Having Pure Motives

I just finished watching again the last episode of one of my all-time favorite TV shows. I have seen it a number of times but every time it grabs me. Every time it brings a tear to my eye. The show is about people with pure motives. It is about high ideals. It is about loving truth and standing on principle and accomplishing good. The show stirs me even though I know the episodes well.

I think story that taps into our emotions like that, story that affects us and touches us to the core of our passion for that which is right and decent, respectable and uplifting, connects us to God, it connects us to Gospel. Whether we realize it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not story, good story, real true story, connects us to God and Gospel.

Art is the same, as it captures us in its magnificence. The beauty of creation is the same as it takes our breath away causing us to simply stand without speech, and marvel at what is before us. It joins us to the wonder of God.

I am not suggesting that these things, story, art, creation, and a host of others we could mention, are God, they are not. But they are all connected to God, they are expressions of God, they are − I dare say − opportunities to experience and encounter God. And all these things remind me that God is so much bigger than the little boxes in which we try to put God.

God is good. God is every good. God is all good. And when we see good, when we experience good, when we live good, it all connects us to God. Yes, God is bigger than the greatest good we have ever seen or experienced, but good is always, in whatever form, an expression of God and a means of grace.

When I finished watching my show this evening, my heart was full. So much turning out right. Even the painful was muted by the characters’ care of one another. And as I watched I was again reminded that I so much want the world to be like that.

You can call me naive and you can call me foolish, you can call me whatever you would like, but I do believe that the vast majority of my mission as a follower of Jesus is to bring good wherever I can. To bring good to my family with the words I use and the way I act. The way I listen and the way I behave. To bring good to my work with simple acts of respect for all people and a movement day by day away from self- centeredness towards humility (I have a significant way to go on all these!). To bring good by standing up for the needs of the few not just the many, to side with those who hold the short end of the stick in virtually every measure of success.

Friends, I want to live out the goodness of God. Like story and art and creation, I want my life to be a reflection of the good God wants the world to see and experience. I want to be, in a world of pain and hurt and violence and injustice…GOOD! I want to live out grace. I have a long way to go, but I believe it’s what I am called to be and where I’m called to go. Anybody want to go with me?

Peace,
Bill

What About Me?

What about me?!  What about my side?!  What about my team, my people, my perspective, WHAT ABOUT ME!!?

This sentiment gets expressed in so many ways doesn’t it?

It certainly got expressed to my parents as I was growing up when I thought my sisters were getting something I wasn’t.  How unfair, unjust it was when they got the larger piece of cake or the extra half hour up before bed time.  But of course, like most children, I got that turnabout reality parents often receive when I had to hear those same complaints from my kids when Robin and I made similar decisions affecting them!

I hear similar sentiments now as a Superintendent sometimes when our VCI teams identify the need for churches to focus on outreach and the people who aren’t in the church yet.  The response is so often, “what about me!  What about my desires and preferences?”

My mind was drawn to this issue this past week as I heard the news reports of the Muslim worshipers targeted by the driver of a car in London.  I went there in my head because as I heard the story of the attack, I was reminded of some voices I have heard over the last year both on social media and in other arenas claiming that when the Muslim community is the target, the media and others get all upset and report the tragedy in significant ways, but you “don’t hear anything about Christians who are persecuted.”   “What about me”, “What about us” has been a response I have heard from some circles.

Of course the reality is that any persecution is incredibly tragic and painful and so far from what any genuine person of any faith would seek.  But as a follower of Christ it seems to me that my last response to another’s pain ought to be “what about me, what about my pain?”  As followers of Jesus we are constantly called to put others above ourselves, to see the need of the one we might lift up.  So when our response is self-focused, when we constantly clamor for our rights, pointing out how poorly we have been treated in whatever setting or circumstance, it often causes us to miss the opportunity to care for the needs of the other.

