Sometimes life doesn't turn out the way we planned. We begin pursuing our goals, and later find God calling us in a different direction. When that happens, we might feel like we somehow missed a divine signal, or that our first efforts were a "mistake." But as Bishop Sharma Lewis shares, "God utilizes everything," even the difficult parts of our lives.
Through a compilation of clips from our "Meet a Bishop" conversations, host Joe Iovino shares how our bishops' early experiences and interests shaped them as people of faith. As they talk about their initial pursuits, which include food technology, medicine, law and weapons, we learn that God uses even our difficult experiences to form us into disciples of Jesus Christ.
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This episode posted on December 18, 2018.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
A little over a year ago, we started a new segment on Get Your Spirit in Shape. We call them our “Meet a Bishop” episodes, where I get to introduce you to one of our United Methodist bishops. We have these fun conversations because I don’t ask them anything difficult. There are no state-of-the-church questions. There aren’t any political questions, or even many theological questions.
Instead, I ask them things like when and where they first went to church, who the important people were in their early faith formation. I ask what they do to relax and unwind, and how they keep their spirits in shape.
Along the way, I’ve learned some really great stuff. Like that Bishop Harald Rückert of Germany plays the saxophone! I learned that Bishop Laurie Haller of Iowa is a church musician too, and that she is also an endurance athlete who has competed in 10 Boston Marathons and three Ironman triathlons.
I learned that Bishop Saenz of the Great Plains area played college football, that Bishop Ken Carter of Florida who serves as the president of the Council of Bishops is a baseball fan, and that Bishop Fairley like to play basketball.
Bishop Fairley: I’ve still got a set-shot. I can’t dunk anymore, but…
Joe: Well, that implies that you used to be able to dunk.
Bishop Fairley: Oh, yeah. I did.
Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson told me that she is not much of a sports fan, but she loves musical theater so much that’s she’s thought about how much fun it would be to have a fantasy casting league where one would cast any actor in any part in any musical. I’m not sure how anyone would keep score, but it sounds like fun!
In the conversations, I’ve heard about Sunday School teachers, grandparents, and pastors who helped shape the bishops’ lives when they were growing up. But the answers I have grown most fond of are when I learn about the bishops’ calls to ministry, especially about the careers they pursued or considered before going to seminary.
One of my favorite answers comes from Bishop Eduard Khegay of Eurasia. He was born and raised in the for Soviet Union that dissolved while he was in college. We got a chance to talk with him while he was visiting the Wisconsin Annual Conference.
When we asked about his call to ministry, he told us about what he was studying in college…
Bishop Khegay: I was studying for hydraulic engineering in my studies at the technical university. In fact, part of my study was nuclear weapons and particularly nuclear weapons missiles of the United States Army.
So I studied classified material. We signed a contract of not sharing this knowledge with anybody for 50 years. So we were learning the hydraulic systems of U.S. missiles, and we were trained to build better missiles to protect our country.
As you know well we had a cold war at that time. So my mindset was U.S. is our enemy and we need to protect our country. So I thought that was kind of cool. I would be working for the… developing weapons and protect our land and things like that. But when I met U.S. missionary everything has changed because I realized people don’t want to kill us or they don’t hate us. It’s just politics, of course. Just like today. But people are people and they want to have families and they want to build churches and have a happy life, peaceful life. And so I thought, I’m going to work for peace rather than for war.
While studying nuclear weapons, he met a missionary and everything changed for him.
Now not every bishop’s story is quite so dramatic, but many talk about a transformative moment that changed the trajectory of their lives.
Bishop Rückert of Germany, for example, studied food technology — the science of producing and preserving food in industrial ways. His focus in school was on dairy: making cheese, yogurt, and things like that, but he knew something was not quite right.
Bishop Rückert: I prayed to God to lead me, his path, and show me his way, but I didn’t get an answer. And then a good friend told me, “Well, if you want to get an answer by God, you have to take the first steps alone and then God can lead you.” Then I made a decision out of not really knowing what to do as a Christian, and I went to university studying food technology.
Later, looking back, it was the first step into ministry, but I didn’t realize that at that time. Because when I studied food technology only one year, and then I had a very personal experience, spiritual experience. I really felt called by God to change from technology to theology, not to provide food for the body, but to provide bread of life. That was my personal calling. And I quit the study course food technology at university, and applied for ministry.
Bishop Rückert went from providing food for the body, to providing the bread of life. That’s such a beautiful thought.
When Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson of North Georgia graduated law school she got the dream job, a position with a big law firm, right away. But the expectations were to be focused on law 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and she says she just wasn’t there. So, she got a job as a law clerk — which gave her a little more time to explore what might be next for her.
Bishop Sue: After I began the exploration phase there was a stockbroker in town giving chapel services to the homeless at Metropolitan Ministries in downtown Tampa. He invited me to be his new partner in that task. Every week we would host a chapel service for homeless folks. I saw the Holy Spirit at work. I saw their lives transformed. I saw that there was a lot more that Jesus Christ offered than our legal system offered. That kind of shaped my trajectory into seminary and into ministry as a full-time vocation.
Bishop Khegay transitioned to working for peace after studying war. Bishop Rückert talked about providing food for the soul after learning how to make food for the body. And Bishop Sue had a realization that there was a lot more that Jesus offered than our legal system ever could.
And there is Bishop Sharma Lewis of Virginia who studied medicine.
Bishop Lewis: I then pursued medicine, biology. I have a bachelor's and a master's in biology and I minored in chemistry. I pursued that for years, but still active in the church. Then after I graduated, I applied to medical school, and applied actually three times. Every time…. The first two times I was wait-listed. I got on a waiting list but never got in.
