I need you to hear something

cracked ground

Photo credit: roujo on Flickr

I need you to hear something.

You, the parents of the college student about to flunk out. Who know he’s drinking too much and going to class way too little and wonder: if he fails, what will happen to him? Who monitor his assignments, his whereabouts and his bank account electronically, texting to make sure he makes the due date, makes it to class. Calling daily so that he has just as much of your supervision as you can get to him through a cell phone.

You, the mother of two in her third bout with cancer. Now it can’t even be called “breast cancer” because it’s spread so wide none of us knows what to call it any more, except evil. And terribly sad. You who are worried and anxious: what if they don’t remember me? Who will be there when someone breaks their heart, when they graduate, when they walk down the aisle? How will they find themselves if they lose me?

You, the daughter in the sandwich generation, who is caring for her aging mother and her grandchildren on alternating days. You who are exhausted being the caregiver everyone needs and wondering: who will take care of me? Who is thankful but tired at the prospect of moving your mother into full-time care. Who is sad at the possibility your grandchildren may be moving several states away. Who wonders: who will need me then?

I’ve talked with all of you this week. All in this one little week. I’ve carried all of your burdens to God in prayer. I know you asked me to pray because you think there’s something special, something magical about the prayers a pastor offers up. In truth He heard your prayers long before mine, and He doesn’t care about whether those prayers come from a professional or not.

He heard you. He heard me, but now I need you to hear something.

I need you to hear about Hagar.

She was a parent, caring for a child. She cried out to God too. Kicked out of the house where she had been a maid, then a surrogate mother, then a liability. Sent to the desert, disposable as a Chinet plate, thrown away to die with her son.

She wailed and cried and petitioned God for this child she loved more than life itself, the one she left lying under a bush near death because she couldn’t bear to watch him leave this world when she was the one who watched him enter.

She cried out to God, and God heard.

But he didn’t hear her. God very specifically let her know it wasn’t her voice he heard – it was the voice of her son. She cried out and an angel from God showed up, the rescue she had been praying for. But he didn’t say God heard her prayers – he said God heard the boy.

Hagar screamed to God. But God’s ears were tuned to the whimpers of her son.

God wasn’t slighting Hagar by letting her know that he showed up – not for her – but because of the boy’s quiet plea. He wanted her to know that she was not the only one paying attention, not the only one who cared that he had a hope and a future. He wanted her to hear loud and clear that she was not the only one responsible for her boy’s life. That she may be his mother, but that she could never be his God.  God wanted her to know that He would be listening to her beloved son, so that she wouldn’t have to carry that burden alone.

None of us do. None of us is fully responsible for the fate of another person. You may feel like without your striving, your help, your support, someone else will fall through the cracks. But God hears them. God sees them. And His notice, His hearing,  His help are the only things that will get them through.

Instead of taking Hagar and her boy from the desert to more cushy surroundings, God made a home for them there in the desert.  Instead of moving them out of danger, God moved in, and made His home there with them. Sometimes God rescues us from the desert, but sometimes He brings His presence right there with the one we love, the one who is so fragile, so desperate. When God moves in with us in the desert, it’s more than just a bearable place. God can make the desert bloom.

You, in the desert, I need you to hear something.

You who are desperate, crying out, loving someone so hard that it hurts.

I need you to hear this now.

God hears. God sees. God loves.

As much as you love that person He’s given you to care for – He loves them even more. You alone are not solely responsible to make their future bright, or even bearable.  You can love them all you want, but you will never be their God.

That job has already been taken care of. They will be taken care of too.

Jessica LaGrone’s new Bible Study, Broken and Blessed, is a study of the family stories of Genesis. It can be found at here.

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Catching Sight – a guest post on the Bare Tribe blog

faith firework

It’s the Fourth of July 2009, a day that usually finds me giddy with the freedom of a couple of days off, barbecuing with friends, watching fireworks explode late into the night. Instead I’m miserable. Unhappy in the midst of celebration. Sick with ambiguity and grief and stuffing down the hope I refuse to let myself feel.

I’m standing at the counter a friend’s kitchen, chopping onions to go into the potato salad. She has enough going on without having to worry about me – her boys running in and out of the kitchen, her in-laws nearby setting the dining room table, the dessert in the oven and the sauce on the stove. But she keeps glancing my way with concerned eyes. Are you sure you’re OK? She asks again – and I realize I’ve pulverized the onions, chopping them into a soup of tiny bits both out of distraction and the need for an excuse for my tears…

Read the rest HERE on the Bare Tribe blog. I’m guest posting this week in their After His Heart series.

after his heart2 copy

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Kate’s baptism

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Drew photographer

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A huge thank you to Patrick Fore Photography http://patrickforephotography.com

 

 

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Why I’m not baptizing my daughter

This Sunday at the 11:00 service our church will celebrate Kate’s baptism.  When I realized that this Sunday also happens to be St. Patrick’s Day, I remembered that we baptized Drew on Halloween.  Though neither of those was an intentional choice, both are holidays with sacred roots being held hostage as secular celebrations.  Somehow I see our accidental planning of baptisms on those days as a providential way to reclaim their sacred nature.  It’s also a great way for the kids to remember the anniversary of their baptism every year.

Happy Halloween! (Remember your baptism and be thankful!)

Recently a good friend of mine, a fellow pastor, told me that baptizing his own children was an incredible experience for him – the chance to reach into the water and mark them with the symbol of the cross, claiming them for God’s family.

When he asked me if I was going to baptize Kate myself, I think I surprised him with how quickly and forcefully I answered: “No!”  It definitely surprised me.  Up until that moment the decision had just been a gut reaction, so I had to stop and clarify – even for myself – my strong feelings on the subject.

