The Joyful Journey

In his October blog, Bishop David A. Bard reflects on what it’s like to travel and learn at the “speed of the Spirit.”

Michigan Area

bard-smallFaster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. For those of us of a certain generation, we remember this as a description of Superman. So here’s a puzzle for you. With the disappearance of phone booths, where does Clark Kent go to become Superman these days?

“Faster than a speeding bullet.” It is one metaphor for rapidity, and not my favorite. I prefer metaphors using light or sound – moving at the speed of light or the speed of sound. In recent weeks it has often seemed that I have been learning at the speed of light or the speed of sound. In the month gone by I have meet for most of one week with our appointive cabinet in Marquette, for three days with the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops in Milwaukee, and I attended a week-long training for newly elected bishops at Epworth-By-the-Sea, a United Methodist retreat center on St. Simon’s Island Georgia. In the week I was in town, I met with the Design Team working on the creation of the new Michigan Conference and with the program committee planning next year’s annual conference session.  I have worshiped in a different congregation every Sunday. I am trying to learn at the speed of sound or the speed of light.

More importantly, I hope that I have been learning at the speed of the Spirit. What I am learning is more than cognitive. I hope I am being shaped and formed by a deeper knowing, a kind of prayerful knowing. When I am in meetings I take a lot of notes. It is a way I stay engaged. I can always review the notes to recall facts that were discussed, but what I also hope is happening is that God’s Spirit is shaping and forming me in this time of learning.

 “I quote the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann who wrote, ‘I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy.’”

A part of what learning at the speed of the Spirit also means is that I cannot ignore all that has been going on in the world this past month. While I have been meeting people and been in meetings there have been terrorist-inspired acts committed in New York, New Jersey, and even in a shopping mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a mall I was in just this past summer. There have been fatal police shootings of African-American men in Tulsa and Charlotte, forcing us to think again about race and violence. The war in Syria rages on. Two people from the church I pastored for the last 11 years have died, Bob and Harald. Bob was a World War II veteran whose wife died while I was their pastor and Harald was a long-time family friend.

This past month I was also warmly welcomed by Michigan United Methodists at the first of three welcome services. It was a beautiful day and Julie and I were deeply touched that people would come out to meet us on such a lovely September Saturday. Thank you. In the sermon I preached, which I will post on a blog site after all the welcoming services are done, I speak of joy. I quote the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann who wrote, “I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy.” I am calling my monthly blog here, “The Joyful Journey.” I believe in the utter importance of joy, yet learning at the speed of the Spirit also means learning when joy needs to recede and we need to give full-throated and heartfelt expression to grief and sorrow, to give full expression to our bewilderment that the world is not yet fully God’s dream for it.

Looking to the future, I anticipate it with joy, and I also know that as Michigan United Methodists we have work ahead of us, and some difficult decisions will need to be made along the way. As we give birth to a new conference, there will be people whose jobs will be affected, organizations that will need to reconfigure, committees and boards that will need to find new ways to work. Not all of our current congregations will continue on in their same way of being. There will be mergers, new alignments, and some closings. Such changes are always uncomfortable, and sometimes just plain wrenching. Joy will not always be front and center.

So I have been thinking about Psalm 30. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning (30:5). I am reminded of the description offered by a woman of the fictional village of Three Pines, the setting for the mystery novels of Louise Penny. Three Pines had what she craved. It had croissants and café au lait. It had steak fries and the New York Times. It had a bakery, a bistro, a B. & B., a general store. It had peace and stillness and laughter. It had great joy and great sadness and the ability to accept both and be content. It had companionship and kindness. (Louise Penny, A Fatal Grace, 12)

“I am convinced that we need the energy of joy to work toward God’s dream for the world together, a world of peace and justice …”

That’s not a bad description of human life in the Jesus community we call the church – peace and stillness and laughter, companionship and kindness, great sadness and great joy and the ability to accept both. Learning at the speed of the Spirit is learning about being part of this kind of community and learning about leading others to help form and nurture such communities. Even as we acknowledge and experience hurt, pain, sorrow and suffering, this remains at heart joyful work.

I am convinced that we need the energy of joy to work toward God’s dream for the world together, a world of peace and justice, reconciliation and compassion, a world where the hungry are fed, and where our common humanity is recognized. We need joy’s energy for our work together for Jesus Christ. We also need to know when to let joy take a back seat, when it needs to be a silent partner so that our sorrow and sighing and mourning and weeping are given full expression.

The promise in all our peace and stillness and laughter and companionship and kindness and sadness and joy is that God is with us. God is with us through it all, always working for good, always working for that dream of shalom. My pledge to you as your bishop is that by God’s grace and in the power of God’s Spirit, I will walk with you in every step of this sometimes tear-stained, but always joyful journey.