Holding the Book in Your Hands

Don’t get me wrong.  I am all for the use of new technology, new ways of communicating the faith, news tools for telling the old, old story. One of the positive by-products of the COVID years has been the development of on-line ministries in churches of every size.  Zoom meetings and study groups engage snowbirds during the winter and on-line worship enables home-bound members to stay connected with their congregations.  Video screens offer creative ways of enhancing worship and telling the story of the church’s work in the world. 

But…There is still something about holding the book in your hands.

First, the Bible. 

The invention of the Gutenberg printing press enabled common folks to actually hold the Bible in their hands and read it for themselves when previously it was literally chained to the pulpit and could only be read by the Priest.  The new technology of the printing press made that possible and ever since the world has been blessed with ready access to the Scriptures in hundreds of languages on every continent. Though I do rely on the Bible-on-line in my study, reading from an actual book seems to give substance to the text.  Favorite underlined verses speak to me from years past and turning the pages seems to make it more real.  Whereas scripture on my phone or lap top disappears with the clip of a button, something about holding the book in my hands speaks to me of the solidity of the Scriptures across the centuries.

Second, the hymnal. 

As a “Singing Methodist”, I believe holding the book in my hands adds to the experience of worship.  Of course, video screens are great for getting worshipers to lift up their heads as they raise their in praise.  But as the music pops up then disappears, the songs, prayers and liturgy come and go without any opportunity for continuity or personal reflection.  I remember the days of “hymn sings” when people could actually call out the page numbers for their favorite hymns because they were so familiar with the book.  (Methodists of a certain age will remember #68–Are Ye Able?, right?) Holding the hymnal in my hands reminds me we are not just making this up on the spot, but rather we are stepping into a stream of tradition with worshipers all the way back to Charles Wesley as we join our voices with their voices in song.  And then, when the worship service is over, I can return to the book and reflect on the text on my own, hum it on the way home, and pluck out the notes on my piano or guitar.  

So let’s celebrate the creative use of new technology in sharing the faith, but please don’t throw away the books. 

Because there is just something about holding the book in your hands.

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John Wesley’s Directions for Singing, 1761

Learn these tunes before you learn any others, afterwards learn as many as you please. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

  • Sing All – see that you join the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
  • Sing Lustily – and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sang the songs of Satan.
  • Sing Modestly – do not bawl so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation that you may not destroy the harmony, but strive to unite your voices together so as to make one melodious sound.
  • Sing in time – whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before and do not stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices and move therewith as exactly as you can and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.
  • Sing spiritually – have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

Two Monday Memos? Yes!

Ok….here is a second Monday Memo for this week. I’m passing on an article I wrote for “Read The Spirit” about E. Stanley Jones and his message for today. On Sunday night, Feb. 5, editor David Crumm and I will be having a conversation about Jones and my book at First United Methodist Church, Birmingham, MI (www.fumcbirmingham.org) Join us in person or on-line at 7:00pm.

Looking for the Church of Simeon, the Black

I was listening to a sermon by E. Stanley Jones on The Marks of the Christian Church. He was talking about the church in Antioch (Acts 13), where believers were first called “Christians”, the church which commissioned Paul and Barnabas to go out on their missionary journeys. Pentecost in Jerusalem was the birthplace of the church, but Antioch was the launching pad, the place where the church broke out of the Jewish culture and spread across the known world.

Jones lifted up a name I had pretty much forgotten–Simeon, called Niger. All the sources from biblical commentaries to Wikipedia agree “niger” means “black”, the word from which we get the word “negro” and regrettably, the dreadful “N word”. Some think Simeon might have actually been Simon, the Cyrene from Libya who carried Jesus’ cross on the way to Calvary.

Luke says, “While they were worshiping, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” and they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:2) It was the first ordination in the history of the church, the first commissioning of missionaries and Simeon, the Black took part in the laying on of hands. Jones makes the point that from the very beginning, the church was meant to include all persons regardless of race, both black and white.

And Jones was preaching in 1953!

A decade before the Civil Rights movement, to point out that St. Paul was ordained by a black man must have been truly shocking.

Jones tells this gathering of church leaders he believed every white church should have at least one black member and every black church should have at least one white member to make it clear the church is open to all. Today, that might sound like tokenism, but in 1953 it was bold and daring, especially in the South.

