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.

Church Characters #5: Tommy

During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

Tommy attended Mount Carmel Church, and his wife played the piano for worship. The devoted family faithfully fulfilled their vows to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service.

Tommy was the kinda guy who would do anything FOR you and anything TO you. In the latter category, he loved harmless, practical jokes.

A shrub died in front of the parsonage. Tommy served on the Trustees. Rather than replace the plant, he spray-painted the brown branches a bright green.

The United Methodist Men took a mission trip to Louisiana. One evening we went to New Orleans for dinner before strolling through the French Quarter. Tommy delighted in pointing out every clothing optional establishment to his young pastor.

Tracy and I married in May 1986. While away on our honeymoon, Tommy sowed the parsonage lawn with fescue and rye before applying a liberal amount of fertilizer. I cut the grass every 3 days that summer. The churchman explained that he was concerned I might have nothing else to do as a newlywed.

Tommy was the type of guy who would do anything FOR you and anything TO you. In the former catalog, he supported his pastor with love and compassion.

The country church introduced me to deer hunting. After I harvested my first buck, Tommy showed me how to field dress and butcher the deer.

A wood heater warmed the parsonage. I purchased a chainsaw, and Tommy taught me how to cut firewood. I attribute my current possession of ten digits to his past instruction.

Most of all, Tommy offered wise counsel to a pastor fresh out of seminary. He helped me understand how to minister to the congregation and community. I remain grateful for his friendship and support during my first five years of ministry.

May all of us be the kinda person who will do anything for others.

Church Characters #4: Wilmer

During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

The bishop appointed me to a two-point circuit after graduating from seminary. Founded in 1840, Mount Carmel was the larger of the two churches. The white clapboard sanctuary still stood, but rotten wood sills made it uninhabitable.

A new building stood next door. With the sanctuary completed, the congregation began work on the education space. The Sunday School area took another year to finish.

A church member and builder named Wilmer oversaw the project. The general contractor invested countless hours into his church home. In addition to regular churchwide work days, Wilmer often worked alone on nights and weekends.

Wilmer and I came from radically different worlds. Wilmer grew up in Coweta County and possessed a high school degree. He took a conservative view of the world. I grew up in Decatur before our family moved to Woodstock. I attended college and then seminary. I must have appeared to be a flaming liberal in his eyes.

However, we both loved the church in general and Mount Carmel Church in particular. Even when we couldn’t agree to disagree, neither of us ever questioned the other’s faith and devotion.

One fall day I received a frantic call from a family member. While framing a house, Wilmer lost his grip on a pneumatic nail gun. It landed atop his head, driving a nail through his skull and into the brain.

I waited long hours with the family in the Emergency Room. The doctor later told us he literally used a claw hammer to remove the nail! Despite bleak warnings about brain damage, infection, and long-term effects, Wilmer recovered completely.

I don’t believe the Lord dispenses miracles based on merit. Wilmer’s selfless work on behalf of the church PROBABLY didn’t affect his medical results. However, I cannot help but suspect that Jesus intervened in a special way for a fellow carpenter.

Church Characters #3: Glenn & Lizzie

During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

Glenn and Lizzie belonged to the first church I served after seminary. They lived in a gray-weathered, clapboard house near the parsonage. The living room featured a wood heater stoked yearlong. On frigid winter days, I exited the home soaked in sweat.

An ancient chimney vented the smoke. One memorable day Glenn decided to burn off the soot and creosote by firing up the heater to a cherry red. I followed the fire engine sirens to the house. The tinder-box home miraculously escaped burning to the ground.

Despite age and health, Glenn continued to work the old family farm. The octogenarian wore a brace that supported his entire back, causing him to lean forward 45 degrees. One summer I helped him carry corn to a mill where the ramshackle, rumbling contraption converted the ears into meal.

Lizzie suffered every illness known to medicine. She kept the kitchen cabinets stocked with prescription bottles that avalanched to the counters below. The matriarch moaned about imminent death throughout the five years I served the church.

Glenn and Lizzie married in their twenties and celebrated 65 years of marriage during my tenure. Although they bickered and disagreed, they honored their vows with love and respect. The couple sat in matching recliners, passing the time together.

