Author's details

Name: Jen
Date registered: March 3, 2012

Latest posts

  1. Laurie Haller: How Long, O Lord? — May 28, 2013
  2. Laurie Haller: Psychopaths, Saints or Both? — May 20, 2013
  3. Laurie Haller: Blazing the Trail — May 13, 2013
  4. Laurie Haller: Do Not Hold On To Me — April 1, 2013
  5. Laurie Haller: The Reminder — March 25, 2013

Most commented posts

  1. Laurie Haller: The Slow Work of God — 1 comment

Author's posts listings

May 28 2013

Laurie Haller: How Long, O Lord?

Original post at

May 28, 2013

It’s on the lips of every United Methodist clergy every year.  “How long, O Lord?  How long am I going to remain in this appointment?  Could this be the year?”  The cry is often a lament because we don’t want to move.  But it could also be a plea, “Please, Lord, get me out of here!”


     At the same time it’s on the lips of every United Methodist layperson unless they come from another religious tradition and don’t yet understand the system.  “How long, O Lord, will you leave our beloved pastor here?”  Or “How long, O Lord, will you afflict us like this?”


“How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”  (Psalm 13:1-2a)


     It’s annual conference time around the United Methodist connection.  We’ll be inspired by guest speakers, vote on constitutional amendments and other legislative items, reconnect with friends, and watch our bishops set appointments of clergy for the coming year.  Some clergy are grateful to be moving while others are upset at being uprooted from a congregation they love.  What we all hold in common, however, is a vow to be itinerant, to go where we are sent.


     John Wesley used an appointment system to deploy clergy in order to spread scriptural holiness across the land, make disciples, and start new churches.  In America this system was highly effective as our country moved west and Methodist circuit riders fanned out across the wilderness. 


circuit rider

(Circuit Rider: Illustration from Harpers Weekly, October 12, 1867)


     Clergy were appointed to circuits that might have up to eighteen societies or churches.  They were expected to visit each church at least once a year.  The role of the pastor was to preach, administer the sacraments, and train laypersons to do the work of ministry by forming class meetings, which were small groups that worshipped, studied, served, and witnessed to their faith.  After a relatively short stay clergy hopped on their horses and headed to the next church on the circuit.  Circuit riders never asked, “How long, O Lord?” because they expected to stay in their appointment for just a year or two before moving on.     


     When our country began to “settle” in the early twentieth century, so did the clergy, who began to assume responsibilities that were formerly done by laity: visiting the sick, leading class meetings, and evangelizing.  Congregations gradually grew larger and more stable, and circuits became smaller.


     Today we emphasize longer term appointments in The United Methodist Church in the belief that clergy can do their most effective ministry after four to six years.  It takes time to develop relationships between clergy and laity so that congregations can be equipped and empowered to foster holistic growth and effective outreach.  Pastoral stability is often a sign of vitality and health.            


     At Plainfield UMC, one of the churches I am currently serving, the pastoral record began in 1879.  For the first twenty years the tenure of the clergy was 6 months, 1 year, 1 year, 1 year, 2 years, 1 year, 3 years, 1 year, 1 year, 4 years, 1 year, 1 year, 3 years.  For some unknown reason W.E. Frye hit the jackpot and stayed four years. 


     Despite occasional remarkably long tenures, short term appointments were commonplace into the 1960’s.  Over the years I’ve heard elderly clergy reminisce about the good old days when they would not know what their appointment was until annual conference.  When the bishop read their name and the clergy found out they were moving, they’d call back home and say, “Guess what, honey?  Pack your bags.  We’re moving again.”


     Life is different in 2013, and the needs of families in the twenty-first century are an important consideration in appointments.  Spouses often earn a higher salary than the clergy.  Teenagers may not want to leave their high school.  Frequent moves are not helpful to congregations or clergy families.  The itinerant system is not for everyone.  Yet “How long, O Lord?” is on every United Methodist clergy’s lips because we are still appointed for only one year at a time. 


“O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? (Habakkuk 1:2)
      Even today clergy occasionally stay for only a few years in an appointment for various reasons.  After serving appointments of 3 ½ years, 4 years, 4 years, 13 years, and 6 years as a superintendent, surprise!  I find myself serving only one year in my present appointment, just like so many of my circuit rider predecessors.

     My circuit consists of just two churches, but I have discovered that positive, transformational ministry can take place in very short appointments as well as quite long appointments.  Here’s what I’ve learned from my one year appointment.


·         Because clergy never know the answer to “How long, O Lord?” effective short term clergy quickly discern the state of the church, gain a good grasp of current reality, and use their time in a way that will best benefit the needs of the congregation. 


·         Effective short term clergy gain trust early on by building primary relationships with lay leaders, who help clergy establish priorities while they do the rest.  Identifying, cultivating, training, and encouraging lay leadership bears fruit in every congregation, especially in brief appointments where the imprint of effective clergy will be found in leaders who will carry on ministry for years to come.

·         Effective short term clergy know that the conventional wisdom to wait a year before initiating any change does not apply uniformly in every situation.  Comprehensive transfer of information before an appointment begins can prepare clergy to hit the ground running.  Sometimes immediate change is essential and welcomed.


·         Effective short term clergy thoroughly review the mission, strategic plan, and systems of a congregation to determine how they can build upon the church’s strengths at the same time as they address weak links that threaten to derail ministry.

