am to do in this time and space.

I try very hard to never say something is God’s plan. My “deep” theological understanding is that God works in mysterious ways and in God’s time! For me some of that mystery most often seems to be revealed in the middle of the night. So as I turned on the compter at 2:30 AM, what do I encounter first: today’s Google Doodle recognizing the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. The voice of LeVar Burton. I vividly remember sitting in my father’s recliner and watching every moment of Roots in 1977, the life and story of young Kunta Kinte making a major impact on the 16 year old watching it at the time. The words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I have sung the song all my life, led it before many a congregation, but never knew the words came from a poem by James Weldon Johnson created for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. And the art of Loveis Wise. I just want her name! None of this is what I expected to find and be moved by in these early morning hours.

I can use a multitude of descriptions of myself that would not give much indication of the privilege I live under, but my privilege is always present. I feel it more and more every day. I am the:

  • Granddaugher of tenant farmers in the Appalachia region of Virginia who survived the Great Depression with 9 children
  • Daughter of factory workers who struggled to make ends meet and took out short-term loans for every family vacation
  • Chubby child who has always struggled with her weight
  • Teenager raised by a single mother
  • College and university student who made tuition payments with Social Security and Veterans Affairs death benefits and loans that took 10 years to pay off
  • Young adult who cashed in gifted Savings Bonds to make mortgage payments on her first house
  • Thirty-something, newly married who because of life circumstances made a decision with my spouse to not have children of our own
  • Adult child of an aging parent without savings who entered HUD-sponsored housing and later a Medicaid long-term care community
  • And now, the elder orphan with an older spouse beginning to wonder what will happen in my own aging.

Following the Called UMC General Conference in St. Louis last year, I described myself in a blog post as a “cisgendered woman married to a previously married man.” That description along with others I used were an attempt to make the point that depending upon how we interpret verses of the Bible, none of us – least of all me – may be truly “worthy” to be part of the Body of Christ. A person I have worked with in a variety of positions within the church replied to me by email. A part of the individual’s questioning was why I felt that I had to use the word “cisgendered” since we are all “supposed to be that way.” I responded to that statement with these words:

Let me start with why I used the term “cisgendered.” I did not use it in any way as a term of ridicule or contempt. Remember, I’m a social worker by education. Labeling myself as “cisgenered” reminds me of the privilege I have and how that affects my understanding, or lack thereof, of people who are treated differently in society because of categories and labels. I would never use the term to describe someone else. I can never fully understand what it is like to be LGBTQ+ just as I can never fully understand what it means to be of a different race or ethnicity, non-Christian faith tradition, generation or anything else other than a white, Christian, middle income, straight, Boomer generation woman. I can listen. I can seek to understand, but I need to be reminded, even if it’s by a word like “cisgendered” that I am privileged in today’s society.

Oh, so many labels – none of which clearly denotes privilege by its description but all of which add to the fact that I have had opportunities that so many others have not experienced.  From an abundance of food and safe, warm housing to a graduate level education and consistent employment with good benefits, I am privileged. The question today is what do I do with it to make the world a better place for all people.

There’s a line from the movie, My Dog Skip, released in 2000, that I wrote down when I first saw the movie and have kept with me since.  It was spoken by the character, Jack Morris, the father of the main character, a young boy named Willie.  The movie addresses racism, war, bullying, loneliness and much more – and how a loving, social little dog can help to overcome it all.  At one point in the movie, Jack Morris states, “Give a man a label, and you never really need to get to know him.”

The descriptions I apply to myself help me see how much I have in common with others. Somewhere our stories must have a connection, and upon that similarity a relationship can be built.  Place a label on me and the opportunity may disappear.

Leave it to a Google Doodle to point my heart in a better direction this day.

(Not) On My Way to Minneapolis

If COVID-19 had not exploded around the world, I would have been making my way to the Richmond airport right now to board a plane to Minneapolis. There I would have joined 861 fellow United Methodists from around the world to determine our future as a denomination. Instead of flying to Minnesota, I’ll be participating in Zoom meetings and telephone calls. I will not receive my credentials as a delegate or go to an orientation session, but I will address the demands of a global pandemic on seniors.

