Joys and Sorrows

Our trip to Mexico was the best vacation I have ever had in my life.  It was a wonderful celebration of our 40 years of married life.  Our days were filled with sunshine, swimming in a beautiful pool, dinners by the ocean and spectacular sunsets.  I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

We landed back in Grand Rapids around midnight on Friday May 12th.  The next morning we received a phone call from the hospital in Lansing where Robin’s sister had been taken a couple days before and by around 4:30 that afternoon we were sitting at Erin’s beside as she made the decision to move from actively fighting the massive infection that had developed in her body to palliative care.  Monday morning we received word that Erin had died in the night.

As I reflect on the emotional roller coaster these days brought for me and even more to Robin, it took me to a scene that takes place in many of our congregations every Sunday.  I’m thinking about those minutes we spend offering up to God our “joys and sorrows.”  If ever we had a week that held both significant joy and deep sorrows it was that week.

But as I think of this personal whiplash for us, I am reminded that in the body of Christ this is always our state.  There are always those who are celebrating events, milestones, the good things of life.  There are those every Sunday morning who are experiencing joy.  And there are those in the Body of Christ who are at the other end of the spectrum.  They are dwelling in grief, they have lost jobs, they are struggling with health or loss of hope.

Roman 12:15 calls us as the Church to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.”  This is not an easy thing to do.  When we are rejoicing, things are going well, when we are on vacation and celebrating it’s hard to engage those who are struggling.  They are, to put it in a modern vernacular, a buzz kill!  They bring us down.  Likewise when we are struggling, when we are hurting it is hard to celebrate the good news and joy of those on top.  Our tendency is instead to become at least a little bit jealous.  We avoid those folks because we are just not able to connect with their joy.

But Paul is calling us in Romans 12 to be the Church.  And that means, as it always does, that it’s not just about us.  So, when we are mourning, we can and should mourn.  We can and should allow ourselves to grieve and live in our struggle never feeling guilty because we are where we are.  But we can also genuinely celebrate the rejoicing others are experiencing because we love them and we are authentically grateful for the good that is happening in their life.  Similarly, when we are rejoicing we can pause in our personal revelry to offer real compassion to those around us who are hurting.  We can, in fact, enter in to their mourning that we might offer them the grace of God in the midst of their pain.

I am grateful for all the offers of prayer, the cards and other expressions of love offered to our family in this past week.  You have mourned with us and we are truly grateful.

Bill

Finding a way to live together in the tension

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.

Peace,
Bill

Prayer: Living in God’s Presence

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.

Peace,
Bill

I Wonder What YOUR Easter Surprise Might Be?

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.

Peace,
Bill

 

Act of Repentance Toward Reconciliation with Native and Indigenous People

As we gather for Annual Conference this year, one of the things we will be doing is taking some time to share together in an Act of Repentance Toward Reconciliation with Native and Indigenous People.  As most of us are aware, the history of violence and oppression perpetrated upon Native and Indigenous people is a sad and tragic one and one that continues in too many ways even into this current moment.

As I have read through the material that has been made available to all of us, in preparation for this event at Annual Conference, I have been struck again by the need for repentance and a fresh step towards action and reconciliation.

So, what I am going to do here today is give you the link to this information on the 2016 Michigan UMC Annual Conference website and cut my Castings piece short.

I trust you will take the time to read through this material as we all prepare our hearts and minds for this important first step at Annual Conference.

http://2016.michiganumc.org/programs/first-steps-native-americans/

Peace,
Bill