Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Our Mission Together: Remembering Bob and Next Steps

The following is the text of the speech I gave before the open discussion at the Bob Memorial Breakfast at The UMC's Indiana Annual Conference: June 7, 2018.

On behalf of all of team FPM and my family, I thank you for coming this morning. Rev. Glen Robyne contacted me right after Our Life Together in February saying that he and a group of clergy colleagues had hatched the idea of a Biking Bob memorial breakfast during Annual Conference as a chance to gather together and talk about what’s next for the movement. Long story short, here we are—a beautiful sight indeed—and I’ve been asked both as Bob’s daughter and as the president of Friendly Planet Missiology to share some wisdom he taught me and to talk about ways we all can apply Friendly Planet’s missiology here in Indiana.

My father loved strategy games and logic puzzles—Solitaire, Spider, Mine Sweeper. He was unbeatable at Euchre and Risk due to his ability to see past the surface and understand the underlying system and mathematical probabilities at play.  He even insisted that mastering Monopoly would somehow make me a wiser person. I suspect he could had been successful as a professional gambler, although casinos would have quickly branded him a card counter, which frankly, he was.

Dad truly was a gambler.  He took a gamble on underdogs and congregations in crisis.  He took a gamble on working with The United Methodist Church and church leaders in Congo. He bet on the long game, knowing that he may die before the payout came.  

Dad taught me that some truths are universal, and some are not—and that which is which is often counterintuitive. Everywhere he traveled he saw that people yearn for acceptance, validation, appreciation—the assurance that they aren’t alone. He taught me that while shared interests and values are factors in building friendships, when it comes down to it, people like people who like them. That was perhaps the true secret behind his miraculous ability to bring diverse groups of people together and to form alliances across political and cultural divides. Dad looked for the good in people and found it in surprising places. He believed that if colleagues in Congo could build peace by making pastoral visits to notorious warlords, then folks in the Indiana Conference could take a page out of that playbook and be boldly prophetic as well. 

Dad will be remembered for many things; stories of his bicycle journeys to visit the pastors and lay leaders of remote seemingly-forgotten congregations in Katanga have already become the stuff of legend. But what few realize is that what he did in Congo, he was doing in Indiana too. He quietly rode all over the Indiana Conference—meeting clergy one by one in local lunch spots.  He listened to their laments and coached them through their discernment process. He was a pastor for pastors.  

When the Friendly Planet board started talked about next steps in this post-Biking Bob reality, we talked about a number of priorities:  1) The continuing relationship with our North Katanga and Tanganyika Conference colleagues and supporting their initiatives—from women’s empowerment centers to church and school construction to university scholarships to, of course, bicycles.  2)  The mission to teach individuals and congregations healthier mission models—through books, blogs and educational gatherings in addition to modeling our missiology in Indiana, Congo and wherever else the Spirit leads us.  3) Implementing our mission model in concrete ways here in Indiana.

Out of this was born the vision of the Indiana Circuit Riders, who take their inaugural ride this morning. In a nod to the circuit riding Methodist preachers of the past, these circuit riders are committed to the sacred task of itineration. The formula is straightforward:  Pick a church leader who you suspect could use a boost, ride out as a team to visit her or him, and then, in Methodist fashion, eat a meal together while swapping stories and giving words of empathy and encouragement. You don’t even have to be a cyclist to join—just show up at the chosen restaurant, church or picnic spot or volunteer to pick-up any riders who tucker out mid-way.  It may seem like a small thing, but let me tell you—to that pastor who was wondering if anyone even noticed or cared about the sacrifice they were making, it is huge, and the ripple effects are even larger.

You want to know how to be a disciple of Christ who participates in the transformation of the world?  Start locally. Start by looking around your town, your district, your conference, or your denomination (the world keeps getting smaller) and taking notice of the other folks working in the trenches of ministry—be it leading a congregation, running an abuse shelter, working on prison reform initiatives, teaching in an underfunded school, or any other vocation that can drag you down and leave you feeling that society does not have your back.  Identify a few of those people, call them up and say “I really appreciate the work you are doing, and I would like to be your friend. I promise I’m in this relationship for the longhaul. What can I do to ease your burden?” Who wouldn’t love to receive a call like that?

Sisters and brothers in Christ.  The core missiology of Friendly Planet Missiology really is that simple—and that tough.  Be a true and loyal friend to your neighbors. And if you want to know who your neighbor is, I defer to what Jesus had to say on that subject.
Inaugural ride of the Indiana Circuit Riders

Rev. Glen Robyne, FPM's new Cyclist in Residence for the Indiana Conference

Thursday, February 15, 2018

You Are Dust

Ash from my fireplace

Remember that you are dust, 
and to dust you shall return.

I’ve loved Ash Wednesday services for as long I can remember.  Sure, Christmas Eve and Easter celebrations can be great with the colorful decorations and grand music, but some years I’ve found them bittersweet—hard to keep up the pretense of joy when my soul is feeling something more complicated.  Good Friday gatherings, in contrast, can also be powerful in their sadness, but their focus on the agony Jesus experienced and the cruelty of our world can sometimes be more than I can handle contemplating that day. 

