january newsletter stone column

According to one reporter, “1968 remains arguably the most historic year in modern American history.” It was also a historic time for the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches who would merge to form the United Methodist Church. Less than a month later St. Luke’s United Methodist Church officially opened.

I wondered what was happening in the world 50 years ago, what the people of St. Luke’s were talking and praying about when this church was just forming. Here are some of the headlines from 1968:

North Korea Captures the USS Pueblo
North Vietnam Launches the Tet Offensive
Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated
Robert F. Kennedy Assassinated
First 747 “Jumbo Jet” is Introduced
Detroit Tigers Win the World Series
Olympic Athletes Protest Racism During National Anthem
American Television’s First Interracial Kiss Airs on Star Trek
Apollo 8 First Manned Spacecraft to Orbit Moon

I was too young to remember any of these events as they occurred. I skimmed a more extensive list and not surprising, Vietnam was in the news a lot. President Lyndon Johnson made a number of headlines and Richard Nixon was elected president. Indeed, 1968 was a year with events that shaped the world, as I would come to learn.

The headlines for 2018 are yet to be written. Like each new year we hope for few that report tragedies and more that celebrate good news. Newspapers and news outlets are in the business of reporting news. We are in the ministry of sharing Good News.

May our very lives bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ in 2018 and beyond.

Peace & Blessings,

Eric

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december newsletter stone column

Each year we designate a focus of missional giving for funds raised in selling both living and virtual poinsettias. The choice of where to designate these proceeds has been giving to me. The choice this year seemed obvious – UMCOR hurricane relief. I’d like to tweak that just a bit. I’d like it to go toward our Bishop’s Advent Offering.

Bishop David Bard has designated this year’s Advent Offering for Disaster Relief through the United Methodist Committee on Relief as follows:

  • 40% for UMCOR Domestic Disaster Relief … victims of hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico or fires in California could benefit
  • 40% for UMCOR International Disaster Relief … rebuilds after Mexican earthquakes and mudslides in Sierra Leone could be supported
  • 20% for a Michigan Area Disaster Response Fund … for use when disaster strikes in our midst or to send volunteers and supplies to scenes of trouble

In his appeal to Michigan United Methodists Bishop Bard writes;

It has been a year of remarkable natural disasters – hurricanes and floods in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, South Carolina, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, in addition to earthquakes, avalanches and landslides in Africa, Asia and South America. Thousands of lives have been lost and tens of thousands have been displaced, living without electricity, sanitation and clean water.

In this season of joy, as we await the coming of Jesus, we can also remember that for Mary and Joseph, the birth of our savior was a time of anxiety and hardship. Advent is a time to remember this journey and to live out God’s calling to care for those in need.

Even if you don’t purchase a poinsettia (live or virtual) I hope you will join with other Michigan United Methodists journeying in solidarity with those who have suffered disaster from water, wind, fire, and mud. One of our alternative giving options at the Compassionate Christmas Fair is UMCOR. No gift is too small. Together, we can offer hope and light to those who are struggling in darkness.

peace and blessings,

Eric

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november newsletter stone column

A few weeks back I performed a wedding in Columbus, OH on a Sunday afternoon. We stayed a couple days after to attend an open house at my old seminary. One of the things we did that was a serendipity of sorts was to attend an informal kosher dinner and Jewish Klezmer concert sponsored by the Ohio Wesleyan University Hillel and the chaplain’s office. Both the dinner and concert honored nine Holocaust survivors in attendance.

A man at our table, originally from the Ukraine, curiously supplemented the meals of the 4 men at the table, but not the 4 women. We were given a generous pour of vodka in a paper cup and a wedge of a beautiful tomato that he produced before us and cut at the table.

The Jewish Klezmer concert was led by pianist/director Ben Gelber a meteorologist by day with Columbus NBC TV 4. The Friday Night Live Music Band included percussion, vocalists, oboe, clarinet, violin, accordion, and guitar. Klezmer is a musical tradition of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe, played by professional musicians called klezmorim
in ensembles known as kapelye.

The concert opened with familiar songs from, “Fiddler on the Roof” and shifted to more traditional Klezmer music with themes familiar to Jewish worship and holy day celebrations. The concert was entertaining, educational, and deeply moving for all – but especially to the Holocaust survivors.

I was reminded of them as I reflected on a number of stressful things piling up on me this week. I thought about our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and their suffering. My own anxiety and inconveniences pale in comparison to so many in our world. It put things in perspective.

This fall we’ve been on a narrative journey through the Hebrew Bible with a familiar theme of “call” stories. One of the things that often happens to the people in these stories is that they – like us – are overwhelmed, stressed out, burned out and full of excuses not to go where God calls them to go.

