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Constant Change

The weather changes.  Last week we reached 95 degrees!  Today it’s 65 degrees.  As the saying goes, “If you don’t like Michigan weather, just wait, it’ll change!”

We’re about ready to experience the change from school year to summer time.  We live behind the East Middle School in Farmington Hills and we watch the students as they play in the field for their physical education.  With about a week left in their school year they seem to be moving slightly slower than when they first started the school year.

The face of the church changes.  We’ve experienced 14 deaths in the last 14 weeks.  We’ve also experienced 7 baptisms during the same time span.  We’ve lost two of our younger couples with 5 children.  We’ve gained six younger couples with 8 children.  The only constant we seem to experience is that of change. 

Our Men’s Saturday morning Study Group has been discussing Who Stole My Church?, a book by Gordon MacDonald.  It is a fictional account of a New England church struggling with change.  Some of the older members feel threatened when the younger members take a different approach to being the church.  I think that’s the number one issue for the church today.  How do we value our current members and yet remain open to value people who think and act out their faith differently?

MacDonald suggests that a lot of church people do things by habit.  In other words, things are done because they are always done that way.  People choose to do the things they do because they’re comfortable with them.  I know that I enjoy my comfort zone.  If I didn’t, it would be called my comfort zone!

But then again, there is my faith.  Faith has got to be more than about our comfort zones.  Faith has to be more than just about “me,” or even “us.”  Faith is about the grace of God being made available to everyone in as many ways as we possibly can.  Yes, as a church, we continue to find personal spiritual growth, fellowship, joy and the experience of worshipping a God who loves us always, but we also continue to ask ourselves, “So that?” 

In other words, we grow and fellowship and worship so that not only can “we” become closer to God, but that “others” may experience the closeness of God in their lives through us.  The bottom line is that it’s not just about us; it’s about God in us, with us, and through us for others.  When we set our priorities with this in mind, then we can become embrace change as a possibility for us to exercise faithful discipleship.

Easter Glow

It has been a week since Easter morning, but I’m sitting at my desk still basking in a glow fueled by all kinds of resurrection experiences.  For the engineers among us, allow me to say that the numbers of people in worship hovered around the 800 mark, more than 100 over last year.  The generosity of people spilled out everywhere.  While people bought lilies to decorate the sanctuary, even more people donated toward food for the hungry.  Our Easter offering was excellent and from the first of January through the end of April we have collected more money then we have spent.

At the 11 am service we baptized John and Jacob Bolthouse, five week old twins of Darin and Sarah Bolthouse.  It was such a joy to baptize them, but it was mixed with a sense of melancholy as it was the last Sunday for the Bolthouse family to be at Nardin Park.  They moved to Colorado the following week.  The good news is that I could recommend them to the St. Andrews UMC in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, where my friend, Harvey Martz, is senior pastor.  I’ve already notified Harvey they are are on their way.  How wonderful it is to be a part of such a connectional church.  That’s Easter, too.

The worship experiences were simply amazing.  Everything went so well.  After the 9:30 service a young lady approached me and handed me one of our “Invitation Sunday Response Cards.”  She is already a member of the church, but she hadn’t been around for quite a while.  As she handed me the card, she quietly said, “I feel like I need to re-commit myself to Jesus.”  That’s Easter, my friends.  I put my arm around her and told her that we had missed her but that we had never stopped loving her.  She didn’t need to rejoin the church because the church family had never given up on her.  That’s Easter, too.

A week after Easter I receive a letter in the mail.  It came from one of our repeat guests.  It read: “Your Sunday messages and the outstanding music included in Sunday worship have been an inspiration to me whenever I am able to be in the Nardin Park Sanctuary.  I am a frequent visitor there because your sermons and the music seem to “lead” me back.  The Easter morning service was beautiful – the Voluntary, ‘Because He Lives,’ brought tears to my eyes – what dedication and talent bless your congregation.  In appreciation the enclosed is my gift to the Music Department.”  Enclosed was a check for $1,000.  That’s Easter, too.

So I’m basking in the glow of Easter.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of more tombs that need to be opened.  For some reason, people love to roll big stones around, sealing off the goodness and grace of life for themselves and for others.  Fortunately, there is always enough glow from the Resurrection morn to cast the shadows away.  Oh, it may take some doing, but it is possible.  We simply need to be Easter People!

And then there were more

My wife, Susan, and I have been privileged to be the parents of four children – two boys and two girls.  All of them were born between March 21 and April 17.  For us, this means that the Season of Spring is also known as the Birthday Season.  We have watched them grow up, sprout their wings, matriculate from college, pursue their vocational ambitions and discover their soul mates. 

We rejoiced when our youngest son, Sam, announced his engagement to Beth.  They were married on New Year’s Eve of 2005.  And thus began the era of Nuptials.  Our children were married in reverse order of their age.  The youngest first, then the next to the youngest, Sarah, married Frank in 2009.  Then the second oldest, Kate, married Kris in 2010.  And now the eldest child of the Miller household, Walker, has proposed to Tina Garcia on the weekend of his birthday (last weekend to be exact).  They are planning to be wed in January of 2012.  Our hearts are full!