As a pastor I get to participate in a lot of baptisms.  I get to stand in the pastor’s designated spot next to our church’s huge baptismal font (it’s rumored to have been custom made from an outdoor fire pit – a story that deserves its own theological reflection to say the least!) and invite families to come forward.  I watch them step up on the other side of the kneeling rail as they bring their babies forward.

Baptizing Hunter (I'm 6 months pregnant with Drew here)

Baptizing Hunter
(I’m 6 months pregnant with Drew here)

For years before I was a parent myself I watched the mothers’ faces as they held out their squirmy bundles.  Their mouths smiled, but the fear in their eyes communicated wordlessly: Please. Please don’t squirm so hard that I almost drop you as I hand you to the pastor. Please don’t scream and cry in front of the whole congregation. Please don’t spit up on the pastor’s stole or try to eat the microphone on her robe or belch loudly into that microphone. (I’ve had babies do all of these things at their baptisms!)

Baptizing Libby

Baptizing Libby

I’ve stood on the other side of the altar rail so many times, trying my best to reassure those mothers with my calm smile.  But inside I’m praying right along with for the mercy of a calm baby.  It’s been one of the greatest privileges of my role as a pastor to receive those babies into my arms, representing both the arms of the Church and the arms of God, and to speak those holy words over them: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” To speak God’s love over them and to seal their adoption into His family.

Baptizing Ella (I'm 6 months pregnant with Kate here)

Baptizing Ella (I’m 6 months pregnant with Kate here)

In the best of scenarios the tiny baby sleeps through the whole thing, not even waking when a splash of cold water crosses their brow.  Those are my favorite moments. Not just because all possible baptismal foibles have been averted, but because I see in my arms the perfect picture of how we all receive God’s grace – so unaware of its depths that we mostly sleepwalk through it all.

It wasn’t until the dark years of infertility and miscarriage that I realized how I longed to stand on the other side of the rail.  The babies we lost never had a chance at baptism. They were God’s children nevertheless, sent the express route straight back to Him, too early for us to name them or claim their place here in the Church that I love.  It was hard to hand the dream of those children back over to God.  It wasn’t until the day I finally got to officially claim the title “mother” that I realized that this is the ultimate vocation of mothers – handing our children over to God.

Baptizing Hannah

Baptizing Hannah

It was then I finally understood the look in those mothers’ eyes at the baptismal rail. Their slight hesitation as they passed babies to me draped in slippery white gowns.  That in that act of handing them over they were formally saying what all parents who trust Christ must say: “This is not my child. This is God’s child. I will use every last ounce of my energy and resources to care for them for a time. I will raise them in faith and sing to them about God and whisper Jesus’ love in their sleepy ears, but ultimately they are not mine. Someday they will return to Him. This is God’s child.”

I need to hand my baby over the rail this Sunday because I need to say it again:
“This is God’s child.”

I need pictures of that moment hung in our house to remind me of that every time I’m tempted to plan her life out for her. Every time I’m tempted to control her with my disapproval or direct her future with my worry.  Every time I want so badly to be god in her life I need to remember that I officially gave up that job on St. Patrick’s Day 2013.  The Church will remind me of that too.  She will be their baby now, theirs officially to love and raise on God’s behalf as well.

So I won’t be baptizing Kate this Sunday.  I won’t be able to stand in the place of pastor –  some wonderful men that I admire and serve with are going to stand there instead.  But there’s only one person who can stand in the place of her mother.

This Sunday I will sit in a pew I’ve only sat in once before – at Drew’s baptism on October 31, 2010 – the pew reserved for families with babies being baptized.  Though it was Halloween I had removed my clerical costume and come as myself.  Just a mom.  Holding a baby.  Handing him over to God and His family.

Dr. Robb baptizing Drew October 31, 2010

Dr. Robb baptizing Drew
October 31, 2010

Rob Renfroe blessing Drew at his baptism

Rob Renfroe blessing Drew at his baptism

This Sunday is my last chance to do that again.

I hope I remember my line.

Pastor: “What name is given this child?”
Parents: “Katherine Juliet LaGrone.”

This is God’s child.

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Disappointing God

As part of Namesake Launch Week I’ll be sharing excerpts from the daily reading in the study. Here’s a little of the text from the week on Simon Peter. We have more stories on record of Peter disappointing Jesus than any other person.  How does God respond when we disappoint Him?Namesake Bible Study cover

Disappointing God

A while back I had an encounter with a friend that left me feeling hurt and betrayed. For several years we had enjoyed a close friendship that was a fun mix of personal and professional. We could easily shift back and forth from working together on a large project to laughing over lunch to spending time with each other’s families. Then one day my friend came in, red in the face, upset about some differences we had. He let me know that our friendship was over. The professional relationship would still be there, he said, but he was “backing off” from any contact we had beyond that. I was stunned, apologized for my part of the rift, and tried to offer a way to rebuild our friendship. His cold response let me know that wasn’t an option. I was hurt—and deeply disappointed.

I hate it when people I rely on disappoint me: when a friend promises to help me with something and then blows it off; when a babysitter backs out at the last minute; when someone’s attitude or reaction is far beneath what I had come to expect from him or her. Even worse than being disappointed is the feeling of disappointing someone else: when I realize an e-mail has gone unanswered or a call has gone unreturned for so long that someone assumes I just don’t care; when I forget someone’s special day because my life is running so fast I lose track of anyone else’s concerns but my own. I hate letting people down. And I really hate the feeling of being disappointed in myself.

In a perfect world there would be no disappointment.

