Changing A Child’s Story

One book at a time, we can change the narrative, change, the statistics, change some lives…

My church heard the call issued by our conference Poverty Taskforce to make an impact on generational poverty through literacy. All year, some of us have volunteered as reading buddies at Hillis Elementary and we have worked since Christmas to try to purchase FIVE BRAND NEW BOOKS for every student there.

Why books?

It has been shown that having less than 25 printed items in a home is an indicator of poverty.

Prisons are built based on literacy at the third grade level.

And because a love of reading sparks imagination, creativity, and helps students succeed.

Last Thursday, our church delivered all 2,346 books to the school and the students got to pick out their own in a free book fair. It was one of the most amazing things I have experienced in my life.

Hillis Book Giveaway

It is hard to imagine the impact that one day and those five books will have, but I know and trust and believe that each one is a seed planted that will change a life.

Thankyou, Immanuel UMC for your generosity. Thank you, Hillis and especially Erin McGargill for helping us and being open.

Thanks be to God for moments like this :)


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I spend a good chunk of time every week preparing to preach the word of God through liturgy choices, attention to hymns, exegetical work, praying, listening, dreaming, and writing.


And I forget sometimes that I need to hear the good news preached, too.

I am, after all, just as human as the rest of the world.

When you are the one responsible for bringing the word each week, you aren’t always sure where to look and you don’t always have time to seek it out.


Sometimes, the gospel shows up on your desk.


In a little bundle of notes, all folded into one another, with instructions: Open one at a time until you reach the end.


Notes about prayer, and faithfulness, and trouble and hurts, God’s love and grace, the cross and the thorns.


All ending with the simple reminder:



Sitting REALLY close #NaBloPoMo

Yesterday morning in worship, I had the opportunity to sit in the pews at the first church I served. While I had a part to play, I also got to sit back and worship with the people.

A toddler was next to me and at one point, he leaned in really close, and propped up against me. He sat there for some time, flipping through the hymnal upside down, completely unaware of the fact I was a total stranger to him. The lack of boundaries spoke to a sense of safety and comfort in the walls of the building we were celebrating.

This morning, I was on a flight and the entire time, my leg and arm and side touched the person next to me. Seats keep getting smaller and we keep getting bigger, after all. Perhaps it is the assumed loss of personal space on a flight that allows one to sit, so utterly close, and not be uncomfortable.

But I am also aware that there is something profoundly human about touch. It is real connection. You cannot ignore the other exists when you are touching.

At a meeting on Saturday, we expressed the prayers of our hearts as we remembered our baptism. Each had the opportunity to come to the font, touch the water and speak.

Yet, I also recognize now, a loss of an opportunity to touch another’s head or hand in the process.

Some of our prayers were so personal and deep that we needed to touch one another to offer comfort, strength, hope, solidarity. Unprompted, we neglected to do so.

How can we share such physical proximity with strangers and not do so with those with whom we are treading this journey of faith?

I found myself fighting an urge to get up and embrace a friend as she prayed, unsure of why I refrained. Our vulnerability in those moments begged for touch, for human connection. When I finally did so, rushing towards her, pulling her in my arms, even if for a brief moment, I felt like even though things in this world are utterly broken, all shall be well. Not in a pie-in-the sky naïve way, but in the hope and coherence that allows us to take one step forward.

Today, I gather with colleagues to talk about the role of religion in public health. Our bodies, physical touch, acknowledging the dignity of another person have to play a role.

Hold someone’s hand today. Touch their shoulder. Make eye contact. BE the BODY if CHRIST to one another.


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My aunt Barb has been diagnosed and treating uterine and ovarian cancer for about two years now. She has been through a few rounds of surgery, chemo, and radiation. Some of it has been successful! Some of the cancer has returned. It has been an up and down journey, but she has had quite a few healthy months in the midst of it all.

Through everything, family and friends have been a huge support and together they have participated in Relay for Life the past two years.

