A Snow Day!

Snow Day!!  Oh, I loved those two words when I was a kid.  The opportunity to turn off the alarm, roll over and sleep until I wanted to get up.  It was a wonderful gift.  This past Monday was a snow day for most kids in lower Michigan.  The various school district names scrolled across the TV screen all Sunday night into Monday morning as kids (and teachers too!) got the day off.

Snow Days are a surprise, they are a gift in the middle of the usual routine.  It’s a regular week and then the snow piles up and we get a day off, a break we hadn’t planned on.

As I was watching Monday’s snow day unfold, it got me thinking about Christmas and the coming of Jesus into the world.  I mean think about it, while there was anticipation, while there were indeed prophesies and promises, life was going on pretty much the way it always had.  People went to work, politics were politics and the Temple activity carried on as it always had.  But then, as Luke tells us, one night, into the usual routine of caring for their sheep, some shepherds receive an announcement from angels in the heavens.  A remarkable star shone in the sky and wise ones took time off from their usual routines to follow that star.  And the Good News ─ he had been awaiting for many years ─ came to a devout man named Simeon.

So, what I’m wondering as I enjoy this opportunity to work at home ─ rather than drive to the meetings I would have been attending had they not been cancelled due to this snow day ─ is what Christmas surprises are in store for us this year?  What is it God wants to show us, to help us see, to enable us to experience this Christmas?  My guess is that whatever it is will not show up on the crawler at the bottom of our TV screen!  We will need to look for it.  We will need to pay attention so that we don’t miss it.  But I do believe that God does want us to receive a gift this Christmas.  God wants us to receive the precise gift that God has for us whatever that may be.  And God knows what that gift is.

It may be a fresh vision for our ministry. 
It may be a new awareness, a deep reminder of just how much God loves us. 
It may be the gift of another snow day so we can rest! 

But whatever it is I pray that we will receive it, that we will find in it the gift God intends, and we will be blessed.

Peace,
Bill

P.S.  This will be my last Castings for 2016, so have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful New Year!!

Thanksgiving Blessings

I remember as a teenager listening to Arlo Guthrie talking about the comparisons we make with others when we are feeling bad.  For instance, when we say to someone who is having a bad day or a difficult time, “Well, don’t feel so bad, at least you aren’t like so and so who….(you pick the appropriate difficult circumstance).”  While I’m not suggesting this is a very helpful way to comfort a person feeling low.  Arlo took the concept a little further.  He wondered aloud, “But what about the last guy?  Nobody’s got it worse than that guy.  Nobody in the whole world.”  It was kind of a provocative thought for me to take in, (especially at 16!).  Who has it the worst?  Who is the last guy, the last person?

Well at 60, I still don’t know if I could identify Arlo’s “last person.”  I’m not sure who that person might be today.  But the sad reality is that there is no shortage of candidates.  There are millions of children who are hungry, there are millions affected by deadly diseases, and even more tragic, millions more affected by diseases that are treatable, but who find themselves in places or situations where the medicines to help them are simply not available. There are homeless, lonely people all around us.  There are lots of “last” people in need.

At our house this week we with gather with 20 or so family members from a variety of places in the world, to celebrate Thanksgiving.  A wonderful and appropriate thing to do.  We will feast and laugh and have, what I trust will be, a rich time together.  And again, that’s a good thing!  Jesus feasted and celebrated at times, and it is my sincere hope that you will have some opportunity to be together with some special people in your life, sharing some level of feast and thanks giving for the gifts and the blessings of your life.

But as we give thanks, may we do so remembering the needs around us. May we do so with an eye towards those who find themselves, for a variety of reasons, and from a variety of perspectives, in that category of “lasts.”  May we take the opportunity in the days ahead, to find ways, as individuals, as congregations, as people who follow Jesus, to make a difference in the lives of the folks in need around us.  May we choose to engage the needs of those in all our spheres of influence with practical resources and with the love of Jesus Christ.  May we do it all so that our giving thanks tomorrow will not simply be an exercise in celebrating our blessings, but rather a fresh reminder that we are always blessed so that we might be a blessing to others.

Thanksgiving blessings to you all,
Bill

For the First Time in my Ministry I’m taking the time to Renew and Refresh!

As Pastors or SPRC members on our District are aware, I talk often about clergy and the need for time away from work.  I always stress (no pun intended!) with SPRCs the need to make sure their clergy leaders take all the weeks of their vacation and I push them to check up on those work-a-holic clergy types to make sure they are taking their time off during the week.  It is something that I believe is of critical importance to effective ministry.  While working hard is necessary ─ and I certainly encourage our leaders to work hard ─ time away, rest and Sabbath are just as important! It is a design that goes all the way back to the beginning.  Scripture teaches us that even God rested!

