District News

They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love

Last week I watched the Michigan – Michigan State basketball game.  This year’s first meeting took place at Breslin Center.  The two teams will meet again at the Crisler Center later this season. As the players were warming up, the camera panned around the arena. The angle only showed the bottom third of the fans.  Except for a couple of students who wore TCU sweatshirts, the rest were dressed in green and white.  If there were Michigan fans, they did not declare their loyalty through their clothing. During the game, my eyes were drawn repeatedly to the sea of green and white which surrounded the players.

Sports fans demonstrate their loyalty by donning clothing, making signs, wearing their favorite player’s number, or waving flags or pom poms. Some show their support, even when the team isn’t playing.  A scarf, jacket, or hat lets everyone know who they follow.  Like many, I have several items from the teams I watch. 

Last week, as I was preparing for the Cabinet Retreat, I looked for the t-shirts I have which are a declaration of my faith.  A couple are a snapshot of what it means to be called by God. I have a Rethink Church t-shirt and one from the 2008 North Central Jurisdictional Conference, where I served as an usher. One of the churches I served had t-shirts made for volunteers who were working in the community.

Being a Christian is about more than wearing God’s words on our clothing. It’s about doing our Lord’s work in the world.  One of my favorite hymns is They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.  The song encourages us to live a life of faith, of caring, and especially of God’s love for one another.

We all need to share the Good News of what it means to have Jesus Christ in our lives.  Our dedication to missions and ministries is what sets United Methodists apart from other denominations.  Because of COVID, mission trips within our country and around the world were on hold.  Now, many churches and church groups are making the journey to other places to help build and rebuild homes, schools, and even places to worship.

Faith communities are asking their neighbors how we can make a difference in their lives.  We are looking forward to ways we can be a source of strength, comfort, hope, and love for people who are struggling.  Individuals are exploring their own call as they realize that they are also God’s instruments for the world. 

People are eager to get engaged and involved once again.  Those we help will be able to see who Christ is through the work we do in His name.  And from time to time, let’s share our witness and testimony of how what we do is life-changing.  Let us share God’s love whenever we can, wherever we can, and however we can.  And Amen.

Oh, How I Love Jesus

Over the past several weeks I have watched an advertising campaign about Jesus.  It comes from the website: Hegetsus (https://hegetsus.com/en/about-us).  On their about us page the creators state the following: “He Gets Us is a movement to reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible and his confounding love and forgiveness.”  The information on the website encourages visitors to examine the experiences of our Savior’s life and how they still have relevance for us today.

The two stories shared in the commercial remind me of how wondrously amazing Jesus’ time on earth was.  One informs us that he was a refugee, the other is about those with whom he broke bread. I look forward to other ads which will share some of Jesus’ life experiences.

Last week, we celebrated the Epiphany of our Lord.  This is one of my favorite passages in Scripture.  I never tire of retelling the story of the Magi who traveled far from their homes to meet the King of Kings. I wonder if he looked different from other children.  The Gospels do not provide us with a description of Jesus’ appearance at his birth, as a young child, or even when he was speaking in the Temple when he was twelve. 

And yet, somehow all who saw him and heard him recognized that he was different from anyone they had ever met. His royal status as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords should’ve had him being raised in a palace, waited on by servants, never worrying about what clothes he would wear, what foods he would eat, and how others would respect and honor him.

That was not the path he chose for our salvation. He came to walk the paths of our lives and to experience the world as we do so that we would understand how much we are loved by our Lord and Savior. The Gospels don’t contain some of the human milestones we celebrate. There is no record of Jesus’ first steps, or what his first word might’ve been. Did he ever ask the 4 questions which were part of the Seder meal? When did he first read from the Torah and what passage was it?

We know that Jesus’ steps led him all over the nation of Israel and beyond as he brought the living word of God to all who would hear him. He asked those who would follow him, as well as those who challenged him, questions about what it meant to be a child of God. He offered words of grace, forgiveness, and love. During his life, he brought new meaning to the words of the Torah, helping to write the laws of God, not on parchment, but on our hearts. 

Sometimes when we focus on the ways in which our Savior was and is fully divine, we can forget that he is also fully human. He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and when he entered Jerusalem. He attended the wedding of family friends. He was sometimes hungry and had no place to sleep.  He needed to be alone from time to time to speak with God and renew his spirit. He sometimes became angry and frustrated by those who heard him but didn’t understand him. He prayed often and shared meals with friends and strangers. He saw people for who they were and did not chastise, criticize, or condemn them.  Instead, he blessed them, embraced them, and forgave them. 

