Helping Each Other Finish the Race

I don’t know if you’ve seen this story or not, but it’s a beautiful reminder of the Olympic spirit.  That though these athletes are from other countries, they’ve trained for this, they’ve endured various challenges for this moment, and they persevered over injuries, early morning wake ups, weather, and apathy to routine.  Sometimes we need a little bit of help to finish the race.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/17/sports/olympics/nikki-hamblin-abbey-dagostino-womens-5000.html?_r=0

“Get up.  We have to finish this.”

Sometimes we need a little help and encouragement to finish the race.

It reminds me of the Mark 2 passage.  The one where a paralytic man’s friends help him by lowering him from the roof to be healed by Jesus.  This passage has always been a favorite of mine because they go the extra mile for their friend which illustrates perfectly Christian community – not just talking the talk but walking the walk.  Action, not merely words.  You see Jesus had already started healing people and when he came to Capernaum there was standing room only inside the house. There were four friends and a man on a stretcher that were trying to get in to see Jesus because they had faith that if Jesus saw their friend, he could be made well.

It was so crowded,that they literally had to tear up the roof to lower him down.  To me, there’s something really powerful about them having to actually dig through and get dirty to help make this miracle happen.  According to some scholars, the roof was usually made of beams about 3 feet apart.  These beams would be filled with twigs, then packed with clay and covered with dirt.

If you have ever worked with drywall or insulation, particularly taking it down, you know that there’s small particles and dust everywhere.  A big mess.  So as you can probably imagine, as these four are pulling away chunks of clay, bits of dirt, and dried leaves are falling all over those below.

And the people who stood in the room, who most likely had some small rubble or debris dropped on their heads were doubtfully very thrilled and the men had to know this when they concocted their plan.  They risked a lot because they had faith in who Jesus is and what a tremendous impact he could have on the life of their friend.

Sometimes we need people to come alongside us to bring about God’s healing.  Sometimes we need conversation partners as God speaks through another, sometimes we need others to recognize the God spark in us, when we can’t imagine it’s anything but extinguished, sometimes we need a push or someone to reach down and help us up.  And that’s okay.  We’re supposed to be community to and with one another.  We’re here to support and be the hands and feet of Christ as the Holy Spirit leads us in the words to speak that all people are created in the image of God and God has called us all GOOD.

We need to be the ones that receive the help and then give the help.  Everyone is on a journey, with twists and turns, highs and lows.  We are not any of us invincible.  We all need help sometimes.  But we also need to give that same help to others.  I think that God allows some things to happen, hard roads to walk, to give us empathy with one another.  God works all things for good, after all.  I’ll invite you to insert your name for love as I write the Message version of 1 Corinthians 13.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

So when you need help, don’t be afraid to ask for help.  If you see someone down and out, don’t be afraid to step out in faith and let the miracle happen.  We are all on this blessed journey together.  Every one of us. We can’t do this life alone.  We all need to lean on each other.

Psalm 30 – Paul Shultz

Preached on June 29th, 2014

Psalm 30:1-12
1 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
6 As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
7 By your favor, O LORD,
you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
I was dismayed.
8 To you, O LORD, I cried,
and to the LORD I made supplication:
9 “What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness?
10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me!
O LORD, be my helper!”
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

John 10:10
10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Psalm 30 is an individual, first person singular, psalm of thanksgiving. Rabbinic sources identify Psalm 30 with the Feast of Dedication or Hanukkah. I had never noticed that the title of Psalm 30 at least in my Bible was a “Thanksgiving for Recovery from Grave Illness,” but it makes sense. Hear these words again.

“1 I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.”

You see God wants to give us joy in the morning. Life. Not just merely a blah life, but abundant life. God will be there every step of the way when life gets blah.

I’ve just come back yesterday from two weeks away first visiting my parents in Aiken, then to celebrate and officiate Nikki and Andrew’s wedding, and I was in leadership at a campus ministry conference in Atlanta for the second week. There was a heaviness about me as I journeyed through our time in Atlanta. You see I lost my co-chair, Paul Shultz, in January to flu complications and he was instrumental in planning this conference and the direction for the United Methodist Campus Ministry Association. Paul was a prophetic voice in the wilderness of collegiate ministry and Paul left a deep void. We wrestle with students’ questions every day – with vocation and theodicy and not giving cliched answers, so I’m not giving you an explanation of how a great, healthy man that just turned 50, that was the HAPPIEST I had ever seen him would die from freaking flu complications. It’s unanswerable and we don’t have pit pat answers to explain it away, but Paul gives answers through his sermons in the funeral service his children put together. (It’s linked to the end of this blog.)