It has been a wonder to watch the chapters of our lives unfold, each chapter encasing elements of comedy, drama, adventure, poignancy, and melancholy.  When we are young the chapters number few but seemingly go on for page after page.  As we age, the chapters multiply quickly but the pages become abbreviated.  And yet there are still many chapters to be revealed. 

Each day is precious.  Every relationship is to be cherished.  There is no time for pettiness and minutiae.  We are to live in the fullness of the moment and as fully as we can as human beings.  For me, such fullness of life comes from my connection with God, with my family, and with my friends.  Everything literally hinges on how we embrace those connections and approach each chapter of living.

Most of the time we never notice the hinges on a door.  We don’t pay attention to them.  They are often small and hidden, yet without them, the door would not function at all.  What we bring to each chapter of life are the little hinges on which the big doors of our lives swing.  The wrong attitude brings wear and tear, finally tearing the door down.

We can’t control life’s negative circumstances – the long lines at the grocery store, aches and pains, or late-night calls from telemarketers.  Those are life’s invariables.  Yet we can control how we relate to them.  It’s a simple choice, a simple step.  The right approach allows us to keep all the mechanisms of our life in perspective, the best working order, so that each chapter can be maximized to the fullest.  One of the hardest things I decide every day is to stay open and gracious to everything and everyone that is hovering around me.  It’s hard, but it is also the most satisfying!

Duct Tape, Dinner and Dreams

On Saturday, March 26, 20 people from Nardin Park attended the annual Cass Community Social Services fund-raising dinner at the Inn of St. John’s in Plymouth, Michigan.  Since we never had attended this event as a church it was fantastic to reserve two tables of ten and then to fill them for a very special evening.  Some of us drove seperately, but some of us also decided to take the church van.  Tom Tobe volunteered to drive us and we all clamored into the vehicle like a bunch of teenagers going on a field trip! 

It was the first time that I had ridden in the van.  I’ve seen the outside of the van and I must admit it looks worse for wear.  There are several rust spots all over the body and it is embarrassing to see the Nardin Park name plastered on the side of our mobile eye sore.  Fortunately, the inside of the van is quite nice and it runs very well.  Although the van is many years old, the total mileage is a little over 70,000.  As we began our drive it was humorous to see that a roll of duct tape was placed next to the doors.  It seems that when the van reaches a certain speed, the passenger doors have to be duct-taped shut so they won’t accidentally open!

Upon our arrival we entered a building that once housed the St. John Catholic Seminary, a beautifully re-designed building that now serves as a hotel, banquet hall and conference site.  We joined with over 300 other attendees.  After checking in we roamed the reception area looking at the objects that were up for bid at the silent auction.  Some of us spotted a coveted item or two.  I wonder if Mike Brekenridge successfully bid on that tool belt.  Susan and I managed to outbid some others for two pieces of art that are now hanging in our home.

The meal was great.  At $100 a plate it was miraculous that we could enjoy an excellent repast and still raise money for Cass.  After the meal we were entertained by “The Ambassadors,” a male singing group consisting entirely of homeless men.  The emcee for the event was Huel Perkins of FOX TV news.  Awards were given out to the “Employee of the Year”, the “Volunteer of the Year” and the “Church of the Year.”  What an incredible delight it was to hear the name of our Judy Blaney called out as the “Volunteer of the Year.”  She goes to Cass every Thursday to help out with data entry.  Her faithfulness and her effectiveness was recognized and we were excited for her.  It was also fun to know that she received this recognition on her birthday!

The Rev. Faith Fowler, Executive Director of CCSS, was the main speaker and can she ever bring a message!  Immediately after she spoke, there was an invitation for additional funds and hands shot up all over the hall, raising even more money for this invaluable ministry.  The excitement and the enthusiasm that was in that room was extraordinary.  To experience all of the ministries that CCSS provides for the city of Detroit is incredible.  And at the end of the day, that’s what it is all about.  Faith Fowler and CCSS have a dream for the disenfranchised and marginalized people of Detroit, and with the help of people like us we are making their dreams evolve into reality.  It was a great night for a great ministry!

Somehow, in my mind I can see us continuing to put duct tape and dinners and dreams together again and again and again, not only for Cass, for all of our ministries at Nardin Park.  There are so many needs.  We can do whatever we feel God is calling us to do.  What a powerful resource we are for the Kingdom of God!

A Gospel Gift

Over this last year there has been a small group of people discussing about the possibility of establishing a second worship service at Nardin Park.  We have read various articles and discussed a variety of possibilities of what kind of worship experience we need to provide and when.  As a part of the exploration our small little band of visionaries decided to plan four worship services based on different styles of music.  The worship services would be offered once a month at a time other than Sunday morning.  In January we would offer a Gospel service, in February a Jazz service, in March a Praise service, and in April a Taize service.

