Archive for June, 2013

The Relative We Don’t Talk About


Jesse Lee

My wife’s maiden name was Lee. Her tribe is directly related to Jason Lee, the first Methodist missionary in the Oregon Territory. The family is justifiably proud of this connection. Jason’s branch of the family was in Stanstead, Canada. As a young adult Jason taught school and served a nearby Methodist church. His interest in mission work eventually led to a connection with General William Clark (of Lewis and Clark). He was chosen to be part of a team sent to the Flathead Indians. Jason Lee’s team did remarkable, groundbreaking work in the Oregon Territory. Willamette University is a direct result of his ministry and a good place to learn the full story of his pioneering work.

Recently I learned the story of another Methodist named Lee. I stumbled upon a website called the Jesse Lee Project. The Project grew out of a conversation between some New England United Methodist pastors. One had recently talked with some “twenty-somethings” who’d made a difficult decision to step away from the organized church. They found it outdated, boring, and irrelevant. These “twenty-somethings” sought a church that was authentic, focused, creative, and open to “out-of-the-box” approaches to ministry. Another pastor in that group recalled the story of Jesse Lee, a pioneer Methodist missionary in New England. He was one of those focused, “out-of-the-box” characters who might mentor us on our 21st-century mission field. For example:

1)   When the Revolutionary War broke out, eighteen-year-old Jesse Lee declared himself a Christian pacifist. After serving a short jail term for his stand, he spent the rest of his military service in the noncombatant wagon service.

2)   After the war, Jesse met and grew close to Francis Asbury, one of the first bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Asbury pressured him to move toward ordination. Jesse resisted, but in 1789 he became a Licensed Local Preacher. Asbury showed up for his consecration service in elaborate clerical garb–because That’s How They Always Did It. Jesse Lee asked Asbury to change his clothes. Such formality and ceremony would alienate average Americans. His approach had to change.  Asbury agreed with Lee. He changed into simpler clothes and held a simpler service. That’s hardly the way you treat your new boss when you’re starting a new job! But on the mission field connecting with people matters more than massaging the boss’s ego!

3)   Asbury appointed Jesse Lee to the Stamford, CT circuit, along with another preacher—who never showed. Jesse didn’t wait around. He went to work establishing a Methodist presence wherever he could. One community gave him a very chilly reception. He saw no way to hold a service and begin to gather a congregation. So he hitched his horse to a tree outside the small, one room school house.   As school let out, Jesse Lee started singing his way through the hymnal. In between hymns he’d tell the children stories. Jesse and those kids had a great time together. Finally Lee asked if anyone thought his or her parents might invite him to hold a service in their homes. Nearly every child’s hand shot up. Jesse picked one. What parent could refuse such an enthusiastic request? “Please, mommy, please!” This technique became a staple in Jesse Lee’s missionary repertoire.

4)      One town council grilled Jesse relentlessly. They even asked him to speak biblical Hebrew! With supreme confidence, Jesse delivered an extended monologue in the ancient language—of Dutch! The town councilmen didn’t know the difference, and they welcomed Jesse to minister in their community.

As I said, my Lee relatives never mentioned Jesse. Maybe they don’t know about that branch of the family. (I promise I’ll do some genealogical digging—one of these days!) But neither has anyone else in my United Methodist family (in my hearing) except the Jesse Lee Project. Obviously we can’t just copy his methods. Hanging around outside a school and approaching children as he did is completely out of bounds these days! But we can still follow his lead.

  • Jesse Lee knew who he was. He stood for his convictions, even when there was a price to be paid. You may not agree with him on that particular issue. But how many eighteen-year-olds do you know who’ve wrestled through similar issues and would do jail time for their core beliefs?
  • Jesse Lee knew that people mattered more than tradition—even at the risk of offending the guardians of the tradition. So he spoke up when Francis Asbury came to his consecration way over-dressed. When Lee was ordained a deacon years later, everyone dressed very simply.
  • Jesse was talked about as a candidate for bishop. But he never had the political backing. He cared more about reaching people than about playing church politics.
  • Jesse Lee did whatever it took to reach people for Christ. He’d sit under a tree and sing and tell stories to schoolchildren. He’d travel long distances on horseback. (Francis Asbury reportedly rode 250,000 miles on horseback. One of my district superintendents claimed he’d driven that far in his six-year term as superintendent.) He kept it simple most of the time. Yet he also wrote prolifically and served as chaplain for both houses of Congress.

I suspect folks in New England where Jesse Lee started many churches still talk about him. I suspect the rest of us would do well to learn more about him. Those pastors talking about Jesse Lee were onto something. He practiced authenticity and integrity. He was clearly focused on reaching people for Christ and he’d do anything to make that happen–including what “nobody ever did” and what “the experts” say can’t be done. 

