About Bill Burch

Theology literally means "words about God." The divine Word described in human words--heavenly treasure in jars of clay. Bill is a practical theologian sharing his worldview. To misquote Lucy van Pelt: "Theological help 5¢--the doctor is IN!" Bill serves as the senior pastor at Northside United Methodist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. He is married to Tracy who is a school teacher, and they have two adult children: Katie and Will. Their third "child" is a Yorkshire Terrier named Sam.

Fall Equinox

The fall equinox occurs this year on Thursday, September 22. The sun crosses the celestial equator into the southern hemisphere as the North Pole tilts away from Sol. The date marks the advent of autumn in the northern hemisphere.  

Most people do not calendar their lives by astronomical dates. We ease into the season, experiencing fall on an installment plan. Consider some extended signs of fall’s arrival.  

  • The first day of school
  • The start of the college football season
  • Labor Day weekend
  • Exchanging shorts for blue jeans and sandals for shoes
  • The burnt-dust breath of a furnace awakened from its summer slumber
  • The scent of fireplace smoke in the air
  • Maple trees blushing bright red
  • Piping-hot chili and cornbread
  • Jack-o-lanterns adorning porches
  • First frost coating lawns in gossamer silver
  • Pumpkin spice flavored food and drinks
  • Homecomings at high schools and colleges
  • Trees shedding brown leaves like unwanted burdens

The Lord calls us to appreciate and enjoy every season of life. Taste, touch, smell, hear, and see that God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.

WARNING: Focus Your Attention

My SUV’s info screen periodically flashes this WARNING: “Taking your eyes off the road too long or too often while using this system could cause a crash, resulting in injury or death to you or others. Focus your attention on driving.” The message remains until the driver pushes a button on the touch screen.

SUV Information Screen

The notice ironically appears while I’m driving. I’m required to take my eyes off the road to read a warning about taking my eyes off the road. Then I have to fumble with the touchscreen until I hit the right spot. None of this promotes a focus on driving.

File this under the category, “Best of Intentions, Worst of Outcomes.” A message about distractions becomes a distraction, creating the very reality that it seeks to prevent.

Humanity has evolved into a distracted people. People focus on their phones, ignoring everything and everyone around them. Multitasking helps us accomplish a number of simultaneous tasks poorly. Virtual and augmented reality replace reality itself.

Jesus called his followers to have eyes to see and ears to hear. Otherwise, the Lord God Almighty might appear and speak without notice.

Unplug. Unwind. Focus. Attend. Be present. Cultivate mindfulness. Be where your feet are.

In her poem entitled “Aurora Leigh,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

The Faith We Sing

Our fall worship series at Northside Church is entitled The Faith We Sing. The title recognizes the vital nature of music in personal discipleship and corporate worship. We will highlight the hymns of Charles Wesley. Historians recognize John Wesley as the founder of Methodism; but his brother supplied the music that fueled the revival movement.

Charles Wesley wrote between 6,000 and 9,000 songs and poems. He often scribbled verses while traveling on horseback, and scholars estimate he wrote 10 lines daily for 50 years! The law of averages naturally governed the quality of this much output.

John Wesley wrote about his brother’s songs, “Some were good, some were mediocre, and some were exceptional!” No doubt Charles read this and yelled, “MOM!” 

The series is examining four familiar hymns by Charles Wesley that continue to shape our faith, including:

  • September 11              O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing
  • September 18              Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
  • September 25              Soldiers of Christ Arise
  • October 2                    Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast

I invite you to worship with us onsite or online for Traditional Worship at 8:30 and 11:15 along with Contemporary Worship at 9:00. The services and sermons can be accessed later in the week at NorthsideUMC.org under the Worship tab.

Join us as we celebrate The Faith We Sing!

Training for Eternity

My father loved trains. My earliest memories include watching him build HO models on our kitchen table. An elaborate railroad set occupied one-quarter of the basement. The locomotives pulled cars through a multilayered countryside, adorned with bridges, tunnels, crossings, and landscaping.

Following my father’s death, I packed up the train set before selling the home. I discovered a large market does not exist for used model trains. My wife suspended a few red cabooses on wire as Christian ornaments. The rest of the collection currently resides in the garage.

