Grumpy Gus Understands

by Jeff Rainwater, 15 March 2017, somewhere in Wyoming.

In every meeting, there’s always that one in the room… the one with The List… The %@*# (insert favorite curse word or benign substitute here) List… and he was sitting next to me, getting ready to unleash The List on us all! But wait; I should probably back up a bit.

I’m a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church which means each year I help our Bishop appoint pastors to some 400 churches in our area. Every season, we have around 50 to 60 churches needing new pastors and, if we are lucky, some 50 or 60 pastors looking for new appointments. If we are very lucky those two numbers match exactly. Yeah, we’re never that lucky. Imagine trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle… and your sister keeps stealing your puzzle pieces… while you’re both riding a merry-go-round powered by your younger brother… who just drank a 2 liter bottle of Coca Cola! Did I forget to mention there’s a countdown clock? Maybe you get the idea.

So each Introduction matters because if it doesn’t work Sister Susie just stole five pieces. What’s an Introduction? It’s the meeting where we bring together some of the church leadership and the new pastor together for the first time. In the United Methodist Church, it’s something like a shotgun wedding… only sometimes all I’m holding is a rubber-band gun and I’m hoping, praying, nobody notices the rubber-band is missing.

This meeting was different though. I didn’t think the gun would be needed. This was a bright, energetic, gifted, young, pastor (with a family!… pay dirt!) meeting a church who, by all accounts, wants to go in a new direction… namely Out! Out into their community. Out into the world. Out with the love of Jesus Christ. This combination is the Holy Grail! And I had found it. So what was I thinking at this moment, “Geez, Jeff, DON’T. SCREW. THIS. UP!”

In spite of my anxiety, everything was going well. The pastor was smiling, the leaders were laughing. But then, I see it… out of the corner of my eye a flash of legal-pad yellow. And then he speaks, “I have a question or two…” I glance over at the speaker. He is NOT smiling. Have I seen him smile at all today? “I have a question or two. Do you mind?” I look down at The List. That is NOT a question or two. The page is filled, written in paragraphs.

“Oh boy,” I sigh to myself, “Here we go.” (Yes ‘boy’ was the word I thought, only it sounds like it has four letters starting with sh, but I digress). I had seen it before. As I said, there is always one Grumpy Gus in these meetings with a List and The List is not interested in a pastor’s personal journey or how the Spirit has spoken uniquely in this person’s life. The List demands answers, preferably ‘yes’ or ‘no’, to determine whether this future spiritual leader is in or out. As much as I hate this moment in the Introduction though, it’s valuable because in every church there are more than a few Grumpy Gus’s ready with their lists. Might as well see how the pastor handles this. I yielded the floor with a touch of dread.

“According to Paragraph whatsit in the Book of Discipline…”
(Oh great! A Grumpy Gus who’s done research!)

“Pastors are supposed to take a full week of continuing education each year.”
(Oh please! We are going to argue about the pastor being away for a week now?!)

“You will commit to taking your full allotted time for continuing ed., won’t you? You promise to do that?”
(Wait… what?!)

I look over… the pastor is clearly in shock. He’s not alone. After a quick, stuttering reply, “Uh… yes, of course,” Gus continues. And I wonder: what else is on that list? I soon find out.

“Pastors are supposed to take 2 weeks vacation as well. You do plan to take vacation, right?… And sabbath once a week… And a month every 4 years… You do plan to do that, right?… ” And then I saw it… Grumpy Gus grinned. He folded the paper, put it away, sat back in his chair and grinned. Grumpy Gus wasn’t a Grumpy Gus after all. He was having a little fun and he got us both. He also was making his point. “Pastor, I want my congregation to be healthy, but that only happens if the pastor is healthy.”

Gus is right. Pastors, when it’s time to work,work hard. Remember Wesley’s directions, “Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time.” But also know your boundaries. Know when it’s time for sabbath — when it’s time for rest. Guard that time carefully. Pastors, have you had a conversation with your Staff Parish Relations Committee lately about your needs? If not, it’s about time. Your congregations need you to stay healthy — physically, emotionally, spiritually.