You see we campus ministers are a bunch of misfits and after serving several local churches, Paul found that his calling led him to serve the University of Iowa Wesley Foundation. Paul was a big, hulking guy that made me feel petite. We got to know each other pretty well as we rotated on UMCMA’s Coordinating Committee at the same time in 2009. Then at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, UMCMA got two houses for collegiate ministers to volunteer their time to advocate for United Methodist Collegiate Ministry in Ybor City. Paul and I sat right next to each other on the front row for the General Administration committee for the entire time the legislative committees were in session. I will never forget our excitement when critical votes happened in the committee, and West remarked later it was like a “circus with the tent on fire.”

You see Paul before he was my co-chair was the Advocacy chair for UMCMA and had been instrumental on getting legislation passed at both the 2008 and 2012 General Conference. Paul set the course, created Advocacy packets, gave us our legislative assignments, and was the bridge between the old guard and us newbies. He floated in and out of conversations with wizened lifers (people who have campus ministry in their DNA and are in it for life) and could be a mentor or a jokester or a friend. We worked hard at that General Conference and we played hard as we went back to the UMCMA houses to strategize and blow off steam and create a beautiful community.

He had a wicked, self-deprecating, sense of humor. He would often greet people with “Glad you could see me!” instead of “Glad to see you!” And that was just Paul. Without a doubt, Paul Shultz knew he who was. He was deeply rooted and he was proud to be from Iowa, even naming the famous Iowans at dinner one night. He is one of those rare people that care about their ministry setting while equally caring for the whole denomination. I didn’t realize how rare that was. He cared deeply about the whole of The United Methodist Church. Although we didn’t agree on everything, after all I’m a girl in her 30’s from South Carolina and he was a guy that had just turned 50 from Iowa, we could disagree and it was okay because we respected each other enough to show love and grace and we felt secure in our positions. He influenced me more than he knew. He was a mentor and a friend. I’ll never forget him doing the closing of our October meeting in Atlanta as we planned for this conference. He talked about serving small churches in rural Iowa and at the conclusion of his story had half of us wiping tears from our eyes.

On a more personal note, Paul was my rock during the 2013 UMCMA biennial conference in Denver and as soon as I asked him for help he picked up the mantle and ran with it. When my second brain surgery was not as easy as the first one and left me without being able to speak for three weeks and having to go through occupational, physical, and speech therapy for 7 months as I underwent 30 radiation treatments, I just had to simply ask. He didn’t make me feel broken or not enough or handicapped in any way. He just in his Paul Shultz way made it okay. Made it normative. And didn’t ask me about it again. It was such a gift and I can’t articulate to his three children or his fiancee Jana how much that meant to me. So this week was incredibly hard because I was leading the conference without my co-chair. I told a close friend that I was tired of crying throughout the conference because I felt like I did that during all the breaks. My mom said to me yesterday on the way home, “Narcie, it says how much you loved him.” Indeed. CS Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” So I claim the verse that joy comes in the morning because it’s been a rough year for so many of us. Verses 11 and 12, “You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”

I remain ever confident that God is with us every step of the way. It reminds me of the quote from Mother Teresa that says, “I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish God didn’t trust me so much.” I couldn’t have gotten through this week without the grace, love and strength of God and the prayers and support of our collegiate ministry community. If you’re away from home for the very first time as a freshman starting in Summer B, God can help with the struggle, the loneliness, the lostness and we can help with those feelings too because the only way to live this life is in community. God loves you. God journeys with you in the good times and the bad, in the times we are grieving and in the times we are rejoicing. God is present with us.

I love the new Rend Collective CD and I’ve been listening to it since Gator Wesley’s spring tour. There’s a song called “My Lighthouse” that has these lyrics,

“My Lighthouse”

In my wrestling and in my doubts
In my failures You won’t walk out
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea
You are the peace in my troubled sea

In the silence, You won’t let go
In my questions, Your truth will hold
Your great love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea
You are the peace in my troubled sea

My Lighthouse, my lighthouse
Shining in the darkness, I will follow You
My Lighthouse, my Lighthouse
I will trust the promise,
You will carry me safe to shore

I won’t fear what tomorrow brings
With each morning I’ll rise and sing
My God’s love will lead me through
You are the peace in my troubled sea
You are the peace in my troubled sea

Fire before us, You’re the brightest
You will lead us through the storms

God’s our lighthouse and wants to give us abundant life. Not just surviving but thriving. I admit that I had written Casting Crowns off with being played out and old school, but I kept hearing this song on the Christian radio stations…
“Joy unspeakable! Faith unsinkable! Love Unstoppable! Anything is possible!”