There would also be no mosquitoes. No taxes. No rush-hour traffic. In a perfect world there would be no fights to get teenagers to do their homework, since there definitely would be no homework! (And possibly no teenagers.)  In a perfect world our bodies wouldn’t fall apart as we get older. We wouldn’t have to say goodbye to the ones we love. Our hearts wouldn’t sting from the disappointment of broken relationships.

But we don’t live in a perfect world, do we?

We could, you know, if it weren’t for those infamous ancestors of ours: Adam and Eve. They had the perfect world, Eden, and they traded it all away for a snack that they believed would benefit them. (And it wasn’t even chocolate!)They handed over the keys to Eden because of a piece of fruit.

Genesis describes Eden as a place of wholeness, where relationships between people were without flaw. Adam and Eve are described as “naked and unashamed,” which among other things means that they had nothing to hide from one another or from God. Before they messed up, they never hurt or disappointed each other. They never experienced shame or guilt.

The moments when I long for Eden the most are the ones when brokenness is the most obvious—when sickness, pain, death, divorce, destruction, war, and even disappointment mar the landscape of this once perfect world. Sometimes I think about all that we’re missing out on because Adam and Eve felt the need to have a little bite.

But I also wonder if there’s anything we do have in this post- Eden world that we never would have known had the human race always existed inside the garden of perfection. Is there any benefit of living in this imperfect world? 
I think it’s this: we get to see how God deals with disappointment. If Adam and Eve had never touched that forbidden fruit (and, let’s face it, if they hadn’t, someone to come in their family line would have), then we never would have seen how God handles less than perfect lives, messy relationships, and disobedient children.

When God discovered that His children had done exactly what He told them not to do, I’m sure He experienced an immediate sinking feeling of disappointment. I mean, there were a million good choices available, but they picked the one thing that would hurt the Father who had given them everything. God’s disappointment is not like our own. Our disappointment is usually self- centered, focused on our unrealized expectations. God’s disappointment is always selfless, focused on the damage we cause to our own lives and to our relationship with Him. When God is disappointed with our actions, it is because He wants the absolute best for us. God loves us too much to let anything stand in the way of the wonderful future He envisions for us, even if that thing is something of our own choosing. God’s disappointment in Eden was with a choice that would now shift the entire future of humanity.

But I wonder if, alongside that feeling of disappointment, there was a little bit of excitement in God’s heart—a feeling of joy that He would get to show us a part of Himself we never would have known had we stuck to the straight and narrow. I wonder if God rolled up His sleeves and thought: “All right. Now I get to show them what I’m really made of.” And this is what God is made of: Grace.

When Adam and Eve rocked our world by defying God, when they tried to dethrone God and put themselves in His place as the One whose plans are best for the universe, God was deeply disappointed. And yet God responded with grace.

We call that first story of sin “the Fall” of humanity, but every generation since has fallen again on its own. If we’re honest, we must admit that we don’t usually fall into sin; we willfully throw ourselves headlong into it. Each generation has its own experience of disappointing God. And in each generation God responds with grace. He reaches out, offering Himself again and again. Even when He knows we will grieve His heart again, God still shows up full of grace.

I John 2:12 says “I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of His name.”

Some translations say that we have been forgiven “for His name’s sake.” In other words, the purpose of forgiveness is to make a name for God, to advertise that God is gracious and merciful, even when our actions are crushing. Eden may have been a perfect world, but the one thing it didn’t have was forgiveness—the ability to meet disappointment not by recoiling or lashing out but by offering grace.

I long for that perfect world sometimes. But if humanity had stayed there, we never would have known how God deals with disappointment. Just as we have a choice, God has a choice. He could choose to reject us or to offer us a cold shoulder. Instead, I believe God rolls up His sleeves with a sense of excitement: “Now I get to show them what I’m really made of.”

When my friend hurt me, I had a choice. I have to admit that it was tempting to withdraw, to lick my wounds, to pretend that our friendship never mattered to me in the first place. Instead, I am choosing daily to respond to disappointment with the same enthusiasm as Jesus. If my friend had never hurt me, I never would have had a chance to show what I’m truly made of as a child of God: grace.

When have you been deeply disappointed by someone? How did you react?

 

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Every Name Tells A Story: “Little Mike”

During the launch of Namesake I’ll be sharing several excerpts from the study here at the Reverend Mother blog.  Namesake is filled with stories from the Bible where people’s names change as their lives change.  Those Biblical stories are punctuated by stories from today of real people of faith and their names.  This is an excerpt from the very first story in the study, the story of Mike Drummond. Mike passed away last August soon after I interviewed him about his unique story of having not one but two namesakes.  I’m honored to have known this great man.

Every Name Tells A Story: Little Mike

 A name can function as a password, a key that allows you access to its owner. When I visit people in the hospital, that key can unlock doors or leave me standing out in the cold.

When I walk into a hospital, the first person I meet is usually the receptionist at the information desk. My response to the question “Can I help you?” is generally to offer a name. “I’m here to visit Mike Drummond,” I said on a recent hospital visit. The woman paused, glanced at her computer screen, and smiled at me: “I’m sorry, we don’t have a patient here by that name.”

I’m used to this game. Because of privacy laws, hospitals won’t give access to the room number of a patient unless the visitor knows the exact legal name entered in the records. So I tried again. “OK, how about Michael Drummond?” Same pause, back to the computer, and then another smiling response: “There’s no one admitted in this hospital by that name.” By this time I was beginning to get frustrated, but a few well-placed cell phone inquiries to mutual friends brought me back to the desk with my password ready: “Thomas Drummond!” I said triumphantly. Success! This time I was rewarded with a room number and directions to the elevators.

