A Valentine’s Day-Ash Wednesday Comparison

I attended a church last Sunday where, during the announcement time, they shared about how they would be participating in Ash Wednesday.  What they are doing is providing the opportunity, over several hours during the day, for folks to drive up to the church’s covered turn around, roll down their window, receive the imposition of ashes, and be on their way.   I’ve been thinking about that ever since Sunday.

Part of me applauds what I think they are trying to do.  For those who know me you know I am a big fan of innovation. I love new things and creative ways of offering good news.  So part of me says, “good for them.”  They are trying to offer an opportunity for busy people who don’t have a lot of time to participate in Ash Wednesday.  They want to give people who have half an hour for lunch a chance to experience a positive beginning to their Lenten journey.  So again a part of me says “Amen” to that.

But another part of me worries a bit about the message we’re sending.  A part of me worries if we are missing the point this year when, for the first time since the end of WWII, Ash Wednesday falls on the same day as Valentine’s Day.  The comparison between what is most often the primarily feeling based expressions of love that tend to surround Valentine’s Day and the much deeper sacrificial love that is reflected in Ash Wednesday and Lent are a contrast to which we should pay attention.  What proports to be love in our culture often falls far short of what the Christian faith identifies as love.  Too often, Valentine’s Day love focuses on what I get from it and if I don’t get what I want then you’re not going to be my love very long.  It is a consumer love that is ultimately incredibly shallow.

The love represented in our faith is love that is centered around a cross and the process of picking up that cross for ourselves in the various situations, circumstances, and relationships of our lives.  It requires of us to love our enemies.  It requires forgiveness and grace towards those who not only don’t ask for it, but who boldly stand defiant in their ongoing willingness to keep doing what they are doing (Luke 23:34).  Ash Wednesday love requires of us a commitment to a course of living that reflects Jesus to a world that does not understand what real love is.  And it requires of us a willingness to die for that same course of love rather than to give it up. and that reality takes me back to my drive-up friends.

I know their hearts are in the right place.  And I may be wrong in my assessment (it certainly wouldn’t be the first time!!).  But drive-up ashes seem to me to be Valentine’s Day love; easy, convenient, not very costly at all.  Jesus love and the love he calls us to live out is so much more, so much deeper, so much more about a willingness to do whatever it takes to live it out even if it costs us everything we have.  Maybe it’s me, but drive-up ashes just seem to fall short.

Peace,
Bill

A State of our Lives Address

Last night was the State of The Union address.  It is a time when the President shares with the Congress and the country his perspective on where we are and where he is seeking to lead us into the future.

While we could have, I’m sure, a good conversation about our particular personal perspective in relationship to the current President (as I suppose with past presidents), I’m grateful for the Constitutional imperative and the tradition that has risen around it.  The reason I feel that way is because I think it is a good thing — from time to time — to examine where we are and to take stock, if you will, of where we are heading just as a general principle.

And while I think this is true for the nation, I also think it is true for us as individuals and for other institutions as well.  What would it be like if we ─ from time to time ─ laid out a State of our lives address?  Here are my thoughts:

  • What if we considered the direction we were going in love as a follower of Jesus?
  • What if we considered the direction of our particular struggles and how we were dealing with them?
  • What if we asked ourselves where do we go from here and what’s next in our lives?
  • What are the big decisions that we will need to make, and what will be the criteria for making them?
  • What if we took a similar look at our marriage if we’re married or the other close relationships of our lives?
  • Are we paying attention to the needs of our spouse or significant other?
  • What habits have we developed as a couple that may be subtlety creating difficulty and moving us away from one another rather than closer to one another?
  • What are we doing well?
  • What do we celebrate and give thanks for in our relationship?
  • What about the congregation of which we’re a part, what is there to offer thanks around?
  • Where are the struggle points, the places where we are falling short of our mission, and how might we give ourselves and our time to see it change?

