Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of Chapel at Asbury Seminary and Asbury Seminary alum, joins me on the Thrive Podcast today. In this episode, we talk about ways the clues and community in her life led her from being a scientist to a pastor, how she got to Asbury Seminary as a student and later as Dean of Chapel, where she integrates her faith, work and life, and my favorite, the enneagram. We go deep into her quest to discover the power of Jesus that led her to write Inside the Miracles of Jesus.
Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of Chapel, Asbury Seminary
Jessica LaGrone is an acclaimed pastor, teacher, speaker, and writer whose engaging communication style endears her to groups throughout the United States. A native of Texas, Jessica is an ordained pastor in the Texas Annual Conference at the United Methodist Church and previously served for nine years at The Woodlands United Methodist Church near Houston, Texas. Jessica and her husband, Jim, have two young children, Drew and Kate.
Visit Jessica’s Blog at jessicalagrone.com
Heidi Wilcox, host of the Thrive Podcast
Writer, podcaster, and social media manager, Heidi Wilcox shares stories of truth, justice, healing and hope. She is best known as the host of Spotlight, (especially her blooper reel) highlighting news, events, culturally relevant topics and stories of the ways alumni, current students and faculty are attempting something big for God. If you can’t find her, she’s probably cheering on her Kentucky Wildcats, enjoying a cup of coffee, reading or spending time with her husband, Wes.
Heidi: Hey, everyone. Welcome to this week’s episode of the Thrive with Asbury Seminary Podcast where every other week, we bring you conversations with authors, thought leaders, and people just like you to help you connect where your passion meets the world’s deep need.
Heidi: This week on the podcast, we’re talking with Reverend Jessica LaGrone, Dean of Chapel at Asbury Seminary. In this episode, we talk about ways the clues and community in her life led her from being a scientist to a pastor, how she came to Asbury Seminary as a student, and later as the Dean of Chapel where she now integrates her faith, work, and life, and of course my favorite, the enneagram. We go deep into her quest to discover the power of Jesus that led her to write “Inside the Miracles of Jesus.” Let’s listen.
Heidi: So Jessica, thanks for taking the time to come by today. I only have people on the podcast that I want to get to know better, so I’m really excited about this opportunity to get to know you a little bit more.
Jessica L.: Thanks for inviting me.
Heidi: Yeah, and find out more about your book.
Jessica L.: Fun to have a chance to sit down and chat.
Heidi: Yeah, yeah. We’ve known each other on committees and things like that, but it’s fun to just sit down and talk. I know a little bit about how you were called to ministry because we’ve talked on and off before, but could you just remind me of that story and how you knew you were called?
Jessica L.: Sure, sure. It’s a little bit of a delayed call story because I think I started feeling called to ministry around age nine, but in terms of just announcing it to the world or admitting that I felt like I was called to be a pastor, that probably happened during college, but nine years old, I went to Christian summer camp and accepted Christ as my savior. Got saved, accepted Jesus into my heart, whatever kind of phrase you want to say. I was nine and I knew he was real, and I knew he loved me, and I wanted that for a lifetime. People don’t think that children in elementary school have that much agency, but gosh, I remember it being just a really powerful experience, so I encourage people to really talk to kids seriously about their faith. So I came back from this camp. I sat down in my wonderfully loving congregation that I had been part of, this little church in Southwest Houston area, just a suburb of Houston. Had been there since I was four years old, and these people had loved me so well, but we didn’t really have leadership from the pulpit that just clearly proclaimed faith in Jesus Christ, and I remember feeling pulled to share with these wonderful people that Jesus was real.
Jessica L.: I also think that we kind of had the ups and downs of some great pastors and some not-so-great pastors, and I always say that a lot of people’s call story is something really romantic and Biblical like, “Here I am, send me,” where mine, I can remember being a little older than nine, but sitting through a particularly boring sermon and thinking to myself, “I could do better than that.” What a terribly proud and not humble call phrase that is, “I could do better than that,” but the way that my call has usually worked is through some kind of just feeling that really, the church deserves the best that we have to give. Kind of a holy discontentment, and, “Could I help the kingdom in some way?”
Jessica L.: I love science, I love biology. I felt called into medicine. I went to undergrad and got a biology degree, and about halfway through that, God was just giving me that kind of holy repetition that’s like tapping you on the shoulder, tapping you a little harder. Maybe you need to be hit upside the head a few times before you hear it.
Heidi: What did that look like for you, that repetition?
Jessica L.: Just multiple messages from people who were not connected to each other at all. I had a pastor back at my home church who sent me, through my mom, sent a brochure about, “You should go to this conference. It’s for young people called into ministry,” and I thought, “You don’t even know me. What makes you think I’m called into ministry?” I went, and it was great, but I thought, “What am I doing here?” I had a public speaking professor who was really influential in my life that after just a few speeches in class, he called me in his office and asked if I wanted to do an independent study with him in homiletics. I said, “What’s homiletics?” He said, “It’s preaching.” I said, “I’m a science major. Why would I want to do that?” He said, “Because you’ve been preaching in my class, Jessica.” I said, “No I haven’t. I’ve been giving the assigned speeches.” He said, “But they’re all about God,” and it was true. The Bible just kind of found its way into my speeches that I was giving in class, and I loved preaching. I had a church reach out to me and ask if I would be their youth pastor for my last year in college. To this day, I don’t know how they got my name and phone number.
