may stone column

Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown… – part of a prayer from The Lutheran Book of Worship inspired by Walt Whitman

When we return to gathering in-person at church, it would be great if we could celebrate as if nothing has happened. But we can’t, nor should we. We are on paths as yet untrodden and we know some of the perils if we aren’t smart and cautious moving forward.

Our life together as the body of Christ will continue to be formed and transformed by the ebb and flow of COVID-19. Until there is a proven vaccination and effective treatment we must do all we can to prevent new waves of infection.

Our Michigan Conference will be offering guidelines for reopening early this month. I imagine it will allow for individual context of ministry settings as well as baseline recommendations for us all. I expect we will return in phases, focusing on safety and the best practices we’ve learned from medical professionals and researchers. We may never get back to how things used to be, and we shouldn’t.

This pandemic forced us to do things in ways we probably should have been doing before. Now that things have changed and we’ve adapted we need to keep pushing ourselves to be innovative. We need to keep using technology and virtual gathering options. Even when we are worshipping in-person we still need to offer our services on-line. I know that shut-ins have really appreciated this opportunity. The learning curve was steep – but we’ve flattened that curve in the last two months – and little by little improvements are being made.

This is especially important for those who may not be able to return because their risk at getting the virus is higher than others. We don’t want to force our most vulnerable church members to make a choice between keeping themselves safe and participating in-person.

God has always called us into ventures with unknown endings, our task is to remain faithful and wise as we move forward on the journey.

peace & blessings,

Eric

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april stone column

I’ve written about being in a liminal time in this space before. It’s true now more than ever as we traverse through life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much has been already written about this new reality and what the future holds, but I want to focus on a different liminal reality for St. Luke’s. You will be getting a new pastor. It’s been 11 years since that’s happened – the longest time you’ve ever gone as a congregation without pastoral transition.

While the Bishop and cabinet are now working on prayerfully selecting my successor, I want to share a few thoughts on how you can prepare to make this a healthy transition. First, there are no perfect pastors. Each of us come with different strengths and areas where we need growth. The same can be said for churches. All involved would be best served by moving forward with humility, grace and a commitment to remaining as non-anxious as possible.

Like all churches, St. Luke’s has a culture that is unique. You have many strengths, but there is one significant area of growth I hope you will work on. It won’t be easy, change never is, especially when it means doing what’s hard and contrary to human nature. We tend to avoid conflict. None of us like going to someone and telling them when we disagree with them. It’s easier to tell someone else, to gather a chorus of people who agree with us. It takes real courage to go to someone and tell them face to face whatever it is that’s bugging us.

We often refer to Matthew 18 as the model for Christians to handle conflict. It’s a good place to start. Having a direct conversation really is the most effective, healthy, and mature way to deal with conflict. We’d love it if there was never conflict. And yet It’s simply part of life, it is unavoidable. Acknowledging that, going to whoever we are in conflict with – expressing feelings using a statement like: ‘I feel __________, when you __________, because__________’ can open the door to reconciliation and understanding. It does not mean we will always get our way.

The Passing of the Peace of Christ in worship – the kiss of peace – was historically and liturgically meant for this. It is not a greeting time, it is a time to seek out reconciliation with those we are in conflict.

Let’s use the next few months together, albeit apart in person as long as required, to practice productive communication with one another. I know that you will welcome your next pastor, please give them the courtesy of speaking to them directly when conflict happens.

peace & blessing,

Eric

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march stone column

Elections have consequences. Exercising the right to vote has been a priority for me since I became old enough to cast a ballot. March 10 has been figuratively circled on my calendar even though I know that voters in 18 states will have already had a chance to weigh in at a Presidential Caucus or Primary before it’s our turn in Michigan.

I’m surprised as each passing state takes its turn, at just how many people remain undecided on the eve of their opportunity to vote. I know that people are not created equally when it comes to political engagement. I eat it up. I listen to presidential candidates and pour over their policy proposals many months before they take a debate stage. My faith, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, the positions of the United Methodist Church as expressed in our Social Principals and Book of Resolutions inform me in my decision making. These are among the many variables that deserve consideration. I did prayerful prioritization, and made my choice months ago.