I am a fan of the State of the Union idea.  I think it’s a good one.  We should ─ from time to time ─ consider where we are and where we are going.  If we don’t, we might well end up in a place we don’t want to be, wondering how we got there.

Peace,
Bill

Celebrating the Grand Rapids District

I am looking forward to Saturday.  If you haven’t heard we are gathering Saturday morning to celebrate the Grand Rapids District as we anticipate July 1st when the Michigan Annual Conference will begin functioning with 9 new Districts rather than the current 12 Districts of the West Michigan and Detroit Annual Conferences.  It is on that day that the Grand Rapids District will cease to exist and the new District will begin functioning. Click HERE for details about the Jubilee Celebration on Saturday, January 27!

But before that happens we are going to celebrate!  Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing videos with former Superintendents and they have been sharing their recollections of their time on the District.  These videos will be a part of the worship experience on Saturday.  Bishop Laurie Haller will be with us bringing her recollections and a message of hope for the future as our preacher for the morning.  There will be wonderful music and we will share together around the Table of the Lord that has bound us, and continues to bind us together in God’s love.

There is a lot to celebrate as we move into this one new Conference and the nine new District structure.  I believe the new Michigan Conference is committed to and designed well to enable all our local churches to be even more effective in Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.

But before we do that, before we step into this new future, we are going to pause and say thanks to God and to one another for what has been.  I hope you will plan to be there.  There’s still time to sign up for the lunch following worship which will be another opportunity for fellowship and celebration.  Don’t miss this time together, it’s going to be great!

Peace,
Bill

Perspective

We have now moved into our new offices at First Place in downtown Grand Rapids.  Most of the boxes are empty and the office furniture is in place.  Like most moves however there are a few glitches yet to be addressed.  Like the fact that we don’t have Conference phones yet!  They are telling us it may be yet another few weeks so if you need to get a hold of me please use my cell phone which is 616.430.9964.  I’m trusting that it will all be in place as soon as possible.

As I was thinking about this office move across town, I got to thinking about all the times I have moved, not just an office but with my family from place to place in my life.  I counted them up and while some were across town to a new house and neighborhood and others were across the country to a new town or city, I counted 21 times.  Many of my moves were early in my life.  In fact I often joke with folks that itinerancy  has been very stabilizing for me!  I went, for example, to five different elementary schools in four different states.  It was an interesting experience, but as I suppose, all the experiences we have in life it is what I know because it’s what I lived.

No one who has lived in the same place all their lives can relate to or perhaps even imagine what my life has been like and in turn I struggle to comprehend what it would be like to live in the same place for 60 years.  The personality traits and perspectives that come from these experiences shape how we interact with others and how we engage the world.

And of course this reality runs in all kinds of directions.  The experiences that shape everyone’s life come from millions of factors that make them the unique individual they are.  And I am very grateful for the wide variety of personalities and diverse perspective this creates in both my circle of acquaintances and in the world as a whole.

The problem of course is that even though we know that everyone has these various perspectives given all that has shaped their lives, all we can see and all we can know is our perspective from what has shaped us.  So, just as one example, that’s why I who have moved 21 times in my life, often don’t understand other people’s connection to “place” to location or building.  Those kinds of things are held very lightly for me.  What this causes often though, on the part of people who have deep roots to place and location because of their life experience, is a feeling that I am insensitive and lacking in appropriate appreciation for the past.

Again we could point to a million examples of how this all works.  And I doubt that it is a particularly stunning new revelation for anyone.  We have seen this lived out every day of our lives with our spouse, our co-workers, and certainly in the national discourse.