I had hoped that decisions would be made which would end our 48 year debate about who is and who is not fully included in the Body of Christ. Just writing that sentence leaves me numb. Who am I to even have a small part in such a life-altering decision?

I had been praying that by the time July arrived and the Southeastern UMC Jurisdictional Conference met, we would have a clearer picture of new bishops to be elected and changes in assigned episcopal areas for others. I prayed that after a lifetime of division, we might actually be able to make courageous, strategic decisions as to how we move forward to actually transform individual lives and the world.

But now, just like every local United Methodist congregation trying to envision what church will be after this time of COVID-19, there are still just questions without immediate answers. Those answers will have to wait for at least another 15 months. What will the world be like then? What will “church” be like then? What are we learning during this strange and challenging time that might make the decisions required of the next General Conference have an unexpected result?

Today I’m going to wear the General Conference jewelry I had purchased in anticipation of this day. One bracelet carries my guiding phrase for 2020: “Delicious Ambiguity.” The other has the theme for the General Conference: “be still and know” from Psalm 46:10. Can I carry both of those statements through until the fall of 2021? Who will I be in 15 more months – a stronger advocate, a weaker soul, a better disciple?

I wonder if after these weeks of being apart from one another we might as followers of Jesus realize just as Jesus tried to teach us that it is a person’s heart that really matters – not the color of their skin, who they love, their political leanings or where they were born or choose to live. I wonder if being “still” for these few months might lead us to deeper personal discernment about how we care for one another, even to the point of giving up our freedom in order to protect our neighbors or potentially giving up our lives to make sure the most vulnerable survive. Will not being able to physically share our table space with others cause us to want the circle open more widely once we can gather together again?

The General Conference reading is hidden away for now. The airline and hotel reservations will have to be made again. New guiding words and themes might emerge. And maybe, just maybe, the Holy Spirit is moving in the most mysterious of ways.

In The Message, Eugene Peterson translated the ending words of Psalm 46:10 this way:

“Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God, above politics, above everything.”

Hummm? Mysterious ways???

The traffic has stopped on what was to be a day of travel. Weeks of isolation are offering time for discernment and courageous decisions – a long, loving look at God if we so choose. And God above politics…. Hummm? Mysterious!!!

A New Day Dawning?

Easter for me has always started in the dark.

Until I went to college, my Mom and I, along with extended family members started Easter morning with a Sunrise Service outside the mausoleum at Roselawn Cemetary in Martinsville. Those early March Easter mornings would be extremely cold as we stood out in the dark, awaiting the rising of the sun. Many an adult Easter morning began with singing at sunrise services. From the proclamation of“The Exultet” to “the melody that He gave to me” of “In the Garden,” Easter started with song in the lingering darkness of Good Friday.

Easter for me has up until this year always been celebrated by physically being inside a church building.

A conversation in our house this Holy Week focused on an observation from Steve that this is probably the first Easter I will not have been inside a church. While I’ll admit that for the last month or so I’ve thought a great deal about not “being in church,” I hadn’t focused on the fact that this will be the first Easter in my lifetime that I will not be sitting in a pew, holding a hymnal in the midst of a choir or congregation, hearing the gathered voices pray or the words of scripture read within the walls of a church building.

Easter for me will be a new day, bringing fresh light to the darkness.

What if we followers of Jesus were never supposed to be in the tomb of four walls within a physical building? Have those walls become more of a mausoleum, holding our traditions and rituals as something set apart from the world around us? What if our practice of “church” has become a vault, keeping what we say we believe about being Christians hidden and protected inside, leaving the rest of the world to wonder how authentic we really are in living our our faith?

