All posts by Jeremy Williams

Coming back: when and how?

Our church is going to follow the general recommendations of the state of Michigan for gathering together. When the state says that it’s safe for a large group to gather indoors, we’ll be there, but not before. When will that happen? We don’t know yet.

We’re starting worship outdoors on Sunday, July 12, at 9:30 am. Because the spread of Covid-19 is still an essential concern, a lot of the things we do will feel unfamiliar. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Where? In Walker Park, near the library and the North Muskegon High School.
  • Please bring your own seating.
  • Besides street parking, there’s a  small parking lot available. Please leave that lot for people with mobility needs.
  • We strongly encourage the wearing of masks, and require keeping appropriate distances
  • There will be no children’s time, nursery, or children’s programming for now
  • Music will be recorded, allowing us to use the same music we’ve been including in our online services, by our own musicians
  • Prayer requests can be given in advance of the service by text or by phone or email. No prayer cards or passing microphones!
  • Donations can be given in a basket before and after the service
  • No coffee or refreshments

Why is it so different?

A traditional gathering in church with singing is one of the most dangerous activities possible for spreading corona-virus, much more dangerous than shopping or going to the doctor’s office. That is why our church will open for services after stores and restaurants and doctor’s offices are open, and after the pandemic is beginning to be under good control.

The pandemic has improved a lot in Michigan over the last few weeks, and there’s reason for optimism. But the good news of fewer cases and fewer deaths here is coming because we are staying the course of sheltering in place. Twenty one states have seen new spikes in cases and deaths after trying to get back to normal too quickly. (US News article)

Another reason for going slow is that we have many people who are at high risk because of their age, or underlying health issues such as COPD, asthma, heart disease, and more. We want to include as many people as possible when we do come together.

When we start being open to worshiping together in the building, we will take several steps to make it less dangerous for some time. These include:

  • no singing as a congregation
  • strong encouragement to wash and sanitize hands as we enter
  • strong encouragement/expectation to wear masks
  • vigorous cleaning before each worship
  • no bulletins or hymnals
  • no refreshments
  • spend some of our time outside, for social time, worship, or both
  • avoid sitting close to one another (except within families), or shaking hands or hugging
  • No children’s programs or nursery. Children stay with families through worship until schools are fully open.

Other likely changes include:

  • multiple smaller service times with advance sign-up to ensure a smaller crowd
  • communion with single serving, pre-packaged elements

We will also continue to offer online worship services, because they are an effective way to offer a worship opportunity for people who cannot or will not go out to join worship in person. And as you feel safe, please consider gathering with a group of friends or family to share with the online worship experience together.

