Moments of helplessness seldom fill us with gratitude. But United Methodist pastor, author and Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary the Rev. Jessica LaGrone, reminds us that Jesus' miracles often met people in their most desperate moments. When viewed that way, our difficult times can serve as an opportunity to invite God to work powerfully in our lives also. God doesn’t bring the difficult situations into our lives, but meets us in them.
The Rev. Jessica LaGrone
- Read Jessica's author bio at Abingdon Press.
- Purchase Inside the Miracles of Jesus from Abingdon Press.
- Learn more about Asbury Theological Seminary, where the Rev. Lagrone serves as Dean of the Chapel.
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- Rev. LaGrone talks about two apps she uses to help keep her spirit in shape:
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This episode posted on November 8, 2019.
Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communication and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
I am so excited to be back speaking those words to you again! We have been on an unscheduled hiatus for the last several months. Our team has been diligently working on a redesign of the UMC.org website, which is scheduled to be launched in early December, so be on the lookout for that.
For 2020, we’ve been talking about some really exciting things for Get Your Spirit in Shape, and actually they are going to begin for Christmas this year. For the weeks of Advent, we are going to put out an episode every week, hopefully to make up a little bit for the time we’ve been away.
But don’t worry. We will continue to have the same conversations you have been enjoying for the past three years!
Like this episode today, where I got to talk with the Rev. Jessica LaGrone. Rev. LaGrone is the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary and the author of new book called Inside the Miracles of Jesus: Discovering the power of desperation. Here’s my conversation with the Rev. Jessica LaGrone.
Joe Iovino: Jessica LaGrone, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Jessica: Thank you. I’m glad to talk to you today.
Joe: Tell me about your interest in the miracles of Jesus. Where did that begin?
Jessica: It actually really began out of a season of my own life where I was wanting to know that God was still the powerful God who had worked these miracles on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. I think this isn’t an uncommon theme, but I go through seasons sometimes where I am just hungry to know that God is not just…not just real but powerful. And because we don’t sort of see miracles in the exact same way that maybe the disciples did while Jesus was standing right in front of them, I, for one, get a little hungry for that and just desire to know more about God. So I went through a period where I was just really searching for God to show up in my life in that kind of way. It was a period where I was…. Oh, I call it ‘doomed and desperate.’ To have the phases that we go through where you’re just looking for God to do something really amazing. And that God me turning into the Gospels and looking at the miracles of Jesus, and really what I found I wanted to share with other people. So it’s in a book.
Joe: Excellent. One of the things I noticed quickly, I actually believe it was on page 1. You say something about how you were a scientist by training. Tell me more about that.
Jessica: Sure. I have a degree in Biology. That’s my undergraduate degree. And I did a lot of lab work in college. So a lot of, you know, make a hypothesis, do an experiment, prove it. Can you repeat the experiment? That’s really the only thing that makes it for real. I also had a lot of experience kind of in the medical field around that time. So really the scientific part of me has always kind of longed to know what was going on during those miracles. Like, if I could just have a pressure gauge at the moment where Moses parts the sea, I would know what happened.
Jessica: If I could just take a little chemical sample of the water turned into wine, I could get it. So I…. Sometimes I find myself really approaching the miraculous things in Scripture as a scientist and wondering the ‘how’—how did God make this happen? What is going on here scientifically and God just reminds me again and again, there are really not answers for that. And maybe that’s even just the definition of a miracle. There’s no answer for that. And he keeps pointing me not to the how, but to the Who, and saying, “I did this. This is about me and you connecting with me; not about you figuring something out,” which is a measure of me looking for control when I’m trying to do that. But miracles are about things that are out of our control.
Joe: It made you come at the miracles in the book a little bit differently than maybe we typically do. Lots of us come at it the way you just described—kind of the how. Could his have possibly happened? But instead you took the perspective of the recipient, if I…
Joe: …the person for whom the miracle was done.
