THE CONNECTION

 

June 2021 Connection

Traditions: The What, the Why, and the That

Each summer, my family would take a two-day road trip out east to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts for a few weeks of vacation. This was all due to the beautiful gift of tradition my grandparents gave to our family when, in 1960, they bought a small little gingerbread cottage in the Oak Bluffs campground. It was there that we’d gather just about every summer with friends, traditions and memories. One tradition we had, no matter the circumstances, is that we’d listen to Carly Simon’s song, “Never Been Gone,” a song she’d written while on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, as we’d disembark the ferry with our feet planted firmly on the island home.
 
The list of traditions went on from there, of course! Pancakes at Linda Jean’s restaurant, rides on the Flying Horses Carousel, one of the oldest remaining carousels in America (you can still catch the brass ring to win a free ride), fresh donuts at midnight from Backdoor Donuts, cookouts on the beach at the Menemsha fishing wharf, a last-night pizza at Giordano’s, etc. The list goes on and on.
 
The other day, I was driving down Center Rd toward Flint when I had this overwhelming desire to hear “Never Been Gone.” It has become a little trick of mine when I just need to escape for a few minutes. I swear I can smell the saltwater as the song plays. As the song played, I found myself remembering all the trips we took as kids, as teens, and even into adulthood to this home away from home. I remembered the many little things my sister and I would do with my parents each trip. I recalled the little traditions that somehow made these weeks away into an almost sacred time.
 
I also remembered how it felt when Stephanie and I first took our kids to Martha’s Vineyard when Matthew and Micah were just 2 years old. I began to smile as I thought about the traditions we’d created in subsequent trips – early morning walks, walking donuts (so mom wouldn’t find out), trips to the beach, and those same Flying Horses. But we’ve also mixed in new traditions. Things that will just be ours.
 
It’s funny how traditions work, isn’t it? We rarely know that they are traditions when they’re being formed. It’s later as their repetition becomes meaningful that we realize their importance. However, that being said, I often wonder what is most meaningful to us about traditions? Is it the activity or action being repeated, or is it what that activity or action represents to us? I realized as I listened to Carly Simon sing that the latter is the case. The song is beautiful, and it will always be one of my favorites. But as I hear it, I can still picture my dad driving off of the ferry. I can still smell the coffee my mom would brew in the morning. I can still hear the carousel music play in the background, and feel the sand between my toes. For me, that song will always be about family. It will always be a meeting place for me and my dad’s memory. It will be played at family gatherings and everyone will just have to suffer for a moment as my mom, sister and I sing along at the top of our lungs.
 
The same is with traditions in the church. We base traditions on actions and activities: the singing of Silent Night on Christmas Eve; the movement of an action item from one committee to the next for votes and vetoes; choirs, classes, and more. The truth, though, is that over time, the actions we take may change. They have before, and they will again. But that doesn’t mean that the traditions disappear or that we’re being less faithful than those who took charge before us. It means that the tradition of faith is not wrapped up in what we do or even how we do it. Instead, the tradition of faith is wrapped up in that we do it: that we worship, that we serve, that we give, that we share, and that we witness.
 
I am immensely grateful for those who have been a part of the tradition of the church. Though the way we serve as a church may change as we discover, evolve, and grow, the tradition remains the same: faithfulness.
 
Peace,
Pastor Brian
 
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May 2021

Imagine

In 1971, a Beatle turned solo artist released a song that quickly became one of the hallmarks of the global music stage. The song, “Imagine” was written and sung by the late John Lennon, and it captured the imagination (pun intended) of the world as he invited all those with ears to hear to imagine a world with the central goal of uniting one another rather than breaking down and breaking apart an already fractured world. It was then, following each movement of imagination, that Lennon provided this well known chorus:
“You may say I’m a dreamer,
but I’m not the only one.
I hope some day you’ll join us,
and the world will be as one”
 
As I write this, I’ve had the song playing in my head all morning, and I’ve been reflecting on these words, considering what it means to be a dreamer. To me, it seems that dreaming for something that can be – that needs to be – is more than just a matter of hoping. Dreaming, in Lennon’s sense, meant that we must actively pursue what it is we dream of. For Christians, we actually have a name for that: we call it “God’s kingdom.” And John Lennon isn’t the only one with a catchy chorus. Let’s say it together:
 
“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
 
As strange as it may seem to compare the two – and it’s admittedly strange – this part of the Lord’s Prayer is very much our Imagine chorus! And like Lennon’s invitation to join the dreamers, this prayer is God’s invitation for us to join God – to join God in bringing about a world that more closely resembles God’s vision of kingdom. And now, for the million-dollar question: How do we get there? To answer that, we turn to Scripture (big surprise, right?).
 
“Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
 
To be fair, I share this scripture passage a lot, but I think with really good reason. When we ask the question, “How can we achieve God’s vision of kingdom, here on earth as it is in heaven?” I find myself beginning right here with what I argue is Jesus central teaching. If what we are doing in our effort to bring about God’s kingdom vision is loving God and loving all our neighbors, then we are on the right track! If our efforts do not love God and do not fully love our neighbor, then we are actively working against the kingdom goal. I know that sounds extreme, but I believe we must begin to understand that when we, especially as Christians, fail to love God and neighbor, we are actively causing ourselves and others to take steps backward from that kingdom goal. And when we do so in the name of God, perhaps the failure is even greater.
 
And so, in all that we do, say, believe and teach, let it be in complete, whole, and beautiful love for God and for neighbor. May it inspire us to imagine a world in which fractures are mended, brother and sister may stand with brother and sister, and the strife of this world caused by our collective hands would cease.
 
In the name of God, I offer this prayer. 
Amen.
 
~Pastor Brian
 
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April 2021 Connection

A Reason to Come to the Tomb

When my sister, Mallory and I were kids, our school’s Spring Break was always scheduled for the week following Easter.  Whenever Easter was, Spring Break always followed.  At that time, my aunt and uncle lived in Newport Beach, California, and, for years, invited my sister and me out to visit for that Spring Break week so that we could do lots of fun things without our parents!  After all, isn’t that every kids’ dream?  And so, we’d fly there by ourselves, go to Mighty Ducks hockey games, visit Mickey at Disney Land, and eat delicious Ruben Sandwiches at Ruby’s on the Pier.  This was always a highlight week.
 
When I think back on those Spring Break trips, some of my best memories are of the leadup time that preceded.  The week prior (which happened to be Holy Week), Mallory and I could barely contain our excitement.  We’d count the hours until our plane would take off and we could sit in our coach seats, sip that first parent-free Pepsi (that’s when they used to give you the whole can), and await warmth, palm trees, and Mickey Mouse.  It just so happened that Holy Week, every year, seemed to be the slowest week of the year.  All that we wanted to do was be on that plane.  If we would have been granted just one wish, it would have been that we could just skip ahead to Easter and get on with the California-bound show!  But, alas, we couldn’t.  We still had school Monday through Wednesday, Maundy Thursday services, Good Friday services, and of course Easter.  But, at least Easter felt like we were on the precipice of the excitement.
 
As an adult, I still look forward to Easter, and some of those memories still come flooding back to me.  But one thing I have come to discover about Holy Week and the celebration of Easter is that Easter loses so much of its zeal if we skip over the more difficult parts of Holy Week.  In a book titled Falling Upward by a Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr, he makes special note of this: like Easter, no resurrection of any kind as ever taken place without there first being a death.  Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are absolutely essential to make it possible for us to celebrate a resurrection!  If we jump to Easter because we simply cannot wait to celebrate; or if we jump to Easter because Jesus’ talk of death and the cross is just too uncomfortable, then we really will never discover the true depth of Easter’s celebration.
 
To this end, I want to invite you to fully experience and embrace the discomfort of Holy Week this year, and fight the temptation to jump right to Easter Sunday.  As a church, we will be sharing in these experiences with two unique and very meaningful virtual services.  On both Maundy Thursday (April 1) and Good Friday (April 2), the services will be posted to our various streaming platforms at noon, as well as transmitted in our parking lot via FM radio.   Whether by yourself or with loved ones, I want to encourage you to take part in them.  Easter will come, but it only truly comes if we have a reason to visit the tomb in the first place.
 
On Easter Sunday, we’ll gather in the parking lot and online from the many places we will call holy ground, and we’ll sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and hear a message of victory over the grave and sin.  We’ll greet one another with smiling eyes and with shouts of Alleluia.  But first, like Mary, we need a reason to come to the tomb with burial spices.
 
Let us not rush through this Holy Week.  Instead, let us embrace it all.  Only then will we truly appreciate the unmistakable gap between the stone and the tomb.
 

Christ has died. Christ is risen.  Christ will come again!

Pastor Brian

 
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March 2021 Connection

We are Still Being the Church

As you’re reading this, you might be realizing that we are quickly approaching the one year mark of making the decision to cancel in-person gatherings at the church, of course including in-person worship. At that time, there was so much uncertainty around how the Coronavirus would impact our lives, for how long its impact would last, and what the future would hold for the church. As the year has gone on, some of our questions have been answered while still, others have not. Certainly, far more could be said (and has been said) about the pandemic’s impact, it seems a fair summary to say that this past year has been a distinct challenge for each one of us. As we see the staggering number of people who have lost their lives to COVID-19 and the countless others who have survived, and yet have had their lives and health forever affected, we take time to pause and grieve.
 