·         Effective short term clergy nip conflict in the bud by practicing open and honest communication and self-integration.

·         Effective short term clergy usually don’t have time to sweat the small stuff, play on the church softball team, or lead the breakfast club because they are spiritually preparing the congregation for growth, health, and the next appointment, which will hopefully be a longer tenured pastor.

·         Effective short term clergy focus their best effort on energetic, creative worship that connects people with God and each other, inspiring them to reach out beyond the church in ministry to the world. 

·         Effective short term clergy can make a huge impact in a brief time by the witness of their life as well as the sound of their words.  They model faithfulness by their encouragement, gentle persuasion, positive attitude, and unquenchable hope. 

·         Five or ten year guaranteed contracts are not offered to clergy in The United Methodist Church.  Therefore, because short term clergy don’t have an answer to “How long, O Lord?” unless we are specifically designated as an interim pastor, we must rely on the intuition of the Holy Spirit to custom make our ministry in every location. 


     The most important lesson I’ve learned over the past year is to live and serve fully in the present moment because that’s all we have.  It doesn’t have to take thirteen years to leave God’s mark on a congregation through your ministry.  In fact, in a span of thirteen years during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, A.D. Newton, S.G. Warner, J.P Force, A.J. Russell, H. Borgelt, L. Dodds, W.M. Puffer, D. Kronk, A.J. Wheeler, and W.D. Frye all served Plainfield UMC, most of them for one year.  And what a legacy they left!    


     Some clergy and congregations can accomplish more for the kingdom of God in one year than other churches can do in fifty years.  God redeems everything, even short-term appointments.  We never know who will be touched by our ministry, brief as it may be.  In the twinkling of an eye, lives can be changed, congregations can be turned around, the Holy Spirit can set a church aflame, and ministry can be revitalized. 


      “How long, O Lord, will you look on?” (Psalm 35:17)  I never dreamed that God would look on my appointment as a one year adventure of faith.  But I thank God for the opportunity to impact the life of two congregations in a short term way that will lead them into a bright future.  Most of all, I am grateful for the long term joy and hope that two congregations have given to me.  “How long, O Lord?  Never mind.  However long you wish.  Where you lead, I will follow.” 





Permanent link to this article:

May 20 2013

Laurie Haller: Psychopaths, Saints or Both?

Original post at

Bond.  James Bond.  I’ve always been curious about James Bond.  Who is this guy, anyway?  I’ve never been able to figure him out despite seeing many of the movies with my family, who are Bond aficionados.  The latest Bond movie, Skyfall, released in November 2012, is heralded as the finest of all twenty-three Bond movies and is the highest grossing movie in the history of the United Kingdom.




     What kind of person would work for Her Majesty’s Secret Service and be so ruthless, charming, focused, and without emotion?  The answer is simple, according to author and research psychologist Kevin Dutton in his 2012 book The Wisdom of Psychopaths; What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach us About Success.  James Bond displays all of the qualities of a psychopath.   


     In popular culture the word “psychopath” is mistakenly used to describe ordinary criminals and sex offenders as well as ax murderers and serial killers.  We also call people “psycho” when they act in crazy or scary ways.  However, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition, 2000: fifth edition to be released a week from today) lists psychopathy as a personality disorder, which is defined as “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the culture of the individual who exhibits it.”  Approximately 14% of the population has a personality disorder.


     Distinctive psychopathic personality traits include pathological lying, deceit, persuasion, charisma, artificial charm, careful manipulation, a grandiose sense of self-worth, absence of conscience, intimidation, and, at times, violence to control others and satisfy selfish needs.  Psychopaths can dazzle and sweep people off their feet but can also be intensely predatory and take advantage of vulnerability and weakness. 


     Psychopaths have no difficulty turning on people when it benefits them and display a chronic inability to feel guilt, remorse, or anxiety about any of their actions.  According to Dutton, about 50% of the most serious crimes in the U.S. are committed by psychopaths, and an estimated 20% of the prison population consists of psychopaths. 


     What attracted me to Dutton’s book was the subtitle: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success.  Psychopathy, like many personality disorders, is a spectrum.  Not all psychopaths are criminals, serial killers like John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer, or “psychos.”  Nor are all psychopaths dishonest, shallow, irresponsible, and exploitative of others.  In fact, many psychopaths, including saints, are highly functioning, displaying characteristics that enable them to be quite successful in their careers, such as intense focus, calm in the face of stress, and the ability to make difficult decisions.


     Research has shown that the brains of psychopaths are wired differently than others.  Psychopaths evidence a deficit in emotional processing, which is determined by the amygdala, the emotional processing center of the brain.  The result is that many psychopaths are not able to notice emotions in themselves or others.   


     In writing his book, Dutton promoted what he called the Great British Psychopath Survey, the first-ever assessment of the psychopathic tendencies of the United Kingdom workforce.  He used the Levenson Self-Report Psychopathy Scale ( to determine which professions have the most and the least psychopathic traits. 


Most psychopathic traits: CEO, Lawyer, Media (radio/TV), Salesperson, Surgeon, Journalist, Police Officer, Clergyperson, Doctor, Accountant


Least psychopathic traits: Care aide, Nurse, Therapist, Craftsperson, Beautician/Stylist, Charity Worker, Teacher, Creative Artist, Chef, Civil Servant                        


Why is it that some psychopathic tendencies can both hinder and facilitate success in our profession?  Let’s look at them through the eyes of clergy. 