At the crossroads, not sure where to turn, she had a conversation with her aunt who was a pastor.
Bishop Lewis: She said, “I really feel that you have a call upon your life.” And I remember saying to her, “Not you too!” and she said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Do I have a sign on my head that says ‘Reverend’?” And she was like, “Why do you say that?” I said, “Because people tell me that all the time!”
And then she told me this:
Bishop Lewis: I tell people that I really feel that God utilizes everything and that I feel like, being called from biology to theology not only do I work with the body, God is calling me to go from working with the body to working with the soul. As I say in theology, the s-o-u-l.
Bishop Lewis experienced a similar transition to the others: From working with the body to working with the soul.
God utilizes everything
One of the things I have learned from my conversations with the bishops is summed up in the words of Bishop Lewis, “God utilizes everything.”
As I reflected on these moments of transformation for our bishops, I was reminded of the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis and how he talks about his journey toward the end of his life.
You may remember that Joseph’s life was full of ups and downs. He went from favorite son, to being thrown down a well and sold into slavery by his brother. He went from working as a beloved servant, to being tossed in jail on trumped up charges. He went from rising to prominence as a leader in Egypt, to seeing his country and family suffer from hunger and poverty.
But when he looks back on his life in Genesis 50:20, Joseph says this to his brothers, “You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as God’s doing today.”
Notice that Joseph doesn’t blame God for the bad things that happened in his live. He lays the blame squarely where it belongs, at his brothers’ feet. They did horrible things to him. But he also knows where the journey led him.
Just to be clear, I want to be sure to point out that Joseph only says this in hindsight. He doesn’t say it from the pit that his brothers threw him into and left him for dead. He doesn’t say this when they sell him into slavery and he is caravanning to Egypt. He doesn’t say this from his prison cell after being accused of an affair with Potiphar’s wife.
In the midst of it, it was awful, and I think every one of the bishops would agree. I hear hints of the pain as they talk about the difficult parts of their journey: dissatisfied with their chosen career, not getting into medical school, struggling to find what’s next, and feeling like their world is falling apart.
But on the other side, years later, they can see what they took away from that time. What they learned and how they use those skills today. How God uses even those parts of their lives that weren’t what they would have signed up for to make them better in their work as pastors and bishops.
There were other bishops who talked about this transformation as well. Bishop Saenz shared how he had worked as a teacher with the kids that were considered “difficult.” Bishop Fairley shared what it was like to grow up in abject poverty and how that has shaped his ministry. Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of Wisconsin shared what it was like converting to Christianity when his family was studying Buddhism and Neo-Confucianism, and how that shape his lifelong journey in ecumenical ministries.
One who said this very clearly is Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi of Western Pennsylvania. Before entering pastoral ministry, she worked for 17 years as a school psychologist. When she described her first career and then later talked about what it was like to be a bishop, I saw some parallels. Listen and see what you think. Here’s who she described what it was like to be a school psychologist.
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: working with kids who others had written off, working with parents who were struggling to figure out how to find the appropriate resources for their kids… and for me to point out to them the strengths that their child had that they needed to build on and to help them not focus on their child’s weaknesses or their child’s disability, but help them more to focus on their child’s abilities, and for them to see then what the possibility and potential was for their child. I really enjoyed doing that kind of work.
Now here’s what she says about her work as a pastor and bishop…
Bishop Moore-Koikoi: As a bishop, a lot of what I do is making sure that we are providing an atmosphere for people to first recognize their gifts and then to live into the full potential of their gifts so that God’s kingdom might be built…
And one of the things that I get to do as a bishop that I didn’t always get to do as a school psychologist is to be able to point out to folks where God is in their story, as I’m hearing their story. To be able to point out those places where God showed up and really made a difference and helped their story turn this way or that way. I get to do that as a bishop and that’s really rewarding.
It's interesting to me that both as a school psychologist and as a bishop, she has provided an atmosphere for people to (1) recognize their gifts and then (2) help them live into the full potential of their gifts. And as a bonus, as a pastor and bishop she now gets to help people recognize where God is at work in our lives — even at times when it doesn’t seem like it.
Bishop Lewis put it this way, “God utilizes everything.” Joseph said it like this, “God produced something good” even out of something bad. Or to paraphrase Bishop Rückert’s friend who gave him advice when he wasn’t sure what to do, “God can use even our missteps to do great things in our lives and the lives of others.” We just have to be willing to go.
Maybe you are in that place today, wondering what the new year will bring for you. Maybe you have your life on pause, waiting for a “clear sign” from God about what’s next. Or maybe you are living with regret. Why did I choose this path? If only I had done things differently?
Take it from the bishops: Nothing we do is wasted by God. God utilizes everything when we are willing to allow God to continue to form and use us, to be shaped a little more every day as a follower of Jesus.
This is our last episode for 2018, and I want to give the final word to Bishop Khegay. He shared a piece of advice he learned a student of hydraulic engineering, and I think it’s great advice for us going into the new year.
Bishop Khegay: The training in my university was excellent, I think. We had the best brains in the country. One of the professors in my university said, “You will forget all the formulas you study now. You will forget all the things that we teach you; but one thing you need to be able to do when you come to a new place. You need to figure out how the system works and how you can improve it.”
I think, “Man, this is very much just like a church.” You come to a new place, local church or district or conference, and you figure out how it works and then your task is to improve it.
May you and I be people who show up, who learn how the system works, and seek to make it better — in our homes, in our churches, in our communities, at work, school, wherever we find ourselves. And may we remember that God can use everything in our lives and bring something good from it.
Thanks for listening.
I’ll be back in 2019 with more conversations with our bishops and others to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.