Some people think 2016 was the worst year ever: deaths, elections, panics, mass shootings, personal dreams still delayed.
I'm too much of an historian to say it was the worst year ever. That dubious honor probably goes back 72,000 years to when a volcano in Indonesia blew up (at an equivalent power of 1.5 million Hiroshima atomic bombs) and wiped out the whole human race except for about 5,000 people. That was a really bad year. So was 1348 when the Black Death killed 200 million people in Europe and Asia. So was 1865 when Abraham Lincoln got shot and the United States was left in the hands of an ignorant, racist, clueless successor.
If you want to check out the Bible, the year Adam and Eve got kicked out of the Garden of Eden was no picnic. Nor was the year Noah's family ended up being the sole survivors of a great flood. It takes a while for the world to recover from its worst years, but by God's grace it eventually does.
I spent a good part of yesterday reflecting on the year just past...and its effect on me personally. Parts of the year were tough. I left Urbana (after 15 years,) and miss terribly my home there, my friends, my work with the Chinese, and my church family. It was the year the United States held an emotional election and my perennial source of sermon illustrations (on the seven deadly sins) got elevated to be president of the United States. It was the year my brother Jim spent his 60th birthday, 40th anniversary, Thanksgiving, and Christmas in jail while prosecutors, lawyers, and judges delay bringing him to trial on charges related to financial fraud. (I have been sensitive to write about this before, not knowing what he did or didn't do, but he is still my brother, and I am concerned about him and our family and the abuse he suffers in this delay.)
My dad is better now, but he spent most of 2016 in and out of hospitals, trying to recover from infections he got...while in the hospital. One son-in-law spent most of the year caught up in red tape...immigration...trying to stay in the country with his wife and son...and stay employed. Our other son-in-law has spent a frustrating half a year diligently looking for a job in Madison. It's been a challenging year for the guys in the family. Even the male pets in the extended family have all had problems: sickness, escape, or in Earl the Cat's case, prolonged depression after moving.
But the year has also had its once-in-a-lifetime joys. Scarlette graduated from college and became a U.S. citizen. Alison got a full-time job (with the Unitarian-Universalist Church) in Madison, Wisconsin. Mindy got a full-time job with the Champaign school district and was featured in a play in Champaign...her first love in life. Jie and I dabbled in our first year of grandparenthood, culminating in Sean's first birthday the day after Christmas.
I enjoyed six different trips during the year: two with Chinese scholars (one to Florida, one to Civil Rights sites in Atlanta,) two with Jie (Branson in the spring, Smokey Mountains in the fall,) and two by myself (Ohio for a family wedding and Wisconsin for time at the monastery.)
I joined a writers group last winter, tried a gym coach in the spring, got a new bishop in the summer, and spent the late autumn trying to fathom a new world order: where the Chicago Cubs and Donald Trump reign. I anticipate enjoying the sports news more than the news news in the near future.
A huge joy in 2016 came in saying hello to people in Mattoon. There is good work to do in the church...and in the town...and plenty of it...and a hopeful prognosis for the future. The folks in the congregation have been receptive to my efforts and respectful of my role. It is revitalizing to establish and nurture new relationships with people...still just getting started at that here.
I wrote 48 fresh Sunday letters during 2016. Reflections on being a pastor made up nine of those letters. They ranged from the pizza delivery guy thinking my burning palms (for Ash Wednesday) were marijuana, to my last 99 hours as pastor of Urbana Grace, to changes I've seen in 44 years of ministry.
Psychological topics dominated six of my Sunday letters. I explored such topics as "How to be an interesting person," to "The battle of the sexes," to "Rules for staying playful." Biographical sketches on my great-grandfather, the mothers in my family, my dad's love of animals, and Elwood Koch (an old friend who died last summer) seeded several articles.
And then there were those Sundays that I simply lingered in novelties: the rat residing in my youth pastor's parsonage, the smells that populate my memory, the State Fair, the $244 water bill I got, my take on fortune cookies, and reflections on the health hazards of too much sitting.
I have no idea what all awaits any of us in 2017. But I'm sure the world will continue to be a place that both delights and terrifies. People will be gracious, and some of those same people will be obnoxious. Our curiosities will be evoked, our hearts will be touched, our imaginations will be stimulated, and our guards will be raised.
Thank you for reading my Sunday letters. And may God bless us with some humor and some insight as we travel through all the joys and sorrows of this new year.
Here are some quotes from my 2016 "Sunday Letters." Hope you enjoy:
(You can read any of the 2016 letters directly from my website if you CLICK HERE.)
