• Jie and I leave for New Orleans Sunday evening to take a group of Chinese scholars on our annual "Post-Christmas" pilgrimage.  We will fly out of Chicago and return Thursday evening.
  • We enjoyed Christmas with all three daughters...sons-in-laws...and grandson.  The gathering was in Lisle, at Scarlette and Tristan's new home. 
  • The sermon series in January will be based on questions our youth pastor, Jordan Thomas, decided to challenge me with. So I'll be spending the month digging deep into the Bible and some theology books to see if I can keep up with the young folks. Looking forward to it.  (Maybe it won't be as hard as trying to keep up with them in basketball.)

December 31, 2017
Farewell to 2017
It's time to say farewell to 2017.  I feel a little bit of grief and relief in doing so, but not as much as some other years.  In this year's news, we've been disgusted by famous men who assault (physically and verbally) girls and women.  We've been disoriented by 65 million refugees, horrified by hurricanes, numbed by 424 mass shootings the U.S [i], confounded by the Republican U.S. Congress and the Democratic Illinois State Legislature, dismayed by a resurgence of bigots and bullies everywhere, and exhausted by Donald Trump.  Adios 2017. 
On the other hand, the world will someday appreciate 2017 for some of its good news.  Scientists have made breakthroughs in rejuvenating old cells and conquering Alzheimer Disease. Muslim hackers have quietly managed to wipe ISIS off the internet. Rats have been taught to sniff out landmines in southern Africa, without setting off the explosions, since they are so light.  A group of prisoners in Wales donated their meager wages and some of their breakfast rations to a local "No Hungry Kids" project.  And Facebook has developed a program to utilize their personal and intimate position in people's lives to assist in suicide prevention. [ii]  Okay, 2017, maybe an encore.
But for all that is going on in the news, most of my life plays out in the arena of church and friends and family.  Daughter Mindy was in three stage productions in Champaign (The Importance of Being Earnest, The Crucible, and Much Ado About Nothing.)  Grandson Sean, who turned two this past week, is the star actor in a daily theatrical production, where he plays himself.  Scarlette is the show's ongoing "Best Supporting Actress." [iii]  The performance runs 24/7.  My octogenarian parents moved to a new house across town in Springfield, IL and can't figure out why they are so tuckered out now. [iv]  Alison and Nelson switched apartments in Madison, Wisconsin, and Nelson is manager of a neat coffee shop there [v] and Alison just took a staff position at First United Methodist Church in Madison as Director of Outreach and Interpretation. [vi]  Scarlette and Tristan moved from their Naperville apartment to their first house in Lisle.  Tristan is a sales representative for an Asian food business and has both Chicago and Michigan in his territory.  Mindy is in her second year as supervisor of the Youth Employment Services program out of the Champaign school district and is helping make many changes to improve services to kids there. [vii]  With three of our five households moving this past year, it was a great time to own stock in "Two Men and a Truck." 
I had five surgeries during the year:  two on my eyes and three on my hands. Inspite of spraining my ankle at third base...and needing crutches for a few days, I still got named Most Valuable Player of my church's softball team.  Okay...the church's last place softball team.  I also had a bout of pneumonia in the spring that knocked me out of a solo trip to North Dakota.  And yes, I do realize that some people would prefer a month-long respiratory bug to traveling by themselves around North Dakota for a week. 
Don't feel too sorry for me, however, for I did get to travel to Hawaii in February (I've now been in all 50 states.)  I also got to go with Mindy and my parents to the Tulip festival in Holland, Michigan (a dream of mine ever since I read about it in the Weekly Reader in first grade.)  I made my annual trip to Wisconsin to the Holy Wisdom Monastery (and saw Alison and Nelson at the beginning of that week.)  And Jie and I took our annual anniversary trip (married 12 years this past October) to New England, to see the fall foliage.  While there, we spent a night in Rhode Island, meaning that I've not only visited all 50 states, but I've also now slept in all 50. Jie took her annual 6-week trip to her home in China in April and May.
I managed to serve as pastor of the First United Methodist Church all year long, and nobody tried very hard to kick me out. I'm not sure if it's because they sort of like me here, or because they figure I'm really old and will probably retire before I mess things up too much.  In October I celebrated my 45 th anniversary in the ministry. I decided to plunge into the deep end this year, preaching a June series of sermons on hard changes churches needs to make and a July series on Sexual Ethics, giving minority perspectives (for the church) on such issues as homosexuality, sex and the single person, divorce, women, and moral codes found in the Bible.  People were either really interested in those subjects...or they simply thought I was too old to be talking about them and were just too polite to tell me.  Several told me they were too old to be hearing them.  Who knows...
I wrote 43 Sunday letters and gave them to my congregation (and emailed them to about 350 friends and interested people in more than 20 states and 8 foreign countries.)  Before each letter, I pause to think about what amusements have entertained me in the past week.  And I start each letter from there.  A couple times this year, I veered off to write about a heaviness instead:  about my brother going to prison and about a kidnapped Chinese scholar at the University of Illinois.  Some weeks I wrote about U.S. presidents:  reviewing past inaugurations and giving the presidents a grade.  I wrote letters about my work:  supervising and teaching new pastors, going to the Annual Conference, and how my job compared with other people's jobs (danger and stress-wise.)  I wrote about Martin Luther King, gardening, the eclipse, the science of laughter, and southern cooking.  You could tell that I was no expert...just a curious soul about all these matters.  You learned more than you probably wanted to know about my cat, my mattress, my allergies, and my trip to Hawaii.  You knew I was making things more exciting on paper (than in real time) when you read about the bird loose in the church, my cussing, and the instruction booklets accompanying my new car.  I tried to slip in a little light advice, encouraging you to go to more funerals, to come up with better apologies, to see the occasional benefits of being politically correct, and to expand your repertoire of courtesy.  And you were subjected to my meanderings of reminiscence:  dads who influenced me (TV and real life,) and a month-long series on the early days of my ministry. You can read all 43 of the year's Sunday letters on my personal website. [viii]
The blessings of 2017 have readied me for 2018 and heightened my expectations. I'm sure there will be a whole year of amusements to share with you in upcoming letters.  Nearly all the important adults in my life are included in those who get these letters.  Thank you so much for taking the time to read what I write.  And most of all, thank you for your friendships and for all you share back to make my own life so abundant.  --Mike

[i]  Click here to read about 2017 mass shootings
[ii] Click here to read about good news you might have missed
[iii]  Click here to catch photos of Sean on his second birthday here: 
[iv] Click here if you want to read my parents' annual letter  
[v] Click here for the website for Nelson's coffee shop 
[vi]  Click here to see the website for Alison's church
[vii]  Click here to see the website for Mindy's employment program 
[viii]  Click here to find the archive of all my Sunday letters 

 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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