Moving Beyond our Fears and Uncertainties

I was in a conversation the other day with some friends and I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but we started talking about fears.  Most of us had one or more of the fairly common types, heights, snakes, enclosed places, and it was interesting to listen and watch the animation that went along with each description to understand the depth of our struggles.

It seems like there is a lot to fear these days.  Beyond the phobias I was discussing with my friends, there is a lot of uncertainty around us and that often breeds fear.  There are fears related to gun violence and there are fears related to terrorism.  There are fears related to international relations and the threats of nuclear confrontation.  There are also fears in many of our churches.

We are declining, we are struggling financially, we are not sure what will happen as we move into the 2019 special General Conference, we are not sure what’s next.  And in the midst of any and all of these fears it is easy to move to a place of debility.  It’s easy to move to a place where our fears rule our actions and we move into a reactive, protective mode and I understand that emotion and desire.  We want something safe we want assurance that in the midst of our fears it will be OK.

As people of faith we have that assurance.  Faith is not a panacea.  It doesn’t wipe out our fear and it doesn’t magically do away with the issues behind our fears.  But our faith does enable us to see our fears from a different place, and from a different perspective.  Our faith in God who is always working for good, who is the essence of good, and who is acting, both in our world and in us, to bring forward that good in every circumstance and situation, our faith in God enables us to see and move beyond our fears.

Knowing who God is helps us to engage our fears with hope and with purpose knowing that God is working with us to see God’s Kingdom come on earth even as it is in heaven.  Faith in God, evidenced so perfectly in Christ Jesus, empowers us to live differently.  Not in denial of the situation, not simply believing that God will just somehow fix it all apart from us, but rather knowing that God is with us working for good in the midst of our very real fears and knowing that even if our worst fears are realized it is not the end, but in God there is always a step forward.

Jesus promise put it so well in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

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.

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

Representing Jesus through acts of love and kindness

“Through this campaign, we hope to send a united message from the Jewish and Muslim communities that there is no place for this type of hate, desecration, and violence in America.” “We pray that this restores a sense of security and peace to the Jewish-American community who have undoubtedly been shaken by this event.”

Tarek El-Messidi, who created the campaign with fellow activist, Lindo Sarsour, said when he saw the news about the vandalism at Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in the St. Louis suburb of University City, he was reminded of a story about the prophet Muhammad, who stood when a Jewish funeral procession passed. When asked why, he said, “Is it not a human soul?” (Read the entire article HERE)

What you have just read are two paragraphs from a story about a group of Muslim’s who are raising money to care for Jewish head stones damaged by vandals in a St Louis cemetery.  I read this story last night and it brought a deep sense of warmth to my soul!  I hope it does the same for you!!

In contrast to groups like ACT for America an organization that believes “regardless of whether it’s al-Qaeda, or CAIR (Council for Islamic Relations, an organization that promotes Muslim civil rights), or the Islamic State, they just have different methodology for the destruction of Western civilization,” we see these people reaching across this divide to offer love to people hurting and in need.

It is this kind of human activity that will help us move forward in these days of polarization.  And we who represent Jesus, must be on the forefront of this kind of activity.  We must be the ones who stand with all people for the benefit of humanity.  We must be the ones who stand against the lies of fear and bring them into the light.  We must be the ones who live in such a way that glimpses of the Kingdom of God show up on a regular basis.  Like Lindo and Tarek who are working to care for damaged and broken head-stones in a Jewish cemetery, let us surprise the world around us with love.

Peace,
Bill

Trusting in God’s Goodness at 4:00 A. M.

I wake up almost every morning between 4:00 and 4:30. I wish I could say I did that with purpose.  I wish I could say I did this to exercise or to spend specific hours for various devotional practices.  But, that’s not the case.  I usually wake up with my mind racing.  I wake up with my mind running from one place to another.  And while on some mornings productive things do occur during that process, too often, if I’m honest, I spin my wheels.  It’s not that I don’t pray when I wake up with my work before me, I do.  The problem is, I believe I’m awake because I am not trusting as I need to.  What I mean by that is, I believe if I were trusting God as I ought to, I would sleep beyond 4:00am!  Instead many a morning as I glance over at the red glow telling me I’m awake early again, I chastise myself for my lack of faith.

I don’t know if I’m alone in this place, and if so, just ignore my post this week!  But my guess is, I’m not.  My guess is, too many of us ─ as clergy and as laity alike ─ have points in our life when we wake up early in the morning with concerns running through our minds.  And we struggle with letting go and trusting that God knows our needs, is concerned about our needs and will lead us forward through our needs, all the way to the end.