Stephanie and I have a love for the decades long-running show, “Saturday Night Live.” Not terribly long ago, there was a character played by Rachel Dratch named Debbie Downer. As her name might suggest, she had an annoyingly funny way of taking any moment and turning into a downer of a time. It would eventually get to the point that, despite the otherwise good circumstances, everyone else in the scene would eventually get so frustrated and “down” by her attitude that they’d all turn on one another until the only one left in the scene would be Debbie Downer, herself.
 
It seems like a silly comparison, but I think about just how much our attitudes and outlook are linked to our choices. You know, is the glass half full or half empty? Is the forecast partly cloudy or partly sunny? Our outlook on the world and our circumstances matters.
 
And so, we might be tempted to look at this past year and only see that its been a year since we last sat in pews together. As the one writing this letter, I grieve that I’ve yet to sit in the pews with you, at all. And that grief is real, acknowledged and needs not be dismissed! We might also be tempted to review the year, and think only of the gatherings we missed, holidays that were non-traditional, and friendships that have been strained. Those things are true, as well. But it’s also important that we name, acknowledge, and refuse to dismiss all that is good! Here are some examples coming from the church:
  • Our online worship attendance, based on a formulation of 1.8 people per view on either Facebook or YouTube means that there have been services where we’ve estimated approximately 500+ people worshiping with us. Most services are somewhere around 300 people “attending”!
  • We are currently working on the necessary technical infrastructure to be able to continue live streaming worship once we are able to safely regather indoors so that we can maintain a strong online presence.
  •  With our online presence, including daily devotionals, Wednesday Dinners, etc., we have been able to connect with people from all over the country (even one view from Australia, if you can believe that!)
  • At the time of writing this, I have hosted 3 different Zoom Bible Studies, and we’ve discovered ways of connecting with folks who otherwise would not be able to commute to church if we were only meeting in person.
  • Despite fear of financial hardship (please note that it hasn’t been easy by any means), your pledges have continued to roll in, reflecting your generosity, and the Finance Committee is now working with a balanced 2021 budget!
  • The Finance Committee was also able to pay 100% of our ministry shares as part of our connectional ministry with the Michigan Conference of the UMC! Additionally, our Outreach and Missions team accomplished amazing goals in our mission giving!
  • On March 6th, I will be holding a New Member Class over Zoom, and will be meeting with nearly a dozen perspective new members to the church.
  • In the next few months, we’ll be welcoming two little ones into the family of God through the sacrament of baptism.
  • Our Christmas Eve worship services in the parking lot made it possible for us to travel to Bethlehem and the entrance of the stable where we celebrated the birth of Christ! The drive-in environment was a pleasant experience for many!
  • Our youth groups and their leaders have continued to engage middle and high school youth through zoom and safe outdoor gatherings (sledding, anyone?).
  • Our church’s J.A.M.-aged children have been cared for via deliveries of goods and other fun stuff to their homes, as well as digital content created just for them!
You see, the intent of this list is not to diminish the hurt and loss that has taken place over this past year. But, what it is, is permission to enter into the Debbie Downer sketches and remain determined and resolved to stay positive and confident in God’s presence and guidance through this storm. In other words, its an invitation to remember that nothing during the past 365 days has had the power to keep us from being the church!
 
As we look forward, this resolve will need to be a permanent part of who we are. Good news greets us as we discover that positive COVID-19 cases are slowly decreasing, as is hospital occupancy! This is good news, indeed! What we know is that this is a result of a number of things: we are far enough removed from holidays that the impact of those surges is waning. We’re also now able to vaccinate our frontline medical staff, other frontline workers, and some of those who are most vulnerable to the Coronavirus, which will also have a meaningful impact as time goes on! Though, perhaps the greatest reason for this decrease is that many are remaining vigilant, safe, and refraining from unnecessary gatherings. Even with masks and 6 feet of distance which can help mitigate the spread, in-person gatherings still remain the greatest means of spreading the virus, especially by those who are asymptomatic or unaware of their symptom’s severity.
 
And so, for the meantime, we will continue to do our part as a church and refrain from in-person gatherings. This is neither out of fear or over reaction, but rather an action of love for our neighbor and faithfulness that God will see us through. Hopefully the need for such precautions will change sooner rather than later, and we’ll be able to resume in-person ministries and gatherings that we’ve been missing, but it will still take time, patience, and love for one another!
 
But in the meantime, let us become so resolved to remain in love with one another, patient with one another, an example of safety as we continue to thrive, and a beacon of what unprecedented ministry can look like if we simply believe in our God who is already guiding us.
 