Easter for me this year is a wake-up call to roll the stone away: the stones of my heart and soul and the stones of the buildings. Pushing through the darkness of my heart requires a new commitment to stop saying that I’m tired of the way we United Methodists treat each other and do more to model and advocate for transformed behavior. Isn’t that what Jesus tried to teach us? Recognizing that the light is actually outside the walls of the building began to happen for me a long time ago, but a deep pull continued to draw me to the resting place within the church where I could sit and listen, but not always be called to respond with the same level of action and commitment that Jesus modeled. The new normal that will emerge when we are no longer practicing physical distancing will call us to greater action, not sitting and reciting. That sounds a little like how Jesus lived – and why he died.

Easter for me has always started in the dark…until this year when a novel corona virus may be just what it takes to focus on the True Light of Resurrection Day.

Most blessed of all nights,
chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!
Of this night scripture says:
“The night will be clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy.”

From The Exultet: The Easter Proclamation

Behind and Ahead

My plan for 2020 was to get back to this blog on a regular basis, especially as a means of continued healing in the midst of grief. But even the best plans change, however, not usually because of something as life changing as a global pandemic.

This morning as I walked, I took two pictures. One captures the road behind me, holding the camera over my shoulder to show where I’ve been.

The second picture is a look ahead. Given the time of the morning, it’s interesting to ponder how my shadow is going before me. That will have to be a post for another day.

My thoughts turned to how very different this Holy Week will be from the ones of the past. The first true Palm Sunday parade I was part of was toward the end of my high school years. Revs. Bob and Bea Callis were at Fieldale UMC. They led a parade of the congregation from the ballpark to the church, donkey and all. My feet were washed for the first time on Maundy Thursday during a Wesley Foundation gathering at Edenton Street UMC in Raleigh. After so many moving Tenebrae Good Friday services, the day must begin with the singing of “The Light of Christ surrounds us….” and include the Taize chorus of “Stay with me, Remain here with me, Watch and pray, Watch and pray.” And Easter Sunday has to begin in the dark and include a litany of the many ways you can title a sermon using “The Tomb is Empty.”

This year: evergreen branches by the front door, a Palm Sunday parade that started with deer and ended with blue birds, online worship, deep prayer, sadness and joy. I wonder if we’re learning what is really important about following Christ during this strange time. I wonder if the lessons of turning over the tables in the temple, entering into deep discernment alone about the future while wanting others to be present, reminiscing with friends that have been traveling this road with us, facing sadness and possible death, and waiting…will change us. Are we supposed to be learning how to truly be authentic followers of Jesus during this time of physical distancing? Will the “new normal” for each of us and for the church be transformed as we learn from our current experience?

Just when I thought I might be coming out of my fog of grief, even in anticipation of the first Easter without going to church with Mom, there are new types of grief taking hold. On Friday, Steve found out that a dear friend and mentor was hospitalized following a stroke. We didn’t know how severe the stroke had been until yesterday when word came that this amazing man may only be here with us a few more days. The conversations of which I’ve been a part over the past few weeks of allowing family in for compassionate care/end-of-life visits and the stories of medical personnel who have been with persons otherwise alone when death has come began to flood my mind. As we sat together last night grieving both a life that is dear to us and the fact that the goodbyes have to be said in awkward and unnatural ways led both of us to tears. We have so many memories of the amazing life lived by our friend. He was one of the first to reach out when my Mom died in October. His son shared with us last night that he continued to visit the assisted living community where his wife lived for a brief time before her death last summer to bring joy to other residents. His last visit to our house was right around Valentine’s Day. Always the perfect gentleman, he walked in with a box of Russell Stover chocolate candy. The dogs cuddled up next to him as he and Steve shared the stories once again of how their working relationship began. A call to him was the first I had to make when the surgeon reported on Steve’s surgery on February 20th. The next morning, our friend was at the hospital before I got there, watching as the physical therapists got Steve up for the first time. He called to make sure I safely got Steve in the house later that afternoon and called several times over the following weekend to say he’d be here as soon as possible if I needed him for anything.