Jones also says the church needs both “conservatives and radicals.” With only conservatives he says the church will become stale, with only radicals it will lose its moorings….that’s another subject, but it’s one the United Methodist Church needs to hear today when conservatives are bent on going their own way.

We’ve come a long way since 1953.

We’ve come through the struggles of the ’60’s, crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge and pausing at the Lorraine Hotel. But we still see rising antisemitism, violence against ethnic minorities and a governor in Florida who is trying to block the teaching of African American history. The political arguments against CRT are nothing more than an attempt to preserve white supremacy in the telling of our American story. After all these years, we still see the under-current of racism which has bedeviled America from its inception.

Just think about it.

The church we have today can trace its roots to Antioch where St. Paul, a Palestinian Jew, was ordained by Simeon, a black man. And when I think about it, so was I. In 1973 Bishop Roy Nichols, the first black Bishop in the United Methodist Church, laid his hands on me to “set me apart for the work to which I had been called” and I will be forever grateful.

But I’m still looking for a church named in memory of Simeon, the Black.

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My ordaining Bishop, Roy C. Nichols

PS: If you would like to listen to E. Stanley Jones’ sermons, they are available at www.estanleyjonesfoundation.com. Join us for a discussion of my book Thirty Days With E. Stanley Jones at FUMC Birmingham in person or on line, Sunday, Feb. 5, 7:00pm. www.fumcbirmingham.org

Your Happy Place and Sacred Space

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics asked people where they were the happiest, the first choice was “place of worship”. Almost tied with that, in second place was “outdoors”. 

Since I have invested most of my life in the life of the church, I was pleased to see places of worship ranked high, even as worship attendance declines.  It says to me there really is a need in our souls and a place in our lives for sanctuaries, sacred spaces, liturgies, and traditions which offer solace and comfort in a troubled world. 

As a pastor I was blessed to serve in some beautiful churches. 

I loved Sunday morning when the pews were full, the choir was in good voice and the organ echoed throughout the room in glorious praise.  But I also cherished the quiet moments when I would slip into the sanctuary alone, allowing the prism of light shining through the stained-glass windows to envelope me and the silence of the empty space to calm my anxious workaholism.  From Mt. Zion, my first little country church on a Pennsylvania hilltop, to the grandeur of churches in Flint, Ann Arbor and Birmingham, these spaces became sacred for me. I felt I was standing on holy ground.

Just as important is the second finding—the out-of-doors. 

A study in Finland found that visiting nature three to four times a week was associated with lower blood pressure, less need of mental health medications and lower asthma infections. The same results were reported by the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University.  They said going for a walk in a park, along a lake or a tree-lined space reduced anxiety, asthma, depression, high blood pressure and insomnia.  It seems walking in the world of nature restores our souls and contributes to our overall health and wholeness. 

I’m blessed to live in a beautiful corner of world, even in the dreary, gray days of January.  Last week on one of our few sunny days, Judy and I walked to where the Platte River joins the waters of Lake Michigan.  The late afternoon sun turned the Empires dunes to gold with the Manitou Islands in the distance.  Under the brilliant sky, the water was shimmering blue with white caps splashing at the shore. It was a moment of beauty breaking through the heavy overcast of recent days. 

We need our sacred places. 

We need our sanctuaries, our holy spaces where we are renewed by shared worship and sacred symbols. We also need the holy moments we find in the majesty of the world around us, where once again we sense our place in the creation as we stand in awe and wonder.  That’s what the Psalmist must have felt when he wrote, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth. When I look at Thy heavens, the moon and stars which Thou hast made, what are human beings that Thou art mindful of us?” (Psalm 8)   Or in the Shepherd Psalm when he says, “The Good Shepherd makes me to lay down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul.” (Psalm 23)

Scientific research confirms what ancient scripture tells us and what we know in our hearts to be true—walking in the wonder of creation restores our souls bringing health and wholeness, perhaps even holiness into our lives.

 So go…take a walk and find your happy place, your sacred space, your holy ground.

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PS: On Sunday, January 29, I’ll will be preaching at St. Phillips Episcopal Church in Beulah. On Feb. 5, I’ll be preaching at University UMC in E. Lansing (universitychurchome.org) in the morning and sharing in a book event in Birmingham (http://fumcbirmingham.org) in the evening. Join us on-line or in person. More information at www.johneharnish.com.

