“Enough” by John van de Laar

Worry and stress are not hard for us, God,
We do them without thinking:

There is always the potential of threat
To our security,
Our comfort,
Our health,
Our relationships,
Our lives.
And we foolishly think that we could silence the fear
If we just had enough money,
Enough insurance,
Enough toys,
Enough stored away for a rainy day.
It’s never enough, though;
The voice of our fear will not be dismissed so easily.

But in the small, silent places within us is another voice;
One that beckons us into the foolishness of faith,
That points our gaze to the birds and the flowers,
That in unguarded moments, lets our muscles relax.
And our hearts lean into loved ones.;
In unexpected whispers we hear it,
Calling us to remember your promises,
Your grace,
Your faithfulness;
And, suddenly, we discover,
That it is enough.

A week or two ago as some of us came into church on Sunday morning, you might have noticed a police car here at Immanuel.
Overnight, the garage in our yard was broken into and a snow blower and set of tools had been stolen. They weren’t fancy or terribly expensive, but they were ours. The garage door was damaged in the process and our amazing and excellent Trustees have been working since then to secure the garage, increase a bit of our security, and help keep us all safe.

The neighborhoods around our church are changing.
We have had quite a few shootings recently and we are not the only ones who have experienced break-ins. Whether it is cars, or garages, or houses, there has been an increase in crime.
Our neighborhood is also becoming more diverse. Economic inequality is growing. We see more people of color and more languages are spoken in our midst.
I hesitate to correlate these things, but they are all part of the fabric of what is changing around us.

I think about this reality as we start our new worship and stewardship series: Moving Out of Scare City.
Des Moines is a fantastic place to live and work and grow. It was named the #1 city for young professionals a few years ago.
Yet, we were also in the top 10 list of worst cities for African-Americans in the nation.
We have had a higher murder rate this year than we have in a long time.
More of the students in our schools are on free and reduced lunches.
One in five children in Polk County are hungry.
There are some things about our neighborhood and city that feel less safe and more scary.

I think about the poem by John van de Laar that I shared with you and our temptation to silence that fear through money, insurance, security, gadgets… by clinging ever more tightly to what we have.
When it feels like death, hunger, and the overwhelming struggles of the world loom all around us some of us think about moving out. We want to separate and wall ourselves off from the problems and focus on taking care of our own.
Some churches around us have done that.
They moved out to the suburbs.
Or their church no longer looks like the neighborhood it is situated in.
Their beautiful sanctuaries and people in fancy clothes who walk into them on Sunday mornings stand in stark contrast to the needs of the people that surround them.

In many ways, I think that was the impulse of the people we follow in Genesis this morning.
In chapter 10, we find a listing of all of the descendants of Noah as they developed into the nations of the earth. One of his great-grandsons, Nimrod, began his kingdom with Babel.
While we don’t know of the threats or dangers that surrounded them, the scripture tells us in verse 4 that they wanted to make a name for themselves.
The promise of God that came to Noah was that he and his sons would “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” They were meant to spread the knowledge and blessings of God across the planet.
But this group of descendants feared being scattered over the face of the earth. They feared falling apart.
The potential threat of losing their identity, their status, their place in the world caused them to foolishly throw themselves into building a tower.
They believed that if only the tower were strong enough…
Rich and famous enough…
High enough…
Nothing would threaten them.

But this is not God’s desire or intention for our lives.
God doesn’t want us to worry about getting more and more or protecting only ourselves.
In fact, God knows that if we live our lives that way it will never BE enough.
We will always be unsatisfied and fearful.

Instead, God calls them… and us… to turn our attention away from ourselves.
God tells them they don’t need a tower – they are already enough.

And then God confuses them, scatters them, diversifies them.
Like the bloom of a dandelion becomes a thousand seeds that drift away to far flung places on the wind, God caused the people of Babel to be scattered to the winds – speaking different languages, practicing different customs, becoming different people.
In whatever place they found themselves, they began to look like the ones they were surrounded with.
They allowed the blessings of that new place to transform them.

When we look out on our neighborhood, it is tempting to see the diversity as a threat that might cause us to lock the doors of our building even tighter.
We might turn inward and stop reaching out, stop making connections, stop inviting others to join us.
We could listen to that still small voice that beckons us out into the neighborhood.
We could open our doors to those who are yearning to find a relationship with God.
We could reach out in love and grace to even those who would rob us.
We could find ways to allow ourselves to be transformed and blessed by people who don’t look like us.