Jessica L.: The Lord was like sending me these messages through different leaders, through different things I was involved in. By time I got to about age 20 and began to be able to say out loud, “I think I’m called to be a pastor” with a lot of fear and trepidation, everyone in my life said, “Well you’re the last one to know. We all knew. Why didn’t you know?” So it was both a really early call, but also a gradual realization.
Heidi: Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I want to go back to where you were talking about, you felt you were called to medicine and you thought that was your calling.
Jessica L.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Heidi: I think because I’m thinking about my own calling too, and sometimes you think it’s one thing, and then how did you know it was something else? Would it have been not your calling to continue to do what you thought at first was medicine?
Jessica L.: Yeah, that’s a great question. I love that. I mean I really believe firmly in what we call the “priesthood of all believers,” which means all of us are called. Every baptized Christian is in ministry, and should see what they do with their lives as ministry. I definitely had that sense about medicine. I love the human body. I love the way God has created us. I love that we can be part of people’s healing through medicine. What I didn’t love, this was really interesting; I worked for a pediatric clinic for a few years while I was in school, and the folks that came in, it was really more for low income folks who were really struggling. Their lifestyles were really rough, and their kids’ lives showed it. The kids struggled with their health because of inconsistency or just environment. We would see these families, we would give them medicine and make them better, and then they’d come back, and we’d give them medicine and make them better. A lot of the issues that they were facing were things that I thought, “Gosh, I would really love for them to know what I think is the real solution to some of their struggles,” which is Christ. “I want to share Jesus with them,” and the most frustrating thing for me about that medical job was I was not allowed to vocally share my faith in that role.
Jessica L.: I could’ve stayed in that role and helped a lot of people and loved it. I probably could’ve gone into private practice and shared Christ with people if that had been my goal through that. I think every job you have teaches you a little more about yourself and your calling, and one of the things that one taught me is that I would never be really content unless I could really just blatantly just share Christ with people, so that gave me a little clue, right? “Well what’s a job where you do that? How can I live into that?” I think even where you’re saying, considering your own calling, thinking about what you’re called to you with your life, what you’re doing gives you clues, both positive, “Hey, I love to do this,” and negative like, “Oh, this just isn’t enough.” Well what would be? What does that lead you to conclude?
Heidi: Yeah, and it was another confirmation-
Jessica L.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Heidi: For you that, “Hey, maybe I need to think about being a pastor.”
Jessica L.: Right. Again, the holy discontentment. When we’re uncomfortable in situations, it gives us clues.
Heidi: Yeah. So then was that during college or-
Jessica L.: Yeah.
Heidi: Okay, during college. Then, I know you came to Asbury as a student. How did you get to Asbury?
Jessica L.: That’s a great question. So I knew I wanted to look at seminaries, and I have this thing where I just think I need to collect all the information before I make a decision-
Heidi: That’s the scientist in you.
Jessica L.: It is, it is. All the data. I visited maybe eight seminaries-
Jessica L.: Really spread out across the country. I wanted to set foot and see places. You know, every one of them had gifts. At the time, I was serving as a youth pastor, so I had a couple years in there between college and seminary where I was figuring things out, where I might want to go, what I was called to. A church that I served as a youth pastor, a couple came home to visit their aging parents, and they were both Asbury graduates. They said to me, “Promise us you won’t make a decision until you’ve seen Asbury, until you’ve set foot on the campus. Don’t just go on the website, don’t do the research. Set foot on the campus. Promise us.” I was like, “Kentucky? How am I going to get to Kentucky?” Well, I found a way: there was a conference that was being hosted here, and Ellsworth Kalas was speaking at that conference, and I’d always wanted to meet him in person. I had read some of his books.
Jessica L.: So I found a way to come for this conference, and literally within an hour of setting foot on this campus, I knew this was the place for me. It had an atmosphere of being a place where the Holy Spirit is alive and active. Just to be honest, that wasn’t the sense I got from other seminary campuses, not all of them that I visited. I knew that there was a really strong community here, and I knew there were pieces of my faith that were not yet in place. I was longing for more faith in God, but they weren’t there yet, and I thought Asbury looked like a place where I could pursue a deeper faith in God as well as the wonderful academic foundation, coursework. I got a lot out of the classroom, but I will just tell you that I loved chapel. I was a chapel nerd. I hung around the chapel office. JD Walt became the Dean of Chapel my second, third year here. I wouldn’t leave him alone. So, he made me the first chapel intern that he had while he was here.
Heidi: Oh, wow. Yeah.
Jessica L.: Lo and behold, that was a little clue as well, that 13 years after my graduation, I would end up back here.
Heidi: Yeah, yeah. So what pieces of your faith did you know were missing? Because I think you were probably in your mid-twenties at that point when you came, and I think that’s very insightful that you knew there were pieces of your faith that you were lacking. Not just the knowledge, but the personal stuff.
Jessica L.: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think it’s a sense we get when we spend time with people who are really, truly, deeply people of faith and God. When you’re around people, whether in worship or in conversation, or you have a relationship with someone who has a true and deep faith in Jesus Christ, and you just sense from them, there are people that as you’re talking to them, you just think, it’s like you just had coffee with Jesus.