Like Buying a Pig in a Poke

Disclaimer: My non-United Methodist friends might want to skip this Monday Memo–sorry, come back next week.

I don’t remember my grandparents saying it, but it’s a classic Western Pennsylvania expression. A “poke” is a bag or a sack, so when you buy something you haven’t seen, it’s like buying a pig in a poke. You don’t know what you’ve got until you get it home.

I’ve thought about that as I have observed congregations voting to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church with the intent of joining the Global Methodist Church. Do they really know what they are buying?

First, disaffiliation means you are literally on your own. For churches choosing to remain independent, it will mean getting their own 501.c.3, clergy health care, insurance and a host of other expenses. Then, joining the Global Methodist Church will include agreeing to certain doctrinal and disciplinary positions, paramount of which is their opposition to LGBT inclusion. But until they hold their Convening Conference, the GMC is being run by a 17 member Transitional Leadership Team, so it’s hard to say just what you are joining.

In fairness, the GMC does outline what it plans to become:

a denomination with “enhanced accountability” regarding what gets preached and what people believe, expecting everyone to be “like-minded”. Congregations and clergy can be kicked out if they don’t toe the line.

a connection with smaller apportionments, although until they know what their conferences and administration will look like, or even how many churches will join, I am not sure how you can know. That will be especially true if some African Conferences which are heavily dependent on US support choose to join. (And if I were an African United Methodist I would take that into consideration before signing on.)

a church with little “top-down leadership.” Rather than a typical Methodist conference, it will be more of a voluntary association where churches are free to join or leave whenever they like. Since they reject “onerous bureaucracy”, there will be minimal support services, no mission agency, almost none of the structures United Methodists rely on to function as a truly global church.

a modified form of pastoral appointment more akin to the Presbyterians. Without the guarantee of pastoral appointment, churches should wonder where their next pastor will come from and younger clergy can rightly ask where they might be able to serve for a lifetime in ministry. With no General Board of Higher Education to offer the Course of Study for Local Pastors, where will clergy training take place?

a smaller denomination based in the South. In 2022, about 2,000 churches voted to disaffiliate and the GMC projects another 1,000 this year–that’s out of 30,000+ UM churches in the USA. Since some disaffiliating churches will remain independent or join other denominations, it’s hard to predict how many churches will finally join the GMC. To date, it appears that most of the disaffiliating churches are in Texas, North Carolina and Florida, so churches in areas like Michigan might wonder what it will be like to be part of a denomination with a southern, regional base rather than a broad, national base.

I could be wrong, but with so many unknowns, it feels a bit like buying a pig in a poke to me.

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–Join us at First UMC Birmingham, Feb. 5, 7:00pm in person and on-line www.fumcbirmingham.org.

Big Boys Do Cry

After a New Year’s weekend of bowl games, we were watching the Monday night football game without really paying much attention…until. Then, in an instant we were engulfed in a heart-pounded moment of shared anxiety around a heart that stopped pounding. The usually loquacious TV commentators struggled for words as they tried to fill the silence. They kept using the word “chilling”, and it was.

In the midst of it all, there were some powerful images to be remembered…

-the scene of 80,000 fans sitting in stunned silence as the human drama unfolded

-the circle of football players kneeling in prayer for their fallen team member

-the two coaches coming together as brothers in a time of crisis.

For me, some of the most powerful images were the faces of these incredibly tough football players with tears freely flowing down their cheeks in an open display of raw emotion.

Too many American males were raised to believe “Big Boys Don’t Cry.”

That’s what we were told when we were little kids playing marbles, or when some other kid bullied us. The message is emphasized over and over again in our notion of what it means to be an alpha male, the hero, the tough guy. The picture of President Biden kissing his adult son Hunter was roundly mocked and panned by conservative talk show talking heads. And unfortunately, our view of robust masculinity often leads to spouse abuse, the ludicrous need to carry a loaded gun to prove our manhood, and outright violence.

I remember on the day of my Dad’s funeral when a well-meaning relative patted me on the shoulder and said, “Oh Jack, don’t cry.” I wanted to shout, “If you can’t cry on the day you bury your father, in God’s name, when can you cry?”

On Monday Night Football, before thousands of fans and millions of TV watchers, these REALLY BIG BOYS, these 350 pound linemen and rugged tacklers reminded us that Big Boys Do Cry; that compassion for others and the fear of death itself can call forth our humanity, our love, and even our tears.