The road behind has had its share of grief, loss, love, joy and adventure. It has been filled with God’s blessings.

The road ahead??

It will be different, different than what I expected just a few weeks ago and probably very different from what I think it will be even today. Will this time of quiet call us as individuals and as a church to recognize what is truly important: relationships, communication, less attention to “busyness”? Will committee meetings that often leave us wondering why we were present give way to true connection and transformation? Will the prayers of the people continue to be focused more on the needs of the community and world around us than on our individual petitions? Will the sense of urgency that has caused us to shelter in place bring about a sense of unity that moves us to more deeply care for one another and all of God’s creation?

I’ll be eagerly looking for the continuing lessons of this odd and uncomfortable Holy Week, many of which I anticipate will actually make it more similar to the road that Jesus walked than any Holy Week I have experienced before. As the shadow walks ahead of me, may I focus more clearly on the purpose of the journey.

What a Difference a Year Can Make

Over the weekend as I was Googling thoughts about the end of the year, I found the quote below. It seemed so very appropriate for my journey through 2019 and the start of the new year. You might feel the same way about where you find yourself tonight.

My last post was on October 12th as I sat in the chair beside my mother’s bed. We knew her death was imminent and came three days later. In many ways, it’s been a long 11 weeks. Some days it seems like minutes ago that the call of the charge nurse changed our lives. This time of grief and mourning has taken some interesting turns. Each one a sacred space of its own. Each one a step that has been necessary to put pieces back together.

Looking back on 2019, my soul began to change a little each time another letter or email came from an individual or church related to the Called General Conference of The United Methodist Church. I read of congregations that had changed the lives of individuals and families through their love and acceptance of differences of all types. I cried with each remembrance of how those writing felt they could not have survived in life or in the church without the deep care and compassion of those they called their family of faith. I cried harder – screamed at times, hit the table at times, wanted to run and hide at times (and did) – when the messages contained much anger and harmful language, not just toward persons of the LGBTQIA+ community but everyone who was not just like the person writing. By the time of the General Conference at the end of February, I felt that there were enough people in the church that disapproved of me for one reason or another that I was lost. Letters shared dislike of women in leadership, God’s disapproval of all who could not or have not reproduced naturally, those who do not read and accept scripture very literally, and on and on. I fall into so many of those “categories” that I felt unwelcomed.

I couldn’t force myself through the doors of a church until Easter. Only then it was because Easter and Christmas Eve had become milestones for Mom. When illness hit, the goal was to make it to that next big church service. With her bout with pneumonia in the summer of 2018, Christmas Eve last year was a huge accomplishment, and then we made it to Easter 2019. No matter how many pieces my soul and faith had been broken into, we had to be present. As they had done since Christmas of 2015, it was the people of Culpeper UMC who welcomed us as visitors and broken spirits once again. Their warmth was the Light that was needed for our family. That service did end up being the last time that Mom, Steve and I were in worship together.

The community of faith that has emerged for me during 2019 has taken many forms. The uniqueness of each piece has formed me into a person that is very different than the one that started 2019.

  • The group that attended the UMCNext event in Kansas in May. Oh the stories that were shared around tables and in times of fellowship. The hurt, the harm, the joy, the faith…oh the amazing faith of so many who have been broken and pieced back together by the love of Jesus.
  • The work of so many to seek justice, to forge relationships, to start new conversations, to raise new voices so that the church can be a church where all are welcomed, nurtured and loved no matter what.
  • The work colleagues who only a few hours after hearing me speak about recognizing the needs of the growing number of “elder orphans” walked with me through the journey of becoming one.
  • The individuals who sat with me as I cried for my mother, for the church I love, for the world. From those in St. Louis who listened to the hurt in my heart to the dear friends who called and texted from afar to share their memories of Mom and offer their support…from the retired clergy partner who carried water in cupped hands across the parking lot so that I would not be excluded from remembering my baptism to the college friend who sent a handmade jeweled angel in a Christmas card…from the poor church folk (and most importantly Steve) who have had to listen to my voice crack as I attempt to sing once again to the cousin in Florida who thanked me for letting our mother be his mother, too.