On Sunday night, January 30, we held our Gospel Worship service in the Chapel.  We had invited Alvin Waddles, organist and choir director at Hope United Methodist Church in Southfield to lead us in music.  We also invited the Rev. Anthony Hood, pastor of Scott Memorial United Methodist Church in Detroit to be our preacher.  I knew that Alvin was bringing a drummer with him and maybe some singers.  I knew that Anthony was a passionate preacher.  I knew that the planning of the service was loosely developed so that we could give ourselves over to a different style of experiencing God.  I knew that we had advertised the event. 

What I didn’t know, however, created a lot of internal angst.  I didn’t know if there would be any people in attendance.  (Please, O God, let there be at least thirty of us.)  I didn’t know if Alvin could manage our electronic keyboard in the Chapel.  (This instrument is certainly different than what he was used to.)  And I didn’t know if people would worship or simply watch in mild curiosity.

Be still, my soul.  Alvin arrived with a drummer and nine singers.  They were terrific!  Alvin made that keyboard come alive with such incredible energy!  Rev. Hood knew about our interest in starting a new worship service and he challenged us that God was helping us to start a new thing – a thing that was scary, but a thing that was necessary to help revitalize the church!  And our people didn’t just watch.  All 75 of us caught the spirit and the place was jumping!

Now, I’m thinking about the next worship experience – the Jazz Service on February 26, at 6 pm.  Helping us to create the music for the evening is our own Don Babcock, who is also the Professor of Jazz Studies at Eastern Michigan University.  It’s nice to have that kind of talent in our backyard.  Of course, my inner angst is kicking up again.  Will the people come?  How will it all fit together?  Etc. Etc.

Be still, my soul.  The roller coaster of life consists of ups and downs, of anxieties and celebrations.  I’ve been in the ordained ministry for some 35 years and I still experience the full range of emotions every day seems to bring.  So I’ll continue to worry, continue to prepare, continue to work, and, hopefully, be able to celebrate when God’s spirit breaks in on us and stirs the pot of faith.  I’m with Rev. Hood.  I do believe that God wants to do something new with Nardin Park.  Thank God.

Separation from Those We Love

These thoughts were stimulated first by my reading of Dr. Miller’s writing “A Crack is How Light Gets Through”, and second by the impending death of Pat Johnson.

“Separation from Those We Love”
Nothing can fill the gap
when we are away from those we love,
and it would be wrong to try to find anything.
We must simply hold out and win through.
That sounds very hard at first,
but at the same time
it is a great consolation,
since leaving the gap unfilled
preserves the bonds between us.
It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap;
God does not fill it, but keeps it empty
so that our communion with another
may be kept alive, even at the cost of pain.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letters from Prison

Our immediate family is dispersed far and wide across the United States and Canada.  It began grand scale when my father retired from Fisher Body and my folks moved to Arizona in 1972.  Their move was like a “death” to me.  No longer could we visit spontaneously on the weekends. It was a four days drive one direction to their home in Sun City.   I began reading articles and books on death.  In one article was something close to this statement….”When death has taken someone you love, use the time you would have spent with them, doing something in their honor for someone else.” Thus, began my journey in Christian Education.  My folks had given me the gift of the church, an arena beyond our home, where I began to learn and experience God’s love in community, so it is there I searched.

I became the Director of Christian Education at Grand Blanc United Methodist Church.  From that church, through the invitation of Dr. John (Jack) Jury, I went to seminary “just for the fun of it” for one summer.  The rest is history.

In April of 1990 I received a phone call from my father saying that my mother had died that morning. (Totally unexpected)  That night I awoke about 3 a.m. and remembered a writing by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled “Separation from Those You Love”.  (Posted above)  In it he states that when someone dies there is an emptiness that we experience.  He suggests that we fill it with nothing, but leave it empty.  Go to the empty space and meet the person from whom we are separated (by death, distance, etc.) from time to time.  That night I did so, and in language I can describe no other way: I met my mom, we talked, and “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) flowed through my being.

Our children and their families live in Oklahoma, Canada, Missouri and Michigan.  Our siblings live in New York and Maine. Family reunions are not easy to put together, but we keep trying. (I admire those of you who do this on a regular basis). Thus, I have often said, the church is my family.  And all of humanity is loved by God, near or far, known or unknown.

That is what drives me, what empowers me, that is my passion to create spaces where the love of God can be shared, become “known” and lived out in our lives each and everyday.  Tears are not eliminated, pain is not unknown, struggles need to be worked through, seasons of bleakness are experienced, but not outside the realm of God’s love that dwells within and surrounds us each and everyday, whether we acknowledge it or not.  As a Christian I continue to learn through the study of the life and ministry of Jesus, the living Christ.  (But in that I do not exclude God’s revelation to other cultures and religious expressions.) But, as Marcus Borg’s puts it Christianity is my home.

