We Can Never “Take a Break” from God

It has been awhile!  I decided when I went on vacation in August that I would take a break from Castings for the month, and my what a month it’s been.  The current events which have taken place in this break have been legion!  Events that have directly affected the lives of people and their culture would have most probably been items I would have chosen to write about, had I been writing Castings in August.  Let me think back with you for a moment to Charlottesville, Hurricane Harvey, North Korea missile tests and U.S. response, Mudslides in Sierra Leone, and massive flooding resulting in the death of over 1,200 people in Bangladesh, and this week (I know it’s September now) the Administration’s action towards ending DACA.  There has been much to invite our prayers, our voices, and our actions.

As I have listened to and watched these stories evolve, as I have observed the many lives affected by them, as I have prayed and given and written emails to leaders, it occurs to me again just how life rolls on from one event to the next.  This is true certainly in the “news cycle,” in the global realities of each day’s story.  For given individuals who find themselves the focus of the stories, their day in the news may well be life changing, but for most of us the events of the world flow one into the next with little affect upon us.  Oh, we may respond.  We may celebrate or get upset.  We may, as I indicated I have done, engage the event in some way either seeking to influence, help, or affect the outcome going forward.  We may simply join the conversation by talking to friends or speaking out on the endless noise on social media.  But ultimately, we move on.  We move on to the next story, the next challenge or joy that is just now coming into view.

At age 61 (yes, I know many of you have me beaten!), I have seen my share of this day to day, year to year cycle.  And that reality, while not minimizing at all the importance of each and every event, trouble or difficulty − because each one involves the lives of real people loved by God − gives me some sense of peace.  The peace comes from the knowledge that God is in it all.  God’s grace has been present in times of fear and worry, in times of pain and discouragement, and God’s grace IS with us now leading us forward.

Now that is not in any way an excuse for non-action.  It is not a panacea, or an invitation to simply disengage.  If ever there was a time for Christ followers to represent Christ’s way of love in the world, it is now.  But we represent that love with a confidence that knows there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that as we live out that love in all the ways we are able to, God is our guide and our hope from news cycle to news cycle to news cycle.

Thanks be to God!

Peace,
Bill

Introducing A New Volunteer Position: GR District Chaplain!

Friends I have a wonderful announcement to share with you!

Below is a letter from Rev. Tamara Williams who has recently moved to our District. Tamara, as the letter explains, has moved into the status of medical leave as of our 2017 Annual Conference. But while she is unable to serve a congregation full time, Tamara continues to have a deep heart for ministry.

So I am very excited that she is moving into a newly created volunteer position of District Chaplain. Having worked for five years with Tamara on the Cabinet, I have seen first hand Tamara’s compassion, grace, and wisdom, and I know that she will be a gift to all the Clergy on our District.

As you know, while I am a pastor at heart and certainly want to carry that role for you, the Discipline requires me to be a Supervisor as well. Tamara will not have that role and she will not be reporting to me.  She will be “Pastor/Chaplain” in the fullest sense of those words. Please read her letter below.

I welcome Tamara into this new role on our District.

Blessings,
Bill

Dear District Colleagues and Friends,

Greetings from North Muskegon!  I’ve known some of you for a long time, but let me introduce myself to everyone: my name is Tamara Williams, and my husband Jeremy and I just moved at the end of June to Community UMC in North Muskegon, where Jeremy has been appointed to serve as pastor.  At the same time, I began a Disability leave of absence (I was diagnosed last year with a rare neurological condition called P.A.F. – “Pure Autonomic Failure.”  It causes a bunch of weird symptoms, among which my blood pressure issues make it impossible to carry out basic pastoral tasks!).

Knowing I was coming to the Grand Rapids District, and knowing that I have to respect the limits of my body as its strength and stamina fluctuate constantly, I spent many months seeking God’s direction.  I feel God’s leading in two specific areas of my life.  One is to start a new small group for spiritual guidance and support for women who are dealing with chronic conditions (the number of women I’ve encountered here who have everything from M.S. to Parkinsons to Fibromyalgia to rare neurological conditions really blows my mind!).  The other was to talk with Bill Haggard about the possibility of being the “District Chaplain.”  We spoke, Bill liked it… and now this letter to you makes it real!

You also may or may not know that I was District Superintendent of the Albion District for eight years (and for part of the Heartland District for two years.)  😊 Way back in 2010, we re-structured the Albion District (by District Conference vote) and began having a “District Chaplain.”  This was a position we created for the district, which was beautifully filled for seven years by Rev. Jim Gysel in his retirement.  Basically, Jim would contact —and sometimes even visit — clergy and their family members during crisis times such as hospitalizations, illnesses,  deaths, etc.  It was a very practical way for us to take another step in caring for our clergy and their families while also acknowledging that the D.S. has a “supervisory” role that cannot be ignored, and which sometimes gets in the way of truly caring pastorally for clergy and their families. For example, every fall and winter, every D.S. goes away for almost a week on a working retreat with the Bishop, making it impossible to respond in a timely manner to a clergyperson or a member of their family who has a special need or an emergency.

