Holy Week Journey & Easter: It’s not a ditto

We are in the midst of the journey aren’t we?  We are once again walking the road with Jesus through the last week of his life concluding at the empty tomb.  Having had the privilege of travelling to the Holy Land on six different occasions, the sights of the events of Holy Week are there in my memory banks.  I recall the winding road from the Mount of Olives to the city of Jerusalem that may well have been the path taken on Palm Sunday. I recall the garden where prayer was offered and a decision finalized.  I recall stepping into the stone tomb and imagining that first Easter morning.  It is a road we walk every year and even if we’ve never been to the Holy Land, we imagine the events and picture them in our minds as we experience the messages of each day of this profound week through the worship services we attend.

Some would suggest there is a challenge in keeping it fresh.  I recall reading an article some years ago in a clergy magazine that addressed this issue and I still remember the writer’s line.  He said, “how do we keep Easter meaningful every year and not just have it be simply, ditto.”  I remember reading that and almost recoiling.  Ditto??  Ditto?  Really?  Preachers really struggle with this?  I mean I understand what he was saying on one level.  The message of Holy Week and ultimately Easter is the same message every year.  We read the same Scriptures, we rehearse the story with similar songs and similar phrasing.  BUT — oh my goodness — Easter a ditto!?  Never.

Easter — resurrection — is a message that changes everything.  It is not a static idea or an event bound only to the past.  It is new every morning.  Resurrection shouts to us every day informing us that the past is gone and the future is ripe with possibility.  Everything is new in every new moment.  Resurrection shouts the message that hope is real and that forgiveness is unequivocal.  Easter banners the future with possibility and closes the door on the idea that what has been will always be.  Easter is a moment by moment promise that anything can experience resurrection, death itself has been defeated and life is forever different because of that reality.

Easter a “ditto?”  Never!

Peace
Bill

P.S.

Some have asked me recently as I approach retirement if I am getting senior-itis!?  I’m not really.  There is still way too much to do between now and the end of June.  I am, however, beginning to finish some things up and one of those things is my DS Castings blog.  It has been a joy sharing my (often random) thoughts and my heart with you over these six years.  I hope some of it has encouraged and challenged you along the way.  May God continue to lead and bless us all as together we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Thanks for reading.

 

Take Delight in the Lord

I was reading Psalm 37 this morning and came across that oft quoted phrase from verse 4, “Take delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”  This is one of those verses I think that people tend to cling to as a sort of “reward” verse.  I think many of us read this verse and understand it to mean that if we “take delight” in the Lord, we will get the desires of our hearts.  If – then.  Kind of like if I pick the right numbers in Powerball, then I will win the jackpot — spiritually thinking of course!  So we do our best to figure out what it means exactly to “take delight in the Lord.”  And we often land on things that are in a negative direction.

By that I mean that we often see faithfulness to God or delighting in God related to the things we don’t do.  Like giving things up during Lent (which can be a helpful discipline, but can also feed our pride and move us in the direction of showing God how faithful we are — the “if”).  And of course once we do that, we look for the “then.”  Then the desires of our hearts will be fulfilled.  Man that sounds good, doesn’t it?  All the things I want will come my way.  There are some very popular preachers out there on TV who would tell us this is exactly what God is promising.

But that’s not how I read this verse.  It’s a much better promise than me getting what I want!  What I believe the Psalmist is suggesting, or at least is at the root of the message for us today, is that we “delight in the Lord,” as we learn — day by day — season by season — year by year — to appreciate and celebrate the essential goodness of God.  As we see the true character of God revealed in Christ, lived wholly in Jesus, we long to have those characteristics alive in us.  So the words of the Psalmist become more and more about transformation rather than acquisition.

As we delight in God, God puts within us the desires of our hearts.  The closer we walk with God, the more our desires are shifted from self-centered focus to living out God’s love in the world.  The desires of our hearts are transformed into a love for the disenfranchised, a longing to see everyone living in Shalom. A broken heart for those caught up in destructive behavior rather than a judgmental comparison of how much better we are than they are.  A full-orbed understanding of the depth of grace we have received and a longing to offer that grace to all.

