Personal Notes from Mike
  • Family members moving yesterday:  Alison and Nelson to a hundred year old house in East Madison (Wisconsin.)  They'll be renting the second floor on this charming place in its cozy and alive neighborhood.
  • My parents are also moving...also across town, in Springfield, IL, this week...from a two-story condominium to a one story single family dwelling.
  • And later this month Scarlette, Tristin, and Sean will be moving just up the road from Naperville to Lisle.
  • And...Jie is closing on the old parsonage we used to live in on Cottage Grove Avenue in Urbana...this Friday.  She already has several Chinese scholars ready to move in.
  • Finished this month's sermon series on Sexual Ethics, the topic today was homosexuality and the Bible and personal experiences.  The audio sermons are posted each week on the church website (usually by Tuesday.)  Click Here to listen.
  • Watched the movie, "Grapes of Wrath" after reading John Steinbeck's novel by the same name.  Reading the latest John Grisham novel, Camino Island.  Also started a new audio book, Mary Roach's Stiff:  The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.  

July 30, 2017
Eulogies for the Living
My friend Nic called me a while back and asked me if I would introduce him at his installation service.  He asked with such flattery that I agreed on the spot, without reservation.  Nic is the new district superintendent of the United Methodist Church in western Illinois.  And he is a longtime friend.  The bishop and other conference leaders would be there that day to install him in this new position.  

Having said yes, I gave my attention to other things and sort of forgot I'd agreed to speak.  But midway through this week, the event started flashing at me from my smart phone and got me to thinking about what I would say at the ceremony.   
Not knowing exactly how to craft my talk, I decided to focus first on the word, installation.  I'd seen dryers, washers, and stoves installed, as well as cows in-stalled when it was time to milk them.  The key syllable of the word is 'stall'...derived from an old Greek word meaning, "to put something in its place."  So...a roomful of people would gather, I would introduce Nic, and then the bishop and a bunch of other church leaders were going to put him in his place.  It didn't sound like something I'd want done to me...but then...Nic and I always have had different tastes.
Just as I was finally figuring out this deep meaning of installation, it suddenly dawned on me that I'd never been asked to introduce anyone before.  I have zero experience or knowledge when it comes to giving formal introductions.  Slightly anxious, I began to confide to my friends that I wasn't sure how to give Nic a proper introduction.  And then someone reminded me that I've done hundreds of funerals in my ministry, and maybe I could just write a eulogy for Nic.  

That I could do!  Since I usually begin my eulogies with an obituary, I asked Nic to send me one on himself.  (I will not go into detail on his exact response to me, but suffice it to say that my essays are of a genteel nature and I will not be quoting He did, however, send me a resume.  This resume, of course, mentioned nothing about him being born, or his parents, or the time he got in trouble with the kindergarten teacher for talking during quiet time.  Resume's leave out so much that would normally go in a eulogy.  A resume leads to a lousy introduction speech.  What delights can you glean off a resume? "He was born, somewhere.  Blah...blah.  Then  other stuff happened.  And then he went to college.  And then he went to work blah, blah, blah.  That put him on a bunch of boring committees, blah, blah, blah."  Obits give you so much more interesting stuff to work with.  They leave out the stuff you'd rather forget.

But you do learn things from a resume.  I guess I knew, in the back of my mind, that Nic had gone to college.  It's just that I never thought about it, and we never talked about our college years, despite our many hours of conversation.  There's some stuff that just doesn't get elevated to the status of "guy talk."

So I was surprised to read that he earned his bachelor's degree in Business Administration.  His resume also said that he was a certified baseball umpire (I didn't know that!) and a certified master naturalist (I've never even heard of that...and in trying to ponder what a "master naturalist" is, I've had to yell 'stop' at my imagination at least six times.)  Sometimes you've known someone a long time and you begin to wonder whether you really know them.   It was dawning on me that there must be many  things I don't know about Nic. 
If I tried to introduce Nic off his resume, people might get the idea that I'd never even met the guy.  So I decided to just tell the audience a thing or two I did know about him.  

He's been in the ministry over 30 years, and it hasn't always turned out like he thought it would.  He is a husband, father, and grandfather...but not everything in his family turned out like he had planned.  He has spent years serving in our annual conference, boards and committees, etc. And I have seen him disappointed and even humiliated from time to time.  The last time caused him to move entirely out the spotlight.  And for most of these past 5 years he has practiced his pastoring from the margins, focusing on the fact that his personhood is much more than just being a pastor. People in the middle of the church would be surprised at how much is going on at the margins.

Nic has stayed a pastor all this time, but has become more than ever attuned to folks on the margins.  This is why his promotion to District Superintendent surprised him, and the rest of us, so much.

Each time the story of Nic's life didn't play out as he had programmed, I would watch him recalculate over and over.  (You know, like that voice in your GPS, when you turn an unexpected corner, "recalculating...")  

I don't know how the GPS finally figures it all out, but I do know that Nic has always had an inner compass, a spiritual compass that has always seemed to help him readjust and find that one orienting star...Jesus...the morning star...who always appears in the darkest part of the night and gives hope for a coming dawn.  It is that inner compass that has always helped Nic turn his humiliation into genuine humility.
And so yesterday I drove to Pittsfield, Illinois...and I introduced Nic Showalter to the people of western Illinois. And tried to put him in his place.

I think he'll do okay in his new job.  A district superintendent only has to do two things:  1) obey the bishop in all matters...and 2) modulate the anxiety of the churches and pastors under his or her supervision.  

On that first duty, the bishop will be happy with Nic:  he's a good team player.  

As for modulating anxiety...that will require increasing the anxiety of some who have stopped caring...while simultaneously decreasing the anxiety of those who worry too much.  

This is where I have my most eager expectations for him.  He is a superb amateur photographer, meaning he has an eye for things other people miss.  His perceptions will help him see the strength and resources of all his pastors and churches.  And Nic's a great listener:  empathic, well read, and funny.  Listening to people requires those traits.

So I'm guessing he'll modulate people's anxieties just right...if they don't install him in too tight a box. Lord have mercy.     -Mike

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS


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