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.

A Mother’s Day Prayer

This Sunday, May 9, our nation will observe Mother’s Day. The holiday began in May 1907 at Saint Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. A Methodist laywoman, Anna Jarvis, organized the service to honor her mother.

In 1912, the Methodist Episcopal Church adopted the observation on a denominational level. Two years later, President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as a national day to honor mothers.

Church and country created the holiday with the best of intentions. However, the annual observance is a pastoral minefield, filled with unexploded ordinance. Over the years, I often have used The Book of Worship’s poignant prayer for the day.

For our mothers, who have given us life and love,

That we may show them reverence and love,

We pray to the Lord.

For mothers who have lost a child through death,

That their faith may give them hope,

And their family and friends support and console them,

We pray to the Lord.

For women, though without children of their own,

Who like mothers have nurtured and cared for us,

We pray to the Lord.  

For mothers, who have been unable to be a source of strength,

Who have not responded to their children

And have not sustained their families,

We pray to the Lord.

Loving God, as a mother gives life and nourishment to her children,

So you watch over your Church.

Bless these women, that they may be strengthened as Christian mothers.

Let the example of their faith and love shine forth.

Grant that we, their sons and daughters,

May honor them always with a spirit of profound respect.

Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

April Showers

“April showers bring May flowers.”

My mother taught me this couplet during childhood. Even for a young boy, the meaning seemed obvious. Flowers need rain to grow.

According to the Internet, the source of all factual knowledge, the short poem originated in the 12th century. Thomas Tusser included the verse in his collected works entitled, “A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry.” I apologize, good readers, but I did not research the other ninety-nine points.

Tusser may have “borrowed” his rhyme from a passage in “The Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer wrote:

“When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower.”

Call me juvenile, but I prefer Beverly Burch’s version to Geoffrey Chaucer’s verse!

Others seek deeper meaning in the words. We live in a fallen world where it rains on the just and unjust alike. However, God uses life’s storms to cultivate spiritual virtues. All sunshine a desert makes. On the far side of the torrent, we discover divine blessings.

Finally, April showers bring May flowers; but do you know what May flowers bring? The Pilgrims!

May the world titrate measures of rain, sunshine, and flowers in each of our lives.

Perfect Halves

Children possess an innate sense of fairness. They vigilantly stand guard against any perceived inequity. Even the slightest slight can elicit the elemental cry, “It’s not fair!”

(BTW, adults are grownup children who just disguise this proclivity.)

My wife and I experienced this reality while raising two children born three years apart. Although we tried to treat each child equitably, both felt the other was favored! Each was convinced that the other always got the larger share. Our protestations that we loved both equally fell on deaf ears.

I learned to include my daughter and son in the division of anything into halves. We followed a simple but effective rule. One got to cut the FILL IN THE BLANK into two halves. Then the other chose which half s/he wanted.

Inspired by enlightened self-interest, the child doing the dividing undertook the task with scientific precision. Otherwise, his or her sibling might benefit by picking a slightly larger half.

Some treat love like a limited resource, dividing time, attention, and emotion into slices carefully served. After all, there’s only enough pie to go around.

Others learn that love is limitless. The more we give, the more we receive—packed down, shaken together, and overflowing into our lives. Share the pie freely because we can always bake more!

It turns out that each of us is God’s favorite child. Because we are loved, we can then run the risk of loving others with undivided hearts. No matter how you slice it, God loves and cherishes each of us for who we are.

Excuse me, please. Suddenly, I have developed a hankering for a slice of pie and a cup of coffee.

Quiet Influence

In his book entitled The Fall of Fortresses, Elmer Bendiner described his experiences in World War II B-17 bombers. During a bombing run over Kassel, Germany, antiaircraft fire hit his plane. The ground crew found eleven 20mm shells in the fuel tank. Miraculously, none of the explosive charges detonated.

The next day the pilot asked the armorers for a shell as a good luck souvenir. However, intelligence officers had confiscated the ammunition.

The pilot later discovered none of the shells contained an explosive charge. Inside one shell, however, they found a note from an anonymous Czechoslovakian factory worker. The scrawled message said, “This is all we can do for you now.”