Consider this: fortune cookies are neither baked nor sold in China. Doesn't that raise a red flag? In fact, the Chinese fortune cookie is about the only thing we have left in America that is NOT made in China. Most of them are made in New York. (Jan 10)
This fall, I will have been a pastor for 44 years. What I am doing now looks nothing like what I started out doing. There is hardly any market left for what I used to do back then. Therefore, these days I'm mostly winging it. But I have started to suspect that the "pastor of the future" may be less a leader of institutions and more a facilitator of pilgrimages. ...Newly minted pastors may thus need the camping gear in my garage as much as the books in my study. Feb 7
I've been trying to remember what I learned in first aid back (in Boy Scouts.) Only five things still come to mind: how to apply a tourniquet, how to suck the poison from a rattlesnake bite, how to resuscitate a dummy, how to make a splint, and how to adjust someone who is in shock. These are all good things to know, I suppose. But I have to confess this: I've never had to actually do any of them, ever. In fact, if you are in immediate need of a tourniquet, perhaps you should call someone other than me; my skills in that area have grown quite rusty. (Feb 21)
As Pastor Ben forked over the money for the food, the pizza guy winked and said, "Someone started the party a little early, eh?" So Pastor Ben responded, "Oh! That's just Pastor Mike doing his thing." Okay...it was me. I was making ashes for our Ash Wednesday liturgy. But it was with palm branches, not weed. Since it was cold out, I decided to burn the palms right outside the education wing, where I could watch from inside and stay warm. Well...maybe I held the door open too long while I watched them burn. I'll admit, the building really smelled suspicious. And now the pizza guy thinks that I'm the coolest pastor in town. In reality, however, I'm just an old geezer...who manages to commit these klutzy gaffes at inopportune moments. Really cool pastors don't have to say "Oops" as often as me. (Feb 14)
I'm surprised I'm still on the softball team. I will start this season with a bone missing in my right hand, a brace on my left pinky, a questionable rotator cuff in my throwing arm, a little problem with my vision when it comes to seeing the ball, and pre-rain arthritis in my hip and knees. But think about it: it's the "D" League. I'm actually one of the more reliable players on the team, so the coach keeps letting me play. (Mar 14)
I remember the friendliest neighbor ever. It was before the girls were born, and I was serving my first church out of seminary. We were living in an apartment. One night, about 3 a.m., someone started pounding on our front door. I rushed to the living room and looked out the peephole to see who it was. It was the middle-aged woman in the apartment above us...stark naked...asking me to let her in...I had no idea how to interpret "Love your neighbor" at that moment. I tried to think, "What Would Jesus Do?" But that wasn't getting me anywhere. (Apr 17)
It seems (at first) as though the only field of human endeavor that doesn't accommodate innovation is religion. Christians can be awfully conservative, churches can be quite stodgy, and doctrines can be incredibly rigid. Oh...we do have our innovative moments. In the 1970s we were experimenting with "bus ministries" (that's when you buy an old school bus, drive it around town on Sunday mornings, pick up kids, and welcome them into your church.) But we weren't exactly on the cutting edge of things...since motor buses were a German innovation going back to 1895...By the 1960s, some churches were finally allowing guitars in worship. It only took 8 centuries for the church to get the hang of that innovation, given that the guitar was invented in the 12th century...And then there is that most radical modern innovation: female pastors. By the 1950s the Methodists were finally allowing women to be pastors. Let's see...how long did that take, given that "Woman" was an innovation from the Garden of Eden...and the first person God chose to proclaim the resurrection was Mary Magdalene, a person of a quite determined gender? (Apr 24)
I watched all three of my daughters become citizens of the United States. Scarlette was the only one who dressed up for the occasion. She took an oath before a federal judge and got a certificate of citizenship...When my older two daughters became citizens, I wasn't paying too much attention to their citizenship...as I was preoccupied watching them get born. (June 12)
I imagine a group of geezers sitting in a diner, getting ready to go to church, speculating about the new minister (me) they are about to encounter. Grumpy says, "He's probably going to be even worse than the last one." Doc says, "I doubt he'll be tough enough to deal with some of the aggravations and troublemakers we got around here." Happy says, "I think a fresh start is just what we need, and before long, we'll be buzzing along just like we were in the 1950s." Sleepy says, "I hope he moves the worship times back to a sensible hour." Bashful says, ...well...bashful just sits there and listens, and everybody thinks he agrees with everything. Sneezy is saying something, but nobody can focus on what it is because he keeps hacking up phlegm every other sentence. Finally, Dopey says, "I think this new one will work out just fine." (July 4)
Last Sunday I couldn't find my Sunday shoes or my neckties. When some folks in the congregation heard this, they were a bit disappointed I didn't show up in beach attire, or some such casual garb. But I went out and bought a cheap pair of black shoes...and found a 45 year-old tie my grandmother made (in a box marked "do not wear in public")...and ended up looking like a preacher after all, sort of. (Jul 17)
I used to think that my pastoral role in a couple's wedding was to give them wise premarital counseling, inspire them with syrupy stories, motivate them with lofty words, and admonish them to avoid the rocky shoals upon which marriages are wrecked. But that's all a crock: marriage is an extreme experimentation in being creative together despite legions of lethal differences. Therefore, the only valuable thing I can actually do is to keep my head down and pray furiously for miracles...at least one miracle a day...for each and every married couple. (July 24)
Unfortunately, the Bible is silent on the subject of rats. Had Jordan's parsonage been infested with frogs, gnats, flies, or locusts, we could have followed Moses' lead in ridding Egypt of these plagues. Had Jordan walked into the kitchen and seen a herd of swine, we could have re-enacted the time Jesus sent a whole slew of pigs tumbling into a lake. If the parsonage had become a habitat of lions, we could have prayed like Daniel. There is even some New Testament advice on exterminating demons. But rats? Nothing! Rats! (July 31)
I always thought fidgeting was bad, especially in church. The fact that I fidget incessantly is partly why I became a pastor: I could never sit still in church. And if you can't sit still in church, the only two things left for you are to become a pastor or an usher. It's a toss-up as to which is healthier: pastor or usher. Even though pastors barely sit during worship, they do end up sitting through an awful lot of meetings. On the other hand, even though ushers don't have to go to so many meetings, they spend most of the worship service in the hallway eating the donuts. So I guess its 50-50 on which profession is more hazardous to your health. (Aug 28)