It’s great to be a part of the program staff here at Nardin Park.  I am thankful for the meaningful ministry that has transpired over the years in Children’s Ministries. I offer myself to be another link in the chain of care and passion for an area where I feel God’s calling has led me at this time.

Dedicated to the love of God, through Jesus the Christ who is recorded in Matthew to have said,” Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matt. 19:14)

p.s. Thanks Mom and Dad

Resolutions Revisited

For the January church newsletter I wrote about writing New Year’s Resolutions.  This last week I received an email from The Barna Group, a survey group that poses questions across the country centering on faith issues.  Their missive focused on their nationwide survey of 1,022 adults which provided a snapshot on the role of resolutions in the lives of people.  They entitled their article, “Individualism Shines Through Americans’ 2011 New Year’s Resolutions.”  I immediately thought that when a person makes an individual resolution then individualism doesn’t have a choice but to shine through.  I kept on reading anway.

According to their poll the top pledges for 2011 relate to weight, diet and health (30%); money, debt and finances (15%); personal improvement (13%); addiction (12%); job and career (5%); spiritual or church-related (5%); and educational (4%).  Personal improvement responses included being a better person; giving more; having more personal or leisure time; organizing their life or home; and having a better life in general.

The article then went on to say, “When people concentrate on themselves when making prioties for the New Year, it is telling that so few Americans say they want to improve relationships with others.  There were virtually no mentions of volunteering or serving others; only a handful of comments about marriage or parenting; almost no responses focusing on being a better friend; and only a small fraction of people mentioned improving their connection with God.”

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, added a note of explanation to these findings by writing, “Americans hinge their efforts at personal change by focusing almost exclusively on themselves, rather than realizing that lasting change often comes by serving and sacrificing for others.”  His comments and the Barna survey portray a national culture that is self-centered and self-serving.  I’m aware that within our culture such individualistic attributes exist, but I also see people, both “churched” and “un-churched” linking themselves to the larger world through a myriad of service opportunities.

One of the rapidly growing interests at Nardin Park is “Heart Works,” a monthly gathering of people going into the community to help serve in whatever manner they can.  People are passionate about helping others.  I think the Barna Group missed the wider picture by narrowly focusing on a topic which begins with individual inputs that can’t help but produce individualistic responses.  Oh, yes, people can be selfish, but there are so many people who are more than willing to be selfless for the sake of others.

In the January 2011 newsletter I offered a set of resolutions that could be seen as individualistic, but in reality they set us within the context of the importance of community for our lives and for each other.  I offer them again for our consideration.

  • In 2011, I’m going to celebrate what an unbelievable life we have had so far: the accomplishments, and, yes, even the hardships because they have served to make us stronger.
  • I will go through 2011 with my head held high, and with a happy heart.
  • In 2011, I will share my excitement for life with other people.  I’ll make someone smile.  I’ll go out of my way to perform an unexpected act of kindness for someone I don’t even know.
  • In 2011, I’ll give a sincere compliment to someone who seems down.  I’ll tell a child how special she or he is, and I’ll tell someone just how much they mean to me.
  • In 2011 I won’t worry about what I don’t have and I will live to the fullest with what I do have.
  • In 2011 I’ll remember that worry, pettiness and discouraging words are just wastes of time.
  • As each days ends, I will sleep the sleep of a contented child, excited with expectation because I know 2011 is going to be a very good year in my life!

A Crack Is How Light Gets Through

While in graduate school some twelve years ago, two of our children, Walker and Kate, arrived at our house with their newly acquired prized possessions – two puppies.  Since the kids were in residences that didn’t allow pets, they asked if we could temporarily house their new friends.  Mojo and Hesse were two small bundles of fur from the same litter, a Newfoundland and Collie mixture.  They were cute and we couldn’t say no.  Somehow the temporary housing evolved into a six year pet-sitting adventure.  Finally, the kids moved into housing that allowed pets.  We said our goodbyes, but we always looked forward to our hellos when the kids came to visit us with the dogs.  This fall old age and related health issues caught up to Mojo and Hesse.  In November we said our last goodbye to Hesse and mourned his absence from our son’s life.  Last week we received the word of Mojo’s death from our daughter, Kate.  Even with pets, death is never easy.

Recently, Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former North Carolina senator and 2004 vice presidential candidate John Edwards, died following a six-year battle of cancer.  From the time since the terminal diagnosis, Elizabeth engaged in advocacy for the poor, for helping cancer victims and a host of other causes.  She was a remarakble lady.  As I watched the Good Morning America show this morning I managed to capture a segment with an interior decorator who was trying to teach us how to keep decorating after the holidays so that we won’t go into some visual funk.  One of his comments included how he had worked designing the kitchen of Elizabeth Edwards.  In her kitchen he had spotted a wall hanging that said, “A crack in everything is how the light gets through.”  Actually, the correct quotation comes from a song by Leonard Cohen called “Anthem.”  The lyrics say – Ring the bells that still can ring.  Forget your perfect offering.  There’s a crack, a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets through.”