Jessica L.: When you talk about him, he’s real to you, and I want that. I want more of that. Now I’ll tell you that that’s still the case for me. I still want deeper and more true faith in Jesus Christ, but I think at the time, I had a sense that I knew more about God than I knew God personally.
Heidi: Oh yeah, that makes total sense.
Jessica L.: I wanted that transition from head to heart to be one that I recognized that I could fully relate to God in both ways, because I love to study. I love to read. I wanted that sense of like, “God and I, we’re inseparable.” He’s in every moment of my day, not just these moments that I’ve designated. So that left me feeling like I needed and wanted more, and I saw that in people’s lives that I interacted with at Asbury.
Heidi: So then after you graduated, you went back to Texas? Did you immediately pastorate the Woodlands? Tell me your journey, because you’re back at Asbury now, so I want to get you back here.
Jessica L.: Well I’ll just tell you, I remember graduating really well. I remember driving away and literally looking at the Asbury sign in my rear view mirror and thinking, “When will I see this place again that I love?” The thought occurred to me, “I would do anything for Asbury Seminary,” and I thought I would just be a really good alum-
Heidi: It’s another clue, right? You would be the alum that would tell the next Jessica like, “Don’t make a decision until you come here.”
Jessica L.: Right, “Until you set foot.” “I will recommend Asbury, I will give to the fund drives. I’ll be a great graduate and try to be the best witness for what an Asbury education can do out in the pastorate.” So I first pastored at a church just south of Houston in a town called Pasadena. Pasadena, Texas, not to be confused with California. It’s very different. It was a mid-sized church. Really loving church. Your first place that you serve, it forms you a lot in good ways and bad. Mine was very formative in a good way. One of the stories that I’ll never forget, I had a four or five-bedroom parsonage, and I was single and had a dog. So we had a lot of space and not much furniture, and no Christmas decorations. I didn’t own a tree. I didn’t own an ornament. I remember sharing that with somebody at church Christmas was coming. That very first year, I had gotten there in June. Here we were in late November/early December, and I happened to say to somebody, “Oh, I guess I better go buy some tinsel. I don’t have anything to decorate my house.”
Jessica L.: The very next week, we would have these Wednesday night dinners at church and everybody would come. Very next week, there were a bunch of people huddled around this table being very secretive, not letting me see what they were doing. When they moved away and somebody called me over, they had all bought one Christmas ornament. Here was this table full of very eclectic, some of them brought from their own tree, some of them went and shopped. Now every year when we decorate our tree, I can tell you who gave me each ornament. A lot of those people have passed away, and their memories, it’s almost like their whole story for me is just encapsulated in that ornament.
Heidi: Yes. That is precious.
Jessica L.: What a sweet and giving place. I was there to pastor them, but new pastors need a lot of help. Congregations really have to be patient and love us through our earliest and worst sermons. I had a great mentor at that church; I was an associate pastor, so the senior pastor became one of my dearest friends, and I still today will call him when I need help in ministry or when I just want to grieve something that’s happened. He’s a pastor to me, so I had that blessing of working for someone who was a model for ministry for me-
Heidi: Which is a huge gift.
Jessica L.: Yes.
Heidi: Yes, and that church, oh my word. I think about myself, because you wouldn’t be able to go home for Christmas because that’s the busiest time of year and being so-
Jessica L.: Always at work on Christmas.
Heidi: I remember my first Christmas that I couldn’t go home and how nice people were and inviting me to dinner. Like you can’t ever actually say, “Thank you,” “Thank you for that” because you can’t repay that.
Jessica L.: People don’t always think of their pastors as being a person-
Heidi: No, they don’t.
Jessica L.: Who needs their love and support, but they are, and they saw me in that way. It was a tremendous gift. It was while I was at that church that I met my husband. They loved us through our dating. It was really funny: “The pastor has a boyfriend.” That’s not something you say very often. Then a fiance. Then they all showed up for our wedding.
Heidi: So how did you meet?
Jessica L.: We met on a Christian dating website.
Jessica L.: We met online.
Heidi: Okay, tell me.
Jessica L.: He lived in West Texas, in Lubbock, and I lived on the eastern end near Houston. So we’re in the same state but we’re about nine hours apart.
Heidi: Yeah. Texas is huge.
Jessica L.: Yeah, and so we never really would’ve run across each other, but the interesting thing is Jim went to college at Texas Tech in Lubbock. He was part of a Wesley Foundation, a campus ministry. A ton of people came through that campus ministry, still today, and come to Asbury as students. They raise up leaders. It’s a pipeline to Asbury; they send a lot of people. So the people he had gone to college with were the people I had gone to seminary with.
Jessica L.: When we first figured this out, we knew about 30 people in common. All of these people. Some of his best friends had been some of my closest friends-
Heidi: That’s amazing.
Jessica L.: And they never told us about each other. We jokingly called them our “thanks for nothing” list. He also, this is interesting, had a deep love for Asbury because of these friends and what this place meant to them. He had been here to visit. Actually, the last time he had been to Asbury to visit had been in my first month in Wilmore. We could have bumped into each other.