Gus knows the Book of Discipline too. There’s an interesting addition made in the 2016 Book of Discipline for the Staff/Pastor Parish Relations Committee: “To encourage, strengthen, nurture, support, and respect the pastor(s) and staff and their family(s).” You would think that would have been in there before (or wouldn’t be needed at all)… but, sadly, no. Yet, God bless him, Gus understood. Gus, as a member of this committee, knew his job and he was ready to do it so that his congregation and his new pastor could thrive.

So here is my question to the laity: How are you making sure your pastor is staying healthy? Are you checking in to make sure she is taking her vacation? Are you encouraging other congregation members to not call her on her sabbath (whatever day that is)? Do you see the pastor as your partner in ministry and not your church’s employee? How are you making sure your pastor is staying healthy so your congregation can be healthy? Believe me. It matters.

I tip my hat to you, Gus. Thank you for the important lesson. I will always remember the day The List was a blessing and not a curse!

portraits of a Table

Scripture Reading: Luke 24:13-35

A communion meditation to close our recent All Wyoming Roundup where we considered what it means to welcome and love the stranger through the lens of our own histories. I highly recommend you visit https://www.ruralracedialogue.org for more information.

Emmaus_JanetBrooks-Gerloff.jpgWe were hot and tired and just a bit more than a little cranky after a long journey… hundreds of miles on a plane, dozens and dozens of miles on a rickety bus without air conditioning, and not a short walk either to get to this village. We were hot and tired and more than a little cranky and, oh yes, hungry too. And I felt so out of place sitting in this village with people whose lives, look, and language were so different from mine.

Then, suddenly, Jesus walked in with a sacred feast in hand and began serving us all. Well, our host didn’t look like Jesus. Our host looked like a 70-year old woman from the Dominican Republic (for that is where we were) bringing a basket of hand-made tortillas, fruits and vegetables, and more chicken than her family ate in a month… all for us.  No, she didn’t look like Jesus, but I wasn’t fooled. None of us were fooled for we could all feel the sacred crackle in the air. And I’ve never been able to come to this Table again without thinking of that day for that’s sometimes what can happen when strangers meet on a road.

When you come to Eucharist’s Table, what is the image that pops into your mind? We each may have our special, sacramental, moments.  If we think long enough, our imaginations might take us to an Upper Room… and 12, maybe more, gathered with Jesus. It’s a powerful image, captured by so many gifted artists.  After all, that moment is, for some of us, the act that forms the Church. We are one body because we partake of the one broken loaf.  Powerful stuff.  Lent has begun and I am already anticipating Holy Week – especially now that I’m not the one responsible for planning all those services.  I’m longing for the Great Three Days of our faith that starts with this holy meal.

Here’s the problem though: If that is the only image that comes to mind when you gather in your churches to break bread and share cup, then as powerful as the image of the Upper Room is, it is incomplete. You see, here’s the thing, that dinner in the Upper Room was kind of an “invitation only” event. Drop-ins weren’t really encouraged, and certainly not strangers. And rightfully so. Jesus had to share some serious insider conversations with those closest to him on that night.  It is what it had to be in that moment, but it was still incomplete.

Thankfully, we have another image to add to our portrait hall related to this holy meal. A chance meeting on a road… a long, deep, fruitful conversation with a stranger… an invitation to a meal… an unexpected guest that became the even more unexpected host. Jesus revealed once again in the blessing and breaking of bread.  All because those two disciples running away from Jerusalem took the risk to reach out to a stranger on the road.  We don’t really know why they did it. Perhaps they remembered Jesus’ teaching and decided to follow one last time. Perhaps they felt sorry for their new companion. Perhaps they longed for something in their heart they sensed this stranger might provide. We don’t know why, but I’m sure glad they did, because the picture of what happens when we come to this table is now more complete.

All day we have been using our imaginations to step into the lives of families from the past, of our past.[1] Will you allow me one more imaginative exercise? Close your eyes. Who do you see when I say ‘church.’ Look around: are there family members? Sure. Some friends I hope. Generations past and generations to come. Look, there is someone with your eyes, and someone with your brother’s chin. Who do you see? Look around. How many are there? Can you count?