What I believe we of the Church have to offer in the midst of this reality is a fresh invitation to engage in conversation with one another.  I have seen this call on Social Media, I have read it in op-eds but we of the Church are in a unique position to offer something deeply significant in the face of this challenge.  What we have to offer is a deep value for every person.  We believe that every person is created in the image of God.  We believe that every individual we will encounter today and throughout our lives has the spark of the Creator in the essence of who they are.  And since we believe that we are not able to just blow people off.  We are not allowed to just treat people as insignificant because they have formed a different perspective (sometimes a very different perspective!) on life from ours given their life experience.  As followers of Christ we simply don’t not have the option to expect the world to live out of our mindset.  We are called to listen, to build relationships, to give respect and offer Christ’s love to all those made in God’s image.  It’s not easy and to be honest with you I often fail miserably at living it out.  But it can’t ever be OK.  It can’t just become the standard operating procedure because (did I mention?), every person, EVERY person is created in the image of God.

Peace,
Bill

As The Appointment Season Begins!

Well it’s a new year and the Bishop and DS’s are in the midst of the Cabinet Retreat.  This retreat is the time when the “appointment season” begins.  That is a bit of a misstatement because the reality is that Superintendents are always thinking about appointments!  But this is the time we begin to actually make appointments by having conversations with pastors and churches about changes that will occur in July.

This is my sixth year of doing this work and I am always amazed at how the task looks as we begin.  The room is literally filled with newsprint around the walls listing names of churches and pastors.  As we begin on Monday the work before us seems almost impossible.

But I have always been comforted and encouraged by the amount of time we spend in prayer as we engage each of the sheets of newsprint representing a congregation of people loved by God, and pastors who have given their lives to serve Christ.  There truly is always a sense of the Holy as we give ourselves to the task of putting pastors in churches.

I am grateful for the incredibly gifted people with whom I have the privilege to work.  I am grateful for a gifted and kind Bishop who provides wisdom and humor and guidance as he leads us forward.  I am grateful for my Cabinet colleagues who bring creativity and faith and so much knowledge to this process.  And I am grateful for pastors and congregations who go and come and receive through the appointments that are made.

Ours isn’t a perfect system for the work of matching together churches and pastors for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.  No “system” is perfect.  But I can tell you that so often, so very often, I have seen God work in wonderful ways through this imperfect system.

I am humbled to be a part of it.  Please continue to pray for us and particularly for the Bishop as we all move together through this season.  May God bless and guide us all.

Peace,
Bill

Early Adopter Grateful for Traditions

I have been described in a number of settings as an “early adopter.”  In case you haven’t heard this term before it is the definition of those who fall in the 10 to 15 percent of a group who are likely to respond to a new idea with, “let’s go for it!!”  Early adopters tend to like change and get enthused by new ideas.  It is, I think, an accurate assessment of who I tend to be.

However, I like tradition too − in some cases.  I remember well my second year as a District Superintendent.  The first year in this appointment was wonderful.  It was a whole new ministry experience and after over three decades as a local church pastor, the shift in routine and activity was energizing.  Don’t get me wrong, I love being a local church pastor.  It is the heart of my calling and it has given me tremendous joy through the years, but that first year (and the years since) brought new and different ministry opportunities that were wonderful as well.

In the middle of my second year as a DS I realized something.  It happened right about this time in December.  I realized, as I attended various worship services throughout the District, people weren’t doing it right!  The traditions and Advent practices that I brought and we celebrated in churches I served were not the ones most of the churches I was attending were doing.  And I missed those traditions!  I missed the traditions I had come to value and sharing those elements of worship with the congregations.

I’m glad I’m an early adopter.  It helps me to be a bit more comfortable with change.  As most of us are aware, change is a constant in the world we live in, and therefore needs to be relatively constant in the churches where we worship and serve.  But, I’m grateful for traditions as well.  I’m grateful for those things that remind us of who we have been and indeed who we still are.

So I pray that this Advent and Christmas season hold the best of both the new and the traditional for you.  I pray that you will find joy in it all.  I pray that you will discover a new sense of peace and hope as together we seek to follow the star and find our way to Bethlehem again this year.

Peace,
Bill

P.S. The next DS Castings will be January 3, 2018. See you next year!