Mike lay in his hospital bed looking a bit weak but cheerful. Even cancer couldn’t put a damper on his hearty personality. After asking about how he was feeling and when he might get to go home, I got to the question stirring my curiosity: “Mike, how is it that I’ve known you all this time and had no idea your name is really Thomas?” The story he shared was worth the trip and the delay in the lobby.

Thomas Philip Drummond Jr. was the first son born to a wonderful mother and father. His dad, Tom, was proud to share his name with his little boy. The family lived in Illinois when he arrived but soon packed up and moved back home to be close to his mother’s family. There was one little wrinkle.

Little Thomas Jr.’s aunts protested because this first-born grandson wasn’t named after their father, his grandfather on his mother’s side. Thomas Jr.’s parents insisted he keep the name he had received on his birth certificate, but the aunts would hear none of it. They began calling him after his grandfather anyway—Francis Marion Jennings, who went by Mike because he was too burly a guy to go by either Francis or Marion.

Little Thomas Jr.’s parents tried to stick to their guns but were overpowered as the whole family insisted on calling him Little Mike. Eventually even his parents gave in, and Little Mike it was. Mike claims that for the first three years of his life he thought his first name was all one word: Littlemike. It was a long time before he discovered his given name wasn’t Mike at all.

Mike is honored to share the names of his father and grandfather. They were both honorable men, he says—capable, loving, strong, and family-oriented. He knows he couldn’t go wrong being named after two wonderful men. He’s proud to be their namesake.

A namesake is usually someone given the name of a predecessor in hopes that he or she will grow up and emulate that person in some way. Parents hope their little girl or boy will adopt his or her namesake’s traits as the child is called by that name. Little Mike eventually dropped the “Little” and became just Mike. He hopes that he carries that name in a way that would make his grandfather proud. He also has great hopes and dreams for his own son and namesake, Thomas Philip Drummond III, who goes by Phil.

The word Christian bears, at its heart, the name of Christ. When that name is bestowed on us, God hopes and dreams that we will grow to favor His Son, to be like Him in all that we are and do. Becoming Jesus’ namesake is a complicated, lifelong process of transformation that begins with the simple act of trusting Him.

The stories in Namesake are of people in the Bible who learned that the God they encountered had such big dreams for them that their entire lives were about to change, including their names. Their identities were so altered by God that their old names simply didn’t fit the persons they were becoming. Their new names became a key to a new life, a password of sorts, given by a God who knew them even better than they knew themselves. As we explore their stories, we will begin our own journey of change. Who are we? Who is God calling us to become? The answers are in the hands of the One who hopes to become our namesake, who is making us over to be more like Him.

Do you know someone who has a Namesake?  Does your name tell a story? Tell us about it here.

Follow the journey of Namesake at www.Facebook.com/jessicalagrone.

 

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Announcement! Launch event Jan 25-26

Exciting news about my new Bible Study, “Namesake”

While its official release date is the first of February, we’ll be holding a launch event at The Woodlands UMC on January 25 and 26. If you want the earliest date you can get your hands on the Namesake study, you’ll find it available here.

Join us for a celebration dinner and the official launch of Namesake Friday night.
Or join us for an Abingdon Women’s Conference on Saturday morning with three Abingdon Women authors. Or come to both!!

There are also some extras for church leaders who are planning to make Namesake and other Abingdon Women studies available at their churches.  Exclusive time with the authors for leaders at a pre-event reception on Friday and a post-event lunch on Saturday.

Come and help me celebrate the launch of this new endeavor – I’d love to see you there!

Friday Night Jan 25
Pre-event reception with authors for church leaders
Dinner – music by Gospel recording artist Babbie Mason
Messages by authors Kim Reisman and Jessica LaGrone

Saturday Morning Jan 26
Morning Women’s Conference – Messages by authors Babbie Mason, Kim Reisman, and Jessica LaGrone
Post-event lunch with authors for church leaders

BONUS: Sunday Morning Jan 27
Babbie Mason singing in worship at The Woodlands UMC (9:15 Harvest and 11:00 services)
Book signing with Babbie Mason, Jessica LaGrone and local authors

Jessica and Babbie

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Q&A Interview with Abingdon Women

I was asked to do an interview here on the blog with Abingdon Women about the Namesake Bible study.  I’m thrilled that it’s being released in February and can’t wait to see how God will use it.

AW: Jessica, what has your first experience as a published author been like? Have you experienced anything unusually awesome in the development of God speaking to you through this study?

Jessica: Becoming an author is a lifelong dream come true for me.  In elementary school, when other kids were playing astronaut, I was playing author: folding stacks of paper in half to make a “book” and then writing and illustrating stories on them. I’ve written many things for ministry, but Namesake is the first published work that will be used by churches across the country.  I can’t tell you how excited I am about that!  The very first lesson in Namesake is on Abraham and Sarah and how, even after God changed their names as a sign that He would to fulfill His promises to them, they had to wait and wait for those promises to be realized.  When I first started telling friends about the upcoming publication of Namesake, a friend who had been a classmate of mine in seminary contacted me. We had been in a prayer group where we shared our deepest dreams about life and ministry and prayed over one another, but we now live across the country from each other.  Her message to me said: “Do you realize we prayed for this dream twelve years ago and God is now answering that prayer?” It is amazing to think of God’s faithfulness and His perfect timing.

AW: Explain to us how the vision of Namesake evolved.