I am a very different person on December 31, 2019, than I was on January 1st. The pieces are beginning to come back together with the help and support of a village.

Another quote popped into my Google search that I’m using to close out this year and look into 2020. For a couple of years, some intentionally and some purely through God’s grace, I’ve grabbed hold of the practice of choosing a word or phrase to guide me through the year. In 2016, it was a phrase from the Book of Esther: “for such a time as this.” On the first Sunday of 2017, Steve and I were guests in a church service where a cutout star was given to each person with a word for the year. My word was “possibility,” a very appropriate word in a year of building a new home and moving to a new community. Last year, the word/phrase came from a delegation meeting: “GentleHopefulThisness.” For 2019, it’s going to be “Delicious Ambiguity.” Thank you, Gilda Radner, for the inspiration.

“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”

Here’s to 2020 and pieces that will fit together in now unknown yet delicious ways.

Inseparable: The Journey of Losing a Parent and Losing a Church

For a little over four years, I’ve been on an intimately intertwined journey of walking with my mother toward the end of life and hiking the hills and valleys of the future of The United Methodist Church.

These paths have been tightly woven. Mom entered the hospital two days before our first meeting of the Virginia Conference delegation to the 2016 General Conference. I left Roanoke Memorial Hospital after spending the night by her side to do my best to lead the delegation meeting. Two days later she would enter long-term care in Culpeper. The first bout of pneumonia followed in a few weeks.

I prayed constantly leading up to the General Conference in Portland in May 2016 that she would be healthy while I was away. She was, but things took a turn for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference that July. 

More bouts with pneumonia, congestive heart failure, times of oxygen deprived cognitive impairment from the heart and pulmonary fibrosis. Mom’s little body has been through a lot. We thought she was near death in August of last year after the second bout with pneumonia in 6-weeks. Yet she fought. By the start of this year and the Called General Conference session, I was back to praying constantly that she would be healthy during my time in St. Louis. She was.

This past Sunday, her health took a turn once again. Today as I sat by her bedside, she stirred very little after a difficult night. Her breathing is labored. Her skin extremely thin. Her heart that has beaten strong for almost 94 years is growing weaker. She can’t understand why all this is happening to her.

This is the heart that modeled for me that all people – without exception – are loved by God. This is the soul that encouraged me to use my gifts for work in the church. Now of course Mom was the one who always said her only gift was washing dishes and that’s why you could always find her in the church kitchen. What that taught me was that everybody has some gift to use toward bringing about God’s kingdom: every gift is important.  It was her hands and feet that taught me how to visit the sick, feed the hungry and care for the broken-hearted. She embodied the Gospel message that I heard in church.

As my mother has been fighting to live for the last four years, my beloved church has been fighting over how to live out just what I stated above: that we are all loved by God, that we all have gifts for ministry and that we are the hands and feet of Christ in the ever changing world of today. Not only have I been losing the physical presence of my mother, I’ve been losing what is most deeply ingrained in my faith about what the church is supposed to be.

I can’t separate the two journeys. I am who I am because of my mother. I am also the person I am today because of The UMC.  

This struggle brings me to tears, leaves me confused, makes me angry, causes me great pain – as a daughter and as a United Methodist Christian. One path on the journey will likely come to an end soon. What will happen with the other?

“After all our hopes and dreams
have come and gone,
and our children sift thru all
we’ve left behind,
may the clues that they discover,
and the mem’ries they uncover,
become the light that leads them,
to the road we each must find.

O may all who come behind us
find us faithful,
may the fire of our devotion
light their way.
May the footprints that we leave,
lead them to believe,
and the lives we live
inspire them to obey.
O may all who come behind us
find us faithful.”

Find Us Faithful by Steve Green

 

 

 

 

 

priv·i·lege

“Google, define privilege.”