Because he gets us. Each day he hopes that you and I will celebrate what it means to have Jesus in our lives as we continue our journeys of faith. May we continue to discover the ways that our Lord and Savior, both fully human and divine, came into the world to save us and transform us.  And Amen.

Standing in the Need of Prayer

On Monday evening, I was beginning to write the first Corner of the new year.  It is during these first few days that we see all the hope and promise that a new beginning can achieve.  Many of us consider resolutions that will help this year be better than the last.  We want to invest in our best selves in the days and weeks to come.

I chose to watch the Monday Night game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills.  The contest has implications for the playoffs and was a good follow to the Rose Bowl.  Shortly before the end of the first quarter, what looked like a regular tackle quickly turned into something far more serious.  Damar Hamlin, the defensive player involved in the tackle, stood up and then fell to the turf.  Medical personnel worked on him for a half hour, including CPR and other measures, before he was placed in an ambulance and rushed to the nearest hospital.

As Damar was being moved, his teammates gathered in a circle, knelt, and began praying for him.  The game was suspended as neither team wanted to resume playing without hearing about Damar’s condition.  Like those on the field, I have been praying for Damar, his family, his teammates, and any person who chooses to play football on any level.

It sometimes takes a tragedy to remind us that the Lord is with us in all that we experience.  Many of the posts I have seen on social media have been a request to pray for Damar, his family, and even his teammates. I hope that is not the only time we turn to the Lord who is our constant companion. Each day I seek to pray without ceasing.  I am in conversation with our Lord about joys, celebrations, and blessings, as well as struggles, trials, and sorrow. 

Prayer makes a difference. God hears our words, our feelings, our hopes, and our worries.  Our Creator offers us grace, peace, comfort, and strength.  And though God knows what we will ask before we do, Jesus has taught us to pray those very special words which begin with “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

As we begin a new year, we can’t know all that will happen in our lives.  Let us pray, when we hear the joyful news of new life and new relationships.  Let us pray as we or members of our families reach life milestones like graduation, marriage, new jobs, and new opportunities.  Let us pray when someone we love learns that they have cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, or another serious condition.  Let us pray when a person loses their battle with addiction or depression.  Let us pray because God’s love is everlasting and endures forever.  Let us pray for one another as an example of our Lord’s love for each and every one of us.  Let us pray without ceasing. And Amen.

‘Tis the Season

As Christmas weekend approaches, I am feeling a little bit rushed.  With the threat of a second major winter storm in less than a week, I have had to change my routine. Still, some presents won’t arrive at their destination until Epiphany.  Just in case I lose power, I have also restocked my emergency supplies.  I am excited to have a white Christmas, but I also know many people’s travel plans will be affected as they try to get home or away in the next few days.

Each year at this time, I share with you that I have given a donation on your behalf to one of the charitable organizations which seek to make a difference in the lives of God’s children.  This year, instead of choosing one area, I have donated a gift to UMCOR for hurricane disaster relief for persons in Florida and Puerto Rico, as well as support for the people of Ukraine.  Our Conference has asked for us to give to the Readers to Leaders fund which will provide educational resources for children in Michigan and our covenant partner nation of Liberia. I have supported this special mission as well.

Last week, on the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting, I watched a brief interview with a few teenagers who discussed how that day has transformed their lives.  They shared their struggles with mental health over the past decade.  I have made a donation to Mental Health America for these children and others who are struggling. 

I have lost a few friends to cancer this year.  I have made a donation to the Jimmy V. organization in memory of these persons. 

As we look toward celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior, may we seek ways to share a portion of what we have in order to make a difference in the life of one of God’s children.  I share with you one of the best hymns of the season.  God bless us everyone.  And Amen.


Jesus is the Reason for the Season

Growing up, I enjoyed numerous Christmas traditions.  One of my favorite celebrations was singing Christmas carols.  My family moved while I was in high school, and our new neighborhood would have block parties on Memorial Day and Independence Day.  At Christmas, our neighbor Eli would host a Christmas party.  A small group of carolers would go from door to door, singing a variety of songs like Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and The First Noel.  This was our invitation to join them.  We would go around the block, adding one or two more people at each house until we ended up back at Eli’s. 

That first year, I didn’t know anyone. I went to the party, thinking I would only stay for a few minutes, but once we arrived at Eli’s, the songs continued.  There were Christmas songbooks for everyone and we went through the entire book, taking breaks to grab a snack, greet the new arrivals or help decorate their tree. 