·         Compartmentalization: The ability to intensely focus yet remain detached in an emotionally charged pastoral care situation helps us to stay centered.  It can also indicate shocking indifference and an unwillingness/inability to put ourselves in the shoes of others and feel their pain.

·         Low Anxiety: Staying in a difficult conversation without losing our cool can facilitate effective conflict resolution, but it can also result in disaster if we have no conscience and don’t care whom we hurt.  

·         Charisma: Preachers with charisma tend to attract a lot of attention, but charisma can lead to disaster if we use superficial charm to prey on the emotions of others.

·         Persuasion is good if clergy are passionate about sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than the gospel of themselves.  Persuasion can also be a mask for con artistry.

·         Fearless risk-taking: Clergy can become great leaders by challenging others to go beyond their comfort level in mission and ministry.  However, if we take impulsive risks without a credible plan of action, appropriate benchmarks, and buy-in from the congregation’s lay leaders, disaster may result.

·         Mental Toughness: Clergy who are self-integrated are able to make the tough decisions that no one else wants to tackle.  On the other hand, if we make those decisions solely out of self-interest or ambition, we become ruthless rather than work toward the common good.

·         Mindfulness: Clergy who exercise mindfulness are not distracted and are totally present in the moment, yet they can also neglect the importance of planning for tomorrow and fail to see the entire picture.   

·         Self-confidence: Confidence in clergy inspires confidence in laity unless clergy confidence leads to grandiosity, bullying, or even brutal power that excludes any sense of self-awareness or humility.

·         Non-attachment: Clergy who can separate themselves from their churches keep balance.  However, the tendency of some clergy to always deflect blame to others and refuse to accept responsibility for their actions hinders effective ministry.    

     I am not a psychologist and don’t have the credentials to identify psychopaths or those who have a personality disorder.  Yet in my experience there can be a fine line between function and dysfunction in our clergy and laity as well as in our churches.


     I have seen lay leaders have their way with congregations with no one challenging them because church members are supposed to be nice.  I have seen clergy beguile congregations and take advantage of unsuspecting parishioners, artfully deflecting any criticism from others.  I have also seen congregations bully other congregations and as well as judicatory officials to get their way.     


     Dutton even speculates that the apostle Paul may have been a psychopath.  Before his conversion Paul was a ruthless Jew, intent on murdering as many Christians as he could.  Would Paul’s actions be characterized as genocide today according to the Geneva Convention? 


     Paul had a charisma which made him a great evangelist.  He knew how to speak the language of the people to whom he was witnessing, and his persuasive power occasioned countless conversions.  “I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22b).


     Paul was a driven man who took enormous risks, was unconcerned for his safety, and was imprisoned a number of times, counting it all but loss for the sake of the gospel.  He could also be calculating and brutally honest with churches and his co-workers.  At the same time Paul would lament his inability to overcome sin.  “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:14-20)


     Dutton writes, “Not all psychopaths are saints.  And not all saints are psychopaths.  But there’s evidence to suggest that deep within the corridors of the brain, psychopathology and sainthood share secret neural office space.”


     Do saints and psychopaths evidence some of the same characteristics, often two sides of the same coin?  Are the best traits of psychopaths exhibited in spiritual leaders: vision, single-mindedness, attentiveness, emotional regulation, immunity to stress, an ability to risk all, and intense focus?  Could it be that the courage to be a prophet, the lone voice in the wilderness standing outside the mainstream, is a gift shared by both saints and psychopaths?   


     Do you share some of the same traits as James Bond, St. Paul, and high achievers in law, medicine, business, and the church?  See for yourself.  In recognition of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, how about taking the Psychopathic Challenge?  





Permanent link to this article:

May 13 2013

Laurie Haller: Blazing the Trail

Original post at

    Trailblazer: one who blazes a trail to guide others; pathfinder; pioneer

     “I know there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing.  There’s something God wants me to do.”

     “Like what?”

     “I’m not sure.”

     “You don’t think winning eight national championships and raising a son is enough?  You think there’s something more you’re supposed to be doing?

     “I know there’s something else.  I feel it.”

     Pat Summitt, head coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball program, said those words on February 23, 2011, just months before her diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. 


      Summitt’s just published memoir, Sum It Up, tells the story of how a country girl from Henrietta, Tennessee, blazed a trail for women in sports by becoming the head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols at the age of twenty-two.  For over four decades Summitt led her teams to more victories than any man or woman in NCAA Division 1 history.  Even more remarkable, every one of the 161 players over 38 years who completed their NCAA eligibility under Summitt received their degree from the University of Tennessee. The Lady Vols became the most elite and iconic basketball program in the country because of Pat Summitt’s intensely competitive spirit, love for her players, and determination to draw the very best out of those she coached.

     Yet the trail Pat Summitt is blazing now is very different.  It’s that “something else” God wants her to do.  At the height of her professional career, Summitt’s life changed at age 59.  After the Alzheimer’s diagnosis Summitt remained as the head coach of the Lady Vols for one more year before deciding to retire in 2012 as head coach emeritus.  Pat and her young adult son Tyler have formed the Pat Summitt Foundation, whose mission is to promote education, awareness, prevention, and support services for people with Alzheimer’s and their families. 