Violence and inequality meet in Minneapolis

I was asked if I could write something about the death of George Floyd while being held by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25. If you want to know what happened, there’s plenty of news coverage, plenty of opinion, and plenty of video. There are politicians and police departments condemning the actions of police officers, and there are crowds in many cities doing the same through protest and occasional violence. From this far away, the simplest and first thing we can offer is prayer. I recommend you engage in prayer over all the hurt surrounding this, right now, before going any further.
The next best I can offer is thoughts about how we can best respond to the event and its aftermath. I believe that the best way to enter any time of conflict is to listen well, and to work at understanding the stories that brought the characters to where they were, and where they are now. For me, that means going beyond the disciplinary record of the officers involved, or the criminal record of George Floyd. We can take that information and use it to reinforce whatever biases we already hold, whether we take sides against one police officer or against all; whether we take sides against one convict or against all. What happens in one encounter between these men is only the tip of the iceberg, the moment that makes the news. It is the long coming together of different worlds with totally different experiences. There is a harder story to absorb, because we all have a part in it. A violent and angry man who becomes a police officer represents our culture that continues to glorify violence, that isn’t good enough at identifying unhealthy behavior and addressing it. A man who out of foolishness and desperation tries to use counterfeit money at a grocery store represents a culture that is daily crushed underfoot by racism and scorn, and by an economy that makes substance abuse cheaper and more accessible than medical care. Like the Molotov cocktails thrown in New York last night, this cultural collision is always a fire waiting to explode.
I need to insert that even now, there is not clear evidence that white officers disproportionately kill black people or vice versa. We only know that black people are killed by police far out of proportion to their population. (https://www.citylab.com/equity/2020/02/police-violence-racial-bias-shootings-by-race-research-data/605866/; https://www.statista.com/statistics/585152/people-shot-to-death-by-us-police-by-race/).
Whether this moment was fueled by racism or not, the police officers involved in Floyd’s death do not represent the ideals or culture of their departments, but they do represent a strong strand of hatred, fear, violence and anger that refuses to go away. The explosive anger of some of the protesters against that strand of America will also refuse to go away, because racism, fear, violence, and anger continue to call it into existence. We all know better, and every day most of us manage to keep the violence at bay. I know that police departments from Muskegon to Minneapolis to Mississippi would love to be able to filter out the officers who are likely to use unnecessary lethal violence, but they don’t succeed. People who are trained to use violence will ultimately use it for wrong as well as right. Police officers, like everyone else, resort to violence when they are afraid, they feel endangered, and they don’t know another way to defuse the situation.
We are also not going to get away from the fact that protesters are themselves using violence as they protest across America. I hope it’s fair to say that they are protesting no longer about a particular killing, but against a lifetime of perceived and real oppression. They are afraid, they feel endangered, and don’t know another way to defuse the situation. The situation now includes a pandemic, which has only served to highlight that the poorest and most urban among us are the most in danger of contracting and dying from Covid-19. Lack of access to medical care, the highest burden of job losses, and the least financial resources to get through a hard time, all fall disproportionately on black people in America. There’s plenty to be angry about. The good news is that the vast majority of people don’t respond with violence. The bad news is that we are all responsible for perpetuating the world of profound inequality in America. America’s income disparity in 2017 was 5th or 7th worst in the world (depending how you measure), and that was long before the coronavirus made it worse (https://data.oecd.org/inequality/income-inequality.htm). Inevitably, people get sick of being at the bottom of such a big heap.
I started with wondering how we can best respond to this situation. The situation is much bigger than the death of a man in Minnesota. It is as big as a deep strand of violence in America, continuing racism and oppression, and the startling inequality of income within our country. What can we do? We are definitely going back to prayer. And we need to find every local way we can to build up trust between the richest and the poorest, between people of different colors and backgrounds. We need to treasure and look after the poor until there are no poor any more.
I was reminded of this by a friend on Facebook: the United Methodist vows that we take at baptism include these words: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? I do.”

Jeremy

How long?

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)

Does it feel like it’s really been long enough? That’s the question people are starting to ask themselves. We’re feeling isolated, tired of rules, ready for a summer of fun and relaxation, and unable to keep saying no to our personal connections with people. We’re all feeling that it would be so much easier simply to go to stores as we used to, to go to work as we used to, to shake hands and give hugs as we used to. Good sense sounds as oppressive to us as the voice of our mothers giving us advice when we were teenagers!

Right now, the people in every nation of the world are having to learn that all of us are individually responsible to care about all the other people who cross our paths. That is one of the most important lessons we could possibly learn! It runs totally counter to the culture of individualism and self-centeredness that the world has been trying to teach us for a hundred years. It is the very heart of the Christian message, straight from Jesus himself: “Love one another” (John 13:34-35); “Love your neighbor” (Matthew 22:36-40).

All the states, and our national leaders as well, have asked all of us to prevent the resurgence of Covid-19 by continuing to stay home, continuing to avoid contact with people, and persisting in wearing masks when we’re around other people. Meanwhile, other folks are gathering to party on beaches, in homes, and everywhere else, not wearing masks or maintaining safe distances. And we tell ourselves that because we feel like it’s been long enough, therefore it might be long enough. But that’s not true.

Unfortunately, precisely because people aren’t staying home, and aren’t staying safe, it’s going to be that much longer before we can safely return to worshiping together at the church building. It’s my responsibility to make sure that when we do come back, we are as safe as possible. It’s our responsibility to love one another! That means that when we invite potentially vulnerable people to be in the same room with people who may well be disease carriers, we have to feel confident that we’re not about to start a new epidemic right in North Muskegon. And that means that we have to wait. For now, I can say with regret, but also with confidence, that we won’t be worshiping in the building through the month of June.

