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.