What do you say?
 
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February 2021

“In All Things”

I recently read a newsletter article written by a friend and colleague of mine,  offering this bit of wisdom and permission: “It’s okay if you’re enjoying some of what’s going on right now.” To be clear, he isn’t advocating that we should be okay with the state of division in our nation and world, nor should we be content with the rate at which people are becoming sick with COVID-19. No one should be taking
pleasure in those things. Instead, what he’s referring to is this: it’s okay if you’ve been enjoying worship from your couch while resting with a cup of coffee. It’s okay if you’re enjoying more time at home with family. It’s even okay if you found some solitude around Christmas to be a bit of necessary rest. It’s okay if you’re not missing your commute to work. It’s even okay if you find yourself cooking more meals at home rather than eating out. To reiterate, it’s okay if you’re enjoying some of what’s going one right now.
 
As a frequent listener of podcasts, most of what I listen to are interview shows.  Some are faith-based, others political and news oriented, while the rest are often themed with pop-culture TV shows, music, or movies. During this past year, it seems as though just about every interview begins with the question, “How have you been doing during the pandemic?” Almost as if every interviewee read some sort of memo before the show, they all reply with the same basic formula. At first, they lament at how hard it’s been – something we can all relate to. Second, they share some of what they’ve been up to, often regaling the audience of their new sourdough bread hobby. Third, they start to reflect on the positive side of things –
the silver linings. And then, finally, they offer a clause that sounds something like this: “None of this is to say this whole thing isn’t awful, because it is!” It’s almost as if they feel the need to apologize for experiencing happiness and something good during a very challenging and scary time.
 
I’m wondering if we can trade one feeling for the other. With nearly a year of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, likely with months still to go, I suspect we can adopt a new posture, and this should come as no surprise to you: Gratitude.
 
“Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
        -1Thesselonians 5:18 CEB
 
To be clear, Paul isn’t suggesting that hard and scary circumstances are God’s will for us. Rather, Paul is saying that a posture of gratitude is required for us to really tap into the Joy of Christ. This also doesn’t mean that we should ignore all that is going on around us and focus only on happy things! Instead, gratitude provides a new lens – new glasses, if you will – to see the world through. Let’s take a look at
some practical examples:

• If you’ve been worshiping with us from home using Facebook or YouTube, or maybe even from the parking lot with your radio, take time to marvel at the fact that, as a church, we have the ability to record and share a whole worship service over the internet. While there is lots about the internet that is regrettable, we can give thanks for this small glimmer of light, can’t we?

• I was talking with a church member the other day who was planning to prepare a meal to take and deliver to one of our church’s shut-ins. I have to wonder if we’d think to do that regularly if we were more preoccupied with the busyness of life? Has slowing down caused us to think of others a
bit more?

• On New Years Eve, as much as we would have loved to gather with friends to celebrate the New Year and watch our similarly-aged children run around and have fun, Stephanie and I sat with our kids on the couch and did an early countdown with cups of sparkling grape juice for the kids. It
wasn’t what we’d hoped for, but it was beautiful in it’s own way.
 
Once again, this isn’t to suggest that the hardships people are facing are not real. It’s certainly not to suggest that we shouldn’t mourn the 400,000 plus deaths in the United States from COVID-19, and weep with families as loved ones pass away. What I’m suggesting is that it’s okay not to apologize when
you have an opportunity to give thanks in this season of life. Perhaps it’s those moments of gratitude that will help us to see how God is walking with us through the storms of life.
 
Peace, 
Pastor Brian
 
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January 2021 Connection

Enrich All Lives

…To enrich all lives.  This is how Grand Blanc UMC’s mission and vision statement ends.  And, not coincidently, it’s how this series of Connection newsletter articles will conclude before moving on to something new in February.  Over the last four months, I’ve spent time on this page expressing my impressions and thoughts about the mission and vision statement of this church.  I’ve explored the idea of being “friends in Christ,” I dared to utter that word “exercise,” and we talked, of course, about
hope, love, and grace.  But now, the crux of the whole statement: “…to enrich all lives.”

While it may be the greatest cliché, it seems important to say this.  Mariam-Webster Dictionary defines “Enrich” as to make rich or richer especially by the addition or increase of some desirable quality, attribute, or ingredient. 

Why is this definition important?  It’s important – even vital – because these final last words of our statement identify the purpose for which we are bothering to do any of this!  We call ourselves friends is Christ, and live into that identity; we exercise hope, love and grace with one another, and extend it into the world, understanding that God is still working on each of us in a perfect-making sort of way; we do all of this, we extend all of this, we embrace all of this, and we believe all of this all for the purpose of enriching all lives.  All that we do has no other purpose!  The work of the church is not primarily about providing a social network for all of us to enjoy.  It’s not about creating a status that emboldens us in the social and economic community.  It’s not even about fostering a righteousness within us that we can measure ourselves against others with.  It is all about enriching all lives.