Finding Common Ground in our Cultural Divide

I have spoken to or overheard several people in the last few weeks and months say something along the line of, “I have stopped watching the news.  I just can’t bring myself to turn it on.”  Now most of these individuals were not saying that because they believed the news to be inaccurate or “fake.”  They were feeling as though the news itself is simply too painful. The shared feeling is that it puts them in such a state of either depression or anger that for their own mental and spiritual heath they had decided they needed to take something of a break from the constant barrage 24 hour news brings to us.  I understand that feeling.

I’m also aware that there are others, maybe others reading these words, for whom the news over the last year or so has been the kind of thing they have wanted to hear for years.  These persons believe that overall things are headed in the right direction politically and they celebrate what they see as positive changes.

Neither of these broad groups of people understand one another.  And we wonder if there was ever a time when we were so divided.  And while I find myself very clearly on a “side” in the debate, I am also as concerned as anyone about the state of the cultural divide in which we live today.

I know there have been many times when we have felt a similar cultural divide.  I mean we had a civil war where we were actually killing one another over issues that divided us.  In the 1960’s and 70’s the divide took many to the streets where tens of, hundreds, even thousands of people marched in protest of the US war in Southeast Asia and for civil rights.

Now, I am not at all trying to minimize the current cultural divide nor am I suggesting there are not some significant ways in which the basis for the current divide is not even more ominous than at other points in our history.  What I am suggesting is that the differences and struggles are not new.  While it indeed is difficult when, (as others I have spoken with express), the anticipation of Christmas dinner brings stress because we know those differences will show up and will make conversation and digestion problematic. We need in the midst of our differences to find a way to celebrate our sameness. I confess, I don’t always know how to do that in our polarizations.  Sometimes, often times, it would be easier to just stay where it is safe and people think as we do. But unless we at least prayerfully try to understand one another both in our broader culture, and in our divisions within the church (which is a whole other conversation!), we will continue to live life in isolation listening to our particular brand and perspective and seeing one another as “the other.”

2,000 years ago the one, the angel, called the “Prince of Peace” was born.  Would that we might discover, in these trying days, the gift of that One again.

Peace,
Bill

Bringing Peace to a Violent World

I don’t have the answer.  I wish so much that I did.  But I continue to struggle.  You see I believe Jesus when he says that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.  I love the name we give Jesus calling him “Prince of Peace.”  I believe that the concept of Christian pacifism is a very legitimate understanding of how we are called to live as followers of Christ.

But I just watched a 60 Minutes story on the ongoing struggle in Syria.  The story highlighted the work of Syrian doctors from the U.S. who have been going to Aleppo and other war-torn parts of Syria to provide medical care to all the people injured in the war.  The story reported the fact that Syrian president Assad has been targeting the hospitals where the doctors are working.  With both barrel bombs and chemical weapons the Assad government has targeted those already injured in the war.  This, as the reporters in the story pointed out, was the first identified war crime.  This war crime was the basis for the forming of the Geneva Convention and the founding of the Red Cross to stop this horrific behavior.

Whenever I hear such stories, (and there are of course many other stories of unspeakable violence carried out by individuals and governments), I struggle to understand and follow what Jesus seems to ask of us.

To most, even in the church, it feels like a “no-brainer.”  Of course we fight back.  Of course we must stop the mad men and women of the world.  And since most of them seem to have barrel bombs or AK-47s, we need to respond in kind.  And I understand the logic in that thinking.  I understand why I have had several calls over the past couple of weeks about having guns in church in light of the church shooting in Texas.

But it seems to me that Jesus often challenges us to go beyond logical thinking.  Jesus calls us to see the future not just the right now.  He invites us to see the long term consequences not just the immediate results.  Jesus seems to me to be inviting us to understand that every act of violence brings about the next and the next and the next and the only way to stop it is to not live by the sword anymore regardless of the situation.  It seems like that is what the cross teaches us too.