Look close now and tell me: does your portrait have room for the stranger? The one whose life, look, and language, are different than yours. The one that makes you uncomfortable. Do you see the stranger? Yes? Let me introduce you…

That’s Jesus.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1]Recently, United Methodist pastors and laity gathered in Lander, WY, for our All Wyoming Roundup where we were led by A J Bush and Samantha Gupta in a wonder journey they call the Rural Race Dialog. In part of this experience, we imagined we were European immigrants of years past having to face prejudices and give up part of our identity. That was the imaginative exercise I mentioned in this devotion.

Image: “Emmaus” by Janet Brooks-Gerloff

Jeff Rainwater (aka Reinwasser)

February 5, 2017, Cheyenne, Wyoming

Note: This article is meant as an invitation to members of the United Methodist Churches in Wyoming to attend an upcoming event. But I’m sure A J & Samantha, referenced at the end of this article, would love to hear from you if you are interested in this conversation.

I have a relatively unique last name… Rainwater. Unique names are often conversation starters. I can’t count the number of introductions that have followed with, “Rainwater, what a nice name… are you Native American?” This is followed by my usual response, “No, not in my case. My name was actually German once. My ancestors changed it to English when they came to America. It used to be Reinwasser or something like that.” And that is often where the conversation stops. Only recently has a question come to my mind, “Why did my ancestors change their name?” Changing one’s name is not trivial. There is a lot that is connected with a name — a history, a set of customs, a culture.

We believe they came in the mid-1800s during the large German migration of that era. Did the Reinwasser’s (or something like that) face some difficulties because of that German name? Were they not welcome with that German name? Was it easier to find work with the English version of their name? Were there a few more doors opened to them in the American landscape with the new name? Then I began to wonder, what would my life be like today if I was still named Reinwasser (or something like that)? Would all the opportunities afforded me have been there? Would our neighbors have treated us any differently?

The point of sharing this exercise in imagination is that all of us of African, Asian, Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, Latin America, South America, or European descent have a story in our past of coming to this great land and finding it already occupied, often by a people of another language or culture. The Reinwasser’s may not have found it difficult to be the family with the funny name, the strange language, the different colored skin. But many families did face such struggle, even persecution. That story is likely my story and your story. Many of us just don’t know it. How might we better understand and love the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, the “new guy or girl” as Jesus has commanded us if we better understood our story — our common story.

This March 4, at our Wyoming District Conference, we are going to ask similar questions as Pastor AJ Bush and Samantha Gupta facilitate an important conversation on finding common ground and loving our neighbors even in the midst of great division we see in our land today. I hope you will plan to attend this event in Lander, Wyoming, and join the conversation. You can register online at our Wyoming District website.  Whether you can come or not, I hope you will check out Pastor AJ Bush’s blog post to learn more.

From Laodicea : A Poem

20-21 “Look at me. I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you. Conquerors will sit alongside me at the head table, just as I, having conquered, took the place of honor at the side of my Father. That’s my gift to the conquerors!
22 “Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.”   (Revelation 3:20-22, The Message)

by Jeff Rainwater, 18 January 2017, near Pray, MT

“I stand at the Door and knock…”
How long?
How long do You stand waiting
fist on Wood with no response
from other side of Threshold?
Do You quit knocking ever
and let the silence judge
the one inside by the fire
with warm socks on
yet alone?
So alone.
Do You walk away… ever
or stand eternity on the Doorstep
waiting, listening, praying?
Or do you withdraw for now
If so, will you return soon?
When?
As you stand and wrap on the Frame
what do you pray for or for whom?
Do You pray for me?
You could splinter this Divide
with one blow from angry fist.
Will You plead with me instead
who will not
(can not?)
open the Door?
“I stand at the Door and knock…”
with unsure steps, trembling hand
I reach out..

A few words about this work: First, I invite you to find your Bible and read the whole letter to Laodicea found in Revelation, 3:14-22. This poem was meant to be read with the whole letter in mind.  I find this passage contains some of the most vivid word images found in the Bible, especially evocative in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased version, The Message.