Jessica: I’ve always been fascinated by names and where they come from.  My own name: Jessica Lynne, was given to me because my mom admired a classmate of hers named “Jessica Darling” and because her younger sister’s name is “Donna Lynne.”  When I read the Bible and find an interesting name, I’m always following it down to its footnote to find out what it means.  It’s fascinating how often a name actually tells a part of the person’s story.  I began speaking at retreats several years ago on the names in the Bible and how they’re often changed to indicate a transformation in someone’s life. God seems to think a new identity deserves a whole new name.  I realized that God’s vision or each one of us is transformation. He longs to see us change from who we once were to become more and more like Him. That reminded me of all the people I knew who were named after someone, who were given a namesake in hopes that they would grow up to emulate that person’s best characteristics.  Since we are made in God’s image, we are His namesakes, hopefully growing to resemble Him more and more.

When I began working with the people at Abingdon it was amazing to see this small idea God had given me long ago nurtured and developed by so many people – from editors to graphic artists to producers.  Seeing your idea on the cover of a book, on the wall of the set in a recording studio, on a page in a catalog… it’s a very humbling experience. It’s been so clear to me all along that this is God’s vision unfolding, not my own.c

AW: Candidly, what has your life been like juggling roles of pastor, writer, wife, and mom? Most of our women find great encouragement in knowing that daily balance is an ongoing act of surrender to the Lord!

Jessica: Let’s get really honest here… It’s crazy!  It’s no easy task to balance life as a full time pastor, a full time mom (no mom’s job is ever part time!) and writing and speaking.  When Abingdon approached me about making Namesake into a Bible Study, I had a two year old son, Drew, and was six months pregnant with my daughter Kate.  I sometimes say I had two babies in 2012, since the undertaking of a big publishing project often felt like childbirth! I wrote much of the study while on maternity leave with Kate sleeping in a bassinet beside me, and she flew to Nashville with me at three months old when I recorded the teaching videos.  There are times when this very full life seems far from balanced.  I’m so thankful for a husband (Jim) who is a full partner in all things parenting and ministry, and that my own mom lives close by and spends a lot of time at our house.  She was a single mom while I was growing up and worked full-time too, and she is absolutely my role model in faith and family.  The key to juggling is not to try to be a hero. Life isn’t going to be perfect, so have grace for yourself.  You can’t do it alone. You need to ask for help. And you have to rely on God and remember He’s holding the universe together – so you don’t have to.  

AW: How do you hope to see Namesake used within church programs and independent small group Bible studies?

Jessica: The best groups I’ve experienced are the ones that draw you closer to God and create true community.  I love “Aha!” moments of realizing new things I’ve never noticed in the Bible, and have tried to create plenty of those in the study.  Namesake is ideal for groups that want to go deeper into the stories of Scripture. It’s narrative-based, meaning that each chapter tells the story of an individual in Scripture and also tells contemporary stories from my own life and the lives of others.  The goal is to let the lessons we learn when we study the Bible touch and transform our own stories.  Groups will have a chance to learn deeply about God’s message for them in the Bible while they examine their own name and identity and explore how God wants to offer them a fresh start. Namesake would be ideal for a group Bible Study or even a Sunday School class, and while it’s produced under the Abingdon Women label it has been great for men as well.

AW: If you were to speak to a live Abingdon Women audience on the primary message of Namesake what would you say?

Jessica: Namesake is all about God’s transforming love for us. The stories in Namesake are of ordinary people who encountered God and found themselves changed forever.  When they surrendered their lives to God, their identities were so altered that even their names had to be changed.  You and I need the same kind of transforming touch from God in our own lives.  By studying together in community we’re given a chance to tell our own stories, and when line those up against the stories in Scripture we find that we just might have a few things in common with Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Daniel, Naomi, Peter, and an unnamed woman who met Jesus.  We also learn that the blessings that come from a life surrendered to God are not for our own glory, but for His name’s sake.

Be sure to “like” Abingdon Women on Facebook for more info about their upcoming studies.

While you’re at it, be sure you’ve “liked” my Facebook author page so that you’ll find out the latest news about Namesake and more!

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Can your hero become your friend? – A post in the “Why Ministers Matter” blog tour

This week MinistryMatters.com is inviting leading pastors and authors to share the story of ministers who have touched our lives in a blog tour called “Why Ministers Matter.”  I’m honored to be today’s stop on the blog tour that includes thoughts from Max Lucado, Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter and other great pastors and authors.

We were asked to share the story of a minister who made a difference our lives.  That’s both an easy and a difficult assignment, since so I can think of so many pastors that have influenced me through the years that it’s difficult to narrow down.  It’s also not the first time I’ve been asked this tough question… 

When I was ordained in 2005, our Bishop laid her hands on my head and spoke the words “Jessica Lynne Box LaGrone, take thou the authority to preach the Word of God and to administer the Holy Sacraments.”  It was an amazing moment.  But I have to say that I felt the authority given to me to preach had been transmitted before her hands ever touched my head.
 
As Bishop Huie stood in front of me, my husband of three months and a group of mentors stood behind me, hands on my shoulders, praying for my ministry and the journey ahead.  I had been allowed to choose the pastors who stood behind me, praying over me.  Picking out just a handful of people who had influenced me was a tough decision, but in the end the choice was obvious.  They were all men who God had used to shape my faith and my ministry in incredible ways.  Here they are on my ordination day.

Ordination 2005 – my mentors

Garry Masterson (on the left) and Kip Gilts (on the right) are two pastors who helped launch me into ministry. I worked as a Youth Minister for Garry and then later in my first position as an Associate Pastor for Kip.   They each took a chance on me when I was young, disorganized and naive, starting out and thinking I already knew it all.  Both of those men are incredible leaders and visionaries who showed me what it truly meant to have a pastor’s heart.  I saw Garry and Kip love and care for their families and include them in their ministries, and I learned from them that it was possible to have a healthy family life while doing a difficult job.  When, as a jaded 20-something, I almost walked away from the church and my call, their love for people and for Jesus restored my faith in ministry itself. But (sorry guys!) this blog post isn’t really about them.
 