Ash Wednesday is something else, though. It allows us to show up however we happen to be at that moment. It is about reflecting on who we truly are and our place in the universe.  It is, for me, an invitation to begin again on the Lenten journey—a time of intense introspection, repentance and mindfulness—the nearest thing Christians have to Ramadan. We begin by the reminder that we are made of dust,* and that to dust we will return.

There are a number of traditions on how best to get the ashes that are placed on our foreheads on this holy day.  Many burn the leaves they had saved from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and by doing so highlight the fickleness of humans--we praise a person one day and tear him/her down the next. In the congregations I attended in my youth, my father preferred to distribute notecards for all gathered so that we could put on paper the regrets, grudges and fears that we needed freed from in order to draw nearer to God. Watching my card burn was so cathartic that I began ritually burning a notecard every year—even inviting friends to join me in the ceremony when there otherwise was none.

This year, however, I have a new relationship with ashes. I now have the image seared into my mind of the small transparent bag filled with pale dust which I numbly placed into a columbarium tube—my father’s physical remains compact enough to fit in a coffee can.

There are realities of life which we can know intellectually yet not truly grasp until, well, we do. I can no longer scoop ashes from the fireplace without my mind wandering. I can no longer gaze upon the ashes of Ash Wednesday without thinking “My father is now dust.” And someday we will be again too.                


Image Courtesy, Wiki Commons

*In recent years, when I was in full clergy mode, I preached on Ash Wednesday about the awe and wonder of being made of stardust and one day returning to the cosmos.  That's the thing about being made of dust; it is both a painful and magical truth.

Monday, February 05, 2018

In Support of Choosing Unlikely Friendships

Image from the book Unlikely Friendships 
A noteworthy thing happened on my Facebook wall this winter.  Few people noticed it--but those who did called it everything from a "miracle" to "hell freezing over."  What happened was this: one of my friends wrote that s/he agreed with what another one of my friends had commented on my post.  This would have been completely un-noteworthy except for who those two people are; both are extremely active in United Methodist Church politics on the denominational level, and they disagree adamantly on an issue that is dividing the church.  The idea of the two causally interacting and agreeing on a separate subject in a FB comment thread seemed surreal to certain

That such an unusual thing occurred is no accident; I consider it the fruit of a discipline that my late father, the Rev. Dr. "Biking Bob" Walters, attempted to ingrain in me and modeled in every area of his life. Ten years ago when we were brainstorming names for our new venture, he suggested Theopraxis (already taken) or something involving the words Skunk Works (too obscure a reference, plus possibly copyrighted).  We explored on and on "What will be the core values of our organization?" Then, Dad hit upon the name Friendly Planet Missiology.  I was uncertain at first, but he was insistent that was the right one just as certain as he was that he must build friendships by visiting others by bicycle. Over time, I've come to appreciate this wisdom.

There is something truly radical about resolving to take a friendly peer-to-peer stance with those you encounter. It is counter-cultural and counter-intuitive no matter who or where you are.  It can be complicated; it can get you ostracized by some, and it can come back to bite you. But, it can also build bridges; it can generate hope and illuminate a way forward where before there was none.

So, I reasoned, if church leaders in North Katanga and Tanganyika have been building peace by transforming war lords into friends,* then surely I can decide to build unlikely friendships by focusing on positive things we can accomplish together.  Sure, it would be easier to treat everyone as either good or evil--ally or enemy combatant, but the friendly way prevents bloodbaths.     

In my husband's line of work, this is what we call diplomacy. In mine, we call it grace.

Let those with ears hear what I'm saying.


*to clarify: most are still war lords in many senses of the term.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Moving forward: 5 months later

I’ve been a bit of a recluse lately.  A lot on my mind and a lot to do.  Since Dad’s unexpected death on my final day in Algeria, I feel like I’ve aged a decade or two, making the psychological transition from young adult to middle-aged human at a nauseating speed.   

In the past five months I’ve learned firsthand so much about grief, the bureaucracy of death in the USA, and how removing just one person from a family system can, like the classic game of Boobytrap, force everyone else into new positions with new pressures on them. 

These day I feel like the understudy who has been called to replace the beloved lead actor. I know I won’t perform this role the way my father did, but there are too many people counting on the show to go on for me to not step up. There are promises to be kept, forms be filed, another book to be published,* and dreams and friends that should not be abandoned.  

Yet, I still have my other roles to play too.  I’m a parent, a spouse, a bishop’s gal Friday, a doctoral student,** a devoted daughter, a pastor with congregants scattered across multiple time zones, and the manager of an NGO that has lost its Yoda. And, somewhere in there, as my dear friend Kate Koppy asserted when I lamented how little I've been getting done, I’ve overseen my household’s international move and decorated the house in time for the holidays.  

I’m not sure if this post has a point other than to say to those of you who haven’t heard from me in months that I’m still alive, been feeling overwhelmed and pulled in several directions, but hopefully will reemerge soon ready to do all that stuff I had planned to do once I became a real grown-up professional person.

 Much Love,


*Much thanks to Kate for stepping in as editor of Dad's second book manuscript.    

**as you may have guessed, that completion date has been kicked down the road