Jie preaching her first sermon in Pesotum, photo taken by daughter Mindy, the only family member who could be there.
Personal Notes from Mike
  • Jie successfully led her first worship service today in Pesotum, preaching and sharing communion.
  • I attended a lecture in Springfield a couple weeks ago by Talmage Boston, an attorney who writes on both baseball and politics.  Reading two of his books:  1939:  Baseball's Tipping Point and  Cross-Examining History:  A Lawyer Gets Answers from the Experts About Our Presidents.
  • Things are a little slow around the church this week (so far) with many members on the road and with people taking breaks for the holiday.
  • Enjoying some time in the flower bed in the front yard and the garden in the back...things are starting to grow nicely and so far the repaired fence is keeping out critters.
  • Started a new sermon series this month on Sexual Ethics.  This first week was an introduction to the subject, an invitation to follow up each sermon with dialogue, and a hope that our church can be a place of thoughtful and respectful moral discourse...not a mirror of the donnybrook that passes for "discussion" in the media and in the political arena.  Today's sermon established a basic approach for selecting and interpreting relevant scripture.  The next four weeks will include:  Proper Roles for Husbands and Wives, Sex and the Single Person, Divorce, and Homosexuality.  Since I've never been good at parroting the company line, it should be lively (I hope) around the church.  Audio sermons are posted each week on the church website (usually by Tuesday.)  Click Here

July 2, 2017
Heartbroken...and then what?
I begin this letter from a point of deep sadness.  For three weeks, we have been praying fervently for the missing Chinese scholar, 26-year-old Yingying Zhang.  But on Friday night, the FBI reported that they now presume her to be dead.  They caught and jailed her alleged kidnapper earlier that evening. 
I did not personally know Yingying.  But I have known and grown to love dozens of Chinese scholars just like her over the past 10 years.  

With one of my favorite people, Ke Wang, two years ago, daughter of a visiting Chinese scholar at U of I

My wife Jie was once one of those visiting scholars. For the thousands of Chinese in Champaign/Urbana, along with those of us who have been immersed in the Chinese community there (as I have been for over a decade now) this news has crushed our spirits. 

The phrase from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, "Poor in spirit," is too paltry a diagnosis. I cannot fathom what Yingying must have endured, nor dare I imagine the hell her parents and loved ones feel today.
On Tuesday, I am supposed to go to Champaign to help Jie take a group of Chinese scholars to the Fourth of July fireworks.  But I'm not sure I'll be in a mood to celebrate. Yingying would most likely have been in the crowd, experiencing an American July 4 th for the first time.  

She came to America just a few weeks ago, winning a competition over a thousand other scholars for the chance to work on her Ph.D. at a great university in a great nation.  She was surely thrilled to have the chance to come to the USA and find pursue new life, liberty, and happiness:  the stuff we celebrate on our Independence Day. 
Her remains have not yet been found at this writing, and the gruesome story of what exactly happened is still unfolding...and may take some time before it is pieced together.  Even though I am not in Champaign/Urbana anymore, I have been caught up in the frenetic activity going on there:  prayer meetings, rallys, posters plastered everywhere, Chinese students walking down the sidewalk handing out placards and pleading with strangers to help find her, Facebook and WeChat updates by the hour.  For three weeks I have been checking the news nearly every hour..Along with others I have felt that sinking depression...without any relief.  And even when the FBI said she is now "presumed dead," I cannot keep from checking news reports.
I don't usually get so stuck in such sadness.  But it happens to me occasionally.  I get to a point where I can see no way out of my obsessive dwelling on the tragedy.

But then, always, mercy rudely interrupts.  Other stories nudge and crowd me, demanding my attention.  Yesterday it was Megan and Austin, getting married in the church.  The day before it was daughter Scarlette, luring my attention away by sending me a video of our grandson Sean flashing a smile.  At another point, I wandered into a cache of lovely flowers and plants at the Meijer Store, bought them, and transplanted them in the yard.  (I dedicated the Hibiscus to Yingying.)  
Jie's new adventure is another interruption to this week of sorrow. She has been fretting all week over her first Sunday in Pesotum, as the appointed pastor of a little congregation of 20 or so people. Her salvation is that she has a "live-in" veteran pastor to tap for help.   And she has not been shy about tapping... 

Jie immigrated to this country 10 years ago this month, an atheist at the time.  It is some story that she is now the pastor of a little church 30 miles north of Mattoon...while continuing to serve as director of Chinese ministry at the University of Illinois Wesley Foundation.  

It is also some story that s he is the first person from Mainland China to become a United Methodist Pastor in the state of Illinois.  (In a few areas, albeit not related to the state government, Illinois is actually making some progress.)  

Along with thousands of others who have been caught up in Yingying's tragic story, my heart feels shattered.  And a huge  part of me wants to stay raving mad at God for not saving her.  

But then...despite my determined rebellion, I am tossed from one story to another.  All these true stories swirling around me have no consistency of mood.  Some depress my spirit and others are quite grand...and loving...and joyful.  

I find myself simply wanting to be sad: without distraction.  The horrific story of this innocent young woman convinces me that we must all live in hell.  But the other stories going on my life will not allow me to stay convinced...or to settle into hell.  These gentle and loving stories butt their way in.  And so I get partly confused.  And then...eventually...the mystery of God settles in. 

No great nation is safe from evil, death, or tragedy. Life is unfair. And I am quickly offended by all such sorrows and injustices. They would have me think I am wasting my time talking about the niceness of God.  I really do think I should just quit. But then...divine love will not let me go. The hope, planted long ago in my soul, will not fade...the hope that God is supreme over even death...and the hope that justice will redeem every evil, including what has been done to Yingying.    

There is a heartbreak, a backbone of courage shattered, a needy spirit tortured...every day. Lord have mercy.  

But God keeps calling preachers...proclaimers of hope, orators of promised joy...and off they go...to places like Pesotum...arriving in our midst...speaking every tongue...telling stories from every nation...proclaiming the mystery of  mercy's triumph. 

And we are assured that after heartbreak, there is ALWAYS something next.  Thanks be to God.   --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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