Love, Respect and Trust

The Cabinet is in retreat this week.  We call it a retreat basically because we are away at a location instead of at the ministry center and we wear casual clothes.  Beyond that it’s long work days!  We have a fall “retreat” in September every year because we don’t usually meet in the summer and there is always lots to do and lots to catch up on.  It also gives us a chance to hear what’s happening in one another’s lives.

It’s that last part that I want to share about this week.  This is my sixth year on the Cabinet which also means it’s my sixth year out of the local church. Being a pastor is who I am.  It is who I am to the core of my being and while I really do love the ministry of District Superintendent, I miss sharing life with a congregation.  I miss being a part of people’s lives on a week to week basis.  I miss the kind of connection that happens in a Bible Study where questions are raised and new insight is gained and decisions made.  I miss it all (well most of it anyway).  And honestly from some of the stories I’ve heard about how Cabinets sometimes function, I know I would never make it in some of those settings.

But I am incredibly grateful for the people I get to work with on this Cabinet.  I am incredibly grateful for the leadership of this amazing Bishop and our Clergy Assistant to the Bishop, John Boley.  We are, the 15 of us, a deep community.  We are a praying community.  We are a loving community.  And I am so honored to be a part of these wonderful servants of Christ and Christ’s church.

And as I sit here thinking about how blessed I am in this community, I can’t help but think about you and the churches of the Grand Rapids District.  Friends my abiding prayer for you is that you are experiencing this same sense of joy and celebration in your Church community.  I pray that as you work together in your community you are discovering − even in the work − a depth of relationship that is rich and life giving.  I pray that as you leave a meeting about vision, or money, or what’s next for your congregation, you leave tired and weary having spent yourself in the task but joyful because you are in it together.  I pray you leave feeling connected and engaged and while there is significant work ahead, and the road may not be smooth, you have your eyes on Christ and you find excitement in the fact that you are rowing the boat together.

I pray that your community of faith, be it big or small, rich or struggling financially, theologically to one end of the spectrum or the other, is a place where you know you are loved deeply by God and by those with whom you share the journey.  I pray you know without a shadow of a doubt that while you may not always (or often) think alike, you have one another’s backs because you love, respect, and trust one another.

I am grateful, deeply grateful that I find that love, respect and trust on the Cabinet.  I pray you are finding that too, and are building that in your Church.

Peace,
Bill

Taking Time Away

I am taking a few days this week up north doing some planning.  I have done this annually for the past several decades.  When I was serving in the local church I spent these days doing sermon planning for the year ahead.  Now I get ready for Church Conference season and try to take a balcony view of the District and Conference related to my role as Missional Strategist.

This planning time is a week I look forward to every year.  I anticipate the opportunity to take these days, step back and look to what’s next.  I like it partly because I get to spend a week by a lake and enjoy the beauty of the area around Traverse City.  But more than that, it really helps me move beyond the moment and the urgency of the immediate, to both practically plan and dream.

I wanted to write about this time I take away every year because as I talk with pastors I know that some never take time to step back and get a balcony view.  They never take time to get away from the regular daily activities to think deeply, to pray, to listen and to breathe. And my encouragement to pastors, and really to all of us, is to take the time.

For pastors, I believe doing some kind of sermon planning retreat is essential.  Folks do it in different ways.  Some take a week once a year, others take a few days every few months, some work with worship teams and others are on their own.  And I’m not suggesting that my way is the best way, but my belief is that we need to do it some way.

Beyond the sermon creators among us, I think all of us need time away.  I would invite all of us to consider taking time at least once a year to retreat, to create space to hear from God, to connect with God.  If you haven’t had a practice of taking this time in your life, start with a day, start with an afternoon.  My suspicion is this time away will become more and more important to you, and something you eagerly anticipate!

Friends there is so much more I could say about this and I’d say more but I’m ready to get back to my time away!

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

What About Me?

What about me?!  What about my side?!  What about my team, my people, my perspective, WHAT ABOUT ME!!?

This sentiment gets expressed in so many ways doesn’t it?

It certainly got expressed to my parents as I was growing up when I thought my sisters were getting something I wasn’t.  How unfair, unjust it was when they got the larger piece of cake or the extra half hour up before bed time.  But of course, like most children, I got that turnabout reality parents often receive when I had to hear those same complaints from my kids when Robin and I made similar decisions affecting them!