A reminder of some of the things we’re doing right now to reach out with love in Jesus’ name:

  • 9:30 Sunday worship on Facebook (watch it any time) on Facebook or a little later on YouTube. Not a Facebook user? Wait until about 11 on Sunday, and go to the church website at communitychurchumc.org. Click at the top on “Messages” and you’ll see a link to our YouTube channel, where all the latest worship videos and a few other things are posted.
    Instead of Sunday School, Wendy is sending out devotional activities to children. Add yours to her list!
  • New: Take Out Worship, a short message especially for folks who don’t have a relationship with church, available fresh every Sunday on Facebook at 8 a.m.
  • Encouragement devotion from me, every Tuesday at 3 p.m. on Facebook (or any time)
  • Prayer time, every Thursday at 3 p.m. on Facebook. We’re seeing lots of requests coming in!
  • In June, we’re having Vacation Bible School virtually. Children who sign up will receive a packet with all they need to take part in VBS online starting June 22. So have your kids and your neighbor kids sign up with Wendy!
  • We’ve already sent meals, and we’re going to send more, to provide encouragement for health workers on the sixth floor of Mercy, which is isolated for Covid-19 patients
  • We’re still giving away masks right in front of the church building from a rack
  • The Mission Team is focusing on giving away all their reserves to meet the most desperate hunger needs in the Muskegon area. And trying to figure out what an auction would look like online!

Every time you put on your mask to go pick up take-out food, you are loving your neighbor. Every time we broadcast our worship via Facebook, and send out activities for kids, we’re loving our neighbors. Every time you pick the phone and check on someone you haven’t heard from in a couple of weeks, you’re being the presence of Christ. So please let me encourage you! Keep it up! It is our great practice of love in Jesus’ name!

Keep in touch!

Everything is New

Only two months ago, we all discovered that we had to close down the building and cancel all in-person meetings. Seems like so much longer! Here are some of the things we’ve been learning at church over that time:

  • How to put together a worship service, record it, edit it, and broadcast it, without even being in the same building
  • How to collaborate on making music when we can’t be together in the room
  • How to have a Zoom meeting
  • How to keep in touch with one another without being there
  • How to keep children engaged without having time together on Sundays
  • How important, committed, and gifted are our key leaders!

And on the personal side, we’ve been learning:

  • How to get our groceries and prescriptions without leaving home
  • How to get along with the people we live with when we have much more time together!
  • How to entertain ourselves without going out
  • The importance of good hand-washing!

I know that depression and anxiety will be very serious issues for a lot of folks, including many of you. The things we are doing together as a church are pushing in the right direction: keeping in touch by phone, experiencing worship, Bible study, prayer times together, and running errands for our more vulnerable members! A little group of us even went out on Easter afternoon and sang Easter hymns outside the homes of some of our members (trying to maintain appropriate distance from each other!) As a reminder, we are still present to you in lots of ways:

  • Regular text blasts to remind you of upcoming services and events
  • Regular emails
  • The Wednesday mid-week by email, which is also mailed out to those without email. If you know someone who needs to be receiving it, please let Wendy know at 231-638-7616 or wendy@communitychurchumc.org
  • Occasional mailings like this
  • Pastor Jeremy is still very available by phone, though not at the building! Jeremy’s number is 231-720-5422, and his email is pastorjeremywilliams@gmail.com
  • Sunday worship on Facebook (Community United Methodist North Muskegon), broadcasts at 9:30 but you can watch any time
  • A brief Tuesday Bible study at 3pm and a prayer time taking your prayer requests on Thursday at 3pm—all on Facebook
  • The worship services are also posted on YouTube following the service, accessible through communitychurchumc.org
  • Through team leaders, who are keeping in touch with you by phone. If you know someone who needs to be included, please let Wendy know.
  • Wendy is reaching out to children and their families with weekly contact and activities.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, but I celebrate that our worship attendance is up since we’re only online. It apparently helps when you don’t have to get dressed and out of the house in time! Giving has remained steady thanks to some of you stepping up. That gives a ton of encouragement to all your staff people that they’ll still have jobs when this is over. As a reminder, you can still mail in a check, and you can also give electronically. Go to communitychurchumc.org and click give on the top left to learn more.

We don’t yet know when we will be able to gather together in the sanctuary. I hope we will have the patience to wait long enough to be confident and safe. Some denominations have decided to stay out until July. There will likely be several weeks between the end of quarantine, and the time when we can all gather safely as a large group. Small group meetings will probably begin somewhat sooner. When we do come back, most likely we will not all show up at once, as the more vulnerable folks ought to keep distance for longer. We have a lot of details to figure out before then.

I just finished a four-week series on Paul. So I echo his words:

First of all, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because the news about your faithfulness is being spread throughout the whole world. I serve God in my spirit by preaching the good news about God’s Son, and God is my witness that I continually mention you in all my prayers. I’m always asking that somehow, by God’s will, I might succeed in visiting you at last. (Romans 1:8-10, Common English Bible)

Blessings and joy to you all!

