An “Aching Back” in the Body of Christ

Have you ever had a back problem?  I have had that unpleasant experience several times in my life.  Most often for me it didn’t happen because I lifted some extra heavy piece of furniture or four bundles of shingles rather than three 😊 (I’m lucky if I can pick up one!)  No, most often it happens as I bend over to pick up a piece of paper on the floor or carry out some other routine task I do several times a day.  But this time I feel the crunch of muscles behaving badly and I know it’s time to start the heat and ice routine as the next several days are not going to be fun.

If you’ve had this “spine tingling” experience you know it’s awful.  The thing about it that’s most distressing is that when the pain is at its most debilitating, there is no comfortable position.  It seems that every way you shift your body a new shot of pain erupts.  Everything within you tightens up to try to protect your back and that only makes it worse.

As I thought about this experience recently, it reminded me of the behavior I sometimes see in churches.  Perhaps the congregation has been through a recent conflict.  Perhaps they have tried something new that didn’t work out so well.  Perhaps they’ve been dealing with the loss of significant givers either because folks have left or because they have died, and for the first time they are facing significant financial difficulties.  Perhaps they are just watching their membership decrease year by year and are wondering what the future will hold.

In many of these scenarios the church begins to “seize up.” People become more and more fearful and try to hold on more and more tightly to what isn’t working, hoping it will somehow just get better.  It feels like everywhere they turn there is pain.  And it is literally paralyzing.

So as we find ourselves in a place like that, how can we − the “Body of Christ” − discover the path to moving more freely in the Spirit when we are “locked up” by fear, dysfunction, or a focus on pain?  How can we move beyond ourselves when all we can think about is how much it hurts?  So many churches I see are living in this situation.

What is the “ice and heat” that brings healing and hope for a future that is good and filled with promise?  What is the treatment that brings curative wholeness?  Well, I think it begins when a willingness to risk starts again, as a disposition to trust the Spirit one more time and seek to follow where God is leading begins to sprout.  It begins as we choose forgiveness and let go of the stone against another that we’re holding in our hands.  It begins as we seek and see a vision for health.  For we must believe that we can get well.  And we must be willing to do whatever it takes to move towards that place of well-being.

Sadly, sometimes folks see no other option but to lay on the couch languishing in the pain.  They don’t dare move for fear the sharp stabbing pain will still be there.  I get that.  But if we are willing to treat the injury, as we take the steps towards healing, ultimately there comes a time when we need to get up and walk.  We need to engage health, or health will forever elude us.

So, if any of this resonates with you in your setting, if with all you’ve tried you still find yourselves stuck on the couch, perhaps it’s time for you, for your church to as Jesus put it “take up your bed and walk.”  Who knows what good things await you and your community if you do.

Peace,
Bill

Enjoying the Perfect Moments in Life

I had lunch with my wife, my son and my daughter in-law yesterday. We ate at a restaurant right by the water. The sky was blue, the temperature was about 78 degrees, the lake was gorgeous and we were together. And to top it all off, the food was wonderful. It was just one of those perfect moments, when all is right with the world.

It wasn’t of course. All was not really right with the world. There were thousands of issues, thousands of problems, hundreds of thousands, millions, billions of people in various states of struggle and stress. But for us, in that moment or that hour, it felt that way.

I am so grateful that Jesus went to banquets. I’m so glad he went to that wedding and turned the water into wine. I think it shows us that even in the midst of dealing with the mess of living in this broken world, even in the midst of seeking to be Jesus’ hands and feet, in the pain and hurt that is all around us, it’s OK to have moments that are rich and perfect – moments that are about living in blessing and joy!

Jesus cared deeply for the poor. Jesus lifted the status of those who had no place in the culture in which he lived. Jesus gave his life so that we might know what it means to live. Jesus was the perfect picture of service. But once in a while he went to parties, he came to banquets, and he enjoyed those perfect days that come along every so often.

Peace,
Bill

Having Pure Motives

I just finished watching again the last episode of one of my all-time favorite TV shows. I have seen it a number of times but every time it grabs me. Every time it brings a tear to my eye. The show is about people with pure motives. It is about high ideals. It is about loving truth and standing on principle and accomplishing good. The show stirs me even though I know the episodes well.

I think story that taps into our emotions like that, story that affects us and touches us to the core of our passion for that which is right and decent, respectable and uplifting, connects us to God, it connects us to Gospel. Whether we realize it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not story, good story, real true story, connects us to God and Gospel.

Art is the same, as it captures us in its magnificence. The beauty of creation is the same as it takes our breath away causing us to simply stand without speech, and marvel at what is before us. It joins us to the wonder of God.

I am not suggesting that these things, story, art, creation, and a host of others we could mention, are God, they are not. But they are all connected to God, they are expressions of God, they are − I dare say − opportunities to experience and encounter God. And all these things remind me that God is so much bigger than the little boxes in which we try to put God.

God is good. God is every good. God is all good. And when we see good, when we experience good, when we live good, it all connects us to God. Yes, God is bigger than the greatest good we have ever seen or experienced, but good is always, in whatever form, an expression of God and a means of grace.

When I finished watching my show this evening, my heart was full. So much turning out right. Even the painful was muted by the characters’ care of one another. And as I watched I was again reminded that I so much want the world to be like that.