Eli and his family welcomed us into their home as if we had always known one another.  As a neighbor, I rarely saw him during the week, and I’m not sure how he earned his living. He would begin planning the annual Christmas party in September, and if we saw one another at the local store, he would ask, no he would insist that the entire family join him in his home.  Over the years I learned, that in addition to his three children and their spouses, guests included his entire staff, neighbors, and even a few clients. 

At some point during the gathering, Eli would share how grateful he was for this Christmas, for family and friends, and especially for the story of our Savior’s birth.  His parties were a part of my life before I even acknowledged that God was calling me to ministry.  And yet, the way Eli recounted the story of our Savior’s birth was as meaningful to me as the many Christmas Eve services I have attended and led.

In just over a week, we will gather in our worship spaces, in person or virtually, to once again share the wonder of this very Holy Night.  I never tire of this wondrous story, which is the foundation for our Christian journey. We have only a few short weeks to celebrate the way our Lord became one of us to save us.  So many ways to share these wondrous events, through songs, children’s plays, the lighting of the Advent Wreath, and the Christmas Eve Candle Light service. As we name those who were present on that Holy Night, we relive God’s very special gift to us.

Thank goodness for the innkeeper or their spouse who provided a place for Mary and Joseph to have their baby. I am always amazed at how shepherds were visited by angels who were so excited they had to share the great news of Jesus’ birth.  I love how those same shepherds left their flocks to look upon this very special baby. 

It’s possible my neighbor Eli was inspired by the opening scene in the 1959 film Ben Hur. I share the link below for you.  I know it was Eli’s honor and gift to retell the birth of our Savior each year, for those who came to his home. Jesus’ birth is the beginning of the greatest story ever told.  May we rejoice as we remember how God’s love came to us in the form of a tiny baby.  May you be blessed this Holiday Season.  And Amen.


A Time for Giving

Each year, as I search for the perfect Christmas gifts I think back to when I first began shopping.  Growing up, one of the major department stores in downtown Cleveland created a Christmas shop just for children.  My sister and I would take our savings, tied in a handkerchief, and attempt to find presents for our parents, sisters, uncles, and aunts with the few dollars we had.  Only kids were allowed to walk through the aisles, with help from the miniature store’s assistants.  Usually, my mom or older sister would be waiting for us at the cashier, in case we needed a little more money to pay for all the items we wanted to buy.

After I started working and had more money to spend, I would still head downtown to find the best presents I could.  There was usually a Salvation Army bellringer on the corner, reminding passersby to give to those in need.  Each year, before I made my Christmas lists, I decided to give 10% of what I spent to the Salvation Army bucket or my church.  And by the time I totaled up all that I had spent on Christmas presents, I usually gave more than that 10% back to people who might not have a Merry Christmas.

I can honestly say that I felt more joy about that extra donation than I did with most of the presents I bought for my family.  My dad knew he would get a tie, socks, or handkerchiefs.  My mom usually got jewelry.  My sisters would get pistachios or cashews, a set of mittens, and earmuffs.  As I went from one store to another, I usually thought more about the people I didn’t know and how happy they would be to get a present because I contributed to the church’s Christmas fund or the kettles for the Salvation Army.

I still keep that tradition, though most of the shopping I do these days is online.  I keep a running tally of what I have spent (including shipping and handling) and then donate at least 10% back to church.  This year I will be making a special donation to Readers to Leaders, a mission campaign that was introduced at the 2022 Michigan Annual Conference.

This program is an opportunity for each church in the Conference to support two ministries that are focused on education.  The funds will help with the Liberia Scholarship Program and the Michigan Conference’s Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools Program.  The Conference has set a goal of raising $500,000 by asking each church to contribute $600.00 to be divided evenly between these two programs.

I have included the link to the Conference webpage for more information and a video.  I hope your faith community will prayerfully consider supporting the education of children here in Michigan and with our covenant partner nation of Liberia. May you be blessed this holiday season.  And Amen.


Making Things New Again

I am a film buff.  Growing up, I watched classic movies on weekday afternoons and late at night, when I should’ve been asleep.  When I have the opportunity I will watch films on Turner Classic Movies, to enjoy cinema from the silent era to the turn of the 21st century.  Over the years, the channel has also produced documentaries about cinematic pioneers like Alice Guy, the first female film director.

Over the weekend, I watched a documentary about film restoration.  In the 1950s, when movies on the big screen were in competition with television, production companies created a variety of ways to encourage people to go to the movies instead of staying home.  VistaVision, CinemaScope, and Todd-AO offered audiences more colorful images than television ever could.  And for a brief time, 3-D movies added a new dimension to what could happen before our eyes.