But just about the time I’m settled on that, I think of the people in the hospitals in Aleppo.  Do we simply pray while the bombs continue?  Paul gives us some insight perhaps when he speaks to the Romans about the government and its authority to “wield the sword” in Romans 13.  But is he simply outlining the way things are, or the way of Christ?

I don’t have the answer and people way smarter, with deep faith, come down in different places on this issue.  But as angry as I get at the injustice and violence in our world, the absolutely awful things that are done and especially the violence perpetrated against children; as much as my heart cries out for justice and for the offenders to “pay” or at least be stopped violently if necessary, a part of me still believes that Jesus has a way that is real and different.  It is a way that leads to life.  And it is a way that never includes a sword.

As we begin our Advent Journey this year, in the midst of a very violent world, may we consider how we might make peace, how we might find the alternate way, how we might be a part of fighting evil not with evil, but with love.  It won’t be easy.  Most will probably reject it out of hand as foolhardy, perhaps even unloving.  But if we truly believe in Jesus’ call to live, love even in the face of evil, then we need to continue to look for that alternative way to engage.  Perhaps a way that changes people and institutions instead of just trying to overpower the current version.

Peace,
Bill

 

Seeing God in the midst of it all

There are a number of things I thought about putting into Castings this week.  Certainly the news is full of issues I might have addressed and invited us to see from our faith perspective.  There are issues in the General Church that could have provided conversation and reflection as we seek to find our way forward through our differences to where God might call us to go.  There are things going on in my own life that I thought about inviting you into using as a relational connection with the kinds of struggles we all face and again inviting us to see God in the midst of it all.

But, ultimately, I don’t want to go to any of those places.  I am not up this morning for engaging in deep political discussion or theological debate or even a conversation about my wonderful grandchildren (well, maybe that!).

In the midst of the violence, the contention, the pain, the stress, the fear, and the uncertainty that every day seems to bring, I just want to share one thing with you this week, it is these words from Jesus:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give to you.
Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
~ John 14:27

Thanks be to God!
Bill

Let’s celebrate 50 Years as the Grand Rapids District!

As we get closer to the time when we will begin this journey as one Annual Conference, I thought it might be helpful to outline for you some of the plans as we move into this new reality.

First, by January 1, 2018 (and probably before) we will have the final boundaries of the new 9 Districts in place and that will be shared across the state.  As you, hopefully, are aware we are moving from 12 Districts which make up the current West Michigan and Detroit Annual Conferences to 9 Districts that will make up the new Michigan Annual Conference.  That means of course that all 9 Districts will be new entities with new names as well as congregational makeup.

But before the Grand Rapids District closes, we are going to have a celebration!  On January 27, 2018 from 9:00am – noon we will gather to celebrate the 50 years of ministry we have shared in the United Methodist Grand Rapids District.  Our former District Superintendent, now Bishop Laurie Haller, will be preaching as we gather for worship.  We’ll hear stories of where we have been and what has been accomplished as we have walked together these five decades.  So make sure that this date is on your calendar, you will not want to miss it! Details are coming soon.

Then as we look forward to the beginning of the “new” District we will have some opportunities to get together in regions to talk about hopes and dreams.  That process will culminate in an Organizing District Conference on Sunday, April 22, 2018.  At that Conference we will elect the needed Disciplinary Committees, District Committee on Ministry, District Committee on Building and Location, and the District Committee on Superintendency.  We will also elect a District Visioning Team that will lead us into our first year helping us to discern what leadership structure we will need going forward.  It has not been finally decided at this point, but we may also be selecting a name for the District at that organizing conference.

Then on July 1, 2018 we will begin functioning as 9 Districts in one Annual Conference.  The caveat to that July 1 beginning is that from a legal and financial perspective we will not be the Michigan Annual Conference officially until January 1, 2019.  We are still working on how those details will be worked out in that six month period, but I trust and am sure we will find our way.

These are exciting times and I look forward, as I hope you do, to the ways our new District and our new Annual Conference will help congregations make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

Peace,
Bill