As District Chaplain, Jim was often able to be “present” pastorally, through phone calls, visits, and always through prayer, when I couldn’t be — and often even when I could!  I envision the same.  I don’t want to replace the pastoral presence of Bill; I just want to enhance it.  So know that I am already praying for you by name, and if you have any specific prayer requests or special needs for yourself or your family, you can get them to me by phone or by email (269-967-7104, pastortamara@hotmail.com).

I have no doubt that this ministry will change and morph over time, but my real goal is that our district clergy never feel that they have to face a crisis alone. 

Serving Christ with you,

Tamara Williams

Talking About Life & Ministry: One on One

Well it’s begun.  I am on the Heartland District this week meeting with clergy for our annual “One on One” times together.  For those who may not be aware of this practice, every year clergy persons under appointment meet with their Superintendent to talk about how things are going in life and ministry.

I always insist on beginning the meeting with prayer and a focus on the person themselves rather than jumping too quickly into what’s happening at the church.  I enjoy the opportunity to hear about spouses and children or for single clergy, other family and friends in their support structure.  We talk about how spiritual life is going and what’s serving to enable a deep connection with God.  It is usually a rich conversation.  One that is very important to me as Superintendent.

To be sure, we move on to talk about the church in detail as well.  We talk about the mission, the joys and the challenges that the past year has brought.  We talk about the evaluation from the SPRC or other evaluating group, and from that we talk about places of strength and effectiveness, and places where growth is needed.  We look at the future and what might be next, in the midst of the joys and struggles of the present.

And so as we begin this year’s round of One on Ones I must tell you I again, I’m excited!  Oh, they make for long days and coupled with church conferences (which start soon), long evenings and nights as well.  But it is really incredibly rewarding for the most part.  We have awesome pastors!  We have skilled and gifted clergy!  We are blessed with leaders who love God and love the Church and long to make a difference for the Kingdom of God.  And I get the honor and privilege of hearing from and working with them all!

This really is a great job!!

Peace,
Bill

P.S. I’m taking a hiatus from writing my weekly DS Castings in order to prepare for more One on One’s and the beginning of church conference season! As the song says, “See you in September!”

Pick Up The Rope!

I attended the Heartland District Beach Day this past Monday.  It was held at the beautiful home of Pastor Cheryl Mancier and her husband Carl.  When I got to their home I learned from a sign on the deck railing that Cheryl, along with serving the good folks at the Gathering UMC in Harrison, is also a water ski instructor!  So after sitting down and visiting a bit we headed out to the lake.  We loaded up the skis, lowered the boat off the shore station and headed out into the water.  Once we got into the middle of the lake Cheryl got her skis on and soon she was cruising across the lake moving into and out of the wake from side to side.  It was easy to see both her skill and joy in the sport.

As I watched from the boat a thought occurred to me,  “I could do that!”  When I was a teenager my family had a boat and I used to ski on a regular basis.  As I watched Cheryl my mind rehearsed again the feeling of gliding across the water, feeling the jolt of the drop that occurs as you cross the wake.  It was all coming back to me as I sat in the safety of the boat.  I kept thinking, “I believe I could still do that, I really do!”

As Cheryl completed her tour of the lake and dropped the rope Carl asked me if I wanted to go, (I had shared my former skiing prowess as we pulled Cheryl along).  I thought about it, then I thought about the fact that it had been at least three decades since I had water skied.  I thought about the last time my back was out (see last week’s Castings!) and I said, “I don’t think I better.”

That was probably the smart response.  It was probably the most adult answer to Carl’s question.  After all Church Conferences are starting before long and they are harder to do in a body cast.

It was probably the correct answer given my 61 year old, out of shape, overweight body, but a part of me really wishes I’d said, “Yes!”  A part of me really wishes I had gone to my car, gotten my suit on, and grabbed the rope.  I’m not sure what would have happened.  It might not have been good.  But who knows.  Muscle memory might have kicked in.  The legs and feet and arms might all have responded to what my brain remembered from all those years ago.  It might have been great.  But I won’t know because I stayed safe.  I stayed in the boat.

Sometimes we do that same sort of thing in our church don’t we?  We think about taking a leap of faith, we think about doing something new that will impact our community, we dream big and get excited and we almost run and get our suit.  But then somebody says, “Well we tried something like that before and it didn’t work.”  Or somebody says that it will cost too much and we need to save money in case the pew pads wear out this year.  And we go back to the report of the Paper Clip Committee and their plan to coordinate the paper clips in liturgical colors.

I wish I’d gotten in the lake the other day.  I wish I’d put on the skis, grabbed the rope and given Carl the thumbs up.

What’s your church considering today that could maybe jump start a new ministry in your community if you just grab the rope and go?

Peace,
Bill

An “Aching Back” in the Body of Christ

Have you ever had a back problem?  I have had that unpleasant experience several times in my life.  Most often for me it didn’t happen because I lifted some extra heavy piece of furniture or four bundles of shingles rather than three 😊 (I’m lucky if I can pick up one!)  No, most often it happens as I bend over to pick up a piece of paper on the floor or carry out some other routine task I do several times a day.  But this time I feel the crunch of muscles behaving badly and I know it’s time to start the heat and ice routine as the next several days are not going to be fun.