Jessica: That right. So I…. Once I started going through, I go on these little spiritual quests sometimes where I’m just… I’m looking for an answer. I’m on discovery somehow. And as I went through the Gospels I started marking each miracle with a little ‘M’ in the margin. And I was really focusing on the moment…what is the moment the miracle happened. Where is it? And I would try to put my little “M” right next to that. And something else happened while I was doing that. And it was that I started noticing the person or people for whom the miracle was performed. They would come along right before that “M” and they all had something in common. They were all desperate. They were all just at the end of their rope. They had no way of helping themselves. They turned to God in desperation. And I began marking that with a “D” just a sense of desperation. And if I go through that Bible that I used at the time I can show you the margins, just over and over again. It’s a pattern: “D” and then “M”. Desperation followed by a miracle. So I began focusing on who are these people? How did they get to rock bottom here? And how God is really responding to our desperation, almost like a storm moving in after a low pressure system. Something moves out, which is our ability to help or control or do anything. And then God’s power moves in to help. And I thought that was great because it applied to my own life. I thought, well, I feel desperate at times. I need God’s help. And I certainly know other people who do. And this is a God who loves to help desperate people.
Joe: At one point in the book you call desperation a gift. And I know the times that I’ve been desperate, it certainly doesn’t feel like a gift to me. Can you say more about that?
Jessica: Yes. Yes, I do. It’s one of the most ironic gifts, isn’t it? Because no one asks for it. No one goes looking for it. But I can actually say that the times in my life when I’ve experienced God most clearly have been times when I knew I could not in my own strength really even continue on. There was a problem I couldn’t solve, an issue I was going through. And I really turned to God out of my own desperation. And that became a gift because when we turn to God, you know, when you seek the Lord with all your heart you will find him. Well what makes you seek him with all your heart? Usually because something…some part of your life has broken down. I’m really careful not to say that desperation…that it’s like a coin in a vending machine that buys us a miracle. It’s not that God is waiting for us to really be desperate before he helps us. I think it’s more that we aren’t turning to God for help until we’re really desperate enough to seek him. So…. The block, I think, is usually…for me it’s usually on my side. And when I turn to God and realize, Oh, he’s right there. That’s when I really see a break through.
Joe: Yeah, I can understand that. Not that this is a good pattern. But oftentimes we get to the end of what we think we can do and then go to God looking for the miracle. You talk about the miracles. Each chapter of the book is like a category of miracles, for lack of a better word. The first one is about abundance. Tell me about miracles of abundance.
Jessica: It all starts with the water into wine. It’s the very first miracle that Jesus performs. In the Gospel of John he’s just launching his public ministry. And this wine…it’s not like he brought out a little wine glass. There are these, you know, just these huge stone water jars that are…they’re really for purification. And he turns all of this water into wine. It’s gallons and gallons and gallons, that the servants, in that case, had to draw this water from somewhere—from a well or a river, to bring it up and then he produced all of that. So that abundance, that…and, you know, when we’re in situations in the Scripture, and there’s leftovers. Right? It just shows “God can do….” Ephesians 3:20 is my favorite verse, “… far more than all you ask or imagine.” God is not about just handing you the tiny little refill that you’d been asking for. But he has abundantly more than we know. And that blows me away every time, especially the ‘more than you ask or imagine’ part ‘cause, I don’t know about you, but I can imagine a lot. And I ask for a lot. And I think those abundant miracles are Jesus’s way of saying, “I have more available than you ever dreamed of.” So while desperation for something we know we need makes us go to him, often God responds in the overflowing way that we never anticipated.
Joe: One of the things that you’re careful to say is that God’s not just in this mode of granting wishes. It’s not about the stuff or the situation as much as it is a pointer to God, to get our lives pointed toward God.
Jessica: God doesn’t want our lives to get down into the desperate situations. But he definitely knows how to respond when we cry out to him from those places. So there’s a real…there’s a real trade-off there. You mentioned, you know, it’s not that this is a pattern that we’re seeking. We’re not just saying, Oh, how can I find…how can I find the bottom of the barrel so that I can find God?