Heidi: Yeah, but-
Jessica L.: Wilmore’s small enough. We might have seen each other, but we didn’t. We didn’t, and now we were both in opposite ends of the state. So, that’s our little long-distance love story. Then he moved so that we could date in-person and not just on weekends. He came to Houston. We got engaged, and we were married about 10 months when we moved from that kind of medium-sized church to the Woodlands United Methodist Church, which is near Houston. It’s one of the largest United Methodist churches in the connection.
Heidi: Yeah. That’s a lot of transition.
Jessica L.: It was-
Heidi: In a short amount of time.
Jessica L.: It was. It was a blessing though because we got to go from this place where people knew me, and then they sort of knew him as an accessory to my life, right? I was the person they knew and then here comes Jim. Well when you move together as a married couple, that’s all they know, is you as a couple. It was a fun transition. We got to buy our first house together instead of him just moving his stuff into the five-bedroom parsonage, which is what we had done. Then we stayed at the Woodlands for nine years. It was the place where both of our children were born. I was the first female pastor on their staff. They had never said the words, “The pastor’s pregnant” before. They had never seen anyone preach in their robe looking like it’s a maternity tent. They were super kind to us and just loved our babies when they came. That church has a nursery and a preschool in it, so my kids literally came to church with me and would be down the hall from me, and I could go check on them whenever I wanted.
Heidi: How great is that?
Jessica L.: It was fantastic. It was really a great place. It was all they knew for the longest time, was this mega-church, and sort of hard for them to understand that that was the same thing as, say, my mom’s church, which was a normal church. They would say things like, “Oh, I go to school and my school has a church in it.” No, your church has a school in it.
Jessica L.: When we had been there about nine years, we got a call from Asbury saying there was a search for the Dean of Chapel position. My name had come to someone in prayer. Really, first I just thought, “Yeah, right.” Here is this incredible position, this Dean of Chapel. It’s more than a job; it’s like a person who symbolizes Asbury. For me, when I was a student here, the person in that position was my pastor, my leader, and my guide, and I just could not quite imagine that they meant me. Just through that interview process and through coming to campus, Jim came with me when I interviewed. We really just felt the Lord leading and confirming that this was the place for us to be in ministry.
Heidi: How did you know? Was it a moment or more like a journey, or both?
Jessica L.: That’s a good way to put it. Texans just don’t leave Texas. Let’s just say that, without a good reason.
Jessica L.: Both of our sets of parents are in Texas. All of our families. We have the only grandchildren on both sides, so there was a lot of weeping and mourning when we took them away across the country.
Heidi: Oh, no doubt.
Jessica L.: So we really needed God to confirm. This was not something that we sought out. It wasn’t like a career ladder that I expected to seek in any way. It had to be a calling. It had to be the Lord saying, “This is what I have for you.” I think when we came for the interview visit, I had asked God, I just said, “If you are going to confirm that this is it, I need you to make it clear not just to me, but to Jim. I want us to both know, so it’s not like something that I’m convincing him of or some decision that I’ve made that he needs to get on board with.” I wanted God to speak to both of us. I would say it was both in a moment in worship, but also just our time here, interacting with people. Jim was more certain about it than I was.
Jessica L.: When I first heard about the position and drove home and was processing everything and told him, the first words out of his mouth were, “Let’s go.”
Jessica L.: Which is a huge gift from a spouse if you’re in ministry, that kind of support. I know it was the work of God.
Heidi: Was there ever a time when you were a student here that you ever thought you would be back as Dean of Chapel, or as anything?
Jessica L.: No, you know? Honestly, no. I came here to prepare to be a pastor, and I really assumed that this was, really, some of the best times of my life were spent as a student here, but I assumed that it was temporary and that the next phase of my life would be the permanent one. The “now you’re going to go out, work in the church.” What I discovered coming back here, we’ve been back five years this June-
Heidi: Oh wow.
Jessica L.: I just hit my fifth year here in ministry.
Heidi: Oh wow. Congratulations.
Jessica L.: What I realized coming back is this is pastoral ministry.
Jessica L.: Being Dean of Chapel is really pastoring this place. The students, their families, really the faculty and the staff community. I get to walk with people through a very transitional and important part of their lives. Some of the students, I’ve been here long enough to see whole classes of students come in and then graduate, and then go out. I’ve been part of some of their weddings now. I’ve baptized their babies. I just got back on Sunday from one of their ordination and a commissioning. Nathan and Lauren Weaver in West Virginia. We had been really close; they had been close to our family, so we went for the ordination and commissioning service. So special to see these whole communities come in and then go out, and know that we’ve had a chance to walk with them during a time when you really need assurance that God can call you to this wonderful thing called ministry, and it’s a good life. There’s difficult things about it, but just to pastor and assure these students and their families that what God calls you to, He will care for you. He’ll take care of your family. You have to trust Him in it.
Heidi: You’re the first female Dean of Chapel at Asbury. What is that like?
Jessica L.: It’s not my first time to be first woman in a position; I was the first female pastor at the Woodlands. It was very welcoming. I received not just from people who were here on campus, but our alumni community. Really the community that is Asbury extended around the world. So many people reached out to me to say, “We’re so grateful and excited to see a woman in this role.” I think you always want to see the best person in a role, but I think it is exciting when you get to see the first for something.
