Finding Common Ground in our Cultural Divide

I have spoken to or overheard several people in the last few weeks and months say something along the line of, “I have stopped watching the news.  I just can’t bring myself to turn it on.”  Now most of these individuals were not saying that because they believed the news to be inaccurate or “fake.”  They were feeling as though the news itself is simply too painful. The shared feeling is that it puts them in such a state of either depression or anger that for their own mental and spiritual heath they had decided they needed to take something of a break from the constant barrage 24 hour news brings to us.  I understand that feeling.

I’m also aware that there are others, maybe others reading these words, for whom the news over the last year or so has been the kind of thing they have wanted to hear for years.  These persons believe that overall things are headed in the right direction politically and they celebrate what they see as positive changes.

Neither of these broad groups of people understand one another.  And we wonder if there was ever a time when we were so divided.  And while I find myself very clearly on a “side” in the debate, I am also as concerned as anyone about the state of the cultural divide in which we live today.

I know there have been many times when we have felt a similar cultural divide.  I mean we had a civil war where we were actually killing one another over issues that divided us.  In the 1960’s and 70’s the divide took many to the streets where tens of, hundreds, even thousands of people marched in protest of the US war in Southeast Asia and for civil rights.

Now, I am not at all trying to minimize the current cultural divide nor am I suggesting there are not some significant ways in which the basis for the current divide is not even more ominous than at other points in our history.  What I am suggesting is that the differences and struggles are not new.  While it indeed is difficult when, (as others I have spoken with express), the anticipation of Christmas dinner brings stress because we know those differences will show up and will make conversation and digestion problematic. We need in the midst of our differences to find a way to celebrate our sameness. I confess, I don’t always know how to do that in our polarizations.  Sometimes, often times, it would be easier to just stay where it is safe and people think as we do. But unless we at least prayerfully try to understand one another both in our broader culture, and in our divisions within the church (which is a whole other conversation!), we will continue to live life in isolation listening to our particular brand and perspective and seeing one another as “the other.”

2,000 years ago the one, the angel, called the “Prince of Peace” was born.  Would that we might discover, in these trying days, the gift of that One again.

Peace,
Bill

Bringing Peace to a Violent World

I don’t have the answer.  I wish so much that I did.  But I continue to struggle.  You see I believe Jesus when he says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.  I love the name we give Jesus calling him “Prince of Peace.”  I believe that the concept of Christian pacifism is a very legitimate understanding of how we are called to live as followers of Christ.

But I just watched a 60 Minutes story on the ongoing struggle in Syria.  The story highlighted the work of Syrian doctors from the U.S. who have been going to Aleppo and other war-torn parts of Syria to provide medical care to all the people injured in the war.  The story reported the fact that Syrian president Assad has been targeting the hospitals where the doctors are working.  With both barrel bombs and chemical weapons the Assad government has targeted those already injured in the war.  This, as the reporters in the story pointed out, was the first identified war crime.  This war crime was the basis for the forming of the Geneva Convention and the founding of the Red Cross to stop this horrific behavior.

Whenever I hear such stories, (and there are of course many other stories of unspeakable violence carried out by individuals and governments), I struggle to understand and follow what Jesus seems to ask of us.

To most, even in the church, it feels like a “no-brainer.”  Of course we fight back.  Of course we must stop the mad men and women of the world.  And since most of them seem to have barrel bombs or AK-47s, we need to respond in kind.  And I understand the logic in that thinking.  I understand why I have had several calls over the past couple of weeks about having guns in church in light of the church shooting in Texas.

But it seems to me that Jesus often challenges us to go beyond logical thinking.  Jesus calls us to see the future not just the right now.  He invites us to see the long term consequences not just the immediate results.  Jesus seems to me to be inviting us to understand that every act of violence brings about the next and the next and the next and the only way to stop it is to not live by the sword anymore regardless of the situation.  It seems like that is what the cross teaches us too.

But just about the time I’m settled on that, I think of the people in the hospitals in Aleppo.  Do we simply pray while the bombs continue?  Paul gives us some insight perhaps when he speaks to the Romans about the government and its authority to “wield the sword” in Romans 13.  But is he simply outlining the way things are, or the way of Christ?