I have a long way to go until that way of life fills my being and represents the core of my desires.  I am still moving on to perfection to be sure!  But I’m grateful for this promise that God is working in me to reshape my desires into God’s.  My prayer for all of us is that we might continue to cooperate with the Spirit, more and more, to live out God’s love in the world.

Peace,
Bill

Appointment Season

We are, as many of you know, in the midst of appointment season.  This is the time of year when a number of our pastors are preparing to leave congregations and move to new ones and when some of our churches are preparing to say good bye to pastors and receive new ones.  Probably about 15% of our churches experience pastoral change in any given year.

As a part of this process, there is what we call an introductory meeting.  In the introductory meeting, the church SPRC gathers and the District Superintendent brings the new pastor and “introduces” him/her as the new pastor to these church representatives.  It is called an introductory meeting because the expectation is that the Bishop has made the appointment and now we are introducing the pastor to the church and the church to the pastor.  This is an introduction as opposed to an interview.

I have done eleven introductory meetings so far this year and they have been rich times.  I suppose it is a little awkward.  Our system of “arranged marriage” can be a challenge at times!  But I am amazed at how often there is almost an immediate spark in that initial meeting.  A connection, a sense of joy and hope and new life.  The pastor sees, for the first time, into the heart of the congregation he/she is coming to serve. The SPRC members likewise get an indication of who this new clergy person is, along with a glimpse into the future of his/her new ministry.  It is an honor and a humbling experience for me to watch it unfold in that hour or so together.  It really has a wonderfully holy feel to it all.

Oh there are moments during our time together that bring about challenges to be sure.  Someone asks a tough question and we wait to see how it is handled.  Is there grace and an openness to hear one another?  So often as I watch this process unfold, I experience a sense of awe at what God is doing.  I also experience —most often— a fresh sense of hope for that church, for that pastor, and even for the church as a whole.

There is plenty to be skeptical about these days, both inside and outside the church.  There are reasons to doubt and to wonder what will become of us down the road.   As we struggle together around the needs of families and spouses, with fewer and fewer clergy embracing a complete sense of itinerancy, we wonder about whether the whole way we do appointment making will be able to survive or even whether it should.

But even with all this to consider, I’ve experienced eleven nights the past few weeks where I have watched as a new pastor and congregation have begun a dance together and it’s been great!

Peace,
Bill

Walking resolutely with Jesus

I read one of my favorite passages from Luke’s gospel the other day, Luke 9:51.  It tells us that Jesus, “resolutely set his face towards Jerusalem.”  It is, for me, a profound statement about Jesus embracing the cross and all that it would mean for him personally.  But when we put it in its context it says even more about what discipleship is all about.

This verse is bracketed by a conversation that John has with Jesus about an individual who has apparently been casting out demons in Jesus name, but who was not one of the disciples.  John informs Jesus that they stopped the guy (he doesn’t indicate what they did to stop him, whether they spoke to him, warned him, or passed legislation at Conference to keep him out), but whatever means were used, they made it clear to him that since he wasn’t one of the official group he was not allowed to use the “Jesus brand.”  Jesus informs John that they are not to stop him “for whoever is not against you is for you.”  Jesus, as he sets his face towards Jerusalem broadens the definition of disciple.

Following Luke 9:51 is another event involving John and this time, his brother James as well.  As Jesus and the disciples come to a Samaritan village they are, the text says, “Not welcomed because they are going to Jerusalem.”  How it was known they were going to Jerusalem is not clear, but James and John are incensed about the attitude and suggest to Jesus that he call down fire on the people.  I love one commentator’s suggestion that this event was the impetus behind Jesus’ later tongue in cheek reference to these two as the sons of thunder!  In any case Luke tells us that Jesus “rebukes” them for their suggestion and they move on to another village.

So what do these two events — bracketing Jesus resolutely setting his face to Jerusalem — tell us?  Well I think they reveal some misconceptions regarding discipleship.  Discipleship is not about privilege.  It’s not about us against them.  It is always about the road to Jerusalem.  It is always about setting our faces towards the places of sacrifice and offering grace.  As one commentator has put it in describing the context of Luke 9:51:

“Taken with the episode that follows about the conditions of discipleship, the two scenes serve to correct wrong ideas of what it means to follow Jesus. Discipleship does not consist in zealous punishment of those who reject Jesus and his mission; nor does it consist in qualified following. All of this comes from the teacher who walks resolutely toward the goal.”