     Did I tell you that Pat Summitt is a United Methodist?  She writes, “We were in a pew as long as the doors were open at Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church, where the Heads have attended for over fifty years and my father’s parents had gone before us.  There we learned to worship with a simple gratitude to God and affection for Christ.  We were taught that you didn’t talk about faith; you showed it through kindness to neighbors and humility, the recognition that none of us was more valuable than another.” 


       The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.  The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it.” (Jackie Robinson)  The recently released movie 42 is the story of Jackie Robinson, who also blazed a trail by becoming the first African American to play Major League Baseball.  Robinson’s number 42 is the only one ever retired by the major leagues.

     In 1946 every one of the 400 major league players was white.  Branch Rickey’s risky decision to offer Robinson a major league contract in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers was made easier because of the potential he saw in Robinson.  First and foremost, Robinson was a man of deep faith.  Did I tell you Robinson was a Methodist?  In a favorite line from the movie Rickey says, “Jackie’s a Methodist, I’m a Methodist, God’s a Methodist.  You can’t go wrong.” 

     Branch Rickey was also impressed by Robinson’s character, knowing it wouldn’t work if Jackie fought back after facing the inevitable insults, hatred, threats, and abuse.  “What about if you can’t get in a hotel or restaurant?  What will you do?  Will you fight?  It will ruin all my plans,” Rickey said.

     “I want a player with the guts not to fight back or lose his temper.  Like our Savior you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek.  We win if you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player.  Can you do it?” 

     “Give me a uniform and a number.  I’ll give you the guts,” said Robinson.  Jackie Robinson’s “something else” blazed a trail that opened doors for Martin Luther King Jr. and many others who confronted racism with a non-violent and grace-filled response.

Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks

      I’d never heard of Jason Collins until his picture was on the cover of the May 6 Sports Illustrated.  Collins, a National Basketball Association player, is the first professional male athlete in a major U.S. team sport to “come out.”  Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated that he felt there was “something else” he was supposed to do, “I’m a 34 year old NBA Center.  I’m black.  And I’m gay.  I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport.  But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”

     Jason Collins is blazing a new trail.  While tennis player Martina Navratilova came out in 1981, and while there are many closeted gays in male professional sports, “coming out” has always remained a taboo subject.  Although Collins knew he was different as a kid, he didn’t accept the fact that he was gay until he was a young adult.  He didn’t even tell his twin brother Jarron until last summer.    

     Oh, did I tell you that, like Pat Summitt and Jackie Robinson, Jason Collins is also a Christian?  He writes, “My parents instilled in me Christian values.  They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand.  I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding….  I’m learning to embrace the puzzle that is me.”  Collins received immediate support and expressions of respect and gratitude from his colleagues.

     How do trailblazers do it?  How do human beings garner the courage and strength to do “something else,” to pave the way for others to live whole and healthy lives and make a difference in the world?   There is no better model for trailblazers than the apostles who waited an upper room in Jerusalem until Pentecost.  Their hearts knew there was something more that they were supposed to do than go back to fishing.  When the Holy Spirit came upon them, the apostles were empowered to blaze a new trail into a hostile world, witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, and make disciples. 

·         Trailblazers have a calling from God that spurs them on.  Pat, Jackie, and Jason all relied on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of their faith, and the power of the Holy Spirit to guide them.

·         Trailblazers have the vision and willingness to travel into uncharted territory, breaking the trail for others to follow and keeping on even when the way seems unclear. 

·         Trailblazers count the inevitable cost of leading the way by controlling their own reactions, returning evil with love, and demonstrating emotional and spiritual maturity.

·         Trailblazers always rise to the occasion by understanding that failure and disappointment are great learning laboratories.  Our true character is revealed during the tough times.  There are many things in life we cannot control, but we can always choose our attitude.

·         Trailblazers know that if it were not for the support, encouragement, and prayers of others working together with them, they could do nothing. 

Jackie Robinson:

     When asked about his nightly ritual of kneeling at his bedside to pray, Robinson said, “It’s the best way to get closer to God.”  Then the second baseman added with a smile, “and a hard-hit ground ball.”

Jason Collins:

     “Doc Rivers, my coach with the Celtics says, ‘If you want to go quickly, go by yourself – if you want to go father, go in a group.’  I want people to pull together and push ahead.”

Pat Summitt:

     “Standing there (outside her house, gazing at the Smoky Mountains after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis) I know something with a certainty.  God doesn’t take things away to be cruel.  God takes things away to make room for other things.  God takes things away to lighten us.  God takes things away so we can fly.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

     “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”        

     What is that “something else” that God wants you to do so that you, too, can blaze a trail, pull people together, and fly?  Do you feel it?





Permanent link to this article:

Apr 01 2013

Laurie Haller: Do Not Hold On To Me

Original post at

Wary as I am of taking scripture passages out of context, I can’t resist just this once.  When Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene in John’s resurrection story (20:17) he says, “Do not hold on to me.”  I’ve always interpreted this passage to mean that for John, Jesus’ incarnation reaches its culmination not with his resurrection appearances, but with his return back to God.  Mary must not cling to her Lord because it is Jesus’ ascension that sets the stage for the unleashing of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church.