Many of Jesus teachings identify clearly our calling to be the ones who don’t look for places where we might have been missed, overlooked, or supposedly discounted.  Jesus instead invites us to let go of score keeping and become the servants of all.  Oh I know, it’s not easy for us.  It takes a real focus and lots of prayer to get there.  And I for one have a long way to go.  But spending our lives in “what about me” mode is the opposite of the way our faith invites us to live.  In fact I think Jesus said something about those who cling to their lives, their “rights,” their privilege, and those who instead give their lives away, giving themselves up on behalf of others.  I believe his suggestion is that genuine happiness and purpose come from the latter, and deep loss from the former.

You can check for yourself, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.

Peace,
Bill

Goodbyes & Hellos

There are around 120 pastoral moves happening across the state this month.  Those of you packing the last of the boxes and getting ready for the truck to arrive are well aware that this process is not always an easy one.  There are tearful goodbyes around leaving those with whom relationships have been build.  There are accomplishments and ministries to be celebrated but also left to be continued (or not sometimes) by the congregation and the next pastoral leader.  Times of transition are times of grief to be sure for pastors and congregations.

But I hope they are also times of excitement and energy around the new beginning.  I still remember the first sermon I preached in my first appointment out of seminary.  The text was John 1 “In the beginning….”  In retrospect, there was perhaps a bit of presumption in seeing MY arrival as pastor as The Beginning!  I was very careful of course to talk about all that had gone before and the good ministry and leaders the church had experience for decades before my arrival!

But there is a sense that pastoral change brings something new.  There is an inherent hope in our system of itinerancy that the new pastoral leader will bring new gifts to the congregation.  There is an inherent hope in our system that the next pastor will come with renewed energy to continue the good work a church is doing with the strong lay leadership that is in place or that they will help move a struggling congregation towards a new future that is rich and good and fulfills the mission Christ has given.

Now I believe that every day is a new day with God.  I believe that to my core.  Every day is an opportunity to start fresh, to begin anew, both as individuals and as congregations.  So, the fact is it’s not only churches that are experiencing pastoral change that have the opportunity to celebrate (or ask forgiveness for) the past and engage the future with prayer, vision, and new life.  But pastoral change does provide, both for clergy and laity alike a clear “comma” moment, an obvious opportunity to take stock, to look for where God is leading now, in this day, and hopefully enable movement towards an envisioned future together.

Please know I am and will be praying for all reappointed pastors as you go into new settings.  Please know I am and will be praying for congregations as you receive new pastoral leaders.  And please know that I am praying for us all as we seek to be the Church of Jesus Christ in this day, in this time, in this iteration of Beginning.

Peace,
Bill

Love Overcomes Fear

I was listening to the news the day after the attack in London last weekend.  CNN was interviewing a man who had been in a Borough Market pub when the three knife wielding men came in.  He described with great respect and appreciation the actions of various people, wait staff, security, police, and EMTs, people who cared for him and the other patrons as the event unfolded.  He spoke eloquently describing how everyone cared for one another, how they looked after one another as the attack was taking place and after it was over.  It was a riveting interview.

One of the things that struck me was the reason he was there at the scene the day after such a traumatic experience.  He was there to pay his bill.  He came back to pay the restaurant for the food and drinks he had consumed before the attack!  It was a particularly significant act of integrity to be sure, but as I listened to him share, it was more than that.  He spoke so much from his heart not in anger or hatred, but in love for what the London community represented.  He spoke about the diversity in his city and how much he valued that gift.  And finally, he said (and I’m not quoting him precisely, but it’s close), “we must continue to represent this culture of openness and diversity, the more they try to stop it the more we need to grow it and live it out in the open.”

There was no fear in his voice.  There was no suggestion that Londoner’s ought to run and hide or arm themselves.  In fact he made a particular point about the difficulty of getting guns in the UK and if these three men had had guns how things would have been much worse.  He simply stood, in the aftermath of this attack, ready to fight back with love.  Ready to keep fear from ruling over the basic construct of his culture, believing that love and tolerance could in fact win the day.  I was moved to tears of joy listening to this man.

A year and a half ago we of the Grand Rapids District held an event to celebrate the faith statement that love overcomes fear.  I pray we continue to hold to that belief.  I pray we continue to live it out in a celebration of diversity and the God given gift of every person.  I pray we continue to let others know we believe it’s true.