Jessica: I think what happens when we remember the desperate situations in our lives, this is why God calls us to give testimony and to remember. He keeps telling the Israelites, you know, “Remember when you were slaves.” They’re not slaves anymore, but he wants them to keep a memory of it and how God helps them. And that’s true for us, too, that we need God on our best day just as much as we did on our worst day. And so if we can really keep this sort of on-going record of God’s help in our lives, then really even on a day when I am not desperate, when I am not…my life isn’t desperate, I can have the kind of heart that I did in that moment, and still say, “Lord, I really know I need you because I remember this moment when you helped me.”
Joe: That kind of leads us into the second category of miracles that you write about, are the miracles on the water. I think it’s what you call them. And you talk about Jesus meeting the disciples in their fear.
Jessica: Yes. Yeah, there’s a lot of fear. I mean, if you go through and count all the ‘do not fear,’ ‘do not be afraid,’ there are a lot of them. And there’s a good reason for that ‘cause people are afraid. So those famous miracles on the water with the storms and the disciples crying out in fear. There’s a couple of storms. The story of Jesus walking on the water is a storm as well. And then the one that we know so well with Jesus calming a storm. In both of those situations there’s a lot of fear. And we know those storms were bad because, you know, if Peter is afraid, this is terrible because he’s been on a boat his whole life. And we certainly can name situations in our lives when we’ve been afraid too, whether because of physical moments of danger, or just, you know, people we love are in tough spots. And we’re crying out for them. So I love the calming of the storm story because Jesus is so clearly compassionate in that situation. And that’s a repeated pattern. That’s what that response to desperation shows us, is that God loves to respond with compassion. And for these disciples he doesn’t chastise them for being so afraid in the storm. He just says, “I’m with you,” and “be still.” And I sort of interpret that as he’s saying ‘be still’ to the storm. But also to the disciples. You know, calm down. I’m here. It’s gonna be okay. And I…
Joe: I whole heartedly agree with that. That’s so funny. I believe that thought, that the command to be still may have been…the disciples are at least overhearing that.
Joe: Like, relax a little bit. It’s okay.
Jessica: And honestly some of the worst things that we go through are some of the anxiety that we feel is not because there’s an immediate sense of storm, or something trying to take out our physical lives. But there’s a lot…in the world there is a lot of turmoil that we all go through. So it’s just comforting to me to know that Jesus has compassion in those situations.
Joe: I think I heard you say the disciples’ fear. And in our fear at times is understandable. And Jesus addresses the fear. He comes into the fear.
Jessica: Yes. Yes, he does. Right. No, he’s not…. One of the greatest things about that storm story is that he’s right there in the boat with them. And we use that phrase all the time, that we’re in the same boat with somebody. ‘Cause there it’s very literal actually. This situation that causes them fear, God is in it with them. And when they’re crying out, “Don’t you even care if we die aboard?” His presence with them, really answers that question. So, he does. He enters into our needs, our fears, and Jesus coming to earth in the person of a first century Jewish rabbi is this beautiful one…that it’s also true in all our other moments, that he shows up, that he never leaves us alone, which is glorious.
Joe: Yeah, that idea that Jesus is with us. And one of the things you talk about in this section is one of my favorite topics as well. It’s about rest. In fact, it’s one of my favorite topics because I’m so bad at it and I need to get better. And taking the time to stop. Can you say more about that?
Jessica: Sure. I mean, well, it’s clear. It’s so spelled out in the Ten Commandments and the desire for us to Sabbath. It’s…. One of the things I love in the creation story is people on the sixth day and then rest on the seventh day. So the very first thing he does with them, the very first full day he has with them is spent in rest. And it’s just this great picture of how God loves to rest and enjoy being with these people that he loves. And yet we have so much trouble with that. I do. Most people I know have trouble with that. You know, if God is so all powerful and yet can take a day to rest there, on day seven, then why do we think that we need to keep going ad nauseam. Really, ad nauseam. Really until we make ourselves ill. And it happens so often. I work with seminary students. And the way they just…. They’re so eager to make good grades. They work fulltime. They have families. They…. Many of them are just…have so many activities going on. And the first thing to go is sleep. I see it over and over again. They just may…well, I’ll just skimp on sleep. That does not end well. It doesn’t go well. You know, all of the other things in our lives start to slip when we’re…it’s really one of our most basic needs. So, for God to emphasize that again and again, this need for us to rest, it’s not like we ever grow beyond it. It’s not like we get to, you know, the real Christian discipleship. The super disciples are the ones who don’t have to rest, right? No. We’re all of us called into that and to rest with him. And it just reminds us he is God and we’re not.