If we men could make more room for compassionate caring in the place of bullish and brutish manhood, maybe we could find a way to a more civilized society, maybe even the Beloved Community and the Kingdom of God.

Big boys do cry…and so did Jesus.

(And by the way, I still kiss my adult sons, too.)

An Old Covenant for a New Year

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In 1755, John Wesley introduced a worship service for New Year’s Day or the First Sunday of the New Year. It became known as the Covenant Renewal Service and has been in use ever since. It’s one of those liturgies where the traditional, poetic language gives it a depth of meaning in a way zip-a-dee do-da worship never can. Many folks are familiar with the John Wesley Covenant Prayer, but other parts of the liturgy speak to us across the centuries as well. Looking back over this past year, the prayer of thanksgiving is one of my favorites:

O God our Father, the fountain of all goodness, who has been gracious to us
through all the years of our life: We give you thanks for your loving-kindness which has filled our days and brought us to this time and place. You have given us life and purpose, and set us in a world which is full of your glory.

In darkness you have been our light, in adversity and temptation a rock of strength,
in our joys the very spirit of joy, in our labors the all-sufficient reward. You have remembered us when we have forgotten you, followed us even when we ran from you, met us with forgiveness when we turned our backs to you. For all your long-suffering and the abundance of your grace,
we praise your Holy name. Amen.

Then of course, the service ends with the familiar Covenant Prayer:

And now, beloved, let us make the covenant of God our own. Let us engage our heart to the Lord, and resolve in his strength never to go back to our former way of life.
Being thus prepared, let us now, in sincere dependence on his grace and trusting in his promises, yield ourselves anew to him.

I am no longer my own, but Thine, O God. Put me to what Thou wilt, rank me with whom Thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for Thee or laid aside for Thee, exalted
for Thee or brought low for Thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine, and I am Thine. So be it. And the Covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

You don’t have to be a Methodist for these prayers to be meaningful at the beginning of a New Year. If you would like to read the full text, search John Wesley Covenant Renewal Service at www.umcdiscipleship.org

And may this old covenant give us all hope for a really new year. Blessed and joyous New Year to my brothers and sisters around the world.

Jack Harnish

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PS: This month, I will be preaching at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Beulah on Jan. 8, at Unity of Traverse City on Jan. 15 and at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Beulah on Jan. 29. Check out my website for details: johneharnish.com .

Happy Quotidian New Year

“Quotidian”.  I love that word.  Though we seldom use it and almost never hear it, it’s even more fun to say than to read.  Try speaking it out loud:  “Quo-tid-i-an”.  It sounds so special, so unusual, so elegant and exotic, doesn’t it?  Of course, the irony is that is exactly the opposite of what it means.  The word literally means “occurring every day; ordinary or everyday, especially when mundane.”

And isn’t that where most of us live most of our lives? 

Most of us live most of our lives, not in the excitement of a New Year’s Eve with champagne toasts and glittering crystal balls descending to cheering throngs, and not with the spectacle of a Rose Parade or the thrill of a University of Michigan Bowl game.  (Go Blue!) Most of us live most of our lives attending to the ordinary, the everyday, even the mundane….the quotidian stuff of daily living. And the real trick to a Happy New Year is to find meaning, joy, satisfaction, even fulfillment in it.

In 2022, we lost one of the great American theologians and writers of our day, Frederick Buechner.  There are so many beautiful paragraphs in so many of his 38 books, it is hard to pick just one.  Perhaps this is what we need to hear at the beginning of a New Year:

       “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is.  In the boredom and the pain of it, no less than in the excitement and the gladness.  Touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye; eating lunch with a friend and trying to do a decent day’s work.  Hearing the rain patter against the window.  There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it.”  (from “Then and Now”, by Frederick Buechner)

We’ve just passed another wonderful Christmas.  

Once again, we have at least acknowledged the birth of The Child in a manger. Now ithe shepherds return to watching over their flocks by night and soon the Magi will have come and gone back to doing whatever Magi do.  Now its time to take down the tree, pack up the ornaments and go back to the ordinary, mundane daily work of living at the beginning of a new year. One thing that can make this new year really new will be our ability to “listen to our lives”, to discover meaning and joy, perhaps to even catch a glimpse of God at work in it all.