It’s called “Thrive.” Too often I hear that we’ve just got to get through high school or college or grad school or we have to get our first job or get married or have children or figure out what in the heck to do with our lives, but God doesn’t want us to let life pass us by so that we’re only barely surviving. God wants us to have life. God wants us to thrive. It may take time. It may be challenging. It may not be easy. God wants us to thrive.

Paul would hesitate to sanction my use of contemporary Christian music, but he thrived. He embraced life. My friend, Rob Rynders, wrote a blog soon after Paul’s death and he got this response from a friend of Paul’s, “Perhaps you knew Paul had a bar where he met with his Seven Reverends group and where he had what he saw as a street ministry. Some nights he just hung out and drank his beer. Some nights he listened to heartache and helped people find their way. A year ago he organized a Thanksgiving dinner there for those with no family near. He was loved there and is very missed.” He not only thrived at The University of Iowa Wesley Foundation, he thrived with his children Miles, Hannah and August, he thrived with his fiancee Jana, he thrived in the broad reach and depth of grace he gave to each of us colleagues in United Methodist Collegiate Ministry, and he thrived in the world inviting everyone to know the love of God for each of them. May we all be and live like Paul.

Paul’s kids crafted the funeral with Paul’s words from his sermons and even his CPE application. He kept them all. A recording of the funeral is online here: https://soundcloud.com/paul-shultz-funeral/sets/a-tuesday-funeral You should listen to it.

Two additions since posting the blog. The first is from one of Mary Haggard’s students, Briana Batty.

“Lighthouse” by Briana Batty

The one thing I don’t have
right now
is an answer.
The one thing I want more than anything,
though,
is relief.

I have tried to stay strong, to stay bright,
but I’m the lighthouse
far out in the water,
bashed and battered
by cold storm winds,
left lonely in the waves
with no one to turn the lanterns
back on.
As my bold paint peels away
I’m nothing but a white-flecked pole
lost in a hurricane.

If you can see me flickering here,
pray.
Pray I’m brighter tomorrow,
pray my colors return,
pray I don’t fall headlong into
the stormy dark bay.
And while you pray, I’ll fight
I’ll stand,
I’ll try
because there’s this Man who walks across
the waters to me, climbs
the rickety stairs
in my heart, and promises that
He’s here to be my Light when I grow dark.
He gives me hope I don’t have,
strength I can’t find on my own.

Over the storm I see closing in around me
wings of prayer, white like seagulls, brave like eagles
diving into the wind.
I’m still surrounded by storms on my battered rocks,
oh yes,
but always encircled with arms and wings and warm embraces,
and lit from deep within with Light
brighter than mine.

See me out here?
I shine in the storm,
bright as new.

The second is from Hannah Shultz, Paul’s daughter, she said she’s been reading this poem by Maya Angelou a lot recently.

When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.

When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.

Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

Everything I Learned From Soap Operas

My grandmother was a long time devotee to soap operas. Some of my earliest memories of spending time with her had us playing, making cakes, and running errands, but it never failed that in the afternoon, we were going to sit down to watch her “stories.” When I was younger it was the Bold and the Beautiful, Young and the Restless, As the World Turns and Guiding Light. As I grew older she still faithfully watched As the World Turns and as she called it THE Guiding Light. It was something that she and I shared and throughout high school early release or in college or on holidays or breaks or sick days, I tuned in. You definitely don’t have to watch every day to know that Josh and Reva are still together or Carly and Jack were hitting another rough patch.

I know there are plenty of people out there who don’t enjoy soap operas and think it’s cliche to watch them. I would then ask you if you watch Revenge or Gossip Girl or The Good Wife or any other tv drama, because it’s pretty much the same thing with just a little less crazy.

Ganny started listening to As the World Turns and the Guiding Light when it was on the radio and she could tell me all of the characters family histories and back stories back when they read the Bible and prayed on air. Even though I only watched sporadically, I would look at that little soap magazine headlines as I waited in the checkout line and when we would talk on the phone or I would see her for an extended visit, I would always check in on the story lines. 1. because I wanted to know and 2. she really enjoyed and got excited telling the stories. Who doesn’t want to know the latest with the heroes and the villains of the show?

So what did I learn from watching soap operas? The first thing I learned is that you might as well go ahead and tell the truth, because if not, it will be dragged out for close to a year and there will be lots of angst and drama and if you had just told the truth to begin with, oh my golly, you would have saved a lot of time and plotting. The truth always gets found out eventually, whether it’s in the next episode, a couple months down the road, or years later when in crazy soap opera fashion someone comes back to life or the true paternity is revealed. In friendships, in relationships, as I’m working with students and colleagues – I know I’m better off even if I’ve royally messed up to just go ahead and come clean, apologize, and take the repercussions. I know this would wipe out a ton of story lines and what would soaps be without good drama, but wow it would make much more sense and things would work out better for the characters. Well, except the villains.