Yet right now, as Gary and I spend hours each week sorting, chucking, organizing, and packing, the words “Do not hold on to me” have new significance.  Taking Jesus’ words to heart, we decide to part with the couch and love seat we’ve had for the past 20 years.  They weren’t even new then: the previous owners had left them.  I fell in love with the couch because it was so comfortable.  Since I’ve never had a home office, I would often lay on the couch, propped up by a large pillow, computer in my lap, and write away.


I couldn’t get that voice out of my mind, however, “Don’t hold on to it anymore.”  We took our final picture, and Gary and I lugged the couch and love seat out of the family room, up the steps to the front door, down the steps to the sidewalk, and into the garage.  A Goodwill truck came last week to pick up the couch and love seat while I was at a meeting.  It was better that way.  Less grief, maybe?

Arriving home I was aghast to see the couch still sitting in the garage!  Goodwill wouldn’t take it because it was too beat up and had several holes in the back.  Granted, the couch was well used, surviving five family members, nine different cats, a parakeet, a guinea pig, a hermit crab, many adults, and innumerable teenagers chowing down on chips, pretzels, candy, cookies, coffee, and pop, all of which left their mark.  Anyone want a couch?

Why is it so difficult to let go?  Why do I have to agonize over every little thing?  And I’m not even a pack rat!  I alternate between euphoria about getting rid of another box of useless stuff and sorrow at parting with things that remind me of my life.

  • My grandmother’s 80 year old dining room table: going (every chair is broken)
  • My childhood sand collection: gone
  • Dozens of photo albums (what hours of fun our family had looking at the pictures!): packed – no time to digitalize them now
  • My high school field hockey shoes and stick: gone (sigh)
  • Books, books, books: at least half have new homes; many were never even read
  • Lawn furniture: only made the first cut – now gone
  • The peace pole in our front yard: definitely moving with us
  • Knickknacks: most are gone

What do the scriptures say to clergy who have been reappointed and are getting ready to move this summer?  “Don’t hold on to me!”  Another passage that speaks to me right now is the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21.  The land of a rich man has brought forth abundantly, so he asks himself, “Where am I going to store all my crops?  I am going to tear down my barns and build larger ones.”  And God says to the man, “You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded of you.  Then who is going to get all this stuff?”

I am struggling mightily.  How in the world did we acquire all the stuff we have?  How could we possibly need it all, especially me, who has always desired to live simply?  I decide to read a light novel to relieve the stress of sorting, chucking, organizing, and packing, but God will not let me off the hook.

A favorite author of Gary’s and mine, Donna Leon, has written a wonderful series of mystery novels about Guido Brunetti, a police detective in Venice, Italy.  In Quietly in Their Sleep Brunetti is investigating a rash of suspicious deaths in a nursing home.  Brunetti and his assistant Vianello visit the home of a man whose recently deceased sister named him as her heir.  Da Prè tells them that shortly before his sister died she tried to give the nursing home 100 million lire by changing her will.  Da Prè contested the new will, declaring her mind unsound, and it was thrown out of court.

Vianello immediately notices that Da Prè collects snuff boxes.  Hundreds of snuff boxes litter the house, mementos of eighteenth century European culture when there was no better way to show appreciation to than to give someone a snuff box handmade by the finest craftsmen.  It was Christopher Columbus who first introduced snuff (finely powdered tobacco) to Europe after he landed in the Americas and observed Native inhabitants sniffing the substance.

snuff box

(Part of the snuff box collection of Frederick the Great, Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Vianello pretends to be a devotee of snuff boxes and engages Da Prè in conversation in an attempt to establish a relationship.  When they leave the house Vianello remarks to Brunetti, “Disgusting little man.  He thinks he owns those boxes.  The fool.”

“I thought you liked them.”

“God, no.  I think they’re disgusting.  My uncle had scores of them, and every time we went there, he insisted on making me look at them.  He was just the same, acquiring things, and things, and things, and believing he owned them.”

“Didn’t he?” Brunetti asks.

“Of course he owned them.  That is, he paid for them, had the receipts, could do with them whatever he wanted.  But we never really own anything, do we?”

“I’m not sure what you mean, Vianello.”

“Think about it, sir.  We buy things.  We wear them or put them on our walls, or sit on them, but anyone who wants to can take them away from us.  Or break them.  Just think of Da Prè.  Long after he’s dead, someone else will own these stupid little boxes, and then someone after him, just as someone owned them before he did.  But no one every thinks of that: objects survive us and go on living.  It’s stupid to believe we own them.  And it’s sinful for them to be so important.”

I don’t own any snuff boxes, but it took a secular novel to teach me important lessons about sorting, chucking, organizing, and packing.

  • Attachment to things is perhaps the greatest sin in America today. 

Why do so many people shop for recreation?  Why do most of us have far more clothes than we will ever need?  Why do young children need cell phones?  Why does every family member need their own car?  Do we really need the boat and the second home?  Just asking.

Admittedly, drugs, alcohol, pornography, and gun violence take an enormous toll on the collective health of our country.  However, the wasteful misuse of money to satisfy our personal desires also ranks high on the list because of its pervasive and socially acceptable nature.  I am guilty.  It’s stupid to believe I own my stuff.

  • People are more important than things. 