Quiet influence. Small deeds that result in huge results. Whether we realize it, our words, actions, attitudes, and example affect others around us. Our influence extends far beyond our immediate contacts.

In football, offensive linemen use a technique called “influence blocking,” which depends on misdirection rather than force. For example, a play calls for the running back to go up the middle. However, the guard pulls like he’s blocking for a sweep. The defensive player follows him, creating a hole for the back. Without ever making contact, the lineman influences others around him.

People are always watching, and our quiet influence affects others around us. We may never know what impact it makes upon their lives. We are challenged to lead lives worthy of example. It might make a difference in this world and the next.

Post-Resurrection Appearances

According to the four Gospels, Jesus appeared to his followers for forty days following the Resurrection. Then he ascended into heaven. The accounts of the post-resurrection appearances vary by author.

The conflated stories state the risen Lord greeted Mary at the empty tomb. Later Jesus joined two disciples traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Easter night he appeared to a gathering of disciples in the Upper Room. A week later he challenged “Doubting” Thomas to believe.

Paul compiled a somewhat different list in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, including Cephas (Simon Peter), the Twelve, a crowd of 500 believers, James (the brother of Jesus?) and Paul. The Gospel writers did not record several of these incidents, and the apostle provides no additional details.

In Paul’s account, Jesus appeared to Simon Peter first. Perhaps the apostle never heard about Mary’s encounter at the tomb. Or Paul chauvinistically gave Peter top billing. We can only imagine what the Lord said to the Big Fisherman who had denied him three times in the high priest’s courtyard.

Then Christ appeared to over 500 disciples at one time. This feels like a big miss by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I wish Paul had included more information about the incredible event.

Jesus also appeared to James, who was most likely Jesus’ brother who eventually led the Jerusalem church. Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, his mother and siblings thought Jesus had lost his mind. On the far side of the empty tomb, MAYBE Jesus greeted James with the words, “So, little brother, what do you think now?

The church professes that Jesus ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. However, I believe the post-resurrection appearances continue to occur. The Holy Spirit appears in our lives daily. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the risen Lord is all about.

The Touch of the Master’s Hand

The Touch of the Master’s Hand

by Myra Brooks Welch

‘Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer

Thought it scarcely worth his while

To waste much time on the old violin,

But held it up with a smile.

“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried,

“Who’ll start the bidding for me?”

“A dollar, a dollar. Then two! Only two?

Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?”

“Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;

Going for three…” But no,

From the room, far back, a gray-haired man

Came forward and picked up the bow;

Then wiping the dust from the old violin,

And tightening the loosened strings,

He played a melody pure and sweet,

As a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,

With a voice that was quiet and low,

Said: “What am I bid for the old violin?”

And he held it up with the bow.

“A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?

Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?

Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice,

And going and gone,” said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,

“We do not quite understand.

What changed its worth?” Swift came the reply:

“The touch of the Master’s hand.”

And many a man with life out of tune,

And battered and scarred with sin,

Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd

Much like the old violin.

A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine,

A game — and he travels on.

He is “going” once, and “going” twice,

He’s “going” and almost “gone.”

But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd

Never can quite understand

The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought By the touch of the Master’s hand.

Preaching a Stranger’s Funeral

During the pandemic, a family asked me to officiate their loved one’s funeral. I arrived twenty minutes early at Westview Cemetery, but a long line of cars already awaited the funeral procession. I nodded to the funeral home director, passed all of the guests, and parked behind the hearse.

At the appointed hour, I led the family and friends to the grave site. I parked down the road to make room for the family. After pulling on an overcoat and mask, I walked to the funeral tent with my Book of Worship.

A brass trio played jazzy spirituals as the crowd gathered. Then I saw a stranger dressed in a clergy robe who held a Bible. Huh. I didn’t recall any of these details in the funeral plans. Looking around, I also did not recognize a single soul.

I was about to officiate the wrong funeral.

Turning quickly on my heel, I hurried back to the truck and pondered my next move. Westview Cemetery contains 100,000+ gravesites scattered over 600 acres; and I had five minutes to find the right one.