Pastor Jeremy

Waiting and wondering…

Here is yet another periodic update on the process that the United Methodist Church (a denomination that spans the globe) is going through right now. (Newest revision 1-20-2020)

Review…
As a reminder, the international legislative body, called a General Conference, met in 2019 specifically to address a simple question that goes back almost fifty years: is it ok to ordain, or to perform a marriage for, a person who is in a gay or lesbian relationship? In 2019, they voted to say it was not going to be OK. They also added definite punishments for pastors who perform same-sex weddings, and for conference organizations that affirm the ordination of gay pastors.

Since then, many United Methodists have been trying to figure out how to change this set of rules. It’s clear that most American United Methodists don’t agree with them. In June, over two thirds of United Methodists at the Michigan Annual Conference said that they would prefer to include gay and lesbian people in the full ministry of the church, than to exclude them from ordination and marriage.

The first avenue that people are pursuing is to go back to General Conference. In May of 2020, there is another General Conference, and again, United Methodists from around the world will gather to make decisions about the rules of the denomination (General Conferences are normally on the same four-year cycle as presidential elections and the Olympics, but 2019 was a special called meeting). The deadline for submitting petitions for consideration is September 18th, just a few weeks away. At least three proposals are being submitted around this issue. There are also other legislative issues that need to be addressed, so it will be a busy time!

The plans
This will be a bit technical, but here is a simplified explanation of four of the main proposals so far. Of course, they could all be rejected, and we would find ourselves back where we were before the conference. But it seems likely that at least one of them will be able to gather broad enough support to change the rules.

“The Protocol for Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation” was released January 3, and is the result of a reconciliation negotiation process between leaders of many of the conflicting groups within Methodism. It has attracted lots of press, and seems the most likely to succeed, based on the amount of support that went into it. It arrived too late to actually be a motion before the conference, but with so much support it will almost certainly find its way to the floor. The basic idea is that a new denomination will be formed to hold onto the Traditionalist resolutions of 2019. They’ll be sent on their way with a bit of money, while the United Methodist Church goes forward, and resolves to remove all the language about gay marriage and ordination that was added from 1972 through 2019, so we would actually not have a fixed position any longer. From January 1, 2020, the participants in the Protocol (including all the bishops) agree not to pursue any of the enforcement rules that were introduced in 2019, in anticipation that they’ll be removed following the 2020 General Conference. The default position for churches in the US will be to remain United Methodist, and to be free of the anti-gay rules of the last forty years. Churches will be able to leave the organization if they choose, without penalty, and presumably to join together in the new denomination. Here’s an article that includes a link to the text of the Protocol itself. Our own bishop has said that pastors or congregations that want to set their own boundaries around these issues will be free to do so under the new post-conference rules, if this goes forward.

The Indianapolis Plan is a plan affirmed by several traditionalist as well as centrists in the churches. It is basically a plan to separate into two denominations, one with the more restrictive rules, and one more open. Each annual conference (in our case, Michigan) would vote on which denomination to align with. If an individual church strongly disagreed, it could also vote without penalty to join the other group. Our clergy pension organization would exist separately from either denomination, so it could continue to work with both.

The Bard-Jones Plan, or New Form of Unity Plan is proposed by two bishops, including our own Bishop David Bard. Instead of a full separation, it would create two or three groups that connect to one another in some specific ways, such as through jointly controlling insurance, pensions, publishing, and some other operational pieces. Each separate group would develop a separate version of the Discipline, our book of rules, starting from a basic common book. The separate pieces would have new names, yet to be determined, such as “Open Methodist Church” or “Traditional Methodist Church.” Again, the plan puts the first decision-making step in the hands of the annual conferences (such as Michigan).

The Central Conference Plan is a multi-step process that would create a separate level of organization to make decisions that apply only to the United Methodist Churches in the United States. Currently, churches in other parts of the world have the freedom to make decisions that let them adapt the rules of the Discipline to their local contexts. But American churches do not have that freedom, and so we are subject to the decisions of the world-wide body. This matters far beyond the question of ordaining or marrying people. It also frees the African or Asian delegates from having to spend time at General Conference voting on our American pension plans and so on. This would take a while to start adjusting the rules to fit our American ministry setting.

The UMC Next Plan involves bringing an immediate stop to clergy trials, focusing resources in more mission-appropriate directions, and then removing the pieces of the Traditional Plan brought in at the 2019 General Conference. There are multiple variations of this plan, from the more forward (Our Movement Forward) to the more Africa-friendly (Yambasu), and we don’t know exactly which will make it to the floor of the General Conference in May. It seems likely that the success of any of these plans is quite unlikely, and also would result in a long and complicated process of resolution.