I don’t have the answer and people way smarter, with deep faith, come down in different places on this issue.  But as angry as I get at the injustice and violence in our world, the absolutely awful things that are done and especially the violence perpetrated against children; as much as my heart cries out for justice and for the offenders to “pay” or at least be stopped violently if necessary, a part of me still believes that Jesus has a way that is real and different.  It is a way that leads to life.  And it is a way that never includes a sword.

As we begin our Advent Journey this year, in the midst of a very violent world, may we consider how we might make peace, how we might find the alternate way, how we might be a part of fighting evil not with evil, but with love.  It won’t be easy.  Most will probably reject it out of hand as foolhardy, perhaps even unloving.  But if we truly believe in Jesus’ call to live, love even in the face of evil, then we need to continue to look for that alternative way to engage.  Perhaps a way that changes people and institutions instead of just trying to overpower the current version.

Peace,
Bill

 

Living a life of Thanksgiving

I must confess I have not read a lot of the older devotional material from centuries past.  I have worked my way through Thomas a Kempis and certainly a good deal of John Wesley, but beyond them I have only picked up snippets here and there of the older saints.  I recently discovered however a gem in a devotional I have used on and off over the years entitled, “Prayers For Ministers and Other Servants.”  This devotional provides several readings from a wide variety of authors along with a pattern for worship.  The piece that struck me is from a book entitled “The Captivating Presence” by Albert Edward Day.  I want to share it with you this week in hopes that it touches you as it did me.

“I came to a new understanding why Jesus passed up the religious establishment of his day, the economically secure, the socially prestigious, and sought out the poor, the outcast, the sinner, the broken, the sick, the lonely. He felt, as we so often do not feel, their sorrow. He was acquainted, as we too seldom are, with their grief. On Calvary he died of a broken heart. But that heart was broken long before Good Friday, by the desolation of the Common people. “In all their afflictions he was afflicted.” Most of the time we are not. We seem to have quite a different conception of life. We avoid as much as possible the unpleasant. We shun the suffering of others. We shrink from any burdens except those which life itself inescapably thrusts upon us. We seek arduously the wealth and power that will enable us to secure ourselves against the possibility of being involved with another’s affliction. Lazarus sometimes makes his way to our door step. We toss him a coin and go on our way. We give to our charities. But we do not give ourselves. We build our charitable institutions, but we do not build ourselves into other’s lives.”

As I read these words I found them describing all too well my failure to care as Jesus cared, my failure to see as Jesus saw.  I found myself struck by how easy it is for me, in the “busyness of life” to pass by and ignore the burdens of others.

As we anticipate our Thanksgiving celebrations this week.  As we share together in our feasting and the warmth of our homes.  Let us not forget those for whom such times only serve as reminders of what they do not have.  Let us give thanks not only with our prayers, but with our lives as well.

Peace,
Bill

Seeing God in the midst of it all

There are a number of things I thought about putting into Castings this week.  Certainly the news is full of issues I might have addressed and invited us to see from our faith perspective.  There are issues in the General Church that could have provided conversation and reflection as we seek to find our way forward through our differences to where God might call us to go.  There are things going on in my own life that I thought about inviting you into using as a relational connection with the kinds of struggles we all face and again inviting us to see God in the midst of it all.

But, ultimately, I don’t want to go to any of those places.  I am not up this morning for engaging in deep political discussion or theological debate or even a conversation about my wonderful grandchildren (well, maybe that!).

In the midst of the violence, the contention, the pain, the stress, the fear, and the uncertainty that every day seems to bring, I just want to share one thing with you this week, it is these words from Jesus:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
~ John 14:27

Thanks be to God!
Bill

Forgiveness is Incredible Grace

We pray every week, in most of our congregations, the prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  The assumption, I believe, is that there will be experiences of trespass to deal with, right?!  Jesus would not have included this imperative into the disciple’s school of prayer if it wasn’t going to be a rather ongoing need.

