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Business as Usual

One of the great joys of our recent trip to Africa was the opportunity to visit with South African Bishop Peter Storey.

Peter Storey

Now retired and pushing 80, he still has the twinkle in his eye and the fire in his bones that has always made him such a winsome and powerful witness for the Gospel, particularly in the years when he stood along side Bishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela in the struggle against apartheid.  For Peter it was not a political struggle, it was a moral struggle.  He was convinced that if the church was to be the church it had to be willing to confront the evils of the day and speak the word of truth, even if it was costly.  In fact, his book “With God in the Crucible” carries the sub-title “Preaching Costly Discipleship”.

When I got home I pulled out the book.  In so many ways it speaks to our own day in America when gun violence is killing all to many people and the rise of white supremacy and bigotry is tearing at the fabric of our society; when the jingoism of “America First” and the arrogance of greed is isolating us from our brothers and sisters around the world; when sexual aggression by men in power continues to dehumanize women.  The list could go on and on.  Peter’s words are a call for the church to be the church and to lift up the values of the Kingdom of God over/against those prevailing values.  He says “business as usual” for the church means living into that Kingdom now.  He writes:

“If false gods are failing and if God’s victory is assured, then even though this world has yet to acknowledge Him, we must live in His future now.  For the followers of Christ, he is already Lord–NOW!

In a world of cruelty we know that compassion and caring will one day rule, so we will demonstrate them NOW.

While this world bows to the love of power, we will cry “No!”.  We will live by the power of love NOW.

While truth lies fallen in the streets, we will affirm that Jesus, who is the truth, is Lord and we will live by His truth NOW. 

 While people live comfortably with injustice we know that justice will one day rule.  It must therefore be our standard NOW. 

While people continue to trust in military might, we know that the Prince of Peace is Lord and we will cast out violence from our midst NOW. 

That is what “business as usual” is all about for Christians.  That is what Christian hope is all about–not sentimental optimism but the insight that enables us even in the face of the darkest hour to know that Christ is Lord.  Christian hope is living by God’s future NOW. ”                                                                                        (“With God in the Crucible”, page 54)

In all honesty, I can’t say I have always lived up to Peter’s challenge and in my ministry I have not always been as bold as he in confronting the evils in our society that are out of step with the values of the Kingdom.  But in my own feeble and failing way I’ve tried to lift up those values and live into that future Kingdom because in my better moments, I agree with Peter–that is what “business as usual” for the church should be NOW.

Until God’s Kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth, even as it is in heaven,

Jack Harnish





Joy In the Morning

My friend Phil Amerson recently wrote a post about the dearth of laughter in our society.  He called shared laughter the “missing vital sign” in our day, and I have to agree.  In a day of so much troubling news and so much negative political rhetoric represented by a President who is so angry, so somber, so cynical most of the time, it seems we have lost our national sense of humor and our ability to laugh together.  I remember the twinkle in Ronald Reagan’s eye, the warmth of Jimmy Carter’s gentle southern charm and the gift of President Obama’s radiant smile and I realize how bereft we are of joy in our nation today.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I have no desire to be Pollyanna about the state of affairs in which we find ourselves.  There are plenty of reasons for serious reflection and concern.  We face a genuine threat in North Korea without even an ambassador in South Korea to represent us.  Senseless gun violence is rampant and no one seems to be willing to deal with it.  Antisemitism and racial bigotry are on the rise.  Millions of people around the world are fleeing the scourge of war and authoritarian leaders seem to be having their day.  But in the light of the challenges before us, I would suggest it is more important than ever to find a way to discover joy, even in the face of political corruption, angry tweet storms and global suffering.  The Psalmist seems to have it about right:  “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  (Psalm 30:5) Though there are plenty of reasons for weeping, in the midst of it, there is still joy to be found.

And each of us have experienced it once in awhile, haven’t we?  How many times have I stood with families at the side of a casket and even amid tears of grief, heard the laughter of stories remembered?  How often have we worshiped with poverty-stricken brothers and sisters in Africa or Latin America and been moved by their radiant joy in spite of their difficult and sometimes destitute situation? How often have we read the seemingly endless reports of  bad news, only to be touched by the laughter of a child or the beauty of a sunrise?  Sure enough, there will be times of weeping, but the promise of joy in the morning gives us the strength we need to face the darkness of the night around us.  Even Jesus, gathered with his disciples on the night before his own death, could offer them the promise of joy–“my joy will be in you and your joy will be full.”

Sure enough, weeping endures for the night.  But surer still…joy comes in the morning.

Finding the joy,

Jack Harnish

PS:  For a real treat, go to Youtube and watch any number of renditions of the great anthem “There’ll Be Joy In The Morning on That Day”.  You’ll be humming it all day.