When fires, floods, or tornadoes destroy homes, what do people lament the most?  It’s the loss of pictures.  New things can be purchased, but pictures are irreplaceable because they remind us of the importance of human relationships.  When Jesus sent his disciples out to heal the sick, cast out demons, and witness to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ, Mark says that Jesus told them to take nothing for the journey except a walking stick (Mark 6:8).  If I could take one carload to our next home, I’d load it with pictures, childhood movies, videos of my family and friends, journals, and special letters.  But maybe I should scrap the car and the moving van altogether and just walk.  It’s sinful to believe that things are more important than people.

  • Churches can play a huge role in raising awareness about excessive consumption. 

The churches we serve are very intentional about caring for creation and the environment and provide opportunities for all kinds of recycling.  Because of their influence we have generated very little trash for landfills and have recycled electronics, paper, magazines, books, furniture, clothes, plastic, glass, aluminum, clothing, and anything else that might be useful to another person.

  • United Methodists are a pilgrim people, and we can live with far less than we think.   

At an ecumenical Good Friday service last week, several clergy asked about my impending move.  When I said that United Methodist clergy covenant to go where they are called, they were astonished.  “You mean you don’t get to live and serve where you want?  You mean your bishop can make you leave or take a church if you don’t want to go?  You mean bishops also have to move even if they don’t want to?  I couldn’t be a United Methodist.  Count me out.”

The genius of the Methodist movement in America was the eagerness of circuit riders to evangelize the frontier as our country moved west.  Methodist clergy had no place to lay their head as they traveled their circuits, yet the church grew like wildfire.  Could the desire of United Methodist clergy over the last fifty years to settle down in our “stupid little boxes,” wanting to be like everyone else by accumulating a lifetime of stuff, play a role in our denominational malaise?  Just wondering.

“Don’t be so clingy!” my couch has declared.  I’m glad that our objects survive us and go on living because my couch still has life in it.  I wonder who will lie on it next.



Permanent link to this article:

Mar 25 2013

Laurie Haller: The Reminder

Original post at

She was the cashier at Sam’s Club who checked us out last week.  When I gave her a check for our groceries she began talking to Gary and me about her grandfather, who was dying of cancer. She said there was no treatment that could help him anymore, he couldn’t stand up, and it was difficult for her to get a good night’s sleep.  I asked if she was especially close to her grandfather, and she replied, “I live with him.  I’m his caretaker.”

“I am so sorry for you and your grandfather.  God bless you during this difficult time,” I said.  Already suspecting the answer, I asked Gary on the way out, “Why do you suppose she shared this with total strangers?”  “Because the top of the check said Rev. Laurie Haller and Rev. Gary Haller.”  Those three letters, “Rev.” not only reminded the young woman of her pain but opened a door for her to seek a blessing.

This encounter sparked the memory of a seminary professor whose class forever changed my life.  In 1977 I was studying music at the Yale University Institute of Sacred Music but lived and also took some classes at Yale Divinity School.  I met my husband in this class where we were in the same small group, and we were married the following year.  Hmm.  Could Gary have somehow arranged to be in my small group?


Our professor was Henri Nouwen, and the class was Ministry and Spirituality, which Henri (as everyone called him) described this way, “This course will focus on the relationship between the practice of ministry and the spiritual life of the minister.”  At the time all I knew about “practice” was the two-plus hours I spent on the organ bench very day.

I was a twenty-two-year old with zero practice in ministry, and I had no clue what the spiritual life of a pastor was all about.  Therefore, when Henri talked about clergy being wounded healers it was a purely academic exercise.  I didn’t have the life experience for his words to move from my head to my heart.  Yet from the very first day I sensed that Henri Nouwen was a living reminder and that what I learned from listening to and watching Henri would last for a lifetime in ministry.

Nouwen focused on three unpublished papers which were typed on an electric typewriter and copied for the class, “The Healing Reminder,” “The Sustaining Reminder,” and “The Guiding Reminder.”  These papers, which I still have today, were published seven years later as The Living Reminder; Service and Prayer in Memory of Jesus Christ. 

Henri kept reminding our class that one of the ways in which humans suffer most deeply is through wounded memories that need healing.  Our painful memories are often deeply hidden but can cause much harm because they are often raw and ooze into consciousness at inopportune times.  Our challenge as clergy is not to avoid our own wounds but to recognize, acknowledge, and lift those wounds into the light of Christ’s love.  Once we seek and receive healing, we are able to connect our pain with the suffering of God, the world, and its people.  By becoming wounded healers for others, we prevent further wounds in the future.

I’d never heard anything like it, but neither had I ever suffered deeply in my short life, having grown up in a sheltered family without significant trauma.  Now I know.  As a pastor and parent I’ve experienced the horror of childhood sexual abuse, the tragedy of suicide, families torn apart by addiction, the humiliation of bankruptcy, homelessness, and hunger, and the hopelessness of incarceration.   It is the reminders of my own woundedness and healing that enable me to empower healing in others.

Not only did Henri Nouwen teach us about being healing reminders for others but he himself – by his words, actions, and demeanor – modeled what it meant to be a wounded healer.  It is the Christ in us who heals.  Who will be a healing reminder of wholeness?

In his second paper Nouwen explained that not only does the memory of past wounds lead to healing in others but the memory of love sustains us in the present.   In John 16:7 Jesus says to his disciples at the Last Supper, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”

How many times in your life have you looked back and said, “Aha.  I never understood why that happened.  But now I can see how the puzzle pieces fit together.”  Although the disciples would grieve Jesus’ absence, only in death would they realize the full impact of Jesus’ life.