Jessica L.: I felt like the student body was overwhelmingly welcoming and positive. I immediately had all these appointments on my calendar of women going into pastoral ministry saying, “Will you mentor me?” It was almost like a backlog of people that had been searching for someone, so they could see someone doing what they felt called to do and have. I remember that too: I remember looking for women in roles that I could say, “That’s what I want to do.” To see visually, you know, you can be a professional woman in ministry, and a wife and a mom at the same time. You can have a life and relationships alongside your calling. Asbury’s the place that taught me that women are equal and shoulder to shoulder with men in leadership in all roles in the church and in life, and then Asbury’s the place that affirmed that by calling me back to work in this incredible job.
Heidi: Was there somebody for you, like when you were nine and eleven? Was there anybody that you were like, “Yes, I want to be like her.”
Jessica L.: Little bits and pieces. Mostly it was outside ministry. I think I had role models of professional women in other roles. I mentioned the pediatric clinic I worked at. The executive director who had founded that clinic was a friend of my mom’s who was just this incredible female leader. She was really a person I lifted up, and there were women in other roles. I did not know a lot of female pastors growing up, so the few that I knew I kind of clung to in terms of, “What is life like? What is family life like? What is ministry life like?”, but there’s a lot more of us now-
Heidi: Mm-hmm (affirmative), which is good.
Jessica L.: And lots of Asbury grads out there, which is fun. That’s been an encouragement, to be part of that growing community.
Heidi: Absolutely. I should’ve looked this up, but I didn’t. When did you start becoming an author, and what was that process like?
Jessica L.: In my heart or on paper?
Heidi: Well both.
Jessica L.: I, from a really early age, have loved to read and always love to write, and known that I wanted to write. Even in seminary and in pastoral ministry, I was always kind of writing and looking for venues to get my writing out there and published. I would go to writing conferences, Christian writing workshops, things like that. I took a class in seminary. So it’s been an aspiration for me for a long time. I can tell you the exact year the publishing aspect of it started for me because it happened the year my daughter was born. She just turned seven, and that is the year I was actually about five, six months pregnant with her when a publisher approached me about some work I’d been doing at the Woodlands, at the church, and told me that they were looking to publish a new Bible study. A new kind of department of Bible studies was opening up. Invited me to Nashville to have a conversation about that, and then really wanted me to finish the project I was already working on for the church and publish it, they were hoping before Kate was born.
Heidi: Oh wow.
Jessica L.: Gosh, that just didn’t happen. So, I finished that first book, which is called “Namesake”, I finished it while on maternity leave, which is a crazy time for anyone who’s experienced that. I would literally have the laptop open on our bed and would be typing on a chapter. Kate’s bassinet was at the foot of our bed, and I would kind of be shaking it with my foot while I was typing on the bed, and then Jim would be asleep in the bed. Thankfully, he is a very heavy sleeper, with earplugs in especially. It was just like this, God, let me live out these dreams at the same time. So the birth of our second child and the birth of the first book all in the same year.
Heidi: Yeah. Well there’s kind of the same, like it is a birth.
Jessica L.: It is. There’s a lot of labor. I’ll just say that.
Heidi: A lot of labor.
Jessica L.: Somebody said like, “Everybody wants to write a book, but really what you want is to have written a book,” because the work is hard.
Heidi: Yes. I have not written a book, but I can imagine.
Jessica L.: You do a lot of writing for the seminary and it’s-
Heidi: But it’s not the same.
Jessica L.: It’s beautiful, but as you know, it’s like getting the words on the pages is harder than you would think.
Heidi: It can be hard. Yes, I’m much happier when it’s written.
Jessica L.: Yes, I would agree.
Heidi: So Miracles, that’s your latest book, right?
Jessica L.: Yes.
Heidi: “Inside the Miracles of Jesus.” When did you first become interested in Jesus’ miracles?
Jessica L.: Oh, it’s been a process. I would say it’s been a couple years, maybe three years ago. I was going through, a lot of writing kind of starts as a personal, spiritual quest for me. Like I said, I like to gather all the information. People who are enneagram followers, that’s a five.
Heidi: Okay, so you’re a five.
Jessica L.: Yes. People who like to gather all the information. My dream would be just like a squirrel with nuts, like, “Let’s just store up all this wonderful research.” Somehow, I have to turn it around into writing for other people, but it always begins with this desire to know more. A few years ago, just at a particularly difficult time spiritually, I think I just needed to connect with the Jesus who did incredible acts and supernatural works for people. Sometimes you need to know about Jesus’ compassion, about his teaching. I needed to know about God’s power, and I went on a little hunt for that. I went like a squirrel collecting nuts through the gospels. I began to look at each miracle, and really, I started marking in my Bible, which is still kind of hard for me because my mother was a librarian, and so it was just drilled into me, “Do not write in books,” but I do like to underline and mark in the margins of my Bible, even though I feel a little bit like I’m about to be scolded every time I do it.