I have never seen myself as a work-a-holic.  I have always taken my vacations and my days off, unless a genuine emergency caused me to break that norm.  I am able to rest and not feel the urge to “do something productive.”  I have believed that to rest IS to do something productive.  My prayer for all of us Clergy and Lay folk alike is to find time during the upcoming summer months to get away from the routine, get away from the stress and enjoy what brings you refreshment and life.

The book of Discipline allows for District Superintendents to take a “Renewal Leave” of three months sometime during their six-year term.  Following Annual Conference this year, I will begin mine.  After thirty-six years of not ever taking more than two weeks off at any one time, I will enter into this lengthy period away from work.  And while I’m certainly looking forward to it, I am also a little scared!  I have a plan for a few things that I want to do.  I will engage a few special things that are on the agenda.  But for the most part I’m going to be by the lake, resting.  And while as I said I don’t really view myself as a work-a-holic, it just feels weird to be planning to be away from work that long.

I trust I will get over the apprehension I’m feeling!  I’m sure, if I’m anything like my colleagues who have taken this time away, I will come back refreshed and all too aware of how weary I was.  Please pray for me as I take this time away and know that I will be praying for you.  As there are issues or concerns that arise during my absence, Liz in the District office can get you the help you need through another Superintendent or others who are helping to cover for needs that may arise.

I wanted to share this plan with you now so that if there are concerns you have and need to speak to me before I leave, you can do so now.  Thanks for all you do in the ongoing ministry of your churches and the ministry we share together.  As the song goes (if you’re old enough to remember it!), I’ll see you in September.

Peace,
Bill

Jesus Taught us a Third Way of Thinking

A third way. It’s a concept that I like. Third way thinking says simply that very often there aren’t just two ways to go. There isn’t just a right or wrong, forward or backward, this way or that way option, but rather there is very often a third way we might follow as we deal with a given situation. The interesting thing about third way thinking is that most of the time it requires us to work a lot harder.

Two sided thinking is easy. It is clear. I’m right, you’re wrong. This is the way to go or that is the way to go and those are the only options. Two sided thinking by definition creates opposing, conflicting, perspectives. It is either this or that. Third way thinking requires us to go beyond the easy course of two sided conflict to discover a new alternative. It requires creativity and often humility. It demands that we push beyond what is easy to embrace that which may stretch us and cause us to find a way we never considered before.

Jesus taught third ways all the time. His culture demanded that one was either Jew or Gentile with all kinds of rules around what that meant and how one lived out that reality. Jesus found ways to embrace the humanity in everyone and widened the circle beyond the two sided cultural construct. The culture says there are enemies and friends and everyone is treated appropriately according to those categories. Friends you treat well and enemies you seek to hurt or kill. Jesus invited a third way that called us to love enemies as well as friends and end the circle of violence both real and emotional, that always seems to accompany the way enemies are treated. Jesus third way invites us to see again the humanity even in the enemy and treat them accordingly, giving the best opportunity for a change in the relationship.

Two way thinking says that evil, anger, and violence can only be defeated by a stronger force ─ greater violence ─ that overcomes the violence first perpetrated upon us. My mother invoked this thinking when I told her that my friend had gotten angry and hit me. Her response was, “hit him back.” Jesus’ third way thinking invites us to resist evil and violence differently. He invites us to resist it to be sure, but to resist it without engaging in it, to resist it without falling into its cyclical spiral, to resist it in ways that actually defeat it by pointing out its futility and evil through creative non-violent means.

I suppose that the ultimate third way is seen in the reality of Easter. Until Easter, there was life and death. Jesus invites us to see a third way which is life through death. That reality really changes everything and opens up all the avenues of third way thinking.

May we be those as individuals, as congregations, as a Denomination, who choose not to settle for two sided thinking, but who instead seek to discover third ways, ways that often only come through humility, prayer, and the guidance and the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Peace,
Bill

Clergy Clusters offer a Social Support Network

Last week I shared some days at a continuing education event in California with my best friend.  During the time we were in LA my friend turned 60 years old.  I took him out to dinner and I hope it was a good celebration of this important milestone in his life but the event got me to thinking about our journey together.

We met in seminary, graduated together, and were appointed in our first appointments.  The appointments happened to be churches that had been a two-point charge and had reached the point where each was ready to have their own full time pastors (something that sadly almost never happens today).  I recall well those early days of ministry.  All the insecurities, the questions about my ability to actually DO what I had trained for and I believed God had called me to do.  It was wonderful to have my friend there to share the struggles and joys.  To encounter the same surprises and challenges that come with those first months and years as a pastor.  And that connection and gift has continued as we now stand on the other end of this spectrum.

I have always marveled at his gifts, his humble, gracious love for the people God has given him to serve in every place where he has been sent.  For all these years he has continued to be a confidant, a colleague, and an inspiration to me.  Aside from my wife, my closest friend and the one I can tell anything, Don has been the one with whom I have walked this journey of ministry.