Our memory of love received and given helps to sharpen, clarify, and shape the present.  In my life leading up to graduate school and seminary I had little understanding of divine presence in the face of the darkness of God’s absence.  Yet now I can look back on months and even years of uncertainty and pain with no clear word from God and admit that it was precisely during those times that I experienced intense spiritual growth.  When all else was taken away it was the Jesus I experienced through the love of others who sustained me.  The heartache of God’s absence is just as formative as the joy of God’s presence.  Who will be a sustaining reminder of love?

In his third paper Nouwen writes, “The memory that heals the wounds of our past and sustains us in the present also guides us to the future and makes our lives continuously new.”  Jesus’ mission was to remind the people of God of their past, challenge their misunderstandings and narrowness, and renew the vision of God’s continuing care and presence.  So we minister to the wounds of others by not only reminding them of the One who lived, died, and rose from the dead for us, but by becoming a guiding reminder ourselves.  Even when we are weak we can inspire.  Even when we are down and out we can witness.  By the transparency of our own struggles others see God in us.  Who will be a guiding reminder of hope?

We have entered Holy Week.  With each successive year I feel more deeply the passion of Jesus, the pain of my own wounds, and the suffering of our world.  I don’t want to follow all the way to the cross, but I am compelled because Jesus is not only a healing, sustaining, and guiding reminder of God’s love, he is also a passionate reminder of the victory of grace.

The word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patiov, which means “to undergo or suffer or submit.”  It’s the same root from which we get our English word “passive.”    I don’t know about you, but I need to see and experience Jesus on the cross.  The empty cross is not enough.  Skipping Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is way too convenient … because it’s too difficult.  But it’s in the gutsy agony of life that resurrection occurs.



It was in a later book Adam that Henri Nouwen writes about passion.  “Jesus’ passion came after much action.  For three years he went from village to village, town to town, preaching, teaching, responding to people’s questions, healing the sick, confronting hypocrites, consoling the sorrowing, calling the dead back to life.  Wherever he went, there were large crowds of people admiring him, listening to him, asking him for help.  During those intense, nearly hectic years, Jesus was in control.  He came and went as he felt it was right.  His disciples accepted his leadership and followed him wherever he went.”

But in the Garden of Gethsemane all of that ended.  There Jesus was handed over to others to undergo suffering.  From that moment on, Jesus could not do anything.  Everything was done for him.  He was arrested, put into prison, whipped, had a crown of thorns put on him, was ridiculed and given a cross to carry.  He could no longer act.  He was acted upon.  Jesus was totally given into the hands of others, and he did it willingly.  It was pure passion.

“The great mystery of Jesus’ life is that he finally fulfilled his mission not by action but by passion, not by what he did but by what others did to him, not by his decisions but by decisions others made concerning him,” not by his will but by God’s will.  So Jesus’ passion is a radical call for us to accept the truth of our lives and choose to be healing, sustaining, guiding, and passionate reminders of God’s work in our world.

To the young woman at the Sam’s Club register, “Thank you for sharing your burden with Gary and me.  I hope that we inadvertently reminded you of the power of God’s love to heal, sustain, and guide you and your grandfather during this Holy Week of the Passion of your Savior.  God bless you.”

To whom will you be a reminder this week?



Permanent link to this article:

Mar 18 2013

Laurie Haller: Sacred Swag

Original post at

I’m sure people noticed, but they were mercifully discreet.  It was an unforgettable wardrobe malfunction, at least for me.  I dressed in my best clothes for an important meeting, hoping to impress, only to discover when I arrived that the top button was missing from my suit jacket.  Having just picked up the suit from the drycleaners, I never dreamed they would lose a button and not even tell me.  So much for my attempt at sacred swag.

After thirty years of ministry I’ve made a startling discovery.  I’ve been focusing on the wrong things and going about my ministry in the wrong way.  Oh, I’ve learned the jargon and played the game.  Healthy, vital churches; adaptive change; spiritual leadership; making disciples for the transformation of the world; rethink church; radical hospitality; missional church; open hearts, open minds, open doors: I’ve tried it all with varying degrees of effectiveness.

I have chosen to remember the fruit that my ministry has produced rather than the disasters, heartbreak, stupidity, foolishness, dumb mistakes, and messes I’ve made along the way… and had to clean up.  Somehow, though, I missed the key to unlock my pastoral success.  The secret is fashion.  Sacred Swag – and I don’t have it.

I finally got the hint when a friend gave me a precious gift, a What Would Jesus Wear Magnetic Dress-up KitThe kit includes a large magnet in the likeness of Jesus and a tasteful selection of magnetic mix ‘n match clothing and accessories.  As I began dressing Jesus in surfer shorts and tie-dyed shirt as well as a white robe and cross, with accessories such as loaves, fishes, chalices, hats, and tools from his carpenter years, I made the connection.  In a non-threatening way my friend was encouraging me to upgrade my wardrobe.

sacred swag 1

I think I need a new clergy robe, so I browse the web.  I had already looked at clergy apparel at General Conference last year, but the choices were so overwhelming that I shut down. carries a wide variety of “anointed custom ministry attire for women.”  Probably not my style. is a little more conservative but not me. has some nice robes like “Quick Ship Martha,” “Ruth without Lace,” and “Esther with Full Sleeves.”  C.M. Almy, “Outfitters to the church and clergy since 1892,” has a classic line of robes and stoles.  They even sell a clergy cloak to wear over your robe for outdoor ceremonies in the snow: only $443.  Nothing strikes my fancy, which isn’t surprising since I’m really not into clothes in general.  My lack of swag extends beyond the sacred.