Traveling Preachers and Tricky Situations

We were loading up in the jeep to head out for our first evening animal drive in Africa. The delightful young guide was originally from Sweden, now living in Malawi but still carrying a touch of Scandinavian accent.  He gave us all the basic instructions–stay in the jeep, keep hands inside, no loud talking.  Then he ended with a line I will  never forget:  “…and if we get into any tricky situations, just do what I tell you and we will work it out together.”  Considering the likelihood of encountering elephants, lions and cape buffalo, I wondered just what constituted a “tricky situation” and exactly what my part would be in working it out together.

I’ve been thinking about his advice this month as each week more clergy appointments are announced for the coming year.  Time was when Methodist preachers went to annual conference in June not knowing if they were going to have a change in appointment until the bishop read their name.  When I was the pastor in Ann Arbor, I wondered what it would be like to be sitting in the conference, hearing the bishop read someone else’s name for Ann Arbor, then waiting while the bishop read down the list of churches until my name was matched with another appointment.  If you were going to Ypsilanti or Zilwaukee, it could be a long wait!  Then the preachers would make a mad dash for the phone booths (remember those?) to call their wives and say, “Honey, start packing. We’re moving!”  Thankfully, today it’s a much more civilized process with consultation and announcements made months in advance giving time for clergy and churches to prepare for the transition.

A few reflections:

First, looking back over my career, I am grateful for the Methodist itinerant tradition.  From the time of my first appointment, I have valued the fact I was “sent”, not “called” to a local church.  The fact I was going there under the authority of the bishop gave me a feeling of confidence realizing I was not the “hired hand” of the congregation, but rather I was the representative of the large mission of the church sent to serve in a specific place.  For 40+ years I’ve carried the weight of Bishop Roy Nichols’ hand on my head and the weight of the ordination command in my heart:  “Take thou authority to read the Holy Scriptures in the Church of God and preach the Word.”  I knew I was being sent to be the “pastor in charge” to lead the congregation in mission and ministry.  From the days of John Wesley and Frances Asbury, we have been known as Traveling Preachers who are sent on a mission, and I love it.

Second, as I think about some of the tricky situations pastors find themselves in, I am thankful for the connection of the Methodist itinerant system.  I’ve seen the stress and divisions that can happen in the call system or independent churches when there is no “middleman” in the process so I am grateful for bishops and district superintendents who help guide the way through troubled times.  True, all bishops and superintendents are not created equal–some do it well, some do not.  But at least there is the hope they will be there to seek the best outcome for the church and the pastor.

I’m thinking of two friends in two different conferences who are going through tricky situations right now.  In one case, the appointment in which he was serving has closed.  At mid-50, it would be hard to find a new position in denominations with the call system, but with the help of a bishop he is being appointed to a church where he can use his gifts and the church will thrive under his leadership.  In another situation, my friend has been through some difficult times in her church and thought she wanted to move, but the Bishop determined it was in her and the church’s best interests for her to stay and work through it.  In the process, the superintendent has come up with some creative ways of dealing with the situation and I feel confident it will be successful.  Like my Malawian tour guide, they will work it out together.

Now in retirement, I’m no longer holding my breath waiting for a call from the DS with the offer of an appointment.  My name no longer appears on the list at annual conference when the Bishop “fixes” the appointments for another year.  Yet even today, I carry with me the sense of my calling and my ordination. I carry with me the honor and the humbling joy of being a Traveling Preacher and I guess I always will until, as the old hymns says, “…when traveling days are over, not a shadow or a sigh.”

Still traveling,





Avoiding Spiritual Hemorrhoids At 71

Here in Northern Michigan, March 9 is a pretty inauspicious day for a birthday.  The weather will be probably be dreadful, there are no great world events to identify with and there are relatively few famous people to share it with, except for Mark Dantonio, and Amerigo Vespucci.  I do have the joy of sharing it with my twin brother, of course, and our wonderful Uncle Frank.  When we were little our mother had a clever way of making two birthday cakes out of one.  She would bake an angel food cake, cut it in half and sit the two pieces on end so we would each have our own rainbow cake. Our wives tried it again for our 50th birthday in 1997:

Rainbow cake 50

By the way, Happy Birthday Bro!

boys sing

Now as birthdays pile up with rapid regularity, I can admit I’m not that crazy about birthday cake unless it is carrot cake.  Cherry pie serves the same purpose with candles which are symbolic rather than literal–a half a dozen will suffice to represent 7 decades of life and a half a dozen wishes are about enough for my desires at this point.  Given that Jim and I have lived at opposite ends of the country for 45 years and Uncle Frank is no longer with us, most of my birthdays have been celebrated with good friends and a glass of wine rather than balloons and rainbow cakes.  This year we will be with David and family and I dare say, birthdays with grandchildren are the best!