And one of the things about this whole idea is that Jesus doesn’t distinguish between major and minor offenses, does he?  There isn’t an asterisk in the prayer that identifies certain trespasses as exceptions to the rule.  And even more than that what Jesus is inviting us to pray is for God to forgive us in the same way we forgive others.  That’s a bit of a challenge to me most days.  I’m quite frankly, not always as forgiving as I want God to be towards me!  But the call is clear, isn’t it?  We are to be those who forgive.  We are to be those who forgive all who trespass, who injure, who sin against us.

I have listened to some of the comments coming from individuals who had family members killed in the most recent mass shooting in Texas.  Their expressions of forgiveness and grace have been deeply moving and meaningful to me.  They remind me of the incredible response to the shooting of 11 girls at an Amish school in 2006.  In that case the children were held hostage for hours and ultimately 5 were killed and 6 others wounded by the gunman Charles Roberts.

This might be one of those places where we would try to put an asterisk if we were writing Jesus’ prayer.  I mean we are willing to forgive some “trespasses” but this is beyond anything that could be expected or even suggested right?  There must be an exception here.  But a Lancaster, PA paper told a different story.

“In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family.

The afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer, Charles Roberts. That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.

Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.”

This is incredible grace.  It’s the kind of incredible grace God shows us and offers to us every day.  May we be those who live out this extraordinary grace with one another even in very troubling times, as we follow the one who shows us the way.

Peace,
Bill

Reformation and Halloween

On Monday of this week I was in a conversation with someone and in the midst of our conversation I asked if they were aware that tomorrow (Tuesday) was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  They answered, “No, but I know it’s Halloween!” I suspect this is the reality for many!

I got to thinking about this and the possible implications for the Church.  And what I’ve come to as I have been pondering, is that, for the Church it’s critical that we know both.  Here’s why.

We need to know about the Reformation because it is a core component of who we are.  I read a great article in the Washington Post outlining the fact that whether you know much of anything about the Reformation, it has affected life in some very significant ways across cultures during the last 500 years.  And that’s important.  But we of the Church need to hold onto, celebrate, and remember the Reformation because it sets our theological perspective in place.  While John Wesley certainly developed our branch of theology out of the core components of the Reformation, without it we would not have our Church or our faith understanding.  Our deep appreciation of grace as the cornerstone of the Gospel and so many other aspects of who we are flows out of the 1517 declarations that Luther put upon the Wittenberg Chapel door.  So it is crucial that we affirm, remember and give thanks for the Reformation.

But we need to know about Halloween too!  By that I mean we need to connect with our culture.  We need to be outside the church, in our communities, engaging with people who have no idea that Tuesday was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  We need to connect to our culture in ways that live out our Reformation faith in relevant and real life ways.  We need to be clear that while our history is rich and deep, what we bring to the marketplace of ideas is an expression of genuine practical hope that is up to date and life giving today, in every setting of life. It is a faith that makes a real difference.  One that is centered not just in the head or even in the heart, but is expressed through the hands as well.

So I’m grateful for the opportunity we’ve had this week to remember our roots.  To celebrate the gift of grace and faith so wonderfully integrated into the Reformation and its impact upon the Church right up to today.

And I’m grateful for Halloween!  For it too, along with so many other events and aspects of our culture, provides us the opportunity to again, in practical and real ways, connect that old time message with today’s people living in today’s world.

Peace,
Bill

Let’s celebrate 50 Years as the Grand Rapids District!

As we get closer to the time when we will begin this journey as one Annual Conference, I thought it might be helpful to outline for you some of the plans as we move into this new reality.

First, by January 1, 2018 (and probably before) we will have the final boundaries of the new 9 Districts in place and that will be shared across the state.  As you, hopefully, are aware we are moving from 12 Districts which make up the current West Michigan and Detroit Annual Conferences to 9 Districts that will make up the new Michigan Annual Conference.  That means of course that all 9 Districts will be new entities with new names as well as congregational makeup.

But before the Grand Rapids District closes, we are going to have a celebration!  On January 27, 2018 from 9:00am – noon we will gather to celebrate the 50 years of ministry we have shared in the United Methodist Grand Rapids District.  Our former District Superintendent, now Bishop Laurie Haller, will be preaching as we gather for worship.  We’ll hear stories of where we have been and what has been accomplished as we have walked together these five decades.  So make sure that this date is on your calendar, you will not want to miss it! Details are coming soon.