It’s easy to complain, blame, or give reasons to avoid answering God’s call. God’s patience, persistence, and provision are remarkable even in the midst of life’s challenges. God is still calling and sending us as imperfect prophets and partners in healing a broken and hurting world. All we have to do is respond; “I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.”

peace & blessings,

eric

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october newsletter stone column

“I’ll go see what I can do.” That was the whispered unprompted response from the counselor responding to a need from one of his campers. Each camper wove a basket, but this camper struggled – and when I asked if he had finished he told me it didn’t work out and he had thrown it away. He tried to be nonchalant, but I could tell it bothered him.

This is the time of year we are accustomed to having a stewardship focus. Sometimes it’s been an all out multi-week campaign and other years a mailing and one Sunday set-aside when estimate of giving cards are encouraged to be presented in worship. We shifted to April for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that it breaks up the fall at a time when churches are often having new guests in worship.

Since this is the first fall since the change was made I want our members and constituents to be reminded of our focus six months ago. We won’t have a full Sunday dedicated to stewardship. Instead, we’ll revisit the main message from Tom Berlin’s book and study “Defying Gravity.”

When the campers collected their baskets at the end of the week off the shelf, the counselor said to his camper – “where’s your basket?” the camper replied, “I don’t have one, it didn’t work out and I threw it away.” After everyone else had gotten theirs; his counselor said, “Are you sure? I think there’s another one up on the shelf.” The camper looked, pulled down a completed basket with his name in his writing on the bottom.” He was overwhelmed with gratitude. It was a moment all involved will not soon forget.

Such a simple thing. A generous act of kindness. We never know the lasting impact of our giving. It’s what Tom Berlin calls “gravity defying generosity.” It means breaking free from the notion of scarcity and embracing the abundance that God has to offer. It can happen in many ways, but it begins by practicing it in smalls ways every day. It is sustained when reluctance is replaced with a commitment to on-going generosity.

Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. – 1 Timothy 6:18

peace & blessings,

eric

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september newsletter stone column

I’ve entered a new era of life. It’s a precursor to another era. I’ve observed others navigate through these times and I’m fairly confident I’ll make it through relatively unscathed. I call this new stage of life “the beginning of lasts.”

Our youngest child is now a senior in high school. A few weeks ago I attended the last band camp closing performance, next week I’ll take my last first day of school photo. There will be many “lasts” in the weeks and months ahead. Some might think of these moments as bitter, others as sweet, still others as…a combination of the two. I’m not sure any of those describe my feeling toward these “lasts.” The famous words from my friend, colleague, and former pastor of St. Luke’s Rev. Duane Harris sums it up for me, “It is what it is.”

The same is true for one year from now when we transition into empty nesters. We adjust to the changes and challenges of living. Sometime transition is smooth and other times it’s difficult and most of the time it’s a combination of both.

It’s now (as I write this) nearly a week since Hurricane Harvey made its first landfall. I can hardly comprehend the devastation. The greater Houston area is larger than New Jersey. 50 counties have been declared as state disaster areas. (Michigan has 83 counties, Texas 254). Imagine a latitudinal line from the southern border of Bay County continuing across the state. Everything north of that line – that’s 35 counties in the lower peninsula and 15 in the upper peninsula.

I have led service learning teams to Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. I know that recovery will take years. The challenges the people of the storm affected areas dwarf whatever I might experience in the immediate and even short term. There are things we can do immediately and much more that we will need to do once the reporters and cameras leave.

UMCOR is of course already on top of relief efforts. Elsewhere in this newsletter you will find their recommendation of “Five Ways You Can Respond to Harvey.” Storm survivors now displaced by Harvey will soon experience a “beginning of firsts” as they struggle to get their lives in order; first day after the flood subsides, first day of cleaning up, first day of rebuilding, first day back to work or school. We will be with them, offering support along the difficult journey. That’s what the body of Christ does – it is what it is – serving one another, loving tenderly, acting with justice, walking humbly with God.

peace & blessings

eric

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july/august newsletter stone column

I started my first campfire of the summer. The ground was damp, the kindling didn’t want to ignite, the paper matches not as reliable as wood. Although I had more than a spark on a number of attempts – I couldn’t get a fire going. I’ve started campfires in much worse conditions so I knew it was just a matter of time, better tinder, and a continuous source of heat.

I’ve reflected in the past in this space that being at church camp is a modern version of monastic living. We form intentional community set-apart, tucked away, committed to living as though God truly reigns, and that the Kingdom of God – the beloved community is not just possible but is being lived even while the world around continues to smolder and threaten to catch fire.