However and whenever you make your voting decisions, I hope you will vote on March 10 (and every election) if you haven’t already done so by absentee ballot. I’m grateful that St. Luke’s is a polling location. I see it as an opportunity for us to campaign for our ministry in this community. Our doors are open to some who have no church home. They may come to vote, but while here they might experience the hospitality of one of our members.

Simply walking into the church on a Tuesday to vote might make a decision to attend worship that much easier. Maybe something we are promoting catches their eye and they decide to come back. Even for those who are members of another house of worship, the way we welcome matters. Elections aren’t the only thing that have consequences.

peace & blessings,

eric

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february stone column

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

These words of wisdom did not come from the Bible, or any other holy scriptures written in human history. The sentence immediately preceding this one is; “Fear is the path to the dark side.” Spoiler alert – Jedi Master Yoda said this to young Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace when they met for the first time.

With apologies to Yoda and George Lucas, it seems to me that there is a step missing – ‘hate leads to violence.’ Then again, if Jedi teaching had included this additional phrase the Jedi would have likely been committed to nonviolence and they wouldn’t use light sabers and well the whole “Star Wars” franchise would be quite different.

What Yoda called the dark side, we call evil. There are, generally speaking, three ways to respond to evil – violence, passivity, or nonviolence. The first two are commonly known as “fight or flight.” Jesus taught a third way, “don’t react violently against the one who is evil.” (Matthew 5:39) Then he offered three examples of how to do this. I wish he had given us more, although we have a hard enough time grasping what he meant with the three he gave us.

Jesus completely rejects the options of fight or flight and challenges us to revolt against millions-year-old biologically programed natural selection. Jesus calls his followers to be transformed, to transcend human development and be mutated into the third way of radical nonviolence.

The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church states; “We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.” It’s because of my commitment to the radical teaching and example of Jesus and his third way that I work for peace with justice. I think Jesus would approve of the bumper sticker, “I’m already against the next war.”

As we teeter on the brink of war, a war that our country has once again unnecessarily provoked with preemptive violence, we are called to challenge our more basic human response with Christ-like nonviolence. I hope you will follow Jesus and his third way.

peace & blessings,

eric

…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. – Romans 5:3-5

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january newsletter stone column

The Traditional Plan is no longer just a plan – it’s part of the Book of Discipline (BOD) of the United Methodist Church. Along with any other changes made at the Special 2019 General Conference it takes effect on January 1, 2020.

The BOD was already harmful and discriminatory against LGBTQAI+ people, but it has added punitive measures to bring greater harm. It now mandates that clergy who are found guilty by trial of performing one same-sex wedding, regardless of circumstances, are suspended for a minimum of one year without pay. The second time, they are stripped of their credentials. Bishops are prohibited from ordaining “self-avowed” homosexuals.

Meanwhile, here in Michigan and other parts of our connection there is a growing resistance to this hateful agenda based on a narrow interpretation of scripture. I grew up United Methodist with a thoroughly Wesleyan way of healthy wrestling with faith by reading the Bible through the multiple lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.

One expression of resisting harm has been in gathering to affirm God’s love for all people. Last year there were a number of “Still Beloved” worship celebrations in our churches scattered across Michigan. None of them were near us. So, I decided it was past-time there was one in our Tri-cities region. We are hosting a Still Beloved celebration of God’s inclusive love at 6 pm on Sunday, January 12. This evening of worship will include the voices and stories of LGBTQIA+ people of faith, abundant and joyful music, and updates on the ways in which United Methodists in Michigan are responding to recent decisions and actions of the United Methodist Church.