Now the reason I bring this up is because at the event in California there was conversation and presentation about the issues of loneliness and individualism among clergy.  And it reminded me again of the fact that some of us don’t have people like Don in our lives.  And because we don’t we try to do this, sometimes incredibly difficult and challenging work, alone.  We don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable with a friend and colleague and because we don’t we experience an even deeper loneliness than the already significant loneliness that is a part of this life we lead.

That both saddens and worries me from the perspective of my role as a Superintendent.  We need one another.  We need people who know US.  We need people who hear that almost imperceptible change in the timbre of our voice that causes them to ask, “What’s wrong?  What’s going on?”  Because they understand us that well.

Now it’s not just clergy who need this of course.  We all do.  But there is a uniqueness in the calling we follow as clergy that makes it particularly important.  One of the reasons I began the cluster groups that we started last year for all our clergy was so that this might be a place where some of this needed care might occur and perhaps for some, this kind of friendship might develop.  By the way have you met with your group lately?  Do you need to rethink your decision not to make this a priority?

The fact is while our ultimate source and strength for ministry comes from God, we are created to need each other.  I am grateful for my friend.  I am thankful for the almost 40 years we have shared together in walking this road of ministry.  Who do you have who shares the journey with you?

Peace,
Bill

January 6, 2016

The Cabinets and the Bishop are at our annual January retreat this week.  We are meeting at the Detroit Conference Camp on Lake Huron.  It is a beautiful camp and retreat center and today, right at this moment, I am staring out at the lake overlooked by a wonderful expanse of blue sky and sunshine.  It really is great….especially from the warm confines of the retreat center!

As those of you who know me are aware, and as I have shared from this forum in the past, I like observing nature….from a distance.  I appreciate, very much, the beauty of the lake today, I like driving by the woods or viewing some of the outstanding Michigan sights from those terrific scenic overlooks that MDOT provides!  But, I don’t like to be out in nature, I especially don’t like to have nature on me, in any regard.  And, as I thought about my relationship with nature this reminded me, a little, of the way I see some people engage their experience with the Church.

Some people come to worship…when there is nothing else to do.  They often don’t really sing the music or absorb the liturgy too much.  They simply observe the service from a distance.  They rarely get involved in leadership beyond the occasional response to an appeal to help with a one-time event.  They are hesitant to give much time or energy to the mission and ministry the congregation is seeking to accomplish.

While many churches these days (especially those who have entered the VCI process) seek to discover ways to help folks grow deeper in their discipleship through study and mission, the folks I’m thinking of would avoid those offerings and rarely, if ever, attend or participate.  These folks are the consummate observers.  They take it all in…from a distance.

If the things I have described sound familiar to you, if you can see yourself in that picture, I want to invite you to decide that this year is going to be different!  I invite you to step into 2016 with a different attitude and priority!  I invite you to step into your church with both feet!  Give yourself to God and to a fuller participation in the work, worship and ministry of your congregation.  If you do, I believe you will discover an incredible joy that can only be found when you move from a place of observation to a place of engagement.

Peace,
Bill

December 9, 2015

The day before Thanksgiving we had two new babies born into our family.  One to my niece on my wife’s side, one to my niece on my side of the family.  It was a great day!  Lots of Facebook activity and celebrating and pictures.  A wonderful day for rejoicing over the gift of these new lives.

Both children were very healthy.  Each mom received the good nutrition we would expect for pregnant women in our country.  Both had excellent medical care facilities where they gave birth.  It was just as we expect for those of us who live in this part of the world.

And while I’m very grateful for those wonderful gifts, and the multitude of other benefits we have as citizens of this wealthy nation, I am dismayed at times by the fear and unwillingness in some circles to offer even the basics of life to those most in need.  This is still true for far too many who live within our borders, but it seems especially true as we allow fear and greed to keep refugees from entering “our” country.  I can’t help but wonder what God must think of our behavior.  As we bask in the glow of our warm homes and abundance this Advent Season, millions are in need of care around the world.  Many refugees need safety, health and hope but instead are finding closed doors and the threat of a lengthier process than the already very lengthy and ineffective process that’s in place.

Scripture is very clear about the responsibility we have as Christ followers to care for the least and most vulnerable among us.  Scripture is very clear about the need to risk and even to give up at least a portion of what we have for the benefit of others.  In this season when we are preparing to receive again the gift of the Christ who let go of the glory of heaven for our sake, it is a sad state of affairs to see the firm grip with which we are seeking to grasp our own glory.

So may this season of Advent turn us, as individuals and as a nation, toward the goal of welcome and hospitality.  May we choose to let go of fear and overcome evil with good.  May we share out of our abundance with those in need, down the street and around the world.  May we be those who live up to our calling as followers of Christ to love actually and not just in theory.

Peace,
Bill