So, go ahead.

Enjoy the New Year’s Eve festivities. Cheer for the Maize and Blue, count down the seconds as the crystal ball drops and kiss your loved ones. Then have a Happy Quotidian New Year in 2023.  

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PS: On January 8, I will be the guest preacher at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Beulah. Join us in person or on-line www.benziestandrews.org

Have Yourself a Merry Little Imperfect Christmas

The sentimental songs of the season make us long for the “perfect Christmas”, a white Christmas just like the ones we used to know with chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose. They warm our hearts as we anticipate family festivities, candlelight Christmas Eve services and the joy of Christmas morning. It’s all wonderful, the most wonderful time of the year.

But let’s be honest. Often our merry little Christmas falls short of expectations. It isn’t nearly as white as we would like it to be or the chestnuts get burned to a crisp.

When I was growing up on Christmas Eve Dad always read the Luke birth narrative while we lit a big red candle. One year the candle caught the lampshade on fire, and the next year, when we brought the Christmas decorations down from the attic, we discovered the candle had melted into a red blob of wax. Then there was the midnight Christmas Eve service when just as we dimmed the lights and started to sing “Silent Night”, the alarm at the fire station next door blared out its warning and several volunteer firemen in the congregation jumped to respond while lots of folks wondered if it might be their house.

Christmas really doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, the first Christmas was far from it. Instead of a little town of Bethlehem laying still while silent stars went by above their dreamless sleep, the village would have been teeming to overflowing with weary travelers responding to an unjust census at the hands of a narcissistic politician. The stable or cave or whatever it was would have been smelly with the cattle lowing as the baby awakes. The first Christmas ends with a migrant family fleeing to another country because of the slaughter of innocent children.

But the good news is Christmas still comes. The good news is the Christ Child is born even in this broken world. The good news is that amid all our imperfections, the perfect love of God comes to us in the simplicity of a child sleeping away in a manger because there is no crib for his bed.

So go ahead and have yourself a merry little imperfect Christmas. Because in the end, its about the only kind there really is.

PS: I will be preaching at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Beulah on January 8. Join us in person or online: www.benziestandrews.org. And if you still need a last minute gift for the reader in your family, you might be able to get quick delivery of my book Thirty Days with E. Stanley Jones from Amazon Prime. Merry Christmas.

Gathering at the Homesick Restaurant

Anne Tyler’s beautiful and sometimes painful book tells the story of Pearl Tull’s dysfunctional family of three adult children.  Sweet and clumsy son Ezra keeps longing for the “perfect family”, calling his siblings together time and again, only to be disappointed when the table dissolves into bickering and bitterness before they even finish the meal. But they kept coming back. Tyler writes, “Why did Ezra go on trying?  Why did the rest of them go on showing up?  They probably saw more of each other than happy families did.  It was almost as if what they couldn’t get right, they had to keep returning to. So if they ever did finish a dinner, would they rise and say good-bye forever?”   (page 174) 

The book is called Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and in a beautiful and sometimes painful way, it reminds me of my United Methodist Church. 

I love this church where I have invested my life, and even though there are times when this Methodist family seems as dysfunctional as the Tull family, I will keep going to dinner, hoping someday we might get it right.  At this moment, some congregations have decided they would prefer to go it alone rather than continue to dine with the rest of us. I’ve always been like Ezra Tull, trying to keep everybody at the table, believing the things which unite us are more important than the few things which divide us.  Unfortunately, instead of remaining UNITED Methodists, there are those who would prefer to be UNTIED Methodists and I regret that.

But then I remember for 2000 years, the church has always been a bit dysfunctional.  As early as the Book of Acts and the Letters of St. Paul, the church has been dealing with differences and divisions, schisms and separations. I fear the folks who are looking for the “perfect church” where everyone is “like-minded” and where denominational accountability can be rigidly enforced will be as disappointed as Ezra Tull. The Global Methodist Church will end up being just as dysfunctional as the United Methodist Church in the long run.

In spite of it all, the church goes on. With all its warts and wobbling, it is still an avenue of compassionate ministry in a broken and dysfunctional world, still setting the table of grace for all who come. So like the Tull family, I will keep coming back, hoping we get it right, but knowing that as long as there are humans like me at the table, it will never be perfect. We will keep gathering, keep “going on to perfection”, seeking to be the family of God.