Joe: Another of the categories is one that lots of us are familiar with, is that Jesus does healings.
Jessica: Yes. Again and again. And that really help…I think there’s…. Whenever any of us are sick or when someone’s seriously ill, always those questions come up about, like, why is this happening, why do bad things happen, why doesn’t God protect from this? I think one of the things you see in the life of Jesus is where there is sickness, he brings healing. There is never a case where Jesus inflicts sickness. And that’ seems so obvious. And yet I think today a lot of people do struggle with the why. Why is this person I love ill? God, don’t you love them as much as I do? And I think one of the very visual answers for that is Jesus’s role as healer. Is the fact that, you know, where there’s death Jesus brings resurrection. Where there’s sickness he brings healing. Where there’s sadness he brings comfort. Where there’s tears he helps people, tells them not to be afraid, helps to calm them. That’s the character of God. So, you know, we get all sort of caught up in our circumstances and wonder at God’s characters. For me those healing miracle stories helps me understand better, helps spell out what God’s good and perfect will is for folks, which is to bring healing not sickness.
Joe: In that conversation you also talk about community and the importance of having people around you in times when you’re weak, then there are others who can offer you strength.
Jessica. Um hum. Yes. And…. Somebody told me one time if you look…if you look through Scripture and try to count the number of times that God acts without using a human vehicle there are very, very few times. Really. You have to….. He loves to work through people. And he loves to work through community. And when even, you know, as you continue after the Gospels in the New Testament there…it’s all the early church. And it’s all the community of God, the body of Christ, coming together. And I don’t know much about your story, Joe. But mine is that I know God because of God’s people. God’s people who have loved me well. And they’re not perfect. And I’ve never been part of a perfect church. If I were still looking for one I probably never would be a member of a church. But the places where I have encountered God the most are the places where God’s people have loved me well. And that has been honestly a real source of miracle in my own life. I grew up with a lot of transitions in my own family, a lot of sort of divorce, and remarriage, moving, that kind of thing. And the most stable thing in my life was the church. And it really made me realize, like, this is a source of God’s hope and God’s help. Even as a child, even as young…. I became a Christian when I was 9 years old. And a lot of that was the community that really helped me see God’s love.
Joe: You know, I still can remember Sunday school teachers and youth leaders and pastors, parents and family members who were such a blessing in the ways that they shared God’s love, not only in what they said, but also times and the way they treated us.
Jessica: Right. And just how they acted. Like, sometimes when I’m in a tough spot and I think, Oh, my goodness. How do I respond to this difficult conversation? I can actually picture someone in my mind, you know, a pastor or a leader who I’ve seen in a touch situation. I think, Well, I know how they would respond, and how they would show grace in this situation. I can just see them stepping in. It really helps me to see it for myself. So, you know, God really prepares us for those moments through the people he puts in our lives.
Joe: Yeah, and it’s wonderful at times to think back on those people and give God the thanks for having them in our lives at the right time.
Jessica: I agree.
Joe: So, we’re continuing to talk about your book, Inside the Miracles of Jesus, and the next section that you talk about in the book is the two-for-one miracle. And I have to tell you which I just found really funny is that when I read your illustration of the two-for-one story being ‘The Princess Bride’ I was actually using a Princes Bride bookmark…
Joe: I was reading your book. So I had this moment…. Oh, my goodness, like, this…you know, wonderful kind of coincidental thing that happened.
Jessica: That’s amazing.
Joe: Really. Yeah, it’s one of my stories, as well, that I go back to from time to time sort of watching ‘The Princess Bride.’ So for those who haven’t read the book yet, tell me how those two things kind of go together. …sort of a weird transition.