The documentary I saw showed the restoration process for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.  The movie was filmed in Cinerama, a technique that projected the movie from three cameras onto a curved screen to give the story a panoramic effect. I was fascinated to learn how the digital build for each frame from each of three film masters was developed.  And a fourth digital build was added for the audio track. But what I noticed most was the excitement and joy each expert expressed as their transformational work unfolded in their hands.  The project took more than a year to complete.  Each person said that all the effort was well worth it.

Early in the 21st century, as we consider what it means to be a Christian, we are also experiencing a time of restoration and renewal.  As we put the time of COVID behind us, and gather once again in our worship spaces, may we take time to reflect upon and consider the ways in which we carry out the Great Commission for the transformation of the world. 

I hope that as you engage in conversations about what your faith communities can do, and who you can help, you have a sense of joy and excitement for the work which is before us. What we do in God’s name is not always easy.  We will meet people who are sick and poor in body and spirit.  We may ask how we share God’s everlasting love with persons who are struggling. We may wonder how to feed those who are hungry, not only for today’s meal but also for those who hunger in spirit.  We can be the light for those who are journeying through darkness.  And we can share the Good News of God’s salvific acts for our lives through our witness and testimony.

I encourage each of us to consider reaching out to persons who are worshipping with us through their computer screens.  What role can social media play in the people we touch, the stories we share, and the lives we change? As we embrace technology and all that it offers, how do we also stay in touch with those who don’t post, tweet, or chat? How do we redefine blended worship to include people watching from home with those sitting in the Sanctuary? May these and other questions inspire us to discover new ways to deepen our relationships with God and with one another.  And Amen.

An Invitation to the Table – A Thanksgiving Message

In my parents’ house, this week was always super special.  My mom, similar to many women of her generation, was an amateur chef.  Her regular menu included smothered pork chops, meatloaf, fried chicken, and numerous casseroles.  She looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas — the best investment of her culinary talents. 

She would do her holiday grocery shopping early because she wanted to ensure she had everything she needed.  Extra yeast cakes for her signature dinner rolls, at least 5 pounds of sweet potatoes, some for the potato marshmallow casserole, and the rest for pies.  On Tuesday morning, she would place a loaf of bread in the pan reserved for dressing, to make sure it dried out properly.  Wednesday, she’d pull the turkey out of the freezer to let it thaw before placing it in the oven.

She spent most of Tuesday afternoon, all day Wednesday and Thursday morning mixing, chopping, sautéing, tasting, baking, and simmering the ingredients for all the different dishes.  My sister and I were tasked with preparing the relish tray, the first sampling of the day’s feast. We’d have to coordinate our preparation around all the things our mom was making. When the turkey, sweet potato casserole, macaroni and cheese, dressing, greens, cranberry sauce, and dinner rolls were all done, she would ask my dad to carve the turkey.

As good as all the food was, that’s not what made our family Thanksgivings so special.  Each year, my mom would invite someone she knew from work or church who wasn’t going to share the day with anyone.  Sometimes they were friends who were going through a divorce, or their family had relocated to other states.  She usually invited our pastor and his family.  My grandfather married later in life, and after he died, my mom made sure my grandmother had a seat at the table.  Some of the people she invited had their own family commitments, so my mom said it was alright if they came over for dessert afterward.

No matter who showed up, or how much they ate, my mom would fix plates for people to take home with them.  After the meal was blessed, everyone was invited to say what they were thankful for.  And whether we were seated at the adult or the kid’s table, the food couldn’t be shared until our gratitude for who we were and whose we were was shared first. 

As we begin the journey of the 2022 holiday season, I hope that you will celebrate all that you are thankful for.  May we continue to honor our Lord by expressing our gratitude for how His love is manifested in us and through us, not just on these holidays, but every day.  May you have a blessed and Happy Thanksgiving. And Amen.

Necesito Refrescar

These words come from a sermon I heard a few years ago.  The English translation is basically, I need to refresh.  These words are a reminder to examine where we are, what we’ve learned and how to reshape our lives in the midst of ongoing changes. The word refresh is synonymous with revive, enliven and invigorate.

I can say that I rarely practice a time of refreshment.  During my Sabbath time, I rest, reflect and meditate on the Scripture reading of the day or week and events which have recently unfolded in my life.  I am sometimes able to give myself permission to keep my computer closed, not answer texts, or phone calls or even take the initiative to make them myself, because I have more time.

However, that’s not the same thing as refreshing.  This word encourages us to find new meaning in what we do and what we wish to accomplish.  This past August, a Whole Foods store opened near me.  If the commercials are to be believed, the store promotes healthy, organic, and fresh foods choices over processed options.  If the parking lot is any indication, many people in the area have made this their regular grocery store. I can only wonder if this shopping change has brought more energy and vitality to how their customers work and feel. 

