Saturday, November 5, 2016

Faith Story

At the recent meeting of the Council of Bishops, my first, those of us newly elected to the episcopacy were invited to share a brief version of our faith story.  This is what I shared.

Bishop David Alan Bard
Faith Story for Council of Bishops

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
                                                            Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

The words belong to Mary Oliver, but I have heard the question as a whisper of God’s love, the voice of God’s Spirit.
I heard them first, I think, as a thirteen year old boy at Lester Park United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota – a thirteen year-old struggling with all those lovely junior high school issues, but also with a family with parents whose relationship was tense, and who disagreed, among other things, about church.  My father was not a church person, and never would be.  My mother walked us to church when she could.  My eighth grade Sunday School teacher talked about God’s love for me in Jesus Christ, and her own care and compassion made her speech more real.  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  I gave my life to Jesus.  I accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  I was born again.  I was saved.  I said “yes” to the God who was saying “yes” to me in Jesus Christ.
The road from that moment into ordained ministry was not a straight one.  I went from a passionate intensity of a Jesus People church and street witnessing to wanderings, wonderings, questions, doubts, ponderings in my college years as I was discovering philosophers, psychologists, poets, novelists and musicians – William James and Abraham Maslow, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Bob Dylan and John Coltrane.  The Gospel of John tells us that the Word became flesh, and for me the Word also became words and notes and an important part of the story of my life and faith is the story of who I have read and what I have listened to.  I was discovering a wider world – a  world that was both beautiful and brutal, marked by tenderness and marred by tragedy.  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  I needed a faith that was thoughtful – engaging a developing mind, compassionate – engaging a broken world, and passionate – engaging a developing heart and soul.  Through it all, my United Methodist Church provided space for grace.
I went to seminary not following a call to ordained ministry, but instead in response to that whispered word Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  I went in search of a thoughtful, compassionate, and passionate faith.  Julie and I met in college and were married after my first year in seminary.  I remember the version of the Prepare inventory we took.  “In my love for my partner, I understand more deeply the phrase, ‘God is love.’”  Yes.  The Word became flesh, and became flesh again in that relationship, and with the birth of our three children David, Beth and Sarah.  Seminary also added new conversation partners: Tillich and Niebuhr and Hartshorne and Cobb and Wesley among many others.
At seminary, the question came again, Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  Only this time, there was a direction to it, a call to ordained ministry.  I said “yes.”  I have continued to say “yes.”  I said “yes” to my first appointment by Bishop Emerson Colaw at the edge of the United States in Roseau, Minnesota.  I said “yes” to moving to Dallas, Texas from Roseau to pursue a Ph.D. in religious studies, with a focus on Christian ethics at Southern Methodist University.  I said “yes” to the Central Mesabi Parish on Minnesota’s Iron Range, an appointment made by Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher when I returned to Minnesota, new Ph.D. in hand and new conversation partners in my mind and soul – Schubert Ogden, Joe Allen, William May, Stanley Hauerwas, Cornel West, Wallace Stevens.  I said “yes” to Bishop John Hopkins when he asked me to be a district superintendent.  I said “yes” to Bishop Sally Dyck when she asked me to be pastor at First United Methodist Church in Duluth, and have continued to say “yes” as Bishop Sally and Bishop Bruce Ough appointed me there every year thereafter.  I said “yes” to the inkling that I should offer myself for consideration as a candidate for bishop in 2004, 2008 and now this year, though I was pretty sure this year was going to be the last time.  I am grateful that the North Central Jurisdiction said “yes.”
I once wrote that identifying my favorite poem is like identifying my favorite breath.  The same could be said of my favorite Scripture.  I have come to choose I Corinthians 16:14 – Let all the you do be done in love.  But then the verse preceding has grabbed my attention.  Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.

To the whisper of the Spirit, embracing me in love and wooing me into the future with the question: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?  that same Spirit of God in Jesus Christ gives me the grace to respond: Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.  Letting all that I do be done in love, a love with which I am loved, means acting with justice, loving tenderly, serving others, and walking humbly with the God whose nature and name are love.

Friday, August 5, 2016

My Final "Love Letter" to First UMC, Duluth

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart  [the last phrase can also be translated: because I hold you in my heart].                               Philippians 1:3-7a

            In his wonderful, lovely and delightful poem “The Lanyard” former U. S. poet laureate Billy Collins writes of himself as a boy making a lanyard for his mother at summer camp.  He compares his gifts with what his mother has given.  Here is one comparison from the poem.
            Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
            strong legs, bones and teeth,
            and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
            and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

Then Collins ends the poem powerfully, speaking as his adult self.
            And here, I wish to say to her now,
            is a smaller gift – not the archaic truth

            that you can never repay your mother,
            but the rueful admission that when she took
            the two-tone lanyard from my hands,
            I was sure as a boy could be
            that this useless, worthless thing I wove
            out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

            As I write these words I realize how inadequate they are for all you have given me in our eleven years together – your time, your attention, your energy, your prayers, your gifts in service.  You have given me your children to hold and bless and baptize.  You have given me the lives of loved ones and offered me the last word in gratitude to God for them. You have listened as I proclaimed and puzzled.  You have given me trust.  You’ve surrounded me with a community of love and forgiveness.  You have been a gift of God’s grace to me and I have grown tremendously from such gifts.
            I hope I have given you some things – new ways to think about faith in Jesus Christ and some inspiration for living out that faith with joy and courage.  I hope I have helped you think more creatively, dream more imaginatively and daringly, pray more honestly and deeply.  I hope I have helped you cultivate a Christian faith that is thoughtful, passionate and compassionate.  I hope I have painted a compelling picture of a life of discipleship as a life of joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and concern for justice.  I hope in some ways I have been a gift of God’s grace to you.
            Yet as I reflect this time is not simply about what you have given me, though it is significant, or what I have given you, but about how God’s grace has been made more evident and real in what we have done together.  Together we have formed a community committed to cultivating a thoughtful, passionate and compassionate faith in Jesus Christ.  Together we have sought to live into joy, genuineness, gentleness, generosity and justice.  Together as a community we have welcomed babies, families in all configurations, people in all their blessed diversity, and said good-bye to good and cherished friends.  We have laughed together, sang together, prayed together, wept together, and together we have sought to be a community of love and forgiveness for each other and for the world.
            So I will continue to thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now, and going forward.  I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart and you hold me in your heart.
            In nearly every funeral I conduct, I share these words from May Sarton, “the people we love are built into us.”  We don’t have to wait for someone to die to remember that.  You are a part of my life and always will be.  You are built into who I am.  From the bottom of my heart and the depth of my soul, thank you.
Grace and Peace,


This appeared in First Family, the newsletter of First United Methodist Church Duluth

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Remarks for the Minnesota Conference Clergy Gathering

        It has been my privilege for the past couple of years to be part of a small advisory group that has met with Bishop Bruce Ough, United Methodist Bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area to discuss how the Minnesota Conference could continue to discuss issues around human sexuality, inclusion and church unity in a healthy and helpful way.  Bishop Ough proposed to this group that it might be helpful to schedule a special clergy session for the Minnesota Conference between General Conference and our scheduled Annual Conference meeting.  Our clergy met on June 1, and while much of the day was for discussion among ourselves as a clergy community, there were times of worship and times of sharing.
        I was asked, prior to our open space conversations to help set the table by providing a few remarks about General Conference.  I was asked not to share my opinions on what occurred so much as my experience of what happened as the General Conference worked with human sexuality, inclusion and church unity.  I was honored to be asked to do this as the head of our delegation to General Conference, and the following words are what I shared:

It was thirty years ago this year that I was ordained an elder and became a full member of the Minnesota Conference.  We have known each other for a long time, and been through a lot together.  I really appreciate this opportunity to share a few words with you about General Conference. 
So how did we get to today?  I have been a voting delegate to General Conference since 2000, and I am genuinely grateful that you have given me that opportunity.  In 2000,  I was one of six clergy delegates from the Minnesota Conference among 1,000 voting delegates, the strong majority of whom were from the United States.  There were delegates from Central Conferences, and there was translation happening, but this was a distinct growth area.  Together those 1,000 people worked at the challenging task of considering changes to The Book of Discipline, which can be submitted by any person within The United Methodist Church, and considering changes to our Book of Resolutions.  It was a daunting and time-consuming and complex task.  Many committees met late into the evening.
Fast-forward to Portland, 2016.  I was one of two clergy voting delegates from the Minnesota Conference, now among 864 voting delegates, about 40% of whom are from Central Conferences outside the United States.  There is now simultaneous translation, though the Daily Christian Advocate which tracks daily proceedings and legislative progress is not translated.  In addition to that complexity, these 864 delegates are working with parliamentary rules and procedures that sometimes require English to English translation.
Make no mistake about it, at General Conference, as at no other place, we celebrate the wonderful and rich diversity of our United Methodist Church, and that was true again this year.  I was moved by many moments, times when we paid attention to the best of who we are.  It was also at General Conference that we see that our current decision-making structures are not serving us particularly well, and we are reluctant to change them.  We spent more time on the Rules of General Conference this year than in any of the previous General Conferences I’ve attended, particularly on “Rule 44” which provided an alternative decision-making structure, something like what we have used here when we have structured “holy conferencing,” except that it also had a legislative component. Rule 44 failed to pass, and it took a long time to do so.
Week two, Monday night, rumors were swirling that members of the Council of Bishops had been meeting with persons from the “progressive” and “evangelical” “wings” of our denomination and that there was going to be a proposal about separation coming to General Conference.  With the defeat of Rule 44, and with the election results from the Judicial Council and University Senate on Monday , it was clear that there would be no new space created within our denomination around same-sex marriage or the consideration of  LGBTQ persons for ordination.  Tuesday morning, Bishop Ough, newly installed President of the Council of Bishops, stood to address the body, and began by acknowledging our deep divisions.  I began to tear up as I anticipated he was going to say that for the rest of General Conference we would be working on some kind of plan of separation.  Instead, he ended with a call for unity and said that the bishops were there to preside and pray.  The General Conference, in a historic gesture, called upon the bishops to do more, to lead.  The next day the bishops came back with a document asking General Conference to postpone discussion of human sexuality legislation and proposing the formation of a commission to study the issue, along with church unity, and offered the possibility of a special session of General Conference.  You have seen the document that was circulated the Wednesday of General Conference, - “An Offering For a Way Forward.”  You have seen the follow-up press release and letter from the Council of Bishops.
Whether you have an initially favorable opinion or negative opinion, space has been created – open space that I also pray will be Spirit space.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Rock 'n' Roll Heaven, II

If there’s a rock ‘n’ roll heaven, well you know they’ve got a hell of a band.
                                                                        The Righteous Brothers

            Just a couple of days ago, I posted my reflections on some of the wonderful musicians we have lost this year.  The morning after that post, and my linking it to Facebook and Twitter, my friend Dan Doughty “liked” my tweet.  The moment I read Dan’s name, I knew I had forgotten to write about Glenn Frey who died January 18.  Dan is a huge Eagles fan, and Glenn was one of the founding members of that group.  Glenn’s death occurred just near the death of David Bowie, so was not given all that much media attention, but his music also touched many.
            I don’t think you could have been a teenager in the 1970s without hearing Eagles music, whether you liked it or not, and I really liked it.  The Eagles Their Greatest Hits album, which I still have in vinyl, became the highest selling album of the twentieth century when it was released in 1976.  Every song was a gem – “Take It Easy,” “Witchy Woman,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “Already Gone,” “Desperado,” “One of These Nights,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Take It to the Limit,” “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” and “Best of My Love.”  In high school and college you could put this album on and sing to every last song.
            Late that same year, the  group released their biggest album, “Hotel California,” with that remarkable title track and “New Kid in Town.”  The album was an important part of the soundtrack to my senior year in high school.  Driving my old Buick LeSabre to and from work or school, I loved hearing an Eagles song play on WAKX, big wax.
            Glenn Frey wrote many of the songs, with other members of the group and was lead singer on “Take It Easy,” “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “Already Gone,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” and “New Kid in Town.”  The songs ranged from a celebration of freedom, to finding a quiet center, to feeling alienation as the new kid in town.
            So the rock ‘n’ roll heaven’s band is even richer because Glenn Frey is already gone.  Yet we can be grateful for the peaceful easy feeling his music leaves with us.  Take it easy.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Rock 'n' Roll Heaven