During this Christmas season there are many people who emotionally struggle.  For them “Peace on Earth” feels far away.  Some churches even offer “Blue Christmas” worship services, helping people to make it through a holiday that seems less than festive.  I would imagine that people who find themselves suffering through Christmas feel that somehow they are outside of the Christmas spirit.  For me, however, these are the people for whom Christmas is intended.

When Mary discovered she was going to be a mother, she was so anxious that she traveled to see her cousin, Elizabeth, who was also expecting a child.  Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, became parents to a son, John, who eventually became known as John the Baptizer.  In speaking about the impending birth of his son, Zechariah said, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79)

Today, I find myself sitting in the darkness.  A good friend of mine, Ken Bracken, died last week of pancreatic cancer.  He was pastoring the Christ United Methodist Church in Burton, Michigan.  Ken was a second career pastor who entered the ministry out of the Central United Methodist Church in Waterford, Michigan, a church that I once pastored.  I will miss Ken and his spirit.  Like Elizabeth Edwards, he also battled cancer for several years.  With his absence I am living with a crack in my life.  But knowing Ken and the wonderful way he often butchered English grammar, I can hear him saying, “You know, man, you just gotta look for the light.  It’s there.  You know what I’m saying?”

Yeah, Kenny, I know what you’re saying, but sometimes the darkness feels so strong.  So I’ll wait.  I’ll look for the light.  I’ll look for a star.  I’ll sing “Silent Night” with a sense of anticipation that God’s grace will be born once again in our lives.

Miss Cass Pageant

Every year Cass Community Social Services holds several fund raisers.  At Nardin Park we have become very involved with their annual golf outing.  Part of our motivation came from two ladies who served on the planning committee – Bev Fletcher and Susan Miller.  In 2011 the golf scramble is being held on September 19.  So, golfers, hold the date and plan to join us.  We sent 5 foursomes last year and we’re aiming for 6 in 2011! 

One year I attended a CCSS fund raiser that didn’t raise all that much money, but it was certainly a lot of fun.  It was the Miss Cass Pageant.  This is an annual beauty pageant where the contestants include the mentally impaired and developmentally disabled.  When I first heard of it I thought it was a recipe for disaster.  With a lot of suspicion hovering around my head, I steered my car down to the Cass United Methodist Church in Detroit that hosts the event.  An hour and a half later I emerged a total convert!  I went home blabbering to my wife, trying to describe the experience and failed miserably.  The next year Susan went with me and kept doing so for several years.  One year she was asked to be one of the judges for the pageant.

We’ve missed a few years, but this December we once again resumed our pilgrimage and we invited Bev and Al Fletcher to join us.  What an evening!  There were 18 contestants.  They participated in three areas – talent, evening gowns and answering questions.  Paula Tutman, reporter for WDIV, Channel 4, was the emcee.  The men of Cass Community Social Services also participated, decked out in their tuxedos, escorting the contestants, and even performing a musical number on their own.  This year the theme was “A Chorus Line.”

The women of varying ages, sizes, impairments and disabilities were so excited to be on stage.  These are ladies who have rarely been noticed throughout their lives.  They have struggled.  They have been counted out.  They have been discouraged.  But not this night!  On this night they were beautiful!  They were displaying their talents.  Some danced.  Some sang.  One played the piano.  Let’s just say the dancing was more enthusiastic than accomplished.  The singing was more joyous than melodious.  The piano player picked out a tune with her right hand only.  But the people cheered and applauded for every one of them.  For these ladies to have the joy and the courage to perform and to do it with such exhuberance was spectacular!

When it came time for the evening gown procession, each woman felt a beauty in their lives they had never felt before.  The donated gowns didn’t always fit perfectly nor did each contestant glide along the floor with sophistication, but never have I experienced such an elegant moment at this!  When the questions were asked of them (What is your favorite color and why? or What is your favorite ice cream and why?) some contestants were clear and articulate and some of the ladies could only make sounds that never formed words.  But the hearts of the audience responded enthusiastically to every answer.  Applause!  Applause!  Applause!

At the end of the evening a winner was prounced.  Her name is Gail.  But every contestant was a winner, and so were all 300 people in attendance.  All of the ladies in the pageant hugged each other.  Everybody was thrilled.  And I thought, how wonderful it was to help people to know how beautiful they really are.  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could do that every day with every one we meet?

Thanks Giving with Thanks Living

Over the last two months there is a group within the church called the Nominations and Leadership Development Team that is responsible for identifying, deploying, and monitoring spiritual leadership for the church.  Nardin Park has 30 Boards, Committees and Ministry Teams in place to accomplish the ministries to which we have committed ourselves.  We need lots of people who are willing to give of their time and energies to make these ministries happen. 