Jessica: Right. Well, ‘Princess Bride’ has been one of those movies that I loved as a kid and young adult. And now I get to introduce it to my own kids. So, letting my own kids watch that for the first time was really just an experience of seeing their reactions to it. ‘Princess Bride’ opens with a grandfather reading a story to a little boy. And then most of the movie is the story he’s reading. But occasionally it goes…it goes back and forth to this grandfather and the little boy. And the story he reads is a story of true love and what you kind of get by the end of it is that the real true love story is the love this grandfather is showing, even when his grandson maybe would rather play a video game than have a book read to him. So this…these two stories, it’s really like a frame with a picture inside of it. You know, you’ve got…they both sort of tell the same story. And there’s this wonderful miracle story where Jesus really does 2 miracles all in one story. But it’s the story of the woman with the hemorrhage, sometimes called the story of the woman with the issue of blood. And she is in a crowd. But at the same time Jesus is being called away to heal a little girl who’s sick. The little girl is 12 years old. The woman has been sick for 12 years. There’s some really interesting parallels there, and really some interesting ways that they’re opposites, too, because the woman is an outcast; the little girl is a treasure, a child. And in the middle story where Jesus heals this woman and then, you know, looks at her and he calls her ‘daughter.’ And I just love that part of the story because the man who’s come to get Jesus is asking to heal his daughter. And Jesus is looking at this woman and saying this man who’s so desperate to have his little girl whom he loves healed, he loves her. And I just want you to know I love you like that. I love you like a daughter. And I can’t imagine how that changed her life. Her healing changed her life. But the words from Jesus that really restored her into the family of faith and to the community around her, must have made a huge change for her. So that’s such a fun story. And when you start to see the connections…. I used to read that as 2 separate stories. But it starts with the 12-year-old little girl, goes to the healing of the woman and then returns to the story of the little girl. So they really were meant to be sandwiched together. And I love Scripture, you know. You kind of even diagram out sometimes, like, how do these stories…what are they supposed to tell us just by how they’re written? That one has all these little hidden clues in it.
Joe: I love that idea of compassion—the compassion that Jesus has to say to the woman with the issue of blood is the outcast. And when he calls her daughter that just says, You’re one of my children. And I guess that’s a reminder for all of us as well, of who we are even in our desperate moments.
Jessica: That’s right. How God sees each and every person. And she is really in that story the lowest of the outcasts. Financially, she’s out of money. Physically, she’s out of strength. She’s been to every doctor and spiritually she’s not supposed to be there. She is not even supposed to touch other people because of her uncleanness. So if Jesus can call the lowest outcast of the crowd ‘daughter,’ that just says to the rest of us, this is…this is how he feels about us. Jesus’s heart for you is one of such compassion that you can never get to a place so low that he won’t love you.
Joe: And that brings us to the last section of the book where you call…you talk about Jesus, the Great Miracle. Tell me more about that.
Jessica: It really sort of loops back around to that idea you brought up at the beginning where I sort of started out looking for answers in miracles, and thinking maybe I could solve them, right? As a scientist, just maybe…just maybe I could say, “Oh, here’s how God did it.” And all of it led me not to an answer, but to Jesus himself. And so I wanted to bring that back out in the last chapter and just say that Jesus is the greatest miracle of all the miracles, that he performs miracles, but that he himself is this grand miracle. The fact that God would come to earth in human flesh to humble himself in some ways in order to be in one place even though he’s in all places; for the one’s immortal to be subject to pain and death, for all the things that Jesus entered into in order to identify with us as a person and still be God fully, it’s just…. There is no end to that miracle. And I think why it’s the grand miracle for me is I may not get to see water turned into wine. I may not get to see some of these stories…. I may not get to see 5000 people fed with just a little boy’s lunch. But I get Jesus. And when all of these folks are desperate for something, for healing or you know, in the situations where they’re desperate for food, in the situations where, like in the water into wine story they were about to be really outcasts in their community for breaking the social contract at a weddings, where the groom’s family was to provide wine for people and food, they’re desperate for something. And they get their something. But what they get is Jesus. And he’s even better than what they’ve been asking for. So I get desperate. I cry out to God. I know I have needs. I know everybody does. But what I really need is Jesus and he never withholds that. He is always the answer, and always part of the answer for us.
