Listening for God in Times of Fear
[Reposted from mandymcdow.com]
If there is one thing to say about the season of my life in which my marriage failed, it’s that two things kept me afloat: my children and my ability to serve in ministry.
As I began to get a grip on my emotional response to losing my spouse, I turned to God with some fist-shaking urgency. I could not figure out why God would have brought me here, just to watch my family dissolve. It wasn’t enough that I got to watch breathtaking sunsets into the Pacific Ocean each night. I was homesick, lonely, scared and depressed. More than anything, I wanted to pack up my children and a select few boxes and drive back home to Atlanta.
But, I knew I couldn’t do that. I knew I didn’t want to live without my children for months during the summer or over every break or holiday. I didn’t want them to have a bi-coastal existence. It wasn’t good for them, or for me, or their father.
About six months after I’d moved to Laguna Beach, I went back to visit Atlanta. I tried to see as many people as I could, to gather up the strength and courage I needed to return. In that visit, I saw my friend, Cheryl. Everyone needs a Cheryl. She is relentlessly supportive, loyal and positive. On my worst days, she would offer something that brightened all of it. I met her for dinner, and I really hoped she’d say to me, “We love and miss you so much. We cannot carry on without you. Return to us, please!” There would be weeping, hasty phone calls and a team of hundreds to help us unpack as we returned. But, instead, Cheryl read me something she’d written. I sat, listening, with a mixture of deep gratitude and abundant sorrow. I sat, sucking my bottom lip, as she said:
Remember that we of Saint Mark will always be with you. We will always have a space for you and yours here with us, where it’s comfortable and familiar.
But you can’t stay here.
You have much to do in your life.
My wish for you is that you stay in love with God, support your spouse and raise your children well. But I also dream that you show many more people what it means to be loved by God – sort of like a smoother, warmer, (less-tattooed) version of Nadia Bolz-Weber – by showing them who YOU are – our own “Reverend Mama”!
The UMC, and truly, the greater church, has to change. We have talked for a while about “Re-THINK Church”, and even envisioning a new “church”.
You’ve so many gifts – you are smart and beautifully photogenic. You are already a singer and now a songwriter. Because of your empathy, your warmth and your caring personality, people are naturally drawn to you.
You could be a face and a voice of the UMC.
It’s a win for everyone – the Church, the people, and yes, dare I say it, even God!
You, living in California where you have greater access to media, could be instrumental in making this new church happen.
So, go back to the other side of the continent with our love and our blessings and the knowledge that you’re destined to share your gifts with many more than us.
We will always support you and pray for you and love you.
And welcome you home.
It was everything I hated to hear, and yet, exactly what I needed. Few people could have planted those seeds with such care and compassion. A year after she read this to me at my favorite restaurant in my favorite city, I scoured my inbox to find her words. I needed to hear them, again.
Because, I wanted to believe Cheryl. I wanted to believe that God needed me in California. I desperately needed to know that God had brought me here for a reason, and I needed to know what it was: NOW.
As I started doing more wondering and exploring, I realized that in the newly-found onslaught of alone time, I was starting to be drawn back to the things I loved most. Music, theater, museums. I spent time visiting Los Angeles, because I love the city. I craved an attachment to an urban area, and loved the vibrancy and diversity of life there.
During one of my drives back from LA, I intentionally turned off my GPS, and roamed. I accidentally found myself in West Hollywood, and my first thought was, “I’ve found my people!”
I looked around and saw familiar sights, familiar people, familiar circumstances. I realized that this was the place to which God was calling me. I know how to serve in a place like this. I know how to reach people who haven’t been reached. I know how to share God’s love with people who have been hurt. I know how to reach out to people who are hungry – spiritually and physically. Not only do I know how to do these things, but I feel *called* to do them. I felt the overwhelming assurance that Frederick Buechner writes about when defining vocation:
The place God calls you to
is the place where your deep gladness
and the world’s deep hunger
Driving through West Hollywood, I found that place for me.
I felt a sense of deep gladness, to feel home and comfortable in my setting. Not just comfortable to settle into contentment, but clear on the work that could be done.
I saw the world’s deep hunger, manifested in many different ways.
As I continued to explore the city, I noticed something else important: the churches that were growing like wildfire were all conservative, evangelical churches. This is not news, nor is it a phenomenon exclusive to the west coast. But, I had long been thinking about the nature of the church, the future of my beloved denomination, and the ways in which the culture of Southern California is very different than that of the South. My affection for the Beer and Hymns movement had already shown up in at least one sermon, and I believed that if the church, as we know it, is going to survive, then it is in desperate need of adaptation.
I simply can’t believe that the only reason conservative evangelical churches grow into mini-cities is due to their theology. It might be compelling to some, but it’s certainly a turn-off to others. The question that had been plaguing me for months was, “Why doesn’t someone get their act together and form a progressive evangelical church?!”
And then, in a comically predictable lightening-bolt moment, I realized:
That someone was me.
Falling in the long line of people who felt called by God to do something unexpected, my first answer was, “Really?! Me? You can’t be serious. I have no gifts in this area, no experience in church-planting, no previous interest in such work.” The apostolic lineage of doubters in their own ability is really very humbling. It’s an honor to share in their succession.
But, the more I prayed about it, the more I realized that the entire course of my life and ministry had been preparing me to do such a thing. I couldn’t have imagined that the circumstances of the last few years would bring me to a new place of wonder and opportunity.
Truly, it is pruning which yields the ripest fruit.
Everything certain in my life had been stripped away: my home, my community, my family, my traditions, my expectations. To think about forming a new faith community in the heart of a city I knew little about was daunting, to say the least. But, I couldn’t have considered this possibility coming from a place of comfort or contentment. I literally have nothing else to lose.
It seems as if this is the best time to take a risk, to try something new, to plant seeds in soil that has been left fallow (and covered in a fair amount of manure, to boot).
So, I started formulating a concrete plan about what seemed clear and certain. I started reading books by Rick Warren and attending church-planting conferences to glean all the wisdom that I could. I stopped feeling so persnickety about the success of conservative churches, as I realized that the world is filled with people, and there are certainly folks who will not be reached by their interpretation of the Gospel. There are plenty of people – billions, in fact – who have not yet had an invitation to engage their faith in a way that’s invitational, non-judgmental and open to wonder and question.
I became clear on my focus: my new faith community needs to be committed to two things, in principle:
- The radically inclusive and unfailing love of God, shown most powerfully through the ministry and grace of Jesus Christ.
- The radically inclusive and unfailing love for one another, shown most powerfully through compassion and service.
The expression of this community needs to be done through excellent, creative worship and preaching. As my friend, Chuck, says, Sunday is not the reason we gather, but the celebration of all we have accomplished during the week. For some, this will mean celebrating the gift of feeding hungry people. For others, it will mean staying sober 4 days out of 7.
The seeds of this community will root and grow in our commitment to faith formation for all ages and familiarity with the Bible and theology. We will strive to empower our community to feel confident in reading Scripture, knowledgable about how to engage these texts, and passionate in living out what we believe.
The growth of this community will be seen in acts of service and outreach, social justice and advocacy. If we are not living out our faith in real ways, then we are empty vessels. There is so much work to be done in the world, and God literally became Incarnate to show us how to do it. We will take the teachings of Jesus seriously. Matthew 25 is a chapter that’s been referenced a lot since Trump took office, but it’s no more relevant now than it has been at its uttering:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand,
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ – Matthew 25:34-40, NRSV
Feed. Quench. Welcome. Clothe. Care. Visit.
Those six verbs will guide our work. Because Jesus said so.
This isn’t new. In fact, it’s the oldest possible mission statement for a church. It’s just that we’ve gotten so sideways in how we live it out.
I also feel strongly that a building isn’t necessary for our work. We need places in which to gather, yes. But, the temples we’ve built have become our idols. I think the Body of Christ needs to be freed from the expectation that people will come into our doors to seek out the Gospel, and we, as Disciples, need to take seriously the work of bringing the Gospel to the world.
I started quietly sharing this idea with a few people, to test the waters and see if I was crazy. Or, at least, if I’m the right kind of crazy to tackle this sort of work.
The idea took. I shared it with a few more people. And a few more. Soon, I was talking with my District Superintendent and the director of New Ministries. A few weeks after that, I was sharing my story with the Bishop. And, a few weeks after that…
I got a phone call.
As it happens, there is a faith community in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles, which happens to need a new pastor: First United Methodist Church of Los Angeles.
In 1854, the church was born in the converted El Dorado Saloon.
(Yes, friends. A bar. I like to believe that this was the first expression of the Beer & Hymns movement.)
First UMC Los Angeles was a leader in the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, and over the last 160 years, has helped to found the University of Southern California, Goodwill Industries, Methodist Hospital, the Chinese Mission, Children’s Learning Center, Los Angeles Urban Foundation and several affordable housing properties in Los Angeles.
They have a long and rich history of taking the Gospel into the world.
First United Methodist Church is also a Reconciling Congregation, which means this community is committed to actively welcoming all people into the whole life of the church, from membership to leadership, especially those of differing gender and sexual orientations.
But, as a part of their rich history, they have gone through a lot of changes and adaptations. This includes the sale of their building, the purchase of a new property, and the decision to build affordable housing for seniors and for families on said property, in lieu of a church building.
There is no temple to maintain.
And, for the last year, they were deemed “dormant.” They had no pastor, and an uncertain view of their future. I believe fully that my season of laying fallow and their time of being dormant are no coincidence. We were just waiting for the time when new life could begin.
I don’t think I could have scripted a more incredible answer to the prayers I’ve been praying. I think God likes to sit back and watch as we wrestle, since God is much more comfortable in the expanse of infinity than we are with our finitude.
Beginning July 1, I will move to Los Angeles to make something of this vision God has given to me.
I have been appointed to serve as the Senior Minister of Los Angeles First UMC. They have a committed legacy congregation: the Faithful Remnant. The have a long history of doing incredible work in the city to help those who were most in need. They have a revenue-generating parking lot which helps to fund their work (who ever heard of a new ministry that isn’t panicking about money?!). They have hearts and hopes and a calling to be the church in radical ways. We are thinking of this as a 163 year-old new church start. I am thinking of this as an answer to prayer.
This is just the beginning. The deep breath before it all begins.
We all welcome your prayers. Me, for the work that is to come, for the people I’ve yet to meet, for the Gospel we try our best to share it and live it. For my children, who through the blessed work of compromise, will not have to change schools in this transition, but they will still have a season of adjusting and re-learning. For Laguna Beach UMC, who is set to receive an amazing pastor, and I couldn’t be more excited for the future of all that is to come to this beloved congregation. For First UMC LA, who is going to live into the promise of resurrection.
Here is to all that is to come. Thanks be to God, who most certainly has a sense of humor and far more wisdom than I can conceive.