As Team Triple B, their slogan is “Keep PUSHing”

For them, PUSHing means that you Pray Until Something Happens.


Pray Until Something Happens.


In these past six weeks, we have talked a lot about prayer. We started out by talking about prayer as group activity… something we do together. Pastor Todd talked about prayer as an intimate relationship with our parental God. Trevor invited us to think about prayer as something that is always hard and always necessary – a sweet devotion. Our guest preachers, Pastors Ted and Mara, have led us in a variety of disciplines and continued to stretch our thinking on how we practice prayer.

While I was away on leave, I spent every single morning in prayer. I wish I could say that I always spent every morning in prayer, but as Trevor so eloquently stated in his message, prayer is hard work.

Yet, on my renewal leave, my only real task was to pray. To pray for you. To pray for our ministries. To pray for God to guide me and us. And I read a lot about prayer as well.

One of the things that kept striking me is that we need to pray like we mean it.

We need to pray about those things in this world that we really want to change.

We need to pray until something happens!


In our gospel reading, Jesus was walking into Jerusalem and he passed by a fig tree. Even though it was out of season, he looked for fruit and didn’t find any. So he said, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” The tree withered, dried up, and died within 24 hours.

Jesus prayed… and something happened!

Now, I’m going to be honest… this is a rather strange story that leaves us with all sorts of questions:

Why would Jesus punish the tree when it couldn’t help that it was the wrong season?

The scripture says he was really hungry… so maybe he was just really grouchy, like I often get when I haven’t eaten in a while…

Because, I mean, what kind of Jesus is this that arbitrarily causes things to die?

United Methodists don’t typically buy into the kind of prosperity gospel that says if you pray for what you want, you will get it.

We are fully aware that all kinds of faithful people pray for things like healing and miracles and help and the answers aren’t always what we want.

Maybe that is why even though it is a story mentioned in both Matthew and Mark, most of the cycles of scripture readings pastors use completely ignore this passage. We’d rather Jesus didn’t have this encounter with the fig tree.


Yet, the core of the message here… aside from the weird stuff with the fig tree… is repeated over and over again by Jesus.

Ask and it will be given to you.

Seek and you will find.

Knock and the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8 and Luke 11:9)

If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains… nothing will be impossible (Mt 17:20)

If we ask for anything in agreement with God’s will, God listens to us… we know that we have received what we asked from God. (1 John 14-15)

If we pray… stuff will happen! Not little stuff… BIG. GIGANTIC. POWERFUL. MOUNTAIN SIZED stuff!

That’s what scripture tells us.

That’s what Jesus keeps reminding us.

Prayer is powerful.


There is a important thing to remember in this power of prayer, however.

This power only works when our prayers are aligned with God’s will.

If I started praying for a bigger house today… I probably wouldn’t get it. Because that is not about God… its about me.

As 1 John puts it: If we ask for anything in agreement with God’s will, God listens to us… we know that we have received what we asked from God. (1 John 14-15)

Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for what he wanted… but he ended that prayer: not my will, but yours be done.

What I love about my aunt’s prayer during this time  is that while she has all sorts of hopes and wants and desires for her treatment, their goal is for God’s will to be done.

They are going to Pray Until Something Happens.

That might be good news and healing. It might be deeper relationships.  It might not be the ending they want, but they are open to discovering God’s blessings and God’s answers along the way.

And through it all… they are going to pray.


I have found that we don’t hesitate to lift up prayers asking for healing. We are even pretty good at lifting up prayers of gratitude.

But there are things in this world that we are called to do and change and work towards… and we forget to pray about it!

We get so caught up in what we are doing that we forget to ask God to be a part of it. We keep thinking it is all about us.

And when we do so, we forget to tap into the mountain-moving power of prayer that is right there at our fingertips.



And that is what we need to do.

Last fall, we sat down and spent some time asking God what we were supposed to do here at Immanuel. And out of those conversations as leadership, we set some goals around places we have passion and we felt God was moving. Now… we need to pray about it.