This year alone almost 100 people were approached by the Nominations Team and most of the people responded with a “yes.”  Many of those who said, “no” offered an alternative place where they could serve and most of the time we were able to accomodate them.  Thankfully, I can report that approximately 240 people are willing to dedicate their talents in making Nardin Park a vital and vitalized congregation.  Praise God!

I’m especially excited that several of our youth took the initiative to expand their ministry above and beyond “youth” ministry.  We now have someone on the Worship Team (Elizabeth Morrison), the Family Life Team (Julia Lederer), the Audio Team (James Allbery) and for a fourth year in a row we have a high school youth (the second year for Jake Lockledge) attending the Detroit Annual Conference as one of our three members representing Nardin Park.

It is exciting to experience people who are excited about being in ministry.  Since Thanksgiving is a couple of days away, the obvious thought scurrying around in my brain is that when we experience a sense of gratitude for our life and our faith we begin to seek ways in which we can live out our gratitude.  In other words, thanks-giving becomes thanks-living.  It’s a joy to watch! 

It’s far more fun to watch than the Detroit Lions!  By the way, what genius continues to schedule the Lions to play on Thanksgiving against some of the National Football League’s best teams?  Can a Lion really devour a New England Patriot on Thanksgiving Day?  Isn’t that like rooting for the turkeys to do in the Pilgrims?  Of course I’ll be in front of the tv screen and I will enjoy the game.  My enjoyment, however, comes from the company we’re hosting.  All of our kids, their spouses and our granddaughter will be with us.  My sense of gratitude is simply overwhelming.  I pray that my thanks-living can match the fullness in my heart.

Youth Inspired

Last Sunday I walked into the church building as usual but the rest of the Sunday morning experience was different for me.  Yesterday was High School Youth Sunday.  Under the direction of Rev. Susan Youmans the youth developed a worship theme, planned the mechanics of the service and provided the talent and leadership for the worship hour.  My wife and I chose to sit in the balcony.  We have a faithful balcony crew of worshipers who are not use to seeing me in their domain.  They reacted; I responded; and it was fun.

The theme was “Something New,” based on Isaiah 65:17.  We were warmly and humorously greeted by Robert Paquette.  We heard an enthusiastic rendition of “Shine Your Light” by the New Generation Youth Choir.  Tommy Moening delivered the morning announcements with precise clarity and enthusiasm.  We appreciated the musical talent of Christine Nicholson, flute and James Allbery, violin as they played “Seek Ye First,” an arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon by Jim Allbery.

Vivacious Julia Lederer presented a Children’s Message.  James Allbery led us in our time of prayer.  Patrick Paquette read scripture.  David Green led us through our time of stewardship.  We watched a visual powerpoint presentation created by Christine Nicholson.  We heard three personal statements of faith and mission by Kelsey Duntley, Jake Lockledge and Julia Lederer.

The worship service had an energy and a flow that was deeply appreciated by everyone, especially me.  What struck me about these high school youth was their poise and their commitment to their faith.  We hear all kinds of horror stories about the younger generations, but with these young people all of the possible troubles for the future melted away and was replaced with such words as “hope,” “potential,” “compassion,” and “faithfulness.”

Jake Lockledge delivered the morning benediction: “Yesterday’s the past and tomorrow’s the future.  Today is a gift – which is why they call it the present.”  It is a quote from Bill Keane, cartoonist and creator of “The Family Circus.” 

Today is a gift, a present from God.  And so are these Youth.  Thank you for your inspiration.

The Gift of Jayden

     One Sunday morning Paul Merritt introduced me to a young guest that he had brought to church.  Jayden is four years old with a wonderful smile and a charming personality.  He had never been in a church building before and was quite taken with all of the people and especially our Sunday school.  During the worship service Jayden came to forward during our “Ministry with Children” time.

     Our scripture theme for the morning was taken from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17, verses 11 through 19.  It is the story of how Jesus healed ten lepers, but after they were healed only one leper returned and thanked Jesus for what he had done. 

     I handed out to each child a baggie that contained ten pennies.  I told them it was a gift, just like the gifts that God gives us each day.  God gives us such gifts as love, hope, joy and caring.  As we receive these gifts we become thankful, so thankful that we want to actively give thanks.  I then showed them an offering plate and said to them that every Sunday we show our thanks to God through our giving.  If we felt that God had blessed us with ten pennies, then we could say thanks to God by giving one of those pennies to God, BUT it was their choice.

     Every person exercises their choice in saying thanks.  Some people would keep all ten pennies.  Some would be thankful that they could keep nine pennies and more than gladly give one of the pennies to God.  So as the children left to go to Sunday school they could put a penny into the offering plate or they could keep all ten pennies.  It was their choice.  Each child was happy to reach into their baggie and pull out one penny into the plate.  After all, they still possessed nine free pennies they didn’t have before.