Hallmark would never make a movie about their lives, but I am grateful for older couples who model marital fidelity. In this world and the next, Glenn and Lizzie made quite the pair.  

Church Characters #2: Uncle Bud

Uncle Bud belonged to a congregation I served fresh out of seminary. Southern social conventions allow older persons to be called “uncle” or “aunt” even when no biological connection exists. The gentleman in question served as a surrogate grandfather in my life.

Bud resembled an older Samuel Clements with gray hair and drooping mustache. His wife died years previously, and he still grieved her loss. However, the octogenarian did not lack for female attention. Women flocked around him, including a group of 30-somethings who regularly dropped by for lunch.

I was a single pastor in his twenties serving two country churches in the middle of nowhere. I envied Bud’s way with the ladies. He tried to help, introducing me to women as “my single preacher who could really use a date!” I do not recommend this method for anyone seeking a mate.

The church’s patriarch attended worship every Sunday.  I learned to seek his counsel over a myriad of topics. Bud’s words and actions shaped my early ministry.  I appreciated his life and grieved his death.  

Bud’s life illustrated the adage, “There may be snow on the roof, but there’s fire in the furnace!” Psalm 92:14 puts the same sentiment more theologically, “They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green.”

May God grant each of us the blessing to grow old with grace.   

Church Characters #1: Frances

Dixie Carter played Julia Sugarbaker on the series “Designing Women” She declared in one scene, “I’m saying this is the south. And we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them in the attic. We bring ‘em right down to the living room and show ‘em off!”

I recall many characters from country churches who personified Ms. Carter’s statement. During a series entitled “Church Characters,” I’m recalling some memorable people from decades of ministry.

Frances belonged to Emory Chapel Methodist near Newnan, Georgia. In her youth, she played the piano at the local theater for silent movies. The elderly matriarch still played at the church on occasion, but the notes oozed like cold molasses in wintertime. A single hymn could last one-third of the service.

I often visited Frances at home with her husband, John. The vain man never wore his hearing aids, so I shouted over the TV. My hostess served sweet tea in dirty glasses while an oscillating fan stirred the musty air.

The couple owned an ornery Chihuahua named Peanut. The mutt took an instant disliking to me. During one pastoral visit, the canine terrorist hiked his leg and baptized my ankle.

Both Frances and John died during my five years at Emory Chapel. Peanut sadly survived.

I sat beside Frances’ hospital bed days before her death. She squeezed my hand tightly and said, “When I die, you tell them at the funeral that I’ve gone on to my glory!”

She did, and I did. Glory hallelujah. Amen.   

Hamilton versus Worship

My wife and I recently saw “Hamilton” at the Fox Theater. The historical musical entertained and enthralled the audience. The pastor-in-me noticed some intriguing attributes about the “congregation.” They:

  • Paid large sums for premium tickets.
  • Saved the date and prioritized their attendance.
  • Arrived an hour before the play started.
  • Parked blocks away and walked to the entrance.
  • Waited in long lines to enter the building.
  • Took their seats before the opening number.  
  • Wore masks inside the building without complaint.  
  • Remained silent and attentive throughout the performance.
  • Sat in uncomfortable seats for over three hours.
  • Envied those who sat closest to the stage.
  • Took selfies to share on social media.
  • Bought merch to proudly advertise their presence.
  • Talked to family and friends about the experience.

May all of God’s people gather for worship this Sunday “in the room where it happens!”

Night Terrors

The parsonage’s security system alarm awoke me from a sound sleep. The digital display indicated a glass breakage alert. I silenced the alarm while talking to the security company.

I cautiously checked the first-floor perimeter but found nothing. Descending the stairs, I forgot about the basement motion detector. I rushed upstairs to silence the alarm again. Meanwhile, strobing blue lights announced the police’s arrival.

I walked outside with empty hands carefully displayed while identifying myself. The officer entered the house and checked the windows and doors.

Then I spied pieces of red latex beside the dining room’s exterior door. The previous night our family celebrated our granddaughter’s third birthday, complete with presents, cake, and balloons.

I suddenly realized what occurred. An overinflated balloon next to a heat vent burst in the middle of the night. The loud noise activated the glass breakage sensor. The officer listened dubiously to the explanation before nodding in agreement.

We all went back to bed, but sleep eluded me the rest of the night. I thought about what might have been and what could be. I recalled Paul’s words in Philippians 4:6, Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Many of our worries never occur. Most of our night terrors amount to nothing more than scraps of a red latex balloon.

You will not fear the terror of night,

nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,

nor the plague that destroys at midday.

(Psalm 95)

Sermon Block

I have preached on a weekly basis since 1979. After 42 years of homily preparation, I still encounter writer’s block. Words, phrases, and sentences flow like ice-cold molasses in January.

I read “The Plague” by Albert Camus in college. The character of Joseph Grand stuck like a splinter in my mind. The would-be novelist never advanced beyond obsessively rewriting the first line of his book. He believed that perfectly crafting the introductory sentence would guarantee the novel’s success.  

Yes.  This. 

I can mire neck-deep in analysis-paralysis, attempting to find just the right expressions and illustrations. I sometimes say to myself, “I’m going to write the worst sermon in the history of Christendom.” And at the risk of bragging, I have done so on occasion! The method supposedly relieves pressure and inspires creativity.

Human words cannot contain God’s Word, but the Holy Spirit works in, thru, and despite preachers. When I designed my blog site, “Jars of Clay,” Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 4:7 inspired the title, But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

OK, I’ve procrastinated enough and need to get back to writing a sermon.

Social Media

I enjoy a love/hate relationship with social media. At their best, the various platforms deliver community, communication, promotion, and education. At their worst, the social networks are a terrible time-suck that provide opportunities for hate speech, cyber bullying, and ignorant rants.

I resisted the siren’s call of social media for years. I dipped my toes into the water in 2013 with a weekly blog. In 2017, I took the plunge by creating a Facebook page. However, I continue to draw the line at instagramtwittertictoxlinkedinredditsnapchat.

A large part of my vocation is communication. The message remains the same, but the medium changes. I felt convicted to join a social platform to share the gospel and to connect with parishioners.

However, I quickly experienced the addictive nature of social media. What began as a high and holy calling degenerated into scanning pictures of people’s meals or enjoying memes of cute kittens. During any free moment, I found myself habitually checking the latest posts.

During Lent, I committed to check Facebook twice a day in the morning and evening. This felt like a healthy balance that enabled me to keep up with others without wasting time on inane topics. After Easter, however, I slipped back into my old habits.

Social media makes a wonderful servant but a terrible taskmaster. Therefore, I’m recommitting to my discipline of checking Facebook twice a day. Perhaps others might feel a similar need to create appropriate boundaries.

To misquote Jesus, social media was made for people, not people for social media.

Sand Castles

This summer our granddaughter spent a week with us at the beach. I enjoyed building sandcastles together. Give any man a shovel, bucket, and sand, and he will instantly revert to boyhood!

Children do not approach sandcastles with the seriousness of adults. We undertake the task like Georgia Tech engineers designing a skyscraper. However, even the best sandcastles do not last. They are trampled underfoot or washed away. All the work seldom outlasts the day.

In the comic strip “Peanuts,” Linus constructed an elaborate sandcastle, complete with turrets, moat, and drawbridge. Then a giant wave flattened his creation. Dazed, he said, “There is a lesson to be learned here somewhere. But I don’t know what it is!”

In Matthew 7, Jesus told a story about two men who planned to build a house. The first man searched until he found a good site. Then he dug deep and laid the home’s foundation on solid rock.

The second man did not take any care in choosing a construction site. He quickly found a plain of smooth sand. Little work was required to lay a foundation upon the ground, and the house was soon completed.

In Palestine, the wet season begins in September. The rains came and the floods rose. The home built on solid rock survived. However, the waters destroyed the house built on sand.

Jesus concluded the story by saying, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. Those who hear and do not act are like the foolish man who built upon the sand.”

The world is shot through with fault lines. It provides no firm foundation. Those who base life on the temporal rather than the eternal are building sandcastles before a rising tide.

When the rains come, the floods rise, and the storms strike, only those who build upon the firm foundation of Jesus Christ will stand. Everything else will be swept away.