It seems that much of our lives are lived in a powder-keg; that a spark is all it takes to not simply get a fire going, but to explode and engulf in localized and even larger conflagrations. We live in a time of political polarization, institutional racism coupled with white privilege, a disturbing acceptance of the myth of redemptive violence, a misplaced reliance on hand gun ownership. All of these and many more symptoms of our times are fed by fear, some of it even prompted by people in power lighting the fuse to further our downward spiral into a more fractured society.

Anxiety is high. The church – that is, the body of Christ – is uniquely positioned to be a non-anxious presence in this milieu. Perhaps the greatest gift we can offer when people are paralyzed by fear is hope. We can point to many times in our past where people experienced fear in desperate times and somehow God found a way to alleviate fears, offer healing and wholeness, and led the pioneers of our Judeo-Christian faith to a new way of living in community.

We gather around the campfire, cooking and eating, reading holy scripture, telling stories, singing songs, affirming one another and strengthening our connection to Christ. The spark that gets a fire going is fanned into flames of living out our faith. Our hope is renewed and that hope is then shared as we return to our homes and communities. Others may not have been at the campfire, but the spark that started our fire can still grow and change the world one heart at a time. That’s how it is with God’s love.

peace & blessings

Eric

 

 

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june newsletter stone column

I woke up this morning contemplating the letter w. My waking query was, ‘why is it called double u when it looks more like two v’s?’ My first instinct was to consult google or siri, but I wasn’t awake enough to muster the initiative necessary to pick up my phone. Hours later, I still haven’t bothered to look for a definitive answer. I was less intrigued with the question and gave more mental energy to discerning where the question came from; Did I have a dream about the alphabet? I attempted a scan of the mental hard drive. No remnants of a subconscious nocturnal narrative rose to the conscious surface. My uninspired hypothesis is that the name of the letter has less to do with its appearance and more to do with the sound being more like a u if you were to make the vowel into a consonant.

I’ve used Google two or three times already today and I still haven’t been tempted to search for an answer. I imagine, by now if you’ve read this far – you have probably stopped to look it up yourself.

The reason I haven’t is that I appreciate a good mystery. It’s ok to leave some things up to the unknown. I don’t really have a lot invested in this double u or v conundrum. The greatest mystery of all, in my mind is God. When it comes to the Eternal Mystery, I’m all in. Since it is completely beyond my abilities to process, I’m at peace with asking questions and appreciating the wonder of not knowing.

The name of God is itself a mystery. No human constructed language can adequately communicate that which is beyond our ability to contain in written form. Nor can it be contained orally. Centuries after Hebrew became a written language vowel points were added. Still – the tradition of not uttering the Lord’s name orally was maintained in written form – vowel points are not used with the letters representing the name of the Lord.

Imagine if we were to read a story about tigers, but the author who greatly admires tigers only writes tgr to honor them. Centuries later someone reading the story out loud may not know how to pronounce this word. So rather than get it wrong and insult those who have grown to revere tigers they simply say “big striped cat” whenever the letters tgr appear.

The same is true when reading God’s name in Hebrew Scripture. The letters Yod Heh Vav Heh, often represented in English as YHWH are not spoken. The reader instead says “Adonai” in Hebrew or “The Lord” in English. Aside from reading scripture many people utter the name of God as “Yahweh”. But we really don’t know if we are saying it correctly. Personally, I think God is gracious and forgiving (even to those who say Jehova which is just plain wrong).

Now I wonder, why do we represent the Hebrew Vav as W? Maybe I was having a conversation with God in my sleep. I guess it will remain a mystery.

Peace & Blessings,

Eric

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may newsletter stone column

A few years ago my friend and colleague Rev. Joanne Bartelt – Superintendent of the Blue Water District at the time –  invited me to lead worship in the style and manner of Taizé at a retreat for her district clergy at Bay Shore Camp. I was glad to do it. What I didn’t know was that I would be reacquainted with a fellow former campus minister who had become a pastor at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Fransisco. Joanne had invited this creative, easy to relate to leader of one of the most dynamic churches in our connection to be the retreat leader.

One of the joys of our United Methodist connection is that we get to know one another in transcontinental serendipitous ways and in continent spanning globe shrinking gatherings. I left that retreat with a renewed friendship with the pastor at Glide church and new facebook friend.

I had attended Glide church many years before Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto became a pastor there. I was there for a conference on urban ministry and Glide is a model church for urban church renewal and revitalization. It had gone from 30 members and nearly closing to 12,000 in lively hope-filled celebration of the body of Christ.