The man at the center of the photo with me is the one who immediately came to mind when I was asked the question about the most influential pastor in my life.  Ironically, although he was a successful pastor of local churches for most of his career, I never experienced him as a pastor, but as a professor.  However, Dr. Ellsworth Kalas is such a pastor at heart that whatever role he is filling at the moment: professor, seminary president, guest preacher or lecturer, he is always a pastor to those around him.  
 
Dr. Kalas was my hero.  He was one of the reasons I chose to attend Asbury Seminary. His teaching on the art of preaching is legendary.  I had read his books and heard his name spoken in hushed tones as the best preacher in The United Methodist Church.  I couldn’t wait to experience his wisdom in person.
 
When I got to seminary I was disappointed to learn that Dr. Kalas’s classes are in such high demand that most students don’t have the seniority to get in until their last year.  There was a rumor, though, that he reserved a couple of seats in his Intro to Preaching class and then gave them out to students of his choice.  In hopes that I could get into his class early in my seminary career I sent him a note: 
 
“Dr. Kalas, you don’t know me, but I understand there may be an open spot in your preaching class you are saving to give to some special student.  I’d like to be that student.  I would enjoy having you as a professor.  And I know you would enjoy having me as a student.”  I got in. Dr. Kalas still laughs about that note. I’m still shocked that I had the audacity to send it!
 
Once I got into his class I sat spellbound by Dr. Kalas’s teaching.  The content of his lectures was rich. I still pull up my notes sometimes 12 years later when I’m preparing to preach. But the real treasure was so much more than anything we could write down or be tested on. Dr. Kalas would often give us some guideline about preaching, and then to illlustrate his point he would launch, seamlessly, into a sermon right in front of us. We would sit fascinated, unable to believe that we were in the presence of such greatness. When he returned to the point he was making you could hear an audible exhale from the class.  

With my friend and fellow Asbury grad,
Nolan Donald

 When we got to the portion of class where we were to begin our preaching assignments, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I was pretty terrified.  I had preached a handful of times, all in front of people in my home churches who knew me and loved me and told me I was great. I had no idea whether to believe them or not.  Now I was supposed to stand up and preach in front of my peers, whose job it was to critique me, and in front of a man who had the most masterful preaching presence I had ever witnessed. Gulp!  
 
I got up in front of the class with no notes in front of me (Dr. Kalas wouldn’t allow us to use any!) and preached a short sermon on the call of Moses. I felt like I was standing before the burning bush myself!  When I finished, I sat down and waited for the critique to begin.  To my surprise, Dr. Kalas praised my preaching, holding it up as an example to my classmates.  Again and again that semester he let me know that God had given me an important gift that I needed to hone and cherish.  It would be several years before a bishop laid her hands on my head, but that classroom was the place I was truly ordained.
 
Dr. Kalas’s confidence in me gave me confidence in myself.  When he told me I was great I had no choice but to become so.  I went on to work for him as a research assistant and grader, doing small tasks to help make his job easier.  The best part of my job was that I got to go to his office each week and sit down to have a conversation with him, the topic of which usually strayed far beyond what help he needed in the office.  We would often sit for an hour or more as he shared stories about his experiences as a pastor and wisdom about life.  That office was the best classroom I ever experienced.  Those stories still play in my head when I’m searching for wisdom to make tough decisions in my own ministry. 

Dr. Kalas flew to Texas to pray for me at my ordination in 2005

He once told me a story about his own family that made me realize what made this man I admired so great. When his children were young he was the pastor of a large church, with a lot of responsibilities and demands on his time.  The church happened to be on his son’s way home from school, and each afternoon as he walked home, his son would stop at the church and come into his dad’s office.  Dr. Kalas would get him a coke and come around from behind his desk to sit with him and hear about his day before giving him a hug and sending him off on his way home.  When his son grew up he also became a pastor (the ultimate compliment to parents in ministry, since many preachers’ kids grow up and run from the church because their parents put it ahead of them in their priorities).   He called his dad up one day and told him he had just realized what a sacrifice all those afternoons meant.  “I thought you had nothing better to do,” he said. “Now that I’m a pastor I realize how incredibly busy you must have been, but you made me feel like the only important thing that happened in that office all day.”

With my son Drew in 2010

When I thought about that story later, I realized that I had made the same mistake his son had made, thinking, in those long afternoon conversations, that the relaxed way in which Dr. Kalas asked about my life and taught me from his own, that he had nothing better to do.  In reality, his time is very much in demand. In addition to his teaching and writing, within the next few years he became the president of the seminary at a time when many people needed his wisdom and guidance.  I can tell you that each person that encounters him still feels like he has all the time in the world for them.   
 
Somehow, Dr. Kalas moved in my life from the position of far-off hero to teacher to mentor to friend.  Not many people who start out on a pedestal in your mind can live up to it once you know them well.  Once or twice he has asked me to call him Ellsworth.  I just can’t bring myself to do it.  I get to see him once or twice each year, on visits when we try to pack months of conversation into one afternoon.  I’m still in awe every time I get to sit and talk with him.  He still looks me squarely in the eye with that patient, affirming smile as if I’m the only person that matters.  He’s still my hero.  

Dr. Kalas speaking at The Woodlands UMC September 2012,
with friends Alicia Coltzer and Melissa Maher

Is there a pastor/minister/professor who has greatly impacted your life? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.
 