As we continue to walk through the days of this Lenten season, may we be those who walk resolutely with Jesus towards the goal of servant-hood and mercy, the true mark of a disciple.

Peace,
Bill

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

Prayer for a Way Forward

I usually think I’m right.  It really only makes sense.  If I didn’t believe my thinking was correct, I wouldn’t hold the opinions I do.  I think that’s true for most of us right?  Whatever the subject, whatever the issue being discussed, we have a perspective that we hold and that’s what we believe is correct.

Now, that’s not to say we are not perhaps open to influence.  It’s not to say that on some issues we hold our convictions lightly and are willing to provide space for change.  Often we are in varying degrees.  And it’s not that we aren’t willing take the “live and let live” approach with those who see things differently than we do.

But sometimes it’s just hard to get there.  Sometimes our convictions drive us to places of in-flexibility.  We feel so strongly about our position it’s hard to provide any space for discussion, compromise, or difference.  We believe we are right and the right we believe in is, or at least feels, central to our world view and sometimes even our faith.

This week we have been invited, by the Commission on a Way Forward, to pray.  Our Bishop and the Council of Bishops have invited us to pray.  We are being asked to bring before God our significant differences around human sexuality, the work of the Commission and the upcoming (2019) Special General Conference.

In the midst of our strongly held convictions, my prayer is that we might join together in this time to pray for our Church, for its mission, ministry, and future.  I pray that even in the midst of those strongly held convictions we might hold one another up and ask the Holy Spirit to open all our hearts to what God wants to do in us and through us in this moment.

Our Bishop has provided to us this week the prayer below, and I offer it to you as well with my hope that God will guide and lead us through these days by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Peace,
Bill

Gracious God, there is much still to be decided as The United Methodist Church moves into the future.  Even in the unknown, even where there is chaos and confusion, remind us again and again of the power of your love which ripples through history changing lives, transforming the world, and creating new possibilities for kindness, compassion, caring, and connection.  May these ripples of your love and grace flow freely out from us.  May these ripples of your love and grace flow deeply into us.  Enlarge our hearts.  Enliven our minds.  Expand our imaginations.  Make gentle and generous our spirits.  In Jesus’ name and for his sake.  Amen.   ~ Bishop David Bard

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

Prayer and Action to End Gun Violence

This week rather than writing my own words I want to share with you a resolution adopted at our 2016 General Conference and thus included in our Book of Resolutions.  Somehow it seemed appropriate.

“As followers of Jesus, called to live into the reality of God’s dream of shalom as described by Micah, we must address the epidemic of gun violence so “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” Therefore, we call upon United Methodists to prayerfully address gun violence in their local context. Some of the ways in which to prevent gun violence include the following:

  1. For congregations to make preventing gun violence a regular part of our conversations and prayer times. Gun violence must be worshipfully and theologically reflected on, and we encourage United Methodist churches to frame conversations theologically by utilizing resources such as “Kingdom Dreams, Violent Realities: Reflections on Gun Violence from Micah 4:1-4” produced by the General Board of Church and Society.
  2. For congregations to assist those affected by gun violence through prayer, pastoral care, creating space, and encouraging survivors to share their stories, financial assistance, and through identifying other resources in their communities as victims of gun violence and their families walk through the process of grieving and healing.
  3. For individual United Methodists who own guns as hunters or collectors to safely and securely store their guns and to teach the importance of practicing gun safety.
  4. For United Methodist congregations that have not experienced gun violence to form ecumenical and interfaith partnerships with faith communities that have experienced gun violence in order to support them and learn from their experiences.
  5. For United Methodist congregations to lead or join in ecumenical or interfaith gatherings for public prayer at sites where gun violence has occurred and partner with law enforcement to help prevent gun violence.
  6. For United Methodist congregations to partner with local law-enforcement agencies and community groups to identify gun retailers that engage in retail practices designed to circumvent laws on gun sales and ownership, encourage full legal compliance, and to work with groups like Heeding God’s Call that organize faith-based campaigns to encourage gun retailers to gain full legal compliance with appropriate standards and laws.
  7. For United Methodist congregations to display signs that prohibit carrying guns onto church property.
  8. For United Methodist congregations to advocate at the local and national level for laws that prevent or reduce gun violence. Some of those measures include:
  • Universal background checks on all gun purchases
  • Ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty
  • Ensuring all guns are sold through licensed gun retailers
  • Prohibiting all individuals convicted of violent crimes from purchasing a gun for a fixed time period
  • Prohibiting all individuals under restraining order due to threat of violence from purchasing a gun
  • Prohibiting persons with serious mental illness, who pose a danger to themselves and their communities, from purchasing a gun
  • Ensuring greater access to services for those suffering from mental illness
  • Establishing a minimum age of 21 years for a gun purchase or possession
  • Banning large-capacity ammunition magazines and weapons designed to fire multiple rounds each time the trigger is pulled
  • Promoting new technologies to aid law-enforcement agencies to trace crime guns and promote public safety.”

ADOPTED 2016

See Social Principles, ¶ 162.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church – 2016. Copyright © 2016 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.

Partnership and Covenant with Liberia

We’ve been celebrating our connection with Liberia lately.  As you are perhaps aware, the Detroit Conference has had a long standing partnership and covenant with Liberia.  And as we begin this new thing as the Michigan Annual Conference soon, we are seeking to invite churches and individuals from our side of the state to engage with this important ministry as well.

We, on the Grand Rapids District, have had a head start on this endeavor as we have connected with the Lofa River District of Liberia and just a week and a half ago completed our effort to get Superintendent Cecilia Mapleh a truck to enable more effective ministry on her district (click HERE to read the story and see recent photos!)

Last night Bishop Quire, the newly elected Bishop of the Liberian Annual Conference, was here on our District sharing about both his vision for and the needs of his country and the church.  He also shared great appreciation for the truck!

After Bishop Quire shared for a bit we asked questions and one of the questions was what are the primary needs of the people in Liberia?  The Bishop’s response was telling, “Well” he said, “I hesitate to give you the whole grocery list!”  Friends, there is indeed a grocery list!  I listened to stories about parts of Liberia where the church has begun orphanages for children whose parents died during the Ebola crisis.  As the Bishop shared about the lack of schools, medical care, clean water and other needs in many rural areas of the country and the fact that due to the years of civil war there is at least a generation that has very little if any education.  As he spoke about his vision of building up the agriculture abilities especially with the amount of land that the church owns.  As he lifted up the challenges and the commitment of the Pastors and Superintendents who walk miles to serve their churches and people and who experience and embrace extraordinary sacrifices to do it.

As I listened to all that he shared, I thought about some of the things that had taken my attention and energy during the earlier parts of the day. I thought about some of the things that had annoyed me or caused me some level of stress.  And while those things are real and a part of my life and yours as I laid them alongside some of the things Bishop Quire shared with us, the distance between them was significant.

Now I’ve not always been good about knowing what to do with that.  I tend to feel guilty and sometimes that’s all that happens because the problems seem so big (because they are), and I don’t know where to start.  And so I turn on the TV and go on with my life.  I can’t fix it all so I struggle to feel like anything I do makes any real difference.

We learned last night that to put a child through high school for a year costs $300.  So we took up an offering and raised $300.00 among the eight of us that were there.  One child will go to school because we met together last night.

Liberia still has lots of problems.  And that’s just Liberia.  I could write lots of other articles about the plight of Puerta Rico devastated by hurricanes, other countries and people who are living with war and daily life and death uncertainties.

But a Superintendent on the Lofa River District has a truck because of the gifts of our District, and one child will go to school next year who wouldn’t have been able to go had we not met last night.  I guess it’s a start.

Peace,
Bill

Creating A New Michigan Conference

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

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

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

May God continue to guide and empower our efforts.

Peace,
Bill

2017 Michigan Area Annual Conference
Michigan Area Design Team