From vocabulary.com comes this response: “A privilege is a special advantage not enjoyed by everyone…. Privilege comes from Latin privilegium, meaning a law for just one person, and means a benefit enjoyed by an individual or group beyond what’s available to others.”

I hear and experience this word over and over in leadership in The United Methodist Church these days. Yesterday, my heart moved into my throat a number of times during a meeting as I sat once again in conversations around lack of diversity in general in the Virginia Conference and the spectrum of theological understandings in our denomination. My own pain – and empathy for others – in these anxious times choked me.

The UMC General Commission on Religion and Race offers a personal and/or group activity where you are asked to list your ideas for “What’s next” in your personal or group journey in addressing racism in particular and privilege in general. For each idea, you’re asked to plan three action steps: (1) what you need to LEARN in order to do faithful and effective work, (2) ways you or your church can SHARE what you’ve learned, and (3) what you are willing to RISK in order to accomplish the learning and sharing.

I haven’t slept well these past two nights. I know the Spirit is stirring but I’m not quite sure yet where that’s headed. Tonight, however, the direction seems to be in reflection of my own story of privilege as a blue-eyed/fair-skinned, CIS gendered, educated, employed, home owning, (too) well fed, middle aged, American, United Methodist female. That list could go on.

I had nothing to do with the blue-eyed, fair-skinned female privilege. This DNA-controlled part of my journey started in Appalachia – certainly not a place of privilege: in the sweat of a sharecropper working a field of tobacco, the farmer’s wife with 9 children born in the early 1900s, the West Virginia coal miners and the factory workers of Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. It wasn’t until I was a preteen that I realized my factory working parents went each year to the local loan office to borrow enough money for a one-week trip to the beach. They worked the rest of the year to pay off the loan. Today, we’d be the family at the paycheck lending window. Today, I am the daughter of a woman who worked all her life, saved all she could, did as much for me as she could, and at 93 has to rely on Medicaid for her daily care. Today, I carry the mark of my Irish heritage in the white spot in the middle of my neck under my chin. I can’t get away from my blue-eyed, fair-skinned privilege, but I certainly recognize my family history that comes with it.

The educated part of my privilege could have easily not happened. I still hold anger toward the Reagan Administration for cutting out my Veteran’s Administration survivor benefits during the summer months. When I started college, I was receiving support for my education from my father’s service in World War II. During President Reagan’s tenure, the decision was made to provide those payments for only the nine months of the typical school year. If it wasn’t for the bank loans, work study jobs, and other financial assistance, I wouldn’t be “educated.” And it only took me 10 additional years to pay it all off. My poor mother felt so sorry for me after moving me into college because I didn’t have the same “things” as the other girls that on her first visit to campus that fall, she brought me a gift of a gold add-a-bead necklace and a pink Izod pullover shirt. She wanted me to “fit in” with those of greater privilege.

I could go on with parts of my journey of privilege: living on the white side of street in the little town where I grew up and daily walking past the black community pool and ballfields, giving up the Girl Scout Christmas party gift so that the girl whose family couldn’t afford to bring one went home with one of the best, striving for a church that is the living embodiment of the Kin-dom of God….

I recognize that I am privileged in so many ways. That realization grows stronger with each step in my journey of faith. What am I to do with the learnings? How am I to share what I have experienced? What am I now called to risk when some days, I feel like I’ve risked it all already?

In these early morning hours, I’m reminded of these words from We Make the Road by Walking by Brian D. McLaren :

We have to graduate from thinking in terms of “our kind versus their kind” to think in terms of “humankind”….We must find a new approach, make a new road, pioneer a new way of living as neighbors in one human community as brothers and sisters in one family of creation. (p. 217)

And so, I keep walking home….

The Challenge is Not a Delegation: The Challenge is Lay Leadership Development

When I was 15 – as I was just getting ready to start my sophomore year in high school, a new clergy appointment was made to my home church in Fieldale. Rev. Robert (“Bob”) James Callis, Jr., came with his spouse be our preacher.