I hope you will be present to affirm that God loves all people, I hope you will listen to the voices of those who experience the harm our denomination continues to perpetuate and commit to working in solidarity to end it.

peace & blessings,

eric

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december newsletter stone column

I have a vivid memory of summer vacation in 1977. Like every year of my childhood we drove to central Pennsylvania where my grandparents lived. One of my uncles from Tennessee was there too, and I met his step-son – a cousin about my age. I haven’t seen him since. But I’ll never forget his southern accent and some of the things he said.

My dad took us into State College to see a movie. The commercials on tv had piqued our curiosity about this sci-fi film set a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. How could we know at the time that a galactic franchise was born? After the movie we stopped at Meyer’s Dairy – where we picked up our milk in glass bottles. While we enjoyed ice-cream cones my cousin offered his review – “sheooot, that movie was guhood!” and he declared that Princess Leia, “is purdy.”

It became a tradition for me to watch the sequels with my Dad, and of course we parroted my cousin’s approval afterwords – even for some of them that weren’t so guhood. The hardest part has always been waiting. At least waiting for Episode 9 of Star Wars has not been as bad as waiting for George RR Martin to publish his next book.

We know all about waiting. Sometimes we wait for things that are trivial, or bothersome and at other times we wait for things of real importance. We’re used to waiting in lines, waiting for tests, waiting for results, waiting to be made whole.

Advent is a season of waiting and preparation. Each year we wait for the incarnation of Christ. We prepare our hearts and minds and lives for peace on earth to be realized in the birth of a child.

It seems like the Summer of ’77 didn’t have the same demand for instant gratification that dominates our culture today. We didn’t buy tickets for the movie months in advance for a midnight release. We weren’t inundated with Christmas decorations in stores and Christmas carols on the radio on November first. We waited.

Another word that implies waiting is “steep” as in what we do when we make tea. We let it steep. We are rewarded for waiting – for the fullness of flavor to emerge. That’s what the season of Advent is like. That’s not how our culture works.

Advent is countercultural. Emmanuel ‘God with us’  breaks through the darkness of the world with at first just a little bit of light. Gradually, day by day that light grows until, wait for it, sheooot that light is guhood, and bright, and we can’t help but join heaven and nature sing “Joy to the World.”

It’s not every year a favorite Christmas Carol has a big anniversary. It’s just two years in a row. Last year ‘Silent Night’ turned 200. This year marks 300 years since composer Isaac Watt’s interpretation of Psalm 98 – of all creation celebrating renewal and freedom – “Joy to the World.”

This Advent and Christmas we will explore how the depths of joy can be found in the midst of suffering, in our work for peace with justice, and in our selfless acts of compassion.

peace & blessings,

eric

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november newsletter stone column

When did it become a good thing to be called a goat? It didn’t take me long to find the answer on the toobs (that’s the internet). At some point – not all that long ago – I figured out that GOAT stood for “Greatest of all time.” It might have been after the last Super Bowl in reference to Tom Brady. Which is probably why I didn’t really give it much thought, because…please Tom Brady? The Greatest? I don’t think so. He isn’t even as great as Ben Roethlisberger.

I’m just glad goats are getting their due. Ever since Jesus made the metaphorical separation of goats and stupidsheep – those woolen frauds have been getting all the good – no great – press. Just in case you haven’t heard, I grew up thinking that stupidsheep IS the one word name of the animal. I give my mom credit for this. You see, she grew up on a farm, and on that farm were stupidsheep E-I-E-I-O. So, from my earliest days while passing fields of them I’d hear my mother mutter, “stupidsheep!”

Flash forward to hearing about the separation of the goats and stupidsheep. Obviously I felt Jesus just wasn’t as wise as mom when it comes to farm animals. It makes sense, he grew up around a dad who was a builder/artisan. Which is fine. No one’s perfect. It’s just that, apparently more people have heard of Jesus than my mom. Which is a shame, because my mom’s the GOAT. (I’ve heard sons – especially the youngest of five and only son are supposed to say this. I’m pretty sure Jesus said it about his mom).