Collectors value vintage locomotives, but the cars and scenery possess more nostalgic than intrinsic worth. They’re too meaningful to discard and too valueless to keep. I contacted a few model train hobbyists, but no one expressed an interest.

Last year I hired a contractor to prepare my father’s home for sale, including dismantling the train tableau. I described the countless hours my father invested in the miniature landscape. The workman observed philosophically, “Well, he got his fun out of it, didn’t he?

The homespun wisdom inspired a smile and some perspective. My dad DID get his fun out of his hobby before detraining at that great Depot in the Sky. Yeah, I know, but that last line made me smile!

Sorting through the accumulations of a lifetime, I recognized that all of our possessions will one day disappear. The world sells worthless stock in a going-out-of-business enterprise. Jesus encouraged his followers to store up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. We’re all training for eternity.

Oh, and contact me if you’re in the market for some HO model trains!

Misplaced Sympathy

This month I received a letter from the hospital system that treated my father. The first paragraph said, “We are truly sorry to hear about your loss. We extend our deepest sympathies to you and your family during this difficult time.”

The note expressed a touching sentiment; but my father passed away in November 2020. I assumed the hospital system knew since he died in its hospice. I received the letter on the twenty-month anniversary of his death.

The second paragraph pushed me over the edge with this generous offer, “Please allow us to assist you by making it a little easier as we pause sending a patient statement for 30 days to allow you additional time to manage associated affairs and deal with your loss.”

The statement revealed the sympathy letter actually served as a collection notice. Following a whole month to manage business affairs and address human grief, the hospital expected the deceased’s estate to pay any balance immediately.

I paid the hospital bill weeks after my father’s death, and the last statement noted a small credit in my favor. I’m still waiting on the refund.

Some computer no doubt sent the notice erroneously, but I cannot describe the mélange of emotions the letter evoked. It stirred up all the feelings of the past year-and-a-half. In response to the letter, I’ve alternated between anger, surprise, anger, grief, anger, loss, and anger!

Someone shared that grief is like a large rock in a fast-moving stream. Time slowly smooths the sharp edges, but the reality remains beneath the water. The smallest things can bring sorrow to the surface again.

After a long pause and a deep breath, I plan to call the hospital’s Customer Service Team. (Sorry, I snickered at the phrase “Customer Service” while typing it!) I will remember that the person on the other end of the line is a person with griefs of his or her own. Maybe my response will save some other family this particular sorrow; but based on past experiences with this particular hospital system, I doubt it.

Boundaries

I subscribe to The Week magazine, which recaps current events and provides diverse opinions. The weekly periodical covers everything from world politics to personal interest stories. A recent news item caught my eye.

A Church of England tribunal issued a 30-page ruling against an erratic priest. The Reverend Clive Evans violated “acceptable church practice” when he performed a full-immersion baptism in his underwear. The pastor also purportedly pinched two female parishioners’ derrieres.

The minister obviously struggles with boundary issues, but I suspect his misdeeds stem from a deeper pathology. I hope the church provides the help he needs. I also worry about the negative impact upon his congregants’ lives.

One detail bumfuzzled me. Did the tribunal really need 30 pages to defend its decision? A monosyllabic “NOPE” would have sufficed. If the members wanted to expound upon their rationale, then they could have added, “That ain’t right!”

I am grateful for mentors who taught me the importance of boundaries in ministry. Appropriate limits prevent dangerous behaviors. Posting “No Trespassing” signs prevents people from straying into forbidden territory.

A cartoon depicted a person praying, “Lead me not into temptation because I can find it on my own!” We live in a fallen world that constantly beckons and entices. 1 Peter 5:8 warns, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

Boundaries serve as guardrails on mountainous roads with steep ravines. The barriers provide protection rather than restriction. They might prevent a priest from performing a baptism in his boxers, too. 

Blessing of Breathing

I recently discovered a prayer called Blessing of Breathing by Jan Richardson. The selection can be found in her book entitled The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief.

That the first breath will come without fear.

That the second breath will come without pain.