When I think about the legacy that Immanuel is building, I don’t see us building up a monument to ourselves, but I think about the ways we have opened our doors to welcome others in.
Not only do we gather and collect food for our neighbors through DMARC, but our front lawn is an invitation for our neighbors to come and take a book or what they might need for an evening meal.
Our building is available for other groups like Bikers Against Child Abuse to gather and plan so they can do the important work of ministry they feel called to.
We realized we had more than enough space to allow a small group of African refugees to come in and worship with one another. Under Pastor Joshua’s leadership, they became a congregation that now has a building of their own!
Our space was empty for just over a year, when this summer, a new friend called the church, looking for a place to worship.
Her name is Mu and she is one of many folks from southeast Asia, Myanmar in particular, who have built a community here. They were looking for a place where they could worship in their own native tongues… but also where they could build relationships with others.
Over the last few months, we have gradually been exploring what this new relationship might look like. Our Fireside Room was sitting fairly empty and on Sunday mornings their group has been gathering in that space to worship and pray.
They don’t have a pastor, but a volunteer from another church has been teaching in Burmese. Mu then translates into another language, Karenni. Their children are joining our children in Wednesday night activities and children’s church and we are navigating multiple languages at once!
On this day when we celebrate World Communion Sunday, I remember that while the people of Babel sought to make a name for themselves, God calls us to share the divine love with all people and to celebrate and delight in the diversity and abundance of all we share this neighborhood with.
Young and old. Rich or poor. Black, Hispanic, Asian, White.
This is what church looks like.
This is what blessing looks like.
And as we join and share and break bread, we remember that we don’t have to fear that we will not have enough.
With God’s help, there is always enough.

Invitation to Conversation and Discernment

conversationHi folks,

This year at our Iowa Annual Conference one of our major topics of discussion will be the vision, mission, and strategic priorities of our Iowa Conference.

As part of getting people across the conference to think/pray/discern where we are heading with this document, I’m hoping YOU might think and write about the document this next week.  I want to invite you to prayerfully read the full document and craft your response.  If you blog, let me know where and when your post shows up!  If you don’t blog, I would love to invite you to be a guest on my blog and will share your responses.

In this exercise, some questions we might wrestle with are:

  • What kind of difference would this make in the Iowa Annual Conference?
  • What are the obstacles to passing the vision/mission/priorities?
  • What are the obstacles to living them out?
  •  What are some lingering questions you have or places you feel led to push back?
  • What excites you? What inspires you? What stirs your soul so that you can’t wait to get started?
  • What are we missing?

Up front disclosure: I was on the writing team for this project and have spent a lot of time invested in the work. It’s not perfect.  It isn’t even really finished… that will happen on the floor of the Annual Conference as we adopt the priorities and then work to perfect the goals as a legislative body… and even then, we are creating a working document.  I’m hopeful and prayerful that God truly is leading us outside of our old structures and into a new reality – focused on relationship, mission, discipleship, and life in our community. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have and/or talk about where I’m still struggling!!!

I’m not looking for your approval, but your deep engagement and conversation… and to invite those who respond in your own circles to do the same.  I want us to be as informed, prepared, and above all SPIRIT LED as we get to the actual conversations on the floor of annual conference as we can be.  And that takes connection and holy conversation. 
PLEASE seek out others who are writing and read and interact with their thoughts and responses!
PLEASE invite others to blog also!  And if you have friends/colleagues/church members/neighbors who don’t blog, invite them to write a guest post for your blog to broaden the engagement!

All in all… thank you.  And let me know when you post next week so I can link your posts and share them broadly.

All Shall Be Well,

Katie Z.

p.s. I hope this might be the start of deeper connection among the bloggers in our conference, as well! 

My sister is waiting for me in China…

I love me a good singing and dancing show, so I was excited to hear the minds behind “Chicago” were turning their attention to television and a new network series about the theater and Broadway.

So far it has been a fairly good show… two episodes in.  One of the “B” storylines is about how one writer, Julia, and her husband, Frank, are seeking to adopt a child from China.  They have a teenage son, Leo, and have been talking about this for a long time.  In episode 102, the father character begins to have doubts about the length of the process and if it is worth it.

In response, Leo gets angry… He, too, has been looking forward to this new addition to their family.  As he talks with his mom, he says very plainly:

you said that my sister is in China, that she’s waiting for us in China.  She’s waiting for us to come and get her…  What is going to happen to her if we don’t go and get her?

Part of the adoption preparation includes writing a letter to the birth mother.  Of course, the child hasn’t even been born yet, and they don’t know who this woman will be, but it is an exercise in planning for their future.

Julia’s letter goes like this:

To the birth mother of my daughter,

Our lives are so far distant from each other. It as if neither of us exists.  I will never know you.  Even though you will give birth to her, my daughter may never know you as well. But I want you to know, I will guard her like a lion. I will raise her with love.  I will protect her from the wounds of lonliness. She will be a child of two lands and she will wear that knowledge with pride. And at night, we will call to you on the wind, and perhaps you will hear us and know that she is safe.

It was a powerful moment, but this whole idea of thinking about a family you don’t know half way across the world got me thinking about our Christian family.  We are often willing to imagine our brothers and sisters in Christ as the folks who attend church with us and who live down the street, but we sometimes forget about the ones who are halfway across the world.

When we choose to follow Christ and when we are adopted as sons and daughters of the living God, we become children not of two lands… but two families. We have mothers and brothers and fathers and daughters… but our family becomes wider.  Our vision expands. Our hearts grow in the knowledge that somewhere in China or Nigeria or Switzerland there is a sister who is waiting for us… a brother who wants to share in the love of the body of Christ.

I have heard it said sometimes that we should spend less time taking care of people and sending missionaries half way across the world, because there are people in our back yards who need us to.  But I think when we embrace the love of God that statement becomes a false dichotomy.  Our brothers and sisters are right here in our midst, but they are also on the other side of the planet.  If we let go of the boundaries of municipalities and nations… if we let go of the division of race and class… if we began to imagine each child of God as someone who is a part of our family, how might our ministry change?  Would we promise to raise them with love?  Would we dedicate ourselves to protect them from the wounds of not only lonliness, but war and famine and disease?  As Leo asks, “What is going to happen if we don’t go and get her?”  What will happen if we ignore our brothers and sisters when they need us the most?

running low on the compassion reserves

One of the reasons I have been avoiding blogging lately is because I have a lot of things I would love to write about, but I can’t.

A couple are topics and discussions that are confidential on a professional level.  Some are just things that hit too close to home for myself and I’m not willing/able to take that leap of faith and just put out there for all to read what is close to my heart.  They are things I need to deal with in person before I am able to properly reflect upon them.  Or maybe I really do just need to take that leap, get over the fear, and put it in writing.  Leave it out there and maybe that will give me the courage to have the harder face to face conversations I have been putting off.

What I am able to talk about is the touchy subject of financial outreach.

Everyone I talk to has their own take on how to best provide real financial resources to folks in need and in the past few weeks I have whittled the differences down to three categories:

1) Contributions to a community fund that pastors then refer folks to.  This method is very connectional, allows for a sharing of resources, and takes the burden off of any one congregation or pastor… especially if they are not the ones actually managing the funds.

2) Congregational “Love Funds.”  This money is held by a particular congregation, folks make donations to it and disbursement is at the discretion of the pastor.

3) Connections to outside agencies and networks of support.  This takes a lot of legwork and knowledge by the pastor to have these contacts built up in the first place when the need arises.

4) Personal time/energy/money.  Every now and then there is someone who needs a tank of gas or a meal and when we can and are able – pastors are extremely generous folks.  As a colleague wrote me:  what is needed and is it within my capacity to meet that need?  I know of a lot of folks who go above and beyond and their mental health, energy and family suffer for it… your capacity is a lot different than your wallet.

These past two months, I am realizing how small the tanks actually are when it comes to financial assisance in our area.
I recently became the treasurer for our county ministerial fund and as soon as the cold weather hit, our funds went out faster than they could replenish themselves.  We are at the point now where we can only provide assistance when we recieve a new donation, and the need really is great out there.
Our local community fund has resources, but we have limitations on how those resources can be used.  Time and energy need to go into revamping our guidelines and extending our reach… yet at the same time, as soon as we do so, I know that they will be used and gone. Used for good of course, but used all the same.
My congregational fund is not yet a separate and distinct account from the rest of our finances… I am not entirely sure how previous pastors handled the situation, but since I have been there I have budgeted for a set discretionary assistance amount.  I think we exceeded the amount budgeted halfway through the year and asked for a bit more to be set aside… but even if we had ten times the amount of money, we would still have folks we would need to turn away.
I reached the point recently where I almost cashed in my paycheck and gave half of it to someone who really needed it… I’m young, I have a roof over my head, I thought… but I also have a marriage to think of, and my own bills to pay (higher now that our own heat is turned on), and setting myself behind isn’t going to help anyone in the long run.

I felt so guilty that we couldn’t do more as a church or as a community.  I felt personally guilty.  I didn’t want to call and say no.

I think I was feeling convicted by the idea from James that if you say you will pray for someone who is hungry but don’t give them any food, then you aren’t doing anything for them.

But I think I reached a place this past week where I realized that we already were giving so much.  Even if it wasn’t the money needed to pay the bills, we were giving of our time.  We were praying.  We were listening.  We were connecting.  We were building relationships.  We were doing what we could with what we had.  And even extending ourselves beyond those points.  We were sharing the love of Christ with folks as much as we could.

Money isn’t everything.  Sometimes it feels like that, but its not.

This Sunday, we lit the first candle on the advent wreath as a reminder that the hope of the world is Christ and Christ alone.  Not a bank account.  Not a fundraiser.  Not a paid bill.  But Christ.

And things out there are tough – all around they are tough.  People are hurting because of broken relationships and they are struggling because of a lack of work and lack of funds.  They are angry with systems that fail them and they are disappointed in the outcome of their work.  And we sit and wallow in this muck and in the words of Rob Bell: yell at the darkness for being dark.

Sunday – we preached texts that told us to wake up.  To stop lingering in the dark and to look towards the light.  To remember that our salvation does not lie in these things.  To live in the light of Christ right now.  To be a community.  To walk together.  To live right now as if Christ had come again.

And when we do that… we have the strength to answer the phone call when the next creditor calls.  We have the peace in our hearts that enables us to hold the hand of a loved one and tell them goodbye one last time.  We can let go of the guilt and simply love the best we can, right here and right now.

facebook ministry

7) outreach and ministry through facebook (prayers in the aftermath of the shooting tragedy in our county).

Nearly two weeks ago, we had a tragic shooting near our community. I don’t need to go into details, but a young woman’s life was taken. There were very little official details at first, but everyone in the community had their own version of what might or might not have happened. I didn’t know anyone who was involved, and so while it was very close to me, it also seemed very remote.

Until I watched the news the next morning and saw a congregation member being interviewed. And it was as if I suddenly realized that even though I was not personally affected by this – people in my church were. People in my church knew those who were involved and were grieving the death of a friend. People in my church were shaken up by the fact that something like this had even happened.

I was still in my pj’s at the time, but I knew that as a church, the best response we can have is prayer. so I got dressed and headed over to the church.

Here is where I realized that we have no great means of getting the word out fast to people. We don’t have a calling tree. Most of our congregation doesn’t regularly use email or check our website. But I knew that some of the people affected were on facebook.

I recently created a page for our church on facebook. I thought it might be a good way of publicizing events for our youth who are on there. And so far it has worked very successfully. But some of these kid’s parents are also on facebook. So I created an event – a day long prayer vigil at the church for anyone and everyone who wanted to stop in.

And I called a few of the people that in 18 short hours I knew had been personally affected. I let them know that I was at the church and was available.

I don’t think we had anyone stop in and use the prayer space at all that day. BUT… simply because it was there, other conversations happened across facebook.

One of my members who saw the listing also posted it as her facebook status. And friends of hers in the community who have never been to our church were touched by the fact that we were doing this. One person even messaged me directly and said that she wanted to come and visit our church after that. Another person requested to add me as her facebook friend afterwards.

People go back and forth all the time about what kind of persona pastors should have on facebook and other social network media. I have always taken the stand that I need to a) be myself wherever I am, and b) that used in the right way – it can be a powerful tool. I do block some of my information/pictues/etc to my church group – mostly because there are kids included in that group that don’t necessarily need to see what my friends and I were up to in college. But for the most part – who I am is out there. And I have found it to be an incredible resource for ministry. I get to chat with parents about their kid’s baseball games. I can give students encouragement before a concert. I am making connections with people that sneak out of worship before I really have a chance to talk with them on Sunday mornings… or who come to worship only occasionally. In many ways – I’m meeting those congregation members where they are… but I’m also connecting with their friends and colleagues in a way that would not have been available to me before. And that is pretty amazing.

I have a pretty idealistic view of the world. I look for the best in things before I look for their faults – but I also know that everything has its pros and its cons. The best we can do is navigate the waters as best we can, and (I think this this is my new motto) take one step beyond caution when the Spirit nudges.