I am not a poet so this particular work is quite a surprise. Early last week, we, the Joint Cabinet of the Mountain Sky Area, had the privilege to sit with Rev. Dr. Joretta Marshall, Dean of Brite Divinity School, as we discussed collaborative, transformative, potential for ministry.  The first task necessary, Dr. Marshall shared, is to Join with another or others for that work.  The troubling question arose, “what if the people we need to join with do not want us to join?”

Suddenly the letter to Laodecia jumped into my conscience, especially verse 20. The image of Jesus standing at a door would not easily be dismissed and then a question followed, “How long?”  How long would Jesus stand at the door?  Soon these words began to reveal themselves over the next couple days as a form of response to the Letter, hence “From Laodicea.”

I leave these words here for your pondering and devotional life.  May they open a door for you to a deep conversation with our Lord.

Gifts Without Tags

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
Luke 6:37–38

It’s January 10 in the Rainwater home and The Tree is down. The house seems bare. The presents have all been unwrapped. The goodies digested. Even the beloved Christmas music is making a reluctant exit. I can’t even rely on the 12 days of Christmas to extend my good holiday mood any more. In a word (ok, 3 words)… Christmas is over. And that is depressing. So on this winter day in January, would you allow me to share one more Christmas memory before the boxes are all packed up?

It was the year Mom decided that labels on gifts were not needed. Why? I don’t know why. You will need to ask her. After all, how is a precocious, inquisitive, only child with questionable impulse control to know which present to measure, handle, and shake until the flimsy scotch tape holding the whole darn thing together was pushed to its limit. Oh wait… maybe that’s the reason! Anyway, Mom decided no labels and so there were no labels. She assured us she knew which gift was whose since she was the one who wrapped almost all the gifts any way… even her own! She had some special code or something.

And all went very well through all of Advent. Precocious, inquisitive, only child with questionable impulse control was thwarted and was rarely found sneaking around under the Tree through most of December. And generally there was peace in the Rainwater home. Finally, Christmas Eve! In our household, Santa always came while we attended Christmas Eve candlelight service. It may or may not have been at the request of the parents of the precocious, inquisitive, only child with questionable impulse control who were tired of being awoken at 0-dark–30 on Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve… and suddenly Mom’s ingenious plan went terribly wrong. Her special code had failed as precocious, inquisitive, only child with questionable impulse control received a gift he did not expect… a luxurious pink bathrobe in his mother’s size. The evening’s proceedings did not improve. Mamu (my grandmother) received that toy I was looking forward to all year. I could elaborate but I think you get the idea. Even Santa’s deliveries, apparently, had been caught in this web of chaos. Mom’s ingenious plan went terribly wrong. And yet Christmas went so right. I don’t remember our family laughing more or having more fun as gifts were given and then given again.

As I reflect on this Christian walk that we share, I am convinced that God has forgotten to put labels on the gifts God has given. Why? You will have to ask Jesus why, but it appears to me some things have gotten mixed up. I have seen how what I have been given has become so much more when I have shared it with another. And as I look at some of what has been given to you, I’m quite sure it’s really your neighbor that needs it. Don’t worry, though. I’m would bet if you decide to share with her what is hers, you may find she is holding your gift. Things may have got mixed up, but I am sure of one thing: There are enough presents under the Tree for everyone.

That’s why we do what we do as a church sharing the Good News of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ in the multitude of ways that we can. That’s why we try to fulfill the mission of the United Methodist Church, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We don’t do this work so our church can remain strong and we can continue to enjoy what we we have received and think is ours. We do so because what is in our hands, what we feel in our hearts, whatever we gain from participation in each of our faith communities, may not really be ours, except for us to give away.

I told you to ask Jesus, but here is my guess to God’s mixed up no-labels-on-gifts plan. The biggest gift God gives is not in the things we own, the talents we possess, the status we think we have. The greatest gift is meeting the Christ in the other and the blessings of being the body of Christ as we share what has been placed in our hands or our hearts that God really intends for someone else.

Christmas is over, but the gift giving has just begun. May you have a blessed 2017.

Rev. Jeff Rainwater
Wyoming District Superintendent
January 10, 2017