If there’s a rock ‘n’ roll heaven, well you know they’ve got a hell of a band.
                                                                        The Righteous Brothers

            2016 has been a tough year for music lovers like me.  It’s not a dearth of good music.  There has been some wonderful new music released, among my favorites: Lucinda Williams, Ghosts of Highway 20; Bonnie Raitt, Dig In Deep; Mavis Staples, Livin’ On a High Note;  and P. J. Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project.
            What has saddened me are the deaths of so many whose musical work has touched our lives and our world, people whose music has been an important part of the soundtrack of our lives.
            The Beatles disbanded before I was even a teenager, but their music was legendary.  I remember hearing “I Saw Her Standing There” on a 45 rpm belonging to an older second cousin.  While singing “She was just seventeen” is a little creepy for a man in his fifties, I still sing along at home or in the car.  “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” spark creativity.  “In My Life” inspires wistful recollections of years gone by.  Who worked with John, Paul, George and Ringo to bring their musical vision to reality – producer George Martin, who died March 8.
            My feelings about the music of David Bowie are not as ebullient as others I’ve heard speak since his death in January.  Nevertheless, I appreciated his music a great deal.  “Space Oddity,” the song about lonely space travel made me feel less alone as a young man who sometimes felt distant from mundane realities. “Changes” is a wonderful song about self-transformation.  “Suffragette City” was an air guitar gem.
            I came later to an appreciation of the music of Merle Haggard, died April 9.  When I was in high school and college, liking country music was anathema.  Yet, you cannot appreciate the wide spectrum of American music without appreciating a range of country music, and Merle Haggard was a giant who had a unique way with songs about heartbreak and living on the edge.
            I will also admit that I was not a follower of the music of Prince in the 1980s.  As his star was rising, I was becoming a parent, and did not have MTV – which actually played music videos back then.  It was probably about ten years later that I really came to delight in his celebratory music and admire and appreciate his extraordinary musicianship along with his creative contributions.  I can’t sit still, unless I am driving, when I hear “1999,” Raspberry Beret,” or “Let’s Go Crazy.”  Nothing compares 2 U, Prince.
            Another musician whose music is delightfully danceable is Maurice White, founding member of Earth, Wind and Fire.  The rhythms of “September” and “Serpentine Fire” still bring a smile to my face and a bounce to my step.  EWF could also spin a wonderful slow song for dancing close, like “That’s the Way of the World.”  Maurice White also died in February.
            When I was in college, they were Jefferson Starship singing about “Miracles”.  In the 1960s they were Jefferson Airplane, singing with urgency – “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, don’t you want somebody to love?”  Who didn’t?  Jefferson Airplane guitarist and co-founder Paul Kanter died in January.
            People die – that’s the way of the world, and if there’s a rock ‘n’ roll heaven you know they’ve got a hell of a band.  Yet that music remains with us.  When people in their lives create beauty their lives echo on and we are grateful for that.
            It is also good to remember that while we are not all wonderful musicians, we all have some capacity to create goodness and beauty, we all have an ability to bring a smile to others and to  help them dance.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Monday, March 21, 2016

A Prayer for General Conference

General Conference is the every four-year gathering of United Methodists from around the world.  Persons are elected as voting delegates from their respective annual or central conferences.  It is my privilege to be an elected clergy delegate from the Minnesota Conference, and the head of the Minnesota delegation.

