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

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

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

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

Cecilia’s long wait is finally over!

Many of you will remember that two years ago during each of our Church Conferences we received an offering the proceeds of which were to go for the purchase of a four wheel drive vehicle for Rev. Cecilia Mapleh, District Superintendent of the Lofa District in Liberia.  Folks gave at the church conferences and folks continued to give after the church conferences were completed.

Ultimately we reached the goal of $17,000 to purchase the used truck that would take DS Cecilia to her appointed rounds, enabling her to be more effective in caring for the people and churches of her very rural and often isolated district.  We reached that goal in the early part of 2016, and in my mind I expected that DS Mapleh would be on the road by February.  But…it didn’t work out that way!

We have been working with the General Board of Global Ministries, the Liberia Annual Conference and many others to accomplish this task ever since the money was raised.  We have been in phone and email contact with Cecilia and many others at least every other week.  It was nobody’s fault.  Everyone was seeking to make it happen, but finding a safe and effective means of carrying out this mission was a challenge, to say the least.

But thanks be to God, while there may be trouble in the night, Joy comes in the Morning! After some 18 months of finding our way forward, this past week, we received word that the money had arrived and the truck had been purchased.  We also received some wonderful pictures of Cecilia heading down one of the dirt roads of her district, no longer on foot or on a bicycle that doesn’t work at all in the rainy season, but driving a gift from co-workers in Christ from the Grand Rapids District.

As I looked at those pictures (below) my heart was warmed and I was reminded again that while we can’t solve all of the problems of the third world, while we can’t fix all the issues of Liberia, we can make a difference for one servant of Christ and the District she serves.  You have done that.  It took a while!  But you have made that difference.  Thank you!

Peace,
Bill

We Can Never “Take a Break” from God

It has been awhile!  I decided when I went on vacation in August that I would take a break from Castings for the month, and my what a month it’s been.  The current events which have taken place in this break have been legion!  Events that have directly affected the lives of people and their culture would have most probably been items I would have chosen to write about, had I been writing Castings in August.  Let me think back with you for a moment to Charlottesville, Hurricane Harvey, North Korea missile tests and U.S. response, Mudslides in Sierra Leone, and massive flooding resulting in the death of over 1,200 people in Bangladesh, and this week (I know it’s September now) the Administration’s action towards ending DACA.  There has been much to invite our prayers, our voices, and our actions.

As I have listened to and watched these stories evolve, as I have observed the many lives affected by them, as I have prayed and given and written emails to leaders, it occurs to me again just how life rolls on from one event to the next.  This is true certainly in the “news cycle,” in the global realities of each day’s story.  For given individuals who find themselves the focus of the stories, their day in the news may well be life changing, but for most of us the events of the world flow one into the next with little affect upon us.  Oh, we may respond.  We may celebrate or get upset.  We may, as I indicated I have done, engage the event in some way either seeking to influence, help, or affect the outcome going forward.  We may simply join the conversation by talking to friends or speaking out on the endless noise on social media.  But ultimately, we move on.  We move on to the next story, the next challenge or joy that is just now coming into view.

At age 61 (yes, I know many of you have me beaten!), I have seen my share of this day to day, year to year cycle.  And that reality, while not minimizing at all the importance of each and every event, trouble or difficulty − because each one involves the lives of real people loved by God − gives me some sense of peace.  The peace comes from the knowledge that God is in it all.  God’s grace has been present in times of fear and worry, in times of pain and discouragement, and God’s grace IS with us now leading us forward.

Now that is not in any way an excuse for non-action.  It is not a panacea, or an invitation to simply disengage.  If ever there was a time for Christ followers to represent Christ’s way of love in the world, it is now.  But we represent that love with a confidence that knows there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and that as we live out that love in all the ways we are able to, God is our guide and our hope from news cycle to news cycle to news cycle.

Thanks be to God!

Peace,
Bill

Pick Up The Rope!

I attended the Heartland District Beach Day this past Monday.  It was held at the beautiful home of Pastor Cheryl Mancier and her husband Carl.  When I got to their home I learned from a sign on the deck railing that Cheryl, along with serving the good folks at the Gathering UMC in Harrison, is also a water ski instructor!  So after sitting down and visiting a bit we headed out to the lake.  We loaded up the skis, lowered the boat off the shore station and headed out into the water.  Once we got into the middle of the lake Cheryl got her skis on and soon she was cruising across the lake moving into and out of the wake from side to side.  It was easy to see both her skill and joy in the sport.

As I watched from the boat a thought occurred to me,  “I could do that!”  When I was a teenager my family had a boat and I used to ski on a regular basis.  As I watched Cheryl my mind rehearsed again the feeling of gliding across the water, feeling the jolt of the drop that occurs as you cross the wake.  It was all coming back to me as I sat in the safety of the boat.  I kept thinking, “I believe I could still do that, I really do!”

As Cheryl completed her tour of the lake and dropped the rope Carl asked me if I wanted to go, (I had shared my former skiing prowess as we pulled Cheryl along).  I thought about it, then I thought about the fact that it had been at least three decades since I had water skied.  I thought about the last time my back was out (see last week’s Castings!) and I said, “I don’t think I better.”

That was probably the smart response.  It was probably the most adult answer to Carl’s question.  After all Church Conferences are starting before long and they are harder to do in a body cast.

It was probably the correct answer given my 61 year old, out of shape, overweight body, but a part of me really wishes I’d said, “Yes!”  A part of me really wishes I had gone to my car, gotten my suit on, and grabbed the rope.  I’m not sure what would have happened.  It might not have been good.  But who knows.  Muscle memory might have kicked in.  The legs and feet and arms might all have responded to what my brain remembered from all those years ago.  It might have been great.  But I won’t know because I stayed safe.  I stayed in the boat.

Sometimes we do that same sort of thing in our church don’t we?  We think about taking a leap of faith, we think about doing something new that will impact our community, we dream big and get excited and we almost run and get our suit.  But then somebody says, “Well we tried something like that before and it didn’t work.”  Or somebody says that it will cost too much and we need to save money in case the pew pads wear out this year.  And we go back to the report of the Paper Clip Committee and their plan to coordinate the paper clips in liturgical colors.

I wish I’d gotten in the lake the other day.  I wish I’d put on the skis, grabbed the rope and given Carl the thumbs up.

What’s your church considering today that could maybe jump start a new ministry in your community if you just grab the rope and go?

Peace,
Bill