Jessica L.: So, at each point that there was a miracle in the gospels, I would put a little “m” next to the miracle so I could sort of just glance and see where the miracles were concentrated, spread out, which gospel there were more of, and then I started to notice something else. This was really the transformational point for me, is that before each miracle happened, there was always someone who was desperate. Someone who needed Jesus’s supernatural help. Someone who couldn’t do it for themselves, and that’s when the miracles happened. Jesus is responding with compassion to these desperate people. Every situation that I name. There are a couple that you have to dig a little harder to see what the desperation is, but for the most part, someone’s child is dead. They’re desperate. Someone doesn’t have enough food. Someone is blind and calling out to Jesus on the side of a road. These are desperate people.
Jessica L.: I actually started putting a little “d” for the desperation that I found, and all the way through the gospels of my Bible are the letters “d” and “m.” “D” and “m,” so “desperation” followed by “miracles.” So I went looking for the power of God, and what I found was it was very connected to His compassion. Very connected to Jesus seeing the need and responding with compassion and power. That line from the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, “merciful” and “mighty.” Those two things go together. That was transformational for me. I thought, “There is something here where God loves our desperation and comes to our rescue.”
Heidi: What else did you learn about God’s character in the process?
Jessica L.: Yeah, that-
Heidi: Because you talk about that in the book a little bit, so-
Jessica L.: Yes. I learned that what God wants most to offer is Himself, that what He wants for us is when we’re desperate for us not just to ask for what we’re desperate for, what we think we’re desperate for, right, but to ask for Him because He is the ultimate thing that we need. So each person that received a miracle got Jesus. They got this powerful and merciful and compassionate God coming alongside them. The miracles are temporary, you know? The wedding at Cana, the wine ran out eventually. The feeding of the five thousand, they ate up all that food eventually. Even resurrected or resuscitated people die again. So, Jesus is giving these miracles knowing this will come to an end someday, but that the gift of God Himself and Jesus Christ is never-ending.
Jessica L.: So I started asking myself, so I think to ask for Him, you know? Why don’t I think like, “Jesus, what I need right now is you.,” because that, for me, is what he wants us to connect with, and that’s how our desperation’s just kind of a tool. It’s a means that helps us connect with God.
Heidi: I tried to find it again and I should’ve marked it when I read the book, but you included a prayer from this little boy who thanked God for the seemingly ordinary things in life, which made me start to think about, “Where can we find God’s miracles today, and how can we be on the lookout for them?”, because maybe they’re not what we thought they were.
Jessica L.: Right, yeah. Just eyes open for, I think gratitude’s essential for that. Knowing that everything’s a gift. Knowing that every good and perfect gift that we have really can turn us on this little treasure map back to find the source, which is God himself. Gratitude helps us pinpoint where God is the source, and the more we do that, the more we practice that. The more our eyes are open to see, “Wow, Lord. I think you just did that.” It really turns our perspective, and so I think the gifts are there. Sometimes we’re just not looking. Americans are terrible at this especially because we’re taught that as individuals, which is not how other cultures think, we think very much individualistically, that we’re self-sufficient, that we’re self-starters. That we should provide for ourselves. Honestly, if everything isn’t going well, turn to yourself and just do better. It’s kind of our mantra, is that self-made person sort of thing. I think God really wants us to get over ourselves. It’s the hard times that happens. So we end up needing Him and turning to Him. So why can’t we turn to Him where we’re not in these needy places-
Heidi: I’ve often wondered that, because I, of course, turn to God more when it’s harder, and I feel closer to God. I’m like, “Why can’t I do this before the hard things, because then maybe I could avoid the hard things.”
Jessica L.: Right. “Maybe I wouldn’t have to learn at the bottom of the well always.”
Jessica L.: Yeah. That’s a sanctification issue for all of us, is something that as we grow as Christians, as we grow in faith, we begin to stop that cycle of self-sufficiency, and then when self fails, we look to God. It’s an issue of growing in faith where finally we realize, “Hey, why don’t I look to God at the good times as well as the bad?”
Heidi: Yeah. So your book talked about many miracles of Jesus. Can you walk us through just one of them? You can take time to look if you need to.
Jessica L.: Yeah. I really think one of my favorites, because I started with it, is the miracle at Cana. The water turned into wine. I had never really studied that story until this, and I never really understood it. I kind of thought it seemed like a party trick, you know?
Heidi: Yeah, yeah.
Jessica L.: Like, “Hey, Jesus is fun. He made wine,” until you realize that nobody sees it but his mother, the disciples, and the servants. He’s not made famous by that miracle. They don’t tell the party guests what’s happened. They don’t even tell the groom.
Heidi: Why would you? Because then it could be shameful.
Jessica L.: Yes. So the interesting thing there is that wine and food really in that situation are what the groom is providing as an act of hospitality to the guests, and there’s really a social contract going on where when the guests are invited, they’re coming not for an hour or a day. They’re coming for maybe a week or more, and this is a culture and a time where it’s not like, “Hey, let’s run to the grocery store and get our food for this trip to the wedding.” When they come, the groom’s family is contracting to provide for all of these guests. So here we have this multiple day celebration, and the groom is about to break the contract by not providing wine. Not that that’s just a celebratory experience; it’s really the normal drink for adults because you know it’s safe to drink. It’s been fermented. So these guests, their needs are not going to be provided for, and if the groom breaks this social contract, the guests can sue him.
