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

 

Preparing for and Experiencing Holy Week

I used to talk often as a local church pastor about the need to go through all of Holy Week. Most of our churches or at least our communities have services for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Experiencing each of these days and the worship services that go with them are a “package deal!” My hope is that each of us will take time to be a part of this very special week in the life of our Christian Community.

Each of these days represent for us an important event and, more so, an important aspect of our faith. I hope you are looking forward to each of these services throughout these days. I trust that worship teams, pastors and the whole church body are preparing well to journey though these events together. May God lead us and bless us as we engage this very special time with our whole selves so that we might receive all that God has for us in them.

Peace,
Bill

Worship Experience

What a wonderful event we had last Saturday.  Kim Miller brought us great information and inspiration around worship practices and presentation.  She shared with us some wonderfully creative and innovative worship designs for both the elements of worship and the physical space in which worship takes place.  And while she serves in a setting with significant resources, Kim’s presentation offered us ideas on doing meaningful things on what she calls a “mud-&-spit” budget.  It was a good day as we thought about how to create more opportunities for significant “God experiences” in the lives of people already in our congregations and those visiting on any given Sunday.

All of it got me thinking about the work I’ve done as a District Superintendent over almost five years now.  As most of you know, I worship in a different church almost every week.  And as I do that I have experienced some wonderful worship.  Worship that was rich with meaning, clearly thought out and designed, worship that enabled me to easily connect with God.  I have experienced as well, what I would describe as good worship.  Places where folks offered an opportunity to engage with God, perhaps with some fits and stops here and there, but a good flow overall.  Places where it took a bit more work to stay focused, but where there was clearly effort and energy put into offering to God — and the congregation — something worthy and helpful in the Sunday morning experience.  But friends, let me be brutally honest, I have also been in some worship services that were just plain sloppy.  Clearly little effort had been put into connecting the elements together to provide a cohesive whole.  Worship was choppy and full of inside language and activity.  Music was bad and no effort was made to improve it.  The worship experience was a settling for that which was easy and routine.  And again, to be brutally honest, it was painful.

Even in some of our smallest settings, with the least amount of resources, we can pay attention to the details that make worship flow.  We can move beyond ourselves and think about the kinds of things that would help visitors connect with God.  We can give real time and prayer and energy to what we do on Sunday morning (or perhaps another day of the week), so that when we gather for worship we give our best to God, and we provide the richest opportunity possible for folks to encounter God at a deep level.

Worship is critical to the life of the church.  It is the centerpiece of what we do in the midst of a week of work and ministry.  It is an act worthy of our best.  There are great resources to help us do it better, to learn about what works and doesn’t work in connecting people to God.  I want to challenge all of us especially as we approach this year’s celebration of Easter, a huge opportunity to help people connect with God, to offer our absolute best….and then to do it again the week after!

Peace,
Bill

P.S. A few copies of Kim Miller’s books are available for purchase and pick up from the GR District Office following last Saturday’s dynamic workshops (first come, first served). Redesigning Worship and Redesigning Churches are $15 each or the pair for $25, which is well below the publisher’s pricing! Please contact Liz in the GR District Office to reserve your copies today (616.459.4503 or grdistrict@wmcumc.org).

It IS possible to stay relevant amid today’s changing culture!

I read this morning that Sears has put out a statement saying that they have “substantial doubt” that its company’s doors will stay open.  Other retail giants that have been main stays all my life, anchor stores in mall across the country, have been closing stores in many locations.  They’re not doing anything like the business they did just a few decades ago.

I wonder what folks would have said fifty years ago, if someone had suggested that these giants would close?  I suspect there would be a chuckle at the idea.  Sears was founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1886 for heaven’s sake!  It’s been a retail center in cities and towns across America for 130 years.  It will always be here would have been the natural assumption.