The relative we don’t talk about just might be the one we need to talk about–and listen to–very intently. What if that authenticity, honesty, missional focus, and “whatever-it-takes” conviction became the marks of our discipleship? Who knows? We might even find some of those “twenty-somethings” coming back to check us out. We might even hear them saying, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”



Going Home–Flood Journal 5

Yes, I’ve been silent for more than a month. But I’ve hardly been loafing. As April ended, so did the lease on our temporary housing. We moved out of the rental and back into our home.  The same strong hardworking friends from Chino Valley UMC who’d helped move us into our temporary quarters in early December helped us move back home. For the next few days we did a dance with the builder’s crew as things like sinks and kitchen counter-tops were finished. It was good to be home, even though we knew we had a mountain of work ahead of us. (If you missed previous installments, “Flood Journal” chronicles our return from a trip to China in mid-November to discover that a “water incident” (broken pipe) had flooded our home.)

Carson, the four-legged member of our family, may have been the happiest about going home. We had traveled the three miles back and forth between our home (The Jobsite) and our temporary housing (The Cabin) almost daily, often multiple times. Carson was always glad to be “home” (at The Jobsite). But whenever we told him to get in the car because we were leaving (for The Cabin), he would give us a look—“Are you nuts? This is our home.”  He had a point, but we left anyway.

Carson finally got his way as April ended. We moved “home” and got completely out of our rented house. The next Thursday the crew that had packed all our possessions into three 8’x20’ storage containers after The Flood came and moved everything back in. They left us with hundreds of boxes stacked (sometimes ceiling-high) approximately in the rooms where their contents had been. The next day the furniture restorer employed by our insurance company delivered the truckload of furniture he’d lovingly and skillfully brought back to life. It all fit (sort of) among the ceiling-high stacks of boxes. My sister and brother-in-law spent the weekend helping us start unpacking. By late Sunday I’d taken two pickup loads of flattened boxes to the recycler, along with a load of 12 40-gallon trash bags stuffed with packing paper from fragile items.

On Monday morning we still faced cold, harsh reality–mountains of boxes packed by total strangers! We’d needed their help, they’d done their job well, we appreciated it, along with God’s provision of the material resources to buy the house and the insurance that came through when we needed it. BUT– the boxes were labeled generically, often cryptically, hardly the way we would have done it in order to find stuff easily. After three weeks we found our silverware! A few days ago a box labeled “Office Supplies” yielded a computer printer. The printer was in perfect condition. It had all the pieces—except the power cord. It looks great sitting in my study, but it has yet to print its first page! This process has been a graduate-level course in PATIENCE! (Yes, in BOLDFACE ITALIC CAPS!) I don’t see that learning curve flattening out any time soon.

Diana and I have had a running conversation about what “Enough” means for us. As we unpack, we ask, “Where was all this stuff hiding?” and “Do we still need it?” Our present household is the product of numerous “mergers and acquisitions”. We worked and lived in different places about half of our last twenty working years, so we maintained two households. My mother lived with us for her last twelve years, so we have her things. After Dianna’s parents died (both within the last five years), we acquired some of their substantial lifetime accumulation. When I retired two years ago, we lost a room—my study at the church. All those books, papers, etc., now live at home. To make this all more interesting, Dianna’s a keeper and I’m a tosser—except when it comes to my tools! So “Enough” is an ongoing dialog.

We’re also learning endurance and perseverance. “Move-in burnout” strikes often. We don’t care how tall Box Mountain is. (Parts of our house look more like The Cardboard Range than a single peak). We’re just mentally and physically DONE! Of course those mountains don’t shrink while we’re on strike. They loom as large as ever. A couple of rooms have become choke points. The contents of those boxes came from those rooms and the movers put the boxes right back where they went. But they’re so full there’s no room to work, no room to put up shelves or bring in furniture to hold what’s in those boxes, no room even to shuffle stuff into the hall or another room to relieve the congestion. So we work through one box at a time. One of these days, we keep telling ourselves, we’ll reach the “tipping point”. Our “home-reclaiming” process will gain conclusive momentum. Then we’ll really and truly be “home”.

What is God teaching us through this process? That depends on how teachable we are. Some days, not very!

  • A) I’m learning a ton about patience. One can wait when one has to wait. Sometimes waiting improves the timing in a way we never imagined. But sometimes one has to act. The balance between waiting and acting can be tricky.
  •  B) “Enough” is a continuing dialog. Friends engaged in similar conversations in their own lives contribute to our conversation, and we to theirs.
  • C)  Endurance/perseverance grows with practice, and I’m getting tired of practicing! In our case, I’m also looking for ways to work smarter as well as harder. Some solutions we haven’t thought of, or been willing to try, may provide the break-through we need.
  • D) We’re newly appreciating friends and family who’ve helped in so many ways throughout this process. And we’re appreciating letting each other survive as we worked through a very difficult period in our life together.

We’re home. But we’re trying to get all the way home. We’re not there yet, but we’ll make it. Meanwhile, as that car commercial said, we’ll “Enjoy the ride!”