I have for a long time been an ally of lesbian, gay, and other minorities in the life of the church, ever since I met a young gay seminary student in the mid-eighties (in the midst of the AIDS epidemic), who was turning away from his call from God to be a pastor, because the United Methodist Church said that he couldn’t. I have also been a pastor and a friend to all kinds of people, who come from all kinds of places, and who have passionate opinions of their own. You are loved whether or not we agree. I pray that the United Methodist Church, the Michigan Conference, and Community United Methodist Church, will all find our way to a place where we can focus on the ministry of loving people, making disciples and transforming the world.

Pastor Jeremy

Every Sunday is Amnesty Sunday

Been away from church for a while? This is your special invitation to come back. Soon, I hope! There will be no judgment or criticism from me, and probably not from anyone else. After all, I’ve been telling them for four months that this is a no-judgment zone, and I think they’re really getting it.

In twenty-two years as a pastor, I’ve heard a lot of reasons for leaving their church. Your reasons deserve respect. Maybe one or two of these will be familiar to you:

1. You were disgusted by conflict and hypocrisy among church people.
2. The pastor you loved left.
3. You grew up and realized you didn’t really know what or why you believed in the first place.
4. The United Methodist Church has failed to stand up for all people as it should.
5. You resent paying money to the centralized church.
6. You are embarrassed about something in your life.
7. You have a long-standing conflict with someone at church.
8. You don’t have any money to give, or nice clothes to wear.
9. The church has burned you in the past.
10. Sunday is our only family time.
11. You’re not willing to identify with a single religious organization.

Fair enough. The hurts are real. I would be very glad to sit down with you and listen to your story. Call or text me at 231 720-5422, and we’ll make a time. And for what it’s worth, T-shirts and shorts are fine, nobody’s looking to see whether you put any money in the plate, and church time is family time.

Here’s why I want you to come back:
1. There are good things going on here, a sense of optimism, and you should be part of bringing the good future that’s ahead.
2. You need to get back to actively pursuing your faith walk in connection with other people.
3. You need the community and connection that church can give.
Whether you slid away from church while you were in college, or you got too busy in your thirties, or you had philosophical differences in your fifties, or you simply got accustomed to a Sunday with the paper and coffee, I believe that now is the time for walking in the door on a Sunday morning, and making some new relationships with a few of God’s people here at Community.

Pastor Jeremy

Why the Bible?

Churches do a strange thing: we always read out of one book, and talk as if that book were the only meaningful book in the world. It’s called the Bible, and it’s one of the many things that separates church people from regular people. Full disclosure: I am known as a biblical preacher, and I spend more of my preaching time talking about the Bible than most people do. So I do have some skin in this conversation.
But it seems like a good idea to acknowledge that the Bible is full of difficulties. For one thing, it’s really old: the newest parts are about 1900 years old, and the oldest are maybe three thousand years old. What else do we read that’s so old? We wouldn’t pay attention to a fifty-year old book on chemistry, or biology, astronomy, or even history!
The next problem with the Bible is that it says so many things that are offensive to any modern person: it says that women should be subservient, that it’s OK to own slaves, and even stranger, it keeps telling stories of God killing people for doing normal things that God doesn’t like! Don’t pick up firewood on Sabbath, don’t marry foreigners, don’t touch this holy thing, and on and on!
Some of you reading this will be upset with me for saying these things, because it sounds like I don’t respect the Bible. And others of you will say, “Yes! Dump the Bible!” If you’re on one of those sides, you need to know that the other side is alive and well, and they’re not so rare as you might wish. You may also need to be reminded that the people on the other side mostly think your position is crazy.

So where am I on the Bible? I do agree that the Bible has loads of difficulties, that we need to acknowledge and take seriously. And I also agree that the Bible has been the most important set of writings in our Christian tradition for millennia. So if anyone wants to understand the Christian message and tradition, they really need to spend time coming to terms with the Bible. I don’t believe that you have to accept that everything said in the Bible is OK for today, or literally true. I don’t really think that those are serious or thoughtful ways to approach the Bible. Instead, we need to approach the Bible within the context of our own lives, in conversation with our rich and wide tradition as Christians, and using our reason. So every time I preach, I’m trying to carry on a conversation between this very difficult and ancient book, and the lives we have here and now.  My experience is that when we do this carefully, we end up learning something, and end up growing in our relationship with the truth and with God. Join me on the walk!

Pastor Jeremy