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Join the MinistryMatters.com “Why Ministers Matter” blog tour to read as today’s leading pastors and authors share their stories of ministers who made a difference in their lives. Visit MinistryMatters.com/blogtour for a complete list of virtual tour stops and to link up your own post about a minister who mattered to you!
 
Next stop on the blog tour…
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The Problem With Princesses

When we named our daughter Katherine Juliet, friends commented that her name sounded like royalty, or at least like some character out of Shakespeare.  

Katherine Juliet LaGrone

The Kate most talked about in the news in the last couple of years is actual royalty, a real life princess: the beautifully poised young woman who will probably be the next queen of England.  I’ve saved some pictures of the wedding of Kate and Prince William (which happened the year I got pregnant with our little Kate) so that she can someday see the beautiful young woman who shares her name.  Watching that royal wedding took so many women back to the dreams of their childhood, like watching a real life fairy tale.

William and Kate

Kate is only one month old at the time that I’m writing, but I confess I’ve already developed an inexplicable love for all things pink and frilly.  My iHusband didn’t seem to understand why we needed to repaint the nursery or replace some of the blue and green baby accessories we’d bought for our son only two years before.  The bedding set we picked out for Kate’s nursery (and by “We” I mean I spent months searching catalogs and websites for just the right decor.  The iHusband carried it upstairs.) is a soft pink and chocolate brown.  As part of that set we could’ve ordered accessories with little signs for the wall with the word “Princess” in scrolling type, or a matching rug shaped like a big crown. I declined.  

Kate’s nursery

 

Now that I have a daughter, I do feel a certain excitement about a future that includes watching movies about princesses and playing dress-up with gowns, pearls and tiaras.  As a girl I loved all the Disney princess movies, the ones that told basically the same story: a princess, beautiful but helpless, finds herself in a dangerous situation (locked in a tower, enslaved to a wicked stepmother, or asleep under a curse).  She needs someone to come and rescue her.  A prince, of the charming variety, comes along and is enraptured by her loveliness. He fights the battle she needs fought (slays the dragon, climbs her hair, or kisses her sleeping lips even though she hasn’t seen toothpaste for 100 years).  She is overwhelmed with gratitude, falls into his arms, and they live happily ever after.

But along with nostalgia for the stories I loved as a little girl, I also have a growing wariness about these fairy tales.  I’m starting to realize that although those stories captured my imagination and gave me some of my first dreams of romance, they also did me a great disservice.  They planted a desire in me for someone to come along when I was in distress, rescue me from my reality, and carry me away to happily-ever after. 

I know I’m not the only one bringing up these kinds of questions.  This summer, Disney is trying out a new archetype for a heroine with the release of their new movie “Brave.”  I haven’t seen it yet, but discussion online points to it as an attempt on Disney’s part to answer criticisms of their trend towards helpless princesses who need to be rescued.  This heroine has no love interest and doesn’t need rescuing.  Will little girls love and adore her as much as they have the princesses whose chief attribute was their ability to lie still while waiting for the kiss that would wake them to a new life?

Girl Power

I know it’s not Walt Disney’s fault, but growing up with stories of princesses of the more classic variety I ended up spending a great deal of time and energy looking for that prince, the one who would make my life complete.  It turned out that every man I met fell short of that expectation (not to mention bringing with them some problems of their own!) and I was left lonely and confused to begin the search again.  It would be hard for me to overemphasize how much that obsession threw me off balance, causing me to over-focus on having a man in my life, charming or not.  Because of it I neglected friendships and family relationships, missed lots of opportunities to rely on Jesus, and underestimated my ability to solve my own problems and progress unassisted towards my own happily-ever-after. 

I’m not alone.  Telling a friend about the new man in her life, one woman said, “We met after my divorce and he was my savior.”  Really?  I’m sure he’s a great guy and all, but put him on that particular pedestal and he’s sure to fall right off.  

That brings to mind a pastor-friend whose grand, cathedral-like church attracted lots of young couples for weddings.  He met with each of them for pre-marital counseling and at some point in the interview asked them each to answer a simple and seemingly obvious question: “What is the most important thing in your life?”  With stars in their eyes the young love-birds would, without exception, gaze over at their betrothed and say: “He is,” or “She is.”   At this point the pastor would stand up at his desk and get stern with them: “Don’t do that! He is going to make a great husband, but he makes a really lousy God.”  He’d then talk to them in a gentler tone about what God could provide for them that no human person ever could, and how their marriage would be stronger if they’d let God shine in the role He wanted and their spouse shine in the role they were intended for.  Many of those young couples recognized in his words something their hearts had been longing for, and began relationships with Jesus as they began their marriage together.  That empty cathedral of a church was soon full of young families growing in faith together.

These are some of the reasons I’ve chosen not to fill my baby daughter’s room with crowns and labels of “princess.”  It’s not that I don’t want her to play dress up, to twirl around in gown and tiaras and feel beautiful and sparkly.  But I don’t want her to assume from her earliest days that she is the center of our universe or even our household, that she is “The Little Princess” we will cater to.  I also don’t want her to cast herself as the helpless maiden in the Disney tales, singing “Someday my prince will come” while life passes her by.

Sleeping Beauty – the first movie I saw in a theater

I want to offer Kate a story big enough to build real dreams on.  I want her to dream about a story that will capture her imagination and her longings, but I also want those longings to be ones that will actually be fulfilled.  I want her to know that yes, she does need a Savior, and that He is the one who can provide the kind of rescue we all need, whether our nursery was decorated in pink or in blue.

I don’t mind if Kate wants to be Cinderella for Halloween, or Sleeping Beauty, but I don’t want her to learn those stories by heart until I have a chance to tell her another story.  A true story.  The story of Ruth, who will never, ever get cast by Disney.