To be sure, there is other language that we use in the church to talk about enriching all lives.  One of my favorite is when we talk about “kingdom-making.”  You see, here we’re talking about God’s kingdom (often written “kin-dom” as a way of reminding us that we’re not talking about a monarchy, but something altogether different…the reign of God)!  And God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven (sound familiar?) is about ensuring that all lives – all lives – are made richer (no, not money) by the addition and increase of a remarkable quality, attribute and ingredient that we call GRACE! 

And so, we are, by the statement we have adopted as a church, a kingdom-making church!  We are in the business of enriching the lives of all people with the grace, love, hope, peace, promise, and joy of Jesus Christ!  We proclaim that all – everyone – excluding no one – is invited into this amazing and grace-filled covenant with Jesus Christ.  The door is open, the admission is free, the result is freeing!  This is what we are about and nothing more!

My prayer as you come to the end of this article is that you will read our mission statement once more, and read it as a prayer for this church.  Where we are already living into it, let us rejoice!  Where we are not yet living into it – where we’re still holding on to a part of what we want it to be rather than what God wants it to be – let us draw closer to God who, with amazing grace, forgiveness and love, calls us back into even deeper relationship with our Creator!

A few years back, I had a conversation with an upset parishioner of another church who insisted that “everyone needs to stop trying to take over my church” (the great offense was that the food bank volunteers had temporarily placed food donations on a table in the fellowship hall).  I calmly replied, “we need to remember that this church is not ours. We are simply stewards of it. The church does not belong to us. It belongs to God and to the person who has yet to walk through its doors.”
 
When we say that we’re here to “enrich all lives,” we have to remember that this means we are here with a dedicated purpose to welcome and serve the person who walks through our church doors for the first time. We are here, and function as a church for the child who has been told many things throughout his life, except for that fact that he is lovable and loved. We are here for the woman who stands before a judge and learns that she’ll be incarcerated. We are here for the grieving person, so hurt that they have stopped praying
.
We are here – the church is here – God is here…to enrich all lives.
Peace, Pastor Brian
 
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December 2020 Connection

Exercising Grace: Hard Stop

So, you may have caught on by now that this December newsletter article would be about the church’s mission and vison statement again! In fact, it’s the last one on this topic, and then we’ll switch to something else come January – I’m thinking about something that elicits warm and cozy feelings. You know, in order to fend off the Michigan winter cold! Today’s key word is “grace.” We find it right there in our mission and vision statement:“ Friends in Christ Exercising love, hope and grace to enrich all lives.” So, what does it mean to exercise grace?
“Grace” is a word that we probably use way too often! Kind of like “love,” come to think of
it. “I love pizza!” “I’d sure love for my flight to take off on time.” “I just love how the
Hallmark Channel has Christmas movies on 24/7 during from October to March!” (yes, I
have a bit of a soapbox to stand on when it comes to Hallmark Christmas movies, but that’s
for another time, I suppose). Just like that word “love,” we also say the word “grace” a lot,
don’t we? It’s what we call the prayer before a meal. It’s the word we use to refer to
manners and social skills (“She has such grace!”). But we also talk about grace when it
comes to God, so let’s make that the focus of our time here.
God’s grace is profoundly important to the Christian faith, but also profoundly confusing!
It’s confusing, because it doesn’t play well with our understanding of what it means to earn
or deserve things. In our world, we receive a paycheck for work done competently. We
receive goods and services when we pay for them. We get things because we’ve earned
them. The opposite is also true. When people receive things that they don’t earn, we get a
bit frustrated, if not downright angry! We call it “handout” and demand reform! So, it’s no
wonder that we get a bit confused when we talk about grace: an immense love and promise
shared with us by God regardless of our deservedness!
You see the problem, don’t you? God promises me grace, just as God promises grace to the
person who is serving a life-sentence in federal prison (if we’re made uncomfortable by this,
then my point is well taken). Grace makes us uncomfortable because there is nothing we
need to do to earn it, deserve it, take it, or anything like that. We simply need to be open to
it and stop worrying about why we get it. God loves you, and there is nothing you can do
about it!
Let’s go back to our original question, “what does it mean to exercise grace?” If God loves
me and pours out this amazing thing called grace upon me, regardless of anything I’ve done
or have not done, am I permitted to just hold onto it? Is it mine to store up? Do I get to
determine who get’s a share of it? Who else deserves it? Of course not! Instead, God
invites us to extend God’s grace to others regardless of being deserving! We are to extend,
share, and exercise God’s grace to everyone! There is no checklist for who gets it. There is
no test or pop-quiz to determine who gets more than someone else. Let’s put it another way:
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” -Mark 12:31
As a church, we have the remarkable invitation from God to share the gift of grace with the
community and world around us. That’s it! There is no small print! There is no
determination to be made. Share God’s love and grace with the world. Hard stop.
 
Peace, Pastor Brian
 
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November 2020 Connection

Exercising Hope: For All The World to See

For the third month in a row, I wanted to use my column inches in the Connection newsletter to continue sharing my reflections on the mission and vision statement of Grand Blanc UMC: “Friends in Christ Exercising love, hope and grace to enrich all lives.” So far, I’ve written about “Friends in Christ” and all that it means to take seriously our call to be neighbors, brothers, sisters, and friends in the broad and limitless family of Jesus Christ. Last month, I reflected on a connecting word in the statement: “exercise” (everyone’s favorite word, right?). I hope you’ve had the chance to read these articles, but if not, don’t bother looking in the NY Time’s Best Seller list. They’re not there. But they are on our website (grandblancumc.org), just waiting to be read!
 
For this month, I want to look at another way that this congregation is committed to exercising as friends in Christ (remember, exercise is like practice. We actually have to do it to get better at it): Exercising hope.
 
Hope is one of those words that we use all the time in so many different contexts: “I hope the Lions can keep the 24 point lead in the 4th quarter” (they won’t); “I hope the power doesn’t go out” (it’s allowed to flicker at most); “I hope my candidate wins!” (If it’s November 3rd when your reading this, did you remember to vote?); “I hope my paycheck is big enough” (if you’ve never thought that, consider the privilege that carries with it). The list of “hope” statements can go on and on, and they are all correct uses of the word “hope.”
 
So, what does it mean for a church to exercise hope? Well, to answer that, we first have to answer a similar question: Is it the same as believing in hope? To some degree, it is the same, or at least related. When we say that we “believe in hope,” especially in the context of our Christian faith, we are announcing that we believe that Jesus Christ represents and is hope for all of us. He’s hope for all who feel broken and lost. He’s hope for all who discover that one cannot physically lift him/herself up by their own bootstraps (think about it – it makes no sense). Christ’s redemption is hope that we don’t need to live as slaves to sin, but are freed from the chains that have become rusted-shut around our limbs. These are all things that we believe and hold true as faithful Christians. And so, if that’s what it means to believe in hope, what does it mean to exercise it?
 
Remember in the last article how I talked about exercise being a routine of practice in an effort to be more perfect (or at least better)? To exercise love is to take what we believe about love, and make it part of our every day lives of how we treat one another, care for one another, and value one another. We work at it, and work at it, and work at it more (in other words, we exercise it) until loving our neighbor becomes second nature to us.
 
Well, the same thing is true for exercising hope. It requires us to live our lives hopeful that Jesus’ promise of redemption was sincere and true. It’s taking leaps of faith in ministry, believing that we might come alongside God in our discipleship and become the answer to someone’s hopeful prayer to be fed, loved, housed, clothed, valued, taught, healed, and so much more! It’s believing that we can go through a virus-filled storm and come out of the fog having become stronger. It’s stepping out onto the waters of uncertainty, trusting that Jesus will reach out for us when the waves begin to consume us.
 
You see, exercising hope is doing all of these things, and putting it on display for all the world to see that belief in the hope God promises is not a fool’s errant, but rather our moment of grace realized. So, the next time, as a member of this church, you are faced with the invitation from Jesus to step out onto the water or gather the loaves and fishes, believing it to be enough, believe in hope enough to do it.
 
Don’t look now, but you just got stronger.
 
Peace, my friends!
Pastor Brian
 
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October 2020 Connection

Exercising Love: For Gary’s

For this Month’s Connection newsletter article, I wanted to continue my article series, exploring deeper Grand Blanc UMC’s Mission and Vision Statement: “Friends in Christ Exercising love, hope and grace to enrich all lives.” If you had the chance to read the September article, you’ll remember that I commented on a caution regarding mission and vision statements. Unless we, as a church, fully embrace what the statement truly means, and pursue its fulfillment with all that we do, it will always just remain 12 words on paper. But, the reality is, these are 12 powerful words that we ought to spend time exploring.
 