     The last person to leave that morning was Jayden.  As he approached the offering plate a big smile came over him.  He emptied the entire baggie of ten pennies into the plate!  He was so thankful to be in church that he couldn’t stop himself from giving all of his gifts to God.  When I saw the joy on his face my heart almost leapt out of my body!  He didn’t stop to count the cost.  He didn’t ask how the money was going to be used.  He was simply happy to give it all to God!

     When I saw Paul the following Sunday morning we talked about Jayden’s amazing generosity.  Paul then told me about a gentleman who came up to him after the worship service and handed him a dollar for Jayden.  The man told Paul that one of the values that were taught to him as a child was that when we are giving with our lives God multiplies our generosity ten-fold.  Jayden had given ten cents.  He wanted Jayden to have a dollar – ten times the ten cents.  For the man, Jayden had been a blessing to his life and he wanted to bless Jayden.  Generosity brings even more generosity.

     I don’t think people should give in order to get even more, but I do think that when people become giving there is even more giving to be experienced in their lives.  The theme for our 2010 Stewardship Campaign is “Let God Lead.”  And God did just that.  God led through the grateful heart of a four-year-old boy.  Jayden, you helped me to experience once again the purity of giving, asking for nothing in return.  There is a smile on my face and joy in my heart.  Thank you.

Call to Action Breakfast

For almost my whole life I have been a “night” person.  I stay up late to read, to watch old movies, or maybe even to enjoy a video game.  That’s the kind way of saying I’m not a “morning” person.  I usually only need about 6-7 hours of sleep per night, so I do get up in the morning.  Or at least my body gets up in the morning, but my mind normally takes a couple of hours to catch up with everything else that is going on.  There are very few things that can trigger my desire to get going in the morning.  Oh, yeah, there’s the 8 am Tuesday morning group of men that eats breakfast at the Farmington Ram’s Horn.  And then again, there’s the 8:30 am Saturday morning group of men that gathers for a doughnut, coffee and conversation around whatever book we are studying.  But as for anything earlier than 8 am – well, good luck at rousing me out of bed.

Having declared my shortcomings, I must confess there is one lady who can get me out of bed for a 7:15 am breakfast every year.  No, it’s not my wife.  It’s Betty Nicolay.  She invites me to the annual Community Breakfast of the Call to Action Coalition of Farmington/Farmington Hills.  This group vows to “break the silence” surrounding alcohol and drug use, physical and emotional abuse, addiction and domestic violence in our community by promising to intervene and support where needed.  Betty was a founder of the Families in Action group that eventually grew into the Call to Action Coalition.  She was honored for her 30 years of service and leadership in both orgnizations.  At the time of her recognition she was awarded a plaque, announced her retirement from the group, and received a well-deserved standing ovation for her years of devoted and dedicated service.

It was a quotation on the plaque that attracted my attention.  Although, I must admit that I had to finally call Betty to acquire the actual wording.  Written by Claudia Black the words are: “It is not the mountain that gets moved that makes a difference.  It is the little steps taken one at a time.”  I really like that thought.

Every day we take lots and lots of little steps.  What are we doing with our steps?  Where are we going?  Some days we take steps sideways or backwards or we go off in a totally new direction.  The possibilites are numerous.  Then all of a sudden, one day we stop our steps and look to see where we are.  We wonder how we got here.  Maybe we even think about where we might be going. 

I know of a few people (actually the number is 186) who have taken steps away from the Nardin Park faith family.  They have followed little steps that took them into a direction where they began to attend the worship of God less and less.  They followed little steps that led them into giving less and less of themselves and their financial support until they finally stopped giving.  It’s easy to do.  It just takes lots and lots of little steps.  Then they find themselves wondering, “Why don’t I feel close to my church any more?”

Little steps lead us away from what we truly value, or little steps lead us to what we truly value.  Little steps.  Congratulations, Betty, for taking so many little steps that helped address a big community concern.  Actually, thank all of you for taking the little steps that each day requires.  Hopefully, those little steps move us closer to God and to each other.

Golf Scramble

On Monday, September 20 104 golfers gathered at the Fox Hills Golf Course west of Plymouth, Michigan.  Their purpose was two-fold: (1) enjoy a round of golf, and (2) raise money for Cass Community Social Services (CCSS).  This was the 4th annual Cass Golf Scramble.  I have to admit that I was walking pretty tall as the lead pastor of Nardin Park.  We had six foursomes (24) participating in the Scramble – five foursomes of men and 1 foursome of women.  Approximately $24,000 was raised for Cass with $4,000 coming from the golfers and contributors from Nardin Park. With the decline in corporate sponsorships it was important to get more people involved and we did!