I hear similar sentiments now as a Superintendent sometimes when our VCI teams identify the need for churches to focus on outreach and the people who aren’t in the church yet.  The response is so often, “what about me!  What about my desires and preferences?”

My mind was drawn to this issue this past week as I heard the news reports of the Muslim worshipers targeted by the driver of a car in London.  I went there in my head because as I heard the story of the attack, I was reminded of some voices I have heard over the last year both on social media and in other arenas claiming that when the Muslim community is the target, the media and others get all upset and report the tragedy in significant ways, but you “don’t hear anything about Christians who are persecuted.”   “What about me”, “What about us” has been a response I have heard from some circles.

Of course the reality is that any persecution is incredibly tragic and painful and so far from what any genuine person of any faith would seek.  But as a follower of Christ it seems to me that my last response to another’s pain ought to be “what about me, what about my pain?”  As followers of Jesus we are constantly called to put others above ourselves, to see the need of the one we might lift up.  So when our response is self-focused, when we constantly clamor for our rights, pointing out how poorly we have been treated in whatever setting or circumstance, it often causes us to miss the opportunity to care for the needs of the other.

Many of Jesus teachings identify clearly our calling to be the ones who don’t look for places where we might have been missed, overlooked, or supposedly discounted.  Jesus instead invites us to let go of score keeping and become the servants of all.  Oh I know, it’s not easy for us.  It takes a real focus and lots of prayer to get there.  And I for one have a long way to go.  But spending our lives in “what about me” mode is the opposite of the way our faith invites us to live.  In fact I think Jesus said something about those who cling to their lives, their “rights,” their privilege, and those who instead give their lives away, giving themselves up on behalf of others.  I believe his suggestion is that genuine happiness and purpose come from the latter, and deep loss from the former.

You can check for yourself, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he said.

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

Prayer: Living in God’s Presence

Several months ago I discovered Apple Music. It is a service you can purchase through Apple that allows you, (or up to six people if you get the family plan), to access all of Apple’s music via your iPhone or computer. My phone connects via Bluetooth to my car so as I drive from place to place I press the home button and say, “play….” whatever song, artist, style of music I want to hear and a couple seconds later I’m listening to whatever song, artist, or style of music my little heart desires! It’s great and it has rarely let me down. It pretty much always finds what I’m looking for. I got to thinking the other day about my instant access to the world of music, and it dawned on me that sometimes that’s kind of our approach to prayer.

We press the prayer button as it were, speak into the air and wait for the answer to arrive. Now I know that’s simplistic, and most of us have a better theology of prayer than this, but at its basic core I think sometimes this is the essence of how we view the interaction when we pray. Having said that let me go further to admit to you that I have never been a very good prayer. I know I have been a pastor for 37 years and a Christian for longer than that. But the fact remains I am in the primary school of prayer. I read authors sometimes who describe a prayer life that is deep and rich and I know that I have not progressed to near that place. And while I know that everyone is different and there is no right way to pray and that personality and temperament all come into what works best for each of us, still, I know that I am in the primary…. no, the kindergarten of prayer. Too often my prayer life does not take me much further than the Apple Music style I mentioned above.

If I move beyond a recitation of my needs and desires, the “next song” I would like God to play in my life, and instead simply rest in God’s presence, I sometimes catch a glimpse of what could be. The world is so full of noise and distractions, I need so much to find ways to genuinely connect with the One who is The Divine. To take the time to engage with all my being the God who loves me and all of creation with a passion that is beyond description. I long to touch the hem of God’s garment and bask in the peace that goes beyond understanding.

Prayer for me these days is not so much about getting stuff from God, having God play my song, as it is simply living (as imperfectly as I do) in God’s presence on a regular basis. It is drinking deeply from the well of love, wisdom, and grace that God’s presence offers. It is inviting God to guide and lead all and to open my eyes to see as God sees. That’s what prayer is for me…..

But like I said, I’m only in prayer’s Pre-School! I have a long way to go.

Peace,
Bill

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

I Believe in Miracles

I gave up about four minutes into the third quarter.  Why not?  The Patriots were down by 25 points and no team, in the fifty-one-year history of the Super Bowl, had ever come back from more than a 10-point deficit.  In my mind it was over and I didn’t care to watch my team go down to their inevitable defeat over the next hour and a half.