In my September Connection article, I shared some thoughts about what it truly means to be “Friends in Christ.” For this month’s article, I want to explore the next two words: “Exercising love.” To do that, we’re all going to have to think about something that is most unpleasant for many of us, including your pastor (sigh): exercise! It’s a great word choice, even if it makes my muscles and skeleton hurt just thinking about it. But, all kidding aside, our mission and vision statement obviously is not talking about physical exercise, like running on a treadmill. It’s talking about the work of doing something; in this case, loving.
 
That being said, I’m not entirely sure we should throw the physical exercise baby out with the proverbial bath water. We might be able to learn more about what exercising love is all about by exploring the kind of exercise that causes my shin splints to flare up! Physical exercise is not just about burning calories, though it is a nice byproduct. It’s also about conditioning the body, taking our muscular/skeletal system, one step at a time, from it’s current condition to what it can (and probably should) be.
 
During my parental leave, time of grace, since Jane was born, I have been taking her for a walk each day in her stroller. I do it to try to give Stephanie some peace and quiet, but also so that I can get out for a walk and take advantage of this beautiful weather we’re having. Jane also falls asleep, which is an added bonus! The first walk that she and I took was the epitome of father-daughter bonding time. Physically, though, it destroyed me! My body was not ready for that kind of exercise! I hadn’t walked that kind of distance since before the pandemic began, and my body did not let me forget it! But Jane likes her walks, and I love her napping even more, so the next day we set out again. At first, my body was still sore, but ever so gradually, it began to feel a bit better. The third day, it was like I was walking on sunshine! Fast forward to now, my body doesn’t much mind the walks. In fact, I’m even able to go a bit further in the same amount of time.
 
You see, my exercise has become practice for my body. With each moment of intentional exercise I put my body through, my muscular-skeletal system gets stronger, more attuned to the rigor of pushing a stroller, and something wonderful starts to happen: my exercise becomes more fruitful!
 
So, what might it mean to be a church that exercises love? Well, just acknowledging that we need to exercise our love ought to tell us something: we’re not the best at doing it! (Did you audibly gasp? If not go ahead and gasp dramatically). Please understand that this is not an insult or a slight at this church. In fact, I have to own it, too. When I joined you as your pastor back in July, your ranks of imperfect love grew by the size of a 6’8”, 33 year old United Methodist pastor. Love is something we could all stand to exercise.
 
I think Paul understood that when he wrote his letter to the church in Corinth: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 CEB). Paul knew that the church in Corinth needed an exercise regimen in order to establish a more perfect love. So do we! So do all Christians!
 
This morning, a good friend of mine posted a comic on his Facebook page that I thought addressed this well. In it, Jesus is addressing the crowds from atop a mount (sound familiar). The conversation goes like this:
 
Jesus: “Be kind to everyone”
Crowd: “Wait, even Gary? Yeah, Gary’s the worst.”
Jesus: “Look, we’ve been through this. Yes, be kind to Gary, as well.”
Gary: “Ha! Suck it losers!”
Jesus: (palm to forehead) “Not now, Gary.”
 
This is where our exercise of love meets the pavement, though, right?! As Jesus says, it’s easy to love those who love you back. But how are we at loving those with whom we disagree? How are we at loving those who care about things that are different from the things we care about? Let’s go one step further, and just dip our toes into the waters of discomfort: how are we at loving those who don’t love us back? Who wish us harm? Who want to get in our way? In other words, how are we at loving Gary?
 
My prayer for you today, this month, this year, etc. is that you would find in the passage from  1Corinthians 13 a work-out routine of sorts for exercising you love. May we, as a church, exercise our love more fully, and may we be known as a Gary-loving Body of Christ.
 
Yours in Christ,
Pastor Brian
 
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September 2020 Connection

Friends In….

On my first day, just a couple of months ago, I walked into the church building through the front door (with the alarm already deactivated, thankfully) to find the words to Grand Blanc UMC’s Mission & Vision Statement spread out across a banner, placed over the sanctuary entrance:
“Friends in Christ Exercising love, hope and grace to enrich all lives.”
 
I was immediately struck by the power of these words, recognizing the possibility that lies underneath them.  But, one thing I know – as I’m sure you do, as well – is that, regardless of the intention behind carefully chosen words, unless the meaning behind them is explored and then acted upon, they will forever remain just words.  That being said, what I have discovered in the last month and a half or so, is that this congregation has no desire to let this statement remain just words.  You all have shared with me a desire to grow into them, and to see how God will move through you and through this church as, together we do so.  And so, throughout the remainder of 2020, using my article space in the Connection newsletter, I’m going to provide some additional food for thought as we reflect on our common mission and vision for GBUMC.  And so, during the month of September, we’ll explore the first few words: “Friends in Christ.”
 

