Pick Up The Rope!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace,
Bill

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

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

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

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

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

Love Overcomes Fear

I was listening to the news the day after the attack in London last weekend.  CNN was interviewing a man who had been in a Borough Market pub when the three knife wielding men came in.  He described with great respect and appreciation the actions of various people, wait staff, security, police, and EMTs, people who cared for him and the other patrons as the event unfolded.  He spoke eloquently describing how everyone cared for one another, how they looked after one another as the attack was taking place and after it was over.  It was a riveting interview.

One of the things that struck me was the reason he was there at the scene the day after such a traumatic experience.  He was there to pay his bill.  He came back to pay the restaurant for the food and drinks he had consumed before the attack!  It was a particularly significant act of integrity to be sure, but as I listened to him share, it was more than that.  He spoke so much from his heart not in anger or hatred, but in love for what the London community represented.  He spoke about the diversity in his city and how much he valued that gift.  And finally, he said (and I’m not quoting him precisely, but it’s close), “we must continue to represent this culture of openness and diversity, the more they try to stop it the more we need to grow it and live it out in the open.”

There was no fear in his voice.  There was no suggestion that Londoner’s ought to run and hide or arm themselves.  In fact he made a particular point about the difficulty of getting guns in the UK and if these three men had had guns how things would have been much worse.  He simply stood, in the aftermath of this attack, ready to fight back with love.  Ready to keep fear from ruling over the basic construct of his culture, believing that love and tolerance could in fact win the day.  I was moved to tears of joy listening to this man.

A year and a half ago we of the Grand Rapids District held an event to celebrate the faith statement that love overcomes fear.  I pray we continue to hold to that belief.  I pray we continue to live it out in a celebration of diversity and the God given gift of every person.  I pray we continue to let others know we believe it’s true.

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

Joys and Sorrows

Our trip to Mexico was the best vacation I have ever had in my life.  It was a wonderful celebration of our 40 years of married life.  Our days were filled with sunshine, swimming in a beautiful pool, dinners by the ocean and spectacular sunsets.  I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

We landed back in Grand Rapids around midnight on Friday May 12th.  The next morning we received a phone call from the hospital in Lansing where Robin’s sister had been taken a couple days before and by around 4:30 that afternoon we were sitting at Erin’s beside as she made the decision to move from actively fighting the massive infection that had developed in her body to palliative care.  Monday morning we received word that Erin had died in the night.

As I reflect on the emotional roller coaster these days brought for me and even more to Robin, it took me to a scene that takes place in many of our congregations every Sunday.  I’m thinking about those minutes we spend offering up to God our “joys and sorrows.”  If ever we had a week that held both significant joy and deep sorrows it was that week.

But as I think of this personal whiplash for us, I am reminded that in the body of Christ this is always our state.  There are always those who are celebrating events, milestones, the good things of life.  There are those every Sunday morning who are experiencing joy.  And there are those in the Body of Christ who are at the other end of the spectrum.  They are dwelling in grief, they have lost jobs, they are struggling with health or loss of hope.

Roman 12:15 calls us as the Church to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.”  This is not an easy thing to do.  When we are rejoicing, things are going well, when we are on vacation and celebrating it’s hard to engage those who are struggling.  They are, to put it in a modern vernacular, a buzz kill!  They bring us down.  Likewise when we are struggling, when we are hurting it is hard to celebrate the good news and joy of those on top.  Our tendency is instead to become at least a little bit jealous.  We avoid those folks because we are just not able to connect with their joy.

But Paul is calling us in Romans 12 to be the Church.  And that means, as it always does, that it’s not just about us.  So, when we are mourning, we can and should mourn.  We can and should allow ourselves to grieve and live in our struggle never feeling guilty because we are where we are.  But we can also genuinely celebrate the rejoicing others are experiencing because we love them and we are authentically grateful for the good that is happening in their life.  Similarly, when we are rejoicing we can pause in our personal revelry to offer real compassion to those around us who are hurting.  We can, in fact, enter in to their mourning that we might offer them the grace of God in the midst of their pain.

I am grateful for all the offers of prayer, the cards and other expressions of love offered to our family in this past week.  You have mourned with us and we are truly grateful.

Bill