You can call me naive and you can call me foolish, you can call me whatever you would like, but I do believe that the vast majority of my mission as a follower of Jesus is to bring good wherever I can. To bring good to my family with the words I use and the way I act. The way I listen and the way I behave. To bring good to my work with simple acts of respect for all people and a movement day by day away from self- centeredness towards humility (I have a significant way to go on all these!). To bring good by standing up for the needs of the few not just the many, to side with those who hold the short end of the stick in virtually every measure of success.

Friends, I want to live out the goodness of God. Like story and art and creation, I want my life to be a reflection of the good God wants the world to see and experience. I want to be, in a world of pain and hurt and violence and injustice…GOOD! I want to live out grace. I have a long way to go, but I believe it’s what I am called to be and where I’m called to go. Anybody want to go with me?

Peace,
Bill

Goodbyes & Hellos

There are around 120 pastoral moves happening across the state this month.  Those of you packing the last of the boxes and getting ready for the truck to arrive are well aware that this process is not always an easy one.  There are tearful goodbyes around leaving those with whom relationships have been build.  There are accomplishments and ministries to be celebrated but also left to be continued (or not sometimes) by the congregation and the next pastoral leader.  Times of transition are times of grief to be sure for pastors and congregations.

But I hope they are also times of excitement and energy around the new beginning.  I still remember the first sermon I preached in my first appointment out of seminary.  The text was John 1 “In the beginning….”  In retrospect, there was perhaps a bit of presumption in seeing MY arrival as pastor as The Beginning!  I was very careful of course to talk about all that had gone before and the good ministry and leaders the church had experience for decades before my arrival!

But there is a sense that pastoral change brings something new.  There is an inherent hope in our system of itinerancy that the new pastoral leader will bring new gifts to the congregation.  There is an inherent hope in our system that the next pastor will come with renewed energy to continue the good work a church is doing with the strong lay leadership that is in place or that they will help move a struggling congregation towards a new future that is rich and good and fulfills the mission Christ has given.

Now I believe that every day is a new day with God.  I believe that to my core.  Every day is an opportunity to start fresh, to begin anew, both as individuals and as congregations.  So, the fact is it’s not only churches that are experiencing pastoral change that have the opportunity to celebrate (or ask forgiveness for) the past and engage the future with prayer, vision, and new life.  But pastoral change does provide, both for clergy and laity alike a clear “comma” moment, an obvious opportunity to take stock, to look for where God is leading now, in this day, and hopefully enable movement towards an envisioned future together.

Please know I am and will be praying for all reappointed pastors as you go into new settings.  Please know I am and will be praying for congregations as you receive new pastoral leaders.  And please know that I am praying for us all as we seek to be the Church of Jesus Christ in this day, in this time, in this iteration of Beginning.

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

A Partner in Ministry All Along The Way

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.

Peace,
Bill

Preparing for and Experiencing Holy Week

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.

Peace,
Bill

Worship Experience

What a wonderful event we had last Saturday.  Kim Miller brought us great information and inspiration around worship practices and presentation.  She shared with us some wonderfully creative and innovative worship designs for both the elements of worship and the physical space in which worship takes place.  And while she serves in a setting with significant resources, Kim’s presentation offered us ideas on doing meaningful things on what she calls a “mud-&-spit” budget.  It was a good day as we thought about how to create more opportunities for significant “God experiences” in the lives of people already in our congregations and those visiting on any given Sunday.

All of it got me thinking about the work I’ve done as a District Superintendent over almost five years now.  As most of you know, I worship in a different church almost every week.  And as I do that I have experienced some wonderful worship.  Worship that was rich with meaning, clearly thought out and designed, worship that enabled me to easily connect with God.  I have experienced as well, what I would describe as good worship.  Places where folks offered an opportunity to engage with God, perhaps with some fits and stops here and there, but a good flow overall.  Places where it took a bit more work to stay focused, but where there was clearly effort and energy put into offering to God — and the congregation — something worthy and helpful in the Sunday morning experience.  But friends, let me be brutally honest, I have also been in some worship services that were just plain sloppy.  Clearly little effort had been put into connecting the elements together to provide a cohesive whole.  Worship was choppy and full of inside language and activity.  Music was bad and no effort was made to improve it.  The worship experience was a settling for that which was easy and routine.  And again, to be brutally honest, it was painful.

Even in some of our smallest settings, with the least amount of resources, we can pay attention to the details that make worship flow.  We can move beyond ourselves and think about the kinds of things that would help visitors connect with God.  We can give real time and prayer and energy to what we do on Sunday morning (or perhaps another day of the week), so that when we gather for worship we give our best to God, and we provide the richest opportunity possible for folks to encounter God at a deep level.

Worship is critical to the life of the church.  It is the centerpiece of what we do in the midst of a week of work and ministry.  It is an act worthy of our best.  There are great resources to help us do it better, to learn about what works and doesn’t work in connecting people to God.  I want to challenge all of us especially as we approach this year’s celebration of Easter, a huge opportunity to help people connect with God, to offer our absolute best….and then to do it again the week after!

Peace,
Bill

P.S. A few copies of Kim Miller’s books are available for purchase and pick up from the GR District Office following last Saturday’s dynamic workshops (first come, first served). Redesigning Worship and Redesigning Churches are $15 each or the pair for $25, which is well below the publisher’s pricing! Please contact Liz in the GR District Office to reserve your copies today (616.459.4503 or grdistrict@wmcumc.org).

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