If you’ve had this “spine tingling” experience you know it’s awful.  The thing about it that’s most distressing is that when the pain is at its most debilitating, there is no comfortable position.  It seems that every way you shift your body a new shot of pain erupts.  Everything within you tightens up to try to protect your back and that only makes it worse.

As I thought about this experience recently, it reminded me of the behavior I sometimes see in churches.  Perhaps the congregation has been through a recent conflict.  Perhaps they have tried something new that didn’t work out so well.  Perhaps they’ve been dealing with the loss of significant givers either because folks have left or because they have died, and for the first time they are facing significant financial difficulties.  Perhaps they are just watching their membership decrease year by year and are wondering what the future will hold.

In many of these scenarios the church begins to “seize up.” People become more and more fearful and try to hold on more and more tightly to what isn’t working, hoping it will somehow just get better.  It feels like everywhere they turn there is pain.  And it is literally paralyzing.

So as we find ourselves in a place like that, how can we − the “Body of Christ” − discover the path to moving more freely in the Spirit when we are “locked up” by fear, dysfunction, or a focus on pain?  How can we move beyond ourselves when all we can think about is how much it hurts?  So many churches I see are living in this situation.

What is the “ice and heat” that brings healing and hope for a future that is good and filled with promise?  What is the treatment that brings curative wholeness?  Well, I think it begins when a willingness to risk starts again, as a disposition to trust the Spirit one more time and seek to follow where God is leading begins to sprout.  It begins as we choose forgiveness and let go of the stone against another that we’re holding in our hands.  It begins as we seek and see a vision for health.  For we must believe that we can get well.  And we must be willing to do whatever it takes to move towards that place of well-being.

Sadly, sometimes folks see no other option but to lay on the couch languishing in the pain.  They don’t dare move for fear the sharp stabbing pain will still be there.  I get that.  But if we are willing to treat the injury, as we take the steps towards healing, ultimately there comes a time when we need to get up and walk.  We need to engage health, or health will forever elude us.

So, if any of this resonates with you in your setting, if with all you’ve tried you still find yourselves stuck on the couch, perhaps it’s time for you, for your church to as Jesus put it “take up your bed and walk.”  Who knows what good things await you and your community if you do.

Peace,
Bill

Taking Time Away

I am taking a few days this week up north doing some planning.  I have done this annually for the past several decades.  When I was serving in the local church I spent these days doing sermon planning for the year ahead.  Now I get ready for Church Conference season and try to take a balcony view of the District and Conference related to my role as Missional Strategist.

This planning time is a week I look forward to every year.  I anticipate the opportunity to take these days, step back and look to what’s next.  I like it partly because I get to spend a week by a lake and enjoy the beauty of the area around Traverse City.  But more than that, it really helps me move beyond the moment and the urgency of the immediate, to both practically plan and dream.

I wanted to write about this time I take away every year because as I talk with pastors I know that some never take time to step back and get a balcony view.  They never take time to get away from the regular daily activities to think deeply, to pray, to listen and to breathe. And my encouragement to pastors, and really to all of us, is to take the time.

For pastors, I believe doing some kind of sermon planning retreat is essential.  Folks do it in different ways.  Some take a week once a year, others take a few days every few months, some work with worship teams and others are on their own.  And I’m not suggesting that my way is the best way, but my belief is that we need to do it some way.

Beyond the sermon creators among us, I think all of us need time away.  I would invite all of us to consider taking time at least once a year to retreat, to create space to hear from God, to connect with God.  If you haven’t had a practice of taking this time in your life, start with a day, start with an afternoon.  My suspicion is this time away will become more and more important to you, and something you eagerly anticipate!

Friends there is so much more I could say about this and I’d say more but I’m ready to get back to my time away!

Peace,
Bill

Enjoying the Perfect Moments in Life

I had lunch with my wife, my son and my daughter in-law yesterday. We ate at a restaurant right by the water. The sky was blue, the temperature was about 78 degrees, the lake was gorgeous and we were together. And to top it all off, the food was wonderful. It was just one of those perfect moments, when all is right with the world.

It wasn’t of course. All was not really right with the world. There were thousands of issues, thousands of problems, hundreds of thousands, millions, billions of people in various states of struggle and stress. But for us, in that moment or that hour, it felt that way.

I am so grateful that Jesus went to banquets. I’m so glad he went to that wedding and turned the water into wine. I think it shows us that even in the midst of dealing with the mess of living in this broken world, even in the midst of seeking to be Jesus’ hands and feet, in the pain and hurt that is all around us, it’s OK to have moments that are rich and perfect – moments that are about living in blessing and joy!

Jesus cared deeply for the poor. Jesus lifted the status of those who had no place in the culture in which he lived. Jesus gave his life so that we might know what it means to live. Jesus was the perfect picture of service. But once in a while he went to parties, he came to banquets, and he enjoyed those perfect days that come along every so often.

Peace,
Bill

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