We need to Pray Until Something Happens.


One of those goals was that we wanted to increase our visibility in the community… We want get to know our neighbors better… And our goal, our hope, is that those new relationships will mean there are 10% more people here in worship at the end of this year.

But you know what… we haven’t really prayed about it. We haven’t asked God to help us with this work. We’ve been trying to do it on our own.


Another goal we set last year was create space for people to serve here at Immanuel. We want to make sure that everyone is connected to some kind of ministry beyond Sunday morning. And one of the pieces of this goal is to encourage new people to embrace God’s gifts in their life and we wanted to find a place for 10 new people to serve on our ministry teams.

But we haven’t been praying about it. We haven’t asked God to help us.


And as the Iowa Annual Conference, we have this amazing new goal. As United Methodists, we want to make a significant impact on poverty in our communities and we think we can do something really big by addressing the opportunity gap in education. And so, we are being asked to get involved with an effort to distribute half a million books and to give a million hours of time over the next year. And it is a big and awesome and mountain sized goal and we are just getting started…

So you know what… we had better start praying for it.


In fact, we need to start praying for all of these things.

We are going to need God on our side if these things are going to happen.

If the world is going to change… if the kingdom is going to come… if God’s will is to be done, we need to ask for God to be involved.

We need to start praying until something happens.


As we leave worship today, you’ll find that there are some tables at the back with three different stations.

Each station relates to one of those goals I lifted up in the message this morning.

And at each station is a prayer card I want to invite you to take with you.

I want us to commit to praying for mountains to move.

I want us to commit to praying every day that God’s will be done in our midst.


You don’t have to pray for every single one of them… but pick at least one.

Commit yourself to prayer by name.

If we have at least 50 people here in the church praying for every one of these goals do you think God will hear us. Do you think God will sense we are not only people who care about these things, but we are ready for change. We believe. We have faith that God can make a difference here.


Ghandi once wrote:

If when we plunge our hand into a bowl of water,

Or stir up the fire with the bellows

Or tabulate interminable columns of figures on our book-keeping table,

Or, burnt by the sun, we are plunged in the mud of the rice-field,

Or standing by the smelter’s furnace

We do not fulfill the same religious life as if in prayer in a monastery,

The world will never be saved.


We may not share the same faith as Ghandi, but we all believe in the power of prayer. And Ghandi’s words remind us that prayer is not just for the super-religious, and prayer is not only for renewal leave… prayer is something we are supposed to be doing every second of every day of our lives.


We should be praying when we work.

We should be praying as we play.

We can be praying as we brush our teeth and drive to work.

We can pray at the dinner table.

We need to be praying everywhere, all the time, about everything.


And what I want you to do is take one of these prayer cards this morning and pray your heart out.

Put it on your bathroom mirror and pray it every morning.

Stick it in your car and pray before you get to work.

Take more than one if you want to, and put them wherever they might be a reminder to you.

Bring your prayers to breakfast and take turns each saying your prayer together.


Pray… even if your faith is as small as a mustard seed.

Pray that mountains might move.

Pray that kids might learn to read.

Pray that we might meet and grow with new people.

Pray that every person might find a place to connect and serve.


Pray Until Something Happens.

Competing Goals

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One of my goals for this renewal leave was to cook more meals in the evening for myself and my husband.

It is something I love to do, and I use about two more pots or utensils than I need and make a lovely delicious mess every time.

But I love to cook. I love to discover new flavors and adapt recipes and buy fresh ingredients based on one meal and take a few hours in the kitchen.

I can honestly tell you I have made exactly zero of those big fancy meals. Last night, I made a one pot casserole while Brandon was at the hardware store. We’ve had frozen pizza twice this week. Our fridge has never been emptier.

Even though making dinner was my goal, it was connected with the goal to spend more quality time with my husband. And when either of us cook, we get in each others way.

He is also in charge of the dishes (my responsibility is the cats and the garbage), and so my kitchen messes stress him out.

He is a much pickier eater than I am, too.

I realized I had competing goals, so I have ended up cooking very little this past month.

Sometimes churches have competing goals, too.

I was part of a church in Nashville that wanted to both provide excellent child care AND be open to people off the street.  We couldn’t do the second effectively because we needed to keep doors locked and building access limited for child safety.

Denominations have such competing goals and priorities as well. My own annual conference is balancing budget reduction/apportionment reduction AND the goals to reach new people/better equip leaders. To be honest, they don’t co-exist very well.

As I thought about my own competing goals, a few questions came to mind that might help churches discern as well:

1) Where do my goals intersect or overlap? Do they mutually benefit each other? Or detract?  A simple evaluation can bring to light places of competition or cooperation.

2) Is this goal something I want, or something we need? Especially in churches, it is sometimes hard to let go of goals you are personally excited about. But, if it doesn’t fit with the overall direction or priorities of the church, it is easier to let them go.

3) Who benefits from these goals? Who is harmed? This can be a tricky question, especially if you are dealing with multiple vulnerable populations (like children/homeless, or small churches/campus ministries). Yet, sometimes we make assumptions about who is benefiting from our goals or who becomes more at risk. Taking the time to evaluate in this way clears the waters.

4) Can a different goal, or a different ministry do the work just as well? Can you better equip local homeless

ministry and work there, rather than do it in your building? Can you focus on stewardship and helping churches pay their share instead of reducing the payments for everyone? Can you go out to eat more, instead of cooking g at home? We simply can’t do everything and realizing what our options are helps us shift our goals.

2 days, 3 houses, 7 niblings

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This weekend, we made a road trip to spend some time with family.  Since we have moved, it has been harder to make a quick trip over to see our parents or siblings and the kids.

One of my primary goals during renewal leave was to spend more time with family and to re-establish patterns for seeing and communicating with them.  As I shared with my congregation when we announced the leave:

this is a time to enjoy the simple beauty of spending time with those I have been called to love.

I do believe that our families are part of our calling.  You almost never got to choose who they were.  Some of them were around long before you and some have come into your lives as you have grown and changed.  But each one of them are part of your responsibility to care, to teach, to listen, to play, to love.

Since my husband and I are child-free, I have in particular embraced the role of aunt to my niblings. I love their little footsteps pattering towards the door as we walk in to get hugs.  I love the sloppy messes.  I love the silly things they say and their wild imaginations. And as I have watched them grow… including the one who now towers over my head… I have loved to see how kind and responsible they are and to hear all about the things that they now love.

A dear friend, who is also a child-free aunt, posted this to my facebook wall the other day and it made me tear up.  I do love my niblings. And this weekend, I got to be that aunt.   I loved their snotty faces and their tears and their shrieks of joy.  I loved hanging out on the floor and putting together legos with them.  I loved writing silly stories with them.  I loved the cuddles. I loved teaching them something new.  I loved listening to what is going on in their world. And, as a pastor, I also love that I can bring the gifts of my work into their lives and can wrestle with questions and be a part of blessing them… literally!

That is what the picture above is… a celebration of new life as we blessed my newest nibbling.  We gathered around him and prayed for the life God has in store for him and for his parents and grandparents as they all love and care for him.

But I also love my brothers and sisters and if an ounce of what I can do and share with and for them makes their lives any easier, that brings me great joy, too.


Plural Pronouns and Prayers

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Yesterday, our family was boating on the Cedar River and we pulled into this little cove we like to visit. Often, in the summer, it is full of people, but since it was cloudy and cool with sprinkles here and there it was calm and peaceful.

Another boat pulled up with two little girls inside… twins, five years old.

They hopped on the shore to play in the sand, but that water was just too tempting.

First their toes dipped in.

Then the ankles.

And then there were squeals as they ran back to the safety of the sand.

