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

Prayer for a Way Forward

I usually think I’m right.  It really only makes sense.  If I didn’t believe my thinking was correct, I wouldn’t hold the opinions I do.  I think that’s true for most of us right?  Whatever the subject, whatever the issue being discussed, we have a perspective that we hold and that’s what we believe is correct.

Now, that’s not to say we are not perhaps open to influence.  It’s not to say that on some issues we hold our convictions lightly and are willing to provide space for change.  Often we are in varying degrees.  And it’s not that we aren’t willing take the “live and let live” approach with those who see things differently than we do.

But sometimes it’s just hard to get there.  Sometimes our convictions drive us to places of in-flexibility.  We feel so strongly about our position it’s hard to provide any space for discussion, compromise, or difference.  We believe we are right and the right we believe in is, or at least feels, central to our world view and sometimes even our faith.

This week we have been invited, by the Commission on a Way Forward, to pray.  Our Bishop and the Council of Bishops have invited us to pray.  We are being asked to bring before God our significant differences around human sexuality, the work of the Commission and the upcoming (2019) Special General Conference.

In the midst of our strongly held convictions, my prayer is that we might join together in this time to pray for our Church, for its mission, ministry, and future.  I pray that even in the midst of those strongly held convictions we might hold one another up and ask the Holy Spirit to open all our hearts to what God wants to do in us and through us in this moment.

Our Bishop has provided to us this week the prayer below, and I offer it to you as well with my hope that God will guide and lead us through these days by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

Peace,
Bill

Gracious God, there is much still to be decided as The United Methodist Church moves into the future.  Even in the unknown, even where there is chaos and confusion, remind us again and again of the power of your love which ripples through history changing lives, transforming the world, and creating new possibilities for kindness, compassion, caring, and connection.  May these ripples of your love and grace flow freely out from us.  May these ripples of your love and grace flow deeply into us.  Enlarge our hearts.  Enliven our minds.  Expand our imaginations.  Make gentle and generous our spirits.  In Jesus’ name and for his sake.  Amen.   ~ Bishop David Bard

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

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.

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