CCSS is devoted to making a profound difference in thousands of lives by fighting poverty and creating opportunity for the poor, underserved, and overlooked in the community of Detroit.  They offer numerous avenues of hope to the many that walk through their doors every day, including: the Safe Haven program for mentally ill men, the Transitional Housing program for chronically addicted men, Mom’s Place for homeless women and children, the Skill Building Programs for adults with developmental disabilities, the Vocational Training Program/Permanent Jobs for unemployed adults, two Emergency Shelters, the providing of 20,000 meals a week to homebound seniors and homeless people, and Youth Services such as musical, mentoring and recreational opportunities.  Reverend Faith Fowler is the director and the incredible energy behind these ministries and the wonderful staff that coordinates all of these programs.

I gladly admit that I am not much of a golfer, but I do enjoy being on the links with friends.  I especially love the scramble format, where we play the best ball hit by one of the four team members.  One of the requirements is that each golfer must have three of their drives be used during the 18 holes of play.  So the pressure is on!  Wherever the best shot lands becomes the spot for the rest of us to hit from for the next shot.  At one time or another we depend on each other to make our way through the course.

I think there is a spiritual idea in all of this.  As people of faith we are in a scramble counting on one another to successfully play the course of life.  Yet all too often we play like we are the only ones in the game.  If we could just relax and learn to depend on one another, how much better living out our discipleship could be.  Will other people let us down?  Sometimes.  After all, I even let myself down from time to time.  All four of our foursome missed the same six foot putt, but at the end of the day we still shot a score of five-under par.  No matter what the score, I believe we do better when we work together, talk together, have fun together, and do things together.  You see, other people also lift us up.  We need each other to become the best person that we can be. 

See you on the Golf Course.  I’m usually the one looking for the lost ball!

Little Girl and Beautiful Bride

On the television stations there is currently a car commercial that shows a father standing at the front passenger side of the car with the window rolled down.  He is dangling car keys in his hands and addressing the driver of the car, a young girl around 8 years old.  He is giving her instructions on how to be careful while driving the car.  When I first saw this ad I can remember thinking, “Who would ever let such a little girl drive a car?”

After a couple of photo shots of the little girl, much of the commercial is spent on the worried look of the father’s face.  Finally, the little girl interrupts her dad, taking the car keys from him.  As he sees the keys vanish from his hand, the little girl becomes a 16 year old young lady taking the car out for the first time on her own.  The car company completes the ad by telling us, the audience, that they prepared this automobile for such a day as this.  I was so emotionally taken, that a tear surprised my face with its presence, reminding me of how fast our four children have grown.

That feeling merely compounded itself on Saturday, August 21, at 4 pm.  My daughter, Kate Miller, stood in front of me and beside a young man named Kris Ambrose.  It was their wedding day.  We were outdoors at Riverside Receptions near Centreville, Michigan.  An irritating, dripping rain stopped at 2 pm, the sun made an appreciated appearance, and the temperature reflected more accurately what most Michigan summer days feel like.

The Bride’s mother was nervous but looking extremely radiant and beautiful.  The Bride’s grandfather (my father) walked her down the aisle.  Due to my invalid mother he had not been able to be present at the weddings of our first two children, Sam and Sarah.  With mother’s death, dad was able to be with us for this occasion.  Kate asked him to be her escort.  My wife, Susan, and I were deeply moved and I know that dad was very grateful.

As Kate and Kris stood before me I looked at them both.  Kris stared at Kate with such love in his eyes that it made my heart beat with joy.  When I looked at Kate, I was like that car commercial dad.  I saw a blonde, curly-haired, little girl, full of life and energy, marching toward life with boundless determination. 

Right before the wedding began I reached in my pocket to check on the status of my handkerchief, only to discover its absence.  The thought that came to mind was, “You can’t cry, Miller.  You don’t have a hankie!”  Actually, I did pretty well.  Then as I was pronouncing them husband and wife I began staring at Kate, realizing she was now a wife, only to see her staring back at me with such grace in her eyes that I simply began to melt.  I buckled, but kept going, somehow managing to hand over the car keys to her.  Oops, I mean…well, you know what I mean.

At the wedding reception I gave a toast.  Toasts are words of appreciation, of personal support and wishing people well.  I wish all of you well, but this toast is for Kate and Kris.

“From Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Florida and Michigan you have come together as family and friends of Kate and Kris, celebrating their love and vows of marriage.  We thank you.  As I look at my daughter, Kate, I can’t help but reflect on all the years I was lucky enough to watch her grow and become the beautiful woman she is today.  She captured my heart on the day she was born, and I became more and more in awe of her as the years passed by.  She’s my little girl and my ray of sunlight, and no matter what her age, she’ll always be those things to me.

Today, as I watch her marry Kris, I am filled with pride and I am confident that they are about to embark on a wonderful journey.  Happy marriages begin when we marry the ones we love, and marriages blossom when we love the ones we marry.  I lift my glass and toast Kate and Kris.  May you have enough happiness to keep you sweet; enough hope to keep you happy; enough success to keep you eager; enough friends to give you comfort; and enough determination to make each day a better day than yesterday.”