Peace,
Bill

Creating A New Michigan Conference

Well, it’s about to begin! I’m writing from Traverse City where we are preparing for Annual Conference. Close to 2000 United Methodist’s from across Michigan will gather to take significant steps on the road to becoming the Michigan Conference.

The Design Team has worked for almost two years now and is bringing nearly two hundred pages of legislation to the Conference. The legislation creates a structure built around the mission of the new Annual Conference to empower Christ Centered Mission and Ministry – Bold Effective Leaders and – Vibrant Congregations. The legislation continues the technical and sometimes legal work of bringing together the present two Conferences into the one new Conference. The Legislation enables us to move into this next year poised to take the steps necessary to be ready for the new thing God is doing in Michigan.

I am excited about this week. I am excited about the worship we will participate in together. I’m excited about the opportunities we will have to learn new things that will help us in our ministries. I’m excited about the opportunity this Conference will provide to meet more new friends from the other side of the state. I’m excited because in the midst of questions and the constant uncertainty of the future, we are seeking to do a new thing.

May God continue to guide and empower our efforts.

Peace,
Bill

2017 Michigan Area Annual Conference
Michigan Area Design Team

Joys and Sorrows

Our trip to Mexico was the best vacation I have ever had in my life.  It was a wonderful celebration of our 40 years of married life.  Our days were filled with sunshine, swimming in a beautiful pool, dinners by the ocean and spectacular sunsets.  I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

We landed back in Grand Rapids around midnight on Friday May 12th.  The next morning we received a phone call from the hospital in Lansing where Robin’s sister had been taken a couple days before and by around 4:30 that afternoon we were sitting at Erin’s beside as she made the decision to move from actively fighting the massive infection that had developed in her body to palliative care.  Monday morning we received word that Erin had died in the night.

As I reflect on the emotional roller coaster these days brought for me and even more to Robin, it took me to a scene that takes place in many of our congregations every Sunday.  I’m thinking about those minutes we spend offering up to God our “joys and sorrows.”  If ever we had a week that held both significant joy and deep sorrows it was that week.

But as I think of this personal whiplash for us, I am reminded that in the body of Christ this is always our state.  There are always those who are celebrating events, milestones, the good things of life.  There are those every Sunday morning who are experiencing joy.  And there are those in the Body of Christ who are at the other end of the spectrum.  They are dwelling in grief, they have lost jobs, they are struggling with health or loss of hope.

Roman 12:15 calls us as the Church to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.”  This is not an easy thing to do.  When we are rejoicing, things are going well, when we are on vacation and celebrating it’s hard to engage those who are struggling.  They are, to put it in a modern vernacular, a buzz kill!  They bring us down.  Likewise when we are struggling, when we are hurting it is hard to celebrate the good news and joy of those on top.  Our tendency is instead to become at least a little bit jealous.  We avoid those folks because we are just not able to connect with their joy.

But Paul is calling us in Romans 12 to be the Church.  And that means, as it always does, that it’s not just about us.  So, when we are mourning, we can and should mourn.  We can and should allow ourselves to grieve and live in our struggle never feeling guilty because we are where we are.  But we can also genuinely celebrate the rejoicing others are experiencing because we love them and we are authentically grateful for the good that is happening in their life.  Similarly, when we are rejoicing we can pause in our personal revelry to offer real compassion to those around us who are hurting.  We can, in fact, enter in to their mourning that we might offer them the grace of God in the midst of their pain.

I am grateful for all the offers of prayer, the cards and other expressions of love offered to our family in this past week.  You have mourned with us and we are truly grateful.

Bill

Finding a way to live together in the tension

I spent some time on Facebook following the announcement of the Judicial Council decision regarding the election of Karen Oliveto as a Bishop.  I read articles from UMC news agencies and the pastoral letter of our Bishop David Bard.  I read the letter from the Council of Bishops and a piece from the New York Times.  I especially appreciated the letter of our Bishop and the gracious nature of his words.