My present clergy robe is a hand-me-down from a dear clergy sister who died of cancer.  It’s simple as simple can be, which I know because at the ordination service at annual conference, I check out the robes of my clergy colleagues.  Unlike their robes mine has no lace, no trim, no collar, no full sleeves, and no swag.  I’m out of their league.

What really sets clergy apart, however, is their stoles.  Everyone breaks out their most swaggerous stoles at the ordination service: gorgeous, handmade, custom-designed, colorful, can-you-top-mine stoles.  By contrast, most of mine are rather plain, like my Mennonite upbringing among the “Plain People.”  I did splurge once and bought a stole with two tiny bells dangling from one side, but I save it only for very special occasions.

One reason clergy wear robes is to cover their street clothes so that parishioners pay more attention to their words than their apparel.  Yet a dark secret of the clergy and church world is the hidden desire to exhibit sacred swag.  I wonder what would happen if I walked into the pulpit on Sunday wearing Justin Welby’s get-up as the new Archbishop of Canterbury?

sacred swag 2

My professional clothes are as undistinguished as my robe.  Even I find them so boring that within minutes of arriving home for the day, I’m wearing the same sweatpants and sweatshirt I’ve had for 20 years.  Comfort clothes, that’s what they are.  But did Jesus ever preach about being comfortable?  Well…

The solution has got to be swag, which is the current generation’s version of “cool.”  Swag is the online personification of “swagger,” which refers to a style of walking or presence that conveys an overbearing confidence or arrogance.  Clothes, of course, play a big role in a person’s swag.  You either have it or you don’t.  I don’t … yet.

How should I clothe myself?  Or how does God want to clothe me?  Colossians 3:12-14 says, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

I get this.  Jesus doesn’t really care about our clothes.  And he doesn’t want us to swagger around the chancel like Jimmy SWAGgart when we preach, dispensing pearls of great price to the faithless masses in our spectacular duds.  No, Jesus would prefer us to display the qualities of graciousness, generosity, humility, reconciliation, and shalom, which are all wrapped up in one word: love.

My fashion/theological worldview says that clergy should not draw attention to themselves with their attire.  In that sense I’m like President Obama, who has been mildly criticized for his lack of swag.  Whereas First Lady Michelle Obama generates much attention for her fashion choices, (including new bangs!), President Obama almost always wears a traditional-cut suit, a red or blue tie, and black shoes.  Obama told Vanity Fair that he almost always wears gray or blue suits because that is one less decision he has to make in the day.

The President wears his cell phone on his belt, which is not really a fashion faux pas but does not evidence swag.  Esquire’s senior editor Richard Dorment said a few months ago on National Public Radio, “The best advice I can offer the President is to make sure that nobody’s talking about what he’s wearing, because the last thing we need in the current political rhetoric are armchair fashionistas commenting on what he’s wearing on any given day.”

What we wear when leading worship, whether a robe, suit, jeans, or t-shirt, makes a statement about who we are and the values we hold dear.  Clothes can express our individuality, and some clergy have a great fashion sense.  Of course, what we wear needs to be contextual.  Tweaking our fashion to fit with our particular ministry setting is important.  The bottom line, however, is that Christian worship is not about us, and when our clothing draws attention to us rather than God we need to rethink.

I’m convinced that clothing wasn’t a big deal for Jesus because he told us not to worry about what we wear (Matthew 6:25-34).  Instead, God will clothe us with righteousness.  Jesus’ wardrobe evidently didn’t stick out because the gospel writers make no mention of his clothing except the outer robe he took off before washing the disciples’ feet, the purple fake-royalty robe in which the Roman soldiers dressed Jesus after flogging him, and the seamless tunic Jesus was wearing when he was crucified.  It did not escape notice that the first thing Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires wore last week when he greeted the crowd as Pope Francis was a simple white cassock rather than the traditional red ermine-lined cape.

What does it mean to give our best to God as far as dress goes?  If you’re in need of fashion tips and feel called to be a model example of sacred swag, why not check out  Created by Ed Young, founding pastor of Fellowship Church with four campuses in Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami, and Columbia, South Carolina, this website offers frank and hip advice on how to show sacred swag.

According to the website, “ is designed to have some fun with fashion and put it in its proper perspective – it’s a relevant tool in reaching the world with the hope and love of Jesus.  This is a place where pastors (and anyone who shares that perspective) can get some tips on what to wear, how to wear it, and when to wear it.  But the ultimate question isn’t ‘what,’ ‘how’ or ‘when’? It’s ‘who?’

“Our fascination with fashion is really just a microcosm of our desire to be clothed in the ultimate designer – Jesus Christ.  Until we put on the grace and mercy of Jesus we’re all stitched in sin and cut up with compromise.  But in Jesus, God has provided us a seamless garment; a perfect wardrobe so that we can discover what true fashion is really all about.”

I sewed a new button on my suit as I “put on Christ.”  Do I qualify for sacred swag now?



Permanent link to this article:

Older posts «