Much has changed since that district clergy retreat at Bay Shore Camp. My friend Joanne died a little more than a year ago. My friend Karen was elected and consecrated as a Bishop in the United Methodist Church last summer. There is no questioning Karen’s gifts and enthusiasm and wonderful gracious positive leadership she has offered our denomination both as pastor and now as bishop. The 400 churches she serves in the Mountain Sky Area can’t help but be delighted with her leadership.

Bishop Karen remains in good standing as a bishop after the judicial council ruled last week that her consecration as “a self-avowed practicing homosexual” violates church law.

Many United Methodists believe that church law violates the gospel message of extravagant love and grace. We’ve been trying to change the harmful language in the Book of Discipline for 40 years.

We, as a denomination, are not at all united on this and other important matters. Some have called for schism, others for unity at all costs, and still some have told those they disagree with to “seek an honorable exit” from the United Methodist Church.

We will know much more in 2019 after a special General Conference convenes to hear and respond to the findings and recommendations of the “Commission on a Way Forward.”

In the meantime, we are to be the church – the body of Christ – working together in the midst of our brokenness, nurturing disciples of Christ in a world in need of healing and transformation. Loving as God loves us – that should keep us plenty busy.

Peace & Blessings,

Eric

P.S. Please read our own Bishop David Bard’s remarks following the Judicial Council decision. They can be found here.

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april newsletter stone column

Is a budget a moral document? That was the question posed by an Assistant General Secretary at the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in Washington D.C. John Hill is a rare breed – the kind of person who anxiously waits for our government’s budget proposal each year and then pours over it thoroughly to fulfill his role as a lobbyist for our denomination. He does what most of us can’t or won’t do – he devours the budget to find ways in which it reflects the values of our denomination and ways in which it contradicts our Christian values.

When there are parts of the budget in opposition to our church’s social principals and more broadly to scripture, Hill offers a challenging voice to legislators and congregations to work for a more just – a moral budget.

He also works with groups visiting the Board in D.C. When I was there a number of years ago, he gave us the imaginary power to create a budget in a way that we thought would reflect the moral values of our Christian faith. It was a powerful lesson. We had a chance to discuss and debate our own thoughts.

Last month the Trump administration presented its proposed budget. Many people – whether they knew it or not were doing what we did as an exercise years ago – debating whether eliminating meals on wheels and free school lunch programs, massive reductions in funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, and Education while increasing funding for the military and homeland security – are moral choices.

Congress will decide on adopting or denying this proposed 2018 federal budget. It’s up to us to let our elected leaders know, as people of faith – how we feel about it. It’s up to us to challenge those spending choices that we deem immoral.

Many lawmakers are people of faith. When we remind them of the Biblical bias to defend the poor and vulnerable, they may think twice before supporting a budget that rewards the rich and powerful and punishes the poor while threatening the planet.

peace & blessings,

Eric

PS. After printing and publishing the newsletter I read a post that corresponds to this beautifully. Jim Wallis wrote Truth That Bears Repeating: A Budget Is a Moral Document” just as I was writing my Stone Column. I guess great minds do think alike.

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march newsletter stone column

“We were trying to poke God” This is the explanation I was given when I asked my campers why all of their tent poles were put together into one very tall pole and now stuck high up in a tree. It must have seemed like a good idea at the start.

I happen to believe that God can handle a lot of poking and not poke back. Creation on the other hand – not so much. When we make choices in our short-sighted desire for profit, cut corners to create jobs for today, eliminate regulations that protect the environment from what we put into our air, water, and soil; the harm we do may not have a significant impact on us. It’s our children and their children who will suffer.

We might think it strange, but celebrating the Day of the Lord was once frowned upon. That’s because for Amos and prophets after him, “The Day of the Lord” didn’t mean the Sabbath – it meant an eschatological time. It meant God was coming with a very big tent pole to poke the whole earth. It meant darkness, death, and destruction. And yet, there were some who were rejoicing – gathering in festival and worship, with sacrifice and song – poking and prodding for the Day of the Lord.

This is why Amos speaking for God declares, “I hate, I despise your festivals…” The prayers and songs and offerings were not congruent with the way in which the people lived their lives. The Torah teaches God’s commandments for worship and festival, for celebration and commemoration, gratitude and humility, hospitality and justice. God is on the side of life, abundance, compassion. Those who long for death and destruction, who do not show mercy toward the poor and the marginalized, they are poking a different God when they pray.

Worship and justice are intertwined. When our songs match our living and loving, when we pray humbly for life in its fullest, when we work for sustaining the earth and for lasting peace between all people, we are poking the God of Amos, the God made known to us – who set up a tent with us – in Jesus. Intense…like camping (please resist the urge to poke the punny pastor).

peace & blessings,

Eric

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