In the midst of the Facebook comments about it all there were − of course − a variety of reactions.  For some, there was anger at what was viewed as another legalistic response by the church to an individual gifted and loved by God.  There were in other comments a sense of hopelessness towards the future.  There were others passionately presenting their feelings that the Council had upheld an appropriate standard.  There were lots of comments expressing a variety of opinions on these two basic themes.

One comment though stood out for me.  It was in a long string of reactions representing all that I shared above and it said this, “Wow, I can’t believe that I belong to the same church as some of these people.”

On one level I understood this completely.  When we see people who claim the name we claim and they are acting in ways, holding beliefs that seem to be far from our own, far from our understanding of the “essential” components of our faith, we wonder how we can stay in fellowship and connection with them given their position or perspective.  I understand that completely.  It is exactly what has gotten us to the 28,000 or so different Christian denominations in the world.

But on another level I don’t get it at all. It’s absolutely counter intuitive to what we know about the Church.  There is a reason that Jesus makes such a point of calling us to “love one another.”  There’s a reason why Jesus suggests that we might need to forgive one another from time to time!  Because the Church is not designed to be a homogenized group of folks who all think alike.  In fact the church is full of people who would never get together anywhere else.  So on any number of issues around any number of strongly held perspectives, we will differ.  That is just a reality, a reality that Jesus understood and anticipated.

But for me, this reality provides for us a great opportunity to be a witness to the world around us.  It is an opportunity, especially in these days when our culture is experiencing an incredibly high level of polarization, to provide an example of how we can disagree in very significant ways and still love one another, still focus on the core mission of the Church and find ways to live together in the tension.  The Church is not designed to be a place where it’s easy to be community.  If it were easy for us to love one another Jesus and the Epistle writers wouldn’t have had to mention it so many times!  But since we are called to be that kind of a community, to be that kind of witness, I pray that through “The Commission on a Way Forward,” through conversations and prayer, through the power of God’s Spirit at work in me and you, we will find the grace and power to be the Church − even as we struggle with one another.  I invite you to pray to that end.

Peace,
Bill

A Partner in Ministry All Along The Way

I won’t be writing a Castings article the next two weeks.  My wife Robin and I are going to Mexico next Tuesday for 10 days!  On May 7 we will be celebrating 40 years of marriage; I can hardly believe it has been that long.  It just seems like yesterday that we were moving our things into married student housing at Eastern Michigan University! I know not everybody has this blessing and God uses each one of our unique situations in ministry for the work God has given, but I have had the awesome gift of a partner in ministry all along the way.

Robin and I met at a “Mid-Winter” District youth retreat on the Lansing District at age 16.  I first felt called into ministry at age 17, so we have been in this together all along the way.  And Robin has made significant sacrifices along the way in this itinerant system in which we live.  Robin is retired now, but she taught Special Education at various levels for 30 years.  Because of our 4 local church appointments she received, gave up, and earned once again her tenure − three different times!

In the early days, before computers, Robin typed sermons (sometimes on Saturday night!!).  She juggled raising kids, with a husband and father who wasn’t always able to be around in the evening or at critical moments.  She has also used her rich gifts for her own ministry serving as District Youth Coordinator on no less than three districts, singing in choirs and bands, and helping cabins full of girls at camp discover the joys and wonder of God’s grace.  We have walked the road God has given to us and it has been wonderful.

Now…it hasn’t been perfect.  There have been times we have talked with counselors to help us try and sort out issues we struggle with and continue to struggle with.  There have been times our temperaments and perspectives have brought us to different places in decision making, but for the most part, it has been a delightful journey.  And I am so humbled and thankful for the gift our journey has been and continues to be.

So….I won’t be writing Castings for the next two weeks.  I will be hanging out on a beach with my partner in life and in ministry, thinking back over the past 40 years and looking forward to all God has for us all along the way ahead.