After a few minutes of this back and forth, they held hands and jumped in together.


They reminded me of mornings at my grandparent’s lake house.

We’d start out the day by putting on our swimming suits and after a rushed breakfast we’d run down to the dock and dip our toes in.

But the water was so cold that early in the morning none of us was ever brave enough to do it on our own.

The only way we got wet before noon is if someone pushed us in…

or if we grabbed someone else’s hand and we did it together.


Today, we, too, are diving in.

We are diving into a series on prayer.


For some of us, prayer is as scary and daunting as the ice cold waters of a lake. We like to dip our toes in, but we run back to the safety of the shore as quickly as possible.


Others of us are more familiar with prayer. We make prayer part of our daily lives like swimming laps at the pool.


But here is what I have learned about prayer… just as I have learned about diving into the waters… it is always easier to do with a friend.

And, as Jesus taught us in the most basic prayer, it is something we are supposed to do together.


In fact, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he taught them a very simple prayer without any singular personal pronouns.


Let’s say that prayer together… Our Father…


Not once we do we say, “I” or “me”… it is always “us” or “we.”


And that tells us a little bit something about our faith and our life of prayer together.


OUR FATHER: It’s not my father… it’s our father… we are brothers and sisters


GIVE US TODAY OUR DAILY BREAD: our faith is based around the table… we pray for daily doses of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, but we also practically pray for real food and sustenance to be given to our brothers and sisters.  And we become Jesus to one another when we provide food and assistance through our food pantry and when we pray for hunger relief.


FORGIVE US OUR SINS: not just personal sins, but corporate sins: economic justice, our greed, ignoring the cries of the needy.  In Iowa, there are 117,000 children living in poverty.  And it is a sin that we have allowed that to be a reality.  God calls us to respond to the needs of others and when we turn our backs, we need to confess that sin and act.

As the United Methodist Church of Iowa, we are committing ourselves to respond to poverty and reach out to help support and educate our young people.  Our Bishop has challenged us to donate 500,000 books to children in poverty and to commit to 1,000,000 hours of reading to children who are in the most need in our communities.  And we will be talking about ways to engage in this work in the coming weeks and months.  Together, we can help change a child’s story. Read More Here


AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO SIN AGAINST US: read the story of Farmer’s Chapel UMC, forgiving their arsonist and inviting them to worship (pages 20-22)


SAVE US… DELIVER US… We are in this together. We pray for one another, we hold each other accountable. We watch each other’s back. Like recovery groups that provide partners and support, a place where you always know there is someone else on this journey with you, we are that for one another.


Matthew 18: When two or three are gathered, I am there…


Turn to your neighbors. As two or three people, I want to invite you right here and right now to pray for one another. You don’t have to have a specific prayer request in mind, but turn to each other in prayer and lift up those who are closest to you right now…



D-I-Y Pastoring #NaBloPoMo

My first church had one person on staff… myself. So, I painted and cooked and folded bulletins with a very tiny army of volunteers… in between the “pastoral” work.

And I’ve always been a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of person. I stick around to help out. I wash dishes. It is who I am.

In the past week, I’ve helped paint our nursery and moved stuff around. I made copies. I cut out commitment cards. Not because there weren’t people who couldn’t do it, but because I’m hands on. I want to help.

Along the way, I’m discovering that makes me an unusual lead pastor or head of staff. I have blogged about postmodern leadership styles before and I am reminded of Frodo-like leaders… who need a team around them. Lots of skills working toward a common goal. A journey we take together, wearing different hats along the way. Discovering who we are as we go along the road.

As I paint and fold and cut, I allow others to let their gifts shine. I demonstrate my willingness to not only meet them where they are, but join them in their experience.  And I’m able to hear their stories as we work alongside each other and build relationships.

Can I add… there is something awfully rewarding about defeating a copy machine and getting the brochures all done. Or listening in as children walk by the new nursery and squeal with excitement.

What a crazy and wonderful job I have.