I had never sped through a cemetery before, but I would have given a NASCAR pole winner a run for his money. After a frantic few minutes, I finally spied a likely crowd gathering around a freshly turned grave. I drifted around a final curve and came to a head-snapping stop.

I hurried to the graveside—only to discover the pastor co-officiating the service was running late. After a deep sigh of relief, I prepared to celebrate a life lived long and well.

All my life I’ve heard the saying, “You’ll be late for your own funeral.” Turns out the adage is true for officiants as well.  

Saint Patrick’s Day

Everyone’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day! Today the church celebrates the patron saint of Ireland. Although March 17 commemorates Patrick’s death date, many choose to observe the feast day in more, shall we say, pagan ways!

When it comes to Saint Patrick’s life, fact, fiction, and myth are inseparably intertwined. Historians date his life sometime in the fifth century. Abducted by an Irish raiding party, the young man spent years in captivity before escaping to England. Later Patrick returned to Ireland as the first Christian evangelist to proclaim the gospel.

Legends about the saint abound. He purportedly used a three-leafed shamrock to teach pagans about the Trinity. After snakes distracted him during a fast, Patrick banished all serpents from the land. During a lengthy sermon, his walking stick grew roots and bloomed into a living tree.

We’re all Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day. So, kiss me because I’m Irish! Wear the green, beware the leprechauns, and toast the saint.

Also, recall that beyond the myth was a man who faithfully served God and others. Self-sacrificial love put the “Saint” in front of Patrick’s name.

Saints of God, let us go forth and do likewise.

Pi Day

This Sunday the United States observes Pi Day. In numeric form, March 14 is 3.14, which forms the first three digits of the mathematical constant of π. The symbol represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Don’t ask me to expound on the topic—I’ve already told you more than I know!

Pi Day was first observed in 1988 by Larry Shaw at the San Francisco Exploratorium. In 2009, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution observing March 14 as National Pi Day.

I double-majored in History and Religion, so math is not my strong suit. However, the mathematical underpinnings of the cosmos fascinate me. The Creator crafted the universe to interrelate in fantastical ways that humanity continues to discover.

The Almighty’s fingerprints cover creation: from quantum mechanics to cosmological calculations, from subatomic particles to expanding galaxies, from mathematical equations to Shakespearean sonnets, from a baby’s cry to a senior’s sigh . . . God is with us.

Psalm 19:1 reminds us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

This Sunday celebrate Pi and eat some pie. Then join us for worship online or onsite at Northside Church as we declare, “Our God is an awesome God!”

3 Brothers & 17 Camels

Once upon a time a nobleman left 17 camels to his 3 sons. The eldest brother received one-half of the camels, the middle son one-third, and the youngest boy one-ninth.

The three brothers argued vehemently about the fairest way to divide the livestock, and no one would compromise. Finally, they sought the advice of a wise man in the community.

After listening to their predicament, the sage devised an intriguing solution. He gave the three brothers his only camel. The boys now had 18 animals.

Then the man divided the camels according to the father’s wishes. The oldest brother’s share was one-half or 9 camels. The middle son received one-third or 6 camels. The youngest boy’s share was one-ninth or 2 camels.

Add the numbers up. 9 + 6 + 2 = 17!

The three brothers returned the 18th camel to the wise man.

After extensive ciphering and cogitating, the fable’s math escapes me. No doubt one can learn many lessons from the tale. Since my experience with camels is thankfully limited, I might be missing the subtler nuances of the parable.

The most impressive element is the character of the wise man. Rather than viewing the situation as a win/lose confrontation, he sought out a win/win solution. In the end, everybody got what he wanted.

The story reminds us that brothers are always more important than camels. Such a concept has applications for individuals, families, churches, communities, and nations.

  • In our personal relationships, seeking first to understand the other’s perspective gives us new understanding.
  • Parents and children who talk with each other defuse explosive situations.
  • Marriages endure when spouses think of themselves as “we” and not just “I.”
  • Churches grow stronger when we cherish diversity and difference.

In the best of all worlds, brothers and sisters would never argue about such trivial things as camels. However, I suppose that would make the story a real fairy tale.