But then came Amazon.com as well as lots of other .coms.  Then came Walmart and Meijer.  I looked at my own Amazon account and realized that I made my first purchase from them in 1999 when they were primarily a book company.  I had three orders that year.  Last year I had 66 orders for everything from Altoids to computer parts, and clothes to vitamins.

There are other factors, I’m sure, that have affected Sears and other companies.  But the fact is the world of buying and selling is changing like so many other things in our culture, and some of those institutions that we once thought would always be there, are simply going by the wayside.

And the analogy to the Church is not a hard one to make, is it?  The world has changed and it is changing for us too.  There are many shifts that we could name.  Worship itself is one of them.  From the day of the week we offer worship opportunities to the location where we offer them, things are by necessity changing.

By the way there is a BIG worship training event on our District this Saturday with Kim Miller in case you hadn’t heard!!

Click → HERE ← for details!

Giving in the church has changed too.  If your congregation doesn’t offer at least automatic withdrawal from a bank account, if not instant giving on a web site; if you are relying only on people writing checks or putting cash in the plate,  then you are missing a significant portion of potential givers.

These are just a couple areas where our world is different than it was in the past, and if we don’t pay attention and move with the shifts we may well find ourselves ─ someday soon ─ putting out our own press release indicating our “substantial doubt” related to our ability to keep the doors open. And more importantly to carry out the mission of sharing Christ’s love in a broken and hurting world.

Peace,
Bill

“Field Preaching” then and now!

“About this time some disputes took place in the Fetter-lane society as to lay preaching; and Mr. Charles Wesley, in the absence of his brother, declared warmly against it. While his brother was still at Bristol, he had also a painful interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who objected to the irregularity of his course, and hinted at proceeding to excommunication. This conversation was to him the occasion of great perplexity of mind, which being observed by Mr. Whitefield, he urged him to preach in the fields the following Sunday, and thus commit himself almost beyond the possibility of retreat. He followed this advice, and preached, on June 24th, to nearly a thousand persons in Moorfields. At Oxford, the Dean dealt severely with him in regard of field-preaching; but on his return to London, he resumed the practice in Moorfields, and on Kennington common; and many were aroused to a serious inquiry after religion. On one occasion it was calculated that ten thousand persons were assembled to hear him.”

I read this passage out of John Wesley’s journal’s this past week.  I had to smile because I sometimes believe that there are new things!  But this text reassured me that at least in terms of human relations in the context of the Church, there is very little new under heaven!

In case you are not aware of the issues Wesley is addressing, there was a brand new practice that Wesley and his friends were engaging in called “Field Preaching.”  Field Preaching was basically preaching outdoors.  Gathering a group of people in a place where people were and sharing with them the Good News of Jesus Christ.  As Wesley’s journal indicates identifying a gathering of a thousand people at Kennington common, who were “aroused to serious inquiry after religion,” Field Preaching was working.  It was reaching people in significant ways.  It was making a difference.

But there was significant pushback against it.  It was viewed by the religious elite as “vulgar.” It was not a “proper” expression.  Worship was to take place in a sanctuary with specific liturgy and written sermons.  Those in power even threatened to excommunicate Charles for his actions.

Wesley was perplexd at their resistance.  To him the church was being the church.  People were being reached with the gospel, lives were being changed.  How could anyone be against that?!

And most of us who look at it from our vantage point today side with Wesley and scoff at the religious elites too.

But friends as I go from church to church and we talk together about mission and vision for today’s world, as we look at how we might be the church that sparks revival in our day, I too, often hear similar responses to what Wesley received. It’s shared in lots of ways from worship style preferences to the use of the pastor’s time.  It shows up in the focus of energy and money inside as opposed to outside the current congregation.  The struggle is alive and well today.

So, there is nothing new under the sun!  But the same principles and values of outreach that created the Wesleyan revival in the 1700’s can create new revivals today.  May we always be those who look beyond protecting to investing, from us to them, from religion to Spirit!