Joe: In a lot of ways this book is about that relationship and our relationship with Jesus more than about the stories and the miracles themselves.
Jessica: That’s right. That’s right. I really…. I went back to…. ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ was one hymn we sang over and over again when I was growing up. And it, you know, it describes God as the merciful and mighty. And I think I thought the miracles were about mighty. They were about this mighty powerful God. But what I came to is that it was about the merciful God first of all. That’s the thing that we all need. We all need to know, that the Lord is merciful. We can turn to him. He will answer us because he loves us, not out of a sense of obligation, not out of a sense that we’ve done it all right. You know, we’ve figured out the combination of good works just to make him love us. We don’t have to make him do anything. That mercy is his overpowering character. And that is not what I expected to find when I went into the miracle stories. But God’s character never changes. And so in every story about God you find who he is and that, I think, is just at the core of who God is. It’s his love and compassion and mercy for us.
Joe: And what a great summary of what you’ve written in the ways in which God is moving in us and continuing to love us. Before I let you go I have one question that I ask of every guest of Get Your Spirit in Shape, and it’s simply this: What’s something that you do that helps keep your spirit in shape?
Jessica: I’m a stage of life right now…. My kids are 9 and 6 years old. And they are into everything. Right? So we’re driving to soccer practice. We’re driving to piano lessons. We’re starting Girl Scouts and got everything going on. I know a lot of people identify with this, but I just have really thought, Lord, winter is going to be the quiet moment that I have where the clouds are gonna part and suddenly there’s nothing happening and I can just sit down with you in a quiet moment. That is not how my life is shaped in this season. And I don’t know if it ever will be. But I pray someday…. I have really been looking in for ways to use technology to find moments with God because I don’t always have my devotional book with me, but I’ve got my phone. So there’s some apps that I’ve been turning to. One is called ‘Pray as you go’ and it plays a devotional, sort of like a lectio divina, if people know what that is. But it plays a scripture, read out loud, multiple times, and asks you to reflect on it.
Joe: Oh, wow.
Jessica: But another one is called, ‘My daily office,’ which is really interesting…. It’s just a form of something that’s called, morning and evening prayer, which is a really ancient form of prayer from The Book of Common Prayer. It doesn’t read it aloud. You read it on the screen. But, you know, if I am in carline waiting for my kids, I’ve got 5 minutes. And I can, instead of scrolling through social media, it gives me a moment that reminds me to say, Hey, you wanted to do this sometime today; maybe this is your moment. So it’s more finding the moments within the other moments for me right now. But that … that has been so nourishing for me, to be able to know that God is in every moment, too. I’m always waiting for a kid somewhere, right? So, I can either use that time to catch up on Facebook or, you know, I’ve been trying to remind myself more, Hey, we can redeem the time, like John Wesley did. And you know, the phone can be a distraction. But it can also have these tools, I think, that really help us to connect with God.
Joe: That’s fantastic. And I’ll be sure to put the links on the episode piece so people can find those apps. And I’ll also put links to the book and ways that people can learn more about you. I am so grateful for this time and for this conversation that we got to have today. Thank you so much, Jessica, for being part of Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Jessica: Thank you. It’s really great to talk with you today.
Joe: That was the Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary and the author of Inside the Miracles of Jesus: Discovering the power of desperation – a book I’m hoping you will pick up because there is so much more there than Jessica and I had time to talk about in that conversation.
To learn more about Rev. LaGrone, the apps she mentions, or to order her book, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape titled, “The Gift of Desperation.”
Also, we would love to have you help us get the word out that we’re back! If you enjoy these conversations please tell your friends, neighbors, the people at church, and social media followers. And if you are so inclined, give us a good review on Apple Podcasts – those good reviews move us up in searches and help more people find us.
Finally, thanks for listening. We will be back soon – I promise! – with another conversation to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.