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.

Partnership and Covenant with Liberia

We’ve been celebrating our connection with Liberia lately.  As you are perhaps aware, the Detroit Conference has had a long standing partnership and covenant with Liberia.  And as we begin this new thing as the Michigan Annual Conference soon, we are seeking to invite churches and individuals from our side of the state to engage with this important ministry as well.

We, on the Grand Rapids District, have had a head start on this endeavor as we have connected with the Lofa River District of Liberia and just a week and a half ago completed our effort to get Superintendent Cecilia Mapleh a truck to enable more effective ministry on her district (click HERE to read the story and see recent photos!)

Last night Bishop Quire, the newly elected Bishop of the Liberian Annual Conference, was here on our District sharing about both his vision for and the needs of his country and the church.  He also shared great appreciation for the truck!

After Bishop Quire shared for a bit we asked questions and one of the questions was what are the primary needs of the people in Liberia?  The Bishop’s response was telling, “Well” he said, “I hesitate to give you the whole grocery list!”  Friends, there is indeed a grocery list!  I listened to stories about parts of Liberia where the church has begun orphanages for children whose parents died during the Ebola crisis.  As the Bishop shared about the lack of schools, medical care, clean water and other needs in many rural areas of the country and the fact that due to the years of civil war there is at least a generation that has very little if any education.  As he spoke about his vision of building up the agriculture abilities especially with the amount of land that the church owns.  As he lifted up the challenges and the commitment of the Pastors and Superintendents who walk miles to serve their churches and people and who experience and embrace extraordinary sacrifices to do it.

As I listened to all that he shared, I thought about some of the things that had taken my attention and energy during the earlier parts of the day. I thought about some of the things that had annoyed me or caused me some level of stress.  And while those things are real and a part of my life and yours as I laid them alongside some of the things Bishop Quire shared with us, the distance between them was significant.

Now I’ve not always been good about knowing what to do with that.  I tend to feel guilty and sometimes that’s all that happens because the problems seem so big (because they are), and I don’t know where to start.  And so I turn on the TV and go on with my life.  I can’t fix it all so I struggle to feel like anything I do makes any real difference.

We learned last night that to put a child through high school for a year costs $300.  So we took up an offering and raised $300.00 among the eight of us that were there.  One child will go to school because we met together last night.

Liberia still has lots of problems.  And that’s just Liberia.  I could write lots of other articles about the plight of Puerta Rico devastated by hurricanes, other countries and people who are living with war and daily life and death uncertainties.

But a Superintendent on the Lofa River District has a truck because of the gifts of our District, and one child will go to school next year who wouldn’t have been able to go had we not met last night.  I guess it’s a start.

Peace,
Bill

Cecilia’s long wait is finally over!

Many of you will remember that two years ago during each of our Church Conferences we received an offering the proceeds of which were to go for the purchase of a four wheel drive vehicle for Rev. Cecilia Mapleh, District Superintendent of the Lofa District in Liberia.  Folks gave at the church conferences and folks continued to give after the church conferences were completed.

Ultimately we reached the goal of $17,000 to purchase the used truck that would take DS Cecilia to her appointed rounds, enabling her to be more effective in caring for the people and churches of her very rural and often isolated district.  We reached that goal in the early part of 2016, and in my mind I expected that DS Mapleh would be on the road by February.  But…it didn’t work out that way!

We have been working with the General Board of Global Ministries, the Liberia Annual Conference and many others to accomplish this task ever since the money was raised.  We have been in phone and email contact with Cecilia and many others at least every other week.  It was nobody’s fault.  Everyone was seeking to make it happen, but finding a safe and effective means of carrying out this mission was a challenge, to say the least.

But thanks be to God, while there may be trouble in the night, Joy comes in the Morning! After some 18 months of finding our way forward, this past week, we received word that the money had arrived and the truck had been purchased.  We also received some wonderful pictures of Cecilia heading down one of the dirt roads of her district, no longer on foot or on a bicycle that doesn’t work at all in the rainy season, but driving a gift from co-workers in Christ from the Grand Rapids District.

As I looked at those pictures (below) my heart was warmed and I was reminded again that while we can’t solve all of the problems of the third world, while we can’t fix all the issues of Liberia, we can make a difference for one servant of Christ and the District she serves.  You have done that.  It took a while!  But you have made that difference.  Thank you!

Peace,
Bill