Then as we look forward to the beginning of the “new” District we will have some opportunities to get together in regions to talk about hopes and dreams.  That process will culminate in an Organizing District Conference on Sunday, April 22, 2018.  At that Conference we will elect the needed Disciplinary Committees, District Committee on Ministry, District Committee on Building and Location, and the District Committee on Superintendency.  We will also elect a District Visioning Team that will lead us into our first year helping us to discern what leadership structure we will need going forward.  It has not been finally decided at this point, but we may also be selecting a name for the District at that organizing conference.

Then on July 1, 2018 we will begin functioning as 9 Districts in one Annual Conference.  The caveat to that July 1 beginning is that from a legal and financial perspective we will not be the Michigan Annual Conference officially until January 1, 2019.  We are still working on how those details will be worked out in that six month period, but I trust and am sure we will find our way.

These are exciting times and I look forward, as I hope you do, to the ways our new District and our new Annual Conference will help congregations make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

Peace,
Bill

I keep dreaming…

As I have gone around to our churches over my years as a District Superintendent I have often asked this question:  If we had all the financial resources of the United Methodist’s in Michigan and we had all the people resources of the United Methodist‘s in Michigan and we were starting brand new today, would we deploy ourselves as we are now deployed?

It is a rhetorical question because the very clear answer is absolutely not.  Of course we would not build our churches where they are today if we were starting over.  We have hundreds of churches that were built in a time when people walked to church.  We have hundreds of churches that were built when people rode horses to church!  We are deployed to carry out the mission of the church 50 to 100 years ago.  Unfortunately, we are living in a very different time and the problem is we seem to be trying to hold on to that past even though most of us know it’s not working.

The reason I keep asking my question is that I dream of a day when we will take seriously the challenge of engaging the mission of reaching the world today with the love of Christ.  I dream of a Michigan United Methodist Church that is willing, across the board, to do whatever it takes to make the shifts, the mergers of congregations, the closing of congregations, the beginning of new congregations, and all the other actions necessary, to deploy ourselves in a way that will enable us to appropriately engage the landscape of today.  It will be a huge lift I know!  We are so connected to our buildings.  We are so focused on what works for us and what meets our needs.  And when push comes to shove that reality too often becomes the ultimate consideration.

But I still keep dreaming.  I keep dreaming of a church whose first question is always about those who aren’t here yet.  I dream of a church that will not stop asking what’s next, and how can we do it better, and what will it take to reach our community, our city, our state, our world with the message of God’s grace.  I keep dreaming of a church that is willing to sacrifice any (to use Wesley’s term) “non-essential”, worship style, structure, our buildings, our power, our money, anything to fulfill the mission of effectively, passionately, prayerfully, participating in the building of the Kingdom of God on earth even as it is in heaven.

I keep dreaming…

But I want to invite us all to do more than dream.  I want to invite us to pray, to talk, to really look seriously at the situation we face and the mission before us.  I invite us to take action.  I invite us to begin conversations with the 2, 3, 8 United Methodist Churches around us asking ourselves is there a way that we could do this better?  Could we strategically redeploy ourselves in this community, this city, this county to more effectively be the Church?  I have been a part of those conversations both as a Superintendent and as a Pastor and they have led to some pretty wonderful things.  We must begin these conversations.  We must begin to dream together.  We must be willing to let go and allow God to lead us in new ways.  Cause I don’t think those horse riding days are coming back.

Peace,
Bill

Moving Beyond our Fears and Uncertainties

I was in a conversation the other day with some friends and I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but we started talking about fears.  Most of us had one or more of the fairly common types, heights, snakes, enclosed places, and it was interesting to listen and watch the animation that went along with each description to understand the depth of our struggles.

It seems like there is a lot to fear these days.  Beyond the phobias I was discussing with my friends, there is a lot of uncertainty around us and that often breeds fear.  There are fears related to gun violence and there are fears related to terrorism.  There are fears related to international relations and the threats of nuclear confrontation.  There are also fears in many of our churches.