G.O.A.T. as an acronym for “Greatest of all time” was first used by Muhammad Ali’s wife Lonnie when she incorporated her husband’s intellectual properties in 1992. It didn’t really catch on as a phrase in popular use for athletes in their perspective sport or position, or performers until 2000 when LL Cool J released the album G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time).

Like others, I was slow to catch on to this new meaning because it used to be bad to be called the goat – as in the scapegoat – the one who blew the game. I’ve been stuck in pre-2000 thinking. It’s taken a few years to finally catch on.

That’s true for all of us really. We get stuck in old ways of thinking and understanding. I’ve been wrestling with how the pronoun “they” has become more widely used as a singular pronoun to designate someone as nonbinary or non-gender specific.

The first time someone I knew asked to be called “they/them” my immediate reaction was a common one – it’s grammatically incorrect. Merriam-Webster has officially recognized this usage (September 17, 2019). So that’s no longer an issue. Now it’s a matter of catching up, of being conscientious, of allowing grace to intervene and help us change in order to honor those who have told us how they identify themselves.

It’s not easy. I knew this person since birth as she/her. I’m not perfect – nowhere near being a GOAT at it. To tell the truth I’m stupidsheepish. But I’m working at it. My pronouns are he/him/his. But for my lazy genderqueer* friends out there, “whatever” is perfectly acceptable.

Merriam-Webster has added a few more useful words to note: Dad joke (my kind of corny pun humor), Vacay (short for vacation) and Coulrophobia (abnormal fear of clowns).

peace & blessings,

eric

*this late “on-line” only last minute (post print edition publishing) addition is in honor of a friend who reminds us that pronouns don’t dictate gender; non-binary people who use binary pronouns are still non-binary.

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october newsletter stone column

A friend has begun studying to be a pastor. She made the comment, “seminary is not a place to find answers – just more questions.” I replied, “the questions continue with possibly more frequency after seminary. I find them to be friends on the journey.”

I completed seminary 25 years ago, but the contemplation of divine mysteries – of living the questions – has, if anything, expanded. I don’t worry too much about conclusive answers. I’m at peace with some things remaining a mystery to be ruminated and revisited. Some cud simply needs to be chewed longer.

Being the church today means being receptive to new models and methods of ministry. Perhaps this has always been true, but it seems like revitalization is needed with more frequency and urgency each passing year. Right now the largest growing demographic category of religious affiliation is, “none.”

We can wring our hands about this. We can long for the days when no one scheduled things other than church on Sunday mornings. That would be unproductive. A healthier response is acknowledging that there are a lot of people in our neighborhood, right now, who are longing for a community of caring, generous, struggling, laughing, crying, hurting, loving, hopeful, friendly people who continue to ask questions, without knowing all of the answers.

The Church Unique process of discernment is leading us toward our Kingdom Concept – the sweet spot or cross section of:

  • our local needs and opportunities
  • our resources and capabilities
  • what energizes our leadership

We still have more work to do in the months ahead, more questions to ask and answer as best we can. When our team comes up with a plan of action, I hope that everyone will follow their lead with encouragement, enthusiasm, but most importantly participation in living out our shared mission.

peace & blessings,

eric

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september stone column

Caesar was a narcissist. He liked to have his name emblazoned on big buildings. He had the Senate do his bidding to protect the wealthiest 1 % of the empire. He demanded loyalty of his subjects, and if they did not display it they would face retribution. There was a liturgy at imperial feasts. Caesar would say, “I have fed you, do I have your loyalty? If you said, “no” you would be killed.

Such is the backdrop of the life and ministry of Jesus and his disciples in first century Palestine and the following century when the Gospel of John was completed…both times. Chapter 20 offers the first conclusion. The second conclusion is found in Chapter 21, written 20 years later. Roughly 80 years after Jesus was killed by the emperor, the resurrected Jesus appears on the shore of the lake named after that emperor Tiberius.