Looking back, I realize that for much of my life I took life pretty seriously.  That’s not to say we didn’t have a good time, but as Jim says, we inherited a good dose of “congenital seriousness” from our Pennsylvania Dutch (ie, German) ancestors.  It sounds like an oxymoron, but I have had to work hard at not working so hard, trying to accept life as a gift and gently holding it in open hands rather than grabbing and clutching it for all it was worth. In spite of my genes, I have tried to laugh more and worry less, care about people rather than things and discover joy even in the face of sorrow.  Sometimes, I have even succeeded.

One of my all-time favorite authors, Frederick Buechner wrote, “To live for yourself alone, hoarding life for your own sake, is almost in every sense that matters to reduce your life to a life hardly worth living, and thus to lose it.”  In one of his novels he described a character named Brownie this way:  “He’s played it so safe all his life that he’s never really lived.  He’s slid his life under his tail and sat on it.  The man’s got spiritual hemorrhoids.  The trouble with folks like Brownie is they hold their life in like a baked bean fart at the Baptist picnic and only let it slip out sideways a little at a time when they think no one will notice.  Now that’s the last thing the Almighty intended.  God intended all the life a man’s got inside him, he should live it out just as free and strong and natural as a bird.”                                            -(“Frederick Buechner”, by Marjorie Casebrier McCoy, 1970, page 68, 75)

In my better moments, I have tried to live like that, tried to make the most of life, tried to discover the joy of each moment.  And now, without the demands of my 40+ years of demanding ministry, I still want to live like that, even on drab March days in Michigan. I believe that is what the Almighty intended and I believe that is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “I have come so that you might have life and have it abundantly. ”

The last thing I want for my birthday is spiritual hemorrhoids.

Jack Harnish



Me and Billy

No, I never really met Billy Graham in person, but like many of my generation, he was a powerful presence and influential voice in my life.  My mother loved George Beverly Shea, listened to him every chance she got and had his sheet music on the piano in our living room.  Growing up in the TV generation of the ’50’s, we watched his crusades in black and white right alongside “I Love Lucy” and were amazed that a preacher could fill a stadium in every country of the world.

I guess you have to be my age to remember Graham or to identify with his form of evangelism.  Younger folks today would have a hard time imagining football stadiums filled to capacity to hear a mass choir sing “How Great Thou Art” and to listen to a down-home Southern preacher inviting people to “come forward”. I remember serving as a “counselor” at the Lexington KY crusade while I was a seminary student and youth pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in 1972.  Our pastor Bob Brown was the chair of the campaign committee.  In 1968 I was a counselor in the Pittsburgh crusade and in 1976 we took a bus load from our church in Washington, MI to hear him at the Pontiac Silverdome. To be honest, the counselor role didn’t suit me much better than “The Four Spiritual Laws”, another evangelism tool of the 60’s.

So my thoughts–

First, he was a man of his time.  He took the old-style American evangelical revivalism including the “altar call” and turned it into an international event.  With the burgeoning of TV, he figured out how to use media in his ministry.  I can’t imagine anyone replicating him and unfortunately most of the TV evangelists who have followed him are more like Elmer Gantry than Billy Graham. Though I can’t say I ever followed his specific methods, the task of relating the Gospel to our own day and using the tools available to us is an ever-present challenge.

Second, he was for the most part a person of great integrity.  He never used his ministry to enrich himself, again unlike many of his successors.  For the most part, he was able to hang on to his integrity even when connected with presidents and power.  The one unfortunate relationship happened when he got too close with Richard Nixon and regrettably it seems his son never learned that lesson. Integrity matters.  Honesty matters. Humility matters.

Third, he had one simple message–proclaiming Jesus Christ.  Though he could have been stronger on social issues, he deserves credit for insisting that his crusades not be racially segregated and for including African Americans, Roman Catholics and Christians of every stripe in his events. Eventually he came out against nuclear weapons.  I wish he had  been more supportive of Martin Luther King, Jr, had opposed the war in Vietnam and been wiling to speak truth to power more often, but he kept to his one clear message through out his ministry. Though my imagery and language may differ from his, I hope my ministry carried something of the same message–in the words of John Wesley, he “Offered them Christ”.

Fourth, with him, I still believe in the power of preaching.  Obviously,  I didn’t followed his style or his methods in my ministry.  I never gave an altar call with 29 verses of “Just As I Am” and my theology moved in a different direction, but his incredible voice and powerful preaching inspired me to use my gifts of communication as best I could.  Hopefully every preacher will be inspired to do the same. Though we will never see his likes again, the power of preaching is still our calling today.

For a look at Graham’s influence in our national life and politics, I highly recommend Kevin Kruse’s book “One Nation Under God:  How Corporate America Invented Christian America”.  Graham plays such a major role, he shows up on the cover of the book:


Thanks be to God,

Jack Harnish

Lenten Lament

Ash Wednesday woman

I don’t know her name, but for me she has become the face of Ash Wednesday and the image of our Lenten Lament.