The third breath: that it will come without despair.

And the fourth, without anxiety.

That the fifth breath will come with no bitterness.

That the sixth breath will come for joy.

Breath seven: that it will come for love.

May the eighth breath come for freedom.

And the ninth, for delight.

When the tenth breath comes, may it be for us
to breathe together, and the next, and the next,

until our breathing is as one,
until our breathing is no more.

Amen.

School Days

Summer vacation has vanished like morning dew in the August sun. Family trips to the beach, lake, and mountains linger only as distant memories. Atlanta Public Schools began this week, and other area schools will follow soon.

During my childhood, students enjoyed a three-month summer vacation before returning to class around Labor Day. Teachers gathered one week beforehand for a mysterious rite known as “pre-planning.” During Open House, we perused the student rosters posted outside the classrooms. Teachers distributed lists of required school supplies.

My father worked for Sears-Roebuck, and his employee discount guaranteed our customer loyalty. We rode in the family station wagon to the local mall for back-to-school shopping. Sears strategically placed snack bars in the center of the stores. I still associate the start of school with the aromatic mélange of Spanish nuts, popcorn, and fruit slices.

My mother and sister spent inordinate amounts of time looking at new clothes. Three pairs of blue jeans and a few shirts met my basic fashion needs. The Sears’ “Toughskins” pants featured double-layered knees for active boys. The stiff denim emitted a chemical smell, chaffing in unmentionable places until softened by repeated washings.

I insisted on wearing Keds’ tennis shoes: “The Shoes of Champions.” Ads promised that the sneakers enabled wearers to “run faster and jump higher!” I could race the wind and win while leaping broad canyons with ease.

The school section featured aisles of supplies. We selected three-ring binders that snapped shut with the force of rat traps. Many an unwary child bore the scars of such encounters. 

Cool kids used Ticonderoga #2 pencils. No doubt Moses employed the same instrument while inscribing the Ten Commandments. We used the pencils until they were one-inch nubs that disappeared into a rotating pencil sharpener.  

Discriminating students purchased Blue Horse notebook paper, saving the Blue Horse labels to exchange for neat rewards. I do not recall ever redeeming a prize with the coveted labels, but they formed the stuff of school-day dreams.

We bought plastic rulers marked off in fractions of an inch. A zippered pencil container snapped into a notebook. We filled it with pink erasers the size of Matchbox cars. I once got a miniature stapler with a box of micro-staples and immediately mutilated a fingertip with the device.

The most important items never appeared on a supply list. My best teachers supplied me with a love of learning, thirst for knowledge, and belief in self. These dedicated educators invested their hearts and souls into their students; and the return on their investment proved invaluable.

Christa McAuliffe, the elementary school teacher who perished on the space shuttle Challenger, said, “I touch the future—I teach.” I give thanks for men and women who are teaching a new generation of students in our classrooms. May God supply their every need.

Prayers from the Ark: The Tortoise

Sister Carmen Bernos de Gasztold was a Benedictine nun and gifted writer. In her book entitled Prayers from the Ark, the French poet gave voice to God’s creatures who sailed with Noah.

During a season of summer reruns, I am sharing again a sampling of my favorite poems. Today’s selection comes from thoughtful musings of The Prayer of the Tortoise.

A little patience,

O God,

I am coming.

One must take nature as she is!

It was not I who made her!

I do not mean to criticize

this house on my back–

it has its points–

but You must admit, Lord,

it is heavy to carry!

Still,

let us hope that this double enclosure,

my shell and my heart,

will never be quite shut to You.

Prayers from the Ark: The Ox

Sister Carmen Bernos de Gasztold was a Benedictine nun and gifted writer. In her book entitled Prayers from the Ark, the French poet gave voice to God’s creatures oxwho sailed with Noah.

During a season of summer reruns, I am sharing again a sampling of my favorite poems. Today’s selection comes from thoughtful musings of The Prayer of the Ox.

Dear God,

Give me time.

Humans are always so driven!

Make them understand that I can never hurry.

Give me time to eat.

Give me time to plod.

Give me time to sleep.

Give me time to think.

Amen.