Heidi: Oh wow.
Jessica L.: Yeah. That is not how you want to start your life and community-
Jessica L.: Especially a community, it’s a culture; we call it “honor and shame” where everything you do either brings honor or shame on your family. You don’t want to bring shame on your family at your wedding. You don’t want to start off this way. Whether he knows it or not, whether the bride knows it or not, whether the family knows it or not, they’re in a desperate situation, and the only person who points it out is Mary, Jesus’s mother. She names it. She says, “Hey, there’s a problem here. They’re running out of wine,” and she knows where to turn. She turns right to Jesus.
Jessica L.: So for me, I think what I love about that is I grew up kind of in a family, in a culture where when bad things happen, you just didn’t talk about it. You didn’t name it, but I think what Mary really teaches us here is really, the only way to get help is to ask and to admit something’s wrong. She names it. She’s the one who turns to Jesus and says, “We need your help here.” That is the connection there. There’s a desperate person, a desperate family. There’s someone willing to name that no one has a solution but God, and turn to Jesus. That just opens the door for this incredible miracle.
Heidi: That’s awesome. I love that.
Heidi: You talked about the enneagram. What do you, as a five because you’re investigating and gathering all the nuts, how does God speak to you in a way that He may not speak to other people?
Jessica L.: That’s hilarious. Five’s are weird, and we like being weird.
Heidi: They’re also really rare too, I think.
Jessica L.: Is that true?
Heidi: I think so, yeah. I’m listening to another podcast right now and they’re going through all of the enneagram. So when you said that I was like, “Oh, enneagram. I love this.”
Jessica L.: Yeah, it’s very popular right now, and it’s really interesting. It’s helped me understand myself a little bit, but it really helps me understand other people. When I know or when they’ll self-identify, I just think, “Oh, okay. Well you’re an eight, so that’s how that works. Okay.” I think connecting with God as a five, I go on these little spiritual quests where there’s a question I have to answer. That’s a very five thing; we’re called “the investigator.” That really leads me deeper into God. That’s how the Miracle book started. I can remember this even as a teenager or young person, finding repetition in the Bible, like a theme that happened over and over again. Even as like a 12 year old, I would get a notebook and I would write down all the places in the Bible. I had a concordance when I was 14-
Heidi: Wow, that’s amazing.
Jessica L.: I was so strange, but it was really a means of like, “Okay, I want to know all the places in the Bible where this happens. Where does this word pop up?” That might be a clue that you might have a lifetime in ministry ahead of you, but it’s also just one of those things where you know that connecting with God, for me, it’s like finding patterns. Even the way that the Lord speaks to me, through scripture definitely, but in other things in life, I mentioned my call to ministry. Some of that’s by repetition. It’s by God saying again and again, “Hey, I’m trying to get this message through to you.” So connecting the dots, finding patterns is real important to me, and it often shows me where God is.
Heidi: Yeah. I like how your whole life, really, as we’ve talked about it, and I’m sure there’s more that we haven’t talked about, but that all of it gives a clue to who you are today, not just what you are.
Jessica L.: For me, and I don’t know if this is an enneagram-related thing, but I think integration’s really an important thing for me. For me, what that means is what you think and do, and your faith, and your family, your ministry and your job, that all of that somehow gets intertwined, that it’s not a compartmentalized life where you leave work and go home, and those are two separate people. So yeah, making those connections is really important to me.
Heidi: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, and you mentioned earlier, but I was already kind of thinking about it along those lines, like pastors are often seen or can be seen as one-dimensional people. So for you, it’d always be Jessica, Dean of Chapel, you know? You talked about this in the book too a little bit, like practicing the habit like Jesus did of action, rest, engagement, reflection. I don’t like that word “strive,” but how do you find that rhythm for yourself?
Jessica L.: By messing up a lot. By doing too much and knowing it’s too much. By realizing I’m not doing it right, and then coming back to the center where I know, “Okay, I need to get rebalanced with these things,” and it happens to me every year. There’s some point in every year where I think, “Okay, this is too much. Let’s recalibrate. Let’s make sure that we’re not expecting ourselves to be superhuman,” and putting the pieces back together.
Heidi: Where is a place that you can just be Jessica, and what does that look like?
Jessica L.: Yeah, so my family’s really important to me. My kids are really the center of my world right now; they’re nine and seven years old. We just love to be together. We play games, we watch movies. They were asked, at one point this year, “What are people good at in your family?” Like, “Well Daddy’s really good at cooking because Daddy’s the cook, and Drew’s really good at math. Kate’s really good at crafts.” “What is Mommy really good at?” “Mommy’s good at cuddling.” I was like, “Oh, that’s fantastic.” That’s my gift. We just love to spend time together, and that is probably just the most relaxed place in my life, is being with my kids, with my husband. One thing I really love about this kind of small-town world is they are very connected to what I do here at the seminary. They’re here as much as possible, they know the students. Sometimes they think that the seminary students are like their peers and their friends. Happens all the time, you know? That their babysitters are actually not there because we’re paying them, but because they just want to hang out, and it’s usually true too.
Jessica L.: I love that kind of integrated life. I wanted our life together at Asbury to be a place not where Mommy goes to work, but a place where we’re all part of this community together. That’s been a really important part of who we are together as a family in this community.