Although counting steps is not a new way to measure how active we are, measuring devices have become more sophisticated.  They now remind us when we’ve sat too long, what our heart rate is, how much sleep we are getting, and if necessary, what our glucose levels might be.

The goal is for us to pay more attention to how active we are in order to stay as healthy as possible.  And every once in a while we need to examine these data sources and ask ourselves which ones are working well.  My exercise app offers new classes, programs and trainers a couple times a month, which keeps me engaged and active.

As we continue to re-engage with our faith communities, to restart or revisit what we used to do, I also invite us to refresh what it is we do as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  We are entering a new era.  Each of us is being asked to reconsider what it means to be the church in the third decade of the 21st century.

How can we focus on what it means to be in mission and ministry in ways that will energize and invigorate us? What new resources can we provide that will invite people to consider how God is calling each of us to be His instruments in and for the world? In what ways is the Living Word of God speaking to our hearts and souls? What can we do to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to people inside and outside of our worship spaces? Who are we missing in our faith communities and our neighborhoods?

Are you excited about what God is doing in your life? Have you been refreshed by the enforced time away during COVID? Are you eager to get busy once again? I hope the answer to these three questions is a resounding yes.  I am including the link for the Conference Revitalization Toolbox as a reference for each faith community. These resources are available for you as each of us discovers new ways to answer God’s call upon our lives. May you be refreshed by our continuing journey.  And Amen.

Revitalization Toolbox

Information Overload

Over the weekend, I was watching a series of classic Halloween movies.  For many soon-to-be stars, these movies were their onscreen debut. One of the channels I watched discussed how these classic films came into being.  That drew me to a deeper search about the movies, their cast, and their directors. 

While I was looking at some of their biographies, a little window appeared on the side of the screen, displaying ads for some of the latest items I had viewed or ordered online.  I understand that many websites have ways of looking over my shoulder so to speak.  I am sometimes overwhelmed with a variety of pictures and videos that companies hope I will view, visit, and possibly make a purchase.  And though the internet has become an encyclopedic source for me, I also am aware of these other pieces which are a snapshot of how I interact with the internet.

The same is true when I write these reflections or prepare a sermon.  I discover much more than I can include in a single message.  The thread of connections that are revealed from the search is sometimes wondrous and amazing.  Searching one Bible passage invites me to discover how words or phrases which resonate with me can be found in other places.  New connections, increasing my understanding of how awesome our Lord is, come from the way God has written and is writing the words of the Bible on our hearts.

The Shema, an ancient Hebrew prayer we first read in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, becomes the greatest commandment in Matthew 22: 36-38.  There are numerous illustrations of our Lord as a shepherd in both the Old and New Testaments.  “His steadfast love endures forever” is a refrain frequently sung in the Psalms and embodied in our Lord’s salvific acts from Isaac to the resurrection of our savior Jesus Christ. 

Sometimes, my preparation work leads me to look through either my Strong’s Concordance or my Hebrew one.  Both share how a particular word is present throughout the Bible.  Some words like ark (in English) appear mostly in one book.  In Hebrew there are two distinct words for ark. Noah’s Ark (tevat Noah) and the Ark of the Covenant (aron ha-berit) are not used interchangeably.  The information each word search reveals is like those ads which appear as I focus on the task at hand.

Those side journeys are often as enriching as my reason for reading a passage or reflecting on one of my favorite Bible verses.  God is renewed in the word whenever I conduct these searches to discover connections I never realize existed.  These revelations are ongoing and affirm God’s love for each of us.

Need I say that the same happens with people?  There is a series of books by Squire Rushnell called When God Winks. The premise of these books is that there are no coincidences.  There are moments in our lives when God nudges us to meet and journey with others in subtle ways.  Sometimes we are aware of these nudges.  More often, we only see God’s work in our lives when we take the time to look back. 

I close with this task for you.  I encourage you to tell a story of how a chance meeting has impacted and influenced your spiritual selves.  Maybe you assisted with a food pantry or community meal and made a connection with one being served or another worker.  Has that connection become a lifelong friendship?  Is it possible you were part of a Women’s Circle that provided lap blankets, baby blankets or prayer shawls, and you saw someone wrapped in one at a grocery store or waiting room? Have you had a conversation with a visitor to your church before or after the worship service, only to meet that person a few days later, with a smile or a nod, realizing that this person is no longer a stranger? How is God speaking to you today and each day?  And Amen.

Midwest District