Peace,
Bill

Prayer: Living in God’s Presence

Several months ago I discovered Apple Music. It is a service you can purchase through Apple that allows you, (or up to six people if you get the family plan), to access all of Apple’s music via your iPhone or computer. My phone connects via Bluetooth to my car so as I drive from place to place I press the home button and say, “play….” whatever song, artist, style of music I want to hear and a couple seconds later I’m listening to whatever song, artist, or style of music my little heart desires! It’s great and it has rarely let me down. It pretty much always finds what I’m looking for. I got to thinking the other day about my instant access to the world of music, and it dawned on me that sometimes that’s kind of our approach to prayer.

We press the prayer button as it were, speak into the air and wait for the answer to arrive. Now I know that’s simplistic, and most of us have a better theology of prayer than this, but at its basic core I think sometimes this is the essence of how we view the interaction when we pray. Having said that let me go further to admit to you that I have never been a very good prayer. I know I have been a pastor for 37 years and a Christian for longer than that. But the fact remains I am in the primary school of prayer. I read authors sometimes who describe a prayer life that is deep and rich and I know that I have not progressed to near that place. And while I know that everyone is different and there is no right way to pray and that personality and temperament all come into what works best for each of us, still, I know that I am in the primary…. no, the kindergarten of prayer. Too often my prayer life does not take me much further than the Apple Music style I mentioned above.

If I move beyond a recitation of my needs and desires, the “next song” I would like God to play in my life, and instead simply rest in God’s presence, I sometimes catch a glimpse of what could be. The world is so full of noise and distractions, I need so much to find ways to genuinely connect with the One who is The Divine. To take the time to engage with all my being the God who loves me and all of creation with a passion that is beyond description. I long to touch the hem of God’s garment and bask in the peace that goes beyond understanding.

Prayer for me these days is not so much about getting stuff from God, having God play my song, as it is simply living (as imperfectly as I do) in God’s presence on a regular basis. It is drinking deeply from the well of love, wisdom, and grace that God’s presence offers. It is inviting God to guide and lead all and to open my eyes to see as God sees. That’s what prayer is for me…..

But like I said, I’m only in prayer’s Pre-School! I have a long way to go.

Peace,
Bill

I Wonder What YOUR Easter Surprise Might Be?

I have never had a surprise party.  I have never been to a surprise party.  My only frame of reference for such an event is television.  Usually on TV there is some convoluted plan that goes awry and challenges the surprise that creates the “comedy” in “situation comedy.”  In the end it all works out and there is a celebration for the person who is the focus of the party.

Surprises can be fun, enjoyable, and exciting.  Like surprise parties, other surprises can be great as well.  I recently had someone pay back a debt I had basically forgotten about and written off.  I love it this time of year when the forecast says it’s going to be 45 and it turns out the be sunny and 65!  Some surprises are wonderful!

Not every surprise is a positive of course.  Sometimes life is moving along, from one day into the next and we receive a lab report that brings a surprise illness.  We have heard of such things in other people’s lives, but now it’s us and the surprise is very unsettling.  The dreaded 2:00 A.M. phone call from a friend or a child or the police is a surprise none of us want to receive.  So again, not every surprise is a positive experience.

But for those who visited the tomb of Jesus that first Easter morning, the surprise they received was life changing.  For them, it transformed Friday’s worst news ever, into a joy they could never have imagined.  It pulled back the cloud of uncertainty and fear, and opened the door to fresh hope and eternal possibilities.  The Easter surprise for those who first went to the tomb was more than they could take in, in that moment.  But as the reality sank in through the events of the days and weeks ahead, Easter’s astonishment became a brand new perspective on everything!

I wonder what might be our Easter surprise this year?  I wonder where we might find hope as we celebrate the empty tomb in our churches and our lives this year?  Most of us have places of struggle, places of doubt, places where we are challenged by life’s circumstances.  What would it mean for us to allow the promise of Easter to pervade those areas of our life and to fill them with new hope and potential?

The Easter surprise is real.  It is the core of our faith.  It lifts us to possibilities never imagined without it.  I invite you to let the message of Easter capture you anew this year.  I invite you to allow it to surround you and all the challenges you are facing just now.  I invite you to be surprised by the power and depth of the resurrection that you might live life in new ways, and celebrate with profound joy.

Peace,
Bill