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.


A Birthday and an Innauguration: Two Significant Occasions

This week marks two significant occasions: the celebration of the birthday, and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States.  As I reflect on that reality, I am drawn to the ministry and prophetic words of Dr. King.  Dr. King dreamt of a nation and a world where all people were valued and respected.  He looked to a day when diversity and difference were celebrated and all people experienced life with justice and equality.  Dr. King inspired and continues to inspire millions of people with a hope for a day, a day still yet to come, when privilege would give way to balance and opportunity for everyone equally.  Dr. King had a dream for a different world than the one he lived in and in which he had grown up.  He had a vision for America and for the world that looked to a future filled with promise for all.

President Elect Donald Trump has named a “dream” if you will as well.  He has called us as a nation to “Make America Great, Again.” President Elect Trump believes that we need to return to something he believes we have lost, and in that return we will experience a greatness again.

My prayer is, as we walk through the events of this week and move into the future that is before us, that the attempt to return to a perceived past greatness will not roll back, damage, or stop any progress that has been made in moving in the direction of Dr. King’s dream for us all.  For genuine greatness is never seen in power, wealth, might or privilege. Jesus spelled it out pretty clearly, if you want to be first you must be the servant of all.


A View Ahead

As we begin a new year rather than being philosophical, theological, or particularly inspirational, I want to invite you to some of the upcoming events that are occurring on our District.  This information is and has been in our “Connection” for months, but I want to share it here in hopes that I make certain these events get on your calendars!

The first event I want to highlight is our upcoming District Conference and Local Church Leadership event.  This will take place on Saturday, January 21st from 9:00 A.M. until noon at Rockford UMC (late registration opens at 8:30 A.M.).  I have had requests from churches throughout the GR District asking that we provide basic leadership training for church leaders and this event is in response to that request! Specific information regarding workshops as well as the schedule for the day is located in the link below.  Please note that while there is no cost for this event, we are asking everyone to register and sign up for their workshop.  Please also note that all pastors and leaders are expected to attend the GR District Conference.

The next event I want to point out to you to is the “Redesigning Worship & Redesigning Church Workshops” with Kim Miller.  This event is Saturday, March 25th from 9:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. (late registration opens at 8:30 A.M.).  Our District leadership team has been, for the past several years, focusing our work around helping local congregations engage and grow in their experience of the “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations.”  Two years ago we brought Bob Farr (now Bishop Bob Farr!) to our District to give an overview.  Last year we brought Jim Ozier to call us to next steps in Radical Hospitality.  And this year Kim Miller from Ginghamsburg UMC, author of Redesigning Worship and Redesigning Churches is with us to help us grow in our commitment to and implementation of Passionate Worship.

For our clergy we have several upcoming forums and gatherings.  On Tuesday, January 24th Alex Fernandez, pastor at Cornerstone’s Heritage Hill Campus will be leading us in looking at the work they have done at Campus Elementary School one of the poorest elementary schools in Grand Rapids.  We will have opportunity to learn and share with one another about the opportunities for ministry in schools.  This forum will take place at the Heritage Hill Campus building on Lafayette.

On Tuesday, April 18th Chris Mckenna is leading us in a much requested forum on Stewardship.  Chris is an engaging and wise presenter and has shared this topic in several settings.  This forum will take place at Rockford UMC.

In addition to these “forums” we are having two clergy gatherings one on Tuesday, February 28th at Lake Harbor UMC in Muskegon and Tuesday, May 23rd at Byron Center UMC.  These gatherings will provide an opportunity for us to fellowship, worship and share together as District Clergy.  The agenda will be “light” and there will be opportunity to talk together about what’s on your minds. All Clergy Forum and Clergy Gathering events are from 10:00 A.M. – Noon and I look forward to seeing you at these events.  Please RSVP through the link below.


Register for Jan. 21 Lay Leadership Workshops HERE

RSVP for Clergy Forums & Gatherings HERE

Register for Mar. 25 REdesigning Worship & REdesigning Church workshops with Kim Miller HERE

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.


P.S.  This will be my last Castings for 2016, so have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful New Year!!

For some, a very difficult Season

I’m grateful for our congregations that offer “Blue Christmas” services.  I am grateful that in our celebrations of Advent and Christmas we remember that this joyful and festive season can be a very difficult season for some.

Too often we in the church struggle with the “not OK.”  Whether it’s grief, depression, even anger, too often we shy away from these places and the people who are in them in favor of trying to make things “nice.”

But if Christmas tells us anything at all, it tells us that God prefers to get God’s hands dirty (so to speak!).  God in Christ came into the world, not because the world was nice and clean and good, but because there was and is mess.  Significant mess!  There are hurts and violence and pain and suffering everywhere, and God doesn’t shy away from any of it.  God gets in there with us and seeks to impact it all with love, understanding and grace.

So, I’m grateful for our congregations that are having Blue Christmas services this season.  I’m grateful for congregations and individuals who get involved in the tough stuff of people’s lives, their communities, and our world.  I think maybe that is what God had in mind that first Christmas.



Sharing the Message of Hope

I just sent a picture of myself at 21 months of age in response to a request from Mark Doyal.  He is doing something with it for the Full Cabinet Christmas gathering next week.  It should be fun.

As I looked at the picture, I thought about the 59 years or so that have passed since my father snapped that photo.  All the experiences and events, the feelings, joys and sorrows along the way.  For the most part I have been blessed.  I have always had food to eat and a roof over my head.  I have always had people who have loved me and cared about me.  I have been blessed in so many ways.  And I’m grateful to be at this point in the journey.