I’ve read this story many times, but it wasn’t until I heard Diana Butler Bass preach at the Wild Goose Festival this summer, that I heard the anguish, frustration, and disgust of those first Christians whose story has been tacked on to the end of the Gospel. They were told Jesus would usher in the Kingdom of God – that peace would reign. Instead, occupation continued and 50 years of war with no hope for an end of a brutal empire.

The disciples in despair have gone back to what they know – fishing – and they’re bad at it. Remember, they had dropped their nets to follow Jesus. Now they are naked and ashamed and poor. Herod built a world-class city and fishing operation and named the city Tiberius, in an effort to gain favor with Emperor Tiberius. The Jewish people had fished these same waters for generations, and now they were being taxed by the emperor. Caesar has occupied and stolen their beach. This is where Jesus appears; on the beach named after his murderer. Everything belongs to Caesar – the lake, the beach, and the fish.

We are all amazed at the huge haul of fish that the disciples pull in by listening to the unrecognized stranger/Jesus on the shore. But it’s not the number of them that is important – what’s most significant is that they are described as…LARGE. Rich and powerful people ate large fish. The biggest fish were kept fresh and sent to Rome and taken to the big fish of the empire.

The disciples fished in Caesar’s lake, taken his big fish and ate his breakfast feast. They had taken food from their oppressors. Jesus was inciting them to take part in a divine feast where the poor eat with the Lord. Jesus feeds his friends, and rather than ask for loyalty he asks, “do you love me?”

Caesar asks, “will you obey me?”
Jesus asks, “do you cherish me?”

The imperial feast is bound by fear. The Jesus Feast is always a feast of love.

This great thanksgiving feast at the edge of despair brings us to today and our world where the forces of empire are ever present and remind us that  Tiberius is not the last word. God’s trajectory is at work in the world to keep setting a table where all are fed with the very best food.

We are asked to choose between loyalty or love. God challenges us to risk renouncing our fears and cherish the poor and oppressed. Then and now, the choice to love is dangerous.

peace & blessings,

eric

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july/august stone column

The first ever Michigan Annual Conference has adjourned.  There are many summaries available about our annual conference available at michiganumc.org. There are a number of videos of worship services and plenary sessions of annual conference linked to the above page on vimeo. Our annual conference was one of the earlier conferences to convene in the United States.

Now that all annual conferences in the United States have concluded there are some trends worth reporting. Annual conferences can’t overturn decisions made by a General Conference, but annual conferences have responded to the decisions made at the special General Conference in February.

US Annual Conferences elected 482 of the 862 total delegates to the 2020 General Conference. Electing delegates is a political process, and while each ballot is taken after prayer, there is plenty of preliminary scrutiny and strategy and caucusing that goes into the election of an equal number of clergy and laity to General and Jurisdictional conferences. This year the elections were taken and counted across the connection with keen interest of those who are in opposition to or in favor of the traditional plan. 356 delegates have been identified as “Centrist/Progressive,” 124 as “Traditionalists” and 2 whose opinions are unclear.

The Michigan Area was one of many annual conferences with aspirations to live into an expression of Methodism that includes LGBTQIA+ people fully as members of the United Methodist Church. These efforts were approved by two thirds to three quarters of the people voting at many annual conferences. Legislation calling for a more inclusive church, or for North America to become its own Central Conference will be considered in Minneapolis next year at General Conference. Central Conferences can make denominational decisions based on context of ministry and mission independent of United Methodists in other countries.

What does it all mean? While centrist/progressive gains have been made in the United States delegation to General Conference and practice of ministry. The global church remains almost evenly divided. Some sort of separation is quite likely, even if we don’t know how or exactly when this will happen. I agree with our Bishop David Bard that as we move into the future there remains vital meaningful much needed ministry to be done in our communities by each local congregation. One of our challenges is to grow stronger by talking about “deep and difficult topics gracefully and thoughtfully…We need new space, new birth, new creation. We need space for healing. We need space for fresh winds of God’s Spirit to blow.”

peace & blessings,

Eric

 

 

 

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