Here’s what I love about Ruth, the anti-princess:

  • She’s from the despised land of Moab (and not the chosen people ofIsrael), but that doesn’t stop her from becoming our heroine.  Just the fact that she gets the starring role means that God doesn’t play favorites. He doesn’t withhold his love and blessings because we don’t have royal blood or a fairy godmother or we aren’t the fairest of them all. 
  • The central relationship of her story is not a romance, but a friendship between women.  I want Kate to know that friendships will be some of the strongest and most meaningful blessings in her life, and that she should hold tightly to them, even when she thinks Prince Charming beckons.  Ruth’s beautiful words of commitment to her mother-in-law Naomi, the poem of covenant and conversion where she chooses her as family and converts to following Naomi’s God, is one of the most quoted passages of Scripture.

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)

The fact that we quote those beautiful words in weddings to make romantic commitments (and not to our friends or mothers-in-law) shows you just how focused we are on romantic love over all other kinds.

  • When tragedy strikes and Ruth and Naomi are left without a man to provide for them, Ruth doesn’t cower under the curse of women’s status or lack of it in her culture.  She doesn’t bemoan the fact that she has no rights, or that she could be left begging on the streets, or worse.  Instead of waiting for Prince Charming to do something about her problems, she gets out and finds a solution herself, working in the fields and bringing home the bacon (or in this case, barley) to support herself and Naomi.
  • When Naomi plays matchmaker between Ruth and Boaz, the wealthy owner of the field she’s been working in, the two women are clearly the ones in control of their destinies.  Boaz agrees to their plan, but it’s most certainly the women who are writing their fairy tale ending.

Instead of mistaking the romantic relationship of this story for another “Prince Charming” situation where a man rides in on a white horse to save the helpless women, let’s consider the role Boaz plays in the story.  

When Naomi realizes that  Ruth and Boaz have become acquainted, she speaks her first positive words in the whole story after a long line of “Woe is me” negativity:

He [Boaz] is worthy of praise before Yahweh who has not abandoned his kindness to the living or the dead”  Then Naomi said, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers.” (Ruth 2:20)

Boaz is called a Kinsman-redeemer, or a “go-el” in Hebrew.  That title describes a role given by the law in Leviticus to a man who would help out a family member in distress by “redeeming” them.  

The law ofIsraeldeclared that a kinsman-redeemer was responsible to redeem a relative who had fallen on hard times and needed rescue.  This was called the Levirate law.  Look up each of these passages and write out any insights you find next to the law as described: 

1. If a family member went bankrupt and had to sell their land – the kinsman redeemer – a male relative – would buy the land back for them. (Leviticus 25:25)

2. If a family member was sold into slavery to pay a debt, a kinsman redeemer would buy them back and set them free. (Leviticus 25:47-49)

3. If a woman was widowed without children, a kinsman redeemer was obligated to marry them, have children, and then raise those children as if they belonged to the widow’s deceased husband in order to carry on his line.  (Deuteronomy 25:5-10) 

This last one is what we find happening in Ruth’s story.  A true gentleman, a true go-el, would marry a widow of his closest male relative and give inheritance to those children even though they’d be considered the children of the deceased.  If you’re a woman, and you’re married, think about this for a moment.  If your husband passed away, and you had to marry his closest male relative, who would that be? That’s a thought worth shuddering about, isn’t it?

The Kinsman-redeemer was someone highly valued by family members because they could count on him to come to the rescue when they were desperate.  Besides being a human agent with responsibility to help family members, a Kinsman-redeemer was also definitely an instrument of God.  While the human kinsman-redeemer is working in plain sight, the true Redeemer is the one working behind the scenes.  Scripture is clear about the fact that God is the ultimate Kinsman-redeemer.  Any human person who takes on that role is simply showing the world how God comes to our rescue when we need his help.  Scripture uses the word “go-el” to describe God as redeemer.

Ruth and Naomi’s story makes it clear that Boaz is not the prince here.  He may be the go-el redeeming them from a life of poverty and hunger, but God is the great go-el behind the scenes, redeeming their story of grief and brokenness, bringing light where before there was only darkness.

The romance in the book of Ruth is a story with a hidden hero.  The true Redeemer peeks from behind the scenes, waiting to see if we can find Him whispering an invitation through the story.  Transfixed by the happy marriage of Boaz and Ruth, we just might find ourselves caught up in our own love story, one with the Kinsman-redeemer who is at work to claim what is lost. He will not stop until we are found.

Let’s be clear. You do need a rescuer, but you will not find Him in the personal ads.  And when rescue that is needed arrives or romance of the most true kind blooms here in this life, He is always the one behind them.  He was at work in Ruth’s story all along, romancing her through every circumstance and saving grace.  The ultimate goal of every positive turn in her story is that she would recognize and praise Him, not just the prince he sent in to save the day so that He could save the soul.

Move over Snow White.  This is the kind of fairy-tale I want my little Princess Kate to find captivating.  One she can build dreams on.  One where her friendships are some of the greatest loves of her life.  One where her own ingenuity solves the problems of the day instead of waiting on someone to ride in on a white horse. One where all of her earthly needs are met through a Redeemer who is sufficient to rescue her from any situation.  And when the white horse comes, may the man on it know and follow the same Redeemer, so that the sunset they ride off into together is the one and only true Happily Ever After.

Sweet dreams, Sweet Kate

Job 19:25
I know that my Redeemer (go-el) lives,
    and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.

I’d love to hear your comments.
Did you grow up idolizing a fairy tale?
Do you encourage your daughters to participate in princess paraphernalia?
Are there certain stories you read/tell/show your children now because you want to create a different dream for them?

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