Some people I talk to wish for earlier days.  They long for times past.  They wish for days when things were different, before specific decisions were made or their physical body changed.  And while I wouldn’t mind being 30 pounds lighter as I was some years ago, or perhaps being able to get up from a sitting position on the floor with a bound instead of a groan, I really wouldn’t want to go back to any age in the past.  As I have said many times, “I accomplished that age!”  And life in this moment, while different, has much ─ so much ─ good in it.

Contemplating this from a personal perspective got me thinking about our churches.  So often I hear people in congregations talk about former days.  They talk about the way things were with a kind of wistful longing.  And I get the fact that many of our churches are not what they once were.  I get that for many of us the struggles before us now are significant, and making the shifts we need to make to be effective in today’s culture is tough.

But friends my advice to us all is engage the now!  The past is never coming back and there are people in every one of our communities who need to know the good news of Jesus Christ and God’s rich love for the world and for them.  There is no better time of year for us to share the message of hope than this season of Advent and Christmas.  I hope that all of us are strategically looking at ways we might reach out and share Christ’s love with our communities.  I hope all of us are praying for opportunities to invite our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members to a Christmas Eve service or some gathering where they might encounter the message of hope God offers at Christmas.

We, as the body of Christ, can spend our time looking back at what was and wishing we were younger, stronger, or whatever, OR we can appreciate that we continue to possess a message of hope that the world desperately needs and then find new ways to offer that hope and love to all those within our sphere of influence.  That’s still our calling, and we can do it!


Thanksgiving Blessings

I remember as a teenager listening to Arlo Guthrie talking about the comparisons we make with others when we are feeling bad.  For instance, when we say to someone who is having a bad day or a difficult time, “Well, don’t feel so bad, at least you aren’t like so and so who….(you pick the appropriate difficult circumstance).”  While I’m not suggesting this is a very helpful way to comfort a person feeling low.  Arlo took the concept a little further.  He wondered aloud, “But what about the last guy?  Nobody’s got it worse than that guy.  Nobody in the whole world.”  It was kind of a provocative thought for me to take in, (especially at 16!).  Who has it the worst?  Who is the last guy, the last person?

Well at 60, I still don’t know if I could identify Arlo’s “last person.”  I’m not sure who that person might be today.  But the sad reality is that there is no shortage of candidates.  There are millions of children who are hungry, there are millions affected by deadly diseases, and even more tragic, millions more affected by diseases that are treatable, but who find themselves in places or situations where the medicines to help them are simply not available. There are homeless, lonely people all around us.  There are lots of “last” people in need.

At our house this week we with gather with 20 or so family members from a variety of places in the world, to celebrate Thanksgiving.  A wonderful and appropriate thing to do.  We will feast and laugh and have, what I trust will be, a rich time together.  And again, that’s a good thing!  Jesus feasted and celebrated at times, and it is my sincere hope that you will have some opportunity to be together with some special people in your life, sharing some level of feast and thanks giving for the gifts and the blessings of your life.

But as we give thanks, may we do so remembering the needs around us. May we do so with an eye towards those who find themselves, for a variety of reasons, and from a variety of perspectives, in that category of “lasts.”  May we take the opportunity in the days ahead, to find ways, as individuals, as congregations, as people who follow Jesus, to make a difference in the lives of the folks in need around us.  May we choose to engage the needs of those in all our spheres of influence with practical resources and with the love of Jesus Christ.  May we do it all so that our giving thanks tomorrow will not simply be an exercise in celebrating our blessings, but rather a fresh reminder that we are always blessed so that we might be a blessing to others.

Thanksgiving blessings to you all,

Focusing our Energies and Faith in the Direction of Hope

As I think about all the uncertainty before us, in our culture, and in our Church, there is significant angst among many.  As I was thinking about this, especially in the church context, I was reminded of the story of Jeremiah in the 32nd chapter of the book with his name.  It was not a high moment in Israel’s history.  They were about to go into a new reality.  They were about to be taken from their homes into Babylon.  Everyone was fearful.  Everyone was looking toward loss.  I’m certain there was great concern and blame flying in lots of directions.  In the face of this situation, Jeremiah starts purchasing land.  He makes sure that all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted.  He purchases land that will soon be taken over by others.  It makes no sense…except as a statement of faith.  It is a profound statement of faith.  God, Jeremiah believes, will bring them through the difficult days in Babylon.  God, Jeremiah believes, will faithfully lead them through to the other side.

The other day in a meeting I attended, Dirk Elliott (New Church Director for the Michigan Area) shared with us the goals set by the General Conference regarding growth in the United States UMC in the next quadrennium.

These goals are:

  • 1,000,000 New Disciples
  • 50,000 New Places (Small Groups)
  • 5,000 New Faith Communities (Additional New Worship Services)
  • 500 New Churches (New Chartered Congregations)

In a day when we are struggling to stay together, the General Conference is inviting us to focus our energies and our faith is the direction of hope.  The General Conference is calling us to examine our efforts as an Annual Conference, District, Local Church, and individual around reaching the next and the next with the love of Christ.  They are calling us to do so in new ways, to engage with new energy this core component of who we are as Christ followers and as children of John Wesley.

These are uncertain days.  In our culture and in our church, but I wonder what would happen if we focused on this call put out to us from the General Conference.  I wonder what would happen if we put our stakes down, in the midst of the ambiguity around us, and said with Jeremiah, we are people of faith!  We serve a God who does amazing things.  I wonder what would happen if we decided these goals are very reachable and that we were going to be a part of seeing them accomplished?  I wonder what would happen if we changed our focus from fear and division, to hope and faith?  I wonder what would happen.


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.