Pray for me and I will pray for you that together we might grow in our trust, that we might rest, let me say that again…that we might rest in the Lord and trust in God’s goodness.

I’m not suggesting that there are not many important things which ought to draw our attention.  I’m not suggesting that we ought to take lightly the responsibilities and struggles of our lives, and the lives of those around us.  I am suggesting that God has promised to guide us and be with us in the midst of whatever important stuff is happening in our lives.  In stressful times, it’s far too easy to forget that God is with us and to trust in that goodness.  I know it far too well…at 4:00 in the morning.

Peace,
Bill

Finding God’s Blessings in Life’s Good Times and Bad

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.

Peace,
Bill

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!!

We have a Great Church with Incredible Leaders!

I spent three days last week with Bishops and Cabinets from across the U.S.  They were days packed full of inspiration, information, collaboration, and consultation all around engaging the mission of the Church.  From 8:00 in the morning to 8:30 or 9:00 at night we met to worship and to refocus on the purpose at the core of our church.

As I boarded the plane to come home, I took at least three things from our time together:

First:  We have incredible leaders.  I can’t adequately tell you the level of respect I have for our Episcopal leaders (and that’s not just because our former Grand Rapids Superintendent is one of them now!).  Our Bishops are extremely gifted inspiring leaders and I am grateful for the fact that as we go through these challenging days these gifted people are leading us.

Second: We have a great Church.  We heard stories of ministries and lives changed from all parts of the country.  We heard of faithful pastors and lay people who are finding creative and unique ways to offer the love of Christ to people in every life circumstance.  It was deeply moving to hear the reports of missional engagement and churches growing in all kinds of ways.

Third: We have a significant challenge.  Our churches for the most part are not growing and while, as I said, some of the stories were wonderful, they are way too few and far between.  The task of shifting our congregations from consumer models to missional models is a heavy lift and it’s even harder as it’s taking place in the virtual absence of people under 30.  In our Conference and in others VCI (Vital Church Initiative) and its counterparts are helping, but VCI is a process not a quick fix and Lovett Weem’s “death tsunami” is upon us.  The internal conflict over theological understanding and Biblical interpretation within the General Church is also in the mix and creates anxiety around divisions, that for some, seem too deep to overcome.

But friends, we have a great Church!  We have incredible leaders!  And we have a faithful and gracious God who IS leading and calling us to fulfill the mission given to us all to Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.  And this church, with these leaders (and that’s ultimately all of us), by the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, can meet our challenges and can see, in the face of our challenges, in the face of struggles, in the face of scarcity, in the face of anything that stands in the way, the fulfillment of our calling.  It will take prayer.  It will take work.  It will take a willingness to let go often of ourselves.  But we can do it.  With God’s help and grace we can see a new day.

Peace,
Bill

Less than a week to go!

Well it’s finally here.  By the time I write this blog next week we should know who the next President of the United States is.  It has been an incredibly long campaign with lots of twists and turns.  It has been filled with vilification and scandal.  It has been characterized, in a way I have never seen, by distaste and high “unfavorability ratings” for both candidates.  It has been filled by “bombshells” (CNN’s favorite word!) and soundbites every day for 18 months.  And by next week at this time it will be over.  And what I wonder is, what’s next?  And perhaps more than that, what is next for Christ followers in this country?  What are we to do on November 9th and following?

Let me suggest a few things I intend to do and invite you to share:

  1. I have a pretty strong preference in this election and I am going to be pretty hard to live with for a few days if the candidate I’m supporting loses next Tuesday.  BUT, regardless of who wins, I will pray for our new president.  I will pray that God will guide our new president and that they will listen to God’s leading.
  2. I will pray for Congress that the members will work towards the good of all the people. I will pray that they find ways to work together, to compromise, to be states-persons rather than just members of a party.  I will pray that they will work towards needed reform in the whole process so that less time is spent campaigning in the future and more time governing.
  3. I will also continue my longtime practice of calling, emailing and texting the President and my legislators about legislation that I believe is important for me as a Christ follower to support. Legislation that helps the poor that empowers the least of these and creates more and more justice for all.
  4. I will continue to connect with agencies that track legislation related to the poor both locally and globally, agencies that work for peace, agencies and organizations like Bread for the World our own Board of Church and Society, and use their legislative alerts to learn and again seek to influence legislators in support of these important pieces of legislation.

It’s almost here.  This election cycle is almost behind us.  But the work of following Christ, and living out our freedom and democracy in ways that continue to seek justice for all, is never ending.

Don’t forget to vote.

Peace,
Bill