Mike's Sunday Letter

--with personal notes
  • We enjoyed a trip to Chicago yesterday to see our two Chicago daughters, and sons-in-law, and grandson.  I am holding my grandson Sean in the picture at the right.  See if you can figure out the correct answer to the quiz in the next bullet point.
  • What had I said just prior to the photo being snapped:  a)  "I'm sorry baby, but grandpa has to go home now."  b)  "Okay, I've held you long enough, it's time to go to grandma now."  c)  "Shsh, Shsh, now.  We won't talk about this nasty presidential campaign in front of you any more."
  • I had a chance to visit my parents this week.  My dad is home and doing well after his surgery earlier this month.
  • Today was my last sermon at Urbana Grace to the American congregation.  I have two more Sundays with the Chinese in the chapel, then the semester will be over for them.  The Grace folks had a lovely reception for Jie and I today in the fellowship hall following the worship service.  Thank you for the generous gift and for all the kind words shared today.  
  • Reading Scott D. Anthony's book, The Little Black Book of Innovation:  How It Works, How to Do It.  As you can see, it jump started my thoughts in the essay below.
  • Answer to the quiz:  none of the above.  We had just arrived at their apartment, I walked up to Sean, smiled, took him in my arms, and said, "Grandpa is so happy to see you." Obviously, he was not of the same mind at that moment.

April 24, 2016
Is There Anything New Under the Sun?
Innovation:  the introduction of new things or methods.  

Innovation has led to men standing on the moon, machines landing on Mars, and cameras flying by Pluto for some photo shoots.  Innovation rescued harried mothers by giving them throw away diapers.  And due to innovation, we can bake a potato in less than five minutes. (It doesn't taste all that good, but you can get the job done quickly.)
I am writing this letter to you on a computer (innovation) and will be sending it out this afternoon over the Internet (innovation) right before I sit down on my couch (innovation) and watch the baseball game (innovation) on TV (innovation) as it is broadcast over cable (innovation.) 
I used to write on paper (a Chinese innovation) with a ballpoint pen (innovation of an American lawyer.)  But the writer in me needed more.  My illegible handwriting (my own innovation) could never keep up with my rapid thoughts.   And the Chinese-invented paper refused to auto-correct my English spelling mistakes.  Editing my sloppy work was so cumbersome that I usually wrote just one draft of a paper, got lazy, and then made my readers suffer through the mess. The word processor opened up a whole field of delight for me (and I hope for my readers.)
Innovation is the heart of engineering, the arts, medicine, commerce, politics, transportation, psychology, communication, sexuality, and entertainment. It is the essence of childhood:  the things those darned kids come up with. And innovation is a necessity for any growing and healthy relationship.  If you deeply care about someone, there is no book that has the answers on how to love her or him.  It's mostly trial and error, you have to experiment...and you have to innovate. 
As we get old and decrepit we have to innovate.  If you have to climb stairs and you have arthritis, you figure out a way to walk up the steps at a different angle so it doesn't hurt so much.  You also figure out how to work the subtitles on your TV because you can't hear what the characters are saying. And you start playing second base on the church softball team (instead of first base) because it's easier to see the shortstop flipping the ball to you rather than the same hot-shot eighteen year old firing it at you from across a hazy infield.  
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 didn't 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?  

It would seem that innovation and religion don't mix well.  And sometimes when people do innovate in their spirituality, the result is often a little flakey, like new age religion, a largely eclectic "do-it-yourself" feel-good endeavor.  
Most "legitimate" religious innovations involve borrowing business concepts (vision and mission statements) or implementing new technologies (projection screens in worship, texting your friends about your great church.) But when you try to figure out if these innovations have actually helped us cut down on sin in our lives...well...the answers get a little murky. 

Religion's troubled history with innovation, however, doesn't daunt me.  God is the ultimate innovator.  And I use the present tense when I say that.  You never know what the divine mystery will come up with next.  How dare we doze off in the presence of the one who made anteaters, black holes, and rainbows!  

In this vein of thought, as I near the end of my pastorate in Urbana, I am most grateful to Grace Church and the core of people here who have allowed me to innovate.  In many ways, our church has been a laboratory.  It is hard to love people.  It is hard to take on unjust systems.  It is hard to share Christianity with atheists and agnostics. It is hard to find the money needed to keep a congregation going.  It is hard to keep the church healthy during conflict. It is hard to avoid feeling sorry for ourselves when we grow old and our kids move away.

The old habits that left us paralyzed in the first place will not suffice to help us move forward and solve the difficult problems confronting the church today.  Innovation is critical, especially when we are so partial to the old ways.  

But the core congregation here in Urbana has been faithful to our innovating God.  We have experimented with healing services and miracles in a highly scientific community.  We have shared faith with Chinese Communists.  We have challenged old people in retirement centers with concepts from liberation theology.  We have looked at Bible passages from new angles to find vitality for our own day.  And we have opened our arms to merge with Quest, a congregation that is the exact opposite of Grace in almost every way you can imagine. It has been a time of innovation after innovation.

For these 15 years of partnership, encouragement, adventure, critical examination, hope, and faith: thank you to the people of Grace.  And may God be merciful as we continue, in new ways and places, to tinker our way to new graces, mercies, and worlds.    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




J. Michael Smith | 2508 S. Cottage Grove | Urbana | IL | 61801