As her memoir from the 2003 Annual Conference Remembrance Service read, Bea Callis was “a woman before her time.” She answered the call in 1954, and joined Rev. Bob in ministry. Mrs. Bea, as she preferred to be called, was never ordained an elder in the Virginia Annual Conference, but was licensed as a local pastor in 1954, ordained a deacon in 1961, and ordained a local elder in 1963. Also noted in her memoir is the fact that she “would always carry a white handkerchief in one hand and a yellow legal pad in the other, writing down new ideas as God spoke to her.”  To this day, I carry one of her handkerchiefs with me whenever I am invited to sing for a funeral.

Maybe Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea carefully observed gifts and graces that I was beginning to display in my teenage years. Maybe they just knew that my mom and I were still in transition from the death of my dad a little more than a year before their arrival in Fieldale and needed some extra nurturing. For whatever reason, Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea took me under wing and offered me every imaginable opportunity to explore my gifts in service to the church.

  • Not long into their ministry in Fieldale, Mrs. Bea asked me if I’d be willing to create weekly bulletin boards outside the church office door to go along with the Sunday message. At one point she even handed me scraps of fabric and lace from her wedding dress to use in designing something for a special service of renewal of wedding vows for any of the couples in the church that wanted to participate.  This was my entry into creating visuals to enhance worship experiences.
  • Rev. Bob soon asked me if I would consider being the youth representative on what was then the Martinsville and Henry County Cluster of churches on the Danville District. I attended those meetings as the only young person and usually the only female in the group.  Being old enough to drive by then, I would go alone to the meetings, sit there and try to share my opinions with the group of older white men. These days I hope First Church in Martinsville and the Danville District have child protection policies in place that would never allow that to happen. This was my entry into leadership beyond the local churh.
  • Mrs. Bea was a tremendous preacher and was often asked to preach for services across the area. One Advent she spoke at Ridgeway UMC and extended an invitation for me to come along to sing a solo. I had never heard the hymn she asked me to sing. I practiced and practiced and practiced until I thought I finally had it down. That night in front of the congregation in Ridgeway I was just like Sarah Grace standing before the Annual Conference on Saturday morning. Whatever I sang was awful; I wouldn’t even say it was a unique version. I was devastated that I had let Mrs. Bea down. I just wanted to run and hide. Yet, Mrs. Bea hugged me, telling me what a wonderful job I had done. I will tell you that to this day I cannot sing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” without thinking back to that most embarrassing moment.

With all that they did to encourage me in my call, the greatest gift that Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea gave me was experiencing so closely their passion for making disciples. The services they planned were different, not the same sitting in the pew listening to 3-point preaching that I had grown up experiencing.  The church filled with people.  My little church was making a difference: advocating for change, serving the community, making life long learners.  It wouldn’t be long, however, before the older white men that had control of the church – financially and otherwise – would say that they didn’t want a female offering as much leadership as Mrs. Bea was providing. From my memory, they especially didn’t like her preaching from the pulpit. After only three years, and days after Rev. Bob brought the message for my high school baccalaureate service, they were appointed to a new church.

The gift they left with me was one of forgiveness and reconciliation.  They loved the community and people so much that they declared they would return to the area when they retired. And they did in 1991. Not long before he died in 2011, Rev. Bob gave me Mrs. Bea’s licenses and ordination certificates to take to the Conference Achieves. To their last breaths, they continued to see potential in me that I couldn’t see clearly in myself.  Mrs. Bea was one of the reasons I considered entering ordained ministry, only to be told just a few short years later by the male minister that followed them in Fieldale that he would not support my decision since ministry in The UMC was not a place for young women.