 Some people arrived, and four of them were bringing to him a man who was paralyzed.  They couldn’t carry him through the crowd, so they tore off part of the roof above where Jesus was. When they had made an opening, they lowered the mat on which the paralyzed man was lying.  When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven!”   (Mark 2:3-5 CEB)

Are We Really Friends?
Did you ever notice how little we know about our four helpers here in Mark’s familiar Gospel story?  We know almost nothing about them other than the assumption that, at some point, they decided to, as a group of four, do something to get the paralyzed man to Jesus. 
 

Sometimes, we assume the four of them were the best friends to have ever lived.  In actuality, we really don’t know that!  All we know is that they were among the crowd of people who (1) knew that Jesus was in town, and (2) knew what Jesus could do.  Did they play Euchre together or cheer on the Wolverines, together?  Did they support the same politician for office?  Did they all prefer 11am service over the 9am service?  We don’t know any of this, and it might be for a very good reason that we don’t.   Maybe it just doesn’t matter.  Treating others among us and in our community with kindness, humility and grace us does not require us to share best-friend bracelets or to be “blood-brothers.”  It doesn’t even demand that we be like-minded in our political or social beliefs.  What it does require is that we come to see each other as friends in Christ. Period.      

I have a learned habit of referring to my congregation as “friends” or as “brothers and sisters in Christ.”  A few years ago, someone commented to me that every time they hear me say that, they’re reminded that they are to see everyone in the church as their friend and brother or sister.  I smiled and replied: “That’s the point!”  They figured me out!  If we are to truly be friends in Christ, and if we are to truly be the light of Christ in this community and in this world, it would behoove us to see one another as friends, more and more.

Friends in Christ build up, hold accountable, and forgive one another?
The four friends in Christ we find in Mark’s Gospel story find out very quickly that their actions result in nothing for them, except for maybe a roof-repair bill.  It’s the paralyzed man that is healed.  Their mission had a single purpose, and it had nothing to do with them: get the paralyzed man to Jesus any way necessary in order that he could be healed.  You see, being “friends in Christ” with a common and singular goal of bringing others to Christ (we call that “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,”) doesn’t involve us receiving much for the effort.  We may, as friends in Christ – the congregation of Grand Blanc UMC – spend our whole lives making disciples of Jesus Christ and never receive public recognition for this faithful work.  But there is something that we must begin to internalize and say over and over again: “It’s not about us.”  In other words, this church isn’t for us.  It’s for the person who is being lowered through the hole in the ceiling.
 
We exist as a church, not for our own gain, but for the kingdom of God (you know, “on earth as it is in heaven.”)  To this end, we seek to build one another up, rather than tear one another down. This means we support one another in our common ministry, hoping for success and fruitfulness, even when it’s not necessarily the way we’d do it (or the “way it’s always been done.”)  It means we desire to see the fruits of the Spirit in one another (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,) and that when such fruit is absent, we lovingly remind our friend in Christ.  And finally, it means that, when we hurt our friends in Christ, we seek to be forgiven, and that we’d offer forgiveness to our brother or sister in Christ when we are hurt, all so that we might continue the fruitful ministry of disciple making as “friends in Christ.”
 
Is Christ among us?
Ultimately, we ask, is Christ among us?  As we read the entirety of this Gospel story, we see that Jesus does provide healing for the once-paralyzed man.  Jesus commands him, “Get up, take your mat, and go home.”  He does.  And then Mark includes this little detail: “They were all amazed and praised God, saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” (v.12).  Typically, when we read this, we simply read that they were impressed by Jesus’ ability to heal.  You can almost see their jaws dropped open at the sight of the healing.  The only thing is, Jesus had followers already, and they’d probably seen Jesus heal in some way shape or form, already.  Part of me wonders if they were maybe responding, not in awe at what Jesus did, but rather in awe of what the four “friends in Christ” did for the paralyzed man.  These four “friends in Christ” didn’t do the bare minimum!  They didn’t just get him to the house and assume that another foursome would take over.  They showed tenacity and maybe even a bit of recklessness in their endeavor to bring the man to Jesus. 
 

Can you imagine when, one day, people will look at the “friends in Christ” here at GBUMC and see not just another church full of committees, politics, and finances, but a church that takes seriously Christ at its core, and is tenacious in its singular effort to make disciples of Jesus Christ out of an authentic and increasingly rare love?  I wonder if the first words from their mouths will be “We’ve never seen anything like this!”  May it be so!

You Got a Friend in Me
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I am forever humbled to have the opportunity and task to serve you as your pastor.  As your pastor, I hope that you will never tire of hearing me call you “friends,” if, for no other reason, than because we are, in a very real sense, “friends in Christ.”
 
Forever your friend in Christ and a partner in the rug-carrying business,
Pastor Brian
 

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