We are declining, we are struggling financially, we are not sure what will happen as we move into the 2019 special General Conference, we are not sure what’s next.  And in the midst of any and all of these fears it is easy to move to a place of debility.  It’s easy to move to a place where our fears rule our actions and we move into a reactive, protective mode and I understand that emotion and desire.  We want something safe we want assurance that in the midst of our fears it will be OK.

As people of faith we have that assurance.  Faith is not a panacea.  It doesn’t wipe out our fear and it doesn’t magically do away with the issues behind our fears.  But our faith does enable us to see our fears from a different place, and from a different perspective.  Our faith in God who is always working for good, who is the essence of good, and who is acting, both in our world and in us, to bring forward that good in every circumstance and situation, our faith in God enables us to see and move beyond our fears.

Knowing who God is helps us to engage our fears with hope and with purpose knowing that God is working with us to see God’s Kingdom come on earth even as it is in heaven.  Faith in God, evidenced so perfectly in Christ Jesus, empowers us to live differently.  Not in denial of the situation, not simply believing that God will just somehow fix it all apart from us, but rather knowing that God is with us working for good in the midst of our very real fears and knowing that even if our worst fears are realized it is not the end, but in God there is always a step forward.

Jesus promise put it so well in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Peace,
Bill

Prayer and Action to End Gun Violence

This week rather than writing my own words I want to share with you a resolution adopted at our 2016 General Conference and thus included in our Book of Resolutions.  Somehow it seemed appropriate.

“As followers of Jesus, called to live into the reality of God’s dream of shalom as described by Micah, we must address the epidemic of gun violence so “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” Therefore, we call upon United Methodists to prayerfully address gun violence in their local context. Some of the ways in which to prevent gun violence include the following:

  1. For congregations to make preventing gun violence a regular part of our conversations and prayer times. Gun violence must be worshipfully and theologically reflected on, and we encourage United Methodist churches to frame conversations theologically by utilizing resources such as “Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities: Reflections on Gun Violence from Micah 4:1-4” produced by the General Board of Church and Society.
  2. For congregations to assist those affected by gun violence through prayer, pastoral care, creating space, and encouraging survivors to share their stories, financial assistance, and through identifying other resources in their communities as victims of gun violence and their families walk through the process of grieving and healing.
  3. For individual United Methodists who own guns as hunters or collectors to safely and securely store their guns and to teach the importance of practicing gun safety.
  4. For United Methodist congregations that have not experienced gun violence to form ecumenical and interfaith partnerships with faith communities that have experienced gun violence in order to support them and learn from their experiences.
  5. For United Methodist congregations to lead or join in ecumenical or interfaith gatherings for public prayer at sites where gun violence has occurred and partner with law enforcement to help prevent gun violence.
  6. For United Methodist congregations to partner with local law-enforcement agencies and community groups to identify gun retailers that engage in retail practices designed to circumvent laws on gun sales and ownership, encourage full legal compliance, and to work with groups like Heeding God’s Call that organize faith-based campaigns to encourage gun retailers to gain full legal compliance with appropriate standards and laws.
  7. For United Methodist congregations to display signs that prohibit carrying guns onto church property.
  8. For United Methodist congregations to advocate at the local and national level for laws that prevent or reduce gun violence. Some of those measures include:
  • Universal background checks on all gun purchases
  • Ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty
  • Ensuring all guns are sold through licensed gun retailers
  • Prohibiting all individuals convicted of violent crimes from purchasing a gun for a fixed time period
  • Prohibiting all individuals under restraining order due to threat of violence from purchasing a gun
  • Prohibiting persons with serious mental illness, who pose a danger to themselves and their communities, from purchasing a gun
  • Ensuring greater access to services for those suffering from mental illness
  • Establishing a minimum age of 21 years for a gun purchase or possession
  • Banning large-capacity ammunition magazines and weapons designed to fire multiple rounds each time the trigger is pulled
  • Promoting new technologies to aid law-enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote public safety.”

ADOPTED 2016

See Social Principles, ¶ 162.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church – 2016. Copyright © 2016 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.