Peace,
Bill

The Paradoxes and Ambiguities of Faith

During the Ash Wednesday service in Muskegon last week, Bishop Bard shared with the congregation some paradoxes of the Christian faith in his sermon entitled “A Liminal Lent.”  It was a rich sermon and I appreciated it greatly, and as all good sermons do, it has caused me to continue to think about it since.

There have been times in my life when I have struggled with paradox.  I understand that struggle is by definition a part of the nature of any paradox, but the bishop in his sermon invited us just to hold some of the Christian paradox’s we experience in tension and live with them, maybe even celebrate them.  I don’t always do that well.  Being the age I am I have lived most of my life within the context of “modern” thinking.  That is, this is right and that is not right.  Modern thinking is dualistic.  It is one or the other, either or, right or wrong.  And so I have struggled with paradox and situations that seem to invite a “both and” reality.  But I’m grateful for the ways that is beginning to change.

Much is being written today from a variety of corners of the church about non-dualistic thinking, the idea that things need not be either this or that but may very well be both…or even more than just the sum of the two!  Many are exploring how we might value the seeming tension of paradox or live into an understanding that few things really need to be as clearly delineated as we have made them out to be.  Engaging this perspective, while sometimes difficult for those of my certain age, is, at least for me, remarkably freeing.  For when we begin to let go of some of our dualism, our often-tight fisted definitions of what is or should be, it opens us up to a whole new world of possibilities.  God begins to be removed from the small confining boxes into which we have placed God.  There is a new breadth and depth to theology.  Bible Study and life itself begins to abound with new prospective.  We move from being guardians of truth to a joy filled journey of exploration led by God’s Spirit into places of learning and discovery.  We become much more comfortable with paradox and ambiguity, and we live much more comfortably in the tension of that which we don’t know rather than in the old warm blanket that having everything all figured out once provided.

I’m not suggesting all this is what the bishop was saying last Wednesday!  But like I said, good sermons always put you to thinking and praying, contemplating and celebrating and that’s what I’ve been doing.

I don’t know where you are as we enter this second week of the Lenten season, but I invite you to allow the Spirit of God to blow through your life in these days.  I invite you to become more and more comfortable with the paradoxes and ambiguities of faith and trust that God who loves you and me and everyone – with an incredible love – will hold us safe even as we allow ourselves to navigate all the new currents the Spirit moves us upon.

Peace,
Bill

Lent is a time for sorting

I have been cleaning out files on my computer.  It is amazing to me how fast files and folders — designed to make life more efficient — can become unruly!  I’m certain I had a plan when I set up a given file structure.  I had a purpose and an understanding of how that structure would work and benefit me moving forward.  But somewhere along the line I forgot what I had done, and I started a new folder with a different file system in another place that made sense in that moment!  Consequently, as I’m working my way through the cleanup process this morning, I’m discovering that there are four locations of folders that should be in one place, and sometimes multiple copies of the files in each of those areas!

I think I’m getting a handle on it and I’ll probably have a much cleaner structure soon ─ at least for a while!

As I’m doing this work, I’m also thinking about the worship service tonight that begins the season of Lent.  Through the years I have engaged a number of different practices during the Lenten season.  Sometime I have removed things from my life to allow a deeper focus on God.  Other times I’ve added things with the goal of enabling a richer connection during these weeks.  Lent is a time for sorting. It is a time for evaluating where we are, and what in our lives has gotten perhaps a bit unruly and needs cleaning up.  It may be that as we take stock, we will discover that we need to become more involved.  Maybe we will find that our level of commitment to our faith and path of discipleship needs to be enhanced by activity.  Maybe we’ll discover that our life is filled with too many activities, even at church, and what we need to do is create some space for God to speak.

Whatever it is that you sense God calling you to this Lenten season, I pray that you will choose to follow and discover the richness and renewal God longs to give.  May God bless all of us as we give ourselves to this year’s Lenten journey.

Peace,
Bill