We have a challenge within our Virginia United Methodist churches with helping laity discover and explore their calls to ministry. Actually, the challenge is everywhere in the church.  On Saturday at this year’s Annual Conference, we were urged by representatives from the Commission on Ethnic Minority Concerns and Advocacy (CEMCA) and the Commission on the Role and Status of Women (COSROW) to enter into holy conversation about the lack of racial and ethnic diversity on the newly elected General and Jurisdictional Conference delegations. The challenge is much larger than the makeup of the delegation.  It is an overall lay leadership challenge. On a district and conference level, we’ve never been able to fill all the positions needed to truly represent an inclusive church on levels outside the local church. And our local churches continue to be the most segregated places around.  If we don’t begin to focus a true priority on developing our lay leaders, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.

  • Of the 80+ lay nominations (including those from the floor of Annual Conference), approximately 1% were people of color and diverse ethnic backgrounds.  One percent. At least one of those persons when asked about why they wanted to serve on the delegation had no idea what the major challenges before the denomination even were. Regardless of their cultural and ethnic background, is that the type of person we want to send to General or Jurisdictional Conference?  Unless we educate leaders on the current realities of the denomination, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.
  • There was a lay member of one of our larger churches in the Annual Conference who stood before me at the Laity Meet and Greet for nominees on Thursday that said he did not have specific questions for me, but needed assistance.  The person went on: “This is my first time at Annual Conference, and I have no idea what I am to do. Can you help me understand what I’m supposed do?”  This was a lay member representing one of our larger congregations.  We need to help those we name to any role understand the expectations and responsibilities of the role they are filling.  Unless we better prepare leaders, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.
  • Another person shared that they had been in a training I offered for their district for new local church Lay Leaders.  By the best of my recollection, given the district, that training must have been at least 12 years ago. As we continued to talk, the individual added, “And I’m still the Lay Leader.”  As lay leaders in all roles, our main task is to multiple leaders, share our experience and mentor others.  Unless we are intentional in leadership development, there will be no formal expression of church to worry about at all.

There is a huge leadership problem when individuals who put their names up for nomination to the most important gathering in the life of our church say they have no idea what is going on. There is a huge leadership problem when our Lay Members to Annual Conference look you straight in the eye and say they don’t know what they are supposed to do. Until we make lay leadership development a true priority for the roughly 360,000 of us lay people in the Virginia Conference, things are not going to change.  The issue is not about the makeup the delegation. The question is about how we encourage our laity to use their gifts in leadership positions inside and outside the local church. Only when we do that will our delegations to General and Jurisdictional Conference look different.

However, we do have to recognize that this delegation is very different in other ways from any past Virginia delegations.

  • It’s younger. Take away us oldest folks and my guess is that the average age would be somewhere close to 40.
  • Nine of the 22 General Conference delegates have not served before.  New, passionate voices for a new reality in the life of the denomination!
  • I’ve heard people say the delegation doesn’t represent the small church. It does, just in a very different way. Most of us even from the Richmond, Northern Virginia and Tidewater areas grew up and have our roots in small churches across the  Conference.  A number of folks on the delegation are active in those small churches. A few of the young leaders are in new church plants. They are small churches, yet they are different. They are small churches that are new expressions of what it looks like to be church in their communities.

Even though I tried for so many years to make a difference in lay leadership in the Virginia Conference, my efforts weren’t as fruitful as I had dreamed. We’re still pretty much in the same situation we’ve always been. For that reality, I will always carry a heaviness in my soul. Yet my heart feels so much more joy after gathering with Virginia United Methodist last week.  Between the UMCNext gathering in May and events of Annual Conference, I saw a glimpse of what the Beloved Community looks like: diverse in age, experiences, lifestyles, cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, ability levels and more.

I still don’t know what form the United Methodist Church in the United States might take, but I’m excited by the leadership potential that I see in this new delegation for moving this journey forward. More than likely I won’t be here on this earth to see what fully develops. Yet I know that I have tremendous faith in those younger than I am on this delegation to make sure that our Wesleyan heritage continues in ways that will impact generations to come after me.

I hope Rev. Bob and Mrs. Bea are proud of what they started.  May I follow their example in helping raise up the next group of leaders for the Virginia Conference – but I’m not going to ask any of them to sing “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.”