In preparation for General Conference annual and central conferences from around the globe have covenanted for twenty-four hour prayer for General Conference.  This Wednesday, March 23, the Minnesota Conference will be praying for General Conference.  I was asked to compose a prayer that could be used as part of that prayer vigil.  Here it is:

Creative Spirit who broods over chaos to bring order and who initiates constructive chaos when order becomes stilted, Incarnate Love who continues to draw near in the Spirit of Jesus the Christ, Empowering Spirit ever-present, come.  Our prayer for General Conference is simple and direct – Come, Spirit, come. Be again for us a creative presence.  Draw near to us again in love, opening wide your arms that we might open wide our arms and hearts to others.  Empower us again to be your people, sharing good news, creating community, building bridges of reconciliation, doing justice.  Grow our hearts.  Enliven our minds.  Expand our dreams.  As General Conference gathers in Portland, may we gather not simply in the name of Wesley, but in a Wesleyan spirit – committed to having our conversations seasoned with salt, committed to loving alike, even when we don’t think alike.  Come, Spirit, come.  In Christ.  Amen.

Friday, February 26, 2016

MLK Day 2016

I have a dream.
                                                            Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
                                                            Langston Hughes

Every year since coming back to Duluth in 2005, I have walked in the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day march, unless I have been out of town.  It isn’t always easy.  It is January in Duluth, after all.  I was thinking this year might be mild as January was pretty mild this year, until the week of January 18.  January cold returned, though it was not as brutally cold this year as some.  However, though it is cold, we don’t have to walk as high-pressure fire hoses are being sprayed at us, or dogs barking and biting at us.  There are no jeering crowds shouting racial epithets, only a number of people giving thumbs up or cheering from office building windows or the skywalk.
One of the serendipitous delights of this year’s march was that I had the privilege of walking while sharing a banner with Sha’rya.  I had not met Sha’rya before.  She was at the march with her aunt and sister.
As I walked with Sha’rya and our banner, which read “Do To Us What You Will, We Will Still Love You,” I was thinking about the United States and race.  In my lifetime, progress has been made.  Laws segregating blacks and whites have fallen.  Banking practices which segregated neighborhoods have been changed.  Racial epithets, though they have not disappeared, are frequently held in disdain.  Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday, and his “I Have a Dream” speech is considered one of the landmark oratories in American history.
Progress has been made, but problems persist, and at times we digress rather than progress.  Voting rights which people struggled for are being eroded in some places.  Poverty remains persistently high among people of color.  Incarceration rates for African-Americans are significantly higher than among other populations.  The relationship between law enforcement and people of color is often strained and in need of repair.  King’s dream is held up as a wonderful ideal.  His accompanying social critique, including his analysis of the damage done by our failures to live up to the dream, is not often grappled with.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed –
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
                                                            Langston Hughes

            There is work to do, so we continue to march.  I want the world to be a different place for Sha’rya as she grows.  I want it to be a better place, a safe place, a place where she can flourish, a place with no artificial barriers are put in her way because of her heritage.  I think of the words of a spiritual: Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around.  Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.  Keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’ gonna build a brand new world.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, January 8, 2016

Old Friends

I can feel friendly, in a very personal and affectionate way, with Spinoza, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson, William James, Whitehead, etc., as if they still lived.  Which is to say that in specific ways they do still live.
                                                            Abraham Maslow, The Farthest Reaches of Human Nature

I first encountered the work of Abraham Maslow in a psychology class in my senior year in high school.  I was intrigued.  There was much in his work that I found insightful and helpful.  Maslow’s work was one reason I majored in psychology, along with philosophy, in college.
From time to time, I find myself going back to his work, and often find new insights.  Maslow’s comment on being friendly with persons from the past comes from an essay on “Various Meanings of Transcendence.”  In this section of his essay he was writing about the transcendence of time.  We can reach through time to connect with others through their writings, developing a friendship of a kind.
I know this kind of friendship.  I treasure my friends, the flesh and blood people with whom I can talk, in whom I can confide, with whom I can enjoy a conversation, an event, a meal.  I also treasure the friends I have made through their writings or their music.  They have challenged me to think more deeply, and to feel more deeply.  They have invited me see my life in new ways, and opened up new vistas in my relationship to God.
I am grateful for these friends, too, among whom I count Abraham Maslow.

With Faith and With Feathers,