I learned that you always need some sort of sidekick or someone helping you along the way. When you go all vigilante on someone and you have no back up, you should just hang it up. Everyone needs a confidante or someone on their team. That’s the only way your plans are going to actually happen if you’re the villain, and that’s the only way you’re going to stay strong, safe, and sane if you’re not. I’m an avid watcher of Once Upon A Time (love it and that some of the LOST writers are writing it) and although I know they have to draw out all of these stories or it would be a nicely written movie and not a tv show, I still think Emma, the main character, needs some sort of ally. She has some allies right now, but no one to share her story and passion with that’s not also morally compromised or a kid or someone already distracted by their own stuff. But then again, that’s life. The ones who journey with us, our allies, are usually in the midst of their own story arch and sometimes they, like the people in our shows, have their own motives and agendas. That’s the importance of surrounding yourself with those you trust, who know you, who like the quote says, “A friend is someone who knows the song in your heart and can sing it back to you” when you’ve lost your way. We all need those people. We need that community. It’s a powerful thing watching those kinds of friendships unfold and it’s such a treasured gift.

The third thing I learned from watching soap operas is how important stories are. I can talk up and down the countryside about words and thoughts and catch phrases or whatever, but what often resounds with others is a story. The thing that I most liked about my Dad’s sermons growing up is the stories that he would use. I remember a lot of the points he would make, but much of that memory has to do with the stories that he told that helped me make that connection. There’s a different part of us that awakens with story. Maybe that’s the English major in me creeping out but there’s something that grabs our attention and opens our mind when we start in story mode. I can see it when I preach or when others preach, we know the cadence of the voice and the way the beginning of a story goes and even if we’ve zoned out before, our ears perk up when it’s story time. It can take us to another place. It can teach us things without having to beat them over our heads. It makes us think about things differently from different view points. The stories themselves are not just the important part but it’s also that awesome thing about the community sharing in the story. Part of the fun and sacred part of sharing the story with my grandmother was that we shared it. Part of the gift was asking her to explain it and update me and the interaction of that sharing. Even Josh, my brother, after seeing it on as we watched it over the years, would ask – okay, who’s Reva with now? What’s going on with so and so? It’s not that he necessarily even wanted to watch and he would often be exasperated when he did, but there’s something that drew you in and because Ganny loved them, it was pretty contagious.

What do we learn from our stories? What makes us who we are? How have we shared our stories with others? What does story have to do with our faith? I would argue that much of our scripture is story. It’s chock full of them. And I often think that we understand those better than some of the exposition. Jesus didn’t often preach. A lot of them time, he told stories. There’s just something about it that connects to a deep part of us. And I think that’s because when it all boils down, we are all human. As different the time or context or drama level, there’s always an essence of the human condition that is shared between each of us. As my Dad says, “There’s nothing original about original sin” and there’s nothing original about people lying, stretching the truth, trying to cover something up, or being found out. In big and small ways, we watch these things because it’s our life too. Not with the Grayson’s on the Hamptons, but in that we’re all searching for meaning and joy and hope and what we’re supposed to do with our lives or who we’re supposed to be with.

The thing that makes us as people of faith different, is that we have someone that’s always on our side. Not saying that we can do whatever we want and there’s not consequences, but there’s someone who is seeking to offer us the most beautiful story just for us. Someone who is guiding and leading us in all that we do, not just on the good days, but on the bad days as well. That’s pretty powerful and a little scary at the same time. It means that we can take comfort and confidence and reassurance but it also means that we don’t have some grand giant excuse to go running around like crazy people on soap operas. We make some pretty big mistakes, but we know that coming up with a master plan to cover them up doesn’t change that we know the truth, God knows the truth, and whatever mistake we’ve made will only make us stronger and more open to others as we realize our own weaknesses.

My grandmother passed away in the beginning of September and Guiding Light went off the air a week later and As the World Turns the year after that. I know she would love Revenge and would be very interested in how this new Dallas is going to turn out. I have no doubt that she’s still listening and watching her “stories,” and I’m thankful that she passed on this love of stories to me.

Why do you think stories connect with us so much? What are ways that we can open ourselves to God’s story swirling all around us?

** By the way – tidbit – Guiding Light ran from 1937 to 2009 and is credited by Guinness as the longest running drama in television.