Heidi: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I love that.
Heidi: So I know you’ve already written several books. Are there more on the horizon for you?
Jessica L.: Gosh, I hope so.
Heidi: Yeah? Well we do too.
Jessica L.: You always hope. Yes. So I’m actually working on a project with Seedbed right now-
Jessica L.: It’s my first project with them, and I love Seedbed, so I’m so thrilled to be connected with them. It’s in the very early stages. It’s a book on chaos.
Jessica L.: As odd as that sounds, there’s just a lot of it around. It’s been really interesting because I’ll sit down and ask people like, “Where is the chaos in your life or your world?” Everybody has an answer. Nobody has to think about it for long. Chaos is just a reality. For a lot of people, it’s their schedules; they feel overwhelmed by a lot. Some people, it’s life events that happen that they don’t have control over. There’s a lot of relationships in chaos. The church is often in chaos. The local churches and then denominations are experiencing a lot of struggles, and I think a lot of times, it’s defined by something out of our control, something we wish would be different, and rather than responding to that with either just anxiety, which is rampant, or pretending, like, “Oh no, everything’s fine,” which Christians have been really good at it.
Heidi: Oh, we’re great at it, and it’s terrible.
Jessica L.: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It doesn’t fix things. Denial is not an answer that works for very long. I’ve been looking at, “What does God do with chaos? Where is God in the chaos?” God doesn’t just want to show up in the neatest and most perfect places, which I’ll say like, “If you’re a perfect person, this book’s not for you.” Well then it should be a bestseller because all of us need it. God, even from Genesis 1:1, which is really the inspiration for the book,” God moves into places of chaos, darkness and emptiness. That’s how creation is described. God works with that. It’s like raw material to Him. He just sees chaotic places and people and says, “I can do something with this.” That’s a beautiful thing to see, but it’s a very uncomfortable place to be in our lives, so just trying to reassure people, chaos is not failure. It’s not the “check engine” light that means you’re about to just blow up. It really is a sign that turning to God can be a place where God is at work in your life.
Heidi: Yeah, it ties into the miracles a little bit too-
Jessica L.: Yep, yep.
Heidi: Because if you’re in chaos, you could be desperate.
Jessica L.: That’s right. That’s a better place to be than pretending that you’re not.
Heidi: Yes, absolutely.
Heidi: So, as we’re talking about the miracles Inside the Miracles of Jesus, we talk about the people who receive the miracles, but there’s a whole bunch of people in the crowd who didn’t. What do you do if you don’t get a miracle or it doesn’t come in the way that you think, or if you’re still waiting on it, so it seems like it’s not coming?
Jessica L.: Right. I think that’s a place all of us have found ourselves, and some of us in some very desperate situations. Some of us have been asking God for miracles in relationships, life, health, and jobs, and a lot of people, I think, feel like they’re kind of beating on a wall or a door that’s not opening. What’s helpful for me is to remember that Jesus is the ultimate gift, and that what desperation gets us is not always what we asked for initially. It’s not always, “I was desperate and then I turned to God, and like a vending machine, I put in my desperation and he pulled out this miracle that’s exactly what I ordered.” I don’t see a lot of God at work. That’s not how my life works. What is true, though, is that the miracle of God with us, the miracle of Emmanuel is so consistent, so unchanging. It’s the alpha and omega part of God that when we turn and ask for God, He is present.
Jessica L.: So you can be in that chaos, in that desperation without the answer that you found, but God can be in it with you. I mean, what a gift, and what a witness to the world to say, “Hey, Christians aren’t perfect. We haven’t gotten all the answers, but look who’s with us in the fire,” right? Back to like the Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. You’re in the fire, but He’s in there with you.
Heidi: Yeah. I like how you talk about the compassion of Jesus and that it moves him to action. Maybe not in the way that we think or want, but that he’s always active with us, and I love that, that picture.
Heidi: So as I wrap up the interview, we have questions that we ask everybody. Our podcast is called the Thrive Podcast. What is the practice, it can be spiritual or otherwise, that is helping you thrive right now?
Jessica L.:I think I mentioned that this has been sort of the year of audio for me. I’ve been using times when my hands are busy, but I can listen to something. Not just for entertainment, but really to find ways to grow more deeply. Some apps that have been helping me with that, Pray As You Go is an app of daily meditation. The Bible app. If you type in “Bible,” it’s the first one that comes up, I think, will read out loud to you in this incredible, deep, British voice. So as I get ready in the morning, I often listen to a chapter of the Bible first and try to get my mind focused around that. It’s been helping me start the day in a good way.
Heidi: I love that.
Heidi: Hey, y’all. Thank you so much for joining me for today’s conversation with Reverend Jessica LaGrone. Just so grateful for her leadership and for today’s conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as well.
Heidi: In our next episode, Winfield Bevins, Director of Church Planting at Asbury Seminary, joins us to talk about his new book “Ever Ancient, Ever New” that introduces us to a new generation of Christians who are embracing liturgy to enliven their faith journey. New podcast episodes release every other week, and you won’t want to miss out. Subscribe in iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can follow us in all the places on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @AsburySeminary. So have a great day, y’all, and go do something that helps you thrive.