So, I went upstairs and settled into the show my wife was watching in our bedroom.  Thankfully, I turned on my laptop after about hour later. Because when I did I discovered that while I had given up, the Patriots hadn’t!  There were two minutes left in the game, the Patriots had the ball and they were just 8 points down.  I rushed downstairs to turn the game back on!  And I watched as Brady led them down the field, and after a pass interference penalty took the ball to the one yard line.  White scored on the next play with fifty some seconds to go.  But they needed a two point conversion to tie.  No problem, with three receivers lined up to the right Brady threw back to the left and Danny Amendola caught the ball and broke the plane of the goal line for the tie.  After winning the coin toss for the overtime period the Patriots, once again methodically went down the field and won the game on another two-yard run from White.  It was far and away the greatest comeback win in football history and it won’t be topped soon if ever … and I almost missed it!

There are probably a hundred, maybe a thousand applications to what I just shared with you.  There are stories of congregations that were down to seven people in worship that came back and became thriving centers of ministry again because of a decision that was made, or a leader who had new vision.  There are stories of people with significant illness where all seemed lost, and then inexplicably a new treatment is introduced ─ as a last-ditch effort ─ prayer is offered and the illness responds to treatment and health is restored.  There are stories of individuals whose lives are a mess.  They have burned every bridge and their families are well beyond tough love efforts to help them.  And one day they show up at the door cleaned up and whole.  There are a hundred exceptions to the regular story and this Sunday’s game brings us to the remembrance again that just because it has never happened doesn’t mean it can’t.

The caution of course is that most of the time it doesn’t.  A miracle is a miracle because it is not the norm.  So most of the time when teams are down by 25 points in the big game they lose…usually by 35!  Most of the time when churches have dropped down to an unsustainable place in worship attendance, they close.  Most of the time when the doctor tells us we have a terminal illness, we die.  And my faith is such that it does not insist on God performing miracles in order to be God.  I am so grateful for the ways that God works in the midst of the normal course of events unfolding.  I am so grateful that God is a God who leads us through the trials, the deaths, the losses with grace and love, and the ability to move through the most painful experiences of life not so much around them.  I believe in miracles, I have seen miracles, but I don’t require God to act in miraculous ways for me to be a person of faith.  My faith is in the presence of God and the grace of God, the incarnation of God into every circumstance, AND in resurrection, the reality of God’s love that wins no matter what!

I’m glad I didn’t miss the end of the game Sunday.  I’m happy I got to see that amazing comeback and win for my team.  I celebrate those extraordinary moments in life when miracles occur, but more than that, more than any of that, I am so thankful that God is consistently love and forever grace in every moment and experience of life.

Peace,
Bill

Trusting in God’s Goodness at 4:00 A. M.

I wake up almost every morning between 4:00 and 4:30. I wish I could say I did that with purpose.  I wish I could say I did this to exercise or to spend specific hours for various devotional practices.  But, that’s not the case.  I usually wake up with my mind racing.  I wake up with my mind running from one place to another.  And while on some mornings productive things do occur during that process, too often, if I’m honest, I spin my wheels.  It’s not that I don’t pray when I wake up with my work before me, I do.  The problem is, I believe I’m awake because I am not trusting as I need to.  What I mean by that is, I believe if I were trusting God as I ought to, I would sleep beyond 4:00am!  Instead many a morning as I glance over at the red glow telling me I’m awake early again, I chastise myself for my lack of faith.

I don’t know if I’m alone in this place, and if so, just ignore my post this week!  But my guess is, I’m not.  My guess is, too many of us ─ as clergy and as laity alike ─ have points in our life when we wake up early in the morning with concerns running through our minds.  And we struggle with letting go and trusting that God knows our needs, is concerned about our needs and will lead us forward through our needs, all the way to the end.

Pray for me and I will pray for you that together we might grow in our trust, that we might rest, let me say that again…that we might rest in the Lord and trust in God’s goodness.

I’m not suggesting that there are not many important things which ought to draw our attention.  I’m not suggesting that we ought to take lightly the responsibilities and struggles of our lives, and the lives of those around us.  I am suggesting that God has promised to guide us and be with us in the midst of whatever important stuff is happening in our lives.  In stressful times, it’s far too easy to forget that God is with us and to trust in that goodness.  I know it far too well…at 4:00 in the morning.

Peace,
Bill

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.

Peace,
Bill