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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was thinking about blessings today. I was thinking about it in terms of the weather. For while it’s been grey and somewhat dreary this January, every day that I don’t have to drive on snow I count as a gift this time of year, and I celebrate it as one more day closer to summer!
Now I don’t know what blessings you might be experiencing these days. I don’t know where the places are in your life where you are finding joy and hope and new life, but I hope those things are present for you.
And as I was reflecting again today on the many gifts present in my life, I was also recalling how sometimes I have heard folks approach gifts and blessings with some level of hesitation. Instead of giving thanks and enjoying the positive elements of life and receiving them as a gift, there is this apprehension that, as some put it, “they are waiting for the other shoe to drop.” There is this understanding that if things in our lives get going too well, “look out,” there’s trouble around the corner!
I’m not suggesting that life doesn’t have its troubles of course it does. There are tragic things that come into our lives, there are heartbreaks and griefs that are real and cause us significant pain at times. But friends there is something wrong with a theology that expects trouble whenever things are going well. There is something wrong with a theology that struggles to receive and bask in blessing because of the dread of what bad thing is coming down the pike. There is something wrong with a theology that lives in fear.
Again, I am not suggesting that life is a bed of roses, that there won’t be days when we have to drive in the snow, but for goodness sake, God is good! God’s blessings are new every morning and even when those troubling days arrive, the blessing of God’s presence is always there. So, give thanks this week with joy, with celebration, with an overflowing heart for all that God has done and is doing, and don’t fear what’s behind the next door.
I remember I had been in my first appointment for about eight months and I was beginning to worry. And as I sat with another new pastor, a good friend of mine, I confided in him my fear. “I feel sometimes like I’m running out of sermons,” I said, and it was true. While in seminary I had experienced various inspirational moments and my Scripture study had produced a number of ideas I wanted to pursue, but the fact was eight months in, I was beginning to have weeks where I wasn’t sure what I was going to say come Sunday morning at 10:05am when the sermon began.
Now pretty soon after that I began to develop the discipline of sermon planning and I laid out the messages for Sunday mornings a year at a time and that helped to alleviate the fear and enabled me to be much more productive. The process helped me to accumulate material for messages well in advance of the preaching moment and allowed me the privilege of sorting the wheat from the chaff ─ I hope anyway ─ rather than having to take whatever I came up with.
I am a huge believer in planning. In fact, much to the contrary of the man who once suggested my year ahead planning disallowed for the Spirit’s work, I believe working well in advance enables the Spirit to hone the messages much more so than winging it at the last minute, and trusting God will show up in our vulnerability.
These days I don’t preach every week and that reality has, I think, dulled my sermon sense a bit. Without that file full of upcoming messages, I miss things these days that would have made it into folders in the past. I don’t hear comments or read a story or see something in a movie, (or on the West Wing!!!) and respond, “There’s a sermon in that!” But I am grateful for all the ways God continues to bring inspiration and life to the work and ministry I am doing. And I pray this is true for all of us whether lay or clergy.
May we plan in all kinds of ways to do our ministry well, to do our absolute best to make what we do for God relevant and rich with Good News. May we do our part knowing that God will surely do God’s part. And the partnership we share will indeed create disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.