The dictionary says a lament is “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow” and the Book of the Psalms is full of it.  In fact, close to 1/3 of all the Psalms can be classified as psalms of lament with the most frequent expression being “How long, O Lord, how long?” And of course, that is our lament this Lent.  The Ash Wednesday ashes carried the agony of the slaughter of innocent youth by an AR-15 wielding  young man.  As we marked our foreheads with the sign of our own mortality, the fragile lives of students and teachers were snuffed out in a moment’s time.  So our Lenten lament, like that of the Psalmist, is the cry of “How long, O Lord, how long?”

-How long will we go on without common sense gun legislation?

-How long will we protect our weapons instead of our children?

-How long will  we allow a small cadre of gun fanatics to control our Congress?

The simple truth is there are some persons who should not be allowed to purchase guns and there are some guns which no one should be allowed to purchase.  The AR-15 comes to mind, the favorite of mass murders and school shooters.  How long until our legislators listen to the screams of our frightened children and agony of grieving parents?  How long, O Lord, how long?

Now I know someone will say, as they did every time I mentioned gun control from the pulpit, that I “shouldn’t be meddling in politics”.  Hogwash.  This is not just a political issue, it is a moral issue and I believe nothing less than soul of the nation rests upon it.  I wish those who call themselves “pro-life” cared as much about the lives of the born as they do the unborn.  I wish those who are so afraid of Islamic terrorists were concerned about white supremacist terrorists, the perpetrators of most of our mass shootings.  Until we are willing to confront this very present evil, our attempts to confront other forms of evil around the world will be nothing by a sham.

The mark of our Ash Wednesday ashes has long since been washed away, but I hope we will carry the agony of this Ash Wednesday with us through out this Lent until we cry out in anguish, “How long, O Lord, how long?”


Being Mortal…and More

Ash-WednesdayMy friend said, “It’s a depressing book.  It says we are all going to get old and we are all going to die.”  She was speaking about Atul Gawande’s best-selling book “Being Mortal”.  I had resisted buying it because I felt like I had read enough “death and dying” books during the years of my ministry to last the rest of my lifetime, but then my book group selected it so I ordered a used copy. My friend was right, of course.  Gawande goes into detail about medical care for the aged, nursing homes and hospice with the first message being the obvious one–we are all mortal.  We are all going to die.  Many of us will get old and go through the gradual loss of physical strength and mental faculties.  The truth is none of us are going to get out of this life alive.

But there is more.  Gawande says, “When life’s fragility is primed, peoples’ goals and motives in their every day lives shift completely.  It’s perspective, not age, that matters most.”  (page 99)  As he shares the story of his own father’s decline and death, he writes, “Only then did I begin to recognize how understanding the finitude of  one’s time could be a gift.”  (page 209)

I reflected on this last week as I received word of a 65 year-old friend’s diagnosis–PSP, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy.  In my forty-plus years of pastoral ministry I had never heard of this one so I did what everyone does, I Googled it.  I discovered it is a degenerative, progressive disease with no cure.  My friend is already experiencing the effects of blurred vision, lack of balance and difficulty with mobility.  All of a sudden I was confronted with the simple truth we all try to ignore–we are all mortal.  The difference between my friend and me is that even though in my head I know I am going to die, he KNOWS he is going to die.  Perspective makes all the difference. Understanding our finitude helps us to see our time as a gift.

This week Christians around the world will bear the mark of ashes, given with the traditional words, “Remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”.  The sign of ashes is a reminder of our finitude. In the mark of ashes, we take stock of our lives in the light of God’s holiness and view our mortality in the depth of God’s immortality.

But there is still more. Unfortunately, Gawande approaches being mortal with no faith, no deep abiding convictions about the spiritual side of life.  As a Christian, I would ask, “Is there not an eternal dimension to our living, something that outlasts our earthly life? And isn’t there a God who journeys with us through our days and our endings into whatever lies on the other side?  Is there something more than simply “being mortal”?  And of course, Jesus would say, “Yes, there is more!”  On the other side of Ash Wednesday and Lent comes Easter and on the other side of this mortal life comes Resurrection.

There is so much more. And that, my dear mortal friends, is the perspective which makes all the difference.


ps:  I will be speaking for the community Ash Wednesday service at Central United Methodist Church, Muskegon on Wednesday.  If you are in the area, come and join us.

On a Snowy Sunday Morning…

The sun has not yet broken through the gray of this Sunday morning.  With several inches of fresh snow, the world is a pallet of grays–“shades of gray”, I guess. The gray-blue of the sky and lake surface, the deep gray of the hillside across the lake, and the quiet stillness of the skeleton-like trees fringed with snow. There is only one appropriate post this morning: